George Streynsham Master.

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ably cheerless and tiresome thing, with
only a chance buffalo-chase ^for the buffalo,
too, is now seldom met with) or a race
after jack-rabbits to relieve its prolonged
monotony. About the first of April is the
time the herds are started from Red River
northward, and the aim is to reach the
Kansas catde-towns— distant some eight
hundred miles — in the latter part of June,
the route leading over the long, bleak
" Chisholm trail," which goes winding and
twisting this way and that, to suit the erratic
bearings of the water-courses and strike
conveniences for camping. Two herders
to a hundred head of catde is the rule —
the herd often embraces iivt or six thousand
head — and each herder has two horses, and
is paid thirty to forty dollars a month, or
twice that, if he owns his horses ; a boss and
a cook added to these, with wagons or pack-
mules to carry provisions, and an abundant
supply of fire-arms, saddles, lariats, blankets,
and short-handled whips, and in some cases
a few dog-tents, make up the "outfit," as
it is termed. The herd is driven leisurely
until noon, when there is a short stop for
dinner; then the rate of travel is gradually
increased, and ktpt up without rest or
slackening, until the camping-place is arrived
at and a halt made for the night ; there the

cattle are huddled together, or "rounded
up" in as small a compass as passible,
called "the bed-ground," and the herders
stand guard over them, by stated turns,
like pickets, until morning comes and the
fantastic expedition moves forward again —
though sometimes a thunder-storm or other
unexpected noise brings on a " stampede,**
and enlivens these prosaic night-watches
(to the secret delight of the drowsy guards,
we may guess) with a swift gallop into the
grassy darkness after the terrified and flee-
ing catde.

And so, day after day, the slow, dull
drive continues, each day so like every
other that soon all reckoning of its place
in the week is lost, each passing scene so
much a mere bald repetition that the whole
outlook in a short time becomes simply one
vast, featureless, confiising impression, like
the ocean. Indeed, being adrift on these
great, vague and melancholy prairies is
very similar to being out at sea. The
drover of whom I have spoken told m
that he never made the journey without a
continual, torturing heartache and sense of
exile; and it is not improbable that the
most ignorant and indifferent of the herd-
ers — ^perhaps even the worn and bewildered
cattle, also — catch a hint of this feeling,
could they formulate it in speech. Alwajrs,
after a few days of the march, and a feir
start into what may be called the sorcery
of the intervening desert, a habit of sflence
and reverie and depression comes upon the
entire outfit, save only the una<pcountable
little cow-birds — the Mother Carey's chick-
ens of this singular argosy — that flutter
cheerily and constantly round the herd the
whole way from Red River to New Sharon.
The songs and jokes die out, the story-
tellers cease to spin their coarse and knotted
yams, card-playing by the camp-fire is voted
a bore, daily conversarion dwindles to mono-
syllables. " Every man draws himself into
his shell," as the drover expressed it ; and
there he remains, taciturn and brooding,
unmindfiil of his companions and careless
of himself, until, some lucky morning, a
strange dog's bark, the crow of an early-
rising rooster, or a bit of breakfast smoke
from a homesteader's dug-out, rouses him
from his dream, and with a thrill as of es-
cape fit)m long and nameless peril, he comes
back to the world — alert, expectant, po-

Once arrived in New Sharon, the herder,
or " cow-boy," dominates the town. He is
no longer the easy-going, mild-demeanored

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type of native Texan languor and the
anomalous self-repression of the trail; he
"turns loose," as he calls it, and appears
to change his disposition in the act of
shifting his garments, so rapidly does he chal-
lenge every restraint of society, and sound
every depth of vice and shame. Perhaps
the sight of civilization, after so much of
the desert and its high, haunting sky,
stuns and dazes his moral nature ; or possi-
bly it is but the assertion, under tempting
conditions, of that latent and ineradicable
savagery which abides more or less in the
best of us. Be the solution what it may,
the fact is glaring that he no sooner reaches
the town than he is straightway seized by
some occult and masterful influence which
transforms him like a new creation. He
becomes a spendthrift, a drunkard, a gam-
bler, a libertine, and too often, alas, a miu -
derer! For him are the frequent saloons,
the faro-banks and roulette-tables, the con-
cert-halls, the dance-houses, and all the
other various appliances of iniquity which
meet the eye at every turn in such a place
as New Sharon. It is a wonder that, in
the wild excesses that he practices, and the
manifold allurements that are set for him,
he contrives to retain so much of manhood
as he does ; for it is undeniable that he is
generous, truthful, sympathetic, honest in
trade, brave to desperation — ^never a nig-
gard, never a thief, and never a coward.
He even has a strange, paradoxical code
of personal honor, in vindication of which
he will obtrude his Ufe as though it were
but a toy. Nor is he without the small
infirmities of vanity that betray the common
kinship of all humankind : he likes to dis-
play his small hands and feet ; a smile from
a woman flatters him ; he has a passion for
jewelry— extravagant scarlet bosom-pins are
his specialty — and he dyes his mustache.
He is tall and muscular, usually, with legs
somewhat parenthesized by usage to the
saddle ; and his face, many times remark-
able for its well-chiseled outline, is always
thin and pale, and always grim — as if he
wore a mask to conceal his inward loathing
of the life he pretends to enjoy. And it is
a life of short duration. A few whirling
months, at most, of incessant carousal suf-
fice to empty his purse, or exhaust his
hpalth; and then, if he be not yet quite
lost to thought, he " braces up " as best he
can, and slips away, and what finally be-
comes of him no one can tell — or he lin-
gers still a litde longer, and sinks still a
little lower, until the brief candle is burnt

to the socket, and goes out at last in some
drunken orgy, at the muzzle of a revolver,
or the point ^f a quick and awful knife.

We saw it all, as in a panorama, East-
man and I, that unforgettable Saturday
night in New Sharon. The dullness which
had so weighed upon us through the long,
uneventful afternoon was but a lull, we soon
learned, and not a stagnation. With the
first approach of darkness, the lethargic
town rubbed its eyes, so to speak, and
leaped to its feet — and in a twinkling, it
seemed (like an incantation, Eastman said).
Grand Avenue was a carnival of light, and
motion, and music. The broad board side-
walks were crowded with promenaders;
smiling groups passed in and out of the
drinking-saloons and gambling-places; in
every quarter glasses clinked and dice rat-
tled (is there another sound in the world
like that of shaken dice?); violins, flutes
and comets s.ent out eager, inviting strains
of waltz and polka from a score or more
establishments, and*a brass band was play-
ing patriotic airs in front of the theater,
where, oddly enough, the crude morality
of "Ten Nights in a Bar-Room" was
about to be presented, "with the full
strength of the company in the cast"
Everywhere, the cow-boys made themselves
manifest, clad now in the soiled and dingy
jeans of the trail, then in a suit of many-
buttoned cordiuoy, and again in affluence
of broadcloth, silk hat, gloves, cane, and
sometimes a clerical white neck-tie. And
everywhere, also, stared and shone the
Lone Star of Texas — ^for the cow-boy,
wherever he may wander, and however he
may change, never forgets to be a Texan,
and never spends his money or lends his
presence to a concern that does not in some
way recognize the emblem of his native
State: so you will see in towns like New
Sharon a general pandering to this senti-
ment, and lone stars abound of all sizes and
hues, from the big disfigiuing white one
painted on the hotel-front down to the
little pink one stitched in silk on the cow-
boy's shilling handkerchief. Barring these
numerous stars, the rich lights, and the
music, we missed sight of any special efforts
to beguile or entrap passers-by — ^perhaps
because we were not looking for them ; nor
was there for some hours a sound to reveal
the spirit of coiled and utter vileness which
the cheerful outside so well belied. It was
in the main much the kind of scene one
would be apt to conjecture for an Oriental
holiday. But as the night sped on, the

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festivities deepened, and the jovial aspect
of the picture began to be touched and
tainted with a subtle, rebuking something,
which gradually disclosed the passion, the
crime, the depravity, that really vivified and
swayed it all, and made it infernal. The
saloons became clamorous with profanity
and ribald songs and laughter. There were
no longer any promenaders on the side-
walks, save once in a while a single bleared
and staggering fellow, with a difficulty in
his clumsy lips over some such thing as
"The Girl I Left Behind Me." An in-
flamed and quivering fierceness crept into
the busy music. The lights paled, flickered,
and here and there went out. Doors were
stealthily closed, window-shutters slammed
to with angry creaks. And at length, as we
looked and listened, the sharp, significant
report of a pistol, with a shriek behind
it, was borne toward us from a turbulent
dancing-hall to certify its tale of combat
and probable homicide^ and to be succeed-
ed by a close but brief halt in the noisy
quadrille — presumably for the removal of
the victim.

It was then that Eastman and I tinned
away and sought our hotel. We could still
hear from our bedroom the clatter of dice,
the shuffling of feet, the murmur of con-
fused voices, throughout most of the remain-
ing night ; indeed, it must have been quite
daylight when the last of those reminding
echoes reached us; and then, presently, the
sun came climbing up to show us a Sabbath
that was as placid and sweet as a psalm.
Incredible, too, as it may sound, there were
religious services in New Sharon that admi-
rable forenoon, in an unplastered room over
a bowling-alley, where we found a congrega-
tion of at least a hundred persons; and
there were a choir and a cottage organ, and
ushers showed us to seats when we entered.
It looked a trifle out of form, even in New
Sharon, to see a woman at church in a low-
necked and short-sleeved crimson gown;
but she seemed to be unaware of it. I di-
verted my fancy by likening her — I scarcely
know why — to those women of olden, pro-
phetic time, who " went out with timbrels
and dances ; " and that other one who sat
near her, dressed in white, her hair in a
braid down her back, and her fingers nerv-
ously twirling, as though they held unseen
castanets — was not she a typical daughter
of Babylon ? I dared have been sworn
I saw Desdemona there, also, and lago,
darting malevolent glances at her from
across the aisle, the scoundrel ! But Othello

was absent. I noticed Rob Roy present,
however, — several Rob Roys, I may say, —
booted and spurred in authentic fashion.
For special wonder, too, walked in Wertber,
and stood with arms folded, spying i>ensively
about for some random and sighing Char-
lotte. And we had not been men — at least,
not men of taste — ^had we omitted to obserxe
the violet-eyed miss with the curls and the
silver-filigree jewelry, who sang soprano in
the choir, and sang so charmingly well ; for
surely that face of hers, those lips, those
cheeks, compelled many a sonnet, bank-
rupted many a heart, away back yonder in
the time of Petrarch; only New Sharon was
not much of a market for sonnets, nor did
hearts break there with facility, I am inclined
to think.

The minister read for the morning lesson,
and for his text as well, the parable of the
Prodigal Son. " He's going for 'em," Elast-
man whispered, and we sat anticipating an
old-fashioned speech for the prosecution.
To our surprise, not to mention our relief,
we heard nothing of the kind. The ser-
mon, I am bound to say, was original, good-
tempered, and strikingly effective. If the
speaker sketched the riotous part of the
Prodigal's career rather freely and floridly —
" as if he knew how it was himself," Eastman
suggested — and touched the husks and
swine, the grief and repentance, in a sparing
and subordinate way, he but chose the
method which Dubufe pursues, you remem-
ber, in that familiar picture of the same
story ; and he did not fail, as I think Dubufe
does, to convey, somehow, a very distinct
and serviceable impression that a life of
wickedness is bad policy, at least. Likely
he knew such to be his best way to reach his
audience. Certainly he interested them and
held their attention past a sign of flagging.
I shall never forget how perfectly quiet they
were, and how generally they leaned forward
to listen, as he passed the strict letter of the
parable and, leaving the father busy about
the feast, went on to speak of the returned
wanderer's supposititious and waiting mother
— «< We all have mothers, somewhere," he
sofdy remarked — and to depict the homely,
tender, caressing mood in which the dear
wintry-haired and tottering old woman must
have taken her boy — her youngest, and
hence forever a baby in her eyes — ^back to
the heart that had never ceased to love and
pray for him. It was a stroke worth more
than the acutest logic, I make no doubt
Then he abruptly reverted to the gay and en-
snaring scenes which the Prodigsd had foimd

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so delightful for a time, and afterward so
empty and so fatiguing, and dwelt upon them
a few minutes earnestly, letting the back-
ground of shadow move a litde further for-
ward than before, and yet saying never a
word of the grave, or the judgment on the
other side of the grave. And then he paused
for an instant or so, and when he spoke
again it was in a voice of mellowed and lin-
gering sweetness, and his words were the
quaintly touching ones that good old George
Herbert uses in his " Pulley,** to tell how the
Creator, when He had made man, hastened
to equip him with blessing after blessing —
strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, pleasure —
till only rest remained, and how that one
choicest boon of all was left unbestowed, to
the end,

" • • • that at least.

If goodness led him not, yet weariness '*

might some day toss the longing and restless
being to its Maker's breast I could not for
my life have told, when he had concluded,
what denomination of Christians the minis-
ter belonged to ; nor did it really seem to
,me to be a matter of any consequence.

We waited after service to make acquaint-
ance with this surprising pastor, who proved
to be a very frank and agreeable young man,
liberally educated, who respected both his
calling and himself, and who had also a
keen eye for the absurd and incongruous,
no less than the picturesque. He was able
to tell us a great deal about New Sharon
and its people; and it appeared to amuse
him not a litUe that my idle psychology
had in several cases so nearly grazed the
truth regarding the certain types of indi-
viduality that I picked out in his congrega-
tion : my lago was a specially accurate sur-
mise, he had reason, he said, to know, but
he doubted if my Desdemona would ever be
smothered. While he made no pretense
of hiding or excusing the common profli-
gacy of the population that nightly pos-
sessed Grand Avenue, he must yet admit,
he observed, that in his study of these rude
characters, he had come upon some unfail-
ing and distinctive traits which should be
weighed to their credit They were uni-
formly faithful where duty was a deciding
cause; their obligations of friendship were
never broken or evaded; their promises
were as plighted oaths, which they redeemed
at any cost; they hated shams and every
form of hypocrisy ; they scorned to take a
mean, underhand advantage, even of a mor-
tal enemy ; and the sight of misfortune or

suffering made children of them in pity and
gendeness and practical charity. For him-
self, personally, he had never been insulted
or interfered with, nor heard of his work
being openly scoffed at, and we would be
astonished, he affirmed, to know how much
genuine respect the worst of these people,
including such of them as never thought
of attending church services, had for re-
ligion as a fact and a force in their midst
I wondered if those few enduring peculiari-
ties of fidelity, veracity and compassion,
and this lurking reverence for things clean
and spiritual, were not tokens of the un-
fallen angel in man that wrestles with him
to the end of his days. The minister gave
us to infer that he shared the conceit
"Bad as they are," he said, "they don't
want to go to hell. But they like the road
that lea(& there." Would it be too much
to assert that this terse analysis went to the
very core of the riddle of sin, not in New
Sharon merely, but the whole world over ?

He was quite sorry, the minister informed
us, that we could not meet Mr. Bartholo-
mew, the baritone of his clioir, a remarkable
man in his way, an old plainsman of Fre-
mont's time, who so liked to sing sacred
music that he has abandoned the business
of liquor-selling and left off hard drinking
and other incommoding vices that he might
have a place in the choir; "but unfort-
unately," he explained, " Bartholomew has
the only pack of hounds in town, and he
had to go out hunting to-day with a party
of officers from the fort," We could not
altogether repress a smile at this, in which
the minister coiuteously joined. There was
something inexpressibly sad, though, in what
he told us later about the little violet-eyed
soprano, whose singing we had assured him
would bring us to evening service whether
the baritone with the unmelodious dogs
should return or not "I regret it very
mucli," was his slow reply, " but she sings
for us in the morning only; she is a per-
former at the Melodeon concert-hall, and
can't be spared in the evening, even a Sab-
bath evening."

We had the likeable minister for a com-
panion on our visit after dinner to New
Sharon's burying-ground, on the green and
cool-looking elevation back of town — Boot
Hill, they called it, from the fact that all
those buried there had died, in the graphic
vernacular of the border, " with tlieir boots
There were thirty-eight of the graves,


some of them with unsighUy white crosses
above them, others marked by yellow

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crumbling stones, like those surveyors em-
ploy to specify section-comers, and still
others were but sunken, pitiful spots that
spoke of hasty and careless sepulture. Two
of the crosses bore women's names, we dis-
covered — for the sex has its rights on the
border. And on one of the neighboring
moimds (heaped a trifle higher than any of
the rest, I fancied), a weed-choked and low-
spirited little arbor-vitae was trying to keep
somebody's memory green. But as a rule,
there were no indications that the departed
had left friends or relatives behind them, or
that New Sharon esteemed it her duty to do
anything more for Boot Hill than to exempt
it from taxation, and get it talked about in
the newspapers. There was even a lack of
ordinary plan or regularity in the location
of the graves ; a spirit of giddy and rollick-
ing contempt for straight lines and parallel
head-boards ran riot on every hand, and
the dead slept in a general snarl as to the
points of the compass. It is only fair to
state, however, that at the digging of the
very first of the graves, quite a contention
had occurred among the by-standers con-
cerning the direction in which the head of
the deceased should be placed, and the
obsequies threatened to end in a public
scandal, tmtil Judge Vanderpool, New Sha-
ron's justice-of-the-peace, dexterously ad-
justed the issue, for that day and for all time,
by saying: " What's the difference, anyhow ?
When Jehovay wants a man He can find
him, no matter how he happens to be
planted." And yet, in spite of this extenua-
tion, the place seemed to us an ill-favored
one to tarr)' in on such a perfect and en-
joyable day, and we chose to be quit of it
very shortly : it was much pleasanter to sit
in the shade of the hotel porch, and hear
our entertaining minister talk of the strangely
warped and perturbed lives which had gone
to fill those dreadful graves.

I blush to own that we did not return to
church service that evening; but, then,neither
did we patronize the concert-hall, where we
knew our pretty soprano was singing; nor
did we go sauntering on Grand Avenue, as
so many were doing. It was a bland,
moonlit, beautiful night, and we rambled
aimlessly out along the railroad-track, away
fipom easy hearing, but still within sight of
the town, until suddenly we found ourselves
looking upon the Conwell cottage, as it was
styled. The open prairie lay about it, and
no other building could be seen for a mile
or more in any direction ; it was untenanted
and dark ; and though now sorely beset by

creeping vines, and things that grow only
where silence invites them, we could yet see
that it had at one time been temptingly
neat and cozy — and our imagination readily
restored it to life, and brightness, and
abounding merriment.

It was the landlord — or was it the min-
ister ? — who had rehearsed for \is the mys-
terious and bitter story of this deserted
cottage. The man whose name still clung
to it, and set it apart, had built it while
Grand Avenue was but grass and cacti, and
New Sharon only a ranch where accidental
Santa F^ freight-wagons halted overnight
No stranger site could have been selected
for such a bird-cage of a dwellings and
when Conwell brought a woman to live in
it with him, — a woman of wonderful beauty,
with ever so many rich dresses, and dia-
monds, and a laugh like a lark's song (the
ranchmen said), — it was romantic and per-
plexing enough for a novel. But by and
by the railroad arrived, and the town was
started, and the cow-boys occupied the
scene; and then, one day, there came a
portly, bearded man, who talked in low and
coaxing tones, but with a wild look in his
eyes. This man inquired for Conwell and
the handsome woman, particularly the
woman. Nobody knew, of coiuse, what
his errand was ; had the townsfolk suspected
it, they would hardly have shown him the
Cottage. He found her there, alone — at-
tired as if for a ball — and asked her to tell
him the truth, on her soul, it is supposed ;
and when she had finished, he deliberately
shot her to the heart, kneeling at his feet.
Then he stooped and lifted her up, and
stood with her in his arms, when some
passing herdsmen thrust open the door to
see what had happened. He laid the dead
body on a couch, directly, looked at it in-
tently for a moment, took one of the hands
in his, and spoke to those about him :
" She was mine, and I killed her. She's
good and white again at last. I've saved
her." The limp hand dropped, and be
seemed talking to himself, as he added:
" If she had loved him, he might have had
her, for all of me ; but she didn't love him,
she told me she didn't It was the fine
clothes, the fine clothes I" Then he bent
over and kissed her forehead once, solemnly.
A minute later he had turned his bade
upon her; and he said with a ghastly smile :
" I feel easier in my mind than I've felt
afore in two years. I'll go now." And
that was all — ^no one offering to stop him
or to question him, even when he walked

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aboard of the train next morning; and
Conwell never came back to the cottage
any more ; and the cottage itself was shunned
and surrendered to the vines and weeds, as
we saw it.

I know not what impulse led our imin-
tentional steps from the cottage to Boot
Hill again, nor can I tell why it was that,
once there, we went straight to where they
had told us this woman was buried ; but I
hope we did no improper or foolish act
when we plucked a few straggling wild

Online LibraryGeorge Streynsham MasterThe Century, Volume 19 → online text (page 129 of 160)