A Bargain with Peg-Leg by Frank Norris
"Hey, youse!" shouted the car-boy. He brought his trundling, jolting, loose-jointed car to a halt by the face of the drift. "Hey, youse!" he shouted again.
Bunt shut off the Burly air-drill and nodded.
"Chaw," he remarked to me.
We clambered into the car, and, as the boy released the brake, rolled out into the main tunnel of the Big Dipple, and banged and bumped down the long incline that led to the mouth.
"Chaw" was dinner. It was one o'clock in the morning, and the men on the night shift were taking their midnight spell off. Bunt was back at his old occupation of miner, and I--the one loafer of all that little world of workers--had brought him a bottle of beer to go with the "chaw"; for Bunt and I were ancient friends.
As we emerged from the cool, cave-like dampness of the mine and ran out into the wonderful night air of the Sierra foothills, warm, dry, redolent of witch-hazel, the carboy began to cough, and, after we had climbed out of the car and had sat down on the embankment to eat and drink, Bunt observed:
"D'ye hear that bark? That kid's a one-lunger for fair. Which ain't no salubrious graft for him--this hiking cars about in the bowels of the earth, Some day he'll sure up an' quit. Ought to go down to Yuma a spell."
The engineer in the mill was starting the stamps. They got under way with broken, hiccoughing dislocations, bumping and stumbling like the hoofs of a group of horses on the cattle-deck in a gale. Then they jumped to a trot, then to a canter, and at last settled down to the prolonged roaring gallop that reverberated far off over the entire canon.
"I knew a one-lunger once," Bunt continued, as he uncorked the bottle, "and the acquaintance was some distressful by reason of its bringing me into strained relations with a cow-rustlin', hair-liftin', only-one-born-in-captivity, man-eatin' brute of a one-legged Greaser which he was named Peg-leg Smith. He was shy a leg because of a shotgun that the other man thought wasn't loaded. And this here happens, lemme tell you, 'way down in the Panamint country, where they wasn't no doctor within twenty miles, and Peg-leg outs with his bowie and amputates that leg hisself, then later makes a wood stump outa a ole halter and a table-leg. I guess the whole jing-bang of it turned his head, for he goes bad and loco thereafter, and begins shootin' and r'arin' up an' down the hull Southwest, a-roarin' and a-bellerin' and a-takin' on amazin'. We dasn't say boo to a yaller pup while he's round. I never see such mean blood. Jus' let the boys know that Peg-leg was anyways adjacent an' you can gamble they walked chalk.
"Y'see, this Peg-leg lay it out as how he couldn't abide no cussin' an' swearin'. He said if there was any tall talkin' done he wanted to do it. And he sure could. I've seed him hold on for six minutes by the watch an' never repeat hisself once. An' shoot! Say, lemme tell you he did for two Greasers once in a barroom at La Paz, one in front o' him, t'other straight behind, him standing between with a gun in each hand, and shootin' both guns at the same time. Well, he was just a terror," declared Bunt, solemnly, "and when he was in real good form there wa'n't a man south o' Leadville dared to call his hand.
"Now, the way I met up with this skunkin' little dewdrop was this-like It was at Yuma, at a time when I was a kid of about nineteen. It was a Sunday mornin'; Peg-leg was in town. He was asleep on a lounge in the back room o' Bud Overick's Grand Transcontinental Hotel. (I used to guess Bud called it that by reason that it wa'n't grand, nor transcontinental, nor yet a hotel--it was a bar.) This was twenty year ago, and in those days I knowed a one-lunger in Yuma named Clarence. (He couldn't help that--he was a good kid--but his name was Clarence.) We got along first-rate. Yuma was a great consumptive place at that time. They used to come in on every train; yes, and go out, too--by freight.
"Well, findin' that they couldn't do much else than jes' sit around an' bark and keep their shawls tight, these 'ere chaps kinda drew together, and lay it out to meet every Sunday morning at Bud's to sorta talk it over and have a quiet game. One game they had that they played steady, an' when I drifted into Bud's that morning they was about a dozen of 'em at it--Clarence, too. When I came in, there they be, all sittin' in a circle round a table with a cigar box on it. They'd each put four bits into the box. That was the pot.
"A stranger wouldn't 'a' made nothin' very excitin' out of that game, nor yet would 'a' caught on to what it were. For them pore yaps jes' sat there, each with his little glass thermometer in his mouth, a-waitin' and a-waitin' and never sayin' a word. Then bime-by Bud, who's a-holdin' of the watch on 'em, sings out 'Time!' an' they all takes their thermometers out an' looks at 'em careful-like to see where they stand.
"'Mine's ninety-nine,' says one.
"An' another says:
"'Mine's a hundred.'
"An' Clarence pipes up--coughin' all the time:
"'Mine's a hundred 'n one 'n 'alf.'
"An', no one havin' a higher tempriture than that, Clarence captures the pot. It was a queer kind o' game.
"Well, on that particular Sunday morning they's some unpleasantness along o' one o' the other one-lungers layin' it out as how Clarence had done some monkey-business to make his tempriture so high. It was said as how Clarence had took and drunk some hot tea afore comin' into the game at Bud's. They all began to discuss that same p'int.
"Naturally, they don't go at it polite, and to make their remarks p'inted they says a cuss-word occasional, and Clarence, bein' a high-steppin' gent as takes nobody's dust, slings it back some forceful.
"Then all at once they hears Peg-leg beller from where's he layin' on the lounge (they ain't figured on his bein' so contiguous), and he gives it to be understood, does Peg-leg, as how the next one-lunger that indulges in whatsoever profanity will lose his voice abrupt.
"They all drops out at that, bar the chap who had the next highest tempriture to Clarence. Him having missed the pot by only a degree or so is considerable sore.
"'Why,' says he, 'I've had a reg'lar fever since yesterday afternoon, an' only just dodged a hem'rage by a squeak. I'm all legitimate, I am; an' if you-alls misdoubts as how my tempriture ain't normal you kin jes' ask the doctor. I don't take it easy that a strappin', healthy gesabe whose case ain't nowheres near the hopeless p'int yet steps in here with a scalded mouth and plays it low.'
"Clarence he r'ars right up at that an' forgits about Peg-leg an' expresses doubts, not to say convictions, about the one-lunger's chances of salvation. He puts it all into about three words, an' just as quick as look at it we hears ol' Peg-leg's wooden stump a-comin'. We stampedes considerable prompt, but Clarence falls over a chair, an' before he kin get up Peg-leg has him by the windpipe.
"Now I ain't billin' myself as a all-round star hero an' general grand-stand man. But I was sure took with Clarence, an' I'd 'a' been real disappointed if Peg-leg 'ud a-killed him that morning--which he sure was tryin' to do when I came in for a few chips.
"I don' draw on Peg-leg, him being down on his knees over Clarence, an' his back turned, but without sensin' very much what I'm a-doin' of I grabs holt o' the first part o' Peg-leg that comes handy, which, so help me, Bob, is his old wooden leg. I starts to pull him off o' Clarence, but instead o' that I pulls off the wooden leg an' goes a-staggerin' back agin the wall with the thing in my fist.
"Y'know how it is now with a fightin' pup if you pull his tail while he's a-chawin' up the other pup. Ye can bat him over the head till you're tired, or kick him till you w'ars your boot out, an' he'll go right on chawin' the harder. But monkey with his tail an' he's that sensitive an' techy about it that he'll take a interest right off.
"Well, it were just so with Peg-leg--though I never knew it. Just by accident I'd laid holt of him where he was tender; an' when he felt that leg go--say, lemme tell you, he was some excited. He forgits all about Clarence, and he lines out for me, a-clawin' the air. Lucky he'd left his gun in the other room.
"Well, sir, y'ought to have seen him, a-hoppin' on one foot, and banging agin the furniture, jes' naturally black in the face with rage, an' doin' his darnedest to lay his hands on me, roarin' all the whiles like a steer with a kinked tail.
"Well, I'm skeered, and I remarks that same without shame. I'm skeered. I don't want to come to no grapples with Peg-leg in his wrath, an' I knows that so long as he can't git his leg he can't take after me very fast. Bud's saloon backs right up agin the bluff over the river. So what do I do but heave that same wooden leg through one o' the back windows, an' down she goes (as I thought) mebbe seventy feet into the canon o' the Colorado? And then, mister man, I skins out--fast.
"I takes me headlong flight by way o' the back room and on-root pitches Peg-leg's gun over into the canon, too, an' then whips around the corner of the saloon an' fetches out ag'in by the street in front. With his gun gone an' his leg gone, Peg-leg--so long's y'ain't within arm's reach--is as harmless as a horned toad. So I kinda hangs 'round the neighbourhood jes' to see what-all mout turn up.
"Peg-leg, after hoppin' back to find that his gun was gone, to look for his leg, comes out by the front door, hoppin' from one chair to another, an' seein' me standin' there across the street makes remarks; an' he informs me that because of this same little turn-up this mornin' I ain't never goin' to live to grow hair on my face. His observations are that vigorous an' p'inted that I sure begin to see it that way, too, and I says to myself:
"'Now you, Bunt McBride, you've cut it out for yourself good and hard, an' the rest o' your life ain't goin' to be free from nervousness. Either y'ought to 'a' let this here hell-roarin' maverick alone or else you should 'a' put him clean out o' business when you had holt o' his shootin'-iron. An' I ain't a bit happy.' And then jes' at this stage o' the proceedings occurs what youse 'ud call a diversion.
"It seemed that that wood stump didn't go clean to the river as I first figured, but stuck three-fourths the way down. An' a-course there's a fool half-breed kid who's got to chase after it, thinkin' to do Peg-leg a good turn.
"I don't know nothin' about this, but jes' stand there talkin' back to Peg-leg, an' pre-tendin' I ain't got no misgivings, when I sees this kid comin' a-cavoortin' an' a-cayoodlin' down the street with the leg in his hands, hollerin' out:
"'Here's your leg, Mister Peg-leg! I went an' got it for you, Mister Peg-leg!'
"It ain't so likely that Peg-leg could 'a' caught me even if he'd had his leg, but I wa'n't takin' no chances. An' as Peg-leg starts for the kid I start, too--with my heart knockin' agin my front teeth, you can bet.
"I never knew how fast a man could hop till that mornin', an', lookin' at Peg-leg with the tail o' my eye as I ran, it seemed to me as how he was a-goin' over the ground like a ole he-kangaroo. But somehow he gets off his balance and comes down all of a smash like a rickety table, an' I reaches the kid first an' takes the leg away from him.
"I guess Peg-leg must 'a' begun to lay it out by then that I held a straight flush to his ace high, for he sits down on the edge of the sidewalk an', being some winded, too, he just glares. Then byme-by he says:
"'You think you are some smart now, sonny, but I'm a-studyin' of your face so's I'll know who to look for when I git a new leg; an' believe me, I'll know it, m'son--yours and your friend's too' (he meant Clarence)--'an' I guess you'll both be kind o' sick afore I'm done with you. You!' he goes on, tremendous disgustful. 'You! an' them one-lungers a-swearin' an' a-cussin' an' bedamnin' an' bedevilin' one a-other. Ain't ye just ashamed o' yourselves ?' (he thought I was a one-lunger, too); 'ain't ye ashamed--befoulin' your mouths, and disturbin' the peace along of a quiet Sunday mornin', an' you-alls waist over in your graves? I'm fair sick o' my job,' he remarks, goin' kind o' thoughtful. 'Ten years now I've been range-ridin' all this yere ranch, a-doin' o' my little feeble, or'nary best to clean out the mouths o' you men an' purify the atmosphere o' God's own country, but I ain't made one convert. I've pounded 'em an' booted 'em, an' busted 'em an' shot 'em up, an' they go on cussin' each other out harder'n ever. I don't know w'at all to do an' I sometimes gets plumb discouraged-like.'
"Now, hearin' of him talk that-a-way, an' a-knowin' of his weakness, I gits a idea. It's a chanst and mebbee it don't pan out, but I puts it up as a bluff. I don't want, you see, to spend the rest o' my appointed time in this yere vale o' tears a-dodgin' o' Peg-leg Smith, an' in the end, after all, to git between the wind and a forty-eight caliber do-good, sure not. So I puts up a deal. Says I: 'Peg-leg, I'll make a bargint along o' you. You lays it out as how you ain't never converted nobody out o' his swearin' habits. Now if you wants, 'ere's a chanst. You gimmee your word as a gent and a good-man-an'-true, as how you won't never make no play to shoot me up, in nowise whatsoever, so long as we both do live, an' promise never to bust me, or otherwise, and promise never to rustle me or interfere with my life, liberty and pursuit o' happiness, an' thereunto you set your seal an' may Lord 'a' mercy on your soul--you promise that, an' I will agree an' covenant with the party o' the first part to abstain an' abjure, early or late, dry or drinkin', in liquor or out, out o' luck or in, rangin' or roundin', from all part an' parcel o' profanity, cuss-words, little or big, several and separate, bar none; this yere agreement to be considered as bindin' an' obligatory till the day o' your demise, decease or death. There!' says I, 'there's a fair bargint put up between man an' man, an' I puts it to you fair. You comes in with a strong ante an' you gets a genuine, guaranteed an' high-grade convert--the real article. You stays out, an' not only you loses a good chanst to cut off and dam up as vigorous a stream o' profanity as is found between here and Laredo, but you loses a handmade, copper-bound, steel-riveted, artificial limb--which in five minutes o' time,' says I, windin' up, 'will sure feed the fire. There's the bargint.'
"Well, the ol' man takes out time for about as long as a thirsty horse-rustler could put away half a dozen drinks an' he studies the proposition sideways and endways an' down side up. Then at last he ups and speaks out decided-like:
"'Son,' he says, 'son, it's a bargint. Gimmee my leg.'
"Somehow neither o' us misdoubts as how the other man won't keep his word; an' I gives him his stump, an' he straps her on joyful-like, just as if he'd got back a ole friend. Then later on he hikes out for Mojave and I don' see him no more for mebbee three years."
"And then?" I prompted.
"Well, I'll tell you," continued Bunt, between mouthfuls of pie, "I'll tell you. This yere prejudice agin profanity is the only thing about this yere Peg-leg that ain't pizen bad, an' that prejudice, you got to know, was just along o' his being loco on that one subjeck. 'Twa'n't as if he had any real principles or convictions about the thing. It was just a loco prejudice. Just as some gesabes has feelin's agin cats an' snakes, or agin seein' a speckled nigger. It was just on-reasonable. So what I'm aimin' to have you understand is the fact that it was extremely appropriate that Peg-leg should die, that it was a blame good thing, and somethin' to be celebrated by free drinks all round.
"You can say he treated me white, an' took my unsupported word. Well, so he did; but that was in spite o' what he really was hisself, 'way on the inside o' him. Inside o' him he was black-bad, an' it wa'n't a week after we had made our bargint that he did for a little Mojave kid in a way I don't like to think of.
"So when he took an' died like as how I'm a-going to tell you of, I was plumb joyful, not only because I could feel at liberty to relieve my mind when necessary in a manner as is approved of and rightful among gents--not only because o' that, but because they was one less bad egg in the cow-country.
"Now the manner o' Peg-leg's dying was sure hilarious-like. I didn't git over laughin' about it for a month o' Sundays--an' I ain't done yet. It was sure a joke on Peg-leg. The cutest joke that ever was played off on him.
"It was in Sonora--Sonora, Arizona, I mean. They'd a-been a kind o' gold excitement there, and all the boys had rounded up. The town was full--chock-a-block. Peg-leg he was there too, drunk all the time an' bullyin' everybody, an' slambangin' around in his same old way. That very day he'd used a friend o' his--his best friend--cruel hard: just mean and nasty, you know.
"Well, I'm sitting into a little game o' faro about twelve o'clock at night, me an' about a dozen o' the boys. We're good an' interested, and pretty much to the good o' the game, an' somebody's passin' drinks when all at once there's a sure big rumpus out in the street, an' a gent sticks his head thro' the door an' yells out:
"'Hi, there, they's a fire! The Golden West Hotel is on fire!'
"We draws the game as soon as convenient and hikes out, an', my word, you'd 'a' thought from the looks o' things as how the whole town was going. But it was only the hotel--the Golden West, where Peg-leg was stayin'; an' when we got up we could hear the ol' murderer bellerin' an' ragin', an' him drunk--of course.
"Well, I'm some excited. Lord love you, I'd as soon 'a' seen Peg-leg shot as I would eat, an' when I remembers the little Mojave kid I'm glad as how his time is at hand. Saved us the trouble o' lynchin' that sooner or later had to come.
"Peg-leg's room was in the front o' the house on the fourth floor, but the fire was all below, and what with the smoke comin' out the third-story winders he couldn't see down into the street, no more'n the boys could see him--only they just heard him bellerin'.
"Then some one of 'em sings out:
"'Hey, Peg-leg, jump! We got a blanket here.'
"An' sure enough he does jump!"
Here Bunt chuckled grimly, muttering, "Yes, sir, sure enough he did jump."
"I don't quite see," I observed, "where the laugh comes in. What was the joke of it?"
"The joke of it was," finished Bunt, "that they hadn't any blanket."