A Lost Quixote
A LOST QUIXOTE
EARL DERR BIGGERS
"'Maybe you can help me,' he said hopefully.'You’re my last chance.'" LANDLORD “Benny” Sharp of the Crystal Palace Hotel lounged in an ample chair and regarded lovingly three friends of his on the shelf behind the bar. These three were brandy, rum, and gin, all so disreputable and time-stained as to label that Sharp alone knew one from the others.
Turning from an inspection of his three cronies to that portion of Kiowa Junction visible from the window, Mr. Sharp was confronted with a less happy picture. In the merciless blaze of the Arizona sun, the town seemed to crinkle and turn up round the edges. The false fronts of the shacks amiably referred to as “business blocks” drooped as if weary of the pretense they preserved; the squat red station crouched close, seemingly for protection, to the redder water-tank. The scattered adobe houses lay blistering in the heat.
Inevitably this scene of parched desolation drove Mr. Sharp back to his liquid friends on the shelf. Sighing heavily, he pried himself from his chair and toddled behind the bar.
“I say, it's hot,” he muttered, pouring out that which would make him hotter.
“Doc” Haywood, dozing in his accustomed corner, displayed his usual animation at the sound of tinkling glass.
“Hot!” he sympathized. “It's hotter than Tophet.” And then, his discerning eye noting no second glass on the bar, he dropped back into a stupor.
Thus fortified, Landlord Sharp returned to his chair and faced again the dusty prospect from his window. From time to time his thick lips moved in whispered protest against the heat.
MR. SHARP was a sight at which the gods might weep. Beelzebub, flung from heaven, could have fallen no further. His face was that deep shade of red that emotion readily converts to purple. The fire through which he had passed had singed away his eyebrows, leaving mercilessly defenseless before the world a pair of watery eyes long ago washed destitute of color. In that hothouse climate his nose blossomed the year round, regardless of the seasons. Sole testimony of his ancient state, his hands remained thin and girlish, with long, slender fingers, at the sudden sight of which men about to play the faro lay-out in the corner had been known to restore their money to their pockets and turn away.
As Mr. Sharp gazed dully out at the sun-struck town, a bob-tailed train crawled into view and paused wheezily at the station. From this a husky young man alighted, and, after a word with the station agent, climbed the burning street toward the Crystal Palace Hotel.
Mr. Sharp made no move to rise and, in his capacity of landlord, welcome a possible guest. Instead, as the young man mounted the steps, he called out to indicate his whereabouts, and listened as the stranger pounded down the hallway, past the hideous “ladies' parlor,” to appear finally in the bar-room doorway.
“What can I do for you?” Mr. Sharp then inquired.
The young man sank into a chair. Benny Sharp noted that he was big and good to look at, with the manner of one who has spent his days in the open fields of “God's country.”
“Nothing,” he answered. “You can't do nothing. I take the 2.10 train back East.”
“It don't stop here,” grunted Mr. Sharp, parsimonious of words.
“They'll flag it to slow down, and I can grab it, I guess. Yes—I'm goin' back—back home.”
The laws of hospitality seemed to demand of Mr. Sharp some slight interest.
“Where's that?” he inquired languidly.
“Indiana,” returned the boy with feeling. “Say, don't you ever get to longing for a snowstorm out in this furnace? Don't you hanker for a chilly morning, when the wagon wheels creak and your breath's white with the frost?”
It was a disconcerting picture. Mr. Sharp ran his fingers through his hair—a dirty gray in color.
“Now and then,” he admitted. “So you're from Indiana, hey? I've knowed a good many from there in my day.”
The boy leaned forward quickly.
“Maybe you can help me,” he said hopefully. “You're my last chance. I came out here to find a man who left Indiana fifteen years ago. I've tracked him from Seattle down here, and now the trail leads up to Oregon, and my money's gone. So I got to go back—without him. I got to go to her—alone.”
He sat gazing unhappily out, past the huddled shacks of the Junction to the silent desert beyond. Regularly from the corner came the snore of the sleeping Haywood. In sympathy with this somnolence, Mr. Sharp yawned.
“What's the fellow's name?” he inquired.
“Stubbs,” was the answer. “Henry Stubbs, of Greensburg, Indiana.”
MR. SHARP crossed his fat legs, and then, as if he had done it merely to prove that the trick was still in his repertoire, uncrossed them again.
“Seems to me I wouldn't go very far,” he remarked facetiously, “to find a man with a name like Stubbs.”
The boy's eyes flashed.
“You would if you was me!” he cried. “I'd go through hell fire to come face to face with Stubbs. Oh, I'm lookin' for Stubbs, all right. I want to talk to him. I want to say: 'There's a little woman back in Indiana 'd like mighty well to see you, Henry Stubbs. There's a little woman who's been waitin'—waitin' all these long years, with never a word to cheer her, or a dollar to lighten the burden of running that scrawly, played-out farm.'”
He stood up. His cheeks were aflame.
“Yes, I reckon I'm lookin' for Stubbs. I'm lookin' for him to tell him how, every night for fifteen years, when the six thirty-five train from the West has whistled round the bend, she's gone to the door and shaded her eyes with her hand—her hand, that's skinny and ugly, slavin' for the kids he left behind. And I don't need to tell him, I guess, how, every night for fifteen years, she's gone back to her work with a sigh, settin' her hopes twenty-four hours ahead to the next night's train. Yes, sir; I want to see Stubbs. I want to ask him where he's been these fifteen years.”
Mr. Sharp blinked in awed wonder in the face of this outburst.
“What's Stubbs to you?” he in quired, with his first display of interest.
“He's my father,” said the boy, in a lower tone. He sat down again. “I'm Bill—I'm the oldest boy. Five years old I was when he came out here on a get-rich-quick gamble, and since that day, almost, I've had to take his place on the farm. They preach about honorin' your father; but when I think about the load on that woman's heart these fifteen years, I could strangle him on sight.”
“Oh, no,” put in Mr. Sharp pacifically, “Oh, no, now.”
“But I wouldn't,” the boy went on—“for her sake. She wants him. Mortgaged the farm, she did, and sent me out here to find him. She's waitin'. And now the money's gone, and I got to go back—without him. I know how it'll be. The train from the West 'll whistle, and she'll wait in the door—for us. And I'll come down the old Miller road and up the lane past the crooked beech. I'll come—alone.
HIS voice broke, and he turned hastily back to the window. Mr. Sharp pulled out a very dirty handkerchief and passed it lightly over his forehead.
“Stubbs,” he mused thoughtfully. “Stubbs, of Indiana. I don't recall the name.”
“It wouldn't be by name you'd remember him,” the boy said, “He'd change that. Trust him. Always got on his nerves, that name did. No name for a dreamer, nohow.”
“Dreamer?” queried Mr. Sharp.
“Dreamer,” repeated the boy bitterly. “That's what Henry Stubbs was. That was what sent him driftin clear out here, away from a woman a million times too good for him. Read books, he did. His hands was too white for a farm—his soul was too high-toned.”
His voice rose in scorn.
“Started his fool ways when he was a boy. They talk about it yet in Greensburg. Read lyin' books, and pretended he was a knight, or something. Carved himself a shield and a spear, and every night, when work was over, he used to get on my grandfather's old white farm-horse and ride round town for the folks to laugh at. They're laughin' yet—in Greensburg. Used to sweep down on the kids playin' under the street lamps, and scatter them with his bum spear. That's the kind of a fool Henry Stubbs was—an Indiana Quixote, some called him.”
Mr. Sharp's mottled face contorted into a smile.
“A funny kid, sort of,” he commented.
“A fool,” sneered the boy. “Followed his silly notions out here. Wife, children, home–they didn't count with him. Said he was comin' out here to make a fortune. Him—make a fortune! Said he'd come back with a thousand dollars—that's a fortune in Greensburg–or he wouldn't come at all.”
“And he never came?”
“You never heard from him?”
“At first,” said the boy, “he wrote to my mother regular. Said he was doin' well–cuttin' timber in Oregon with a man named Harding. A few months later he wrote that Harding had gone to Portland to sell their lumber, and that when he got his share—two thousand dollars—he was comin' home.”
“The next letter was the last she ever got. It was scrawly—discouraged–sort of—well, pitiful, in a way. You see, this Harding turned out a cur—a mean, contemptible cur. He sold the timber and skipped out with the money. Somehow, that seemed to do my—do Henry Stubbs—all up. He said he was goin' to try again, but there was no heart in his words. He never wrote again. Now and then people from home would send word that they'd run across him out here. Some said there was—another woman.”
HE stopped, and his breath came heavily as he gazed out at the drooping town. In his favorite corner, Doc Haywood still snored lustily. With difficulty the landlord of the Crystal Palace extricated himself from his chair and toddled toward his friends on the shelf. He returned smacking his lips.
“You can't believe all you hear,” he remarked charitably. “If I was you, I wouldn't add any sin on to Henry Stubbs' list I wasn't sure of.”
“I don't intend to,” returned the boy. “She says”—his voice softened—“he was a good man. Keeps sayin' that right along through it all. Says he was a man who loved his home and his family. She blames it all on the West.”
He turned sharply on the landlord of the Crystal Palace.
“What sort of a country is this out here,” he cried, “that makes a coward of an honest man? You yawp about your magnificent distances, and how they draw a man closer to his God. What about their drawin' him a hell of a ways from his wife?”
Mr. Sharp did not, with his accustomed fervor, come to the defense of his vaunted West. Instead he carefully studied the distant station-agent, nodding in the shadow of his shack over his copy of a San Francisco paper a week old. Then he passed his hand tenderly over his ugly chin, red through its bristles.
“I don't recollect,” he said, “that any amateur Quixotes ever strayed across my path out here. But then, you haven't described Henry Stubbs very clear yet.”
“I've just seen his picture myself, to remember,” answered the boy. “She showed it to me the day I left. There in the shabby parlor—her in her old-fashioned black silk in honor of my going—she showed me his picture and talked of him. He was handsome enough, I guess: keen eyes—gray, she said—and curly black hair. Handsome, but the chin was weak.
“She told me he talked like the books he read—always about queer people and places he'd got out of them. Nobody in Greensburg could make him out. “'And every now and then,' she says, 'he'd pass his hand quick before his eyes, like a man brushin' strange dreams away. I'd know him in a million by that,' she says. 'He was a good man, your father was, she says, and I can't believe, somehow, that the years have changed him. If he's dead I want to know it, and if he's alive—I want him back. I love him in spite of all, and I want him back!'”
Mr. Sharp took out a vile-looking cigar, and lighted it.
“Hard luck,” he remarked. “So you got to go back without him—without even news of him. That's tough.”
“It is,” said the boy, “And there's the mortgage to be paid–God knows how that's to be done. And, whether he came back or not, I wanted her to have a little finery, and some comfort, these last years of her life. She's slaved so long—she looks so tired—I wanted her to put on a decent dress and sit down in a chair with a tidy on it, and rest—just rest—to the end of her days. And now——”
The boy sat, his mouth twisted into bitter lines, his eyes fixed on the shacks lying in hot despair on the bosom of the desert. No sound broke the stillness, for Doc Haywood's snore was silenced, and he slept peacefully, his head far forward on his breast. Mr. Sharp, looking at him, envied him his obliviousness to the heat and to the tragic confidences of the youth from Indiana.
IN a spirit of broad hospitality, Mr. Sharp suggested a drink. His offer was brusquely refused—so brusquely, in fact, that he postponed his own visit to the bottle. He had recourse to his dirty handkerchief to cover his disappointment.
Then they sat, silent as the desert, Mr. Sharp seemingly as hot, while minute after minute ticked by, and the hands of the scratched and mutilated clock, back of the gambling lookout's empty chair, crept on toward the hour that must start the boy on his long, unhappy pilgrimage back to Indiana—alone. No sign of life was visible in the picture before them. In the shade of the station the agent was huddled, as soundly asleep as Doc Haywood, over his week old news.
Finally Mr. Sharp rose, and, walking over to the faro layout, examined carefully the little box of cards. Then he glanced back at the boy; but the latter made no sign. Heavily Mr. Sharp plodded on to the roulette wheel, over which his hand passed with the soft caress of a lover.
“Want to try the wheel?” he asked suddenly, a bit startled at the sound of his own voice echoing through the stillness.
The boy laughed harshly.
“Not me,” he said. “I don't care to buy a gold brick, either.”
Mr. Sharp assumed a bearing of offended dignity.
“You think the wheel's fixed,” he said in a hurt tone.
There was no reply.
“They say that—some of 'em,” went on the landlord. “It's a lie. They lose, and then they go away and lie. Your chance is as good as mine.”
“Forget it,” answered the boy. “I've got my ticket and all of eleven dollars besides.”
Mr. Sharp's tone became wheedling. A coaxing smile crept evilly out from its hiding-place in the watery eyes.
“I don't want your money,” he argued softly. “It's just to pass the time—just to forget the heat. It's the excitement I'm after. Always start something. Always have something doing. That's my motto.”
He spun the wheel invitingly.
In his search for Henry Stubbs in strange pastures the boy had gained some knowledge of those who browsed therein. He felt, now, that Benny Sharp spoke the truth—that, obviously, a man whose resort was at regular intervals the scene of wholesale gambling could have no mercenary motive in drawing into a game a boy whose fortune consisted of eleven lone and precious dollars. It was the thrill of the game Sharp craved, the boy decided. He would play with his opponent as a cat with a mouse, stretching the contest over as long a period of time as he could. And why, young Stubbs asked himself, might not the mouse, by some chance, outwit the cat? In Mr. Sharp's bloated face there were no evidences of unconquerable cunning.
T boy rose from his chair and walked over to the wheel, with which Mr. Sharp still toyed fondly.
“I reckon I couldn't be much worse off than I am,” he said. “Give me ten dollars' worth for a starter. I'll keep the dollar for a reserve fund.”
Joy surged into the face of Mr. Sharp as he counted out the chips. He ran his long, thin fingers over the wheel.
“What's the word?” he asked.
“I'll stick to the colors,” said the young man. “I don't understand all this other business. The red to win.” And he threw half his chips upon the table.
There followed a quick movement of Sharp's clever fingers, and the ball spun merrily round the whirling saucer. Hurdle after hurdle it climbed successfully, then it dropped into the ordained cup—which was red.
“Your money,” said Mr. Sharp nonchalantly, pushing to the victor his spoils. “Make your bets. She's going to roll.”
The boy hesitated. “The red again,” he said.
“She rolls,” cried Mr. Sharp. Again the ball cavorted over its course, past one metal hurdle after another. Again it dropped into the cup of the boy's color.
“House loses again,” commented Mr. Sharp, without seeming interest. “Make your bets.”
This time the boy tried the black, with equal success. As the minutes passed it became startlingly evident that the thing called luck was on his side. Only at rare intervals did he lose, and then at times when the sum risked was unusually small. The hands of the dirty clock crept toward train-time, yet the pile of chips before him showed no signs of diminishing.
IT came to him suddenly, that the game was, for some reason, deadly dull. It seemed as if he and the silent Sharp played at gambling, with a rose wood wheel, an ivory ball, and make-believe chips for toys. Sharp's cigar had accommodatingly gone out; but, unlike the gamblers of fiction, he did not hold it between clinched teeth. Any perspiration on his brow was due to climatic conditions, and not to excitement over the game. To the landlord of the Crystal Palace the whole affair seemed a wearisome farce—one that must not end too soon.
A weird suspicion shot through the boy's mind. At the same moment he heard the aged clock wheeze out the hour of two.
“Wait!” he cried, interrupting Mr. Sharp's monotonous chant. “It's just ten minutes of train-time. This is my last stake—all I've got. About eleven hundred there, I guess,”—he gasped a little as he named the sum,—“goes down on the red.”
Without comment, Mr. Sharp spun the wheel. It traveled with exasperating slowness round the whirling saucer. After ages of waiting, it dropped.
“All yours,” said Mr. Sharp calmly. “This is my off day. Too hot to play. Serves me right.”
He waddled to his safe, hidden behind the bar. With an unhappy grunt, he stooped and brought forth a large roll of bills, many of which had yellow backs.
“There's your twenty-two hundred,” he said in a moment, placing the roll on the bar. “You better count it yourself, to make sure. You see, I ain’t-” He stopped, for he had caught sight of the boy's face.
"'Don’t stare at me like that. Go back to her. Stubbs is dead'"
WITH young Bill Stubbs the weird suspicion of a moment before had become a bitter reality. He laughed—a harsh, unnatural laugh. His hand shook as he pushed the bills back toward Mr. Sharp.
“It's not your money she wants!” he cried. “It's not your money she watches for each night on that train from the West. It's you!”
Mr. Sharp turned a startled gaze on the boy.
“What d'ye mean?” he asked roughly.
“I'm no fool,” the boy answered. “I "know well enough no man walks away from here with twenty-two hundred of your money unless you want him to have it. I'm no fool—I can see all this pretty plain. You gave me this money—gave it to me! Yes; it's a little gift from Henry Stubbs—a little gift from father!”
“What are you talking about?” whined Benny Sharp. “The wheel's straight. You won the money. You're crazy! What are you talking about?”
“God knows, there's little enough of the Henry Stubbs she told me of in you,” broke in the boy. “I don't see the keen eyes—nor the black hair. I don't see the handsome face. I don't hear the talk out of books. I've got nothing to go by—nothing—except twenty-two hundred dollars you've made me a present of. And that's enough, I guess.”
“You run for your train,” urged Mr. Sharp. “You got just five minutes to catch——”
“Don't fool yourself,” the boy interrupted, “I'm not catching trains just now. I think you're Henry Stubbs, and I'm not leaving Kiowa Junction till I get the truth.”
“You're a young fool,” Sharp expostulated. “I ain't your dad. All this is a joke, if we just had time to laugh. But we ain't—you got a train to catch. I ain't your father. Do I look like a dreamy-eyed wanderer from Indiana to you?”
“I should say not!” answered the boy. “No, I don't see it myself. But tell me one thing: who else besides Henry Stubbs would want to make me a present of twenty-two hundred dollars? Tell me that, if you can.”
MR. SHARP stood for a moment; then suddenly he snatched the roll of bills from the bar and thrust it into the hands of the boy.
“I'll tell you!” he cried, his words rushing out in a torrent. “I'll tell you, and then you hike for that train. There's one other man besides Henry Stubbs might want to give you money. How about Harding? How about Harding—the dog who stole from your dad the money he'd sweat blood for—who stopped him from keeping his honest promise to go back to the woman he loved—who started him on the road to-to his death? Don't stare at me like that. You got a train to catch, boy. Go back to her. Stubbs is dead—he died in the Yukon. Hurry. Go back——”
THE train was whistling over the desert, and the agent had started up the track with his flag as Sharp pushed the bewildered boy down the steps. For a second the young man stood gazing at him, and then, without a word, he turned and ran toward the station. Sharp stood watching him as he snatched the old carpet-bag from the platform and swung safely aboard the train. He remained watching until the great black snake had crawled far out into the desert's blaze.
Then he returned to the bar-room, a half-smile on his mottled face, and roughly shook Doc Haywood.
“Wake up, Doc!” he shouted. “Wake up and have a drink.”
Mr. Haywood, having quickly digested this invitation, stood instantly at attention before the bar. Mr. Sharp hastened behind it, and then stood for a moment, facing the three bottles with an unusually serious face.
“Brandy, rum, or gin?” He turned to Haywood. “Which windmill shall we tackle, Sancho? They always put us down and out. They always throw us. And we always come back for another scrap. Which shall it be?”
“What the hell?” began the uncomprehending Haywood.
“Don't mind me,” said Sharp. “I'm wandering, Doc: I've got a bum spear and a white horse—I can hear the thud of his hoofs in the dust.”
“I've got 'em again,” he muttered.
And he passed his hand quickly before his eyes, as a man who brushes strange dreams away.