The Troubadour of Little Poison

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The Troubadour of Little Poison  (1916) 
by Robert Welles Ritchie
From Harper's Magazine, Jul 1916. An "Original Bill" story.

"... what I've heard Luke call you. 'Little Black-eyes,' he says, 'is my gal's sister, an' the rip-snortin'est'—" Original stopped, appalled.... His embarrassment was hers, too. She felt, vaguely, that she ought to scutter into the house and shut the door on this nimble-tongued stranger who wore man's boots but laughed a boy's laugh. Yet—here was Youth met with Youth in the wide, clean Big Country, and could Youth mean wrong?

The Troubadour of Little Poison


THERE it lay in the dust—a shining something, fortuitously dropped as a prize for a lucky rider of the Two Moons road. The gleam of sunlight on metal caught Original Bill's eye; he checked Nigger Boy to a walk, and, with the free swoop of a trapeze performer swung down from the saddle to catch up the thing marked by the sun. Knocking it against his saddle-horn to rid the silver-white surfaces of dust, the boy surveyed his find in high satisfaction. It was a French harp—a wonderful, music-making thing of triple vents, and with a bell attachment upon which your little finger could sound tinkling emphasis of whatever musical flight attempted. So new and untried was the instrument that the red stain on the vents was undimmed, the German-silver sound-box mirror-like in its splendor of satin polish.

Tentatively the boy blew a few chords, and, finding the harp sweetly responsive, he cupped his fists over the sound-box to insure that mellow, resonant note artists demand of the French harp, and gave his soul to music. Old proficiency came back to him. Once he had possessed such a treasure, but that was before his mouth was wide enough to span an octave. Forgotten trills and tremolos fluttered, unbidden, from the hidden metal spines; fetching shadings of sound were wrought, unconsciously, by the waggling of his cupped hands. With one yellow boot-leg cocked over the saddle-horn and his body swaying easily to the pacing of his little horse, Original Bill, of the Hashknife outfit, fared over the illimitable face of the Big Country, a troubadour enthralled.

Of three cardinal days, this last was marked the heaviest by the acquisition of the French harp. That saucy magpie who balanced on the horn of a whitened buffalo-skull and squawked at the hunched figure on the buckskin could have told Original, had he cared to reveal divination, that a circumstance even more momentous was to set this day apart in the storehouse of memories. The ride from the Hashknife range camp forty miles in to Two Moons, that, with its promise of the town's strange excitements, had been the first brave day of the three. Two thrills overtopped the many of the day in town: when he deposited one hundred dollars—his first savings, won by five months with the longhorns—in the Cattlemen's Bank, and when he stood in the Wide West Emporium and looked down at the new, canary-colored boots gracing feet and legs. His first yaller-legged boots! They had made a wreck of a ten-dollar bill, to be sure; but weren't they of the best Ogalally last and leather, hand-sewn, and with heels that lifted you a clean three inches off the ground? So then, the day in town, with its one drink gulped in bravado and rued in secret, its three meals taken sitting down on real chairs, and its restless night spent between sheets over springs. Now, on this third day, the road back through the Big Country, and in its dust the key to unlock an enchanted garden of music. Yes, and still to befall what the magpie seer could have told.

Fate moved across the trail of Original Bill in this wise: In those days of the unfenced empire before the railroad came, midway between the town of Two Moons—metropolis for two hundred miles of out-country—and the Hashknife range on Crazy Squaw, the road forked, one prong crossing the divide of the Powder to follow up that stream to its confluence with the Crazy Squaw, the second swinging through Little Poison canon in a short cut too rough for the bull teams and freight-wagons. On his town ward journey Original had followed the Crazy Squaw wagon-ruts; returning, he chose the Little Poison branch, for he had never ridden over it, and undiscovered country roused in him an eagerness to explore. He swung over billowy divides and through sagy draws, careless of passing time, the lengthening of shadows in the fantastic mazes of the coulees—everything but the wizardry of the French harp. Just beyond the abrupt turn of a bald knob he came upon a ranch—long, sod-roofed, and log-walled house and lean-to sheds behind the corral. The clutter of buildings, dun-colored and squatting low against the hillside, might have appeared to one less literal than the rider a coyote brood crouching timorously in the scrub to dodge the striding feet of wilderness winds. This was the only ranch encountered out of Two Moons. Original had not been long enough on the Crazy Squaw range to know, offhand, the name of the ranch or its owner. He stopped his harping as he rode into the dooryard. A girl came to the opened door.

The sunlight cut her little shape cleanly from the dark background; rough-hewn timbers of sill and lintel framed her as a portrait. Just red, black, and tan—those three tones against the black of the interior; red of the limp, many-pleated dress, close clinging to curves and roundnesses of mysterious girl-womanhood; black of falling hair, over shoulders and under chin; berry-black were the eyes; tan the bare feet and slim calves below the scant skirt, and rose-tan her cheeks. Original stared until the dusky red in her cheeks deepened to sunset glow; then he remembered his manners and snatched off his hat.

"I wasn't lookin' to meet up with women-folks," he stammered. "You sorta had me goin' south an'"—was that sudden, sidewise skipping only Nigger Boy's playful tribute to beauty—or did a cunning hand manœuver the horse to bring a new yellow-legged boot into view?—"an' I was just reckonin' to ask for a goord of water to cut the alkali in my throat before passin' on my way."

Original was not a free-handed liar. When the black eyes drooped to Nigger Boy's hocks, still wet from the recent fording of the Little Poison, and back to his own eyes there was a dancing spirit of mischief in them that brought a tingling to the boy's cheeks. "Leastwise," he added, in rash access of boldness, "that was my aim afore I saw you."

She giggled, and one bare foot crossed to its fellow to search it with wiggling toes. Shyness grappled with the imp of adventure in her black eyes; it conquered her tongue even though it could not fetter the more unruly members.

"My name's Bill Blunt—Original Bill, of the Hashknife outfit, is the name I mostly trails under." He was tapping one boot-leg with his quirt, as a newly engaged finds precious employments for her ring finger. "An' I'm just up from Two Moons after a little business trip. You don't make out to live at this ranch all alone, Miss—Miss—"

"No, but Dad and Sis, they've rid down to Two Moons to-day for to buy Sis's wedding outfit, which she is going to marry with one of your Hashknife punchers. His name is Mister Shinnery Luke Strayhorn." Pride in the impending family event could not be denied assertion in her voice.

Original's eyes widened in pleased surprise. "Sho! You don't tell me your sister's the one who's goin' to marry with Ole Shinnery Luke, which was my podner in the trail drive up from Texas an' range foreman to the outfit over on Crazy Squaw, now? Why, then you must be Little Black-eyes—excusin' the same, which is what I've heard Luke call you. 'Little Black-eyes,' he says, 'is my gal's sister, an' the rip-snortin'est'—" Original stopped, appalled. This passing of compliments to one just met and before her own door-step—with no Dad around to ride herd on a fresh cow-puncher's line of talk—was not fitting. His embarrassment was hers, too. She felt, vaguely, that she ought to scutter into the house and shut the door on this nimble-tongued stranger who wore man's boots but laughed a boy's laugh. Yet—here was Youth met with Youth in the wide, clean Big Country, and could Youth mean wrong?

Original sensed with Little Black-eyes the requirements of the proprieties—this appreciation was instinctive with him, for he had never known the society of girls in his crude life of range and trail. Nevertheless, he rebelled against leaving the sunset vision of loveliness in the doorway. The boy in him suddenly shouldered aside callow adolescence.

"I can play the French harp," he announced, abruptly. "And I got one, too—a new one, with a jiggery bell."

He brought the gleaming treasure from his jacket pocket, made a shell of his hands over the rows of vents, and launched into the plaintive minor strain of "The Old Chisholm Trail." His eyes closed, his cheeks bellowsed, his meager boy's body swayed rapturously in the saddle. All his soul was lost in the task of paying tribute, through music, to a new and wonderful charm that day first revealed to him—to black eyes that laughed, and red lips parted eagerly for speech daring not to be voiced; to the twist of a black curl under a sharp chin, the wild rose flush on a neck. Nor was the subtle message in the French harp's pleading unheard of the girl. She stood in the shadowed doorway, her face all aglow in the splendor of sunset; her eyes wide, deep, dark; across her cheeks speeding, now and again, swift pulses of emotion. Not only did she drink in the music, but her eyes strayed often to the face of the minstrel. They noted the thin high-bridged nose, competent chin a little out-thrust and pugnacious, a stray lock of hair, long and black as a raven's wing, which had slipped down beneath the up-tilted hat-brim. Unconscious, maybe, this appraisement of a strange lad's features, but who shall say not naïve and delightfully feminine?

Original passed from the trail melody into the romping measures of "The Arkansas Traveler." Then the mood of the music came back unerringly to the somber motif underlying all ballads of the plains, and the French harp wailed the dirge of "The Dying Cowboy." The sun slipped into the blue sack of the Big Horns, held wide between snow-peak and snow-peak to catch it, and a trailing glory of umber and orange and amethyst lighted all the stained glass of the western sky. The troubadour finished a quavering tremolo, noted the changed light on the girl's face, and so was brought to realization of flitting time. He pocketed the instrument with a quick half-smile of apology.

"When I'm performin' my music" he said, with gravity, "I gets so plumb fired up I don't keep no count of time."

"It it's wonderful," Little Black-eyes applauded, in a voice so small it sounded like a sigh.

"Then, maybe, if you like it I can mosey over this way again some time an' play some more for you?" There was no hardihood in Original's eyes; all was wistfulness.

"Perhaps," she whispered, and with a quick backward bound she was in the house and swallowed up by shadows.

Original, a little perplexed by this abrupt dismissal, sat staring for a minute at the place where she had stood, then clucked to Nigger Boy. He rode out into the dimming glory of the spent day, along the Little Poison trail toward the purple beyond, and a strange lightness of head and tightness of heart seemed to call for a balm of music. So he sang to the winking stars and he flung tunes from the French harp to the pricking ears of coyotes, night skulkers in the waste places. Not in all his eighteen years of life had Original felt such an exaltation of spirit—rapturous, sweetly painful, a little solemn. For the first time this waif of the Big Country, grown to adolescence as a lithe antelope grows, was brought to a little knowledge of that great mystery whose key lies in a chronicle of ten words, "... made He a woman, and brought her unto the man."

Next day Original found opportunity to ride with Shinnery Luke on the horse round-up. The gaunt, sun-tanned Texan cow-puncher with the trail herd-up from the Rio Grande, and now foreman of the Hashknife outfit on Crazy Squaw range, had been the boy's partner on night guard through the rain and heat of nearly two thousand miles of trail, and his big heart had admitted this stray of the wilderness to its innermost niche of confidence. Even though Shinnery Luke was now elevated to the dignity of command, the bond between them knew no relaxing. Now as they rode through the sweet winds, Original began to tell the other of yesterday's meeting with the little girl of the black eyes. Before he had more than mentioned the ranch on Little Poison, Shinnery Luke smote his thigh resoundingly.

"Set my head out for a rain-bar'l, Original, if I 'ain't plumb forgot to ready you up for your job at the weddin'. Lordee! An' it less'n a month away, too.

The boy looked up quickly to the man's face, expecting to read there the signs of one of Luke's ever-ready witticisms; instead, deep seriousness was graven about the eyes and on thin cheeks. Luke twisted the end of a cigarette and explained:

"I've cut you out of the herd to be my best man, Original, an' I sure oughta have warned you proper before this, so's you'd know what was comin' to you."

"Best man?" The boy echoed the strange word after the bifurcated pattern set by his companion, his voice deep in awe of the unknown adventure. "Best man, Luke? What in time is it?"

"Well, sir"—Luke's eyes roved dazedly, and he seemed to be roping his words like fractious steers—"well sir, I don't prezactly sabe myself, Original, excusin' what I've been told by Lily, which is Little Black-eyes' sister an' which is goin' to be Mrs. Luke Strayhorn. It's her doin's, not mine. She says I got to have a best man 'longside of a hair-cut an' b'ar's oil on my head, an' store shirt, an' such extrys counted fittin' for the occasion. So, there you are! You're best man." Luke fondly hoped he had been sufficiently obscure to defy probing, but the sly look he shot at the quizzical face near his shoulder carried warning of the inevitable.

"But this best-man cuss—what's he got to do for to make a showin'?"

"Didn't I tell you that? Sho! Original, all this weddin' fixin's got me loco. You asks me what the best man does? Well, sir, as I get it from Lily—she's got all these practices concernin' the givin' and takin' in wedlock roped an' tied—the best man's sort of hoss-wrangler for the groom, which is what Lily says I am—a groom. Soon as he sees the preacher comin' down the trail with his brand-irons the best man just rounds up this here groom an' rides him into the corral on a short halter. Then he ranges right 'longside the pen until the iron's smokin', ready to nib up the groom an' belt him across the eyes with a rope's short end if he starts for to kick over or r'ar up. Which it 'll be an easy job for you, Original, me bein' the halter-brokenest groom in the territory of Wyoming. An' besides"—Luke's elbow shot out to the boy's ribs in playful innuendo—"Little Black-eyes, she'll be buildin' right up 'longside you all the time, she bein' the bride's gal, as the sayin' is."

Original pondered these specifications of a best-man's contract for several minutes. Then, with a quick look, half furtive, up to his companion. "Answer me true, Luke; when me an' her—little Black-eyes—are standin' 'round there so close to the preacher, mightn't there be a back-fire? Any chance of us gettin' hit by mistake?"

Shinnery Luke's laugh came crackling like summer thunder. He flung an arm affectionately over Original's shoulder. "Son," he boomed, "if there's any loose matrimonial gun-work done there, I don't look for to see you takin' cover nowhere."

The blood that flooded the boy's cheeks made headlights of each freckle. But a wonderfully comfortable glow was in his heart; he and Shinnery Luke understood each other—with a man's understanding.

Original saw Little Black-eyes but once before the wedding, with its crucial test of a best man's nerve. That was a week before the event, when he was riding back from Two Moons with a most portentous bundle—store clothes—tied to his cantel. The choice of the Little Poison trail for the return the rider noisily blamed upon Nigger Boy; indeed, the issue at the forks had been decided by an uncompromising pressure of the knee, made with elaborate show of absent-mindedness.

At the ranch Original had recourse to a hastily contrived stratagem to cover his excuse for stopping. Shinnery Luke, knowing he would be passing on his return from a business trip to Two Moons, had given strict orders that he stop and inquire "if everything was all right." Gravely, and as if the ranch harbored a plague case upon which the life interest of Shinnery Luke hung, Original repeated his rote to Miss Lily, the buxom bride-in-waiting, and to the tall, slow-spoken man with a prophet's beard, Little Black-eyes' father. As elected best man he was cordially welcomed. Miss Lily pressed him to stay to supper—made an ordeal by the boy's shyness. Every time he looked up from his plate he thought he saw the imp of mischief dancing in black eyes, as on that day of meeting in the door-yard; then his knife and fork suddenly would become big and clumsy as tepee-poles and he could feel his ears burning.

It was not until he went out to the lean-to to saddle his buckskin that Original had a chance for a word alone with the adored one. She stepped out of a square of light which was the kitchen door, bound for the well—admirable coincidence—and they met by the sweep. Her little gasp of surprise would honor Columbine.

"Say"—Original blurted out unthinkingly that which bore heaviest on his mind—"Shinnery Luke says you an' me got to range right up 'longside an' close to 'em that day of—you know."

"Yes, I'm to be bridesmaid and you're best man," she answered, in a strange little thrill of anticipation.

"Well—well, being right up close that-a-way an' with the preacher just ding-dongin' away—" Original was floundering, but her near presence, the very feel of her little figure so close, yet untouchable, drove him on: "Say, you're willin' to take the risk?"

"Risk? Yes, with a best man like you!" She flung this over her shoulder with a rippling laugh that plashed with falling water from the well bucket, and she was back through the open door before the boy could catch his breath. Original mounted, said his farewells, and rode through the dark of Little Poison, pondering in his heart the age-old enigma that is speech of woman.

The Strayhorn-Baggs nuptials at high noon of a crystal-bright day were an event of consequence. Not too long to be wearisome to the wedding guests were the trails over the Big Country converging at the Little Poison ranch. They came by horse and by wagon from fifty miles roundabout, stiffly conscious in strange raiment. Parson Holingshed drove out from Two Moons in a rented buggy—a fetching red spider of a buggy, slim and dapper-bodied—it was the only buggy in all the Big Country north of Cheyenne. Its glory of glistening spokes and slender shafts drew about it an admiring group of plainsmen, even threatened for a time to shift the center of interest to the wagon-shed where it stood.

Original, riding in from the Crazy Squaw camp with the sober and stiffly starched groom, almost forgot the burden of the day's responsibilities in admiration of this gem of the wagoner's art. He had never seen a buggy. But the fetter of strange linen about his neck and the flapping of trousers legs—worn outside his yellow-legged boots only after long argument with Shinnery Luke—recalled him to his duties, and doggedly he followed one step behind the groom in all the latter's aimless wanderings from group to group of guests.

Shinnery Luke was conscious of this guard-mounting—painfully conscious; but the foreman of the Hashknife outfit found in it something for prideful reflection. He and Original both were living the rules for weddings. "Original," he had commanded, during the ride through the clear morning, "remember your job is to ride herd on the groom until the parson gets the brand on him, fair and clean. The groom's supposed to get sort a rollicky an' show the whites of his eyes an' shy at a sage-bush 'long about the last hour of his freedom. When he does, you just h'ists your spurs an' creases him for fair."

However expectantly Shinnery Luke himself may have awaited any of these detached and untoward manifestations of panic, none came. All at once Original found himself pushed through a crowded room and steadied in position just back of the two brass buttons above the groom's coat-tails. More unexpectedly still, a little body, all in white, was standing by him, and he felt a sly hand slipping under his left arm. He dared not turn his head to look when he caught a very faint whisper, "Hullo, Mister Best Man!" By way of answer he squeezed the clinging hand by pressure of his arm. Parson Holingshed was in full voice now—Original could just glimpse a patch of his wagging whisker between the shoulders of bride and groom—and what he said had a Biblical sound. It did not strike the best man as pertinent to the occasion, however, until this question suddenly was plumped at Luke: "Will you take this woman to be your wedded wife?" Luke gulped, and uttered a falsetto "Yes."

That instant a thought burned through the best man's brain: When Parson Holingshed was through asking Luke and Miss Lily questions, supposing he fired one over Luke's shoulder at the best man and the bride's gal! Supposing he'd say—and why shouldn't he, since he was questioning all 'round?—supposing he'd say, "Mr. Best Man, would you like to take this woman hanging on your arm to be your wedded wife, now that I'm on the ranch and right handy?" Original's spontaneous "Yes" was at his lips and spoken aloud before he could check it. His ears caught a gasp from Little Black-eyes before they filled with a great roaring; mortification was sharp as a wasp's sting. To save himself from stampede he kept his eyes glued to the shining black locks of the groom. When he saw Luke turn, take Miss Lily in his arms, and warily peck her on the forehead with his lips, Original, believing the eyes of jealous custom to be on him, did likewise by Little Black-eyes.

"Crazy!" she sputtered, and angrily pushed him from her, while a wave of titters, breaking into laughter, sped about the room.

Suddenly there was Ole Mis' Sturdee, the clatter-tongued gossip of Big Charley Butte, mincing and grinning in front of Original and saying something like "Congratulations!" Others crowded in with mock eagerness to shake his hand and that of Little Black-eyes. For a brief moment Original thought he'd been married—that something had backfired. Then when he saw tears of anger spring to the eyes of the bride's gal, saw her turn and fly to the kitchen, her cheeks crimson, knew the bitterness of the joke, also the genesis of it—his clumsiness. Miserable to the heels of his yellow-legged boots, he pushed through the crowd to the door and so to outdoor freedom and the isolation of the wagon-shed, where the fascinating buggy was. There he sat on an empty nail-keg and yielded his soul to bitterness.

An eternity passed over his head while he pleasured himself with martyr contemplations. From open windows of the house came sound of feasting, noise of dishes, bursts of laughter. But Original felt himself divorced forever from all joys of earth. He was a coyote. He was a slit-eared mule. Never again would there be a special look in black eyes for him; for him no more laughter sounding like little bells. Somewhere up in the Big Horns he would find a cave, preferably occupied by a family of bears, who would all have to be despatched with a knife at close quarters; there he would live and eventually become a wild man.

Once he saw Shinnery Luke—good Ole Shinnery Luke—come out into the door-yard and look anxiously about. The boy flattened himself against the side of the shed, and Luke returned to the feasting. Finally a humble spirit of atonement came to comfort him, especially at sight of a black head passing and repassing the kitchen windows. Original dodged from his retreat across to an ingle formed by the mud-and-fagot chimney against the wall of the kitchen lean-to, and there, beneath an open window, he hunkered down on his boot-heels, cowman style. Out from an inner pocket of his new jacket came a silk handkerchief, wadded tightly; the unwrapped folds disclosed a precious French harp. Original put the instrument to his lips and blew with a zephyr's touch the mournful numbers of "The Dying Cowboy":

It matters not, so I've been told,
Where the body lies when the heart grows co-o-old—

Oh, the heart-throb in that ultimate tremolo! Lute of Provence never cried more piteously. Nor did ever a troubadour's love yield her favor more sweetly than did the little body with the black eyes. She came on light foot, and stood before Original where he squatted in the chimney ingle, eyes tight shut under the spell of his pleading. When he had finished his melody and awoke to realities, the chief of them he saw was one cloaked from chin to toe in a checkered apron, above that a little, flushed face framed in tumbled curls, eyes misty as marsh pools at morning.

"Original," she breathed. He stumbled to his feet, his eyes all alight. "Original, I—I'm sorry I was mad. There!" One flaming cheek was turned to him and held invitingly. The boy leaned forward a little blindly, and kissed it. She turned for flight, but his hand closed tightly on her arm.

"Little Black-eyes—Little Black-eyes you heard me when I says 'Yes' right out loud in the middle of that marryin' business. You didn't reckon I was a plumb idjit for sayin' that! You knew what it was in my mind I ripped out that 'Yes' to."

Her free arm was covering her eyes now to hide tears; above it showed a little crescent of cheek—oh, so rose-red and desirable! At the boy's questions her head nodded slowly, A black curl slipped down to caress his hand.

"An'—say, Little Black-eyes, if that there preacher had th'owed that same question at you which I thought he was firin' at me, what would you have said?" Original drew her close to him with a pressure hesitant, reverential, and as he waited for her answer he looked down at the bent nest of curls so near his lips. He was boy no longer, but man, gently masterful.

"What would you have said, Little Black-eyes?"

"Yes," she whispered, and one of her small hands stole up to find and clasp his. His lips sought her hot forehead unbidden. His voice broke under infinite tenderness.

"Right soon now, Little Black-eyes—just so soon as I can make to put another hundred dollars in the bank, you'll stand up an' say that word to the preacher."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.