XXXI.
THE COTTONWOODS

I do not know how long I stayed there alone. It was the Virginian who came back, and as he stood at the foot of my blankets his eye, after meeting mine full for a moment, turned aside. I had never seen him look as he did now, not even in Pitchstone Canyon when we came upon the bodies of Hank and his wife. Until this moment we had found no chance of speaking together, except in the presence of others.

Seems to be raining still, I began after a little.

Yes. It's a wet spell.

He stared out of the door, smoothing his mustache.

It was again I that spoke. What time is it?

He brooded over his watch. Twelve minutes to seven.

I rose and stood drawing on my clothes.

The fire's out, said he; and he assembled some new sticks over the ashes. Presently he looked round with a cup.

Never mind that for me, I said

We've a long ride, he suggested.

I know. I've crackers in my pocket.

My boots being pulled on, I walked to the door and watched the clouds. They seem as if they might lift, I said. And I took out my watch.

What time is it? he asked.

A quarter of--it's run down.

While I wound it he seemed to be consulting his own.

Well? I inquired.

Ten minutes past seven.

As I was setting my watch he slowly said:

Steve wound his all regular. I had to night-guard him till two. His speech was like that of one in a trance: so, at least, it sounds in my memory to-day.

Again I looked at the weather and the rainy immensity of the plain. The foot-hills eastward where we were going were a soft yellow. Over the gray-green sage-brush moved shapeless places of light--not yet the uncovered sunlight, but spots where the storm was wearing thin; and wandering streams of warmth passed by slowly in the surrounding air. As I watched the clouds and the earth, my eyes chanced to fall on the distant clump of cottonwoods. Vapors from the enfeebled storm floated round them, and they were indeed far away; but I came inside and began rolling up my blankets.

You will not change your mind? said the Virginian by the fire. It is thirty-five miles.

I shook my head, feeling a certain shame that he should see how unnerved I was.

He swallowed a hot cupful, and after it sat thinking; and presently he passed his hand across his brow, shutting his eyes. Again he poured out a cup, and emptying this, rose abruptly to his feet as if shaking himself free from something

Let's pack and quit here, he said.

Our horses were in the corral and our belongings in the shelter of what had been once the cabin at this forlorn place. He collected them in silence while I saddled my own animal, and in silence we packed the two packhorses, and threw the diamond hitch, and hauled tight the slack, damp ropes. Soon we had mounted, and as we turned into the trail I gave a look back at my last night's lodging.

The Virginian noticed me. Good-by forever! he interpreted.

By God, I hope so!

Same here, he confessed. And these were our first natural words this morning.

This will go well, said I, holding my flask out to him; and both of us took some, and felt easier for it and the natural words.

For an hour we had been shirking real talk, holding fast to the weather, or anything, and all the while that silent thing we were keeping off spoke plainly in the air around us and in every syllable that we uttered. But now we were going to get away from it; leave it behind in the stable, and set ourselves free from it by talking it out. Already relief had begun to stir in my spirits.

You never did this before, I said.

No. I never had it to do. He was riding beside me, looking down at his saddle-horn.

I do not think I should ever be able, I pursued.

Defiance sounded in his answer. I would do it again this morning.

Oh, I don't mean that. It's all right here. There's no other way.

I would do it all over again the same this morning. Just the same.

Why, so should I--if I could do it at all. I still thought he was justifying their justice to me.

He made no answer as he rode along, looking all the while at his saddle. But again he passed his hand over his forehead with that frown and shutting of the eyes.

I should like to be sure I should behave myself if I were condemned, I said next. For it now came to me--which should I resemble? Could I read the newspaper, and be interested in county elections, and discuss coming death as if I had lost a game of cards? Or would they have to drag me out? That poor wretch in the gray flannel shirt--It was bad in the stable, I said aloud. For an after-shiver of it went through me.

A third time his hand brushed his forehead, and I ventured some sympathy.

I'm afraid your head aches.

I don't want to keep seeing Steve, he muttered.

Steve! I was astounded. Why he--why all I saw of him was splendid. Since it had to be. It was--

Oh, yes; Ed. You're thinking about him. I'd forgot him. So you didn't enjoy Ed?

At this I looked at him blankly. It isn't possible that--

Again he cut me short with a laugh almost savage. You needn't to worry about Steve. He stayed game.

What then had been the matter that he should keep seeing Steve--that his vision should so obliterate from him what I still shivered at, and so shake him now? For he seemed to be growing more stirred as I grew less. I asked him no further questions, however, and we went on for several minutes, he brooding always in the same fashion, until he resumed with the hard indifference that had before surprised me:- So Ed gave you feelings! Dumb ague and so forth.

No doubt we're not made the same way, I retorted.

He took no notice of this. And you'd have been more comfortable if he'd acted same as Steve did. It cert'nly was bad seeing Ed take it that way, I reckon. And you didn't see him when the time came for business. Well, here's what it is: a man maybe such a confirrned miscreant that killing's the only cure for him; but still he's your own species, and you don't want to have him fall around and grab your laigs and show you his fear naked. It makes you feel ashamed. So Ed gave you feelings, and Steve made everything right easy for you! There was irony in his voice as he surveyed me, but it fell away at once into sadness. Both was miscreants. But if Steve had played the coward, too, it would have been a whole heap easier for me. He paused before adding, And Steve was not a miscreant once.

His voice had trembled, and I felt the deep emotion that seemed to gain upon him now that action was over and he had nothing to do but think. And his view was simple enough: you must die brave. Failure is a sort of treason to the brotherhood, and forfeits pity. It was Steve's perfect bearing that had caught his heart so that he forgot even his scorn of the other man.

But this was by no means all that was to come. He harked back to that notion of a prisoner helping to make it easy for his executioner. Easy plumb to the end, he pursued, his mind reviewing the acts of the morning. Why, he tried to give me your newspaper. I didn't--

Oh, no, I said hastily. I had finished with it.

Well, he took dying as naturally as he took living. Like a man should. Like I hope to. Again he looked at the pictures in his mind. No play-acting nor last words. He just told good-by to the boys as we led his horse under the limb--you needn't to look so dainty, he broke off. You ain't going to get any more shocking particulars.

I know I'm white-livered, I said with a species of laugh. I never crowd and stare when somebody is hurt in the street. I get away.

He thought this over. You don't mean all of that. You'd not have spoke just that way about crowding and staring if you thought well of them that stare. Staring ain't courage; it's trashy curiosity. Now you did not have this thing--

He had stretched out his hand to point, but it fell, and his utterance stopped, and he jerked his horse to a stand. My nerves sprang like a wire at his suddenness, and I looked where he was looking. There were the cottonwoods, close in front of us. As we had travelled and talked we had forgotten them. Now they were looming within a hundred yards; and our trail lay straight through them.

Let's go around them, said the Virginian.

When we had come back from our circuit into the trail he continued: You did not have that thing to do. But a man goes through with his responsibilities--and I reckon you could.

I hope so, I answered. How about Ed?

He was not a man, though we thought he was till this. Steve and I started punching cattle together at the Bordeaux outfit, north of Cheyenne. We did everything together in those days--work and play. Six years ago. Steve had many good points onced.

We must have gone two miles before he spoke again. You prob'ly didn't notice Steve? I mean the way he acted to me? It was a question, but he did not wait for my answer. Steve never said a word to me all through. He shunned it. And you saw how neighborly he talked to the other boys.

Where have they all gone? I asked.

He smiled at me. It cert'nly is lonesome now, for a fact.

I didn't know you felt it, said I.

Feel it!--they've went to the railroad. Three of them are witnesses in a case at Evanston, and the Judge wants our outfit at Medicine Bow. Steve shunned me. Did he think I was going back on him?

What if he did? You were not. And so nobody's going to Wind River but you?

No. Did you notice Steve would not give us any information about Shorty? That was right. I would have acted that way, too. Thus, each time, he brought me back to the subject.

The sun was now shining warm during two or three minutes together, and gulfs of blue opened in the great white clouds. These moved and met among each other, and parted, like hands spread out, slowly weaving a spell of sleep over the day after the wakeful night storm. The huge contours of the earth lay basking and drying, and not one living creature, bird or beast, was in sight. Quiet was returning to my revived spirits, but there was none for the Virginian. And as he reasoned matters out aloud, his mood grew more overcast.

You have a friend, and his ways are your ways. You travel together, you spree together confidentially, and you suit each other down to the ground. Then one day you find him putting his iron on another man's calf. You tell him fair and square those ways have never been your ways and ain't going to be your ways. Well, that does not change him any, for it seems he's disturbed over getting rich quick and being a big man in the Territory. And the years go on, until you are foreman of Judge Henry's ranch and he--is dangling back in the cottonwoods. What can he claim? Who made the choice? He cannot say, 'Here is my old friend that I would have stood by.' Can he say that?

But he didn't say it, I protested.

No. He shunned me.

Listen, I said. Suppose while you were on guard he had whispered, 'Get me off'--would you have done it?

No, sir! said the Virginian, hotly.

Then what do you want? I asked. What did you want?

He could not answer me--but I had not answered him, I saw; so I pushed it farther. Did you want indorsement from the man you were hanging? That's asking a little too much.

But he had now another confusion. Steve stood by Shorty, he said musingly. It was Shorty's mistake cost him his life, but all the same he didn't want us to catch--

You are mixing things, I interrupted. I never heard you mix things before. And it was not Shorty's mistake.

He showed momentary interest. Whose then?

The mistake of whoever took a fool into their enterprise.

That's correct. Well, Trampas took Shorty in, and Steve would not tell on him either.

I still tried it, saying, They were all in the same boat. But logic was useless; he had lost his bearings in a fog of sentiment. He knew, knew passionately, that he had done right; but the silence of his old friend to him through those last hours left a sting that no reasoning could assuage. He told good-by to the rest of the boys; but not to me. And nothing that I could point out in common sense turned him from the thread of his own argument. He worked round the circle again to self-justification. Was it him I was deserting? Was not the deserting done by him the day I spoke my mind about stealing calves? I have kept my ways the same. He is the one that took to new ones. The man I used to travel with is not the man back there. Same name, to be sure. And same body. But different in--and yet he had the memory! You can't never change your memory!

He gave a sob. It was the first I had ever heard from him, and before I knew what I was doing I had reined my horse up to his and put my arm around his shoulders. I had no sooner touched him than he was utterly overcome. I knew Steve awful well, he said.

Thus we had actually come to change places; for early in the morning he had been firm while I was unnerved, while now it was I who attempted to steady and comfort him.

I had the sense to keep silent, and presently he shook my hand, not looking at me as he did so. He was always very shy of demonstration. And he took to patting the neck of his pony. You Monte hawss, said he, you think you are wise, but there's a lot of things you don't savvy. Then he made a new beginning of talk between us.

It is kind of pitiful about Shorty.

Very pitiful, I said.Do you know about him? the Virginian asked.

I know there's no real harm in him, and some real good, and that he has not got the brains necessary to be a horse thief.

That's so. That's very true. Trampas has led him in deeper than his stature can stand. Now back East you can be middling and get along. But if you go to try a thing on in this Western country, you've got to do it WELL. You've got to deal cyards WELL; you've got to steal WELL; and if you claim to be quick with your gun, you must be quick, for you're a public temptation, and some man will not resist trying to prove he is the quicker. You must break all the Commandments WELL in this Western country, and Shorty should have stayed in Brooklyn, for he will be a novice his livelong days. You don't know about him? He has told me his circumstances. He don't remember his father, and it was like he could have claimed three or four. And I expect his mother was not much interested in him before or after he was born. He ran around, and when he was eighteen he got to be help to a grocery man. But a girl he ran with kept taking all his pay and teasing him for more, and so one day the grocery man caught Shorty robbing his till, and fired him. There wasn't no one to tell good-by to, for the girl had to go to the country to see her aunt, she said. So Shorty hung around the store and kissed the grocery cat good-by. He'd been used to feeding the cat, and she'd sit in his lap and purr, he told me. He sends money back to that girl now. This hyeh country is no country for Shorty, for he will be a conspicuous novice all his days.

Perhaps he'll prefer honesty after his narrow shave, I said.

But the Virginian shook his head. Trampas has got hold of him.

The day was now all blue above, and all warm and dry beneath. We had begun to wind in and rise among the first slopes of the foot-hills, and we had talked ourselves into silence. At the first running water we made a long nooning, and I slept on the bare ground. My body was lodged so fast and deep in slumber that when the Virginian shook me awake I could not come back to life at once; it was the clump of cottonwoods, small and far out in the plain below us, that recalled me.

It'll not be watching us much longer, said the Virginian. He made it a sort of joke; but I knew that both of us were glad when presently we rode into a steeper country, and among its folds and carvings lost all sight of the plain. He had not slept, I found. His explanation was that the packs needed better balancing, and after that he had gone up and down the stream on the chance of trout. But his haunted eyes gave me the real reason--they spoke of Steve, no matter what he spoke of; it was to be no short thing with him.

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