The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories

Contents:
Author: Owen Wister

I

It was thirty minutes before a June sundown at the post, and the first call had sounded for parade. Over in the barracks the two companies and the single troop lounged a moment longer, then laid their police literature down, and lifted their stocking feet from the beds to get ready. In the officers’ quarters the captain rose regretfully from after-dinner digestion, and the three lieutenants sought their helmets with a sigh. Lieutenant Balwin had been dining an unconventional and impressive guest at the mess, and he now interrupted the anecdote which the guest was achieving with frontier deliberation.

"Make yourself comfortable," he said. "I’ll have to hear the rest about the half-breed when I get back."

"There ain’t no more—yet. He got my cash with his private poker deck that onced, and I’m fixing for to get his’n."

Second call sounded; the lines filed out and formed, the sergeant of the guard and two privates took their station by the flag, and when battalion was formed the commanding officer, towering steeple-stiff beneath his plumes, received the adjutant’s salute, ordered him to his post, and began drill. At all this the unconventional guest looked on comfortably from Lieutenant Balwin’s porch.

"I doubt if I could put up with that there discipline all the week," he mused. "Carry—arms! Present—Arms! I guess that’s all I know of it." The winking white line of gloves stirred his approval. "Pretty good that. Gosh, see the sun on them bayonets!"

The last note of retreat merged in the sonorous gun, and the flag shining in the light of evening slid down and rested upon the earth. The blue ranks marched to a single bugle—the post was short of men and officers—and the captain, with the released lieutenants, again sought digestion and cigars. Balwin returned to his guest, and together they watched the day forsake the plain. Presently the guest rose to take his leave. He looked old enough to be the father of the young officer, but he was a civilian, and the military man proceeded to give him excellent advice.

"Now don’t get into trouble, Cutler."

The slouch-shouldered scout rolled his quid gently, and smiled at his superior with indulgent regard.

"See here, Cutler, you have a highly unoccupied look about you this evening. I’ve been studying the customs of this population, and I’ve noted a fact or two."

"Let ’em loose on me, sir."

"Fact one: When any male inhabitant of Fort Laramie has a few spare moments, he hunts up a game of cards."

"Well, sir, you’ve called the turn on me."

"Fact two: At Fort Laramie a game of cards frequently ends in discussion."

"Fact three: Mr. Calvin, in them discussions Jarvis Cutler has the last word. You put that in your census report alongside the other two."

"Well, Cutler, if somebody’s gun should happen to beat yours in an argument, I should have to hunt another wagon-master."

"I’ll not forget that. When was you expecting to pull out north?"

"Whenever the other companies get here. May be three days—may be three weeks."

"Then I will have plenty time for a game to-night."

With this slight dig of his civilian independence into the lieutenant’s military ribs, the scout walked away, his long, lugubrious frockcoat (worn in honor of the mess) occasionally flapping open in the breeze, and giving a view of a belt richly fluted with cartridges, and the ivory handle of a pistol looking out of its holster. He got on his horse, crossed the flat, and struck out for the cabin of his sociable friends, Loomis and Kelley, on the hill. The open door and a light inside showed the company, and Cutler gave a grunt, for sitting on the table was the half-breed, the winner of his unavenged dollars. He rode slower, in order to think, and arriving at the corral below the cabin, tied his horse to the stump of a cottonwood. A few steps towards the door, and he wheeled on a sudden thought, and under cover of the night did a crafty something which to the pony was altogether unaccountable. He unloosed both front and rear cinch of his saddle, so they hung entirely free in wide bands beneath the pony’s belly. He tested their slackness with his hand several times, stopping instantly when the more and more surprised pony turned his head to see what new thing in his experience might be going on, and, seeing, gave a delicate bounce with his hind-quarters.

"Never you mind, Duster," muttered the scout. "Did you ever see a skunk-trap? Oughts is for mush-rats, and number ones is mostly used for ’coons and ’possums, and I guess they’d do for a skunk. But you and we’ll call this here trap a number two, Duster, for the skunk I’m after is a big one. All you’ve to do is to act natural."

Cutler took the rope off the stump by which Duster had been tied securely, wound and strapped it to the tilted saddle, and instead of this former tether, made a weak knot in the reins, and tossed them over the stump. He entered the cabin with a countenance sweeter than honey.

"Good-evening, boys," he said. "Why, Toussaint, how do you do?"

The hand of Toussaint had made a slight, a very slight, movement towards his hip, but at sight of Cutler’s mellow smile resumed its clasp upon his knee.

"Golly, but you’re gay-like this evening," said Kelley.

"Blamed if I knowed he could look so frisky," added Loomis.

"Sporting his onced-a-year coat," Kelley pursued. "That ain’t for our benefit, Joole."

"No, we’re not that high in society." Both these cheerful waifs had drifted from the Atlantic coast westward.

Cutler looked from them to his costume, and then amiably surveyed the half-breed.

"Well, boys, I’m in big luck, I am. How’s yourn nowadays, Toussaint?"

"Pretty good sometime. Sometime heap hell." The voice of the half-breed came as near heartiness as its singularly false quality would allow, and as he smiled he watched Cutler with the inside of his eyes.

The scout watched nobody and nothing with great care, looked about him pleasantly, inquired for the whiskey, threw aside hat and gloves, sat down, leaning the chair back against the wall, and talked with artful candor. "Them sprigs of lieutenants down there," said he, "they’re a surprising lot for learning virtue to a man. You take Balwin. Why, he ain’t been out of the Academy only two years, and he’s been telling me how card-playing ain’t good for you. And what do you suppose he’s been and offered Jarvis Cutler for a job? I’m to be wagon-master." He paused, and the half-breed’s attention to his next words increased. "Wagon-master, and good pay, too. Clean up to the Black Hills; and the troops’ll move soon as ever them reinforcements come. Drinks on it, boys! Set ’em up, Joole Loomis. My contract’s sealed with some of Uncle Sam’s cash, and I’m going to play it right here. Hello! Somebody coming to join us? He’s in a hurry."

There was a sound of lashing straps and hoofs beating the ground, and Cutler looked out of the door. As he had calculated, the saddle had gradually turned with Duster’s movements and set the pony bucking.

"Stampeded!" said the scout, and swore the proper amount called for by such circumstances. "Some o’ you boys help me stop the durned fool."

Loomis and Kelley ran. Duster had jerked the prepared reins from the cottonwood, and was lurching down a small dry gulch, with the saddle bouncing between his belly and the stones.

Cutler cast a backward eye at the cabin where Toussaint had stayed behind alone. "Head him off below, boys, and I’ll head him off above," the scout sang out. He left his companions, and quickly circled round behind the cabin, stumbling once heavily, and hurrying on, anxious lest the noise had reached the lurking half-breed. But the ivory-handled pistol, jostled from its holster, lay unheeded among the stones where he had stumbled. He advanced over the rough ground, came close to the logs, and craftily peered in at the small window in the back of the cabin. It was evident that he had not been heard. The sinister figure within still sat on the table, but was crouched, listening like an animal to the shouts that were coming from a safe distance down in the gulch. Cutler, outside of the window, could not see the face of Toussaint, but he saw one long brown hand sliding up and down the man’s leg, and its movement put him in mind of the tail of a cat. The hand stopped to pull out a pistol, into which fresh cartridges were slipped. Cutler had already done this same thing after dismounting, and he now felt confident that his weapon needed no further examination. He did not put his hand to his holster. The figure rose from the table, and crossed the room to a set of shelves in front of which hung a little yellow curtain. Behind it were cups, cans, bottles, a pistol, counters, red, white, and blue, and two fresh packs of cards, blue and pink, side by side. Seeing these, Toussaint drew a handkerchief from his pocket, and unwrapped two further packs, both blue; and at this Cutler’s intent face grew into plain shape close to the window, but receded again into uncertain dimness. From down in the gulch came shouts that the runaway horse was captured. Toussaint listened, ran to the door, and quickly returning, put the blue pack from the shelf into his pocket, leaving in exchange one of his own. He hesitated about altering the position of the cards on the shelf, but Kelley and Loomis were unobservant young men, and the half-breed placed the pink cards on top of his blue ones. The little yellow curtain again hung innocently over the shelves, and Toussaint, pouring himself a drink of whiskey, faced round, and for the first time saw the window that had been behind his back. He was at it in an instant, wrenching its rusty pin, that did not give, but stuck motionless in the wood. Cursing, he turned and hurried out of the door and round the cabin. No one was there. Some hundred yards away the noiseless Cutler crawled farther among the thickets that filled the head of the gulch. Toussaint whipped out a match, and had it against his trousers to strike and look if there were footprints, when second thoughts warned him this might be seen, and was not worth risking suspicion over, since so many feet came and went by this cabin. He told himself no one could have been there to see him, and slowly returned inside, with a mind that fell a hair’s breadth short of conviction.

The boys, coming up with the horse, met Cutler, who listened to how Duster had stood still as soon as he had kicked free of his saddle, making no objection to being caught. They suggested that he would not have broken loose had he been tied with a rope; and hearing this, Cutler bit off a piece of tobacco, and told them they were quite right: a horse should never be tied by his bridle. For a savory moment the scout cuddled his secret, and turned it over like the tobacco lump under his tongue. Then he explained, and received serenely the amazement of Loomis and Kelley.

"When you kids have travelled this Western country awhile you’ll keep your cards locked," said he." He’s going to let us win first. You’ll see, he’ll play a poor game with the pink deck. Then, if we don’t call for fresh cards, why, he’ll call for ’em himself. But, just for the fun of the thing, if any of us loses steady, why, we’ll call. Then, when he gets hold of his strippers, watch out. When he makes his big play, and is stretchin’ for to rake the counters in, you grab ’em, Joole; for by then I’ll have my gun on him, and if he makes any trouble we’ll feed him to the coyotes. I expect that must have been it, boys," he continued, in a new tone, as they came within possible ear-shot of the half-breed in the cabin. "A coyote come around him where he was tied. The fool horse has seen enough of ’em to git used to ’em, you’d think, but he don’t. There; that’ll hold him. I guess he’ll have to pull the world along with him if he starts to run again."

The lamp was placed on the window-shelf, and the four took seats, Cutler to the left of Toussaint, with Kelley opposite. The pink cards fell harmless, and for a while the game was a dull one to see. Holding a pair of kings, Cutler won a little from Toussaint, who remarked that luck must go with the money of Uncle Sam. After a few hands, the half-breed began to bet with ostentatious folly, and, losing to one man and another, was joked upon the falling off of his game. In an hour’s time his blue chips had been twice reinforced, and twice melted from the neat often-counted pile in which he arranged them; moreover, he had lost a horse from his string down on Chug Water.

"Lend me ten dollar," he said to Cutler. "You rich man now."

In the next few deals Kelley became poor. "I’m sick of this luck," said he.

"Then change it, why don’t you? Let’s have a new deck." And Loomis rose.

"Joole, you always are for something new," said Cutler. "Now I’m doing pretty well with these pink cards. But I’m no hog. Fetch on your fresh ones."

The eyes of the half-breed swerved to the yellow curtain. He was by a French trapper from Canada out of a Sioux squaw, one of Red Cloud’s sisters, and his heart beat hot with the evil of two races, and none of their good. He was at this moment irrationally angry with the men who had won from him through his own devices, and malice undisguised shone in his lean flat face. At sight of the blue cards falling in the first deal, silence came over the company, and from the distant parade-ground the bugle sounded the melancholy strain of taps. Faint, far, solemn, melodious, the music travelled unhindered across the empty night.

"Them men are being checked off in their bunks now," said Cutler.

"What you bet this game?" demanded Toussaint.

"I’ve heard ’em play that same music over a soldier’s grave," said Kelley.

"You goin’ to bet?" Toussaint repeated.

Cutler pushed forward the two necessary white chips. No one’s hand was high, and Loomis made a slight winning. The deal went its round several times, and once, when it was Toussaint’s, Cutler suspected that special cards had been thrown to him by the half-breed as an experiment. He therefore played the gull to a nicety, betting gently upon his three kings; but when he stepped out boldly and bet the limit, it was not Toussaint but Kelley who held the higher hand, winning with three aces. Why the coup should be held off longer puzzled the scout, unless it was that Toussaint was carefully testing the edges of his marked cards to see if he controlled them to a certainty. So Cutler played on calmly. Presently two aces came to him in Toussaint’s deal, and he wondered how many more would be in his three-card draw. Very pretty! One only, and he lost to Loomis, who had drawn three, and held four kings. The hands were getting higher, they said. The game had "something to it now." But Toussaint grumbled, for his luck was bad all this year, he said. Cutler had now made sure that the aces and kings went where the half-breed wished, and could be slid undetected from the top or the middle or the bottom of the pack; but he had no test yet how far down the scale the marking went. At Toussaint’s next deal Cutler judged the time had come, and at the second round of betting he knew it. The three white men played their parts, raising each other without pause, and again there was total silence in the cabin. Every face bent to the table, watching the turn repeat its circle with obstinate increase, until new chips and more new chips had been brought to keep on with, and the heap in the middle had mounted high in the hundreds, while in front of Toussaint lay his knife and a match-box—pledges of two more horses which he had staked. He had drawn three cards, while the others took two, except Cutler, who had a pair of kings again, and drawing three, picked up two more. Kelley dropped out, remarking he had bet more than his hand was worth, which was true, and Loomis followed him. Their persistence had surprised Toussaint a little. He had not given every one suspicious hands: Cutler’s four kings were enough. He bet once more, was raised by the scout, called, and threw down his four aces.

"That beats me," said Cutler, quietly, and his hand moved under his frock-coat, as the half-breed, eyeing the central pile of counters in triumph, closed his fingers over it. They were dashed off by Kelley, who looked expectantly across at Cutler, and seeing the scout’s face wither into sudden old age, cried out, "For God’s sake, Jarvis, where’s your gun?" Kelley sprang for the yellow curtain, and reeled backward at the shot of Toussaint. His arm thrashed along the window-sill as he fell, sweeping over the lamp, and flaring channels of oil ran over his body and spread on the ground. But these could no longer hurt him. The half-breed had leaped outside the cabin, enraged that Cutler should have got out during the moment he had been dealing with Kelley. The scout was groping for his ivory-handled pistol off in the darkness. He found it, and hurried to the little window at a second shot he heard inside. Loomis, beating the rising flame away, had seized the pistol from the shelf, and aimlessly fired into the night at Toussaint. He fired again, running to the door from the scorching heat. Cutler got round the house to save him if he could, and saw the half-breed’s weapon flash, and the body pitch out across the threshold. Toussaint, gaining his horse, shot three times and missed Cutler, whom he could not clearly see; and he heard the scout’s bullets sing past him as his horse bore him rushing away.

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Chicago: Owen Wister, "I," The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8PRQ9XW7TBIT1G.

MLA: Wister, Owen. "I." The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8PRQ9XW7TBIT1G.

Harvard: Wister, O, 'I' in The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Jimmyjohn Boss and Other Stories, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L8PRQ9XW7TBIT1G.