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A HUT of bark, thatched with palm-leaves; a gigantic rock at whose base lay old ashes; an open grassy space bordering a narrow mountain stream, and a little garden—these made the home of the Inger, where a man might live and die as a man was meant, neither planning like a maniac nor yet idling like an idiot, but well content with what the day brought forth.
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For a moment he let himself watch her, and catching his look, she smiled, as she had smiled when his eyes had met hers as he woke.
A hut of bark, thatched with palm-leaves; a gigantic rock at whose base lay old ashes; an open grassy space bordering a narrow mountain stream, and a little garden—these made the home of the Inger, where a man might live and die as a man was meant, neither planning like a maniac nor yet idling like an idiot, but well content with what the day brought forth.
Toward a June sunset, the Inger sat outside his doorway, fashioning a bowl from half a turtle shell. Before him the ground sloped down to the edge of the garden, and beyond dropped to the clearing’s edge. When he lifted his eyes, he could look for miles along thick tops of live oaks and larches, and beyond to a white line of western sea. At his back rose the foothills, cleft by cañons still quite freshly green. Above them, the monstrous mountains swept the sky, and here their flanks were shaggy with great pines. The whole lay now in that glory of clear yellow by which the West gives to the evenings some hint of a desert ancestry.
The Inger worked in silence. He was not a man to sing or whistle—those who live alone are seldom whistling men. Perhaps the silence becomes something definite, and not lightly to be shattered. A man camping alone will work away quietly day-long—and his dog understands. The Inger had no dog any more. He had owned a wolf hound whom, in a fit of passion, he had kicked so that the dog had died. And such was his remorse that he would own no other, and the sight of another man’s dog pulled at him as at an old wound.
It was so still that, presently, in that clear air the sound of a bell in the valley came up to him with distinctness. He looked to the south, and in a deep place in the trees, already lights twinkled out as if they, like the bells, would announce something. The Inger remembered and understood.
“Hell,” he said aloud. “The wedding.”
He went on scraping at his turtle shell, his mind on the man who would be married that night—early, so that there would be ample time for much merrymaking and drunkenness before the east bound train at midnight. Bunchy Haight was the man, the owner of the run-down inn in the village of Inch. The woman was the Moor girl, whose father, abetted by the Inger himself, had killed a sheriff or two for interfering with his gambling place and had gone free, because no one was sure whether it was he or the Inger who did the shooting. Moor’s promissory notes had been accumulating in the hands of Bunchy Haight for a dozen years, and it was no secret that the wedding settled the long score.
“And in dead luck to get a good provider like Bunchy, the Moor girl is,” was the way Inch took it.
Inch welcomed a wedding. In the old days it had been different, and nobody cared whether anybody had a wedding or not. For then there had been a race track at Inch, and a summer hotel, and a fine glass-front showing of saloons, and other magnificence. With the passing of the California law, the track had been closed, the resort keepers had moved away, and the bottom had fallen from Inch.
Mothers amused their children by telling of the traps and the four-in-hands and the tally-ho’s with rollicking horns, and the gaily dressed strangers who used to throng the town for a fortnight in Spring and in Autumn, when Inch knew no night and no darkness and no silence, and abundantly prospered.
Now all this was changed. There were, literally, no excitements save shootings and weddings. Jem Moor, being supposed to have achieved his share of the former, was prepared further to adorn his position by setting up drinks for the whole village and all strangers, to celebrate his daughter’s nuptial day.
These things the Inger turned over in his mind as he scraped away at his shell; and when the dark had nearly fallen, he rose, shook out from the shell the last fragments, polished it with his elbow, balanced it between his hands to regard it, and came to his conclusion:
“Hell,” he said again, “I’m bust if I don’t go to it.”
The next instant he laid down the shell, slipped to his door and caught up the gun that lay inside, on a shelf of the rude scantling. A wood duck had appeared over the lower tree tops, flying languidly to its nest, somewhere in the foothills. Long before it reached the wood’s edge, the Inger was in his doorway. The bird’s heavy flight led straight across the clearing. One moment the big body came sailing above the hut, then it seemed to go out in a dozen ugly angles and dropped like a stone to the edge of the garden. It lay fluttering strongly when the Inger reached it. He lifted and examined it approvingly. One wing was shot almost clear of the body. That was the mark he liked to make. He swung the bird under his arm, took out his jack-knife, pried open the mouth, slit the long tongue, tied the feet together and hung it outside his door to bleed to death. This death, he had heard, improved the flavor.
Without washing his hands, he prepared his supper—salt pork and bacon fried together, corn cakes soaked in the gravy, and coffee. The fire glowed in the hollow of the great rock, and the smell of the cooking crept about. The Inger was almost ready to eat by the clear light of the transparent sky, when he saw a figure coming across the clearing.
He leapt for his rifle—since the last sheriff had been shot he was never perfectly at ease with any stranger. But before his hand had closed, it relaxed at the sound of a triple whistle. He wheeled and looked again. The stranger had almost reached the bourne of the firelight.
“Blast my bones and blast me!” cried the Inger. “Dad!”
Something deep and big had come in his voice. As the two men met and shook hands, there was a gladness in them both. They moved apart in a minute, the Inger took the pack which the older man swung off, and went about cutting more salt pork and bacon. His father found the wash basin, and washed, breathing noisily through the water cupped in his hands. Not much was said, but anyone would have known that the two were glad of the moment.
“Not much grub,” said his father. “I ain’t grub hungry,” and flung himself on the ground before the camp fire. “I’m dead beat—and my bones ache,” he added.
The Inger filled his father’s plate and went on frying meat. In the firelight, their faces looked alike. The older man’s skin was beginning to draw tightly, showing the rugged modelling of the thick bones. His huge hands looked loose and ineffectual. Something welled up and flooded the Inger when he saw his father’s hand tremble as it lifted his tin cup.
Larger in scale, more definite in drawing, and triumphantly younger the Inger was, brown skinned, level eyed, and deep chested, his naked, veined right arm grasping the handle of the skillet as if it were a battering ram. When the Inger registered in the inn at Inch or signed a check in his bank in the City, his pen bit through the paper like acid, because he did everything as if his tool were a battering ram. But his eyes, as they rested now on his father’s hand that trembled, were soft and mute, like a dog’s eyes.
“What kind of luck, Dad?” he said.
The older man looked across his wooden platter and smiled whimsically.
“Same kind,” he answered. “None. But look a-here, Sonny—” he added, “I found out something.”
“I bet you did,” said the Inger.
“I ain’t ever going to have any luck,” said the old man. “I’m done for. I’m done. A year or two more and I’ll be spaded in. It’s the darndest, funniest feeling,” he said musingly, “to get on to it that you’re all in—a back number—got to quit plannin’ it.”
“Not on your life—” the Inger began, but his father roared at him.
“Shut up!” he said fondly. “You danged runt you, you must have knowed it for two years back.”
“Knowed nothin’,” said the Inger, stoutly.
The older man put his plate on the ground and lay down beside it, his head on his hand.
“It’s a devil of a feel,” he said.
“Don’t feel it,” said the Inger.
“Cut it,” said his father, almost sternly. “I brought you up to kill a man if you have to—but not to lie to him, ain’t I? Well, don’t you lie to me now.”
The Inger was silent, and his father went on.
“I was always so dead sure,” he said, “that
I was cut out to be rich. When I was a kid in the tannery, I was dead sure. When I hit the trail for the mines I thought the time was right ahead. That was fifty years ago....”
“Quit, Dad,” said the Inger, uncomfortably. “I’ve got it—what’s the difference? The Flag-pole is good for all either of us will ever want.”
“I ain’t forgot, though,” said the older man, quickly, “that you banked on the Flag-pole agin’ my advice. If you’d done as I said, you’d been grubbin’ yet, same as me.”
“It’s all luck,” said the Inger. “What can anybody tell? We’re gettin’ the stuff—and there’s a long sight more’n we need. Ain’t that enough? What you want to wear yourself out for?”
His father leaned against the end of the warm rock, and lighted his pipe.
“Did I say I wanted to?” he asked. “I done it so long I can’t help myself. I’ll be schemin’ out deals, and bein’ let in on the ground floor, and findin’ a sure thing till I croak. And gettin’ took in, regular.”
He regarded his son curiously.
“What you goin’ to do with your pile?” he inquired.
The Inger sat clasping his knees, looking up at the height of Whiteface, thick black in the thin darkness. His face was relaxed and there was a boyishness and a sweetness in his grave mouth.
“Nothin’,” he said, “till I get the pull to leave here.”
“To leave Inch?” said his father, incredulously.
“To leave here,” the Inger repeated, throwing out his arm to the wood. “This is good enough for me—for a while yet.”
“I thought mebbe the society down there,” said his father, with a jerk of his head to the lights in the valley, “was givin’ you some call to sit by.”
The Inger sprang up.
“So it is,” he said, “to-night. Bunchy’s gettin’ spliced.”
“Who’s the antagonist?” asked the other.
“The Moor girl,” said the Inger. “Bunchy’s a fine lot to draw her,” he added. “She’s too good a hand for him. Want to go down and see it pulled off?” he asked.
His father hesitated, looking down the valley to the humble sparkling of Inch.
“I don’t reckon I really want to get drunk to-night,” he said slowly. “I’ll save up till I do.”
The Inger stretched prodigiously, bunching his great shoulders, lifting his tense arms, baring their magnificent muscles.
“I gotta, I guess,” he said. “But, gosh, how I hate it.”
He carried the remnants of the food into the hut, and made his simple preparation for festivity. As he emerged he was arrested by a faint stirring and fluttering. He listened and it was near at hand, and then he saw the wood duck, writhing at the end of the string that bound its legs. Beneath it lay a little dark pool.
“No sense in bleedin’ all the good out of ye,” thought the Inger, and with the butt of the six-shooter that he was pocketing, he struck the bird a friendly blow on the head and stilled it.
The forest lay in premature night, save where a little mountain brook caught and treasured the dying daylight. It was intensely still. The Inger’s tread and brushing at the thickets silenced whatever movement of tiny life had been stirring before him. The trail wound for half a mile down the incline, in the never-broken growth.
Once in the preceding winter when the Flag-pole mine was at last known with certainty to be the sensation of the year, the Inger had sewed a neat sum in the lining of his coat and had gone to inspect San Francisco. He had wanted to see a library, and he saw one, and stood baffled among books of which he had never heard, stammering before a polite young woman who said, “Make out your card, please, over there, and present it at the further desk.” He had wanted to see an art gallery, and he went confused among alien shapes and nameless figures, and had obediently bought a catalogue, of which he made nothing. Then he had gone to dinner with the family of one of the stockholders, and had suffered anguish among slipping rugs and ambiguous silver. The next night, the new collar and cravat discarded, he had turned up in one of his old haunts on the Barbary Coast. On his experience he made only one comment:
“They know too damn much, and there’s too damn much they don’t know,” he said.
But the woods he understood. All that he had hoped to feel in the library and the art gallery and in that home, he felt when the woods had him. Out there he was his own man.
As he went he shouted out a roaring music-hall song. Then when he had ceased, as if he became conscious of some incongruity, he stood still, perhaps with some vague idea of restoring silence. In a moment, he heard something move in the tree above his head—an anxious “Cheep—cheep!” in the leaves, as if some soft breast were beating in fear and an inquiring head were poised, listening. Instantly he lifted his revolver and fired, and fired again. He heard nothing. Had anything fallen, he could certainly not have come upon it next day. It was the need to do something.
As he cleared the wood, the lights of the town lay sparkling in a cup of the desert. At sight of them there was something that he wanted to do or to be. The vastness of the sky, the nearness of the stars, the imminence of people, these possessed him. He caught off his cap, and broke into a run, tossing back his hair like a mane.
“Damn that little town—damn it, damn it!” he chanted, like an invocation to the desert and to the night.
Inch was in glory. On the little streets and in the one-story shops, all the lights were kindled. Bursts of music, and screaming laughter, came from the saloons, whose doors stood wide open to the street, and at whose bars already men and women were congregating. In the Mission Saloon, the largest of these hospitable places, an impromptu stage had been arranged, and the seats about the tables were nearly all filled. Here the Inger went in and called for his first drink, negligently including everybody present. He was greeted boisterously by those who knew him and pointed out to those who did not know him. Not one of them understood the sources of his power, or what it signified. He was the only man in the county to be called by his last name and the definite article. This was a title of which a man might be proud, conferred upon him by common consent of his peers.
There was no formality of introduction. The Inger merely scanned the crowd, flashing a smile at one or two of the women who nearly pleased him. When the drinking began, it was to one of these that he lifted his glass. But when immediately she came and sat beside him, linking her arm in his, he drew away laughing, and addressed the crowd at large.
“What’s up?” he demanded. “What’s doin’?”
“B-basket o’ peaches,” volunteered one of the cow punchers, who early in the day had begun to observe the occasion. “B-Bunchy’s complimumps!”
When the improvised curtain of sheets drew back, revealing ten or twelve half-clothed strange women, the Inger understood. This was Bunchy’s magnanimous contribution to the general jollity of his marriage night.
“Let me have an absinthe,” he said to the barkeeper.
The man leaned across the bar and whispered something.
“No absinthe!” shouted the Inger. “What the hell kind of a joint is this?”
“Leadpipe Pete licked up the bottom of the bottle,” growled the barkeeper, pointing with the stump of a thumb.
The Inger looked. Beside him a big ranchman, swarthy and sweaty and hairy, was just lifting to his lips a tall tumbler of the absinthe. He leered at the Inger, closed one eye, and began to drink luxuriously. The Inger leapt a pace backward; and in an instant a bullet crashed through the glass, shattered it, and the man stood, dripping, with the bottom of the tumbler in his hand. The bullet buried itself in the tin mirror of the bar.
“About how much do I owe you for the lookin’ glass?” inquired the Inger, easily, resting his elbows on the bar. “And charge me up with Pete’s drink he’s mussed himself up with so bad. What’ll be the next one, Pete?”
“Leave Pete name the damages,” said the barkeeper, unconcernedly wiping up the liquid.
“You’re too hellish handy with your tools, you are,” grumbled Pete, combing the glass from his beard. “Make it brandy, neat.”
“Brandy, neat, one two,” repeated the Inger. “Bein’ your absinthe has run out.
Presently he strolled up the street toward the hotel, where the evening’s interest centred. He glanced indifferently into the saloons, nodded a greeting when he wished, but more often ignored one. At a corner a beggar, attracted to the little place from some limbo where news of the wedding had filtered, held out his cap.
“It’s my thirty-third birthday to-day, pal,” he said. “It’ll bring you good luck to cough up somethin’ on me, see if it don’t.”
The Inger stopped with simulated interest. The man—a thin, degenerate creature, with a wrinkled smile—approached him hopefully. Abruptly the Inger’s powerful arm shot out, caught him below the waist, lifted him squirming in the air, and laid him carefully in the gutter.
“What you need is rest,” he said, with perfect gentleness, and left him there.
The hotel where the wedding was to be celebrated had light in every window. Here Bunchy’s preparations had been prodigal. Blankets and skins lined the walls and covered the floor of the office where a fire was roaring and the card tables were in readiness. Shouting and imprecation, chiefly from women, came from the kitchen, where the wedding supper was in preparation. In the hotel desk was Bunchy himself, engaged in somewhat delayed attention to his nails. His hair, still wet from its brushing, ran away from his temples, lifting the corners of his forehead so that it seemed to be smiling. He had a large face, and a little tight mouth, with raw-looking, shiny lips. There was something pathetic in his careful black clothes and his uncomfortable collar and his plaid cravat.
“How much would you sink to back out?” was the Inger’s salutation.
Bunchy grinned sheepishly.
“How much did it cost you?” he inquired.
“Done it for nothing,” the Inger declared. “I ain’t the charmer you are, Bunchy. Never was.”
The groom leaned nearer the light, minutely examining a black, cracked finger.
“She ain’t goin’ to be very much in the way,” said he, confidentially.
“What?” asked the Inger, attentively.
Bunchy shook his head, pursing the tight, raw lips.
“Not her,” he said. “She believes anything you tell her—the whole works. There won’t never be no kickin’ from her about me not loafin’ home.”
“Well,” said the Inger, still with minute attention, “what you gettin’ married for, then?”
“Huh?” said Bunchy, an obstinate finger between his lips.
“I thought,” explained the Inger, “that a fellow got married for to have a home. Far as I can see, though,” he added with an air of great intellectual candor, “home is hell.”
Bunchy threw back his head and looked at him. Curiously, when he laughed, his little tight mouth revealed no teeth. His answer was deliberate, detailed, unspeakable.
For a minute the Inger looked at him, quietly, himself wondering at the surge of something hot through all his veins. In his slow swing round the end of the desk where Bunchy stood, there was no hint of what he meant to do. Bunchy did not even look up from the fat forefinger which he scrupulously pruned. Nor was there anything passionate in the Inger’s voice when he spoke.
“You ain’t got the time to-night,” he said, “but when you get back from your honeymoon, look me up and—remember this!”
The last words came with a rush, as the Inger lifted his hand, and with his open palm, struck Bunchy full in the face. He struck harder than he had intended, and the blood spurted. Even as he caught the ugly look of wrath and amazement in that face, the Inger tore the handkerchief knotted about his own neck and wiped the blood from Bunchy’s chin.
“No call to splash on the weddin’-finery,” the Inger said, with compunction. “Any time’ll do to bleed. She’s Jem Moor’s girl—you hound!” he blazed out again, and flung toward the door.
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