XIII.
THE GAME AND THE NATION--ACT FIRST


There can be no doubt of this:All America is divided into two classes,--the qualify and the equality.

The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but hangs.

It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the ETERNAL EQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little mere artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight.

The above reflections occurred to me before reaching Billings, Montana, some three weeks after I had unexpectedly met the Virginian at Omaha, Nebraska. I had not known of that trust given to him by Judge Henry, which was taking him East. I was looking to ride with him before long among the clean hills of Sunk Creek. I supposed he was there. But I came upon him one morning in Colonel Cyrus Jones's eating palace.

Did you know the palace? It stood in Omaha, near the trains, and it was ten years old (which is middle-aged in Omaha) when I first saw it. It was a shell of wood, painted with golden emblems,--the steamboat, the eagle, the Yosemite,--and a live bear ate gratuities at its entrance. Weather permitting, it opened upon the world as a stage upon the audience. You sat in Omaha's whole sight and dined, while Omaha's dust came and settled upon the refreshments. It is gone the way of the Indian and the buffalo, for the West is growing old. You should have seen the palace and sat there. In front of you passed rainbows of men,--Chinese, Indian chiefs, Africans, General Miles, younger sons, Austrian nobility, wide females in pink. Our continent drained prismatically through Omaha once.

So I was passing that way also, walking for the sake of ventilation from a sleeping-car toward a bath, when the language of Colonel Cyrus Jones came out to me. The actual colonel I had never seen before. He stood at the rear of his palace in gray flowery mustaches and a Confederate uniform, telling the wishes of his guests to the cook through a hole. You always bought meal tickets at once, else you became unwelcome. Guests here had foibles at times, and a rapid exit was too easy. Therefore I bought a ticket. It was spring and summer since I had heard anything like the colonel. The Missouri had not yet flowed into New York dialect freely, and his vocabulary met me like the breeze of the plains. So I went in to be fanned by it, and there sat the Virginian at a table, alone.

His greeting was up to the code of indifference proper on the plains; but he presently remarked, "I'm right glad to see somebody," which was a good deal to say. "Them that comes hyeh," he observed next, "don't eat. They feed." And he considered the guests with a sombre attention. "D' yu' reckon they find joyful digestion in this swallo'-an'-get-out trough?"

"What are you doing here, then?" said I.

"Oh, pshaw! When yu' can't have what you choose, yu' just choose what you have." And he took the bill-of-fare. I began to know that he had something on his mind, so I did not trouble him further.

Meanwhile he sat studying the bill-of-fare.

"Ever heard o' them?" he inquired, shoving me the spotted document.

Most improbable dishes were there,--salmis, canapes, supremes,--all perfectly spelt and absolutely transparent. It was the old trick of copying some metropolitan menu to catch travellers of the third and last dimension of innocence; and whenever this is done the food is of the third and last dimension of awfulness, which the cow-puncher knew as well as anybody.

"So they keep that up here still," I said.

"But what about them?" he repeated. His finger was at a special item, FROGS' LEGS A LA DELMONICO. "Are they true anywheres?" he asked And I told him, certainly. I also explained to him almost Delmonico of New York and about Augustin of Philadelphia.

"There's not a little bit o' use in lyin' to me this mawnin'," he said, with his engaging smile. "I ain't goin' to awdeh anything's laigs."

"Well, I'll see how he gets out of it," I said, remembering the odd Texas legend. (The traveller read the bill-of-fare, you know, and called for a vol-au-vent. And the proprietor looked at the traveller, and running a pistol into his ear, observed, "You'll take hash.") I was thinking of this and wondering what would happen to me. So I took the step.

"Wants frogs' legs, does he?" shouted Colonel Cyrus Jones. He fixed his eye upon me, and it narrowed to a slit. "Too many brain workers breakfasting before yu' came in, professor," said he.

"Missionary ate the last leg off me just now. Brown the wheat!" he commanded, through the hole to the cook, for some one had ordered hot cakes.

"I'll have fried aiggs," said the Virginian. "Cooked both sides."

"White wings!" sang the colonel through the hole. "Let 'em fly up and down."

"Coffee an' no milk," said the Virginian.

"Draw one in the dark!" the colonel roared.

"And beefsteak, rare."

"One slaughter in the pan, and let the blood drip!"

"I should like a glass of water, please," said I. The colonel threw me a look of pity.

"One Missouri and ice for the professor!" he said.

"That fello's a right live man," commented the Virginian. But he seemed thoughtful. Presently he inquired, "Yu' say he was a foreigner, an' learned fancy cookin' to New Yawk?"

That was this cow-puncher's way. Scarcely ever would he let drop a thing new to him until he had got from you your whole information about it. So I told him the history of Lorenzo Delmonico and his pioneer work, as much as I knew, and the Southerner listened intently.

"Mighty inter-estin'," he said--" mighty. He could just take little old o'rn'ry frawgs, and dandy 'em up to suit the bloods. Mighty inter-estin'. I expaict, though, his cookin' would give an outraiged stomach to a plain-raised man."

"If you want to follow it up," said I, by way of a sudden experiment, "Miss Molly Wood might have some book about French dishes."

But the Virginian did not turn a hair. "I reckon she wouldn't," he answered. "She was raised in Vermont. They don't bother overly about their eatin' up in Vermont. Hyeh's what Miss Wood recommended the las' time I was seein' her," the cow-puncher added, bringing Kenilworth from his pocket. "Right fine story. That Queen Elizabeth must have cert'nly been a competent woman."

"She was," said I. But talk came to an end here. A dusty crew, most evidently from the plains, now entered and drifted to a table; and each man of them gave the Virginian about a quarter of a slouchy nod. His greeting to them was very serene. Only, Kenilworth went back into his pocket, and he breakfasted in silence. Among those who had greeted him I now recognized a face.

"Why, that's the man you played cards with at Medicine Bow!" I said.

"Yes. Trampas. He's got a job at the ranch now." The Virginian said no more, but went on with his breakfast.

His appearance was changed. Aged I would scarcely say, for this would seem as if he did not look young. But I think that the boy was altogether gone from his face--the boy whose freak with Steve had turned Medicine Bow upside down, whose other freak with the babies had outraged Bear Creek, the boy who had loved to jingle his spurs. But manhood had only trained, not broken, his youth. It was all there, only obedient to the rein and curb.

Presently we went together to the railway yard.

"The Judge is doing a right smart o' business this year," he began, very casually indeed, so that I knew this was important. Besides bells and coal smoke, the smell and crowded sounds of cattle rose in the air around us. "Hyeh's our first gather o' beeves on the ranch," continued the Virginian. "The whole lot's shipped through to Chicago in two sections over the Burlington. The Judge is fighting the Elkhorn road." We passed slowly along the two trains,--twenty cars, each car packed with huddled, round-eyed, gazing steers. He examined to see if any animals were down. "They ain't ate or drank anything to speak of," he said, while the terrified brutes stared at us through their slats. "Not since they struck the railroad they've not drank. Yu' might suppose thence know somehow what they're travellin' to Chicago for." And casually, always casually, he told me the rest. Judge Henry could not spare his foreman away from the second gather of beeves. Therefore these two ten-car trains with their double crew of cow-boys had been given to the Virginian's charge. After Chicago, he was to return by St. Paul over the Northern Pacific; for the Judge had wished him to see certain of the road's directors and explain to them persuasively how good a thing it would be for them to allow especially cheap rates to the Sunk Creek outfit henceforth. This was all the Virginian told me; and it contained the whole matter, to be sure.

"So you're acting foreman," said I.

"Why, somebody has to have the say, I reckon."

"And of course you hated the promotion?"

"I don't know about promotion," he replied. "The boys have been used to seein' me one of themselves. Why don't you come along with us far as Plattsmouth?" Thus he shifted the subject from himself, and called to my notice the locomotives backing up to his cars, and reminded me that from Plattsmouth I had the choice of two trains returning. But he could not hide or belittle this confidence of his employer in him. It was the care of several thousand perishable dollars and the control of men. It was a compliment. There were more steers than men to be responsible for; but none of the steers had been suddenly picked from the herd and set above his fellows. Moreover, Chicago finished up the steers; but the new-made deputy foreman had then to lead his six highly unoccupied brethren away from towns, and back in peace to the ranch, or disappoint the Judge, who needed their services. These things sometimes go wrong in a land where they say you are all born equal; and that quarter of a nod in Colonel Cyrus Jones's eating palace held more equality than any whole nod you could see. But the Virginian did not see it, there being a time for all things.

We trundled down the flopping, heavy-eddied Missouri to Plattsmouth, and there they backed us on to a siding, the Christian Endeavor being expected to pass that way. And while the equality absorbed themselves in a deep but harmless game of poker by the side of the railway line, the Virginian and I sat on the top of a car, contemplating the sandy shallows of the Platte.

"I should think you'd take a hand," said I.

"Poker? With them kittens?" One flash of the inner man lightened in his eyes and died away, and he finished with his gentle drawl, "When I play, I want it to be interestin'." He took out Sir Walter's Kenilworth once more, and turned the volume over and over slowly, without opening it. You cannot tell if in spirit he wandered on Bear Creek with the girl whose book it was. The spirit will go one road, and the thought another, and the body its own way sometimes. "Queen Elizabeth would have played a mighty pow'ful game," was his next remark.

"Poker?" said I.

"Yes, seh. Do you expaict Europe has got any queen equal to her at present?"

I doubted it.

"Victoria'd get pretty nigh slain sliding chips out agaynst Elizabeth. Only mos' prob'ly Victoria she'd insist on a half-cent limit. You have read this hyeh Kenilworth? Well, deal Elizabeth ace high, an' she could scare Robert Dudley with a full house plumb out o' the bettin'."

I said that I believed she unquestionably could.

"And," said the Virginian, "if Essex's play got next her too near, I reckon she'd have stacked the cyards. Say, d' yu' remember Shakespeare's fat man?"

"Falstaff? Oh, yes, indeed."

"Ain't that grand? Why, he makes men talk the way they do in life. I reckon he couldn't get printed to-day. It's a right down shame Shakespeare couldn't know about poker. He'd have had Falstaff playing all day at that Tearsheet outfit. And the Prince would have beat him."

"The Prince had the brains," said I.

"Brains?"

"Well, didn't he?"

"I neveh thought to notice. Like as not he did."

"And Falstaff didn't, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes, seh! Falstaff could have played whist."

"I suppose you know what you're talking about; I don't," said I, for he was drawling again.

The cow-puncher's eye rested a moment amiably upon me. "You can play whist with your brains," he mused,--"brains and cyards. Now cyards are only one o' the manifestations of poker in this hyeh world. One o' the shapes yu fool with it in when the day's work is oveh. If a man is built like that Prince boy was built (and it's away down deep beyond brains), he'll play winnin' poker with whatever hand he's holdin' when the trouble begins. Maybe it will be a mean, triflin' army, or an empty six-shooter, or a lame hawss, or maybe just nothin' but his natural countenance. 'Most any old thing will do for a fello' like that Prince boy to play poker with."

"Then I'd be grateful for your definition of poker," said I.

Again the Virginian looked me over amiably. "You put up a mighty pretty game o' whist yourself," he remarked. "Don't that give you the contented spirit?" And before I had any reply to this, the Christian Endeavor began to come over the bridge. Three instalments crossed the Missouri from Pacific Junction, bound for Pike's Peak, every car swathed in bright bunting, and at each window a Christian with a handkerchief, joyously shrieking. Then the cattle trains got the open signal, and I jumped off. "Tell the Judge the steers was all right this far," said the Virginian.

That was the last of the deputy foreman for a while.



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