The Last of the Troubadours
by O. Henry
Inexorably Sam Galloway saddled his pony. He was going away
from the Rancho Altito at the end of a three-months' visit. It is not to
be expected that a guest should put up with wheat coffee and biscuits yellow-streaked
with saleratus for longer than that. Nick Napoleon, the big negro man cook,
had never been able to make good biscuits. Once befoe, when Nick was cooking
at the Willow Ranch, Sam had been forced to fly from his cuisine, after
only a six-weeks' sojourn.
On Sam's face was an expression of sorrow, deepened with
regret and slightly tempered by the patient forgiveness of a connoisseur
who cannot be understood. But very firmly and inexorably he buckled his
saddle-cinches, looped his stake-rope and hung it to his saddle-horn, tied
his slicker and coat on the cantle, and looped his quirt on his right wrist.
The Merrydews (householders of the Rancho Altito), men, women, children,
and servants, vassals, visitors, employee, dogs, and casual callers were
grouped in the "gallery" of the ranch house, all with faces set to the
tune of melancholy and grief. For, as the coming of Sam Galloway to any
ranch, camp, or cabin between the rivers Frio or Bravo del Norte aroused
joy, so his departure caused mourning and distress.
And then. during absolute silence, except for the bumping
of a hind elbow of a hound dog as he pursued a wicked flea, Sam tenderly
and carefully tied his guitar across his saddle on top of his slicker and
coat. The guitar was in a green duck bag; and if you catch the significance
of it, it explains Sam.
Sam Galloway was the Last of the Troubadours. Of course you
know about the troubadors. The encyclopaedia says they flourished between
the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries. What they flourished doesn't
seem clear--you may be pretty sure it wasn't a sword: maybe it was a fiddle-bow,
or a forkful of spaghetti, or a lady's scarf. Anyhow, Sam Galloway was
one of 'em.
Sam put on a martyred expression as he mounted his pony.
But the expression on his face was hilarious compared with the one on his
pony's. You see, a pony gets to know his rider mighty well, and it is not
unlikely that cow ponies in pastures and at hitching racks had often guyed
Sam's pony for being ridden by a guitar player instead of by a rollicking,
cussing, all-wool cowboy. No man is a hero to his saddle-horse. And even
an escalator in a department store might be excused for tripping up a troubadour.
Oh, I know I'm one; and so are you. You remember the stories
you memorize and the card tricks you study and that little piece on the
piano-how does it go?--ti-tum-te-tum-titum-those little Arabia Ten Minute
Entertainments that you furnish when you go up to call on your rich Aunt
Jane. You should know that onmiae personae in tres partes divisae sunt.
Namely: Barons, Troubadours, and Workers. Barons have no inclination to
read such folderol as this; and workers have no time: so I know you must
be a troubadour and that you will understand Sam Galloway. Whether we sing,
act, dance, write, lecture, or paint we are only troubadours; so let us
make the worst of it.
The pony with the Dante Alighieri face, guided by the pressure
of Sam's knees, bore that wandering minstrel sixteen miles southeastward.
Nature was in her most benignant mood. League after league of delicate,
sweet flowerets made fragrant the gently undulating prairie. The east wind
tempered the spring warmth; wool-white clouds flying in from the Mexican
Gulf hindered the direct rays of the April sun. Sam sang songs as he rode.
Under his pony's bridle he had tucked some sprigs of chaparral to keep
away the deer flies. Thus crowned, the long-face quadruped looked more
Dantesque than before, and, judging by his countenance, seemed to think
Straight as topography permitted, Sam rode to the sheep ranch
of old man Ellison. A visit to a sheep ranch seemed to him desirable just
then. There had been too many people, too much noise, argument,- competition,
confusion at Rancho Altito. He had never conferred upon old man Ellison
the favor of sojourning at his ranch; but he knew he would be welcome.
The troubadour is his own passport everywhere. The Workers in the castle
let down the drawbridge to him, and the Baron sets him at his left hand
at table in the banquet hall. There ladies smile upon him and applaud his
songs and stories, while the Workers bring boars' heads and flagons. If
the Baron nods once or twice in his carved oaken chair he does not do it
Old man Ellison welcomed the troubadour flatteringly. He
had often heard praises of Sam Galloway from other ranchmen who had been
complimented by his visits, but had never aspired to such an honor for
his own humble barony. I say barony because old man Ellison was the Last
of the Barons. Of course, Mr. Bulwer-Lytton lived too early to know him
or he wouldn't have conferred that sobriquet upon Warwick. In life it is
the duty and the function of the Baron to provide work for the Workers
and lodging and shelter for the Troubadours.
Old man Ellison was a shrunken old man, with a short, yellow-white
beard and a face lined and seamed by past-and-gone smiles. His ranch was
a little two-room box house in a grove of hackberry trees in the lonesomest
part of the sheep country. His household consisted of a Kiowa Indian man
cook, four hounds, a pet sheep, and a half-tamed coyote chained to a fence-post.
He owned 3,000 sheep, which he ran on two sections of leased land and many
thousands of acres neither leased nor owned. Three or four times a year
some one who spoke his language would ride up to his gate and exchange
a few bald ideas with him. Those were red-letter days to old man Ellison.
Then in what illuminated, embossed, and gorgeously decorated capitals must
have been written the day on which a troubadour-a troubadour who, according
to the encyclopaedia, should have flourished between the eleventh and the
thirteenth centuries-drew rein at the gates of his baronial castle!
Old man Ellison's smiles came back and filled his wrinkles
when he saw Sam. He hurried out of the house in his shuffling, limping
way. to greet him.
"Hello, Mr. Ellison," called Sam cheerfully. "Thought I'd
drop over and see you a while. Notice you've had fine rains on your range.
They ought to make good grazing for your spring lambs."
"Well, well, well," said old man Ellison. "I'm mighty glad
to see you, Sam. I never thought you'd take the trouble to ride over to
as out-of-the-way an old ranch as this. But you're mighty welcome. 'Light.
I've got a sack of new oats in the kitchen--shall I bring out a feed for
"Oats for him?" said Sam, derisively. "No, sir-ee. He's as
fat as a pig now on grass. He don't get rode enough to keep him in condition.
I'll just turn him in the horse pasture with a drag rope on if you don't
I am positive that never during the eleventh and thirteenth
centuries did Baron, Troubadour, and Worker amalgamate as harmoniously
as their parallels did that evening at old man Ellison's sheep ranch. The
Kiowa's biscuits were light and tasty and his coffee strong. Ineradicable
hospitality and appreciation glowed on old man Ellison's weather-tanned
face. As for the troubadour, he said to himself that he had stumbled upon
pleasant places indeed. A well-cooked, abundant meal, a host whom his lightest
attempt to entertain seemed to delight far beyond the merits of the exertion,
and the reposeful atmosphere that his sensitive soul at that time craved
united to confer upon him a satisfaction and luxurious ease that he had
seldom found on his tours of the ranches.
After the delectable supper, Sam untied the green duck bag
and took out his guitar. Not by way of payment, mind you--neither Sam Galloway
nor any other of the true troubadours are lineal descendants of the late
Tommy Tucker. You have read of Tommy Tucker in the works of the esteemed
but often obscure Mother Goose. Tommy Tucker sang for his supper. No true
troubadour would do that. He would have his supper, and then sing for Art's
Sam Galloway's repertoire comprised about fifty funny stories
and between thirty and forty songs. He by no means stopped there. He could
talk through twenty cigarettes on any topic that you brought up. And he
never sat up when he could lie down; and never stood when he could sit.
I am strongly disposed to linger with him, for I am drawing a portrait
as well as a blunt pencil and a tattered thesaurus will allow.
I wish you could have seen him: he was small and tough and
inactive beyond the power of imagination to conceive. He wore an ultramarine-blue
woolen shirt laced down the front with a pearl-gray exaggerated sort of
shoestring, indestructible brown duck clothes, inevitable high-heeled boots
with Mexican spurs, and a Mexican straw sombrero.
That evening Sam and old man Ellison dragged their chairs
out under the hackberry trees. They lighted cigarettes; and the troubador
gaily touched his guitar. Many of the songs he sang were the weird, melancholy,
minor-keyed canciones that he had learned from the Mexican sheep herders
and vaqueros. One, in particular, charmed and soothed the soul of the lonely
baron. It was a favorite song of the sheep herders, beginning: "Huile,
huile, palomita," which being translated means, "Fly, fly, little dove."
Sam sang it for old man Ellison many times that evening.
The troubadour stayed on at the old man's ranch. There was
peace and quiet and appreciation there such as he had not found in the
noisy camps of the cattle kings. No audience in the world could have crowned
the work of poet, musician, or artist with more worshipful and unflagging
approval than that bestowed upon his efforts by old man Ellison. No visit
by a royal personage to a humble woodchopper or peasant could have been
received with more flattering thankfulness and joy.
On a cool, canvas-covered cot in the shade of the hackberry
trees Sam Galloway passed the greater part of his time. There he rolled
his brown paper cigarettes, read such tedious literature as the ranch afforded,
and added to his repertoire of improvisations that he played so expertly
on his guitar. To him, as a slave ministering to a great lord, the Kiowa
brought cool water from the red jar hanging under the brush shelter, and
food when he called for it. The prairie zephyrs fanned him mildly; mocking-birds
at morn and eve competed with but scarce equaled the sweet melodies of
his Iyre; a perfumed stillness seemed to fill all his world. While old
man Ellison was pottering among his flocks of sheep on his mile-an-hour
pony, and while the Kiowa took his siesta in the burning sunshine at the
end of the kitchen, Sam would lie on his cot thinking what a happy world
he lived in, and how kind it is to the ones whose mission in life it is
to give entertainment and pleasure. Here he had food and lodging as good
as he had ever longed for; absolute immunity from care or exertion or strife;
an endless welcome, and a host whose delight at the sixteenth repetition
of a song or a story was as keen as at its initial giving. Was there ever
a troubadour of old who struck upon as royal a castle in his wanderings?
While he lay thus meditating upon his blessings little brown cottontails
would shyly frolic through the yard; a covey of white-topknotted blue quail
would run past, in single file, twenty yards away; a paisano bird, out
hunting for tarantulas, would hop upon the fence and salute him with sweeping
flourishes of its long tail. In the eighty-acre horse pasture the pony
with the Dantesque face grew fat and almost smiling. The troubadour was
at the end of his wanderings.
Old man Ellison was his own vaciero. That means that he supplied
his sheep camps with wood, water, and rations by his own labors instead
of hiring a vaciero. On small ranches it is often done.
One morning he started for the camp of Incarnacion Felipe
de la Cruz y Monte Piedras (one of his sheep herders) with the week's usual
rations of brown beans, coffee, meal, and sugar. Two miles away on the
trail from old Fort Ewing he met, face to face, a terrible being called
King James, mounted on a fiery, prancing, Kentucky-bred horse.
King James's real name was James King; but people reversed
it because it seemed to fit him better, and also because it seemed to please
his majesty. King James was the biggest cattleman between the Alamo plaza
in San Antone and Bill Hopper's saloon in Brownsville. Also he was the
loudest and most offensive bully and braggart and bad man in Southwest
Texas. And he always made good whenever he bragged; and the more noise
he made the more dangerous he was. In the story papers it is always the
quiet, mild-mannered man with light-blue eyes and a low voice who turns
out to be really dangerous; but in real life and in this story such is
not the case. Give me my choice between assaulting a large, loud-mouthed
rough-trouser and an inoffensive stranger with blue eyes sitting quietly
in a corner, and you will see something doing in the corner every time.
King James, as I intended to say earlier, was a fierce two-hundred-pound
sunburned blond man, as pink as an October strawberry, and with two horizontal
slits under shaggy red eyebrows for eyes. On that day he wore a flannel
shirt that was tan-colored with the exception of certain large areas which
were darkened by transudations due to the summer sun. There seemed to be
other clothing and garnishings about him, such as brown duck trousers stuffed
into immense boots, and red handkerchiefs and revolvers; and a shotgun
laid across his saddle and a leather belt with millions of cartridges shining
in it-but your mind skidded off such accessories; what held your gaze was
just the two little horizontal slits that he used for eyes.
This was the man that old man Ellison met on the trail; and
when you count up in the baron's favor that he was sixty-five and weighed
ninety-eight pounds and had heard of King James's record and that he (the
baron) had a hankering for the vita simplex and had no gun with him and
wouldn't have used it if he had, you can't censure him if I tell you that
the smiles with which the troubadour had filled his wrinkles went out of
them and left then plain wrinkles again. But he was not the kind of baron
that flies from danger. He reined in the mile-an-hour pony (no difficult
feat), and saluted the formidable monarch.
King James expressed himself with royal directness.
"You're that old snoozer that's running sheep on this range,
ain't you?" said he. "What right have you got to do it? Do you own any
land, or lease any?"
"I have two sections leased from the state," said old man
"Not by no means you haven't," said King James. "Your lease
expired yesterday; and had a man at the land office on the minute to take
it up. You don't control a foot of grass in Texas. You sheep men have got
to git. Your time's up. It's a cattle country; and there ain't any room
in it for snoozers. This range you've got your sheep on is mine. I'm putting
up a wire fence, forty by sixty miles; and if there's a sheep inside of
it when it's done it'll be a dead one. I'll give you a week to move yours
away. If they ain't gone by then, I'll send six men over here with Winchesters
to make mutton out of the whole lot. And if I find you here at the same
time this is what you'll get."
King James patted the breech of his shotgun warningly.
Old man Ellison rode on to the camp of Incarnacion. He sighed
many times; and the wrinkles in his face grew deeper. Rumors that the old
order was about to change had reached him before. The end of Free Grass
was in sight. Other troubles, too, had been accumulating upon his shoulders.
His flocks were decreasing instead of growing; the price of wool was declining
at every clip; even Bradshaw, the storekeeper at Frio City, at whose store
he bought his ranch supplies, was dunning him for his last six months'
bill and threatening to cut him off. And so this last greatest calamity
suddenly dealt out to him by the terrible King James was a crusher.
When the old man got back to the ranch at sunset he found
Sam Galloway lying on his cot, propped against a roll of blankets and wool
sacks, fingering his guitar.
"Hello, Uncle Ben," the troubadour called, cheerfully. "You
rolled in early this evening. I been trying a new twist on the Spanish
Fandango to-day. I just about got it. Here's how she goes-listen."
"That's fine, that's mighty fine,'' said old man Ellison,
sitting on the kitchen step and rubbing his white, Scotch-terrier whiskers.
"I reckon you've got all the musicians beat east and west, Sam, as far
as the roads are cut out."
"Oh, I don't know," said Sam, reflectively. "But I certainly
do get there on variations. I guess I can handle anything in five flats
about as well as any of 'em. But you look kind of fagged out, Uncle Ben--ain't
you feeling right well this evening?"
"Little tired; that's all, Sam. If you ain't played yourself
out, let's have that Mexican piece that starts off with: 'Huile, huile,
palomita.' It seems that that song always kind of soothes and comforts
me after I've been riding far or anything bothers me."
"Why, seguramente, senor," said Sam. "I'll hit her up for
you as often as you like. And before I forget about it, Uncle Ben, you
want to jerk Bradshaw up about them last hams he sent us. They're just
a little bit strong."
A man sixty-five years old, living on a sheep ranch and beset
by a complication of disasters, cannot successfully and continuously dissemble.
Moreover, a troubadour has eyes quick to see unhappiness in others around
him-because it disturbs his own ease. So on the next day Sam again questioned
the old man about his air of sadness and abstraction. Then old man Ellison
told him the story of King James's threats and orders and that pale melancholy
and red ruin appeared to have marked him for their own. The troubadour
took the news thoughtfully. He had heard much about King James.
On the third day of the seven days of grace allowed him by
the autocrat of the range, old man Ellison drove his buckboard to Frio
City to fetch some necessary supplies for the ranch. Bradshaw was hard
but not implacable. He divided the old man's order by two, and let him
have a little more time. One article secured was a new, fine ham for the
pleasure of the troubadour.
Five miles out of Frio City on his way home the old man met
King James riding into town. His majesty could never look anything but
fierce andnenacing, but to-day his slits of eyes appeared to be a little
wider than they ususlly were.
"Good day,: said the king, gruffly. "I've been wanting to
see you. I hear it said by a cowman from Sandy yesterday that you was from
Jackson County, Mississippi, originally. I want to know if that's a fact."
"Born there," said old man Ellison, "and raised there till
I was twenty-one."
"This man says," went on King James, "that he thinks you
was related to the Jackson County Reeveses. Was he right?"
"Aunt Caroline Reeves," said the old man, "was my half-sister."
"She was my aunt," said King James. "I run away from home
when I was sixteen. How let's re-talk ober some things that we discussed
a few days ago. They call me a bad man; and they're only half right. There's
plenty of room in my pasture for your bunch of sheep and their increase
for a long time to come. Aunt Caroline used to cut out sheep in cake dough
and bake 'em for me. You keep your sheep where they are, and use all the
range you want. How's your finances?"
The old man related his woes in detail, dignifiedly, with
restraint and candor.
"She used to smuggle extra grub into my school basket - I'm
speaking of Aunt Caroline," said King James. "I'm going over to Frio City
to-day, and I'll ride back by your ranch to-morrow. I'll draw $2,000 out
of the bank there and bring it over to you; and I'll tell Bradshaw to let
you have everything you want on credit. You are bound to have heard the
old saying at home, that the Jackson County Reeveses and Kings would stick
closer by each other than chestnut burrs. Well, I'm a King yet whenever
I run across a Reeves. So you look out for me along about sundown to-morrow,
and don't worry about nothing. Shouldn't wonder if the dry spell don't
kill out the young grass."
Old man Ellison drove happily ranchward. Once more the smiles
filled out his wrinkles. Very suddenly, by the magic of kinship and the
good that lies somewhere in all hearts, his troubles had been removed.
On reaching the ranch he fournd that Sam Galloway was not
there. His guitar hung by its buckskin string to the hackberry limb, moaning
as the gulf breeze blew across its masterless strings.
The Kiowa endeavored to explain.
"Sam, he catch pony," said he, "and say he ride to Frio City.
What for no can damn sabe. Say he come back to-night. Maybe so. That all."
As the first stars came out the troubadour rode back to his
haven. He pastured his pony and went into the house, his spurs jingling
Old man Ellison sat at the kitchen table, having a tin cup
of before-supper coffee. He looked contented and pleased.
"Hello, Sam," said he, "I'm darned glad to see ye back. I
don't know how I managed to get along on this ranch, anyhow, before ye
dropped in to cheer things up. I'll bet ye've been skylarking around with
some of them Frio City gals, now, that's kept ye so late."
And then old man Ellison took another look at Sam's face
and saw that the minstrel had changed to the man of action.
And while Sam is unbuckling from his waist old man Ellison's
six-shooter, that the latter had left behing when he drove to town, we
may well pause to remark that anywhere and shenever a troubadour lays down
the guitar and takes up the sword trouble is sure to follow. It is not
the ecpert thrust of Athos not the cold skill of Aramis not the iron wrist
of Porthos that we have to fear -- it is the Gascon's fury -- the wild
and unacademic attack of the troubadour -- the sword of D'Artagnan.
"I done it," said Sam. "I went over to Frio City to do it.
I couldn't let him put the skibunk on you, Uncle Ben. I met him in Summers's
saloon. I knowed what to do. I said a few things to him that nobody else
heard. He reached for his gun first - half a dozen fellows saw him do it
- but I got mine unlimbered first. Three doses I have hime - right around
the lungs, and a saucer could have covered up all of 'em. He won't bother
you no more."
"This--is--King--James--you speak--of?" asked old man Ellison,
while he sipped his coffee.
"You bet is was. And they took me before the county judge;
and the witnesses what saw him draw his gun first was all there. Well,
of course they put me under $300 bond to appear before the court, but there
was four or five boys on the spot ready to sign the bail. He won''t bother
you no more, Uncle Ben. You ought to have seen how close them bullet holes
was together. I reckon playing a guitar as much as I do must kind of limber
a fellow's trigger finger up a little, ddon't you think, Uncle Ben?"
Then there was a little silence in the castle except for
the spluttering of a venison steak that the Kiowa was cooking.
"Sam," said old man Ellison, stroking his white whiskers
with a tremulous hand, "would you mind getting the guitar and playing that
'Huile, huile, palomita' piece once or twice? It always seems to be kind
of soothing and comforting when a man's tired and fagged out."
There is no more to be said, except that the title of the
story is wrong. It should have been called "The Last of the Barons." There
never will be an end to the troubadours; and now and then it does seem
that the jingle of their guitars will drown the sound of the muffled blows
of the pickaxes and trip-hammers of all the Workers in the world.