Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Dominant Impulse by Will Lillibridge

I

Calmar Bye was a writer. That is to say, writing was his vocation and his recreation as well.

As yet, unfortunately, he had been unable to find publishers; but for that deficiency no reasonable person could hold him responsible. He had tried them all—and repeatedly. A certain expressman now smiled when he saw the long, slim figure approaching with a package under his arm, which from frequent reappearances had become easily recognizable; but as a person becomes accustomed to a physical deformity, Calmar Bye had ceased to notice banter.

Of but one thing in his life he was positively certain; and that was if Nature had fashioned him for any purpose in particular, it was to do the very thing he was doing now. The reason for this certainty was that he could do nothing else with even moderate satisfaction. He had tried, frequently, to break away, and had even succeeded for a month at a time in an endeavor to avoid writing a word; but inevitably there came a relapse and a more desperate debauch in literature. Try as he might he could not avoid the temptation. An incident, a trifle out of the ordinary in his commonplace life, a sudden thrill at the reading of another man's story, a night of insomnia, and resolution was in tatters, and shortly thereafter Calmar Bye's pencil would be coursing with redoubled vigor over a sheet of virgin paper.

To be sure, Calmar did other things besides write. Being a normal man with a normal appetite, he could not successfully evade the demands of animal existence, and when his finances became unbearably low, he would proceed to their improvement by whatever means came first to hand. Book-keeping, clerical work, stenography—anything was grist for his mill at such times, and for a period he would work without rest. No better assistant could be found anywhere—until he had satisfied his few creditors and established a small surplus of his own. Then, presto, change!—and on the surface reappeared Bye, the long, slender, blue-eyed, dreaming, dawdling, irresponsible writer.

Being what he was, the tenor of Calmar's life was markedly uneven. At times the lust to write, the spirit of inspiration, as he would have explained to himself in the privacy of his own study, would come upon him strong, and for hours or days life would be a joyous thing, his fellow-men dear brothers of a happy family, the obvious unhappiness and injustice about him not reality, but mere comedy being enacted for his particular delectation.

Then at last, his work finished, would come inevitable reaction. The product of his hand and brain, completed, seemed inadequate and commonplace. He would smile grimly as with dogged persistence he started this latest child of his fancy out along the trail so thickly bestrewn with the skeletons of elder offspring. In measure, as badinage had previously passed him harmlessly by, it now cut deeply. No one in the entire town thought him a more complete failure than he considered himself. Skies, from being sunny, grew suddenly sodden; not a tenement or alley but thrust obtrusively forward its tale of misery.

“Think of me,” he confided to his friend Bob Wilson one evening as during his transit through a particularly dismal slough of despond they in company were busily engaged in blazing the trail with empty bottles; “One such as I, a man of thirty and of good health, without a dollar or the prospect of a dollar, an income or the prospect of an income, a home or the prospect of a home, following a cold scent like the one I am now on!” He snapped his finger against the rim of his thin drinking glass until it rang merrily.

“The idea, again, of a man such as I, untravelled, penniless, self-educated, thinking to compete with others who journey the world over to secure material, and who have spent a fortune in preparation for this particular work.” He excitedly drained the contents of the glass.

“It's preposterous, childlike!”—he brought the frail trifle down to the table with an emphasis which was all but its destruction—“imbecile! I tell you I'm going to quit.

“Quit for good,” he repeated at the expression on the other's face.

Bob Wilson scrutinized his companion with a critical eye.

“Waiter,” he said, speaking over his shoulder, “waiter, kindly tax our credit further to the extent of a couple of Havanas.”

“Yes, sah,” acknowledged the waiter.

Silence fell; but Bob's observation of his friend continued.

“So you are going to quit the fight?” he commented at last.

“I am,”—decidedly.

Wilson lit his cigar.

“You have completed that latest—production on which you were engaged, I suppose?”

The writer scratched a match.

“This afternoon.”

“And sent it on?”

A nod. “Yes, on to the furnace room.”

A smile which approached a grin formed over Bob's big face.

“You have hope of its acceptance, I trust?”

Calmar Bye blew a cloud of smoke far toward the ceiling, and the smile, a shade grim, was reflected.

“More than hope,” laconically. “I have certainty at last.”

Another pause followed and slowly the smile vanished from the faces of both.

“Bob,” and the long Calmar straightened in his chair, “I've been an ass. It's all apparent, too apparent, now. I've tried to compete with the entire world, and I'm too small. It's enough for me to work against local competition.” He meditatively flicked the ash from his cigar with his little finger.

“I realize that a lot of my friends—women friends particularly—will say they always knew I had no determination, wouldn't stay in the game until I won. They're all alike in this one particular, Bob; all sticklers for the big lower jaw.

“But I don't care. I've been shooting into a covey of publishers for twelve years and never have touched a feather. Perseverance is a good quality, but there is such a thing as insanity.” He stared unconsciously at the portieres of the booth.

“Once and for all, I tell you I'm through,” he repeated.

“What are you going at?” queried Bob, sympathetically, a shade quizzically.

The long Calmar reached into his pocket with deliberation.

“Read that.” He tossed a letter across the tiny table.

Bob poised the epistle in his hand gingerly.

“South Dakota,” he commented, as he observed the postmark. “Humph, I can't make out the town.”

“It's not a town at all, only a postoffice. Immaterial anyway,” explained Calmar, irritably.

The round-faced man unfolded the letter slowly and read aloud:—

  “MY DEAR SIR:—

  “Your request, coming from a stranger, is rather unusual; but if
  you really mean business, I will say this: Provided you're
  willing to take hold and stay right with me, I'll take you in
  and at the end of a half-year pay $75.00 per month. You can then
  put into the common fund whatever part of your savings you wish
  and have a proportionate interest in the herd. Permit me to
  observe, however, that you will find your surroundings somewhat
  different from those amid which you are living at present, and I
  should advise you to consider carefully before you make the
  change.

                     “Very truly yours,
                     “E. J. DOUGLASS.”

Bob slowly folded the sheet, and tossed it back.

“In what particular portion of that desert, if I may ask, does your new employer reside?” There was uncertainty in the speaker's voice, as of one who spoke of India or the islands of the Pacific. “Likewise—pardon my ignorance—is that herd he mentions—buffalo?”

Calmar imperturbably returned the letter to his pocket.

“I'm serious, Robert. Douglass is a cattle man west of the river.”

“The river!” apostrophized Bob. “The man juggles with mysteries. What river, pray?”

“The Missouri, of course. Didn't you ever study geography?”

“I beg your pardon,” in humble apology. “Is that,” vaguely, “what they call the Bad Lands?”

Bye looked across at his friend, of a mind to be indignant; then his good-nature triumphed.

“No, it's not so bad as that,” with a feeble attempt at a pun. He paused to light a cigar, and absent-minded as usual, continued in digression.

“I've dangled long enough, old man; too long. I'm going to do something now. I start to-morrow.”

Bob Wilson the skeptic, looked at his friend again critically. Resolutions of reconstruction he had heard before—and later watched their downfall; but this time somehow there was a new element introduced. Perhaps, after all—

“Waiter,” he called, “we'll trifle with another quart of extra-dry, if you please.”

“To your success,” he added to his companion across the table, when the waiter had returned from his mission.

II

A year passed around, as years have a way of doing, and found Calmar Bye, the city man, metamorphosed indeed. Bronzed, bearded, corduroy-clothed, cigarette-smoking,—for cigars fifty miles from a railroad are a curiosity,—as the seasons are dissimilar, so was he unlike his former inconsequent self. In his every action now was a directness and a purpose of which he had not even a conception in his former existence.

Very, very thin upon us all is the veneer of civilization; very, very swift is the reversion to the primitive when opportunity presents. Only twelve short months and this man, end product of civilization, doer of nothing practical, dreamer of dreams and recorder of fancies, had become a positive force, a contributor to the world's food supply, a producer of meat. What a satire, in a period of time of which the shifting seasons could be counted upon one hand, to have vibrated from manuscript to beef, and for the change to be seemingly unalterable!

To be sure there had been a struggle; a period of travail while readjustment was being established; a desperate sense of homesickness at first view of the undulating, grass-covered, horizon-bounded prairies; an insatiable need of the shops, the theatres, the telephones, the cafés, the newspapers, all of which previously had constituted everything that made life worth living. But these emotions had passed away. What evolvement of civilization could equal the beauty of a dew-scented, sun-sparkling prairie morning, or the grandeur of a soundless, star-dotted prairie night, wherein the very limitlessness of things, their immensity, was a never ending source of wonder? Verily, all changes and conditions of life have their compensations.

Calmar Bye, the one time listless, had learned many things in this unheard-of world.

First of all, most insistent of all, he was impressed with the overwhelming predominance of the physical over the mental. Later, in practical knowledge, he grew inured to the “feel” of a native bucking broncho and the sound of mocking, human laughter after a stunning fall; in direct evolution, the method of throwing a steer and the odor of burnt hair and hide which followed the puff of smoke where the branding iron touched ceased to be cruel.

Last of all, highest evolvement of all, came the absorption of revolver-lore under the instruction of experts who made but pastime of picking a jack-rabbit in its flight, or bringing a kite, soaring high in air, tumbling precipitate to earth. A wild life it was and a rough, but fascinating nevertheless in its demonstration of the overwhelming superiority of man, the animal, in nerve and endurance over every other live thing on earth.

At the end of the year, with the hand of winter again pressed firmly upon the land, it seemed time could do no more; that the adaptation of the exotic to his new surroundings was complete. Already the past life seemed a thing interesting but aloof from reality, like the fantastic exploits of a hero of fiction, and the present, the insistently active, vital present, the sole consideration of importance.

In the appreciation of the stoic indifference of the then West it was a slight incident which overthrew. One cowboy, “Slim” Rawley, had a particularly vicious broncho, which none but he had ever been able to control, and which in consequence, he prized as the apple of his eye. During his temporary absence from the ranch one day a confrère, “Stiff” Warwick, had, in a spirit of bravado, roped the “devil” and instituted a contest of wills. The pony was stubborn, the man likewise, and a battle royal followed. As a buzzard scents carrion, other cowboys anticipated sport, and a group soon gathered. Ere minutes had passed the blood of the belligerents was up, and they were battling as for life, with a dogged determination which would have lasted upon the part of either, the man or the beast, until death. Rough scenes and inhuman, Bye had witnessed until blasé; but nothing before like this. The man used quirt, rowel, and profanity like a fiend. The pony, panting, quivering, bucking, struggling, covered with foam and streaming with blood, shrilled with the impotent anger of a demon. Even the impassive cowboy spectators from chaffing lapsed into silence.

Of a sudden, loping easily over the frost-bound prairie and following the winding trail of a cowpath, appeared the approaching figure of a horse and rider. It came on steadily, clear to the gathered group, and stopped. An instant and the newcomer understood the scene and a curse sprang to his lips. Another instant and his own mustang was spurred in close by the strugglers. His right hand raised in air and bearing a heavy quirt, descended; not upon the broncho, but far across the cursing, devilish face of the man, its rider. Then swift as thought and simultaneously as twin machines, the hands of the intruder and of the struggling “buster” went to their hips.

The spectators held their breaths; not one stirred. Before them they saw the hands which had gone to hips flash up and forward like pistons from companion cylinders, and they saw two puffs of smoke like escaping steam.

Smoothly, as a scene in a rehearsed play, the reports mingled, the riders, scarcely ten feet apart, tottered in their saddles, and slowly, unconsciously resistant even in death, the two bodies slipped to earth.

[Illustration: They saw the hands which had gone to hips flash up and forward like pistons, and two puffs of smoke like escaping steam.]

But there the unison ended. The mustang which “Slim” Rawley rode stood still in its tracks; but before the spectators could rush in, the “devil” broncho, relieved of the hand upon the curb, sprang away, and with the “buster's” foot caught fast in the stirrup ran squealing, kicking, crazy mad out over the prairie, dragging by its side the limp figure of its unseated enemy.

Calmar Bye watched the whole spectacle as in a dream. So swift had been the action, so fantastic the denouement, that he could not at first reconcile it all with reality. He went slowly over to the prostrate “Slim” Rawley, whom the others had laid out decently upon the ground, half expecting him to leap up and laugh in their faces; but the already stiffening figure with the fiendish scowl upon its face, was convincing.

Besides,—gods, the indifference of these men to death! The party of onlookers were already separating—one division, mounted, starting in pursuit of the escaping broncho, along the narrow trail made by the dragged man; the others impassively reconnoitring for spades and shovels, were stolidly awaiting the breaking of the lock of frost-bound earth at the hands of a big, red-shirted cowboy with a pick!

“Here, Bye,” suggested one toiler, “you're an eddicated man; say a prayer er something, can't ye, before we plant old 'Slim.' He wa'nt sech a bad sort.”

The tenderfoot complied, and said something—he never knew just what—as the dry clods thumped dully upon the huddled figure in the old gunny sack. What he said must have been good, for those present resisted with difficulty a disposition to applaud.

This labor complete, the cowboys scattered, miles apart, each to his division of the herd, which for better range had been distributed over a wide territory. Bye was in charge of the home bunch, and sat long after the others had left, upon the new-formed mound in the ranch dooryard.

Far over the broad, rolling prairies, as yet bare and frost-bound, the sun shone brightly. A half-mile away he could see his own herd scattered and grazing. The stillness after the sudden excitement was almost unbelievable. Minutes passed by which dragged into an hour. Over the face of the sun a faint haze began to form and, unnoticeable to one not prairie-trained, the air took on a sympathetic feel, almost of dampness. A native would have sensed a warning; but Calmar Bye, one time writer, paid no heed. An instinct of his life, one he had thought suppressed, a necessity imperative as hunger, was gathering upon him strongly—the overwhelming instinct to portray the unusual.

Under its guidance, as in a maze, he made his way into the rough, unplastered shanty. Automatically he found a pencil and collected some scraps of coarse wrapping paper. Already the opening words of the tale he had to tell were in his mind, and sitting down by the greasy pine-board table, he began to write.

Hours passed. Over the sun the haze thickened. The whole sky grew sodden, the earth a corresponding grayish hue. Now and anon puffs of wind, like sudden breaths, stirred the dull air, and the short buffalo grass trembled in anticipation. The puffs increased until their direction became definite, and at last here and there big, irregular feathers of snow drifted languidly to earth.

Within the shanty the man wrote unceasingly. Many fragments he covered and deposited, an irregular heap, at his right hand. At his left an adolescent mound of cigarette stumps grew steadily larger. A cloud of tobacco smoke over his head, driven here and there by vagrant currents of air, gathered denser and denser.

As the light failed, the writer unconsciously moved the rough table nearer and nearer the window until, blocked, it could go no farther. To one less preoccupied the grating over the uneven floor would have been startling. Once just outside the door the waiting pony neighed warningly—and again. Upon the ledge beneath the window-pane a tiny mound of snowflakes began to take form; around the shanty the rising wind mourned dismally.

The light failed by degrees, until the paper was scarcely visible, and, brought to consciousness, the man rose to light a lamp. One look about and he passed his hand over his forehead, absently. Striding to the door, he flung it wide open.

“Hell!” he muttered in complex apostrophe.

To put on hat and top-coat was the act of a moment. To release the tethered pony the work of another; then swift as a great brown shadow, out across the whitening prairie to the spot he remembered last to have seen the herd, the delinquent urged the willing broncho—only to find emptiness; not even the suggestion of a trail.

Back and forth, through miles and miles of country, in semi-circles ever widening, through a storm ever increasing and with daylight steadily diminishing, Calmar Bye searched doggedly for the departed herd; searched until at last even he, ignorant of the supreme terrors of a South Dakota blizzard, dared not remain out longer.

That he found his way back to the ranch yard was almost a miracle. As it was, groping at last in utter darkness, blinded by a sleet which cut like dull knives, and buffeted by a wind like a hurricane, more dead than alive he stumbled upon the home shanty and opening the door drew the weary broncho in after him. Man and beast were brothers on such a night.

Of the hours which followed, of moaning wind and drifting sleet, nature kindly gave him oblivion. Dead tired, he slept. And morning, crisp, smiling, cloudless, was about him when he awoke.

Rising, and scarcely stopping for a lunch, the man again sallied forth upon his search, wading through drifts blown almost firm enough to bear the pony's weight and alternate spots wind-swept bare as a floor; while all about, gorgeous as multiple rainbows, flashed mocking bright the shifting sparkle from innumerable frost crystals.

All the morning he searched, farther and farther away, until the country grew rougher and he was full ten miles from home. At last, stopping upon a small hill to reconnoitre, the searcher heard far in the distance a sound he recognized and which sent his cheek pale—the faint dying wail of a wounded steer. It came from a deep draw between two low hills, one cut into a steep ravine by converged floods and hidden by the tall surrounding weeds. Bye knew the place well and the significance of the sound he heard. In a cattle country, after a sudden blizzard, it could have but one meaning, and that the terror of all time to animals wild or domestic—the end of a stampede.

Only too soon thereafter the searcher found his herd. Upon the brow of a hill overlooking the ravine he stopped. Below him, bellowing, groaning, struggling, wounded, dying, and dead—a great mass of heavy bodies, mixed indiscriminately—bruised, broken, segmented, blood-covered, horrible, lay the observer's trust, the wealth of his employer, his own hope of regeneration, worse now than worthless carrion. And the cause of it all, the sole excuse for this delinquency, lay back there upon a greasy table in the shanty—a short scrawling tale scribbled upon a handful of scrap paper!

III

“Yes, I'm back, Bob.”

The tall, thin Calmar Bye leaned back in his chair and looked listlessly about the familiar café, without a suggestion of emotion. It seemed to him hardly credible that he had been away from it all for a year and more. Nothing was changed. Across the room the same mirrors repeated the reflections he had observed so many times before. Nearby were the same booths and from within them came the same laughter and chatter and suppressed song. Opposite the tiny table the same man with the broad, good-natured face was making critical, smiling observation, as of yore. As ever, the look recalled the visionary to the present.

“Back for good, Bob,” he repeated slowly.

The speaker's attitude was far from being that of a conquering hero returned; the sympathies of the easy-going Robert, ever responsive, were roused.

“What's the matter, old man?” he queried tentatively. “Weren't you a success as a broncho-buster?”

“A success!” Calmar Bye stroked a long, thin face with a long, thin hand. “A success!” he repeated. “I couldn't have been a worse failure, Bob.” He paused a moment, smoothing the table-cloth absently with his finger tips.

“Success!” once more, bitterly. “I'm not even a mediocre at anything unless it is at what I'm doing now, dangling and helping spend the money some one else has worked all day to earn.” He looked his astonished friend fair in the eyes.

“You don't know what an idiot, a worse than idiot, I've made of myself,” and he began the story of the past year.

Monotonously, unemotionally he told the tale, omitting nothing, adding nothing; while about him the sounds of the restaurant, the tinkling of glassware, the ring of silver, the familiar muffled pop of extracted corks, played a soft accompaniment. Occasionally Bob would make a comment or ask explanation of something to him entirely new; but that was all until near the end,—where the delinquent herder, coming swiftly to the brow of the hill, looked down upon the scene in the ravine below. Then Bob, the care-free, the pleasure-seeking, raised a hand in swift protest.

“Don't describe it, please, old man,” he requested. “I'd rather not hear.”

The speaker's voice ceased; over his thin features fell the light of a queer little half-smile which, instead of declaring itself, only provoked Bob Wilson's curiosity. In the silence Bye, with a hand unaccustomed to the exercise, made the familiar gesture that brought one of the busy attendants to his side.

“And the story you wrote—?” suggested Wilson while they waited.

For answer Calmar Bye drew an envelope from his pocket and tossed it across the table to his friend. Wilson first noted that it bore the return address of one of the country's foremost magazines; he then unfolded the letter and read aloud:

  “DEAR MR. BYE:—

  “The receipt of your two stories, 'Storm and Stampede' and 'The
  Lonely Grave,' has settled a troublesome question for us,
  namely: What has become of Mr. Calmar Bye?

  “No doubt you will recall that our criticisms of the material
  which you have submitted from time to time in the past,
  were directed chiefly against faults arising out of your
  unfamiliarity with your subjects. The present manuscripts
  bear the best testimony that you have been gathering your
  material at first hand. We have the feeling, as we read, that
  every sentence flows straight from the heart.

  “Now we want just such vivid, gripping, red-blooded cross-sections
  of life as these, your two latest accomplishments; in fact, we
  can't get enough of them. Therefore, instead of making you a cash
  offer for these two stories, we suggest that you first call at
  our office at your earliest convenience. If agreeable, we should
  like to arrange for a series of Western stories and articles, the
  evolving of which should keep you engaged for some time to come.

                     “Cordially,
                     ”———”

The hands of the two friends clasped across the table. No word disturbed the silence until the forgotten waiter broke in impatiently:

“Yo' o'der, sahs?”

“Champagne”—this time it was Calmar Bye who gave it—“a quart. And be lively about it, too.”

“Well, well!” Bob Wilson's admiration burst forth. “It is worth a whole herd of steers.”

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page