Eatin' Crow by Frank Harris

The evening on which Charley Muirhead made his first appearance at Doolan's was a memorable one; the camp was in wonderful spirits. Whitman was said to have struck it rich. Garotte, therefore, might yet become popular in the larger world, and its evil reputation be removed. Besides, what Whitman had done any one might do, for by common consent he was a "derned fool." Good-humour accordingly reigned at Doolan's, and the saloon was filled with an excited, hopeful crowd. Bill Bent, however, was anything but pleased; he generally was in a bad temper, and this evening, as Crocker remarked carelessly, he was "more ornery than ever." The rest seemed to pay no attention to the lanky, dark man with the narrow head, round, black eyes, and rasping voice. But Bent would croak: "Whitman's struck nothin'; thar ain't no gold in Garotte; it's all work and no dust." In this strain he went on, offending local sentiment and making every one uncomfortable.

Muirhead's first appearance created a certain sensation. He was a fine upstanding fellow of six feet or over, well made, and good-looking. But Garotte had too much experience of life to be won by a stranger's handsome looks. Muirhead's fair moustache and large blue eyes counted for little there. Crocker and others, masters in the art of judging men, noticed that his eyes were unsteady, and his manner, though genial, seemed hasty. Reggitt summed up their opinion in the phrase, "looks as if he'd bite off more'n he could chaw." Unconscious of the criticism, Muirhead talked, offered drinks, and made himself agreeable.

At length in answer to Bent's continued grumbling, Muirhead said pleasantly: "'Tain't so bad as that in Garotte, is it? This bar don't look like poverty, and if I set up drinks for the crowd, it's because I'm glad to be in this camp."

"P'r'aps you found the last place you was in jes' a leetle too warm, eh?" was Bent's retort.

Muirhead's face flushed, and for a second he stood as if he had been struck. Then, while the crowd moved aside, he sprang towards Bent, exclaiming, "Take that back—right off! Take it back!"

"What?" asked Bent coolly, as if surprised; at the same time, however, retreating a pace or two, he slipped his right hand behind him.

Instantly Muirhead threw himself upon him, rushed him with what seemed demoniac strength to the open door and flung him away out on his back into the muddy ditch that served as a street. For a moment there was a hush of expectation, then Bent was seen to gather himself up painfully and move out of the square of light into the darkness. But Muirhead did not wait for this; hastily, with hot face and hands still working with excitement, he returned to the bar with:

"That's how I act. No one can jump me. No one, by God!" and he glared round the room defiantly. Reggitt, Harrison, and some of the others looked at him as if on the point of retorting, but the cheerfulness was general, and Bent's grumbling before a stranger had irritated them almost as much as his unexpected cowardice. Muirhead's challenge was not taken up, therefore, though Harrison did remark, half sarcastically:

"That may be so. You jump them, I guess."

"Well, boys, let's have the drink," Charley Muirhead went on, his manner suddenly changing to that of friendly greeting, just as if he had not heard Harrison's words.

The men moved up to the bar and drank, and before the liquor was consumed, Charley's geniality, acting on the universal good-humour, seemed to have done away with the discontent which his violence and Bent's cowardice had created. This was the greater tribute to his personal charm, as the refugees of Garotte usually hung together, and were inclined to resent promptly any insult offered to one of their number by a stranger. But in the present case harmony seemed to be completely reestablished, and it would have taken a keener observer than Muirhead to have understood his own position and the general opinion. It was felt that the stranger had bluffed for all he was worth, and that Garotte had come out "at the little end of the horn."

A day or two later Charley Muirhead, walking about the camp, came upon Dave Crocker's claim, and offered to buy half of it and work as a partner, but the other would not sell; "the claim was worth nothin'; not good enough for two, anyhow;" and there the matter would have ended, had not the young man proposed to work for a spell just to keep his hand in. By noon Crocker was won; nobody could resist Charley's hard work and laughing high spirits. Shortly afterwards the older man proposed to knock off; a day's work, he reckoned, had been done, and evidently considering it impossible to accept a stranger's labour without acknowledgment, he pressed Charley to come up to his shanty and eat. The simple meal was soon despatched, and Crocker, feeling the obvious deficiencies of his larder, produced a bottle of Bourbon, and the two began to drink. Glass succeeded glass, and at length Crocker's reserve seemed to thaw; his manner became almost easy, and he spoke half frankly.

"I guess you're strong," he remarked. "You threw Bent out of the saloon the other night like as if he was nothin'; strength's good, but 'tain't everythin'. I mean," he added, in answer to the other's questioning look, "Samson wouldn't have a show with a man quick on the draw who meant bizness. Bent didn't pan out worth a cent, and the boys didn't like him, but—them things don't happen often." So in his own way he tried to warn the man to whom he had taken a liking.

Charley felt that a warning was intended, for he replied decisively: "It don't matter. I guess he wanted to jump me, and I won't be jumped, not if Samson wanted to, and all the revolvers in Garotte were on me."

"Wall," Crocker went on quietly, but with a certain curiosity in his eyes, "that's all right, but I reckon you were mistaken. Bent didn't want to rush ye; 'twas only his cussed way, and he'd had mighty bad luck. You might hev waited to see if he meant anythin', mightn't ye?" And he looked his listener in the face as he spoke.

"That's it," Charley replied, after a long pause, "that's just it. I couldn't wait, d'ye see!" and then continued hurriedly, as if driven to relieve himself by a full confession: "Maybe you don't sabe. It's plain enough, though I'd have to begin far back to make you understand. But I don't mind if you want to hear. I was raised in the East, in Rhode Island, and I guess I was liked by everybody. I never had trouble with any one, and I was a sort of favourite.... I fell in love with a girl, and as I hadn't much money, I came West to make some, as quick as I knew how. The first place I struck was Laramie—you don't know it? 'Twas a hard place; cowboys, liquor saloons, cursin' and swearin', poker and shootin' nearly every night. At the beginning I seemed to get along all right, and I liked the boys, and thought they liked me. One night a little Irishman was rough on me; first of all I didn't notice, thought he meant nothin', and then, all at once, I saw he meant it—and more.

"Well, I got a kind of scare—I don't know why—and I took what he said and did nothin'. Next day the boys sort of held off from me, didn't talk; thought me no account, I guess, and that little Irishman just rode me round the place with spurs on. I never kicked once. I thought I'd get the money—I had done well with the stock I had bought—and go back East and marry, and no one would be any the wiser. But the Irishman kept right on, and first one and then another of the boys went for me, and I took it all. I just," and here his voice rose, and his manner became feverishly excited, "I just ate crow right along for months—and tried to look as if 'twas quail.

"One day I got a letter from home. She wanted me to hurry up and come back. She thought a lot of me, I could see; more than ever, because I had got along—I had written and told her my best news. And then, what had been hard grew impossible right off. I made up my mind to sell the stock and strike for new diggings. I couldn't stand it any longer—not after her letter. I sold out and cleared.... I ought to hev stayed in Laramie, p'r'aps, and gone for the Irishman, but I just couldn't. Every one there was against me."

"I guess you oughter hev stayed.... Besides, if you had wiped up the floor with that Irishman the boys would hev let up on you."

"P'r'aps so," Charley resumed, "but I was sick of the whole crowd. I sold off, and lit out. When I got on the new stage-coach, fifty miles from Laramie, and didn't know the driver or any one, I made up my mind to start fresh. Then and there I resolved that I had eaten all the crow I was going to eat; the others should eat crow now, and if there was any jumpin' to be done, I'd do it, whatever it cost. And so I went for Bent right off. I didn't want to wait. 'Here's more crow,' I thought, 'but I won't eat it; he shall, if I die for it,' and I just threw him out quick."

"I see," said Crocker, with a certain sympathy in his voice, "but you oughter hev waited. You oughter make up to wait from this on, Charley. 'Tain't hard. You don't need to take anythin' and set under it. I'm not advisin' that, but it's stronger to wait before you go fer any one. The boys," he added significantly, "don't like a man to bounce, and what they don't like is pretty hard to do."

"Damn the boys," exclaimed Charley vehemently, "they're all alike out here. I can't act different. If I waited, I might wait too long—too long, d'you sabe? I just can't trust myself," he added in a subdued tone.

"No," replied Crocker meditatively. "No, p'r'aps not. But see here, Charley, I kinder like you, and so I tell you, no one can bounce the crowd here in Garotte. They're the worst crowd you ever struck in your life. Garotte's known for hard cases. Why," he went on earnestly, as if he had suddenly become conscious of the fact, "the other night Reggitt and a lot came mighty near goin' fer you—and Harrison, Harrison took up what you said. You didn't notice, I guess; and p'r'aps 'twas well you didn't; but you hadn't much to spare. You won by the odd card.

"No one can bounce this camp. They've come from everywhere, and can only jes' get a livin' here—no more. And when luck's bad they're"—and he paused as if no adjective were strong enough. "If a man was steel, and the best and quickest on the draw ever seen, I guess they'd bury him if he played your way."

"Then they may bury me," retorted Charley bitterly, "but I've eaten my share of crow. I ain't goin' to eat any more. Can't go East now with the taste of it in my mouth. I'd rather they buried me."

And they did bury him—about a fortnight after.

July, 1892.