The Mantle of Red Evans
THE MANTLE OF RED EVANS
BY HUGH PENDEXTER
AUTHOR OF "THE BREAKING-OUT OF CLAB PETERS," ETC.
AFTER singing off the stage at Sandville, he paused in front of the express office, and for a moment gazed up and down the street. The only other passenger had briskly crossed to McCarty's Hotel, and was now entering. Brushing the red hair back from his forehead, and squaring his dusty shoulders, he followed her, only he selected the door opening into the bar.
The transient population of the town was fairly large, owing to the mines, and no particular attention was paid to the newcomer, except as the driver pointed after him and confided to the express agent:
"That chap is hungry. Watch him! But the little piece of calico can take care of herself."
The observation in regard to the male passenger was borne out as soon as he entered the bar. After eying the big man in the soiled apron speculatively, he advanced to the sawdust border in front of the footrest, and stated:
"I'm broke. I want a glass of milk and a couple of sandwiches. I'm expecting money through the mail to-night, and will square up as soon as I get it."
As if this statement eliminated all possible objections to his receiving credit, he rested his back and elbows against the bar, hooked one heel over the foot-rail, and stared curiously through the open doorway into the general living-room, or office.
For several moments there was a silence, while the half-dozen loungers softly set down their glasses and stiffened to enjoy the expected drama. It required a certain period of time for the insolence of the stranger's offhand request to penetrate the slow intellect of the man behind the apron. The bartender was an autocrat, who could give carelessly on an impulse, or suspiciously bestow drinks when the suppliant was adequately abject. But this was different; and as his customers interpreted the passion empurpling his broad face, they frowned and scowled at the stranger's unheard temerity. The newcomer, meanwhile, seemed to be absorbed in his study of the inner room.
The bartender reached his apogee of resentment. He slowly removed his apron, to the applause of a general, expectant grin. He loved this homage of the always thirsty, although at times he pretended to brush it aside. Now he accepted it with a promise in his eyes; and, stepping behind the stranger, and thrusting forward his sullen jaw, he clapped a hand on the dusty shoulder and in a low, jarring voice demanded:
"Who'n thunder be you?"
The stranger's blue eyes never ceased staring at the open door, nor did he seem to sense the menacing hand gripping his shoulder and twitching nervously, preliminary to spinning him about.
"Who'n thunder be you to come around here a giving off orders as if you was a Vanderbilt?" rumbled the bartender, bracing his left hand against the bar.
"I'm Red Evans, from down Culhoes way," quietly replied the stranger, without shifting his position or diverting his gaze.
The bartender's hand dropped to the bar with a thud, and his portly form sagged limply as he found voice to falter:
For the fraction of a moment the onlookers stared stonily, while their smiles vanished. One by one they became deeply and gravely interested in their drinks.
"I—'scuse me, Mr. Evans. You wanted what?" mumbled the bartender, his hand shaking as he made a pretense of wiping the bar.
"Milk—sandwiches—on tick," yawned the stranger.
"Yes, sir. In a second, sir," cried the bartender, hastily resuming his apron. "And mighty proud I be, Mr. Evans, to serve the man who laid out the Dutch Twins and the—"
"Let's cut all that," suggested the young man, quickly facing the bar, his mouth straightening.
"You bet your boots!" hurriedly acquiesced the bartender, humbly ducking his head.
Trotting to the ice-box, he produced a ham and cheese, and deftly prepared several sandwiches of unorthodox thickness. The young man's eyes twinkled humorously as he viewed the plate. Quickly falling to, he began eating with a snapping click of his strong teeth that might have suggested to more fastidious company the hurried mastication of a dog.
"Can't I serve you with some prime old rye, or some fine brandy, sir?" coaxed the bartender. "I'd say wine, but it's all cheap stuff and not up to your class."
"No, thanks," refused the young man, brushing his hands on his handkerchief. "But you can give the boys a drink and charge it to my account. I shall be stopping here for the night."
"You bet I will!" cried the bartender, overjoyed at an opportunity to oblige. "When the man who snuffed out—" But the warning narrowing of the blue eyes caused the rest of the encomiastic assertion to find a grave in the rattle of glasses and bar-ware.
"Red Evans, eh?" half whispered one of the men. "Thought he'd look older."
"He's the greatest gun-fighter on earth," babbled the bartender. "Never touches nothing but milk, so's to keep his nerve." Reverently holding up the milk glass, he addressed it, rejoicing. "And to think at last Sandville can put it over Cross Tree and Tibtown! Say, fellers, there's been times when I've been ashamed of my profession, when, night after night, I've stood here and took dirt from the Tibtown and Cross Tree bad men. I tell ye, it was on them times I wished I was in another profession, or that a man like Red Bvans could just step in and regulate things!"
All in the room had heard much about Evans. Undoubtedly rumor had grossly exaggerated his cruel prowess, and planted five men where, of a verity, there reposed but one. Yet, even when shorn of its unearned increment, his reputation was sufficient to satisfy a dozen gun-fighters. No one knew whence he came originally. The incendiary hue of his hair was responsible for his nickname; but if ever the appellative was used as a mark of derision, that day had long since passed.
Thus far, his killings had been confined to a type of nuisance whose demise could scarcely be regretted by organized society. Therefore, while theoretically frowning upon the various takings-off, the law had refused to meddle with his pistol-toting life, and sheriffs and United States marshals were proud to claim his friendship.
As this was his first visit to Sandville, or its vicinity, the excitement soon seethed and found vent in much half-fearful speculation.
"Who is there in town he can be after?" shivered the express agent's clerk luxuriously.
"I'll betcha he's heard of Big Rennon and his bragging ways over to Cross Tree, and he's gunning for him," suggested another to the bartender.
"I'll bet it's One-Eyed Brown, down to Tibtown," declared a mine foreman.
"No one can't tell nothing about it," replied the bartender, openly admiring the hand that had roughly seized Mr. Evans's shoulder. "I only know his coming here is about the biggest thing that could have happened to the town. Did you see them eyes? Like two blue steel gimlets."
"Wonder where he carries his gun?" muttered the express clerk.
"Ye're welcome to find out. I ain't curious enough to go prospecting for it," loudly assured the mine foreman.
The bartender condescended to explain.
"Some say he carries it in his side-pocket in a sling. Others say he totes it under his left armpit, inside his vest. Mebbe he carries two. All's I know is that no man can pull an' fire quicker'n he can. Old Pop Darling, who croaked last spring, seen him pot the Dutch Twins. He said the Twins was gunning for Red, and caught him napping. They had him covered, he standing kind of gawky-like." The speaker paused to illustrate the alleged posture of Mr. Evans when taken unawares. "Mind you, both his mitts was empty and a hanging by his side; but just as the Twins was going to pull trigger, there come a bang, bang, and the Twins was down and out."
While this anecdote was followed by a score of others, until a flood of reminiscences was engulfing the bar from end to end, Mr. Evans was impatiently pacing the length of the living-room. He had observed the coming of the woman with more than ordinary interest. When he took his outside seat on the stage, he had caught a glimpse of her slender figure inside. While walking up Flag Hill, he had sought to talk with her through the window, thinking that she was a child. She had repulsed his advances, and he retreated to the box in confusion, realizing that she was a woman.
"She's in here somewhere," he mused, halting before a door that but thinly held back the accumulated odors of past dinners.
Even as he stood there, the door opened, and she stood before him.
She was diminutive in stature, and her hair, a glorious rich red, coiled maturely about her small head, could not offset the impression that she was but a child. Perhaps this fancy was accented more by her eyes than by her slight figure; for they were large and innocently blue, and stared unblinking, with the unconscious frankness of immaturity.
As Evans fell back and gravely surveyed her, she briskly advanced and demanded:
"Are you stopping here?"
"I expect to be a guest," he replied, twisting his hat between his fingers.
"Then register, please, so that I can have the man show you your room. I am Mr. McCarty's new manager."
"His manager?" he cried, astonishment vying with admiration. "Why, I shouldn't say you are—you're different from most managers!"
"Meaning that I am undersized," she coldly observed. "However, I am quite proficient, Mr. McCarty believes, and I am not required to show my credentials to transients. You'll find the register on the shelf."
Evans's face matched his hair, and his eyes evaded her cold, steady gaze as he awkwardly explained.
"Perhaps I have no right to register. I'm broke. I've got money coming, but I'm broke."
"Who are you?" she asked.
He hesitated and glanced down at his hat, and an apologetic tone crept into his voice as he countered:
"Does it make any difference what name I register? This is a hotel, isn't it?"
"You seem to be mighty much afraid that you'll be taking some chances, for a man who is broke," she replied.
"I'm Red Evans," he shortly confessed, meeting her gaze squarely.
She stared at him wild-eyed for several seconds, her head thrown back as if top-heavy under the mass of burning coils.
"Evans—the gun-fighter!" at last she gasped.
Her emotion, misconstrued by him, restored some of his old assurance, and with the leisurely deportment of the barroom he nodded an affirmative.
Instantly her agitation vanished. Her small figure was drawn up to its fullest possibilities as she sternly told him:
"being broke wouldn't prevent your stopping here, as many good men get down on their luck in this rough-and-tumble country. But no gun-man comes here. You must look for lodgings elsewhere."
His jaw dropped, then clinched, as he sneered:
"I didn't know this was a Y. M. C. A. joint."
"It's a hotel," she simply returned, "not a dueling-ground. I was hired by Mr. McCarty to run this place after several men failed. I was running his Upland Springs hotel, and he reckons I'll do. Anyway, what I say goes. Nothing doing in your case, Mr. Evans!"
Her incisiveness and finality appealed to his admiration, in spite of his chagrin.
"All right, Miss Manager," he surrendered, a smile softening his mouth.
He turned to the door. She watched him with troubled eyes, and as his hand rested on the knob her fingers plucked at the bosom of her dress.
"Wait a moment, please," she cried, following him. "I don't like to see you broke. You can't stop here, but I'll stake you."
"Thanks," he hoarsely replied, clasping his hands behind him. "I'm not in the habit of taking hand-outs from reformers or—children. Good-by!"
Ordinarily, the coming of Miss Holt as manager of the hotel would have caused much gossip. In truth, it should have crowded the bar with the curious: but to the average masculine Sandville mind, this innovation of a woman manager was overshadowed by the presence of Red Evans.
During the brief life of the town the citizens had sadly felt the want of a successful bad man. Almost every Saturday night the shining lights of Cross Tree and Tibtown invaded the defenseless hamlet and crowded the walk from saloon to saloon, with none to deny them their blustering pleasure. In the early days there had been talk of importing some renowned trigger-fighter to relieve the citizens from submitting to the week-end insults; but as time passed, and the insulted became somewhat inured to the visitations of Big Rennon and One-Eyed Brown, the situation gradually was accepted as being inevitable. Now all was changed. Could Sandville have had its pick from the whole West, no happier choice could have been made than Red Evans.
As a consequence, on the first Saturday night after his arrival, the hotel bar was crowded with a quiet, expectant throng, and the small manager figured in no way in the whispered conversation.
Undoubtedly One-Eyed Brown had decided that it were discretion to remain away. Not so with Big Rennon. Inflamed with repeated visits to the bottle, and urged on by his friends, he entered the bar at his usual hour, prefacing his arrival by a series of shrill whoops in the street.
"Full of fettle and poor licker," shuddered Fat, the bartender, looking anxiously about. "And Mr. Evans ain't here!"
As the door burst open, and Rennon swaggered in across the threshold, he held his two guns half raised, as if anticipating an ambush. Behind him leered his followers, with hands on weapons. One sweeping glance over the cowering crowd reassured the leader, however, and with a grunt of disgust he replaced his guns and drawled to his followers:
"Reckon some one put him wise I was coming. Well, let's licker up. Drinks are on the house, I take it!"
"What's your particular fancy, Mr. Rennon?" the bartender was shivering, when a strange hush fell over the gathering and caused him to glance about even as he was reaching for the bottle.
Red Evans, his hands empty, was brushing aside the Cross Tree contingent and was approaching the exultant giant.
"What'll ye have? Name yer pi'zen, boys. The best in the house! Whoopee! Only don't let me see no Sandville cur a drinking at the bar while I'm here!"
"Remove the bottles, bartender," Evans's low voice broke in at Rennon's elbow. As the giant whirled, reaching for his gun, Evans softly advised: "Don't!"
Then he walked to the door leading into the living-room, and closed it. As he turned back, Rennon was standing half crouched, his right hand at his hip, glaring nervously at his rival. Evans deliberately approached until he could tap the tense, hairy hand to accent his words. Then he said:
"Mr. Rennon, you have been drinking too much. It is time you and your friends returned home. Will you go quietly, or shall I send you over by express on tomorrow's stage?"
For nearly a minute the two held the tableau, the crowd frozen like statues. Then, to the great joy of the Sandville men, and to the amazement of the visitors, the hairy hand crept away from the holster, empty, and Rennon's form seemed to shrink and shrivel. At last he mumbled:
"We only wanted a drink."
"None here to-night for you," Evans told him, kindly but firmly. "The road to Cross Tree is waiting for you."
Slowly wheeling, and with head bowed, the giant passed through the door, his friends silently trailing behind him.
"Hooray!" led off the stage-driver.
Brave as lions now, the Sandville men made the glasses ring with a pæan of victory. Evans was sidling to the outer door when a small hand detained him. Glancing down, he gazed into the flushed face of the little manager.
"Step into the office, please," she requested. "I have something to say to you."
As he followed her, he closed the door to keep out the swelling clamor; nor did any one have the hardihood to open it.
"You want to thank me for driving that bully away from your hotel," he said, smiling good-naturedly. "You need not trouble. It was nothing for me to do."
"You are mistaken," she replied, a new note ringing in her voice. "I want to remind you that I am the boss of this hotel, and am able to bounce all the Cross Tree toughs that I don't want here. You are not to make this your stamping-ground again. If you have any appointments with fire-eaters, please keep them elsewhere. Don't come in here again. Do you catch me?"
His face went white as he leaned against the wall and breathed heavily. Finally, in a broken voice, he said:
"You forbid me the place, eh? And ever since you drove me from here I've called each day, only for the sake of getting a glimpse of you. I first saw you on the stage. I followed you in here to see you again. There isn't another woman on earth I'd go across the street to see; but you—you—I can't explain it!"
The color receded from her small, oval face, and she looked up into his eyes almost sadly as she said:
"I know you've been here to see me. I have kept out of your way. Can't you see, if you were the last man on earth, you couldn't come to see me if you were one of two things—either a liar or a gun-fighter?"
"A—a—liar!" he winced.
"Now I know you won't come to see me any more, or bother me in any way, will you?" she continued, in a voice which had become very gentle.
"Can't I fix it? Can't I explain?" he whispered. "I've seen you every day, although you didn't know it. I've bribed the bartender to let me watch you as you directed work in the kitchen. It was a mean trick, but I had to see you. It's only to catch a glimpse of you that I'm staying in this town. I got my money that night, plenty of it. I should have moved on the next day, but I couldn't. My heart was starving. I've been feeding it on thoughts of you. Don't turn me down this time, or I'll be broke in earnest. Stake me for tomorrow—tell me that I may call and explain!" His soul was in his voice as he begged thus.
"There is nothing to explain," she faintly whispered.
"There is!" he cried, raising his hands above his head and clinching them. "There's this to explain—I love you!"
"She says she's busy and can't see yez," declared the stout Norah, her Celtic face showing pity for the young man who had waited for many minutes in the stuffy little parlor.
"Tell her that I'm going away—that I'll never bother her again," the visitor pleaded. "Lay it on strong, Norah."
"Arrah, it's a shame she won't see yez," said Norah, highly indignant. "She's that tiny I'll pick her up under me arm and bring her here, even if I lose me job for it, Mr. Evans."
As he moodily waited, and became convinced that Norah was unsuccessful in her quest, his face became haggard in despair. In the agony of his meditations he failed to note the rapidly increasing crowd of men in front of the hotel. He had eyes only for the door through which he was praying that she would enter. Consequently, he was astounded to feel a rough hand on his shoulder, to behold a bloated, hairy face close to his, and to gaze into a pair of bloodshot eyes, thatched with dirty reddish brows.
"Stand up on yer pins, ye dude!" growled the intruder, poking the muzzle of a forty-four against the young man's throat.
Evans mechanically obeyed, his gaze unflinching, but his thoughts still with the girl.
"When I hearn tell ye was passing yeself off as Red Evans," continued the newcomer, "I hustle over here to show ye up. I'm Red Evans! I wanted to see the pup that had the nerve to make believe he was me. And to find a slim cuss like you, no bigger'n a tinker's dam! I'm ashamed to do it. I wish ye was a man growed!"
"You are Red Evans?" whispered the young man, resting his hands behind him on a table.
"I be," roared the other, flourishing the revolver. "And I'm here to make ye answer for yer nerve. To t'ink of ye making believe ye was the real Simon pure R. E.! A man of your size pretending to be a gen'leman! I've told the gang outside I was going to drag ye out by the heels! D'ye understand?"
Before the young man could frame a reply, there came a swish and a swirl of skirts, and the small manager stood between them, her hands clinched on her hips, her eyes flashing and flaring into the astounded ruffian's face.
"You cur!" she gritted between her teeth. "So you are Red Evans, eh?"
"Gawd! I didn't know ye was here!" he cried in a whining tone.
"If you speak another word you'll leave Sandville a dead man," she cautioned, advancing upon him as he retreated toward the door, and each word coming like the cut of a whip. "Unbuckle those guns—quick!"
He made to speak, but the threat in her eyes stopped him, and with trembling fingers he unfastened his belt. Then she turned to the young man and explained:
"This man, who claims to be Red Evans, is Bill Rogers, sluice-thief, horse-thief, cattle-thief, and several other kinds of a thief! There are a dozen ropes hungry for his worthless neck." Wheeling on the cowering Mr. Rogers, she continued: "If you value your worthless life, don't let the men outside know a woman took your guns away. You say it was Red Evans that did it, or I'll speak loud. Git!"
As the man backed from the room, she broke the guns, scattering the cartridges over the floor. Handing the weapons to the stupefied youth, she said with a bitter laugh:
"I happen to know Bill Rogers far south of here. He didn't expect to meet me in Sandville. But you'd better keep up the farce and toss the guns into the street."
He dropped them at his feet, and in a low, scarcely audible voice confessed:
"I am not Red Evans."
"I have known that for some time," she quietly remarked, a trace of a sneer in her voice.
"I am not a gun-fighter," he continued. "I was forced to travel out here for my health. I have never carried, or fired, a revolver in my life. My name is Evans. One night T was taken for the notorious Red Evans. It saved me from a bully. I found that wherever I was mistaken for him, my life was made easy for me. It seemed no harm for me to accept the protection of his name. I only intended to pass through here and return where such deceits are not necessary. I saw you, and I had to stay. I also had to keep up the miserable sham. I came here to-day to tell you the truth. I had hoped you would allow me to love you. I am not a gun-fighter. I am no longer a fraud- But I can see you think me what is worse than either—a coward. I'll find this—"
"Quit that," she broke in in a wailing voice. She approached close to him, bowing her head in her hands. "I've been praying that you might be what you are, I knew you weren't Red Evans; but you had so much nerve with Big Rennon I thought you must be a gun-man. I was happy when Bill Rogers poked you around with the gun, and I could see you were green at the game, or you'd have had him a dozen times. And as I began to hope, I stepped in. I—I'm tired of gun-fighting. I would like to live where men don't tote 'em. I want to meet kindly people, who think of something else. I—"
"Then love me and marry me, and leave here and meet kindly people as my wife," he passionately pleaded.
She slowly removed her hands, and, unashamed of her tears, studied him anxiously.
"I—I can—trust you?" she timidly whispered. "I—I liked you at sight. I sort of cried after you wouldn't let me stake you."
"Then you'll love me?" he exulted, half stretching out his arms.
"I reckon I do now—a little," she whimpered.
"But how did you know I wasn't Red Evans?" he remembered to ask as they sat side by side on the haircloth sofa.
"Red Evans was my father," she explained. "His real name was Holt. He died two months ago at Culhoes. His friends kept his death a secret, as he left many enemies who might annoy me if they knew I was alone in the world. McCarty was his friend. My father got a reputation as a bad man by accident—in defending my mother from insult. He had to live up to his reputation or be killed. He always warned me against men who carry guns. He was my father, and I'm proud of him and his fearless life, and he left me enough fighting blood to supply a whole family."
"You'll make me the best little wife in the world!" he ecstatically cried.
"I'll make you a good husband," she stoutly assured him.
"And you'll forgive me for trying to play the diplomat?"
"I have forgiven you already," she replied. Then she mused: "Only father used to spell it with four letters!"