Authors: Louis L'Amour
To all the pioneers whose
journals and letters have done
so much to provide me with material
HEY COULD CALL it running away if they wanted to, but it made no sense to kill a man, or risk being killed over something so trivial. He had never used a gun against a man, and did not intend to begin now.
He glanced back, but the town lay far behind him, and there seemed to be no reason for pursuit.
Dawn would be breaking soon, and they would be expecting him on the street to face Dutch Akin, and Dutch would certainly be there, right in the middle of that Las Vegas street, a gun ready to his hand.
It was a savage custom, a ridiculous custom. His mother had been right to take him away from it, back to the eastern city where her family lived. She had never loved the West…not really.
He had been a fool to come west, even on business. But how could he have imagined he would run into trouble? Though he rarely took a drink, and was not inclined to argue, he had taken a drink while waiting for either Pearsall or Sparrow, and he had gotten into an argument. All right…he
made a mistake, but how was he to know they would make so much out of so little?
To hell with Dutch Akin, and with Las Vegas! He would be damned if he’d get himself killed over a few careless words in a saloon. It made no sense—no sense at all.
What would they say when they realized he was gone? When he failed to appear? At the thought, his ears reddened and he felt uncomfortable.
To hell with them! It was better to be a live coward than a dead hero.
Coward…the word rankled. Was he a coward? Had he been afraid? He searched himself for an answer, and found none. He did not believe he was a coward. He had come away to avoid a ridiculous situation…or was he just telling himself that? Was he not actually afraid?
He seemed to feel his father’s eyes upon him—those cool, thoughtful eyes that knew so well how to measure a man and judge what he had in him.
He remembered his father, the day they brought him home on a shutter, still alive, but badly shot up. There had been three men. One of them had taken a drink, waved a bottle, and staggered, but when Borden Chantry had come to arrest him the man suddenly dropped his bottle and two other men stepped from ambush, and his father had gone down in a wicked crossfire. He got off one shot, that was all. The three men had then fled the town.
His father had lived for two days in considerable pain before the doctor arrived from the fort; by the time he got there his father was dead.
It was as his mother had told him: if you lived by the gun you died by the gun.
But he remembered overhearing someone say as they left the cemetery, “I’d hate to be in their boots when Tom Chantry grows up!”
His father had been a cattleman, reasonably successful by any man’s standards, but then had come the great freeze-up, and when the snow melted his father was a poor man, and so were a lot of others. Cattlemen could always get credit, and when they sold their herds they paid up; only Pa had no herd to sell.
The men of the town respected him, knew he had a family to feed, and they also knew that he was a man good with a gun, so they offered him the job of town marshal.
For six years he ran the town, and kept it free of serious trouble. He rarely had to draw his gun, and several times he held his fire to give the other man a chance to drop his, and they usually did—all but one.
That man elected to fire…and missed. Borden Chantry did not miss.
That was the shooting that led to his death, for the men who came up the trail to kill him were friends of the dead man, and they staged the ambush that wiped out Borden Chantry.
It did no good to remember all that. Tom Chantry touched his horse with a spur. It would soon be light and he wanted to be far away before they discovered he was gone. He had been a fool to come west in the first place. Both Ma and Doris had tried to talk him out of it, but there was a shortage of beef in the East and he had argued with Earnshaw that they could buy it on the plains. No use dealing with a middleman.
Doris’ father was Robert Earnshaw, a dealer in livestock in New York City. Lately he had branched out into real estate and banking, although livestock was still the backbone of his business. He had been quick to recognize the profit to be had if Tom Chantry could go west, buy cattle on the plains, and ship them east, and Tom had come west with his blessing.
Beef had been scarce in Kansas, but a cattleman told him of a herd that was being held outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico that still might be had. The owners, Pearsall and Sparrow, had been holding the cattle to speculate, but now were in a bind for money. Tom Chantry had immediately left for Las Vegas, sending a message ahead to make the appointment with the prospective sellers.
He had registered at the hotel and gone at once to the saloon where cattlemen were known to gather, and where Sparrow had said they would meet. While he waited, he had a drink.
Dutch Akin had come in, bumping him hard as he lurched up to the bar, then turning to glare at him with a muttered reference to a “dude.”
Tom Chantry ignored the rudeness, although he felt irritation mounting within him. He edged over a little without seeming to do so, giving Akin more room. He knew he should go, but he had come all this way to see Sparrow, and the man was expected. It was simple courtesy for him to wait…so he waited.
Chantry had finished his drink, hesitated, then ordered another. He had not eaten since early that morning and knew that he should not have that second drink, but he was embarrassed to stay at the bar without ordering.
By the time he had finished his drink Sparrow had not come, so he started to turn away from the bar. Without warning a rough hand grasped his shoulder.
Suddenly furious, Chantry turned around sharply. Akin was grinning at him. “Dude, diden you hyar me? I invited you to drink wi’me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t hear, but I’ve had enough, thank you.”
“‘I’ve had enough, thank you.’” Akin put his hand on his hip and aped the words in a falsetto; then his voice changed. “I’ll tell you when you’ve had enough! Now belly up to the bar an’ drink!”
The room was quiet. Every eye was on them. The drunken man suddenly seemed to be no longer drunk. “When Dutch Akin invites a man to drink, he damn well better drink,” Akin said evenly. “You drink, mister.”
It was foolish. A ridiculous situation. Tom Chantry was irritated with himself for remaining long enough to get involved, but there was no help for it now.
“I am sorry, my friend, but I have no wish for another drink. I was just leaving.”
“You’ll leave when I get damn good an’ ready for you to leave. Now belly up to the bar.”
Chantry merely glanced at him, then turned to leave the room. Again he felt the hand touch his shoulder, and this time his reaction was swift. He swung around quickly and, throwing his left hand back, took hold of the grasping arm and jerked hard.
Dutch Akin hit the floor with a crash, and as he realized what had been done to him his hand swept back for his gun.
The sharp voice cut through the haze of anger in Dutch Akin’s brain.
A short, slender man in a business suit and a white hat was holding a gun in his hand. “The gentleman isn’t armed, Dutch. If you haven’t noticed that, you’d better. You draw that gun and I’ll put a hole into you.”
“This ain’t none of your affair, Sparrow. This is just me and him.”
Sparrow? Chantry turned his head to look. A man of about forty-five, well-dressed, cool, competent-looking. This was the man he had come to see.
“It is any man’s affair as long as this gentleman is not wearing a gun. If you shoot an unarmed man you’ll hang for it, Dutch. I’ll see that you do.”
Dutch got up slowly, holstering his pistol. “All right,” he said calmly. “All right, Sparrow. But I’ll be on the street at daybreak wearin’ this gun, and he better be armed, because if he ain’t I’ll break both his legs.”
Dutch turned sharply and walked from the room.
Chantry held out his hand. “Tom Chantry here, Mr. Sparrow. Thank you—thank you very much.”
They walked back to the hotel together. “Bad case, that Akin,” Sparrow commented, “a real trouble-maker. But he’s good with a gun, so be careful.”
Chantry shrugged. “I doubt if I ever see him again. Actually,
are the man I came to see. I understand you have a herd of beef outside of town that you might sell.”
“I might.” They had reached the deserted porch of the hotel. Sparrow bit the end from a cigar. “But you are mistaken if you think Akin won’t show. The man may be a trouble-maker and a loud-mouth, but he’s got sand, and he’s killed a man or two. You can expect him.”
“It’s absurd, Mr. Sparrow. The whole affair was uncalled for. He will have forgotten all about it in the morning.”
Sparrow lighted his cigar, threw the match into the dust, and then spoke around the cigar. “No, Mr. Chantry, he will not have forgotten it. Nor will anyone else. Come hell or high water, Dutch Akin will be in the street tomorrow, and if you don’t own a pistol you had better buy or borrow one. You’ll need it.”
“Are you seriously suggesting that I be out there in the street? That I engage in a duel with this—this ape?”
Sparrow glanced at him. “Are you by any chance related to Borden Chantry?”
“I am his son.”
“Then I would think—”
Suddenly, Tom Chantry was impatient. “Mr. Sparrow, I came to Las Vegas to see you, to make you an offer for your cattle. The firm I represent, Earnshaw and Company, is an eastern firm, and until now we have done our business through others. We’ve hoped to set up some business connections out here and buy cattle at the source. We had hoped to buy your herd. I did not come out here to be involved in brawls or shootings, or anything of that sort. I dislike violence, and will have nothing to do with this affair.”
Sparrow’s manner had grown cool. “I knew your father,” he said after a minute, “and I respected him. I was not interested in selling cattle at this time, and we’re holding them on good grass so there is no need. However, I thought that the son of Borden Chantry and I might strike a bargain.”
“And we are ready, sir.”
“You went east soon after your father’s death, didn’t you?”
“The situation back east is very different from out here, Mr. Chantry. Money is not always the only consideration. Out here we place emphasis upon the basic virtues, and I have noticed that the more organized our lives become the less attention we pay to such things as courage and loyalty. Organization seems to eliminate the necessity for such things, but out here they are the very stuff of life.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Simply this: that a man’s courage or lack of it is a matter of economic importance in the West. There are few ventures that can be attempted out here where courage is not a necessity, and anyone engaged in such a venture has a right to know the courage of those who are to share the risk.”
“What you are saying is that if I do not meet Dutch Akin tomorrow I had better go back east?”
“Exactly that. We will agree the circumstances are disagreeable, but such things cannot be avoided, and you have no choice.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Sparrow shrugged. “It does not matter what you believe. Your father understood, and he lived by the code.”
“And died by it.”
“That sometimes happens.”
“Then,” Tom Chantry replied quietly, “I am in the wrong country. I have no desire to kill…or to be killed. I shall go to Dutch Akin and apologize.”
“He will despise you.”
“Very well, but that will be the end of it.”
Sparrow drew on his cigar, then took it from his mouth as though it suddenly had a bad taste. “No, Mr. Chantry, that will not be the end. It will be only the beginning. The bullies will know you are fair game, that you will not fight, and therefore are to be bullied with impunity. The decent people will simply ignore you, the bullies will hunt you down, and some of them will keep on pushing just to see how much you can take before you do fight.
“Understand this, Mr. Chantry, the love of peace and the unwillingness to fight never kept anyone out of trouble.”
They left it at that, but during the night Tom Chantry made his decision.
Turning now in the saddle, he looked back again. There was nothing—nothing at all.
All around were the vast sky and the open prairie. To the north there were mountains, ahead was a broken, rugged country. It was not until then that he realized what he had done.
He had ridden west, not east.
O THE EAST lay home, friends, security from all this. His mother and Doris were in the East, his job and his future were there. Yet he had ridden west. Why?
What impulse had caused him to turn west when east was the logical direction? Was there some urge within him to avoid security? To avoid escape?
His choice back there had been simple. To use a gun, or not to use it.
He did not think he had actually been afraid, but how was he to know? Sparrow’s attitude could be that of everyone west of the Mississippi, and of many of those east of it. Such a story would get around, of course, and even those who commended him for good judgment would suspect his courage.
By turning west he had escaped nothing but the immediate meeting with Dutch Akin, for the situation might arise again. If so, would he run again? How often could he run?
But that was not the important thing now. He had come west to buy cattle that could be shipped east. If he could not get them in Las Vegas he must find them elsewhere, and that meant he might ride north to the Wyoming country and ship over the Union Pacific.
Earnshaw had advanced the money for his trip west, and he carried a draft against Earnshaw’s bank with which to pay for the cattle. It was his duty to complete the business that had brought him here; Earnshaw was depending on him.
Tom Chantry considered the situation. Santa Fe lay to the west, not over three days’ ride, he believed. It was doubtful if the required cattle could be found there; and if found they must be driven to the railhead, which meant a drive through Las Vegas—something he could not consider at this time.