The Spinster Loses Some Sleep
From: The Virginian
Somewhere at the eastern base of the Tetons did those hoofprints
disappear into a mountain sanctuary where many crooked paths have led.
He that took another man's possessions, or he that took another man's
life, could always run here if the law or popular justice were too hot
at his heels. Steep ranges and forests walled him in from the world on
all four sides, almost without a break; and every entrance lay through
intricate solitudes. Snake River came into the place through canyons
and mournful pines and marshes, to the north, and went out at the south
between formidable chasms. Every tributary to this stream rose among
high peaks and ridges, and descended into the valley by well-nigh
impenetrable courses: Pacific Creek from Two Ocean Pass, Buffalo Fork
from no pass at all, Black Rock from the To-wo-ge-tee Pass--all these,
and many more, were the waters of loneliness, among whose thousand
hiding-places it was easy to be lost. Down in the bottom was a spread of
level land, broad and beautiful, with the blue and silver Tetons rising
from its chain of lakes to the west, and other heights presiding over
its other sides. And up and down and in and out of this hollow square of
mountains, where waters plentifully flowed, and game and natural pasture
abounded, there skulked a nomadic and distrustful population. This in
due time built cabins, took wives, begot children, and came to speak of
itself as "The honest settlers of Jackson's Hole." It is a commodious
title, and doubtless to-day more accurate than it was once.
Into this place the hoofprints disappeared. Not many cabins were yet
built there; but the unknown rider of the horse knew well that he would
find shelter and welcome among the felons of his stripe. Law and order
might guess his name correctly, but there was no next step, for lack of
evidence; and he would wait, whoever he was, until the rage of popular
justice, which had been pursuing him and his brother thieves, should
subside. Then, feeling his way gradually with prudence, he would let
himself be seen again.
And now, as mysteriously as he had melted away, rumor passed over the
country. No tongue seemed to be heard telling the first news; the news
was there, one day, a matter of whispered knowledge. On Sunk Creek and
on Bear Creek, and elsewhere far and wide, before men talked men seemed
secretly to know that Steve, and Ed, and Shorty, would never again be
seen. Riders met each other in the road and drew rein to discuss the
event, and its bearing upon the cattle interests. In town saloons men
took each other aside, and muttered over it in corners.
Thus it reached the ears of Molly Wood, beginning in a veiled and
A neighbor joined her when she was out riding by herself.
"Good morning," said he. "Don't you find it lonesome?" And when she
answered lightly, he continued, meaning well: "You'll be having company
again soon now. He has finished his job. Wish he'd finished it MORE!
Well, good day."
Molly thought these words over. She could not tell why they gave her
a strange feeling. To her Vermont mind no suspicion of the truth would
come naturally. But suspicion began to come when she returned from her
ride. For, entering the cabin of the Taylors', she came upon several
people who all dropped their talk short, and were not skilful at
resuming it. She sat there awhile, uneasily aware that all of them
knew something which she did not know, and was not intended to know. A
thought pierced her--had anything happened to her lover? No; that was
not it. The man she had met on horseback spoke of her having company
soon again. How soon? she wondered. He had been unable to say when
he should return, and now she suddenly felt that a great silence had
enveloped him lately: not the mere silence of absence, of receiving
no messages or letters, but another sort of silence which now, at this
moment, was weighing strangely upon her.
And then the next day it came out at the schoolhouse. During that
interval known as recess, she became aware through the open window that
they were playing a new game outside. Lusty screeches of delight reached
"Jump!" a voice ordered. "Jump!"
"I don't want to," returned another voice, uneasily.
"You said you would," said several. "Didn't he say he would? Ah, he said
he would. Jump now, quick!"
"But I don't want to," quavered the voice in a tone so dismal that Molly
went out to see.
They had got Bob Carmody on the top of the gate by a tree, with a rope
round his neck, the other end of which four little boys were joyously
holding. The rest looked on eagerly, three little girls clasping their
hands, and springing up and down with excitement.
"Why, children!" exclaimed Molly.
"He's said his prayers and everything," they all screamed out. "He's a
rustler, and we're lynchin' him. Jump, Bob!"
"I don't want--"
"Ah, coward, won't take his medicine!"
"Let him go, boys," said Molly. "You might really hurt him." And so she
broke up this game, but not without general protest from Wyoming's young
"He said he would," Henry Dow assured her.
And George Taylor further explained: "He said he'd be Steve. But Steve
didn't scare." Then George proceeded to tell the schoolmarm, eagerly,
all about Steve and Ed, while the schoolmarm looked at him with a rigid
"You promised your mother you'd not tell," said Henry Dow, after all
had been told. "You've gone and done it," and Henry wagged his head n a
Thus did the New England girl learn what her cow-boy lover had done. She
spoke of it to nobody; she kept her misery to herself. He was not there
to defend his act. Perhaps in a way that was better. But these were
hours of darkness indeed to Molly Wood.
On that visit to Dunbarton, when at the first sight of her lover's
photograph in frontier dress her aunt had exclaimed, "I suppose there
are days when he does not kill people," she had cried in all good faith
and mirth, "He never killed anybody!" Later, when he was lying in her
cabin weak from his bullet wound, but each day stronger beneath her
nursing, at a certain word of his there had gone through her a shudder
of doubt. Perhaps in his many wanderings he had done such a thing in
self-defence, or in the cause of popular justice. But she had pushed the
idea away from her hastily, back into the days before she had ever seen
him. If this had ever happened, let her not know of it. Then, as a cruel
reward for his candor and his laying himself bare to her mother, the
letters from Bennington had used that very letter of his as a weapon
against him. Her sister Sarah had quoted from it. "He says with apparent
pride," wrote Sarah, "that he has never killed for pleasure or profit.'
Those are his exact words, and you may guess their dreadful effect upon
mother. I congratulate you, my dear, on having chosen a protector so
Thus her elder sister had seen fit to write; and letters from less near
relatives made hints at the same subject. So she was compelled to accept
this piece of knowledge thrust upon her. Yet still, still, those events
had been before she knew him. They were remote, without detail or
context. He had been little more than a boy. No doubt it was to save his
own life. And so she bore the hurt of her discovery all the more easily
because her sister's tone roused her to defend her cow-boy.
In her cabin, alone, after midnight, she arose from her sleepless bed,
and lighting the candle, stood before his photograph.
"It is a good face," her great-aunt had said, after some study of it.
And these words were in her mind now. There his likeness stood at full
length, confronting her: the spurs on the boots, the fringed leathern
chaparreros, the coiled rope in hand, the pistol at hip, the rough
flannel shirt, and the scarf knotted at the throat--and then the grave
eyes, looking at her. It thrilled her to meet them, even so. She could
read life into them. She seemed to feel passion come from them, and then
something like reproach. She stood for a long while looking at him, and
then, beating her hands together suddenly, she blew out her light and
went back into bed, but not to sleep.
"You're looking pale, deary," said Mrs. Taylor to her, a few days later.
"And you don't eat anything."
"Oh, yes, I do." And Molly retired to her cabin.
"George," said Mrs. Taylor, "you come here."
It may seem severe--I think that it was severe. That evening when
Mr. Taylor came home to his family, George received a thrashing for
"And I suppose," said Mrs. Taylor to her husband, "that she came out
just in time to stop 'em breaking Bob Carmody's neck for him."
Upon the day following Mrs. Taylor essayed the impossible. She took
herself over to Molly Wood's cabin. The girl gave her a listless
greeting, and the dame sat slowly down, and surveyed the comfortable
"A very nice home, deary," said she, "if it was a home. But you'll fix
something like this in your real home, I have no doubt."
Molly made no answer.
"What we're going to do without you I can't see," said Mrs. Taylor.
"But I'd not have it different for worlds. He'll be coming back soon, I
"Mrs. Taylor," said Molly, all at once, "please don't say anything now.
I can't stand it." And she broke into wretched tears.
"Why, deary, he--"
"No; not a word. Please, please--I'll go out if you do."
The older woman went to the younger one, and then put her arms round
her. But when the tears were over, they had not done any good; it was
not the storm that clears the sky--all storms do not clear the sky. And
Mrs. Taylor looked at the pale girl and saw that she could do nothing to
help her toward peace of mind.
"Of course," she said to her husband, after returning from her
profitless errand, "you might know she'd feel dreadful.
"What about?" said Taylor.
"Why, you know just as well as I do. And I'll say for myself, I hope
you'll never have to help hang folks."
"Well," said Taylor, mildly, "if I had to, I'd have to, I guess."
"Well, I don't want it to come. But that poor girl is eating her heart
right out over it."
"What does she say?"
"It's what she don't say. She'll not talk, and she'll not let me talk,
and she sits and sits."
"I'll go talk some to her," said the man.
"Well, Taylor, I thought you had more sense. You'd not get a word in.
She'll be sick soon if her worry ain't stopped someway, though."
"What does she want this country to do?" inquired Taylor. "Does she
expect it to be like Vermont when it--"
"We can't help what she expects," his wife interrupted. "But I wish we
could help HER."
They could not, however; and help came from another source. Judge Henry
rode by the next day. To him good Mrs. Taylor at once confided her
anxiety. The Judge looked grave.
"Must I meddle?" he said.
"Yes, Judge, you must," said Mrs. Taylor.
"But why can't I send him over here when he gets back? Then they'll just
settle it between themselves."
Mrs. Taylor shook her head. "That would unsettle it worse than it is,"
she assured him. "They mustn't meet just now."
The Judge sighed. "Well," he said, "very well. I'll sacrifice my
character, since you insist."
Judge Henry sat thinking, waiting until school should be out. He did not
at all relish what lay before him. He would like to have got out of it.
He had been a federal judge; he had been an upright judge; he had met
the responsibilities of his difficult office not only with learning,
which is desirable, but also with courage and common sense besides, and
these are essential. He had been a stanch servant of the law. And now
he was invited to defend that which, at first sight, nay, even at second
and third sight, must always seem a defiance of the law more injurious
than crime itself. Every good man in this world has convictions about
right and wrong. They are his soul's riches, his spiritual gold. When
his conduct is at variance with these, he knows that it is a departure,
a falling; and this is a simple and clear matter. If falling were all
that ever happened to a good man, all his days would be a simple matter
of striving and repentance. But it is not all. There come to him certain
junctures, crises, when life, like a highwayman, springs upon him,
demanding that he stand and deliver his convictions in the name of some
righteous cause, bidding him do evil that good may come. I cannot say
that I believe in doing evil that good may come. I do not. I think that
any man who honestly justifies such course deceives himself. But this I
can say: to call any act evil, instantly begs the question. Many an act
that man does is right or wrong according to the time and place
which form, so to speak, its context; strip it of its surrounding
circumstances, and you tear away its meaning. Gentlemen reformers,
beware of this common practice of yours! beware of calling an act evil
on Tuesday because that same act was evil on Monday!
Do you fail to follow my meaning? Then here is an illustration. On
Monday I walk over my neighbor's field; there is no wrong in such
walking. By Tuesday he has put up a sign that trespassers will
be prosecuted according to law. I walk again on Tuesday, and am a
law-breaker. Do you begin to see my point? or are you inclined to object
to the illustration because the walking on Tuesday was not WRONG, but
merely ILLEGAL? Then here is another illustration which you will find
it a trifle more embarrassing to answer. Consider carefully, let me beg
you, the case of a young man and a young woman who walk out of a door
on Tuesday, pronounced man and wife by a third party inside the door.
It matters not that on Monday they were, in their own hearts, sacredly
vowed to each other. If they had omitted stepping inside that door,
if they had dispensed with that third party, and gone away on Monday
sacredly vowed to each other in their own hearts, you would
have scarcely found their conduct moral. Consider these things
carefully,--the sign-post and the third party,--and the difference they
make. And now, for a finish, we will return to the sign-post.
Suppose that I went over my neighbor's field on Tuesday, after the
sign-post was put up, because I saw a murder about to be committed in
the field, and therefore ran in and stopped it. Was I doing evil that
good might come? Do you not think that to stay out and let the murder be
done would have been the evil act in this case? To disobey the sign-post
was RIGHT; and I trust that you now perceive the same act may wear as
many different hues of right or wrong as the rainbow, according to the
atmosphere in which it is done. It is not safe to say of any man, "He
did evil that good might come." Was the thing that he did, in the first
place, evil? That is the question.
Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist
should expect of his reader, and we will go back at once to Judge Henry
and his meditations about lynching.
He was well aware that if he was to touch at all upon this subject with
the New England girl, he could not put her off with mere platitudes and
humdrum formulas; not, at least, if he expected to do any good. She was
far too intelligent, and he was really anxious to do good. For her sake
he wanted the course of the girl's true love to run more smoothly, and
still more did he desire this for the sake of his Virginian.
"I sent him myself on that business," the Judge reflected uncomfortably.
"I am partly responsible for the lynching. It has brought him one great
unhappiness already through the death of Steve. If it gets running
in this girl's mind, she may--dear me!" the Judge broke off, "what a
nuisance!" And he sighed. For as all men know, he also knew that many
things should be done in this world in silence, and that talking about
them is a mistake.
But when school was out, and the girl gone to her cabin, his mind had
set the subject in order thoroughly, and he knocked at her door, ready,
as he had put it, to sacrifice his character in the cause of true love.
"Well," he said, coming straight to the point, "some dark things have
happened." And when she made no answer to this, he continued: "But you
must not misunderstand us. We're too fond of you for that."
"Judge Henry," said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, "have
you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?"
He met her. "Of burning Southern negroes in public, no. Of hanging
Wyoming cattle thieves in private, yes. You perceive there's a
difference, don't you?"
"Not in principle," said the girl, dry and short.
"Oh--dear--me!" slowly exclaimed the Judge. "I am sorry that you cannot
see that, because I think that I can. And I think that you have just
as much sense as I have." The Judge made himself very grave and very
good-humored at the same time. The poor girl was strung to a high pitch,
and spoke harshly in spite of herself.
"What is the difference in principle?" she demanded.
"Well," said the Judge, easy and thoughtful, "what do you mean by
"I didn't think you'd quibble," flashed Molly. "I'm not a lawyer
A man less wise than Judge Henry would have smiled at this, and then war
would have exploded hopelessly between them, and harm been added to what
was going wrong already. But the Judge knew that he must give to every
word that the girl said now his perfect consideration.
"I don't mean to quibble," he assured her. "I know the trick of escaping
from one question by asking another. But I don't want to escape from
anything you hold me to answer. If you can show me that I am wrong, I
want you to do so. But," and here the Judge smiled, "I want you to play
"And how am I not?"
"I want you to be just as willing to be put right by me as I am to be
put right by you. And so when you use such a word as principle, you
must help me to answer by saying what principle you mean. For in all
sincerity I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning
Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private.
I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the
hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We
do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite
spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace
upon the United States. We execute our criminals by the swiftest means,
and in the quietest way. Do you think the principle is the same?"
Molly had listened to him with attention. "The way is different," she
"Only the way?"
"So it seems to me. Both defy law and order."
"Ah, but do they both? Now we're getting near the principle."
"Why, yes. Ordinary citizens take the law in their own hands."
"The principle at last!" exclaimed the Judge.
"Now tell me some more things. Out of whose hands do they take the law?"
"What made the courts?"
"I don't understand."
"How did there come to be any courts?"
"How did there come to be any Constitution? Who made it?"
"The delegates, I suppose."
"Who made the delegates?"
"I suppose they were elected, or appointed, or something.
"And who elected them?"
"Of course the people elected them."
"Call them the ordinary citizens," said the Judge. "I like your term.
They are where the law comes from, you see. For they chose the delegates
who made the Constitution that provided for the courts. There's your
machinery. These are the hands into which ordinary citizens have put the
law. So you see, at best, when they lynch they only take back what they
once gave. Now we'll take your two cases that you say are the same in
principle. I think that they are not. For in the South they take a negro
from jail where he was waiting to be duly hung. The South has never
claimed that the law would let him go. But in Wyoming the law has been
letting our cattle-thieves go for two years. We are in a very bad way,
and we are trying to make that way a little better until civilization
can reach us. At present we lie beyond its pale. The courts, or rather
the juries, into whose hands we have put the law, are not dealing the
law. They are withered hands, or rather they are imitation hands
made for show, with no life in them, no grip. They cannot hold a
cattle-thief. And so when your ordinary citizen sees this, and sees that
he has placed justice in a dead hand, he must take justice back into his
own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this
primitive, if you will. But so far from being a DEFIANCE of the law, it
is an ASSERTION of it--the fundamental assertion of self governing men,
upon whom our whole social fabric is based. There is your principle,
Miss Wood, as I see it. Now can you help me to see anything different?"
She could not.
"But perhaps you are of the same opinion still?" the Judge inquired.
"It is all terrible to me," she said.
"Yes; and so is capital punishment terrible. And so is war. And perhaps
some day we shall do without them. But they are none of them so terrible
as unchecked theft and murder would be."
After the Judge had departed on his way to Sunk Creek, no one spoke to
Molly upon this subject. But her face did not grow cheerful at once. It
was plain from her fits of silence that her thoughts were not at rest.
And sometimes at night she would stand in front of her lover's likeness,
gazing upon it with both love and shrinking.
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