Gunman's Reckoning

Max Brand

Preview: Issue 1 of 28

1

The fifty empty freights danced and rolled and rattled on the rough road bed and filled Jericho Pass with thunder; the big engine was laboring and grunting at the grade, but five cars back the noise of the locomotive was lost. Yet there is a way to talk above the noise of a freight train just as there is a way to whistle into the teeth of a stiff wind. This freight-car talk is pitched just above the ordinary tone--it is an overtone of conversation, one might say--and it is distinctly nasal. The brakie could talk above the racket, and so, of course, could Lefty Joe. They sat about in the center of the train, on the forward end of one of the cars. No matter how the train lurched and staggered over that fearful road bed, these two swayed in their places as easily and as safely as birds on swinging perches. The brakie had touched Lefty Joe for two dollars; he had secured fifty cents; and since the vigor of Lefty's oaths had convinced him that this was all the money the tramp had, the two now sat elbow to elbow and killed the distance with their talk.

"It's like old times to have you here," said the brakie. "You used to play this line when you jumped from coast to coast."

"Sure," said Lefty Joe, and he scowled at the mountains on either side of the pass. The train was gathering speed, and the peaks lurched eastward in a confused, ragged procession. "And a durned hard ride it's been many a time."

"Kind of queer to see you," continued the brakie. "Heard you was rising in the world."

He caught the face of the other with a rapid side glance, but Lefty Joe was sufficiently concealed by the dark.

"Heard you were the main guy with a whole crowd behind you," went on the brakie.

"Yeh?"

"Sure. Heard you was riding the cushions, and all that."

"Yeh?"

"But I guess it was all bunk; here you are back again, anyway."

"Yep," agreed Lefty.

The brakie scratched his head, for the silence of the tramp convinced him that there had been, after all, a good deal of truth in the rumor. He ran back on another tack and slipped about Lefty.

"I never laid much on what they said," he averred. "I know you, Lefty; you can do a lot, but when it comes to leading a whole gang, like they said you was, and all that--well, I knew it was a lie. Used to tell 'em that."

"You talked foolish, then," burst out Lefty suddenly. "It was all straight."

The brakie could hear the click of his companion's teeth at the period to this statement, as though he regretted his outburst.

"Well, I'll be hanged," murmured the brakie innocently.

Ordinarily, Lefty was not easily lured, but this night he apparently was in the mood for talk.

"Kennebec Lou, the Clipper, and Suds. Them and a lot more. They was all with me; they was all under me; I was the Main Guy!"

What a ring in his voice as he said it! The beaten general speaks thus of his past triumphs. The old man remembered his youth in such a voice. The brakie was impressed; he repeated the three names.

"Even Suds?" he said. "Was even Suds with you?"

"Even Suds!"

The brakie stirred a little, wabbling from side to side as he found a more comfortable position; instead of looking straight before him, he kept a side-glance steadily upon his companion, and one could see that he intended to remember what was said on this night.

"Even Suds," echoed the brakie. "Good heavens, and ain't he a man for you?"

"He was a man," replied Lefty Joe with an indescribable emphasis.

"Huh?"

"He ain't a man any more."

"Get bumped off?"

"No. Busted."

The brakie considered this bit of news and rolled it back and forth and tried its flavor against his gossiping palate.

"Did you fix him after he left you?"

"No."

"I see. You busted him while he was still with you. Then Kennebec Lou and the Clipper get sore at the way you treat Suds. So here you are back on the road with your gang all gone bust. Hard luck, Lefty."

But Lefty whined with rage at this careless diagnosis of his downfall.

"You're all wrong," he said. "You're all wrong. You don't know nothin'."

The brakie waited, grinning securely into the night, and preparing his mind for the story. But the story consisted of one word, flung bitterly into the rushing air.

"Donnegan!"

"Him?" cried the brakie, starting in his place.

"Donnegan!" cried Lefty, and his voice made the word into a curse.

The brakie nodded.

"Them that get tangled with Donnegan don't last long. You ought to know that."

At this the grief, hate, and rage in Lefty Joe were blended and caused an explosion.

"Confound Donnegan. Who's Donnegan? I ask you, who's Donnegan?"

"A guy that makes trouble," replied the brakie, evidently hard put to it to find a definition.

"Oh, don't he make it, though? Confound him!"

"You ought to of stayed shut of him, Lefty."

"Did I hunt him up, I ask you? Am I a nut? No, I ain't. Do I go along stepping on the tail of a rattlesnake? No more do I look up Donnegan."

He groaned as he remembered.

"I was going fine. Nothing could of been better. I had the boys together. We was doing so well that I was riding the cushions and I went around planning the jobs. Nice, clean work. No cans tied to it. But one day I had to meet Suds down in the Meriton Jungle. You know?"

"I've heard--plenty," said the brakie.

"Oh, it ain't so bad--the Meriton. I've seen a lot worse. Found Suds there, and Suds was playing Black Jack with an ol gink. He was trimmin' him close. Get Suds going good and he could read 'em three down and bury 'em as fast as they came under the bottom card. Takes a hand to do that sort of work. And that's the sort of work Suds was doing for the old man. Pretty soon the game was over and the old man was busted. He took up his pack and beat it, saying nothing and looking sick. I started talking to Suds.

"And while he was talking, along comes a bo and gives us a once-over. He knew me. 'Is this here a friend of yours, Lefty? he says.

"'Sure,' says I.

"'Then, he's in Dutch. He trimmed that old dad, and the dad is one of Donnegan's pals. Wait till Donnegan hears how your friend made the cards talk while he was skinning the old boy!

"He passes me the wink and goes on. Made me sick. I turned to Suds, and the fool hadn't batted an eye. Never even heard of Donnegan. You know how it is? Half the road never heard of it; part of the roads don't know nothin' else. He's like a jumpin tornado; hits every ten miles and don't bend a blade of grass in between.

"Took me about five minutes to tell Suds about Donnegan. Then Suds let out a grunt and started down the trail for the old dad. Missed him. Dad had got out of the Jungle and copped a rattler. Suds come back half green and half yeller.

"'I've done it; I've spilled the beans,' he says.

"'That ain't half sayin' it,' says I.

"Well, we lit out after that and beat it down the line as fast as we could. We got the rest of the boys together; I had a swell job planned up. Everything staked. Then, the first news come that Donnegan was after Suds.

"News just dropped on us out of the sky. Suds, you know how he is. Strong bluff. Didn't bat an eye. Laughed at this Donnegan. Got a hold of an old pal of his, named Levine, and he is a mighty hot scrapper. From a knife to a toenail, they was nothing that Levine couldn't use in a fight. Suds sent him out to cross Donnegan's trail.

"He crossed it, well enough. Suds got a telegram a couple days later saying that Levine had run into a wild cat and was considerable chawed and would Suds send him a stake to pay the doctor?

"Well, after that Suds got sort of nervous. Didn't take no interest in his work no more. Kept a weather eye out watching for the coming of Donnegan. And pretty soon he up and cleaned out of camp.

"Next day, sure enough, along comes Donnegan and asks for Suds. We kept still--all but Kennebec Lou. Kennebec is some fighter himself. Two hundred pounds of mule muscle with the brain of a devil to tell what to do--yes, you can lay it ten to one that Kennebec is some fighter. That day he had a good edge from a bottle of rye he was trying for a friend.

"He didn't need to go far to find trouble in Donnegan. A wink and a grin was all they needed for a password, and then they went at each other's throats. Kennebec made the first pass and hit thin air; and before he got back on his heels, Donnegan had hit him four times. Then Kennebec jumped back and took a fresh start with a knife."

Here Lefty Joe paused and sighed.

He continued, after a long interval: "Five minutes later we was all busy tyin' up what was left of Kennebec; Donnegan was down the road whistlin' like a bird. And that was the end of my gang. What with Kennebec Lou and Suds both gone, what chance did I have to hold the boys together?"

2

The brakie heard this recital with the keenest interest, nodding from time to time.

"What beats me, Lefty," he said at the end of the story, "is why you didn't knife into the fight yourself and take a hand with Donnegan"

At this Lefty was silent. It was rather the silence of one which cannot tell whether or not it is worth while to speak than it was the silence of one who needs time for thought.

"I'll tell you why, bo. It's because when I take a trail like that it only has one end I'm going to bump off the other bird or he's going to bump off me"

The brakie cleared his throat

"Look here," he said, "looks to me like a queer thing that you're on this train"

"Does it" queried Lefty softly "Why?"

"Because Donnegan is two cars back, asleep."

"The devil you say!"

The brakie broke into laughter

"Don't kid yourself along," he warned. "Don't do it. It ain't wise--with me."

"What you mean?"

"Come on, Lefty. Come clean. You better do a fade off this train."

"Why, you fool--"

"It don't work, Joe. Why, the minute I seen you I knew why you was here. I knew you meant to croak Donnegan."

"Me croak him? Why should I croak him?"

"Because you been trailing him two thousand miles. Because you ain't got the nerve to meet him face to face and you got to sneak in and take a crack at him while he's lying asleep. That's you, Lefty Joe!"

He saw Lefty sway toward him; but, all stories aside, it is a very bold tramp that cares for argument of a serious nature with a brakie. And even Lefty Joe was deterred from violent action. In the darkness his upper lip twitched, but he carefully smoothed his voice.

"You don't know nothing, pal," he declared.

"Don't I?"

"Nothing," repeated Lefty.

He reached into his clothes and produced something which rustled in the rush of wind. He fumbled, and finally passed a scrap of the paper into the hand of the brakie.

"My heavens," drawled the latter. "D'you think you can fix me with a buck for a job like this? You can't bribe me to stand around while you bump off Donnegan. Can't be done, Lefty!"

"One buck, did you say?"

Lefty Joe expertly lighted a match in spite of the roaring wind, and by this wild light the brakie read the denomination of the bill with a gasp. He rolled up his face and was in time to catch the sneer on the face of Lefty before a gust snatched away the light of the match.

They had topped the highest point in Jericho Pass and now the long train dropped into the down grade with terrific speed. The wind became a hurricane. But to the brakie all this was no more than a calm night. His thoughts were raging in him, and if he looked back far enough he remembered the dollar which Donnegan had given him; and how he had promised Donnegan to give the warning before anything went wrong. He thought of this, but rustling against the palm of his right hand was the bill whose denomination he had read, and that figure ate into his memory, ate into his brain.

After all what was Donnegan to him? What was Donnegan but a worthless tramp? Without any answer to that last monosyllabic query, the brakie hunched forward, and began to work his way up the train.

The tramp watched him go with laughter. It was silent laughter. In the most quiet room it would not have sounded louder than a continual, light hissing noise. Then he, in turn, moved from his place, and worked his way along the train in the opposite direction to that in which the brakie had disappeared.

He went expertly, swinging from car to car with apelike clumsiness--and surety. Two cars back. It was not so easy to reach the sliding side door of that empty car. Considering the fact that it was night, that the train was bucking furiously over the old roadbed, Lefty had a not altogether simple task before him. But he managed it with the same apelike adroitness. He could climb with his feet as well as his hands. He would trust a ledge as well as he would trust the rung of a ladder.

Under his discreet manipulations from above the door loosened and it became possible to work it back. But even this the tramp did with considerable care. He took advantage of the lurching of the train, and every time the car jerked he forced the door to roll a little, so that it might seem for all the world as though the motion of the train alone were operating it.

For suppose that Donnegan wakened out of his sound sleep and observed the motion of the door; he would be suspicious if the door opened in a single continued motion; but if it worked in these degrees he would be hypersuspicious if he dreamed of danger. So the tramp gave five whole minutes to that work.

When it was done he waited for a time, another five minutes, perhaps, to see if the door would be moved back. And when it was not disturbed, but allowed to stand open, he knew that Donnegan still slept.

It was time then for action, and Lefty Joe prepared for the descent into the home of the enemy. Let it not be thought that he approached this moment with a fallen heart, and with a cringing, snaky feeling as a man might be expected to feel when he approached to murder a sleeping foeman. For that was not Lefty's emotion at all. Rather he was overcome by a tremendous happiness. He could have sung with joy at the thought that he was about to rid himself of this pest.

True, the gang was broken up. But it might rise again. Donnegan had fallen upon it like a blight. But with Donnegan out of the way would not Suds come back to him instantly? And would not Kennebec Lou himself return in admiration of a man who had done what he, Kennebec, could not do? With those two as a nucleus, how greatly might he not build!

Justice must be done to Lefty Joe. He approached this murder as a statesman approaches the removal of a foe from the path of public prosperity. There was no more rancor in his attitude. It was rather the blissful largeness of the heart that comes to the politician when he unearths the scandal which will blight the race of his rival.

With the peaceful smile of a child, therefore, Lefty Joe lay stretched at full length along the top of the car and made his choice of weapons. On the whole, his usual preference, day or night, was for a revolver. Give him a gat and Lefty was at home in any company. But he had reasons for transferring his alliance on this occasion. In the first place, a box car which is reeling and pitching to and fro, from side to side, is not a very good shooting platform--even for a snapshot like Lefty Joe. Also, the pitch darkness in the car would be a further annoyance to good aim. And in the third and most decisive place, if he were to miss his first shot he would not be extremely apt to place his second bullet. For Donnegan had a reputation with his own revolver. Indeed, it was said that he rarely carried the weapon, because when he did he was always tempted too strongly to use it. So that the chances were large that Donnegan would not have the gun now. Yet if he did have it--if he, Lefty, did miss his first shot--then the story would be brief and bitter indeed.

On the other hand, a knife offered advantages almost too numerous to be listed. It gave one the deadly assurance which only comes with the knowledge of an edge of steel in one's hand. And when the knife reaches its mark it ends a battle at a stroke.

Of course these doubts and considerations pro and con went through the mind of the tramp in about the same space of time that it requires for a dog to waken, snap at a fly, and drowse again. Eventually, he took out his knife. It was a sheath knife which he wore from a noose of silk around his throat, and it always lay closest to his heart. The blade of the knife was of the finest Spanish steel, in the days when Spanish smiths knew how to draw out steel to a streak of light; the handle of the knife was from Milan. On the whole, it was a delicate and beautiful weapon--and it had the durable suppleness of--say--hatred itself.

Lefty Joe, like a pirate in a tale, took this weapon between his teeth; allowed his squat, heavy bulk to swing down and dangle at arm's length for an instant, and then he swung himself a little and landed softly on the floor of the car.

Who has not heard snow drop from the branch upon other snow beneath? That was the way Lefty Joe dropped to the floor of the car. He remained as he had fallen; crouched, alert, with one hand spread out on the boards to balance him and give him a leverage and a start in case he should wish to spring in any direction.

Then he began to probe the darkness in every direction; with every glance he allowed his head to dart out a little. The movement was like a chicken pecking at imaginary grains of corn. But eventually he satisfied himself that his quarry lay in the forward end of the car; that he was prone; that he, Lefty, had accomplished nine-tenths of his purpose by entering the place of his enemy unobserved.

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