XXII.
"WHAT IS A RUSTLER?"

We all know what birds of a feather do. And it may be safelysurmised that if a bird of any particular feather has been for along while unable to see other birds of its kind, it will flockwith them all the more assiduously when they happen to alight inits vicinity.

Now the Ogdens were birds of Molly's feather. They wore Eastern,and not Western, plumage, and their song was a different songfrom that which the Bear Creek birds sang. To be sure, the pipingof little George Taylor was full of hopeful interest; and manyother strains, both striking and melodious, were lifted in CattleLand, and had given pleasure to Molly's ear. But althoughIndians, and bears, and mavericks, make worthy themes for song,these are not the only songs in the world. Therefore the Easternwarblings of the Ogdens sounded doubly sweet to Molly Wood. Suchwords as Newport, Bar Harbor, and Tiffany's thrilled herexceedingly. It made no difference that she herself had neverbeen to Newport or Bar Harbor, and had visited Tiffany's moreoften to admire than to purchase. On the contrary, this ratheradded a dazzle to the music of the Ogdens. And Molly, whoseEastern song had been silent in this strange land, began to chirpit again during the visit that she made at the Sunk Creek Ranch.

Thus the Virginian's cause by no means prospered at this time.His forces were scattered, while Molly's were concentrated. Thegirl was not at that point where absence makes the heart growfonder. While the Virginian was trundling his long, responsiblemiles in the caboose, delivering the cattle at Chicago,vanquishing Trampas along the Yellowstone, she had regainedherself.

Thus it was that she could tell him so easily during those firsthours that they were alone after his return, "I expect to likeanother man better than you."

Absence had recruited her. And then the Ogdens had reenforcedher. They brought the East back powerfully to her memory, and herthoughts filled with it. They did not dream that they wereassisting in any battle. No one ever had more unconscious alliesthan did Molly at that time. But she used them consciously, oralmost consciously. She frequented them; she spoke of Easternmatters; she found that she had acquaintances whom the Ogdensalso knew, and she often brought them into the conversation. Forit may be said, I think, that she was fighting a battle--nay, acampaign. And perhaps this was a hopeful sign for the Virginian(had he but known it), that the girl resorted to allies. Shesurrounded herself, she steeped herself, with the East, to have,as it were, a sort of counteractant against the spell of theblack-haired horse man.

And his forces were, as I have said, scattered. For his promotiongave him no more time for love-making. He was foreman now. He hadsaid to Judge Henry, "I'll try to please yu'." And after thethrob of emotion which these words had both concealed andconveyed, there came to him that sort of intention to win whichamounts to a certainty. Yes, he would please Judge Henry!

He did not know how much he had already pleased him. He did notknow that the Judge was humorously undecided which of his newforeman's first acts had the more delighted him: his performancewith the missionary, or his magnanimity to Trampas.

"Good feeling is a great thing in any one," the Judge would say;"but I like to know that my foreman has so much sense."

"I am personally very grateful to him," said Mrs. Henry.

And indeed so was the whole company. To be afflicted with Dr.MacBride for one night instead of six was a great liberation.

But the Virginian never saw his sweetheart alone again; while shewas at the Sunk Creek Ranch, his duties called him away so muchthat there was no chance for him. Worse still, that habit ofbirds of a feather brought about a separation more considerable.She arranged to go East with the Ogdens. It was so good anopportunity to travel with friends, instead of making the journeyalone!

Molly's term of ministration at the schoolhouse had so pleasedBear Creek that she was warmly urged to take a holiday. Schoolcould afford to begin a little late. Accordingly, she departed.

The Virginian hid his sore heart from her during the moment offarewell that they had.

"No, I'll not want any more books," he said, "till yu' comeback." And then he made cheerfulness. "It's just the other wayround!" said he.

"What is the other way round?"

"Why, last time it was me that went travelling, and you thatstayed behind."

"So it was!" And here she gave him a last scratch. "But you'll bebusier than ever," she said; "no spare time to grieve about me!"

She could wound him, and she knew it. Nobody else could. That iswhy she did it.

But he gave her something to remember, too.

"Next time," he said, "neither of us will stay behind. We'll bothgo together."

And with these words he gave her no laughing glance. It was alook that mingled with the words; so that now and again in thetrain, both came back to her, and she sat pensive, drawing nearto Bennington and hearing his voice and seeing his eyes.

How is it that this girl could cry at having to tell Sam Bannettshe could not think of him, and then treat another lover as shetreated the Virginian? I cannot tell you, having never (as I saidbefore) been a woman myself.

Bennington opened its arms to its venturesome daughter. Much wasmade of Molly Wood. Old faces and old places welcomed her. Fattedcalves of varying dimensions made their appearance. And althoughthe fatted calf is an animal that can assume more divergentshapes than any other known creature,--being sometimes champagneand partridges, and again cake and currant wine,--through eachdisguise you can always identify the same calf. The girl fromBear Creek met it at every turn.

The Bannetts at Hoosic Falls offered a large specimen to Molly--adinner (perhaps I should say a banquet) of twenty-four. And SamBannett of course took her to drive more than once.

"I want to see the Hoosic Bridge," she would say. And when theyreached that well-remembered point, "How lovely it is!" sheexclaimed. And as she gazed at the view up and down the valley,she would grow pensive. "How natural the church looks," shecontinued. And then, having crossed both bridges, "Oh, there'sthe dear old lodge gate!" Or again, while they drove up thevalley of the little Hoosic: "I had forgotten it was so nice andlonely. But after all, no woods are so interesting as those whereyou might possibly see a bear or an elk." And upon anotheroccasion, after a cry of enthusiasm at the view from the top ofMount Anthony, "It's lovely, lovely, lovely," she said, withdiminishing cadence, ending in pensiveness once more. "Do you seethat little bit just there? No, not where the trees are--thatbare spot that looks brown and warm in the sun. With a littlesagebrush, that spot would look something like a place I know onBear Creek. Only of course you don't get the clear air here."

"I don't forget you," said Sam. "Do you remember me? Or is it outof sight out of mind?"

And with this beginning he renewed his suit. She told him thatshe forgot no one; that she should return always, lest they mightforget her.

"Return always!" he exclaimed. "You talk as if your anchor wasdragging."

Was it? At all events, Sam failed in his suit.

Over in the house at Dunbarton, the old lady held Molly's handand looked a long while at her. "You have changed very much," shesaid finally.

"I am a year older," said the girl.

"Pshaw, my dear!" said the great-aunt. "Who is he?"

"Nobody!" cried Molly, with indignation.

"Then you shouldn't answer so loud," said the great-aunt.

The girl suddenly hid her face. "I don't believe I can love anyone," she said, "except myself."

And then that old lady, who in her day had made her courtesy toLafayette, began to stroke her niece's buried head, because shemore than half understood. And understanding thus much, she askedno prying questions, but thought of the days of her own youth,and only spoke a little quiet love and confidence to Molly.

"I am an old, old woman," she said. "But I haven't forgottenabout it. They objected to him because he had no fortune. But hewas brave and handsome, and I loved him, my dear. Only I ought tohave loved him more. I gave him my promise to think about it. Andhe and his ship were lost." The great-aunt's voice had becomevery soft and low, and she spoke with many pauses. "So then Iknew. If I had--if--perhaps I should have lost trim; but it wouldhave been after--ah, well! So long as you can help it, nevermarry! But when you cannot help it a moment longer, then listento nothing but that; for, my dear, I know your choice would beworthy of the Starks. And now--let me see his picture."

"Why, aunty!" said Molly.

"Well, I won't pretend to be supernatural," said the aunt, "but Ithought you kept one back when you were showing us those Westernviews last night."

Now this was the precise truth. Molly had brought a number ofphotographs from Wyoming to show to her friends at home. These,however, with one exception, were not portraits. They were viewsof scenery and of cattle round-ups, and other scenescharacteristic of ranch life. Of young men she had in herpossession several photographs, and all but one of these she hadleft behind her. Her aunt's penetration had in a way mesmerizedthe girl; she rose obediently and sought that picture of theVirginian. It was full length, displaying him in all his cow-boytrappings,--the leathern chaps, the belt and pistol, and in hishand a coil of rope.

Not one of her family had seen it, or suspected its existence.She now brought it downstairs and placed it in her aunt's hand.

"Mercy!" cried the old lady.

Molly was silent, but her eye grew warlike.

"Is that the way--" began the aunt. "Mercy!"she murmured; and shesat staring at the picture.

Molly remained silent.

Her aunt looked slowly up at her. "Has a man like thatpresumed--"

"He's not a bit like that. Yes, he's exactly like that," saidMolly. And she would have snatched the photograph away, but heraunt retained it."Well," she said, "I suppose there are days whenhe does not kill people."

"He never killed anybody!" And Molly laughed.

"Are you seriously--" said the old lady.

"I almost might--at times. He is perfectly splendid."

"My dear, you have fallen in love with his clothes."

"It's not his clothes. And I'm not in love. He often wearsothers. He wears a white collar like anybody."

"Then that would be a more suitable way to be photographed, Ithink. He couldn't go round like that here. I could not receivehim myself."

"He'd never think of such a thing. Why, you talk as if he were asavage."

The old lady studied the picture closely for a minute. "I thinkit is a good face," she finally remarked. "Is the fellow ashandsome as that, my dear?"

More so, Molly thought. And who was he, and what were hisprospects? were the aunt's next inquiries. She shook her head atthe answers which she received; and she also shook her head overher niece's emphatic denial that her heart was lost to this man.But when their parting came, the old lady said:"God bless you andkeep you, my dear. I'll not try to manage you. They managed me--"A sigh spoke the rest of this sentence. "But I'm not worriedabout you--at least, not very much. You have never done anythingthat was not worthy of the Starks. And if you're going to takehim, do it before I die so that I can bid him welcome for yoursake. God bless you, my dear."

And after the girl had gone back to Bennington, the great-aunthad this thought: "She is like us all. She wants a man that is aman." Nor did the old lady breathe her knowledge to any member ofthe family. For she was a loyal spirit, and her girl's confidencewas sacred to her.

"Besides," she reflected, "if even I can do nothing with her,what a mess THEY'D make of it! We should hear of her elopementnext."

So Molly's immediate family never saw that photograph, and neverheard a word from her upon this subject. But on the day that sheleft for Bear Creek, as they sat missing her and discussing hervisit in the evening, Mrs. Bell observed: "Mother, how did youthink she was?"--"I never saw her better, Sarah. That horribleplace seems to agree with her."--"Oh, yes, agree. It seemed tome--"--"Well?"--"Oh, just somehow that she wasthinking."--"Thinking?"--"Well, I believe she has something onher mind."--"You mean a man," said Andrew Bell.--"A man,Andrew?"--"Yes, Mrs. Wood, that's what Sarah always means."

It may be mentioned that Sarah's surmises did not greatlycontribute to her mother's happiness. And rumor is so strange athing that presently from the malicious outside air came a vagueand dreadful word--one of those words that cannot be traced toits source. Somebody said to Andrew Bell that they heard MissMolly Wood was engaged to marry a RUSTLER.

"Heavens, Andrew!" said his wife; "what is a rustler?"

It was not in any dictionary, and current translations of it wereinconsistent. A man at Hoosic Falls said that he had passedthrough Cheyenne, and heard the term applied in a complimentaryway to people who were alive and pushing. Another man had alwayssupposed it meant some kind of horse. But the most alarmingversion of all was that a rustler was a cattle thief.

Now the truth is that all these meanings were right. The word rana sort of progress in the cattle country, gathering many meaningsas it went. It gathered more, however, in Bennington. In a veryfew days, gossip had it that Molly was engaged to a gambler, agold miner, an escaped stage robber, and a Mexican bandit; whileMrs. Flynt feared she had married a Mormon.

Along Bear Creek, however, Molly and her "rustler" took a ridesoon after her return. They were neither married nor engaged, andshe was telling him about Vermont.

"I never was there," said he. "Never happened to strike in thatdirection."

"What decided your direction?"

"Oh, looking for chances. I reckon I must have been moreambitious than my brothers--or more restless. They stayed aroundon farms. But I got out. When I went back again six yearsafterward, I was twenty. They was talking about the same oldthings. Men of twenty-five and thirty--yet just sittin' andtalkin' about the same old things. I told my mother about whatI'd seen here and there, and she liked it, right to her death.But the others--well, when I found this whole world was hawgs andturkeys to them, with a little gunnin' afteh small game throwedin, I put on my hat one mawnin' and told 'em maybe when I wasfifty I'd look in on 'em again to see if they'd got any newsubjects. But they'll never. My brothers don't seem to wantchances."

"You have lost a good many yourself," said Molly.

"That's correct."

"And yet," said she, "sometimes I think you know a great dealmore than I ever shall."

"Why, of course I do," said he, quite simply. "I have earned myliving since I was fourteen. And that's from old Mexico toBritish Columbia. I have never stolen or begged a cent. I'd notwant yu' to know what I know."

She was looking at him, half listening and half thinking of hergreat-aunt.

"I am not losing chances any more," he continued. "And you arethe best I've got."

She was not sorry to have Georgie Taylor come galloping along atthis moment and join them. But the Virginian swore profanelyunder his breath. And on this ride nothing more happened.

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