The Proving Trail

All winter long I held them cattle up on the plateau whilst pa collected my wages down to town. Come first grass I taken them cattle down to Dingleberry's and I told old Ding what he could do with them, that I had my fill of playin' nursemaid to a bunch of cows.

He made quite a fuss, sayin' as how pa had hired me out to him and I'd no choice, bein' a boy not yet eighteen.

So I told him if he figured I'd no choice, just to watch the tail end of my horse because I was fetchin' out of there. I knew pa was down to town gamblin', workin' with my money as his base, but pa was a no-account gambler, generally speakin',and couldn't seem to put a winnin' hand together.

Nonetheless he might have enough put by to give me a road stake, and I could make do with five dollars, if he had it.

Only when I rode into town pa was dead. He was not only dead, he was buried, and they'd put a marker on his grave.

It taken the wind out of me. I just sort of backed off an' set down. Pa, he was no more than forty, seemed like, and a man in fair health for somebody who spent most of his time over a card table.

There was a lot of strangers in town, but one man who knowed me and who'd knowed pa, too, he told me, "Was I you I'd get straddle of that bronc an' light a shuck. Ain't nothin' around town for you no more, with your pa dead."

"How'd he die? It don't make no sense--him dyin' right off, like that."

"That's the way folks usually die, son. Everybody knows he's goin' to die sometime, but nobody really expects to. You light out, son. I hear tell they're hirin' men for work in the mines out in the western part of the Territory."

"How'd he die?" I persisted.

"Well, seems like he killed hisself. I never did see the body, mind. But Judge Blazer, he seen it. He shot hisself . Lost money, I reckon. You know he was always gamblin'."

"Hell," I said, disgusted, "he'd not kill himself for that! He done been losin' money all his life! That man could lose more money than you'd ever see."

"You take my advice, boy, an' you light out. There's some mighty rough folks in this town an' they won't take to no wet-eared boy nosin' around."

The couldn't make no sense to me, because I'd been around rough folks all my life. We never had nothin', our family didn't, scrabblin' around for whatever it was we could find after ma died an' Pistol--that's my brother--taken off. It just left me an' pa, an' we'd gone from one cow camp or minin' camp to another. Now pa was dead an' I was alone.

The Bon Ton was down the street, and I was surely hard up for grub. I'd been so long without eatin', my belly was beginning to think my throat was cut, so I bellied up to a table in the Bon Ton and ordered, thankin' my stars a body could still get him a good meal for two bits.

Until I set down there, I'd had not chance to give much thought to pa. We'd sort of taken one another for granted, or so it had seemed to me. Now all of a sudden he was gone and there was a great big hole in my life and an emptiness inside of me.

Nothing had ever seemed to go right for pa. A couple of times we had ourselves a little two-by-twice outfit, but the first time it was get run off or fight, an' ma didn't want us to fight so we pulled out. The Comanches run us off the next place, stealin' our horses and cows an' leavin' us with a burned-up wagon and no stock. Next time pa was about to make out, ma took sick, and it needed all pa had just for doctor's bills and such. After that pa took to gamblin' reg'lar and it was all bad cards and slow horses.

Man at the next table was talkin'. "Never seen such a thing," he was sayin', "not in all my born days. When they raised him that last time, he taken out a six-shooter an' there for a minute nobody knew what was going to happen. Then he put that gun down in the middle of the table. `Ought to be worth twenty dollars,' he says, `and I raise you twenty.'

"Two of them stayed, and when the showdown came he was holdin' a full house. Well, sir, that started it! You never seen the like! The cards began runnin' his way and it seemed he couldn't do anything wrong! If they could have gotten the governor into the game, he'd have owned the Territory! I tell you, he must have won eight, maybe ten thousand dollars!"

The waitress brought me beef and beans and filled my coffee cup. She was a pretty redhead with freckles, and when she leaned over to pour my coffee, I looked up at her and she whispered, "You be careful! You be real careful!"

"What's that mean?" I said. "I never said a word."

"I don't mean that. Was I you, I'd fork that roan of yours and ride right out of town and never even look back. If'n I was you, they'd never see me for the dust."

"Why? What have I done? I ain't been to town for months, and no sooner do I ride in than folks start tellin' me I should leave."

"You better," she warned, and walked away.

Well, I drank some coffee and it tasted mighty good. Then I went to work on the beef and beans, half-hearin' the talk at the next table about that card game. "It was that six-shooter did it. He'd been losin' steady until he staked that six-shooter with the pearl handle and the little red birds inlaid into the pearl. I declare, I--"

Well, I just stopped chewin'. I set there for a full minute before I leaned over to that man and said, "Sounds real pretty. Did you say red birds in a pearl handle?"

"That's right! Talk about lucky! That gun worked a charm! Soon's he put up that gun his luck changed an' there was no stoppin' him."

"Medium-sized man, with a mustache?"

"Had him a mustache, all right, but he was a tall, thin galoot. Wore one of those Prince Albert coats, a black frock coat, y'know." He peered at me. "D'you know him?"

"The gun sounds familiar. I got an eye for guns, and a man wouldn't be likely to forget anything like that."

"He sure was lucky! Won him maybe nine, ten thousand dollars! More'n that, he won the deed to some big cattle outfit up north. He seemed to make all the wrong moves, yet he kept pullin' down the high cards."

The other man at the table looked around. "Only reason he didn't win all the money in the world was because those other fellers didn't have it. He just won all they did have. I seen it."

They went back to talkin' amongst themselves, and I finished what was before me. Meanwhile I did some thinkin'. Now, I'm not quick to think. I act fast but I consider slow. I like to contemplate a subject, turnin' it on the spit of my mind until I have seen all sides of it. This here shaped up like plain, old-fashioned trouble.

He died winners, and not many gamblers could say that. Shot through the skull, though. Now how come that?

Whose was the bullet? What finger squeezed off that shot?

I walked across the street to Judge Blazer's. He was not only a judge but the coroner as well.

He was a-settin' up there on the porch of that ho-tel, tipped back in a chair smokin' a beg seegar. He seen me comin' and squinted his eyes to make me out.

I promise you I didn't look like Sunday meetin' time. I'd been all winter up in the mountains, and it was almighty cold up there. I was wearin' all the clothes I owned, and I'd made a hole in a blanket for a poncho.

"Judge Blazer," I said, "you buried my pa. I've come for his belongin's"

He just set there. Then he taken the seegar from his lips. "Now, now son, you know your pa never had nothing. He was never much account at anything at all, and all he done for the past years was gamble. We done buried him our own selves, and he had just three dollars and six bits on him when he passed on. He had him a gold watch and his six-shooters. One was in his hand the other was on the bureau." He hitched himself around in his chair. "You're welcome to `em."

He got up and went through the door ahead of me. He was a big man, and fat, but folks said he was almighty strong, that little of what looked like fat was really fat, I never cottoned to him much, but had he known he'd not have cared. Who was I but a youngster still wet behind the ears? He thought.

In his office he waved at a table. There was a rolltop desk, a big iron safe, a brass spittoon, and there was this table. There lay one of pa's guns in the holster with his gun belt. The other gun lay free on the table. Pa's old black hat was there too.

Judge Blazer taken three dollars and six bits from a drawer and put it down along with a gold watch. "There you be, boy. You he'p yourself an' run along, I got business to attend to."

Well, I taken up that gun belt an' strapped her on. She settled down natural-like against my leg. Then I pocketed the watch and the money and swapped my beat-up old hat for pa's black one. Then I spun the cylinder on that second gun, and it was fully loaded. Pa was always careful with his guns. He kept them first-rate.

She was working and she was ready.

"Judge?" I was holdin' right to that six-shooter, kind of casual-like, but ready. "Seems to me you're bein' forgetful, I guess a man like you , with business and all, could forget."

He turned around slow and he stared hard at me. He looked from me to the gun, then back at me. Maybe I was only seventeen, but pa an' me had cut the mustard in a lot of mean places. He didn't look no different than a lot of others we'd met.

"Forget what?" he asked.

"All that money. Pa had him some winnin' hands that last night. He won a lot of cash money and he won property, and I don't see any of it on that table."

"Now, now, son! You've been misinformed. I think--"

"Mister Judge," I said, keeping my voice quiet-like, "this here gun don't have so much patience. Could get right hasty, in fact. Now, if you'd like, I can round up twenty, maybe thirty witnesses who saw that game. There's a lot of strangers in town, Judge, and they ain't afeered of you, an' many of them seen what happened last night. The whole town's talkin'. You hold out one penny on a poor orphant boy who's just lost his pa an' I think those boys would be huntin' theirselves a rope. Now I can guess why ol' Dingleberry was so upset about me pullin' my freight. You'd likely told him to keep me busy up yonder until all this sort of blowed over."

He didn't like it. No man like to give up that kind of money to what he figures is a no-account boy. That was probably more money than the judge hisself had seen all to one time, and he was in no mood to let loose of it. On the other hand, there I stood with a six-shooter and maybe I was trigger-happy.

"You pull that trigger, boy, an' you'll hang for sure."

"I don't know anybody got hung for shootin' a thief." I said.

His face flushed up red and angry. His eyes got real mean. "Now, you look here!"

Me, I just tilted that gun a mite. "All you got to do to prove me wrong is hand over that money and those deeds. If you want to go to court about it, we can arrange to hold it younder in the saloon where pa won the money."

He didn't like any part of it, but he didn't want to hear what a jury of rough-and-ready western men would say, either. They believed in fair play and most of them had seen the game.

Reluctantly he dropped to one knee in front of the safe, and I moved right behind him. Maybe I looked green, but not so green that I didn't know some folks kept a six-shooter in their safe to watch the money.

Sure enough, I seen one. As he reached his hand for it, I said, "Judge, when your hand comes out of that safe, it better have nothing in it but money. You lay hold of that gun and you still have to turn around to shoot. I don't."

He got up, very careful, holding the money in his two hands. He placed it on the table in front of me, and I told him to back off, easy-like.

"Son," he said, "I wasn't holdin' out on you. I meant to take care of this money for you until you come of age. Fact is," and I'd bet the idea just occurred to him, "I've been fixin' to get myself appointed your guardian by the court." He smiled like a cat lickin' cream. "A young boy with all that there money, he needs advice. I figure to send you off to school to get you some education."

"You ain't my guardian or likely to be," I said.

"On the contrary." He was pleased with himself now. "I'll draw up the papers. Appoint myself your guardian. I'll take that money an' invest it for you."

"Pull in your horns, Judge. You made your play an' you've come up empty. Just give me that deed."

"Ain't worth the paper it's writ on," Blazer protested.

"Just hand it over," I insisted, and he done so. He didn't like it, but he could see my thumb was holdin' back the hammer.

There was a road into town and there was a road out of town, and it stood to reason I had to take one or the other, so I took neither. I took the trail to my cow camp, which I figured would be the last place they'd look.

They'd study on it and Blazer would figure it out, but not until they had wasted time on other trails, and by that time I hoped it would be too late.

Only I'd better hurry. If it came on to snow before I got off the mountain--and there could be heavy snows up yonder--I'd be in trouble.

The wind blew cold off the peaks and the trickles of melt had stopped flowing, which meant it was freezing on top. I turned in my saddle to look back.

Nothing was in sight, nothing at all. But I knew they were back there, and I knew they were coming.

How much money I had I didn't know, but it was a-plenty and Blazer figured to have that money. He wouldn't be coming alone.

When I saw, far ahead, the dark shadow of the cabin, it was already coming on to snow. I pulled up, although the roan wanted to go on in. I sat in my saddle taking a long look at my hole card, and it didn't shape up to very much.

How did I know nobody knew of that place but me? Wasn't I taking a lot for granted? That gold money rested heavy in my saddlebags and so did the paper. The gold might be just too much weight, going off the mountain in the deep snow. Besides, if they got me I didn't want them to profit by it.

It was then I thought of the cache.