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On the Iron at Big Cloud/Munford


 

XV

MUNFORD

Munford came to the work before the gangs were deep enough into the hills to lose daily, or rather nightly, touch with Big Cloud. And the way of his coming was this: The town, springing up in a night, had its beginning in the wooden shanty the engineers built as headquarters for the Hill Division that was to be. Then, with mushroom growth, came shacks innumerable; and these shacks, for the most part, were gambling hells and dives and saloons, and the population was Indian, Chinese and bad American. To these places of lurid entertainment flocked the toilers at night, loading down the construction empties as they backed their way to the spurs and sidings that soon spread out like a cobweb around headquarters.

Naturally, rows were of pretty frequent occurrence between the company's men and the leeches who bleed them with crooked games and stacked decks over the roulette, faro and stud-poker tables. But of them all in the delectable pursuit of separating the men and their pay-checks, Pete McGonigle's "Golden Luck" saloon was in the van, both as to size and crookedness. And that high station of eminence it maintained until the night a stranger wrecked it by no more delicate a method than that of kicking over the roulette table, sending it and the attendant, who was presiding over the little whirling ball in Pete's interest, crashing to the floor. That stranger was Munford. And that was how Munford came to join the army of the Rockies.

A number of the company men were present and they sided in with Munford. Before this amalgamation, Pete and his hangers-on went down to ignominious defeat, and the "Golden Luck," to utter demolishment and ruin. News of the fracas spread rapidly to the other "joints." The dive-keepers joined forces, the company men did likewise, and that night became the wildest in the history of Big Cloud.

Munford took command of his new-found friends from the start. In the street fight that followed he did wondrous things—and did them with zest, delight and effectiveness. With his great bulk he towered above his companions, and the sweep of his long arms as they rose and fell, the play of his massive shoulders as he lunged forward to give impetus to his blows, was a marvelous sight to see. But the details of that fight have no place here. Its result, however, was that Munford, previously unknown and unheard of, became thereafter, a marked man in Big Cloud.

When the fight was over the company men, elated with victory though somewhat the worse for wear, retired to the yard to wait for the construction trains to take them up to their work. And while they waited they spent the time gazing in admiration at Munford who sat on the edge of a flat-car, his legs dangling over, blowing softly on his knuckles, a smile of divine contentment on his face.

What was Munford going to do? demanded McGuire and the cronies of his particular gang who had had the honor of being present at Pete's when the evening's proceedings were instituted, and who therefore felt they had a prior claim to the hero's consideration over and above that of the men from other sections of the work who had taken part in the fight. Munford did not know. Would he go up the line with them and take a job with their gang if they promised to get him one? Munford would. So he kept his seat when the construction train pulled out just as the dawn was breaking, and twenty miles up the road at Twin Bear Creek they tumbled him off and introduced him to Alan Burton, foreman of Bridge Gang No. 3.

At the sight of his battered and jaded crew, who in no wise appeared fit for the day's work before them, Burton swore savagely and with great bitterness of tongue bade them get to their work. Then he turned in his ill-humor to Munford, who was still standing beside him.

"Who the devil are you? What you doin' here? Where d'ye come from?"

The questions came quick and sharp like a volley of small arms.

Munford eyed the wiry little chunk of a man, scarcely up to his own shoulders, in silence, taking him in from head to foot.

"Well," snapped Burton, "speak up!"

"Munford's my name," said Munford, coolly. "I'm here for a job. Where I come from ain't none of your blamed business, is it?"

"Ain't it?" said Burton. "Well, then, you can walk back there, my bucko!" and he turned on his heel and followed the men to their work.

Munford sat down on the doorsill of the camp shanty and with a laugh pulled out his pipe and began to smoke. He was still sitting there a half-hour later when the foreman came back.

"If you've got far to go," grinned Burton, you'd better get started."

"No hurry," replied Munford, imperturbably.

"You're a queer card," said Burton, after a moment. "What's this about the trouble down at Big Cloud last night the boys are so full of they can't do anything besides talk?"

Munford chuckled quietly. "Nothin' much," said he.

"Nothing much, eh? They say you put the "Golden Luck and Pete McGonigle to the bad, and then cleaned out every dive in town. You're quite a reformer, ain't you? I'll tell you this, though, it won't be healthy for you around these parts from now on."

"Oh, I don't know," said Munford. "Say, how about that job?"

Burton laughed. "You've got a sweet nerve to ask for a job, and you responsible for a gang that won't be able to do a day's work among the lot of them between now and night. Did up McGonigle's, eh? Well, I don't know, I reckon in the long run that'll be worth more to the company than the day's work. All right, sport, you can go to work—until Pete and his crowd scare you out, which I predict won't be long. And while you're here, if you get itchy for trouble don't look for it among the men, come to me."

"Well, I'll—" gasped Munford. "Why, I could twist you like—" Then he laughed in pure delight at Burton's spunk. "Oh, sure! Sure, I will."

It took Munford no longer than a day to get the hang of the work. He was already more than a demigod in the eyes of Bridge Gang No. 3, and that counted for much. They were eager and ready to show him what they knew themselves, whereas the ignorance and rawness of any other newcomer would have been turned to good account in the shape of gibes and jests at his expense. In two days, from a natural adaptability coupled with his great strength, that was the strength of two men, Munford had fitted into place with the same nicety that one part of a well designed machine fits into another.

To the crews of the construction trains bringing up the bridge material he was pointed out with pride by his mates—though, indeed, that action was superfluous—as "the boy who did the trick at Pete's." And from these in turn Munford learned that down at Big Cloud, Pete and others of his ilk had sworn that, sooner or later, they would fix him for it. At this he only laughed and, doubling his great arm bared to the shoulders, intimated that there could be no greater pleasure in life for him than to have them try it. And that night sitting outside the camp after supper, McGuire, as spokesman, alluding to the threat, proposed that under Munford's leadership they should make another raid on Big Cloud.

Burton, passing by, caught the gist of the conversation. "I want to see you a minute, Munford," he called, shortly.

Munford got up and followed to the foreman's little shanty that stood a few yards away from the main camp. Once inside, Burton shoved him into a chair and shook his fist under Munford's nose.

"Didn't I tell you yesterday morning," he spluttered angrily, "that if you were looking for trouble to come to me and leave the gang alone? And here you're at it again, what? Go down to Big Cloud and raise hell, eh? You great, big overgrown calf!"

Munford blinked at the foreman, speechless. It was a long time since he had taken words like these from any man, much less a little spitfire like Burton.

"Trouble!" continued the irate Burton, hardly pausing for breath. "You live on it, don't you? Eat it, eh? Well, you'll get a fill of it before long that'll give you the damnest indigestion you ever heard of. I promise you that! But you keep your hands off my crew! Now you listen to what I'm saying!"

"Aw, go hang!" said Munford, contemptuously. "I can't help it, can I, if they want to go down to Big Cloud? If you're so blamed anxious about them, it's a wonder you don't go around every night and tuck 'em into their bunks!"

For a moment Burton looked as though he were going to jump into Munford and mix it then and there; but instead, with a short laugh, he turned and walked to the other side of the room, sat down on the edge of his bunk and pulled out his pipe. He cut some tobacco from his plug, rolled it between his palms, packed his pipe slowly and lighted it. It was five minutes before he broke the silence; Munford was beginning to feel uncomfortable.

"I don't suppose throwing a few timbers across Twin Bear Creek means much of anything to you, Munford, eh?" he asked quietly.

"Not so much," replied Munford carelessly, a little puzzled at the question.

"No? Well, it means a lot to me, a whole lot! Until that trestle is up, we can't shove material over to the other side, ties and rails and heavy stuff. Progress on the Hill Division depends just at this minute on Bridge Gang No. 3, and concretely on me. I don't propose to have it interfered with by the men going down to Big Cloud and getting their heads broke, understand?"

"Oh, I guess we can take care of our heads, if that's all that bothers you," drawled Munford. "And I furthermore guess your bloomin' little bridge you seem so stuck on won't take any hurt by lettin' the boys have their fling. Anyway, whether it will or not, what's the use of you shootin' off all your talk? You can't stop 'em! If they want to go, they'll go. And say, Burton"—an inspiration coming to Munford—"come on down with us. I'll promise you the time of your life."

"I ought to have put it up to you differently, I guess, and saved my breath," said Burton in disgust. "You're just a hulk of bone and muscle and your head's wood. You can lift a timber and swing a pick or axe because you've got the strength. But that's all you know, or all you're good for!"

The cool contempt in Burton's voice stung Munford more than the words themselves.

"Is that so!" he snarled, resorting to his favorite habit of blowing on his knuckles. "I'd show you fast enough what I'm good for, you runt, if you was a little bigger!"

"Maybe you'll find I'm big enough one of these days," said Burton, sharply. "Now I'll put it to you straight so that you'll understand. I'll show you whether I can stop the gang going to Big Cloud or not. No man rides on the construction trains after to-day without a pass signed by me. That's orders! If the men don't like it, you can tell them it's your fault. The next row in Big Cloud wouldn't stop at fists. And as for you, you wouldn't come out of it alive."

"You needn't worry about me," sneered Munford. "I'm——"

"You're a fool! The thickest-headed, trouble-hunting fool it's ever been my cursed luck to run against!" exclaimed Burton angrily.

Munford brushed his great shock of hair out of his eyes with a nervous sweep of his hand. "I ain't ever before taken the back talk from any man that I've taken from you—without hurtin' him," he said thickly, rising from his chair. "And I'm goin' to get out of here before I hurt you!" He walked quickly across the shanty and swung around in the doorway. "By God, I wish you was bigger!" he flung out.

Munford walked back to the men's camp and listened to their conversation awhile in sullen silence. They were still on the same topic and were waxing more enthusiastic each minute.

"Aw, dry up!" said Munford, cutting in at last. "It'll be a long time before any of you see Big Cloud again."

"Who says so?" demanded McGuire, aggressively.

Munford jerked his thumb in the direction of the foreman's shanty. "Him," he said laconically.

"How's he goin' to stop it? What for? What's the matter with him, anyway? It's none of his business!" the men were talking in chorus.

"He's fussy about gettin' his dinky little bridge through," sneered Munford. "He says he ain't goin' to have broken heads interferin' with it, either. From now on you've got to get a pass to ride on the construction train. Likewise, he said if you didn't like it I was to tell you"—here Munford paused to glance around the circle—"that it's my fault and I'm the cause of all the trouble."

"What did you tell him?" demanded the crew.

"I told him to go hang. What else would I tell him?"

"Bully for you!" shouted McGuire, slapping his leg in delight. "Did he fire you?"

This was something Munford had not thought of. "Fire me?" he repeated. Then slowly, pondering the idea: "No, he didn't. It's funny he didn't, though; I gave him back talk enough."

"Aw," said McGuire, with a sneer, "that's easy. He'd have fired you quick enough if he dared."

"Why," said Munford innocently. "I wouldn't have touched him if he had. He's too small to touch—I told him that, too."

"'Tain't that," McGuire returned. "He ain't afraid of any man, big or little. I'll give him credit for that. It's his bridge, and that means his job, that he's afraid of."

"What's my gettin' fired got to do with the bridge?" demanded Munford, in amazement.

"Aw, go on; you know what I mean. If Burton has trouble with us the bridge work stops, don't it? And the company'll be askin' Burton the reason why, won't they? Well, Burton knows there's some things we won't stand for, and firin' you after we brought you up here is one of them. And that's right, too, eh, mates?"

There was emphatic assent from the men.

Munford, a little flustered at this wholesale exhibition of homage, fidgeted nervously. "Much obliged," said he, clumsily. "Don't put yourselves out on my account. I——"

"That's all right," broke in McGuire. "Burton won't try it; he knows better. As for gettin' a pass to get out of camp, I dunno about that." He got up, stretched himself and yawned. "The way I look at it, it's more up to Munford here than it is to Burton. I'm goin' to turn in, but I'll say first that the night Munford says Big Cloud, then Big Cloud it is for Bridge Gang No. 3. That's the way we talked it before we knew about Burton mixin' in, and I reckon it stands just the same now."

And the camp retired to their bunks and to sleep, voicing McGuire's sentiments and swearing a unanimous and enthusiastic allegiance to Munford; all but Munford himself who did not sleep but lay awake tossing restlessly though, withal, in a very self-satisfied frame of mind.

This outburst of popularity pleased Munford exceedingly. The more so that it was directly traceable to his great strength and physical courage of which he was inordinately vain. He began to regard Burton with contempt. Burton was a man whose backbone wobbled when it came to a showdown! As Munford turned the situation over in his mind his contempt grew stronger until he came to decide that he despised the little foreman heartily. Would he, he demanded of himself with a snort, have fired a man that had talked to him as he had talked to Burton, had he been in Burton's place? He would! And the gang, bridge, job and everything else could go to blazes! Munford sat up to emphasize his feelings on this point with a crash of his fist on the side of the bunk. He thrilled with the fierce joy of enacting just such a role as his imagination depicted, despising Burton accordingly for lacking in what were, to him, the essentials of a man. He decided, as he fell asleep, to make the foreman's life a burden to him—and he did.

No flagrant violation or disobedience of orders was there, instead the inauguration of a petty little system of nagging that embraced every indignity Munford could think of. And the range of his attack was from profound and exaggerated attention and politeness to the utter and complete ignoring of the very existence of such a person as Alan Burton, foreman of Bridge Gang No. 3. While the gang, taking their cue from Munford, would shift from one extreme to the other with a precision and significance that cut deeper into a man of Burton's high-strung, nervous temperament than any other form of torture they could have devised.

Three times during three days Burton, who was afraid of no man or aggregation of men, took the bull by the horns and struck Munford a violent blow in an effort to bring matters to a head. On the first occasion the gang watched the action with a gasp of mixed pity and admiration—looking for Burton's instant annihilation. But Munford, with a bit of a laugh, only reached out and grasping Burton's neck held him wriggling, helplessly, impotently, at arm's length. "You got to grow, boy; just keep quiet now, I ain't going to hurt you," he taunted. And the gang promptly lost their faint appreciation of Burton's nerve in their relish of the ridiculous figure cut by the white-faced, raging foreman.

It was dirty work, and deep down in his heart Munford knew it. But his better nature no sooner manifested itself by sundry pricks of conscience than it was smothered beneath the new sense of authority and command that was now his for the first time in his experience; and which, catering as it did to his peacock vanity, was paramount to all things else. The work lagged sadly and fell behind. The daily reports Burton signed and sent down to headquarters became worse and worse.

Each day, too, the feud between the dives at Big Cloud and Bridge Gang No. 3, fanned by the crews of the construction trains, who taunted McGuire and the men with cowardice, grew stronger. For the train-men, having no idea of disregarding Burton's orders and allowing the bridge men to ride down on the empties, rubbed it in until the gang writhed under their gibes.

Munford did not come in for much of this personally. The trainmen, none of them, seemed to display any particular hankering for discussing the question in his presence; but he got it second-hand from McGuire and the gang. The outcome of it all was a decision one night after supper to board the construction train the following evening, Burton, the train crew and the company to the contrary, and go down to Big Cloud if they had to run the train themselves. Munford concurred in the decision by blowing very gently on his knuckles. It looked bad for the peace and quiet of Big Cloud; and it looked bad for Burton's standing with the company.

Munford, as commander-in-chief, and McGuire, as chief of staff, withdrew from the circle and strolled off by themselves to perfect their plans for the next day's campaign, taking the trail in the direction of Big Cloud—a trail still called, but now a passable road due to the traffic incident to the building of the Hill Division, whose right of way it paralleled from Big Cloud to the ford at Twin Bear Creek. At the end of a quarter of a mile the two men sat down on a felled tree by the side of the trail to talk. Some ten minutes had passed when McGuire, in the midst of a graphic description of what they would do to Pete McGonigle and the rest, suddenly stopped and gripped Munford tightly by the shoulder.

"Keep mum," he cautioned. "There's someone comin'!"

In the bright moonlight they could make out the figure of a man about a hundred yards down the road coming toward them from the camp.

"He walks like Burton," whispered McGuire.

"What the devil is he followin' us for? Get back into the trees and let him pass."

They moved noiselessly a little deeper into the wood that fringed the road, and lying flat, watched the man who was approaching.

"It's Burton," McGuire announced at last.

Munford grunted assent.

"He's been followin' us all right, and now he's goin' to wait for us to come back," continued McGuire, as Burton halted within a few yards of them and sat down to smoke. "Well, we'll give him a run for his money. He can wait a while, I'm thinkin'."

Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. McGuire began to tire of his self-selected game of hide and seek. "Come on," said he, "let's go out and see what he wants."

"Wait," Munford answered. "There's someone comin' from Big Cloud way. It's not us Burton's after. Listen!"

There was the faint beat of horse's hoofs gradually drawing nearer. Then presently rider and horse loomed out of the shadows and Burton, getting up, stepped out into the middle of the road.

The horseman drew up beside him. "That you, Burton?" he called softly.

"Yes," said Burton, shortly.

"You got Pete's letter, then," the man went on, dismounting from his horse. "I suppose it's all right to talk here. No one around, eh?"

"As well here as anywhere. Only cut it short."

"Oh, there ain't any hurry," returned the man, with a laugh. "Wait till I tie my horse, then we can sit down and chew it over comfortable."

"Now," he went on, that task performed, "what I came to see you about was this fellow Munford."

"Well," demanded Burton, "what about him?"

"It looks to us down to Big Cloud, from the way the fellows on the construction trains are talkin', you ain't got any cause to love him, eh? So Pete figured you and him could deal. You want to get rid of him, don't you?"

"I wish to God I'd never seen his face!" exclaimed Burton, with great bitterness.

"Sure! That's the idea. You don't want him; we do want him—bad! There's nothin' against the rest of the men; we'll forget all about that. It's just Munford we're after."

"Why don't you get him, then?" said Burton curtly.

"We're going to," the man replied, with a nasty laugh. "We're goin' to, all right. It's a fair deal. You're on, eh? Pete said you'd jump at the chance to sit in. We want you to fire him."

"That all I'm to do?" asked Burton, quietly.

"Sure, that's all there is to it—except this."

Munford's hand closed on his companion's arm in a tight, spasmodic grip as Pete's emissary produced a wad of bills and began to peel off the outer ones.

"Three hundred plunks," said the man, extending the money he had abstracted from the roll to Burton. "Pretty good for just firin' a man we've been lookin' for you to fire for the last week, anyway. Besides, there's been some talk down at headquarters about you not bein' able to handle your men, and about them gettin' someone that can. Pete says not to bother about that, he'll fix it for you. Here, take the money."

"Suppose I fired him," said Burton, slowly, "where'd he go?"

"What do you care where he goes, so long as you get rid of him?"

"He couldn't go West," went on Burton, paying no attention to the other's remark; "so he'd have to go East—that's Big Cloud—and murder!" He turned fiercely, savagely on the man. "You dirty, low-lived hound!" he flashed. "You offer me three hundred dollars to murder a man, do you? You wonder why I've stood for what I did, do you, you scrimp! Fire him, eh, to get a cowardly knife or shot in his back! You think I didn't know what would happen if I let him out, eh? Get out of here, you cur! And get out now—while you can!" Burton's voice rasped, hoarse with passion. He turned abruptly away and strode quickly in the direction of the camp.

"Hold on, wait a minute, Burton," cried the other, following him. "Don't get batty."

Unconsciously Munford had tightened his grip on McGuire's arm until the latter whimpered with the pain, and now Munford lifted him bodily to his feet making cautiously for the spot where the horse was standing. The two figures were still discernible, and Burton's angry voice continued to reach the listeners, though the words were now indistinguishable.

Munford's face in the moonlight was colorless, the muscles around his mouth twitched convulsively. "D'ye hear what they said? D'ye hear what they said? My God! d'ye hear it all?" he was mumbling incoherently in McGuire's ear, his eyes strained up the road.

"Yes, I heard it. Let go of my arm, you're breakin' it!"

"He's comin' back," said Munford, hoarsely.

Burton had disappeared around a turn in the road and the man, after hesitating a moment, began to retrace his steps to his horse, muttering fiercely to himself as he came along. As he reached for the bridle, Munford leaped out and grasped him by the throat, choking back the man's cry of terror.

"You make a noise," snarled Munford, "and I'll finish you! Oh, it's you, eh? Look here, Mac, it's the cuss that ran the roulette wheel that night at Pete's. So my price is three hundred, eh? Well, hand it out. Quick!"

Slowly the fellow put his hand in his pocket and for the second time that night pulled out his roll.

Munford's anger seemed to have vanished. He laughed softly as he took the money.

"What are you going to do with me?" whined the gambler.

Munford made no answer. In the imperfect light, he was laboriously counting the bills. McGuire watched the operation, at the same time keeping an eye on their prisoner.

"Two sixty—eighty—three hundred," said Munford at last, cramming that amount into his pocket and handing back by far the larger part of the roll to the man. "What am I goin' to do with you? Nothin'! You get on that horse and ride back to Pete. I want him to know this. Tell him all about it. Tell him Munford told you to tell him. That's worth more than breakin' your neck—and that's all that saves you from gettin' it broke, savvy? You tell him I've got the three hundred, and I'll give him his chance at me for it one of these days. And when I do—My God, you ride before I begin with you!"

The fellow glanced fearfully from Munford to McGuire and back again to Munford to assure himself that he was free to go. Then he clambered frantically into the saddle and lashing his beast in a frenzy of terror disappeared down the trail.

Munford, with swift revulsion of mood, threw himself down on the grass, burying his face in his hands. Not a word from McGuire; he walked awkwardly up and down, whistling under his breath. After a minute Munford looked up.

"I got to square this with Burton," he said brokenly.

McGuire nodded.

"He's a better man than you and me and the whole gang put together"—Munford's tones were fiercely assertive.

"He is that," assented McGuire, with conviction.

There was silence for a moment between them; then McGuire spoke: "Why didn't you take it all?" he asked.

"Take it all!" flared Munford. "I'm no thief, am I? Well, then, what's the matter with you? That's my price, ain't it? Three hundred. That's what Pete offered for a chance to get his paws on me. Well, I'll give him his chance, you heard me promise, didn't you? That's right, eh? That's Pete's proposition, and the money's mine, ain't it?"

"It is," said McGuire.

"It is, and it ain't," said Munford. "Burton could have had it if he'd sold me out, couldn't he? Well, then, I'm goin' to see he gets it anyway."

"He wouldn't take it, not by any means, he wouldn't," objected McGuire.

"Not outright, he wouldn't," agreed Munford. "I know that well enough. We got to fix it so he won't know where it come from, and so it will square me with him, and you fellows, too."

"How you goin' to do that?" demanded McGuire.

"I dunno," said Munford. "We'll talk it over with the boys. Come on back to camp."

The next day and the day after, the gang worked like Trojans, and the lack of any sneer or incivility on their part, coupled with a subdued, expectant excitement that the men tried fruitlessly to hide, made Burton more anxious and ill at ease than during the days that had gone before. It looked like the lull before the storm; and he wondered bitterly what culminating piece of deviltry they were hatching.

To the taunts of the train crews the gang grinned and said nothing.

On the second day a package, addressed to Munford, came up from the East, and at noon hour the men handed it around from one to another in awe-struck wonder at the magnificence of the solid gold repeater that chimed the quarters, halves and hours, and split the seconds into fractions. It was indeed a beauty. Maybe the chain was a little massive, but the men opined that it was therefore strong. They pried open the case to read the inscription over whose wording they had wrestled most of a night.

"Nifty, ain't it?" cried McGuire, admiringly; and he read it aloud: "'This is to certify that Alan Burton is as square as they make them, and Munford and the gang are sorry. So help us!' They delivered it solemnly to Munford, who was to make the presentation, and started in a body for Burton's shanty. Burton met them at the door, his face hard and set.

"So it's a showdown at last, eh, boys?" he laughed grimly. "Well, what is it?"

The men shoved Munford bodily forward and he stood balancing himself sheepishly, first on one foot and then on the other, as he faced Burton. He cleared his throat painfully once or twice, then he found his voice. From a point of oratory or rhetoric it was perhaps the lamest presentation speech on record, for Munford suddenly thrust the watch and chain into the astounded Burton's hands.

"Here, take it," he sputtered. "It's all written out on the inside." And breaking through the men, he turned and fled incontinently.