My Father

Damon Runyon

June 11 1911

My father is a pioneer.

Of such an institution, Mr. N. Webster, who was himself something of a pioneer, says:

“Pioneer. One who goes before, as into the wilderness, preparing the way for others to follow.”

I do not know that this description covers my father’s case accurately—it sounds more like a word picture of a Fremont or a Pike, or an irrigation promoter, with little bearing upon a man who was the playmate of the untamed William Hickok, Mr. B. Masterson, and such; nevertheless, I have my father’s word for it that he is a Pioneer.

His high-heeled boots have left their imprint upon the old cattle trails down Abilene and Dodge City way. I can picture in my mind’s eye his small but hardy frame encased in the fringes fashionable at that day, cleaving a path toward the setting sun as he hotly pursued the elusive maverick and furrowed the pine bars of the Red Light and the Pink Dog cafés of that interesting period with his hard-earned dollars.

I have a deep reverence for my father as a Pioneer, which is not shared by my wife Ellen.

She sees only, in that weatherbeaten little figure, an old gentleman with a tremendous capacity for indenting the cushions at the Brown Palace Hotel, where he foregathers at night with his ancient friends and talks in a loud and querulous tone of voice.

My wife was born in the West at a time when department stores and nickelodeon theatres had crowded out the picturesque landscape to make room for a ragged sky line. Her father is not a Pioneer. He is merely the general superintendent of a railroad and travels in a private car. Her mother is not a Pioneer, either. She is a society leader.

Ellen, therefore, is inured to an atmosphere of labor difficulties and bargain sales, and could hardly be expected to sense the romance of the sunset trail as personified in a mild-looking little man with a stringy goatee, who declines to shake up the furnace on cold days. My father stands in proper awe of Ellen, and while he may raise his voice in a loud “I-remember-when” down at the Brown Palace, his tone is low and well modulated around my house, where he resides.

Understand, Ellen is not a shrew—far from it. Neither is she inclined to be peckish. She simply came into the world at a time when pioneerism had become a sort of misdemeanor, so far as six-pistols and wild Indians are concerned, and society felt it best to preserve a respectable silence regarding certain early days.

Also, my wife—but this does not go if she hears it—is very obtuse when it comes to an appreciation of the historical value of the notches on my father’s gun. I myself know, from rumor and otherwise, that in his day my father was a man of parts, and his aim was esteemed along the border.

The Society of Pioneers decided to hold a reunion one summer, and for the purposes of that gathering they picked the old city of Trinity. There was method in this selection. The average Pioneer, like my father, has daughters-in-law and other women folk holding receptions and functions about his family fireside, at which no account is taken of those hoary harbingers of civilization. Trinity is well removed from the social trail and is without reserve regarding the old days.

When my father announced his intention of attending the reunion, my wife offered no objection.

“Just so you ridiculous old men do your pioneering outside the city limits, I’ll be satisfied,” she remarked.

So my father, with patient resignation, packed his suitcase full of buckskin clothing and other odds and ends, and betook himself to Trinity, in company with a large number of other old gentlemen whose voices began to touch the highest pitch in the vocal scale as soon as the train moved them beyond the zone of home hostility.

When I returned that evening, I found Ellen in quite a state of mind.

“The Daughters of the Revolution have appointed me a member of a committee to go to Trinity and assist in dedicating a museum to the Spanish explorers,” she announced. “I am to make a speech.”

Personally, I have always felt that the son of a man who fought at ’Dobe Walls was as good as the great-great-granddaughter of a farmer who pitchforked Britons in the Lexington road, but I did not say so. I never shall, openly.

“Trinity? That’s where father has gone,” I said.

“Well,” Ellen replied tartly, “those foolish old men haven’t anything to do with this museum. This is being done by the Daughters, and as other members of the committee are taking their husbands, you can go with me.”

“It will be quite a surprise to father to see us,” I suggested.

I did not feel called upon to explain that the dedication of the museum might have been arranged to be coincident with the Pioneer reunion because of the connecting historical relation of the two events. I, a scion of the ’Dobe Walls, will never gratuitously offend any Daughter of the Revolution.

I did not see my father, but I heard of him as soon as I registered our names at the best hotel in Trinity, and urged the grizzled man doing duty as clerk to give us good rooms.

“Kivingson, hey?” he remarked, scrutinizing the register. “Any relation to Bill Kivingson?”

“My father’s name is William Kivingson,” I replied coldly. My wife sniffed one of her most disdainful sniffs. “The son of ole Bill Kivingson can have anything I’ve got,” replied the old man. “Me ’n’ Bill are pards; we useter raise hell together around Lamar …”

“Jonas, let us go to our rooms,’ interrupted Ellen scornfully.

“Yore ole man’s around town sum’ers,” called the clerk, as we mounted the stairs.

Trinity is a small but enthusiastic town on the old Santa Fe trail, which preserves many of its old-time traditions and all of its saloons. It was humming with activity. The business houses and the streets were hung with bunting and beaming with hospitality, while grizzled men dotted the landscape freely. It appeared that there were really two celebrations—the Pioneers’ reunion and the dedication of the museum, the latter designed by the women as a sort of antidote for the masculine gathering.

I soon discovered that, as the son of Bill Kivingson, I was a man of honor in those parts at that particular time. The clerk at the hotel took care to point me out in my capacity of Bill Kivingson’s offspring; and my hand was cordially shaken by aging men with a violence that threatened my physical well-being.

Ellen was busied with the other members of the committee of the Daughters, arranging the program for the dedication, and I wandered about the town. My search was not an exhaustive one, as I did not care to encroach upon my father’s vacation, and, in addition to my natural feelings, there are some places where a bank attaché can not follow even a Pioneer parent.

As I went about, mingling with the queer crowds, I heard strange and disquieting rumors dealing with the personality and actions of one whom they called “Still Bill”, who appeared to be a character of some vehemence.

“Still Bill’s broke the faro bank over to the Blue Moose,” announced an ancient ex-frontiersman as he approached a group of bronzed old men at the hotel office that evening. “Made ’em turn the box, arter he took out twenty-six hundred dollars!”

“That Bill’s a gray wolf,” replied a tall man with long, straight hair. There was admiration in his tone. “If Still Bill gets to going good, there will be some fun in this burg!”

“He’s a-going fair enough right now,” replied the bearer of the news. “I mind the time at Trail City when he cleaned out the whole blame town. It was bustin’ the bank started him that time, too.”

“Yes,” put in another, “I rec’leck how he stood off the marshal and the en-tire pop’lation of Dodge City for two days an’ nights.”

“Well,” said the messenger, “he’s got that ol’ cap’n’ball pistol—that ol’ forty~five howitzer—an’ he was tunin’ up some when I left. He useter be able to singe your eyelashes with that weepon at fifty yards.”

At this point a fat, breathless gentleman who aided locomotion with a manzanita cane, hobbled excitedly into the office.

“He’s loose.” panted this latest courier, in a quavering voice. “Ole Still Bill has done ontied himself! He’s raisin’ hell and puttin’ a block under her over at the Moose! Like as not he’ll come a-bulgin’ down this street pretty quick. I’m goin’ home!”

“He useter be a long-winded cuss, too,” said someone. “I don’t reckon, at his age, he kin hold out more’n two days, but I seen the time when a week wasn’t no limit!”

“They’s been a-many a ring-tailed, red-eyed son o’ trouble turned loose in these here parts,” quavered the courier. “I seen ’em come and I seen ’em go, but they’s never been no white man could claw within a foot o’ the mark o’ ole Bill Kivingson!”

Kivingson! Bill Kivingson! My father!

I approached the group. “Gentlemen,” said I, “you surely do not mean Mr. William Kivingson—a smallish man with a goatee and …?”

“Still Bill? That’s him!’ came in full chorus.

“Why,” said I, “it—it isn’t possible that he should be performing actions such as you speak of! He is a harmless old man!”

“Harmless—hell!” snorted the fat old Pioneer. “Harmless like a mess o’ rattlesnakes!”

“But I’m his son!” I argued.

“I don’t give a hoo-raw who you are! I’m his pal and I know Still Bill Kivingson—knowed him before you was born. It’s good-night, all, fer me!”

Now of course my natural thought was to go and get my father and make him retire for the night; but the hotel clerk laid a kindly restraining hand upon my arm.

“Lay off o’ him, son,” he said. Still Bill gits a-goin’, you jest got to give him a clean track and keep well under kivver. I ain’t seen him speed none in twenty years, but I know what he could do. Jest you go to bed and lay off o’ him.

“He won’t hurt nobody,” he continued. “All the old-timers’ll keep out of his way, and he never did kill no bartenders, or such, in his life, because he needs ’em. Don’t you worry about him. It’s just them animile sperrits which has been plugged up fer a long time, coming out an’ sniffin’ around. O’ course, if he should happen to think o’ somebody he don’t like, he might bother ’em some; but they ain’t no one about Trinity he ain’t made up with long ago.”

I debated the matter in my mind and came to the conclusion that I had better follow the clerk’s advice. Who was I, that I should obstruct the course of a hero of the ’Dobe Walls, equipped with a cap and ball?

I lay awake for several hours, the tumult of the street pouring in at my window. Occasionally I heard above the hum of voices a pistol shot, which never failed to produce deep silence—after a great shuffling of feet. The pedestrians seemed to be seeking shelter. In the hush which followed these explosions there would come a voice, uplifted in warlike declamation. I could not make out the words, but there seemed to be a familiar ring to the belligerent chant.

When I went down the stairs the next morning, leaving Ellen at her toilet, a strange sight presented itself. It was nine o’clock. Outside, the sun was shining from a turquoise sky, and the air was soft as down, yet the lobby of the hotel was packed with men and women who stood gazing through the windows upon that scene of peace and quiet as if a terrible storm raged without.

Across the street, I could see, the stores were filled with similar crowds. The streets were deserted. An old man disengaged him self from the throng and sidled over to me. It was the hotel clerk.

“Son,” said he, “I don’t like fer to tell you-all, but yore ole man, Still Bill, he’s a goin’ good and strong this mornin’. He’s plum’ busted this celebration, which it can‘t go on with him a-streamin’ up and down the streets like a pestilence. He’s a-holdin’ forth down yonder at the Moose, an’ every now an’ then he comes a-boilin’ up this way to see if they’s any defenseless folks he kin devastate. Son, yore dad is a wolf—a curly wolf, that’s all—and time don’t change him none.”

“He certainly is a long-winded ole party,” declared another. “I reckon it’s his superflus energy o’ twenty year a-bubblin’ out all to one’st. He allows he has decided to postpone the parade an’ celebration until tomorrow and that he ain’t goin’ to permit no moosee dedication a-a-a-tall. He ain’t decided yet whether he’ll move this town plum’ away or not.”

At that moment a high treble yell smote the air, and the crowd swayed back from the windows. I peered outside to see, far down the street, a small figure rocketing along at amazing speed. Clad in buckskins, feathered at the hems, a wide hat, which gave him the appearance of an animated mushroom, and waving a long-barreled revolver, my father surged along in a billow of sound. While I watched, shamefaced, some of his expressions came to my ears.

“I’m a howlin’ wolf from ole Mizzou, an’ I‘m a-huntin’ gore!” he bawled. “I picks my teeth with bowie-knives, an’ the bark o’ six-guns is music to my ears! Yee-owo wow! I’m a snake in the grass, an’ I hiss when you pass, an’ I’m searchin’ for folks to eat! Wow!”

He had a clear path, and he swirled along the street for a block or two, then doubled back and disappeared in a vocal storm.

“Ain’t he a bear?” inquired the hotel clerk; and I could see that among these Pioneers my father’s exhibition, however much it shamed me, had aroused considerable admiration.

“Has he hurt anybody?” I inquired nervously.

Hurt ’em, son?” said the hotel clerk. “Hurt ’em? Boy, they ain’t nobody got near enough to ole Hell-on-Wheels out there to let him hurt ’em. He never hurts no one if he gits ’em. He jest KILLS ’em. An’ he ain’t bin able for to ketch no one here.”

“Has he been going all night long?”

“All night,” replied the clerk. “He ain’t paused for drink nor man or beast to date. An’ bimeby we’re goin’ to set a bear trap out there in the street so business can proceed. Sim Leggins has gone after the trap now. Sim is the authorities, an’ a pussonel friend o’ yer dad’s, but he’s decided Still Bill has got his twenty years’ worth.”

Beyond the shadow of a doubt I should shortly have nerved myself to going after my father—there is no question in my mind but that I should have done it; but while I was steeling myself, my wife appeared—my wife, the immaculate Ellen, appeared in the crowded lobby, clad in a Japanese kimono, her hair in curl-papers.

“What is this I hear?” she demanded. “The members of my committee tell me that our dedication is being postponed by some beast of a man—what does this mean?”

I had not the heart to tell her that it was my father. I could never have found the heart to do so. But at that moment he disclosed his identity by reappearing in the street—gun in hand and a yell in his throat.

Again he careened past the hotel, the crowd falling back dismayed—and as I stood there, the picture of embarrassment, if nothing more, my wife edged close to the window and stared.

“Come back, Ellen, dear,” I said. “They say he’s very dangerous to people he does not like.”

That was an unfortunate slip. I had never before suggested that my father did not like my wife—certainly he had never intimated such a thing.

“Yee-ow-wow!” yelled my father, as he swung back toward his Blue Moose retreat and disappeared.

My wife hurriedly left the hotel in a flutter of Japanese coloring, and with a toss of bedroom headgear. The crowd gasped, She was headed straight for the door of the Blue Moose. I followed—I have never permitted my wife to go where I would not go myself—and the crowd trailed along, nervously.

At the door of the Blue Moose saloon I paused, my heart beating with grave concern.

Imagine my feelings! My beloved wife, unappreciative of the danger attached to an eruption of twenty years of repressed pioneerial fervor, mindful only of the jeopardy of social standing, had flung herself headlong into the arms of Peril.

And my beloved father was Peril!

About me pressed the faces of the people, gray with apprehension, each head bent toward the door of the Blue Moose in a listening attitude.

Shortly I should have plunged through those doors regardless of consequences; shortly I should have rushed to my obvious duty.

From the interior of the Blue Moose arose a voice—a woman’s voice—the voice of Ellen, my wife.

The door suddenly flew open with a bang, scattering the crowd like frightened sheep. My wife appeared. In one hand she held a long cap-and-ball revolver. In the other she clasped the left ear of a meek old gentleman, who was very white as to face, and who rubbed his hands together nervously.

“At your time of life, too!” my wife was saying. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, you silly old man!”

The crowd collected itself again, amazed, startled.

“Now, Elly—” quavered my father.

“Hush!” she ordered, in tones such as I never wish to hear again. “Not another word, you ridiculous old man!”

And up the street, now teeming with an astounded multitude, she led the recently howling wolf and snake in the grass, while I, who seemed destined always to be in the rear of the procession, followed, still harassed by emotion.

“I’m going to lock you up in a closet until the next train leaves,” my wife was saying. “You—”

“Don’t lose my gun, Elly,” my father exhorted humbly. “It’s the one with the notches on it.”

A little boy, perhaps ten years of age, was running along beside them, whooping shrilly.

“Here, boy!” said Ellen, pushing the famous revolver into the youngster’s hands. “Here’s a nice plaything for you!”

“And now, ladies and gentlemen,’ said my wife, in closing her brief remarks at the dedication of the museum, “it is with a feeling of deepest reverence toward the wonderful men of that early period, and to those equally wonderful men who came at a later day to develop and perpetuate the path of progress that we dedicate this small monument in the hope that it will ever keep green the memory of the Spanish explorers and the American Pioneer!”

I have a high regard for my father as a Pioneer, which is not shared by my wife, Ellen.