Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The cabin of Major Overstone differed outwardly but little from those of his companions. It was the usual structure of logs, laid lengthwise, and rudely plastered at each point of contact with adobe, the material from which the chimney, which entirely occupied one gable, was built. It was pierced with two windows and a door, roofed with smaller logs, and thatched with long half cylinders of spruce bark. But the interior gave certain indications of the distinction as well as the peculiar experiences of its occupant. In place of the usual bunk or berth built against the wall stood a small folding camp bedstead, and upon a rude deal table that held a tin wash-basin and pail lay two ivory-handled brushes, combs, and other elegant toilet articles, evidently the contents of the major's dressing-bag. A handsome leather trunk occupied one corner, with a richly caparisoned silver-mounted Mexican saddle, a mahogany case of dueling pistols, a leather hat-box, locked and strapped, and a gorgeous gold and quartz handled ebony "presentation" walking stick. There was a certain dramatic suggestion in this revelation of the sudden and hurried transition from a life of ostentatious luxury to one of hidden toil and privation, and a further significance in the slow and gradual destitution and degradation of these elegant souvenirs. A pair of silver boot-hooks had been used for raking the hearth and lifting the coffee kettle; the ivory of the brushes was stained with coffee; the cut-glass bottles had lost their stoppers, and had been utilized for vinegar and salt; a silver-framed hand mirror hung against the blackened wall. For the major's occupancy was the sequel of a hurried flight from his luxurious hotel at Sacramento—a transfer that he believed was only temporary until the affair blew over and he could return in safety to browbeat his accusers, as was his wont. But this had not been so easy as he had imagined; his prosecutors were bitter, and his enforced seclusion had been prolonged week by week, until the fracas which ended in the shooting of the sheriff had apparently closed the door upon his return to civilization forever. Only here was his life and person secure. For Wynyard's Bar had quickly succumbed to the domination of his reckless courage, and the eminence of his double crime had made him respected among spendthrifts, gamblers, and gentlemen whose performances had never risen above a stage-coach robbery or a single assassination. Even criticism of his faded luxuries had been delicately withheld.
He was leaning over his open trunk—which the camp popularly supposed to contain State bonds and securities of fabulous amount—and had taken some letters from it, when a figure darkened the doorway. He looked up, laying his papers carelessly aside. Within Wynyard's Bar property was sacred.
It was the late fugitive. Although some hours had already elapsed since his arrival in camp, and he had presumably refreshed himself inwardly, his outward appearance was still disheveled and dusty. Brier and milkweed clung to his frayed blouse and trousers. What could be seen of the skin of his face and hands under its stains and begriming was of a dull yellow. His light eyes had all the brightness without the restlessness of the mongrel race. They leisurely took in the whole cabin, the still open trunk before the major, and then rested deliberately on the major himself.
"Well," said Major Overstone abruptly, "what brought you here?"
"Same as brought you, I reckon," responded the man almost as abruptly.
The major knew something of the half-breed temper, and neither the retort nor its tone affected him.
"You didn't come here just because you deserted," said the major coolly. "You've been up to something else."
"I have," said the man with equal coolness.
"I thought so. Now, you understand you can't try anything of that kind here. If you do, up you go on the first tree! That's Rule 1."
"I see; you ain't pertickler about waiting for the sheriff here—you fellers."
The major glanced at him quickly. He seemed to be quite unconscious of any irony in his remark, and continued grimly, "And what's Rule 2?"
"I reckon you needn't trouble yourself beyond No. 1," returned the major with dry significance. Nevertheless, he opened a rude cupboard in the corner and brought out a rich silver-mounted cut-glass drinking-flask, which he handed to the stranger.
"I say," said the half-breed, admiringly. "Yours?"
"Certainly now—but before, eh?"
Rule No. 2 may have indicated that references to the past held no dishonor. The major, although accustomed to these pleasantries, laughed a little harshly.
"Mine always," he said. "But you don't drink?"
The half-breed's face darkened under its grime. "Wot you're givin' us? I've been filled chock up by Simpson over thar. I reckon I know when I've got a load on."
"Were you ever in Sacramento?"
"Did you hear anything about me?"
The half-breed glanced through his tangled hair at the major in some wonder, not only at the question, but at the almost childish eagerness with which it was asked.
"I didn't hear much of anything else," he answered grimly.
"And—what did they say?"
"Said you'd got to be took anyhow! They allowed the new sheriff would do it too."
The major laughed. "Well, you heard how the new sheriff did it—skunked away with his whole posse before one-eighth of my men! You saw how the rest of this camp held up your nine troopers, and that sap-headed cub of a lieutenant, didn't you? You wouldn't have been standing here if you hadn't. No! There isn't the civil process nor the civil power in all California that can take me out of this camp."
But neither his previous curiosity nor present bravado seemed to impress the ragged stranger with much favor. He glanced sulkily around the cabin and began to shuffle towards the door.
"Stop! Where are you going to? Sit down; I want to talk to you."
The fugitive hesitated for a moment, and then dropped ungraciously on the edge of a campstool near the door. The major looked at him.
"I may have to remind you that I run this camp, and the boys hereabouts do pretty much as I say. What's your name?"
"Tom? Well, look here, Tom! D——n it all! Can't you see that when a man is stuck here alone, as I am, he wants to know what's going on outside, and hear a little fresh talk?"
The singular weakness of this blended command and appeal apparently struck the fugitive curiously. He fixed his lowering eyes on the major as if in gloomy doubt if he were really the reckless desperado he had been represented. That this man—twice an assassin and the ruler of outlaws as reckless as himself—should approach him in this half-confidential way evidently puzzled him.
"Wot you wanter know?" he asked gruffly.
"Well—what's my party saying or doing about me?" said the major impatiently. "What's the Express saying about me?"
"I reckon they're throwing off on you all round; they allow you never represented the party—but worked for yourself," said the man shortly.
Here the major lashed out: A set of traitors and hirelings! He had bought and paid for them all! He had sunk two thousand dollars in the Express and saved the editor from being horsewhipped and jailed for libel! Half the cursed bonds that they were making such a blanked fuss about were handled by these hypocrites, blank them! They were a low-lived crew of thieves and deserters! It is presumed that the major had forgotten himself in this infelicitous selection of epithets—but the stranger's face only relaxed into a grim smile. More than that, the major had apparently forgotten his desire to hear his guest talk, for he himself at once launched into an elaborate exposition of his own affairs and a specious and equally elaborate defense and justification of himself and denunciation of his accusers. For nearly half an hour he reviewed step by step and detail by detail the charges against him, with plausible explanation and sophistical argument—always with a singular prolixity and reiteration that spoke of incessant consciousness and self-abstraction. Of that dashing self-sufficiency which had dazzled his friends and awed his enemies there was no trace! At last, even the set smile of the degraded recipient of these confidences darkened with a dull, bewildered disgust. Then, to his relief, a step was heard without. The major's manner instantly changed.
"Well?" he demanded impatiently, as Dawson entered.
"I came to know what you want done with him," said Dawson, indicating the fugitive with a contemptuous finger.
"Take him to your cabin!"
"My cabin! Him?" ejaculated Dawson, turning sharply on his chief.
The major's light eyes contracted and his thin lips became a straight line. "I don't think you understand me, Dawson, and another time you'd better wait until I've done. I want you to take him to your cabin and then clear out of it yourself. You understand? I want him near me and alone!"
Dawson was not astonished, the next morning to see Major Overstone and the half-breed walking together down the gully road. For he had already come to the conclusion that the major was planning some extraordinary reprisal against the invaders that would insure the perpetual security of the camp. That he should use so insignificant and unimportant a tool now appeared to him to be quite natural, particularly as the service was probably one in which the man would be sacrificed. "The major," he suggested to his companions, "ain't going to risk a white man's skin, when he can get an Injun's hide handy."
The reluctant, hesitating step of the half-breed as they walked along seemed to give some color to this hypothesis. He listened sullenly to the major as he pointed out the strategic position of the Bar. "That wagon road is the only approach to Wynyard's, and a dozen men along the rocks could hold it against a hundred. The trail that you came by, over the ridge, drops straight into this gully, and you saw what that would mean to any blanked fools who might try it. Of course, we could be shelled from that ridge if the sheriff had a howitzer, or the men who knew how to work one; but even then we could occupy the ridge before them." He paused a moment and then added: "I used to be in the army, Tom; I saw service in Mexico before that cub you got away from had his first trousers. I was brought up as a gentleman—blank it all!—and here I am!"