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Between The Acts

From: The Virginian

My road to Sunk Creek lay in no straight line. By rail I diverged
northwest to Fort Meade, and thence, after some stay with the kind
military people, I made my way on a horse. Up here in the Black Hills it
sluiced rain most intolerably. The horse and I enjoyed the country and
ourselves but little; and when finally I changed from the saddle into a
stagecoach, I caught a thankful expression upon the animal's face, and
returned the same.

"Six legs inside this jerky to-night?" said somebody, as I climbed
the wheel. "Well, we'll give thanks for not havin' eight," he added
cheerfully. "Clamp your mind on to that, Shorty." And he slapped the
shoulder of his neighbor. Naturally I took these two for old companions.
But we were all total strangers. They told me of the new gold excitement
at Rawhide, and supposed it would bring up the Northern Pacific; and
when I explained the millions owed to this road's German bondholders,
they were of opinion that a German would strike it richer at Rawhide. We
spoke of all sorts of things, and in our silence I gloated on the autumn
holiday promised me by Judge Henry. His last letter had said that an
outfit would be starting for his ranch from Billings on the seventh, and
he would have a horse for me. This was the fifth. So we six legs in the
jerky travelled harmoniously on over the rain-gutted road, getting no
deeper knowledge of each other than what our outsides might imply.

Not that we concealed anything. The man who had slapped Shorty
introduced himself early. "Scipio le Moyne, from Gallipolice, Ohio," he
said. "The eldest of us always gets called Scipio. It's French. But
us folks have been white for a hundred years." He was limber and
light-muscled, and fell skilfully about, evading bruises when the
jerky reeled or rose on end. He had a strange, long, jocular nose, very
wary-looking, and a bleached blue eye. Cattle was his business, as a
rule, but of late he had been "looking around some," and Rawhide seemed
much on his brain. Shorty struck me as "looking around" also. He was
quite short, indeed, and the jerky hurt him almost every time. He was
light-haired and mild. Think of a yellow dog that is lost, and fancies
each newcomer in sight is going to turn out his master, and you will
have Shorty.

It was the Northern Pacific that surprised us into intimacy. We were
nearing Medora. We had made a last arrangement of our legs. I lay
stretched in silence, placid in the knowledge it was soon to end. So
I drowsed. I felt something sudden, and, waking, saw Scipio passing
through the air. As Shorty next shot from the jerky, I beheld smoke and
the locomotive. The Northern Pacific had changed its schedule. A valise
is a poor companion for catching a train with. There was rutted sand
and lumpy, knee-high grease wood in our short cut. A piece of stray wire
sprang from some hole and hung caracoling about my ankle. Tin cans spun
from my stride. But we made a conspicuous race. Two of us waved hats,
and there was no moment that some one of us was not screeching. It meant
twenty-four hours to us.

Perhaps we failed to catch the train's attention, though the theory
seems monstrous. As it moved off in our faces, smooth and easy and
insulting, Scipio dropped instantly to a walk, and we two others
outstripped him and came desperately to the empty track. There went the
train. Even still its puffs were the separated puffs of starting, that
bitten-off, snorty kind, and sweat and our true natures broke freely

I kicked my valise, and then sat on it, dumb.

Shorty yielded himself up aloud. All his humble secrets came out of
him. He walked aimlessly round, lamenting. He had lost his job, and he
mentioned the ranch. He had played cards, and he mentioned the man. He
had sold his horse and saddle to catch a friend on this train, and he
mentioned what the friend had been going to do for him. He told a string
of griefs and names to the air, as if the air knew.

Meanwhile Scipio arrived with extreme leisure at the rails. He stuck
his hands into his pockets and his head out at the very small train.
His bleached blue eyes shut to slits as he watched the rear car in its
smoke-blur ooze away westward among the mounded bluffs. "Lucky it's out
of range," I thought. But now Scipio spoke to it.

"Why, you seem to think you've left me behind," he began easily, in
fawning tones. "You're too much of a kid to have such thoughts. Age
some." His next remark grew less wheedling. "I wouldn't be a bit proud
to meet yu'. Why, if I was seen travellin' with yu', I'd have to explain
it to my friends! Think you've got me left, do yu'? Just because yu'
ride through this country on a rail, do yu' claim yu' can find your way
around? I could take yu' out ten yards in the brush and lose yu' in
ten seconds, you spangle-roofed hobo! Leave ME behind? you recent
blanket-mortgage yearlin'! You plush-lined, nickel-plated, whistlin'
wash room, d' yu' figure I can't go east just as soon as west? Or I'll
stay right here if it suits me, yu' dude-inhabited hot-box! Why, yu'
coon-bossed face-towel--" But from here he rose in flights of novelty
that appalled and held me spellbound, and which are not for me to say
to you. Then he came down easily again, and finished with expressions of
sympathy for it because it could never have known a mother.

"Do you expaict it could show a male parent offhand?" inquired a slow
voice behind us. I jumped round, and there was the Virginian.

"Male parent!" scoffed the prompt Scipio. "Ain't you heard about THEM

"Them? Was there two?"

"Two? The blamed thing was sired by a whole doggone Dutch syndicate."

"Why, the piebald son of a gun!" responded the Virginian, sweetly. "I
got them steers through all right," he added to me. "Sorry to see yu'
get so out o' breath afteh the train. Is your valise sufferin' any?"

"Who's he?" inquired Scipio, curiously, turning to me.

The Southerner sat with a newspaper on the rear platform of a caboose.
The caboose stood hitched behind a mile or so of freight train, and
the train was headed west. So here was the deputy foreman, his steers
delivered in Chicago, his men (I could hear them) safe in the caboose,
his paper in his lap, and his legs dangling at ease over the railing. He
wore the look of a man for whom things are going smooth. And for me the
way to Billings was smooth now, also.

"Who's he?" Scipio repeated.

But from inside the caboose loud laughter and noise broke on us. Some
one was reciting "And it's my night to howl."

"We'll all howl when we get to Rawhide," said some other one; and they
howled now.

"These hyeh steam cyars," said the Virginian to Scipio, "make a man's
language mighty nigh as speedy as his travel." Of Shorty he took no
notice whatever--no more than of the manifestations in the caboose.

"So yu' heard me speakin' to the express," said Scipio. "Well, I guess,
sometimes I--See here," he exclaimed, for the Virginian was gravely
considering him, "I may have talked some, but I walked a whole lot. You
didn't catch ME squandering no speed. Soon as--"

"I noticed," said the Virginian, "thinkin' came quicker to yu' than

I was glad I was not Shorty, to have my measure taken merely by my
way of missing a train. And of course I was sorry that I had kicked my

"Oh, I could tell yu'd been enjoyin' us!" said Scipio. "Observin'
somebody else's scrape always kind o' rests me too. Maybe you're a
philosopher, but maybe there's a pair of us drawd in this deal."

Approval now grew plain upon the face of the Virginian. "By your laigs,"
said he, "you are used to the saddle."

"I'd be called used to it, I expect."

"By your hands," said the Southerner, again, "you ain't roped many
steers lately. Been cookin' or something?"

"Say," retorted Scipio, "tell my future some now. Draw a conclusion from
my mouth."

"I'm right distressed," unsevered the gentle Southerner, "we've not a
drop in the outfit."

"Oh, drink with me uptown!" cried Scipio "I'm pleased to death with

The Virginian glanced where the saloons stood just behind the station,
and shook his head.

"Why, it ain't a bit far to whiskey from here!" urged the other,
plaintively. "Step down, now. Scipio le Moyne's my name. Yes, you're
lookin' for my brass ear-rings. But there ain't no ear-rings on me. I've
been white for a hundred years. Step down. I've a forty-dollar thirst."

"You're certainly white," began the Virginian. "But--"

Here the caboose resumed:

"I'm wild, and woolly, and full of peas;
I'm hard to curry above the knees;
I'm a she-wolf from Bitter Creek, and
It's my night to ho-o-wl--"

And as they howled and stamped, the wheels of the caboose began to turn
gently and to murmur.

The Virginian rose suddenly. "Will yu' save that thirst and take a
forty-dollar job?"

"Missin' trains, profanity, or what?" said Scipio.

"I'll tell yu' soon as I'm sure."

At this Scipio looked hard at the Virginian. "Why, you're talkin'
business!" said he, and leaped on the caboose, where I was already. "I
WAS thinkin' of Rawhide," he added, "but I ain't any more."

"Well, good luck!" said Shorty, on the track behind us.

"Oh, say!" said Scipio, "he wanted to go on that train, just like me."

"Get on," called the Virginian. "But as to getting a job, he ain't just
like you." So Shorty came, like a lost dog when you whistle to him.

Our wheels clucked over the main-line switch. A train-hand threw it shut
after us, jumped aboard, and returned forward over the roofs. Inside the
caboose they had reached the third howling of the she-wolf.

"Friends of yourn?" said Scipio.

"My outfit," drawled the Virginian.

"Do yu' always travel outside?" inquired Scipio.

"It's lonesome in there," returned the deputy foreman. And here one of
them came out, slamming the door.

"Hell!" he said, at sight of the distant town. Then, truculently, to the
Virginian, "I told you I was going to get a bottle here."

"Have your bottle, then," said the deputy foreman, and kicked him off
into Dakota. (It was not North Dakota yet; they had not divided it.)
The Virginian had aimed his pistol at about the same time with his
boot. Therefore the man sat in Dakota quietly, watching us go away into
Montana, and offering no objections. Just before he became too small to
make out, we saw him rise and remove himself back toward the saloons.

Next: The Game And The Nation Act Second

Previous: The Game And The Nation Act First

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