THE AMERICAN'S TALE
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
"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 Europeans 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 jaw-breakin'
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 ever 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 a-going 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?"
"Dianaea 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 fly-traps 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
Arizona 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 ever 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 wildcat. I've seen him empty
his six-shooter into a crowd as chanced to jostle
him a-going 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, and 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 stick 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 Arizona, 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 before 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 overwell,' 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 ag'in until your time comes. You'd
best make tracks now, I guess. Nay, never look back
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'll be wanted
"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. 'Halloo, Jeff!' says he, 'no
need for the pistols after all. Come in an' have a
cocktail, boys.' 'Did ye see or hear nothing as ye
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,' said Abner. So off we gets, and
Tom Scott rode into the settlement with us when we
"An all-fired 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 of 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 ag'in, 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 forward; '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 recognize 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 business-like
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 ag'in,
you hain't got no call to hurt that man; and what's
more, I've got thirty-six-barreled arguments against
your doin' it.' 'It's an interestin' p'int, 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 Arizona. 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 ag'in. 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 a 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 a-waitin' for Scott,
and it had closed on him as you've seen your little
hot-house 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 forever 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 Dianaea had such power!"
"Deuced rum yarn!" said young Sinclair.
"Evidently a matter-of-fact, truthful man," said
"Or the most original liar that ever lived,"
said I. I wonder which he was.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~