Lin McLean by Owen Wister - HTML preview

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The Winning Of The Biscuit-Shooter

It was quite clear to me that Mr. McLean could not know the news. Meeting him to-day had been unforeseen--unforeseen and so pleasant that the thing had never come into my head until just now, after both of us had talked and dined our fill, and were torpid with satisfaction.
I had found Lin here at Riverside in the morning. At my horse's approach to the cabin, it was he and not the postmaster who had come precipitately out of the door.
"I'm turruble pleased to see yu'," he had said, immediately.
"What's happened?" said I, in some concern at his appearance.
And he piteously explained: "Why, I've been here all alone since yesterday!" This was indeed all; and my hasty impressions of shooting and a corpse gave way to mirth over the child and his innocent grievance that he had blurted out before I could get off my horse.
Since when, I inquired of him, had his own company become such a shock to him?
"As to that," replied Mr. McLean, a thought ruffled, "when a man expects lonesomeness he stands it like he stands anything else, of course. But when he has figured on finding company--say--" he broke off (and vindictiveness sparkled in his eye)--"when you're lucky enough to catch yourself alone, why, I suppose yu' just take a chair and chat to yourself for hours.--You've not seen anything of Tommy?" he pursued with interest.
I had not; and forthwith Lin poured out to me the pent-up complaints and sociability with which he was bursting. The foreman had sent him over here with a sackful of letters for the post, and to bring back the week's mail for the ranch. A day was gone now, and nothing for a man to do but sit and sit. Tommy was overdue fifteen hours. Well, you could have endured that, but the neighbors had all locked their cabins and gone to Buffalo. It was circus week in Buffalo. Had I ever considered the money there must be in the circus business? Tommy had taken the outgoing letters early yesterday. Nobody had kept him waiting. By all rules he should have been back again last night. Maybe the stage was late reaching Powder River, and Tommy had had to lay over for it. Well, that would justify him. Far more likely he had gone to the circus himself and taken the mail with him. Tommy was no type of man for postmaster. Except drawing the allowance his mother in the East gave him first of every month, he had never shown punctuality that Lin could remember. Never had any second thoughts, and awful few first ones. Told bigger lies than a small man ought, also. "Has successes, though," said I, wickedly.
"Huh!" went on Mr. McLean. "Successes! One ice-cream-soda success. And she"--Lin's still wounded male pride made him plaintive--"why, even that girl quit him, once she got the chance to appreciate how insignificant he was as compared with the size of his words. No, sir. Not one of 'em retains interest in Tommy."
Lin was unsaddling and looking after my horse, just because he was glad to see me. Since our first acquaintance, that memorable summer of Pitchstone Canyon when he had taken such good care of me and such bad care of himself, I had learned pretty well about horses and camp craft in general. He was an entire boy then. But he had been East since, East by a route of his own discovering--and from his account of that journey it had proved, I think, a sort of spiritual experience. And then the years of our friendship were beginning to roll up. Manhood of the body he had always richly possessed; and now, whenever we met after a season's absence and spoke those invariable words which all old friends upon this earth use to each other at meeting--"You haven't changed, you haven't changed at all!"--I would wonder if manhood had arrived in Lin's boy soul. And so to-day, while he attended to my horse and explained the nature of Tommy (a subject he dearly loved just now), I looked at him and took an intimate, superior pride in feeling how much more mature I was than he, after all. There's nothing like a sense of merit for making one feel aggrieved, and on our return to the cabin Mr. McLean pointed with disgust to some firewood. "Look at those sorrowful toothpicks," said he: "Tommy's work."
So Lin, the excellent hearted, had angrily busied himself, and chopped a pile of real logs that would last a week. He had also cleaned the stove, and nailed up the bed, the pillow-end of which was on the floor. It appeared the master of the house had been sleeping in it the reverse way on account of the slant. Thus had Lin cooked and dined alone, supped alone, and sat over some old newspapers until bed-time alone with his sense of virtue. And now here it was long after breakfast, and no Tommy yet.
"It's good yu' come this forenoon," Lin said to me. "I'd not have had the heart to get up another dinner just for myself. Let's eat rich!"
Accordingly, we had richly eaten, Lin and I. He had gone out among the sheds and caught some eggs (that is how he spoke of it), we had opened a number of things in cans, and I had made my famous dish of evaporated apricots, in which I managed to fling a suspicion of caramel throughout the stew.
"Tommy'll be hot about these," said Lin, joyfully, as we ate the eggs. "He don't mind what yu' use of his canned goods--pickled salmon and truck. He is hospitable all right enough till it comes to an egg. Then he'll tell any lie. But shucks! Yu' can read Tommy right through his clothing. 'Make yourself at home, Lin,' says he, yesterday. And he showed me his fresh milk and his stuff. 'Here's a new ham,' says he; 'too bad my damned hens ain't been layin'. The sons-o'guns have quit on me ever since Christmas.' And away he goes to Powder River for the mail. 'You swore too heavy about them hens,' thinks I. Well, I expect he may have travelled half a mile by the time I'd found four nests."
I am fond of eggs, and eat them constantly--and in Wyoming they were always a luxury. But I never forget those that day, and how Lin and I enjoyed them thinking of Tommy. Perhaps manhood was not quite established in my own soul at that time--and perhaps that is the reason why it is the only time I have ever known which I would live over again, those years when people said, "You are old enough to know better"--and one didn't care!
Salmon, apricots, eggs, we dealt with them all properly, and I had some cigars. It was now that the news came back into my head.
"What do you think of--" I began, and stopped.
I spoke out of a long silence, the slack, luxurious silence of digestion. I got no answer, naturally, from the torpid Lin, and then it occurred to me that he would have asked me what I thought, long before this, had he known. So, observing how comfortable he was, I began differently.
"What is the most important event that can happen in this country?" said I. Mr. McLean heard me where he lay along the floor of the cabin on his back, dozing by the fire; but his eyes remained closed. He waggled one limp, open hand slightly at me, and torpor resumed her dominion over him.
"I want to know what you consider the most important event that can happen in this country," said I, again, enunciating each word with slow clearness. The throat and lips of Mr. McLean moved, and a sulky sound came forth that I recognized to be meant for the word "War." Then he rolled over so that his face was away from me, and put an arm over his eyes.
"I don't mean country in the sense of United States," said I. "I mean this country here, and Bear Creek, and--well, the ranches southward for fifty miles, say. Important to this section."
"Mosquitoes'll be due in about three weeks," said Lin. "Yu' might leave a man rest till then."
"I want your opinion," said I.
"Oh, misery! Well, a raise in the price of steers."
"No."
"Yu' said yu' wanted my opinion," said Lin. "Seems like yu' merely figure on givin' me yours."
"Very well," said I. "Very well, then."
I took up a copy of the Cheyenne Sun. It was five weeks old, and I soon perceived that I had read it three weeks ago; but I read it again for some minutes now.
"I expect a railroad would be more important," said Mr. McLean, persuasively, from the floor.
"Than a rise in steers?" said I, occupied with the Cheyenne Sun. "Oh yes. Yes, a railroad certainly would."
"It's got to be money, anyhow," stated Lin, thoroughly wakened. "Money in some shape."
"How little you understand the real wants of the country!" said I, coming to the point. "It's a girl."
Mr. McLean lay quite still on the floor.
"A girl," I repeated. "A new girl coming to this starved country."
The cow-puncher took a long, gradual stretch and began to smile. "Well," said he, "yu' caught me--if that's much to do when a man is half-witted with dinner and sleep." He closed his eyes again and lay with a specious expression of indifference. But that sort of thing is a solitary entertainment, and palls. "Starved," he presently muttered. "We are kind o' starved that way I'll admit. More dollars than girls to the square mile. And to think of all of us nice, healthy, young--bet yu' I know who she is!" he triumphantly cried. He had sat up and levelled a finger at me with the throw-down jerk of a marksman. "Sidney, Nebraska."
I nodded. This was not the lady's name--he could not recall her name--but his geography of her was accurate.
One day in February my friend, Mrs. Taylor over on Bear Creek, had received a letter--no common event for her. Therefore, during several days she had all callers read it just as naturally as she had them all see the new baby, and baby and letter had both been brought out for me. The letter was signed,

"Ever your afectionite frend. "Katie Peck,
and was not easy to read, here and there. But you could piece out the drift of it, and there was Mrs. Taylor by your side, eager to help you when you stumbled. Miss Peck wrote that she was overworked in Sidney, Nebraska, and needed a holiday. When the weather grew warm she should like to come to Bear Creek and be like old times. "Like to come and be like old times" filled Mrs. Taylor with sentiment and the cow-punchers with expectation. But it is a long way from February to warm weather on Bear Creek, and even cow-punchers will forget about a new girl if she does not come. For several weeks I had not heard Miss Peck mentioned, and old girls had to do. Yesterday, however, when I paid a visit to Miss Molly Wood (the Bear Creek schoolmistress), I found her keeping in order the cabin and the children of the Taylors, while they were gone forty-five miles to the stage station to meet their guest.
"Well," said Lin, judicially, "Miss Wood is a lady."
"Yes," said I, with deep gravity. For I was thinking of an occasion when Mr. McLean had discovered that truth somewhat abruptly.
Lin thoughtfully continued. "She is--she's--she's--what are you laughin' at?"
"Oh, nothing. You don't see quite so much of Miss Wood as you used to, do you?"
"Huh! So that's got around. Well, o' course I'd ought t've knowed better, I suppose. All the same, there's lots and lots of girls do like gettin' kissed against their wishes--and you know it."
"But the point would rather seem to be that she--"
"Would rather seem! Don't yu' start that professor style o' yours, or I'll--I'll talk more wickedness in worse language than ever yu've heard me do yet."
"Impossible!" I murmured, sweetly, and Master Lin went on.
"As to point--that don't need to be explained to me. She's a lady all right." He ruminated for a moment. "She has about scared all the boys off, though," he continued. "And that's what you get by being refined," he concluded, as if Providence had at length spoken in this matter.
"She has not scared off a boy from Virginia, I notice," said I. "He was there yesterday afternoon again. Ridden all the way over from Sunk Creek. Didn't seem particularly frightened."
"Oh, well, nothin' alarms him--not even refinement," said Mr. McLean, with his grin. "And she'll fool your Virginian like she done the balance of us. You wait. Shucks! If all the girls were that chilly, why, what would us poor punchers do?" "You have me cornered," said I, and we sat in a philosophical silence, Lin on the floor still, and I at the window. There I looked out upon a scene my eyes never tired of then, nor can my memory now. Spring had passed over it with its first, lightest steps. The pastured levels undulated in emerald. Through the manychanging sage, that just this moment of to-day was lilac, shone greens scarce a week old in the dimples of the foot-hills; and greens new-born beneath today's sun melted among them. Around the doubling of the creek in the willow thickets glimmered skeined veils of yellow and delicate crimson. The stream poured turbulently away from the snows of the mountains behind us. It went winding in many folds across the meadows into distance and smallness, and so vanished round the great red battlement of wall beyond. Upon this were falling the deep hues of afternoon--violet, rose, and saffron, swimming and meeting as if some prism had dissolved and flowed over the turrets and crevices of the sandstone. Far over there I saw a dot move.
"At last!" said I.
Lin looked out of the window. "It's more than Tommy," said he, at once; and his eyes made it out before mine could. "It's a wagon. That's Tommy's bald-faced horse alongside. He's fooling to the finish," Lin severely commented, as if, after all this delay, there should at least be a homestretch.
Presently, however, a homestretch seemed likely to occur. The bald-faced horse executed some lively manoeuvres, and Tommy's voice reached us faintly through the light spring air. He was evidently howling the remarkable strain of yells that the cow-punchers invented as the speech best understood by cows--Oi-ee, yah, whoop-yahye-ee, oooo-oop, oop, oop-oop-oop-oop-yah-hee!" But that gives you no idea of it. Alphabets are worse than photographs. It is not the lungs of every man that can produce these effects, nor even from armies, eagles, or mules were such sounds ever heard on earth. The cow-puncher invented them. And when the last cow-puncher is laid to rest (if that, alas! have not already befallen) the yells will be forever gone. Singularly enough, the cattle appeared to appreciate them. Tommy always did them very badly, and that was plain even at this distance. Nor did he give us a homestretch, after all. The bald-faced horse made a number of evolutions and returned beside the wagon.
"Showin' off," remarked Lin. "Tommy's showin' off." Suspicion crossed his face, and then certainty. "Why, we might have knowed that!" he exclaimed, in dudgeon. "It's her." He hastened outside for a better look, and I came to the door myself. "That's what it is," said he. "It's the girl. Oh yes. That's Taylor's buckskin pair he traded Balaam for. She come by the stage all right yesterday, yu' see, but she has been too tired to travel, yu' see, or else, maybe, Taylor wanted to rest his buckskins--they're four-year-olds. Or else--anyway, they laid over last night at Powder River, and Tommy he has just laid over too, yu' see, holdin' the mail back on us twenty-four hours--and that's your postmaster!"
It was our postmaster, and this he had done, quite as the virtuously indignant McLean surmised. Had I taken the same interest in the new girl, I suppose that I too should have felt virtuously indignant.
Lin and I stood outside to receive the travellers. As their cavalcade drew near, Mr. McLean grew silent and watchful, his whole attention focused upon the Taylors' vehicle. Its approach was joyous. Its gear made a cheerful clanking, Taylor cracked his whip and encouragingly chirruped to his buckskins, and Tommy's apparatus jingled musically. For Tommy wore upon himself and his saddle all the things you can wear in the Wild West. Except that his hair was not long, our postmaster might have conducted a show and minted gold by exhibiting his romantic person before the eyes of princes. He began with a black-andyellow rattlesnake skin for a hat-band, he continued with a fringed and beaded shirt of buckskin, and concluded with large, tinkling spurs. Of course, there were things between his shirt and his heels, but all leather and deadly weapons. He had also a riata, a cuerta, and tapaderos, and frequently employed these Spanish names for the objects. I wish that I had not lost Tommy's photograph in Rocky Mountain costume. You must understand that he was really pretty, with blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, and a graceful figure; and, besides, he had twenty-four hours' start of poor dusty Lin, whose best clothes were elsewhere.
You might have supposed that it would be Mrs. Taylor who should present us to her friend from Sidney, Nebraska; but Tommy on his horse undertook the office before the wagon had well come to a standstill. "Good friends of mine, and gentlemen, both," said he to Miss Peck; and to us, "A lady whose acquaintance will prove a treat to our section."
We all bowed at each other beneath the florid expanse of these recommendations, and I was proceeding to murmur something about its being a long journey and a fine day when Miss Peck cut me short, gaily:
"Well," she exclaimed to Tommy, "I guess I'm pretty near ready for them eggs you've spoke so much about."
I have not often seen Mr. McLean lose his presence of mind. He needed merely to exclaim, "Why, Tommy, you told me your hens had not been laying since Christmas!" and we could have sat quiet and let Tommy try to find all the eggs that he could. But the new girl was a sore embarrassment to the cow-puncher's wits. Poor Lin stood by the wheels of the wagon. He looked up at Miss Peck, he looked over at Tommy, his features assumed a rueful expression, and he wretchedly blurted,
"Why, Tommy, I've been and eat 'em."
"Well, if that ain't!" cried Miss Peck. She stared with interest at Lin as he now assisted her to descend.
"All?" faltered Tommy. "Not the four nests?"
"I've had three meals, yu' know," Lin reminded him, deprecatingly.
"I helped him," said I. "Ten innocent, fresh eggs. But we have left some ham. Forgive us, please."
"I declare!" said Miss Peck, abruptly, and rolled her sluggish, inviting eyes upon me. "You're a case, too, I expect."
But she took only brief note of me, although it was from head to foot. In her stare the dull shine of familiarity grew vacant, and she turned back to Lin McLean. "You carry that," said she, and gave the pleased cow-puncher a hand valise. "I'll look after your things, Miss Peck," called Tommy, now springing down from his horse. The egg tragedy had momentarily stunned him.
"You'll attend to the mail first, Mr. Postmaster!" said the lady, but favoring him with a look from her large eyes. "There's plenty of gentlemen here." With that her glance favored Lin. She went into the cabin, he following her close, with the Taylors and myself in the rear. "Well, I guess I'm about collapsed!" said she, vigorously, and sank upon one of Tommy's chairs.
The fragile article fell into sticks beneath her, and Lin leaped to her assistance. He placed her upon a firmer foundation. Mrs. Taylor brought a basin and towel to bathe the dust from her face, Mr. Taylor produced whiskey, and I found sugar and hot water. Tommy would doubtless have done something in the way of assistance or restoratives, but he was gone to the stable with the horses. "Shall I get your medicine from the valise, deary?" inquired Mrs. Taylor. "Not now," her visitor answered; and I wondered why she should take such a quick look at me.
"We'll soon have yu' independent of medicine," said Lin, gallantly. "Our climate and scenery here has frequently raised the dead."
"You're a case, anyway!" exclaimed the sick lady with rich conviction. The cow-puncher now sat himself on the edge of Tommy's bed, and, throwing one leg across the other, began to raise her spirits with cheerful talk. She steadily watched him--his face sometimes, sometimes his lounging, masculine figure. While he thus devoted his attentions to her, Taylor departed to help Tommy at the stable, and good Mrs. Taylor, busy with supper for all of us in the kitchen, expressed her joy at having her old friend of childhood for a visit after so many years.
"Sickness has changed poor Katie some," said she. "But I'm hoping she'll get back her looks on Bear Creek."
"She seems less feeble than I had understood," I remarked.
"Yes, indeed! I do believe she's feeling stronger. She was that tired and down yesterday with the long stage-ride, and it is so lonesome! But Taylor and I heartened her up, and Tommy came with the mail, and to-day she's real sprucedup like, feeling she's among friends."
"How long will she stay?" I inquired.
"Just as long as ever she wants! Me and Katie hasn't met since we was young girls in Dubuque, for I left home when I married Taylor, and he brought me to this country right soon; and it ain't been like Dubuque much, though if I had it to do over again I'd do just the same, as Taylor knows. Katie and me hasn't wrote even, not till this February, for you always mean to and you don't. Well, it'll be like old times. Katie'll be most thirty-four, I expect. Yes. I was seventeen and she was sixteen the very month I was married. Poor thing! She ought to have got some good man for a husband, but I expect she didn't have any chance, for there was a big fam'ly o' them girls, and old Peck used to act real scandalous, getting drunk so folks didn't visit there evenings scarcely at all. And so she quit home, it seems, and got a position in the railroad eating-house at Sidney, and now she has poor health with feeding them big trains day and night."
"A biscuit-shooter!" said I.
Loyal Mrs. Taylor stirred some batter in silence. "Well," said she then, "I'm told that's what the yard-hands of the railroad call them poor waiter-girls. You might hear it around the switches at them division stations."
I had heard it in higher places also, but meekly accepted the reproof. If you have made your trans-Missouri journeys only since the new era of diningcars, there is a quantity of things you have come too late for, and will never know. Three times a day in the brave days of old you sprang from your scarcehalted car at the summons of a gong. You discerned by instinct the right direction, and, passing steadily through doorways, had taken, before you knew it, one of some sixty chairs in a room of tables and catsup bottles. Behind the chairs, standing attention, a platoon of Amazons, thick-wristed, pink-and-blue, began immediately a swift chant. It hymned the total bill-of-fare at a blow. In this inexpressible ceremony the name of every dish went hurtling into the next, telescoped to shapelessness. Moreover, if you stopped your Amazon in the middle, it dislocated her, and she merely went back and took a fresh start. The chant was always the same, but you never learned it. As soon as it began, your mind snapped shut like the upper berth in a Pullman. You must have uttered appropriate words--even a parrot will--for next you were eating things--pie, ham, hot cakes--as fast as you could. Twenty minutes of swallowing, and all aboard for Ogden, with your pile-driven stomach dumb with amazement. The Strasburg goose is not dieted with greater velocity, and "biscuit-shooter" is a grand word. Very likely some Homer of the railroad yards first said it--for what men upon the present earth so speak with imagination's tongue as we Americans? If Miss Peck had been a biscuit-shooter, I could account readily for her conversation, her equipped deportment, the maturity in her round, blue, marble eye. Her abrupt laugh, something beyond gay, was now sounding in response to Mr. McLean's lively sallies, and I found him fanning her into convalescence with his hat. She herself made but few remarks, but allowed the cow-puncher to entertain her, merely exclaiming briefly now and then, "I declare!" and "If you ain't!" Lin was most certainly engaging, if that was the lady's meaning. His wideopen eyes sparkled upon her, and he half closed them now and then to look at her more effectively. I suppose she was worth it to him. I have forgotten to say that she was handsome in a large California-fruit style. They made a goodlooking pair of animals. But it was in the presence of Tommy that Master Lin shone more energetically than ever, and under such shining Tommy was transparently restless. He tried, and failed, to bring the conversation his way, and took to rearranging the mail and the furniture.
"Supper's ready," he said, at length. "Come right in, Miss Peck; right in here. This is your seat--this one, please. Now you can see my fields out of the window." "You sit here," said the biscuit-shooter to Lin; and thus she was between them. "Them's elegant!" she presently exclaimed to Tommy. "Did you cook 'em?" I explained that the apricots were of my preparation.
"Indeed!" said she, and returned to Tommy, who had been telling her of his ranch, his potatoes, his horses. "And do you punch cattle, too?" she inquired of him.
"Me?" said Tommy, slightingly; "gave it up years ago; too empty a life for me. I leave that to such as like it. When a man owns his own property"--Tommy swept his hand at the whole landscape--" he takes to more intellectual work." "Lickin' postage-stamps," Mr. McLean suggested, sourly.
"You lick them and I cancel them," answered the postmaster; and it does not seem a powerful rejoinder. But Miss Peck uttered her laugh.
"That's one on you," she told Lin. And throughout this meal it was Tommy who had her favor. She partook of his generous supplies; she listened to his romantic inventions, the trails he had discovered, the bears he had slain; and after supper it was with Tommy, and not with Lin, that she went for a little walk. "Katie was ever a tease," said Mrs. Taylor of her childhood friend, and Mr. Taylor observed that there was always safety in numbers. "She'll get used to the ways of this country quicker than our little school-marm," said he.
Mr. McLean said very little, but read the new-arrived papers. It was only when bedtime dispersed us, the ladies in the cabin and the men choosing various spots outside, that he became talkative again for a while. We lay in the blank--we had spread on some soft, dry sand in preference to the stable, where Taylor and Tommy had gone. Under the contemplative influence of the stars, Lin fell into generalization.
"Ever notice," said he, "how whiskey and lyin' act the same on a man?" I did not feel sure that I had.
"Just the same way. You keep either of 'em up long enough, and yu' get to require it. If Tommy didn't lie some every day, he'd get sick."
I was sleepy, but I murmured assent to this, and trusted he would not go on. "Ever notice," said he, "how the victims of the whiskey and lyin' habit get to increasing the dose?"
"Yes," said I.
"Him roping six bears!" pursued Mr. McLean, after further contemplation. "Or any bear. Ever notice how the worser a man's lyin' the silenter other men'll get? Why's that, now?"
I believe that I made a faint sound to imply that I was following him. "Men don't get took in. But ladies now, they--"
Here he paused again, and during the next interval of contemplation I sank beyond his reach.
In the morning I left Riverside for Buffalo, and there or thereabouts I remained for a number of weeks. Miss Peck did not enter my thoughts, nor did I meet any one to remind me of her, until one day I stopped at the drug-store. It was not for drugs, but gossip, that I went. In the daytime there was no place like the apothecary's for meeting men and hearing the news. There I heard how things were going everywhere, including Bear Creek.
All the cow-punchers liked the new girl up there, said gossip. She was a great addition to society. Reported to be more companionable than the school-marm, Miss Molly Wood, who had been raised too far east, and showed it. Vermont, or some such dude place. Several had been in town buying presents for Miss Katie Peck. Tommy Postmaster had paid high for a necklace of elk-tushes the government scout at McKinney sold him. Too bad Miss Peck did not enjoy good health. Shorty had been in only yesterday to get her medicine again. Third bottle. Had I heard the big joke on Lin McLean? He had promised her the skin of a big bear he knew the location of, and Tommy got the bear.
Two days after this I joined one of the roundup camps at sunset. They had been working from Salt Creek to Bear Creek, and the Taylor ranch was in visiting distance from them again, after an interval of gathering and branding far across the country. The Virginian, the gentle-voiced Southerner, whom I had last seen lingering with Miss Wood, was in camp. Silent three-quarters of the time, as was his way, he sat gravely watching Lin McLean. That person seemed silent also, as was not his way quite so much.
"Lin," said the Southerner, "I reckon you're failin'."
Mr. McLean raised a sombre eye, but did not trouble to answer further. "A healthy man's laigs ought to fill his pants," pursued the Virginian. The challenged puncher stretched out a limb and showed his muscles with young pride.
"And yu' cert'nly take no comfort in your food," his ingenious friend continued, slowly and gently.
"I'll eat you a match any day and place yu' name," said Lin.
"It ain't sca'cely hon'able," went on the Virginian, "to waste away durin' the roundup. A man owes his strength to them that hires it. If he is paid to rope stock he ought to rope stock, and not leave it dodge or pull away."
"It's not many dodge my rope," boasted Lin, imprudently.
"Why, they tell me as how that heifer of the Sidney-Nebraska brand got plumb away from yu', and little Tommy had to chase afteh her."
Lin sat up angrily amid the laughter, but reclined again. "I'll improve," said he, "if yu' learn me how yu' rope that Vermont stock so handy. Has she promised to be your sister yet?" he added.
"Is that what they do?" inquired the Virginian, serenely. "I have never got related that way. Why, that'll make Tommy your brother-in-law, Lin!"
And now, indeed, the camp laughed a loud, merciless laugh.
But Lin was silent. Where everybody lives in a glass-house the victory is to him who throws the adroitest stone. Mr. McLean was readier witted than most, but the gentle, slow Virginian could be a master when he chose.
"Tommy has been recountin' his wars up at the Taylors'," he now told the camp. "He has frequently campaigned with General Crook, General Miles, and General Ruger, all at onced. He's an exciting fighter, in conversation, and kep' us all scared for mighty nigh an hour. Miss Peck appeared interested in his statements."
"What was you doing at the Taylors' yourself?" demanded Lin.
"Visitin' Miss Wood," answered the Virginian, with entire ease. For he also knew when to employ the plain truth as a bluff. "You'd ought to write to Tommy's mother, Lin, and tell her what a dare-devil her son is gettin' to be. She would cut off his allowance and bring him home, and you would have the runnin' all to yourself."
"I'll fix him yet," muttered Mr. McLean. "Him and his wars."
With that he rose and left us.
The next afternoon he informed me that if I was riding up the creek to spend the night he would go for company. In that direction we started, therefore, without any mention of the Taylors or Miss Peck. I was puzzled. Never had I seen him thus disconcerted by woman. With him woman had been a transient disturbance. I had witnessed a series of flighty romances, where the cow-puncher had come, seen, often conquered, and moved on. Nor had his affairs been of the sort to teach a young man respect. I am putting it rather mildly.
For the first part of our way this afternoon he was moody, and after that began to speak with appalling wisdom about life. Life, he said, was a serious matter. Did I realize that? A man was liable to forget it. A man was liable to go sporting and helling around till he waked up some day and found all his best pleasures had become just a business. No interest, no surprise, no novelty left, and no cash in the bank. Shorty owed him fifty dollars. Shorty would be able to pay that after the round-up, and he, Lin, would get his time and rustle altogether some five hundred dollars. Then there was his homestead claim on Box Elder, and the surveyors were coming in this fall. No better location for a home in this country than Box Elder. Wood, water, fine land. All it needed was a house and ditches and buildings and fences, and to be planted with crops. Such chances and considerations should sober a man and make him careful what he did. "I'd take in Cheyenne on our wedding-trip, and after that I'd settle right down to improving Box Elder," concluded Mr. McLean, suddenly.
His real intentions flashed upon me for the first time. I had not remotely imagined such a step.
"Marry her!" I screeched in dismay. "Marry her!"
I don't know which word was the worse to emphasize at such a moment, but I emphasized both thoroughly.
"I didn't expect yu'd act that way," said the lover. He dropped behind me fifty yards and spoke no more.
Not at once did I beg his pardon for the brutality I had been surprised into. It is one of those speeches that, once said, is said forever.
But it was not that which withheld me. As I thought of the tone in which my friend had replied, it seemed to me sullen, rather than deeply angry or wounded-resentment at my opinion not of her character so much as of his choice! Then I began to be sorry for the fool, and schemed for a while how to intervene. But have you ever tried intervention? I soon abandoned the idea, and took a way to be forgiven, and to learn more.
"Lin," I began, slowing my horse, "you must not think about what I said." "I'm thinkin' of pleasanter subjects," said he, and slowed his own horse. "Oh, look here!" I exclaimed.
"Well?" said he. He allowed his horse to come within about ten yards. "Astonishment makes a man say anything," I proceeded. "And I'll say again you're too good for her--and I'll say I don't generally believe in the wife being older than the husband."
"What's two years?" said Lin.
I was near screeching out again, but saved myself. He was not quite twenty-five, and I remembered Mrs. Taylor's unprejudiced computation of the biscuitshooter's years. It is a lady's prerogative, however, to estimate her own age. "She had her twenty-seventh birthday last month," said Lin, with sentiment, bringing his horse entirely abreast of mine. "I promised her a bear-skin." "Yes," said I, "I heard about that in Buffalo."
Lin's face grew dusky with anger. "No doubt yu' heard about it," said he. "I don't guess yu' heard much about anything else. I ain't told the truth to any of 'em--but her." He looked at me with a certain hesitation. "I think I will," he continued. "I don't mind tellin' you."
He began to speak in a strictly business tone, while he evened the coils of rope that hung on his saddle.
"She had spoke to me about her birthday, and I had spoke to her about something to give her. I had offered to buy her in town whatever she named, and I was figuring to borrow from Taylor. But she fancied the notion of a bear-skin. I had mentioned about some cubs. I had found the cubs where the she-bear had them cached by the foot of a big boulder in the range over Ten Sleep, and I put back the leaves and stuff on top o' them little things as near as I could the way I found them, so that the bear would not suspicion me. For I was aiming to get her. And Miss Peck, she sure wanted the hide for her birthday. So I went back. The she-bear was off, and I crumb up inside the rock, and I waited a turruble long spell till the sun travelled clean around the canyon. Mrs. Bear come home though, a big cinnamon; and I raised my gun, but laid it down to see what she'd do. She scrapes around and snuffs, and the cubs start whining, and she talks back to 'em. Next she sits up awful big, and lifts up a cub and holds it to her close with both her paws, same as a person. And she rubbed her ear agin the cub, and the cub sort o' nipped her, and she cuffed the cub, and the other cub came toddlin', and away they starts rolling all three of 'em! I watched that for a long while. That big thing just nursed and played with them little cubs, beatin' em for a change onced in a while, and talkin', and onced in a while she'd sit up solemn and look all around so life-like that I near busted. Why, how was I goin' to spoil that? So I come away, very quiet, you bet! for I'd have hated to have Mrs. Bear notice me. Miss Peck, she laughed. She claimed I was scared to shoot." "After you had told her why it was?" said I.
"Before and after. I didn't tell her first, because I felt kind of foolish. Then Tommy went and he killed the bear all right, and she has the skin now. Of course the boys joshed me a heap about gettin' beat by Tommy."
"But since she has taken you?" said I.
"She ain't said it. But she will when she understands Tommy."
I fancied that the lady understood. The once I had seen her she appeared to me as what might be termed an expert in men, and one to understand also the reality of Tommy's ranch and allowance, and how greatly these differed from Box Elder. Probably the one thing she could not understand was why Lin spared the mother and her cubs. A deserted home in Dubuque, a career in a railroad eating-house, a somewhat vague past, and a present lacking context--indeed, I hoped with all my heart that Tommy would win!
"Lin," said I, "I'm backing him."
"Back away!" said he. "Tommy can please a woman--him and his blue eyes-- but he don't savvy how to make a woman want him, not any better than he knows about killin' Injuns."
"Did you hear about the Crows?" said I.
"About young bucks going on the war-path? Shucks! That's put up by the papers of this section. They're aimin' to get Uncle Sam to order his troops out, and then folks can sell hay and stuff to 'em. If Tommy believed any Crows--" he stopped, and suddenly slapped his leg.
"What's the matter now?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing." He took to singing, and his face grew roguish to its full extent. "What made yu' say that to me?" he asked, presently.
"Say what?"
"About marrying. Yu' don't think I'd better."
"I don't."
"Onced in a while yu' tell me I'm flighty. Well, I am. Whoop-ya!"
"Colts ought not to marry," said I.
"Sure!" said he. And it was not until we came in sight of the Virginian's black horse tied in front of Miss Wood's cabin next the Taylors' that Lin changed the lively course of thought that was evidently filling his mind.
"Tell yu'," said he, touching my arm confidentially and pointing to the black horse, "for all her Vermont refinement she's a woman just the same. She likes him dangling round her so earnest--him that no body ever saw dangle before. And he has quit spreein' with the boys. And what does he get by it? I am glad I was not raised good enough to appreciate the Miss Woods of this world," he added, defiantly--"except at long range."
At the Taylors' cabin we found Miss Wood sitting with her admirer, and Tommy from Riverside come to admire Miss Peck. The biscuit-shooter might pass for twenty-seven, certainly. Something had agreed with her--whether the medicine, or the mountain air, or so much masculine company; whatever had done it, she had bloomed into brutal comeliness. Her hair looked curlier, her figure was shapelier, her teeth shone whiter, and her cheeks were a lusty, overbearing red. And there sat Molly Wood talking sweetly to her big, grave Virginian; to look at them, there was no doubt that he had been "raised good enough" to appreciate her, no matter what had been his raising!
Lin greeted every one jauntily. "How are yu', Miss Peck? How are yu', Tommy?" said he. "Hear the news, Tommy? Crow Injuns on the war-path."
"I declare!" said the biscuit-shooter.
The Virginian was about to say something, but his eye met Lin's, and then he looked at Tommy. Then what he did say was, "I hadn't been goin' to mention it to the ladies until it was right sure."
"You needn't to be afraid, Miss Peck," said Tommy. "There's lots of men here." "Who's afraid?" said the biscuit-shooter.
"Oh," said Lin, "maybe it's like most news we get in this country. Two weeks stale and a lie when it was fresh."
"Of course," said Tommy.
"Hello, Tommy!" called Taylor from the lane. "Your horse has broke his rein and run down the field."
Tommy rose in disgust and sped after the animal.
"I must be cooking supper now," said Katie, shortly.
"I'll stir for yu'," said Lin, grinning at her.
"Come along then," said she; and they departed to the adjacent kitchen. Miss Wood's gray eyes brightened with mischief. She looked at her Virginian, and she looked at me.
"Do you know," she said, "I used to be so afraid that when Bear Creek wasn't new any more it might become dull!"
"Miss Peck doesn't find it dull either," said I.
Molly Wood immediately assumed a look of doubt. "But mightn't it become just-just a little trying to have two gentlemen so very--determined, you know?" "Only one is determined," said the Virginian
Molly looked inquiring.
"Lin is determined Tommy shall not beat him. That's all it amounts to." "Dear me, what a notion!"
"No, ma'am, no notion. Tommy--well, Tommy is considered harmless, ma'am. A cow-puncher of reputation in this country would cert'nly never let Tommy get ahaid of him that way."
"It's pleasant to know sometimes how much we count!" exclaimed Molly. "Why, ma'am," said the Virginian, surprised at her flash of indignation, "where is any countin' without some love?"
"Do you mean to say that Mr. McLean does not care for Miss Peck?" "I reckon he thinks he does. But there is a mighty wide difference between thinkin' and feelin', ma'am."
I saw Molly's eyes drop from his, and I saw the rose deepen in her cheeks. But just then a loud voice came from the kitchen.
"You, Lin, if you try any of your foolin' with me, I'll histe yu's over the jiste!" "All cow-punchers--" I attempted to resume.
"Quit now, Lin McLean," shouted the voice, "or I'll put yus through that window, and it shut."
"Well, Miss Peck, I'm gettin' most a full dose o' this treatment. Ever since yu' come I've been doing my best. And yu' just cough in my face. And now I'm going to quit and cough back."
"Would you enjoy walkin' out till supper, ma'am?" inquired the Virginian as Molly rose. "You was speaking of gathering some flowers yondeh."
"Why, yes," said Molly, blithely. "And you'll come?" she added to me. But I was on the Virginian's side. "I must look after my horse," said I, and went down to the corral.
Day was slowly going as I took my pony to the water. Corncliff Mesa, Crowheart Butte, these shone in the rays that came through the canyon. The canyon's sides lifted like tawny castles in the same light. Where I walked the odor of thousands of wild roses hung over the margin where the thickets grew. High in the upper air, magpies were sailing across the silent blue. Somewhere I could hear Tommy explaining loudly how he and General Crook had pumped lead into hundreds of Indians; and when supper- time brought us all back to the door he was finishing the account to Mrs. Taylor. Molly and the Virginian arrived bearing flowers, and he was saying that few cow-punchers had any reason for saving their money. "But when you get old?" said she.
"We mostly don't live long enough to get old, ma'am," said he, simply. "But I have a reason, and I am saving."
"Give me the flowers," said Molly. And she left him to arrange them on the table as Lin came hurrying out.
"I've told her," said he to the Southerner and me, "that I've asked her twiced, and I'm going to let her have one more chance. And I've told her that if it's a log cabin she's marryin', why Tommy is a sure good wooden piece of furniture to put inside it. And I guess she knows there's not much wooden furniture about me. I want to speak to you." He took the Virginian round the corner. But though he would not confide in me, I began to discern something quite definite at supper. "Cattle men will lose stock if the Crows get down as far as this," he said, casually, and Mrs. Taylor suppressed a titter.
"Ain't it hawses the're repawted as running off?" said the Virginian. "Chap come into the round-up this afternoon," said Lin. "But he was rattled, and told a heap o' facts that wouldn't square."
"Of course they wouldn't," said Tommy, haughtily.
"Oh, there's nothing in it," said Lin, dismissing the subject.
"Have yu' been to the opera since we went to Cheyenne, Mrs. Taylor?" Mrs. Taylor had not.
"Lin," said the Virginian, "did yu ever see that opera Cyarmen?"
"You bet. Fellow's girl quits him for a bullfighter. Gets him up in the mountains, and quits him. He wasn't much good--not in her class o' sports, smugglin' and such."
"I reckon she was doubtful of him from the start. Took him to the mount'ins to experiment, where they'd not have interruption," said the Virginian. "Talking of mountains," said Tommy, "this range here used to be a great place for Indians till we ran 'em out with Terry. Pumped lead into the red sons-of-guns." "You bet," said Lin. "Do yu' figure that girl tired of her bull-fighter and quit him, too?"
"I reckon," replied the Virginian, "that the bull-fighter wore better." "Fans and taverns and gypsies and sportin'," said Lin. "My! but I'd like to see them countries with oranges and bull-fights! Only I expect Spain, maybe, ain't keepin' it up so gay as when 'Carmen' happened."
The table-talk soon left romance and turned upon steers and alfalfa, a grass but lately introduced in the country. No further mention was made of the hostile Crows, and from this I drew the false conclusion that Tommy had not come up to their hopes in the matter of reciting his campaigns. But when the hour came for those visitors who were not spending the night to take their leave, Taylor drew Tommy aside with me, and I noticed the Virginian speaking with Molly Wood, whose face showed diversion.
"Don't seem to make anything of it," whispered Taylor to Tommy, "but the ladies have got their minds on this Indian truck."
"Why, I'll just explain--" began Tommy.
"Don't," whispered Lin, joining us. "Yu' know how women are. Once they take a notion, why, the more yu' deny the surer they get. Now, yu' see, him and me" (he jerked his elbow towards the Virginian) "must go back to camp, for we're on second relief."
"And the ladies would sleep better knowing there was another man in the house," said Taylor.
"In that case," said Tommy, "I--"
"Yu' see," said Lin, "they've been told about Ten Sleep being burned two nights ago."
"It ain't!" cried Tommy.
"Why, of course it ain't," drawled the ingenious Lin. "But that's what I say. You and I know Ten Sleep's all right, but we can't report from our own knowledge seeing it all right, and there it is. They get these nervous notions." "Just don't appear to make anything special of not going back to Riverside," repeated Taylor, "but--"
"But just kind of stay here," said Lin.
"I will!" exclaimed Tommy. "Of course, I'm glad to oblige."
I suppose I was slow-sighted. All this pains seemed to me larger than its results. They had imposed upon Tommy, yes. But what of that? He was to be kept from going back to Riverside until morning. Unless they proposed to visit his empty cabin and play tricks--but that would be too childish, even for Lin McLean, to say nothing of the Virginian, his occasional partner in mischief.
"In spite of the Crows," I satirically told the ladies, "I shall sleep outside, as I intended. I've no use for houses at this season."
The cinches of the horses were tightened, Lin and the Virginian laid a hand on their saddle-horns, swung up, and soon all sound of the galloping horses had ceased. Molly Wood declined to be nervous and crossed to her little neighbor cabin; we all parted, and (as always in that blessed country) deep sleep quickly came to me.
I don't know how long after it was that I sprang from my blankets in half-doubting fright. But I had dreamed nothing. A second long, wild yell now gave me (I must own to it) a horrible chill. I had no pistol-- nothing. In the hateful brightness of the moon my single thought was "House! House!" and I fled across the lane in my underclothes to the cabin, when round the corner whirled the two cow-punchers, and I understood. I saw the Virginian catch sight of me in my shirt, and saw his teeth as he smiled. I hastened to my blankets, and returned more decent to stand and watch the two go shooting and yelling round the cabin, crazy with their youth. The door was opened, and Taylor courageously emerged, bearing a Winchester. He fired at the sky immediately.
"B' gosh!" he roared. "That's one." He fired again. "Out and at 'em. They're running."
At this, duly came Mrs. Taylor in white with a pistol, and Miss Peck in white, staring and stolid. But no Tommy. Noise prevailed without, shots by the stable and shots by the creek. The two cow-punchers dismounted and joined Taylor. Maniac delight seized me, and I, too, rushed about with them, helping the din. "Oh, Mr. Taylor!" said a voice. "I didn't think it of you." It was Molly Wood, come from her cabin, very pretty in a hood-and-cloak arrangement. She stood by the fence, laughing, but more at us than with us.
"Stop, friends!" said Taylor, gasping. "She teaches my Bobbie his A B C. I'd hate to have Bobbie--"
"Speak to your papa," said Molly, and held her scholar up on the fence. "Well, I'll be gol-darned," said Taylor, surveying his costume, "if Lin McLean hasn't made a fool of me to-night!"
"Where has Tommy got?" said Mrs. Taylor.
"Didn't yus see him?" said the biscuit-shooter speaking her first word in all this. We followed her into the kitchen. The table was covered with tin plates. Beneath it, wedged knelt Tommy with a pistol firm in his hand; but the plates were rattling up and down like castanets.
There was a silence among us, and I wondered what we were going to do. "Well," murmured the Virginian to himself, "if I could have foresaw, I'd not--it makes yu' feel humiliated yu'self."
He marched out, got on his horse, and rode away. Lin followed him, but perhaps less penitently. We all dispersed without saying anything, and presently from my blankets I saw poor Tommy come out of the silent cabin, mount, and slowly, very slowly, ride away. He would spend the night at Riverside, after all. Of course we recovered from our unexpected shame, and the tale of the table and the dancing plates was not told as a sad one. But it is a sad one when you think of it.
I was not there to see Lin get his bride. I learned from the Virginian how the victorious puncher had ridden away across the sunny sagebrush, bearing the biscuit-shooter with him to the nearest justice of the peace. She was astride the horse he had brought for her.
"Yes, he beat Tommy," said the Virginian. "Some folks, anyway, get what they want in this hyeh world."
From which I inferred that Miss Molly Wood was harder to beat than Tommy.