Part 4 out of 5
of the outcome. They swept down upon Separ like all the hordes of legend--
more egregiously, perhaps, because they were play-acting and no serious
horde would go on so. Our final hundred yards of speed and copious
howling brought all dwellers in Separ out to gaze and disappear like
rabbits--all save the new agent in the station. Nobody ran out or in
there, and the horde whirled up to the tiny, defenceless building and
leaped to earth--except Lin and me; we sat watching. The innocent door
stood open wide to any cool breeze or invasion, and Honey Wiggin tramped
in foremost, hat lowering over eyes and pistol prominent. He stopped
rooted, staring, and his mouth came open slowly; his hand went feeling up
for his hat, and came down with it by degrees as by degrees his grin
spread. Then in a milky voice, he said: "Why, excuse me, ma'am!
There answered a clear, long, rippling, ample laugh. It came out of the
open door into the heat; it made the sun-baked air merry; it seemed to
welcome and mock; it genially hovered about us in the dusty quiet of
Separ; for there was no other sound anywhere at all in the place, and the
great plain stretched away silent all round it. The bulging water-tank
shone overhead in bland, ironic safety.
The horde stood blank; then it shifted its legs, looked sideways at
itself, and in a hesitating clump reached the door, shambled in, and
removed its foolish hat.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," said Jessamine Buckner, seated behind her
railing; and various voices endeavored to reply conventionally.
"If you have any letters, ma'am," said the Virginian, more inventive,
"I'll take them. Letters for Judge Henry's." He knew the judge's office
was seventy miles from here.
"Any for the C. Y.?" muttered another, likewise knowing better.
It was a happy, if simple, thought, and most of them inquired for the
mail. Jessamine sought carefully, making them repeat their names, which
some did guiltily: they foresaw how soon the lady would find out no
letters ever came for these names!
There was no letter for any one present.
"I'm sorry, truly," said Jessamine behind the railing. "For you seemed
real anxious to get news. Better luck next time! And if I make mistakes,
please everybody set me straight, for of course I don't understand things
"Thank yu', m'm.'
They got themselves out of the station and into their saddles.
"No, she don't understand things yet," soliloquized the Virginian. "Oh
dear, no." He turned his slow, dark eyes upon us. "You Lin McLean," said
he, in his gentle voice, "you have cert'nly fooled me plumb through this
Then the horde rode out of town, chastened and orderly till it was quite
small across the sagebrush, when reaction seized it. It sped suddenly and
vanished in dust with far, hilarious cries and here were Lin and I, and
here towered the water-tank, shining and shining.
Thus did Separ's vigilante take possession and vindicate Lin's knowledge
of his kind. It was not three days until the Virginian, that lynx
observer, fixed his grave eyes upon McLean "'Neighbor' is as cute a name
for a six-shooter as ever I heard," said he. "But she'll never have need
of your gun in Separ--only to shoot up peaceful playin'-cyards while she
hearkens to your courtin'."
That was his way of congratulation to a brother lover. "Plumb strange,"
he said to me one morning after an hour of riding in silence, "how a man
will win two women while another man gets aged waitin' for one."
"Your hair seems black as ever," said I.
"My hopes ain't so glossy any more," he answered. "Lin has done better
this second trip."
"Mrs. Lusk don't count," said I.
"I reckon she counted mighty plentiful when he thought he'd got her
clamped to him by lawful marriage. But Lin's lucky." And the Virginian
fell silent again.
Lucky Lin bestirred him over his work, his plans, his ranch on Box Elder
that was one day to be a home for his lady. He came and went, seeing his
idea triumph and his girl respected. Not only was she a girl, but a good
shot too. And as if she and her small, neat home were a sort of
possession, the cow-punchers would boast of her to strangers. They would
have dealt heavily now with the wretch who should trifle with the
water-tank. When camp came within visiting distance, you would see one or
another shaving and parting his hair. They wrote unnecessary letters, and
brought them to mail as excuses for an afternoon call. Honey Wiggin, more
original, would look in the door with his grin, and hold up an ace of
clubs. "I thought maybe yu' could spare a minute for a shootin'-match,"
he would insinuate; and Separ now heard no more objectionable shooting
than this. Texas brought her presents of game--antelope, sage-chickens--
but, shyness intervening, he left them outside the door, and entering,
dressed in all the "Sunday" that he had, would sit dumbly in the lady's
presence. I remember his emerging from one of these placid interviews
straight into the hands of his tormentors.
"If she don't notice your clothes, Texas," said the Virginian, "just
mention them to her."
"Now yer've done offended her," shrilled Manassas Donohoe. "She heard
"She'll hear you singin' sooprano," said Honey Wiggin. "It's good this
country has reformed, or they'd have you warblin' in some dance-hall and
corrupt your morals."
"You sca'cely can corrupt the morals of a soprano man," observed the
Virginian. "Go and play with Billy till you can talk bass."
But it was the boldest adults that Billy chose for playmates. Texas he
found immature. Moreover, when next he came, he desired play with no one.
Summer was done. September's full moon was several nights ago; he had
gone on his hunt with Lin, and now spelling-books were at hand. But more
than this clouded his mind, he had been brought to say good-bye to
Jessamine Buckner, who had scarcely seen him, and to give her a
wolverene-skin, a hunting trophy. "She can have it," he told me. "I like
her." Then he stole a look at his guardian. "If they get married and send
me back to mother," said he, "I'll run away sure." So school and this old
dread haunted the child, while for the man, Lin the lucky, who suspected
nothing of it, time was ever bringing love nearer to his hearth. His
Jessamine had visited Box Elder, and even said she wanted chickens there;
since when Mr. McLean might occasionally have been seen at his cabin,
worrying over barn-yard fowls, feeding and cursing them with equal care.
Spring would see him married, he told me.
"This time right!" he exclaimed. "And I want her to know Billy some more
before he goes to Bear Creek."
"Ah, Bear Creek!" said Billy, acidly. "Why can't I stay home?"
"Home sounds kind o' slick," said Lin to me. "Don't it, now? 'Home' is
closer than 'neighbor,' you bet! Billy, put the horses in the corral, and
ask Miss Buckner if we can come and see her after supper. If you're good,
maybe she'll take yu' for a ride to-morrow. And, kid, ask her about
Again suspicion quivered over Billy's face, and he dragged his horses
angrily to the corral.
Lin nudged me, laughing. "I can rile him every time about Laramie," said
he, affectionately. "I wouldn't have believed the kid set so much store
by me. Nor I didn't need to ask Jessamine to love him for my sake. What
do yu' suppose? Before I'd got far as thinking of Billy at all--right
after Edgeford, when my head was just a whirl of joy--Jessamine says to
me one day, 'Read that.' It was Governor Barker writin' to her about her
brother and her sorrow." Lin paused. "And about me. I can't never tell
you--but he said a heap I didn't deserve. And he told her about me
picking up Billy in Denver streets that time, and doing for him because
his own home was not a good one. Governor Barker wrote Jessamine all
that; and she said, 'Why did you never tell me?' And I said it wasn't
anything to tell. And she just said to me, 'It shall be as if he was your
son and I was his mother.' And that's the first regular kiss she ever
gave me I didn't have to take myself. God bless her! God bless her!"
As we ate our supper, young Billy burst out of brooding silence: "I
didn't ask her about Laramie. So there!"
"Well, well, kid," said the cow-puncher, patting his head, "yu' needn't
to, I guess."
But Billy's eye remained sullen and jealous. He paid slight attention to
the picture-book of soldiers and war that Jessamine gave him when we went
over to the station. She had her own books, some flowers in pots, a
rocking-chair, and a cosey lamp that shone on her bright face and dark
dress. We drew stools from the office desks, and Billy perched silently
"Scanty room for company!" Jessamine said. "But we must make out this
way--till we have another way." She smiled on Lin, and Billy's face
darkened. "Do you know," she pursued to me, "with all those chickens Mr.
McLean tells me about, never a one has he thought to bring here."
"Livin' or dead do you want 'em?" inquired Lin.
"Oh, I'll not bother you. Mr. Donohoe says he will--"
"Texas? Chickens? Him? Then he'll have to steal 'em!" And we all laughed
"You won't make me go back to Laramie, will you?" spoke Billy, suddenly,
from his stool.
"I'd like to see anybody try to make you?" exclaimed Jessamine. "Who says
any such thing?"
"Lin did," said Billy.
Jessamine looked at her lover reproachfully. "What a way to tease him!"
she said. "And you so kind. Why, you've hurt his feelings!"
"I never thought," said Lin the boisterous. "I wouldn't have."
"Come sit here, Billy," said Jessamine. "Whenever he teases, you tell me,
and we'll make him behave."
"Honest?" persisted Billy.
"Shake hands on it," said Jessamine.
"Cause I'll go to school. But I won't go back to Laramie for no one. And
you're a-going to be Lin's wife, honest?"
"Honest! Honest!" And Jessamine, laughing, grew red beside her lamp.
"Then I guess mother can't never come back to Lin, either," stated Billy,
Jessamine let fall the child's hand.
"Cause she liked him onced, and he liked her."
Jessamine gazed at Lin.
"It's simple," said the cow-puncher. "It's all right."
But Jessamine sat by her lamp, very pale.
"It's all right," repeated Lin in the silence, shifting his foot and
looking down. "Once I made a fool of myself. Worse than usual."
"Billy?" whispered Jessamine. "Then you--But his name is Lusk!"
"Course it is," said Billy. "Father and mother are living in Laramie."
"It's all straight," said the cow-puncher. "I never saw her till three
years ago. I haven't anything to hide, only--only--only it don't come
easy to tell."
I rose. "Miss Buckner," said I, "he will tell you. But he will not tell
you he paid dearly for what was no fault of his. It has been no secret.
It is only something his friends and his enemies have forgotten."
But all the while I was speaking this, Jessamine's eyes were fixed on
Lin, and her face remained white.
I left the girl and the man and the little boy together, and crossed to
the hotel. But its air was foul, and I got my roll of camp blankets to
sleep in the clean night, if sleeping-time should come; meanwhile I
walked about in the silence To have taken a wife once in good faith,
ignorant she was another's, left no stain, raised no barrier. I could
have told Jessamine the same old story myself--or almost; but what had it
to do with her at all? Why need she know? Reasoning thus, yet with
something left uncleared by reason that I could not state, I watched the
moon edge into sight, heavy and rich-hued, a melon-slice of glow,
seemingly near, like a great lantern tilted over the plain. The smell of
the sage-brush flavored the air; the hush of Wyoming folded distant and
near things, and all Separ but those three inside the lighted window were
in bed. Dark windows were everywhere else, and looming above rose the
water-tank, a dull mass in the night, and forever somehow to me a Sphinx
emblem, the vision I instantly see when I think of Separ. Soon I heard a
door creaking. It was Billy, coming alone, and on seeing me he walked up
and spoke in a half-awed voice.
"She's a-crying," said he.
I withheld from questions, and as he kept along by my side he said: "I'm
sorry. Do you think she's mad with Lin for what he's told her? She just
sat, and when she started crying he made me go away."
"I don't believe she's mad," I told Billy; and I sat down on my blanket,
he beside me, talking while the moon grew small as it rose over the
plain, and the light steadily shone in Jessamine's window. Soon young
Billy fell asleep, and I looked at him, thinking how in a way it was he
who had brought this trouble on the man who had saved him and loved him.
But that man had no such untender thoughts. Once more the door opened,
and it was he who came this time, alone also. She did not follow him and
stand to watch him from the threshold, though he forgot to close the
door, and, coming over to me, stood looking down.
"What?" I said at length.
I don't know that he heard me. He stooped over Billy and shook him
gently. "Wake, son," said he. "You and I must get to our camp now."
"Now?" said Billy. "Can't we wait till morning?"
"No, son. We can't wait here any more. Go and get the horses and put the
saddles on." As Billy obeyed, Lin looked at the lighted window. "She is
in there," he said. "She's in there. So near." He looked, and turned to
the hotel, from which he brought his chaps and spurs and put them on. "I
understand her words," he continued. "Her words, the meaning of them. But
not what she means, I guess. It will take studyin' over. Why, she don't
blame me!" he suddenly said, speaking to me instead of to himself.
"Lin," I answered, "she has only just heard this, you see. Wait awhile."
"That's not the trouble. She knows what kind of man I have been, and she
forgives that just the way she did her brother. And she knows how I
didn't intentionally conceal anything. Billy hasn't been around, and she
never realized about his mother and me. We've talked awful open, but that
was not pleasant to speak of, and the whole country knew it so long--and
I never thought! She don't blame me. She says she understands; but she
says I have a wife livin'."
"That is nonsense," I declared.
"Yu' mustn't say that," said he. "She don't claim she's a wife, either.
She just shakes her head when I asked her why she feels so. It must be
different to you and me from the way it seems to her. I don't see her
view; maybe I never can see it; but she's made me feel she has it, and
that she's honest, and loves me true--" His voice broke for a moment.
"She said she'd wait."
"You can't have a marriage broken that was never tied," I said. "But
perhaps Governor Barker or Judge Henry--"
"No," said the cow-puncher. "Law couldn't fool her. She's thinking of
something back of law. She said she'd wait--always. And when I took it in
that this was all over and done, and when I thought of my ranch and the
chickens--well, I couldn't think of things at all, and I came and waked
Billy to clear out and quit."
"What did you tell her?" I asked.
"Tell her? Nothin', I guess. I don't remember getting out of the room.
Why, here's actually her pistol, and she's got mine!"
"Man, man!" said I, "go back and tell her to keep it, and that you'll
"Look!" I pointed to Jessamine standing in the door.
I saw his face as he turned to her, and I walked toward Billy and the
horses. Presently I heard steps on the wooden station, and from its
black, brief shadow the two came walking, Lin and his sweetheart, into
the moonlight. They were not speaking, but merely walked together in the
clear radiance, hand in hand, like two children. I saw that she was
weeping, and that beneath the tyranny of her resolution her whole loving,
ample nature was wrung. But the strange, narrow fibre in her would not
yield! I saw them go to the horses, and Jessamine stood while Billy and
Lin mounted. Then quickly the cow-puncher sprang down again and folded
her in his arms.
"Lin, dear Lin! dear neighbor!" she sobbed. She could not withhold this
I do not think he spoke. In a moment the horses started and were gone,
flying, rushing away into the great plain, until sight and sound of them
were lost, and only the sage-brush was there, bathed in the high, bright
moon. The last thing I remember as I lay in my blankets was Jessamine's
window still lighted, and the water-tank, clear-lined and black, standing
DESTINY AT DRYBONE
Children have many special endowments, and of these the chiefest is to
ask questions that their elders must skirmish to evade. Married people
and aunts and uncles commonly discover this, but mere instinct does not
guide one to it. A maiden of twenty-three will not necessarily divine it.
Now except in one unhappy hour of stress and surprise, Miss Jessamine
Buckner had been more than equal to life thus far. But never yet had she
been shut up a whole day in one room with a boy of nine. Had this
experience been hers, perhaps she would not have written to Mr. McLean
the friendly and singular letter in which she hoped he was well, and said
that she was very well, and how was dear little Billy? She was glad Mr.
McLean had stayed away. That was just like his honorable nature, and what
she expected of him. And she was perfectly happy at Separ, and "yours
sincerely and always, 'Neighbor.'" Postscript. Talking of Billy Lusk--if
Lin was busy with gathering the cattle, why not send Billy down to stop
quietly with her. She would make him a bed in the ticket-office, and
there she would be to see after him all the time. She knew Lin did not
like his adopted child to be too much in cow-camp with the men. She would
adopt him, too, for just as long as convenient to Lin--until the school
opened on Bear Creek, if Lin so wished. Jessamine wrote a good deal about
how much better care any woman can take of a boy of Billy's age than any
man knows. The stage-coach brought the answer to this remarkably soon--
young Billy with a trunk and a letter of twelve pages in pencil and ink--
the only writing of this length ever done by Mr. McLean.
"I can write a lot quicker than Lin," said Billy, upon arriving. "He was
fussing at that away late by the fire in camp, an' waked me up crawling
in our bed. An' then he had to finish it next night when he went over to
the cabin for my clothes."
"You don't say!" said Jessamine. And Billy suffered her to kiss him
When not otherwise occupied Jessamine took the letter out of its locked
box and read it, or looked at it. Thus the first days had gone finely at
Separ, the weather being beautiful and Billy much out-of-doors. But
sometimes the weather changes in Wyoming; and now it was that Miss
Jessamine learned the talents of childhood.
Soon after breakfast this stormy morning Billy observed the twelve pages
being taken out of their box, and spoke from his sudden brain. "Honey
Wiggin says Lin's losing his grip about girls," he remarked. "He says you
couldn't 'a' downed him onced. You'd 'a' had to marry him. Honey says Lin
ain't worked it like he done in old times."
"Now I shouldn't wonder if he was right," said Jessamine, buoyantly. "And
that being the case, I'm going to set to work at your things till it
clears, and then we'll go for our ride."
"Yes," said Billy. When does a man get too old to marry?"
"I'm only a girl, you see. I don't know."
"Yes. Honey said he wouldn't 'a' thought Lin was that old. But I guess he
must be thirty."
"Old!" exclaimed Jessamine. And she looked at a photograph upon her
"But Lin ain't been married very much," pursued Billy. "Mother's the only
one they speak of. You don't have to stay married always, do you?"
"It's better to," said Jessamine.
"Ah, I don't think so," said Billy, with disparagement. "You ought to see
mother and father. I wish you would leave Lin marry you, though," said
the boy, coming to her with an impulse of affection. "Why won't you if he
She continued to parry him, but this was not a very smooth start for
eight in the morning. Moments of lull there were, when the telegraph
called her to the front room, and Billy's young mind shifted to inquiries
about the cipher alphabet. And she gained at least an hour teaching him
to read various words by the sound. At dinner, too, he was refreshingly
silent. But such silences are unsafe, and the weather was still bad. Four
o'clock found them much where they had been at eight.
"Please tell me why you won't leave Lin marry you." He was at the window,
kicking the wall.
"That's nine times since dinner," she replied, with tireless good humor.
"Now if you ask me twelve--"
"You'll tell?" said the boy, swiftly.
She broke into a laugh. "No. I'll go riding and you'll stay at home. When
I was little and would ask things beyond me, they only gave me three
"I've got two more, anyway. Ha-ha!"
"Better save 'em up, though."
"What did they do to you? Ah, I don't want to go a-riding. It's nasty all
over." He stared out at the day against which Separ's doors had been
tight closed since morning. Eight hours of furious wind had raised the
dust like a sea. "I wish the old train would come," observed Billy,
continuing to kick the wall. "I wish I was going somewheres." Smoky,
level, and hot, the south wind leapt into Separ across five hundred
unbroken miles. The plain was blanketed in a tawny eclipse. Each minute
the near buildings became invisible in a turbulent herd of clouds. Above
this travelling blur of the soil the top of the water-tank alone rose
bulging into the clear sun. The sand spirals would lick like flames along
the bulk of the lofty tub, and soar skyward. It was not shipping season.
The freight-cars stood idle in a long line. No cattle huddled in the
corrals. No strangers moved in town. No cow-ponies dozed in front of the
saloon. Their riders were distant in ranch and camp. Human noise was
extinct in Separ. Beneath the thunder of the sultry blasts the place lay
dead in its flapping shroud of dust. "Why won't you tell me?" droned
Billy. For some time he had been returning, like a mosquito brushed away.
"That's ten times," said Jessamine, promptly.
"Oh, goodness! Pretty soon I'll not be glad I came. I'm about twiced as
less glad now."
"Well," said Jessamine, "there's a man coming to-day to mend the
government telegraph-line between Drybone and McKinney. Maybe he would
take you back as far as Box Elder, if you want to go very much. Shall I
Billy was disappointed at this cordial seconding of his mood. He did not
make a direct rejoinder. "I guess I'll go outside now," said he, with a
threat in his tone.
She continued mending his stockings. Finished ones lay rolled at one side
of her chair, and upon the other were more waiting her attention.
"And I'm going to turn back hand-springs on top of all the freight-cars,"
he stated, more loudly.
She indulged again in merriment, laughing sweetly at him, and without
"And I'm sick of what you all keep a-saying to me!" he shouted. "Just as
if I was a baby."
"Why, Billy, who ever said you were a baby?"
"All of you do. Honey, and Lin, and you, now, and everybody. What makes
you say 'that's nine times, Billy; oh, Billy, that's ten times,' if you
don't mean I'm a baby? And you laugh me off, just like they do, and just
like I was a regular baby. You won't tell me--"
"Billy, listen. Did nobody ever ask you something you did not want to
"That's not a bit the same, because--because--because I treat 'em square
and because it's not their business. But every time I ask anybody 'most
anything, they say I'm not old enough to understand; and I'll be ten
soon. And it is my business when it's about the kind of a mother I'm
agoing to have. Suppose I quit acting square, an' told 'em, when they
bothered me, they weren't young enough to understand! Wish I had. Guess I
will, too, and watch 'em step around." For a moment his mind dwelt upon
this, and he whistled a revengeful strain.
"Goodness, Billy!" said Jessamine, at the sight of the next stocking.
"The whole heel is scorched off."
He eyed the ruin with indifference. "Ah, that was last month when I and
Lin shot the bear in the swamp willows. He made me dry off my legs. Chuck
"And spoil the pair? No, indeed!"
"Mother always chucked 'em, an' father'd buy new ones till I skipped from
home. Lin kind o' mends 'em."
"Does he?" said Jessamine, softly. And she looked at the photograph.
"Yes. What made you write him for to let me come and bring my stockin's
"Don't you see, Billy, there is so little work at this station that I'd
be looking out of the window all day just the pitiful way you do?"
"Oh!" Billy pondered. "And so I said to Lin," he continued, "why didn't
he send down his own clothes, too, an' let you fix 'em all. And Honey
Wiggin laughed right in his coffee-cup so it all sploshed out. And the
cook he asked me if mother used to mend Lin's clothes. But I guess she
chucked 'em like she always did father's and mine. I was with father, you
know, when mother was married to Lin that time." He paused again, while
his thoughts and fears struggled. "But Lin says I needn't ever go back,"
he went on, reasoning and confiding to her. "Lin don't like mother any
more, I guess." His pondering grew still deeper, and he looked at
Jessamine for some while. Then his face wakened with a new theory. "Don't
Lin like you any more?" he inquired.
"Oh," cried Jessamine, crimsoning, "yes! Why, he sent you to me!"
"Well, he got hot in camp when I said that about sending his clothes to
you. He quit supper pretty soon, and went away off a walking. And that's
another time they said I was too young. But Lin don't come to see you any
"Why, I hope he loves me," murmured Jessamine. "Always."
"Well, I hope so too," said Billy, earnestly. "For I like you. When I
seen him show you our cabin on Box Elder, and the room he had fixed for
you, I was glad you were coming to be my mother. Mother used to be awful.
I wouldn't 'a' minded her licking me if she'd done other things. Ah,
pshaw! I wasn't going to stand that." Billy now came close to Jessamine.
"I do wish you would come and live with me and Lin," said he. "Lin's
"Don't I know it?" said Jessamine, tenderly.
"Cause I heard you say you were going to marry him," went on Billy. "And
I seen him kiss you and you let him that time we went away when you found
out about mother. And you're not mad, and he's not, and nothing happens
at all, all the same! Won't you tell me, please?"
Jessamine's eyes were glistening, and she took him in her lap. She was
not going to tell him that he was too young this time. But whatever
things she had shaped to say to the boy were never said.
Through the noise of the gale came the steadier sound of the train, and
the girl rose quickly to preside over her ticket-office and duties behind
the railing in the front room of the station. The boy ran to the window
to watch the great event of Separ's day. The locomotive loomed out from
the yellow clots of drift, paused at the water-tank, and then with steam
and humming came slowly on by the platform. Slowly its long dust-choked
train emerged trundling behind it, and ponderously halted. There was no
one to go. No one came to buy a ticket of Jessamine. The conductor looked
in on business, but she had no telegraphic orders for him. The express
agent jumped off and looked in for pleasure. He received his daily smile
and nod of friendly discouragement. Then the light bundle of mail was
flung inside the door. Separ had no mail to go out. As she was picking up
the letters young Billy passed her like a shadow, and fled out. Two
passengers had descended from the train, a man and a large woman. His
clothes were loose and careless upon him. He held valises, and stood
uncertainly looking about him in the storm. Her firm, heavy body was
closely dressed. In her hat was a large, handsome feather. Along between
the several cars brakemen leaned out, watched her, and grinned to each
other. But her big, hard-shining blue eyes were fixed curiously upon the
station where Jessamine was.
"It's all night we may be here, is it?" she said to the man, harshly.
"How am I to help that?" he retorted.
"I'll help it. If this hotel's the sty it used to be, I'll walk to
Tommy's. I've not saw him since I left Bear Creek."
She stalked into the hotel, while the man went slowly to the station. He
entered, and found Jessamine behind her railing, sorting the slim mail.
"Good-evening," he said. "Excuse me. There was to be a wagon sent here."
"For the telegraph-mender? Yes, sir. It came Tuesday. You're to find the
pole-wagon at Drybone."
This news was good, and all that he wished to know. He could drive out
and escape a night at the Hotel Brunswick. But he lingered, because
Jessamine spoke so pleasantly to him. He had heard of her also.
"Governor Barker has not been around here?" he said.
"Not yet, sir. We understand he is expected through on a hunting-trip."
"I suppose there is room for two and a trunk on that wagon?"
"I reckon so, sir." Jessamine glanced at the man, and he took himself
out. Most men took themselves out if Jessamine so willed; and it was
mostly achieved thus, in amity.
On the platform the man found his wife again.
"Then I needn't to walk to Tommy's," she said. "And we'll eat as we
travel. But you'll wait till I'm through with her." She made a gesture
toward the station.
"Why--why--what do you want with her. Don't you know who she is?"
"It was me told you who she was, James Lusk. You'll wait till I've been
and asked her after Lin McLean's health, and till I've saw how the likes
of her talks to the likes of me."
He made a feeble protest that this would do no one any good.
"Sew yourself up, James Lusk. If it has been your idea I come with yus
clear from Laramie to watch yus plant telegraph-poles in the sage-brush,
why you're off. I ain't heard much 'o Lin since the day he learned it was
you and not him that was my husband. And I've come back in this country
to have a look at my old friends--and" (she laughed loudly and nodded at
the station) "my old friends' new friends!"
Thus ordered, the husband wandered away to find his wagon and the horse.
Jessamine, in the office, had finished her station duties and returned to
her needle. She sat contemplating the scorched sock of Billy's, and heard
a heavy step at the threshold. She turned, and there was the large woman
with the feather quietly surveying her. The words which the stranger
spoke then were usual enough for a beginning. But there was something of
threat in the strong animal countenance, something of laughter ready to
break out. Much beauty of its kind had evidently been in the face, and
now, as substitute for what was gone, was the brag look of assertion that
it was still all there. Many stranded travellers knocked at Jessamine's
door, and now, as always, she offered the hospitalities of her neat
abode, the only room in Separ fit for a woman. As she spoke, and the
guest surveyed and listened, the door blew shut with a crash.
Outside, in a shed, Billy had placed the wagon between himself and his
"How you have grown!" the man was saying; and he smiled. "Come, shake
hands. I did not think to see you here."
"Dare you to touch me!" Billy screamed. "No, I'll never come with you.
Lin says I needn't to."
The man passed his hand across his forehead, and leaned against the
wheel. "Lord, Lord!" he muttered.
His son warily slid out of the shed and left him leaning there.
Lin McLean, bachelor, sat out in front of his cabin, looking at a small
bright pistol that lay in his hand. He held it tenderly, cherishing it,
and did not cease slowly to polish it. Revery filled his eyes, and in his
whole face was sadness unmasked, because only the animals were there to
perceive his true feelings. Sunlight and waving shadows moved together
upon the green of his pasture, cattle and horses loitered in the opens by
the stream. Down Box Elder's course, its valley and golden-chimneyed
bluffs widened away into the level and the blue of the greater valley.
Upstream the branches and shining, quiet leaves entered the mountains
where the rock chimneys narrowed to a gateway, a citadel of shafts and
turrets, crimson and gold above the filmy emerald of the trees. Through
there the road went up from the cotton-woods into the cool quaking asps
and pines, and so across the range and away to Separ. Along the
ridge-pole of the new stable, two hundred yards down-stream, sat McLean's
turkeys, and cocks and hens walked in front of him here by his cabin and
fenced garden. Slow smoke rose from the cabin's chimney into the air, in
which were no sounds but the running water and the afternoon chirp of
birds. Amid this framework of a home the cow-puncher sat, lonely,
inattentive, polishing the treasured weapon as if it were not already
long clean. His target stood some twenty steps in front of him--a small
cottonwood-tree, its trunk chipped and honeycombed with bullets which he
had fired into it each day for memory's sake. Presently he lifted the
pistol and looked at its name--the word "Neighbor" engraved upon it.
"I wonder," said he, aloud, "if she keeps the rust off mine?" Then he
lifted it slowly to his lips and kissed the word "Neighbor."
The clank of wheels sounded on the road, and he put the pistol quickly
down. Dreaminess vanished from his face. He looked around alertly, but no
one had seen him. The clanking was still among the trees a little
distance up Box Elder. It approached deliberately, while he watched for
the vehicle to emerge upon the open where his cabin stood; and then they
came, a man and a woman. At sight of her Mr. McLean half rose, but sat
down again. Neither of them had noticed him, sitting as they were in
silence and the drowsiness of a long drive. The man was weak-faced, with
good looks sallowed by dissipation, and a vanquished glance of the eye.
As the woman had stood on the platform at Separ, so she sat now, upright,
bold, and massive. The brag of past beauty was a habit settled upon her
stolid features. Both sat inattentive to each other and to everything
around them. The wheels turned slowly and with a dry, dead noise, the
reins bellied loosely to the shafts, the horse's head hung low. So they
drew close. Then the man saw McLean, and color came into his face and
"Good-evening," said he, clearing his throat. "We heard you was in
The cow-puncher noted how he tried to smile, and a freakish change
crossed his own countenance. He nodded slightly, and stretched his legs
out as he sat.
"You look natural," said the woman, familiarly.
"Seem to be fixed nice here," continued the man. "Hadn't heard of it.
Well, we'll be going along. Glad to have seen you."
"Your wheel wants greasing," said McLean, briefly, his eye upon the man.
"Can't stop. I expect she'll last to Drybone. Good-evening."
"Stay to supper," said McLean, always seated on his chair.
"Can't stop, thank you. I expect we can last to Drybone." He twitched the
McLean levelled a pistol at a chicken, and knocked off its head. "Better
stay to supper," he suggested, very distinctly.
"It's business, I tell you. I've got to catch Governor Barker before he--"
The pistol cracked, and a second chicken shuffled in the dust. "Better
stay to supper," drawled McLean.
The man looked up at his wife.
"So yus need me!" she broke out. "Ain't got heart enough in yer
played-out body to stand up to a man. We'll eat here. Get down."
The husband stepped to the ground. "I didn't suppose you'd want--"
"Ho! want? What's Lin, or you, or anything to me? Help me out."
Both men came forward. She descended, leaning heavily upon each, her blue
staring eyes fixed upon the cow-puncher.
"No, yus ain't changed," she said. "Same in your looks and same in your
actions. Was you expecting you could scare me, you, Lin McLean?"
"I just wanted chickens for supper," said he.
Mrs. Lusk gave a hard high laugh. "I'll eat 'em. It's not I that cares.
As for--" She stopped. Her eye had fallen upon the pistol and the name
"Neighbor." "As for you," she continued to Mr. Lusk, "don't you be
standing dumb same as the horse."
"Better take him to the stable, Lusk," said McLean.
He picked the chickens up, showed the woman to the best chair in his
room, and went into his kitchen to cook supper for three. He gave his
guests no further attention, nor did either of them come in where he was,
nor did the husband rejoin the wife. He walked slowly up and down in the
air, and she sat by herself in the room. Lin's steps as he made ready
round the stove and table, and Lusk's slow tread out in the setting
sunlight, were the only sounds about the cabin. When the host looked into
the door of the next room to announce that his meal was served, the woman
sat in her chair no longer, but stood with her back to him by a shelf.
She gave a slight start at his summons, and replaced something. He saw
that she had been examining "Neighbor," and his face hardened suddenly to
fierceness as he looked at her; but he repeated quietly that she had
better come in. Thus did the three sit down to their meal. Occasionally a
word about handing some dish fell from one or other of them, but nothing
more, until Lusk took out his watch and mentioned the hour.
"Yu've not ate especially hearty," said Lin, resting his arms upon the
"I'm going," asserted Lusk. "Governor Barker may start out. I've got my
interests to look after."
"Why, sure," said Lin. "I can't hope you'll waste all your time on just
Lusk rose and looked at his wife. "It'll be ten now before we get to
Drybone," said he. And he went down to the stable.
The woman sat still, pressing the crumbs of her bread. "I know you seen
me," she said, without looking at him.
"Saw you when?"
"I knowed it. And I seen how you looked at me." She sat twisting and
pressing the crumb. Sometimes it was round, sometimes it was a cube, now
and then she flattened it to a disk. Mr. McLean seemed to have nothing
that he wished to reply.
"If you claim that pistol is yourn," she said next, "I'll tell you I know
better. If you ask me whose should it be if not yourn, I would not have
to guess the name. She has talked to me, and me to her."
She was still looking away from him at the bread-crumb, or she could have
seen that McLean's hand was trembling as he watched her leaning on his
"Oh yes, she was willing to talk to me!" The woman uttered another sudden
laugh. "I knowed about her--all. Things get heard of in this world. Did
not all about you and me come to her knowledge in its own good time, and
it done and gone how many years? My, my, my!" Her voice grew slow and
absent. She stopped for a moment, and then more rapidly resumed: "It had
travelled around about you and her like it always will travel. It was
known how you had asked her, and how she had told you she would have you,
and then told you she would not when she learned about you and me. Folks
that knowed yus and folks that never seen yus in their lives had to have
their word about her facing you down you had another wife, though she
knowed the truth about me being married to Lusk and him livin' the day
you married me, and ten and twenty marriages could not have tied you and
me up, no matter how honest you swore to no hinderance. Folks said it was
plain she did not want yus. It give me a queer feelin' to see that girl.
It give me a wish to tell her to her face that she did not love yus and
did not know love. Wait--wait, Lin! Yu' never hit me yet."
"No," said the cow-puncher. "Nor now. I'm not Lusk."
"Yu' looked so--so bad, Lin. I never seen yu' look so bad in old days.
Wait, now, and I must tell it. I wished to laugh in her face and say,
'What do you know about love?' So I walked in. Lin, she does love yus!"
"Yes," breathed McLean.
"She was sittin' back in her room at Separ. Not the ticket-office, but--"
"I know," the cow-puncher said. His eyes were burning.
"It's snug, the way she has it. 'Good-afternoon,' I says. 'Is this Miss
At his sweetheart's name the glow in Lin's eyes seemed to quiver to a
"And she spoke pleasant to me--pleasant and gay-like. But a woman can
tell sorrow in a woman's eyes. And she asked me would I rest in her room
there, and what was my name. 'They tell me you claim to know it better
than I do,' I says. 'They tell me you say it is Mrs. McLean.' She put her
hand on her breast, and she keeps lookin' at me without never speaking.
'Maybe I am not so welcome now,' I says. 'One minute,' says she. 'Let me
get used to it.' And she sat down.
"Lin, she is a square-lookin' girl. I'll say that for her.
"I never thought to sit down onced myself; I don't know why, but I kep'
a-standing, and I took in that room of hers. She had flowers and things
around there, and I seen your picture standing on the table, and I seen
your six-shooter right by it--and, oh, Lin, hadn't I knowed your face
before ever she did, and that gun you used to let me shoot on Bear Creek?
It took me that sudden! Why, it rushed over me so I spoke right out
different from what I'd meant and what I had ready fixed up to say.
"'Why did you do it?' I says to her, while she was a-sitting. 'How could
you act so, and you a woman?' She just sat, and her sad eyes made me
madder at the idea of her. 'You have had real sorrow,' says I, 'if they
report correct. You have knowed your share of death, and misery, and hard
work, and all. Great God! ain't there things enough that come to yus
uncalled for and natural, but you must run around huntin' up more that
was leavin' yus alone and givin' yus a chance? I knowed him onced. I
knowed your Lin McLean. And when that was over, I knowed for the first
time how men can be different.' I'm started, Lin, I'm started. Leave me
go on, and when I'm through I'll quit. 'Some of 'em, anyway,' I says to
her, 'has hearts and self-respect, and ain't hogs clean through.'
"'I know," she says, thoughtful-like.
"And at her whispering that way I gets madder.
"'You know!' I says then. 'What is it that you know? Do you know that you
have hurt a good man's heart? For onced I hurt it myself, though
different. And hurts in them kind of hearts stays. Some hearts is that
luscious and pasty you can stab 'em and it closes up so yu'd never
suspicion the place--but Lin McLean! Nor yet don't yus believe his is the
kind that breaks--if any kind does that. You may sit till the gray
hairs, and you may wall up your womanhood, but if a man has got manhood
like him, he will never sit till the gray hairs. Grief over losin' the
best will not stop him from searchin' for a second best after a while. He
wants a home, and he has got a right to one,' says I to Miss Jessamine.
'You have not walled up Lin McLean,' I says to her. Wait, Lin, wait. Yus
needn't to tell me that's a lie. I know a man thinks he's walled up for a
"She could have told you it was a lie," said the cow-puncher.
"She did not. 'Let him get a home,' says she. 'I want him to be happy.'
'That flash in your eyes talks different,' says I. 'Sure enough yus wants
him to be happy. Sure enough. But not happy along with Miss Second Best.'
"Lin, she looked at me that piercin'!
"And I goes on, for I was wound away up. 'And he will be happy, too,' I
says. 'Miss Second Best will have a talk with him about your picture and
little "Neighbor," which he'll not send back to yus, because the hurt in
his heart is there. And he will keep 'em out of sight somewheres after
his talk with Miss Second Best.' Lin, Lin, I laughed at them words of
mine, but I was that wound up I was strange to myself. And she watchin'
me that way! And I says to her: 'Miss Second Best will not be the crazy
thing to think I am any wife of his standing in her way. He will tell her
about me. He will tell how onced he thought he was solid married to me
till Lusk came back; and she will drop me out of sight along with the
rest that went nameless. They was not uncomprehensible to you, was they?
You have learned something by livin', I guess! And Lin--your Lin, not
mine, nor never mine in heart for a day so deep as he's yourn right now--
he has been gay--gay as any I've knowed. Why, look at that face of his!
Could a boy with a face like that help bein' gay? But that don't touch
what's the true Lin deep down. Nor will his deep-down love for you hinder
him like it will hinder you. Don't you know men and us is different when
it comes to passion? We're all one thing then, but they ain't simple.
They keep along with lots of other things. I can't make yus know, and I
guess it takes a woman like I have been to learn their nature. But you
did know he loved you, and you sent him away, and you'll be homeless in
yer house when he has done the right thing by himself and found another
"Lin, all the while I was talkin' all I knowed to her, without knowin'
what I'd be sayin' next, for it come that unexpected, she was lookin' at
me with them steady eyes. And all she says when I quit was, 'If I saw him
I would tell him to find a home.'"
"Didn't she tell yu' she'd made me promise to keep away from seeing her?"
asked the cow-puncher.
Mrs. Lusk laughed. "Oh, you innocent!" said she.
"She said if I came she would leave Separ," muttered McLean, brooding.
Again the large woman laughed out, but more harshly.
"I have kept my promise," Lin continued.
"Keep it some more. Sit here rotting in your chair till she goes away.
Maybe she's gone."
"What's that?" said Lin. But still she only laughed harshly. "I could be
there by to-morrow night," he murmured. Then his face softened. "She
would never do such a thing!" he said, to himself.
He had forgotten the woman at the table. While she had told him matters
that concerned him he had listened eagerly. Now she was of no more
interest than she had been before her story was begun. She looked at his
eyes as he sat thinking and dwelling upon his sweetheart. She looked at
him, and a longing welled up into her face. A certain youth and heavy
beauty relighted the features.
"You are the same, same Lin everyways," she said. "A woman is too many
for you still, Lin!" she whispered.
At her summons he looked up from his revery.
"Lin, I would not have treated you so."
The caress that filled her voice was plain. His look met hers as he sat
quite still, his arms on the table. Then he took his turn at laughing.
"You!" he said. "At least I've had plenty of education in you."
"Lin, Lin, don't talk that brutal to me to-day. If yus knowed how near I
come shooting myself with 'Neighbor.' That would have been funny!
"I knowed yus wanted to tear that pistol out of my hand because it was
hern. But yus never did such things to me, fer there's a gentleman in you
somewheres, Lin. And yus didn't never hit me, not even when you come to
know me well. And when I seen you so unexpected again to-night, and you
just the same old Lin, scaring Lusk with shooting them chickens, so comic
and splendid, I could 'a' just killed Lusk sittin' in the wagon. Say,
Lin, what made yus do that, anyway?"
"I can't hardly say," said the cow-puncher. "Only noticing him so
turruble anxious to quit me--well, a man acts without thinking."
"You always did, Lin. You was always a comical genius. Lin, them were
"You know. You can't tell me you have forgot."
"I have not forgot much. What's the sense in this?"
"Yus never loved me!" she exclaimed.
"Lin, Lin, is it all over? You know yus loved me on Bear Creek. Say you
did. Only say it was once that way." And as he sat, she came and put her
arms round his neck. For a moment he did not move, letting himself be
held; and then she kissed him. The plates crashed as he beat and struck
her down upon the table. He was on his feet, cursing himself. As he went
out of the door, she lay where she had fallen beneath his fist, looking
after him and smiling.
McLean walked down Box Elder Creek through the trees toward the stable,
where Lusk had gone to put the horse in the wagon. Once he leaned his
hand against a big cotton-wood, and stood still with half-closed eyes.
Then he continued on his way. "Lusk!" he called, presently, and in a few
steps more, "Lusk!" Then, as he came slowly out of the trees to meet the
husband he began, with quiet evenness, "Your wife wants to know--" But he
stopped. No husband was there. Wagon and horse were not there. The door
was shut. The bewildered cow-puncher looked up the stream where the road
went, and he looked down. Out of the sky where daylight and stars were
faintly shining together sounded the long cries of the night hawks as
they sped and swooped to their hunting in the dusk. From among the trees
by the stream floated a cooler air, and distant and close by sounded the
splashing water. About the meadow where Lin stood his horses fed, quietly
crunching. He went to the door, looked in, and shut it again. He walked
to his shed and stood contemplating his own wagon alone there. Then he
lifted away a piece of trailing vine from the gate of the corral, while
the turkeys moved their heads and watched him from the roof. A rope was
hanging from the corral, and seeing it, he dropped the vine. He opened
the corral gate, and walked quickly back into the middle of the field,
where the horses saw him and his rope, and scattered. But he ran and
herded them, whirling the rope, and so drove them into the corral, and
flung his noose over two. He dragged two saddles--men's saddles-- from
the stable, and next he was again at his cabin door with the horses
saddled. She was sitting quite still by the table where she had sat
during the meal, nor did she speak or move when she saw him look in at
"Lusk has gone," said he. "I don't know what he expected you would do, or
I would do. But we will catch him before he gets to Drybone."
She looked at him with her dumb stare. "Gone?" she said.
"Get up and ride," said McLean. "You are going to Drybone."
"Drybone?" she echoed. Her voice was toneless and dull.
He made no more explanations to her, but went quickly about the cabin.
Soon he had set it in order, the dishes on their shelves, the table
clean, the fire in the stove arranged; and all these movements she
followed with a sort of blank mechanical patience. He made a small bundle
for his own journey, tied it behind his saddle, brought her horse beside
a stump. When at his sharp order she came out, he locked his cabin and
hung the key by a window, where travellers could find it and be at home.
She stood looking where her husband had slunk off. Then she laughed.
"It's about his size," she murmured.
Her old lover helped her in silence to mount into the man's saddle--this
they had often done together in former years--and so they took their way
down the silent road. They had not many miles to go, and after the first
two lay behind them, when the horses were limbered and had been put to a
canter, they made time quickly. They had soon passed out of the trees and
pastures of Box Elder and came among the vast low stretches of the
greater valley. Not even by day was the river's course often discernible
through the ridges and cheating sameness of this wilderness; and beneath
this half-darkness of stars and a quarter moon the sage spread shapeless
to the looming mountains, or to nothing.
"I will ask you one thing," said Lin, after ten miles.
The woman made no sign of attention as she rode beside him.
"Did I understand that she--Miss Buckner, I mean--mentioned she might be
going away from Separ?"
"How do I know what you understood?"
"I thought you said--"
"Don't you bother me, Lin McLean." Her laugh rang out, loud and forlorn--
one brief burst that startled the horses and that must have sounded far
across the sage-brush. "You men are rich," she said.
They rode on, side by side, and saying nothing after that. The Drybone
road was a broad trail, a worn strip of bareness going onward over the
endless shelvings of the plain, visible even in this light; and
presently, moving upon its grayness on a hill in front of them, they made
out the wagon. They hastened and overtook it.
"Put your carbine down," said McLean to Lusk. "It's not robbers. It's
your wife I'm bringing you." He spoke very quietly.
The husband addressed no word to the cow-puncher "Get in, then," he said
to his wife.
"Town's not far now," said Lin. "Maybe you would prefer riding the balance
of the way?"
"I'd--" But the note of pity that she felt in McLean's question overcame
her, and her utterance choked. She nodded her head, and the three
continued slowly climbing the hill together.
From the narrows of the steep, sandy, weather-beaten banks that the road
slanted upward through for a while, they came out again upon the
immensity of the table-land. Here, abruptly like an ambush, was the whole
unsuspected river close below to their right, as if it had emerged from
the earth. With a circling sweep from somewhere out in the gloom it cut
in close to the lofty mesa beneath tall clean-graded descents of sand,
smooth as a railroad embankment. As they paused on the level to breathe
their horses, the wet gulp of its eddies rose to them through the
stillness. Upstream they could make out the light of the Drybone bridge,
but not the bridge itself; and two lights on the farther bank showed
where stood the hog-ranch opposite Drybone. They went on over the
table-land and reached the next herald of the town, Drybone's chief
historian, the graveyard. Beneath its slanting headboards and
wind-shifted sand lay many more people than lived in Drybone. They passed
by the fence of this shelterless acre on the hill, and shoutings and high
music began to reach them. At the foot of the hill they saw the sparse
lights and shapes of the town where ended the gray strip of road. The
many sounds--feet, voices, and music--grew clearer, unravelling from
their muffled confusion, and the fiddling became a tune that could be
"There's a dance to-night," said the wife to the husband. "Hurry."
He drove as he had been driving. Perhaps he had not heard her.
"I'm telling you to hurry," she repeated. "My new dress is in that wagon.
There'll be folks to welcome me here that's older friends than you."
She put her horse to a gallop down the broad road toward the music and
the older friends. The husband spoke to his horse, cleared his throat and
spoke louder, cleared his throat again and this time his sullen voice
carried, and the animal started. So Lusk went ahead of Lin McLean,
following his wife with the new dress at as good a pace as he might. If
he did not want her company, perhaps to be alone with the cow-puncher was
still less to his mind.
"It ain't only her he's stopped caring for," mused Lin, as he rode slowly
along. "He don't care for himself any more."
To-day, Drybone has altogether returned to the dust. Even in that day its
hour could have been heard beginning to sound, but its inhabitants were
rather deaf. Gamblers, saloon-keepers, murderers, outlaws male and
female, all were so busy with their cards, their lovers, and their
bottles as to make the place seem young and vigorous; but it was second
childhood which had set in.
Drybone had known a wholesome adventurous youth, where manly lives and
deaths were plenty. It had been an army post. It had seen horse and foot,
and heard the trumpet. Brave wives had kept house for their captains upon
its bluffs. Winter and summer they had made the best of it. When the War
Department ordered the captains to catch Indians, the wives bade them
Godspeed. When the Interior Department ordered the captains to let the
Indians go again, still they made the best of it. You must not waste
Indians. Indians were a source of revenue to so many people in Washington
and elsewhere. But the process of catching Indians, armed with weapons
sold them by friends of the Interior Department, was not entirely
harmless. Therefore there came to be graves in the Drybone graveyard. The
pale weather-washed head-boards told all about it: "Sacred to the memory
of Private So-and-So, killed on the Dry Cheyenne, May 6, 1875." Or it
would be, "Mrs. So-and-So, found scalped on Sage Creek." But even the
financiers at Washington could not wholly preserve the Indian in
Drybone's neighborhood. As the cattle by ten thousands came treading with
the next step of civilization into this huge domain, the soldiers were
taken away. Some of them went West to fight more Indians in Idaho,
Oregon, or Arizona. The battles of the others being done, they went East
in better coffins to sleep where their mothers or their comrades wanted
them. Though wind and rain wrought changes upon the hill, the ready-made
graves and boxes which these soldiers left behind proved heirlooms as
serviceable in their way as were the tenements that the living had
bequeathed to Drybone. Into these empty barracks came to dwell and do
business every joy that made the cow-puncher's holiday, and every hunted
person who was baffling the sheriff. For the sheriff must stop outside
the line of Drybone, as shall presently be made clear. The captain's
quarters were a saloon now; professional cards were going in the
adjutant's office night and day; and the commissary building made a good
dance-hall and hotel. Instead of guard-mounting, you would see a
horse-race on the parade-ground, and there was no provost-sergeant to
gather up the broken bottles and old boots. Heaps of these choked the
rusty fountain. In the tufts of yellow, ragged grass that dotted the
place plentifully were lodged many aces and queens and ten-spots, which
the Drybone wind had blown wide from the doors out of which they had been
thrown when a new pack was called for inside. Among the grass tufts would
lie visitors who had applied for beds too late at the dance-hall, frankly
sleeping their whiskey off in the morning air.
Above, on the hill, the graveyard quietly chronicled this new epoch of
Drybone. So-and-so was seldom killed very far out of town, and of course
scalping had disappeared. "Sacred to the memory of Four-ace Johnston,
accidently shot, Sep. 4, 1885." Perhaps one is still there unaltered:
"Sacred to the memory of Mrs. Ryan's babe. Aged two months." This unique
corpse had succeeded in dying with its boots off.
But a succession of graves was not always needed to read the changing
tale of the place, and how people died there; one grave would often be
enough. The soldiers, of course, had kept treeless Drybone supplied with
wood. But in these latter days wood was very scarce. None grew nearer
than twenty or thirty miles--none, that is, to make boards of a
sufficient width for epitaphs. And twenty miles was naturally far to go
to hew a board for a man of whom you knew perhaps nothing but what he
said his name was, and to whom you owed nothing, perhaps, but a trifling
poker debt. Hence it came to pass that headboards grew into a sort of
directory. They were light to lift from one place to another. A single
coat of white paint would wipe out the first tenant's name sufficiently
to paint over it the next comer's. By this thrifty habit the original
boards belonging to the soldiers could go round, keeping pace with the
new civilian population; and though at first sight you might be puzzled
by the layers of names still visible beneath the white paint, you could
be sure that the clearest and blackest was the one to which the present
tenant had answered.
So there on the hill lay the graveyard, steadily writing Drybone's
history, and making that history lay the town at the bottom--one thin
line of houses framing three sides of the old parade ground. In these
slowly rotting shells people rioted, believing the golden age was here,
the age when everybody should have money and nobody should be arrested.
For Drybone soil, you see, was still government soil, not yet handed over
to Wyoming; and only government could arrest there, and only for
government crimes. But government had gone, and seldom worried Drybone!
The spot was a postage-stamp of sanctuary pasted in the middle of
Wyoming's big map, a paradise for the Four-ace Johnstons. Only, you must
not steal a horse. That was really wicked, and brought you instantly to
the notice of Drybone's one official--the coroner! For they did keep a
coroner--Judge Slaghammer. He was perfectly illegal, and lived next door
in Albany County. But that county paid fees and mileage to keep tally of
Drybone's casualties. His wife owned the dance-hall, and between their
industries they made out a living. And all the citizens made out a
living. The happy cow-punchers on ranches far and near still earned and
instantly spent the high wages still paid them. With their bodies full of
youth and their pockets full of gold, they rode into town by twenties, by
fifties, and out again next morning, penniless always and happy. And then
the Four-ace Johnstons would sit card-playing with each other till the
innocents should come to town again.
To-night the innocents had certainly come to town, and Drybone was
furnishing to them all its joys. Their many horses stood tied at every
post and corner--patient, experienced cow-ponies, well knowing it was an
all-night affair. The talk and laughter of the riders was in the saloons;
they leaned joking over the bars, they sat behind their cards at the
tables, they strolled to the post-trader's to buy presents for their easy
sweethearts their boots were keeping audible time with the fiddle at Mrs.
Slaghammer's. From the multitude and vigor of the sounds there, the dance
was being done regularly. "Regularly" meant that upon the conclusion of
each set the gentleman led his lady to the bar and invited her to choose
and it was also regular that the lady should choose. Beer and whiskey
were the alternatives.
Lin McLean's horse took him across the square without guiding from the
cow-puncher, who sat absently with his hands folded upon the horn of his
saddle. This horse, too, was patient and experienced, and could not know
what remote thoughts filled his master's mind. He looked around to see
why his master did not get off lightly, as he had done during so many
gallant years, and hasten in to the conviviality. But the lonely
cow-puncher sat mechanically identifying the horses of acquaintances.
"Toothpick Kid is here," said he, "and Limber Jim, and the Doughie. You'd
think he'd stay away after the trouble he--I expect that pinto is Jerky
"Go home!" said a hearty voice.
McLean eagerly turned. For the moment his face lighted from its
sombreness. "I'd forgot you'd be here," said he. And he sprang to the
ground. "It's fine to see you."
"Go home!" repeated the Governor of Wyoming, shaking his ancient friend's
hand. "You in Drybone to-night, and claim you're reformed?
"Yu' seem to be on hand yourself," said the cow-puncher, bracing to be
jocular, if he could.
"Me! I've gone fishing. Don't you read the papers? If we poor governors
can't lock up the State House and take a whirl now and then--"
"Doc," interrupted Lin, "it's plumb fine to see yu'!" Again he shook
"Why, yes! we've met here before, you and I." His Excellency the Hon.
Amory W. Barker, M.D., stood laughing, familiar and genial, his sound
white teeth shining. But behind his round spectacles he scrutinized
McLean. For in this second hand-shaking was a fervor that seemed a grasp,
a reaching out, for comfort. Barker had passed through Separ. Though an
older acquaintance than Billy, he had asked Jessamine fewer and different
questions. But he knew what he knew. "Well, Drybone's the same old
Drybone," said he. "Sweet-scented hole of iniquity! Let's see how you
Lin took a few steps.
"Pooh! I said you'd never get over it." And his Excellency beamed with
professional pride. In his doctor days Barker had set the boy McLean's
leg; and before it was properly knit the boy had escaped from the
hospital to revel loose in Drybone on such another night as this. Soon he
had been carried back, with the fracture split open again.
"It shows, does it?" said Lin. "Well, it don't usually. Not except when
"Down?" suggested his Excellency.
"Yes, Doc. Down," the cow-puncher confessed.
Barker looked into his friend's clear hazel eyes.
Beneath their dauntless sparkle was something that touched the Governor's
good heart. "I've got some whiskey along on the trip--Eastern whiskey,"
said he. "Come over to my room awhile."
"I used to sleep all night onced," said McLean, as they went. "Then I
come to know different. But I'd never have believed just mere thoughts
could make yu'--make yu' feel like the steam was only half on. I eat, yu'
know!" he stated, suddenly. "And I expect one or two in camp lately have
not found my muscle lacking. Feel me, Doc."
Barker dutifully obeyed, and praised the excellent sinews.
Across from the dance-hall the whining of the fiddle came, high and gay;
feet blurred the talk of voices, and voices rose above the trampling of
feet. Here and there some lurking form stumbled through the dark among
the rubbish; and clearest sound of all, the light crack of billiard balls
reached dry and far into the night Barker contemplated the stars and calm
splendid dimness of the plain. "'Though every prospect pleases, and only
man is vile,'" he quoted. "But don't tell the Republican party I said so."
"It's awful true, though, Doc. I'm vile myself. Yu' don't know. Why, I
And then they sat down to confidences and whiskey; for so long as the
world goes round a man must talk to a man sometimes, and both must drink
over it. The cow-puncher unburdened himself to the Governor; and the
Governor filled up his friend's glass with the Eastern whiskey, and
nodded his spectacles, and listened, and advised, and said he should have
done the same, and like the good Governor that he was, never remembered
he was Governor at all with political friends here who had begged a word
or two. He became just Dr. Barker again, the young hospital surgeon (the
hospital that now stood a ruin), and Lin was again his patient----Lin,
the sun-burnt free-lance of nineteen, reckless, engaging, disobedient,
his leg broken and his heart light, with no Jessamine or conscience to
rob his salt of its savor. While he now told his troubles, the quadrilles
fiddled away careless as ever, and the crack of the billiard balls
sounded as of old.
"Nobody has told you about this, I expect," said the lover. He brought
forth the little pistol, "Neighbor." He did not hand it across to Barker,
but walked over to Barker's chair, and stood holding it for the doctor to
see. When Barker reached for it to see better, since it was half hidden
in the cow-puncher's big hand, Lin yielded it to him, but still stood and
soon drew it back. "I take it around," he said, "and when one of those
stories comes along, like there's plenty of, that she wants to get rid of
me, I just kind o' take a look at 'Neighbor' when I'm off where it's
handy, and it busts the story right out of my mind. I have to tell you
what a fool I am."
"The whiskey's your side," said Barker. "Go on."
"But, Doc, my courage has quit me. They see what I'm thinking about just
like I was a tenderfoot trying his first bluff. I can't stick it out no
more, and I'm going to see her, come what will.
"I've got to. I'm going to ride right up to her window and shoot off
'Neighbor,' and if she don't come out I'll know--"
A knocking came at the Governor's room, and Judge Slaghammer entered.
"Not been to our dance, Governor?" said he.
The Governor thought that perhaps he was tired, that perhaps this evening
he must forego the pleasure.
"It may be wiser. In your position it may be advisable," said the
coroner. "They're getting on rollers over there. We do not like trouble
in Drybone, but trouble comes to us--as everywhere."
"Shooting," suggested his Excellency, recalling his hospital practice.
"Well, Governor, you know how it is. Our boys are as big-hearted as any
in this big-hearted Western country. You know, Governor. Those generous,
warm-blooded spirits are ever ready for anything."
"Especially after Mrs. Slaghammer's whiskey," remarked the Governor.
The coroner shot a shrewd eye at Wyoming's chief executive. It was not
politically harmonious to be reminded that but for his wife's liquor a
number of fine young men, with nothing save youth untrained and health
the matter with them, would to-day be riding their horses instead of
sleeping on the hill. But the coroner wanted support in the next
campaign. "Boys will be boys," said he. "They ain't pulled any guns
to-night. But I come away, though. Some of 'em's making up pretty free to
Mrs. Lusk. It ain't suitable for me to see too much. Lusk says he's after
you," he mentioned incidentally to Lin. "He's fillin' up, and says he's
after you." McLean nodded placidly, and with scant politeness. He wished
this visitor would go. But Judge Slaghammer had noticed the whiskey. He
filled himself a glass. "Governor, it has my compliments," said he.
"Mrs. Slaghammer seems to have a large gathering," said Barker.
"Good boys, good boys!" The judge blew importantly, and waved his arm.
"Bull-whackers, cow-punchers, mule-skinners, tin-horns. All spending
generous. Governor, once more! Ambrosier. Honey-doo." He settled himself
deep in a chair, and closed his eyes.
McLean rose abruptly. "Good-night," said he. "I'm going to Separ."
"Separ!" exclaimed Slaghammer, rousing slightly. "Oh, stay with us, stay
with us." He closed his eyes again, but sustained his smile of office.
"You know how well I wish you," said Barker to Lin. "I'll just see you
Forthwith the friends left the coroner quiet beside his glass, and walked
toward the horses through Drybone's gaping quadrangle. The dead ruins
loomed among the lights of the card-halls, and always the keen jockey
cadences of the fiddle sang across the night. But a calling and confusion
were set up, and the tune broke off.
"Just like old times!" said his Excellency. "Where's the dump-pile!" It
was where it should be, close by, and the two stepped behind it to be
screened from wandering bullets. "A man don't forget his habits,"
declared the Governor. "Makes me feel young again."
"Makes me feel old," said McLean. "Hark!"
"Sounds like my name," said Barker. They listened. "Oh yes. Of course.
That's it. They're shouting for the doctor. But we'll just spare them a
minute or so to finish their excitement."
"I didn't hear any shooting," said McLean. "It's something, though."
As they waited, no shots came; but still the fiddle was silent, and the
murmur of many voices grew in the dance-hall, while single voices
wandered outside, calling the doctor's name.
"I'm the Governor on a fishing-trip," said he. "But it's to be done, I
They left their dump-hill and proceeded over to the dance. The musician
sat high and solitary upon two starch-boxes, fiddle on knee, staring and
waiting. Half the floor was bare; on the other half the revellers were
densely clotted. At the crowd's outer rim the young horsemen, flushed and
swaying, retained their gaudy dance partners strongly by the waist, to be
ready when the music should resume. "What is it?" they asked. "Who is
it?" And they looked in across heads and shoulders, inattentive to the
caresses which the partners gave them.
Mrs. Lusk was who it was, and she had taken poison here in their midst,
after many dances and drinks.
"Here's Doc!" cried an older one.
"Here's Doc!" chorused the young blood that had come into this country
since his day. And the throng caught up the words: "Here's Doc! here's
In a moment McLean and Barker were sundered from each other in this
flood. Barker, sucked in toward the centre but often eddied back by those
who meant to help him, heard the mixed explanations pass his ear
unfinished--versions, contradictions, a score of facts. It had been
wolf-poison. It had been "Rough on Rats." It had been something in a
bottle. There was little steering in this clamorous sea; but Barker
reached his patient, where she sat in her new dress, hailing him with
wild inebriate gayety.
"I must get her to her room, friends," said he.
"He must get her to her room," went the word. "Leave Doc get her to her
room." And they tangled in their eagerness around him and his patient.
"Give us 'Buffalo Girls!'" shouted Mrs. Lusk.... "'Buffalo Girls,' you
"We'll come back," said Barker to her.
"'Buffalo Girls,' I tell yus. Ho! There's no sense looking at that
bottle, Doc. Take yer dance while there's time!" She was holding the
"Help him!" said the crowd. "Help Doc."
They took her from her chair, and she fought, a big pink mass of ribbons,
fluttering and wrenching itself among them.
"She has six ounces of laudanum in her," Barker told them at the top of
his voice. "It won't wait all night."
"I'm a whirlwind!" said Mrs. Lusk. "That's my game! And you done your
share," she cried to the fiddler. "Here's my regards, old man! 'Buffalo
Girls' once more!"
She flung out her hand, and from it fell notes and coins, rolling and
ringing around the starch boxes. Some dragged her on, while some fiercely
forbade the musician to touch the money, because it was hers, and she
would want it when she came to. Thus they gathered it up for her. But now
she had sunk down, asking in a new voice where was Lin McLean. And when
one grinning intimate reminded her that Lusk had gone to shoot him, she
laughed out richly, and the crowd joined her mirth. But even in the midst
of the joke she asked again in the same voice where was Lin McLean. He
came beside her among more jokes. He had kept himself near, and now at
sight of him she reached out and held him. "Tell them to leave me go to
sleep, Lin," said she.
Barker saw a chance. "Persuade her to come along," said he to McLean.
"Minutes are counting now."
"Oh, I'll come," she said, with a laugh, overhearing him, and holding
still to Lin.
The rest of the old friends nudged each other. "Back seats for us," they
said. "But we've had our turn in front ones." Then, thinking they would
be useful in encouraging her to walk, they clustered again, rendering
Barker and McLean once more well-nigh helpless. Clumsily the escort made
its slow way across the quadrangle, cautioning itself about stones and
holes. Thus, presently, she was brought into the room. The escort set her
down, crowding the little place as thick as it would hold; the rest
gathered thick at the door, and all of them had no thought of departing.
The notion to stay was plain on their faces.
Barker surveyed them. "Give the doctor a show now, boys," said he.
"You've done it all so far. Don't crowd my elbows. I'll want you," he
whispered to McLean.
At the argument of fair-play, obedience swept over them like a veering of
wind. "Don't crowd his elbows," they began to say at once, and told each
other to come away. "We'll sure give the Doc room. You don't want to be
shovin' your auger in, Chalkeye. You want to get yourself pretty near
absent." The room thinned of them forthwith. "Fix her up good, Doc," they
said, over their shoulders. They shuffled across the threshold and porch
with roundabout schemes to tread quietly. When one or other stumbled on
the steps and fell, he was jerked to his feet. "You want to tame
yourself," was the word. Then, suddenly, Chalkeye and Toothpick Kid came
precipitately back. "Her cash," they said. And leaving the notes and
coins, they hastened to catch their comrades on the way back to the dance
"I want you," repeated Barker to McLean.
"Him!" cried Mrs. Lusk, flashing alert again. "Jessamine wants him about
now, I guess. Don't keep him from his girl!" And she laughed her hard,
rich laugh, looking from one to the other. "Not the two of yus can't save
me," she stated, defiantly. But even in these last words a sort of
"Walk her up and down," said Barker. "Keep her moving. I'll look what I
can find. Keep her moving brisk." At once he was out of the door; and
before his running steps had died away, the fiddle had taken up its tune
across the quadrangle.
"'Buffalo Girls!'" exclaimed the woman. "Old times! Old times!"
"Come," said McLean. "Walk." And he took her.
Her head was full of the music. Forgetting all but that, she went with
him easily, and the two made their first turns around the room. Whenever
he brought her near the entrance, she leaned away from him toward the
open door, where the old fiddle tune was coming in from the dark. But
presently she noticed that she was being led, and her face turned sullen.
"Walk," said McLean.
"Do you think so?" said she, laughing. But she found that she must go
with him. Thus they took a few more turns.
"You're hurting me," she said next. Then a look of drowsy cunning filled
her eyes, and she fixed them upon McLean's dogged face. "He's gone, Lin,"
she murmured, raising her hand where Barker had disappeared.
She knew McLean had heard her, and she held back on the quickened pace
that he had set.
"Leave me down. You hurt," she pleaded, hanging on him.
The cow-puncher put forth more strength.
"Just the floor," she pleaded again. "Just one minute on the floor. He'll
think you could not keep me lifted."
Still McLean made no answer, but steadily led her round and round, as he
"He's playing out!" she exclaimed. "You'll be played out soon." She
laughed herself half-awake. The man drew a breath, and she laughed more
to feel his hand and arm strain to surmount her increasing resistance.
"Jessamine!" she whispered to him. "Jessamine! Doc'll never suspicion
"Talk sense," said he.
"It's sense I'm talking. Leave me go to sleep. Ah, ah, I'm going! I'll
go; you can't--"
"Walk, walk!" he repeated. He looked at the door. An ache was numbing his
"Oh yes, walk! What can you and all your muscle--Ah, walk me to glory,
then, craziness! I'm going; I'll go. I'm quitting this outfit for keeps.
Lin, you're awful handsome to-night! I'll bet--I'll bet she has never
seen you look so. Let me--let me watch yus. Anyway, she knows I came
He grasped her savagely. "First! You and twenty of yu' don't--God!! what
do I talk to her for?"
"Because--because--I'm going; I'll go. He slung me off--but he had to
Her head was rolling, while the lips smiled. Her words came through
deeper and deeper veils, fearless, defiant, a challenge inarticulate, a
continuous mutter. Again he looked at the door as he struggled to move
with her dragging weight. The drops rolled on his forehead and neck, his
shirt was wet, his hands slipped upon her ribbons. Suddenly the drugged
body folded and sank with him, pulling him to his knees. While he took
breath so, the mutter went on, and through the door came the jigging
fiddle. A fire of desperation lighted in his eyes. "Buffalo Girls!" he
shouted, hoarsely, in her ear, and got once more on his feet with her as
though they were two partners in a quadrille. Still shouting her to wake,
he struck a tottering sort of step, and so, with the bending load in his
grip, strove feebly to dance the laudanum away.
Feet stumbled across the porch, and Lusk was in the room. "So I've got
you!" he said. He had no weapon, but made a dive under the bed and came
up with a carbine. The two men locked, wrenching impotently, and fell
together. The carbine's loud shot rang in the room, but did no harm; and
McLean lay sick and panting upon Lusk as Barker rushed in.
"Thank God!" said he, and flung Lusk's pistol down. The man, deranged and
encouraged by drink, had come across the doctor, delayed him, threatened
him with his pistol, and when he had torn it away, had left him suddenly
and vanished. But Barker had feared, and come after him here. He glanced
at the woman slumbering motionless beside the two men. The husband's
brief courage had gone, and he lay beneath McLean, who himself could not
rise. Barker pulled them apart.
"Lin, boy, you're not hurt?" he asked, affectionately, and lifted the
McLean sat passive, with dazed eyes, letting himself be supported.
"You're not hurt?" repeated Barker.
"No," answered the cow-puncher, slowly. "I guess not." He looked about
the room and at the door. "I got interrupted," he said.
"You'll be all right soon," said Barker.
"Nobody cares for me!" cried Lusk, suddenly, and took to querulous
"Get up," ordered Barker, sternly.
"Don't accuse me, Governor," screamed Lusk. "I'm innocent." And he rose.
Barker looked at the woman and then at the husband. "I'll not say there
was much chance for her," he said. "But any she had is gone through you.
"Nobody cares for me!" repeated the man. "He has learned my boy to scorn
me." He ran out aimlessly, and away into the night, leaving peace in the
"Stay sitting," said Barker to McLean, and went to Mrs. Lusk.
But the cow-puncher, seeing him begin to lift her toward the bed without
help, tried to rise. His strength was not sufficiently come back, and he
sank as he had been. "I guess I don't amount to much," said he. "I feel
like I was nothing."
"Well, I'm something," said Barker, coming back to his friend, out of
breath. "And I know what she weighs." He stared admiringly through his
spectacles at the seated man.
The cow-puncher's eyes slowly travelled over his body, and then sought
Barker's face. "Doc," said he, "ain't I young to have my nerve quit me
His Excellency broke into his broad smile.
"I know I've racketed some, but ain't it ruther early?" pursued McLean,
"You six-foot infant!" said Barker. "Look at your hand."
Lin stared at it--the fingers quivering and bloody, and the skin grooved
raw between them. That was the buckle of her belt, which in the struggle
had worked round and been held by him unknowingly. Both his wrists and
his shirt were ribbed with the pink of her sashes. He looked over at the
bed where lay the woman heavily breathing. It was a something, a sound,
not like the breath of life; and Barker saw the cow-puncher shudder.
"She is strong," he said. "Her system will fight to the end. Two hours
yet, maybe. Queer world!" he moralized. "People half killing themselves
to keep one in it who wanted to go--and one that nobody wanted to stay!"
McLean did not hear. He was musing, his eyes fixed absently in front of
him. "I would not want," he said, with hesitating utterance--"I'd not
wish for even my enemy to have a thing like what I've had to do
Barker touched him on the arm. "If there had been another man I could
"Trust!" broke in the cow-puncher. "Why, Doc, it is the best turn yu'
ever done me. I know I am a man now--if my nerve ain't gone."
"I've known you were a man since I knew you!" said the hearty Governor.
And he helped the still unsteady six-foot to a chair. "As for your nerve,
I'll bring you some whiskey now. And after"--he glanced at the bed--"and
tomorrow you'll go try if Miss Jessamine won't put the nerve--"
"Yes, Doc, I'll go there, I know. But don't yu'--don't let's while she's--
I'm going to be glad about this, Doc, after awhile, but--"
At the sight of a new-comer in the door, he stopped in what his soul was
stammering to say. "What do you want, Judge?" he inquired, coldly.
"I understand," began Slaghammer to Barker--"I am informed--"
"Speak quieter, Judge," said the cow-puncher.
"I understand," repeated Slaghammer, more official than ever, "that there
was a case for the coroner."
"You'll be notified," put in McLean again. "Meanwhile you'll talk quiet
in this room."
Slaghammer turned, and saw the breathing mass on the bed.
"You are a little early, Judge," said Barker, "but--"
"But your ten dollars are safe," said McLean.
The coroner shot one of his shrewd glances at the cow-puncher, and sat
down with an amiable countenance. His fee was, indeed, ten dollars; and
he was desirous of a second term.
"Under the apprehension that it had already occurred--the
misapprehension--I took steps to impanel a jury," said he, addressing
both Barker and McLean. "They are--ah--waiting outside. Responsible men,
Governor, and have sat before. Drybone has few responsible men to-night,
but I procured these at a little game where they were--ah--losing. You
may go back, gentlemen," said he, going to the door. "I will summon you
in proper time." He looked in the room again. "Is the husband not
"That's enough, Judge," said McLean. "There's too many here without
"Judge," spoke a voice at the door, "ain't she ready yet?"
"She is still passing away," observed Slaghammer, piously.
"Because I was thinking," said the man--"I was just--You see, us jury is
dry and dead broke. Doggonedest cards I've held this year, and--Judge,
would there be anything out of the way in me touching my fee in advance,
if it's a sure thing?"
"I see none, my friend," said Slaghammer, benevolently, "since it must
be." He shook his head and nodded it by turns. Then, with full-blown
importance, he sat again, and wrote a paper, his coroner's certificate.
Next door, in Albany County, these vouchers brought their face value of
five dollars to the holder; but on Drybone's neutral soil the saloons
would always pay four for them, and it was rare that any jury-man could
withstand the temptation of four immediate dollars. This one gratefully
received his paper, and, cherishing it like a bird in the hand, he with
his colleagues bore it where they might wait for duty and slake their
In the silent room sat Lin McLean, his body coming to life more readily
than his shaken spirit. Barker, seeing that the cow-puncher meant to
watch until the end, brought the whiskey to him. Slaghammer drew
documents from his pocket to fill the time, but was soon in slumber over
them. In all precincts of the quadrangle Drybone was keeping it up late.
The fiddle, the occasional shouts, and the crack of the billiard-balls
travelled clear and far through the vast darkness outside. Presently
steps unsteadily drew near, and round the corner of the door a voice,
plaintive and diffident, said, "Judge, ain't she most pretty near ready?"
"Wake up, Judge!" said Barker. "Your jury has gone dry again."
The man appeared round the door--a handsome, dishevelled fellow--with hat
in hand, balancing himself with respectful anxiety. Thus was a second
voucher made out, and the messenger strayed back happy to his friends.
Barker and McLean sat wakeful, and Slaghammer fell at once to napping.
From time to time he was roused by new messengers, each arriving more
unsteady than the last, until every juryman had got his fee and no more
messengers came. The coroner slept undisturbed in his chair. McLean and
Barker sat. On the bed the mass, with its pink ribbons, breathed and
breathed, while moths flew round the lamp, tapping and falling with light
sounds. So did the heart of the darkness wear itself away, and through
the stone-cold air the dawn began to filter and expand.
Barker rose, bent over the bed, and then stood. Seeing him, McLean stood
"Judge," said Barker, quietly, "you may call them now." And with careful
steps the judge got himself out of the room to summon his jury.
For a short while the cow-puncher stood looking down upon the woman. She
lay lumped in her gaudiness, the ribbons darkly stained by the laudanum;
but into the stolid, bold features death had called up the faint-colored
ghost of youth, and McLean remembered all his Bear Creek days. "Hind
sight is a turruble clear way o' seein' things," said he. "I think I'll
take a walk."
"Go," said Barker. "The jury only need me, and I'll join you."
But the jury needed no witness. Their long waiting and the advance pay
had been too much for these responsible men. Like brothers they had
shared each others' vouchers until responsibility had melted from their
brains and the whiskey was finished. Then, no longer entertained and
growing weary of Drybone, they had remembered nothing but their distant
beds. Each had mounted his pony, holding trustingly to the saddle, and
thus, unguided, the experienced ponies had taken them right. Across the
wide sagebrush and up and down the river they were now asleep or riding,
dispersed irrevocably. But the coroner was here. He duly received
Barker's testimony, brought his verdict in, and signed it, and even while
he was issuing to himself his own proper voucher for ten dollars came
Chalkeye and Toothpick Kid on their ponies, galloping, eager in their
hopes and good wishes for Mrs. Lusk. Life ran strong in them both. The
night had gone well with them. Here was the new day going to be fine. It
must be well with everybody.
"You don't say!" they exclaimed, taken aback. "Too bad."
They sat still in their saddles, and upon their reckless, kindly faces
thought paused for a moment. "Her gone!" they murmured. "Hard to get used
to the idea. What's anybody doing about the coffin?"
"Mr. Lusk," answered Slaghammer, "doubtless--"
"Lusk! He'll not know anything this forenoon. He's out there in the
grass. She didn't think nothing of him. Tell Bill--not Dollar Bill, Jerky
Bill, yu' know; he's over the bridge--to fix up a hearse, and we'll be
back." The two drove their spurs in with vigorous heels, and instantly
were gone rushing up the road to the graveyard.
The fiddle had lately ceased, and no dancers stayed any longer in the
hall. Eastward the rose and gold began to flow down upon the plain over
the tops of the distant hills. Of the revellers, many had never gone to
bed, and many now were already risen from their excesses to revive in the
cool glory of the morning. Some were drinking to stay their hunger until
breakfast; some splashed and sported in the river, calling and joking;
and across the river some were holding horse-races upon the level beyond
the hog-ranch. Drybone air rang with them. Their lusty, wandering shouts
broke out in gusts of hilarity. Their pistols, aimed at cans or prairie
dogs or anything, cracked as they galloped at large. Their speeding,
clear-cut forms would shine upon the bluffs, and, descending, merge in
the dust their horses had raised. Yet all this was nothing in the
vastness of the growing day.
Beyond their voices the rim of the sun moved above the violet hills, and
Drybone, amid the quiet, long, new fields of radiance, stood august and
Down along the tall, bare slant from the graveyard the two horsemen were
riding back. They could be seen across the river, and the horse-racers
grew curious. As more and more watched, the crowd began to speak. It was
a calf the two were bringing. It was too small for a calf. It was dead.
It was a coyote they had roped. See it swing! See it fall on the road!
"It's a coffin, boys!" said one, shrewd at guessing.
At that the event of last night drifted across their memories, and they
wheeled and spurred their ponies. Their crowding hoofs on the bridge
brought the swimmers from the waters below and, dressing, they climbed
quickly to the plain and followed the gathering. By the door already were
Jerky Bill and Limber Jim and the Doughie and always more, dashing up
with their ponies; halting with a sharp scatter of gravel to hear and
comment. Barker was gone, but the important coroner told his news. And it
amazed each comer, and set him speaking and remembering past things with
the others. "Dead!" each one began. "Her, does he say?"
"Why, Frenchy said Doc had her cured!"
Jack Saunders claimed she had rode to Box Elder with Lin McLean.
"Dead? Why, pshaw!"
"Seems Doc couldn't swim her out."
"Couldn't swim her out?"
"That's it. Doc couldn't swim her out."
"Well--there's one less of us."
"Sure! She was one of the boys."
"She grub-staked me when I went broke in '84."
"She gave me fifty dollars onced at Lander, to buy a saddle."
"I run agin her when she was a biscuit-shooter."
"Sidney, Nebraska. I run again her there, too."
"I knowed her at Laramie."
"Where's Lin? He knowed her all the way from Bear Creek to Cheyenne."
They laughed loudly at this.
"That's a lonesome coffin," said the Doughie. "That the best you could
"You'd say so!" said Toothpick Kid.
"Choices are getting scarce up there," said Chalkeye. "We looked the lot
They were arriving from their search among the old dug-up graves on the
hill. Now they descended from their ponies, with the box roped and
rattling between them. "Where's your hearse, Jerky?" asked Chalkeye.
"Have her round in a minute," said the cowboy, and galloped away with
three or four others.
"Turruble lonesome coffin, all the same," repeated the Doughie. And they
surveyed the box that had once held some soldier.
"She did like fixin's," said Limber Jim.
"Fixin's!" said Toothpick Kid. "That's easy."
While some six of them, with Chalkeye, bore the light, half-rotted coffin
into the room, many followed Toothpick Kid to the post-trader's store.
Breaking in here, they found men sleeping on the counters. These had been
able to find no other beds in Drybone, and lay as they had stretched
themselves on entering. They sprawled in heavy slumber, some with not
even their hats taken off and some with their boots against the rough
hair of the next one. They were quickly pushed together, few waking, and
so there was space for spreading cloth and chintz. Stuffs were unrolled
and flung aside till many folds and colors draped the motionless
sleepers, and at length a choice was made. Unmeasured yards of this drab
chintz were ripped off, money treble its worth was thumped upon the
counter, and they returned, bearing it like a streamer to the coffin.
While the noise of their hammers filled the room, the hearse came
tottering to the door, pulled and pushed by twenty men. It was an
ambulance left behind by the soldiers, and of the old-fashioned shape,
concave in body, its top blown away in winds of long ago; and as they
revolved, its wheels dished in and out like hoops about to fall. While
some made a harness from ropes, and throwing the saddles off two ponies
backed them to the vehicle, the body was put in the coffin, now covered
by the chintz. But the laudanum upon the front of her dress revolted
those who remembered their holidays with her, and turning the woman upon
her face, they looked their last upon her flashing, colored ribbons, and
nailed the lid down. So they carried her out, but the concave body of the
hearse was too short for the coffin; the end reached out, and it might
have fallen. But Limber Jim, taking the reins, sat upon the other end,
waiting and smoking. For all Drybone was making ready to follow in some
way. They had sought the husband, the chief mourner. He, however, still
lay in the grass of the quadrangle, and despising him as she had done,
they left him to wake when he should choose. Those men who could sit in
their saddles rode escort, the old friends nearest, and four held the
heads of the frightened cow-ponies who were to draw the hearse. They had
never known harness before, and they plunged with the men who held them.
Behind the hearse the women followed in a large ranch-wagon, this moment
arrived in town. Two mares drew this, and their foals gambolled around
them. The great flat-topped dray for hauling poles came last, with its
four government mules. The cow-boys had caught sight of it and captured
it. Rushing to the post-trader's, they carried the sleeping men from the
counter and laid them on the dray. Then, searching Drybone outside and in
for any more incapable of following, they brought them, and the dray was
Limber Jim called for another drink and, with his cigar between his
teeth, cracked his long bull-whacker whip. The ponies, terrified, sprang
away, scattering the men that held them, and the swaying hearse leaped
past the husband, over the stones and the many playing-cards in the
grass. Masterfully steered, it came safe to an open level, while the
throng cheered the unmoved driver on his coffin, his cigar between his
"Stay with it, Jim!" they shouted. "You're a king!"
A steep ditch lay across the flat where he was veering, abrupt and nearly
hidden; but his eye caught the danger in time, and swinging from it
leftward so that two wheels of the leaning coach were in the air, he
faced the open again, safe, as the rescue swooped down upon him. The
horsemen came at the ditch, a body of daring, a sultry blast of youth.
Wheeling at the brink, they turned, whirling their long ropes. The
skilful nooses flew, and the ponies, caught by the neck and foot, were
dragged back to the quadrangle and held in line. So the pageant started
the wild ponies quivering but subdued by the tightened ropes, and the
coffin steady in the ambulance beneath the driver. The escort, in their
fringed leather and broad hats, moved slowly beside and behind it, many
of them swaying, their faces full of health, and the sun and the strong
drink. The women followed, whispering a little; and behind them the slow
dray jolted, with its heaps of men waking from the depths of their
whiskey and asking what this was. So they went up the hill. When the
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