Frank Norris.

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a Sunday-school Christmas festival. In the other stalls,
lower down the barn, the young men had brought chairs,
and in these deep recesses the most desperate love-mak-
ing was in progress, the young man, his hair neatly
parted, leaning with great solicitation over the girl, his

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A STORY OF CALIFORNIA

"partner" for the moment, fanning her conscientiously,
his arm carefully laid along the back of her chair.

By the doorway, Annixter met Sarria, who had
stepped out to smoke a fat black cigar. The set smile
of amiability was still fixed on the priest's smooth,
shiny face; the cigar ashes had left grey streaks on the
front of his cassock. He avoided Annixter, fearing, no
doubt, an allusion to his game cocks, and took up his
position back of the second rank of chairs by the
musicians' stand, beaming encouragingly upon every-
one who caught his eye.

Annixter was saluted right and left as he slowly went
the round of the floor. At every moment he had to
pause to shake hands and to listen to congratulations
upon the size of his barn and the success of his dance.
But he was distrait, his thoughts elsewhere; he did not
attempt to hide his impatience when some of the young
men tried to engage him in conversation, asking him to
be introduced to their sisters, or their friends' sisters.
He sent them about their business harshly, abominably
rude, leaving a wake of angry disturbance behind him,
sowing the seeds of future quarrels and renewed un-
popularity. He was looking for Hilma Tree.

When at last he came unexpectedly upon her, stand-
ing near where Mrs. Tree was seated, some half-dozen
young men hovering uneasily in her neighbourhood, all
his audacity was suddenly stricken from him; his gruff-
ness, his overbearing insolence vanished with an abrupt-
ness that left him cold. His old-time confusion and
embarrassment returned to him. Instead of speaking to
her as he intended, he affected not to see her, but passed
by, his head in the air, pretending a sudden interest in a
Japanese lantern that was about to catch fire.

But he had had a single distinct glimpse of her,
definite, precise, and this glimpse was enough. Hilma
had changed. The change was subtle, evanescent, hard



THE OCTOPUS

to define, but not the less unmistakable. The excitement,
the enchanting delight, the delicious disturbance of " the
first ball," had produced its result. Perhaps there had
only been this lacking. It was hard to say, but for that
brief instant of time Annixter was looking at Hilma,
the woman. She was no longer the young girl upon
whom he might look down, to whom he might con-
descend, whose little, infantile graces were to be con-
sidered with amused toleration.

When Annixter returned to the harness room, he let
himself into a clamour of masculine hilarity. Osterman
had, indeed, made a marvellous "fertilizer," whiskey for
the most part, diluted with champagne and lemon juice.
The first round of this drink had been welcomed with a
salvo of cheers. Hooven, recovering his spirits under
its violent stimulation, spoke of "heving ut oudt mit
Cudder, bei Gott," while Osterman, standing on a
chair at the end of the room, shouted for a "few mo-
ments quiet, gentlemen," so that he might tell a certain
story he knew.

But, abruptly, Annixter discovered that the liquors
the champagne, whiskey, brandy, and the like were
running low. This would never do. He felt that he would
stand disgraced if it could be said afterward that he had
not provided sufficient drink at his entertainment. He
slipped out, unobserved, and, finding two of his ranch
hands near the doorway, sent them down to the ranch
house to bring up all the cases of "stuff" they found
there.

However, when this matter had been attended to, An-
nixter did not immediately return to the harness room.
On the floor of the barn a square dance was under way,
the leader of the City Band calling the figures. Young
Vacca indefatigably continued the rounds of the barn,
paring candle after candle, possessed with this single
idea of duty, pushing the dancers out of his way, refus-

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A STORY OF CALIFORNIA

ing to admit that the floor was yet sufficiently slippery.
The druggist had returned indoors, and leaned dejected
and melancholy against the wall near the doorway,
unable to dance, his evening's enjoyment spoiled. The
gayly apparelled clerk from Bonneville had just in-
volved himself in a deplorable incident. In a search for
his handkerchief, which he had lost while trying to find
his programme card, he had inadvertently wandered
into the feed room, set apart as the ladies' dressing
room, at the moment when Mrs. Hooven, having re-
moved the waist of Minna's dress, was relacing her cor-
sets. There was a tremendous scene. The clerk was
ejected forcibly, Mrs. Hooven filling all the neigbour-
hood with shrill expostulation. A young man, Minna's
"partner," who stood near the feed-room door, waiting
for her to come out, had invited the clerk, with elaborate
sarcasm, to step outside for a moment; and the clerk,
breathless, stupefied, hustled from hand to hand, re-
mained petrified, with staring eyes, turning about and
about, looking wildly from face to face, speechless,
witless, wondering what had happened.

But the square dance was over. The City Band was
just beginning to play a waltz. Annixter, assuring him-
self that everything was going all right, was picking his
way across the floor, when he came upon Hilma Tree
quite alone, and looking anxiously among the crowd of
dancers.

"Having a good time, Miss Hilma?" he demanded,
pausing for a moment.

"Oh, am I, just!" she exclaimed. "The best time
l^ut I don't know what has become of my partner. See!
I'm left all alone the only time this whole evening,"
she added proudly. "Have you seen him my partner,
sir? I forget his name. I only met him this evening,
and I've met so many I can't begin to remember half
of them. He was a young man from Bonneville a

245



THE OCTOPUS

clerk, I think, because I remember seeing him in a store
there, and he wore the prettiest clothes!"

"I guess he got lost in the shuffle," observed Annixter.
Suddenly an idea occurred to him. He took his resolu-
tion in both hands. He clenched his teeth.

"Say! look here, Miss Hilma. What's the matter with
you and I stealing this one for ourselves? I don't mean
to dance. I don't propose to make a jumping-jack of
myself for some galoot to give me the laugh, but we'll
walk around. Will you? What do you say?"

Hilma consented.

"I'm not so very sorry I missed my dance with that
that little clerk," she said guiltily. "I suppose that's
very bad of me, isn't it?"

Annixter fulminated a vigorous protest.

"I am so warm!" murmured Hilma, fanning herself
with her handkerchief; "and, oh! such a good time as
I have had! I was so afraid that I would be a wall-
flower and sit up by Mamma and Papa the whole eve-
ning; and as it is, I have had every single dance, and even
some dances I had to split. Oh-h!" she breathed, glanc-
ing lovingly around the barn, noting again the festoons
of tri-coloured cambric, the Japanese lanterns, flaring
lamps, and "decorations" of evergreen; "Oh-h! it's all
so lovely, just like a fairy story; and to think that it
can't last but for one little evening, and that to-morrow
morning one must wake up to the every-day things
again!"

"Well," observed Annixter doggedly, unwilling that
she should forget whom she ought to thank, " I did my
best, and my best is as good as another man's, I guess."

Hilma overwhelmed him with a burst of gratitude
which he gruffly pretended to deprecate. Oh, that was
all right. It hadn't cost him much. He liked to see
people having a good time himself, and the crowd did
seem to be enjoying themselves. What did she think?

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A STORY OF CALIFORNIA

Did things look lively enough? And how about herself
-was she enjoying it?

Stupidly Annixter drove the question home again,
at his wit's end as to how to make conversation. Hilma
protested volubly she would never forget this night,
adding:

"Dance! Oh, you don't know how I love it! I didn't
know myself. I could dance all night and never stop
once!"

Annixter was smitten with uneasiness. No doubt this
"promenading" was not at all to her taste. Wondering
what kind of a spectacle he was about to make of him-
self, he exclaimed:

"Want to dance now?"

"Oh, yes!" she returned.

They paused in their walk, and Hilma, facing him,
gave herself into his arms. Annixter shut his teeth,
the perspiration starting from his forehead. For five
years he had abandoned dancing. Never in his best days
had it been one of his accomplishments.

They hesitated a moment, waiting to catch the time
from the musicians. Another couple bore down upon
them at precisely the wrong moment, jostling them out
of step. Annixter swore under his breath. His arm still
about the young woman, he pulled her over to one
corner.

"Now," he muttered, "we'll try again."

A second time, listening to the one-two-three, one-
two-three cadence of the musicians, they endeavoured
to get under way. Annixter waited the fraction of a
second too long and stepped on Hilma's foot. On the
third attempt, having worked out of the corner, a pair of
dancers bumped into them once more, and as they were
recovering themselves another couple caromed violently
against Annixter so that he all but lost his footing. He
was in a rage. Hilma, very embarrassed, was trying not

247



THE OCTOPUS

to laugh, and thus they found themselves, out in the
middle of the floor, continually jostled from their posi-
tion, holding clumsily to each other, stammering excuses
into one another's faces, when Delaney arrived.

He came with the suddenness of an explosion. There
was a commotion by the doorway, a rolling burst of
oaths, a furious stamping of hoofs, a wild scramble of
the dancers to either side of the room, and there he was.
He had ridden the buckskin at a gallop straight through
the doorway and out into the middle of the floor of the
barn.

Once well inside, Delaney hauled up on the cruel
spadebit, at the same time driving home the spurs, and
the buckskin, without halting in her gait, rose into the
air upon her hind feet, and coming down again with a
thunder of iron hoofs upon the hollow floor, lashed out
with both heels simultaneously, her back arched, her
head between her knees. It was the running buck, and
had not Delaney been the hardest buster in the county,
would have flung him headlong like a sack of sand. But
he eased off the bit, gripping the mare's flanks with his
knees, and the buckskin, having long since known her
master, came to hand quivering, the bloody spurne drip-
ping from the bit upon the slippery floor.

Delaney had arrayed himself with painful elabora-
tion, determined to look the part, bent upon creating
the impression, resolved that his appearance at least
should justify his reputation of being "bad." Nothing
was lacking neither the campaign hat with up-turned
brim, nor the dotted blue handkerchief knotted behind
the neck, nor the heavy gauntlets stitched with red, nor
-this above all the bear-skin "chaparejos," the hair
trousers of the mountain cowboy, the pistol holster low
on the thigh. But for the moment this holster was
empty, and in his right hand, the hammer at full cock,
the chamber loaded, the puncher flourished his teaser,

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A STORY OF CALIFORNIA

an army^Colt's, the lamplight dully reflected in the dark
blue steel.

In a second of time the dance was a bedlam. The
musicians stopped with a discord, and the middle of the
crowded floor bared itself instantly. It was like sand
blown from off a rock; the throng of guests, carried
by an impulse that was not to be resisted, bore back
against the sides of the barn, overturning chairs, trip-
ping upon each other, falling down, scrambling to their
feet again, stepping over one another, getting behind
each other, diving under chairs, flattening themselves
against the wall a wild, clamouring pell-mell, blind,
deaf, panic-stricken; a confused tangle of waving arms,
torn muslin, crushed flowers, pale faces, tangled legs,
that swept in all directions back from the centre of the
floor, leaving Annixter and Hilma, alone, deserted, their
arms about each other, face to face with Delaney, mad
with alcohol, bursting with remembered insult, bent on
evil, reckless of results.

After the first scramble for safety, the crowd fell quiet
for the fraction of an instant, glued to the walls, afraid
to stir, struck dumb and motionless with surprise and
terror, and in the instant's silence that followed Annix-
ter, his eyes on Delaney, muttered rapidly to Hilma:

"Get back, get away to one side. The fool might
shoot."

There was a second's respite afforded while Delaney
occupied himself in quieting the buckskin, and in that
second of time, at this moment of crisis, the wonderful
thing occurred. Hilma, turning from Delaney, her hands
clasped on Annixter's arm, her eyes meeting his, ex-
claimed:

"You, too!"

And that was all; but to Annixter it was a revelation.
Never more alive to his surroundings, never more ob-
servant, he suddenly understood. For the briefest

249



THE OCTOPUS



lapse of time he and Hilma looked deep into each
other's eyes, and from that moment on, Annixter knew
that Hilma cared.

The whole matter was brief as the snapping of a
finger. Two words and a glance and all was done. But
as though nothing had occurred, Annixter pushed Hilma
from him, repeating harshly:

"Get back, I tell you. Don't you see he's got a gun?
Haven't I enough on my hands without you?"

He loosed her clasp and his eyes once more on De-
laney, moved diagonally backwards toward the side of
the barn, pushing Hilma from him. In the end he thrust
her away so sharply that she gave back with a long
stagger; somebody caught her arm and drew her in,
leaving Annixter alone once more in the middle of the
floor, his hands in his coat pockets, watchful, alert,
facing his enemy.

But the cow-puncher was not ready to come to grap-
ples yet. Fearless, his wits gambolling under the lash of
the alcohol, he wished to make the most of the occasion,
maintaining the suspense, playing for the gallery. By
touches of the hand and knee he kept the buckskin in
continual nervous movement, her hoofs clattering,
snorting, tossing her head, while he, himself, addressing
himself to Annixter, poured out a torrent of invec-
tive.

"Well, strike me blind if it ain't old Buck Annixter!
He was going to show me off Quien Sabe at the toe of
his boot, was he? Well, here's your chance with the
ladies to see you do it. Gives a dance, does he, high-
falutin' hoe-down in his barn, and forgets to invite his
old broncho-bustin' friend. But his friend don't forget
him; no, he don't. He remembers little things, does his
broncho-bustin' friend. Likes to see a dance hisself on
occasion, his friend does. Comes anyhow, trustin' his
welcome will be hearty, just to see old Buck Annixter



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A STORY OF CALIFORNIA

dance, just to show Buck Annixter's friends how Buck
can dance dance all by hisself, a little hen-on-a-hot-
plate dance when his broncho-bustin' friend asks him so
polite. A little dance for the ladies, Buck. This feature
of the entertainment is alone worth the price of admis-
sion. Tune up, Buck. Attention, now! I'll give you the

key."

He "fanned" his revolver, spinning it about his index
finger by the trigger-guard with incredible swiftness, the
twirling weapon a mere blur of blue steel in his hand.
Suddenly and without any apparent cessation of the
movement, he fired, and a little splinter of wood flipped
into the air at Annixter's feet.

"Time!" he shouted, while the buckskin reared to
the report. "Hold on wait a minute. This place is too
light to suit. That big light yonder is in my eyes. Look
out, I'm going to throw lead."

A second shot put out the lamp over the musicians'
stand. The assembled guests shrieked, a frantic, shrink-
ing quiver ran through the crowd like the huddling of
frightened rabbits in their pen.

Annixter hardly moved. He stood some thirty paces
from the buster, his hands still in his coat pockets, his
eyes glistening, watchful.

Excitable and turbulent in trifling matters, when
actual bodily danger threatened he was of an abnormal
quiet.

"I'm watcning you," cried the other. "Don't make
any mistake about that. Keep your hands in your coat
pockets, if you'd like to live a little longer, understand?
And don't let me see you make a move toward your hip
or your friends will be asked to identify you at the
morgue to-morrow morning. When I'm bad, I'm called
the Undertaker's Friend, so I am, and I'm that bad
to-night that I'm scared of myself. They'll have to revise
the census returns before I'm done with this place.

251



THE OCTOPUS

Come on, now, I'm getting tired waiting. I come to see
a dance."

"Hand over that horse, Delaney," said Annixter,
without raising his voice, "and clear out."

The other affected to be overwhelmed with infinite
astonishment, his eyes staring. He peered down from
the saddle.

"Wh-a-a-t!" he exclaimed; "wh-a-a-t did you say?
Why, I guess you must be looking for trouble; that's
what I guess."

'There's where you're wrong, m'son," muttered An-
nixter, partly to Delaney, partly to himself. "If I was
looking for trouble there wouldn't be any guess-work
about it."

With the words he began firing. Delaney had hardly
entered the barn before Annixter's plan had been
formed. Long since his revolver was in the pocket of his
coat, and he fired now through the coat itself, without
withdrawing his hands.

Until that moment Annixter had not been sure of
himself. There was no doubt that for the first few mo-
ments of the affair he would have welcomed with joy any
reasonable excuse for getting out of the situation. But
the sound of his own revolver gave him confidence. He
whipped it from his pocket and fired again.

Abruptly the duel began, report following report,
spurts of pale blue smoke jetting like the darts of short
spears between the two men, expanding to a haze and
drifting overhead in wavering strata. It was quite prob
able that no thought of killing each other suggested itself
to either Annixter or Delaney. Both fired without aim-
ing very deliberately. To empty their revolvers and
avoid being hit was the desire common to both. They
no longer vituperated each other. The revolvers spoke
for them.

Long after, Annixter could recall this moment. For

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A STORY OF CALIFORNIA

years he could with but little effort reconstruct the scene
-the densely packed crowd flattened against the sides
of the barn, the festoons of lanterns, the mingled smell of
evergreens, new wood, sachets, and powder smoke; the
vague clamour of distress and terror that rose from the
throng of guests, the squealing of the buckskin, the un-
even explosions of the revolvers, the reverberation of
trampling hoofs, a brief glimpse of Harran Derrick's
excited face at the door of the harness room, and in the
open space in the centre of the floor, himself and De-
laney, manoeuvring swiftly in a cloud of smoke.

Annixter's revolver contained but six cartridges. Al-
ready it seemed to him as if he had fired twenty times.
Without doubt the next shot was his last. Then what?
He peered through the blue haze that with every dis-
charge thickened between him and the buster. For his
own safety he must "place" at least one shot. Delaney's
chest and shoulders rose suddenly above the smoke close
upon him as the distraught buckskin reared again. An-
nixter, for the first time during the fight, took definite
aim, but before he could draw the trigger there was a
great shout and he was aware of the buckskin, the bridle
trailing, the saddle empty, plunging headlong across
the floor, crashing into the line of chairs. Delaney was
scrambling off the floor. There was blood on the buster's
wrist and he no longer carried his revolver. Suddenly
he turned and ran. The crowd parted right and left
before him as he made toward the doorway. He dis-
appeared.

Twenty men promptly sprang to the buckskin's
head, but she broke away, and wild with terror, be-
wildered, blind, insenate, charged into the corner of the
barn by the musicians' stand. She brought up against
the wall with cruel force and with impact of a sack of
stones; her head was cut. She turned and charged
again, bull-like, the blood streaming from her forehead.



THE OCTOPUS

The crowd, shrieking, melted before her rush. An old
man was thrown down and trampled. The buckskin
trod upon the dragging bridle, somersaulted into a
confusion of chairs in one corner, and came down with a
terrific clatter in a wild disorder of kicking hoofs and
splintered wood. But a crowd of men fell upon her, tug-
ging at the bit, sitting on her head, shouting, gesticulat-
ing. For five minutes she struggled and fought; then, by
degrees, she recovered herself, drawing great sobbing
breaths at long intervals that all but burst the girths,
rolling her eyes in bewildered, supplicating fashion,
trembling in every muscle, and starting and shrinking
now and then like a young girl in hysterics. At last she
lay quiet. The men allowed her to struggle to her feet.
The saddle was removed and she was led to one of the
empty stalls, where she remained the rest of the evening,
her head low, her pasterns quivering, turning her head
apprehensively from time to time, showing the white of
one eye and at long intervals heaving a single prolonged
sigh.

And an hour later the dance was progressing as evenly
as though nothing in the least extraordinary had oc-
curred. The incident was closed that abrupt swoop of
terror and impending death dropping down there from
out the darkness, cutting abruptly athwart the gayety of
the moment, come and gone with the swiftness of a
thunderclap. Many of the women had gone home, tak-
ing their men with them; but the great bulk of the
crowd still remained, seeing no reason why the episode
should interfere with the evening's enjoyment, resolved
to hold the ground for mere bravado, if for nothing else.
Delaney would not come back, of that everybody was
persuaded, and in case he should, there were not found
wanting fully half a hundred young men who would
give him a dressing down, by jingo! They had been too
surprised to act when Delaney had first appeared, and

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A STORY OF CALIFORNIA

before they knew where they were at, the buster had
cleared out. In another minute, just another second,
they would have shown him yes, sir, by jingo! ah,
you bet!

On all sides the reminiscences began to circulate. At
least one man in every three had been involved in a gun
fight at some time of his life. "Ah, you ought to have

seen in Yuba County one time " "Why, in Butte

County in the early days "Pshaw! this to-night

wasn't anything! Why, once in a saloon in Arizona when
I was there ' and so on, over and over again. Oster-
man solemnly asserted that he had seen a greaser sawn
in two in a Nevada sawmill. Old Broderson had wit-
nessed a Vigilante lynching in '55 on California Street
in San Francisco. Dyke recalled how once in his en-
gineering days he had run over a drunk at a street cross-
ing. Gethings of the San Pablo had taken a shot at a
highwayman. Hooven had bayonetted a French Chas-
seur at Sedan. An old Spanish-Mexican, a centenarian
from Guadalajara, remembered Fremont's stand on a
mountain top in San Benito County. The druggist
had fired at a burglar trying to break into his store one
New Year's eve. Young Vacca had seen a dog shot in
Guadalajara. Father Sarria had more than once ad-
ministered the sacraments to Portuguese desperadoes
dying of gunshot wounds. Even the women recalled
terrible scenes. Mrs. Cutter recounted to an interested
group how she had seen a claim jumped in Placer
County in 1851, when three men were shot, falling in a
fusillade of rifle shots, and expiring later upon the floor
of her kitchen while she looked on. Mrs. Dyke had been
in a stage hold-up, when the shotgun messenger was
murdered. Stories by the hundreds went the round of
the company. The air was surcharged with blood, dying
groans, the reek of powder smoke, the crack of rifles.
All the legends of '49, the violent, wild life of the early



THE OCTOPUS

days, were recalled to view, defiling before them there
in an endless procession under the glare of paper lan-
terns and kerosene lamps.

But the affair had aroused a combative spirit amongst
the men of the assembly. Instantly a spirit of aggres-
sion, of truculence, swelled up underneath waistcoats
and starched shirt bosoms. More than one offender was



Online LibraryFrank NorrisThe octopus → online text (page 19 of 47)