THE Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a
light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to
declare its position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always
screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of
Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush. It stood alone on the prairie, and when
the snow was falling the town two hundred yards away was not visible. But when
the traveler alighted at the railway station he was obliged to pass the Palace
Hotel before he could come upon the company of low clap-board houses which
composed Fort Romper, and it was not to be thought that any traveler could pass
the Palace Hotel without looking at it. Pat Scully, the proprietor, had proved
himself a master of strategy when he chose his paints. It is true that on clear
days, when the great trans-continental expresses, long lines of swaying
Pullmans, swept through Fort Romper, passengers were overcome at the sight, and
the cult that knows the brown-reds and the subdivisions of the dark greens of
the East expressed shame, pity, horror, in a laugh. But to the citizens of this
prairie town, and to the people who would naturally stop there, Pat Scully had
performed a feat. With this opulence and splendor, these creeds, classes,
egotisms, that streamed through Romper on the rails day after day, they had no
color in common.
As if the displayed delights of such a blue
hotel were not sufficiently enticing, it was Scully's habit to go every morning
and evening to meet the leisurely trains that stopped at Romper and work his
seductions upon any man that he might see wavering, gripsack in hand.
One morning, when a snow-crusted engine dragged
its long string of freight cars and its one passenger coach to the station,
Scully performed the marvel of catching three men. One was a shaky and
quick-eyed Swede, with a great shining cheap valise; one was a tall bronzed
cowboy, who was on his way to a ranch near the Dakota line; one was a little
silent man from the East, who didn't look it, and didn't announce it. Scully
practically made them prisoners. He was so nimble and merry and kindly that each
probably felt it would be the height of brutality to try to escape. They trudged
off over the creaking board sidewalks in the wake of the eager little Irishman.
He wore a heavy fur cap squeezed tightly down on his head. It caused his two red
ears to stick out stiffly, as if they were made of tin.
At last Scully, elaborately, with boisterous
hospitality, conducted them through the portals of the blue hotel. The room
which they entered was small. It seemed to be merely a proper temple for an
enormous stove, which, in the center, was humming with godlike violence. At
various points on its surface the iron had become luminous and glowed yellow
from the heat. Beside the stove Scully's son Johnnie was playing High-Five with
an old farmer who had whiskers both gray and sandy. They were quarreling.
Frequently the old farmer turned his face toward a box of sawdust -- colored
brown from tobacco juice -- that was behind the stove, and spat with an air of
great impatience and irritation. With a loud flourish of words Scully destroyed
the game of cards, and bustled his son upstairs with part of the baggage of the
new guests. He himself conducted them to three basins of the coldest water in
the world. The cowboy and the Easterner burnished themselves fiery red with this
water, until it seemed to be some kind of a metal polish. The Swede, however,
merely dipped his fingers gingerly and with trepidation. It was notable that
throughout this series of small ceremonies the three travelers were made to feel
that Scully was very benevolent. He was conferring great favors upon them. He
handed the towel from one to the other with an air of philanthropic impulse.
Afterward they went to the first room, and,
sitting about the stove, listened to Scully's officious clamor at his daughters,
who were preparing the midday meal. They reflected in the silence of experienced
men who tread carefully amid new people. Nevertheless, the old farmer,
stationary, invincible in his chair near the warmest part of the stove, turned
his face from the sawdust box frequently and addressed a glowing commonplace to
the strangers. Usually he was answered in short but adequate sentences by either
the cowboy or the Easterner. The Swede said nothing. He seemed to be occupied in
making furtive estimates of each man in the room. One might have thought that he
had the sense of silly suspicion which comes to guilt. He resembled a badly
Later, at dinner, he spoke a little, addressing
his conversation entirely to Scully. He volunteered that he had come from New
York, where for ten years he had worked as a tailor. These facts seemed to
strike Scully as fascinating, and afterward he volunteered that he had lived at
Romper for fourteen years. The Swede asked about the crops and the price of
labor. He seemed barely to listen to Scully's extended replies. His eyes
continued to rove from man to man.
Finally, with a laugh and a wink, he said that
some of these Western communities were very dangerous; and after his statement
he straightened his legs under the table, tilted his head, and laughed again,
loudly. It was plain that the demonstration had no meaning to the others. They
looked at him wondering and in silence.
As the men trooped heavily back into the front
room, the two little windows presented views of a turmoiling sea of snow. The
huge arms of the wind were making attempts -- mighty, circular, futile -- to
embrace the flakes as they sped. A gate-post like a still man with a blanched
face stood aghast amid this profligate fury. In a hearty voice Scully announced
the presence of a blizzard. The guests of the blue hotel, lighting their pipes,
assented with grunts of lazy masculine contentment. No island of the sea could
be exempt in the degree of this little room with its humming stove. Johnnie, son
of Scully, in a tone which defined his opinion of his ability as a card-player,
challenged the old farmer of both gray and sandy whiskers to a game of
High-Five. The farmer agreed with a contemptuous and bitter scoff. They sat
close to the stove, and squared their knees under a wide board. The cowboy and
the Easterner watched the game with interest. The Swede remained near the
window, aloof, but with a countenance that showed signs of an inexplicable
The play of Johnnie and the gray-beard was
suddenly ended by another quarrel. The old man arose while casting a look of
heated scorn at his adversary. He slowly buttoned his coat, and then stalked
with fabulous dignity from the room. In the discreet silence of all other men
the Swede laughed. His laughter rang somehow childish. Men by this time had
begun to look at him askance, as if they wished to inquire what ailed him.
A new game was formed jocosely. The cowboy
volunteered to become the partner of Johnnie, and they all then turned to ask
the Swede to throw in his lot with the little Easterner. He asked some questions
about the game, and learning that it wore many names, and that he had played it
when it was under an alias, he accepted the invitation. He strode toward the men
nervously, as if he expected to be assaulted. Finally, seated, he gazed from
face to face and laughed shrilly. This laugh was so strange that the Easterner
looked up quickly, the cowboy sat intent and with his mouth open, and Johnnie
paused, holding the cards with still fingers.
Afterward there was a short silence. Then
Johnnie said: "Well, let's get at it. Come on now!" They pulled their chairs
forward until their knees were bunched under the board. They began to play, and
their interest in the game caused the others to forget the manner of the Swede.
The cowboy was a board-whacker. Each time that
he held superior cards he whanged them, one by one, with exceeding force, down
upon the improvised table, and took the tricks with a glowing air of prowess and
pride that sent thrills of indignation into the hearts of his opponents. A game
with a board-whacker in it is sure to become intense. The countenances of the
Easterner and the Swede were miserable whenever the cowboy thundered down his
aces and kings, while Johnnie, his eyes gleaming with joy, chuckled and
Because of the absorbing play none considered
the strange ways of the Swede. They paid strict heed to the game. Finally,
during a lull caused by a new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie: "I
suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room." The jaws of the
others dropped and they looked at him.
"What in hell are you talking about?" said
The Swede laughed again his blatant laugh, full
of a kind of false courage and defiance. "Oh, you know what I mean all right,"
"I'm a liar if I do!" Johnnie protested. The
card was halted, and the men stared at the Swede. Johnnie evidently felt that as
the son of the proprietor he should make a direct inquiry. "Now, what might you
be drivin' at, mister?" he asked. The Swede winked at him. It was a wink full of
cunning. His fingers shook on the edge of the board. "Oh, maybe you think I have
been to nowheres. Maybe you think I'm a tenderfoot?"
"I don't know nothin' about you," answered
Johnnie, "and I don't give a damn where you've been. All I got to say is that I
don't know what you're driving at. There hain't never been nobody killed in this
The cowboy, who had been steadily gazing at the
Swede, then spoke. "What's wrong with you, mister?"
Apparently it seemed to the Swede that he was
formidably menaced. He shivered and turned white near the corners of his mouth.
He sent an appealing glance in the direction of the little Easterner. During
these moments he did not forget to wear his air of advanced pot-valor. "They say
they don't know what I mean," he remarked mockingly to the Easterner.
The latter answered after prolonged and
cautious reflection. "I don't understand you," he said, impassively.
The Swede made a movement then which announced
that he thought he had encountered treachery from the only quarter where he had
expected sympathy if not help. "Oh, I see you are all against me. I see -- "
The cowboy was in a state of deep stupefaction.
"Say," he cried, as he tumbled the deck violently down upon the board. "Say,
what are you gittin' at, hey?"
The Swede sprang up with the celerity of a man
escaping from a snake on the floor. "I don't want to fight!" he shouted. "I
don't want to fight!"
The cowboy stretched his long legs indolently
and deliberately. His hands were in his pockets. He spat into the sawdust box.
"Well, who the hell thought you did?" he inquired.
The Swede backed rapidly toward a corner of the
room. His hands were out protectingly in front of his chest, but he was making
an obvious struggle to control his fright. "Gentlemen," he quavered, "I suppose
I am going to be killed before I can leave this house! I suppose I am going to
be killed before I can leave this house." In his eyes was the dying swan look.
Through the windows could be seen the snow turning blue in the shadow of dusk.
The wind tore at the house and some loose thing beat regularly against the
clap-boards like a spirit tapping.
A door opened, and Scully himself entered. He
paused in surprise as he noted the tragic attitude of the Swede. Then he said:
"What's the matter here?"
The Swede answered him swiftly and eagerly:
"These men are going to kill me."
"Kill you!" ejaculated Scully. "Kill you! What
are you talkin'?"
The Swede made the gesture of a martyr.
Scully wheeled sternly upon his son. "What is
The lad had grown sullen. "Damned if I know,"
he answered. "I can't make no sense to it." He began to shuffle the cards,
fluttering them together with an angry snap. "He says a good many men have been
killed in this room, or something like that. And he says he's goin' to be killed
here too. I don't know what ails him. He's crazy, I shouldn't wonder."
Scully then looked for explanation to the
cowboy, but the cowboy simply shrugged his shoulders.
"Kill you?" said Scully again to the Swede.
"Kill you? Man, you're off your nut."
"Oh, I know," burst out the Swede. "I know what
will happen. Yes, I'm crazy -- yes. Yes, of course, I'm crazy -- yes. But I know
one thing -- " There was a sort of sweat of misery and terror upon his face. "I
know I won't get out of here alive."