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The Cottonwoods








From: The Virginian

I do not know how long I stayed there alone. It was the Virginian who
came back, and as he stood at the foot of my blankets his eye, after
meeting mine full for a moment, turned aside. I had never seen him
look as he did now, not even in Pitchstone Canyon when we came upon the
bodies of Hank and his wife. Until this moment we had found no chance of
speaking together, except in the presence of others.

"Seems to be raining still," I began after a little.

"Yes. It's a wet spell."

He stared out of the door, smoothing his mustache.

It was again I that spoke. "What time is it?"

He brooded over his watch. "Twelve minutes to seven."

I rose and stood drawing on my clothes.

"The fire's out," said he; and he assembled some new sticks over the
ashes. Presently he looked round with a cup.

"Never mind that for me," I said

"We've a long ride," he suggested.

"I know. I've crackers in my pocket."

My boots being pulled on, I walked to the door and watched the clouds.
"They seem as if they might lift," I said. And I took out my watch.

"What time is it?" he asked.

"A quarter of--it's run down."

While I wound it he seemed to be consulting his own.

"Well?" I inquired.

"Ten minutes past seven."

As I was setting my watch he slowly said:

"Steve wound his all regular. I had to night-guard him till two." His
speech was like that of one in a trance: so, at least, it sounds in my
memory to-day.

Again I looked at the weather and the rainy immensity of the plain. The
foot-hills eastward where we were going were a soft yellow. Over the
gray-green sage-brush moved shapeless places of light--not yet the
uncovered sunlight, but spots where the storm was wearing thin; and
wandering streams of warmth passed by slowly in the surrounding air.
As I watched the clouds and the earth, my eyes chanced to fall on the
distant clump of cottonwoods. Vapors from the enfeebled storm floated
round them, and they were indeed far away; but I came inside and began
rolling up my blankets.

"You will not change your mind?" said the Virginian by the fire. "It is
thirty-five miles."

I shook my head, feeling a certain shame that he should see how unnerved
I was.

He swallowed a hot cupful, and after it sat thinking; and presently he
passed his hand across his brow, shutting his eyes. Again he poured
out a cup, and emptying this, rose abruptly to his feet as if shaking
himself free from something.

"Let's pack and quit here," he said.

Our horses were in the corral and our belongings in the shelter of what
had been once the cabin at this forlorn place. He collected them in
silence while I saddled my own animal, and in silence we packed the two
packhorses, and threw the diamond hitch, and hauled tight the slack,
damp ropes. Soon we had mounted, and as we turned into the trail I gave
a look back at my last night's lodging.

The Virginian noticed me. "Good-by forever!" he interpreted.

"By God, I hope so!"

"Same here," he confessed. And these were our first natural words this
morning.

"This will go well," said I, holding my flask out to him; and both of us
took some, and felt easier for it and the natural words.

For an hour we had been shirking real talk, holding fast to the weather,
or anything, and all the while that silent thing we were keeping
off spoke plainly in the air around us and in every syllable that we
uttered. But now we were going to get away from it; leave it behind in
the stable, and set ourselves free from it by talking it out. Already
relief had begun to stir in my spirits.

"You never did this before," I said.

"No. I never had it to do." He was riding beside me, looking down at his
saddle-horn.

"I do not think I should ever be able," I pursued.

Defiance sounded in his answer. "I would do it again this morning."

"Oh, I don't mean that. It's all right here. There's no other way."

"I would do it all over again the same this morning. Just the same."

"Why, so should I--if I could do it at all." I still thought he was
justifying their justice to me.

He made no answer as he rode along, looking all the while at his saddle.
But again he passed his hand over his forehead with that frown and
shutting of the eyes.

"I should like to be sure I should behave myself if I were condemned," I
said next. For it now came to me--which should I resemble? Could I read
the newspaper, and be interested in county elections, and discuss coming
death as if I had lost a game of cards? Or would they have to drag me
out? That poor wretch in the gray flannel shirt--"It was bad in the
stable," I said aloud. For an after-shiver of it went through me.

A third time his hand brushed his forehead, and I ventured some
sympathy.

"I'm afraid your head aches."

"I don't want to keep seeing Steve," he muttered.

"Steve!" I was astounded. "Why he--why all I saw of him was splendid.
Since it had to be. It was--"

"Oh, yes; Ed. You're thinking about him. I'd forgot him. So you didn't
enjoy Ed?"

At this I looked at him blankly. "It isn't possible that--"

Again he cut me short with a laugh almost savage. "You needn't to worry
about Steve. He stayed game."

What then had been the matter that he should keep seeing Steve--that his
vision should so obliterate from him what I still shivered at, and so
shake him now? For he seemed to be growing more stirred as I grew less.
I asked him no further questions, however, and we went on for several
minutes, he brooding always in the same fashion, until he resumed with
the hard indifference that had before surprised me:-- "So Ed gave you
feelings! Dumb ague and so forth."

"No doubt we're not made the same way," I retorted.

He took no notice of this. "And you'd have been more comfortable if he'd
acted same as Steve did. It cert'nly was bad seeing Ed take it that way,
I reckon. And you didn't see him when the time came for business.
Well, here's what it is: a man maybe such a confirmed miscreant that
killing's the only cure for him; but still he's your own species, and
you don't want to have him fall around and grab your laigs and show you
his fear naked. It makes you feel ashamed. So Ed gave you feelings, and
Steve made everything right easy for you!" There was irony in his voice
as he surveyed me, but it fell away at once into sadness. "Both was
miscreants. But if Steve had played the coward, too, it would have been
a whole heap easier for me." He paused before adding, "And Steve was not
a miscreant once."

His voice had trembled, and I felt the deep emotion that seemed to gain
upon him now that action was over and he had nothing to do but think.
And his view was simple enough: you must die brave. Failure is a sort
of treason to the brotherhood, and forfeits pity. It was Steve's perfect
bearing that had caught his heart so that he forgot even his scorn of
the other man.

But this was by no means all that was to come. He harked back to that
notion of a prisoner helping to make it easy for his executioner.
"Easy plumb to the end," he pursued, his mind reviewing the acts of the
morning. "Why, he tried to give me your newspaper. I didn't--"

"Oh, no," I said hastily. "I had finished with it."

"Well, he took dying as naturally as he took living. Like a man should.
Like I hope to." Again he looked at the pictures in his mind. "No
play-acting nor last words. He just told good-by to the boys as we led
his horse under the limb--you needn't to look so dainty," he broke off.
"You ain't going to get any more shocking particulars."

"I know I'm white-livered," I said with a species of laugh. "I never
crowd and stare when somebody is hurt in the street. I get away."

He thought this over. "You don't mean all of that. You'd not have spoke
just that way about crowding and staring if you thought well of them
that stare. Staring ain't courage; it's trashy curiosity. Now you did
not have this thing--"

He had stretched out his hand to point, but it fell, and his utterance
stopped, and he jerked his horse to a stand. My nerves sprang like a
wire at his suddenness, and I looked where he was looking. There were
the cottonwoods, close in front of us. As we had travelled and talked
we had forgotten them. Now they were looming within a hundred yards; and
our trail lay straight through them.

"Let's go around them," said the Virginian.

When we had come back from our circuit into the trail he continued:
"You did not have that thing to do. But a man goes through with his
responsibilities--and I reckon you could."

"I hope so," I answered. "How about Ed?"

"He was not a man, though we thought he was till this. Steve and I
started punching cattle together at the Bordeaux outfit, north of
Cheyenne. We did everything together in those days--work and play. Six
years ago. Steve had many good points onced."

We must have gone two miles before he spoke again. "You prob'ly didn't
notice Steve? I mean the way he acted to me?" It was a question, but he
did not wait for my answer. "Steve never said a word to me all through.
He shunned it. And you saw how neighborly he talked to the other boys."

"Where have they all gone?" I asked.

He smiled at me. "It cert'nly is lonesome now, for a fact."

"I didn't know you felt it," said I.

"Feel it!--they've went to the railroad. Three of them are witnesses
in a case at Evanston, and the Judge wants our outfit at Medicine Bow.
Steve shunned me. Did he think I was going back on him?"

"What if he did? You were not. And so nobody's going to Wind River but
you?"

"No. Did you notice Steve would not give us any information about
Shorty? That was right. I would have acted that way, too." Thus, each
time, he brought me back to the subject.

The sun was now shining warm during two or three minutes together, and
gulfs of blue opened in the great white clouds. These moved and met
among each other, and parted, like hands spread out, slowly weaving
a spell of sleep over the day after the wakeful night storm. The
huge contours of the earth lay basking and drying, and not one living
creature, bird or beast, was in sight. Quiet was returning to my revived
spirits, but there was none for the Virginian. And as he reasoned
matters out aloud, his mood grew more overcast.

"You have a friend, and his ways are your ways. You travel together,
you spree together confidentially, and you suit each other down to the
ground. Then one day you find him putting his iron on another man's
calf. You tell him fair and square those ways have never been your ways
and ain't going to be your ways. Well, that does not change him any, for
it seems he's disturbed over getting rich quick and being a big man
in the Territory. And the years go on, until you are foreman of Judge
Henry's ranch and he--is dangling back in the cottonwoods. What can he
claim? Who made the choice? He cannot say, 'Here is my old friend that I
would have stood by.' Can he say that?"

"But he didn't say it," I protested.

"No. He shunned me."

"Listen," I said. "Suppose while you were on guard he had whispered,
'Get me off'--would you have done it?"

"No, sir!" said the Virginian, hotly.

"Then what do you want?" I asked. "What did you want?"

He could not answer me--but I had not answered him, I saw; so I pushed
it farther. "Did you want indorsement from the man you were hanging?
That's asking a little too much."

But he had now another confusion. "Steve stood by Shorty," he said
musingly. "It was Shorty's mistake cost him his life, but all the same
he didn't want us to catch--"

"You are mixing things," I interrupted. "I never heard you mix things
before. And it was not Shorty's mistake."

He showed momentary interest. "Whose then?"

"The mistake of whoever took a fool into their enterprise."

"That's correct. Well, Trampas took Shorty in, and Steve would not tell
on him either."

I still tried it, saying, "They were all in the same boat." But logic
was useless; he had lost his bearings in a fog of sentiment. He knew,
knew passionately, that he had done right; but the silence of his old
friend to him through those last hours left a sting that no reasoning
could assuage. "He told good-by to the rest of the boys; but not to me."
And nothing that I could point out in common sense turned him from
the thread of his own argument. He worked round the circle again to
self-justification. "Was it him I was deserting? Was not the deserting
done by him the day I spoke my mind about stealing calves? I have kept
my ways the same. He is the one that took to new ones. The man I used to
travel with is not the man back there. Same name, to be sure. And same
body. But different in--and yet he had the memory! You can't never
change your memory!"

He gave a sob. It was the first I had ever heard from him, and before
I knew what I was doing I had reined my horse up to his and put my arm
around his shoulders. I had no sooner touched him than he was utterly
overcome. "I knew Steve awful well," he said.

Thus we had actually come to change places; for early in the morning he
had been firm while I was unnerved, while now it was I who attempted to
steady and comfort him.

I had the sense to keep silent, and presently he shook my hand, not
looking at me as he did so. He was always very shy of demonstration.
And he took to patting the neck of his pony. "You Monte hawss," said he,
"you think you are wise, but there's a lot of things you don't savvy."
Then he made a new beginning of talk between us.

"It is kind of pitiful about Shorty."

"Very pitiful," I said.

"Do you know about him?" the Virginian asked.

"I know there's no real harm in him, and some real good, and that he has
not got the brains necessary to be a horse thief."

"That's so. That's very true. Trampas has led him in deeper than his
stature can stand. Now back East you can be middling and get along. But
if you go to try a thing on in this Western country, you've got to do it
WELL. You've got to deal cyards WELL; you've got to steal WELL; and if
you claim to be quick with your gun, you must be quick, for you're a
public temptation, and some man will not resist trying to prove he is
the quicker. You must break all the Commandments WELL in this Western
country, and Shorty should have stayed in Brooklyn, for he will be a
novice his livelong days. You don't know about him? He has told me his
circumstances. He don't remember his father, and it was like he could
have claimed three or four. And I expect his mother was not much
interested in him before or after he was born. He ran around, and when
he was eighteen he got to be help to a grocery man. But a girl he ran
with kept taking all his pay and teasing him for more, and so one day
the grocery man caught Shorty robbing his till, and fired him. There
wasn't no one to tell good-by to, for the girl had to go to the country
to see her aunt, she said. So Shorty hung around the store and kissed
the grocery cat good-by. He'd been used to feeding the cat, and she'd
sit in his lap and purr, he told me. He sends money back to that girl
now. This hyeh country is no country for Shorty, for he will be a
conspicuous novice all his days."

"Perhaps he'll prefer honesty after his narrow shave," I said.

But the Virginian shook his head. "Trampas has got hold of him."

The day was now all blue above, and all warm and dry beneath. We had
begun to wind in and rise among the first slopes of the foot-hills, and
we had talked ourselves into silence. At the first running water we made
a long nooning, and I slept on the bare ground. My body was lodged so
fast and deep in slumber that when the Virginian shook me awake I could
not come back to life at once; it was the clump of cottonwoods, small
and far out in the plain below us, that recalled me.

"It'll not be watching us much longer," said the Virginian. He made it
a sort of joke; but I knew that both of us were glad when presently we
rode into a steeper country, and among its folds and carvings lost all
sight of the plain. He had not slept, I found. His explanation was that
the packs needed better balancing, and after that he had gone up and
down the stream on the chance of trout. But his haunted eyes gave me the
real reason--they spoke of Steve, no matter what he spoke of; it was to
be no short thing with him.





Next: Superstition Trail

Previous: A Stable On The Flat



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