From: The Virginian
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.
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 home.
"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 to me.
"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," he stated.
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
"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 checks.
"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
"Better search the dives," said he. "These cow-boys don't get to town
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 next
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 clearing.
"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 nightmare."
"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
Immediately from the bed the Virginian gave forth a dreadful howl.
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 raiment.
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 incessantly.
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 more glass.
"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 shining night.
"What world am I in?" I said aloud. "Does this same planet hold Fifth
And I went to sleep, pondering over my native land.
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