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The Last Hard Men
By Brian Garfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
When Provo tripped, on purpose, over his leg irons, he let loose of the sledgehammer and fell on his hands. He timed the fall to put the fist-sized rock under his chest. When he started getting up, the rock was enclosed in the circle of his fist.
Guard Harrison came wheeling back down the hill road along the line of shackled prisoners, hefting his riot gun like a club. His big face was angry-red, peeling under the Yuma sun. "Shake it up, Provo."
"Don't shit in your britches."
Harrison's pale eyes studied him with hot mistrust. He turned to reach down and pick up Provo's discarded sledgehammer, and glanced up the hot dusty hill. The front of the line had gone across the top—Guard Johnson was up front somewhere.
Guard Harrison seemed to catch it coming, out of the corner of his eye, but he was too slow. Provo smashed the rock into the back of his head.
It stunned the guard. He went to his knees, eyes losing focus. Provo jumped at him, rolled him over on his back away from the riot gun. Harrison was too dazed to fight, but his eyes showed his distress; sweat burst out in beads on his upper lip.
George Weed said, "Kick the shit out of him, Zach."
Provo ignored it. He reached across Harrison to get the riot gun.
Guard Johnson came in sight on the hilltop, looking to see what had stopped the marching line. Provo leveled the riot gun. "I'd stay friendly."
But Johnson's gun muzzle lifted. Provo pulled the trigger: the buckshot blast ripped into Johnson's chest and exploded his heart. Spasm closed his hand around the trigger and his gun erupted into the ground; its recoil knocked it out of his fists.
Provo could tell Johnson was dead by the way he fell. He spun toward Harrison, worked the pump action of the riot gun, and braced himself. But Cesar Menendez was already on top of Harrison, dragging the next man after him on leg chains; Menendez had his thumbs against Harrison's eyes and his knee in Harrison's gut. Harrison tried to struggle—got his hands on Menendez's wrists. The little Mexican batted them away with contemptuous indifference and went for the throat, thumbs against larynx. It only took a few seconds.
Provo's fiery eyes shifted from face to face. "They made a mistake, marching us this far out of Yuma to build their fucking road. Nobody near enough to remark those gunshots. We're out."
Young Mike Shelby was dubious. "We ain't likely to get far in these irons, Zach. The keys are back in the yard captain's office."
Provo bounced the riot gun in his enclosed fist. He reached down with his free hand to pick up the sledge-hammer. "We've got these. Bust the chains, anyway—worry about the ankle cuffs later. Unless some of you want to walk back inside the walls?" Provo smiled, and moved suddenly: he did most things suddenly. He lifted the hammer overhead in both hands and brought it down hard on the chain between his foot and Menendez's. It crumpled a link but didn't break it. A knotted muscle bunched at Provo's dark jaw line; he swung again, swung a third time, and parted the chain.
There wasn't much talk. Hammers started swinging all up the line, driven by biceps hardened on the Yuma rock pile.
Provo picked up the riot gun, sat down in the dirt, and splayed his legs out straight. The two-foot chain hung slack between his ankles. "Bust me loose, Menendez—and you ricochet any pieces into my balls, I'll kick your ass into the middle of next week."
Young Mike Shelby said, "He's joshin' you, Cesar. He's too old to have much use for them anymore. Anyhow he's been in Yuma so long he's forgot how."
"Twenty-eight years," Provo breathed: the Yuma gates had closed on him in 1885.
Menendez's hammer clanged off the chains; finally they broke. Provo stood up dragging the ragged ends. Menendez said, "Cot it off with a hacksaw, if you can get near one. Only take about fie honnerd strokes,"
"If he don't cut his ankles off instead," Mike Shelby said. "That'd be a lot quicker." Shelby was always ready with a sour humorous remark. He only had six months behind him; they hadn't crushed it out of him yet.
Provo's dark hatchet face swiveled toward Menendez. "Come on up the hill with me. Let's take that other gun away from Will Gant before he decides to walk off with it by himself."
"Orrai," Menendez agreed.
They walked up the hill past swinging hammers. Provo had his finger inside the trigger guard of the riot gun, the slide balanced across the crook of his elbow. Portugee Shiraz, vulpine faced, grinned through bad teeth and said, "What you gonna do next, Zach? Part the waters?"
"You just stick with me, Portugee." Provo went on up the line with Menendez.
Will Gant saw them coming. He swung his big-bellied shape around ponderously and thought about picking up Johnson's riot gun from the ground—he had put it down to use both hands on his sledge.
"Naw," Menendez said, "I wouldn't think like that, Will, it ain't es-smart."
Gant kept thinking about it, though—measuring the distance, judging the angle of Provo's gun muzzle. The heavy roll of his lips peeled back nervously. "Yair," he said, "I guess not. You want the gun, hey, Zach?"
"I've already got a gun," Provo said. "Menendez wants the gun."
Gant thought about that, visibly. Finally he said, "You waitin' on me to fight you for it, Menendez?"
"Naw, you lazy turd. I ain't got time for such truck."
"Then get yo' dumb ass on over here and pick it up. I ain't rightly fixin' to mess with you."
"Smart," Zach Provo commented. "Go ahead, then, Menendez."
Menendez, with a thin smile, bent down to pick up the gun. He kept his head cocked, kept his eyes on Will Gant looming above him. Gant didn't stir. Menendez hefted the riot gun and went over to the dead guard to strip the blood-darkened cartridge belt off him.
Provo was counting heads from his vantage point on top of the hill. Will Gant waddled over and ranged himself alongside him. "You takin' over now, Zach?"
Twenty-seven men, Provo tallied. Too many: too unwieldy. Distracted, he said, "What do you think?" And without awaiting a reply, climbed the steep pitch alongside the road to the summit twenty feet higher. From here he could make out a little bit of the brown glint of the Colorado River, and the bluff where the ruins of Fort Yuma stood on the far side, in California. The flayed hilly landscape was empty of movement. The sun, on this early morning in July, was hard as brass. He had it behind him. He turned a slow circle on his heels surveying the great desert baking pan eastward, the line of stunt trees along the Gila and distant arid mountains. He shaded his eyes with a hand, saw nothing—no stirrings, no dust—and skittered back down to the road.
The hammers were still ringing. He waited for them to finish. Menendez fixed himself to him, at his shoulder. "What now?"
"We get rid of the sheep," Provo said. His eyes were narrowed in a thoughtful squint.
"And keep the goats?"
Menendez picked at his scalp and studied his fingernail. "Then you got a plan in mind."
"Maybe I do," Provo said. He filled his chest and bellowed: "All right, everybody up here!"
While they gathered slowly around him, Provo's eyes dreamily tracked a scorpion under the shade of the rock shelf on the slope beyond the road. Its tail stinger was curled up over its back. Portugee Shiraz and Lee Roy Tucker sat down in the road, hammers across their laps. The rest crowded around, stinking of sweat, staying on their feet, and there was a lot of excited talking until Provo yelled at them to quiet down.
"We've got to split this bunch up," he said when he had their attention. "We've got maybe three hours to get shet of this place before the noon water wagon comes. I want them to find tracks going every which direction. Alcorn and Pete Cruz, you take Torres and those two over there and walk north along the river till you get to Quartzsite."
Tom Alcorn said, "Jesus, that's eighty-five mile, Zach, we can't just——"
"You can—or maybe you'd rather end up back in the hole? You can walk it in two days, drink out of the river, keep out of sight if you hear anything, duck into the river if you hear dogs. You find yourselves a blacksmith shop in Quartzsite after dark sometime and get rid of those irons and then you're on your own."
Lee Roy Tucker picked up the hammer in his lap. His adenoidal mouth was open; he was thin as a sapling, with pinched eyes and buck teeth. "Who elected you to give awders, Zach?"
Provo's riot gun stirred. "I won't waste time arguing. Alcorn, get your bunch moving. Now."
"Shee-yit," said Lee Roy Tucker, but he stayed put and watched Tom Alcorn and the other four walk away over the hill without remark. They were happy to go: Pete Cruz was talking about his woman in Guaymas when they walked out of earshot beyond the hilltop.
Provo singled out four more and sent them west, told them to wade across the Colorado and lose themselves in the California badlands. They didn't like the idea much but Provo had the gun, and they went. None of them promised to stick to the route he had dictated, but it didn't matter to Provo; all he wanted was to get rid of them.
He sent seven more, most of them Mexicans, due south—told them to hold to that course until they got well south of Yuma, across the Border into Mexico. They could walk east along the canals to Calexico. They grumbled, and went. Probably they'd get rounded up within twelve hours.
He sent the three old-timers down the Gila, eastward. The river was dry, only a few sinkholes, but they went, because Provo had the gun and Provo was a tough breed to tangle with; and because Cesar Menendez just stood there with his riot gun, watching them all with his fast little eyes.
Provo counted heads again. "Nine of us. That'll do."
"Do what?" young Mike Shelby asked. "What you got in mind, anyway?" Shelby was the only one of them with balls enough to ask that kind of question against Provo's gun, but Shelby was the only one who knew how to take the sting off a challenge with an amiable smile. He had a wide friendly face and a head full of chestnut hair, and the innocence of his nineteen years.
Provo looked them over, walking around, going from face to face. "This time tomorrow," he said finally, "those others will all be back in Yuma if they're not dead. Same thing can happen to us if we don't work together. Everybody understand me?"
Lee Roy Tucker said, "Maybe some of us might rather not take awders from you, Zach."
Provo shifted the riot gun to his left hand. His right hand gripped Lee Roy's arm. Lee Roy burst out in a gray sweat. The steel fingers bit into his arm, the strong thumb casually working flesh against cartilage against bone. Provo said, "When I say jump, Lee Roy, you say How high?"
He let go of Lee Roy's arm and stepped back. Lee Roy looked unhappy, as if his shorts were bunching up. "I don't think I want to mess with you, Zach."
"You bet your ass you don't."
Anticipating trouble from Will Gant, Provo wheeled that way. Gant was tugging at a thick black hair in his nostril. The blunt head was anchored on a thick neck that bulged with folds of fat; the eyes were crafty. Provo didn't bother to watch the eyes, with which Gant would be likely to feint; he watched Gant's feet instead. "How about it, Will?"
"Depends what you got in mind."
It was easy enough to read in Gant's sullen face: he'd sooner herd sheep than follow orders from a half-breed Navajo. But Provo had the gun. Provo said, "I'm going to get us out."
"All right. You won't have no trouble with me." Gant relaxed; his feet shifted and splayed.
Provo turned away, satisfied. "Everybody pay attention now. We're going to walk straight over to the Colorado and sink ourselves down in the arrowweed over there until dark. Sweat it out. On the far side of the river, so the dogs won't get to us. Come dark, we wade downriver into Yuma."
"Into Yuma?" Lee Roy Tucker yelled.
"Shut up and stay still. We wade into Yuma and we wait under the ferryboat dock until sometime after midnight. There's an eastbound S.P. freight comes in across the bridge about two in the morning. Pulls out for Tucson around three. There's always half a dozen zinc-lined meat-hanging icebox cars. We climb into one of them. They'll search all the cars on the train but we hide back in the corners behind the carcasses, underneath. They won't take much time to search—they can't hold an ice car open for long, everything'd melt. Middle of the night, they'll be tired out by then anyway. They won't find us as long as everybody keeps quiet. We're going to freeze our asses but we'll make it. Soon as the train pulls out of Yuma we pitch the ice out and get ourselves thawed out. We jump off when she slows down at some town up the line and we lay belly-flat in the scrub until she's gone by. Then we shanks-mare into town and saw off these irons after dark, and get horses under us."
Mike Shelby said, "You've got it all worked out."
"I've had twenty-eight years for it." He looked them over with icy contempt. "Everybody hear me the first time?"
Lee Roy's jaw was set. "You got short brains, Zach. They bound to get aholt of us."
"Like hell they are. Don't be a farmer."
Lee Roy was rubbing his arm where Provo had squeezed it. Provo said, "You can do this with your teeth or without them. Which way you want, Lee Roy?"
Lee Roy licked his upper lip. "I don't know. Maybe I'd just as soon go it alone, you don't mind."
"I mind," Provo said, flat. "Nobody busts loose now, Lee Roy. Not after you've heard the plan. We go in together and we stick together—like flies on flypaper."
"Why? One less man, make it that much easier for you, Zach."
"I can't have you wandering into a posse and yapping to the law what we're doing. Understand? Now you go ahead and walk away from here if you're still a mind to, Lee Roy. But it'll take you all the rest of your life to walk two steps. Hear?"
Lee Roy scuffed his feet and scowled and didn't argue.
With a tongue dipped in vitriol, Provo snapped at them all: "I was born a few minutes ahead of the rest of you fools—just remember that. Come on, Menendez." He turned on his heel and walked west, toward the river. The loose ends of the chains whacked him around the ankles but he didn't slow down.
When he looked back the rest of them were following. Menendez, with the riot gun, was herding them.
It was stinking hot in the arrowweed rushes. The late afternoon sun beat down on the muddy surface of the river. They could still hear the dogs baying, going away upriver on the far bank, probably tracking the Alcorn bunch on the trail to Quartzsite. He had planned it like that.
Menendez said, "Sonoma bitch, it's gonna work."
"We're not out yet."
"Bot it's gonna work. Seguro que sí." The cruel fox-thin face smiled. "What's that song you humming?"
"They sing it on the Reservation in hard times," Provo said. "Owl's a tough bird."
"You ain't a fullblood Navajo, are you?"
"Half," Provo said.
"Me, I'm half Messican and half es-Spanish and half Yaqui and half Texano and half focking rattlesnake, I guess. Listen, Zach, what we gon do after we get horses?"
"I don't know about the rest of you. I know what I'm going to do."
"I want Sam Burgade," Provo said. He slapped a mosquito. "I want Sam Burgade's cocksucking hide on a spit."
"Hell, ain't you got nawthing better'n that to aim for, Zach?"
Deep hate was a fervor that got stronger with time. Provo shook his head. "I want him, Menendez. I want to peel the tough old bastard down to a whimper."
"Hell, he's got to be a real old man by now."
Provo didn't say anything. After a while Menendez said, "Sam Burgade ain't nawthing but a tired old man, Zach. You'll suit yourself, I guess, but it ain't es-smart, what you fixin' to do. You want to get your hands on Burgade, you gonna have to show your efface right in the middle of Tucson. Tucson's a big town. They got a lot of law there."
Menendez said, "And it ain't as if he was some old mestizo nobody cared nawthing about. Burgade, he's an important es-sonomabitch. Maybe he don't tote a badge no more but he's got a lot of important frands. They hang you sure."
"If he's riding high that's fine," Provo said. "The ground will hit him a lot harder when he falls."
"Shit, whatever he done must've been a focking long time ago, Zach."
Excerpted from The Last Hard Men by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1971 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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