The Killer by Stewart Edward White
After a time I went to bed, but not to sleep. I placed my gun under my pillow, locked and bolted the door, and arranged a string cunningly across the open window so that an intruder--unless he had extraordinary luck--could not have failed to kick up a devil of a clatter. I was young, bold, without nerves; so that I think I can truthfully say I was not in the least frightened. But I cannot deny I was nervous--or rather the whole situation was on my nerves. I lay on my back staring straight at the ceiling. I caught myself gripping the sheets and listening. Only there was nothing to listen to. The night was absolutely still. There were no frogs, no owls, no crickets even. The firm old adobe walls gave off no creak nor snap of timbers. The world was muffled--I almost said smothered. The psychological effect was that of blank darkness, the black darkness of far underground, although the moon was sailing the heavens.
How long that lasted I could not tell you. But at last the silence was broken by the cheerful chirp of a frog. Never was sound more grateful to the ear! I lay drinking it in as thirstily as water after a day on the desert. It seemed that the world breathed again, was coming alive after syncope. And then beneath that loud and cheerful singing I became aware of duller half-heard movements; and a moment or so later yellow lights began to flicker through the transom high at the blank wall of the room, and to reflect in wavering patches on the ceiling. Evidently somebody was afoot outside with a lantern.
I crept from the bed, moved the table beneath the transom, and climbed atop. The opening was still a foot or so above my head. Being young, strong, and active, I drew myself up by the strength of my arms so I could look--until my muscles gave out!
I saw four men with lanterns moving here and there among some willows that bordered what seemed to be an irrigating ditch with water. They were armed with long clubs. Old Man Hooper, in an overcoat, stood in a commanding position. They seemed to be searching. Suddenly from a clump of bushes one of the men uttered an exclamation of triumph. I saw his long club rise and fall. At that instant my tired fingers slipped from the ledge and I had to let myself drop to the table. When a moment later I regained my vantage point, I found that the whole crew had disappeared.
Nothing more happened that night. At times I dozed in a broken sort of fashion, but never actually fell into sound sleep. The nearest I came to slumber was just at dawn. I really lost all consciousness of my surroundings and circumstances, and was only slowly brought to myself by the sweet singing of innumerable birds in the willows outside the blank wall. I lay in a half stupor enjoying them. Abruptly their music ceased. I heard the soft, flat spat of a miniature rifle. The sound was repeated. I climbed back on my table and drew myself again to a position of observation.
Old Man Hooper, armed with a .22 calibre rifle, was prowling along the willows in which fluttered a small band of migratory birds. He was just drawing bead on a robin. At the report the bird fell. The old man darted forward with the impetuosity of a boy, although the bird was dead. An impulse of contempt curled my lips. The old man was childish! Why should he find pleasure in hunting such harmless creatures? and why should he take on triumph over retrieving such petty game? But when he reached the fallen bird he did not pick it up for a possible pot-pie as I thought he would do. He ground it into the soft earth with the heel of his boot, stamping on the poor thing again and again. And never have I seen on human countenance such an expression of satisfied malignity!
I went to my door and looked out. You may be sure that the message I had received from the unfortunate young lady had not been forgotten; but Old Man Hooper's cynical delivery of the second paper had rendered me too cautious to undertake anything without proper reconnaissance. The left wing about the courtyard seemed to contain two apartments--at least there were two doors, each with its accompanying window. The window farthest out was heavily barred. My thrill at this discovery was, however, slightly dashed by the further observation that also all the other windows into the courtyard were barred. Still, that was peculiar in itself, and not attributable--as were the walls and remarkable transoms--to former necessities of defence. My first thought was to stroll idly around the courtyard, thus obtaining a closer inspection. But the moment I stepped into the open a Mexican sauntered into view and began to water the flowers. I can say no more than that in his hands that watering pot looked fairly silly. So I turned to the right and passed through the wicket gate and into the stable yard. It was natural enough that I should go to look after my own horse.
The stable yard was for the moment empty; but as I walked across it one of its doors opened and a very little, wizened old man emerged leading a horse. He tied the animal to a ring in the wall and proceeded at once to currying.
I had been in Arizona for ten years. During that time I had seen a great many very fine native horses, for the stock of that country is directly descended from the barbs of the conquistadores. But, though often well formed and as tough and useful as horseflesh is made, they were small. And no man thought of refinements in caring for any one of his numerous mounts. They went shaggy or smooth according to the season; and not one of them could have called a curry comb or brush out of its name.
The beast from which the wizened old man stripped a bona fide horse blanket was none of these. He stood a good sixteen hands; his head was small and clean cut with large, intelligent eyes and little, well-set ears; his long, muscular shoulders sloped forward as shoulders should; his barrel was long and deep and well ribbed up; his back was flat and straight; his legs were clean and--what was rarely seen in the cow country--well proportioned--the cannon bone shorter than the leg bone, the ankle sloping and long and elastic--in short, a magnificent creature whose points of excellence appeared one by one under close scrutiny. And the high lights of his glossy coat flashed in the sun like water.
I walked from one side to the other of him marvelling. Not a defect, not even a blemish could I discover. The animal was fairly a perfect specimen of horseflesh. And I could not help speculating as to its use. Old Man Hooper had certainly never appeared with it in public; the fame of such a beast would have spread the breadth of the country.
During my inspection the wizened little man continued his work without even a glance in my direction. He had on riding breeches and leather gaiters, a plaid waistcoat and a peaked cap; which, when you think of it, was to Arizona about as incongruous as the horse. I made several conventional remarks of admiration, to which he paid not the slightest attention. But I know a bait.
"I suppose you claim him as a Morgan," said I.
"Claim, is it!" grunted the little man, contemptuously.
"Well, the Morgan is not a real breed, anyway," I persisted. "A sixty-fourth blood will get one registered. What does that amount to?"
The little man grunted again.
"Besides, though your animal is a good one, he is too short and straight in the pasterns," said I, uttering sheer, rank, wild heresy.
After that we talked; at first heatedly, then argumentatively, then with entire, enthusiastic agreement. I saw to that. Allowing yourself to be converted from an absurd opinion is always a sure way to favour. We ended with antiphonies of praise for this descendant of Justin Morgan.
"You're the only man in all this God-forsaken country that has the sense of a Shanghai rooster!" cried the little man in a glow. "They ride horses and they know naught of them; and they laugh at a horseman! Your hand, sir!" He shook it. "And is that your horse in number four? I wondered! He's the first animal I've seen here properly shod. They use the rasp, sir, on the outside the hoof, and on the clinches, sir; and they burn a seat for the shoe; and they pare out the sole and trim the frog--bah! You shoe your own horse, I take it. That's right and proper! Your hand again, sir. Your horse has been fed this hour agone."
"I'll water him, then," said I.
But when I led him forth I could find no trough or other facilities until the little man led me to a corner of the corral and showed me a contraption with a close-fitting lid to be lifted.
"It's along of the flies," he explained to me. "They must drink, and we starve them for water here, and they go greedy for their poison yonder." He indicated flat dishes full of liquid set on shelves here and about. "We keep them pretty clear."
I walked over, curiously, to examine. About and in the dishes were literally quarts of dead insects, not only flies, but bees, hornets, and other sorts as well. I now understood the deadly silence that had so impressed me the evening before. This was certainly most ingenious; and I said so.
But at my first remark the old man became obstinately silent, and fell again to grooming the Morgan horse. Then I became aware that he was addressing me in low tones out of the corner of his mouth.
"Go on; look at the horse; say something," he muttered, busily polishing down the animal's hind legs. "You're a man who saveys a horse--the only man I've seen here who does. Get out! Don't ask why. You're safe now. You're not safe here another day. Water your horse; eat your breakfast; then get out!"
And not another word did I extract. I watered my horse at the covered trough, and rather thoughtfully returned to the courtyard.
I found there Old Man Hooper waiting. He looked as bland and innocent and harmless as the sunlight on his own flagstones--until he gazed up at me, and then I was as usual disconcerted by the blank, veiled, unwinking stare of his eyes.
"Remarkably fine Morgan stallion you have, sir," I greeted him. "I didn't know such a creature existed in this part of the world."
But the little man displayed no gratification.
"He's well enough. I have him more to keep Tim happy than anything else. We'll go in to breakfast."
I cast a cautious eye at the barred window in the left wing. The curtains were still down. At the table I ventured to ask after Miss Hooper. The old man stared at me up to the point of embarrassment, then replied drily that she always breakfasted in her room. The rest of our conversation was on general topics. I am bound to say it was unexpectedly easy. The old man was a good talker, and possessed social ease and a certain charm, which he seemed to be trying to exert. Among other things, I remember, he told me of the Indian councils he used to hold in the old days.
"They were held on the willow flat, outside the east wall," he said. "I never allowed any of them inside the walls." The suavity of his manner broke fiercely and suddenly. "Everything inside the walls is mine!" he declared with heat. "Mine! mine! mine! Understand? I will not tolerate in here anything that is not mine; that does not obey my will; that does not come when I say come; go when I say go; and fall silent when I say be still!"
A wild and fantastic idea suddenly illuminated my understanding.
"Even the crickets, the flies, the frogs, the birds," I said, audaciously.
He fixed his wildcat eyes upon me without answering.
"And," I went on, deliberately, "who could deny your perfect right to do what you will with your own? And if they did deny that right what more natural than that they should be made to perish--or take their breakfasts in their rooms?"
I was never more aware of the absolute stillness of the house than when I uttered these foolish words. My hand was on the gun in my trouser-band; but even as I spoke a sickening realization came over me that if the old man opposite so willed, I would have no slightest chance to use it. The air behind me seemed full of menace, and the hair crawled on the back of my neck. Hooper stared at me without sign for ten seconds; his right hand hovered above the polished table. Then he let it fall without giving what I am convinced would have been a signal.
"Will you have more coffee--my guest?" he inquired. And he stressed subtly the last word in a manner that somehow made me just a trifle ashamed.
At the close of the meal the Mexican familiar glided into the room. Hooper seemed to understand the man's presence, for he arose at once.
"Your horse is saddled and ready," he told me, briskly. "You will be wishing to start before the heat of the day. Your cantinas are ready on the saddle."
He clapped on his hat and we walked together to the corral. There awaited us not only my own horse, but another. The equipment of the latter was magnificently reminiscent of the old California days--gaily-coloured braided hair bridle and reins; silver conchas; stock saddle of carved leather with silver horn and cantle; silvered bit bars; gay Navajo blanket as corona; silver corners to skirts, silver conchas on the long tapaderos. Old Man Hooper, strangely incongruous in his wrinkled "store clothes," swung aboard.
"I will ride with you for a distance," he said.
We jogged forth side by side at the slow Spanish trot. Hooper called my attention to the buildings of Fort Shafter glimmering part way up the slopes of the distant mountains, and talked entertainingly of the Indian days, and how the young officers used to ride down to his ranch for music.
After a half hour thus we came to the long string of wire and the huge, awkward gate that marked the limit of Hooper's "pasture." Of course the open range was his real pasture; but every ranch enclosed a thousand acres or so somewhere near the home station to be used for horses in active service. Before I could anticipate him, he had sidled his horse skillfully alongside the gate and was holding it open for me to pass. I rode through the opening murmuring thanks and an apology. The old man followed me through, and halted me by placing his horse square across the path of mine.
"You are now, sir, outside my land and therefore no longer my guest," he said, and the snap in his voice was like the crackling of electricity. "Don't let me ever see you here again. You are keen and intelligent. You spoke the truth a short time since. You were right. I tolerate nothing in my place that is not my own--no man, no animal, no bird, no insect nor reptile even--that will not obey my lightest order. And these creatures, great or small, who will not--or even cannot--obey my orders must go--or die. Understand me clearly?
"You have come here, actuated, I believe, by idle curiosity, but without knowledge. You made yourself--ignorantly--my guest; and a guest is sacred. But now you know my customs and ideas. I am telling you. Never again can you come here in ignorance; therefore never again can you come here as a guest; and never again will you pass freely."
He delivered this drily, precisely, with frost in his tones, staring balefully into my eyes. So taken aback was I by this unleashed hostility that for a moment I had nothing to say.
"Now, if you please, I will take both notes from that poor idiot: the one I handed you and the one she handed you."
I realized suddenly that the two lay together in the breast pocket of my shirt; that though alike in tenor, they differed in phrasing; and that I had no means of telling one from the other.
"The paper you gave me I read and threw away," I stated, boldly. "It meant nothing to me. As to any other, I do not know what you are talking about."
"You are lying," he said, calmly, as merely stating a fact. "It does not matter. It is my fancy to collect them. I should have liked to add yours. Now get out of this, and don't let me see your face again!"
"Mr. Hooper," said I, "I thank you for your hospitality, which has been complete and generous. You have pointed out the fact that I am no longer your guest. I can, therefore, with propriety, tell you that your ideas and prejudices are noted with interest; your wishes are placed on file for future reference; I don't give a damn for your orders; and you can go to hell!"
"Fine flow of language. Educated cowpuncher," said the old man, drily. "You are warned. Keep off. Don't meddle with what does not concern you. And if the rumour gets back to me that you've been speculating or talking or criticizing----"
"Well?" I challenged.
"I'll have you killed," he said, simply; so simply that I knew he meant it.
"You are foolish to make threats," I rejoined. "Two can play at that game. You drive much alone."
"I do not work alone," he hinted, darkly. "The day my body is found dead of violence, that day marks the doom of a long list of men whom I consider inimical to me--like, perhaps, yourself." He stared me down with his unwinking gaze.