The Spinster Meets The Unknown
From: The Virginian
On a Monday noon a small company of horsemen strung out along the trail
from Sunk Creek to gather cattle over their allotted sweep of range.
Spring was backward, and they, as they rode galloping and gathering
upon the cold week's work, cursed cheerily and occasionally sang. The
Virginian was grave in bearing and of infrequent speech; but he kept
a song going--a matter of some seventy-nine verses. Seventy-eight were
quite unprintable, and rejoiced his brother cowpunchers monstrously.
They, knowing him to be a singular man, forebore ever to press him, and
awaited his own humor, lest he should weary of the lyric; and when after
a day of silence apparently saturnine, he would lift his gentle voice
"If you go to monkey with my Looloo girl,
I'll tell you what I'll do:
I'll cyarve your heart with my razor, AND
I'll shoot you with my pistol, too--"
then they would stridently take up each last line, and keep it going
three, four, ten times, and kick holes in the ground to the swing of it.
By the levels of Bear Creek that reach like inlets among the
promontories of the lonely hills, they came upon the schoolhouse, roofed
and ready for the first native Wyoming crop. It symbolized the dawn of a
neighborhood, and it brought a change into the wilderness air. The feel
of it struck cold upon the free spirits of the cow-punchers, and they
told each other that, what with women and children and wire fences, this
country would not long be a country for men. They stopped for a meal at
an old comrade's. They looked over his gate, and there he was pattering
among garden furrows.
"Pickin' nosegays?" inquired the Virginian and the old comrade asked
if they could not recognize potatoes except in the dish. But he grinned
sheepishly at them, too, because they knew that he had not always lived
in a garden. Then he took them into his house, where they saw an object
crawling on the floor with a handful of sulphur matches. He began to
remove the matches, but stopped in alarm at the vociferous result; and
his wife looked in from the kitchen to caution him about humoring little
When she beheld the matches she was aghast but when she saw her baby
grow quiet in the arms of the Virginian, she smiled at that cowpuncher
and returned to her kitchen.
Then the Virginian slowly spoke again: "How many little strangers have
yu' got, James?"
"My! Ain't it most three years since yu' maried? Yu' mustn't let time
creep ahaid o' yu', James."
The father once more grinned at his guests, who themselves turned
sheepish and polite; for Mrs. Westfall came in, brisk and hearty, and
set the meat upon the table. After that, it was she who talked. The
guests ate scrupulously, muttering, "Yes, ma'am," and "No, ma'am," in
their plates, while their hostess told them of increasing families upon
Bear Creek, and the expected school-teacher, and little Alfred's early
teething, and how it was time for all of them to become husbands like
James. The bachelors of the saddle listened, always diffident,
but eating heartily to the end; and soon after they rode away in a
thoughtful clump. The wives of Bear Creek were few as yet, and the homes
scattered; the schoolhouse was only a sprig on the vast face of a world
of elk and bear and uncertain Indians; but that night, when the earth
near the fire was littered with the cow-punchers' beds, the Virginian
was heard drawling to himself: "Alfred and Christopher. Oh, sugar!"
They found pleasure in the delicately chosen shade of this oath. He also
recited to them a new verse about how he took his Looloo girl to the
schoolhouse for to learn her A B C; and as it was quite original and
unprintable, the camp laughed and swore joyfully, and rolled in its
blankets to sleep under the stars.
Upon a Monday noon likewise (for things will happen so) some tearful
people in petticoats waved handkerchiefs at a train that was just
leaving Bennington, Vermont. A girl's face smiled back at them once, and
withdrew quickly, for they must not see the smile die away.
She had with her a little money, a few clothes, and in her mind a rigid
determination neither to be a burden to her mother nor to give in to
that mother's desires. Absence alone would enable her to carry out
this determination. Beyond these things, she possessed not much except
spelling-books, a colonial miniature, and that craving for the unknown
which has been mentioned. If the ancestors that we carry shut up inside
us take turns in dictating to us our actions and our state of mind,
undoubtedly Grandmother Stark was empress of Molly's spirit upon this
At Hoosic Junction, which came soon, she passed the up-train bound back
to her home, and seeing the engineer and the conductor,--faces that she
knew well,--her courage nearly failed her, and she shut her eyes against
this glimpse of the familiar things that she was leaving. To keep
herself steady she gripped tightly a little bunch of flowers in her
But something caused her eyes to open; and there before her stood Sam
Bannett, asking if he might accompany her so far as Rotterdam Junction.
"No!" she told him with a severity born from the struggle she was making
with her grief. "Not a mile with me. Not to Eagle Bridge. Good-by."
And Sam--what did he do? He obeyed her, I should like to be sorry for
him. But obedience was not a lover's part here. He hesitated, the golden
moment hung hovering, the conductor cried "All aboard!" the train went,
and there on the platform stood obedient Sam, with his golden moment
gone like a butterfly.
After Rotterdam Junction, which was some forty minutes farther, Molly
Wood sat bravely up in the through car, dwelling upon the unknown. She
thought that she had attained it in Ohio, on Tuesday morning, and wrote
a letter about it to Bennington. On Wednesday afternoon she felt sure,
and wrote a letter much more picturesque. But on the following day,
after breakfast at North Platte, Nebraska, she wrote a very long letter
indeed, and told them that she had seen a black pig on a white pile of
buffalo bones, catching drops of water in the air as they fell from the
railroad tank. She also wrote that trees were extraordinarily scarce.
Each hour westward from the pig confirmed this opinion, and when she
left the train at Rock Creek, late upon that fourth night,--in those
days the trains were slower,--she knew that she had really attained the
unknown, and sent an expensive telegram to say that she was quite well.
At six in the morning the stage drove away into the sage-brush, with her
as its only passenger; and by sundown she had passed through some of the
primitive perils of the world. The second team, virgin to harness, and
displeased with this novelty, tried to take it off, and went down to the
bottom of a gully on its eight hind legs, while Miss Wood sat mute and
unflinching beside the driver. Therefore he, when it was over, and they
on the proper road again, invited her earnestly to be his wife during
many of the next fifteen miles, and told her of his snug cabin and his
horses and his mine. Then she got down and rode inside, Independence and
Grandmother Stark shining in her eye. At Point of Rocks, where they had
supper and his drive ended, her face distracted his heart, and he told
her once more about his cabin, and lamentably hoped she would remember
him. She answered sweetly that she would try, and gave him her hand.
After all, he was a frank-looking boy, who had paid her the highest
compliment that a boy (or a man for that matter) knows; and it is said
that Molly Stark, in her day, was not a New Woman.
The new driver banished the first one from the maiden's mind. He was not
a frank-looking boy, and he had been taking whiskey. All night long he
took it, while his passenger, helpless and sleepless inside the lurching
stage, sat as upright as she possibly could; nor did the voices that she
heard at Drybone reassure her. Sunrise found the white stage lurching
eternally on across the alkali, with a driver and a bottle on the
box, and a pale girl staring out at the plain, and knotting in her
handkerchief some utterly dead flowers. They came to a river where the
man bungled over the ford. Two wheels sank down over an edge, and the
canvas toppled like a descending kite. The ripple came sucking through
the upper spokes, and as she felt the seat careen, she put out her
head and tremulously asked if anything was wrong. But the driver was
addressing his team with much language, and also with the lash.
Then a tall rider appeared close against the buried axles, and took her
out of the stage on his horse so suddenly that she screamed. She felt
splashes, saw a swimming flood, and found herself lifted down upon the
shore. The rider said something to her about cheering up, and its being
all right, but her wits were stock-still, so she did not speak and thank
him. After four days of train and thirty hours of stage, she was having
a little too much of the unknown at once. Then the tall man gently
withdrew leaving her to become herself again. She limply regarded the
river pouring round the slanted stage, and a number of horsemen with
ropes, who righted the vehicle, and got it quickly to dry land, and
disappeared at once with a herd of cattle, uttering lusty yells.
She saw the tall one delaying beside the driver, and speaking. He spoke
so quietly that not a word reached her, until of a sudden the driver
protested loudly. The man had thrown something, which turned out to be
a bottle. This twisted loftily and dived into the stream. He said
something more to the driver, then put his hand on the saddle-horn,
looked half-lingeringly at the passenger on the bank, dropped his
grave eyes from hers, and swinging upon his horse, was gone just as the
passenger opened her mouth and with inefficient voice murmured, "Oh,
thank you!" at his departing back.
The driver drove up now, a chastened creature. He helped Miss Wood in,
and inquired after her welfare with a hanging head; then meek as his own
drenched horses, he climbed back to his reins, and nursed the stage on
toward the Bow Leg Mountains much as if it had been a perambulator.
As for Miss Wood, she sat recovering, and she wondered what the man on
the horse must think of her. She knew that she was not ungrateful, and
that if he had given her an opportunity she would have explained to him.
If he supposed that she did not appreciate his act--Here into the midst
of these meditations came an abrupt memory that she had screamed--she
could not be sure when. She rehearsed the adventure from the beginning,
and found one or two further uncertainties--how it had all been while
she was on the horse, for instance. It was confusing to determine
precisely what she had done with her arms. She knew where one of his
arms had been. And the handkerchief with the flowers was gone. She made
a few rapid dives in search of it. Had she, or had she not, seen him
putting something in his pocket? And why had she behaved so unlike
herself? In a few miles Miss Wood entertained sentiments of maidenly
resentment toward her rescuer, and of maidenly hope to see him again.
To that river crossing he came again, alone, when the days were growing
short. The ford was dry sand, and the stream a winding lane of
shingle. He found a pool,--pools always survive the year round in this
stream,--and having watered his pony, he lunched near the spot to
which he had borne the frightened passenger that day. Where the flowing
current had been he sat, regarding the now extremely safe channel.
"She cert'nly wouldn't need to grip me so close this mawnin'," he said,
as he pondered over his meal. "I reckon it will mightily astonish her
when I tell her how harmless the torrent is lookin'." He held out to
his pony a slice of bread matted with sardines, which the pony expertly
accepted. "You're a plumb pie-biter you Monte," he continued. Monte
rubbed his nose on his master's shoulder. "I wouldn't trust you with
berries and cream. No, seh; not though yu' did rescue a drownin' lady."
Presently he tightened the forward cinch, got in the saddle, and the
pony fell into his wise mechanical jog; for he had come a long way, and
was going a long way, and he knew this as well as the man did.
To use the language of Cattle Land, steers had "jumped to seventy-five."
This was a great and prosperous leap in their value. To have flourished
in that golden time you need not be dead now, nor even middle-aged; but
it is Wyoming mythology already--quite as fabulous as the high-jumping
cow. Indeed, people gathered together and behaved themselves much in
the same pleasant and improbable way. Johnson County, and Natrona, and
Converse, and others, to say nothing of the Cheyenne Club, had been
jumping over the moon for some weeks, all on account of steers; and
on the strength of this vigorous price of seventy-five, the Stanton
Brothers were giving a barbecue at the Goose Egg outfit, their ranch on
Bear Creek. Of course the whole neighborhood was bidden, and would come
forty miles to a man; some would come further--the Virginian was coming
a hundred and eighteen. It had struck him--rather suddenly, as shall be
made plain--that he should like to see how they were getting along up
there on Bear Creek. "They," was how he put it to his acquaintances. His
acquaintances did not know that he had bought himself a pair of trousers
and a scarf, unnecessarily excellent for such a general visit. They
did not know that in the spring, two days after the adventure with the
stage, he had learned accidentally who the lady in the stage was. This
he had kept to himself; nor did the camp ever notice that he had ceased
to sing that eightieth stanza he had made about the A B C--the stanza
which was not printable. He effaced it imperceptibly, giving the boys
the other seventy-nine at judicious intervals. They dreamed of no guile,
but merely saw in him, whether frequenting camp or town, the same not
over-angelic comrade whom they valued and could not wholly understand.
All spring he had ridden trail, worked at ditches during summer, and
now he had just finished with the beef round-up. Yesterday, while he was
spending a little comfortable money at the Drybone hog-ranch, a casual
traveller from the north gossiped of Bear Creek, and the fences up
there, and the farm crops, the Westfalls, and the young schoolmarm from
Vermont, for whom the Taylors had built a cabin next door to theirs. The
traveller had not seen her, but Mrs. Taylor and all the ladies thought
the world of her, and Lin McLean had told him she was "away up in G."
She would have plenty of partners at this Swinton barbecue. Great boon
for the country, wasn't it, steers jumping that way?
The Virginian heard, asking no questions; and left town in an hour,
with the scarf and trousers tied in his slicker behind his saddle. After
looking upon the ford again, even though it was dry and not at all the
same place, he journeyed in attentively. When you have been hard at
work for months with no time to think, of course you think a great deal
during your first empty days. "Step along, you Monte hawss!" he said,
rousing after some while. He disciplined Monte, who flattened his ears
affectedly and snorted. "Why, you surely ain' thinkin' of you'-self as
a hero? She wasn't really a-drowndin', you pie-biter." He rested his
serious glance upon the alkali. "She's not likely to have forgot that
mix-up, though. I guess I'll not remind her about grippin' me, and all
that. She wasn't the kind a man ought to josh about such things. She had
a right clear eye." Thus, tall and loose in the saddle, did he jog along
the sixty miles which still lay between him and the dance.
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