Painted Rock/Chapter 6 - Wikisource, the free online library
THE MAN WHO TOOK WATER
Though there were but sixty miles between Painted Rock and Red River City, and sixty miles in Texas are nothing, Ben Williams and Sage-brush Greet had never met. Many had hoped they would come together: both the law-abiding and the lawless desired it; the representatives of the anæmic law were at one with the red-handed in this matter. For when two such as Ben and his equal, who was known familiarly as "Sage," do happen to run into the same town, there is usually one funeral, if not two, which will be attended by a thousand thankful mourners.
For Ben was the terror of Painted Rock, and Sage ran Red River City. They acknowledged no superiors and endured no equals. They were quick on the trigger; quick in their wits; and, so it was said, of bloody and remorseless courage. Though there were some who would have taken either of them at a disadvantage, they were never found "unheeled" or unwary. They were sober as sobriety goes in the West; no man ever saw either of them "full." It does not pay bad men to get full. And they had records, to which white painted boards rotting in the cemeteries of their respective towns bore bitter witness. Both had been tried for murder in their early days. Both had been acquitted. The acquitted homicides of the West are men to beware of; they hanker to use their guns.
They talked about these tyrants with bated breath in Painted Rock and Red River, for no one ever knew who would crawl to Ben or Sage and say—"Old man. Bill was shootin' off his mouth about you at the American House las' night."
And then perhaps Bill went where all men go in time. But he went ahead of time and went feet foremost.
It is true that certain quiet men, who did not gamble and did not haunt saloons for the purpose of swallowing the early cocktail, were not afraid of either of them. I knew such a one in Painted Rock, and he was a student of humanity, though he would have been indignant and suspicious if one had called him a psychologist. We often talked of Ben, and sometimes Sage-brush too.
"I'd like 'em to collide," said the Colonel; "I'd love to see a head-on collision between these two steers. I'm a quiet man and peaceful now, Charlie, but there are times I hanker after my long-lost youth and the right hand I lost at Gettysburgh. Yes, sir, I hanker after it. A man with no right claw hez to be peaceful and good, when no manner of practice can make his left hand shoot straight."
He sighed rather bitterly, and I encouraged him.
"You've had your time. Colonel. And now Ben Williams is having his."
"I'd admire to see his sun set," replied old Webb, caressing the stump of his right hand. "He threatened to blow a hole through little Bobby White last evenin', so I hear. For Bobby will run wild in Gedge's saloon, and he puts his hard-earned dollars into faro, which is foolish, and he's a good boy and clever. I'd fair admire if Sage-brush took Ben down. And if Ben did up Sage 'twould be no loss to his perticular locality. And I'm thinking, Charlie, that Ben's time is comin' along fast."
I asked him why he said that, and the old man screwed his face up thoughtfully before he spoke.
"My son, I've lived long, for I'm over the three-score and ten biz by three years. That's a fact. And I've seen a powerful sight of bad men in my time, you bet. I heven't ranged all along the Rockies from the Wind River Mountains and Butte, through Colorado and Arizona right to here, without seeing of 'em rise and shine in splendour and fizzle out in blood. And some lose their narve and git, and start again, far away from the ha'nts where they was notorious, as peaceful citizens. One I knew earned an honourable livin' for years after losin' his narve by cuttin' wood. I've watched Ben this last year, and I see signs in him. I wish Sage would run over here. I'm half-minded to ride over to Red River and throw out a dark hint to him."
But I own I saw nothing in Ben Williams to make me agree with Colonel Webb. I was younger than the Colonel, and didn't know he knew more than I did. I said so, and old Webb smiled.
"When you're seventy-three, my son, you'll run up agin a power of young men that knows a blame sight more'n you do. And I'm prophesyin' here and now you won't agree with 'em any. I think, yes I do, that I'll ride over to Red River. I'm very much fatigued by thishyer Ben Williams, and I'd sure grieve to see him shoot up Bob White. Bob's a clever boy, so he is. There's the makin's of a fine man in Bob. And there's the makin's of a fine corpse in Ben. I'd fair admire to see Ben a corpse. I tell you what, Charlie, this comes because no one cowhided him when he was young. He brags he was never put down in his life, never took water, not even from his old Dad. He'd make a handsome dead desperado, so he would."
If he was older than I, I gave him some good advice.
"If you rake up Sage against him, and he hears of it, Colonel, he'll not be put off shooting because you've no right hand."
"That's so," said Webb, "that's so. But there are times when a man hez to do his duty. Bob's young, and I never tole you that I look on him as a kind of relation. I would have married his grandmother if she hadn't married another man before I sot eyes on her. That was her mistake, pore thing; and ez a result I've run around the West ever sence. I'll ride over to Red River ter-morrer, sure."
I paid little attention to what he said, and went about my own business. But two nights afterwards he came into Hamilton's, where I was boarding, and called me out. We sat down in a couple of rocking-chairs, and he spoke low.
"I went to Red River, Charlie."
"Did you see 'Sage-brush'?"
"To bee sure," said the Colonel, as he lit a ten-cent cigar.
"What sort is he?"
"B'gosh," said Webb, "he's been hard and tough, and is yet. But what troubled me, Charlie, was that the life's tellin' on him too. I could see it. You cayn't be a bad man and a terror for nothin'. You hev to pay for it. I hear talk about iron narves, Charlie. You mark me, there ain't no iron narves, my son. I could guarantee to make a hero, built of chilled steel, tremble and cry in time. Holdin' your life in your hand breaks a man's narve in the end. That's clotted wisdom as thick as butter. But I threw out dark hints to Sage-brush that now was his time to do up Ben. They've been scared of each other this long time. I let on I reckoned Ben's narve was goin'. A man like Sage-brush Greet understands that, becos he hez his own experience to go on. Sage will be over here in a day or two. Lay low and say nothin'. I've told no one but Bob. Bob loves me like a son. I've been some good to Bob, because of his grandmother, pore thing."
The good old chap smoked quietly for a while, as we looked out over the darkening plaza. On the right side of it rose up the dark form of the gaol. Webb pointed at it presently with his finger.
"What's that calaboose for, Charlie? It's for hoboes, pore harmless hoboes, and a drunk Mexican, but the élite" (he called it eelight) "of crime don't go thataway. As I get old I'm more for law."
He sighed and rose.
"D'ye think I'd hev rode over to Red River if I'd bin young with a right hand, Charlie? Not by an entire barrel-full. I'd ha' bin Sheriff and City Marshal and desperado myself, and I'd ha' seen peace and law and order flourishing like timothy in an irrigated cultivation patch, flourishing right here in Painted Rock."
He walked across the plaza homeward.
Next morning I met young Bob White on Main Street, where he worked in a store which sold everything from candy to coffins.
"Did the Colonel tell you?" asked Bob. "He did so, I'll bet. This is a great show we'll have, Charlie. Jest think of the old chap ridin' over to Red River to rake up Sage agin' Ben Williams!"
I yanked him hard by the coat, for one of Williams' parasites, and all "bad men" have them, was loafing on a barrel of hardware within a few yards of us.
"Dry up, you immortal young ass," I said, as I looked at the loafer.
"Oh, he's nigh full and heard nix," said White contemptuously. But I wasn't sure, and, as it turned out, Bob was wrong. It pays in no town to talk too much, and in a Western town to "shoot off one's mouth" is the most deadly form of folly with loaded weapons.
"He'll turn up to-night, I hope," said Bob. "I'll be in the American House then to see."
"Much better stay at home," I replied. "If there's shooting don't run up against any lead."
But a kind of morbid curiosity took me to the American House myself about seven o'clock in the evening, and I had a drink with half a dozen, and stood liquor in my turn, as one has to, and then, with a cigar in my teeth, I sat down on the other side of the room. The bar was on the right side as one entered. I hadn't smoked half the cigar, known, by the way, as a Havana-filler, when Ben Williams walked in and breasted the bar. He was almost the only man in the town who dared call for a lemonade without some remark being made, and he called for one now. As he drank it the evening drew in and the bar-tender lighted the lamps. I knew the man well by sight, and it was quite true, as the Colonel said, that he would make a handsome corpse. He stood very nearly six feet, and had a close-cropped dark beard which did not hide the cut of his strong chin and jaw. There was the look in his eyes which is common in all courageous men out West, only it was greatly accentuated in him. I own it was hard to look him squarely in the face for long. It would have been impossible save for the fact that, like all such men, his eyes seemed to take in the whole room as well as the man he was talking with. He dressed very quietly and neatly, for he took a pride in his appearance. I could not see quite what the Colonel meant. The man appeared perfectly sound. He had killed eight men, one at Fort Worth, where he had been tried and acquitted on the ground of self-defence, three in Arizona, and four in Painted Rock and at Sweetwater. He carried his "pistol," as we all did, in a hip-pocket. But, unlike most of us, he had his pocket cut to carry one and had it lined with leather. He was a dead shot.
When he spoke I did think that I noticed something a little strange in his voice. There was a sharper tension in it. And he looked round the room almost carefully. When Tom the bar-tender lighted the lamps at the back of the bar, over the shelves on which the "nose-paint" stood in gaudy bottles, Ben Williams spoke sharply.
"Say, put out that lamp," he said, pointing to the one which shone most upon his own face. The other one, as he stood sideways to the bar, was a little behind him.
"Why?" asked Tom, who had grit, as bar-tenders must have.
"Because I say so," said Ben. And in spite of his grit Tom put the lamp out thoughtfully. He glanced across the room and caught my eye. He lifted his eyebrows and looked at the door. The very next moment a stranger entered, or, at any rate, one who was a stranger to me. Nevertheless I was quite aware that the new-comer could be no one else than Sage-brush Greet, for Tom's look at me and the little incident of the lamp said a great deal to anyone who understood the West, even if I had not been expecting the desperado from Red River. And now if I had had what Westerners call "horse-sense" I should have got up and left. I did no such thing, for the old Colonel walked in behind Sage-brush and sat down by me. If I had less grit than the old man I couldn't show it. The very atmosphere of the long room became electric. I saw Pillsbury the gambler, who was making up his faro lay-out in the back room, lay down the cards. He passed his hand mechanically over his hip-pocket, and sat down quietly. Outside the glow of the evening was dying rapidly, and the lights of the stores and the Texas Saloon opposite began to show themselves. Men that were passing stopped to speak with others. Sam Grant, the bar-tender opposite, came out on the side-walk. I saw his white shirt-front as he leant against a post. A little hum rose outside. I saw a boy running. A yellow dog sat in the dusty road and scratched himself. I heard voices, and though I could distinguish no words I knew what they said.
"Sage-brush is in there with Ben Williams."
The fat old Dutchman who kept a quarter dollar hash-house stepped inside and put his lamp out. He wasn't the man to take chances.
And all this time I was looking at Sage-brush. He was long and thin and very hard, so men said. They reckoned at Red River that he was a very "stout" man, and in the language of the great West "stout" means strong. Ben was dark and ruddy, but Sage was fair and had long tawny moustaches. His eyes were small and grey, his jaw heavy, his forehead overgrown with hair that grew downwards, though it was close-cropped. He walked up to the bar lightly. I heard the Colonel speak to me.
"He's left-handed," said the Colonel. "Ben hasn't the best of it though his right hand is free."
For, as I said just now, Ben Williams' left side was to the bar.
"I'll take a lemon squash, bar-keep," said Sage. His voice was perfectly quiet and not unpleasant. Tom made him his drink, and Sage turned politely to all the rest of us.
"I'll be obliged, gentlemen, if you'll breast the bar and order your own especial poison," he said.
We rose and ranged up to the bar, and all of us, Williams and Pillsbury, of course, included, took a liquor.
"Take one with me, Mr Greet," said the old Colonel.
And Sage said he would take one later if the gentleman didn't mind. Williams hadn't spoken till now.
"Are you Mr. Greet of Red River?" he asked politely.
"That's me," said Sage.
"My name's Ben Williams," said Williams.
"I'm glad to see you," said Sage, "and shall be pleased to see you over at Red River."
We got back into our seats. I felt a little easier in my mind. There would be no trouble. I said so to the Colonel, and he never answered. Over the way the side-walk was thronged. I saw Bob White among the men there. Then I looked again at Sage and Ben. From where I sat Ben's face was somewhat in shadow, for the nearest lamp was behind him. I could see Sage very plainly.
"You're away off," said the Colonel. "There'll be hell up Fourth Street and blood on the face of the moon this night."
As the night outside grew darker I saw both men better. I perceived the growing tension. Tom stood back against his shelves and polished glasses. He did it mechanically, for his eyes were fixed on the men on the other side of the bar, who leant against it carelessly and yet rigidly. Neither took his eye off the other, and the old Colonel put his foot on mine.
"Ben will cow down," he said. "I can see it."
"This is a quiet town," said Sage presently.
"I reckon to keep it quiet," said Ben Williams. His eyes were burning: Sage's narrowed to slits.
"I do the same for Red River," he said.
Up to now, though they had looked at each other, they had not met for more than a mere glance with their eyes. But at this moment old Webb nipped me so hard that I restrained an exclamation with difficulty. The men were staring at each other steadily. I glanced into the back room and saw Pillsbury close up his faro lay-out. By this time his room should have been full. The street was full instead. But Sage and Ben were visible to the gathered crowd, and everyone outside was silent. They knew, for all the quiet, that a duel was going on inside, and a duel more deadly and horrible than any shooting. These two silent devils were putting their minds, their reputations, their courage, into the cock-pit against each other.
"Good God!" said the Colonel. He moistened his dry lips. It was a horrible hour.
Each of these men had slain many: both had defied the law and put it in the ditch. To both of them a thousand bowed down. The rumour of their deeds had spread across the south. They were heard of from Galveston to El Paso. The life they led tried them high. They came to a dreadful final test this night, and something, I knew not what, seemed to tell me that there could be no such tragedy as this.
They appeared equally matched. I heard old Webb sigh; his eyes were almost bolting from his head. Tom, as I knew, had plenty of courage. I heard that his hand trembled a little as he put a glass down behind him. The silence of the two who fought was strange and dreadful. Pillsbury, who was no chicken, spoke to me about it afterwards. First I watched one and then the other. If I had pulled a gun on them neither would have seen me move. For these two the whole world was lost. They saw nothing but each other's eyes, perhaps each other's deep and inward mind. The Colonel whispered to me without turning—
"I never reckoned on this, Charlie."
There was something that no one could have reckoned on in the men before us. Both of us had seen death in strange and horrible shapes. The old Colonel had slept among the piled dead of many awful fields. And I had seen sudden death too, and murdered men whose slayers none discovered, and death by disease more dreadful than death by knife or bullet. But neither of us had ever seen two such men fight merely with their eyes, with their intent minds, with their very souls. It seemed to me that both forgot that they were armed, that they carried lethal weapons. Here was one who said he was afraid; and the other said that he was afraid. And they struggled strangely with their own discovered weakness, and their nerves were strung and trembled until it seemed to us who looked on that we could hear the sound of our own hearts and theirs.
I was sorry for them, and almost grieved to see them come to this test. A strange momentary anger rose in my heart against old Webb, who had brought this thing to be. He told me afterwards that in that hour he repented, for this was so much worse than the shedding of blood that till then it seemed he had beheld nothing awful in his life.
But as we sat there, motionless, unable, the long bloodless duel went on. We saw their lips move now, but no words were spoken, and we guessed darkly at the silent thoughts they muttered. Did one's eye flicker, or was it only the flicker of a lamp? Did they murmur, or was it the breathing of the awe-struck crowd that watched at the door? Both of them sighed surely. Did one's hand move? Was that a shaking nerve? I looked again at old Webb, and saw that he had bitten his lip; a little trickle of blood ran down his smooth-shaved chin. His hand trembled surely; I felt it on my arm. If he, who had seen and done so much, and was only a spectator with so little at stake, felt this, what did those feel who had their very souls on the table, those who loved power and the fear of men? We saw one doomed: out of this only one could issue. And for the man who was defeated what remained but laughter and biting scorn, and the rebellion of those he had put beneath his heel? There are men who have played poker for stakes that meant ruin, temporal ruin. This was a game that meant death at least. It might mean a more horrible thing: it might mean the degradation of a man.
They had reckoned this up in their minds: both of them saw it: both knew that to pull a weapon now meant the acknowledgment of defeat. A mere motion of the hand would imply resort to physical means to save a life which had lost that honour of a man that endures even in the fine scum of the big world they lived in.
I looked at Ben. He moistened his lips a little, and Webb got hold of me with his left hand and crushed my arm.
"He's going under," he murmured.
But I saw Sage's lips move too. And was it true that the light showed in a clearer, brighter patch upon his forehead? It seemed to me that it did. I'm sure it did. The Colonel said later that it did. I'm sure that Ben Williams saw it, saw that Sage's brow was damp with sweat. Good God! when he spoke, as he did suddenly, my own heart stood still.
"You're a hell of a bad man!" said Ben. The words split the air like the crack of a pistol in darkness. I saw Sage-brush writhe, saw his mouth open, saw his dry tongue upon his lower lip. Ben moved up to him. His eyes were like coals, and he laughed.
"You're a hell of a bad man. Greet," he said again. And poor Sage's jaw waggled; his lip dropped. I heard the Colonel gasp. And Ben spoke again as he thrust his right hand out.
"What's that you've got, Red River?" he asked. He thrust his hand deliberately under Sage's jacket, and took his "gun" from him. It was hideous, it was monstrous. It seemed to me that I saw a writhing thing beneath his heel. Tears, yes, tears, ran down Sage's cheeks, and he shook like a poor fascinated beast. An hour ago he had been a man; now he was lower than the poorest beast that limps vainly from inevitable death.
Ben spoke again, as he looked at Sage's six-shooter.
"Boys shouldn't be allowed to carry weepons," he said. And so saying he jammed the nuzzle of the gun against the beaten man's cheek. He raked his skin with it. Then he took it, "broke" it down, and shot the cartridges out on the bar. Sage cried. I saw tears run down his long moustaches. He shook like an aspen. I heard a horrible laugh outside. I could have struck the man who laughed. But we sat paralysed; not one of us moved, not even when Ben took hold of Sage's moustache and wagged his head to and fro. But I heard the old Colonel groan, and I knew that if he hadn't been maimed he would have done something that the rest of us could not do, or feared to do. For though I knew that Sage-brush's life was safe, I knew that no other's was. A word from anyone now would end in murder.
"Get out of this," said Ben; "get out of my town. Go back to Red River and tell 'em what I've done to you."
He turned the poor wretch round and kicked him to the door. He kicked him off the side-walk into the street, and then going back picked up Sage's "gun" and threw it after him. The Colonel went out, and I followed him. Sage was sobbing in the dust. His horse was "hung up" close by. I saw Bob White in the front of the crowd, standing close by the store at which he worked. I know now that I noticed an open barrel close by him. Some of Ben's parasites laughed. One mean hound kicked "Sage" as he lay, and the Colonel, who was standing by, caught him by the ear with his left hand and nearly wrenched it off. He never saw who did it, and no one told him, though he went howling to Ben, who still stood by the bar. Ben struck him across the mouth, and ordered some brandy. He needed it. And then he came out, just as Sage-brush was getting to his horse. A boy picked up his six-shooter from the dust and ran with it to him. I heard Greet's despair as he spoke to him.
"I don't need it no more. I'm not a man," he said, and he rode away through the parting crowd with his head upon his breast. And then, when the tragedy was played out, as it seemed, the tragedy began. For Ben Williams, after his victory, lost his self-control. He had been tried, and tried high, and now broke down into the desire to kill. He knew, and none knew better, how near a thing it had been. But for the lamp which shone more upon his opponent than on himself he might have been crawling in the dust. He saw the Colonel and fell into a bloody rage.
"You old dog, you fetched him here for me," said Ben, and there was running slaver on his lips. The crowd parted suddenly like a divided wave. I was ten yards from the old Colonel, and saw him standing upright like a man. He threw his hat upon the dusty road.
"Shoot me, then, you hound," he said. And even as he spoke Ben's pistol cracked, and the men about us groaned. I saw the old Colonel fall, and even as he fell, and almost before he touched the ground, I saw Bob White run to the barrel by the store. From it he took the bright head of a four-and-a-half pound axe, and he threw it straight at Ben Williams. It glittered in the lights from the saloon, and it struck Ben fairly with the edge upon the temple. He threw up his hands, and as they went up the muscles of his dead hand pulled the trigger of his pistol and the bullet went into the air. He fell prone in the dust, and writhed a little, and then lay quite still. And Bob was on his knees by old Webb, crying.
But the Colonel didn't die that time, though he went very near to it. Bob and I, and for the matter of that the whole town, nursed him through his trouble, and everyone was glad to see his white head again when he crawled down Main Street once more. Bob had no trouble over Ben Williams' death, for the jury which sat upon him declared that it was the most justifiable homicide which they had ever heard of.
"You see, I wam't heeled," said old Webb. "I had nary a gun on me. I do think, Bob, that if Ben had shot straight some of you would have strung him up."
All the town said so. But I have my doubts, for Ben Williams had a good few steers and plenty of money. And straight shooting, combined with money, will go a considerable way in the Panhandle of Texas even now.
"And what's come of poor Sage?" asked the Colonel. Not a soul knew till weeks afterwards, when a man came in from El Paso.
"After he crawled out of Red River, he drank and gambled all he had," said El Paso Smith, "and then he rode the drawheads of a train from Big Springs to our town. And now he's washing dishes at a low-down hash-house kept by a Mexican!"
"Is he tough any more?" asked the listeners.
"Tough!" sneered El Paso Smith. "Why, a Dutchman could slap his face any day and he'd take water then and there."