Western Short Story
Slim Noble's eyes were as blue as the heat-blistered wallpaper in the sheriff’s office, his bare head carrot-colored in the desert sun streaming in through the window. He crushed his battered sombrero in his hand and squinted in the morning light.
“But, sheriff,” he choked, “Dal Perry never killed anybody, let alone Old Smoky, the express agent. An’ as for him robbin’ the stage—” The young cowboy waved a lanky arm as if the thought of his friend doing such a thing was entirely out of the question.
Sheriff Clyde Phillips shifted his big body in his swivel chair and tugged at his full-grown mustache. With an economy of energy he lifted an elbow to push up the sombrero he always wore. The sheriff was over half bald.
“Rip Scanlon says Dal’s guilty,” he said with a funny grin. “An’ Rip’s a solid citizen here in Mesa Flats, ownin’ the Red Front Saloon an’ a couple other enterprises hereabouts. An’ then there’s Pete Moran, foreman of the Triple S ranch. Both of them gents said they saw young Perry shoot Old Smoky and make off with the express box he pulled off the stage.”
Slim’s long face looked unhappy. He limped a step closer to the sheriff’s desk, his hand holding onto the edge. “The story is right,” he said earnestly. “Only you’ve got it backwards. It’s the other way around—Rip Scanlon did it, him and Pete Moran.”
The big man snorted and jerked his feet down from the top of the desk. A shade of irritation flecked his wide brow. “Slim, don’t be a young fool. Good thing I’m alone here; I wouldn’t want anybody else to hear you. Better get back to your job paintin’ the livery barn.”
Slim’s gullet rose in his throat. It kept him from talking.
The sheriff said, “Listen, young sprout, I know Dal’s a friend of yours—but don’t get exercised about him. And,” he added severely, “don’t’ ever make any charges against anybody— especially Rip and Pete—unless you’ve got evidence. An’ I mean evidence!”
Slim nodded and looked toward the back room. “I’ll remember about the evidence,” he promised. “I’d like to see Dal before I go back to work.”
“Okay to that—go right in, Slim. Jest no monkey business.” He looked at the tall rangehand curiously. “I’d like to help you, Slim, but there’s no way. Even Dal Perry thinks he robbed that stage and killed Old Smoky.”
Slim stopped in his tracks, swung his pale face back toward the sheriff. “He was—Dal was—drunk.”
At Sundown Slim finished painting Cole’s livery barn. He took the half gallon or so of white paint inside, took a turp rag and rubbed the white spots off his worn Levis. Then he limped down the block long street toward the express office to sweep it out.
In the three months since he had fallen under his horse, Slim had taken on spare jobs around Mesa Flats. Working in the livery barn was one of his jobs, sweeping out the express office was another.
Slim stopped to rest his leg in front of the Red Front Saloon. He decided it might be even more restful leaning on the brass rail inside. So Slim had a beer. His smoky blue eyes took .in the whole room. Rip Scanlon wasn’t in sight. Neither was Pete Moran.
A sinister angry murmur ran along the bar. Slim held his breath. “Why wait for a trial?” blurted out a voice.
“This young Perry’s no good—a drunk— lazy—fired from the Circle R ranch—”
Slim gulped down his beer and limped out the batwing doors. He half ran to the sheriff’s office, burst inside, out of breath. The sheriff was just as he had left him, except now one spurred boot was crossed over the other one on the table, and his cloth sack of tobacco was lowered a couple of inches.
Slim blurted at him. “They’re going to lynch Dal Perry—now, tonight!”
Sheriff Phillips took down his feet and bit the end off his cigarette before throwing it away.
“Funny,” said the sheriff. “I was just waiting for somebody to come and tell me that. Humph! The boys know my deputies are away chasin’ a rustler—”
“What are you goin’ to do?” queried Slim.
The sheriff got up, went to the window and looked out. “You mosey on, Slim. Me an’ my prisoner, I reckon, will ride on over to Circle City—out the back way!”
“Gee!” said Slim. He backed out of the doorway and limped over to the express office where he started in on his chores.
When he was through he stood outside the building, and watched the glare from the Red Front’s windows light the haze of dust which still hung above the street. Rip Scanlon’s drinking establishment was already growing noisy as the evening’s business got under way. Slim looked at that building for a long time and tried to swallow the lump which kept rising in his throat.
I got to do it,” Slim cried at last. He grimaced and swung his face toward the jail. “Now, why did Dal Perry have to go an’ drag me in that night when my horse fell on me? Why couldn’t it have been somebody else? Pop always said for me to pay my debts—an’ I reckon this is the only one I owe. So, that’s it—I gotta help Dal.”
Slim’s eyes burned into the deepening gloom beyond the sheriff’s office. Two horsemen moved out of the shadows, swung noiselessly away in the direction of Circle City. Slim grinned.
A half hour later the lanky redhead was again at the bar inside the Red Front. Rip Scanlon was there now, and Pete Moran. They seemed to be waiting for the men at the bar to work themselves into a frenzy over the lynching. Rip grinned evilly at Pete and waved his hand at the barkeep to hasten the proceedings.
The shiny-headed bartender called: “Drink up, gents. On the house.”
After a time Slim’s voice got loud. His limp helped him to stagger when he moved up to Rip’s table.
“It’ll happen again,” he cried brokenly. “I know it’s goin’ to happen—”
“Get out of here,” said Pete irritably. Rip Scanlon reached over and caught Slim’s arms.
Rip’s hard jaw barely moved when he talked, but it was moving now in a question: “What’s on your mind?”
Slim staggered against him. “The express office,” he said, looking from one man to the other. “The express office will be robbed. Some body’s sure to know about the secret shipment of payroll cash for the Crenshaw Mine—”
Pete’s eyes glittered. Then he snorted in disgust. “You’re crazy, Slim. They only pay once every two months an’ they got two hundred men up there. That payroll would be a pile of dinero!”
“The new agent don’t know about this country. He figures, I reckon, that the strong box is good enough to hold that secret shipment—”
“Secret shipment?” said Scanlon smoothly. Suspicion lurked in his green eyes. “Why didn’t you tell Sheriff Phillips?” he growled.
Slim warped his long face and grinned into his cups. “You going to set up any more drinks, Mr. Scanlon?” Without waiting he answered Rip’s first question. “The sheriff was away chasin’ Dal Perry—”
“What?” Rip grabbed Slim’s arm, spun him around. “What you talkin’ about? Do you mean to tell me that Dal Perry’s got away?”
Pete Moran was on his feet now, heavy-set and swarthy before the thinner Rip Scanlon. His jowls pulled back in a wolfish snarl. Slim spoke up in a hurry.
“Dal Perry got away all right, but I reckon the sheriff thinks he can catch him or he’d come over here for help. Will you keep your eye on the express office, Mr. Scanlon? I feel kind of responsible—”
“Leave it to us,” said Rip. “An’ don’t say nothin’.”
Slim nodded with apparent disinterest and limped back to the bar. In the glass he could watch Rip and Pete in earnest conversation. A couple of minutes later he saw them go through the side door.
“Checkin’ on me,” whispered Slim to himself. “Well, they’ll sure find Dal gone—an’ it’s too early for them to bother the express office.”
As soon as Slim staggered out through the batwing doors he lost that stagger. He moved along the pine-boarded walk toward the livery stable in a hurry. But soon he slowed down. Plenty of time for the plan he had in mind. And it would be midnight before the sheriff got back from Circle City.
But Slim didn’t wait for the sheriff to ride into Mesa Flats. Shortly before midnight, he rode out to meet the sheriff. Slim was excited by the time he found the big man riding placidly along the road.
“The express office has been robbed!” Slim cried. “‘They broke in the back window, pried that old iron box open—”
The sheriff swore lustily. “Now what do you know about that? I no sooner get out of town than somethin’s got to happen. I shoulda left Perry here.”
Slim kept the moonlight out of his face when he asked softly: “You know it wasn’t Dal this time, don’t you, sheriff?”
The sheriff snorted and gave his mount a dig with his spurs. Slim followed. Just before his horse broke into the single street of Mesa Flats, the sheriff pulled up, swung his mount against Slim’s.
“Tell me something,” he growled. “How does it come you know so much about all this?”
“I figured with you out of town somebody had to watch the place. With you and your deputies all away somebody was sure to rob that iron box—especially if they figured the Crenshaw payroll was in it.” Slim chased the Adam’s apple out of his throat and added: “You always said to get evidence so I set a trap for them outlaws—”
“Did you catch them?”
“Dunno. I ain’t accusin’ anybody until you see the evidence.”
“Come on,” howled the sheriff. “I still don’t know what they got out of that safe. The Crenshaw payroll won’t be in for another week!”
Fifteen minutes later the sheriff .and Slim Noble pushed through the doors of the Red Front Saloon. They blinked for a moment in the poor light of the swinging kerosene lamps, then moved on to the bar. Slim was wearing a gun for the first time in months. The sheriff had two irons, with belts crossing at his middle.
Thin, wolfish Rip Scanlon pushed away from the bar. At his side was the shorter, more fleshy Pete Moran. His small eyes were murderous as he glared at the slim young man facing him. Rip Scanlon’s lips began to move.
“Did you get him? Did you get Dal Perry?” The sheriff didn’t speak, just nodded and looked steadily at the pair. Looked them all over, from riding boots to sombreros.
Slim spoke up: “The sheriff had Dal Perry all the time the strong box at the express office was robbed! That means that Dal didn’t do it! Any more than he robbed the stage and killed Old Smoky.”
Rip cursed under his breath, moved farther away from the bar. Now he was under the full light of the kerosene lamp. The sheriff’s eyes widened as he looked at his clothes. His voice came in a growl:
“Rip Scanlon.—an’ you, Pete Moran— unbuckle your gun belts!”
Rip looked blank. Then sudden comprehension came to him. He went for his gun, snarling at Pete to do the same. Slim’s blue eyes blazed with excitement. While his own hand dived for his six-gun he saw the sheriff go into a crouch.
All hell broke loose then. But when the guns had finished spitting red and orange, Slim and the sheriff were still on their feet. Beyond the smoke of their six-guns lay Rip Scanlon and Pete Moran.
The customers began to slip back from behind the bar. The bartender came up from behind it.
“I reckon you guessed right, sheriff. But how did you know for sure?”
Sheriff Phillips snorted and put away his gun. “Hell, I couldn’t miss. My new deputy here trapped ‘em!” He put a heavy hand on Slim’s shoulder, and grinned. “Slim painted the inside of the express office with enough of the livery stable’s white paint to mark up the outlaws when they came to steal a payroll that wasn’t there. Evidence. Just look at it! It’s all over Rip and Pete!”
Slim seemed suddenly aware of the six-gun still in his hand. He hastily holstered it while the men of Mesa Flats crowded up to stare at the fallen gunmen. Under the direct rays of the hanging lamp they saw white splotches on Rip Scanlon’s clothes. And there was a long white paint line across Pete Moran’s hips and holster.
Slim looked at the sheriff, then nodded towards the floor. “That makes Dal Perry free, doesn’t it?”
“That makes Dal Perry free,” said the sheriff. “An’ it makes you my deputy!”