Chapter XIV TUCSON STAYS PEACEABLE

THE late afternoon sun slanted into the front windows of the Palace saloon. At the bar, after the manner of bartenders the world over, Big Tom methodically polished its already gleaming surface while he listened resignedly to the voice of the single customer who stood before him.

The customer who for the past hour had been regaling Tom with his personal adventures took a sip of beer, cleared his throat and began anew. "Why this town of Tucson is as peaceful as a church," said he. "All this you hear about western towns being tough is just a lot of tall talk. Why man, I've seen worse towns than this all along the Mississippi River. Now there's a place!

"When a man gambles there he really gambles. And not only that but when a man doesn't like the way the cards are being dealt in those towns he does something about it. As for being quick with a gun, these fellows around here aren't in it."

"I guess you're right," agreed Big Tom. "You see Tucson is kinda quiet-it's always been that way. No one bothers much what you do here as long as you leave them alone. Right peaceable folks hereabouts. Some of them are kinda nervous-like at times but not if you know them."

"I haven't seen or even heard of a real gunman in these parts," said the stranger, "except Pete Kitchen. Now there's a man for you. Do you know him?"

"Yes, I see Mr. Kitchen now and then," said Big Tom. "Do you know him well?"

"No, I've never met him," admitted the stranger, "but I know all about him. He wouldn't fuss around a place like this much. He's a real gunman.  No one would ever bluff him and get away with it."

"Some of these days I'm going down to his ranch and meet him. You know, I hear he's killed men without batting an eye -- just because they got rough about something."

"Is that so?” said Big Tom.  "I never knew Mr. Kitchen was so bloodthirsty-like. Of course, now and then we hear of him having to shoot an Indian when the Apaches get a little tough out Potrero way. But Mr. Kitchen always seems quiet-like when he's around here. Right nice fellow, I'd say.

"Nice fellow! Say, that Kentuckian is the deadliest killer this side of the Mississippi. I guess you don't know him very well."

"Seems like I don't," agreed Big Tom. "But I'll tell you something. In this country it's a good idea to know who you're calling when you start something. Some of these fellows don't look bad but they sometimes fool you."

The supper hour had passed. The oil lamps flared brightly and the Palace, so quiet during the late afternoon, hummed to the sound of voices, as men chatted at the bar or at the gaming-tables in the rear.

At one of these tables sat the stranger. He was still talking volubly about the dangers of the towns along the Mississippi where gamblers were gamblers and honor at the green baize tables was a thing to be protected at all costs.

Five men sat in the game. Cigars and cigarettes built a haze of blue smoke above the table. Aside from the remarks of the vociferous stranger the conversation was confined to terse requests for cards as the dealer asked, "How many?”

The saturnine house man was dealing. The first man to his left looked at the five pasteboards as he gathered them in a tanned toil-toughened hand. He was a teamster, one of the men who, as with trail-toughened mules and high-wheeled wagons they carted out ore and hauled in supplies for the mines in the near-by mountains, defied the Apaches. His curt, "By me," passed the opening of the pot to the next man, a rangy cowboy in from the San Simon country, who grinned and reached for his pile of chips.

"I think I'll just take a chance and open this one," he said as he tossed two red chips to the center of the table.

"I'll go along," said the man on his left, a stumpy fellow who wore a brown suit and a derby hat. "In fact I'll tip it a bit."

He tossed in four red chips.

The stranger, glancing at his cards with a satisfied air, saw the raise, then as he lifted a pair of blue chips from the pile in front of him, remarked:

"Let's have a little action. Where I come from nobody bothers with such dinky betting as this. That's the place where a man can really get action for his money."

Jack Van Ryder drawing of a cowboy riding into town

The teamster dropped out after the house man had stayed but both the cowboy and the husky little man in the derby called. The talkative stranger laid down his cards, showing a king full, and as the others nodded he swept in the pot-to the accompaniment of another diverting lecture on the gambling shortcomings of Tucson.

The game went on. A few men who knew some of the players drifted near the table and stood watching the fall of the cards. The luck of the evening had switched. No longer was the largest pile of chips in front of the voluble stranger. In neat red, white and blue stacks it reposed before the hefty little man in the derby hat. He, however, had taken his winnings without comment.

The stranger glanced at his cards as he picked them up after the cowboy's deal then threw them down in disgust.

"This is chicken-feed gambling," he said. "How can a man win when you just two-bit him to death in a dinky game?"

"Well," drawled the cowboy as he slipped cards to those players who had asked for them, "as far as I'm concerned, Mister, I can get along this way, 'cause I don't win so much as a rule and this way it lasts longer when I'm losing. How many cards, Rawhide!" Then as a man walked up near the table he grinned and said, "Howdy, Jeff, whar you bin?”

Jeff Milton, express messenger, answered the greeting with a smiling nod, waving aside an invitation to join the game. "No, I guess I'll just watch for a while. I'm waiting for a fellow and I won't be here long."

The man in the derby hat was dealing. His short fingers handled the cards swiftly and surely and they fell into neat little piles in front of each player.

The stranger picked up his hand, then leaped to his feet, tugging at a heavy pistol in the waistband of his trousers. "Why you lousy cheat! I'm going to kill you!" he shouted as he swung the pistol into line with the man in the derby. "You dealt that hand from the bottom."

The men at the table froze in their places. The accused man leaned slightly forward in his chair, stared straight into the eyes of the angry man with the pistol and said quietly, "You're a liar and if I was armed I'd make you admit it."

Just as the stranger from the Mississippi country was about to speak another voice was heard from directly behind him. "Mister, put that gun down before you hurt somebody," it said. "I'll kill you if you don't."

The low voice of Jeff Milton, backed by the pressure of a pistol-barrel against his ribs, cooled the stranger for a moment and he lowered the pistol to the table.

"Thank you, Jeff," said the man in the derby hat as he pushed back his chair and started for the door. "I've got something over at the stables that I think I need."

"Huh! He run out like a darned coward," snorted the stranger as he rammed his pistol back into his belt. "None of these tinhorns out here have any guts anyway. Don't worry. He won't be back."

As he counted his chips he asked Jeff Milton, "By the way, who was that fellow? If you hadn't taken his part I sure would have messed him up. I may yet if I meet him again."

"You'll meet him again," the express messenger told him. "That was Pete Kitchen. He's just stepped over to Bob Leatherwood's stables for his gun. He'll be back."

The stranger's face turned pale. He dropped his chips, which fell unnoticed upon the green-topped table. With a startled look at the front door he made for the rear entrance, leaving his hat behind. When he reached the back of the room he disappeared through a door.

Big Tom, balancing a tray on his hand, walked toward the table. As he placed the glasses in front of the men and poured the drinks he said, "Gentlemen, this is on the house. It's in your honor, Mr. Milton. I'm glad you kept that young fellow from messing up the place. And I'm glad you told him who Pete was, because Pete'll be back here in a minute and if he found that young fellow there's sure to be trouble.

"This afternoon I tried to tell the stranger that Tucson's a peaceful idea'd town but he had other notions. I tried to tell him that out this way it was best to know who you were talking to before you pulled a gun. If he ain't careful with that iron of his somebody'll make him eat it."

The cowboy drained his drink and turned to the teamster, who was wiping his mustache with the back of his hand. "Seems as though he'd heard something of Pete?" he said.

"Yeh," said Rawhide, "and it also seems that back along the Mississippi they teach running. I think I'll just take this hat he left behind. It fits and I don't believe the owner'll be around anymore.

Continue with Chapter XV CHUCK DECLARES WAR