Friday, August 22, 2014



THE TALL MAN paused in the doorway, the light dramatically at his back. "Wahl," he drawled, "if'n it ain't muh ol’ frien’ Ali’bi."
Jones sat up in his bunk, squinted. "My name is Rusty Jones."
"You'll allus be 'Al’bi’ tuh me," the tall man said with a smile.
Jones stood up. "Kit? 'Zat you?"
Kit Cassiday entered the jail. He looked different than Jones remembered. A little older, sure, but also somehow taller and tougher. Maybe it was the high-heeled boots and the badge.
Mesa City’s sheriff, Jack Stulla, stood up. Kit gestured with a thumb at the circled star on his shirt, and Stulla extended a friendly hand. Kit shook it. "I'm Cassiday, Marshal's Office."
"Pleased tuh meet yuh, Marshal. I'm Jack Stulla, county sheriff fuhr Mesa. Whut kin I do fer yuh?"
"I'm here about your prisoner," Kit explained. His dialect seemed to fade away as he got serious.
"Friend uh yor'n?"
"Guy I knew in the War. What's the story with him?"
"We think he killed a coupla galoots."
Kit's eyebrows and his hat went up. "Can I talk to him?"
"Shore. Thuh trick is tuh make him stop talkin'. Jes’ shoot 'im if he won't shut up," the sheriff suggested.
Kit strode to the back room, where the cells were. Jones had been watching the exchange at the sheriff's desk and now looked up hopefully at Kit. Kit's return look was something different.
"What," he puzzled, "are you supposed to be?"
Alibi looked puzzled back at him. "Huh? I'm a cowboy."
Kit scanned the prisoner. He wore tooled leather Mexican boots, woolly chaps over crisp denim pants, a fancy two-gun rig (minus, at the moment, the fancy two guns), black-and-white cowhide vest over a checked shirt, and a huge red bandanna neckerchief. A hat that must've been a twenty-five gallon model sat on the bunk.
Kit shook his head. "No, Alibi. I'm a cowboy," he gestured with both hands, inviting Alibi to survey his outfit. He had on beat-up boots and worn Levi's, a gunbelt and holster (with the thongs dangling loose), a white shirt with a Tuscan-red yoke, and an ordinary 'kerchief. A dusty white Stetson hat sat on his head. "You," Kit continued, "are a mental case."
"Well, then get me outta here on a section eight, will ya?"
Kit held up a palm. "Slow down, speedy. How'd you get in here, anyway?"
"Ya got me. All I did was sell a coupla guys an old Indi'n map that I bought—"
"From an old Indian, I know."
"Really. They seemed really happy. They left town right away."
"And you?"
"I headed over for Apache Junction to do a little celebratin'. It was th’ first time I ever made a profit on one a’ those deals, but I decided I'd better put some a’ that money in th’ bank, or it might be my last time."
Kit held up a hand to stop him. "So your marks rode outta town, and then you rode out. A little later you rode back in and put a bunch of money into the bank."
Kit sighed and sat down heavily on a bench next to the door. "Alibi, don’t that seem suspicious?"
"No?" Kit sat up straight. "Then why are you in here?"
"Well, the next day the two guys’ horses wandered back inta town. That's when the sheriff came an’ tossed me in here."
KIT LEANED BACK against the cool 'dobe wall, and pulled his Stetson over his eyes. He sat there quietly for a long moment. Finally Alibi asked, "Kit? Ya don't think I did it... do ya?"
Kit stood up. "No. But if I didn't think a lot of my promises, I'd just say 'adios amigo’ right now.
"Let me see what I can do," he finished, turning on his heel. He walked to Stulla's desk.
"Sheriff, d'ya mind if I look intuh this case a little?"
The sheriff chuckled, "Be my guest. We looked until we wuz gray in the faces."
"So what's the deal here?"
Stulla explained. Jones’ story fit. These two city fellers – university professors named Gordon and Hull – had talked with him in a saloon, then rode out the east road lickety-split. Jones had followed, returned, deposited a big wad of cash in the bank, and rode out again.
The next day the horses ridden by the professors were found at the edge of town, grazing. The sheriff and a deputy had ridden out, and found that the pair had turned north and into the Superstitions. Foul play was assumed.
Jones had stumbled into the bank while Stulla was there, questioning the teller about the missing men. The teller had identified the redhead as a suspicious depositor, and Jones was abruptly tossed in the calabosa. The deputies had continued looking for the city boys, but had found nothing. It didn't look good for Kit's little friend.
"Kin I take him into custody for awhile?" Kit asked.
"Yuh wanna be responsible fuhr him? Be my guest. But you’ll haftuh be swore in as a deputy first," Stulla decided.
Kit nodded and raised his right hand. Stulla found his law book and read the words. Kit said, "…Shore."
Close enough. Stulla handed Cassiday an extra badge, a six-pointer, which he pocketed.
SHORTLY, JONES FOUND himself on the street, blinking at the bright sunlight of the little city. He looked even sillier under the bonnet, but, after all, he needed some kind of a hat. Kit held him by the elbow. "Yuh be a nice boy and we'll get yuh outta this."
They stepped off the sidewalk three steps to the dirt. A man approached. Jones blinked again. It was Slim Rafferty. Unlike everybody else in town, he was conservatively dressed in a brown broadcloth suit, his only concessions to the locale being high-heeled boots and a low-crowned cowboy hat.
"Where's your horse, Alibi?"
"I keep tellin’ you guys, it's Rusty," he croaked.
"You want our help," Kit said in mock threat, "it's gonna be 'Alibi’ from now on."
"Alibi" jammed his fists in his pockets and pouted. "Awright. ...He's in MacReady's stable, down th’ street."
Slim went to the hitch rail in front of the jail, and grabbed the traces of two fine mounts.
Kit introduced them to Alibi, just as though they were old friends, which, actually, they were. He gestured to the muscular white stallion first. "This is my pal, Gent. That's short for 'the Argentine’. The pinto is Duster."
"Duster?" Alibi asked.
"He's the fastest horse I've ever seen," Slim said with pride. "He leaves all the other horses in the dust."
Alibi smiled, quite a good sign under the circumstances. The trio ambled down the street toward MacReady's.
"So what'sa plan, Cobber?"
"We're going out on the trail of the guys Alibi's supposed to've killed."
Alibi jerked to a stop. "Oh, no! You can go, but I'm stayin’ in town. I can't go out in the mountains. I still don't ride that good. I got vertigo."
"You saw this map you sold them, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah. But I can't read a map. I've got bad eyes."
"And you wonder why I call you 'Alibi’. If you want our help, you're comin’ along. Or you can go back to the hoosegow and we’ll go home."
He went back to the sulking mode. "First I gotta get a new name," he grumbled, "Now I gotta take a trip... ."
They arrived at the public stable, and Kit flashed his star. "We're here for the dude's horse," he began, then turned to Alibi, "what's his name?"
"Ah know the one yuh mean. Ah'll git 'im," MacReady said.
As the stable-master went inside, Slim squinted at Alibi. "Unk? Wot kinder a name is 'Unk’?"
Then Slim saw the horse, and knew what kind of a name it was. The horse was a chestnut gelding, late of the Army. The brand "US" showed clearly on the animal's flank. Both Kit and Slim chuckled. But the horse was a good one, Kit could see that.
MacReady brought out Alibi's kack, and Slim helped saddle the horse, which was good, because Alibi was hopeless as a stabler.
After helping the redhead up into his saddle, Kit and Slim mounted their horses with a practiced grace, and they rode out toward Apache Junction.
ABOUT HALFWAY THERE, along about three-ish, Kit, on point, spotted the place where the two men had headed north. He looked that way, and saw a notch in the hills ahead. He pointed. "That look familiar?"
Alibi looked. "That's where the map starts."
"So what the hell was this map, anyway?" Kit asked.
"Something called 'Cibola’," Alibi explained.
Kit turned in his saddle. "Cibola? That's a legendary city of gold."
"Gold? Gold?" Alibi coughed. "I sold those guys a map to a gold city for a lousy five hunnerd clams?!? Those crooks!"
Kit laughed. "It's only a legend, Alibi. There's no sech thing."
"Oh, den I guess it's OK." They walked the horses as Kit followed the trail. An hour or so later, they had almost passed a clearing off to the left when Kit suddenly turned aside and crouched beside a big cholla bush.
Slim stepped to his side. "What'dyer find, Cobber?"
Kit gestured to the signs in the dirt. "This is where the two professors camped. You're lucky the weather's been so good.
"At least this solves the horse mystery. One of them tied the horses to this cholla when they settled down for the night."
Slim nodded. He knew what that meant. Alibi didn't, and his expression showed it.
"Horses in general don't like this stuff," Kit explicated. "It's scratchy and smells bad. After the guys went to sleep, the horses pulled their reins loose and wandered away to find lunch. Once they got away from camp they just headed for home.
"You can see here," he pointed. "A horseshoe print, heading back down the trail. And footprints over the horse track.
"They bumbled around some – I can't tell how long but the camp site's a mess of sign.
"They built two fires, so they were here a while. Then they packed up and headed that way," he pointed off to the northwest. "You can see the deep prints. They must've taken everything on their backs."
"So congrats, Alibi. This'll prove you had nothing to do with them losing their horses."
He whistled, and Gent trotted up. "Get your kack down. This's a good place to camp. But don't tie Unk tuh thet bush."
KIT AND SLIM got a comfortable little camp set up, and by sundown were relaxing around a fire. Supper had been acceptable, beans and bacon, and now they were working on coffee.
Gent and Duster were ground-hitched; they stuck by their masters without thought of leaving. Alibi's Unk, whose loyalty was unclear, was tied to a dead tree at the edge of the campsite. Alibi sat on his saddle, chewing gum. Something occurred to him.
"Say, whadda ya doin’ here, anyway, Slim?"
"Well, that's a long story, cobber," Slim admitted. He was rolling a cigareet, and licked the paper.
"I ain't goin’ anywhere," Alibi sighed.
Slim lighted his smoke, and went through the stirring saga. After his family had emigrated Down Under, they'd started a sheep station in the Never-never. After a few years, Slim had decided: he hated sheep. When the World War had broken out, Slim decided to head for the US and join the boys going over to fight.
This had involved passage on a steamer which made landfall in San Francisco, but only after hitting every other port in the Pacific – what Slim called "by way of the black stump" – only to find out that the States weren't in the War.
So he continued on to New York, by train, horse, and even one of those æroplanes, and then another steamer to England, where he got into action.
Afterward, he had been separated back in London, and found ship space back to Australia virtually non-existent. But he had run into Kit Cassiday again, and Kit had weaseled him a berth back to the States.
The two bummed around together, intending to go their own ways once they'd reached Kit's home turf, San Bernardino, California.
But by the time they got there, Slim was too sold on the American West to go back home. Besides, there were, ugh, sheep there.
So he'd signed on with the Marshal's service, and partnered with Kit. The pair had been assigned to a sub-station in the little town of Mojave, in the high desert north of Los Angeles.
"Actually," he wrapped up, "it'd been a pretty dull week until we got your wire. How'd you know where to send it?"
"The sheriff just addressed it to Kit Cassiday, Marshals’ office. I figured it'd find you. I remembered you were around here some place, and what you'd said if I got inta trouble."
Kit rumbled, "Me and my big mouth," and lay down. Head on saddle, he pulled his Stetson down over his eyes.
THE MORNING WAS hot. After coffee and the rest of the bacon, they saddled their horses (Alibi, given the chance to do it himself, with more effort than his friends), and Slim dumped the coffee pot out onto the fire.
Kit swung up onto Gent again, and they rode along. Soon they hit a stretch where the professors had clambered up onto rocks. Here Kit lost them a minute. Then he spotted an empty bean can, and dropped to the ground again.
Kit surveyed the scene, and pushed his hat back. He settled both hands on his gun belt and heaved a great sigh.
Slim joined him. Before he could speak, Kit drew his attention to a hollow beyond the rocks.
Slim set his jaw and scowled, and shook his head. Alibi came running up, and, as if on cue, tripped and fell.
A few feet beyond his landing point was an awful scene.
Brush and tumbleweeds were torn, flung about. Dirt was scuffed around, as though in a struggle.
And a lot of blood was splashed about!


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