Western Short Story
Cornelia Summerfield rode down the canyon trail with a loose rein and her head tilted back slightly, a dreamy look in her eyes, and if she had been of a poetical turn of mind she might have been thinking that God was in his heaven and all was right with the world (as per the poet Browning). Cornelia was not particularly poetical, but she was still aware of the morning sun giving the pine-clothed western slopes of the canyon a feathery texture as it illuminated the tips of their needles with a bronzed light, and the warm glow from the red rocks, and it contributed to her sense of well-being almost as much as knowing that she would be coming back from this errand a good deal richer.
If there was a fly in the ointment it was the fact that she was riding Glendy Burke, but that couldn’t be helped. Bluebell had come up lame, two other horses could not be found, and Thad flatly refused to work cattle on Glendy Burke, for which Cornelia could hardly blame him. Glendy Burke was a handsome bay humbug of a horse, deceptively docile, but rubber-mouthed and given to passive resistance when his ideas didn’t agree with his rider’s—among other faults. But there were worse things than riding him to town to get the mail and back, especially when you were expecting to pick up an envelope containing a check for three hundred dollars.
The money was Cornelia’s inheritance from her great-aunt, who had died recently in the East. Cornelia did not remember her very well since they had not met since she was a little girl, but the impression she had of her aunt by hearsay was of one long career of disapproval. Aunt Grace had disapproved of the man Cornelia’s mother married; she had disapproved of their moving to New Mexico; she had disapproved when he died three years ago, though she never made it clear how she thought he could have done better in that situation. But in a brief hiatus of disapproval eighteen years ago she had become Cornelia’s godmother, and had stuck to her lifelong resolution to leave her something in her will. Cornelia told her mother laughingly that it was a good thing Aunt Grace hadn’t seen her since she was a little girl, or she might have changed her mind. She would certainly have disapproved of a great-niece who helped her brother herd cattle and who rode astride in the new-fangled divided skirts; and Cornelia suspected she would also have disapproved of her unfashionable but very practical wide-brimmed Stetson hat.
But Aunt Grace had lived out her days in the East in merciful ignorance of these horrors, and in due time a letter from her lawyers arrived and was picked up at the post office and brought out to the Summerfield homestead sandwiched between two Montgomery Ward parcels, and Cornelia was an heiress. And this week the envelope with the check for three hundred dollars was likely lying in the post office waiting for her, and Cornelia intended to cash the check in town and bring it home so her mother and Thad and the other children could enjoy seeing the full riches before they made any much-needed purchases with it. Cornelia was a firmly loyal and generous-minded girl who already considered her inheritance to belong to the whole family, and she was comfortably planning a dozen different uses for it as she allowed Glendy Burke to amble his way down the sun-warmed canyon trail. Visions of shoes for the children, bolts of dress goods, new water tanks and repaired fences for the little ranch homestead danced in her head.
In town, Cornelia exchanged greetings with acquaintances, mostly cowboys and other ranch children who had come in to fetch the mail for neighboring outfits, but did not stay to talk as long as she sometimes did. She tied Glendy Burke to the hitching rail in front of the post office and went in to claim the Summerfield mail. The thin envelope with the lawyers’ address on it was there, and Cornelia kept it out separate from the rest, holding it between her teeth as she packed her saddlebags with parcels, magazines, and letters. She took it down the street to the bank, made another brief visit inside, and came out walking on air, with a little chamois-leather bag of coins in her hand. Three hundred dollars! Cornelia blessed Aunt Grace straight from her heart, probably with more warmth than anybody had shown the old lady in her lifetime, for the Summerfields’ money concerns were over at least for the time being.
Riding back up the canyon toward home, she knotted the reins loosely and hung them on the saddle horn, and as Glendy Burke slow-footed up the trail that any of the Summerfields’ horses could have followed in their sleep, she turned and unbuckled the straps of the saddlebag behind her left knee and fished out the heavy little chamois bag again. She loosened the drawstrings and slid a few of the coins into the palm of her hand, to make sure again that they were real and to brood with satisfaction over their possibilities. It was always a three-cornered debate between her and Mother and Thad over what was best to do first with the little sums of money they made off their cattle, and always resolved sensibly in the end; but now there would be no need for debate, plenty of money for whatever all three of them thought it should be spent on. Cornelia dropped the coins back into the bag one at a time, smiling over the little chinking sound they made, pulled the drawstring tight and stowed it away in her saddlebag again. She straightened up and shook her long glossy braid of brown hair over her shoulder, picked up the reins and unknotted them and nudged the bay gelding up from a walk to a jog-trot as they threaded their way through the juniper and rabbit brush that grew thick alongside the trail as the canyon narrowed for a stretch.
Half a mile further on, Glendy Burke’s head bobbed up and his ears hitched forward, and a second later Cornelia heard a rattle of stone and a horse’s snort ahead. She followed the direction of the bay’s ears and her eyes picked out the shape of a horse and rider screened by the brush about ten yards ahead: waiting sidewise beside the trail, which was unusual. The sunlight was behind them so the rider’s face was shadowed by his hat; the horse’s tail swished at flies through a little swirl of settling dust that betrayed they had only stopped there within the last minute or so. For a fraction of a second Cornelia almost tightened the reins, but she had ridden this trail every week for years and passed the time of day with every rider she met, friend or stranger, and saw no good reason for hesitating now. As she approached the man turned his horse into the trail, facing her but not blocking the way, and for a moment she thought he was going to touch his hat and ride past like any average stranger. But at the last second before they would have passed each other he swung his mount’s head abruptly in front of Glendy Burke so the two horses almost collided, and before Cornelia could react he reached over and got hold of the bay’s bridle.
“You set right there,” he said. “I’ve got a gun, but I don’t want to even take it out if I ain’t got to. Get off your horse.”
Cornelia opened her mouth for hot protest, but after a couple seconds’ scrutiny of the man holding her bridle she shut it and obeyed. It was no use to try spurring Glendy Burke and breaking loose, for even if he lost his grip on the bridle he had picked a spot where there was only a couple of yards’ gap between jutting rock spurs from the canyon walls, and she would not be able to force her horse past his. Cornelia dropped to the ground, throwing a glance at the man’s horse as she did so. The obvious reason for his behavior was stealing a fresh mount to replace one played out by pursuit, but his horse did not look sweaty or hard-ridden. “Come on, move!” he said. “Get round to the other side of him and stand back out of my way. I ain’t got all day.”
“Or any manners, either,” said Cornelia with a distaste worthy of Aunt Grace herself, and went around Glendy Burke as directed. She watched the unexplained hold-up man as he dismounted, and wished ardently for a weapon. The man might have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty, unshaven for several days, and average in every respect except for the unpleasant lines of bad temper cutting downward from the corners of his mouth. He dropped the reins to ground-tie his horse, moved over to the left side of Glendy Burke and unbuckled the saddlebag. He thrust in his hand and drew out the chamois-leather bag as if he had known just where to find it, and with a click of her brain Cornelia understood. He couldn’t have followed her from town; she would have recognized him or his horse if they had been on the main street…he must have been lying concealed somewhere on the brushy slope at the foot of which she had let the coins slip so contentedly through her fingers and put them away in her saddlebag again.
“Leave that alone!” she blurted automatically. The man ignored her. He opened the bag and shook some of the money half out, then jingled it back with a look of satisfaction and dropped the bag into his vest pocket. He threw back the flap of the saddlebag again and dug through it as if checking for anything else of value.
“You know a man who’ll rob an unarmed woman is lower than a sheep-stealing coyote,” observed Cornelia.
A grunt was the only reply.
“Or maybe you were never taught that,” she added spitefully; “I knew your education had been neglected.”
“You don’t be so free with your mouth,” said the man, his glance shooting toward her with a look that made Cornelia half wish she hadn’t spoken. “I thought I told you to stand back. Get over there and mind what I say!”
Before Cornelia could move he ducked under Glendy Burke’s neck, took her arm in a hard grip and pushed her back a couple of steps away from the horse so she nearly stumbled and fell over the scattering of rocks tailing out from the canyon wall. He let go of her and turned back to the bay and opened the other saddlebag. Cornelia, rubbing her arm, watched him carefully, sorting out bursting anger and a little unaccustomed wariness. Most men in this part of the country wouldn’t dare harm a respectable woman; even those lacking chivalry knew that amateur justice would catch up with them quickly if they did. But there were exceptions to every rule, and an ugly temper that had already been taunted, and brazen enough at least to rob a woman, might be one. Cornelia was not exactly afraid, but she would have liked to put some distance between them. She glanced unobtrusively toward the hold-up man’s horse, standing a couple of yards to her right, its head toward them so the near stirrup was in her view—a tough-looking jug-headed gray pony with a rough coat and what she thought was a Texas brand. Cornelia eased a few steps to the side, watching the man’s back to be sure he hadn’t heard—then whirled and made a dash for the horse, flung herself at the saddle and swung up and wheeled the gray around and bolted up the trail. A yell rang out behind her. So long as he didn’t shoot…there was a ticklish feeling between her shoulder-blades for a minute as she bent over the gray’s neck, but no shot came; and glancing over her shoulder she caught a half-second glimpse of the man scrambling for the bay’s saddle before a turn of the canyon blotted him from view. He’d try to catch her, of course. But he had Glendy Burke, who in spite of his glossy good looks hadn’t an ounce of staying power and before a mile was out would be running at the speed of molasses, and she was on the jug-headed Texas gray who was clearly a bundle of dynamos and steel springs packaged in an unattractive hide, and within a few strides Cornelia knew she had nothing to worry about. She would not be seeing the robber again.
So it was not the cheerful, triumphant heiress Cornelia who arrived home to pour her gold and silver into her mother’s hands, but an aggravated Cornelia on a strange horse, spitting fire through her teeth at the thief who had snatched Aunt Grace’s legacy between the cup and the lip.
“How could I let it happen?” she stormed. “If I’d just done something different—if I’d whipped him with the reins when he grabbed my bridle—or refused to get down off my horse—there must have been a way I could have gotten out of it!”
“You did exactly the right thing,” said Mrs. Summerfield firmly. “It’s a terrible pity about the money, and I don’t blame you for being upset, but better to lose ten times the money than for you to come to harm. You don’t know what the man would have done if you’d given him any difficulty.”
“I know,” said Cornelia. “But it’s infuriating! I could wring that man’s neck. No, I suppose I couldn’t. Because if I could wring his neck I’d still have the money,” she said with bitter humor, and went outside to try and hide her chagrin, for she felt it would only make her mother more disappointed over their loss to show just how badly she was taking it.
She led the horse she had come home on into the barn, and Thad followed her. Cornelia let the reins fall and slumped against the wall with folded arms and a sigh, and surveyed the gray critically as her brother began loosening the saddle cinch. “Well, I guess this is all I get out of it,” she said. “He’s not going to win any beauty prize, but we’ll get a lot of use out of him. The saddle’s not as nice as mine, though.”
Thad looped up the cinch and started to lift the saddle, but let it slide back with a whistle of breath through his lips. “Gosh, it’s heavy, though. I wonder what—”
“Saddlebags, probably. Here, let me—” Cornelia moved over beside her brother and untied the rawhide saddle strings, and as Thad pulled the saddle off she let the bags slide to hang over her arm—and the unexpected weight of them pulled her off-balance so she caught them with a jerk. “What’s in these things?”
She hefted them over the bars of a stall and unbuckled the nearest flap. The first thing that met her hand was a squarish package clumsily tied up in brown paper. The knotted string resisted her efforts to slide it over the corner of the package for a minute, and then it gave suddenly and the paper came unfolded and a dozen bundles of green-backed bills cascaded through Cornelia’s stunned hands. She looked down at the bundles scattered on the floor with her mouth open, then raised wide eyes to meet Thad’s and they stared at each other for a second. Cornelia pushed the open package into Thad’s hands and groped inside the saddlebag again—she lifted out one canvas bag and then another. The bags were heavy with gold coins, brighter and more freshly minted than the ones she had gotten from the bank that morning, and many times the amount.
They ransacked both saddlebags and spread all the money out on the barn floor and counted it—there was around four thousand dollars in banknotes and about half that much in gold coin, plus a little bag of gold dust that Thad and Cornelia did not know how to appraise. Cornelia was nearly wild with delight. “One thousand nine hundred forty…one thousand nine hundred sixty…eighty! Oh, Mother was right—I did the best thing when I bolted without even knowing it! There’s more than six thousand dollars here, dozens of times more than what I lost!”
Thad, on his hands and knees beside her over the treasure, sat up and looked at Cornelia with suspicion, but not much surprise. He was three years younger, but more practical, more conscientious, and more conventional in every way, and he had few illusions about his sister’s thought processes. “Cornelia, you’re not thinking about keeping this money?”
“Why ever shouldn’t I? I got it from a thief who stole mine; he had no right to it. It’s—well, it’s salvage, isn’t it?”
“It’s stolen property, that’s what it is! Where do you think he got it, prospecting?”
Cornelia sat back on her heels impatiently. “That’s just the point: we don’t know where he got it. We don’t know who it properly belongs to so we can’t send it back, so why shouldn’t we keep it?”
“Yeah, well, I could make a guess where it came from. This stuff was from a bank. Look how new the coins are, and the way the bills are bundled up. They can trace bills by the numbers on them, you know. What d’you suppose happens if you start spending stolen bills and they get spotted?”
Cornelia shrugged. “Then I tell the truth, I guess.”
“You’d get us all charged as accessories, I bet! How’re you going to prove the way you got it, especially if you keep quiet about it for weeks or months afterwards? Nobody would believe a story like what happened today.”
“Well, I’m sure I could invent a better one if I needed to.”
Thad snorted. “What, that you swapped Glendy Burke and three hundred dollars for this horse and thousands? Anybody who knows Glendy Burke would have a good laugh at that.”
Cornelia started to retort and then stopped, a curiously bright look in her eye. She picked up a packet of the bills and thumbed the ends of them thoughtfully. Then she dropped it and got up, and turned to the gray pony. She walked all around him and studied him with her hands on her hips and the lurking beginnings of a smile. Thad followed her warily, for he knew that that look on her face was usually the preliminary to a Grand Idea that would take hours to argue her out of.
Cornelia laughed outright, and spun around and took her brother by the shoulders. “I know exactly what we’re going to do. And you’d better stuff that conscience of yours in a sack for a little while, because you’re going to try your hand at brand blotting.”
* * *
A few days later, Cornelia dropped by to see the Summerfields’ nearest friends and neighbors at the M-7 ranch. It was near the dinner hour, so all the family and crew in the vicinity of the home ranch were around the house and bunkhouse, and gathered to greet her. Cornelia was riding a jug-headed gray pony with a brand so blotched as to be almost unreadable on its hip, a horse no one at the M-7 had ever seen before, and comments and questions about him were naturally among their first remarks.
“Yes, we just got him. I like him a lot so far. I know he looks like the original ugly duckling, but he’s pretty good with cattle and tough as nails. Doesn’t buck too much in the mornings, either.”
“Where’d you get him?” asked Mitch Craddock, one of the M-7 cowboys.
Cornelia smiled. “I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.”
“Try me. I just love stories.”
“Oh, well, it’s not much of a story.” Cornelia paused deliberately, letting them wait for a few seconds, and then said with what was definitely a smirk, “I swapped Glendy Burke for him.”
The expected incredulity and derision came in a chorus: “You didn’t!” “You couldn’t of.” “Aw, you’re stringing us, Miss Cornelia.”
“I’m not! I’m telling you: the other day when I was riding Glendy Burke I met a stranger and stopped to talk with him for a minute, and—well, the long and the short of it is that he rode away on Glendy Burke and I came home on this one.”
“He must’ve been a danged fool,” said Bert Farrell, “or else you’re one dandy horse-trader, Miss Cornelia. I’d sure like to have heard that little conversation.”
“There wasn’t much to hear,” said Cornelia, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “I got the idea he was in a hurry. At any rate he didn’t ask a lot of questions. And Glendy Burke’s one strong point was first impressions.”
“If I’d blotched a brand in that much of a hurry I guess I wouldn’t be asking many questions either,” said Mitch Craddock, squinting at the artwork on the gray’s flank. “I’d like to have heard him afterwards when he found out what he’d been landed with. I’ll bet he was eloquent.”
“I’m glad I didn’t,” said Cornelia, dimpling.
“He must’ve thought he was a pretty fine fellow for an hour or two,” said Bert Farrell, “and then when he realized he’d been out-horse-traded by a girl—eloquent! He probably burned holes in the atmosphere.”
Cornelia was laughing, stroking the gray horse’s scruffy neck. “Honestly, though, you could hardly call it horse-trading. I barely needed to say a word.”
“Well, it ain’t always lots of talk that makes a good horse-trader. You outsmarted him anyway, didn’t you?”
“I suppose you could say that,” admitted Cornelia.
In spite of her modesty, the entire M-7 found the story an excellent joke, and it was told all over the county in the ensuing weeks: how Miss Cornelia had traded the Summerfields’ Glendy Burke to a stranger in a hurry and got a right-smart little cow pony in exchange. In cattle country the virtues, vices, and personalities of horses are known almost as well as the human ones, and enough people knew Glendy Burke to appreciate the joke. Whenever Cornelia stopped by to visit an acquaintance (and she did a lot of visiting in those weeks), she was teased about it, and took the joking compliments with every appearance of enjoyment.
“Oh, well, I just saw an opportunity and took it,” she said with a mischievous smile which her listeners felt was fully justified by successfully unloading Glendy Burke.
Then Cornelia always changed the subject, and began asking the foreman or head of the family for advice about ranch improvements. She said little about her actual plans, but asked many questions, listening and nodding as if storing up ideas for the future, and giving the impression that improvement to almost everything on the Summerfield ranch was being contemplated. She even let out a hint that they might be thinking of buying some more stock and possibly hiring a hand or two. It was naturally a woman neighbor whose curiosity finally overcame her enough to ask straight out what most people had in the back of their mind: “You came into some money lately, didn’t you, Cornelia? I seem to recall your ma mentioning a relative who’d passed on and remembered you.”
“Dear old auntie!” said Cornelia with dancing eyes. “She was more generous than I imagined.”
This remark also got about, though without context. Nobody in the county had known Aunt Grace.
About a week and a half after Cornelia’s visit to the M-7, the following conference took place between Thad and Cornelia by the Summerfields’ barn after dusk one evening:
“How much longer are we going to keep this up?”
“Until it works, of course.”
“You so sure it’s going to?”
“Of course it will,” said Cornelia. “He’s got to be a terrifically greedy person, or he wouldn’t have taken such a risk for my little bag of coins when he already had a fortune in his saddlebags. You think he’s going to give it all up that easily?”
Thad had to admit the logic in this.
“It had just better be soon anyway,” he said. “I’m losing about as much sleep as I can stand to. I’m practically falling asleep in the saddle during the day.”
“I do my share, don’t I?”
“Your share of something that was all your idea,” said Thad tartly.
“Well, I couldn’t manage it alone, could I?” said Cornelia, which was beautifully unanswerable. “All right, it’s your turn first tonight. I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in a few hours.”
It was just a few nights later, when the Summerfield homestead lay in apparently deep slumber, that a shadow not belonging to it slipped down from the shoulder of rocky hill a few dozen yards distant and moved quietly between the house and the big corral. The intruder had circled and scouted the whole place shortly after dark, and so found his way to the barn door without trouble. The barn, deserted at night, was the safest place to begin his search.
He opened the door as quietly as he could, stepped inside and pulled it shut behind him, leaving the latch partly pushed over to hold it in place. Then he fished out a match and struck it and in the small flare of light took his bearings. He shook out the match and moved in the dark toward where he estimated the saddles were kept—might as well rule out the too-obvious to begin with.
It took him only two matches and a few minutes to find the saddle he recognized and see that the saddlebags belonging to it were not there. He stood a moment, breathing and thinking. The barn was not a big one; there wouldn’t be too many out-of-the-way corners. But the hayloft was a possibility. He moved back toward where he remembered seeing the ladder.
As he touched the ladder the door creaked behind him. He jerked round and saw it was ajar, and the faint light from outside reflected dully on the twin barrels of a shotgun projecting round the edge of the doorframe and trained on him.
“Don’t move,” said Thad Summerfield. “This scattergun’s got buckshot in it.”
The man stood still, either because he was obeying orders or because he could not quite believe what was happening to him. He correctly assessed the youth of the voice behind the shotgun, but he knew that the young of this country often handled a shotgun extremely well.
“You got a gun?” said Thad calmly. “Take it out and put it on the window ledge over there, and then back off from it. And don’t try moving quick, cause I’d still get you in the leg or something if you ran.”
The combination of Grand Idea and hard common sense that resulted whenever the Summerfield siblings undertook something together had planned for every detail. Cornelia rode over to the M-7 and woke the household and requested some help taking a prisoner to the county sheriff, and several men rode back with her and found the captive outlaw sitting in the Summerfields’ kitchen, not the man he once was. Thad was sitting astride a chair with the shotgun leveled over the back of it at his prisoner, but it had less to do with that and more to do with the fact that he had been studied intensely for the better part of an hour by three small children crowded together on a bench on the other side of the kitchen table, an experience that few men come through unchanged. Mrs. Summerfield, who had gotten over her astonishment by now, offered her neighbors a cup of coffee.
The following afternoon, Cornelia sat in a chair in the sheriff’s office looking every inch the young lady in her second-best dress and straw sailor hat. Mitch Craddock and Bert Farrell and a few other men who wanted to hear the full story stood around the room, and Thad was leaning against the wall behind his sister trying to look as if he had approved of the whole thing all along. The stolen money, which the sheriff had traced to its source by telegraph that morning, was displayed on the desk.
“It was simple, really,” Cornelia explained. “I knew the story about my trading Glendy Burke for a good horse would be a good joke, and it would get told all over the county. If the thief was still within fifty miles he’d be sure to hear it from somebody. Nobody would know him because he was sure to have ditched Glendy Burke as soon as he found a likely bunch to steal another horse from. I knew he’d still be around, because he wouldn’t want to lose the money I made off with. I acted like I’d come into a lot of money, more than I expected from Aunt Grace, so if he heard that he’d know we hadn’t turned the money over to the law but had said nothing about it and were planning to keep it and spend it. And of course he would come back and try to get it.”
“But didn’t you ever worry that—well, that he might get it away from you?” said the sheriff almost apologetically.
Cornelia shrugged. “Not really. Because Thad or I was waiting up watching for him every night. And if you come up behind somebody with a shotgun there’s not much they can do, even if they want to.”
“Remind me to write that down somewhere and remember it,” murmured Bert Farrell.
“Well,” said the sheriff, who like most other people could not find a way around Cornelia’s logic, “you’re in luck, because this express office over in Texas had a five-hundred-dollar reward out for the man who robbed one of their stages. He fits the description. I’ll arrange to have him and the money sent back there and write them that they should send the reward to you. That’ll make a nice little sum for you, now that you’ve got most of your aunt’s money back.”
“Oh—there is one more thing,” said Cornelia, undoing the drawstrings of her purse. “The gold there isn’t the full amount. I took out three hundred dollars before we hid it, because if he did get away with everything, or if he’d spent or hid mine and there was no reward for all this, I wasn’t going to be done out of my inheritance.” She pulled a knotted handkerchief from her bag and undid it, and spilled the gold coins in a neat pile on the desk next to the rest of the money.
The sheriff, for once in his life, could not think of anything to say. The other men wore broad delighted grins, and Thad Summerfield appeared to be in the grip of some strong emotion.
“After all,” said Cornelia, drawing her purse shut neatly, “he would have got away with all of it if it wasn’t for me, wouldn’t he?”