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Authors: Luke; Short

Ride the Man Down

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Ride the Man Down

Luke Short

Chapter 1

The train passed the stock pens, and when it was even with the station Will Ballard slung his saddle out into the night. Afterward he swung down from the bottom step of the caboose onto the cinder apron, breaking his speed by digging in his heels so that he came to a halt some twenty feet from the station platform. He stood there, hands on hips, a big man in work-soft waist overalls and scuffed half boots, and looked toward the station platform.

Russ Schultz, who had got off the front of the caboose, broke his run on the platform and came to a stop in front of the agent, and the two of them watched the red and green lights of the caboose recede into the chill spring darkness.

Schultz said something to the agent then and started for the corner of the station nearest Will, and Will walked toward him. The dry crunch of cinders caused Schultz to look up, and when he saw Will he halted abruptly. Will mounted the platform and came toward him and said mildly, “Think I'd let you see him alone, Russ?”

Schultz said sullenly, “Damn you, no. I didn't,” and brushed past him, turning the corner of the station and heading toward the town, and Will tramped down the platform. To the agent he said, “Evening, Earl,” and halted in the patch of faint light cast through the soot-stained bow windows of the station. Stooping a little, he peered inside at the agent's clock. The lamplight touched his face briefly, revealing a weariness that was physical and only of the moment. It was a long face, its sharp jaw line blurred faintly by dark beard stubble, its thick hooding eyebrows powdered faintly with dust, the whole shape of it angular and faintly truculent now.

He straightened and the agent said, “Russ says you ain't quite through, Will.”

“That's right,” Will said pleasantly. His voice was courteous, easy, and held a distinct suggestion that the agent mind his own business. He nodded, again pleasantly, and retraced his steps as far as his saddle back in the dark. Picking it up, he held it by the horn and slung it over his shoulder and then tramped beyond the station toward the town.

Boundary's main street started behind the station, a wide sweep of pock-marked dust between the ragged double line of store fronts. The night wind off the flats stirred up an occasional eddy of dust that marched drunkenly across the squares of light laid out by the store lamps and spent itself under the galleried porch of the hotel at the four corners. It was a chill wind, token of snows still unmelted in the Indigos, and it gave Will an awareness of spring and, for himself, of a coming trouble, and he hurried.

For Will Ballard had sat passive through a whole winter and on into the spring calf branding, and now he was in a hurry.

He tramped the uncertain planking of the walk as far as the Belle Fourche Saloon across from the Stockman's House and mounted the steps and shouldered his way through the swing doors. Pausing just inside them, he scowled against the sudden brightness of the overhead lamps and let his saddle slide from his shoulder to the floor. Most of the country was still at the calf branding he had left this morning, so that the saloon was doing a slack business, but a single careful glance told him the right men were here, and he moved on forward. He said, “How are you, Harve?” to Garretson standing at the bar and passed him, having no business with him, and nodded to one of the house men playing Canfield at an idle keno table.

The table in the rear held his attention, for Schultz stood beside it, beside Joe Kneen, too, who sat at it. The two other men seated there—a drummer of some kind and Ray Cavanaugh—he noted and forgot before he halted across from Schultz.

Will looked mildly at Joe Kneen and said, “How do you like his story, Joe?” in his pleasant, quiet voice.

Kneen kept on riffling a pack of cards while he glanced up at Will. He was a man past middle age, heavy-boned and lean, dressed in a clean black suit, and his way of moving was purposely unhurried. In half a lifetime of petty officialdom supplemented by successful gambling Sheriff Kneen had cultivated a bland, pale-eyed, and unblinking stare that was calculated either to disconcert or anger a man. It did neither to Will now, as Kneen knew it would not, and he turned his head to look at Schultz.

“You got a story, Russ?”

Schultz said blandly, “Me? No,” and he was watching Will, almost smiling at him. Ray Cavanaugh snickered, and Will looked down at him briefly, blankly, and then returned his gaze to Schultz. The man's broad, surly face was oddly swollen around the right cheekbone, which held a small cut too.

“Well, well,” Will murmured, and now he regarded Joe Kneen with a kind of speculative insolence in his green eyes. He put both hands on the table now and leaned forward and said mildly, “Joe, don't fill out any warrant for me. I'll tear it up.”

He and Kneen regarded each other for long seconds, and Will came slowly erect.

Kneen said, “What warrant?”

“Ask Russ.”

Kneen said to Schultz, “What warrant?”

“What's he talkin' about?” Schultz asked, almost smiling again. Once more Ray Cavanaugh snickered, and this time Will looked at him steadily, his eyes bland and hard. Cavanaugh was a wry-faced Irishman, small, dressed in shabby range clothes that were not clean. Will saw a bright malice in his face now and he said softly, “Get out of here, Ray.”

In the thin silence now the drummer got up from the table and left it, and nobody noticed his departure. Cavanaugh regarded Will carefully, his smile fading slowly. He glanced hopefully at Kneen and found only a neutrality there. He sat a moment longer, with a fading defiance, and then he rose. Will saw him look at Schultz, a fleeting question in his eyes, and then he turned and strolled unconcernedly away from the table.

Kneen said quietly, patiently, to Will, “What warrant?”

“Any warrant, Joe. Any warrant,” Will murmured.

Kneen sat more erect now, and a faint anger edged into his voice as he said flatly, “I want to know.”

Will tilted his head toward Schultz but did not look at him and said meagerly to Kneen, “Russ claimed a calf in this morning's gather and we argued. I hit him, and he left to swear out a warrant for theft.”

Kneen said, “Bide's roundup boss. What did he say?”

Will said dryly, mildly, “Why, Bide was out on another gather. That's kind of a handy place to be when his own foreman has a row. Russ didn't wait for him.”

Both Will and Kneen glanced at Schultz now and saw the faint smile on his face. Kneen said with rising irritability, “Well, Russ?”

“Nothin',” Schultz said blandly. “Nothin'.”

Will nodded and said mildly to Kneen, “Just remember, Joe. No warrant,” and started to go.

Kneen said sharply, “Will!”

Will halted by Kneen's elbow and looked down at him, and Kneen said carefully, “Hatchet never was so big it could tell me what to do. Not even when Phil Evarts was alive. So be careful.”

Will smiled faintly, watching the anger in Kneen's eyes. “I'm careful, Joe,” he murmured. “Just so you are.” He glanced briefly at Schultz and then again at Kneen and said, “Just be sure that Hatchet's dead before you and Bide and all the others dig a grave for it.”

“Phil Evarts is dead, and Phil Evarts was Hatchet,” Kneen said softly. “You don't make big tracks any more, Will. Just remember it.”

Will was utterly motionless as Kneen ceased talking, and his weather-browned face altered slightly, settling into an expression of amusement. “Why, Joe,” he drawled, “you're too old to be called a liar. But I'll prove you one.”

“I'll worry about that,” Kneen said sardonically.

“I think you will,” Will said, and he turned and tramped forward toward the door, where he picked up his saddle and went out.

Out in the night he paused on the plank walk a moment. Something was queer in all this. Schultz had backed down, and that was not like Schultz or like Bide Marriner. A sudden impatience was on him now, and he left the walk and cut across the street, his pace hurried. He passed a single lighted store and he showed a little, looking inside. He could not see Lottie, although her father was at his desk in the balcony over the rear half of the store.

He went on, and at the end of the block the stores ended and he was in the residence part of Boundary. At the second house from the corner, a small frame affair behind a new painted fence, he turned in at the gate and skirted the house. Halted by the back door, he knocked softly and then turned his back to it, breathing deeply of the night air. He was aware now of a sudden iron ache in his legs, token of ten days of constant riding.

At the sound of the door opening he turned, lifting off his Stetson, and said gently to the girl standing in the door holding the lamp, “I'm taking your mare, Lottie.”

“I'll get a lantern, Will,” Lottie Priest said.

Will waited, hearing her move in the kitchen, and he felt a slow stirring of pleasure. There was something in the quiet way this girl accepted things, calmly and without question, that had been a tonic to his restlessness these last months.

When she stepped out with the lantern and closed the door behind her Will did not move for a second. He looked long at her, until his searching, almost hungry gaze provoked a smile from her. She was a tall girl, dressed almost demurely in a dark suit that the town demanded of its schoolteacher. Her face was almost oval, with full lips, a straight, small nose, and quick, eager eyes that were almost the golden color of her hair. Will knew she was wondering why he had left the calf branding and that she would not ask until he told her.

As they, turned toward the barn she said with gentle derision, “It couldn't have been poker, where you lost your horse. Will. You've still got your saddle.”

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