Two Men Named Collins

Damon Runyon

September 1907

I know some things all right if I could only think of them. These guys say I’m crazy—crazy in the head like a sheep; but I’m as happy as if I had good sense.

I hear ’em talking in the barracks when they think I’m not around, and I know what they say. I’ll make some of ’em hard to catch, one of these days. They’re afraid of me because I killed a man once. Well, I evened that up, but they don’t know it.

When I get out of the army I’m going back to driving hack in Denver like it was before I enlisted. It ain’t my fault I’m here. It’s the old booze. I gets drunk one day and went out to Petersburg. I met a guy there who belonged to the army, and before I knew what I was about I had on one of these uniforms. I only got six months more, and you bet they won’t get me again.

Before I go I’ll get good and even with some of these guys. Ever I catch any of them fresh officers down around Arapahoe Street after dark I’ll fix ’em.

I’ve heard ’em say I’m the orneriest white man in the army. I don’t know why. I’m big and strong, but that ain’t nothing. I can take this Krag and bend it double like it was made of tin; I did it once when I got mad at a sentry because he wouldn’t let me be.

I can lift any man in this company waist high with one hand. I can tear open a can of tomatoes with my teeth. But them things don’t make a guy ornery, do they?

I used to get drunk whenever I could, and it made me mean. They threw it into me, too. Guardhouse all the time, and hard work. Then one day I heard a non-com tell another they was laying for me with a general guard to give me a bobtail and a dash at Alcatraz next time I come up; so I quit. I haven’t touched a drop in over a year.

They’s something funny about me, though, and I don’t know what it is. Whenever I walk post in front of the officers’ quarters them fresh guys and women get out on the porch and watch me. They talk just like I couldn’t hear, too. I heard a woman say one day when I was stepping off the post—it’s an even hundred of my steps from one end to the other—that I reminded her of a caged lion.

“More like a big bull behind a pasture gate,” says an officer.

“Or a battery horse with the weaves,” another sticks in.

Stuff like that, you know. Can you blame me for being sore?

About that man I killed. I didn’t mean to do it. His name was just the same as mine, Charles Collins, only they called him Pretty Collins. He was pretty, too. He had a load of education, and he got into the army accidental, same as me.

I’ve seen lots of his kind. They’re mostly to be found around Torts or at Brown in evening clothes after a show, and they’ve paid me good money for hauling ’em around in my little old hack. I used to feel like jumping up and saying, “Cab, sir,” every time he came past me on the parade ground. He was a private like anyone else, but I’ve seen sentries half bringing their guns down to salute when they went by. It was the way he wore his clothes maybe.

I’ve heard some of these guys say he spent a barrel of money going en route, and broke his old lady’s heart. His old man give him the run, or something, so he breaks into the army. The officers pitied him a lot, and he used to be something of a pet with them. They didn’t holler and growl at him same as they do at me and the rest. I heard the top say once that they offered to get him discharged, but he wouldn’t stand for it. Anyway, they used to treat him mighty white.

I had it in for him strong.

I didn’t like him from the start because they used to kid us both, changing our names around and calling him Crummy and me Pretty. I know I ain’t pretty, and I knew how they meant it.

The top, when he called the roll, used to put it Collins No. 1, which was him, and Collins No. 2, which was me. They ain’t anything unusual about that, I’ve seen companies where they’d have four or five Johnsons, or Browns, or Smiths.

I got so I hated the sight of Collins. I hated his pink and white face, and I hated him because he wasn’t supposed to be no better than me, but was, somehow.

He didn’t know how much I had it in for him, but he did know I didn’t like him, because one day he starts to joshing me with the rest, and I took him to the mat. I had my fingers on his throat and his white flesh came out between them like I had grabbed a lump of dough.

They broke me loose, but I told him then that if ever he tried to hand me anything again I’d bust his crust. He looked whiter than ever, but he bowed polite and says:

“All right, Collins; I beg your pardon. It won’t happen again.”

He offered me his hand, but I spit at it. He never spoke to me again. And I hated him more than ever for it.

They used to rawhide me something fierce in the company. I mean the non-coms did. I got all the extra duty there was doing. I knew I was getting the dirty end, but I couldn’t holler. It wouldn’t done me any good.

I’ve seen Pretty Collins come into quarters after taps just spifflicated, and nothing was ever done to him. Do you wonder I was sore on him?

Well, I just laid low and waited. I figured to get to him some day some way, so I laid low.

Finally we goes to Manila and gets sent out on the north line, where they was fighting about every day. That’s when I gets next to Pretty Collins.

He was about my height and heft, so was in the same set of fours as me. When we fanned out in open order, that brought him next to me, on my right. The first scrap we went into I watched Pretty, and I was hep in a minute.

His face turned whiter than the time I grabbed him, and his hands trembled so he could hardly hold his gun. I sensed him, all right, all right. He was a coward.

When the bullets commenced to whistle I thought he was going to drop in his tracks. I’m no coward, whatever I am, and you bet I took a lot of satisfaction watching that guy suffer; because they do suffer—all the tortures of hell, I’ve heard.

I don’t think anyone else noticed him, but Pretty knew what I knew—he looked at me once and saw me grinning.

I used to own a pit dog—Sunday Morning. He was beat by Mitchell’s Money on the Overland race track one Christmas day. He was nearly all out when I picked him up for his last scratch, and he looked at me out of his eyes like he was trying to tell me not to send him again. Pretty reminded me of Sunday Morning when he looked at me across that rice paddy.

It wasn’t much of a fight, but when it was over Pretty was as limp as a rag. The rest thought it was too much sun, but I knew—and Pretty knew I knew—and that was more satisfaction to me than if the whole brigade knew. He never said anything to me; just looked at me out of his eyes like Sunday Morning looked.

It wasn’t long after that he was lying in front of a line of trenches which were across a river from us. The general commanding the brigade and his staff was with our outfit. The gugus was slapping a kind of blanket of bullets over our heads, and we was hugging the ground pretty close. The general signs out to our captain:

“Send a man down to Colonel Kelley on the left of the line and tell him to advance at once.”

You know what that meant?

A man had to chase across that open field for a quarter of a mile with the gugus pecking at him. It was a two-ace bet that he would get his before he got half-way. Cap looks down the line and says:


He was looking right at Pretty, over my head, and he meant Pretty. Man! That fellow’s face was already white, but it seemed to go dead all at once. I’ll bet anything he couldn’t have moved if he’d tried, his muscles being sort o’ paralyzed.

Cap kept looking at him—over my head. It wasn’t three seconds, but it seemed three hours. When I first heard Cap call I felt glad, because it meant all day with Pretty. Then when I looked at Pretty’s face I felt sorry, and there’s where I made a sucker of myself. I jumped up and started on a run down the line. Cap didn’t say anything. It looked like I had made a mistake and thought he meant me, but Cap knew better—and he knew I knew better—and Pretty knew better.

They shot at me considerable and winged me a little once, but I delivered the order and got back in time to go into the charge with my outfit.

I could’ve gone into the hospital if I’d wanted to, but I wasn’t hurt very bad. That night I was sleeping near Cap and the two lieutenants, and I heard Cap say:

“The old man is going to recommend Crummy Collins for a stiffycate of merit. He wanted to make him a lieutenant, but I showed him the”—something—“of such a course.

“I meant Pretty Collins all the time, because I knew it was a chance to take him out of the ranks. He could have won his shoulder straps right there, but—”

“Do you think he’s—” something I didn’t get again, one of the loots asked.

“I fear he is,” says Cap, and I went to sleep.

Well, we put in nearly two years on the islands, but Pretty got transferred to special duty, and I didn’t see no more of him until we sailed for home. He looked kind of bad in the face, like he’d been going too strong, but he was just as popular as ever in the company. No one knew what Cap and me knew, and I didn’t tell, but Pretty kept away from me.

By this time the gang had commenced to treat me a little better, because I’d showed ’em I was a good game guy, but I didn’t have no bunkies.

I’d almost forgotten Pretty while he was away, but when he comes back again he made me just as sore as ever at him—just by being around, you know.

He didn’t get so much petting from the officers as he used to, but he was still the whole thing with the bucks.

We went to Fort D.A. Russell, just out of Cheyenne, from ’Frisco, and I gets my stiffycate of merit there. It’s a big sheet of paper, something like an officer’s commission, all engraved, with my name and outfit and telling what I’d done when I carried that order across the firing line. Best of all, it gives me a couple of bucks extra pay every month. I stuck it away in my chest and didn’t show it to any of the guys, although they knew I got it. You’re supposed to send them things to home to the people, so they can frame ’em and hang ’em up in the parlor, but I didn’t have no people or parlor either.

We hadn’t been in Russell more’n a month when Pretty shows up one morning missing. They calls his name for ten mornings at roll-call, and then they posts him as a deserter. It like to broke these guys that’d been so friendly to him all up, and you bet I was glad.

They caught him in a couple of weeks up in Rock Springs on a drunk, and they brings him back to Russell and slaps him in the general prison. He’s good for about eighteen months at the lowest, because the officers that had been so friendly to him shook him right away.

I was doing guard duty one day over a bunch of prisoners cleaning up quarters, and Pretty was one of ’em. I wasn’t paying much attention to any but him, watching him moving around in that brown suit with the big white P on his back, when all of a sudden he makes a break.

He must a-gone nutty. He didn’t have a chance in the world to get away. They told me he said before he cashed in that he got wild having my eyes follow him around, but that’s rot. All I did, so help me, was just watch him, and I leave it to anyone if that should make him go bugs.

I hollered at him to halt three times. Then I aimed at him, meaning to hit him in the leg. His head kept bobbing in front of my sights, and he was getting further away all the time, so I had to let go. He dropped and laid there kicking around.

The whole barracks come running up, and I don’t remember much else, except that they relieved me and sent me to quarters.

None of the fellows would talk to me or tell me what was doing, but I heard someone say he was dead. I stayed in quarters all the next day, and no one came near me. If I’d walk up to some of the fellows they’d get up and move off, like they was afraid of me. The Cap come in towards evening and talked kind to me. He said I’d only done my duty, but that it would be best for me to be transferred, and they was going to send me to Plattsburg to join another regiment. That was all right with me. He told me to get my junk together and get ready to go right away.

It didn’t take me no time to pack. While I was throwing my stuff into my chest I came across that stiffycate of merit and shoved it in the inside pocket of my blouse.

I heard some of the fellows talking that night, and they spoke about “him,” so I knew they meant Pretty.

“His father and mother are coming in a special train from the East,” one of them said. “The top and four non-coms are going to take him to Denver and turn him over to them.”

No one even looked at me all this time.

Cap give me my transfer papers and transportation that night, and next morning I went to Cheyenne and got a train for Denver. Only the Cap said good-bye to me.

At Denver I missed the first train I was to take east, and hung around the depot all day. Along towards evening a train of just a baggage car and a Pullman pulled in while I was looking through the fence outside the depot. The Pullman blinds were down, and it looked so mournful and still that I had a hunch right away that it was Pretty’s folks. I was right, too. A gray-haired man, who moves around brisk and talks rough to the porters, gets off and helps a little old lady, all dressed in black, to the platform. You couldn’t see much of her face on account of a heavy veil, but you could tell by her eyes that she had been crying a lot.

They hadn’t more’n got on the platform when the regular Cheyenne train pulls in and the top sergeant and a squad of non-coms from my old company hops off. The old man leads the little old lady up to them, and they shook hands all around and stood talking awhile.

Then they went to the baggage car, and the squad hauls out a long wooden box with a flag across it. Somehow it made me sort o’ sick to look at it, because I knew Pretty was inside.

The non-coms put the box on a truck and push it over to the special train and shove the box in the Pullman—not in the baggage car.

The old lady follows it in, and the man stood at the end of the Pullman talking to the top. I couldn’t stand it no longer. I wanted to hear what they said, so I sneaks through the gate and around behind a train on the track next to the Pullman.

The old man was saying:

“I’m mighty glad the boy died like a gentleman, anyway. He was always a little wild, but I never believed he was a coward. I was rather pleased when he joined the army, because I felt it would make a man of him.”

“Yes, sir,” the top says, “he was a man all right. He gave that prisoner a hard fight before he went under, and would have won out if the prisoner hadn’t been stronger.”

I see the drift all right. They was making this old man believe Pretty had been killed in the performance of his duty; see? I listens to a little more, and I makes out that the top has told him Pretty was guarding prisoners, when one of ’em turns on him and shoots him with his own gun. He was giving Pretty a great send-off.

Maybe you think I wasn’t dead sore!

What right had they to tell all them lies? If it’d been me in the box they probably have said I was the worst blackguard in the army and got all that was coming to me.

The top and the other non-coms shake hands all around with the old man again, and then they hikes off. The old man goes into the Pullman, and the engine crew get ready to pull out. I make up my mind in about two seconds, Mex., to go in there and tell them folks all about Pretty and why I had to kill him. I see my chance to get good and even with him more than ever.

I climbed on the rear platform and opens the door. The box was in the aisle, and the old lady was setting in a seat beside it. The old man was with her, holding her hands, and she was crying, soft and easy like. He isn’t crying, but he looks old and tired.

They both raise their heads when I come in and looked at me like they was waiting for me to say something.

“I soldiered with him,” I says, pointing to the box.

The old lady looked at me out of Pretty’s eyes, just as Pretty looked at me that day across the rice paddy. She almost smiled.

“He was all I had,” she said. “He was his mother’s boy.”

The old man didn’t say anything—just looked me over.

I don’t know what got the matter with me. I couldn’t say a thing—just stand there looking at them two like a sad-eye dub. The words I wanted to tell ’em wouldn’t come.

“He was a good soldier?” the old man finally asked.

It wasn’t what I meant to say, but I just had to tell him yes.

“He was all we had,” the old man said. “It is a hard blow, but it is softened by knowing that he served his country well and died in the line of duty.”

I tried to shake myself together and tell them that their boy had been a coward and a deserter, and if he’d lived would have put in a year or so in prison, with a yellow bobtail discharge at the end, but I couldn’t do it—that’s all.

The train commenced to back up, getting ready to start out.

“Do you know any of his companions who have any reminder of my darling boy?” the old lady asked. “They didn’t bring anything—but his body.”

I felt something crackle in my inside breast-pocket. Ain’t I a sucker, though? I stuck my hand in and hauls out that stiffycate of merit.

“Here,” I says, handing it to her. “They sent this to you by me.”

And then I hikes out of that car, for fear I might get dingey and bust out crying myself.

I know some things, all right, all right.