OUT WEST : NUMBER EIGHT
Luke Jessop was sitting alone at a saloon table in the remote Arizona hamlet of Barnsdale, which comprised only the watering hole, a general store and a stagecoach relay station. The sole customer at this time of day, early afternoon, Jessop was very pleased with himself. By his profoundly anti-social standards he had good reason, for three days ago he had pulled off a remarkable criminal stunt, a single-handed train robbery. He wasn’t sure whether he was the first man to do this, but he hadn’t heard of any other instance.
Less than an hour after he had entered the saloon, Jessop was thinking of moving on when a hefty man of middling height walked in. He strode over to the lone drinker, flicked aside his coat lapel to reveal a star on his shirt, and pulled out a sixgun. ‘You’re under arrest,’ he said.
Jessop raised his eyebrows. ‘Who are you and what do you think I’ve done?’ he replied.
‘I’m Deputy Sheriff Dave Gordon, out of Hobman’s Creek, which in case it’s slipped your mind is the town closest to where you robbed that train on Monday. Now take your gun out, nice and slow, with your thumb and forefinger, and put it on the table.’ Jessop obeyed. Gordon picked up the weapon, stuffed it into a pocket and pointed his Colt forty-five at the door. ‘Let’s go,’ he snapped.
Outside, Gordon motioned Jessop to mount up. The captive gave a puzzled look. ‘Aren’t you going to tie my hands, or something?’ he asked.
‘No need. You’ll be right in front of me all the way. Just remember that if you make one wrong move, you’ll die. It’s all the same to me whether I deliver you dead or alive. Head north.’ They moved off, the horses at a walk.
After two hours of steady progress, Gordon called out: ‘Turn left off the trail and carry on till I say otherwise.’ They rode across open country for twenty minutes, then Gordon called a halt. ‘Now get down and sit on that big rock over there,’ he said. ‘We’re going to have a talk.’
Jessop did as he was told and Gordon sat on a smaller boulder, his gun trained on the robber. ‘Time for a little confession,’ he growled. ‘The fact is I don’t aim to take you in at all. If you play this right, you might just get away with a whole skin and maybe a little profit.’
This brought a thin smile from Jessop. ‘Let me guess. Your name isn’t Dave Gordon and you’re not a lawman, right?’
‘Yes, on both counts. As for the name, you’ll have to settle for the one I’ve given you. With regard to work, I’m in more or less the same line as you, except that I usually go for banks. You were pretty careless to show your face in Hobman’s Creek just before you did the train job.’
‘I didn’t have a choice. My horse needed attention and that was the only place I could have the work done. And you must have been as reckless as you say I was, if you were in the town too.’
‘Similar reason. I ran out of supplies. I wasn’t planning to do anything to attract attention to myself anyway. Fact is there are wanted posters out for both of us. I saw them on the wall of the sheriff’s office when I walked past. Recognised you and knew you were in the gang that got away with two train robberies last year. I had a hunch you might be up to something here, so I kept an eye on you. Used my field glasses to watch your effort with the train, then tagged along. Lost sight of you for a couple of hours around here, then picked you up again. You were carrying the loot when you gave me the slip and you’re not hauling twenty-eight thousand dollars around now. I know that because I checked your belongings at the livery barn and I can see you don’t have it on you. Where is it?’
He was right. Jessop had cached the money less than five miles from where the two men now sat. His idea had been to vanish from the area for a while, then retrieve the money when the fuss died down. ‘Supposing I don’t tell you?’
‘Then I’ll kill you. Simple as that.’
‘And what’s your deal if I do tell you?’
‘I’m not greedy. You can keep half.’
Jessop nodded. ‘Mighty generous, but how do I know you won’t kill me anyway and walk off with the whole lot?’
‘You don’t, but you know what I’ll do if you refuse to play it my way. Figure it out. One way, you die for sure, the other way, you take my word that you’ll live and keep fourteen thousand dollars.’
‘You make it clear enough. Now, just to satisfy my curiosity, you could have caught up with me earlier. Why didn’t you?
‘Because I didn’t want to wind up holding the money so close to where it was stolen. Reckoned I’d let you carry it for while, along with the risk.’
‘Very smart. Okay, Gordon, you win. We can get the money within an hour.’
‘Right, we’ll see to it now. Mount up.’
They rode northwest across broken country and after forty minutes, Jessop pointed at a small jumble of rocks. ‘There,’ he said.
‘Get it out,’ Gordon replied. ‘If you happen to have put a gun in there, remember I’m right here and you’ll have no chance to do anything tricky.’
Jessop pulled a slab from atop the pile and took out a package. ‘Oh, damn,’ he muttered, staring at it in dismay. ‘Look at this.’
Two long strides allowed Gordon to see what had caused Jessop’s reaction. It was the remains of a thin cotton sack that had been almost completely taken apart. Insofar as it was still capable of holding anything, it contained a heap of shredded paper. ‘Termites,’ snarled the disgusted train robber.
Gordon peered more closely at the mess Jessop had revealed. It was what remained of a large number of banknotes, almost beyond recognition as such. ‘You idiot,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you put the money in a leather bag or something?’
‘I had an oilskin pouch, but I lost it in getting away. Didn’t aim to go back into all that flying lead. I just took a chance. I know that some of those blasted insects feast on paper and cardboard, but I’d no idea there were any of them around here.’
Gordon heaved a huge sigh. ‘So there’s nothing left. I ought to kill you just for your stupidity. Or I could take you in for the price on your head. But I can’t do that because there’s an even bigger reward offered for me.’
Jessop continued to look glumly at the useless pile of paper. ‘What are we going to do now?’ he asked.
Gordon shrugged. ‘I know I threatened to kill you, but that was just to get to the money. I don’t really want to add murder to my record. Still, you’ll have to pay for the inconvenience you’ve caused me, and anyway, you might just get it into your head to follow me for some reason and I don’t want that. I’m taking your horse and the rest of your stuff and leaving you here. Come to think of it, that might amount to the same as killing you, but if it does I’ll never know, so it won’t be on my conscience. You’ll just have to take your chances.’
Without further comment, Gordon rode off. He didn’t seem to give much thought to the fact that Jessop made no protest at being left in the middle of nowhere, without a gun, horse or any of his other possessions. The train robber simply sat there on a rock, chin in hands, watching as the horseman became a speck in the distance.
As soon as Gordon had vanished, Jessop gave vent to a burst of loud laughter, then he walked two hundred yards to the southwest, where he came to another small pile of rocks. He pulled the top two away and produced the oilskin pouch he’d claimed to have lost. It was stuffed with banknotes to the value of nearly twenty-five thousand dollars.
When he’d been fleeing from the scene of his exploit with the train, Jessop had noticed that he was being followed and that for some reason his pursuer made no attempt to narrow the gap between them until he’d finally showed up to make the fake arrest. Jessop had not tried to outrun Gordon, but had evaded him for a little while, then intentionally reappeared and allowed himself to be trailed again.
In the time he was out of Gordon’s sight, Jessop had separated the money he’d stolen into two piles of unequal size. The large one comprised the low-denomination notes, mostly of one dollar, but with a few fives and tens thrown in. To make what he had in mind convincing, the wily robber also included four twenties, two fifties and two hundreds. The far smaller heap contained the rest of the higher-value notes.
Not wishing to be chased all over the country with so much money, Jessop had secreted the small stack, then spent nearly an hour tearing the bills in the big pile to pieces not much larger than confetti. He made sure that several fragments of the eight high-denomination bills were large enough to leave the numerals intact. Those pieces he placed on top of the pile. Since all the money was in greenbacks, the operation would have deceived anyone not intent on a very close inspection. Finally, Jessop had ripped the thin sack in half a dozen places, cached it, then made his reappearance and allowed Gordon to continue tailing him.
Jessop had not carried out the elaborate exercise merely to fool the bogus deputy. He’d planned it anyway in case he’d been hunted down by genuine law officers, in which event he would have played the same trick on them as he had on Gordon. He might have had to face a spell in prison, but would have had something to look forward to on release. After all, if the lawmen had been satisfied as to what had happened to the money, they would not have kept an eye on him after he’d regained his freedom.
Before robbing the train, Jessop had scouted out the area for a long way south of Hobman’s Creek. He knew that only three miles from where he’d put the money, there were at least two occupied cabins. He didn’t know who lived in them, but he had no doubt that he could reach one or the other on foot, and with a fortune in his pockets, buy his way out of his predicament. He succeeded.
* * *