Sunset Stories : No. 22 - Troubleshooter

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
A railroad troubleshooter is assigned to solve the mystery of a missing train. He does so, but has his own idea about how to take the matter further.

Submitted: May 07, 2016

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Submitted: May 07, 2016

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TROUBLESHOOTER

John W. Harcourt was a worried man. He had good cause. As president of the Western General Railroad, he bore ultimate responsibility for the success of the company’s latest venture, a ninety-mile branch line, planned to transport an ever-increasing volume of supplies from Stonedale, Colorado, to the gold-mining town of Sand Creek.

Harcourt’s concern arose from his position with the railroad and his  involvement in the mining operation. He was a man of many interests and having satisfied himself that the gold deposits were likely to be substantial, had invested heavily. As a major shareholder in both enterprises, he was massively committed to the two operations.

After rapid early progress, things were going wrong on the Western General’s new line. Forty miles had been laid before the first incident, when two explosions which wrecked a length of track. No sooner had repairs been carried out than a further attack had destroyed another stretch. That too had been righted. Then, a week later, an even stranger incident had occurred. Six miles behind the railhead, several metals had been lifted from their ties and carried off, while on the same day – somewhere further down the line – a train had vanished. Drastic action was needed.

Harcourt bellowed a summons to his assistant, who appeared from the adjoining office, wearing the worried look he always showed when dealing with his autocratic boss, who was pacing around like a caged tiger, his florid face and hefty, five-foot-nine body radiating fury. “Find Scott,” he snapped. “I want  him here, quick.”

“Yes, sir. I believe he’s over in –”

“I didn’t ask where he is,” Harcourt interrupted. “Just get him.”

“Right.”

Alec Scott, six-foot-two, lanky, clean-shaven and sandy-haired, was Harcourt’s troubleshooter. In his two years with the railroad, he had distinguished himself by averting or settling a dozen major difficulties. He moved around, finding out where the shoe pinched and trying to nip potential problems in the bud. When he was too late to do that, he had to adopt firmer methods. He never flinched from them.

John Harcourt employed many people. Most of them he considered interchangeable units. If one dropped out, another stepped in. None was indispensable, few even important. Minions generally deferred to his high-handed attitude. Scott was an exception. He didn’t seem to care whether he was employed or not, but he did know how valuable he was to the great man. There was no forelock-touching from Alec Scott. He was located on the day of Harcourt’s demand, only twenty miles from headquarters, where he arrived the following morning.

Breezing into the assistant’s office, Scott grinned at the harried man. “Morning, Charlie. What’s eating the old buzzard?” he boomed, affecting not to notice that the inner door was open. Charles Tate’s attempted reply was overridden by Harcourt’s roar: “In here, young man, and I’ll thank you for less of the insolence.”

Scott entered the sanctum, closing the door behind him. “Morning, J. W. Something gnawing at your vitals?”

“Yes, and it’s about to gnaw at yours, too.”

“At your service, Milord. What’s afoot?”

“Plenty. Somebody’s stolen one of our trains.”

Scott chuckled. “Damned careless of us to let that happen. Gives a new twist to the idea of train robbing. Where, when and how big?”

“On the new line going north from Stonedale. Just over forty-eight hours ago. Locomotive, tender and a flatcar.”

“Only one car? Why?”

“We’re having delivery problems. Sometimes we have to run either metals or ties up to the railhead that way.”

“So, it was just a load of stuff for the laying boys?”

“Of course. What else?”

“Okay, keep your shirt on. I just wanted the facts.”

“If there’s much more of this banditry, I’ll not have a shirt to my name,” said the disgruntled tycoon. He went over the attacks on the new line, then the mystery of the lost train. “It set out from Stonedale for a forty-two-mile trip to the railhead, but never arrived.”

“What about the crew?”

“Two men, as usual. They both disappeared.”

“Have you had lookouts posted along the line?”

“I pay people for putting down track, not gaping at scenery.”

“Hmn,” said Scott, massaging his chin. “Why didn’t you send for me earlier?”

“Strange as it may seem to you, I have other things to think about. This is one headache among many. Anyway, you’re here now, so get going, pronto.”

“Yes, sir, Mr Harcourt, sir,” replied Scott with mock obsequiousness. “Okay if I stop to pick up my hat?”

Harcourt reddened. “Why are you still here?” he yelled.

Two days later, Alec Scott was twenty-eight miles north of Stonedale, heading northwards on a hired horse. His initial inquiries had elicited nothing beyond general mystification about the missing train and bafflement as to why the lengths of metal had vanished. That had left him no choice but to ride along the track, and so far he had seen nothing of consequence. He was just rounding a curve. To his right was broken terrain, mostly rock outcrops and open, sparsely vegetated land. On the left was the valley from which the track diverged on its way to Sand Creek

Scott’s task was complicated by the fact that snow had fallen since the incident he was investigating had occurred. A white carpet three inches deep wasn’t conducive to picking up clues. Also, not being a regular horseman was a drawback. Scott was saddle-sore, and he didn’t have the right footwear – riding boots might have helped. He was ready for a break, but it was a piece of paper fluttering in the breeze that finally caused his decision to halt. Dismounting stiffly, he noted that he had no way of tethering his horse, but the animal was hardly likely to wander far, as the only thing that might interest it was a clump of bushes among the scattered rocks off to the east.

Lighting a cheroot, Scott walked over to the object that had drawn his attention. It was a partly unrolled label, attached tenuously to a can that had contained peaches. Further investigation turned up two more empties, both having held sardines. So, someone had spent enough time here to justify taking a meal. Scott knew that John Harcourt had firm views on various matters, one of which concerned the depositing of trash by his workers as they moved along. Once he had fired a foreman and bawled out a crew for failing to tidy up a site before leaving it. Here, either the chief’s instructions had been disobeyed, or some other party had been around.

Scott wandered back over the track to look at the valley. Down there, about three miles to the north, was a huddle of buildings. From where he stood, the land, dotted with tenacious bushes and clumps of grass, fell away at an angle of about seventy degrees – except for a wide stretch immediately beneath him, where a massive fall halfway down had produced what seemed like an almost sheer cliff, with a huge mass of tumbled rocks and earth at the bottom. Landslides were not unknown here, but this was a big and odd-looking one.

Ambling back to retrieve his horse, Scott found that it had gone off to inspect the isolated group of bushes. He was about to lead it away when his eye took in a glint of sunlight from some object a further hundred yards to the east. He strolled over to take a closer look. What he’d seen was the end of a bent railroad metal, which wasn’t alone. There was another in the same state and two more, buckled and dented.

Scott walked the horse back to the west side of the track and stood pondering. It was not until he had finished his smoke and was about to mount and move on that his jumbled thoughts assembled themselves in the right order. The missing rails up ahead, the empty food cans, the deformed metals and that heap of rocks in the valley. Now he had it!

Though convinced that he was right, the railroad troubleshooter was bent on settling the matter before the day was over. Starting at the south end of the ground above the landfall, he dragged a boot along northwards, clearing snow and soon finding what he had expected to find – two wide heavy indentations in the rocky edge, near enough five feet apart.
Scott had to decide whether to return to his starting point or ride on to the railhead. He needed one item of equipment and that was available at both ends. He would be hard pressed to make it back to Stonedale, then out here again before nightfall. Knowing that the laying gangs usually kept two or three horses for emergencies, he decided to continue northwards.

At two in the afternoon, Scott reached the railhead. He paused only briefly for a meal, then rummaged in the supply tent, swapped his tired horse for a sturdy gelding and filled his water bottle. Less than an hour after his arrival, he was riding back south, regretting only that he couldn’t change his backside as easily as he’d picked up a fresh mount.

To get down to the valley, Scott was obliged to ride well south of the spot that interested him, then go back to it. Taking the sack he’d lugged from the construction gang’s store, he examined the mass of fallen rocks and earth he had viewed earlier from above. He was well-versed in the use of explosives, so knew how to set his charges. Two blasts did it, the second exposing one end of a flatcar. That was enough.

Scott wondered why, if his mental reconstruction was correct, the culprits had done so elaborate a job. They must have timed their effort so that  snow, either actually falling or imminent would cover any blemishes in the scheme. They’d been aware of the train movements, had taken up the rails to the north and carted them back here. Then they’d derailed the train, probably by diverting the metals those few yards – that would work for a single passage of the engine over such a short distance.

After getting the result they wanted, the miscreants had taken the damaged rails away from the scene, then reinstated the track with the ones they’d stolen earlier. The idea might well have worked even without the snow. With it, the mystery would have been even deeper – but for Scott noticing that scrap of coloured paper, and his horse having wandered.

Though flushed with success, Harcourt’s sleuth realised that he couldn’t make it to Stonedale or to the railhead before dark. He was weary and decided to head for the settlement he’d noted from above. Forty minutes later, he reached the cluster of one-storey wooden buildings. At the northern end was a corral and livery barn. There was nobody in attendance, so Scott saw to his horse then went back to what looked like the community’s focal point, a ramshackle structure bearing the word ‘Saloon’, painted crudely on the door. He entered a room around twenty-five feet square, with a bar of planks on barrels along the rear wall.

The establishment was as depressing inside as outside, dim lights compounding an atmosphere that would have been glum enough whatever the illumination. Eight men – a trio, two pairs and a solo drinker occupied four tables, the remaining three being vacant. The short rotund near-bald saloonkeeper was alone behind the bar, eyes half-closed. If there had been any conversation before the newcomer arrived, it stopped on his entry.

Scott ordered a beer, which the barman produced without a word of greeting, his demeanour accentuating the palpable hostility toward the stranger. Finishing his drink, Scott ordered another. Still no one spoke. Well, if this was a chicken game, he would play it. Someone, probably the bartender, would break the silence before he did. He toyed with the second beer for five minutes before the host’s inquisitiveness overcame his passive animosity. “You just ridin’ through?” he grunted.

“Yes, but my horse needs a rest.  You seem to have a big livery stable.”

“Yeah, well, we’re a relay station for the stagecoach line.”

“I didn’t know there was one hereabouts.”

“Fulton & Strong is the biggest stage an’ freight outfit in these parts.”

“That a fact?”

“Yes, sir. An’ likely to be bigger. Word is Jack Fulton’s buyin’ a whole new fleet of stagecoaches. Latest model from Abbott-Downin’.”

The subject seemed to touch the man’s conversation nerve. Scott raised his eyebrows. “Abbott-Downing eh?” he said. He was familiar with the name and reputation of the New Hampshire coachbuilders. “Well, that’ll cost him plenty.”

“Sure will. A good few thousand dollars.” As he listened, Scott was looking at the backbar mirror. One of the men in the threesome of drinkers wave a hand, palm downwards in a clear warning to the barman, whose flow of chatter ceased abruptly. Scott drank the rest of his beer, ordered a third, admitted that he’d stabled his horse on his own initiative and asked whether there was any chance of accommodation for himself.

“No rooms here, mister,” said the barman. “You could see Tom Robbins at the stable when he gets back. Maybe he’ll let you sleep in his hayloft, ’less you’re a railroad man, that is.”

“Not guilty,” Scott replied. “Is that a sensitive issue here?”

“It is. Those boys just ain’t welcome in –”

“Hey, Tom.” The interruption came from another of the trio of drinkers. “You goin’ to gab there all night, or can we get a drink here?”

“Be right with you.”

Using the mirror again, Scott saw that each of the three men had a near-full glass. Obviously they were intent on silencing the barman. Still taking in the scene behind him, Scott noted that the lone drinker, a short thin fellow, slunk off without a word to anyone. Maybe that meant nothing, but in such a small parochial place, it seemed more likely that the move had some significance.

It was now fully dark outside. Not knowing where he would spend the night, Scott had set out with a bedroll and supplies. Now he would need both, as he had no intention of staying overnight in this disagreeable spot. On his way to it, he’d passed a stand of pine trees, so he collected his horse, topped up his water bottle and returned there. Finding the spot suitable,  he opted for cold food and bedded down.

Shortly after first light, Scott was up and about. While making breakfast, he thought about the remarks the barman had passed the night before. Who would benefit from disruption of the railroad’s activity? Scott didn’t like jumping to conclusions, but a stagecoach and freighting company, intent on expansion, seemed a likely candidate. Still pondering, he was preparing to leave, with no definite idea about his next move, when a voice snapped: “Hands up an’ face around.”

Scott obeyed, turning slowly to see a man advancing through the trees. It was the small fellow who had left the saloon so quietly the previous night. He had a six-gun, held level. “I been watchin’ you quite a spell, mister,” he said. “Now you’re ready, we can go. Drop the shooter, slow an’ careful, an’ get on your horse.”

Scott did as he was told and the small man picked up the weapon, mounted and waved his gun at a cleft in the low hills to the west. “Head for that openin’ yonder. Keep it to a walk.”

Scott moved off, his captor six feet behind him and the same distance to his left. For a few minutes, he rode in silence, then turned his head. “I suppose you wouldn’t like to tell me what this is all about?”

“No, I wouldn’t. Now keep quiet.”

The two men entered the gap and rode on for a quarter-hour until Scott was directed off through a narrow defile to the south. Five minutes later, having emerged into a small patch of open country, they arrived at a large log cabin. “Get down,” said the little man.

Scott dismounted. “Now what?” he asked.

“Cut the gab an’ get over there.” The man was nodding at the left-hand end of the building, where there was a flat-roofed lean-to with a door hung on leather hinges and kept shut by an iron bar slotted into two large staples driven into the woodwork. “Open up an’ get in.”

Scott complied, then turned. “What do you aim to do with me?” he said.

“Don’t know yet. Probably kill you. I was told to pick up any railroad snoopers an’ bring ’em here. You fit the bill.” With that, he closed the door and dropped the bar back into place. Evidently in no mood to waste time, he rode off at once.

Unable to stand straight in the confined space, Scott sat. Apart from his gun, nothing had been taken from him, so he struck a match and inspected his surroundings. Except for himself, the shed was empty. It was roughly a six-foot cube, with stout walls, as thick as those of the main structure. The heavy wooden door was badly fitted but seemed secure. Between its left-hand edge and the frame was a narrow gap through which a thin section of the iron bar was visible.

Scott tried the roof. Hoping that some of the nails that fastened it to the walls might be rusted, he began heaving upwards. Two minutes of effort persuaded him that he was wasting time. He kicked the door as hard as he could, half a dozen times. There was over half an inch of lateral play, but apart from that, he might as well have slammed his foot into a mountainside. There was no point in thrashing around, so he sat on the floor, staring at what he could see of his feet in the faint light that came through the few chinks.

It was fifteen minutes before the idea came to him – and he had been looking at it all the time. As one who walked much and rode little, Scott always wore either laced boots or moccasins. Today, it was the boots. If he could thread a lace out through the crack between door and frame, then get the end back in, possibly he could make a loop around the bar and lift it.

He recalled the position as seen from the outside. The door was two and a half feet wide, the staples hammered into the logs three inches wide of the frame on both sides. If the bar could be lifted high enough, it might fall back outside the staples. Scott fumbled in his pockets, seeking something that would help to recover the lace, once he had got it out through the crack. Being a man who travelled light, he found nothing but his cheroots and matches, a few coins and his money clip. So here he was, fingering a slim wad of currency. What use was that?

Maybe the succession of mind-scrambling experiences was affecting Scott because he it took him a further ten minutes to hit upon a possible solution – crisp paper. He selected a near-new ten-dollar bill and folded it lengthways. Next, he took out his left bootlace and poked it through the gap, wiggling it over the bar. Then he pushed the folded bill through the same gap, four inches lower. Now he had miniature chute. He worked with both hands together, slowly feeding out the lace until he felt it falling into the fold of the banknote.

After a further half-minute of delicate manipulation, Scott was able to lower the bill inwards. The free end of the lace snaked back his way and he seized it. Now he had a grip on both ends, so he could raise the bar from inside. He tested the play he’d detected from kicking the door. Yes, it might be enough. He yanked upwards, pressing his right shoulder against the woodwork. The bar jerked up, fell back, clanged on the staple, then dropped clear. The door swung open.

Scott put banknote and bootlace back where they belonged, closed the door, replaced the bar, then went into the shack, which contained a stove, a table, two crates serving as chairs, a shelf and a pair of bunk beds. Scott’s gun was on the table. He grabbed it, then considered his next move. His former captor would surely soon return, probably with orders to shoot him.

Two hours later, Scott stood behind the door as the little man rode up, dismounted, glanced at the closed shed, then strode into the shack, to find the railroad man’s pistol in his ribs. “Now it’s your turn,” snapped Scott. “Undo that gun belt and hand it over.” Without a word, the man did so. Scott reversed his own gun, spun the man round and whacked him on the head, knocking him unconscious. Patting the inert form for other weapons and finding none, Scott went outside, where he took a lariat from his own horse. He returned, dragged the fellow over to the stove and trussed him in a way he had learned years earlier.

The little fellow regained his senses to find himself lying on the floor, firmly bound, with Scott sitting on one of the crates. “Now,” said the troubleshooter, “I want some information and I want it quick.”

“What goin’ on, mister?” squawked the man. “I can’t move.”

“Oh, you’ve noticed, have you?” Scott grinned. “I understand it’s an old Indian trick. Some people call it the Comanche Bind. Works well. See, your legs are drawn up behind you, then tied to your wrists, then the whole lot is fastened to your neck, with a nice smooth slip-knot.”

“For God’s sake, man, you’re choking me.”

Scott grinned. “No, I’m not doing anything. As long as you keep still, you’ll be fine. ’Course, you might get restless and start wanting to straighten out. I believe people start with the knees. If you do that, you’ll tighten the noose around your neck. You could strangle yourself. That would be your own fault. Now, who are you and what are you up to?”

“Name’s Parsons. I was hired to take care of you.”

“What else? What about the train wreck?”

“Yeah. I was in on that, too. You satisfied now?”

Scott was about to answer when a voice behind him said: “Hold it there. Drop your gun and kick it back here.”

With the tables turned once more, Scott obeyed.

“Good. Now get over to the back wall and turn around.”

Again Scott complied. Finding himself facing a stout middle-aged man, holding a long-barrelled revolver, he smiled ruefully. “You came up nice and quiet.”

The man nodded. “I’m the careful type.”

“You surely are. How do you fit in?”

“I’m Jack Fulton. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”

“If you put that together with ‘Strong’, yes.”

“You have it. You could call Mr Strong a sleeping partner. What about you?”

Scott was no novice at bluffing. “My name is Thompson,” he said. “I represent Abernethy & Strode, lawyers of Cheyenne. I’m looking for a man last heard of here.”

“Why?”

“They don’t tell me. My job is to find the party and inform him that he should contact Mr. Strode, who has information to his advantage. These things are usually inheritance matters. When I find the man, I get paid. No find, no fee.”

“A good tale. Now let me give you my version. Your name is Scott. You work for the Western General Railroad. You’re a detective, here to find the lost train. Now, I like my story better than yours. What do you say to that?”

Scott shrugged. “Not much. What’s your angle?”

“Well, I’ll give you the facts, since you won’t be repeating them. You’ll not be surprised to learn that railroads are bad news to me. I’ve worked hard on my business for eight years. Just before the iron way came out here, I was planning a big expansion. Sold up everything I could to raise money. Then I learned that John Harcourt isn’t satisfied with the line to Sand Creek. He intends to put a spur  through this valley and most of the area I cover to the north. I was stuck with my commitments, so I found myself with nineteen thousand dollars in cash and a business facing ruin. To keep it short, I’m clearing out and going south of the border.”

“And your partner?”

“Strong isn’t well named. Mr Weak would suit him better. I’ve left him with a hundred dollars. That was the amount we had when we started out. He’s had precious little to do with building the business, so we’ll see how he copes alone.”

As Fulton was speaking, Scott saw to his amazement that the shadow of a man had been thrown across the yard. Reckoning that the new arrival could hardly worsen his position, he decided to keep talking in the hope of holding Fulton’s attention. “How did you know the train would go over the edge?” he said.

“The curve helped, but it wasn’t really necessary. As it happens, I have a background in engineering. I knew that at the usual speed of the train at  that place, a derailment would leave it with only one direction it could go.”

“I see. And why replace the rails?

“That was just my sense of humour. A little refinement to make the search harder. There’ll be snow again any hour now, and with you out of the picture, Harcourt’s going to have a puzzle on his hands. He would have had anyway, but for Parsons’ carelessness and your stroke of luck. It was luck, wasn’t it?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, and speaking of Parsons, what about him now?”

“Ah, yes,” Fulton replied. “He’s been a disappointment. They say there’s no such thing as the perfect crime and I guess Parsons proves it. He led the group that was supposed to change the rails, then drop the damaged ones down the slope before the blasting. They did the one but not the other. Then he was to deal with you. He failed there, too. He’s no use to me any more, so I think I’ll –”

That was as far as Fulton got. Behind him, the shadow had changed into a man, who crept up on him and smashed a stone down on his head. Fulton dropped to the floor, unconscious. That revealed the newcomer to Scott. He was quite a sight. A tall, thin man with several days’ growth of grey whiskers, he wore a brown woollen shirt, blue bib overalls and heavy boots. A faded denim cap sat askew on his head. Apart from a large grease stain on one cheek, his face beneath the hair seemed sheet-white and his right arm hung limply.

For a moment, the man stood swaying, then fell flat on his face. Scott reacted quickly, hauling him across the floor and propping him up against the rear wall. The cap had fallen off, revealing a terrible wound across the man’s forehead and right temple. The four-inch long furrow and the surrounding skin displayed an alarming array of colours.

First things first. Scott retrieved Fulton’s gun, putting himself in charge of the situation again. Seeing a half-full whiskey bottle and a tin cup on the shelf, he poured a large slug. As he drank, the gaunt old-timer groaned. Scott bent over him, dribbling a little of the liquor between his lips. Spluttering, the fellow opened his eyes. Scott was relieved. “I’m glad to see you, friend,” he said, “but who are you?”

“Name’s Ganley. I was driving the train that got wrecked.”

“You mean you survived that fall?”

“That’s right. When the engine ran over the edge, the fireman went with it. I jumped clear. Fell some way an’ hit one o’ them bushes stickin’ out. I kinda spun round it and fell again, onto a ledge. The fellers up above couldn’t see me. Must have thought I’d gone down the whole way. I crawled as far as I could, workin’ my way near to the bottom, then there was a hell of a racket. Blast threw me almost all the way down. Saw later that they’d dynamited the cliff.”

“What then?”

“Well, I was hurt bad. There was this thing on my head, my right arm wouldn’t move an’ I think I’d busted some ribs. I couldn’t climb back up, so I kept on goin’ sideways till I found a spot where I could slither down. Lost my footin’ an’ rolled a good way then went head-first into a big rock. I must have been out for hours. When I came to, I knew there’d be no help around here for a railroad man, so I made for the trees. Then I passed out again. Was in and out o’ my senses for a  while. Got water from the creek back yonder, but had nothin’ to eat for four days.”

“Man, you’ve had a rough time.  How did you get here?”

“I got a friend in the next valley, west of here. I knew about this shack. Thought maybe there’d be some supplies left around, so I part walked, part crawled. When I got here, I saw two horses outside, then one feller rode away. I figured somebody else was still inside, so I waited. Watched you get out o’ the shed, then saw the little jasper come back, then that man I hit over the head rode up.”

Scott fed the man more whiskey. “Why did you come out of hiding?” he said.

“Couldn’t stand it any longer. I aimed ask for help. I came up close and heard what was said about you bein’ with the railroad. Then I took a hand.”

“Well, I’m grateful. Now, you need a doctor. If I see to that, can you handle a gun well enough to keep an eye on these two?”

“Sure. I can shoot all right with the hand I got left.”

Scott handed over Fulton’s gun, then turned and made for the door. Parsons yelled: “You can’t leave me like this.” He’d barely got the words out when the gun in Ganley’s hand spat. Scott spun round to find that Parsons had taken the bullet in his head.

“Good grief man, you didn’t have to do that,” said Scott, horrified.

Ganley swung the gun, training it on the detective. “Stand still,” he snarled.

Scott grasped that there was something amiss with Ganley beyond his physical injuries.

“Easy, friend,” he said. “You’ve taken a bad knock. Maybe you have concussion or something. If you –”

“Shut up,” snarled Ganley. “Now listen. I’ve been thinkin’. I’m gettin’ old. I’ve been workin’ for that louse Harcourt for seven years an’ I’m purely sick of his attitude. I’ve had enough of him an’ his like, so I’ll tell you what I’ll do.”

“Look, Ganley, just let –”

“I told you to keep quiet. I don’t want to kill you, so don’t force me. What I’ll do is what Fulton had in mind. I’ll take his horse an’ his nineteen thousand dollars, an’ go south, to a spot where a feller can live pretty good with that kinda money.” As he spoke, he was pushing and heaving against the wall with his shoulders, using them to get himself upright. Managing it with difficulty, he stood there for a moment, then began to go back down, knees buckling, eyes glazing, gun drooping.

Scott bounded forwards. At full stretch, he overbalanced as his right hand reached for the gun while his left grabbed Ganley by the throat. As both men fell, the engine driver’s body was gripped by a massive spasm. The gun, almost down to floor level, was still in his grasp. The convulsion caused him to jerk the trigger. Fulton, still lying face-down, was beginning to stir when the bullet smashed into his left ear.

Ganley’s legs were flat on the floor, his upper body against the wall, his eyes wide open, seeing nothing. Scott picked up the gun, walked to the door, then turned to survey the carnage. Sickened, he went outside. Seeing Fulton’s heavily laden horse, he opened the saddlebags, finding wads of money.

Trudging back into the shack, the railroad detective stood, arms akimbo. A few minutes earlier, there had been four men in there, all alive. Now he was the only one left. A fine job for the court to sort out. The court! That was a point. Scott already had a reputation for using violence to settle his cases. How would this look? Nobody would believe that he wasn’t responsible for the killings.

It took Scott only seconds to make a decision. Going back outside, he took the dead stage line owner’s money, unsaddled and turned loose the two horses that no longer had riders, then mounted his own animal. “Well, boy,” he said, patting the gelding’s neck. “Fulton didn’t make it and neither did Ganley. Maybe it’s third time lucky. We’re going to Mexico.”

* * *

 


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