King Hol





There is a very general and very erroneous impression that alcohol builds

the mood of a man; as a matter of fact it merely makes his temper of the

moment fast--the man who takes his first drink with a smile ends in

uproarious laughter, and he who frowns will often end in fighting. Vic

Gregg did not frown as he drank, but the corners of his lips turned up a

trifle in a smile of fixed and acid pleasantry and his glance went from

face to face in the barroom, steadily, with a trifling pause at each pair

of eyes. Beginning with himself, he hated mankind in general; the burn of

the cheap whisky within served to set the color of that hatred in a fixed

dye. He did not lift his chaser, but his hand closed around it hard. If

some one had given him an excuse for a fist-fight or an outburst of cursing

it would have washed his mind as clean as a new slate, and five minutes

later he might have been with Betty Neal, riotously happy. Instead,

everyone overflowed with good nature, gossip, questions about his work, and

the danger in him crystallized. He registered cold reasons for his disgust.



Beginning in the first person, he loathed himself as a thick-headed ass for

talking to Betty as he had done; as well put a burr under one's saddle and

then feel surprise because the horse bucks. He passed on to the others with

equal precision. Captain Lorrimer was as dirty as a greaser; and like a

greaser, loose-lipped, unshaven. Chick Stewart was a born fool, and a fool

by self-culture, as his never changing grin amply proved. Lew Perkins sat

in the corner on a shaky old apple barrel and brushed back his long

mustaches to spit at the cuspidor--and miss it. If this were Vic Gregg's

saloon he would teach the old loafer more accuracy or break his neck.



"How are you, Gregg?" murmured some one behind him.



He turned and found Sheriff Pete Glass with his right hand already spread

on the bar while he ordered a drink for two. That was one of the sheriff's

idiosyncrasies; he never shook hands if he could avoid it, and Gregg hated

him senselessly, bitterly, for it. No doubt every one in the room noticed,

and they would tell afterwards how the sheriff had avoided shaking hands

with Vic Gregg. Cheap play for notoriety, thought Gregg; Glass was pushing

the bottle towards him.



"Help yourself," said Gregg.



"This is on me, Vic."



"I most generally like to buy the first drink."



Pete Glass turned his head slowly, for indeed all his motions were

leisurely and one could not help wondering at the stories of his exploits,

the tales of his hair-trigger alertness. Perhaps these half legendary deeds

sent the thrill of uneasiness through Vic Gregg; perhaps it was owing to

the singular hazel eyes, with little splotches of red in them; very mild

eyes, but one could imagine anything about them. Otherwise there was

nothing exceptional in Glass, for he stood well under middle height, a

starved figure, with a sinewy crooked neck, as if bent on looking up to

taller men. His hair was sandy, his face tawny brown, his shirt a gray

blue, and every one knew his dusty roan horse; by nature, by temperament

and by personal selection he was suited to blend into a landscape of

sage-dotted plains or sand. Tireless as a lobo on the trail, swift as a

bobcat in fight, hunted men had been known to ride in and give themselves

up when they heard that Pete Glass was after them.



"Anyway you want, partner," he was saying, in his soft, rather husky voice.



He poured his drink, barely enough to cover the bottom of his glass, for

that was another of Pete's ways; he could never afford to weaken his hand

or deaden his eye with alcohol, and even now he stood sideways at the bar,

facing Gregg and also facing the others in the room. But the larger man,

with sudden scorn for this caution, brimmed his own glass, and poised it

swiftly. "Here's how!" and down it went.



Ordinarily red-eye heated his blood and made his brain dizzy, it loosened

his tongue and numbed his lips, but today it left him cool, confident, and

sharpened his vision until he felt that he could see through the minds of

every one in the room. Captain Lorrimer, for instance, was telling a

jocular story to Chick Stewart in the hope that Chick would set them up for

every one; and old Lew Perkins was waiting for the treat; and perhaps the

sheriff was wondering how he could handle Vic in case of need, or how long

it would take to run him down. Not long, decided Gregg, breathing hard; no

man in the world could put him on the run. Glass was treating in turn, and

again the brimming drink went down Vic's throat and left his brain clear,

wonderfully clear. He saw through Betty Neal now; she had purposely played

off Blondy against him, to make them both jealous.



"Won't you join us, Dad?" the sheriff was saying to Lew Perkins, and Vic

Gregg smiled. He understood. The sheriff wanted an excuse to order another

round of drinks because he had it in mind to intoxicate Gregg; perhaps

Glass had something on him; perhaps the manhunter thought that Vic had had

a part in that Wilsonville affair two years back. That was it, and he

wanted to make Vic talk when he was drunk.



"Don't mind if I do," Lew said, slapping both hands on the bar as if he

owned it; and while he waited for his drink: "What are they going to do

with Swain?"



The doddering idiot! Swain was the last man Glass had taken, and Lew

Perkins should have known that the sheriff never talked about his work; the

old ass was in his green age, his second childhood.



"Swain turned state's evidence," said Pete, curtly. "He'll go free, I

suppose. Fill up your glass, partner. Can see you're thirsty yet."



This was to Gregg, who had purposely poured out a drink of the sheriff's

own chosen dimension to see if the latter would notice; this remark fixed

his suspicions. It was certain that the manhunter was after him, but again,

in scorn, he accepted the challenge and poured a stiff dram.



"That's right," nodded the sheriff. "You got nothing on your shoulders. You

can let yourself go, Vic. Sometimes I wish"--he sighed--"I wish I could do

the same!"



"The sneaky coyote," thought Gregg, "he's lurin' me on!"



"Turned state's evidence!" maundered Lew Perkins. "Well, they's a lot of

'em that lose their guts when they're caught. I remember way back in the

time when Bannack was runnin' full blast--"



Why did not some one shut off the old idiot before he was thoroughly

started? He might keep on talking like the clank of a windmill in a steady

breeze, endlessly. For Lew was old-seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five--he

himself probably did not know just how old--and he had lived through at

least two generations of pioneers with a myriad stories about them. He

could string out tales of the Long Trail: Abilene, Wichita, Ellsworth,

Great Bend, Newton, where eleven men were murdered in one night; he knew

the vigilante days in San Francisco, and early times in Alder Gulch.



"Nobody would of thought Plummer was yaller, but he turned out that way,"

droned on the narrator. "Grit? He had enough to fit out twenty men. When

Crawford shot him and busted his right arm, he went right on and learned to

shoot with his left and started huntin' Jack again. Packed that lead with

him till he died, and then they found Jack's bullet in his wrist, all

worked smooth by the play of the bones. Afterwards it turned out that

Plummer ran a whole gang; but before we learned that we'd been fools enough

to make him sheriff. We got to Plummer right after he'd finished hangin' a

man, and took him to his own gallows."



"You'd of thought a cool devil like that would of made a good end, but he

didn't. He just got down on his knees and cried, and asked God to help him.

Then he begged us to give him time to pray, but one of the boys up and told

him he could do his prayin' from the cross-beam. And that was Henry

Plummer, that killed a hundred men, him an' his gang."



"H-m-m," murmured the sheriff, and looked uneasily about. Now that his eyes

were turned away, Vic could study him at leisure, and he wondered at the

smallness of the man. Suppose one were able to lay hands on him it would be

easy to--



"See you later, boys," drawled Glass, and sauntered from the room.



Lew Perkins sighed as the most important part of his audience disappeared,

but having started talking the impetus carried him along, he held Vic Gregg

with his hazy eyes.



"But they didn't all finish like Plummer, not all the bad ones. No sirree!

There was Boone Helm."



"I've heard about him," growled Vic, but the old man had fixed his glance

and his reminiscent smile upon the past and his voice was soft with

distance when he spoke again.



"Helm was a sure enough bad one, son. They don't grow like him no more.

Wild Bill was a baby compared with Helm, and Slade wasn't no man at all,

even leavin' in the lies they tell about him. Why, son, Helm was just a

lobo, in the skin of a man--"



"Like Barry?" put in Lorrimer, drifting closer down the bar.



"Who's he?"



"Ain't you heard of Whistlin' Dan? The one that killed Jim Silent and

busted up his gang. Why, they say he's got a wolf that he can talk to like

it was a man."



Old Lew chuckled.



"They say a lot of things," he nodded, "but I'll tell a man that a wolf is

a wolf and they ain't nothin' that can tame 'em. Don't you let 'em feed you

up on lies like that, Lorrimer. But Helm was sure bad. He killed for the

sake of killin', but he died game. When the boys run him down he swore on

the bible that he's never killed a man, and they made him swear it over

again just to watch his nerve; but he never batted an eye."



The picture of that wild time grew up for Vic Gregg, and the thought of

free men who laughed at the law, strong men, fierce men. What would one of

these have done if the girl he intended to marry had treated him like a

foil?



"Then they got him ready for the rope," went on Lew Perkins.



"'I've seen a tolerable lot of death,' says Helm. 'I ain't afraid of it.'"



"There was about six thousand folks had come in to see the end of Boone

Helm. Somebody asked him if he wanted anything.



"'Whisky,' says Boone. And he got it.



"Then he shook his hand and held it up. He had a sore finger and it

bothered him a lot more than the thought of hangin'.



"'You gents get through with this or else tie up my finger,' he kept

sayin'."



"Helm wasn't the whole show. There was some others bein' hung that day and

when one of them dropped off his box, Boone says: 'There's one gone to

hell.' Pretty soon another went, and hung there wiggling, and six times he

went through all the motions of pullin' his six-shooter and firin' it. I

counted. 'Kick away, old fellow,' says Boone Helm, 'I'll be with you soon.'

Then it came his turn and he hollered: 'Hurrah for Jeff Davis; let her

rip!' That was how Boone Helm--"



The rest of the story was blotted from the mind of Vic Gregg by the thud of

a heavy heel on the veranda, and then the broad shoulders of Blondy Hansen

darkened the doorway, Blondy Hansen dressed for the dance, with the knot

of his black silk handkerchief turned to the front and above that the gleam

of his celluloid collar. It was dim in the saloon, compared with the

brightness of the outdoors, and perhaps Blondy did not see Vic. At any rate

he took his place at the other end of the bar. Three pictures tangled in

the mind of Gregg like three bodies in a whirlpool--Betty, Blondy, Pete

Glass. That strange clearness of perception increased and the whole affair

lay plainly before him. Betty had sent Hansen, dressed manifestly for the

festival, to gloat over Vic in Lorrimer's place. He was at it already.



"All turned out for the dance, Blondy, eh? Takin' a girl?"



"Betty Neal," answered Blondy.



"The hell you are!" inquired Lorrimer, mildly astonished. "I thought--why,

Vic's back in town, don't you know that?"



"He ain't got a mortgage on what she does."



Then, guided by the side-glance of Lorrimer, Hansen saw Gregg, and he

stiffened. As for Vic, he perceived the last link in his chain of evidence.

Hansen was going to a dance, and yet he wore a gun, and there could be only

one meaning in that: Betty had sent him down there to wind up the affair.



"Didn't see you, Vic," Blondy was saying, his flushed face seeming doubly

red against the paleness of his hair. "Have something?"



"I ain't drinkin'," answered Gregg, and slowly, to make sure that no one

could miss his meaning, he poured out a glass of liquor, and drank it with

his face towards Hansen. When he put his glass down his mind was clearer

than ever; and with omniscient precision, with nerveless calm, he knew that

he was going to kill Blondy Hansen; knew exactly where the bullet would

strike. It was something put behind him; his mind had already seen Hansen

fall, and he smiled.



Dead silence had fallen over the room, and in the silence Gregg heard a

muffled, ticking sound, the beating of his heart; heard old Lew Perkins as

the latter softly, slowly, glided back out of the straight line of danger;

heard the quick breathing of Captain Lorrimer who stood pasty pale, gaping

behind the bar; heard the gritted teeth of Blondy Hansen, who would not

take water.



"Vic," said Blondy, "it looks like you mean trouble. Anyway, you just now

done something that needs explaining."



He stood straight as a soldier, rigid, but the fingers of his right hand

twitched, twitched, twitched; the hand itself stole higher. Very calmly,

Vic hunted for his words, found them.



"A cattle rustler is bad," he pronounced, "a hoss thief is worse, but

you're the lowest sneak of the lot, Blondy."



Again that silence with the pulse in it, and Vic Gregg could feel the chill

which numbed every one except himself.



The lower jaw of Captain Lorrimer sagged, and his whisper came out in

jerking syllables: "God Almighty!" Then Blondy went for his gun, and Vic

waited with his hand on the butt of his own, waited with a perfect, cold

foreknowledge, heard Blondy moan as his Colt hung in the holster, saw the

flash of the barrel as it whipped out, and then jerked his own weapon and

fired from the hip. Blondy staggered but kept himself from falling by

gripping the edge of the bar with his left hand; the right, still holding

the gun, raised and rubbed across his forehead; he looked like a sleeper

awakening.



Not a sound from any one else, while Vic watched the tiny wraith of smoke

jerk up from the muzzle of his revolver. Then Blondy's gun flashed down and

clanked on the floor. A red spot grew on the breast of Hansen's shirt; now

he leaned as if to pick up something, but instead, slid forward on his

face. Vic stepped to him and stirred the body with his toe; it wobbled,

limp.





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