Robbery at the Dude Ranch

By James P. Hanley

Dee Rygh charged into the family room, lowered the volume on the television and exclaimed: “Our son sent the prize.”

Gary Rygh, a retired New Jersey detective, now living with his wife in an over 55’s development in Georgia, responded grumpily to the interruption, “What prize?”

“Don’t you remember Gary Junior won a week’s vacation—six days plus two travel days— at a Texas dude ranch through a raffle at his country club, and since he can’t get away that week he gave us the flight tickets and the certificate for the free vacation. The name’s the same so no one will know.” 

“Dude Ranch! I’ve been called a lot of things,” Gary said, “but never a dude.”

“We’ll go horseback riding, square dancing and cooking out in the open. And they have a spa.”

“A spa; now that’s real Old West.”

“It’ll be fun, Gary, and won’t cost us anything.”

On the day they were to leave, Dee went in the closet and took out a circular box and handed it to Gary.

“What’s this?” he asked as he removed the lid; reaching inside, he took out a wide-brim cowboy hat.

Intending to mock the gift, he wore the hat to the airport and throughout the flight. When they arrived, Gary and Dee were picked up at the terminal by a four-horse drawn carriage and traveled bumpily to the ranch. There were various accommodations from the multi-occupant “bunkhouse” to log cabins segmented into suites all around the main house called “la hacienda.” The greeter explained the plans for the next few days, beginning with a trip on a train. Adding with a wink, he said, “We’ve had a lot of robberies on that train, so be careful.”

In the morning, Dee dragged Gary to the makeshift train which consisted of an engine and two cars. Tracks led away from the ranch and continued for about a mile before circling back. The train cars were filled with ranch guests. “All aboard,” the engineer called from the locomotive area and the cars moved slowly forward. The riders chatted amiably, one passenger saying that he was disappointed that the robbers hadn’t shown up as the train neared the turnaround point in an open field surrounded by woods, but suddenly the train slowed to a stop. A man in outlaw gear—a gun at his hip, a wide and high hat like a sombrero, and a bandana pulled up over his mouth—stood at the front edge of the first car.  Several of the passengers shouted, “We’re being robbed,” the words intermixed with laughter. The outlaw pulled his gun from his side, and said, “This is a holdup.” The laughter increased until he lifted the six-shooter and fired a shot that punctured a hole in the car roof. The joking turned to gasps, and the man holding the gun told them to put their valuables— money, jewelry, watches—in a canvas bag as he walked the aisle between the two sections of seats like a trick or treater collecting goodies. Any resistance was met with a pointed gun until surrendering the items. When he reached Gary, the ex-detective glared at him until Dee handed over her ring and necklace and nudged him to give up his wallet. When the thief completed the last row, he exited the train. Gary and another passenger follow behind him and saw the outlaw run toward a car largely hidden behind trees. Another man leaped from the second car and in a few seconds, a third man jumped from the locomotive and charged in the same direction.  A passenger called the police on his cell phone while the others crossed between cars sharing stories of what was stolen from them. Sheriff Jeff Bryant of the nearest town, Parched Creek, arrived at the scene and questioned everyone, but the riders he asked couldn’t offer a useable description of the thieves.  He told them he and his deputy would continue the interviews at the ranch, especially with those he hadn’t questioned. The train started the journey back and arrived at the ranch. Gary Rygh and his wife went back to their room; he was still steaming over the theft. The following morning as they ate in the massive dining hall, Gary noticed one of the ranch hands come in wearing spurs that jingled as he walked, and the retired detective remembered something. He told his wife he was going to see the sheriff. Borrowing a car from the ranch manager, who was very upset over the incident, Gary drove the short distance to the town. The sheriff’s office was in the far edge of town near a storage facility and a blacksmith establishment. When Gary entered the jailhouse, the lanky lawman stood and pointed toward a chair opposite his desk. Dressed in garb that was likely common a century ago, he sensed the look in Gary’s eyes.

“Lot of town folk dress the part for tourists. Without visitors there wouldn’t be much here. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I remembered something. One of the thieves had a missing round piece with the points on the end of his spur.”

“That’s called a rowel; it’s like a many-pointed star.”

Gary said, “If a piece is broken off, where can you get it repaired?”

“Spurs are not used as much nowadays or can be a disk with no points. The kind you describe are often passed down so they can be valuable to a man or woman, for sentimental reasons. Townsend’s Tack and Supplies repairs broken spurs and saddles. The owner Bill Townsend is a grumpy man and not especially friendly to strangers not buying.”

“Do you mind if I talk to Townsend? I’m a retired detective so I can ask questions diplomatically.” Gary lied; he was never known for his tact.

“Go ahead, but keep me informed of what you find out.”

As warned, Bill Townsend grunted when asked if anyone had come in recently to have a spur repaired.

“I guess that’s a no,” Gary said. When Bill nodded and Gary realized he wasn’t going to get anything more from the storeowner, he asked Townsend to notify the sheriff of any spur repair. 

When he returned to his room, Gary was still bothered about losing his items, especially Dee’s engagement ring.  At dinner, he said to his wife, “There’s only one place around here someone can have a spur repaired and no one stopped in yet. I told him to contact the sheriff if he did.”

Dee, an ex-cop herself, looked at her husband with a quizzical expression. “You’ve been away from police work too long. Maybe someone bought a new set of spurs rather than repairing one.”

Gary slapped his head as a gesture of agreement.

“Why don’t you forget about it for now. We’re going horseback riding tomorrow morning,” Dee said.

“You go,” Gary said, “I’m going back to that shop first thing and ask if anyone bought a pair.”

After securing the car again, he stormed into the tack shop.

“You didn’t ask me if anyone purchased spurs. I’ll give you the answer to anything you ask, but it’s not my job to make up the questions. Besides, Clem Walker came in after you were here last time and ordered new spurs. I didn’t have the kind in stock he wanted.”

Gary asked, “What was special about the ones he wanted?”

“He said he needed a pair just like the others.” Townsend then described the spurs Walker wanted.

With that information, Gary marched to the sheriff’s office and said they needed to talk to Clem Walker.

At first, the sheriff shook his head as if in disbelief. “Clem is as dumb as a post. We went to school together and we used to tell him all sorts of crazy things and he believed us.”

Sheriff Bryant went with Gary to the local feed store where Walker worked and they brought him to the jail house for questioning.

“Mind I sit in? I’ve had a lot of experience,” Gary said.

The sheriff nodded in agreement.

Walker sat across from the two with a smug expression on his face.

“Buy spurs yesterday?” Gary asked. “I saw one of yours was broken when you robbed the train.”

“You can’t pin that robbery on me because of a spur.”

“I remember the heel band—that’s the term you mentioned, for the metal strip that bends around the boot, right, sheriff—had markings on it.” Gary recalled Townsend’s description. “I’ll bet we’ll find the broken spur when we get a warrant to search your house.”

“Ha,” Clem exclaimed, and looking at the sheriff for acknowledgement, said, “My old man is the head of the town bank—a respectable man who has the mortgages on most homeowners around here. You’ll never get a jury to convict me.”

Remembering what the sheriff said about the Walker’s gullibility, Gary continued. “I’m a retired New Jersey detective and under the laws of my state it’s a felony to pull a gun on a current or retired police officer. You can be extradited to New Jersey and you won’t find a sympathetic jury or judge there.”

Panic formed on Walker’s face and he looked again at the sheriff who struggled to suppress a grin.

“All right, I—”

Before he could finish the sentence, a man dressed in a wrinkled suit and carrying a briefcase charged into the room. “I’m his lawyer and this discussion is inadmissible. Clem, don’t say any more!”

The smug smile returned to Clem’s face but the group was again interrupted by a man Bryant later identified as a part-time deputy. “Sheriff, during the holdup, apparently the robber’s bandana fell down, and a couple I talked to got a good look at the outlaw before he could cover his face,” the deputy said. “They described a man who looks like Clem. They are willing to testify if needed.”

The rest of the discussion was an exchange of agreements that Clem would plead guilty in court for a recommendation from the sheriff for a lower sentence. But Clem wouldn’t give up anyone else and swore he didn’t have any of the stolen items.

Gary returned to the room; Dee had changed from the clothes she wore while riding and told him she signed them up for square dance lessons the next day. The retired detective groaned but went reluctantly to the large room set up for the tutoring the following morning. Other couples were gathered and one pair—a smartly dressed couple, in their early sixties, Gary guessed—were standing directly in front of Gary and Dee.

They’d been riding and were talking about it. “Well, that was the second adventure of the trip.”   

Gary spoke up, “You said the second adventure; were you on the train that got robbed?”

Both nodded, smiling at each other. “We were in the second car. They took our jewelry,” The woman said with an odd inflection on the word jewelry. When she saw Gary’s confused expression, the woman explained. “We never travel with our expensive jewelry, so what they took was fake.”

“Did you get a good look at the thief in your car?” Gary asked.

“We gave a detailed description of the robber as best we could considering he had a bandana over his mouth. We both described the outlaw the same except for the eyes.”

“I’m not clear on what you mean.” Gary said.

“Brenda, my wife, and I often play a game since we retired. We look at a stranger and write down a description of their face and form on a piece of paper. Our descriptions usually match well. We’re always very specific, noting minor aspects of the person’s features, clothing, et cetera. But Brenda said the robber had brown eyes and I said blue eyes. The train was crowded by the time we arrived for the trip so we had to take a seat on the opposite sides of the aisle, me on the right, Brenda on the left side. The robber never looked at us, just stared straight ahead while everyone dropped their items in the burlap bag he carried. He was also squinting like someone who’d forgotten his glasses.”

A smile formed on Gary’s face and turning to Dee said, “I have to see the sheriff.” He was out the door before she could respond. Rushing into Sheriff Bryant’s office, he exclaimed while getting his breath.

“I think another robber had one brown and one blue eye, and probably wears glasses. An eye doctor would know of anyone with different color eyes.”

“Doc Widner is the town optometrist; we can go see him.”

They went to his office during a lull in patient visits. The doctor told them that the condition is called heterochromia and the only person he knew with a blue and a brown eye was Jay Ringman.

The sheriff shook his head at the name. “Jay is the bartender at the Cactus Saloon.”

The lawman and retired cop went directly to the saloon; when Jay put his arms on the bar and leaned on the bar, Bryant looked at his wrist. “Pretty fancy watch, Jay. I’ll bet it belongs to someone on that train.”

Jay’s panicked expression conveyed his guilt. After being grilled by the sheriff and Gary he admitted his involvement but swore that he only had the watch.  He and the other two were going to split up the stolen merchandise when things calmed down. He kept the watch, however. He didn’t think any of the vacationers would come to town.

Gary asked, “Who has the rest of the loot?”

Jay wouldn’t give up the third man, the one who had forced the train engineer to hit the brakes.

By the time Gary returned to the room, Dee was fuming. He promised to “stay with the program.” They ate steak and potatoes in the dining room that night. While they sat waiting for dessert, Gary looked around at the crowded room. Everyone was dressed as if attending a more formal event: jacket, tie or open collar and pressed pants. The women were also well dressed, albeit without jewelry.

Gary leaned across the table and said to Dee, “Everybody here looks wealthy.”

“Except us,” she said sardonically, looking at his stained jean and wrinkled shirt. “Oh, no, I see your brain is churning. Don’t you dare leave!”

Gary was about to get up but changed his mind.

Dee woke later than usual. Looking across the bed she saw that Gary was gone. Irritated, she pulled the covers over her head.

Meanwhile, the former detective headed toward the office area in the main section of the ranch. He asked the receptionist if he could see the manager, explaining that he was helping the town sheriff with the investigation of the train robbery. The manager came out and brought him into his office. As the two men sat in the manager’s office, a wide room with Western paraphernalia, Gary began his explanation leading to a question. The manager wore a bolo tie and cotton shirt; a cowboy hat was on the edge of his desk. Gary thought the man had a New York accent.

“I noticed that just about everyone I’ve seen here is well dressed and most seem to be couples at least in their late forties, many my age. Even those who purchased Western garb probably have labels from expensive stores and don’t wear cowboy boots at home. How did this group get here? Are they all from one place?”

The manager smiled, looking at Gary’s clothing. “Well, you’re mostly right. We were approached by the Beckman organization; they own golf courses in five states—very hoity toity. Their vice president asked us about offering a six-day stay at their expense, plus air travel paid by Beckman, for three or four couples at each club as part of a charity auction if we agreed to a reduced rate for the winners. We thought that would be great publicity and expected the guests would spend money on extra items. Do you belong to one of their clubs?” Incredulity underlined the question.

Gary ignored the inquiry. “So who else, besides you, would know the guests would be wealthy country club members?”

The manager scratched his eyebrows. “I’m not sure. I’m certain Jeff Newsome knew. He’s our activities leader and he often tries to find out about the arriving guests so he can plan events.”

“Did he plan the train ride?”

“Yes, that’s one of his duties.”

“When we arrived we were told there would be a fake train robbery, so you must have people who pull off the ruse. I’m assuming they wouldn’t be stupid enough to actually steal, so why weren’t they on board?”

“We don’t always have a pretend robbery but I was surprised this time. Yes, there was supposed to be three men who acted as thieves but their involvement was cancelled. In fact, I asked one of the men who take the role of a robber—he’s also our groundskeeper—and he said Jeff had cancel the mock theft.”

“Did you see this Jeff person at work at the time of the robbery?”

“No,” the manager answered, “but that’s not unusual. We’re not a big enterprise and much of the staff is part time, including Jeff. He’s been asking if he could work more hours but we can’t afford it. He wasn’t too happy about my answer.”

Noticing that the ranch vehicle wasn’t parked out front, Gary asked if anyone from the ranch was going into town. The manager told him that a woman from the kitchen was leaving very soon to purchase food for the evening meal.

Before the ex-detective left the manager’s office, he asked the manager to convey a message to his wife that he would be back later.

“That’s a shame. Your wife signed you both up to attend a lecture on Western history by Professional Jenkins of the local university.”

“Sorry I’m going to miss that,” Gary said, masking a grin. 

Once outside he saw a woman leave the side of the building near the dining hall and walk to a nearby pickup truck. Gary caught up to her and explained he needed a ride to town. She agreed to give him a lift. Once in town, he jogged to the sheriff’s office. Bryant was just walking in carrying a plate covered by plastic lid. The sheriff moaned as he saw Gary approach.

“Do I have time to eat my breakfast while it’s hot?”

“Of course,” Gary said, his mouth watering as he saw the eggs, ham and buttered bread under the lid. “While you’re enjoying that tasty meal, I’ll explain why I’m here. I think I know who the third robber was.”

“Why am I not surprised,” the sheriff said, his mouth full with egg.

Gary wasn’t bothered by the facetiousness. “Jeff Newsome is the activities person at the ranch and he organized the train robbery but instead of actors, he must have hired the other two to commit a real crime. Probably he was the third man.” While Gary spoke, he noticed that the sheriff didn’t seem surprised and asked him about it.

“Jeff, like the other two idiots, is a local boy. He knows Clem and Jay. This is a small town so rumors spread. Word is that Jeff is in the middle of a messy divorce.”

When the sheriff called the ranch and spoke to the manager he was told Jeff Newsome had called in sick.

“Thank you for your help. I’ll talk to Jeff and get a search warrant for his place,” the sheriff told Gary.

Gary waited in front of the food market and got a ride back to the ranch. As they parked, he saw his wife coming out squinting in the sunlight after a few hours watching a film and listening to a lecture. “Good to see you,” she said calmly before punching his arm.

“I’m done. Got all three. You’ll be getting your ring back soon. I’ll be along for everything else planned.”

“Tomorrow there’s a hoedown in the afternoon. Even though you didn’t show up for the line dancing lessons, you can pretend.”  

“I’ll be there,” Gary swore.

The next afternoon, the fiddlers arrived for the dance and Gary went with his wife, nearly dragged the distance to the dancehall. Just outside the entrance, the manager ran over to them. “Mr. Rygh, Sheriff Bryant called and said he needed your help with interrogating Jeff. He’ll be here shortly.”

Gary’s face was filled with a wide smile. Dee stormed off.

The sheriff arrived and explained that the judge was reluctant to grant a warrant unless they had more reason, best a confession.

Jeff Newsome looked downcast in a cell and Gary took a sympathetic approach to questioning, making up a story that he understood how a difficult divorce can drive a man to do desperate things. Initially hesitant to admit to his role in the robbery but refusing counsel—a mixed signal to Gary—Jeff, after hours of questioning, admitted to masterminding the robbery and taking out the train driver while the other two collected the loot.

Realizing that dinner at the ranch was likely done, the sheriff took Gary to lunch in appreciation. It was ten o’clock by the time Sheriff Bryant dropped Gary off at the ranch.

The next day, the manager told the guests that their items had been recovered and were on a long table in one of the rooms. The guest were asked to meet with the deputy there to identify their valuables and the lawman would label each, but the jewelry, wallets and other things were evidence and would be mailed when no longer needed.

The limo took Gary, Dee and others to the airport. On the plane ride home, Gary leaned back and said to his wife, “That was fun. We should do that again.”

Dee sighed and looked out the window.

James P. Hanley has had articles published in professional journals but has concentrated more on fiction in recent years. His stories have been accepted by mystery magazines such as Crimespree, FuturesDetective Mystery StoriesSavage Kick and others, as well as in mainstream/literary periodicals: MacGuffinSouth Dakota ReviewConcho River ReviewCenterFresh Boiled Peanuts, and various Westerns magazines. His novels, The Calling, An Ill Wind and The Train Robbers were published by 5 Prince Publishing. In 2017, Jim’s first mystery novel: Clues in the Lyrics was published by Black Rose Writing. 

Six of the author’s short stories were previously published on the omdb! website — “Murder at the Over 55’s” (March, 2015), “The Retiring Type” (October, 2014), “Murder at First Sight” (May, 2014), “The Murder of a Fund Manager” ( September, 2012), “The Tuna Mystery” (March, 2012), and  “End Times” (October, 2011).

Copyright 2017 James P. Hanley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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