Knute’s Bridge
by Jonathan Eaton
a dog

THERE IS A RIVER called the Cimarron that gathers its headwaters from the Johnson Mesa in northeastern New Mexico, heads to the east, rises up just enough into Colorado and Kansas to avoid the Texas panhandle, then settles back down into Oklahoma, where, after a journey of nearly 700 miles, it adds its waters to those of the Arkansas River. Many years ago, a few miles north of what was not then, but is now, Chandler Oklahoma, there was a toll bridge across the Cimarron known locally as “Knute’s Bridge,” as a big Norwegian by the name of Knute Eckman was the toll-gatherer. Knute had hair that stuck straight up, a thick beard cut straight across just below his chin, and a long face. He always looked like a man who has just woken up and discovered half his beard was chopped off while he slept.

     The year 1891 started out rainy, and the rain continued late into the spring. Knute was doing a first-rate business and had every expectation of an excellent year—but his fortunes took a serious turn for the worse when a well-dressed gentleman on a fine horse met with an accident on the bridge. The gentleman’s horse put a hoof down in a hole in the wooden decking of the bridge, the horse stumbled, the man was thrown and his arm broken. Normally, an incident like this one (and there had been others) would have been of little or no consequence to Knute. Those who complained to Knute were told that wood has knots, and knots work loose, and anyone with ordinary sense knows it, and therefore it was incumbent upon the traveler to employ a modicum of vigilance when crossing a bridge with a wooden decking. If the injured party took his complaint to the county justice of the peace, he’d hear the same thing, though perhaps more eloquently said. However, in this instance, the injured party was the county justice of the peace. The judge fined the owner and operator of the bridge, the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation, fifteen dollars, and Knute Eckman was ordered to nail a sign to a post on either side of the bridge, stating, in a large and legible script, that the bridge, though not wholly impassable, was practically impassable, that the bridge was in an unsafe condition, that the traveler crossed at his own risk, and that should a traveler decide to cross the bridge despite the dangers to life and limb, no toll would be collected.

     The judgment was nothing less than a disaster for Knute, who had a wife and seven children to feed. Not only did he lose his income, but as he constituted one-half of the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation, he was responsible for paying one-half of the fine, and as the other half of the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation was Gus Matson, Knute’s no-account brother-in-law, it was a near certainty that Knute would have to pay the other half of the fine as well.

     Knute’s hard luck was a minor windfall for regular users of the bridge, and among these lucky fellows was a whiskey peddler by the name of Bill Jones. Bill didn’t shed tears over much of anything, and he certainly didn’t shed any tears into the Cimarron River the first time he drove his wagon up to Knute’s Bridge, read the sign, and observed that Knute wasn’t at his post. Bill considered Knute’s troubles only from the narrow perspective of a man peering into his own pocket. The bridge was in no worse condition for the judgment against it, and the rates very much improved. As days and weeks and months passed, and Knute’s absence seemed to be settling into a permanent state of affairs, Bill found the pleasure he got when he drove his wagon over the bridge gratis diminished very little.

     Early one morning, late in September of 1891, Bill Jones, driving a wagon pulled by two large and muscular horses, a wagon to all appearances loaded with hay, approached Knute’s Bridge from the north. Bill was headed for the land rush a few miles south of the Cimarron. At exactly noon on that day, a bugle would sound, and a vast and open prairie, various portions of which had been foisted upon, then stolen back from, tribes of Iowa, Sac, Fox, Potawatomi, and Shawnee Indians, would become the town of Chandler and the county of “A” (until a better name could be chosen), population about 6000 white settlers.

     The exact time of his arrival didn’t matter to Bill as long as he was there a few hours before sunset. He wanted to be ready for business—set up in some secluded corner of the town-to-be—when the settlers, worn out, dusty, hungry, but most importantly, thirsty, left their claims to gather together and elect a mayor for the new town. The settlers would find him wherever he was, and he wasn’t worried about the law—the law would have its hands full. Most of the lawmen would use their authority to take up the most desirable positions at the starting line, and when the bugle sounded, they would run out into the prairie and stake a claim of their own. The few lawmen left behind would be busy settling claim disputes and squabbles between “city planners”—one faction of which would pound stakes into the prairie marking out streets and city blocks, while another pulled them up and pounded them back down somewhere else. The law, Bill figured, would hardly concern itself with one whiskey peddler, quietly selling drinks, one for a dollar. Two thousand four hundred drinks to the barrel. Sixteen thousand eight hundred drinks in the seven barrels under the hay in Bill’s wagon. And Bill was confident he’d sell every drop.

     Bill thought he would arrive at the land rush in good time, but when he came around a bend in the road and Knute’s bridge came into view, what he saw concerned him greatly. The decking was gone from about half the bridge on the north side, and a gang of ten men were hard at work tearing up the remainder. The color of their skin and the design of their hats varied greatly, but they all wore blue overalls, white shirts, heavy brown work shoes and enormous leather gloves. As Bill’s wagon drew closer, one of these men detached himself from the others and approached him. A portion of the bridge between this man and Bill was entirely bereft of decking, but that didn’t stop the bridge man or even slow him down noticeably. He walked across a narrow and rusty stringer, high above the river bed, and he did so with no more apparent concern for the possibility of falling to his death than a squirrel running across a tree limb. Bill took notice of that and also the differences between this bridge man and the others, namely that he was older, and his blue overalls and white shirt considerably cleaner.

     The fearless gentleman, a quite ordinary and friendly looking man, made it safely to solid ground, removed a black beehive hat, took his leather gloves off and placed them in the bowl of his hat, then walked up to Bill’s wagon.

     ”I’m sorry sir,” he said, “you can’t cross the bridge today. As you can see we’re in the middle of repairs.”

     “Repairs?” Bill said, “I’d say you’ve torn it all to pieces!”

     “I can see how it might look that way at present, but I assure you once we are done, no finer bridge –”

     “The bridge was perfectly fine the way it was,” Bill said hotly.

     “That’s not exactly true,” the gentleman replied. “We were informed there were holes in the decking, a superficial matter to be sure. But upon inspection I found a variety of more serious problems. The wood used in the original construction was not properly seasoned, and the bridge has settled in excess of thirteen inches from its original level. The depth of the latticework is insufficient, and the whole structure is leaning—the eastern side a full seven inches higher than the western—and then there’s the holes in the decking, of course.”

     “What’s your name?” Bill said.

     “Harlan Legg.”

     “Are you in charge here, Mr. Legg?”

     “I’m the foreman of the bridge gang.”

     “Mr. Legg, I want you to tell your gang to put this bridge back together the way it was. I want you to tell them to do it right now. As soon as I cross over you can resume your repairs.”

     ”Well now, sir, you must know I can’t do that.”

     ”Why not?”

     ”I can’t as I’m certain the officers of the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation would disapprove—and rightly so. We . . .” and here Harlan Legg waved his hat in the direction of the men still hard at work tearing the decking off the bridge “. . . we are contracted with the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation to repair this bridge according to the best practices of our trade. That would certainly not include taking it apart and putting it back together to accommodate one gentleman with a wagonload of hay.”

     ”Then I want to speak to these officers of the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation.”

     ”I wouldn’t know how to get in contact with them. I don’t make the arrangements. The business agent for our local does that.”

     ”So where can I find the business agent?”

     ”Our local chapter is in St. Louis. He might be there. But he travels considerably.”

     ”Alright then, where is Knute Eckman?”

     ”I’m sorry sir, I don’t know any Knute Eckman.”

     Knute Eckman, his wife and seven children, were, at that very moment, on a train bound for a new life in California. Gus Matson, whom you may recall was Knute’s no-account brother-in-law, had bought out Knute’s share of the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation, paid the fines, and arranged for the repairs. How Gus came up with the money, and perhaps more significantly, why he chose to spend that money in such a sensible way, is an interesting story, but too long to relate here in full. Suffice it to say that a pretty young woman was at the heart of it, and somewhere else, in the spleen or the bile ducts perhaps, were the young woman’s parents, who refused to give over their daughter to a man with no regular occupation.

     ”Mr. Legg,” Bill said, “I would like for you to jump up here and sit beside me for a minute.”

     “Sir?”

     “Jump up here and sit beside me for a minute.”

     Harlan Legg rather nimbly stepped up on the kickboard and sat down next to Bill. Once he was settled, Bill, who kept a pistol shoved in his boot, took the pistol out of his boot and jabbed it into Harlan’s ribs.

     ”Now,” Bill said. “I want you to tell your men to put the bridge back together the way it was and let me cross. And make it quick. If I do not very shortly find myself on the south side of the Cimarron, you will very shortly find yourself on the south side of the Styx. Do I make myself clear?”

     ”Yes, sir,” Harlan Legg said. Harlan had a silver whistle on a chain around his neck, and he put the whistle to his lips and blew out two high, piercing notes. The work on the bridge stopped immediately, and one by one the bridge men made the same treacherous journey across the stringers, and when they were gathered around Bill’s wagon, Harlan spoke to them.

     “Brothers,” he said, “this gentleman has urgent business to attend to and must be across the river as soon as possible. We will need to put the old decking back on the bridge and let him cross over.”

     A big man with a square jaw stepped forward. He had enormous arms, wore a dirty white cotton cap with a long brim, and leather gloves that looked big enough to fit the Colossus at Rhodes. “Brother Legg,” he said, “we took no care in ripping up the old decking as we didn’t foresee it might be used again. It is tore up bad. We could set it back down, but I don’t see how we could secure it properly. A man might walk across it but a horse and wagon . . .” The big man shook his head doubtfully.

     ”It’s only a wagon loaded with hay Brother Jensen,” Harlan said. “The whole thing together—wagon—load—driver—must be under a ton. Couldn’t you put the old decking down sufficient for one crossing of one ton, Brother Jensen? As I said, this man has urgent business.”

     The big man closed his eyes, looked down, and rubbed his forehead with the big glove on his left hand. “Alright,” he said after a little while, “We can put something down for him to cross over, but I can tell you I wouldn’t dare drive over it myself if I thought the load was one pound over a ton.”

     Bill pressed his pistol a little deeper into Harlan’s ribs. “How come you have to use the wood you tore off?” He hissed. “You must have new wood or else what were you going to fix the bridge with? Are you trying to get me killed?”

     “Ease up, friend,” Harlan said. “It’s the best we can do. The new wood was supposed to be here this morning but it got held up.” Harlan chuckled—something Bill figured most men would find difficult to do with a gun jammed in their ribs. “I guess I could say that. The train our timber was on got held up by the Dalton gang. Train’s running again but we won’t get our timber until morning. Can you believe that? I come here all the way from St. Louis to fix a bridge. My wife says right when I’m getting on the train ‘are you sure it’s safe down there? Aren’t there outlaws?’ and I say ‘sure it’s safe, honey, nothing to worry about’ and next thing you know the Dalton gang holds up the train hauling our timber. Could just as easily have been the train my crew was on. My wife will faint dead away when I tell her.”

     ”I guess you better not tell her then,” Bill said.

     ”Not tell her? Oh, no, I couldn’t keep something like that from my wife. We’ve been married thirty years. We have no secrets from each other.”

     ”Suit yourself, Mr. Legg, but if you want to see that dear wife of yours again tell me how I’m supposed to get across this river.”

     “Mr. . . . ?”

     ”Jones.”

     ”Mr. Jones,” Harlan said, “you heard my engineer-in-charge, Brother Jensen, say we can lay down a decking for you to cross over. He’s a good engineer—I’d trust him with my life—have, in fact, on numerous occasions. If he says you can cross . . .”

     “Contrary to your estimate,” Bill said, “I expect I am just over a ton.”

     “I see,” Harlan said. “I swear you wouldn’t know it to look at your load. But Mr. Jones, shooting me is only going to lighten your load by the weight of one bullet, and I don’t believe that will be enough to significantly improve your chances of crossing safely on the old decking—so I wish you’d quit prodding me with that gun of yours.”

     Bill shoved the pistol back into his boot.

     ”Thank you, Mr. Jones,” Harlan said. “Now I’ll tell you something you might find helpful. I examined the pilings and the river bed just this morning. The river is running low and the bed is of rough sand and gravel and very tightly packed. I truly believe these fine horses of yours could pull your wagon across with no trouble.”

     “I guess I have no choice,” Bill said.

     ”I don’t know of any other,” Harlan replied.

     “Get out, Mr. Legg.”

     Harlan jumped down from the wagon. Bill got his wagon turned around, and as he drove away from Knute’s bridge, he thought he heard the bridge men laughing.

     Not far from the bridge, Bill found a place where the river was wide and shallow and he began to make his way across. As Harlan had said, the riverbed was hard packed sand and gravel, and the river itself, just a little whip of water winding its way between broad sandbars, was a few inches deep in most places—a foot or so at the deepest. It seemed to Bill he would cross the river without incident, but about a third of the way to the opposite bank, the wagon came to a place where the Cimarron, for reasons known only to itself, had decided to run under the river bed instead of over it, and in that place the back wheels of the wagon sank into the sand, and though the horses pulled with all their considerable might, the wagon would not budge.

     Bill, cursing, took off his boots and rolled up the cuffs of his pants. He got out of the wagon to assess the situation and he cursed some more when he saw the wheels were sunken into the river bed up to the axles. As he pondered his difficulties, he noticed Harlan Legg sitting on the bank of the river, taking off his heavy brown work shoes and rolling up his pants legs, apparently intending to come visit with him, and Bill, despite his great frustration, had to smile to himself, never having met someone who seemed so intent on getting himself shot.

     When Harlan Legg got to the wagon, he did not speak to Bill, rather, he began a careful examination of the rear wheels and the underside of the wagon. When he was done, he stood up, put his hands on his hips, looked at Bill and shook his head.

     “You are sure stuck,” Harlan said.

     “I guess you were wrong,” Bill said.

     “Not wrong,” Harlan said, “misinformed. Take a look at this, Mr. Jones.” Harlan leaned down and pointed at something under the wagon. Bill looked where Harlan was pointing but didn’t see anything.

     “What?”

     “The bolster springs, Mr. Jones—look at the bolster springs.”

     “They look all right to me.”

     “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with em,” Harlan said, “But look how they’re compressed. I’d say you’ve got a two thousand five hundred pound load in your wagon—maybe a bit more. You told me your wagon and load altogether was a little over a ton. When I watched you drive away it struck me how your horses exerted themselves to get the wagon rolling and I thought you might have a heavier load than what you said. I’m glad I came here to check on you.”

     “Well here you are,” Bill said, “and as far as I can tell, I’m still stuck.”

     “Not for long, Mr. Jones. I’ll get the gang down here to help you out. We’ll have you and your whisky on your way in half an hour.”

     “Whisky?”

     ”If your load was pig iron or molasses, you wouldn’t have covered it over with hay.”

     “And how much is your assistance going to cost me?”

     “We are union men,” Harlan said, softly. “We believe all men are brothers and should help each other in time of need. We don’t ask for anything in return. But if you think your conscience will bother you for paying us nothing for our efforts on your behalf, I understand–I would feel the same way. Unfortunately, I am in something of a bind here, as I’m not authorized to negotiate wages on behalf of my fellow laborers. You will either have to accept our charity, or . . . I don’t know what.”

     “Under the circumstances,” Bill said, “I don’t see where I have a choice. It would take me all night to get these barrels moved across the river by myself.”

     Harlan leaned down and scooped up a palmful of the Cimarron. He raised it to his lips and sipped at it, made a face and then spat it out. “It’s salty!” he said. Harlan shook his head. “A salty river—I had no idea. No wonder those pilings were in such good shape.”

     “So it’s salty,” Bill said, “is that a problem?”

     “No sir,” Harlan said. He raised the silver whistle to his lips, then lowered it back down. “Mr. Jones,” he said, “I just had an idea on how you might feel better about accepting our charity. Turnabout is fair play, don’t you think?”

     “I’ve heard people say that.”

     “Perhaps you’ve also heard about the recent troubles at the Homestead steel mill in Pennsylvania. Sixteen of our union brothers are in prison on trumped-up charges of conspiracy and murder. If, in return for our assistance, you want to make a donation, I promise you I will see to it that our brothers in need get the money.”

     Bill, no stranger to a shakedown, though more familiar with the lead role in the performance, moved quickly to establish his negotiating position. “I’m afraid I’m busted flat right now,” he said, “and I could pay you nothing for your assistance even if I wanted to. Every cent I’ve got is in the whisky in those barrels. As you must have guessed, I’m headed to the land rush to sell it. If I’d gotten into this fix on my return trip, why, it would be my pleasure to give you a thousand dollars to donate to those poor fellows in Pennsylvania, but at the moment . . .”

     “A thousand dollars!” Harlan said. “Mr. Jones, that is extremely generous.”

     Bill saw no sarcasm—only astonishment—in the man’s face. He was certain he’d been misunderstood. “You understand I can give you no money for your assistance now,” he said.

     “Yes, of course I understand,” Harlan said. “And thank you, Mr. Jones, thank you. I thank you heartily on behalf of my union brothers and their wives and children.” While Harlan was shaking one of Bill’s hands with both of his, Bill took a good look at Harlan Legg. He hadn’t taken the man for dimwit, but now Bill was certain he’d never met a bigger dimwit in all his life.

     ”It’s the least I can do in return for your kindness,” Bill said, freeing his hand from Harlan’s grip. “Now get your gang down here quick as you can. The sooner I get this whiskey to the land rush, the sooner that money gets to your union brothers in their time of need.”

     “Yes sir,” Harlan said. He raised his whistle and again played two long, piercing notes. In short order, the bridge gang arrived, and leaving their brown work shoes on the river bank, they gathered barefoot around Bill’s wagon.

     “Brothers,” Harlan said to the men, “the gentleman you see before you is a whiskey peddler. His occupation is not condoned by the authorities. But as you well know, in this country today you cannot judge the quality of a man by where he stands with the law, and I can assure you this gentleman is a principled man. I offered him our assistance in transporting him and his whiskey safely across the river, and I made that offer free of any obligation on his part. He has, however, of his own accord, promised to donate a thousand dollars in support of our imprisoned brothers in Pennsylvania, once he has sold his whiskey at the land rush. What say you, bridge men? Can we help him?”

     A great “huzzah!” rose up from the bridge gang.

     “Shall we make him an honorary brother?”

     Another “huzzah!” louder than the first, rose from the bridge gang, and in short order, under the direction of Harlan Legg, Bill’s wagonload of whiskey barrels, artfully concealed under hay, were on the wagon road on the south side of the river.

     “Before you go, Brother Jones,” Harlan said, “may I tell you something?”

     “Only be quick about it, please, Mr. . . . Brother Legg.”

     “You ought always be straight with an engineer, Brother Jones. We trade in measurements and numbers and don’t expect any kind of deception. I can’t help but think about what would have happened to you if we’d put that old deck back on the bridge and you’d tried to drive your wagon across. You’d be lying dead in a heap under that bridge right now. When I tell my wife about what almost happened, she’ll faint dead away.”

     “Well, Brother Legg, maybe you better not tell her.”

     “You know, Brother Jones,” Harlan said, “I think you’re right.”

     When Bill was safely on his way, the bridge gang returned to their work, except for Harlan Legg and his engineer-in-charge, Brother Jensen, who stayed behind long enough to watch as Bill’s wagon disappeared into the tall grass of the prairie.

     “Do you really believe he is a principled man?” Brother Jensen said.

     “To be sure, I have my doubts,” Harlan replied. “But he is a brother now, and if he is crooked, it is up to us to do our utmost to straighten him out, much as we would a bent strut or bracing.”

     Bill Jones’ business at the land rush went even better than he thought it would, and Bill was an optimistic man. He sold every last drop of whiskey in a matter of hours, then loaded the empty barrels back into his wagon. He considered whether or not to cover them over with hay, but decided there was no need.

     On his way out of town—the town still little more than an expanse of prairie—Bill happened upon a gathering of the settlers, and stopped for a moment to see what they were up to. The crowd was listening to two men, each standing on a stump, the stumps about fifteen feet apart. The men on the stumps were having a sort of discussion, taking turns yelling out at the crowd at the top of their lungs. It didn’t take long for Bill to figure out that these men were the candidates for the position of mayor. Bill wondered how the settlers would ever choose between the two, as each one claimed to be the “true” law-and-order candidate, their debate going along something like this:

     “I am the only true law and order candidate here! I have it on good authority that the gentleman upon the neighboring stump has previously been imprisoned for cattle rustling!”

     “That is an outright lie! I am the law and order candidate! I served as an officer of the law in Topeka for thirteen years! Let my opponent tell you himself what experience he has as a lawman! If he tells you truthfully, he will say he has none!”

     Bill, sensing an opportunity, got down from his wagon, unloaded an empty whiskey barrel and rolled it in between the two candidates. His actions caused some consternation in the crowd, and the candidates, both of whom had no trouble recognizing Bill as they had very recently availed themselves of his wares, were, for the moment, silent, wondering what he planned to do with the barrel.

     Bill turned the barrel on end, climbed on top of it and stood up. His whiskey barrel put him a good two feet higher than the men on stumps, and from that commanding position, and with the full attention of the crowd, Bill announced his candidacy.

     ”Declare your principles!” a voice in the crowd demanded.

     ”I am the whiskey and gambling candidate!” Bill replied. There was silence in the crowd, then laughter, then cheering. “Now that you know where the candidates stand on matters,” Bill shouted, “Let’s not delay any further. Line up six abreast in front of the candidate of your choice, and let’s see who will be your mayor.”

     Despite the objections of the law and order candidates, who felt further discussion was warranted, the settlers began to line up in front of their chosen candidate six abreast, as Bill had suggested. Three lines formed up quickly in front of each stump and barrel, and when all the settlers had made their choice, though the lines were very nearly the same length, it looked like Bill Jones, the whiskey and gambling candidate, would be elected Chandler Oklahoma’s first mayor.

     The law and order candidate to Bill’s right, a man apparently too civic-minded for his own political ambitions, stepped down from his stump and exhorted his followers to line up for the other law-and-order man, lest this whisky peddler bring disaster and ruin to their new town. The matter was settled, the lesser of the two law-and-order candidates being elected. Bill loaded his barrel back onto his wagon and left town, not disappointed in the least. He really wasn’t sure what he would have done as mayor, but figured there might have been some easy money in it, had he gotten the job.

     As Bill came around a bend in the road, and Knute’s Bridge once again came into view, he saw three men. One was Brother Legg, one Brother Jensen, and the third man he didn’t recognize. Jensen was on the far side of the bridge, near one of the end posts, seated on a wooden box. He was taking in a length of rope, carefully examining each portion that he pulled in before looping it around his hand and elbow. Harlan and the other gentleman were on the new deck of the bridge, and Harlan was speaking and pointing, and the gentleman, a young man whose tweed trousers were hoisted up nearly to his navel by black suspenders crossed over a blue hunting shirt, kept his hands buried deep in his pockets, turned his head in every direction indicated, and nodded approvingly all the while.

     As soon as Harlan saw it was Bill who was coming towards the bridge, he left the young man and jogged up to meet him.

     ”Brother Jones!” he said enthusiastically. He ran up next to Bill’s wagon and held out his hand. Bill considered the possibility that he should have avoided the bridge and the bridge man and crossed the river bed. With his whiskey barrels empty, it would have been easy—but then he wouldn’t have been able to disappoint “Brother” Legg, and see the look on his face when he found out he wouldn’t be getting any money.

     Bill leaned over and shook Harlan’s hand. “Brother Legg!” he said, with every bit as much enthusiasm as Harlan had greeted him.

     ”Did your business at the land rush go well?” Harlan said.

     “I’m sorry to say it did not, Brother Legg. It did not go well at all. The law was on me like fleas on a dog the moment I arrived. They emptied my whisky onto the ground and ran me out of town.”

     “You have nothing then, for the support of our brothers in Pennsylvania.”

     “I’m afraid not, Brother Legg. I don’t know how I will support myself in the days ahead, much less any brothers I might have in Pennsylvania.”

     Brother Legg did look disappointed, but perhaps not to the degree that Bill had hoped for.

     “I’m sorry to hear it, Brother Jones,” Harlan said. “At least they let you go free. And I see they let you keep your barrels.”

     ”Yes, that is fortunate, I suppose.”

     “I’m surprised they treated your barrels with such kindness,” Harlan said. “I would have expected the law to shoot them full of holes or bust them up with axes. I only wish the law had treated our brothers in Pennsylvania so gently. It says something about the state of affairs in this country when the law treats whiskey barrels better than it treats men.”

     “Yes, it is a sad state of affairs. I see you have finished your repairs to the bridge.”

     “Very nearly so, Brother Jones. I’d like to introduce you to someone.”

     Before Bill had a chance to protest that he was in a great hurry, Harlan had motioned to the young man, and he had joined Harlan beside Bill’s wagon.

     “Brother Jones, this is Mr. Matson. The reason I wanted you to meet Mr. Matson is that when we first met, you said you wanted to speak to the officers of The Cimarron River Bridge Corporation, and you also asked after the whereabouts of a Mr. Knute Eckman. Well, as it turns out, Mr. Matson here is an officer of the corporation, and also Mr. Eckman’s brother-in-law, and can tell you how to get in contact with Mr. Eckman.”

     “Ah,” Bill said. “It’s no longer important.”

     “He’s in California,” Mr. Matson said, “near Saratoga, I believe.”

     “Thank you,” Bill said. “Mr. . . . Brother Legg, it is a pleasure seeing you again, but I am really very tired and would like to be on my way.”

     “I’m afraid you can’t cross the bridge just yet, Brother Jones.”

     “Why is that, Brother Legg?”

     “As I said, we are very nearly done with the repairs, but the railings are not yet secured. And in any case, I can’t allow anyone to cross the bridge until the supervisor completes his inspection.”

     “And when will that be?”

     “He arrives by train tomorrow afternoon, assuming the Dalton gang doesn’t hold it up,” Harlan said, chuckling.

     “I saw Mr. Matson on the bridge, Brother Legg. Why is Mr. Matson allowed on the bridge and I am not?”

     “He wasn’t crossing the bridge, Brother Jones. I was only showing him the work we had done.”

     “Well then, Brother Legg, I will drive my wagon across the bridge, and you can sit here beside me and point out the work that you have done as we ride across together.”

     “Brother Jones—I can’t do that. As I told you, the railings are not yet secured. A man is one thing—but a wagon pulled by two horses . . .”

     “I assure you, Brother Legg, my horses are not in the habit of walking off the side of a bridge.”

     Harlan shook his head. “I’m sorry Brother Jones. For your own safety . . .”

     “Brother . . . Mr. Legg,” Bill said, “It is with the very last particle of patience I have in me that I tell you that I am going to drive my wagon across that bridge, and I will shoot anyone who tries to stop me. Do you understand?”

     “Yes, sir,” Harlan said. He and Gus Matson stood aside, and Bill Jones urged his horses onto the bridge. He had gotten about half way across when his horses stopped, then began to back up, snorting and twisting as if they’d gone mad. The horses turned the wagon and soon backed it into the railings, as yet unsecured, and before Bill understood the grave danger he was in, he and his wagon and his barrels and his horses were all in that great empty space between Knute’s Bridge and the Cimarron River.

     It was a long drop, but not a leisurely one. A second and a half at most—not a long time, but strangely, long enough for Bill to note with some interest the sound a wagon makes when it has, if only for a moment, completely lost its grip on the earth. There is no sound of wheels grinding into the dirt, no sound of axles creaking, no sound of horse’s hooves clopping. No sound at all, in fact, save the wind rushing by.

     An investigation into the incident was held, and the conclusion, quickly reached, was that the fault was entirely with the deceased whiskey peddler. Two witnesses, one a bridge gang foreman and the other an officer of the Cimarron River Bridge Corporation, reported that a man well known to be a whiskey peddler had insisted on crossing the bridge, even threatening to shoot anyone who got in his way, despite repeated warnings from the foreman that repairs to the bridge had not yet been completed. A third witness, an engineer who was on the far side of the bridge when the tragedy occurred, stated that a length of rope had gotten damp and had been laid out on the decking of the bridge to dry in the sun, and that he, the engineer, was engaged in taking up the rope and was unaware that the whiskey peddler had started across the bridge. The engineer stated that he saw a wasp crawling along the rope, and gave the rope a shake to dislodge the insect. This motion became a pulse rapidly traversing the length of rope, and the pulse and the whiskey peddler’s horses reached the end of the rope where it lay near the middle of the bridge at nearly the same instant. The end of the rope leapt up in front of the horses in a motion the engineer described as very like a snake rising from its coils. The horses took fright, and backed the wagon over the edge of the bridge and into the abyss.

     After the inquiry was completed and the railings secured, the superintendent inspected the bridge and said it was the finest workmanship he’d ever seen. The justice of the peace declared the terms of the judgment against the bridge had been met. Gus Matson became the new toll-gatherer, and soon after a happily married man. Knute Eckman bought some land in California near Saratoga, and planted plum trees there. The orchard never prospered, but after a few years, Knute sold the orchard at a good profit to a land and improvement company, and to this day there is an old neighborhood of comfortable little houses in southeastern Saratoga known locally as “Knute’s Orchard.” An article in the October 1891 edition of Bridge Men’s Magazine thanks “a generous brother who desires to remain anonymous” for a donation of sixteen thousand eight hundred dollars in support of the Homestead Mill iron workers. And finally, there is a story, circulated for many years among certain bridge men of St. Louis, that when Harlan Legg told his wife about the whiskey peddler who fell to his death from Knute’s Bridge, she fainted dead away.


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