Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
The light blue hue of the Palace Hotel, like the shade of a heron’s legs, is a striking sight to railway passengers disembarking at Fort Romper, Nebraska. Its owner, Irishman Pat Scully, personally meets the morning and evening trains to “work his seductions” on potential customers. One wintry morning he collars three such “prisoners,” a “shaky and quick-eyed” Swede from New York, a Dakota cowboy named Bill, and Mr. Blanc, a “little silent” easterner. In the hotel’s small front room, the guests come on an old farmer and Scully’s son Johnnie playing a card game called high-five. A conscientious host, Scully furnishes the guests with water and towels, gets Johnnie to take their baggage upstairs, and confers with his wife and daughters about the midday meal. Outside, the snow and the wind are reaching blizzard proportions.
Almost immediately, the Swede begins behaving peculiarly. Nervous and defensive, he laughingly asserts that “some of these Western communities were very dangerous.” When a quarrel terminates the card game between Johnnie and the farmer, the Swede joins the table, pairing up with Mr. Blanc against Johnnie and Bill. The latter is a “board whacker,” which unhinges the Swede. Whenever the cowboy played a winning card, he “whanged” it on the table, causing Johnnie to chuckle. Suddenly, the Swede says, “I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room.” Astonished, the others take issue with him. Believing his life in danger, the Swede pleads that he does not want to fight.
“Have you gone daffy?” Scully asks him while the Swede is packing upstairs: “We’re goin’ to have a line of ilictric street-cars in this town next spring. . . . Not to mintion the four churches and the smashin’ big brick school-house.” Refusing to accept money for the room, Scully shows him a portrait of his deceased daughter Carrie and his elder son, who is an attorney in Lincoln. Bringing out a bottle of whiskey, he insists that the Swede take a drink.
Downstairs, the men argue about the Swede’s abnormal behavior. The cowboy thinks him a phony, “some kind of a Dutchman,” while Mr. Blanc figures he was frightened by Western dime-novels. Then Scully and the Swede reappear, laughing like two “roysterers from a banquet hall.” When the latter is out of earshot, however, Scully confides that his strange guest thought “I was tryin’ to poison ’im.”
At supper the Swede behaves “like a fire-wheel,” singing riotously one minute, stabbing his food menacingly the next, and all the while gazing belligerently at the others. When the meal is over, he insists on resuming high-five. Scully has just settled down to his newspaper when he hears the Swede charge Johnnie with cheating.
Despite Scully’s efforts to calm things down, both adversaries insist on going outside to fight. “I can’t put up with it any longer,” Scully says with resignation, adding: “I’ve stood this damned Swede till I’m sick.”
Out in the snow, the Swede bawls out that he cannot “lick you all,” but Scully assures him that it will be a fair fight. As the storm wails its “long mellow cry,” the two crash together “like bullocks.” The easterner watches silently with a sense of foreboding tragedy, but the cowboy yells for Johnnie to “kill him! kill him! kill him!” Johnnie is no match for the bigger man, however, and ends up on the ground, bloody and humiliated. Afterward, Mrs. Scully is irate at her husband for having permitted their son to be so savagely beaten. “Shame be upon you, Patrick Scully,” she cries.
As the Swede is leaving, the cowboy wants to fight him, but Scully again intervenes, even though the victor mimics Bill’s cry of “kill him! kill him! kill him!” Making his way to a saloon, whose entrance is made visible by “an indomitable red light,” he drinks down two glasses of whiskey in large gulps and starts bragging about his conquest. After failing to persuade the bartender to have a drink, the Swede turns to four men sitting around a table. They include two merchants, the district attorney, and a gambler, who is a family man who only fleeces ignorant farmers. When they rebuff the Swede’s offer of a drink, he roughly lays his hand on the gambler, calls him a “little dude,” and vows, “I’ll make you.” He grabs the gambler’s throat and starts dragging him from his chair when the gambler stabs him with a knife. His three companions flee. Wiping off the blade with a towel, the gambler tells the bartender: “I’ll be home, waiting for ’em.” As the bartender goes for help, the dying Swede lies with his eyes staring vacantly at a sign atop the cash-machine that reads: “This registers the amount of your purchase.”
Several months later, when the cowboy and the easterner meet, they both express sympathy for the gambler, who is serving a three-year prison sentence. The cowboy blames it all on the Swede for accusing Johnnie of cheating in a game played for fun rather than money. He was cheating, the easterner replies: “I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man.” He concludes that they were all collaborators, that the gambler was only “the apex of a human movement.” Incredulous about “this fog of mysterious theory,” the cowboy blindly cries, “Well, I didn’t do anythin’, did I?”