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ERNEST HAYCOX

OLD GLORY

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First published in Collier's, 30 Sep 1939

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-12-29
Produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan

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HE was at least eighty, and neglect and whiskey should have killed him long ago. One day he had appeared at Henry Zink's livery stable in War Pass, saying, "I know horses," and had attached himself to the stable, doing chores in return for a bunk in the hay; and somehow or other it became a rule in Beefsteak Ben's to feed him.

Occasionally somebody gave him four bits for extra care of a horse, whereupon the old man would buy a pint of whiskey and go to the back of the stable and remain there until the whiskey was gone. Afterward he would sit on a box in front of the stable wall, arms locked over his chest and one leg slowly swinging, looking at the passing citizens with an expression in his eyes that hungrily asked for one casual word or one nod of recognition.

People showed him neither attention nor interest. It was apparent that he had been physically powerful, but now he was only a bony framework with a gray, unkempt beard and eyes from which an original blue coloring had nearly gone.


War Pass was a small cattle town set off from the main highway and there had long been a desire among the merchants to have some historic memento that might draw tourist trade. So they traced back fifty years to a time when War Pass had been young and sinful, with ten saloons and no church, when Sunday morning always revealed a dead man in the gutter; and they were commemorating this day the one great episode in the town's life, which was the singlehanded stand of Marshall McGarratt against the four Kertin boys.

They had bolted a bronze marker to the brick wall of what had once been Lou Weil's general store. Here McGarratt stood with his back to the wall, one Saturday night long ago, when the Kertin boys came from the Belle saloon with their guns roaring.

From his seat on the livery-stable box the old man watched the small crowd gathered by the marker. The mayor made a little speech, describing the town as it had once been and dwelling on McGarratt's courage, the now rare courage of making a stand against fatal odds: "McGarratt knew the Kertin boys were in town to get him. He might have avoided them and later shot them down one by one. But McGarratt stood by this wall and called to them to put up their guns, knowing they wouldn't. The odds were four to one and he knew that too, but he held his fire until they pulled. When it was over the Kertin boys were dead. There never was a man in our town with that dead-chilled nerve."

The old man said silently to himself: "It was just a chore I had to do," and got up from the box. Skirting the edge of the crowd he came to the marker. Lou Weil's great-grandson, who was a ten-year-old redhead, stood in front of the marker, intently studying it. The old man gave him a close glance and went on a few feet, slowly rubbing his fingers along the brick wall, feeling the vague dimpling of bullet marks in the bricks.

Some of the men in the crowd were talking about the fight. Two or three old-timers vaguely remembered it, or said they did; for this was fifty years ago, far back in another age. Somebody said: "What became of him?" And somebody else answered: "He left town later. Probably got in a fight down the trail and his luck turned bad."

The old man thought: "They got that marker in the wrong place. It should be here. Here's where I stood, so's to get a better sweep of the street." He moved back to the marker and stood behind the small boy. There was the medallion figure of a man's head and shoulders on the marker. The man was young; he had a deep chest and a block face and a squinted expression at the corner of his eyes. Underneath the medallion was a short description of the fight and this last sentence: "McGarratt's subsequent career is lost in the mists of that long-ago day but his record belongs to the finest traditions of the old West."

"No," thought the old man, "not lost. Here I am."


Once he had been a great man with the respect of the town belonging to him. But his day went swiftly out with the longhorns and left him as a strange relic of the past, surviving his era and all his companions; gradually the onslipping years had made of him a broken and useless stranger on the outer edges of another age. Returning to the scene of his early greatness, once more to feel the town's affection, he had found only new faces passing incuriously by him and a natural taciturnity had kept him from speaking; and at last his only friend was an occasional pint bottle of whiskey.

But this now was his time. The crowd was around him and he had only to say: "Here I am," to be once more within the close and grateful circle of the living, to warm his heart against the fire of friendship for the few remaining weeks of his life.

The impulse to speak pushed against his hard-grained taciturnity when he looked again at Weil's great-grandson.

The boy stood with his glance fixed to the medallion of Marshal McGarratt and on his face was the lost, deep-dreaming worship of boyhood coming upon its needed gods. Before the boy's eyes was the perfect image of a daring man in a world of great adventure; it was a bright starlight by which he set the course of his youth.

The old man noted this and the words he had meant to speak were never spoken. To the boy that figure on the medallion was alive and everlasting, and if he spoke now the boy's eyes would turn to him and see the faded and futile and bitter-aged ending of a great man; and the boy's dream would die.

When he turned to leave the crowd the old man felt his infirmity and put his hand on the boy's shoulder for support. The boy looked around, not curious but not impatient; and stood still until the old man went on. Back at his box in front of the stable the old man watched the crowd break up. Lou Weil's great-grandson went along the street with his head down, still lost in his dreaming.


THE END