|Easter Egg !|
COFFIN F0R ONE
PINETOP JONES ENCOUNTERED THE MAN WITH the body in his buckboard while he was riding the broad trail down through the Mount Shavano Pass to the city of Salida on the banks of the Arkansas River. The tall ex-cowboy, ex-bandit, present railroad marshal, was nearing the end of a four-day ride from the Molly Gibson silver mine in the Snowmass Mountains. The mine was reputed to be producing silver ore purer in quality than the minted dollar itself. It was a reputation borne out by the tremendous wealth of the combine which owned it, for they had started the construction of their own railroad which would transport their wealth through the mountains to join the Union Pacific trans-state line at Salida.
Pinetop’s part in this project had been to investigate the local labour corps which were even now blasting a way through rock on the hundred mile route. It had been a dull and exhausting job for him, but not entirely without results. He had weeded out labour factions which might have caused trouble later on, located professional grafters who had been preparing to exploit, by strikes and threats of violence, the vital time factor involved in the construction of the iron way.
Pinetop was no stranger to the methods of these crooks who had been weaned on railroad gold; trouble fermenters, land grabbers, bandits— he had known them all in his Oregon days. Now the railroad companies were well prepared. The route was investigated at an advanced stage, the labour sifted, the land rights gone into long before the route was made public. It made for easier construction, but also for a dull life. Prevention was easier than cure. Too easy. Pinetop preferred action.
Also he was built for it. A big dark rangy man of thirty or so, with the quiet inward expression of a plainsman, a face scarred by an old bullet wound, deep eyes perpetually narrowed against sun and dust blast, skin brown and weathered by Mexican sun and northern blizzard. Now, in the last few weeks he had experienced winter and summer almost together, the bitter cold of the Colorado mountains, the tropical heat of the river valley, wild and rugged terrain, the land of mountain, sky and water, the Sawatch Range and the Sangre de Cristo range holding the fabulous water sheds of the Arkansas and more mineral wealth than the rest of the continent put together. Land which made that mineral wealth hard to get, hard to keep, and hard to fight for.
A man’s land.
He encountered the keeper of the corpse in the ghost settlement of Shavano Pass twenty miles above Salida. Here the blasters had been at work, the powder men, scaling off the jagged upthrusts of rock, moving the side of the mountains with explosives and filling in the ground below with rock ballast which would form a bed for the steel rails. And here, in sheltered places amongst the pines and the scrub oaks and the maples, they had left their habitation. Huts crudely made of timber, glassless windows, gaping and hanging doors, shanties which had taken part of the blasting and remained standing. Only the saloon, which stood closest to the trail, built by a far-seeing man, remained inhabited. Outside stood the buckboard and a flea-bitten roan nuzzling some fly-infested alfalfa. On the buckboard lay the coffin.
Pinetop Jones reined in and studied the coffin. It was a good, strong, professionally made coffin, man-size. The maple planks had been smoothed down with pumice, the cracks between them filled in with beeswax. The top was screwed on. Bluetail flies crawled there on the sun-hot wood.
Pinetop grimaced, his nostrils quivered. He was not sure that he could smell anything. But the flies were closer and he could take their word for it.
He dismounted and led his paint pony a fastidious distance away from the strange cargo. Everywhere there was dust, grey dust from the blasting which only winter blizzards would remove. The trees and foliage on the land which sloped away below the trail were painted with this grey dust, the trail itself was inches thick in it, the hitchrail had a top covering and so, too, did the patio of the saloon, the roof, everything. Shavano Pass stood in the mid-day sun, a monochrome of death. The coffin, now Pinetop came to consider it, was singularly appropriate. A symbol.
The owner of the corpse—there was no doubt about it, he was the only one there—stood inside the saloon spinning a gaming wheel and listening to the clicking. Pinetop stood outside the half-door, watching him for a moment. He thought: a man of symbols, evidently. Outside, a symbol of death. Inside, a symbol of life.
Pinetop entered. The man did not look up. On his way to the bar he stopped by the table. The wheel stopped dead on fourteen. The man spun again, the clicking lasted only a few seconds and again the wheel stuck at fourteen.
Pinetop said: “I’ll play fourteen.”
Then the stranger looked up at him, with a pair of bullet-eyes, black and piercing like two gun muzzles levelled.
“That’s the way to live,” he said. “Play it safe.”
Pinetop glanced towards the door, then back again. “Why didn’t you tell your friend?”
The hollow, cadaverous face bent once more to the table, a thin hairy hand spun the wheel. He said: “He died of old age.”
“That’s a rare disease,” Pinetop said.
“That’s what killed him.” The wheel stuck at fourteen again. Suddenly the man was studying Pinetop almost aggressively. “Want ter see him?
Pinetop shook his head. “Not particularly. Kinda hot.”
“I brought him a long ways,” the man said. “But he’s still good. Preserved in liquor was old Dave. Did it a-purpose. When I go, Traveller, he used to say, take me back to Colorady.” The man called Traveller picked up a glass of whisky and swallowed it at a gulp, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, looked once more at Pinetop. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Pinetop appraised this curious man with some interest. There was something at once forbidding and taciturn, yet steady and reliable, in his appearance and talk. Not many would undertake such a task for sentimental reasons. Pinetop said as much, and was about to offer Traveller a drink before he went on his gruesome business but the man declined.
“I aim to bury him at sundown on the banks of the Arkansas, same as he allus wanted,” the man said. Then: “Same as he paid for.”
Pinetop smiled at this confession. “He paid you for it?”
“What do you think? All fair and square in his will. I’ve made a bit on the side, too. Shown him to a dozen people on the trip —mostly sheriffs who thought I’d killed somebody. Charged ‘em a buck a look—you could see him for less; he’s not so pretty now.
Pinetop shook his head. “That’s a lot of money!”
The man made for the door, then turned. “It’s a lot of screws,” he said. Then he was gone, the door swinging and creaking.
Pinetop turned to the bar. Only now did he notice the woman. She was standing behind the long bar in a dark doorway, her back against the shelves of bottles, one foot up with the heel hooked on a shelf. A cigarette hung from a pretty mouth, a pair of dark eyes regarded him casually from under long lashes. The face of a woman nearing forty, he judged, experienced, handsome, full of independent character, and yet neither hard nor bitter. An attractive, striking, well-groomed woman in a yellow silk shirt and brown riding breeches, her hair black, short, curly, unruly, a pair of long silver ear rings her only adornment. A woman who knew how to make the best of what she’d got.
Pinetop stopped at the bar, regarded her with a friendly half-smile. “I didn’t see you there, ma’ am.”
The woman smiled, took the cigarette out, came forward to the opposite side of the bar. “It’s all right. I was interested in our friend the undertaker, too.” Her voice was warm and had a faint accent, foreign, perhaps.
Attractive women always embarrassed Pine-top and he turned to look back at the door. “He’s certainly a queer cuss—but we all have to live.”
The woman said: “I sometimes wonder why— what are you drinking?”
Pinetop ordered a whisky straight, watched the white fingers tip the bottle in an experienced way, wondered about her being there. She looked up at him as she pushed the glass across, caught the curiosity in his eyes.
As she took his money, she guessed at his thoughts with the remark: “A funny place to find a woman alone?”
She brought him some change from the ornate cash box at the end of the bar. “Sure. Except right now I have a young couple staying here— hunting and shooting.”
Pinetop took a drink, stood the glass down, licked his lips. He said: “Not much of a place for trade, is it?”
The woman laughed. “No place at all, believe me. Sometimes I see a bear.”
Pinetop looked round, taking in the furnishings and fixtures. The place was far more elaborate on the inside than the outside would suggest. Not expensively furnished by any means, but the woman’s touch was there. In the hanging of drapes, the placing of old carpets, the dust-free polish of liquor-stained tables and chairs, the bunches of wild flowers, of mignon and dogwood blossom and fern grasses arranged in beer pots around the saloon. It was all cool and sweet and clean after the trail. It looked ready to receive a thousand travellers who could never possibly arrive.
The woman’s voice dropped softly amongst his thoughts, as though she were aware of them. “I’m waiting for the railroad,” she said. “I’m waiting to make a fortune.”
Pinetop met her eyes, captured something of obsession there in the depths. They were not brown eyes as he had thought. They were deepest violet. Or else they had changed with the flow of her thoughts.
Looking at her and listening to her, Pinetop felt a quickening of his pulse. Not on account of the flush of beauty which had suddenly bloomed in her face, but because her words had brought the echo of an old alarm. Waiting for the railroad. People waited for the railroad in the eighteen-sixties, as others had run for gold in forty-nine. Some had found gold from the rocks, some had found wealth as the railroad opened up the country—but Pinetop knew only too well that this woman’s hopes were false. There was nothing for the private enterpriser in Shavano Pass—it already belonged to the combine. Every yard of ground, every tree, every broken down hut— including this saloon.
The woman had caught something of the alarm in Pinetop’s face. She said, almost defensively: “I bought this place. It’s mine. I got it cheap considering what lies ahead.”
Pinetop just stared at her, sorrowfully. Who had tricked her, he wondered.
She said: “Why do you look at me like that? Who are you?”
Pinetop said: “I work for the railroad.” He picked up his glass, swilled the spirit round, drank it down.
The woman was waiting, fear brooding in her eyes. Pinetop had not taken his eyes from her. Now he spoke, kindly.
“How long have you been here, ma’am?”
“Two months—the beginning of spring. The pass was snow-blocked when I arrived at Salida. I had to wait till it thawed, then wait for the floods to finish. Then I came on up here.”
She did not have to tell him that it had been a lot of hard work. He pushed his glass across.
“Have one yourself,” he invited. She would need something to soften the shock of what he had to tell her.
“That’s nice of you, Mr….”
“Jones. They call me Pinetop.”
She studied him for a moment, before pouring the drinks. Then she said: “It’s a good name. It’s clean and strong and got the mountain wind in it.”
“That’s me,” Pinetop said, solemnly. They both laughed then and the tension was broken. But not forgotten. When the woman had taken a drink, she said: “All right, Pinetop. Tell me what you must.”
Pinetop glanced away from her. Saw the work she had put into the place. Guessed at the money it must have cost. “I’m not sure it’s my job,” he said.
“I want you to tell me!” The words came harshly; her face held fire now.
Pinetop said: “How much has it cost you? How much money?”
“It’s cost me everything I had,” she said. “That’s all. A job, a no-account husband, all my savings. The husband was no loss, nor was the job—but don’t tell me my savings have all gone for nothing.”
“That’s what I’m telling you, ma’am,” Pinetop said.
Her face paled, her eyes bored into his. It was a moment of intense, crushing shock for her. She believed him instantly, as though he had given voice to something she had suspected and feared. She glanced around at her saloon then, seeing it die, seeing the Shavano death dust drifting in and settling on all her hopes.
End of Chapter One
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