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Lariat March 1950

GUN-QUEEN OF THE SPANISH GRANT

By JOSEPH CHADWICK

The dark, hot-blooded temptress of Monteros Rancho deftly filled a dead
man's boots with Gringo Devil... then flashed the blood-chilled challenge
to the land thieves of San Alejandro: "Treachery will be paid off at
sundown. Come grab your receipts
."

IT WAS a long trip and a tiresome one, yet not a journey half so unpleasant as the chore Ed Reardon must perform once he reached his destination.

The southbound stage rolled along, dropping down from the Moradas at a steady five miles an hour. The six little Spanish mules never faltered in their running stride. "Another hour," said the gray- bearded driver, "and we'll hit the San Alejandro."

Ed Reardon, riding beside him, squinted at the lowering sun, unbuttoned his coat, took the watch from his vest pocket. It was six o'clock by the watch—the dead man's watch.

It was a fine timepiece, a trustworthy movement in an engraved gold case. The stage driver glanced at it admiringly. "That's a mighty handsome——" His voice broke, his old eyes widened. He looked at Ed Reardon's face, startled. "What—What did you say your name is, mister?"

Reardon pocketed the watch. "I didn't say. But if you've got to know, it's Ed Reardon."

"Reardon, eh?" The old man was still watching his passenger. The mules swerved sharply to avoid collision with a Mexican carreta, and the abrupt swing threatened to topple the coach. "Whoa-aa!" the driver yelled.

"Now, dammit," said Ed Reardon, recovering his balance, "stop gawking at me and watch that road!"

"Yes, sir," the driver muttered.

He kept watching the road.

But there was no hiding his excitement. Ed Reardon could almost hear him thinking, Reardon, eh? Reardon...?

It was seven o'clock on the dot when the stage rolled into San Alejandro. The town was half old and adobe and Mexican, half new and plank and American. The stage company office was in the American part, on Union Street, and directly opposite was a two-storied, false-fronted building bearing a sign: Territorial House. "That's the hotel?" Reardon asked.

The driver said, "Yes, sir," with the respect Reardon had put into him back on the road. He tossed the ribbons down to a Mexican hostler. He climbed down one side, Reardon the other. The driver opened the coach door for the other passengers, then opened the luggage boot. He brought out Reardon's valise first "There you are, Mr. Reardon."

Reardon took his bag, started across the street. There were saloons and dance halls aplenty, stores and eating places, and a building bearing the sign: Venturilla Land & Cattle Co., John Morrell, Mgr. Reardon smiled. He understood a little Spanish, and venturilla meant good luck.

A fat man behind the desk in the hotel lobby was reading a newspaper. He turned the register around for Reardon without looking up. Reardon signed his name, wrote "Denver" after it. The fat man, still not looking at him, shoved a key across the counter and mumbled, "Room Seven."

"Still time for supper?" Reardon asked.

"Yeah. We serve until eight."

"How far is it to the Monteros Rancho?"

The fat man said, "Monteros Rancho...?" He looked at Reardon now, all interest. "About ten miles. Take the southwest road."

He turned the register about as Reardon headed for the stairs and read what the new guest had written, Reardon's handwriting was a scrawl, and it took the fat man some time to decipher it. "Reardon?" he muttered.

Reardon had just lighted the lamp in his room when a buxom Mexican woman came with a pail of hot water. She filled the pitcher on the washstand, and Reardon said, "I am very obliged to you," The chambermaid giggled and said, "Muchisimas gracias" for the quarter he gave her. Her dark eyes gave him an admiring glance as she went out. He did cut a fine figure.

REARDON was what some men called a Black Irisher. He was handsome in a dark, rugged fashion. He was six-feet-one, topped the scales at a hundred and ninety. He was wearing a well- tailored suit of dark gray broadcloth, a white shirt, a black string tie. His Stetson was a lighter gray than his suit, flat-crowned, the band and the medium brim's binding of a contrasting black. He wore Justin boots. His entire outfit had a newish look, and if clothes made the man, Ed Reardon was a lot of man. He washed up, combed his hair, brushed road dust from his hat and suit, wiped his boots. He donned his hat and coat, surveyed himself in the washstand mirror, and wished that he were anywhere but in San Alejandro. He wished that the dead man, whose money had rigged him out like this, were standing there in his place.

He went down to supper.

The dining-room had a single long table, and, the hour being late, only three men were at supper. One looked like a rancher, the other two were townsmen. The same Mexican woman who had brought the water to Room 7 looked in from the kitchen and in a minute came to serve Reardon. There was no choice; supper was simply steak, boiled potatoes, dried-apple pie and coffee. The other diners finished and departed while Reardon was eating, and another man entered and took a place at the table. He said, "Good evening, Rosita," to the waitress, looked at Reardon and greeted him, "Good evening, sir."

Reardon nodded.

The newcomer was a distinguished looking man of about forty-five; he had good features, was gray at the temples, and his complexion was somewhat florid. He was well dressed, a townsman. "You're a stranger in town, I believe," he said, and smiled. "May I welcome you to San Alejandro? My name, sir, is John Morrell."

"Reardon. Ed Reardon."

"I'm manager of the Venturilla Land and Cattle Company."

"Saw your name on that sign."

"Are you in cattle or mining, Mr. Reardon?"

"Neither."

Morrell looked surprised. "Neither?" he said. Reardon said, "That's right," and continued with his supper.

Finished his meal, Reardon drifted into the lobby. He took one of the armchairs by the window overlooking the street, then found that he had nothing to smoke. There were some cigars in his valise, so he rose and went upstairs. He'd left the lamp turned low. The flame was high now. He'd left his valise closed, on the floor. It was on the bed, now, open, its contents an untidy jumble. Somebody had given the bag a thorough searching. Reardon stepped over and took a revolver from the bag, made sure that its load hadn't been removed, and thrust it into his waistband. He went out, descended to the lobby, and approached the fat man at the desk.

"You always go through a guest's luggage in this hotel?"

"Somebody go through yours, Mr. Reardon?"

"You."

"No," said the fat man.

"Maybe you know who did?"

The clerk shook his head. "I've been here or back in the office ever since you checked in," he said. "Trouble is, every key fits every door." He managed to look concerned. "Anything stolen, Mr. Reardon?"

Reardon scowled at him, grunted, "No," and turned away.

He remembered then that he'd forgotten his cigars.

He went into the adjoining barroom to buy one.

It was a small room with a short bar and a few tables. One bartender took care of the few customers, oldish men who apparently liked the quiet atmosphere. It was too quiet for Reardon. He bought a cigar and cigarette makings, and passed through to the street. He lighted the cigar, then strolled along the street. He realized with something akin to guilt that he was staying in San Alejandro tonight merely because he hated to arrive at the Monteros ranch. It was reluctant to face Juan Forbes's family—and tell them how Juan had died. He'd written Juan's sister that Juan was dead, but that wasn't enough. Juan Forbes had asked, with his dying breath, that Reardon visit his family. Juan hadn't understood how hard it would be, telling a bereaved family that a loved one had been murdered—shot down without cause by a degenerate killer who merely wanted to add another notch to his gun.

"Jess Hagar!"

Reardon said it half aloud, angrily.

He'd like to catch Jess Hagar in the sights of his gun!

He turned finally into a saloon called The Frisco Bar, a sizable place, crowded. A man at the near end of the bar watched Reardon in the back- bar mirror with such an intensity that Reardon's gaze was drawn to his reflected eyes. They were small bloodshot eyes in an ugly face, and fear crept into them. The man's hulking body tensed. Suddenly he grabbed up his whiskey glass, bellowed an oath, and flung the glass at Reardon's image. The crash of glass was explosive.

Reardon was unbuttoning his coat as the man swung around, grabbing out his gun. Fear didn't always help a man's aim, and this man's wild shot splintered through the swing door behind Reardon. Before Jess Hagar could shoot again, Ed Reardon got his gun out and shot him through the heart.

A WOMAN screamed, a man cursed. Boots scuffed noisily as the crowd stampeded toward the rear in fright. But it was already over. It had all happened in the space of a heart-beat, and now Jess Hagar, notorious badman, lay dead in the sawdust of the Frisco Bar. His gun, nine times notched, lay beside his lifeless hand. The crowd was quiet, suddenly motionless. Ed Reardon, gun still in hand, glanced sharply about, but no man seemed in a mood to take up where Hagar had left off.

Reardon looked back at the dead man, feeling no regret and no real satisfaction. A gaunt, gray- mustached man with a town marshal's badge on his shirt came away from the crowd, and said, in a Texan's drawl, "I saw it all. He went for you, stranger, and fired the first shot before you got your gun out." His eyes were old and wise, accustomed to evaluating such happenings. "As far as I'm concerned, you're in the clear."

Reardon put his gun away.

The marshal of San Alejandro went on, "Newlin's my name. Why'd Hagar go for you like that, friend? Grudge, maybe?"

"Maybe he mistook me for somebody else," Reardon said, not liking the lie but knowing that explanations were never easy. Jess Hagar had recognized him as Juan Forbes's friend, and had believed that he'd come for revenge. He hadn't, so the lie wasn't too far from the truth. "My name's Reardon, Marshal. I'll be at the Territorial if you've got to go into this further."

He turned abruptly to the door. John Morrell stood there, holding the batwings open, dividing a speculative look between Reardon and the man Reardon had killed. "So Hagar got what was due him," Morrell said, and he looked as though he'd just had the surprise of his life.

Reardon said, "It's good you weren't standing there two minutes ago."

Morrell looked at the splintered hole in the one half-door.

He looked back at Reardon, a speculative gleam in his eyes. "You're a good man with a gun, Reardon. But you'd better watch your step from now on. Jess has a brother—and friends."

Reardon said, "Thanks for the warning," and went out.

Back at the Territorial, Reardon saw the Mexican woman tidying up the dining-room as he crossed the lobby. He went in there, and said, "Rosita, somebody was in my room while I was at supper. Whoever it was went through my bag." He took a silver dollar from his pocket, held it up for the plump woman to see. "Do you have any ideas who it was?"

Rosita had smiled at him. Now the smile faded. She glanced uneasily through the door to the lobby, then, seeing the fat clerk was gone from the desk, said, "Two men talked to Shane while you were eating, Senor. I saw them while I cleared dishes from the table."

"You knew them?"

"Si. Senor Morrell and the man who works for him, Senor Passemore," the woman said. "Senor Morrell came in here for supper, but Senor Passemore went upstairs. It made me wonder, for Senor Passemore does not have a room here."

Reardon nodded. He said, "It makes me wonder, too," and pressed the dollar into Rosita's hand.

He went upstairs, locked his door and braced the room's one chair under the doorknob. He drew the window blind. He removed his coat and hat, unbuttoned his vest, loosened his collar and tie, then, letting the lamp burn, he stretched out on the bed. He folded his arms under his head, stared unseeingly at the board ceiling.

Hagar? he thought.

The gunman's presence in San Alejandro may have been nothing more than coincidence. Jess Hagar had killed Juan Forbes in Colorado, and he'd had to flee from the law. Flight alone could have brought him to San ...

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