Western Short Story
Old George Holt, cattleman, stepped out of the bank pocketing a very thick manila envelope.
“Burn” Allison, standing idly in the street doorway of Sheriff Bill Martin’s office, spoke over his shoulder. Seemed, Burn said, that Holt ought to carry his payroll in a satchel, the same as other ranchers did.
“George always carried his payroll in his pocket,” the sheriff drawled. “It’s simpler. Besides, he’s not advertising the fact that he’s got near a thousand dollars cash on him. Have you tackled him for a cow job yet, kid?”
“No,” Burn said, “but I will. He’s headed down the street and will pass here. It’s the devil, Bill, this tryin’ to straighten up and be somebody. I wasn’t so bad. Fight, yeah, but only when I was picked on. I think yuh know that yoreself, Bill.”
Holt’s outfit wasn’t one of the biggest in that section of the state, but it was one of the most important. Holt raised pureblood Hereford cattle and sold them at fancy prices. He paid his riders well, and stuck to them no matter what.
Sheriff Martin got out of his desk chair and walked to the door.
“I’ll speak to George for you, Burn. It might be better.”
While they waited, Burn’s gaze settled upon a man whom he did not know, standing in a saloon entrance across the street—a tall and very lean, sun-bitten man with an eternally squinted left eye.
Burn had just begun to speculate upon the identity of this man when George Holt walked up. Holt was wearing a six-shooter belted high under his coat.
“George, this cowboy needs work bad,” Sheriff Martin said. “He’s top hand even if he is young. I’ll be responsible if you’ll take him on.”
The rancher frowned at Burn, who spoke up quickly for himself.
“I know, Mr. Holt. Yuh’ve heard I was a scrapper, a sorta scrappin’ fool. Well, it’d be all right if I was scrappin’ for you, wouldn’t it? I’m told yore boys has all got to be plumb straight-plumb ace-high straight—because one rustled fine Hereford can be sold for a couple months’ range pay. I fill the bill there, Mr. Holt.”
“Sorry, Burnam,” the old cattleman said, giving him his full first name. “I reckon I don’t need another rider just now.”
“I see,” the young cowboy said. “Yuh think there’s a risk, and yuh ain’t havin’ any.”
He turned and went gloomily toward his horse.
As Burn Allison took the rein from the hitch-rail peg, his eye cut back to the saloon front across the street. Squint-eye wasn’t there now. He’d vanished too abruptly, Burn thought.
“Squint-eye” must have seen George Holt come from the bank pocketing the thick envelope. Suddenly Burn stiffened. He’d tell Sheriff Martin of his suspicion—
No, he wouldn’t, either. Granting that a stickup was in the wind, it was a thing made to order for him. All luck couldn’t be bad; his luck was due for a turn, and saving the Holt payroll would be worth a Holt range job beyond a doubt.
When old George Holt rode out of town and homeward a little later, Burn followed, an unseen guard.
Half an hour, and the cowboy topped a long rise in the county road to witness the expected stickup a good two hundred yards ahead. The tall, squint-eyed sunbitten horseman broke from the mouth of a scrub-lined westward trail, and thrust the muzzle of a heavy six-shooter almost against George Holt’s teeth.
Then in the span of two seconds he snatched Holt’s weapon from its leather and tossed it aside, and was spurring back into the trail with a thick envelope in his bony hand.
“Fast stuff!” gasped Burn Allison.
He had ridden too far behind and was too late. He kicked his roan cow horse into the scrub and toward the trail, at a point a quarter of a mile from the road. He was late here also, coming into the trail behind the robber. Squint-eye turned in his saddle with his gun ready.
“Where yuh think yuh’re goin’, cowboy?”
Burn hadn’t reached for his old range Colt. It would have been suicide. He grinned easily.
“Ridin’ this way,” he said. “Hope yuh don’t mind havin’ a little company.”
Squint-eye had stopped his rawboned sorrel.
“Yuh see what happened in the road back yonder?”
“Pardner, I got no eyes in the back of my head. I just come out from town, and cut across to this trail. I’m huntin’ me a cow job.”
Still grinning, Burn rode up beside the squint-eyed thief. The man holstered his gun and they rode together westward. The trail became dim, and soon had petered out in an undulating stretch of sand, scrub and cactus.
Burn could see the bulk of the big envelope inside the other’s dusty shirt, and he kept wondering what he was going to do about it. Then the robber spoke narrowly, with sinister meaning.
“Fine place here to drill a jigger and bury him. Better go back now, cowboy. I don’t want to have to bother with you.”
Burn realized that this was his last chance. It was a desperate chance. The man was a killer.
“Well, all right,” he said, and began reining his horse around.
Suddenly Burn ducked off the roan with the animal between him and Squinteye, drawing his six-shooter as he did so. They fired at the same time. Both missed. Both horses bolted at the double blast.
Squint-eye lost his balance and fell to the sand, but he hit it running and dived in behind a clump of prickly pear. Burn dropped flat back of another pear clump. Bullets from both guns whizzed through the thin cover.
“Yah, yah!” taunted Burn. “Yuh couldn’t hit the side of a barn!”
“You go to—” Wham! Wham! Click!
The click! meant an empty cylinder, exactly what Burn wanted, for his own weapon was empty. He rose and sprang to tangle with the thief before the man had time to reload. Squint-eye met the young cowboy’s onslaught on his feet. They used their six-shooters as clubs until they lost them, hammering each other over square rods of desert terrain.
Then it was tooth and nail, fist and skull. The robber’s leanness was the leanness of steel. Long minutes passed. Their strength wore down. Their breathing came hoarsely, in short gasps.
When the finish came their clothing was half torn away and they were bloody and bruised. Burn Allison left Squint-eye lying with his mouth in the sand, slavering lurid oaths. The cowboy went staggering over the battleground. He picked up his six-shooter, the thick envelope and his hat.
Bending the envelope to fit inside his hat, he put the Stetson on tight. Then he reloaded his gun, found Squint-eye’s weapon and holstered it.
“Up from there, fella,” he ordered, walking toward the man. “We’ll catch our hosses and head for town. I’m handin’ yuh over to the sheriff. You goin’ peaceable, or do I bend yore own gun barrel over yore noggin and take yuh belly-down across yore saddle?”
The tall stranger was very well licked. He went peaceably.
They had ridden the trail almost to the county road when their ears caught the sounds of hoofs. Old George Holt had gone back to town to tell Sheriff Bill Martin about the robbery, and the two were just coming to the scene of the stickup.
Burn and the thief rode out of the trail mouth.
“Here he is, Mr. Holt!” Allison called. “I follered him and saved yore money!”
He and Squint-eye drew rein a scant rod from Martin and Holt.
The old cattleman and the sheriff stared at each other; then smiled odd, slow smiles. Burn wondered what was funny about it. He told how he’d been suspicious of Squint-eye, that he’d ridden after Holt to guard him.
“What the devil, Burnam?” Sheriff Martin burst out. “Yuh look like yuh’d been through a rock crusher! So does the lean hombre there. Put up a scrap, did he?”
“Shore did,” Burn said. His battered mouth was swelling, and he spoke a little thickly. “But yuh’ll notice I brought him in. Reckon this proves I’m straight, don’t it? Coulda slipped away with yore payroll easy, couldn’t I? And nobody’d ever know. How about a range job for me now?”
Burn took the big manila envelope from his hat, tossed it, and Holt caught it.
Again cowman and lawman looked at each other and smiled odd, slow smiles.
“What the deuce is this, anyhow?” Burn flared up.
“It’s what yuh might call a ‘stuckup stickup’ in more than one way,” drawled Sheriff Bill Martin as he put the cuffs on his man.
George Holt turned sober.
“I seem to remember yuh told me you was a sorta scrappin’ fool, Burnam. I don’t need another rider, but you was scrappin’ for me, and I’ll buy yuh some clothes in place of them yuh had tore off. Trouble is, Burnam, this envelope yuh brought in ain’t worth a nickel!”
The young cowboy blinked and gaped. “Well, I’ll be a—a hamstring mink! All that fight for nothin’? Everything for nothin’? Say, how come that ain’t worth a nickel?”
“I spotted this mean-eyed stranger there in town before I went to the bank,” Holt said. “I was suspicious of him too, a little. It occurred to me to have the bank T EXCITING WESTERN 4 fix me up two envelopes—just in case, yuh know. One with waste paper in it, both sealed. So I just forked over the waste paper to this tough hombre!”
The tall stranger muttered luridly. Burn Allison had seen his hope of a range job at Holt’s tucker clean out.
“You—you did?” he stammered futilely.
“I shore did.” Old George Holt grinned. He was proud of his smartness.
“The money envelope is here in my pocket. Look at this, cowboy.” He ripped an end off the envelope that Burn had brought in. Slowly his eyes widened. When he spoke again his voice had a peculiar ring.
“Report to my range boss, Burnam, and see that yuh don’t talk too much. I forked over the wrong envelope!”