After this I gave up my experiments in conversation. So that by the final afternoon of our journey, with Sunk Creek actually in sight, and the great grasshoppers slatting their dry song over the sage-brush, and the time at hand when the Virginian and Trampas would be "man to man," my thoughts rose to a considerable pitch of speculation.
And now that talking part of the Virginian, which had been nine days asleep, gave its first yawn and stretch of waking. Without preface, he suddenly asked me, "Would you be a parson?"
I was mentally so far away that I couldn't get back in time to comprehend or answer before he had repeated:"What would yu' take to be a parson?"
He drawled it out in his gentle way, precisely as if no nine days stood between it and our last real intercourse.
"Take?" I was still vaguely moving in my distance. "How?"
His next question brought me home.
"I expect the Pope's is the biggest of them parson jobs?"
It was with an "Oh!" that I now entirely took his idea. "Well, yes; decidedly the biggest."
"Beats the English one? Archbishop--ain't it?--of Canterbury? The Pope comes ahead of him?"
"His Holiness would say so if his Grace did not."
The Virginian turned half in his saddle to see my face--I was, at the moment, riding not quite abreast of him--and I saw the gleam of his teeth beneath his mustache. It was seldom I could make him smile, even to this slight extent. But his eyes grew, with his next words, remote again in their speculation.
"His Holiness and his Grace. Now if I was to hear 'em namin' me that-a-way every mawnin', I'd sca'cely get down to business."
"Oh, you'd get used to the pride of it."
"'Tisn't the pride. The laugh is what would ruin me. 'Twould take 'most all my attention keeping a straight face. The Archbishop"--here he took one of his wide mental turns--"is apt to be a big man in them Shakespeare plays. Kings take talk from him they'd not stand from anybody else; and he talks fine, frequently. About the bees, for instance, when Henry is going to fight France. He tells him a beehive is similar to a kingdom. I learned that piece." The Virginian could not have expected to blush at uttering these last words. He knew that his sudden color must tell me in whose book it was he had learned the piece Was not her copy of Kenilworth even now In his cherishing pocket? So he now, to cover his blush, very deliberately recited to me the Archbishop's discourse upon bees and their kingdom:
"'Where some, like magistrates, correct at home...
"Ain't that a fine description of bees a-workin'? 'The singing masons building roofs of gold!' Puts 'em right before yu', and is poetry without bein' foolish. His Holiness and his Grace. Well, they could not hire me for either o' those positions. How many religions are there?"
"All over the earth?"
"Yu' can begin with ourselves. Right hyeh at home I know there's Romanists, and Episcopals--"
"Two kinds!" I put in. "At least two of Episcopals."
"That's three. Then Methodists and Baptists, and--"
"Well, you do the countin'."
I accordingly did it, feeling my revolving memory slip cogs all the way round. "Anyhow, there are safely fifteen."
"Fifteen." He held this fact a moment. "And they don't worship a whole heap o' different gods like the ancients did?"
"It's just the same one?"
"The same one."
The Virginian folded his hands over the horn of his saddle, and leaned forward upon them in contemplation of the wide, beautiful landscape.
"One God and fifteen religions," was his reflection. "That's a right smart of religions for just one God."
This way of reducing it was, if obvious to him, so novel to me that my laugh evidently struck him as a louder and livelier comment than was required. He turned on me as if I had somehow perverted the spirit of his words.
"I ain't religious. I know that. But I ain't unreligious. And I know that too."
"So do I know it, my friend."
"Do you think there ought to be fifteen varieties of good people?" His voice, while it now had an edge that could cut anything it came against, was still not raised. "There ain't fifteen. There ain't two. There's one kind. And when I meet it, I respect it. It is not praying nor preaching that has ever caught me and made me ashamed of myself, but one or two people I have knowed that never said a superior word to me They thought more o' me than I deserved, and that made me behave better than I naturally wanted to. Made me quit a girl onced in time for her not to lose her good name. And so that's one thing I have never done. And if ever I was to have a son or somebody I set store by, I would wish their lot to be to know one or two good folks mighty well--men or women--women preferred."
He had looked away again to the hills behind Sunk Creek ranch, to which our walking horses had now almost brought us.
"As for parsons "--the gesture of his arm was a disclaiming one--"I reckon some parsons have a right to tell yu' to be good. The bishop of this hyeh Territory has a right. But I'll tell yu' this: a middlin' doctor is a pore thing, and a middlin' lawyer is a pore thing; but keep me from a middlin' man of God."
Once again he had reduced it, but I did not laugh this time. I thought there should in truth be heavy damages for malpractice on human souls. But the hot glow of his words, and the vision of his deepest inner man it revealed, faded away abruptly.
"What do yu' make of the proposition yondeh?" As he pointed to the cause of this question he had become again his daily, engaging, saturnine self.
Then I saw over in a fenced meadow, to which we were now close, what he was pleased to call "the proposition." Proposition in the West does, in fact, mean whatever you at the moment please,--an offer to sell you a mine, a cloud-burst, a glass of whiskey, a steamboat. This time it meant a stranger clad in black, and of a clerical deportment which would in that atmosphere and to a watchful eye be visible for a mile or two.
"I reckoned yu' hadn't noticed him," was the Virginian's reply to my ejaculation. "Yes. He set me goin' on the subject a while back. I expect he is another missionary to us pore cow-boys."
I seemed from a hundred yards to feel the stranger's forceful personality. It was in his walk--I should better say stalk--as he promenaded along the creek. His hands were behind his back, and there was an air of waiting, of displeased waiting, in his movement.
"Yes, he'll be a missionary," said the Virginian, conclusively; and he took to singing, or rather to whining, with his head tilted at an absurd angle upward at the sky:
"'Dar is a big Car'lina nigger,
The lane which was conducting us to the group of ranch buildings now turned a corner of the meadow, and the Virginian went on with his second verse:
"'Great big fool, he hasn't any knowledge.
He was beginning a third stanza, but stopped short; a horse had neighed close behind us.
"Trampas," said he, without turning his head, "we are home."
"It looks that way." Some ten yards were between ourselves and Trampas, where he followed.
"And I'll trouble yu' for my rope yu' took this mawnin' instead o' your own."
"I don't know as it's your rope I've got." Trampas skilfully spoke this so that a precisely opposite meaning flowed from his words.
If it was discussion he tried for, he failed. The Virginian's hand moved, and for one thick, flashing moment my thoughts were evidently also the thoughts of Trampas. But the Virginian only held out to Trampas the rope which he had detached from his saddle.
"Take your hand off your gun, Trampas. If I had wanted to kill yu' you'd be lying nine days back on the road now. Here's your rope. Did yu' expect I'd not know it? It's the only one in camp the stiffness ain't all drug out of yet. Or maybe yu' expected me to notice and--not take notice?"
"I don't spend my time in expectations about you. If--"
The Virginian wheeled his horse across the road. "Yu're talkin' too soon after reachin' safety, Trampas. I didn't tell yu' to hand me that rope this mawnin', because I was busy. I ain't foreman now; and I want that rope."
Trampas produced a smile as skilful as his voice. "Well, I guess your having mine proves this one is yours." He rode up and received the coil which the Virginian held out, unloosing the disputed one on his saddle. If he had meant to devise a slippery, evasive insult, no small trick in cow-land could be more offensive than this taking another man's rope. And it is the small tricks which lead to the big bullets. Trampas put a smooth coating of plausibility over the whole transaction. "After the rope corral we had to make this morning"--his tone was mock explanatory--"the ropes was all strewed round camp, and in the hustle I--"
"Pardon me," said a sonorous voice behind us, "do you happen to have seen Judge Henry?" It was the reverend gentleman in his meadow, come to the fence. As we turned round to him he spoke on, with much rotund authority in his eye. "From his answer to my letter, Judge Henry undoubtedly expects me here. I have arrived from Fetterman according to my plan which I announced to him, to find that he has been absent all day--absent the whole day."
The Virginian sat sidewise to talk, one long, straight leg supporting him on one stirrup, the other bent at ease, the boot half lifted from its dangling stirrup. He made himself the perfection of courtesy. "The Judge is frequently absent all night, seh."
"Scarcely to-night, I think. I thought you might know something about him."
"I have been absent myself, seh."
"Ah! On a vacation, perhaps?" The divine had a ruddy facet. His strong glance was straight and frank and fearless; but his smile too much reminded me of days bygone, when we used to return to school from the Christmas holidays, and the masters would shake our hands and welcome us with: "Robert, John, Edward, glad to see you all looking so well! Rested, and ready for hard work, I'm sure!"
That smile does not really please even good, tame little boys; and the Virginian was nearing thirty.
"It has not been vacation this trip, seh," said he, settling straight in his saddle. "There's the Judge driving in now, in time for all questions yu' have to ask him."
His horse took a step, but was stopped short. There lay the Virginian's rope on the ground. I had been aware of Trampas's quite proper departure during the talk; and as he was leaving, I seemed also to be aware of his placing the coil across the cantle of its owner's saddle. Had he intended it to fall and have to be picked up? It was another evasive little business, and quite successful, if designed to nag the owner of the rope. A few hundred yards ahead of us Trampas was now shouting loud cow-boy shouts. Were they to announce his return to those at home, or did they mean derision? The Virginian leaned, keeping his seat, and, swinging down his arm, caught up the rope, and hung it on his saddle somewhat carefully. But the hue of rage spread over his face.
From his fence the divine now spoke, in approbation, but with another strong, cheerless smile. "You pick up that rope as if you were well trained to it."
"It's part of our business, seh, and we try to mind it like the rest." But this, stated in a gentle drawl, did not pierce the missionary's armor; his superiority was very thick.
We now rode on, and I was impressed by the reverend gentleman's robust, dictatorial back as he proceeded by a short cut through the meadow to the ranch. You could take him for nothing but a vigorous, sincere, dominating man, full of the highest purpose. But whatever his creed, I already doubted if he were the right one to sow it and make it grow in these new, wild fields. He seemed more the sort of gardener to keep old walks and vines pruned in their antique rigidity. I admired him for coming all this way with his clean, short, gray whiskers and his black, well-brushed suit. And he made me think of a powerful locomotive stuck puffing on a grade.
Meanwhile, the Virginian rode beside me, so silent in his volcanic wrath that I did not perceive it. The missionary coming on top of Trampas had been more than he could stand. But I did not know, and I spoke with innocent cheeriness.
"Is the parson going to save us?" I asked; and I fairly jumped at his voice:"Don't talk so much!" he burst out. I had got the whole accumulation!
"Who's been talking?" I in equal anger screeched back. "I'm not trying to save you. I didn't take your rope." And having poured this out, I whipped up my pony.
But he spurred his own alongside of me; and glancing at him, I saw that he was now convulsed with internal mirth. I therefore drew down to a walk, and he straightened into gravity.
"I'm right obliged to yu'," he laid his hand in its buckskin gauntlet upon my horse's mane as he spoke, "for bringing me back out o' my nonsense. I'll be as serene as a bird now--whatever they do. A man," he stated reflectively, "any full-sized man, ought to own a big lot of temper. And like all his valuable possessions, he'd ought to keep it and not lose any." This was his full apology. "As for salvation, I have got this far: somebody," he swept an arm at the sunset and the mountains, "must have made all that, I know. But I know one more thing I would tell Him to His face: if I can't do nothing long enough and good enough to earn eternal happiness, I can't do nothing long enough and bad enough to be damned. I reckon He plays a square game with us if He plays at all, and I ain't bothering my haid about other worlds."
As we reached the stables, he had become the serene bird he promised, and was sentimentally continuing:
"'De sun is made of mud from de bottom of de river;
If words were meant to conceal our thoughts, melody is perhaps a still thicker veil for them. Whatever temper he had lost, he had certainly found again; but this all the more fitted him to deal with Trampas, when the dealing should begin. I had half a mind to speak to the Judge, only it seemed beyond a mere visitor's business. Our missionary was at this moment himself speaking to Judge Henry at the door of the home ranch.
"I reckon he's explaining he has been a-waiting." The Virginian was throwing his saddle off as I loosened the cinches of mine. "And the Judge don't look like he was hopelessly distressed."
I now surveyed the distant parley, and the Judge, from the wagonful of guests whom he had evidently been driving upon a day's excursion, waved me a welcome, which I waved back. "He's got Miss Molly Wood there!" I exclaimed.
"Yes." The Virginian was brief about this fact. "I'll look afteh your saddle. You go and get acquainted with the company."
This favor I accepted; it was the means he chose for saying he hoped, after our recent boiling over, that all was now more than right between us. So for the while I left him to his horses, and his corrals, and his Trampas, and his foreman, and his imminent problem.