Love had been snowbound for many weeks. Before this imprisonment its course had run neither smooth nor rough, so far as eye could see; it had run either not at all, or, as an undercurrent, deep out of sight. In their rides, in their talks, love had been dumb, as to spoken words at least; for the Virginian had set himself a heavy task of silence and of patience. Then, where winter barred his visits to Bear Creek, and there was for the while no ranch work or responsibility to fill his thoughts and blood with action, he set himself a task much lighter. Often, instead of Shakespeare and fiction, school books lay open on his cabin table; and penmanship and spelling helped the hours to pass. Many sheets of paper did he fill with various exercises, and Mrs. Henry gave him her assistance in advice and corrections.
"I shall presently be in love with him myself," she told the Judge. "And it's time for you to become anxious.
"I am perfectly safe," he retorted. "There's only one woman for him any more."
"She is not good enough for him," declared Mrs. Henry. "But he'll never see that."
So the snow fell, the world froze, and the spelling-books and exercises went on. But this was not the only case of education which was progressing at the Sunk Creek Ranch while love was snowbound.
One morning Scipio le Moyne entered the Virginian's sitting room--that apartment where Dr. MacBride had wrestled with sin so courageously all night.
The Virginian sat at his desk. Open books lay around him; a half-finished piece of writing was beneath his fist; his fingers were coated with ink. Education enveloped him, it may be said. But there was none in his eye. That was upon the window, looking far across the cold plain.
The foreman did not move when Scipio came in, and this humorous spirit smiled to himself. "It's Bear Creek he's havin' a vision of," he concluded. But he knew instantly that this was not so. The Virginian was looking at something real, and Scipio went to the window to see for himself.
"Well," he said, having seen, "when is he going to leave us?
The foreman continued looking at two horsemen riding together. Their shapes, small in the distance, showed black against the universal whiteness.
"When d' yu' figure he'll leave us?" repeated Scipio.
"He," murmured the Virginian, always watching the distant horsemen; and again, "he."
Scipio sprawled down, familiarly, across a chair. He and the Virginian had come to know each other very well since that first meeting at Medora. They were birds many of whose feathers were the same, and the Virginian often talked to Scipio without reserve. Consequently, Scipio now understood those two syllables that the Virginian had pronounced precisely as though the sentences which lay between them had been fully expressed.
"Hm," he remarked. "Well, one will be a gain, and the other won't be no loss."
"Poor Shorty!" said the Virginian. "Poor fool!"
Scipio was less compassionate. "No," he persisted, "I ain't sorry for him. Any man old enough to have hair on his face ought to see through Trampas."
The Virginian looked out of the window again, and watched Shorty and Trampas as they rode in the distance. "Shorty is kind to animals," he said. "He has gentled that hawss Pedro he bought with his first money. Gentled him wonderful. When a man is kind to dumb animals, I always say he had got some good in him."
"Yes," Scipio reluctantly admitted. "Yes. But I always did hate a fool."
"This hyeh is a mighty cruel country," pursued the Virginian. "To animals that is. Think of it! Think what we do to hundreds an' thousands of little calves! Throw 'em down, brand 'em, cut 'em, ear mark 'em, turn 'em loose, and on to the next. It has got to be, of course. But I say this. If a man can go jammin' hot irons on to little calves and slicin' pieces off 'em with his knife, and live along, keepin' a kindness for animals in his heart, he has got some good in him. And that's what Shorty has got. But he is lettin' Trampas get a hold of him, and both of them will leave us." And the Virginian looked out across the huge winter whiteness again. But the riders had now vanished behind some foothills.
Scipio sat silent. He had never put these thoughts about men and animals to himself, and when they were put to him, he saw that they were true.
"Queer," he observed finally.
"Nothing's queer," stated the Virginian, "except marriage and lightning. Them two occurrences can still give me a sensation of surprise."
"All the same it is queer," Scipio insisted.
"Well, let her go at me."
"Why, Trampas. He done you dirt. You pass that over. You could have fired him, but you let him stay and keep his job. That's goodness. And badness is resultin' from it, straight. Badness right from goodness."
"You're off the trail a whole lot," said the Virginian
"Which side am I off, then?" "North, south, east, and west. First point. I didn't expect to do Trampas any good by not killin' him, which I came pretty near doin' three times. Nor I didn't expect to do Trampas any good by lettin' him keep his job. But I am foreman of this ranch. And I can sit and tell all men to their face: 'I was above that meanness.' Point two: it ain't any GOODNESS, it is TRAMPAS that badness has resulted from. Put him anywhere and it will be the same. Put him under my eye, and I can follow his moves a little, anyway. You have noticed, maybe, that since you and I run on to that dead Polled Angus cow, that was still warm when we got to her, we have found no more cows dead of sudden death. We came mighty close to catchin' whoever it was that killed that cow and ran her calf off to his own bunch. He wasn't ten minutes ahead of us. We can prove nothin'; and he knows that just as well as we do. But our cows have all quit dyin' of sudden death. And Trampas he's gettin' ready for a change of residence. As soon as all the outfits begin hirin' new hands in the spring, Trampas will leave us and take a job with some of them. And maybe our cows'll commence gettin' killed again, and we'll have to take steps that will be more emphatic--maybe."
Scipio meditated. "I wonder what killin' a man feels like?" he said.
"Why, nothing to bother yu'--when he'd ought to have been killed. Next point: Trampas he'll take Shorty with him, which is certainly bad for Shorty. But it's me that has kept Shorty out of harm's way this long. If I had fired Trampas, he'd have worked Shorty into dissatisfaction that much sooner."
Scipio meditated again. "I knowed Trampas would pull his freight," he said. "But I didn't think of Shorty. What makes you think it?"
"He asked me for a raise."
"He ain't worth the pay he's getting now.'
"Trampas has told him different."
"When a man ain't got no ideas of his own," said Scipio, "he'd ought to be kind o' careful who he borrows 'em from."
"That's mighty correct," said the Virginian. "Poor Shorty! He has told me about his life. It is sorrowful. And he will never get wise. It was too late for him to get wise when he was born. D' yu' know why he's after higher wages? He sends most all his money East."
"I don't see what Trampas wants him for," said Scipio.
"Oh, a handy tool some day."
"Not very handy," said Scipio.
"Well, Trampas is aimin' to train him. Yu' see, supposin' yu' were figuring to turn professional thief--yu'd be lookin' around for a nice young trustful accomplice to take all the punishment and let you take the rest."
"No such thing!" cried Scipio, angrily. "I'm no shirker." And then, perceiving the Virginian's expression, he broke out laughing. "Well," he exclaimed, "yu' fooled me that time."
"Looks that way. But I do mean it about Trampas."
Presently Scipio rose, and noticed the half-finished exercise upon the Virginian's desk. "Trampas is a rolling stone," he said.
"A rolling piece of mud," corrected the Virginian.
"Mud! That's right. I'm a rolling stone. Sometimes I'd most like to quit being."
"That's easy done," said the Virginian.
"No doubt, when yu've found the moss yu' want to gather." As Scipio glanced at the school books again, a sparkle lurked in his bleached blue eye. "I can cipher some," he said. "But I expect I've got my own notions about spelling."
"I retain a few private ideas that way myself," remarked the Virginian, innocently; and Scipio's sparkle gathered light.
"As to my geography," he pursued, "that's away out loose in the brush. Is Bennington the capital of Vermont? And how d' yu' spell bridegroom?"
"Last point!" shouted the Virginian, letting a book fly after him: "don't let badness and goodness worry yu', for yu'll never be a judge of them."
But Scipio had dodged the book, and was gone. As he went his way, he said to himself, "All the same, it must pay to fall regular in love." At the bunk house that afternoon it was observed that he was unusually silent.His exit from the foreman's cabin had let in a breath of winter so chill that the Virginian went to see his thermometer, a Christmas present from Mrs. Henry. It registered twenty below zero. After reviving the fire to a white blaze, the foreman sat thinking over the story of Shorty: what its useless, feeble past had been; what would be its useless, feeble future. He shook his head over the sombre question, Was there any way out for Shorty? "It may be," he reflected, "that them whose pleasure brings yu' into this world owes yu' a living. But that don't make the world responsible. The world did not beget you. I reckon man helps them that help themselves. As for the universe, it looks like it did too wholesale a business to turn out an article up to standard every clip. Yes, it is sorrowful. For Shorty is kind to his hawss."
In the evening the Virginian brought Shorty into his room. He usually knew what he had to say, usually found it easy to arrange his thoughts; and after such arranging the words came of themselves. But as he looked at Shorty, this did not happen to him. There was not a line of badness in the face; yet also there was not a line of strength; no promise in eye, or nose, or chin; the whole thing melted to a stubby, featureless mediocrity. It was a countenance like thousands; and hopelessness filled the Virginian as he looked at this lost dog, and his dull, wistful eyes.
But some beginning must be made.
"I wonder what the thermometer has got to be," he said. "Yu' can see it, if yu'll hold the lamp to that right side of the window."
Shorty held the lamp. "I never used any," he said, looking out at the instrument, nevertheless.
The Virginian had forgotten that Shorty could not read. So he looked out of the window himself, and found that it was twenty-two below zero. "This is pretty good tobacco," he remarked; and Shorty helped himself, and filled his pipe.
"I had to rub my left ear with snow to-day," said he. "I was just in time."
"I thought it looked pretty freezy out where yu' was riding," said the foreman.
The lost dog's eyes showed plain astonishment. "We didn't see you out there," said he.
"Well," said the foreman, "it'll soon not be freezing any more; and then we'll all be warm enough with work. Everybody will be working all over the range. And I wish I knew somebody that had a lot of stable work to be attended to. I cert'nly do for your sake."
"Why?" said Shorty. "Because it's the right kind of a job for you."
"I can make more--" began Shorty, and stopped.
"There is a time coming," said the Virginian, "when I'll want somebody that knows how to get the friendship of hawsses. I'll want him to handle some special hawsses the Judge has plans about. Judge Henry would pay fifty a month for that."
"I can make more," said Shorty, this time with stubbornness.
"Well, yes. Sometimes a man can--when he's not worth it, I mean. But it don't generally last."
Shorty was silent."I used to make more myself," said the Virginian.
"You're making a lot more now," said Shorty.
"Oh, yes. But I mean when I was fooling around the earth, jumping from job to job, and helling all over town between whiles. I was not worth fifty a month then, nor twenty-five. But there was nights I made a heap more at cyards."
Shorty's eyes grew large.
"And then, bang! it was gone with treatin' the men and the girls."
"I don't always--" said Shorty, and stopped again.
The Virginian knew that he was thinking about the money he sent East. "After a while," he continued, "I noticed a right strange fact. The money I made easy that I WASN'T worth, it went like it came. I strained myself none gettin' or spendin' it. But the money I made hard that I WAS worth, why I began to feel right careful about that. And now I have got savings stowed away. If once yu' could know how good that feels--"
"So I would know," said Shorty, "with your luck."
"What's my luck?" said the Virginian, sternly.
"Well, if I had took up land along a creek that never goes dry and proved upon it like you have, and if I had saw that land raise its value on me with me lifting no finger--"
"Why did you lift no finger?" cut in the Virginian. "Who stopped yu' taking up land? Did it not stretch in front of yu', behind yu', all around yu', the biggest, baldest opportunity in sight? That was the time I lifted my finger; but yu' didn't."
Shorty stood stubborn.
"But never mind that," said the Virginian. "Take my land away to-morrow, and I'd still have my savings in bank. Because, you see, I had to work right hard gathering them in. I found out what I could do, and I settled down and did it. Now you can do that too. The only tough part is the finding out what you're good for. And for you, that is found. If you'll just decide to work at this thing you can do, and gentle those hawsses for the Judge, you'll be having savings in a bank yourself."
"I can make more," said the lost dog.
The Virginian was on the point of saying, "Then get out!" But instead, he spoke kindness to the end. "The weather is freezing yet," he said, "and it will be for a good long while. Take your time, and tell me if yu' change your mind."
After that Shorty returned to the bunk house, and the Virginian knew that the boy had learned his lesson of discontent from Trampas with a thoroughness past all unteaching. This petty triumph of evil seemed scarce of the size to count as any victory over the Virginian. But all men grasp at straws. Since that first moment, when in the Medicine Bow saloon the Virginian had shut the mouth of Trampas by a word, the man had been trying to get even without risk; and at each successive clash of his weapon with the Virginian's, he had merely met another public humiliation. Therefore, now at the Sunk Creek Ranch in these cold white days, a certain lurking insolence in his gait showed plainly his opinion that by disaffecting Shorty he had made some sort of reprisal.
Yes, he had poisoned the lost dog. In the springtime, when the neighboring ranches needed additional hands, it happened as the Virginian had foreseen,--Trampas departed to a "better job," as he took pains to say, and with him the docile Shorty rode away upon his horse Pedro.
Love now was not any longer snowbound. The mountain trails were open enough for the sure feet of love's steed--that horse called Monte. But duty blocked the path of love. Instead of turning his face to Bear Creek, the foreman had other journeys to make, full of heavy work, and watchfulness, and councils with the Judge. The cattle thieves were growing bold, and winter had scattered the cattle widely over the range. Therefore the Virginian, instead of going to see her, wrote a letter to his sweetheart. It was his first.