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The Drifter's Revenge
By Owen G. Irons
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2006 Owen G. Irons
All rights reserved.
The near at hand cracking sound and the following barrage of falling debris were like a cannonade being loosed off overhead, and I dove for cover, rolling from the path of the felled eighty-foot pine tree. Ben Comfrey, experienced sawman though he was, had miscalculated and the massive tree, influenced by the gusting wind, had missed its mark by twenty feet or so; me, by much less than that. I lay on my back against the pine-needle-littered earth, covering my eyes with my forearm against the downfall of cones, bark and twigs as the big tree settled into the rising dust.
'Are you all right!' Ben was shouting. 'Ryan? Are you OK?'
I peered up at him through the branches of the fallen tree and grinned. 'Just. Thank God that's the last one. I've had enough of lumberjacking to last me a lifetime.'
Ben cleared away the smaller branches around me with a hatchet and dragged me to my feet to stand among the broken limbs of the white pine. I was shuddering a little. I blamed that on the cool wind sweeping up the pine-clad slope and not on the near miss of the tons of timber. Taking Ben's hand I stepped through the maze of branches and we crouched down in the clearing beside the bones of the huge tree. I wiped my forehead; Ben Comfrey lit his stubby pipe with trembling fingers.
'That was a near one, all right,' he said unnecessarily. I only nodded.
We had both come to Montana's Milk River country to spend a few weeks dropping timber for the railroad which was making its first forays into the northern plains. Myself, I was headed to Oregon, but then I had been headed in that direction for almost two years. Indians had slowed my passage, and the long winters. Maybe laziness.
I took my time wherever I traveled, liking the long sweep of the hills and the sudden upthrust of the massive bald mountains, the large game and small. I had to face it, I was a rover and if I ever did make Oregon, it was likely that I would get fiddle-footed within months and be back on the long trail to nowhere in particular.
'That's enough of that,' Ben said, echoing my thoughts. He was a square-faced, dirt farmer from over Billings way. He worked hard at his farming, but trying to come up with cash money in those times was enough to bring him out to the timber stands. Like me, he knew that winter was coming in fast in that north country and the idea of earning enough pocket money for beans, flour and salt to see us through winter was appealing.
The fall-crew was moving in now. Tough Irishmen, fresh over from the old country whose job it was to trim the boughs from the fallen tree. They didn't give us much more than a passing glance. We were amateurs who had no right even to be near an axe or two-man saw. If that pine tree had flattened me, they would have marked it up to my own inexperience and certainly shed no tears.
'They can have this job,' Ben said, finally getting his pipe lit. 'I'll shovel stables from here on if I have to.'
I had to agree with him. Not only was the work back-breaking, it was supremely hazardous. We had seen two men fall to their deaths from the trees – one of them from one hundred feet up while 'topping' it with a double-bitted axe. His leather strap broke and he cartwheeled through the sky to the ground. No one paid much attention. It was considered a hazard of the trade.
Another man, a boy really, had chopped off his own foot with one of the heavy, razor-edged axes and bled to death within minutes. My own advice to anyone who wants to go lumbering is to pause, get your head examined, and marry a shopkeeper's daughter.
Anyway, for us – Ben and me – we were done with lumberjacking. We started down the forested slope, Ben with the two-handled saw slung over his shoulder, and made our way toward the pay tent as the skies to the north began to gray and clot with clouds. We knew we had finished the job for the railroad none too soon. Winters in Montana are harsh and even the sap in the big trees freezes.
'I still don't see how they're going to finish that bridge before winter,' Ben said. We stood on a low granite outcropping looking out at the trestle the Colorado Northern Railroad was fixing to erect across the Yellow Tongue Gorge. Whitewater raced through the narrow canyon bottom, moving like the Furies. The beginnings of the trestle, clinging skeleton-like to the eastern rim of the gorge, lifted 150 feet into the cold skies. The gorge itself was 1,500 feet wide there. It would take a lot of time and skill and a lot of timber to reach the western bank.
'Myself, I don't care if or how they make it,' I answered. I was weary and cold and the birds overhead were telling me it was time to travel south before the blinding heavy snows of winter began. 'Let's collect our pay and ramble. Unless you want to stay on here?'
I won't tell you what he said in response. It was multi-syllabic and very harsh. The wind was up to near thirty miles an hour and the sky was closing, the temperature somewhere near forty when we checked the crosscut saw into the equipment shed. Considering, we saddled our horses in the stable, not wanting to hang around longer than necessary after we got paid, and trudged to the railroad office to take care of business.
It was a hastily thrown up affair of unpainted, mismatched lumber sitting in a tilted position on the side of the stump-strewn hillside. White smoke rose from its iron stovepipe, promising warmth. I started to feel better. The day hadn't yet gathered into snowclouds. The cold wind was moderate. My muscles and raw callused hands were no worse than they had been for the weeks of lumbering. Now with the prospect of hard cash in hand and a hotel room away from the vermin and man noises in the bunkhouse, spirits were lifting. I followed Ben Comfrey up the three steps to the shack, scraping my boots before we entered the close confines of the pay shack.
Behind the counter Jerrod Lucas sat, a thin, balding unhappy-looking man who handled the petty cash for the railroad. He looked sour, but then he always did. He must have been weaned on pickles. In one corner, tilted back on a wooden chair sat 'Sad Sam' Tremaine. Him, I did not like. The man had a cat-like grace, but his eyes were those of a fox. I don't know what his official title was – if he had one. His only skill seemed to be breaking up fights that erupted among the tired and bored lumbermen by breaking their skulls with the muzzle of his Colt .44.
As I say, he had only one skill. But he was very good at that.
I ignored his coal-black eyes as Ben and I went to Lucas's counter and presented our paybooks.
'You two leaving?' Lucas said, as if it were a surprise to him.
'Our agreement called for three hundred spar logs,' Ben replied, removing his hat. 'They're cut – there's the foreman's notations in our books. We've had enough of this work. We're drawing our pay.'
'Sorry you're leaving,' Lucas said, studying our paybooks through his thick spectacles. 'But I guess with winter coming on....'
'That's it,' Ben said. 'I can still bring in my winter wheat and with a little spare money, the wife, kids and I will make do until spring.'
'The only problem ...' Lucas said, straightening his glasses with a forefinger, 'is that the boss is not here to authorize this.'
I was dimly aware of the elevated legs of the chair 'Sad Sam' was sitting in, coming down to the floor.
'Yeah, we know that,' Ben persisted. Mr Alton McCallister, manager of the Colorado Northern crew had departed for New Madrid on the line train a week previous. The weather, he said, was not good for his arthritis. 'What does that have to do with us? We done our work; we want our pay.'
I could see a little fire building in Ben's eyes, so I touched his arm, crossed my forearms on the puncheon counter and tipped back my hat. I tried smiling. 'We just want our wages, Jerrod.' I turned my small blue paybook around again to look at my figures. 'Seventy-four dollars and fifty cents for me. Ben must have about the same due him.' I nodded at the company safe in the corner. 'I know you've got that much poked away somewhere.'
'The boss would have to sign it off,' Lucas said. 'I told you. He's not here.'
I was vaguely aware of Sam Tremaine's bootsteps shuffling across the wooden floor behind me. Ben, he was furious.
'You damned crooks!' he exploded. 'My family is waiting for me to get home with that pay.'
I tried remaining calm although I was as unhappy as Ben. 'See here, Jerrod, we fulfilled our side of the bargain. Two months felling at thirty-five per, plus extra pay for the two Sundays we worked. I know seventy-four fifty isn't a lot to you, it isn't a lot to a big company like Colorado Northern, but it is to us. How about you just fork over our wages and we'll leave.'
'I need Mr McCallister's signature to disperse any monies,' Lucas said, and this time he said his piece with a little sideways smirk. Probably because he knew Sad Sam was right behind us. 'The only thing you could do now would be to ride to New Madrid and find Mr McCallister. Show him your paybooks and have him write me a note.'
'That's a hundred miles down and a hundred back!' Ben shouted. 'God knows when the blizzards are going to hit.'
'It's company policy,' Lucas said, and then his eyes lifted and he side-stepped away. I knew what was coming. I threw my elbow back wildly and ducked. When I came up from my crouch I saw that my elbow had gotten Sad Sam in the wind and he was sort of bent forward, his jaw a welcome target for my clenched fist. I'm not the biggest man in the world, but the hard life of work I have led had toughened my muscles. I got Sam with a solid blow and he staggered backward, dropping his Colt before he came up against the plank wall and sort of slid down to sit on the floor.
Ben hadn't moved, but Lucas had, surprising both of us as he cut loose with a shotgun. Aimed straight up, it created a new smoke vent in the roof of the flimsy ceiling. I grabbed Ben by the arm and we raced toward the door of the shack. Very early on I had learned not to argue with a twelve-gauge scattergun, right or wrong.
We broke through the leather-hinged door; at the same time. Sad Sam, having recovered his wits, snatched up his revolver and leveled two or three shots at us, tearing great splinters from the wall of the shack. Nearly simultaneously we saw a group of Colorado Northern workers emerge in a confused crowd from the timber. I don't know what they thought the shots were about – Indians, robbers, murder – but here they came streaming down the muddy slopes waving axes and pistols. Ben and I raced for the stable and jumped onto our ponies' backs.
I spurred my black horse's flanks, startling it, and he leaped into motion. Ben, on his stubby roan was just yards behind me. There were some wild following shots fired. I don't think anyone knew what he was shooting at, but a group of men with guns in their hands kinda feel obliged to cut loose with some lead on general principles.
I was racing the black horse down through the pine and cedar-clotted hillside toward the dark flats below when I saw Ben just tilt to one side and then the other and fall from the saddle, rolling twice to the cold earth where he lay still while his roan stepped on its reins, tossed its head in confusion and finally came to a ginger-stepped walk. I didn't know what had happened to the roan. It seemed to have lamed itself. I was concerned only with Ben Comfrey.
I spun my white-stockinged black around and rode that way, dismounting on the run. When I reached Ben and crouched down, I could see the blood leaking from his mouth.
'Bastard shot me,' Ben said. He was having difficulty with his words. I don't know who it was that shot him. Maybe Sad Sam Tremaine, maybe one of those wildly firing lumberjacks.
It didn't matter. Ben was a goner.
I knew this from the color of the pink blood and from the froth in it. He had been lung shot and there is no bandage or doctor who can stop that sort of bleeding. I lifted my eyes to the hillrise where blue spruce and lodgepole pine crowded the skyline to assure myself that no one was now pursuing us. Then I sighed most heavily, sat against the half-frozen dark earth and put Ben's head on my lap.
'It's nothing, Ben. Only a nick. I'll get you into New Madrid. I hear they've got a real Eastern doctor there now.'
'That so? Have they got a real preacher?' Ben said, and he closed his eyes. A few minutes later he did say, 'Ryan – my wife needs that money.'
Then he didn't say a thing more. Just out of reach of his hand I saw his stubby pipe. The bowl was stained with blood. I closed his eyes. The roan had come near with seeming misery in its eyes. It nudged Ben with its muzzle, but, of course, the dead man did not respond.
I rose, dusted the mud and dampness from my Levi's and waited a long minute, deciding. Then I swung into the black horse's saddle and headed south. Maybe, if the weather held, I could reach New Madrid within the week and hold a conversation with Mr Alton McCallister, the manager of the construction gang for the railroad. I didn't know. I just knew that somewhere near Billings, Ben Comfrey's wife was waiting for her man to come home, bring in the winter wheat and provide for the long coming months with the hard money he had earned.
Maybe it wasn't my job, my duty, but, as I said, I hadn't been headed anywhere in particular to begin with. Besides, I could use that $74.50 too. As they say, it's not the money, but the principle. Well, this was both. I still found myself feeling guilty about Ben's body, but there hadn't been time to dig a grave with all those railroad people after me, and carrying him day after day on the trail was impractical. I had gathered up Ben's paybook, the scuffed wallet he carried, his Colt and gunbelt and jammed them into my saddle-bags.
His roan had followed along for a while, not knowing where else to go. But I had checked him over briefly and felt the heat in its foreleg and knew it had strained or torn a tendon there. I had stripped off Ben's saddle and bridle and set the roan loose. It followed us for a few miles, limping pathetically, and then gave up hope of keeping up with the black and just disappeared into the wilds.
Then, with the cold wind following I had started south toward New Madrid, down along the Wyoming line. There was a man there I needed to talk to.CHAPTER 2
My luck wasn't holding at all. By nightfall the snow had begun. Not the heavy blanketing fall of midwinter, but what was being driven down from the tangled sky by a rising wind was just as cold. Along about five o'clock I could no longer see where I was riding. I rode the black horse up into some thicker timber and eased my way along the trail until I found an upthrust of granite that cut most of the northern wind. You couldn't call it a shelter of any kind, but I figured I could survive well enough on the lee side until morning. I wrapped my blankets tight around me and, with my horse tethered, leaned back to watch the dark trees dancing and bowing, yielding to the bluff winter. Even the largest pines swayed before the driving wind. It was frozen hell, enough even to make me long for that ratty, stinking barracks back along Yellow Tongue.
I pulled my hat as low as it would go, hunched my shoulders as high as they would go and crossed my arms, thrusting my gloved hands into my armpits. It didn't do a lot of good as far as warmth was concerned, but maybe it was for the best that I couldn't even catch forty winks.
Because they came at me in the hour before midnight. Three men, one mounted, two afoot, leading their horses. The mounted man was Sad Sam Tremaine – I knew him by his yellow and red mackinaw even in that light. And by silver cloud-filtered starlight I saw the glint of a blue-steel revolver in his hand. I shoved myself to one side and shot before I was ready. It was before Sam was ready as well, for I saw him stand in his stirrups and then throw out his arms. Of the two men afoot one drew his Colt and fired wildly and the other took to his heels, running while he tried to mount his horse at the same time. The man who shot at me I had tagged in the chest with the .44.
I don't know to this day who he was, only that he had come to hunt me down and kill me. The fleeing man I let go as I stood and listened to his horse's hoofs pounding away and fading into the distance.
I approached the two men I had shot. Sad Sam made a few muffled, inhuman sounds and that was all as I reached him. The other gunman was only a silent dark form against the new bluish white of the snow.
Excerpted from The Drifter's Revenge by Owen G. Irons. Copyright © 2006 Owen G. Irons. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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