“Don’t put on too much of them red peppers,” Jim warned. “I ain’t used to your Mexican cookin’. You always season too hot.”
Matt grunted a laugh and went on with his cooking. Jim poured out the coffee, but first, into the nicked china cup, he emptied a powder he had carried in his vest pocket wrapped in a rice-paper. He had turned his back for the moment on his partner, but he did not dare to glance around at him. Matt placed a newspaper on the table, and on the newspaper set the hot frying pan. He cut the steak in half, and served Jim and himself.
“Eat her while she’s hot,” he counselled, and with knife and fork set the example.
“She’s a dandy,” was Jim’s judgment, after his first mouthful. “But I tell you one thing straight. I’m never goin’ to visit you on that Arizona ranch, so you needn’t ask me.”
“What’s the matter now?” Matt asked.
“The Mexican cookin’ on your ranch’d be too much for me. If I’ve got blue blazes a-comin’ in the next life, I’m not goin’ to torment my insides in this one!”
He smiled, expelled his breath forcibly to cool his burning mouth, drank some coffee, and went on eating the steak.
“What do you think about the next life anyway, Matt?” he asked a little later, while secretly he wondered why the other had not yet touched his coffee.
“Ain’t no next life,” Matt answered, pausing from the steak to take his first sip of coffee. “Nor heaven nor hell, nor nothin’. You get all that’s comin’ right here in this life.”
“An’ afterward?” Jim queried out of his morbid curiosity, for he knew that he looked upon a man that was soon to die. “An’ afterward?” he repeated.
“Did you ever see a man two weeks dead?” the other asked.
Jim shook his head.
“Well, I have. He was like this beefsteak you an’ me is eatin’. It was once steer cavortin’ over the landscape. But now it’s just meat. That’s all, just meat. An’ that’s what you an’ me an’ all people come to–meat.”
Matt gulped down the whole cup of coffee, and refilled the cup.
“Are you scared to die?” he asked.
Jim shook his head. “What’s the use? I don’t die anyway. I pass on an’ live again–”
“To go stealin’, an’ lyin’, an’ snivellin’ through another life, an’ go on that way forever an’ ever an’ ever?” Matt sneered.
“Maybe I’ll improve,” Jim suggested hopefully. “Maybe stealin’ won’t be necessary in the life to come.”
He ceased abruptly, and stared straight before him, a frightened expression on his face.
“What’s the matter!” Matt demanded.
“Nothin’. I was just wonderin'”–Jim returned to himself with an effort–“about this dyin’, that was all.”
But he could not shake off the fright that had startled him. It was as if an unseen thing of gloom had passed him by, casting upon him the intangible shadow of its presence. He was aware of a feeling of foreboding. Something ominous was about to happen. Calamity hovered in the air. He gazed fixedly across the table at the other man. He could not understand. Was it that he had blundered and poisoned himself? No, Matt had the nicked cup, and he had certainly put the poison in the nicked cup.
It was all his own imagination, was his next thought. It had played him tricks before. Fool! Of course it was. Of course something was about to happen, but it was about to happen to Matt. Had not Matt drunk the whole cup of coffee?
Jim brightened up and finished his steak, sopping bread in the gravy when the meat was gone.
“When I was a kid–” he began, but broke off abruptly.
Again the unseen thing of gloom had fluttered, and his being was vibrant with premonition of impending misfortune. He felt a disruptive influence at work in the flesh of him, and in all his muscles there was a seeming that they were about to begin to twitch. He sat back suddenly, and as suddenly leaned forward with his elbows on the table. A tremor ran dimly through the muscles of his body. It was like the first rustling of leaves before the oncoming of wind. He clenched his teeth. It came again, a spasmodic tensing of his muscles. He knew panic at the revolt within his being. His muscles no longer recognized his mastery over them. Again they spasmodically tensed, despite the will of him, for he had willed that they should not tense. This was revolution within himself, this was anarchy; and the terror of impotence rushed up in him as his flesh gripped and seemed to seize him in a clutch, chills running up and down his back and sweat starting on his brow. He glanced about the room, and all the details of it smote him with a strange sense of familiarity. It was as though he had just returned from a long journey. He looked across the table at his partner. Matt was watching him and smiling. An expression of horror spread over Jim’s face.
“Matt!” he screamed. “You ain’t doped me?”