A Departmental Case
by O. Henry
In Texas you may travel a thousand miles in a straight line. If your course is a crooked one, it is likely that both the distance and your rate of speed may be vastly increased. Clouds there sail serenely against the wind. The whip-poor-will delivers its disconsolate cry with the notes exactly reversed from those of his Northern brother. Given a drought and a subsequently lively rain, and lo! from a glazed and stony soil will spring in a single night blossomed lilies, miraculously fair. Tom Green County was once the standard of measurement. I have forgotten how many New Jerseys and Rhode Islands it was that could have been stowed away and lost in its chaparral. But the legislative axe has slashed Tom Green into a handful of counties hardly larger than European kingdoms. The legislature convenes at Austin, near the centre of the state; and, while the representative from the Rio Grande country is gathering his palm-leaf fan and his linen duster to set out for the capital, the Pan-handle solon winds his muffler above his well-buttoned overcoat and kicks the snow from his well-greased boots ready for the same journey. All this merely to hint that the big ex-republic of the Southwest forms a sizable star on the flag, and to prepare for the corollary that things sometimes happen there uncut to pattern and unfettered by metes and bounds.
The Commissioner of Insurance, Statistics, and History of the State of Texas was an official of no very great or very small importance. The past tense is used, for now he is Commissioner of Insurance alone. Statistic and history are no longer proper nouns in the government records.
In the year 188-, the governor appointed Luke Coonrod Standifer to be the head of this department. Standifer was then fifty-five years of age, and a Texan to the core. His father had been one of the state’s earliest settlers and pioneers. Standifer himself had served the commonwealth as Indian fighter, soldier, ranger, and legislator. Much learning he did not claim, but he had drank pretty deep of the spring of experience.
If other grounds were less abundant, Texas should be well up in the lists of glory as the grateful republic. For both as republic and state, it has busily heaped honours and solid rewards upon its sons who rescued it from the wilderness.
Wherefore and therefore, Luke Coonrod Standifer, son of Ezra Standifer, ex-Terry ranger, simon-pure democrat, and lucky dweller in an unrepresented portion of the politico-geographical map, was appointed Commissioner of Insurance, Statistics, and History.
Standifer accepted the honour with some doubt as to the nature of the office he was to fill and his capacity for filling it–but he accepted, and by wire. He immediately set out from the little country town where he maintained (and was scarcely maintained by) a somnolent and unfruitful office of surveying and map-drawing. Before departing, he had looked up under the I’s, S’s and H’s in the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” what information and preparation toward his official duties that those weighty volumes afforded.
A few weeks of incumbency diminished the new commissioner’s awe of the great and important office he had been called upon to conduct. An increasing familiarity with its workings soon restored him to his accustomed placid course of life. In his office was an old, spectacled clerk–a consecrated, informed, able machine, who held his desk regardless of changes of administrative heads. Old Kauffman instructed his new chief gradually in the knowledge of the department without seeming to do so, and kept the wheels revolving without the slip of a cog.
Indeed, the Department of Insurance, Statistics, and History carried no great heft of the burden of state. Its main work was the regulating of the business done in the state by foreign insurance companies, and the letter of the law was its guide. As for statistics–well, you wrote letters to county officers, and scissored other people’s reports, and each year you got out a report of your own about the corn crop and the cotton crop and pecans and pigs and black and white population, and a great many columns of figures headed “bushels” and “acres” and “square miles,” etc.–and there you were. History? The branch was purely a receptive one. Old ladies interested in the science bothered you some with long reports of proceedings of their historical societies. Some twenty or thirty people would write you each year that they had secured Sam Houston’s pocket-knife or Santa Ana’s whisky-flask or Davy Crockett’s rifle–all absolutely authenticated–and demanded legislative appropriation to purchase. Most of the work in the history branch went into pigeon-holes.
One sizzling August afternoon the commissioner reclined in his office- chair, with his feet upon the long, official table covered with green billiard cloth. The commissioner was smoking a cigar, and dreamily regarding the quivering landscape framed by the window that looked upon the treeless capitol grounds. Perhaps he was thinking of the rough and ready life he had led, of the old days of breathless adventure and movement, of the comrades who now trod other paths or had ceased to tread any, of the changes civilization and peace had brought, and, maybe, complacently, of the snug and comfortable camp pitched for him under the dome of the capitol of the state that had not forgotten his services.
The business of the department was lax. Insurance was easy. Statistics were not in demand. History was dead. Old Kauffman, the efficient and perpetual clerk, had requested an infrequent half-holiday, incited to the unusual dissipation by the joy of having successfully twisted the tail of a Connecticut insurance company that was trying to do business contrary to the edicts of the great Lone Star State.
The office was very still. A few subdued noises trickled in through the open door from the other departments–a dull tinkling crash from the treasurer’s office adjoining, as a clerk tossed a bag of silver to the floor of the vault–the vague, intermittent clatter of a dilatory typewriter–a dull tapping from the state geologist’s quarters as if some woodpecker had flown in to bore for his prey in the cool of the massive building–and then a faint rustle and the light shuffling of the well-worn shoes along the hall, the sounds ceasing at the door toward which the commissioner’s lethargic back was presented. Following this, the sound of a gentle voice speaking words unintelligible to the commissioner’s somewhat dormant comprehension, but giving evidence of bewilderment and hesitation.
The voice was feminine; the commissioner was of the race of cavaliers who make salaam before the trail of a skirt without considering the quality of its cloth.
There stood in the door a faded woman, one of the numerous sisterhood of the unhappy. She was dressed all in black–poverty’s perpetual mourning for lost joys. Her face had the contours of twenty and the lines of forty. She may have lived that intervening score of years in a twelve-month. There was about her yet an aurum of indignant, unappeased, protesting youth that shone faintly through the premature veil of unearned decline.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” said the commissioner, gaining his feet to the accompaniment of a great creaking and sliding of his chair.
“Are you the governor, sir?” asked the vision of melancholy.
The commissioner hesitated at the end of his best bow, with his hand in the bosom of his double-breasted “frock.” Truth at last conquered.
“Well, no, ma’am. I am not the governor. I have the honour to be Commissioner of Insurance, Statistics, and History. Is there anything, ma’am, I can do for you? Won’t you have a chair, ma’am?”
The lady subsided into the chair handed her, probably from purely physical reasons. She wielded a cheap fan–last token of gentility to be abandoned. Her clothing seemed to indicate a reduction almost to extreme poverty. She looked at the man who was not the governor, and saw kindliness and simplicity and a rugged, unadorned courtliness emanating from a countenance tanned and toughened by forty years of outdoor life. Also, she saw that his eyes were clear and strong and blue. Just so they had been when he used them to skim the horizon for raiding Kiowas and Sioux. His mouth was as set and firm as it had been on that day when he bearded the old Lion Sam Houston himself, and defied him during that season when secession was the theme. Now, in bearing and dress, Luke Coonrod Sandifer endeavoured to do credit to the important arts and sciences of Insurance, Statistics, and History. He had abandoned the careless dress of his country home. Now, his broad-brimmed black slouch hat, and his long-tailed “frock” made him not the least imposing of the official family, even if his office was reckoned to stand at the tail of the list.
“You wanted to see the governor, ma’am?” asked the commissioner, with a deferential manner he always used toward the fair sex.
“I hardly know,” said the lady, hesitatingly. “I suppose so.” And then, suddenly drawn by the sympathetic look of the other, she poured forth the story of her need.
It was a story so common that the public has come to look at its monotony instead of its pity. The old tale of an unhappy married life –made so by a brutal, conscienceless husband, a robber, a spendthrift, a moral coward and a bully, who failed to provide even the means of the barest existence. Yes, he had come down in the scale so low as to strike her. It happened only the day before–there was the bruise on one temple–she had offended his highness by asking for a little money to live on. And yet she must needs, woman-like, append a plea for her tyrant–he was drinking; he had rarely abused her thus when sober.
“I thought,” mourned this pale sister of sorrow, “that maybe the state might be willing to give me some relief. I’ve heard of such things being done for the families of old settlers. I’ve heard tell that the state used to give land to the men who fought for it against Mexico, and settled up the country, and helped drive out the Indians. My father did all of that, and he never received anything. He never would take it. I thought the governor would be the one to see, and that’s why I came. If father was entitled to anything, they might let it come to me.”
“It’s possible, ma’am,” said Standifer, “that such might be the case. But ‘most all the veterans and settlers got their land certificates issued, and located long ago. Still, we can look that up in the land office, and be sure. Your father’s name, now, was–”
“Amos Colvin, sir.”
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Standifer, rising and unbuttoning his tight coat, excitedly. “Are you Amos Colvin’s daughter? Why, ma’am, Amos Colvin and me were thicker than two hoss thieves for more than ten years! We fought Kiowas, drove cattle, and rangered side by side nearly all over Texas. I remember seeing you once before, now. You were a kid, about seven, a-riding a little yellow pony up and down. Amos and me stopped at your home for a little grub when we were trailing that band of Mexican cattle thieves down through Karnes and Bee. Great tarantulas! and you’re Amos Colvin’s little girl! Did you ever hear your father mention Luke Standifer–just kind of casually– as if he’d met me once or twice?”
A little pale smile flitted across the lady’s white face.
“It seems to me,” she said, “that I don’t remember hearing him talk about much else. Every day there was some story he had to tell about what he and you had done. Mighty near the last thing I heard him tell was about the time when the Indians wounded him, and you crawled out to him through the grass, with a canteen of water, while they–”
“Yes, yes–well–oh, that wasn’t anything,” said Standifer, “hemming” loudly and buttoning his coat again, briskly. “And now, ma’am, who was the infernal skunk–I beg your pardon, ma’am–who was the gentleman you married?”
The commissioner plumped down again into his chair, with a groan. This gentle, sad little woman, in the rusty black gown, the daughter of his oldest friend, the wife of Benton Sharp! Benton Sharp, one of the most noted “bad” men in that part of the state–a man who had been a cattle thief, an outlaw, a desperado, and was now a gambler, a swaggering bully, who plied his trade in the larger frontier towns, relying upon his record and the quickness of his gun play to maintain his supremacy. Seldom did any one take the risk of going “up against” Benton Sharp. Even the law officers were content to let him make his own terms of peace. Sharp was a ready and an accurate shot, and as lucky as a brand-new penny at coming clear from his scrapes. Standifer wondered how this pillaging eagle ever came to be mated with Amos Colvin’s little dove, and expressed his wonder.
Mrs. Sharp sighed.
“You see, Mr. Standifer, we didn’t know anything about him, and he can be very pleasant and kind when he wants to. We lived down in the little town of Goliad. Benton came riding down that way, and stopped there a while. I reckon I was some better looking then than I am now. He was good to me for a whole year after we were married. He insured his life for me for five thousand dollars. But for the last six months he has done everything but kill me. I often wish he had done that, too. He got out of money for a while, and abused me shamefully for not having anything he could spend. Then father died, and left me the little home in Goliad. My husband made me sell that, and turned me out into the world. I’ve barely been able to live, for I’m not strong enough to work. Lately, I heard he was making money in San Antonio, so I went there, and found him, and asked for a little help. This,” touching the livid bruise on her temple, “is what he gave me. So I came on to Austin to see the governor. I once heard father say that there was some land, or a pension, coming to him from the state that he never would ask for.”
Luke Standifer rose to his feet, and pushed his chair back. He looked rather perplexedly around the big office, with its handsome furniture.
“It’s a long trail to follow,” he said, slowly, “trying to get back dues from the government. There’s red tape and lawyers and rulings and evidence and courts to keep you waiting. I’m not certain,” continued the commissioner, with a profoundly meditative frown, “whether this department that I’m the boss of has any jurisdiction or not. It’s only Insurance, Statistics, and History, ma’am, and it don’t sound as if it would cover the case. But sometimes a saddle blanket can be made to stretch. You keep your seat, just for a few minutes, ma’am, till I step into the next room and see about it.”
The state treasurer was seated within his massive, complicated railings, reading a newspaper. Business for the day was about over. The clerks lolled at their desks, awaiting the closing hour. The Commissioner of Insurance, Statistics, and History entered, and leaned in at the window.
The treasurer, a little, brisk old man, with snow-white moustache and beard, jumped up youthfully and came forward to greet Standifer. They were friends of old.
“Uncle Frank,” said the commissioner, using the familiar name by which the historic treasurer was addressed by every Texan, “how much money have you got on hand?”
The treasurer named the sum of the last balance down to the odd cents –something more than a million dollars.
The commissioner whistled lowly, and his eyes grew hopefully bright.
“You know, or else you’ve heard of, Amos Colvin, Uncle Frank?”
“Knew him well,” said the treasurer, promptly. “A good man. A valuable citizen. One of the first settlers in the Southwest.”
“His daughter,” said Standifer, “is sitting in my office. She’s penniless. She’s married to Benton Sharp, a coyote and a murderer. He’s reduced her to want, and broken her heart. Her father helped build up this state, and it’s the state’s turn to help his child. A couple of thousand dollars will buy back her home and let her live in peace. The State of Texas can’t afford to refuse it. Give me the money, Uncle Frank, and I’ll give it to her right away. We’ll fix up the red-tape business afterward.”
The treasurer looked a little bewildered.
“Why, Standifer,” he said, “you know I can’t pay a cent out of the treasury without a warrant from the comptroller. I can’t disburse a dollar without a voucher to show for it.”
The commissioner betrayed a slight impatience.
“I’ll give you a voucher,” he declared. “What’s this job they’ve given me for? Am I just a knot on a mesquite stump? Can’t my office stand for it? Charge it up to Insurance and the other two sideshows. Don’t Statistics show that Amos Colvin came to this state when it was in the hands of Greasers and rattlesnakes and Comanches, and fought day and night to make a white man’s country of it? Don’t they show that Amos Colvin’s daughter is brought to ruin by a villain who’s trying to pull down what you and I and old Texans shed our blood to build up? Don’t History show that the Lone Star State never yet failed to grant relief to the suffering and oppressed children of the men who made her the grandest commonwealth in the Union? If Statistics and History don’t bear out the claim of Amos Colvin’s child I’ll ask the next legislature to abolish my office. Come, now, Uncle Frank, let her have the money. I’ll sign the papers officially, if you say so; and then if the governor or the comptroller or the janitor or anybody else makes a kick, by the Lord I’ll refer the matter to the people, and see if they won’t endorse the act.”
The treasurer looked sympathetic but shocked. The commissioner’s voice had grown louder as he rounded off the sentences that, however praiseworthy they might be in sentiment, reflected somewhat upon the capacity of the head of a more or less important department of state. The clerks were beginning to listen.
“Now, Standifer,” said the treasurer, soothingly, “you know I’d like to help in this matter, but stop and think a moment, please. Every cent in the treasury is expended only by appropriation made by the legislature, and drawn out by checks issued by the comptroller. I can’t control the use of a cent of it. Neither can you. Your department isn’t disbursive–it isn’t even administrative–it’s purely clerical. The only way for the lady to obtain relief is to petition the legislature, and–”
“To the devil with the legislature,” said Standifer, turning away.
The treasurer called him back.
“I’d be glad, Standifer, to contribute a hundred dollars personally toward the immediate expenses of Colvin’s daughter.” He reached for his pocketbook.
“Never mind, Uncle Frank,” said the commissioner, in a softer tone. “There’s no need of that. She hasn’t asked for anything of that sort yet. Besides, her case is in my hands. I see now what a little, rag- tag, bob-tail, gotch-eared department I’ve been put in charge of. It seems to be about as important as an almanac or a hotel register. But while I’m running it, it won’t turn away any daughters of Amos Colvin without stretching its jurisdiction to cover, if possible. You want to keep your eye on the Department of Insurance, Statistics, and History.”
The commissioner returned to his office, looking thoughtful. He opened and closed an inkstand on his desk many times with extreme and undue attention. “Why don’t you get a divorce?” he asked, suddenly.
“I haven’t the money to pay for it,” answered the lady.
“Just at present,” announced the commissioner, in a formal tone, “the powers of my department appear to be considerably string-halted. Statistics seem to be overdrawn at the bank, and History isn’t good for a square meal. But you’ve come to the right place, ma’am. The department will see you through. Where did you say your husband is, ma’am?”
“He was in San Antonio yesterday. He is living there now.”
Suddenly the commissioner abandoned his official air. He took the faded little woman’s hands in his, and spoke in the old voice he used on the trail and around campfires.
“Your name’s Amanda, isn’t it?”
“I thought so. I’ve heard your dad say it often enough. Well, Amanda, here’s your father’s best friend, the head of a big office in the state government, that’s going to help you out of your troubles. And here’s the old bushwhacker and cowpuncher that your father has helped out of scrapes time and time again wants to ask you a question. Amanda, have you got money enough to run you for the next two or three days?”
Mrs. Sharp’s white face flushed the least bit.
“Plenty, sir–for a few days.”
“All right, then, ma’am. Now you go back where you are stopping here, and you come to the office again the day after to-morrow at four o’clock in the afternoon. Very likely by that time there will be something definite to report to you.” The commissioner hesitated, and looked a trifle embarrassed. “You said your husband had insured his life for $5,000. Do you know whether the premiums have been kept paid upon it or not?”
“He paid for a whole year in advance about five months ago,” said Mrs. Sharp. “I have the policy and receipts in my trunk.”
“Oh, that’s all right, then,” said Standifer. “It’s best to look after things of that sort. Some day they may come in handy.”
Mrs. Sharp departed, and soon afterward Luke Standifer went down to the little hotel where he boarded and looked up the railroad time- table in the daily paper. Half an hour later he removed his coat and vest, and strapped a peculiarly constructed pistol holster across his shoulders, leaving the receptacle close under his left armpit. Into the holster he shoved a short-barrelled .44 calibre revolver. Putting on his clothes again, he strolled to the station and caught the five- twenty afternoon train for San Antonio.
The San Antonio /Express/ of the following morning contained this sensational piece of news:
BENTON SHARP MEETS HIS MATCH
The Most Noted Desperado in Southwest Texas Shot to Death in the Gold Front Restaurant–Prominent State Official Successfully Defends Himself Against the Noted Bully–Magnificent Exhibition of Quick Gun Play.
Last night about eleven o’clock Benton Sharp, with two other men, entered the Gold Front Restaurant and seated themselves at a table. Sharp had been drinking, and was loud and boisterous, as he always was when under the influence of liquor. Five minutes after the party was seated a tall, well-dressed, elderly gentleman entered the restaurant. Few present recognized the Honourable Luke Standifer, the recently appointed Commissioner of Insurance, Statistics, and History.
Going over to the same side where Sharp was, Mr. Standifer prepared to take a seat at the next table. In hanging his hat upon one of the hooks along the wall he let it fall upon Sharp’s head. Sharp turned, being in an especially ugly humour, and cursed the other roundly. Mr. Standifer apologized calmly for the accident, but Sharp continued his vituperations. Mr. Standifer was observed to draw near and speak a few sentences to the desperado in so low a tone that no one else caught the words. Sharp sprang up, wild with rage. In the meantime Standifer had stepped some yards away, and was standing quietly with his arms folded across the breast of his loosely hanging coat.
With that impetuous and deadly rapidity that made Sharp so dreaded, he reached for the gun he always carried in his hip pocket–a movement that has preceded the death of at least a dozen men at his hands. Quick as the motion was, the bystanders assert that it was met by the most beautiful exhibition of lightning gun- pulling ever witnessed in the Southwest. As Sharp’s pistol was being raised–and the act was really quicker than the eye could follow–a glittering .44 appeared as if by some conjuring trick in the right hand of Mr. Standifer, who, without a perceptible movement of his arm, shot Benton Sharp through the heart. It seems that the new Commissioner of Insurance, Statistics, and History has been an old-time Indian fighter and ranger for many years, which accounts for the happy knack he has of handling a .44.
It is not believed that Mr. Standifer will be put to any inconvenience beyond a necessary formal hearing to-day, as all the witnesses who were present unite in declaring that the deed was done in self-defence.
When Mrs. Sharp appeared at the office of the commissioner, according to appointment, she found that gentleman calmly eating a golden russet apple. He greeted her without embarrassment and without hesitation at approaching the subject that was the topic of the day.
“I had to do it, ma’am,” he said, simply, “or get it myself. Mr. Kauffman,” he added, turning to the old clerk, “please look up the records of the Security Life Insurance Company and see if they are all right.”
“No need to look,” grunted Kauffman, who had everything in his head. “It’s all O.K. They pay all losses within ten days.”
Mrs. Sharp soon rose to depart. She had arranged to remain in town until the policy was paid. The commissioner did not detain her. She was a woman, and he did not know just what to say to her at present. Rest and time would bring her what she needed.
But, as she was leaving, Luke Standifer indulged himself in an official remark:
“The Department of Insurance, Statistics, and History, ma’am, has done the best it could with your case. ‘Twas a case hard to cover according to red tape. Statistics failed, and History missed fire, but, if I may be permitted to say it, we came out particularly strong on Insurance.”