Wood said he guessed he broke the lying record that afternoon; and he said he reckoned if the little man swallowed half of what was give him, and there wasn't much of anything he gagged at, he must a-thought Palomitas—with its church twice Sundays and prayer-meetings regular three times a week, and its faro-bank with the preacher for dealer, and its Sunshine Club that was all mixed in with shooting-scrapes, and its Friendly Aid Society that attended mostly to what lynchings was needed—was something like a bit of heaven that had broke out from the corral it belonged in and gone to grazing in hell's front yard!
When he'd stuffed him as much as was needed, Wood told him—Santa Fe having fixed it that way—there was a Mexican church about a thousand years old over in the Canada that was worth looking at; and he told him he'd take him across on his buck-board to see it if he cared to go. He bit at that, just as Santa Fe counted on; and about four o'clock off they went—it was only three mile or so down to the Canada—in good time to get him back and give him what more was coming to him before he started off North again on the night train. Wood said the ride was real enjoyable—the little man showing up as sensible as anybody when he got to the church and struck things he knowed about; and it turned out he could talk French, and that pleased the padre—he was that French one I've spoke about, who was as white as they make 'em—and so things went along well.
* * * * *
The wind had set in to blow down the valley cool and pleasant as they was getting along home; and coming down on it, when they got about half a mile from Palomitas, they begun to hear shooting—and it kept on, and more of it, the closer they come to town. Knowing what Santa Fe had set the boys up to, Wood said he pretty near laughed out when he heard it; but he held in, he said—and told the little man, when he asked what it meant, that it didn't mean nothing in particular: being only some sort of a shooting-scrape, like enough—the same as often happened along about that time in the afternoon.
He said the little man looked queerish, and wanted to know if the men in the town was shooting at a target; and when Wood said he guessed they was targetting at each other, and likely there'd be some occurrences, he said he looked queerisher—and said such savagery was too horrible to be true. But he wasn't worried a bit about himself, Wood said—he was as nervy a little man, Wood said, as he'd ever got up to—and all he wanted was to have Wood whip the mules up, so he'd get there quick and see what was going on. Wood whipped up, right enough, and the mules took 'em a-kiting—going at a full run the last half-mile or so, and not coming down to a walk till they'd crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande and was most to the top of the hill. At the top of the hill they stopped—and that was a good place to stop at, for the circus was a-going on right there.
Things really did look serious; and Wood said—for all he'd been told what was coming—he more'n half thought the boys had got to rumpussing in dead earnest. Three or four was setting on the ground with their sleeves and pants rolled up tying up their arms and legs with their pocket-handkerchiefs; there was a feller—Nosey Green, it turned out to be—laying on one side in a sort of mixed-up heap like as if he'd dropped sudden; right in the middle of the road Blister Mike was sprawled out, with Santa Fe—his black clothes all over dust and his hat off—holding his head with one hand and feeling at his heart with the other; and just as the buck-board stopped, right in the thick of it, Kerosene Kate come a-tearing along, with the Sage-Brush Hen close after her, and plumped down on Mike and yelled out: "Oh, my husband! My poor husband! He is foully slain!"
It was all so natural, Wood said, that seeing it sudden that way give him a first-class jolt. For a minute, he said, he couldn't help thinking it was the real thing. As for the little man—and he likely would have took matters just the same, and no blame to him, if his feet had been as hard as anybody's—he swallowed the show whole. "Good Heavens!" says he, getting real palish. "What a dreadful thing this is!"
Santa let go of Mike's head and got up, brushing his pants off, and says solemn: "Our poor brother has passed from us. Palomitas has lost one of its most useful citizens—there was nobody who could mix drinks as he could—and the world has lost a noble man! Take away his stricken wife, my dear," he says, speaking to the Sage-Brush Hen. "Take poor Sister Rebecca home with you to the parsonage—my duties lie elsewhere at present—and pour out to her from your tender heart the balm of comfort that you so well know how to give."
Then he come along to the buck-board, and says to the little man: "I greatly regret that this unfortunate incident should have occurred while you are with us. From every point of view the event is lamentable. Brother Green, known familiarly among us because of his facial peculiarity as Nosey Green—the gentleman piled up over there on the other side of the road—was as noble-hearted a man as ever lived; so was Brother Michael, whom you met in all the pride of his manly strength only this morning at the Forest Queen bar. Both were corner-stones of our Sunshine Club, and among the most faithful of my parishioners. In deep despondency we mourn their loss!"
"It is dreadful—dreadful!" says the little man. And then he wanted to know how the shooting begun.
"The dispute that has come to this doubly fatal ending," says Santa Fe, shaking his head sorrowful, "related to cock-tails. In what I am persuaded was a purely jesting spirit, Brother Green cast aspersions upon Brother Michael's skill as a drink-mixer. The injustice of his remarks, even in jest, aroused Brother Michael's hot Celtic nature and led to a retort, harshly personal, that excited Brother Green's anger—and from words they passed quickly to a settlement of the matter with their guns. However, as the fight was conducted by both of them in an honorable manner, and was creditable equally to their courage and to their proficiency in the use of arms, it is now a back number and we may discharge it from our minds. Moreover, my dear sir, our little domestic difficulties must not be suffered to interfere with the duties of hospitality. It is high time that you should have your supper; and I even venture to ask that you will hurry your meal a little—to the end that you may have opportunity, before the departure of your train this evening, to see something of the brighter side of our little town. After this sombre scene, you will find, I trust, agreeable mental refreshment in witnessing—perhaps even in participating in—our friendly card-playing, and in taking part with us in our usual cheerful evening dance. By your leave, Brother Wood, I will seat myself on the rear of your buck-board and drive along with you into town."
The little man was too jolted to say anything—and up Charley hiked on the back of the buck-board, and away they went down the road. The rest followed on after: with the Hen holding fast to Kerosene, and Kerosene yelling for all she was worth; and behind come some of the boys toting Blister's corpse—with Blister swearing at 'em for the way they had his legs twisted, and ending by kicking loose and making a break by the shortcut back of the freight-house for home. The other corpse—seeing the way Blister was monkeyed with—stood off the ones that wanted to carry him, allowing he'd be more comfortable if he walked.
* * * * *
When the buck-board got down to the deepo the little man said he felt sickish—not being used to such goings-on—and didn't care much for eating his supper; and he said he thought likely he'd be better if he had a brandy-and-soda to settle his insides. So him and Santa Fe went across to the Forest Queen to get it—and the first thing they struck was Blister, come to life again, behind the bar!
Santa Fe hadn't counted on that card coming out—but he shook one to meet it down his sleeve, and played it as quick as he knowed how. "Ah, Patrick," says he, "so you have taken your poor brother's place." And to the little man, who was staring at Blister like a stuck pig, he says: "They were twin brothers, sir, this gentleman and the deceased—and, as you see, so alike that few of their closest friends could tell them apart."
"It was worse than that," says Blister, following right along with the same suit. "Only when one of us was drunk and the other sober, and that way there being a difference betwane us, could we tell our own selves apart—and indade I'm half for thinking that maybe it's meself, and not poor Mike, that's been killed by Nosey Green this day. But whichever of us it is that's dead, it's a domn good job—if your Reverence will excuse me saying so—the other one of us has made of Nosey: bad luck to the heart and lights of him, that are cooking this blessed minute in the hottest corner of hell!"
"Tut! Tut! Brother Patrick," says Santa Fe, speaking friendly but serious. "You know how strongly I feel about profanity—even when, as in the present instance, justly aroused resentment lends to it a colorable excuse. And also, my dear brother, I beg you to temper with charity your views as to Brother Green's present whereabouts. It is sufficient for all purposes of human justice that he has passed away. And now, if you please, you will supply our visitor, here—whose nerves not unnaturally are shaken by the tragic events of the past hour—with the brandy-and-soda that I am satisfied he really needs. In that need, my own nerves being badly disordered, I myself share; and as the agonizing loss that you have suffered has put a still more severe strain upon your nerves, Brother Patrick, I beg that you will join us. The drinks are on me."
"Sure your Reverence has a kind heart in you, and that's the holy truth," says Blister. "It's to me poor dead brother's health I'll be drinking, and with all the good-will in the world!"
They had another after that; and then Blister said there was luck in odd numbers, and he wanted to show Palomitas knowed how to be hospitable to strangers, and they must have one on the bar. They had it all right, and by that time—having the three of 'em in him—the little man said he was feeling better; but, even with his drinks to help him, when he come to eating his supper he didn't make out much of a meal. He seemed to be all sort of dreamy, and was like he didn't know where he was.
Santa Fe kept a-talking away to him cheerful while they was hashing; and when they'd finished off he told him he hoped what he'd see of the bright side of Palomitas—before his train started—would make him forget the cruelly sorrowful shadows of that melancholy afternoon. He was a daisy at word-slinging, Charley was—better'n most auctioneers. Then they come along together back to the bar-room—where the cloth was off the table, and the cards and chips out, ready for business to begin. All the boys was jammed in there—Nosey Green with his face tied up like he had a toothache, so it didn't show who he was—waiting to see what more was coming; and they was about busting with the laughs they had inside 'em, and ready to play close up to Santa Fe's hand.
Charley set down to deal, same as usual, and asked the little man to set down aside of him—telling him he'd likely be interested in knowing that what come to the bank that night would go to getting the melodeon the Sunday-school needed bad. And then he shoved the cards round the table, and things begun. The little man took it all dreamy—saying kind of to himself he'd never in all his born days expected to see a minister making money for Sunday-school melodeons by running a faro-bank. But he wasn't so dreamy but he had sense enough to keep out of the game. Santa Fe kept a-asking him polite to come in; but he kept answering back polite he wouldn't—saying he was no sort of a hand at cards.
About the size of it was, in all the matters he could see his way to that little man had as good a load of sand as anybody—and more'n most. Like enough at home he'd read a lot of them fool Wild West stories—the kind young fellers from the East, who swallow all that's told 'em, write up in books with scare pictures—and that was why in some ways he was so easy fooled. But I guess it would a-been a mistake to pick him up for a fool all round. Anyhow, Santa Fe got a set-back from him on his melodeon-faro racket—and set-backs didn't often come Santa Fe's way.
It wasn't a real game the little man was up against, and like enough he had the savey to ketch on to what was being give him. For the look of the thing they'd fixed to start with a baby limit, and not raise it till he got warmed up and asked to; and it was fixed only what he dropped—the rest going back to the boys—should stay with the bank. But as he didn't warm up any worth speaking of, and wasn't giving himself no chances at all to do any dropping, Santa Fe pretty soon found out they might as well hang up the melodeon fund and go on to the next turn.
* * * * *
The Sage-Brush Hen managed most of what come next, and she done it well. She'd dressed herself up in them white clothes of hers with a little blue bow tied on at the neck—looking that quiet and tidy and real lady-like you'd never a-notioned what a mixed lot she was truly—and she'd helped the other girls rig out as near the same way as they could come. Some of 'em didn't come far; but they all done as well as they knowed how to, and so they wasn't to be blamed. Old Tenderfoot Sal—she was the limit, Sal was—wasn't to be managed no way; so they just kept her out of the show.
When Santa Fe come to see faro-banking for melodeons wasn't money-making, he passed out word to the Hen to start up her part of the circus—and in the Hen come, looking real pretty in her white frock, and put her hand on his shoulder married-like and says: "Now, my dear, it isn't fair for you gentlemen to keep us ladies waiting another minute longer. We want our share in the evening's amusement. Do put the cards away and let us have our dance." And then she says to the little man, nice and friendly: "My husband is so eager to get our melodeon—and we really do need it badly, of course—that I have trouble with him every night to make him stop the game and give us ladies the dance that we do so enjoy." And then she says on to Charley again: "How has the melodeon fund come out to-night, my dear?"
"Very well indeed. Very well indeed, my angel," Charley says back to her. "Eleven dollars and a half have been added to that sacred deposit; and the contributions have been so equally distributed that no one of us will feel the trifling loss. But in interrupting our game, my dear, you are quite right—as you always are. Our guest is not taking part in it; and—as he cannot be expected to feel, as we do, a pleasurable excitement in the augmentation of our cherished little hoard—we owe it to him to pass to a form of harmless diversion in which he can have a share." And then he says to the little man: "I am sure, sir, that Mrs. Charles will be charmed to have you for her partner in the opening dance of what we playfully term our ball."
"The pleasure will be mine," says the little man—he was a real friendly polite little old feller—and up he gets and bows to the Hen handsome and gives her his arm: and then in he went with her to the dance-hall, with Santa Fe and the rest of us following on. It give us a first-class jolt to find all the girls so quiet-looking; and they being that way braced up the whole crowd to be like a dancing-party back East. To see the boys a-bowing away to their partners, while Jose—he was the fiddler, Jose was—was a tuning up, you wouldn't a-knowed where you was!
It was a square dance to start in with: with the little man and the Hen, and Charley and Kerosene Kate, a-facing each other; and Denver Jones with Carrots—that was the only name she ever had in Palomitas—and Shorty Smith and Juanita, at the sides. Them three was the girls the Hen had done best with; and she'd fixed 'em off so well they most might have passed for back-East school-ma'ams—at least, in a thickish crowd. Everybody else just stood around and looked on—and that time, with all the Forest Queen ways of managing dancing upset, it was the turn of the Palomitas folks to think they'd struck a dream! The little man, of course, didn't know he'd struck anything but what went on always—and the way he kicked around spirited on them short little fat legs of his was just a sight to see!
Like as not he hadn't got a good sight of Kerosene Kate while she was doing her killed husband act before supper; or, maybe, it was her being dressed up so tidy made a difference. Anyways, he didn't at first ketch on to her being about the freshest-made widow he'd ever tumbled to in a dancing-party. But he got there all right when the square dance was over, and Jose flourished his fiddle and sung out for the Senores and Senoritas to take partners for a valsa, and the Hen brought up Kerosene to foot it with him—telling him she was the organist who was going to play the melodeon when they got it, and he'd find her a nice partner as she was about the best dancer they had.
When he did size her up he was that took aback he couldn't talk straight. "But—but," says he, "isn't this the lady whose husband was—was—" and he stuck fast.
"Whose husband met with an accident this afternoon," says the Hen, helping him out with it. "Yes, this is our poor sister Rebecca—but the accident happened, you know, so many hours ago that the pang of it has passed; and—as Mr. Green, the gentleman who shot her husband, was shot right off himself—she feels, as we all do, that the incident is closed."
And then Kerosene put in: "Great Scott, mister, you don't know Palomitas! Widows in these parts don't set round moping their heads off all the rest of their lives. They wait long enough for politeness—same as I've done—and then they start in on a new deal."
The little man likely was too mixed up to notice Kerosene didn't talk pretty, like Santa Fe and the Hen knowed how to; and he was so all-round jolted that before he knew it—Kerosene getting a-hold of his hand with one of hers, and putting the other on his shoulder—he had his arm round her waist kind of by instinct and was footing it away with her the best he knowed how. But while he was a-circling about with her he was the dreamiest looking one you ever seen. Kerosene said afterwards she heard him saying to himself over and over: "This can't be real! This can't be real!"
What happened along right away after was real enough for him—at least, he thought it was, and that come to the same thing. He was so dizzied up when Kerosene stopped dancing him—she was doing the most of it, she said, he keeping his little fat legs going 'cause she swung him round and he had to—all he wanted was to be let to set down. So Kerosene set him—and then the next act was put through.
Bill Hart and Shorty Smith come up to Kerosene right together, and both of 'em asked her polite if she'd dance. She said polite she'd be happy to; but she said, seeing both gentlemen had spoke at once for her, they must fix it between 'em which one had the call. All the same, she put her hand on Hart's arm, like as if he was the one she wanted—and of course that pleased Hart and made Shorty mad. Then the two of 'em begun talking to each other, Hart speaking sarcastic and Shorty real ugly, and so things went on getting hotter and hotter—till Kerosene, doing it like she meant to break up the rumpus, shoved Hart's arm round her and started to swing away. Just as they got a-going, Shorty out with his gun and loosed off at Hart with it—and down Hart went in a heap on the floor.
The whole place, of course, right away broke into yells and cusses, and everybody come a-crowding into a heap—some of the boys picking up Hart and carrying him, kicking feeble real natural, out into the kitchen; and some more grabbing a-hold of Shorty and taking away his gun. Kerosene let off howls fit to blow the roof off—only quieting down long enough to say she'd just agreed to take Hart for her second, and it was hard luck to be made a widow of twice in one day. Then she howled more. Really, things did go with a hum!
Santa Fe and the rest come a-trooping back from the kitchen—leaving the door just a crack open, so Hart could peep through and see the fun—and Santa Fe jumped up on a bench and sung out "Order!" as loud as he could yell. Knowing what was expected of 'em, the boys quieted down sudden; and the Hen got a-hold of Kerosene and snuggled her up to her, and told her to weep on her fond breast—and Kerosene started in weeping on the Hen's fond breast all right, and left off her howls. The room was that quiet you could a-heard a cat purr.
"My brethren," says Charley, talking sad-sounding and digging away at his eyes with his pocket-handkerchief, "Brother Hart has left us"—Hart being in the kitchen that was dead true—"and for the third time to-day our Sunshine Club has suffered a fatal loss. Still more lamentable is the case of our doubly stricken sister Rebecca—only just recovered, by time's healing touch, from the despair of her tragic widowhood, and at the threshold of a new glad life of wedded happiness—who again is desolately bereaved." (Kerosene give a dreadful groan—seeming to feel something was expected of her—and then jammed back to the Hen's fond breast again and kept on a-weeping like a pump.) "Our hearts are with Sister Rebecca in her woe," says Charley. "She has all our sympathy, and the full help of our sustaining love."
"If I know anything about the sense of this meeting," Hill chipped in, "it's going to do a damn sight more'n sling around sympathy." (Hill had a way of speaking careless, but he didn't mean no harm by it.) "That shooting wasn't a square one," says Hill; "and it's likely there'll be another member missing from the Sunshine Club for doing it. There's telegraph-poles," says Hill, "right across the way!"
"Brother Hill is right," Santa Fe went on, "though I am pained that his unhappy disposition to profanity remains uncurbed. The shot that has laid low Brother Hart was a foul one. Justice, my friends, exemplary justice, must be meted out to the one who laid and lowered him; and I reckon the quicker we get Brother Smith over to the deepo, and up on the usual telegraph-pole—as Brother Hill has suggested—the better it'll be for the moral record of our town. All in favor of such action will please signify it by saying 'Ay.'" And the whole crowd—except Shorty, who voted against it—yelled out "Ay" so loud it shook all the bottles in the bar.
"The ayes have it," says Santa Fe, "and we will proceed. Brother Wood, as chairman of the Friendly Aid Society, I beg that you will go on ahead to the deepo and get ready the rope that on these occasions you so obligingly lend us from the Company's stores. Brother Jones and Brother Hill, you will kindly bring along the prisoner. The remaining Friendly Aiders present will have the goodness, at the appropriate moment, to render the assistance that they usually supply." And off Charley went, right after Wood, with the rest of us following on: Hill and Denver yanking along Shorty and flourishing their guns savage; the girls in a pack around the Hen holding on to Kerosene; and Kerosene doing her share of what was wanted by letting out yells.
The little man was left to himself a-purpose; and he was so shook up, while he was coming along with the crowd over to the deepo, he couldn't say a word. But he managed to get his stamps going, though they didn't work well, when we was all on the platform—waiting while Wood rigged up the rope on the telegraph-pole—and he asked Santa Fe, speaking husky, what the boys meant to do.
"Justice!" says Charley, talking as dignified as a just-swore-in sheriff. "As I explained to you this morning, sir, nobody in Palomitas ever stands in the way of a fair fight—like the one you happened to come in on at the finish a few hours ago—any more than good citizens, elsewhere and under different conditions, interfere with the processes of the courts. But when the fight is not fair, as in the present instance—the gravamen of the charge against Brother Smith being that he loosed off into Brother Hart's back when the latter did not know it was coming and hadn't his gun out—then the moral sense of our community crystallizes promptly into the punitive action that the case demands: as you will see for yourself, inside of the next ten minutes, when you see Brother Smith run up on that second telegraph-pole to the left and kicking his legs in the air until he kicks himself into Kingdom Come!"
"Good Heavens!" says the little man. "You're not going to—to hang him?"
"We just rather are!" says Santa Fe. And then he says, talking kind of cutting: "May I ask, sir, what you do in England with murderers? Do you pay 'em salaries, and ask 'em out to tea-parties, and hire somebody to see they have all the drinks they want?"
The little man begun telling how English folks manage such matters, and was real excited. But nobody but the Hen paid no attention to him. The Hen—she and Kerosene was standing close aside of him—turned round to him and said pleasant she always enjoyed most the hangings they had by moonlight (the moon was at the full, and shining beautiful) because the moonlight, she said, cast over them such a glamour of romance. And her looking at moonlight hangings that way seemed to give him such a jolt he stopped talking and give a kind of a gasp. There wasn't no more time for talking, anyway—for just then the train backed in to the platform and the conductor sung out the Friendly Aiders had got to get a move on 'em, if them going by it was to see the doings, and put Shorty through.
Being moonlight, and the shadows thick, helped considerable—keeping from showing how the boys had fixed Shorty up so his hanging wouldn't come hard: with a lariat run round under his arms, his shirt over it, and a loop just inside his collar where they could hitch the rope fast. When they did hitch to it, things looked just as natural as you please.
Shorty got right into the hanging spirit—he always was a comical little cuss, Shorty was—pleading pitiful with the boys to let up on him; and, when they wouldn't, getting a halt on 'em—same as he'd seen done at real hangings—by beginning to send messages to all the folks he ever had. Santa Fe let him go on till he'd got to his uncles and cousins—and then he said he guessed the rest of the family could make out to do with second-hand messages from them that had them; and as it was past train-time, and the distinguished stranger in their midst—who was going on it—would enjoy seeing the show through, the hanging had got to be shoved right along. When Charley'd give his order, Carver come up—he was the Pullman conductor, Carver was, and he had his points how to manage—and steered the little man onto the back platform of the Pullman, where he could see well; and so had things all ready for the train to pull out as soon as Shorty was swung off.
Wood, who'd had experience, had the rope rigged up in good shape over the cross-bar of the telegraph-pole; and Hill and Denver fetched old Shorty along—with Shorty letting on he was scared stiff, and yowling like he'd been ashamed to if it hadn't been a bunco game he was playing—and hitched him to it, with the boys standing close round in a clump so they hid the way it was done.
The little man was so worked up by that time—it likely being he hadn't seen much of hangings—he was just a-hopping: with his plug hat off, and sousing the sweat off his face with his pocket-handkerchief, and singing out what was going on wasn't any better than murder, and begging all hands not to do what he said was such a dreadful deed.
But nobody paid no attention to him (except Carver, he was a friendly feller, Carver was, kept a lookout he didn't tumble himself off the platform) and when Denver sung out things was ready, and Santa Fe sung out back for the Friendly Aiders to haul away, the boys all grabbed onto the rope together—and up Shorty went a-kicking into the air.
Shorty really did do his act wonderful: kicking every which way at first, and then only sort of squirming, and then quieting down gradual till he just hung limp—with the kick all kicked out of him—turning round and round slow!
When he'd quieted, the train conductor swung his lantern to start her, and off she went—the little man standing there on the back platform of the Pullman, a-grabbing at the railing like he was dizzy, looking back with all his eyes. And old Shorty up on the telegraph-pole, making a black splotch twisting about in the moonlight, was the last bit of Palomitas he seen!
* * * * *
Next day but one Carver come down again on his regular run, and he told the boys the little man kept a-hanging onto the platform railing and a-looking back hard till the train got clean round the curve. Then he give a kind of a coughing groan, Carver said, and come inside the Pullman—there wasn't no other passengers that night in the Pullman—and plumped himself down on a seat anyways, a-looking as white as a clean paper collar; and for a while he just set there, like he had a pain.
At last he roused up and reached for his grip and got his flask out and had a good one; and when he'd had it he says to Carver, as savage as if Carver—who hadn't had no hand in the doings—was the whole business: "Sir, this America of yours is a continent of chaos—and you Americans are no better than so many wild beasts!" Then he had another; and after that he went on, like he was talking to himself: "All I ask is to get out of this nightmare of a country in a hurry—and safe back to my own home in the Avenue Road!" And from then on, Carver said, till it was bedtime—except now and then he took another—he just set still and glared.
Carver said it wasn't any funeral of his, and so he didn't see no need to argue with him. And he allowed, he said, maybe he had some call to feel the way he did about America, and to want to get quick out of it, after being up against Palomitas for what he guessed you might say was a full day.
THE PURIFICATION OF PALOMITAS
In the long run, same as I said to start with, all tough towns gets to where it's needed to have a clean-up. Shooting-scrapes is a habit that grows; and after a while decent folks begins to be sort of sick of such doings—and of having things all upside-downey generally—and then something a little extry happens, bringing matters to a head, and the white men take hold and the toughs is fired. Just to draw a card anywheres from the pack—there was Durango. What made a clean town of Durango was that woman getting killed in bed in her tent—the boys being rumpussing around, same as usual, and a shot just happening her way and taking her. It was felt that outsiders—and 'specially ladies—oughtn't to get no such treatment; and so they had a spring house-cleaning—after what I reckon was the worst winter a town ever went through—and Durango was sobered right down.
Palomitas went along the same trail, and took the same pass over the divide. All through that year, while the end of the track hung there, things kept getting more and more uncomfortabler. When construction started up again—the little Englishman, in spite of the dose we give him, reported favorable on construction and the English stockholders put up the stake they was asked to—things got to be worse still. Right away, as soon as work begun, the place was jammed full of Greasers getting paid off every Saturday night, and all day Sunday being crazy drunk and knifing each other, and in between scrappings having their pay sucked out of 'em at the banks and dance-halls—and most of the boys going along about the same rate, except they used guns instead of knives to settle matters—so the town really was just about what you might call a quarter-section of hell's front yard.
Being that way, it come to be seen there'd got to be a clean-up; and what was wanted for a starter was give by Santa Fe Charley shooting Bill Hart. There was no real use for the shooting. The two of 'em just got to jawing in Hart's store about which was the best of two brands of plug tobacco—Hart being behind the counter, and Charley, who had a bad jag on, setting out in the middle of the store on a nail-kag—and the first thing anybody knowed, Charley'd let go with his derringer through his pants-pocket and Hart was done for. If Santa Fe hadn't been on one of his tears at the time, the thing wouldn't a-happened—him and Hart always having been friendly, and 'specially so after the trouble they'd had together over Hart's aunt. But when it did happen—being so sort of needless, and Hart popular—most of us made our minds up something had got to be done.
* * * * *
Joe Cherry headed the reform movement. He had a bunch of sheep up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Cherry had, but was in town frequent and always bunked at Hart's store—him and Hart having knowed each other back East and being great friends. That made him take a 'special interest in the matter; and when he come a-riding in about an hour after things was over—likely he'd a-fixed Santa Fe himself if he'd been there when it happened—he got right up on his ear. He said he meant to square accounts for Bill's shooting, and he reckoned telegraph-poling Charley was about what was needed to square 'em; and he said it was a good time, with that for a starter, for rounding-up and firing all the toughs there was in town. The rest of us allowed Cherry's notions was reasonable, and it was seen there'd better be no fooling over 'em; and so we went straight on and had a meeting, with Cherry chairman, and fixed up a Committee—and the Committee begun business by corralling Santa Fe, and then set to work and made out a list of them that was to be fired.
There was about a dozen of 'em in the list; and they was told—the notice being posted at the deepo—they had twenty-four hours to get out in; and it was added that them that wasn't out in twenty-four hours would find 'emselves landed on the dumps for keeps. A few of 'em kicked a little—saying it was a free country, and they guessed they'd a right to be where they'd a mind to. But when the Committee said back it just was a free country, and one of the freest things in it was telegraph-poles—as Santa Fe Charley was going to find out for certain, and as them that was ordered to get up and get and didn't would find out along with him—even the kickingest of 'em seen they'd better just shut their heads and andy along.
It wasn't till the Committee come to tackle the Sage-Brush Hen there was any trouble—and then they found their drills was against quartz! Two or three of Charley's worst shootings was charged to the Hen, she being 'special friends with him; and just because she was such a good-natured obliging sort of a woman, always wanting to please everybody, she was at the roots of half the fights that started in—so there'd come to be what was called the Hen's Lot out in the cemetery on the mesa, as I've mentioned before. The Committee put her in their list because they knowed for a fact there was bound to be ructions in Palomitas as long as she stayed there; and so they found 'emselves in a deepish hole when she said plump Palomitas suited her, and she didn't mean to be fired. The Hen knowed as well as they did she had a cinch on 'em. If they didn't like her staying, she said, they could yank her up to the next telegraph-pole to Charley's—and then she asked 'em, kind of cool and cutting, if they didn't think hanging a lady would give a nice name to the town!
The Committee was in session in the waiting-room at the deepo while the Hen was doing her talking, and Santa Fe—with handcuffs on, and tied to the express messenger's safe—was in the express office, with the door open between. Everybody seen the Hen was right, and hanging her would be ungentlemanly, and nobody seemed to know what they'd better do. While they was all setting still and thinking, Santa Fe spoke up from the express office—saying he had the reputation of the town at heart as much as anybody, and to make a real clean-up the Hen ought to quit along with the others, and if they'd let him have five minutes private talk with her he'd fix things so she'd go.
The Committee didn't much believe Santa Fe could deliver the goods; but they seen it would be a way out for 'em if he did—and so they agreed him and the Hen should have their talk. To make it private, he was took out and hitched fast to a freight-car laying on the siding back of the deepo—the Committee standing around in easy shooting distance, but far enough off not to hear nothing, with their Winchesters handy in case the Hen took it into her head to cut the rope and give him a chance to get away. She didn't—and she and Santa Fe talked to each other mighty serious for a while; and then they begun to snicker a little; and they ended up in a rousing laugh.
Charley sung out they'd finished, and the Committee closed in and unhitched him, and took him back to the express office and hitched him to the safe again—where he was to stay till hanging-time, with members of the Committee taking turns keeping him quiet with their guns. He said he was much obliged to 'em, and the Hen had agreed to quit—and everybody was pleased all round.
"I don't like not being here when Charley gets his medicine," the Hen said, "him and me being such good friends; but he says it would only worry him having me in the audience, and so I've promised him I'll light out"—and she kept her word, and got away for Denver by that night's train. Her going took a real load off the Committee's mind.
Some of the other fired ones went off on the same train. The rest took Hill's coach across to Santa Fe—and made no trouble, Hill said, except they held the coach for two hours at Pojuaque while all hands got drunk at old man Bouquet's. Hill said all the rest of the way they was yelling, and firing off their guns, and raising hell generally—that was the way Hill put it—but they didn't do no real harm.
It was Joe Cherry's notion that Santa Fe should be took along to Hart's funeral, and not hung till everybody got back to town again. Joe was a serious-minded man, and he said the moral effect of running things that way would pan out a lot richer than if they just had a plain hanging before the funeral got under way.
Santa Fe kicked at that, at first; and a good many of the boys felt he had a right to. Santa Fe said it was all in the game to run him up to the telegraph-pole in front of the deepo, the same as other folks; but no committee had no right, he said, to make a circus of him by packing him all round the place after poor old Bill—who always had been plain in his tastes, and would have been the last man in Palomitas to want that kind of a fuss made over him—and he didn't mean to take a hand in no such fool carryings-on. He didn't want anybody to think he was squirming, he said, for he wasn't. Some men got up against telegraph-poles, and others got up against guns or pneumonia or whatever happened to come along—and it was all in the day's work. But when they did get up against it—whatever it turned out to be—that was the one time in their lives when it wasn't fair to worry 'em more'n was needed. Nobody but chumps, he said, would want to hurt his feelings by making him do trick-mule acts at poor old Bill's funeral—'specially as him and Bill always had been friendly, and nobody was sorrier than he was about the accident that had occurred.
Santa Fe was a first-rate talker, and everybody but Cherry allowed what he was letting out had a good deal of sense in it. He ended up by saying that if they did make any such fool show of him he'd like 'em to put it through quick and get him back to the deepo and telegraph him off to Kingdom Come in a hurry—as he'd be glad at any price to be shut of a crowd that would play it on anybody that low down!
Cherry stuck it out, though, to have things his way. Palomitas was going in for purification, Cherry said, and the moral effect of having Santa Fe along at Bill's funeral was part of the purifying. The very fact that Santa Fe was kicking so hard against it, he said, showed it was a good thing. There was sense in that, too; and so the upshot of it was the boys come round to Cherry's plan. The only serious thing against it was it meant waiting over another day, till the funeral outfit got down from Denver—all hands having chipped in to give Hart a good send-off, and telegraphed his size to a first-class Denver undertaker, with orders to do him up in style. Making him wait around so long, sort of idle, was what Santa Fe kicked hardest against at first. But after his talk with the Hen, as was remembered afterwards, he didn't do any more kicking; and some of the boys noticed he was a little nervous, and kept asking, off and on, if they still meant to run the show that way.
The boys did what they could to make the time go for him—setting around sociable in the express office telling stories about other hangings they'd happened to get up against, and trying all they knowed how to amuse him, and giving him more seegars and drinks than he really cared to have. But as he was kept hitched to both handles of the safe right enough, and handcuffed, and as the two members of the Committee watching him—while they was as pleasant with him as anybody—never had their hands far off their guns, it's likely there'd been other times when he'd enjoyed himself more.
* * * * *
Things was spirited at the deepo when the Denver train got in. All there was of Palomitas was on deck, and Becker'd come over from Santa Cruz de la Canada, and old man Bouquet from Pojuaque, and Sam and Marcus Elbogen had driven across on their buck-board from San Juan—and Mexicans had come in from all around in droves.
The Elbogen brothers had been asked over for the funeral 'special—because they both had good voices, and the Committee thought like enough, being Germans, they'd know some hymns. It turned out they didn't—but they blew off "The Watch on the Rhine" in good shape, when singing time come out at the cemetery; and as it was a serious-sounding tune it done just as well. Singing it made trouble, though: because Hart's nephew—who knowed German and was a pill—hadn't no more sense'n to tell old man Bouquet, coming back to town, what the words meant; and that started old man Bouquet off so—the war not being long over, and his side downed—that it took two of us, holding him by his arms and legs, to keep him from trying to fight both the Elbogens at once. Being good-natured young fellows, the Elbogens didn't take offence, but behaved like perfect gentlemen—telling old man Bouquet they didn't mean to hurt his feelings, and was sorry if they had—and it ended up well by their having drinks together at the Forest Queen. All that, though, has no real bearing on the story. It happened along later in the day.
Before the train got in, to save time, a rope had been rigged for Santa Fe over the cross-bar of the usual telegraph-pole—and Cherry, who knowed how to manage better'n most, had seen to it the rope was well soaped so as to run smooth. Cherry said he'd knowed things go real annoying, sometimes, when the soap had been forgot. Santa Fe looked well. He'd had a good brush up—and he needed it, after being tied fast to the safe for three days and sleeping in a blanket on the express-office floor—and he'd put on a clean shirt, and blacked his boots, and had a shave. He always was a tidy sort of a man.
When the train pulled in, being on time for a wonder, some fellows from Chamita and the Embudo—come to see the doings—got out from the day-coach and shook hands; and the Denver undertaker got out from the express-car and helped the messenger unload the fixings he'd brought for poor old Bill. Everybody stood around quiet like, and as serious as you please. You might have thought it was a Sunday morning back in the States.
Except now and then a drummer—bound for Santa Fe on Hill's coach—nobody much ever come to Palomitas on the Pullman; and so there was something of a stir-up when the Pullman conductor helped a lady out of the car—landing her close to where Charley in his clean shirt and handcuffs on was standing between two members of the Committee holding guns. She was a fine-shaped woman, but looked oldish—as well as you could see for the veil she had on—having a sad pale face a good deal wrinkled and a bunch of gray hair. She was dressed in measly old black clothes, and had an old black shawl on, and looked poor.
Getting out into that crowd of men seemed to rattle her, and she didn't for a minute look at nobody. It wasn't till she a'most butted into Charley she seen him—and when she did see him she let off a yell loud enough to give points to a locomotive! And then she sort of sobbed out: "My husband!"—and got her arms around Santa Fe's neck and begun to cry.
"My God! It's my wife!" said Charley. And if the members of the Committee hadn't caught the two of 'em quick they'd likely tumbled down.
Santa Fe was the first to get his wind back. "My poor darling!" he said. "To think that you should have come to me at last—and in this awful hour!"
"What does it mean, Charley? Tell me, what does it mean?" she moaned.
Santa Fe snuggled her up to him—as well as he could with his hands handcuffed—and said back to her: "It means, Mary, that in less than two hours' time I am to be hung! In the heat of passion I have killed a man. It was more than half an accident, as everybody here knows"—and he looked over her head at the boys as they all jammed in to listen—"but that don't matter, so far as the dreadful result is concerned. I loved the man I shot like my own brother, and shooting him in that chance way has about broken my heart. But that don't count either. Justice must be done, my darling. Stern justice must be done. You have come just in time to see your husband die!" He was quiet for a minute, with the woman all in a shake against him—and a kind of a snuffling went through the crowd. Then he said, sort of choky: "Tell me, Mary, how are our dear little girls?"
She was too broke up to answer him. She just kept on hugging him, and crying as hard as she could cry.
"Gentlemen," said Santa Fe, "it is better that this painful scene should end. Take my poor wife from me, and let me pay the just penalty of my accidental crime. Take her away, please—and hang me as quick as you can!"
"They sha'n't hang you, Charley! They sha'n't! They sha'n't!" she sung out—and she jerked away from him and got in front of Cherry and pitched down on the deepo platform on her knees. "Don't hang him, sir!" she groaned out. "Spare him to me, and to our dear little girls who love him with all their little hearts! Oh, sir, say that he shall be saved!"
"Get up, ma'am, please," Cherry said, looking as worried as he could look. "That's no sort of a way for a lady to do! Please get up right away."
"Never! Never!" she said. "Never till you promise me that the life of my dear husband shall be spared!"—and she grabbed Cherry round the knees and groaned dreadful. He really was the most awkward-looking man, with her holding onto his legs that way, you ever seen!
"Oh, Lord, ma'am, do get up!" he said. "Having you like that for another minute'll make me sick. I'm not used to such goings-on"—and Cherry did what he could to work loose his legs.
But she hung on so tight he couldn't shake her, and kept saying, "Save him! Save him!" and uttering groans.
Cherry wriggled his legs as much as he could and looked around at the boys. They all was badly broke up, and anybody could see they was weakening. "Shall we let up on Santa Fe this time?" he asked. "I guess it's true he didn't more'n half mean, being drunk the way he was, to shoot Bill—and it makes things different, anyway, knowing he's got kids and a wife. Bill himself would be the first to allow that. Bill was as kind-hearted a man as ever lived. Do please, ma'am, let go."
Nobody spoke for a minute—but it was plain how the tide was setting—and then Santa Fe himself chipped in. "Gentlemen," he said, "you all know I've faced this music from the first without any squirming, and even come into Joe Cherry's plan for making me do circus stunts at the funeral for the good of the town. I'm ready to go through the whole fool business right now, and come back here when it's all over and be hung according to contract—"
"Save him! Save him!" the woman sung out; and she give such a jerk to Cherry's legs it come close to spilling him.
"But I will say this much, gentlemen," Santa Fe went on: "I am willing to ask for the sake of my dear wife and helpless innocent infants what I wouldn't be low down enough to ask for myself—and that is that you call this game off. This dreadful experience has changed me, gentlemen. It has changed me right down to my toes. Being as close to a telegraph-pole as I am now makes a man want to turn over a new leaf and behave—as some of you like enough'll find out for yourselves if you don't draw cards from my awful example and brace up all you know how. Give me another show, gentlemen. That's what I ask for—give me another show. Let me go home with my angel wife to the dear old farm in Ohio, where my aged mother and my sweet babes are waiting for me. Like enough they're standing out by the old well in the front yard looking down the road for me now!" Santa Fe gagged so he couldn't go on for a minute. But he pulled himself together and finished with his chest out and his chin up and speaking firm. "Let me go home, I say, to the old farm and my dear ones—and take a fresh start at leading bravely the honest life of an honest man!"
Then he lowered down his chin and took his chest in and said, sort of soft and gentle: "Let go of Mr. Cherry's legs and come and kiss me, my darling! And please wipe the tears from my eyes—with my poor shackled hands I can't!"
The woman give Cherry's legs one more rousing jerk, and said, sort of imploring: "Save him! Save him for his old mother's sake, and for mine, and for the sake of our little girls!" Then she got up and wiped away at Santa Fe's eyes with her pocket-handkerchief, and went to kissing him for all she was worth—holding on to him tight around the neck with both arms.
The boys was all as uncomfortable as they could be—except Cherry seemed to feel better at getting his legs loose—and some of 'em fairly snuffled out loud. They stood around looking at each other, and nobody said a word. Then Santa Fe kind of wrenched loose from her kissing him and spoke up. "Which is it to be, gentlemen?" he said. "Is it the telegraph-pole—or is it another chance?" The woman moaned fit to break her heart.
The silence, except for her moaning, hung on for a good minute. Then Hill broke it. "Oh, damn it all!" said Hill—it was Hill's way to talk sort of careless—"Give him another chance!"
That settled things. In another minute they had the handcuffs off of Santa Fe and all the boys was shaking hands with him. And then they was asking to be introduced to his wife—she was all broke to bits, and crying, and kept her veil down—and shaking hands with her too; and they ended off by giving Charley and his wife three cheers. You never seen folks so pleased! The only one out of it was the Denver undertaker—who couldn't be expected to feel like the rest of us; and was in a hurry, anyway, to put through his job so he could start back home on the night train.
"You come along with me in the coach, Charley," Hill said—Hill always was a friendly sort of a fellow—"and I'll jerk you over to Santa Fe in no time, and you can start right off East by the 6.30 train. That'll be quicker'n going up to Pueblo, and it'll be cheaper too. The ride across sha'n't cost you a cent. If you and your lady come in my coach, you come free. And I say, boys," Hill went on, "let's open a pot for them little girls! Here's my hat, with ten dollars in it for a warmer. I'd make it more if I could—and nobody'll hurt my feelings by raising my call."
All hands made a rush for Hill's hat—and when Hill handed it to that poor woman, who had her pocket-handkerchief up to her eyes under her veil and was crying so she shook all over, there was more'n two hunderd dollars in it, mostly gold. "This is for them children, ma'am, with all our compliments," Hill said—and he and Charley helped her hold her shawl up, so it made a kind of a bag, while he turned his hat upside-down.
"Speaking for my dear little girls, I thank you from my heart, gentlemen," Santa Fe said. "This is a royal gift, and it comes at a mighty good time. Some part of it must be used to pay our way East—back to the dear old home, where those little angels are waiting for us sitting cuddled up on their grandmother's knees. What remains, I promise you gentlemen, shall be a sacred deposit—to be used in buying little dresses, and hats, and things, for my sweet babes. I hate to use a single cent of it for anything else, but the fact is just now I'm right down to the hardpan." And everybody—remembering Santa Fe'd took advantage of being on his drunk to get cleaned out at Denver Jones's place the night before the shooting—knowed this was true.
"Well, Charley, we must be andying along," Hill said. "Waiting here to see you hung has put me more'n an hour behind on my schedule. I'll have to hustle them mules like hell"—that was the careless way Hill talked always—"if we're going to ketch that 6.30 train."
Everybody shook hands for good-bye with Santa Fe and his wife, and Santa Fe had his pockets stuffed full of seegars, and more bottles was put in the coach than was needed—and then we give 'em three cheers again, and away they went down the slope to the bridge over the Rio Grande, with Hill whipping away for all he was worth and cussing terrible at his mules. Whipping done some good, Hill used to say; but cuss-words was the only sure things to make mules go.
"Well, boys," said Cherry, when the yelling let up a little. "I guess getting shut of Santa Fe that way is better'n hanging him; and I guess—with him and the Hen and the rest of 'em fired out of it—we've got Palomitas purified about down to the ground. And what's to all our credits, we've ended off by doing a first-class good deed! Them little girls'll be pleased and happy when their mother gets back to 'em with our money in her pocket, and brings along in good shape their father—who'd just about be in the thick of his kicking on that telegraph-pole, by this time, if she hadn't romped in the way she did on the closest kind of a close call!
"And now let's turn to and get poor old Bill planted. We've kind of lost sight of Bill in the excitement—and we owe him a good deal. If Santa Fe hadn't started the reform movement by shooting him, we'd still be going on in the same old way. You may say it's all Bill's doings that Palomitas has been give the clean-up it wanted, and wanted bad!"
* * * * *
When Hill drove into town next afternoon—coming to the deepo, where most of the boys was setting around waiting for the train to pull out—he was laughing so he was most tumbling off the box.
"I've got the damnedest biggest joke on this town," Hill said—Hill had the habit of talking that off-hand way—"that ever was got on a town since towns begun!"
Hill was so full of it he couldn't hold in to make a story. He just went right on blurting it out: "Do you boys know who that wife of Charley's was that blew in yesterday from Denver? I guess you don't! Well, I do—she was the Sage-Brush Hen! Yes sirree," Hill said, so full of laugh he couldn't hardly talk plain; "that's just who she was! All along from the first there was something about her shape I felt I ought to know, and I was dead right. It come out while we was stopping at Bouquet's place at Pojuaque for dinner—they both knowing I'd see it was such a joke I wouldn't spoil it by giving it away too soon. She went in the back room at Bouquet's to have a wash and a brush up—and when she come along to table she'd got over being Charley's wife and was the Hen as good as you please! She hadn't a gray hair or a wrinkle left nowhere, and was like she always was except for her black clothes. When she saw my looks at seeing her, she got to laughing fit to kill herself—just the same gay old Hen as ever; and she always was, you know, the most comical-acting sort of a woman, when she wanted to be, anybody ever seen.
"When she quieted down her laughing a little she told me the whole story. She and Charley'd fixed it up between 'em, she said; and she'd whipped up to Denver on one train and down again on the next—buying quick her gray hair and her black outfit, and getting somebody she knowed at the Denver theatre to fix her face for her so she'd look all broke up and old. She nearly gave the whole thing away, she said, when Charley asked her about the little girls. He just throwed that in, without her expecting it—and it set her to laughing and shaking so, back of her veil, that we'd a-ketched up with her sure, she said, if Charley hadn't whispered quick to pretend to cry and carry off her laughing that way. She had another close call, she said, when Charley was talking about the old farm in Ohio—she all the time knowing for a fact he was born in East St. Louis, and hadn't any better acquaintance with Ohio than three months in the Cincinnati jail. Charley ought to go on the stage, she says—where she's been herself. She says he'd lay Forrest and Booth and all them fellows out cold!
"She and Charley just yelled while she was telling it all to me; and they was laughing 'emselves 'most sick all the rest of the way across to Santa Fe. When we got into town I drove 'em to the Fonda; and then the Hen rigged herself out in good clothes she bought at Morse's—it was the pot we made up for them sweet babes paid for her outfit—and give her old black duds to one of the Mexican chambermaids. They allowed—knowing I could be trusted not to go around talking in Santa Fe—they'd stay on at the Fonda till to-morrow, anyway: so I might let 'em know, when I get back again, how you boys took it when you was told how they'd played it on you right smack down to the ground!
"Charley sent word he hoped there wouldn't be no hard feeling—as there oughtn't to be, he said, seeing he was so drunk when he shot Bill it was just an accident not calling for hanging; and the whole thing, anyways, being all among friends. And the Hen sent word she guessed the two of 'em had give you a first-class theatre show worth more'n you put in my hat for gate-money, and you all ought to be pleased. And they both said they'd been treated so square by you fellows they'd be real sorry to have any misunderstanding, and they hoped you'd take the joke friendly—the same as they meant it themselves."
* * * * *
Well, of course we all did take it friendly—it wouldn't a-been sensible to take as good a joke as that was any other way. Cherry was the only one that squirmed a little. "It's on us, and it's on us good," Cherry said; "and I'm not kicking—only you boys haven't got no notion what it is having a woman a-grabbing fast to your legs and groaning at you, and how dead sick it makes you feel!"
Cherry stopped for a minute, and looked as if he was a'most sick with just thinking about it. Then he sort of shook himself and got a brace on, and went ahead with his chin up like he was making a speech in town-meeting—and it turned out, as it don't always in town-meeting speeches, what he said was true.
"Gentlemen," said Cherry, "there's this to be said, and we have a right to say it proudly: we've give this town the clean-up we set out to give it, and from now on it's going to stay clean. There won't be any more doings; or, if there is, the Committee 'll know the reason why. Palomitas is purified, gentlemen, right down to the roots; and I reckon I'm mistook bad—worse'n I was when the Hen was yanking my legs about—if the Committee hasn't sand enough and rope enough to keep on keeping it pure!"