Read CHAPTER XXIX - THE SHOW of Trailin, free online book, by Max Brand, on ReadCentral.com.

Jansen, the big Swede, was the first to finish his meal in Drew’s dining-room.  For that matter, he was always first.  He ate with astonishing expedition, lowering his head till that tremendous, shapeless mouth was close to the plate and then working knife and fork alternately with an unfaltering industry.  To-night, spurred on by a desire to pass through this mechanical effort and be prepared for the coming action, his speed was something truly marvellous.  He did not appear to eat; the food simply vanished from the plate; it was absorbed like a mist before the wind.  While the others were barely growing settled in their places, Jansen was already through.

He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, produced Durham and papers, and proceeded to light up.  Lawlor, struggling still to re-establish himself in the eyes of Bard as the real William Drew, seized the opportunity to exert a show of authority.  He smashed his big fist on the table.

“Jansen!” he roared.

“Eh?” grunted the Swede.

“Where was you raised?”

“Me?”

“You, square-head.”

“Elvaruheimarstadhaven.”

“Are you sneezin’ or talkin’ English?”

Jansen, irritated, bellowed:  “Elvaruheimarstadhaven!  That’s where I was born.”

“That’s where you was born?  Elvaru — damn such a language!  No wonder you Swedes don’t know nothin’.  It takes all your time learnin’ how to talk your lingo.  But if you ain’t never had no special trainin’ in manners, I’m goin’ to make a late start with you now.  Put out that cigarette!”

The pale eyes of Jansen stared, fascinated; the vast mouth fell agape.

“Maybe,” he began, and then finished weakly:  “I be damned!”

“There ain’t no reasonable way of doubtin’ that unless you put out that smoke.  Hear me?”

Shorty Kilrain, coming from the kitchen, grinned broadly.  Having felt the lash of discipline himself, he was glad to see it fall in another place.  He continued his gleeful course around that side of the table.

And big Jansen slowly, imperturbably, raised the cigarette and inhaled a mighty cloud of smoke which issued at once in a rushing, fine blue mist, impelled by a snort.

“Maybe,” he rumbled, completing his thought, “maybe you’re one damn fool!”

“I’m going to learn you who’s boss in these parts,” boomed Lawlor.  “Put out that cigarette!  Don’t you know no better than to smoke at the table?”

Jansen pushed back his chair and started to rise.  There was no doubt as to his intentions; they were advertised in the dull and growing red which flamed in his face.  But Kilrain, as though he had known such a moment would come, caught the Swede by the shoulders and forced him back into the chair.  As he did so he whispered something in the ear of Jansen.

“Let him go!” bellowed Lawlor.  “Let him come on.  Don’t hold him.  I ain’t had work for my hands for five years.  I need exercise, I do.”

The mouth of Jansen stirred, but no words came.  A hopeless yearning was in his eyes.  But he dropped the cigarette and ground it under his heel.

“I thought,” growled Lawlor, “that you knew your master, but don’t make no mistake again.  Speakin’ personal, I don’t think no more of knockin’ down a Swede than I do of flickin’ the ashes off’n a cigar.”

He indulged in a side glance at Bard to see if the latter were properly impressed, but Anthony was staring blankly straight before him, unable, to all appearances, to see anything of what was happening.

“Kilrain,” went on Lawlor, “trot out some cigars.  You know where they’re kept.”

Kilrain falling to the temptation, asked:  “Where’s the key to the cabinet?”

For Drew kept his tobacco in a small cabinet, locked because of long experience with tobacco-loving employees.  Lawlor started to speak, checked himself, fumbled through his pockets, and then roared:  “Smash the door open.  I misplaced the key.”

No semblance of a smile altered the faces of the cowpunchers around the table, but glances of vague meaning were interchanged.  Kilrain reappeared almost at once, bearing a large box of cigars under each arm.

“The eats bein’ over,” announced Lawlor, “we can now light up.  Open them boxes, Shorty.  Am I goin’ to work on you the rest of my life teachin’ you how to serve cigars?”

Kilrain sighed deeply, but obeyed, presenting the open boxes in turn to Bard, who thanked him, and to Lawlor, who bit off the end of his smoke continued:  “A match, Kilrain.”

And he waited, swelling with pleasure, his eyes fixed upon space.  Kilrain lighted a match and held it for the two in turn.  Two rows of waiting, expectant eyes were turned from the whole length, of the table, toward the cigars.

“Shall I pass on the cigars?” suggested Bard.

These smokes?” breathed Lawlor.  “Waste ’em on common hands?  Partner, you ain’t serious, are you?”

A breath like the faint sighing of wind reached them; the cowpunchers were resigned, and started now to roll their Durham.  But it seemed as if a chuckle came from above; it was only some sound in the gasoline lamp, a big fixture which hung suspended by a slender chain from the centre of the ceiling and immediately above the table.

“Civilizin’ cowpunchers,” went on Lawlor, tilting back in his chair and bracing his feet against the edge of the table, “civilizin’ cowpunchers is worse’n breakin’ mustangs.  They’s some that say it can’t be done.  But look at this crew.  Do they look like rough uns?”

A stir had passed among the cowpunchers and solemn stares of hate transfixed Lawlor, but he went on:  “I’m askin’ you, do these look rough?”

“I should say,” answered Bard courteously, “that you have a pretty experienced lot of cattle-men.”

“Experienced?  Well, they’ll pass.  They’ve had experience with bar whisky and talkin’ to their cards at poker, but aside from bein’ pretty much drunks and crookin’ the cards, they ain’t anything uncommon.  But when I got ’em they was wild, they was.  Why, if I’d talked like this in front of ’em they’d of been guns pulled.  But look at ’em now.  I ask you:  Look at ’em now!  Ain’t they tame?  They hear me call ’em what they are, but they don’t even bat an eye.  Yes, sir, I’ve tamed ’em.  They took a lot of lickin’, but now they’re tamed.  Hello!”

For through the door stalked a newcomer.  He paused and cast a curious eye up the table to Lawlor.

“What the hell!” he remarked naively.  “Where’s the chief?”

“Fired!” bellowed Lawlor without a moment of hesitation.

“Who fired him?” asked the new man, with an expectant smile, like one who waits for the point of a joke, but he caught a series of strange signals from men at the table and many a broad wink.

“I fired him, Gregory,” answered Lawlor.  “I fired Nash!”

He turned to Bard.

“You see,” he said rather weakly, “the boys is used to callin’ Nash ’the chief.’”

“Ah, yes,” said Bard, “I understand.”

And Lawlor felt that he did understand, and too well.

Gregory, in the meantime, silenced by the mysterious signs from his fellow cowpunchers, took his place and began eating without another word.  No one spoke to him, but as if he caught the tenseness of the situation, his eyes finally turned and glanced up the table to Bard.

It was easy for Anthony to understand that glance.  It is the sort of look which the curious turn on the man accused of a great crime and sitting in the court room guilty.  His trial in silence had continued until he was found guilty.  Apparently, he was now to be both judged and executed at the same time.

There could not be long delay.  The entrance of Gregory had almost been the precipitant of action, and though it had been smoothed over to an extent, still the air was each moment more charged with suspense.  The men were lighting their second cigarette.  With each second it grew clearer that they were waiting for something.  And as if thoughtful of the work before them, they no longer talked so fluently.

Finally there was no talk at all, save for sporadic outbursts, and the blue smoke and the brown curled up slowly in undisturbed drifts toward the ceiling until a bright halo formed around the gasoline lamp.  A childish thought came to Bard that where the smoke was so thick the fire could not be long delayed.

A second form appeared in the doorway, lithe, graceful, and the light made her hair almost golden.

“Ev’nin’, fellers,” called Sally jauntily.  “Hello, Lawlor; what you doin’ at the head of the table?”