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By Brian Garfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
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 Uncle Sam." 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 Colorado—end-of-track was already as far west as Prescott—but right now Hardyville was about as alone as you could get, between riverboats.
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, "Hóla, chingados," 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. "Segundo."
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.
Mr. Pickett said, "All right, you've got size and a tart tongue. What else can you say for yourself?"
"Nothing until I know what kind of auction block I'm on."
"You know who I am?"
Boag had already reviewed what little he knew about Mr. Jed Pickett. During the war Mr. Pickett had ramrodded a guerrilla column in the Border States, a stringer for Bloody Bill Anderson, but that had been twenty years ago and men got older and sometimes soft where they sat and soft where they did their thinking. Mr. Pickett didn't seem that kind, but he'd been a two-bit leader of two-bit men long enough to get arrogant. Down in Sonora they'd put a fifty-dollar bounty on Apache scalps and Mr. Pickett had been one of the gringo bounty-hunters who had made a living off that until Boag and the rest of the Tenth under General Crook had run Geronimo to ground. So Sonora had canceled the scalphunters' bounty and the Jed Picketts were out of work just like the Boags and Wilstaches. It did give them something in common and that was why Boag had come along to see about all this.
"I know who you are," he answered.
Gutierrez said quickly, "These two both Tenth Cav, Mr. Pickett. The big one was a sergeant."
"Then they know their way around horses and guns." Mr. Pickett fastened his unfathomable eyes on Boag. "What do you go by?"
"John B. Wilstach."
"Corporal," Wilstach said with his rowdy little grin. "Corporal five times and busted back to line trooper four times."
"Boag, you have a front name?"
"Just Boag." They'd called him Sergeant for a first name so many years he'd forgot about the real one. Leave it forgot, he decided; it had never done him much service.
"You both in the Sierra Madre with Crook?"
"Aeah," Wilstach said.
It seemed enough to satisfy Mr. Pickett. He turned back to his tent and lifted the flap. "Fill them in, Ben."
Stryker went over to a half-dying campfire and indicated a black coffeepot. "Want any?"
"If you ain't got nothing stronger," Wilstach agreed.
"Tequila in my bedroll, you want."
"Yeah," Wilstach said, "yeah."
"Tequila's fine." He hadn't had a drink in thirty days and more.
Stryker broke out the bottle and passed it around. They were all mighty friendly here and Boag suspected every bit of it.
Stryker explained about the gold bullion in the express-company office on the Johnson-Yaeger pier in Hardyville. "It's been all winter since the last riverboat made it up the river that far. They got a lot of gold waiting."
"How much is a lot?" Boag said.
Pickett's men had drifted through all the camps above Hardyville in the hills. When they'd put all the bits and pieces together it began to look as if the camps had delivered a lot of tonnage of raw ore to the smelter in Hardyville and when you discounted exaggerations and rumors it still looked to add up to pretty near a ton and a half of bullion.
Wilstach said, "What's a ton and a half worth?"
"Say three hundred thousand dollars official price. A mite more down in Mexico." Stryker lofted the half-consumed bottle. "Buy a good deal of tequila for a share of that kind of money, boys."
Boag said, "All right, now you get to tell us what a share amounts to."
"Well you boys are kind of latecomers. Some of these men been riding with Mr. Pickett ten years or more."
"John B.," Boag said, "I don't believe I heard the man answer my question, did you?"
"It'll be good," Ben Stryker said. "Real good for hired-hand wages. It's just one job of work for you two boys and then you take your shares and split up. Be a few days' work in it for you, that's all. We'll be pickin' up a few more men along the line too. Mr. Pickett totes it up we'll need around thirty men to handle Hardyville and that riverboat crew."
"John B., did the man answer the question yet?"
"If he did it must've been in some other language, Boag."
Boag knew why Stryker was taking his time. He was sizing them both up and trying to guess how little they'd be willing to take.
Boag said, "I'll save you the trouble doing sums in your head, Mr. Stryker. John B. and me will take ten thousand between us."
"Mr. Pickett was thinking more along the lines of five thousand."
"Apiece," Boag said.
"Together," Stryker corrected.
"Thirty men, three hundred thousand dollars, that's ten thousand dollars a man. We'll take half that. Seems fair."
"No," Stryker said. "It don't seem fair." He got up and left them alone with the half bottle of tequila.
Wilstach looked around the camp. Nobody was in earshot. Boag contemplated the bottle but refused it when Wilstach offered it.
Wilstach said, "I ain't eager, Boag."
"Why? Don't you think they can get away with it?"
"Sure they can. But that don't make it right."
"Five thousand rights a lot of wrongs, John B."
"Together, the man said."
"Then you're inclined to take it."
"I guess I am," Boag said. "What else we got to look forward to?"
"We do this, we maybe could get jerked to Jesus, Boag. You ever seen a man hanged? Flop like a fish on a hook. Man I don't aim to end up right now in Boot Hill with dirt in my face."
Excerpted from Tripwire by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1973 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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