A Man is a Measly Thing

Breed came into the country with nothing. The horse he rode in on he possessed but did not own. It was said that the shirt he wore he got off a dead man after a fight in Denver or St. Louis or California. There were many men who knew of the fight, knew witnesses or had heard of it from someone who did.

“Just rolled that kid over,” the story goes, “his eyes already losing light, unbuttoned the shirt, a red wool, and stripped it off him. Just like that.”

Some who tell of it say that he stepped over the kid’s body and handed the shirt with the blood dripping from it, congealing, to a woman who stood there and said, “Wash it,” then turned, stepped over the body again and went back into the saloon to finish his drink. And when he finished the evening of drink and cards had found the woman, made use of her and then donned the clean and mended shirt. This aspect of the story appeared usually in the more sordid parts of town where men needed to buck courage, and raise a limpness into life with the fantasy of another’s alleged easy using.

These are just tales, of course, gossip that follow a man, told with awe, fear, envy by tellers proud to carry the story, to have heard it, assimilated it into their lives, made it fabric of their grubbing existence until its telling was the very weave of their own sense of self and meaning. These were miners, prospectors. All men, needing the proof of blood to validate themselves and their heroes, something they found it in the legend that followed this Breed.

And there was also in the telling, underlying the fear and awe, a sense of outrage, a fury, even a self loathing, that one heard in the voice of the teller. Sometimes a sort of whining that seemed to be wanting either affirmation of the legend and so an affirmation that the awe, the fear, the self loathing were compatible with manhood, or a denunciation that might raise allies against a man who would step across the dead body of a boy and hand a bloody shirt to a woman and say “wash it.”

As I say he came into the country with nothing but the possession of that horse, the saddle between him and it, and the shirt on his back. When the man who owned the horse but did not actually possess it caught up with him, he thanked him for the use of the horse, and he said without the trace of ill will in his voice, that he did not need it now, having arrived at the easy pickings; if he needed it in the future, he said, he would know where he could find it.

There were many witnesses to this. They saw the heavy carelessness in Breed’s eyes, the wary relief of the man who owned but did not yet repossess the horse. Those who were there noted that Breed did not stand from the table, and he did not draw, did not even touch, the heavy pistol tucked in his belt, though it was there where it had not been when he arrived, the wicked curve of the grip and the mean curl of the hammer exposed against the red shirt, his thin hand dangled over the table, more to point at it than to threaten to draw it, though there was no doubt about the threat. Some expressed surprise that it appeared, awed that, where there had been only a horse, a saddle, a shirt, there was now also a revolver.

The owner, now the possessor as well, of the horse backed to the door, nodding his head and then, fumbling, pushed it open backed through it, closed it and turned, sweat dripping from his face, to the stable where he had found the horse earlier in the afternoon. It is said he left the country then, not wishing to again be faced with the probability that, if he stayed, he would be expected to again loan his horse to the man Breed.

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