Magick7's Moonlight Stories Index

 

 

 

 

Afraid of a Gun

Dashiell Hammett

 

 

 

Owen Sack turned from the stove as the door of his cabin opened to admit 'Rip' Yust, and with the hand that did not hold the coffeepot Owen Sack motioned hospitably toward the table, where food steamed before a ready chair.

“Hullo, Rip! Set down and go to it while it's hot. 'Twon't take me but a minute to throw some more together for myself.”

That was Owen Sack, a short man of compact wiriness, with round china-blue eyes and round ruddy cheeks, and only the thinness of his straw-coloured hair to tell of his fifty-odd years, a quiet little man whose too-eager friendliness at times suggested timidity.

Rip Yust crossed to the table, but he paid no attention to its burden of food. Instead, he placed two big fists on the tabletop, leaned his weight on them, and scowled at Owen Sack. He was big, this Rip Yust, barrel-bodied, slope-shouldered, thick-limbed, and his usual manner was a phlegmatic sort of sullenness. But now his heavy features were twisted into a scowl.

“They got 'Lucky' this morning,” he said after a moment, and his voice wasn't the voice of one who brings news. It was accusing.

“Who got him?”

But Owen Sack's eyes swerved from the other's as he put the question, and he moistened his lips nervously. He knew who had got Rip's brother.

“Who do you guess?” with heavy derision. “The Prohis! You know it!”

The little man winced.

“Aw, Rip! How would I know it? I ain't been to town for a week, and nobody never comes past here any more.”

“Yeah, I wonder how you would know it.”

Yust walked around the table, to where Owen Sack — with little globules of moisture glistening on his round face — stood, caught him by the slack of his blue shirt bosom and lifted him clear of the floor. Twice Yust shook the little man — shook him with a lack of vehemence that was more forcible than any violence could have been—and set him down on his feet again.

“You knowed where our cache was at,” he accused, still holding the looseness of the shirt bosom in one muscular hand, “and nobody else that ain't in with us did. The Prohis showed up there this morning and grabbed Lucky. Who told 'em where it was? You did, you rat!”

“I didn't, Rip! I didn't! I swear to —”

Yust cut off the little man's whimpering by placing a broad palm across his mouth.

“Maybe you didn't. To tell the truth, I ain't exactly positive yet that you done it — or I wouldn't be talking to you.” He flicked his coat aside, baring for a suggestive half-second the brown butt of a revolver that peeped out of a shoulder holster. “But it looks like it couldn't of been nobody else. But I ain't aiming to hurt nobody that don't hurt me, so I'm looking around a while to make sure. But if I find out that you done it for sure —”

He snapped his big jaws together. His right hand made as if to dart under his coat near the left armpit. He nodded with slow emphasis, and left the cabin.

For a while Owen Sack did not move. He stood stiffly still, staring with barren blue eyes at the door through which his caller had vanished; and Owen Sack looked old now. His face held lines that had not been there before; and his body, for all its rigidity, seemed frailer.

Presently he shook his shoulders briskly, and turned back to the stove with an appearance of having put the episode out of his mind; but immediately afterward his body drooped spiritlessly. He crossed to the chair, dropped down on it, and pushed the cooling meal back a way, to pillow his head upon his forearms.

He shuddered now and his knees trembled, just as he had shuddered and his knees had trembled when he had helped carry Cardwell home. Cardwell, so gossip said, had talked too much about certain traffic on the Kootenai River. Cardwell had been found one morning in a thicket below Dime, with a hole in the back of his neck where a bullet had gone in and another and larger hole in front where the bullet had come out. No one could say who had fired the bullet, but gossip in Dime had made guesses, and had taken pains to keep those guesses from the ears of the Yust brothers.

If it hadn't been for Cardwell, Owen knew that he could have convinced Rip Yust of his own innocence. But he saw the dead man again whenever he saw one of the Yusts; and this afternoon, when Rip had come into his cabin and hurled that accusing “They got Lucky this morning" across the table, Cardwell had filled Owen Sack's mind to the exclusion of all else — filled it with a fear that had made him talk and act as if he had in fact guided the Prohibition enforcement officers to the Yusts' cache. And so Yust had gone away more than half convinced that his suspicions were correct.

Rip Yust was, Owen Sack knew, a fair man according to his lights. He would do nothing until he was certain that he had the right man. Then he would strike with neither warning nor mercy.

An eye for an eye was the code of the Rip Yusts of the world, and an enemy was one to be removed without scruple. And that Yust would not strike until he had satisfied himself that he had the right man was small comfort to Owen Sack.

Yust was not possessed of the clearest of minds; he was not fitted, for all his patience and deliberation, to unerringly sift the false from the true. Many things that properly were meaningless might, to him, seem irrefragable evidence of Owen Sack's guilt — now that Owen Sack's fears had made him act the part of a witness against himself.

And some morning Owen Sack's body would be found as Cardwell's had been found. Perhaps Cardwell had been unjustly suspected too.

Owen Sack sat up straight now, squaring his shoulders and tightening his mouth in another half-hearted attempt to pull himself together. He ground his fists into his temples, and for a moment pretended to himself that he was trying to arrive at a decision, to map out a course of action. But in his heart he knew all the time that he was lying to himself. He was going to run away again. He always did. The time for making a stand was gone.

Thirty years ago he might have done it.

That time in a Marsh Market Space dive in Baltimore, when a dispute over a reading of the dice had left him facing a bull-dog pistol in the hands of a cockney sailor. The cockney's hand had shaken; they had stood close together; the cockney was as frightened as he. A snatch, a blow — it would have been no trick at all. But he had, after a moment's hesitancy, submitted; he had let the cockney not only run him out of the game but out of the city.

His fear of ballets had been too strong for him. He wasn't a coward (not then); a knife, which most men dread, hadn't seemed especially fearful in those days. It travelled at a calculable and discernible rate of speed; you could see it coming; judge its speed; parry, elude it; or twist about so that its wound was shallow. And even if it struck, went deep, it was sharp and slid easily through the flesh, a clean, neat separation of the tissues.

But a bullet, a ball of metal, hot from the gases that propelled it, hurtling invisibly toward you — nobody could say how fast — not to make a path for itself with a fine keen edge, but to hammer out a road with a dull blunt nose, driving through whatever stood in its way. A lump of hot lead battering its irresistible tunnel through flesh and sinew, splintering bones! That he could not face.

So he had fled from the Maryland city to avoid the possibility of another meeting with the cockney sailor and his bull-dog pistol.

And that was only the first time.

No matter where he had gone, he had sooner or later found himself looking into the muzzle of a threatening gun. It was as if his very fear attracted the thing he feared. A dog, he had been told as a boy, would bite you if he thought you were afraid of him. It had been that way with guns.

Each repetition had left him in worse case than before; until now the sight of a menacing firearm paralyzed him, and even the thought of one blurred his mind with terror.

In those earlier days he hadn't been a coward, except where guns were concerned; but he had run too often; and that fear, growing, had spread like the seepage from some cancerous growth, until, little by little, he had changed from a man of reasonable courage with one morbid fear to a man of no courage at all with fears that included most forms of physical violence.

But, in the beginning, his fear hadn't been too great to have been outfaced. He could have overcome it that time in Baltimore. It would have required an enormous effort, but he could have overcome it. He could have overcome it the next time, in New South Wales, when, instead, he had gone riding madly to Bourke, across a hundred-mile paddock, away from a gun in the hands of a quarrelsome boundary rider — a desperate flight along a road whose ruts stood perversely up out of the ground like railway tracks, with frightened rabbits and paddy-mellons darting out of the infrequent patches of white-bearded spear grass along his way.

Nor would it have been too late three months after that, in north Queensland. But he had run away again. Hurrying down to Cairns and the Cooktown boat, this time, away from the menace of a rusty revolver in the giant black hand of a Negro beside whom he had toiled thigh-deep in the lime-white river of the Muldiva silver fields.

After that, however, he was beyond recovery. He could not then by any effort have conquered his fear. He was beaten and he knew it. Henceforth, he had run without even decent shame in his cowardice, and he had begun to flee from other things than guns.

He had, for instance, let a jealous half-caste garimpeiro drive him out of Morro Velho, drive him away from his job with the British Sao Joao del Rey Mining Company and Tita. Tita's red mouth had gone from smiling allure to derision, but neither the one nor the other was strong enough to keep Owen Sack from retreating before the flourish of a knife in the hand of a man he could have tied in knots, knife and all. Out of the Bakersfield oil fields he had been driven by the bare fists of an undersized rigger. And now from here...

The other times hadn't, in a way, been so bad as this. He was younger then, and there was always some other place to attract him — one place was as good as another. But now it was different.

He was no longer young, and here in the Cabinet Mountains he had meant to stop for good. He had come to look upon his cabin as his home. He wanted but two things now: a living and tranquillity, and until now he had found them here. In the year 1923 it was still possible to wash out of the Kootenai enough dust to make wages — good wages. Not wealth, certainly, but he didn't want wealth; he wanted a quiet home, and for six months he had had it here.

And then he had stumbled upon the Yusts' cache. He had known, as all Dime knew, that the Kootenai River — winding down from British Columbia to spend most of its four hundred miles in Montana and Idaho before returning to the province of its birth to join the great Columbia — was the moving road along which came much liquor, to be relayed to Spokane, not far away. That was a matter of common knowledge, and Owen Sack of all men had no desire for more particular knowledge of the river traffic.

Why, then, had his luck sent him blundering upon the place where that liquor was concealed until ready for its overland journey? And at a time when the Yusts were there to witness his discovery? And then, as if that were not enough in itself, the Prohibition enforcement officers had swooped down on that hiding-place within a week.

Now the Yusts suspected him of having informed; it was but a matter of time before their stupid brains would be convinced of that fact; then they would strike — with a gun. A pellet of metal would drive through Owen Sack's tissues as one had driven through Cardwell's...

He got up from the chair and set about packing such of his belongings as he intended taking with him — to where? It didn't matter. One place was like another — a little of peace and comfort, and then the threat of another gun, to send him elsewhere. Baltimore, New South Wales, north Queensland, Brazil, California, here — thirty years of it! He was old now and his legs were stiff for flight, but running had become an integral part of him.

He packed a little breathlessly, his fingers fumbling clumsily in their haste.

 

Dusk was thickening in the valley of the Kootenai when Owen Sack, bent beneath the blanketed pack across his shoulders, tramped over the bridge into Dime. He had remained in his cabin until the last minute, so that he might catch the stage which would carry him to the railroad just before it left, avoiding farewells or embarrassing meetings. He hurried now.

But, again, luck ran against him.

As he turned the corner of the New Dime Hotel toward the stage terminus — two doors beyond Henny Upshaw's soft-drink parlour and poolroom—he spied Rip Yust coming down the street toward him. Yust's face, he could see, was red and swollen, and Yust's walk was a swagger. Yust was drunk.

Owen Sack halted in the middle of the sidewalk, and realised immediately that that was precisely the wrong thing to do. Safety lay — if safety lay anywhere now — in going on as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.

He crossed the street to the opposite sidewalk, cursing himself for this open display of his desire to avoid the other, but nevertheless unable to keep his legs from hurrying him across the dusty roadway. Perhaps, he thought, Rip Yust's whisky-clouded eyes would not see him hurrying toward the stage depot with a pack on his back. But even while the hope rose in him he knew it for a futile, childish one.

Rip Yust did see him, and came to the curb on his own side of the street, to bellow:

“Hey, you! Where you going?”

Owen Sack became motionless, a frightened statue. Fear froze his mind — fear and thoughts of Cardwell.

Yust grinned stupidly across the street, and repeated:

“Where you going?”

Owen Sack tried to answer, to say something — safety seemed to lie in words — but, though he did achieve a sound, it was inarticulate, and would have told the other nothing, even if it had travelled more than ten feet from the little man's throat.

Yust laughed boomingly. He was apparently in high good humour.

“Now, you mind what I told you this afternoon,” he roared, wagging a thick forefinger at Owen Sack. “If I find that you done it —”

The thick forefinger flashed back to tap the left breast of his coat.

Owen Sack screamed at the suddenness of the gesture — a thin, shrill scream of terror, which struck amusingly upon the big man's drunken fancy.

Laughter boomed out of his throat again, and his gun came into his hand. His brother's arrest and Owen Sack's supposed part in that arrest were, for the time, forgotten in his enjoyment of the little man's ridiculous fright.

With the sight of the gun, Owen Sack's last shred of sanity departed. Terror had him fast. He tried to plead, but his mouth could not frame the words. He tried to raise both his hands high above his head in the universal posture of submission, a posture that had saved him many times before. But the strap holding his pack hampered him. He tried to loosen the strap, to fling it off.

To the alcohol-muddled eyes and brain of the man across the street Owen Sack's right hand was trying to get beneath his coat on the left side. Rip Yust could read but one meaning into that motion — the little man was going for his gun.

The weapon in Yust's hand spat flame!

Owen Sack sobbed. Something struck him heavily on one side. He fell, sat down on the sidewalk, his eyes wide and questioning and fixed upon the smoking gun across the street.

Somebody, he found, was bending over him. It was Henny Upshaw, in front of whose establishment he had fallen. Owen Sack's eyes went back to the man on the opposite curb, who, cold sober now, his face granite, stood awaiting developments, the gun still in his hand.

Owen Sack didn't know whether to get up, to remain still, or to lie down. Upshaw had struck him aside in time to save him from the first bullet; but suppose the big man fired again?

“Where'd he get you?” Upshaw was asking.

“What's that?”

“Now take it easy,” Upshaw advised. “You'll be all right! I'll get one of the boys to help me with you.”

Owen Sack's fingers wound into one of Upshaw's sleeves.

“Wh—what happened?” he asked.

“Rip shot you, but you'll be all right. Just lay —”

Owen Sack released Upshaw's sleeve, and his hands went feeling about his body, exploring. One of them came away red and sticky from his right side, and that side — where he had felt the blow that had taken him off his feet — was warm and numb.

“Did he shoot me?” he demanded in an excited screech.

“Sure, but you're all right,” Upshaw soothed him, and beckoned to the men who were coming slowly into the street, drawn forward by their curiosity, but retarded in their approach by the sight of Yust, who still stood, gun in hand, waiting to see what happened next.

“My God!” Owen Sack gasped in utter bewilderment. “And it ain't no worse than that!”

He bounded to his feet — his pack sliding off — eluded the hands that grasped at him, and ran for the door of Upshaw's place. On a shelf beneath the cash register he found Upshaw's black automatic, and, holding it stiffly in front of him at arm's length, turned back to the street.

His china-blue eyes were wide with wonder, and from out of his grinning mouth issued a sort of chant:

“All these years I been running,

And it ain't no worse than that!

All these years I been running,

And it ain't no worse than that!”

Rip Yust, crossing the roadway now, was in the middle when Owen Sack popped out of Upshaw's door.

The onlookers scattered. Rip's revolver swung up, and roared. A spray of Owen Sack's straw-coloured hair whisked back.

He giggled, and fired three times, rapidly. None of the bullets hit the big man. Owen Sack felt something burn his left arm. He fired again, and missed.

“I got to get closer,” he told himself aloud.

He walked across the sidewalk — the automatic held stiffly before him — stepped down into the roadway, and began to stride toward where pencils of fire sprang to meet him from Yust's gun.

And as the little man strode he chanted his silly chant, and fired, fired, fired.... Once something tugged at one of his shoulders, and once at his arm — above where he had felt the burn — but he did not even wonder what it was.

When he was within ten feet of Rip Yust, that man turned as if to walk away, took a step, his big body curved suddenly in a grotesque arc, and he slid down into the sand of the roadway.

Owen Sack found that the weapon in his own hand was empty, had been empty for some time. He turned around. Dimly he made out the broad doorway of Upshaw's place. The ground clung to his feet, trying to pull him down, to hold him back, but he gained the doorway, gained the cash register, found the shelf, and returned the automatic to it.

Voices were speaking to him, arms were around him. He ignored the voices, shook off the arms, reached the street again. More hands to be shaken off. But the air lent him strength. He was indoors again, leaning over the firearm showcase in Jeff Hamline's store.

“I want the two biggest handguns you got, Jeff, and a mess of cartridges. Fix 'em up for me and I'll be back to get 'em in a little while.”

He knew that Jeff answered him, but he could not separate Jeff's words from the roaring in his head.

The warmer air of the street once more. The ankle-deep dust of the roadway pulling at his feet. The opposite sidewalk. Doc Johnstone's door. Somebody helping him up the narrow stairs. A couch or table under him; he could see and hear better now that he was lying down.

“Fix me up in a hurry, Doc! I got a lot of things to tend to.”

The doctor's smooth professional voice:

“You've nothing to attend to for a while except taking care of yourself.”

“I got to travel a lot, Doc. Hurry!”

“You're all right, Sack. There's no need of your going away. I saw Yust down you first from my window, and half a dozen others saw it. Self-defence if there ever was a case of it!”

“'Tain't that!” A nice man was Doc, but there was a lot he didn't understand. “I got a lot of places to go to, a lot of men I got to see.”

“Certainly. Certainly. Just as soon as you like.”

“You don't understand, Doc!” The doc was talking to him like he was a child to be humoured, or a drunk. “My God, Doc! I got to back-track my whole life, and I ain't young no more. There's men I got to find in Baltimore, and Australia, and Brazil, and California, and God knows where—all. And some of 'em will take a heap of finding. I got to do a lot of shootin'. I ain't young no more, and it's a mighty big job. I got to get going! You got to hurry me up, Doc! You got to...”

Owen Sack's voice thickened to a mumble, to a murmur, and subsided.


E-text from blackmask.com