Short Story : The Silence of Stillman Lott
The Silence of Stillman Lott
The one-armed man came in now and again, but he wasn’t no regular. He had something of the army about him, the look of a veteran of some hard war. Maybe it cost him his arm; we didn’t know and we didn’t study on it.
He kept himself to himself for the most part. Never spoke much except to order a drink or mention the weather and such. Friendly, like. I didn’t know his name, where he lived or how he made a living; I don’t reckon any of us did.
Randle Hogg and Stillman Lott worked the big spread over by Rogue River, the one just past Grave Creek if you know those parts. Lott was all right most times, if he was on his own or with some of the others, but he was trouble when he drank with Hogg. Hogg was spiteful; the way folk are when they know no one likes them.
They’d been drinking most of the day and gotten rowdy, laughing too loud at their own jokes, looking at the rest of us then whispering and snickering like kids. We didn’t pay them no mind, but it was annoying, and you could tell everyone hoped they’d leave soon enough. You didn’t look their way unless you wanted trouble, so we kept our eyes down.
Then the one-armed man came in. I nodded howdy and he smiled back, got his drink and sat down in a corner. I don’t know why Hogg and Lott decided to pick on him that night; they’d seen him before and not said anything, but tonight he seemed to rile them from the off.
I couldn’t hear what Hogg said to him but Hogg and Lott laughed too long and too hard until even Lott looked a bit embarrassed.
The one-armed man kept his head down like he hadn’t heard, but I could see the back of his neck flush.
They quietened down for a while, but Hogg kept looking across at him, and it was right clear that for some reason Hogg wasn’t going to let it go there. It was like ignoring him just made Hogg more annoyed. He sat looking at him like a dog waiting for an order to attack.
The one-armed man was a slim feller. I’d say he was about thirty, clean shaved and healthy-looking, although one side of his face was wrinkled and cracked like old dried out saddle leather; that was the same side as his missing arm. He wore his jacket with the empty sleeve tucked in the pocket.
Randle Hogg was running to fat, red faced with an oily look, he had a snub nose and heavy grey jowls, coated with dark stubble that looked like grit rubbed into his jaw. He wore a wide-brimmed grey Stetson with a sweat-stained crown. He had the smell of an old horse blanket about him. They say he killed a man over in Grants Pass in a brawl about something and nothing. I don’t know if it was true but you could easily believe it; he was surly, loud-mouthed and looked as tough as a boarding house dumpling.
Stillman Lott was a miserable sod; he always looked like he’d just swallowed his last cent. He had a mop of black hair, a narrow face and deep-set eyes that were too close together; you know, a face like a muddy puddle. I reckon he was pushing forty and forty wasn’t pushing back.
Anyhow, Hogg stood up and drove his chair backwards with his legs. That screech made us all look over, which I figure is what he had in mind when he did it. He clumped across to the bar and the floor creaked with his weight. He ordered and then turned to look at the one-armed man. He leaned back with both elbows on the counter and his stomach hanging over his belt. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and made it obvious to all of us that he was staring at him.
The one-armed man took a drink from his glass and stared right back, his thoughts hidden behind his dark eyes. He plugged his one hand deep in his jacket pocket, pulled out a tobacco pouch and tossed it on to the table. He took a paper out, flattened it with the palm of his hand and sprinkled some blackish strong-looking tobacco along it. Next thing, he rolled a cigarette and it was the damndest thing to see; I don’t know how he managed it, but he had the paper and tobacco off the table and in his hand, he rolled it between his fingers, licked the paper down and put the cigarette in his mouth.
I swear you could have heard a feather fall.
He took a match from a box, flicked it alight with his thumb and drew deeply on the cigarette. Then he flicked the bottom of the match, again with his thumb, and killed the flame. Now I reckoned that he was showing Hogg that he was as good as any man even with only the one arm. But when I thought about it later, what with everything that happened an’ all, I don’t think he’d ever try to impress anyone – he was just lighting a goddamned cigarette in his own way.
Anyhow, he looked down and blew cigarette smoke against the table, where it flattened and curled outwards before it drifted away in a blue cloud. It sure had a rich smooth smell. His hat lifted and he gazed out from under the brim at Hogg. He sat with intense stillness but he wasn’t afraid; we could all tell that. His eyes, glazed by the light from the lamp, shone like a wolf’s eyes in the firelight. I ain’t lying neither; there wasn’t no give in him at all.
It somehow made you think that Hogg had been turned inside out with that one look, and you could see Hogg felt it. The one-armed man’s silence pressed down on him and he couldn’t take it.
I think a nagging fear started up in Hogg’s belly then, and he figured he had to show folks he wasn’t scared. He could have left it there and gone. That’s what we all wanted, just for him to put some gone between us. None of us would have made anything of it later. Well, not much, anyway, and not when Hogg was around. As it turned out, he could have saved himself a whole sight of trouble. But no, he had to play it tough.
Hogg took his Colt out, the metal shiny and smooth with holster wear. He opened the loading gate, pulled back the hammer and turned the cylinder, ticking the chambers through one at a time, like he was checking it was loaded before he used it. He slid it back in his rig and took a cigar out of his vest pocket. He lit the cigar, and it was a mite embarrassing because he tried to look as calm and in control as the one-armed man, but he couldn’t pull it off. He just showed himself up and he knew it. He spoke through a cloud of cigar smoke. ‘Get out.’ He pointed at the one-armed man with his cigar, his face set with a grin like concrete. Now I didn’t know what to expect; none of us did. First off, Stillman Lott walks over and stands next to Hogg. He didn’t look to have his heart in it, though.
Next thing, Jep Mudge surprised all of us, although I suspect he surprised himself most of all, when he stood up, walked down the bar and said, ‘Now hold on, there ain’t no dadburned call for any of this.’ He sure was annoyed; he don’t normally cuss.
Here was a problem that Hogg could understand and deal with. He straightened up and punched Jep in the guts real hard, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. Jep’s legs buckled and he hit the floor like a bag of horseshoes.
We all waited. Now the one-armed man didn’t wear a rig and he only had the one arm, of course, so it was obvious he couldn’t do much, but he played it just right. He stood up real slowly, took his hat off, punched and shaped the crown and fitted it back on his head. Next, he walked over and helped Jep to his feet, then he just went out of the door without looking back. This kind of told us all he didn’t want any more of us to be hurt on his account; leastways that’s how I saw it.
The strangest thing is that we all just figured he was a better man than Hogg or Lott and they realized it as well. Without anyone saying a word, every goddamn one of us upped and left that saloon with Hogg and Lott stood there looking like two kinds of nothing.
Emett the barman said Hogg had a face as red and hot as a well timed slap. It seems that Hogg boiled in his own juices for a few minutes, then he cussed the one-armed man, said he’d kill him, and he rushed out with Lott close behind him.
The next day, they found Hogg’s body behind the livery; they said he looked like a turkey that had its neck wrung by an expert. Lott had a broken arm.
Lott don’t come this way no more. They say he never spoke about Hogg or what happened the night they took on the one-armed man. And, you know what, nobody asked.
The one-armed man still comes in and he don’t seem no different; you know he still has the same look of a veteran of some hard war or other. It turns out he’s called Barry Little. He bought Jep a drink the first time we saw him after that night. Now we buy each other a beer now and again, you know, just to wet our dry with something.
I don’t know what got into Hogg that night, I don’t know what Hogg said to him, and I don’t know what Hogg tried when he caught up with him outside. And I don’t want to know, neither.
Barry’s showing me how to roll a cigarette one handed. It sure ain’t easy, though.