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"Where were you at twelve o'clock, noon, on the
9th of June, 1875?" -- Question on intelligent cross-examination.
"EXCUSE me," said Ben Roddle with
graphic gestures to a group of citizens in Nantucket's store. "Excuse
me. When them fellers in leather pants an' six-shooters ride in, I go
home an' set in th' cellar. That's what I do. When you see me pirooting through
the streets at th' same time an' occasion as them punchers, you kin put me down
fer bein' crazy. Excuse me."
"Why, Ben," drawled old Nantucket, "you ain't
never really seen 'em turned loose. Why, I kin remember -- in th' old days --
when -- "
"Oh, damn yer old days!" retorted Roddle.
Fixing Nantucket with the eye of scorn and contempt, he said: "I suppose you'll
be sayin' in a minute that in th' old days you used to kill Injuns, won't you?"
There was some laughter, and Roddle was left
free to expand his ideas on the periodic visits of cowboys to the town. "Mason
Rickets, he had ten big punkins a-sittin' in front of his store, an' them
fellers from the Upside-down-F ranch shot 'em up -- shot 'em all up -- an'
Rickets lyin' on his belly in th' store a-callin' fer 'em to quit it. An' what
did they do! Why, they laughed at 'im! -- just laughed at
'im! That don't do a town no good. Now, how would an eastern capiterlist" -- (it
was the town's humour to be always gassing of phantom investors who were likely
to come any moment and pay a thousand prices for everything) -- "how would an
eastern capiterlist like that? Why, you couldn't see 'im fer th' dust on his
trail. Then he'd tell all his friends that 'their town may be all right, but
ther's too much loose-handed shootin' fer my money.' An' he'd be right, too.
Them rich fellers, they don't make no bad breaks with their money. They watch it
all th' time b'cause they know blame well there ain't hardly room fer their feet
fer th' pikers an' tin-horns an' thimble-riggers what are layin' fer 'em. I tell
you, one puncher racin' his cow-pony hell-bent-fer-election down Main Street an'
yellin' an' shootin' an' nothin' at all done about it, would scare away a whole
herd of capiterlists. An' it ain't right. It oughter be stopped."
A pessimistic voice asked: "How you goin' to
stop it, Ben?"
"Organise," replied Roddle pompously.
"Organise: that's the only way to make these fellers lay down. I -- "
From the street sounded a quick scudding of
pony hoofs, and a party of cowboys swept past the door. One man, however, was
seen to draw rein and dismount. He came clanking into the store. "Mornin',
gentlemen," he said, civilly.
"Mornin'," they answered in subdued voices.
He stepped to the counter and said, "Give me a
paper of fine cut, please." The group of citizens contemplated him in silence.
He certainly did not look
threatening. He appeared to be a young man of
twenty-five years, with a tan from wind and sun, with a remarkably clear eye
from perhaps a period of enforced temperance, a quiet young man who wanted to
buy some tobacco. A six-shooter swung low on his hip, but at the moment it
looked more decorative than warlike; it seemed merely a part of his odd gala
dress -- his sombrero with its band of rattlesnake skin, his great flaming
neckerchief, his belt of embroidered Mexican leather, his high-heeled boots, his
huge spurs. And, above all, his hair had been watered and brushed until it lay
as close to his head as the fur lays to a wet cat. Paying for his tobacco, he
Ben Roddle resumed his harangue. "Well, there
you are! Looks like a calm man now, but in less'n half an hour he'll be as drunk
as three bucks an' a squaw, an' then . . . . excuse me!"
ON this day the men of two outfits had come
into town, but Ben Roddle's ominous words were not justified at once. The
punchers spent most of the morning in an attack on whiskey which was too earnest
to be noisy.
At five minutes of eleven, a tall, lank,
brick-coloured cowboy strode over to Placer's Hotel. Placer's Hotel was a
notable place. It was the best hotel within two hundred miles. Its office was
filled with arm-chairs and brown papier-maché receptacles. At one end of the
room was a wooden counter painted a bright pink, and on this morning a man was
behind the counter writing in a ledger. He was the proprietor of the hotel, but
his customary humour was so sullen that all strangers immediately wondered why
in life he had chosen to play the part of mine host. Near his left hand, double
doors opened into the dining-room, which in warm weather was always kept
darkened in order to discourage the flies, which was not compassed at all.
Placer, writing in his ledger, did not look up
when the tall cowboy entered.
"Mornin', mister," said the latter. "I've come
to see if you kin grub-stake th' hull crowd of us fer dinner t'day."
Placer did not then raise his eyes, but with a
certain churlishness, as if it annoyed him that his hotel was patronised, he
asked: "How many?"
"Oh, about thirty," replied the cowboy. "An' we
want th' best dinner you kin raise an' scrape. Everything th' best. We don't
care what it costs s'long as we git a good square meal. We'll pay a dollar a
head: by God, we will! We won't kick on nothin' in the bill if you do it up
fine. If you ain't got it in th' house russle th' hull town fer it. That's our
gait. So you just tear loose, an' we'll -- "
At this moment the machinery of a cuckoo-clock
on the wall began to whirr, little doors flew open and a wooden bird appeared
and cried, "Cuckoo!" And this was repeated until eleven o'clock had been
announced, while the cowboy, stupefied, glassy-eyed, stood with his red throat
gulping. At the end he wheeled upon Placer and demanded: "What in hell is
Placer revealed by his manner that he had been
asked this question too many times. "It's a clock," he answered shortly.
"I know it's a clock," gasped the cowboy; "but
what kind of a clock?"
"A cuckoo-clock. Can't you see?"
The cowboy, recovering his self-possession by a
violent effort, suddenly went shouting into the street. "Boys! Say, boys! Come'
'ere a minute!"
His comrades, comfortably inhabiting a near-by
saloon, heard his stentorian calls, but they merely said to one another: "What's
th' matter with Jake? -- he's off his nut again."
But Jake burst in upon them with violence.
"Boys," he yelled, "come over to th' hotel! They got a clock with a bird inside
it, an' when it's eleven o'clock or anything like that, th' bird comes out an'
says, 'toot-toot, toot-toot!' that way, as many times as
whatever time of day it is. It's immense! Come on over!"
The roars of laughter which greeted his
proclamation were of two qualities; some men laughing because they knew all
about cuckoo-clocks, and other men laughing because they had concluded that the
eccentric Jake had been victimised by some wise child of civilisation.
Old Man Crumford, a venerable ruffian who
probably had been born in a corral, was particularly offensive with his loud
guffaws of contempt. "Bird a-comin' out of a clock an' a-tellin' ye th' time!
Haw-haw-haw!" He swallowed his whiskey. "A bird! a-tellin' ye th' time! Haw-haw!
Jake, you ben up agin some new drink. You ben drinkin' lonely an' got up agin
some snake-medicine licker. A bird a-tellin' ye th' time! Haw-haw!"
The shrill voice of one of the younger cowboys
piped from the background. [illustration omitted] "Brace up, Jake. Don't let 'em
laugh at ye. Bring 'em that salt cod-fish of yourn what kin pick out th' ace."
"Oh, he's only kiddin' us. Don't pay no
'tention to 'im. He thinks he's smart."
A cowboy whose mother had a cuckoo-clock in her
house in Philadelphia spoke with solemnity. "Jake's a liar. There's no such
clock in the world. What? a bird inside a clock to tell the time? Change your
Jake was furious, but his fury took a very icy
form. He bent a withering glance upon the last speaker. "I don't mean a
live bird," he said, with terrible dignity. "It's a wooden bird, an'
"A wooden bird!" shouted Old Man Crumford.
"Wooden bird a-tellin' ye th' time! Haw-haw!"
But Jake still paid his frigid attention to the
Philadelphian. "An' if yer sober enough to walk, it ain't such a blame long ways
from here to th' hotel, an' I'll bet my pile agin yours if you only got two
"I don't want your money, Jake," said the
Philadelphian. "Somebody's been stringin' you -- that's all. I wouldn't take
your money." He cleverly appeared to pity the other's innocence.
"You couldn't git my money," cried
Jake, in sudden hot anger. "You couldn't git it. Now -- since yer so fresh --
let's see how much you got." He clattered some large gold pieces noisily upon
The Philadelphian shrugged his shoulders and
walked away. Jake was triumphant. "Any more bluffers 'round here?" he demanded.
"Any more? Any more bluffers? Where's all these here hot sports? Let 'em step
up. Here's my money -- come an' git it."
But they had ended by being afraid. To some of
them his tale was absurd, but still one must be circumspect when a man throws
forty-five dollars in gold upon the bar and bids the world come and win it. The
general feeling was expressed by Old Man Crumford, when with deference he asked:
"Well, this here bird, Jake -- what kinder lookin' bird is it?"
"It's a little brown thing," said Jake briefly.
Apparently he almost disdained to answer.
"Well -- how does it work?" asked the old man
"Why in blazes don't you go an' look at it?"
yelled Jake. "Want me to paint it in iles fer you? Go an' look!"
PLACER was writing in his ledger. He heard a
great trample of feet and clink of spurs on the porch, and there entered quietly
the band of cowboys, some of them swaying a trifle, and these last being the
most painfully decorous of all. Jake was in advance. He waved his hand toward
the clock. "There she is," he said laconically. The cowboys drew up and stared.
There was some giggling, but a serious voice said half-audibly, "I don't see no
Jake politely addressed the landlord. "Mister,
I've fetched these here friends of mine in here to see yer clock -- "
Placer looked up suddenly. "Well, they can see
it, can't they?" he asked in sarcasm. Jake, abashed, retreated to his fellows.
There was a period of silence. From time to
time the men shifted their feet. Finally, Old Man Crumford leaned towards Jake,
and in a penetrating whisper demanded, "Where's th' bird?" Some frolicsome
spirits on the outskirts began to call "Bird! Bird!" as men at a political
meeting call for a particular speaker.
Jake removed his big hat and nervously mopped
The young cowboy with the shrill voice again
spoke from the skirts of the crowd. "Jake, is ther' sure-'nough a bird in that
"Yes. Didn't I tell you once?"
"Then," said the shrill-voiced man, in a tone
of conviction, "it ain't a clock at all. It's a bird-cage."
"I tell you it's a clock," cried the maddened
Jake, but his retort could hardly be heard above the howls of glee and derision
which greeted the words of him of the shrill voice.
Old Man Crumford was again rampant. "Wooden
bird a-tellin' ye th' time! Haw-haw!"
Amid the confusion Jake went again to Placer.
He spoke almost in supplication. "Say, mister, what time does this here thing go
Placer lifted his head, looked at the clock,
and said: "Noon."
There was a stir near the door, and Big Watson
of the Square-X outfit, and at this time very drunk indeed, came shouldering his
way through the crowd and cursing everybody. The men gave him much room, for he
was notorious as a quarrelsome person when drunk. He paused in front of Jake,
and spoke as through a wet blanket. "What's all this -- monkeyin' about?"
Jake was already wild at being made a butt for
everybody, and he did not give backward. "None a' your dam business, Watson."
"Huh?" growled Watson, with the surprise of a
"I said," repeated Jake distinctly, "it's none
a' your dam business."
Watson whipped his revolver half out of its
holster. "I'll make it m' business, then, you -- "
But Jake had backed a step away, and was
holding his left-hand palm outward toward Watson, while in his right he held his
six-shooter, its muzzle pointing at the floor. He was shouting in a frenzy, --
"No -- don't you try it, Watson! Don't you dare try it, or, by Gawd, I'll kill
you, sure -- sure!"
He was aware of a torment of cries about him
from fearful men; from men who protested, from men who cried out because they
cried out. But he kept his eyes on Watson, and those two glared murder at each
other, neither seeming to breathe, fixed like statues.
A loud new voice suddenly rang out: "Hol' on a
minute!" All spectators who had not stampeded turned quickly, and saw Placer
standing behind his bright pink counter, with an aimed revolver in each hand.
"Cheese it!" he said. "I won't have no fightin'
here. If you want to fight, git out in the street."
Big Watson laughed, and, speeding up his
six-shooter like a flash of blue light, he shot Placer through the throat --
shot the man as he stood behind his absurd pink counter with his two aimed
revolvers in his incompetent hands. With a yell of rage and despair, Jake smote
Watson on the pate with his heavy weapon, and knocked him sprawling and bloody.
Somewhere a woman shrieked like windy, midnight death. Placer fell behind the
counter, and down upon him came his ledger and his inkstand, so that one could
not have told blood from ink.
The cowboys did not seem to hear, see, or feel,
until they saw numbers of citizens with Winchesters running wildly upon them.
Old Man Crumford threw high a passionate hand. "Don't shoot! We'll not fight ye
Nevertheless two or three shots rang, and a
cowboy who had been about to gallop off suddenly slumped over on his pony's
neck, where he held for a moment like an old sack, and then slid to the ground,
while his pony, with flapping rein, fled to the prairie.
"In God's name, don't shoot!" trumpeted Old Man
Crumford. "We'll not fight ye fer 'im!"
"It's murder," bawled Ben Roddle.
In the chaotic street it seemed for a moment as
if everybody would kill everybody. "Where's the man what done it?" These hot
cries seemed to declare a war which would result in an absolute annihilation of
one side. But the cowboys were singing out against it. They would fight for
nothing -- yes -- they often fought for nothing -- but they would not fight for
this dark something.
At last, when a flimsy truce had been made
between the inflamed men, all parties went to the hotel. Placer, in some dying
whim, had made his way out from behind the pink counter, and, leaving a horrible
trail, had travelled to the centre of the room, where he had pitched headlong
over the body of Big Watson.
The men lifted the corpse and laid it at the
"Who done it?" asked a white, stern man.
A cowboy pointed at Big Watson. "That's him,"
he said huskily.
There was a curious grim silence, and then
suddenly, in the death-chamber, there [illustration omitted] sounded the loud
whirring of the clock's works, little doors flew open, a tiny wooden bird
appeared and cried "Cuckoo" -- twelve times.