The Complete Works of O. Henry

Heart of the West (1907)


Baldy Woods reached for the bottle, and got it. Whenever Baldy went for anything he usually--but this is not Baldy's story. He poured out a third drink that was larger by a finger than the first and second. Baldy was in consultation; and the consultee is worthy of his hire.

'I'd be king if I was you,' said Baldy, so positively that his holster creaked and his spurs rattled.

Webb Yeager pushed back his flat-brimmed Stetson, and made further disorder in his straw-coloured hair. The tonsorial recourse being without avail, he followed the liquid example of the more resourceful Baldy.

'If a man marries a queen, it oughtn't to make him a two-spot,' declared Webb, epitomising his grievances.

'Sure not,' said Baldy, sympathetic, still thirsty, and genuinely solicitous concerning the relative value of the cards. 'By rights you're a king. If I was you, I'd call for a new deal. The cards have been stacked on you--I'll tell you what you are, Webb Yeager.'

'What?' asked Webb, with a hopeful look in his pale-blue eyes.

'You're a prince-consort.'

'Go easy,' said Webb. 'I never blackguarded you none.'

'It's a title,' explained Baldy, 'up among the picture-cards; but it don't take no tricks. I'll tell you, Webb. It's a brand they're got for certain animals in Europe. Say that you or me or one of them Dutch dukes marries in a royal family. Well, by and by our wife gets to be queen. Are we king? Not in a million years. At the coronation ceremonies we march between little casino and the Ninth Grand Custodian of the Royal Hall Bedchamber. The only use we are is to appear in photographs, and accept the responsibility for the heir- apparent. That ain't any square deal. Yes, sir, Webb, you're a prince- consort; and if I was you, I'd start a interregnum or a habeus corpus or somethin'; and I'd be king if I had to turn from the bottom of the deck.'

Baldy emptied his glass to the ratification of his Warwick pose.

'Baldy,' said Webb, solemnly, 'me and you punched cows in the same outfit for years. We been runnin' on the same range, and ridin' the same trails since we was boys. I wouldn't talk about my family affairs to nobody but you. You was line-rider on the Nopalito Ranch when I married Santa McAllister. I was foreman then; but what am I now? I don't amount to a knot in a stake rope.'

'When old McAllister was the cattle king of West Texas,' continued Baldy with Satanic sweetness, 'you was some tallow. You had as much to say on the ranch as he did.'

'I did,' admitted Webb, 'up to the time he found out I was tryin' to get my rope over Santa's head. Then he kept me out on the range as far from the ranch-house as he could. When the old man died they commenced to call Santa the 'cattle queen.' I'm boss of the cattle--that's all. She 'tends to all the business; she handles all the money; I can't sell even a beef-steer to a party of campers, myself. Santa's the 'queen'; and I'm Mr. Nobody.'

'I'd be king if I was you,' repeated Baldy Woods, the royalist. 'When a man marries a queen he ought to grade up with her--on the hoof-- dressed--dried--corned--any old way from the chaparral to the packing- house. Lots of folks thinks it's funny, Webb, that you don't have the say-so on the Nopalito. I ain't reflectin' none on Miz Yeager--she's the finest little lady between the Rio Grande and next Christmas--but a man ought to be boss of his own camp.'

The smooth, brown face of Yeager lengthened to a mask of wounded melancholy. With that expression, and his rumpled yellow hair and guileless blue eyes, he might have been likened to a schoolboy whose leadership had been usurped by a youngster of superior strength. But his active and sinewy seventy-two inches, and his girded revolvers forbade the comparison.

'What was that you called me, Baldy?' he asked. 'What kind of a concert was it?'

'A 'consort,'' corrected Baldy--'a 'prince-consort.' It's a kind of short-card pseudonym. You come in sort of between Jack-high and a four-card flush.'

Webb Yeager sighed, and gathered the strap of his Winchester scabbard from the floor.

'I'm ridin' back to the ranch to-day,' he said half-heartedly. 'I've got to start a bunch of beeves for San Antone in the morning.'

'I'm your company as far as Dry Lake,' announced Baldy. 'I've got a round-up camp on the San Marcos cuttin' out two-year-olds.'

The two companeros mounted their ponies and trotted away from the little railroad settlement, where they had foregathered in the thirsty morning.

At Dry Lake, where their routes diverged, they reined up for a parting cigarette. For miles they had ridden in silence save for the soft drum of the ponies' hoofs on the matted mesquite grass, and the rattle of the chaparral against their wooden stirrups. But in Texas discourse is seldom continuous. You may fill in a mile, a meal, and a murder between your paragraphs without detriment to your thesis. So, without apology, Webb offered an addendum to the conversation that had begun ten miles away.

'You remember, yourself, Baldy, that there was a time when Santa wasn't quite so independent. You remember the days when old McAllister was keepin' us apart, and how she used to send me the sign that she wanted to see me? Old man Mac promised to make me look like a colander if I ever come in gun-shot of the ranch. You remember the sign she used to send, Baldy--the heart with a cross inside of it?'

'Me?' cried Baldy, with intoxicated archness. 'You old sugar-stealing coyote! Don't I remember! Why, you dad-blamed old long-horned turtle- dove, the boys in camp was all cognoscious about them hiroglyphs. The 'gizzard-and-crossbones' we used to call it. We used to see 'em on truck that was sent out from the ranch. They was marked in charcoal on the sacks of flour and in lead-pencil on the newspapers. I see one of 'em once chalked on the back of a new cook that old man McAllister sent out from the ranch--danged if I didn't.'

'Santa's father,' explained Webb gently, 'got her to promise that she wouldn't write to me or send me any

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