Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Nineteen. Whisky and Water

In the embryo city springing up under the protection of Fort Inge, the “hotel” was the most conspicuous building. This is but the normal condition of every Texan town—whether new or founded forty years ago; and none are older, except the sparse cities of Hispano-Mexican origin—where the presidio and convent took precedence, now surpassed by, and in some instances transformed into, the “tavern.”

The Fort Inge establishment, though the largest building in the place, was, nevertheless, neither very grand nor imposing. Its exterior had but little pretence to architectural style. It was a structure of hewn logs, having for ground-plan the letter T according to the grotesque alphabet—the shank being used for eating and sleeping rooms, while the head was a single apartment entirely devoted to drinking—smoking and expectorating included. This last was the bar-room, or “saloon.”

The sign outside, swinging from the trunk of a post-oak, that had been pollarded some ten feet above the ground, exhibited on both sides the likeness of a well known military celebrity—the hero of that quarter of the globe—General Zachariah Taylor. It did not need looking at the lettering beneath to ascertain the name of the hotel. Under the patronage of such a portrait it could only be called “Rough and Ready.”

There was a touch of the apropos about this designation. Outside things appeared rough enough; while inside, especially if you entered by the “saloon,” there was a readiness to meet you half way, with a mint julep, a sherry cobbler, a gin sling, or any other mixed drink known to trans-Mississippian tipplers—provided always that you were ready with the picayunes to pay for them.

The saloon in question would not call for description, had you ever travelled in the Southern, or South-Western, States of America. If so, no Lethean draught could ever efface from your memory the “bar-room” of the hotel or tavern in which you have had the unhappiness to sojourn. The counter extending longitudinally by the side; the shelved wall behind, with its rows of decanters and bottles, containing liquors, of not only all the colours of the prism, but every possible combination of them; the elegant young fellow, standing or sidling between counter and shelves, ycleped “clerk”—don’t call him a “barkeeper,” or you may get a decanter in your teeth—this elegant young gentleman, in blouse of blue cottonade, or white linen coat, or maybe in his shirt sleeves—the latter of finest linen and lace—ruffled, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty—this elegant young gentleman, who, in mixing you a sherry cobbler, can look you straight in the face, talk to you the politics of the day, while the ice, and the wine, and the water, are passing from glass to glass, like an iris sparkling behind his shoulders, or an aureole surrounding his perfumed head! Traveller through the Southern States of America you; cannot fail to remember him?

If so, my words will recall him, along with his surroundings—the saloon in which he is the presiding administrator, with its shelves and coloured decanters; its counter; its floor sprinkled with white sand, at times littered with cigar stumps, and the brown asterisks produced by expectoration—its odour of mint, absinthe, and lemon-peel, in which luxuriate the common black fly, the blue-bottle, and the sharp-tongued mosquito. All these must be sharply outlined on the retina of your memory.

The hotel, or tavern, “Rough and Ready,” though differing but little from other Texan houses of entertainment, had some points in particular. Its proprietor, instead of being a speculative Yankee, was a German—in this part of the world, as elsewhere, found to be the best purveyors of food. He kept his own bar; so that on entering the saloon, instead of the elegant young gentleman with ruffled shirt and odorous chevelure, your “liquor” was mixed for you by a staid Teuton, who looked as sober as if he never tasted—notwithstanding the temptation of wholesale price—the delicious drinks served out to his customers. Oberdoffer was the name he had imported with him from his fatherland; transformed by his Texan customers into “Old Duffer.”

There was one other peculiarity about the bar-room of the “Rough and Ready,” though it scarce deserved to be so designated; since it was not uncommon elsewhere. As already stated, the building was shaped like a capital T; the saloon representing the head of the letter. The counter extended along one side, that contiguous to the shank; while at each end was a door that opened outward into the public square of the incipient city.

This arrangement had been designed to promote the circulation of the air—a matter of primary importance in an atmosphere where the thermometer for half the year stands at 90 degrees in the shade.

The hotels of Texas or the South-Western States—I may say every part of the American Union—serve the double purpose of exchange and club-house. Indeed, it is owing to the cheap accommodation thus afforded—often of the most convenient kind—that the latter can scarce be said to exist.

Even in the larger cities of the Atlantic states the “club” is by no means a necessity. The moderate charges of the hotels, along with their excellent cuisine and elegant accommodations, circumscribe the prosperity of this institution; which in America is, and ever must be, an unhealthy exotic.

The remark is still more true of the Southern and South-western cities; where the “saloon” and “bar-room” are the chief places of resort and rendezvous.

The company, too, is there of a more miscellaneous character. The proud planter does not disdain—for he does not dare—to drink in the same room with the “poor white trash;” often as proud as himself.

There is no peasant in that part of the world—least of all in the state called Texas; and in the saloon of “Rough and Ready” might often be seen assembled representatives of every class and calling to be met with among the settlements.

Perhaps not upon any occasion since “Old Duffer” had hung out the sign of his tavern, was he favoured with a larger company, or served more customers across his counter, than upon that night, after the return of the horse-hunting party to Fort Inge.

With the exception of the ladies, almost every one who had taken part in the expedition seemed to think that a half-hour spent at the “Rough and Ready” was necessary as a “nightcap” before retiring to rest; and as the Dutch clock, quaintly ticking among the coloured decanters, indicated the hour of eleven, one after another—officers of the Fort—planters living near along the river—Sutlers—commissariat contractors—“sportsmen”—and others who might be called nondescripts—came dropping in; each as he entered marching straight up to the counter, calling for his favourite drink, and then falling back to converse with some group already occupying the floor.

One of these groups was conspicuous. It consisted of some eight or ten individuals, half of them in uniform. Among the latter were the three officers already introduced; the captain of infantry, and the two lieutenants—Hancock of the dragoons, and Crossman of the mounted rifles.

Along with these was an officer older than any of them, also higher in authority, as could be told by the embroidery on his shoulder-strap, that proclaimed him of the rank of major. As he was the only “field officer” at Fort Inge, it is unnecessary to say he was the commandant of the cantonment.

These gentlemen were conversing as freely as if all were subalterns of equal rank—the subject of the discourse being the incidents of the day.

“Now tell us, major!” said Hancock: “you must know. Where did the girl gallop to?”

“How should I know?” answered the officer appealed to. “Ask her cousin, Mr Cassius Calhoun.”

“We have asked him, but without getting any satisfaction. It’s clear he knows no more than we. He only met them on the return—and not very far from the place where we had our bivouac. They were gone a precious long time; and judging by the sweat of their horses they must have had a hard ride of it. They might have been to the Rio Grande, for that matter, and beyond it.”

“Did you notice Calhoun as he came back?” inquired the captain of infantry. “There was a scowl upon his face that betokened some very unpleasant emotion within his mind, I should say.”

“He did look rather unhappy,” replied the major; “but surely, Captain Sloman, you don’t attribute it to—?”

“Jealousy. I do, and nothing else.”

“What! of Maurice the mustanger? Poh—poh! impossible—at least, very improbable.”

“And why, major?”

“My dear Sloman, Louise Poindexter is a lady, and Maurice Gerald—”

“May be a gentleman for aught that is known to the contrary.”

“Pshaw!” scornfully exclaimed Crossman; “a trader in horses! The major is right—the thing’s improbable—impossible.”

“Ah, gentlemen!” pursued the officer of infantry, with a significant shake of the head. “You don’t know Miss Poindexter, so well as I. An eccentric young lady—to say the least of her. You may have already observed that for yourselves.”

“Come, come, Sloman!” said the major, in a bantering way; “you are inclined to be talking scandal, I fear. That would be a scandal. Perhaps you are yourself interested in Miss Poindexter, notwithstanding your pretensions to be considered a Joseph? Now, I could understand your being jealous if it were handsome Hancock here, or Crossman—supposing him to be disengaged. But as for a common mustanger—poh—poh!”

“He’s an Irishman, major, this mustanger; and if he be what I have some reason to suspect—”

“Whatever he be,” interrupted the major, casting a side glance towards the door, “he’s there to answer for himself; and as he’s a sufficiently plain-spoken fellow, you may learn from him all about the matter that seems to be of so much interest to you.”

“I don’t think you will,” muttered Sloman, as Hancock and two or three others turned towards the new-comer, with the design of carrying out the major’s suggestion.

Silently advancing across the sanded floor, the mustanger had taken his stand at an unoccupied space in front of the counter.

“A glass of whisky and water, if you please?” was the modest request with which to saluted the landlord.

“Visky und vachter!” echoed the latter, without any show of eagerness to wait upon his new guest. “Ya, woe, visky und vachter! It ish two picayunsh the glass.”

“I was not inquiring the price,” replied the mustanger, “I asked to be served with a glass of whisky and water. Have you got any?”

“Yesh—yesh,” responded the German, rendered obsequious by the sharp rejoinder. “Plenty—plenty of visky und vachter. Here it ish.”

While his simple potation was being served out to him, Maurice received nods of recognition from the officers, returning them with a free, but modest air. Most of them knew him personally, on account of his business relations with the Fort.

They were on the eve of interrogating him—as the major had suggested—when the entrance of still another individual caused them to suspend their design.

The new-comer was Cassius Calhoun. In his presence it would scarce have been delicacy to investigate the subject any further.

Advancing with his customary swagger towards the mixed group of military men and civilians, Calhoun saluted them as one who had spent the day in their company, and had been absent only for a short interval. If not absolutely intoxicated, it could be seen that the ex-officer of volunteers was under the influence of drink. The unsteady sparkle of his eyes, the unnatural pallor upon his forehead—still further clouded by two or three tossed tresses that fell over it—with the somewhat grotesque set of his forage cap—told that he had been taking one beyond the limits of wisdom.

“Come, gentlemen!” cried he, addressing himself to the major’s party, at the same time stepping up to the counter; “let’s hit the waggon a crack, or old Dunder-und-blitzen behind the bar will say we’re wasting his lights. Drinks all round. What say you?”

“Agreed—agreed!” replied several voices.

“You, major?”

“With pleasure, Captain Calhoun.”

According to universal custom, the intended imbibers fell into line along the counter, each calling out the name of the drink most to his liking at the moment.

Of these were ordered almost as many kinds as there were individuals in the party; Calhoun himself shouting out—“Brown sherry for me;” and immediately adding—“with a dash of bitters.”

“Prandy und pitters, you calls for, Mishter Calhoun?” said the landlord, as he leant obsequiously across the counter towards the reputed partner of an extensive estate.

“Certainly, you stupid Dutchman! I said brown sherry, didn’t I?”

“All rights, mein herr; all rights! Prandy und pitters—prandy und pitters,” repeated the German Boniface, as he hastened to place the decanter before his ill-mannered guest.

With the large accession of the major’s party, to several others already in the act of imbibing, the whole front of the long counter became occupied—with scarce an inch to spare.

Apparently by accident—though it may have been design on the part of Calhoun—he was the outermost man on the extreme right of those who had responded to his invitation.

This brought him in juxtaposition with Maurice Gerald, who alone—as regarded boon companionship—was quietly drinking his whisky and water, and smoking a cigar he had just lighted.

The two were back to back—neither having taken any notice of the other.

“A toast!” cried Calhoun, taking his glass from the counter.

“Let us have it!” responded several voices.

“America for the Americans, and confusion to all foreign interlopers—especially the damned Irish!”

On delivering the obnoxious sentiment, he staggered back a pace; which brought his body in contact with that of the mustanger—at the moment standing with the glass raised to his lips.

The collision caused the spilling of a portion of the whisky and water; which fell over the mustanger’s breast.

Was it an accident? No one believed it was—even for a moment. Accompanied by such a sentiment the act could only have been an affront intended and premeditated.

All present expected to see the insulted man spring instantly upon his insulter. They were disappointed, as well as surprised, at the manner in which the mustanger seemed to take it. There were some who even fancied he was about to submit to it.

“If he does,” whispered Hancock in Sloman’s ear, “he ought to be kicked out of the room.”

“Don’t you be alarmed about that,” responded the infantry officer, in the same sotto voce. “You’ll find it different. I’m not given to betting, as you know; but I’d lay a month’s pay upon it the mustanger don’t back out; and another, that Mr Cassius Calhoun will find him an ugly customer to deal with, although just now he seems more concerned about his fine shirt, than the insult put upon him. Odd devil he is!”

While this whispering was being carried on, the man to whom it related was still standing by the bar—to use a hackneyed phrase, “the observed of all observers.”

Having deposited his glass upon the counter, he had drawn a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and was wiping from his embroidered shirt bosom the defilement of the spilt whisky.

There was an imperturbable coolness about the action, scarce compatible with the idea of cowardice; and those who had doubted him perceived that they had made a mistake, and that there was something to come. In silence they awaited the development.

They had not long to wait. The whole affair—speculations and whisperings included—did not occupy twenty seconds of time; and then did the action proceed, or the speech which was likely to usher it in.

“I am an Irishman,” said the mustanger, as he returned his handkerchief to the place from which he had taken it.

Simple as the rejoinder may have appeared, and long delayed as it had been, there was no one present who mistook its meaning. If the hunter of wild horses had tweaked the nose of Cassius Calhoun, it would not have added emphasis to that acceptance of his challenge. Its simplicity but proclaimed the serious determination of the acceptor.

“You?” scornfully retorted Calhoun, turning round, and standing with his arms akimbo. “You?” he continued, with his eye measuring the mustanger from head to foot, “you an Irishman? Great God, sir, I should never have thought so! I should have taken you for a Mexican, judging by your rig, and the elaborate stitching of your shirt.”

“I can’t perceive how my rig should concern you, Mr Cassius Calhoun; and as you’ve done my shirt no service by spilling half my liquor upon it, I shall take the liberty of unstarching yours in a similar fashion.”

So saying, the mustanger took up his glass; and, before the ex-captain of volunteers could duck his head, or get out of the way, the remains of the mixed Monongahela were “swilled” into his face, sending him off into a fit of alternate sneezing and coughing that appeared to afford satisfaction to more than a majority of the bystanders.

The murmur of approbation was soon suppressed. The circumstances were not such as to call for speech; and the exclamations that accompanied the act were succeeded by a hush of silence. All saw that the quarrel could not be otherwise than a serious one. The affair must end in a fight. No power on earth could prevent it from coming to that conclusion.