Western Short Story
Without a doubt, he realized the best job on the East-West Railroad was his, the way he could pick out any stop on the huge line and hang around for a few days getting the taste of the town, which way its politics leaned, who were the kingpins and the dead-beats, the ones really in charge of the town or controlled those who did their bidding, no matter what, where and how, and certainly the cost, which meant who suffered most of the cost, in property, money or lives.
He could move on at will, at death, making notes in a pad thicker by the wayside station just studied, including the raft of attractive women loose thereabouts, the beauties of the land, the ultimate choices that made him stay an extra night, or move on with the next train, no crossing the dead plains on a horse for days on end, no, not for him. Hot on the rails, just for him, not the trails.
Doug landed in Burlson, Kansas on a midnight stop-and-go delivery of a dozen horses, high-type studs that cost a small fortune to move a car-load full, set up an off-loading ramp, lead the high-type horses to a local corral waiting for owner pick-up, his curiosity already in high gear: who had a small fortune to rig such a load, expose such a need, that sent messages of all varieties through his mind like how was the fortune earned in the first place. From endless trail herds? Land sales? Swapping? Inheritance via duel or death? Accrual of properties in the shady deals often rigged by one smart man atop another? Find a woman or women fitting into such a deal, beauties always paying off whether they knew it or not.?
He’d find, often in a short search, a comfortable corner in a local saloon, like The Big Pinch he was now at, where he could see the door, who came and went, who in the crowd spoke loudest or loosest, who unwittingly gave off leads, secrets, actions being planned to shift ownerships of anything worth owning, seeming most likely at a cost to the railroad, That included land by huge measures, horses, cattle, women, or property of long-established ranches providing income by lots. Lots of lots.
The leads, the supposed secrets, were heard by Diamond and marked forever in his small booklet, a note pad of treasures now accorded, recorded, for his own interest, or for those listening at railroad headquarters, those intrepid leaders of ideas and commissions who hailed Doug Diamond “as the best-danged dick on our payroll., bar none.”
Diamond was pleased at their commendations as he fit the job he loved doing from the very first day of work, “a man born to this very task.”
In the Big Pinch he was listening to Fred “Jaws” Gabler, a noted gabber of things common or uncommon according to the listener of the revelations; “I swear this new card in the deck came with the two biggest problems in the way all done-up good by his hand to clear any problems in the path of the take-over, both of them by his own hand, and wrapped-up like a Christmas or birthday present for that boss of mine, like the present of all presents, and nobody else in the business any the wiser, as they say, a miracle done without a request, free and clear, like he was doing what he would be requested to do once he was hired by my boss, like a favored son before he was known, that quick and clean the way few people, especially a cowpoke, can wrap it up.”
There it was for him, and the railroad gents, all on the barrelhead, square on the circle of the image; names of killer, the two dead cowpokes from elsewhere, the name of the new boss, the name of the jaw-snapper, known as Jaws, names of a few listeners who would and could give evidence of need at a trial, if and when Jaws lasted that long, others in The Big Pinch ready as always to speak about what they heard said, him for a prime witness, but already to move on to another way station, on the circuit of the line going from Boston-New York and clean across the country, come what may.
In the morning, he was in Level City, a few stops down the line, where madness had run rampant a few days earlier, him missing the action by a whole day, him picking an earlier stop, much to his chagrin. In The Big Moment Saloon, he caught up to much of the wild events from at least a dozen story tellers in the large crowd, even for a Saturday morning, the bar busy with customers at steady thirsts of habit or weekend need, dowsing the week’s pain, the long and hard rides, the pushy bosses, the scent of ladies on the very air, the week’s yearning open to satisfaction, up to a dollar’s worth.
One man was worth the admission price; “They come out of nowhere, masks on their faces, not showing one familiar face, not one trait except dark and daring eyes on the loose, the sole memory locked in place, but none known the way they were seen. They shot anything or anybody moving in the street, no matter who it was, lady, kid, old man on a walker stick, shot them dead, raided the bank, shot four people in there, including the teller and the bank president, and then come in here holding the high court as if they held a gun muzzle right in a face, like they was territorial judges making demands of the crowd. I never so much evil on the loose as if the Devil hisself was freed from Hell.
Even made the ladies upstairs targets of hatred and murder past any matter of sins on a weekend. Saw one of them knock a girl dead with a gun handle, and then shoot her deader as she lay bleeding right there in front of him. Horrendous it was, and all over, I bet there are others who saw the same kind of thing I saw, murder in bunches on lone people, of anything moving, talking, stirring the least bit or the last bit of life in themselves. And then one of them left hanging in the air, the single clue they didn’t cover up, one of their horses wore the brand of the Kalitone Ranch, The Shaking K, like it was quivering and waiting to be spotted, reported, the only clue they let go of.
Diamond began roaming the area, finding the nervous K on horses of herders as they grouped and marshalled the stock together for a drive, talked to a few of the rank and file, noted their potentials to things otherwise, like the tone of their eyes, their cover-up moves, their not-so-innocent selves sitting K-saddled horses from a recent plague of murder, unnecessary killing, hidden death no secret any longer to anybody not a witness, not a threat, Diamond not being a threat in their minds in as much as he was a new visitor, not about during the debauchery of Level City, now but a small city laid to ruin by an organized force of men seeking overthrow.
He couldn’t count the damage, the number of needless deaths, the bodies strewn to the streets, the streets cluttered edge to edge, pillage and death in every corner, his mind unable to collect it all, to count the damage, to note which body he had known before death took it away, for no reason at all, not any reason for such duty in a sane world.
He went hunting obvious killers riding the K brand on their mounts, sign of the Devil himself, no questions left on that matter, From a higher position, he saw a herd on the move, the biggest drive he had ever seen, meaning more mounted cowpokes pushing the drive, more men to talk to, inquire data from them if they had splotchy pasts. His real work about to start.
The first man he approached, he had known for a fistful of years; “Hi there, Bob Tisby, haven’t seen you for ages. What you been up to.?”
Tisby could have fallen out of the saddle at Diamond’s question, his face changing colors, his eyes squeezing shut before they opened up, before Diamond saw the fear running across his face.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” Tisby said, “anything at all. I knew all along someone like you was coming on us soon. We did a lot of stuff. All of us, that we should be ashamed of. All of us, everyone driving the herd right now, and right to the top man himself, paying us extra for all our dirty work, payed us good, like we was to be millionaires someday, like he promised us. Oh, I feel like crap now, like I knew it all along.”
“Well, Bob,” Diamond said, “I’m going to write this in my little book. I’ll read it back to you, and you sign it for me, right at the bottom of the sheet with your signature all by its onesies. Fair enough?”
“Sure,” Tisby said, “we did it, so, we got to pay for it the right way. Every one of us, all of us knowing the bubble was gonna blow up on us sometime, like it’s happening right this minute.
It was a cinch after that, the evidence supplied to legal people at the railroad, court convened, the whole crew and the boss, Kalitone himself, sitting in front of the territorial judge, the lawyers, the people who were aware of the menace that had been in operation, the guilty parties, Tisby squirming in his seat at every name called out as guilty, the one-by-ones of a new death parade, death on the move towards their hangings, Doug Diamond, the railroad dick, already down the line at another pit stop, like they never ceased to come out of nowhere but the next stop on the line.