"Look at that dude!" a cowpoke who had drank too much John Barleycorn said to his partner as a tall man stepped off the train. The newcomer wore a derby hat and a neatly-pressed dark blue business suit. In one hand he carried a silver-headed black cane. "Hey, dude!" the drunk said.
The man leaving the train looked in the cowpoke's direction. "If you are addressing me," he said softly, "my name is John Holt."
"Holt, Colt, who cares!" the cowboy said, giggling at his own attempt at humor. "C'mere!"
John Holt, cane still in his hand, headed calmly toward the pair awaiting him. He continued his leisurely advance even after the drunk pulled a revolver from its holster. "Wanna see if you can dance!" he said, waving the gun in Holt's general direction.
Holt didn't pause. The cane in his hand lashed out and the revolver skidded into the dirt. "I don't dance," he said quietly.
"What--?" the drunk said, both puzzled and angry. "You mighta ruint my gun, you skunk!" he said, taking a step toward Holt.
The tall man slipped his cane into a slot on his belt, then he swung a fist that was as fast as his cane. The drunk stumbled back and fell to the ground, unconscious. His partner stepped back, holding up his hands to ward off retaliation. "It was all his idea!" he protested. "I ain't had nothing to do with all this."
John Holt brushed his hands together, then took his cane out again. "I understand," he said. "Could you tell me where I would find the Double Eight Hotel?"
"No problem!" the other man said, now eager to assist. "It's the only hotel in town and the only two-storey building." He pointed. "Right down Main Street." Then he had another thought, "What about your luggage?"
Amused at the sudden helpfulness, Holt smiled slightly. "I have paid to have it delivered, thank you," he said. Then he strode down Main Street to the hotel. As he walked, a squawking chicken ran across Main Street, with a scrawny dog barking after her. Dust flew in the hot air.
The lobby was a big carpeted room with a glistening varnished counter on one side and a couch on the other. A spittoon was centered in front of the couch and a small table was at each end, containing crushed out cigarette stubs and a few cigar butts. Holt rang the bell at the counter. A blonde with two long braids came out of the room behind the counter. She was wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans. "You gotta be John Holt," she said.
"By the same token, you must be Blanche deBoise," Holt smiled.
The blonde shook her head. "Nope. I'm Billie Jean Smith." She held out a hand. "Pleased to meet ya, Mr Holt."
Puzzled, John Holt shook her hand. "But if you aren't Miss deBoise, how did you know who I was?"
Billie Jean chuckled. "You ain't from no small town, is ya?"
Holt shook his head. "I'm from Boston, which is a large city."
"Yup; what I thought. In a small town like this, nearly ever'body knows ever'body else's business, especially Blanche's, and that an important inspector, John Holt, is coming to check out them big insurance claims on Harry Driscoll. Lotsa money. Insurance companies, they don't pay without checking ever'thing out. Ain't that right?"
Holt nodded. "Of course we check," he said. "It's only logical. We must be sure there was no trickery involved. Someone being insured for such a large amount is regarded as unusual."
"But the companies took his money and gave him a policy."
"Yes -- several different companies. It wasn't until his death that each became aware of the other's amounts. Large payments are funneled through claims companies, such as mine. That was when the total became known."
"And Blanche gets it all!" Billie Jean said, firmly.
"She is the beneficiary, yes," Holt agreed. "That's why I intend to start with her. She just bought this hotel, didn't she?"
Billie Jean nodded. "Wanted to make good use of the money, she said."
"But how did she manage it before the money was paid?"
It was Billie Jean's turn to be puzzled. "Why not? I mean, ever'bpdy knows it's on the way! She just signed a paper, and it's hers!"
John Holt smiled. "The trust of small banks isn't the same as large ones." He looked at the stairs, where a young woman was coming down. "Is that Blanche?"
Billie Jean looked up at the redhead approaching. "Sure is," she said, then raised her voice, "Blanche! Here's that claims fellow about your money."
Holt saw that the redhead was a little unsteady on her feet as she walked up. She didn't appear to be drunk. . .then he saw the shiny shoes on her feet; high-heeled shoes, to go with the glamorous new dress she was wearing. Smiling, he said, "I would hazard a guess that you aren't used to high-heeled shoes."
Blanche turned on a bashful smile. "I just thought that, as manager of the hotel, I should dress up a bit. And I hoped Jimmy would like it. I don't want him all upset because I'm getting a big bunch of money."
Billie Jean laughed. "Ain't nobody else ever been bothered by money!" she said.
"Well, I. . . I. . . ." Blanche hesitated and blushed. "I thought Jimmy might like the dress and the new shoes."
"Who is Jimmy?" Holt asked.
When Blanche seemed uncertain, Billy Jean put in, "Her boyfriend," she said with a smile. "Blanche has been skeered all the money would scare him away." She snorted. "Just shows Blanche don't know nothing about men."
Blanche's blush intensified. "Billie Jean!" she objected. "I'm sure Mr Holt doesn't care about my personal life!"
"'Nother thing you don't know nothing about," the blonde disagreed. "These here investigators wants to know ever'thing, right Mr Holt?"
Holt nodded. "Everything that might connect to the case, Miss duBoise. For example, why were you the beneficiary on these policies? What was your relationship to the deceased?"
"Well, I was Harry's first cousin and the closest relative he had around here."
"Very good," Holt said. "That's a start. Now --" He stopped as the hotel door slammed open and five men came in.
"You ain't telling him nothing," said a big man who was first into the lobby. He looked in his mid twenties and was black-haired and sturdy. Two pistols were in his belt holsters. He glared at Holt. "You ain't gotta do nothing but tell yer company to pay up!"
"Jimmy!" Blanche duBoise objected. "You don't need to do this!"
"Ain't gonna let 'em skunk you out of this, Blanche," the man said, glaring at Holt. "You just scat back home and tell 'em to send the money." One hand went to the butt of a pistol.
"That isn't the polite way to ask," Holt said calmly. Even as he spoke, his hand went to his cane. He could turn the handle and pull out a slender sword, but he didn't want to kill the man, so he whipped out his cane and one of Jimmy's pistols hit the carpet. "Guns aren't needed," Holt continued. "We can discuss this --" Then he ducked, as Jimmy swung a big fist at him. Straightening, he swung a fist which hit Jimmy's broad jaw.
As Jimmy staggered back, two of the men with him closed in on Holt. Turning, Holt sent a right fist into the chest of one man and a left to the side of the head of the other. A third man plowed into Holt. By this time, Jimmy had regained his balance and he slammed the butt of a pistol into Holt's temple.
Holt sagged, then threw himself forward into the third man. Holt was dazed, but kept fighting until Jimmy's pistol butt pounded down again.
All men were breathing heavily as they stood over Holt's unconscious body. One man started to kick Holt, but Blanche duBoise cut in. "Stop it!" she said. "What's this all about, anyway?"
Jimmy, wiping some blood away from his lip, told her, "I just want to take care of you, Blanche. I don't want this claims guy messing things up."
"He ain't gonna feel too friendly after this," Billy Jean said, wryly.
"What will you do with him now?" Blanche asked hesitantly.
"Looks like he needs a sawbones," Billy Jean put in.
"Ain't gonna spend no doctor money on him," Jimmy said. Then he added, "But we'll take care of him." Between them, they wrestled with Holt's unconscious body.
Blanche stepped in, picked up Holt's cane, and slipped it into the slot on his belt. "I'm sure he will want this," she said.
Jimmy grunted, and they took Holt out of the hotel.
"What'll we do with this guy, huh?" one man asked.
"Take him out in the desert and dump him," Jimmy said. "He's a city boy. Probably die in the desert."
In an hour, John Holt woke up on hot desert sands. Every muscle hurt, his throat was dry, and the sun was bright His tongue filled his cottony mouth. He cupped his aching, throbbing head in his hands and took in a stinging breath. Then, shading his eyes with one hand, he raised his head and looked around, eyes squinted against the sun.
Cactus, tumbleweeds, a Joshua tree, distant mountains, a butte that was closer, with heat waves distorting everything. "If I don't find some water," Holt thought, "I'm done for." With that for motivation, he struggled to his feet, fighting nausea as he straightened up. Overhead circled a large bird, riding on the updraft. Holt looked at it and grunted, "If you're a buzzard, I really hope you're pushing it this time."
Where would he find water? He knew enough to realize that the occasional shimmering lake was actually heat waves, but there was nothing else; no thriving cluster of green plants, no distant tinkling of running water, no sign of habitation. Then he remembered reading, somewhere, that cacti stored water inside mostly just in pulp, but sometimes actual water. But damp pulp suddenly seemed like a very good idea.
A cactus with a branch paralleling its trunk was not too far off. At least, it didn't seem far off until he started trying moving toward it. His legs were rubbery and not cooperative.
When he finally reached the cactus, he wondered how he would get inside. Then his pain-fogged brain remembered his sword. Twisting the handle of his cane, he pulled out the blade -- still not too confident that he had the strength to swing hard enough to cut the spiny plant. Summoning all his vitality, he lifted the cane above his head and swung.
The blade penetrated several inches into the trunk and would go no further. Sharp as the blade was, he still had difficulty pulling it out. He considered the challenge of the cactus, then went to the other side and swung again at the opposite side of the trunk, away from where he had previously cut.
To his amazement, his aim was perfect and the keen blade sliced through where he had intended and the trunk of the cactus was clearly cut through, falling to one side. Going to the cactus, careful of the spines, Holt looked inside.
There was no obvious water, but the inside of the trunk was lined with soft greenish pulp.
After what seemed like an hour, John Holt used his hands to scrape out fistful after fistful of the pulp, sucked it greedily, then spat out the remains.
"Still thirsty," he muttered, "but much better." Some vigor had returned, but his bruises still burnt their presence in his mind. "Should've used the cane on Jimmy," he murmured, but then shook his head at the thoughts of vengeance. "More important is getting out of here." As his sharp eyes took in his surroundings, something caught his attention. "Is that a trail?"
With dehydration momentarily taken care of, he walked toward the marks on the ground revealed by the lowering sun. "Yes!" he said, as he got near enough so he could identify multiple marks in the sand made by horseshoes, as well as the faint remains of the imprint of wagon wheels, all going to or coming from the butte he had seen in the distance.
"Someone lives out here," he thought with excitement. "A homesteader, or maybe a rancher. They'll have water -- and food!" He hadn't realized he was hungry.
But how far away was it? Could he make it there before exhaustion and dehydration did their damage to his abused body?
His first goal was the next cactus along the trail. When he reached it, he found it small and round -- with at least a cup of the sweetest water he had ever tasted inside! Reinvigorated, he strode down the trail towards the butte, which was now just below a setting sun.
Time was against him. In the dark, he wouldn't be able to follow the faint trail. It went fairly straight, but Holt didn't want to count on his ability to stick to one direction in the dark. Still, the butte stood out on the horizon. Feeling certain that would show up at night, Holt elected to continue.
When the sun set, there was no moon and he couldn't detect the outline of the butte. "Always thought desert nights were clear," he mused to himself. "Maybe it's my injuries." He could identify a tall cactus further down the trail, and started for it. He made it, but realized his body was letting him down. Slicing into the cactus was harder than the last time and, when he had exhausted the plant of its pulp, he tried again to detect signs of humanity ahead of him.
Nothing, at first, but then he thought he detected the distant lowing of cattle -- and was that the sound of wood being chopped? He knew he would never make it but, with energy slightly increased by the moist pulp, he cupped his hands and shouted, hoping to attract attention.
He slowly squatted, eyes and ears alert, but heard nothing.
There were a few boulders scattered around him. When he neared one, he felt the heat it was releasing. The desert night would be cold. He sat by the boulder, resting his back against its warmth, and relaxed.
All he could do was wait.
"Hoo! Hoo! You wake now?" a tenor voice said, in a sing-song way. "You wake?"
John Holt's eyes opened groggily to take in the face of a small and elderly Oriental looking down at him, eyes squinted. "You wake?" his voice repeated.
Holt's waking mind finally realized he was being asked if he was aware of what was going on. The next thing his waking mind keyed on was worth getting to his feet. A saddled donkey stood sullenly beside the Oriental -- and a canteen hung from the animal's saddle. Twisting off the top of the canteen, he started glugging down the precious liquid --
--And then the Oriental firmly took the canteen. "For now," he sang. A distant memory told John the little man was right. Overindulgence could be as much harm as dehydration.
Swallowing the last enjoyable drop, he straightened and looked down at the Oriental. "I'm John Holt, and I thank you," he said. "You have probably saved my life. What is your name?"
"Cook." Somehow the single syllable was musical.
John smiled. "All right," he said. "You cook -- but what is your name?"
"Cook," was repeated, with firm determination. "You ride," he added.
Taking a breath, John Holt accepted the matter of identification, but objected to his instructions. "It is your donkey," he said. "Must be a long way. I can walk."
"You weak. Cook not. You ride." This was said with an ingratiating smile.
"No," Holt thought, "not 'ingratiating'; it's almost condescending, but that's not it, either. I guess it's just. . .Oriental."
Although feeling foolish, Holt got on the donkey, admitting the correctness of Cook's decision.
Their destination turned out to be a small ranch. There was no indication anyone else was awake. Expecting to be met, Holt asked, "Where's the rancher?"
"Town," Cook replied, with his usual brevity. Then the small Oriental led John Holt into the kitchen and prepared a pot of chicken soup.
John smiled as he watched the preparation, and wondered if all civilizations found chicken soup the universal cure-all. After he finished his meal, Cook led Holt to a bunk, which he gratefully accepted and fell almost immediately to sleep.
With food, water and rest, John Holt rose, ate breakfast, then set at the kitchen table watching Cook put things away. As the morning progressed, he found out that the rancher's name was Bill Jackson and that he and his wife and teen-aged son had gone into Little Mesa for supplies, and would be returning soon. Cook turned out to be excellent at laundry as well as cooking, and soon Holt's suit was clean and pressed, with a small tear in the pants expertly repaired.
When the Jackson's returned, little explanation was needed; Bill Jackson had heard about Holt's encounter with Jimmy. "Just glad you made it, Holt," Jackson said. "You're a lot tougher than Jimmy Gotch thought you were."
Hold smiled. "Cook gets all the credit. If he hadn't heard me and come to my aid, I wouldn't be here." He took a breath, then added, "What do you know about any relationship between Harry Driscoll and Jimmy Gotch?" John Holt had already formed-up the situation in his mind, but he needed confirmation.
The rancher gave it to him. "They found gold," Jackson said. "Had 'em a small mine they worked by themselves. Dug out enough to make a good profit, but then the vein petered out. Way I understand it, Gotch convinced Driscoll to buy several life insurance policies when the vein was obviously reaching an end. Driscoll didn't like the idea of making Gotch a beneficiary, so he picked Blanche instead. Seems like Gotch didn't know that at first, said he thought it was just a simple business arrangement. Dunno how he actually found out, but he did."
"Billie Jean Smith told me a small town can't keep secrets. Maybe the insurance salesman mentioned it to someone. They're not supposed to, but they're human." Holt shrugged the matter away. "I don't want to lead you to support my theory, Jackson, but. . .when did Jimmy Gotch start courting Blanche duBoise?"
Bill Jackson's thin lips formed a grim smile. "Just after the insurance policies were bought," he said, verifying Holt's assumption. "Oh, he knew her all along. Like Billie Jean said, this is a small town. But Jimmy didn't show any real interest until after they bought those insurance policies."
Holt nodded. "Gotch decided there was another kind of gold he was after. How," he added, "did Driscoll die? The death certificate just called it an accidental death."
"All we know is his body was found in the mine. Looked like some timbers gave way, collapsing part of the mine on him. But everyone feels that Gotch helped that accident occur."
"Chances are," Holt agreed. "Well, we might not be able to prove that, but I can easily charge him with attempted murder on me! I'll go to the Little Mesa sheriff and swear out a warrant."
The rancher shook his head. "Sorry, but you can't. Little Mesa is temporarily between sheriffs. Previous one died when his horse threw him and nobody has been in any hurry to replace him. Like I said, we're a small town and don't usually really need one."
Holt's mouth tightened. "Then I'll have to make a citizen's arrest."
"Might not be that easy," Jackson said. "Gotch keeps those ne'er-do-wells around him most of the time. As you saw, they're tough."
Holt paused in thought. "I'll need an extra edge," he finally said. "With my skill in fisticuffs and the aid of my cane, I can handle several people, but all of them together were just too much for me."
"I'll help!" The sudden outburst came from Ben, Jackson's teen-aged son. "We can't let him get away with this!"
Holt aimed a friendly smile at the boy. "I appreciate the offer, Ben, but I can't allow you to get involved. Your safety would be my responsibility, which would be a handicap I don't need. No, I'll think of something."
"I've got some six-guns," the rancher offered. "They'll help equalize things."
Holt shook his head. "Thanks, but I'm not familiar with handguns," he said. "I'll think of something."
+ + +
It developed that Ben did help, after all. He rode with John Holt into town the next afternoon. Holt sat easily on the horse; this wasn't the first time his claims work had required it. To shade his eyes from the bright sunlight, he had borrowed a wide-brimmed Stetson hat from Bill Jackson.
Before entering the town, they stopped under the towering water tower. As agreed, Ben then went on into town and Holt stayed behind to wait. In half an hour, Ben returned.
"They're in the saloon," he told the claims inspector. "All of them."
Holt inclined his head. "The obvious place, but I wanted to make sure. Thank you, Ben. I'll take over now." When Ben opened his mouth to object, Holt held up a restraining hand. "You agreed, remember?"
Gritting his teeth, Ben said, "Yeah, I did. But I just --"
"I'll go back to the ranch if you don't turn around."
The teenager hung his head. "Okay, okay; I'm going." Ben Jackson turned his horse around and headed for the ranch. John Holt rode into town.
* * *
When Holt pushed the saloon door open, a quick glance showed him the table he was looking for, a table where all the men who had worked for Gotch sat drinking.
But Gotch wasn't there.
"Looking for me?" Gotch said from beside Gotch. As Holt turned, a pistol was slammed into his head. The wide brim of the Stetson absorbed only a small bit of the blow. Holt staggered back and saw the men at Gotch's table getting to their feet.
"Stay there," Jimmy Gotch snapped. "I want this skunk all to myself!
As he said it, he swung his gun again.
Even though he was dazed, defending himself was a skill he had learned in boxing. Holt spun away from the swinging pistol butt and landed a blow of his own, knocking Gotch back. When Gotch's men again started to rise, the bartender pulled out a Colt revolver. "Let's keep it fair, boys," he said.
Jimmy Gotch roared and plunged at Holt like an enraged bull. With the wall behind him, Holt saw his only defense was a double-fisted blow down on Gotch's back, followed by a lifted knee that slammed into Gotch's face.
Panting for breath, Holt looked down at the man's collapsed body and said, "Gotch, I'm placing you under arrest," everyone looked up.
"Well, what do we got here?" Jimmy said, slowly getting to his feet. His bloody mouth formed a smile. He was gasping for breath himself. "You ain't no sheriff, Holt."
"The law allows me to perform a citizen's arrest, Gotch, and that's what I'm doing. Come with me."
Jimmy Gotch smiled as he stumbled to join his men, who rose. "Dunno how you made it in the desert," he said, "but you know damned well you can't beat us." All his group had their hands on the butts of their pistols.
"Nice of you all to clump together for me," Holt said, reaching behind his back. "In gambling terms, I'm trumping your aces."
He pulled out a sawed-off shotgun. The clicking of the trigger brought a gasp from those in the bar, followed by dead silence.
"A scattergun!" one of Gotch's men said, backing away. "I don't want nothing to do with that!" Others dove to the floor.
"Let's go," Holt said, the shotgun aimed at Gotch's chest. "You're under arrest for attempted murder." Failure sagged Jimmy Gotch's attitude, and the case was closed.