BETWEEN THE ACTS
My road to Sunk Creek lay in no straight line. By rail I diverged
northwest to Fort Meade, and thence, after some stay with the
kind military people, I made my way on a horse. Up here in the
Black Hills it sluiced rain most intolerably. The horse and I
enjoyed the country and ourselves but little; and when finally I
changed from the saddle into a stage-coach, I caught a thankful
expression upon the animal's face, and returned the same.
"Six legs inside this jerky to-night?" said somebody, as I
climbed the wheel. "Well, we'll give thanks for not havin'
eight," he added cheerfully. "Clamp your mind on to that,
Shorty." And he slapped the shoulder of his neighbor. Naturally I
took these two for old companions. But we were all total
strangers. They told me of the new gold excitement at Rawhide,
and supposed it would bring up the Northern Pacific; and when I
explained the millions owed to this road's German bondholders,
they were of opinion that a German would strike it richer at
Rawhide. We spoke of all sorts of things, and in our silence I
gloated on the autumn holiday promised me by Judge Henry. His
last letter had said that an outfit would be starting for his
ranch from Bilings on the seventh, and he would have a horse for
me. This was the fifth. So we six legs in the jerky travelled
harmoniously on over the rain-gutted road, getting no deeper
knowledge of each other than what our outsides might imply.
Not that we concealed anything. The man who had slapped Shorty
introduced himself early. "Scipio le Moyne, from Gallipolice,
Ohio," he said. "The eldest of us always gets called Scipio. It's
French. But us folks have been white for a hundred years." He was
limber and light-muscled, and fell skilfully about, evading
bruises when the jerky reeled or rose on end. He had a strange,
long, jocular nose, very wary-looking, and a bleached blue eye.
Cattle was his business, as a rule, but of late he had been
"looking around some," and Rawhide seemed much on his brain.
Shorty struck me as "looking around" also. He was quite short,
indeed, and the jerky hurt him almost every time. He was
light-haired and mild. Think of a yellow dog that is lost, and
fancies each newcomer in sight is going to turn out his master,
and you will have Shorty.
It was the Northern Pacific that surprised us into intimacy. We
were nearing Medora. We had made a last arrangement of our legs.
I lay stretched in silence, placid in the knowledge it was soon
to end. So I drowsed. I felt something sudden, and, waking, saw
Scipio passing through the air. As Shorty next shot from the
jerky, I beheld smoke and the locomotive. The Northern Pacific
had changed its schedule. A valise is a poor companion for
catching a train with. There was rutted sand and lumpy, knee-high
grease wood in our short cut. A piece of stray wire sprang from
some hole and hung caracoling about my ankle. Tin cans spun from
my stride. But we made a conspicuous race. Two of us waved hats,
and there was no moment that some one of us was not screeching.
It meant twenty-four hours to us.
Perhaps we failed to catch the train's attention, though the
theory seems monstrous. As it moved off in our faces, smooth and
easy and insulting, Scipio dropped instantly to a walk, and we
two others outstripped him and came desperately to the empty
track. There went the train. Even still its puffs were the
separated puffs of starting, that bitten-off, snorty kind, and
sweat and our true natures broke freely forth.
I kicked my valise, and then sat on it, dumb.
Shorty yielded himself up aloud. All his humble secrets came out
of him. He walked aimlessly round, lamenting. He had lost his
job, and he mentioned the ranch. He had played cards, and he
mentioned the man. He had sold his horse and saddle to catch a
friend on this train, and he mentioned what the friend had been
going to do for him. He told a string of griefs and names to the
air, as if the air knew.
Meanwhile Scipio arrived with extreme leisure at the rails. He
stuck his hands into his pockets and his head out at the very
small train. His bleached blue eyes shut to slits as he watched
the rear car in its smoke-blur ooze away westward among the
mounded bluffs. "Lucky it's out of range," I thought. But now
Scipio spoke to it.
"Why, you seem to think you've left me behind," he began easily,
in fawning tones. "You're too much of a kid to have such
thoughts. Age some." His next remark grew less wheedling. "I
wouldn't be a bit proud to meet yu'. Why, if I was seen
travellin' with yu', I'd have to explain it to my friends! Think
you've got me left, do yu'? Just because yu' ride through this
country on a rail, do yu' claim yu' can find your way around? I
could take yu' out ten yards in the brush and lose yu' in ten
seconds, you spangle-roofed hobo! Leave ME behind? you recent
blanket-mortgage yearlin'! You plush-lined, nickel-plated,
whistlin' wash room, d' yu' figure I can't go east just as soon
as west? Or I'll stay right here if it suits me, yu'
dude-inhabited hot-box! Why, yu' coon-bossed face-towel--" But
from here he rose in flights of novelty that appalled and held me
spellbound, and which are not for me to say to you. Then he came
down easily again, and finished with expressions of sympathy for
it because it could never have known a mother.
"Do you expaict it could show a male parent offhand?" inquired a
slow voice behind us. I jumped round, and there was the
"Male parent!" scoffed the prompt Scipio. "Ain't you heard about
"Them? Was there two?"
"Two? The blamed thing was sired by a whole doggone Dutch
"Why, the piebald son of a gun!" responded the Virginian,
sweetly. "I got them steers through all right," he added to me.
"Sorry to see yu' get so out o' breath afteh the train. Is your
valise sufferin' any?"
"Who's he?" inquired Scipio, curiously, turning to me.
The Southerner sat with a newspaper on the rear platform of a
caboose. The caboose stood hitched behind a mile or so of freight
train, and the train was headed west. So here was the deputy
foreman, his steers delivered in Chicago, his men (I could hear
them) safe in the caboose, his paper in his lap, and his legs
dangling at ease over the railing. He wore the look of a man for
whom things are going smooth. And for me the way to Billings was
smooth now, also.
"Who's he?" Scipio repeated.
But from inside the caboose loud laughter and noise broke on us.
Some one was reciting "And it's my night to howl."
"We'll all howl when we get to Rawhide," said some other one; and
they howled now.
"These hyeh steam cyars," said the Virginian to Scipio, "make a
man's language mighty nigh as speedy as his travel." Of Shorty he
took no notice whatever--no more than of the manifestations in
"So yu' heard me speakin' to the express," said Scipio. "Well, I
guess, sometimes I--See here," he exclaimed, for the Virginian
was gravely considering him, "I may have talked some, but I
walked a whole lot. You didn't catch ME squandering no speed.
"I noticed," said the Virginian, "thinkin' came quicker to yu'
I was glad I was not Shorty, to have my measure taken merely by
my way of missing a train. And of course I was sorry that I had
kicked my valise.
"Oh, I could tell yu'd been enjoyin' us!" said Scipio. "Observin'
somebody else's scrape always kind o' rests me too. Maybe you're
a philosopher, but maybe there's a pair of us drawd in this
Approval now grew plain upon the face of the Virginian. "By your
laigs," said he, "you are used to the saddle."
"I'd be called used to it, I expect."
"By your hands," said the Southerner, again, "you ain't roped
many steers lately. Been cookin' or something?"
"Say," retorted Scipio, "tell my future some now. Draw a
conclusion from my mouth."
"I'm right distressed," unsevered the gentle Southerner, "we've
not a drop in the outfit."
"Oh, drink with me uptown!" cried Scipio "I'm pleased to death
The Virginian glanced where the saloons stood just behind the
station, and shook his head.
"Why, it ain't a bit far to whiskey from here!" urged the other,
plaintively. "Step down, now. Scipio le Moyne's my name. Yes,
you're lookin' for my brass ear-rings. But there ain't no
earrings on me. I've been white for a hundred years. Step down.
I've a forty-dollar thirst."
"You're certainly white," began the Virginian. "But--"
Here the caboose resumed:
"I'm wild, and woolly, and full of peas;
I'm hard to curry above the knees;
I'm a she-wolf from Bitter Creek, and
It's my night to ho-o-wl--"
And as they howled and stamped, the wheels of the caboose began
to turn gently and to murmur.
The Virginian rose suddenly. "Will yu' save that thirst and take
a forty-dollar job?"
"Missin' trains, profanity, or what?" said Scipio.
"I'll tell yu' soon as I'm sure."
At this Scipio looked hard at the Virginian. "Why, you're talkin'
business!" said he, and leaped on the caboose, where I was
already. "I WAS thinkin' of Rawhide," he added, "but I ain't any
"Well, good luck!" said Shorty, on the track behind us.
"Oh, say!" said Scipio, "he wanted to go on that train, just like
"Get on," called the Virginian. "But as to getting a job, he
ain't just like you." So Shorty came, like a lost dog when you
whistle to him.
Our wheels clucked over the main-line switch. A train-hand threw
it shut after us, jumped aboard, and returned forward over the
roofs. Inside the caboose they had reached the third howling of
"Friends of yourn?" said Scipio.
"My outfit," drawled the Virginian.
"Do yu' always travel outside?" inquired Scipio.
"It's lonesome in there," returned the deputy foreman. And here
one of them came out, slamming the door
"Hell!" he said, at sight of the distant town. Then, truculently,
to the Virginian, "I told you I was going to get a bottle here."
"Have your bottle, then," said the deputy foreman, and kicked him
off into Dakota. (It was not North Dakota yet; they had not
divided it.) The Virginian had aimed his pistol at about the same
time with his boot. Therefore the man sat in Dakota quietly,
watching us go away into Montana, and offering no objections.
Just before he became too small to make out, we saw him rise and
remove himself back toward the saloons.