Sunday, January 4, 2015

"A Double-Cross in Disguise" by Anonymous/Unknown

A Double-Cross in Disguise

Bat Ranzell was riding off the regular trail as he made his way north to Colorado. He didn't want to be seen and recognized. Lawmen of three states had enough evidence against Bat to convict and hang him for killings he had committed within their borders.

Bat was unique among frontier town robbers. He operated as a lone wolf and chose solitary victims. His strong aversion for witnesses was borne out by the fact that after robbing a victim Bat's six-gun made certain the victim never lived lonng enough to accuse him.

Thousands of circulars had been sent out bearing Bat's picture. Rewards ranging from three hundred to twelve hundred dollars were offered for him, dead or alive. But the circulars did not worry Bat, for the picture on them bore little resemblance to his appearance. He had been nineteen when the picture was taken. Now he was twenty-five and looked ten years older. The life of an outlaw had creased his face with hard lines and made his cold, grey eyes sink deeper in their sockets.

It was late afternoon when Bat rode across the state line into Colorado. Almost at once he was breathing easier. The law in Colorado was not yet as tough as it was in Missouri and Texas. Bat decided it would be safe for him to ride into the nearest town and have a square meal before heading on to Leadville where he planned to rob a bank.

He drew no attention as he rode into a small mining town. No one gave him a second glance in the eatery where, alone at a back table, he began putting away a full meal. But Bat's ears were sharp.

"Nichols always kept a few thousand in his cash box," a cow puncher said to his eating companion, a young miner.

"Natcherly," the miner replied. "He buys and sells mules at all hours. Can't run over to the bank after closing time. Everybody knows Nichols keeps money on hand. An' it's good business for him to let 'em know it."

Bat Ranzell had caught enough of their conversation, so it didn't matter when other voices and the clatter of chinaware made it impossible for him to hear more.

Dusk had fallen when he paid for his meal and stepped outside. He saw the sign with Nichols' name, swinging on a pole before a corral. Very slowly Bat walked his horse to the corral gate and tethered his mount with a slip hitch.

Five yards back from the street on one side of the corral was a small, tin-roofed shed. Dan Nichols, a heavy-set man in his late forties, looked up from a battered desk into the muzzle of Bat Ranzell's gun. Bat growled between his teeth: "Give me every cent you've got in the cash box. Do as I say or I'll drill you!"

Dan Nichols shrugged and said nothing. Slowly he pushed a ledger and some newspapers away from the back of the desk and pulled a cash box towards him. Then he threw open the lid. The box was empty.

"Where's the money?" Bat demanded, irritably.

"Another fellow beat you to it," Nichols said. "Almost two hours ago. Sheriff's posse is out after him now."

Bat Ranzell's face reddened in rage. His gun flamed as he backed to the door, and as he stepped out he watched Dan Nichols fall off the chair, dead.

Three men who did not know what had happened were watching Bat as he galloped out of town. He knew they would give a good description of him when his deed was discovered.

A full moon had come up, but before midnight Bat reckoned that he had put nine miles between him and the town. He thought the posse must have taken another direction in its pursuit of the man who had robbed Nichols. Then a shot rang out, and Bat threw himself clear as his horse fell.

Keeping behind boulders at the side of the narrow trail, Bat fired at his first glimpse of the man who had surprised him. Bat saw the man stagger and fall.

At first Bat thought the man was one of the sheriff's posse, but a quick search of the vicinity turned up the man's horse, blanket roll and trail equipment, including surveyor's instruments and a tripod. Bat scratched his head over this for a minute. If the man was a surveyor camping here for the night, why had he taken a pot shot that had felled Bat's horse?

Bat decided the answer didn't matter. His own safety was all he needed to be concerned with, and perhaps the dead man might now unwittingly save Bat's hide. Going back, Bat saw that the surveyor was of his own height and build. He had been wearing a black, wide-brimmed Stetson, uncommon in these parts. His boots and Levis were the same as Bat's but over his shirt he wore a buckskin jacket. Bat removed the jacket from the dead man, put it on and replaced his own faded Stetson with the black one.

Before covering the dead man with dry brush and leaves, Bat went through his pockets. In the shirt pocket he found a large roll of greenbacks. Counting the money in the waning moonlight, he found there was sixteen hundred and forty-eight dollars in the roll. The surveyor had evidently been paid off by those he had been working for. Bat thought this made up for the bad luck he'd met when he'd held up the mule trader.

With his own horse and the dead man concealed from the trail by leaves and brush, Bat rolled up in his victim's blanket and drifted off to a sound sleep. Bat had seen that the surveyor's horse was securely tethered. A saddle lying nearby was better than his own. The dead man's horse appeared to have a Kentucky strain, so Bat had actually gained more than the sixteen hundred by killing the man.

In the morning Bat would ride off on the dead man's chestnut gelding, wearing the dead man's black Stetson and buckskin jacket. To complete the disguise, Bat would pack and carry the tripod and surveying instruments. The sheriff and his posse were hunting the man who had robbed Dan Nichols. If they had returned to town during the night, they would ride out again in search of Dan Nichols' murderer — who fitted Bat's description before he had changed clothes and horses with the dead mann. Disguised as a surveyor, Bat might be stopped and questioned by the posse. But what chance was there that he would arouse their suspicion?

Bat didn't awake by himelf in the morning. When he opened his eyes he saw two men standing over him, and he was looking into the muzzles of their six-guns. The larger of the pair wore a star on his vest.

"No mistakin' about him!" the sheriff growled. "Black Stetson, buckskin jacket and surveyor's instruments. Go through his pockets, Arch, an' see if he's got Nichols' money on him."

"Last job you'll pull fer a long time, Louie the actor!" the deputy chuckled. "Your surveyor's get-up fooled everybody who saw you while you wuz lookin' over the town. We heard you masqueraded as a preacher when you held up the post office in Denver."

But before the deputy's hand reached the roll of bills, Bat Ranzell tried to draw his gun. The sheriff didn't give him a chance. Without moving a muscle in his face, the sheriff shot Bat.

The deputy jumped back, but when he saw that Bat was dead he returned to his search and found the money. It didn't answer the question both men asked at the same moment: "Why did Louie go for his gun when there wasn't a chance he could shoot first?" And the sheriff added, "There's no record of Louie ever shootin' anybody, even when he was pullin' a job."

They found the other man dead, but they didn't know that he had actually been Louie the actor. The riddle wasn't straightened out until they rode into town and heard about Dan Nichols being killed by a stranger two hours after Dan had been held up by Louie.

"I might as well admit it," the sheriff addressed the crowd gathered outside his office, "that Bat Ranzell could have got away if he hadn't been fooled by Louie's disguise."

"How'd you know he was Bat?" a voice asked. "Face didn't look much like the picture of him."

"We found a letter on him, signed by him, addressed to his brother," the sheriff explained. "It was dated more than a month ago. Most likely Bat didn't like the idea of walking past his picture on a post office wall to mail the letter. Only natural fer an outlaw to be cautious!"

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