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By Owen G. Irons
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2008 Owen G. Irons
All rights reserved.
It was a woman who started it all. I don't know if she meant to or not. Sometimes these things just happen when one of them is involved.
We had just dragged into Tulip, a little town not half as pretty as its name, me and Andy Givens. We had been working for six weeks on a round-up for that motherless Barry Slattery, had had just about enough of him and the Pocono Ranch life, taken our short-wages and after a word or two with Slattery and his honcho, Titus Evers, we had ridden at Andy's suggestion into the far distances to look for a place to spread our silver around a little before we had to figure out a way to earn some more.
It was a pattern Andy and I had fallen into, not much of a system for living long and well, but it suited us at that time. A week or two here, a few months there, depending on how long it took us to get tired of camp grub or fed up with the work, and we'd just look at each other, and without a word spoken we'd throw our saddles over our ponies' backs, collect our pay or whatever portion of it the tight-fisted boss felt like he could spare, and ride off toward the next hope of greener pastures, scattering silver dollars in our wake.
Put plainly, we were saddle tramps, me and Andy Givens. We weren't alone; there were thousands of men drifting the Western lands looking for the opportunity everyone said was waiting out here for us. If you could just find it.
We were still looking when Andy shot and killed a farmer named Miles Sturdevant at the Grange dance in Tulip. Me, I knew it meant trouble when we entered the meeting hall among all of those sodbusters and saw Andy's eyes nearly pop out of his head at the sight of Eva Pierce. There was no pulling Andy out of there. It would have been like trying to drag a bulldog away by his tail once he had his mind set on proceeding in the other direction.
'I have not ever, in my life seen a woman so perfectly put together,' Andy said. He stood, young and curly-haired, his boots positioned wide apart, his hat pushed back off his forehead and grinned all the way across the crowded room at Eva.
She smiled back and then turned her eyes away demurely. That smile was enough to give Andy all the encouragement that he needed. Andy, unlike me, was a handsome devil with flashing blue eyes and a mop of curly black hair. He thought of himself as a ladies' man and there were plenty of women who would second his opinion.
'Better back out of here, Andy,' I told him. 'Some of these farm boys are giving us the evil look.'
'Not until I've danced with that girl, Keogh.'
'I'm telling you it means trouble,' I warned him, but I never had any luck at reining Andy Givens in when he had his mind set, and I didn't on this occasion. He put a hand briefly on my shoulder then swaggered away through the overall-clad sodbusters in their farm shoes, his high-heeled cowboy's boots clicking arrogantly across the plank floor of the Grange house. I eased back toward the punchbowl which, fortunately, was near the door, and watched his progress.
'Friend of yours?' a voice at my shoulder asked quietly. I had just dipped out a cup of fruit punch and was raising the drink to my lips. I glanced at the owner of the voice, a man with slicked-down hair and small dark eyes. Years of following a plow had lent him a pair of shoulders about twice as thick as my own.
'I know him,' I had to admit, since Andy and I had come in together.
'Better tell him to fade, stranger. That's Eva Pierce, Bull Mosely's woman.'
I looked across the room to where Andy, standing within friendly distance of the girl, his hat still tipped back, was grinning and chatting up Eva. It was a familiar game with Andy. The ladies were fond of his boyish charm and manly form, and he knew it.
'He's just introducing himself around,' I said. The farmer put a huge, hairy hand around my wrist and forced my arm down until the punch cup I had been holding clattered free of my grip and settled with a ringing sound on the cloth-covered table.
'I said that's Bull Mosely's woman,' the man with the expressionless face repeated.
'I'll tell him to lay off,' I promised, just to get the bearlike sodbuster to release my wrist.
I wasn't afraid of the farmer, understand, although I wouldn't have wanted to go rough-and-tumble with him. In my own world, on the range, I would have drawn my Colt, backed him off, and maybe if he didn't want to back off, simply cracked him above the ear with the barrel of my pistol. When he came to, we would more than likely just shake hands and forget it.
I didn't think they played by the same rules here, and as a stranger who had never so much as set foot in Tulip until an hour ago, I somehow didn't think they'd take such activity as socially acceptable.
Besides they had us outnumbered about fifty to one. I was willing to put a damper on my own impulses. The trouble was, Andy never was. He wasn't constitutionally able to pry himself away from a woman he'd set his sights on.
'I'll tell him,' I promised the big man.
'You do that,' the plowboy said. 'So I don't have to.' I nodded, tried a smile and brushed past him. As I did I felt that unnerving tingle of fear that sometimes crawls over a man in a bad position. It was something like being stripped naked in front of all these sodbusters.
He had lifted my Colt in passing and now held it tightly clenched in his bear's paw. He smiled at me. Or, I think it was a smile. His vacant black eyes remained fixed on me. A second man approached us and I heard him ask, 'What's the trouble here, Bull?'
'No trouble, Miles. This pony-ornament is going to take care of things.'
I didn't like that remark either. From time to time farmers could get a little testy where cowhands were concerned. Especially when it was necessary to cut their fence wire to drive a herd through, trampling their crops in passing. Some people are just plain unreasonable. I didn't get any other smiles or words of welcome as I crossed the length of the social gathering toward Andy. He, on the other hand, was happily talking to Eva who was matching him smile for smile. Another girl who looked enough like Eva to be her younger sister had joined the group. Her eyes shone and she was scented with lilac. She, too, was smiling brightly as Andy unloaded his charm for their amusement.
I didn't have to look behind me to know that Bull Mosely's dark face was not wreathed in smiles.
'Let's be going, Andy,' I said, tapping him on the shoulder.
He glanced at me, shook his head dismissively and returned his attention to Eva. He said, 'The first thing you know, the bronc and I were both ... have you met my friend Corey Keogh here? First thing you know —' Andy continued.
'Andy,' I persisted. 'I just met the welcoming committee. We are not wanted here.'
'Tell 'em to go to hell,' Andy said, with that cheerful, cocky attitude which he dazzled women with.
'I tried.' I turned Andy half-around by his shoulder and told him seriously, 'I mean it, Andy. There's going to be trouble if we don't blow.'
'Keogh, old partner, when isn't there trouble when we land somewhere?'
I was about ready to give up on the pleading and yank him out of there by his belt whether he liked it or not, but they didn't give me time. I heard the heavy approaching boots, clomping almost in unison across the long room. Bull Mosely was in the lead. Eva glanced that way, not surprised, not startled. She touched Andy's arm just then – lightly – but she might as well have lit a fuse to a stick of dynamite. Bull Mosely let loose a terrific bellow and charged forward, shouldering men and women aside as he came on. He still had my pistol in his hand. I saw him glance down at it as if he was just now remembering what it was for.
'Shake it, Andy. The locals are on the prod!'
Andy bit at his lower lip, studied the approaching mob and said to Eva, 'Thin-skinned bunch around here, aren't they?'
The girl put her hands on her slender hips and stamped her tiny foot as Bull approached, his eyes as dark as the interior of a coal mine at midnight.
'Now what!' she demanded of the hulking fanner.
'Now this – I told these two to get.'
'What gives you that right?' Eva asked, leaning toward the big man. 'Because I was enjoying a conversation with someone? I happen to enjoy meeting new people, interesting people,' she said.
That last remark was too much for Bull. I heard my gun clatter to the floor as he dropped it, slapped his left hand across Andy's holster and wrapped his right around Andy's throat, lifting him off the ground. Eva screamed, but I thought she was just a little delighted by the sudden action. Me, I was scared, plain and simple. We didn't know this man or his friends. For all we knew they made a habit of stringing up passing strangers just to watch them sky dance. I did know one thing – there was no way this was going to be a fair fight. I made the only reasonable move I could think of. I dove for my Colt.
A big foot was thrust out, tripping me. Skidding on elbows and knees, I nevertheless managed to reach out and grab my pistol. I had the hammer eared back and ready to drop on a primer by the time one of them bent over me with both fists clenched.
'I wouldn't do that, friend,' I warned him as he drew back his arm. 'You want to go home from this party alive, don't you?'
I didn't see the second man begin his move, and I couldn't guess where the hickory club in his hand had come from, but I saw it end its arc. The heavy length of lumber cracked my wrist and the pistol dropped free. Stars of pain sparkled behind my eyes, flashing in brilliant, many-colored spirals. I somehow had the presence of mind to grab the Colt with my left hand, and I was still holding it cocked and level when I lifted myself unsteadily to my feet, looking around, trying to find some way to back away from the dance-hall mob.
Something had changed. While I had briefly been distracted by having my wrist smashed to powder, Andy had had enough, it seemed. Hoisted high in Bull Mosely's grip, strangling, struggling to free himself, Andy had come to his senses enough to realize the persuasive power of a knee driven with conviction into a man's groin.
I heard Bull howl, saw him back away, doubled up, saw Andy's hand flash down toward his holstered revolver and set himself, his breath coming in angry, strangled gasps. 'The first one to move catches lead,' Andy said, and if they didn't believe him, I did.
'Ready to mosey, Keogh?' Andy asked, scooping up his hat from the floor.
I could only nod. My mouth was dry, my head swam; my wrist was alive with fiery pain. By then Andy had spotted the rear door to the hall and we started that way, back to back. The glowering eyes of Bull Mosely followed us. Andy couldn't resist one last taunt.
'I'll be back for that dance, Miss Eva,' he said with a grin. 'Count on it.'
Andy heeled the door open while his eyes remained fixed on the angry mob of farmers. He slipped out into the yard behind the building where the sodbusters had parked their wagons, and I followed. The bite of the chill evening air was sharp enough to clear my swimming head. It wasn't cold enough to cool the fiery pain in my wrist.
'Let's get going,' I begged Andy. 'I need to find a doctor.'
'Just a minute,' Andy said, indifferent to my suffering. 'They're working up their courage, waiting to see who'll be the first one through the door.'
No sooner had the words escaped Andy's lips than the first of the farmers shouldered the door open and burst through, Bull Mosely at their head. Andy was still grinning when he sprayed the doorframe with three rapid shots from his revolver, the .44s splintering the doorframe and ricocheting off into the distance. The oaken door was slammed shut and Andy punctured it with his remaining bullets.
'Now, Andy! Let's get out of here.'
But Andy was calmly taking fresh cartridges from his belt loops and reloading the smoking Colt he held. He watched the door for a long minute longer before deciding the fun was over.
'All right,' Andy said, 'let's find our ponies and shake the dust of this town off.'
Andy turned and strolled off as if he had no place urgent to go. Holding my injured wrist, I followed him in a half-blind stagger. The pain had returned and I felt like I would black out with each step. Andy had to stop and wait for me. Eventually he let me sling my good arm across his shoulders and he helped me along toward the stable where we had left out ponies. I got no sympathy for my condition, only one of Andy's laughing comments as we stumbled along the narrow alley.
'I feel sorry for the next cowboy who tries to go to a Grange dance in Tulip!'
That was Andy Givens for you. He could be a lot of fun to ride with. Then there were these other times....
We unsaddled our ponies on the low dark knoll at the hour of sunset. The wind had died down as the sun fell, but it was still cold. Even this far south, winter is no time for camping out. I found myself missing the smoky, male-smelling bunkhouse back at the Pocono Ranch. And, I considered, tight with his change though the Pocono owner, Barry Slattery, was, he would have taken one of his injured cowhands to see the doctor. Even if he took the cost of the visit out of your next pay packet.
I said that we unsaddled our ponies. More accurately, Andy unsaddled both horses as he had saddled them alone in Tulip while I stood watch in the doorway of the stable, gun in hand, waiting for any pursuit by the angry swarm of farmers. Apparently they had had enough of us, however, for we rode unmolested from the small town and far out on to the surrounding prairie.
'How's your wrist?' Andy asked with a small show of concern as we hunkered down near the tiny fire he had built.
'I'd cut my own arm off if it would get rid of the hurt,' I said as I sat cradling my double-sized wrist in my lap. 'I've got to get some help, Andy. I mean it.'
As if he had not heard me, Andy, a shadowy crouching figure before the flickering flames of the night-fire, said, 'Better shift your holster to your left side, Keogh. It'll give you a chance anyway ... in the next dust-up we happen to fall into.'
I nodded, lay back and clumsily rolled up in my blanket to await the long night during which I knew I would not sleep. Lying sprawled on the hard ground, half-covered by my blankets, one of my feet furiously itching inside my battered boot, my empty stomach growling and my hand shot through with jagged pain, I began to reassess my choice of lifestyle. To a lesser extent, I was forced to reevaluate my choice of saddle partners. Andy Givens was hunkered down next to the fire, warming his hands by its feeble heat, whistling softly through his teeth.
I had almost made it – very nearly managed to fall asleep in the cold, pain-ridden night – when I heard Andy stir, pause listening, and leap to his feet, slicking his Colt from its holster.
'Somebody's coming in, Keogh,' he hissed.
I rolled over, pawing awkwardly for my gun with my left hand and got to my feet. I could hear it now too. The steady, heavy clopping of a horse's hoofs. I glanced at Andy and held up one finger questioningly. He frowned and shrugged. It seemed to be only one man. We crouched silently waiting his arrival.
'Hallo the camp!' the stranger called out, not too loudly and Andy answered him.
'My horse is pretty beat down,' the lone rider said, still moving toward our camp. I could pick out the silhouette of man and horse against the low, flickering stars. 'Smelled your smoke. I was hoping you'd have coffee and grub.'
'Nothing to spare,' Andy said with irritability. The next sound was the ratcheting of his pistol's hammer, seeming unnaturally loud in the night. The stranger heard it as well.
'I'm harmless, friend!' he called out with a hint of laughter.
'Let him come in, Andy,' I said.
'Wait a minute ... how many are you?' Andy inquired of the dark figure.
'Two, if you count my horse. What's the matter, friend? Somebody trailing you?'
'None of your damn business.'
'You're right,' the stranger answered, half-laughing again. 'I'm beat. I'm swinging down — Mind that trigger finger. If anyone is looking for you, a shot will sure bring them in a hurry.'
He was right, of course. I had considered that. Andy hadn't. Andy Givens was apt to do things that way, act and then figure out what the results had been. Without holstering his pistol, he muttered, 'Come on in then. If you've got a rifle, leave it with your pony.'
The stranger – he was a tall man, and very thin – sauntered easily into the camp. He was carrying a small sack. With a glance at Andy and a nod to me, he squatted down near the dead fire and began prodding it to life.
Excerpted from Saddle Tramps by Owen G. Irons. Copyright © 2008 Owen G. Irons. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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