The Soft Side of Hate
By F. R. Bechdolt.
IT WAS flaring noontide in the month of June. At Bitter Wells no sign of life showed out of doors. The two flat-roofed adobe buildings which the stage company had erected to house its employees and stock looked as lonely as the dismal pair of wooden headboards which cast sharp shadows on the arid sand across the road; and, like those nameless graves, they betrayed no further evidence than their own silent presence, of humankind, alive or dead.
As usual the west-bound stage was late. Within the room at one end of the longer adobe, where he sold lukewarm whisky to such luckless travelers as happened to be marooned here, the station-keeper announced that patent fact.
Ignoring the remark, Wes Carter jerked his thumb to indicate the brown bottle behind the little bar.
“Pass over that rat pisen,” he growled; and when the other had complied he drank alone.
He did not look like one accustomed to taking his liquor without company. He was a burly man, and behind his bigness there was a rough aggressiveness which was evident in every strand of his disordered flaxen hair—the sort of man who owns no subtlety, who is equally ready for fight or frolic, but in either case demands whole-hearted participation from the others present. Just now, however, his blue eyes were puckered to two gleaming pin points and his thick jaw was set unpleasantly. An hour ago, when he had alighted from the Silver City stage, which met the main line at this point, the station-keeper had noticed that he was limping slightly.
It might have been the roughness of the ride down from Silver that had brought on the irk of the old wound. Of late it had been recurring less often than before; but whenever weariness or a change of weather caused the leaden slug which he was carrying to make its presence felt, the result was the same: Wes Carter ceased to be good natured. He was a single-purposed individual and invariably, when his leg was aching, his thoughts centered on a promise which he had made himself that some day he would meet the man who had fired that shot.
The story of the affair was three years old now. At its inception in the country west of the Pecos, there was a rule—it was one of the few rules of God or man which got observance in that wild valley—amounting to this: no matter what it was that you began, once you had started, you saw it through.
At that time, when the two of them first came together, they did not like each other’s looks and said as much; but the incompatibility lay deeper than the skin. There was something about Wes Carter’s hot aggressiveness which set Tom Pierce on edge. He was the younger of the pair, this Pierce, dark-haired and handsome, smooth of movement and quiet in his speech. Somehow these things were an offense to Carter.
And so the two, whom other men liked well, could not like each other. And at Seven Rivers they quarreled openly over the ownership of a red silk handkerchief which neither of them really wanted. But the outfit was working a trail herd through hostile territory and, when the lie was passed, the wagon boss stepped in between them.
“You boys are here to fight John Chisum’s cow thieves and not each other,” he reminded them. “If there is any more of this before we pass Fort Sumner, I’ll take a hand in it myself.” So the feud was laid aside for the time being and when the herd was crossing below the Bosque Grande Tom Pierce’s horse fell on him, which put him in the list of non-combatants for the summer.
During the next few months fate so willed it that their employers belonged to hostile factions in the cattle war which was aging in the valley; and, though neither of them got a chance to line his sights on the other during the skirmishing, each of them lost a friend at the other’s hands. Wherefore it came that on the night when they met in Puerto de Luna—a winter night and sow was on the ground—the wind which rushed down from the gaunt hills was not so bitter as their enmity.
The encounter took place in old Griselkowski’s store. A Mexican sheepherder was drawing doleful music from an accordion. Five or six men were engrossed at monte-bank in a corner of the room. Wes Carter was standing by the bar when Tom Pierce entered, seeking him.
The music droned to a stop. The monte players glanced around. So for an instant before musician and gamblers plunged toward such shelter as they could find—an instant during which two enemies were whipping forth their weapons—they faced each other, looking each into the other’s eyes. The incompatibility of their appearance had never seemed so marked.
What followed took but little time. The heavy reports of the big caliber revolvers were deafening in that close place. The air shook and the glasses on the back-bar tinkled with the concussions. The smoke of black powder spread under the low ceiling, hazing the forms of the combatants.
From the beginning they were weaving from side to side, each striving to keep himself from being a target and, at the same time, centering his faculties on putting a bullet into the other. To those who watched behind the flimsy barricades of chairs and overturned tables it was immediately evident that there was no spot within the room which was safe.
And so old Griselkowski—with as much of an eye to his own glassware as to the lives of himself and others—seized the first favorable opportunity to shoot out the light.
Twice each man’s finger had pressed the trigger. Now, when the darkness put an end to marksmanship, Tom Pierce was leaning against the wall; Wes Carter was lying on the floor, striving to prop himself up with one arm. The voice of the proprietor broke the silence.
“The’s eighteen buckshot in each of these barrels. First man that moves is going to get ’em.” With his left hand the speaker scratched a match and by the light of the wavering flame revealed the sawed off shotgun, which he was resting on the bar. That settled it. The bystanders disarmed the two combatants; the whisky glasses were secure and fatalities were once more postponed.
For some time, however, that last point was not established. Tom Pierce’s wounds were neither of them serious. Friends plugged the bullet holes with axle grease and by the coming of the first grass he was in the saddle again. That June he departed from the valley, leaving his enemy as good as dead behind him. So men said, and so he believed.
But Wes Carter was as tough as sundried rawhide, and the Mexican herb doctor, who was drenching his system with evil-smelling infusions, had the satisfaction of seeing the fever pass at last. The rent in his left lung began to heal. The broken leg bone started to knit. During the hot days of early summer the patient grew well enough to curse the flies. By autumn he was limping about. Winter found him following his calling, as good as ever save for an occasional stiffness in his broken leg and, at such times, a marked sullenness in his demeanor. It was his custom, when the irk of the leaden slug was upon him, to assure himself that the world was not so wide after all—the day was coming when he would find Tom Pierce again. That was in his mind this morning while he waited for the west bound stage.
The old Concord came rattling in at last. While the stock tenders were unhooking the sweating horses and bringing up the fresh team, Wes Carter remained in the little barroom. Here was some semblance of coolness and the benignancy of shade; he would have to spend time enough within the overheated coach at best. So he came forth at the last moment when the half-broken bronchos were scuffling in their traces with four men hanging to the leaders’ bits. From his seat where he was doing his best to restrain the plunging wheelers the driver nodded down at him.
“Make it lively,” he growled. “We ain’t got all day.”
Wes Carter opened the door, flung in his scanty luggage and, just as the team was surging forward, dived headlong after it. From the moment of their release the horses were doing their best to wreck the clumsy vehicle; the coach body was swinging on its strap springs like a small boat in a heavy sea. As he scrambled on all fours among several valises which were assailing him from all sides at once, he became conscious of another passenger. He flung himself upon the nearest seat and looked about him. Then he discovered that his companion was a girl.
She was sitting beside him, with her feet braced against the floor, holding herself well back in the corner. Her eyes met his; they were soft brown eyes and the light of mirth was dancing in them. The color deepened in her cheeks as she strove to stifle the amusement which his headlong entrance had aroused. She was a pretty little thing, hardly beyond her teens, and she looked as out of place in this dusty stage as a spray of apple blossoms.
A man’s thoughts, if he be accustomed to action, move swiftly in emergencies. Wes Carter said no word but, rising to his feet—the while he steadied himself with one hand against the lurchings of the coach—he passed the other hand before his lips. Having thus, with an expedition born of long practise, removed the chew of tobacco which he had been cherishing within his cheek, he tossed it through the open window and sank down upon the opposite seat.
Somehow or other in the moment of his entrance he had managed to twist the wounded leg and the old scar was worse than ever. Unconsciously he scowled; his eyes two pin points of gleaming blue. With all his heart he wished he were alone. And if he must have a companion, why could it not, he asked himself, have been a man?
The dust was spurting through the narrow spaces beside the drawn curtains. The crashing of the iron tires, the jingle of the harness and the thunder of the hoofs continued to mingle in an angry cacophony. The stage body careened crazily. Now and again, when one of the wheels met an obstruction, there came a lurch which tossed both passengers about like bits of flotsam in a rapids.
But runaways were a regular occurrence along the El Paso-Yuma stage line and women passengers were not. The changes of disaster did not disturb Wes Carter as much as the presence of this girl. She had stopped smiling now and the amusement had fled from her eyes; but the memory of it made his cheeks grow hot.
Once, when the driver swerved his horses sharply, she shot forward into his arms. For a bare instant he held her, feeling the softness of her, the warmth of her breath against his cheek; and when he had helped her back into her place his brow was furrowed. His eyes wore a puzzled expression. His sullenness departed for the time.
“No need,” he said, “to be a-scared. They’ll steady down directly.” It was his intention to reassure her, but the speech seemed like an admonition. She pressed her lips together bravely.
“Oh, I’m getting used to it. They’ve run away at nearly every change.”
For some moments he sat there scowling at the floor. At last, when he had weighed his words to his complete satisfaction,
“Yo’ have come fur?” he asked.
“El Paso,” she told him. “I’m going on to Chiricahua.”
There was a shyness in the manner of her saying it which disarmed him still further of his anger; and it was now in his mind to tell her that he too was on his way to the new camp which was springing up in the Arizona mountains; but when he started to speak it occurred to him that this might sound presumptuous on his part. So he drew back into his corner and remained silent. The lines deepened between his brows. He rubbed the place where Tom Pierce’s forty-five caliber slug was imbedded in his muscles. Gradually the violence of motion was subsiding.
“They’ve steadied down at last.” The girl was smiling at him. Wes Carter nodded.
“Yes, ma’am, we’re climbing up into them little mountains. They’ll be tame enough now, I reckon.”
The noise had died away; the steady creaking of the coach body on its strap hinges was the loudest sound. She settled back into her corner; her eyelids were beginning to droop. Wes Carter sat bolt upright staring before him. And now his own eyes narrowed; his heavy face grew darker. The ache in his leg showed no sign of diminishing. He wished with all his heart that he were alone. When she awoke from a brief doze she found him regarding the floor with knitted brows.
“We aren’t very sociable,” she said. “I reckon maybe yo’ are tired the same as me.
He flushed before her gaze and the implication of his own ungraciousness.
“Yes, ma’am,” he growled. “I be.”
Two or three times thereafter she strove to make conversation, but when Nature had fashioned Wes Carter she had in mind no idea of the amenities of social intercourse. More than once he found himself striving to find words to which to shape his lips, but invariably by the time he had discovered something to say, it seemed too late. So he sat there in silent misery, his blue eyes puckered and the scowl between his brows. Now and again, as habit reasserted itself, his hand went to his pocket, seeking his chewing tobacco, only to come forth empty when it had found the plug. Once, when he looked up to see her struggling with the window beside her, he sprang to his feet and raised the sash. It occurred to him then that she was a frail little thing to be traveling alone in this harsh land.
At Stein’s, while they were stopping for the change of horses, the two passengers sat down to supper in the bullet-scarred adobe building where the station keeper and his stock tenders used to stand an occasional siege from bands of renegade Apaches. The meal began in dreary silence; and the atmosphere of gloom grew thicker when Wes Carter discovered himself drinking the coffee which he had cooled in his saucer. While he was still in the throes of this embarrassment she fell back on the timeworn subject of the weather.
“I reckon,” she was saying, “there’s a thunderstorm gathering in the mountains.”
“I reckon so,” he replied.
“Why, yo’ are from Texas too,” she cried.
“I was raised on the Nueces,” he told her.
“And I have kinfolks in that country.” She showed the happiness of her discovery in her eyes. They lingered at the table, talking of familiar places until the driver’s voice came to them bidding them to hasten forth.
The mountains were turning deep purple in the twilight when they came out to resume their places in the stage. Northward and to the west great banks of black clouds were gathering; at intervals sharp crooked lines of lightning flashed across them; the rumble of the distant thunder was like a long roll. He glanced at the girl and noticed the dark circles of weariness beneath her eyes.
“She’d like it better ef she was alone to-night,” Wes Carter told himself. To her he said nothing, but when she had entered the coach, he climbed up beside the driver and settled down to make the best of it.
Before they were half way over the pass the rain came, a desert downpour as fierce as the hot sunshine of the day, as sudden as a blow from behind. One moment they were in the sultry dusk; then, with no more warning than a brief puff of cool wind, the darkness descended upon them and the skies unloosed their floods. The air trembled with the crashing of the thunder. At times a report, mere stunning than the others, seemed to shake the hills.
The six horses stretched out in a wild gallop with gleaming sheets of water streaming from their backs. And once they saw thin rivulets of blue fire twining down the slope beside them, lapping the naked boulders. So for two hours they rode, with backs bent to the wrath of the elements, clinging to what holds they could find, while the old Concord reeled under them. With the passing of the storm there came a squall of hail, whipping their sodden garments to their skins, and a cold wind that left them shivering.
But the endurance of Nature’s assaults had long since become a habit with Wes Carter. As a boy, riding night herd, he had grown used to the harsh anger of the elements. And in the passing of this day there had come to him something new. For the first time since he had left his father’s house, he realized that there were other things in life besides the hard joys and the grim purposes which had been his portion. Such few good women as he had seen in the wild country west of the Llano Estacado were worn with work and hardship; somehow or other their presence had failed to impress him. Now the feeling that he had missed something was growing within him. With the loneliness which this awakening brought to him, there was a curious sense of isolation; it was as if this girl were of another world than his.
During the long hours of darkness he moved but seldom. He was living over fragments of the afternoon. Now he was seeing his fellow passenger as he had first seen her with the smile upon her lips. The curtain beside her had shifted, allowing a ray of white hot sunlight to rest upon her hair, making a glowing aura of the wisps about the edges. The thought of her frailness brought with it a feeling of tenderness—a desire to serve, and to protect.
“She shore is a long ways from home,” he told himself. “I reckon likely she is mighty lonely.” There came to him a wish that he could ease that loneliness.
Once or twice as he sat there with bowed head and drooping shoulders, musing over these things, the aching of the old wound obtruded on his thoughts. Then her face would vanish and the face of Tom Pierce would appear before him.
The wide plain was throbbing in the morning sunlight when they stopped for the next change of horses.
“It sure was kind of yo’ to ride on top,” she told him, “and I am mighty thankful to yo’ for it.”
Two or three times during the morning the voice of the new driver drifted down to them in song. And once, hearing the tinkle of breaking glass beside the road, Wes Carter looked out in time to see a whisky bottle flying into fragments against a rock. At high noon when they were coming forth from the stage station in the middle of the plain—their last stop before reaching Chiricahua—the man winked down at them from his seat.
“Me,” he hiccupped, “I am the rose of Sharon an’ the lily of the valley.”
Wes Carter climbed in silence to the seat beside him and took the reins from his hand. The hostlers had released the bridles and the six green mules that were to take them on to Chiricahua were leaping into their collars, before he spoke.
“Ef yo’ don’t quit cussin’,” he said quietly, “I'll throw yo’ overboard.” Thereafter he centered his attention on the team, and the driver fell asleep peacefully among the mail sacks.
The afternoon wore on. The mules were content to travel at a trot now. Wes Carter sat alone staring before him at the dusty wagon track. When the sun was swinging toward the summits of the dark ragged mountains ahead of them he glanced at the driver.
“I reckon,” said he, “that yo’ are sober enough to handle the lines by this time.” He grasped him by the arm and shook him vigorously. The man yawned and rubbed his eyes.
“Well, you have made good time,” was his unabashed comment. He glanced over his shoulder and his face changed. “I wisht you'd done a little better though.” Wes Carter turned his head.
Behind them, showing dark against the pallid surface of the old dried lake bed, a cluster of specks was crawling toward them. The driver’s eyes grew narrow as he counted them.
“Eleven, as nigh as I can make it; and jedgin’ by the way they ride, the hull of ’em is bucks. San Carlos Apaches, I reckon, and they’re crowdin’ their ponies hard. They’ll aim to ketch us in the pass.” He took the reins.
“Got any chewing tobacco?” he asked.
“Why,” Wes Carter demanded as he brought forth the plug, “don’t yo’ whip up them mules?” The other shook his head.
“The’s a mile steep climbing near the top. The best that I can do is save ’em fer the grade.”
Now as they reached the canyon mouth where the road twined upward among low rounded knolls, Wes Carter looked behind again. Already the specks had grown larger; he could see the bobbing of the turbans in the bright sunlight. A moment later a curve had shut them out of sight.
“How will they organize their game?” he asked. The driver flicked one of the mules.
“They’ve got it figgered out to a gnat’s ear. The town lays over there acrost the summit. Ef we pull up on one of these here hills to make a stand, they’ll take their time becuz they know no one will hear the shooting and they will have till dark to clean us out. Ef we go on, they’ll jump us som’ers fu’ther up where the canyon is narrow; and they’ll aim to finish the job before help comes.”
“I see,” Carter muttered. For some time now no more was said between them. The mules toiled on; their sides were heaving, thin rivulets of sweat ran down their flanks. The walls of the canyon were drawing in on either side. They rounded a turn where there was barely space for the wagon track beside the stream’s dry bed. Before them the gulch widened slightly and the road showed winding along the flank of the mountain to the remote summit.
“They'll make their rush afoot?” Wes Carter asked, and when the other nodded, “I’m going to hold the road,” he went on in an undertone; then he raised his voice, for the girl’s benefit.
“My Winchester,” he called, “is on the seat. I wisht you’d hand it up. I want to try a shot at a road runner.” A moment later her arm appeared holding the weapon through the window. He leaped down beside the wagon track and took the rifle from her hand. “Much obliged,” he growled. The stage creaked on.
Here where the flanks of the mountains drew away a cairn of granite boulders stood. Wes Carter climbed to its summit and sank down among the rocks. The creaking of the harness and the rasp of the iron tires was already growing fainter. Save for himself and the receding stage the place was without any sign of life. He lay watching the spot below him where the mountains seemed to touch. The seconds dragged. Then suddenly the space down there beside the dried stream bed was filled with lean brown forms. Their black hair was slapping the warriors’ cheeks; their turbans were bobbing in the sunlight as they came trotting on. The voice of Wes Carter’s rifle broke the silence.
While the surrounding cliffs were bandying the sharp flat echoes of the first report, his finger pressed the trigger a second time; and before the smoke had drifted away from the muzzle, he fired again. And now the road was empty of all life. Only two limp forms remained where they had fallen to betray the fact that anyone had passed. The rocks in the stream bed held the secrets of where the others lay.
Again the seconds dragged. The voice of the stage driver drifted down the canyon. The words were losing form and the crack of the whiplash was but a tiny snapping in the distance.
Where the clumps of coarse bear grass and a few tufted yuccas rose beside the road, something was moving. Gradually Wes Carter’s eyes distinguished a bare brown back, sprinkled with pebbles and bits of dry earth, squirming along the stony slope like a rattlesnake. When he had drawn down his sights and fired, the boulders beside the wagon track blossomed with white smoke puffs. The bullets snarled above his head and kicked up handfuls of dust among the rocks where he was lying. Forms appeared, darting in zig-zag from one shelter to another, vanishing and flashing into sight again.
There came a moment when the rush attained its climax; a moment when it seemed to him, as he lay there feeling the barrel of the rifle grow warm within his sweating fingers, scenting the acrid powder smoke that drifted past him from its flaming muzzle, that they were going to pass him in all certainty—that the next instant would see them whooping up the canyon to the steep grade where the coach was toiling toward the summit. And, in the ending of that moment, while he was still holding his narrowed eyes to the rear sight, seeking to catch across that little notch, some moving form outlined against the shifting bead—when he realized of a sudden that the rush was broke—there came to him a flash of clean joy.
Silence had returned. Once it was broken by the distant rattle of wheels where the stage was tearing down the stony road beyond the summit. The Apaches had melted out of sight. For a long while there was no sign of any movement among the clumps of bear grass and the boulders. Wes Carter lay upon the crest of the little knoll waiting for them to show themselves again. He knew that when they came this time, he would be the only one whom they were seeking. He reloaded his rifle, took from his belt a handful of cartridges and laid them beside him. Then they came.
During all that dreary interval while he had lain there biding their attack, they had been busy, every man of them, with grim intent. With deadly patience they had gone about their task, creeping from each cover to the next; until the last warrior had wriggled to his final hiding place and they held the little hill encircled. Now, breaking forth from the rocks which sheltered them, they flung away all ideas of concealment or of safety; their only purpose was to gain the summit of that knoll. So, with the flashing of the first brown body in the sunlight, the overheated air became of a sudden hideous with the war yell; the leaden slugs began to buzz among the granite boulders like angry wasps. Through the thin wreath which rose before the muzzle of his Winchester Wes Carter got a brief glimpse of a naked buck leaping toward the foot of the slope. The weapon flamed; the frowsy hair tossed wildly; the savage pitched headforemost among a clump of candle cactus. In the passing of the instant another showed on the hill’s flank; and while he was pressing the trigger, Wes heard the yells of others on him from behind. He turned his head.
He saw how they were closing in upon his shelter from all sides. The rattle of their rifles grew louder in his ears. His eyes became two pin points of blue; his lips made a straight line. To get as many as he could before the coming of the end—that was his only thought. And then, while he was in the midst of pumping down his lever for another shot, when the nearest renegade was so close that he could see the beady eyes gleaming beneath the mat of black hair, the uproar ceased.
It was as abrupt as the snuffing out of a candle. The Apaches had vanished like a covey of frightened quail. The sound of rapid hoofbeats came down the pass. The party were racing hard from Chiricahua,
The place had resumed its silence. The heat rays quivered above three limp forms lying asprawl at the knoll’s foot. Mysteriously, in the same silence in which they had lain, the bodies disappeared. Somewhere among the boulders on the canyonside the living warriors in accordance with the old custom of their breed, were dragging away the dead. The noise of the approaching horses grew louder. Wes Carter raised himself from his shelter and felt the warmth of fresh blood on his arm, $o they found him with sleeve uprolled, examining the superficial hurt.
“Creased me once an’ that was all,” he told them. “They shore be rotten shots.” And with that comment he dismissed the subject of the injury. But weariness born of the afternoon’s long ordeal had brought on a deeper pain.
On the way across the summit Wes Carter felt the twinge of the old wound. The slug which Tom Pierce had left within his leg as a reminder of their bitter enmity had not pained him so much in months as it did now. Yet, as a reminder, it failed this time. He was thinking of other things when he came into the upper end of the new town’s wide street, where the waiting crowd was standing before the Wells Fargo office. He was seeing the face of his fellow passenger as he had seen it in the stage window when she had handed him the rifle.
“I hope,” he told himself, “she didn’t get a-scared.”
He felt a hand upon his elbow and now her voice was in his ears.
“Oh, I am so thankful yo’ are safe!” The color was high in her cheeks; her eyes were wide with happiness. She took him by the hand.
“It was the bravest thing!” She was tugging at his arm. “Won’t yo’ please come? It’s only here next door—in the hotel.” The puzzled look had returned to his eyes; he muttered something, passing his tongue between his dry lips, striving to protest, yet at the same time following her. And so she took him down the street and into the musty office of the new hotel.
“My husband,” she was saying, “he just rode in to meet me. Only a few minutes ago, he came. I left him here.” Her voice took a deeper note of mingled joy and pride, “Oh, here he is!”
And then Wes Carter’s eyes met the eyes of his enemy.
So these two stood staring at each other while she went on. And what she said they did not know. In that moment, while it was seeming to Tom Pierce as if the dead had come to life; while Wes Carter was being shaken by emotions far deeper than astonishment, her voice came back to them, and suddenly both realized that a puzzled look was in her eyes. Then, awkwardly, each man put forth his hand. Their palms met briefly; their face: remained wooden but the little drops of sweat were standing out upon their brows.
And then, somehow—he did not know the manner of his going or the words he said—Wes Carter left the two of them.
The crowd on the sidewalk had thinned. The fresh team was being hooked up; the new driver was on his seat; the stage was about to take its departure, when Tom Pierce came forth from the hotel. His step was slow; his face was heavy with gravity; there was no eagerness in his coming. But although his voice was flat, his eyes met Wes Carter's fairly, as he asked the question which he had to ask.
“Yo’ were lookin’ fer me?”
“I was,” Wes Carter answered slowly; then he shook his head. “But I am not now.”
And then he climbed into the stage.