Except for its chair and bed, the cabin was stripped almost bare. Amid its emptiness of dismantled shelves and walls and floor, only the tiny ancestress still hung in her place, last token of the home that had been. This miniature, tacked against the despoiled boards, and its descendant, the angry girl with her hand on an open box-lid, made a sort of couple in the loneliness: she on the wall sweet and serene, she by the box sweet and stormy. The picture was her final treasure waiting to be packed for the journey. In whatever room she had called her own since childhood, there it had also lived and looked at her, not quite familiar, not quite smiling, but in its prim colonial hues delicate as some pressed flower. Its pale oval, of color blue and rose and flaxen, in a battered, pretty gold frame, unconquerably pervaded any surroundings with a something like last year's lavender. Till yesterday a Crow Indian war-bonnet had hung next it, a sumptuous cascade of feathers; on the other side a bow with arrows had dangled; opposite had been the skin of a silver fox; over the door had spread the antlers of a black-tail deer; a bearskin stretched beneath it. Thus had the whole cosey log cabin been upholstered, lavish with trophies of the frontier; and yet it was in front of the miniature that the visitors used to stop.
Shining quietly now in the cabin's blackness this summer day, the heirloom was presiding until the end. And as Molly Wood's eyes fell upon her ancestress of Bennington, 1777, there flashed a spark of steel in them, alone here in the room that she was leaving forever. She was not going to teach school any more on Bear Creek, Wyoming; she was going home to Bennington, Vermont. When time came for school to open again, there should be a new schoolmarm.
This was the momentous result of that visit which the Virginian had paid her. He had told her that he was coming for his hour soon. From that hour she had decided to escape. She was running away from her own heart. She did not dare to trust herself face to face again with her potent, indomitable lover. She longed for him, and therefore she would never see him again. No great-aunt at Dunbarton, or anybody else that knew her and her family, should ever say that she had married below her station, had been an unworthy Stark! Accordingly, she had written to the Virginian, bidding him good-by, and wishing him everything in the world. As she happened to be aware that she was taking everything in the world away from him, this letter was not the most easy of letters to write. But she had made the language very kind. Yes; it was a thoroughly kind communication. And all because of that momentary visit, when he had brought back to her two novels, EMMA and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
"How do you like them?" she had then inquired; and he had smiled slowly at her. "You haven't read them!" she exclaimed.
"Are you going to tell me there has been no time?"
Then Molly had scolded her cow-puncher, and to this he had listened with pleasure undisguised, as indeed he listened to every word that she said.
"Why, it has come too late," he had told her when the scolding was over. "If I was one of your little scholars hyeh in Bear Creek schoolhouse, yu' could learn me to like such frillery I reckon. But I'm a mighty ignorant, growed-up man."
"So much the worse for you!" said Molly.
"No. I am pretty glad I am a man. Else I could not have learned the thing you have taught me."
But she shut her lips and looked away. On the desk was a letter written from Vermont. "If you don't tell me at once when you decide," had said the arch writer, "never hope to speak to me again. Mary Wood, seriously, I am suspicious. Why do you never mention him nowadays? How exciting to have you bring a live cow-boy to Bennington! We should all come to dinner. Though of course I understand now that many of them have excellent manners. But would he wear his pistol at table?" So the letter ran on. It recounted the latest home gossip and jokes. In answering it Molly Wood had taken no notice of its childish tone here and there.
"Hyeh's some of them cactus blossoms yu' wanted," said the Virginian. His voice recalled the girl with almost a start. "I've brought a good hawss I've gentled for yu', and Taylor'll keep him till I need him."
"Thank you so much! but I wish--"
"I reckon yu' can't stop me lendin' Taylor a hawss. And you cert'nly'll get sick schoolteachin' if yu' don't keep outdoors some. Goodby--till that next time."
"Yes; there's always a next time," she answered, as lightly as she could.
"There always will be. Don't yu' know that?"
She did not reply.
"I have discouraged spells," he pursued, "but I down them. For
I've told yu' you were going to love me. You are goin' to learn back the thing you have taught me. I'm riot askin' anything now; I don't want you to speak a word to me. But I'm never goin' to quit till 'next time' is no more, and it's 'all the time' for you and me."
With that he had ridden away, not even touching her hand. Long after he had gone she was still In her chair, her eyes lingering upon his flowers, those yellow cups of the prickly pear. At length she had risen impatiently, caught up the flowers, gone with them to the open window,-and then, after all, set them with pains in water.
But to-day Bear Creek was over. She was going home now. By the week's end she would be started. By the time the mail brought him her good-by letter she would be gone. She had acted.
To Bear Creek, the neighborly, the friendly, the not comprehending, this move had come unlooked for, and had brought regret. Only one hard word had been spoken to Molly, and that by her next-door neighbor and kindest friend. In Mrs. Taylor's house the girl had daily come and gone as a daughter, and that lady reached the subject thus:- "When I took Taylor," said she, sitting by as Robert Browning and Jane Austen were going into their box, "I married for love."
"Do you wish it had been money?" said Molly, stooping to her industries.
"You know both of us better than that, child."
"I know I've seen people at home who couldn't possibly have had any other reason. They seemed satisfied, too."
"Maybe the poor ignorant things were!"
"And so I have never been sure how I might choose."
"Yes, you are sure, deary. Don't you think I know you? And when it comes over Taylor once in a while, and he tells me I'm the best thing in his life, and I tell him he ain't merely the best thing but the only thing in mine,--him and the children,--why, we just agree we'd do it all over the same way if we had the chance."
Molly continued to be industrious.
"And that's why," said Mrs. Taylor, "I want every girl that's anything to me to know her luck when it comes. For I was that near telling Taylor I wouldn't!"
"If ever my luck comes," said Molly, with her back to her friend, "I shall say 'I will' at once."
"Then you'll say it at Bennington next week."
Molly wheeled round.
"Why, you surely will. Do you expect he's going to stay here, and you in Bennington?" And the campaigner sat back in her chair.
"He? Goodness! Who is he?"
"Child, child, you're talking cross to-day because you're at outs with yourself. You've been at outs ever since you took this idea of leaving the school and us and everything this needless way. You have not treated him right. And why, I can't make out to save me. What have you found out all of a sudden? If he was not good enough for you, I--But, oh, it's a prime one you're losing, Molly. When a man like that stays faithful to a girl 'spite all the chances he gets, her luck is come."
"Oh, my luck! People have different notions of luck."
"He has been very kind."
"Kind!" And now without further simmering, Mrs. Taylor's wrath boiled up and poured copiously over Molly Wood. "Kind! There's a word you shouldn't use, my dear. No doubt you can spell it. But more than its spelling I guess you don't know. The children can learn what it means from some of the rest of us folks that don't spell so correct, maybe."
"Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Taylor--"
"I can't wait, deary. Since the roughness looks bigger to you than the diamond, you had better go back to Vermont. I expect you'll find better grammar there, deary."
The good dame stalked out, and across to her own cabin, and left the angry girl among her boxes. It was in vain she fell to work upon them. Presently something had to be done over again, and when it was the box held several chattels less than before the readjustment. She played a sort of desperate dominos to fit these objects in the space, but here were a paper-weight, a portfolio, with two wretched volumes that no chink would harbor; and letting them fall all at once, she straightened herself, still stormy with revolt, eyes and cheeks still hot from the sting of long-parried truth. There, on her wall still, was the miniature, the little silent ancestress; and upon this face the girl's glance rested. It was as if she appealed to Grandmother Stark for support and comfort across the hundred years which lay between them. So the flaxen girl on the wall and she among the boxes stood a moment face to face in seeming communion, and then the descendant turned again to her work. But after a desultory touch here and there she drew a long breath and walked to the open door. What use was in finishing to-day, when she had nearly a week? This first spurt of toil had swept the cabin bare of all indwelling charm, and its look was chill. Across the lane his horse, the one he had "gentled" for her, was grazing idly. She walked there and caught him, and led him to her gate. Mrs. Taylor saw her go in, and soon come out in riding-dress; and she watched the girl throw the saddle on with quick ease--the ease he had taught her. Mrs. Taylor also saw the sharp cut she gave the horse, and laughed grimly to herself in her window as horse and rider galloped into the beautiful sunny loneliness.
To the punished animal this switching was new! and at its third repetition he turned his head in surprise, but was no more heeded than were the bluffs and flowers where he was taking his own undirected choice of way. He carried her over ground she knew by heart--Corncliff Mesa, Crowheart Butte, Westfall's Crossing, Upper Canyon; open land and woodland, pines and sage-brush, all silent and grave and lustrous in the sunshine. Once and again a ranchman greeted her, and wondered if she had forgotten who he was; once she passed some cow-punchers with a small herd of steers, and they stared after her too. Bear Creek narrowed, its mountain-sides drew near, its little falls began to rush white in midday shadow, and the horse suddenly pricked his ears. Unguided, he was taking this advantage to go home. Though he had made but little way--a mere beginning yet--on this trail over to Sunk Creek, here was already a Sunk Creek friend whinnying good day to him, so he whinnied back and quickened his pace, and Molly started to life. What was Monte doing here? She saw the black horse she knew also, saddled, with reins dragging on the trail as the rider had dropped them to dismount. A cold spring bubbled out beyond the next rock, and she knew her lover's horse was waiting for him while he drank. She pulled at the reins, but loosed them, for to turn and escape now was ridiculous; and riding boldly round the rock, she came upon him by the spring. One of his arms hung up to its elbow in the pool, the other was crooked beside his head, but the face was sunk downward against the shelving rock, so that she saw only his black, tangled hair. As her horse snorted and tossed his head she looked swiftly at Monte, as if to question him. Seeing now the sweat matted on his coat, and noting the white rim of his eye, she sprang and ran to the motionless figure. A patch of blood at his shoulder behind stained the soft flannel shirt, spreading down beneath his belt, and the man's whole strong body lay slack and pitifully helpless.
She touched the hand beside his head, but it seemed neither warm nor cold to her; she felt for the pulse, as nearly as she could remember the doctors did, but could not tell whether she imagined or not that it was still; twice with painful care her fingers sought and waited for the beat, and her face seemed like one of listening. She leaned down and lifted his other arm and hand from the water, and as their ice-coldness reached her senses, clearly she saw the patch near the shoulder she had moved grow wet with new blood, and at that sight she grasped at the stones upon which she herself now sank. She held tight by two rocks, sitting straight beside him, staring, and murmuring aloud, "I must not faint; I will not faint;" and the standing horses looked at her, pricking their ears.
In this cup-like spread of the ravine the sun shone warmly down, the tall red cliff was warm, the pines were a warm film and filter of green; outside the shade across Bear Creek rose the steep, soft, open yellow hill, warm and high to the blue, and Bear Creek tumbled upon its sunsparkling stones. The two horses on the margin trail still looked at the spring and trees, where sat the neat flaxen girl so rigid by the slack prone body in its flannel shirt and leathern chaps. Suddenly her face livened. "But the blood ran!" she exclaimed, as if to the horses, her companions in this. She moved to him, and put her hand in through his shirt against his heart.
Next moment she had sprung up and was at his saddle, searching, then swiftly went on to her own and got her small flask and was back beside him. Here was the cold water he had sought, and she put it against his forehead and drenched the wounded shoulder with it. Three times she tried to move him, so he might lie more easy, but his dead weight was too much, and desisting, she sat close and raised his head to let it rest against her. Thus she saw the blood that was running from in front of the shoulder also; but she said no more about fainting. She tore strips from her dress and soaked them, keeping them cold and wet upon both openings of his wound, and she drew her pocket-knife out and cut his shirt away from the place. As she continually rinsed and cleaned it, she watched his eyelashes, long and soft and thick, but they did not stir. Again she tried the flask, but failed from being still too gentle, and her searching eyes fell upon ashes near the pool. Still undispersed by the weather lay the small charred ends of a fire he and she had made once here together, to boil coffee and fry trout. She built another fire now, and when the flames were going well, filled her flask-cup from the spring and set it to heat. Meanwhile, she returned to nurse his head and wound. Her cold water had stopped the bleeding. Then she poured her brandy in the steaming cup, and, made rough by her desperate helplessness, forced some between his lips and teeth.
Instantly, almost, she felt the tremble of life creeping back, and as his deep eyes opened upon her she sat still and mute. But the gaze seemed luminous with an unnoting calm, and she wondered if perhaps he could not recognize her; she watched this internal clearness of his vision, scarcely daring to breathe, until presently he began to speak, with the same profound and clear impersonality sounding in his slowly uttered words.
"I thought they had found me. I expected they were going to kill me." He stopped, and she gave him more of the hot drink, which he took, still lying and looking at her as if the present did not reach his senses. "I knew hands were touching me. I reckon I was not dead. I knew about them soon as they began, only I could not interfere." He waited again. "It is mighty strange where I have been. No. Mighty natural." Then he went back into his revery, and lay with his eyes still full open upon her where she sat motionless.
She began to feel a greater awe in this living presence than when it had been his body with an ice-cold hand; and she quietly spoke his name, venturing scarcely more than a whisper.
At this, some nearer thing wakened in his look. "But it was you all along," he resumed. "It is you now. You must not stay--" Weakness overcame him, and his eyes closed. She sat ministering to him, and when he roused again, he began anxiously at once: "You must not stay. They would get you, too."
She glanced at him with a sort of fierceness, then reached for his pistol, in which was nothing but blackened empty cartridges. She threw these out and drew six from his belt, loaded the weapon, and snapped shut its hinge.
"Please take it," he said, more anxious and more himself. "I ain't worth tryin' to keep. Look at me!"
"Are you giving up?" she inquired, trying to put scorn in her tone. Then she seated herself.
"Where is the sense in both of us--"
"You had better save your strength," she interrupted.
He tried to sit up.
"Lie down!" she ordered.
He sank obediently, and began to smile.
When she saw that, she smiled too, and unexpectedly took his hand. "Listen, friend," said she. "Nobody shall get you, and nobody shall get me. Now take some more brandy."
"It must be noon," said the cow-puncher, when she had drawn her hand away from him. "I remember it was dark when--when--when I can remember. I reckon they were scared to follow me in so close to settlers. Else they would have been here."
"You must rest," she observed.
She broke the soft ends of some evergreen, and putting them beneath his head, went to the horses, loosened the cinches, took off the bridles, led them to drink, and picketed them to feed. Further still, to leave nothing undone which she could herself manage, she took the horses' saddles off to refold the blankets when the time should come, and meanwhile brought them for him. But he put them away from him. He was sitting up against a rock, stronger evidently, and asking for cold water. His head was fire-hot, and the paleness beneath his swarthy skin had changed to a deepening flush.
"Only five miles!" she said to him, bathing his head.
"Yes. I must hold it steady," he answered, waving his hand at the cliff.
She told him to try and keep it steady until they got home.
"Yes," he repeated. "Only five miles. But it's fightin' to turn around." Half aware that he was becoming light-headed, he looked from the rock to her and from her to the rock with dilating eyes.
"We can hold it together," she said. "You must get on your horse." She took his handkerchief from round his neck, knotting it with her own, and to make more bandage she ran to the roll of clothes behind his saddle and tore in halves a clean shirt. A handkerchief fell from it, which she seized also, and opening, saw her own initials by the hem. Then she remembered: she saw again their first meeting, the swollen river, the overset stage, the unknown horseman who carried her to the bank on his saddle and went away unthanked--her whole first adventure on that first day of her coming to this new country--and now she knew how her long-forgotten handkerchief had gone that day. She refolded it gently and put it back in his bundle, for there was enough bandage without it. She said not a word to him, and he placed a wrong meaning upon the look which she gave him as she returned to bind his shoulder.
"It don't hurt so much," he assured her (though extreme pain was clearing his head for the moment, and he had been able to hold the cliff from turning). "Yu' must not squander your pity."
"Do not squander your strength," said she.
"Oh, I could put up a pretty good fight now!" But he tottered in showing her how strong he was, and she told him that, after all, he was a child still.
"Yes," he slowly said, looking after her as she went to bring his horse, "the same child that wanted to touch the moon, I guess." And during the slow climb down into the saddle from a rock to which she helped him he said, "You have got to be the man all through this mess."
She saw his teeth clinched and his drooping muscles compelled by will; and as he rode and she walked to lend him support, leading her horse by a backward-stretched left hand, she counted off the distance to him continually--the increasing gain, the lessening road, the landmarks nearing and dropping behind; here was the tree with the wasp-nest gone; now the burned cabin was passed; now the cottonwoods at the ford were in sight. He was silent, and held to the saddlehorn, leaning more and more against his two hands clasped over it; and just after they had made the crossing he fell, without a sod slipping to the grass, and his descent broken by her. But it started the blood a little, and she dared not leave him to seek help. She gave him the last of the flask and all the water he craved.
Revived, he managed to smile. "Yu' see, I ain't worth keeping."
"It's only a mile," said she. So she found a log, a fallen trunk, and he crawled to that, and from there crawled to his saddle, and she marched on with him, talking, bidding him note the steps accomplished. For the next half-mile they went thus, the silent man clinched on the horse, and by his side the girl walking and cheering him forward, when suddenly he began to speak:- "I will say good-by to you now, ma'am."
She did not understand, at first, the significance of this.
"He is getting away," pursued the Virginian. "I must ask you to excuse me, ma'am."
It was a long while since her lord had addressed her as "ma'am." As she looked at him in growing apprehension, he turned Monte and would have ridden away, but she caught the bridle.
"You must take me home," said she, with ready inspiration. "I am afraid of the Indians."
"Why, you--why, they've all gone. There he goes. Ma'am--that hawss--"
"No," said she, holding firmly his rein and quickening her step. "A gentleman does not invite a lady to go out riding and leave her."
His eyes lost their purpose. "I'll cert'nly take you home. That sorrel has gone in there by the wallow, and Judge Henry will understand." With his eyes watching imaginary objects, he rode and rambled and it was now the girl who was silent, except to keep his mind from its half-fixed idea of the sorrel. As he grew more fluent she hastened still more, listening to head off that notion of return, skilfully inventing questions to engage him, so that when she brought him to her gate she held him in a manner subjected, answering faithfully the shrewd unrealities which she devised, whatever makeshifts she could summon to her mind; and next she had got him inside her dwelling and set him down docile, but now completely wandering; and then--no help was at hand, even here. She had made sure of aid from next door, and there she hastened, to find the Taylor's cabin locked and silent; and this meant that parents and children were gone to drive; nor might she be luckier at her next nearest neighbors', should she travel the intervening mile to fetch them. With a mind jostled once more into uncertainty, she returned to her room, and saw a change in him already. Illness had stridden upon him; his face was not as she had left it, and the whole body, the splendid supple horseman, showed sickness in every line and limb, its spurs and pistol and bold leather chaps a mockery of trappings. She looked at him, and decision came back to her, clear and steady. She supported him over to her bed and laid him on it. His head sank flat, and his loose, nerveless arms stayed as she left them. Then among her packing-boxes and beneath the little miniature, blue and flaxen and gold upon its lonely wall, she undressed him. He was cold, and she covered him to the face, and arranged the pillow, and got from its box her scarlet and black Navajo blanket and spread it over him. There was no more that she could do, and she sat down by him to wait. Among the many and many things that came into her mind was a word he said to her lightly a long while ago. "Cow-punchers do not live long enough to get old," he had told her. And now she looked at the head upon the pillow, grave and strong, but still the head of splendid, unworn youth.
At the distant jingle of the wagon in the lane she was out, and had met her returning neighbors midway. They heard her with amazement, and came in haste to the bedside; then Taylor departed to spread news of the Indians and bring the doctor, twenty-five miles away. The two women friends stood alone again, as they had stood in the morning when anger had been between them.
"Kiss me, deary," said Mrs. Taylor. "Now I will look after him--and you'll need some looking after yourself."
But on returning from her cabin with what store she possessed of lint and stimulants, she encountered a rebel, independent as ever. Molly would hear no talk about saving her strength, would not be in any room but this one until the doctor should arrive; then perhaps it would be time to think about resting. So together the dame and the girl rinsed the man's wound and wrapped him in clean things, and did all the little that they knew--which was, in truth, the very thing needed. Then they sat watching him toss and mutter. It was no longer upon Indians or the sorrel horse that his talk seemed to run, or anything recent, apparently, always excepting his work. This flowingly merged with whatever scene he was inventing or living again, and he wandered unendingly in that incompatible world we dream in. Through the medley of events and names, often thickly spoken, but rising at times to grotesque coherence, the listeners now and then could piece out the reference from their own knowledge. "Monte," for example, continually addressed, and Molly heard her own name, but invariably as "Miss Wood"; nothing less respectful came out, and frequently he answered some one as "ma'am." At these fragments of revelation Mrs. Taylor abstained from speech, but eyed Molly Wood with caustic reproach. As the night wore on, short lulls of silence intervened, and the watchers were deceived into hope that the fever was abating. And when the Virginian sat quietly up in bed, essayed to move his bandage, and looked steadily at Mrs. Taylor, she rose quickly and went to him with a question as to how he was doing.
"Rise on your laigs, you polecat," said he, "and tell them you're a liar."
The good dame gasped, then bade him lie down, and he obeyed her with that strange double understanding of the delirious; for even while submitting, he muttered "liar," "polecat," and then "Trampas."
At that name light flashed on Mrs. Taylor, and she turned to Molly; and there was the girl struggling with a fit of mirth at his speech; but the laughter was fast becoming a painful seizure. Mrs. Taylor walked Molly up and down, speaking mmediately to arrest her attention.
"You might as well know it," she said. "He would blame me for speaking of it, but where's the harm all this while after? And you would never hear it from his mouth. Molly, child, they say Trampas would kill him if he dared, and that's on account of you."
"I never saw Trampas," said Molly, fixing her eyes upon the speaker.
"No, deary. But before a lot of men--Taylor has told me about it--Trampas spoke disrespectfully of you, and before them all he made Trampas say he was a liar. That is what he did when you were almost a stranger among us, and he had not started seeing so much of you. I expect Trampas is the only enemy he ever had in this country. But he would never let you know about that."
"No," whispered Molly; "I did not know."
"Steve!" the sick man now cried out, in poignant appeal. "Steve!" To the women it was a name unknown,--unknown as was also this deep inward tide of feeling which he could no longer conceal, being himself no longer. "No, Steve," he said next, and muttering followed. "It ain't so!" he shouted; and then cunningly in a lowered voice, "Steve, I have lied for you."
In time Mrs. Taylor spoke some advice.
"You had better go to bed, child. You look about ready for the doctor yourself."
"Then I will wait for him," said Molly.
So the two nurses continued to sit until darkness at the windows weakened into gray, and the lamp was no more needed. Their patient was rambling again. Yet, into whatever scenes he went, there in some guise did the throb of his pain evidently follow him, and he lay hitching his great shoulder as if to rid it of the cumbrance. They waited for the doctor, not daring much more than to turn pillows and give what other ease they could; and then, instead of the doctor, came a messenger, about noon, to say he was gone on a visit some thirty miles beyond, where Taylor had followed to bring him here as soon as might be. At this Molly consented to rest and to watch, turn about; and once she was over in her friend's house lying down, they tried to keep her there. But the revolutionist could not be put down, and when, as a last pretext, Mrs. Taylor urged the proprieties and conventions, the pale girl from Vermont laughed sweetly n her face and returned to sit by the sick man. With the approach of the second night his fever seemed to rise and master him more completely than they had yet seen it, and presently it so raged that the women called in stronger arms to hold him down. There were times when he broke out in the language of the round-up, and Mrs. Taylor renewed her protests. "Why," said Molly "don't you suppose I knew they could swear?" So the dame, in deepening astonishment and affection, gave up these shifts at decorum. Nor did the delirium run into the intimate, coarse matters that she dreaded. The cow-puncher had lived like his kind, but his natural daily thoughts were clean, and came from the untamed but unstained mind of a man. And toward morning, as Mrs. Taylor sat taking her turn, suddenly he asked had he been sick long, and looked at her with a quieted eye. The wandering seemed to drop from him at a stroke, leaving him altogether himself. He lay very feeble, and inquired once or twice of his state and how he came here; nor was anything left in his memory of even coming to the spring where he had been found.
When the doctor arrived, he pronounced that it would be long--or very short. He praised their clean water treatment; the wound was fortunately well up on the shoulder, and gave so far no bad signs; there were not any bad signs; and the blood and strength of the patient had been as few men's were; each hour was now an hour nearer certainty, and meanwhile--meanwhile the doctor would remain as long as he could. He had many inquiries to satisfy. Dusty fellows would ride up, listen to him, and reply, as they rode away, "Don't yu' let him die, Doc." And Judge Henry sent over from Sunk Creek to answer for any attendance or medicine that might help his foreman. The country was moved with concern and interest; and in Molly's ears its words of good feeling seemed to unite and sum up a burden, "Don t yu' let him die, Doc." The Indians who had done this were now in military custody. They had come unpermitted from a southern reservation, hunting, next thieving, and as the slumbering spirit roused in one or two of the young and ambitious, they had ventured this in the secret mountains, and perhaps had killed a trapper found there. Editors immediately reared a tall war out of it; but from five Indians in a guard-house waiting punishment not even an editor can supply spar for more than two editions, and if the recent alarm was still a matter of talk anywhere, it was not here in the sick-room Whichever way the case should turn, it was through Molly alone (the doctor told her) that the wounded man had got this chance--this good chance, he relocated.
And he told her she had not done a woman's part, but a man's part, and now had no more to do; no more till the patient got well, and could thank her in his own way, said the doctor, smiling, and supposing things that were not so--misled perhaps by Mrs. Taylor.
"I'm afraid I'll be gone by the time he is well," said Molly, coldly; and the discreet physician said ah, and that she would find Bennington quite a change from Bear Creek.
But Mrs. Taylor spoke otherwise, and at that the girl said: "I shall stay as long as I am needed. I will nurse him. I want to nurse him. I will do everything for him that I can!" she exclaimed, with force.
"And that won't be anything, deary," said Mrs. Taylor, harshly. "A year of nursing don't equal a day of sweetheart."
The girl took a walk,--she was of no more service in the room at present,--but she turned without going far, and Mrs. Taylor spied her come to lean over the pasture fence and watch the two horses--that one the Virginian had "gentled" for her, and his own Monte. During this suspense came a new call for the doctor, neighbors profiting by his visit to Bear Creek; and in his going away to them, even under promise of quick return, Mrs. Taylor suspected a favorable sign. He kept his word as punctually as had been possible, arriving after some six hours with a confident face, and spending now upon the patient a care not needed, save to reassure the bystanders. He spoke his opinion that all was even better than he could have hoped it would be, so soon. Here was now the beginning of the fifth day; the wound's look was wholesome, no further delirium had come, and the fever had abated a degree while he was absent. He believed the serious danger-line lay behind, and (short of the unforeseen) the man's deep untainted strength would reassert its control. He had much blood to make, and must be cared for during weeks--three, four, five--there was no saying how long yet. These next few days it must be utter quiet for him; he must not talk nor hear anything likely to disturb him; and then the time for cheerfulness and gradual company would come--sooner than later, the doctor hoped. So he departed, and sent next day some bottles, with further cautions regarding the wound and dirt, and to say he should be calling the day after to-morrow.
Upon that occasion he found two patients. Molly Wood lay in bed at Mrs. Taylor's, filled with apology and indignation. With little to do, and deprived of the strong stimulant of anxiety and action, her strength had quite suddenly left her, so that she had spoken only in a sort of whisper. But upon waking from a long sleep, after Mrs. Taylor had taken her firmly, almost severely, in hand, her natural voice had returned, and now the chief treatment the doctor gave her was a sort of scolding, which it pleased Firs. Taylor to hear. The doctor even dropped a phrase concerning the arrogance of strong nerves in slender bodies, and of undertaking several people's work when several people were at hand to do it for themselves, and this pleased Mrs. Taylor remarkably. As for the wounded man, he was behaving himself properly. Perhaps in another week he could be moved to a more cheerful room. Just now, with cleanliness and pure air, any barn would do.
"We are real lucky to have such a sensible doctor in the country," Mrs. Taylor observed, after the physician had gone.
"No doubt," said Molly. "He said my room was a barn."
"That's what you've made it, deary. But sick men don't notice much."
Nevertheless, one may believe, without going widely astray, that illness, so far from veiling, more often quickens the perceptions--at any rate those of the naturally keen. On a later day--and the interval was brief--while Molly was on her second drive to take the air with Mrs. Taylor, that lady informed her that the sick man had noticed. "And I could not tell him things liable to disturb him," said she, "and so I--well, I expect I just didn't exactly tell him the facts. I said yes, you were packing up for a little visit to your folks. They had not seen you for quite a while, I said. And he looked at those boxes kind of silent like."
"There's no need to move him," said Molly. '"It is simpler to move them--the boxes. I could take out some of my things, you know, just while he has to be kept there. I mean--you see, if the doctor says the room should be cheerful--"
"I will ask the doctor next time," said Molly. "if he believes I am--competent to spread a rug upon a floor." Molly's references to the doctor were usually acid these days. And this he totally failed to observe, telling her when he came, why, to be sure! the very thing! And if she could play cards or read aloud, or afford any other light distractions, provided they did not lead the patient to talk and tire himself, that she would be most useful. Accordingly she took over the cribbage board, and came with unexpected hesitation face to face again with the swarthy man she had saved and tended. He was not so swarthy now, but neat, with chin clean, and hair and mustache trimmed and smooth, and he sat propped among pillows watching for her.
"You are better," she said, speaking first, and with uncertain voice.
"Yes. They have given me awdehs not to talk," said the Southerner, smiling.
"Oh, yes. Please do not talk--not to-day."
"No. Only this"--he looked at her, and saw her seem to shrink--"thank you for what you have done," he said simply.
She took tenderly the hand he stretched to her; and upon these terms they set to work at cribbage. She won, and won again, and the third time laid down her cards and reproached him with playing in order to lose.
"No," he said, and his eye wandered to the boxes. "But my thoughts get away from me. I'll be strong enough to hold them on the cyards next time, I reckon."
Many tones in his voice she had heard, but never the tone of sadness until to-day.
Then they played a little more, and she put away the board for this first time.
"You are going now?" he asked.
"When I have made this room look a little less forlorn. They haven't wanted to meddle with my things, I suppose." And Molly stooped once again among the chattels destined for Vermont. Out they came; again the bearskin was spread on the floor, various possessions and ornaments went back into their ancient niches, the shelves grew comfortable with books, and, last, some flowers were stood on the table.
"More like old times," said the Virginian, but sadly.
"It's too bad," said Molly, "you had to be brought into such a looking place."
"And your folks waiting for you," said he.
"Oh, I'll pay my visit later," said Molly, putting the rug a trifle straighter.
"May I ask one thing?" pleaded the Virginian, and at the gentleness of his voice her face grew rosy, and she fixed her eyes on him with a sort of dread.
"Anything that I can answer," said she.
"Oh, yes. Did I tell yu' to quit me, and did yu' load up my gun and stay? Was that a real business? I have been mixed up my haid."
"That was real," said Molly. "What else was there to do?"
"Just nothing--for such as you!" he exclaimed. "My haid has been mighty crazy; and that little grandmother of yours yondeh, she--but I can't just quite catch a-hold of these things"--he passed a hand over his forehead--"so many--or else one right along--well, it's all foolishness!" he concluded, with something almost savage in his tone. And after she had gone from the cabin he lay very still, looking at the miniature on the wall.
He was in another sort of mood the next time, cribbage not interesting him in the least. "Your folks will be wondering about you," said he.
"I don't think they will mind which month I go to them," said Molly. "Especially when they know the reason."
"Don't let me keep you, ma'am," said he. Molly stared at him; but he pursued, with the same edge lurking in his slow words: "Though I'll never forget. How could I forget any of all you have done--and been? If there had been none of this, why, I had enough to remember! But please don't stay, ma'am. We'll say I had a claim when yu' found me pretty well dead, but I'm gettin' well, yu' see--right smart, too!"
"I can't understand, indeed I can't," said Molly, "why you're talking so!"
He seemed to have certain moods when he would address her as "ma'am," and this she did not like, but could not prevent.
"Oh, a sick man is funny. And yu' know I'm grateful to you."
"Please say no more about that, or I shall go this afternoon. I don't want to go. I am not ready. I think I had better read something now."
"Why, yes. That's cert'nly a good notion. Why, this is the best show you'll ever get to give me education. Won't yu' please try that EMMA book now, ma'am? Listening to you will be different." This was said with softness and humility.
Uncertain--as his gravity often left her--precisely what he meant by what he said, Molly proceeded with EMMA, slackly at first, but soon with the enthusiasm that Miss Austen invariably gave her. She held the volume and read away at it, commenting briefly, and then, finishing a chapter of the sprightly classic, found her pupil slumbering peacefully. There was no uncertainty about that.
"You couldn't be doing a healthier thing for him, deary," said Mrs. Taylor. "If it gets to make him wakeful, try something harder." This was the lady's scarcely sympathetic view.
But it turned out to be not obscurity in which Miss Austen sinned.
When Molly next appeared at the Virginian's threshold, he said plaintively, "I reckon I am a dunce." And he sued for pardon. "When I waked up," he said, "I was ashamed of myself for a plumb half-hour." Nor could she doubt this day that he meant what he said. His mood was again serene and gentle, and without referring to his singular words that had distressed her, he made her feel his contrition, even in his silence.
"I am right glad you have come," he said. And as he saw her going to the bookshelf, he continued, with diffidence: "As regyards that EMMA book, yu' see--yu' see, the doin's and sayin's of folks like them are above me. But I think" (he spoke most diffidently), "if yu' could read me something that was ABOUT something, I--I'd be liable to keep awake." And he smiled with a certain shyness.
"Something ABOUT something?" queried Molly, at a loss.
"Why, yes. Shakespeare. HENRY THE FOURTH. The British king is fighting, and there is his son the prince. He cert'nly must have been a jim-dandy boy if that is all true. Only he would go around town with a mighty triflin' gang. They sported and they held up citizens. And his father hated his travelling with trash like them. It was right natural--the boy and the old man! But the boy showed himself a man too. He killed a big fighter on the other side who was another jim-dandy--and he was sorry for having it to do." The Virginian warmed to his recital. "I understand most all of that. There was a fat man kept everybody laughing. He was awful natural too; except yu' don't commonly meet 'em so fat. But the prince--that play is bed-rock, ma'am! Have you got something like that?"
"Yes, I think so," she replied. "I believe I see what you would appreciate."
She took her Browning, her idol, her imagined affinity. For the pale decadence of New England had somewhat watered her good old Revolutionary blood too, and she was inclined to think under glass and to live underdone--when there were no Indians to shoot! She would have joyed to venture "Paracelsus" on him, and some lengthy rhymed discourses; and she fondly turned leaves and leaves of her pet doggerel analytics. "Pippa Passes" and others she had to skip, from discreet motives--pages which he would have doubtless stayed awake at; but she chose a poem at length. This was better than Emma, he pronounced. And short. The horse was a good horse. He thought a man whose horse must not play out on him would watch the ground he was galloping over for holes, and not be likely to see what color the rims of his animal's eye-sockets were. You could not see them if you sat as you ought to for such a hard ride. Of the next piece that she read him he thought still better. "And it is short," said he. "But the last part drops."
Molly instantly exacted particulars.
"The soldier should not have told the general he was killed," stated the cow-puncher.
"What should he have told him, I'd like to know?" said Molly.
"Why, just nothing. If the soldier could ride out of the battle all shot up, and tell his general about their takin' the town--that was being gritty, yu' see. But that truck at the finish--will yu' please say it again?"
So Molly read:--
"'You're wounded! 'Nay,' the soldier's pride Touched to the quick, he said, 'I'm killed, sire!' And, his chief beside, Smiling the boy fell dead."
"'Nay, I'm killed, sire,'" drawled the Virginian, amiably; for (symptom of convalescence) his freakish irony was revived in him. "Now a man who was man enough to act like he did, yu' see, would fall dead without mentioning it."
None of Molly's sweet girl friends had ever thus challenged Mr. Browning. They had been wont to cluster over him with a joyous awe that deepened proportionally with their misunderstanding. Molly paused to consider this novelty of view about the soldier. "He was a Frenchman, you know," she said, under inspiration.
"A Frenchman," murmured the grave cowpuncher. "I never knowed a Frenchman, but I reckon they might perform that class of foolishness."
"But why was it foolish?" she cried.
"His soldier's pride--don't you see?"
Molly now burst into a luxury of discussion. She leaned toward her cow-puncher with bright eyes searching his; with elbow on knee and hand propping chin, her lap became a slant, and from it Browning the poet slid and toppled, and lay unrescued. For the slow cow-puncher unfolded his notions of masculine courage and modesty (though he did not deal in such high-sounding names), and Molly forgot everything to listen to him, as he forgot himself and his inveterate shyness and grew talkative to her. "I would never have supposed that!" she would exclaim as she heard him; or, presently again, "I never had such an idea!" And her mind opened with delight to these new things which came from the man's mind so simple and direct. To Browning they did come back, but the Virginian, though interested, conceived a dislike for him. "He is a smarty," said he, once or twice.
"Now here is something," said Molly. "I have never known what to think."
"Oh, Heavens!" murmured the sick man, smiling. "Is it short?"
"Very short. Now please attend." And she read him twelve lines about a lover who rowed to a beach in the dusk, crossed a field, tapped at a pane, and was admitted.
"That is the best yet," said the Virginian. "There's only one thing yu' can think about that."
"But wait," said the girl, swiftly. "Here is how they parted:--
"Round the cape of a sudden came the sea, And the sun looked over the mountain's rim-- And straight was a path of gold for him, And the need of a world of men for me."
"That is very, very true," murmured the Virginian, dropping his eyes from the girl's intent ones.
"Had they quarrelled?" she inquired.
"I reckon he loved her very much."
"Then you're sure they hadn't quarrelled?"
"Dead sure, ma'am. He would come back afteh he had played some more of the game."
"Life, ma'am. Whatever he was a-doin' in the world of men. That's a bed-rock piece, ma'am!"
"Well, I don't see why you think it's so much better than some of the others."
"I could sca'cely explain," answered the man. "But that writer does know something."
"I am glad they hadn't quarrelled," said Molly, thoughtfully. And she began to like having her opinions refuted.
His bandages, becoming a little irksome, had to be shifted, and this turned their discourse from literature to Wyoming; and Molly inquired, had he ever been shot before? Only once, he told her. "I have been lucky in having few fusses," said he. "I hate them. If a man has to be killed--"
"You never--" broke in Molly. She had started back a little. "Well," she added hastily don't tell me if--"
"I shouldn't wonder if I got one of those Indians," he said quietly. "But I wasn't waitin' to see! But I came mighty near doing for a white man that day. He had been hurtin' a hawss.
"Hurting?" said Molly.
"Injurin.' I will not tell yu' about that. It would hurt yu' to hear such things. But hawsses--don't they depend on us? Ain't they somethin' like children? I did not lay up the man very bad. He was able to travel 'most right away. Why, you'd have wanted to kill him yourself!"
So the Virginian talked, nor knew what he was doing to the girl. Nor was she aware of what she was receiving from him as he unwittingly spoke himself out to her in these Browning meetings they heal each day. But Mrs. Taylor grew pleased. The kindly dame would sometimes cross the road to see if she were needed, and steal away again after a peep at the window. There, inside, among the restored home treasures, sat the two: the rosy alert girl, sweet as she talked or read to him; and he, the grave, half-weak giant among his wraps, watching her.
Of her delayed home visit he never again spoke, either to her or to Mrs. Taylor; and Molly veered aside from any trend of talk she foresaw was leading toward that subject. But in those hours when no visitors came, and he was by himself in the quiet, he would lie often sombrely contemplating the girl's room, her little dainty knickknacks, her home photographs, all the delicate manifestations of what she came from and what she was. Strength was flowing back into him each day, and Judge Henry's latest messenger had brought him clothes and mail from Sunk Creek and many inquiries of kindness, and returned taking the news of the cow-puncher's improvement, and how soon he would be permitted the fresh air. Hence Molly found him waiting in a flannel shirt of highly becoming shade, and with a silk handkerchief knotted round his throat; and he told her it was good to feel respectable again.
She had come to read to him for the allotted time; and she threw around his shoulders the scarlet and black Navajo blanket, striped with its splendid zigzags of barbarity. Thus he half sat, half leaned, languid but at ease. In his lap lay one of the letters brought over by the messenger: and though she was midway in a book that engaged his full attention--DAVID COPPERFELD--his silence and absent look this morning stopped her, and she accused him of not attending.
"No," he admitted; "I am thinking of something else."
She looked at him with that apprehension which he knew.
"It had to come," said he. "And to-day I see my thoughts straighter than I've been up to managing since--since my hard got clear. And now I must say these thoughts--if I can, if I can!" He stopped. His eyes were intent upon her; one hand was gripping the arm of his chair.
"You promised--" trembled Molly.
"I promised you should love me," he sternly interrupted. "Promised that to myself. I have broken that word."
She shut DAVID COPPERHEAD mechanically, and grew white.
"Your letter has come to me hyeh," he continued, gentle again.
"My--" She had forgotten it.
"The letter you wrote to tell me good-by. You wrote it a little while ago--not a month yet, but it's away and away long gone for me."
"I have never let you know--" began Molly.
"The doctor," he interrupted once more, but very gently now, "he gave awdehs I must be kept quiet. I reckon yu' thought tellin' me might--"
"Forgive me!" cried the girl. "Indeed I ought to have told you sooner! Indeed I had no excuse!"
"Why, should yu' tell me if yu' preferred not? You had written. And you speak" (he lifted the letter) "of never being able to repay kindness; but you have turned the tables. I can never repay you by anything! by anything! So I had figured I would just jog back to Sunk Creek and let you get away, if you did not want to say that kind of good-by. For I saw the boxes. Mrs. Taylor is too nice a woman to know the trick of lyin', and she could not deceive me. I have knowed yu' were going away for good ever since I saw those boxes. But now hyeh comes your letter, and it seems no way but I must speak. I have thought a deal, lyin' in this room. And--to-day--I can say what I have thought. I could not make you happy." He stopped, but she did not answer. His voice had grown softer than whispering, but yet was not a whisper. From its quiet syllables she turned away, blinded with sudden tears.
"Once, I thought love must surely be enough," he continued. "And I thought if I could make you love me, you could learn me to be less--less-more your kind. And I think I could give you a pretty good sort of love. But that don't help the little mean pesky things of day by day that make roughness or smoothness for folks tied together so awful close. Mrs. Taylor hyeh--she don't know anything better than Taylor does. She don't want anything he can't give her. Her friends will do for him and his for her. And when I dreamed of you in my home--" he closed his eyes and drew a long breath. At last he looked at her again. "This is no country for a lady. Will yu' forget and forgive the bothering I have done?"
"Oh!" cried Molly. "Oh!" And she put her hands to her eyes. She had risen and stood with her face covered.
"I surely had to tell you this all out, didn't I?" said the cow-puncher, faintly, in his chair."Oh!" said Molly again
"I have put it clear how it is," he pursued. "I ought to have seen from the start I was not the sort to keep you happy."
"But," said Molly--"but I--you ought--please try to keep me happy!" And sinking by his chair, she hid her face on his knees.
Speechless, lie bent down and folded her round, putting his hands on the hair that had been always his delight. Presently he whispered:- "You have beat me; how can I fight this?"
She answered nothing. The Navajo's scarlet and black folds fell over both. Not with words, not even with meeting eyes, did the two plight their troth in this first new hour. So they remained long, the fair head nesting in the great arms, and the black head laid against it, while over the silent room presided the little Grandmother Stark in her frame, rosy, blue, and flaxen, not quite familiar, not quite smiling.