G. W. OGDEN
Author of The Duke of Chimney Butte, The Flockmaster of Poison Creek, The Land of Last Chance, Etc.
Frontispiece by P. V. E. Ivory
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York Made in the United States of America
Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1921 Published September, 1921 Copyrighted in Great Britain
I The Unconquered Land 1 II The Meat Hunter 11 III First Blood 23 IV The Optimist Explains 36 V Ascalon Awake 54 VI Riders of the Chisholm Trail 65 VII A Gentle Cowboy Joke 77 VIII The Atavism of a Man 87 IX News from Ascalon 101 X The Hour of Vengeance 111 XI The Penalty 124 XII In Place of a Regiment 141 XIII The Hand of the Law 157 XIV Some Fool With a Gun 165 XV Will His Luck Hold? 176 XVI The Meat Hunter Comes 187 XVII With Clean Hands 199 XVIII A Bondsman Breathes Easier 216 XIX The Curse of Blood 223 XX Unclean 234 XXI As One That Is Dead 241 XXII Whiners at the Funeral 245 XXIII Ascalon Curls Its Lip 259 XXIV Madness of the Winds 277 XXV A Summons at Sunrise 290 XXVI In the Square at Ascalon 299 XXVII Absolution 315 XXVIII Sunset 325
THE UNCONQUERED LAND
Bones of dead buffalo, bones of dead horses, bones of dead men. The tribute exacted by the Kansas prairie: bones. A waste of bones, a sepulcher that did not hide its bones, but spread them, exulting in its treasures, to bleach and crumble under the stern sun upon its sterile wastes. Bones of deserted houses, skeletons of men's hopes sketched in the dimming furrows which the grasses were reclaiming for their own.
A land of desolation and defeat it seemed to the traveler, indeed, as he followed the old trail along which the commerce of the illimitable West once was borne. Although that highway had belonged to another generation, and years had passed since an ox train toiled over it on its creeping journey toward distant Santa Fe, the ruts of old wheels were deep in the soil, healed over by the sod again, it is true, but seamed like scars on a veteran's cheek. One could not go astray on that broad highway, for the eye could follow the many parallel trails, where new ones had been broken when the old ones wore deep and rutted.
Present-day traffic had broken a new trail between the old ones; it wound a dusty gray line through the early summer green of the prairie grass, endless, it seemed, to the eyes of the leg-weary traveler who bent his footsteps along it that sunny morning. This passenger, afoot on a road where it was almost an offense to travel by such lowly means, was a man of thirty or thereabout, tall and rather angular, who took the road in long strides much faster than the freighters' trains had traveled it in the days of his father. He carried a black, dingy leather bag swinging from his long arm, a very lean and unpromising repository, upon which the dust of the road lay spread.
Despite the numerous wheel tracks in the road, all of them apparently fresh, there was little traffic abroad. Not a wagon had passed him since morning, not a lift had been given him for a single mile. Now, mounting a ridge toward which he had been pressing forward the past hour, which had appeared a hill of consequence in the distance, but now flattened out to nothing more than a small local divide, he put down his bag, flung his dusty black hat beside it, and stood wiping his face with a large turkey-red handkerchief which he unknotted from about his neck.
His face was of that rugged type common among the pioneers of the West, lean and harsh-featured, yet nobly austere, the guarantee of a soul above corruption and small trickery, of a nature that endures patiently, of an anger slow to move. There were bright hues as of glistening metal in his close-cut light hair as he stood bareheaded in the sun.
Sheep sorrel was blooming by the wheel tracks of the road, purple and yellow; daisy-like flowers, with pale yellow petals and great wondering hearts like frightened eyes, grew low among the short grass; countless strange blooms spread on the prairie green, cheering for their brief day the stern face of a land that had broken the hearts of men in its unkindness and driven them away from its fair promises. The traveler sighed, unable to understand it quite.
All day he had been passing little sod houses whose walls were crumbling, whose roofs had fallen in, whose doors beckoned in the wind a sad invitation to come in and behold the desolation that lay within. Even here, close by the road, ran the grass-grown furrows of an abandoned field, the settler's dwelling-place unmarked by sod or stone. What tragedy was written in those wavering lines; what heartbreak of going away from some dear hope and broken dream! Here a teamster was cutting across the prairie to strike the road a little below the point where the traveler stood. Extra side boards were on his wagon-box, as they used to put them on in corn-gathering time back in the traveler's boyhood home in Indiana. The wagon was heaped high with white, dry bones.
Bones. Nothing left to haul out of that land but bones. The young man took up his valise and hat and struck off down the road to intercept the freighter of this prairie product, hoping for an invitation to ride, better pleased by the prospect of resting living bones on dead dry ones than racking them in that strain to reach the town on the railroad, his journey's end, on foot before nightfall.
The driver's hat was white, like his bones; it drooped in weather-beaten limpness about his ears, hiding his face, but he appeared to have an hospitable heart in spite of the cheerlessness of his pursuit. Coming to the road a little before the traveler reached the point of conjunction, he drew the team to a stand, waiting his approach.
"Have a ride?" the freighter invited, edging over on the backless spring seat as he spoke, making room.
The bone-wagon driver was a hollow-framed man, who looked as if he had starved with the country but endured past all bounds of hardship and discouragement. He looked hungry—hungry for food, hungry for change, hungry for the words of men. His long gray mustache hung far below his stubble-covered chin; there was a pallor of a lingering sickness in his skin, which the hot sun could not sere out of it. He sat dispiritedly on his broken seat, sagging forward with forearms across his thighs.
"Footin' it over to Ascalon?" he asked, as the traveler mounted beside him.
"Yes sir, I'm headin' that way."
"Well, yes," thoughtfully, as if he considered what might be counted far in that land of unobstructed horizons, "I have come a considerable little stretch."
"I thought maybe you was one of them new settlers in here, goin' over to Ascalon to ketch the train," the bone man ventured, putting his inquiry for further particulars as politely as he knew how.
"I'm not a settler yet, but I expect to try it here."
"You don't tell me?"
"Yes sir; that's my intention."
"Where you from?"
The bone man looked his passenger over with interest, from his feet in their serviceable shoes, to his head under his round-crowned, wide-brimmed black hat.
"A good many of 'em used to come in here from Ioway and Newbrasky in the early days," he said. "You never walked plumb from there, did you?"
"I thought of stopping at Buffalo Creek, back fifteen or twenty miles, but I didn't like the country around there. They told me it was better at Ascalon, so I just struck out to walk across the loop of the railroad and take a close look at the land as I went along."
"You must be something of a walker," the bone man marveled.
"I used to follow a walking cultivator across an eighty-acre cornfield," the traveler replied.
"Yes, that'll stretch a feller's legs," the bone man admitted, reminiscently. "Nothing like follerin' a plow to give a man legs and wind. But they don't mostly walk around in this country; they kind of suspicion a man when they see him hoofin' it."
"There doesn't seem to be many of them to either walk or ride," the traveler commented, sweeping a look around the empty land.
"It used to be full of homesteaders all through this country—I seen 'em come and I seen 'em go."
"I've seen traces of them all along the railroad for the last hundred miles or more. It must have been a mighty exodus, a sad thing to see."
"Accordin' to the way you look at it, I reckon," the bone man reflected. "They're comin' to this country ag'in, flocks of 'em. This makes the third time they've tried to break this part of Kansas to ride, and I don't know, on my soul, whether they'll ever do it or not. Maybe I'll have more bones to pick up in a year or two."
"It seems to be one big boneyard; I saw cars of bones on every sidetrack as I came through."
"Yes, I tell folks that come here and try to farm that bones was the best crop this country ever raised, and it'll be about the only one. I come in here with the railroad, I used to drive a team pickin' up the buffaloes the contractors' meat hunter killed."
"You know the history of its ups and downs, then," the young man said, with every evidence of deep interest.
"I guess I do, as well as any man. Bones was the first freight the railroad hauled out of here, and bones'll be the last. I follered the railroad camps after they built out of the buffalo country and didn't need me any more, pickin' up the bones. Then the settlers begun to come in, drawed on by the stuff them railroad colonization agents used to put in the papers back East. The country broke their backs and drove 'em out after four or five years. Then I follered around after them and picked up the bones.
"Yes, there used to be some familiar lookin' bones among 'em once in a while in them times. I used to bury that kind. A few of them settlers stuck, the ones that had money to put in cattle and let 'em increase on the range. They've done well—you'll see their ranches all along the Arkansaw when you travel down that way. This is a cattle country, son; that's what the Almighty made it for. It never can be anything else."
"And there was another wave of immigration, you say, after that?" the passenger asked, after sitting a while in silence turning over what the old pioneer had said.
"Yes, wave is about right. They come in by freight trainload, cars of horses and cattle, and machinery for farmin', from back there in Ohio and Indiany and Ellinoi—all over that country where things a man plants in the ground grows up and comes to something. They went into this pe-rairie and started a bustin' it up like the ones ahead of 'em did. Shucks! you can turn a ribbon of this blame sod a hundred miles long and never break it. What can a farmer do with land that holds together that way? Nothin'. But them fellers planted corn in them strips of sod, raised a few nubbins, some of 'em, some didn't raise even fodder. It run along that way a few years, hot winds cookin' their crops when they did git the ground softened up so stuff would begin to make roots and grow, cattle and horses dyin' off in the winter and burnin' up in the fires them fool fellers didn't know how to stop when they got started in this grass. They thinned out year after year, and I drove around over the country and picked up their bones.
"That crowd of settlers is about all gone now, only one here and there along some crick. Bones is gittin' scarce, too. I used to make more when I got four dollars a ton for 'em than I do now when they pay me ten. Grind 'em up to put on them farms back in the East, they tell me. Takin' the bones of famine from one place to put on fat in another. Funny, ain't it?"
The traveler said it was strange, indeed, but that it was the way of nature for the upstanding to flourish on the remains of the fallen. The bone man nodded, and allowed that it was so, world without end, according to his own observations in the scale of living things from grass blade to mankind.
"How are they coming in now—by the trainload?" the traveler asked, reverting to the influx of settlers.
"These seem to be a different class of men," the bone man replied, his perplexity plain in his face. "I don't make 'em out as easy as I did the ones ahead of 'em. These fellers generally come alone, scoutin' around to see the lay of the country—I run into 'em right along drivin' livery rigs, see 'em around for a couple or three weeks sometimes. Then they go away, and the first thing I know they're back with their immigrant car full of stuff, haulin' out to some place somebody went broke on back in the early days. They seem to be a calculatin' kind, but no man ain't deep anough to slip up on the blind side of this country and grab it by the mane like them fellers seems to think they're doin'. It'll throw 'em, and it'll throw 'em hard."
"It looks to me like it would be a good country for wheat," the traveler said.
The bone man pulled up on his horses, checking them as if he would stop and let this dangerous fellow off. He looked at the traveler with incredulous stare, into which a shading of pity came, drawing his naturally long face longer. "I'd just as well stop and let you start back right now, mister." He tightened up a little more on the lines.
There was merriment in the stranger's gray eyes, a smile on his homely face that softened its harsh lines.
"Has nobody ever tried it?" he inquired.
"There's been plenty of fools here, but none that wild that I ever heard of," the bone man said. "You're a hundred miles and more past the deadline for wheat—you'd just as well try to raise bananers here. Wheat! it'd freeze out in the winter and blow out by the roots in the spring if any of it got through."
The traveler swept a long look around the country, illusive, it seemed, according to its past treatment of men, in its restful beauty and secure feeling of peace. He was silent so long that the bone man looked at him again keenly, measuring him up and down as he would some monstrosity seen for the first time.
"Maybe you're right," the young man said at last.
The bone man grunted, with an inflection of superiority, and drove on, meditating the mental perversions of his kind.
"Over in Ascalon," he said, breaking silence by and by, "there's a feller by the name of Thayer—Judge Thayer, they call him, but he ain't never been a judge of nothin' since I've knowed him—lawyer and land agent for the railroad. He brings a lot of people in here and sells 'em railroad land. He says wheat'll grow in this country, tells them settlers that to fetch 'em here. You two ought to git together—you'd sure make a pair to draw to."
"Wouldn't we?" said the stranger, in hearty humor.
"What business did you foller back there in Ioway?" inquired the bone man, not much respect in him now for the man he had lifted out of the road.
"I was a professional optimist," the traveler replied, grave enough for all save his eyes.
The bone man thought it over a spell. "Well, I don't think you'll do much in Ascalon," he said. "People don't wear specs out here in this country much. Anybody that wants 'em goes to the feller that runs the jewelry store."
The stranger attempted no correction, but sat whistling a merry tune as he looked over the country. The bone man drove in silence until they rose a swell that brought the town of Ascalon into view, a passenger train just pulling into the station.
"Octomist! Wheat!" said the bone man, with discount on the words that left them so poor and worthless they would not have passed in the meanest exchange in the world.
THE MEAT HUNTER
There was one tree in the city of Ascalon, the catalpa in front of Judge Thayer's office. This blazing noonday it threw a shadow as big as an umbrella, or big enough that the judge, standing close by the trunk and holding himself up soldierly, was all in the shade but the gentle swell of his abdomen, over which his unbuttoned vest gaped to invite the breeze.
Judge Thayer was far too big for the tree, as he was too big for Ascalon, but, scholar and gentleman that he was, he made the most of both of them and accepted what they had to offer with grateful heart. Now he stood, his bearded face streaming sweat, his alpaca coat across his arm, his straw hat in his hand, his bald head red from the parboiling of that intense summer day, watching a band of Texas drovers who had just arrived with three or four thousand cattle over the long trail from the south.
These lank, wide-horned creatures were crowding and lowing around the water troughs in the loading pens, the herdsmen shouting their monotonous, melancholy urgings as they crowded more famished beasts into the enclosures. Judge Thayer regarded the dusty scene with troubled face.
"And so pitch hot!" said he, shaking his head in the manner of a man who sees complications ahead of him. He stood fanning himself with his hat, his brows drawn in concentration. "Twenty wild devils from the Nueces, four months on the trail, and this little patch of Hades at the end!"
The judge entered his office with that uneasy reflection, leaving the door standing open behind him, ran up his window shades, for the sun had turned from the front of his building, took off his collar, and settled down to work. One could see him from the station platform, substantial, rather aristocratic, sitting at his desk, his gray beard trimmed to a nicety, one polished shoe visible in line with the door.
Judge Thayer's office was a bit removed from the activities of Ascalon, which were mainly profane activities, to be sure, and not fit company for a gentleman even in the daylight hours. It was a snubby little building with square front like a store, "Real Estate" painted its width above the door. On one window, in crude black lettering:
WILLIAM THAYER ATTORNEY
On the other:
The office stood not above two hundred feet from the railroad station, at the end of Main Street, where the buildings blended out into the prairie, unfenced, unprofaned by spade or plow. Beyond Judge Thayer's office were a coal yard and a livery barn; behind him the lots which he had charted off for sale, their bounds marked by white stakes.
Ascalon, in those early days of its history, was not very large in either the territory covered or the inhabitants numbered, but it was a town of national notoriety in spite of its size. People who did not live there believed it to be an exceedingly wicked place, and the farther one traveled from Ascalon, in any direction whatever, the faster this ill fame increased. It was said, no farther off than Kansas City, that Ascalon was the wickedest place in the United States. So, one can image what character the town had in St. Louis, and guess at the extent of its notoriety in Pittsburg and Buffalo.
Porters on trains had a holy fear of Ascalon. They announced the train's approach to it with suppressed breath, with eyes rolling white in fear that some citizen of the proscribed town might overhear and defend the reputation of his abiding-place in the one swift and incontrovertible argument then in vogue in that part of the earth. Passengers of adventurous nature flocked to the station platform during the brief pause the train made at Ascalon, prickling with admiration of their own temerity, so they might return home and tell of having set foot in the wickedest town in the world.
And that was the fame of Ascalon, new and raw, for the greater part of it, as it lay beside the railroad on that hot afternoon when Judge Thayer stood in the shade of his little catalpa tree watching the Texans drive their cattle into the loading pens.
Before the railroad reached out across the Great Plains, Ascalon was there as a fort, under another name. The railroad brought new consequence, new activities, and made it the most important loading place for Texas cattle, driven over the long route on their slow way to market.
It was a cattle town, living and fattening on the herds which grazed the vast prairie lands surrounding it, and on the countless thousands which came northward to its portal over the Chisholm Trail. As will have been gathered from the scene already passed, agriculture had tried and failed in that land. Ascalon was believed to be, in truth, far beyond the limit of that gentle art, which was despised and contemned by the men who roamed their herds over the free grass lands, and the gamesters who flourished at their expense.
Not that all in Ascalon were vicious and beyond the statutory and moral laws. There was a submerged desire for respectability in the grain of even the worst of them which came to the front at times, as in defense of the town's reputation, and on election day, when they put in such a man as Judge Thayer for mayor. With a man like Judge Thayer at the head of affairs, all charges of the town's utter abandonment to the powers of evil seemed to fall and fade. But the judge, in reality, was only a pillar set up for dignity and show. They elected him mayor, and went on running the town to suit themselves, for the city marshal was also an elective officer, and in his hands the scroll of the law reposed.
Now, in these summer days, there was a vacancy in this most important office, three months, only, after election. The term had almost two years to run, the appointment of a man to the vacancy being in the mayor's hands. As a consequence there was being exerted a great deal of secret and open pressure on the mayor in favor of certain favorites. It was from a conference with several of the town's financial powers that the mayor had returned to his office when you first beheld him under his catalpa tree. The sweat on his face was due as much to internal perplexity as outward heat, for Judge Thayer was a man who wanted to please his friends, and everybody that counted in Ascalon was his friend, although they were not all friends among themselves.
No later than the night before the vacancy in the marshalship had fallen; it would not do to allow the town to go unbridled for even another night. A strong man must be appointed to the place, and no fewer than three candidates were being urged by as many factions, each of which wanted its peculiar interests especially favored and protected. So Judge Thayer was in a sweat with good reason. He wished in his honest soul that he could reach out and pick up a disinterested man somewhere, set him into the office without the strings of fear or favor on him, and tell him to keep everybody within the deadline, regardless of whose business prospered most.
But there were not men raining down every day around Ascalon competent to fill the office of city marshal. Out of the material offered there was not the making of one side of a man. Two of them were creatures of the opposing gambling factions, the other a weak-kneed fellow with the pale eyes of a coward, put forward by the conservative business men who deplored much shooting in the name of the law.
How they were to get on without much shooting, Judge Thayer did not understand. Not a bit of it. What he wanted was a man who would do more shooting than ever had been done before, a man who would clean the place of the too-ready gun-slingers who had gathered there, making the town's notoriety their capital, invading even the respectable districts in their nightly debaucheries to such insolent boldness that a man's wife or daughter dared not show her ear on the street after nightfall.
Judge Thayer put the town's troubles from him with a sigh and leaned to his work. He was preparing a defense for a cattle thief whom he knew to be guilty, but whose case he had undertaken on account of his wife and several small children living in a tent behind the principal gambling-house. Because it seemed a hopeless case from the jump, Judge Thayer had set his beard firmer in the direction of the fight. Hopeless cases were the kind that had come most frequently his way all the days of his life. He had been fronting for the under pup so long that his own chances had dwindled down to a distant point in his gray-headed years. But there was lots of satisfaction behind him to contemplate even though there might not be a great deal of prosperity ahead. That helped a man wonderfully when it came to casting up accounts. So he was bent to the cattle thief's case when a man appeared in his door.
This was a tall, bony man with the dust of the long trail on him; a sour-faced man of thin visage, with long and melancholy nose, a lowering frown in his unfriendly, small red eyes. A large red mustache drooped over his mouth, the brim of his sombrero was pressed back against the crown as if he had arrived devil-come-headlong against a heavy wind.
Judge Thayer took him for a cattleman seeking legal counsel, and invited him in. The visitor shifted the chafed gear that bore his weapon, as if to ease it around his gaunt waist, and entered, removing his hat. He stood a little while looking down at Judge Thayer, a disturbance in his weathered face that might have been read for a smile, a half-mocking, half-humorous expression that twitched his big mustache with a catlike sneer.
"You're the mayor of this man's town, are you, Judge?" he asked.
As the visitor spoke, Judge Thayer's face cleared of the perplexity that had clouded it. He got up, beaming welcome, offering his hand.
"Seth Craddock, as sure as little apples! I knew you, and I didn't know you, you old scoundrel! Where have you been all these years?"
Seth Craddock only expanded his facial twitching at this friendly assault until it became a definite grin. It was a grin that needed no apology, for all evidence was in its favor that it was so seldom seen by the eyes of men that it could be forgiven without a plea.
"I've been ridin' the long trail," said Seth.
"With that bunch that just arrived?"
"Yeh. Drove up from the Nueces. I'm quittin'."
"The last time I saw you, Seth, you were butchering two tons of buffalo a day for the railroaders. I often wondered where you went after you finished your meat contract."
"I scouted a while for the gover'ment, but we run out of Indians. Then I went to Texas and rode with the rangers a year or two."
"I guess you kept your gun-barrel hot down in that country, Seth?"
"Yeh. Once in a while it was lively. Dyin' out down there now, quiet as a school."
"So you turned back to Kansas lookin' for high life. Heard of this burg, I guess?"
"I kind of thought something might be happenin' off up here, Judge."
"And I was sitting here frying out my soul for the sight of a full-sized man when you stepped in the door! Sit down; let's you and me have a talk."
Seth drew a dusty chair from against the wall and arranged himself in the draft between the front and back doors of the little house. He leaned his storm-beaten sombrero against the leg of his chair near his heel, as carefully as if making preparations for quick action in a hostile country, shook his head when the judge offered a cigar, shifted his worn cartridge belt a bit with a movement that appeared to be as unconscious as unnecessary.
"What's restin' so heavy on your mind, Judge?" he inquired.
"Our city marshal stepped in the way of a fool feller's bullet last night, and all the valuable property in this town is lying open and unguarded today."
"Don't nobody want the job?"
"Many are called, or seem to feel themselves nominated, but none is appointed. The appointment is in my hands; the job's yours if you'll do an old friend a favor and take it. It pays a hundred dollars a month."
Seth's heavy black hair lay in disorder on his high, sharp forehead, sweated in little ropes, more than half concealing his immense ears. He smoothed it back now with slow hand, holding a thoughtful silence; shifted his feet, crossed his legs, looked out through the open door into the dusty street.
"How does the land lay?" he asked at length.
"You know the name of the town, everybody knows the name of the town. Well, Seth, it's worse than its name. It's a job; it's a double man's job. If it was any less, I wouldn't lay it down before you."
"Crooks run things, heh?"
"I'm only a knot on a log. The marshal we had wasn't worth the powder that killed him. Oh-h, he did kill off a few of 'em, but what we need here is a man that can see both sides of the street and behind him at the same time."
"How many folks have you got in this man's town by now, Judge?"
"Between six and seven hundred. And we could double it in three months if we could clean things up and make it safe."
"How would you do it, Judge? marry everybody?"
"I mean we'd bring settlers in here and put 'em on the land. The railroad company could shoot farmers in here by the hundreds every month if it wasn't for the hard name this town's got all over the country. A good many chance it and come as it is. We could make this town the supply point for a big territory, we could build up a business that'd make us as respectable as we're open and notorious now. For I tell you, Seth, this country around here is God Almighty's granary—it's the wheat belt of the world."
Seth made no reply. He slewed himself a little to sweep the country over beyond the railroad station with his sullen red eyes. The heat was wavering up from the treeless, shrubless expanse; the white sun was over it as hot as a furnace blast. From the cattle pens the dusty, hoarse cries of the cowboys sounded, "Ho, ho, ho!" in what seemed derision of the judge's fervent claims.
"A lot of us have staked our all on the outcome here in Ascalon, we fellows who were here before the town turned out to be the sink-hole of perdition that it is today. We built our homes here, and brought our families out, and we can't afford to abandon it to these crooks and gamblers and gun-slingers from the four corners of the earth. I let them put me in for mayor, but I haven't got any more power than a stray dog. This chance to put in a marshal is the first one I've had to land them a kick in the gizzards, and by Jeems River, Seth, I want to double 'em up!"
"It looks like your trick, Judge."
"Yes, if I had the marshal with me the two of us could run this town the way it ought to be run. And we'd keep the county seat here as sure as sundown."
"Considerin' a change?"
"The folks over in Glenmore are—the question will come to a vote this fall. The county seat belongs here, not away off there at Glenmore, seven miles from the railroad."
"What's your chance?"
"Not very heavy right now. We can out-vote them in town, but the country's with Glenmore, all on account of our notorious name. Folks hate to come in here to court, it's got so bad. But we could do a lot of cleaning up between now and November, Seth."
Seth considered it in silence, his red eyes on the dusty activities of his late comrades at the cattle pens. He shifted his dusty feet as if dancing to his slow thoughts, scraping his boot soles grittily on the floor.
"Yes, I reckon we could, Judge."
"Half the people in Glenmore want to come over to the railroad. They'd vote with us if they could be made to feel this was a town to bring their families to."
Seth seemed to take this information like a pill under his tongue and dissolve it in his reflective way. Judge Thayer left him to his ruminations, apparently knowing his habits. After a little Seth reached down for his hat in the manner of a man about to depart.
"All right, Judge; we'll clean up the town and part its hair down the middle," he said.
Judge Thayer did not give vent to his elation on Seth Craddock's acceptance of the office of city marshal, although his satisfaction gleamed from his eyes and radiated from his kindly face. He merely shook hands with his new officer in the way of men sealing a bargain, swore him in, and gave him the large shield which had been worn by the many predecessors of the meat hunter in that uncomfortable office, three of whom had gone out of the world with lead enough in them to keep them from tossing in their graves.
This ceremony ended, Seth put his hat firmly on his small, reptilian head, adding greatly to the ferociousness of his thirsty countenance by his way of pulling the sombrero down upon his ears.
"Want to walk around with me and introduce me and show me off?" he asked.
"It'll be the biggest satisfaction in ten years!" Judge Thayer declared.
Judge Thayer had completed the round of Ascalon's business section with the town's new peace officer, introducing him in due form. They stood now in front of the hotel, the plank awning of which extended over the sidewalk breaking the sun, Judge Thayer about to go his way.
"We've got to change this condition of things, Seth," he said, sweeping his hand around the quiet square, where nothing seemed awake but a few loafers along the shady fronts: "we've got to make it a day town instead of a night roost for the buzzards that wake up after sundown."
Seth did not answer. He stood turning his red eyes up and down the street, as if calculating distances and advantages for future emergencies. And as he looked there came driving into the somnolent square two men on a wagonload of bones.
"Old Joe Lynch; he's loadin' another car of bones," Judge Thayer said.
"He used to pick up meat for me," said Seth in his sententious way, neither surprised nor pleased on finding this associate of his adventurous days here in this place of his new beginning.
Joe Lynch drove across the farther side of the square, a block away from the two officials of Ascalon. There he stopped only long enough to allow his passenger to alight, and continued on to the railroad siding where his car stood.
Judge Thayer lingered under the hotel awning, where the breeze struck refreshingly, perhaps making a pretense of being cooled that was greater than his necessity, curious to see who it was Lynch had brought to town on his melancholy load. The passenger, carrying his flat bag, came on toward the hotel.
"He's a stranger to me," said the judge. His interest ending there, he went his way to take up again the preparation of his case in defense of the cattle thief whom he knew to be a thief, and nothing but a thief.
Seth Craddock, the new marshal, glanced sharply at the stranger as he approached the hotel. It was nothing more severe than Seth's ordinary scrutiny, but it appeared to the traveler to be at once hostile and inhospitable, the look of a man who sneered out of his heart and carried a challenge in his eyes. The stranger made the mental observation that this citizen was a sour-looking customer, who apparently resented the coming of one more to the mills of Ascalon's obscene gods.
There was a cluster of flies on the open page of the hotel register, where somebody had put down a sticky piece of chocolate candy and left it. This choice confection covered three or four lines immediately below the last arrival's name, its little trickling rivulets, which the flies were licking up, spreading like a spider's legs. There was nobody in the office to receive the traveler's application for quarters, but evidence of somebody in the remote parts of the house, whence came the sound of a voice more penetrating than musical, raised in song.
With her apurn pinned round her, He took her for a swan, But oh and a-las, it was poor Pol-ly Bawn.
So she sang, the words of the ancient ballad cutting through the partition like a saw. There was a nasal quality in them, as if the singer were moved to tears by the pathos of Poor Polly's end. The traveler laid a finger on the little bell that stood on the cigar case, sending his alarm through the house.
The song ceased, the blue door with DINING-ROOM in pink across its panels, shut against the flies, opened with sudden jerk, as if by a petulant hand. There appeared one who might have been Polly Bawn herself, taken by the white apron that shrouded her figure from shoulders to floor. She stood a moment in the door, seeing that it was a stranger, half closing that gay portal to step behind it and give her hair that swift little adjustment which, with women the world over, is the most essential part of the toilet. She appeared smiling then, somewhat abashed and coy, a fair short girl with a nice figure and pretty, sophisticated face, auburn curls dangling long at her ears, a precise row of bangs coming down to her eyebrows. She was a pink and white little lady, quick on foot, quicker of the blue eyes which measured the waiting guest from dusty feet to dusty hat in the glance that flashed over him in business-like brevity.
"Was you wishin' a room?" she inquired.
"If you can accommodate me."
"Register," she said, in voice of command, whirling the book about. At the same time she discovered the forgotten confection, which she removed to the top of the cigar case with an annoyed ejaculation under her breath that sounded rather strong. She applied her apron to the page, not helping it much, spreading the brown paste rather than removing it.
"You'll have to skip three or four lines, mister, unless you've got a 'delible pencil."
"No, I haven't. I'll write down here where it's dry."
And there the traveler wrote, the girl looking on sharply, spelling the letters with silently moving lips as the pen trailed them:
Calvin Morgan, Des Moines, Ia.
"In and out, or regular?" the girl asked, twisting the book around to verify the upside-down spelling of his name.
"I expect it will be only for a few days," Morgan replied, smiling a little at the pert sufficiency of the clerk.
"It's a dollar a day for board and room—in advance in this man's town."
"Why in this man's town, any more than any other man's town?" the guest inquired, amused.
"What would you think of a man that would run up a three weeks' bill and then walk out there and let somebody put a bullet through him?" she returned by way of answer.
"I think it would be a mean way to beat a board bill," he told her, seriously. "Do they do that right along here?"
"One smarty from Texas done it three or four months ago. Since then it's cash in advance."
Morgan thought it was a very wise regulation for a town where perils were said to be so thick, all in keeping with the notoriety of Ascalon. He made inquiry about something to eat. The girl's face set in disfavoring cast as she tossed her head haughtily.
"Dinner's over long ago," she said.
Morgan made amends for this unwitting breach of the rules, wondering what there was in the air of Ascalon that made people combative. Even this fresh-faced girl, not twenty, he was sure, was resentful, snappish without cause, inclined to quarrel if a word got crosswise in a man's mouth. As he turned these things in mind, casting about for some place to stow his bag, the girl smiled across at him, the mockery going out of her bright eyes. Perhaps it was because she felt that she had defended the ancient right of hostelers to rise in dignified front when a traveler spoke of a meal out of the regular hour, perhaps because there was a gentleness and sincerity in the tall, honest-looking man before her that reached her with an appeal lacking in those who commonly came and went before her counter.
"Put your grip over there," she nodded, "and I'll see what I can find. If you don't mind a snack—" she hesitated.
"Anything—a slab of cold meat and a cup of coffee."
"I'll call you," she said, starting for the blue door.
The girl had reached the dining-room door when there entered from the street a man, lurching when he walked as if the earth tipped under him like the deck of a ship. He was a young and slender man, dressed rather loudly in black sateen shirt and scarlet necktie, with broad blue, tassel-ornamented sleeve holders about his arms. He wore neither coat nor vest, but was belted with a pistol and booted and spurred, his calling of cowboy impressed in every line.
The girl paused, hand on the door, waiting to see what he wanted, and turned back when he rested his arms on the cigar case, clicking the glass with a coin. While she was making change for him, the cowboy stood with his newly bought cigar in his mouth, scanning the register. He seemed sober enough when standing still, save for the vacant, liquor-dead look of his eyes.
"Who wrote that?" he asked, pointing to Morgan's name.
"That gentleman," the girl replied, placing his change before him.
The cowboy picked up his money with numb fingers, fumbled to put it in his pocket, dropping it on the floor. He kicked at it with a curse and let it lie, scowling meantime at Morgan with angry eyes.
"Too good to write your name next to mine, are you?" he sneered. "Afraid it'd touch your fancy little handwritin', was you?"
"I didn't know it was your name, pardner," Morgan returned, conciliating him as he would an irresponsible child. "Why, I'd walk a mile to write my name next to yours any day. There was something on the book——"
"You spit on it! You spit on my name!" the foolish fellow charged, laying hand to his pistol. "A man that's too good to write his name next to mine's too good to stay in the same house with me. You'll hit the breeze out of here, pardner, or you'll swaller lead!"
The girl came swiftly from behind the counter, and ran lightly to the door. Morgan put up his hand to silence the young man, knowing well that he could catch his slow arm before he could drag his gun two inches from the holster.
"Keep your gun where it is, old feller," he suggested, rather than warned, in good-natured tone. "I didn't mean any insult, but I'll take my hat off and apologize to you if you want me to. There was a piece of candy on the book right——"
"I'll put a piece of hot iron in your guts!" the cowboy threatened. He leaned over the register, hand still on his pistol, and tore out the offending page, crumpling it into a ball. "You'll eat this, then you'll hit the road back where you come from!"
The girl was beckoning to somebody from the door. Morgan was more annoyed and shamed by his part in this foolish scene than he was disturbed by any feeling of danger. He stood watching the young man's shooting arm. There was not more than five feet between them; a step, a sharp clip on the jaw, and the young fool would be helpless. Morgan was setting himself to act, for the cowboy, whose face was warrant that he was a simple, harmless fellow when sober, was dragging on his gun, when one came hastening in past the girl.
This was a no less important person than the new city marshal, whom Morgan had seen without knowing his official standing, as he arrived at the hotel.
"This man's raisin' a fuss here—he's tore the register—look what he's done—tore the register!" the indignant girl charged.
"You're arrested," said the marshal. "Come on."
The cowboy stood mouthing his cigar, a weak look of scorn and derision in his flushed face. His right hand was still on his pistol, the wadded page of the register in the other.
"You'd better take his gun," Morgan suggested to the marshal, "he's so drunk he might hurt himself with it."
Seth Craddock fixed Morgan a moment with his sullen red eyes, in which the sneer of his heart seemed to speak. But his lips added nothing to the insult of that disdainful look. He jerked his head toward the door in command to his prisoner to march.
"Come out! I'll fight both of you!" the cowboy challenged, making for the door. He was squarely in it, one foot lifted in his drunken balancing to step down, when Seth Craddock jerked out his pistol between the lifting and the falling of that unsteady foot, and shot the retreating man in the back. The cowboy pitched forward into the street, where he lay stretched and motionless, one spurred foot still in the door.
Morgan sprang forward with an exclamation of shocked protest at this unjustified slaughter, while the girl, her blue eyes wide in horror, shrunk against the counter, hands pressed to her cheeks, a cry of outraged pity ringing from her lips.
"Resist an officer, will you?" said the city marshal, as he strode forward and looked down on the first victim in Ascalon of the woeful harvest his pistol was to reap. So saying, as if publishing his justification, he sheathed his weapon and walked out, as little moved as if he had shot the bottom out of a tomato can in practice among friends.
A woman came hastening from the back of the house with dough on her hands, a worn-faced woman, whose eyes were harried and afraid as if they had looked on violence until horror had set its seal upon them. She exclaimed and questioned, panting, frantic, holding her dough-clogged fingers wide as she bent to look at the slain man in her door.
"It was the new marshal Judge Thayer was in here with just after dinner," the girl explained, the pink gone out of her pretty face, the reflection of her mother's horror in her eyes.
"My God!" said the woman, clutching her breast, looking with a wilder terror into Morgan's face.
"Oh, I wish they'd take him away! I wish they'd take him away!" the girl moaned, cringing against the counter, covering her face with her hands.
Outside a crowd collected around the fallen man, for common as death by violence was in the streets of Ascalon, the awe of its swift descent, the hushing mystery of its silence, fell as coldly over the hearts of men there as in the walks of peace. Presently the busy undertaker came with his black wagon to gather up this broken shape of what had been a man but a few minutes past.
The marshal did not trouble himself in the case further. Up the street Morgan saw him sauntering along, unmoved and unconcerned, from all outward show, as if this might have been just one incidental task in a busy day. Resentment rose in Morgan as he watched the undertaker and his helper load the body into the wagon with unfeeling roughness; as he saw the marshal go into a saloon with a crowd of noisy fellows from the stock pens who appeared to be applauding his deed.
This appeared to Morgan simply murder in the name of the law. That bragging, simple, whisky-numbed cowboy could not have hurt a cat. All desire for dinner was gone out of Morgan's stomach, all thought of preparing it from the girl's mind. She stood in the door with her mother, watching the black wagon away with this latest victim to be crushed in Ascalon's infernal mill, twisting her fingers in her apron, her face as white as the flour on her mother's hands. The undertaker's man came hurrying back with a bucket of water and broom. The women turned away out of the door then, while he briskly went to work washing up the dark little puddle that spread on the boards of the sidewalk.
"Dora, where's your pa?" the elder woman asked, stopping suddenly as she crossed the room, her face drawn in a quick stroke of fear, her hands lifted to ease the smothering in her breast again.
"I don't know, Ma. He ain't been around since dinner."
The woman went to the door again, to lean and peer up and down the street with that great anxiety and trouble in her face that made it old, and distorted the faint trace of lingering prettiness out of it as if it had been covered with ashes.
"He's comin'," she said presently, in voice of immeasurable relief. She turned away from the door without allowing her glance to fall directly on the wet spot left by the undertaker's man.
Mother and daughter talked together in low words, only a few of which now and then reached Morgan as he stood near the counter where the mutilated register lay, turning this melancholy event in his thoughts. He recovered the torn crumpled page from the floor, smoothed and replaced it in the book. A man came in, the woman turning with a quick glad lighting of the face to meet him.
"O Tommy! I was worried to death!" she said.
Tom Conboy, proprietor of the Elkhorn, as the hotel was called, grunted in discount of this anxiety as he turned his shifty eyes to the stranger, flicking them on and off like a fly. He saw the coins dropped by the cowboy, picked them up, put them in his pocket, face red from what evidently was unaccustomed effort as he straightened his back.
"You seem to be gettin' mighty flush with money around this joint," he said, severe censure in his tone.
"He dropped it—the man the marshal shot dropped it—it was his," the girl explained. "I wouldn't touch it!" she shuddered, "not for anything in the world!"
"Huh!" said Conboy, easily, entirely undisturbed by the dead man's money in his pocket.
"My God! I wish he hadn't done it here!" the woman moaned.
"I didn't think he'd shoot him or I wouldn't 'a' called him," the girl pleaded, pity for the deed in her shocked voice. "He didn't need to do it—he didn't have to do it, at all!"
"Sh-h-h! No niggers in Ireland, now—no-o-o niggers in Ireland!"
Conboy shook his head at her as he spoke, pronouncing this rather amazing and altogether irrelevant declaration with the utmost gravity, an admonitory, cautioning inflection in his naturally grave and resonant voice. The girl said no more on the needless sacrifice of the young man's life.
"I was goin' to get this gentleman some dinner," she said.
"You'd better go on and do it, then," her father directed, gently enough for a man of his stamp, rather surprisingly gentle, indeed, Morgan thought.
Tom Conboy was a short-statured man, slight; his carefully trimmed gray beard lending a look of serious wisdom to his face which the shiftiness of his insincere eyes at once seemed to controvert. He wore neither coat nor vest, but a white shirt with broad starched bosom, a large gold button in its collarless neckband. A diamond stud flashed in the middle of his bosom; red elastic bands an inch broad, with silver buckles, held up the slack of the sleeves which otherwise would have enveloped his hands.
"Are you goin' to stay in the office a while now, Tommy, and look after things while Dora and I do the work?" the woman asked.
"I've got to get the jury together for the inquest," Conboy returned, with the briskness of a man of importance.
"Will I be wanted to give my testimony at the inquest, do you suppose?" Morgan inquired. "I was here when it happened; I saw the whole thing."
He spoke in the hope that he might be given the opportunity of relieving the indignation, so strong in him that it was almost oppressive, before the coroner's jury. Tom Conboy shook his head.
"No, the marshal's testimony is all we'll need," Conboy replied. "Resistin' arrest and tryin' to escape after arrest. That's all there was to it. These fellers'll have to learn better than that with this new man. I know him of old—he's a man that always brings in the meat."
"But he didn't try to escape," Morgan protested. "He was so drunk he didn't know whether he was coming or going."
Conboy looked at him disfavoringly, as if to warn him to be discreet in matters of such remote concern to him as this.
"Tut, tut! no niggers in Ireland," said he, shaking his head with an expression between a caution and a threat.
THE OPTIMIST EXPLAINS
Not more than two hours after the tragedy at the Elkhorn hotel, of which he was the indirect cause, Calvin Morgan appeared at Judge Thayer's little office. The judge had finished his preparation for the cattle thief's case, and now sat ruminating it over his cob pipe. He nodded encouragingly as Morgan hesitated at the door.
"Come in, Mr. Morgan," he invited, as cordially as if introductions had passed between them already and relations had been established on a footing pleasant and profitable to both.
Morgan smiled a little at this ready identification, remembering the torn page of the hotel register, which all the reading inhabitants of the town who were awake must have examined before this. He accepted the chair that Judge Thayer pushed toward him, nodding to the bone-wagon man who came sauntering past the door at that moment, the long lash of his bullhide whip trailing in the dust behind him.
"You've come to settle with us, I hear?" said the judge.
"I'm looking around with that thought, sir."
"I don't know how you'll do at the start in the optical way, Mr. Morgan—I'm afraid not much. I'd advise watch repairing and jewelry in addition. This town is going to be made a railroad division point before long, I could get you appointed watch inspector for the company. Now, I've got a nice little storeroom——"
"I'm afraid you've got me in the wrong deck," Morgan interrupted, unwilling to allow the judge to go on building his extravagant fancy. "I could no more fix a watch than I could repair a locomotive, and spectacles are as far out of my line as specters."
Judge Thayer's face reddened above his thick beard at this easy and fluent denial of all that he had constructed from a hasty and indefinite bit of information.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Morgan. It was Joe Lynch, the fellow that drives the bone wagon, who got me wrong. He told me you were an oculist."
"I think that was his rendition of optimist, perhaps," Morgan said, laughing with the judge's hearty appreciation of the twist. "I told him, in response to a curious inquiry, that I was an optimist. I've tried hard—very hard, sometimes—to live up to it. My profession is one that makes a heavy drain on all the cheerfulness that nature or art ever stocked a man with, Judge Thayer."
"It sounds like you might be a lawyer," the judge speculated, "or maybe a doctor?"
"No, I'm simply an agriculturist, late professor of agronomy in the Iowa State Agricultural College. It takes optimism, believe me, sir, to try to get twenty bushels of wheat out of land where only twelve grew before, or two ears of corn where only two-thirds of one has been the standard."
"You're right," Judge Thayer agreed heartily; "it takes more faith, hope, and courage to be a farmer than any other calling on earth. I often consider the risks a farmer must take year by year in comparison with other lines of business, staking his all, very frequently, on what he puts into the furrows, turning his face to God when he has sown his seed, in faith that rains will fall and frosts will be stayed. It is heroic, sometimes it is sublimely heroic. And you are going to try your fortunes here on the soil?"
"I've had my eye on this country a good while in spite of the dismal tales of hardship and failure that have come eastward out of it. I've looked to it as the place for me to put some of my theories to the test. I believe alfalfa, or lucerne, as it is called back East, will thrive here, and I'm going to risk your derision and go a little farther. I believe this can be made the greatest wheat country in America."
Judge Thayer brought his hand down with a smack of the palm that made his papers fly, his face radiating the pleasure that words alone could not express.
"I've been telling them that for seven years, Morgan!" he said.
"Hasn't it ever been tried out?"
"Tried out? They don't stay long enough to try out anything, Morgan. They're here today and gone tomorrow, cursing Kansas as they go, slandering it, branding it as the Tophet of the earth. We've never had the right kind of people here, they didn't have the courage, the faith, and the vision. If a man hasn't got the grit and ability to stick through his losses at any game in this life, Morgan, he'll never win. And he'll never be anything but a little loser, put him down where you will."
"I've met hundreds of them dragging their bones out of Kansas the past four or five years," Morgan nodded. "From what I can gather by talking with them, the trouble lies in their poverty when they come here. As you say, they're not staked to play this stiff game. A man ought to provision himself for a campaign against this country like he would for an Arctic expedition. If he can't do it, he'd better stay away."
"I guess there's more to that than I ever stopped to consider myself," Judge Thayer admitted. "It is a hard country to break, but there are men somewhere who can subdue it and reap its rewards."
"I tried to induce the railroad company to back me in an experimental farm out here, but the officials couldn't see it," Morgan said. "I'm going to tackle it now on my lonesome. The best proof of a man's confidence in his own theories is to put them into practice himself, anyway."
"These cattlemen around here will laugh at you and try to discourage you, Morgan. I'm the standing joke of this country because I still stick to my theory of wheat."
"The farmers in Iowa laughed their teeth loose when we book farmers at the college told them they could add a million bushels a year to the corn crop of the state by putting a few more grains on the ends of the cobs. Well, they did it, just the same, in time."
"I heard about that," nodded the judge, quite warmed up to this long-backed stranger.
"Failure is written all over the face of this country," Morgan continued; "I took a long tramp across it this morning. But I believe I've got the formula that will tame it."
"I believe you, I believe you can do it," Judge Thayer indorsed him, with enthusiasm. "I believe you've brought the light of a new epoch into this country, I believe you're carrying the key that's going to unlock these prairies and liberate the gold under the grass roots."
"It may be nothing but a dream," said Morgan softly, his eyes fixed on the blue distances through the open door. "Maybe it will break me and scatter my bones on the prairie for that old scavenger of men to haul away."
Judge Thayer shook his head in denial of this possibility, making note of this rugged dreamer's strong face, strong arms, large, capable hands.
"We're not away out West, as most people seem to think," he said, "only a little past the middle of the state. My observation through several years here has been that it rains about as much and as often in this part of the country as it does in the eastern part of the state, enough to make two crops in three, anyway, and that's as good as you can count on without irrigation anywhere."
Morgan agreed with a nod. Judge Thayer went on, "The trouble is, this prairie sheds water like the roof of a house, shoots it off so quick into the draws and creeks it never has a chance to soak in. Plow it, I tell 'em, and keep on plowin' it, in season and out; fix it so it can soak up the rain and hold it. Is that right?"
"You've got the key to it yourself," Morgan told him, not a little surprised to hear this uncredited missionary preaching the very doctrine that men of Morgan's profession had found so hard to make converts to in the prairie country.
"But it will be two or three years, at least, before you can begin your experiment with wheat," Judge Thayer regretted. "By that time I'm afraid the settlers that are taking up land around here now will be broken and discouraged, gone to spread the curse against Kansas in the same old bitterness of heart."
"I hope to find a piece of land that somebody has abandoned or wants to sell, that has been farmed a year or two," Morgan confided. "If I can get hold of such a place I'll be able to put in a piece of wheat this fall—even a few acres will start me going. I could enlarge my fields with my experience."
Judge Thayer said he believed he had the very place Morgan was looking for, listed for sale. But there were so many of them listed for sale, the owners gone, their equities long since eaten up by unpaid taxes, that it took the judge a good while to find the particulars in this special case.
"Man by the name of Gerhart, mile and a half west of town—that would bring him pretty near the river—offers his quarter for three hundred dollars. He's been there about four years, wife died this spring. I think he's got about eighty acres broken out. Some of that land ought to be in pretty good shape for wheat by now."
As the day was declining to evening, and Judge Thayer's supper hour was near, they agreed on postponing until morning the drive out to look at the dissatisfied settler's land. Morgan was leaving when the judge called him back from the door.
"I was just wondering whether you'd ever had any editorial experience?" he said.
"No, I've never been an editor," Morgan returned, speculating alertly on what might be forthcoming.
"We—our editor—our editor," said the judge, fumbling with it as if he found the matter a difficult one to fit to the proper words, "fell into an unfortunate error of judgment a short time ago, with—um-m-m—somewhat melancholy—melancholy—" the judge paused, as if feeling of this word to see that it fitted properly, head bent thoughtfully—"results. Unlucky piece of business for this community, coming right in the thick of the contest for the county seat. There's a fight on here, Mr. Morgan, as you may have heard, between Ascalon, the present county seat, and Glenmore, a God-abandoned little flyspeck on the map seven miles south of here."
"I hadn't heard of it. And what happened to the editor?"
"Oh, one of our hot-headed boys shot him," said the judge, out of patience with such trivial and hasty yielding to passion. "Since then I've been getting out the paper myself—I hold a mortgage on the property, I'll be obliged to foreclose to protect myself—with the help of the printer. It's not much of a paper, Morgan, for I haven't got the time to devote to it with the July term of court coming on, but I have to get it out every week or lose the county printing contract. There's a hungry dog over at Glenmore looking on to snatch the bone on the least possible excuse, and he's got two of the county commissioners with him."
"No, I'm not an editor," Morgan repeated, speculatively, as if he saw possibilities of distinction in that road.
"Without the press, we are a community disarmed in the midst of our enemies," said the judge. "Glenmore will overwhelm us and rob us of our rights, without a champion whose voice is as the voice of a thousand men."
"I'd never be equal to that," Morgan said, shaking his head in all seriousness. "Is the editor out of it for good? Is he dead?"
"They have a devilish peculiarity of seldom wounding a man here in Ascalon, Mr. Morgan. I've wished more than once they were not so cursed proficient. The poor fellow fell dead, sir, at the first shot, while he was reaching for his gun."
"I've seen something of their proficiency here," Morgan said, with plain contempt.
Judge Thayer looked at him sharply. "You refer to that affair at the hotel this afternoon?"
"It was a brutal and uncalled-for sacrifice of human life! it was murder in the name of the law."
"I think you are somewhat hasty and unjust in your criticism, Mr. Morgan," the judge mildly protested. "I know the marshal to be a cool-headed man, a man who can see perils that you and I might overlook until too late for our own preservation. The fellow must have made some break for his gun that you didn't see."
"I hope it was that way," Morgan said, willing to give the marshal every shadow of justification possible.
"I've known Seth Craddock a long time; he was huntin' buffalo for the railroad contractors when I first came to this country. Why, I appointed Seth to the office not more than an hour before that mix-up at the hotel."
"He's beginning early," Morgan said.
"The man that's going to clean this town up must begin early and work late," Judge Thayer declared. "An officer that would allow a man to run a bluff on him wouldn't last two hours."
"I suppose not," Morgan admitted.
"As I told Seth when I swore him in, what we want in Ascalon is a marshal that will use his gun oftener, and to better purpose, than the men that have gone before him. This town must be purified, the offal of humanity that makes a stench until it offends the heavens and spreads our obscene notoriety to the ends of the earth, must be swept out before we can induce sober and substantial men to bring their families into this country."
"It looks reasonable enough," Morgan agreed.
"Hell's kettle is on the fire in this town, Mr. Morgan; the devil's own stew is bubbling in it. If I could induce you to defer your farming experiment a few months, as much as I approve it, anxious as I am to see you demonstrate your theories and mine, I believe we could accomplish the regeneration of this town. With a man of Craddock's caliber on the street, and you in the Headlight office speaking with the voice of a thousand men, we could reverse public opinion and draw friends to our side. Without some such support, I view the future with gloom and misgiving. Glenmore is bound to displace us as the capital of this county; Ascalon will decline to a whistling station by the side of the track."
"I'm afraid I wouldn't care to hitch up with Mr. Craddock in the regeneration of Ascalon," Morgan said. "We'd pull so hard in opposite directions we'd break the harness."
Judge Thayer expressed his regret while he slipped on his black alpaca coat, asking Morgan to wait until he locked his door, when he would walk with him as far as the hotel corner. On the way they met a young man who came bowling along with a great air of importance and self-assurance, a fresh cigar tilted up in his mouth to such an angle that it threatened the brim of his large white hat.
Judge Thayer introduced this man as Dell Hutton, county treasurer. Hutton wrung Morgan's hand with ardent grip, as if he welcomed him into the brotherhood of the elect in Ascalon, speaking out of the corner of his mouth around his cigar. He was a thin-mouthed man of twenty-five, or perhaps a year or two older, with a shrunken weazenness about his face that made him look like a very old man done over, and but poorly renovated. His eyes were pale, with shadows in them as of inquiry and distrust; his stature was short, his frame slight.
Hutton seemed to be deeply, even passionately, interested in the venture Morgan had come to make in that country. He offered his services in any exigency where they might be applied, shaking hands again with hard grip, accompanied by a wrinkling of his thin mouth about his cigar as he clamped his jaws in the fervor of his earnestness. But he appeared to be under a great pressure to go his way, his eyes controverting the sincerity of his words the while.
"He's rather a young man to be filling such a responsible position," Morgan ventured as they resumed their way.
"Dell wasn't elected to the office," Judge Thayer explained. "He's filling out his father's term."
"Did he—die?" Morgan inquired, marveling over the mortality among the notables of the town.
"He was a victim of this feud in the rivalry for the county seat," Judge Thayer explained, with sadness. "It was due to Hutton, more than any other force, that we didn't lose the county seat at the last election—he kept the cattlemen lined up, was a power among them, followed that business a long time himself. Yes. He was the first man that ever drove a herd of cattle from Texas to load for market when this railroad was put through. Some of those skulkers from Glenmore shot him down at his door two months after he took office."
"I thought the boy looked like he'd been trained on the range," Morgan said, thoughtfully.
"Yes, Dell was raised in the saddle, drove several trips from Texas up here. Dell"—softly, a little sorrowfully, Morgan thought—"was the other principal in that affair with our late editor."
"Oh, I see. He was exonerated?"
"Clear case of self-defense, proved that Smith—the editor was Smith—reached for his gun first."
Morgan did not comment, but he thought that this seemed a thing easily proved in Ascalon. He parted from the judge at the bank corner, which was across the way from the hotel.
The shadow of the hotel fell far into the public square, and in front of the building, their chairs placed in what would have been the gutter of the street if the thoroughfare had been paved, their feet braced with probably more comfort than grace against the low sidewalk, a row of men was stationed, like crows on a fence. There must have been twenty or more of them, in various stages of undress from vest down to suspenders, from bright cravats flaunting over woolen shirts and white shirts, and striped shirts and speckled shirts, to unconfined necks laid bare to the breeze.
Whether these were guests waiting supper, or merely loafers waiting anything that might happen next, Morgan had not been long enough in town to determine. He noticed the curious and, he thought, unfriendly eyes which they turned on him as he approached. And as Morgan set foot on the sidewalk porch of the hotel, Seth Craddock, the new city marshal, rose out of the third chair on the end of the row nearest him, hand lifted in commanding signal to halt.
"You've just got time to git your gripsack," Craddock said, coming forward as he spoke, but stopping a little to one side as if to allow Morgan passage to the door.
"Time's no object to me," Morgan returned, good-humored and undisturbed, thinking this must be one of the jokes at the expense of strangers for which Ascalon was famous.
Some of the loafers were standing by their chairs in attitude of indecision, others sat leaning forward to see and hear. Traffic both ways on the sidewalk came to a sudden halt at the spectacle of two men in a situation recognized at a glance in quick-triggered Ascalon as significant, those who came up behind Morgan clearing the way by edging from the sidewalk into the square.
"The train'll be here in twelve minutes," Craddock announced, watch in his palm.
"On time, is she?" Morgan said indifferently, starting for the door.
Again Seth Craddock lifted his hand. Those who had remained seated along the gutter perch up to this moment now got to their feet with such haste that chairs were upset. Craddock put his hand casually to his pistol, as a man rests his hand on his hip.
"You're leavin' on it," he said.
"I guess you've got the wrong man," Morgan suggested, noting everything with comprehensive eye, not a little concerned by the marshal's threatening attitude. If this were going to turn out a joke, Morgan wished it might begin very soon to show some of its risible features on the surface, in order that he might know which way to jump to make the best figure possible.
"No, I ain't got no wrong man!" Craddock returned, making mockery of the words, uttering them jeeringly out of the corner of his mouth. He blasted Morgan with the glare of his malevolent red eyes, redder now than before his weapon had moistened the street of Ascalon with blood. "You're the feller that's been shootin' off your mouth about murder in the name of the law, and you bein' able to take his gun away from that feller. Well, kid, I'm afraid it's goin' to be a little too rough for you in this town. You're leavin'—you won't have time to git your gripsack now, you can write for it!"
Morgan felt the blood flaming into his face with the hot swell of anger. A moment he stood eye to eye with Craddock, fighting down the defiance that rose for utterance to his lips. Then he started again toward the hotel door.
Craddock whipped out his pistol with arm so swift that the eye multiplied it like a spoke in a quick-spinning wheel. He stood holding the weapon so, his wrist rather limber, the muzzle of the pistol pointing in the general direction of Morgan's feet.
"Maybe you can take a gun away from me, little feller?" Craddock challenged in high mockery, one nostril of his long nose twitching, lifting his mustache on that side in a snarl.
"Don't point that gun at me, Craddock!" Morgan warned, his voice unshaken and cool, although the surge of his heart made his seasoned body vibrate to the finger tips.
"Scratch gravel for the depot!" Craddock commanded, lowering the muzzle of his gun as if he intended to hasten the going by a shot between the offender's feet.
The men were separated by not more than two yards, and Morgan made no movement to widen the breach immediately following the marshal's command to go. On the contrary, before any that saw him standing there in apparent indecision, and least of all among them Seth Craddock, could measure his intention, Morgan stepped aside quicker than the watchers calculated any living man could move, reached out his long arm a flash quicker than he had shifted on his feet, and laid hold of the city marshal's hairy wrist, wrenching it in a twist so bone-breaking that nerves and muscles failed their office. Nobody saw exactly how he accomplished it, but the next moment Morgan stepped back from the city marshal, that officer's revolver in his hand.
"Mr. Craddock," he said, in calm, advisory way, "I expect to stay around this part of the country some little time, and I'll be obliged to come to Ascalon once in a while. If you think you're going to feel uncomfortable every time you see me, I guess the best thing for you to do is leave. I'm not saying you must leave, I don't set myself up to tell a man when to come and go without I've got that right over him. I just suggest it for your comfort and peace of mind. If you stay here you'll have to get used to seeing me around."
Craddock stood for a breath glaring at the man who had humiliated him in his new dignity, clutching his half-paralyzed wrist. He said nothing, but there was the proclamation of a death feud in his eyes.
"Give him a gun, somebody!" said a fool in the crowd that pressed to the edge of the sidewalk at the marshal's back.
Tom Conboy, standing in his door ten feet away, interposed quickly, waving the crowd back.
"Tut, tut! No niggers in Ireland, now!" he said.
"He can have this one," said Morgan, still in the same measured, calm voice. He offered the pistol back to its owner, who snatched it with ungracious hand, shoved it into his battered scabbard, turned to the crowd at his back with an oath.
"Scatter out of here!" he ordered, covering his degradation as he might in this tyrannical exercise of authority.
Morgan looked into the curious faces of the people who blocked the sidewalk ahead of him, withdrawn a discreet distance, not yet venturing to come on. Except for the red handkerchief that he had worn about his neck, he was dressed as when he arrived in Ascalon in Joe Lynch's wagon, coatless, the dust of the road on his shoes. In place of the bright handkerchief he now wore a slender black necktie, the ends of it tucked into his gray woolen shirt.
He felt taller, rawer, more angular than nature had built him as he stood there looking at the people who had gathered like leaves against a rock in a brook. He was ashamed of his part in the public show, sorry that anybody had been by to witness it. In his embarrassment he pushed his hat back from his forehead, looking around him again as if he would break through the ranks and hide himself from such confusing publicity.
The crowd was beginning to disperse at Seth Craddock's urging, although those who had come to a stand on the sidewalk seemed timid about passing Morgan. They still held back as if to give him room, or in uncertainty whether it was all over yet. Perhaps they expected Craddock to turn on Morgan again when he had cleared a proper space for his activities.
As for Morgan, he had dismissed the city marshal from his thoughts, for something else had risen in his vision more worthy the attention of a man. This was the face of a girl on the edge of the crowd in front of him, a tall, strong, pliant creature who leaned a little as if she looked for her reflection in a stream. She was garbed in a brown duck riding skirt, white waist with a bright wisp of cravat blowing at her breast like the red of bittersweet against snow. Her dusty sombrero threw a shadow over her eyes, but Morgan could see that they were dark and friendly eyes, as no shadow but night could obscure. The other faces became in that moment but the incidental background for one; his heart lifted and leaped as the heart moves and yearns with tender quickening at the sound of some old melody that makes it glad.
Morgan stepped back, thinking only of her, seeing only her, making a way for her, only, to pass. That others might follow was not in his mind. He stepped out of the way for her.
She came on toward him now, one finished, one refined, among that press of crudity, one unlooked for in that place of wild lusts and dark passions unrestrained. She carried a packet of newspapers and letters under her bent arm, telling of her mission on the street; the thong of her riding quirt was about her wrist. Her soft dark hair was low on her neck, a flush as of the pleasure that speaks in bounding blood when friend meets friend glowed in her face. Morgan removed his hat as she passed him. She looked into his face and smiled.
The little crowd broke and followed, but Morgan, oblivious to the movement around him, stood on the sidewalk edge looking after her, his hat in his hand.
Ascalon was laid out according to the Spanish tradition for arranging towns that dominated the builders of the West and Southwest in the days when Santa Fe extended its trade influence over a vast territory. Although Ascalon was only a stage station in the latter days of traffic over the Santa Fe Trail, its builders, when it came occasion to expand, were men who had traded in that capital of the gray desert wastes at the trail's end, and nothing would serve them but a plaza, with the courthouse in the middle of it, the principal business establishments facing it the four sides around.
There were many who called it the plaza still, especially visitors from along the Rio Grande who came driving their long-horned, lean-flanked cattle northward over the Chisholm Trail. Santa Fe, at its worst, could not have been dustier than this town of Ascalon, and especially the plaza, or public square, in these summer days. Galloping horses set its dust flying in obscuring clouds; the restless wind that blew from sunrise till sunset day in and day out from the southwest, whipped it in sudden gusts of temper, and drove it through open doors, spreading it like a sun-defying hoarfrost on the low roofs. All considered, Ascalon was as dry, uncomfortable, unpromising of romance, as any place that man ever built or nature ever harassed with wearing wind and warping sun.
The courthouse in the middle of the public square was built of bricks, of that porous, fiery sort which seem so peculiarly designed to the monstrous vagaries of rural architecture. Here in Ascalon they fitted well with the arid appearance of things, as a fiery face goes best with white eyebrows, anywhere.
The courthouse was a two-storied structure, with the cupola as indispensable to the old-time Kansas courthouse as a steeple to a church. The jail was in the basement of it, thus sparing culprits a certain punishment by concealing the building's raw, red, and crude lines from the eye. Not that anybody in jail or out of it ever thought of this advantage, or appreciated it, indeed, for Ascalon was proud of the courthouse, and fired with a desire and determination to keep it there in the plaza forever and a day.
There were precedents before them, and plenty of them in that part of the country, where county seats had been changed, courthouses of red bricks and gray stones put on skids and moved away, leaving desolation that neither maledictions could assuage nor oratory could repair. For prosperity went with the courthouse in those days, and dignity, and consequence among the peoples of the earth.
Hitching racks, like crude apparatus for athletic exercises, were built around the courthouse, with good driving distance between them and the plank sidewalks. Here the riders from distant ranges tied their jaded mounts, here such as made use of wagons in that land of horseback-going men hitched their teams when they drove in for supplies.
There was not a shrub in the courthouse square, not the dead and stricken trunk of a tree standing monument of any attempt to mitigate the curse of sun. There was not a blade of grass, not a struggling, wind-blown flower. Only here and there chickweed grew, spreading its green tracery over the white soil in such sequestered spots as the hoofs of beast and the feet of men did not stamp and chafe and wear; and in the angles of the courthouse walls, the Russian thistle, barbed with its thousand thorns. Men did not consider beauty in Ascalon, this Tophet at trail's end, save it might be the beauty of human flesh, and then it must be rouged and powdered, and enforced with every cosmetic mixture to win attention in an atmosphere where life was lived in a ferment of ugly strife.
There was in Ascalon in those bloody days a standing coroner's jury, of which Tom Conboy was the foreman, composed of certain gamblers and town politicians whose interests were with the vicious element. To these men the wide notoriety of the town was capital. Therefore, it was seldom, indeed, that anybody was slain in Ascalon without justification, according to the findings of this coroner's jury. In this way the gamblers and divekeepers, and such respectable citizens as chose to exercise their hands in this exhilarating pastime, were regularly absolved.
The result of this amicable agreement between the county officials and the people of the town was that Ascalon became, more than ever, a refuge for the outlawed and proscribed of other communities. Every train brought them, and dumped them down on the station platform to find their way like wolves to their kind into the activities of the town.
Gamblers and gun-slingers, tricksters and sharpers, attended by the carrion flock of women who always hover after these wreckers and wastrels, came to Ascalon by scores. It began to appear a question, in time, of what they were to subsist upon, even though they turned to the ravening of one another.
But the broad notoriety of Ascalon attended to this, bringing with the outlawed and debased a fresh and eager train of victims. The sons of families came from afar, sated with the diversions and debaucheries of eastern cities, looking for strange thrills and adventures to heat their surfeited blood. Unsophisticated young men came, following the lure of romance; farm boys from the midwestern states came, with a thought of pioneering and making a new empire of the plow, as their fathers had smoothed the land in the states already called old.
All of these came with money in their pockets, and nearly all of them, one day first or last, became contributors to the support of Ascalon's prostituted population. New victims came to replace the plucked, new crowds of cowherders rode in from the long trails to the south, relays of them galloped night after night from the far ranches stretching along the sandy Arkansas. There was no want of grain to sow in the gaping furrows struck out by the hands of sin in the raw, treeless, unpainted city of Ascalon.
And into all this fever of coming and going, this heartbreak of shame and loss, of quickly drawn weapon, of flash, despairing cry, and death—this sowing of recklessness and harvesting of despair—into all this had come Calvin Morgan, a man with a clean heart, a clean purpose in his soul.
Ascalon once had been illuminated at night about the public square by kerosene lamps set on posts, after the manner of gas lights in a city, but the expense of supplying glass day after day to repair the damage done by roysterers during the night had become so heavy that the town had abandoned lights long before Morgan's advent there. Only the posts stood now, scarred by bullets, gnawed by horses which had stood hitched to them forgotten by their owners who reveled their wages in Ascalon's beguiling fires. At the time of Morgan's coming, starlight and moonlight, and such beams as fell through the windows of houses upon the uneven sidewalk around the square, provided all the illumination that brightened the streets of Ascalon by night.