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SOME SCENES OF "THE VIRGINIAN"

BY ROBERT WELLES RITCHIE

Yes, it is true; they did switch the babies at the ranch-house dance, even as Mr. Owen Wister narrated it in The Virginian. The scene of the famous incident that has had a whole nation laughing for a decade and a half was Hank Devoe's ranch on the south fork of Powder River in Wyoming. Since book lovers have made a shrine of a House of the Seven Gables and preserved the shack where "Tenessee's Partner" lived, may they not even thus tardily admit to the jealous circle of literary landmarks this log-and-'dobe ranch-house squatting in the sage-brush of the old Cattleland? The House of the Substituted Babies!

It was Frant Osborn, a hare-brained cowpuncher with a rich imagination, who turned the trick. In Johnson County, Wyoming, the old-timers will still tell with reminiscent pride of Frant Osborn and the babies—old Frant Osborn, who used to "carry his load of poles so high, wide an' handsome! He rode with the L X Bar outfit, did Frant, and in the winter of Eighty-nine, or maybe it was Ninety, he and a bunch of the boys from the L X Bar home ranch on South Fork rode over to Hank Devoe's ranch to cut in on the dance. They must have stopped at Barrel Springs stage house, because when they hit Devoe's they were prime—yessir, fair in bloom. And nobody knew until afterwards why Frant didn't dance much and why, when folks did see him ducking out of the lean-to shed, he looked so all-fired mysterious. No, they didn't know until they began to see his work! The Waterburys, for instance, they rode eighteen miles back home on Red Fork with a baby belonging on Meadow Creek; Mrs. Jim Bliss, on Dugout, didn't get her Jim Henry back for four days—and him teethin', too."

So runs the truth, embroidered perhaps by Johnson County's infatuation for the old free days before wire fences came to parcel the great range. Frant Osborn later drifted out of the country and joined the Northwestern Mounted Police—too many wagon tracks in Johnson County to please his untrammelled spirit. But all the old-timers along Powder River believe Mr. Wister gave Frant no more than his due by immortalising him together with his epic joke.

Indeed, Johnson County credits Mr. Wister with a sense of humour passing the average Eastern visitor's admittedly scanty endowment. "He made it funnier than it really was," the native critics aver; and this is high praise from a community jealous of its own inimitable talent for story telling. The Virginian carries far with these people, who fancy themselves and their neighbours walking through the virile pages of the novel. It is right—the only Western story ever written that is "right'way through," say they. It is right because Mr. Wister got his material from men who were living the life portrayed in his narrative. He always had a note-book with him, this writing fellow who came out to visit Dr. Amos W. Barber, in the early Nineties; whether at the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo or out on the Barber place, every night before he rolled into his blankets he would sit down and write a lot of stuff in his notebook—fill pages with things he had heard.

"Of course, him being a kidney-foot, some of the boys used to load him up with pretty tall ones"—this the confession of an old cattleman and thief taker himself credited with being the prototype of Frank Spearman's Whispering Smith; "and he takes 'em all down in his little notebook. But when his story comes out we see he's onto us all the time."

Perhaps in this category of "tall ones" falls the Virginian's master-tale about the "frawgs" of Tulare, polished and faceted by Mr. Wister's art, or the tragedy of Em'ly, the hen who lived a parable.

Whatever timber Mr. Wister may have found to his hand for the architectural adornments of The Virginian, the solid core of the story—the character of the hard-riding, swift-shooting young Southerner who masters a Vermont heart and conscience—is Mr. Wister's own powerful creation. None of the folks in the Big Country can identify the Virginian, however sure they may think themselves to be in tabbing Trampas and Steve and Judge Henry. "There was a fella' come from Virginia once," they say; "name was Zang T——, and he was a pretty likely boy until he joined in with the rustlers who were running the Hat brand, then he took up with the Hole in the Wall gang and finally was shot by a pal down in Utah after mixing into a train robbery. So he couldn't be the Virginian. No, this Wister must have got the Virginian right out of his own head."

Trampas all the Big Country knows. He was a gambler and short-card man whose real name easily suggests the fictitious. He used to deal monte and faro in Casper when that town was the nearest railroad point for Johnson County's freight wagons; but he sifted out of Casper in the early Nineties, and nobody knows what became of him. Steve, the one-time saddle companion whom the Virginian was forced finally to run down in the cottonwoods and hang for a horse thief; him the wise ones believe they have identified infallibly. The real Steve, whom Mr. Wister met and talked with, was one of the cowmen who "went wrong" in the feud that culminated in the war of '92 between cattlemen and rustlers, and he was killed at K C ranch. Many of the survivors of those bitter times insist Steve's prototype was guiltless of "rustling."

And Lin McLean's wife—she of the earlier sketches which Mr. Wister published under the title, Lin McLean. Not only did the writer tell with fidelity the grim story of her suicide in the deserted army post—Fort McKinney-—but he described her funeral in detail almost photographic. Just one thing he omitted to tell: that she was buried face down—and why.

When Mr. Wister visited the country of The Virginian, as now, Buffalo was the only town "in the splendour of Wyoming space," which is Johnson County. Then it was an "inland town" far off the railroad; now a single track is tardily creeping toward this last outpost of the old frontier—may even be bringing its engine hoot to Main Street before this is published. The original Buffalo carelessly laid itself down from hill crest to stream and up to hill crest again, along the dust of the old military road up from the Union Pacific. Until the railroad brought a boom to Sheridan, forty-odd miles to the northward, Buffalo was the largest and livest town in northen Wyoming. There the freight wagons from a hundred miles south distributed their supplies for the great cattle outfits which ranged from Powder to Yellowstone, and there during the winter season hundreds of cowpunchers, idle and bursting with raw spirits, played the game of life Mr. Wister has pictured for us.

Giving Buffalo no alias, this is the town The Virginian's creator saw and knew, even though at the time of his visits the rawness was wearing from it. Then, as at present, Main Street had many smaller punctuation marks to creature joys—the Cowboy Saloon, the Fashion and the Capitol; but the heaviest exclamation point of all was the Occidental Hotel. It still stands, though neat brick has supplanted its log-and-clapboard façade, where Clear Creek brawls under Main Street bridge. Here, legend has it, Owen Wister met and chummed with Henry Smith, a popular though deservedly notorious horse thief since passed over. Quick, the Occidental's present host, even will show pilgrims the spot under the big silver poplar by the stream's side where the Western bad man and the Eastern tale writer used to sit and yarn.

It was the Occidental Wister selected as background for his story's swift climax. Thither the Virginian brought Molly Wood from the Bear Creek schoolhouse, and it was alone in her room there the Vermont girl heard the three shots which signalised the working out of a man's code beyond even her love to sway or alter. Modern Buffalo—the town with the prim electric lights along the cement sidewalks and the hoot of the engine whistle at its borders—displays on its picture post card racks a photographic reprint of the old log Occidental. "Where the Virginian Got His Man" is the legend across the bottom.