A Bargain With Peg-Leg by Frank Norris
“Hey, youse!” shouted the car-boy. He brought his trundling,
jolting, loose-jointed car to a halt by the face of the drift. “Hey,
youse!” he shouted again.
Bunt shut off the Burly air-drill and nodded.
“Chaw,” he remarked to me.
We clambered into the car, and, as the boy released the brake,
rolled out into the main tunnel of the Big Dipple, and banged and
bumped down the long incline that led to the mouth.
“Chaw” was dinner. It was one o'clock in the morning, and the men on
the night shift were taking their midnight spell off. Bunt was back at
his old occupation of miner, and I—the one loafer of all that little
world of workers—had brought him a bottle of beer to go with the
“chaw”; for Bunt and I were ancient friends.
As we emerged from the cool, cave-like dampness of the mine and ran
out into the wonderful night air of the Sierra foothills, warm, dry,
redolent of witch-hazel, the carboy began to cough, and, after we had
climbed out of the car and had sat down on the embankment to eat and
drink, Bunt observed:
“D'ye hear that bark? That kid's a one-lunger for fair. Which ain't
no salubrious graft for him—this hiking cars about in the bowels of
the earth, Some day he'll sure up an' quit. Ought to go down to Yuma a
The engineer in the mill was starting the stamps. They got under way
with broken, hiccoughing dislocations, bumping and stumbling like the
hoofs of a group of horses on the cattle-deck in a gale. Then they
jumped to a trot, then to a canter, and at last settled down to the
prolonged roaring gallop that reverberated far off over the entire
“I knew a one-lunger once,” Bunt continued, as he uncorked the
bottle, “and the acquaintance was some distressful by reason of its
bringing me into strained relations with a cow-rustlin', hair-liftin',
only-one-born-in-captivity, man-eatin' brute of a one-legged Greaser
which he was named Peg-leg Smith. He was shy a leg because of a shotgun
that the other man thought wasn't loaded. And this here happens, lemme
tell you, 'way down in the Panamint country, where they wasn't no
doctor within twenty miles, and Peg-leg outs with his bowie and
amputates that leg hisself, then later makes a wood stump outa a ole
halter and a table-leg. I guess the whole jing-bang of it turned his
head, for he goes bad and loco thereafter, and begins shootin' and
r'arin' up an' down the hull Southwest, a-roarin' and a-bellerin' and
a-takin' on amazin'. We dasn't say boo to a yaller pup while he's
round. I never see such mean blood. Jus' let the boys know that Peg-leg
was anyways adjacent an' you can gamble they walked chalk.
“Y'see, this Peg-leg lay it out as how he couldn't abide no cussin'
an' swearin'. He said if there was any tall talkin' done he wanted to
do it. And he sure could. I've seed him hold on for six minutes by the
watch an' never repeat hisself once. An' shoot! Say, lemme tell you he
did for two Greasers once in a barroom at La Paz, one in front o' him,
t'other straight behind, him standing between with a gun in each
hand, and shootin' both guns at the same time. Well, he was just
a terror,” declared Bunt, solemnly, “and when he was in real good form
there wa'n't a man south o' Leadville dared to call his hand.
“Now, the way I met up with this skunkin' little dewdrop was
this-like It was at Yuma, at a time when I was a kid of about nineteen.
It was a Sunday mornin'; Peg-leg was in town. He was asleep on a lounge
in the back room o' Bud Overick's Grand Transcontinental Hotel. (I used
to guess Bud called it that by reason that it wa'n't grand, nor
transcontinental, nor yet a hotel—it was a bar.) This was twenty year
ago, and in those days I knowed a one-lunger in Yuma named Clarence.
(He couldn't help that—he was a good kid—but his name was
Clarence.) We got along first-rate. Yuma was a great consumptive place
at that time. They used to come in on every train; yes, and go out,
“Well, findin' that they couldn't do much else than jes' sit around
an' bark and keep their shawls tight, these 'ere chaps kinda drew
together, and lay it out to meet every Sunday morning at Bud's to sorta
talk it over and have a quiet game. One game they had that they played
steady, an' when I drifted into Bud's that morning they was about a
dozen of 'em at it—Clarence, too. When I came in, there they be, all
sittin' in a circle round a table with a cigar box on it. They'd each
put four bits into the box. That was the pot.
“A stranger wouldn't 'a' made nothin' very excitin' out of that
game, nor yet would 'a' caught on to what it were. For them pore yaps
jes' sat there, each with his little glass thermometer in his mouth,
a-waitin' and a-waitin' and never sayin' a word. Then bime-by Bud,
who's a-holdin' of the watch on 'em, sings out 'Time!' an' they all
takes their thermometers out an' looks at 'em careful-like to see where
“'Mine's ninety-nine,' says one.
“An' another says:
“'Mine's a hundred.'
“An' Clarence pipes up—coughin' all the time:
“'Mine's a hundred 'n one 'n 'alf.'
“An', no one havin' a higher tempriture than that, Clarence captures
the pot. It was a queer kind o' game.
“Well, on that particular Sunday morning they's some unpleasantness
along o' one o' the other one-lungers layin' it out as how Clarence had
done some monkey-business to make his tempriture so high. It was said
as how Clarence had took and drunk some hot tea afore comin' into the
game at Bud's. They all began to discuss that same p'int.
“Naturally, they don't go at it polite, and to make their remarks
p'inted they says a cuss-word occasional, and Clarence, bein' a
high-steppin' gent as takes nobody's dust, slings it back some
“Then all at once they hears Peg-leg beller from where's he layin'
on the lounge (they ain't figured on his bein' so contiguous), and he
gives it to be understood, does Peg-leg, as how the next one-lunger
that indulges in whatsoever profanity will lose his voice abrupt.
“They all drops out at that, bar the chap who had the next highest
tempriture to Clarence. Him having missed the pot by only a degree or
so is considerable sore.
“'Why,' says he, 'I've had a reg'lar fever since yesterday
afternoon, an' only just dodged a hem'rage by a squeak. I'm all
legitimate, I am; an' if you-alls misdoubts as how my tempriture ain't
normal you kin jes' ask the doctor. I don't take it easy that a
strappin', healthy gesabe whose case ain't nowheres near the hopeless
p'int yet steps in here with a scalded mouth and plays it low.'
“Clarence he r'ars right up at that an' forgits about Peg-leg an'
expresses doubts, not to say convictions, about the one-lunger's
chances of salvation. He puts it all into about three words, an' just
as quick as look at it we hears ol' Peg-leg's wooden stump a-comin'. We
stampedes considerable prompt, but Clarence falls over a chair, an'
before he kin get up Peg-leg has him by the windpipe.
“Now I ain't billin' myself as a all-round star hero an' general
grand-stand man. But I was sure took with Clarence, an' I'd 'a' been
real disappointed if Peg-leg 'ud a-killed him that morning—which he
sure was tryin' to do when I came in for a few chips.
“I don' draw on Peg-leg, him being down on his knees over Clarence,
an' his back turned, but without sensin' very much what I'm
a-doin' of I grabs holt o' the first part o' Peg-leg that comes handy,
which, so help me, Bob, is his old wooden leg. I starts to pull him off
o' Clarence, but instead o' that I pulls off the wooden leg an' goes
a-staggerin' back agin the wall with the thing in my fist.
“Y'know how it is now with a fightin' pup if you pull his tail while
he's a-chawin' up the other pup. Ye can bat him over the head till
you're tired, or kick him till you w'ars your boot out, an' he'll go
right on chawin' the harder. But monkey with his tail an' he's that
sensitive an' techy about it that he'll take a interest right off.
“Well, it were just so with Peg-leg—though I never knew it. Just by
accident I'd laid holt of him where he was tender; an' when he felt
that leg go—say, lemme tell you, he was some excited. He forgits all
about Clarence, and he lines out for me, a-clawin' the air. Lucky he'd
left his gun in the other room.
“Well, sir, y'ought to have seen him, a-hoppin' on one foot, and
banging agin the furniture, jes' naturally black in the face with rage,
an' doin' his darnedest to lay his hands on me, roarin' all the whiles
like a steer with a kinked tail.
“Well, I'm skeered, and I remarks that same without shame. I'm
skeered. I don't want to come to no grapples with Peg-leg in his wrath,
an' I knows that so long as he can't git his leg he can't take after me
very fast. Bud's saloon backs right up agin the bluff over the river.
So what do I do but heave that same wooden leg through one o' the back
windows, an' down she goes (as I thought) mebbe seventy feet
into the canon o' the Colorado? And then, mister man, I skins
“I takes me headlong flight by way o' the back room and on-root
pitches Peg-leg's gun over into the canon, too, an' then whips around
the corner of the saloon an' fetches out ag'in by the street in front.
With his gun gone an' his leg gone, Peg-leg—so long's y'ain't within
arm's reach—is as harmless as a horned toad. So I kinda hangs 'round
the neighbourhood jes' to see what-all mout turn up.
“Peg-leg, after hoppin' back to find that his gun was gone, to look
for his leg, comes out by the front door, hoppin' from one chair to
another, an' seein' me standin' there across the street makes remarks;
an' he informs me that because of this same little turn-up this mornin'
I ain't never goin' to live to grow hair on my face. His observations
are that vigorous an' p'inted that I sure begin to see it that way,
too, and I says to myself:
“'Now you, Bunt McBride, you've cut it out for yourself good and
hard, an' the rest o' your life ain't goin' to be free from
nervousness. Either y'ought to 'a' let this here hell-roarin' maverick
alone or else you should 'a' put him clean out o' business when you had
holt o' his shootin'-iron. An' I ain't a bit happy.' And then jes' at
this stage o' the proceedings occurs what youse 'ud call a diversion.
“It seemed that that wood stump didn't go clean to the river as I
first figured, but stuck three-fourths the way down. An' a-course
there's a fool half-breed kid who's got to chase after it, thinkin' to
do Peg-leg a good turn.
“I don't know nothin' about this, but jes' stand there talkin' back
to Peg-leg, an' pre-tendin' I ain't got no misgivings, when I sees this
kid comin' a-cavoortin' an' a-cayoodlin' down the street with the leg
in his hands, hollerin' out:
“'Here's your leg, Mister Peg-leg! I went an' got it for you, Mister
“It ain't so likely that Peg-leg could 'a' caught me even if he'd
had his leg, but I wa'n't takin' no chances. An' as Peg-leg starts for
the kid I start, too—with my heart knockin' agin my front teeth, you
“I never knew how fast a man could hop till that mornin', an',
lookin' at Peg-leg with the tail o' my eye as I ran, it seemed to me as
how he was a-goin' over the ground like a ole he-kangaroo. But somehow
he gets off his balance and comes down all of a smash like a rickety
table, an' I reaches the kid first an' takes the leg away from him.
“I guess Peg-leg must 'a' begun to lay it out by then that I held a
straight flush to his ace high, for he sits down on the edge of the
sidewalk an', being some winded, too, he just glares. Then byme-by he
“'You think you are some smart now, sonny, but I'm a-studyin' of
your face so's I'll know who to look for when I git a new leg; an'
believe me, I'll know it, m'son—yours and your friend's too' (he meant
Clarence)—'an' I guess you'll both be kind o' sick afore I'm done with
you. You!' he goes on, tremendous disgustful. 'You! an' them
one-lungers a-swearin' an' a-cussin' an' bedamnin' an' bedevilin' one
a-other. Ain't ye just ashamed o' yourselves ?' (he thought I was a
one-lunger, too); 'ain't ye ashamed—befoulin' your mouths, and
disturbin' the peace along of a quiet Sunday mornin', an' you-alls
waist over in your graves? I'm fair sick o' my job,' he remarks, goin'
kind o' thoughtful. 'Ten years now I've been range-ridin' all this yere
ranch, a-doin' o' my little feeble, or'nary best to clean out the
mouths o' you men an' purify the atmosphere o' God's own country, but I
ain't made one convert. I've pounded 'em an' booted 'em, an'
busted 'em an' shot 'em up, an' they go on cussin' each other out
harder'n ever. I don't know w'at all to do an' I sometimes gets plumb
“Now, hearin' of him talk that-a-way, an' a-knowin' of his weakness,
I gits a idea. It's a chanst and mebbee it don't pan out, but I puts it
up as a bluff. I don't want, you see, to spend the rest o' my appointed
time in this yere vale o' tears a-dodgin' o' Peg-leg Smith, an' in the
end, after all, to git between the wind and a forty-eight caliber
do-good, sure not. So I puts up a deal. Says I: 'Peg-leg, I'll make a
bargint along o' you. You lays it out as how you ain't never converted
nobody out o' his swearin' habits. Now if you wants, 'ere's a chanst.
You gimmee your word as a gent and a good-man-an'-true, as how you
won't never make no play to shoot me up, in nowise whatsoever, so long
as we both do live, an' promise never to bust me, or otherwise, and
promise never to rustle me or interfere with my life, liberty and
pursuit o' happiness, an' thereunto you set your seal an' may Lord 'a'
mercy on your soul—you promise that, an' I will agree an' covenant
with the party o' the first part to abstain an' abjure, early or late,
dry or drinkin', in liquor or out, out o' luck or in, rangin' or
roundin', from all part an' parcel o' profanity, cuss-words, little or
big, several and separate, bar none; this yere agreement to be
considered as bindin' an' obligatory till the day o' your demise,
decease or death. There!' says I, 'there's a fair bargint put up
between man an' man, an' I puts it to you fair. You comes in with a
strong ante an' you gets a genuine, guaranteed an' high-grade
convert—the real article. You stays out, an' not only you loses a good
chanst to cut off and dam up as vigorous a stream o' profanity as is
found between here and Laredo, but you loses a handmade, copper-bound,
steel-riveted, artificial limb—which in five minutes o' time,' says I,
windin' up, 'will sure feed the fire. There's the bargint.'
“Well, the ol' man takes out time for about as long as a thirsty
horse-rustler could put away half a dozen drinks an' he studies the
proposition sideways and endways an' down side up. Then at last he ups
and speaks out decided-like:
“'Son,' he says, 'son, it's a bargint. Gimmee my leg.'
“Somehow neither o' us misdoubts as how the other man won't keep his
word; an' I gives him his stump, an' he straps her on joyful-like, just
as if he'd got back a ole friend. Then later on he hikes out for Mojave
and I don' see him no more for mebbee three years.”
“And then?” I prompted.
“Well, I'll tell you,” continued Bunt, between mouthfuls of pie,
“I'll tell you. This yere prejudice agin profanity is the only thing
about this yere Peg-leg that ain't pizen bad, an' that
prejudice, you got to know, was just along o' his being loco on that
one subjeck. 'Twa'n't as if he had any real principles or convictions
about the thing. It was just a loco prejudice. Just as some gesabes has
feelin's agin cats an' snakes, or agin seein' a speckled nigger. It was
just on-reasonable. So what I'm aimin' to have you understand is the
fact that it was extremely appropriate that Peg-leg should die, that it
was a blame good thing, and somethin' to be celebrated by free drinks
“You can say he treated me white, an' took my unsupported word.
Well, so he did; but that was in spite o' what he really was hisself,
'way on the inside o' him. Inside o' him he was black-bad, an' it
wa'n't a week after we had made our bargint that he did for a little
Mojave kid in a way I don't like to think of.
“So when he took an' died like as how I'm a-going to tell you of, I
was plumb joyful, not only because I could feel at liberty to relieve
my mind when necessary in a manner as is approved of and rightful among
gents—not only because o' that, but because they was one less bad egg
in the cow-country.
“Now the manner o' Peg-leg's dying was sure hilarious-like. I didn't
git over laughin' about it for a month o' Sundays—an' I ain't done
yet. It was sure a joke on Peg-leg. The cutest joke that ever was
played off on him.
“It was in Sonora—Sonora, Arizona, I mean. They'd a-been a kind o'
gold excitement there, and all the boys had rounded up. The town was
full—chock-a-block. Peg-leg he was there too, drunk all the time an'
bullyin' everybody, an' slambangin' around in his same old way. That
very day he'd used a friend o' his—his best friend—cruel hard: just
mean and nasty, you know.
“Well, I'm sitting into a little game o' faro about twelve o'clock
at night, me an' about a dozen o' the boys. We're good an' interested,
and pretty much to the good o' the game, an' somebody's passin' drinks
when all at once there's a sure big rumpus out in the street, an' a
gent sticks his head thro' the door an' yells out:
“'Hi, there, they's a fire! The Golden West Hotel is on fire!'
“We draws the game as soon as convenient and hikes out, an', my
word, you'd 'a' thought from the looks o' things as how the whole town
was going. But it was only the hotel—the Golden West, where Peg-leg
was stayin'; an' when we got up we could hear the ol' murderer
bellerin' an' ragin', an' him drunk—of course.
“Well, I'm some excited. Lord love you, I'd as soon 'a' seen Peg-leg
shot as I would eat, an' when I remembers the little Mojave kid I'm
glad as how his time is at hand. Saved us the trouble o' lynchin' that
sooner or later had to come.
“Peg-leg's room was in the front o' the house on the fourth floor,
but the fire was all below, and what with the smoke comin' out the
third-story winders he couldn't see down into the street, no more'n the
boys could see him—only they just heard him bellerin'.
“Then some one of 'em sings out:
“'Hey, Peg-leg, jump! We got a blanket here.'
“An' sure enough he does jump!”
Here Bunt chuckled grimly, muttering, “Yes, sir, sure enough he did
“I don't quite see,” I observed, “where the laugh comes in. What was
the joke of it?”
“The joke of it was,” finished Bunt, “that they hadn't any blanket.”