Authors: J. T. Edson
‘Keep back!’ Dusty snapped.
The men fell back, those in the lead hurriedly reversing direction. It was partly the magnetism of Dusty’s personality, and partly the bone-handled Colt in his right hand which stopped them. For the most part these town toughs tended to be knife or club wielders and only used guns as a last resort. So they had never seen a real frontier-trained gun-fighting man in action and did not know how fast and deadly one could be.
‘You’ll not get out of here alive, cowboy!’ yelled a man from the safety of the crowd’s rear.
‘Then six of you’ll go with me,’ Dusty answered calmly. ‘Who’s first taker, gents?’
THE FORTUNE HUNTERS
Elmo Thackeray died the richest man in Texas, leaving his vast fortune to be divided between his relatives and friends. Ole Devil Hardin was asked to gather together the beneficiaries of the will and deliver them to the Thackeray family house.Ole Devil gave the order for his famous Floating Outfit to ride.
Dusty Fog, Mark Counter, the Ysabel Kid and Waco thought their troubles would be over when they delivered the legatees to the old house. They were wrong. Under the terms of the will, the last legatee alive inherited the entire fortune — and it looked as if one of them intended to be the survivor who claimed it all.
THE FORTUNE HUNTERS
A CORGI BOOK 552 08241 4
Originally published in Great Britain
by Brown, Watson Ltd.
Brown, Watson Edition published 1965
Brown, Watson Edition reprinted 1966
Corgi Edition published 1969
Corgi Edition reprinted 1972
Corgi Edition reprinted 1975
Copyright © 1965 by Brown, Watson Ltd.
Copyright © 1969 by Transworld Publishers Ltd.
This book is set in Plantin 9/10½ pt.
Corgi Books are published by Transworld Publishers Ltd.,
Cavendish House, 57—59 Uxbridge Road, Ealing, London, W.5.
Made and printed in Great Britain by
Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd, Bungay, Suffolk
THE old man looked like a bag-line bum. He wore a cheap old woolsey hat perched on white hair that looked like it had been cut by standing a pie-dish on his head and cropping around the bottom. The elements had given his face the texture and almost the colour of old leather. A pair of gimlet-mean grey eyes peered suspiciously from under shaggy, beetling brows; a sharp nose seemed to be sniffing for trouble; and a mouth, thin-lipped and tight as the closed jaws of a bear-trap, made a slash over his sharp pointed, bristle-covered jaw.
Knotted around his throat hung a faded green bandana which trailed frayed ends down over a cheap washed-out blue hickory shirt. The black and white calfskin vest looked no newer than the shiny-seated black levis which ended thrust into a pair of ready-to-wear boots; these latter a thing no cowhand worth his salt would be seen dead in. The gunbelt around his waist supported the weight of an old Whitneyville-Walker Colt; this at a time when the new metal cartridge weapon known as the Peacemaker had been on the market for long enough for most men to have put away their percussion-fired weapons and changed to the finest fighting handgun yet made.
Yet for all the poverty of his clothes, the old man rode a fine, spirited bay stallion. The saddle between his knees had seen many winters but bore the unmistakable mark of a master craftsman’s work.
Sitting slouched in his saddle, the old man watched a pair of cowhands engaged in their work. They were hazing along a bunch of cattle towards where the rest of the ranch crew held a branding herd. One of the animals, a big, mean black longhorn, burst from the bunch, taking off with the speed only his breed of the bovine world could work up.
One of the cowhands whirled his horse and took off after the fleeing longhorn. It had been giving much trouble and needed a sharp lesson, which same the cowhand intended to hand out.
His racing cow-horse closed on the fleeing steer and the cowhand leaned over from his saddle. Happen he made a slip, or his horse staggered, he would be unlikely to walk away from the fall. That did not deter him. Bringing his horse closer to the speeding longhorn, he stabbed out a hand to grab the animal’s rear-poking tail. His hand closed on the tail and he jerked it towards him. Taken by surprise, and with its balance thrown out of kilter, the steer’s feet left the ground. It sailed over and crashed down hard enough to smash the breath from it. When the steer rose dazedly to its feet, it showed no inclination to head for the open range’s freedom.
All in all the cowhand had given an inspiring display of part of his work, and performed a trick, upon the rough, uneven range country, that had dudes rearing up to applaud in excitement when they saw it done on the safe, even ground of a Bill- show
The old man did not show any delight, nor even admiration for the cowhand’s daring and his mount’s skill and surefootedness.
‘What in tarnation, thundering hell do you think you’re doing?’ he screeched, sending his horse down the slope towards the cowhand.
No cowhand was ever such a mild soul that he would have accepted that talk from a bag-line bum: one of the lowest of the low, a drifter who roamed the ranges begging food from cooks and avoiding doing a lick of work in return. Yet the cowhand turned his horse towards the old man and answered in a reasonably civil tone.
‘He’s a bunch-quitter, Mr. Thackery. Figured to knock some sense into his fool head afore he got in among the main gather and started stirring them up.’
The reason given for trailing down the steer was perfectly valid. It ought to have been completely acceptable to a man who knew cattle work and the peculiar mentality, or lack of it, shown by longhorn beef.
‘Do you reckon I pay out thirty-five dollars a month for you to run the stock to hide ‘n’ tallow?’ the old man replied. ‘If you jaspers was worth your salt that steer wouldn’t have had chance to jump the bunch. Damned if I know what the world’s coming to. Time was a man could hire hands as’d do their work, without needing watching every damned minute of the day.’
Swinging his horse, the old man rode off through the bushes on the slope. The cowhand watched him go, with an angry scowl on his face. Then he turned his horse and headed the subdued longhorn to the rest of the bunch.
‘Who in hell does he think he is?’ the cowhand growled to the other rider.
‘Elmo Thackery, Tuck, that’s who he reckons he is,’ grunted the other. ‘The richest man in Texas.’
‘Yeah? Well I’ll tell you, Eddy, comes next payday I’m looking for a new boss. I rode for some mean cusses in my time, but he beats the living bejeesus out of them all.’
‘He don’t pay good,’ Eddy, the elder man, admitted. ‘But the food comes up good, hot and regular.’
‘Which same’s all that’s kept me here this long,’ Tuck answered. ‘Only there’s times when a full belly ain’t enough.’
They rode on, keeping the bunch of cattle moving ahead and receiving no more trouble from the black steer. It appeared to have learned its lesson and would behave itself for the rest of the day. Keeping the bunch to the open bottom of the valley, the cowhands brought it around a corner and out into more open country.
‘Hell fire, look there, Eddy!’ Tuck snapped, stabbing out a finger.
A riderless horse came wending its way down the slope towards them. Some people might not have regarded the sight of a horse as being worthy of comment. As a cowhand who spent much of his life on the hurricane deck of a horse, the sight of another of the species
Equus Caballas Caballus
should not, and would not, have aroused any interest in Tuck’s breast—except that the horse carried a saddle and no rider.
In the West a horse with an empty saddle always caused alarm. A man left afoot could only be in trouble and no time would be wasted in starting a search for him. This time the matter had added urgency for the horse was the bay Thackery rode when he came down to rebuke his rider.
Catching the bay, Tuck brought it back to where Eddy had already started to back track it. The two men rode through the bushes and up the slope from which the bay came.
‘Know where we are, Tuck?’ Eddy asked.
‘Yeah. And I don’t like it,’ the other man replied.
On reaching the top of the slope, the two men stopped their horses and peered ahead of them, scanning the bushes with intent gaze. Then they followed the tracks, noticing that the horse had been running.
‘Up there!’ Tuck growled.
‘See it,’ Eddy answered, swinging from his saddle and leaving his horse standing with hanging reins.
Ahead of them the ground had been churned up even more than the running hooves of the bay previously marked it. Not only that, but a battered old woolsey hat lay by the marks and the bushes appeared to have been flattened over by some weight.
Moving forward on foot, the two cowhands cautiously advanced on the bushes and eased through. Their caution had good cause. Suddenly the ground just dropped away, falling over a hundred-foot into a sheer-sided ravine. The ravine had been masked from sight, even though about thirty yards wide at this point, by the bushes, a deadly trap for an unwary man. Its bottom lay covered in sharp spiked rocks, vicious looking points just begging for something to drop and be impaled on them.
Something had fallen and been impaled.
Something with shaggy white hair, a faded old bandana, black and white calf-skin vest, faded hickory shirt, both bulged up in an unnatural manner, shiny seated black levis tucked into scuffed-heeled ready-to-wear boots. A gun lay by the side of the still shape, having fallen from its holster.
‘Whee dogie!’ Tuck breathed. ‘We’re looking at the deadest, richest man in Texas.’
‘Yeah!’ Eddy replied. ‘Let’s go back to the herd and fetch help.’
‘There’s no rush. He must have landed on one of them spikey ole rocks, way his vest bulges up, and its gone through him like a butcherbird skewering a bug on a thorn. We’ll have one helluva chore getting him out of there.’xx
‘So Elmo Thackery’s dead,’ Ole Devil Hardin said, looking at the man who stood before him in his gun-decorated study.
‘Yes. I had a message telegraphed in this morning and came straight over to tell you the news.’
The boss of the great OD Connected ranch sat straight-backed and stiff in the wheelchair which had been his home since the day he tried, and failed, to ride the seventeen hand paint stallion his nephew and segundo, the Rio Hondo gun wizard Dusty Fog, now used as his personal mount.
For all that he was a few thousand dollars short of equalling Elmo Thackery’s fortune, there was nothing of the shabbily dressed bag-line bum about Ole Devil Hardin. He wore an expensive broadcloth jacket, frilly fronted silk shirt and black string bow tie. From his waist down he was wrapped in a tartan blanket. His strong, aristocratic fighting man’s face, with piercingly keen black eyes, showed no hint of self-pity or weakness due to his disability. Ole Devil was just as much the master of his ranch as he had ever been.
‘Why the rush, Gaunt?’ he went on. ‘Pull up a chair.’
Never had a man been so aptly named as the tall, spare visitor who stood before Ole Devil. With his black suit, white shirt and black cravat, and his lean gaunt face, the man might have been a successful undertaker in a wide-open trail-end town. Yet he was not. Ole Devil knew Frank Gaunt to be one of the shrewdest legal minds in Texas.
‘Thanks, Devil,’ replied the lawyer taking a seat. ‘It’s a strange thing, but Mr. Thackery had only been making arrangements to cover the event of his death just before I came down here. He might have anticipated it, for he had made full arrangements for the disposal of his fortune.’
‘Now me,’ Ole Devil interrupted dryly, ‘I’d have said if Elmo couldn’t take it with him he wouldn’t have gone.’
A frosty smile creased the lawyer’s usually sober features. Men who knew him claimed that Gaunt only smiled at real important folks who he admired and respected. He often smiled when talking to the boss of the OD Connected.
‘I might have been inclined to agree with you,’ Gaunt replied. ‘Thackery had laid down certain terms, almost as if he expected to die during my business trip to Polveroso City.’
‘Huh?’ grunted Ole Devil.
‘He wants you to act as executor of his will.’
‘In a way. The will, as you might expect of Elmo Thackery, is an unusual document. I’m not even permitted to go into details of its contents as yet. The one thing I can tell you is that Thackery left his entire fortune to be divided equally between his sister, Miss Mamie—’
‘Good for Mamie,’ Ole Devil put in. ‘She stuck it out and lasted long enough to get something out of the old goat for all her years of hard work.’
Ole Devil was no hypocrite and did not agree with the old saying about not speaking ill of the dead. He knew Thackery too well to suffer from any illusions about the man and he had always admired Mamie Thackery for putting up with her brother’s miserly, penny-pinching ways for so many years.
‘Between his sister, Mamie,’ Gaunt Continued. ‘His granddaughter Jennie. She lives at Casa Thackery and is the sole surviving issue of his second—’
‘I know the family history,’ Ole Devil interrupted ‘Elmo wanted to marry Jennie off to Dustine. How about his eldest boy, Pete, does he get anything?’
‘He, or his surviving issue Should he and his wife be dead, is included in the will on equal terms with the rest. So is Thackery’s third son, Claude.’
‘I never took to Claude, too much like his old man,’ Ole Devil remarked. ‘He was the one Elmo sent to that fancy college back East, and who married that politician’s daughter, the one the Republican party threw out. Claude joined the same bunch. Took life real serious, did Claude.’
‘He took it so seriously that he had no children,’ Gaunt replied dryly. ‘He and his wife, Marlene, both get a share, so does Vint Borg.’
‘I heard old Vint died a couple of years back.’
‘He did. Lived long enough to see his son as Thackery’s foreman in his place. So young Vint gets his cut. The other beneficiary is a woman, Joan Shandley.’
‘She’s a new one on me,’ Ole Devil admitted.
‘A saloongirl. It seems she met up with Thackery in Dodge at the end of a trail drive a couple of years or so back. Took him for a busted down old bag-line and staked him to a meal. So he’s cutting her in.’
‘I’d never have thought of Elmo as being that kind-hearted,’ Ole Devil grunted. ‘Now what do you want of me?’
‘For you to gather the various legatees and get them together at Casa Thackery to hear the will read.’
‘I’d be hard pushed to do that,’ Ole Devil replied, indicating the wheelchair.
‘Your floating outfit could do it.’
An explosive grunt left Ole Devil’s lips at the suggestion.
‘Do you think I can spare them to go roaming all over the West looking for Elmo Thackery’s heirs?’
‘That’s one of the reasons I said it was almost as if Thackery had a premonition of death. Three months or so back he started the Pinkerton Agency searching for his heirs, the ones he couldn’t locate personally. There were only the four who weren’t at the house. Claude and his wife, Pete and, of course, the saloongirl.’
‘And Pinkertons found them all?’
‘Sure. We know where to lay our hands on them at this time.’
‘Anyway, it’s no use discussing the matter,’ Ole Devil drawled. ‘Dusty and the rest of the floating outfit are away on a trail drive. Fact being, they ought to be either very close to, or already arrived at Mulrooney by now.’
For once in his life the lawyer showed his surprise. He sat rigid in his chair and stared hard at Ole Devil for a long moment, then let out a long sigh.
‘Lord!’ Gaunt breathed. ‘It’s enough to scare a man. Almost as if Thackery knew when he was going to die and made all the arrangements for it.’
‘How do you mean?’ asked Ole Devil, surprised at the emotion Gaunt showed.
‘Pete is dead. Died last year. His only child, a daughter, Francine, wound up in the hands of a crook called Cohen in Chicago. The Pinkertons located her, but had been told not to make a move. The saloongirl is working in a place in Newton. Both of them within easy reach by rail from Mulrooney.’
‘And Claude and his wife?’ Ole Devil put in, leaning forward and watching the lawyer’s face.
‘You know that Claude was active in Henry George’s single tax doctrine movement? Well it has changed its name to the Socialist Labour movement now and Claude is one of its leading men.’
‘Which’s just about what I’d expect of him,’ Ole Devil growled. ‘Where is he?’
‘I’m not sure of his exact location. But Pinkertons found that he was starting on a political campaign, visiting the railroad towns to speak to the workers on their rights. According to the schedule Pinkertons supplied, Claude and his wife will be headed west along the railroad, making for the construction camps.’
While not being a superstitious man, or one easily moved by coincidences, Ole Devil felt as if an icy hand had touched him. He shook off the feeling and turned his attention to the lawyer once more.
‘Then they can all be picked up easy enough,’ Ole Devil said.
‘Comparatively speaking. Pinkertons were asked to watch over them and report any change of location. It’s uncanny how Thackery made his plans, almost as if he knew where the floating outfit would be. He sent the instructions to prominent lawyers in Dodge, Newton and Mulrooney, to be handed over to his agents, with full authority for them to make use of Pinkerton’s services in his name. So everything will be ready to show Captain Fog what to do and where he and his men must go.’
For a long moment Ole Devil sat in silence. A man could trust Elmo Thackery to make some hawg-stupid will and drop the handling of its provisions on somebody else’s shoulders.
However, Ole Devil owed Thackery a favour from back in the old days before some twist of fate turned Thackery into the scheming, suspicious, money-grabbing old miser he became. A man like Ole Devil Hardin did not lightly toss aside his obligations. Under the circumstances there was only one thing he could say.
‘All right. If you call out and tell them to rig my buggy, we’ll go into Polveroso City and send word to Dustine.’
‘Certainly. By the way, Thackery authorised me to pay you a bank draft for the sum of one thousand dollars to cover loss of time and expenses incurred by the floating outfit—’
‘Only he told you not to mention it until after I accepted, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to take the chore for the money,’ grinned Ole Devil. ‘That’s typical of Elmo Thackery. He lived mean and he died the same way.’