John Steinbeck: The Vigilante

THE GREAT SURGE of emotion, the milling and shouting of the people fell gradually to silence in the town park. A crowd of people still stood under the elm trees, vaguely lighted by a blue street light two blocks away. A tired quiet settled on the people; some members of the mob began to sneak away into the darkness. The park lawn was cut to pieces by the feet of the crowd.

Mike knew it was all over. He could feel the letdown in himself. He was as heavily weary as though he had gone without sleep for several nights, but it was a dream-like weariness, a grey comfortable weariness. He pulled his cap down over his eyes and moved away, but before leaving the park he turned for one last look.

In the center of the mob someone had lighted a twisted newspaper and was holding it up. Mike could see how the flame curled about the feet of the grey naked body hanging from the elm tree. It seemed curious to him that negroes turn a bluish grey when they are dead. The burning newspaper lighted the heads of the up-looking men, silent men and fixed; they didn’t move their eyes from the hanged man.

Mike felt a little irritation at whoever it was who was trying to burn the body. He turned to a man who stood beside him in the near-darkness. “That don’t do no good,” he said.

The man moved away without replying.

The newspaper torch went out, leaving the park almost black by contrast. But immediately another twisted paper was lighted and held up against the feet. Mike moved to another watching man. “That don’t do no good,” he repeated. “He’s dead now. They can’t hurt him none.”

The second man grunted but did not look away from the flaming paper. “It’s a good job,” he said. “This’ll save the county a lot of money and no sneaky lawyers getting in.”

“That’s what I say,” Mike agreed. “No sneaky lawyers. But it don’t do no good to try to burn him.”

The man continued staring toward the flame. “Well, it can’t do much harm, either.”

Mike filled his eyes with the scene. He felt that he was dull. He wasn’t seeing enough of it. Here was a thing he would want to remember later so he could tell about it, but the dull tiredness seemed to cut the sharpness off the picture. His brain told him this was a terrible and important affair, but his eyes and his feelings didn’t agree. It was just ordinary. Half an hour before, when he had been howling with the mob and fighting for a chance to help pull on the rope, then his chest had been so full that he had found he was crying. But now everything was dead, everything unreal; the dark mob was made up of stiff lay-figures. In the flamelight the faces were as expressionless as wood. Mike felt the stiffness, the unreality in himself, too. He turned away at last and walked out of the park.

The moment he left the outskirts of the mob a cold loneliness fell upon him. He walked quickly along the street wishing that some other man might be walking beside him. The wide street was deserted, empty, as unreal as the park had been. The two steel lines of the car tracks stretched glimmering away down the street under the electroliers, and the dark store windows reflected the midnight globes.

A gentle pain began to make itself felt in Mike’s chest. He felt with his fingers; the muscles were sore. Then he remembered. He was in the front line of the mob when it rushed the closed jail door. A driving line forty men deep had crushed Mike against the door like the head of a ram. He had hardly felt it then, and even now the pain seemed to have the dull quality of loneliness.

Two blocks ahead the burning neon word BEER hung over the sidewalk. Mike hurried toward it. He hoped there would be people there, and talk, to remove this silence; and he hoped the men wouldn’t have been to the lynching.

The bartender was alone in his little bar, a small, middle-aged man with a melancholy moustache and an expression like an aged mouse, wise and unkempt and fearful.

He nodded quickly as Mike came in. “You look like you been walking in your sleep,” he said.

Mike regarded him with wonder. “That’s just how I feel, too, like I been walking in my sleep.”

“Well, I can give you a shot if you want.”

Mike hesitated. “No — I’m kind of thirsty. I’ll take a beer.… Was you there?”

The little man nodded his mouse-like head again. “Right at the last, after he was all up and it was all over. I figured a lot of the fellas would be thirsty, so I came back and opened up. Nobody but you so far. Maybe I was wrong.”

“They might be along later,” said Mike. “There’s a lot of them still in the park. They cooled off, though. Some of them trying to burn him with newspapers. That don’t do no good.”

“Not a bit of good,” said the little bartender. He twitched his thin moustache.

Mike knocked a few grains of celery salt into his beer and took a long drink. “That’s good,” he said. “I’m kind of dragged out.”

The bartender leaned close to him over the bar, his eyes were bright. “Was you there all the time — to the jail and everything?”

Mike drank again and then looked through his beer and watched the beads of bubbles rising from the grains of salt in the bottom of the glass. “Everything,” he said. “I was one of the first in the jail, and I helped pull on the rope. There’s times when citizens got to take the law in their own hands. Sneaky lawyer comes along and gets some fiend out of it.”

The mousy head jerked up and down. “You Goddam’ right,” he said. “Lawyers can get them out of anything. I guess the nigger was guilty all right.”

“Oh, sure! Somebody said he even confessed.”

The head came close over the bar again. “How did it start, mister? I was only there after it was all over, and then I only stayed a minute and then came back to open up in case any of the fellas might want a glass of beer.”

Mike drained his glass and pushed it out to be filled. “Well, of course everybody knew it was going to happen. I was in a bar across from the jail. Been there all afternoon. A guy came in and says, ‘What are we waiting for?’ So we went across the street, and a lot more guys was there and a lot more come. We all stood there and yelled. Then the sheriff come out and made a speech, but we yelled him down. A guy with a twenty-two rifle went along the street and shot out the street lights. Well, then we rushed the jail doors and bust them. The sheriff wasn’t going to do nothing. It wouldn’t do him no good to shoot a lot of honest men to save a nigger fiend.”

“And election coming on, too,” the bartender put in.

“Well, the sheriff started yelling, ‘Get the right man, boys, for Christ’s sake get the right man. He’s in the fourth cell down.’

“It was kind of pitiful,” Mike said slowly. “The other prisoners were so scared. We could see them through the bars. I never seen such faces.”

The bartender excitedly poured himself a small glass of whiskey and poured it down. “Can’t blame ’em much. Suppose you was in for thirty days and a lynch mob came through. You’d be scared they’d get the wrong man.”

“That’s what I say. It was kind of pitiful. Well, we got to the nigger’s cell. He just stood stiff with his eyes closed like he was dead drunk. One of the guys slugged him down and he got up, and then somebody else socked him and he went over and hit his head on the cement floor.” Mike leaned over the bar and tapped the polished wood with his forefinger. “‘Course this is only my idea, but I think that killed him. Because I helped get his clothes off, and he never made a wiggle, and when we strung him up he didn’t jerk around none. No, sir. I think he was dead all the time, after that second guy smacked him.”

“Well, it’s all the same in the end.”

“No, it ain’t. You like to do the thing right. He had it coming to him, and he should have got it.” Mike reached into his trousers pocket and brought out a piece of torn blue denim. “That’s a piece of the pants he had on.”

The bartender bent close and inspected the cloth. He jerked his head up at Mike. “I’ll give you a buck for it.”

“Oh no, you won’t!”

“All right. I’ll give you two bucks for half of it.”

Mike looked suspiciously at him. “What you want it for?”

“Here! Give me your glass! Have a beer on me. I’ll pin it up on the wall with a little card under it. The fellas that come in will like to look at it.”

Mike haggled the piece of cloth in two with his pocket knife and accepted two silver dollars from the bartender.

“I know a show card writer,” the little man said. “Comes in every day. He’ll print me up a nice little card to go under it.” He looked wary. “Think the sheriff will arrest anybody?”

“‘Course not. What’s he want to start any trouble for? There was a lot of votes in that crowd tonight. Soon as they all go away, the sheriff will come and cut the nigger down and clean up some.”

The bartender looked toward the door. “I guess I was wrong about the fellas wanting a drink. It’s getting late.”

“I guess I’ll get along home. I feel tired.”

“If you go south, I’ll close up and walk a ways with you. I live on south Eighth.”

“Why, that’s only two blocks from my house. I live on south Sixth. You must go right past my house. Funny I never saw you around.”

The bartender washed Mike’s glass and took off the long apron. He put on his hat and coat, walked to the door and switched off the red neon sign and the house lights. For a moment the two men stood on the sidewalk looking back toward the park. The city was silent. There was no sound from the park. A policeman walked along a block away, turning his flash into the store windows.

“You see?” said Mike. “Just like nothing happened.”

“Well, if the fellas wanted a glass of beer they must have gone someplace else.”

“That’s what I told you,” said Mike.

They swung along the empty street and turned south, out of the business district. “My name’s Welch,” the bartender said. “I only been in this town about two years.”

The loneliness had fallen on Mike again. “It’s funny—” he said, and then, “I was born right in this town, right in the house I live in now. I got a wife but no kids. Both of us born right in this town. Everybody knows us.”

They walked on for a few blocks. The stores dropped behind and the nice houses with bushy gardens and cut lawns lined the street. The tall shade trees were shadowed on the sidewalk by the street lights. Two night dogs went slowly by, smelling at each other.

Welch said softly— “I wonder what kind of a fella he was — the nigger, I mean.”

Mike answered out of his loneliness. “The papers all said he was a fiend. I read all the papers. That’s what they all said.”

“Yes, I read them, too. But it makes you wonder about him. I’ve known some pretty nice niggers.”

Mike turned his head and spoke protestingly. “Well, I’ve knew some dam’ fine niggers myself. I’ve worked right long side some niggers and they was as nice as any white man you could want to meet. — But not no fiends.”

His vehemence silenced little Welch for a moment. Then he said, “You couldn’t tell, I guess, what kind of a fella he was?”

“No — he just stood there stiff, with his mouth shut and his eyes tight closed and his hands right down at his sides. And then one of the guys smacked him. It’s my idea he was dead when we took him out.”

Welch sidled close on the walk. “Nice gardens along here. Must take a lot of money to keep them up.” He walked even closer, so that his shoulder touched Mike’s arm. “I never been to a lynching. How’s it make you feel — afterwards?”

Mike shied away from the contact. “It don’t make you feel nothing.” He put down his head and increased his pace. The little bartender had nearly to trot to keep up. The street lights were fewer. It was darker and safer. Mike burst out, “Makes you feel kind of cut off and tired, but kind of satisfied, too. Like you done a good job — but tired and kind of sleepy.” He slowed his steps. “Look, there’s a light in the kitchen. That’s where I live. My old lady’s waiting up for me.” He stopped in front of his little house.

Welch stood nervously beside him. “Come into my place when you want a glass of beer — or a shot. Open till midnight. I treat my friends right.” He scampered away like an aged mouse.

Mike called, “Good night.”

He walked around the side of his house and went in the back door. His thin, petulant wife was sitting by the open gas oven warming herself. She turned complaining eyes on Mike where he stood in the doorway.

Then her eyes widened and hung on his face. “You been with a woman,” she said hoarsely. “What woman you been with?”

Mike laughed. “You think you’re pretty slick, don’t you? You’re a slick one, ain’t you? What makes you think I been with a woman?”

She said fiercely, “You think I can’t tell by the look on your face that you been with a woman?”

“All right,” said Mike. “If you’re so slick and know-it-all, I won’t tell you nothing. You can just wait for the morning paper.”

He saw doubt come into the dissatisfied eyes. “Was it the nigger?” she asked. “Did they get the nigger? Everybody said they was going to.”

“Find out for yourself if you’re so slick. I ain’t going to tell you nothing.”

He walked through the kitchen and went into the bathroom. A little mirror hung on the wall. Mike took off his cap and looked at his face. “By God, she was right,” he thought. “That’s just exactly how I do feel.”


Bibliographic data

Author: John Steinbeck
Title: The Vigilante
Published in: The Long Valley, 1938

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John Steinbeck