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With Malice Aforethought








From: The Virginian

Town lay twelve straight miles before the lover and his sweetheart, when
they came to the brow of the last long hill. All beneath them was like
a map: neither man nor beast distinguishable, but the veined and tinted
image of a country, knobs and flats set out in order clearly, shining
extensive and motionless in the sun. It opened on the sight of the
lovers as they reached the sudden edge of the tableland, where since
morning they had ridden with the head of neither horse ever in advance
of the other.

At the view of their journey's end, the Virginian looked down at his
girl beside him, his eyes filled with a bridegroom's light, and, hanging
safe upon his breast, he could feel the gold ring that he would slowly
press upon her finger to-morrow. He drew off the glove from her left
hand, and stooping, kissed the jewel in that other ring which he had
given her. The crimson fire in the opal seemed to mingle with that in
his heart, and his arm lifted her during a moment from the saddle as he
held her to him. But in her heart the love of him was troubled by that
cold pang of loneliness which had crept upon her like a tide as the day
drew near. None of her own people were waiting in that distant town to
see her become his bride. Friendly faces she might pass on the way; but
all of them new friends, made in this wild country: not a face of her
childhood would smile upon her; and deep within her, a voice cried for
the mother who was far away in Vermont. That she would see Mrs. Taylor's
kind face at her wedding was no comfort now.

There lay the town in the splendor of Wyoming space. Around it spread
the watered fields, westward for a little way, eastward to a great
distance, making squares of green and yellow crops; and the town was but
a poor rag in the midst of this quilted harvest. After the fields to the
east, the tawny plain began; and with one faint furrow of river lining
its undulations, it stretched beyond sight. But west of the town rose
the Bow Leg Mountains, cool with their still unmelted snows and their
dull blue gulfs of pine. From three canyons flowed three clear forks
which began the river. Their confluence was above the town a good two
miles; it looked but a few paces from up here, while each side the river
straggled the margin cottonwoods, like thin borders along a garden walk.
Over all this map hung silence like a harmony, tremendous yet serene.

"How beautiful! how I love it!" whispered the girl. "But, oh, how big it
is!" And she leaned against her lover for an instant. It was her spirit
seeking shelter. To-day, this vast beauty, this primal calm, had in it
for her something almost of dread. The small, comfortable, green hills
of home rose before her. She closed her eyes and saw Vermont: a village
street, and the post-office, and ivy covering an old front door, and her
mother picking some yellow roses from a bush.

At a sound, her eyes quickly opened; and here was her lover turned in
his saddle, watching another horseman approach. She saw the Virginian's
hand in a certain position, and knew that his pistol was ready. But the
other merely overtook and passed them, as they stood at the brow of the
hill.

The man had given one nod to the Virginian, and the Virginian one to
him; and now he was already below them on the descending road. To Molly
Wood he was a stranger; but she had seen his eyes when he nodded to her
lover, and she knew, even without the pistol, that this was not enmity
at first sight. It was not indeed. Five years of gathered hate had
looked out of the man's eyes. And she asked her lover who this was.

"Oh," said he, easily, "just a man I see now and then."

"Is his name Trampas?" said Molly Wood.

The Virginian looked at her in surprise. "Why, where have you seen him?"
he asked.

"Never till now. But I knew."

"My gracious! Yu' never told me yu' had mind-reading powers." And he
smiled serenely at her.

"I knew it was Trampas as soon as I saw his eyes."

"My gracious!" her lover repeated with indulgent irony. "I must be
mighty careful of my eyes when you're lookin' at 'em."

"I believe he did that murder," said the girl.

"Whose mind are yu' readin' now?" he drawled affectionately.

But he could not joke her off the subject. She took his strong hand in
hers, tremulously, so much of it as her little hand could hold. "I know
something about that--that--last autumn," she said, shrinking from words
more definite. "And I know that you only did--"

"What I had to," he finished, very sadly, but sternly, too.

"Yes," she asserted, keeping hold of his hand. "I suppose
that--lynching--" (she almost whispered the word) "is the only way. But
when they had to die just for stealing horses, it seems so wicked that
this murderer--"

"Who can prove it?" asked the Virginian.

"But don't you know it?"

"I know a heap o' things inside my heart. But that's not proving. There
was only the body, and the hoofprints--and what folks guessed."

"He was never even arrested!" the girl said.

"No. He helped elect the sheriff in that county."

Then Molly ventured a step inside the border of her lover's reticence.
"I saw--" she hesitated, "just now, I saw what you did."

He returned to his caressing irony. "You'll have me plumb scared if you
keep on seein' things."

"You had your pistol ready for him."

"Why, I believe I did. It was mighty unnecessary." And the Virginian
took out the pistol again, and shook his head over it, like one who has
been caught in a blunder.

She looked at him, and knew that she must step outside his reticence
again. By love and her surrender to him their positions had been
exchanged.

He was not now, as through his long courting he had been, her
half-obeying, half-refractory worshipper. She was no longer his
half-indulgent, half-scornful superior. Her better birth and schooling
that had once been weapons to keep him at his distance, or bring her off
victorious in their encounters, had given way before the onset of
the natural man himself. She knew her cow-boy lover, with all that he
lacked, to be more than ever she could be, with all that she had. He was
her worshipper still, but her master, too. Therefore now, against the
baffling smile he gave her, she felt powerless. And once again a pang of
yearning for her mother to be near her to-day shot through the girl. She
looked from her untamed man to the untamed desert of Wyoming, and the
town where she was to take him as her wedded husband. But for his sake
she would not let him guess her loneliness.

He sat on his horse Monte, considering the pistol. Then he showed her a
rattlesnake coiled by the roots of some sage-brush. "Can I hit it?" he
inquired.

"You don't often miss them," said she, striving to be cheerful.

"Well, I'm told getting married unstrings some men." He aimed, and the
snake was shattered. "Maybe it's too early yet for the unstringing to
begin!" And with some deliberation he sent three more bullets into the
snake. "I reckon that's enough," said he.

"Was not the first one?"

"Oh, yes, for the snake." And then, with one leg crooked cow-boy fashion
across in front of his saddle-horn, he cleaned his pistol, and replaced
the empty cartridges.

Once more she ventured near the line of his reticence. "Has--has Trampas
seen you much lately?"

"Why, no; not for a right smart while. But I reckon he has not missed
me."

The Virginian spoke this in his gentlest voice. But his rebuffed
sweetheart turned her face away, and from her eyes she brushed a tear.

He reined his horse Monte beside her, and upon her cheek she felt his
kiss. "You are not the only mind-reader," said he, very tenderly. And
at this she clung to him, and laid her head upon his breast. "I had been
thinking," he went on, "that the way our marriage is to be was the most
beautiful way."

"It is the most beautiful," she murmured.

He slowly spoke out his thought, as if she had not said this. "No folks
to stare, no fuss, no jokes and ribbons and best bonnets, no public
eye nor talkin' of tongues when most yu' want to hear nothing and say
nothing."

She answered by holding him closer.

"Just the bishop of Wyoming to join us, and not even him after we're
once joined. I did think that would be ahead of all ways to get married
I have seen."

He paused again, and she made no rejoinder.

"But we have left out your mother."

She looked in his face with quick astonishment. It was as if his spirit
had heard the cry of her spirit.

"That is nowhere near right," he said. "That is wrong."

"She could never have come here," said the girl.

"We should have gone there. I don't know how I can ask her to forgive
me."

"But it was not you!" cried Molly.

"Yes. Because I did not object. I did not tell you we must go to her.
I missed the point, thinking so much about my own feelings. For you
see--and I've never said this to you until now--your mother did hurt me.
When you said you would have me after my years of waiting, and I wrote
her that letter telling her all about myself, and how my family was not
like yours, and--and--all the rest I told her, why you see it hurt me
never to get a word back from her except just messages through you. For
I had talked to her about my hopes and my failings. I had said more
than ever I've said to you, because she was your mother. I wanted her to
forgive me, if she could, and feel that maybe I could take good care of
you after all. For it was bad enough to have her daughter quit her home
to teach school out hyeh on Bear Creek. Bad enough without havin' me to
come along and make it worse. I have missed the point in thinking of my
own feelings."

"But it's not your doing!" repeated Molly.

With his deep delicacy he had put the whole matter as a hardship to her
mother alone. He had saved her any pain of confession or denial. "Yes,
it is my doing," he now said. "Shall we give it up?"

"Give what--?" She did not understand.

"Why, the order we've got it fixed in. Plans are--well, they're no
more than plans. I hate the notion of changing, but I hate hurting your
mother more. Or, anyway, I OUGHT to hate it more. So we can shift, if
yu' say so. It's not too late."

"Shift?" she faltered.

"I mean, we can go to your home now. We can start by the stage to-night.
Your mother can see us married. We can come back and finish in the
mountains instead of beginning in them. It'll be just merely shifting,
yu' see."

He could scarcely bring himself to say this at all; yet he said it
almost as if he were urging it. It implied a renunciation that he could
hardly bear to think of. To put off his wedding day, the bliss upon
whose threshold he stood after his three years of faithful battle
for it, and that wedding journey he had arranged: for there were the
mountains in sight, the woods and canyons where he had planned to go
with her after the bishop had joined them; the solitudes where only the
wild animals would be, besides themselves. His horses, his tent, his
rifle, his rod, all were waiting ready in the town for their start
to-morrow. He had provided many dainty things to make her comfortable.
Well, he could wait a little more, having waited three years. It would
not be what his heart most desired: there would be the "public eye and
the talking of tongues"--but he could wait. The hour would come when he
could be alone with his bride at last. And so he spoke as if he urged
it.

"Never!" she cried. "Never, never!"

She pushed it from her. She would not brook such sacrifice on his part.
Were they not going to her mother in four weeks? If her family had
warmly accepted him--but they had not; and in any case, it had gone too
far, it was too late. She told her lover that she would not hear him,
that if he said any more she would gallop into town separately from him.
And for his sake she would hide deep from him this loneliness of hers,
and the hurt that he had given her in refusing to share with her his
trouble with Trampas, when others must know of it.

Accordingly, they descended the hill slowly together, lingering to spin
out these last miles long. Many rides had taught their horses to go
side by side, and so they went now: the girl sweet and thoughtful in her
sedate gray habit; and the man in his leathern chaps and cartridge belt
and flannel shirt, looking gravely into the distance with the level gaze
of the frontier.

Having read his sweetheart's mind very plainly, the lover now broke his
dearest custom. It was his code never to speak ill of any man to any
woman. Men's quarrels were not for women's ears. In his scheme, good
women were to know only a fragment of men's lives. He had lived many
outlaw years, and his wide knowledge of evil made innocence doubly
precious to him. But to-day he must depart from his code, having read
her mind well. He would speak evil of one man to one woman, because his
reticence had hurt her--and was she not far from her mother, and very
lonely, do what he could? She should know the story of his quarrel in
language as light and casual as he could veil it with.

He made an oblique start. He did not say to her: "I'll tell you about
this. You saw me get ready for Trampas because I have been ready for him
any time these five years." He began far off from the point with that
rooted caution of his--that caution which is shared by the primal savage
and the perfected diplomat.

"There's cert'nly a right smart o' difference between men and women," he
observed.

"You're quite sure?" she retorted.

"Ain't it fortunate?--that there's both, I mean."

"I don't know about fortunate. Machinery could probably do all the heavy
work for us without your help."

"And who'd invent the machinery?"

She laughed. "We shouldn't need the huge, noisy things you do. Our world
would be a gentle one."

"Oh, my gracious!"

"What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, my gracious! Get along, Monte! A gentle world all full of ladies!"

"Do you call men gentle?" inquired Molly.

"Now it's a funny thing about that. Have yu' ever noticed a joke about
fathers-in-law? There's just as many fathers--as mothers-in-law; but
which side are your jokes?"

Molly was not vanquished. "That's because the men write the comic
papers," said she.

"Hear that, Monte? The men write 'em. Well, if the ladies wrote a comic
paper, I expect that might be gentle."

She gave up this battle in mirth; and he resumed:-- "But don't you
really reckon it's uncommon to meet a father-in-law flouncin' around
the house? As for gentle--Once I had to sleep in a room next a ladies'
temperance meetin'. Oh, heavens! Well, I couldn't change my room, and
the hotel man, he apologized to me next mawnin'. Said it didn't surprise
him the husbands drank some."

Here the Virginian broke down over his own fantastic inventions, and
gave a joyous chuckle in company with his sweetheart. "Yes, there's
a big heap o' difference between men and women," he said. "Take that
fello' and myself, now."

"Trampas?" said Molly, quickly serious. She looked along the road ahead,
and discerned the figure of Trampas still visible on its way to town.

The Virginian did not wish her to be serious--more than could be helped.
"Why, yes," he replied, with a waving gesture at Trampas. "Take him and
me. He don't think much o' me! How could he? And I expect he'll never.
But yu' saw just now how it was between us. We were not a bit like a
temperance meetin'."

She could not help laughing at the twist he gave to his voice. And she
felt happiness warming her; for in the Virginian's tone about Trampas
was something now that no longer excluded her. Thus he began his gradual
recital, in a cadence always easy, and more and more musical with the
native accent of the South. With the light turn he gave it, its pure
ugliness melted into charm.

"No, he don't think anything of me. Once a man in the John Day Valley
didn't think much, and by Canada de Oro I met another. It will always be
so here and there, but Trampas beats 'em all. For the others have always
expressed themselves--got shut of their poor opinion in the open air."

"Yu' see, I had to explain myself to Trampas a right smart while ago,
long before ever I laid my eyes on yu'. It was just nothing at all. A
little matter of cyards in the days when I was apt to spend my money and
my holidays pretty headlong. My gracious, what nonsensical times I have
had! But I was apt to win at cyards, 'specially poker. And Trampas, he
met me one night, and I expect he must have thought I looked kind o'
young. So he hated losin' his money to such a young-lookin' man, and he
took his way of sayin' as much. I had to explain myself to him plainly,
so that he learned right away my age had got its growth.

"Well, I expect he hated that worse, having to receive my explanation
with folks lookin' on at us publicly that-a-way, and him without further
ideas occurrin' to him at the moment. That's what started his poor
opinion of me, not havin' ideas at the moment. And so the boys resumed
their cyards.

"I'd most forgot about it. But Trampas's mem'ry is one of his strong
points. Next thing--oh, it's a good while later--he gets to losin' flesh
because Judge Henry gave me charge of him and some other punchers taking
cattle--"

"That's not next," interrupted the girl.

"Not? Why--"

"Don't you remember?" she said, timid, yet eager. "Don't you?"

"Blamed if I do!"

"The first time we met?"

"Yes; my mem'ry keeps that--like I keep this." And he brought from his
pocket her own handkerchief, the token he had picked up at a river's
brink when he had carried her from an overturned stage.

"We did not exactly meet, then," she said. "It was at that dance. I
hadn't seen you yet; but Trampas was saying something horrid about me,
and you said--you said, 'Rise on your legs, you pole cat, and tell them
you're a liar.' When I heard that, I think--I think it finished me." And
crimson suffused Molly's countenance.

"I'd forgot," the Virginian murmured. Then sharply, "How did you hear
it?"

"Mrs. Taylor--"

"Oh! Well, a man would never have told a woman that."

Molly laughed triumphantly. "Then who told Mrs. Taylor?"

Being caught, he grinned at her. "I reckon husbands are a special kind
of man," was all that he found to say. "Well, since you do know about
that, it was the next move in the game. Trampas thought I had no call
to stop him sayin' what he pleased about a woman who was nothin' to
me--then. But all women ought to be somethin' to a man. So I had to give
Trampas another explanation in the presence of folks lookin' on, and it
was just like the cyards. No ideas occurred to him again. And down goes
his opinion of me some more!

"Well, I have not been able to raise it. There has been this and that
and the other,--yu' know most of the later doings yourself,--and to-day
is the first time I've happened to see the man since the doings last
autumn. Yu' seem to know about them, too. He knows I can't prove he
was with that gang of horse thieves. And I can't prove he killed poor
Shorty. But he knows I missed him awful close, and spoiled his thieving
for a while. So d' yu' wonder he don't think much of me? But if I had
lived to be twenty-nine years old like I am, and with all my chances
made no enemy, I'd feel myself a failure."

His story was finished. He had made her his confidant in matters he had
never spoken of before, and she was happy to be thus much nearer to him.
It diminished a certain fear that was mingled with her love of him.

During the next several miles he was silent, and his silence was enough
for her. Vermont sank away from her thoughts, and Wyoming held less of
loneliness. They descended altogether into the map which had stretched
below them, so that it was a map no longer, but earth with growing
things, and prairie-dogs sitting upon it, and now and then a bird flying
over it. And after a while she said to him, "What are you thinking
about?"

"I have been doing sums. Figured in hours it sounds right short. Figured
in minutes it boils up into quite a mess. Twenty by sixty is twelve
hundred. Put that into seconds, and yu' get seventy-two thousand
seconds. Seventy-two thousand. Seventy-two thousand seconds yet before
we get married."

"Seconds! To think of its having come to seconds!"

"I am thinkin' about it. I'm choppin' sixty of 'em off every minute."

With such chopping time wears away. More miles of the road lay behind
them, and in the virgin wilderness the scars of new-scraped water
ditches began to appear, and the first wire fences. Next, they were
passing cabins and occasional fields, the outposts of habitation. The
free road became wholly imprisoned, running between unbroken stretches
of barbed wire. Far off to the eastward a flowing column of dust marked
the approaching stage, bringing the bishop, probably, for whose visit
here they had timed their wedding. The day still brimmed with heat and
sunshine; but the great daily shadow was beginning to move from the feet
of the Bow Leg Mountains outward toward the town. Presently they began
to meet citizens. Some of these knew them and nodded, while some did
not, and stared. Turning a corner into the town's chief street, where
stood the hotel, the bank, the drug store, the general store, and
the seven saloons, they were hailed heartily. Here were three
friends,--Honey Wiggin, Scipio Le Moyne, and Lin McLean,--all desirous
of drinking the Virginian's health, if his lady--would she mind? The
three stood grinning, with their hats off; but behind their gayety the
Virginian read some other purpose.

"We'll all be very good," said Honey Wiggin.

"Pretty good," said Lin.

"Good," said Scipio.

"Which is the honest man?" inquired Molly, glad to see them.

"Not one!" said the Virginian. "My old friends scare me when I think of
their ways."

"It's bein' engaged scares yu'," retorted Mr. McLean. "Marriage restores
your courage, I find."

"Well, I'll trust all of you," said Molly. "He's going to take me to the
hotel, and then you can drink his health as much as you please."

With a smile to them she turned to proceed, and he let his horse move
with hers; but he looked at his friends. Then Scipio's bleached blue
eyes narrowed to a slit, and he said what they had all come out on the
street to say:-- "Don't change your clothes."

"Oh!" protested Molly, "isn't he rather dusty and countrified?"

But the Virginian had taken Scipio's meaning. "DON'T CHANGE YOURS
CLOTHES." Innocent Molly appreciated these words no more than the
average reader who reads a masterpiece, complacently unaware that
its style differs from that of the morning paper. Such was Scipio's
intention, wishing to spare her from alarm.

So at the hotel she let her lover go with a kiss, and without a thought
of Trampas. She in her room unlocked the possessions which were there
waiting for her, and changed her dress.

Wedding garments, and other civilized apparel proper for a genuine
frontiersman when he comes to town, were also in the hotel, ready for
the Virginian to wear. It is only the somewhat green and unseasoned
cow-puncher who struts before the public in spurs and deadly weapons.
For many a year the Virginian had put away these childish things. He
made a sober toilet for the streets. Nothing but his face and bearing
remained out of the common when he was in a town. But Scipio had told
him not to change his clothes; therefore he went out with his pistol at
his hip. Soon he had joined his three friends.

"I'm obliged to yu'," he said. "He passed me this mawnin'."

"We don't know his intentions," said Wiggin.

"Except that he's hangin' around," said McLean.

"And fillin' up," said Scipio, "which reminds me--"

They strolled into the saloon of a friend, where, unfortunately, sat
some foolish people. But one cannot always tell how much of a fool a man
is, at sight.

It was a temperate health-drinking that they made. "Here's how," they
muttered softly to the Virginian; and "How," he returned softly, looking
away from them. But they had a brief meeting of eyes, standing and
lounging near each other, shyly; and Scipio shook hands with the
bridegroom. "Some day," he stated, tapping himself; for in his vagrant
heart he began to envy the man who could bring himself to marry. And he
nodded again, repeating, "Here's how."

They stood at the bar, full of sentiment, empty of words, memory
and affection busy in their hearts. All of them had seen rough days
together, and they felt guilty with emotion.

"It's hot weather," said Wiggin.

"Hotter on Box Elder," said McLean. "My kid has started teething."

Words ran dry again. They shifted their positions, looked in their
glasses, read the labels on the bottles. They dropped a word now and
then to the proprietor about his trade, and his ornaments.

"Good head," commented McLean.

"Big old ram," assented the proprietor. "Shot him myself on Gray Bull
last fall."

"Sheep was thick in the Tetons last fall," said the Virginian.

On the bar stood a machine into which the idle customer might drop his
nickel. The coin then bounced among an arrangement of pegs, descending
at length into one or another of various holes. You might win as much as
ten times your stake, but this was not the most usual result; and with
nickels the three friends and the bridegroom now mildly sported for a
while, buying them with silver when their store ran out.

"Was it sheep you went after in the Tetons?" inquired the proprietor,
knowing it was horse thieves.

"Yes," said the Virginian. "I'll have ten more nickels."

"Did you get all the sheep you wanted?" the proprietor continued.

"Poor luck," said the Virginian.

"Think there's a friend of yours in town this afternoon," said the
proprietor.

"Did he mention he was my friend?"

The proprietor laughed. The Virginian watched another nickel click down
among the pegs.

Honey Wiggin now made the bridegroom a straight offer. "We'll take this
thing off your hands," said he.

"Any or all of us," said Lin.

But Scipio held his peace. His loyalty went every inch as far as theirs,
but his understanding of his friend went deeper. "Don't change your
clothes," was the first and the last help he would be likely to give in
this matter. The rest must be as such matters must always be, between
man and man. To the other two friends, however, this seemed a very
special case, falling outside established precedent. Therefore they
ventured offers of interference.

"A man don't get married every day," apologized McLean. "We'll just run
him out of town for yu'."

"Save yu' the trouble," urged Wiggin. "Say the word."

The proprietor now added his voice. "It'll sober him up to spend his
night out in the brush. He'll quit his talk then."

But the Virginian did not say the word, or any word. He stood playing
with the nickels.

"Think of her," muttered McLean.

"Who else would I be thinking of?" returned the Southerner. His face had
become very sombre. "She has been raised so different!" he murmured. He
pondered a little, while the others waited, solicitous.

A new idea came to the proprietor. "I am acting mayor of this town,"
said he. "I'll put him in the calaboose and keep him till you get
married and away."

"Say the word," repeated Honey Wiggin.

Scipio's eye met the proprietor's, and he shook his head about a quarter
of an inch. The proprietor shook his to the same amount. They understood
each other. It had come to that point where there was no way out, save
only the ancient, eternal way between man and man. It is only the great
mediocrity that goes to law in these personal matters.

"So he has talked about me some?" said the Virginian.

"It's the whiskey," Scipio explained.

"I expect," said McLean, "he'd run a mile if he was in a state to
appreciate his insinuations."

"Which we are careful not to mention to yu'," said Wiggin, "unless yu'
inquire for 'em."

Some of the fools present had drawn closer to hear this interesting
conversation. In gatherings of more than six there will generally be at
least one fool; and this company must have numbered twenty men.

"This country knows well enough," said one fool, who hungered to be
important, "that you don't brand no calves that ain't your own."

The saturnine Virginian looked at him. "Thank yu'," said he, gravely,
"for your indorsement of my character." The fool felt flattered. The
Virginian turned to his friends. His hand slowly pushed his hat back,
and he rubbed his black head in thought.

"Glad to see yu've got your gun with you," continued the happy fool.
"You know what Trampas claims about that affair of yours in the Tetons?
He claims that if everything was known about the killing of Shorty--"

"Take one on the house," suggested the proprietor to him, amiably. "Your
news will be fresher." And he pushed him the bottle. The fool felt less
important.

"This talk had went the rounds before it got to us," said Scipio, "or
we'd have headed it off. He has got friends in town."

Perplexity knotted the Virginian's brows. This community knew that a man
had implied he was a thief and a murderer; it also knew that he knew
it. But the case was one of peculiar circumstances, assuredly. Could he
avoid meeting the man? Soon the stage would be starting south for the
railroad. He had already to-day proposed to his sweetheart that they
should take it. Could he for her sake leave unanswered a talking enemy
upon the field? His own ears had not heard the enemy.

Into these reflections the fool stepped once more. "Of course this
country don't believe Trampas," said he. "This country--"

But he contributed no further thoughts. From somewhere in the rear of
the building, where it opened upon the tin cans and the hinder purlieus
of the town, came a movement, and Trampas was among them, courageous
with whiskey.

All the fools now made themselves conspicuous. One lay on the floor,
knocked there by the Virginian, whose arm he had attempted to hold.
Others struggled with Trampas, and his bullet smashed the ceiling
before they could drag the pistol from him. "There now! there now!" they
interposed; "you don't want to talk like that," for he was pouring out a
tide of hate and vilification. Yet the Virginian stood quiet by the bar,
and many an eye of astonishment was turned upon him. "I'd not stand half
that language," some muttered to each other. Still the Virginian waited
quietly, while the fools reasoned with Trampas. But no earthly foot can
step between a man and his destiny. Trampas broke suddenly free.

"Your friends have saved your life," he rang out, with obscene epithets.
"I'll give you till sundown to leave town."

There was total silence instantly.

"Trampas," spoke the Virginian, "I don't want trouble with you."

"He never has wanted it," Trampas sneered to the bystanders. "He has
been dodging it five years. But I've got him coralled."

Some of the Trampas faction smiled.

"Trampas," said the Virginian again, "are yu' sure yu' really mean
that?"

The whiskey bottle flew through the air, hurled by Trampas, and crashed
through the saloon window behind the Virginian.

"That was surplusage, Trampas," said he, "if yu' mean the other."

"Get out by sundown, that's all," said Trampas. And wheeling, he went
out of the saloon by the rear, as he had entered.

"Gentlemen," said the Virginian, "I know you will all oblige me."

"Sure!" exclaimed the proprietor, heartily, "We'll see that everybody
lets this thing alone."

The Virginian gave a general nod to the company, and walked out into the
street.

"It's a turruble shame," sighed Scipio, "that he couldn't have postponed
it."

The Virginian walked in the open air with thoughts disturbed. "I am of
two minds about one thing," he said to himself uneasily.

Gossip ran in advance of him; but as he came by, the talk fell away
until he had passed. Then they looked after him, and their words again
rose audibly. Thus everywhere a little eddy of silence accompanied his
steps.

"It don't trouble him much," one said, having read nothing in the
Virginian's face.

"It may trouble his girl some," said another.

"She'll not know," said a third, "until it's over."

"He'll not tell her?"

"I wouldn't. It's no woman's business."

"Maybe that's so. Well, it would have suited me to have Trampas die
sooner."

"How would it suit you to have him live longer?" inquired a member of
the opposite faction, suspected of being himself a cattle thief.

"I could answer your question, if I had other folks' calves I wanted to
brand." This raised both a laugh and a silence.

Thus the town talked, filling in the time before sunset.

The Virginian, still walking aloof in the open air, paused at the edge
of the town. "I'd sooner have a sickness than be undecided this way,"
he said, and he looked up and down. Then a grim smile came at his own
expense. "I reckon it would make me sick--but there's not time."

Over there in the hotel sat his sweetheart alone, away from her mother,
her friends, her home, waiting his return, knowing nothing. He looked
into the west. Between the sun and the bright ridges of the mountains
was still a space of sky; but the shadow from the mountains' feet had
drawn halfway toward the town. "About forty minutes more," he said
aloud. "She has been raised so different." And he sighed as he
turned back. As he went slowly, he did not know how great was his own
unhappiness. "She has been raised so different," he said again.

Opposite the post-office the bishop of Wyoming met him and greeted him.
His lonely heart throbbed at the warm, firm grasp of this friend's hand.
The bishop saw his eyes glow suddenly, as if tears were close. But none
came, and no word more open than, "I'm glad to see you."

But gossip had reached the bishop, and he was sorely troubled also.
"What is all this?" said he, coming straight to it.

The Virginian looked at the clergyman frankly. "Yu' know just as much
about it as I do," he said. "And I'll tell yu' anything yu' ask."

"Have you told Miss Wood?" inquired the bishop.

The eyes of the bridegroom fell, and the bishop's face grew at once more
keen and more troubled. Then the bridegroom raised his eyes again, and
the bishop almost loved him. He touched his arm, like a brother. "This
is hard luck," he said.

The bridegroom could scarce keep his voice steady. "I want to do right
to-day more than any day I have ever lived," said he.

"Then go and tell her at once."

"It will just do nothing but scare her."

"Go and tell her at once."

"I expected you was going to tell me to run away from Trampas. I can't
do that, yu' know."

The bishop did know. Never before in all his wilderness work had he
faced such a thing. He knew that Trampas was an evil in the country,
and that the Virginian was a good. He knew that the cattle thieves--the
rustlers--were gaining, in numbers and audacity; that they led many
weak young fellows to ruin; that they elected their men to office, and
controlled juries; that they were a staring menace to Wyoming. His heart
was with the Virginian. But there was his Gospel, that he preached, and
believed, and tried to live. He stood looking at the ground and drawing
a finger along his eyebrow. He wished that he might have heard nothing
about all this. But he was not one to blink his responsibility as a
Christian server of the church militant.

"Am I right," he now slowly asked, "in believing that you think I am a
sincere man?"

"I don't believe anything about it. I know it."

"I should run away from Trampas," said the bishop.

"That ain't quite fair, seh. We all understand you have got to do the
things you tell other folks to do. And you do them, seh. You never talk
like anything but a man, and you never set yourself above others. You
can saddle your own horses. And I saw yu' walk unarmed into that
White River excitement when those two other parsons was a-foggin' and
a-fannin' for their own safety. Damn scoundrels!"

The bishop instantly rebuked such language about brothers of his cloth,
even though he disapproved both of them and their doctrines. "Every one
may be an instrument of Providence," he concluded.


"Well," said the Virginian, "if that is so, then Providence makes use of
instruments I'd not touch with a ten-foot pole. Now if you was me, seh,
and not a bishop, would you run away from Trampas?"

"That's not quite fair, either!" exclaimed the bishop, with a smile.
"Because you are asking me to take another man's convictions, and yet
remain myself."

"Yes, seh. I am. That's so. That don't get at it. I reckon you and I
can't get at it."

"If the Bible," said the bishop, "which I believe to be God's word, was
anything to you--"

"It is something to me, seh. I have found fine truths in it."

"'Thou shalt not kill,'" quoted the bishop. "That is plain."

The Virginian took his turn at smiling. "Mighty plain to me, seh. Make
it plain to Trampas, and there'll be no killin'. We can't get at it that
way."

Once more the bishop quoted earnestly. "'Vengeance is mine, I will
repay, saith the Lord.'"

"How about instruments of Providence, seh? Why, we can't get at it that
way. If you start usin' the Bible that way, it will mix you up mighty
quick, seh."

"My friend," the bishop urged, and all his good, warm heart was in it,
"my dear fellow--go away for the one night. He'll change his mind."

The Virginian shook his head. "He cannot change his word, seh. Or at
least I must stay around till he does. Why, I have given him the say-so.
He's got the choice. Most men would not have took what I took from him
in the saloon. Why don't you ask him to leave town?"

The good bishop was at a standstill. Of all kicking against the pricks
none is so hard as this kick of a professing Christian against the whole
instinct of human man.

"But you have helped me some," said the Virginian. "I will go and tell
her. At least, if I think it will be good for her, I will tell her."

The bishop thought that he saw one last chance to move him.

"You're twenty-nine," he began.

"And a little over," said the Virginian.

"And you were fourteen when you ran away from your family."

"Well, I was weary, yu' know, of havin' elder brothers lay down my law
night and mawnin'."

"Yes, I know. So that your life has been your own for fifteen years. But
it is not your own now. You have given it to a woman."

"Yes; I have given it to her. But my life's not the whole of me. I'd
give her twice my life--fifty--a thousand of 'em. But I can't give
her--her nor anybody in heaven or earth--I can't give my--my--we'll
never get at it, seh! There's no good in words. Good-by." The Virginian
wrung the bishop's hand and left him.

"God bless him!" said the bishop. "God bless him!"

The Virginian unlocked the room in the hotel where he kept stored his
tent, his blankets, his pack-saddles, and his many accoutrements for the
bridal journey in the mountains. Out of the window he saw the mountains
blue in shadow, but some cottonwoods distant in the flat between were
still bright green in the sun. From among his possessions he took
quickly a pistol, wiping and loading it. Then from its holster he
removed the pistol which he had tried and made sure of in the morning.
This, according to his wont when going into a risk, he shoved between
his trousers and his shirt in front. The untried weapon he placed in
the holster, letting it hang visibly at his hip. He glanced out of
the window again, and saw the mountains of the same deep blue. But the
cottonwoods were no longer in the sunlight. The shadow had come past
them, nearer the town; for fifteen of the forty minutes were gone. "The
bishop is wrong," he said. "There is no sense in telling her." And he
turned to the door, just as she came to it herself.

"Oh!" she cried out at once, and rushed to him.

He swore as he held her close. "The fools!" he said. "The fools!"

"It has been so frightful waiting for you," said she, leaning her head
against him.

"Who had to tell you this?" he demanded.

"I don't know. Somebody just came and said it."

"This is mean luck," he murmured, patting her. "This is mean luck."

She went on: "I wanted to run out and find you; but I didn't! I didn't!
I stayed quiet in my room till they said you had come back."

"It is mean luck. Mighty mean," he repeated.

"How could you be so long?" she asked. "Never mind, I've got you now. It
is over."

Anger and sorrow filled him. "I might have known some fool would tell
you," he said.

"It's all over. Never mind." Her arms tightened their hold of him. Then
she let him go. "What shall we do?" she said. "What now?"

"Now?" he answered. "Nothing now."

She looked at him without understanding.

"I know it is a heap worse for you," he pursued, speaking slowly. "I
knew it would be."

"But it is over!" she exclaimed again.

He did not understand her now. He kissed her. "Did you think it was
over?" he said simply. "There is some waiting still before us. I wish
you did not have to wait alone. But it will not be long." He was looking
down, and did not see the happiness grow chilled upon her face, and then
fade into bewildered fear. "I did my best," he went on. "I think I did.
I know I tried. I let him say to me before them all what no man has
ever said, or ever will again. I kept thinking hard of you--with all
my might, or I reckon I'd have killed him right there. And I gave him a
show to change his mind. I gave it to him twice. I spoke as quiet as
I am speaking to you now. But he stood to it. And I expect he knows he
went too far in the hearing of others to go back on his threat. He will
have to go on to the finish now."

"The finish?" she echoed, almost voiceless.

"Yes," he answered very gently.

Her dilated eves were fixed upon him. "But--" she could scarce form
utterance, "but you?"

"I have got myself ready," he said. "Did you think--why, what did you
think?"

She recoiled a step. "What are you going--" She put her two hands to her
head. "Oh, God!" she almost shrieked, "you are going--" He made a step,
and would have put his arm round her, but she backed against the wall,
staring speechless at him.

"I am not going to let him shoot me," he said quietly.

"You mean--you mean--but you can come away!" she cried. "It's not too
late yet. You can take yourself out of his reach. Everybody knows that
you are brave. What is he to you? You can leave him in this place. I'll
go with you anywhere. To any house, to the mountains, to anywhere away.
We'll leave this horrible place together and--and--oh, won't you listen
to me?" She stretched her hands to him. "Won't you listen?"

He took her hands. "I must stay here."

Her hands clung to his. "No, no, no. There's something else. There's
something better than shedding blood in cold blood. Only think what it
means! Only think of having to remember such a thing! Why, it's what
they hang people for! It's murder!"

He dropped her hands. "Don't call it that name," he said sternly.

"When there was the choice!" she exclaimed, half to herself, like a
person stunned and speaking to the air. "To get ready for it when you
have the choice!"

"He did the choosing," answered the Virginian. "Listen to me. Are you
listening?" he asked, for her gaze was dull.

She nodded.

"I work hyeh. I belong hyeh. It's my life. If folks came to think I was
a coward--"

"Who would think you were a coward?"

"Everybody. My friends would be sorry and ashamed, and my enemies would
walk around saying they had always said so. I could not hold up my head
again among enemies or friends."

"When it was explained--"

"There'd be nothing to explain. There'd just be the fact." He was nearly
angry.

"There is a higher courage than fear of outside opinion," said the New
England girl.

Her Southern lover looked at her. "Cert'nly there is. That's what I'm
showing in going against yours."

"But if you know that you are brave, and if I know that you are brave,
oh, my dear, my dear! what difference does the world make? How much
higher courage to go your own course--"

"I am goin' my own course," he broke in. "Can't yu' see how it must be
about a man? It's not for their benefit, friends or enemies, that I have
got this thing to do. If any man happened to say I was a thief and I
heard about it, would I let him go on spreadin' such a thing of me?
Don't I owe my own honesty something better than that? Would I sit down
in a corner rubbin' my honesty and whisperin' to it, 'There! there! I
know you ain't a thief?' No, seh; not a little bit! What men say about
my nature is not just merely an outside thing. For the fact that I
let 'em keep on sayin' it is a proof I don't value my nature enough to
shield it from their slander and give them their punishment. And that's
being a poor sort of a jay."

She had grown very white.

"Can't yu' see how it must be about a man?" he repeated.

"I cannot," she answered, in a voice that scarcely seemed her own. "If I
ought to, I cannot. To shed blood in cold blood. When I heard about that
last fall,--about the killing of those cattle thieves,--I kept saying to
myself: 'He had to do it. It was a public duty.' And lying sleepless I
got used to Wyoming being different from Vermont. But this--" she gave
a shudder--"when I think of to-morrow, of you and me, and of--If you do
this, there can be no to-morrow for you and me."

At these words he also turned white.

"Do you mean--" he asked, and could go no farther.

Nor could she answer him, but turned her head away.

"This would be the end?" he asked.

Her head faintly moved to signify yes.

He stood still, his hand shaking a little. "Will you look at me and
say that?" he murmured at length. She did not move. "Can you do it?" he
said.

His sweetness made her turn, but could not pierce her frozen resolve.
She gazed at him across the great distance of her despair.

"Then it is really so?" he said.

Her lips tried to form words, but failed.

He looked out of the window, and saw nothing but shadow. The blue of the
mountains was now become a deep purple. Suddenly his hand closed hard.

"Good-by, then," he said.

At that word she was at his feet, clutching him. "For my sake," she
begged him. "For my sake."

A tremble passed through his frame. She felt his legs shake as she held
them, and, looking up, she saw that his eyes were closed with misery.
Then he opened them, and in their steady look she read her answer. He
unclasped her hands from holding him, and raised her to her feet.

"I have no right to kiss you any more," he said. And then, before his
desire could break him down from this, he was gone, and she was alone.

She did not fall, or totter, but stood motionless. And next--it seemed
a moment and it seemed eternity--she heard in the distance a shot, and
then two shots. Out of the window she saw people beginning to run. At
that she turned and fled to her room, and flung herself face downward
upon the floor.

Trampas had departed into solitude from the saloon, leaving behind him
his ULTIMATUM. His loud and public threat was town knowledge already,
would very likely be county knowledge to-night. Riders would take it
with them to entertain distant cabins up the river and down the river;
and by dark the stage would go south with the news of it--and the news
of its outcome. For everything would be over by dark. After five years,
here was the end coming--coming before dark. Trampas had got up this
morning with no such thought. It seemed very strange to look back upon
the morning; it lay so distant, so irrevocable. And he thought of how he
had eaten his breakfast. How would he eat his supper? For supper would
come afterward. Some people were eating theirs now, with nothing like
this before them. His heart ached and grew cold to think of them, easy
and comfortable with plates and cups of coffee.

He looked at the mountains, and saw the sun above their ridges, and
the shadow coming from their feet. And there close behind him was the
morning he could never go back to. He could see it clearly; his thoughts
reached out like arms to touch it once more, and be in it again. The
night that was coming he could not see, and his eyes and his thoughts
shrank from it. He had given his enemy until sundown. He could not
trace the path which had led him to this. He remembered their first
meeting--five years back, in Medicine Bow, and the words which at once
began his hate. No, it was before any words; it was the encounter of
their eyes. For out of the eyes of every stranger looks either a friend
or an enemy, waiting to be known. But how had five years of hate come to
play him such a trick, suddenly, to-day? Since last autumn he had meant
sometime to get even with this man who seemed to stand at every turn
of his crookedness, and rob him of his spoils. But how had he come to
choose such a way of getting even as this, face to face? He knew many
better ways; and now his own rash proclamation had trapped him. His
words were like doors shutting him in to perform his threat to the
letter, with witnesses at hand to see that he did so.

Trampas looked at the sun and the shadow again. He had till sundown. The
heart inside him was turning it round in this opposite way: it was to
HIMSELF that in his rage he had given this lessening margin of grace.
But he dared not leave town in all the world's sight after all the world
had heard him. Even his friends would fall from him after such an act.
Could he--the thought actually came to him--could he strike before the
time set? But the thought was useless. Even if his friends could harbor
him after such a deed, his enemies would find him, and his life would be
forfeit to a certainty. His own trap was closing upon him.

He came upon the main street, and saw some distance off the Virginian
standing in talk with the bishop. He slunk between two houses, and
cursed both of them. The sight had been good for him, bringing some
warmth of rage back to his desperate heart. And he went into a place and
drank some whiskey.

"In your shoes," said the barkeeper, "I'd be afraid to take so much."

But the nerves of Trampas were almost beyond the reach of intoxication,
and he swallowed some more, and went out again. Presently he fell in
with some of his brothers in cattle stealing, and walked along with them
for a little.

"Well, it will not be long now," they said to him. And he had never
heard words so desolate.

"No," he made out to say; "soon now." Their cheerfulness seemed
unearthly to him, and his heart almost broke beneath it.

"We'll have one to your success," they suggested.

So with them he repaired to another place; and the sight of a man
leaning against the bar made him start so that they noticed him. Then he
saw that the man was a stranger whom he had never laid eyes on till now.

"It looked like Shorty," he said, and could have bitten his tongue off.

"Shorty is quiet up in the Tetons," said a friend. "You don't want to be
thinking about him. Here's how!"

Then they clapped him on the back and he left them. He thought of his
enemy and his hate, beating his rage like a failing horse, and treading
the courage of his drink. Across a space he saw Wiggin, walking with
McLean and Scipio. They were watching the town to see that his friends
made no foul play.

"We're giving you a clear field," said Wiggin.

"This race will not be pulled," said McLean.

"Be with you at the finish," said Scipio.

And they passed on. They did not seem like real people to him.

Trampas looked at the walls and windows of the houses. Were they real?
Was he here, walking in this street? Something had changed. He looked
everywhere, and feeling it everywhere, wondered what this could be. Then
he knew: it was the sun that had gone entirely behind the mountains, and
he drew out his pistol.

The Virginian, for precaution, did not walk out of the front door of the
hotel. He went through back ways, and paused once. Against his breast
he felt the wedding ring where he had it suspended by a chain from his
neck. His hand went up to it, and he drew it out and looked at it. He
took it off the chain, and his arm went back to hurl it from him as far
as he could. But he stopped and kissed it with one sob, and thrust it in
his pocket. Then he walked out into the open, watching. He saw men here
and there, and they let him pass as before, without speaking. He saw
his three friends, and they said no word to him. But they turned and
followed in his rear at a little distance, because it was known that
Shorty had been found shot from behind. The Virginian gained a position
soon where no one could come at him except from in front; and the sight
of the mountains was almost more than he could endure, because it was
there that he had been going to-morrow.

"It is quite a while after sunset," he heard himself say.

A wind seemed to blow his sleeve off his arm, and he replied to it, and
saw Trampas pitch forward. He saw Trampas raise his arm from the ground
and fall again, and lie there this time, still. A little smoke was
rising from the pistol on the ground, and he looked at his own, and saw
the smoke flowing upward out of it.

"I expect that's all," he said aloud.

But as he came nearer Trampas, he covered him with his weapon. He
stopped a moment, seeing the hand on the ground move. Two fingers
twitched, and then ceased; for it was all. The Virginian stood looking
down at Trampas.

"Both of mine hit," he said, once more aloud. "His must have gone mighty
close to my arm. I told her it would not be me."

He had scarcely noticed that he was being surrounded and congratulated.
His hand was being shaken, and he saw it was Scipio in tears. Scipio's
joy made his heart like lead within him. He was near telling his friend
everything, but he did not.

"If anybody wants me about this," he said, "I will be at the hotel."

"Who'll want you?" said Scipio. "Three of us saw his gun out." And he
vented his admiration. "You were that cool! That quick!"

"I'll see you boys again," said the Virginian, heavily; and he walked
away.

Scipio looked after him, astonished. "Yu' might suppose he was in poor
luck," he said to McLean.

The Virginian walked to the hotel, and stood on the threshold of his
sweetheart's room. She had heard his step, and was upon her feet. Her
lips were parted, and her eyes fixed on him, nor did she move, or speak.

"Yu' have to know it," said he. "I have killed Trampas."

"Oh, thank God!" she said; and he found her in his arms. Long they
embraced without speaking, and what they whispered then with their
kisses, matters not.

Thus did her New England conscience battle to the end, and, in the end,
capitulate to love. And the next day, with the bishop's blessing, and
Mrs. Taylor's broadest smile, and the ring on her finger, the Virginian
departed with his bride into the mountains.





Next: At Dunbarton

Previous: To Fit Her Finger



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