The American’s Tale
an Arizona tragedy


Arthur Conan Doyle

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First published in London Society, Christmas edition, December 1880.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Fri Feb 21 16:15:16 2014.

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eBooks@Adelaide
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The American’s Tale

“It air strange, it air,” he was saying as I opened the door of the room where our social little semi-literary society met; “but I could tell you queerer things than that ’ere—almighty queer things. You can’t learn everything out of books, sirs, nohow. You see it ain’t the men as can string English together and as has had good eddications as finds themselves in the queer places I’ve been in. They’re mostly rough men, sirs, as can scarce speak aright, far less tell with pen and ink the things they’ve seen; but if they could they’d make some of your European’s har riz with astonishment. They would, sirs, you bet!”

His name was Jefferson Adams, I believe; I know his initials were J.A., for you may see them yet deeply whittled on the right-hand upper panel of our smoking-room door. He left us this legacy, and also some artistic patterns done in tobacco juice upon our Turkey carpet; but beyond these reminiscences our American storyteller has vanished from our ken. He gleamed across our ordinary quiet conviviality like some brilliant meteor, and then was lost in the outer darkness. That night, however, our Nevada friend was in full swing; and I quietly lit my pipe and dropped into the nearest chair, anxious not to interrupt his story.

“Mind you,” he continued, “I hain’t got no grudge against your men of science. I likes and respects a chap as can match every beast and plant, from a huckleberry to a grizzly with a jawbreakin’ name; but if you wants real interestin’ facts, something a bit juicy, you go to your whalers and your frontiersmen, and your scouts and Hudson Bay men, chaps who mostly can scarce sign their names.”

There was a pause here, as Mr. Jefferson Adams produced a long cheroot and lit it. We preserved a strict silence in the room, for we had already learned that on the slightest interruption our Yankee drew himself into his shell again. He glanced round with a self-satisfied smile as he remarked our expectant looks, and continued through a halo of smoke,

“Now which of you gentlemen has even been in Arizona? None, I’ll warrant. And of all English or Americans as can put pen to paper, how many has been in Arizona? Precious few, I calc’late. I’ve been there, sirs, lived there for years; and when I think of what I’ve seen there, why, I can scarce get myself to believe it now.

“Ah, there’s a country! I was one of Walker’s filibusters, as they chose to call us; and after we’d busted up, and the chief was shot, some on us made tracks and located down there. A reg’lar English and American colony, we was, with our wives and children, and all complete. I reckon there’s some of the old folk there yet, and that they hain’t forgotten what I’m agoing to tell you. No, I warrant they hain’t, never on this side of the grave, sirs.

“I was talking about the country, though; and I guess I could astonish you considerable if I spoke of nothing else. To think of such a land being built for a few ‘Greasers’ and half-breeds! It’s a misusing of the gifts of Providence, that’s what I calls it. Grass as hung over a chap’s head as he rode through it, and trees so thick that you couldn’t catch a glimpse of blue sky for leagues and leagues, and orchids like umbrellas! Maybe some on you has seen a plant as they calls the ‘fly-catcher,’ in some parts of the States?”

“Diancea muscipula,” murmured Dawson, our scientific man par excellence.

“Ah, ‘Die near a municipal,’ that’s him! You’ll see a fly stand on that ’ere plant, and then you’ll see the two sides of a leaf snap up together and catch it between them, and grind it up and mash it to bits, for all the world like some great sea squid with its beak; and hours after, if you open the leaf, you’ll see the body lying half-digested, and in bits. Well, I’ve seen those flytraps in Arizona with leaves eight and ten feet long, and thorns or teeth a foot or more; why, they could—But darn it, I’m going too fast!

“It’s about the death of Joe Hawkins I was going to tell you; ‘bout as queer a thing, I reckon, as ever you heard tell on. There wasn’t nobody in Montana as didn’t know of Joe Hawkins—‘Alabama’ Joe, as he was called there. A reg’lar out and outer, he was, ‘bout the darndest skunk as even man clapt eyes on. He was a good chap enough, mind ye, as long as you stroked him the right way; but rile him anyhow, and he were worse nor a wild-cat. I’ve seen him empty his six-shooter into a crowd as chanced to jostle him agoing into Simpson’s bar when there was a dance on; and he bowied Tom Hooper ‘cause he spilt his liquor over his weskit by mistake. No, he didn’t stick at murder, Joe didn’t; and he weren’t a man to be trusted further nor you could see him.

“Now at the time I tell on, when Joe Hawkins was swaggerin’ about the town and layin’ down the law with his shootin’-irons, there was an Englishman there of the name of Scott—Tom Scott, if I rec’lects aright. This chap Scott was a thorough Britisher (beggin’ the present company’s pardon), and yet he didn’t freeze much to the British set there, or they didn’t freeze much to him. He was a quiet simple man, Scott was—rather too quiet for a rough set like that; sneakin’ they called him, but he weren’t that. He kept hisself mostly apart, an’ didn’t interfere with nobody so long as he were left alone. Some said as how he’d been kinder ill-treated at home—been a Chartist, or something of that sort, and had to up sticks and run; but he never spoke of it hisself, an’ never complained. Bad luck or good, that chap kept a stiff lip on him.

“This chap Scott was a sort o’ butt among the men about Montana, for he was so quiet an’ simple-like. There was no party either to take up his grievances; for, as I’ve been saying, the Britishers hardly counted him one of them, and many a rough joke they played on him. He never cut up rough, but was polite to all hisself. I think the boys got to think he hadn’t much grit in him till he showed ’em their mistake.

“It was in Simpson’s bar as the row got up, an’ that led to the queer thing I was going to tell you of. Alabama Joe and one or two other rowdies were dead on the Britishers in those days, and they spoke their opinions pretty free, though I warned them as there’d be an almighty muss. That partic’lar night Joe was nigh half drunk, an’ he swaggered about the town with his six-shooter, lookin’ out for a quarrel. Then he turned into the bar where he know’d he’d find some o’ the English as ready for one as he was hisself. Sure enough, there was half a dozen lounging about, an’ Tom Scott standin’ alone before the stove. Joe sat down by the table, and put his revolver and bowie down in front of him. ‘Them’s my arguments, Jeff,’ he says to me, ‘if any white-livered Britisher dares give me the lie.’ I tried to stop him, sirs; but he weren’t a man as you could easily turn, an’ he began to speak in a way as no chap could stand. Why, even a ‘Greaser’ would flare up if you said as much of Greaserland! There was a commotion at the bar, an’ every man laid his hands on his wepins; but afore they could draw we heard a quiet voice from the stove: ‘Say your prayers, Joe Hawkins; for, by Heaven, you’re a dead man!’ Joe turned round, and looked like grabbin’ at his iron; but it weren’t no manner of use. Tom Scott was standing up, covering him with his Derringer; a smile on his white face, but the very devil shining in his eye. ‘It ain’t that the old country has used me over-well,’ he says, ‘but no man shall speak agin it afore me, and live.’ For a second or two I could see his finger tighten round the trigger, an’ then he gave a laugh, an’ threw the pistol on the floor. ‘No,’ he says, ‘I can’t shoot a half-drunk man. Take your dirty life, Joe, an’ use it better nor you have done. You’ve been nearer the grave this night than you will be agin until your time comes. You’d best make tracks now, I guess. Nay, never look black at me, man; I’m not afeard at your shootin’-iron. A bully’s nigh always a coward.’ And he swung contemptuously round, and relit his half-smoked pipe from the stove; while Alabama slunk out o’ the bar, with the laughs of the Britishers ringing in his ears. I saw his face as he passed me, and on it I saw murder, sirs—murder, as plain as ever I seed anything in my life.

“I stayed in the bar after the row, and watched Tom Scott as he shook hands with the men about. It seemed kinder queer to me to see him smilin’ and cheerful-like; for I knew Joe’s bloodthirsty mind, and that the Englishman had small chance of ever seeing the morning. He lived in an out-of-the-way sort of place, you see, clean off the trail, and had to pass through the Flytrap Gulch to get to it. This here gulch was a marshy gloomy place, lonely enough during the day even; for it were always a creepy sort o’ thing to see the great eight— and ten-foot leaves snapping up if aught touched them; but at night there were never a soul near. Some parts of the marsh, too, were soft and deep, and a body thrown in would be gone by the morning. I could see Alabama Joe crouchin’ under the leaves of the great Flytrap in the darkest part of the gulch, with a scowl on his face and a revolver in his hand; I could see it, sirs, as plain as with my two eyes.

“‘Bout midnight Simpson shuts up his bar, so out we had to go. Tom Scott started off for his three-mile walk at a slashing pace. I just dropped him a hint as he passed me, for I kinder liked the chap. ‘Keep your Derringer loose in your belt, sir,’ I says, ‘for you might chance to need it.’ He looked round at me with his quiet smile, and then I lost sight of him in the gloom. I never thought to see him again. He’d hardly gone afore Simpson comes up to me and says, ‘There’ll be a nice job in the Flytrap Gulch to-night, Jeff; the boys say that Hawkins started half an hour ago to wait for Scott and shoot him on sight. I calc’late the coroner be wanted tomorrow.’

“What passed in the gulch that night? It were a question as were asked pretty free next morning. A half-breed was in Ferguson’s store after daybreak, and he said as he’d chanced to be near the gulch ‘bout one in the morning. It warn’t easy to get at his story, he seemed so uncommon scared; but he told us, at last, as he’d heard the fearfulest screams in the stillness of the night. There weren’t no shots, he said, but scream after scream, kinder muffled, like a man with a serape over his head, an’ in mortal pain. Abner Brandon and me, and a few more, was in the store at the time; so we mounted and rode out to Scott’s house, passing through the gulch on the way. There weren’t nothing partic’lar to be seen there—no blood nor marks of a fight, nor nothing; and when we gets up to Scott’s house, out he comes to meet us as fresh as a lark. ‘Hullo, Jeff!’ says he, ‘no need for the pistols after all. Come in an’ have a cocktail, boys.’ ‘Did you see or hear nothing as you came home last night?’ says I. ‘No,’ says he; ‘all was quiet enough. An owl kinder moaning in the Flytrap Gulch—that was all. Come, jump off and have a glass.’ ‘Thank ye,’ says Abner. So off we gets, and Tom Scott rode into the settlement with us when we went back.

“An allfired commotion was on in Main-street as we rode into it. The ‘Merican party seemed to have gone clean crazed. Alabama Joe was gone, not a darned particle of him left. Since he went out to the gulch nary eye had seen him. As we got off our horses there was a considerable crowd in front of Simpson’s, and some ugly looks at Tom Scott, I can tell you. There was a clickin’ of pistols, and I saw as Scott had his hand in his bosom too. There weren’t a single English face about. ‘Stand aside, Jeff Adams,’ says Zebb Humphrey, as great a scoundrel as ever lived, ‘you hain’t got no hand in this game. Say, boys, are we, free Americans, to be murdered by any darned Britisher?’ It was the quickest thing as ever I seed. There was a rush an’ a crack; Zebb was down, with Scott’s ball in his thigh, and Scott hisself was on the ground with a dozen men holding him. It weren’t no use struggling, so he lay quiet. They seemed a bit uncertain what to do with him at first, but then one of Alabama’s special chums put them up to it. Joe’s gone,’ he said; ‘nothing ain’t surer nor that, an’ there lies the man as killed him. Some on you knows as Joe went on business to the gulch last night; he never came back. That ’ere Britisher passed through after he’d gone; they’d had a row, screams is heard ‘mong the great flytraps. I say agin he has played poor Joe some o’ his sneakin’ tricks, an’ thrown him into the swamp. It ain’t no wonder as the body is gone. But air we to stan’by and see English murderin’ our own chums? I guess not. Let Judge Lynch try him, that’s what I say.’ ‘Lynch him!’ shouted a hundred angry voices—for all the rag-tag an’ bobtail o’ the settlement was round us by this time. ‘Here, boys, fetch a rope, and swing him up. Up with him over Simpson’s door!’ ‘See here though,’ says another, coming forrards; ‘let’s hang him by the great flytrap in the gulch. Let Joe see as he’s revenged, if so be as he’s buried ‘bout theer.’ There was a shout for this, an’ away they went, with Scott tied on his mustang in the middle, and a mounted guard, with cocked revolvers, round him; for we knew as there was a score or so Britishers about, as didn’t seem to recognise Judge Lynch, and was dead on a free fight.

“I went out with them, my heart bleedin’ for Scott, though he didn’t seem a cent put out, he didn’t. He were game to the backbone. Seems kinder queer, sirs, hangin’ a man to a flytrap; but our’n were a reg’lar tree, and the leaves like a brace of boats with a hinge between ’em and thorns at the bottom.

“We passed down the gulch to the place where the great one grows, and there we seed it with the leaves, some open, some shut. But we seed something worse nor that. Standin’ round the tree was some thirty men, Britishers all, an’ armed to the teeth. They was waitin’ for us evidently, an’ had a businesslike look about ’em, as if they’d come for something and meant to have it. There was the raw material there for about as warm a scrimmidge as ever I seed. As we rode up, a great red-bearded Scotchman—Cameron were his name—stood out afore the rest, his revolver cocked in his hand. ‘See here, boys,’ he says, ‘you’ve got no call to hurt a hair of that man’s head. You hain’t proved as Joe is dead yet; and if you had, you hain’t proved as Scott killed him. Anyhow, it were in self-defence; for you all know as he was lying in wait for Scott, to shoot him on sight; so I say agin, you hain’t got no call to hurt that man; and what’s more, I’ve got thirty six-barrelled arguments against your doin’ it.’ ‘It’s an interestin’ pint, and worth arguin’ out,’ said the man as was Alabama Joe’s special chum. There was a clickin’ of pistols, and a loosenin’ of knives, and the two parties began to draw up to one another, an’ it looked like a rise in the mortality of Montana. Scott was standing behind with a pistol at his ear if he stirred, lookin’ quiet and composed as having no money on the table, when sudden he gives a start an’ a shout as rang in our ears like a trumpet. ‘Joe!’ he cried, Joe! Look at him! In the flytrap!’ We all turned an’ looked where he was pointin’. Jerusalem! I think we won’t get that picter out of our minds agin. One of the great leaves of the flytrap, that had been shut and touchin’ the ground as it lay, was slowly rolling back upon its hinges. There, lying like a child in its cradle, was Alabama Joe in the hollow of the leaf. The great thorns had been slowly driven through his heart as it shut upon him. We could see as he’d tried to cut his way out, for there was slit in the thick fleshy leaf, an’ his bowie was in his hand; but it had smothered him first. He’d lain down on it likely to keep the damp off while he were awaitin’ for Scott, and it had closed on him as you’ve seen your little hothouse ones do on a fly; an’ there he were as we found him, torn and crushed into pulp by the great jagged teeth of the man-eatin’ plant. There, sirs, I think you’ll own as that’s a curious story.”

“And what became of Scott?” asked Jack Sinclair.

“Why, we carried him back on our shoulders, we did, to Simpson’s bar, and he stood us liquors round. Made a speech too—a darned fine speech—from the counter. Somethin’ about the British lion an’ the ‘Merican eagle walkin’ arm in arm for ever an’ a day. And now, sirs, that yarn was long, and my cheroot’s out, so I reckon I’ll make tracks afore it’s later;” and with a “Good-night!” he left the room.

“A most extraordinary narrative!” said Dawson. “Who would have thought a Diancea had such power!”

“Deuced rum yarn!” said young Sinclair.

“Evidently a matter-of-fact truthful man,” said the doctor. “Or the most original liar that ever lived,” said I.

I wonder which he was.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005