The dance was set for Christmas night at Walling's, a horse-ranch where there were women, situated in a high, watered valley shut in by foothills, sixteen miles from the nearest town. The cabin with its roof of shakes, the sheds and corrals, can be seen from any divide between Packer's ferry and the Fayette.
The "boys" had been generally invited, with one exception to the usual company. The youngest of the sons of Basset, a pastoral and nomadic house, was socially under a cloud, on the charge of having been "too handy with the frying-pan brand."
The charge could not be substantiated, but the boy's name had been roughly handled in those wide, loosely defined circles of the range where the force of private judgment makes up for the weakness of the law, in dealing with crimes that are difficult of detection and uncertain of punishment. He that has obliterated his neighbor's brand or misapplied his own, is held as, in the age of tribal government and ownership, was held the remover of his neighbor's landmarks. A word goes forth against him potent as the levitical curse, and all the people say amen.
As society's first public and pointed rejection of him the slight had rankled with the son of Basset, and grievously it wore on him that Hetty Rhodes was going, with the man who had been his earliest and most persistent accuser: Hetty, prettiest of all the bunch-grass belles, who never reproached nor quarreled, but judged people with her smile and let them go. He had not complained, though he had her promise,--one of her promises,--nor asked a hearing in his own defense. The sons of Basset were many and poor; their stock had dwindled upon the range; her men-folk condemned him, and Hetty believed, or seemed to believe, as the others.
Had she forgotten the night when two men's horses stood at her father's fence,--the Basset boy's and that of him who was afterward his accuser; and the other's horse was unhitched when the evening was but half spent, and furiously ridden away, while the Basset boy's stood at the rails till close upon midnight? Had the coincidence escaped her that from this night, of one man's rage and another's bliss, the ugly charge had dated? Of these things a girl may not testify.
They met in town on the Saturday before the dance, Hetty buying her dancing-shoes at the back of the store, where the shoe-cases framed in a snug little alcove for the exhibition of a "fit." The boy, in his belled spurs and "shaps" of goat-hide, was lounging disconsolate and sulky against one of the front counters; she wore a striped ulster, an enchanted garment his arm had pressed, and a pink crocheted tam-o'-shanter cocked bewitchingly over her dark eyes.
Her hair was ruffled, her cheeks were red, with the wind she had faced for two hours on the spring-seat of her father's "dead axe" wagon. Critical feminine eyes might have found her a trifle blowzy; the sick-hearted Basset boy looked once,--he dared not look again.
Hetty coquetted with her partner in the shoe bargain, a curly-headed young Hebrew, who flattered her familiarly and talked as if he had known her from a child, but always with an eye to business. She stood, holding back her skirts and rocking her instep from right to left, while she considered the effect of the new style; patent-leather foxings and tan-cloth tops, and heels that came under the middle of her foot, and narrow toes with tips of stamped leather;--but what a price! More than a third of her chicken-money gone for that one fancy's satisfaction. But who can know the joy of a really distinguished choice in shoe-leather like one who in her childhood has trotted barefoot through the sage-brush and associated shoes only with cold weather or going to town? The Basset boy tried to fix his strained attention upon anything rather than upon that tone of high jocosity between Hetty and the shiny-haired clerk. He tried to summon his own self-respect and leave the place.
What was the tax, he inquired, on those neck-handkerchiefs; and he pointed with the loaded butt of his braided leather quirt to a row of dainty silk mufflers, signaling custom from a cord stretched above the gentlemen's-furnishing counter.
The clerk explained that the goods in question were first class, all silk, brocaded, and of an extra size. Plainly he expected that a casual mention of the price would cool the inexperienced customer's curiosity, especially as the colors displayed in the handkerchiefs were not those commonly affected by the cow-boy cult. The Basset boy threw down his last half-eagle and carelessly called for the one with a blue border. The delicate "baby blue" attracted him by its perishability, its suggestion of impossible refinements beyond the soilure and dust of his own grimy circumstances. Yet he pocketed his purchase as though it had been any common thing, not to show his pride in it before the patronizing salesman.
He waited foolishly for Hetty, not knowing if she would even speak to him. When she came at last, loitering down the shop, with her eyes on the gay Christmas counters and her arms filled with bundles, he silently fell in behind her and followed her to her father's wagon, where he helped her unload her purchases.
"Been buying out the store?" he opened the conversation.
"Buying more than father'll want to pay for," she drawled, glancing at him sweetly. Those entoiling looks of Hetty's dark-lashed eyes had grown to a habit with her; even now the little Jewish salesman was smiling over his brief portion in them. Her own coolness made her careless, as children are in playing with fire.
"Here's some Christmas the old man won't have to pay for." A soft paper parcel was crushed into her hand.
"Who is going to pay for it, I'd like to know? If it's some of your doings, Jim Basset, I can't take it--so there!"
She thrust the package back upon him. He tore off the wrapper and let the wind carry his rejected token into the trampled mud and slush of the street.
Hetty screamed and pounced to the rescue. "What a shame! It's a beauty of a handkerchief. It must have cost a lot of money. I shan't let you use it so."
She shook it, and wiped away the spots from its delicate sheen, and folded it into its folds again.
"I don't want the thing." He spurned it fiercely.
"Then give it to some one else." She endeavored coquettishly to force it into his hands, or into the pockets of his coat. He could not withstand her thrilling little liberties in the face of all the street.
"I'll wear it Monday night," said he. "May be you think I won't be there?" he added hoarsely, for he had noted her look of surprise, mingled with an infuriating touch of pity. "You kin bank on it I'll be there."
Hetty toyed with the thought that after all it might be better that she should not go to the dance. There might be trouble, for certainly Jim Basset had looked as if he meant it when he had said he would be there; and Hetty knew the temper of the company, the male portion of it, too well to doubt what their attitude would be toward an inhibited guest who disputed the popular verdict, and claimed social privileges which it had been agreed that he had forfeited. But it was never really in her mind to deny herself the excitement of going. She and her escort were among the first couples to cross the snowy pastures stretching between her father's claim and the lights of the lonely horse-ranch.
It was a cloudy night, the air soft, chill, and spring-like. Snow had fallen early and frozen upon the ground; the stockmen welcomed the "chinook wind" as the promise of a break in the hard weather. Shadows came out and played upon the pale slopes, as the riders rose and dropped past one long swell and another of dim country falling away like a ghostly land seeking a ghostly sea. And often Hetty looked back, fearing, yet half hoping, that the interdicted one might be on his way, among the dusky, straggling shapes behind.
The company was not large, nor, up to nine o'clock, particularly merry. The women were engaged in cooking supper, or were above in the roof-room brushing out their crimps by the light of an unshaded kerosene lamp, placed on the pine wash-stand which did duty as a dressing-table. The men's voices came jarringly through the loose boards of the floor from below.
About that hour arrived the unbidden guest, and like the others he had brought his "gun." He was stopped at the door and told that he could not come in among the girls to make trouble. He denied that he had come with any such intention. There were persons present,--he mentioned no names,--who were no more eligible, socially speaking, than himself, and he ranked himself low in saying so; where such as these could be admitted, he proposed to show that he could. He offered, in evidence of his good faith and peaceable intentions, to give up his gun; but on the condition that he be allowed one dance with the partner of his choosing, regardless of her previous engagements.
This unprecedented proposal was referred to the girls, who were charmed with its audacity. But none of them spoke up for the outcast till Hetty said she could not think what they were all afraid of; a dozen to one, and that one without his weapon! Then the other girls chimed in and added their timid suffrages.
There may have been some twinges of disappointment, there could hardly have been surprise, when the black sheep directed his choice without a look elsewhere to Hetty. She stood up, smiling but rather pale, and he rushed her to the head of the room, securing the most conspicuous place before his rival, who with his partner took the place of second couple opposite.
"Keep right on!" the fiddler chanted, in sonorous cadence to the music, as the last figure of the set ended with "Promenade all!" He swung into the air of the first figure again, smiling, with his cheek upon his instrument and his eyes upon the floor. Hetty fancied that his smile meant more than merely the artist's pleasure in the joy he evokes.
"Keep your places!" he shouted again, after the "Promenade all!" a second time had raised the dust and made the lamps flare, and lighted with smiles of sympathy the rugged faces of the elders ranged against the walls. The side couples dropped off exhausted, but the tops held the floor, and neither of the men was smiling.
The whimsical fiddler invented new figures, which he "called off" in time to his music, to vary the monotony of a quadrille with two couples missing.
The opposite girl was laughing hysterically; she could no longer dance nor stand. The rival gentleman looked about him for another partner. One girl jumped up, then, hesitating, sat down again. The music passed smoothly into a waltz, and Hetty and her bad boy kept the floor, regardless of shouts and protests warning the trespasser that his time was up and the game in other hands.
Three times they circled the room; they looked neither to right nor left; their eyes were upon each other. The men were all on their feet, the music playing madly. A group of half-scared girls was huddled, giggling and whispering, near the door of the dimly lighted shed-room. Into the midst of them Hetty's partner plunged, with his breathless, smiling dancer in his arms, passed into the dim outer place to the door where his horse stood saddled, and they were gone.
They crossed the little valley known as Seven Pines; they crashed through the thin ice of the creek; they rode double sixteen miles before daybreak, Hetty wrapped in her lover's "slicker," with the blue-bordered handkerchief, her only wedding-gift, tied over her blowing hair.