HROUGH THE FADING
moments of a bleak, cold winter day, a lone horseman came riding slowly across the snow-covered high country of northern Arizona. It was rough land, broken and rocky looking even under its heavy load of snow, with high plateaus and mountains rising far off in the distance. A light snow was still falling and it swirled and blew in hard gusts around the rider and his horse. He rode in the posture of a man who was tired and cold and discouraged, slightly slumped in the saddle, letting the motion of the horse swing and jog his body. They moved gingerly, the horse seeming to pick his own way more than by the guide of the man. Occasionally they would stop as they topped a little rise and the man would ease himself up straighter and take long looks around. He had his hat pulled low and the collar of his big coat turned up, but still his face was red and cold looking from the wind and the blowing snow. Once he worked his hand inside his coat and grimaced as he felt his ribs. When he took it out he looked at his glove as if expecting to see something on it.
They kept plodding along, the sun getting lower and lower in the leaden sky. Its bottom rim was just touching the far-off horizon when the rider urged his horse up a long incline, the animal floundering and kicking through the powdery snow, and stopped at the crest. Before him lay a long valley, soft and welcome looking under its deceptive mantle of snow. In the middle of the valley were several buildings, a little town. Smoke, rising from a few rock chimneys, disappeared quickly into the snowy haze of the sky. It was a bleak scene, this little town in the middle of nowhere, but the rider suddenly urged his horse forward, spurring him hard to make the tired animal move, and began the long descent.
Now the winter darkness was coming fast, seeming to almost be racing the rider into the town. But at the edge of the settlement the rider paused by a wooden sign mounted on a fence post. Drifting snow had partially covered the face of the sign and he leaned down and swiped it away with a gloved hand. Burned into the wood was the name of the town, SUNSHINE, ARIZONA TERRITORY. The rider looked at it for a long moment without smiling. Finally he turned his face up to the falling snow for just a second and then put spurs to his horse and started in.
He was erect now in the saddle, riding cautiously, looking constantly to his left and right as he passed down the street between the few buildings. He pulled up in front of what appeared to be a combination general store and saloon. A single sign, creaking forlornly in the wind, announced the place as
” The rider looked at it a moment, wiped a tired hand across his face and then rode his horse around on the windward side of the building so that the animal would be out of the wind and somewhat protected from the cold. He dismounted stiffly, and tied the reins to a post. Moving as if in pain, he loosened the saddle girth and then got a feed bag from his duffel tied behind the dish of the saddle and put it over the horse's head, working carefully to make sure the straps were properly fitted and that it would stay in place. Lastly he pulled a long, heavy rifle out of the boot on the left side of the saddle. The rifle was encased in a fringed, beaded case that was darkened with grease and use. Holding the rifle in his right hand he walked slowly around the store and stepped up on the porch. He was dressed in a heavy fleece-lined coat that came nearly to his knees, buffalo leggings, and a broad-brimmed, low-crowned hat. He paused outside the door to try and brush off some of the snow, taking off his hat and beating it at his coat and leggings. As he stamped his boots against the wooden floor of the porch you could hear the faint jingle of his big Mexican spurs. Then, just before opening the door, he put on his hat and unbuttoned his coat, pulling it back slightly so that the big pistol at his belt would be clear.
He didn't go freely into the saloon. Instead he stepped through the door and then stopped, easing the door closed behind him as he took a long second to look around. Standing there he was a tall, lean man with a certain gauntness about his face that could have come from tiredness or disappointment or too much pain, or all of that. By his posture you could see that he was tired, dead tired, but in spite of that there was still the set and carriage about him of a proud, capable man.
The saloon was smoky and dim. At first all he could make out clearly was the owner behind the bar, Schmidt. He was a fat, powerful-looking man with a full beard wearing a dirty white apron. He stared blankly at the man at the door. The stranger looked at him and then let his gaze shift around the room. Now his eyes were adjusting and he could make out two tables full of rough-looking men. Whatever talk had been going on had stopped at his entrance. They all stared at him openly. One, leaning back in his chair with his boots up on the table, his spurs digging into the wood, turned his head and spit without taking his eyes off the man at the door.
Further back, near the huge fireplace which was roaring and smoking, there were one or two more figures, but they were indistinct to the stranger in the gloom. One part of the saloon was sectioned off as a general store and you could see supplies, such as sacks of flour and cured bacon hanging from the ceiling, and ropes and other paraphernalia a man might need in such country.
Finally he walked slowly over to the bar, which was nothing but rough planks laid over upright barrels. He still had the huge rifle in his hand and he looked carefully around one more time before leaning it up against the bar. “Whiskey,” he said in a low voice.
“You want the good stuff or the ordinary?”
The man seemed to consider. “What's the difference?”
“Five cents the shot.”
“Just the ordinary.”
The bartender poured him out a shot and the man downed it, grimacing slightly at the taste. Schmidt waited expectantly, the opened bottle still in his hand. The man made a motion and Schmidt poured him out another drink. He knocked off half that and then set his glass back down on the bar. The whiskey was warming him and he seemed to relax slightly. The bartender, seeing he was not going to be drinking that fast, corked the bottle and set it on the bar.
“That's forty cents,” he said.
The man made a tired motion with his hand, then reached in a pocket and brought out a silver dollar. He put it carefully on the bar in front of him.
At that moment a dark young man in ragged clothes came edging up from the dim back. “Say, you buy me wheesky?”
“Goddamit, Chiffo!” the bartender yelled. “Git away!”
With his slouch hat he leaned over the bar and beat the young man back. “Get on back in that corner and don't bother none of these folks or I'll throw you out in the snow!”
The young man retreated and the bartender grumbled, “Damn half-breed, don't know why I let him hang around the place.”
Not looking, not even seeming to see, the man reached out and uncorked the bottle of whiskey. Using only one hand he uprighted a glass and poured out a full shot. Still using just the one hand, his right, he corked the bottle and put the full glass near the edge of the bar. In a move so slow that it seemed to hurt, he looked over to where the half-breed had gone to huddle near the fire. “Hey,” he said hoarsely, “come here.” He made a motion toward the whiskey. The half-breed rushed forward, an apprehensive eye on the bartender, grabbed the glass, and downed the whiskey.
“Now ain't that something,” Schmidt said sourly. “For what you spent on a drink for that lizard-edged bastard you could have been drinkin' the good stuff. Well, that's sixty cents.”
The man said, in a tired whisper, as if explanation, “It's cold. Cold.”
“And going to get a damned sight colder,” Schmidt told him.
“It can't,” the man answered. As if he'd suddenly felt the temperature, he hunched himself up, drawing the whiskey to his mouth and gulping at it. It seemed to warm him for he took off his broad-brimmed hat and laid it on the bar. “Is there a stable for my horse?”
For a moment Schmidt seemed to have not heard the question, then he asked, “What?” The man repeated it and the bartender shifted uneasily and then shook his head. “No, no stable.” He took up a cloth and began to wipe the rough top of the plank.
The man frowned. He had been in the act of picking up the bottle of whiskey, but now he set it back down. “What do you mean? I saw a barn out back.”
“No stable,” Schmidt said again. “And no lodging. No room. All filled up.” He glanced over the stranger's shoulder at the little group of men around the near table.
The stranger straightened slowly. He looked hard at Schmidt, a curious expression in his eyes. “And I saw a bunkhouse out back. It can't be full.” He turned and looked behind him, his eyes going slowly from one man to another. “I don't have to have a bed. Just out of the cold. But my horse has got to have shelter.”
“All full,” Schmidt said again.
The stranger turned back to him. He said carefully, “I don't think you'd turn a man away on a night like this. I don't think that'd be right.” He stared at Schmidt. He knew something was wrong somewhere, but he couldn't find it. From the way Schmidt kept glancing toward the men at the tables he knew it had to involve them. He could feel a little rush of energy and strength as his body instinctively got ready for the trouble he could feel. He said, distinctly, so that his words would carry throughout the room, “You will need an awful good reason to put a man out on a night like this. It better be one I can understand and I haven't heard yet.”
Schmidt didn't answer, he just stood there staring over the stranger's shoulder. Finally there was a voice, from the near table. “Put him up, Schmidt. For tonight.”
The man turned slowly, to see who'd spoken. For a moment he studied the faces around the table, then settled on a pleasant-looking young cowboy. For a brief flicker the cowboy seemed to have nodded and the stranger turned back to the bar. Schmidt said, “All right. Keep for your horse is a dollar. You get bed and board for fifty cents.”
The man smiled faintly at this logic and the bartender explained sharply. “Hay has gone to a hundred dollars a ton and none to be had. Men are cheap in this country. It costs to feed a horse.”
“I'll take it,” he said.
“Dollar and a half.”
The man put two dollars on the bar. “I'll drink out the change.”
“Chiffo!” the bartender yelled. “Get your worthless ass out there and put up the man's horse.”
The boy scurried out.
The man took another drink and then said softly, “Sunshine.”
Schmidt looked at him. “What?”
“I was just wondering at the name of your town. Sunshine.”
At that one of the men at the table, the one with his feet up, a short, unpleasant-looking man, said, “You don't like the name of our town?”
The man at the bar turned slightly sideways. He didn't speak.
“I ast you a question. You don't like the name of our town?”
“I don't care one way or another,” the stranger said.
The short, chunky man brought his feet to the floor with a thump. He smiled, but it was not pleasant. “Why, then, don't let us keep you where you don't want to be. You don't like this town, ride on.”
The man looked at him, a little frown lowering his eyes.
Tension was suddenly heavy in the air. The pleasant-faced cowboy abruptly said, “Oh hell, Tomlain, have a drink. Let the man alone.”
Tomlain raised his voice slightly. “Where you from, boy, that you come around knockin' the name of other folks' towns? Where'd you learn that?”
The man looked levelly at Tomlain, not at all concerned by the man's obvious forcing.
With that he turned back to the bar and took down the rest of his drink. Then he shook himself as if shrugging off a bad feeling. As the life slowly worked its way back into his face you could see, rough, beat down and haggard though he was, that he was not some rode-out wanderer voyaging through the land. There was a distinguished quality about his face, a gentleness in his eyes, an aristocratic aloofness and aloneness that set him apart from the ordinary run of men. He was dressed no different, nor looked much different from the other men in the room, but there was a presence and quality about him that he, himself, knew about and which they immediately recognized. This quality awed and befriended some men, others it antagonized because they recognized themselves as being inferior to such a person and they felt they must somehow find a way to trample on him and bring him down.
The bartender had been looking at the big rifle the man had leaning against the bar. “That's some cannon,” he finally commented. “Sharps?”
“Special built,” the man answered.
“You a hunter?”
“I have been.”
“What's the caliber of that weapon?”
“Big enough,” the man said.
“What do you hunt with it?”
The man didn't answer. Instead he finished his glass of whiskey and asked, “The bunkhouse?”
The bartender nodded. “I take it you've got your own bedroll.”
“Yes,” the man said.
“We furnish extra blankets for a price. The lice are free.”
The man smiled slightly and started for the door. As he walked Tomlain called to him. “Is that a real rifle you got in that pretty Indian case, boy?”
The man glanced at him and kept walking.
Tomlain persisted. “We supposed to believe you can shoot a gun like that?”
The man went on out.
When he had gone, Billy, the pleasant-faced cowboy, looked at Tomlain, and shook his head. “What do you want to go stirring up that pilgrim for?”