In the vast ocean of gray-green Buffalo grass that was the unfenced range of Wyoming in 1892, the riders were barely visible as dark dots on the horizon. Four days out of Cheyenne, riding at an easier pace now, the three men savored the pleasures the world offered to men of the saddle as they drank in the welcome warming rays of an afternoon April sun after a mile-high winter of ice, snow, and the penetrating cold of blizzard winds. No work to do, just a day to ride, to relish the colors of awakening spring in the yellow blossoms of sweet clover, the blue patches of larkspur and the reds of Indian paintbrush, a day to drink in the beauty of a Wyoming where the hand of man still rested lightly, a day to savor life in the open spaces, a man's life.
Frank Pruitt rode tautly in the center of the trio, the natural position of any group's leader. Near to completing his third decade in this world of struggle, Pruitt declared his occupation by the way he dressed: a blue flannel shirt made shapeless and comfortable by multiple washings and now molded to hard-packed chest muscles, brown whipcord trousers tucked into well-broke-in scuffed and dusty riding boots and a colorful kerchief knotted around his neck. Serviceable gun leather wrapped around an athletically slim waist completed the picture. Unlike the flat-brimmed Plainsman's hat his younger companion wore, Pruitt's tan-colored Stetson, proudly proclaimed "Texas" for all to know.
Like his companions, Pruitt was a man who earned his living working cattle. Other men's cattle.
Their trail led toward the notch in the Red Wall from which the Hole-in-the-Wall country took its name and would take them not far from Nate Champion's cabin. Just a small, dingy shack with a ramshackle barn scorned by the boys of the combine, but Champion had something he could call his own. Nate Champion, one of the friendliest fellows around, always happy to welcome visitors, share whiskey and conversation.
Riding by his lonesome, Pruitt would have been moved to ride over and make a social call. It wasn't an idea his companions would welcome. Not on this day. Not on this ride.
The man riding by Pruitt's side was of his age, not so tall, perhaps, but beefed-out in shoulders, biceps and thighs and riding with the graceful unity between steed and rider that declared he was a man more often in the saddle than out, but also a man whose belt had shifted two notches since their salad days, as Pruitt took frequent pleasure reminding him. Promised his share of the mavericks the men of the combine were gathering while he fulfilled his assigned errand, the trip to Cheyenne had been more a holiday than a chore. A man who worked just as hard as circumstances required, Bud Calhoun lounged in the saddle with unforced ease, seemingly a man without a care on this spring day.
"Remember when we trailed the herd through these parts, Frank?" Calhoun's voice showed a soft easy Texas cadence which the harsh High Plains twang had not abraded from his tongue despite a decade in the North country. "Wyoming, Montana, just names to young sprouts like us back then, but names that promised a place in the world for a man craving more than the carpetbaggers left behind."
In those days, Wyoming had been a fresh-faced country, swaggering its territorial status, and proudly boasting nearly 20,000 residents, barely enough to fill out just San Antonio and Galveston back home, nearly all of the bold Wyomingites clustered along the steel ribbon that was the Union Pacific; the rest of the territory standing nearly empty, the scraggly village of Buffalo so young it was barely out of diapers, an exciting place for an 18-year-old who knew nothing beyond the hills of South Texas. Small by Texas standards, but large enough for young men out to make their way with no old families claiming ancient dignity or preening their War record, as though fighting for the Secesh mattered to modern folks. Wyoming, Montana too, was a place a man could be what he wanted. Calhoun and Pruitt, their shared experience had formed the bond between them that the years had only intensified.
Pruitt understood it had been a sign of respect that Calhoun had been sent to fetch him.
The third man, Lin Hodges, blue-eyed, blond-haired carrying a grin that made incautious men easy with him, was near a decade younger than Pruitt; lanky and not yet bulked out to his full growth, still getting his start in the world of men, but proven enough, hard enough, ambitious enough to have been a sure choice for the passear to Cheyenne. As they rode from time to time, Hodges' eyes flickered over to the big man soon to be responsible for him making his move up in the combine. "I wasn't hardly out of short pants and Frank Pruitt was calling himself a man of the range," Hodges said. "I got me some catching up to do."
Pruitt let the comment pass, shuffled it out of his mind as the three men continued their ride toward the Red Wall. But when Calhoun spoke, he owed his old partner a response.
"Lot of good times we had, before the country filled up and things started to change," Calhoun said. "Even some good men started changing."
"Lot of good times."
Change. Pruitt considered the word. Change was natural. Change was growth. Change was progress. The changes, and how they had changed him, Pruitt didn't care to talk about. Would Calhoun understand? Perhaps. Hodges never would. Pruitt wasn't sure he really did himself.
* * *
His 18th birthday. Pruitt remembered it well. His favorite dinner. A special chocolate cake. His Pa even bringing out the bottle he kept for special occasions and pouring Frank Pruitt's first drink of whiskey. And him trying not to pop the buttons on his shirt front.
"Now you're a man," his mother had told him. His father, not so much. "A man is as a man does." A sentiment Pruitt had only been beginning to understand but that echoed some instinct inside the human animal. His Pa not trying to push him out, not exactly, but likely they saw it the same way. A baby eagle never has much of a life until it fledges, leaves the nest, and soars into the world. A boy-man is much the same.
A chance to trail-hand a herd to Montana, his first real job, coins to jingle in his pocket that saloon-keepers were happy to take, seeing the unimaginably immense world of half-mile-wide rivers, towering mountains, even the vast expanse of grass, a world a boy from the Hill Country had never seen, and not least being away from the embrace of his mother, protective, as she saw it, stifling as he felt it? Of course, he signed up. That's when he linked up with Calhoun as his saddle pard, and spent the next three months sweating through the days as they took their turn at swing or eating dust on drag, freezing through night herd, the worst of the sudden squalls seeming always to come when they were in the saddle, galloping together to outrace fifty tons of agitated beef whenever the herd took it into its collective mind to stampede, turning them into a mill, without ending up churned under a few thousand hooves themselves, learning how a 130-pound boy on a horse could make 600 angry pounds of beef with its own ideas about crossing a river yield to his will, and both him and Calhoun certain they had grown to manhood in the months on the trail.
When they delivered the herd, Pruitt had nothing back in Texas to draw him, surely not the endless chores his Pa grudgingly paid him a pittance for. The herd's new owner needed hands and him and Calhoun had signed on. Four years of bunkhouse life, building his skills, beefing out so he wasn't a scrawny kid anymore, good days for someone not yet the man he thought himself to be.
Then came the winter of '86-'87, the Great Die-Off, the winter when the luckiest ranchers lost only half their herds. When their near-busted rancher paid them their time and turned them south, he and Calhoun hardly had whiskey money between them, but they had learned a trade. The Hole-in-the-Wall country which stretched west as far as the Big Horn Mountains stood nearly empty in 1887 and, not less in importance for two enterprising young men, far from whatever law there might be in the county seat at Buffalo. All a man needed was a few cattle and free range to graze them on and he could call himself a cowman. Even after the Die-Off, the big ranchers in eastern Wyoming ran so much beef they would never miss a few head, would they?
Five years of partnering with Calhoun, each running his own brand out of their dugout, then when the "Hole" began to fill up with like-minded men, talking up the idea to form the Combine where all could work together for mutual protection, and, he argued, prosperity. It had seemed all a man could want.
Then why should he grow discontented?
* * *
The three horsemen lost several hours in their journey as they had detoured wide around the towns of Douglas and Casper, Calhoun saying "we boys are having such a good time we don't need no company," but Pruitt had been in no hurry to get back.
Now, they squinted into the slanting rays of the westering sun and Calhoun stretched his arm out. "Salt Creek up ahead. We'll overnight by the stream. Should be at Thompson's by late morning."
"The boys will sure be glad to see you," Hodges told Pruitt, receiving no more response than he deserved.
Salt Creek runs south to north along the eastern edge of the Wall. The winter of 1892 had left a solid snowpack in the hills. By mid-summer, the Creek would be a shrunken semblance of itself, but in early April the flow was brisk and cold. They made their camp ten feet back from the cottonwoods that fronted the Creek, close enough to benefit from the slight cooling produced by the flowing water.
Calhoun took charge of the campsite as by natural right. Hodges' task was watering the horses and then ground-picketing them where they could graze. "Find me some seasoned cow chips," Calhoun directed. Pruitt did his chore, and before long Calhoun had the cookfire blazing. Air-tights warm fast, and soon three men were spooning their pork and beans onto their tin plates.
Pruitt strolled off with his supper and squatted by creek side. When a man felt the gentle breeze wafting up from the creek, and heard the trill of a meadowlark in the distance, he could almost forget his companions and feel himself alone with the world as it had been before man had come along to complicate it. Pruitt welcomed the day's first peace and privacy.
Hodges had other ideas. "How many critters you got wearing your brand?" the kid asked as he squatted beside Pruitt.
"Likely close to six hundred with calving season."
"More than triple what wears my brand," Calhoun called over to them.
Pruitt sighed. Calhoun didn't need instructions in the reasons, but the kid was still learning life's lessons. "Built it up from nothing, three or four here, half a dozen there, never took so many as to get an angry rancher taking it personal. Swung my loop wider than you, Bud, took my business to ranchers in other ranges, used my running iron to burn the hides of unbranded mavericks with my Inverted P as far away as Medicine Bow. You could have come along."
"Work that hard and I might as well have been drawing wages from the likes of Wolcott."
"Five years," Hodges said. "All the sweat you spilled, and them stuffed shirts down in the big city still won't even let you be doorman in their hoity-toity Cheyenne Club. You'll never push that fat-ass Wolcott aside as Prince of the Plains."
"Got all a man needs, Hodges." Maybe that wasn't true, but that was not a topic for this campfire.
"Me, I'm going to be big."
"You'll never cast a man's shadow drawing wages, Hodges. Put in the sweat, work for yourself and set up your own brand. Keep the cows, sell the steers, and you'll be as big as me one day."
Hodges laughed. "I ain't poking along that slow. What I'm working on, I'll be a big man quicker than you dream of. Won't be long and I'll laugh when I think about how I outdid the great Frank Pruitt."
To Pruitt, the youngster didn't deserve a reply. He took his tin plate to the river and scooped up some river mud to scrub it clean. Then he walked over to his saddle, undid his bedroll, and spread it in the spot Calhoun had assigned.
But to Calhoun the evening was young. He pulled out his greasy deck of cards. "Enough light to play for an hour or two. You in the mood for a game, Frank?"
Pruitt shrugged and smoothed out a place on the ground for the cards. "Playing for pebbles, I guess?" Hodges produced a supply from the Creek and separated them into three more or less equal stacks.
"Let's make it more interesting," Calhoun said. "I always admired that hand-tooled gun belt you wear." He pointed to the leather strapped around Pruitt's waist. "What say we play for that?"
"And if I win, I get my shooter back?"
His companions' laughter was good-humored.
* * *
Usually sleep came quickly to Pruitt once he got his blankets wrapped around him. Call it the sleep of the just, the sleep of the damned, or just the sleep of the tired. But this night, sleeping between a lightly snoring Calhoun one foot to his right and the regular breathing of Hodges two feet to his left, he found himself staring up at the smudge of white stretching across the sky that someone once told him was called the Milky Way. The fluttering of an owl somewhere in its nocturnal hunt was a natural sound that should have settled him down. He tried to listen to the brook; the water gurgled gently over rocks to lull untroubled minds. But not Frank Pruitt's, not tonight. What troubled him? Something the kid said? His arrogance? Or the whole business? The trip to Cheyenne?
Then he knew.
It had been a month ago, the swirling blast of an unexpected ice storm drove Pruitt to seek shelter in Nate Champion's cabin, where the two men chinned over whiskey and where he spent the night. When you saw it from the inside, sharing friendship, the four walls enclosed not a dingy cramped cabin, but a man's home, a place where he was building a life, a future. That's the way Champion saw it. "No more swinging a wide loop for me," he had told Pruitt. "You and me will always be friends, Frank, but the world's changing and time's come for me to grow with it. A man worth the brag builds his own life for himself, not just living like a parasite off what the rich folks leave laying around to be took. Come back in five years and I'll have a regular ranch house."
"And a passal of mewling, screeching kids," Pruitt had scoffed.
Champion's work-lined face softened. "My kids, Frank. That makes the difference."
Some would say that Nate Champion had nothing in life but loneliness and hard work. But Pruitt had caught a glimpse of purpose that extended far beyond the day's chores. And he had understood that made Champion content.
Since that night, only a month had passed; how much a man's view of the world and of himself could change in a single month.
Finally, an exhausted mind let Pruitt escape for what remained of the night.
* * *
It was noonish when the three riders topped the eastern rise, paused and surveyed the placid scene below. "Boys aren't back from this week's gather, yet," Calhoun said. "We'll make ourselves to home and wait for them."
The men who worked cattle in Hole-in-the-Wall had their own camps scattered throughout the thirty-mile valley of the Middle Fork of the Powder River. Anse Thompson had located his shack in a small bowl where a stand of lodgepole pine gave shade from the westering sun and close enough to the gap in the Wall to be a convenient rendezvous for men joining in collective operations on the open range where thousands of syndicate cattle grazed placidly waiting to be "adopted." So, Thompson's one-room cabin had garnered company, two long, flat-roofed buildings each with bunks for eight men, a cook shack and mess hall good for grub, even better for whiskey and sociability.
They rode single-file, Pruitt in the lead of course, under the high cross-bar over the corral gate. Pruitt left Calhoun and Hodges to take care of the animals, happy at last to leave the hovering presence of his two riding companions. Bedroll in hand, he crossed the dirt yard to the west bunkhouse, unrolled his blankets on his usual bunk and lay down to wait.
As Pruitt tried to will away the tension that had built up over four days, he inhaled the familiar bunkhouse smells, dried sweat, stale tobacco smoke, the world of working men. His world. Over the years, he had never questioned that here in Hole-in-the-Wall was where he belonged, the only place he belonged.
The talk with Champion had not been the cause of his discontent. It had done no more than bring into focus other niggling thoughts from the deep recesses of his mind. From somewhere the seldom-listened-to and long-forgotten voice of his Pa had started coming back to him. "A man is as a man does." Somehow, he had come to respect the discipline of a man who went out to the fields, rain, mud, or boiling sun when his muscles needed half a bottle of liniment, all because he had taken on the responsibility of providing for a family. He remembered the words his Pa said over the firm parting handshake the day he rode off to join the trail herd to Montana. "It's a big world out there, Frank. A big world that will let you test what you got inside."
One day it had come to Pruitt. He was no longer the same out-of-work pretend adult he'd been when he and Calhoun first rode through the gap in the wall. He had grown bigger, stronger, knew more about cattle than ever. But he was still not the man his Pa had been. No man who spread his blankets in this bunkhouse would understand. They would trust him less if they knew his thoughts.
His Pa built everything the family had with his own sweat. Was Frank Pruitt his Pa's son? What was the word Nate had used? "Parasite," taking what someone else had built. His Pa wouldn't call that being a man. And, Pruitt realized, neither could he.
So, he had left behind his stolen gains, saddled up that morning over a week ago, and ridden for a place he could make a new life, a man's life. Texas.
And got as far as Cheyenne before they caught up to him and led him back.
* * *
There would be a reckoning, of course. It was only right. He'd ridden out without telling anyone, even Bud, because he wasn't sure he could put his impulse into words. But he could have been in trouble. The brothers of the combine took responsibility for each other. Calhoun and Hodges had taken several days off their work to go after him and they were entitled to extract their price.
The tradition of a kangaroo court established long ago to bring order to the California Mining District had proven its vitality wherever men gathered apart from established authority. It had jurisdiction over all offenses, from minor fistfights to theft to the most serious crime of all, claim jumping. A court could hear from anyone who chose to speak. It could levy minor fines, require acts of contrition, enforce compensation, decree banishment, or impose whatever sanction the court concluded fit the gravity of the offense.
At Hole-in-the Wall, as among fun-loving cowhands anywhere whiskey flowed, a kangaroo court provided a simple evening of fun at a friend's expense, the object of their merriment being gun-naked, acquiescing that his fate was subject to the mercy of the court, every man understanding that the hilarity was for the evening only, and when the court assessed its final penalty the teasing ended. The Hole-in-the Wall kangaroo court had never been called on to deal with anything serious like claim jumping, but "jurors" relished their fun in "adjudicating" angry words, drunken fistfights, or an offense like the unannounced absence of Calhoun's week-long bender down at Casper last fall. The joking and jollity served a greater purpose, to prevent minor disagreements between strong, self-reliant men from festering until they destroyed the unity of the combine. The judgment of the "jurors," whatever it might be, was just. By being part of the community, all consented to the rules. For those who liked the term, it was the law.
The long ride back from Cheyenne had given Pruitt time to accept the reality that his life was in Wyoming and to submit to be the object of rough, sometimes brutal, bunkhouse humor. "Smile your way through it," he told himself. "Show you can take their joshing. Let the boys have their fun, pay your fine and get back to work."
* * *
Outside, horsemen clattering across the hard-packed earth to the corral and told Pruitt the crew had returned. Moments later, the buzzing of voices as men began pushing into the bunkhouse instilled in Pruitt a reassuring sense of belonging here, with working men of the range, men who cherished their freedom above all. A man pounded his fist on the dozing man's shoulder, a squat, thick-chested man whose round face, red-stubbled today from a week on the range, seemed set in a perpetual smile. Pruitt looked up at Ed Mitchell, the boisterous cowman whose camp was less than two miles from the dugout Pruitt shared with Calhoun, Ed Mitchell, the Kansas farm boy he'd tutored in the fine art of brand blotting in the early days, Ed Mitchell, whose exuberant guffaws made him always welcome for an evening of whiskey and checkers. One of the best men in Hole-in-the-Wall. Pruitt never could look at the familiar Irish mug without breaking into a broad grin.
"I heard they sent our buddy Calhoun to make sure you didn't forget the way home." Mitchell eased his rump down on Pruitt's bunk. "We had us our regular uninvited early spring roundup on the TA range this week. You'd have had a good time. Liberated fifty calves from their mamas and drove them up to our holding pen in the hills. Tomorrow we'll begin divvying them up and slapping our own brands on them." He got to his feet. "Guess your Inverted P won't be needing a share this time."
"Wolcott's VX brand is always good pickings. I'll fatten my herd from him."
Mitchell chuckled as he moved move off to his own bunk. "Sure, you will, Frank," Mitchell agreed. "Sure, you will."
Pruitt closed his eyes again, but rest was denied him when Dyson thundered in, surly, arrogant Chet Dyson, a man he liked best when they were squatting around different campfires. "Over to the checkerboard, you lazy blanket-pounder," Dyson demanded. "Today's the day I give you a good killing."
Pruitt rolled off his bunk. It was a way to pass the time. "In your dreams, Dyson."
They were deep into the game when Dyson spoke. "Was riding down near your place some days back, saw a lot of calves, fresh-branded."
"Still with their mamas, were they?"
"Them as I saw," Dyson acknowledged.
"Neighborly of you to check my stock for me, keep the mavericking down." The words seemed neutral, but Dyson was ready to read an accusation that maybe Pruitt intended.
"It's open range, Pruitt. I got a right to look for strays anywhere I want."
Pruitt didn't object. Nor did he ask why Dyson was paying special attention to Inverted P cattle. "Making sure it's me getting an early start on my calves," he said. "It'll make the combine Roundup go easier and none of my calves'll accidentally wander off to someone else's branding fire."
Dyson's fist slammed the table with such vehemence that the checkers jumped on the board. "Pruitt, the size of your herd don't mean you can lord it over us like you was a full paid-up member of the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association." Dyson's voice took on a hard edge unusual even for him. "Your head count don't make you no better than me."
Not a good idea to pick a fight with a juror before a kangaroo court, but Dyson had been as close to an enemy as Pruitt allowed himself to have. He ended the conversation by a brutal triple jump into the King row and out. "You're dead."
Dyson grudgingly yielded his place and Gib Strother, next in the line claiming "winners," slid into the chair. Then it was "Coop" Cooper, just in from of his own camp up-valley. "Missed the T A gather," he reported. "My woman was poorly, so I stayed home tending to Baby Sue. But I'm all in for VX." Pruitt let him down gently, not taking advantage of an early mistake, but still it was Coop who made way for Rafe Andrews, Pruitt's likable young hired hand who drifted into Hole-in-the-Wall on the dodge a year ago, arriving just at the time Pruitt needed an extra pair of brawny arms and vigorous eyes to patrol his range. His herd wasn't big, not like the thousands of cattle that wore syndicate brands, but he had sweated enough to understand syndicate grumbles about needing protection from what Major Wolcott called "rustling." Despite Andrews' drinking problems in town, Pruitt had already helped him get a small start on his own brand, even passing up some of the strays that by right belonged to Inverted P as the brand that paid Rafe's wages.
He was two kings up on Mitchell when the stove poker clanged against the trio of horseshoes suspended from a tree branch announced supper.
Mitchell looked at the three black pieces left on the checkerboard and laughed in resignation. "I give, like always when I play with you." Mitchell got to his feet. "Let's eat, Frank. Can't give you a proper party on an empty stomach."
* * *
By universal practice among cowhands, supper is a silent affair. For hard-working men, tired at the end of their day's exertions, mealtimes were worktime—powering their vitality, or, as their evening of fun approached, restoring spent energy.
That night, a dozen men squeezed elbow-to-elbow on the benches around the rough whitewashed pine table, paused while Thompson, this being his place, intoned words of blessing, passed down the plates and tin utensils and dug into the family-style platters of boiled potatoes and beef. Pruitt knew them all, worked the independent cattle trade with them, beat them at poker and shared jokes with them. It was the usual mix of men that could be found in any bunkhouse.
Some were men who worked hard, played hard and were salt of the earth like Ed Mitchell, others like Al Dexter likely worked their neighbors' mavericks since they were closer than syndicate beef. Some, like Coop Cooper, pulled their weight, serious, business-like teammates on a nighttime "beef requisition," some like, Gib Strother sitting by his side, added pleasure to a share bottle. Some, like Dyson, cheated at cards. Most he considered friends, even trusted; taken together, men he had been content to live his life with.
Finally, men passed their empty plates down to one end, the remnants of gravy or spuds were brushed into the slop bucket, and the plates stacked in the tub of soapy water. Only then, as the first whiskey bottle of the evening made its rounds, as glasses were filled, did men begin to relax and ready themselves for their evening's entertainment. Pruitt braced himself to be the butt of their jokes.
But part of the fun was to make the object of their amusement wait, hopefully sweating in anticipation.
"How was your stay in the hoosegow, Andrews?" Thompson asked the lanky man just back from his three-month stay as honored guest of Johnson County.
"Three squares a day and whiling the time away in a warm jailhouse whilst you boys was working a Wyoming winter," Pruitt's hired hand replied. "Can't complain."
"Thought our friends in Buffalo had the jurors controlled," Cooper commented.
Andrews gulped his whiskey and shrugged. "My fault. My sloppy rebranding on one of my takes was beyond what they could blink their eyes at. I didn't figure one little nip from my flask would make me that sloppy." He grinned ruefully. "Maybe it wasn't just one, and maybe they weren't so 'nippish.'" When the laughter subsided, he added his defense. "It was a hot day. Anyway, time I got through, I guess I would have got tossed out of the Frank Pruitt Academy of the Running Iron. They only found the one, worth sixteen dollars they said, so all they could do was jug me up for a misdemeanor."
"Their eyes would pop if they ever risked getting their meddling noses struck off by making a real tally through our running iron production," Strother said.
"If jail is supposed to teach a man a lesson, I promise I learned mine," Andrews declared. "I won't never do it again." To show how serious he was, Andrews even put down his whiskey glass for a moment as he turned to face Pruitt, sitting two places down the table. "Give me another chance, boss" he appealed. "I promise I won't never ever take my flask out on the range when I'm working. You can search my saddlebags every day."
Pruitt doubted neither Andrews's earnest contrition nor his inability to hold to his promise. "Be in the saddle at first light, Rafe. You and me got a lot of chores to catch up on."
"What's the news from town?" A. C. Rowan wanted to know.
"Spent the last month jumping checkers with Marv Whitlock who punches for VX, him being caged for bruising his fist on some storekeeper's face last time he tied one on. He tells me them big ranchers are getting tired of raising beef for us. According to him, they're talking about what they call 'exterminating the vermin that's infesting their range.' I guess that means us, too. Talk is, us defeating old sheriff Frank Canton at the last election just gave him time to take a ride down to Fort Worth where he could sign on an army of Texas gunslingers."
"Pruitt's just back from Cheyenne," Dyson said. "Likely he can tell us what Canton is paying for gun work these days."
There was an accusatory malice in Dyson's false jocularity that Pruitt chose to ignore. "Canton wouldn't even trade the time of day with the likes of an independent cowman like me."
Thompson uncorked a fresh bottle and passed it around. "Fill up boys. Frank's getting impatient. He feels we're slaking his dignity paying so much mind here to Rafe. We got to put on a rip-roaring welcome home party." The high-spirited cheers that swept around the room was a welcome in itself, Ed Mitchell's voice sounding loudest as he led the jovial chorus in their chant: "Kangaroo court, kangaroo court."
Pruitt let his lips separate in an easy grin. He had shared in merriment at the expense of others; he was a man, and a man played his role like a good sport, even as the butt of their cowboy humor and accepted whatever punishment they assessed.
Down at the end of the table, the formalities were beginning. Thompson unfolded the black shawl and spread it smoothly across his shoulders. When the two ends draped down over his work shirt, the simple man who rustled up his living had been transformed into the high dignity of Judge Thompson, chief magistrate for the combine. "The Hole-in-the-Wall Kangaroo Court is declared in session, Frank Pruitt, defendant."
Dyson got to his feet. "I'll go fetch the rope."
"Rest your butt, Chet," Judge Thompson ordered. "Frank's got his right to a fair trial and judicious deliberation by a distinguished jury of his peers." The men quieted down as the bottle went around again and glasses were topped off.
"Who brings the defendant before the court?"
Calhoun stood at the end of the table next to "judge" Thompson, placed his hand inside the buttons of his shirt and took a strong rhetorical pose. "I do."
"And what is the charge?"
Strother pounded his glass on the table. Mitchell joined in with an uproarious guffaw and Pruitt grinned indulgently. Outlandish charges were stock-in-trade of a kangaroo court. A dispute over a "misbranded" steer was "grand larceny." A bloody nose became assault with intent to commit bodily harm, the testimony inventing exaggerated details asserting an unprovoked attack, the viciousness of the intent, and the forcefulness of the blow, all delivered with the mock gravity the spirit of the game required.
The trial began as Calhoun called on Hodges to give evidence. "Found him in Cheyenne like we expected, him not having told no one he was going, so he knew he was sneaking around," Hodges testified. "Caught up to him not four blocks from the Cheyenne Club."
"Doing what?" Pruitt demanded.
The judge used his glass as a gavel and rapped on the table. "The defendant will remain silent except when called upon."
Hodges grinned easily like he had been ready for the question. "Having a whiskey in the Alamo, looking at the clock on the wall like he was due for an appointment." That was a lie, but only Hodges and Pruitt knew that. "Likely getting his nerve up to drift along Seventeenth Street to the Cheyenne Club to grovel in front of them starched collars ready to count out his pay."
As he listened to Hodges turn an absence into treachery, Pruitt suddenly wondered if Hodges planned to treat this as more serious than a random bender, had planned it from the beginning, an insight some part of him had sensed from the gleam in his eyes when Hodges demanded his six-hooter in Cheyenne. Hodges made no secret he had his eye on Pruitt's herd. Had Calhoun turned greedy as well?
Or was this just part of their game?
The judge turned to Pruitt. "What you claim you were doing there?"
A lie, when it unraveled, would be worse than the truth. "Passing the time until my train home to Texas."
"All we need to hear," Dyson proclaimed. "Man who's run out on the combine don't deserve a court. Just kill him." Pruitt felt a chill; Dyson wasn't smiling.
The judge rapped his glass for order. "The court's jurisdiction is clear. Anyone may question, Mr. Hodges."
Cooper took up the challenge. "Make sense, Hodges. Them big syndicates got all the hands they need. They don't need Pruitt's gun, even if he would sell out to them."
Hodges floundered for an answer, but Dyson saved him. "Wolcott and them others don't know where to find our cow camps," Dyson said. "Take them a lot of work to scour the Valley, but Pruitt could lead them in some dark night, and we wouldn't have no warning til we woke up smelling gunsmoke and our blankets getting soggy."
Pruitt scanned the table at the faces looking at him, some smiling in their fun, but Hodges and Dyson looking vicious. Cooper met his eyes and shook his head slightly. Mitchell's smile was dismissive. These men knew him. They had ridden with him. Dyson and Hodges had overplayed their hand. None of these men would believe he would plot their murders.
"Pruitt never done me no meanness," Cooper said. "Good man to swing a rope with. Always got a good word to say about everyone. Never cheats at cards. And it was him led the first gather of T A beef."
"Before Mr. Big got too good for the likes of common working men like us." Dexter's voice told of a depth of animosity Pruitt had not known existed.
"Why else was he in Cheyenne then," Dyson challenged Cooper. "Tell me that."
Strother spoke impatiently. "Been a long winter, Chet. Which of us ain't hankering for cold beer and hot women?"
Thompson took on his judicious mien. "Anyone else to speak up for the defendant?"
"I'll do her," Mitchell said. "He been 'borrowing Syndicate beef' longer'n any of us. He'd never share his fleas with them ranchers." Two or three men around the table nodded in agreement as Mitchell looked over at Pruitt. As Mitchell's eyes met Pruitt's a vagrant thought seemed to grip him. "'Less of course they're paying you a big bundle so you can get that new start in Texas you talked about."
Pruitt felt his gut clench. Mitchell seemed serious. Others saw it that way, too.
"How about it, Judas," Dyson demanded. "They pay you them thirty pieces of silver?" Pruitt clamped his jaw shut. Nothing he said would matter to Dyson. "See, he don't even deny it," Dyson continued. "That means—"
"Man's silence don't mean nothing," Judge Thompson ruled. "Calhoun's got to make his case." He turned to Calhoun. "Got any more witnesses?"
It seemed that Calhoun's prosecution was done, and the men were about to vote, when another voice spoke up.
"I got something to say." A. C. Rowan seldom spoke in combine meetings. But on the few times his voice was heard, there was a reason for men to listen. He offered no evidence, but perhaps his conclusion was worth more.
"You got a cesspool for a mouth, Hodges, running down the rep of a man you ain't good enough to hold the bridle straps for. You fan your gums with nothing to back it up, except you found him in the same city as the Cheyenne Club. Not a man here believes what you call evidence."
And so the testimony came to an end. The judge stroked his chin before giving his ruling. "Kangaroo court has to be just. No doubt Pruitt was in Cheyenne, but as A C points out, no evidence at all that he did any dickering with the Cheyenne Club. The charge of treason is denied. Pruitt's guilty of nothing more than unannounced absence."
Calhoun flashed Pruitt a surreptitious wink. Both men knew from the beginning that the proper charge had been desertion, and his abandoned Inverted P cattle would be divided between the two men who brought him back, with the additional possibility that he would test how far a two-hundred-ten-pound weight could stretch Dyson's rope. By making an outlandish charge he couldn't back-up, Calhoun had shown his true colors. A great weight lifted from Pruitt's shoulders.
So, the trial ended. A quick show of hands firmly rejected the charge of treason, with only Hodges holding out for it, not even Dyson with all his belligerency. That was a surprise.
All that remained was for Pruitt to pay the fine yet to be levied, get his six-shooter back, and return to work. He reached for his glass and allowed himself his first strong swallow of the day.
Around the room, men were getting up, stretching, stepping outside to relieve some of the whiskey built up in their kidneys. Thompson used the break to bring out new bottles of whiskey, as generous as Pruitt could ever remember him. Across the table, Cooper gave Pruitt a thumbs up as he stood to take his turn in the outhouse line.
"No one ever believed Frank Pruitt was a traitor," Gib Strother assured him.
Ed Mitchell, on his way out the door, punched Pruitt on his shoulder. "We had you going there for a while, buddy. I had you knee-knocking white that we was going to brand you Wyoming's own Benedict Arnold." Mitchell guffawed loudly. "Hope we're giving you a good welcome home."
"A bottle of good whiskey would been enough!" Pruitt grinned over his shoulder. "Looks like I'll be on the VX gather like always."
Mitchell gave him a comradely squeeze to his shoulder as he moved on. "Don't set too easy, Frank. Court's in session till we figure out the penalty for your sins."
Strother had been chuckling. "Wouldn't be Ed Mitchell without a joke on his lips."
Pruitt felt his comradeship for the men around the table—for most of them—deepen. Storekeepers and such would have no appreciation of how the good, clean, tough fun broke the tedium of a working man's life, of how men took pride in showing they had the strength and manhood to accept their role as the butt of rough humor, laugh at it over whiskey, and in the doing prove their right to be part of the masculine fraternity. Wasn't that part of the joy of living on the frontier?
As the whiskey hit his stomach, a smile, then a chuckle came. Even though he had expected the boys to have some fun with him, he had still let himself be taken in. He had chomped at their bait like a hungry river trout. The good-natured brutality of their joke only deepened the intensity of his kinship with these men of the combine. These were his people. Where could he hope to do better?
Here, he was home.
Already, Pruitt was beginning to see how he could reconcile his conflicting impulses. Not more than three months ago, sitting around this very table, taking warmth from his associates during a cold winter day, Pruitt had mused aloud about how much better their herds could be. "Get by with less whiskey this winter, pool some of our money and bring in a dozen prize Hereford bulls," he had proposed. "Scatter them around the valley and let them follow their nature. Before long, our beef will match the best the syndicate can offer."
He'd expected Dyson's scorn. "You got crazy ideas, Pruitt," his nemesis replied. "I hear you even been trying to make Calhoun into a farmer, sweating through the summer tending alfalfa fields." He laughed. "Bud Calhoun, hoe man, that'll be a sight to see."
When the laughter subsided, Mitchell teased. "Next thing you'll want to buy some barbed wire."
Pruitt knew they weren't ready for that yet. The men of the Cheyenne Club talked about fenced range, but independent cowmen saw it as a threat to their way of life. "Wire poisons the ground," he said, and the conversation moved on. But in time, he knew, upgrading the herds, growing winter feed, closing off a man's prime land, that was the way the world was moving. "Just some patience," Pruitt told himself, "the good men will catch up in time."
"Looking mighty serious, Frank." It was A. C. Rowan making his way back to his seat. "Not thinking are you? Dangerous habit. Gets a man in trouble."
Trouble. Pruitt repeated the word to himself. Thinking was what led him on the path to Texas, but his problem was not thinking hard enough. Calhoun had scoffed at the notion they had to change as the world changed. Not "change," Pruitt insisted, but "grow." It had not been an act of friendship to leave. Now he saw he should help his friends grow to prosperity with him. He could combine the freedom they all valued with the responsible life he craved. The new life he sought could be here, with Ed and Gib, with Coop and Bud.
"It was a foolish notion, me thinking I belonged in Texas after all these years," he said loud enough so Strother heard. "I'm glad Calhoun came after me, Gib. It's good to be home."
"I'm` glad you're here, Frank," Strother assured him. "All the boys are."
* * *
Judge Thompson rapped his glass on the table for order. "Soon as we finish up the formalities, we can get down to some serious drinking," he announced. The men quieted as a new bottle made the rounds. When all glasses had been filled, Thompson raised his own. "Our standard toast to remind us of the court's duty: setting aside all personal considerations, we do solemnly pledge that our guilty brother shall receive justice."
Each man played his part, raising his glass in Pruitt's direction and echoed the word "Justice!" with all the mock gravity the game deserved. When the glasses clanked down, the judge presented the question. "The defendant has been found guilty of the grave charge of unannounced absence. The court must now assess a penalty."
"Don't be too hard on me, Gib," Pruitt muttered. "Might be you next time."
Before Strother could reply, Thompson was calling upon Calhoun. "The accuser has the right to make the proposal."
"When I went on my bender last fall, the court made me pay two cows for each juror," Calhoun said. "And they made me clean out the privy. Seems fair."
"An appropriate fine plus incidental discipline." Thompson nodded approvingly. "The standard sanction for unannounced absence. Under Rules of Court the accuser's proposal stands unless overridden by a three-fourths majority, that's eight votes. So, unless someone has a different—"
"Ain't enough," Dyson insisted. "Got to make sure he don't skedaddle again. Make him pay a steep price, fifty head each, man for man. That's his fine."
Hodges interrupted. "Only fifty head? But I expected—"
"You slickered yourself, kid," Dyson said, showing no more sympathy than the younger man deserved. "Penalty for a dinky little thing like absent means we all get to take our chomp on his hide." Hodges shifted in his seat and glared angrily at Pruitt.
"As for incidental discipline," Dyson resumed, the malice in his voice plain for all to hear. He brandished his lariat with its simple slip-knot noose. "The son won't give us no more backsass after we dangle him from my choke strap."
Pruitt had expected Dyson's hostility, but the rustler had violated the spirit of good fun in a kangaroo court. That no one would heed his wishes was quickly confirmed when Strother rested his hand on Pruitt' forearm. "Vicious bastard," Gib muttered. "Wonder how long that arrogance would last if we can work up a vote on him."
"His day's past, Gib. When cowmen like you and me and Ed get finished building our spreads, there won't be no room in the Hole for him and his kind."
Sitting next to Dyson was "Coop" Cooper. "You can keep my share, Frank," Cooper said, "long as I get to watch you work the privy." While the laughter subsided, Pruitt flashed a glance at Dyson. The proposal of the self-satisfied bastard had never been serious. He could only count on the next man down the table.
The anger that had smoldered in Hodges' eyes since Dyson's rejection of his claim needed an object for it. "Ain't right, me doing all the work, trucking down to Cheyenne, bracing him in the saloon and then close-herding him all the way home, eight sweaty days on the trail, down and back and not getting bumkus for all that sweat." He turned to face Pruitt with hatred in his face. "Expected to have me a good start out of this. You're to blame. I was promised you'd run and when I blasted you to Hades, I'd earn me half of your leavings." In his self-absorption, Hodges seemed unaware that men were turning away from him in disgust. "You done me wrong, Pruitt. I'll laugh hardest of all when you do the rope dance."
Next to Hodges came a young man whose face carried more meanness than his years justified, a man Pruitt hadn't worked with yet. He thought the man's name was Cotter. "Never seen no one go out kicking air," Cotter said. "Should be fun. Kill him."
"Dickhead's been sucking up to Dyson since he drifted in ahead of the last blizzard," Strother muttered while bottles went around and glasses were refilled. "No one likes him."
Then, all eyes turned to Ed Mitchell, solid Ed Mitchell sitting at the far end of the table. Mitchell flashed a big knowing wink at Pruitt "Everyone knows Frank's my best drinking buddy," he said. "He's a cowman's cowman. Showed us how hard work can build a man's brand." He took a sip of whiskey and sat back from the table. The judge had to prompt him for his sentence. "Oh yeah, almost forgot." Mitchell, eyes a-twinkling at Pruitt, filled his lungs so the exuberance of his vote would rattle the windowpanes. "K-I-I-I-I-I-I-L-L-L-L!"
Pruitt returned Mitchell's broad affable grin and lifted his glass in toast to show Mitchell's funning hadn't taken him in this time. By his side, Gib chuckled contentedly at Ed's shenanigans. How could you not love a man with that lusty good humor, playacting as though they all didn't know Dyson couldn't get the votes. Lots of good days in the cabin lay ahead joshing with Mitchell, with Ed bringing the whiskey as his penance for his night of fun. For now, it was coming to an end as A.C. Rowan spoke.
"Two cows is a fair penalty for absence, with no harm done . . . ," Rowan began. "Idea that Frank Pruitt would lead them killers to bleed us in our blankets is the kind of bull crap, I'd expect from you, Dyson." Rowan scoffed at the rustler scowling at him from the other end of the table even as he turned to consider Mitchell thoughtfully. "As for Ed's notion that the piddling amount Wolcott would pay for a bunch of mosquitoes like us would tempt Frank," Rowan gestured like a man flicking away a pesky horsefly, "what's the odds that Frank Pruitt has changed more than we know?" Rowan reflected momentarily before concluding with his usual insightful decisiveness. "Still, it don't hurt none to make sure."
Pruitt felt rivers of sweat suddenly flowing down his sides. Everybody knew Ed had been teasing his buddy like always. But A. C. never funned around. And there were only three votes left. These men were friends of his. They couldn't really mean to . . . to . . . Could they?
"Gib, I . . . "
Strother's hand resting gently on Pruitt's forearm had a calming effect. "Remember the time you and me ran a gather of Tisdale's TTT mavericks outside Casper? You worked as hard as me, but me just starting out, you let me slap my brand on twelve mavericks and only six got the Inverted P. You always had a helping hand for any man, always looking to the future. I know how much the combine owes you."
Pruitt hadn't realized he was holding his breath until it whooshed out in relief. He cast a triumphant glance at his enemy but Dyson, still caressing his rope, returned Pruitt's gaze smugly.
"Say it," Thompson directed.
"Like Ed made us all see in our campfire confab last night," Strother explained to Pruitt, "a man who runs too many cattle starts seeing the world like the Cheyenne Club and threatens the lives of us simple rustlers." Pruitt's breath was coming in ragged gulps now, even though the warmth of comradeship Pruitt felt from Strother's hand on his arm was matched by the jovial friendship still present in his voice.
"You're a big man now, Frank. 'Course we're gonna kill you."
Desperate, Pruitt stared at the grinning face of Ed Mitchell. He had no hope that a spindly-legged colt like Al Dexter would stand up against the stallions that had already voted. Nor was he disappointed. "Two cows ain't near enough for a big operator like Pruitt, not the way the rest of us are grubbing for strays. Kill the cheapskate."
"Mr. Dyson's suggestion lacks one vote," Thompson declared.
And so, it all came down to Pruitt's hired hand who had paid more attention to the whiskey in his glass than to the trial, making up for his three months of involuntary sobriety, and who now sat slumped forward against the table.
"How says Mr. Andrews?" the judge asked with judicious equivalence: "fine or kill?"
Dexter nudged him awake. "Your turn."
"Lemme sleep," Andrews said and closed his eyes again.
"Gotta vote," Dexter insisted.
"Don't care. You do it."
Pruitt rushed in urgently before the smirking Dexter could mouth the death vote. "He's drunk," Pruitt insisted to Judge Thompson. "He abstains." Without Rafe's vote, the killers lost.
"If he wants to."
"Say it, Rafe," Pruitt told his hand. "Say you abstain."
"Whatever you want, boss," Andrews slurred. "I absh . . . ast . . . " Andrews fumbled with the unfamiliar word and held his glass to his lips with both hands to fortify himself while he tried to puzzle out what his boss wanted him to say.
No one was ever sure who began it. One voice, then two, lowly at first, hesitantly, "kill, kill," then building as a third voice and then a fourth joined in. "Kill. Kill." Andrews seemed confused. Why were they all staring at him? As the rhythmic cadence continued to build, glasses began to be pounded on the table in unison with the chant, "KILL! KILL! KILL!" The tumult continued building in a crescendo like rolling thunder until the shack seemed to quiver to its very foundations. "KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!" Finally, Andrews saw the boss's best friend, showing teeth in his familiar grin, so Andrews joined in the spirit of whatever game they were playing, as the jurors, their faces gleaming in joyful anticipation of the fun Pruitt was about to provide, declared their final verdict.
"KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!"
And so, Frank Pruitt would die.