Picket-Stake Hendry has spent thirty years roaming the Calico Mountains in search of gold. Finally, in a lonely little canyon far from civilization, he strikes the mother lode, and as soon as he gets home to register the claim, he’ll be a millionaire. But before he can make it to Cosmos, a bandit attacks him.
Cosmos sheriff Johnny Hendry prefers playing cards to fighting crime, and he’s kept the peace in this rough-and-tumble western town by letting bandits do whatever they want. But when he hears that Pick, his adoptive father, has been murdered, he vows bloody vengeance. For the sake of the old prospector, he will clean up Cosmos—or die where he stands.
This incredible story of frontier justice from author Luke Short, winner of a special Western Heritage Trustees Award and the Western Writers of America’s Levi Strauss Golden Saddleman Award, is a classic of the genre.
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About the Author
Born in Kewanee, Illinois, Glidden graduated in 1930 from the University of Missouri where he studied journalism. After working for several newspapers, he became a trapper in Canada and, later, an archaeologist’s assistant in New Mexico. His first story, “Six-Gun Lawyer,” was published in Cowboy Stories magazine in 1935 under the name F. D. Glidden. At the suggestion of his publisher, he used the pseudonym Luke Short, not realizing it was the name of a real gunman and gambler who was a friend of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. In addition to his prolific writing career, Glidden worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. He moved to Aspen, Colorado, in 1946, and became an active member of the Aspen Town Council, where he initiated the zoning laws that helped preserve the town.
Read an Excerpt
By Luke Short
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Frederick D. Glidden
All rights reserved.
Old Picket-Stake Hendry's features usually softened about this time of day. He had seen ten thousand sunsets filter through the thin desert air to wash the Calicoes and their shrouding thunderheads in all the colors that heaven's palette held, and it was always new to him. It was as close as he ever came to religion.
As the last gold shaft crept up the tip of old Monarch and leaped off into the blue, Picket-Stake's gaze returned to earth, and to business. He regarded the dead man sprawled before him.
"It might work," he repeated aloud, taking up his train of thought where he left it twenty minutes before. "He's got my sandy hair and my length o' leg. With my clothes on and a little mussin' up, it might work."
To Picket-Stake, the dead man represented only a small triumph. Two days before, Picket-Stake knew for sure he was being followed. It hadn't worried him, for he had been followed many times in his thirty years of prospecting the Calicoes. He knew the follower would wait until Picket-Stake led him out of the maze of canyon country to water before he gulched him; for Picket-Stake, rightly or wrongly, was deemed a rich man of the Cosmos country. His worldly goods consisted of two burros, a change of clothes, and a burroload of prospecting-tools, but only he knew that. To the rest of the country it seemed unreasonable that this gaunt, desert-blackened lath of a man should have prospected the Calicoes for thirty years and still have no gold. So they made him rich — in story. Didn't he always have money? Hadn't he taken in that waif and raised him to manhood, this same Johnny Hendry who was deputy sheriff of Cosmos county? Had either of them ever lacked for anything?
Pick could have told them that any man, if he's half smart, could make wages by placer mining at any of a hundred places on this side of the Calicoes. But what Pick couldn't have told them up to a week ago, was that a man could make a fortune, a solid, fabulous, undreamed-of fortune. He hadn't known it himself, for the mother lode of this field had always been a part of his dream. Now it was reality.
"I'm rich," he had kept saying calmly to himself these last two days. "So danged rich I'll never live to spend a hundredth of it — no, not even a five-hundredth."
In a tiny box canyon, just at the head of some copper stain, far up into the savage, waterless, and labyrinthine canyons of a vast and nameless valley of the Calicoes, his monuments were up. All that remained was to register the claim at Cosmos and watch the rush start — a futile, heartbreaking rush that would end where the rainbow ends. For Pick had it sewed up. He had waited until he was sure.
Then, two days back, two men had picked up his trail. Pick had too much to lose to try and shake them, for in the tattered vest he wore were the claim locations. Pick had been raised in a tough and deadly school, and he acted accordingly. It meant losing a half day to go around by way of the Kiowa rim, but he went.
There, perched a thousand feet above the foothill, the trail followed the rim around a series of pinnacle rocks. Close to sunset, Pick had hazed his burros on ahead, had cast one glance at his back trail, then had faded into the rock.
The only weapon he carried was a double-barreled derringer fitted for shotgun shells. So he waited, bellied down close to the trail. In an hour, the man came. He was a thin, rawboned man, afoot, packing two six-guns and a big canteen. Picket-Stake let him get within ten feet of him, then he called, "Hey!"
The man in the same second, in the same jump of surprise, was streaking for his guns, and Picket-Stake had let him have it — both barrels.
He figured the shots would blast the man over the rim, but they hadn't, and now Pick was glad.
Like all desert men, Pick was a philosopher, and as he lit his cob pipe to take his mind off his thirst, he reflected on the whims of fortune. "Funny how luck runs. That coulda been me. And the only soul woulda missed me woulda been Johnny."
But would Johnny, even? Asking himself that question, Pick laid bare the only real bitterness of his life. Twenty-five years ago, down in the Ute country, when the Indians were making reluctant way for the whites, Pick had found Johnny. He was prospecting in the Six Pillar country, and had stumbled onto a burning shack one afternoon. A glance at the dead woman and her husband inside the burning house told Pick the Utes had done their job well. He was about to leave when the dim wail of a baby came to his ears. A search revealed the baby hidden in a chest under the rough bunk. It had been the last protective gesture of a cornered and frantic mother.
Pick had taken the baby, had sweated blood corralling and milking wild range cows to pull it through until he could reach a settlement. And Johnny had been raised in the desert mountains of Calico.
He had grown to a big, amiable young manhood — too amiable, Picket-Stake knew. Johnny didn't care much about anything, and never worried a moment in his life.
"And that's bad," Picket-Stake mused, feeling his own seamed face. Not all those creases had got there from physical strain. Plenty of them came that time he nursed Johnny through double pneumonia over in the Panamints. Worry shouldn't kill a man, but it's the fire he needs to temper him."
Picket was thinking especially of this last job of Johnny's — his deputy-sheriffship. Cosmos was a tough county, Cosmos town was tougher. Cattlemen were harried by rustlers, murders were committed and forgotten to make way for more murders. The law, under a slack, easygoing sheriff, was a mockery.
And Johnny, grinning through it all, said to Picket-Stake, when prodded, "Pick, you was in the West before I was in rompers. Like seeks like. Let the gunman kill off the gunman. If a man can't take care of his own, let him lose it. You never went to the law in your life. No man does. As long as women and kids is safe, let the best man win."
"Force is only for them that know when not to use it," Pick would say angrily.
"That's me," Johnny would reply, his eyes laughing. "That's what I been tryin' to tell you. Crowd a peaceful man and you got a killin' slated."
And Pick, never too eloquent, had no answer.
Yes, this dead man would fit the bill. Change clothes with him, plant false location papers on him, put a poke of dust in the tattered jeans. The shotgun derringer had taken care of the man's face. He could dump the body close to a trail.
He got up, lay on his belly, looked over the rim to the country in shadow below. There, directly down, lay the thread of a trail. It was used by the Bar 33 cattle as the only entrance to a water hole abutting the rim some miles to the south. Cows were calving now, and he knew some Bar 33 rider would make the rounds of the water holes on a last cleanup before the herds were moved into the mountains for summer range. Buzzards would attract a rider.
Pick reflected he had thirty days in which to file his claim. Four of them were gone. In twenty-six days, he would know Johnny as he had never known him before.
"And if he ain't what I hope he is, then my fortune can go bum. I'll be ready to die," he admitted to himself.
By failing light, he wrote out his fictitious location papers. Then he hurried through the distasteful job of dressing the dead man in his own clothes. Finished, he dragged the dead man over to the rim and put a poke of dust in the pocket, along with several of Pick's own recognizable belongings. Then, his mouth grim, he shoved the corpse off the rim. An hour later he had caught up with Jenny and Bertha, his two burros. He changed back into his own clothes, burned the ones he had exchanged with the gulcher, planted two pokes of dust on the burros, then set out again.
At midnight, he picked up the old familiar pack freighter's trail. He gave Jenny and Bertha the last of his water, then cut them across the rump.
They vanished into the darkness, and he knew some traveler would pick them up in a day or two, or they would be found at one of the outlying ranches where there was water. At worst, they would wander into town from habit.
He listened to the night, to the dying patter of the burros. He fondled the six-guns he had taken from the ambusher. On them depended his food.
Off to the east lay the sparse water holes of the Calicoes, where game was to be found.
"Good luck, Johnny," Pick muttered. "An unbroke horse ain't no use to anybody, least of all hisself."CHAPTER 2
LAW — ON ORDER
The Kiowa Head saloon at Cosmos did a booming business in the morning, a fact by which a shrewd observer might have sized up the whole town. For Cosmos, overcrowded with miners, punchers, saddle bums, and hard cases, did not work. It gambled and drank in the morning.
Of the four men seated at a rear table in the Kiowa Head, Johnny Hendry was easily the tallest. The game was stud, ten-cent limit, and the weary houseman was paying no more attention to the game than he could help. The other two players were chaffing him good-naturedly.
A man shouldered through the batwing doors, let his gaze rove first the bar, then the gaming-tables. Spotting Johnny, he walked over to him. He was a puncher, undersized, unshaven; and, like everyone else, he packed a gun at his hip. He was a little drunk, too. "Kin I see you a minute, Hendry?" he asked bluntly at the table.
Johnny looked up, frowning, for he had almost filled in a straight. He waited for the fifth card, saw he didn't even have a pair, and rose, swearing softly. "Well?"
He followed the man out. His walk was lithe, effortless, and there was a freshness, a tolerant good humor about his pleasantly lean face that placed him apart from the rest of the men in the room. On his left shirt pocket hung the badge of the deputy's office. He wore no guns. His range clothes were frayed though clean; his Stetson was dull black, flat-brimmed, hiding blacker hair.
Outside, the puncher turned and faced Johnny. "Well, I've got him nailed."
"Turk Hebron. Last night I hid out near that Dutch Canyon corral and seen him take eight head of my horses — seen him, mind you."
"What do you want me to do?" Johnny asked coldly.
"Do? Why, man, what do you always do to horse thieves?"
"Who saw him besides you, Cass?"
"No one. Ain't I enough?"
Johnny shook his head slowly. "Not by about two witnesses, Cass. You've been achin' to hang the deadwood on Turk, but it won't stick."
Cass Briggs flushed a little under his beard stubble. "What's a man got to do to prove his stuff is stole?"
Johnny grinned tolerantly. "If you'd seen Turk Hebron steal your stuff, Cass, you'd have shot him. Even if he wasn't runnin' 'em off, you'd've shot him." He shook his head. "If it'll make you feel any better, we'll ride out and talk to Turk."
"But I seen him do it!" Cass said.
"Then why didn't you shoot him? Everyone else cuts down on a horse thief."
"And get accused of beefin' him?"
"Then choose him on the street. He carries a gun, too. But I'm warnin' you. Make it even and in front of witnesses. Then try and get out of it."
Cass swore under his breath, but Johnny only smiled. "I'm not backin' up your play, Cass. Steer clear of us. If you got a grudge to settle, we don't want any part of it. After it's worked off, then we step in."
"Maybe you'll be wishin' I was backin' your play around election time next week," Cass sneered.
Johnny shrugged indifferently. "I'm appointed, not elected. If you got any threats, make 'em to Blue. He's sheriff."
But Cass was as persistent as he was vindictive. "You say I ain't honest. Didn't I bring them two burros of Pick's in yesterday when they come to my place for water? Couldn't I have kept 'em — them and that poke half full of dust I found in a packsack?"
"Yes," Johnny drawled softly, "you could. You could've kept all of it instead of just half like you did. But if you had of you wouldn't've made me feel like I had to take sides with you today in that damned chinchbug feud of yours with Turk Hebron. And also, you never know when Pick is apt to walk in and claim that poke." He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "Drag it."
But Cass stood his ground, alcohol inflaming his anger. "Trouble with you, Johnny, is you ain't man enough to hold down a deputy's job. Any other county, you'd've been fired months ago!"
Johnny's face flushed a little. "Listen, Cass," he said gently. "You're drunk. You're smaller'n me. But if you don't clear out of here, and right now, you'll wish you had."
Cass looked down at Johnny's hip. There was no gun there. He let his hand fall to the butt of his own gun and smiled evilly. "By gum, I got a notion to make you dance on the streets. You make us dance every time we ask for help."
"Try it," Johnny invited gently.
Cass's fingers closed about the butt of his gun, and he started to yank it from its holster. Swiftly, his palm held edgewise, Johnny struck down at Cass's wrist. Cass yelled with pain and dropped his gun; it clattered on the walk.
Slowly Johnny reached out, ripped Cass's Stetson from his head, then grabbed a fistful of Cass's thick hair. With his right hand he yanked Cass's head toward him and with his left he lashed out; his fist crashed into Cass's face.
Cass simply slacked down to the boardwalk and lay there, cold to the world. Johnny regarded him with impersonal distaste, then turned and looked over the street. He was mad, disgusted with himself at hitting Cass, and more disgusted at the fact that he had tipped his hand to Cass. He hadn't meant to reveal his guess that Cass had held back part of Pick's dust, but Cass had goaded him until it slipped out.
The poker game had lost its savor now, and Johnny turned up the street toward the sheriff's office. This thing about Pick was worrying him. The old boy, bless him, was as unpredictable as he was salty, but what if Bertha and Jenny's appearance did mean something? Pick was getting old and he took no care of himself. Traveling into the night after a hard day's work, it would be easy for Pick to stumble; and on some of these trails in the Calicoes, a stumble would mean death.
Then, too, Pick was carrying plenty of dust, and that was unusual. It wasn't reasonable for Pick to put his dust on his burros. Didn't that argue that he had so much of it that it was easier to pack it on burros? And if he had a lot of it, he would be well worth robbing.
Johnny had made plenty of guesses. Maybe some saddle bum working over the Calicoes had killed Pick on the chance he carried a road stake.
And the worst part of it was, Johnny didn't know where to look for him. Ever since Johnny had been grown up and shown a desire to roam, Pick had kept his affairs to himself. He and Johnny bunked together in the abandoned offices of the Lost Lady mine above town, but Johnny knew nothing of Pick's comings or goings.
His dark eyes narrowed a little, Johnny swung off the boardwalk into the Cosmos House. In every perplexing situation, he went to Nora, but after asking her advice, rarely took it. She had been working in the dining-room of the Cosmos House for three years now, a sort of stepdaughter to Ma Jenkins since her father died four years back. Six times Johnny had asked her to marry him, and she had refused each time.
Nora was clearing up after the last late breakfasters. She was dressed in a dark riding-suit whose somberness seemed to light up her ashen hair as the night does the stars. She wasn't tall, but straight as a ramrod. She had a full, friendly mouth, a straight nose inclined to tilt, and dark, depthless blue eyes that reminded Johnny of a pool at midnight.
"Mornin', m'lady," he said with a grin, and, yanking a chair away from the long table, slouched into it.
"Mornin', m'lord," Nora said, with a mock curtsy. She saw Johnny sizing up her neat riding-rig, and she flushed a little.
"Going ridin'," she said.
Johnny shook his head. "It's wild country, hidin' bad buckaroos." His grin faded. "Seriously, the Esmerella paid off last night. There's still lots of red paint left in them miners — enough to make a lone girl ridin' just a mite careful."
"But I'll not be alone," Nora announced.
"Oh," Johnny said, flushing a little. "Who is it?"
Nora watched him shrewdly as she answered, "Tip Rogers up at the Esmerella. He's off for the day."
"Oh," Johnny said again. Then he grinned. "He's been off all his life." He shrugged. "Well, bad cess to him."
Excerpted from King Colt by Luke Short. Copyright © 1965 Frederick D. Glidden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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