A Technical Error
by O. Henry
I never cared especially for feuds, believing them to be even more overrated products of our country than grapefruit, scrapple, or honeymoons. Nevertheless, if I may be allowed, I will tell you of an Indian Territory feud of which I was press-agent, camp-follower, and inaccessory during the fact.
I was on a visit to Sam Durkee’s ranch, where I had a great time falling off unmanicured ponies and waving my bare hand at the lower jaws of wolves about two miles away. Sam was a hardened person of about twenty- five, with a reputation for going home in the dark with perfect equanimity, though often with reluctance.
Over in the Creek Nation was a family bearing the name of Tatum. I was told that the Durkees and Tatums had been feuding for years. Several of each family had bitten the grass, and it was expected that more Nebuchadnezzars would follow. A younger generation of each family was growing up, and the grass was keeping pace with them. But I gathered that they had fought fairly; that they had not lain in cornfields and aimed at the division of their enemies’ suspenders in the back — partly, perhaps, because there were no cornfields, and nobody wore more than one suspender. Nor had any woman or child of either house ever been harmed. In those days — and you will find it so yet — their women were safe.
Sam Durkee had a girl. (If it were an all-fiction magazine that I expect to sell this story to, I should say, “Mr. Durkee rejoiced in a fiance.”) Her name was Ella Baynes. They appeared to be devoted to each other, and to have perfect confidence in each other, as all couples do who are and have or aren’t and haven’t. She was tolerably pretty, with a heavy mass of brown hair that helped her along. He introduced me to her, which seemed not to lessen her preference for him; so I reasoned that they were surely soul-mates.
Miss Baynes lived in Kingfisher, twenty miles from the ranch. Sam lived on a gallop between the two places.
One day there came to Kingfisher a courageous young man, rather small, with smooth face and regular features. He made many inquiries about the business of the town, and especially of the inhabitants cognominally. He said he was from Muscogee, and he looked it, with his yellow shoes and crocheted four-in-hand. I met him once when I rode in for the mail. He said his name was Beverly Travers, which seemed rather improbable.
There were active times on the ranch, just then, and Sam was too busy to go to town often. As an incompetent and generally worthless guest, it devolved upon me to ride in for little things such as post cards, barrels of flour, baking-powder, smoking-tobacco, and — letters from Ella.
One day, when I was messenger for half a gross of cigarette papers and a couple of wagon tires, I saw the alleged Beverly Travers in a yellow-wheeled buggy with Ella Baynes, driving about town as ostentatiously as the black, waxy mud would permit. I knew that this information would bring no balm of Gilead to Sam’s soul, so I refrained from including it in the news of the city that I retailed on my return. But on the next afternoon an elongated ex-cowboy of the name of Simmons, an oldtime pal of Sam’s, who kept a feed store in Kingfisher, rode out to the ranch and rolled and burned many cigarettes before he would talk. When he did make oration, his words were these:
“Say, Sam, there’s been a description of a galoot miscallin’ himself Bevel-edged Travels impairing the atmospheric air of Kingfisher for the past two weeks. You know who he was? He was not otherwise than Ben Tatum, from the Creek Nation, son of old Gopher Tatum that your Uncle Newt shot last February. You know what he done this morning? He killed your brother Lester — shot him in the co’t-house yard.”
I wondered if Sam had heard. He pulled a twig from a mesquite bush, chewed it gravely, and said:
“He did, did he? He killed Lester?”
“The same,” said Simmons. “And he did more. He run away with your girl, the same as to say Miss Ella Baynes. I thought you might like to know, so I rode out to impart the information.”
“I am much obliged, Jim,” said Sam, taking the chewed twig from his mouth. “Yes, I’m glad you rode Out. Yes, I’m right glad.”
“Well, I’ll be ridin’ back, I reckon. That boy I left in the feed store don’t know hay from oats. He shot Lester in the back.”
“Shot him in the back?”
“Yes, while he was hitchin’ his hoss.”
“I’m much obliged, Jim.”
“I kind of thought you’d like to know as soon as you could.”
“Come in and have some coffee before you ride back, Jim?”
“Why, no, I reckon not; I must get back to the store.”
“And you say — ”
“Yes, Sam. Everybody seen ’em drive away together in a buckboard, with a big bundle, like clothes, tied up in the back of it. He was drivin’ the team he brought over with him from Muscogee. They’ll be hard to overtake right away.”
“And which — ”
“I was goin’ on to tell you. They left on the Guthrie road; but there’s no tellin’ which forks they’ll take — you know that.”
“All right, Jim; much obliged.”
“You’re welcome, Sam.”
Simmons rolled a cigarette and stabbed his pony with both heels. Twenty yards away he reined up and called back:
“You don’t want no — assistance, as you might say?”
“Not any, thanks.”
“I didn’t think you would. Well, so long!”
Sam took out and opened a bone-handled pocket-knife and scraped a dried piece of mud from his left boot. I thought at first he was going to swear a vendetta on the blade of it, or recite “The Gipsy’s Curse.” The few feuds I had ever seen or read about usually opened that way. This one seemed to be presented with a new treatment. Thus offered on the stage, it would have been hissed off, and one of Belasco’s thrilling melodramas demanded instead.
“I wonder,” said Sam, with a profoundly thoughtful expression, “if the cook has any cold beans left over!”
He called Wash, the Negro cook, and finding that he had some, ordered him to heat up the pot and make some strong coffee. Then we went into Sam’s private room, where he slept, and kept his armoury, dogs, and the saddles of his favourite mounts. He took three or four six-shooters out of a bookcase and began to look them over, whistling “The Cowboy’s Lament” abstractedly. Afterward he ordered the two best horses on the ranch saddled and tied to the hitching-post.
Now, in the feud business, in all sections of the country, I have observed that in one particular there is a delicate but strict etiquette belonging. You must not mention the word or refer to the subject in the presence of a feudist. It would be more reprehensible than commenting upon the mole on the chin of your rich aunt. I found, later on, that there is another unwritten rule, but I think that belongs solely to the West.
It yet lacked two hours to supper-time; but in twenty minutes Sam and I were plunging deep into the reheated beans, hot coffee, and cold beef.
Nothing like a good meal before a long ride,” said Sam. “Eat hearty.”
I had a sudden suspicion.
“Why did you have two horses saddled?” I asked.
“One, two — one, two,” said Sam. “You can count, can’t you?”
His mathematics carried with it a momentary qualm and a lesson. The thought had not occurred to him that the thought could possibly occur to me not to ride at his side on that red road to revenge and justice. It was the higher calculus. I was booked for the trail. I began to eat more beans.
In an hour we set forth at a steady gallop eastward. Our horses were Kentucky-bred, strengthened by the mesquite grass of the west. Ben Tatum’s steeds may have been swifter, and he had a good lead; but if he had heard the punctual thuds of the hoofs of those trailers of ours, born in the heart of feudland, he might have felt that retribution was creeping up on the hoof-prints of his dapper nags.
I knew that Ben Tatum’s card to play was flight — flight until he came within the safer territory of his own henchmen and supporters. He knew that the man pursuing him would follow the trail to any end where it might lead.
During the ride Sam talked of the prospect for rain, of the price of beef, and of the musical glasses. You would have thought he had never had a brother or a sweetheart or an enemy on earth. There are some subjects too big even for the words in the “Unabridged.” Knowing this phase of the feud code, but not having practised it sufficiently, I overdid the thing by telling some slightly funny anecdotes. Sam laughed at exactly the right place — laughed with his mouth. When I caught sight of his mouth, I wished I had been blessed with enough sense of humour to have suppressed those anecdotes.
Our first sight of them we had in Guthrie. Tired and hungry, we stumbled, unwashed, into a little yellow-pine hotel and sat at a table. In the opposite corner we saw the fugitives. They were bent upon their meal, but looked around at times uneasily.
The girl was dressed in brown – one of these smooth, half-shiny, silky-looking affairs with lace collar and cuffs, and what I believe they call an accordion-plaited skirt. She wore a thick brown veil down to her nose, and a broad-brimmed straw hat with some kind of feathers adorning it. The man wore plain, dark clothes, and his hair was trimmed very short. He was such a man as you might see anywhere.
There they were — the murderer and the woman he had stolen. There we were — the rightful avenger, according to the code, and the supernumerary who writes these words.
For one time, at least, in the heart of the supernumerary there rose the killing instinct. For one moment he joined the force of combatants — orally.
“What are you waiting for, Sam?” I said in a whisper. “Let him have it now!”
Sam gave a melancholy sigh.
“You don’t understand; but he does,” he said. “He knows. Mr. Tenderfoot, there’s a rule out here among white men in the Nation that you can’t shoot a man when he’s with a woman. I never knew it to be broke yet. You can’t do it. You’ve got to get him in a gang of men or by himself. That’s why. He knows it, too. We all know. So, that’s Mr. Ben Tatum! One of the ‘pretty men’! I’ll cut him out of the herd before they leave the hotel, and regulate his account!”
After supper the flying pair disappeared quickly. Although Sam haunted lobby and stairway and halls half the night, in some mysterious way the fugitives eluded him; and in the morning the veiled lady in the brown dress with the accordion-plaited skirt and the dapper young man with the close-clipped hair, and the buckboard with the prancing nags, were gone.
It is a monotonous story, that of the ride; so it shall be curtailed. Once again we overtook them on a road. We were about fifty yards behind. They turned in the buckboard and looked at us; then drove on without whipping up their horses. Their safety no longer lay in speed. Ben Tatum knew. He knew that the only rock of safety left to him was the code. There is no doubt that, had he been alone, the matter would have been settled quickly with Sam Durkee in the usual way; but he had something at his side that kept still the trigger-finger of both. It seemed likely that he was no coward.
So, you may perceive that woman, on occasions, may postpone instead of precipitating conflict between man and man. But not willingly or consciously. She is oblivious of codes.
Five miles farther, we came upon the future great Western city of Chandler. The horses of pursuers and pursued were starved and weary. There was one hotel that offered danger to man and entertainment to beast; so the four of us met again in the dining room at the ringing of a bell so resonant and large that it had cracked the welkin long ago. The dining room was not as large as the one at Guthrie.
Just as we were eating apple pie — how Ben Davises and tragedy impinge upon each other! — I noticed Sam looking with keen intentness at our quarry where they were seated at a table across the room. The girl still wore the brown dress with lace collar and cuffs, and the veil drawn down to her nose. The man bent over his plate, with his close cropped head held low.
“There’s a code,” I heard Sam say, either to me or to himself, “that won’t let you shoot a man in the company of a woman; but, by thunder, there ain’t one to keep you from killing a woman in the company of a man!”
And, quicker than my mind could follow his argument, he whipped a Colt’s automatic from under his left arm and pumped six bullets into the body that the brown dress covered — the brown dress with the lace collar and cuffs and the accordion-plaited skirt.
The young person in the dark sack suit, from whose head and from whose life a woman’s glory had been clipped, laid her head on her arms stretched upon the table; while people came running to raise Ben Tatum from the floor in his feminine masquerade that had given Sam the opportunity to set aside, technically, the obligations of the code.