VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


I Take A Lesson








From: Desert Dust

From this hour's brief camp, early made, we should have turned southward,
to leave the railroad line and cross country for the Overland Stage trail
that skirted the southern edge of the worse desert before us. But Captain
Hyrum was of different mind. With faith in the Lord and bull confidence in
himself he had resolved to keep straight on by the teamster road which
through league after league ever extended fed supplies to the advance of
the builders.

Under its adventitious guidance we should strike the stage road at Bitter
Creek, eighty or one hundred miles; thence trundle, veering southwestward,
for the famed City of the Saints, near two hundred miles farther.

Therefore after nooning at a pool of stagnant, scummy water we hooked up
and plunged ahead, creaking and groaning and dust enveloped, constantly
outstripped by the hurrying construction trains thundering over the newly
laid rails, we ourselves the tortoise in the race.

My Lady did not join me again to-day, nor on the morrow. She abandoned me
to a sense of dissatisfaction with myself, of foreboding, and of a void
in the landscape.

Our sorely laden train went swaying and pitching across the gaunt face of
a high, broad plateau, bleak, hot, and monotonous in contour; underfoot
the reddish granite pulverized by grinding tire and hoof, over us the pale
bluish fiery sky without a cloud, distant in the south the shining tips of
a mountain range, and distant below in the west the slowly spreading vista
of a great, bared ocean-bed, simmering bizarre with reds, yellows and
deceptive whites, and ringed about by battlements jagged and rock hewn.

Into this enchanted realm we were bound; by token of the smoke blotches
the railroad line led thither. The teamsters viewed the unfolding expanse
phlegmatically. They called it the Red Basin. But to me, fresh for the
sight, it beckoned with fantastic issues. Even the name breathed magic.
Wizard spells hovered there; the railroad had not broken them--the cars
and locomotives, entering, did not disturb the brooding vastness. A man
might still ride errant into those slumberous spaces and discover for
himself; might boldly awaken the realm and rule with a princess by his
side.

But romance seemed to have no other sponsor in this plodding,
whip-cracking, complaining caravan. So I lacked, woefully lacked, kindred
companionship.

Free to say, I did miss My Lady, perched upon the stoic mule while like
an Arab chief I convoyed her. The steady miles, I admitted, were going to
be as disappointing as tepid water, when not aerated by her counsel and
piquant allusions, by her sprightly readiness and the essential elements
of her blue eyes, her facile lips, and that bright hair which no dust
could dim.

After all she was distinctly feminine--bravely feminine; and if she wished
to flirt as a relief from the cock-sure Daniel and the calm methods of her
Mormon guardians, why, let us beguile the way. I should second with eyes
open. That was accepted.

Moreover, something about her weighed upon me. A consciousness of failing
her, a woman, in emergency, stung my self-respect. She had twitted me with
being "afraid"; afraid of her, she probably meant. That I could pass
warily. But she had said that she, too, was afraid: "horribly afraid," and
an honest shudder had attended upon the words as if a real danger hedged.
She had an intuition. The settled convictions of my Gentile friends
coincided. "With Daniel in the Lion's den"--that phrase repeated itself
persistent. She had uttered it in a fear accentuated by a mirthless laugh.
Could such a left-handed wooer prove too much for her? Well, if she was
afraid of Daniel I was not and she should not think so.

I could see her now and then, on before. She rode upon the wagon seat of
her self-appointed executor. And I might see him and his paraded
impertinences.

Except for the blowing of the animals and the mechanical noises of the
equipment the train subsided into a dogged patience, while parched by the
dust and the thin dry air and mocked by the speeding construction crews
upon the iron rails it lurched westward at two and a half miles an hour,
for long hours outfaced by the blinding sun.

Near the western edge of the plateau we made an evening corral. After
supper the sound of revolver shots burst flatly from a mess beyond us, and
startled. Everything was possible, here in this lone horizon-land where
rough men, chafed by a hard day, were gathered suddenly relaxed and idle.
But the shots were accompanied by laughter.

"They're only tryin' to spile a can," Jenks reassured. "By golly, we'll go
over and l'arn 'em a lesson." He glanced at me. "Time you loosened up that
weepon o' yourn, anyhow. Purty soon it'll stick fast."

I arose with him, glad of any diversion. The circle had not yet formed at
Hyrum's fire.

"It strikes me as a useless piece of baggage," said I. "I bought it in
Benton but I haven't needed it. I can kill a rattlesnake easier with my
whip."

"Wall," he drawled, "down in yonder you're liable to meet up with a
rattler too smart for your whip, account of his freckles. 'Twon't do you
no harm to spend a few ca'tridges, so you'll be ready for business."

The men were banging, by turn, at a sardine can set up on the sand about
twenty paces out. Their shadows stretched slantwise before them,
grotesquely lengthened by the last efforts of the disappearing sun. Some
aimed carefully from under pulled-down hat brims; others, their brims
flared back, fired quickly, the instant the gun came to the level. The
heavy balls sent the loose soil flying in thick jets made golden by the
evening glow. But amidst the furrows the can sat untouched by the plunging
missiles.

We were greeted with hearty banter.

"Hyar's the champeens!"

"Now they'll show us."

"Ain't never see that pilgrim unlimber his gun yit, but I reckon he's a
bad 'un."

"Jenks, old hoss, cain't you l'an that durned can manners?"

"I'll try to oblige you, boys," friend Jenks smiled. "What you thinkin' to
do: hit that can or plant a lead mine?"

"Give him room. He's made his brag," they cried. "And if he don't plug it
that pilgrim sure will."

Mr. Jenks drew and took his stand; banged with small preparation and
missed by six inches--a fact that brought him up wide awake, so to speak,
badgered by derision renewed. A person needs must have a bull hide, to
travel with a bull train, I saw.

"Gimme another, boys, and I'll hit it in the nose," he growled sheepishly;
but they shoved him aside.

"No, no. Pilgrim's turn. Fetch on yore shootin'-iron, young feller. Thar's
yore turkey. Show us why you're packin' all that hardware."

Willy-nilly I had to demonstrate my greenness; so in all good nature I
drew, and stood, and cocked, and aimed. The Colt's exploded with
prodigious blast and wrench--jerking, in fact, almost above head; and
where the bullet went I did not see, nor, I judged, did anybody else.

"He missed the 'arth!" they clamored.

"No; I reckon he hit Montany 'bout the middle. That's whar he scored
center!"

"Shoot! Shoot!" they begged. "Go ahead. Mebbe you'll kill an Injun
unbeknownst. They's a pack o' Sioux jest out o' sight behind them hills."

And I did shoot, vexed; and I struck the ground, this time, some fifty
yards beyond the can. Jenks stepped from amidst the riotous laughter.

"Hold down on it, hold down, lad," he urged. "To hit him in the heart aim
at his feet. Here! Like this----" and taking my revolver he threw it
forward, fired, the can plinked and somersaulted, lashed into action too
late.

"By Gawd," he proclaimed, "when I move like it had a gun in its fist I can
snap it. But when I think on it as a can I lack guts."

The remark was pat. I had seen several of the men snip the head from a
rattlesnake with a single offhand shot--yes, they all carried their
weapons easily and wontedly. But the target of an immobile can lacked in
stimulation to concord of nerve and eye.

Now I shot again, holding lower and more firmly, out of mere guesswork,
and landed appreciably closer although still within the zone of ridicule.
And somebody else shot, and somebody else, and another, until we all were
whooping and laughing and jesting, and the jets flew as if from the balls
of a mitrailleuse, and the can rocked and gyrated, spurring us to haste as
it constantly changed the range. Presently it was merely a twist of ragged
tin. Then in the little silence, as we paused, a voice spoke
irritatingly.

"I 'laow yu fellers ain't no great shucks at throwin' lead."

Daniel stood by, with arms akimbo, his booted legs braggartly straddled
and his freckled face primed with an intolerant grin at our recent
efforts. My Lady had come over with him. Raw-boned, angular, cloddish but
as strong as a mule, he towered over her in a maddening atmosphere of
proprietorship.

She smiled at me--at all of us: at me, swiftly; at them, frankly. And I
knew that she was still afraid.

"Reckon we don't ask no advice, friend," they answered. Again a constraint
enfolded, fastened upon us by an unbidden guest. "Like as not you can do
better."

Daniel laughed boisterously, his mouth widely open.

"I couldn't do wuss. I seen yu poppin' at that can. Hadn't but one hole in
it till yu all turned loose an' didn't give it no chance. Haw haw! I 'laow
for a short bit I'd stand out in front o' that greenie from the States an'
let him empty two guns at me."

"S'pose you do it," friend Jenks promptly challenged. "By thunder, I'll
hire ye with the ten cents, and give him four bits if he hits you."

"He wouldn't draw on me, nohaow," scoffed Daniel. "I daren't shoot for
money, but I'll shoot for fun. Anybody want to shoot ag'in me?"

"Wasted powder enough," they grumbled.

"Ever see me shoot?" He was eager. "I'll show ye somethin'. I don't take
back seat for ary man. Yu set me up a can. That thar one wouldn't jump to
a bullet."

In sullen obedience a can was produced.

"How fur?"

"Fur as yu like."

It was tossed contemptuously out; and watching it, to catch its last roll,
I heard Daniel gleefully yelp "Out o' my way, yu-all!"--half saw his hand
dart down and up again, felt the jar of a shot, witnessed the can jump
like a live thing; and away it went, with spasm after spasm, to explosion
after explosion, tortured by him into fruitless capers until with the
final ball peace came to it, and it lay dead, afar across the twilight
sand.

Verily, by his cries and the utter savagery and malevolence of his
bombardment, one would have thought that he took actual lust in fancied
cruelty.

"I 'laow thar's not another man hyar kin do that," he vaunted.

There was not, judging by the silence again ensuing. Only--

"A can's a different proposition from a man, as I said afore," Jenks
coolly remarked. "A can don't shoot back."

"I don't 'laow any man's goin' to, neither." Daniel reloaded his smoking
revolver, bolstered it with a flip; faced me in turning away. "That's
somethin' for yu to l'arn on, ag'in next time, young feller," he
vouchsafed.

If he would have eyed me down he did not succeed. His gaze shifted and he
passed on, swaggering.

"Come along, Edna," he bade. "We'll be goin' back."

A devil--or was it he himself?--twitted me, incited me, and in a moment,
with a gush of assertion, there I was, saying to her, my hat doffed:

"I'll walk over with you."

"Do," she responded readily. "We're to have more singing."

The men stared, they nudged one another, grinned. Daniel whirled.

"I 'laow yu ain't been invited, Mister."

"If Mrs. Montoyo consents, that's enough," I informed, striving to keep
steady. "I'm not walking with you, sir; I am walking with her. The only
ground you control is just in front of your own wagon."

"Yu've been told once thar ain't no 'Mrs. Montoyo,'" he snarled. "And
whilst yu're l'arnin' to shoot yu'd better be l'arnin' manners. Yu comin'
with me, Edna?"

"As fast as I can, and with Mr. Beeson also, if he chooses," said she. "I
have my manners in mind, too."

"By gosh, I don't walk with ye," he jawed. And in a huff, like the big boy
that he was, he flounced about, vengefully striding on as though punishing
her for a misdemeanor.

She dropped the grinning group a little curtsy. A demure sparkle was in
her eyes.

"The entertainment is concluded, gentlemen. I wish you good-night."

Yet underneath her raillery and self-possession there lay an appeal, the
stronger because subtle and unvoiced. It seemed to me every man must
appreciate that as a woman she invoked protection by him against an
impending something, of which she had given him a glimpse.

So we left them somewhat subdued, gazing after us, their rugged faces
sobered reflectively.

"Shall we stroll?" she asked.

"With pleasure," I agreed.

Daniel was angrily shouldering for the Mormon wagons, his indignant
figure black against the western glow. She laughed lightly.

"You're not afraid, after all, I see."

"Not of him, madam."

"And of me?"

"I think I'm more afraid for you," I confessed. "That clown is getting
insufferable. He sets out to bully you. Damn him," I flashed, with
pardonable flame, "and he ruffles at me on every occasion. In fact, he
seems to seek occasion. Witness this evening."

"Witness this evening," she murmured. "I'm afraid, too. Yes," she
breathed, confronted by a portent, "I'm afraid. I never have been afraid
before. I didn't fear Montoyo. I've always been able to take care of
myself. But now, here----"

"You have your revolver?" I suggested.

"No, I haven't. It's gone. Mormon women don't carry revolvers."

"They took it from you?"

"It's disappeared."

"But you're not a Mormon woman."

"Not yet." She caught quick breath. "God forbid. And sometimes I fear God
willing. For I do fear. You can't understand. Those other men do, though,
I think. Do you know," she queried, with sudden glance, "that Daniel means
to marry me?"

"He?" I gasped. "How so? With your--consent, of course. But you're not
free; you have a husband." My gorge rose, regardless of fact. "You
scarcely expect me to congratulate you, madam. Still he may have points."

"Daniel?" She shrugged her shoulders. "I cannot say. Pedro did. Most men
have. Oh!" she cried, impulsively stopping short. "Why don't you learn to
shoot? Won't you?"

"I've about decided to," I admitted. "That appears to be the saving
accomplishment of everybody out here."

"Of everybody who stays. You must learn to draw and to shoot, both. The
drawing you will have to practice by yourself, but I can teach you to
shoot. So can those men. Let me have your pistol, please."

I passed it to her. She was all in a flutter.

"You must grasp the handle firmly; cover it with your whole palm, but
don't squeeze it to death; just grip it evenly--tuck it away. And keep
your elbow down; and crook your wrist, in a drop, until your trigger
knuckle is pointing very low--at a man's feet if you're aiming for his
heart."

"At his feet, for his heart?" I stammered. The words had an ugly sound.

"Certainly. We are speaking of shooting now, and not at a tin can. You
have to allow for the jump of the muzzle. Unless you hold it down with
your wrist, you over shoot; and it's the first shot that counts. Of
course, there's a feel, a knack. But don't aim with your eyes. You won't
have time. Men file off the front sight--it sometimes catches, in the
draw. And it's useless, anyway. They fire as they point with the finger,
by the feel. You see, they know."

"Evidently you do, too, madam," I faltered, amazed.

"Not all," she panted. "But I've heard the talk; I've watched--I've seen
many things, sir, from Omaha to Benton. Oh, I wish I could tell you more;
I wish I could help you right away. I meant, a dead-shot with the revolver
knows beforehand, in the draw, where his bullet shall go. Some men are
born to shoot straight; some have to practice a long, long while. I wonder
which you are."

"If there is pressing need in my case," said I, "I shall have to rely upon
my friends to keep me from being done for."

"You?" she uttered, with a touch of asperity. "Oh, yes. Pish, sir!
Friends, I am learning, have their own hides to consider. And those
gentlemen of yours are Gentiles with goods for Salt Lake Mormons. Are they
going to throw all business to the winds?"

"You yourself may appeal to his father, and to the women, for protection
if that lout annoys you," I ventured.

"To them?" she scoffed. "To Hyrum Adams' outfit? Why, they're Mormons and
good Mormons, and why should I not be made over? I'm under their
teachings; I am Edna, already; it's time Daniel had a wife--or two, for
replenishing Utah. Rachael calls me 'sister,' and I can't resent it. Good
at heart as she is, even she is convinced. Why," and she laughed
mirthlessly, "I may be sealed to Hyrum himself, if nothing worse is in
store. Then I'll be assured of a seat with the saints."

"You can depend upon me, then. I'll protect you, I'll fight for you, and
I'll kill for you," I was on the point of roundly declaring; but didn't.
Her kind, I remembered, had spelled ruin upon the pages of men more
experienced than I. Therefore out of that super-caution born of Benton, I
stupidly said nothing.

She had paused, expectant. She resumed.

"But no matter. Here I am, and here you are. We were speaking of shooting.
This is a lesson in shooting, not in marrying, isn't it? As to the
pressing need, you must decide. You've seen and heard enough for that. I
like you, sir; I respect your spirit and I'm sorry I led you into
misadventure. Now if I may lend you a little something to keep you from
being shot like a dog, I'll feel as though I had wiped out your score
against me. Take your gun." I took it, the butt warm from her clasp.
"There he is. Cover him!"

"Where?" I asked. "Who?"

"There, before you. Oh, anybody! Think of his heart and cover him. I want
to see you hold."

I aimed, squinting.

"No, no! You'll not have time to close an eye; both eyes are none too
many. And you are awkward; you are stiff." She readjusted my arm and
fingers. "That's better. You see that little rock? Hit it. Cock your
weapon, first. Hold firmly, not too long. There; I think you're going to
hit it, but hold low, low, with the wrist. Now!"

I fired. The sand obscured the rock. She clapped her hands, delighted.

"You would have killed him. No--he would have killed you. Quick! Give it
to me!"

And snatching the revolver she cocked, leveled and fired instantly. The
rock split into fragments.

"I would have killed him," she murmured, gazing tense, seeing I knew not
what. Wrenching from the vision she handed back the revolver to me. "I
think you're going to do, sir. Only, you must learn to draw. I can tell
you but I can't show you. The men will. You must draw swiftly, decisively,
without a halt, and finger on trigger and thumb on hammer and be ready to
shoot when the muzzle clears the scabbard. It's a trick."

"Like this?" I queried, trying.

"Partly. But it's not a sword you're drawing; it's a gun. You may draw
laughing, if you wish to dissemble for a sudden drop; they do, when they
have iron in their heart and the bullet already on its way, in their mind.
I mustn't stay longer. Shall we go to the fire now? I am cold." She
shivered. "Daniel is waiting. And when you've delivered me safe you'd
better leave me, please."

"Why so?"

She smiled, looking me straight in the eyes.

"Quien sabe? To avoid a scene, perhaps; perhaps, to postpone. I have an
idea that it is better so. You've baited Daniel far enough for to-night."

We walked almost without speaking, to the Hyrum Adams fire. Daniel lifted
upper lip at me as we entered; his eyes never wandered from my face. I
marked his right hand quivering stiffly; and I disregarded him. For if I
had challenged him by so much as an overt glance he would have burst
bonds.

Rachael's eyes, the older woman's eyes, the eyes of all, men and women,
curious, admonitory, hostile and apprehensive, hot and cold
together--these I felt also amidst the dusk. I was distinctly unwelcome.
Accordingly I said a civil "Good-evening" to Hyrum (whose response out of
compressed lips was scarce more than a grunt) and raising my hat to My
Lady turned my back upon them, for my own bailiwick.

The other men were waiting en route.

"Didn't kill ye, did he?"

"No."

"Wall," said one, "if you can swing a rattler by the tail, all right. But
watch his haid."

Friend Jenks paced on with me to our fire.

"We were keepin' cases on you, and so was he. He saw that practice--damn,
how he did crane! She was givin' you pointers, eh?"

"Yes; she wanted amusement."

"It'll set Bonnie Bravo to thinkin'--it'll shorely set him to thinkin',"
Jenks chuckled, mouthing his pipe. "She's a smart one." He comfortably
rocked to and fro as we sat by the fire. "Hell! Wall, if you got to kill
him you got to kill him and do it proper. For if you don't kill him he'll
kill you; snuff you out like a--wall, you saw that can travel."

"I don't want to kill him," I pleaded. "Why should I?"

Jenks sat silent; and sitting silent I foresaw that kill Daniel I must. I
was being sucked into it, irrevocably willed by him, by her, by them all.
If I did not kill him in defense of myself I should kill him in defense of
her. Yet why I had to, I wondered; but when I had bought my ticket for
Benton I had started the sequence, to this result. Here I was. As she had
said, here I was, and here she was. I might not kill for love--no, not
that; I was going to kill for hate. And while I never had killed a man,
and in my heart of hearts did not wish to kill a man, since I had to kill
one, named Daniel, even though he was a bully, a braggart and an infernal
over-stepper it was pleasanter to think that I should kill him in hot
blood rather than in cold.

Jenks spat, and yawned.

"I can l'arn you a few things; all the boys'll help you out," he
proffered, "When you git him you'll have to git him quick; for if you
don't--adios. But we'll groom ye."

Could this really be I? Frank Beeson, not a fortnight ago still living at
jog-trot in dear Albany, New York State? It was puzzling how detached and
how strong I felt.





Next: The Trail Narrows

Previous: Someone Fears



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 457