The Game And The Nation Act First
: The Virginian
There can be no doubt of this: All America is divided into two
classes,--the quality and the equality.
The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both
will be with us until our women bear nothing but hangs.
It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans
acknowledged the ETERNAL INEQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a
cut-and-dried aristocracy. We
ad seen little mere artificially held up
in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and
our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature.
Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal
liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and
gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever
he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true
democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same
thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight.
The above reflections occurred to me before reaching Billings, Montana,
some three weeks after I had unexpectedly met the Virginian at Omaha,
Nebraska. I had not known of that trust given to him by Judge Henry,
which was taking him East. I was looking to ride with him before long
among the clean hills of Sunk Creek. I supposed he was there. But I came
upon him one morning in Colonel Cyrus Jones's eating palace.
Did you know the palace? It stood in Omaha, near the trains, and it was
ten years old (which is middle-aged in Omaha) when I first saw it. It
was a shell of wood, painted with golden emblems,--the steamboat, the
eagle, the Yosemite,--and a live bear ate gratuities at its entrance.
Weather permitting, it opened upon the world as a stage upon the
audience. You sat in Omaha's whole sight and dined, while Omaha's dust
came and settled upon the refreshments. It is gone the way of the Indian
and the buffalo, for the West is growing old. You should have seen the
palace and sat there. In front of you passed rainbows of men,--Chinese,
Indian chiefs, Africans, General Miles, younger sons, Austrian nobility,
wide females in pink. Our continent drained prismatically through Omaha
So I was passing that way also, walking for the sake of ventilation from
a sleeping-car toward a bath, when the language of Colonel Cyrus Jones
came out to me. The actual colonel I had never seen before. He stood
at the rear of his palace in gray flowery mustaches and a Confederate
uniform, telling the wishes of his guests to the cook through a hole.
You always bought meal tickets at once, else you became unwelcome.
Guests here had foibles at times, and a rapid exit was too easy.
Therefore I bought a ticket. It was spring and summer since I had heard
anything like the colonel. The Missouri had not yet flowed into New York
dialect freely, and his vocabulary met me like the breeze of the plains.
So I went in to be fanned by it, and there sat the Virginian at a table,
His greeting was up to the code of indifference proper on the plains;
but he presently remarked, "I'm right glad to see somebody," which was a
good deal to say. "Them that comes hyeh," he observed next, "don't eat.
They feed." And he considered the guests with a sombre attention.
"D' yu' reckon they find joyful digestion in this swallo'-an'-get-out
"What are you doing here, then?" said I.
"Oh, pshaw! When yu' can't have what you choose, yu' just choose what
you have." And he took the bill-of-fare. I began to know that he had
something on his mind, so I did not trouble him further.
Meanwhile he sat studying the bill-of-fare.
"Ever heard o' them?" he inquired, shoving me the spotted document.
Most improbable dishes were there,--salmis, canapes, supremes,--all
perfectly spelt and absolutely transparent. It was the old trick of
copying some metropolitan menu to catch travellers of the third and last
dimension of innocence; and whenever this is done the food is of the
third and last dimension of awfulness, which the cow-puncher knew as
well as anybody.
"So they keep that up here still," I said.
"But what about them?" he repeated. His finger was at a special item,
FROGS' LEGS A LA DELMONICO. "Are they true anywheres?" he asked And I
told him, certainly. I also explained to him about Delmonico of New York
and about Augustin of Philadelphia.
"There's not a little bit o' use in lyin' to me this mawnin'," he said,
with his engaging smile. "I ain't goin' to awdeh anything's laigs."
"Well, I'll see how he gets out of it," I said, remembering the odd
Texas legend. (The traveller read the bill-of-fare, you know, and called
for a vol-au-vent. And the proprietor looked at the traveller, and
running a pistol into his ear, observed, "You'll take hash.") I was
thinking of this and wondering what would happen to me. So I took the
"Wants frogs' legs, does he?" shouted Colonel Cyrus Jones. He fixed
his eye upon me, and it narrowed to a slit. "Too many brain workers
breakfasting before yu' came in, professor," said he. "Missionary ate
the last leg off me just now. Brown the wheat!" he commanded, through
the hole to the cook, for some one had ordered hot cakes.
"I'll have fried aiggs," said the Virginian. "Cooked both sides."
"White wings!" sang the colonel through the hole. "Let 'em fly up and
"Coffee an' no milk," said the Virginian.
"Draw one in the dark!" the colonel roared.
"And beefsteak, rare."
"One slaughter in the pan, and let the blood drip!"
"I should like a glass of water, please," said I. The colonel threw me a
look of pity.
"One Missouri and ice for the professor!" he said.
"That fello's a right live man," commented the Virginian. But he seemed
thoughtful. Presently he inquired, "Yu' say he was a foreigner, an'
learned fancy cookin' to New Yawk?"
That was this cow-puncher's way. Scarcely ever would he let drop a thing
new to him until he had got from you your whole information about it.
So I told him the history of Lorenzo Delmonico and his pioneer work, as
much as I knew, and the Southerner listened intently.
"Mighty inter-estin'," he said--"mighty. He could just take little
old o'rn'ry frawgs, and dandy 'em up to suit the bloods. Mighty
inter-estin'. I expaict, though, his cookin' would give an outraiged
stomach to a plain-raised man."
"If you want to follow it up," said I, by way of a sudden experiment,
"Miss Molly Wood might have some book about French dishes."
But the Virginian did not turn a hair. "I reckon she wouldn't," he
answered. "She was raised in Vermont. They don't bother overly about
their eatin' up in Vermont. Hyeh's what Miss Wood recommended the las'
time I was seein' her," the cow-puncher added, bringing Kenilworth from
his pocket. "Right fine story. That Queen Elizabeth must have cert'nly
been a competent woman."
"She was," said I. But talk came to an end here. A dusty crew, most
evidently from the plains, now entered and drifted to a table; and each
man of them gave the Virginian about a quarter of a slouchy nod. His
greeting to them was very serene. Only, Kenilworth went back into his
pocket, and he breakfasted in silence. Among those who had greeted him I
now recognized a face.
"Why, that's the man you played cards with at Medicine Bow!" I said.
"Yes. Trampas. He's got a job at the ranch now." The Virginian said no
more, but went on with his breakfast.
His appearance was changed. Aged I would scarcely say, for this
would seem as if he did not look young. But I think that the boy was
altogether gone from his face--the boy whose freak with Steve had turned
Medicine Bow upside down, whose other freak with the babies had outraged
Bear Creek, the boy who had loved to jingle his spurs. But manhood had
only trained, not broken, his youth. It was all there, only obedient to
the rein and curb.
Presently we went together to the railway yard.
"The Judge is doing a right smart o' business this year," he began, very
casually indeed, so that I knew this was important. Besides bells and
coal smoke, the smell and crowded sounds of cattle rose in the air
around us. "Hyeh's our first gather o' beeves on the ranch," continued
the Virginian. "The whole lot's shipped through to Chicago in two
sections over the Burlington. The Judge is fighting the Elkhorn road."
We passed slowly along the two trains,--twenty cars, each car packed
with huddled, round-eyed, gazing steers. He examined to see if any
animals were down. "They ain't ate or drank anything to speak of," he
said, while the terrified brutes stared at us through their slats. "Not
since they struck the railroad they've not drank. Yu' might suppose
they know somehow what they're travellin' to Chicago for." And casually,
always casually, he told me the rest. Judge Henry could not spare his
foreman away from the second gather of beeves. Therefore these two
ten-car trains with their double crew of cow-boys had been given to the
Virginian's charge. After Chicago, he was to return by St. Paul over
the Northern Pacific; for the Judge had wished him to see certain of the
road's directors and explain to them persuasively how good a thing it
would be for them to allow especially cheap rates to the Sunk Creek
outfit henceforth. This was all the Virginian told me; and it contained
the whole matter, to be sure.
"So you're acting foreman," said I.
"Why, somebody has to have the say, I reckon."
"And of course you hated the promotion?"
"I don't know about promotion," he replied. "The boys have been used
to seein' me one of themselves. Why don't you come along with us far as
Plattsmouth?" Thus he shifted the subject from himself, and called to my
notice the locomotives backing up to his cars, and reminded me that from
Plattsmouth I had the choice of two trains returning. But he could not
hide or belittle this confidence of his employer in him. It was the care
of several thousand perishable dollars and the control of men. It was a
compliment. There were more steers than men to be responsible for; but
none of the steers had been suddenly picked from the herd and set above
his fellows. Moreover, Chicago finished up the steers; but the new-made
deputy foreman had then to lead his six highly unoccupied brethren away
from towns, and back in peace to the ranch, or disappoint the Judge, who
needed their services. These things sometimes go wrong in a land where
they say you are all born equal; and that quarter of a nod in Colonel
Cyrus Jones's eating palace held more equality than any whole nod you
could see. But the Virginian did not see it, there being a time for all
We trundled down the flopping, heavy-eddied Missouri to Plattsmouth,
and there they backed us on to a siding, the Christian Endeavor being
expected to pass that way. And while the equality absorbed themselves in
a deep but harmless game of poker by the side of the railway line,
the Virginian and I sat on the top of a car, contemplating the sandy
shallows of the Platte.
"I should think you'd take a hand," said I.
"Poker? With them kittens?" One flash of the inner man lightened in his
eyes and died away, and he finished with his gentle drawl, "When I play,
I want it to be interestin'." He took out Sir Walter's Kenilworth once
more, and turned the volume over and over slowly, without opening it.
You cannot tell if in spirit he wandered on Bear Creek with the girl
whose book it was. The spirit will go one road, and the thought another,
and the body its own way sometimes. "Queen Elizabeth would have played a
mighty pow'ful game," was his next remark.
"Poker?" said I.
"Yes, seh. Do you expaict Europe has got any queen equal to her at
I doubted it.
"Victoria'd get pretty nigh slain sliding chips out agaynst Elizabeth.
Only mos' prob'ly Victoria she'd insist on a half-cent limit. You have
read this hyeh Kenilworth? Well, deal Elizabeth ace high, an' she could
scare Robert Dudley with a full house plumb out o' the bettin'."
I said that I believed she unquestionably could.
"And," said the Virginian, "if Essex's play got next her too near, I
reckon she'd have stacked the cyards. Say, d' yu' remember Shakespeare's
"Falstaff? Oh, yes, indeed."
"Ain't that grand? Why, he makes men talk the way they do in life.
I reckon he couldn't get printed to-day. It's a right down shame
Shakespeare couldn't know about poker. He'd have had Falstaff playing
all day at that Tearsheet outfit. And the Prince would have beat him."
"The Prince had the brains," said I.
"Well, didn't he?"
"I neveh thought to notice. Like as not he did."
"And Falstaff didn't, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, seh! Falstaff could have played whist."
"I suppose you know what you're talking about; I don't," said I, for he
was drawling again.
The cow-puncher's eye rested a moment amiably upon me. "You can play
whist with your brains," he mused,--"brains and cyards. Now cyards are
only one o' the manifestations of poker in this hyeh world. One o' the
shapes yu fool with it in when the day's work is oveh. If a man is built
like that Prince boy was built (and it's away down deep beyond brains),
he'll play winnin' poker with whatever hand he's holdin' when the
trouble begins. Maybe it will be a mean, triflin' army, or an empty
six-shooter, or a lame hawss, or maybe just nothin' but his natural
countenance. 'Most any old thing will do for a fello' like that Prince
boy to play poker with."
"Then I'd be grateful for your definition of poker," said I.
Again the Virginian looked me over amiably. "You put up a mighty pretty
game o' whist yourself," he remarked. "Don't that give you the contented
spirit?" And before I had any reply to this, the Christian Endeavor
began to come over the bridge. Three instalments crossed the Missouri
from Pacific Junction, bound for Pike's Peak, every car swathed in
bright bunting, and at each window a Christian with a handkerchief,
joyously shrieking. Then the cattle trains got the open signal, and I
jumped off. "Tell the Judge the steers was all right this far," said the
That was the last of the deputy foreman for a while.