Tags: #Westerns, #Fiction
Perhaps Handy McKay will
understand why this is
for Don Westlake
When the riverboat came in sight at the bend of the river Boag got up and kicked Wilstach awake.
Wilstach grunted and sat up grinding black knuckles into his eye sockets. “The hell, Boag.”
“That yonder's the
” Boag pointed down to the mud-colored river.
Down past the shelf of the bluff the Colorado moved along heavy, swelled with the spring runoff. The riverboat churned along with a good deal of racket and effort but it was barely making headway against the current. Boag had a good view of the sturdy shape of the captain up on the Texas deck; it was near half a mile downstream but the sun was hard as brass and all the shadows had black edges.
“Let's go along,” Boag said. “Saddle your jackass.”
“Want my coffee first.”
“John B., I swan.”
“Hell Boag, we got plenty of time. She can't be making three knots.”
“Saddle your jackass.” Boag turned to the portable heliograph. “I ain't about to miss out. We show up late in Hardyville, Mr. Pickett won't likely wait for us.”
He squinted against the sun to set the heliograph mirror at its proper angle. The mule and the jackass kicked their hobbled feet against the hardpan. There was no wind; the dust settled just where it was kicked up. Boag was coated with the fine powder as if he had been lying for days like Lazarus in an open grave. It was a fine silver grit in the pores of his dark skin and the threads of his cavalry-blue pants. It was abrasive in his teeth and eyes. It made the heliograph's shutter scrape when he flicked it open and shut.
He flapped the handle half a dozen times for dots and dashes. Wilstach was saddling the jackass, muttering about his coffee. After a little while Boag saw the glimmer of the answering signal from the mountain twelve miles northeast of the river, and he batted out the coded flashes for U-S-A-M. He got his winking acknowledgment from the mountain and began to pack up the heliograph.
Wilstach had the jackass rigged. He was throwing the saddle onto the mule. “All I got to say is, that gold better be there.”
“You think maybe it flew away someplace all by itself?”
“Boag, you ever seen that gold with your own eyes?”
“It's there,” Boag said. “Close to a troy ton.”
“Because Jed Pickett said so?”
“Because they keep four armed guards in shifts on that express-company pier.” Boag strapped the heliograph case and heaved the instrument up onto the cantle of the mule's saddle. The thing weighed eighty pounds; he lifted it with one hand. He was big enough to do that.
Wilstach went to the jackass and cut its hobbles. Boag climbed astride the mule. “Come on, you lazy nigger, let's go steal that gold.”
It was a fifteen-mile ride to Hardyville and it would take Boag and Wilstach close to three hours; Mr. Pickett and the rest of them had a couple of hours' head start but Boag wasn't worried. The gold wasn't going anywhere until the riverboat reached Hardyville and that wouldn't be until the middle of the afternoon. He set a pace that would conserve the animals.
It was all broken wastes on both sides of the river up here, the country buckling and creasing up toward the Black Canyon Gorge a little way above Hardyville, and the Grand Canyon beyond that. The Colorado River came down a thousand miles through the Rockies from somewhere in Wyoming and by the time it got to this point in Arizona it was moving fast and carrying a great deal of mud. It had another four hundred miles to cross between here and the Gulf of California; those were the navigable four hundred miles, and even so the Johnson-Yaeger riverboat fleet only made it up as far as Hardyville during the high water of the spring thaw and the fall rains. The rest of the time the town withered beside a half-dry riverbed and had occasional contact with the rest of the world by way of the Jackass Mail on its way across the Mogollon route from Santa Fe to California. Pretty soon the railroad would reach the Coloradoâend-of-track was already as far west as Prescottâbut right now Hardyville was about as alone as you could get, between river-boats.
There were a dozen gold camps in the mountains, inhabited by fools who didn't know the hardest of all ways to earn gold was to mine for it. Hardyville was smarter than that. Hardyville let the miners sweat the ore out of the ground; Hardyville just smelted it and stacked it up on the pier and shipped it out to the banks three or four times a year on Johnson-Yaeger paddlewheelers. For performing that service Hardyville made more money out of the gold than the miners did.
Hardyville was a clever hard town that wasn't going to make it easy for Jed Pickett to steal its bullion. Boag had known that from the outset. He hadn't been too eager at first.
That had been six weeks ago in Ehrenburg. The town was building a road to somebody's chicken farm and had adopted Boag and Wilstach the day they arrived there: ten dollars or thirty days, apiece. Boag had a gold eagle in each boot, the last of his mustering-out pay, but he wasn't ready to spend his last twenty dollars on fines for the both of them. They elected jail where the town would feed them. Then they found out about the road.
Good luck it had been early March. Ehrenburg in the middle of the summer would have cooked a man on the road.
On the chain gang they had met Gutierrez, who was a crickety little Mexican with a dewlappy face. Gutierrez let them walk into it all by themselves. He didn't say much of anything at first, he just let Boag and Wilstach complain themselves right into it:
“Boag, what we gon do when we get off here?”
“Cross the river to California.”
“Then what? Go back to busting horses for six bits a head, busting our own black skulls in the bargain? Dig graves for a quart of whiskey a corpse?”
“We'll do better'n that. We're soldiers.”
“Fine Boag, you just show them your sergeant's stripes and they gon make you the head of the bank.”
“We can get jobs riding shotgun.”
“Boag, you been in the Cavalry too long. How many white men you know gon trust a nigger to guard their money?”
Gutierrez insinuated himself quietly. He didn't make a big show of his sympathy, “You both got discharged out of the army, hey?”
Wilstach said, “Well we run down Geronimo for them and since then they ain't had enough Innuns to go around. I guess the War Department decided it was easier to feed an Innun than fight him.”
“You both in the Tenth Cav, hey?”
Boag said, “That was a lot of miles ago.”
“So they just used you up and threw you both out like an old shoe.”
“Boag here had fourteen years worth of hashmarks. You see the stitch-marks on his sleeves there.”
“How about you?”
“Me I only done six years in the Buffalo soldiers.”
“You both kill a lot of Inyuns, hey?”
Boag and Wilstach just looked at the Mexican and he didn't talk to them again for two or three days.
Gutierrez got out two days ahead of them but when Boag and Wilstach were turned loose by the sheriff on the edge of town with four-bits apiece spending money, courtesy of the Town of Ehrenburg, along came a buckboard with Gutierrez driving. “Climb aboard.”
“What's all this?” Boag said.
“Amigo, you want a ride up the line or you want to wear out your cavalry riding boots on them stones?”
“Up the line to where, Gutierrez?”
“I got some friends want to meet you.”
“I told my friends you two had strong backs. I watched you work that rockpile on the road.”
Boag and Wilstach exchanged glances. Wilstach said, “I ain't no pack mule for a Mex outfit.”
“Ain't no Mex outfit. Man name of Jed Pickett, maybe you know him.”
Boag said, “I heard the name. Scalp hunter.”
“That was before,” Gutierrez said. “They canceled the bounty down to Sonora, you know.”
“Ain't that a shame now,” Wilstach said.
“Come on,” Gutierrez said. He was sweating under his hat. “Let's get moving, make a breeze on ourselves.”
“What's Jed Pickett want with us?”
“We need a couple spare hands. You want to climb up or stand there? I'm fixing to move.”
Jed Pickett had a good campsite back in the hills a mile east of the Arizona bank of the river. There was shade under a dozen cottonwoods and a trickle of water out of a hole somebody had dug in the dry creekbed. Boag counted twenty-seven horses on the picket line and eighteen men whose evidence met the eye: bedrolls, saddles, moving human shapes. Maybe the nine spare horses were for pack-saddle work or maybe they were trade-off mounts.
So Pickett had nineteen men, minimum, counting Gutierrez and himself. “What the hell's he need with two more men? You people planning to go to war?”
“You talk to Mr. Pickett, he'll explain.”
“Thing is,” Wilstach said, “I don't see no other black faces down there.”
The buckboard rutted down the hillside toward the cottonwoods. Gutierrez said, “Now listen here. I spent twenty-one days on that chain gang just to pick up men for Mr. Pickett. I didn't enjoy it a whole lot. You two don't work out here, my twenty-one days is wasted. Mr. Pickett ain't gonna like that and I ain't neither.”
“Now I could get all broke up about that,” Wilstach said. “Couldn't you, Boag?”
“You two,” Gutierrez said in a friendlier voice, “was the only ones out of that whole chain gang I thought was worth bringing to Mr. Pickett. That ought to mean something.”
“We're here,” Boag said. “We may as well hear what the man has to say.”
Five men who looked as if they might have helped burn Lawrence, Kansas, stood at the edge of the cottonwoods with rifles in their crook'd elbows when the buckboard came down into camp. Boag made them out to be a Mexican and three hardscrabble whites and an Indian, possibly Yaqui. This was a mixed gang of the kind you didn't find much in the Southwest; the kind of gang you found usually in Mexico, which was sensible since that was where the gang had come from.
The five rawhiders grinned at Gutierrez with five shows of bad teeth. Flat curious glances scraped Boag and Wilstach. Gutierrez said, “
” by way of greeting to the five men, and the buckboard lurched into camp past them.
A man stepped out of the big tent. Big bones, Boag noticed. A leather face and brown hair thatched over his eyes, large hands covered with brown hair and a pair of revolvers cross-belted at his hips. From the man's eyes Boag judged he was not Mr. Pickett; to boss a crew like this you needed harder eyes than those.
“Ben Stryker,” Gutierrez explained. “
Boag didn't stir but it was good to have his judgment confirmed.
Ben Stryker made a half-turn away from the buckboard as it stopped. “Mr. Pickett sir,” he called.
The tent flaps parted and a man emerged, straightened from his stoop and put his contemptuous stare on Boag and Wilstach. “This all you could find, Gutierrez?”
“Good men, you said. I could find plenty of the other kind.”
“Shit,” Mr. Pickett said. He spat the word out as if it were a fly that had buzzed into his mouth.
Mr. Pickett's face was rough and pitted and as motionless as a professional gambler's. He had a stiff blond mustache. He wasn't an oversized man. He flicked a sideways glance at Ben Stryker who loomed a head taller. “What do they call themselves?”
“You could ask us,” Wilstach said. “We got tongues.”
Boag sat on the buckboard seat in no hurry to get down. Gutierrez was descending to the ground apologetically. Stryker said, “Mr. Pickett don't like to look up at a man he's talking to.”
“Then he'll have to grow two feet,” Boag said and stepped down. He was taller than Stryker and a lot taller than Mr. Pickett.