By Stephen Crane
The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that
is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to declare its
position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always
screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape
of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush. It stood alone on the
prairie, and when the snow was falling the town two hundred yards away
was not visible. But when the traveller alighted at the railway
station he was obliged to pass the Palace Hotel before he could come
upon the company of low clapboard houses which composed Fort Romper,
and it was not to be thought that any traveller could pass the Palace
Hotel without looking at it. Pat Scully, the proprietor, had proved
himself a master of strategy when he chose his paints. It is true that
on clear days, when the great trans-continental expresses, long lines
of swaying Pullmans, swept through Fort Romper, passengers were
overcome at the sight, and the cult that knows the brown-reds and the
subdivisions of the dark greens of the East expressed shame, pity,
horror, in a laugh. But to the citizens of this prairie town and to
the people who would naturally stop there, Pat Scully had performed a
feat. With this opulence and splendor, these creeds, classes,
egotisms, that streamed through Romper on the rails day after day,
they had no color in common.
As if the displayed delights of such a blue hotel were not
sufficiently enticing, it was Scully’s habit to go every morning and
evening to meet the leisurely trains that stopped at Romper and work
his seductions upon any man that he might see wavering, gripsack in
One morning, when a snow-crusted engine dragged its long string of
freight cars and its one passenger coach to the station, Scully
performed the marvel of catching three men. One was a shaky and
quick-eyed Swede, with a great shining cheap valise; one was a tall
bronzed cowboy, who was on his way to a ranch near the Dakota line;
one was a little silent man from the East, who didn’t look it, and
didn’t announce it. Scully practically made them prisoners. He was so
nimble and merry and kindly that each probably felt it would be the
height of brutality to try to escape. They trudged off over the
creaking board sidewalks in the wake of the eager little Irishman. He
wore a heavy fur cap squeezed tightly down on his head. It caused his
two red ears to stick out stiffly, as if they were made of tin.
At last, Scully, elaborately, with boisterous hospitality, conducted
them through the portals of the blue hotel. The room which they
entered was small. It seemed to be merely a proper temple for an
enormous stove, which, in the centre, was humming with godlike
violence. At various points on its surface the iron had become
luminous and glowed yellow from the heat. Beside the stove Scully’s
son Johnnie was playing High-Five with an old farmer who had whiskers
both gray and sandy. They were quarrelling. Frequently the old farmer
turned his face towards a box of sawdust–colored brown from tobacco
juice–that was behind the stove, and spat with an air of great
impatience and irritation. With a loud flourish of words Scully
destroyed the game of cards, and bustled his son up-stairs with part
of the baggage of the new guests. He himself conducted them to three
basins of the coldest water in the world. The cowboy and the Easterner
burnished themselves fiery-red with this water, until it seemed to be
some kind of a metal polish. The Swede, however, merely dipped his
fingers gingerly and with trepidation. It was notable that throughout
this series of small ceremonies the three travellers were made to feel
that Scully was very benevolent. He was conferring great favors upon
them. He handed the towel from one to the other with an air of
Afterwards they went to the first room, and, sitting about the stove,
listened to Scully’s officious clamor at his daughters, who were
preparing the mid-day meal. They reflected in the silence of
experienced men who tread carefully amid new people. Nevertheless, the
old farmer, stationary, invincible in his chair near the warmest part
of the stove, turned his face from the sawdust box frequently and
addressed a glowing commonplace to the strangers. Usually he was
answered in short but adequate sentences by either the cowboy or the
Easterner. The Swede said nothing. He seemed to be occupied in making
furtive estimates of each man in the room. One might have thought that
he had the sense of silly suspicion which comes to guilt. He resembled
a badly frightened man.
Later, at dinner, he spoke a little, addressing his conversation
entirely to Scully. He volunteered that he had come from New York,
where for ten years he had worked as a tailor. These facts seemed to
strike Scully as fascinating, and afterwards he volunteered that he
had lived at Romper for fourteen years. The Swede asked about the
crops and the price of labor. He seemed barely to listen to Scully’s
extended replies. His eyes continued to rove from man to man.
Finally, with a laugh and a wink, he said that some of these Western
communities were very dangerous; and after his statement he
straightened his legs under the table, tilted his head, and laughed
again, loudly. It was plain that the demonstration had no meaning to
the others. They looked at him wondering and in silence.
As the men trooped heavily back into the front-room, the two little
windows presented views of a turmoiling sea of snow. The huge arms of
the wind were making attempts–mighty, circular, futile–to embrace
the flakes as they sped. A gate-post like a still man with a blanched
face stood aghast amid this profligate fury. In a hearty voice Scully
announced the presence of a blizzard. The guests of the blue hotel,
lighting their pipes, assented with grunts of lazy masculine
contentment. No island of the sea could be exempt in the degree of
this little room with its humming stove. Johnnie, son of Scully, in a
tone which defined his opinion of his ability as a card-player,
challenged the old farmer of both gray and sandy whiskers to a game of
High-Five. The farmer agreed with a contemptuous and bitter scoff.
They sat close to the stove, and squared their knees under a wide
board. The cowboy and the Easterner watched the game with interest.
The Swede remained near the window, aloof, but with a countenance that
showed signs of an inexplicable excitement.
The play of Johnnie and the gray-beard was suddenly ended by another
quarrel. The old man arose while casting a look of heated scorn at his
adversary. He slowly buttoned his coat, and then stalked with fabulous
dignity from the room. In the discreet silence of all other men the
Swede laughed. His laughter rang somehow childish. Men by this time
had begun to look at him askance, as if they wished to inquire what
A new game was formed jocosely. The cowboy volunteered to become the
partner of Johnnie, and they all then turned to ask the Swede to throw
in his lot with the little Easterner, He asked some questions about
the game, and, learning that it wore many names, and that he had
played it when it was under an alias, he accepted the invitation. He
strode towards the men nervously, as if he expected to be assaulted.
Finally, seated, he gazed from face to face and laughed shrilly. This
laugh was so strange that the Easterner looked up quickly, the cowboy
sat intent and with his mouth open, and Johnnie paused, holding the
cards with still fingers.
Afterwards there was a short silence. Then Johnnie said, “Well, let’s
get at it. Come on now!” They pulled their chairs forward until their
knees were bunched under the board. They began to play, and their
interest in the game caused the others to forget the manner of the
The cowboy was a board-whacker. Each time that he held superior cards
he whanged them, one by one, with exceeding force, down upon the
improvised table, and took the tricks with a glowing air of prowess
and pride that sent thrills of indignation into the hearts of his
opponents. A game with a board-whacker in it is sure to become
intense. The countenances of the Easterner and the Swede were
miserable whenever the cowboy thundered down his aces and kings, while
Johnnie, his eyes gleaming with joy, chuckled and chuckled.
Because of the absorbing play none considered the strange ways of the
Swede. They paid strict heed to the game. Finally, during a lull
caused by a new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie: “I suppose
there have been a good many men killed in this room.” The jaws of the
others dropped and they looked at him.
“What in hell are you talking about?” said Johnnie.
The Swede laughed again his blatant laugh, full of a kind of false
courage and defiance. “Oh, you know what I mean all right,” he
“I’m a liar if I do!” Johnnie protested. The card was halted, and the
men stared at the Swede. Johnnie evidently felt that as the son of the
proprietor he should make a direct inquiry. “Now, what might you be
drivin’ at, mister?” he asked. The Swede winked at him. It was a wink
full of cunning. His fingers shook on the edge of the board. “Oh,
maybe you think I have been to nowheres. Maybe you think I’m a
“I don’t know nothin’ about you,” answered Johnnie, “and I don’t give
a damn where you’ve been. All I got to say is that I don’t know what
you’re driving at. There hain’t never been nobody killed in this
The cowboy, who had been steadily gazing at the Swede, then spoke:
“What’s wrong with you, mister?”
Apparently it seemed to the Swede that he was formidably menaced. He
shivered and turned white near the corners of his mouth. He sent an
appealing glance in the direction of the little Easterner. During
these moments he did not forget to wear his air of advanced pot-valor.
“They say they don’t know what I mean,” he remarked mockingly to the
The latter answered after prolonged and cautious reflection. “I don’t
understand you,” he said, impassively.
The Swede made a movement then which announced that he thought he had
encountered treachery from the only quarter where he had expected
sympathy, if not help. “Oh, I see you are all against me. I see–”
The cowboy was in a state of deep stupefaction. “Say.” he cried, as he
tumbled the deck violently down upon the board “–say, what are you
gittin’ at, hey?”
The Swede sprang up with the celerity of a man escaping from a snake
on the floor. “I don’t want to fight!” he shouted. “I don’t want to
The cowboy stretched his long legs indolently and deliberately. His
hands were in his pockets. He spat into the sawdust box. “Well, who
the hell thought you did?” he inquired.
The Swede backed rapidly towards a corner of the room. His hands were
out protectingly in front of his chest, but he was making an obvious
struggle to control his fright. “Gentlemen,” he quavered, “I suppose I
am going to be killed before I can leave this house! I suppose I am
going to be killed before I can leave this house!” In his eyes was the
dying-swan look. Through the windows could be seen the snow turning
blue in the shadow of dusk. The wind tore at the house and some loose
thing beat regularly against the clap-boards like a spirit tapping.
A door opened, and Scully himself entered. He paused in surprise as he
noted the tragic attitude of the Swede. Then he said, “What’s the
The Swede answered him swiftly and eagerly: “These men are going to
“Kill you!” ejaculated Scully. “Kill you! What are you talkin’?”
The Swede made the gesture of a martyr.
Scully wheeled sternly upon his son. “What is this, Johnnie?”
The lad had grown sullen. “Damned if I know,” he answered. “I can’t
make no sense to it.” He began to shuffle the cards, fluttering them
together with an angry snap. “He says a good many men have been killed
in this room, or something like that. And he says he’s goin’ to be
killed here too. I don’t know what ails him. He’s crazy, I shouldn’t
Scully then looked for explanation to the cowboy, but the cowboy
simply shrugged his shoulders.
“Kill you?” said Scully again to the Swede. “Kill you? Man, you’re off
“Oh, I know.” burst out the Swede. “I know what will happen. Yes, I’m
crazy–yes. Yes, of course, I’m crazy–yes. But I know one thing–”
There was a sort of sweat of misery and terror upon his face. “I know
I won’t get out of here alive.”
The cowboy drew a deep breath, as if his mind was passing into the
last stages of dissolution. “Well, I’m dog-goned,” he whispered to
Scully wheeled suddenly and faced his son. “You’ve been troublin’ this
Johnnie’s voice was loud with its burden of grievance. “Why, good
Gawd, I ain’t done nothin’ to ‘im.”
The Swede broke in. “Gentlemen, do not disturb yourselves. I will
leave this house. I will go away because”–he accused them
dramatically with his glance–“because I do not want to be killed.”
Scully was furious with his son. “Will you tell me what is the matter,
you young divil? What’s the matter, anyhow? Speak out!”
“Blame it!” cried Johnnie in despair, “don’t I tell you I don’t know.
He–he says we want to kill him, and that’s all I know. I can’t tell
what ails him.”
The Swede continued to repeat: “Never mind, Mr. Scully; nevermind. I
will leave this house. I will go away, because I do not wish to be
killed. Yes, of course, I am crazy–yes. But I know one thing! I will
go away. I will leave this house. Never mind, Mr. Scully; never mind.
I will go away.”
“You will not go ‘way,” said Scully. “You will not go ‘way until I
hear the reason of this business. If anybody has troubled you I will
take care of him. This is my house. You are under my roof, and I will
not allow any peaceable man to be troubled here.” He cast a terrible
eye upon Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner.
“Never mind, Mr. Scully; never mind. I will go away. I do not wish to
be killed.” The Swede moved towards the door, which opened upon the
stairs. It was evidently his intention to go at once for his baggage.
“No, no,” shouted Scully peremptorily; but the white-faced man slid by
him and disappeared. “Now,” said Scully severely, “what does this
Johnnie and the cowboy cried together: “Why, we didn’t do nothin’ to
Scully’s eyes were cold. “No,” he said, “you didn’t?”
Johnnie swore a deep oath. “Why this is the wildest loon I ever see.
We didn’t do nothin’ at all. We were jest sittin’ here play in’ cards,
The father suddenly spoke to the Easterner. “Mr. Blanc,” he asked,
“what has these boys been doin’?”
The Easterner reflected again. “I didn’t see anything wrong at all,”
he said at last, slowly.
Scully began to howl. “But what does it mane?” He stared ferociously
at his son. “I have a mind to lather you for this, me boy.”
Johnnie was frantic. “Well, what have I done?” he bawled at his
“I think you are tongue-tied,” said Scully finally to his son, the
cowboy, and the Easterner; and at the end of this scornful sentence he
left the room.
Up-stairs the Swede was swiftly fastening the straps of his great
valise. Once his back happened to be half turned towards the door,
and, hearing a noise there, he wheeled and sprang up, uttering a loud
cry. Scully’s wrinkled visage showed grimly in the light of the small
lamp he carried. This yellow effulgence, streaming upward, colored
only his prominent features, and left his eyes, for instance, in
mysterious shadow. He resembled a murderer.
“Man! man!” he exclaimed, “have you gone daffy?”
“Oh, no! Oh, no!” rejoined the other. “There are people in this world
who know pretty nearly as much as you do–understand?”
For a moment they stood gazing at each other. Upon the Swede’s deathly
pale checks were two spots brightly crimson and sharply edged, as if
they had been carefully painted. Scully placed the light on the table
and sat himself on the edge of the bed. He spoke ruminatively. “By
cracky, I never heard of such a thing in my life. It’s a complete
muddle. I can’t, for the soul of me, think how you ever got this idea
into your head.” Presently he lifted his eyes and asked: “And did you
sure think they were going to kill you?”
The Swede scanned the old man as if he wished to see into his mind. “I
did,” he said at last. He obviously suspected that this answer might
precipitate an outbreak. As he pulled on a strap his whole arm shook,
the elbow wavering like a bit of paper.
Scully banged his hand impressively on the foot-board of the bed.
“Why, man, we’re goin’ to have a line of ilictric street-cars in this
town next spring.”
“‘A line of electric street-cars,'” repeated the Swede, stupidly.
“And,” said Scully, “there’s a new railroad goin’ to be built down
from Broken Arm to here. Not to mintion the four churches and the
smashin’ big brick school-house. Then there’s the big factory, too.
Why, in two years Romper ‘ll be a _metropolis_.”
Having finished the preparation of his baggage, the Swede straightened
himself. “Mr. Scully,” he said, with sudden hardihood, “how much do I
“You don’t owe me anythin’,” said the old man, angrily.
“Yes, I do,” retorted the Swede. He took seventy-five cents from his
pocket and tendered it to Scully; but the latter snapped his fingers
in disdainful refusal. However, it happened that they both stood
gazing in a strange fashion at three silver pieces on the Swede’s open
“I’ll not take your money,” said Scully at last. “Not after what’s
been goin’ on here.” Then a plan seemed to strike him. “Here,” he
cried, picking up his lamp and moving towards the door. “Here! Come
with me a minute.”
“No,” said the Swede, in overwhelming alarm.
“Yes,” urged the old man. “Come on! I want you to come and see a
picter–just across the hall–in my room.”
The Swede must have concluded that his hour was come. His jaw dropped
and his teeth showed like a dead man’s. He ultimately followed Scully
across the corridor, but he had the step of one hung in chains.
Scully flashed the light high on the wall of his own chamber. There
was revealed a ridiculous photograph of a little girl. She was leaning
against a balustrade of gorgeous decoration, and the formidable bang
to her hair was prominent. The figure was as graceful as an upright
sled-stake, and, withal, it was of the hue of lead. “There,” said
Scully, tenderly, “that’s the picter of my little girl that died. Her
name was Carrie. She had the purtiest hair you ever saw! I was that
fond of her, she–”
Turning then, he saw that the Swede was not contemplating the picture
at all, but, instead, was keeping keen watch on the gloom in the rear.
“Look, man!” cried Scully, heartily. “That’s the picter of my little
gal that died. Her name was Carrie. And then here’s the picter of my
oldest boy, Michael. He’s a lawyer in Lincoln, an’ doin’ well. I gave
that boy a grand eddycation, and I’m glad for it now. He’s a fine boy.
Look at ‘im now. Ain’t he bold as blazes, him there in Lincoln, an
honored an’ respicted gintleman. An honored an’ respicted gintleman,”
concluded Scully with a flourish. And, so saying, he smote the Swede
jovially on the back.
The Swede faintly smiled.
“Now,” said the old man, “there’s only one more thing.” He dropped
suddenly to the floor and thrust his head beneath the bed. The Swede
could hear his muffled voice. “I’d keep it under me piller if it
wasn’t for that boy Johnnie. Then there’s the old woman–Where is it
now? I never put it twice in the same place. Ah, now come out with
Presently he backed clumsily from under the bed, dragging with him an
old coat rolled into a bundle. “I’ve fetched him,” he muttered.
Kneeling on the floor, he unrolled the coat and extracted from its
heart a large yellow-brown whiskey bottle.
His first maneuver was to hold the bottle up to the light. Reassured,
apparently, that nobody had been tampering with it, he thrust it with
a generous movement towards the Swede.
The weak-kneed Swede was about to eagerly clutch this element of
strength, but he suddenly jerked his hand away and cast a look of
horror upon Scully.
“Drink,” said the old man affectionately. He had risen to his feet,
and now stood facing the Swede.
There was a silence. Then again Scully said: “Drink!”
The Swede laughed wildly. He grabbed the bottle, put it to his mouth,
and as his lips curled absurdly around the opening and his throat
worked, he kept his glance, burning with hatred, upon the old man’s
After the departure of Scully the three men, with the card-board still
upon their knees, preserved for a long time an astounded silence. Then
Johnnie said: “That’s the dod-dangest Swede I ever see.”
“He ain’t no Swede,” said the cowboy, scornfully.
“Well, what is he then?” cried Johnnie. “What is he then?”
“It’s my opinion,” replied the cowboy deliberately, “he’s some kind of
a Dutchman.” It was a venerable custom of the country to entitle as
Swedes all light-haired men who spoke with a heavy tongue. In
consequence the idea of the cowboy was not without its daring. “Yes,
sir,” he repeated. “It’s my opinion this feller is some kind of a
“Well, he says he’s a Swede, anyhow,” muttered Johnnie, sulkily. He
turned to the Easterner: “What do you think, Mr. Blanc?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied the Easterner.
“Well, what do you think makes him act that way?” asked the cowboy.
“Why, he’s frightened.” The Easterner knocked his pipe against a rim
of the stove. “He’s clear frightened out of his boots.”
“What at?” cried Johnnie and cowboy together.
The Easterner reflected over his answer.
“What at?” cried the others again.
“Oh, I don’t know, but it seems to me this man has been reading
dime-novels, and he thinks he’s right out in the middle of it–the
shootin’ and stabbin’ and all.”
“But,” said the cowboy, deeply scandalized, “this ain’t Wyoming, ner
none of them places. This is Nebrasker.”
“Yes,” added Johnnie, “an’ why don’t he wait till he gits _out West?_”
The travelled Easterner laughed. “It isn’t different there even–not
in these days. But he thinks he’s right in the middle of hell.”
Johnnie and the cowboy mused long.
“It’s awful funny,” remarked Johnnie at last.
“Yes,” said the cowboy. “This is a queer game. I hope we don’t git
snowed in, because then we’d have to stand this here man bein’ around
with us all the time. That wouldn’t be no good.”
“I wish pop would throw him out,” said Johnnie.
Presently they heard a loud stamping on the stairs, accompanied by
ringing jokes in the voice of old Scully, and laughter, evidently from
the Swede. The men around the stove stared vacantly at each other.
“Gosh!” said the cowboy. The door flew open, and old Scully, flushed
and anecdotal, came into the room. He was jabbering at the Swede, who
followed him, laughing bravely. It was the entry of two roisterers
from a banquet-hall.
“Come now,” said Scully sharply to the three seated men, “move up and
give us a chance at the stove.” The cowboy and the Easterner
obediently sidled their chairs to make room for the new-comers.
Johnnie, however, simply arranged himself in a more indolent attitude,
and then remained motionless.
“Come! Git over, there,” said Scully.
“Plenty of room on the other side of the stove,” said Johnnie.
“Do you think we want to sit in the draught?” roared the father.
But the Swede here interposed with a grandeur of confidence. “No, no.
Let the boy sit where he likes,” he cried in a bullying voice to the
“All right! All right!” said Scully, deferentially. The cowboy and the
Easterner exchanged glances of wonder.
The five chairs were formed in a crescent about one side of the stove.
The Swede began to talk; he talked arrogantly, profanely, angrily.
Johnnie, the cowboy, and the Easterner maintained a morose silence,
while old Scully appeared to be receptive and eager, breaking in
constantly with sympathetic ejaculations.
Finally the Swede announced that he was thirsty. He moved in his
chair, and said that he would go for a drink of water.
“I’ll git it for you,” cried Scully at once.
“No,” said the Swede, contemptuously. “I’ll get it for myself.” He
arose and stalked with the air of an owner off into the executive
parts of the hotel.
As soon as the Swede was out of hearing Scully sprang to his feet and
whispered intensely to the others: “Up-stairs he thought I was tryin’
to poison ‘im.”
“Say,” said Johnnie, “this makes me sick. Why don’t you throw ‘im out
in the snow?”
“Why, he’s all right now,” declared Scully. “It was only that he was
from the East, and he thought this was a tough place. That’s all. He’s
all right now.”
The cowboy looked with admiration upon the Easterner. “You were
straight,” he said. “You were on to that there Dutchman.”
“Well,” said Johnnie to his father, “he may be all right now, but I
don’t see it. Other time he was scared, but now he’s too fresh.”
Scully’s speech was always a combination of Irish brogue and idiom,
Western twang and idiom, and scraps of curiously formal diction taken
from the story-books and newspapers, He now hurled a strange mass of
language at the head of his son. “What do I keep? What do I keep? What
do I keep?” he demanded, in a voice of thunder. He slapped his knee
impressively, to indicate that he himself was going to make reply, and
that all should heed. “I keep a hotel,” he shouted. “A hotel, do you
mind? A guest under my roof has sacred privileges. He is to be
intimidated by none. Not one word shall he hear that would prejudice
him in favor of goin’ away. I’ll not have it. There’s no place in this
here town where they can say they iver took in a guest of mine because
he was afraid to stay here.” He wheeled suddenly upon the cowboy and
the Easterner. “Am I right?”
“Yes, Mr. Scully,” said the cowboy, “I think you’re right.”
“Yes, Mr. Scully,” said the Easterner, “I think you’re right.”
At six-o’clock supper, the Swede fizzed like a fire-wheel. He
sometimes seemed on the point of bursting into riotous song, and in
all his madness he was encouraged by old Scully. The Easterner was
incased in reserve; the cowboy sat in wide-mouthed amazement,
forgetting to eat, while Johnnie wrathily demolished great plates of
food. The daughters of the house, when they were obliged to replenish
the biscuits, approached as warily as Indians, and, having succeeded
in their purpose, fled with ill-concealed trepidation. The Swede
domineered the whole feast, and he gave it the appearance of a cruel
bacchanal. He seemed to have grown suddenly taller; he gazed, brutally
disdainful, into every face. His voice rang through the room. Once
when he jabbed out harpoon-fashion with his fork to pinion a biscuit,
the weapon nearly impaled the hand of the Easterner which had been
stretched quietly out for the same biscuit.
After supper, as the men filed towards the other room, the Swede smote
Scully ruthlessly on the shoulder. “Well, old boy, that was a good,
square meal.” Johnnie looked hopefully at his father; he knew that
shoulder was tender from an old fall; and, indeed, it appeared for a
moment as if Scully was going to flame out over the matter, but in the
end he smiled a sickly smile and remained silent. The others
understood from his manner that he was admitting his responsibility
for the Swede’s new view-point.
Johnnie, however, addressed his parent in an aside. “Why don’t you
license somebody to kick you down-stairs?” Scully scowled darkly by
way of reply.
When they were gathered about the stove, the Swede insisted on another
game of High Five. Scully gently deprecated the plan at first, but the
Swede turned a wolfish glare upon him. The old man subsided, and the
Swede canvassed the others. In his tone there was always a great
threat. The cowboy and the Easterner both remarked indifferently that
they would play. Scully said that he would presently have to go to
meet the 6.58 train, and so the Swede turned menacingly upon Johnnie.
For a moment their glances crossed like blades, and then Johnnie
smiled and said, “Yes, I’ll play.”
They formed a square, with the little board on their knees. The
Easterner and the Swede were again partners. As the play went on, it
was noticeable that the cowboy was not board-whacking as usual.
Meanwhile, Scully, near the lamp, had put on his spectacles and, with
an appearance curiously like an old priest, was reading a newspaper.
In time he went out to meet the 6.58 train, and, despite his
precautions, a gust of polar wind whirled into the room as he opened
the door. Besides scattering the cards, it dulled the players to the
marrow. The Swede cursed frightfully. When Scully returned, his
entrance disturbed a cosey and friendly scene. The Swede again cursed.
But presently they were once more intent, their heads bent forward and
their hands moving swiftly. The Swede had adopted the fashion of
Scully took up his paper and for a long time remained immersed in
matters which were extraordinarily remote from him. The lamp burned
badly, and once he stopped to adjust the wick. The newspaper, as he
turned from page to page, rustled with a slow and comfortable sound.
Then suddenly he heard three terrible words: “You are cheatin’!”
Such scenes often prove that there can be little of dramatic import in
environment. Any room can present a tragic front; any room can be
comic. This little den was now hideous as a torture-chamber. The new
faces of the men themselves had changed it upon the instant. The Swede
held a huge fist in front of Johnnie’s face, while the latter looked
steadily over it into the blazing orbs of his accuser. The Easterner
had grown pallid; the cowboy’s jaw had dropped in that expression of
bovine amazement which was one of his important mannerisms. After the
three words, the first sound in the room was made by Scully’s paper as
it floated forgotten to his feet. His spectacles had also fallen from
his nose, but by a clutch he had saved them in air. His hand, grasping
the spectacles, now remained poised awkwardly and near his shoulder.
He stared at the card-players.
Probably the silence was while a second elapsed. Then, if the floor
had been suddenly twitched out from under the men they could not have
moved quicker. The five had projected themselves headlong towards a
common point. It happened that Johnnie, in rising to hurl himself upon
the Swede, had stumbled slightly because of his curiously instinctive
care for the cards and the board. The loss of the moment allowed time
for the arrival of Scully, and also allowed the cowboy time to give
the Swede a great push which sent him staggering back. The men found
tongue together, and hoarse shouts of rage, appeal, or fear burst from
every throat. The cowboy pushed and jostled feverishly at the Swede,
and the Easterner and Scully clung wildly to Johnnie; but, through the
smoky air, above the swaying bodies of the peace-compellers, the eyes
of the two warriors ever sought each other in glances of challenge
that were at once hot and steely.
Of course the board had been overturned, and now the whole company of
cards was scattered over the floor, where the boots of the men
trampled the fat and painted kings and queens as they gazed with their
silly eyes at the war that was waging above them.
Scully’s voice was dominating the yells. “Stop now? Stop, I say! Stop,
Johnnie, as he struggled to burst through the rank formed by Scully
and the Easterner, was crying, “Well, he says I cheated! He says I
cheated! I won’t allow no man to say I cheated! If he says I cheated,
he’s a —— ——!”
The cowboy was telling the Swede, “Quit, now! Quit, d’ye hear–”
The screams of the Swede never ceased: “He did cheat! I saw him! I saw
As for the Easterner, he was importuning in a voice that was not
heeded: “Wait a moment, can’t you? Oh, wait a moment. What’s the good
of a fight over a game of cards? Wait a moment–”
In this tumult no complete sentences were clear. “Cheat”–“Quit”–“He
says”–these fragments pierced the uproar and rang out sharply. It was
remarkable that, whereas Scully undoubtedly made the most noise, he
was the least heard of any of the riotous band.
Then suddenly there was a great cessation. It was as if each man had
paused for breath; and although the room was still lighted with the
anger of men, it could be seen that there was no danger of immediate
conflict, and at once Johnnie, shouldering his way forward, almost
succeeded in confronting the Swede. “What did you say I cheated for?
What did you say I cheated for? I don’t cheat, and I won’t let no man
say I do!”
The Swede said, “I saw you! I saw you!”
“Well,” cried Johnnie, “I’ll fight any man what says I cheat!”
“No, you won’t,” said the cowboy. “Not here.”
“Ah, be still, can’t you?” said Scully, coming between them.
The quiet was sufficient to allow the Easterner’s voice to be heard.
He was repealing, “Oh, wait a moment, can’t you? What’s the good of a
fight over a game of cards? Wait a moment!”
Johnnie, his red face appearing above his father’s shoulder, hailed
the Swede again. “Did you say I cheated?”
The Swede showed his teeth. “Yes.”
“Then,” said Johnnie, “we must fight.”
“Yes, fight,” roared the Swede. He was like a demoniac. “Yes, fight!
I’ll show you what kind of a man I am! I’ll show you who you want to
fight! Maybe you think I can’t fight! Maybe you think I can’t! I’ll
show you, you skin, you card-sharp! Yes, you cheated! You cheated! You
“Well, let’s go at it, then, mister,” said Johnnie, coolly.
The cowboy’s brow was beaded with sweat from his efforts in
intercepting all sorts of raids. He turned in despair to Scully. “What
are you goin’ to do now?”
A change had come over the Celtic visage of the old man. He now seemed
all eagerness; his eyes glowed.
“We’ll let them fight,” he answered, stalwartly. “I can’t put up with
it any longer. I’ve stood this damned Swede till I’m sick. We’ll let