The Swinton barbecue was over. The fiddles were silent, the steer was eaten, the barrel emptied, or largely so, and the tapers extinguished; round the house and sunken fire all movement of guests was quiet; the families were long departed homeward, and after their hospitable turbulence, the Swintons slept.
Mr. and Mrs. Westfall drove through the night, and as they neared their cabin there came from among the bundled wraps a still, small voice.
"Jim," said his wife, "I said Alfred would catch cold."
"Bosh! Lizzie, don't you fret. He's a little more than a yearlin', and of course he'll snuffle." And young James took a kiss from his love.
"Well, how you can speak of Alfred that way, calling him a yearling, as if he was a calf, and he just as much your child as mine, I don't see, James Westfall!"
"Why, what under the sun do you mean?"
"There he goes again! Do hurry up home, Jim. He's got a real strange cough."
So they hurried home. Soon the nine miles were finished, and good James was unhitching by his stable lantern, while his wife in the house hastened to commit their offspring to bed. The traces had dropped, and each horse marched forward for further unbuckling, when James heard himself called. Indeed, there was that in his wife's voice which made him jerk out his pistol as he ran. But it was no bear or Indian--only two strange children on the bed. His wife was glaring at them.
He sighed with relief and laid down the pistol.
"Put that on again, James Westfall. You'll need it. Look here!"
"Well, they won't bite. Whose are they? Where have you stowed ourn?"
"Where have I--" Utterance forsook this mother for a moment. "And you ask me!" she continued. "Ask Lin McLean. Ask him that sets bulls on folks and steals slippers, what he's done with our innocent lambs, mixing them up with other people's coughing, unhealthy brats. That's Charlie Taylor in Alfred's clothes, and I know Alfred didn't cough like that, and I said to you it was strange; and the other one that's been put in Christopher's new quilts is not even a bub--bub--boy!"
As this crime against society loomed clear to James Westfall's understanding, he sat down on the nearest piece of furniture, and heedless of his wife's tears and his exchanged children, broke into unregenerate laughter. Doubtless after his sharp alarm about the bear, he was unstrung. His lady, however, promptly restrung him; and by the time they had repacked the now clamorous changelings, and were rattling on their way to the Taylors', he began to share her outraged feelings properly, as a husband and a father should; but when he reached the Taylors' and learned from Miss Wood that at this house a child had been unwrapped whom nobody could at all identify, and that Mr. and Mrs. Taylor were already far on the road to the Swintons', James Westfall whipped up his horses and grew almost as thirsty for revenge as was his wife.
Where the steer had been roasted, the powdered ashes were now cold white, and Mr. McLean, feeling through his dreams the change of dawn come over the air, sat up cautiously among the outdoor slumberers and waked his neighbor.
"Day will be soon," he whispered, "and we must light out of this. I never suspicioned yu' had that much of the devil in you before."
"I reckon some of the fellows will act haidstrong," the Virginian murmured luxuriously, among the warmth of his blankets.
"I tell yu' we must skip," said Lin, for the second time; and he rubbed the Virginian's black head, which alone was visible.
"Skip, then, you," came muffled from within, "and keep you'self mighty sca'ce till they can appreciate our frolic."
The Southerner withdrew deeper into his bed, and Mr. McLean, informing him that he was a fool, arose and saddled his horse. From the saddle-bag, he brought a parcel, and lightly laying this beside Bokay Baldy, he mounted and was gone. When Baldy awoke later, he found the parcel to be a pair of flowery slippers.
In selecting the inert Virginian as the fool, Mr. McLean was scarcely wise; it is the absent who are always guilty.
Before ever Lin could have been a mile in retreat, the rattle of the wheels roused all of them, and here came the Taylors. Before the Taylors' knocking had brought the Swintons to their door, other wheels sounded, and here were Mr. and Mrs. Carmody, and Uncle Hughey with his wife, and close after them Mr. Dow, alone, who told how his wife had gone into one of her fits--she upon whom Dr. Barker at Drybone had enjoined total abstinence from all excitement. Voices of women and children began to be up lifted; the Westfalls arrived in a lather, and the Thomases; and by sunrise, what with fathers and mothers and spectators and loud offspring, there was gathered such a meeting as has seldom been before among the generations of speaking men. To-day you can hear legends of it from Texas to Montana; but I am giving you the full particulars.
Of course they pitched upon poor Lin. Here was the Virginian doing his best, holding horses and helping ladies descend, while the name of McLean began to be muttered with threats. Soon a party led by Mr. Dow set forth in search of him, and the Southerner debated a moment if he had better not put them on a wrong track. But he concluded that they might safely go on searching.
Mrs. Westfall found Christopher at once in the green shawl of Anna Maria Dow, but all was not achieved thus in the twinkling of an eye Mr. McLean had, it appeared, as James Westfall lugubriously pointed out, not merely "swapped the duds; he had shuffled the whole doggone deck;" and they cursed this Satanic invention. The fathers were but of moderate assistance; it was the mothers who did the heavy work; and by ten o'clock some unsolved problems grew so delicate that a ladies' caucus was organized in a private room,--no admittance for men,--and whet was done there I can only surmise.
During its progress the search party returned. It had not found Mr. McLean. It had found a tree with a notice pegged upon it, reading, "God bless our home!" This was captured.
But success attended the caucus; each mother emerged, satisfied that she had received her own, and each sire, now that his family was itself again, began to look at his neighbor sideways. After a man has been angry enough to kill another man, after the fire of righteous slaughter has raged in his heart as it had certainly raged for several hours in the hearts of these fathers, the flame will usually burn itself out. This will be so in a generous nature, unless the cause of the anger is still unchanged. But the children had been identified; none had taken hurt. All had been humanely given their nourishment. The thing was over. The day was beautiful. A tempting feast remained from the barbecue. These Bear Creek fathers could not keep their ire at red heat. Most of them, being as yet more their wives' rovers than their children's parents, began to see the mirthful side of the adventure; and they ceased to feel very severely toward Lin McLean.
Not so the women. They cried for vengeance; but they cried in vain, and were met with smiles.
Mrs. Westfall argued long that punishment should be dealt the offender. "Anyway," she persisted, "it was real defiant of him putting that up on the tree. I might forgive him but for that."
"Yes," spoke the Virginian in their midst, "that wasn't sort o' right. Especially as I am the man you're huntin'."
They sat dumb at his assurance.
"Come and kill me," he continued, round upon the party. "I'll not resist."
But they could not resist the way in which he had looked round upon them. He had chosen the right moment for his confession, as a captain of a horse awaits the proper time for a charge. Some rebukes he did receive; the worst came from the mothers. And all that he could say for himself was, "I am getting off too easy."
"But what was your point?" said Westfall.
"Blamed if I know any more. I expect it must have been the whiskey."
"I would mind it less," said Mrs. Westfall, "if you looked a bit sorry or ashamed."
The Virginian shook his head at her penitently. "I'm tryin' to," he said.
And thus he sat disarming his accusers until they began to lunch upon the copious remnants of the barbecue. He did not join them at this meal. In telling you that Mrs. Dow was the only lady absent upon this historic morning, I was guilty of an inadvertence. There was one other.
The Virginian rode away sedately through the autumn sunshine; and as he went he asked his Monte horse a question. "Do yu' reckon she'll have forgotten you too, you pie-biter?" said he. Instead of the new trousers, the cow-puncher's leathern chaps were on his legs. But he had the new scarf knotted at his neck. Most men would gladly have equalled him in appearance. "You Monte," said he, "will she be at home?"
It was Sunday, and no school day, and he found her in her cabin that stood next the Taylors' house. Her eyes were very bright.
"I'd thought I'd just call," said he.
"Why, that's such a pity! Mr. and Mrs. Taylor are away."
"Yes; they've been right busy. That's why I thought I'd call. Will yu' come for a ride, ma'am?"
"Dear me! I--" "You can ride my hawss. He's gentle."
"What! And you walk?"
"No, ma'am. Nor the two of us ride him THIS time, either." At this she turned entirely pink, and he, noticing, went on quietly: "I'll catch up one of Taylor's hawsses. Taylor knows me."
"No. I don't really think I could do that. But thank you. Thank you very much. I must go now and see how Mrs. Taylor's fire is."
"I'll look after that, ma'am. I'd like for yu' to go ridin' mighty well. Yu' have no babies this mawnin' to be anxious after."
At this shaft, Grandmother Stark flashed awake deep within the spirit of her descendant, and she made a haughty declaration of war. "I don't know what you mean, sir," she said.
Now was his danger; for it was easy to fall into mere crude impertinence and ask her why, then, did she speak thus abruptly? There were various easy things of this kind for him to say. And any rudeness would have lost him the battle. But the Virginian was not the man to lose such a battle in such a way. His shaft had hit. She thought he referred to those babies about whom last night she had shown such superfluous solicitude. Her conscience was guilty. This was all that he had wished to make sure of before he began operations.
"Why, I mean," said he, easily, sitting down near the door, "that it's Sunday. School don't hinder yu' from enjoyin' a ride to-day. You'll teach the kids all the better for it to-morro', ma'am. Maybe it's your duty." And he smiled at her.
"My duty! It's quite novel to have strangers--"
"Am I a stranger?" he cut in, firing his first broadside. "I was introduced, ma'am," he continued, noting how she had flushed again. "And I would not be oversteppin' for the world. I'll go away if yu' want." And hereupon he quietly rose, and stood, hat in hand.
Molly was flustered. She did not at all want him to go. No one of her admirers had ever been like this creature. The fringed leathern chaparreros, the cartridge belt, the flannel shirt, the knotted scarf at the neck, these things were now an old story to her. Since her arrival she had seen young men and old in plenty dressed thus. But worn by this man now standing by her door, they seemed to radiate romance. She did not want him to go--and she wished to win her battle. And now in her agitation she became suddenly severe, as she had done at Hoosic Junction. He should have a punishment to remember!
"You call yourself a man, I suppose," she said.
But he did not tremble in the least. Her fierceness filled him with delight, and the tender desire of ownership flooded through him.
"A grown-up, responsible man," she repeated.
"Yes, ma'am. I think so." He now sat dozen again.
"And you let them think that--that Mr. McLean--You dare not look me in the face and say that Mr. McLean did that last night!"
"I reckon I dassent."
"There! I knew it! I said so from the first!"
"And me a stranger to you!" he murmured. It was his second broadside.
It left her badly crippled. She was silent.
"Who did yu' mention it to, ma'am?"
She hoped she had him. "Why, are you afraid?" And she laughed lightly.
"I told 'em myself. And their astonishment seemed so genu-wine I'd just hate to think they had fooled me that thorough when they knowed it all along from you seeing me."
"I did not see you. I knew it must--Of course I did not tell any one. When I said I said so from the first, I meant--you can understand perfectly what I meant."
Poor Molly was near stamping her foot. "And what sort of a trick," she rushed on, "was that to play? Do you call it a manly thing to frighten and distress women because you--for no reason at all? I should never have imagined it could be the act of a person who wears a big pistol and rides a big horse. I should be afraid to go riding with such an immature protector."
"Yes; that was awful childish. Your words do cut a little; for maybe there's been times when I have acted pretty near like a man. But I cert'nly forgot to be introduced before I spoke to yu' last night. Because why? You've found me out dead in one thing. Won't you take a guess at this too?"
"I cannot sit guessing why people do not behave themselves--who seem to know better."
"Well, ma'am, I've played square and owned up to yu'. And that's not what you're doin' by me. I ask your pardon if I say what I have a right to say in language not as good as I'd like to talk to yu' with. But at South Fork Crossin' who did any introducin'? Did yu' complain I was a stranger then?"
"I--no!" she flashed out; then, quite sweetly, "The driver told me it wasn't REALLY so dangerous there, you know."
"That's not the point I'm makin'. You are a grown-up woman, a responsible woman. You've come ever so far, and all alone, to a rough country to instruct young children that play games,--tag, and hide-and-seek, and fooleries they'll have to quit when they get old. Don't you think pretendin' yu' don't know a man,--his name's nothin', but him,--a man whom you were glad enough to let assist yu' when somebody was needed,--don't you think that's mighty close to hide-and-seek them children plays? I ain't so sure but what there's a pair of us children in this hyeh room."
Molly Wood was regarding him saucily. "I don't think I like you," said she.
"That's all square enough. You're goin' to love me before we get through. I wish yu'd come a-ridin, ma'am."
"Dear, dear, dear! So I'm going to love you? How will you do it? I know men think that they only need to sit and look strong and make chests at a girl--"
"Goodness gracious! I ain't makin' any chests at yu'!" Laughter overcame him for a moment, and Miss Wood liked his laugh very much. "Please come a-ridin'," he urged. "It's the prettiest kind of a day."
She looked at him frankly, and there was a pause. "I will take back two things that I said to you," she then answered him. "I believe that I do like you. And I know that if I went riding with you, I should not have an immature protector." And then, with a final gesture of acknowledgment, she held out her hand to him. "And I have always wanted," she said, "to thank you for what you did at the river."
He took her hand, and his heart bounded. "You're a gentleman!" he exclaimed.
It was now her turn to be overcome with merriment. "I've always wanted to be a man," she said.
"I am mighty glad you ain't," said he, looking at her.
But Molly had already received enough broadsides for one day. She could allow no more of them, and she took herself capably in hand. "Where did you learn to make such pretty speeches?" she asked. "Well, never mind that. One sees that you have had plenty of practice for one so young."
"I am twenty-seven," blurted the Virginian, and knew instantly that he had spoken like a fool.
"Who would have dreamed it!" said Molly, with well-measured mockery. She knew that she had scored at last, and that this day was hers. "Don't be too sure you are glad I'm not a man," she now told him. There was something like a challenge in her voice.
"I risk it," he remarked.
"For I am almost twenty-three myself," she concluded. And she gave him a look on her own account.
"And you'll not come a-ridin'?" he persisted.
"No," she answered him; "no." And he knew that he could not make her.
"Then I will tell yu' good-by," said he. "But I am comin' again. And next time I'1l have along a gentle hawss for yu'."
"Next time! Next time! Well, perhaps I will go with you. Do you live far?"
"I live on Judge Henry's ranch, over yondeh." He pointed across the mountains. "It's on Sunk Creek. A pretty rough trail; but I can come hyeh to see you in a day, I reckon. Well, I hope you'll cert'nly enjoy good health, ma'am."
"Oh, there's one thing!" said Molly Wood, calling after him rather quickly. "I--I'm not at all afraid of horses. You needn't bring sucha gentle one. I--was very tired that day, and--and I don't scream as a rule."
He turned and looked at her so that she could not meet his glance. "Bless your heart!" said he. "Will yu' give me one o' those flowers?"
"Oh, certainly! I'm always so glad when people like them."
"They're pretty near the color of your eyes."
"Never mind my eyes."
"Can't help it, ma'am. Not since South Fork."
He put the flower in the leather band of his hat, and rode away on his Monte horse. Miss Wood lingered a moment, then made some steps toward her gate, from which he could still be seen; and then, with something like a toss of the head, she went in and shut her door.
Later in the day the Virginian met Mr. McLean, who looked at his hat and innocently quoted. "'My Looloo picked a daisy.'"
"Don't yu', Lin," said the Southerner.
"Then I won't," said Lin.
Thus, for this occasion, did the Virginian part from his lady--and nothing said one way or another about the handkerchief that had disappeared during the South Fork incident.
As we fall asleep at night, our thoughts will often ramble back and forth between the two worlds.
"What color were his eyes?" wondered Molly on her pillow. "His mustache is not bristly like so many of them. Sam never gave me such a look as Hoosic Junction. No.... You can't come with me.... Get off your horse.... The passengers are all staring...."
And while Molly was thus dreaming that the Virginian had ridden his horse into the railroad car, and sat down beside her, the fire in the great stone chimney of her cabin flickered quietly, its gleams now and again touching the miniature of Grandmother Stark upon the wall.
Camped on the Sunk Creek trail, the Virginian was telling himself in his blankets:"I ain't too old for education. Maybe she will lend me books. And I'll watch her ways and learn...stand still, Monte. I can learn a lot more than the kids on that. There's Monte...you pie-biter, stop.... He has ate up your book, ma'am, but I'll get yu'..."
And then the Virginian was fast asleep.