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I Meet Friends








From: Desert Dust

What shall I say of a young man like myself, fresh from the green East of
New York and the Hudson River, landed expectant as just aroused from a
dream of rare beauty, at this Benton City, Wyoming Territory? The dust, as
fine as powder and as white, but shot through with the crimson of sunset,
hung like a fog, amidst which swelled a deafening clamor from figures
rushing hither and thither about the platform like half-world shades. A
score of voices dinned into my ears as two score hands grabbed at my
valise and shoved me and dragged me.

"The Desert Hotel. Best in the West. This way, sir."

"Buffalo Hump Corral! The Buffalo Hump! Free drinks at the Buffalo Hump."

"Vamos, all o' you. Leave the gent to me. I've had him before. Mike's
Place for you, eh? Come along."

"The Widow's Cafe! That's yore grub pile, gent. All you can eat for two
bits."

A deep voice boomed, stunning me.

"The Queen, the Queen! Bath for every room. Individual towels. The Queen,
the Queen, she's clean, she's clean."

It was a magnificent bass, full toned as an organ, issuing, likewise as
out of a reed, from a swart dwarf scarcely higher than my waist. The word
"bath," with the promise of "individual towels," won me over. Something
must be done, anyway, to get rid of these importunate runners. Thereupon I
acquiesced, "All right, my man. The Queen," and surrendering my bag to his
hairy paw I trudged by his guidance. The solicitations instantly ceased as
if in agreement with some code.

We left the station platform and went ploughing up a street over shoetops
with the impalpable dust and denoted by tents and white-coated shacks
sparsely bordering. The air was breezeless and suffocatingly loaded with
that dust not yet deposited. The noises as from a great city swelled
strident: shouts, hammerings, laughter, rumble of vehicles, cracking of
lashes, barkings of dogs innumerable--betokening a thriving mart of
industry. But although pedestrians streamed to and fro, the men in motley
of complexions and costumes, the women, some of them fashionably dressed,
with skirts eddying furiously; and wagons rolled, horses cantered, and
from right and left merchants and hawksters seemed to be calling their
wares, of city itself I could see only the veriest husk.

The majority of the buildings were mere canvas-faced up for a few feet,
perhaps, with sheet iron or flimsy boards; interspersed there were a few
wooden structures, rough and unpainted; and whereas several of the
housings were large, none was more than two stories--and when now and
again I thought that I had glimpsed a substantial stone front a closer
inspection told me that the stones were imitation, forming a veneer of the
sheet iron or of stenciled pine. Indeed, not a few of the upper stories,
viewed from an unfavorable angle, proved to be only thin parapets
upstanding for a pretense of well-being. Behind them, nothing at all!

In the confusion of that which I took to be the main street because of the
stores and piles of goods and the medley of signs, what with the hubbub
from the many barkers for saloons and gambling games, the constant dodging
among the pedestrians, vehicles and horses and dogs, in a thoroughfare
that was innocent of sidewalk, I really had scant opportunity to gaze;
certainly no opportunity as yet to get my bearings. My squat guide
shuttled aside; a group of loafers gave us passage, with sundry stares at
me and quips for him; and I was ushered into a widely-open tent-building
whose canvas sign depending above a narrow veranda declared: "The Queen
Hotel. Beds $3. Meals $1 each."

Now as whitely powdered as any of the natives I stumbled across a single
large room bordered at one side by a bar and a number of small tables (all
well patronized), and was brought up at the counter, under the alert eyes
of a clerk coatless, silk-shirted, diamond-scarfed, pomaded and
slick-haired, waiting with register turned and pen extended.

My gnome heavily dropped my bag.

"Gent for you," he presented.

"I wish a room and bath," I said, as I signed.

"Bath is occupied. I'll put you down, Mr.----" and he glanced at the
signature. "Four dollars and four bits, please. Show the gentleman to
Number Six, Shorty. That drummer's gone, isn't he?"

"You bet."

"The bath is occupied?" I expostulated. "How so? I wish a private bath."

"Private? Yes, sir. All you've got to do is to close the door while you're
in. Nobody'll disturb you. But there are parties ahead of you. First come,
first served."

I persisted.

"Your runner--this gentleman, if I am not mistaken (and I indicated the
gnome, who grinned from dusty face), distinctly said 'A bath for every
room.'"

Bystanders had pushed nearer, to examine the register and then me. They
laughed--nudged one another. Evidently I had a trace of green in my eye.

"Quite right, sir," the clerk assented. "So there is. A bath for every
room and the best bath in town. Entirely private; fresh towel supplied.
Only one dollar and four bits. That, with lodging, makes four dollars and
a half. If you please, sir."

"In advance?" I remonstrated--the bath charge alone being monstrous.

"I see you're from the East. Yes, sir; we have to charge transients in
advance. That is the rule, sir. You stay in Benton City for some time?"

"I am undetermined."

"Of course, sir. Your own affair. Yes, sir. But we shall hope to make
Benton pleasant for you. The greatest city in the West. Anything you want
for pleasure or business you'll find right here."

"The greatest city in the West--pleasure or business!" A bitter wave of
homesickness welled into my throat as, conscious of the enveloping dust,
the utter shams, the tawdriness, the alien unsympathetic onlookers, the
suave but incisive manner of the clerk, the sense of having been "done"
and through my own fault, I peeled a greenback from the folded packet in
my purse and handed it over. Rather foolishly I intended that this display
of funds should rebuke the finicky clerk; but he accepted without comment
and sought for the change from the twenty.

"And how is old New York, suh?"

A hearty, florid, heavy-faced man, with singularly protruding fishy eyes
and a tobacco-stained yellowish goatee underneath a loosely dropping lower
lip, had stepped forward, his pudgy hand hospitably outstretched to me: a
man in wide-brimmed dusty black hat, frayed and dusty but, in spots,
shiny, black broadcloth frock coat spattered down the lapels, exceedingly
soiled collar and shirt front and greasy flowing tie, and trousers tucked
into cowhide boots.

I grasped the hand wonderingly. It enclosed mine with a soft pulpy
squeeze; and lingered.

"As usual, when I last saw it, sir," I responded. "But I am from Albany."

"Of course. Albany, the capital, a city to be proud of, suh. I welcome
you, suh, to our new West, as a fellow-citizen."

"You are from Albany?" I exclaimed.

"Bohn and raised right near there; been there many a time. Yes, suh. From
the grand old Empire State, like yourself, suh, and without apologies.
Whenever I meet with a New York State man I cotton to him."

"Have I your name, sir?" I inquired. "You know of my family, perhaps."

"Colonel Jacob B. Sunderson, suh, at your service. Your family name is
familiar to me, suh. I hark back to it and to the grand old State with
pleasure. Doubtless I have seen you befoh, sur. Doubtless in the City--at
Johnny Chamberlain's? Yes?" His fishy eyes beamed upon me, and his breath
smelled strongly of liquor. "Or the Astor? I shall remember. Meanwhile,
suh, permit me to do the honors. First, will you have a drink? This way,
suh. I am partial to a brand particularly to be recommended for clearing
this damnable dust from one's throat."

"Thank you, sir, but I prefer to tidy my person, first," I suggested.

"Number Six for the gentleman," announced the clerk, returning to me my
change from the bill. I stuffed it into my pocket--the Colonel's singular
eyes followed it with uncomfortable interest. The gnome picked up my bag,
but was interrupted by my new friend.

"The privilege of showing the gentleman to his quarters and putting him at
home shall be mine."

"All right, Colonel," the clerk carelessly consented. "Number Six."

"And my trunk. I have a trunk at the depot," I informed.

"The boy will tend to it."

I gave the gnome my check.

"And my bath?" I pursued.

"You will be notified, sir. There are only five ahead of you, and one
gentleman now in. Your turn will come in about two hours."

"This way, suh. Kindly follow me," bade the Colonel. As he strode before,
slightly listed by the weight of the bag in his left hand, I remarked a
peculiar bulge elevating the portly contour of his right coat-skirt.

We ascended a flight of rude stairs which quivered to our tread, proceeded
down a canvas-lined corridor set at regular intervals on either hand with
numbered deal doors, some open to reveal disorderly interiors; and with
"Here you are, suh," I was importantly bowed into Number Six.

We were not to be alone. There were three double beds: one well rumpled as
if just vacated; one (the middle) tenanted by a frowsy headed, whiskered
man asleep in shirt-sleeves and revolver and boots; the third, at the
other end, recently made up by having its blanket covering hastily thrown
against a distinctly dirty pillow.

"Your bed yonduh, suh, I reckon," prompted the Colonel (whose accents did
not smack of New York at all), depositing my bag with a grunt of relief.
"Now, suh, as you say, you desire to freshen the outer man after your
journey. With your permission I will await your pleasure, suh; and your
toilet being completed we will freshen the inner man also with a glass or
two of rare good likker."

I gazed about, sickened. Item, three beds; item, one kitchen chair; item,
one unpainted board washstand, supporting a tin basin, a cake of soap, a
tin ewer, with a dingy towel hanging from a nail under a cracked mirror
and over a tin slop-bucket; item, three spittoons, one beside each bed;
item, a row of nails in a wooden strip, plainly for wardrobe purposes;
item, one window, with broken pane.

The board floor was bare and creaky, the partition walls were of
once-white, stained muslin through which sifted unrebuked a mixture of
sounds not thoroughly agreeable.

The Colonel had seated himself upon a bed; the bulge underneath his skirts
jutted more pronouncedly, and had the outlines of a revolver butt.

"But surely I can get a room to myself," I stammered. "The clerk mistakes
me. This won't do at all."

"You are having the best in the house, suh," asserted the Colonel, with
expansive wave of his thick hand. He spat accurately into the convenient
spittoon. "It is a front room, suh. Number Six is known as very choice,
and I congratulate you, suh. I myself will see to it that you shall have
your bed to yourself, if you entertain objections to doubling up. We are,
suh, a trifle crowded in Benton City, just at present, owing to the
unprecedented influx of new citizens. You must remember, suh, that we are
less than one month old, and we are accommodating from three to five
thousand people."

"Is this the best hotel?" I demanded.

"It is so reckoned, suh. There are other hostelries, and I do not desire,
suh, to draw invidious comparisons, their proprietors being friends of
mine. But I will go so far as to say that the Queen caters only to the
elite, suh, and its patronage is gilt edge."

I stepped to the window, the lower sash of which was up, and gazed
out--down into that dust-fogged, noisy, turbulent main street, of floury
human beings and grime-smeared beasts almost within touch, boiling about
through the narrow lane between the placarded makeshift structures. I
lifted my smarting eyes, and across the hot sheet-iron roofs I saw the
country south--a white-blotched reddish desert stretching on, desolate,
lifeless under the sunset, to a range of stark hills black against the
glow.

"There are no private rooms, then?" I asked, choking with a gulp of
despair.

"You are perfectly private right here, suh," assured the Colonel. "You may
strip to the hide or you may sleep with your boots on, and no questions
asked. Gener'ly speaking, gentlemen prefer to retain a layer of artificial
covering--but you ain't troubled much with the bugs, are you, Bill?"

He leveled this query at the frowsy, whiskered man, who had awakened and
was blinking contentedly.

"I'm too alkalied, I reckon," Bill responded. "Varmints will leave me any
time when there's fresh bait handy. That's why I likes to double up. That
there Saint Louee drummer carried off most of 'em from this gent's bed, so
he's safe."

"You are again to be congratulated, suh," addressed the Colonel, to me.
"Allow me to interdeuce you. Shake hands with my friend Mr. Bill Brady.
Bill, I present to you a fellow-citizen of mine from grand old New York
State."

The frowsy man struggled up, shifted his revolver so as not to sit on it,
and extended his hand.

"Proud to make yore acquaintance, sir. Any friend of the Colonel's is a
friend o' mine."

"We will likker up directly," the Colonel informed. "But fust the
gentleman desires to attend to his person. Mr. Brady, suh," he continued,
for my benefit, "is one of our leading citizens, being proprietor of--what
is it now, Bill?"

"Wall," said Mr. Brady, "I've pulled out o' the Last Chance and I'm on
spec'. The Last Chance got a leetle too much on the brace for healthy
play; and when that son of a gun of a miner from South Pass City shot it
up, I quit."

"Naturally," conceded the Colonel. "Mr. Brady," he explained, "has been
one of our most distinguished bankers, but he has retired from that
industry and is considering other investments."

"The bath-room? Where is it, gentlemen?" I ventured.

"If you will step outside the door, suh, you can hear the splashing down
the hall. It is the custom, however, foh gentlemen at tub to keep the
bath-room door closed, in case of ladies promenading. You will have time
foh your preliminary toilet and foh a little refreshment and a pasear in
town. I judge, with five ahead of you and one in, the clerk was mighty
near right when he said about two hours. That allows twenty minutes to
each gentleman, which is the limit. A gentleman who requires more than
twenty minutes to insure his respectability, suh, is too dirty foh such
accommodations. He should resort to the river. Ain't that so, Bill?"

"Perfectly correct, Colonel. I kin take an all-over, myself, in fifteen,
whenever it's healthy."

"But a dollar and a half for a twenty minutes' bath in a public tub is
rather steep, seems to me," said I, as I removed my coat and opened my
bag.

"Not so, suh, if I may question your judgment," the Colonel reproved. "The
tub, suh, is private to the person in it. He is never intruded upon unless
he hawgs his time or the water disagrees with him. The water, suh, is
hauled from the river by a toilsome journey of three miles. You
understand, suh, that this great and growing city is founded upon the
sheer face of the Red Desert, where the railroad stopped--the river being
occupied by a Government reservation named Fort Steele. The
Government--the United States Government, suh--having corralled the river
where the railroad crosses, until we procure a nearer supply by artesian
wells or by laying a pipe line we are public spirited enough to haul our
water bodily, for ablution purposes, at ten dollars the barrel, or ten
cents, one dime, the bucket. A bath, suh, uses up consider'ble water, even
if at a slight reduction you are privileged to double up with another
gentleman."

I shuddered at the thought of thus "doubling up." God, how my stomach sank
and my gorge rose as I rummaged through that bag, and with my toilet
articles in hand faced the washstand!

They two intently watched my operations; the Colonel craned to peer into
my valise--and presently I might interpret his curiosity.

"The prime old bourbon served at the fust-class New York bars still
maintains its reputation, I dare hope, suh?" he interrogated.

"I cannot say, I'm sure," I replied.

"No, suh," he agreed. "Doubtless you are partial to your own stock. That
bottle which I see doesn't happen to be a sample of your favorite
preservative?"

"That?" I retorted. "It is toilet water. I am sorry to say I have no
liquor with me."

"The deficiency will soon be forgotten, suh," the Colonel bravely
consoled. "Bill, we shall have to personally conduct him and provide him
with the proper entertainment."

"What is your special line o' business, if you don't mind my axin'?" Bill
invited.

"I am out here for my health, at present," said I, vainly hunting a clean
spot on the towel. "I have been advised by my physician to seek a place in
the Far West that is high and dry. Benton"--and I laughed miserably,
"certainly is dry." For now I began to appreciate the frankly affirmative
responses to my previous confessions. "And high, judging by the rates."

"Healthily dry, suh, in the matter of water," the Colonel approved. "We
are not cursed by the humidity of New York State, grand old State that she
is. Foh those who require water, there is the Platte only three miles
distant. The nearer proximity of water we consider a detriment to the
robustness of a community. Our rainy weather is toler'bly infrequent. The
last spell we had--lemme see. There was a brief shower, scurcely enough to
sanction a parasol by a lady, last May, warn't it, Bill? When we was
camped at Rawlins' Springs, shooting antelope."

"Some'ers about that time. But didn't last long--not more'n two minutes,"
Bill responded.

"As foh fluids demanded by the human system, we are abundantly blessed,
suh. There is scurcely any popular brand that you can't get in Benton, and
I hold that we have the most skillful mixtologists in history. There are
some who are artists; artists, suh. But mainly we prefer our likker
straight."

"We're high, too," Bill put in. "Well over seven thousand feet, 'cordin'
to them railroad engineers."

"Yes, suh, you are a mile and more nearer Heaven here in Benton than you
were when beside the noble Hudson," supplemented the Colonel. "And the
prices of living are reasonable; foh money, suh, is cheap and ready to
hand. No drink is less than two bits, and a man won't tote a match across
a street foh less than a drink. Money grows, suh, foh the picking. Our
merchants are clearing thirty thousand dollars a month, and the
professional gentleman who tries to limit his game is considered a
low-down tin-horn. Yes, suh. This is the greatest terminal of the greatest
railroad in the known world. It has Omaha, No'th Platte, Cheyenne beat to
a frazzle. You cannot fail to prosper." They had been critically watching
me wash and rearrange my clothing. "You are not heeled, suh, I see?"

"Heeled?" I repeated.

"Equipped with a shooting-iron, suh. Or do you intend to remedy that
deficiency also?"

"I have not been in the habit of carrying arms."

"'Most everybody packs a gun or a bowie," Bill remarked. "Gents and ladies
both. But there's no law ag'in not."

I had finished my meager toilet, and was glad, for the espionage had been
annoying.

"Now I am at your service during a short period, gentlemen," I announced.
"Later I have an engagement, and shall ask to be excused."

The Colonel arose with alacrity. Bill stood, and seized his hat hanging at
the head of the bed.

"A little liquid refreshment is in order fust, I reckon," quoth the
Colonel. "I claim the privilege, of course. And after that--you have
sporting blood, suh? You will desire to take a turn or two foh the honor
of the Empire State?"

The inference was not quite clear. To develop it I replied guardedly,
albeit unwilling to pose as a milksop.

"I assuredly am not averse to any legitimate amusement."

"That's it," Bill commended. "Nobody is, who has red in him; and a fellow
kin see you've cut yore eye-teeth. What might you prefer, in line of a
pass-the-time, on spec'?"

"What is there, if you please?" I encouraged.

He and the Colonel gravely contemplated each other. Bill scratched his
head, and slowly closed one eye.

"There's a good open game of stud at the North Star," he proffered. "I kin
get the gentleman a seat. No limit."

"Maybe our friend's luck don't run to stud," hazarded the Colonel. "Stud
exacts the powers of concentration, like faro." And he also closed one
eye. "It's rather early in the evening foh close quarters. Are you
particularly partial to the tiger or the cases, suh?" he queried of me.
"Or would you be able to secure transient happiness in short games, foh a
starter, while we move along, like a bee from flower to flower, gathering
his honey?"

"If you are referring to card gambling, sir," I answered, "you have chosen
a poor companion. But I do not intend to be a spoil sport, and I shall be
glad to have you show me whatever you think worth while in the city, so
far as I have the leisure."

"That's it, that's it, suh." The Colonel appeared delighted. "Let us
libate to the gods of chance, gentlemen; and then take a stroll."

"My bag will be safe here?" I prompted, as we were about to file out.

"Absolutely, suh. Personal property is respected in Benton. We'd hang the
man who moved that bag of yours the fraction of one inch."

This at least was comforting. As much could not be said of New York City.
The Colonel led down the echoing hall and the shaking stairs, into the
lobby, peopled as before by men in all modes of attire and clustered
mainly at the bar. He led directly to the bar itself.

"Three, Ed. Name your likker, gentlemen. A little Double X foh me, Ed."

"Old rye," Bill briefly ordered.

The bartender set out bottle and whiskey glasses, and looked upon me. I
felt that the bystanders were waiting. My garb proclaimed the "pilgrim,"
but I was resolved to be my own master, and for liquor I had no taste.

"Lemonade, if you have it," I faltered.

"Yes, sir." The bartender cracked not a smile, but a universal sigh,
broken by a few sniggers, voiced the appraisal of the audience. Some of
the loafers eyed me amusedly, some turned away.

"Surely, suh, you will temper that with a dash of fortifiah," the Colonel
protested. "A pony of brandy, Ed--or just a dash to cut the water in it.
To me, suh, the water in this country is vile--inimical to the human
stomick."

"Thank you," said I, "but I prefer plain lemonade."

"The gent wants his pizen straight, same as the rest of you," calmly
remarked the bartender.

My lemonade being prepared, the Colonel and Bill tossed off full glasses
of whiskey, acknowledged with throaty "A-ah!" and smack of lips; and I
hastily quaffed my lemonade. From the dollar which the Colonel grandly
flung upon the bar he received no change--by which I might figure that
whereas whiskey was twenty-five cents the glass, lemonade was fifty
cents.

We issued into the street and were at once engulfed by a ferment of sights
and sounds extraordinary.





Next: On Grand Tour

Previous: I Rise In Favor



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