When I used to sell hardware in the West, I often "made" a little town
called Saltillo, in Colorado. I was always certain of securing a small
or a large order from Simon Bell, who kept a general store there. Bell
was one of those six-foot, low-voiced products, formed from a union of
the West and the South. I liked him. To look at him you would think he
should be robbing stage coaches or juggling gold mines with both hands;
but he would sell you a paper of tacks or a spool of thread, with ten
times more patience and courtesy than any saleslady in a city department
I had a twofold object in my last visit to Saltillo. One was to sell a
bill of goods; the other to advise Bell of a chance that I knew of by
which I was certain he could make a small fortune.
In Mountain City, a town on the Union Pacific, five times larger than
Saltillo, a mercantile firm was about to go to the wall. It had a lively
and growing custom, but was on the edge of dissolution and ruin.
Mismanagement and the gambling habits of one of the partners explained
it. The condition of the firm was not yet public property. I had my
knowledge of it from a private source. I knew that, if the ready cash
were offered, the stock and good will could be bought for about one
fourth their value.
On arriving in Saltillo I went to Bell's store. He nodded to me, smiled
his broad, lingering smile, went on leisurely selling some candy to a
little girl, then came around the counter and shook hands.
"Well," he said (his invariably preliminary jocosity fit every call I
made), "I suppose you are out here making kodak pictures of the
mountains. It's the wrong time of the year to buy any hardware, of
I told Bell about the bargain in Mountain City. If he wanted to take
advantage of it, I would rather have missed a sale than have him
overstocked in Saltillo.
"It sounds good," he said, with enthusiasm. "I'd like to branch out and
do a bigger business, and I'm obliged to you for mentioning it.
But--well, you come and stay at my house to-night and I'll think about
It was then after sundown and time for the larger stores in Saltillo to
close. The clerks in Bell's put away their books, whirled the
combination of the safe, put on their coats and hats and left for their
homes. Bell padlocked the big, double wooden front doors, and we stood,
for a moment, breathing the keen, fresh mountain air coming across the
A big man walked down the street and stopped in front of the high porch
of the store. His long, black moustache, black eyebrows, and curly black
hair contrasted queerly with his light, pink complexion, which belonged,
by rights, to a blonde. He was about forty, and wore a white vest, a
white hat, a watch chain made of five-dollar gold pieces linked
together, and a rather well-fitting two-piece gray suit of the cut that
college boys of eighteen are wont to affect. He glanced at me
distrustfully, and then at Bell with coldness and, I thought, something
of enmity in his expression.
"Well," asked Bell, as if he were addressing a stranger, "did you fix up
"Did I!" the man answered, in a resentful tone. "What do you suppose
I've been here two weeks for? The business is to be settled to-night.
Does that suit you, or have you got something to kick about?"
"It's all right," said Bell. "I knew you'd do it."
"Of course, you did," said the magnificent stranger. "Haven't I done it
"You have," admitted Bell. "And so have I. How do you find it at the
"Rocky grub. But I ain't kicking. Say--can you give me any pointers
about managing that--affair? It's my first deal in that line of
business, you know."
"No, I can't," answered Bell, after some thought. "I've tried all kinds
of ways. You'll have to try some of your own."
"Tried soft soap?"
"Barrels of it."
"Tried a saddle girth with a buckle on the end of it?"
"Never none. Started to once; and here's what I got."
Bill held out his right hand. Even in the deepening twilight, I could
see on the back of it a long, white scar that might have been made by a
claw or a knife or some sharp-edged tool.
"Oh, well," said the florid man, carelessly, "I'll know what to do later
He walked away without another word. When he had gone ten steps he
turned and called to Bell:
"You keep well out of the way when the goods are delivered, so there
won't be any hitch in the business."
"All right," answered Bell, "I'll attend to my end of the line."
This talk was scarcely clear in its meaning to me; but as it did not
concern me, I did not let it weigh upon my mind. But the singularity of
the other man's appearance lingered with me for a while; and as we
walked toward Bell's house I remarked to him:
"Your customer seems to be a surly kind of fellow--not one that you'd
like to be snowed in with in a camp on a hunting trip."
"He is that," assented Bell, heartily. "He reminds me of a rattlesnake
that's been poisoned by the bite of a tarantula."
"He doesn't look like a citizen of Saltillo," I went on.
"No," said Bell, "he lives in Sacramento. He's down here on a little
business trip. His name is George Ringo, and he's been my best
friend--in fact the only friend I ever had--for twenty years."
I was too surprised to make any further comment.
Bell lived in a comfortable, plain, square, two-story white house on the
edge of the little town. I waited in the parlor--a room depressingly
genteel--furnished with red plush, straw matting, looped-up lace
curtains, and a glass case large enough to contain a mummy, full of
While I waited, I heard, upstairs, that unmistakable sound instantly
recognized the world over--a bickering woman's voice, rising as her
anger and fury grew. I could hear, between the gusts, the temperate
rumble of Bell's tones, striving to oil the troubled waters.
The storm subsided soon; but not before I had heard the woman say, in a
lower, concentrated tone, rather more carrying than her high-pitched
railings: "This is the last time. I tell you--the last time. Oh, you
The household seemed to consist of only Bell and his wife and a servant
or two. I was introduced to Mrs. Bell at supper.
At first sight she seemed to be a handsome woman, but I soon perceived
that her charm had been spoiled. An uncontrolled petulance, I thought,
and emotional egotism, an absence of poise and a habitual
dissatisfaction had marred her womanhood. During the meal, she showed
that false gayety, spurious kindliness and reactionary softness that
mark the woman addicted to tantrums. Withal, she was a woman who might
be attractive to many men.
After supper, Bell and I took our chairs outside, set them on the grass
in the moonlight and smoked. The full moon is a witch. In her light,
truthful men dig up for you nuggets of purer gold; while liars squeeze
out brighter colors from the tubes of their invention. I saw Bell's
broad, slow smile come out upon his face and linger there.
"I reckon you think George and me are a funny kind of friends," he said.
"The fact is we never did take much interest in each other's company.
But his idea and mine, of what a friend should be, was always synonymous
and we lived up to it, strict, all these years. Now, I'll give you an
idea of what our idea is.
"A man don't need but one friend. The fellow who drinks your liquor and
hangs around you, slapping you on the back and taking up your time,
telling you how much he likes you, ain't a friend, even if you did play
marbles at school and fish in the same creek with him. As long as you
don't need a friend one of that kind may answer. But a friend, to my
mind, is one you can deal with on a strict reciprocity basis like me and
George have always done.
"A good many years ago, him and me was connected in a number of ways. We
put our capital together and run a line of freight wagons in New Mexico,
and we mined some and gambled a few. And then, we got into trouble of
one or two kinds; and I reckon that got us on a better understandable
basis than anything else did, unless it was the fact that we never had
much personal use for each other's ways. George is the vainest man I
ever see, and the biggest brag. He could blow the biggest geyser in the
Yosemite valley back into its hole with one whisper. I am a quiet man,
and fond of studiousness and thought. The more we used to see each
other, personally, the less we seemed to like to be together. If he ever
had slapped me on the back and snivelled over me like I've seen men do
to what they called their friends, I know I'd have had a
rough-and-tumble with him on the spot. Same way with George. He hated my
ways as bad as I did his. When we were mining, we lived in separate
tents, so as not to intrude our obnoxiousness on each other.
"But after a long time, we begun to know each of us could depend on the
other when we were in a pinch, up to his last dollar, word of honor or
perjury, bullet, or drop of blood we had in the world. We never even
spoke of it to each other, because that would have spoiled it. But we
tried it out, time after time, until we came to know. I've grabbed my
hat and jumped a freight and rode 200 miles to identify him when he was
about to be hung by mistake, in Idaho, for a train robber. Once, I laid
sick of typhoid in a tent in Texas, without a dollar or a change of
clothes, and sent for George in Boise City. He came on the next train.
The first thing he did before speaking to me, was to hang up a little
looking glass on the side of the tent and curl his moustache and rub
some hair dye on his head. His hair is naturally a light reddish. Then
he gave me the most scientific cussing I ever had, and took off his
"'If you wasn't a Moses-meek little Mary's lamb, you wouldn't have been
took down this way,' says he. 'Haven't you got gumption enough not to
drink swamp water or fall down and scream whenever you have a little
colic or feel a mosquito bite you?' He made me a little mad.
"'You've got the bedside manners of a Piute medicine man,' says I. 'And
I wish you'd go away and let me die a natural death. I'm sorry I sent
"'I've a mind to,' says George, 'for nobody cares whether you live or
die. But now I've been tricked into coming, I might as well stay until
this little attack of indigestion or nettle rash or whatever it is,
"Two weeks afterward, when I was beginning to get around again, the
doctor laughed and said he was sure that my friend's keeping me mad all
the time did more than his drugs to cure me.
"So that's the way George and me was friends. There wasn't any sentiment
about it--it was just give and take, and each of us knew that the other
was ready for the call at any time.
"I remember, once, I played a sort of joke on George, just to try him. I
felt a little mean about it afterward, because I never ought to have
doubted he'd do it.
"We was both living in a little town in the San Luis valley, running
some flocks of sheep and a few cattle. We were partners, but, as usual,
we didn't live together. I had an old aunt, out from the East, visiting
for the summer, so I rented a little cottage. She soon had a couple of
cows and some pigs and chickens to make the place look like home. George
lived alone in a little cabin half a mile out of town.
"One day a calf that we had, died. That night I broke its bones, dumped
it into a coarse sack and tied it up with wire. I put on an old shirt,
tore a sleeve 'most out of it, and the collar half off, tangled up my
hair, put some red ink on my hands and spashed some of it over my shirt
and face. I must have looked like I'd been having the fight of my life.
I put the sack in a wagon and drove out to George's cabin. When I
halloed, he came out in a yellow dressing-gown, a Turkish cap and patent
leather shoes. George always was a great dresser.
"I dumped the bundle to the ground.
"Sh-sh!' says I, kind of wild in my way. 'Take that and bury it, George,
out somewhere behind your house--bury it just like it is. And don--'
"'Don't get excited,' says George. 'And for the Lord's sake go and wash
your hands and face and put on a clean shirt.'
"And he lights his pipe, while I drive away at a gallop. The next
morning he drops around to our cottage, where my aunt was fiddling with
her flowers and truck in the front yard. He bends himself and bows and
makes compliments as be could do, when so disposed, and begs a rose bush
from her, saying he had turned up a little land back of his cabin, and
wanted to plant something on it by way of usefulness and ornament. So my
aunt, flattered, pulls up one of her biggest by the roots and gives it
to him. Afterward I see it growing where he planted it, in a place where
the grass had been cleared off and the dirt levelled. But neither George
nor me ever spoke of it to each other again."
The moon rose higher, possibly drawing water from the sea, pixies from
their dells and certainly more confidences from Simms Bell, the friend
of a friend.
"There come a time, not long afterward," he went on, "when I was able to
do a good turn for George Ringo. George had made a little pile of money
in beeves and he was up in Denver, and he showed up when I saw him,
wearing deer-skin vests, yellow shoes, clothes like the awnings in front
of drug stores, and his hair dyed so blue that it looked black in the
dark. He wrote me to come up there, quick--that he needed me, and to
bring the best outfit of clothes I had. I had 'em on when I got the
letter, so I left on the next train. George was--"
Bell stopped for half a minute, listening intently. "I thought I heard a
team coming down the road," he explained. "George was at a summer resort
on a lake near Denver and was putting on as many airs as he knew how. He
had rented a little two-room cottage, and had a Chihauhau dog and a
hammock and eight different kinds of walking sticks.
"'Simms,' he says to me, 'there's a widow woman here that's pestering
the soul out of me with her intentions. I can't get out of her way. It
ain't that she ain't handsome and agreeable, in a sort of style, but her
attentions is serious, and I ain't ready for to marry nobody and settle
down. I can't go to no festivity nor sit on the hotel piazza or mix in
any of the society round-ups, but what she cuts me out of the herd and
puts her daily brand on me. I like this here place,' goes on George,
'and I'm making a hit here in the most censorious circles, so I don't
want to have to run away from it. So I sent for you.'
"'What do you want me to do?' I asks George.
"'Why,' says he, 'I want you to head her off. I want you to cut me out.
I want you to come to the rescue. Suppose you seen a wildcat about for
to eat me, what would you do?'
"Go for it,' says I.
"'Correct,' says George. 'Then go for this Mrs. De Clinton the same.'
"'How am I to do it?' I asks. 'By force and awfulness or in some gentler
and less lurid manner?'
"Court her,' George says, 'get her off my trail. Feed her. Take her out
in boats. Hang around her and stick to her. Get her mashed on you if you
can. Some women are pretty big fools. Who knows but what she might take
a fancy to you.'
"'Had you ever thought,' I asks, 'of repressing your fatal fascinations
in her presence; of squeezing a harsh note in the melody of your siren
voice, of veiling your beauty--in other words, of giving her the bounce
"George sees no essence of sarcasm in my remark. He twists his moustache
and looks at the points of his shoes.
"'Well, Simms,' he said, 'you know how I am about the ladies. I can't
hurt none of their feelings. I'm, by nature, polite and esteemful of
their intents and purposes. This Mrs. De Clinton don't appear to be the
suitable sort for me. Besides, I ain't a marrying man by all means.'
"'All right,' said I, 'I'll do the best I can in the case.'
"So I bought a new outfit of clothes and a book on etiquette and made a
dead set for Mrs. De Clinton. She was a fine-looking woman, cheerful and
gay. At first, I almost had to hobble her to keep her from loping around
at George's heels; but finally I got her so she seemed glad to go riding
with me and sailing on the lake; and she seemed real hurt on the
mornings when I forgot to send her a bunch of flowers. Still, I didn't
like the way she looked at George, sometimes, out of the corner of her
eye. George was having a fine time now, going with the whole bunch just
as he pleased. Yes'm," continued Bell, "she certainly was a fine-looking
woman at that time. She's changed some since, as you might have noticed
at the supper table."
"What!" I exclaimed.
"I married Mrs. De Clinton," went on Bell. "One evening while we were up
at the lake. When I told George about it, he opened his mouth and I
thought be was going to break our traditions and say something grateful,
but he swallowed it back.
"'All right,' says he, playing with his dog. 'I hope you won't have too
much trouble. Myself, I'm not never going to marry.'
"That was three years ago," said Bell. "We came here to live. For a year
we got along medium fine. And then everything changed. For two years
I've been having something that rhymes first-class with my name. You
heard the row upstairs this evening? That was a merry welcome compared
to the usual average. She's tired of me and of this little town life and
she rages all day, like a panther in a cage. I stood it until two weeks
ago and then I had to send out The Call. I located George in Sacramento.
He started the day he got my wire."
Mrs. Bell came out of the house swiftly toward us. Some strong
excitement or anxiety seemed to possess her, but she smiled a faint
hostess smile, and tried to keep her voice calm.
"The dew is falling," she said, "and it's growing rather late. Wouldn't
you gentlemen rather come into the house?"
Bell took some cigars from his pocket and answered: "It's most too fine
a night to turn in yet. I think Mr. Ames and I will walk out along the
road a mile or so and have another smoke. I want to talk with him about
some goods that I want to buy."
"Up the road or down the road?" asked Mrs. Bell.
"Down," said Bell.
I thought she breathed a sigh of relief.
When we had gone a hundred yards and the house became concealed by
trees, Bell guided me into the thick grove that lined the road and back
through them toward the house again. We stopped within twenty yards of
the house, concealed by the dark shadows. I wondered at this maneuver.
And then I heard in the distance coming down the road beyond the house,
the regular hoofbeats of a team of horses. Bell held his watch in a ray
"On time, within a minute," he said. "That's George's way."
The team slowed up as it drew near the house and stopped in a patch of
black shadows. We saw the figure of a woman carrying a heavy valise move
swiftly from the other side of the house, and hurry to the waiting
vehicle. Then it rolled away briskly in the direction from which it had
I looked at Bell inquiringly, I suppose. I certainly asked him no
"She's running away with George," said Bell, simply. "He's kept me
posted about the progress of the scheme all along. She'll get a divorce
in six months and then George will marry her. He never helps anybody
halfway. It's all arranged between them."
I began to wonder what friendship was, after all.
When we went into the house, Bell began to talk easily on other
subjects; and I took his cue. By and by the big chance to buy out the
business in Mountain City came back to my mind and I began to urge it
upon him. Now that he was free, it would be easier for him to make the
move; and he was sure of a splendid bargain.
Bell was silent for some minutes, but when I looked at him I fancied
that he was thinking of something else--that he was not considering the
"Why, no, Mr. Ames," he said, after a while, "I can't make that deal.
I'm awful thankful to you, though, for telling me about it. But I've got
to stay here. I can't go to Mountain City."
"Why?" I asked.
"Missis Bell," he replied, "won't live in Mountain City, She hates the
place and wouldn't go there. I've got to keep right on here in
"Mrs. Bell!" I exclaimed, too puzzled to conjecture what he meant.
"I ought to explain," said Bell. "I know George and I know Mrs. Bell.
He's impatient in his ways. He can't stand things that fret him, long,
like I can. Six months, I give them--six months of married life, and
there'll be another disunion. Mrs. Bell will come back to me. There's no
other place for her to go. I've got to stay here and wait. At the end of
six months, I'll have to grab a satchel and catch the first train. For
George will be sending out The Call."