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Gunman's Reckoning

Max Brand

  Produced by Suzanne Shell, Dave Morgan and PG Distributed Proofreaders



  Max Brand




  The fifty empty freights danced and rolled and rattled on the rough roadbed and filled Jericho Pass with thunder; the big engine was laboringand grunting at the grade, but five cars back the noise of thelocomotive was lost. Yet there is a way to talk above the noise of afreight train just as there is a way to whistle into the teeth of astiff wind. This freight-car talk is pitched just above the ordinarytone--it is an overtone of conversation, one might say--and it isdistinctly nasal. The brakie could talk above the racket, and so, ofcourse, could Lefty Joe. They sat about in the center of the train, onthe forward end of one of the cars. No matter how the train lurched andstaggered over that fearful road bed, these two swayed in their placesas easily and as safely as birds on swinging perches. The brakie hadtouched Lefty Joe for two dollars; he had secured fifty cents; and sincethe vigor of Lefty's oaths had convinced him that this was all the moneythe tramp had, the two now sat elbow to elbow and killed the distancewith their talk.

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

  "Sure," said Lefty Joe, and he scowled at the mountains on either sideof the pass. The train was gathering speed, and the peaks lurchedeastward in a confused, ragged procession. "And a durned hard ride it'sbeen many a time."

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

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

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


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


  "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 convincedhim 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 theysaid you was, and all that--well, I knew it was a lie. Used to tell 'emthat."

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

  The brakie could hear the click of his companion's teeth at the periodto 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 wasin the mood for talk.

  "Kennebec Lou, the Clipper, and Suds. Them and a lot more. They was allwith 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 thusof 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 amore comfortable position; instead of looking straight before him, hekept a side-glance steadily upon his companion, and one could see thathe intended to remember what was said on this night.

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

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


  "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 andtried its flavor against his gossiping palate.

  "Did you fix him after he left you?"


  "I see. You busted him while he was still with you. Then Kennebec Louand the Clipper get sore at the way you treat Suds. So here you are backon 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 hismind for the story. But the story consisted of one word, flung bitterlyinto the rushing air.


  "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 knowthat."

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

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

  "A guy that makes trouble," replied the brakie, evidently hard put to itto 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 alongstepping 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 boystogether. We was doing so well that I was riding the cushions and I wentaround planning the jobs. Nice, clean work. No cans tied to it. But oneday 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 Sudsthere, 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 thatsort of work. And that's the sort of work Suds was doing for the oldman. Pretty soon the game was over and the old man was busted. He tookup his pack and beat it, saying nothing and looking sick. I startedtalking to Suds.

  "And while he was talking, along comes a bo and gives us a once-over. Heknew 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 ofDonnegan's pals. Wait till Donnegan hears how your friend made the cardstalk while he was skinning the old boy!

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

  "Took me about five minutes to tell Suds about Donnegan. Then Suds letout a grunt and started down the trail for the old dad. Missed him. Dadhad got out of the Jungle and copped a rattler. Suds come back halfgreen 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 wecould. We got the rest of the boys together; I had a swell job plannedup. Everything staked. Then, the first news come that Donnegan was afterSuds.

  "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 ofan old pal of his, named Levine, and he is a mighty hot scrapper. From aknife to a toenail, they was nothing that Levine couldn't use in afight. Suds sent him out to cross Donnegan's trail.

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

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

  "Next day, sure enough, along comes Donnegan and asks for Suds. We keptstill--all but Kennebec Lou. Kennebec is some fighter himself. Twohundred pounds of mule muscle with the brain of a devil to tell what todo--yes, you can lay it ten to one that Kennebec is some fighter. Thatday 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 grinwas all they needed for a password, and then they went at each other'sthroats. Kennebec made the first pass and hit thin air; and before hegot back on his heels, Donnegan had hit him four times. Then Kennebecjumped 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 busytyin' 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 andSuds both gone, what chance did I have to hold the boys together?"