Two for One


IT was the Judge who told me the story. You will find it in the court records of Nevada.

The Indians came down to Elko for Christmas, and built their wickiups, their brush shelters, near water a few miles away. Their old dances were gone, the dances which had meaning, the appeal to the thunderbird, the prayer for the buffalo; it was the white man’s festival which they must Celebrate. Since his coming everything had changed except the face of the eternal desert.

Johnny’s parents were not pleased when he went in early with Ibbepah, but they were old-fashioned. Ibbepah, a visitor from a tribe in Utah, had gone to white men’s schools, held jobs with them, and knew their ways. He was smart.

The boys walked to town along the track which the white man has laid like a tight band of steel across the desert. ‘What shall we do?’ asked Johnny. ‘Get drunk,’ said Ibbepah. He knew all the answers.

In Nevada there is whiskey and there are Indians, and it is against the law to sell one to the other, so Ibbepah did not waste time at the regular stores. He went where he had been before, to a grocery in an unpainted shack near the station, and he bought some bottles of Jamaica ginger.

The storekeeper looked them over with his fat little eyes, seeing two dumb Indian kids, one stocky and self-assured, the other slimmer, with a wild grace which even blue jeans and a lumberjack coat did not entirely cover. He winked at them.

‘My land, you folks are going to have some big puddings!’

‘You bet,’ said the stocky one. That was Ibbepah. He knew that the storekeeper was just getting himself in the clear.

Jamaica ginger is not whiskey, but it put the sweet fire in their bellies just the same. By the time they turned home after dark their blood ran wild and free, and the stars in the immense sky danced crazily above them. They stumbled along the track, shouting, leaping, waving their arms. They would have called upon their gods, but their gods were dead. It was a night like crystal, crisp and clear, yet without snow.

They had passed beyond the houses into the blackness of the naked hills when they saw the light. All around stretched their desert, savage and silent. That light did not belong there. Johnny and Ibbepah had to find out what it was.

A fire burnt inside a hollow square of railroad ties. They climbed in, and saw a white man lying on the ground asleep. He had only one leg and he was dirty and he had made himself this house. Within these walls he could forget a thousand uninhabited miles, could forget the bare and terrible face of the earth, and the hills where nothing grew. The stars were his roof, and they might have been anywhere. He had built a home against the night.

Johnny picked up something shining on the ground. He saw no sense in the little glass tube with the needle end, so he threw it into the fire.

In lbbepah’s head an idea went round and round. Such men were without a tribe and without friends, but they could be made useful. They would sometimes do an errand for an Indian. They would buy his whiskey for him.

‘Wake um up,’ said Ibbepah.

Johnny pulled off the ragged overcoat which the man had spread over himself like a blanket, but the man did not stir. Johnny shook him, not gently. The tramp opened his eyes then, and looked into their dark unsmiling faces.

‘Indians,’ he said, factual, unsurprised.

‘You want a quarter?’ asked Ibbepah.


The boys went through their jeans and collected fifty cents.

‘You go buy whiskey. Bring here. Quarter for bottle, quarter for you.’

‘I got you,’ said the man.

He took the money and put it in his pocket, but instead of getting up he rolled over and shut his eyes again. The Indians watched him, unbelieving. They waited as long as the Jamaica ginger would let them wait, then Johnny poked him with his toe.

‘So what?’ asked the man, wearily.

‘You no get whiskey, you give money back.’

With a sigh the man fished in his pocket and handed it out, then he went really to sleep and began snoring. Johnny and Ibbepah looked at him and at each other. What kind of game was this? Was he making fun of them? They would get no whiskey. Each saw the quick red rage spring in the other’s eyes. They spoke in their own tongue.

‘He is no good,’ said Johnny.

‘He is a hobo.’

‘He has no people.’

‘We had better kill him,’ said Ibbepah.

He drew his knife and tested the edge, but it was dull, so he threw it down and took Johnny’s. The firelight wavered redly across his face and his bare white teeth. The hobo snored on. Ibbepah sprang.

The man woke up then and fought, but it was too late. Johnny’s hands were like steel clamps over his wrists, and his arm broke as he wrenched against them. He twisted his head and the steel pierced his eye. He screamed and his voice was a thin wail in the empty night, and there was not even a coyote to hear and echo him. The knife found his throat.

The warm red blood flowed out more swiftly than the thirsty sand could drink it. The nostrils of the Indians quivered at the sweet forgotten smell and their eyes gleamed. Their arms rose and fell like striking snakes. Nothing restrained them now. When they had finished they tore some ties from the walls which the man had built, piled the fire high, and threw the body on the top. Then they went out. They had no need of shelter from the desert. They were part of it.

Much later they crawled into the wickiup of Johnny’s parents, dragging the bloody overcoat. The ginger and the blood lust had gone and left them spent and weak. The old couple listened to the story and said nothing. Ibbepah was an in-law, but Johnny was their only son. The squaw brewed a tea of bitter herbs, and cooked meat, and spread blankets over the boys when they lay down.

They slept heavily, but the father and mother did not sleep. Hunched over the fire, they worked all night with a water-filled gourd to wash the stains from the overcoat. The stubborn blood would not yield. When the sky began to whiten with morning, the father rolled it into a bundle and took it out. He walked a long way through the wide and silent country, and when he thought he had gone far enough he buried it in the implacable hills.

Even among the tribes, blood must pay for blood. The balance must be even, a chief for a chief, a pony and a sack of flour for a woman. But who can tell what will balance the scale for a white man, for his customs are as strange as his pale eyes. If a secret can be kept, let it be secret.


The white men cannot follow a trail or know a country as Indians can, but they have their own signs and they can read them. They live in their own world, and they are at home in it.

It was the smell of burning flesh which led them to the body, and the condition of the corpse made them think of Indians. Someone had seen two Indians drunk and knew their names. One of the knives on the bloodstained sand was marked with the name of a town in Utah. The tribe there made it a point to know nothing, but a child, pleased at being questioned, said it belonged to his uncle.

The sheriff went back to the Shoshones and arrested Ibbepah and Johnny. They were frightened and confessed, for it is no use to fight the white men.

On the day of the trial the tribe came down from the hills. The dusty streets of Elko were bright with the harsh clear colors of the women’s dresses, the red and blue shirts of the men. Family after family arrived, the men walking ahead, the women billowing along behind, not hurrying, not talking. They crowded the little courtroom and filled it with their alien smell, like dried sweet grass and smoke.

‘I’ll need extra men to get ‘em out of here,’ said the sheriff.

‘Let them stay,’ said the judge. ‘They must understand.’

The tribe sat in rows on the rough wooden benches and watched the trial unblinkingly. The reasons for it were dark to them. A thing had been done and the white men had found it out, and the boys had not tried to deny what was already known Now the court must spend many days and bring many people to say over and over that it was so. The Indians watched this strange and unnecessary procedure.

They watched while someone told about finding the body, and while Ibbepah’s nephew identified the knife. He was proud to have been brought all the way from Utah, to have so many people silent while he talked. He could not possibly be mistaken, he said, for his uncle had lent it to him many times.

Johnny sat in the witness stand, more slender than ever after two months in jail, humble, confused, determined not to remember anything.

‘Sure, Johnny there all right. He no remember. He drunk.’

Ibbepah could not see the use of denying what the white men knew already. He smiled as he answered the lawyer’s questions, for white men like smiles.

The prosecuting attorney roared at the jury, and flung himself dramatically on his back on the floor.

‘Here, boy. Here, Ibbepah. Get on me and take the knife and show what you did.’

Ibbepah straddled him, compliant, smiling, and raised the knife. The jury gasped.

‘Don’t you cut me!’ yelled the attorney, pleased with his effect.

‘I cut him two times,’ said Ibbepah, and laughed.

The Shoshones laughed too, because it seemed a game for children — a game they did not understand and could not play. Only one voice spoke for the boys in the courtroom, Chief Yellow Wolf, of Ibbepah’s tribe. Since the judge would allow no one to hurry him, he began with Ibbepah’s first drink of whiskey, at the age of ten, and came on gradually.

‘When Ibbepah drink he bad,’ the Chief kept saying over and over. ‘But when he no drink he good. Earn money for sister and kids. If Ibbepah no have whiskey he be good boy.’

It was obvious to the jury that these facts had no bearing on the question in hand.

The trial reached its last day. In their camp beyond the edge of town, where the houses gave way to the familiar desert, the Indians took counsel. They could see that more had been said against the boys than for them. They knew that the justice of the white man falls like the rain, where it pleases. They had dances to persuade the rain, but for this there were no dances. They must do what they could.


The judge’s wife was baking a cake for the church supper when the three squaws came to see her. There had been a March thaw, so she invited them to sit on the porch. Two took the swing and one overflowed into a rocker, and the heaps of fat under their loose dresses shook softly with the motion as they swayed back and forth. They looked at her steadily with their bright black eyes, and said nothing.

The judge’s wife waited, not allowing herself to fidget. She knew very well why they had come. She also knew that it was her duty not to get involved in the cases before her husband, and she made herself still and quiet. She hoped her cake would not be spoiled. She wondered where she could get a belt like the one Johnny’s mother wore. In the end she had to break the silence.

‘That is a beautiful belt,’ she said.

‘Is old,’ said Johnny’s mother, and she took it off.

The judge’s wife handled it with interest. She could see that it was indeed old, for the turquoises, of the clearest blue, had been cut and polished in a way the tribe had forgotten. It had been made in the time when their own things had value for them, and it had been made for a great person.

‘You keep,’ said Johnny’s mother.

The judge’s wife gave it back hastily, and smiled and shook her head. ‘No. But thank you.’

Johnny’s mother looked at her searchingly.

‘What your man do to Johnny and Ibbepah?’

It was out at last, and she was ready for it.

‘My man no say yet.’

The Indian women continued to rock and stare. They were not accepting this.

‘My man no say first anyway.’

The women stopped rocking, but did not speak. The judge’s wife reminded herself that her husband never let anything frighten him. Indians were not dangerous any more.

‘You sabby jury? Twelve men who sit along wall?’

They nodded, slowly. They had noticed the men.

‘Those men say first. Then my man he say.’

Still the women waited. The judge’s wife felt desperate. She made her voice as final as possible.

‘My man has to do as the jury decides.’

The women got up and left. Johnny’s mother went first, walking with a free swinging stride, her wide hips swaying her skirt. At the gate she stopped and looked back, a long time. The muscles of her face did not move, but her eyes were alive with grief and despair. The judge’s wife shivered, and went back to her cake.

By the time the women reached the courthouse the jury had gone out, but it was back in fifteen minutes, for there could be no doubt about the verdict. In Nevada, the penalty for first-degree murder is death.

Johnny and Ibbepah, their young faces stolid, stood before the judge to hear him say it.

‘I regret,’ he added at the end, ‘that a third person, equally guilty, is not under the jurisdiction of this court — the man who sold these boys the ginger.’

Johnny’s mother did not understand that, and it would not have helped her if she had, but she knew what had happened. In the old days the Shoshones did not put their enemies to death with kindness, but they did it openly. The white men kill behind stone walls, no one knows how. There was one thing left to do, and she and she alone must do it.

She sat staring blindly at the floor long after the boys had been led away, and the courtroom emptied. At last the sheriff touched her shoulder, and told her, gently, to go on home. She went then, to make ready for the thing which was before her.

The men of the tribe did not give up so easily. Now that the play had ended, they thought they would talk to the judge. Six or seven of them went to his office over the bank, and stood in the doorway, a phalanx of bright shirts, straight bodies, dark faces, opposing the things they did not understand with an inscrutability of their own.

The judge got up and pulled out chairs, but they would not sit down. The sheriff, who had watched them cross the street, appeared behind them.

‘I don’t need you, Jake,’ said the judge, and the sheriff left, reluctantly.

Tom the Preacher was spokesman for the Indians, but the ringing phrases he had learned at the mission school, which he strung together in his exhortations, rejoicing in their sonority, did not seem to apply here. In the sincerity of his distress he fell back on the English of his tribe, and began, hesitant, but direct:—

‘Why you kill Ibbepah and Johnny?’

‘Because they killed the white man,’ said the judge.

This was exactly the point the Preacher had come to make.

‘No killum white man. Killum hobo.’

‘Hoboes must not be killed, either.’

The Preacher paused. If he could not understand why the white men wanted to preserve their hoboes, at least he could accept it as one of their inexplicable ways, but this was only the first part of his case. He would concede a little, but not everything.

‘Mebbe so you kill Ibbepah. No kill Johnny. Johnny just hold his hands.’

In the rear Johnny’s father nodded

grave assent.

‘Johnny knew what Ibbepah was doing, so the law says he is guilty too.’

The Indians just stood there, stolid, unbelieving. When the Preacher spoke again there was passion in his voice. Here was more at stake than the lives of two young men. Here were a whole people speaking, always falling back, always giving ground, existing now by favor of the white man, yet clinging to belief in their own value.

Why you kill two Indians for one white man?

‘It is not because they are Indians, but because they killed him.’

‘Hobo not even one whole man. Foot gone already.’

‘That does not matter.’

The judge looked from one to the other, trying to make them understand. He saw the harsh lines of pride in their faces, but no comprehension. He remembered a case he had heard about that spring. A Piute girl had been murdered by her Shoshone husband. Her brother had come and caught the husband asleep and tied his feet to one bent sapling and his head to another, and released the trees. The two tribes had held a powwow for a week, trying to do justice. Plainly the Shoshones had been the more injured, since a brave is worth more than a girl, but it was agreed at last that the Piutes should make up the difference with the gift of a cow and a gun. Everyone had been satisfied with this equitable settlement. The judge realized that he would have to show how a hobo could be worth more than two strong young men. At last he thought of something.

‘You remember last year, at Winnemucca, four white men threw a hobo off a train?’

The Indians conferred among themselves. One of them remembered. That was true. Patient, sure of his justice, the judge held up his fingers to make it plain.

‘Four white men kill one hobo; all die, because all helped. Two Indians kill one hobo. All die just the same. The law says do not kill. Do not kill anybody.’

The silence was so long that it brought the sheriff back to the door.

‘Mebbe so,’ said the Preacher at last. ‘Four white men die. Johnny and Ibbepah die. Mebbe so is all right.’

The Indians turned then and went away, and their feet were silent on the dusty stairs. They walked without speaking through the streets of the town and out into the desert, where everything still had a meaning for them.


Next morning Johnny and Ibbepah left for Carson City, where the penitentiary is, and the death cells, and the gas chamber. The sheriff took them by himself, for they were good boys and never gave a bit of trouble, but he handcuffed them together and had his deputies at the station in case the Indians wanted to see them off.

The Shoshones came all right, a patch of glaring color, but very quiet, and the deputies made them stand back from the platform. Johnny and Ibbepah waved their free hands and shouted gayly. Not many in the tribe ever had a chance to ride the trains.

Johnny’s mother was there in her best dress, a green-flowered calico on a cerise ground. She had a new blue shawl around her shoulders, and her hair plastered with grease and combed into two smooth braids. It looked funny for her to be dressed up like that, and her boy going away for good. But she did not smile or wave, and her eyes, terrible in their intensity, never left his face.

The train whistled in the distance, and all the Indians quivered slightly, just as all the leaves on a cottonwood shiver when a light breeze passes. Johnny’s mother took one hand out of her shawl and put it to her mouth.

‘Stand back! Everybody stand back!’ shouted the sheriff, and the Indians were still. There were only six white men on the platform, but they had guns.

Johnny’s mother came forward slowly, ignoring everyone as though Johnny were alone at the station, the only person she could see.

‘Let her through, boys,’ said the sheriff.

She walked on, heavily, steady as fate, head up, until she stood squarely before her son. One hand held her shawl at the throat, as if she were cold, and the wind whipped her gay skirts around her solid legs. The train came in sight.

Quickly now she put both hands on Johnny’s shoulders, and then one on the back of his head, and pressed her mouth hard against his. Instead of kissing her he began to struggle, striking at her with his free hand and kicking, but she had both hands on his head now, hanging on until the knuckles were white, and his face squashed down on hers. He put his hand against her breast and pushed with all his strength, rearing away from her, and she fell back at last, panting. He spit out the pellet which she had forced between his teeth.

‘Keep her away!’ he screamed. ‘She poison me!’

The train stopped.

’I won’t let her hurt you, son,’ said the sheriff, soothingly, and he gave the boys a little push up the steps.

The mother clenched her two fists and brought them hard up to her forehead and held them there. Like a heap of old pillows she sank slowly to the platform, and crouched, her face hidden, while the train took Johnny where the white man wanted him to go.

The desert wind blew over her and no one touched her. A jack rabbit jumped out of the sage as the train passed. A hawk, only momentarily frightened by the noise, wheeled back and hung over him. For these wild things life was as it had always been.

What is it to be an Indian? It is to be lost.