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Desert Judgment

By E. Hoffmann Price

Epstein can fix anything—even the lives of his friends, when crookedness and deceit loom large.

THE pushcart parked in the lot opposite the Jefferson House, the only hotel in Poplar Junction, was crammed with every sort of gear for making good the slogan: Epstein Will Fix It, in big letters on both sides.

At the moment, Saul Epstein was plying his razor at the horse trough. Finished, he crossed over to the Antler Bar, to see what news he could pick up about a boom in Panamint.

The first person he ran into was Ben Hurley. He was blowing the froth off his beer and his angular face bore no sign of the beating he had taken when a run had cleaned him out of his Silver Bend National Bank. No one could have suspected that he had just sold every acre of land and every steer to pay off his depositors.

"Yep! I'm makin' a new start," Hurley was saying.

"Aim to drive freight clear across the Amargosa to Panamint. It can be done, and save that long haul from here to Frisco, then over the Mojave Desert."

Epstein sidled up, a glass in his hand. "Prosit

Ben! I'm doing some freighting to Panamint by the Nevada backdoor myself!"

Hurley turned, surprised. "Saul! Where in hell did you come from?"

"When's your first haul, Ben?"

"Any day now. Mostly provisions. What me and Wiley, here, don't eat we'll sell."

"Got room to haul some freight for me?" "Plenty—and that makes you my first bonafide customer." He turned to the weather-beaten man at his elbow. "OK, Wiley—the jugheads are at the stable and the provisions at Hoskins' General Store. Get them stowed."

Epstein chuckled. "Just to make it interesting, I'll race you to Panamint."

"That's a bet." Wagging his hand at Epstein, Hurley walked out. But once alone his fierce animation quit him. His thoughts went back to the day after the bank failure, when he had faced Emily Crawford.

On his advice, she had bought into the bank. Like other stockholders, she had been forced to make good. Everyone had been flattened except Lucky Ballard, who a month before had sold his shares to invest in a cattle outfit in Arizona. That was the rub—competitors in all things, Hurley and Ballard had been courting Emily.

"Honey," Hurley had said, "saying I'll make good might sound like big talk. But I see a fresh start, the way I got my first break—skinning mules."

Though the well-shaped blonde was tall, she had to look up to meet his eyes. She forgot the bank disaster. Then, as he caught her in his arms, she said more than she had intended. "Don't go yet—"

The catch in her voice, the misting of her eyes, and the ardor of her lips told him this was his moment, and that he had won an advantage over Lucky Ballard.

THIS had been in Silver Bend, a month ago. Raising a grubstake had been harder than Hurley had realized. Meanwhile, Lucky Ballard would be on the job, smoothly sorry for a girl who had left her home and lived in a boarding house.

No one had known until after the bank failure that Ballard had gotten out. There had been nothing wrong with the bank; but one night when the vault was packed with cash and securities it had been blown open. Even so, it might have survived, had not the depositors stampeded.

He had all this in mind, and it drew his attention inward as he stepped into the lobby of the Jefferson House.

Drawn into himself, Hurley was not prepared to meet the couple leaving the dining room.

The girl had not put on her gloves. A diamond gleamed from her left hand. She was flushed and gay. Looking past the pair, Hurley saw the champagne bottle in the cooler beside the table they had just left.

The girl was Emily Crawford. From the grey tailored suit, Hurley judged she was traveling. The man was Lucky Ballard.

"Well, Ben!"

Ignoring the man, Hurley snatched the hand Emily had tried to draw from sight. His glance flickered toward the ring, then back to her face. "Not your honeymoon, anyway!" He thrust her aside. Caught off balance, she came near plopping into a chair, but missed. She landed in a tangle on the floor.

Hurley, swinging toward Ballard, had gone for his gun. Ballard clawed for his hip pocket. Hurley, only now aware that he had unintentionally floored a woman was gripped by the urge to pick her up. The conflict within him cost him his advantage.

Ballard's gun was the first to come into sight. And then Saul Epstein, who had followed Hurley, made a darting lunge, catching Hurley just above the knees, knocking him down and pitching him against Ballard before his gun could rise into action.

A shot smashed into the pigeonholes behind the desk. The other raked the floor.

The marshal and his deputy ran out of the bar off the lobby. "That mule skinner again! Sam, help me haul this jigger to the hoosegow."

Epstein said, "Listen, officer, nobody was hurt. You can't put him in the calaboose."

"The hell I can't!"

"Well, I'll go his bail. He's got freight to haul."

"That's up to the judge," the marshal spat, "If he gets off, he'd best haul freight out of this man's town!"

EPSTEIN waved as Hurley overtook him at the outskirts of Poplar Junction. Whip cracking, Hurley's voice boomed as he cursed the jugheads and the eighteen-foot wagon rolled on.

The second day out, ...

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