The Remittance Man by Stewart Edward White
Story type: Literature
After Windy Bill had finished his story we began to think it time to turn in. Uncle Jim and Charley slid and slipped down the chute-like passage leading from the cave and disappeared in the direction of the overhang beneath which they had spread their bed. After a moment we tore off long bundles of the nigger-head blades, lit the resinous ends at our fire, and with these torches started to make our way along the base of the cliff to the other cave.
Once without the influence of the fire our impromptu links cast an adequate light. The sheets of rain became suddenly visible as they entered the circle of illumination. By careful scrutiny of the footing I gained the entrance to our cave without mishap. I looked back. Here and there irregularly gleamed and spluttered my companions’ torches. Across each slanted the rain. All else was of inky blackness except where, between them and me, a faint red reflection shone on the wet rocks. Then I turned inside.
Now, to judge from the crumbling powder of the footing, that cave had been dry since Noah. In fact, its roof was nearly a thousand feet thick. But since we had spread our blankets, the persistent waters had soaked down and through. The thousand-foot roof had a sprung a leak. Three separate and distinct streams of water ran as from spigots. I lowered my torch. The canvas tarpaulin shone with wet, and in its exact centre glimmered a pool of water three inches deep and at least two feet in diameter.
“Well, I’ll be,” I began. Then I remembered those three wending their way along a wet and disagreeable trail, happy and peaceful in anticipation of warm blankets and a level floor. I chuckled and sat on my heels out of the drip.
First came Jed Parker, his head bent to protect the fire in his pipe. He gained the very centre of the cave before he looked up.
Then he cast one glance at each bed, and one at me. His grave, hawk-like features relaxed. A faint grin appeared under his long moustache. Without a word he squatted down beside me.
Next the Cattleman. He looked about him with a comical expression of dismay, and burst into a hearty laugh.
“I believe I said I was sorry for those other fellows,” he remarked.
Windy Bill was the last. He stooped his head to enter, straightened his lank figure, and took in the situation without expression.
“Well, this is handy,” said he; “I was gettin’ tur’ble dry, and was thinkin’ I would have to climb way down to the creek in all this rain.”
He stooped to the pool in the centre of the tarpaulin and drank.
But now our torches began to run low. A small dry bush grew near the entrance. We ignited it, and while it blazed we hastily sorted a blanket apiece and tumbled the rest out of the drip.
Our return without torches along the base of that butte was something to remember. The night was so thick you could feel the darkness pressing on you; the mountain dropped abruptly to the left, and was strewn with boulders and blocks of stone. Collisions and stumbles were frequent. Once I stepped off a little ledge five or six feet–nothing worse than a barked shin. And all the while the rain, pelting us unmercifully, searched out what poor little remnants of dryness we had been able to retain.
At last we opened out the gleam of fire in our cave, and a minute later were engaged in struggling desperately up the slant that brought us to our ledge and the slope on which our fire burned.
“My Lord!” panted Windy Bill, “a man had ought to have hooks on his eyebrows to climb up here!”
We renewed the fire–and blessed the back-load of mesquite we had packed up earlier in the evening. Our blankets we wrapped around our shoulders, our feet we hung over the ledge toward the blaze, our backs we leaned against the hollow slant of the cave’s wall. We were not uncomfortable. The beat of the rain sprang up in the darkness, growing louder and louder, like horsemen passing on a hard road. Gradually we dozed off.
For a time everything was pleasant. Dreams came fused with realities; the firelight faded from consciousness or returned fantastic to our half-awakening; a delicious numbness overspread our tired bodies. The shadows leaped, became solid, monstrous. We fell asleep.
After a time the fact obtruded itself dimly through our stupor that the constant pressure of the hard rock had impeded our circulation. We stirred uneasily, shifting to a better position.
That was the beginning of awakening. The new position did not suit. A slight shivering seized us, which the drawing closer of the blanket failed to end. Finally I threw aside my hat and looked out. Jed Parker, a vivid patch-work comforter wrapped about his shoulders, stood upright and silent by the fire. I kept still, fearing to awaken the others. In a short time I became aware that the others were doing identically the same thing. We laughed, threw off our blankets, stretched, and fed the fire.
A thick acrid smoke filled the air. The Cattleman, rising, left a trail of incandescent footprints. We investigated hastily, and discovered that the supposed earth on the slant of the cave was nothing more than bat guano, tons of it. The fire, eating its way beneath, had rendered untenable its immediate vicinity. We felt as though we were living over a volcano. How soon our ledge, of the same material, might be attacked, we had no means of knowing. Overcome with drowsiness, we again disposed our blankets, resolved to get as many naps as possible before even these constrained quarters were taken from us.
This happened sooner and in a manner otherwise than we had expected. Windy Bill brought us to consciousness by a wild yell.
Consciousness reported to us a strange, hurried sound like the long roll on a drum. Investigation showed us that this cave, too, had sprung a leak; not with any premonitory drip, but all at once, as though someone had turned on a faucet. In ten seconds a very competent streamlet six inches wide had eroded a course down through the guano, past the fire and to the outer slope. And by the irony of fate that one–and only one–leak in all the roof expanse of a big cave was directly over one end of our tiny ledge. The Cattleman laughed.
“Reminds me of the old farmer and his kind friend,” said he. “Kind friend hunts up the old farmer in the village.
“‘John,’ says he, ‘I’ve bad news for you. Your barn has burned up.’
“‘My Lord!’ says the farmer.
“‘But that ain’t the worst. Your cow was burned, too.’
“‘My Lord!’ says the farmer.
“‘But that ain’t the worst. Your horses were burned.’
“‘My Lord!’ says the farmer.
“‘But, that ain’t the worst. The barn set fire to the house, and it was burned–total loss.’
“‘My Lord!’ groans the farmer.
“‘But that ain’t the worst. Your wife and child were killed, too.’
“‘At that the farmer began to roar with laughter.
“‘Good heavens, man!’ cries his friend, astonished, ‘what in the world do you find to laugh at in that?’
“‘Don’t you see?’ answers the farmer. ‘Why, it’s so darn COMPLETE!’
“Well,” finished the Cattleman, “that’s what strikes me about our case; it’s so darn complete!”
“What time is it?” asked Windy Bill.
“Midnight,” I announced.
“Lord! Six hours to day!” groaned Windy Bill. “How’d you like to be doin’ a nice quiet job at gardenin’ in the East where you could belly up to the bar reg’lar every evenin’, and drink a pussy cafe and smoke tailor-made cigareets?”
“You wouldn’t like it a bit,” put in the Cattleman with decision; whereupon in proof he told us the following story:
Windy has mentioned Gentleman Tim, and that reminded me of the first time I ever saw him. He was an Irishman all right, but he had been educated in England, and except for his accent he was more an Englishman than anything else. A freight outfit brought him into Tucson from Santa Fe and dumped him down on the plaza, where at once every idler in town gathered to quiz him.
Certainly he was one of the greenest specimens I ever saw in this country. He had on a pair of balloon pants and a Norfolk jacket, and was surrounded by a half-dozen baby trunks. His face was red-cheeked and aggressively clean, and his eye limpid as a child’s. Most of those present thought that indicated childishness; but I could see that it was only utter self-unconsciousness.
It seemed that he was out for big game, and intended to go after silver-tips somewhere in these very mountains. Of course he was offered plenty of advice, and would probably have made engagements much to be regretted had I not taken a strong fancy to him.
“My friend,” said I, drawing him aside, “I don’t want to be inquisitive, but what might you do when you’re home?”
“I’m a younger son,” said he. I was green myself in those days, and knew nothing of primogeniture.
“That is a very interesting piece of family history,” said I, “but it does not answer my question.”
“Well now, I hadn’t thought of that,” said he, “but in a manner of speaking, it does. I do nothing.”
“Well,” said I, unabashed, “if you saw me trying to be a younger son and likely to forget myself and do something without meaning to, wouldn’t you be apt to warn me?”
“Well, ‘pon honour, you’re a queer chap. What do you mean?”
“I mean that if you hire any of those men to guide you in the mountains, you’ll be outrageously cheated, and will be lucky if you’re not gobbled by Apaches.”
“Do you do any guiding yourself, now?” he asked, most innocent of manner.
But I flared up.
“You damn ungrateful pup,” I said, “go to the devil in your own way,” and turned square on my heel.
But the young man was at my elbow, his hand on my shoulder.
“Oh, I say now, I’m sorry. I didn’t rightly understand. Do wait one moment until I dispose of these boxes of mine, and then I want the honour of your further acquaintance.”
He got some Greasers to take his trunks over to the hotel, then linked his arm in mine most engagingly.
“Now, my dear chap,” said he, “let’s go somewhere for a B & S, and find out about each other.”
We were both young and expansive. We exchanged views, names, and confidences, and before noon we had arranged to hunt together, I to collect the outfit.
The upshot of the matter was that the Honourable Timothy Clare and I had a most excellent month’s excursion, shot several good bear, and returned to Tucson the best of friends.
At Tucson was Schiefflein and his stories of a big strike down in the Apache country. Nothing would do but that we should both go to see for ourselves. We joined the second expedition; crept in the gullies, tied bushes about ourselves when monumenting corners, and so helped establish the town of Tombstone. We made nothing, nor attempted to. Neither of us knew anything of mining, but we were both thirsty for adventure, and took a schoolboy delight in playing the game of life or death with the Chiricahuas.
In fact, I never saw anybody take to the wild life as eagerly as the Honourable Timothy Clare. He wanted to attempt everything. With him it was no sooner see than try, and he had such an abundance of enthusiasm that he generally succeeded. The balloon pants soon went. In a month his outfit was irreproachable. He used to study us by the hour, taking in every detail of our equipment, from the smallest to the most important. Then he asked questions. For all his desire to be one of the country, he was never ashamed to acknowledge his ignorance.
“Now, don’t you chaps think it silly to wear such high heels to your boots?” he would ask. “It seems to me a very useless sort of vanity.”
“No vanity about it, Tim,” I explained. “In the first place, it keeps your foot from slipping through the stirrup. In the second place, it is good to grip on the ground when you’re roping afoot.”
“By Jove, that’s true!” he cried.
So he’d get him a pair of boots. For a while it was enough to wear and own all these things. He seemed to delight in his six-shooter and his rope just as ornaments to himself and horse. But he soon got over that. Then he had to learn to use them.
For the time being, pistol practice, for instance, would absorb all his thoughts. He’d bang away at intervals all day, and figure out new theories all night.
“That bally scheme won’t work,” he would complain. “I believe if I extended my thumb along the cylinder it would help that side jump.”
He was always easing the trigger-pull, or filing the sights. In time he got to be a fairly accurate and very quick shot.
The same way with roping and hog-tying and all the rest.
“What’s the use?” I used to ask him. “If you were going to be a buckeroo, you couldn’t go into harder training.”
“I like it,” was always his answer.
He had only one real vice, that I could see. He would gamble. Stud poker was his favourite; and I never saw a Britisher yet who could play poker. I used to head him off, when I could, and he was always grateful, but the passion was strong.
After we got back from founding Tombstone I was busted and had to go to work.
“I’ve got plenty,” said Tim, “and it’s all yours.”
“I know, old fellow,” I told him, “but your money wouldn’t do for me.”
Buck Johnson was just seeing his chance then, and was preparing to take some breeding cattle over into the Soda Springs Valley. Everybody laughed at him–said it was right in the line of the Chiricahua raids, which was true. But Buck had been in there with Agency steers, and thought he knew. So he collected a trail crew, brought some Oregon cattle across, and built his home ranch of three-foot adobe walls with portholes. I joined the trail crew; and somehow or another the Honourable Timothy got permission to go along on his own hook.
The trail was a long one. We had thirst and heat and stampedes and some Indian scares. But in the queer atmospheric conditions that prevailed that summer, I never saw the desert more wonderful. It was like waking to the glory of God to sit up at dawn and see the colours change on the dry ranges.
At the home ranch, again, Tim managed to get permission to stay on. He kept his own mount of horses, took care of them, hunted, and took part in all the cow work. We lost some cattle from Indians, of course, but it was too near the Reservation for them to do more than pick up a few stray head on their way through. The troops were always after them full jump, and so they never had time to round up the beef. But of course we had to look out or we’d lose our hair, and many a cowboy has won out to the home ranch in an almighty exciting race. This was nuts for the Honourable Timothy Clare, much better than hunting silver-tips, and he enjoyed it no limit.
Things went along that way for some time, until one evening as I was turning out the horses a buckboard drew in, and from it descended Tony Briggs and a dapper little fellow dressed all in black and with a plug hat.
“Which I accounts for said hat reachin’ the ranch, because it’s Friday and the boys not in town,” Tony whispered to me.
As I happened to be the only man in sight, the stranger addressed me.
“I am looking,” said he in a peculiar, sing-song manner I have since learned to be English, “for the Honourable Timothy Clare. Is he here?”
“Oh, you’re looking for him are you?” said I. “And who might you be?”
You see, I liked Tim, and I didn’t intend to deliver him over into trouble.
The man picked a pair of eye-glasses off his stomach where they dangled at the end of a chain, perched them on his nose, and stared me over. I must have looked uncompromising, for after a few seconds he abruptly wrinkled his nose so that the glasses fell promptly to his stomach again, felt his waistcoat pocket, and produced a card. I took it, and read:
JEFFRIES CASE, Barrister.
“A lawyer!” said I suspiciously.
“My dear man,” he rejoined with a slight impatience, “I am not here to do your young friend a harm. In fact, my firm have been his family solicitors for generations.”
“Very well,” I agreed, and led the way to the one-room adobe that Tim and I occupied.
If I had expected an enthusiastic greeting for the boyhood friend from the old home, I would have been disappointed. Tim was sitting with his back to the door reading an old magazine. When we entered he glanced over his shoulder.
“Ah, Case,” said he, and went on reading. After a moment he said without looking up, “Sit down.”
The little man took it calmly, deposited himself in a chair and his bag between his feet, and looked about him daintily at our rough quarters. I made a move to go, whereupon Tim laid down his magazine, yawned, stretched his arms over his head, and sighed.
“Don’t go, Harry,” he begged. “Well, Case,” he addressed the barrister, “what is it this time? Must be something devilish important to bring you–how many thousand miles is it–into such a country as this.”
“It is important, Mr. Clare,” stated the lawyer in his dry sing-song tones; “but my journey might have been avoided had you paid some attention to my letters.”
“Letters!” repeated Tim, opening his eyes. “My dear chap, I’ve had no letters.”
“Addressed as usual to your New York bankers.”
Tim laughed softly. “Where they are, with my last two quarters’ allowance. I especially instructed them to send me no mail. One spends no money in this country.” He paused, pulling his moustache. “I’m truly sorry you had to come so far,” he continued, “and if your business is, as I suspect, the old one of inducing me to return to my dear uncle’s arms, I assure you the mission will prove quite fruitless. Uncle Hillary and I could never live in the same county, let alone the same house.”
“And yet your uncle, the Viscount Mar, was very fond of you,” ventured Case. “Your allowances–“
“Oh, I grant you his generosity in MONEY affairs–“
“He has continued that generosity in the terms of his will, and those terms I am here to communicate to you.”
“Uncle Hillary is dead!” cried Tim.
“He passed away the sixteenth of last June.”
A slight pause ensued.
“I am ready to hear you,” said Tim soberly, at last.
The barrister stooped and began to fumble with his bag.
“No, not that!” cried Tim, with some impatience. “Tell me in your own words.”
The lawyer sat back and pressed his finger points together over his stomach.
“The late Viscount,” said he, “has been graciously pleased to leave you in fee simple his entire estate of Staghurst, together with its buildings, rentals, and privileges. This, besides the residential rights, amounts to some ten thousands pounds sterling per annum.”
“A little less than fifty thousand dollars a year, Harry,” Tim shot over his shoulder at me.
“There is one condition,” put in the lawyer.
“Oh, there is!” exclaimed Tim, his crest falling. “Well, knowing my Uncle Hillary–“
“The condition is not extravagant,” the lawyer hastily interposed. “It merely entails continued residence in England, and a minimum of nine months on the estate. This provision is absolute, and the estate reverts in its discontinuance, but may I be permitted to observe that the majority of men, myself among the number, are content to spend the most of their lives, not merely in the confines of a kingdom, but between the four walls of a room, for much less than ten thousand pounds a year. Also that England is not without its attractions for an Englishman, and that Staghurst is a country place of many possibilities.”
The Honourable Timothy had recovered from his first surprise.
“And if the conditions are not complied with?” he inquired.
“Then the estate reverts to the heirs at law, and you receive an annuity of one hundred pounds, payable quarterly.”
“May I ask further the reason for this extraordinary condition?”
“My distinguished client never informed me,” replied the lawyer, “but”–and a twinkle appeared in his eye–“as an occasional disburser of funds–Monte Carlo–“
Tim burst out laughing.
“Oh, but I recognise Uncle Hillary there!” he cried. “Well, Mr. Case, I am sure Mr. Johnson, the owner of this ranch, can put you up, and to-morrow we’ll start back.”
He returned after a few minutes to find me sitting’ smoking a moody pipe. I liked Tim, and I was sorry to have him go. Then, too, I was ruffled, in the senseless manner of youth, by the sudden altitude to which his changed fortunes had lifted him. He stood in the middle of the room, surveying me, then came across and laid his arm on my shoulder.
“Well,” I growled, without looking up, “you’re a very rich man now, Mr. Clare.”
At that he jerked me bodily out of my seat and stood me up in the centre of the room, the Irish blazing out of his eyes.
“Here, none of that!” he snapped. “You damn little fool! Don’t you ‘Mr. Clare’ me!”
So in five minutes we were talking it over. Tim was very much excited at the prospect. He knew Staghurst well, and told me all about the big stone house, and the avenue through the trees; and the hedge-row roads, and the lawn with its peacocks, and the round green hills, and the labourers’ cottages.
“It’s home,” said he, “and I didn’t realise before how much I wanted to see it. And I’ll be a man of weight there, Harry, and it’ll be mighty good.”
We made all sorts of plans as to how I was going to visit him just as soon as I could get together the money for the passage. He had the delicacy not to offer to let me have it; and that clinched my trust and love of him.
The next day he drove away with Tony and the dapper little lawyer. I am not ashamed to say that I watched the buckboard until it disappeared in the mirage.
I was with Buck Johnson all that summer, and the following winter, as well. We had our first round-up, found the natural increase much in excess of the loss by Indians, and extended our holdings up over the Rock Creek country. We witnessed the start of many Indian campaigns, participated in a few little brushes with the Chiricahuas, saw the beginning of the cattle-rustling. A man had not much opportunity to think of anything but what he had right on hand, but I found time for a few speculations on Tim. I wondered how he looked now, and what he was doing, and how in blazes he managed to get away with fifty thousand a year.
And then one Sunday in June, while I was lying on my bunk, Tim pushed open the door and walked in. I was young, but I’d seen a lot, and I knew the expression of his face. So I laid low and said nothing.
In a minute the door opened again, and Buck Johnson himself came in.
“How do,” said he; “I saw you ride up.”
“How do you do,” replied Tim.
“I know all about you,” said Buck, without any preliminaries; “your man, Case, has wrote me. I don’t know your reasons, and I don’t want to know–it’s none of my business–and I ain’t goin’ to tell you just what kind of a damn fool I think you are–that’s none of my business, either. But I want you to understand without question how you stand on the ranch.”
“Quite good, sir,” said Tim very quietly.
“When you were out here before I was glad to have you here as a sort of guest. Then you were what I’ve heerd called a gentleman of leisure. Now you’re nothin’ but a remittance man. Your money’s nothin’ to me, but the principle of the thing is. The country is plumb pestered with remittance men, doin’ nothin’, and I don’t aim to run no home for incompetents. I had a son of a duke drivin’ wagon for me; and he couldn’t drive nails in a snowbanks. So don’t you herd up with the idea that you can come on this ranch and loaf.”
“I don’t want to loaf,” put in Tim, “I want a job.”
“I’m willing to give you a job,” replied Buck, “but it’s jest an ordinary cow-puncher’s job at forty a month. And if you don’t fill your saddle, it goes to someone else.”
“That’s satisfactory,” agreed Tim.
“All right,” finished Buck, “so that’s understood. Your friend Case wanted me to give you a lot of advice. A man generally has about as much use for advice as a cow has for four hind legs.”
He went out.
“For God’s sake, what’s up?” I cried, leaping from my bunk.
“Hullo, Harry,” said he, as though he had seen me the day before, “I’ve come back.”
“How come back?” I asked. “I thought you couldn’t leave the estate. Have they broken the will?”
“No,” said he.
“Is the money lost?”
“The long and short of it is, that I couldn’t afford that estate and that money.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve given it up.”
“Given it up! What for?”
“To come back here.”
I took this all in slowly.
“Tim Clare,” said I at last, “do you mean to say that you have given up an English estate and fifty thousand dollars a year to be a remittance man at five hundred, and a cow-puncher on as much more?”
“Exactly,” said he.
“Tim,” I adjured him solemnly, “you are a damn fool!”
“Maybe,” he agreed.
“Why did you do it?” I begged.
He walked to the door and looked out across the desert to where the mountains hovered like soap-bubbles on the horizon. For a long time he looked; then whirled on me.
“Harry,” said he in a low voice, “do you remember the camp we made on the shoulder of the mountain that night we were caught out? And do you remember how the dawn came up on the big snow peaks across the way–and all the canon below us filled with whirling mists–and the steel stars leaving us one by one? Where could I find room for that in English paddocks? And do you recall the day we trailed across the Yuma deserts, and the sun beat into our skulls, and the dry, brittle hills looked like papier-mache, and the grey sage-bush ran off into the rise of the hills; and then came sunset and the hard, dry mountains grew filmy, like gauze veils of many colours, and melted and glowed and faded to slate blue, and the stars came out? The English hills are rounded and green and curried, and the sky is near, and the stars only a few miles up. And do you recollect that dark night when old Loco and his warriors were camped at the base of Cochise’s Stronghold, and we crept down through the velvet dark wondering when we would be discovered, our mouths sticky with excitement, and the little winds blowing?”
He walked up and down a half-dozen times, his breast heaving.
“It’s all very well for the man who is brought up to it, and who has seen nothing else. Case can exist in four walls; he has been brought up to it and knows nothing different. But a man like me–
“They wanted me to canter between hedge-row,–I who have ridden the desert where the sky over me and the plain under me were bigger than the Islander’s universe! They wanted me to oversee little farms–I who have watched the sun rising over half a world! Talk of your ten thou’ a year and what it’ll buy! You know, Harry, how it feels when a steer takes the slack of your rope, and your pony sits back! Where in England can I buy that? You know the rising and the falling of days, and the boundless spaces where your heart grows big, and the thirst of the desert and the hunger of the trail, and a sun that shines and fills the sky, and a wind that blows fresh from the wide places! Where in parcelled, snug, green, tight little England could I buy that with ten thou’–aye, or an hundred times ten thou’? No, no, Harry, that fortune would cost me too dear. I have seen and done and been too much. I’ve come back to the Big Country, where the pay is poor and the work is hard and the comfort small, but where a man and his soul meet their Maker face to face.”
The Cattleman had finished his yarn. For a time no one spoke. Outside, the volume of rain was subsiding. Windy Bill reported a few stars shining through rifts in the showers. The chill that precedes the dawn brought us as close to the fire as the smouldering guano would permit.
“I don’t know whether he was right or wrong,” mused the Cattleman, after a while. “A man can do a heap with that much money. And yet an old ‘alkali’ is never happy anywhere else. However,” he concluded emphatically, “one thing I do know: rain, cold, hunger, discomfort, curses, kicks, and violent deaths included, there isn’t one of you grumblers who would hold that gardening job you spoke of three days!”