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Western Short Story
The stranger was very young, slim but wiry and hard, dressed better than average. He left his horse with the liveryman, and walked up the street looking for a hotel. Behind him ambled a lank, grizzled sheriff. Experience had taught this lawman that most strangers would bear watching.
The hotel was a two-story structure sandwiched in between a bank and a saloon. On the verandah a group of townsmen sat listening to the big talk of a big, middle-aged man in clothing that was both flashy and expensive; very dark, he was, almost as dark as a Spaniard, with a thick mustache that curled upward at the spiked ends.
At sight of him, the youthful newcomer stopped as suddenly as though he’d been shot. All color drained from under the bronze of his lean face. He was reaching toward the six-shooter that he carried in engraved buff leather when a sharp low voice came from behind him.
“Hold on, fella. None o’ that!”
It was, of course, the sheriff who had spoken. The stranger half turned, saw the badge on the other’s vest-front, relaxed his gun arm and smiled narrowly.
“I’d already thought better of it, mister lawman,” he said. “It was just natural for me to want to shoot a polecat when I saw one. I’m talkin’ about R. Garlin Troy there, the big jigger in the fancy harness and the purty mustache. Quite some jigger in this man’s town, I take it. Right?”
“Owns the hotel, the saloon there, the bank, and a bunch o’ fine hosses,” the sheriff said bluntly. Just as bluntly, he went on. “I’m Jep Kesler. What’s your name, where you headed, and what’s your business, kid?”
Answers came instantly and in order.
“Stant Henry. On my way home to Texas. The last few years I’ve made a business of ridin’ at fairs and rodeos, and if I do say it myself, I was good enough to collect a lot o’ mazuma. I—”
Much of the conversation had carried to the hotel verandah, and R. Garlin Troy had frozen. Troy now interrupted Stant Henry. Suave and clever, R. Garlin was, as a rule.
“Hello, kid! Welcome to our city! Tickled to see you!”
“I’ll bet,” muttered Stant, with a sly wink at the sheriff. He gave Kesler his gun. “You can keep that for the present, if it’ll make you feel easier in your mind,” he said, and walked up to the verandah. The officer followed and the group of townsmen stared.
“Like for this to be private, Garlin?” Stant asked. “Or do I say what I got to say right here?”
R. Garlin hunched his heavy shoulders, fingered one side of his mustache and beamed. “You can say what you’ve got to say right here, kid.” That was not nerve. It was plain brass.
“I found out, Troy,” Stant Henry said, “and you know what I want. Do I get it with, or without?”
The big man bristled now. “With or without what?”
“Trouble,” Stant said. “How about it?”
Troy spoke quickly. “When a man hasn’t got any better sense than to get bit, kid, why, he ought to be bit!”
More brass. Never had the young Texan so wanted to hit anybody.
“I see. And so the answer is—with.”
“Wait a minute,” said Troy, new thought mirrored in his mean, dark face. “I’ll be game and give you a chance. Didn’t you just tell Jep Kesler here that you had a good hoss?”
“No,” Kesler said. “He didn’t mention his hoss.”
“I’ve got a good hoss though,” proudly declared Stant. “Why?”
Again Troy beamed. “My hobby is racing hosses, Stant. Maybe we can fix us up a race and let you win some money offa me. Eh?”
Knowing the big man as he did, the Texan had to laugh at that. R. Garlin Troy for ten dollars would poison the ice cream at an orphans’ picnic. R. Garlin must have heard him tell Kesler that he’d picked up a lot of mazuma!
“My pet hoss is at the livery stable. Wouldn’t mind looking at him, son, would you?” Troy purred.
They started from the hotel verandah a round dozen, and numbered close to forty when they arrived at the liveryman’s. Other townsmen, a goodly sprinkling of cowboys, and a few miners had winded a horse race.
Troy’s horse was a blue roan with fiveyear teeth, built for speed if ever Stant Henry had seen a horse that was built for speed. Stant soon turned his attention to the animal’s head, and his interest rose, but he said nothing.
The crowd then went to see Stant’s sorrel. Trailworn and dusty, its coat matted and stiff with dried sweat, this horse made a poor showing. R. Garlin laughed.
“Kid, I got two-to-one money which says my hoss will beat yours in a mile race. You’d win more, that way. I’ll put up two thousand, you put up one. Eh?”
In spite of the anger that had kept mounting in him, Stant grinned. He couldn’t remember the day when he wouldn’t have bet his last shirt on his judgment of horseflesh.
“Shucks,” he said, breaking a silence, “let’s bet some real mazuma. You give the sheriff here six thousand cash, and I’ll give him three. Now you can put up, smart big fella, or shut up!”
The crowd gasped. All eyes were upon R. Garlin Troy. He was on a spot and he knew it.
His reaction was swift.
“I’ll go you one better!” he jerked out, standing ramrod straight, thumbs hooked in the armholes of his fancy brocade vest. “I’ll raise it a thousand! Now you can put up or shut up yourself, brash kid!”
Stant Henry went inside his shirt, unbuckled a hollow belt that he wore next to his skin, and dragged it out. Troy hurried to the bank—his bank—and came back with seven thousand dollars in banded green sheaves. He turned the money over to Sheriff Jep Kesler. Stant had already given Kesler thirty-five hundred in big bills.
“Brash kid,” Troy said, triumph in his eye, “remember this. When a man hasn’t got any better sense than to get bit, he ought to be bit!”
Stant refused to run a tired horse. The crowd bore him out; and it was then that he sensed the fact that Garlin Troy was not much liked here. Troy agreed, finally, to holding the race at nine o’clock of the next morning.
The sheriff returned the young stranger his gun, and whispered slyly, “See me after a while.” Stant nodded, then went to the hotel, took a room and washed himself up.
An hour later, when he’d had supper, and twilight was beginning to settle, he appeared on the threshold of Jep Kesler’s office. Kesler swung around in his desk chair, indicated a nearby straightback, and the visitor sat down.
“You been on Garlin’s trail very long, kid?” the sheriff asked.
“Wasn’t on his trail a-tall,” Stant said, “though I’ve kept my eye out for him anywhere I went. Just happened to run into him here. Might be a good idea to tell you what’s between him and me, Sheriff. Here it is:
“When I was sixteen and livin’ on my daddy’s Texas ranch, I caught the gold fever bad and lit out for a big strike in California. There I met Troy. He wanted a pardner; too lazy to work himself, that’s why. I threw in with him and did all the work.
“He was smart about gold, and I was green. Well, when I dug a hole deep enough to bury a house on a far-out creek, and hit color, Troy hustled off with samples. He came back lookin’ so blue I was sorry for him.
“‘Nothin’ but iron pyrites, kid,’ he says. ‘Fools’ gold, they call it. Well,’ he says, ‘this finishes me up. I can make a better livin’ with cards.’
“Well, Sheriff, it finished me up, too. I left California, tried fancy ridin’ and made good fast. A year later I happened to find out that the stuff on Puma Creek was the real thing, and that Troy’d sold the claim for twelve thousand cash!
“Oh, I was green, all right. Shoulda been suspicious, because I’d heard Troy say, a heap o’ times, that about a man deservin’ to be bit if he didn’t have any better sense!”
“As you’ve noticed, kid,” Kesler said, “that’s still his motto. He’s prospered on it, though it’s cost him heavy in friendship. Most of the town is for you, Stant; I am myself, to tell you the truth. Does that thirty-five hundred mean much to you?”
“Sure does, Sheriff. Only a few days ago I learned that our Texas ranch is in hard luck, and I meant to use the money in payin’ debts and givin’ my daddy a new start, with me helpin’. That’s my pile, all but a dollar or so. Wouldn’t have put it up if I hadn’t been nearly sure I’d win and get my six thousand back from Troy.”
The lawman looked away at nothing, looked back to Stant Henry.
“You’ll lose, kid. You figured the blue roan’s dish face, and bad nose and eyes, and figured wrong. Hosses is a lot like folks. The best nerve I ever saw was in a man who had no chin at all, and had a forehead sloping like an ape’s, and couldn’t look at you straight to save him.
“He was a big exception, yeah. Well, so is the Troy roan. That roan has outrun the fastest hosses in this county and the counties to east and north, anywhere from one to three hundred yards to the mile!”
Stant Henry somehow couldn’t get it, so Kesler spoke more plainly.
“I hate to see you lose your money, Stant, but I don’t see any way out of it. After Troy had beat you out of six thousand—it’s too bad.
“There was a lot of us wanted to warn you in time, and would, but that would have broke the oldest law here; the same being, not to stick our noses into other people’s business. And yet, I felt I just had to tell you what you’re bucking in this race.”
Stant got it then. His sorrel was better than average in the matter of speed, but that wouldn’t be enough here. He’d used this particular horse mostly in trick riding and roping.
“Well, thanks, Sheriff,” he said, and rose and walked out.
Idling around town, waiting for bedtime, he noted that everybody was talking horse race. Everybody seemed to be pulling for him, but it didn’t help a great deal. One man bobbed up, then, who wasn’t a bit sure that the young stranger would lose.
“Your sorrel looked a sight better after he was all curried slick,” this man said to Stant. “The liveryman told me that Garlin Troy had been to see the sorrel three-four times, and was a little uneasy.”
Bing! As quick as that something clicked in Stant Henry’s mind. There was at least a chance that he wouldn’t have to go home to a broken ranch and a broken sire with empty hands.
The next morning came silver bright. The town was soon jammed with people, for news of the race had gone into far corners. The starting point was a mile northward on the county road; the middle of town would be the finish line.
The young Texan was to do his own riding, and Troy had a diminutive cowboy, who really knew how, in the saddle on the blue roan.
At the stroke of nine the listening throng heard faintly the starting shot, fired by Jep Kesler’s chief deputy. The crowds on the warped sidewalks began to edge forward, necks already craning. Kesler walked along barking at the spectators to keep back.
A long minute passed. The town was so still now, that the falling of a pine needle would almost have made a noise. Confidence in the outcome of the race was big in the dark countenance of R. Garlin Troy, who stood on the hotel verandah steps and pulled at a long cigar as he, too, craned his neck.
Then they heard an easy rhythmic beating of hoofs. Every eye was strained toward a far building around which the road curved to the street. One horse loped easily around the building and into sight.
It was Stant Henry’s sorrel!
The throng cheered. The long cigar fell out of Garlin Troy’s face as his mouth popped open in amazement. Riding in, Stant put up a hand for silence.
“Somebody told me there was to be a hoss race here today,” he drawled, eyes twinkling. “Anything to it?”
“Crooked work!” bawled Troy, purpling. “Come here, Sheriff Jep Kesler! You—”
“Look,” interrupted the officer, and pointed to a blue roan horse that was just slouching into view. Again the crowds roared—with laughter this time. Kesler’s deputy was riding after the roan.
“The race was fair,” he said. “The Troy hoss just wouldn’t run.”
Jep Kesler fished ten thousand, five hundred dollars from the inside of his shirt. He placed the money into the hands of Stant Henry, and a big cheer rose high.
“What in tarnation happened?” R. Garlin, half choked, demanded of his little cowboy rider.
“The depity already said it,” answered the cowboy. “I sure done my dangedest.”
Stant gave the sheriff back a thousand dollars and asked him to give it to Troy. R. Garlin accepted it greedily, tried to talk— and was so mad he couldn’t. “I’m only keepin’ my own money and that six thousand you owe me, Garlin,” Stant said.
“The—the race was crooked!” Troy managed to sputter. “My blue roan hoss-”
The slim young man from Texas cut in. He knew that Troy would be laughed off the street when he told what he had to tell. Well, Troy certainly had it coming.
“You’re the one that got bit this time, Garlin. You bit yourself! Listen to this. When I got wind that you was uneasy, I figured right off you’d do dirty work that’d slow my sorrel up, so I hid in the livery stable and watched all night.
“A little before daybreak I saw you sneak a treble feed of oats to my hoss— nearly enough to founder him—and after you’d gone I just passed them same oats on to your roan!”