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Authors: J.T. Edson

Tags: #the old west, #texas rangers, #western pulp fiction, #floating outfit, #jtedson, #waxahachie smith

Slip Gun (10 page)

BOOK: Slip Gun
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Who-all left the men’s room last night, Mr. Smith?’ Derham
inquired.


Near
on everybody, I reckon,’ Smith replied bitterly, walking back to
the burro.

By going to the privy as soon as
Burbury had come back, Smith had kept the
undertaker
’s
information to himself. In fact, the burly drummer had shown no
interest in the matter and was already in bed when the Texan
returned. After that, Smith had spent a somewhat disturbed and
restless night. His natural caution had dictated that he should
select a bed in a corner. Situated at the left side of the rear
wall, he found his choice to have disadvantages. Always a light
sleeper, he had been wakened every time one of the other travelers
went out back. During the night, all the room’s occupants, except
Capey, had gone by his bed at one time or another.

At the time, Smith had regarded the
departures and returns as nothing more than a nuisance which
disturbed his rest. Looking down at the saddle, he could see that
one of the men who went out might have had a motive other than
relieving the call of nature.


You’d
best go see if I can get a place on the stage, Dad,’ Smith said,
modifying his anger-filled voice as he realized that he could not
hold the hostlers responsible for his misfortune. ‘I’ll ride up in
it, with my horse tied to the back.’


Sure
thing, Mr. Smith,’ Derham answered and scuttled away.

Footsteps came to the
Texan
’s ears.
He heard a rapid exchange of talk, without being able to make out
more than the old timer’s cracked voice speaking hurriedly. A few
seconds later, Burbury and the McCobbs entered.


I hear
you’ve had trouble, Mr. Smith,’ the sheriff greeted, a malicious
glint of satisfaction warring with the worry in his
eyes.

There
’s some’s’d call it that,’ the Texan
agreed. ‘My girths’ve been cut.’


Cut?’
repeated Billy, throwing a delighted grin at Angus.


You
reckon it’s funny?’ Smith demanded quietly.


Go
tend to the horses, you pair!’ McCobb snapped at his nephews, then
turned to the Texan. ‘Them three fellers who tried to kill you
must’ve done it afore they come looking for you.’


Sure,’
Burbury agreed. ‘They did it so you couldn’t come after ’em after
they’d killed you, Wax.’


Nobody
else’d have reason to do it,’ McCobb protested. ‘Er—What do you
intend to do now, Mr. Smith?’


Take
the stage to Widow’s Creek, if I can get on it.’


How
about your horse?’ Burbury asked.


Figured on taking him tied to the stage,’ Smith
replied.


They’ll be pushing hard, changing teams every ten miles or
so,’ Burbury warned. ‘Even without toting weight, your horse won’t
be in much of a condition time you get to the Creek.’


I
don’t want to take time to come back for him when I’ve got my
saddle fixed,’ Smith pointed out.


So
I’ll fetch him up for you,’ the drummer offered. ‘I’ll not be
travelling as fast as the coach, but I’ll be there around noon
tomorrow.’


Sounds
like a smart notion to me,’ the sheriff remarked.


And
me,’ Smith drawled. ‘I’ll be obliged if you’d do that,
Ric’

There was nothing to be lost,
and plenty to gain, by letting Burbury take the horse. No matter
who, or what, the burly man might really be
—and Smith felt certain he was no
ordinary drummer—the Texan was sure he could be trusted to deliver
the
bayo-lobo
to Widow’s Creek. With the stagecoach stopping only long
enough to change teams, Smith’s mount would have
no time to
rest and graze. So
Burbury offered the best solution.


There’s a seat for you, Mr. Smith!’ Derham announced,
entering at a rapid walk. ‘Only you’ll have to get there straight
away.’


I’ll
see to your horse, Wax,’ Burbury promised. ‘You get
going.’


Lemme
tote your rig,’ the old timer offered.

Allowing the old timer to carry
his saddle, Smith gathered up his bed roll and rifle. They left the
barn and went to where the stagecoach stood, its team hitched and
passengers on board, outside the station building. Smith passed up
his bed-roll, then took and handed his saddle to the shotgun
messenger. Waiting to make sure that the rig
was laid on its side and not
stood upon the skirts, Smith looked inside. The farmer, his wife
and the two Eastern women occupied the rear seat. In front of them,
the pair of dudes and Capey ‘dovetailed’ with the drummers.
Apparently the prospector had either reached the end of his
journey, or was waiting for another stagecoach, for Lily had nobody
facing her on the centre seat.


Hey,
Wax,’ the blonde greeted, looking through the window. ‘Are you
coming on the stage?’


Why
sure,’ the Texan replied and opened the door. Rifle in hand, he
swung inside and sat facing the girl. ‘I have to.’


Somebody steal your horse?’ asked the largest drummer,
sullenly watching Smith’s right knee resting against the material
of Lily’s travelling costume.


Why?’
Smith answered, setting the butt of his rifle on the floor against
the door. ‘Have you got it?’


Mercy!’ Lily put in. ‘I thought it was so you could be near
me.’

Disapproving clucks came from behind Smith,
but the blonde ignored them. She smiled at him and he could feel
the drummer at his side moving restlessly. Before any more could be
said, or done, the driver cracked his whip and the stagecoach
started moving. Burbury stood at the doors of the barn and raised a
hand in a cheery wave as the vehicle went by. Leading out their
horses, the sheriff and his nephews mounted and followed the
stage.

Watching the range fall behind
him. Smith thought about
the damage to his saddle and why it had been
inflicted. Then he turned his gaze to the interior of the coach. In
all probability, the person who had cut the girths was riding with
him. Smith doubted if the McCobb brothers had done it out of spite.
Nor did the sheriff’s theory hold water. Sure the three men had
been sent to prevent Smith from reaching Widow’s Creek. But they
had intended to kill him, not merely delay him. So the knife had
been used
after
their attempt had failed. Not to stop him getting to
Widow’s Creek, though. At best the damage would have only held him
until he could have it repaired. No. The girths had been cut so
that he would not arrive before the stagecoach could carry warning
of his coming. So one of Smith’s travelling companions must be the
culprit. Unless it had been Burbury. Yet there seemed no logical
reason for the burly man to have done it. If he had wished to
prevent Smith’s arrival, he would have let Moxley kill the Texan.
Nor had the damage to the saddle caused Smith to arrive at the town
later than Burbury, in the buggy, would reach it.

There was Lily Shivers to
consider. Smith had no way of knowing whether she had left the
station building during the night. If she suspected his
employer
’s
identity, she might have taken steps to make him arrive later than
expected.

Thinking of the blonde led Smith to look
more closely at her. She seemed to take pleasure in antagonizing
the other female passengers. A conversation had started among the
dudes and drummers, in which Lily took an active part. Witty,
without being coarse, she kept the men amused and the women
annoyed. Watching her, Smith sensed that it was the latter result
she was aiming at.

On rolled the stagecoach, making
good time over the well-worn trail. At the first relay station, the
McCobbs took their departure, having reached the
county
’s
boundary line. Nobody seemed unduly alarmed after the peace
officers had ridden off.

Another twenty miles and two
changes of teams fell behind the
travelers. Coming over a hill, the trail
ran parallel to the southern bank of the Sweetwater River’s Big Elk
Fork. Across the stream, the land appeared to be of better quality
than that flanking the trail.


Looks
like they got over the winter of ‘Eighty-Six better across that
side than over here,’ Smith remarked to Lily.


Sure,’
agreed the blonde. ‘Mind you, Charlie Hopkirk and Poona Woodstole
always showed better sense than most ranchers.’


How
come?’ Smith asked, ignoring Capey’s pointed glance at the mention
of the latter name.


You
maybe know how it was before ‘Eighty-Six,’ Lily replied. ‘Ranchers
were running every head they could—’


And
more,’ the biggest drummer interrupted. ‘They overgrazed the
range.’


Not
all of them,’ Lily contradicted. ‘And for sure not Charlie ‘n’
Poona. For a limey, Poona’s a smart, cattle-knowing feller. So they
ran their spread with what he called a long-term view in mind.
Built up their herds with picked stock, instead of raising anything
and everything. They developed their land, took care of the
grazing. Maybe they didn’t make so much money as the others, but
they came out of the big die-off with cash in the bank and cattle
carrying their brand. That side of the river’s the best grazing
land in the Territory.’


How
about this side?’ Smith inquired.


You
can see,’ growled the drummer. ‘It’s the leavings, all that farmers
ever get given.’


Time
was they didn’t want it,’ Smith pointed out.


Times
change,’ the drummer observed.


Land
doesn’t, unless it’s worked on,’ Lily pointed out. ‘Which this side
of the river wasn’t before ‘Eighty-Six. Now farmers’re moving in
and finding they can’t make eating-money.’


Not
this
side of the river,’ the drummer agreed.


Across
it’s C Lazy P land, with a clear title bought, worked for and
earned,’ the blonde said coldly. ‘Nobody’s got the right to
homestead on it.’


And
nobody’s got the right to glom on to that much land,’ the drummer
declared. ‘Only the big ranchers’ve done it and sure aim to hold on
to what they’ve got.’


Meaning?’ Smith asked quietly, knowing that the man’s last
sentence had been directed his way.


Nothing,’ grunted the drummer. ‘Except maybe the big
ranchers won’t have it all their own way from now on.’

That
’s a strange-looking rifle, Wax,’
Lily remarked. ‘I’ve never seen one like it.’


It’s a
Colt New Lightning, Lily,’ the elder of the dudes informed
her.

Allowing the man to explain the virtues of
the ordinary production-line Colt New Lightning rifle, Smith
digested the information he had just gathered. One of the
possibilities he had considered as the cause of the urgent summons
was trouble between ranchers and homesteaders.

Going by her comments, Lily
tended to
favor the ranchers. Maybe Mayor Jeffreys supported Governor
Thomas Moonlight, a man known to be sympathetic to the cause—and,
some said, the extra voting-potential—of the homesteaders. That
could be the cause of their animosity.

A question about the Colt
rifle
’s
capabilities as a hunting weapon took the Texan’s attention from
his thought-train. Nor did he find time to return to it, as the
discussion lasted until the stagecoach arrived at Widow’s
Creek.

The Big Elk Fork split the town into two
sections. Looking around him in the fading light, Smith decided
that the stream served as a dividing line between the better-off
and poorer sections of the community. That showed in the quality of
the buildings, which was of a much higher standard north of the
river. To the south lay the main business section, the stores,
places of entertainment and homes of the working classes of the
town. Capey and the drummers headed in that direction. Not
unexpectedly, the dudes had their baggage carried over one of the
bridges into the northern section.

When Smith had asked
Lily
’s advice
about obtaining accommodation, she suggested that he should use the
Simple Hotel. In addition to offering good food and clean beds, it
had the advantage, she claimed, of being close to her place.
Somewhat to his surprise, after gathering a trio of loafers to
carry her bags and his saddle and bed-roll, Lily had led him across
the stream.

Passing through a prosperous
street given over to professional men
’s business premises and civic buildings,
Lily pointed with pride to her saloon. Two floors high, solidly
made of stone, the Happy Bull glowed with light and rang with the
sounds of people enjoying themselves. Facing it across the street,
dark and deserted, stood Jeffreys’ Bank.

BOOK: Slip Gun
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