There is a very general and very erroneous impression that alcohol builds the mood of a man; as a matter of fact it merely makes his temper of the moment fast—the man who takes his first drink with a smile ends in uproarious laughter, and he who frowns will often end in fighting. Vic Gregg did not frown as he drank, but the corners of his lips turned up a trifle in a smile of fixed and acid pleasantry and his glance went from face to face in the barroom, steadily, with a trifling pause at each pair of eyes. Beginning with himself, he hated mankind in general; the burn of the cheap whisky within served to set the color of that hatred in a fixed dye. He did not lift his chaser, but his hand closed around it hard. If some one had given him an excuse for a fist-fight or an outburst of cursing it would have washed his mind as clean as a new slate, and five minutes later he might have been with Betty Neal, riotously happy. Instead, everyone overflowed with good nature, gossip, questions about his work, and the danger in him crystallized. He registered cold reasons for his disgust.
Beginning in the first person, he loathed himself as a thick-headed ass for talking to Betty as he had done; as well put a burr under one's saddle and then feel surprise because the horse bucks. He passed on to the others with equal precision. Captain Lorrimer was as dirty as a greaser; and like a greaser, loose-lipped, unshaven. Chick Stewart was a born fool, and a fool by self-culture, as his never changing grin amply proved. Lew Perkins sat in the corner on a shaky old apple barrel and brushed back his long mustaches to spit at the cuspidor—and miss it. If this were Vic Gregg's saloon he would teach the old loafer more accuracy or break his neck.
"How are you, Gregg?" murmured some one behind him.
He turned and found Sheriff Pete Glass with his right hand already spread on the bar while he ordered a drink for two. That was one of the sheriff's idiosyncrasies; he never shook hands if he could avoid it, and Gregg hated him senselessly, bitterly, for it. No doubt every one in the room noticed, and they would tell afterwards how the sheriff had avoided shaking hands with Vic Gregg. Cheap play for notoriety, thought Gregg; Glass was pushing the bottle towards him.
"Help yourself," said Gregg.
"This is on me, Vic."
"I most generally like to buy the first drink."
Pete Glass turned his head slowly, for indeed all his motions were leisurely and one could not help wondering at the stories of his exploits, the tales of his hair-trigger alertness. Perhaps these half legendary deeds sent the thrill of uneasiness through Vic Gregg; perhaps it was owing to the singular hazel eyes, with little splotches of red in them; very mild eyes, but one could imagine anything about them. Otherwise there was nothing exceptional in Glass, for he stood well under middle height, a starved figure, with a sinewy crooked neck, as if bent on looking up to taller men. His hair was sandy, his face tawny brown, his shirt a gray blue, and every one knew his dusty roan horse; by nature, by temperament and by personal selection he was suited to blend into a landscape of sage-dotted plains or sand. Tireless as a lobo on the trail, swift as a bobcat in fight, hunted men had been known to ride in and give themselves up when they heard that Pete Glass was after them.
"Anyway you want, partner," he was saying, in his soft, rather husky voice.
He poured his drink, barely enough to cover the bottom of his glass, for that was another of Pete's ways; he could never afford to weaken his hand or deaden his eye with alcohol, and even now he stood sideways at the bar, facing Gregg and also facing the others in the room. But the larger man, with sudden scorn for this caution, brimmed his own glass, and poised it swiftly. "Here's how!" and down it went.
Ordinarily red-eye heated his blood and made his brain dizzy, it loosened his tongue and numbed his lips, but today it left him cool, confident, and sharpened his vision until he felt that he could see through the minds of every one in the room. Captain Lorrimer, for instance, was telling a jocular story to Chick Stewart in the hope that Chick would set them up for every one; and old Lew Perkins was waiting for the treat; and perhaps the sheriff was wondering how he could handle Vic in case of need, or how long it would take to run him down. Not long, decided Gregg, breathing hard; no man in the world could put him on the run. Glass was treating in turn, and again the brimming drink went down Vic's throat and left his brain clear, wonderfully clear. He saw through Betty Neal now; she had purposely played off Blondy against him, to make them both jealous.
"Won't you join us, Dad?" the sheriff was saying to Lew Perkins, and Vic Gregg smiled. He understood. The sheriff wanted an excuse to order another round of drinks because he had it in mind to intoxicate Gregg; perhaps Glass had something on him; perhaps the manhunter thought that Vic had had a part in that Wilsonville affair two years back. That was it, and he wanted to make Vic talk when he was drunk.
"Don't mind if I do," Lew said, slapping both hands on the bar as if he owned it; and while he waited for his drink: "What are they going to do with Swain?"
The doddering idiot! Swain was the last man Glass had taken, and Lew Perkins should have known that the sheriff never talked about his work; the old ass was in his green age, his second childhood.
"Swain turned state's evidence," said Pete, curtly. "He'll go free, I suppose. Fill up your glass, partner. Can see you're thirsty yet."
This was to Gregg, who had purposely poured out a drink of the sheriff's own chosen dimension to see if the latter would notice; this remark fixed his suspicions. It was certain that the manhunter was after him, but again, in scorn, he accepted the challenge and poured a stiff dram.
"That's right," nodded the sheriff. "You got nothing on your shoulders. You can let yourself go, Vic. Sometimes I wish"—he sighed—"I wish I could do the same!"
"The sneaky coyote," thought Gregg, "he's lurin' me on!"
"Turned state's evidence!" maundered Lew Perkins. "Well, they's a lot of 'em that lose their guts when they're caught. I remember way back in the time when Bannack was runnin' full blast—"
Why did not some one shut off the old idiot before he was thoroughly started? He might keep on talking like the clank of a windmill in a steady breeze, endlessly. For Lew was old-seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five—he himself probably did not know just how old—and he had lived through at least two generations of pioneers with a myriad stories about them. He could string out tales of the Long Trail: Abilene, Wichita, Ellsworth, Great Bend, Newton, where eleven men were murdered in one night; he knew the vigilante days in San Francisco, and early times in Alder Gulch.
"Nobody would of thought Plummer was yaller, but he turned out that way," droned on the narrator. "Grit? He had enough to fit out twenty men. When Crawford shot him and busted his right arm, he went right on and learned to shoot with his left and started huntin' Jack again. Packed that lead with him till he died, and then they found Jack's bullet in his wrist, all worked smooth by the play of the bones. Afterwards it turned out that Plummer ran a whole gang; but before we learned that we'd been fools enough to make him sheriff. We got to Plummer right after he'd finished hangin' a man, and took him to his own gallows."
"You'd of thought a cool devil like that would of made a good end, but he didn't. He just got down on his knees and cried, and asked God to help him. Then he begged us to give him time to pray, but one of the boys up and told him he could do his prayin' from the cross-beam. And that was Henry Plummer, that killed a hundred men, him an' his gang."
"H-m-m," murmured the sheriff, and looked uneasily about. Now that his eyes were turned away, Vic could study him at leisure, and he wondered at the smallness of the man. Suppose one were able to lay hands on him it would be easy to—
"See you later, boys," drawled Glass, and sauntered from the room.
Lew Perkins sighed as the most important part of his audience disappeared, but having started talking the impetus carried him along, he held Vic Gregg with his hazy eyes.
"But they didn't all finish like Plummer, not all the bad ones. No sirree! There was Boone Helm."
"I've heard about him," growled Vic, but the old man had fixed his glance and his reminiscent smile upon the past and his voice was soft with distance when he spoke again.
"Helm was a sure enough bad one, son. They don't grow like him no more. Wild Bill was a baby compared with Helm, and Slade wasn't no man at all, even leavin' in the lies they tell about him. Why, son, Helm was just a lobo, in the skin of a man—"
"Like Barry?" put in Lorrimer, drifting closer down the bar.
"Ain't you heard of Whistlin' Dan? The one that killed Jim Silent and busted up his gang. Why, they say he's got a wolf that he can talk to like it was a man."
Old Lew chuckled.
"They say a lot of things," he nodded, "but I'll tell a man that a wolf is a wolf and they ain't nothin' that can tame 'em. Don't you let 'em feed you up on lies like that, Lorrimer. But Helm was sure bad. He killed for the sake of killin', but he died game. When the boys run him down he swore on the bible that he's never killed a man, and they made him swear it over again just to watch his nerve; but he never batted an eye."
The picture of that wild time grew up for Vic Gregg, and the thought of free men who laughed at the law, strong men, fierce men. What would one of these have done if the girl he intended to marry had treated him like a foil?
"Then they got him ready for the rope," went on Lew Perkins.
"'I've seen a tolerable lot of death,' says Helm. 'I ain't afraid of it.'"
"There was about six thousand folks had come in to see the end of Boone Helm. Somebody asked him if he wanted anything.
"'Whisky,' says Boone. And he got it.
"Then he shook his hand and held it up. He had a sore finger and it bothered him a lot more than the thought of hangin'.
"'You gents get through with this or else tie up my finger,' he kept sayin'."
"Helm wasn't the whole show. There was some others bein' hung that day and when one of them dropped off his box, Boone says: 'There's one gone to hell.' Pretty soon another went, and hung there wiggling, and six times he went through all the motions of pullin' his six-shooter and firin' it. I counted. 'Kick away, old fellow,' says Boone Helm, 'I'll be with you soon.' Then it came his turn and he hollered: 'Hurrah for Jeff Davis; let her rip!' That was how Boone Helm—"
The rest of the story was blotted from the mind of Vic Gregg by the thud of a heavy heel on the veranda, and then the broad shoulders of Blondy Hansen darkened the doorway, Blondy Hansen dressed for the dance, with the knot of his black silk handkerchief turned to the front and above that the gleam of his celluloid collar. It was dim in the saloon, compared with the brightness of the outdoors, and perhaps Blondy did not see Vic. At any rate he took his place at the other end of the bar. Three pictures tangled in the mind of Gregg like three bodies in a whirlpool—Betty, Blondy, Pete Glass. That strange clearness of perception increased and the whole affair lay plainly before him. Betty had sent Hansen, dressed manifestly for the festival, to gloat over Vic in Lorrimer's place. He was at it already.
"All turned out for the dance, Blondy, eh? Takin' a girl?"
"Betty Neal," answered Blondy.
"The hell you are!" inquired Lorrimer, mildly astonished. "I thought—why, Vic's back in town, don't you know that?"
"He ain't got a mortgage on what she does."
Then, guided by the side-glance of Lorrimer, Hansen saw Gregg, and he stiffened. As for Vic, he perceived the last link in his chain of evidence. Hansen was going to a dance, and yet he wore a gun, and there could be only one meaning in that: Betty had sent him down there to wind up the affair.
"Didn't see you, Vic," Blondy was saying, his flushed face seeming doubly red against the paleness of his hair. "Have something?"
"I ain't drinkin'," answered Gregg, and slowly, to make sure that no one could miss his meaning, he poured out a glass of liquor, and drank it with his face towards Hansen. When he put his glass down his mind was clearer than ever; and with omniscient precision, with nerveless calm, he knew that he was going to kill Blondy Hansen; knew exactly where the bullet would strike. It was something put behind him; his mind had already seen Hansen fall, and he smiled.
Dead silence had fallen over the room, and in the silence Gregg heard a muffled, ticking sound, the beating of his heart; heard old Lew Perkins as the latter softly, slowly, glided back out of the straight line of danger; heard the quick breathing of Captain Lorrimer who stood pasty pale, gaping behind the bar; heard the gritted teeth of Blondy Hansen, who would not take water.
"Vic," said Blondy, "it looks like you mean trouble. Anyway, you just now done something that needs explaining."
He stood straight as a soldier, rigid, but the fingers of his right hand twitched, twitched, twitched; the hand itself stole higher. Very calmly, Vic hunted for his words, found them.
"A cattle rustler is bad," he pronounced, "a hoss thief is worse, but you're the lowest sneak of the lot, Blondy."
Again that silence with the pulse in it, and Vic Gregg could feel the chill which numbed every one except himself.
The lower jaw of Captain Lorrimer sagged, and his whisper came out in jerking syllables: "God Almighty!" Then Blondy went for his gun, and Vic waited with his hand on the butt of his own, waited with a perfect, cold foreknowledge, heard Blondy moan as his Colt hung in the holster, saw the flash of the barrel as it whipped out, and then jerked his own weapon and fired from the hip. Blondy staggered but kept himself from falling by gripping the edge of the bar with his left hand; the right, still holding the gun, raised and rubbed across his forehead; he looked like a sleeper awakening.
Not a sound from any one else, while Vic watched the tiny wraith of smoke jerk up from the muzzle of his revolver. Then Blondy's gun flashed down and clanked on the floor. A red spot grew on the breast of Hansen's shirt; now he leaned as if to pick up something, but instead, slid forward on his face. Vic stepped to him and stirred the body with his toe; it wobbled, limp.