“A Man and Some Others”
Dark mesquit spread from horizon to horizon. There was no house or horseman from which a mind could evolve a city or a crowd. The world was declared to be a desert and unpeopled. Sometimes, however, on days when no heat-mist arose, a blue shape, dun, of the substance of a specter’s veil, appeared in the southwest, and a pondering sheep-herder might remember that there were mountains.
In the silence of these plains the sudden and childish banging of a tin pan could have made an iron-nerved man leap into the air. The sky was ever flawless; the manoeuvring of clouds was an unknown pageant; but at times a sheep-herder could see, miles away, the long, white streamers of dust rising from the feet of another’s flock, and the interest became intense.
Bill was arduously cooking his dinner, bending over the fire and toiling like a blacksmith. A movement, a flash of strange colour, perhaps, off in the bushes, caused him suddenly to turn his head. Presently he arose, and, shading his eyes with his hand, stood motionless and gazing. He perceived at last a Mexican sheep-herder winding through the brush toward his camp.
“Hello!” shouted Bill.
The Mexican made no answer, but came steadily forward until he was within some twenty yards. There he paused, and, folding his arms, drew himself up in the manner affected by the villain in the play. His serape muffled the lower part of his face, and his great sombrero shaded his brow. Being unexpected and also silent, he had something of the quality of an apparition; moreover, it was clearly his intention to be mystic and sinister.
The American’s pipe, sticking carelessly in the corner of his mouth, was twisted until the wrong side was uppermost, and he held his frying-pan poised in the air. He surveyed with evident surprise this apparition in the mesquit. “Hell, José!” he said; “what’s the matter?”
The Mexican spoke with the solemnity of funeral tellings: “Beel, you mus’ geet off range. We want you geet off range. We no like. Un’erstan’? We no like.”
“What you talking about?” said Bill. “No like what?”
“We no like you here. Un’erstan’? Too mooch. You mus’ geet out. We no like. Un’erstan’?”
“Understand? No: I don’t know what the blazes you’re gittin’ at.” Bill’s eyes wavered in bewilderment, and his jaw fell. “I must git out? I must git off the range? What you givin’ us?”
The Mexican unfolded his serape with his small yellow hand. Upon his face was then to be seen a smile that was gently, almost caressingly, murderous. “Beel,” he said, “git out!”
Bill’s arm dropped until the frying-pan was at his knee. Finally he turned again toward the fire. “Go on, you dog-gone little yaller rat!” he said over his shoulder. “You fellers can’t chase me off this range. I got as much right here as anybody.”
“Beel,” answered the other in a vibrant tone, thrusting his head forward and moving one foot, “you geet out or we keel you.”
“Who will?” said Bill.
“I—and the others.” The Mexican tapped his breast gracefully.
Bill reflected for a time, and then he said: “You ain’t got no manner of license to warn me off’n this range, and I won’t move a rod. Understand? I’ve got rights, and I suppose if I don’t see ’em through, no one is likely to give me a good hand and help me lick you fellers, since I’m the only white man in half a day’s ride. Now, look: if you fellers try to rush this camp, I’m goin’ to plug about fifty per cent. of the gentlemen present, sure. I’m goin’ in fur trouble, an’ I’ll git a lot of you. ‘Nuther thing: if I was a fine valuable caballero like you, I’d stay in the rear till the shootin’ was done, because I’m goin’ to make a particular p’int of shootin’ you through the chest.” He grinned affably, and made a gesture of dismissal.
As for the Mexican, he waved his hands in a consummate expression of indifference. “Oh, all right,” he said. Then, in a tone of deep menace and glee, he added: “We will keel you eef you no geet. They have decide.”
“They have, have they?” said Bill. “Well, you tell them to go to the devil!”
As his Mexican friend tripped blithely away, Bill turned with a thoughtful face to his frying-pan and his fire. After dinner he drew his revolver from its scarred old holster, and examined every part of it. It was the revolver that had dealt death to the foreman, and it had also been in free fights in which it had dealt death to several or none. Bill loved it because its allegiance was more than that of man, horse, or dog. It questioned neither social nor moral position; it obeyed alike the saint and the assassin. It was the claw of the eagle, the tooth of the lion, the poison of the snake; and when he swept it from its holster, this minion smote where he listed, even to the battering of a far penny. Wherefore it was his dearest possession, and was not to be exchanged in southwestern Texas for a handful of rubies.
During the afternoon he moved through his monotony of work and leisure with the same air of deep meditation. The smoke of his supper time fire was curling across the shadowy sea of mesquit when the instinct of the plainsman warned him that the stillness, the desolation, was again invaded. He saw a motionless horseman in black outline against the pallid sky. The silhouette displayed serape and sombrero, and even the Mexican spurs as large as pies. When this black figure began to move toward the camp, Bill’s hand dropped to his revolver.
The horseman approached until Bill was enabled to see pronounced American features, and a skin too red to grow on a Mexican face. Bill released his grip on his revolver.
“Hello!” called the horseman.
“Hello!” answered Bill.
The horseman cantered forward. “Good evening,” he said, as he again drew rein.
“Good evenin’,” answered Bill, without committing himself by too much courtesy.
For a moment the two men scanned each other in a way that is not ill-mannered on the plains, where one is in danger of meeting horse-thieves or tourists.
Bill saw a type which did not belong in the mesquit. The young fellow had invested in some Mexican trappings of an expensive kind. Bill’s eyes searched the outfit for some sign of craft, but there was none. Even with his local regalia, it was clear that the young man was of a far, black northern city. He had discarded the enormous stirrups of his Mexican saddle; he used the small English stirrup, and his feet were thrust forward until the steel tightly gripped his ankles. As Bill’s eyes travelled over the stranger, they lighted suddenly upon the stirrups and the thrust feet, and immediately he smiled in a friendly way. No dark purpose could dwell in the innocent heart of a man who rode thus on the plains.
As for the stranger, he saw a tattered individual with a tangle of hair and beard, and with a complexion turned brick-colour from the sun and whiskey. He saw a pair of eyes that at first looked at him as the wolf looks at the wolf, and then became childlike, almost timid, in their glance. Here was evidently a man who had often stormed the iron walls of the city of success, and who now sometimes valued himself as the rabbit values his prowess.
The stranger smiled genially, and sprang from his horse. “Well, sir, I suppose you will let me camp here with you to-night?”
“Eh?” said Bill.
“I suppose you will let me camp here with you to-night?”
Bill for a time seemed too astonished for words.
“Well,” he answered, scowling in inhospitable annoyance, “well, I don’t believe this here is a good place to camp to-night, Mister.”
The stranger turned quickly from his saddle-girth.
“What?” he said in surprise. “You don’t want me here? You don’t want me to camp here?”
Bill’s feet scuffled awkwardly, and he looked steadily at a cactus-plant. “Well, you see, Mister,” he said, “I’d like your company well enough, but—you see, some of these here greasers are goin’ to chase me off the range to-night; and while I might like a man’s company all right, I couldn’t let him in for no such game when he ain’t got nothin’ to do with the trouble.”
“Going to chase you off the range?” cried the stranger.
“Well, they said they were goin’ to do it,” said Bill.
“And—great heavens!—will they kill you, do you think?”
“Don’t know. Can’t tell till afterward. You see, they take some feller that’s alone like me, and then they rush his camp when he ain’t quite ready for ’em, and ginerally plug ‘im with a sawed-off shot-gun load before he has a chance to git at ’em. They lay around and wait for their chance, and it comes soon enough. Of course a feller alone like me has got to let up watching some time. Maybe they ketch ‘im asleep. Maybe the feller gits tired waiting, and goes out in broad day, and kills two or three just to make the whole crowd pile on him and settle the thing. I heard of a case like that once. It’s awful hard on a man’s mind—to git a gang after him.”
“And so they’re going to rush your camp tonight?” cried the stranger. “How do you know? Who told you?”
“Feller come and told me.”
“And what are you going to do? Fight?”
“Don’t see nothin’ else to do,” answered Bill, gloomily, still staring at the cactus-plant.
There was a silence. Finally the stranger burst out in an amazed cry. “Well, I never heard of such a thing in my life! How many of them are there?”
“Eight,” answered Bill. “And now look-a-here; you ain’t got no manner of business foolin’ around here just now, and you might better lope off before dark. I don’t ask no help in this here row. I know your happening along here just now don’t give me no call on you, and you’d better hit the trail.”
“Well, why in the name of wonder don’t you go get the sheriff?” cried the stranger.
“Oh, hell!” said Bill.
Long, smouldering clouds spread in the western sky, and to the east silver mists lay on the purple gloom of the wilderness.
Finally, when the great moon climbed the heavens and cast its ghastly radiance upon the bushes, it made a new and more brilliant crimson of the campfire, where the flames capered merrily through its mesquit branches, filling the silence with the fire chorus, an ancient melody which surely bears a message of the inconsequence of individual tragedy—a message that is in the boom of the sea, the shiver of the wind through the grass-blades, the silken clash of hemlock boughs.
No figures moved in the rosy space of the camp, and the search of the moonbeams failed to disclose a living thing in the bushes. There was no owl-faced clock to chant the weariness of the long silence that brooded upon the plain.
The dew gave the darkness under the mesquit a velvet quality that made air seem nearer to water, and no eye could have seen through it the black things that moved like monster lizards toward the camp. The branches, the leaves, that are fain to cry out when death approaches in the wilds, were frustrated by these mystic bodies gliding with the finesse of the escaping serpent. They crept forward to the last point where assuredly no frantic attempt of the fire could discover them, and there they paused to locate the prey. A romance relates the tale of the black cell hidden deep in the earth, where, upon entering, one sees only the little eyes of snakes fixing him in menaces. If a man could have approached a certain spot in the bushes, he would not have found it romantically necessary to have his hair rise. There would have been sufficient expression of horror in the feeling of the death-hand at the nape of his neck and in his rubber knee-joints.
Two of the bodies finally moved toward each other until for each there grew out of the darkness a face placidly smiling with tender dreams of assassination. “The fool is asleep by the fire, God be praised!” The lips of the other widened in a grin of affectionate appreciation of the fool and his plight. There was some signalling in the gloom and then began a series of subtle rustlings, interjected often with pauses, during which no sound arose but the sound of faint breathing.
A bush stood like a rock in the stream of firelight, sending its long shadow backward. With painful caution the little company travelled along this shadow, and finally arrived at the rear of the bush. Through its branches they surveyed for a moment of comfortable satisfaction a form in a gray blanket extended on the ground near the fire. The smile of joyful anticipation fled quickly, to give place to a quiet air of business. Two men lifted shot-guns with much of the barrels gone, and sighting these weapons through the branches, pulled trigger together.
The noise of the explosions roared over the lonely mesquit as if these guns wished to inform the entire world; and as the grey smoke fled, the dodging company back of the bush saw the blanketed form twitching. Whereupon they burst out in chorus in a laugh, and arose as merry as a lot of banqueters. They gleefully gestured congratulations, and strode bravely into the light of the fire.
Then suddenly a new laugh rang from some unknown spot in the darkness. It was a fearsome laugh of ridicule, hatred, ferocity. It might have been demoniac. It smote them motionless in their gleeful prowl, as the stern voice from the sky smites the legendary malefactor. They might have been a weird group in wax, the light of the dying fire on their yellow faces, and shining athwart their eyes turned toward the darkness whence might come the unknown and the terrible.
The thing in the grey blanket no longer twitched; but if the knives in their hands had been thrust toward it, each knife was now drawn back, and its owner’s elbow was thrown upward, as if he expected death from the clouds.
This laugh had so chained their reason that for a moment they had no wit to flee. They were prisoners to their terror. Then suddenly the belated decision arrived, and with bubbling cries they turned to run; but at that instant there was a long flash of red in the darkness, and with the report one of the men shouted a bitter shout, spun once, and tumbled headlong. The thick bushes failed to impede the route of the others.
The silence returned to the wilderness. The tired flames faintly illumined the blanketed thing and the flung corpse of the marauder, and sang the fire chorus, the ancient melody which bears the message of the inconsequence of human tragedy.
“Now you are worse off than ever,” said the young man, dry-voiced and awed.
“No, I ain’t,” said Bill, rebelliously. “I’m one ahead.”
After reflection, the stranger remarked, “Well, there’s seven more.”
They were cautiously and slowly approaching the camp. The sun was flaring its first warming rays over the gray wilderness. Upreared twigs, prominent branches, shone with golden light, while the shadows under the mesquit were heavily blue.
Suddenly the stranger uttered a frightened cry. He had arrived at a point whence he had, through openings in the thicket, a clear view of a dead face.
“Gosh!” said Bill, who at the next instant had seen the thing; “I thought at first it was that there José. That would have been queer, after what I told ‘im yesterday.”
They continued their way, the stranger wincing in his walk, and Bill exhibiting considerable curiosity.
The yellow beams of the new sun were touching the grim hues of the dead Mexican’s face, and creating there an inhuman effect, which made his countenance more like a mask of dulled brass. One hand, grown curiously thinner, had been flung out regardlessly to a cactus bush.
Bill walked forward and stood looking respectfully at the body. “I know that feller; his name is Miguel. He——”
The stranger’s nerves might have been in that condition when there is no backbone to the body, only a long groove. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed, much agitated; “don’t speak that way!”
“What way?” said Bill. “I only said his name was Miguel.”
After a pause the stranger said:
“Oh, I know; but—” He waved his hand. “Lower your voice, or something. I don’t know. This part of the business rattles me, don’t you see?”
“Oh, all right,” replied Bill, bowing to the other’s mysterious mood. But in a moment he burst out violently and loud in the most extraordinary profanity, the oaths winging from him as the sparks go from the funnel.
He had been examining the contents of the bundled gray blanket, and he had brought forth, among other things, his frying-pan. It was now only a rim with a handle; the Mexican volley had centred upon it. A Mexican shot-gun of the abbreviated description is ordinarily loaded with flatirons, stove-lids, lead pipe, old horseshoes, sections of chain, window weights, railroad sleepers and spikes, dumbbells, and any other junk which may be at hand. When one of these loads encounters a man vitally, it is likely to make an impression upon him, and a cooking-utensil may be supposed to subside before such an assault of curiosities.
Bill held high his desecrated frying-pan, turning it this way and that way. He swore until he happened to note the absence of the stranger. A moment later he saw him leading his horse from the bushes. In silence and sullenly the young man went about saddling the animal. Bill said, “Well, goin’ to pull out?”
The stranger’s hands fumbled uncertainly at the throat-latch. Once he exclaimed irritably, blaming the buckle for the trembling of his fingers. Once he turned to look at the dead face with the light of the morning sun upon it. At last he cried, “Oh, I know the whole thing was all square enough—couldn’t be squarer—but—somehow or other, that man there takes the heart out of me.” He turned his troubled face for another look. “He seems to be all the time calling me a—he makes me feel like a murderer.”
“But,” said Bill, puzzling, “you didn’t shoot him, Mister; I shot him.”
“I know; but I feel that way, somehow. I can’t get rid of it.”
Bill considered for a time; then he said diffidently, “Mister, you’r a’ eddycated man, ain’t you?”
“You’re what they call a’—a’ eddycated man, ain’t you?”
The young man, perplexed, evidently had a question upon his lips, when there was a roar of guns, bright flashes, and in the air such hooting and whistling as would come from a swift flock of steamboilers. The stranger’s horse gave a mighty, convulsive spring, snorting wildly in its sudden anguish, fell upon its knees, scrambled afoot again, and was away in the uncanny death-run known to men who have seen the finish of brave horses.
“This comes from discussin’ things,” cried Bill, angrily.
He had thrown himself flat on the ground facing the thicket whence had come the firing. He could see the smoke winding over the bush-tops. He lifted his revolver, and the weapon came slowly up from the ground and poised like the glittering crest of a snake. Somewhere on his face there was a kind of smile, cynical, wicked, deadly, of a ferocity which at the same time had brought a deep flush to his face, and had caused two upright lines to glow in his eyes.
“Hello, José!” he called, amiable for satire’s sake. “Got your old blunderbusses loaded up again yet?”
The stillness had returned to the plain. The sun’s brilliant rays swept over the sea of mesquit, painting the far mists of the west with faint rosy light, and high in the air some great bird fled toward the south.
“You come out here,” called Bill, again addressing the landscape, “and I’ll give you some shootin’ lessons. That ain’t the way to shoot.” Receiving no reply, he began to invent epithets and yell them at the thicket. He was something of a master of insult, and, moreover, he dived into his memory to bring forth imprecations tarnished with age, unused since fluent Bowery days. The occupation amused him, and sometimes he laughed so that it was uncomfortable for his chest to be against the ground.
Finally the stranger, prostrate near him, said wearily, “Oh, they’ve gone.”
“Don’t you believe it,” replied Bill, sobering swiftly. “They’re there yet—every man of ’em.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I do. They won’t shake us so soon. Don’t put your head up, or they’ll get you, sure.”
Bill’s eyes, meanwhile, had not wavered from their scrutiny of the thicket in front. “They’re there, all right; don’t you forget it. Now you listen.” So he called out: “José! Ojo, José! Speak up, hombre! I want have talk. Speak up, you yaller cuss, you!”
Whereupon a mocking voice from off in the bushes said, “Senor?”
“There,” said Bill to his ally; “didn’t I tell you? The whole batch.” Again he lifted his voice. “José—look—ain’t you gittin’ kinder tired? You better go home, you fellers, and git some rest.”
The answer was a sudden furious chatter of Spanish, eloquent with hatred, calling down upon Bill all the calamities which life holds. It was as if some one had suddenly enraged a cageful of wildcats. The spirits of all the revenges which they had imagined were loosened at this time, and filled the air.
“They’re in a holler,” said Bill, chuckling, “or there’d be shootin’.”
Presently he began to grow angry. His hidden enemies called him nine kinds of coward, a man who could fight only in the dark, a baby who would run from the shadows of such noble Mexican gentlemen, a dog that sneaked. They described the affair of the previous night, and informed him of the base advantage he had taken of their friend. In fact, they in all sincerity endowed him with every quality which he no less earnestly believed them to possess. One could have seen the phrases bite him as he lay there on the ground fingering his revolver.
It is sometimes taught that men do the furious and desperate thing from an emotion that is as even and placid as the thoughts of a village clergyman on Sunday afternoon. Usually, however, it is to be believed that a panther is at the time born in the heart, and that the subject does not resemble a man picking mulberries.
“B’ G—!” said Bill, speaking as from a throat filled with dust, “I’ll go after ’em in a minute.”
“Don’t you budge an inch!” cried the stranger, sternly. “Don’t you budge!”
“Well,” said Bill, glaring at the bushes—”well.”
“Put your head down!” suddenly screamed the stranger, in white alarm. As the guns roared, Bill uttered a loud grunt, and for a moment leaned panting on his elbow, while his arm shook like a twig. Then he upreared like a great and bloody spirit of vengeance, his face lighted with the blaze of his last passion. The Mexicans came swiftly and in silence.
The lightning action of the next few moments was of the fabric of dreams to the stranger. The muscular struggle may not be real to the drowning man. His mind may be fixed on the far, straight shadows back of the stars, and the terror of them. And so the fight, and his part in it, had to the stranger only the quality of a picture half drawn. The rush of feet, the spatter of shots, the cries, the swollen faces seen like masks on the smoke, resembled a happening of the night.
And yet afterward certain lines, forms, lived out so strongly from the incoherence that they were always in his memory.
He killed a man, and the thought went swiftly by him, like a feather on a gale, that it was easy to kill a man.
Moreover, he suddenly felt for Bill, this grimy sheep-herder, some deep form of idolatry. Bill was dying, and the dignity of last defeat, this superiority of him who stands in his grave, was in the pose of the lost sheep-herder.
The stranger sat on the ground idly mopping the sweat and powder-stain from his brow. He wore the gentle idiotic smile of an aged beggar as he watched three Mexicans limping and staggering in the distance. He noted at this time that one who still possessed a serape had from it none of the grandeur of the cloaked Spaniard, but that against the sky the silhouette resembled a cornucopia of childhood’s Christmas.
They turned to look at him, and he lifted his weary arm to menace them with his revolver. They stood for a moment banded together, and hooted curses at him.
Finally he arose, and, walking some paces, stooped to loosen Bill’s gray hands from a throat. Swaying as if slightly drunk, he stood looking down into the still face.
Struck suddenly with a thought, he went about with dulled eyes on the ground, until he plucked his gaudy blanket from where it lay dirty from trampling feet. He dusted it carefully, and then returned and laid it over Bill’s form. There he again stood motionless, his mouth just agape and the same stupid glance in his eyes, when all at once he made a gesture of fright and looked wildly about him.
He had almost reached the thicket when he stopped, smitten with alarm. A body contorted, with one arm stiff in the air, lay in his path. Slowly and warily he moved around it, and in a moment the bushes nodding and whispering, their leaf-faces turned toward the scene behind him, swung and swung again into stillness and the peace of the wilderness.