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The Two Cartridges
by [?]

This happened at the time Billy Knapp drove stage between Pierre and Deadwood. I think you can still see the stage in Buffalo Bill’s show. Lest confusion arise and the reader be inclined to credit Billy with more years than are his due, it might be well also to mention that the period was some time after the summer he and Alfred and Jim Buckley had made their famous march with the only wagon-train that dared set out, and some time before Billy took to mining. Jim had already moved to Montana.

The journey from Pierre to Deadwood amounted to something. All day long the trail led up and down long grassy slopes, and across sweeping, intervening flats. While climbing the slopes, you could never get your experience to convince you that you were not, on topping the hill, about to overlook the entire country for miles around. This never happened; you saw no farther than the next roll of the prairie. While hurtling down the slopes, you saw the intervening flat as interminably broad and hot and breathless, or interminably broad and icy and full of arctic winds, according to the season of the year. Once in a dog’s age you came to a straggling fringe of cottonwood-trees, indicating a creek bottom. The latter was either quite dry or in raging flood. Close under the hill huddled two buildings, half logs, half mud. There the horses were changed by strange men with steel glints in their eyes, like those you see under the brows of a north-country tug-boat captain. Passengers could there eat flap-jacks architecturally warranted to hold together against the most vigorous attack of the gastric juices, and drink green tea that tasted of tannin and really demanded for its proper accommodation porcelain-lined insides. It was not an inspiring trip.

Of course, Billy did not accompany the stage all of the way; only the last hundred miles; but the passengers did, and by the time they reached Billy they were usually heartily sick of their undertaking. Once a tenderfoot came through in the fall of the year, simply for the love of adventure. He got it.

“Driver,” said he to Billy, as the brakes set for another plunge, “were you ever held up?”

Billy had been deluged with questions like this for the last two hours. Usually he looked straight in front of him, spat accurately between the tail of the wheel-horse and the whiffle-tree, and answered in monosyllables. The tenderfoot did not know that asking questions was not the way to induce Billy to talk.

“Held up?” replied Billy, with scorn. “Young feller, I is held up thirty-seven times in th’ last year.”

“Thunderation!” exclaimed the tenderfoot. “What do you do? Do you have much trouble getting away? Have you had much fighting?”

“Fight nothin’. I ain’t hired to fight. I’m hired to drive stage.”

“And you just let them go through you?” cried the tenderfoot.

Billy was stung by the contempt in the stranger’s tone.

“Go through nothin’,” he explained. “They isn’t touchin’ me none whatever. Put her down fer argument that I’m damn fool enough to sprinkle lead ’round some, and that I gets away. What happens? Nex’ time I drives stage some of these yere agents massacrees me from behind a bush. Whar do I come in? Nary bit!”

The tenderfoot, struck by the logic of this reasoning, fell silent. After an interval the sun set in a film of yellow light; then the afterglow followed; and finally the stars pricked out the true immensity of the prairies.

He’s the feller hired to fight,” observed the shadowy Billy, jerking his thumb backward.

The tenderfoot now understood the silent, grim man who, unapproachable and solitary, had alone occupied the seat on top of the stage. Looking with more curiosity, the tenderfoot observed a shot-gun with abnormally short barrels, slung in two brass clips along the back of the seat in front of the messenger. The usual revolvers, too, were secured, instead of by the regulation holsters, in brass clips riveted to the belt, so that in case of necessity they could be snatched free with one forward sweep of the arm. The man met his gaze keenly.