“Get up, Goodwin.” The voice was about as smooth as steel dragged across gravel. It would have taken no less to wake him up.
Eyes squinted, blocking out as much sunlight as possible. Darn hangover, he thought.
He bared his teeth and blinked his eyes open more. Apparently he had passed out against one of Boss Brohl’s track switches, in the middle of Ullera’s busiest rail yard.
The voice growled again, “Cornelius Goodwin, I said up.” That voice was familiar. A painful peek confirmed that it was the plump Officer Bobby Frent, who had enjoyed roughing him up on more than one occasion. His muscles ached at the memory of past pummelings.
“Can I have a sec to gather my things?” Little more than a leather satchel of his ‘trade tools’ sitting at his feet.
A row of box cars lumbered lazily a mere pace from the switch, emitting a rhythmic ‘ka-chunk’ sound and—was that a banjo? His head throbbed. The whiskey had mitigated all that noisy traffic and ensured a sound sleep. Now, however, all the whistles and screeches were amplified by last night’s drink. Plus, he hated bluegrass.
“Ain’t tellin’ you again.” This time the sentence was punctuated by a boot to his ribs. “Boss Brohl set your appointment for nine thirty, and it’s already quarter past ten. You know how he don’t like to wait.”
And you know how I don’t like being kicked, you pug-nosed dolt. I’d love to return the favor with a ball of lead. He knew he wouldn’t, no matter how heated the exchange got. Punishment for discharging firearms on this yard was harsher than nearly anywhere else in the nation. And Brohl’s railroad cops enjoyed almost as much power as a federal marshal.
That must have been too long a delay, for pain shot through his cheek. Eyes opened again, he saw Bobby’s fatty ham hock of a hand grasped firmly to his generous sideburns. Despite the nagging pull of gravity, he acquiesced and stood. Goodwin noticed his right arm was weighed down. Even in his drunken stupor, he managed to hold onto his bottle all night, and it was graciously half full. Breakfast.
Officer Frent tightened the grip on his subject’s facial hair, and spoke through his teeth. “Boss’ll have my head if you’re not up in his office in five. I intend to do whatever it takes to deliver you.” It was implied that Frent’s and Goodwin’s head were a package deal.
“Then let’s not keep him waiting. What’s the job this time? Burn down another homestead whose owner won’t cede land to the railroad; make it look like an accident?” He really was getting tired of such repetitive tasks. Or was it that he was forming a conscience?
“Boss don’t tell me, and I don’t ask. But I did hear him sayin’ somethin’ about a job up in Millionaire’s Town.”
Millionaire’s Town, huh? What’s Brohl meddling about up there for? Obviously not content having most of the money in the Greater Summit City area. He wanted all of it. Something didn’t set right with him this time. Maybe it was his defiant streak, or maybe he was just getting enraged by that damn banjo. Where the hell was that music coming from?!
“Don’t matter no how; you’ll do it, ‘cause you need the drinkin’ money.”
Not this time, the scoundrel thought.
“What about you, Bobby? Do you enjoy a fine whiskey?” he said, his chops still gripped. The cop’s face contorted in confusion at the question. Cornelius was happy to clarify. His right arm tensed, and in one smooth motion he smashed the bottle, against the enforcer’s head along with twelve ounces of single malt. The hand released from his sideburns. Sobriety—and with it regret—immediately washed over him.
Shame to waste good bourbon.
But the enforcer had come back from worse, and Goodwin knew he only had seconds. He bent down to the satchel at his feet, alongside the cop’s liquor-soaked cap. His hand plunged into the bag. He quickly slid his fingers into their respective spots, and clenched his fist, pulling it out and reflexively putting it in front of his face. The steel glove went up just in time. Frent’s knuckles slammed into the goliath-sized gauntlet, buckling his wrist and forcing the policeman to howl in pain. Predictable.
“Like that, Bobby?” Goodwin smugly stated. “It’s one of a pair, gifted to me by a friend and inventor down in Ol’ Bastion.” In came another swing, this time a wild off-hand haymaker. Goodwin dodged, and reached out with the gauntleted hand, snagging a bunch of hair atop his foe’s head. He squeezed tight, and heard the grip on the glove lock with its signature whir and click. “They’ve got a few tricks, big boy.” Frent’s expression went from frustration to horror as he struggled with both hands to free himself of the grasp. Even the gratuitous helping of pomade he’d applied this morning didn’t help him slide out. “Pneumatics, Bobby. You gotta love technology.” Drawing in close, he lowered his voice in both volume and pitch. “You tell Brohl I’m not his man anymore.”
The officer pulled his head back to say, “Tell him yourself,” then thrust his forehead into Goodwin’s nose. Vision blurred, and the earth spun. His hands went limp for a second, and he was no longer holding Frent’s scalp. Then came the nightstick. Upside his head, the cop clubbed him over and over. He didn’t remember falling to the ground, but he was surely there, taking hits meant to ensure he wouldn’t be getting up soon. Pling-plung, diddly ding. To make matters worse, that banjo music was somehow even louder, almost overhead. Peedah ring-ring deedle-dee. He didn’t know which was worse: the bruising or the fact that the last thing he heard might be that wretched hillbilly melody. Ding-dang diddly, pling-pling… PLEEOW!
His head shot up at the explosion, and he looked about thru his one non-swollen eye. The blurry view made surveying the mess hard, but he saw Frent on the ground, writhing in pain. The banjo had stopped. He heard a slack-jawed voice in its place.
“Hurry up, now. Hop on. Train’s a-pickin’ up speed.”
He couldn’t see the source, but Goodwin knew that was a good idea. Whether Bobby’s wounds were fatal or not, he’d be framed for it and the sentence would be strict. That is, if Boss Brohl let him live to a trial. Wherever that train was going would be more hospitable a place to him than Summit City, now. He grabbed his satchel, jogged to match speed with the boxcar, and grabbed onto the edge of the door, planting his feet on a loading step. He noticed something wasn’t right. He was holding on with his right hand, and it was bare. He hopped off the train and ran to the prone policeman. Sure enough, the gauntlet still held tight to his greasy locks. He hit the release and stuffed the gauntlet into his bag.
“Sorry, Bobby. Seems we’ll have to do this dance again sometime.” Hopefully with a better musical accompaniment. Then he sped off and jumped back on the train. There, sitting among half a dozen goats, he saw his savior. The fellow was the size of a child. Betraying his size was a face that’d seen too many years framed by sideburns more wild than Goodwin’s. Suspenders held up a pair of patched short pants, and the little guy didn’t seem to own any shoes. Sitting on his little lap was a banjo as long as its owner was tall. A smoking hole near the tuning pegs revealed this wasn’t an ordinary banjo. It seemed he’d hollowed out the fret board and fitted a gun barrel in it.
“Uh, thanks,” Goodwin managed to utter despite his astonishment.
“It’s nothin’. Just a shot to his leg to keep him humble—and down a while. Besides, I been waitin’ to do that to Frent fer years. What’s yer name, bud?”
“Friends call me Con Goodwin. I guess I can count you among them. As long as you don’t play those awful tunes till I have a couple drinks.”