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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Virginian: A Horseman Of The Plains - XXII. "WHAT IS A RUSTLER?"
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The Virginian: A Horseman Of The Plains - XXII. 'WHAT IS A RUSTLER?' Post by :lismuc2 Category :Long Stories Author :Owen Wister Date :April 2012 Read :966

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The Virginian: A Horseman Of The Plains - XXII. "WHAT IS A RUSTLER?"


We all know what birds of a feather do. And it may be safely surmised that if a bird of any particular feather has been for a long while unable to see other birds of its kind, it will flock with them all the more assiduously when they happen to alight in its vicinity.

Now the Ogdens were birds of Molly's feather. They wore Eastern, and not Western, plumage, and their song was a different song from that which the Bear Creek birds sang. To be sure, the piping of little George Taylor was full of hopeful interest; and many other strains, both striking and melodious, were lifted in Cattle Land, and had given pleasure to Molly's ear. But although Indians, and bears, and mavericks, make worthy themes for song, these are not the only songs in the world. Therefore the Eastern warblings of the Ogdens sounded doubly sweet to Molly Wood. Such words as Newport, Bar Harbor, and Tiffany's thrilled her exceedingly. It made no difference that she herself had never been to Newport or Bar Harbor, and had visited Tiffany's more often to admire than to purchase. On the contrary, this rather added a dazzle to the music of the Ogdens. And Molly, whose Eastern song had been silent in this strange land, began to chirp it again during the visit that she made at the Sunk Creek Ranch.

Thus the Virginian's cause by no means prospered at this time. His forces were scattered, while Molly's were concentrated. The girl was not at that point where absence makes the heart grow fonder. While the Virginian was trundling his long, responsible miles in the caboose, delivering the cattle at Chicago, vanquishing Trampas along the Yellowstone, she had regained herself.

Thus it was that she could tell him so easily during those first hours that they were alone after his return, "I expect to like another man better than you."

Absence had recruited her. And then the Ogdens had reenforced her. They brought the East back powerfully to her memory, and her thoughts filled with it. They did not dream that they were assisting in any battle. No one ever had more unconscious allies than did Molly at that time. But she used them consciously, or almost consciously. She frequented them; she spoke of Eastern matters; she found that she had acquaintances whom the Ogdens also knew, and she often brought them into the conversation. For it may be said, I think, that she was fighting a battle--nay, a campaign. And perhaps this was a hopeful sign for the Virginian (had he but known it), that the girl resorted to allies. She surrounded herself, she steeped herself, with the East, to have, as it were, a sort of counteractant against the spell of the black-haired horse man.

And his forces were, as I have said, scattered. For his promotion gave him no more time for love-making. He was foreman now. He had said to Judge Henry, "I'll try to please yu'." And after the throb of emotion which these words had both concealed and conveyed, there came to him that sort of intention to win which amounts to a certainty. Yes, he would please Judge Henry!

He did not know how much he had already pleased him. He did not know that the Judge was humorously undecided which of his new foreman's first acts had the more delighted him: his performance with the missionary, or his magnanimity to Trampas.

"Good feeling is a great thing in any one," the Judge would say; "but I like to know that my foreman has so much sense."

"I am personally very grateful to him," said Mrs. Henry.

And indeed so was the whole company. To be afflicted with Dr. MacBride for one night instead of six was a great liberation.

But the Virginian never saw his sweetheart alone again; while she was at the Sunk Creek Ranch, his duties called him away so much that there was no chance for him. Worse still, that habit of birds of a feather brought about a separation more considerable. She arranged to go East with the Ogdens. It was so good an opportunity to travel with friends, instead of making the journey alone!

Molly's term of ministration at the schoolhouse had so pleased Bear Creek that she was warmly urged to take a holiday. School could afford to begin a little late. Accordingly, she departed.

The Virginian hid his sore heart from her during the moment of farewell that they had.

"No, I'll not want any more books," he said, "till yu' come back." And then he made cheerfulness. "It's just the other way round!" said he.

"What is the other way round?"

"Why, last time it was me that went travelling, and you that stayed behind."

"So it was!" And here she gave him a last scratch. "But you'll be busier than ever," she said; "no spare time to grieve about me!"

She could wound him, and she knew it. Nobody else could. That is why she did it.

But he gave her something to remember, too.

"Next time," he said, "neither of us will stay behind. We'll both go together."

And with these words he gave her no laughing glance. It was a look that mingled with the words; so that now and again in the train, both came back to her, and she sat pensive, drawing near to Bennington and hearing his voice and seeing his eyes.

How is it that this girl could cry at having to tell Sam Bannett she could not think of him, and then treat another lover as she treated the Virginian? I cannot tell you, having never (as I said before) been a woman myself.

Bennington opened its arms to its venturesome daughter. Much was made of Molly Wood. Old faces and old places welcomed her. Fatted calves of varying dimensions made their appearance. And although the fatted calf is an animal that can assume more divergent shapes than any other known creature,--being sometimes champagne and partridges, and again cake and currant wine,--through each disguise you can always identify the same calf. The girl from Bear Creek met it at every turn.

The Bannetts at Hoosic Falls offered a large specimen to Molly--a dinner (perhaps I should say a banquet) of twenty-four. And Sam Bannett of course took her to drive more than once.

"I want to see the Hoosic Bridge," she would say. And when they reached that well-remembered point, "How lovely it is!" she exclaimed. And as she gazed at the view up and down the valley, she would grow pensive. "How natural the church looks," she continued. And then, having crossed both bridges, "Oh, there's the dear old lodge gate!" Or again, while they drove up the valley of the little Hoosic: "I had forgotten it was so nice and lonely. But after all, no woods are so interesting as those where you might possibly see a bear or an elk." And upon another occasion, after a cry of enthusiasm at the view from the top of Mount Anthony, "It's lovely, lovely, lovely," she said, with diminishing cadence, ending in pensiveness once more. "Do you see that little bit just there? No, not where the trees are--that bare spot that looks brown and warm in the sun. With a little sagebrush, that spot would look something like a place I know on Bear Creek. Only of course you don't get the clear air here."

"I don't forget you," said Sam. "Do you remember me? Or is it out of sight out of mind?"

And with this beginning he renewed his suit. She told him that she forgot no one; that she should return always, lest they might forget her.

"Return always!" he exclaimed. "You talk as if your anchor was dragging."

Was it? At all events, Sam failed in his suit.

Over in the house at Dunbarton, the old lady held Molly's hand and looked a long while at her. "You have changed very much," she said finally.

"I am a year older," said the girl.

"Pshaw, my dear!" said the great-aunt. "Who is he?"

"Nobody!" cried Molly, with indignation.

"Then you shouldn't answer so loud," said the great-aunt.

The girl suddenly hid her face. "I don't believe I can love any one," she said, "except myself."

And then that old lady, who in her day had made her courtesy to Lafayette, began to stroke her niece's buried head, because she more than half understood. And understanding thus much, she asked no prying questions, but thought of the days of her own youth, and only spoke a little quiet love and confidence to Molly.

"I am an old, old woman," she said. "But I haven't forgotten about it. They objected to him because he had no fortune. But he was brave and handsome, and I loved him, my dear. Only I ought to have loved him more. I gave him my promise to think about it. And he and his ship were lost." The great-aunt's voice had become very soft and low, and she spoke with many pauses. "So then I knew. If I had--if--perhaps I should have lost trim; but it would have been after--ah, well! So long as you can help it, never marry! But when you cannot help it a moment longer, then listen to nothing but that; for, my dear, I know your choice would be worthy of the Starks. And now--let me see his picture."

"Why, aunty!" said Molly.

"Well, I won't pretend to be supernatural," said the aunt, "but I thought you kept one back when you were showing us those Western views last night."

Now this was the precise truth. Molly had brought a number of photographs from Wyoming to show to her friends at home. These, however, with one exception, were not portraits. They were views of scenery and of cattle round-ups, and other scenes characteristic of ranch life. Of young men she had in her possession several photographs, and all but one of these she had left behind her. Her aunt's penetration had in a way mesmerized the girl; she rose obediently and sought that picture of the Virginian. It was full length, displaying him in all his cow-boy trappings,--the leathern chaps, the belt and pistol, and in his hand a coil of rope.

Not one of her family had seen it, or suspected its existence. She now brought it downstairs and placed it in her aunt's hand.

"Mercy!" cried the old lady.

Molly was silent, but her eye grew warlike.

"Is that the way--" began the aunt. "Mercy!" she murmured; and she sat staring at the picture.

Molly remained silent.

Her aunt looked slowly up at her. "Has a man like that presumed--"

"He's not a bit like that. Yes, he's exactly like that," said Molly. And she would have snatched the photograph away, but her aunt retained it.

"Well," she said, "I suppose there are days when he does not kill people."

"He never killed anybody!" And Molly laughed.

"Are you seriously--" said the old lady.

"I almost might--at times. He is perfectly splendid."

"My dear, you have fallen in love with his clothes."

"It's not his clothes. And I'm not in love. He often wears others. He wears a white collar like anybody."

"Then that would be a more suitable way to be photographed, I think. He couldn't go round like that here. I could not receive him myself."

"He'd never think of such a thing. Why, you talk as if he were a savage."

The old lady studied the picture closely for a minute. "I think it is a good face," she finally remarked. "Is the fellow as handsome as that, my dear?"

More so, Molly thought. And who was he, and what were his prospects? were the aunt's next inquiries. She shook her head at the answers which she received; and she also shook her head over her niece's emphatic denial that her heart was lost to this man. But when their parting came, the old lady said: "God bless you and keep you, my dear. I'll not try to manage you. They managed me--" A sigh spoke the rest of this sentence. "But I'm not worried about you--at least, not very much. You have never done anything that was not worthy of the Starks. And if you're going to take him, do it before I die so that I can bid him welcome for your sake. God bless you, my dear."

And after the girl had gone back to Bennington, the great-aunt had this thought: "She is like us all. She wants a man that is a man." Nor did the old lady breathe her knowledge to any member of the family. For she was a loyal spirit, and her girl's confidence was sacred to her.

"Besides," she reflected, "if even I can do nothing with her, what a mess THEY'D make of it! We should hear of her elopement next."

So Molly's immediate family never saw that photograph, and never heard a word from her upon this subject. But on the day that she left for Bear Creek, as they sat missing her and discussing her visit in the evening, Mrs. Bell observed: "Mother, how did you think she was?"--"I never saw her better, Sarah. That horrible place seems to agree with her."--"Oh, yes, agree. It seemed to me--"--"Well?"--"Oh, just somehow that she was thinking."--"Thinking?"--"Well, I believe she has something on her mind."--"You mean a man," said Andrew Bell.--"A man, Andrew?"--"Yes, Mrs. Wood, that's what Sarah always means."

It may be mentioned that Sarah's surmises did not greatly contribute to her mother's happiness. And rumor is so strange a thing that presently from the malicious outside air came a vague and dreadful word--one of those words that cannot be traced to its source. Somebody said to Andrew Bell that they heard Miss Molly Wood was engaged to marry a RUSTLER.

"Heavens, Andrew!" said his wife; "what is a rustler?"

It was not in any dictionary, and current translations of it were inconsistent. A man at Hoosic Falls said that he had passed through Cheyenne, and heard the term applied in a complimentary way to people who were alive and pushing. Another man had always supposed it meant some kind of horse. But the most alarming version of all was that a rustler was a cattle thief.

Now the truth is that all these meanings were right. The word ran a sort of progress in the cattle country, gathering many meanings as it went. It gathered more, however, in Bennington. In a very few days, gossip had it that Molly was engaged to a gambler, a gold miner, an escaped stage robber, and a Mexican bandit; while Mrs. Flynt feared she had married a Mormon.

Along Bear Creek, however, Molly and her "rustler" took a ride soon after her return. They were neither married nor engaged, and she was telling him about Vermont.

"I never was there," said he. "Never happened to strike in that direction."

"What decided your direction?"

"Oh, looking for chances. I reckon I must have been more ambitious than my brothers--or more restless. They stayed around on farms. But I got out. When I went back again six years afterward, I was twenty. They was talking about the same old things. Men of twenty-five and thirty--yet just sittin' and talkin' about the same old things. I told my mother about what I'd seen here and there, and she liked it, right to her death. But the others--well, when I found this whole world was hawgs and turkeys to them, with a little gunnin' afteh small game throwed in, I put on my hat one mawnin' and told 'em maybe when I was fifty I'd look in on 'em again to see if they'd got any new subjects. But they'll never. My brothers don't seem to want chances."

"You have lost a good many yourself," said Molly.

"That's correct."

"And yet," said she, "sometimes I think you know a great deal more than I ever shall."

"Why, of course I do," said he, quite simply. "I have earned my living since I was fourteen. And that's from old Mexico to British Columbia. I have never stolen or begged a cent. I'd not want yu' to know what I know."

She was looking at him, half listening and half thinking of her great-aunt.

"I am not losing chances any more," he continued. "And you are the best I've got."

She was not sorry to have Georgie Taylor come galloping along at this moment and join them. But the Virginian swore profanely under his breath. And on this ride nothing more happened.

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The Virginian: A Horseman Of The Plains - XXIII. VARIOUS POINTS The Virginian: A Horseman Of The Plains - XXIII. VARIOUS POINTS

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XXI. IN A STATE OF SINThunder sat imminent upon the missionary's brow. Many were to be at his mercy soon. But for us he had sunshine still. "I am truly sorry to be turning you upside down," he said importantly. "But it seems the best place for my service." He spoke of the tables pushed back and the chairs gathered in the hall the storm would presently break upon the congregation. "Eight-thirty?" he inquired.This was the hour appointed, and it was only twenty minutes off. We threw the unsmoked fractions of our cigars away, and returned to offer our services