The Swede’s face, fresh from Johnnie’s blows, felt more pleasure than pain in the wind and the whipping snow. A number of square shapes appeared before him and he recognized them as the houses of the town. He traveled along a street until he found a saloon. He pushed open the door and entered. At the end of the room four men sat drinking at a table.
The Swede dropped his bag upon the floor and, smiling at the saloon-keeper, said, “Give me some whiskey, will you?” The man placed a bottle, a whiskey glass, and a glass of ice-filled water upon a table. The Swede poured himself an extra-large amount of whiskey and drank it down.
“Bad night,” remarked the saloon-keeper, without interest. He was acting as though he were not noticing the man, but it could have been seen that he was secretly studying the remains of blood on the Swede’s face. “Bad night,” he said again.
“Oh, it’s good enough for me,” replied the Swede, as he poured himself some more whiskey. “No,” continued the Swede, “this isn’t too bad weather. It’s good enough for me.”
The large drinks of whiskey made the Swede’s eyes watery, and he breathed a little heavier. “Well, I guess I’ll take another drink,” said the Swede after a while. “Would you like something?”
“No, thanks; I’m not drinking. How did you hurt your face?”
The Swede immediately began to talk loudly. “Oh, in a fight. I beat the soul out of a man at Scully’s hotel.”
This caught the interest of the four men at the table.
“Who was it?” asked one.
“Johnnie Scully, son of the man who owns the hotel. He will be nearly dead for some weeks, I can tell you, I beat him well, I did. He couldn’t get up. They had to carry him into the house. Have a drink?”
Instantly the men in a quiet way surrounded themselves in privacy. “No, thanks,” said one.
It was a strange group. Two were well-known local businessmen; one was a lawyer; and one was a gambler.
But a close look at the group would not have enabled an observer to pick the gambler from the other men. He was, in fact, so delicate in manner and so careful with whom he gambled that the men of the town completely trusted and admired him.
His business was regarded with fear and lack of respect. That is why, without doubt, his quiet dignity shone brightly above the quiet dignity of men who might be merely hat-makers, or builders or salesmen. Beyond an occasional unwise traveler who came by rail, this gambler supposedly cheated only careless farmers who, when rich with good crops, drove into town full of foolish pride. Hearing at times of such a farmer, the important men of Romper usually laughed at his losses. And if they thought of the gambler at all, it was with a kind of pride of knowing he would never dare to attack their wisdom and courage.
Besides, it was known that this gambler had a wife and two children in a nice little house, where he led a perfect home life. And when anyone even suggested that there was a fault in his character, the men immediately described the virtues of his family life.
And one must not forget to declare the bare fact of his entire position in Romper. It is true that in all affairs other than his business, this card-player was so generous, so fair, so good, that he could be considered to have a higher moral sense than nine-tenths of the citizens of Romper.
And so it happened that he was seated in this saloon with two local businessmen and the lawyer.
The Swede continued to drink whiskey and to try to make the saloon-keeper drink with him. “Come on. Have a drink. Come on. No? Well, have a little one, then. By God, I’ve beaten a man tonight, and I beat him good, too! Gentlemen,” the Swede cried to the men at the table, “have a drink?”
“Ssh! Quiet!” said the saloon-keeper.
The group at the table, although really interested, had been trying to appear busy in talk. But now a man lifted his eyes toward the Swede and said shortly, “Thanks. We don’t want any more.”
At this reply, the Swede straightened. “Well,” he shouted, “it seems I can’t get anybody to drink with me. I want someone to drink with me now. Now! Do you understand?” He struck the table with his hand.
Years of experience had hardened the saloon-keeper. He merely answered, “I hear you.”
“Well,” cried the Swede, “listen then. See those men over there? Well, they’re going to drink with me, and don’t you forget it. Now you watch.”
“Stop that!” shouted the saloon-keeper.
“Why should I?” demanded the Swede. He walked to the men’s table, and by chance laid his hand on the shoulder of the gambler. “What about it?” he asked angrily. “I asked you to drink with me.”
The gambler simply turned his head and spoke over his shoulder. “My friend, I don’t know you.”
“Never mind!” answered the Swede. “Come and have a drink.”
“Now, my boy,” advised the gambler kindly, “take your hand off my shoulder and go away.” He was a little, thin man and it seemed strange to hear him use this tone to the big Swede. The other men at the table said nothing.
“What! You won’t drink with me, you little fool? I’ll make you then! I’ll make you!” The Swede had grasped the gambler fiercely at the throat, and was dragging him from his chair. The other men jumped up. The saloon-keeper ran toward the table. There was a great scene of shouts and movements, and then a long knife appeared in the hand of the gambler. It shot forward, and a human body was cut as easily as if it had been a piece of fruit. The Swede fell with a cry of greatest surprise.
The businessmen and the lawyer must have rushed out of the place backward. The saloon-keeper found himself hanging weakly to the arm of a chair and gazing into the eyes of a murderer.
“Henry,” said the latter, “you tell them where to find me. I’ll be home waiting.” Then he left. A moment afterward the saloon-keeper was in the street racing through the storm for help and, more important, companionship.
Months later, the cowboy was cooking meat on the stove of a small cattle farm near the Dakota border when there was the sound of a horse stopping outside. The Easterner entered with mail and newspapers.
“Well,” said the Easterner at once, “the fellow who killed the Swede will spend three years in prison. That’s not much, is it?”
“He will? Three years!” The cowboy turned the meat in the pan. “Three years. That isn’t much.”
“No,” replied the Easterner. “There was a lot of sympathy for him in Romper.”
“If the saloon-keeper had been any good,” said cowboy thoughtfully, “he would have gone in and hit that Swede on the head with a bottle in the beginning of it. That would have stopped all this murdering.”
“Yes, a thousand things might have happened,” said the Easterner sharply.
The cowboy moved his pan of meat on the fire, continued with his philosophy. “It’s strange, isn’t it? If he hadn’t said Johnnie was cheating, he’d be alive this minute. He was an awful fool. I believe he was crazy.”
“I feel sorry for that gambler,” said the Easterner.
“So do I,” said the cowboy. “He doesn’t deserve three years in prison for killing that fellow.”
“The Swede might not have been killed if everything had been honest.”
“Might not have been killed?” exclaimed the cowboy. “Everything honest? When he said that Johnnie was cheating and acted so crazy? And then in the saloon he practically asked to get hurt?” With these arguments the cowboy made the Easterner angry.
“You’re a fool!” cried the Easterner fiercely. “You’re a bigger fool than that Swede. Now let me tell you one thing. Let me tell you one thing. Listen! Johnnie was cheating!”
“Johnnie,” said the cowboy, blankly. There was a minute of silence, and then he said strongly, “Oh, no. The game was only for fun.”
“Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight alone. And you—you were simply jumping around the place and wanting to fight. And old Scully too. We are all in it! This poor gambler just got pulled into it. Every sin is the result of shared effort. We, five of us, have shared in the murder of this Swede. You, I, Johnnie, old Scully; and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely at the end of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”
The cowboy, hurt and angry, cried out blindly into this mystery of thought: “Well, I didn’t do anything, did I?”
Words in This Story
saloon - n. a place where alcoholic drinks are served
whiskey - n. a strong alcoholic drink made from a grain (such as rye, corn, or barley)
lawyer - n. a person whose job is to guide and assist people in matters relating to the law
gambler - n. a person who plays a game in which he/she can win or lose money or other valuable things
courage - n. the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous
fault - n. a bad quality or part of someone’s character
character - n. the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves; someone's personality
virtue - n. morally good behavior or character
cattle - n. cows, bulls, or steers that are kept on a farm or ranch for meat or milk
sin - n. an action that is considered to be wrong according to religious or moral law