The Mule Driver and the Garrulous Mute By Rex Beach
Bill had finished panning the concentrates from our last clean-up, and now the silver ball of amalgam sizzled and fried on the shovel over the little chip-fire, while we smoked in the sun before the cabin. Removed from the salivating fumes of the quicksilver, we watched the yellow tint grow and brighten in the heat.
“There’s two diseases which the doctors ain’t got any license to monkey with,” began Bill, chewing out blue smoke from his lungs with each word, “and they’re both fevers. After they butt into your system they stick crossways, like a swallered toothpick; there ain’t any patent medicine that can bust their holt.”
I settled against the door-jamb and nodded.
“I’ve had them both, acute and continuous, since I was old enough to know my own mind and the taste of tobacco; I hold them mainly responsible for my present condition.” He mournfully viewed his fever-ridden frame which sprawled a pitiful six-feet-two from the heels of his gum-boots to the grizzled hair beneath his white Stetson.
“The first and most rabid,” he continued, “is horse-racing–and t’other is the mining fever, which last is a heap insidiouser in its action and more lingering in its effect.
“It wasn’t long after that deal in the Territory that I felt the symptoms coming on agin, and this time they pinted most emphatic toward prospecting, so me and ‘Kink’ Martin loaded our kit onto the burros and hit West.
“Kink was a terrible good prospector, though all-fired unlucky and peculiar. Most people called him crazy, ’cause he had fits of goin’ for days without a peep.
“Hosstyle and ornery to the whole world; sort of bulging out and exploding with silence, as it were.
“We’d been out in the hills for a week on our first trip before he got one of them death-watch faces on him, and boycotted the English langwidge. I stood for it three days, trying to jolly a grin on to him or rattle a word loose, but he just wouldn’t jolt.
“One night we packed into camp tired, hungry, and dying for a good feed.
“I hustled around and produced a supper fit for old Mr. Eppycure. Knowing that Kink had a weakness for strong coffee that was simply a hinge in him, I pounded up about a quart of coffee beans in the corner of a blanket and boiled out a South American liquid that was nothing but the real Arbuckle mud.
“This wasn’t no chafing-dish party either, because the wood was wet and the smoke chased me round the fire. Then it blazed up in spurts and fired the bacon-grease, so that when I grabbed the skillet the handle sizzled the life all out of my callouses. I kicked the fire down to a nice bed of coals and then the coffee-pot upset and put it out. Ashes got into the bacon, and–Oh! you know how joyful it is to cook on a green fire when you’re dead tired and your hoodoo’s on vicious.
“When the ‘scoffings’ were finally ready, I wasn’t in what you might exactly call a mollyfying and tactful mood nor exuding genialness and enthusiasms anyways noticeable.”
“I herded the best in camp towards him, watching for a benevolent symptom, but he just dogged it in silence and never changed a hair. That was the limit, so I inquired sort of ominous and gentle, ‘Is that coffee strong enough for ye, Mr. Martin?’
“He give a little impecunious grunt, implying, ‘Oh! it’ll do,’ and with that I seen little green specks begin to buck and wing in front of my eyes; reaching back of me, I grabbed the Winchester and throwed it down on him.
“‘Now, you laugh, darn you,’ I says, ‘in a hurry. Just turn it out gleeful and infractious.’
“He stared into the nozzle of that Krupp for a minute, then swallered twice to tune up his reeds, and says, friendly and perlite, but serious and wheezy:
“‘Why, what in hell ails you, William?’
“‘Laugh, you old dong-beater,’ I yells, rising gradually to the occasion, ‘or I’ll bust your cupola like a blue-rock.’
“‘I’ve got to have merriment,’ I says. ‘I pine for warmth and genial smiles, and you’re due to furnish the sunshine. You emit a few shreds of mirth with expedition or the upper end of your spinal-cord is going to catch cold.’
“Say! his jaws squeaked like a screen door when he loosened, but he belched up a beauty, sort of stagy and artificial it was, but a great help. After that we got to know each other a heap better. Yes, sir; soon after that we got real intimate. He knocked the gun out of my hands, and we began to arbitrate. We plumb ruined that spot for a camping place; rooted it up in furrows, and tramped each other’s stummicks out of shape. We finally reached an amicable settlement by me getting him agin a log where I could brand him with the coffee-pot.
“Right there we drawed up a protoplasm, by the terms of which he was to laugh anyways twice at meal-times.
“He told me that he reckoned he was locoed, and always had been since a youngster, when the Injuns run in on them down at Frisbee, the time of the big ‘killing.’ Kink saw his mother and father both murdered, and other things, too, which was impressive, but not agreeable for a growing child. He had formed a sort of antipathy for Injuns at that time, which he confessed he hadn’t rightly been able to overcome.
“Now, he allus found himself planning how to hand Mr. Lo the double cross and avoid complications.
“We worked down into South Western Arizony to a spot about thirty-five miles back of Fort Walker and struck a prospect. Sort of a teaser it was, but worth working on. We’d just got nicely started when Kink comes into camp one day after taking a passiar around the butte for game, and says:
“‘The queerest thing happened to me just now, Kid.’
“‘Well, scream it at me,’ I says, sort of smelling trouble in the air.
“‘Oh! It wasn’t much,’ says he. ‘I was just working down the big canyon over there after a deer when I seen two feather-dusters coming up the trail. I hid behind a rock, watching ’em go past, and I’m durned if my gun didn’t go off accidental and plumb ruin one of ’em. Then I looks carefuller and seen it wasn’t no feather-duster at all–nothing but an Injun.’
“‘What about the other one?’
“‘That’s the strangest part,’ says Kink. ‘Pretty soon the other one turns and hits the back-trail like he’d forgot something; then I seen him drop off his horse, too, sudden and all togetherish. I’m awful careless with this here gun,’ he says. I hate to see a man laugh from his tonsils forrard, the way he did. It ain’t humorous.
“‘See here,’ I says, ‘I ain’t the kind that finds fault with my pardner, nor saying this to be captious and critical of your play; but don’t you know them Cochises ain’t on the warpath? Them Injuns has been on their reservation for five years, peaceable, domesticated, and eating from the hand. This means trouble.”
“‘My old man didn’t have no war paint on him one day back at Frisbee,’ whispers Kink, and his voice sounded puckered up and dried, ‘and my mother wasn’t so darned quarrelsome, either.’
“Then I says, ‘Well! them bodies has got to be hid, or we’ll have the tribe and the bluebellies from the fort a scouring these hills till a red-bug couldn’t hide.’
“‘To hell with ’em,’ says Kink. ‘I’ve done all I’m going to for ’em. Let the coyotes finish the job.’
“‘No, siree,’ I replies. ‘I don’t blame you for having a prejudice agin savages, but my parents is still robust and husky, and I have an idea that they’d rather see me back on the ranch than glaring through the bars for life. I’m going over to bury the meat.’
“Off I went, but when I slid down the gulch, I only found one body. T’other had disappeared. You can guess how much time I lost getting back to camp.
“‘Kink,’ I says, ‘we’re a straddle of the raggedest proposition in this country. One of your dusters at this moment is jamming his cayuse through the horizon between here and the post. Pretty soon things is going to bust loose. ‘Bout to-morrer evening we’ll be eating hog-bosom on Uncle Sam.’
“‘Well! Well!’ says Kink, ‘ain’t that a pity. Next time I’ll conquer my natural shyness and hold a post-mortem with a rock.’
“‘There won’t be no next time, I reckon,’ I says, ”cause we can’t make it over into Mexico without being caught up. They’ll nail us sure, seeing as we’re the only white men for twenty-five miles around.’
“‘I’d rather put up a good run than a bad stand, anyhow,’ says he, ‘and I allows, furthermore, there’s going to be some hard trails to foller and a tolable disagreeable fight before I pleads ‘not guilty’ to the Colonel. We’ll both duck over into the Santa–‘
“‘Now, don’t tell me what route you’re going,’ I interrupts,’ ’cause I believe I’ll stay and bluff it through, rather than sneak for it, though neither proposition don’t appeal to me. I may get raised out before the draw, but the percentage is just as strong agin your game as mine.’
“‘Boy, if I was backing your system,’ says Kink, ‘I’d shore copper this move and play her to lose. You come on with me, and we’ll make it through–mebbe.’
“‘No,’ I says; ‘here I sticks.’
“I made up a pack-strap out of my extry overhalls while he got grub together, to start south through one hundred miles of the ruggedest and barrenest country that was ever left unfinished.
“Next noon I was parching some coffee-beans in the frying-pan, when I heard hoofs down the gully back of me. I never looked up when they come into the open nor when I heard a feller say ‘Halt!’
“‘Hello there!’ somebody yells. ‘You there at the fire.’ I kept on shaking the skillet over the camp-fire.
“‘What’s the matter with him?’ somebody said. A man got off and walked up behind me.
“‘See here, brother,’ he says, tapping me on the shoulder; ‘this don’t go.’
“I jumped clean over the fire, dropped the pan, and let out a deaf and dumb holler, ‘Ee! Ah!’
“The men began to laugh; it seemed to rile the little leftenant.
“‘Cut this out,’ says he. ‘You can talk as well as I can, and you’re a going to tell us about this Injun killin’. Don’t try any fake business, or I’ll roast your little heels over that fire like yams.’
“I just acted the dummy, wiggled my fingers, and handed him the joyful gaze, heliographing with my teeth as though I was glad to see visitors. However, I wondered if that runt would really give my chilblains a treat. He looked like a West Pointer, and I didn’t know but he’d try to haze me.
“Well! they ‘klow-towed’ around there for an hour looking for clues, but I’d hid all the signs of Kink, so finally they strapped me onto a horse and we hit back for the fort.
“The little man tried all kinds of tricks to make me loosen on the way down, but I just acted wounded innocence and ‘Ee’d’ and ‘Ah’d’ at him till he let me alone.
“When we rode up to the post he says to the Colonel:
“‘We’ve got the only man there is in the mountains back there, sir, but he’s playing dumb. I don’t know what his game is.’
“‘Dumb, eh?’ says the old man, looking me over pretty keen. ‘Well! I guess we’ll find his voice if he’s got one.’
“He took me inside, and speaking of examinations, probably I didn’t get one. He kept looking at me like he wanted to place me, but I give him the ‘Ee! Ah!’ till everybody began to laugh. They tried me with a pencil and paper, but I balked, laid my ears back, and buck-jumped. That made the old man sore, and he says: ‘Lock him up! Lock him up; I’ll make him talk if I have to skin him.’ So I was dragged to the ‘skookum-house,’ where I spent the night figuring out my finish.
“I could feel it coming just as plain, and I begun to see that when I did open up and prattle after Kink was safe, nobody wouldn’t believe my little story. I had sized the Colonel up as a dead stringy old proposition, too. He was one of these big-chopped fellers with a mouth set more’n half way up from his chin and little thin lips like the edge of a knife blade, and just as full of blood–face, big and rustic-finished.
“I says to myself, ‘Bud, it looks like you wouldn’t be forced to prospect for a living any more this season. If that old sport turns himself loose you’re going to get ‘life’ three times and a holdover.’
“Next morning they tried every way to make me talk. Once in a while the old man looked at me puzzled and searching, but I didn’t know him from a sweat-pad, and just paid strict attention to being dumb.
“It was mighty hard, too. I got so nervous my mouth simply ached to let out a cayoodle. The words kept trying to crawl through my sesophagus, and when I backed ’em up, they slid down and stood around in groups, hanging onto the straps, gradually filling me with witful gems of thought.
“The Colonel talked to me serious and quiet, like I had good ears, and says, ‘My man, you can understand every word I say, I’m sure, and what your object is in maintaining this ridiculous silence, I don’t know. You’re accused of a crime, and it looks serious for you.”
“Then he gazes at me queer and intent, and says, ‘If you only knew how bad you are making your case you’d make a clean breast of it. Come now, let’s get at the truth.’
“Them thought jewels and wads of repartee was piling up in me fast, like tailings from a ground-sluice, till I could feel myself getting bloated and pussy with langwidge, but I thought, ‘No! to-morrow Kink ‘ll be safe, and then I’ll throw a jolt into this man’s camp that’ll go down in history. They’ll think some Chinaman’s been thawing out a box of giant powder when I let out my roar.’
“I goes to the guard-house again, with a soldier at my back. Everything would have been all right if we hadn’t run into a mule team.
“They had been freighting from the railroad, and as we left the barracks we ran afoul of four outfits, three span to the wagon, with the loads piled on till the teams was all lather and the wheels complainin’ to the gods, trying to pass the corner of the barracks where there was a narrow opening between the buildings.
“Now a good mule-driver is the littlest, orneriest speck in the human line that’s known to the microscope, but when you get a poor one, he’d spoil one of them cholera germs you read about just by contact. The leader of this bunch was worse than the worst; strong on whip-arm, but surprising weak on judgment. He tried to make the turn, run plump into the corner of the building, stopped, backed, swung, and proceeded to get into grief.
“The mules being hot and nervous, he sent them all to the loco patch instanter. They began to plunge and turn and back and snarl. Before you could say ‘Craps! you lose,’ them shave-tails was giving the grandest exhibition of animal idiocy in the Territory, barring the teamster. He follered their trail to the madhouse, yanking the mouths out of them, cruel and vicious.
“Now, one mule can cause a heap of tribulation, and six mules can break a man’s heart, but there wasn’t no excuse for that driver to stand up on his hind legs, close his eyes, and throw thirty foot of lash into that plunging buckin’, white-eyed mess. When he did it, all the little words inside of me began to foam and fizzle like sedlitz; out they came, biting, in mouthfuls, and streams, and squirts, backwards, sideways, and through my nose.
“‘Here! you infernal half-spiled, dog-robbing walloper,’ I says; ‘you don’t know enough to drive puddle ducks to a pond. You quit heaving that quirt or I’ll harm you past healing.’
“He turned his head and grit out something through his teeth that stimulated my circulation. I skipped over the wheels and put my left onto his neck, fingering the keys on his blow-pipe like a flute. Then I give him a toss and gathered up the lines. Say! it was like the smell of grease-paint to an actor man for me to feel the ribbons again, and them mules knew they had a chairman who savvied ’em too, and had mule talk pat, from soda to hock.
“I just intimated things over them with that whip, and talked to them like they was my own flesh and blood. I starts at the worst words the English langwidge and the range had produced, to date, and got steadily and rapidly worse as long as I talked.
“Arizony may be slow in the matter of standing collars and rag-time, but she leads the world in profanity. Without being swelled on myself, I’ll say, too, that I once had more’n a local reputation in that line, having originated some quaint and feeling conceits which has won modest attention, and this day I was certainly trained to the minute.
“I addressed them brutes fast and earnest for five minutes steady, and never crossed my trail or repeated a thought.
“It must have been sacred and beautiful. Anyhow, it was strong enough to soak into their pores so that they strung out straight as a chalk-line. Then I lifted them into the collars, and we rumbled past the building, swung in front of the commissary door, cramped and stopped. With the wheelers on their haunches, I backed up to the door square as a die.
“I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and looked up into the grinning face of about fifty swatties, realizing I was a mute–and a prisoner.
“I heard a voice say, ‘Bring me that man.’ There stood the Colonel oozing out wrath at every pore.
“I parted from that wagon hesitating and reluctant, but two soldiers to each leg will bust any man’s grip, I lost some clothes, too, after we hit the ground, but I needed the exercise.
“The old man was alone in his office when they dragged me in, and he sent my guards out.
“‘So you found your voice, did you?’ he says.
“‘Yes, sir,” I answers. ‘It came back unexpected, regular miracle.’
“‘He drummed on the table for a long time, and then says, sort of immaterial and irreverent, ‘You’re a pretty good mule puncher, eh?’
“‘It ain’t for me to say I’m the best in the Territory,’ I says; ‘but I’m curious to meet the feller that claims the title.’
“He continues, ‘It reminds me of an exhibition I saw once, back in New Mexico, long time ago, at the little Flatwater Canyon.’
“‘Maybe you’ve heard tell of the fight there when the Apaches were up? Yes? Well, I happened to be in that scrimmage.’
“‘I was detailed with ten men to convoy a wagon train through to Fort Lewis. We had no trouble till we came to the end of that canyon, just where she breaks out onto the flats. There we got it. They were hidden up on the ridges; we lost two men and one wagon before we could get out onto the prairie.
“‘I got touched up in the neck, first clatter, and was bleeding pretty badly; still I hung to my horse, and we stood ’em off till the teams made it out of the gulch; but just as we came out my horse fell and threw me–broke his leg. I yelled to the boys:
“‘”Go on! For God’s sake go on!” Any delay there meant loss of the whole outfit. Besides, the boys had more than they could manage, Injuns on three sides.
“‘We had a young Texan driving the last wagon. When I went down he swung those six mules of his and came back up that trail into the gut, where the bullets snapped like grasshoppers.
“‘It was the prettiest bit of driving I ever saw, not to mention nerve. He whirled the outfit between me and the bluff on two wheels, yelling, “Climb on! Climb on! We ain’t going to stay long!” I was just able to make it onto the seat. In the turn they dropped one of his wheelers. He ran out on the tongue and cut the brute loose. We went rattling down the gulch behind five mules. All the time there came out of that man’s lungs the fiercest stream of profanity my ears ever burned under. I was pretty sick for a few weeks, so I never got a chance to thank that teamster. He certainly knew the mind of an army mule, though. His name was–let me see–Wiggins–yes, Wiggins.
“‘Oh, no it wasn’t,’ I breaks in, foolish; ‘it was Joyce.’
“Then I stopped and felt like a kid, for the Colonel comes up and shuts the circulation out of both my hands.
“‘I wasn’t sure of you, Bill,’ he says, ’till I saw you preside over those mules out there and heard your speech–then I recognized the gift.’ He laughed like a boy, still making free with my hands. ‘I’m darn glad to see you, Bill Joyce. Now then,’ he says, ‘tell me all about this killing up in the hills,’ and I done so.
“After I finished he never said anything for a long time, just drummed the desk again and looked thoughtful.
“‘It’s too bad you didn’t speak out, Bill, when you first came in. Now, you’ve showed everybody that you can talk–just a little, anyhow,’ and he smiles, ‘and they all think you’re the man caused the trouble. I don’t see but that you’ve got to stand trial. I wish I could help you, Bill.’
“‘But see here, Colonel,’ I says; ‘I couldn’t squeal on Kink. We’re pardners. I just had to give him a chance to cut. I played dumb ’cause I knew if I talked at all, being simple and guileless, you all would twist me up and have the whole thing in a jiffy. That man give me the last drop of water in his canteen on the Mojave, and him with his own tongue swelled clean out of his mouth, too. When we was snowed in, up in the Bitter Roots, with me snow-blind and starving, he crawled from Sheeps-Horn clean to Miller’s–snow twelve foot deep, too, and nary a snow-shoe in miles, but he brought the outfit in to where I was lyin’ ’bout gone in. He lost some fingers and more toes wallering through them mountain drifts that day, but he never laid down till he brought the boys back.
“‘Colonel! we’ve slept on the same blanket, we’ve et the same grub, we’ve made and lost together, and I had to give him a show, that’s all. I’m into this here trouble now. Tell me how I’m going to get out. What would you do?’
“He turns to the open window and says: ‘Partners are partners! That’s my horse out there at that post. If I were you I’d run like hell.’
“That was the willingest horse I ever rode, and I hated to sell him, but he was tolable used up when I got across the line.”