On the Iron at Big Cloud/The Man who didn't Count
THE MAN WHO DIDN'T COUNT
He was a little gray-haired hostler, wiper, sweeper, assistant night man in the roundhouse at Big Cloud, anything you like, and this is the story he told me one night, leaning against the blackened jamb of one of the big doors, wiping his hands occasionally upon a hunk of greasy waste.
They were a rough lot out in the mountains in the days when the Hill Division was shaking her steel into something like a permanent right of way—a pretty rough lot. The railroaders because they had to be; the rest because they were just that way naturally. Miners and Indians made up the citizenship mostly, and there's no worse mixture. They've got the redskins corralled on reserves now; but they hadn't then, and it didn't take more than one bad word and one drop of bad whisky to set things in lively motion.
There's a few highfaluting poems, and some other things, about the noble red man that works you up so when you read them that you get to wishing the Almighty had seen fit to let you be a red man, too. Well, that's all right in its way because, after you've rubbed elbows with some of the real thing, you realize that the world owes the poets a living just as much as it does anybody else, and that what they say has to sound good; so you just come to keep the cautionary signals up by instinct, and let it go at that.
But, to give the poets their due, there's one thing they never trip up on, and that's the Indian's compound efficiency for smell. The Indian can smell. When he sticks out his chest, faces southeast, and begins to draw in the God-given mountain air, you're free to bet that the distilleries down Kentucky way are doing enough business to make regular dividend checks a sure thing. That's generally good whisky. Bad whisky, in smell and otherwise, carries farther—and it's only fifteen miles from here to Coyote Bend!
Coyote Bend wasn't even a pin prick on the engineers' blue prints when they mapped out the right of way, and there wasn't any such place w r hen the steel was all spiked down until the day some wandering prospector staked out a bunch of claims—and the news spread.
Gold in the Rockies? No; there's never been much of it found, but there's an all-fired big superstition that the mother lode of the whole country is tucked away here somewhere. That's why, in two days, the wilderness and a gurgling stream that trickled peacefully down through a high-walled canon became Coyote Bend; and that's why the local freight began to make regular stops to dump off supplies alongside the track. There was no station, of course, no agent, no nothing; the stuff was just dumped, that's all. The consignees picked out their goods if they could read, or guessed at it if they couldn't.
Maybe I ought to have told you this before; anyway, I'll stick it in now. There are three men that figure in this story, though one of them doesn't count for much. He was a young chap named Charlie Lee. A graduate of an Eastern college he was, and all he had to his name was his diploma and the clothes he stood in when he hit the West. He struck the super for a job, and he got it—braking on the local freight. Hell for a man like him, eh? Well, it was, in more ways than one! Anyway, from that day to this it was the best job he ever held down long enough to draw a second month's pay check.
The other two were Matt Perley and Faro Clancy—"Breed" Clancy, they called him behind his back.
Perley was a very good sort, pretty straight, pretty clean, measuring by the standards out here in those days; a little bit of a sawed-off, blond-haired, blue-eyed man, full of grit inside, and an out-and-out railroad man—only a freight conductor, conductor on the local, but he knew his business; he'd have gone up, 'way up, in time.
Clancy was a hellion, there's no other name for him, and even that doesn't express it—no one word could. Indian one way, Irish the other. He looked mostly Indian; the Irish came out in the brogue. Black, swarthy, small eyes like needle points, coarse dry hair that straggled down over his eyebrows, a hulking bony frame with the strength of a wrecking crane—that's Clancy, Breed Clancy.
Oh, yes, he was slick, slick as they're made—with his hands. Faro, stud poker, dice, anything—it was his business; that, and running booze joints. Mining camps and brand-new boom towns were Clancy's meat mostly—after Perley drove him out of Big Cloud.
Don't ask me. I don't know what there was between them. That was before my time. A woman probably—a woman's generally blamed anyhow. Anyway, one night Perley got the drop on Breed and marched him down the street in front of his pistol and out of the town. After that, Clancy kept away from Big Cloud. As I say, that part was before my time. I only know there was bad blood between them; wicked bad blood on one side, as you'll see. Clancy disappeared from Big Cloud, and the two didn't foul each other again until Coyote Bend started.
Breed Clancy hit the Bend with the first inrush of the miners, and before any of them had time to much more than get a pick into the ground he was busy knocking together a bit of a shack he called a hotel, and was ordering the furnishings—liquid furnishings, you understand—from Big Cloud.
There were three barrels of it, the hardest kind of fire water that ever went into the mountains waybilled to Clancy at Coyote Bend by the local, on the first trip that Charlie Lee ever made with Matt Perley. I'm getting back to Lee now, you see.
Well, it was about noon when they whistled for the Bend that day, and Lee, riding the brake wheels on the front end, could see about a dozen "blankets" squatting alongside the right of way about where the train would stop. Grouped behind these were a number of stragglers from the camp, among whom was a big fellow in a red shirt you could see farther than a semaphore arm.
Now, I don't say those Indians were attracted by the gold rush to Coyote Bend. Coyote Bend, or any other place, old or new, stale or prosperous, would get its share of the redskins. Where they came from or where they went nobody knew. They'd drop in from nowhere, and, if they liked the place, they'd grunt and settle down for a spell; if they didn't like it, they'd grunt, in benediction or otherwise, and leave.
I'm not saying they smelled the whisky in that train. I'm not saying they knew Clancy was importing fire water, and they were just there to feast their eyes on the barrels and meditate on what was inside. I'm not saying anything at all about that, or what followed. There's only one man that perhaps might have explained it—I say "perhaps" because he never did; and also, because he knew Indian nature as well as any white man in the West. That was Perley.
Whether Perley even knew that Clancy was at the Bend or not, I don't know. I only know that he could have known it if he'd bothered to read the waybills; and it was likewise on the cards that he might have learned the day before, down at Big Cloud, that the whisky was going up the following morning. I don't know, and that's straight. Sometimes I think he did; sometimes I think he didn't. I don't know.
Anyway, Lee slid to the ground as the train stopped, and went back to the car that held the consignment for the Bend. As he fumbled with the door, he got a whiff of raw spirit that nearly knocked him over. And then, right behind him, rose a chorus of appreciative "ughs!"
I told you an Indian could smell whisky, but I didn't tell you why. It's his ruling passion. That's straight. I'm not judging the Indian; the taste was born in him. There are some white men just as bad. I'm not judging them, either. Some drink for the same reason the Indian does, some for others, and some—some men drink because they have to.
What was I saying? Oh, yes, Lee getting that whiff. Well, before he got the door unfastened, the man in the red shirt had pushed through the Indians and come up beside him.
"Me name's Clancy," said he. "Did yez bring up any stuff for me?"
"There's three barrels for somebody," replied Lee, and slid open the door—and the next minute he had jumped back with a yell, colliding with Clancy.
"Ugh!" ejaculated the apparition that confronted him.
"He's drunk! Majestically drunk! An' on my stuff!" roared Clancy; and then, turning fiercely on Lee: "Fwhat did ye let him in there for, eh? Fwhat did ye let him in for, ye mealy-faced little——"
"Let him in nothing!" retorted Lee, getting back his grip on himself. "Here, you, get out—and quick!"
The Indian blinked gravely, but never moved. He sat cross-legged on the floor, exactly in the middle of the car between the doors, swaying slightly backward and forward. Beside him, up-ended and broached, was one of Clancy's kegs. The car reeked with the smell of it, for of the half kegful that had gushed out what hadn't gone into the Indian had gone on to the floor.
The half-breed was raving mad. I've a notion sometimes the man wasn't human at all. He had his hand on Lee's throat when Perley came running up from the rear end.
"What's the row?" he began, and then he stopped. He was a cool devil was Perley, and he never turned a hair as he stepped between the two men. "Ah, Clancy, it's you, is it, you copper-faced renegade?"—no loud talk, no bluster, he didn't raise his voice; but his insult, the worst he could have laid his tongue to, cut like the sting of a lash.
Clancy swung around like a flash—and stared into the muzzle of the conductor's ·45. His hands were clenching and unclenching as he recognized Perley, and the cords in his neck swelled into knotty lumps.
"Ut's your worrk, this job, is ut?" he snarled. "Some day, Perley, I'll show you."
Queer, you say, he'd act like that—nothing to warrant it. Well, maybe. I don't know. I don't know what was between them before; but I do know the awful deviltry of Breed Clancy, and I know that Lee, leaning back against the car, shivered at the look that passed between the two of them.
Perley cut the half-breed short off. "Once," said he contemptuously, still quiet, not a tone raised, and his voice the more deadly for it, "once, perhaps you'll remember, I warned you to keep out of my road. Lee, how'd that Indian get in the car?"
"I don't know," said Lee.
"Well, then, throw him out," said Perley shortly, snapping his watch with his free hand. "We can't stay here all day."
This little ruction between Perley and the half-breed has taken me longer to tell it, I guess, than it did to happen. Anyway, it didn't cause the excitement you might think it would. The "blankets" were too busy drinking in the smell of that whisky to let their hungry eyes wander very far from anywhere but the open door of that car. And as for the stragglers, by the time they'd caught on to the fact that there was something on the boards besides that drunken Indian, Perley, with the same cool contempt, had slipped his gun back in his pocket and was boosting Lee into the car.
The Indian offered no opposition as Lee tackled him. He couldn't—he was beyond all that—he was so full of dead-eye it was oozing out by the pores. He just sat there, and Lee slid him to the door just as he was, still sitting, and dropped him out. He struck the ground with a thud, rebounded a foot, rolled over, grunted, and lay like a log. There was a guffaw from the camp stragglers, and a deep and envious chorus of "Ughs!" from the "blankets."
No, I'm not joking—it's a long way from a joke, as you'll see. They were envious. It acted like a red rag on a bull—the possibility of attaining the condition, the state of heavenly bliss, that had been reached by their red brother, do you understand?
Clancy wasn't laughing. He stood where Perley had left him, sullen and with twitching face. I don't know, I think it was Parley's sheer nerve that kept the half-breed from drawing and shooting the conductor when his back was turned. I don't know—brute beast cowed by the human mind, perhaps. No one ever knew Breed Clancy. He had his yellow streak at times, and then again the blood that was in him made him worse than a frenzied madman. Yes, I guess it was a case of "brute" all right, for there was no cowing him when the frenzy was on him.
Perley wasn't laughing, either. He was opening and shutting his watch impatiently. "Come on! Come on!" he cried at Lee. "Get those barrels out. We've got to cross Number Two at the Creek. It'll be the carpet for ours if we hold her up."
Lee grabbed the broached cask and edged it toward the doorway. The contents slopped and sloshed inside as he moved it, and occasionally a little of the stuff would spill out through the bunghole. Then, somehow, just as he got it to the door, his hold slipped, out it went, bounded on the edge of the ties, and then went down the embankment right into the hands of those squatting "blankets." They didn't squat long; I don't need to tell you that. They were on it in a mob, and they got the taste—they'd had the smell—and the fill was to come presently.
Clancy was cursing in streams; and no fouler-mouthed man than Clancy ever lived. He tried once to get the Indians off the barrel, and the stragglers backed him up half-heartedly. You might as well have tried to move that mogul on the pit there behind you. He didn't try but once, then he fell back on cursing again, and Parley was the target for most of it.
Perley? He never answered him, but his face grew harder and harder—and his gun was in his hand again. "Throw out those other two barrels!" he snapped at Lee.
"The redskins will get every last drop if I do," objected Lee, hesitating.
"Owner's risk. We've no station here. Throw 'em out!" repeated Perley, grimmer than before, only this time loud enough for Clancy to hear him.
"Ye do," roared the half-breed, "ye do, an' I'll worse than murdher ye one of these——"
"Throw 'em out!" said Perley quietly, waving the go-ahead signal to the engine crew.
And out they went—down the embankment after the first.
Lee jumped to the ground and banged the door shut, just as the drawbars began to snap tight along the train and the local jolted into motion. He waited beside Perley to swing the caboose as it came up. And while he waited he watched and grinned.
Funny? I don't know; it depends on the way you look at it, depends on what you call fun. Lee thought it was funny—then. The air was full of curses, Indian yells, shouts, oaths; and there was one jumbled mess of arms, and legs, and barrels. The Indians were after their fill, and this time Clancy and the stragglers were in the game for keeps.
Up ahead the engine crew hung grinning out of the gangway. Behind, the other brakeman was occupying a reserved seat on the top of the caboose. A quarter of a mile away over by the camp, men, attracted by the shouting, were beginning to run toward the track. Inconsistent kind of a mix-up, eh?—Indians, miners, whisky barrels, and railroaders. I don't know; call it funny if you like, though perhaps you can size it up better when I'm through.
By this time the caboose was up to where Perley and Lee were standing. Perley motioned Lee aboard, and then swung on himself.
Just as he did so, Clancy's red shirt loomed up out of the mêlée, his arm lifted, and over the clack of the car trucks pounding the steel came the tinkle of breaking glass from the shattered pane in the door—the bullet had passed between the heads of the two men on the platform, missing them by a hair's breadth. Another shot followed the first, another and another, dangerously close; splintering the woodwork around them; and then Perley fired. The half-breed spun round like a top, clapped his hand to his face and pitched over.
Then the curve of the track shut out the scene, but for five minutes after they were out of sight they still got the whoops of the redskins, the shouts and curses of the miners, and the crackle of guns like the quick fire of a Catling. You see it came to that before it was through, and there was some blood spilled—a lot of it—and, not counting Clancy's, it wasn't all "blanket" blood, either.
Clancy? I'm coming to him. No, he wasn't killed—if he had been I'd never be telling you this story. It was two or three days before Lee and Perley got the details of what happened. The redskins fought like fiends after the miners began to fire on them and had killed one or two, and, though they were finally subdued, the casualties, as I've said, weren't all on their side by a hanged sight.
But I was talking about Clancy. Well, that bullet of Perley's caught him on the cheek bone, glanced in, plowed through his left eye, and landed up somewhere against the cartilage of his nose—a bullet will make queer tracks sometimes, worse than surveyors by a heap. They got him down to Big Cloud to a doctor's, and before he was half cured he disappeared. They had a sort of makeshift hospital here in those days, and when I say "disappeared" I mean they found his bed empty one morning, that was all.
I told you I didn't know whether Perley had any hand in putting that Indian in the car, or the other redskins at the Bend. I don't. I told you I didn't know what was between him and the half-breed before all this happened. I don't. Perley never said. But day after day as he and Lee pounded up and down on the local through the mountains, he began to grow silent and moody.
Lee, young Lee then, was the only one that could get anywhere near the inside of his vest. He took to Lee, and Lee liked him; but even Lee had his limits when it came to confidences. There was lots Perley never opened his lips about. No, I don't know as it makes much difference now.
Lee was the first of the two to hear that Faro Clancy was "loose." "It looks to me like a bad business," he said, after telling Perley the news.
Perley's eyes just narrowed a little. "It looks more like a bad shot, a rotten bad shot," he answered evenly.
"That, if you like," returned Lee; "but there'll be more to follow."
"One would think you knew Clancy," said Perley, cool as ever.
Lee was anxious. Call it presentiment or what you like, from that moment the thing was on his nerves. Perley had been pretty good to him; had made things a heap easier for the young fellow, green and raw as he was, in a hundred different ways. Things like that mean something.
"Look here, Perley," said he, "I've heard some talk, and I know there's something behind all this between you and that devil. I'm not asking for confidences——"
Perley cut him short, and caught him almost angrily by the shoulder. "Don't meddle!" he snapped. "Let it drop. You don't count in this, whatever happens. Your being at the Bend that day was an accident. What's between me and Clancy concerns ourselves. You don't count. Unless you're looking for another run besides the local, just remember that and don't meddle."
That was all. Lee never mentioned it to Perley again. Perley was right, wasn't he? I told you there were three men in this story, but that one of them didn't count. No, Lee didn't count. Why should he? What did he have to do with it? Perley was right, I leave it to you.
You've been over the division, and you know the Devil's Slide just west of the Gap from here. You know the grade—the worst in the mountains. The trains crawl up at the pace a man could walk, because they can't go any faster; and they crawl down just as slowly, because they don't dare do anything else.
I've seen the passengers get off the observation and walk—so have you. Done it yourself probably? I thought so. Extra engine on the rear end to push or hold back, and one in the middle if the train's heavy, to keep it from breaking apart—lessens the drawbar pull, you know. They're tunneling now to do away with that particular grade, but that's nothing to do with this story, nor, for that matter, with the night, some six weeks after that business at the Bend, when the local, eastbound, was climbing the Devil's Slide.
It was a dirty night outside the caboose. A storm had been racketing through the mountains all afternoon, and by the time it got dark it was a howling gale, raining hard enough to float the ties.
Lee's place was on the front end, going up that bit of track, but he wasn't well that night, and the other brakeman was doing his snatch. Touch of mountain fever, or something, nothing serious; just enough to make him shiver and boil alternately over the little stove in the caboose, sitting with his back to the door. Up above him in the cupola, holding down the swivel chair where he could watch the train—that is, see his engine fling up the sparks, for that's about all he could see, I guess—was Perley.
The car was swinging like a hammock with the heave and strain of the big pusher coupled right behind it—it acts queer, that does. Every time I've felt it I've always thought of a cat and a mouse. It's like the engine had the caboose by the scruff and was trying to shake the life out of it.
You've felt it a little if you've ever been in the rear Pullman going up—the difference is that a caboose hasn't any springs to speak of, you understand? Racket enough to raise the dead. You couldn't hear yourself think. Not so much from the noise of the train or the storm, but from the booming roar of the trailer's exhaust—like she was trying to cough her boiler tubes out every time the valves slid.
Now, there's just one more thing I want you to get. The engine crew of a pusher naturally can't see any track, road-bed, or anything of that kind, and it isn't their business to, either. All they watch is the leader and the intermediate, if there is one. Their headlight plays along over a few cars if it's high enough, or loses itself on the top of the door or the roof of the caboose if it isn't, understand?
Lee didn't hear anything. He was sitting bent over with his head between his hands, and it was the current of air from the opening door that made him twist around and look up, thinking it had blown open. I don't know as you'd call him a coward; maybe yes, maybe no; anyway, he was a white-faced, terrified man that next instant, as he started up from his chair. He never got to his feet. Instead, he shut up like a jackknife, and went down to the floor with a blow over the head from a revolver butt that knocked him senseless.
It all happened in a second, but in that second Lee got it with more vividness than a thousand hours would have given him—the great, hulking figure, the water trickling to the floor in little pools from the dripping clothes, the sickly pallor of the face, the thin new skin of the livid scar across the cheek, the sightless eye—Clancy.
Lee couldn't have lain unconscious more than twenty minutes, perhaps it was only fifteen, for it takes about forty minutes to climb the four miles of the Slide, you see. Call it twenty, that allows for what happened before and what happened after. When he came to his senses the light in the bracket lamp was out; blown out by the draft, for the door was open. A stray beam or two from the pusher's headlight filled the caboose with an uncertain, wavering light—from the jolt and swing, you know, though Lee thought at first it was his head.
He tried to get up, but he couldn't move. He was bound hand and foot, laid out on the flat of his back—helpless. For a minute he was too dazed to understand, then he remembered—Clancy. He stared up into the cupola above him. The swivel chair was empty—Perley had gone!
The car trucks were beating a steady clack, clack-clack, as they pounded the fishplates; from behind came the full, deep-chested thunder of the trailer's exhaust; around, the hundred noises of the creaking, groaning, swaying car; without, the patter of rain, the wail of the wind. But over it all, low though it was, came a sound that sent a chill to Lee's heart.
It was like a breathless moan, do you understand? That was the inhuman part of it; it was breathless—there was no break—a sort of sobbing monotone. It came from behind him. Lee shivered as he listened, and then his heart began to pound as though it would burst. He was afraid—afraid. Premonition, perhaps; I don't know. He rolled himself over on his side, and he saw——
How can I tell it! A figure was crouched against the side of the car in a half-sitting posture, the face was red—red with the blood that was flowing from the forehead. Lee shrieked aloud in terror. "Perley! Perley!" Then he grew sick with the horror that was on him. Worse than murder the half-breed had threatened—and he had kept his word. Perley had been scalped!
Lee's cry must have reached the poor wretch's consciousness, for he staggered to his feet, sweeping his eyes clear with both hands. Lee, sick to the depths of his soul, the sweat breaking out in great, cold drops upon his forehead, fought like a maniac with his bonds.
Perley never spoke, never paid any attention to Lee—he was past all that—but his brain, at least, was still capable of coherent impression. It must have been—to account for what he did. Right in front of him, as he hung there tottering and swaying, was a broken bit of mirror tacked up on the side of the car. He was staring into it.
His moaning stopped. The shock of his own awful horror must have revolted, shaken his very being. His hand groped weakly, subconsciously perhaps, for his pocket—his revolver—the end.
Again Lee shrieked as he struggled to free himself, and then, as Perley fired, he burst out into a peal of wild, discordant laughter. His mind was giving way. He began to gibber like a madman—that's the way they found him—with Perley's body pitched full across his chest.
Don't ask me. I told you Perley was a little, undersized, sawed-off man. I don't know, do I? The half-breed, physically, could have handled him like a baby, once he caught him unawares. That's all I know.
They buried Perley down at Big Cloud; and they buried Clancy where the posse dropped him, drilled full of holes. That's the story.
Lee? Charlie Lee? Why, he doesn't count, does he? He had nothing to do with it. Well, if you're interested in him I'll tell you. His college diploma never did him any good. Once he got ^better and out of the hospital, he took to drinking periodically—hard. Between times straight as a string, you understand, for six weeks say, then off again. That was fifteen years ago, and he's done it ever since. The doctors said that blow on the head unsettled him, skull splinter, or something like that; but medicine's not an exact science. The doctors were wrong. The trouble was deeper than the skull—it was in his soul. Lee drank to save himself from the madhouse—I told you, didn't I, that some men drink because they have to?
Carleton, the super, and the men before Carleton, understood what the doctors didn't, so Lee's working for the railroad yet. Not braking—he's not fit for that, but he keeps the job they gave him—and it's kept for him—when he gets back after his spells. I—there's the foreman shouting for me. Sorry, but I'll have to go.
If you're going out on Number One she's just coming down the gorge now. Good night, sir."
I lost him in the shadows of the big mogul on the pit behind me. Then I turned and walked slowly out of the roundhouse, over the turntable, and across the tracks to the station platform. Number One's mellow chime floated down from the gorge, then the flare of the electric headlight, and the rumble of the train. And in quick, fierce tempo, the beating, drumming trucks caught up the name I had heard the foreman shout, and rang it over and over again in my ears:
"Oh-you-Lee! Charlie-Lee! Lee! Charlie-Lee-Lee!"