Deep Into Cattle Land
From: The Virginian
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 earth.
So through my eyes half closed I watched the sale of these tins, and
grew familiar with the ham's inevitable trademark--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 added.
"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 three blossoms.
"It don't need mentioning," the Southerner was saying, embarrassed by
any expression of thanks. "If we had knowed last night--"
"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 remarked.
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
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
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 dinner.
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 sixty-three miles.
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 it."
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 our camp-fire.
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 yu'."
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 sharply.
"Want to go back to Balaam's?" he inquired of them. "I thought you had
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
"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
"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 smiling
"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
"Was that your victim's name?" said Mr. Taylor, facetiously. "No, it
wasn't him that brought the news. Say, what did you do, anyway?"
"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,
"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
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