English Literature

The Lady of Big Shanty by F. Berkeley Smith

The Lady of Big Shanty by F. Berkeley Smith


It was the luncheon hour, and The Players was crowded with its members; not only actors, but men of every profession, from the tall, robust architect to the quiet surgeon tucked away among the cushions of the corner divan. In the hall—giving sound advice, perhaps, to a newly fledged tragedian—sat some dear, gray-haired old gentleman in white socks who puffed silently at a long cigar, while from out the low-ceiled, black-oak dining room, resplendent in pewter and hazy with tobacco smoke, came intermittent outbursts of laughter. It was the hour when idlers and workers alike throw off the labours of the day for a quiet chat with their fellows.

Only one man in the group was restless. This was a young fellow who kept watch at the window overlooking the Park. That he was greatly worried was evident from the two tense furrows in his brow, and from the way his eyes scanned the street below.

“The devil!” he grumbled. “I wonder if Billy’s missed his train—another Adirondack express late, I suppose.” He flicked the ashes from his cigarette and, wheeling sharply, touched a bell.

“John,” he said, as the noiseless old steward entered.

“Yes, Mr. Randall.”

“Find out at the desk if a Mr. William Holcomb from Moose River has called or telephoned.”

“Very good, sir.”

“He’s a tall, sun-burned young man, John—and he may be waiting below.
You understand.”

“I’ll go and see, sir,” and the steward turned.

“And, John—tell August we shall be five at luncheon.”

The next moment two hands gripped him from behind by both shoulders.

“Well! I’m glad you’re here, Keene, at any rate!” cried Randall as he smashed the bell hard. “Two dry Martinis”—this to the yellow-waistcoated steward now at his elbow. “It’s Billy Holcomb you’ve come to meet. He wrote me he was coming to New York on business and I made him promise to come here first. He and I hunted together last fall and I wanted you and Brompton to know him. What I’m afraid of is that he has missed the night express. Moose River’s a long ways from the railway, and you know what an Adirondack road is this time of year. I hope The Players won’t scare him.”

“Oh! we’ll take care of him,” laughed Keene good-humouredly. “Thank God he’s not a celebrity; I’m sick of celebrities. It’ll be a treat to meet a plain human being. Hello! here comes Brompton!”

Randall rose to his feet.

“Glad you could come, old man. There’s only five of us—you, and Keene, Sam Thayor, and a friend of mine from the woods. Touch the bell and give your order.”

Again the noiseless John appeared.

“Any news, John?”

“Yes, sir; Mr. Holcomb is waiting for you below, and Mr. Thayor has telephoned he will be here in a moment.”

Jack started for the stairs.

“Good!” he cried. “I’ll be back in a second.”

If the actor and Keene had expected to see a raw-boned country boy, reticent and ill at ease, they got over it at the first glance. What they saw approaching with his arm in their host’s was a young man of twenty-three, straight as an arrow, with the eyes of an eagle; whose clean-cut features were so full of human understanding that both the actor and Keene fell to wondering if Randall was not joking when he labeled him as hailing from so primitive a settlement as Moose River. To these qualities there was added the easy grace of a man of the world in the pink of condition. Only his dark gray pepper-and-salt clothes—they had been purchased in Utica the day before—confirmed Randall’s diagnosis, and even these fitted him in a way that showed both his good taste and his common sense. The introductions over and the party seated, Randall turned again to his friend.

“I worried about you, Billy; what happened?”

“Oh, we had a washout just this side of Utica, and the train was nearly three hours late. But I had no trouble,” he said with a quiet smile. “I came down a-foot—let’s see—Fourth Avenue, isn’t it? As soon as I saw the Park I knew I was on the right trail,” he laughed, his white teeth gleaming in contrast with his nut-brown skin.

“Oh, I’d trust you anywhere in the world, trail or no trail. That’s the way you got me out of Bog Eddy that night, and that’s the way you saved Sam Thayor. He’s coming, you know. Wants to meet you the worst kind. I’m keeping you for a surprise, but he’ll hug himself all over when he finds out it’s you.”

The young man raised his eyes in doubt.

“Thayor? I don’t know as I—”

“Why, of course you remember the Thayors, Billy! They were at Long
Lake three or four summers ago.”

“Oh! a short, thick-set man, with grayish hair?” replied Holcomb in his low, well-modulated voice—the voice of a man used to the silence of the big woods. “Let’s see,” he mused—”wasn’t it he that cut himself so badly with an axe over at Otter Pond? Yes, I remember.”

“So does Thayor, Billy, and it’ll be a good many years before he forgets it,” declared Jack. “You saved his life, he says. That’s one thing he wants to see you for, and another is that he’s played out and needs a rest.”

“Bless me!” cried Brompton in the tragic tones of his profession. “You saved his life, me boy?”

Holcomb, for the first time, appeared embarrassed.

“Well, that’s mighty good of him to think so, but I didn’t do much,” he replied modestly. “Now I come to think of it, he was badly cut and I helped him down to Doc’ Rand’s at Bog River. That was, as I figure it, about three years ago—wasn’t it, Randall?”

“You mean,” returned Randall, “that you took him down on your back, and if you hadn’t Sam Thayor would have bled to death.”

“Bless my soul!” cried the actor.

“Well, you see,” continued Holcomb ignoring the interruption, “there are some that can handle an axe just as easily as some fellows can fiddle, and again there are some that can’t. It’s just a little knack, that’s all, gentlemen, and, of course, Mr. Thayor wasn’t used to chopping.”

“The only thing Sam Thayor can handle is money,” interposed Keene.
“He’s got millions, Billy—millions!”

“Millions,” chuckled Randall; “I should think so. He owns about five of ’em.” As he spoke he half rose from his chair and waved his hand to a well-dressed, gray-haired man whose eyes were searching the crowded hall. “Thayor!” he shouted.

As the new-comer moved closer the whole group rose to greet him.

“I’m afraid, my dear Jack, I’ve kept you all waiting,” the banker began. “A special meeting of the Board detained me longer than I had anticipated. I hope you will forgive me. I am not usually late, I assure you, gentlemen. This for me?” and he picked up his waiting cocktail.

Holcomb, although his eyes had not wavered from Thayor, had not yet greeted him. That a man so quiet and unostentatious belonged to the favoured rich was a new experience to him. He was also waiting for some sign of recognition from the financial potentate, the democracy of the woods being in his blood.

Randall waited an instant and seeing Thayor’s lack of recognition blurted out in his hearty way:

“Why, it’s Holcomb, Sam; Billy Holcomb of Moose River.”

Thayor turned and formally extended his hand.

“Oh, I beg your pardon! I—” then his whole manner changed. “Why, Holcomb!” he exclaimed with delightful surprise. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! And—er—your dear father—how is he?”

“First rate, thank you, Mr. Thayor. It seems kind of natural to see you again. Father was speaking about you the very day he left. He went on Monday to Fort Ti’ with my mother for a visit.”

“Ah, indeed!” returned Thayor, drawing up a chair beside the boy, and before even the glasses were entirely emptied the two had begun talking of the woods and all it held in store for them, the banker declaring, as he followed Randall into the dining room, that if he could arrange his business he would make a quick trip to the Lake with Holcomb as guide.

If the luncheon that followed was a surprise to the stranger from Moose River, Holcomb’s modest naturalness and innate good breeding were a revelation to Randall’s friends. This increased to positive enthusiasm when one of the actor’s massive turquoise rings struck the rim of the stranger’s wine glass, nearly spilling the contents into Holcomb’s lap, and which Holcomb’s deft touch righted with the quickness of a squirrel, before a drop left its edge, a feat of dexterity which brought from the actor in his best stage voice:

“Zounds, sir! A little more and I should have deluged you”—Holcomb answering with a smile:

“Don’t mention it. I saw it coming my way.”

Even those at the adjoining tables caught the dominating influence of the man as they watched him sitting easily in his chair listening to the stories of the Emperor of the First Empire—as Brompton was called, he having played the part—the young woodsman joining in with experiences of his own as refreshing in tone and as clear in statement as a mountain spring.

Suddenly, and apparently without anything leading up to it, and as if some haunting memory of his own had prompted it, Thayor leaned forward and touched Billy’s arm, and with a certain meaning in his voice asked:

“There is something I have wanted to ask you ever since I came, Holcomb. Tell me about that poor hide-out—the man your father fed in the woods that night. Did he get away?”

Holcomb straightened up and his face became suddenly grave. The subject was evidently a distasteful one.

“Whom do you mean, Mr. Thayor?”

“I don’t know his name; I only remember the incident, but it has haunted me ever since.”

“You mean Dinsmore.”

“What has become of him?”

“I haven’t heard lately.” He evidently did not want to discuss it further—certainly not in a crowded room full of strangers.

“But you must have learned something of him. Tell me—I want to know.
I never felt so sorry for anyone in my life.”

Holcomb looked Thayor squarely in the face, read its sincerity and said slowly, lowering his voice:

“He is still in hiding—was the last time I saw him.”

“When was that?” asked Thayor, his eyes boring into the young woodsman’s.

“About a month ago—Ed Munsey and I were cutting a trail at the time.”

“Would you mind telling me?” persisted Thayor. “I have always thought that poor fellow was ill treated. Your father thought so too.”

Holcomb dropped his eyes to the cloth, rolled a crumb of bread between his fingers and said, as if he was thinking aloud:

“Ill treated! I should say so!” Then he lifted his head, drew his chair closer to the group, ran his eyes around the room to be sure of his audience, and said in still lower tones:

“What I’m going to tell you, gentlemen, is between us, remember. None of you, I am sure, would want to get him into any more trouble, if you knew the circumstances as I do. One night about nine o’clock, during a pouring rain, Ed and I lay in a swamp under a lean-to. Ed was asleep, and I was dozing off, when I heard something step in the brush on the other side of the fire. I couldn’t see anything, it was so dark, but it sounded just like an animal slouching and stepping about as light as it could. It would stop suddenly and then I’d hear the brush crack again on the left.”

Thayor was leaning now with his elbows on the table, as absorbed as a child listening to a fairy tale. The others sat with their eyes fixed on the speaker.

“Any unusual noise at night must be looked into, and I threw a handful of birch bark on the fire and reached for Ed’s Winchester. I had to crawl over him to get it, and when I got my hand on it and turned around a sandy-haired fellow was standing over me with a gun cocked and pointed at my head.

“I knew him the minute I laid eyes on him. It was Bob Dinsmore, who killed Jim Bailey over at Long Pond. He’d been hiding out for months. He was not more than thirty years old, but he looked fifty; there was a warrant out for him and a reward to take him dead or alive. He kept the gun pointed, drawing a fine sight on a spot between my left eye and my ear.

“‘Hold on, Bob!’ said I; ‘sit down.’ He didn’t speak, but he lifted the muzzle of his gun a little, and there was a look came into his eyes, half crying, half like a dog cornered to fight.

“‘S-s-h!’ said I; ‘you’ll wake up Ed.’

“‘I got to kill ye, Bill,’ said he.

“‘Sit down,’ I said, for I saw he was so weak his thin legs were trembling. ‘Neither Ed nor I are going to give you away—sit down,’ and I shook Ed. He sat up blinking like an old toad in a hard shower. ‘By whimey!’ said Ed, staring at Bob as if he had seen a ghost.

“‘I’m hongry, Bill,’ said Bob. ‘Bill, I’m hongry,’ and he began to stagger and cry like a baby. I got hold of his rifle and Ed caught him just as he fainted.

“By and by he came to and Ed and I fixed up a stiff hooker of liquor and some hot tea and gave him a mouthful at a time. Just before daylight he rose on one elbow and lay there following us with his eyes, for he was too weak to talk. It seemed as if he was clean beat out and that his nerve was gone. What grit he had he had used up keeping away from the law.”

Again Holcomb paused—the round table was as silent as a court room before a verdict.

“Neither Ed nor I liked the idea of being caught with Dinsmore,” he resumed, “with three counties after him harder than an old dog after a five-pronged buck, so when it came daylight we shifted camp over back of a fire-slash where I knew all hell couldn’t find him. We had to carry him most of the way. That was on a Wednesday. We never said anything to him about his killing Bailey—he knew we knew. We fed him the best we knew how. Saturday, ‘long toward night, I killed a small deer, and the broth did him good.

“In a couple of days—Hold on, I’ve got ahead of my story; it was Sunday night when Bob said: ‘Boys’ said he, as near as I can repeat it in his dialect—’you’ve treated me like a humin, but I dassent stay here. It ain’t fair to you. What I done I done with a reason. You’ve heard tell, most likely, that I been seen in Lower Saranac ’bout three weeks ago, ain’t ye?’

“‘Yes,’ said Ed, ‘we heard something about it. That Jew horse-trader, Bergstein, told us, but there warn’t nobody that seen ye, that was sure it was you.’

“‘They lied then,’ said Bob, ‘for there was more’n a dozen in the village that day that knowed me and warn’t mistook ’bout who I was. As to that red-nosed Jew, Bergstein, he’ll quit talkin’ ’bout me and everythin’ else if I kin ever draw a bead on him.’

“Then Bob began to tell us how he walked into the big hotel at Saranac about noon and flung a hind-quarter of venison on the counter in front of the clerk and said: ‘What I come for is a decent meal; I ain’t got no money, but I guess that’ll pay for it.’ The clerk got white around the gills, but he didn’t say anything; he just took the venison and showed Bob into the big dining hall. Bob says they gave him the meal, and he kept eating everything around him with his Winchester across his knees. There wasn’t a soul that spoke to him except the hired girl that waited on him, although the dining room was crowded with summer boarders.

“‘Tea or coffee?’ asked the hired girl when he had eaten his pie.

“‘No, thank ye,’ says Bob, ‘but I won’t never forgit ye if ye can git me four boxes of matches.’ Bob said she was gone a minute and when she came back she had the matches for him under her apron. ‘Good luck to ye, Bob,’ she says—her cheeks red, and her mouth trembling. It was Myra Hathaway—he’d known her since she was a little girl. ‘Bob, for God’s sake go,’ she begged—’there’s trouble coming from the village.’

“It wasn’t long before Bob crossed Alder Brook about forty rods this side of the Gull Rock. They saw his tracks where he crossed the next day, but Bob had the matches, and the sheriff and about forty that went out to get him came back that night looking kind of down in the mouth. There wasn’t a sign of him after he crossed Alder Brook. He knew those woods like a partridge. When he got through telling how he got the square meal at Lower Saranac, Ed said to him:

“‘Bob, you’re welcome to what I’ve got,’ and I told him, ‘What I’ve got is yours, and you know it.’

“He tried to say a little something, but he choked up, then he said:
‘Boys, I’m sick of bein’ hounded. There’s been nights and days when
I’ve most died; if I can only get into Canady there won’t none of ’em
git me.’

“Ed and I had about eleven dollars between us. ‘That will get you there, Bob,’ I said, ‘if you look sharp and don’t take risks and keep to the timber.’ We gave him the eleven dollars and what cartridges and matches we could spare, and what was left of the deer. I never saw a fellow so grateful; he didn’t say anything, but I saw his old grit come back to him. That was Monday night, and about nine o’clock we turned in. Before daylight I woke up to attend to the fire and saw he was gone.”

The men drew a deep breath. Keene and the actor looked blankly at each other. Compared to the tale just ended, their own stories seemed but a reflex of utterly selfish lives. Even the Emperor experienced a strange thrill—possibly the first real sensation he had known since he was a boy. As to Thayor—he had hung on every word that fell from Holcomb’s lips.

“And what motive had Dinsmore in killing Bailey?” asked Thayor, nervously, when the others had gone to the hall for their coffee and liqueurs. “I asked your father but he did not answer me, and yet he must have known.”

“Oh, yes, he knew, Mr. Thayor. Everybody knows, our way, but it’s one of those things we don’t talk about—but I’ll tell you. It was about his wife.”

Thayor folded his napkin in an absent way, laid it carefully beside his plate, unfolded it again and tossed it in a heap upon the table, and said with a certain tenderness in his tone:

“And did he get away to Canada, Holcomb?”

“No, sir; his little girl fell ill, and he wouldn’t leave her.”

“And the woman, Holcomb—was she worth it?” continued Thayor. There was a strange tremor in his voice now—so much so that the young man fastened his eyes on the banker’s, wondering at the cause.

“She was worth a lot to Bob, sir,” replied Holcomb slowly. “They had grown up together.”


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