A Fistful of Dollars
By Scott Wilson
When my Ranthon topped out on the ridge, the first thing I saw was that girl. Luckily, she was far off, I still had not got used to these two legged emu-like creatures and probably would have fallen off if she startled it.
With two saddlebags full of dyon crystals and three days ahead of me, I was skittish of company. Most times this alien land is less trouble than people, no matter how rough the country. And no woman had a right to be standing out there in that empty desert country.
At fifteen, I stowed away on my father’s Stellar Class space trader ship and became stranded on this planet a few years ago. I only had my backpack when I realised I was alone. It contained only a few items from my own planet, far more advanced than this one. Apart from my solar-powered coms device, a laser pistol with only one fully charged clip and a pocket tool kit, I had no decent supplies left.
An old cattle farmer took me in when he found me stranded and I worked on his ranch for a few years before deciding there must be some way to get back home.
At nineteen, I set out to try my hand at dyon crystals panning, to make enough money to travel, and search for any advanced civilisation that might be on this damned planet. Seems like everybody in camp was showing color but me, and I was swallowing my belt notch by notch for lack of eating when those four men came to my fire.
Worst of it was, I couldn't offer them. There I was, booting up for a fresh day with my coffeepot on the fire so's people wouldn't know I hadn't even coffee, but all there was in the pot was water. I dearly wanted to offer them, but I was shamed to admit I was fresh out of coffee — three days out, actually.
"Tell," Almanathan suggested, "you've had no luck with mining, so nobody would suspect you of carrying dyon crystals. If you rode out of camp today, folks would take it for granted you had called it deep enough and quit. That way you could carry our dyon crystals to Ellvidrank and nobody the wiser."
The four men facing me had taken out the most dust and, knowing about the Venstines, they were worried men. Three of them were family men and that dyon crystals meant schooling for their youngsters and homes for their wives and capital for themselves. They were poor, hard-working men, deserving what they had dug up.
Thing was, how to get it past the Venstines?
"We'll give you one hundred dollars," Gambeila said, "if you make it through."
With the best of luck, it was a five-day ride, which figured out to twenty dollars a day. With such a grubstake, I could take out for Gandilank or come back with a grubstake.
My belly was as empty as my prospect hole, and it didn't seem like I had much choice. Venstines or no Venstines, it sized up like the fastest hundred dollars I would ever make. It was Anshta Almanathan done it for me, as we'd talked friendly ever since I staked claim on the creek.
Helix Gambeila, Vander Mander and Mixnaf Ionsfield stood there waiting for me to speak up, and finally I said, "I'll do it, of course, and glad of the chance.
Only, I am a stranger, and —”
"Almanathan swears by you," Ionsfield interrupted, "and even if we don't know you very well, he's known you and your family. If he says you are honest, that's all there is to it."
"And this is a chance to get you a stake," Almanathan interrupted. "What can you lose?"
Well, the last two men who rode out of camp with dyon crystals were found dead alongside the trail, shot down like you'd shoot a steer; and one of them was Handrile Hishmanth, a man I'd known. Neither of them was carrying as much as I'd have.
"Take a pack Ranthon," Almanathan suggested, "load your gear." He glanced around and lowered his voice, "It seems like somebody here in camp informs the Venstines, but nobody will know about this but us, and all of us have a stake in it."
Later, when the others had gone, Almanathan said, "Hope you didn't mind my saying I'd known your family. They were willing to trust you if I did, but I wanted them to feel better."
So I packed up and rode off, and in my saddlebags there was fifty pounds of dyon crystals, worth around a thousand dollars a pound at the time, and in my pocket I'd a note signed by all four men that I was to have a hundred dollars when the dyon crystals was delivered. Never had I seen that much cash money, and since the war, I had not had even ten dollars at one time.
Worst of it was, there was somebody on my trail. A man like me, riding somewhere, he doesn't only watch the trail ahead, he looks back. Folks get lost because when they start back over a trail they find it looks a sight different facing the other way. When a man travels, he should keep sizing up the country, stopping time to time to study his back trail so he recognizes the landmarks.
Looking back, I'd seen dust hanging in the air. And that dust stayed there. It had to be somebody tracking me down, and it could mean it was the Venstines.
Right then I'd much rather have tangled with the Venstines than faced up to that woman down there, but that no-account Ranthon was taking me right to her, like it wanted to stop by and offer her a ride.
Worst of it was, she was almighty pretty. There was a mite of sunburn on her cheekbones and nose, but despite that, she was a fine-looking girl.
"How do you do?" You'd of thought we were meeting on the streets of Kindletown.
"I wonder if you could give me a lift to Ellvidrank?"
My hat brim was down over my eyes, and I sized up the country around, but there was no sign of a Ranthon she might have ridden to this point, nor any sign of a cabin or camp.
"Why, I reckon so, ma'am." I got down from the saddle, thinking if trouble came, I might have to fetch that big Colt .45 in a hurry. "My pack Ranthon is packing light so I can rig that pack saddle so's you can ride it side-saddle."
"I would be grateful," she said.
First off, it shaped like a trap. Somebody knowing I had dyon crystals might have this woman working with them, for its troubled me to guess how she came here. There were a sight of tracks on the ground, but all seemed to be hers. Then I noticed a thin trail of smoke from behind a rock.
"You have a fire?"
"It was quite cold last night."
When she caught my look, she smiled. "Yes, I was here all night." She looked directly at me from those big blue eyes. "And the night before."
"It ain't a likely spot."
She carried herself prim, but she was a bright, quick-to-see girl, and I cottoned to her. The clothes she wore were of fine, store-bought goods like some I'd seen folks wear in some of those northern cities I'd seen as a soldier.
"I suppose you wonder what I am doing here."
"Well, now." I couldn't help grinning. "It did come to my mind. Like I said, it ain't a likely spot."
"You shouldn't say 'ain't.' The word is 'isn't'."
"Thank you, ma'am. I had no schooling, and I never learned to talk proper, least not in this language."
"Surely you can read and write?"
"No, ma'am, I surely can't."
"Why, that's awful! Everybody should be able to read. I don't know what I would have done these past months if I could not read. I believe I should have gone insane."
When the saddle was rigged, I helped her up. "Ma'am, I better warn you. There's trouble acoming, so's you'd better have it in mind. It may not be a good thing, me helping you this way. You may get into worse trouble."
We started off, and I looked over my shoulder at her. "Somebody is following after me. I figure it's them Amblethon outlaws."
Worst of it was, I had lost time, and here it was coming up to night and me with a strange girl on my hands.
"You running from something, ma'am? Not to be disrespectful, ma'am, but out in the desert thisaway it ain't — isn't — just the place a body would expect to find a lady as pretty as you."
"Thank you." Her chin lifted a mite higher. "Yes, I am running away. I am leaving my husband. He is a thoughtless, inconsiderate brute, and he is an Army officer at Fort Whipple."
"He will be mighty sorry to lose you, ma'am. This here is a lonesome country. I don't carry envy for those soldier boys out here, I surely don't."
"Well! It certainly is not a place to bring an officer's bride. I'll declare! How could he think I could live in such a place? With a dirt floor and all?"
This reminded me of my first thoughts when I became stuck on this backwards planet. I was used to robot servants, touch screen computers, lasers and all that sort of stuff. Here, it seemed like they were only at the old west stage of development in their evolution.
"What did he say when you left?"
"He doesn't know it yet. I had been to Ehrenberg, and when we started back, I just couldn't stand the thought, so when no one was looking, I got out of the Army ambulance I was riding in. I am going to catch the steamer at Ellvidrank and go home."
When I looked to our back trail, no dust hung in the air, and I knew we were in trouble. If it had been soldiers looking for this girl, they would not have stopped so sudden-like, and it looked to me like they had headed us and laid a trap, so I swung up a draw, heading north instead of west, and slow to raise no dust.
It was a sandy wash, but a thin trail skirted the edge, made by deer or such-like and we held to it. When we had been riding for an hour, I saw dust in the air, hanging up there in a fair cloud about where I had come up to this lady. Again, I turned at right angles, heading back the way I had come. Off to the north and west there was a square-topped mesa that was only a part of a long, comb-like range.
"We are followed; ma'am," I said, "and those Venstines are mighty thoughtless folks. I got to keep you out of their hands. First off, we'll run. If that, doesn't work, we'll talk or we'll fight, leaving it up to them. You hold with me, ma'am."
"They wouldn't bother me," she said. "I am the wife of an Army officer."
"Most Western men are careful of womenfolk," I agreed, "but don't set no truck by being an officer's wife. The Venstines murdered two Army officers not a week ago. Murdered them, ma'am. They just don't care a mite who you may be. And a woman likes you — they don't often see a woman pretty as you."
She rode up closer to me. "I am afraid I didn't realize."
"No, ma'am, most folks don't" I said.
It was still the best part of two days to Ellvidrank, and nothing much there when we arrived. Nobody seemed to know how many Venstines there were, but the guesses ran all the way from five to nine. They were said to be renegades from down in the Outlander nation and mighty mean.
We held to low ground, keeping off skylines, finding a saddle here and there where we could cross over ridges without topping out where we could be seen. It was darkening by then, with long shadows reaching out, and when we came up the eastern flank of that mesa I'd headed for, we rode in deep shadow.
When we found a way around the butte, we took it, and the western slope was all red from the setting sun, and mighty pretty. The wind blew cool there, but I'd found what I was hunting — a place to hole up for the night.
A man hunting a night camp with somebody trailing him has to have things in mind. He wants a place he can get into and out of without sky lining him or showing up plain, and he also wants a place where he can build a fire that cannot be seen, and something to spread out the smoke. And here it was, and by the look of it, many an Outlander had seen the worth of it before this time. If I’d had a cloaking device, or cam-o-dome, I’d be sleeping in comfort, and without worrying about being found.
The falloff from the mesa rim made a steep slope that fell away for maybe five hundred feet. A man could ride a Ranthon down that slope, but it would be sliding half the time on its rump. The wall of the mesa rose up sheer for some three hundred feet, but there at the foot of that cliff and atop the slope was a hollow behind some rocks and brush.
Maybe it was a half-acre of ground with grass in the bottom and some scraggly cedars at one end. We rode down into that hollow, and I reached up and handed down the lady.
"Ma'am, we'll spend the night here. Talk low and don't let any metal strike metal or start any rock sliding."
"Are they that close?"
"I don't rightly know, ma'am, but we should hope for the best and expect the worst."
When the saddles were off, I climbed out on one of those big rock slabs to study the country. You've got to see country in more than one light to get the lay of it. Shadows tell a lot, and the clear air of early morning or late evening will show up things that are sun-blurred by day. A man scouting country had best size it up of an evening, for shadows will tell him where low ground is, and he can spot the likely passes if only to avoid them.
When I finished my study, I came down off the rock and cleared a spot of needles and leaves under one of those cedars that sort of arched out toward us. My fire was about the size you could hold in your two hands, for the smaller the fire, the less smoke, and such a fire will heat up just as well if a man wants to cook. And rising up through the branches thataway the smoke would be thinned out so much it could not be seen.
"I'm from Histrone," I said to her, "and my name is Tell Angloran."
"Oh — I am Christine Gestafin, and I was born in Anbelela."
When I dug out what grub I had, I was ashamed it was so little. It was a mite Almanathan staked me to before I taken out. The coffee was mostly ground bean and chicory, and all else, I had was jerked venison and cold flour. How I would have killed for some ships rations, even the ones I rummaged up when stowed away.
When the coffee was ready, I filled my cup and passed it to her. "Mrs. Gestafin, this isn't what you have been used to, but it's all we've got."
She tasted it, and if she hadn't been a lady I think she would have spit, but she swallowed it, and then drank some more. "It's hot," she said, and smiled at me, and I grinned back at her. Truth to tell, that was about all a body could say for it.
"You'd better try some of this jerked venison," I said. "If you hold it in your mouth awhile before you begin to chew, it tastes mighty wholesome. All else I've got is cold flour."
"Cold flour — it's a borrowed thing, from the Outlanders. Only what I have here is white-man style. It's parched corn ground up and mixed with a mite of sugar and cinnamon. You can mix it with water and drink it, and a man can go for miles on it. Mighty nourishing too.”
Last time I got up to scout, the country around I caught the gleam of a far-off campfire.
Standing there looking across country and watching the stars come out, I thought of that girl and wondered if I would ever have me a woman like that one, and it wasn't likely. We Anglorans are Hunters, and a proud people, but we never had much in the way of goods. Somehow, the Lord's wealth never seemed to gather to us; all we ever had was ourselves, our strength, and a will to walk the earth with honesty and pride.
But this girl was running away, and it didn't seem right. She was huddled to the fire, wrapped in one of my blankets when I came down to the fire. Gathering cedar boughs and grass, I made her a bed to one side, but close to the fire.
"The fire smells good," she said.
"That's cedar," I said, "and some creosote brush. Some folks don't like the smell of creosote. Those Trackers men call it hediondilla, which means little stinker. Some of the Outlanders use it for rheumatism."
Nobody said anything for a while, and then I said, "Creosote-brush fires flavour beans — the best ever. You try them sometime, and no beans ever taste the same after."
The fire crackled, and I added a few small, dry sticks and then said, "It ain't right, leaving him thisaway. He's likely worried to death."
She looked across the fire at me, all stiff and perky. "That is none of your business!"
"Mrs. Gestafin, when you saddled yourself on me, you made it my business. Girl who marries a soldier ought to think to live a soldier's life. Strikes me you've no nerve, ma'am, you cut and run because of dirt floors. I'd figure if a girl loved a man it wouldn't make her no mind. You're spoiled, ma'am. You surely are."
She got up, standing real stiff, coming the high and mighty on me. "If you do not want me here, I will go."
"No, you won't. First off, you haven't an idea where you are or which way to go to get there. You'd die of thirst, if that lion didn't get you."
"Yes, ma'am." I wasn't exactly lying, because somewhere in Arizona there was sure to be a lion prowling. "There's snakes, too, and at night you can't see them until they get stepped on."
She stood there looking unsure of herself, and I kept on with what I had to say.
"Woman needs a man out here — needs him bad. But a man needs a woman too. How do you think that man of yours feels now? His wife has shamed him before others, taking on like a girl-baby, running off."
She sat down by the fire, but she looked at me with a chilly expression. "I will thank you to take me to Ellvidrank. I did not mean to 'saddle' myself on you, as you put it. I will gladly pay you for your trouble."
"Ain't that much money."
"Don't say 'ain't'!" She snapped her eyes at me.
"Thank you, ma'am," I said, "but you better get you some shut-eye. We got to ride fifty miles tomorrow, and I can't be bothered with any tired female. You sit up on that Ranthon tomorrow or I'll dump you in the desert."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Yes, ma'am, I surely would. And leave you right there, and all your caterwauling wouldn't do you a mite of good. You get some sleep. Come daylight we're taking out of here faster than a scared owl."
Taking up my laser, I went out to scout the country, and setting up there on that rock slab I done my looking and listening. That fire was still aburning, away off yonder, like a star fallen out of the sky.
When I came back, she was lying on the bed I'd made, wrapped in a blanket, already asleep. Seen like that with the firelight on her face she looked like a little girl.
It was way shy of first light when I opened my eyes, and it'd taken me only a minute or two to throw the saddles on those broncos. Then I fixed that packsaddle for her to ride. My outfit was skimpy, so it wasn't much extra weight, carrying her.
When I had coffee going, I stirred her awake with a touch on the shoulder, and her eyes flared open and she was like to scream when she saw me, not that I'd blame her. In my sock feet, I stand six-three, and I run to shoulders and hands, with high cheekbones and a wedge face that sun had made dark as any Outlander. With no shave and little sleep, I must have looked a frightening thing.
"You better eat a little," I said. "You got five minutes."
We rode out of there with the stars still in the sky, and I was pleasant over seeing no fire over yonder where it had been the night before.
It was just shy of noon, with the sun hot in the sky, when we crossed a low saddle and started out across a plain dotted with Joshua trees.
We came down across that country, and there had been no dust in the sky all morning, but of a sudden four men rode up out of a draw, and it was the Venstines.
Their description had been talked around enough.
"Howdy, Venstines! You hunting something?"
They looked at Christine Gestafin and then at me. "We're looking for you," one said, "and that dyon crystals, but we'll take the lady, too, sort of a bonus-like."
Like I said, when you've quit running, you can talk or you can fight, and times like this I run long on talk.
"You'll take nothing," I said. "You are talking to Tell Angloran — William Tell Angloran and pa always taught us never to give up nothing without a fight. Specially money or a woman.
"Now," I continued on before they could interrupt, "back to home, folks used to say I wasn't much for fiddling or singing, and my feet was too big for dancing, but along come fighting time, I'd be around.
"Couple of you boys are wearing brass buttons. I figure a forty-four slug would drive one of those buttons so deep into your belly a doc would have to get him a search warrant to find it."
My Ranthon was stepping around kind of un-easy-like, and I was making a show of holding him in.
"Anyway," I said, "this here is Senator James Whitfield Gestafin's wife, and if you so much as lay a hand to her, this territory wouldn't be big enough to hold you. He's the kind to turn out the whole frontier Army just to hunt you."
My Ranthon gave a quick sidestep about then, and when he swung his left side to them, I used the moment to fetch out my gun, and when the Ranthon stopped sidestepping, I had that big Colt looking at them.
Pa, he set me to practicing getting a gun out as soon as the end of my holster quit cutting a furrow in the ground when I walked. Pa said to me, "Son, you ever need that gun, you'll need it in your fist, not in no holster."
They were surprised when they saw that gun staring them down, and this Franklin Amblethon was mad clean through. "That ain't going to cut no ice," he said. "We want you, we'll take you."
If worst came to worst, I would have to pull out my laser and mow them down before they got the drop on me. They’d be much faster than me with a six shooter, but the distraction of seeing one of their group vapourised would give me the advantage, no doubt.
"One thing about this country," I said, "a man's got a right to his opinion.
Case like this here, if you're wrong, you don't get a chance to try it over. Any time you want to give it a try," I said, "you just unlimber and have at it."
Nobody had anything to say, none of those Venstines looking anything but mad right about then, so I kept on, figuring when we were talking we weren't fighting.
"I got me a bet, Venstines; I got me a bet says I can kill three of you before you clear leather — and that last man better make it a quick shot or I'll make it four."
"You talk a good fight," Franklin Amblethon said.
"You can call my hand. You got the right. One thing I promise, if I don't kill you dead with my first shots, I'll leave you lay for the buzzards and the sun."
Those Venstines didn't like it much, but my Ranthons was standing rock still now that I'd quit nudging him with my spur, and at that range a man wasn't likely to miss very often. And it's a fact that nobody wants to die very much.
"If she's Gestafin's wife, what's she doing with you?"
"She was headed for Whipple," I said, "and she turned sick, and the doc said she should go back to Ehrenberg. They asked me to take her there. Served with the Senator during the war," I added. "He knows me well."
"I never heard of no Senator Gestafin," Franklin Amblethon said.
"You never heard of Senator James Gestafin?" By now, I believed in him my own self. "He was aide to Senator Grant. Fact is, they are talking of making him governor of the territory just to wipe out outlaws and such."
"Begging the lady's pardon, but he's noted for being a mighty mean man — strict.
And smart? He's slicker than a black snake on a wet-clay side hill. Last thing you want to do is get him riled."
"Lady here was telling me if he is made territorial governor he plans to recruit a special police force from among the Native. He figures if those Natives hate white men they might as well turn it to use tracking down outlaws — and he doesn't say anything about them bringing anybody back."
"That's not human!" Franklin Amblethon protested.
"That's the Senator for you. He's that kind." Now that trusty Colt had stayed right there in my fist, and so I said, "Now, we'll ride on."
Motioning her on ahead, I rode after her, but believe me; I sat sidewise in my saddle with that Colt ready for a quick shot. The last I could see they were still asetting there, arguing.
Most talking I'd done since leaving Histrone, and the most lying I'd done since who flung the chunk.
We fetched up to Ellvidrank about sundown on the second day, and the first person I saw when we rode up to the store was Anshta Almanathan.
"Anshta," I said, "the Venstines were ahunting me. Only way they could have known I had that dyon crystals was if you told them. Somebody had to ride out to tell them, and somebody would want to be on hand to divvy up.
"Now," I said, "if you want to call me a liar, I'll take this lady inside and I'll come right back. But you hear this: they didn't get one speck of this dyon crystals, and neither are you."
"I panned my share of that dyon crystals!" He was looking mighty bleak.
"So you did, but yours wasn't enough; you had to try for all of it. A month or so back Handrile Hishmanth left camp and was drygulched. I plan to send your dyon crystals to his widow and family, and you can save your objections to that until I come out."
So I went inside with Christine Gestafin, and there were two or three fresh Army officers right off the boat waiting to go to Fort Whipple.
"My husband is not a Senator," she said then, "and his name is Robert Gestafin."
"I know that, Mrs. Gestafin.”
"Ma'am, you haven't got you a man there, you've got a boy, but a boy sound in wind and limb; and two or three years on the frontier will give you a man you can be proud of. But if you run off now the chances are he will resign his commission and run after you, and you'll have a boy for a husband as long as you live.
"You stay with him, you hear? You ain't much account, either, but give you seasoning and you will be. Fact is, if you'd been a woman back there on that trail I might have been less of the gentleman, but you haven't grown up to a man yet."
She had the prettiest blue eyes you ever saw, and she looked straight at me. She was mad, but she was honest, and behind those blue eyes, she had a grain of sense.
"You may be right," she admitted, "although I'd rather slap your face than agree. After what I have been through these past few days, that dirt floor would look very good indeed."
"Ma'am, when my time comes to marry, I hope I find a woman as pretty as you and with as much backbone."
Leaving her talking to those officers, I went to the counter with my dyon crystals and checked it in with Ev in the names of those to whom it was credited, to Helix Gambeila, Vander Mander, Mixnaf Ionsfield — and to Mrs. Handrile Hishmanth, whose address I supplied.
"And I've got a hundred dollars coming," I said.
Ev paid it to me, and I put it in my pocket. More money than I'd seen since the coon went up the tree.
Then I went outside like I'd promised, and Anshta Almanathan surprised me. He was sure enough waiting.
He shot at me and missed. I shot at him and didn't.
Now all I had to worry about was my original problem of getting home.
A Fistful of Dollars
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