Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Winner's Draw" by Bert N. Dean

Winner's Draw
Bert N. Dean

A Santa Fe brakeman was attracted by the snores from a box car, and found Pecos Jim asleep on a pile of straw in a dark corner. The brakeman could tell by Pecos Jim's chaps, buckskin vest and well-worn boots that the sleeper was a range rider. "Probably a top hand, too," the brakeman mused as his eyes caught the dull glint of silver spurs.

He shook Pecos Jim gently. "Rise and shine, pardner," he said in a booming voice. "It's past nine, an' time you wuz on your way or about your business. You must've had a night of it at the Silver Dollar Casino."

Pecos Jim rubbed his eyes for a moment then sprang suddenly to his feet. His tanned, youthful face registered deep concern as his hand shot under his unbuttoned shirt and groped aimlessly. "I've been robbed!" Pecos Jim gasped. "I wouldn't care if it had been my money, but my boss gave it to me to pay for a carload of fencing wire."

"You work for Sam Bowles?" the brakeman asked. "We unloaded a carload of wire on the siding for him yesterday, figurin' he'd send a man in with the money. How come you crawled in here last night?"

Pecos Jim dropped out of the car and stared away thoughtfully up the deep-rutted wagon road that led past the cattle pens to the business center of Cactus Junction.

"I cain't remember much," Pecos muttered. "The freight office wuz closed tight when I rode in last night. I wanted to pay for the wire and get a receipt, just in case I got mixed up in a brawl."

"But it wuz too late," the brakeman said, "and you moseyed into one of the saloons and tossed down too many rounds of red-eye an' some fellers seen you flashin' that big roll an' got the bartender to slip you a mickey. Then when you passed out, they dragged you into the alley and relieved you of Sam Bowles money. Ain't I right?"

Pecos Jim shook his head. "I never touch likker," he said. "I got in a game of seven toed Pete with three strangers in the Silver Dollar Casino. I wuz winnin', then I started to lose an' wound up by droppin' every cent I had in my jeans. Not includin' Sam's twelve hundred dollars. That wuz safe inside my waistband."

"Then what happened?" the brakeman asked impatiently.

"I wuz hungry," Pecos Jim went on, "so after I got out of the game, I ankled over to a hash house fer a bite to eat. Had a plate of stew, some hot biscuits, pie an' coffee. There wuz a few trail riders eatin' there, mindin' their own business. But now I remember that I didn't like the looks of the short order cook somehow. He slipped out while I wuz eatin' the stew, but came back to serve me the pie an' coffee. Maybe somebody seen me banging at the freight office, knew I'd come to town to pay fer Sam's wire, an' got that cook to slip knockout drops in my coffee."

"Possible, if you cain't recollect what happened after you left the hash house," the brakeman said. "You'd better ankle over there an' have a talk with that cook."

Pecos Jim nodded. "Guess that's my best bet," he said, pulling his Stetson low over his forehead as he turned toward the wagon road.

The cook who had been on duty the night before was nowhere in sight when Pecos Jim pushed through the squeaking screen door of the hash house. A trail boss and two railroad men were being served by a fat, bald headed man who wore a white cap and stained apron.

"Short order cook who wuz here last night anywheres around?" Pecos asked.

"Nope!" the bald-headed man said flatly. "Clerk over at the hotel sez he packed up an' lit out for parts unknown. I owed him two days' wages. He send you to collect?"

Pecos Jim shook his head, and then an idea struck him. "Your cook have any particular friends here in Cactus Junction?"

"Waal, sort of," the bald-headed man admitted. "Card sharps they wuz, over at the Silver Dollar. But I hear they pulled up stakes too, an' there's talk that the sheriff's out trailin' them because the casino's strong box wuz broken into sometime after closin' time, an' over a thousand in cash wuz taken."

"They done all right for themselves," Pecos Jim muttered. Then he remembered that one of the gamblers had mentioned that he'd bought some sheep dip that his brother had asked him to get. Pecos Jim hadn't thought anything of the remark the night before, but now he searched his memory for the location of the nearest sheep ranch.

He was still disputing whether there were sheep on the southern slope of the Mesquite Mountains when he went over to the Junction Corral and saddled his roan. One of the hostlers assured him that a man named Keenan was grazing sheep south of the Mesquite Range. Pecos Jim thanked him, and headed that way.

Pecos Jim kept his roan at a steady pace all day, because he guessed if the gamblers and the short order cook were heading for the sheep ranch, they'd take a roundabout route that would make trailing them more difficult. But since Pecos Jim was heading in a straight line for the mountains, he'd likely as not make-up for their earlier start, and catch up with them before sundown.

In late afternoon Pecos Jim spotted four riders coming over the top of a ravine at least a quarter of a mile west of the trail he was following. There were bushes along the trail, and by keeping on the low side, Pecos Jim prevented the riders from seeing him. A half mile ahead the trail dipped into a deep dry wash, and it was there that Pecos Jim planned to jump them.

Pecos Jim tethered his roan to a wind-bent mesquite, drew his forty-five and scrambled to the weed-grown top of the dry wash. He had caught the four men in a bad spot. They were trying to get their horses up the opposite side of the wash, but the bank was too steep. Before they had a chance to swing around and head down the dry stream bed, Pecos Jim surprised them.

"Throw up yore hands or I'll start throwin' lead!" Pecos Jim shouted.

They looked up and saw him before he ducked back through the tall weeds, and he knew by the faint mutterings from below that they had recognized him.

Prone behind a thick-leafed bush, Pecos Jim saw them dismount and draw their shooting irons as they dropped to the ground. If they wanted to shoot it out, Pecos Jim was game. A bullet whined over his head, and he drew steady aim and fired. Blackie, the gambler who had fired the first shot, reeled back from the boulder where he had taken cover, howling in pain. The cook from thhe hash house made a wild shot, and Pecos sent a slug through his shoulder. Slowly, the other two men dropped their guns and raised their hands. They had no way of knowing whether Pecos Jim was alone.

Pecos had taken prisoners before, and he knew the quickest, surest way to tie his captives. After they were bound, he went through their pockets and found a thick bundle of currency in Blackie's shirt. He ordered them to mount their scattered horses for the night-long ride back to Cactus Junction. Pecos had their guns in his saddle bag.

Riding behind his captives, Pecos Jim counted the money. There were thirty-three hundred dollars. He took out the twelve-hundred that belonged to his boss, Sam Bowles, and stuffed it deep in his hip pocket.

An hour after dawn when Pecos Jim turned the prisoners over to the sheriff in Cactus Junction, he handed over the eleven-hundred that the gamblers had taken from the casino strongbox. The sheriff thanked Pecos profusely before the range rider turned away and headed his tired horse down toward the freight office.

The freight agent's jaw dropped when Pecos shoved the money across the counter. "But you handed me the payment for Bowles' wire night before last, before you crawled into an empty box car! You wuz actin' like a man walkin' in his sleep, but I figgered you knowed what you wuz doin' 'cause I seen a card sharp an' that cook from the hash house trailin' yuh." Placing a freight receipt on top of the bills, he pushed the money back toward Pecos Jim.

Slowly, Jim reached out for the money. "Guess I must've got my accounts a bit mixed up," he explained. "Some of this twelve-hundred must be mine, but somehow I cain't figger how I got a hold of the balance of it. Oh, well — it will come in handy, 'specially if I get into a game of poker!"

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