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ERNEST HAYCOX

RULE BY POWER

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First published in Collier's, 18 Sep 1937
Original manuscript title "Smoky in the West"

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-08-14
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Colliers, 18 September 1937, with "Rule by Power"



HE came up to the Reynolds ranch early that morning in a buggy drawn by two matched duns—not a big man but stocky and brisk, with bright hazel eyes set into a high-colored face. When Madge came out to the porch she saw the confident quality of his smile, as though even then he realized his power over people and circumstances, as though he had some clear intimation of his life to come. He said, in a voice that poorly controlled his impatience:

"If you choose, we can make it to my ranch by dark. I think six months is long enough. You can have George or you can have me and God knows I'll give you everything a man can make out of this land. There's something ahead for us. I want you. I can't talk it, but you ought to see it. That's why I'm here. It's how I feel. Only, six months is time enough to wait and I won't come again."

She said in a soft voice: "Now, Jim? Right now?"

He said, "Now," and long years afterwards she remembered the ring of that answer, its brusque force. For a little while she stood before him, feeling the violent compulsions of his restless will and the burning heat of his ambition. She knew she would go; yet even as she made her decision she had a voiceless regret for the things she was giving up and never would get from Jim Carran. Afterwards she turned into the house. Within a quarter hour, all her possessions in the rig, she was on the way to Fossil with him.

Fossil was five houses rising freshly from a virgin prairie. All the land swept away to the far blue of the Wildhorse Hills and the wind at this hour was sweet with the warmth and growth of first spring. They were married at Rice Stewart's little land office and then returned to the street and found George Berryman paused by the rig, his easy-going face showing a shock that for one moment was actually wild. This was the time when Jim Carran, having won, could be a little tolerant and a little contemptuous. He said, "You lose, George," and left the two of them there, going into the adjacent store. Coming out later, he saw that his wife had taken her seat in the buggy and had turned so that she might not face George Berryman; for he, gripping the buggy's side panel with both his great fists, was watching her in a manner Jim Carran never forgot. Jim Carran was a sharp man with his eyes and he saw something in the tightness of his new wife's lips that ran a prowling doubt through him and set up his instant temper. He got up in the buggy's seat and called: "You're a slow man, George—and that's no way to get things in this world," and ran the buggy out of town.

It was thirty-five miles to the Forks, a lovely haze spreading over the land and softening its shallow sweeping folds. Jim Carran, absorbing it all with his bright hazel glance, laughed silently as he drove, stirred by things he could not express. There was almost nothing said between them though once when he saw her look back to the dimming shape of Fossil he asked in his half-impatient way: "Forget something?"

"No," she said. "Nothing."

At dusk they came upon the hills and the house and sheds and corrals of his ranch, with his three hands waiting there for him. He said in his abrupt manner, "This is Mrs. Carran, boys." When they entered that long low house on the Forks Jim Carran was twenty-one and his wife nineteen; but in 1870 there was no twilight age between youth and maturity. Both of them had reached maturity five years before.

The Wildhorse Hills rose directly behind the yard of his ranch, thick with pine, and now and then in the depths of the night it was the call of the coyotes that woke him and made him remember he had a wife beside him. She lay wholly still, but from the strong and even run of her breathing he knew that she was not asleep. He could touch her and feel the passiveness of her body, he could sense its lack of resistance, its lack of answer for him. In the morning, sitting across the table from her, he understood that somewhere during the dark hours a part of her had slipped away from him. He had this acuteness, he had this power of knowing people; it was his strength always, it explained his whole life. Looking at her, so composed and so patient, with a pride that opened her prettiness, he saw the wall between them clearly and his passion for completeness of possession made him say:

"Then why didn't you marry George?"

For a moment he thought she would lie or show fear—things that he forever hated. This was his mistake, for she looked at him with a directness he could not misunderstand. "I didn't love him."

"Nor me."

"There are things in you I like. And I could not stay single. I am nineteen, which is time to be married. What you want done, I will do."

This was his wife, governed by a realism he had to admire even while his impatient will struck against the reserve she showed him. In a way Jim Carran's mind had always been old, furnished in the beginning with a wisdom that controlled the restless energies boiling through his compact body. People could be persuaded, or bought, or broken. Most people. But he saw something in his wife that held him quiet in his chair and, during those few quiet moments, laid the whole pattern of his relations with her. She would bend but never break; soft as she was, she had her own will—and there was something in her mind or in her heart he could not own or share. This he knew to be so, though he didn't know why, and never knew.

She said: "You want me to go back?"

"No," he said, and his laugh was quick and full. In a way it was touched by the irony of this situation. "I wanted a wife. I wanted you. You will never be sorry."

Two mornings later he rode out of the Forks, bound for Texas with his foreman, Bill Gilbert, and three others, leaving one man behind to keep the place. Fifteen hundred miles down the trail lay Texas and cheap beef.

This was the central fact of Jim Carran's life, this sense of time cheating a man out of his good years. It made him hate delay and uncertainty, it made him drive others as he drove himself, with an inward fury. All this land was fresh and free and full of fortune to the proper man. There were times on that wild southward ride when Bill Gilbert, waking fitfully from a dog- tired sleep, saw Jim Carran crouched over the dying fire, stone- still and brooding out his thoughts; there were times on that hard trip when he saw Jim Carran's impatience spill over in great sudden swings of his hands against the saddle, as though he tried to use his physical strength to push the horse faster. Deep in Texas they bought up a thousand head of gaunt, southern beef and turned it north for the fattening grasses of the Forks. At the Cimarron crossing they were jumped by a party of four trail cutters. Jim Carran said: "Gentlemen, what do you wish?" He knew what they wanted, but he waited to be sure and when they told him he only added, "All right," which was a signal. After they crossed the Cimarron, Bill Gilbert looked behind him and saw the buzzards wheeling over the trail cutters now dead on the sandy earth.

In '75 the land was like that and men were like that. Bill Gilbert knew something about Jim Carran then that made his voice softer; and later, near a little town up on the Niobrara, he learned more. Jim Carran had gone in to have a drink. Three hours later, Bill Gilbert went in to see what delayed his return and found Jim Carran sitting at a saloon table with his back to a rear wall, laughing at the marshal who stood in the door and was afraid to fire. The saloon was broken up and there were two women sitting with Jim Carran, both laughing and Jim Carran's hazel eyes were pale and bright with drink and with the little devils of a starved temper furiously alive.

So Jim Carran came back to the Forks with his thousand cattle and four cowhands ridden gaunt, though he himself remained untouched by the journey. The ruddy blood showed on his cheeks when he came before his wife, and his laughter was full and frank, rolling out the great vigor in him; and when he kissed her it was in his mind that the hardness of his feeling would reach through her gravity and melt the barrier between. But the passiveness held, and then they were two people face to face, with everything as it had been before. He had brought back a silver-mounted saddle, and a package.

"The saddle," he said, "is for the boy, when he comes. The package is for you."

It was the costume of a Mexican dancer, even to the castanets and high bone comb. He saw the oddness in her cheeks, almost like pleasure, and said: "I met her somewhere in Texas. She was a dark woman—and very pretty. But not like you, Madge."

Her expression changed and she said, "Thank you," and he never saw the costume again. The saddle he hung in the front room as a reminder of the son he expected; and at those rare times when he remained home Madge Carran used to see him come before it, his eyes held by the flash and glow of the silver trimmings. His compact shoulders had a way of lifting and his words had a swing to them, thrown outward by the gustiness of his will. "I intend to leave the boy something when I die."

But it was a girl and he was not there at the time. Talk of a railroad was in the wind and he had gone off to Omaha to use his influence. Threshing back to the Forks in the dead of winter, he found his wife in the care of a woman from Sixty-Mile ranch. There had been no doctor. He stood awhile in the bedroom, showing very little of his feelings. Madge said: "I'm sorry you are disappointed."

"Her name," he said, "will be Caroline, which was my mother's name," and left the bedroom. He paused in front of the silver saddle a considerable interval, rocking on his heels; and afterwards went outside.

The second girl, Louisa, was born one year later; the following year the boy came. It was the last of their children, and, as with the others, he was away from the ranch. He stood again in his wife's room, the ruddiness of his cheeks showing clearly the pride he felt, as though he had seen the long battle through, as though he had put his will to this and won again. He said: "I am pleased, as any man should be. You will never regret it. His name, of course, will be Jim."

She looked up at him with that old expression which, acute of mind as he was, he could never fathom. And said: "Jim George Carran. You won't mind that?"

"No," he said. "No."

But when he next drove into town he went straight to George Berryman's store. "George," he said in a way wickedly civil, "my son has your name for a middle handle. It may be I was mistaken about you in the beginning."

Berryman's big hands roved the counter top, and stopped. He was a quiet man, an easy-going man. But he came out from behind the counter and his voice was new to Jim Carran then. "I do not like the way you treat her and I do not like your talk. You want any more?"

Jim Carran's hazel eyes brightened; they grew round and almost pleased. "No," he murmured, "no more talk," and sprang at George Berryman. The big man moved back, taking Carran's fists on his chest; and reached out and struck Carran down at a single blow. He stood there, his breathing a little deeper, watching Carran come up and come on again. The scuffle of their boots made low sounds in the store and the beat of Carran's fists laid flat echoes across the heat. George Berryman knocked him down again—and saw the little man come up, the expression of his face bad to see, and Berryman knew Jim Carran would kill him or be killed; and afterwards Berryman slugged all consciousness out of Jim Carran in a sudden cold hatred and stood back a long while waiting for Carran to come to life. He had broken Carran's nose and beaten his lips to soft crimson. But Carran said: "All right, George. All right"—and went out of the store.

These were the growing years. The railroad came through and Fossil's street crawled along the tracks, and loading pens appeared, and a man came in and set up a bank with Jim Carran's support. Settlers began to break the uniform sweep of the land with their windmills on Dutch Flats. Once a nester came into the Forks country and put up his shanty, which pleased Madge.

She said: "I'll be glad to have them as neighbors."

That night Jim Carran took Bill Gilbert and rode the five miles across country to the nester's shack. There was a moment when it might have been bad, for the nester stood up against his house with a lifted rifle—a slim Missourian with a wife and half a dozen kids. "The land," he said, "is plumb free."

There was that moment when it might have been bad. But Jim Carran kept hold of the man's eyes and finally he laughed and got out of his saddle, and went forward and knocked down the rifle. He said, "Pack up and move. This is cow country." Half an hour later he threw five twenty-dollar gold pieces into the nester's departing wagon—and touched a match to the shanty. It made a great orange bomb in the sky as he rode home with Bill Gilbert and was even visible from the Forks ranch. Madge Carran saw it and turned slowly away, not speaking. But two years later she made her answer. "Caroline will be ready for school next year and there are no neighbors here to make a school. We'll have to move to Fossil."

It was the day of the great, square stone town house for cattlemen and Jim Carran, riding up to wealth on his blocky beeves, built such a house on the outskirts of Fossil and planted a double row of poplars entirely around it. He bought a great iron stag in Omaha and set it in the front yard; and high on the windmill tower he had the brand of his outfit painted in white letters: Lazy JC. So, seven years from the day Madge Carran stepped into the house on the Forks, she stepped out of it—and never lived there again. Riding into Fossil that day, she looked back once at the outline of the ranch quarters at the base of the Wildhorse Hills, and remembered the calling of the coyotes on the black night of her arrival; and turned about, her shoulders held rigid.

He saw little of her, and little of his growing children; for these were his great years. The days of the saddle trip into Texas went away with the coming of steel, but each spring found him on the roundabout train journey, to Abilene or the deep Gulf country. Fall saw him riding the growing reaches of his own range; and winter was the time he built his political influence, in Washington, in the state capitol. For he was Jim Carran of the Forks now, a cattleman of the straight breed, and power fed on power and men could be bought or whipped or persuaded. Most men.

Yet there never was a time when the shape and quality of his wife didn't color his thoughts and lay against him a faint, insistent pressure. Of wonder. Of regret. Once, riding into Omaha, he casually met a woman, attracting her by that vitality and that willful personality which so inevitably compelled all people. At the station he said: "Perhaps I can be of some help to you, to your hotel," and watched the forming smile on her lips when she said, "Perhaps you can." And at times like those he judged women by the dignity of his wife's eyes—and found them all wanting.

Victory was an easy thing to him and his restlessness rose greater. Yet now and then the fire intermittently flickered out and left him gray-minded and oppressed by some vague shadows whose substance he could never touch and never define; and these were the times when Jim Carran broke away from wherever he was and ended up in some smoky, wicked trail dance hall along the cattle trail, his compact shoulders bunched over a table, his stubby hands gripping bottle and glass while mystery closed down and had its terrible way with him.

It was in '79 that the bank he had so carefully nourished shut its doors, the cashier missing; and somewhere during the day a homesteader, bearing a redoubled hatred of Jim Carran faced him on Fossil's street and put a bullet through his arm. Carran's replying shot killed the homesteader, but when George Berryman came running up, Jim Carran hadn't moved from his tracks. He said then, the blood dripping freely into the dust, "You're going to run that bank, George. You're the only man I have ever trusted. I'm personally responsible for every dime—and I will pay it."

These were the times that the sources of his power showed through. Afterwards, in the big stone town house he watched the alternate darkness and light give expression to his wife's eyes while the doctor worked on the torn arm. His son Jim-George stood beside his mother, eight years old and turned pale by what he saw.

It was that pallor which brought up something long dormant in Jim Carran, a resolution so far unkept. That summer he took Jim- George down to the Forks ranch, and rode through the Wildhorse Hills with him. It was Jim-George's riding he kept watching, and Jim-George's character; for Jim Carran's sharp eyes had seen something he didn't like. But he kept his own counsel for four years, giving the boy credit he would never have given another man. Until, one day from his seat on the top bar of a corral he watched Jim-George leave a bucker in a long, low dive. Dust settled and silence came on. Jim-George got up, one shoulder lower than the other, his chalky cheeks tipped toward Jim Carran, and toward Bill Gilbert also watching.

"Hurt?"

"No," said Jim-George, and went back to the horse. Bill Gilbert helped him on; and the boy rode it through. But afterwards Jim Carran said:

"You're afraid of horses, Jim-George," and left the corral. He had no way of holding it back for he was a man who hated uncertainty and fear and all the small evasions of life. He saw the expression in his son's eyes as he turned from the corral, an expression terribly proud and mortally wounded—like that expression he had noticed so often in the eyes of his wife. He knew then he had pushed his son definitely away from him.

It was part of the price he paid for the heat of a will which wilted all that came before it; his victories came of that heat, and his defeats came of it, too, for his wife lay somewhere behind a reserve impenetrable to him, and now his son withdrew. The youngest girl, Louisa, grew up in the image of her mother, the same patience and the same far thoughts in her young eyes, and only in the oldest child, Caroline, did he see the reflection of himself—the mirrored laughter and impatience, the almost greedy love of life. Between them, from beginning to end, was a speechless closeness, an understanding he could never reach with others. Yet, in the long soft evenings of fall when he sat on the porch of the great stone house and heard her voice rise gaily among the voices of the boys in the yard, he sometimes sat quite still, held by a doubt and by a fear. He knew his own weaknesses: and saw them in Caroline.

So these years went, the streets of Fossil growing a little longer and the shade trees growing up to first maturity on soil that had been virgin in '70. Around this town lay the close- fenced homesteads of German settlers; and dusty roads began to lengthen away to other little towns and only in the far country about the Wildhorse Hills did cattlemen remain undisturbed. There was a time when the rustler grew great and when Jim Carran collected his own chosen men and scoured the Wildhorse pines and left those men hanging dead from the cottonwood branches along the isolated creek bottoms. There was a time when the sheepman moved his herds up from the Colorado parks—and retired again with his sheep lying in white, lifeless windrows at the base of the Porcupine cliffs. Jim Carran was in that, too. These were the hard years, the great and winey years when his life rolled up to its turbulent crest and when his signature was good on a check all the way from Texas to Wyoming. He was stockier than in the beginning and the ruddiness of his face had permanently deepened, leaving faint blood veins tracked against the skin.

Madge said: "Caroline is eighteen and a little wild. You should talk to her. And I wish you'd not let Jim-George ride so many horses. He has broken too many bones."

He had nothing he could say to his daughter when she came before him. For she was a formed, red-lipped woman and her eyes, as light as his own, knew all that he knew, leaving him helpless. It was in the spring of the year. She did something then she had never done before. She was laughing and she bent down and kissed him, but when she straightened he saw tears in her eyes. The week following she ran away from town with a transient man none of them knew. Once there was a letter from her with a St. Louis postmark. After that the long years closed down and they never heard of her again.

He knew as soon as she left that he had lost the only tie binding him to his family. And so it was a fear that made him take his son along on the next trip to Texas. Fear, and a desire to get nearer this son who, like Madge, stood so distant from him. Riding down the illimitable west, he kept remembering the look in Jim-George's eyes that day he had spoken of horses. It kept coming back to him, and impelled him to say: "Some men can ride, Jim-George, and some can't. It is no reflection on a man if he can't. But if he can't, all the trying in the world won't help. You're old enough now to know that. Better quit trying to ride the buckers." But from his son's deep silence he knew he had made no amends. The boy had a pride like his mother's pride—hidden far away in him, metal-hard.

There was that unease between them Jim Carran made his honest attempt to break. He knew of only one way, which was to show Jim- George the sort of a man he, Jim Carran, actually was. Truthfully and without those evasions which he so fundamentally hated. He was conscientious about it, retravelling the trail for his son's sake, introducing him to all the hale and earthy and large-handed men who were his own friends. "This," he would say, "is my son, Jim-George, who rides this way when I'm gone," and he would stand back to see how Jim-George caught on. There was a free-masonry on the trail. A man belonged or he didn't belong and presently he knew Jim-George didn't belong. It was a way of looking at life, a spirit that rode through trouble and misfortune, a laughter that drew men together, an appetite that reached vigorously and broadly and sometimes sinfully, into the depths of living. In a way Jim Carran's generation was a generation of lusty savages.

It was what Jim Carran felt, and wanted Jim-George to feel; and it was that great desire that impelled him, in a moment of terrible candor, to take Jim-George to one of those smoky and wicked road houses that he knew so well, so that Jim-George would know something of the secret turnings of a man's nature. Of women and drink, and some groping for a meaning to things, and some search for beauty, even within the four gray walls of a joint, with a pair of girls sitting at the table and a bottle of whisky standing half-empty there. But he saw Jim-George shrink and grow cold, and at that moment he recognized Madge's eyes looking directly at him.

The next day Jim-George started home with twenty car-loads of beef and Jim Carran took the rest of his trip alone. He was somewhere on the border a month later, when Madge's telegram caught up with him. Jim-George had been killed on a bucking horse.

He had been a week late for this boy's birth; he was a week late for his funeral. Standing alone—so thoroughly alone—in the soft prairie twilight, beside the freshly mounded earth, Jim Carran went down into the blackness that could come only to a selfsufficient man at last realizing what self- sufficiency had done to him. He remembered the way Jim-George had last looked at him across that wide gulf neither of them had ever been able to bridge; and he knew his few careless words, spoken so long ago, had killed Jim-George. The kid had tried to overcome his fear with bad horses, and in trying had died. It occurred to Jim Carran at this moment that Jim-George had, somewhere in his heart, wanted to be like his father.

There was a silence in the big stone house for Jim Carran, that terrible silence following the sound of voices and laughter and young people calling. Sitting in the living room with Madge and Louisa, who was another Madge in every gesture, Jim Carran found himself tight in his chair, waiting for Jim-George to speak, waiting for Caroline to come gaily through the front door. And then it was hard to let his muscles go slack and sit with the light shining in his eyes and watch Madge's fingers work through her knitting needles. Once he said:

"The blame is mine."

It was all he ever said, directly. Madge Carran's fingers came to a complete stop. She looked at him and in the long interval he saw, because his eyes had never lost their sharpness, that she was trying to find words that would ease it for him. Trying and failing. When she did speak it was to say something he never quite understood, such being the strange distance of her thoughts. "There are times, Jim, when I think I have misjudged you."

"Maybe we better go south for a trip this fall."

"Louisa is to be married then. Anyhow it is a little late for that."

It was a little late for a good many things. Riding out the summer along the old trails of the Wildhorse, he had certain spots on the hill heights from which he could see his range strike away in low undulations toward a misty horizon. All this belonged to him, the fruits of his restless years and his hard years. Yet he knew his time drew nearer its end, as with all the other great cattlemen. He was an island against which the waters of homestead settlement slowly rose and nothing held this range together but his own will. After him came the breakup. In Fossil now were the spindles of barb wire and the long piles of fence posts and the red painted plows awaiting that breakup.

So, then, what was his life for? This was the question that lay in Jim Carran's fertile mind as he rode his graze and saw his whitefaced cows browsing, as he sat by night before the campfire of his round-up crew and watched the flames with the same furious energies having their way with him. This was as Bill Gilbert used to see him in the old trail days, and this was as he still remained, though times had changed and Bill Gilbert was gone. It was the thing he thought of on the long trips to the south, and in the murky confusion of the road houses on a trail almost vanished, and in the rooms of many a western hotel where he stopped to cement his business deals and brighten old time friendships.

There were, he saw, gray heads among those friends; and it reminded him suddenly that his own head was likewise graying, though this knowledge he kept pushing away. He was still an abrupt, stocky figure with the extreme ruddiness of cheek and the same high and explosive laugh; and in him still was the pent-up energy of a man searching for something to win. But the time for that was at an end. He had made his winnings.

For him there was no mellowness of age to absorb the shock of growing old; no dying out of the full fire of his will. In the beginning he had known his power, and knew it now in a way that made him brace the high desert wind and stiffen his shoulders and look into the distance with the desire to be again driving forward. Only, there was a difference. Once the distance had been empty; now there was no emptiness left for him to ride.

There was the time when he received notice of a pioneers' convention to be held at Ogallala. He read it and tore it up angrily, in front of George Berryman. "Pioneer, hell. I'm a young man and I don't go around croaking of the old days." But later that night he asked Madge in a slow, slow voice: "Has it been that long ago? What's happened to all that time?"

Coming out of the Wildhorse Hills one fall day in 1905, he stopped to open a gate of the Forks ranch and let his rifle slip awkwardly from his hands; and took a bullet into that arm which, years before, had been ripped by the crazed homesteader's shot.

The doctor in Fossil ordered him to bed, but he would not go until, on the third day, he felt the hurt climb slowly out of his arm into his shoulder. Then he knew the resistance of his youth was gone. On the fourth morning he called in George Berryman. "I want you to send two thousand dollars to Doria Anna Ramirez of Phoenix."

"Paying your bills?" asked George.

"I never dodged one."

"No," said George Berryman, gravely, "you never did, Jim."

This was a thing his mind dwelled on as the fever went up and his thoughts began to cross into that strange land of shadow. He had paid his bills, every one and it was a source of satisfaction. There were other people in the bedroom, their faces blurring. And a voice, kept saying: "I remember the time when Jim and me—"

Jim Carran said: "Jim-George come back from the Forks yet?"

"No, not yet."

"Tell him I want to see him. Why does Caroline stay out of the room so much?"

"They will come, Jim."

But he was thinking of something else. "Another time and another place and I might have made something of my life."

"Jim, what do you regret?"

It was a question that drew him back, out of a hot, bright land into a cool one. Lamplight glowed against evening's long dusk, and Madge stood over him. The tick of an alarm clock made an abnormally loud noise. He tried to lift his hand toward his wife, but though his will went into his muscles his arm never stirred; and he knew then he had come to the end of his time. She wasn't, he saw, crying and that didn't surprise him. She had never been a woman to show her feelings, or give way to the things most women did. It was a pride that held her up; it was a pride which even, in some of his smokiest hours, laid gentleness and a mystery on him. She was a fair woman, looking down with a faithfulness which supported him as he went out.

He said distinctly, "I am a wealthy man, but I have lost too much. That is what I regret. It occurs to me that in all these years I have never said that I loved you. I do. You are the one woman in the world I have ever loved, or respected."

Just before he died, and while he was aware of the outer world, she reached down and kissed him; and then he saw that there were tears in her eyes. Her fingers held his arm; they made a steady pressure, as though she were guiding him on his trip. It came to him then as his final thought that this gentle pressure had guided him all his days and had colored his world for him in strange ways. And so he died, as close to the meaning of his life as he ever got.

George Berryman came in at that moment and saw this little scene, with Madge Carran bent over the bed. He didn't speak till she had risen. Then he said:

"The man was great. He really was. None of his sins were small."


THE END


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