Two camps in the open, and the Virginian's Monte horse, untired, brought him to the Swintons' in good time for the barbecue. The horse received good food at length, while his rider was welcomed with good whiskey. GOOD whiskey--for had not steers jumped to seventy-five?
Inside the Goose Egg kitchen many small delicacies were preparing, and a steer was roasting whole outside. The bed of flame under it showed steadily brighter against the dusk that was beginning to veil the lowlands. The busy hosts went and came, while men stood and men lay near the fire-glow. Chalkeye was there, and Nebrasky, and Trampas, and Honey Wiggin, with others, enjoying the occasion; but Honey Wiggin was enjoying himself: he had an audience; he was sitting up discoursing to it.
"Hello!" he said, perceiving the Virginian. "So you've dropped in for your turn! Number--six, ain't he, boys?"
"Depends who's a-runnin' the countin'," said the Virginian, and stretched himself down among the audience.
"I've saw him number one when nobody else was around," said Trampas.
"How far away was you standin' when you beheld that?" inquired the lounging Southerner.
"Well, boys," said Wiggin, "I expect it will be Miss Schoolmarm says who's number one tonight."
"So she's arrived in this hyeh country?" observed the Virginian, very casually.
"Arrived!" said Trampas again. "Where have you been grazing lately?"
"A right smart way from the mules."
"Nebrasky and the boys was tellin' me they'd missed yu' off- the range," again interposed Wiggin. "Say, Nebrasky, who have yu' offered your canary to the schoolmarm said you mustn't give her?"
Nebrasky grinned wretchedly.
"Well, she's a lady, and she's square, not takin' a man's gift when she don't take the man. But you'd ought to get back all them letters yu' wrote her. Yu' sure ought to ask her for them tell-tales."
"Ah, pshaw, Honey!" protested the youth. It was well known that he could not write his name.
"Why, if here ain't Bokay Baldy!" cried the agile Wiggin, stooping to fresh prey. "Found them slippers yet, Baldy? Tell yu' boys, that was turruble sad luck Baldy had. Did yu' hear about that? Baldy, yu' know, he can stay on a tame horse most as well as the schoolmarm. But just you give him a pair of young knittin'-needles and see him make 'em sweat! He worked an elegant pair of slippers with pink cabbages on 'em for Miss Wood."
"I bought 'em at Medicine Bow," blundered Baldy.
"So yu' did!" assented the skilful comedian. "Baldy he bought 'em. And on the road to her cabin there at the Taylors' he got thinkin' they might be too big, and he got studyin' what to do. And he fixed up to tell her about his not bein' sure of the size, and how she was to let him know if they dropped off her, and he'd exchange' 'em, and when he got right near her door, why, he couldn't find his courage. And so he slips the parcel under the fence and starts serenadin' her. But she ain't inside her cabin at all. She's at supper next door with the Taylors, and Baldy singin' 'Love has conqwered pride and angwer' to a lone house. Lin McLean was comin' up by Taylor's corral, where Taylor's Texas bull was. Well, it was turruble sad. Baldy's pants got tore, but he fell inside the fence, and Lin druv the bull back and somebody stole them Medicine Bow galoshes. Are you goin' to knit her some more, Bokay?"
"About half that ain't straight," Baldy commented, with mildness.
"The half that was tore off yer pants? Well, never mind, Baldy; Lin will get left too, same as all of yu'."
"Is there many?" inquired the Virginian. He was still stretched on his back, looking up at the sky.
"I don't know how many she's been used to where she was raised," Wiggin answered. "A kid stage-driver come from Point of Rocks one day and went back the next. Then the foreman of the 76 outfit, and the horse-wrangler from the Bar-Circle-L, and two deputy marshals, with punchers, stringin' right along,--all got their tumble. Old Judge Burrage from Cheyenne come up in August for a hunt and stayed round here and never hunted at all. There was that horse thief--awful good-lookin'. Taylor wanted to warn her about him, but Mrs. Taylor said she'd look after her if it was needed. Mr. Horse-thief gave it up quicker than most; but the schoolmarm couldn't have knowed he had a Mrs. Horse-thief camped on Poison Spider till afterwards. She wouldn't go ridin' with him. She'll go with some, takin' a kid along."
"Bah!" said Trampas.
The Virginian stopped looking at the sky, and watched Trampas from where he lay.
"I think she encourages a man some," said poor Nebrasky.
"Encourages? Because she lets yu' teach her how to shoot," said Wiggin. "Well--I don't guess I'm a judge. I've always kind o' kep' away from them good women. Don't seem to think of anything to chat about to 'em. The only folks I'd say she encourages is the school kids. She kisses them."
"Riding and shooting and kissing the kids," sneered Trampas.
"That's a heap too pussy-kitten for me."
They laughed. The sage-brush audience is readily cynical.
"Look for the man, I say," Trampas pursued. "And ain't he there?
She leaves Baldy sit on the fence while she and Lin McLean--"
They laughed loudly at the blackguard picture which he drew; and the laugh stopped short, for the Virginian stood over Trampas.
"You can rise up now, and tell them you lie," he said.
The man was still for a moment in the dead silence. "I thought you claimed you and her wasn't acquainted," said he then.
"Stand on your laigs, you polecat, and say you're a liar!"
Trampas's hand moved behind him.
"Quit that," said the Southerner, "or I'll break your neck!"
The eye of a man is the prince of deadly weapons. Trampas looked in the Virginian's, and slowly rose. "I didn't mean--" he began, and paused, his face poisonously bloated.
"Well, I'll call that sufficient. Keep a-standin' still. I ain' going to trouble yu' long. In admittin' yourself to be a liar you have spoke God's truth for onced. Honey Wiggin, you and me and the boys have hit town too frequent for any of us to play Sunday on the balance of the gang." He stopped and surveyed Public Opinion, seated around in carefully inexpressive attention. "We ain't a Christian outfit a little bit, and maybe we have most forgotten what decency feels like. But I reckon we haven't forgot what it means. You can sit down now, if you want."
The liar stood and sneered experimentally, looking at Public Opinion. But this changeful deity was no longer with him, and he heard it variously assenting, "That's so," and "She's a lady," and otherwise excellently moralizing. So he held his peace. When, however, the Virginian had departed to the roasting steer, and Public Opinion relaxed into that comfort which we all experience when the sermon ends, Trampas sat down amid the reviving cheerfulness, and ventured again to be facetious.
"Shut your rank mouth," said Wiggin to him, amiably. "I don't care whether he knows her or if he done it on principle. I'll accept the roundin' up he gave us--and say! You'll swallo' your dose, too! Us boys'll stand in with him in this."
So Trampas swallowed. And what of the Virginian?
He had championed the feeble, and spoken honorably in meeting, and according to all the constitutions and by-laws of morality, he should have been walking in virtue's especial calm. But there it was! he had spoken; he had given them a peep through the key-hole at his inner man; and as he prowled away from the assemblage before whom he stood convicted of decency, it was vicious rather than virtuous that he felt. Other matters also disquieted him--so Lin McLean was hanging round that schoolmarm! Yet he joined Ben Swinton in a seemingly Christian spirit. He took some whiskey and praised the size of the barrel, speaking with his host like this:"There cert'nly ain' goin' to be trouble about a second helpin'."
"Hope not. We'd ought to have more trimmings, though. We're shy on ducks."
"Yu' have the barrel. Has Lin McLean seen that?"
"No. We tried for ducks away down as far as the Laparel outfit. A real barbecue--"
"There's large thirsts on Bear Creek. Lin McLean will pass on ducks."
"Lin's not thirsty this month."
"Signed for one month, has he?"
"Signed! He's spooning our schoolmarm!"
"They claim she's a right sweet-faced girl."
"Yes; yes; awful agreeable. And next thing you're fooled clean through."
"Yu' don't say!"
"She keeps a-teaching the darned kids, and it seems like a good growed-up man can't interest her."
"YU' DON'T SAY!"
"There used to be all the ducks you wanted at the Laparel, but their fool cook's dead stuck on raising turkeys this year."
"That must have been mighty close to a drowndin' the schoolmarm got at South Fork."
"Why, I guess not. When? She's never spoken of any such thing--that I've heard."
"Mos' likely the stage-driver got it wrong, then."
"Yes. Must have drownded somebody else. Here they come! That's her ridin' the horse. There's the Westfalls. Where are you running to?"
"To fix up. Got any soap around hyeh?"
"Yes," shouted Swinton, for the Virginian was now some distance away; "towels and everything in the dugout." And he went to welcome his first formal guests.
The Virginian reached his saddle under a shed. "So she's never mentioned it," said he, untying his slicker for the trousers and scarf. "I didn't notice Lin anywheres around her." He was over in the dugout now, whipping off his overalls; and soon he was excellently clean and ready, except for the tie in his scarf and the part in his hair. "I'd have knowed her in Greenland," he remarked. He held the candle up and down at the looking-glass, and the looking-glass up and down at his head. "It's mighty strange why she ain't mentioned that." He worried the scarf a fold or two further, and at length, a trifle more than satisfied with his appearance, he proceeded most serenely toward the sound of the tuning fiddles. He passed through the store-room behind the kitchen, stepping lightly lest he should rouse the ten or twelve babies that lay on the table or beneath it. On Bear Creek babies and children always went with their parents to a dance, because nurses were unknown. So little Alfred and Christopher lay there among the wraps, parallel and crosswise with little Taylors, and little Carmodys, and Lees, and all the Bear Creek offspring that was not yet able to skip at large and hamper its indulgent elders in the ball-room.
"Why, Lin ain't hyeh yet!" said the Virginian, looking in upon the people. There was Miss Wood, standing up for the quadrille.
"I didn't remember her hair was that pretty," said he. "But ain't she a little, little girl!"
Now she was in truth five feet three; but then he could look away down on the top of her head.
"Salute your honey!" called the first fiddler. All partners bowed to each other, and as she turned, Miss Wood saw the man in the doorway. Again, as it had been at South Fork that day, his eyes dropped from hers, and she divining instantly why he had come after half a year, thought of the handkerchief and of that scream of hers in the river, and became filled with tyranny and anticipation; for indeed he was fine to look upon. So she danced away, carefully unaware of his existence.
"First lady, centre!" said her partner, reminding her of her turn. "Have you forgotten how it goes since last time?"
Molly Wood did not forget again, but quadrilled with the most sprightly devotion.
"I see some new faces to-night," said she, presently.
"Yu' always do forget our poor faces," said her partner.
"Oh, no! There's a stranger now. Who is that black man?"
"Well--he's from Virginia, and he ain't allowin' he's black."
"He's a tenderfoot, I suppose?"
"Ha, ha, ha! That's rich, too!" and so the simple partner explained a great deal about the Virginian to Molly Wood. At the end of the set she saw the man by the door take a step in her direction.
"Oh," said she, quickly, to the partner, "how warm it is! I must see how those babies are doing." And she passed the Virginian in a breeze of unconcern.
His eyes gravely lingered where she had gone. "She knowed me right away," said he. He looked for a moment' then leaned against the door. "'How warm it is!' said she. Well, it ain't so screechin' hot hyeh; and as for rushin' after Alfred and Christopher, when their natural motheh is bumpin' around handy--she cert'nly can't be offended?" he broke off, and looked again where she had gone. And then Miss Wood passed him brightly again, and was dancing the schottische almost immediately. "Oh, yes, she knows me," the swarthy cow-puncher mused. "She has to take trouble not to see me. And what she's a-fussin' at is mighty interestin'. Hello!"
"Hello!" returned Lin McLean, sourly. He had just looked into the kitchen.
"Not dancin'?" the Southerner inquired.
"Don't know how.""Had scyarlet fever and forgot your past life?"
"Better persuade the schoolmarm to learn it. She's goin' to give me instruction."
"Huh!" went Mr. McLean, and skulked out to the barrel.
"Why, they claimed you weren't drinkin' this month!" said his friend, following.
"Well, I am. Here's luck!" The two pledged in tin cups. "But I'm not waltzin' with her," blurted Mr. McLean grievously. "She called me an exception."
"Waltzin'," repeated the Virginian quickly, and hearing the fiddles he hastened away.
Few in the Bear Creek Country could waltz, and with these few it was mostly an unsteered and ponderous exhibition; therefore was the Southerner bent upon profiting by his skill. He entered the room, and his lady saw him come where she sat alone for the moment, and her thoughts grew a little hurried.
"Will you try a turn, ma'am?"
"I beg your pardon?" It was a remote, well-schooled eye that she lifted now upon him.
"If you like a waltz, ma'am, will you waltz with me?"
"You're from Virginia, I understand?" said Molly Wood, regarding him politely, but not rising. One gains authority immensely by keeping one's seat. All good teachers know this.
"Yes, ma'am, from Virginia."
"I've heard that Southerners have such good manners."
"That's correct." The cow-puncher flushed, but he spoke in his unvaryingly gentle voice.
"For in New England, you know," pursued Miss Molly, noting his scarf and clean-shaven chin, and then again steadily meeting his eye, "gentlemen ask to be presented to ladies before they ask them to waltz."
He stood a moment before her, deeper and deeper scarlet; and the more she saw his handsome face, the keener rose her excitement. She waited for him to speak of the river; for then she was going to be surprised, and gradually to remember, and finally to be very nice to him. But he did not wait. "I ask your pardon, lady," said he, and bowing, walked off, leaving her at once afraid that he might not come back. But she had altogether mistaken her man. Back he came serenely with Mr. Taylor, and was duly presented to her. Thus were the conventions vindicated.
It can never be known what the cow-puncher was going to say next; for Uncle Hughey stepped up with a glass of water which he had left Wood to bring, and asking for a turn, most graciously received it. She danced away from a situation where she began to feel herself getting the worst of it. One moment the Virginian stared at his lady as she lightly circulated, and then he went out to the barrel.
Leave him for Uncle Hershey! Jealousy is a deep and delicate thing, and works its spite in many ways. The Virginian had been ready to look at Lin McLean with a hostile eye; but finding him now beside the barrel, he felt a brotherhood between himself and Lin, and his hostility had taken a new and whimsical direction.
"Here's how!" said he to McLean. And they pledged each other in the tin cups.
"Been gettin' them instructions?" said Mr. McLean, grinning. "I thought I saw yu' learning your steps through the window."
"Here's your good health," said the Southerner. Once more they pledged each other handsomely.
"Did she call you an exception, or anything?" said Lin.
"Well, it would cipher out right close in that neighborhood."
"Here's how, then!" cried the delighted Lin, over his cup.
"Jest because yu' happen to come from Vermont," continued Mr. McLean, "is no cause for extra pride. Shoo! I was raised in Massachusetts myself, and big men have been raised there, too,--Daniel Webster and Israel Putnam: and a lot of them politicians."
"Virginia is a good little old state," observed the Southerner.
"Both of 'em's a sight ahead of Vermont. She told me I was the first exception she'd struck."
"What rule were you provin' at the time, Lin?"
"Well yu' see, I started to kiss her."
"Shucks! I didn't mean nothin'."
"I reckon yu' stopped mighty sudden?"
"Why, I'd been ridin' out with her--ridin' to school, ridin' from school, and a-comin' and a-goin', and she chattin' cheerful and askin' me a heap o' questions all about myself every day, and I not lyin' much neither. And so I figured she wouldn't mind. Lots of 'em like it. But she didn't, you bet!"
"No," said the Virginian, deeply proud of his lady who had slighted him. He had pulled her out of the water once, and he had been her unrewarded knight even to-day, and he felt his grievance; but he spoke not of it to Lin; for he felt also, in memory, her arms clinging round him as he carried her ashore upon his horse. But he muttered, "Plumb ridiculous!" as her injustice struck him afresh, while the outraged McLean told his tale.
"Trample is what she has done on me to-night, and without notice. We was startin' to come here; Taylor and Mrs. were ahead in the buggy, and I was holdin' her horse, and helpin' her up in the saddle, like I done for days and days. Who was there to see us? And I figured she'd not mind, and she calls me an exception! Yu'd ought to've just heard her about Western men respectin' women. So that's the last word we've spoke. We come twenty-five miles then, she scootin' in front, and her horse kickin' the sand in my face. Mrs. Taylor, she guessed something was up, but she didn't tell."
"Miss Wood did not tell?"
"Not she! She'll never open her head. She can take care of herself, you bet!" The fiddles sounded hilariously in the house, and the feet also. They had warmed up altogether, and their dancing figures crossed the windows back and forth. The two cow-punchers drew near to a window and looked in Gloomily.
"There she goes," said Lin.
"With Uncle Hughey again," said the Virginian, sourly. "Yu' might suppose he didn't have a wife and twins, to see the way he goes gambollin' around.
"Westfall is takin' a turn with her now," said McLean.
"James!" exclaimed the Virginian. "He's another with a wife and fam'ly, and he gets the dancin', too."
"There she goes with Taylor," said Lin, presently.
"Another married man!" the Southerner commented. They prowled round to the store-room, and passed through the kitchen to where the dancers were robustly tramping. Miss Wood was still the partner of Mr. Taylor. "Let's have some whiskey," said the Virginian. They had it, and returned, and the Virginian's disgust and sense of injury grew deeper. "Old Carmody has got her now," he drawled. "He polkas like a landslide. She learns his monkey-faced kid to spell dog and cow all the mawnin'. He'd ought to be tucked up cosey in his bed right now, old Carmody ought."
They were standing in that place set apart for the sleeping children; and just at this moment one of two babies that were stowed beneath a chair uttered a drowsy note. A much louder cry, indeed a chorus of lament, would have been needed to reach the ears of the parents in the room beyond, such was the noisy volume of the dance. But in this quiet place the light sound caught Mr. McLean's attention, and he turned to see if anything were wrong. But both babies were sleeping peacefully.
"Them's Uncle Hughey's twins," he said.
"How do you happen to know that?" inquired the Virginian, suddenly interested.
"Saw his wife put 'em under the chair so she could find 'em right off when she come to go home."
"Oh," said the Virginian, thoughtfully. "Oh, find 'em right off. Yes. Uncle Hughey's twins." He walked to a spot from which he could view the dance. "Well," he continued, returning, "the schoolmarm must have taken quite a notion to Uncle Hughey. He has got her for this quadrille." The Virginian was now speaking without rancor; but his words came with a slightly augmented drawl, and this with him was often a bad omen. He none turned his eyes upon the collected babies wrapped in various colored shawls and knitted work. "Nine, ten, eleven, beautiful sleepin' strangers," he counted, in a sweet voice. "Any of 'em yourn, Lin?"
"Not that I know of," grinned Mr. McLean
"Eleven, twelve. This hyeh is little Christopher in the blue-stripe quilt--or maybe that other yello'-head is him. The angels have commenced to drop in on us right smart along Bear Creek, Lin."
"What trash are yu' talkin' anyway?"
"If they look so awful alike in the heavenly gyarden," the gentle Southerner continued, "I'd just hate to be the folks that has the cuttin' of 'em out o' the general herd. And that's a right quaint notion too," he added softly. "Them under the chair are Uncle Hughey's, didn't you tell me?" And stooping, he lifted the torpid babies and placed them beneath a table. "No, that ain't thorough," he murmured. With wonderful dexterity and solicitude for their wellfare, he removed the loose wrap which was around them, and this soon led to an intricate process of exchange. For a moment Mr. McLean had been staring at the Virginian, puzzled. Then, with a joyful yelp of enlightenment, he sprang to abet him.
And while both busied themselves with the shawls and quilts, the unconscious parents went dancing vigorously on, and the small, occasional cries of their progeny did not reach them.