Hanging Woman Creek
It was raining by the time we reached the railroad bridge. Evening was coming on, and the pelting rain was cold.
We dug in our heels and slid down the embankment to get under the bridge, where there was shelter of a sort. We built a fire, then huddled over it wondering what had become of our summer's wages.
Three of us were there, strangers until a few hours ago, now joined in the idea of going west. I'd be going home, or to as much of a home as I could lay claim to, being rootless as a tumbleweed, blowing on, resting here and there against this fence or that, but staying nowhere long. As for the others, I had no idea.
The black skeleton frame of the trestle danced in the wavering light from the fire, and from time to time the flames guttered and hissed as the wind blew down the draw, spattering us with cold drops from off the bridge.
Rustling around for wood reminded me of a winter I spent in Montana one time . . . at the Hartman & Liggett horse camp. No snow on the ground all winter long, only flurries from time to time, but cold. The ice froze rock-hard on the creek that year, and never broke until late spring.
Taking all in all, that had been a good winter. The cabin was snug against the wind, the pot-bellied stove gave off almost too much heat, and there were old magazines and a couple of books lying around.
When not in a mind to read, I'd sit and ponder. Whilst only a youngster I had taken to rebuilding places in my mind, places I'd lived in or seen, and when I'd nothing else to do I would put a place together, every single thing in place, then bit by bit I'd recall the folks I'd known there and what was said--what we talked about, and the like. It gave me something to do, but no great respect for the high art of conversational talk.
When a man sets out to recall in detail as I did, he sets more to working than he's figured on, for he never looks at anything about that without thinking how he'll recall it in time to come. It also sets a man to thinking about himself, and when a man stands himself up to ponder at, he can't always be pleased at what he sees.
That big colored boy, he looked at me and he said, "You look like you been in a fight."
"Here an' there," I said.
"You fight with the mitts?"
"Nobody ever showed me. I just fight the best way I know how."
"I've boxed," he said.
He was a big boy, maybe a year or two older than my twenty-six years, standing around six feet, and built strong. And he had good hands.
That was the first thing he said about me. "You got good hands." He doubled up my fist. "Flat across the knuckles. Stands shock better. You could punch, I think."
"When did you say that freight was due?" Van Bokkelen asked.
"Ten-twelve, if it's on time."
Van Bokkelen was a big blond man, raw-boned and with an uncurried look--shaggy hair and a broad, tough face, yet not bad-looking. He had small, ice-blue eyes, no more warmth in them than in the head of a nail.
Twelve hours before no one of us had known the others. We'd come together in jail, in the drunk tank. Only I'd been pulled in for fighting, and it wasn't the first time. Seemed like I was always being arrested for fighting. Not that I knew much about it, but I just naturally liked to fight.
"You got a place?" Eddie Holt, the colored boy, asked. "I mean, you got a place to go to?"
"I got no place, and never had no place except west." With a gesture I indicated my sacked-up saddle. "My home's been in the middle of that."
"I'd be damned if I'd pack it," Van Brokkelen said. "I'd steal a horse before I'd do that."
"It's been done," I admitted, not wanting to argue principles with a stranger over a friendly fire.
We listened to the rain, and hopefully listened for a train whistle, but it was a long while until train time and I was hungry as a springtime bear fresh out of hibernation.
"Maybe I could get me a riding job," Eddie suggested. "I never rode for no cow outfit, but I rode in a Buffalo Bill show." He grinned at me. "I was an Indian."
"You ain't the first," I said, and then added, "They tell me you really got to ride for Cody."
"I can ride. I can rope a little. But I never rode for no cow outfit."
"A man who can't live without working," Van Bokkelen scoffed, "is a fool. I'd see myself in hell before I'd eat dust behind a bunch of cows."
Well, I sat quiet, feeling Old Ned coming up in me. All my life I've punched cows or worked hard for what little I'd had, and I didn't cotton to this stranger making me out a fool. Come to think of it, he didn't seem to be doing so well.
Eddie Holt, he sat quiet too, and never said aye, yes, or no, and that seemed to be a good idea. This blond gent was a whole lot bigger than me, and my ribs and jaw were still sore from my last fight.
Back up the line I heard a footstep splash in the water. Somebody comin'," I said, and turned my head to look. When I looked back Van Bokkelen was gone.
"Sit close," Eddie warned. "It's the Law."
It sure was. There were four of them, four big men wearing slickers and armed with shotguns. They had spread out as they came up to the fire and they looked from one to the other of us.
"You!" The man I knew as the sheriff gestured with his shotgun. "Stand up!" He came up to me. "You armed?"
"I owned a Winchester one time," I said. "Never had no use for a hand gun."
He went over me with as smooth and knowing a frisk as ever I got, then did the same for Eddie.
"You haven't even got a knife? Or a razor?"
Eddie lifted his big hands. "Never had use for anything but these," he said.
The sheriff looked around at a narrow-faced, red-haired man. "Didn't you say there were three of them? You had three of them, you said."
"That's right. They didn't come together, but they left together. The black boy there, he was straight vag. Loafing around, no visible means of support. We gave him overnight in jail and a floater.
"The one in the broad hat, he got into a fight with Salty Breakenridge over to Ryan's. They busted up the place."
The sheriff looked at me with respect. "With Salty? I saw him. I figured it had to be a bigger man than you. What do you weigh, puncher?"
"Hundred and seventy," I said. "I never seen size makes too much difference." Then kind of grudgingly I had to acknowledge, "Although that there Salty . . . I'd say he was a fair hand."
The sheriff chuckled. "Yes, I'd say that. Nobody ever whipped him before."
He kicked the sack containing my gear. "What's in that?"
"Saddle. I'm headed west."
"How'd you come east? Trainload of cattle?"
The quiet man with the gray eyes had said nothing up to then, but he had been looking around. "Where's the other one?" he asked. "The big blond man?"
"Ain't seen him," I said, "only once since we left jail. He was headin' for Ryan's and a drink." I grinned at them. "I figured I'd no business goin' back there."
They just looked at me, and then the quiet man said, "Don't cover for him, boys. He isn't worth it. That's a bad man."
"I wouldn't know," I said, "but you had him in jail--why didn't you keep him?"
The sheriff spat. "Because we didn't know who he was. Like damn fools we let him go. Then Fargo here, he got to thinking about an old reward poster. There's a reward on that man . . . dead or alive. He's wanted for murder."
Eddie, he never even looked at me.
"How much?" I said, for I was curious.
Hell, I never seen that much money in my whole lifetime. You don't see much, working for thirty a month and found. It was a lucky thing when I put forty saved dollars into a saddle.
Fargo looked at me. "What's your name, cowpuncher?"
"Pike," I said, "Barnabas Pike. Some places they call me Pronto."
"Pronto? Because you're fast?"
Me, I grinned at him. "Maybe because I swing too quick," I said. "I got a mean temper when I'm riled, but it ain't always that. I never had much fun . . . except fightin'."
"I can believe it," the sheriff said. "I saw Salty Breakenridge after."
They poked around a little, stared off down the stream bed, and then they started off. Only Fargo lingered. He kicked at the ground where Van Bokkelen had sat. "Five thousand," he said, "is a lot of money."
"Mister," I said, "I seen that gent in jail and I didn't cotton to him, but I never sold anybody out yet, and I ain't about to start."
"I thought you'd be that way," Fargo said quietly, "but don't tangle with that man. You leave him alone, cowpuncher. He's bad medicine."
Then he walked off after the others, and we said nothing, Eddie Holt and me, watching them go.
Finally Eddie picked up sticks and added them to the fire. "Murder," he said-- "That's bad. I wonder who he killed?"
"He's full of mean," I said. "I could see it in him."
I looked at Eddie. "You goin' any place particular? If you ain't, come along with me. Two can starve as free as one, and if I get a ridin' job I'll speak for you."
"I take that kindly," he said.
A long time we sat quiet, and me wishing I could catch some shut-eye, but little time remaining if we were going to catch that drag. I kept squatting there thinking about how I wished there'd be an empty on that train. I'd never liked riding freights unless there was an empty.
"We're partners, Pronto?" Eddie said.
"Why not?" I said, and then the train whistled far off.