Frank Chess didn’t care for much in this world. Especially himself. So taking a job for local big shot Rhino Hulst was an easy choice. Each day drifted into the next: running Rhino’s crooked errands, blowing his meager pay in the nearest poker game, drinking it down in the closest saloon, and handing it over to the next soiled dove. All because Rhino killed a man in cold blood, pinned it on Frank, and now holds the hangman’s rope over him.
And who would give a damn? Frank came into town a drifter—a fiddlefoot, they called him—worth nothing to no one. He didn’t matter.
But none of the townspeople know Frank. Where he came from. What he’s done. And when he finally remembers what it’s like to care about something, they have no idea how much hell he’s about to bring down on them all.
Along with legendary authors like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, Luke Short helped transform the stories of the American West from dime-store pulp into a respected and immensely popular literary genre. Originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, Fiddlefoot combines Short’s plainspoken style with the hard-edged authenticity that marks his novels as true classics of western adventure.
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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 © 1946 Frederick D. Glidden
All rights reserved.
It was up above in the mountain meadows and the aspens that Roan Creek found and spent its first vigor. Here below, in the wedge of dark canyon, it prowled quietly around vast boulders under the black shade of the pines, patient enough now to form deep and sunless pools.
The young man in the dusty blue uniform of a second lieutenant, United States Cavalry, lay on his belly atop a flat high boulder, and he was watching one of these pools. His arms were folded on the boulder's edge, and his chin was cushioned on his arms. His black campaign hat lay beside him, and a faint checkering of early morning sunlight touched his right leg and scuffed cavalry boots. His long form was motionless, relaxed, as if he had been here some time.
He watched the water at the base of this boulder for many minutes, then rolled over on his side and from his hip pocket drew a crumpled, non-regulation red-checked bandanna handkerchief. Putting a corner of it in his mouth, he tore the hem with his teeth, and then, with strong sun-blackened hands, he ripped off the corner. Wadding up this piece, he put it in his mouth and when it was wet he took it out and balled it between his fingers, then rolled back on his belly. With his right hand, he made a couple of practice passes, and then threw the wad of handkerchief into the pool. It landed at the base of the boulder opposite, and then, caught by the slow current, unfurled gradually in the dark water, a patch of brilliant color.
Deep in the pool at the base of the boulder something moved. The young man watched intently while a dark uncertain shape detached itself from the black rock and was finally outlined against the lighter-colored gravel of the pool's bottom. It was a trout, thick as a man's calf and as long as his arm. Motionless now, it lifted warily toward the patch of color. Then, its curiosity satisfied, it halted, suspending itself a bare moment before it circled majestically against the current and vanished under the ledge.
Frank Chess rose to his feet now and picked up his campaign hat. He was a tall young man, slow-moving now in abstraction, and he looked briefly again at the pool, a lingering soberness in his dark eyes. The expression went oddly with his face, which was narrow and dark and held an indefinable hint of cheerfulness and even impudence, now overlaid with thoughtfulness.
He clambered off the high boulder and began the steep climb up through the thick pines. Once, just below the rim, he turned to look back and saw through a break in the trees, the dark, silent pool. The bit of handkerchief was gone.
His horse was tethered in the timber beyond the rim, and he stepped into the McClellan saddle, cut over the ridge, and presently picked up a cattle trail which brought him in another hour to a dim road. He traveled this only a short way, left it again for timber, and by noon reached an obscure canyon where he picked up a faint wagon road. In a short while, he came to a clearing where a sorry looking tangle of corrals huddled close to a rotting shack.
The man who was standing in the door of the shack now leaned his rifle against the inside wall and stepped out into the sunlight. He was an unshaven, middle-aged man in tattered denims and rundown half-boots, but there was a genuine pleasure in his slack face now as he grinned and said, "Hello, Frank. Didn't figure to see you for two-three weeks yet. Where's the bunch?"
"Coming, Ed," Frank said, and then he added, "Rob's dead." He stepped out of the saddle, took off his hat, and slapped the dust from his trousers. Looking up now, he caught the slack-mouthed amazement in Ed Hanley's face.
"Well, well," Ed said then. "I always figured Rob was too mean to die."
Frank said, "Hide that horse and get mine, will you?" and went on into the shack.
When he came out some minutes later, he was wearing a faded calico shirt, worn denim pants, and scuffed cowman's boots. Ed led a saddled sorrel gelding from the corrals, and Frank accepted the reins in silence and mounted.
"Need anything?" Frank asked.
Ed scratched his head. "Nothin' but company." Now he looked carefully up at Frank and said slyly, "Maybe somethin' else too."
"You're a rich man now, ain't you?" Ed asked softly. "I need money."
Frank looked at him a long moment, and then swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted. He walked up to Hanley and hit him in the face, hard.
Hanley sprawled on his back on the dust. After shaking his head once, he rose. Frank hit him again in the face, and again Hanley went down. This time, he rolled over on an elbow and be and Frank watched each other a long, long moment.
"Still need it?" Frank asked quietly.
"I don't reckon."
Frank stepped into the saddle and rode out of the clearing without looking back.
It was almost dark when he reached the switchbacks above the town of Rifle and the last ridge before Grand River's gorge. The two-score false-front frame buildings making up the town's business district fronted both sides of the road, and this road crossed the narrow bench paralleling the river. Lamps were being lighted now against the August dusk, and from this height Frank could hear the whoops of the kids playing along the river after the supper hour. Immediately below him, the big spread of high-country pine that laced the residence part of the town was black and murmuring with the breeze of coming night.
At the bottom of the grade, he turned downriver, avoiding the main street. There, across the road and past the last mean shack on the town's outskirts, was a narrow frame building set beside a high gate which bore the legend on the boards of its wide arch:
Horses Bought and Sold
A high board fence began at the open gate and ran several hundred gray and sagging feet toward town, and behind it the big barns and sheds and corrals were scattered in an orderly maze clear to the river-bank. The rich and not unpleasant smell of manure was in the air like a stain.
The office was lighted, and Frank rode under the arch, dismounted and tied his horse out of the drive. Back across the corrals he could see the dim flicker of the stable lanterns.
Mounting the short steps to the open side door leading into the front office, he went in and glanced around at the three slanting desks behind the rail. This was a shabby room, and he was moving purposefully through it toward the door in its rear wall when he remarked the lamps still burning there, and remembered Tess Falette.
He halted suddenly and looked about him, and he saw her kneeling in front of the safe, putting away some ledgers. When she heard his footsteps pause, she looked over her shoulder.
There was faint irritation in her face that vanished immediately at sight of him; she rose, a long-legged, slim and shining girl, softly rounded under her dark office dress that exaggerated her pale and gleaming hair, and she lent a kind of splendor to this drab room. Her dark eyes held warm and honest greeting for him as he came over to the rail.
"You're working too late, Tess," he said, in a tone without banter.
"Why are teamsters always drunk when they unload?" she asked him. Her voice was low and husky, and it held an admission of the deep pleasure she felt now as she said, "It's nice you're back, Frank." She smiled, meaning it, and Frank read the gay spirit of her in her smile. Her mouth was wide and sweetly shaped, her eyes set wide apart, and in them now was a lingering and friendly appraisal of him, as if, since they had talked only a few times and briefly in the three months he had worked for Hulst, she was still learning about him, and at the same time liking him.
He said, "Back for good this time," and because this reminded him of his errand, he asked, "Rhino still in, Tess?"
She nodded, and he smiled at her and moved on through the door into a hall. Down it a dozen feet, lamplight was pooled in front of an open door, and he walked through it.
The man sitting at the roll-top desk had heard him and was waiting. He was a tall man going to fat, immensely big-framed, and a kind of bull-like vitality was reflected in his ruddy face, which held a curious benignity. He had close-cropped white hair that lay rich and shining close to his round skull, and there was a tranquil shrewdness in his bleak eyes as he beheld Frank. His worn vest lacked inches of meeting across his high belly, and the rest of his clothes were mussed and careless, and utterly clean. He lifted a big hand about four inches off the desk in lazy greeting and said, "Hello, Boy," and Frank said quietly, "Hello, Rhino," and sank into the chair against the near wall.
Rhino surveyed him a moment in silence, and then said gently, "I got word to you as soon as I could, Frank. I'm sorry about Rob."
Frank said idly, "You don't care a damn, Rhino, and you know it."
Rhino Hulst eyed him without rancor and then smiled faintly. "All right, I don't. No more than you."
Frank made no protest. The unaccustomed soberness still lingered in his face; he stretched his feet before him and pushed his worn Stetson to the back of his head. His hatband had pressed down his short curly brown hair at the temples. He ran a hand idly through his hair.
"Where'd Dick find you?" Rhino asked.
"Northern Utah." Frank sat up, putting his elbows on the arms of his chair, and looking now at the big man, asked, "Now tell me."
"Dick told you all I know. Fred Dutra was bringing some cattle over Battle Mountain Pass.
They spooked away from something on the trail where it rounded the peak. He found Rob lying just off the trail." Rhino's massive hand was lying palm down on the desk; he turned it over, shrugged his shoulders an eighth of an inch and pursed his lips. "He'd fallen and broken his back. Weeks ago, Fred said. They buried him yesterday."
Frank settled slowly back in his chair again, looking deliberately about this dismal hot cubbyhole of an office. A faint distaste was reflected in his face as he drew a sack of tobacco dust from his shirt pocket and carefully rolled a cigarette, concentrating on it. He finished it, touched a match to it, and looking over its flame he saw Rhino eyeing him with a bland and bored patience.
Wake him up, he thought and flipped the match to the floor and said, "I'm quitting, Rhino."
Rhino nodded once, unperturbed.
"You'll have to get someone else in your bunch to wear that soldier suit — somebody that won't get hog-drunk in public. You got anybody like that, Rhino?"
The big man was silent a moment, curiosity in his pale eyes now. "You're mad, Frank," he said then.
Frank said nothing.
"Mad at being left almost rich?" Rhino asked gently. "Or mad at losing a stepfather you hated and that hated you?" Rhino's eyes narrowed shrewdly. "It couldn't be remorse, could it, Frank? You didn't treat him well."
"No," Frank said quietly. "I'm glad he's dead."
"You should be," Rhino murmured, in lazy contempt. "You still won't have to work, now you've got Saber. That's a big ranch. It'll take you a long time to go through all that money."
"Now who's mad?" Frank asked dryly.
Rhino shook his head. "No, you're wrong, Frank. I don't begrudge you Saber. I don't begrudge you anything. You know why?"
"Tell me," Frank said mockingly.
Rhino smiled meagerly. "You'll lose it. You aren't man enough to hold it. You won't ever marry Carrie Tavister and settle down. You'll get fiddlefooted again, and you'll want to drift. Saber will go through your fingers like so much sand, and you'll be off to Oregon or Mexico. But you'll be back."
"And beg you for the soldier suit?" Frank asked dryly.
The flush on Rhino's face deepened imperceptibly. "You'll want it, but you won't get it."
Frank shook his head. "No, I'll never want to wear it again, Rhino. I never liked to wear it."
"Naturally," Rhino said with open malice. "It took some nerve. I'm surprised you ever wore it."
"So am I," Frank said calmly.
Rhino's eyebrows lifted. "You admit it?"
Frank nodded. "Yes. Every time I'd go into a town and announce I was an officer buying horses for the cavalry, I expected someone to ask me for my credentials. Every time I rejected a good horse worth a hundred and twenty-five dollars, I expected a rancher to make me prove the phony reasons I gave him. And every time Hugh Nunnally stepped out of the crowd and offered the seller forty dollars for the horse, I expected to be mobbed. I'll never know why those ranchers never connected me with Hugh — or both of us with you."
"You're quite a hero," Rhino said.
"Yes," Frank said quietly. They looked at each other levelly, and a slow puzzlement came into Rhino's face.
"What did you come here for?" he asked.
"To tell you that. I'm a poor crook, Rhino. I don't like it. I'm quitting." He leaned forward, and repeated, "I'm quitting."
"I heard you," Rhino said. He regarded Frank a long time and then observed dryly, "You think it's that easy?"
Frank carefully dropped his cigarette on the floor and ground it out. He said, almost idly, "When Ed Hanley heard Rob was dead, he said he needed money."
Rhino turned this over in his mind, and smiled.
"I hit him. He changed his mind."
Rhino still smiled, and Frank stood up.
"Walk soft, Rhino," he murmured, and when Rhino didn't answer, he went out.
The office was dark and empty as he went through it; he got his horse and rode out the gate, turning toward town. It puzzled him obscurely that Rhino's words had the power to rankle. He had expected no less because this was Rhino's fair opinion of him, which, in turn, was the town's opinion also. And with the bark on, it's Carrie's, too, he reflected. You couldn't drift over a dozen states for five years to come home and expect people to do more than laugh at your stories while they bitterly envied you. Nor should you have one of the biggest ranches in the country given you as a reward for that idleness. He shifted in the saddle, pondering this now, as he had pondered it these last four days coming from Utah. There was Carrie to see tonight, and he shrank from that, for the reward he had received for his irresponsibility was also a reward for five years of neglect of her. There was a name for him, he understood now, and Rhino had named him. He was a fiddlefoot.
Ahead of him now, he saw a figure vaguely outlined against the town's light walking in the road, and presently, overtaking it, he saw it was Tess Falette. She was bareheaded, carrying her hat, and she was humming a soft tune in the night.
He drew alongside her and, touching his hat, said, "You too old to ride double, Tess?" Her laugh was warm, and she said, "Not too old, Frank, but I'd rather walk. I sit down too much."
The distaste for the hour ahead of him prompted Frank now to step out of the saddle and fall in beside this girl, leading his horse.
They were silent for a minute, both a little surprised and pleased at his action, and the silence began to dim the sharpness of Rhino's words.
Tess said pleasantly now, "What's that country like where you were?"
"A big white dry bone, some of it."
He heard her sigh. "I started out to see it once when I was twelve. My dad brought me back, because little girls didn't run away, he said." Her warm laugh came again, and he found himself carefully recalling what he knew of this girl. In the three months he had worked for Rhino, he had come in from buying trips only rarely and at hours that sometimes made him miss her entirely. He recalled someone saying she was a daughter of one of Rhino's former teamsters who had died, and that Rhino had given over to her the running of his trifling freighting business.
Now she said, "How far did you go?"
"Almost into Idaho."
"Did you men stick together or did you split up?" Tess asked. Frank looked down at her in the dark, a caution touching him now. Most certainly, this girl was not in on any of Rhino's dozen secretive schemes, and he was wary of her curiosity.
"We split up. That's a big country."
"Were you alone any of the time?"
Frank halted in the road now, and she halted too, facing him. "I know I'm snooping, Frank," she said quietly, forestalling him. "I'll tell you in a minute. Will you answer me?"
"No, I wasn't alone," Frank lied.
"And you can prove it?"
"By Hugh Nunnally. But why should I prove it?"
Tess turned now, saying, "So Rhino didn't tell you?"
Frank said nothing, and fell in beside her, and presently Tess said, "Buck Hannan's been in the office three times this week since they found your stepfather."
"He's sheriff. Why not?"
"He keeps asking if you've come in yet."
Frank put out a hand now, and Tess halted, and Frank said in a low voice, "What are you trying to tell me, Tess?"
"Your stepfather had been dead two or three weeks before he was found."
"So Rhino said."
"You've been gone how long — two months?"
"A month and a half this time."
"You and your stepfather had had a quarrel, and that news is all over town, Frank."
"We had a lot of quarrels," Frank said grimly. "A thousand, maybe."
"Yes, but you own Saber, now he's dead. That might mean something to Hannan."
Frank was utterly still a moment. "That means Hannan thinks Rob was murdered."
"And that you might have done it."
Excerpted from Fiddlefoot by Luke Short. Copyright © 1946 Frederick D. Glidden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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