XXV. PROGRESS OF THE LOST DOG
It was not even an hour's visit that the Virginian was able to pay his lady love. But neither had he come a hundred miles to see her. The necessities of his wandering work had chanced to bring him close enough for a glimpse of her, and this glimpse he took, almost on the wing. For he had to rejoin a company of men at once.
"Yu' got my letter?" he said.
"Yesterday! I wrote it three weeks ago. Well, yu' got it. This cannot be the hour with you that I mentioned. That is coming, and maybe very soon.
She could say nothing. Relief she felt, and yet with it something like a pang.
"To-day does not count," he told her, "except that every time I see you counts with me. But this is not the hour that I mentioned."
What little else was said between them upon this early morning shall be told duly. For this visit in its own good time did count momentously, though both of them took it lightly while its fleeting minutes passed. He returned to her two volumes that she had lent him long ago and with Taylor he left a horse which he had brought for her to ride. As a good-by, he put a bunch of flowers in her hand. Then he was gone, and she watched him going by the thick bushes along the stream. They were pink with wild roses; and the meadow-larks, invisible in the grass, like hiding choristers, sent up across the empty miles of air their unexpected song. Earth and sky had been propitious, could he have stayed; and perhaps one portion of her heart had been propitious too. So, as he rode away on Monte, she watched him, half chilled by reason, half melted by passion, self-thwarted, self-accusing, unresolved. Therefore the days that came for her now were all of them unhappy ones, while for him they were filled with work well done and with changeless longing.
One day it seemed as if a lull was coming, a pause in which he could at last attain that hour with her. He left the camp and turned his face toward Bear Creek. The way led him along Butte Creek. Across the stream lay Balaam's large ranch; and presently on the other bank he saw Balaam himself, and reined in Monte for a moment to watch what Balaam was doing.
"That's what I've heard," he muttered to himself. For Balaam had led some horses to the water, and was lashing them heavily because they would not drink. He looked at this spectacle so intently that he did not see Shorty approaching along the trail.
"Morning," said Shorty to him, with some constraint.
But the Virginian gave him a pleasant greeting, "I was afraid I'd not catch you so quick," said Shorty. "This is for you." He handed his recent foreman a letter of much battered appearance. It was from the Judge. It had not come straight, but very gradually, in the pockets of three successive cow-punchers. As the Virginian glanced over it and saw that the enclosure it contained was for Balaam, his heart fell. Here were new orders for him, and he could not go to see his sweetheart.
"Hello, Shorty!" said Balaam, from over the creek. To the Virginian he gave a slight nod. He did not know him, although he knew well enough who he was.
"Hyeh's a letter from Judge Henry for yu'" said the Virginian, and he crossed the creek.
Many weeks before, in the early spring, Balaam had borrowed two horses from the Judge, promising to return them at once. But the Judge, of course, wrote very civilly. He hoped that "this dunning reminder" might be excused. As Balaam read the reminder, he wished that he had sent the horses before. The Judge was a greater man than he in the Territory. Balaam could not but excuse the "dunning reminder,"--but he was ready to be disagreeable to somebody at once.
"Well," he said, musing aloud in his annoyance, "Judge Henry wants them by the 30th. Well, this is the 24th, and time enough yet."
"This is the 27th," said the Virginian, briefly.
That made a difference! Not so easy to reach Sunk Creek in good order by the 30th! Balaam had drifted three sunrises behind the progress of the month. Days look alike, and often lose their very names in the quiet depths of Cattle Land. The horses were not even here at the ranch. Balaam was ready to be very disagreeable now. Suddenly he perceived the date of the Judge's letter. He held it out to the Virginian, and struck the paper.
"What's your idea in bringing this here two weeks late?" he said.
Now, when he had struck that paper, Shorty looked at the Virginian. But nothing happened beyond a certain change of light in the Southerner's eyes. And when the Southerner spoke, it was with his usual gentleness and civility. He explained that the letter had been put in his hands just now by Shorty.
"Oh," said Balaam. He looked at Shorty. How had he come to be a messenger? "You working for the Sunk Creek outfit again?" said he.
"No," said Shorty.
Balaam turned to the Virginian again. "How do you expect me to get those horses to Sunk Creek by the 30th?"
The Virginian levelled a lazy eye on Balaam. "I ain' doin' any expecting," said he. His native dialect was on top to-day. "The Judge has friends goin' to arrive from New Yawk for a trip across the Basin," he added. "The hawsses are for them."
Balaam grunted with displeasure, and thought of the sixty or seventy days since he had told the Judge he would return the horses at once. He looked across at Shorty seated in the shade, and through his uneasy thoughts his instinct irrelevantly noted what a good pony the youth rode. It was the same animal he had seen once or twice before. But something must be done. The Judge's horses were far out on the big range, and must be found and driven in, which would take certainly the rest of this day, possibly part of the next.
Balaam called to one of his men and gave some sharp orders, emphasizing details, and enjoining haste, while the Virginian leaned slightly against his horse, with one arm over the saddle, hearing and understanding, but not smiling outwardly. The man departed to saddle up for his search on the big range, and Balaam resumed the unhitching of his team.
"So you're not working for the Sunk Creek outfit now?" he inquired of Shorty. He ignored the Virginian. "Working for the Goose Egg?"
"No," said Shorty.
"Sand Hill outfit, then?"
"No," said Shorty.
Balaam grinned. He noticed how Shorty's yellow hair stuck through a hole in his hat, and how old and battered were Shorty's overalls. Shorty had been glad to take a little accidental pay for becoming the bearer of the letter which he had delivered to the Virginian. But even that sum was no longer in his possession. He had passed through Drybone on his way, and at Drybone there had been a game of poker. Shorty's money was now in the pocket of Trampas. But he had one valuable possession in the world left to him, and that was his horse Pedro.
"Good pony of yours," said Balaam to him now, from across Butte Creek. Then he struck his own horse in the jaw because he held back from coming to the water as the other had done.
"Your trace ain't unhitched," commented the Virginian, pointing.
Balaam loosed the strap he had forgotten, and cut the horse again for consistency's sake. The animal, bewildered, now came down to the water, with its head in the air, and snuffing as it took short, nervous steps.
The Virginian looked on at this, silent and sombre. He could
scarcely interfere between another man and his own beast. Neither
he nor Balaam was among those who say their prayers. Yet in this
omission they were not equal. A half-great poet once had a wholly
great day, and in that great day he was able to write a poem that
has lived and become, with many, a household word. He called it
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And it is rich with many lines
that possess the memory; but these are the golden ones:
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."
These lines are the pure gold. They are good to teach children; because after the children come to be men, they may believe at least some part of them still. The Virginian did not know them,--but his heart had taught him many things. I doubt if Balaam knew them either. But on him they would have been as pearls to swine.
"So you've quit the round-up?" he resumed to Shorty.
Shorty nodded and looked sidewise at the Virginian.
For the Virginian knew that he had been turned off for going to sleep while night-herding.
Then Balaam threw another glance on Pedro the horse.
"Hello, Shorty!" he called out, for the boy was departing. "Don't you like dinner any more? It's ready about now."
Shorty forded the creek and slung his saddle off, and on invitation turned Pedro, his buckskin pony, into Balaam's pasture. This was green, the rest of the wide world being yellow, except only where Butte Creek, with its bordering cottonwoods, coiled away into the desert distance like a green snake without end. The Virginian also turned his horse into the pasture. He must stay at the ranch till the Judge's horses should be found.
"Mrs. Balaam's East yet," said her lord, leading the way to his dining room.
He wanted Shorty to dine with him, and could not exclude the Virginian, much as he should have enjoyed this.
"See any Indians?" he enquired.
"Na-a!" said Shorty, in disdain of recent rumors.
"They're headin' the other way," observed the Virginian. "Bow Laig Range is where they was repawted."
"What business have they got off the reservation, I'd like to know," said the ranchman_" Bow Leg, or anywhere?"
"Oh, it's just a hunt, and a kind of visitin' their friends on the South Reservation," Shorty explained. "Squaws along and all."
"Well, if the folks at Washington don't keep squaws and all where they belong," said Balaam, in a rage, "the folks in Wyoming Territory 'ill do a little job that way themselves."
"There's a petition out," said Shorty. "Paper's goin' East with a lot of names to it. But they ain't no harm, them Indians ain't."
"No harm?" rasped out Balaam. "Was it white men druv off the O. C. yearlings?"
Balaam's Eastern grammar was sometimes at the mercy of his Western feelings. The thought of the perennial stultification of Indian affairs at Washington, whether by politician or philanthropist, was always sure to arouse him. He walked impatiently about while he spoke, and halted impatiently at the window. Out in the world the unclouded day was shining, and Balaam's eye travelled across the plains to where a blue line, faint and pale, lay along the end of the vast yellow distance. That was the beginning of the Bow Leg Mountains. Somewhere over there were the red men, ranging in unfrequented depths of rock and pine--their forbidden ground.
Dinner was ready, and they sat down.
"And I suppose," Balaam continued, still hot on the subject, "you'd claim Indians object to killing a white man when they run on to him good and far from human help? These peaceable Indians are just the worst in the business."
"That's so," assented the easy-opinioned Shorty, exactly as if he had always maintained this view. "Chap started for Sunk Creek three weeks ago. Trapper he was; old like, with a red shirt. One of his horses come into the round-up Toosday. Man ain't been heard from." He ate in silence for a while, evidently brooding in his childlike mind. Then he said, querulously, "I'd sooner trust one of them Indians than I would Trampas."
Balaam slanted his fat bullet head far to one side, and laying his spoon down (he had opened some canned grapes) laughed steadily at his guest with a harsh relish of irony.
The guest ate a grape, and perceiving he was seen through, smiled back rather miserably.
"Say, Shorty," said Balaam, his head still slanted over, "what's the figures of your bank balance just now?"
"I ain't usin' banks," murmured the youth.
Balaam put some more grapes on Shorty's plate, and drawing a cigar from his waistcoat, sent it rolling to his guest.
"Matches are behind you," he added. He gave a cigar to the Virginian as an afterthought, but to his disgust, the Southerner put it in his pocket and lighted a pipe.
Balaam accompanied his guest, Shorty, when he went to the pasture to saddle up and depart. "Got a rope?" he asked the guest, as they lifted down the bars.
"Don't need to rope him. I can walk right up to Pedro. You stay back."
Hiding his bridle behind him, Shorty walked to the river-bank, where the-pony was switching his long tail in the shade; and speaking persuasively to him, he came nearer, till he laid his hand on Pedro's dusky mane, which was many shades darker than his hide. He turned expectantly, and his master came up to his expectations with a piece of bread.
"Eats that, does he?" said Balaam, over the bars.
"Likes the salt," said Shorty. "Now, n-n-ow, here! Yu' don't guess yu'll be bridled, don't you? Open your teeth! Yu'd like to play yu' was nobody's horse and live private? Or maybe yu'd prefer ownin' a saloon?"
Pedro evidently enjoyed this talk, and the dodging he made about the bit. Once fairly in his mouth, he accepted the inevitable, and followed Shorty to the bars. Then Shorty turned and extended his hand.
"Shake!" he said to his pony, who lifted his forefoot quietly and put it in his master's hand. Then the master tickled his nose, and he wrinkled it and flattened his ears, pretending to bite. His face wore an expression of knowing relish over this performance. "Now the other hoof," said Shorty; and the horse and master shook hands with their left. "I learned him that," said the cowboy, with pride and affection. "Say, Pede," he continued, in Pedro's ear, "ain't yu' the best little horse in the country? What? Here, now! Keep out of that, you dead-beat! There ain't no more bread." He pinched the pony's nose, one quarter of which was wedged into his pocket.
"Quite a lady's little pet!" said Balaam, with the rasp in his voice. "Pity this isn't New York, now, where there's a big market for harmless horses. Gee-gees, the children call them."
"He ain't no gee-gee," said Shorty, offended. "He'll beat any cow-pony workin' you've got. Yu' can turn him on a half-dollar. Don't need to touch the reins. Hang 'em on one finger and swing your body, and he'll turn."
Balaam knew this, and he knew that the pony was only a four-year-old. "Well," he said, "Drybone's had no circus this season. Maybe they'd buy tickets to see Pedro. He's good for that, anyway.
Shorty became gloomy. The Virginian was grimly smoking. Here was something else going on not to his taste, but none of his business.
"Try a circus," persisted Balaam. "Alter your plans for spending cash in town, and make a little money instead."
Shorty having no plans to alter and no cash to spend, grew still more gloomy.
"What'll you take for that pony?" said Balaam.
Shorty spoke up instantly. "A hundred dollars couldn't buy that piece of stale mud off his back," he asserted, looking off into the sky grandiosely.
But Balaam looked at Shorty, "You keep the mud," he said, "and I'll give you thirty dollars for the horse."
Shorty did a little professional laughing, and began to walk toward his saddle.
"Give you thirty dollars," repeated Balaam, picking a stone up and slinging it into the river.
"How far do yu' call it to Drybone?" Shorty remarked, stooping to investigate the bucking-strap on his saddle--a superfluous performance, for Pedro never bucked.
"You won't have to walk," said Balaam. "Stay all night, and I'll send you over comfortably in the morning, when the wagon goes for the mail."
"Walk?" Shorty retorted. "Drybone's twenty-five miles. Pedro'll put me there in three hours and not know he done it." He lifted the saddle on the horse's back. "Come, Pedro," said he.
"Come, Pedro!" mocked Balaam.
There followed a little silence.
"No, sir," mumbled Shorty, with his head under Pedro's belly, busily cinching. "A hundred dollars is bottom figures."
Balaam, in his turn, now duly performed some professional laughing, which was noted by Shorty under the horse's belly. He stood up and squared round on Balaam. "Well, then," he said, what'll yu give for him?"
"Thirty dollars," said Balaam, looking far off into the sky, as Shorty had looked."Oh, come, now," expostulated Shorty.
It was he who now did the feeling for an offer and this was what Balaam liked to see. "Why yes," he said, "thirty," and looked surprised that he should have to mention the sum so often.
"I thought yu'd quit them first figures," said the cow-puncher, "for yu' can see I ain't goin' to look at em.
Balaam climbed on the fence and sat there "I'm not crying for your Pedro," he observed dispassionately. "Only it struck me you were dead broke, and wanted to raise cash and keep yourself going till you hunted up a job and could buy him back." He hooked his right thumb inside his waistcoat pocket. "But I'm not cryin' for him," he repeated. "He'd stay right here, of course. I wouldn't part with him. Why does he stand that way? Hello!" Balaam suddenly straightened himself, like a man who has made a discovery.
"Hello, what?" said Shorty, on the defensive.
Balaam was staring at Pedro with a judicial frown. Then he stuck out a finger at the horse, keeping the thumb hooked in his pocket. So meagre a gesture was felt by the ruffled Shorty to be no just way to point at Pedro. "What's the matter with that foreleg there?" said Balaam.
"Which? Nothin's the matter with it!" snapped Shorty.
Balaam climbed down from his fence and came over with elaborate deliberation. He passed his hand up and down the off foreleg. Then he spit slenderly. "Mm!" he said thoughtfully; and added, with a shade of sadness, "that's always to be expected when they're worked too young."
Shorty slid his hand slowly over the disputed leg. "What's to be expected?" he inquired--"that they'll eat hearty? Well, he does."
At this retort the Virginian permitted himself to laugh in audible sympathy.
"Sprung," continued Balaam, with a sigh. "Whirling round short when his bones were soft did that. Yes."
"Sprung!" Shorty said, with a bark of indignation. "Come on, Pede; you and me'll spring for town."
He caught the horn of the saddle, and as he swung into place the horse rushed away with him. "O-ee! yoi-yup, yup, yup!" sang Shorty, in the shrill cow dialect. He made Pedro play an exhibition game of speed, bringing him round close to Balaam in a wide circle, and then he vanished in dust down the left-bank trail.
Balaam looked after him and laughed harshly. He had seen trout dash about like that when the hook in their jaw first surprised them. He knew Shorty would show the pony off, and he knew Shorty's love for Pedro was not equal to his need of money. He called to one of his men, asked something about the dam at the mouth of the canyon, where the main irrigation ditch began, made a remark about the prolonged drought, and then walked to his dining-room door, where, as he expected, Shorty met him.
"Say," said the youth, "do you consider that's any way to talk about a good horse?"
"Any dude could see the leg's sprung," said Balaam. But he looked at Pedro's shoulder, which was well laid back; and he admired his points, dark in contrast with the buckskin, and also the width between the eyes.
"Now you know," whined Shorty, "that it ain't sprung any more than your leg's cork. If you mean the right leg ain't plumb straight, I can tell you he was born so. That don't make no difference, for it ain't weak. Try him onced. Just as sound and strong as iron. Never stumbles. And he don't never go to jumpin' with yu'. He's kind and he's smart." And the master petted his pony, who lifted a hoof for another handshake.
Of course Balaam had never thought the leg was sprung, and he now took on an unprejudiced air of wanting to believe Shorty's statements if he only could.
"Maybe there's two years' work left in that leg," he now observed.
"Better give your hawss away, Shorty," said the Virginian.
"Is this your deal, my friend?" inquired Balaam. And he slanted his bullet head at the Virginian.
"Give him away, Shorty," drawled the Southerner. "His laig is busted. Mr. Balaam says so."
Balaam's face grew evil with baffled fury. But the Virginian was gravely considering Pedro. He, too, was not pleased. But he could not interfere. Already he had overstepped the code in these matters. He would have dearly liked--for reasons good and bad, spite and mercy mingled--to have spoiled Balaam's market, to have offered a reasonable or even an unreasonable price for Pedro, and taken possession of the horse himself. But this might not be. In bets, in card games, in all horse transactions and other matters of similar business, a man must take care of himself, and wiser onlookers must suppress their wisdom and hold their peace.
That evening Shorty again had a cigar. He had parted with Pedro for forty dollars, a striped Mexican blanket, and a pair of spurs. Undressing over in the bunk house, he said to the Virginian, "I'll sure buy Pedro back off him just as soon as ever I rustle some cash." The Virginian grunted. He was thinking he should have to travel hard to get the horses to the Judge by the 30th; and below that thought lay his aching disappointment and his longing for Bear Creek.
In the early dawn Shorty sat up among his blankets on the floor of the bunk house and saw the various sleepers coiled or sprawled in their beds; their breathing had not yet grown restless at the nearing of day. He stepped to the door carefully, and saw the crowding blackbirds begin their walk and chatter in the mud of the littered and trodden corrals. From beyond among the cotton woods, came continually the smooth unemphatic sound of the doves answering each other invisibly; and against the empty ridge of the river-bluff lay the moon, no longer shining, for there was established a new light through the sky. Pedro stood in the pasture close to the bars. The cowboy slowly closed the door behind him, and sitting down on the step, drew his money out and idly handled it, taking no comfort just then from its possession. Then he put it back, and after dragging on his boots, crossed to the pasture, and held a last talk with his pony, brushing the cakes of mud from his hide where he had rolled, and passing a lingering hand over his mane. As the sounds of the morning came increasingly from tree and plain, Shorty glanced back to see that no one was yet out of the cabin, and then put his arms round the horse's neck, laying his head against him. For a moment the cowboy's insignificant face was exalted by the emotion he would never have let others see. He hugged tight this animal, who was dearer to his heart than anybody in the world.
"Good-by, Pedro," he said--"good-by." Pedro looked for bread.
"No," said his master, sorrowfully, "not any more. Yu' know well I'd give it yu' if I had it. You and me didn't figure on this, did we, Pedro? Good-by!"
He hugged his pony again, and got as far as the bars of the pasture, but returned once more. "Good-by, my little horse, my dear horse, my little, little Pedro," he said, as his tears wet the pony's neck. Then he wiped them with his hand, and got himself back to the bunk house. After breakfast he and his belongings departed to Drybone, and Pedro from his field calmly watched this departure; for horses must recognize even less than men the black corners that their destinies turn. The pony stopped feeding to look at the mail-wagon pass by; but the master sitting in the wagon forebore to turn his head.