One Dollar’s Worth

by O. Henry

The judge of the United States court of the dis­trict lying along the Rio Grande bor­der found the fol­low­ing let­ter one morn­ing in his mail:


When you sent me up for four years you made a talk. Among other hard things, you called me a rat­tlesnake. Maybe I am one—any­how, you hear me rat­tling now. One year after I got to the pen, my daugh­ter died of—well, they said it was poverty and the dis­grace to­gether. You’ve got a daugh­ter, Judge, and I’m going to make you know how it feels to lose one. And I’m going to bite that dis­trict at­tor­ney that spoke against me. I’m free now, and I guess I’ve turned to rat­tlesnake all right. I feel like one. I don’t say much, but this is my rat­tle. Look out when I strike.

Yours re­spect­fully,


Judge Der­went threw the let­ter care­lessly aside. It was noth­ing new to re­ceive such epis­tles from des­per­ate men whom he had been called upon to judge. He felt no alarm. Later on he showed the let­ter to Lit­tle­field, the young dis­trict at­tor­ney, for Lit­tle­field’s name was in­cluded in the threat, and the judge was punc­til­ious in mat­ters be­tween him­self and his fel­low men.

Lit­tle­field ho­n­oured the rat­tle of the writer, as far as it con­cerned him­self, with a smile of con­tempt; but he frowned a lit­tle over the ref­er­ence to the Judge’s daugh­ter, for he and Nancy Der­went were to be mar­ried in the fall.

Lit­tle­field went to the clerk of the court and looked over the records with him. They de­cided that the let­ter might have been sent by Mex­ico Sam, a half-breed bor­der des­per­ado who had been im­pris­oned for manslaugh­ter four years be­fore. Then of­fi­cial du­ties crowded the mat­ter from his mind, and the rat­tle of the re­venge­ful ser­pent was for­got­ten.

Court was in ses­sion at Brownsville. Most of the cases to be tried were charges of smug­gling, coun­ter­feit­ing, post-of­fice rob­beries, and vi­o­la­tions of Fed­eral laws along the bor­der. One case was that of a young Mex­i­can, Rafael Ortiz, who had been rounded up by a clever deputy mar­shal in the act of pass­ing a coun­ter­feit sil­ver dol­lar. He had been sus­pected of many such de­vi­a­tions from rec­ti­tude, but this was the first time that any­thing prov­able had been fixed upon him. Ortiz lan­guished co­zily in jail, smok­ing brown cig­a­rettes and wait­ing for trial. Kil­patrick, the deputy, brought the coun­ter­feit dol­lar and handed it to the dis­trict at­tor­ney in his of­fice in the court-house. The deputy and a rep­utable drug­gist were pre­pared to swear that Ortiz paid for a bot­tle of med­i­cine with it. The coin was a poor coun­ter­feit, soft, dull-look­ing, and made prin­ci­pally of lead. It was the day be­fore the morn­ing on which the docket would reach the case of Ortiz, and the dis­trict at­tor­ney was prepar­ing him­self for trial.

“Not much need of hav­ing in high-priced ex­perts to prove the coin’s queer, is there, Kil?” smiled Lit­tle­field, as he thumped the dol­lar down upon the table, where it fell with no more ring than would have come from a lump of putty.

“I guess the Greaser’s as good as be­hind the bars,” said the deputy, eas­ing up his hol­sters. “You’ve got him dead. If it had been just one time, these Mex­i­cans can’t tell good money from bad; but this lit­tle yaller ras­cal be­longs to a gang of coun­ter­feit­ers, I know. This is the first time I’ve been able to catch him doing the trick. He’s got a girl down there in them Mex­i­can ja­cals on the river bank. I seen her one day when I was watch­ing him. She’s as pretty as a red heifer in a flower bed.”

Lit­tle­field shoved the coun­ter­feit dol­lar into his pocket, and slipped his mem­o­randa of the case into an en­ve­lope. Just then a bright, win­some face, as frank and jolly as a boy’s, ap­peared in the door­way, and in walked Nancy Der­went.

“Oh, Bob, didn’t court ad­journ at twelve to-day until to-mor­row?” she asked of Lit­tle­field.

“It did,” said the dis­trict at­tor­ney, “and I’m very glad of it. I’ve got a lot of rul­ings to look up, and—”

“Now, that’s just like you. I won­der you and fa­ther don’t turn to law books or rul­ings or some­thing! I want you to take me out plover-shoot­ing this af­ter­noon. Long Prairie is just alive with them. Don’t say no, please! I want to try my new twelve-bore ham­mer­less. I’ve sent to the liv­ery sta­ble to en­gage Fly and Bess for the buck­board; they stand fire so nicely. I was sure you would go.”

They were to be mar­ried in the fall. The glam­our was at its height. The plovers won the day—or, rather, the af­ter­noon—over the calf-bound au­thor­i­ties. Lit­tle­field began to put his pa­pers away.

There was a knock at the door. Kil­patrick an­swered it. A beau­ti­ful, dark-eyed girl with a skin tinged with the faintest lemon colour walked into the room. A black shawl was thrown over her head and wound once around her neck.

She began to talk in Span­ish, a vol­u­ble, mourn­ful stream of melan­choly music. Lit­tle­field did not un­der­stand Span­ish. The deputy did, and he trans­lated her talk by por­tions, at in­ter­vals hold­ing up his hand to check the flow of her words.

“She came to see you, Mr. Lit­tle­field. Her name’s Joya Treviñas. She wants to see you about—well, she’s mixed up with that Rafael Ortiz. She’s his—she’s his girl. She says he’s in­no­cent. She says she made the money and got him to pass it. Don’t you be­lieve her, Mr. Lit­tle­field. That’s the way with these Mex­i­can girls; they’ll lie, steal, or kill for a fel­low when they get stuck on him. Never trust a woman that’s in love!”

“Mr. Kil­patrick!”

Nancy Der­went’s in­dig­nant ex­cla­ma­tion caused the deputy to floun­der for a mo­ment in at­tempt­ing to ex­plain that he had mis­quoted his own sen­ti­ments, and then he went on with the trans­la­tion:

“She says she’s will­ing to take his place in the jail if you’ll let him out. She says she was down sick with the fever, and the doc­tor said she’d die if she didn’t have med­i­cine. That’s why he passed the lead dol­lar on the drug store. She says it saved her life. This Rafael seems to be her honey, all right; there’s a lot of stuff in her talk about love and such things that you don’t want to hear.”

It was an old story to the dis­trict at­tor­ney.

“Tell her,” said he, “that I can do noth­ing. The case comes up in the morn­ing, and he will have to make his fight be­fore the court.”

Nancy Der­went was not so hard­ened. She was look­ing with sym­pa­thetic in­ter­est at Joya Treviñas and at Lit­tle­field al­ter­nately. The deputy re­peated the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s words to the girl. She spoke a sen­tence or two in a low voice, pulled her shawl closely about her face, and left the room.

“What did she say then?” asked the dis­trict at­tor­ney.

“Noth­ing spe­cial,” said the deputy. “She said: ‘If the life of the one’—let’s see how it went—’Si la vida de ella a quien tu amas—if the life of the girl you love is ever in dan­ger, re­mem­ber Rafael Ortiz.'”

Kil­patrick strolled out through the cor­ri­dor in the di­rec­tion of the mar­shal’s of­fice.

“Can’t you do any­thing for them, Bob?” asked Nancy. “It’s such a lit­tle thing—just one coun­ter­feit dol­lar—to ruin the hap­pi­ness of two lives! She was in dan­ger of death, and he did it to save her. Doesn’t the law know the feel­ing of pity?”

“It hasn’t a place in ju­rispru­dence, Nan,” said Lit­tle­field, “es­pe­cially in re the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s duty. I’ll promise you that the pros­e­cu­tion will not be vin­dic­tive; but the man is as good as con­victed when the case is called. Wit­nesses will swear to his pass­ing the bad dol­lar which I have in my pocket at this mo­ment as ‘Ex­hibit A.’ There are no Mex­i­cans on the jury, and it will vote Mr. Greaser guilty with­out leav­ing the box.”

The plover-shoot­ing was fine that af­ter­noon, and in the ex­cite­ment of the sport the case of Rafael and the grief of Joya Treviñas was for­got­ten. The dis­trict at­tor­ney and Nancy Der­went drove out from the town three miles along a smooth, grassy road, and then struck across a rolling prairie to­ward a heavy line of tim­ber on Piedra Creek. Be­yond this creek lay Long Prairie, the favourite haunt of the plover. As they were near­ing the creek they heard the gal­lop­ing of a horse to their right, and saw a man with black hair and a swarthy face rid­ing to­ward the woods at a tan­gent, as if he had come up be­hind them.

“I’ve seen that fel­low some­where,” said Lit­tle­field, who had a mem­ory for faces, “but I can’t ex­actly place him. Some ranch­man, I sup­pose, tak­ing a short cut home.”

They spent an hour on Long Prairie, shoot­ing from the buck­board. Nancy Der­went, an ac­tive, out­door West­ern girl, was pleased with her twelve-bore. She had bagged within two brace of her com­pan­ion’s score.

They started home­ward at a gen­tle trot. When within a hun­dred yards of Piedra Creek a man rode out of the tim­ber di­rectly to­ward them.

“It looks like the man we saw com­ing over,” re­marked Miss Der­went.

As the dis­tance be­tween them less­ened, the dis­trict at­tor­ney sud­denly pulled up his team sharply, with his eyes fixed upon the ad­vanc­ing horse­man. That in­di­vid­ual had drawn a Win­ches­ter from its scab­bard on his sad­dle and thrown it over his arm.

“Now I know you, Mex­ico Sam!” mut­tered Lit­tle­field to him­self. “It was you who shook your rat­tles in that gen­tle epis­tle.”

Mex­ico Sam did not leave things long in doubt. He had a nice eye in all mat­ters re­lat­ing to firearms, so when he was within good rifle range, but out­side of dan­ger from No. 8 shot, he threw up his Win­ches­ter and opened fire upon the oc­cu­pants of the buck­board.

The first shot cracked the back of the seat within the two-inch space be­tween the shoul­ders of Lit­tle­field and Miss Der­went. The next went through the dash­board and Lit­tle­field’s trouser leg.

The dis­trict at­tor­ney hus­tled Nancy out of the buck-board to the ground. She was a lit­tle pale, but asked no ques­tions. She had the fron­tier in­stinct that ac­cepts con­di­tions in an emer­gency with­out su­per­flu­ous ar­gu­ment. They kept their guns in hand, and Lit­tle­field hastily gath­ered some hand­fuls of car­tridges from the paste­board box on the seat and crowded them into his pock­ets.

“Keep be­hind the horses, Nan,” he com­manded. “That fel­low is a ruf­fian I sent to prison once. He’s try­ing to get even. He knows our shot won’t hurt him at that dis­tance.”

“All right, Bob,” said Nancy steadily. “I’m not afraid. But you come close, too. Whoa, Bess; stand still, now!”

She stroked Bess’s mane. Lit­tle­field stood with his gun ready, pray­ing that the des­per­ado would come within range.

But Mex­ico Sam was play­ing his vendetta along safe lines. He was a bird of dif­fer­ent feather from the plover. His ac­cu­rate eye drew an imag­i­nary line of cir­cum­fer­ence around the area of dan­ger from bird-shot, and upon this line lie rode. His horse wheeled to the right, and as his vic­tims rounded to the safe side of their equine breast-work he sent a ball through the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s hat. Once he mis­cal­cu­lated in mak­ing a détour, and over-stepped his mar­gin. Lit­tle­field’s gun flashed, and Mex­ico Sam ducked his head to the harm­less pat­ter of the shot. A few of them stung his horse, which pranced promptly back to the safety line.

The des­per­ado fired again. A lit­tle cry came from Nancy Der­went. Lit­tle­field whirled, with blaz­ing eyes, and saw the blood trick­ling down her cheek.

“I’m not hurt, Bob—only a splin­ter struck me. I think he hit one of the wheel-spokes.”

“Lord!” groaned Lit­tle­field. “If I only had a charge of buck­shot!”

The ruf­fian got his horse still, and took care­ful aim. Fly gave a snort and fell in the har­ness, struck in the neck. Bess, now dis­abused of the idea that plover were being fired at, broke her traces and gal­loped wildly away. Mex­i­can Sam sent a ball neatly through the ful­ness of Nancy Der­went’s shoot­ing jacket.

“Lie down—lie down!” snapped Lit­tle­field. “Close to the horse—flat on the ground—so.” He al­most threw her upon the grass against the back of the re­cum­bent Fly. Oddly enough, at that mo­ment the words of the Mex­i­can girl re­turned to his mind:

“If the life of the girl you love is ever in dan­ger, re­mem­ber Rafael Ortiz.”

Lit­tle­field ut­tered an ex­cla­ma­tion.

“Open fire on him, Nan, across the horse’s back. Fire as fast as you can! You can’t hurt him, but keep him dodg­ing shot for one minute while I try to work a lit­tle scheme.”

Nancy gave a quick glance at Lit­tle­field, and saw him take out his pocket-knife and open it. Then she turned her face to obey or­ders, keep­ing up a rapid fire at the enemy.

Mex­ico Sam waited pa­tiently until this in­nocu­ous fusil­lade ceased. He had plenty of time, and he did not care to risk the chance of a bird-shot in his eye when it could be avoided by a lit­tle cau­tion. He pulled his heavy Stet­son low down over his face until the shots ceased. Then he drew a lit­tle nearer, and fired with care­ful aim at what he could see of his vic­tims above the fallen horse.

Nei­ther of them moved. He urged his horse a few steps nearer. He saw the dis­trict at­tor­ney rise to one knee and de­lib­er­ately level his shot­gun. He pulled his hat down and awaited the harm­less rat­tle of the tiny pel­lets.

The shot­gun blazed with a heavy re­port. Mex­ico Sam sighed, turned limp all over, and slowly fell from his horse—a dead rat­tlesnake.

At ten o’clock the next morn­ing court opened, and the case of the United States ver­sus Rafael Ortiz was called. The dis­trict at­tor­ney, with his arm in a sling, rose and ad­dressed the court.

“May it please your ho­n­our,” he said, “I de­sire to enter a nolle pros. in this case. Even though the de­fen­dant should be guilty, there is not suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence in the hands of the gov­ern­ment to se­cure a con­vic­tion. The piece of coun­ter­feit coin upon the iden­tity of which the case was built is not now avail­able as ev­i­dence. I ask, there­fore, that the case be stricken off.”

At the noon re­cess Kil­patrick strolled into the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice.

“I’ve just been down to take a squint at old Mex­ico Sam,” said the deputy. “They’ve got him laid out. Old Mex­ico was a tough out­fit, I reckon. The boys was won­derin’ down there what you shot him with. Some said it must have been nails. I never see a gun carry any­thing to make holes like he had.”

“I shot him,” said the dis­trict at­tor­ney, “with Ex­hibit A of your coun­ter­feit­ing case. Lucky thing for me—and some­body else—that it was as bad money as it was! It sliced up into slugs very nicely. Say, Kil, can’t you go down to the ja­cals and find where that Mex­i­can girl lives? Miss Der­went wants to know.”

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