The Man in the Cask by Vincent Starrett

The Man in the Cask

A Story of Strange Adventures

by Vincent Starrett


He wanted to die in Oak Grove, Illinois. A hell of a place to die, but that’s what he wanted. The least we can do is see that he gets there right side up.


Table of Contents
  1. Rum Pudgeon
  2. The Stockholm
  3. A Should From Below
  4. Blackmail and Murder
  5. For Mrs. Henry Galloway

Chapter 1

Rum Pudgeon

In the Hotel Esperanza, which is the best hotel in San Angel and the worst in the world, two men sat drinking whisky. They drank morosely and without enjoyment. In the intervals of gloomy conversation, they turned their eyes sometimes upon the figure of a third man, who lay upon the bed, and sometimes through the open doorway, across a blistered balcony, to the waterfront beneath.

The sun, half risen from the sea, smoldered on the horizon, but for the most part the sea was pale and silver gray. In the foreground the mists of early morning still streamed above the water, and greenish waves washed the foundations of the pier. Lines of foam rolled in and melted against the sand. In the near distance rose upward a lazy twist of smoke and two bare spars; these served for the moment to mark the inner harbor and the single vessel that lay within.

"It's now or never," said the fat man in dirty pongee, at last. "He goes on the Stockholm, or he doesn't go at all."

The somewhat cleaner linen of his companion absorbed another spot of liquor. "Damn him!" said the second man, with a furtive glance at the figure in the bed. "What did he want to die down here for?"

"Don't be an idiot, Hyatt," retorted the first speaker, mildly. "He wanted to die in Oak Grove, Illinois. A hell of a place to die, but that's what he wanted. The least we can do is see that he gets there right side up."

"I know," grumbled the man called Hyatt. "A lovely mess he's left for us. Not an undertaker in a hundred miles — and this devilish sun getting up earlier every morning. Of course, Rulofson won't take him."

The fat man checked his tumbler in mid-flight. "Won't take him!'' he repeated. ''He's got to take him. It's our only chance. Rulofson'll get his money."

His leaner companion shrugged.

"It isn't a question of money," he answered, with a gesture of impatience, "although there's little enough of that, God knows! He won't take him, that's all. The crew wouldn't stand for it. You ought to know that, Drews. It stands to reason."

The fat man was irritated. "Why ought I to know it?" he demanded querulously. "I'm not in the business. I never tried to ship a body before."

"I have," said Hyatt, grimly. "That's why I'm sore at this one. It was downright inconsiderate of him."

He glared malevolently at his empty liquor glass, then filled it to the brim from a bottle that stood on the table beside him. "It was decent of him to leave this liquor, anyway," he admitted as an afterthought. "Don't know what we'd have done without it last night!"

"Why does it stand to reason?" persisted the other. "You ain't going to leave me flat, at this stage, are you? You promised him, too; I heard you."

"I know," said Hyatt, again setting down an empty glass. "Well, I'm not going back on you, nor on him, either. All I said was that Rulofson wouldn't take him; and he won't. Not if he knows it."

The speaker looked curiously at his cherubic companion. With his flabby, unshaven jowls and his protruding blue eyes, bloodshot after a night's vigil, Drews was not at all a pretty sight.

"You knew Galloway pretty well, didn't you, Drews?"

"I didn't know him a bit," replied Drews, promptly. "Any more than you did. Any more than anyone did. He told me his story when he came down here; and I didn't tell him he was a damned fool not to shoot the other man, that's all. That's what everyone else had told him, and he was getting tired of hearing it. So he sort of cottoned to me."

Hyatt nodded, a bit absently, and filled his companion's glass. "Who was the woman?" he asked. "I suppose there's no secret about any of it, now?"

"His wife," said Drews. "He'd probably have told you, himself, if he'd lived long enough. He liked you pretty well. You and I were about the only friends had, I guess."

"I saw her picture, once," remarked Hyatt, thoughtfully. "He opened his locker for a minute, and it was in the tray, face up. She's a beauty; I'll say that for her … Sounds a bit like the old story, eh?"

"Old as — as all that!" said the fat man. With a ludicrous but comprehensive gesture, he embraced the spectacle beyond the open door, the sea and the sky and the red sun lying on the water. "She left him flat for the other fellow. Kind of a nasty mess, I guess. There weren't any kids; so he packed up a few clothes and came away. Went to Mexico first, but it didn't suit him. Too many people. He hated people. Then somebody told him this was the damndest place in creation — which it is — and he came here."


"Not that he ever heard of. Maybe she was waiting for two years to run, so's she could call it desertion. This'll be just as good. It's a damn sight more complete."

The narrator glanced apprehensively toward the bed and brought his eyes back to the table. His thick, nervous fingers closed convulsively about the base of his tumbler. With a deep sigh, intended to indicate sympathy, he gulped down half the contents of the glass. There was a moment of silence in which Hyatt's eyes strayed also to the bed.

"I never saw a man drink himself to death quicker," testified the second man, a note of admiration in his voice. "Was he always that way ?"

"Ever since I knew him. He said his wife used to call him a 'rum pudgeon,' whatever that is. Anything looked good to him, so long as it was liquor. I've seen him stretched out so stiff you'd think he'd been dead for weeks."

In the pause that followed, Hyatt turned restlessly in his chair. "Where is she?" he asked, at length.

"Oak Grove," said Drews, "as far as I know. That's where she was anyway. And it's where Galloway is going," he added with determination. "His brother lives there yet; I've got his address."

Hyatt nodded vaguely. "All right," he agreed. "But I'm telling you, Drews, Rulofson won't take him — if he knows it!"

The fat man's chair rasped along the boards. Its occupant puffed slowly to his feet and ambled to the door. His glance settled upon the spars in the harbor and the line of smoke that went straight up, now, between them. Hyatt joined him in the doorway. The comparative coolness of dawn was vanishing before the intensifying rays of the sun.

"He's got to know," said Drews, at last. "Good God, we can't nail him up and call him books, or gunpowder!"

"Listen," said, Hyatt, in a low voice, as if he feared that the dead might have ears. "Come out here on the balcony. Look at that damned sun, will you! We're in for another hellish day, Drews, and I've had enough of them. I'm sick of San Angel, and San Everything. I'm sick of the whole damned peninsula, and all the islands of the sea … Do you know what Rulofson is taking north, Drews?"

"Rum!" exploded the fat man, almost profanely. "The only decent liquor in the vicinity, except what's left in that bottle."

"Yes," agreed Hyatt, "that's what he's carrying — rum. A hundred hogsheads of it from this very port, this very pesthole. Well?''

The fat man's eyes were held by those of his companion; after an instant they fell before the significance of Hyatt's gaze. "I'm afraid I don't get you," muttered Drews.

"Yes, you do," said Hyatt, with a hard smile. "It's the only way, Drews; I'm telling you. If you know a better way, let's hear about it. Where's your undertaker? Where's your — "

He ended his sentence abruptly and pointed with circling finger.

"Look at that! The first of ten thousand, perhaps, inside of six hours."

A great green fly was humming about their heads in aimless geometric designs. Suddenly, as they watched it, it darted in through the open door. Drews felt his scalp prickle under his short bristle of hair. He ran his fingers over the stubble.

"The rum shipment is our only chance," continued the dispassionate voice of his companion. "You don't think I'm keen about the job, myself, do you? I'd rather take him up on the hill, where we buried the poor old Mex. But it's a long journey Galloway's got to take, and if he's to arrive without premature discovery … ." He shrugged.

"Of course, we'll have to tell the brother! You'd better write him a letter, explaining why. It'll get posted at New Orleans."

He turned to enter the room, but paused for a moment on the doorsill and looked back.

"And Drews," he added casually, "you needn't do any worrying about Rulofson. I'll take care of all that. The fact is, I'm going along, myself — all the way — to see that Galloway gets home to his brother's house."

The story continues … download your copy today!

Table of Contents
  1. Rum Pudgeon
  2. The Stockholm
  3. A Should From Below
  4. Blackmail and Murder
  5. For Mrs. Henry Galloway