OUT WEST : NUMBER SIX
Easy Come, Hard Go
Bob Nelson was riding north at top speed, pursued by five very angry men. He had no illusions about what would happen if they caught him. He would be either shot dead or lynched. Twenty minutes earlier he had been sitting in a saloon in Elton, Idaho, calmly taking money from the men in a game of poker. He’d been doing that since late the previous evening and it was well into the early hours of the morning when he had asked to be excused briefly to answer the call of nature. Once outside, he’d hurried to the livery stable, saddled his horse and left the town.
When Nelson hadn’t returned to the game after ten minutes, the other players began to get restless. Every one of them had lost heavily. They were all local men of some substance: three ranchers, the town’s banker and the doctor. Two of the cattlemen were down by over a thousand dollars each, the third by close to seven hundred, the doctor about four hundred and the banker a little over six hundred. In proportionate terms, the medico was hardest hit, for his practice did not net him anywhere near enough to allow losses on this scale. He’d succumbed a combination of drink and gambling fever.
The discomfited players were muttering among themselves when a well-dressed stranger who had been standing at the bar and watching the game for some time went outside, apparently for the same reason as Nelson had done. A few minutes later he returned and walked over to the five men, who were still bemoaning their losses. ‘Excuse me, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘but I’m wondering whether you expect your companion to come back.’ On being told that they certainly were, he went on: ‘Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think there are two things you ought to know. First, your man left a little while ago, heading north and not wasting any time about it. Second, he’s been cheating you ever since I arrived, and I imagine before then too.’
‘Damn,’ said one of the ranchers, ‘I thought he was having more than his fair share of luck. How’s he been doing it?’
‘I may have missed some of the tricks he used, but I know he had holdout cards a few times and he did a little bottom dealing.’
‘Why didn’t you tell us earlier?’ snapped the doctor.
‘I didn’t see it as any of my business. Still don’t, but when he rode off I changed my mind and thought you might appreciate being told. Incidentally, his final refinement was quite clever. You may have noticed that he put nearly all his winnings into his coat and trousers, but left what looks like about a hundred dollars on the table to give the impression that he wasn’t through with you.’
Another of the ranchers nodded. ‘The scoundrel. Thank you, sir. Your information comes a little late but it’s welcome anyway. I think my friends here will agree that we should go after him.’ They did.
By the time the five men had saddled up and got underway, Nelson had a substantial lead. Then disaster struck. His horse went lame. He checked that there was nothing he could do about that on the spot, then he turned his mind to the matter of temporary cover. When riding south earlier, he’d taken note of the terrain, so he knew that to his right was open country and to his left a long line of cliffs, almost abutting the trail. He recalled that the escarpment went on unbroken for at least three or four miles from his present position, so there was no possibility of turning off that way. However, there had been a number of rockfalls, some of which had brought down huge boulders. Nelson had just passed one of these.
Having little doubt that he was being followed but not knowing how far behind any pursuers might be, he took what seemed the least hazardous course by leading his horse back to the big rock. He made it shortly before the unofficial posse thundered past. In daylight, the concealment wouldn’t have been adequate, but for the moment it was good enough.
Nelson considered his next move. As far as he could remember, the only habitation for some way ahead of him was a cabin. He recalled noticing smoke rising from its chimney as he’d passed the spot when riding south. Potentially more important was the fact that he’d also seen a small corral there. Maybe he could buy a horse. There was no safety for him in either staying put or walking back to the town he had just left. With the way east barred by the cliffs, the only options were to continue north or head west. Nelson quickly rejected the second course. This being summer, daylight would come soon, then a man walking across the flat, open country in crystal clear air might be visible to a rider on the trail for a long time. Very risky. The isolated cabin seemed like the least bad bet.
It turned out that Nelson’s immediate goal was closer than he’d thought. Leading the horse, he arrived at the place in less than fifteen minutes. The cabin belonged to a crusty old prospector named Abe Wright. Nelson rapped on the door and was treated to a burst of strong language from within. This was followed by the lighting of a lamp, then the door opened to reveal the grizzled owner. ‘Damned if I know what a man has to do to get a little sleep around here,’ he barked. ‘What the hell do you want?’
‘Sorry to bother you at this time of night,’ Nelson replied. ‘I’d have waited a while but the fact is I’m in a hurry to deal with some business and my horse is lame. I’m hoping to buy another and wondered whether you might have one for sale.’
Wright fingered his chin. ‘Come in an’ let me have a look at you.’ Nelson complied and Wright appraised him closely before going on: ‘Where was you when the horse got lame an’ where are you goin’?’
‘It happened a mile north of here and I’m heading south.’ Nelson had wanted to allay any suspicion concerning his true plight, but as soon as he’d spoken, he feared that he might have given the wrong answer to a crafty question.
Wright shook his head. ‘Try again, an’ this time I’d like to hear the truth.’
‘What makes you think you haven’t just heard it?’
‘Don’t test my patience, son. If you’d been ridin’ south an’ had the trouble so close to here, you’d have met them boys from town who just hauled me out of bed, an’ if you had, you sure wouldn’t be with me now. So let’s agree that you’re on the run from Elton.’
It was clear to Nelson that further protestations on his part would do him no good. He gave a rueful smile, spread his hands, palms up in resignation and asked: ‘What do you intend to do with me?’
Wright went to the wall behind him, took a rifle from a shelf and pointed it across the table at Nelson, who was unarmed. ‘Well, that’s a good question,’ he replied. ‘You say you want to buy a horse, an’ I can tell you that barrin’ the ones in town, which ain’t available to you, the only one for miles around here is mine. He’s a fine animal. Mighty valuable.’
Seeing at once where the conversation was going, Nelson tried to keep it short. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘How much?’
Wright scratched his head. ‘Let me see. Takin’ everythin’ into account, I’d say he’s worth around four thousand five hundred and ninety dollars.’
So that was it. Wright had stated the exact sum the five local men had lost. Obviously they’d called on the prospector and told him the whole story. ‘That’s a hell of an expensive animal,’ said Nelson. ‘Can’t you be a little more reasonable?’
Wright chuckled. ‘Oh, I’m bein’ reasonable. You hand over the money, put your saddle on my mount an’ head off straight west. That way you get away with your life. ‘Course if you don’t reckon you’re worth that much, you can stay here till the boys from town come back this way an’ I’ll hand you over to them.’
Nelson nodded. ‘Okay, here it is.’ He fished in various pockets, dug out the full amount and handed it over.
Wright smiled. ‘Sensible choice, young man. You’ll leave these parts no worse off than when you arrived and a damn sight better off than you are right now. I suppose you feel bad about havin’ to part with the money, but just remember you got it without doin’ any honest work. I guess you could say it’s a case of easy come, hard go.’
‘I reckon you’re right, but how do I know you won’t put those men on my trail anyway?’
Wright laughed. ‘For a man who does such a good job of swindlin’ at cards, you’re not too bright, are you? If I send them fellers after you, they’ll most likely catch you an’ you’ll tell ‘em you gave me the money, then they’ll come back an’ take it off me. You think I’m that kind of fool?’
‘I guess not.’
‘All right. Now, ride west fifteen miles an’ you’ll find a narrow road runnin’ north. There’s enough moonlight for you to be well on your way to it an’ far from here by dawn. You won’t come across any obstacles. Get goin’.’
Nelson got going.
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