During one spring of the early seventies Billy Knapp ran a species of road-house and hotel at the crossing of the Deadwood and Big Horn trails through Custer Valley. Travellers changing from one to the other frequently stopped there over night. He sold accommodations for man and beast, the former comprising plenty of whiskey, the latter plenty of hay. That was the best anyone could say of it. The hotel was of logs, two-storied, with partitions of sheeting to insure a certain privacy of sight if not of sound; had three beds and a number of bunks; and boasted of a woman cook--one of the first in the Hills. Billy did not run it long. He was too restless. For the time being, however, he was interested and satisfied.
The personnel of the establishment consisted of Billy and the woman, already mentioned, and an ancient Pistol of the name of Charley. The latter wore many firearms, and had a good deal to say, but had never, as Billy expressed it, "made good." This in the West could not be for lack of opportunity. His functions were those of general factotum.
One evening Billy sat chair-tilted against the walls of the hotel waiting for the stage. By and by it drew in. Charley hobbled out, carrying buckets of water for the horses. The driver flung the reins from him with the lordly insolence of his privileged class, descended slowly, and swaggered to the bar-room for his drink. Billy followed to serve it.
"Luck," said the driver, and crooked his elbow.
"Anything new?" queried Billy.
"Nope. Black Hank's over in th' limestone."
That exhausted the situation. The two men puffed silently for a moment at their pipes. In an instant the driver turned to go.
"I got you a tenderfoot," he remarked then, casually; "I reckon he's outside."
"Guess I ambles forth and sees what fer a tenderfoot it is," replied Billy, hastening from behind the bar.
The tenderfoot was seated on a small trunk just outside the door. As he held his hat in his hand, Billy could see his dome-like bald head. Beneath the dome was a little pink-and-white face, and below that narrow, sloping shoulders, a flat chest, and bandy legs. He wore a light check suit, and a flannel shirt whose collar was much too large for him. Billy took this all in while passing. As the driver climbed to the seat, the hotel-keeper commented.
"Say, Hen," said he, "would you stuff it or put it under a glass case?"
"I'd serve it, a lay Tooloose," replied the driver, briefly, and brought his long lash 8-shaped across the four startled backs of his horses.
Billy turned to the reinspection of his guest, and met a deprecating smile.
"Can I get a room here fer to-night?" he inquired in a high, piping voice.
"You kin," said Billy, shortly, and began to howl for Charley.
That patriarch appeared around the corner, as did likewise the cook, a black-eyed, red-cheeked creature, afterward counted by Billy as one of his eight matrimonial ventures.
"Snake this stranger's war-bag into th' shack," commanded Billy, "and, Nell, jest nat'rally rustle a few grub."
The stranger picked up a small hand-satchel and followed Charley into the building. When, a little later, he reappeared for supper, he carried the hand-bag with him, and placed it under the bench which flanked the table. Afterward he deposited it near his hand while enjoying a pipe outside. Naturally, all this did not escape Billy.
"Stranger," said he, "yo' seems mighty wedded to that thar satchel."
"Yes, sir," piped the stranger. Billy snorted at the title. "I has some personal belongin's which is valuable to me." He opened the bag and produced a cheap portrait of a rather cheap-looking woman. "My mother that was," said he.
Billy snorted again and went inside. He hated sentiment of all kinds.
The two men sat opposite each other and ate supper, which was served by the red-cheeked girl. The stranger kept his eyes on his plate while she was in the room. He perched on the edge of the bench with his feet tucked under him and resting on the toes. When she approached, the muscles of his shoulders and upper arms grew rigid with embarrassment, causing strange awkward movements of the hands. He answered in monosyllables.
Billy ate expansively and earnestly. Toward the close of the meal Charley slipped into place beside him. Charley was out of humour, and found the meat cold.
"Damn yore soul, Nell," he cried, "this yere ain't fitten fer a hog to eat!"
The girl did not mind; nor did Billy. It was the country's mode of speech. The stranger dropped his knife.
"I don't wonder you don't like it, then," said he, with a funny little blaze of anger.
"Meanin' what?" shouted Charley, threateningly.
"You sure mustn't speak to a lady that way," replied the stranger, firmly, in his little piping voice.
Billy caught the point and exploded in a mighty guffaw.
"Bully fer you!" he cried, slapping his knee; "struck pyrites (he pronounced it pie-rights) fer shore that trip, Charley."
The girl, too, laughed, but quietly. She was just a little touched, though only this winter she had left Bismarck because the place would have no more of her.
In the face of Billy's approval, the patriarch fell silent.
About midnight the four inmates of the frontier hotel were awakened by a tremendous racket outside. The stranger arose, fully clothed, from his bunk, and peered through the narrow open window. A dozen horses were standing grouped in charge of a single mounted man, indistinguishable in the dark. Out of the open door a broad band of light streamed from the saloon, whence came the noise of voices and of boots tramping about.
"It is Black Hank," said Billy, at his elbow, "Black Hank and his outfit. He hitches to this yere snubbin'-post occasional."
Black Hank in the Hills would have translated to Jesse James farther south.
The stranger turned suddenly energetic.
"Don't you make no fight?" he asked.
"Fight?" said Billy, wondering. "Fight? Co'se not. Hank don't plunder me none. He jest ambles along an' helps himself, and leaves th' dust fer it every time. I jest lays low an' lets him operate. I never has no dealin's with him, understand. He jest nat'rally waltzes in an' plants his grub-hooks on what he needs. I don't know nothin' about it. I'm dead asleep."
He bestowed a shadowy wink on the stranger
Below, the outlaws moved here and there.
"Billy!" shouted a commanding voice, "Billy Knapp!"
The hotel-keeper looked perplexed.
"Now, what's he tollin' me for?" he asked of the man by his side.
"Billy!" shouted the voice again, "come down here, you Siwash. I want to palaver with you!"
"All right, Hank," replied Billy.
He went to his "room," and buckled on a heavy belt; then descended the steep stairs. The bar-room was lighted and filled with men. Some of them were drinking and eating; others were strapping provisions into portable form. Against the corner of the bar a tall figure of a man leaned smoking--a man lithe, active, and muscular, with a keen dark face, and black eyebrows which met over his nose. Billy walked silently to this man.
"What is it?" he asked, shortly. "This yere ain't in th' agreement."
"I know that," replied the stranger.
"Then leave yore dust and vamoose."
"My dust is there," replied Black Hank, placing his hand on a buckskin bag at his side, "and you're paid, Billy Knapp. I want to ask you a question. Standing Rock has sent fifty thousand dollars in greenbacks to Spotted Tail. The messenger went through here to-day. Have you seen him?"
"Nary messenger," replied Billy, in relief. "Stage goes empty."
Charley had crept down the stairs and into the room.
"What in hell are yo' doin' yere, yo' ranikaboo ijit?" inquired Billy, truculently.
"That thar stage ain't what you calls empty," observed Charley, unmoved.
A light broke on Billy's mind. He remarked the valise which the stranger had so carefully guarded; and though his common-sense told him that an inoffensive non-combatant such as his guest would hardly be chosen as express messenger, still the bare possibility remained.
"Yo're right," he agreed, carelessly, "thar is one tenderfoot, who knows as much of ridin' express as a pig does of a ruffled shirt."
"I notes he's almighty particular about that carpet-bag of his'n," insisted Charley.
The man against the counter had lost nothing of the scene. Billy's denial, his hesitation, his half-truth all looked suspicious to him. With one swift, round sweep of the arm he had Billy covered. Billy's hands shot over his head without the necessity of command.
The men ceased their occupations and gathered about. Scenes of this sort were too common to elicit comment or arouse excitement. They knew perfectly well the laissez-faire relations which obtained between the two Westerners.
"Now," said Black Hank, angrily, in a low tone, "I want to know why in hell you tried that monkey game!"
Billy, wary and unafraid, replied that he had tried no game, that he had forgotten the tenderfoot for the moment, and that he did not believe the latter would prove to be the sought-for express messenger.
One of the men, at a signal from his leader, relieved Billy's heavy belt of considerable weight. Then the latter was permitted to sit on a cracker-box. Two more mounted the stairs. In a moment they returned to report that the upper story contained no human beings, strange or otherwise, except the girl, but that there remained a small trunk. Under further orders, they dragged the trunk down into the bar-room. It was broken open and found to contain nothing but clothes--of the plainsman's cut, material, and state of wear; a neatly folded Mexican saddle showing use, and a raw-hide quirt.
"Hell of a tenderfoot!" said Black Hank, contemptuously.
The outlaws had already scattered outside to look for the trail. In this they were unsuccessful, reporting, indeed, that not the faintest sign indicated escape in any direction.
Billy knew his man. The tightening of Black Hank's close-knit brows meant but one thing. One does not gain chieftainship of any kind in the West without propping his ascendency with acts of ruthless decision. Billy leaped from his cracker-box with the suddenness of the puma, seized Black Hank firmly about the waist, whirled him into a sort of shield, and began an earnest struggle for the instant possession of the outlaw's drawn revolver. It was a gallant attempt, but an unsuccessful one. In a moment Billy was pinioned to the floor, and Black Hank was rubbing his abraded fore-arm. After that the only question was whether it should be rope or bullet.
Now, when Billy had gone downstairs, the stranger had wasted no further time at the window. He had in his possession fifty thousand dollars in greenbacks which he was to deliver as soon as possible to the Spotted Tail agency in Wyoming. The necessary change of stage lines had forced him to stay over night at Billy Knapp's hotel.
The messenger seized his bag and softly ran along through the canvas-partitioned room wherein Billy slept, to a narrow window which he had already noticed gave out almost directly into the pine woods. The window was of oiled paper, and its catch baffled him. He knew it should slide back; but it refused to slide. He did not dare break the paper because of the crackling noise. A voice at his shoulder startled him.
"I'll show you," whispered the red-cheeked girl.
She was wrapped loosely in a blanket, her hair falling about her shoulders, and her bare feet showed beneath her coverings. The little man suffered at once an agony of embarrassment in which the thought of his errand was lost. It was recalled to him by the girl.
"There you are," she whispered, showing him the open window.
"Thank you," he stammered, painfully, "I assure you--I wish----"
The girl laughed under her breath.
"That's all right," she said, heartily, "I owe you that for calling old whiskers off his bronc," and she kissed him.
The messenger, trembling with self-consciousness, climbed hastily through the window; ran the broad loop of the satchel up his arm; and, instead of dropping to the ground, as the girl had expected, swung himself lightly into the branches of a rather large scrub-oak that grew near. She listened to the rustle of the leaves for a moment as he neared the trunk, and then, unable longer to restrain her curiosity in regard to the doings below, turned to the stairway.
As she did so, two men mounted. They examined the three rooms of the upper story hastily but carefully, paying scant attention to her, and departed swearing. In a few moments they returned for the stranger's trunk. Nell followed them down the stairs as far as the doorway. There she heard and saw things, and fled in bitter dismay to the back of the house when Billy Knapp was overpowered.
At the window she knelt, clasping her hands and sinking her head between her arms. Women in the West, at least women like Nell, do not weep. But she came near it. Suddenly she raised her head. A voice next her ear had addressed her.
She looked here and there and around, but could discover nothing.
"Here, outside," came the low, guarded voice, "in the tree."
Then she saw that the little stranger had not stirred from his first alighting-place.
"Beg yore pardon, ma'am, fer startling you or fer addressing you at all, which I shouldn't, but----"
"Oh, never mind that," said the girl, impatiently, shaking back her hair. So deprecating and timid were the tones, that almost without an effort of the imagination she could picture the little man's blushes and his half-sidling method of delivery. At this supreme moment his littleness and lack of self-assertion jarred on her mood. "What're you doin' there? Thought you'd vamoosed."
"It was safer here," explained the stranger, "I left no trail."
She nodded comprehension of the common-sense of this.
"But, ma'am, I took the liberty of speakin' to you because you seems to be in trouble. Of course, I ain't got no right to ask, an' if you don't care to tell me----"
"They're goin' to kill Billy," broke in Nell, with a sob.
"I don't jest rightly make out. They's after someone, and they thinks Billy's cacheing him. I reckon it's you. Billy ain't cacheing nothin', but they thinks he is."
"It's me they's after, all right. Now, you know where I am, why don't you tell them and save Billy?"
The girl started, but her keen Western mind saw the difficulty at once.
"They thinks Billy pertects you jest th' same."
"Do you love him?" asked the stranger.
"God knows I'm purty tough," confessed Nell, sobbing, "but I jest do that!" and she dropped her head again.
The invisible stranger in the gloom fell silent, considering.
"I'm a pretty rank proposition, myself," said he at last, as if to himself, "and I've got a job on hand which same I oughta put through without givin' attention to anything else. As a usual thing folks don't care fer me, and I don't care much fer folks. Women especial. They drives me plumb tired. I reckon I don't stack up very high in th' blue chips when it comes to cashin' in with the gentle sex, anyhow; but in general they gives me as much notice as they lavishes on a doodle-bug. I ain't kickin', you understand, nary bit; but onct in a dog's age I kind of hankers fer a decent look from one of 'em. I ain't never had no women-folks of my own, never. Sometimes I thinks it would be some scrumptious to know a little gal waitin' fer me somewhere. They ain't none. They never will be. I ain't built that way. You treated me white to-night. You're th' first woman that ever kissed me of her own accord."
The girl heard a faint scramble, then the soft pat of someone landing on his feet. Peering from the window she made out a faint, shadowy form stealing around the corner of the hotel. She put her hand to her heart and listened. Her understanding of the stranger's motives was vague at best, but she had caught his confession that her kiss had meant much to him, and even in her anxiety she felt an inclination to laugh. She had bestowed that caress as she would have kissed the cold end of a dog's nose.
The men below stairs had, after some discussion, decided on bullet. This was out of consideration for Billy's standing as a frontiersman. Besides, he had stolen no horses. In order not to delay matters, the execution was fixed for the present time and place. Billy stood with his back to the logs of his own hotel, his hands and feet bound, but his eyes uncovered. He had never lost his nerve. In the short respite which preparation demanded, he told his opponents what he thought of them.
"Proud?" he concluded a long soliloquy as if to the reflector of the lamp. "Proud?" he repeated, reflectively. "This yere Hank's jest that proud he's all swelled up like a poisoned pup. Ain't everyone kin corall a man sleepin' and git fifty thousand without turnin' a hair."
Black Hank distributed three men to do the business. There were no heroics. The execution of this man was necessary to him, not because he was particularly angry over the escape of the messenger--he expected to capture that individual in due time--but in order to preserve his authority over his men. He was in the act of moving back to give the shooters room, when he heard behind him the door open and shut.
He turned. Before the door stood a small consumptive-looking man in a light check suit. The tenderfoot carried two short-barrelled Colt's revolvers, one of which he presented directly at Black Hank.
"'Nds up!" he commanded, sharply.
Hank was directly covered, so he obeyed. The new-comer's eye had a strangely restless quality. Of the other dozen inmates of the room, eleven were firmly convinced that the weapon and eye not directly levelled at their leader were personally concerned with themselves. The twelfth thought he saw his chance. To the bewildered onlookers there seemed to be a flash and a bang, instantaneous; then things were as before. One of the stranger's weapons still pointed at Black Hank's breast; the other at each of the rest. Only the twelfth man, he who had seen his chance, had collapsed forward to the floor. No one could assure himself positively that he had discerned the slightest motion on the part of the stranger.
"Now," said the latter, sharply, "one at a time, gentlemen. Drop yore gun," this last to Black Hank, "muzzle down. Drop it! Correct!"
One of the men in the back of the room stirred slightly on the ball of his foot.
"Steady, there!" warned the stranger. The man stiffened.
"Next gent," went on the little man, subtly indicating another. The latter obeyed without hesitation. "Next. Now you. Now you in th' corner."
One after another the pistols clattered to the floor. Not for an instant could a single inmate of the apartment, armed or unarmed, flatter himself that his slightest motion was unobserved. They were like tigers on the crouch, ready to spring the moment the man's guard lowered. It did not lower. The huddled figure on the floor reminded them of what might happen. They obeyed.
"Step back," commanded the stranger next. In a moment he had them standing in a row against the wall, rigid, upright, their hands over their heads. Then for the first time the stranger moved from his position by the door.
"Call her," he said to Billy, "th' girl."
Billy raised his voice. "Nell! Oh, Nell!"
In a moment she appeared in the doorway at the foot of the stairs, without hesitation or fear. When she perceived the state of affairs, she brightened almost mischievously.
"Would you jest as soon, ma'am, if it ain't troubling you too much, jest nat'rally sort of untie Billy?" requested the stranger.
She did so. The hotel-keeper stretched his arms.
"Now, pick up th' guns, please."
The two set about it.
"Where's that damn ol' reprobate?" inquired Billy, truculently, looking about for Charley.
The patriarch had quietly slipped away.
"You kin drop them hands," advised the stranger, lowering the muzzles of his weapons. The leader started to say something.
"You shut up!" said Billy, selecting his own weapons from the heap.
The stranger suddenly picked up one of the Colt's single-action revolvers which lay on the floor, and, holding the trigger back against the guard, exploded the six charges by hitting the hammer smartly with the palm of his hand. In the thrusting motion of this discharge he evidently had design, for the first six wine-glasses on Billy's bar were shivered. It was wonderful work, rattling fire, quicker than a self-cocker even. He selected another weapon. From a pile of tomato-cans he took one and tossed it into the air. Before it had fallen he had perforated it twice, and as it rolled along the floor he helped its progression by four more bullets which left streams of tomato-juice where they had hit. The room was full of smoke. The group watched, fascinated.
Then the men against the wall grew rigid. Out of the film of smoke long, vivid streams of fire flashed toward them, now right, now left, like the alternating steam of a locomotive's pistons. Smash, smash! Smash, smash! hit the bullets with regular thud. With the twelfth discharge the din ceased. Midway in the space between the heads of each pair of men against the wall was a round hole. No one was touched.
A silence fell. The smoke lightened and blew slowly through the open door. The horses, long since deserted by their guardians in favour of the excitement within, whinnied. The stranger dropped the smoking Colts, and quietly reproduced his own short-barrelled arms from his side-pockets, where he had thrust them. Billy broke the silence at last.
"That's shootin'!" he observed, with a sigh.
"Them fifty thousand is outside," clicked the stranger. "Do you want them?"
There was no reply.
"I aims to pull out on one of these yere hosses of yours," said he. "Billy he's all straight. He doesn't know nothin' about me."
He collected the six-shooters from the floor.
"I jest takes these with me for a spell," he continued. "You'll find them, if you look hard enough, along on th' trail--also yore broncs."
He backed toward the door.
"I'm layin' fer th' man that sticks his head out that door," he warned.
"Stranger," said Black Hank as he neared the door.
The little man paused.
"Might I ask yore name?"
"My name is Alfred," replied the latter.
Black Hank looked chagrined.
"I've hearn tell of you," he acknowledged.
The stranger's eye ran over the room, and encountered that of the girl. He shrank into himself and blushed.
"Good-night," he said, hastily, and disappeared. A moment later the beat of hoofs became audible as he led the bunch of horses away.
For a time there was silence. Then Billy, "By God, Hank, I means to stand in with you, but you let that kid alone, or I plugs you!"
"Kid, huh!" grunted Hank. "Alfred a kid! I've hearn tell of him."
"What've you heard?" inquired the girl.
"He's th' plumb best scout on th' southern trail," replied Black Hank.
The year following, Billy Knapp, Alfred, and another man named Jim Buckley took across to the Hills the only wagon-train that dared set out that summer.