The Man Called Noon
Somebody wanted to kill him.
The idea was in his mind when he opened his eyes to the darkness of a narrow space between two buildings. His eyes came to a focus on a rectangle of light on the wall of the building opposite, the light from a second-story window.
He had fallen from that window.
Lying perfectly still, he stared at the rectangle of light as if his life depended on it, yet an awareness was creeping into his consciousness that the window no longer mattered.
Only one thing mattered now--escape. He must get away, clear away, and as quickly as possible.
There was throbbing in his skull, the dull, heavy beat that was driving everything else from his brain. Impelled by what urge he could not guess, he lifted a hand toward his face. There was a twinge of pain from the arm, then he touched his face.
He did not know to whom the features belonged. Gingerly, he touched his skull . . . there was half-caked blood, and a deep wound in his scalp. His hand dropped to his shirt, which was stiffening with blood.
Somebody had tried to kill him, and he felt sure that they would try again, and would not cease trying until he was dead. Nothing else remained in his memory.
Stiffly, he turned his head, looking first one way and then the other. In the one direction there was blackness, in the other was light . . . a street.
He was conscious of a faint stirring from the darkness behind the buildings. Something or someone was creeping along in the blackness, some enemy intent upon his destruction.
Heaving himself from the ground, he half fell against the building behind him. He remained there for a moment, struggling to gather himself for an effort. For he must escape. He had to get away.
A hand went to his hip. There was a holster there, but it was empty. Dropping to his knees, he felt quickly around him, but discovered nothing. His gun, then, must be up there, in that room. It had fallen or had been taken from him before he fell from the window.
He stared blindly toward the street. He could hear music from the building beside him, a murmur of voices, then muffled laughter.
Staggering into the light, he paused and stared stupidly to left and right. The street was empty. Drunken with pain and shock, he stared across the street and into the shadows of a space between the buildings diagonally across from the one he had left behind.
He had no idea where he was going, only that he must get away; he must be free of the town. Beyond the buildings between which he walked there were scattered outhouses and corrals, and a few lightless shacks, and then he was walking in grass, tall grass.
Pausing, he glanced back. There was no pursuit, so why was he so sure there would be pursuit?
He went on, his brain numb with the pounding ache, until he saw before him a single red eye. Staring at it, he went ahead toward the red light. Suddenly he was beside it and his toe stumbled against the end of a railroad tie.
To his left the rails glimmered away into a vast darkness, on the right they led to a small railroad station. He had taken a stumbling step toward it when he brought up short, realizing his enemies would surely look for him there.
He stopped, swaying on his feet, trying to order his thoughts.
He did not know who he was. Or what he was.
He glanced back at the town, but beyond the fact that it was a very small town it told him nothing. There had been hitching rails along the street, a few cow ponies standing there. Hence it was a western town.
He had heard the whistle a second time before it dawned upon him that a train was coming, and he would, if he remained where he was, be caught in the full glare of the headlight. He dropped into the grass not an instant too soon as the train came rushing out of the night.
A train offered escape, and escape would give him a chance to consider, to sort out what must have happened, to discover who he was and why he was pursued.
When the train had passed and drawn up at the station, he studied it with care. There were at least three empty boxcars, their doors invitingly open. Yet as he considered his chances of getting into the nearest one he heard a rush of horses' hoofs and twisted about from where he lay in the grass to see a party of horsemen dash up to the train and split into two groups to ride along both sides, checking every car, every rod and bumper.
He eased back further into the grass, but he could hear them talking as they drew near.
". . . a waste of time. He was in bad shape, with blood all over, and staggering. He could never have made it to the tracks, believe me. If he's not hid somewheres in town he's lyin' out yonder in the grass bleedin' to death."
"He was a tough man for a tenderfoot."
"I ain't so sure he was--a tenderfoot, I mean. Ben Janish swore he'd got him, and did you ever know Ben to miss? That gent must have an iron skull!"
"Aw, he's dead, all right! Dead or dyin'."
They turned at the caboose and walked their horses back along the train. They were a dozen yards away when the whistle blew. Rising, he ran for the nearest empty car. A rider started to turn in his saddle, so he changed direction and leaped for the rear ladder and swung between the cars and out of sight.
He had a moment only until the cars would be moving, taking him right by the lights from the station, and he went up the ladder and lay down flat alongside the catwalk, throwing an arm across it to hang on.
The train whistled, the cars rattled over the rail ends and gathered speed. He pulled himself along still lying flat, until he was right over the door of the empty car.
Did he dare to hang over the edge, then swing into the door? Easing along the roof of the car, he looked over. The door was there, open and inviting. He lowered his body down, moved his hands one by one to a grip on the edge of the car roof, then swung his body and let go.
He fell sprawling on the floor of the car, and for a moment he lay still, gasping for breath. After a long time he got up and staggered to the door. Leaning his shoulder against the car wall beside the door, he looked out into the night. There were stars, and the night was cool, the wind coming soft off the sagebrush.
Sodden with weariness, he sat down and leaned against the wall, his body drained of strength, empty and sick. But he forced himself to think.
Ben Janish . . . he had one name, at least. Ben Janish had been sent to kill him, and Janish did not often miss. This implied Janish was expert at the business , and might have killed before. They had spoken of him as a man with a reputation. Therefore it should not be too difficult to find Ben Janish, and find out who he himself was.
But if Ben Janish had been sent to kill him, he had been sent by whom?
They had said he was a tenderfoot, which implied he was new to the West. If this was the case, why had he come west? And where had he come from? Did he have a family? Was he married or single?
He had no mirror, and therefore, no knowledge of what he looked like. That he was tall was obvious, and by feeling his biceps he assured himself that he was an uncommonly strong man.
He thrust his hands into his trousers pockets. One hand emerged with a small sack that proved to contain ten gold eagles and some odd coins. There was also a small but solid packet of greenbacks, but he did not take the time to count them.
The other pocket contained a strong clasp knife, a white handkerchief, a waterproof matchbox, a tight ball of rawhide string, and three keys on a key chain.
The side pockets of the coat contained nothing at all, but the inside pocket paid off with some kind of legal document and two letters.
The letters were addressed to Dean Cullane, El Paso, Texas . Was that who he was?
He spoke the name aloud, but it evoked no response in his memory. El Paso . . . he said the name but it meant nothing to him. However, it was his second lead. He would go to El Paso, go to the home of Dean Cullane and see if he was recognized there.
Yet . . . did he dare?
Somewhere along the tortured line of his thinking, he dozed off, but was awakened when a rough hand grasped his shoulder.
"Mister"--the voice was low but anxious--"don't you swing on me. I'm a friend, and by the looks of that crowd waiting up the street, you need a friend."
He was on his feet, shocked into clear-headedness. The train was still moving, lights flashed past the doors, and they were entering a town. "What is it?' he asked. "What's happening?"
"There's a big crowd up the street, mister, and they got a rope. They're fixing to hang you."
"Hang me? Why?"
"Don't stand there asking questions! When we pass that water tank, you jump and run." The man pointed toward a dark, looming building. "There's a gap between that building and the corral. You can take it running. At the end of the corral there's bushes, and right past the corner of the corral there's a path goes through into the wash.
"You take off up that wash for the hills, and if you can run, you'd better. Don't leave the wash until you see a big boulder, kind of greenish color, if it's light enough to see. When you get to that boulder you do a hard right and go up the bank. There's a path . . . follow it."
The train was slowing now, and suddenly the man beside him dropped into the night, and was running. In an instant he had done the same. Even as he did so he wondered at the practiced ease which he accomplished it. His memory might be gone, but the habit patterns in his muscles had not forgotten.
He saw the huge old barn, the corrals nearby, and he ran into the opening between, stretching his long legs and moving fast. The night was cool. He caught the fresh smell of hay and the smell of manure from the barns, and then he was past the corral.
Behind him men were shouting: "Search the train! Don't let him get away!"
He ducked into the black opening in the brush, was through it and into the sand of the wash. His running slowed because of the heavy going, but he plunged on until his heart was pounding so that it frightened him. He really slowed down then, walking and trotting.
He plodded on. The boulder loomed before him, and he turned and went up the bank. Almost at once he was on a path that ran parallel to the wash but a dozen feet above it, angling up the slope but under cover from the brush.
He had gone no more that a quarter of mile when a low call arrested him.
He turned and went up into the rocks, where his unknown friend stood waiting.
Without a word the man turned and forced his way through a narrow crack in the rocks, followed a path for perhaps forty yards, and then ducked under some leaning boulders and into a small hollow among brush and huge rocks. He went through another crack and into a great cave formed by huge sandstone boulders that had fallen against each other.
A stack of firewood against one wall showed the place had been prepared, and there was a circle of stones and the blackened ashes and charcoal of old fires.
The stranger gathered sticks and commenced building a fire.
"Won't they smell the smoke?"
"Not much chance. This hideout's been used forty years or more, and nobody the wiser."
The man had his fire going. He stood up, brushing his hands on his jeans. "My name is Rimes, J.B. Rimes," he said.
It was light enough to see him now. Rimes was thin, wiry, sandy-haired. His blue eyes were cool, shrewd eyes. Obviously he had expected his name to bring a response, but when it did not he threw the other an odd look, went back into a corner, and emerged with a coffeepot and cups. . .
"You surely must be somebody, stirring them up like that," Rimes was saying. "I haven't seen so much action in that town since the last Injun raid . . . quite a few years back."
He said nothing because he had nothing to say. His head throbbed dully, and the reaction from his running had set in. He was dog tired and boneweary.
"You got a name?"
"Call me Jonas. And thanks for helping."
"Forget it. Here, have some of this coffee while I have a look at that wound."
His fingers went to the cut on the head.
"I don't know what it was, either a bullet . . . or the fall I had."
"Bullet," Rimes said. "Somebody creased you."
He went to the corner from which he had taken the coffeepot and brought out a pan. Then he went to a corner in the rocks and filled the pan with water.
"Odd wound," Rimes said; "looks like somebody was laying for you."
"Why do you say that?"
"He shot at you from above. Must have been in an upstairs window or on a balcony . . . maybe on a roof."
"Why not from some rocks?"
"You were shot in town."
"Now how do you know that?"
Rimes glanced at him out of cool blue eyes that revealed nothing. "You came out of town, staggering and falling. I seen you a-comin'."
"You were at the station?"
Rimes chuckled. "That's not likely. No, I was sitting out in the tall grass, same as you, and just as anxious nobody would see me."
Rimes was bathing the wound with a damp cloth. "Cut right to the bone. Scraped it a mite, it seems like." He rinsed out the cloth. "Seems as if they've got you lined up, boy. When they hit you once, they hit you again."
"What makes you say that?"
"Old scar on your skull. Looks as if somebody had clobbered you before, sometime or other. This here bullet cut right across it just like somebody had aimed it."
An old scar? He might have many of them. He had no idea what he even looked like, let alone what scars might be on his body.
"Jonas . . . that's not a familiar name," Rimes commented.
"Maybe that's why I use it."
"Good a reason as any." Rimes squatted on his heels, stoking the fire. "Whoever shot at you didn't want to be seen. Figured you for a mighty dangerous man."
"I doubt it."
"It figures. There's a good many men running around who'd shoot you for fifty dollars, pick a fight and make it look all fair and honest where witnesses can swear it was a fair fight; so if they tried to ambush you they did it because they figured you'd shoot back, and fast."
He made no reply. The coffee tasted good, and when Rimes started frying bacon his stomach growled. He stirred uncomfortably.
"That empty holster worries me," Rimes said.
"I fell from a window, I think. I must have lost the gun when I fell or a minute or so before."
"You don't remember?"
After a moment Rimes said, "I can let you have a gun. A man in your position had better go heeled."
Rimes went into the recess in the cave wall again and returned with a Colt and a box of shells. He tossed the gun to Jonas, who caught it deftly and spun the cylinder to check the loads, then holstered it.
"Well," Rimes said dryly, "you've used a gun before." He handed him the box of cartridges. "You may need these. I see you have some empty loops."
The gun was new, a Frontier model, and the weight of it on his hip was comforting. "You trust me," Jonas commented.
Rimes eyes wrinkled at the corners. "You need me," he said. "I don't need you."
"Because, Mister Jonas whoever-you-are, you're playing it by ear. You don't know which way to turn. You don't know who your enemies are, or even if you have any friends, or where to find them if you do. You need me to bleed for information until you get yourself located.
"You're a lost man, Jonas. I've been watching and listening. I never knew a man so alert for every word that might be a clue, or so jumpy at every sound. Everything you say or do, you do if you expected it to blow up in your face."
"Supposing you are right? What then?"
Rimes shrugged. "I don't give a damn. I was just commenting, and as far as you bleeding me for information, just go ahead, and bleed me. I'll help all I can. After all, you'd help me."
Rimes gave a faint smile. "Well, how should I know? Maybe you wouldn't."
They ate bacon from the frying pan, picking out the strips with their fingers.
"What are you going to do?" Rimes asked. He was interested, for this man had problems of a sort not many would encounter, and as a man interested in puzzles, he was curious as to what Jonas would do now.
"Look for the pieces, and try to fit them together."
"Somebody wanted to kill you. They still want you dead. Seems to me you're running a long chance, trying to pick up those pieces. The first man you run into may be one of those who are out to kill you."
"What about you?" Jonas asked.
"I sit tight. In a few minutes I am going to climb out of there and set up a signal. The sun will catch that signal and they'll read it off across the valley. Then they'll come for me."
"And when we get where we're going?"
Rimes smiled thinly. "Why, there just might be somebody there that knows you. It just might happen." His smile widened. "That's why I gave you the gun."