Authors: Luke; Short
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It could just as well have been any other town but Forks, and any other afternoon but Saturday, but that was the way it happened. Tip Woodring's trail-gaunted chestnut threw a shoe six miles from Forks at high noon on a Saturday, and by the time Forks was in sight he was fast going lame.
Now, Forks, like any town in the cow country, is busy on a Saturday afternoon, and when Tip Woodring rode up to the lone blacksmith shop, he found two teams before him waiting to be shod. He dismounted stiffly, a tall young man, redheaded, with a faintly freckled face that was shaped like a blunt wedge, tough-looking under a week of wiry beard stubble. On the day when the cow country cleaned up, Tip Woodring was wearing a mud-splotched coat, soiled Levi's, and a faded-blue cotton shirt, and it might have been this that the blacksmith objected to when Tip put his proposition.
“All right, you're busy,” Tip said. “Let me shoe him myself and I'll pay you what you ask.”
“No,” the blacksmith said. “Get in line or get out.”
That was the first irritation. The second one came minutes later when Tip swung into the barbershop, only to find a dozen men waiting a turn in the chair. He left, hunting another shop, and pushed through the sidewalk crowd to Forks's four corners, where the third one met him face to face. He was crossing the street when a drunk puncher rammed a horse into him, slamming him against the end-gate of a spring wagon.
Tip straightened up, his temper edging him, and saw that too many people were between him and the vanishing puncher. A week of hard riding, of cold pan bread and jerky, of mountain rains and desert suns are apt to wire-edge a man's nerves, and when Tip Woodring hit the sidewalk, saw the inviting swing doors of the Paradise Keno Parlor before him, and shouldered through them, his gray eyes looked wicked.
He stepped into a big high-ceilinged barroom with a balcony running along all four sides, and roughly shouldered his way through the crowd toward the bar to the right. Bellied up to it, he demanded a whisky, then tipped his hat back off his forehead and scrubbed his face with the palm of a callused hand. It was at once a gesture of weariness and an effort to rub out an ugliness of mind.
The percentage girl who came up to him couldn't understand that, however. She made the mistake of putting a hand on his arm and saying, “Buy me a drink.”
Tip straightened up and looked down at her. “Go away,” he said quietly.
The girl looked over her shoulder, and then, just as the bartender set down the bottle and glass in front of Tip, she poured herself a drink, raised the glass, and smiled coyly at Tip.
The drink never reached her mouth. It was batted from her hand, splattering all over Tip's coat front, and he looked up to see a big man in a fancy vest next to the girl, who had wheeled to face him. The man was half drunk, and his loose-jowled face was ugly as he looked from the percentage girl to Tip.
“Pickin' up the saddlebums again, eh?” he asked the girl.
Tip straightened up and gently shoved the girl to one side. “Just a minute,” he said mildly. He poured out a glass of whisky, then carefully threw it all over the puncher's fancy vest. Setting the glass down, he said pleasantly, “Now go on.”
The puncher backed up a step, stared down at his vest, then looked up at Tip and started to curse him.
Tip's voice cut in, and the puncher stopped talking.
“Are your boots screwed to that floor?” Tip asked, his voice deceptively mild. “Because if they ain't, they're goin' to point to the ceiling in just about a minute.”
The crowd immediately around them fell silent, and the puncher stared unbelievingly at Tip, then laughed. He didn't speak. He reached up, pulled his vest aside, and on the pocket of his shirt reposed the badge of the town marshal's office. He let Tip have a good look at it.
“Say that again, and louder,” he said.
Tip took a step toward him, spread his legs, and put his hands on his hips. There was a wild look in his eyes now, the look of a man who has been pushed too far and having been pushed, will not retreat. His voice was thick and urgent when he spoke.
“I said you better leave or I'll twist your head off and run away with it and hide it.”
What happened then was sudden as thought. The marshal, braced in his tracks, swung viciously at Tip's face. With his left elbow Tip blocked the blow, and with his right he drove a fist into the marshal's face. To a bystander, it seemed as if the marshal exploded off the floor, went off balance, and fell on his back. Before he hit the floor, a man dived at Tip, knocking him against the bar. Tip grabbed the bottle off the bar top, swung it, caught the man in the head, and sent him reeling to trip over the marshal and sprawl on his face.
Tip eyed the circle of watchers and said, “Anybody else feels froggy, now's the time to hop on.”
And then, from the balcony, an iron voice said above the murmur of the crowd, “Nobody's going to hop on anything.”
Tip didn't glance up immediately, but when the crowd started to back away, he swiveled his head and looked above him. A man dressed in a black townsman's suit was leaning on the balcony rail, a shotgun resting in the slack of his arm. He said, “Joe, hold your greener on them till I get down there.”
The bartender pulled out a sawed-off shotgun from under the bar, laid it on the bar top, and regarded the crowd. The man in black walked along the balcony to the stairs, came down them, and by the time he had shoved through the crowd the marshal and the other man were on their feet.
The man in black broke through the circle of watchers and came over to the marshal. His thick, wavy hair, plentifully shot with gray, sat high off a broad forehead that tapered down to a long, pale face which wore a look of ingrained dissipation and alertness. He glanced briefly at Tip, his look friendly, but when he turned to the marshal that friendliness had disappeared.
“Don't bother lying, Cove. I saw the whole thing from the balcony. Take that girl you like so well and get out of here, both of you. And don't come back here asking me to give her work again. She's through.”
The marshal glared wickedly at Tip. “He's under arrest,” he muttered thickly.
The man in black said mildly, “Better not try it, Cove. You won't make it stick.” He stared at the marshal a long time, and finally the marshal turned away. The man in black raised both hands and called, “Drinks on the house, boys. Line up.
He walked over to Tip, who was lounging on the bar, and said, “Come into my office, will you?”
Tip followed him through the door at the rear end of the bar which led into a medium-sized room that was an office. It was lighted by an overhead kerosene lamp against the approaching dusk.
The gambler shut the door behind them, and then put out his hand. “My name's Holman, Rig Holman,” he volunteered. He laughed then, as Tip shook hands with him. “I don't know yours, but it's likely Billy Hell.”
Tip found himself laughing, too. He told Holman his name, and Holman waved him to a deep leather chair, then walked over to the desk, opened a box of cigars, and offered one to Tip, who refused in favor of his pipe.
They appraised each other frankly for a moment, and then Holman said, “Stranger, aren't you?”
Tip nodded. “Just ridin' through.”
“I thought so.” He paused. “That was a hell of a risky thing to do, you know.”
Tip grinned. “I was mad, I reckon.”
Holman dismissed this with a nod. “Ridin' the grub line?” he asked pleasantly.
Tip only shook his head, and Holman looked keenly at him. Then the gambler walked over to the desk and sat on the edge of it, facing Tip.
“I don't know how to go about this, Woodring,” he said quietly. “You'll think I'm snooping in your business if I ask questions. I'm not, really. IâI'm just wondering if you're footloose.”
“I'm on my way to the short-grass country up in Wyoming,” Tip said slowly. “I'm sick of fightin' a dry country.”
“That's it. I'm goin' to look around.”
“And buy a ranch, eh?”
Tip smiled wryly. “When I earn the money.”
Holman said quickly, “All right. How would you like to earn it workin' for me?”
Tip didn't answer immediately. He lighted his pipe again, then said, “Quick and dirty-like?”
“Judge for yourself,” Holman said. “Want to hear it?”
“If it won't make me deaf.”
“Ever hear of Blackie Mayfell, the lucky prospector?” Holman asked.
Tip nodded. “Who hasn't? Sure. He was murdered over on the other side of the Vermilions some time ago, wasn't he?”
Holman nodded, slid off the desk, went around it, and opened a drawer. The paper he took out he handed to Tip. “Blackie came into my office last spring and slapped down fifteen thousand dollars in gold right where I'm sitting. He wanted his life insured.”
Tip scowled but said nothing.
“He said he was on to something big, a big body of ore, but he wanted to prospect it another two months. He was afraid for his life.” Holman paused, and still Tip didn't say anything. “Here was his proposition; you can read it in that paper. He'd give me fifteen thousand dollars. If he was alive at the end of two years the money was mine. If he was killed, I was to pay his daughter, Lynn Mayfell, fifty thousand dollars.”
There was a moment of silence and then Tip asked, “You took him up?”
Holman nodded, adding, “And paid off the fifty thousand dollars to his daughter after his death.”
Tip was still scowling. “Fair enough. What's the kick?”
“I'm not a welsher, Woodring. My payoff proves that.” He leaned forward, putting his hands on the desk. “But I don't take a loss like that lying down; I want to find Blackie's killer.”