Western Short Story
I was hauling water with my donkey named Smoke when a stranger rode up to the work camp. He was riding a buckskin horse and wore a hat that matched the color of his horse and the color of his fringed buckskin shirt. He had dark, flowing hair that came down over his ears and touched his collar, and he wore a wine-colored neckerchief. As he stepped his horse from one side to another, I saw that he wore a ruby ring.
He smiled and looked down at me with flashing dark eyes. “Who’s in charge of hiring on this project?”
“Either of the Putnam brothers,” I said. “They’re out on the job right now, but I expect they’ll come in for noon dinner.”
“That’s good.” The sun glinted off of his ruby as he put his hands on the saddle horn and leaned forward. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Is this your donkey?”
“Yes, he’s mine.”
“Are you on your own, then?”
“Yes, sir. I am.”
His eyes swept over me. “Kind of young.”
“I didn’t mean there was anything wrong with it.”
I shrugged. “If you want to water your horse, it’s all right.
I’m going to empty this water into the tank.” I pointed at the
two ten-gallon barrels lashed to the packsaddle on my donkey.
The newcomer pushed his hat back on his head. “Thanks, but I
watered him before we crossed the creek. That’s Little Hat Creek,
“Yes, it is.”
“And this is the Little Hat ditch project.”
“Is it named after a little hat? The creek, that is.”
“No. Little Hat Creek is named after Hat Creek, which it flows
into, like the Little Laramie River flows into the Laramie River.”
“That’s good to know.” The stranger put on a routine smile and
glanced around. “I imagine the Putnam brothers would like to get
as much work done as possible before the cold weather sets in and
the ground freezes.”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Oh, I know. I’ll ask them if they’re hiring.”
I caught a glance at the man’s rope tied next to his saddle horn. He looked more like a cowpuncher than a ditch grader to me, but at that point in my life I was too young to have much of an opinion about things. I poured the water into the tank for the mules and horses and led my donkey across the sagebrush flat to the creek. Now in the latter half of September, patches of yellow leaves were showing in the cottonwood trees along the creek bottom. The chokecherry bushes were changing color as well, from dark green to shades of yellow, pink, and crimson. The weather had been hot and dry for weeks, but a cool wind blew from the northwest. I untied the bucket from the top of the pack and went to work dipping water out of the creek and pouring it into the barrels. I poured a bucketful into one side and then a bucketful into the other, back and forth, to keep the weight balanced for Smoke. * * * * *
The Putnam brothers had returned to camp when Smoke and I came trailing in with two more barrels of water. The brothers sat on their three-legged folding stools in the shade of their tent. As usual, they were dressed alike, wearing hats with peaked crowns and flat round brims, vests of light brown wool, white work shirts with long sleeves, grey striped pants, and stovepipe boots with mule-ear pull straps. The brothers had light brown hair and mustaches, high cheekbones, sun-tanned faces, and sturdy chests and shoulders. Vic, the older of the two, was a few pounds heavier than Ned. They each lifted a hand to wave at me as I led my donkey past them. By the time I had the water poured into the stock tank, Gilliam had rung the triangle. The Putnam brothers had gone first, and then the newcomer. The brothers had set their stools in the chuck area, as it was their custom to eat with the men and chat with them. The newcomer in the buckskin shirt had taken a seat on the ground and was eating beefsteak from a tin plate in his lap. The work crew had not come in yet, so I didn’t have to wait in line. I picked up a plate and utensils from the tailgate of the chuck wagon and served myself fried meat and potatoes from the cast-iron skillets at the edge of the fire. Gilliam, the cook and ruler of the chuck wagon, stood by in a white shirt and apron, smoothing his clipped white mustache. His helper, a boy named Garry who limped, held out a tin plate of biscuits for me to help myself. I sat cross-legged on the ground near the newcomer. “I’m off to a good start,” he said. “Made it just in time for the dinner bell.” “That’s good,” I said. “They feed us well here.” “By the way.” He paused with his knife and fork. “My name’s Bill. Bill Smith. I didn’t tell you my name when you told me yours.”
Vic Putnam spoke up. “Benny’s our Mexican.” When no one said anything, he added, “But he’s a good one.” Bill spoke to me again. “It’s a nice donkey you’ve got.” “Thanks. We get along just fine.” * * * * * Bill went to work driving a scraper, and according to what the other men said at suppertime, he picked up the technique right away and had a good hand with horses he hadn’t worked with before. He had changed into a drab flannel work shirt before he went out for the afternoon, so he did not look so flashy as he sat on the ground and ate a bowl of stew. The breeze did not die down at sunset, so most of the men went to the bunkhouse tent when they finished eating. Bill made short work of his meal and joined them. I followed not far behind. When I found a chair in the bunkhouse, Bill was chatting it up with the other men and handling a deck of cards. He cracked the deck, shuffled it, cut it, and showed the ace of spades. A couple of men laughed. He went through the motions again and showed the queen of hearts. Men laughed as before.
As he worked the deck, the ruby ring on his left hand sparkled in the lamplight. I realized he had handled his spoon, and his knife earlier, with his left hand. I could tell he enjoyed attention as he set the deck of cards down with a flourish and began to roll a cigarette. “How are you at flipping a coin?” asked one of the men. “No good.” Bill shook tobacco grains into the trough he made of the cigarette paper. “I can flip the coin and catch it all right, but I can’t tell whether it’ll come up heads or tails.” Morg Salter, the foreman, said, “No one can.” Bill shrugged. “Some people claim to be able to. They use a heavy coin, and they say they can count the turns or flips it takes. I don’t have that good of an eye.” Salter said again, “No one can.” Bill raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t say they could.” He licked the paper, tapped the seam, and popped a match. He lit the cigarette and rolled it to the side of his mouth without touching it, then shook out the match and tossed it in a sardine can. “But we can try.”
He reached into his pocket and drew out a silver dollar. “Now this is heavy, and you can make it turn slow.” He flipped it up with his left hand, watched it make its slow revolutions, and let it fall flat in his right hand. “But I wasn’t able to count the turns.” He flipped it again, slow like before. “Can anyone else?” No one answered. He flipped it higher, and everyone watched it go up, spinning. It came down flat. “Now that’s the deal, as everyone knows. The higher you toss it, the faster it comes down. So if you’re goin’ to try to keep your eye on it, you want to toss it not too high and not flick it too hard with your thumb.” He did as he said, and the coin took a lazy, rotating climb in the air and turned only once as it came down to fall flat in his palm. “Even at that, I couldn’t count the turns. But some people might.” Salter said, “What I meant was, nobody can predict it. You’ve got a fifty-fifty chance every time, and even if it comes up tails a dozen times in a row, it still has the same chance the next time as any other time.” “Sure,” said Bill. “Everyone knows that, or should.” He took out a five-dollar gold piece, spun it up into the air, swiped it with his right hand, and slapped it on the back of his left hand. “It’s all chance, and the same chance every time, like you say. That’s why a fella shouldn’t bet on it, though people do.” “You sound like a gambler. I heard you tell someone you might set up a business. Is that it–a gamblin’ business?” “I didn’t say I wanted to set up a business. I said that if I ever did go into business, I would deal in dry goods so my inventory didn’t go to spoil. But that was because we were talking about the weather to begin with.” “So you’re not going to engage men in games of chance?” “Not at all. If I play a game, it’s a game of skill.” Salter spoke in something like a drawl as he said, “Where I come from, men have skills for things like ropin’ steers.”
Bill shrugged. “I’ve done that.” “Easy to say, when you don’t have to prove it.” Bill shot out a small puff of smoke. “I have my rope. You get some ropin’ stock, and I’ll try my hand against yours.” “Hah,” said Salter. “We can get along without steers or calves. We can rope this kid’s donkey.” I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach. Bill said, “No need to pick on the donkey.” “Aw, hell, it won’t hurt him. They’re so thick-headed anyway. Back home, a lot of fellas practice ropin’ donkeys.” Bill took a drag on his cigarette. “I’ll let the kid speak for himself.” My heart was thumping in my throat, and I felt a dizziness, but I had to talk. “I’d rather you didn’t. I don’t care if it doesn’t hurt him. I just don’t want you to.” Salter said, “It’s all in fun. Just to get this fella to put up some proof. He talks a good game.” “I don’t want you to.” Bill spit a fleck of tobacco and said, “If this boy doesn’t want you to, nobody should try to make him agree to it. If you want to see if I can handle a rope, you can watch me in the morning. I’ll rope out any work horses that play hard to get when it comes to time to hitch ‘em up.”
Salter stood up and walked out of the bunkhouse. I assumed he went to the Putnam brothers’ tent, as he sometimes did in the evening. Everyone knew they kept a whiskey bottle, even though it was against the rules for anyone else to have liquor in camp. * * * * * The evening air around the campfire was warmer after supper the next night, so most of the men lingered by the fire. So did the Putnam brothers. A thin little mouse-haired fellow named Marcus, who worked with a shovel every day, had brought out his four-string guitar and was singing songs about the girl back home, the girl who married another, the girl who died from the chilling night air, and so on. When he came to a rest, he asked if anyone else would like to hear a song or even sing one. Bill, who had been listening and singing along, said, “I’ve got one or two I wouldn’t mind trying.” “Would you like to use the guitar?” “If you don’t mind.” “Not at all.” Marcus reached over and handed him the instrument. After a minute or so of strumming and tuning, Bill sang a song about a girl who twined flowers into her raven-dark hair. She spoke of lilies and roses and myrtle of an emerald hue. The story ended with her being abandoned and heartbroken, with visions of love all faded away.
After a faint applause, Bill said, “The other one I’ll sing is called ‘My Pretty Quadroon.’” He strummed again, hit a rhythm, and sang a song about a slave who loved a girl named Cora. She had cheeks like the wild rose of June, but the master fancied her, so he sold the slave far away to the rice fields. Then the girl died, and the man ended his story looking forward to seeing her in heaven. A strange silence seemed to have fallen around the campfire. No one applauded. I didn’t know if it was because the song was so sad, or so different from everyone else’s lives, or if it was something I didn’t understand. Vic Putnam had an expression on his face as if he had swallowed a dose of iron. For my part, I did not clap because I did not think I had enough authority to do it on my own. Garry, the kitchen boy, did not have as much hesitation. He said, “What’s a quadroon?” Gilliam twisted his mouth and pulled on his trimmed white mustache. He said, “It means she was one-quarter Negro.” “Oh.” Bill held out the guitar. As Marcus took it back, he said, “I never heard that song before.” “One among many you hear in the various places you go.” Bill grimaced in the firelight. “But there’s very few that I know well enough to play a couple of chords and sing.”
* * * * * Bill and three other workers were lagging pennies after supper the next evening as the sun slipped behind the mountains. They were laughing and joking and having a good time as they lost and won a few pennies. I was sitting with my back to the tent, feeling the warmth of the canvas and enjoying the last of the sunlight. As the men took their places at the lag line for another round, Morg Salter appeared. Well-built and a little taller than average, he wore his hat at a jaunty angle and had his sleeves folded up. He had muscular arms, and I thought he flexed his muscle as he held his pipe at the corner of his mouth. He blew out a cloud of smoke and spoke to Bill. “Do you ever do anything more manly than pitch pennies and cut cards?” Bill smiled. “Depends on the occasion.” “Different camps have their traditions. Contests and matches. All in fun, you know.” Bill raised his eyebrows. “I’ve seen some of it. In a mining camp, I had the pleasure of watching and hearing a cussing contest. They used mules for judges.” “That’s cute.”
“And in other camps they have wood-chopping, and barrel-rolling. I’ve even seen spoon races, where they run holding an egg in a spoon–and that’s in places where an egg is worth a dollar.” “At this camp, sometimes we have boxing matches.” “Is that right?” Salter’s drawl came out. “All civilized. We use boxing gloves, so no one gets hurt.” “I see. Is this some kind of an initiation?” “Not always. Sometimes it’s just a friendly challenge.” Salter blew out another puff of smoke. “Are you up for it?” Bill’s glance swept over the other man. “Is that a challenge from you, then?” Salter gave a wide smile. “That’s how it’s meant.” He turned to me. “Benny, go into the back of the tent, to the gear box, and bring out the two pair of gloves. You know the ones I mean.” I nodded. I had a picture of them in my mind. I stood up from my chair and walked into the tent, where the mixed smells of dust and leather and sweaty clothes hung in the warm air. I headed to the far end and opened a large wooden box that held ropes and stakes and a wooden block and tackle, along with burlap bags, folded canvas sheets, a singletree for hanging animals, and two pairs of boxing gloves. The gloves were large and well padded, with a covering of soft, reddish leather. I had seen them come out of the box before, so I knew them on sight. I gathered the four gloves into my arms, lowered the lid, and made my way outside.
Bill and Salter stood waiting with their hats off. As I handed two gloves to each of them, Salter looked down his nose at Bill’s hands. “You might want to take off your ring. You can hurt your finger.” “I don’t take it off.” “Suit yourself.” I tied the laces for both men, and they stepped away to face off. Bill held his gloves at chest level with his elbows relaxed. Salter held his gloves at about the same level but made small, circular motions as if he was trying to draw in his opponent. Bill stepped forward, jabbed with his left hand, hit Salter’s joined gloves, and sank back. He began to move to his right, circling, and Salter moved along with him. Salter made sniffing sounds as he continued to make small motions with his gloves. Bill jabbed again, glanced a blow off of Salter’s gloves, and stepped back. Salter had his face tight and his eyes intent, and he moved in a slow, methodical way. Bill changed his style. He still circled to his right, but he dropped his gloves to his hips and danced from one foot to the other. Now he jabbed with his right hand, which seemed to throw Salter off. Bill changed his footing, jabbed with his left, then danced and jabbed with his right.
Salter fended him off. Bill sank back, bounded from one foot to another, stepped forward with a right punch, and followed with a great left-handed roundhouse from below waist level. It was prodigious. It knocked Salter back on his heels, and as he tried to get his footing, he fell to the ground. Bill stood in place with the large gloves a little below chest level. He watched Salter as the man rose to one elbow, sat up, rolled to the side, and pushed himself up onto his feet. “Are you all right?” said Bill. Salter moved his head back and forth. “Yeah. I’m fine.” “Is that enough, or do you want to go some more?” “I think it’s enough for today.” “All in fun, of course, like you said.” “Sure.” Salter held his wrists toward me, and I stepped forward to untie the laces and pull off the gloves. I turned around to do the same for Bill, as he stood waiting. As I turned, I saw the Putnam brothers about ten yards back, not far from the front of their tent. I assumed they had watched the match. Now that it was over and their foreman was finding his hat and pipe, they turned and walked into their tent. A minute later, Salter joined them. As I pulled the second glove off of Bill, he said, “Thanks, Benny. Maybe you’ll make a referee some day.” When I did not answer, he said, “You’d probably rather work with your donkey.”
I said, “For right now, anyway.” * * * * * Bill and his pals were lagging pennies again the next day as Garry, Gilliam, and I got the water ready for men to take baths. The day being Saturday and a market day in town, the crew had quit at noon, and some of the men who were going into town wanted to bathe first. Our method was not very complicated, and it allowed men to clean up in a short amount of time and not use much water. The bath area was set up several yards away from camp, so that the mud would not become a nuisance. The men had put up a canvas wall with poles and ropes, and the man bathing stood in a tub with his back to everyone else. I hauled the water from the creek and stood by as Gilliam heated it in large pots over the fire. I dipped the warm water and handed it to Garry, who swung the bucket with his limp as he carried it, then splashed the water in trickles on the man who stood in the tub. When the man was done, he stepped out of the tub onto a wooden pallet, dried himself, and put on his clothes. When Gilliam called Bill’s name, Bill came striding to the bath area and took his clothes off in his carefree manner. From where I stood, midway between the fire and the bath area, I had a clear view of Bill’s bare back side, down to his ankle, where a number was tattooed in blue ink.
At that time, I did not know much about the larger world, but I knew that some men who were marked in that way had been in prison, just as convicts and slaves, in earlier times, had been burned in the hand. At this moment, I knew that others had seen the tattoo on Bill’s ankle, and I also knew that as a general practice in the West, people did not ask a man about his past. * * * * * A few men set off for town on horseback, and a few rode in the wagon with Gilliam and his helper, Garry. The Putnam brothers had left earlier, and we were given to understand that they would stay at the hotel and have baths there. I rode my donkey bareback, poking along a ways behind the wagon. In a little while, Bill caught up with me on his buckskin horse and fell in alongside. He was dressed the way he was when he first rode into the work camp. In addition to his regular felt hat, he wore his buckskin shirt, maroon-colored neckerchief, and denim trousers. He also had put on a gunbelt I had not noticed before. He must have seen me look at it, for he said, “Nothin’ to worry about. Just a precaution.” “There’s usually not much trouble in Belden,” I said. “That’s good. There’s too much trouble in the world, and it’s too easy to fall into.” “I stay away from it.”
“It’s a good way to be. And of course there’s different kinds.” As we rode on by ourselves, he said, “I was in trouble once, with the law. It cost me my future with a girl. She had to let me go, and I couldn’t blame her. I felt as if I didn’t deserve her, wasn’t good enough for her, after that. It’s a bad way to feel, and it’s hard to fix. Much better to avoid it if you can, and not get in trouble in the first place.” I thought he might be giving me this wholesome advice because he knew I had seen the tattoo on his ankle, but he seemed sincere, in a big-brother kind of way, which was more than most men bothered with, in my experience. After all, I was just a Mexican kid with a donkey, in a world of white men who liked to drink and swagger and flex their muscles and talk about the private parts of women. I did not think Bill fit that pattern, but I did not know how much he might change if he had a few drinks in town. * * * * * Market day in late September brought a great many people into town from the surrounding country. Folks were selling produce out of their wagons–brown potatoes, white turnips, red beets, orange pumpkins, and yellow corn with light green husks. Lambs and goats bleated, and calves bawled. Chickens cackled in crates. Dogs loitered, and little nester kids ran in and out among the wagons, chasing and giggling.
Bill asked me what I was going to do, and I told him that on trips like this, I watched the men’s horses while they spent their time in the saloon. He said, “I’d like you to watch my horse, too.” He dismounted in front of the telegraph office, and I slid off of my donkey. Bill handed me a two-bit piece and said, “I need to go in here for a few minutes. Then I’ll cross over to the saloon, too.” I waited for more than a few minutes. When he came out, we crossed the street and he handed me the reins again. “Do those other fellas give you anything?” “Sometimes a ginger beer or a stick of licorice, but I don’t mind the little bit of work. It gives me something to do.” “Well, if you get tired of standing in one place, you can walk my horse up and down the street. But I don’t expect to spend a long time in there, anyway.” I stood in the street with Smoke and the buckskin and watched the activity around me. In the empty lot between the saloon and the hotel, two pairs of men were pitching horseshoes. In the other empty lots, as well as in the street, people were selling garden crops and farm animals, as I had already seen. I wondered what else might be on sale, so I wandered down the street, leading Bill’s horse with one hand and Smoke with the other.
I paused in front of a two-wheeled shay where a man had an assortment of knives and razors. I saw a couple of pocket knives the likes of which I would like to have after I saved up a little more money. The man asked me, “Where’d you get that nice horse, boy?” “I’m watching it for a man.” “It’s not for trade, then.” “No.” I walked on, passing a butcher’s cart that had a canvas canopy put up. The proprietor had a long fan that he was waving to keep the flies off the cuts of meat. It looked as if he had lamb and pork, not the darker shades of beef. One object caught my attention. Suspended above the meat, hanging on a meat hook from the wooden frame above, a set of heart and lungs was darkening and drying in the afternoon air. The man said, “Don’t get too close, boy. Those animals draw flies.” I walked on.
When I returned to the saloon, men were still pitching horseshoes in the empty lot. The colors of Bill’s buckskin shirt and ruby-colored neckerchief caught my eye. He was talking to a long-haired, bearded man who looked like a hunter or trapper. Horseshoes clanked on the iron stakes, and I could see that a game was under way with two men at one end and their partners at the other. The man who looked like a trapper was talking loud, and I gathered that he and his partner, at the other end, were taking on other teams for a dollar a game. Bill said he did not have a partner but enjoyed playing the game as well as watching it. At that moment, the Putnam brothers crossed in front of me. The smell of bath soap carried on the air, and I imagined they had come from the hotel. They observed Bill as they walked by. The man talking to Bill turned and called out, “Hey, you fellas look like a couple of sports. Why don’t you come over and try your luck?” As he raised his voice, he had the tone of a man who had had something to drink. The Putnam brothers stopped. Vic said, “We don’t play that game.” The man laughed in his beard. “You’re a couple of big-bugs, then, aren’t you?” Vic said, “Watch who you talk to that way, mister.” “Bah. You sound like you got somethin’ in your ass.” “You’ll find out if I do.” Vic handed his hat and vest to his brother. He marched over a few paces, and without coming to a stop, he punched the man in the jaw. The bearded man dropped the horseshoe he was holding and came back with a heavy fist on Vic’s cheekbone.
The fight was on, and the stranger held his own against Vic Putnam, who I had assumed would be hard to beat. The two traded punches until Vic grabbed the man’s hair and pulled. The man flailed his arm and settled it around Vic’s neck, breaking Vic’s hold and throwing him to the ground, where his white shirt picked up dirt and bits of grass. The bearded man stood back, waiting for Vic to get up, when Ned Putnam attacked the man from behind. He clobbered the man with his heavy fists, and when the man went down on all fours, Ned kicked him in the ribs. By now, the man’s partner had come running from the other end of the horseshoe game, and he flew at Ned with both knees raised and doubled. Like a projectile, he hit Ned in the back and flattened him. A sharp voice carried from the board sidewalk in front of the saloon. “Hold it right there, or I’ll shoot someone.” All eyes turned to Morg Salter, who held a six-gun leveled. The man who had landed on Ned scrambled around and stood up. “And who the hell are you?” “My name’s Morgan Salter, and I’m the foreman for these two men you attacked.” “I don’t even know them, but they came up and started trouble with my partner.” Salter spoke in his drawl. “Takes two sides to make a fight. And I’m here to end it. So stand back.”
The man did as he was told. His partner crawled toward him and, with help, made it to his feet. The Putnam brothers stood up and brushed themselves off. Vic said, “He started it with his smart talk.” Salter motioned with his head toward Bill. “Did he have anything to do with it?” Vic shook his head. “Not that I saw.” Salter put his six-gun in his holster. “Good thing for him.” The foreman’s eyes wandered around and landed on me. “What are you doing?” “I’m watching his horse.” “Why aren’t you watching the others?” “I was getting around to it, but he paid me to watch his.” Salter’s eyes rolled up as if he was reading something on his hat brim. He took a breath and brought his gaze around to me. “You’re lucky you stayed out of the trouble. But you should keep farther away.” I didn’t like him finding fault with me. I said, “I was just standing here. I didn’t know there was going to be any trouble.” “No one ever does.” * * * * *
The men set up the bath area again the next Saturday, as another market day was scheduled in town. A well-known boot company from Kansas had announced that it would be there, and a hat company had sent out similar word. As before, the Putnam brothers left camp ahead of everyone else, and I imagined they hoped for a fresh bath that would last a little longer than the previous one. To my surprise, Bill made ready to leave not long after the bosses did. He did not seem to be in a hurry, and I did not expect that he had any plans to overtake them. I said goodbye to him and decided to ride in the wagon with the cook and his helper. Almost everyone on the crew went into town this time. Two of the men who had reputations as penny-pinchers stayed behind to watch the stock. Even the two young fellows who worked as day and night herders had the chance to go, and as the bosses had paid everyone through the day before, a general mood of cheerfulness floated on the air. The ride into town was slow and bouncy, but the weather was fair. The sun was shining, and a light breeze came from the northwest–not bad for the first day of October, when anything could happen from stuffy heat to cold rain to wet snow. As we rolled into town, the streets were lined with people selling goods as before. One new detail presented itself–a low speaker’s platform or stage had been dragged into place in the lot between the hotel and the saloon, and a hand-painted sign sat on an easel. It said: Public Event at 4:00 p.m.
From the position of the sun, I guessed the hour to be about 3:00, so I had time to look at the boots and hats and still take a place near the stage. I wondered if there was going to be music, humor, or some kind of speech. The last time I had seen an outdoor presentation, it had been a poetry declamation by a man who claimed to be following in the footsteps of the great Hoosier poet, whose name I did not recognize. The time before, it had been the Bremen Town Musicians. So I did not know what to expect. The boots and hats were way out of my range, so I did not spend much time coveting them. Back at the stage, I found a place near the front as a crowd began to gather. After a while, as I looked over each shoulder, I guessed about forty or fifty people were present. I heard people chat among themselves and ask one another the time. At a little before 4:00, a man stepped out of the hotel. I recognized him by his buckskin shirt and scarlet neckerchief. He was also wearing his gunbelt. He kept his eyes straight ahead as he walked to the stage and stepped up onto it. He turned, gazed over the crowd, and spoke. “Good afternoon, folks. I’m glad to see you all here. I have some information I would like to present, and I leave it to the good citizens of this county to decide what to do.”
A man near me in a cattleman’s hat spoke up. “What kind of information? You make it sound like it might be something criminal.” Bill nodded. “You’ve got a pretty good idea, sir. It’s about something that happened a while back, a long ways away but still here in Laramie County, and it entails someone among us.” A murmur ran through the crowd, and a voice rose up from off to the right side. Morg Salter said, “Who are you to be talking about a criminal? There’s several of us here that have a hunch that you’ve been in jail.” “What’s your name?” asked the cattleman. Salter said, “He calls himself Bill Smith. He could just as well be Jim Jones.” Bill held his palms up. “It’s true that I gave my name as Bill Smith when I came to work here for the Putnam brothers.” He paused, and several people in the crowd turned to regard the brothers, who stood with their foreman. Bill went on. “My real name is Bill Underwood, and you can check up on me. It’s true that I’ve been in jail. But that doesn’t keep me from telling the truth.” A man in a Scotch cap said, “Well, let’s get on with it. It’s going to get dark in a couple of hours.” Salter said, “I don’t know why we need to listen to him.” Bill turned his palms up. “No one has to. But some people might find it interesting.”
Another wave of muttering went through the crowd, and Bill cleared his throat. He spoke in a raised voice. “There’s a story I came here to tell.” He paused as the crowd gave him its attention. “It began about fifteen years ago, down in Cheyenne. A girl I knew was taken advantage of, or to put it more strongly, violated, and then strangled. I was behind bars at the time. She had turned me down because of the trouble I had gotten into–robbing a train, for those who are interested–and she had become engaged to another young man. Whoever killed her killed him as well, and it was speculated that two people committed the crime.” “How long were you in jail?” asked Salter. “Ten years. When I got out, I learned that the crime had never been solved, so I went about looking into it myself.” He paused as the crowd gave him full attention. “One of the early details I learned was that the girl had not been wearing, and did not have in her effects, a piece of jewelry I had given her. That gave me something look for.” The man in the Scotch cap said, “What kind of jewelry was it?” Bill glanced from one side to the other as he took in the audience. “It was a gold medallion with a ruby set in it, and on the back it had an expression engraved in Latin. Amor vincit omnia.”
I stole a look at the Putnam brothers, and they both wore faces of stone. Bill continued. “The murders happened in Cheyenne, as I said, about fifteen years ago. At that time, men were working on the Sybille Ditch project, and some of them did their carousing in Cheyenne.” He paused. “The piece of jewelry turned up in Laramie twelve years later, at the time that men were working on the Wheatland Reservoir. It was given to a girl who lived in Laramie.” The faces of the Putnam brothers had grown harder, and I thought I saw a glow of resentment on both of them. The man in the Scotch cap said, “This is all a good story, but where is the jewelry, and where is the girl it was given to?” Bill raised his eyebrows. “I have the medallion and the chain that went with it. The girl is here in town.” A collection of gasps and exclamations went up. Bill held out his hands to quiet the crowd. “Not to delay any more, I have an assistant who can bring the young woman here.” He lowered his gaze. “Blanche.” A woman in greying brown hair, who was dressed as if she might press clothes or take in sewing, detached herself from the crowd where she had been standing near the Putnam brothers. With the thickness of middle age but not halting, she marched to the hotel, went in, and came out a couple of minutes later.
She had with her a young woman in her twenties, not anything glamorous but not homely, either. The girl was wearing a dark blue wool cap that matched her jacket and long skirt. She had a light complexion, brown curls beneath her cap, and light-colored eyes. She walked with the woman named Blanche and stepped up onto the platform as Blanche stood by. “Thank you,” said Bill. Turning to the girl, he said, “Thank you for coming today. Would you please tell us your name?” “Rhoda Walsh.” She pursed her red lips when she finished. “And can you tell us why you came?” “Because you asked me to. And you paid my way. I couldn’t have come on my own.” “Your time in itself is valuable. Now, can you tell us the purpose in your coming here?” “Well, it’s like you said. To tell who gave me the necklace.” “This one?” Bill held out his hand at chest level, and a polished medallion the size of a five-dollar gold piece swung on a thin gold chain. As the shiny object moved, a red stone sparkled in the sunlight. “Yes, that’s it.” “And can you tell us who gave it to you?”
“A man named Ned Putnam.” She kept from looking at the crowd. “He was courting me in Laramie, but in the end I turned him down. I would prefer not to say why.” Vic Putnam’s voice burst out. “Now see here! I don’t know what you think you’re going to prove, but I can’t stand by and watch you drag a man’s reputation through the mud. He went through a big disappointment, and that should be enough.” Eyes turned to Ned, who raised his chin and put on a somber expression. Bill’s voice was steady, and I thought he must have prepared his words. “He was in possession of a piece of jewelry that was taken from a murdered woman.” Vic waved his hand. “That’s what you say.” “He can hardly deny that he was in possession of it. As for where it came from, you don’t have to take my word for it. I have someone else who can identify it.” Vic sniffed and rubbed his mustache. “It’s hard to believe someone who’s been to jail.” “I haven’t lied about a thing. And the person I speak of is here among us.”
A hush settled on the crowd as the people looked at those around them. From the opposite edge of the crowd, a man in a short-brimmed hat and dark traveling suit stepped forward and mounted the platform. I could see right away that he had a brown complexion, and from his features I thought he might be part Negro. He stood at the left edge of the stage, while Rhoda Walsh, pale with red lipstick, stood at the right. “My thanks to you for coming,” said Bill. “To move things along, could you tell us your name?” In a plain, clear voice, the man said, “Eugene Hughes.” “And what relation do you have to the case?” “My sister was the person who owned that piece of jewelry. Her name was Ellie Hughes.” Bill held the pendant toward the man. “This one.” Eugene stepped forward and let the medallion lie in his fingers. “Yes, that’s it. With the same inscription.” Rhoda Walsh had covered her mouth as she gasped and stepped back to the edge of the stage. Bill turned to her. “Is there something–?” Rhoda stammered, “Wa-was she–?” A voice from the front row called out, “A mulatto.” Eugene turned to the man and said, “We are Creole.” Silence hung for a moment. I did not know how anyone around me felt, but it was impressive for me to hear a colored person speak up for himself. Morg Salter spoke in a slow and deliberate way, after having been quiet for a few minutes. “So you mean to say, that this isn’t just a case of possession of stolen property.” It seemed to be sinking into him as he said it.
“That’s right,” said Bill. “No one has even thought to say that he bought it in a pawn shop. And it’s not just the case of a common thief stealing a ring to put on a girl’s finger. It’s a crime of force. Put it together. You’ve worked for them since the Sybille Ditch project. You remember the towns you went to.” Salter’s eyes tightened as he peered at his two bosses. Muttering traveled through the crowd, and I heard the words “law,” “sheriff,” “lock ‘em up.” Vic Putnam moved away from those around him, and his eyes met those of his brother. Quick on his feet, Vic took hold of the woman named Blanche and put the barrel of his pistol against her cheekbone. “No one’s goin’ to do anything,” he said. Ned followed suit, springing onto the stage and laying his hand on Rhoda Walsh’s upper arm. She had an expression of contempt as she jerked her elbow backward, twisted away, and said, “Don’t put your hands on me.” Bill had his gun drawn and said, “Hold it right there, both of you. Let the women go.” With Rhoda out of the way, Ned fired. A red spot appeared on Bill’s buckskin shirt, but Bill put two bullets into Ned’s chest and knocked him over backward.
Blanche, meanwhile, was squirming enough to break loose, and she stumbled and fell to the ground. Vic brought his six-gun around to point it at Bill, and the two of them fired at the same time. A second red spot appeared on Bill’s shirt, and he fell flat on his rump with his legs spread out. Vic Putnam took one step backward and spilled over on his side. Most of the people in the crowd had pushed way back, and some of them had run away. Eugene Hughes came forward from where he had gotten out of the line of fire. He knelt by Bill and held him up. I moved to see Bill’s face, and he smiled at me. “Come here,” he said. My legs felt unsteady as I stepped up onto the platform and drew close. I knelt along with Eugene. Bill said, “I didn’t want it to come to this. I wanted to expose them and then have them face the law. I should have planned it better. I put too much stake in making it public.” Eugene said, “I think you got yourself shot pretty bad.” “Oh, I did. I can tell.” Bill raised his left hand, where the thin gold chain was twined in his finger. He handed the medallion to Eugene and said, “I want you to have this.” Eugene took the chain and medallion. “She would appreciate what you did.” Bill let out a sigh. “Maybe so. But I never felt good enough for her.” “Don’t worry about that now.” “I suppose not. I don’t have long.” With his other hand, Bill raised his pistol.
I drew back because it was pointed at me. He said, “No, no, kid. I want to give this to you. This and the holster.” “I don’t–” “I want you to have it. It’s all I’ve got except for my horse and saddle. I want Garry the kitchen boy to have them.” “Are you sure?” said Eugene. “Yes, I am. You both heard me.” “Anything else?” Bill shook his head. His eyes were going dull. “No, just let me lie down.” “What about your ring?” “I’d like to keep it.” In another minute, he was gone. My throat was swelled up, and I had nothing to say. I fought against the tears that came to my eyes. A voice spoke from above my shoulder. I recognized it as Morg Salter’s. “You can never be sure how well you know someone.” I understood him to mean the Putnam brothers. He sniffed and went on. “Even this fella here. He wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
I stood up and swallowed hard. I could not make myself speak. I could not say how sorry I was that Bill died for taking all the trouble he did to bring out the truth, and I could not say, though I believed it, that he was good enough.