The Virginian, A Horseman Of The Plainsr
Part 1 out of 8
The Virginian, A Horseman Of The Plains, by Owen Wister
Etext prepared by Bill Brewer, email@example.com
A Horseman Of The Plains
Some of these pages you have seen, some you have praised, one stands
new-written because you blamed it; and all, my dear critic, beg leave to
remind you of their author's changeless admiration.
TO THE READER
Certain of the newspapers, when this book was first announced,
made a mistake most natural upon seeing the sub-title as it then
stood, A TALE OF SUNDRY ADVENTURES. "This sounds like a
historical novel," said one of them, meaning (I take it) a
colonial romance. As it now stands, the title will scarce lead to
such interpretation; yet none the less is this book
historical--quite as much so as any colonial romance. Indeed,
when you look at the root of the matter, it is a colonial
romance. For Wyoming between 1874 and 1890 was a colony as wild
as was Virginia one hundred years earlier. As wild, with a
scantier population, and the same primitive joys and dangers.
There were, to be sure, not so many Chippendale settees.
We know quite well the common understanding of the term
"historical novel." HUGH WYNNE exactly fits it. But SILAS LAPHAM
is a novel as perfectly historical as is Hugh Wynne, for it
pictures an era and personifies a type. It matters not that in
the one we find George Washington and in the other none save
imaginary figures; else THE SCARLET LETTER were not historical.
Nor does it matter that Dr. Mitchell did not live in the time of
which he wrote, while Mr. Howells saw many Silas Laphams with his
own eyes; else UNCLE TOM'S CABIN were not historical. Any
narrative which presents faithfully a day and a generation is of
necessity historical; and this one presents Wyoming between 1874
and 1890. Had you left New York or San Francisco at ten o'clock
this morning, by noon the day after to-morrow you could step out
at Cheyenne. There you would stand at the heart of the world that
is the subject of my picture, yet you would look around you in
vain for the reality. It is a vanished world. No journeys, save
those which memory can take, will bring you to it now. The
mountains are there, far and shining, and the sunlight, and the
infinite earth, and the air that seems forever the true fountain
of youth, but where is the buffalo, and the wild antelope, and
where the horseman with his pasturing thousands? So like its old
self does the sage-brush seem when revisited, that you wait for
the horseman to appear.
But he will never come again. He rides in his historic yesterday.
You will no more see him gallop out of the unchanging silence
than you will see Columbus on the unchanging sea come sailing
from Palos with his caravels.
And yet the horseman is still so near our day that in some
chapters of this book, which were published separate at the close
of the nineteenth century, the present tense was used. It is true
no longer. In those chapters it has been changed, and verbs like
"is" and "have" now read "was" and "had." Time has flowed faster
than my ink.
What is become of the horseman, the cowpuncher, the last romantic
figure upon our soil? For he was romantic. Whatever he did, he
did with his might. The bread that he earned was earned hard, the
wages that he squandered were squandered hard,--half a year's pay
sometimes gone in a night,--"blown in," as he expressed it, or
"blowed in," to be perfectly accurate. Well, he will be here
among us always, invisible, waiting his chance to live and play
as he would like. His wild kind has been among us always, since
the beginning: a young man with his temptations, a hero without
The cow-puncher's ungoverned hours did not unman him. If he gave
his word, he kept it; Wall Street would have found him behind the
times. Nor did he talk lewdly to women; Newport would have
thought him old-fashioned. He and his brief epoch make a complete
picture, for in themselves they were as complete as the pioneers
of the land or the explorers of the sea. A transition has
followed the horseman of the plains; a shapeless state, a
condition of men and manners as unlovely as is that moment in the
year when winter is gone and spring not come, and the face of
Nature is ugly. I shall not dwell upon it here. Those who have
seen it know well what I mean. Such transition was inevitable.
Let us give thanks that it is but a transition, and not a
Sometimes readers inquire, Did I know the Virginian? As well, I
hope, as a father should know his son. And sometimes it is asked,
Was such and such a thing true? Now to this I have the best
answer in the world. Once a cowpuncher listened patiently while I
read him a manuscript. It concerned an event upon an Indian
reservation. "Was that the Crow reservation?" he inquired at the
finish. I told him that it was no real reservation and no real
event; and his face expressed displeasure. "Why," he demanded,
"do you waste your time writing what never happened, when you
know so many things that did happen?"
And I could no more help telling him that this was the highest
compliment ever paid me than I have been able to help telling you
about it here!
CHARLESTON, S.C., March 31st, 1902
I. ENTER THE MAN
Some notable sight was drawing the passengers, both men and
women, to the window; and therefore I rose and crossed the car to
see what it was. I saw near the track an enclosure, and round it
some laughing men, and inside it some whirling dust, and amid the
dust some horses, plunging, huddling, and dodging. They were cow
ponies in a corral, and one of them would not be caught, no
matter who threw the rope. We had plenty of time to watch this
sport, for our train had stopped that the engine might take water
at the tank before it pulled us up beside the station platform of
Medicine Bow. We were also six hours late, and starving for
entertainment. The pony in the corral was wise, and rapid of
limb. Have you seen a skilful boxer watch his antagonist with a
quiet, incessant eye? Such an eye as this did the pony keep upon
whatever man took the rope. The man might pretend to look at the
weather, which was fine; or he might affect earnest conversation
with a bystander: it was bootless. The pony saw through it. No
feint hoodwinked him. This animal was thoroughly a man of the
world. His undistracted eye stayed fixed upon the dissembling foe,
and the gravity of his horse-expression made the matter one of
high comedy. Then the rope would sail out at him, but he was
already elsewhere; and if horses laugh, gayety must have abounded
in that corral. Sometimes the pony took a turn alone; next he had
slid in a flash among his brothers, and the whole of them like a
school of playful fish whipped round the corral, kicking up the
fine dust, and (I take it) roaring with laughter. Through the
window-glass of our Pullman the thud of their mischievous hoofs
reached us, and the strong, humorous curses of the cow-boys. Then
for the first time I noticed a man who sat on the high gate of
the corral, looking on. For he now climbed down with the
undulations of a tiger, smooth and easy, as if his muscles flowed
beneath his skin. The others had all visibly whirled the rope,
some of them even shoulder high. I did not see his arm lift or
move. He appeared to hold the rope down low, by his leg. But like
a sudden snake I saw the noose go out its length and fall true;
and the thing was done. As the captured pony walked in with a
sweet, church-door expression, our train moved slowly on to the
station, and a passenger remarked, "That man knows his business."
But the passenger's dissertation upon roping I was obliged to
lose, for Medicine Bow was my station. I bade my
fellow-travellers good-by, and descended, a stranger, into the
great cattle land. And here in less than ten minutes I learned
news which made me feel a stranger indeed.
My baggage was lost; it had not come on my train; it was adrift
somewhere back in the two thousand miles that lay behind me. And
by way of comfort, the baggage-man remarked that passengers often
got astray from their trunks, but the trunks mostly found them
after a while. Having offered me this encouragement, he turned
whistling to his affairs and left me planted in the baggage-room
at Medicine Bow. I stood deserted among crates and boxes, blankly
holding my check, hungry and forlorn. I stared out through the
door at the sky and the plains; but I did not see the antelope
shining among the sage-brush, nor the great sunset light of
Wyoming. Annoyance blinded my eyes to all things save my
grievance: I saw only a lost trunk. And I was muttering
half-aloud, "What a forsaken hole this is!" when suddenly from
outside on the platform came a slow voice: "Off to get married
AGAIN? Oh, don't!"
The voice was Southern and gentle and drawling; and a second
voice came in immediate answer, cracked and querulous. "It ain't
again. Who says it's again? Who told you, anyway?"
And the first voice responded caressingly: "Why, your Sunday
clothes told me, Uncle Hughey. They are speakin' mighty loud o'
"You don't worry me!" snapped Uncle Hughey, with shrill heat.
And the other gently continued, "Ain't them gloves the same yu'
wore to your last weddin'?"
"You don't worry me! You don't worry me!" now screamed Uncle
Already I had forgotten my trunk; care had left me; I was aware
of the sunset, and had no desire but for more of this
conversation. For it resembled none that I had heard in my life
so far. I stepped to the door and looked out upon the station
Lounging there at ease against the wall was a slim young giant,
more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed
back; a loose-knotted, dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his
throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt
that slanted across his hips. He had plainly come many miles from
somewhere across the vast horizon, as the dust upon him showed.
His boots were white with it. His overalls were gray with it. The
weather-beaten bloom of his face shone through it duskily, as the
ripe peaches look upon their trees in a dry season. But no
dinginess of travel or shabbiness of attire could tarnish the
splendor that radiated from his youth and strength. The old man
upon whose temper his remarks were doing such deadly work was
combed and curried to a finish, a bridegroom swept and garnished;
but alas for age! Had I been the bride, I should have taken the
giant, dust and all. He had by no means done with the old man.
"Why, yu've hung weddin' gyarments on every limb!" he now
drawled, with admiration. "Who is the lucky lady this trip?"
The old man seemed to vibrate. "Tell you there ain't been no
other! Call me a Mormon, would you?"
"Call me a Mormon? Then name some of my wives. Name two. Name
one. Dare you!"
"--that Laramie wido' promised you--'
"--only her docter suddenly ordered Southern climate and--"
"Shucks! You're a false alarm."
"--so nothing but her lungs came between you. And next you'd most
got united with Cattle Kate, only--"
"Tell you you're a false alarm!"
"--only she got hung."
"Where's the wives in all this? Show the wives! Come now!"
"That corn-fed biscuit-shooter at Rawlins yu' gave the canary--"
"Never married her. Never did marry--"
"But yu' come so near, uncle! She was the one left yu' that
letter explaining how she'd got married to a young cyard-player
the very day before her ceremony with you was due, and--"
"Oh, you're nothing; you're a kid; you don't amount to--"
"--and how she'd never, never forgot to feed the canary."
"This country's getting full of kids," stated the old man,
witheringly. "It's doomed." This crushing assertion plainly
satisfied him. And he blinked his eyes with renewed anticipation.
His tall tormentor continued with a face of unchanging gravity,
and a voice of gentle solicitude: "How is the health of that
"That's right! Pour your insults! Pour 'em on a sick, afflicted
woman!" The eyes blinked with combative relish.
"Insults? Oh, no, Uncle Hughey!"
"That's all right! Insults goes!"
"Why, I was mighty relieved when she began to recover her mem'ry.
Las' time I heard, they told me she'd got it pretty near all
back. Remembered her father, and her mother, and her sisters and
brothers, and her friends, and her happy childhood, and all her
doin's except only your face. The boys was bettin' she'd get that
far too, give her time. But I reckon afteh such a turrable
sickness as she had, that would be expectin' most too much."
At this Uncle Hughey jerked out a small parcel. "Shows how much
you know!" he cackled. "There! See that! That's my ring she sent
me back, being too unstrung for marriage. So she don't remember
me, don't she? Ha-ha! Always said you were a false alarm."
The Southerner put more anxiety into his tone. "And so you're
a-takin' the ring right on to the next one!" he exclaimed. "Oh,
don't go to get married again, Uncle Hughey! What's the use o'
"What's the use?" echoed the bridegroom, with scorn. "Hm! When
you grow up you'll think different."
"Course I expect to think different when my age is different. I'm
havin' the thoughts proper to twenty-four, and you're havin' the
thoughts proper to sixty."
"Fifty!" shrieked Uncle Hughey, jumping in the air.
The Southerner took a tone of self-reproach. "Now, how could I
forget you was fifty," he murmured, "when you have been telling
it to the boys so careful for the last ten years!"
Have you ever seen a cockatoo--the white kind with the
top-knot--enraged by insult? The bird erects every available
feather upon its person. So did Uncle Hughey seem to swell,
clothes, mustache, and woolly white beard; and without further
speech he took himself on board the Eastbound train, which now
arrived from its siding in time to deliver him.
Yet this was not why he had not gone away before. At any time he
could have escaped into the baggage-room or withdrawn to a
dignified distance until his train should come up. But the old
man had evidently got a sort of joy from this teasing. He had
reached that inevitable age when we are tickled to be linked with
affairs of gallantry, no matter how.
With him now the Eastbound departed slowly into that distance
whence I had come. I stared after it as it went its way to the
far shores of civilization. It grew small in the unending gulf of
space, until all sign of its presence was gone save a faint skein
of smoke against the evening sky. And now my lost trunk came back
into my thoughts, and Medicine Bow seemed a lonely spot. A sort
of ship had left me marooned in a foreign ocean; the Pullman was
comfortably steaming home to port, while I--how was I to find
Judge Henry's ranch? Where in this unfeatured wilderness was Sunk
Creek? No creek or any water at all flowed here that I could
perceive. My host had written he should meet me at the station
and drive me to his ranch. This was all that I knew. He was not
here. The baggage-man had not seen him lately. The ranch was
almost certain to be too far to walk to, to-night. My trunk--I
discovered myself still staring dolefully after the vanished
East-bound; and at the same instant I became aware that the tall
man was looking gravely at me,--as gravely as he had looked at
Uncle Hughey throughout their remarkable conversation.
To see his eye thus fixing me and his thumb still hooked in his
cartridge-belt, certain tales of travellers from these parts
forced themselves disquietingly into my recollection. Now that
Uncle Hughey was gone, was I to take his place and be, for
instance, invited to dance on the platform to the music of shots
"I reckon I am looking for you, seh," the tall man now observed.
II. "WHEN YOU CALL ME THAT, SMILE!"
We cannot see ourselves as other see us, or I should know what
appearance I cut at hearing this from the tall man. I said
nothing, feeling uncertain.
"I reckon I am looking for you, seh," he repeated politely.
"I am looking for Judge Henry," I now replied.
He walked toward me, and I saw that in inches he was not a giant.
He was not more than six feet. It was Uncle Hughey that had made
him seem to tower. But in his eye, in his face, in his step, in
the whole man, there dominated a something potent to be felt, I
should think, by man or woman.
"The Judge sent me afteh you, seh," he now explained, in his
civil Southern voice; and he handed me a letter from my host. Had
I not witnessed his facetious performances with Uncle Hughey, I
should have judged him wholly ungifted with such powers. There
was nothing external about him but what seemed the signs of a
nature as grave as you could meet. But I had witnessed; and
therefore supposing that I knew him in spite of his appearance,
that I was, so to speak, in his secret and could give him a sort
of wink, I adopted at once a method of easiness. It was so
pleasant to be easy with a large stranger, who instead of
shooting at your heels had very civilly handed you a letter.
"You're from old Virginia, I take it?" I began.
He answered slowly, "Then you have taken it correct, seh."
A slight chill passed over my easiness, but I went cheerily on
with a further inquiry. "Find many oddities out here like Uncle
"Yes, seh, there is a right smart of oddities around. They come
in on every train."
At this point I dropped my method of easiness.
"I wish that trunks came on the train," said I. And I told him my
It was not to be expected that he would be greatly moved at my
loss; but he took it with no comment whatever. "We'll wait in
town for it," said he, always perfectly civil.
Now, what I had seen of "town" was, to my newly arrived eyes,
altogether horrible. If I could possibly sleep at the Judge's
ranch, I preferred to do so.
"Is it too far to drive there to-night?" I inquired.
He looked at me in a puzzled manner.
"For this valise," I explained, "contains all that I immediately
need; in fact, I could do without my trunk for a day or two, if
it is not convenient to send. So if we could arrive there not too
late by starting at once--" I paused.
"It's two hundred and sixty-three miles," said the Virginian.
To my loud ejaculation he made no answer, but surveyed me a
moment longer, and then said, "Supper will be about ready now."
He took my valise, and I followed his steps toward the
eating-house in silence. I was dazed.
As we went, I read my host's letter--a brief hospitable message.
He was very sorry not to meet me himself. He had been getting
ready to drive over, when the surveyor appeared and detained him.
Therefore in his stead he was sending a trustworthy man to town,
who would look after me and drive me over. They were looking
forward to my visit with much pleasure. This was all.
Yes, I was dazed. How did they count distance in this country?
You spoke in a neighborly fashion about driving over to town, and
it meant--I did not know yet how many days. And what would be
meant by the term "dropping in," I wondered. And how many miles
would be considered really far? I abstained from further
questioning the "trustworthy man." My questions had not fared
excessively well. He did not propose making me dance, to be sure:
that would scarcely be trustworthy. But neither did he propose to
have me familiar with him. Why was this? What had I done to
elicit that veiled and skilful sarcasm about oddities coming in
on every train? Having been sent to look after me, he would do
so, would even carry my valise; but I could not be jocular with
him. This handsome, ungrammatical son of the soil had set between
us the bar of his cold and perfect civility. No polished person
could have done it better. What was the matter? I looked at him,
and suddenly it came to me. If he had tried familiarity with me
the first two minutes of our acquaintance, I should have resented
it; by what right, then, had I tried it with him? It smacked of
patronizing: on this occasion he had come off the better
gentleman of the two. Here in flesh and blood was a truth which I
had long believed in words, but never met before. The creature we
call a GENTLEMAN lies deep in the hearts of thousands that are
born without chance to master the outward graces of the type.
Between the station and the eating-house I did a deal of straight
thinking. But my thoughts were destined presently to be drowned
in amazement at the rare personage into whose society fate had
Town, as they called it, pleased me the less, the longer I saw
it. But until our language stretches itself and takes in a new
word of closer fit, town will have to do for the name of such a
place as was Medicine Bow. I have seen and slept in many like it
since. Scattered wide, they littered the frontier from the
Columbia to the Rio Grande, from the Missouri to the Sierras.
They lay stark, dotted over a planet of treeless dust, like
soiled packs of cards. Each was similar to the next, as one old
five-spot of clubs resembles another. Houses, empty bottles, and
garbage, they were forever of the same shapeless pattern. More
forlorn they were than stale bones. They seemed to have been
strewn there by the wind and to be waiting till the wind should
come again and blow them away. Yet serene above their foulness
swam a pure and quiet light, such as the East never sees; they
might be bathing in the air of creation's first morning. Beneath
sun and stars their days and nights were immaculate and
Medicine Bow was my first, and I took its dimensions, twenty-nine
buildings in all,--one coal shute, one water tank, the station,
one store, two eating-houses, one billiard hall, two tool-houses,
one feed stable, and twelve others that for one reason and
another I shall not name. Yet this wretched husk of squalor spent
thought upon appearances; many houses in it wore a false front to
seem as if they were two stories high. There they stood, rearing
their pitiful masquerade amid a fringe of old tin cans, while at
their very doors began a world of crystal light, a land without
end, a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from
Genesis. Into that space went wandering a road, over a hill and
down out of sight, and up again smaller in the distance, and down
once more, and up once more, straining the eyes, and so away.
Then I heard a fellow greet my Virginian. He came rollicking out
of a door, and made a pass with his hand at the Virginian's hat.
The Southerner dodged it, and I saw once more the tiger
undulation of body, and knew my escort was he of the rope and the
"How are yu' Steve?" he said to the rollicking man. And in his
tone I heard instantly old friendship speaking. With Steve he
would take and give familiarity.
Steve looked at me, and looked away--and that was all. But it was
enough. In no company had I ever felt so much an outsider. Yet I
liked the company, and wished that it would like me.
"Just come to town?" inquired Steve of the Virginian.
"Been here since noon. Been waiting for the train."
"Going out to-night?"
"I reckon I'll pull out to-morro'."
"Beds are all took," said Steve. This was for my benefit.
"Dear me," said I.
"But I guess one of them drummers will let yu' double up with
him." Steve was enjoying himself, I think. He had his saddle and
blankets, and beds were nothing to him.
"Drummers, are they?" asked the Virginian.
"Two Jews handling cigars, one American with consumption killer,
and a Dutchman with jew'lry."
The Virginian set down my valise, and seemed to meditate. "I did
want a bed to-night," he murmured gently.
"Well," Steve suggested, "the American looks like he washed the
"That's of no consequence to me," observed the Southerner.
"Guess it'll be when yu' see 'em."
"Oh, I'm meaning something different. I wanted a bed to myself."
"Then you'll have to build one."
"Bet yu' I have the Dutchman's."
"Take a man that won't scare. Bet yu' drinks yu' can't have the
"Go yu'" said the Virginian. "I'll have his bed without any fuss.
Drinks for the crowd."
"I suppose you have me beat," said Steve, grinning at him
affectionately. "You're such a son-of-a-- when you get down to
work. Well, so long! I got to fix my horse's hoofs."
I had expected that the man would be struck down. He had used to
the Virginian a term of heaviest insult, I thought. I had
marvelled to hear it come so unheralded from Steve's friendly
lips. And now I marvelled still more. Evidently he had meant no
harm by it, and evidently no offence had been taken. Used thus,
this language was plainly complimentary. I had stepped into a
world new to me indeed, and novelties were occurring with scarce
any time to get breath between them. As to where I should sleep,
I had forgotten that problem altogether in my curiosity. What was
the Virginian going to do now? I began to know that the quiet of
this man was volcanic.
"Will you wash first, sir?"
We were at the door of the eating-house, and he set my valise
inside. In my tenderfoot innocence I was looking indoors for the
"It's out hyeh, seh," he informed me gravely, but with strong
Southern accent. Internal mirth seemed often to heighten the
local flavor of his speech. There were other times when it had
scarce any special accent or fault in grammar.
A trough was to my right, slippery with soapy water; and hanging
from a roller above one end of it was a rag of discouraging
appearance. The Virginian caught it, and it performed one
whirling revolution on its roller. Not a dry or clean inch could
be found on it. He took off his hat, and put his head in the
"Your towel, ma'am," said he, "has been too popular."
She came out, a pretty woman. Her eyes rested upon him for a
moment, then upon me with disfavor; then they returned to his
"The allowance is one a day," said she, very quietly. "But when
folks are particular--" She completed her sentence by removing
the old towel and giving a clean one to us.
"Thank you, ma'am," said the cow-puncher.
She looked once more at his black hair, and without any word
returned to her guests at supper.
A pail stood in the trough, almost empty; and this he filled for
me from a well. There was some soap sliding at large in the
trough, but I got my own. And then in a tin basin I removed as
many of the stains of travel as I was able. It was not much of a
toilet that I made in this first wash-trough of my experience,
but it had to suffice, and I took my seat at supper.
Canned stuff it was,--corned beef. And one of my table companions
said the truth about it. "When I slung my teeth over that," he
remarked, "I thought I was chewing a hammock." We had strange
coffee, and condensed milk; and I have never seen more flies. I
made no attempt to talk, for no one in this country seemed
favorable to me. By reason of something,--my clothes, my hat, my
pronunciation, whatever it might be, I possessed the secret of
estranging people at sight. Yet I was doing better than I knew;
my strict silence and attention to the corned beef made me in the
eyes of the cow-boys at table compare well with the
over-talkative commercial travellers.
The Virginian's entrance produced a slight silence. He had done
wonders with the wash-trough, and he had somehow brushed his
clothes. With all the roughness of his dress, he was now the
neatest of us. He nodded to some of the other cow-boys, and began
his meal in quiet.
But silence is not the native element of the drummer. An average
fish can go a longer time out of water than this breed can live
without talking. One of them now looked across the table at the
grave, flannel-shirted Virginian; he inspected, and came to the
imprudent conclusion that he understood his man.
"Good evening," he said briskly.
"Good evening," said the Virginian.
"Just come to town?" pursued the drummer.
"Just come to town," the Virginian suavely assented.
"Cattle business jumping along?" inquired the drummer.
"Oh, fair." And the Virginian took some more corned beef.
"Gets a move on your appetite, anyway," suggested the drummer.
The Virginian drank some coffee. Presently the pretty woman
refilled his cup without his asking her.
"Guess I've met you before," the drummer stated next.
The Virginian glanced at him for a brief moment.
"Haven't I, now? Ain't I seen you somewhere? Look at me. You been
in Chicago, ain't you? You look at me well. Remember Ikey's,
"I don't reckon I do."
"See, now! I knowed you'd been in Chicago. Four or five years
ago. Or maybe it's two years. Time's nothing to me. But I never
forget a face. Yes, sir. Him and me's met at Ikey's, all right."
This important point the drummer stated to all of us. We were
called to witness how well he had proved old acquaintanceship.
"Ain't the world small, though!" he exclaimed complacently. "Meet
a man once and you're sure to run on to him again. That's
straight. That's no bar-room josh." And the drummer's eye
included us all in his confidence. I wondered if he had attained
that high perfection when a man believes his own lies.
The Virginian did not seem interested. He placidly attended to
his food, while our landlady moved between dining room and
kitchen, and the drummer expanded.
"Yes, sir! Ikey's over by the stock-yards, patronized by all
cattlemen that know what's what. That's where. Maybe it's three
years. Time never was nothing to me. But faces! Why, I can't quit
'em. Adults or children, male and female; onced I seen 'em I
couldn't lose one off my memory, not if you were to pay me
bounty, five dollars a face. White men, that is. Can't do nothing
with niggers or Chinese. But you're white, all right." The
drummer suddenly returned to the Virginian with this high
compliment. The cow-puncher had taken out a pipe, and was slowly
rubbing it. The compliment seemed to escape his attention, and
the drummer went on.
"I can tell a man when he's white, put him at Ikey's or out loose
here in the sage-brush." And he rolled a cigar across to the
"Selling them?" inquired the Virginian.
"Solid goods, my friend. Havana wrappers, the biggest tobacco
proposition for five cents got out yet. Take it, try it, light
it, watch it burn. Here." And he held out a bunch of matches.
The Virginian tossed a five-cent piece over to him.
"Oh, no, my friend! Not from you! Not after Ikey's. I don't
forget you. See? I knowed your face right away. See? That's
straight. I seen you at Chicago all right."
"Maybe you did," said the Virginian. "Sometimes I'm mighty
careless what I look at."
"Well, py damn!" now exclaimed the Dutch drummer, hilariously. "I
am ploom disappointed. I vas hoping to sell him somedings
"Not the same here," stated the American. "He's too healthy for
me. I gave him up on sight."
Now it was the American drummer whose bed the Virginian had in
his eye. This was a sensible man, and had talked less than his
brothers in the trade. I had little doubt who would end by
sleeping in his bed; but how the thing would be done interested
me more deeply than ever.
The Virginian looked amiably at his intended victim, and made one
or two remarks regarding patent medicines. There must be a good
deal of money in them, he supposed, with a live man to manage
them. The victim was flattered. No other person at the table had
been favored with so much of the tall cow-puncher's notice. He
responded, and they had a pleasant talk. I did not divine that
the Virginian's genius was even then at work, and that all this
was part of his satanic strategy. But Steve must have divined it.
For while a few of us still sat finishing our supper, that
facetious horseman returned from doctoring his horse's hoofs, put
his head into the dining room, took in the way in which the
Virginian was engaging his victim in conversation, remarked
aloud, "I've lost!" and closed the door again.
"What's he lost?" inquired the American drummer.
"Oh, you mustn't mind him," drawled the Virginian. "He's one of
those box-head jokers goes around openin' and shuttin' doors
that-a-way. We call him harmless. Well," he broke off, "I reckon
I'll go smoke. Not allowed in hyeh?" This last he addressed to
the landlady, with especial gentleness. She shook her head, and
her eyes followed him as he went out.
Left to myself I meditated for some time upon my lodging for the
night, and smoked a cigar for consolation as I walked about. It
was not a hotel that we had supped in. Hotel at Medicine Bow
there appeared to be none. But connected with the eating-house
was that place where, according to Steve, the beds were all
taken, and there I went to see for myself. Steve had spoken the
truth. It was a single apartment containing four or five beds,
and nothing else whatever. And when I looked at these beds, my
sorrow that I could sleep in none of them grew less. To be alone
in one offered no temptation, and as for this courtesy of the
country, this doubling up--!
"Well, they have got ahead of us." This was the Virginian
standing at my elbow.
"They have staked out their claims," he added.
In this public sleeping room they had done what one does to
secure a seat in a railroad train. Upon each bed, as notice of
occupancy, lay some article of travel or of dress. As we stood
there, the two Jews came in and opened and arranged their
valises, and folded and refolded their linen dusters. Then a
railroad employee entered and began to go to bed at this hour,
before dusk had wholly darkened into night. For him, going to bed
meant removing his boots and placing his overalls and waistcoat
beneath his pillow. He had no coat. His work began at three in
the morning; and even as we still talked he began to snore.
"The man that keeps the store is a friend of mine," said the
Virginian; "and you can be pretty near comfortable on his
counter. Got any Blankets?"
I had no blankets.
"Looking for a bed?" inquired the American drummer, now arriving.
"Yes, he's looking for a bed," answered the voice of Steve behind
"Seems a waste of time," observed the Virginian. He looked
thoughtfully from one bed to another. "I didn't know I'd have to
lay over here. Well, I have sat up before."
"This one's mine," said the drummer, sitting down on it. "Half's
plenty enough room for me."
"You're cert'nly mighty kind," said the cowpuncher. "But I'd not
think o' disconveniencing yu'."
"That's nothing. The other half is yours. Turn in right now if
you feel like it."
"No. I don't reckon I'll turn in right now. Better keep your bed
"See here," urged the drummer, "if I take you I'm safe from
drawing some party I might not care so much about. This here
sleeping proposition is a lottery."
"Well," said the Virginian (and his hesitation was truly
masterly), "if you put it that way--"
"I do put it that way. Why, you're clean! You've had a shave
right now. You turn in when you feel inclined, old man! I ain't
retiring just yet."
The drummer had struck a slightly false note in these last
remarks. He should not have said "old man." Until this I had
thought him merely an amiable person who wished to do a favor.
But "old man" came in wrong. It had a hateful taint of his
profession; the being too soon with everybody, the celluloid
good-fellowship that passes for ivory with nine in ten of the
city crowd. But not so with the sons of the sagebrush. They live
nearer nature, and they know better.
But the Virginian blandly accepted "old man" from his victim: he
had a game to play. "Well, I cert'nly thank yu'," he said. "After
a while I'll take advantage of your kind offer."
I was surprised. Possession being nine points of the law, it
seemed his very chance to intrench himself in the bed. But the
cow-puncher had planned a campaign needing no intrenchments.
Moreover, going to bed before nine o'clock upon the first evening
in many weeks that a town's resources were open to you, would be
a dull proceeding. Our entire company, drummer and all, now
walked over to the store, and here my sleeping arrangements were
made easily. This store was the cleanest place and the best in
Medicine Bow, and would have been a good store anywhere, offering
a multitude of things for sale, and kept by a very civil
proprietor. He bade me make myself at home, and placed both of
his counters at my disposal. Upon the grocery side there stood a
cheese too large and strong to sleep near comfortably, and I
therefore chose the dry-goods side. Here thick quilts were
unrolled for me, to make it soft; and no condition was placed
upon me, further than that I should remove my boots, because the
quilts were new, and clean, and for sale. So now my rest was
assured. Not an anxiety remained in my thoughts. These therefore
turned themselves wholly to the other man's bed, and how he was
going to lose it.
I think that Steve was more curious even than myself. Time was on
the wing. His bet must be decided, and the drinks enjoyed. He
stood against the grocery counter, contemplating the Virginian.
But it was to me that he spoke. The Virginian, however, listened
to every word.
"Your first visit to this country?"
I told him yes.
"How do you like it?"
I expected to like it very much.
"How does the climate strike you?
I thought the climate was fine.
"Makes a man thirsty though."
This was the sub-current which the Virginian plainly looked for.
But he, like Steve, addressed himself to me.
"Yes," he put in, "thirsty while a man's soft yet. You'll
"I guess you'll find it a drier country than you were given to
expect," said Steve.
"If your habits have been frequent that way," said the Virginian.
"There's parts of Wyoming," pursued Steve, "where you'll go hours
and hours before you'll see a drop of wetness."
"And if yu' keep a-thinkin' about it," said the Virginian, "it'll
seem like days and days."
Steve, at this stroke, gave up, and clapped him on the shoulder
with a joyous chuckle. "You old son-of-a!" he cried
"Drinks are due now," said the Virginian. "My treat, Steve. But I
reckon your suspense will have to linger a while yet."
Thus they dropped into direct talk from that speech of the fourth
dimension where they had been using me for their telephone.
"Any cyards going to-night?" inquired the Virginian.
"Stud and draw," Steve told him. "Strangers playing."
"I think I'd like to get into a game for a while," said the
Southerner. "Strangers, yu' say?"
And then, before quitting the store, he made his toilet for this
little hand at poker. It was a simple preparation. He took his
pistol from its holster, examined it, then shoved it between his
overalls and his shirt in front, and pulled his waistcoat over
it. He might have been combing his hair for all the attention any
one paid to this, except myself. Then the two friends went out,
and I bethought me of that epithet which Steve again had used to
the Virginian as he clapped him on the shoulder. Clearly this
wild country spoke a language other than mine--the word here was
a term of endearment. Such was my conclusion.
The drummers had finished their dealings with the proprietor, and
they were gossiping together in a knot by the door as the
Virginian passed out.
"See you later, old man!" This was the American drummer accosting
his prospective bed-fellow.
"Oh, yes," returned the bed-fellow, and was gone.
The American drummer winked triumphantly at his brethren. "He's
all right," he observed, jerking a thumb after the Virginian.
"He's easy. You got to know him to work him. That's all."
"Und vat is your point?" inquired the German drummer.
"Point is--he'll not take any goods off you or me; but he's going
to talk up the killer to any consumptive he runs across. I ain't
done with him yet. Say," (he now addressed the proprietor),
"what's her name?"
"Woman runs the eating-house."
"Glen. Mrs. Glen."
"Ain't she new?"
"Been settled here about a month. Husband's a freight conductor."
"Thought I'd not seen her before. She's a good-looker."
"Hm! Yes. The kind of good looks I'd sooner see in another man's
wife than mine."
"So that's the gait, is it?"
"Hm! well, it don't seem to be. She come here with that
reputation. But there's been general disappointment."
"Then she ain't lacked suitors any?"
"Lacked! Are you acquainted with cow-boys?"
"And she disappointed 'em? Maybe she likes her husband?"
"Hm! well, how are you to tell about them silent kind?"
"Talking of conductors," began the drummer. And we listened to
his anecdote. It was successful with his audience; but when he
launched fluently upon a second I strolled out. There was not
enough wit in this narrator to relieve his indecency, and I felt
shame at having been surprised into laughing with him.
I left that company growing confidential over their leering
stories, and I sought the saloon. It was very quiet and orderly.
Beer in quart bottles at a dollar I had never met before; but
saving its price, I found no complaint to make of it. Through
folding doors I passed from the bar proper with its bottles and
elk head back to the hall with its various tables. I saw a man
sliding cards from a case, and across the table from him another
man laying counters down. Near by was a second dealer pulling
cards from the bottom of a pack, and opposite him a solemn old
rustic piling and changing coins upon the cards which lay already
But now I heard a voice that drew my eyes to the far corner of
"Why didn't you stay in Arizona?"
Harmless looking words as I write them down here. Yet at the
sound of them I noticed the eyes of the others directed to that
corner. What answer was given to them I did not hear, nor did I
see who spoke. Then came another remark.
"Well, Arizona's no place for amatures."
This time the two card dealers that I stood near began to give a
part of their attention to the group that sat in the corner.
There was in me a desire to leave this room. So far my hours at
Medicine Bow had seemed to glide beneath a sunshine of merriment,
of easy-going jocularity. This was suddenly gone, like the wind
changing to north in the middle of a warm day. But I stayed,
being ashamed to go.
Five or six players sat over in the corner at a round table where
counters were piled. Their eyes were close upon their cards, and
one seemed to be dealing a card at a time to each, with pauses
and betting between. Steve was there and the Virginian; the
others were new faces.
"No place for amatures," repeated the voice; and now I saw that
it was the dealer's. There was in his countenance the same
ugliness that his words conveyed.
"Who's that talkin'?" said one of the men near me, in a low
"Cow-puncher, bronco-buster, tin-horn, most anything."
"Who's he talkin' at?"
"Think it's the black-headed guy he's talking at."
"That ain't supposed to be safe, is it?"
"Guess we're all goin' to find out in a few minutes."
"Been trouble between 'em?"
"They've not met before. Trampas don't enjoy losin' to a
"Fello's from Arizona, yu' say?"
"No. Virginia. He's recently back from havin' a look at Arizona.
Went down there last year for a change. Works for the Sunk Creek
outfit." And then the dealer lowered his voice still further and
said something in the other man's ear, causing him to grin. After
which both of them looked at me.
There had been silence over in the corner; but now the man
Trampas spoke again.
"AND ten," said he, sliding out some chips from before him. Very
strange it was to hear him, how he contrived to make those words
a personal taunt. The Virginian was looking at his cards. He
might have been deaf.
"AND twenty," said the next player, easily.
The next threw his cards down.
It was now the Virginian's turn to bet, or leave the game, and he
did not speak at once.
Therefore Trampas spoke. "Your bet, you son-of-a--."
The Virginian's pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table,
holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice
that sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little
more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each
word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas: "When you call me
that, SMILE." And he looked at Trampas across the table.
Yes, the voice was gentle. But in my ears it seemed as if
somewhere the bell of death was ringing; and silence, like a
stroke, fell on the large room. All men present, as if by some
magnetic current, had become aware of this crisis. In my
ignorance, and the total stoppage of my thoughts, I stood
stock-still, and noticed various people crouching, or shifting
"Sit quiet," said the dealer, scornfully to the man near me.
"Can't you see he don't want to push trouble? He has handed
Trampas the choice to back down or draw his steel."
Then, with equal suddenness and ease, the room came out of its
strangeness. Voices and cards, the click of chips, the puff of
tobacco, glasses lifted to drink,--this level of smooth
relaxation hinted no more plainly of what lay beneath than does
the surface tell the depth of the sea.
For Trampas had made his choice. And that choice was not to "draw
his steel." If it was knowledge that he sought, he had found it,
and no mistake! We heard no further reference to what he had been
pleased to style "amatures." In no company would the black-headed
man who had visited Arizona be rated a novice at the cool art of
One doubt remained: what kind of a man was Trampas? A public
back-down is an unfinished thing,--for some natures at least. I
looked at his face, and thought it sullen, but tricky rather than
Something had been added to my knowledge also. Once again I had
heard applied to the Virginian that epithet which Steve so freely
used. The same words, identical to the letter. But this time they
had produced a pistol. "When you call me that, SMILE!" So I
perceived a new example of the old truth, that the letter means
nothing until the spirit gives it life.
III. STEVE TREATS
It was for several minutes, I suppose, that I stood drawing these
silent morals. No man occupied himself with me. Quiet voices, and
games of chance, and glasses lifted to drink, continued to be the
peaceful order of the night. And into my thoughts broke the voice
of that card-dealer who had already spoken so sagely. He also
took his turn at moralizing.
"What did I tell you?" he remarked to the man for whom he
continued to deal, and who continued to lose money to him.
"Tell me when?"
"Didn't I tell you he'd not shoot?" the dealer pursued with
complacence. "You got ready to dodge. You had no call to be
concerned. He's not the kind a man need feel anxious about."
The player looked over at the Virginian, doubtfully. "Well," he
said, "I don't know what you folks call a dangerous man."
"Not him!" exclaimed the dealer with admiration. "He's a brave
man. That's different."
The player seemed to follow this reasoning no better than I did.
"It's not a brave man that's dangerous," continued the dealer.
"It's the cowards that scare me." He paused that this might sink
"Fello' came in here las' Toosday," he went on. "He got into some
misunderstanding about the drinks. Well, sir, before we could put
him out of business, he'd hurt two perfectly innocent onlookers.
They'd no more to do with it than you have," the dealer explained
"Were they badly hurt?" I asked.
"One of 'em was. He's died since."
"What became of the man?"
"Why, we put him out of business, I told you. He died that night.
But there was no occasion for any of it; and that's why I never
like to be around where there's a coward. You can't tell. He'll
always go to shooting before it's necessary, and there's no
security who he'll hit. But a man like that black-headed guy is
(the dealer indicated the Virginian) need never worry you. And
there's another point why there's no need to worry about him:
IT'D BE TOO LATE."
These good words ended the moralizing of the dealer. He had given
us a piece of his mind. He now gave the whole of it to dealing
cards. I loitered here and there, neither welcome nor unwelcome
at present, watching the cow-boys at their play. Saving Trampas,
there was scarce a face among them that had not in it something
very likable. Here were lusty horsemen ridden from the heat of
the sun, and the wet of the storm, to divert themselves awhile.
Youth untamed sat here for an idle moment, spending easily its
hard-earned wages. City saloons rose into my vision, and I
instantly preferred this Rocky Mountain place. More of death it
undoubtedly saw, but less of vice, than did its New York
And death is a thing much cleaner than vice. Moreover, it was by
no means vice that was written upon these wild and manly faces.
Even where baseness was visible, baseness was not uppermost.
Daring, laughter, endurance--these were what I saw upon the
countenances of the cow-boys. And this very first day of my
knowledge of them marks a date with me. For something about them,
and the idea of them, smote my American heart, and I have never
forgotten it, nor ever shall, as long as I live. In their flesh
our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit
sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected
shining their figures took on heroic stature.
The dealer had styled the Virginian "a black-headed guy." This
did well enough as an unflattered portrait. Judge Henry's
trustworthy man, with whom I was to drive two hundred and
sixty-three miles, certainly had a very black head of hair. It
was the first thing to notice now, if one glanced generally at
the table where he sat at cards. But the eye came back to
him--drawn by that inexpressible something which had led the
dealer to speak so much at length about him.
Still, "black-headed guy" justly fits him and his next
performance. He had made his plan for this like a true and (I
must say) inspired devil. And now the highly appreciative town of
Medicine Bow was to be treated to a manifestation of genius.
He sat playing his stud-poker. After a decent period of losing
and winning, which gave Trampas all proper time for a change of
luck and a repairing of his fortunes, he looked at Steve and said
amiably: "How does bed strike you?"
I was beside their table, learning gradually that stud-poker has
in it more of what I will call red pepper than has our Eastern
game. The Virginian followed his own question: "Bed strikes me,"
Steve feigned indifference. He was far more deeply absorbed in
his bet and the American drummer than he was in this game; but he
chose to take out a fat, florid gold watch, consult it
elaborately, and remark, "It's only eleven."
"Yu' forget I'm from the country," said the black-headed guy.
"The chickens have been roostin' a right smart while."
His sunny Southern accent was again strong. In that brief passage
with Trampas it had been almost wholly absent. But different
moods of the spirit bring different qualities of utterance--where
a man comes by these naturally. The Virginian cashed in his
"Awhile ago," said Steve, "you had won three months' salary."
"I'm still twenty dollars to the good," said the Virginian.
"That's better than breaking a laig."
Again, in some voiceless, masonic way, most people in that saloon
had become aware that something was in process of happening.
Several left their games and came to the front by the bar.
"If he ain't in bed yet--" mused the Virginian.
"I'll find out," said I. And I hurried across to the dim sleeping
room, happy to have a part in this.
They were all in bed; and in some beds two were sleeping. How
they could do it--but in those days I was fastidious. The
American had come in recently and was still awake.
"Thought you were to sleep at the store?" said he.
So then I invented a little lie, and explained that I was in
search of the Virginian.
"Better search the dives," said he. "These cow-boys don't get to
At this point I stumbled sharply over something.
"It's my box of Consumption Killer," explained the drummer;
"Well, I hope that man will stay out all night."
"Bed narrow?" I inquired.
"For two it is. And the pillows are mean. Takes both before you
feel anything's under your head."
He yawned, and I wished him pleasant dreams.
At my news the Virginian left the bar at once; and crossed to the
sleeping room. Steve and I followed softly, and behind us several
more strung out in an expectant line. "What is this going to be?"
they inquired curiously of each other. And upon learning the
great novelty of the event, they clustered with silence intense
outside the door where the Virginian had gone in.
We heard the voice of the drummer, cautioning his bed-fellow.
"Don't trip over the Killer," he was saying. "The Prince of Wales
barked his shin just now." It seemed my English clothes had
earned me this title.
The boots of the Virginian were next heard to drop.
"Can yu' make out what he's at?" whispered Steve.
He was plainly undressing. The rip of swift unbuttoning told us
that the black-headed guy must now be removing his overalls.
"Why, thank yu', no," he was replying to a question of the
drummer. "Outside or in's all one to me."
"Then, if you'd just as soon take the wall--"
"Why, cert'nly." There was a sound of bedclothes, and creaking.
"This hyeh pillo' needs a Southern climate," was the Virginian's
Many listeners had now gathered at the door. The dealer and the
player were both here. The storekeeper was present, and I
recognized the agent of the Union Pacific Railroad among the
crowd. We made a large company, and I felt that trembling
sensation which is common when the cap of a camera is about to be
removed upon a group.
"I should think," said the drummer's voice, "that you'd feel your
knife and gun clean through that pillow."
"I do," responded the Virginian.
"I should think you'd put them on a chair and be comfortable."
"I'd be uncomfortable, then."
"Used to the feel of them, I suppose?"
"That's it. Used to the feel of them. I would miss them, and that
would make me wakeful."
"Well, good night."
"Good night. If I get to talkin' and tossin', or what not, you'll
understand you're to--"
"Yes, I'll wake you."
"No, don't yu', for God's sake!"
"Don't yu' touch me."
"What'll I do?"
"Roll away quick to your side. It don't last but a minute." The
Virginian spoke with a reassuring drawl.
Upon this there fell a brief silence, and I heard the drummer
clear his throat once or twice.
"It's merely the nightmare, I suppose?" he said after a throat
"Lord, yes. That's all. And don't happen twice a year. Was you
thinkin' it was fits?"
"Oh, no! I just wanted to know. I've been told before that it was
not safe for a person to be waked suddenly that way out of a
"Yes, I have heard that too. But it never harms me any. I didn't
want you to run risks."
"Oh, it'll be all right now that yu' know how it is." The
Virginian's drawl was full of assurance.
There was a second pause, after which the drummer said.
"Tell me again how it is."
The Virginian answered very drowsily: "Oh, just don't let your
arm or your laig touch me if I go to jumpin' around. I'm dreamin'
of Indians when I do that. And if anything touches me then, I'm
liable to grab my knife right in my sleep."
"Oh, I understand," said the drummer, clearing his throat. "Yes."
Steve was whispering delighted oaths to himself, and in his joy
applying to the Virginian one unprintable name after another.
We listened again, but now no further words came. Listening very
hard, I could half make out the progress of a heavy breathing,
and a restless turning I could clearly detect. This was the
wretched drummer. He was waiting. But he did not wait long. Again
there was a light creak, and after it a light step. He was not
even going to put his boots on in the fatal neighborhood of the
dreamer. By a happy thought Medicine Bow formed into two lines,
making an avenue from the door. And then the commercial traveller
forgot his Consumption Killer. He fell heavily over it.
Immediately from the bed the Virginian gave forth a dreadful
And then everything happened at once; and how shall mere words
narrate it? The door burst open, and out flew the commercial
traveller in his stockings. One hand held a lump of coat and
trousers with suspenders dangling, his boots were clutched in the
other. The sight of us stopped his flight short. He gazed, the
boots fell from his hand; and at his profane explosion, Medicine
Bow set up a united, unearthly noise and began to play Virginia
reel with him. The other occupants of the beds had already sprung
out of them, clothed chiefly with their pistols, and ready for
war. "What is it?" they demanded. "What is it?"
"Why, I reckon it's drinks on Steve," said the Virginian from his
bed. And he gave the first broad grin that I had seen from him.
"I'll set 'em up all night!" Steve shouted, as the reel went on
regardless. The drummer was bawling to be allowed to put at least
his boots on. "This way, Pard," was the answer; and another man
whirled him round. "This way, Beau!" they called to him; "This
way, Budd!" and he was passed like a shuttle-cock down the line.
Suddenly the leaders bounded into the sleeping-room. "Feed the
machine!" they said. "Feed her!" And seizing the German drummer
who sold jewellery, they flung him into the trough of the reel. I
saw him go bouncing like an ear of corn to be shelled, and the
dance ingulfed him. I saw a Jew sent rattling after him; and next
they threw in the railroad employee, and the other Jew; and while
I stood mesmerized, my own feet left the earth. I shot from the
room and sped like a bobbing cork into this mill race, whirling
my turn in the wake of the others amid cries of, "Here comes the
Prince of Wales!" There was soon not much English left about my
They were now shouting for music. Medicine Bow swept in like a
cloud of dust to where a fiddler sat playing in a hall; and
gathering up fiddler and dancers, swept out again, a larger
Medicine Bow, growing all the while. Steve offered us the freedom
of the house, everywhere. He implored us to call for whatever
pleased us, and as many times as we should please. He ordered the
town to be searched for more citizens to come and help him pay
his bet. But changing his mind, kegs and bottles were now carried
along with us. We had found three fiddlers, and these played
busily for us; and thus we set out to visit all cabins and houses
where people might still by some miracle be asleep. The first man
put out his head to decline. But such a possibility had been
foreseen by the proprietor of the store. This seemingly
respectable man now came dragging some sort of apparatus from his
place, helped by the Virginian. The cow-boys cheered, for they
knew what this was. The man in his window likewise recognized it,
and uttering a groan, came immediately out and joined us. What it
was, I also learned in a few minutes. For we found a house where
the people made no sign at either our fiddlers or our knocking.
And then the infernal machine was set to work. Its parts seemed
to be no more than an empty keg and a plank. Some citizen
informed me that I should soon have a new idea of noise; and I
nerved myself for something severe in the way of gunpowder. But
the Virginian and the proprietor now sat on the ground holding
the keg braced, and two others got down apparently to play
see-saw over the top of it with the plank. But the keg and plank
had been rubbed with rosin, and they drew the plank back and
forth over the keg. Do you know the sound made in a narrow street
by a dray loaded with strips of iron? That noise is a lullaby
compared with the staggering, blinding bellow which rose from the
keg. If you were to try it in your native town, you would not
merely be arrested, you would be hanged, and everybody would be
glad, and the clergyman would not bury you. My head, my teeth,
the whole system of my bones leaped and chattered at the din, and
out of the house like drops squirted from a lemon came a man and
his wife. No time was given them. They were swept along with the
rest; and having been routed from their own bed, they now became
most furious in assailing the remaining homes of Medicine Bow.
Everybody was to come out. Many were now riding horses at top
speed out into the plains and back, while the procession of the
plank and keg continued its work, and the fiddlers played
Suddenly there was a quiet. I did not see who brought the
message; but the word ran among us that there was a woman--the
engineer's woman down by the water-tank--very sick. The doctor
had been to see her from Laramie. Everybody liked the engineer.
Plank and keg were heard no more. The horsemen found it out and
restrained their gambols. Medicine Bow went gradually home. I saw
doors shutting, and lights go out; I saw a late few reassemble at
the card tables, and the drummers gathered themselves together
for sleep; the proprietor of the store (you could not see a more
respectable-looking person) hoped that I would be comfortable on
the quilts; and I heard Steve urging the Virginian to take one
"We've not met for so long," he said.
But the Virginian, the black-headed guy who had set all this
nonsense going, said No to Steve. "I have got to stay
responsible," was his excuse to his friend. And the friend looked
at me. Therefore I surmised that the Judge's trustworthy man
found me an embarrassment to his holiday. But if he did, he never
showed it to me. He had been sent to meet a stranger and drive
him to Sunk Creek in safety, and this charge he would allow no
temptation to imperil. He nodded good night to me. "If there's
anything I can do for yu', you'll tell me."
I thanked him. "What a pleasant evening!" I added.
"I'm glad yu' found it so."
Again his manner put a bar to my approaches. Even though I had
seen him wildly disporting himself, those were matters which he
chose not to discuss with me.
Medicine Bow was quiet as I went my way to my quilts. So still,
that through the air the deep whistles of the freight trains came
from below the horizon across great miles of silence. I passed
cow-boys, whom half an hour before I had seen prancing and
roaring, now rolled in their blankets beneath the open and
"What world am I in?" I said aloud. "Does this same planet hold
And I went to sleep, pondering over my native land.
IV. DEEP INTO CATTLE LAND
Morning had been for some while astir in Medicine Bow before I
left my quilts. The new day and its doings began around me in the
store, chiefly at the grocery counter. Dry-goods were not in
great request. The early rising cow-boys were off again to their
work; and those to whom their night's holiday had left any
dollars were spending these for tobacco, or cartridges, or canned
provisions for the journey to their distant camps. Sardines were
called for, and potted chicken, and devilled ham: a sophisticated
nourishment, at first sight, for these sons of the sage-brush.
But portable ready-made food plays of necessity a great part in
the opening of a new country. These picnic pots and cans were the
first of her trophies that Civilization dropped upon Wyoming's
virgin soil. The cow-boy is now gone to worlds invisible; the
wind has blown away the white ashes of his camp-fires; but the
empty sardine box lies rusting over the face of the Western
So through my eyes half closed I watched the sale of these tins,
and grew familiar with the ham's inevitable trade-mark--that
label with the devil and his horns and hoofs and tail very
pronounced, all colored a sultry prodigious scarlet. And when
each horseman had made his purchase, he would trail his spurs
over the floor, and presently the sound of his horse's hoofs
would be the last of him. Through my dozing attention came
various fragments of talk, and sometimes useful bits of
knowledge. For instance, I learned the true value of tomatoes in
this country. One fellow was buying two cans of them.
"Meadow Creek dry already?" commented the proprietor.
"Been dry ten days," the young cow-boy informed him. And it
appeared that along the road he was going, water would not be
reached much before sundown, because this Meadow Creek had ceased
to run. His tomatoes were for drink. And thus they have refreshed
me many times since.
"No beer?" suggested the proprietor.
The boy made a shuddering face. "Don't say its name to me!" he
exclaimed. "I couldn't hold my breakfast down." He rang his
silver money upon the counter. "I've swore off for three months,"
he stated. "I'm going to be as pure as the snow!" And away he
went jingling out of the door, to ride seventy-five miles. Three
more months of hard, unsheltered work, and he would ride into
town again, with his adolescent blood crying aloud for its own.
"I'm obliged," said a new voice, rousing me from a new doze.
"She's easier this morning, since the medicine." This was the
engineer, whose sick wife had brought a hush over Medicine Bow's
rioting. "I'll give her them flowers soon as she wakes," he
"Flowers?" repeated the proprietor.
"You didn't leave that bunch at our door?"
"Wish I'd thought to do it."
"She likes to see flowers," said the engineer. And he walked out
slowly, with his thanks unachieved. He returned at once with the
Virginian; for in the band of the Virginian's hat were two or
"It don't need mentioning," the Southerner was saying,
embarrassed by any expression of thanks. "If we had knowed last
"You didn't disturb her any," broke in the engineer. "She's
easier this morning. I'll tell her about them flowers."
"Why, it don't need mentioning," the Virginian again protested,
almost crossly. "The little things looked kind o' fresh, and I
just picked them." His eye now fell upon me, where I lay upon the
counter. "I reckon breakfast will be getting through," he
I was soon at the wash trough. It was only half-past six, but
many had been before me,--one glance at the roller-towel told me
that. I was afraid to ask the landlady for a clean one, and so I
found a fresh handkerchief, and accomplished a sparing toilet. In
the midst of this the drummers joined me, one by one, and they
used the degraded towel without hesitation. In a way they had the
best of me; filth was nothing to them.
The latest risers in Medicine Bow, we sat at breakfast together;
and they essayed some light familiarities with the landlady. But
these experiments were failures. Her eyes did not see, nor did
her ears hear them. She brought the coffee and the bacon with a
sedateness that propriety itself could scarce have surpassed. Yet
impropriety lurked noiselessly all over her. You could not have
specified how; it was interblended with her sum total. Silence
was her apparent habit and her weapon; but the American drummer
found that she could speak to the point when need came for this.
During the meal he had praised her golden hair. It was golden
indeed, and worth a high compliment; but his kind displeased her.
She had let it pass, however, with no more than a cool stare. But
on taking his leave, when he came to pay for the meal, he pushed
it too far.
"Pity this must be our last," he said; and as it brought no
answer, "Ever travel?" he inquired. "Where I go, there's room for
a pair of us."
"Then you'd better find another jackass," she replied quietly.
I was glad that I had not asked for a clean towel.
>From the commercial travellers I now separated myself, and
wandered alone in pleasurable aimlessness. It was seven o'clock.
Medicine Bow stood voiceless and unpeopled. The cow-boys had
melted away. The inhabitants were indoors, pursuing the business
or the idleness of the forenoon. Visible motion there was none.
No shell upon the dry sands could lie more lifeless than Medicine
Bow. Looking in at the store, I saw the proprietor sitting with
his pipe extinct. Looking in at the saloon, I saw the dealer
dealing dumbly to himself. Up in the sky there was not a cloud
nor a bird, and on the earth the lightest straw lay becalmed.
Once I saw the Virginian at an open door, where the golden-haired
landlady stood talking with him. Sometimes I strolled in the
town, and sometimes out on the plain I lay down with my day
dreams in the sagebrush. Pale herds of antelope were in the
distance, and near by the demure prairie-dogs sat up and
scrutinized me. Steve, Trampas, the riot of horsemen, my lost
trunk, Uncle Hughey, with his abortive brides--all things merged
in my thoughts in a huge, delicious indifference. It was like
swimming slowly at random in an ocean that was smooth, and
neither too cool nor too warm. And before I knew it, five lazy
imperceptible hours had gone thus. There was the Union Pacific
train, coming as if from shores forgotten.
Its approach was silent and long drawn out. I easily reached town
and the platform before it had finished watering at the tank. It
moved up, made a short halt, I saw my trunk come out of it, and
then it moved away silently as it had come, smoking and dwindling
into distance unknown.
Beside my trunk was one other, tied extravagantly with white
ribbon. The fluttering bows caught my attention, and now I
suddenly saw a perfectly new sight. The Virginian was further
down the platform, doubled up with laughing. It was good to know
that with sufficient cause he could laugh like this; a smile had
thus far been his limit of external mirth. Rice now flew against
my hat, and hissing gusts of rice spouted on the platform. All
the men left in Medicine Bow appeared like magic, and more rice
choked the atmosphere. Through the general clamor a cracked voice
said, "Don't hit her in the eye, boys!" and Uncle Hughey rushed
proudly by me with an actual wife on his arm. She could easily
have been his granddaughter. They got at once into a vehicle. The
trunk was lifted in behind. And amid cheers, rice, shoes, and
broad felicitations, the pair drove out of town, Uncle Hughey
shrieking to the horses and the bride waving unabashed adieus.
The word had come over the wires from Laramie: "Uncle Hughey has
made it this time. Expect him on to-day's number two." And
Medicine Bow had expected him.
Many words arose on the departure of the new-married couple.
"What's he got for her?"
"Got a gold mine up Bear Creek."
And after comment and prophecy, Medicine Bow returned to its
This meal was my last here for a long while. The Virginian's
responsibility now returned; duty drove the Judge's trustworthy
man to take care of me again. He had not once sought my society
of his own accord; his distaste for what he supposed me to be (I
don't exactly know what this was) remained unshaken. I have
thought that matters of dress and speech should not carry with
them so much mistrust in our democracy; thieves are presumed
innocent until proved guilty, but a starched collar is condemned
at once. Perfect civility and obligingness I certainly did
receive from the Virginian, only not a word of fellowship. He
harnessed the horses, got my trunk, and gave me some advice about
taking provisions for our journey, something more palatable than
what food we should find along the road. It was well thought of,
and I bought quite a parcel of dainties, feeling that he would
despise both them and me. And thus I took my seat beside him,
wondering what we should manage to talk about for two hundred and
Farewell in those days was not said in Cattle Land. Acquaintances
watched our departure with a nod or with nothing, and the nearest
approach to "Good-by" was the proprietor's "So-long." But I
caught sight of one farewell given without words.
As we drove by the eating-house, the shade of a side window was
raised, and the landlady looked her last upon the Virginian. Her
lips were faintly parted, and no woman's eyes ever said more
plainly, "I am one of your possessions." She had forgotten that
it might be seen. Her glance caught mine, and she backed into the
dimness of the room. What look she may have received from him, if
he gave her any at this too public moment, I could not tell. His
eyes seemed to be upon the horses, and he drove with the same
mastering ease that had roped the wild pony yesterday. We passed
the ramparts of Medicine Bow,--thick heaps and fringes of tin
cans, and shelving mounds of bottles cast out of the saloons. The
sun struck these at a hundred glittering points. And in a moment
we were in the clean plains, with the prairie-dogs and the pale
herds of antelope. The great, still air bathed us, pure as water
and strong as wine; the sunlight flooded the world; and shining
upon the breast of the Virginian's flannel shirt lay a long gold
thread of hair! The noisy American drummer had met defeat, but
this silent free lance had been easily victorious.
It must have been five miles that we travelled in silence, losing
and seeing the horizon among the ceaseless waves of the earth.
Then I looked back, and there was Medicine Bow, seemingly a
stone's throw behind us. It was a full half-hour before I looked
back again, and there sure enough was always Medicine Bow. A size
or two smaller, I will admit, but visible in every feature, like
something seen through the wrong end of a field glass. The
East-bound express was approaching the town, and I noticed the
white steam from its whistle; but when the sound reached us, the
train had almost stopped. And in reply to my comment upon this,
the Virginian deigned to remark that it was more so in Arizona.
"A man come to Arizona," he said, "with one of them telescopes to
study the heavenly bodies. He was a Yankee, seh, and a right
smart one, too. And one night we was watchin' for some little old
fallin' stars that he said was due, and I saw some lights movin'
along across the mesa pretty lively, an' I sang out. But he told
me it was just the train. And I told him I didn't know yu' could
see the cyars that plain from his place, 'Yu' can see them,' he
said to me, 'but it is las' night's cyars you're lookin' at.'" At
this point the Virginian spoke severely to one of the horses. "Of
course," he then resumed to me, "that Yankee man did not mean
quite all he said.--You, Buck!" he again broke off suddenly to
the horse. "But Arizona, seh," he continued, "it cert'nly has a
mos' deceivin' atmospheah. Another man told me he had seen a lady
close one eye at him when he was two minutes hard run from her."
This time the Virginian gave Buck the whip.
"What effect," I inquired with a gravity equal to his own, "does
this extraordinary foreshortening have upon a quart of whiskey?"
"When it's outside yu', seh, no distance looks too far to go to
He glanced at me with an eye that held more confidence than
hitherto he had been able to feel in me. I had made one step in
his approval. But I had many yet to go. This day he preferred his
own thoughts to my conversation, and so he did all the days of
this first journey; while I should have greatly preferred his
conversation to my thoughts. He dismissed some attempts that I
made upon the subject of Uncle Hughey so that I had not the
courage to touch upon Trampas, and that chill brief collision
which might have struck the spark of death. Trampas! I had
forgotten him till this silent drive I was beginning. I wondered
if I should ever see him, or Steve, or any of those people again.
And this wonder I expressed aloud.
"There's no tellin' in this country," said the Virginian. "Folks
come easy, and they go easy. In settled places, like back in the
States, even a poor man mostly has a home. Don't care if it's
only a barrel on a lot, the fello' will keep frequentin' that
lot, and if yu' want him yu' can find him. But out hyeh in the
sage-brush, a man's home is apt to be his saddle blanket. First
thing yu' know, he has moved it to Texas."
"You have done some moving yourself," I suggested.
But this word closed his mouth. "I have had a look at the
country," he said, and we were silent again. Let me, however,
tell you here that he had set out for a "look at the country" at
the age of fourteen; and that by his present age of twenty-four
he had seen Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California,
Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Everywhere he had taken care
of himself, and survived; nor had his strong heart yet waked up
to any hunger for a home. Let me also tell you that he was one of
thousands drifting and living thus, but (as you shall learn) one
in a thousand.
Medicine Bow did not forever remain in sight. When next I thought
of it and looked behind, nothing was there but the road we had
come; it lay like a ship's wake across the huge ground swell of
the earth. We were swallowed in a vast solitude. A little while
before sunset, a cabin came in view; and here we passed our first
night. Two young men lived here, tending their cattle. They were
fond of animals. By the stable a chained coyote rushed nervously
in a circle, or sat on its haunches and snapped at gifts of food
ungraciously. A tame young elk walked in and out of the cabin
door, and during supper it tried to push me off my chair. A
half-tame mountain sheep practised jumping from the ground to the
roof. The cabin was papered with posters of a circus, and skins
of bear and silver fox lay upon the floor. Until nine o'clock one
man talked to the Virginian, and one played gayly upon a
concertina; and then we all went to bed. The air was like
December, but in my blankets and a buffalo robe I kept warm, and
luxuriated in the Rocky Mountain silence. Going to wash before
breakfast at sunrise, I found needles of ice in a pail. Yet it
was hard to remember that this quiet, open, splendid wilderness
(with not a peak in sight just here) was six thousand feet high.
And when breakfast was over there was no December left; and by
the time the Virginian and I were ten miles upon our way, it was
June. But always every breath that I breathed was pure as water
and strong as wine.
We never passed a human being this day. Some wild cattle rushed
up to us and away from us; antelope stared at us from a hundred
yards; coyotes ran skulking through the sage-brush to watch us
from a hill; at our noon meal we killed a rattlesnake and shot
some young sage chickens, which were good at supper, roasted at
By half-past eight we were asleep beneath the stars, and by
half-past four I was drinking coffee and shivering. The horse,
Buck, was hard to catch this second morning. Whether some hills
that we were now in had excited him, or whether the better water
up here had caused an effervescence in his spirits, I cannot say.
But I was as hot as July by the time we had him safe in harness,
or, rather, unsafe in harness. For Buck, in the mysterious
language of horses, now taught wickedness to his side partner,
and about eleven o'clock they laid their evil heads together and
decided to break our necks.
We were passing, I have said, through a range of demi-mountains.
It was a little country where trees grew, water ran, and the
plains were shut out for a while. The road had steep places in
it, and places here and there where you could fall off and go
bounding to the bottom among stones. But Buck, for some reason,
did not think these opportunities good enough for him. He
selected a more theatrical moment. We emerged from a narrow
canyon suddenly upon five hundred cattle and some cow-boys
branding calves by a fire in a corral. It was a sight that Buck
knew by heart. He instantly treated it like an appalling
phenomenon. I saw him kick seven ways; I saw Muggins kick five
ways; our furious motion snapped my spine like a whip. I grasped
the seat. Something gave a forlorn jingle. It was the brake.
"Don't jump!" commanded the trustworthy man.
"No," I said, as my hat flew off.
Help was too far away to do anything for us. We passed scathless
through a part of the cattle, I saw their horns and backs go by.
Some earth crumbled, and we plunged downward into water rocking
among stones, and upward again through some more crumbling earth.
I heard a crash, and saw my trunk landing in the stream.
"She's safer there," said the trustworthy man.
"True," I said.
"We'll go back for her," said he, with his eye on the horses and
his foot on the crippled brake. A dry gully was coming, and no
room to turn. The farther side of it was terraced with rock. We
should simply fall backward, if we did not fall forward first. He
steered the horses straight over, and just at the bottom swung
them, with astonishing skill, to the right along the hard-baked
mud. They took us along the bed up to the head of the gully, and
through a thicket of quaking asps. The light trees bent beneath
our charge and bastinadoed the wagon as it went over them. But
their branches enmeshed the horses' legs, and we came to a
harmless standstill among a bower of leaves.
I looked at the trustworthy man, and smiled vaguely. He
considered me for a moment.
"I reckon," said he, "you're feelin' about halfway between 'Oh,
Lord!' and 'Thank God!'"
"That's quite it," said I, as he got down on the ground.
"Nothing's broke," said he, after a searching examination. And he
indulged in a true Virginian expletive. "Gentlemen, hush!" he
murmured gently, looking at me with his grave eyes; "one time I
got pretty near scared. You, Buck," he continued, "some folks
would beat you now till yu'd be uncertain whether yu' was a hawss
or a railroad accident. I'd do it myself, only it wouldn't cure
I now told him that I supposed he had saved both our lives. But
he detested words of direct praise. He made some grumbling
rejoinder, and led the horses out of the thicket. Buck, he
explained to me, was a good horse, and so was Muggins. Both of
them generally meant well, and that was the Judge's reason for
sending them to meet me. But these broncos had their off days.
Off days might not come very often; but when the humor seized a
bronco, he had to have his spree. Buck would now behave himself
as a horse should for probably two months. "They are just like
humans," the Virginian concluded.
Several cow-boys arrived on a gallop to find how many pieces of
us were left. We returned down the hill; and when we reached my
trunk, it was surprising to see the distance that our runaway had
covered. My hat was also found, and we continued on our way.
Buck and Muggins were patterns of discretion through the rest of
the mountains. I thought when we camped this night that it was
strange Buck should be again allowed to graze at large, instead
of being tied to a rope while we slept. But this was my
ignorance. With the hard work that he was gallantly doing, the
horse needed more pasture than a rope's length would permit him
to find. Therefore he went free, and in the morning gave us but
little trouble in catching him.
We crossed a river in the forenoon, and far to the north of us we
saw the Bow Leg Mountains, pale in the bright sun. Sunk Creek
flowed from their western side, and our two hundred and
sixty-three miles began to grow a small thing in my eyes. Buck
and Muggins, I think, knew perfectly that to-morrow would see
them home. They recognized this region; and once they turned off
at a fork in the road. The Virginian pulled them back rather
"Want to go back to Balaam's?" he inquired of them. "I thought
you had more sense."
I asked, "Who was Balaam?"
"A maltreater of hawsses," replied the cowpuncher. "His ranch is
on Butte Creek oveh yondeh." And he pointed to where the
diverging road melted into space. "The Judge bought Buck and
Muggins from him in the spring."
"So he maltreats horses?" I repeated.
"That's the word all through this country. A man that will do
what they claim Balaam does to a hawss when he's mad, ain't fit
to be called human." The Virginian told me some particulars.
"Oh!" I almost screamed at the horror of it, and again, "Oh!"
"He'd have prob'ly done that to Buck as soon as he stopped
runnin' away. If I caught a man doin' that--"
We were interrupted by a sedate-looking traveller riding upon an
equally sober horse.
"Mawnin', Taylor," said the Virginian, pulling up for gossip.
"Ain't you strayed off your range pretty far?"
"You're a nice one!" replied Mr. Taylor, stopping his horse and
"Tell me something I don't know," retorted the Virginian.
"Hold up a man at cards and rob him," pursued Mr. Taylor. "Oh,
the news has got ahead of you!"
"Trampas has been hyeh explainin', has he?" said the Virginian
with a grin.
"Was that your victim's name?" said Mr. Taylor, facetiously. "No,
it wasn't him that brought the news. Say, what did you do,
"So that thing has got around," murmured the Virginian. "Well, it
wasn't worth such wide repawtin'." And he gave the simple facts
to Taylor, while I sat wondering at the contagious powers of
Rumor. Here, through this voiceless land, this desert, this
vacuum, it had spread like a change of weather. "Any news up your
way?" the Virginian concluded.
Importance came into Mr. Taylor's countenance. "Bear Creek is
going to build a schoolhouse," said he.
"Goodness gracious!" drawled the Virginian. "What's that for?"
Now Mr. Taylor had been married for some years. "To educate the
offspring of Bear Creek," he answered with pride.
"Offspring of Bear Creek," the Virginian meditatively repeated.
"I don't remember noticin' much offspring. There was some white
tail deer, and a right smart o' jack rabbits."
"The Swintons have moved up from Drybone," said Mr. Taylor,
always seriously. "They found it no place for young children. And
there's Uncle Carmody with six, and Ben Dow. And Westfall has
become a family man, and--"
"Jim Westfall!" exclaimed the Virginian. "Him a fam'ly man! Well,
if this hyeh Territory is goin' to get full o' fam'ly men and
empty o' game, I believe I'll--"
"Get married yourself," suggested Mr. Taylor.
"Me! I ain't near reached the marriageable age. No, seh! But
Uncle Hughey has got there at last, yu' know."
"Uncle Hughey!" shouted Mr. Taylor. He had not heard this. Rumor
is very capricious. Therefore the Virginian told him, and the
family man rocked in his saddle.
"Build your schoolhouse," said the Virginian. "Uncle Hughey has
qualified himself to subscribe to all such propositions. Got your
eye on a schoolmarm?"
V. ENTER THE WOMAN
"We are taking steps," said Mr. Taylor. "Bear Creek ain't going
to be hasty about a schoolmarm."
"Sure," assented the Virginian. "The children wouldn't want yu'
But Mr. Taylor was, as I have indicated, a serious family man.
The problem of educating his children could appear to him in no
light except a sober one. "Bear Creek," he said, "don't want the
experience they had over at Calef. We must not hire an
"Sure!" assented the Virginian again.
"Nor we don't want no gad-a-way flirt," said Mr. Taylor.
"She must keep her eyes on the blackboa'd," said the Virginian,
"Well, we can wait till we get a guaranteed article," said Mr.
Taylor. "And that's what we're going to do. It can't be this
year, and it needn't to be. None of the kids is very old, and the
schoolhouse has got to be built." He now drew a letter from his
pocket, and looked at me. "Are you acquainted with Miss Mary
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