View Full Version : Sunset Stories : Banking On It And Others.

July 15th, 2012, 06:00 PM


Two men, different as cheese and chalk, sat facing one another across a handsome oak desk in the manager’s office of the Mercantile & Stockmen’s Bank of Grizewood, Montana. In one of the two customers’ chairs was Ezekiel Dawson. A slim-built man of medium height, he had been among the first of the homesteaders to arrive in the area. Where others had gone under, he’d survived, though by a hairsbreadth. Now, at thirty-nine, he was on the verge of going the way of so many of his kind in that part of the world. He cut a sorry figure in threadbare homespun clothing and worn-out work boots. His thin, prematurely lined face was twisted in a bitter expression.

At the other side of the desk was bank manager Harry Brewer. Grizewood was a community where not many had prospered, but he was one of that number. Twelve years Dawson’s senior, he was also of middle height, but that was the only common feature the pair had.

Brewer was undoubtedly the wealthiest man for many a mile around, and it showed. His affluence manifested itself not least in circumference, for he seemed to overflow his massive brown studded-leather chair. Now, pudgy hands clasped across his fashionably-wrapped paunch, he spoke as sonorously as his high-pitched voice allowed. The florid, purple-veined face – evidence, some said, of decades of heavy drinking – registered ill-concealed satisfaction as he gave his decision on the settler’s request for a loan. He leaned back, his original chin resting on the makings of a second.

Dawson spread his hands in resignation. “So what you’re saying is that you aren’t refusing the loan. You’re just making the conditions so hard that you know I can’t meet them. You’re nothing but a damned Shylock.”

The banker reached for a cedar wood box, pulling out a seven-inch imported cigar. Any largesse he may have had did not extend to offering one to his visitor. “You have to be realistic,” he said. “Anyway, just tell me again why you want so much?”

Dawson flapped his hands. “I thought I’d made it plain enough.” He had, but he knew that Brewer was enjoying his applicant’s discomfiture. “I need a cultivator. I can get one by mail order for seventy-five dollars. Carriage costs fifteen dollars. That’s ninety altogether.”

“And you wanted a hundred.”

“That’s right. I thought I might treat my wife to a little something, and I need a new pipe. Look at this.” He brandished an ancient blackened briar, reaching across the desk in an effort to shove it under Brewer’s nose. The mouthpiece was half chewed away, the stem held together in the middle by a ring of paper wrapped in button thread. “You’d hardly call that rich living, would you?” he snapped.

Brewer sniffed as though he’d been presented with a skunk. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said. “But I’ve given you my terms and you say you can’t comply with them.”

“Of course I can’t. If I get the machine, I’ll not see the benefit for a year, and there’s no way I can make payments in the meantime.”

Brewer, who knew that very well, puffed out smoke. “I’m sorry, Dawson,” he said. “The conditions I’ve offered are the best you’d get anywhere. One hundred dollars at ten per cent a year interest. That may seem high to you, but you have to consider that you’re a top-risk proposition.”

Dawson harrumphed his sarcasm. “I know, I know,” he said. “I heard that the first rule of banking is that you won’t lend anything to people who can’t prove twice over that they don’t need it. Anyway, you might like to know that you’re not the only one who can figure things out.”

“What do you mean?”

Dawson leaned forward. “All right, I’ll tell you. Now, I don’t single you out. Bankers are all the same. But, come the winter evenings, I get time to think about things and one matter I’ve thought about is how you do business. It’s a swindle from beginning to end.”

The complacent Brewer, having disposed of the main issue, condescended to hear out the homesteader. “Fascinating,” he said, smiling. “Tell me about banking.”

“Okay. Now look. You just told me that you’d lend me a hundred dollars at ten per cent a year interest, right?”


“And you said that a hundred dollars at ten per cent a year means repayment of a hundred and ten dollars. Right?”

“Also correct. So?”

“And you’d want me to make quarterly repayments at twenty-seven dollars, fifty cents a time?”

“That’s right. A hundred and ten dollars paid back. That’s your hundred dollars, plus ten per cent interest. What’s wrong with that?”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s a hell of a lot more than ten per cent a year.”

“Well, well,” said Brewer. “A homesteader-mathematician. How do you make that out?”

“It’s simple enough, even for me,” Dawson answered. “What it amounts to is that you wouldn’t be lending me a hundred dollars for a year at all.”

“Go on. You interest me.” In fact, Brewer was a little disconcerted.

“Well,” said Dawson, “what you’d be doing would be supplying me with a hundred dollars for three months until the first repayment. After that, I’d have the rest for a further three months before paying again, then I’d have what was left for a three more months, until the third instalment was due. Then you’d be lending me the last bit for a further three months, until I settled at the year-end. That isn’t lending a hundred dollars for twelve months.”

“What is it, then?”

“I’m no scholar, but what it amounts to, more or less, is that I’d be borrowing four lots of twenty-five dollars each, for a total of thirty months – twelve, plus nine, plus six, plus three. That’s like a hundred dollars for seven and a half months, and that’s the same as sixty-two dollars and fifty cents for a year. And for that, you’re asking ten dollars interest. That’s sixteen per cent, not ten.”

“You can figure it any way you like, Dawson, but that’s standard banking practice,” retorted Brewer, though he was now feeling decidedly ruffled.

“Maybe it’s standard, but it isn’t right,” Dawson replied. “Anyway, I can see I’m not going to get anywhere with you, so I’ll go. I just wanted you to know that other people can work things out as well as you can. Thank you for your time.” Without waiting for a reply, he stood, wheeled and stamped out.

That left two men with a good deal to think about. Dawson started the four-mile walk back to his place. He knew he had made a valid point, but it hadn’t done him any good. He still wasn’t about to get a cultivator. He also knew what the next move would be. Brewer would let him sweat for a while, then call him in again and agree to lend the money, on condition that the loan would form a mortgage on Dawson’s homestead. As soon as Dawson defaulted on a payment – which seemed inevitable – Brewer would foreclose. That wouldn’t be the first time. It was by such methods that Grizewood’s banker had got his hands on half the land and businesses in the area. However, identifying the problem was one thing and dealing with it was another. Still, this was a rare slack period in the usually grinding round that faced the homesteader. He would have time to think, and as he had just demonstrated at the bank, Dawson was quite a thinker when circumstances permitted.

Back at the bank, Brewer was also pondering. Dawson’s words had struck a nerve. It was all very well for financiers to be aware of the misleading way their quoted loan interest rates related to the repayments demanded, but for a layman – and a hick farmer at that – to grasp the idea was dangerous. If such thinking were to spread, well, it just wouldn’t do.

Brewer, originally from the East, had started out in Montana as a hardware merchant, but had soon perceived that his talents lay in a different direction. Nevertheless, his sympathies were still with the ranchers. Over the years, he had – rarely and cautiously – loaned money to settlers, usually on the security of their land and property. Eventually, he had got his hands on a good deal of that real estate. True, it was mostly hardscrabble stuff, but Brewer had been as selective as possible. Most of the land he now owned was strategically placed. Soon, the railroads would come along, then he would sell out at a handsome profit, which he would invest in the other businesses he owned. It was a long-term proposition of the sort that only an already well-to-do man could entertain, but it was working out nicely.

Acquisition of Dawson’s land would be a handy step in the banker’s overall scheme. Had the sodbuster not approached him, Brewer would eventually have offered to buy the man out. He reasoned that, sooner or later, Dawson would come to grief, with or without his damned cultivator. After all, the homesteader was not entirely his own man. He had a wife and therefore responsibilities beyond himself – a complication in life that the self-serving Brewer had avoided. It would have suited the banker better if the Dawsons had had children, but Brewer accepted that a man had to work with what was available and Dawson’s situation was surely difficult enough.

The homesteaders’ position in the community was uncomfortable. There was little friendliness shown to them in Grizewood, where ranching interests were dominant. It might have been different if the farmers had been wealthier. As it was, they led frugal and largely self-sufficient lives. Only rarely was any of them seen spending much money in the town’s stores and saloons. Their contribution to the prosperity of the local businesses was therefore limited. It was nobody’s fault. The two ways of life were different. The cowpunchers – and less frequently their bosses – spent freely when in town. Consequently, sentiment in the commercial ranks ran against the homesteaders. After all, it was felt, the area would hardly be worse off without them. There was not much outright hostility. It was more a case of uneasy accommodation.

Dawson owned a buckboard, but he had not used it to drive into town. He had walked intentionally, to give himself time to burn off some of the feeling of frustration and humiliation that had been building inside him at the thought of finally having to ask for a loan. The rain, which had been threatening all day, came when he was still a mile from home. He didn’t much mind getting wet, as the downpour was welcome. By the time he reached the shack, he was well and truly soaked.

Removing his saturated clothing, Dawson told his wife what had happened at the bank. “It just isn’t right,” he concluded. “I was banking on that loan.” Then, struck by the unconscious irony of the remark, he managed a barking laugh.

Alice Dawson was a match for her husband in psychological strength and indomitability. “No use fretting about it,” she said. “There must be a way out. We’re not going to go down. What can we do?”

During his stolid march home, Dawson had been mulling over his predicament. There was no doubt that he and his wife were on their beam ends. Still, he’d had the glimmer of an idea, probably crazy but the sort of thing desperate circumstances engender at times. “Let’s just talk something through,” he said. “How many are we in all?”

“That’s easy. Eleven homesteads.”

“And how many are single men?”

“Four. Then there are three with just man and wife and four with parents and children.”

“Okay. Is everybody home now?”

Alice’s mind swept the area. “No,” she said. “Mr Bullman and Mr Swenson are away together, getting supplies at Mason’s Cross.”

“When will they be back?”

“Tomorrow, I suppose. They’re usually away for two days and they went yesterday.”

“All right. I’ll go round and see the others after we’ve eaten. We’ll have a meeting here tomorrow night. Can you cope?”

“Of course I can.”

The following afternoon, a Tuesday, all the men gathered at the Dawson place. They were keen to hear what their host had in mind, for when calling on them the previous evening, he had not thought his scheme through in detail. However, he had worked on it most of the night and all day. When he presented it, the idea caused a good deal of debate. At various times, five of the homesteaders had asked Harry Brewer for loans and all had been offered ruinous terms. They immediately approved Dawson’s plan. The others agreed, one by one. The consensus was that it seemed like a crackpot project, but that they had little more to lose. It was make or break for them. If they failed, they would have to leave, and none of them had any prospects elsewhere.

At nine o’clock on the Wednesday morning, Harry Brewer’s bank opened. The scene was one never before witnessed in Grizewood. Strung along the sidewalk from the bank’s door was a line of seventeen people – eleven men and six women. Alice Dawson had been excused to look after the homesteaders’ children.

Brewer had never needed more than one teller. The man, who had been with the bank since its opening, was a short, crusty character of fifty-odd, accustomed to dealing with customers from his position of – as he saw it – social superiority. Like so many people attuned to a routine life, he was staggered by what confronted him when he opened the door. Shaking his head, he took up his position. Brewer, who no longer wished to sully himself by too much contact with day to day business, had entered by the back door and was in his office, oblivious of the developments out front.

First in line at the counter was Zeke Dawson. “I want to open an account,” he said.

The teller was puzzled. “You already have an account,” he said.

“I know that. I want to open another.”

The teller shrugged. “All right,” he said. “How much do you want to deposit?”

“One cent.”

The teller’s eyebrows rose. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “We can’t open an account for one cent. It’s just not worth the paperwork.”

Dawson, apparently having all the time in the world, rested his elbows on the counter. “This is a bank, isn’t it?” he said.

“Of course it is.”

“Well then, what’s the problem?”

“It doesn’t make sense, that’s all. Why, if we were to open accounts for everybody who wanted to deposit one cent, we’d never get any other work done.”

Zeke Dawson smiled. “No,” he said, “you wouldn’t, would you? That would be too bad. Anyway, as it happens, I’ve one or two other matters to discuss.” He proceeded to ply the teller with a variety of banking-related questions, all superficially reasonable and without exception absurdly trivial. The teller’s bemusement increased. On the one hand, he suspected what was afoot, while on the other he was not willing to be offensive. He had his position to consider. It was twenty minutes before Zeke Dawson was satisfied, then, registering his disgust at not being able to open the new account, he walked off. Outside, he went to the end of the line, ready for his next interview, lit his pipe and began waiting patiently.

Inside, Dawson’s nearest neighbour, Irving Blenkiron, was at the counter. A tall, gangling, lantern-jawed fellow of forty-five, Blenkiron was an enigma, even to his neighbours. He was clearly a well-educated man, but had always been withdrawn and taciturn. Today, he was a revelation. Something about Dawson’s scheme had tickled him and he threw himself into the proceedings with relish. He wanted to talk about a loan. How much? Ten dollars, spread over three years.

The harassed teller responded in much the same way as he had to Dawson, but Blenkiron was not to be placated. He fired questions, initially like a human Gatling gun. The queries were well prepared and, after the first burst, became of such length and impenetrability that sensible answers were virtually impossible. Finally, after thirty minutes, Blenkiron expressed his discontent and sauntered out, joining Dawson at the end of the line.

Next at the counter was Blenkiron’s wife, a woman of vast girth and, as it turned out, of no little theatrical talent. Hers was a bravura performance. First, she insisted on a modicum of privacy, demanding that those behind her keep a respectable distance, so as not to overhear her confidential business. This was utter nonsense, since in such a tight-knit community as the homesteaders formed, there were few secrets.

Mrs Blenkiron was superb. She intoned high and low, she hectored, she implored, stamped and flounced, lassoing the beleaguered teller with questions that rivalled those of her husband in complexity and far outdid them in illogicality. Her script was liberally sprinkled with such comments as “Well, I really don’t know” and “I never heard of things like this.” It took over forty minutes for the perspiring cashier to get rid of her.

Before dealing with his next ‘customer’, the teller retreated nervously to his chief’s office. Keeping an eye on the money, he knocked on Brewer’s door and called for his boss.

Harry Brewer was neither physically nor morally courageous. But what he lacked in bravery, he usually made up in cunning. That quality had driven his rise to riches. When the teller failed to respond to his call to enter the office, Brewer waddled to the door, demanding to know what was going on. His employee explained.

Brewer weighed up the matter with remarkable speed. “All right,” he said. “Keep going and don’t lose your temper. I’ll look into the situation.” With that, he slipped out at the rear, bustled along a couple of back lots and emerged to see the line of people outside the bank, the end of which now comprised the ample form of Mrs Blenkiron, calmly awaiting her next extravaganza.

By now, it was nearly eleven o’clock. Several townspeople had already tried to carry out their banking affairs and, seeing the throng of homesteaders, had thought better of it. Most of the business houses used the bank almost daily, depositing their takings and doing whatever else they had in mind. Even as he watched, two of Brewer’s best customers walked towards his establishment, gaped at what they saw, then returned to their premises. This was becoming serious.

Brewer was not a man to be outwitted easily. Within minutes, he conceived a couple of ways of tackling the problem. First, he would consult the town marshal. He knew that his chances there were not good. Over the years, he had had differences with several local people, including Marshal Tom Dwyer. Such things rankled in a small community. Nevertheless, Dwyer was a law officer, was he not? He would have to do his duty. Brewer hurried to the marshal’s office.

Having explained to the lawman what was afoot, Brewer, anxious to keep out of sight, waited in the office until Dwyer had inspected the quiet, patient line of settlers. “Nothing wrong there that I can see,” said the marshal on his return.

Brewer was distraught. “Look,” he said, “these people are trying to disrupt my business. Surely there’s something to be done?”

Dwyer shook his head. “They’re peaceable enough,” he said. “My job is to uphold the law. They’re not disturbing it. I can’t do anything.” A fleeting smirk indicated his true feelings.

Brewer, baulked but not defeated, wobbled out of the marshal’s office and along to that of attorney Andrew Mackenzie. The dour Scottish lawyer listened to the banker’s outpouring, then shrugged. “It may be inconvenient, Harry,” he said, “but they’re not contravening any statute that I know of. I sympathise with you, but I just can’t help.” In fact, Mackenzie was not in the least sympathetic. He was concerned primarily with the letter of the law, rather than its spirit. Furthermore, being a secretive man, he did his own financial business at Mason’s Cross, thirty miles from Grizewood, so had no particular local bond in that respect.

Brewer trundled down the side of the lawyer’s office and retraced his path to the rear door of the bank. Out front, the line was undiminished. Sixteen people still waited, chatting quietly. Inside, the teller was dealing with another attempt to open an account for a risible sum, having in the meantime fended off an effort by one homesteader to get a loan of five dollars. That had taken time, as the man in question, normally quite a chatterbox, had, it seemed, been struck deaf and mute overnight and was obliged to convey his requirements by use of a grubby sheet of paper, plus a stub of pencil, the point of which broke repeatedly.

Brewer cogitated. Satisfied that there was no legal recourse available to him, he was seeking an alternative method. Like some others of his kind, Grizewood’s moneylender had found it necessary to cut corners at times, and in the course of doing that he had made contacts – not always of the most refined sort. He didn’t like what he was thinking, but there seemed to be no other way. He would call upon the services of Jim Starr.

The idea was certainly drastic. Starr was a gunman and bully-boy, usually available for hire. Brewer did not know him personally, but the man had been recommended to him by a lumber boss, who had once used the services of the hard case. Starr’s pedigree as an intimidator, strike-breaker and killer, was impressive. Among other things, he had operated as far away as the Pennsylvania coalfields, where he had been active in the battle against the Molly Maguires. He had a reputation for unpredictability, as well as violence. Also, he owed allegiance to the highest payer and had been known to change sides. Well, a successful banker was wealthy enough to buy the fellow’s services. And if Brewer’s information was correct, Starr could be contacted at Millboro, only forty miles south of Grizewood.

By midday, his mind made up, Harry Brewer went home and prepared his buggy for departure, then slipped back into his office and called in his by now frantic teller. “Just keep calm,” he said. “I have the answer. Talk to them, stall them, but try to avoid being offensive. We’ll soon have this settled.” With that disconcerting instruction, he left.

For the rest of Wednesday, the homesteaders besieged the bank, shutting out everyone else. At the close of business they dispersed, only to reconvene the following morning, to give a repeat day-long performance, before adjourning to prepare themselves for a third show. Their frivolous inquiries were in full spate when Brewer returned at nine-thirty on the Friday morning. Less than two hours later, Starr arrived. He was a tall grim-faced man, dark-clad, riding a handsome chestnut horse and wearing an ivory-handled Colt Peacemaker.

Starr was not a man to let grass grow under his feet. Within twenty minutes of his arrival, he had looked around the town and taken stock. That done, he strolled up to the settlers waiting outside the bank. His bleak grey eyes raked the line, picking out Dawson, who had been described to him by Brewer. “You Dawson?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

“You’re the ringleader of these people?”

Dawson stepped forward. “We don’t have a leader,” he said, “let alone a ringleader. But I sometimes speak for my friends, if they’re agreeable.”

Starr maintained his cold, hard look. “You’d better come along with me.”

Seeing the six-gun thonged down to Starr’s right thigh, Dawson, mindful in particular of the presence of the women, nodded and moved off with the gunman. Starr led the way around the corner of the bank and along the adjacent alley. When they reached the back of the building, Starr stopped. “I guess you know why I’m here?” he said, patting the gun.

Dawson had half-expected this. He nodded. “I can imagine,” he said. “I suppose Brewer’s hired you to break this thing up?”

“That’s right. Whether it’s to be the hard way or not is up to you.”

“Mind if I ask what Brewer’s paying you?”

“That depends. If you stop this and go home, I get five hundred dollars, flat fee. If it comes to shooting, it’s the same, plus two hundred a man.”

“What about the ladies?”

“I don’t charge for killing women,” Starr said dispassionately. “I’ll try to spare them, but if they get in the way, I give no guarantees.”

Dawson was as prepared as he could be. “Well,” he said, “we’re not armed, and anyway, most us couldn’t hit a barn from twenty paces. We’re no match for you. But I have an idea that might interest you, if you’ll listen.”

Starr nodded. “I always listen to people,” he said. “Tell me what’s on your mind, but make it quick.”

“All right. Now, you know what today is?”

“It’s Friday. So what?”

“Not just Friday. It’s the last Friday of the month. Now, as I see it . . .”

Twenty minutes after Dawson finished talking to Starr, he was back in line outside the bank, having briefed the other conspirators on what to expect. It was now almost noon, and apart from the settlers’ subdued talk, the usual midday hush had descended over Grizewood. Inside, the teller was preparing to close for an hour, to get a meal and prepare for another harrowing afternoon. Suddenly, the somnolence was broken by a single, sharp noise. “That sounded like a gunshot,” said Blenkiron.

Seconds later, Starr appeared at the corner of the bank. Stepping up onto the sidewalk, he walked slowly along the line of farmers, went inside and up to the counter. He elbowed aside a man who was trying to open an account with ten cents. Drawing his six-gun, he pointed it at the teller, while using his left hand to produce an empty flour sack. “You know what to do,” he said. “Fill it, and don’t fool around. I know near enough what you have in there. If you hold out, you die. Get to it!”

With panic overcoming paralysis, the teller scooped handful after handful of banknotes and coins into the sack. “Now the safe,” said Starr.

“I . . . I’m not allowed to . . .”

“You open it in ten seconds, or I shoot you dead.” Starr’s flat tone was more effective than any rage would have been. The teller opened the safe, took out a tin box, brought it to the counter and emptied it into the sack.

It was all over in less than two minutes. Starr scooped up the haul. “Seems about right,” he muttered to himself, then he nodded to the teller: “Okay, lie on the floor, face down, and keep quiet.” The man needed no second bidding. Starr walked out, his gun still drawn. On the sidewalk, he waved the weapon at Dawson. “Come with me,” he said.

Once again, the two men disappeared around the corner and walked down the alley. At the rear end, Starr’s horse was waiting. The gunman turned to face Dawson then, apparently in no hurry, opened the sack and inspected its contents. “You were right,” he said. “There must be over three thousand here. Real smart of you to remember that it was payday hereabouts. Would’ve been a shame to kill a man as bright as you. Now, how much do you reckon your people had invested?”

“As near as I can say, we figure one-hundred and ninety-two dollars. I don’t think anyone would have lied to me.”

Starr pulled out two fifties, four twenties, a ten and two singles. “That covers it then,” he said. “Now, you said you were asking for a loan. How much?”

“A hundred dollars.”

Starr fished out five more twenties. “Okay, that’ll settle your problem.” Then he was struck by a thought, which brought the slightest flicker of a smile to his face. “You said Brewer was going to charge interest. What rate?”

“He said ten per cent, but it was sixteen, the way I figured it.”

“The damned crook,” snapped Starr. He dug into the sack again, drew out another fistful of bills and peeled off a ten, a five and a single. “There you are. You’ve got sixteen per cent interest, instead of paying it. Seems like your lucky day. Now, give me two hours, then go to the marshal’s office. You’ll find him tied up and gagged. Tell him not to follow me. That isn’t healthy.”

Dawson stuffed the money into his shirt pocket. What about Brewer?” he asked. “He’ll raise hell over this.”

Starr mounted his horse. “He won’t trouble you again. Where he’s gone, he won’t trouble anybody.”

Dawson recalled the gunshot. He looked up into those fathomless eyes. “For God’s sake, you didn’t – ?”

“Never mind what I did. Just say I’m a man who doesn’t like loose ends.” Then Starr leaned down, his face finally showing real animation. “Remember that, in case you’re ever inclined to blab. Goodbye, Dawson.”

* * *

July 18th, 2012, 02:22 PM
Nice lucid prose. I ma going to read this more carefully an dcome back to you...if my obeseravtions have any merit at all, only wil tell. But well done

July 18th, 2012, 06:37 PM
Dear Duncan,

Thank you for your comments, which are the sort of observations that make the effort worth while. I hope you will like the next tale of this kind, which I expect to post on Sunday. Assuming you have not already read my work on the humour forum, I wonder whether you might like to try this.

Best wishes - Cj

July 18th, 2012, 06:55 PM
I really enjoyed this and found it to be incredibly well written. I would be interested in reading more.

I have no idea why...but I loved this line: He leaned back, his original chin resting on the makings of a second. To me that is brilliance!

July 20th, 2012, 02:55 PM
Your prose is very fluid, you've developed your characters and provided a story that is compelling. Couldn't really ask for more. And I agree about the "original chin"...a very nice observation

July 21st, 2012, 06:24 PM
Dear Alabastrine,

Many thanks for your comments. When one has made a considerable effort to offer entertainment, it is so good to know that someone appreciates this. I hope you will also enjoy ‘Leggett’s Law’, the second tale in what I am calling ‘Sunset Stories’. This item is to be posted immediately.

Best wishes – Cj

July 21st, 2012, 06:30 PM
Dear Duncan,

Thank you for your further remarks, which are as much appreciated as the previous ones. I intended to post the second tale in what I am calling ‘Sunset Stories’ tomorrow, but have decided to do this today. I try to maintain the same standard throughout all my work, so I hope you will enjoy this latest offering.

Best wishes – Cj

July 21st, 2012, 06:36 PM

Judge Lemuel Leggett MD was a comprehensive misnomer, for the bearer of that imposing title had had neither legal nor medical training and his name was an alias. Nevertheless, the partly assumed, partly awarded identity was known for many miles around the spot in Arizona which he had made first his refuge, then his home, then his power base. No-one ever questioned the social correctness of the elevated form of address. It had been acquired by degrees over many years and that was good enough for everybody.

Fifty-six years before he tried the case which caused him to cease dispensing justice, Leggett had been born James Cutler. His parents were Missouri farmers and while their only child was still in infancy, they were attracted to what Cutler senior called ‘The Real West’, moving to a quarter-section of passably good agricultural land near Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. It was there that young Cutler grew to manhood.

James had a more or less normal upbringing. He was bright and intensely inquisitive. Apart from a distinctly larcenous bent, albeit indulged only infrequently, he bore the respectable family name with as much honour as he could muster – or did so for some years, until one day he deemed it advisable to change his lifestyle. This occurred at the same time as he considered it wise to depart the scenes of his formative years, following an incident involving a keg of gunpowder and a jailhouse in which a friend of his was incarcerated.

It seemed best to head south, so he did and in the process, James Cutler vanished and Lemuel Leggett emerged. He took the forename from the hero of his favourite childhood book, Gulliver’s Travels, and the surname because it was the first one that came to him and there seemed little point in rummaging around for another. And anyway, as he reasoned later, he was after all ‘legging it’ at the time, so maybe the choice was inspired.

After some weeks of swift and prudently tortuous travel, the newly created Lemuel Leggett arrived at that far-flung speck in the Southwest which was to be his adopted hometown. On leaving Wyoming, he had gathered up as much money as he could, including some which did not belong to him, so he was not destitute. However, the question of making a living soon became obtrusive.

Being a pragmatic man, Leggett concluded that he would need to capitalise on the assets he had. It was at this point that he realised that he had led a fairly sheltered life. He knew something of farming, for he had always helped his parents. Beyond that, however, his scope was narrow. Physically, his attributes were limited. He was of slightly less than average height, slim build and limited strength. Punching cows, felling trees or grovelling in a mine did not appeal to him.

What then, did Leggett have to offer? Well, he was widely read, especially in medical and legal matters. The few friends he had cultivated in Wyoming had often referred to him as a walking dictionary, such was his propensity for using long, uncommon words. He delivered them well, for he had a deep, resonant voice and full, rounded tones. He would have made a fine actor, or an impressive politician. Indeed, he had considered those occupations and rejected both, though not before establishing that he could see little difference between them.

Despite having no formal background in jurisprudence, Leggett knew a good deal more of the law than might be expected of any layman, his labyrinthine mind having drawn him into reading all the literature he could find on that subject. What he did not know, he could extemporise with a speed, facility and conviction sufficient to satisfy any but the most erudite company.

As to medical matters, there again he’d had no official schooling, but in this field he was even more widely read than in the legal one. Also, he had some amateur practical experience. Furthermore, he could recite Gunn’s ‘Domestic Medicine’ and Thomson’s ‘The Family Physician’ almost verbatim and he was familiar with the work of McDonnell, Beaumont and Drake. His confidence in his ability to produce ad hoc solutions to a wide range of medical problems was at least as great as the self-certainty he had in legal affairs.

Leggett worked on what he called the gamesman’s principle, believing that if he knew, say, five per cent more than the next man about any given question, that would usually be enough. He would come out on top, for the other party wouldn’t know that he was only slightly to the fore – he might have been a hundred per cent ahead.

Not that Leggett was a complete charlatan. His interest in the relief of human suffering was genuine and his methods, within the scope of his knowledge, were entirely proper and usually effective. Indeed, his expertise in the field of herbal remedies was outstanding.

So Lemuel Leggett decided to be a physician. He would also handle minor surgical matters, but to avoid tarnishing any reputation he might build, he would refer more serious cases to those better equipped to cope with them. With admirable single-mindedness, he set about scouring the countryside for herbs and other plants germane to his calling. Those he could not find, he had mailed to him. He dried, boiled, distilled and infused with rare dedication. Fortune smiled on him in the matter of accommodation. He acquired premises ideal for his purpose, the property having been vacated on the death of the previous owner, who had the misfortune to intercept a .44 bullet with his midriff.

It took time, but Lemuel Leggett’s qualities won through. His waxing expertise and that deep, reassuring voice brought in the sufferers and what Leggett couldn’t rectify, he usually managed to alleviate. The subject of qualifications did not arise. At the time, there were no legal restrictions in those parts to prevent anyone acting as a medical practitioner. If a man behaved like a doctor, he was a doctor. That accounted for Leggett’s addition of the M.D. to his nomenclature.

The question of payment was often fraught. Perhaps half the time, Leggett would receive cash. When that failed, he found himself rewarded with a bewildering variety of items – beef, chickens, eggs, vegetables, home made liquor, cigars, flour, indeed almost anything consumable or somehow negotiable. Once he wound up with such a glut of steaks that he had to bustle around more than somewhat to barter them off for other items. In exchange for his surplus, he received five bottles of whiskey, half a box of rifle ammunition and a pair of boots.

It was in part because of this difficult matter of payment that Leggett shifted slowly to his second occupation. In the same way as a man did not strictly need officially recognised expertise to practise medicine in such a remote area, he did not need a certified legal background to be considered a lawyer. Diplomas were useful but they were not prerequisites. If a man had a smattering of law, plus the right manner and air of command, he was likely to find himself at the hub of such legal machinery as existed.

So it was with Lemuel Leggett. The small, neat, quick-moving frame, the dark, sober dress, aquiline features and sharp repartee combined to give him an aura of leadership. In the fullness of time and in the absence of any more acceptable framework, he was prevailed upon to administer such law as there was and eventually to make up his own version as he went along. In due course, he became known far and wide as Justice of the Peace Leggett and at length as simply Judge Leggett.

Naturally he demurred a little at first, but no more than decency required. After all, he had to consider his medical practice, had he not? When asked, albeit casually, about his status, he let it be known that he had had some involvement with the law in his former home area. This was quite true and no one pressed him for details as to which side of the system he meant. He even went so far as to intimate that he had thought of a judicial career, again a rather fine choice of words, considering his lack of the usual wherewithal. However, he had decided, at least initially, that medicine came first. Still, if the call came, a right-thinking man would be churlish to ignore it. So, without telling a single lie, Lemuel Leggett emerged as the local lawgiver.

He brought to his legal duties the same assiduous effort as he devoted to medical ones. As the years passed, Lemuel Leggett prospered. In fact he did so to such an extent that people began to pass comments. He displayed a marked predilection for imposing fines rather than jail sentences, even when the latter would have been reasonable. The less worthy minds in the community started to indulge in speculation concerning the proportion of the monetary impositions that found its way into the intended coffers. However, as the judge remarked on several occasions, justice could not be administered free of charge. There were legitimate expenses.

Matters came to a head over Leggett’s handling of the trouble caused by the Silverdale brothers. There were three of them, all rapscallions. They had been bad enough while their father was still alive. Following his death, two years before their last clash with Judge Leggett began, the Silverdale boys were seldom out of trouble. Again and again they appeared in court, often singly, sometimes two at once and not infrequently all three together. Always the judge fined them, occasionally going within an inch of sterner measures. It was uncanny how Leggett seemed to know to the dollar what the young reprobates were able to pay. Like a certain statesman, he appeared to have perfected the art of plucking the goose without killing it. At length, the patience of a sufficient number of people came to an end. A deputation was formed, the members facing Leggett with a demand for more drastic steps to curb the Silverdales’ depredations. His Honour promised to give the matter serious attention and, seeing his laboriously built social position in danger of tottering, he acted swiftly.

Leggett was nothing if not thorough. He formed a small committee, consisting of himself, Will Loomis, a rancher who lived close to the Silverdales, Ted Roach, the freight office manager, Bert Clayton, owner of the largest store in the town and Jim Broadwood, the gunsmith. The committee was unofficial. In fact it was so much so that no-one but the members knew that it existed. Its sole purpose was to see that something was done about the unruly brothers.

The committee had only one meeting of any great consequence, held in the backroom of Clayton’s store. At first, it was put forward that the next time any of the Silverdale boys did the slightest thing wrong, an example should be made of him. However, Judge Leggett saw the need for quick, decisive action. His conduct of the rest of the meeting was machiavellian. He sowed a seed here, gave a veiled intimation there and without appearing to have made any such suggestion himself, led his team to the conclusion that a refinement of the original proposal was required. It might be inadvisable to wait. Why not, it was felt, give a helping hand to the inevitable workings of providence?

Progress was swift. Two days after the meeting, an old shack belonging to Will Loomis and no longer used for its original purpose, was burned to the ground. The incident occurred late in the evening, Loomis being in town at the time. By a curious coincidence, three members of the committee, Roach, Clayton and Broadwood, had been returning home after a day’s fishing. They were passing the Loomis place when the blaze was at its height and all were willing to swear on a stack of Bibles to having seen two of the Silverdale brothers, George and Stephen, standing close to the inferno, each holding a flaming torch. The committee members had been unable to get close enough to do anything about extinguishing the fire, but they had seen the Silverdale boys mount their horses and ride off towards their own place.

The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. Three such worthy citizens as Roach, Clayton and Broadwood could hardly be doubted, and they weren’t. It was in vain that George and Stephen Silverdale asserted, truthfully, that they had been at home, playing cards at the time in question. Only the youngest brother, Robert, could not be implicated, for it was widely known that when the incident occurred, he had been in a saloon fifteen miles away, where he was visiting friends, as a score of people could confirm.

Judge Leggett had no difficulty in finding the right jury, all good men and true, who could be relied upon to bring in the right verdict. They did so, whereupon His Honour gave probably the most impressive summing up he had ever delivered, laced with words the length and depth of which left his listeners awestruck. Such conduct was utterly disgusting. The brothers’ behaviour was reprehensible in the extreme. The laudable vigilance of three stalwart townspeople had resuscitated the generally waning belief in the spirit of sound citizenship. He was gratified to note that his flagging confidence in civic virtue had been but evanescent. And so on.

Then came the sentencing. Leggett pulled forward his recently obtained spectacles, staring at the Silverdale brothers. “You have been found guilty of the crime with which you were charged,” he intoned sonorously, “and you may consider yourselves fortunate that it was not a barn that was razed in the conflagration you caused. Had that been the case, I would have been compelled to take an even more serious view of your conduct than the one I already hold. I am bound to adopt the most severe measures to protect the community from your kind. As for you, George Silverdale, cognisant as I am of the precedents and statutes of this and other lands, regarding the concept of primogeniture, I am obliged – “

“What’s that?” asked the baffled George.

“What’s what?” the judge snapped back.

“Primo … what you said?”

“Primogeniture. In lay terms it means you’re the first born son and as such, you should have known better. And don’t interrupt.”

This was twisting the principle the judge had mentioned out of all recognition, but he’d had been itching to get that one in and knew that no-one present was capable of contesting his bizarre interpretation.

“I was saying,” he went on, “that I am obliged to deal with you sternly. However,” here he turned his gaze upon Stephen Silverdale, “in view of my past experience of your behaviour, I am bound to consider you equally culpable. You will both be imprisoned for two years. Case concluded.”

This was the first time that Leggett had exercised his power of penitential sentencing, recently conferred upon him by an overstretched judiciary. The authority had not been given to him because of any great sagacity on his part, but on account of the fact that no better qualified man was available to serve in the area, and Leggett’s administration was considered better than none.

The outraged brothers were led away, protesting furiously. Following their departure, there was an unofficial meeting of the clandestine committee, at which congratulations and liquor flowed freely. The judge informed his colleagues that he would not consider the operation finished while there was still one of the awkward fraternity at large. Disposing of him would henceforth be the only item on the agenda.

As it happened, Leggett was to have no need to concern himself with the entrapment of the remaining brother. Robert Silverdale, then twenty-one, was the youngest and undoubtedly the most reckless of his clan. Faced with the shocking treatment of his brothers and the need continue running the family ranch, he might have been excused for breaking down completely, or yielding to helpless resentment. He did neither. After a few hours of fuming, he set himself to considering what action to take, for it never occurred to him to do nothing.

There was no way for Robert to set right the injustice to his brothers, so he concluded that his best course was to ensure that George and Stephen would have something to come back to following their spell of rockbreaking. He decided that they would thereafter live in comfort. To do that, they would need money or something easily convertible thereto. It didn’t take the youngest Silverdale long to grasp that he would have to steal whatever was necessary. With a dazzling brainwave, he fastened upon the fact that the obvious source was Judge Leggett, who was by then the wealthiest man around. It was an appropriately scriptural idea, Robert thought an eye for an eye. He would rob the judge.

Not being given to dawdling, Robert put his plan into action at once. His brothers had been taken to the penitentiary on a Thursday morning and at midnight on the following Saturday, he struck.

Although Judge Leggett was now having an impressive new house built on the edge of town, he had never previously cut much of a dash with respect to accommodation. On grounds of convenience, he had continued to live and conduct his medical practice on the main street. As the years had rolled by, he had extended the building into the back lot behind the original store. Fronting the premises, under the sidewalk awning, was the door and to its left, one large window. This was the dispensary. Behind that was the consulting room and at the rear was a small laboratory. Leggett, a bachelor, kept the two upstairs rooms for his private use.

It was dry and bitterly cold as Robert Silverdale broke in by forcing open a back window. Lighting a lamp, he looked around and was about to dismiss the room as useless to him when he noticed, among the bottles and retorts on a testing bench, a small black notebook. Endowed with a fair measure of curiosity, he opened it. As he looked over the contents, written in Leggett’s small, neat hand, his eyebrows rose. His mission temporarily forgotten, he pulled up a chair and read intently, oblivious of the precarious nature of his position.

As he read on, Robert became increasingly engrossed. At one point, still unmindful of his whereabouts, he drew in his breath sharply and emitted a low whistle. For over half an hour, he pored over the little book, then he closed it and began a careful examination of the room, paying particular attention to the contents of the glass-fronted cabinets. Very soon, he would be cursing himself for not moving on more quickly, as the delay was to have consequences.

Judge Leggett was returning late from the nearby saloon, when he saw a light in his bedroom, the intruder having by then worked his way there and incautiously placed his lamp close to the drawn curtains. Leggett rushed back to the saloon to fetch the town marshal, Ed Donnelly, with whom he had just been playing cards, and both men returned hurriedly to Leggett’s place. Thus it was that when Robert Silverdale tried to leave by the back door, disappointed with his paltry haul of cash and trinkets, he walked into the business end of a shotgun. Always audacious, he instantly suppressed a flash of panic, mustering sufficient composure to produce a cheery greeting. “Evening, Marshal,” he said. “Not a very nice one at that.”

Donnelly sniggered. “As far as you’re concerned, it’s likely to get a deal worse,” he retorted.

Robert spent a sleepless night in the town jail, knowing that the machinery of justice would move quickly. It did. At ten o’clock in the morning, Donnelly called in to tell his prisoner that the case would be heard at three that afternoon. With a sardonic twist of humour, he asked whether Robert had any ‘last’ request.

“Sure do,” said Robert. “I guess I’ll go into the pokey with George and Steve. Maybe you’d just step along to Bert Clayton’s place and ask him to slip me one of them little flat bottles of whisky he keeps. The good stuff he gets from Scotland. Might as well have a high-class drink before the show.”

“Okay,” said the marshal, feeling generous in victory. “I guess we can allow that.” He clumped off to Clayton’s store, returning with the precious liquid. “Must be sippin’ liquor at this price,” he commented, collecting payment from his prisoner.

“Well, it’s different from the poison that Bert usually peddles,” Robert replied, handling the flask with due reverence. He took a modest pull at the contents then, with laudable self-discipline, set the bottle aside and sprawled on the lower bunk, trying to cultivate a philosophical attitude to his predicament.

Shortly before noon, the Silverdales’ sole hired hand called in to see what he was to do if Robert received the treatment that both men feared likely. The instructions were as clear as they were sombre. In a hopelessly unsatisfactory situation, the employee was to do what he could to keep the place going.

Punctually at three o’clock, Robert was led into the rearranged barroom of the saloon, where Leggett held court. The legal supremo had been busy. Ordinarily, he would have dealt with such a case himself. This time there was, to Robert’s surprise, a jury. Not any old jury, but the very same one which had officiated in the case of his brothers. Clearly the judge took a serious view of the matter, as a court sitting on a Sunday was unprecedented.

Leggett entered, doffing his latest affectation, a menacing black top hat, reflective of his growing gravitas. He crashed down his gavel and the proceedings began. It was as open and shut as a case could be, and in what seemed to Robert like no time at all, he was found guilty.

On this occasion, Judge Leggett, having used up most of his store of impressive words during the trial of the older Silverdale brothers, was not inclined to verbosity. Within an ace of his final triumph over the troublesome brood, he intended to push the matter through quickly and get Robert behind bars. However, he did take time to point out that he had convened a jury because he was concerned to be seen as scrupulously fair, in view of his own involvement as victim of the crime in question. He simply informed Robert that he was sick and tired of dealing with him and his family and that a further example would have to be made. Robert would go to the penitentiary for one year and the judge was sorry that he could not make it longer. This was a prime piece of hypocrisy, as the absence of any one of the Silverdales, let alone all of them, would sharply reduce the comforting flow of fines. However, Leggett’s brief speech completely satisfied his erstwhile critics among the townspeople. Ah, well, he reasoned, sometimes a general had to retreat in order to advance.

Robert was admirably stoical. As the improvised courtroom was being cleared, Judge Leggett moved towards the bar, while Marshal Donnelly stepped in to take the prisoner away. Robert asked that he be granted a private word with the judge, as he was concerned about the maintenance of the Silverdale ranch during the brothers’ absence. He held up his hands, palms outwards, indicating that he had no violent intentions. For a moment the judge looked suspicious, then, too full of his victory to deny the simple request, he nodded a curt dismissal to Donnelly and the barkeeper, who departed, leaving the room to the judge and Robert.

Leggett faced the young miscreant. “Now, Silverdale,” he said gruffly, “this is highly irregular, but in view of your difficult circumstances, I’ll give you five minutes. We’ll take a drink, seeing that you’re not likely to get another for a while.” He flipped a hand at the whiskey bottle and two glasses considerately left by the barman and now at the young rancher’s elbow.

“Don’t mind if I do, Judge,” said Robert. He poured a shot, then was struck by a thought. “Oh, what happened to my manners? Here, try this.” He pulled the flask of Highland malt from a pocket and filled the judge’s glass. “Runs a damn sight more than ten cents a shot, but it’s worth the difference. These people have been making the stuff for a good few years, so I guess they’ve got it about right by now. By the way, I’ve often wondered where that place is up there. Do you know?” He was pointing at a picture on the wall behind the judge.

Leggett turned and stared in the direction of Robert’s finger, his mind running back through the years. “It’s part of the San Juan Mountains, northeast of here. Quite good work in my opinion. As it happens, I’ve stood at the very spot where the artist must have been when he painted it.” He swung back. “However, let us not distract ourselves. I’m pleased to see that you’re taking this in the right spirit. There’s nothing personal in it, you know.”

“Oh, I realise that,” Robert replied affably. “I suppose we’ve been a headache to you for a long time. I reckon we Silverdales have got what we deserve and I’m not complaining. Bottoms up, Your Honour.” The drinks went down quickly and Robert refilled the glasses.

“Now,” said Leggett, “you wanted to talk about your place being looked after in your absence. I don’t know why you should ask me, but I’m not an uncaring man and if I can do anything that will help to keep you on a straight road when you return here, I’ll certainly oblige.” This was another foray into cynicism, as it had not escaped Leggett’s notice that the Silverdale spread was likely to go to rack and ruin during its owners’ imprisonment. In that case, it would probably become available at a knockdown price and either Leggett himself or some nominee selected by him might make a nice bargain. That would suit the wily lawgiver’s diversification plans.

Finishing his drink with connoisseur’s relish, the judge rapped his glass on the bar. “Speaking of that straight road,” he said gravely, “I do hope that you and your brothers will use the time you’re going to have on your hands for reflection. When you come back, I don’t want to see any more of this harum-scarum behaviour.”

Robert grinned. “That’s funny, Judge,” he said. “I’d have thought you might like more of it, seeing as it brings so much money your way.”

The judge straightened, suddenly stiff with anger. “I didn’t agree to this talk in order hear your impertinence,” he snapped. “Let me just advise you to spend your time constructively in future.”

“Oh, I usually do that, Judge,” Robert replied. “You’d be surprised how well I use my leisure hours. Take last night, for instance.”

Leggett’s eyes widened. “I’d hardly call it constructive to break into a house, then get arrested and sent to prison,” he said. “Anyway, if you have a point, get to it. You’ve had your five minutes and it’s very warm in here.” The judge was indeed sweating. He ran the forefinger of his right hand around the inside of his collar.

Robert continued smiling, in amazingly high spirits for a man in his situation. “Well,” he said, “it’s true that getting arrested was a mistake, but you didn’t catch me because I was stupid. It just happened that I lost track of time when I was busy in that back room of yours.”

“My laboratory?” Leggett was baffled. “What did you find so interesting there?”

“Well, mostly I was reading in that little black notebook of yours with all that stuff about unusual combinations of herbal substances. You’re real well up on that, Judge.”

Leggett nodded. “Yes,” he said, “It’s an aspect of my work. But I can’t stay here all day chatting with you, Silverdale. Your sentence doesn’t become operative until I sign the committal paper, which I shall do in half an hour or so.”

“What happens if you don’t?”

“As far as I know, such circumstances have never arisen anywhere. If they were to do so, I believe a retrial would be necessary, and as there is no circuit judge in these parts, the case would be heard elsewhere. Anyway, that’s irrelevant. It’s time to say goodbye.”

“Oh, you’re right about that, Judge. I reckon we only have another three or four minutes.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“Just this: while I was poking around in your place, I borrowed something from you.” He pulled from his pocket a small brown bottle, the label bearing Leggett’s handwriting, topped by a skull and crossbones.

Robert’s grin widened. “I stuffed this into my boot last night, so you wouldn’t find it. I guess you didn’t notice that while you were looking at the picture up there, I switched to the saloon liquor for my first drink, and you’ll see I haven’t touched the second. ‘Course, I’m afraid you got enough of this in yours to do the trick. Colourless, odourless, tasteless and untraceable it says in your book. Simulates a seizure, works in ten minutes and there’s no antidote. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know that there’d be another trial, where you can’t pick the jury, but I’ll take my chances on that. What’s up Judge? You don’t look well.”

* * *

July 28th, 2012, 06:21 PM

Steve Dunne sat his horse atop the ridge that loomed over the ugly straggle of buildings widely, though not officially, known as Hell’s Elbow. The place wasn’t marked on any map. Among the cognoscenti, it had acquired the first part of its name from a reputation for harbouring outlaws and the second from its proximity to the river which rolled in from the northwest, then swung southwards, confining the settlement between its northern bank and the rocky escarpment on which Steve had halted. For him, it was the end of a journey of over a thousand miles, the last hundred on a rented gelding.

So this was the domain of Claude Turnbull, leader of a band that deferred not even to that of the James brothers in notoriety. The location of Turnbull’s hideout wasn’t common knowledge. Had it been so, lawmen galore would have descended upon this corner of Texas. Steve Dunne had come upon the spot by diligent application of his usual combination of enquiry, hunch and persistence.

Short of a tedious trek northwest or south, Steve’s only way into Hell’s Elbow was to take the barely detectable serpentine path down the steep slope, which would put him in full view of the buildings during the whole of his approach. For him, it was an easy choice, as he intended to be seen well ahead of his arrival. He nudged the horse forward, beginning the zigzag descent.

It was late afternoon when Steve reached the settlement. The path ended in a one-sided street, comprising a dozen or so wooden structures – an unprepossessing redoubt for those enjoying the proceeds of their crimes.

Most of the buildings gave no indication of their functions, but one had the batwing doors of a saloon. Steve took note of this as he passed along the street to a ramshackle heap that was a livery barn of sorts. No one was in attendance, so he saw to his horse then walked back to the saloon, finding it cold, dimly lit and altogether thoroughly uninviting. Until his arrival, the bartender had been the only occupant.

Steve ordered a beer and was pleased to find it better than he’d expected. “We don’t get many strangers here,” said the barman, a tall, thin fellow whose lugubrious expression matched his surroundings.

“I don’t aim to be a stranger for long,” replied Steve. “I’m looking for Claude Turnbull. Heard he runs a spread hereabouts.”

The remark was intentionally provocative and drew the response Steve had expected. Raising his eyebrows, the barman stared hard at the newcomer. “Nobody of that name around here, mister,” he said. “Only ranch in these parts is owned by Tom Ashcroft.”

Steve grinned. “No need to be cagey, friend,” he said. “You know he calls himself Ashcroft, I know it and guess everybody else here does. We all know he’s Claude Turnbull.”

The barman shook his head slowly. “You’d better be careful what you say,” he answered. “Talk like that could get a man into trouble. There’s nothing goes on around here that Ashcroft doesn’t find out about, pretty quick.”

“That’s okay by me,” said Steve. “I intend to join up with him.”

“Oh. Does he know that?”

“Not yet.”

The saloonkeeper swished a towel across the bartop. “Well,” he said, “maybe you know what you’re doing, but you’re a pushy gent. If I was you, I’d watch my step.”

“Thanks for the advice,” said Steve. “Now, if you can fix me up with a room for tonight, I’ll drop in on Turnbull tomorrow. Kind of surprise him.” Like Steve’s opening show of bravado, this was a deliberate ploy. If his guess was right, the barman wouldn’t let the matter rest there.

Upstairs, there were three cheerless bedrooms. Steve took the least disagreeable one and after getting himself a meal at the dingy eating house along the street, he bought a bottle of the saloon’s best whiskey and settled himself down for an early night. He had made as good a start as could be expected.

The barkeeper didn’t waste much time and neither did Claude Turnbull. It was dawn when the visitors came. Steve was awake, working out how he would play his hand. He heard only the faintest sound of a boot scraping the floor outside his room, then the door was kicked open and two men, handguns drawn, advanced upon the bed. “No sudden moves,” rasped one of them. Steve obliged.

The men differed only in size, one tall, the other short. Both were slim, dark-faced, stubble-jawed types. Four cold, hard eyes were fixed on Steve as steadily as the two gun barrels. “Get dressed,” said the taller man. “You’re takin’ a ride.”

“No need for the big show, boys,” Steve answered, pulling on his boots, “but you could have waited till after breakfast.”

“Cut the gab,” snarled the tall man. “We got your horse outside. Just walk between us, an’ remember there’s a couple of itchy trigger-fingers around.” His partner swept up Steve’s gun belt and weapon from the bedpost.

The newcomer hadn’t expected the reaction to his arrival to be quite so prompt, but wasn’t put out. These hard cases could only be Turnbull’s minions. He would go along with them up to a point but given the right opening, he would do things his way. With the shorter man leading and his companion at the rear, the party descended the stairs and clumped across the creaky floorboards.

For an instant, Steve considered trying something with the batwing doors, but rejected the idea. There would probably be a better opportunity. There was, and it came quickly. Outside, at the hitchrail, Steve’s horse was between those of his captors. The short man moved to his mount. His partner nudged Steve with a .45. “Go to your bronc,” he grunted. “Don’t get aboard before I tell you to.” When he was satisfied that Steve was in position, he swung up onto his horse, finally holstering his gun, confident that he had a defenceless prisoner. “You can mount now,” he said.

Steve weighed up the position. These two messengers were probably under instructions to use no more force than necessary. They wouldn’t be bargaining with catching a tiger by the tail in their own stronghold. The horses were standing close together and, reasoning that there might not be another chance, Steve acted. He got his left foot into its stirrup, then, as his right leg swung up, he lashed it out, backwards and upwards.

The move was risky, but it worked. Steve’s boot thudded into the mounted man’s right arm, thrusting his body to the left. As much from surprise as from the impact, the man toppled out of his saddle, his right foot flying free, the left one failing to clear the stirrup. The man’s head and shoulders thumped to the ground. Rounding the startled horse, Steve was upon the fellow in a flash, slamming a fist at his jaw and using a knee to pin his right arm to the ground. Grabbing the man’s gun from its holster, Steve silenced him by rapping the barrel behind his ear. Confused by the sudden action and the poor light, the other man, not yet mounted, hesitated. Steve, no stranger to swift violent action, took the initiative. “Keep still,” he snapped. “I’ve got your pard out cold and I can see your legs. If you move one of them, I’ll shoot the other.”

The short man stood irresolute for a moment, then made his decision. “Okay,” he said. “I ain’t bein’ paid to get plugged. Not this time anyway.”

“You’re talking good sense,” Steve replied. “Now, just throw your gun and mine over there into the street, where I can see them, then step clear, nice and slow. And keep your back to me.” The man obeyed and Steve recovered his gun, tossing away the other two weapons. He strode over to the short fellow and jabbed him between the shoulder blades with the gun barrel and snapped: “Turnbull sent you, right?”


“Good. Here’s your choice. You can direct me to his place and live, or refuse and die. It’s all the same to me. What’s it to be?”

“Hell, mister, there’s no need to get rough. You just head east, down the trail. It’s only four miles.” He jerked his thumb back over his head to show the way.

For a moment, Steve thought of marching the inept duo ahead of him, then, seeing a lariat slung on the tall man’s saddle, he reconsidered. Taking the rope and cutting it in two, he trussed both would-be abductors across their horses then moved the party off in line abreast, himself in the middle.

It was full daylight when Steve and his involuntary escort reached the Turnbull place, an apology for a cattle spread, with a scatter of dilapidated, weather-beaten wooden outbuildings around the adobe ranch house. The threesome got to within fifteen yards of the house when a man came to the door.

Steve had seen enough pictures to have no doubt in the matter of identification. He was looking at a man around forty-five years old, of middling height, heavily built, with a bulging mid-section. The hatless head was well thatched with salt and pepper hair, the sharp blue eyes set in a round, fleshy face. This was Claude Turnbull all right. He looked mildly amused, but didn’t speak immediately.

Steve cut the ropes binding his hapless would-be captors to their horses and heaved the two men to the ground. “Morning,” he called to Turnbull. “I was coming to see you anyway. If you wanted me sooner, you didn’t need to send these two hunks of buzzard bait.”

Turnbull waved a hand at a wiry little man, standing at the door of the log bunkhouse. “Mort, get these boys out of the way. I’ll talk to them later.” The voice wasn’t raised much, but covered the thirty yards between the two men. Then Turnbull’s full attention was once more focused on Steve. “Well, sir, whoever you are, you know how to make an entrance. I’ll give you that.” The tone was low, clear and well-controlled. “Light down and tell me what you want here.”

Steve dismounted. “I’d a notion to join the famous Turnbull outfit,” he said, matching the gang leader’s quiet tones. “Seems maybe you need somebody if these two fellows are the best you have.”

Turnbull smiled and made no attempt to deny his identity. “No,” he said. “They’re not the best I have. Mr Hanratty here could give you a better introduction to our little ways.” He waved an arm and the sound of heavy footsteps preceded the appearance in the doorway of a great slab of a man, around six-four in height and weighing, Steve guessed, a good two hundred and thirty pounds. Turnbull switched his attention back to Steve. “This is my foreman,” he said. “Now, if you’ll look over to the bunkhouse, you’ll see two rifles pointing at you, so I’ll trouble you to dispense with your gun.”

Steve didn’t bother to look. He unbuckled his gun belt and let it fall. “Now, Mr Whoever,” Turnbull continued. “You can try conclusions with Pete here if you wish. Frankly, I wouldn’t advise it, although I’d enjoy the entertainment. We’re a little short of that here.”

“I’ll have to disappoint you,” Steve replied. “I know my limits. I might outgun him, but I don’t believe I could outfight him.”

Turnbull chuckled. “Well, that makes you smart enough,” he said. “I think you’d better come inside.” He led the way, motioning Steve to one of the two armchairs flanking the fireplace. He produced a bottle of brandy and two glasses, pouring generously, then took the second seat, giving his stormy visitor a wry grin. “I like your style,” he said in that quiet, unemotional voice. “Could be we’d better get on different terms before you damage any more of my boys. Now, who are you and what are you really doing here?”

“It’s no big secret,” Steve replied. “The name’s Steve Dunne. I’ve been playing a lone hand for a while. Things have got uncomfortable lately and I reckoned I’d be better off throwing in with the right people. Everybody knows you’re the best, so I just found you. I guess you could say I’m applying for a job, in a way.”

Turnbull looked closely at his guest, assessing him correctly as a little over thirty and noting the tough, raw-boned frame, the short straight black hair, the clear grey eyes, the clean-shaven face, dark complexion and long, stubborn-looking jaw line. “Hmn,” he said. “I never heard of any Steve Dunne. How about some proof and maybe some evidence that you’re my kind of man?”

Steve fished in his shirt pocket, pulling out three sheets of paper and tossing them to the gang leader. “I don’t expect you to take me on trust,” he said, “but I believe these say enough.”

Turnbull unfolded the offerings. The first, two years old, was a document stating that Captain Stephen Dunne had been dishonourably discharged from the US Army. The gang leader read it then fixed his eyes on Steve again. “Captain, were you?” he said. “So you’re not a common roughneck. What did you do to earn this?”

Steve summoned a bleak smile. “Officially, the reason was irresponsible handling of my men during a reconnaissance outing. The truth is that I was something of a ladies’ man, and one of the women I got involved with was the wife of my commanding officer. He found out and had it in for me. Gave me one near-impossible assignment after another. It was sure to be only a matter of time before I came to grief. Frankly, I think I did pretty well to survive as long as I did before the blow fell.”

Turnbull nodded, then looked at the other two items. They were ‘wanted’ posters, one a little over a year old, the other almost new. In both cases, the name was Stephen Dunne and the face was unmistakably that of Turnbull’s visitor. On the older dodger, the reward was $2,000, the crime being armed robbery. The newer one added two further similar offences, plus one of murder and the bounty had increased to $5,000.

Turnbull handed the papers back to Steve. “You appear to have been busy since you left the army,” he said. “Now, I can pick up tough men anytime, even fairly intelligent ones. The fact is I don’t need them any more. Maybe I could have used you five years ago, when I started up, but everything runs its course and we’ve just about had our day. The game’s over and I’m breaking up the gang, so it seems you’ve come along too late. Now, if you can give me a good reason why I shouldn’t have you killed right now, you’d better do that.”

“I can give you sixty-five thousand good reasons,” Steve answered. “I didn’t come here empty-handed. There’s a little job I have in mind and it’ll need more than one man. I figure four or five could do it, but a couple of spare hands would be all to the good. If you’re interested, I’d like to cut you in. If not, I’ll try the Cole brothers, or maybe Tyson’s gang. Trouble is they’re both up north and this job is here in Texas.”
Turnbull lit a cigar, offering another to Steve, who accepted. The gang leader sprawled back. “I’ve nothing to lose by listening,” he said, “but it had better be good. I’ve heard my share of hare-brained schemes for one lifetime and I’ve already got enough salted away to move over the border and live out my days in style. Anyway, go on.”

“Well,” Steve replied, “it’s this way. During my time in the army, I spent a good while at headquarters up in Grainger and I was very friendly with the civilian who runs the accounts system there. He was a gambler and got himself into deep trouble. He owes nearly five thousand dollars. He was given time to pay and if he doesn’t, the man he’s in debt to has promised to help him along to the hereafter.”

“I’d probably do the same myself,” said Turnbull. “How do you come into it?”

“I never lost touch with this accountant. He got word to me and suggested a way out of his predicament. It’s really his idea, only he has no stomach for our kind of work. He just wants to save his skin. Now, do you know the territory east of here?”

“Not very well.”

“Okay. As I said, the main post is at Grainger. Every three months, a shipment of bullion and currency is sent south, to Fort Harding. The two places are a hundred and sixty miles apart. Around a hundred miles from Grainger, there’s a little place called Stewart’s Landing. The point is, the shipment is taken south by a steamboat, which calls at this place to take on firewood. We’re not talking of one of your ‘River Queens’. This is just an old tub that carries cargo only. The army reckons it’s an easy way to get the stuff transported because it doesn’t attract attention, especially not the way they do it.”

“What way’s that?”

“Simple. The shipment’s always in metal containers sealed up tight and labelled ‘Highly poisonous. Do not open’. What could be more effective? Any thief would avoid that stuff like the plague and the boat’s captain really thinks he’s carrying toxic material. He’s been assured that as long as he doesn’t tamper with it, there’s no danger to him or his crew – that’s an engineer and two other men – and he gets a big bonus for the job. They’ve been doing it that way for eighteen months.”

Turnbull nodded. “I see. Don’t they have some sort of security?”

“They do, but it’s a joke. For one thing, I already said that no sane man would take containers full of unidentified poison and for another, the boat halts only at Stewart’s Landing, and then for just two hours. There’s an escort of one officer and one trooper and as soon as they stop, the trooper goes ashore to get a drink or two and the captain and his three men follow him shortly afterwards, leaving only the officer on board.”

“Seems to me they’re taking quite a risk,” said Turnbull. “What’s to prevent these two soldiers running off with the containers?”

“Simple again,” Steve answered. “They’re not regular Grainger men. They get detached from another unit. Like the captain, they think they’re escorting a dangerous shipment. And they get a bonus, too. In that respect, the system’s foolproof.”

“So what’s your idea?” Turnbull seemed intrigued.

“Well, this consignment is always a large one. It has to pay the wages, allow for buying provisions, construction work and everything the fort needs. The next one will be especially big to cover payment to a civil engineering firm that has a bridge-building contract. My man tells me the total’s usually close to fifty thousand dollars. This time it’ll be around fifteen thousand more. All we have to do is watch from a distance – there’s enough cover – till the trooper and crew leave the boat, then we go aboard, see to the officer, take the containers and run. If anybody gets in the way, too bad for them.”

Turnbull scratched his jaw. “Hmn. Don’t they have any law in this Stewart’s Landing?”

“There’s only about a dozen buildings in the place. They have an old coot who serves as part-time marshal, but he wouldn’t know what to do with a real crime if it came up and introduced itself.”

Turnbull took a sip of brandy and tapped ash from his cigar. “Supposing I were interested,” he said. “How were you figuring on splitting the take?”

“Doesn’t bother me much. All depends on how many boys you use. I’m mainly interested in getting back at the army. You’ve no idea how I hate that bunch and this is the one chance I’ll ever have.”

Steve’s last words were spoken with an intensity that impressed Turnbull. He was silent for half a minute, then: “You really detest the army that much, do you? Okay, Steve. As it happens, your timing’s pretty good. Two of my boys quit last month, so I’m down to myself and six more. We usually cut it so I get a third and the others share the rest equally. Seems we have about the right number.”

Steve nodded, letting the figures flick through his mind before he answered. “I need to look after my contact. He’ll settle for five thousand, just to get out of trouble. I figure on fifteen thousand for myself, so if we get the full sixty-five that leaves forty-five for you and your boys. If we’re short, I’ll stand the difference, as far as I can. That suit you?”

“I’ve heard worse propositions. Now, you’ve covered the how. What about the when?”

“Well, naturally we’ve no choice there. The boat ties up at Stewart’s Landing at three in the afternoon, two weeks from Friday. The way I see it, we get to the railroad halt south of here, travel east by train as far as possible, then ride the last forty miles. If we start out on the Tuesday morning, we can take the horses with us, catch the evening train and time it about right. I guess it’s up to you now. ‘Course, you’d have to square it with your crew. I’ve been a little rough on two of them.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Turnbull replied. “I’ll talk to them.” He stood and went to the door. “Pete, step in a moment, please,” he called. The big foreman walked in and Turnbull waved a hand at his visitor. “This is Steve Dunne, Pete. I’m in partnership with him on a job. We’ll all be involved. It’s the last one for our little group and we’ll do well out of it. I want you to treat him as one of the boys, except he’ll be staying in the house with me. We have some planning to do. Okay?”

“I guess so,” said Hanratty, his tone suggesting that he regretted the lost opportunity to rough-up the newcomer.

For a week, Steve loafed around, while Turnbull and his men performed their minimal chores on the sham cattle spread. Then, early one morning, Steve announced to Turnbull his intention to ride over to the little rail-side settlement, check the layout and get himself a haircut and a bath. Turnbull looked suspicious. “I don’t like people leaving the place when we have a job planned, Steve,” he said. “I guess maybe you’re different, what with us being partners and all, so I’ll make an exception. But I’m sending Mort Simpson along with you. The two of you can keep an eye on one another.”

“Okay by me,” Steve said.

It was midday when Steve and his unwanted companion reached the tiny railroad community. Simpson suggested a few drinks and Steve agreed to join him after taking a bath. They separated, Steve heading for the barbershop, where he ordered a bath, then got himself a haircut and shave. While the water was heating, he went to the telegraph office, despatching a wire.

Simpson, under strict orders, was watching through the saloon window. On seeing Steve re-enter the barbershop, he scuttled over to the telegraph office. With a show of agitation, he introduced himself as Steve’s boss and asked to see the message just sent, saying it was incomplete. He was prepared to back up the demand with his gun, but the operator surprised him by grinning and showing him the paper. Simpson pored over it, scratching his head, then borrowed a pencil and copied it, finally declaring that it seemed to be in order, but that he needed to check a point with his subordinate.

Steve and his companion arrived back at Hell’s Elbow well after dark. Simpson spent five minutes alone with Turnbull, then went to join his cronies in the bunkhouse. Turnbull ate with Steve, then the two settled down to enjoy the now customary cigars and conversation. Suddenly, Turnbull produced a scrap of paper, tossing it to Steve. “How about explaining this?” he said mildly.

Steve looked at Simpson’s copy of his telegraph message. Below the addressee, he read:

Timing will be vital. I plan to send for you at six in the evening.
Men will have dispersed Friday. See you Monday morning at the
agreed place. Bring spare horse as nothing better yet arranged.

Steve sighed. “I don’t see where any explanation is called for,” he said. “This man is my contact. I have a commitment to him and I aim to honour it. He’s making me fifteen thousand dollars richer, so I don’t intend to swindle him. What’s the matter, Claude? Didn’t you ever hear of honour among thieves?”

Turnbull laughed long and loud. “Damn it, Steve,” he said, “I really begin to believe you qualify as a straight crook.”

Steve laughed too. “Look at it this way, Claude. The rest of the world has rejected us. Least we can do is stick together. If we don’t have that, what do we have?”

“Right enough.” Turnbull replied. “You know, Steve, it’s a pity we didn’t meet earlier. We might have done good things. Now it’s too late. I promise you, this is my final job.”

The eight-strong party, comprising Steve, Turnbull and the six other gang members left Hell’s Elbow as arranged and completed an uneventful journey to Stewart’s Landing, positioning themselves in tree cover, four hundred yards from the mooring spot an hour before the scheduled arrival of the riverboat.

Punctually, just before three, the shabby-looking craft came into sight, slowed and stopped at the end of the jetty. Turnbull watched through field glasses as a grey-bearded veteran wearing a captain’s cap walked ashore. A minute later, three other men appeared on deck. They rolled six barrels along to the bank, lining them up five yards from the water’s edge. That done, they made for the township’s only saloon. Two more minutes passed, then a man in trooper’s uniform left the boat, following the civilians.

Turnbull lowered the glasses. “Just like you said, Steve,” he smiled. “We’ll move up to those other trees, nice and quiet, and be in and out before they know it.”

Steve grinned. “Pretty useful, all this greenery,” he said. “Okay, let’s go.”

Covering the last hundred yards on foot, the group, Steve leading, reached the jetty and walked along the gangplank to the deck. The only other person in sight was an elderly fellow who had been lounging around the water’s edge and was now staring at the unloaded barrels. Steve whispered to Turnbull: “If you’ll just give me a second, I’ll get rid of the old gent.” Without waiting for assent, he trotted ashore and muttered something to the loafer, who wandered off. But Steve didn’t go back aboard. Instead, he moved behind the barrels, then turned to face the boat. “Okay, Claude,” he shouted. “The game’s up.”

“What… what the hell is this?” Turnbull bellowed.

“It’s the end of the road for you, Claude,” Steve replied. “I’ve got you fair and square. The whole gang. All in one place and no way out.”

For a moment Turnbull was silent, then he mumbled something to Pete Hanratty and turned back to Steve. “So, you’re a damned traitor after all,” he bawled. “But as to having us trapped, it seems to me you’re wrong. We have a stand-off here.”

“No we don’t,” Steve answered. “Let me explain. You can’t move the boat anywhere – the engineer disabled it. You can’t drift downriver. There’s a boom two hundred yards ahead. You can’t fight your way off this side because there are four guns on you, and if you try to get over the river, I have men posted on the far bank, with orders to shoot on sight. And don’t bother looking for the officer below – there never was one. It was all arranged, even down to the old man I just sent away. You’re caught all right.”

“How do I know you’ve men on the other side?” Turnbull shouted.

For answer, Steve fired two shots into the air. Immediately, two answering reports rang out from the far bank. “That ought to convince you,” Steve said. “Maybe you should have examined that wire I sent off last week, Claude. Still got it?”

“I have it.” Turnbull pulled the message from an inside pocket. “What about it?”

“Try reading every fourth word.”

Taking a pencil from his pocket, Turnbull underscored the relevant words. He read:

Vital send six men Friday morning. Place as arranged.

After a muttered conversation with his men, the gang leader came back to the handrail. “What if we stay here and fight?” he yelled.

“Just this,” Steve replied. Fumbling in a box to his left, he pulled out a stick of dynamite, on a short fuse. Lighting it, he held it above the barrels. “I don’t aim to dicker with you all day, Claude. Either you step ashore, Indian file, with your hands up, right now, or this comes your way and we’ll save the judge and jury part.”

The panic-stricken gang, now clustered around Turnbull, didn’t wait for his lead but hurried ashore. Seeing the hopelessness of his position, their chief followed. As Steve extinguished the fuse and dropped the dynamite, four men, rifles covering the outlaws, moved out from the nearby buildings. The gang boss, hands still aloft, peered at his captor. “Just tell me,” he said. “Why did you go to all this trouble when you could have brought your men to my spread?”

“If I’d done that, there would have been a shootout. People would have been killed. This way, I got you where you couldn’t fight, run or hide. All sewn up without gunplay. I think it was pretty tidy.”

Turnbull shook his head. “Well, I have to give you best. I tried one job too many. Now, I asked you once before and I’ll ask you again. Who are you?”

Steve laughed. “You know who I am, Claude. The name’s Steve Dunne. Let me spell it for you. It goes: P-I-N-K-E-R-T-O-N.”

“Damn it!” Despite his position, Turnbull managed a rueful smile. “A Pinkerton man. I should have known. I guess that discharge paper and the wanted dodgers you showed me were fakes, eh?” Steve nodded.

“Now tell me,” Turnbull went on, “how come you were so sure I’d fall for this?”

“I wasn’t,” Steve replied. “We’re both in the risk business, Claude. I took a chance. I guess you could say I’m a riverboat gambler.”

* * *

Jamie Cook
July 31st, 2012, 02:06 PM
I found Brewer's line "try not to be offensive" to be a little jarring considering he was on his way to hire some wildcard gunman. It felt like Brewer would be beyond that point, with the plan he was resorting to.

August 1st, 2012, 06:35 PM
Dear Jamie,

Thank you for your comment. Brewer did not want matters to come to a head before he was ready, so wished to avoid his teller causing unnecessary trouble. That was why he wanted him to remain composed and not cause problems at the wrong time.

Best wishes - CJ

August 4th, 2012, 05:57 PM

Jack Wade was happy, or at least as happy as a man of his temperament and way of life could expect to be. He was a morose, withdrawn character, sardonic in his attitude to everything and everyone, including himself and his affairs. As to occupation, he was a criminal. Now approaching forty years of age, he had not done a lick of conventional work for over two decades. His only job had been as a helper in a general store, from which position he had been fired when his employer could no longer tolerate his incompetence and pilfering.

Even at barely eighteen, Jack Wade’s personality had been firmly set. He didn’t philosophise. His response to adversity was, as it ever afterwards would be, invariably swift and frequently violent. During the night following his dismissal, he broke into his ex-employer’s store, emptied the tin cashbox, filled a sack with provisions from the shelves and rode off.

Young Jack soon fell into like-minded company and from then on his course never wavered. In the ensuing twenty-two years, he had chalked up an impressive list of felonies, including just about every kind of robbery imaginable, plus the odd killing. Sometimes he worked alone, sometimes with one gang or another. Once, during flight, he had taken a bullet in the left shoulder, but he had never been caught.

Had he been more careful with the proceeds of his activities, Wade would have been comfortably placed. But his attitude to his gains was cavalier and any booty he acquired soon found its way across one or other of a hundred gaming tables. Only when he had worked his way through most of his roll did he consider a fresh enterprise to replenish it, confident that the cornucopia of other people’s money would provide. This was his mission now, as he headed northwards through Colorado.

Wade had been surprised and flattered to receive the summons that had brought him from his usual haunts in the Southwest. Surprised because the call had come from a man not known to him, flattered because his talents were considered appropriate for the obviously big job in prospect. The approach had been made in the form of a letter, brought by a rider who’d claimed to be an employee of the sender.

In the ten days since he had received the note, Wade had pored over it at least a dozen times, seeking some nuance that might initially have eluded him. He could not find one. Adjusting his long thin leathery body in the saddle, he lit a cigarette and pulled the now grubby single sheet of paper from his shirt pocket. Checking it over yet again, he read:
Dear Mr. Wade,
Please excuse this unsolicited approach from a stranger, but I am hopeful that our relationship will soon become closer. I have heard of your abilities in your line of work and have in mind a project which I think would interest you. At this stage I must be circumspect, but I shall be happy to explain everything if you will kindly accept my invitation to call on me here at noon on Thursday, the twenty-fourth of this month.

Should you decide to participate in the operation, your share of the takings would be worth about twenty thousand dollars and I believe the enterprise is likely to have at least a ninety-five per cent chance of success. If, after our meeting, you feel unable to offer your services, I will guarantee your travel expenses both ways, plus a sum of five hundred dollars to compensate you for any inconvenience.

The work requires several men and I am inviting certain others to meet me at the time and place in question. I believe all of these gentlemen are known to you. They are James and Robert Moran, Tom Wilson and Martin Broderick. I am offering the same terms to each of you.

I do hope you will be able to join me and as I see it, the worst that can befall you is a reunion with old comrades and fair compensation for your trouble. I would be grateful if you could wire me your reply to the telegraph office here in Eden Ridge, Colorado.

Assuming your acceptance, I would request that you arrive at the time I have specified and not earlier, as this is a small community and a lengthy stay by five newcomers might attract attention. For this reason, I have taken the liberty of arranging a brief outing, so that we may discuss our business undisturbed. If you call at our one and only saloon, you will find me waiting. I ask you to bring this letter as confirmation of identity.

I look forward to your wire and to your company.

Yours truly,
John Beresford

Wade stuffed the letter back into his pocket. Try as he would, he could find nothing sinister about it. Maybe a little quaint in its formality. Still, it was not unknown in Wade’s circles for a gang to be recruited in a piecemeal way. Perhaps the only odd thing about it was that Beresford had made his approach in writing, which Wade reckoned was indiscreet. Of course, all the letters would be handed back to the sender, who would undoubtedly destroy them. Even if he didn’t, there would be no conclusive proof that he had originated them.

There had never been any question about Wade’s acceptance – he had wired it at once. With regard to funds, he was far from desperate, but an unexpected source of income was not to be scorned, especially when someone else had done the planning, and anyway, a man could hardly turn down the prospect of twenty thousand dollars without careful consideration.

A thin smile twisted Wade’s lips as he considered the possibility of working with his old cronies again. Though not regularly operating as a gang, these men got together from time to time, if there was a job big enough to require their combined efforts. For a while, until six years ago, they had raised hell in Montana, finally making things too hot for them when they had looted and burned down the luxurious Talbot ranch house near the Big Belt Mountains, shooting dead the owner and his wife. Dick Moore and Clem Hawkins had been in the gang then. Later, Moore had been killed in a saloon gunfight in Wyoming and Hawkins had met his end while trying to rob one stagecoach too many in Texas.

Wade was, by a narrow margin, the oldest of the five men invited by John Beresford. He looked forward to seeing the Moran brothers and Martin Broderick for the first time in over two years, but was less enthusiastic about being reunited with Tom Wilson, who was an unstable, disruptive character. Well, a man had to take the rough with the smooth. Wade had little doubt that Beresford’s summons would flush out the other four. The chance of laying hands on so much money would be too tempting for any of them to ignore.

Wade removed his hat, ran a hand through his long scraggly dark-brown hair, rolled another cigarette and rode on slowly. Eden Ridge was, as far as he could make out, no more than a railroad halt, well south of Denver and now only thirty miles north of his present position. He would camp in the hills overnight and time his arrival for noon on the morrow, as requested.

As Wade had been riding north, so the Moran brothers, Robert and James, had been travelling west by train, intrigued by Beresford’s invitation. Both men were short slim black-haired and in their early thirties. They had been relaxing in St. Louis when they had received the single letter addressed the two of them. Like the one to Jack Wade, it was delivered personally by a man who’d said he was a member of the writer’s staff. It had come at an opportune time for them, as they had been contemplating a return to work, with no clear idea about what to try next.

Like Wade, both Moran brothers were given to gambling and in that activity they were no more successful than was their occasional partner in crime. When engaged in their chosen work, they were cool, competent and dangerous and neither was averse to killing if it became necessary, or even if it didn’t. Robert, the younger by eighteen months had, in separate incidents, shot dead two train guards, who hadn’t been spry enough in doing as they were told. James had once whacked a stagecoach driver on the head so hard that the man had died. None of these things weighed heavily on the conscience of either of the Morans, nor would either shrink from further murdering, if it promised a worthwhile return.

Tom Wilson, travelling south from Wyoming by horse, was already almost at his destination. At twenty-seven, the youngest of Beresford’s invitees, the lanky angular Wilson was also the most undisciplined and headstrong. It was he who had fired the shots that killed both the rancher Talbot and his wife, up in Montana. That had been the beginning of Wilson’s bloodthirsty career and there had since been four further killings on his record. To him, shooting was a first resort and at times his wild ways were too much for even his most hardened accomplices. However, he was usually tolerated as he was a great one for getting things done. Furthermore, if anybody wanted to take issue with him, he was lightning fast and deadly accurate with a gun and scarcely less lethal with a knife. Like many of his kind, Wilson had no illusions about living to a ripe old age and no great desire to do so.

Last of the five was Martin Broderick. He also had the shortest journey, as he was in Denver when he received his letter. He would travel south by train on the day of the meeting. Broderick, sandy-haired, of medium height and heavy build, was by far the most sober of the five men converging on Eden Ridge. At thirty-eight, he was just over a year younger than Jack Wade.

Brought up on the eastern seaboard, Broderick had been nearing thirty when he moved west, seeking whatever was on offer. It hadn’t taken him long to find the company of Wade and the other gang members. He had always been careful with his booty. Apart from the necessary risks taken during his crimes, he never gambled, didn’t smoke and drank little. His associates often wondered what made him tick, but if he knew himself, he showed no inclination to enlighten anyone else.

Of the five, Broderick was the only one who had never killed, but he had stood by during the infamous incident at the Talbot ranch. Young Wilson had once taunted Broderick about his aversion to bloodshed, only to receive a vicious backhander which spreadeagled him on the ground. Clawing for his gun, Wilson had found himself staring down the rock steady barrel of Broderick’s forty-five. He had never again tried conclusions with the stocky Easterner.

Though he had accepted Beresford’s invitation as readily as had the other four, Broderick’s interest at this stage was hardly more than academic. He was well placed financially and would try this job only if he could satisfy himself that the chance of success could be raised to virtually a hundred per cent.

The morning of the twenty-fourth was bright, clear and cool. Punctually at noon, the five desperadoes gathered in the saloon at Eden Ridge. There were no other customers. After serving drinks paid for by the host, the bartender disappeared. Beresford allowed his guests a brief period to exchange pleasantries then, at ten minutes past the hour, he emerged from an upstairs room and descended the bare wooden stairs. The five men saw before them a young fair-haired fellow of middling height and chunky build, well dressed, carefully groomed and smoking a large cigar. He advanced on the party, smiling broadly.

‘Good day, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Glad you could all make it. I made sure that we wouldn’t have company. Now, I hope you won’t mind my hurrying things along a little. The fact is, I’ve arranged for us to take a short railroad journey – just a couple of hours. I hired the train specially for us, so we can talk privately.’ Beresford spoke quickly and crisply, moving among the five men as he did so, shaking hands with each of them. He also recovered the letters he had sent them. Apparently satisfied as to the identities his visitors, he tossed the four sheets of paper into the pot-bellied stove and watched them burn away. ‘There,’ he said. ‘That disposes of anything connecting us. Shall we go?’

Everyone but Wilson seemed to appreciate the host’s brisk, businesslike approach. Perhaps because of his relative youth and his fearsome reputation, the sharp-faced gun wizard had to be different. ‘Not so fast, mister,’ he snapped, bellicose as ever. ‘I ain’t had time to wet my whistle yet, an’ I don’t take kindly to bein’ hustled around.’

Beresford, the soul of urbanity, met the ill-mannered outburst with a grin and the raising of a placatory hand. ‘No offence intended, Mr Wilson,’ he replied. ‘Of course you must satisfy yourselves. However, I can assure you that you’ll be able to imbibe to your hearts’ content on the train. There’s food and drink aplenty on board. The only problem is, the engine has steam up and I have to make sure we’re back here back here at three o’clock because the driver has another commitment then.’

There was a general rumble of approval from the older men. Jack Wade grinned tolerantly at Wilson. ‘Tom,’ he said, ‘I’ll swear you’re still the most cantankerous gent I ever came across. Mr Beresford here may be a mite eccentric, but he’s paying well enough for it. Let’s just do as he says.’

Wilson hitched his gun belt, shrugged and nodded. That settled, Beresford led the way and the party left the saloon, ambling along the single street to the train.

Behind the locomotive and tender, there was one carriage and no caboose. Obviously, Beresford believed in doing things in style, for the car was extravagantly fitted out for the brief trip. At the rear end, across the whole width, was a two-foot deep slab of mahogany, supported by a pair of wall-mounted struts and laden with bottles of beer, wine and whiskey. Lengthways down the middle was a narrow table with three chairs on each side, the top covered with a spotless white cloth on which were six place settings and three large, covered tureens. Most of the remaining space was occupied by a pair of three-seater couches, placed so that the six men could sit in two groups of three abreast, facing each other. It was a trifle cramped, but lacked little in opulence.

Beresford, still leading, entered the car by the front-end door, abutting the tender, and made for the drinks table. He helped himself to a whiskey, inviting his guests to pick what they fancied. All of them opted to follow their host’s example. Wade drank first, smacking his lips appreciatively. ‘Say,’ he grinned, ‘this is good. I guess it set you back plenty.’

Beresford laughed. ‘Just a little,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you’ll find anything better of its kind.’

The older Moran brother looked around, lost in admiration of the lavishness. ‘Well, mister,’ he said. ‘I reckon you must have some connections to put on a show like this.’

Beresford nodded. ‘It just so happens I know the president of this railroad,’ he said. ‘This is his personal car, but he’s happy enough to make a dollar hiring it out when he isn’t using it.’

The hot-tempered Wilson turned on Beresford. ‘Hey,’ he shouted, ‘the windows are all fastened on this side.’

‘They have to be,’ Beresford answered. ‘Company regulations. Just a few miles up the track we pass around the mountains. There’s a sheer drop on one side and a steep rock face on the other, which nearly touches the windows, so if you tried to lean out you’d hit the rock and could get killed. It happened once.’

Wilson grunted. ‘Seems to me it would’ve been better to fasten the windows on the other side,’ he said.

Beresford chortled. ‘I think not. You’ll only take one look at that drop and there’s no way you’d want to take any chances there.’ Placated again, Wilson turned his attention back to his drink.

At Beresford’s suggestion, each man took a glass and a bottle of the whiskey and the party shuffled along past the dining table to occupy the couches, the Moran brothers bracketing their host and facing Wade, Wilson and Broderick.

As the train moved off, Beresford cleared his throat, commanding attention. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘we have around two and a half hours to discuss my proposition. I’ve asked you here because I know you’re all eminent in your line of work and the scheme I have in mind will need six men, including me.’

The impetuous Wilson interrupted. ‘How come you just happened on us?’ he said, his aggressiveness only slightly blunted by the show of hospitality.

Beresford laughed. ‘Oh, I didn’t just happen upon you,’ he replied. ‘In fact I think I did my research work pretty well. You see, I’ve never been involved with anything like this before, so I had to make a lot of discreet enquiries. I started out with quite a list of names, but for one reason or another, I eliminated a dozen or more before I approached you. The decisive factor was the consideration that, apart from your individual reputations being at least as impressive as the others, you’ve all worked together before. I consider that critical.’

Wade broke in. ‘This must be some job you’ve got planned,’ he said. ‘You’re offering us twenty thousand dollars each, so I guess you expect a bigger cut for yourself.’

Beresford nodded. ‘Yes indeed. Since I had the idea and had to work out the details, I think that’s fair. My suggestion is that I take half and you share the rest among you – I’ve assumed equally, as you’ll all be doing similar work and taking the same chances. I expect the proceeds to be just over two hundred thousand dollars, which means the twenty thousand each for you that I’ve already mentioned.’

The younger Moran goggled. ‘Mister, you must be planning to empty the Denver Mint.’

Beresford laughed again. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the Mint comes into it in a way.’

‘Whoa, just a minute,’ Broderick exclaimed. ‘If you’re planning to rob that place, I guess you can count me out. I’ve no taste for suicide.’

Beresford raised the calming hand again. ‘No need for excitement, gentlemen. Hear me out, then decide.’

‘That’s what we came for,’ Wade answered.

Beresford picked up a flat leather case from the floor, extracting a large brown envelope. ‘It’s all in here,’ he said. ‘Now, I’ll just outline the scheme, then, if you’re all interested, we can go through the details after we’ve eaten.’

‘Just one point first,’ said Broderick quietly. ‘You mentioned ninety-five per cent chance of success. Why not a hundred per cent?’

Beresford pushed a hand through his hair, as though puzzled by the question, then shrugged. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I guess nothing in this world is a hundred per cent certain. Why, if you want to push it to the limit, I suppose there’s no guarantee that we’ll survive this little outing.’ He gave a short, barking laugh before continuing: ‘No gentlemen, I can’t be absolutely certain that it couldn’t go wrong, but I truly believe that the chances of success are at least as high as I put them. Anyway, you’ll soon judge for yourselves.’

‘That’s right boys,’ said Wade. ‘Let’s hear what the man has to say.’

Everyone relaxed and Beresford went on: ‘It’s really fairly simple. The fact is that I’ve a good head for business and over the past few years, I’ve made a fair amount of money legitimately. Now, I could go on doing that and end up wealthy – in ten or twenty years. However, one advantage I get is having a lot of contacts and it was through one of them that I came up with this idea. If it works out as I’ve planned it, the operation will just save me a long spell of hard work and I don’t know of a man who wouldn’t like to do the same.’

Satisfied that he had his audience gripped, Beresford took a swig of whiskey, settled himself back and continued: ‘It’s like this. A friend of mine who’s in a strategically useful position was celebrating a deal with me a little while ago. He got drunk and let it slip that the consignment of merchandise I have in mind is coming through Denver next week, on its way to San Francisco. Fortunately, my acquaintance was so far gone that night that by the following day, he couldn’t remember a thing that passed between us. Anyway, I learned that the Mint has agreed, as a favour to the transportation people, to hold the consignment overnight, then it leaves the next evening, under heavy guard.’

‘Well,’ said the older Moran, ‘ that doesn’t sound too promising.’

Beresford lifted a forefinger. ‘Ah,’ he answered, ‘on the face of it, no. But I also learned that nobody wants any public display, especially around the railroad station, where there are bound to be the usual loungers. It’s been decided that the trains carrying the goods are to make special stops just outside Denver, both coming and going, so that the transfer can be made without any unwelcome attention. Now, on the way in we have no chance, but as to the way out, I know where the stop will be made, when the stuff will leave the Mint and what route the guards will take. There’s just one weak point along the way and I’m as sure as I can be that we could walk off with the jackpot.’

‘Wait a minute.’ This was the older Moran again. ‘Two hundred thousand dollars in gold may take little transporting. You got that worked out too?’

‘Gold?’ Beresford replied. ‘Oh, no. I didn’t say anything about gold. I’m speaking of diamonds, gentlemen, and I hardly need to say that weight for weight they’re far more valuable than gold. There’ll be no trouble in moving them.’

While Beresford was speaking, the train began to lose speed as it approached the steepest, most tortuous part of the journey, where the track began to wind around the formidable mountain wall. As it was leaving the last section of open country, Wilson suddenly sat up straight and stared out of the window. ‘That’s queer,’ he said.

‘What is?’ asked Beresford.

‘Out there. A horse, all alone. Saddled, bedroll an’ all, an’ no rider in sight.’

Beresford shrugged. ‘Well, he’ll be around somewhere, I imagine. Now, if you’ll humour me by taking your places at the table, you’ll find that those tureens contain potatoes and a good spread of vegetables. I’ll just go see the fireman and get our steaks. You’ll probably be surprised at what a good engine crew can do with a nice piece of beef and all that heat.’ He rose and made for the forward door as his guests sorted out where they were going to sit.

The train was taking a curve now, revealing the precarious stretch that Beresford had spoken of earlier. Now it was clear why the windows on the left were fastened. The sheer rock wall was only inches from the side of the car and any attempt to lean out could have had serious consequences. On the right was a vertiginous drop. Wade was peering out on that side. ‘Quite a sight,’ he said. ‘Must be close to a thousand feet.’

‘It’s six hundred,’ replied Beresford. ‘This is the last spot where a man can get off and back on again, if he’s quick enough. Up ahead, there’s barely even room to walk alongside the train. Anyway, I’ll be back in a minute.’ He jumped down to the track and, to his guests’ surprise, began to trot back towards the last bend.

‘What’s he doing?’ asked the younger Moran. ‘The engine’s up the other way.’ A flutter of consternation ran through all five men, then Beresford came padding back, outpacing the train, which was now labouring along at walking speed. He waved to the outlaws and moved on ahead to the locomotive. As he did so, there was a loud explosion.

Broderick lowered a window, poking his head out almost over the dizzy precipice. ‘What was that?’ he yelled.

Beresford looked back, waving his arms. ‘Engineers down in the valley,’ he shouted. ‘They use a lot of dynamite.’

The desperadoes returned to their seats. Impatient as always, Wilson took the lid from one of the tureens, revealing a heap of whole boiled potatoes. He speared one with a fork and began munching. Broderick shook his head at the breach of etiquette. ‘Your table manners don’t improve, Tom,’ he sighed.

‘Manners be damned,’ snapped Wilson. ‘I ain’t eaten yet today.’ He jabbed up a second potato, satisfied that he had managed to shock at least one of his partners. By this time, all five men had helped themselves liberally to the whiskey and mellowness was coming to the fore. They began ribbing each other about the jobs they had done together. As they were taking their liquor on empty stomachs, no-one was stone cold sober, the intemperate Wilson being near-enough outright drunk.

The train was now close to the top of its ascent and moving at snail’s pace. Beresford appeared again at the rear of the car. He waved, fiddled with the door handle, then turned to kneel on the platform, where he grunted and strained for a moment, then rose to face the outlaws. Reaching down with his right hand, he produced a double-barrelled sawn-off shotgun. He used the butt to smash the glazed upper part of the door, then swivelled the weapon, pointing it at the bandits. ‘Right, gentlemen,’ he said grimly, ‘the party’s over.’

For a moment, through the alcohol fog, none of the bandits grasped what was happening, then the younger Moran bawled: ‘Hey, the engine’s goin’ on without us. What the hell…?’

‘Shut up,’ snarled Beresford, all traces of the earlier geniality wiped from his face, now a fierce mask. ‘You don’t have time to talk. You don’t have much time for anything.’

The car, released from the locomotive and tender, had begun to roll backwards. Beresford raked the muzzles of his shotgun back and forth, covering the five men. Not one dared to draw in the face of that menace, for a single blast would have hit all of them.

‘Now,’ said Beresford, his glance taking in his guests, turned prisoners. ‘The noise you heard just now was an explosion right enough. I blasted the track back there. In about thirty seconds, you boys are going to take the long drop and there’s no way out. Before you go, you’d better know that my name isn’t John Beresford. It’s Richard Talbot and those people you killed six years ago in Montana were my parents. Now you’ll pay. I guess you don’t do much praying, but if you’ve anything to say, you’d better say it quick.’ With that, he directed the shotgun barrels at the ornate ceiling of the car and pulled one of the triggers.

Instinctively the five outlaws dropped to the floor. As they did so, Talbot swung himself backwards off the platform railing and dropped to the ground, overbalancing and landing on his backside. Jumping up instantly, he ran after the car. He was just in time to see it reach the curve where he had, minutes earlier, wrecked the track.

To Talbot, it seemed that time stood still for an instant as the car followed the fractured metals, now hanging over the void. Then the rails bent under the weight and the outlaws’ temporary coffin began its long descent. It caromed off a rock ledge a third of the way down, then completed its last journey in one unbroken plunge, shattering on the valley floor.

Stepping forward to the break in the track, Talbot looked down at the roiling dust. ‘Yes,’ he said to himself, ‘it’s six hundred feet all right.’ Then he tramped off to join the waiting horse that Wilson had noticed earlier.

* * *

August 11th, 2012, 06:19 PM

It was a fine, bracing spring morning in Arizona, the air still crisp from overnight frost. Hissing, hooting and clanking, the short train came to a halt. The manager bustled out of his office in the weather-beaten wooden station building, calling a greeting to the footplate crew. The guard jumped down from his caboose, hauled out a crate and an assortment of parcels and sacks, then loaded a small pile of items left for him on the platform.

On this occasion no passengers boarded and the only one to alight was a man, five feet ten inches in height and slimly built. In this seedy township, he was turned out well enough to attract attention, if there had been anyone around interested enough to pay it. He wore a thigh-length black coat of top quality, matching pants, white shirt, narrow black tie, low-crowned black hat and lightweight black shoes, well polished – a smart dresser, if a little funereal in appearance.

It was, however, not so much the man’s garb as his face that was arresting. Though he came from the heart of the West, he had nothing of the tanned, weathered look exhibited by so many men who shared his background. His sharp, narrow features were set in the sallow parchment skin of a clean-shaven face. Not the appearance of a man who spent much time outdoors. It was a closed face, the thoughts and feelings that went on behind it veiled from inspection. He didn’t look like a man who would have much need of company, or much taste for it. The glittering black eyes flickered around, missing nothing.

For perhaps a minute, the newcomer stood on the platform, then he picked up his single item of luggage – a large carpet-bag – in his left hand, walked softly along the sun-bleached boards and down the ramp which led to the dusty yard. He set down the bag by the slumping fence of a disused cattle pen. As he bent, the long coat fell open, revealing a gun belt, the open-ended holster carrying a Colt revolver with a long barrel and walnut hand-grips. He straightened up and took a leather cigar case from an inside pocket, extracting and lighting a long black cheroot. Then he looked at the town.

It wasn’t much. Seventy or eighty buildings, he guessed, almost all of them wood frame. Just enough to form two intersecting streets, plus a few nondescript shacks, straggling out into the seemingly endless surrounding space. None of the structures looked any too solid and there was scant evidence of paintwork. That wasn’t important to the new arrival. He didn’t plan to be there long.

The train did some more gasping and snorting, then hauled itself off to another town, further east. The depot manager, apparently exhausted by his minimal burst of effort, dumped his ample backside onto the platform bench with the air of a man who had little to do until the evening train arrived, and was not too sorry about that.

Invigorating though the atmosphere was, it did nothing to encourage activity beyond the station. The town’s somnolence, barely and briefly lifted by the train’s arrival, descended again. The only movement around the drowsing depot was provided by a boy of about ten, who was performing handstands outside the waiting room abutting the manager’s office, his shoes slapping the plank wall like a slow-set metronome. The newcomer watched the display for a while, then called to the boy. “Hey, kid.”

The youngster aborted his latest short run-up and wheeled to face the voice. “Yes, mister?”

“You know Bob Michaelson?”

“Sure do. Everybody knows him. He runs the saloon.”

The stranger nodded. That would be Bob all right. It was the sort of thing he’d be doing. No cowpunching or mining for him. With a thin smile, the man fished a silver coin from his left-hand coat pocket, spinning it through the air, a couple of feet to the boy’s right. A grimy little hand flashed out, fastening onto the precious object.

“Go find him,” said the stranger. His tone was low and flat, cutting through the still air. “See he’s alone. Tell him Eddie Geller’s here. Say I’ll be paying my respects soon. Then come back and let me know you’ve done it. And be sure you don’t tell anybody else. You got that?”

“Okay,” said the boy. “I’ll be right back.”

The move was typical of Eddie Geller. A man should make use of the resources around him efficiently and economically. If you wanted a job done, get a boy to do it and pay him well. He wouldn’t think things over or ponder about the consequences. He would do exactly what was wanted of him.

Geller dismissed the impending business from his mind, quietly enjoying another inch of his cheroot while he waited. That was true to type too. A man did what he had to do, when he had to do it, then switched off and waited. No philosophy, no moralising. Good smokes and quality liquor, both in moderation, a wide spread of reading, especially about financial matters, and a little card-playing. Long periods when nothing happened, then a job would come up and a man had to bustle around for a while. When Geller worked, he was paid handsomely, but never spent much, preferring to tuck most of his earnings away, thinking of the future.

The boy came scampering back. “I done what you said, mister,” he gasped.

“Good. What did he say?”

“He said he understood an’ he’d been expecting somebody. Said he figured it would be you or Newt Bradley. Does that make sense?”

Geller nodded. “Yeah, it makes sense.” His lip curled slightly at the mention of Newt Bradley, a man he considered distinctly inferior to himself in the profession the two shared. “Okay son, you did well. Now keep your mouth shut tight and there could be five dollars more for you in a day or two.”

The boy was overwhelmed. “Mister,” he said, “for that much money I’ll stay dumb till I’m twenty-one.” He turned and expressed his joy by resuming his exercise with such vigour that the dozing depot manager leapt up, threatening to thrash him if he didn’t stop trying to demolish the building.

Eddie Geller hefted his bag and walked slowly along the main, east-west street, then along the shorter intersecting one, his eyes darting jet chips, taking in every detail. His stroll took less than ten minutes, but that was enough, for this was an art form with him. He could have departed right away and drawn as accurate a map of the town as any local resident could have done, without a day-long study. Much of the time, most people see things without really registering them. Geller always did both. That was often useful and occasionally vital in his line of work.

At the western end of the main street, the last place on the right was a two-storey house, set back a little from the from the neighbouring street-side buildings by a garden, somewhat unkempt but bearing the marks of toil. Well, at least somebody had tried and the house looked smarter than most of the others. A sign in the front window offered a room for rent. Apart from the hotel – not a good option, as it would probably mean people around – there was no other place that looked promising. Geller settled for what he was looking at.

The house was owned by a widow, about sixty years of age, grey-haired, and with a weary, careworn look. She explained that she made ends meet by renting out the room, following the loss of her husband, who had been killed in an accident at the silver mine, which had been the basis of the town’s former prosperity. Now the heady days were over. Digging had stopped over a year ago and those who stayed on did the best they could. That tallied with Geller’s information about the place. It was surviving on inexorably depleting capital. Soon it would fold up and die.

Geller wasn’t interested in his prospective landlady’s travails, but listened politely. The woman, her eyes telling the story of defeat better than any words could, made only the most perfunctory enquiries of the welcome, respectable-looking guest. He told her that he was recovering from a lung complaint and that a spell of Arizona air had been recommended to him. It wasn’t a particularly convincing story, but didn’t need to be. The woman offered to supply breakfast along with the room and Geller paid her a week’s rent in advance, though he had no intention of staying so long. One day would probably do, but he reckoned that the extra payment would add substance to his story in a place where tongues might wag, and anyway, to do him justice, he was generous in some ways. He could afford to be.

Having dumped his bag and freshened up, Geller went to the livery stable, adjacent to the railroad depot. He bought a durable-looking horse – one way or another, he would dispose of it later – and arranged that it be kept ready for him. Being an amateur astronomer, he explained, he was fond of riding out at night, under the stars. A much-used but serviceable saddle completed the deal. Geller wasn’t concerned about the cost. Even if he didn’t bother to sell his acquisitions, the investment was trifling in the context of his financial affairs. Satisfied, he returned to his room. He didn’t unpack – there’d be no need for that. He took a bottle of rum from his bag, removed his coat and shoes and lay on the bed. Clasping his hands on the pillow behind his head, he reviewed his position.

For three years now, Eddie Geller had been promising himself retirement at forty. Well, he was now four months short of that, so this would be his last job. It was a fitting finale, for this was the first occasion on which the man who was to receive his attention was known to him. All the others had been simply cases. They were objects rather than people. Bob Michaelson was different, for the two had known one another years earlier. They’d drunk whiskey and played cards together, each knowing the other’s business, each respecting the other. But they had never been friends.

It was because of their earlier acquaintanceship that Geller had taken the unusual step of informing Michaelson of his arrival. That was a special touch to mark the fact that this was Geller’s final bow. He was tired of his way of making a living. He had started out on it almost by accident, shortly before his twenty-sixth birthday. At first there had been a kind of stage-fright before each performance. That was history. Time now to call it a day. Geller had no illusions about growing old in his trade. He reckoned he had already beaten the life-expectancy odds for that kind of work by several years. If he were to continue, he would take on one job too many.

Geller was undoubtedly the top man in his line of work, which explained his displeasure at being bracketed with Newt Bradley as a candidate for this job. In Geller’s opinion, Bradley was a crude operator. Not that Geller’s own methods were always the acme of finesse, but to place him alongside Bradley was insulting.

When Geller’s services were required, the process was usually a delicate one, for nobody in his business did any advertising. The principal would have to find someone who in turn might know someone, who might just be able to get word to the master workman. Naturally, no-one wanted to come right out and say he was a friend of a man like Eddie Geller. Nevertheless, the dark, sinister osmosis began, and after muted talks in smoky barrooms, someone would get word to him. In due course, Geller would act. He did not often take a case through direct negotiation with the originating party.

In his fourteen-year career, Geller had accepted twenty-three jobs. He had never failed. Twenty-three contracts, twenty-seven killings, two being doubles and one a triple. Well, twenty-eight disposals to be precise, as one employer had been foolish enough to argue about paying the balance of the fee, claiming that the job had not been done as agreed. He’d been despatched free of charge. Five times, Geller had refused to act. Twice, the proposed targets had been women. Though Geller disliked and distrusted females, he drew the line at killing them. Whether that was attributable to his peculiar brand of chivalry or because he considered such work beneath him, he never said, but simply refused the jobs. The other three cases he had declined because he didn’t consider the transgressions involved as sufficiently heinous to warrant assassination. Nobody could fairly say that Eddie Geller lacked ethics.

Once the contract had been made, there was no escape for the target, not even through his seeking protection from the law. If necessary, Geller would have gone through ten peace officers in line astern to complete his work. Professional pride dictated that. No, if a man had Eddie Geller after him, there was no sanctuary. Not that the quarry usually knew what was coming. Only three of them had known, but awareness hadn’t helped them.

As Geller’s tally of successes had mounted, so had his charges. At first he had worked for sums he would now consider derisory. But of course, a man had to build a reputation, whether he was a merchant, an engineer, an architect, or a killer. Now Geller was atop the heap. He was expensive, but he was infallible. From the moment he accepted a job, it was as good as done.

This, Geller’s final case, was unusual not only in that he knew the target personally, but in that he had also dealt directly with the principal. Knowing Bob Michaelson as he did, Geller would have believed anything of him. Now in his middle forties, Michaelson, a tall, slim, handsome, fair-haired, genial fellow was an inveterate crook, any kind of swindle coming as naturally to him as breathing. Had he used his talents for legitimate purposes, he could have been a wealthy, respected man. But that was not his way. He enjoyed his reckless lifestyle. More than once, his chicanery had netted him enough to retire on and he had promptly gambled it all away. Then he had tangled with the Shearing Company. That had been a mistake.

Eddie Geller allowed his mind to wander back two weeks, to his sole meeting with Gerald Shearing, eponymous head of a large mining company. Using his considerable resources, Shearing had found out about Geller and sent for him, paying handsomely in advance for the interview alone, irrespective of its outcome. Having no conceivable connection with the businessman and seeing no reason to suspect any deception, Geller had accepted the invitation.

The mining boss was a tough middle-aged man and a self-made tycoon. Without much preamble, he had said that he wanted Michaelson taken care of. He didn’t ask about the usual fees, but mentioned a sum that made even so high-priced an operator as the man facing him raise an eyebrow. Nevertheless, Geller had insisted on knowing what Michaelson had done to deserve a death sentence. Shearing, an autocrat, accustomed to giving short shrift to hirelings, intimated that that was his business. Geller had countered that he had his own code – no explanation, no contract.

Having for once met his match, the captain of industry capitulated. He explained that Michaelson had inveigled his way into the confidence of Gerald Shearing Junior, only child of the great entrepreneur. Young Gerald had run one of the company’s mines in Nevada. Michaelson had tried, unsuccessfully, to bring off a crazy, illegal stunt, which had gone badly wrong. As a side-effect of his inexcusable conduct, there had been complications, during the course of which Shearing junior had been killed. Nothing could be proved in law, but Shearing senior told Geller enough to convince him that Michaelson’s time had come.

Through the mysterious nexus of Geller’s contacts, Michaelson had been located. The links were many and varied and few people refused to do a favour for Eddie Geller. After all, a man never knew what might happen if he declined. Now, here they both were, predator and prey, in this decaying community in the middle of nowhere. There was no local law – Geller had checked that. In fact there was no law of real substance for a good long way in any direction.

Knowing Michaelson as he did, Geller was sure that the man would not try to run. For one thing, he would know that flight was useless. For another, in his perverse way, Michaelson would regard this matter as a challenge. Though no great gunman himself, he was an irrepressible optimist. He would conclude that, even with Geller upon him, he would be able to plead, bribe or trick his way out of the situation. Something would save him. Geller chuckled at the thought. Would it now?

As the afternoon wore on, Geller sipped sparingly at the rum, worked his way through three of the long, thin cheroots and concluded that there was no point in delay. He would deal with the matter at once. That decided, he began to plan how he would spend his retirement. His display of showmanship in revealing his identity did not give him any qualms. It wouldn’t help anybody to know that he had accounted for Michaelson. As soon as the job was done, Eddie Geller would disappear forever. A change of name and location would see to that. Edmund Gale of Philadelphia sounded good. Maybe he would get into the mainstream of life. Perhaps buy himself a small business. It was working out right.

Geller ignored the pangs of hunger for some time, then succumbed, taking a chunk of jerky from a packet of emergency provisions stowed in the carpet bag he had been toting largely for the sake of appearance. He chewed away the food, then waited another hour. By then it was dark and time for action. Taking only a small bundle of personal items, he slipped quietly away from the house.

First, he went to the livery stable, now unattended. He saddled the horse, not wanting to waste time when his business was concluded. Hooking his package over the saddle horn, he left the animal and walked off towards his target. He didn’t need to check the position again, his first brief survey having sufficed. Between the saloon and the adjacent general store was a narrow alleyway. As Geller started to enter it, a scruffy mongrel dog rose from the shadows of the sidewalk, sniffing at him. For a moment, he thought that meant trouble, then the animal relapsed into its lethargy, apathetic within the town’s greater apathy.

Geller went to the back of the saloon. At the right-hand end was a small outhouse, its flat roof just below an upstairs sash window, the bottom part of which was half-open. Geller smiled. It was too easy. People didn’t seem to learn. Within seconds he had hauled himself up seven feet and was kneeling by the upstairs window, peering in at a sparsely-furnished room. By the inner wall to his left was a bed, the mattress bare of sheet and blankets. So, seemingly unoccupied. That would do. Pushing the sash fully open, he clambered inside, his intention being to wait here. If anyone disturbed him, that would be too bad for the party concerned. Geller didn’t want to kill a ‘casual’ but a man had to deal with what turned up.

It was a Tuesday and from Geller’s brief glance at the front of the saloon, he judged that business inside was none too brisk. Most likely Michaelson would close early. Even if he didn’t live on the premises, he would be the last to leave – only this night he wouldn’t do that, unless his covert visitor was much mistaken.

Geller opened the door a few inches, hearing subdued conversation from the barroom. He couldn’t emerge further without unacceptable risk. There was nothing to do but settle down and wait, checking the position from time to time.

After a couple of hours, the talk below died down as the few customers drifted away. It was close to eleven o’clock when Geller pushed the door open a little wider, giving himself a view of the room below. There was now only one customer, talking quietly with his host. Twenty minutes later, the man left and Michaelson closed the larger doors behind the batwings, throwing a bar across them – a security precaution, Geller noted, in sharp contrast to the laxity in respect of the rear window he’d used.

This was it. Geller, soft shoes muffling his approach, started down the stairs.

Michaelson was tidying up and had his back to the intruder. “Hello, Eddie,” he said.

Geller realised that he had been spotted in the mirror behind the bar. That didn’t matter, as stealth wasn’t necessary at this stage. “Hello, Bob.”

Michaelson turned. “You didn’t waste much time.”.

“I rarely do.”

“It’s been quite a while, Eddie. How’s life treating you?”

“Can’t complain. You?”

“I’m getting by. Like a drink?”

“As long as it’s a fresh bottle.”

“Pick your own.” Michaelson waved an arm at the selection.

Geller, his still-holstered gun indicating supreme confidence, walked over to the bar. Not satisfied with what was on immediate offer, he went to the backbar shelves, selecting a full, stoppered bottle of whiskey. “Join me?” he asked.

“Might as well,” replied Michaelson, who seemed, despite obvious knowledge of his desperate situation, quite calm. Or maybe, Geller reasoned, it was just fatalism.

The two stood together at the bar. Geller, aware of Michaelson’s deviousness, kept his coat open and clear of his gun butt. Michaelson opened the bottle, picked two large glasses and poured king-sized measures. “I suppose there’s no point in a toast to good health?” he said laconically.

“I reckon not,” Geller answered.

Michaelson downed his drink in one swift gulp and treated himself to another, half of which he also despatched quickly. He was staring into Geller’s eyes as he put down his glass. Rapping it awkwardly on the edge of the bar, he lost control and let it fall, the liquid dribbling across floorboards and sawdust. “Damn,” he said. “Guess I’ve had one too many.” He dropped to one knee to retrieve the glass, stumbling as he did so and feeling for the bar with his left hand. He missed, clawing instead at Geller’s right leg, just below the gun.

Geller stepped back quickly, dropping his right hand to the weapon and whipping round his open left to give Michaelson a vicious cuff to the right temple. The saloon-owner slumped sideways, his head slamming against the bar. “Don’t try anything else like that, Bob,” snapped the gunman.

Michaelson rubbed his head ruefully as he rose. “I wasn’t trying anything Eddie. Just a little unsteady. I reckon a man has a right to feel that way when you come calling.”

“Maybe,” said Geller. “Anyway, keep your distance.”

“Okay. Listen, I’m not feeling so good. Let’s sit down there. That is, if you can spare the time.” He nodded at the nearest table and they walked over, sitting opposite one another.

“Somebody must have put out a contract on me,” said Michaelson.

“That’s right,” Geller replied.

“I suppose it was old Shearing?”


“Well, that wasn’t one of my better ideas.”

“No. Seeing as you’re about to die for it, I guess you could say so.”
Michaelson downed another shot of whiskey. “Maybe if I put back a little more rotgut, it won’t come so hard,” he said. “I don’t imagine I can buy my way out of this one?”

“You know better than that, Bob,” Geller answered quietly. “No feelings involved here. It’s just business. I figured you wouldn’t try to run.”

Michaelson shrugged. “I reckon I’m a philosophical man, Eddie,” he said. “I’m near forty-six years old and I’ve used myself up pretty freely. Way I see it, even if I go on, it’s downhill all the way now. Who wants to live another twenty or thirty years, getting older and weaker?”

“You have a point there,” Geller answered. “Anyway, what were you doing before you came here?”

Michaelson laughed. “You know me. Anything for a dollar. I pulled off a few jobs. Some of them were pretty good, too. I made a lot of money. Lost it again. Meantime I filled in any way I could. You might not believe this, but I spent two years working as a magician in a travelling show up north. Got damned good at it too. You’d be amazed what I can do with a pack of cards, a hat and a few other oddments.”

Geller permitted himself a dry grin. “Yes, well, you always were a tricky man, Bob. It’s a pity we’ve got to this. We might have been friends if things had worked out some other way.”

“I guess that’s life,” said Michaelson, shrugging again and downing another whiskey. “How do you aim to play it, Eddie?”

“I figure just one, Bob. A head shot. Whenever it suits you.”

“Might as well get on with it then. With this much firewater inside me, I’ll probably not notice.”

Geller hauled out his gun. At this range, he didn’t need to prepare himself. “See you in Hell, Bob,” he said, levelling the Colt and firing in one smooth flow. The sound of the explosion racketed around the barroom.

The shot didn’t kill Geller, but it didn’t do him any good. As the smoke wreathed up, the mangled gun fell from his twisted right hand, banging loudly on the floor. He sat back in his chair, mouth agape in astonishment, staring at the grinning saloonkeeper.

“I believe you’re slipping a little, Eddie,” said Michaelson. “I just told you I used to be a conjurer. See, your weakness was that open-ended holster. Amazing what happens when you push a little metal wedge into a gun barrel, especially if you know how to do it. Back at the bar there, remember? I had two other ideas in mind in case that failed, but I’ll not need them now. Anyway, like you say, Eddie, see you in Hell.” Michaelson chuckled as he pulled a Derringer from a clip inside his right boot and shot Geller neatly in the forehead.

* * *

August 18th, 2012, 06:24 PM

That Jack Gilling and Clay Mellowes should meet was not inevitable, but seemed more than likely. Both men were in the same small part of the world at the same time and were, albeit in the broadest sense, in the same line of business. So many ‘sames’ suggested that they might well come across one another.

The exact nature of the confrontation involved several kinds of irony. It took place in the Rosewood Basin of New Mexico at a critical moment in the history of that region. The area was a tinderbox. Cattlemen and sheepherders had been embroiled for some time in a steadily intensifying dispute which had just about come to a head as Jack Gilling and Clay Mellowes converged on the town of Rosewood. Neither man was aware that this was the focal point of the impending clash.

Though Gilling and Mellowes were involved in gunplay, they were in distinctly different branches of it. Jack Gilling always operated with his partner, Luke Marsh and the two had evolved a remarkable way of making a living. It wasn’t exactly a steady occupation and was never likely to be a long-term one but it had already lasted well over a year when the two men arrived in Rosewood.

Gilling was passably handy with a six-shooter, though nothing like good enough to be a real gunfighter. He could draw fairly quickly but was a poor marksman. Had he ever been obliged to try conclusions with a genuine professional, he would not have had a chance. However, so far he had avoided any such inconvenience. Not that he was greatly troubled by the prospect, for apart from his total aversion to working for a living, his most pronounced quality was recklessness. He simply didn’t care what happened to him. Furthermore, he had complete confidence in his ability to brazen or wriggle his way out of any difficulty.

So far, Gilling and Marsh had done business in eleven towns, and had fared well in ten of them. The failure was the one in which the local lawman had been an exceptionally tough and very irritable fellow. Without waiting to find out what the two adventurers were up to, he had assumed the worst and sent them on their way.

The system was simple. Gilling and Marsh sought out communities which were big enough to give them what they wanted, but too small to offer them much resistance. First, Marsh would survey the target, returning to report his findings. If the outlook was promising, he would ride in the following day, ahead of his friend, enter a saloon and let it be known that he was fleeing from the dreaded gunslinger Gilling, who had a score to settle with him and would soon hit town. Gilling would allow a reasonable time for Marsh to attract attention, then swagger into the saloon, confront his quarry and call him out. Invariably, Marsh would go for his gun and always Gilling would outdraw him and apparently shoot him, usually in the gun hand. The master marksman would then declare himself satisfied and Marsh would be sent packing.

What with Marsh’s build-up and Gilling’s awesome shooting display, the gunman would usually find the town nicely cowed. He would then presume upon his obvious powers to get whatever he wanted from the local saloons and stores, informing the owners that he would settle with them when it suited him. Rarely did anyone care to argue with him. After a couple of days, and without spending a penny, Gilling would leave the town, loaded with supplies, and rejoin his partner. The play-acting was effective and it enabled the pair to avail themselves of whatever they wanted.

Clay Mellowes was different. For one thing, he was, or at least had been, a gunman of some notoriety, having killed four men in fair shootouts and faced down half a dozen others. However, by the time he arrived in Rosewood, he was a spent force. He knew it, and was aware that his survival depended on not letting anyone else know it. He had almost – but not quite – managed that. So far, his reputation had kept him safe, but he expected to meet his nemesis, sooner or later. He’d already had one close call, having dissuaded a young hothead from taking a chance against him.

The truth was that Mellowes could no longer see properly. For nearly a year, his eyes had been giving trouble. His vision was intermittently blurred, and even when it wasn’t, he often had difficulty in focusing. Now, unless he was having a particularly good day, he couldn’t guarantee to hit a house from its garden gate.

Gilling and Marsh arrived in Rosewood from the South on a blistering July afternoon. As usual, Marsh, a short thin rat-faced man, went in a couple of hours before his partner. There was a sprinkling of cowpunchers and townspeople in the Southern Star, the largest of the three saloons. It didn’t take long for Marsh to move into his routine. He had offended the fearsome Jack Gilling, who was now on his heels. Just time for a whiskey or two to steady the nerves, then he would be on his way. No future for anybody facing Gilling.

With impeccable timing, the gunman strode into the saloon. He was a tall broad man, dwarfing his partner. Immediately, his eyes lighted upon Marsh, who was speaking. The smaller man stopped in mid-sentence, his mouth falling wide open as he saw Gilling. Then he deposited his glass on the bar and wiped his hands nervously on his pants. “H… Hello, Jack,” he mumbled.

The pistolero was not disposed to waste time. He moved over to the bar. The locals, sensing what was about to happen, shuffled away, giving the two men a clear field. Gilling stood, arms akimbo, facing Marsh. “I’ve only one thing to say to you, feller,” he snapped. “Haul iron.”

Marsh was quivering. “Now just … just …w …wait a minute,” he stammered.

Gilling snatched up a glass from the bar. “I’ve waited long enough,” he said. “When this thing hits the floor, you draw or you take what’s coming anyway.” He tossed the glass high. The instant it hit the floor, Marsh made a show of going for his gun. He’d barely cleared leather when Gilling fired his single shot, a blank as always. Marsh cried out, dropping his weapon. He clapped his left hand over the right, neatly bursting the packet of cow’s blood strapped to his lower forearm. “Damn,” he gasped, staring at the red liquid dripping from his fingers to the floor. “You broke my wrist.”

“That’s what I aimed to do,” Gilling replied. “It’s good enough. Now get your gun and hit the trail before I change my mind and kill you.”

Making a show of his pain, Marsh did as he was told, leaving the saloon and riding rapidly out of the town. Gilling holstered his weapon and ordered whiskey.

The bartender, now a bag of nerves, served him. “Mister, I never saw shooting like that before,” he said. “You just blasted the gun right out of his hand. Didn’t mean to kill him.”

Gilling downed his drink. “Leave the bottle,” he growled. “If I’d meant to kill him, he’d be dead. You want to draw and see me prove it again?”

“My God, no. I don’t have a sidearm anyway. It’s just the most amazin’ thing I ever saw. Didn’t mean any offence.”

“Well, okay. None taken this time. Just mind your tongue in future.”

“I’ll do that.”

His initial performance over, Gilling settled himself down with three more shots of the raw liquor. People were leaving and entering the saloon and within an hour there wasn’t a soul in the town who didn’t know of the newcomer’s exploit. That was the usual way of it. Soon, Gilling would find the best accommodation available and set about acquiring what he and Marsh would need for the next month or two. Of course, he wouldn’t pay for anything and it was a near-certainty that nobody would press him to do so. That might be unwise.

By mid-afternoon, Gilling was relaxing in the most comfortable room that Rosewood’s sole hotel had to offer. He’d treated himself to a bottle of the establishment’s finest brandy and was toying with the idea of a meal when there was a knock at the door. Sliding out his gun, he called the visitor to enter.

The incomer was a slim fellow of average height, with the dress and bearing of a cowboy. “Evening,” he said. “Name’s Kydd. I’m foreman for Lewis Stockdale. He leads the cattlemen around here.”

“I’m Jack Gilling. What do you want?”

“I’ll get straight to the point. There’s big trouble here between us ranchers and the sheepmen. It’s just about ready to explode. My boss figures that a top gunhand will give us the edge we need. From what you did today, we reckon you could be that man, if you’ll take on the job.”

“Oh, you reckon that, do you? And what do you think it’s worth?”

“A straight thousand dollars. I have it here. Maybe you won’t have to do anything apart from staying around for a week or so. ’Course, if the sheepmen bring anybody in, we’d expect you to earn the money.”

Like most men who lived by their wits, the fake shootist was quick on the uptake. His mind raced as Kydd was speaking. Even before the man had finished, Gilling knew he was going to take the cash. He would work out later what to do. Maybe he would just run off. He’d do so for sure if the sheepmen brought in a serious gunfighter. He made quite a demonstration of considering the matter, getting up from the bed and walking over to stare out of the window, rubbing his jaw.

Both men stood in silence for nearly three minutes, then Gilling turned sharply. “All right,” he said. “I normally rate a good deal more than a thousand dollars for a job like this, but as it happens, I’m sympathetic to cowmen and I’ve no time for sheep. Give me the money and tell Stockdale I’ll look after his interests. Maybe we can bring things to the boil in a week. If not, we’ll think about it again.”

Kydd handed over a wad of bills. “Can we rely on you to stand by us?” he asked.

It wasn’t the right remark to pass to a top gunfighter. Gilling gave the foreman a look fit to kill. “Mister,” he said very quietly. “Are you questioning my integrity?”

Kydd held up a protesting hand. “No, not at all. Sorry. I guess I just don’t know how to handle this kind of thing. I never did the like of it before.”

“If you don’t watch your manners, you might never do it again. You can get on your way now. Give it a couple of days, then call again and we’ll talk. I’ll have worked something out by then.”

Kydd left without another word and Gilling began to consider how best to handle his stroke of luck, without involving himself in anything so dangerous as flying lead. There was a good case for hitting the trail without further ado. After all, a thousand dollars was a tidy sum. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t be called upon to act at all, so there might be a chance of getting a haul of supplies, in addition to the money. Two days later, Gilling was still trying to decide on his best course. In the meantime, he had had the run of the town and had not heard anything further from the rancher, Stockdale, who was clearly giving him the time he’d suggested.

It was late in the afternoon of this third day of Gilling’s stay in Rosewood when another visitor came to town, this time from the North. Clay Mellowes was making his way to nowhere in particular and was not in a hurry. This looked as good a place as any to stay for a day or two, so he took his horse to the livery stable then headed for the nearest saloon. This was a smaller place than the one where Gilling had made his entrance, and was the one favoured by the sheepmen for what little drinking they did in town. The owner, Coleman, kept two guest bedrooms, both a good deal less comfortable than anything at the hotel. However, Mellowes didn’t care to search the town for something better, so he decided to stay the night where he was.

He hadn’t been in the saloon more than five minutes when the bartender walked across the room, bent over and muttered something to a man drinking alone at a table. The man nodded, got up and left. Mellowes, whose eyesight was still good enough to note anything so obvious, smiled to himself. He had been recognised. Well, why not? He wasn’t exactly travelling incognito. It would be interesting to see whether his presence would cause a stir. It would.

As with the more dramatic arrival of Gilling and Marsh, the appearance of Mellowes, a renowned gunman, was known to everyone in the town within the hour. People began to drop into the saloon for a quick drink, before leaving to tell others that they had seen the redoubtable Clay Mellowes. The man himself affected not to notice. He just hoped that no young upstart would come along to spoil the day by trying to provoke him.

After drinking his fill of whiskey, Mellowes crossed the street for an evening meal, then returned to the saloon, going straight up to his room. An hour later he was lying on his bed, smoking a cigar, when there was a knock at the door. He drew his gun, inviting the visitor to enter. An extraordinarily tall, lugubrious-looking fellow came in. “Evening,” he said. “Hope you don’t mind my asking, but are you Clay Mellowes?”

“That’s right. What can I do for you?”

“Plenty, if you’ve a mind to. My name’s Overton. I’m speaking for the sheepmen here.”


“Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a storm brewing between us and the cattlemen. No point in giving you all the details. Long and short of it is there’s going to be a hell of a bust-up any day now. We’re just sheepherders, not warmongers. We need a good man with a gun to give us a chance when the ruckus starts. I’m asking if you’ll help us?”

Mellowes took out his cigar, inspecting it while he stroked his chin. It was close to a minute before he replied. “I’m retired. Maybe, just maybe, I’d consider one more job. If you can afford it, that is.”

“I hope we can,” said Overton. “Truth is we’ve no experience in such matters. We reckon we’d need you for about a week. Maybe you won’t need to … er … work. Your name alone might do the trick. We put together all the money we can spare. Comes to just a thousand dollars. That enough?”

Mellowes stared at the man for another long moment, then said: “My usual rate for a job like this would be two thousand, half before and half after.” Seeing Overton’s face fall, he held up a hand. “All right. I hear you boys have had a pretty raw deal, so I’m willing to make an exception. I’ll do the job for you, but I want the money now. That suit you?”

Overton was clearly uncomfortable, but had little choice. “Fair enough,” he said. “I guess you’ll stick with us, once you have the money.”

“You suggesting I might run out on you?” Mellowes’ tone was suddenly menacing.

“Hell, no,” Overton replied. “Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“All right. I reckon you didn’t know any better. Just give me the money and allow a day or two for me to figure out how I’ll play it.”

Overton handed over a roll of bills. “Just one thing you ought to know,” he said. “There’s been talk around town that the cattlemen might have hired a man. Don’t know whether it’s true or not, but there’s a stranger in town, name of Gilling. They say he’s handy with a pistol. Mean anything to you?”

“No. He can’t be much of a gunman if I never heard of him. I know them all. Don’t worry about him. You can go now. Let me know where I can contact you and I’ll be in touch.”

After giving directions to his place, Overton departed, leaving Mellowes to reflect on his own show of bravado. In his condition, it would be suicide to go up against even a second-rater. Still, he had collected his thousand dollars. Now he had to decide what to do, short of getting into a battle. Well, he would sleep on it. Something would occur to him. He was still pondering on the matter an hour later, when there was another knock at the door. Grabbing his gun again, he growled: “Yeah. Come in.”

The door opened slowly and an elderly wizened little man, almost bald, entered. “Mr Mellowes, sir?” he asked.

“That’s right. Now what?”

“Well, sir, you don’t know me. I’m the swamper in the Southern Star, at the other end of town.”

“That’s nice. What do you want with me?”

“Well, Mr Mellowes, I was just wonderin’ whether you think information is worth anythin’?”

“Mister, I’m tired. If you have something to say, spit it out. I’ve no time for riddles.”

“Okay, sir. Fact is, I got contacts here an’ there, an’ I keep my mouth shut an’ my eyes an’ ears open, so I get news that others don’t hear about. I know somethin’ about Jack Gilling that could be real valuable to you, if you had a mind to pay for it.”

“What makes you think I’d be interested in this Gilling?”

“Well, it’s goin’ around town that he’s been hired by the cattlemen to take their side in this here dispute that’s goin’ on. Now, a man don’t need to be too clever to put two an’ two together an’ figure out that maybe you’re here to take up with the sheepmen.”

“Never mind that. What’s this about Gilling?”

The swamper rubbed his hands together. “I’m a poor man, Mr Mellowes, sir,” he said. This news is real important. I reckon it’d be worth a hundred dollars to you.”

Mellowes lowered his gun. He wasn’t going to need it. “What’s to stop me from getting a hold of that scrawny neck and wringing it out of you?” he rasped.

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll do that. See, I took precautions. Left a couple o’ sealed-up notes around, in case somethin’ unpleasant happens to me. One of ’em’s with the town marshal. He ain’t too bright, but he can read well enough. If I don’t see him first thing in the mornin’, in good condition, he’ll read what I wrote. Guess I don’t need to say any more. Anyway, like I say, I reckon you’ll find what I can tell you is well worth the money.”

Mellowes dug from his shirt pocket the cash he had received from Overton, peeling off a hundred dollars. “All right,” he said. “You’ll not find me small-minded if your information’s good. What is it?”

“Well, it’s like this. Gilling’s a fraudster. He works with another man. They pick out towns. The partner rides in first an’ puts it around that he’s on the run from a top pistolero. Gilling goes in an hour or two after him and pretends to shoot him up, then takes over the place for a while. Gets everythin’ they want, then they meet up again. Fact is, Gilling’s no gunman. You can take it from me, he’d run a mile before facin’ a real shoot-out. If you’re in with the sheepmen, you just need to call him out an’ you’ll have an easy ride.”

“You sure of this?”

“As sure as sure can be, Mr Mellowes. You can bet your life on it.”

“Maybe I will. Okay, I figure that’s worth a hundred. Here it is. Now get out and keep your mouth shut, or I’ll know who to look up after I’m through with Gilling.”

Ten minutes later, while Mellowes was working out how to proceed in the light of what he had just heard, Jack Gilling was relaxing in his room at the hotel, when there was a knock at his door. He picked up his gun and bade the caller enter. It was the old swamper. “Evenin’ Mr Gilling, sir,” he said.

“Yeah, same to you,” Gilling replied. “Something I can do for you?”

“It’s more a question of somethin’ I can do for you.”

“And what might that be?”

“I have some news that would be real interestin’ to you.”

“What is it?”

“Well, see, Mr Gilling. I’m a poor man. Seems to me I deserve to be paid. Could be a matter of life or death to you, so I figure it’s worth a hundred dollars. Do we have a deal?”

Gilling was as nonchalant in money matters as he was about everything else. He grinned at the little man. “What could you know that would be worth a hundred dollars to me?”

“I guess it’s all around town that you’ve taken up with the cattlemen in this trouble that’s goin’ on here an’ I reckon everybody knows that the sheepmen have brought in a gunfighter of their own. Feller by the name of Clay Mellowes. You know him?”

“I know of him. What about it?”

“Well, Mellowes has a room in Coleman’s saloon. I can tell you somethin’ that’ll make sure you have the edge on him. I’d say that’s worth a hundred dollars. Wouldn’t you?”

Gilling didn’t hesitate. He went to the commode, opened the top drawer and pulled out five twenty-dollar bills. Unlike Mellowes, he didn’t consider threatening violence to get the details out of the swamper. “Okay,” he said. “If I believe your story, the money’s yours.”

“Well, sir, it’s like this. I get a deal of information that most folks don’t know about. I got contacts an’ I can tell you that you’ve no need to worry about Mellowes. He can’t see worth a damn.”

“Can’t see? So how come he’s a gunslinger?”

“He was one. That’s over an’ done with. There’s somethin’ wrong with his eyes. I know for a fact that he couldn’t hit you from across the street to save his life. You tangle with him an’ you’re sure to win.”

“That’s a new one on me,” said Gilling, “and I’m taking your word for it. Here’s your money. Now get out of here – and remember, if you’ve steered me wrong, I’ll be calling on you.”

“You won’t need to do that. What I told you is genuine. Good night, sir.”

Half an hour after the swamper left Gilling’s room, Mellowes was preparing for bed when there was a knock at his door. “Come in,” he bawled, snatching up his gun yet again. The door opened, revealing Jack Gilling. Mellowes, now thoroughly irritated, glared at his latest visitor. “What the hell’s wrong with you people?” he snapped. “I paid for a room here. Seems to me I’d get more peace out in the street.”

The intruder held up calming hands. “I’m real sorry to bust in on you like this, but I just figured we might have something to discuss. I’m Jack Gilling.”

“Okay, now we both know who you are. What have we to talk about?”

Gilling had been thinking hard and had decided there was no point in taking chances. Even if Mellowes was a has-been, there was a chance he would get off a lucky shot and Gilling had no intention of getting into a real gunfight with anybody. “Well, Mellowes,” he said, “I know all about your eyes. Never mind how, but I’m sure. Now, I’m a professional, just like you are. It wouldn’t be right for me to take advantage. You can call it courtesy if you want.”

“You’d better sit down,” said Mellowes, indicating a chair, “and you might care to note that you’re not the only one with useful information. I happen to know something about you, too.” Without revealing his source, he told what he knew.

Gilling’s rubbed his jaw, his fertile mind evaluating the position for some time. “Well,” he said finally, “I guess everybody must have figured by now that we’re likely to have things out between us. I think there’s only one thing to be done, and the sooner the better. Here’s how I see it.”

The following day, at one minute to noon, Jack Gilling stepped out of the hotel into the oven-heat. His horse, prepared for departure, was tethered to the hitch rail. Slowly, he moved to the middle of the street and stood there looking eastwards, right thumb hooked in his gun belt, left hand holding a stone. Seconds later, Clay Mellowes emerged from Coleman’s saloon and took up a position facing Gilling. His horse too, was hitched and trail-ready.

The two men began to pace forwards, narrowing the distance between them to less than thirty feet, then stopped. There was no one else in sight but the word had been passed around and at least fifty people were watching through windows and at half-opened doors.

Gilling tipped back his hat. “So here we are,” he said. “I guess it just had to come out like this.”

Mellowes nodded. “Was likely enough. You picked a nice day to die.”

“We’ll see about that,” Gilling replied. I reckon everyone here knows by now that I always give the other fellow his chance.” He held up the stone. “Just so that nobody can say that one of us tried to get the drop, I’ll toss this over to the sidewalk. When it lands, the fun starts. Okay?”

“Suits me.”

“Fine. Here we go.” Gilling lobbed the stone, which hit the planking to start a strictly even contest. The two guns were drawn and roared simultaneously. Mellowes’ shot went high and wide and instantly he clapped a hand to his chest, staggered back three steps, then fell face down in the thick dust.

Gilling walked cautiously towards his collapsed adversary. Kneeling, he turned Mellowes over onto his back. The fallen man’s shirt was already soaked with blood. “That’s it, then,” said Gilling to no-one in particular. Some of the more adventurous spectators began to emerge from their concealment, moving tentatively to the scene of the action. Gilling whipped his gun around in a threatening arc. “Keep away, all of you,” he snarled. “He’s dead.”

“You sure?” one man inquired.

“Did you ever hear of a man living after a shot through the heart?” Gilling said, his voice loaded with sarcasm.

“I guess not.”

Showing a degree of respect that amazed the onlookers, Gilling picked up the body, carried it to the horse waiting outside Coleman’s saloon and draped it across the saddle. Then he brought his own horse from the hotel, mounted and led the two animals away, turning to give a last grim look at the gathering crowd. “Okay, you’ve seen the entertainment,” he said. “Mellowes was a top-class gunman and a fair fighter. I know where he wanted to be buried and I’m taking him there. I don’t want anybody else along.” He put the horses to a slow walk northwards.

Four miles out of town, with none of the local people in sight, Gilling arrived at a clump of trees. Luke Marsh stepped out to meet him. “How’d it go, Jack?” he asked.

Gilling told the story in a few words and just as he finished speaking, a voice came from behind the two men: “Do you aim to stay here all day?”

“Oh, sorry about that,” said Gilling, turning. “You can quit being dead now, Mellowes. You did real well.”

The ‘corpse’ slid from the saddle and did a little foot-stamping to restore circulation. “Good idea of yours, that pack of blood,” said the grinning Mellowes. “Very convincing.”

“Works a treat,” Gilling replied. Fishing in a coat pocket, he pulled out a roll of bills. “Here’s the money. Your nine hundred dollars from the sheepmen that you gave me for safekeeping in case they tried to get it back, plus five hundred of my own for damaging your reputation.”

“Thanks,” said Mellowes. “I was about to change my name anyway, even if we hadn’t run into one another, so you’ve no need to worry about my fame and fortune. The first is more trouble than it’s worth and the second is all here.” He waved a thick wad of currency, to which he added what Gilling had just given him. “Nice doing business with you. Goodbye, Jack.”

“So long, Clay.”

* * *

August 25th, 2012, 06:26 PM

He was lightning fast. Those who knew about such things rated him the quickest man with a gun the West had ever seen. Most put him well ahead of Ben Thompson, Wes Hardin, John Ringo, Wyatt Earp and other such luminaries. Some averred that, had chronology allowed a match to take place, even the great Wild Bill Hickok would have been far outclassed by this man. It was often claimed that he possessed a quality more akin to sorcery than gunplay.

His name was John Widdup and now, at the age of twenty-seven, he was at the height of his powers. He had killed eleven men in fair, one-to-one encounters. All of his victims had been either known gunfighters or aspirants to that status. Not one of them had come anywhere near beating Widdup. Only two had even managed to get off a shot and in each case it had been hardly more than a post mortem reflex, one bullet piercing a ceiling, the other a floor. Of the remaining nine men, five had been struck down with guns barely clear of their holsters.

Though he had always been fascinated by side-arms and shooting, Widdup had not set out to seek notoriety. However, his story was not an unfamiliar one. After his prowess had been demonstrated, albeit unwillingly and against a rash third-rater, he had become a target. Men just wanted to try him out. They were usually reckless fellows, intent on establishing who was faster, even if the reward for their curiosity was death.

So it became a way of life for John Widdup. No matter where he appeared, some firebrand with more bravado than brain would show up, call him out and pay the price. In the early days, he went to some pains to avoid any looming showdown. Later, recognising inevitability when he saw it, he made no such effort, preferring to push matters to a swift conclusion. Like a certain monarch, he reasoned that, if a thing had to be done, it was best done quickly.

Widdup did not rely solely on the exceptional talent seemingly bestowed upon him by nature. Realising that he was bound to be the object of some attention, he practised daily, always finding some place where he could use his Colt Peacemaker, kept in a silk-smooth holster. His repertoire did not include any fancy tricks, his phenomenal speed and pin-point accuracy being all he needed. There were other men who could shoot fast and straight – some gave public exhibitions of their skill – but few had the special kind of nerve required to stand still and put a bullet into a man who was blasting their way with a similar intention.

Wherever Widdup went, his reputation travelled with him, precluding steady work. He had to find some other way of getting along, so he became an outlaw. Being a man of modest needs and not very materialistic, he didn’t operate on a grand scale. He went to work only when he needed money, which he never hoarded. Sometimes it seemed to be almost an afterthought with him. When his pockets were empty, he had to fill them. His idea was that the fewer jobs he pulled off, the fewer lawmen would hunt him. With rare exceptions, his method succeeded.

To any detached observer, a hostile confrontation between John Widdup and Thaddeus Dorf would have seemed a vanishingly unlikely event, for neither the circles not the circuits of the two men would normally have intersected. They were as different as cheese and chalk and neither was aware of the other’s existence. But fate has a way of arranging these things and the two dissimilar characters were brought together by its machinations.

As to social life, Widdup was decidedly a man of the lower strata. Generally, he avoided pretentious places. Dark, smoky saloons, sawdust-covered floors, scarred deal bars and cheap rooming houses were his preferred surroundings. With regard to territory, he spent nearly all his time in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, with occasional forays across the border into Sonora or Chihuahua. Only twice in nearly a decade of wandering had he been further north, each time pursued by a single lawman. He had fought off the first and outrun the second.

To all appearances, Thaddeus Dorf was Widdop’s direct opposite. He travelled extensively, always by the most comfortable means available, and patronised only the best hotels and restaurants. Thick carpets, polished hardwood, good food and drink attracted him like magnets. As far as was possible in his part of the world, he moved in the more genteel levels of society. Where there was not sufficient refinement to suit him, he added a touch of class by his own presence, usually managing to induce others to raise their standards, rather than himself descending to theirs. He normally operated in the Northwest and Midwest, seldom reaching further south or west than Cheyenne. On the occasion of his meeting with Widdup, he had left his customary haunts only to cover for an indisposed colleague.

Dorf’s parents had migrated from Austria to the United States shortly after his birth. His father was a medical practitioner, his mother a music teacher. Dorf himself, though extremely intelligent and energetic, had no taste for the protracted study involved in emulating the career of either parent. He decided early in life that he would have to find a way of assuaging his wanderlust, while also making a living.

Having identified the problem, Dorf soon found a neat solution. He contacted a Philadelphia company, prominent in the manufacturing and importing of medical supplies, becoming its representative for the area in which he wished to operate. He was outstandingly successful and soon added more agencies to his portfolio, eventually becoming the conduit for five companies in the medical field.

Dorf was a small man, barely five feet five inches tall and slightly built. He was a fastidious fellow, always immaculately dressed and groomed. Already at thirty-nine, his trim moustache and neat, short, pointed black beard were sprinkled with grey, adding to his general air of distinction. His quick, decisive way of speaking and exceptional command of language gained him respect from almost everyone he met.

It was almost noon on a hot dry July day in the thriving little community of Canford, Colorado. Thaddeus Dorf had arrived the evening before, full of dark thoughts about the likely standard of accommodation awaiting him on his initial visit to the town. This was also his first appearance anywhere in this area, which he had long considered the realm of outer darkness. He was to be pleasantly surprised, for this was a place of growing stature. Mining, timber and cattle interests had combined to make Canford affluent. This was no here today, gone tomorrow boom town. The buildings were of dressed stone, neatly laid brick or well-finished timber, all constructed with a view to posterity. Most of the people were smartly turned out, clearly enjoying prosperity and seemingly imbued with a fair measure of civic pride.

Most agreeable of all, from Thaddeus Dorf’s point of view, was that the town boasted an excellent hotel, with first-class dining facilities. Although he intended spending only two days in Canford, Dorf was delighted, for his aversion to rough living was profound and he had no intention of trying to overcome it. Owing to his peppery nature, he was not slow to voice his distaste for standards which fell short of his requirements. It was really quite surprising how he had developed the art of getting people to do things for him that they would not do for anyone else.

There was no cause for complaint at the Grand Western Hotel. Dorf had enjoyed a good night’s rest and an early breakfast and had done brisk business in the town. He was now sitting in the hotel barroom, sipping a first-rate whiskey and feeling as mellow as his irascible temperament permitted. He had changed his mind about his midday meal, having first decided to eat in the hotel, then being seduced by enticing smells from an elegant-looking restaurant along the street. He would stroll along there when he had finished his drink.

It was at this point that John Widdup arrived in Canford, having finally shaken off a lawman, after a long chase. In due course, the officer would report his conclusion that the pursuit had used up too much of his time and enough public funds. His decision may have been influenced by growing concern about what might happen if he were ever to catch up with the notorious gunman, for meek submission was not a reaction to expected from Widdup.

As always on entering a town new to him, the desperado approached the place with caution. He set his horse to a slow plod along the main street, his eyes roving everywhere, ticking off the positions of the amenities he was most likely to need and the places he might wish to avoid.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Widdup would have sought out the meanest drinkery in town. That he did not do so on this occasion may have been attributable to his having noted the fact that this wealthy, tidy little community did not have much in the way of rough saloons. Or possibly he was simply too weary to make the effort to find one. Whatever the reason, he moved slowly northwards until he found himself outside the Grand Western Hotel.

He sat his horse for a full minute, taking stock. What he saw was a two-storey brick-built structure. At ground level, the entrance was flanked by two wide windows, divided into foot-square panes. The upper level had six narrower ones in similar style. Between the floors, running along most of the facade, was the name of the place, in large gilt letters.

Widdup nodded to himself. Too high-toned, but it would do for a quick drink before he saw to his horse. He dismounted, hitched the gelding, used his hat to beat dust from his clothes and crossed the sidewalk. Pushing open the pair of half-glazed doors, he entered a ten-foot square hallway, to the right of which was a small reception recess, now unattended. At the inner end were double doors with small glass panes, set from top to bottom in oak frames. Widdup opened the left-hand one, stepping quietly inside. It was a part of his survival equipment to be acutely observant and his eyes flickered around the room, taking in every significant detail.

He found himself in a combined lobby and bar, and noted that the interior of the place was as imposing as the frontage. The entrance hall, being midway along the street wall, created alcoves by the windows of what was overall a thirty-foot deep by twenty-five foot wide room.

The rear wall was taken up by, from left to right as incomers viewed it, a large iron stove, a door to a private room and a mahogany bar, fifteen feet long. The ceiling and all the walls were plastered and painted cream. Halfway along the left-hand wall were two further swing doors, matching those in the hallway and leading to the dining room. Hanging at each side of these doors was a painting. The right hand wall had neither door nor window. It bore two more paintings, between which hung a long-case rosewood clock, which had a pendulum with a large brass disc, swinging its tireless way through time.

Small circular oak tables and chairs were set on the polished pine floorboards around the perimeter of the room, leaving an open central space, most of which was covered by a large carpet with a multi-coloured medallion design in the middle, echoed in whorls at the corners, all on a dark-red background. Behind the bar was a shelf with an impressive array of bottles. Above this was a mirror, six feet wide by three feet high, bracketed by two advertising posters, one proclaiming the virtues of a leading make of whiskey, the other a brand of cigars, described as being fit for a king. This second one featured the head and upper body of a man in royal regalia, smoking one of the company’s products, his head adorned with a five-point crown, each tip set with a representation of a gemstone, half an inch in diameter.

Widdup took in all of this with one sweeping glance before turning his attention to the other occupants of the room. The barman, feigning activity with a towel, was tall, beefy and grey-haired. At a table close to the dining room doors, two middle-aged fellows with appearance of cattlemen sat, talking quietly. In the left alcove, seated alone, was a rotund man in a long black coat and flowered brocade vest. This was Judge Handley, who was not a judge and never would be, but was so called as a mark of respect. The only other person present was Thaddeus Dorf, sitting at a table near the clock.

Widdup was discomfited by these plush surroundings. For a moment, he hesitated, wondering whether he would be better advised to leave at once and seek some place better suited to his tastes. But thirst prevailed and he decided he would have one drink here, tend to his horse, then look elsewhere. He crossed the carpet, ordered a beer and a whiskey and took both glasses to a table between the cattlemen and Judge Handley. As soon as he had served Widdup’s drinks, the barman lifted his hinged access flap and hurried off into the dining area. He was absent for two minutes and looked ill at ease when he returned. A moment later, a man pushed one of the dining room doors half open, glanced at Widdup, turned his head to the barman, nodded, then withdrew quickly.

It was about then that noses began to twitch in the barroom. Judge Handley was the first affected, then the two cattlemen, then the barkeeper and finally, Thaddeus Dorf. Something was disturbing the pleasant atmosphere. It was a smell and it came from John Widdup. At the best of times, the dreaded gunman had never been a devotee of personal hygiene. Now, after a week-long dash over rough country in summer heat, even his none too particular standards had plumbed new depths. It wasn’t easy for one man to create a miasma sufficient to fill a room of that size, but Widdup managed it. He stank a mile high.

For a little while, no one seemed sure what, if anything, to do about this situation. The judge coughed, drummed his fingers on his table top and fidgeted. The barman began to hold his nose, as surreptitiously as a man can do such a thing. Finally, one of the cattlemen broke the silence. “Jesus,” he said, “somebody got a skunk around here, or something?”

The remark produced only an embarrassed silence for a moment, then the barman, looking alarmed, lifted his flap again and walked over to the two ranchers. Bending over their table, he mumbled something. Both men nodded. The barman went back to his post, pulled out a scrap of paper and a pencil, scribbled something and took it over to Judge Handley, who was sitting about eight feet from Widdup. The judge stared at the note for a moment, then stuffed it into his vest pocket, thanking the barman and dismissing him.

Thaddeus Dorf was becoming annoyed. He had timed his actions with a view to savouring the last of his whiskey, then tucking into a good meal. He did not like anything that interfered with his enjoyment of food, and a bad smell certainly did that. His irritability index was soaring. Any minute now, he intended to give vent to his feelings and there could be only one target.

The cattlemen began to mutter again, but only briefly, then everyone fell silent, leaving the ticking of the clock the only sound as all eyes turned to the noisome Widdup. It took several minutes, but the combined power of five intent stares finally got through to the gunman. He raised his head and looked around. He was not a particularly self-conscious man, but could hardly have failed to note that he was the object of attention. “Somethin’ wrong?” he asked gruffly.

Judge Handley, as senior man present, felt it incumbent upon him to handle this delicate situation. “Well, young man,” he said, shuffling uneasily, “I don’t mean to be impolite, but now that you mention it, I . . . er . . . well – ”

This was too much for the short-tempered Dorf. “Oh, for goodness sake,” he broke in, looking at Widdup. “It’s you, sir.”

“Me?” said Widdup.

“Yes, you.”

“What about me?”

“Not to mince words,” snapped Dorf, who never minced them anyway, “it’s your odour. There is a noxious emanation coming from you, sir. It detracts from a man’s appetite.”

This was a little above Widdup’s head, for he was anything but erudite. He could not have coped with ‘noxious’, ‘emanation’, or ‘detracts’, even singly. All three coming together left him quite befuddled. All he was aware of was that Dorf’s remarks were derogatory. He therefore went into the state of defensive truculence that some men adopt when confronted with something obviously antagonistic but not quite comprehensible to them. “Just what do you mean, little man?” he grated nastily.

Dorf put down his glass. “I was under the impression that English was the common language here,” he said. “However, if you insist on simplicity, what I mean is that you smell like a billy goat. It’s offensive, sir.”

Apart from the relentless ticking of the clock, there was silence for a long tense moment, then Widdup kicked his chair away behind him, where it cracked against the wall, chipping out a chunk of plaster. Hauling himself to his slim, angular five-eleven, he moved forwards to the middle of the carpet, thumbs in his gun belt, greasy black leather vest open, facing the diminutive Dorf at a distance of ten feet. “Mister,” he said softly, “you must be some special kind o’ fool. I come in here peaceable. Now I guess I’ll have to plug you.”

“Excuse me, gents.” It was the barman. Lifting his flap yet again, he strode over to the still-seated Dorf, bending to whisper into the small man’s ear. “I don’t know what you’ve been drinkin’ apart from that whiskey, stranger,” he said, “but if I was you, I’d apologise right quick an’ try to get out of here, if he’ll let you. That’s John Widdup.”

Dorf was unimpressed. “Should that mean something to me?” he asked.

The barman was aghast. “Where’ve you been all your life, mister?” he said. “Widdup’s the fastest, meanest gunfighter in the West. He’ll kill you for sure, then maybe he’ll start in on the rest of us.”

Dorf pursed his lips. “Thank you,” he said, still unconcerned. “You can go now. And don’t worry about this fellow. He’ll not give any trouble.”

The baffled bartender scuttled back to relative security, beginning to move some of his more precious bottles from the backbar shelf to the floor. Having allowed him to get clear, Widdup glared at Dorf. “If you’re through jawin’, you’d best get ready for drawin’,” he snarled. “An’ if you ain’t armed, you must be even dumber than you look.”

Dorf stood, glancing around him. Something wasn’t quite to his liking. Deciding what it was, he pulled his chair away from the wall, repositioning it a couple of feet to the left, under the big clock. Then he sat down again, resting his well-barbered head against the base of the timepiece. He folded his arms and looked at Widdup. “Now, sir,” he said. “You seem to be envisaging a gunfight. I can positively assure you there will be no such event.”

Widdup shook his head. He wasn’t used to this kind of thing. He was accustomed to short words and fast guns. However, he was sure of one thing. When it came to shooting, a man might listen to talk and watch out for hand movements, but the most important thing was to look into the other fellow’s eyes. That was where the first indication would come. He returned Dorf’s stare, deciding to bring matters to a head. “You can take it sittin’ or standin’,” he said. “It’s all the same to me.”

Dorf stared back. “It is not all the same to me. I don’t intend to take it either way. Now, I repeat, you are clearly under the impression that there will be some kind of duel here. I tell you there will be nothing of the sort. You really must understand that.” It seemed to be important to Dorf to keep talking, to keep Widdup quiet. “What there will be is something quite different,” he went on, his previously lively voice having settled to a gentle monotone. “What is about to happen is this, Mr Widdup. I am going to continue sitting here. I shall not draw a gun, as there will be no need for that. No need at all. There will be no violence. No violence, Mr Widdup. As for yourself, you will, very slowly, take out your gun, then you will remove the bullets from it and put them in your coat pocket, then you will place the gun back in its holster, then you will leave and ride out of this town and you will not come back.”

Time seemed to stand still in the place as Widdup continued to gaze at the little salesman. Then Dorf went on: “Do it, Mr Widdup. Do it now.”

Another heart-stopping moment went by, then, astonishingly, Widdup did exactly what Dorf had told him to do. He drew the gun, looked at it as though he had never seen it before, shook out the bullets, pocketed them and re-holstered the weapon. Then he walked slowly out of the hotel. Seconds later, he passed, mounted, by the window where Judge Handley was sitting.

No one spoke for a moment, then everyone started talking at once. “Well, I never thought to see the like of that,” said the barman, wiping a towel over his sweat-beaded head.

“My God young man, you took an awful chance there,” said one of the cattlemen.

His companion gawked. “I just saw it, and I still don’t believe it. Was that some kind of a show you and Widdup put on to impress us?”

“No, sir,” said Dorf. “I never saw or heard of the man before.”

“What happened then? How come you outfaced a top gunslinger?”

“Oh, it’s simple enough,” said Dorf. “They’ve been working on this kind of thing for quite a while, especially in Europe. Originally it was called mesmerism, but some people refer to it as hypnotism. You see, I knew that gunmen always look one another in the eye when they’re about to draw. All I had to do was sit right under the clock there. You see how that pendulum swings. It’s perfect for such an experiment. Widdup couldn’t look into my eyes without taking in that as well. The poor fellow never had a chance.”

“Just a minute, though,” said Judge Handley. “I’ve heard of this kind of thing, but I always thought you couldn’t hypnotise a man, then make him do something contrary to his nature.”

“Well,” Dorf replied, “you’re right in a way, but that applies to attempts to make people commit unsocial acts they wouldn’t otherwise contemplate. All I did was to make Widdup do something quite innocent. There was nothing unusual about his either drawing or emptying his gun – he must have done that hundreds of times in the course of cleaning and maintaining it. You need to remember that although Widdup may have killed a number of men, the incidents concerned have taken up only a few minutes of his life. Most of the time, he’s probably much like any other fellow in this part of the world. There was no great danger here.”

Dorf was already leaving when the judge, still shaking his head in wonderment, called out: “Well, sir, I’m greatly relieved, but I still think you took a terrible risk. It’s just as well that there was no gunplay.”

Reaching the door, Dorf turned and drew a ten-dollar gold coin from a coat pocket. “You’ll need this,” he said, tossing it across to the barman.

“What for?” asked the bemused recipient. “You already paid, an’ anyway, after what you just did, you could have drinks on the house for a week.”

Dorf ignored the effusion and turned to the judge. “You’re wrong about one thing and right about another,” he said. “Wrong in supposing that I was in a hazardous position. I believe in having alternative plans in all situations. Right about gunfighting. The absence of that was just as well – for Mr Widdup.” With a speed that confounded the eye, Dorf produced from a shoulder holster a double action Colt .45, the big weapon looking incongruous in his dainty right hand. He swept up the gun and without any obvious aiming, emptied the five loaded chambers in a three-second blast of sound.

Sliding the gun back into its holster, he peered through the coiling smoke, then nodded, satisfied. The others peered too. They looked at the cigar poster, noting that all five jewels in the crown had been drilled through by Dorf’s bullets. His lips twitching in a brief smile, the little man pushed open the doors and departed.

* * *

Olly Buckle
August 26th, 2012, 09:17 AM
It was a nice little story, but for me the lead up took too long, I found myself skimming to get to the point or find some action. There was nothing that stood out specifically as unnecessary or long winded but the culmulative effect was that I felt it needed a severe paring in the first part, the conclusion does not have enough gravitas to support it.

I liked the way the language changed for Dorf and didn't feel it needed an explanation was one point.

August 26th, 2012, 06:28 PM
Thank you for your comments. I long ago wearied of western tales starting and continuing with bang bang action, and concluded that in my view the best ones were those told at a more measured pace, which is what I try to achieve. I appreciate that in seeking to offer entertainment, one cannot please everybody. As all my stories in this particular genre are constructed very broadly along similar lines, it would seem they are not your thing. Cj

Olly Buckle
August 26th, 2012, 11:15 PM
I am sorry if I appeared purely critical, I rarely make a comment unless I can see some merit, and in truth I quite like your writing. When I first looked at this thread, there had been no replies, but I was busy and determined to return. I think I must have scrolled up into the bottom of the page because I did not realise how much had been added, I think there was only one story when I first looked.

This is generally good writing, and I found it a bit difficult to pin down what niggled me at first (Not a lack of 'bang bang action, I tend to agree with you on that). It seems to me that the whole point of the story is in the last part, the first parts are not unessential, but they are setting it up for the finish, as such it seems you linger over long. Look, I will leave the first paragraph, that is something else, but I will try and cut down the following a little and see if you can see what I mean. I will bold where I have actually put in words rather than cutting them, I apologise for taking liberties with you work, regard it as an experiment, I may have added a comma or two as well where I have merged shortened sentences.

His name was John Widdup and, age twenty-seven, he was at the height of his powers. He had killed eleven men in fair fights., all with known gunfighters, or aspirants to that status, none of them came anywhere near beating Widdup. Two managed to get off a shot, they had been hardly more than post mortem reflex, one bullet piercing a ceiling, the other a floor. Of the remaining nine, five had been struck down with guns barely clear of their holsters.

Though always fascinated by side-arms and shooting, Widdup had not set out to seek notoriety. However, his story was a familiar one, after his prowess had been demonstrated, albeit unwillingly, he became a target. Men wanted to try him out; reckless fellows, intent on establishing who was faster, even if the reward was death.

It became a way of life for John Widdup. No matter where he appeared, some firebrand would call him out, and pay the price. In the early days, he went to some pains to avoid showdowns. Later, recognising inevitability, he prefered to push matters to a swift conclusion. Like a certain monarch, he reasoned that, if a thing had to be done, it was best done quickly.

I don't know how it works for you, but to me leaving out inessentials and qualifying phrases in this way gives it a certain urgency and pace that seem appropriate to the genre, as well as physically shortening it.

A minor point, When Macbeth said that he was contemplating killing Duncan, his King, so I think that should be "Like a certain regicide ... "

Hypnotists initially make statements their subjects agree with, that is the point of the swinging pendelum, "Look at the pendelum, your eyes are getting tired ..." Of course they are you are staring at something without blinking. Typically it is pace, pace, then lead, along the lines
"I have no desire to die, I am not looking for a gunfight, and there will not be one. There is always another way, things can proceed as regularly as the clock, I shall not draw a gun, then there is no reason for you to, instead take out your gun ..."
You are pretty right about the way people react to things they wouldn't do, though the hypnotist can decieve them into thinking the situation is one where they would do it. "Transformations" by Bandler and Grinder is a good guide, as well as having a punning title.

August 26th, 2012, 11:25 PM
A bad review is more useful than an inaccurate good one.

August 29th, 2012, 06:08 PM
On being asked by a theatre manager to make changes to his play ‘Vera’, Oscar Wilde replied that he could do so, concluding with: but who am I to tamper with a masterpiece?”

All very well for the great penman, but what about us, the mere mortals on our communal stage? I am seventy-five years of age and during a long mainstream working life, I spent a great deal of time writing reports, interspersed with journalism and editing. Had I been imbued with a desire to tell anyone else how to write, that last occupation would have disabused me of it.

I realise that a piece of literary work can usually be produced in any number of ways, and that most can be improved and/or condensed without loss of substance. However, there comes a point in writing - in my experience after a reasonable amount of research and five or six drafts - at which one must say to oneself: “Enough nit-picking. This item must now stand as it is, or I shall never get to the next one.” That is my position with respect to the Courtjester stories.

This matter is influenced by the fact that I am immersed in an extremely demanding and complex scientific project and cannot afford to take my eye off that ball. Therefore I do not have the luxury of time to revisit a story after completing it. I would say that conscientious writers are seldom, perhaps never, entirely satisfied with what they have done, but they have to either offer it or scrap it.

Your comments and the time you took to make them are appreciated. As for the liberties taken in the area of hypnosis, it so happens that I have considerable experience in this field, but will not labour that here. If you have read any of my other work, you may have noticed that much of it includes elements of surrealism. Now, if you will excuse me, I must dash off to pick up a bag of oats before the shop closes. Come to think of it, this seems appropriate. I work like a horse, so might as well eat accordingly. Cj

September 1st, 2012, 06:41 PM

If he had thought about the matter in advance, Jed Hall would have considered it almost impossible for him to fall foul of the law after less than an hour in a town to which he was a stranger. But he managed it. Early in a May afternoon that was, for the area and time of year, uncharacteristically dank and dismal, he arrived at the community of Little Bend, Arizona. Having arranged care for his horse, he drank two beers in the first saloon he came upon, then stepped out to the sidewalk and, seeing three unoccupied rickety wooden armchairs, sat his sturdy five foot ten frame in the middle one. Taking off his hat, he ran a hand through his mop of floppy black hair and dedicated himself to relaxation.

Jed was wandering the West, observing his surroundings and making notes. He hoped to write a book about his travels, but there was no hurry. At twenty-four, he expected to have plenty of time left. So far, he had seen a good deal of the coastal areas from Canada to Mexico and now he was moving back northwards, following an unplanned route further inland. Just as he wasn’t concerned about the passing of weeks or months, he had no worries about finding work. Money was no problem to him – he made his own.

After a post-school spell of helping out at the family ranch on the high plains, Jed had moved on to take a job as prison warder, serving for three years. During that time he had befriended an elderly inmate serving a long sentence for making counterfeit coins. Jed had taken a liking to the lonely man and when, dying of consumption, the fellow was moved to the prison hospital, the young guard visited him daily. Knowing that his end was near, the prisoner imparted his secrets to his friend, even revealing where he had cached the tools of his trade. Two weeks after passing on his knowledge, he died.

It took only a further month for Jed to leave his job and recover the old man’s equipment. Getting the hang of it wasn’t easy, but Jed applied himself and finally was able to turn out and artificially age fake gold eagles, double-eagles and Mexican fifty-peso coins that were good enough to fool anyone but an expert.

For four years, Jed had travelled in comfort, the contents of the money belt kept next to his skin providing him with all he needed. When he ran short, he returned to his secreted equipment and made himself a further supply of cash. With pieces of such denomination, carrying substantial funds was easy. On arrival in Little Bend, he had nearly nine hundred dollars.

Jed had been sitting for only five minutes, when a man came tramping along and stopped, facing him. The fellow was of medium height, grossly overweight, with small, pig’s eyes set in the fat-creases of a scowling red face. A tin star was pinned to his grubby grey shirt. “You’re under arrest,” he growled.

“Me?” said Jed, grinning at the seemingly obvious error. “What for?”


“Now just a minute, Sheriff,” said Jed.

“Deputy. The name’s Gilmore.”

“All right, Deputy Sheriff Gilmore. I can take a joke, but I think you’re going too far. Who am I supposed to have murdered?”

“John Durkin. Accountant at the Weissberg gold mine.”

“Oh. When did I kill him?”

“Two days ago. Evening of May eighteenth, around six-thirty. You stabbed him to death.”


“Three miles out of town, when he was on his way home.”

“Well now, that was damned clever of me. Two evenings ago I was in the mountains, forty miles from here.”

“Alone, were you?”


Gilmore crooked a beckoning finger. “That’s good enough. You’ll get your chance to tell your story later. Right now you’re coming with me. Move.” He drew his gun.

Jed was no longer amused. “Okay. I guess I’ll have to go along, but you’re making a mistake.”

“We’ll see.” Gilmore ushered Jed ahead of him at gunpoint, prodding him into the combined office and jail, then patting him down, seeking weapons. Jed had never carried a gun, but did keep a long, razor-sharp knife. Gilmore took it, putting it into a desk drawer. Satisfied with the perfunctory search, he allowed Jed to keep his remaining personal effects. Sitting at the desk, he picked up pen and paper. “What’s your full name?” he asked.

“Jedediah Frederick Hall.”

“Where are you from, Hall?”

“Nowhere in particular. I’m travelling around.”

“A drifter, eh? What work do you do?”

“I aim to make my living with a pen. I’m hoping my savings will last until I can finish a book I have in mind.”

“To me, you’re a vagrant. Anyway, that’s not important. You’re in deeper trouble. I’ll take your statement later. Now, get in that far cell there.”

Resistance being useless, Jed obeyed. Gilmore locked him in, then returned to the desk, where he sat writing for a while, then pushed aside his papers and bent low over the scarred deal surface, using some kind of tool he’d pulled from a drawer. Jed couldn’t see what the man was doing, but heard him cursing and grunting as he worked. He was at it for more than an hour, then he came over to the cell, a blood-spotted rag wrapped around his left thumb. “I’m going out now,” he said. “I’ll be gone a good while.” With a malicious grin, he turned and stomped off.

Though alarmed, Jed was not the panicking type and when Gilmore left, he inspected the cell. Pulling the thin apology for a mattress from the narrow bed, he managed a wry smile. The frame was of iron, with a flat wire mesh, tensioned by springs fastened through holes in the metal. Well, that was something. Getting out would be no trouble. During his period as a prison warder, Jed had learned just about every trick in the jail-breaker’s repertoire. He set to work and within ten minutes, had loosened a spring and removed and twisted one of the wire strands. Now he could pick the lock anytime.

Breaking out was one thing, but Jed had no intention of spending the rest of his days on the run for a crime he hadn’t committed. He was still baffled by the peremptory way he had been treated. There had to be some kind of reasoning involved. There was, as he was soon to discover. He still had his cigars and matches, so he lay on the bed, smoking and thinking. Gilmore was away for four hours. He returned, smiling triumphantly. “Well, feller,” he said. “I guess I’ll get a commendation for this. I got you all tied up now.”

“You mean you’ve got me set up,” Jed replied angrily. “How did you do it?”

“Wasn’t any bother at all. First I found a witness who can place you and your horse at the scene of the crime at the right time. Then I got this.” He brandished Jed’s knife.

“Of course you’ve got it. You took it from me.”

“No, I didn’t. I recovered it from where you threw it after you killed Durkin. Investigating the matter with my usual thoroughness, I searched the area and found this knife. You said your name is Jedediah Frederick Hall, didn’t you?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, here we are, then.” He held up the knife, the initials J.F.H. carved into the wooden handle, dried blood on the blade. It was a workmanlike job. The letters had had something, probably dirt or pencil lead, rubbed into them and had been smoothed around the edges. They might have been there for years.

“Why, you damned crook. That handle was plain. You put my initials there yourself. That’s what you were doing this afternoon. I suppose that’s your blood. You pricked your thumb and smeared it on the knife.”

“Did I? Well, I don’t think the court will agree. Judge Thomas is a sharp one. He’s at the county seat right now and he’ll be here to try your case in a day or two.”

Jed was fuming. “This is outrageous,” he shouted. “There must be someone here I can speak to. Don’t you have a town council or something?”

“Oh, sure,” Gilmore replied. “Chairman’s Major Stobart. Fine gentleman.”

“Where can I find him?”.

“You can’t find anybody, mister. You’re locked up.”

“Well, where does he live?”

“Big white board house with a picket fence, south end of the street, but you don’t need to worry about that because you’ll not be seeing him. Anyway, I’m going out again. I brought you something to eat here.” He passed a bowl of beef stew through the food flap then left, locking the outer door.

Desperate though his situation was, Jed saw no point in adding hunger to his troubles, so he ate the food, then took up his improvised wire key. Within two minutes, he had unlocked the cell door. He had no clear plan, so he first opened the desk drawer. There was the knife. Underneath it were two sheets of paper. One was a form, detailing the time and date of his arrest; two-thirty that afternoon, May twentieth.

The second paper was the deputy sheriff’s version of his inspired solving of the crime. So that was what he’d been writing before he started work on the knife. Jed read it with increasing puzzlement. The report stated that Gilmore had searched the crime scene, finding the knife. Having no secure repository in his office, he had taken the supposed murder weapon to the home of Major Stobart, who had put it into his safe. The oddest thing was that the report stated that Gilmore had done all this on the evening of the crime, May eighteenth, calling on Stobart at eight-thirty p.m. Yet there was the knife, two days later, in Jed’s hand. Obviously Gilmore had falsified the record. It would look good for him. The way he recorded it, he had acted within an hour of the crime and had arrested the culprit less than two days later. Exemplary work.

Jed’s mind raced through his options. First, he could take the knife and run, but he had decided earlier that he was unwilling to be a fugitive. Second, he could hide the knife. But if he did, how long might he be held on suspicion? Furthermore, for all he knew, the deck might have been stacked against him in other ways. He needed to prove his point.

Maybe there was some way of exposing Gilmore’s deceit. With pressure accelerating his thought processes, Jed had an idea within five minutes. He would locate this Major Stobart as quickly as possible. If the major confirmed Gilmore’s story that the knife had been put into his safe on May eighteenth, then the two were in league. Also, perhaps Stobart wouldn’t be needed at the trial and therefore not be required to confirm the lie. Whatever the circumstances, Jed would call on him. However, he would first try to cover himself. He thought he knew how.

Behind the office was a storeroom with a door to the rear. Jed wasted no time seeking a key, opting to pick the lock. With the evening gloom helping him, he left, stealing across the back lots to the telegraph office. He’d thought up a story for the operator. It was flimsy, but all he needed was a momentary distraction. As it happened, the place was unoccupied, the door locked. What happened to messages when nobody was there? Maybe they were somehow relayed straight through to the next point down the line. Jed didn’t know. Going to the back, he forced a window and clambered inside. In seconds, he found what he wanted; copies of that day’s wires. Removing the top two, he selected the third, checked that it would suit his purpose, then replaced the others, left the way he had entered and hurried back to Gilmore’s office. Then he picked up his knife and got to work.

Ten minutes later he was on the move again. Time to call on Major Stobart. It was dark, but Jed had no problem in finding the house Gilmore had described. He knocked on the door and fidgeted anxiously for half a minute until it swung open, revealing a tall slim silver-haired man, immaculately dressed. “Good evening, sir. What can I do for you?” The voice was that of an old-school southern gentleman, though Jed thought he detected artificiality in it.”

“I’m sorry to trouble you so late. Are you Major Stobart?”

“I am indeed, but I fear you have the advantage of me.”

“My name is Hall. If it isn’t too much trouble, I need a few words with you.”

The major inclined his head. “Very well. I was about to retire, but I’ll accommodate you. Please step in.” He led the way into a large sitting room. “You’ll take a drink, Mr Hall – whiskey, perhaps?”

“Yes, sir. I could use one.”

Major Stobart supplied the drinks, indicating an armchair by the dying fire and seating himself in a matching one opposite his visitor. “Now, how can I help?”

Mindful of his ignorance of the major’s role in the affair, Jed told his story, omitting only his visit to the telegraph office. He concluded by admitting his escape, throwing himself upon the major’s mercy. When he came to Gilmore’s assertion that the incriminating knife had been placed in Stobart’s safe, the major merely nodded, saying nothing. When pressed, he hesitated, finally saying that Gilmore had handed him a package on May eighteenth, but had not said what it contained.

When Jed finished speaking, the major steepled his fingers, staring upward. For a long moment, he was silent, then said: “Well, Mr Hall. I’ve noted what you say. It’s certainly a strange situation. However, what do you want of me?”

Jed shrugged. “You can see my position is pretty awkward. I don’t want to run away, so I thought that if there’s a Mrs Durkin, maybe she could help somehow. I don’t know in what way and it may be a foolish idea, but it’s probably better than doing nothing. Trouble is, I don’t have much time.”

Stobart nodded. “Yes,” he said, “there is a widow. In fact, she lives just across the street. It’s rather late, but I imagine that in the circumstances she would see us.”


“Yes. I think it would be as well if I were to join you. Shall we go?”

They crossed to the Durkin house. The widow answered and Major Stobart apologised for the late call, introduced Jed and briefly explained the purpose of the visit. “All right, gentlemen,” said the distressed lady. “I don’t see what I can do, but if you’d come in.” She seated them in a living room, where Jed repeated his story.

Mrs Durkin, a small, birdlike woman, listened in silence. When Jed finished, she spread her hands. “I don’t know what to say. It’s true that the night before he was killed, John was disturbed. He wouldn’t tell me why, but he did say there was something he had to write down. He stayed up late. There was just one other thing. He started early for work the following morning. He said he wanted to see James Fielding, the lawyer. I reminded him that James was away on business, but he said he’d call anyway.”

“Thank you, Mrs Durkin,” said the major. “I suppose your husband didn’t leave anything in writing with you?”

“No, he did not.”

After offering condolences to the widow, the two men took their leave and returned to Stobart’s house. “Well, Mr Hall,” said the major. “I really don’t know what to suggest.”

“I do,” Jed replied. “I need to get into that lawyer’s office and see whether Durkin left anything there.”

“I can do that,” the major answered quickly. “Perhaps you’d better return to your cell and I’ll see if there’s anything to be found.”

“I’m obliged to you, Major,” said Jed, “but I want to see for myself. I’ll break in if necessary.”

Stobart raised a hand. “No need for that. James Fielding is a bachelor. He lives alone, above his office. He always leaves his key with his next-door neighbour when he’s away. If you’re so adamant about this, we’ll deal with it now.”

The major’s prestige sufficed to get the two men into Fielding’s office. Three envelopes lay on the lawyer’s desk, placed there by his neighbour. “Must be one of these,” said Jed.

Stobart picked up the largest one. “This is it,” he said. “I’ve seen Durkin’s writing before. We’ll take it. I know that is very irregular behaviour, but I think it is justified.”

They went back again to Stobart’s home, where the major led the way into his study. Jed opened the big envelope, finding inside a smaller, sealed one and a short note to James Fielding. The note asked Fielding to keep the other item, to be used only in the event of any mishap to Durkin. Jed opened the smaller envelope and the two men hunched over the letter it contained. They read:

Dear James,
I am writing this letter in the hope that you will make the contents public if anything untoward happens to me. Frankly, I am in fear for my life and cannot tell what turn events will take. Time presses, so I will be brief.

Some weeks ago, I stumbled upon a swindle being carried out at the mine by two men, Mark Conway and Tom O’Sullivan. It will serve no purpose to go into detail, but the operation was clever, involving the regular evasion of security measures. I have always considered myself a liberal man, so before deciding whether to report the matter to higher authority, I confronted the miscreants, telling them that if they would stop their activities, I would say nothing further.

Conway and O’Sullivan asked me to meet them in secret, the following day. When I kept the rendezvous, I found not only the two men present, but also Deputy Sheriff Gilmore. It seemed that he – you may remember he once worked at the mine – was in on the whole thing. In fact, he had conceived the plan, but being no longer employed by the company, he had to get someone else to carry it out. The three men made no bones about their intentions. I was offered a share of their booty, in return for holding my tongue. If I did not agree, neither I nor my wife would be spared.

To my shame, I remained silent and took my share of the spoils. However, the affair has troubled me so much that I can stand no more of it. As you know, my wife is in poor health and for this reason I cannot confide in her. In fact I have not even spent any of my ill-gotten gains, for fear of causing her to wonder about a sudden improvement in our circumstances.

This evening, May seventeenth, I expressed my feelings to Lewis Gilmore. He said he would talk with Conway and O’Sullivan, but I did not like either his reaction or the looks he gave me. He also told me that there were complications, in that another party was involved. He would not reveal the man’s identity, but said that he was a harsh one and would be less tolerant of me than were the other three.

Gilmore asked me to stay my hand for twenty-four hours, to see whether something could be worked out. I agreed, but have my suspicions as to what that something may be. I have compromised my position intolerably and am now quite alone. If nothing is settled by tomorrow evening, I shall speak out, no matter what the consequences. Should I be unable to do so, I look to you to act for me in whatever way you see fit. I must close now.

Your foolish friend and client,
John Durkin.

Jed whistled softly. “This is dynamite,” he said.

Major Stobart stroked his chin. “It’s quite a document, Mr Hall. Frankly, I’ve had my doubts about Gilmore for some time. Apparently they’re justified.”

“Well,” said Jed, “I guess I’ve got him now. I’ll keep this and show it at the trial.”

“No, no,” Stobart replied sharply. “That won’t do. Gilmore will check your pockets before the hearing. He’ll find the letter then, if not before. Let me think.” He paced rapidly to and fro several times, then clapped his hands. “I have it,” he said. “Wait here for a couple of minutes. I’ll fetch the bank manager and we’ll go along and put the letter into his vault. That way, it’s sure to be safe from Gilmore, and you won’t even need to trust me. Help yourself to a drink. I’ll be right back.”

Jed was uncertain. He could still run off with the letter and try to prove his innocence from a distance. He was on the verge of doing so, when Stobart returned, his demeanour changed. The eager cooperator was gone. Now the posture was rigid, the face a stern mask. “Now, my young friend,” he said, “I think you’ve done quite enough.” He stepped aside to reveal behind him the figure of Deputy Sheriff Gilmore, gun drawn.

Jed groaned. “So you’re the fourth man, Stobart?

“That’s right,” the major replied.

Five minutes later, his prisoner again behind bars, Gilmore took the explosive letter and grinned as he burned it to ashes before Jed’s eyes. Stobart was smiling broadly. “That should do it, Lew,” he said to Gilmore.

“Yes, I guess it will, Jason. Now, you’d better take this knife, and remember, you’ve had it in your safe since the night Durkin was killed. That’s what my report says.”

“Very well, Lew. See you later.”

For three days, Jed chafed impotently in his cell, to which a new and more secure lock had been fitted. On the evening of May twenty-third, Gilmore entered the office, beaming. “Well, Hall,” he said, “your wait is nearly over. Judge Thomas is here now and your trial’s tomorrow.

Jed spent a restless night. He now had only one high card and he would play it as well as he could.

The following morning, Gilmore searched his prisoner’s coat, trousers and boots, then took him to the school, where one of the two classrooms had been converted for the trial. The jury and as many townspeople as could be accommodated were waiting. The judge was to use the teacher’s desk and a chair would serve as the witness box. Punctually at ten o’clock, Judge Thomas appeared. He was around sixty years of age, slim and about five foot six in height. His sharp blue eyes sweeping the room, he moved briskly to his seat and declared the proceedings open.

The first witness called was a shifty-looking little fellow named Towler. He stated that he had seen Jed and his horse at the murder scene within minutes of the crime. The man seemed uneasy and kept looking at Gilmore, whose eyes bored into him as though compelling him to speak a rehearsed piece. When he had finished, the judge said: “Now, Mr Towler, I want you to be sure. Are you in any doubt?”

Towler shook his head. “Couldn’t be,” he said. “That Palomino sticks out a mile.”

“The horse is not on trial here,” the judge snapped. “Look at the accused again and tell us if you are satisfied.”

Towler shuffled his feet awkwardly. “I’m certain,” he said.

The next witness was the murdered man’s widow. The judge was solicitous. “Mrs Durkin,” he said gently, “I realise what a difficult time this is for you and I will not detain you longer than necessary. I have been informed that Major Stobart and the accused visited you late in the evening of May twentieth, Now, can you confirm that and if so, would you please tell us what took place then?”

Mrs Durkin stated clearly and correctly what had happened, saying that her husband had been worried about something he wouldn’t discuss. She mentioned that Durkin had intended to call on his lawyer, but that she had reminded him that the man was not in town. She could not think of anything else pertinent to the proceedings. The judge thanked her, asking her to remain in the courtroom.

Next came Major Jason Stobart. He inclined his silvern head to the judge, his manner indicating that he was dealing with a social equal. He stated that his involvement had been limited to receiving the knife from Gilmore on the evening of May eighteenth and locking it in his safe. Being a busy man, he had dismissed the matter from his mind until Jed Hall called on him late on May twentieth, with a story of having broken jail in an attempt to prove his innocence.

The two men had visited the widow, but had learned nothing, save that her husband had visited Fielding’s office on May eighteenth. Minutes after visiting Mrs Durkin, the major, badgered by Hall, had presumed upon his own status and his friendship with the still absent Fielding to borrow a key to the lawyer’s home, where Hall hoped to find some communication relevant to the tragedy. They had not found anything. At that point, Jed shouted: “Why, you liar, you –”

“Silence,” yelled the judge. “You will have every opportunity to speak in due course. In the meantime you will oblige me by keeping quiet. Continue, Major Stobart.”

The major repeated emphatically that the two men had found nothing and had then returned to his home, where he had found a reason to excuse himself for long enough to rush off and summon Gilmore, who re-arrested Hall. Stobart had heard no more until Gilmore called on him two hours before the trial, to recover the knife and present it as evidence.

The judge listened intently, making notes. “Thank you, Major,” he said when Stobart declared that he had nothing to add. “I have just two questions. First, the supposed murder weapon. You say you locked it in your safe at Deputy Sheriff Gilmore’s request on the evening of May eighteenth and that he recovered it from you this morning. You did not say whether it was in your custody during the whole of the meantime.”

“It was, Your Honour.”

“Second, did you consider trying to overpower Mr Hall immediately, when he called on you on May twentieth?”

“I did, Your Honour, but as you can see, he is a powerfully-built man and must be less than half my age. I feared he might attack me and abscond if I alarmed him, so I decided to humour him until I could find an opportunity to locate Mr Gilmore. It seemed the best course.

“Hmn. Yes. Very commendable. You appear to have shown remarkable presence of mind. You may stand down, but please stay with us.”

The last prosecution witness was Deputy Sheriff Lewis Gilmore. He told his story, lingering over the diligence of his search for the murder weapon. Again, the judge listened carefully, his rapid writing apparently keeping pace with what he was hearing. “Thank you, Deputy Sheriff Gilmore,” he said when the lawman finished. “It seems that you acted swiftly. Just one question. Doesn’t it seem strange to you that a man, having just committed murder, should throw away his weapon on the spot?”

Gilmore shrugged. “I guess he just got jumpy. It’s been my experience that killers sometimes act that way.”

“Very well. You may return to your seat, but please stay in the courtroom. Now we shall hear what Mr Hall has to say.”

Jed gave his version of events, stressing the recovery and subsequent destruction of Durkin’s letter to the lawyer, but not yet telling of his visit to the telegraph office. The judge was all attention. “So, Mr Hall,” he said as Jed paused, “your story rests largely upon this supposed letter, which no longer exists, if it ever did. You also disagree with the other witnesses with regard to this matter of the knife. Have you anything else to say?”

“Yes, Your Honour. I admit that with the letter gone, I can’t exactly prove my innocence.”

“You are not obliged to do so. It is for the prosecution to prove your guilt.”

“Thank you. I was going to say that what I can show is that Deputy Sheriff Gilmore and Major Stobart are lying. What happens if I can satisfy the court on that point?”

“Giving false evidence is a serious matter. However, what are you saying?”

Jed pointed to the knife, lying on the judge’s desk. “Well, Your Honour,” he said, “now I have to own up to breaking into the telegraph office on the night I let myself out of jail.”

“Really,” said the judge. “You seem to have quite a talent for that kind of thing.” He placed a hand over his mouth and coughed, but Jed thought he could see a trace of a smile on the narrow face.

“Yes. Well, I can’t be in more trouble than I am now. Anyway, if you look at the knife there, you’ll see it’s unusual.”

The judge picked it up. “It seems normal enough, except that the workmanship is excellent and the blade is heavy.”

“It was made specially for me by Jim Breed of Cheyenne.”

“I’ve heard of the man. An artist, they say.”

“That he is, Your Honour. Now, you’ll see the handle is made of rosewood, with two rivets set into it and a silver knob at the end.”

“Yes. Go on.”

“It’s not so much that the blade’s heavy – it’s the handle that’s light.”

“I see. Is this getting us anywhere, Mr Hall?”

“I hope so, Your Honour. Breed made a few knives like that, for men who might want to use them for throwing. It’s a question of getting the right balance. The handle is light because it’s partly hollow. Gilmore would have discovered that if he’d cut much deeper when he was carving my initials on it. The metal shaft is just wide enough to hold the rivets. That silver knob comes off. It’s a tight fit and not easy to detect. It unscrews clockwise and if you twist it hard, you’ll find something.”

The judge applied a wiry thumb and forefinger to the task. He took ten seconds to loosen the knob, then pulled from inside the handle a tightly rolled piece of paper. “What is this?” he asked, unfolding it.

“It’s a wire message,” Jed answered.

“Yes,” the judge said. “Carry on.”

“Well, that’s why I broke into the telegraph office. When I got out of jail, I read Gilmore’s report, where he made up the part about finding the knife. I guess he did it to prove how smart he is. He went too far when he mentioned giving the knife to Major Stobart on May eighteenth. Now, I knew I was going to call on Stobart, but I didn’t know how he’d react, so I tried to think of some way of covering myself – a way that only I would know about. I got that message from the telegraph office and put it into the knife handle. I had to tear a bit off to do that. There’s no doubt about it being genuine – there’ll be a copy at the place that sent it. So what I’d like Mr Gilmore and Major Stobart to explain is, if the knife was locked up in Stobart’s safe from eight-thirty p.m. on May eighteenth until this morning, how did I put an authentic message, stamped five thirty-eight p.m. on May twentieth, into the handle, in Gilmore’s office at after nine o’clock that same evening?”

A babble of voices began and was quickly silenced by the peppery little judge, who then turned his gaze on Gilmore, his eyes twin gimlets. “Deputy Sheriff Gilmore,” he said, “I’d like an explanation, too.”

A less irascible man might have tried to flannel his way through, but Jed’s question had hit Gilmore like a bullet. First his face turned purple, then his mouth worked convulsively, no sound emerging from it. The judge swung his head to stare at Stobart, who was scarcely less apoplectic than Gilmore. Beetroot-faced, the major was looking at the floor. The judge turned his gaze back to the lawman. “I’m waiting, sir,” he said, his little chin jutting.

Gilmore’s choleric temperament was hopelessly unequal to the situation. Suddenly he lunged towards Jed, “Why, you lousy –”

“Restrain that man,” yelped the judge. Three jurors leapt upon the unpopular law officer, showing more enthusiasm than strictly necessary in wrestling him to the floor.

Within ten minutes, the proceedings were over. The superficially urbane Stobart broke down, babbling that Durkin had been killed by the two miners, Conway and O’Sullivan and that Gilmore, anxious to avoid a more thorough investigation, had framed the first stranger he found.

Jed was acquitted. His break-in at the telegraph office was dismissed as a justifiable act of desperation. Gilmore, Stobart and the witness Towler were hustled off to jail, the judge having summarily appointed four jurors to guard them.

An hour later, the nightmare over, Jed was using some of the contents of his still intact money belt to enjoy his restored freedom in the saloon outside which the affair had started. With most people having returned to their normal business, the place was almost empty when the swing doors opened to admit a tall hefty man wearing a star on his shirt. He crossed to where Jed stood at the bar. “Morning,” he said. “I’m Sheriff Matthews. Came over to observe your trial. Got delayed and missed it.”

Jed nodded. “Well, I’m sure glad it’s over. That judge is a keen one.”

“That he is,” the sheriff replied. “Fact is, he’s an expert in various ways. Among other things, he’s a numismatist. You know what that is?”

“No, but I guess you’re about to tell me.”

“That’s right. Means he knows a lot about coins. He got this one in change for a fifty-dollar bill in this saloon when he stopped by last night.” The sheriff tossed a twenty-dollar coin onto the bar. “You spent this right here on the day you arrived. Judge Thomas spotted it for a fake. So, Jedediah Frederick Hall, you’re under arrest for passing counterfeit currency. I’ll have to search you, down to the skin, and if I find any more of the queer stuff on you, you’ll be in big trouble.”

* * *

September 8th, 2012, 06:23 PM

Trapper Jerry Cobb, squinting through watery morning sunlight, just managed to make out the faded lettering on the weather-worn signboard, leaning around twenty degrees from the perpendicular. The legend informed him that he had reached the community of Abundance, Idaho, population one hundred and ninety-four, elevation three thousand seven hundred feet.

Jerry had just spent three months far south of his normal haunts, visiting an old friend who had been sick, helping out around the little cattle spread until the rancher was able to handle his chores again. Now the mountain man was heading back north by a route new to him, returning to his shack in the Bitterroot range, intent on resuming his normal life, hunting, trapping and generally fending for himself.

The fact that he was an anachronism was not lost upon Jerry Cobb. He lived much as many men had done decades earlier, but few still did. Now thirty-seven years old, he was hoping to continue pursuing his solitary course indefinitely. He wasn’t blind to the fact that his lonely, exposed existence might eventually present problems – what does a loner do if his faculties fail? – but he had no intention of dealing with exigencies before they arose.

Owing to the unfamiliar work, Jerry had found his spell of cow-punching strenuous and he was glad to be on his way back to the only place he considered home – insofar as he thought of a home at all. He had been proceeding slowly until twenty-four hours earlier, when he had met two men heading south and had learned from them that snow was already falling further north. There was now some urgency, if he was to complete his journey without undue discomfort. Still, there was time enough to stock up with a few supplies. He headed for the livery stable, arranging for his horse to be fed and groomed. “Okay if I leave my plunder?” he asked the hostler.

“No trouble at all,” the man answered. “Make sure you shuck the rifle. Marshal Waddilove don’t like folks wanderin’ around with firearms. He’s got things peaceful an’ aims to keep ’em that way.”

Jerry nodded, saying he would be back in a hour or two, then he stepped out into the single street that made up almost the whole town. It seemed a bleak place, just a bulge in the trail. A double-row of frame buildings fronting onto dilapidated sidewalks on either side of the heavily rutted thoroughfare. The only unusual feature was what looked like a saloon, standing alone athwart the end of the street, staring down the long, straight southern approach. The path to the North curved westwards around this building, which stood on a low mound and had a covered porch, accessed by a short flight of wooden steps. A sign over the awning told visitors that this was ‘The Hill Place’, though the little hump hardly qualified for such a title.

Opposite the livery stable was a general store, the faded sign above the single window proclaiming it the establishment of Joseph Tanner. Jerry walked in, encountering a pleasant if bewildering mixture of smells and an amazing jumble of wares. To the left of the door was a table, loaded with vegetables. On the floor were sacks of flour, corn, potatoes, coffee beans and a few other items, less readily identifiable. Three of the four walls were fitted from floor to ceiling with shelves, displaying all manner of cans, bottles, jars and packets. The counter, to the right of the door, offered the bare minimum of space for transactions. The left-hand end of this business surface was piled with an array of sweetmeats, cigars and tobacco. The right end supported a massive hunk of smoked bacon and, under glass, a slab of elderly dark-yellow cheese, cracked, shiny and looking strong enough to raise the dead. That block would, Jerry thought, be marginally easier to cut than a house brick.

Tanner was a jolly, talkative fellow, short, fat and balding. Jerry ordered the few things he needed, indulging himself so far as to pick up a box of cigars. He smoked only when the mood was upon him, but with winter coming on and with no prospect of further supplies until spring, he considered the extravagance justifiable. “Odd name for a place, Abundance,” he said. “Must have a reason, I guess?”

“Oh, sure,” said Tanner, pleased to have someone to talk with. “Came about from the feller who first lived here. Seems he intended to go right on, but found plenty of game and fish around here, so he stayed for quite a while. When the next people came along, they asked him if the place had a name an’ he said he guessed Abundance would do pretty well, so that’s what they called it.”

“Well, that’s a good story,” said Jerry.

Tanner laughed uproariously. “Sure is,” he said. “’Course, it probably ain’t true. We reckon somebody just made it up, but it’s a nice tale to tell newcomers an’ nobody knows the real facts anyway.”

Jerry joined the storekeeper in chortling at the local sense of humour, then picked up his supplies and made for the door. “Wouldn’t mind a beer,” he said as he reached the threshold. “I guess the Hill Place is a saloon. Not much of a hill, though.”

Tanner laughed again. “Oh, the name’s got nothin’ to do with that itty-bitty rise. As it happens, another story goes with that, too. Come to think of it, a couple of stories.”

“Are you going to tell me they’re made up as well?” Jerry grinned.

“No. They’re genuine. For one thing, it was supposed to be called ‘The Hill Palace’, but the painter feller got drunk an’ missed out the first ‘a’, so it just stayed like that. Second thing, the ‘Hill’ bit comes because it’s owned by a widow, name of Ellen Hill. Leastways, that’s what she’s called now. Took her maiden name back after the shootin’.”

“What shooting?”.

“Well, Ellen was married to this Mexican feller, Sanchez. Hot-tempered little rooster he was, too. Got hisself killed when he called Con Webster a dirty, no-good gringo bum.”

“Doesn’t seem to be grounds for a killing.”

“Maybe not, but see, same time as he was saying that, Sanchez was tryin’ to take Webster apart with a hayfork, so Webster reckoned it was self-defence. Judge agreed an’ acquitted him.”

Jerry chuckled: “You folks sure know how to have fun. I’ll be going now.”

“Yeah, so long. Been nice talkin’ to you. Don’t bother to give my regards to Arnie. He keeps bar at the Hill Place. He’s a mean cuss an’ he serves the worst beer in the Territory.”

Jerry dumped his purchases at the livery stable, then strolled off for his drink. Apart from its unusual position, the Hill Place was a saloon like a thousand others. The barroom was around thirty feet wide and twenty-five feet deep. The bar ran along most of the rear wall from the right, then turned to abut the wall, close to a back room door. The floorboards were bare, rough pine and a rickety stairway ran up to a balcony, at the rear of which were four doors, leading to bedrooms. All but one of the dozen tables were unoccupied, the exception being the one nearest to the bar, where four young cowpunchers were playing a desultory game of poker.

Jerry made for the short section of the bar, near the back room door, ordered a beer and propped himself against the rear wall. The bartender, paunchy, grey-haired, middling in height and surly-looking, seemed annoyed at being disturbed. Reluctantly, he bestirred his bulk and wordlessly delivered the drink, which tallied with Tanner’s description. It was a lukewarm, acrid soup. But it slaked the trail dust and Jerry drank most of it gratefully enough. He was just about to down the rest and order another, when the swing doors were pushed open. A short bandy man wearing bib overalls and heavy work boots, his arms wrapped around a paper bag, stood uncertainly in the doorway. He seemed to be having doubts about entering, then, his mind made up, he strode over to the bar and ordered a beer.

Immediately the newcomer arrived, the atmosphere changed. The four card-players fell silent for a moment, exchanging looks among themselves, then they began muttering in tones so low that Jerry could not hear what was said. Suddenly, one of the four pushed back his chair and rose. He was a big burly fellow, around two inches taller than Jerry’s even six feet. He looked to be in his early twenties, with fair tousled hair showing beneath his tipped-back hat. “Hey, Arnie,” he called to the barman. “Thought I told you before, this place was built for real drinkers. Guess I’ll have to prove it.”

The bartender said nothing, but his malicious grin left no doubt that he was looking forward to some entertainment. Following the big fellow’s lead, the other three men stood, the four making a menacing semicircle, crowding in on the small fellow. He was scared all right, but he dumped his bag onto the bar and prepared to defend himself.

Nine times out of ten, Jerry would have had no part in such goings on, but this time something came over him. “That’s enough.” His voice whipcracked across the room. The four aggressors and their intended victim turned as one, staring at the craggy, buckskin-clad trapper.

There was an ominous silence, then the big man spoke. “You got something to say about this?”

Jerry eased himself away from the wall. “Just that it doesn’t seem altogether fair,” he replied quietly.

“Maybe you figure to take a hand?” The retort was as much a taunt as a question.

“Maybe,” said Jerry, swilling the rest of his beer around in the glass.

“You’d better straighten this gent out, Curly,” grunted one of the hulky fellow’s cronies.

Pushing his hat further back on his straw thatch, Curly swaggered towards Jerry. “Okay, mister,” he said, his youthful confidence and his knowledge of support behind him bringing an insolent grin to his face. “We’ll do it like this. First I put you out of action, then we see to this runt here. How’s that suit you?” He squared up, coiling a meaty right hand. Jerry flicked his left wrist, hurling what was left of his beer into Curly’s face. As the lumbering cowhand tried to contend with that, Jerry fetched a bony right fist up from barely above his knee. It landed with a dry-twig snap, a shade to the left of Curly’s chin. The big man’s eyes rolled up as his body went down. He was going to be out for a while.

Jerry pushed his jacket wide open, his hand playing around the handle of the long skinning knife sheathed at his side. He glared at the three remaining cowhands, none of them seeming anything like as formidable as their felled spokesman. For a moment, the scene was frozen, then Jerry turned his eyes to the small fellow by the bar, still half-crouched in the attitude of a man prepared to sell his life dearly, but looking hard at him. Somehow, the interlocking stares established a rapport. Jerry nodded at the doors. “I’m leaving now,” he said. “If you want to go with me, you’re welcome.” Needing no second bidding, the man picked up his bag and joined his rescuer.

Reaching the doors, Jerry turned once more to the still awestruck cowpokes. “You’d better not follow us,” he said calmly. “I could get real annoyed anytime now.” The three men stood motionless. The bartender, mouth agape, had paused in his activity of wiping a dirty glass with a dirty towel.

Outside, the small man vented his relief with a prodigious sigh. “I don’t know who you are, friend,” he said “but I sure am grateful.”

“Name’s Jeremiah Cobb. Make it Jerry.”

“Well, Jerry, I’m Ed Teasdale. Reckon I should’ve had more sense than to walk in there. I’d have been wiser backing out when I saw that bunch.”

“Don’t worry about my getting tangled up,” said Jerry. “Nobody forced me.”

“I guess not, but I’m mighty glad you took a hand. Say, I don’t have much to offer, but I’d take it kindly if you come by my place an’ eat with me. I’m around three miles north o’ town.”

“Sounds fine,” Jerry replied. “I’m headed that way.” He collected his horse and supplies then joined Teasdale, who was on foot. As they walked along, Jerry explained that he didn’t make a habit of poking around in other people’s business, but that since he’d done so, he would be interested to know what was what. Teasdale shrugged his shoulders, putting out his free hand, palm upward in resignation.

“Trouble’s pretty well all one-sided, Jerry,” he said. “I moved in over a year ago. Built myself a small place. Put in some vegetables an’ a little wheat. Figured to get myself a cow an’ a horse an’ maybe a few chickens this year. Then Duncan Draycott rode up one day. He’s the man them fellers back there work for. He told me I was on his land an’ I’d better move on, or he’d know what to do about it. Since then, he an’ his boys have been givin’ me a hard time.”

“Well, is he right?” Jerry asked. “About the land, I mean. Does it belong to him?”

“No. He’s a free-range man. He covers a lot o’ land hereabouts, but the spot where I am ain’t deeded to anybody, far as I can tell.”

“You’re not here under the Homestead Act then?”

“No. I got to admit I’m not an official sodbuster. I just kinda settled here.”

“Can’t you get the law to help you?”

Teasdale snorted. “Only law around here is Marshal Waddilove. First point is he’s nothin’ but a hired hand o’ Draycott’s. Second is there’s a whole lot o’ things Waddilove don’t like an’ right on top o’ that list is settlers. He’d be real pleased to see somethin’ drastic happen to me.”

“Hmn,” said Jerry, who had never had occasion to involve himself with the law in any way. “Well, if you’re done for here, why don’t you just up stakes and move somewhere else?”

“I guess I’m just stubborn,” Teasdale replied. “Seems to me I’ve as much right here as Draycott has. Anyway, I got run off a place once before an’ I don’t aim to let it happen again. I guess if Draycott’s so keen to see me go, he’ll have to kill me, ’cause I ain’t goin’ any other way. Fact is, it’s practically got to that already. He’s threatened to set Con Webster onto me.”

“Oh,” said Jerry. “That’s the second time I’ve heard that name today. Some sort of hard case, is he?”

“He’s a killer. Done away with four or five men, so it’s said. Nothin’ ever pinned on him, though. He’s another one on Draycott’s payroll. The boss pulls a string an’ Webster dances. Wouldn’t be surprised to see both of ’em this evenin’ after that little ruckus we just had back yonder.”

The country north of Abundance was bleak, the only evidence of human handiwork the two men passed being a half-collapsed wooden hut. When they reached Teasdale’s place, Jerry noted that the little fellow was quite a workman. He had built himself a shack close to a rock face that sheltered him from the prevailing wind. It was constructed of split logs and measured about fifteen by ten feet. There was even a small garden in front of the place, neatly fenced and gated. A deep path of sand and gravel ran from the gate to the door, by which stood a pushcart and an assortment of tools.

“Got this from the riverbank,” said Teasdale, pointing to the path. “Useful for cleanin’ boots when it’s messy outside. An’ bein’ crunchy it might give me a warnin’ when there’s a caller I don’t want, which means just about everybody.”

Teasdale proved to be an efficient cook and the two men soon sat down to a tasty stew, which they ate largely in silence. The eating over, Teasdale produced two tin mugs and coffee and Jerry lit a cigar, offering one to his host. “No thanks. I don’t use ’em,” said Teasdale. He sat, bent forward on a simple, home-made stool, hands clasped between his knees, a picture of dejection as the seriousness of his position pressed in upon him. “I guess you’ll be movin’ on now?” he said, a note of desperation in his voice.

“Reckon so,” Jerry replied. “Heard it’s snowing in the mountains.” As he spoke, he was trying to make up his mind about his troubled companion. He wasn’t sure which feeling was uppermost, sympathy with a man in such a difficult position or bafflement at the fellow’s cussedness. He was just finishing his coffee when Teasdale jumped up at the sound of approaching horses. He went to the door, peered out, then turned back to face Jerry. “You’d better stay out o’ sight,” he said. “It’s Draycott an’ that murderer, Webster.”

Teasdale went out and strode halfway along the path. Ignoring the caution, Jerry followed as far as the door, leaning against the frame. Draycott sat his horse by the gate. A middle-aged, grizzled, hefty, tough-looking man, he gave the impression of being as compassionate as a rockslide. A few feet behind him and to his right was the gunman. He looked the part. Black, Montana peak hat, grey woollen shirt, open black leather vest, black pants and boots. A six-gun was holstered at his right thigh. Even in repose, his narrow, angular face managed a look that combined dispassion and arrogance.

Draycott looked quizzically at Jerry. “You’d be the feller who tangled with my boy earlier?” he said.

“I tangled with somebody,” Jerry replied. “Don’t know whose boy he was.”

The rancher’s eyes flicked back to Teasdale. “It’s Tuesday,” he said gruffly. “Come Thursday, I want you out of here.”

Teasdale stood, arms akimbo. “First place,” he said, “you got no more rights here than I have. Second place, what’ll you do if I stay?”

Draycott laughed, but the humour didn’t reach his eyes. “Rights,” he said. “I brought my rights along with me.” He jerked a thumb at the now grinning Webster. “I didn’t come here to debate with you, Teasdale. I’ll be along on Thursday morning. If you’re still here, I’ll go back to my place and around four, my associate here will pay you a visit. And don’t go looking for Marshal Waddilove – he’ll be out of town. Going fishing, I believe he said.”

“You made it clear enough,” Teasdale replied. “You expect me to fight it out with your hired killer.”

“Killer?” said Draycott, simulating astonishment. “Mr Webster is my agent. He deals with some of the more difficult aspects of my business interests. You’d better watch that tongue of yours, Teasdale.” His eyes moved to Jerry. “I guess young Curly got what he deserved today,” he said, “but from now on, your best plan would be to keep out of this.”

“Not my party, mister,” Jerry answered. “I’m moving on.”

Draycott and Webster wheeled their horses and rode away.

“You still aim to stay?” asked Jerry as the hoofbeats receded.

“Yes,” Teasdale replied emphatically. “I’m not runnin’, so I reckon he’ll have to go the whole way. Still, if you’ve any advice to offer before you go, I’ll listen. I already admitted that I’m hard-headed, but that don’t mean I’m stupid.”

Jerry moved outside. “Let’s just see,” he said. “Maybe you have some advantages somewhere.” He went out of the garden, turned, looked closely at the rock face, then back at the shack. Still puffing at his cigar, he paced around, remaining lost in thought for well over half an hour as Teasdale watched him in silence. Suddenly, Jerry discarded his unfinished smoke and rubbed his hands together. Turning, he tramped up the garden path. “That hut we passed a mile or so down the trail,” he said. “It seems to be derelict. Has a door on leather hinges, doesn’t it?”

“That’s right. Nobody’s used the place in years, so I was told. What about it?”

“Well, I just got an idea. Maybe crazy, but it’s the only line of country I know. Is it safe for you to go back into town?”

“I reckon so. For today, anyway.”

“Okay. Here’s what we do.” He took a stubby pencil and a piece of an old envelope from his shirt pocket, scribbled for a moment, then handed the scrap of paper to Teasdale. “You take that pushcart to Tanner’s store, get these things and bring them back here. I’ll fetch that door and a couple of other items. You have money?”

“Sure. That’s how I’ve managed to stay here so long.”

“Right. Get moving. We have a busy evening ahead.”

True to his word, Duncan Draycott rode up to Teasdale’s place at noon on the Thursday, finding the obstinate little fellow sitting on a crate in the doorway. Nothing had changed since the Tuesday except that in front of the garden gate was a tangle of barbed wire, weighed down by four rocks. Draycott shook his head in disbelief. “You figure to keep Webster out with this?” he sneered.

“Never mind what I figure,” Teasdale replied. “You can see I’m still here, so I guess you’d better send your gunman.”

“Where’s that galoot who was here on Tuesday?” Draycott asked.

“He’s gone,” said Teasdale. “Like he said, this wasn’t his party.”

“Well, he’s got more sense than you have. I’ve met all kinds of fools, Teasdale, but you top the lot. I reckon you just want to die.”

“Could be. Anyway, you have my answer. Now it’s your move.”

Draycott stared in puzzlement at the indomitable little terrier sitting there, defiant to the last. Deep down within himself, the rancher had to admit a grudging admiration for Teasdale. Yet a man had to do what was expected of him. Draycott was a harsh man in a harsh land. He could not afford to distinguish openly between empathy and weakness. If he showed the former, it would be construed as the latter. Not inclined to spend any more time on his distasteful mission, he turned his horse. “You still have until four o’clock, then Webster will be here,” he snapped.

“I expect he’ll be alone, so we can have it out face to face,” replied Teasdale.”

“He’ll be alone. Webster doesn’t care for spectators in his business.” Draycott galloped off.

Punctually at four that afternoon, Webster rode slowly up to the shack. Teasdale was standing at the open door, a garden fork held tightly across his chest. Since Draycott’s departure, the barbed wire had disappeared from the gate. Webster dismounted cautiously, not quite able to believe that his job could be as simple as it seemed. “You comin’ out to take it like a man, or do I have to come in there an’ get you,” he shouted.

Teasdale stepped backwards into the doorway. “You have a gun an’ all I have is this,” he said, brandishing the fork. “I guess you’ll have to come an’ get me. But this ain’t a fight, Webster, it’s a killin’ an’ you’ll fry in hell for it.”

Webster drew his gun. “Mister,” he grated, “you’re plumb crazy.” He kicked open the flimsy gate and strode forward.

Whump! Draycott’s hired killer plunged into space. He landed with an impact that twisted one ankle and jarred the rest of him from base to apex. The gun fell from his grasp and to augment his discomfiture, a mass of sand and gravel showered down on him. When the cascade stopped, he was conscious but injured, confused and in darkness. Then he heard above him the scratching of stone on wood.

“What the hell is this?” he yelled.

For a moment the only answer was that scraping noise, then Teasdale’s voice came down. “Worked just fine, didn’t it? Was that trapper feller’s idea. You just dropped into what’s called an oubliette. That’s a French word. Somethin’ to do with forgettin’. Don’t ask me what. I forget.” He gave a cracked, near-hysterical laugh. “See, Webster, we cleared part of the path an’ dug a hole – you’ll have noticed it’s plenty deep – then we put an old door over it, with leather straps round a wooden pole in the middle. Makes a kind of axle. Then we put the path back on top, balanced just nice, with a stick on the house side, to stop it rollin’ over. I put the barbed wire outside to stop Draycott walkin’ in this mornin’, then I took it away again, so when you came an’ trod on the far end, it just naturally swung over an’ dropped the path on you. Clever, ain’t it?”

“You damned loony,” Webster bellowed. “Let me out.”

Teasdale hooted. “Oh, no. You ain’t comin’ out. I’ve put a heap o’ rocks on this board now an’ jammed everythin’ in place with two poles. You wouldn’t move this lot now, even if you could get to it, which you can’t.”

“This is murder,” screamed Webster.

“Well, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” came the reply. “Anyway, it ain’t murder. All I did was dig a hole. You walked into it yourself. Pure carelessness, I’d say. I’ll be along to fill you in later, an’ if I was you, I wouldn’t move around too much. That stuff you’re crawlin’ in down there is quicklime. Goodbye, Webster.”

* * *

September 9th, 2012, 03:52 PM
I read the first story posted here - Banking on it. Interesting story and very well written. Just a slight correction that may be needed - "How do make that out?" Should it be "How do you make that out?" Other than that, it's very good and keep the stories coming. Cheers!

September 9th, 2012, 06:41 PM
Many thanks for your comments, especially for pointing out the missing word. No matter how hard one tries, the odd blunder gets through here and there. I have attended to this one and hope you will enjoy the other Sunset Stories. You may have noted that nine have now been posted and I hope to offer more. Best wishes. Cj

September 15th, 2012, 06:37 PM

When young Harold Fairbrother founded the first newspaper in Yellow Spring, Montana, he decided that as well as reporting everything noteworthy in the present, he would steep himself in the history of the place. To that end, he toured the area, talking with everyone who could remember anything that might be worth recording. His idea was to supplement the limited news material he had available with a number of articles concerning the town’s formative years.

Fairbrother didn’t gather as much as he’d hoped, but did meet William Birkett. What he learned during that encounter was, he felt, so interesting that he overcame his editorial proclivity so far as to ask the older man to write the story in his own words, to be presented without amendment. Birkett claimed that he was no storyteller, so the exercise took time, but the account finally appeared. It is given verbatim below:

We never knew the stranger’s name. He arrived in the settlement one day, stayed in the area for three weeks, did a couple of things that shook us all up, then left. It’s well over thirty years ago now and I reckon I’m the only one still around who remembers the episode. I’m certainly alone in knowing exactly what happened because I got the details from the only authentic source, Toby Wainwright.

I suspect that I’m already in danger of putting the cart before the horse and I’ll have to apologise for any shortcomings I may have as a narrator. The fact is, I never expected to put all this down in black and white and I see now that this writing business isn’t as simple as it seems. I wouldn’t do it at all, except that we’re a real town now and our esteemed newspaper editor has suckered me into it. Says he’s collecting tales from our early days, so he can run a series. He asked me to tell it in my own words. Harold’s a pushy fellow and hard to resist.

Anyway, as I say, it was over thirty years ago. I remember it well, because I was there when the stranger first arrived. When I say ‘there’ I mean in the settlement, which was a long way from being a town in those days. We were just a spot on the trail and remote, even by Montana standards. All there was to the place was a livery stable-cum saddlery, a forge, a general store, which served as a stage depot, a saloon and a few shacks, some of them abandoned by people who’d moved on.

I’d driven the buckboard in that day to pick up a few items that Sam Harker, the saddler, had been repairing for us. By ‘us’ I mean the old Doyle ranch. We could have done the work ourselves, but Sam did it better and quicker and he didn’t charge much, so old man Doyle liked to put as much business as possible his way. I’d have remembered the day even if the stranger hadn’t turned up. It would have stood out because of Josh Naylor and his anvil.

Josh was the blacksmith and I guess he was the strongest man I’ve ever seen. That’s always struck me as strange because at around five-foot-ten in height, he was no giant. At first glance, he didn’t even seem all that muscular, but then you noticed the exceptionally deep chest. Then there was the steep slope from neck to shoulders. I once heard you get a better guide to a man’s strength from that than from the high, squared-off look that some fellows have. Maybe that was why Josh was so powerful.

When I arrived, he was passing the time of day with three young boys, the only children in the settlement. I picked up the leather gear from Sam’s place and strolled over to join the little group. Just then, one of the lads was tugging at the anvil which Josh had bolted onto a massive oak base, the whole thing standing under an awning, so he could work in fresh air in almost any weather. The boy looked at Josh, who was filling his pipe. “How did you get this thing up onto the block?”

“Well, I just lifted it there.”

“Gosh,” said the boy. “It must be awful heavy.”

Josh smiled. “They come in different sizes. This one weighs around two hundred pounds.”

One of the other boys laughed. “Bet you can’t really lift it.”

Josh didn’t reply. He just loosened the four bolts that held the anvil in place, took hold of each end of the thing and heaved. For about five seconds he stood there, that great chunk of metal at full arms’ length over his head, then he let it down onto its base, even managing to do so slowly and gently.

“Amazing, sir.” This new, deep voice came from the stranger, who had arrived quietly while Josh was performing his feat. I’d seen the newcomer way back down the trail, but thought nothing of it. He moved his horse forwards and dismounted, seeming awkward in doing both things, as though he wasn’t a regular rider. That was the case, as we learned later. He’d rented the horse from the railhead stable, northeast of our little place. He was a tall man, about six-foot-two, solidly built without being bulky. I put him at about the same weight as Josh Naylor’s anvil. He was kind of raw-boned and durable looking. His clothes were smart – light brown pants, hip length jacket of plain buckskin, white shirt, narrow black tie, black boots and pearl-grey Stetson hat.

He asked whether a man could rent a room and Josh directed him to Sam Harker’s livery stable. At the back of his place, Sam had a lean-to which he occasionally rented out to travellers, who usually spent no more than one night there. “Much obliged,” said the man. He led his horse off to make the arrangements. Visitors being so uncommon, the few tongues we had around soon started wagging, especially when we learned from Sam Harker that the stranger intended to stay for a week or two.

“What do you make of him, Sam?” asked Ralph Boardman later that day. Ralph owned the saloon.

Sam scratched his head. “Can’t rightly say,” he answered. “He’s from the East, for sure. Asks a fair few questions, but don’t say much about himself. Says he has business here that won’t take long. I tried to get his name. Told him I didn’t seem to have picked it up and he just smiled and said he didn’t recall dropping it.”

That was as far as we got to pinning down either the man’s identity or his business until things came to a head. He rode out every morning, always in the direction of Spruce Flats, twelve miles south of us. Not much left of the place now, but it was a busy little spot then.

All any of us could make of the matter was that the stranger poked around and made a lot of inquiries over there, without giving much away. Usually he was back in the settlement by late afternoon, but once he stayed away for two nights. He called in at the saloon every evening, drank a couple of beers then bedded down early. Anyway, let me go back to the day the man turned up. After that little incident with Josh Naylor and the anvil, I went back to my work. In those days, the Doyle spread was by far the biggest in these parts. The ranch-house was about five miles from the settlement, in the direction of Spruce Flats.

Ephraim Doyle was a little over sixty at the time and a widower. He was a rancher in the old style and the most influential man for many a mile around. Not that he threw his weight about much. He was a tough fellow, but a fair one and pretty far-sighted. Unlike some of the other ranchers, he had no objection to the few homesteaders living in the area and tried to avoid friction with them. That wasn’t easy for him, mostly on account of his son, Vincent.

There was practically no nonsense that Vince Doyle didn’t get up to in his twenty-seven years. He was an all-round hellion. In fact it was through him that old Ephraim kept me on at the ranch, doing odd jobs. That was after I couldn’t ride properly because of my stiff leg, which got that way when Vince backed a loaded wagon over it one day, fooling around as usual. I was only sixteen then and I’ve had this handicap ever since. Ephraim figured he owed me for Vince’s recklessness, so he paid me back as well as he could.

I wasn’t the only one to suffer from Vince Doyle’s behaviour. At one time or another, he infuriated nearly everybody in the area, especially the settlers. More often than not he got out of trouble because of his father’s standing, but if that wasn’t enough, Vince usually rode around with four or five of the meaner ranch hands, who would back him up in return for various favours. That bunch wrecked the furniture in Boardman’s saloon on two occasions, and caused similar trouble at Spruce Flats half a dozen times.

Toby Wainwright, the fellow I mentioned earlier, had more cause than most to hate Vince Doyle. Toby helped out in Fawcett’s general store in the settlement. One day, egged on by his cronies, Vince forced Toby into a fight and beat him up pretty badly. Toby never got over that.

All those things were troublesome enough, but Vince’s worst outrage wasn’t made public until long after it happened. I knew about it but, rightly or wrongly, I reckoned there was little I could do. For one thing, I wasn’t supposed to know. For another, I was in a vulnerable position, being pretty much dependent upon Ephraim’s goodwill. I did tell Toby Wainwright what I knew, but he was as powerless as I was.

The affair concerned a woman in Spruce Flats. I got over there only occasionally, but Vince Doyle went two or three times a week. I never met the woman, but I saw her once and believe me, she was worth seeing. She came from Boston, where she had been widowed early when her husband got himself killed by falling off a church roof he was repairing.

This woman, Ruth Morris, was around five-foot-seven. She carried herself well and had a shape which I guess must have been the envy of most of her sex, plus striking rust-coloured wavy shoulder-length hair. I never was much of a ladies’ man myself, but if I had been, I would have had more than a passing interest in her.

As soon as Vince Doyle clapped eyes on Ruth, he just had to do something about it, and he did. I got the story second-hand, but it seemed that Vince set his hat at this vision in a big way. At first she was cool, but the two were more or less of an age and Vince was a good-looking man. He just battered away at her until she caved in. Vince ended up spending nearly as much time at Spruce Flats as at the ranch.

One morning, three or four months after the amorous affair started, a friend of Vince’s rode up to the Doyle spread at full gallop, all heated up. He said that Ruth Morris was dead. She had been found that morning in the house she’d rented, a bullet hole in her head. Whoever had done it had fired through a pillow to dampen the sound. Nobody in the town knew who had killed Ruth, but it was known that two hard-looking strangers had ridden in the previous evening and had been long gone by the time the body was found.

Vince Doyle sent his friend back to Spruce Flats, saying that he would ride over there himself that afternoon. This is where I come to the part about my knowing what I wasn’t supposed to know. Ephraim Doyle had set me to work weeding the garden, which he always kept well tended, in memory of his wife, who had been very keen on growing things.

I was kneeling, or as near I could get to that position with my game leg, and was maybe six feet away from the side window, which was slightly open. All the other hands were away about their business and apart from me, only the two Doyles were around the house. I was working in near silence and I think the boss had forgotten about me. I heard a door slam, then the Doyles’ voices. At first they were just talking normally, but within a couple of minutes the noise level went up. Pretty soon they were having a real set-to. I didn’t get the first bit, but then I heard Ephraim shouting: “You idiot. What the hell possessed you?”

“I guess I reckoned I wasn’t through having fun yet,” Vince answered. “I didn’t mean it to get this far. It just got out of hand. I’m sorry, Pa.”

“You’re sorry,” Ephraim yelped, almost choking. “You get a woman pregnant, then have her killed because she might have saddled you with some responsibility. And you’re sorry. That’s just dandy, I suppose?”

“Yes . . . I mean no,” Vince spluttered. “Anyway, calm down. It can’t be traced back to us.”

“Us? There’s no ‘us’ this time Vince. I’ve got you out of a lot of scrapes, but if you’re ever found out on this one, you’ll swing for it. Make no mistake about that. Now get out, damn you.”

Vince clumped across the floor and I reckoned it would be a good thing for me to be somewhere else when he came out, so I moved to the back of the house, found something to do and kept my head down.

As I said, I passed on what I’d heard to Toby Wainwright, and we both knew that if I’d reported the details to anyone else, my words wouldn’t have carried much weight. Most likely they would have been widely regarded as a delayed attempt on my part to get even with Vince because of what he’d done to me. Also, I’d have lost my job and would have had little chance of getting another. So I kept quiet.

Anyway, before I get this story into a tangle again, I’ll go back to the stranger. He’d been with us for nearly three weeks when he got involved in the first of those incidents I spoke about. Not that he could have done much to avoid it. He’d called in at the saloon for his usual two beers. It was a Saturday evening and business was brisk. I was there, along with a bunch of our hands. Vince Doyle wasn’t around, but Heck Brogan was.

There were several small spreads abutting the Doyle empire, and Brogan was foreman of one of them. He was a real terror. A huge man, he stood close to six-foot-six and was built like an ox. He was mean enough sober, but with drink in him he was just about crazy. He would find some pretext to have a brawl with almost anybody, and if a fellow wouldn’t defend himself, Brogan would thrash him anyway. There was more than one man who had been injured by standing up to or backing down from Heck Brogan. I sometimes wondered what might have occurred if he’d squabbled with Josh Naylor, but that never happened, as Josh always went to bed early and being no friend of alcohol, never patronised the saloon. I doubt that the two men ever met for more than a couple of minutes at any one time.

For some reason, Vince Doyle always got along well with Brogan. Maybe it was mutual respect. Being of average height and slim build, Vince was no match for Brogan physically, but he was very fast with his six-gun and not afraid of using it anywhere, anytime. Possibly each man saw something to admire in the other. Whatever the grounds, the two were on good terms.

As I said, business was booming in the saloon. Heck Brogan – by the way, his real first name was Hector – had got himself well lubricated and was clearly on the way to doing something unpleasant. He was staring around, scowling at anybody who was fool enough to catch his eye. That was when the stranger came in. He went over to the bar, quiet as usual, ordered a beer and was carrying it over to sit at a table when Brogan said something to him. They exchanged a few words which I didn’t hear, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on. Suddenly Brogan slammed his whiskey glass down on the bar, hunched those huge shoulders and moved towards the stranger. “I ain’t askin’ you to apologise for that, mister,” he bellowed. “I’m just goin’ to take it out of your hide.” He lumbered on, that enormous right fist cocked.

Well, I’ve watched one or two barroom scuffles in my time and seen a few big punches landed, but never one like I saw that night. The stranger, having set down his glass, had turned to meet what was coming and Brogan was on the verge of firing his cannonball. Then at the last instant, when it seemed as though he wasn’t about to defend himself, the stranger fetched up a right hand from somewhere in China. It landed on Brogan’s jaw with a crack like a rifle shot.

Big though he was, Brogan was knocked off his feet and thrown backwards, smashing against the bar with a force that shook the whole building. The fifteen-foot length of pine was nailed to the floor. Maybe the fastening wasn’t too secure but anyway, the whole front rose a good two inches.

Brogan was still falling on impact and took the force mostly with his back, below the shoulder blades, in a crash that made me wince. His head jerked backwards at what seemed a near-impossible angle, then he slithered down the woodwork onto his rear end and slumped over sideways, well and truly out.

It was dead quiet in the place for a good ten seconds, then the stranger went back to his beer, drank it in one go and walked out without a saying a word. After he’d gone, we all started jabbering about what we’d seen. For maybe two or three minutes, nobody thought of doing anything about Brogan, who was still senseless. Then a couple of his cowhands hauled him out, loaded him onto a buckboard and took him back to their spread. We found out afterwards that he went off to see doctors in Helena, Cheyenne and Denver but, at least as long as he remained in these parts, he was never right again. That one thunderous punch appeared to have taken the steam out of him for life. ’Course, considering his record, he didn’t collect much sympathy.

Like I said, I didn’t hear all that passed between Brogan and the stranger, but some of the boys who were closer to the action heard it all and it was clear that Brogan had been looking for trouble as usual. Well, he found it all right and I guess we were all glad to see him carted away.

Most of the men who turned up on those Saturday evenings were decent enough sorts, who never wanted to do anything worse than get drunk. This time, with Brogan out of the way, they got on with it in style. There was the usual innocent fooling around as the evening wore on, including some nonsense outside the saloon, but it was all pleasant enough and eventually everybody was satisfied and we all went home. Being halfway sober, I drove the buckboard for the Doyle boys.

The following afternoon, I had to go back into the settlement to pick up a few items from the store, which was open until two o’clock on Sundays. I’d done what was necessary and was passing the time of day with Sam Harker at the livery stable when Shorty White, who was one of our hands and close to Vince Doyle came in, riding fast. He threw himself from the saddle, near-breathless, asking for the stranger. As it happened, the man himself walked out of the lean-to just as Shorty was speaking. Full of his own importance and obviously carrying big news, White swaggered over to the fellow. “Got a message for you,” he said.

The stranger wasn’t given to displays of emotion. “What is it?” he replied, his voice low and flat.

Shorty puffed himself up. “It’s from Vince Doyle. Says to tell you he’s real riled up about you. Says you been askin’ a lotta questions about him at Spruce Flats. On top o’ that, you’ve hurt Heck Brogan real bad an’ Vince an’ Heck are big friends. Vince says to tell you he’s comin’ for you this evenin’. He’ll be in just afore six an’ take a drink. When the saloon clock strikes the hour, he’s comin’ out, an’ you’d better be there with a gun. He aims to settle up, an’ he says don’t try to get out, ’cause he has boys posted north, south, east an’ west.”

That was probably the longest speech Shorty had ever delivered and he gabbled it out fast, like he’d been memorising it word for word and wanted to unload it before he forgot anything. The stranger took it in, then nodded his head maybe an inch. “Is that all?” he said.

“Sure,” Shorty answered. “Ain’t it enough?”

“Yes, I suppose it is. My compliments to Mr Doyle and tell him I’ll be here.”

Shorty mounted and left. Sam Harker turned to the stranger. “I hope you’re handy with a six-shooter, friend,” he said. “Vince Doyle’s quick as a sidewinder. There’s no man around here who’d care to try him out.”

The stranger spread his hands, palms upward. “I hardly know one end of a gun from the other,” he said. “It’s true I have a score to settle with Vincent Doyle, but I had in mind dealing with it legally.”

Sam shook his head. “You’ll not do that now,” he said. “Nearest law is in Spruce Flats and the marshal there is very friendly with Ephraim Doyle. Look, mister, what Vince has in mind for you just amounts to murder.”

The stranger shrugged. “I don’t seem to have any choice,” he said quietly.

“Well, you can’t get away from here and that’s a fact,” Sam replied. “Tell you what, though. I got an old .44 here and a few shells. I’ll let you have both if you like. Maybe you can get in a little practice for a couple of hours. I know that’s not much, but I reckon it’s your only hope.”

The stranger nodded. “All right,” he said. “Thank you. I’d heard you have some drastic ways of settling differences out here, but I didn’t expect to play a part in them. Still, I’ll do my best.” That was the second of those two things I alluded to near the start of this tale. I mean, the man could have refused the challenge and maybe have put Vince into an awkward position, but if that idea occurred to him, he must have rejected it.

I’d promised to get back to the ranch to make up the number in a card game, but it would have taken far more than that to induce me to leave the settlement at that point. Sam told everybody what was going on, then he went out behind his place and gave the stranger a few pointers about handling the gun – not that Sam was much good at it himself. The man was no more adept with the weapon than he was with a horse. He tried, but like Sam said, it was going to be nothing less than a killing.

I never experienced such suspense before or since as I did in those two hours after Shorty White’s departure. Sam went to the store and hunted up another box of shells for the old firearm. After using most of them, the stranger had improved a fraction, but at the end he was still just a shade above downright useless. Then we saw Vince Doyle in the distance and everybody went quiet. The victim – we already regarded him as such – sat atop a barrel in Sam’s place, stuck the gun inside his belt and waited. I didn’t dare to dwell on what might have been going through his mind. What does a man think about when he’s facing the certainty of violent death?

Vince made the most of his entrance, riding in slowly, looking relaxed and casual. He dismounted at Boardman’s place, tethered his horse and stood for a moment, looking up at the batwing doors. To his right was the tie-rail, to his left the big iron-bound wooden horse trough that Josh Naylor had made. Then he went on into the saloon, scuffing over a length of old lariat that some joker had tied to the bottom of one of the hitch-rack posts and thrown along the steps and boardwalk, apparently during the previous night’s horseplay.

It was ten minutes before six when Vince entered the saloon. I couldn’t see anybody outdoors. Some of us had taken positions from where we could watch at least part of the action, but owing to the haphazard way the buildings were laid out, it wasn’t possible to get a good view in safety. Visibility was poor anyway, as darkness was beginning to fall. The tension was enough to give a man heart trouble.

Just before six, the stranger came out of Sam Harker’s place, walked over and stood near the far end of the horse trough, about fifteen feet from the saloon doors. He opened his jacket so he could get at the borrowed gun, then let his arms fall. Knowing as well as the man himself what awaited him, I had to admire his courage.

It was so quiet that even from across the way I fancied I heard Boardman’s clock start to strike. Maybe I really did hear it because a few seconds later, Vince Doyle came out. I saw him smirk as he looked down at the stranger. “Well, mister,” he said. “Are you ready to meet your maker?”

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” the stranger answered, “but I want you to think about something before one of us perishes, Doyle.”

“Oh, what’s that?” Vince said, grinning.

“I’d like you to take your mind back a while, to a woman named Ruth Morris.”

Vince’s body tensed. “What about her?” he said.

“Only this,” the stranger replied. “You had her killed. Don’t bother to deny it. I have proof. I intended to settle this matter in court, but I see now that’s not to be. You may be a gunman, Doyle, but I want you to know that Ruth Morris was my sister, and if there’s any justice in this world, you’ll be the one to die here.”

Vince didn’t answer the stranger’s accusation, but obviously decided to end the matter without more ado. “You can stow the talking now,” he snapped. “When I get my feet on the ground, haul out that gun.” He started to step down. Though it was clear that the stranger had virtually no chance against him, Vince obviously wanted to give himself even better odds, or possibly just wished to silence the man before anything else came out. Anyway, he didn’t wait for a classic face-off. The instant he began to move off the boardwalk, his right hand flashed to that notorious gun. He cleared leather while the stranger tugged awkwardly at his own weapon.

My position inside Sam Harker’s place put me at an awkward viewing angle, so I wasn’t entirely sure what occurred next, except that it happened mighty fast. In mid-stride, with his .45 already out, Vince collapsed forwards. His head hit the iron rim of the horse trough with a thump that I guess could have been heard fifty yards away. He almost bounced off, landed on his left shoulder, rolled over face-up and lay still, his unfired Colt skittering away in the dust.

After that, nothing happened for about twenty seconds. There was total silence and nobody moved. Then, as we all began to come out of hiding, the stranger stepped forwards, very slowly, like he didn’t trust the situation. He had his pistol out by then, but seemed to have forgotten he was holding it. He bent over Vince, knelt, then straightened up again. “Dead,” he whispered.

A verdict of accidental death was recorded. The only one who knew what really occurred that day was Toby Wainwright. He kept it to himself until just before he died, twelve years ago, then he told me and I’ve said nothing about it to anybody until now. It was like this: Toby overheard us discussing Vince Doyle’s intentions, then he wandered off. When nobody was looking, he put in place that lariat I mentioned earlier. At six o’clock he was hunkered down around the corner of the saloon, pretty well concealed from everyone, except maybe the stranger, whose eyes were firmly fixed on Vince and who probably would not have seen what little of Toby was visible anyway, as Vince blocked his line of sight.

The instant Vince began to step off the boardwalk, Toby yanked the untied end of the old rope. Then he slipped off into the gloom as the rest of us gathered around Vince’s body. He joined us five minutes later, all innocence.

* * *

September 16th, 2012, 01:41 PM
Not bad at all - The Avenger. Always good to read a story with a twist at the end.

September 22nd, 2012, 05:32 PM

Henry Burrows checked his appearance in the long mirror. Yes, he would do. Mid-brown hair well groomed, smart dark-blue jacket and trousers, white shirt, plain crimson tie and gleaming black shoes. Not that it mattered, as the meeting was informal. Still, it was as well to look good at all times. Of course, dress was only a part of the overall impression. The face was important too. And that was just right: clean-shaven, broad, a trifle florid, blue eyes radiating sincerity, overall expression mildly bonhomous. The deportment was perfect: stout, five-foot-eight body erect, bearing confident, movements unhurried, verging on the ponderous. All these things were big assets to a man in Burrows’ line of work. Plausibility was an essential tool for the confidence man.

The name also was complementary. It had been selected with care, calculated to sound solid and reassuring, and was far from the first the man had used since discarding his original one many years earlier. Not long ago, he had been Thomas Horton. That was in Colorado – a part of the world he had left hurriedly in circumstances he didn’t care to recall. Now it seemed like time to move on again. Perhaps he could stay where he was and continue to do well, but on balance it was better for a man in his business to change habitat frequently. A moving target is hard to hit and if a man stayed too long in one place he never knew what might happen.

Closing the wardrobe door, Burrows left the bedroom of his rented house and went downstairs to join his three partners in the living room. Although he had spent less than eighteen months in the High Plains community of Calooga, Burrows had become something of a socialite, cultivating the contacts pertinent to his trade and always affable in his dealings with everyone else. This evening, his visitors were Horace Lamb, Jack Benton and Elias Baldwin. Lamb ran the town’s only bank, Benton had a virtual monopoly of construction in the area and Baldwin’s general store was dominant in the retail sector.

The four men were business partners, though their association had been formalised elsewhere, when they had created a company at Rankin, forty-five miles north of Calooga. The declared aim of the new entity was to invest in real estate. So far it had done that on two occasions, in respect of which its quartet of executives had already seen handsome returns.

There was no gavel-banging at this or any other meeting of the company’s officers. Tonight’s get-together flowed from desultory conversation to a kind of order when Burrows asked his colleagues to take seats, after he had distributed French brandy and first-class cigars – nothing small-minded about mine host. He opened the discussion. “When we started this venture, we all knew we’d do well by way of . . . er . . . fees for our exertions, if for nothing else.” This brought chuckles all round.

“But,” Burrows continued, “I promised to come up with something a little more substantial. I think I’ve done that.”

“Spill it out, Henry,” said Benton, a rough fellow, not disposed to niceties.

“All in good time,” Burrows replied. “We have to consider others. Obviously, we’re all men of principle here” – more smiles – “and I must tell you that I have an informant whose incognito must be preserved.”

This was a strain for Benton, who preferred monosyllables. “Let’s hear it straight,” he grunted.

“So you shall. We accepted that I would be executive president and that any really big proposition would most likely be a land deal. It has taken time and I’ve had to call in a few favours, but I can now tell you that we’re in a position to clean up at once. However, if we do that, there might be a slight risk and my view is that we shouldn’t take any chances at all. If we wait a few days, we can push this through without hazard. There’ll be no way that anyone can touch us. However, my man is in a sensitive position and I’m not willing to endanger him. If you were in his situation, you would expect no less of me, and I hope you will understand that I would prefer that the details remain between this fellow and myself. So, immediately and there’s a possible hitch, or a matter of days and there’s none. The question is, are you willing to leave this to me?”

Burrows expected to get approval and he did. His three companions refrained from putting awkward questions. After the main – if somewhat vague – proceedings, more liquor went down, Burrows distributed further fine smokes and the atmosphere became euphoric. Present wellbeing did much to induce a sense of continuing prosperity.

Helen Verity was proprietor, compositor, printer and sole journalist of Calooga Valley’s press organ, the Clarion. Until two years earlier, she had been in the shadow of her father, who had presided over production of the newspaper. It was only after the passing on of John William Verity that people had realised the role Helen had played. For several years her father, a widower, had limited his work to the printing and distribution of the Clarion. During that period Helen had provided virtually all the material which so entertained the local populace. Whether it was news of births, deaths, marriages, arrivals, departures, knitting ideas, new goods or services, social and sporting events, or momentous occurrences from the world outside, nearly all the words had come from Helen Verity.

One of the mysteries in Calooga Valley was that Helen had never married. In an area short of women, there had been a fair supply of suitors. And there was no doubt about the desirability of the local newshound. She was five-foot-five, built in a way that was sure to attract the attention of the local males, had curly shoulder-length ginger hair, green eyes, a light sprinkling of freckles in a broad face, full of character, and an impressive fund of wit and humour – perhaps too much of the former for some potential swains. But it seemed that Helen Verity had a one-track mind. She was set upon keeping her business afloat and brooked no distraction.

Week in, week out, Helen toured the valley in her buggy, collecting items of interest. Often they were banal, but such was the lot of a journalist. Sometimes, the standard fare was spiced with news garnered from the railroad telegraph station at the northern end of the valley. Helen’s lot was a demanding one, requiring literacy and versatility, plus mental and physical stamina. Yet it was satisfying, giving her a good deal of scope for creativity and ensuring her independence.

The bell atop the street door of the Clarion’s premises tinkled. The proprietor, sitting at her desk at the rear of the office-cum-print room, looked up. Noting that the visitor was Edward Denny, she sighed, preparing herself for an irritating interview, which she intended to keep as short as possible. She had just started writing an article, and she hoped that by keeping her pen poised she would convey to her far from welcome caller the message that she had little time.

Edward Denny was a pleasant enough fellow, twenty years of age, physically unremarkable and usually on good terms with most of the townspeople, but widely considered as not quite right in the head. In fact, he was not as deficient in that respect as commonly thought, but his view was that if people wished to regard him as a simpleton, they were welcome to do so.

Following the death of his mother four years earlier, Edward, who had no siblings, lived with his ailing father at the southern edge of town. His education had been rudimentary and a little tiresome for both him and his only teacher. Edward’s mental state, as perceived by others, precluded steady employment, so he made out as best he could, doing odd jobs for anyone who offered them. Even those chores sometimes proved difficult, as Edward was given to fits of forgetfulness and mind-wandering, often pausing for long periods midway through the most undemanding of tasks. Suspecting that he might be seeking work which she did not have to offer, Helen Verity did her best to appear even busier than she was.

Edward came forward diffidently, his hands twisting the brim of the old black hat he’d inherited from his father. “Morning, Miss Helen.”

“Good morning, Edward. Would you like to sit down?” She hoped he wouldn’t.

“Yes ma’am. Thank you.”

Having taken the only available chair, Edward sat for a long moment, looking at nothing in particular, apparently oblivious of the fact that the visit had been his idea. Even by his standards, that was odd. Helen was not the most patient of people. “Yes, Edward, was there something?”

Finally, young Denny gathered his thoughts. “Yes, ma’am. Do you think I’m crazy?”

Suppressing another sigh, Helen put down her pen and sat back. This was likely to take longer than she’d thought. “No, Edward, I don’t think you’re crazy. Why do you ask?”

Edward shuffled his feet, his knuckles whitening as he continued to savage the hat. “Well, I know what folks say about me.”

“What do they say?”

“Oh, maybe I don’t talk much, but I hear things all right. They say I ain’t normal an’ I’m below average.”

Helen passed a hand across her brow. “Edward, those words don’t mean much. Now, take average. If you have one man seven feet tall and one of three feet, their average is five feet, but neither of them is anywhere near that. Or take a genius and an idiot. You could say the average there is ordinary, but neither one is close to that. Do you see what I mean?”

It seemed like a struggle for Edward, but he got the point. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Very well. Now, as to normal. Is that how you’d consider me?”

“Uh . . . I guess so.”

“Well, I don’t. Let me tell you something, Edward. I’m thirty-seven years of age. I’ve heard that I’m considered not unattractive, yet I’ve rejected marriage proposals from three of the most eligible men in Calooga Valley. I work here alone, usually sixteen hours a day, six days a week and ten hours on the seventh day. In fact, I do nothing but work, eat and sleep. I haven’t been out of the valley for nearly twenty years. Would you call that normal?”

“Er . . . I don’t know. Maybe not.”

“All right. Now let’s think of, say, Mr Carswell. You know him?”


“Right. So you’re aware that he’s a highly educated man, wealthy and well-connected, with no obvious problems. He shouldn’t have a care in the world. But he’s killing himself by drinking two bottles of cheap whiskey and smoking twenty of those vile cheroots every day. Do you think that’s normal?”

“I can’t say I do.”

“Good. Now think about Mr and Mrs Sloper, who live near you. Mondays to Saturdays, they behave like most people. Sundays, they are together in the same house all day and don’t speak a word to one another, on account of some belief they have. Does that strike you as normal?”

“Uh . . . uh . . . no, Miss Helen.”

“Very well. Now, in your case, sometimes you don’t think as quickly as some people and possibly not in such straight lines as they do. Does that make you any more abnormal than others?”

This was a new and refreshing idea to Edward. He wasn’t sure that he fully grasped what Helen was saying, but was comforted. “Well, I guess not, ma’am.”

“Then we’re clear so far, but I suppose that’s not why you came in here, is it?”

Edward had almost forgotten the purpose of his call. With a monumental effort, he pulled himself together. “No. There’s somethin’ else.”

“I don’t want to be impolite, Edward, but I’m up to my neck in work. What is it?”

“Well, first off, do you reckon it’s right for a man to tell about somethin’ secret he’s heard? I mean, could I tell you?”

“Edward, it is the duty of any citizen to report anything that might be for the public good. As for what you say to me, it’s what is called privileged information. It’s between you and me, just like what goes on between doctors, lawyers or priests and the people they talk to. What you have to say remains confidential to the two of us, unless you wish it to be otherwise.”

“Well, you know I get jobs here an’ there?”


“This mornin’, I was workin’ for Mrs Lamb. You know her?”

“The banker’s wife. Yes, I know her.”

“Well, she asked me to chop some firewood an’ sweep out the yard.”


“An’ there’s a shed built onto the store room at the back. Well, I did the wood, then looked for a broom. I went into the shed, which has a door outside to the yard an’ one inside to the store room, then at the inside end of the store room, there’s a another door to the dinin’ room.”

“I’ll take your word for that.”

“Well, I went into the outhouse an’ I couldn’t find the broom, so I opened the door to the store room an’ I noticed that the other door to the dinin’ room was a little bit open. I was goin’ to ask Mrs. Lamb for the broom when I heard them talkin’ in the dinin’ room.”

“Heard who talking, Edward?”

“Far as I could tell, there was three of ’em – Mrs Lamb, Mrs Benton, who’s married to the builder, and Mrs Baldwin, the storekeeper’s wife. They were talkin’ for a good while an’ I heard most of it.”

Helen Verity scented news. “Yes, I understand. Now, what did they say?” Edward’s recollection of detail was perfect and he told all.

The day after Edward Denny’s visit to the Clarion’s premises, Henry Burrows took the stagecoach north to Rankin. Shortly afterwards, the heavens fell, at least locally. Helen Verity changed the habits of two decades, when she prepared her buggy and departed, leaving a message with a neighbour and a note on the office door, stating that she would be absent for a few days and that that week’s issue of the Clarion would be combined with the one for the following week.

Helen was as good as her word, returning in the evening, eight days later. She paid a brief visit to her one and only confidante to assimilate the latest gossip, two items of which were of special interest. One was the arrival, a day earlier, of a hard-looking stranger who wore a six-gun, thonged to his right thigh. The other was the sudden disappearance of Edward Denny, who had vanished shortly after his visit to Helen. Perhaps because of relief of having spoken with her, he had called at a saloon, where he took a couple of beers more than his usual ration. His tongue had loosened, and among his audience had been a loyal employee of the construction boss, Jack Benton.

It was a thoughtful Helen Verity who returned to the Clarion office following the visit to her friend. Calooga’s newspaper chief was a woman who could put two and two together as well as anyone. She knew instinctively what was afoot. Leaving the office in darkness, she went to her bedroom and wrote a letter to the town’s only lawyer, Joseph Curry, then retired for the night.

Early the following morning, the indefatigable scribe was on her way north yet again, but not before she had rousted Curry from his bed, handing him a small package. That was a Wednesday. This time, Helen was absent until late on the Thursday evening. When she got back, the town was largely quiet and dark, the only noise and most of the light coming from the saloons. This was February and a biting wind discouraged unnecessary outdoor activity. Most people had settled for an early night, but that wasn’t Helen Verity’s way. She lit the lamps and the stove in the Clarion’s office, made coffee then sat at her desk. She had been there barely ten minutes when the doorbell sounded. A man came in, black-clad from head to foot.

The caller, seemingly in no hurry, pulled down the blind over the door, did the same with the one covering the window, then stepped forwards. “You Helen Verity?” he asked, in a flat tone.

“Yes,” Helen replied. “I was wondering when you’d come.”

“That’s funny. You don’t know me.”

“Oh, I don’t mean you personally, just someone of your kind. After all, you are a hired killer, aren’t you? What are they paying you for this one?”

“Five hundred dollars.”

“I’m disappointed. Considering what’s at stake, I’d imagined I would be worth more.”

Helen had indeed been expecting this call. To some extent she was prepared, having loaded her father’s old revolver, now in the right-hand drawer of her desk. She was a brave, resourceful, self-reliant woman, satisfied that she had done all she could in the circumstances and unwilling to enlist any further help than she already had summoned. But she was not familiar with the blinding speed and totally dispassionate attitude of men like her visitor. As her hand moved to the drawer, the man flipped out his gun and shot her through the heart, with no more compunction than he would have had in dealing with a rattlesnake.

As the chair and its occupant crashed to the floor, the man began a leisurely inspection of the office. He didn’t bother to examine the body – he’d done this sort of work before. To his mild surprise, he didn’t discover what he had expected – proofs of the Clarion’s latest edition, or at least the prepared printing blocks. There was just blank paper and the typesetting boxes were in their neutral positions. Still, there was no point in taking chances. He had been paid for the job and he would do it right. He gathered up the metals and tossed them into the stove. Maybe they wouldn’t melt, but they would surely be defaced. Then he took the sheets of paper and tore them into quarters. He wasn’t concerned about the gunshot. If anyone came to investigate, that would be too bad for them. Satisfied, he dowsed the lights and left.

Horace Lamb, Jack Benton and Elias Baldwin met the morning after the murder of Helen Verity. Outwardly, they were as horrified as anyone else in Calooga Valley. Among themselves, the mood was quite different. Lamb voiced the sentiments of all of them. “Just in time, boys,” he said. “That woman could have caused a lot of trouble. Now she’s gone – and that damned paper with her.”

Baldwin nodded. “You paid the man, Horace?”

“Yes. I don’t think we need to concern ourselves further with our . . . er . . . violent friend. He did his work well.”

“Good,” said Baldwin, “And nobody’s going to hear any more from the village idiot.”

“No,” said Lamb. “I fear Mr. Denny is no longer available to testify to anything. May he rest in peace. We had to pay for that, too.”

“What about Burrows?” asked Benton. “Where’s he?”

Lamb was accustomed to presenting a suave front, but he was more than slightly perturbed at the non-appearance of Henry Burrows. “Good point,” he said. “He was due back here three days ago. To tell you the truth, I’m just a wee bit concerned. He said he was connected with some fellow and I’m beginning to wonder what the two of them are up to.”

At the same time as the three men were talking, lawyer Joseph Curry was studying the document he had retrieved from his safe. There was a large envelope with, on the front, a message from Helen Verity, authorising Curry to make use of the enclosures in the event of any mishap to the Clarion’s boss. Having received the shocking news of Helen’s murder, Curry opened the envelope and read the letter he found inside. With it was a sheaf of currency – a thousand dollars in all. A quarter of this was Curry’s fee for carrying out Helen’s instructions. The remaining seven hundred and fifty dollars were to be conveyed to Rankin with all speed. Curry, being an honourable man, left town within the hour.

Throughout Saturday and – unusually – Sunday, there was high excitement in the valley. Having started out southwards on the Friday evening, accompanied by a group of youngsters, Andrew Philips, editor of the Rankin Journal and friend of Helen Verity, set out to do that for which he had been handed seven-hundred and fifty dollars by lawyer Joseph Curry. As he shared the deceased Clarion owner’s views, Philips would have done it anyway, payment or not.

By midday on the Sunday, almost everyone in Calooga Valley had received – for once, gratis – a copy of the double edition of the Clarion. The material was scant and mostly in the usual mundane vein. However, all that was overshadowed by the front page special, written by the Clarion’s proprietor, two days before her death. As always in her reports, Helen had used the ‘we’ form, though everybody knew that she was responsible for every word in the paper.

When banker Horace Lamb received his copy, it shattered his Sunday morning languor. He had been quite sure that the Clarion would not appear. In that, he had been confounded by Helen Verity’s arrangement with the Rankin Journal’s chief, for printing and distribution of the Calooga Valley Clarion in the event of the indisposition of its owner.

Ashen-faced, Horace Lamb went through the lead article a second time. It was no more comforting than at the first perusal. He read:


We apologise for the gap in production of the Clarion last week. As readers may surmise, there is a reason, this being that we have tidings of some consequence to residents of the Calooga Valley.

Until quite recently, this area was a relatively uneventful backwater. Your current editor and the preceding one have tried to inform and entertain you. Seldom have we had reason to emphasise any great issue, especially one of a scandalous nature. Regrettably, we must now do so.

Three years ago, our affairs were transformed by copper mining. Previously, we had been in a state of quietude. Then our lives changed, not least in the monetary sense. Once, a dollar was a tidy sum. Now it is less so. Who has benefited from this? Most of us have. However, inevitably, some have fared better than others. Let us examine the position.

We would remind readers that our bank is constituted on the mutual basis, meaning that it is owned by its members. Nowadays, investors receive an interest rate of three per cent, while borrowers are required to pay nine per cent, so the difference is six per cent.

This newspaper has made extensive inquiries of banks elsewhere, in order to establish the running costs of a normal one-branch mutual bank. The figures vary, but including a modest amount set aside to maintain reserves, is rarely over two and a half per cent of average assets. Everything else should accrue to the members by way of deposit returns, loan rates or some combination of the two. Therefore, one would expect the gap between those rates to be around two and a half per cent. As we have said, they are six per cent. What has happened to the remaining three and a half per cent? As a result of information received, we are able to tell you.

Our local bank’s financial year ends on December 31st. and there is little constraint upon the institution during the year. So long as it accounts correctly at the year-end, it can do more or less what it likes in the interim. It is required that the annual accounts appear by March 1, following each year-end. The average assets of our bank for the last three years or so have been around $800,000 and three and a half per cent of that figure is $28,000.

We cannot be precise to the penny, but It is now February and a little over a year ago – on January 1, to be exact – the bank transferred from its accounts the sum of $30,000. It did the same again on December 31st. last year. Not content with that, it did so once more on January 4th. This year. That is three times in the space of a year and four days – though technically, the three transactions took place in two separate financial years.

Where did this money go? It went to a mysterious body called the Okanga Basin Company. If you search for the Okanga Basin on your maps, you will do so in vain. The company in question originated in Rankin, north of Calooga Town and the formalities were handled by the local lawyer, James Goodman. Why this was necessary will emerge below. Readers will appreciate that we have a respectable lawyer here in Calooga.

The Okanga Basin Company (OBC) was formed legally, its purpose being to invest in real estate in a manner determined by its officers. To be brief, a total of $90,000 was passed from the Calooga bank to the OBC in the space of just over one year. So what has become of these funds? The Clarion can tell you. A total of $10,000 was paid to the officers of the OBC, in return for which no work of benefit to our community has been done. Of course, they don’t call this money wages, or even salaries. Such terms are too coarse. They are called ‘emoluments’. Sounds so much nicer, doesn’t it?

What of the rest? Well, $40,000 was used to fund the acquisition and maintenance of two buildings. One, known as the Rocky Mountain Retreat, is near Denver. The other, a little way outside Laramie, is called the Plains Parlour. If you ask the relevant local authorities, you will be told that these places are recreational establishments. In fact they are dens of gambling and prostitution, producing at the last count profits of $30,000 for their owners. And who are these owners? They are the officers of the Okanga Basin Company – Horace Lamb, Jack Benton and Elias Baldwin, long-time stalwarts of Calooga Town, plus one of our more recent residents, Henry Burrows, and Rankin lawyer James Goodman.

How about the other $40,000 of the original funds? Here, matters become even more blatant. A few days ago, James Goodman disappeared eastwards. With him went $35,000 of the OBC’s money. At about the same time, Mr. Henry Burrows, late (we fear) of Calooga Valley, also vanished, along with the remaining $35,000 of OBC funds. Evidently these two gentlemen had their own plans, independent of those with their partners.

So there you have it. In just over a year, a total of $90,000, which should have accrued to you, as nominal owners of our local bank, was transferred to the Okanga Basin Company. Of this sum, $10,000 was paid to the OBC officers, in return for no service to you. A further $40,000 was used to buy two places of ill-repute. The profits of $30,000 from these establishments and the final $40,000 have disappeared, with advantage to Messrs Lamb, Goodman, Benton, Baldwin and Burrows, especially, it would seem, Goodman and Burrows. That is one Lamb, though not, you might think, to the slaughter, one Goodman, somewhat ironically named, many may feel, plus a Benton (or is it Bent’un?), a Baldwin and a Burrows. Three ‘Bs’ – you will no doubt interpret that to taste.

Lest the gentlemen named above should feign outrage, we would remind them of the libel laws in this country, which differ from those in some lands. Strictly speaking, we are not required to substantiate our words, though we are ready, willing and able to do so. It devolves upon the men in question to demonstrate not only that our report is untrue, but that it has malicious intent. They will have a hard time trying.

We have reason to believe that an attempt will be made to prevent publication of these words, so have taken steps to counter any such effort. Come what may, this edition of the Calooga Valley Clarion will appear. Our sincere thanks to readers for continued support.

The events following the murder of Helen Verity were not reported by the Calooga Valley Clarion, of which no further edition appeared. However, the position was monitored by the owner of the Rankin Journal, who did his best to fill the void. He produced a series of articles over the following months, the last one recounting the killing of Helen Verity and its aftermath. The text is given below:


We have been in print for twenty-four years, but never expected to bring such strange news as we have on this occasion. They say that there is nothing new under the sun, though readers may now wish to judge.

After the murder of our valued colleague, Helen Verity, former proprietor of the Calooga Valley Clarion, no legal proceedings took place, the reason being that no-one saw the act, other than the lady herself and the killer, who vanished at once. It is noteworthy that as the late Miss Verity would have been the chief witness in any enquiry concerning her allegations of banking impropriety, there was no action in that matter either. Admittedly, our law-enforcement machinery is overstretched, but it remains the hope of the Rankin Journal that this affair will be fully investigated.

Now to the astounding developments that followed the gunning down of Helen Verity on February fifteenth, this year. Two days later, unable to face his social collapse, former banker Horace Lamb, named in Miss Verity’s final article, abandoned his intended flight and hanged himself in a local barn. Less than a week after that, the ex-Rankin lawyer, James Goodman, perished. He had reached New York, planning to embark on a ship for England. Barely ten yards from the vessel, he was attacked by waterfront ruffians and robbed, receiving in the process a fatal knife-wound.

On the same day that Horace Lamb departed this life, Jack Benton and Elias Baldwin fled from Calooga Town, both leaving wives and children. Benton headed south, Baldwin northwest. Fearing pursuit, Benton avoided main routes. A month after leaving Calooga, he stayed overnight with a prospector in Colorado. Suspecting that his visitor was in funds, the man concerned laced Benson’s morning coffee with a drug, took his money, then threw him down an old mineshaft, where he died. Later, in his cups, the prospector admitted his misdeed and was dealt with appropriately.

Elias Baldwin reached Seattle and there, two months after Helen Verity’s murder, became involved in a high-stakes poker game. He had the remarkable experience of being dealt a straight flush, the odds against this being over sixty thousand to one. With a pot of nineteen hundred dollars his for the taking, he was apparently overcome by excitement, perhaps compounded by his earlier exertions. He collapsed across his cards, dead of a heart attack.

A week after Baldwin’s demise, a man named Jack Vance, subsequently identified as Helen Verity’s murderer, was killed in a street gunfight in South Dakota. He was called out by a youth of seventeen and, anticipating another notch on his weapon, was shot in the back by the young fellow’s concealed accomplice.

Until a few days ago, we were disposed to consider Vance’s death as the end of the matter. One of the parties Helen Verity had accused in her famous revelatory article seemed to have disappeared, but we accepted that fate sometimes writes untidy scripts. However, we were to be as amazed as most readers undoubtedly will be, when what was surely the final and perhaps strangest act of this tragic sequence occurred.

On Thursday of last week, a man using the name Hubert Green was in a boarding house north of the border in Calgary, Alberta, about to keep an appointment with a local bank manager to whom he had promised a large deposit. On hearing a gunshot, the landlady rushed to the man’s bedroom, finding him lying on the floor, bleeding. On his bed was an open valise containing $35,000 in US currency. He was able to gasp that he had been loading a newly acquired handgun – his first firearm – when the weapon went off, causing a wound from which he died within minutes. Despite changing his identity, he had been imprudent enough to carry documentation confirming that he was none other than Henry Burrows, late of Calooga Town.

This newspaper does not make a habit of invoking the supernatural, but the chain of events described above is as odd as any we are ever likely to hear of. Within three months of Helen Verity’s murder, every conspirator in the matter died, all of them in extraordinary circumstances. Divine intervention, or a most astonishing example of poetic justice? Readers will decide for themselves.

* * *

September 29th, 2012, 06:00 PM

“Don’t you ever bring them in alive?” grunted Sheriff Douglas Greenaway. The toe of his left boot traced an arc in the thin scurf of snow on the sidewalk outside his office as he looked across the hitching rail at a pair of horses. Draped across the saddle of one was the corpse of Ben Avery, former killer and bank robber. Astride the other was Dave Bartlett, aged thirty, an inch under six feet tall, heavily built, with a round, clean-shaven face, pale blue eyes and, under the battered black hat, sandy hair, already thinning.

“They don’t usually give me much choice,” he answered, easing himself down from the big grullo. What he said was true. The men he usually tangled with were the most notorious desperadoes, who had everything to gain by shooting their way to freedom and little to lose by being cut down in the process, since they would hang anyway if taken alive.

Bartlett’s occupation was not universally regarded as a savoury one. Some people were indifferent to bounty hunters, while many hated them and few admired them. That didn’t seem right to Dave, when he could be bothered to think about it. After all, what was he doing? He was ridding society of pests, reducing the workload of official lawmen and helping to make life safer for the settlers pouring into the West.

None of that cut any ice with Saltwater’s law custodian Greenaway, who detested those he called scalpers in general and Dave Bartlett in particular. He made no secret of this as he looked into the challenging eyes of the man he considered barely better than an outlaw. The hostility radiating from the sheriff could have penetrated the hide of a pachyderm. Bartlett was not the most sensitive of men, but he felt himself singed by Greenaway’s projected loathing. “You don’t like me one little bit, do you?” he said.

“No, Bartlett, I don’t. If you really want to know, I’d just as soon see you as anybody else brought in sideways over a saddle.”

“You’ve no call to talk that way,” Bartlett snapped. “Maybe you don’t like the way I make a living, but it saves you and your kind a lot of trouble. Anyway, I’m not asking you to like me, just to pay me.”

“You’ll get paid,” the Sheriff replied. “Come by this afternoon. Meanwhile you can hand over that hardware you’re toting. I don’t allow firearms in town any longer. Collect them when you leave and make sure you do that by sundown.”

The two men had crossed swords more than once over the subject of Bartlett’s livelihood, but Greenaway was in a particularly malevolent mood this time. Bartlett glared up at him. “I don’t see where you have the right to order me around like that,” he said as he handed over his rifle and handgun.

The lawman stood to his full six feet three inches, his hefty, paunchy frame up on the sidewalk towering over the bounty hunter standing in the iron-frozen wagon ruts of the street. Even without the force of law behind him, Greenaway would have been an intimidating figure. “What do you aim to do about it?” he asked, his speech changing suddenly to a mildness which Bartlett realised was more dangerous than the open fury it replaced.

Of course, Greenaway held the reins. Bartlett didn’t like the instructions, but he was in no position to defy them, though he had intended to stay in town for two or three days. “All right, I’ll go,” he muttered. “I don’t reckon you’ll object to my eating while I’m here – or have you banned that as well?”

The sheriff was already turning back to his office. “Eat all you want,” he said. “Get whatever else you need. See me around three o’clock for your blood money, then get out.” He stomped inside, slamming the door with a force that shook snow from the awning.

Bartlett was annoyed. In four years, he had brought in the cadavers of seven high-priced bandits, three of them to Greenaway. Somewhere along the line, rightly or wrongly, he’d rationalised his work. In his mind, he was an unofficial agent of justice, if not of the law. The spasm of anger passed quickly. In this line of business, a man had to get used to being a loner. Not many people wanted to keep company with a manhunter.

Leaving the dead bandit for the Sheriff to deal with, Bartlett trudged off to the livery stable, ensured care for his horse, then went to the better of the town’s two saloons where, his alcohol tolerance being limited, he contented himself with a couple of beers. Next he bought supplies to last him two weeks. Finally, with the sheriff’s deadline looming, he treated himself to a meal of steak, eggs, potatoes and apple pie.

At three o’clock, with a fall of fine snow beginning to drift along the street, he returned to Greenaway’s office to collect his weapons and reward money. That done, he paused to look at the wanted dodgers pinned to the notice board, seeking to establish whether any of the villains on show deserved his attention. Deciding that none of them did, he turned to head for the door, then at the last moment saw a new-looking poster, part-covered by a ledger, on the lawman’s desk. He pointed at it. “Who’s that?”

Greenaway sighed. “I was hoping we wouldn’t get around to this,” he said, hauling out the dodger. “Still, I guess you’ve as much right as anybody else to see it. Arrived this morning. Shame you didn’t come and go yesterday, but since you’re here, you’d better sit down for this one.”

Intrigued, Bartlett took the proffered paper and dropped onto one of the three bare wooden chairs that Greenaway kept for visitors. Looking down, he twitched involuntarily, even his tough constitution jolted. Staring up at him was a face which, apart from its trim moustache and short beard, was his own.

With a head-shake, he handed the poster back. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “So he’s really notorious now, is he?”

“Yes. Your twin brother. Changed his name, but that didn’t fool me. He’s top of the wanted list now. Didn’t know that myself until today.”

Dave Bartlett was still staring at the picture. “What did he do?” he said.

“Robbed a bank. When they tried to stop him, he shot a teller dead, then when he was running for his horse, he knocked a ten-year-old boy into the path of freight wagon. They say the kid’ll never walk again.”

“I’d better bring him in,” said Bartlett.

Hardened though he was, the lawman was taken aback by this one. “For heaven’s sake man,” he almost shouted. “This is your brother.”

Now it was Bartlett’s turn to show irritation. “Listen to me, Greenaway,” he barked. “He may be my identical twin, but he stinks in spades. Let me tell you about him. When we were youngsters, he was a real louse. He never passed up a single chance to give me a hard time. Got me into trouble more often than I can remember. If there’s a man in this world I have cause to hate, it’s my brother.”

It was an unusually long speech from the normally taciturn bounty hunter and for a moment Greenaway was astounded by the man’s vehemence. He sat nodding, collecting his thoughts, then scraped back his chair, slapping his palms on meaty thighs. “Well Bartlett,” he said at length, “I never took you for the emotional type. I was going to say something about blood being thicker than water, but I guess I’d be wasting my breath.”

“Yes, you would.”

Now it was time for Greenaway to shake his head. “I always had a low opinion of you,” he said, “but I guess you’ve found new depths. I reckon a man who’d go out hunting his own brother must be about the lowest of the low. As between you and him, I don’t know which one I’d rather see in jail.”

“Don’t lecture me about family matters,” Bartlett snarled. “You have your experiences and I have mine.”

Greenaway inclined his head towards the door. “Get out,” he said quietly, “before I throw you out. And don’t forget what I said about leaving town.”

Bartlett stamped across the street, cursing as he wrenched a foot in one of the vicious ruts. “To hell with this for a one-eyed place anyway,” he muttered to himself, then, balancing his ire against the reward he’d just received, he put the argument with Greenaway behind him, concentrating instead on his brother.

As the lawman had said, Lew had changed his family name and was now known as Lew Wharton. The price on him was two thousand dollars, dead or alive. This time, Bartlett would try hard to make it alive, though he had no doubt that had their roles been reversed, Lew would have had no such scruple.

Mindful of the sheriff’s last words, Bartlett lugged his purchases to the livery stable, saddled up and moved out into the drab main street. The brief flurry of snow had stopped and he looked westward through the clear air to the bulk of the mountains, a good day’s ride away. He had no doubt that his brother was holed up there and he had a good idea where.

Camping in the foothills that night, Dave Bartlett thought about his bitter exchanges with Sheriff Greenaway. It never occurred to Dave that he might be in the wrong. Nor did he entertain the possibility of treating his brother much differently from any other outlaw. He would make some extra effort to avoid killing him. That was enough. What he had told the sheriff was true. Lew had made his early life miserable.

The boys’ mother had died when they were four years old and they had been brought up by a father who, besides being stern by nature, was usually overworked, fatigued and careworn. He provided shelter, food and clothing for the boys, but the unremitting toil involved in making a living left him little time or inclination for pastoral care. He was just, according to his lights, which sometimes did not burn as brightly as they might have done.

Dave had found the general monotony and endless chores of the domestic scene dispiriting enough without the added woes caused by the behaviour of his brother. It had never been clear to Dave whether his own somewhat misanthropic bent had arisen from his innate character or from Lew’s malign influence. Inclined as he was to self-justification, he preferred to believe the latter. He’d spent a good deal of time trying to work out why such a strange situation should arise between twin brothers. Eventually, he ascribed it to one of Lew’s boyhood accidents, when he had fallen from a hay loft, receiving a mighty crack on the head.

Both boys had left home while still in their teens. Dave went first, Lew shortly afterwards. Within two years of the boys’ departure, their father had died, penniless despite the years of labour. There were no other relations.

Since striking out on their respective ways, Dave and Lew had met only once, even that encounter being unintentional. Lew had already made a reputation for himself as a small-time bandit and when the twins’ paths had crossed, he had been with a choice pack of ruffians and clearly enjoying the company. Even now, years later, Dave’s mouth twisted in a thin grimace as he recalled the occasion. Well, they would meet again now, for Dave was sure he would find Lew. This time it would be just the two of them, as it was well known that the outlaw now worked alone.

Dave had no illusions about tackling his brother. Lew was an expert at living in the wilds, especially in these mountains. He had few equals as a tracker and in a land of fine marksmen, he was as good as they came. Also, he had more than his fair share of cunning. Dave was a formidable operator in his chosen field, but he suspected that this time he might be biting off at least as much as he could chew.

It didn’t take Dave long to start picking up sign and Lew was equally quick to realise that he was being pursued. For five days, the deadly game went on, the two men quartering a region of the mountains that each knew well, zigzagging, backtracking and overlapping.

Lew could have made a run for it but Dave knew he wouldn’t. This was not only a manhunt, but also a matter of pride. Dave had never failed to bring in his man, while Lew had never been outsmarted by anyone. Dave excelled at what he did, with no pretensions in other fields. Lew had no speciality, but was versatile. Though he had not been chased quite like this before, his whole adult existence had been spent living by his wits and he was accustomed to coping with the unfamiliar. It was a classic contest.

On the morning of the sixth day, Dave scented success. He had camped on high ground. After taking a cold breakfast, he exploited his fine vantage point, inspecting the land to the west with his telescope. In the distance, beyond a wide belt of pines which he knew to be five or six miles from his position, there was a strip of open ground running north-south for as far as he could see, and seemingly several hundred yards wide. It was swept bare of snow by the wind, and bounded to the west by a high escarpment. Dave knew that in that rock face were caves, at least two of which offered shelter, though neither could be classed as a secure hiding place.

It was as likely a spot as any, Dave decided. He would have to go down, up and down again, and do it with the utmost care. Within ten minutes he was on his way. It took him three tense hours to cover the distance to the far edge of the woodland, his necessarily slow progress being further hampered by a short but heavy snow shower.

Reaching the western fringe of the conifers, Dave emerged cautiously, to view the rock-strewn open stretch. Threading his way through the trees, he rode slowly along for over a mile, then stopped, drawing in his breath in mixed surprise and satisfaction. The earlier shower had deposited a white carpet over the open expanse and there, leading towards the rock face, were hoofprints. That they were fresh was clear, for Dave had seen from his morning survey that the ground had been practically snow-free. It was now noon and the flurry had stopped at around ten. The tracks were no more than two hours old.

Could it be that Lew was slipping at last? It wouldn’t be characteristic of him to leave such a trail, but there it was. Dave moved back into the trees, mounted his horse and began to make a long shallow arc to the south-west. It would take time, but would get him to the end of the escarpment, from where he could cross the open space, then move back northwards along the wall of rock. One of the caves was, he’d noted, almost directly facing his start point. Was Lew really there? That seemed too easy.

It took Dave much of the afternoon to reach his goal. Arriving at the southern end of his horseshoe-shaped detour, he left his mount and began walking slowly along the base of the escarpment. He was less than five yards from the cave mouth he was seeking when he smelt cooking meat. There was no noise, nor was there a horse in sight – and Dave was aware from first-hand experience that the contours of the cave didn’t admit of one being concealed there. But the hoofprints were clear, running arrow-straight across the open space and becoming jumbled outside the cave where rider and animal had stopped, then continuing north alongside the rock wall.

Dave, his nerves now strung like piano wire, covered the remaining ground virtually inch by inch. He knew that the cave was about fifteen feet deep and had no nook or cranny for anyone to hide in, so one glance would reveal everything inside. Still, he took some time to summon up the will to poke his head out the last few inches. He was nonplussed by what he saw. It was a camp all right – fire, saddle, bedroll, tin plates and cups, a small sack of flour and what looked like a chunk of roasted beef, suspended on a spit over the low flames. But like his mount, the man was absent.

Now so far committed, Dave was drawn the rest of the way. Even so, it was fully two minutes before he moved towards the fire. Three feet from it he found a scrap of paper in a knife-cleft at the top of a short stick, rammed into the ground. With a sinking feeling, he pulled out and straightened what he was already convinced was a message to him. He read:

You’re good, but not good enough. I guess you’ll have to get up a little earlier to catch me. Keep trying, but remember I’m watching you. Lew.

It was a chastening experience for the great hunter. He tossed the paper into the fire and considered his next move. He could stay in the cave, awaiting his brother’s pleasure, but he had no illusions about what might happen if he did that. Lew was quite capable of throwing in a stick of dynamite, or holding Dave at gunpoint while walling him in with rocks, or thinking up some other equally unpleasant idea.

Almost certainly the fugitive – or were the roles now reversed? – was outside somewhere, observing, so any attempt by Dave to sidle out slowly wouldn’t work. The only move that made any sense would be to rush out, weaving across the open space towards the trees, taking advantage of the cover offered by one or other of the many boulders scattered around. It would be extremely hazardous, but even Lew might be hard pressed to hit a fast-moving man continually changing course.

Dave’s decision was helped by another fall of snow. Taking advantage of the extra cover it offered, he raced from the cave, tacking erratically, making for a scatter of rocks two hundred yards ahead. It was a hair-raising chance to take, but he made it. For anything he knew, he might have been heading straight for Lew, but he rated that a justifiable risk.

Reaching the scant cover of the rocks, Dave sprawled flat, lying motionless for ten minutes, trying to work out his next step. Eventually, satisfied that his move had succeeded, he crawled to the largest of the boulders dotted around him. Rising to his knees, he scanned the area.

The stretch of open ground between the rock face to the west and the trees to the east was now enjoying the last few minutes of full daylight, as the sun began to set behind the escarpment. Suddenly, Dave started, catching something reflecting from the top of a rock, a little over a hundred yards to the northeast. Having brought his telescope along, he made use of it. What he saw were two close-set points glinting in the sunshine, with dark patches to left and right of them.

So that was it – binoculars in black-gloved hands. The head must have been well down, behind the rock, out of sight. As he had indicated, Lew was watching, but he’d made a slight slip. Perhaps he’d grown over-confident. It would probably be Dave’s only chance and he decided to take it. Somewhere, low behind those glasses must be the watcher’s hairline. Even to get close to a hit was going to be difficult, but at least it would show Lew that he’d been spotted and carry the attack to him. Cautiously, Dave snugged his rifle to his shoulder then, exposing himself for a moment, sighted and fired.

It was a fine shot. The field glasses leapt backwards and both dark blobs disappeared behind the rock. Dave cowered down again, waiting nearly five minutes in the unnerving silence before he began to get back to his feet. He’d barely levered himself upright when he felt his right foot almost knocked from under him, just as he heard the crack of a rifle. He looked down to find that the heel of his boot had been removed. Knowing his brother, he didn’t need two guesses to work out that the shot had been as intentional as it was accurate.

“Hold it right there.” Lew’s sharp command came from behind. “Don’t move a muscle.”

Dave stopped, rooted to the spot, his hands holding the rifle in front of him across the rock. An instant later he heard Lew’s weapon snap again. This time it was Dave’s left boot heel, shorn away as neatly as its mate. It was exhibition shooting.

“You can turn around now,” Lew called. Dave swung to see his brother advancing on him. “Thought that trick with the glasses might fool you,” Lew shouted. “Now, you can leave the rifle, shuck the gun belt and move a little to your right, away from the rocks.”

Dave discarded his armament and hobbled on his mangled boots out into open space. Lew closed in quickly. “I reckoned you’d come, Dave,” he said, “but I figured you’d do better. Now you can just teeter over to the cave yonder and rest up. You’re not going anywhere for a while.”

Lew was right. For over two weeks he kept his brother prisoner. Dave was well fed and allowed a brief exercise period each day. Between times, he was guarded carefully and, during Lew’s frequent absences, tied securely. Not that the precaution was really necessary, for Lew had removed Dave’s horse and each time he disappeared, he also took away his brother’s socks and the mutilated boots. Without weapons, horse or footwear, Dave would not have survived, even if he had escaped.

Usually, Lew went off twice a day but on two occasions, he was away from morning until late evening. He had always been notorious for his sudden mood changes. During his brother’s captivity, he had been mostly grim and uncommunicative, but twice he had flown into towering rages. Once Dave asked for his razor and some hot water, so that he could shave his fast growing beard. Lew refused, saying that he had no intention of letting Dave get hold of anything sharp before they parted company. Dave stroked his unfamiliar whiskers in resignation, deciding not to ask for any further favours.

One night Lew returned after being away since early morning. For once, he was in high spirits. “We’re moving on tomorrow,” he said busying himself over the fire with a skillet full of thick slices of bacon.

“Moving on?” said Dave. “I swear Lew, I don’t know what the hell you’re up to, but if you aim to shoot me, why don’t you do it now?”

Lew laughed long and loud. “Shoot you?” he said at last. “No. I have plans for you all right, but they don’t include any shooting.”

Overcoming his fear of his brother’s strange ways, Dave probed, but Lew was not to be drawn. He would only repeat that he had something in mind. Finally, he lost patience with the questions, turned savagely on Dave and told him to wait and see.

The following morning they made an early start. Lew turned up with Dave’s boots, which had been repaired somewhere, and his horse. They rode slowly, bearing eastwards, keeping to the cover of the trees wherever possible. That night they camped eight miles west of Saltwater. Lew had lapsed into another of his silent moods and Dave had given up trying to work out what his brother intended.

The captured bounty hunter spent a restless night and was relieved to be fully awake by dawn. Lew was already up and about, whistling tunelessly and splashing in the nearby stream. Then he appeared, in jovial mood, his hair cut short, beard, moustache and sideburns gone.

Suppressing his curiosity, Dave said nothing as they ate breakfast in silence. Lew cleaned up, packed everything but the two tin cups they’d been using, then came back to the dying fire, carrying a bottle of whiskey. “Now, brother,” he said. “I guess we’ll not be meeting again after today, so we’re going to have a farewell drink.” He filled the cups, handed one to Dave and raised the other in salute. “Get it down, Dave,” he beamed. “I guess I outwitted you and I kept you quiet till the hue and cry was over. After this, we’ll go our separate ways to the bad place.”

Dave shook his head in weary acceptance of his brother’s odd conduct. “Well,” he said at length, “you sure got he better of me and I’ll drink to that, but I swear I don’t know what your game is.”

“Game,” said Lew, laughing. “Why should I be playing games? I just beat the best manhunter in the business and I’m free. I guess that calls for a celebration. Here, we’ll finish the bottle.”

Dave stared glumly at his brother. “It’s a real shame about you, Lew,” he said. “A man with your talents. Still, it’s your life, so you’ll do what you want with it.”

“That’s right,” Lew answered, “and I don’t see where you’re in any position to talk down to me. Your own way’s none too praiseworthy.”

Dave was about to answer when Lew leaned forward, eyes suddenly blazing in one of those alarmingly abrupt changes of mood. “Cut the lecture,” he snarled. “I’m in control here and I say for once we’re going to get liquored up together. It’s little enough for a man to ask of his own brother.” He went back to his horse, untied a small sack from the bedroll and returned, producing two more bottles of the cheap, fiery whiskey. “I aim to see us well and truly drunk,” he said. “Let’s get to it.”

Shortly after midday, Sheriff Doug Greenaway was roused from a doze by the sound of horses halting outside his office. He appeared on the sidewalk, to be greeted by the not unfamiliar sight of two mounts, one bearing a grim-looking rider, the other with a man tied sideways across the saddle. “You just had to kill again, did you?” he said, looking into the pale blue eyes of the dismounting rider.

“Not this time. He’s just drunk. I’ll help you in with him, then if you’ve seen to the reward, I’ll be on my way.”

“I already have the money,” the sheriff replied. “I figured you’d be along today.” The two men hauled the bound, senseless captive from the second horse and carried the bundle into one of Greenaway’s cells. Then, with scarcely another word spoken, the sheriff, having identified the prisoner, handed his other visitor a sheaf of bills. “Here you are. Now go, quick,” he grated. In return he got one chilling look from those eyes, then he was alone.

Two hours later, Dave Bartlett came to his senses. It took a few minutes for him to grasp that he was in Greenaway’s charge, then his protests began. They were long and loud, but fell on deaf ears. The sheriff was busy counting. He reached one thousand dollars – his share of the bounty for the capture of Lew Wharton, killer and thief. Behind his facade of probity, Greenaway had proved himself easily corruptible. Only two men – the one who’d brought in the prisoner and the Saltwater sheriff himself – knew that the lawman had unofficially accepted half the reward. Neither of them would ever tell.

The members of a hastily convened jury had difficulty in suppressing their mirth at Dave Bartlett’s patently risible claim of mistaken identity. Nobody but Dave had the slightest doubt as to who was on trial. It might have helped if old man Bartlett had still been around, but as he was long gone and as neither Dave nor Lew had kin or friends, nobody came forward to clarify the position. After all, who could be expected to care about the fate of either an outlaw or a manhunter?

A month later and five hundred miles further south, Lew Bartlett, alias Lew Wharton, had changed his name for the last time. He was now Dave Bartlett, bounty hunter. He sat in an easy chair in the lobby of the best hotel in town, smoking a large cigar and sipping French brandy. Before him on the table was a copy of the Saltwater Valley Sentinel, specially delivered to him. Always an avid news gatherer, he’d read the paper from beginning to end – and had been particularly interested in the lurid account of his own hanging.

* * *

October 6th, 2012, 06:12 PM

“I see the population has passed the fifty million mark,” said Cyrus Bradstreet, folding his newspaper and dropping it back onto the table, his pudgy right hand patting it for emphasis. It was a typical opening gambit. Any moment now his companion, Henry Underwood, ostensibly immersed in a catalogue of items relevant to his trade, would deliver his acerbic response.

The little scene, or a variation of it, had been played out every weekday afternoon for over three years, always at the same time and place. Both men knew what was expected of them and both delivered. The series of mock arguments was a harmless social ritual which neither man took seriously, though it could have fooled any uninitiated listener.

Cyrus Bradstreet, just turned fifty years of age, owned the town hardware and clothing emporium. He was an eye-catching figure. A little under five feet eight inches tall, he weighed a good two hundred and twenty pounds. He quipped that he could still, with some difficulty, locate his feet by touch, though he had not had a fully clear view of them since his adolescence.

Henry Underwood ran the grocery store. Two years younger than Bradstreet, he was totally different in appearance. A shade over six feet in height, he was fence-post thin and had a slight stoop. Some wag had once observed that when he saw the two men standing together, with Cyrus viewed on the right, they made a reasonable approximation of the number ten. Henry Underwood’s long thin lugubrious face with its prominent nasal beak was quite unlike the florid balloon facial contours of Cyrus Bradstreet, while his hair, sparse, greying and straggly, contrasted sharply with Cyrus’s thick tidy mid-brown thatch. One of the very few features the two had in common was that neither sported a beard, a moustache or sideburns.

The two men were as different in temperament as in physique. Cyrus, a family man, was affable, garrulous and given to making sententious pronouncements, just for the fun of it, to see whether he could elicit any reaction. Henry was a bachelor, socially awkward and with a somewhat misanthropic nature, matched by his sharp manner of speaking, which made him sound querulous even on the occasions when he didn’t mean to be.

Nevertheless, the two men were genuinely on friendly terms. It was their supposed difference in outlook, at times more apparent than real, which caused the spark between them. Though neither would admit the fact publicly, both found their altercations thoroughly enjoyable.

Being retail businessmen, both Cyrus and Henry had occasion to deal daily with the bank and met there at three each afternoon, Monday to Friday, with clockwork regularity. It was equally predictable that they would have their half-hour of badinage, then return to their respective stores. They rarely conversed or even met in any other way, save to exchange the odd word if they happened to encounter one another on a sidewalk, or if either needed the other’s wares.

The Town and County Bank in the small Wyoming community was a pleasant enough venue for a little verbal swordplay. It was one of only two brick buildings in town, the other being the combined sheriff’s office and jailhouse. The rest, even the church, were of wood.

Considering its sober function, the bank was a surprisingly intimate little place, its informality marred only by the chief teller’s stuffy attitude, of which nobody took much notice. At the rear was a small office, where the manager saw customers on confidential business. This room also contained the safe, which held a multitude of deeds and other papers but, apart from on the last Friday of each month – the local wage day – rarely a large amount of cash. Forward of the office was the general administrative and tellers’ area. This ran the full twenty-foot width of the building and was fronted by a mahogany counter, topped by a supposedly protective wrought-iron grille and fitted with three serving positions, two of which opened only on Fridays all day and Saturdays until noon.

At the front was the customers’ space, also taking up the whole width of the building and about fifteen feet deep, with a window on each side of the central outer door. The floor, walls and ceiling were finished in waxed pine. Covering about half the floor space was a plain dark-red carpet. The only furniture in that area was a circular oak table ringed by four plain wooden armchairs, near the window to the right of incomers. On the left-hand wall was a display of leaflets explaining the bank’s services and a notice board giving details of forthcoming events in the town.

The table-top was usually strewn with magazines, newspapers and brochures. It was here, always occupying the same two chairs, that Cyrus and Henry conducted their discussions. They had chosen the time of day well, for there were seldom any other customers present in mid-afternoon.

This being a Wednesday, the quietest part of the week, no regulars other than Cyrus and Henry had been in since the bank had re-opened after the noon break. Apart from the teller, the only other person was present was a stocky young fellow of middling height, round-faced and clean-shaven, smartly dressed in light grey pants, hat of the same shade, spotless white shirt, narrow black tie, immaculate dark-blue jacket and clean black boots. He had been enquiring about opening an account and was now leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, reading details of the bank’s offers.

Cyrus, a fashionable dresser, was resplendent in a new suit, imported from England –a striking affair in thick light-brown tweed, crosshatched with thin lines of dark brown, making squares of the lighter shade. His impressive acreage of girth was encased in a predominantly brown and yellow brocade vest, the outfit completed by a white shirt, broad cravat of gold silk and gleaming tan shoes. On the table rested a light-brown, narrow-brimmed felt hat and a silver-topped ebony cane. Insofar as a man of his shape could be a picture of sartorial elegance, Cyrus managed it.

Henry, never one to care much about his appearance, was wearing the same black suit and black string tie he had worn every day for more years than he or anyone else could remember. The suit was a wondrous thing, the cloth worn to a magnificent sheen in various parts. It was Cyrus’s openly stated belief that if Henry had bent down and stood still for long enough, a man could have used the seat of his pants as a shaving mirror. Somewhere under the layers of mud and salt stains, Henry’s cracked, battered shoes were black, as was the wide-brimmed, dust-coated hat, resting on one of the vacant chairs.

The teller was busy trying to look busy. An elderly man, short and thin of stature and bald-headed, he would have liked nothing better than to send Cyrus and Henry on their respective ways. However, he knew that had he even hinted at that, his boss might have got wind of it, and would have reprimanded him and gone off to apologise to two of the bank’s most valued customers.

Following his remark about the population, Cyrus sat back with a contented sigh and began to count silently. It usually took a few seconds before any response came. This was a difficult one and the count reached fifteen before there was a reaction. Then, slowly, the catalogue descended, revealing first Henry’s close-set, hostile eyes then, gradually, the long, drooping nose and finally his scrawny, vulturine neck, pillaring up from his grey-white shirt, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork on a high sea. “What population?” he said testily.

Cyrus beamed. “Why, the population of the United States of course. What else?”

“How do you know that?” This time the reply was quicker, the tone a touch more cantankerous.

“It’s right here, in the newspaper.”

“And how do the people who publish it know?”

“Well, they get the details from the Government, naturally.”

“And how does the Government know?”

“Really, Henry,” said Cyrus, stretching his legs in an effort to catch sight of the sunlight winking off his shoes. “They count people, of course.”

“They never counted me,” retorted the crotchety grocer.

“Oh, they’ll have included you all right,” Cyrus answered. “You’d be amazed how much they know. Probably almost everything about you. Most likely know what you had for supper last night.” Having delivered this contentious shaft, he interlaced his fingers across the great bulge of his midriff and looked upwards, innocently contemplating the ceiling.

“Damned nonsense,” snapped Henry, his asperity level rising sharply. “It’s a pity they’ve nothing better to do.”

“Dear me, Henry,” said Cyrus with exaggerated mildness, “I don’t know why you should be so touchy about it. Obviously they need to know things if they’re going to plan a brighter future for us.”

“I’m satisfied with my future as it is,” Henry responded irritably.

“Well now, that’s a queer statement,” Cyrus replied. “For one thing, you don’t know what your future is and for another, I really can’t see why you should object to having a better one.” He was now in his element, gleefully stoking Henry’s bile.

“You look to your own future, Cyrus Bradstreet,” Henry muttered darkly. “Never mind letting someone else handle it. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a country where a man is supposed to take care of himself.”

Cyrus chuckled, delighted with the reaction he was getting today. “Come now, Henry,” he said, assuming the role of patient teacher to petulant child, “it’s a matter of concern to all of us. You’d realise that if you’d get out once in a while, instead of burying yourself under all those boxes and cans and bottles and whatnot.”

“My world is big enough for me, so you can go and milk a toad,” was the swift rejoinder. Clearly, Henry was having fun too.

“Oh, have it your own way then,” said Cyrus. He produced a brown paper bag, extracted a single shelled peanut and placed the rest on the table. “Help yourself.” He was well aware of Henry’s aversion to all nuts.

“Don’t like ’em, as you well know.”

“No, that’s your trouble, my friend. You don’t like enough things. If everyone were as opposed to enjoying life as you are, we’d be in a terrible state. And getting back to what you just said, if my guess is right, your world may not be big enough for much longer.”

“Oh, why not, may I ask?”

“Because I think that the way things are going, there soon won’t be enough room for all of us. We’ll have about a square yard each to live in. Might even have to sleep standing up. Then you’ll wish you’d thought about the future you seem to be so nonchalant about.”

“Excuse me, but I don’t believe it will work out that way.” The interjection came from the young stranger, stifling whatever caustic retort Henry had in mind.

Cyrus turned to the smart-looking fellow. “Well,” he said amiably, “we’re always pleased to hear different points of view here. Maybe you’d like to join us and tell us what you think?”

“Thank you,” said the young man. “I will.” He was smiling broadly, his lively grey eyes alight with anticipation of the debate. He walked over to the table, hooked out a chair with his right foot and sat. “Well, gentlemen,” he said briskly, “I don’t like to put in my opinions where they may not be wanted, but I couldn’t avoid overhearing what you just said, and since you asked me to take part in the discussion, I must say that this population question is one I’ve thought about quite a bit. I often have a fair amount of time on my hands and I get to pondering on a lot of things.”

“Young fellow like you should be working more and thinking less,” sniffed Henry, presuming inexcusably upon his age.

The young man did not take offence. “Oh, I do work,” he said pleasantly. “Only I keep kind of irregular hours. When I’m in action, it’s pretty intensive for a short while, then in between times, I get quiet spells. That gives a man the opportunity to put his mind to a number of matters.”

Cyrus was intrigued. “And what do you think about this particular one?”

“Well,” the young man answered, “I favour the Eastern view.”

“I don’t know why people in New York and Boston and such places should have any special ideas on such things,” Henry snorted.

Cyrus sighed. “I don’t think that’s what our friend here means, Henry,” he said. “Or do you, sir?”

The young man laughed. “No. What I mean is that I agree with the peoples of the East. You know, the Buddhists and Hindus and such folk. I go along with them about reincarnation.”

“That’s very interesting,” said Cyrus, “but I just wonder how it connects with what we were saying about the population of the United States.”

“Well, I reckon it’s like this.” The young man folded his arms and sprawled back in his chair. “It seems to me that we’ve all been here before, many times. I think it’s like Shakespeare said, about each of us playing many parts in a lifetime, but I believe there’s more to it than that. I reckon we come here and do the whole thing again and again. Maybe sometimes we’re male and sometimes female and sometimes good, sometimes bad, but overall, I reckon we come to take fresh lessons each time. If we learn them, we go off to the other side and rest up a while, to get ready for another go. ’Course, if we don’t learn, then we have to come back and repeat the process until we get the idea. Like pupils staying in the same class at school until they’re educated enough to move on.”

Henry re-emerged briefly from behind his reading material, where he had taken refuge from this elevated discourse. “Why don’t we know about it then?” he said, his words more a challenge than a query.

“Oh, I don’t think that would do at all,” the young man replied. “See, if we knew about the bad things we’d done in past incarnations, we’d never be able to live with them on this side of the veil. We’d all be standing in line to jump from high windows and other such places.”

Cyrus’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Well, it won’t worry Henry too much this time around,” he said. “He must have been very good in the past, because he’s not so nice now. But do go on.” He put up a placatory hand, to silence Henry’s budding counterblast.

The young man continued: “The way I see it, there’s a lot of disembodied souls floating around somewhere, and at any one time some of them will be waiting to get back into bodies, so they can have another go at earthly life.”

“And mess it up again,” grunted Henry, who had by now abandoned his pretence of intermittently studying goods and prices.

“Well, maybe,” said the young man. “That won’t matter too much. Like I say, if they make a muddle of it, they’ll just come again and in the end they’ll get it right.”

Henry, in particularly combative mood today, raised his head ceilingwards and gave a world-weary groan. “And I suppose you’re one of those who got it right, are you?” he asked. “One of the good people who’ve come back to show us how it’s done?”

The young man grinned, shaking his head. “I think you give me too much credit there, sir,” he said. “Of course, I’m always working on self-improvement and I believe I’m better than I used to be, but I don’t think you could call me a good man. Not yet, anyway. Maybe I’ll make it in my next lifetime.”

Cyrus, always a keen collector of ideas, was anxious to get back to the main theme. “Mighty interesting sir,” he said. “And do you believe that there is some power out there which forces people to come back again and again?”

“To tell the truth, I’m not sure what to think about that. Most of the time, my feeling is that there’s no such influence. I think it’s more a case of a drive we have within ourselves. I guess the best explanation may be to liken it to the phases of life here on the Earth. You know, when people reach given points, they get particular urges. They just feel they have to do certain things and they do them whether it’s logical or not.”

“Like all these damn fools going around and getting married and so on,” said Henry, eagerly grasping one of his favourite themes.

“Yes,” said the young man, “I guess that would be one example. I reckon there’s a sort of equivalent reaction on the other side. The way I see it, when a soul has rested up for a while, it will get this compulsion to come back here for another try, no matter whether it’s really rational or not. Just like scratching an itch in this mortal existence. I don’t think there will be any pressure put on anybody to come again if they don’t want to. We’re like a kind of army of volunteers, I suppose.”

Cyrus, delighted as ever to hear a new slant on life, selected another peanut, offered the bag to the young man, who took one, then – provocatively – to Henry, who waved it away with an impatient hand-flick. Having chewed enough to speak clearly, Cyrus fingered his chins. “I must say that your assessment is fascinating,” he said, “but I’m still not sure how it bears on this population matter.”

“Well,” said the young man, “if I’m right, I reckon it will work out like this: we’ll all keep on returning until everyone gets things right, which I think we’ll all do at about the same time. Then all the souls will have bodies and all the bodies will have souls. Possibly there’ll be a few advanced types, who’ll stay on the other side as caretakers. We’ll all get the chance to make a few last adjustments to the little things we still have to get properly balanced. I don’t know what will happen when we get squared off like that, but I don’t see how there could be any more population increase afterwards. I mean, there won’t be any souls looking for bodies then, and if there can’t be a body without a soul, there’ll be no need for more bodies.”

“Ah, now I see what you’re getting at,” said Cyrus. “And when do you suppose this will happen?”

The young man removed his hat and scratched his head. “I’ve been studying population growth in various parts of the world,” he said. “For some places there are no details and for others the information isn’t too reliable, but I think I’ve pieced together enough to get a passable grip on the matter. The population didn’t change much for century after century. It just plodded along on what the experts call a simple replacement basis. Lots of people were born, but many of them were wiped out by diseases, wars and so on. Then, in the last two or three hundred years, the total’s grown like wildfire, and it’s increasing faster all the time. My belief is that, the way things are going, the numbers will take up all the available souls that have ever been around, and that’s when it will come to a stop.”

“An amazing theory, sir,” said Cyrus, deeply impressed. “You recall that I asked when you think this will occur?”

“Well, of course, it’s not an exact science, but my guess is that it will be in something over a hundred years and something less than a hundred and fifty – say about the end of this millennium.”

“And then we’ll all stand or fall together?”

“Oh, I think we’ll stand all right. We have to if we are to go on to better things.”

“That’s all very well,” said Henry, in whom the opposing forces of curiosity and cynicism were battling, “but what about this good and bad thing? How are the bad people going to get their deserts?”

“I’m not entirely clear about that,” said the young man, “but I think you have to go back to Shakespeare’s comments. If we’re only acting parts, it doesn’t matter. Every time somebody does something bad, it gives somebody else the chance to do something good. Sort of action and reaction. But I believe all that will fizzle out in the end, because I reckon that good is going to get the upper hand. Eventually we’ll all be good. I think it’s like a tank and we’re filling it, slowly. Every time somebody does, says, or even thinks something good, the level in that tank increases and every bad act, word or thought brings the level down. Only there’s getting to be more good than bad and in the end we’ll fill the tank. Then there won’t be any more fighting, murders, thefts or anything like that.”

“Well, well,” said Cyrus, “that’s a wonderful picture you paint and you may be right. I really don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a conversation so much. It’s been most entertaining talking with you. If we meet again, you must tell us if you have any more theories like this one.”

“Oh, I’ve all sorts of notions,” said the young fellow, grinning. “For one thing, I think the world is being taken over by left-handed men.”

“My goodness,” said Cyrus. “That should make for a worthwhile discussion. However, interesting though this has been, time is passing and my business won’t run itself, although I suppose that mausoleum of Henry’s could get by well enough without him.”

Henry glowered, but couldn’t find a fitting riposte.

The young man looked up at the wall clock. “You’re quite right,” he said, standing and making for the door. “Time’s passing. It’s been such a pleasure having this little talk, I almost forgot my business.” Instead of leaving, he turned. His left hand went under his coat to the back of his waistband and came out with a six-gun. “Now gentlemen,” he said, still smiling, “it’s time I did a little of that work I spoke about earlier. I wish to make a withdrawal.” He pulled a folded burlap bag from an inside pocket and tossed it to the teller. “I’ll trouble you to fill that,” he said. “Just the bills and the high-value coins – the small change is such a nuisance, don’t you think? Take out the drawer and put it on the counter, so I can see you’re not cheating.”

Encouraged by a waggle of the gun, the teller fell to his task with a speed far beyond that he achieved when dealing with customers. The robber approved. “Good work,” he said. “We won’t bother with the safe. Delays a man’s departure and it’s usually a waste of time in a place this size, except at month-end, and I can’t wait for that. Please don’t fidget – I get very nervous at times like this.” In fact, he didn’t seem in the least edgy.

As the teller was stuffing the last of the money into the sack, the young man turned his attention to Cyrus and Henry, both sitting aghast. He tossed his hat upside down onto the table. “And you, gentlemen. If you’ll just oblige me with any little items you have in the way of cash, rings, watches and so on. And it would be best all round if you hurry because if I’m not out of here in under thirty seconds, I guess I’ll just have to start reducing the population of the United States.”

* * *

October 13th, 2012, 06:22 PM

It seemed that fate had turned against Adam Hawkswell. Having just sideswiped him once, it was about to do so again, in a way that would cause him to wonder why he had been selected for such treatment. Having survived the first blow, he was heading westwards in a stagecoach, with no inkling of the second misfortune to cloud his horizon.

Adam was an artist. More accurately, he was a man with artistic talent, for he had never come close to making a living from his painting and sketching. He excelled at portraits, which he produced equally well with brush or pencil. His predilection was good for the soul, but not the pocket. The work he did for friends and relations was largely taken for granted and what he did for others was poorly rewarded.

Born into a comfortably placed Boston family, Adam had been regarded by most of his contemporaries as a harmless, virtually useless nonentity, who would never amount to anything. Dabbling with oils, crayons and the like was all very well, but not the sort of thing a man did if he was to make any kind of mark. Adam was considered as particularly unsuitable for business, which was remarkable, in view of what was about to happen in his life.

Notwithstanding any shortcomings, a man had to make a living somehow, and having revealed no gifts beyond his artistic endeavours, Adam earned his daily bread for some time by working in a shoe store – the Hawkswell family did not carry passengers. His parents were disappointed and not loath to drop hints indicating as much. It was an uncomfortable situation, not conducive to domestic harmony.

Adam’s place of employment was a high-class establishment, but for him, attending to the pedal oddities of discriminating patrons was soul-destroying. Moreover, it was physically unpleasant, being demanding on the back and knees. To cap it all, the store was owned by a man of very strict views on discipline in the workplace. Taking things all round, Adam’s position was not an enviable one. By the time he reached the age of twenty-two, many people in his circles were wondering whether he would ever show a little spirit. They were soon to find out.

This was a time when many young men were heeding the call to go west and, having read a glowing magazine article about the opportunities in the wide open spaces, Adam decided to join the throng. Like many an artist, he was not the most practical of men. In fact his outlook was decidedly romantic. When he opted for the great adventure, it didn’t occur to him that he lacked most of the qualities desirable for success. He had no knowledge of hunting or fishing and was equally ignorant of the skills needed to make even simple furniture, let alone build a house. He knew nothing about horses, cattle, sheep, farming, cooking or fending for himself generally. However, like a character he had read about in a book by Charles Dickens, he was convinced that something would turn up.

Matters were brought to a head in the shoe store one day, when Adam was unwise enough to antagonise a particularly valued and thoroughly exasperating customer. The gentleman’s fine, flowing white moustache twitched ever faster as his apoplexy increased until the boss became involved. After placating the bebunioned patron, Adam’s employer gave his troublesome minion a severe lecture, emphasising the embarrassed young fellow’s weaknesses in general and his daydreaming in particular, expressing the hope that the words would be helpful to Adam in his future work, which he would be well advised to arrange at once, as he was to be unemployed with immediate effect.

The storeowner undoubtedly had a point, for Adam was indeed an apparently incorrigible wool-gatherer. Earthbound was not the first word that came to the mind of anyone thinking about him. Still, he did not lack vision and was about to demonstrate that he also had his share of will. Faced with this new turn in his affairs, he reacted promptly. Within a week, he put together such possessions as he expected to need, bade farewell to parents and sister and began his passage west.

The move was decided in a classically unscientific manner. Adam closed his eyes and stuck a pin in the most detailed map he could find. His instrument landed in the Territory of Montana, in the area between the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. The only place of any consequence near the pinprick was Butler’s Mill. Adam had a vague recollection of having read somewhere that this was mining and cattle country. It seemed to the Hawkswell scion that this would be as good or bad a spot as anywhere to make a start. However, there were two important things he did not fully grasp. First, the region in general offered even less scope for his limited experience than almost anywhere else in the West. Second, the particular area he had chosen was infested with outlaws. Adam’s reasoning was that Butler’s Mill was a town. It would have paved roads, street lighting and other amenities associated with civilised living, would it not?

Having established that the place was accessible by stagecoach – a journey of seventy miles northwest from the nearest railroad station – Adam went about his adventure in a leisurely manner, breaking his journey twice. He set out with all the articles he valued. He was wearing his best outfit – sober dark-brown suit, plain yellow vest, new black shoes, bought cut-price from his erstwhile employer, white shirt, black tie and flat-crowned tan hat. He looked quite a dandy and was struck by how much more so he seemed as he progressed westwards.

Adam’s other possessions were carried in a black leather valise that held his artist’s materials, and a large carpet bag containing the rest of his clothes, his toilet articles and a few prized books. About his person, he had a wallet, in which he kept such cash as he expected to need en route, plus a money belt, worn next to the skin and holding his savings of three hundred and forty dollars. The only other item of any note was a second wallet, of exceptional quality, kept in a pocket on the inside of his vest. This folder opened out into a small flat chess set, for Adam was an avid and accomplished player of the game.

The dapper young Bostonian had just completed the railroad part of his journey, when providence dealt him the first blow. He alighted from the train late one evening, left the station and began plodding along the dark main street of a dingy little town. His intention was to find a room, where he would spend two nights before leaving for his destination. He had covered no more than fifty yards and was scanning the drab, mostly unpainted wooden buildings when two men emerged from an alley and leapt upon him. He received a sharp crack on the head from the butt of a revolver and fell unconscious to the ground.

A minute or two later, Adam became aware that he was being shaken back to his senses. He opened his eyes, wincing at the pain in his head, and found himself looking up at a gaunt, elderly scarecrow of a fellow. “Couldn’t do much to help you,” said the man. “I noticed what happened, but when them two gents saw me, they ran off down the alley there. Don’t know who they are, but I guess they took your baggage.”

Adam pushed himself up to a sitting position, gently fingering the swelling behind his right ear. “Thank you, sir,” he said, looking around him ruefully. “Is this the usual way a stranger is received here?”

“It varies,” said the emaciated rescuer. “You seem to have made a worse than average start, but this is a tough town, even for the local folk. If you’re passin’ through, you’d best pass quick.” On getting to his feet, Adam found himself still looking upward at the man who exceeded his own five foot seven by nearly a foot and was remarkably thin. For a moment, perhaps deranged from the head blow, he had the dizzy feeling that he had been saved by an animated telegraph pole.

Responding to Adam’s enquiry, the man recommended a rooming house at the end of the main street as being the least squalid accommodation available. He accompanied the unfortunate newcomer to the place before taking his leave, with the sobering suggestion that Adam might as well spare himself the trouble of trying to recover the stolen belongings. “No use callin’ on the law,” he said flatly. “We don’t have much of it here anyway, an’ what we do have is busy enough tryin’ to catch rustlers an’ killers.”

After an initial burst of inwardly expressed indignation, Adam allowed the phlegmatic side of his character to assert itself, deciding that he would regard the matter philosophically, accepting that he had moved west in search of adventure. He was certainly having that, and nobody said that it was always pleasurable. Taking stock of his position, he noted that both items of luggage were gone, as was the cheap wallet with the travelling funds. Happily, the ruffians had been disturbed before getting further than rifling through his coat pockets.

The following morning, Adam breakfasted early, then set out to replace his lost possessions. The few illusions he had evaporated quickly as he scoured the small scruffy town. This wasn’t anything like Boston, where a man’s every material need could be met in short order. He was able to get a cheap carpet bag, but there was no clothing to match the quality of what he had lost, so he took what was available. He wasn’t able to replace his paints, so had to content himself with picking up a few pencils.

Twenty-four hours later, he was on his way northwest by stagecoach, his equanimity largely restored. He had managed to get a new wallet. His savings were hardly dented and he would have a supply of artist’s requisites sent on to him in due course, and had no doubt that he would find suitable clothes somewhere. All in all, he thought, things could have been worse. Indeed they could have – and soon they would be, for he was about to be buffeted by the second blow.

The stagecoach journey was nearly over, with only fifteen more miles to go to Butler’s Mill. People had boarded and alighted along the way, but for this last lap, there were only two other passengers, a young married couple returning home from a trip to the East.

As the stage left the rolling grassland to enter a rugged, rocky stretch of the trail, Adam heard a voice ahead shouting something to the driver, who halted. Being in a rear-facing seat, Adam turned, craning his neck to see what was happening. He was horrified to note that the stage was being held up by a lone horseman, most of whose face was covered by a red bandanna.

There was a brief exchange of words between the bandit and the driver, followed by a thud as the strongbox was thrown to the ground. The driver then clambered down and was ordered to stand with his back to the hold-up man, who dismounted, shot away the lock of his imagined treasury and kicked open the lid. He rummaged in the contents for a moment, then grunted in disgust.

“I told you there wasn’t nothin’ much in there this time,” said the driver. “Just a few papers you can’t use.”

“Shut up,” snapped the bandit, “and keep your hands where I can see them. Now, you folks inside, just step down, slow and careful.”

The three passengers climbed out to find the road agent waving his six-gun at them. “All right, you three,” he said gruffly. “Just hand over anything you have in the way of money and valuables and there’ll be no trouble. If you don’t, I guess you know what will happen.”

The couple seemed unsurprised at these proceedings. The man took out his wallet and made a show of extracting all the money it contained, which he handed over to the robber, now only a couple of paces from his victims. Then the woman stepped forwards and emptied her purse into the bandit’s left hand. That done, the young fellow said that, being accustomed to travelling in this area, he and his wife made a point of not carrying anything of value. That seemed to be good enough for the hold-up man.

Adam was incensed. “Look here, sir,” he shouted. “What kind of place is this? You’re the second party to attack me since I arrived in these parts.”

“Well, well,” said the bandit. “A man from the East, if I’m not mistaken. What brings you out here, mister?”

“Not that it’s any concern of yours,” replied Adam hotly, “but I’m an artist and here to follow my profession.”

“Now that’s real nice. And what sort of artist might you be?”

“Any sort, given the opportunity. Mostly, I paint portraits.”

The bandit nodded. “Very interesting. Now it’s been my experience that men like you coming out here usually carry their money neat and tidy, in a belt under their clothes, so I’ll just trouble you to let me have yours. And don’t make me come and get it, ’cause that could make me mad and I might just blow your head off.”

Realising the futility of further protest, Adam fumbled his money belt free and handed it over. Apparently satisfied that he had got all that was to be had, the bandit ordered the passengers back into the stage and the driver aloft, then waved a hand in dismissal. As the stage rumbled off, the thief swatted at an insect that was bothering him. In doing so, he inadvertently swiped the bandanna from his face. Having thus revealed himself, he looked at the departing stagecoach, to find that Adam was staring at him. Reacting quickly, he bellowed at the driver to stop again, nudging his horse along to the stagecoach door. “You,” he shouted at Adam. “Get down here.”

Adam climbed out once more, looking up angrily at the bandit. “Now what do you want?” he asked.

“You’ve seen me now,” the man replied, “and you just told me you’re a portrait painter. You’ll have my picture all over Montana Territory within a week if I let you go, so you’re coming with me.”

Adam began to object again, but it was useless. The only concession he could wring from the thief was permission to get his bag from the rear of the coach. It wasn’t much, but at least it saved him from the trouble of losing most of his apparel twice in less than three days. Sending the driver on his way again, the desperado set Adam off walking ahead of him across the bleak terrain.

During the three-hour trek, Adam made several efforts to start a conversation with his abductor, but was able to establish only that the man’s name was Frank Purdy, and even that information came with the sinister addendum that the knowledge would do his captive no good. At last, with Adam close to exhaustion, they reached a dilapidated wooden structure, almost surrounded by a horseshoe of high rock. This was Purdy’s base, a former line shack, furnished with a pair of bunk beds, a table, two chairs, two shelves and a small stove.

Telling Adam to sit on one of the chairs and keep quiet, Purdy took from the shelves bacon, beans, coffee and a can of peaches and busied himself making a meal for both men. After they’d finished the food and coffee, he produced a bottle of whiskey and poured king-sized measures into the two tin mugs, one of which he pushed across to Adam. Not normally a drinker, the young Easterner took a swig, spluttered, then spoke for the first time in close to an hour. “What are you going to do with me?”

“I don’t know yet,” Purdy answered. “You’re a problem.”

“Do you intend to kill me?”

The bandit seemed genuinely shocked. “I’m not a murderer,” he said sharply. “I never killed a man in my life – yet.”

“Well, what else can you do?”

“I’m thinking it over,” Purdy replied, “and if you don’t stop gabbing, I might plug you, just to keep you quiet.”

“Sorry,” said Adam. “If you don’t mind, I’ll amuse myself while you’re pondering.” He reached into his vest, extracting and opening his pocket chessboard.

“What are you doing there?” Purdy asked.

“Just trying out a few chess moves.”

“Chess?” A remarkable change came over the road agent, his grim face lightening several shades. “You play chess? Why didn’t you say so before?”

“Well, that’s an odd remark,” Adam replied. “You’ve spent most of the last four hours telling me to be quiet.”

“Never mind that. Are you a good player?”

“Reasonably,” said Adam. “At least, when I came up against Paul Morphy, he was kind enough to say I had promise.”

“What? You played Morphy himself?” Purdy almost shouted in his excitement. “When?”

“Oh, a few years ago. I was a youngster then. It was one of those simultaneous displays these great players give. Paul said I’d done pretty well to last out for thirty-nine moves against him.” This was merely Adam’s daydreaming taking over. He had never played against the great Morphy. Had he done so, he would have received the same kind of trouncing that the Louisiana wizard administered to almost all of his opponents. But Adam had fantasised about the fictitious encounter until he almost believed it himself.

Purdy’s brown eyes were burning, his position as Adam’s custodian temporarily forgotten, for the bandit was a chess fanatic and seldom got an opportunity to indulge himself. “Well, that’s really something,” he said, clearly fascinated. “I’m a fair hand at chess myself. Comes of having a lot of time on my hands. I reckon we’ll have a game or two while I decide what to do with you. ’Course, I usually play for money.” The man’s love of gambling was another powerful drug.

“Oh, so do I,” said Adam, lying with an impromptu facility which later amazed him, for he had never risked a penny betting on anything in his life.

Purdy’s face took on a crafty look. “Just a minute,” he said, rasping a thumb and forefinger over his black chin stubble. “I already took all your money, so if I win, you can’t pay up.” This problem caused a good deal of dickering, but it was finally agreed that if he won, Purdy would accept Adam’s marker then, should he decide against all expectations to release his prisoner, Adam would give his word to discharge his debt when he was able to.

Adam was satisfied on this point, but expressed doubt as to what would happen if he won. After all, he was in Purdy’s power. The desperado was surprised at Adam’s attitude. “Why, that’s no way to talk,” he said, obviously surprised. “What do you think I am – some sort of crook?”

“Well, you are, aren’t you?” Adam answered, equally taken aback.

“Gambling’s different,” said Purdy. “Everybody knows a man pays off that kind of debt – it’s a matter of honour. What sort of world would it be if we didn’t keep our word in such things?”

That settled, Purdy fumbled under the lower bed, bringing out an old battered chessboard and a set of boxwood pieces. The two aficionados got to grips. It was soon clear that although Purdy was a fairish run-of-the-mill player, he was below Adam’s class. In less than twenty moves, he had been outmanoeuvred and by the twenty-fifth move, he had scarcely a viable option left. However, Adam had been thinking beyond the chessboard. Having satisfied himself as to his superiority, he first decided to prolong the game, playing in subtle cat and mouse fashion, merely to gain time. Then, as move followed move, he developed a more ambitious plan.

It wasn’t easy to extend the game without arousing Purdy’s suspicions, but Adam managed it, taking the encounter to forty-six moves before he administered the coup de grace. The stakes were fifty dollars a side, so Adam had made a start on winning back his savings.

There was no stopping Purdy, whose twin passions had never previously been fused in this way. No sooner had the tussle ended than he began to set up the pieces for another try, this time for hundred-dollar stakes. Before the second game started, the two men had a brief inquest on the first. Adam managed to persuade his opponent that the battle had been much closer than it really was and that Purdy had twice come within an ace of winning. The bandit believed that because he wanted to believe it.

As it turned out, that first clash was the beginning of a marathon. Pausing only for coffee and the lighting of lamps, the two players continued game after game, on into the evening and all through the night, finishing just before noon the following day, with both players near-prostrate with fatigue.

It was an extraordinary feat on Adam’s part. Merely beating Purdy would have been child’s play. The difficult part was to keep the charade going, feeding the outlaw’s addiction, giving him the impression that he was repeatedly coming close to winning, then seemingly finding a desperate resource which defeated him. Just once, when the farce seemed likely to falter, Adam allowed Purdy to win a game, giving him fresh hope.

The gambling side of it was equally complicated and delicate. Steadily, Adam won back all of his savings, then established that Purdy had no other money. Business had been slow lately, the outlaw explained. He did however, have a few gold and silver watches and three gold rings, which he put up as stakes – and promptly lost. After he was cleaned out, Purdy insisted on continuing, writing markers to cover his further reverses.

When he was finally satisfied that he could not protract the sham any further, Adam, red-eyed, made short work of the last game, smashing through feeble defences to win in under twenty moves. Taking stock, the two men found that the Bostonian had not only recouped his savings and taken his opponent’s valuables, but also held markers totalling exactly one thousand dollars.

Adam was still convinced that Purdy would not let him go, but the outlaw proved that his words concerning gambling debts were not empty ones. There could be no violation of the code. He would pay up, but he would need time. Moreover, he was prepared to release his captive, requiring only that Adam give his solemn word that he would say nothing about the whereabouts of the hideout. Being glad to escape with his life, Adam agreed, then, to his further astonishment, Purdy asked how much time he was to be allowed to clear his debt, repeating that his recent pickings had been slim.

Adam suggested that a year would suit him, but Purdy asked for more time. After a little haggling, they agreed on two years. The outlaw was confident that, if he worked harder and widened his operating radius, he could meet his commitments. Still not fully comprehending what was happening, Adam picked up his carpet bag, shook hands with Purdy and tramped off across the rough, undulating land, making for the spot, nine miles away, where he had been abducted. He reached it by late afternoon and within two hours, was picked up by a group of cowboys, heading for his destination in a buckboard. They accepted the cock-and-bull story he had devised to account for his predicament. He reached his goal by nightfall, collapsing into a bed in the first boarding house he found.

The streets of Butler’s Mill were not paved with gold. In fact they were paved, or rather covered, with just about everything else. Horse, ox and dog droppings abounded. Other substances, of less clear origin, lay in and around the wagon ruts which, being alternately baked and frozen, were more often than not only slightly softer than railroad metals. It did not seem like a promising place for a man to make a fresh start.

Adam Hawkswell noted the squalor, but was resolute. His brush with Frank Purdy had brought out the iron which had been lurking in his soul all along. And it marked a dramatic change in his fortunes. There would be hard work ahead, but Adam got right down to it. He rented a small house on the fringe of town, then visited the bank, depositing his cash and the valuables he had won from Purdy. On the strength of that collateral and his air of being man of substance, the bank was ready enough to advance money to him.

Adam was on his way. He soon revealed a financial acumen that would have astounded his parents. From the beginning, everything he did confirmed him as a man with the Midas touch. His first investment was the purchase of an ailing general store. He left day to day matters to the previous proprietor, who stayed on as manager, but it was the new owner’s injection of capital and innovations that rapidly made the business a resounding success.

Like so many men starting in a new place, Adam was unencumbered by distractions. He was largely impervious to the pleasures of the flesh, so he toiled almost incessantly, the lamps in his house always burning into the small hours. Within weeks, he had diversified his interests and in less than six months, he had stakes in eight different enterprises, including cattle, mining and lumber. A year after his arrival, he was making money as fast as he could count it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a price not quantified in the cash books. It was paid in the change that came over Adam’s personality. The pleasant, languid dreamer of Boston disappeared, to be replaced by a hard, incisive man of affairs. There was never anything outright improper in his conduct, but much of what he did was on the perimeter of legality. Because he always kept his word, he became known as an honourable man, but very sharp. Anyone dealing with Adam Hawkswell would be all right, so long as he counted his fingers after the concluding handshake.

The bank had cause to rejoice, for Adam soon outstripped all rivals to become its biggest customer. To provide himself with a constant reminder of his new beginning, he withdrew from safe deposit the few valuables he had originally handed in, keeping them in a tin box under his bed. By the time another year had passed, he was the wealthiest man for many a mile around Butler’s Mill.

Two years to the day after his strange meeting with Frank Purdy, Adam was sitting in his living room on a bright, sunny morning, when he heard a knock at the door. Calling for the visitor to enter, he looked up from a ledger he was checking. His jaw dropped as the door opened and the outlaw walked in. Alarmed, Adam began looking round for something he could use as a weapon. He didn’t need to, for Purdy was all smiles. “Morning,” he said. “How are you?”

“What … what do you want?” asked the startled Adam.

Purdy chuckled. “Me?” he said. “It’s not what I want. It’s what you want. I’ve come to pay up.”

“Pay up?”

“Yes. You can’t have forgotten. I owe you a thousand dollars. I told you I always pay gambling debts. Here it is, one thousand dollars.” He tossed a bag onto the table that stood between the two men. Earlier, Adam would have been profoundly glad at such a turn of events. Now however, he was so transformed by his experience in the crucible of finance that his mind raced along on quite different lines. “Thank you,” he said coldly. “Now what about the interest?”

“Interest?” said Purdy. “What do you mean?”

“It’s simple enough,” Adam replied. “In effect, I made you an advance of a thousand dollars for two years. Now, I’m not accustomed to lending money without payment of interest. My terms are the same as you’d get from the bank – ten per cent a year, compounded.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” asked the nonplussed outlaw, whose abrupt change of attitude should have been enough to stop Adam’s harangue.

“Ten per cent per annum, per annum, and pro rata per part-annum,” Adam went on remorselessly. “That means that for the first year you owe me a hundred dollars in interest, then for the second year, interest on the original principal plus the first year’s interest. Altogether, you owe me a further two hundred and ten dollars, and I’ll trouble you to pay it now. All the time we’re talking, the clock’s ticking, so you’ll owe me more by tomorrow.”

As Adam was speaking, Purdy’s mood was becoming uglier. By the time the last word fell, his eyes were blazing. “Damn you,” he snarled. “All this time, I thought I was dealing with an honest man. Now I see you’re nothing but a swindler. I’ll show you how I deal with your kind. I once told you I’d never killed a man. I haven’t done since then, but now I’ll make a start.” He whipped out a Colt .45 and put a bullet between Adam’s eyes.

Holstering his gun, Purdy stepped forwards, picking up the bag of money he had thrown down. He hefted it longingly for a moment, then dropped it in disgust. “I guess I owe it to him, dead or alive,” he sighed. Then he left.

* * *

October 20th, 2012, 06:13 PM

Duncombe, Texas, shortly after noon on a hot June day in 1881. A lone rider on a bay horse moved slowly along the single street that, with a few outlying buildings, made up the town. The man’s grey-green eyes roved around, scanning the place. It seemed to have possibilities. A livery barn, a forge, a stage-and-freight office, a tiny bank, a church, two stores in business and a third with windows and door boarded over – that could be interesting – a crumbling hotel, a saloon, a barbershop, an eatery and nothing else readily identifiable. There was no obvious presence of a law officer. All the structures, even the bank, were of timber, taken from the extensive woodland nearby.

Turning at the end of the street, the horseman rode back to the saloon. He dismounted, stepped up onto the sidewalk and shook dust from his clothing – smart suit and hat in matching light-grey, white open-necked shirt and black boots of tooled leather. He looked along the street again. Yes, this place looked promising. Not quite gone to seed, but fairly dilapidated. It might be suitable.

The single saloon door was fastened open. The man took off his hat and walked into the relative cool of the barroom. The owner, Walter Johnson, was sitting on a stool behind his twenty-foot length of battered pine, staring into space. He turned to greet his first customer of the day, noting him to be around five foot nine, of middling build, with short dark-brown hair and facial growth comprising only a small neat moustache. “Mornin’. What’ll it be?”

The stranger looked sheepish. “Well,” he said, “what I had in mind was a beer and a whiskey, but I guess I may have a problem with payment.”

Johnson had heard something of the sort before. “Sorry, no credit, specially not to drifters,” he said, with palpable disgust.

The newcomer’s embarrassment level rose a notch. “I . . . er . . . well, I don’t think it’s what you think,” he replied.

“What do you think I think?”

“I think you think I think –”

“Whoa. Stop right there,” said Johnson. “There’s too much thinkin’ goin’ on here. You’d better say what you mean an’ save us any more brainwork.”

The stranger smiled. “Yes, you’re entitled to an explanation. The fact is, I’d two hundred and ninety dollars in my pocket when I set out this morning. Around fifteen miles east of here, I was waylaid.”

“You were what?”

“Waylaid. Accosted by a couple of road agents. They robbed me.”

Johnson was unmoved. “So you’re broke.”

“Not exactly. I just don’t want to cause problems. I do need a drink, but I’ve no small change left. All I have is a five-thousand dollar bill.”

Johnson had begun to wipe the bar. He stopped, mouth agape. “Five . . . thousand . . . dollars,” he said softly. “Did you say a five-thousand dollar bill?”

“That’s right. I’m sorry. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a fact.”

“Mister,” said Johnson, “if that’s a joke, I got to tell you my sense of humour ain’t too good. Anyway, how come these fellers didn’t take this bill?”

“Because I keep it pretty safe. I need to, seeing as it’s all the wealth I have.”

Despite his cynical nature, Johnson was intrigued. This was a new approach. “I thought I’d heard them all,” he said, “but I didn’t even know there was a bill that big. Mind if I see it?”

“Not at all, but I’d be obliged if you’d look the other way while I get it out.” Johnson turned and gazed at the wall for a moment, then, answering the stranger’s call, swung back to find himself looking at a banknote. He peered at it, then at the man, then back at the bill. “Well, I never saw the like of it,” he said, awed. “An’ that’s all the cash you got?”

“That’s right. Maybe your bank could help?”

Johnson gave a short laugh. “Not hardly,” he said. He wasn’t a profound thinker, but he was quick enough, and it took only seconds for him to realise that he was out of his depth. “Listen, friend,” he went on, filling a beer glass, “I think I’d better go see somebody.” Looking at a selection of whiskey bottles he kept out of sight, he picked one that had no more than three or four shots left in it and pushed it across the bar, along with the beer. “Help yourself,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

As Johnson bustled off, the stranger pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit it and got busy with the beer and whiskey. It was ten minutes before the saloon-owner returned, accompanied by a short stout man of, the newcomer judged, well over sixty, florid-faced, with hair, moustache and goatee beard of snowy white.

Going back behind the bar, Johnson produced another whiskey bottle, pouring a shot for his companion and one for himself. “Now, friend,” he said to the stranger, “this is Colonel Tyrell. Maybe you should talk to him.”

“Good morning young man,” said the colonel, “Perhaps I can be of assistance.”

The stranger took the proffered hand. “Pleased to meet you, Colonel,” he said. “I hope you can help. I never expected to be in this situation.”

The colonel waved a dismissive hand. “I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t handle, sir,” he said. “Walt here has told me of your problem. I hope you’ll allow me to buy you a drink.”

“Thank you,” said the stranger. “I’ll confess I need to settle my nerves after my experience this morning.”

“Yes, indeed,” the colonel answered. “I’ve just heard. Most distressing for you. Now, I don’t want to pry, but how are we to address you?”

“Oh, sorry,” said the stranger. “The name’s Gardner. Timothy Gardner. Call me Tim.”

“Very well. Now, Tim, I hope you don’t mind the inquisitiveness of an old man, but are you on your way to a particular destination?”

“No, Colonel. I’m travelling westwards, looking for a new home. I aim to settle in these parts and I’ve been seeking a small town where I can put down roots.”

“Indeed. You may find things a little tame out here, after the bright lights. I imagine you’re a city man?”

“That’s right. I’ve spent most of my time in Boston, New York and Philadelphia but I just couldn’t stand any more of the big towns. All those buildings crowd in on a man. I needed space and thought I’d find it hereabouts, although I was really heading further west.”

The colonel nodded. “I see,” he said. “And what do think of what you’ve seen of our fair state so far?”

“I like it. I never thought there’d be so many trees and so much nice scenery. Seems to me a man could feel at home here.”

“He certainly could,” said the colonel. “However, you might find things less agreeable further west.”

“Why’s that?”

The retired officer stroked his moustache. “Well now, Tim, I don’t wish to speak ill of any part of this fine state, but I must say that, if you go on westwards, you’ll find things different.”

“In what way?”

“Frankly, it’s harsh. Here, you have good vegetation, hills, timber and the like. To the west, you’ll find nothing but brush-country, plains, dust, heat and cows. I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Tim Gardner was enjoying himself. He was sure he’d made the desired impact. His brief inspection of the neglected state of the buildings had suggested to him that the town was in decline. The arrival of a man of apparent substance would be welcome, he’d reasoned. “I’m glad to have the advice, Colonel,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just stop here. It seems pleasant enough.”

The colonel appeared delighted to hear that, but he was also gripped by a curiosity he could no longer contain. “I’m sure we’d be pleased to have you, Tim,” he said. “Now, with regard to your immediate problem, I don’t recall seeing a five-thousand dollar bill for some time.” In fact, like most people, he had never seen one. “Do you suppose I might have a look at it?”

“Certainly,” said Gardner, producing the banknote, this time without security measures. “Doesn’t look like much, considering it represents a good few years of work and an inheritance.”

The colonel made a less than convincing show of nonchalance as he peered at the bill. “No,” he said. “It’s very similar to the last one I handled. Now, I’m perhaps behind the times, but I understood that these notes were no longer convertible into gold. Isn’t that so?”

“No. The convertibility was suspended for a good while after the war, but it was restored two years ago. I keep this because I figure it’s the best way of carrying money. After all, it’s easier than handling sixteen pounds of gold.”

“Ah, that’s the present rate, is it?”


“My goodness,” said the veteran, “I imagine if you were to stay in these parts with a banknote like that, you’d become known as Big Bill Gardner.”

Chuckling, Tim put the bill into his inside coat pocket. “Could be, Colonel,” he said. “I never thought being financially comfortable would cause such a problem. I was saying to Walt that maybe your bank could help.”

“I think not. Why, I doubt that old Saul Danby – he runs it – has handled anything bigger than a fifty in his life. He only opens his place two afternoons a week. It’s more a pastime than a business. I’m afraid you need a larger town.”

“I see. Are there any around here?”

“Not for some way. We’re rather a backwater. The railroad runs east-west, a little way south of here. The only towns of any size are Stackville, twenty-five miles southeast of us, and Crow Creek, forty-odd miles southwest. They’re both on the railroad. We weren’t deemed important enough to justify a diversion.”

Tim held up a forefinger. “Just a minute, Colonel,” he said. “Did you say Crow Creek?”


“Well, that’s a coincidence. Could be the answer, too. As it happens, I have a friend who knows something about currency matters. Name of Ed Lander. He used to work for the government. He gave that up a while ago and I know that since then he’s spent most of the summer every year with his daughter at her house near Crow Creek. He’ll help, I’m sure.” That was one of a variety of falsehoods Tim Gardner had prepared, to be used according to circumstances.

“Good, good,” said the colonel. “Now, if you were to stay with us, what would your intentions be?”

“That’s easy, Colonel. I’ve always fancied running a store. I noticed one here that doesn’t seem to be in use. Do you think I could take it over?”

“I’m sure you could. It was a hardware place until last year, when Jeremy Williams died. He was the owner. Since then, people have got what they wanted from Stackville, but it’s inconvenient. We’ve tried to get our dry goods man to expand, but he’s getting on in years and doesn’t want to take on any more responsibilities. To have local supplies again would be helpful. Jeremy had no family. His place is derelict. Strictly speaking, I suppose the county should take it over, but we don’t worry too much about such things here, so there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t move in, if that’s what you want.”

And so it went. Tim Gardner moved into the hardware store and, armed with his obvious affluence, he had no trouble in getting all the credit he wanted, pending his decision on the fate of his banknote. For a few days, people would call on him, just to get sight of the big bill, then interest dwindled and he became a part of the scenery. He proved to be a shrewd and enterprising businessman. However, after three months in the town, he had done nothing about converting his greatest financial asset into something more readily negotiable, that might find its way into other local coffers. This was a cause of concern to the colonel who, in his circumlocutive way, managed to convey his feelings to Gardner.

It was time for some sort of show. Gardner explained that he had been so preoccupied in building up trade that he had almost forgotten the bill. “Tell you what, Colonel,” he said. “That fellow Ed Lander I mentioned when I arrived here is probably still out Crow Creek way. I’ll close the store tomorrow, ride over to Stackville and send him a wire, asking him for advice. I’d go all the way to Crow Creek, but I can’t spare the time, and anyway, I wouldn’t care to just drop in on him and his daughter. That’s not my idea of good manners. Better all round if I pay the telegraph people to deliver the message.”

The following day, Gardner made a dawn start and rode fast to Stackville, where he sent a wire to the fictitious Ed Lander, to be collected at the Crow Creek telegraph office. The wording needed to satisfy two requirements. It had to seem reasonable, in order to elicit a reply that would placate the colonel and appear sensible to anyone else, and it had to avoid mentioning the big bill, since that would have attracted unwelcome interest. Gardner’s solution was to say that he had a set of three very old books – he invented a collective title – and to ask whether he should sell them, either separately or together, or hold onto them.

Having dealt with that, Gardner took the late morning train to Crow Creek where, having changed his clothes and donned the fake whiskers he’d used several times before, he introduced himself at the telegraph office as Edward Lander, saying that he’d been expecting a wire from his old friend Tim Gardner of Stackville. He collected the message, sent a reply, to be collected, then travelled back on the early evening train to Stackville, discarding his disguise on the way. Since he wasn’t known at Crow Creek, he hadn’t really needed it, but it was as well to be thorough. He picked up the wire he had sent to himself, then rode back to Duncombe.

When the colonel dropped by the following morning for his daily chat, Gardner entertained him for a while, then produced the message. “Take a look at that,” he said. The old soldier made a show of putting on his spectacles. He read:

To Timothy Gardner, Stackville. To be collected:

Very few of these in public domain. Rarity indicates increasing value. Strongly suggest keep intact pro tem. Am returning east next week. Will contact later with proposal. Regards. Lander.

The colonel handed back the wire and folded his glasses. “Well, Tim, I imagine this gives you a problem?”

“It does. I intended to use the money for expansion, but from what Ed says, I could do better by holding on. Maybe he knows a collector. I’ll have to think it over.”

“So you will, my boy. Anyway, thank you for your confidence. Now, I must be on my way.” He strolled off, his simple vision of Tim Gardner’s fortune being distributed rapidly throughout the town shattered. Not being an economist, he hadn’t considered the implications of a sharp rise in the sum of cash around, without a commensurate increase in the amount of goods and services available. Boom towns had proved often enough that sudden deluges of money in pursuit of limited supplies had caused prices to shoot up.

The initial interest having subsided and the colonel’s curiosity having been satisfied, Tim Gardner had to decide what to do about keeping the bill safe. Duncombe’s primitive bank was no option. Tim came up with an idea that was to stand the test of years. He lived above the store and his bedroom door was clear of the floorboards by nearly an inch. He took strip of card slightly longer than the bill, the precious item itself and two thumbtacks. Next he folded the bill lengthways, placed it on the card and pushed the tacks through the card, clear of the bill. Finally he slid this contrivance under the door-bottom and pulled the tacks into the wood by running the flat of a knife blade under them and yanking it upwards. Now the door could be opened and closed for years – as indeed it was to be – without anyone suspecting what was fixed underneath it.

Having disposed of the immediate problem, Tim sat down, lit a cigar and reviewed his position. Until three months earlier, he had been a security officer with the US Treasury. His brief was to work with his much older partner in preventing the circulation of counterfeit banknotes. The pair’s greatest coup had come when they had caught the Frenchman, Michel Bernard, probably the most sophisticated forger of his day. Bernard’s speciality was bonds and certificates, but his one essay into banknote plate engraving had been an alarming development for the authorities.

The capture of Bernard and his equipment had come just in time. There were several talented engravers around on the wrong side of the law, almost all of them coming to grief by their failure to steal, buy or make the right paper. Bernard solved that problem by finding a way of leaching the ink out of existing low-denomination banknotes. He then had genuine paper and his plates gave forgeries which could be detected only by expert examination.

Bernard’s work had been at the experimental stage and he was caught before distributing any of it. He had produced many bills of middling-to-high face value, but only one five-thousand dollar effort. His plates were put into safekeeping and it fell to Tim Gardner and his colleague to destroy the fake bills, excepting two which were to be kept as museum pieces. The older man, seriously ill and only weeks from permanently finishing work, supervised the operation. When they got to the large bill, he handed it to his young partner. The senior official had been repeatedly denied promotion to what he saw as his rightful position. Sensing correctly that he had little time left to live, he had decided to retaliate by putting into circulation the only near-perfect five-thousand dollar forgery in existence.

The older man duly retired – he died two months later – and his young partner resigned, having decided that he would make capital from his remarkable asset and that he would move west to do so. He had never intended attempting to spend the bill and before reaching Duncombe he had tried out his stratagem in two other small towns, in both cases without success. Then he had hit the jackpot by getting as much finance as he needed to set up in business, purely on the strength of his apparent wealth. Now he was doing nicely and had no thought of passing the big bill. He didn’t even need it any longer. Things had worked out well.

Twelve years passed, during which time Tim ‘Big Bill’ Gardner prospered. He expanded his own business and bought others, sometimes outright, sometimes by forming partnerships in which he was in control. He became a power in the locality and well beyond it, gradually supplanting Colonel Tyrell as the man to whom others turned for advice. Nevertheless, he remained on good terms with the old man, who still called on him every day. Then a curious incident occurred.

When saloon-owner Walt Johnson had died, leaving his saloon to a nephew who didn’t want it, the only man in town with the funds necessary to buy the place had been Tim Gardner. He had moved promptly, taking over ownership and employing as bartender a young fellow named Jack Simpson.

It was a day similar to that on which Gardner himself had arrived in Duncombe, early June and hot. He was in his study at the rear of his extended premises, going over outstanding invoices. The last one was particularly satisfying. It required payment for a large carton which stood in a corner of the room. Inside it were four boxes, containing in total two hundred of the finest cigars money could buy. Gardner had bought them as a special treat to mark his success. Soon, he was going to enjoy them. He was savouring the thought when a breathless Jack Simpson knocked at the door and rushed in. “You’ll never guess what’s just happened,” he gasped.

Gardner put down his pencil. “Probably not,” he said. “Why not save us time and tell me?”

“Well, a young feller just come in, bought a couple of drinks an’ asked if there was anybody here who could get him change for a five-thousand dollar bill.”

Tim Gardner was astounded. “Well, well,” he said. “What a coincidence. Where is he now?”

“In the saloon. I asked him to wait. ’Course, I probably made a mistake. I told him about when you came here. Hope I didn’t do wrong.”

Gardner’s mind raced. “No,” he said, after a short silence. “It’s all right, Jack. You’d better send this fellow to me.”

Five minutes later, the man was sitting with Tim Gardner, explaining his predicament. He displayed his banknote. “I know it seems ridiculous,” he said, “but it’s all I have. When I changed my savings into one bill, I never thought it would be such a headache. Now I’ve run out of other cash. I understand the same thing happened to you.”

Gardner nodded. “Yes, it did. Now look. There’s no-one within hundreds of miles of here who can change a bill that size. The one I arrived with caused me endless bother and I still have it.”

“You have? Could I see it?”

For once, Tim Gardner had blundered. It would have been better if he had kept quiet. Still, it was too late now. “All right,” he said. “Wait a minute.” He went upstairs and returned with the bill, pushing it across the desk. “Maybe there’s a lesson here for you,” he said. “There was never any chance that this would be of use to me, and the one you have will bring you nothing but grief in these parts.”

The man picked up the bill, peered at it then returned it. “You may be right,” he said. “Problem is, without other funds. I just don’t know what to do.”

Tim Gardner reasoned that unless he dealt decisively with this matter there could be trouble. “Tell me,” he said, “where were you heading?”

“Nowhere in particular. Just making my way west. I’d nothing special in mind.”

Gardner took his cash box from a desk drawer and drew out ten twenty-dollar bills, sliding them across the table. “I’ve had my share of good luck,” he said, “so I can afford to put something back into a world that’s been kind to me. You can consider this a loan without repayment date, but I want you to give me your word of honour that if you take it, you’ll head back east, right away. This is a bad place to be, and the further west you go, the worse it gets. Believe me, I know. With a banknote like you have, your life is in danger. Now, there’s an afternoon stage to Stackville. I think you’d better be on it, then get the eastbound train.”

The young man took the money and the advice, departing two hours later. Waving him off, Tim Gardner heaved a sigh of relief. His own operation had worked once, but there was no scope for a repetition anywhere in this area.

Time passed and Gardner pushed the incident to the back of his mind. Then, one day, six months after the young fellow had left, the noon stage brought three men to Duncombe. They headed immediately for Gardner’s place. Colonel Tyrell was there, talking with the owner. The three newcomers fanned out, facing the desk. In the centre was a short thin smartly-dressed man of about fifty. He was flanked by a tall burly fellow, more casually attired, and the young man who had visited Duncombe so briefly, half a year earlier. It was he who started the proceedings by handing four fifty-dollar bills to Gardner. “Your loan returned with thanks,” he said, then stood back.

The man in the middle took over. “Mr Gardner?”

“That’s right. What can I do for you?”

“Sir, our business is private. The gentleman here?” – he waved a hand at the colonel.

Gardner spread his palms. “Colonel Tyrell is a close friend of mine,” he said. You may speak freely.”

“Very well. My name is Malcolmson. I represent the US Treasury. “This” – he indicated the big man – “is Deputy US Marshal Bennett. I understand you know my other companion. Now, I believe you are in possession of a banknote with a face value of five thousand dollars and I have to tell you that that note is a forgery. I intend to settle this matter quietly, but I must inform you that I have authority to search these premises. I hope that won’t be necessary.”

Gardner shrugged. “I have no secrets,” he said. “You’re welcome to see the thing. Just a moment.” He went upstairs, got the bill and handed it to Malcolmson.

The Treasury official held it up to the light, then placed it on the desk and inspected it minutely with a jeweller’s loupe. Then he turned to Tim Gardner. “Yes, sir,” he said. “This is the one.”

“Oh,” said Gardner. “How do you know that?”

“I’ve been seeking it for years. Fortunately, Mr Gibbons here” – he waved at the young man on his right – “is very observant and has an excellent memory. The bill he showed you recently is genuine, but he was struck by the strange coincidence and noted the number of yours. Now, Mr Gardner, this is a serious matter.”

It had never occurred to Tim Gardner that young Gibbons might really have been a man of means. He stared at Malcolmson. “Maybe you’d better explain.”

“Certainly. First, there’s the question of passing counterfeit currency.”

“What do mean, passing it? I never did that. It’s right here.”

“Well then, there’s the question of attempting to pass it.”

“I didn’t do that, either. Why, the colonel here will tell you that I never made any effort to convert it. Everybody here knew I had it, but I never tried to spend it. Colonel?”

The aged soldier was happy to concur with his friend in overlooking that long-ago first day when the risible offer to use the banknote in payment for a drink had occurred. He nodded. “That’s right, sir. We all knew that Mr Gardner had the bill, but he never tried to pass it. I’d testify to that.”

The Treasury man was discomfited. “Very well,” he said. “There’s also the matter of possession of counterfeit currency. What do you say to that, Mr Gardner?”

“This is the first I ever knew about the bill being a forgery. I won it in a poker game in Saint Louis.”

“What? You played poker with stakes of five thousand dollars?”

“No, I didn’t. Not that it’s any of your business, but I got into a game and wound up four hundred and seventy dollars ahead. I wanted to call it a day then, but the fellow I was playing with insisted on another hand. He offered that bill against the pot, plus anything I had left. I had about eighty dollars, so I took a chance. It was the bill against the amount on the table, plus my eighty dollars. I won.”

“Did it not strike you as odd that a man would put up five thousand dollars in such circumstances?”

“Not at all. If you’ve had anything to do with gamblers, you’ll know that they get a fever. It’s well known. Why, they sometimes bet the title deeds to their homes, or any other possessions, for one more hand of cards. Anyway, I’d no way of knowing the bill wasn’t genuine. For all I knew, the man could have been a millionaire.”

Malcolmson was now clearly bemused, but he pressed on. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it,” he blustered. “I could still have you arrested.”

Scenting victory, Gardner grinned. “Maybe you could,” he said, “but I’d like to see the look on your face when the jury laughed you out of court. You haven’t a leg to stand on.”

The Treasury man thought for a moment, then said: “Very well, Mr Gardner. In the unusual circumstances, I’m prepared to accept what you say. But I must still impound this banknote. We can’t have forged currency in circulation.”

“By all means take it,” Gardner replied. “The damned thing never was much use to me.”

Malcolmson picked up the bill. “All right, Mr. Gardner. My main purpose was to lay hands on this, so we’ll regard the matter as closed. Of course, we’re still looking for the man who caused all the trouble. He stole the bill originally and knew it was a forgery.”

“Best of luck to you,” Gardner answered. “By the way, who was he?”

“A fellow by the name of John Robert Hollingsworth. He was with the US Treasury before my time. Perhaps he was the man who played cards with you. Could you describe him?”

“Well, it’s a long time ago. I couldn’t tell you about his height because he was sitting all the time, but I’d guess he was very ordinary. Dark brown hair, tidy little moustache, average build. That’s about all. What happens if you find him?”

“What he did qualifies him for a long spell behind bars. However, I consider our business here concluded.”

“Fine. The stage changes horses here. If you hurry, you’ll be able to catch it, but before you go, how do I know you’re who you say you are? Come to think of it, maybe I should run over to Stackville and send a wire to the Treasury Department.”

“No need for that, sir.” This came from the big lawman on Malcolmson’s left. “I have a letter here from this gentleman’s employer.” He produced it and Tim Gardner recognised the headed notepaper. “You’ll see that it confirms my appointment to meet Mr Malcolmson and accompany him. I picked him up at his office and have been with him the whole time since then.”

Gardner nodded. “Well, I guess that’s good enough.”

The visitors left on the afternoon stage for Stackville. Gardner and the colonel saw them off, then went back into the store. “Amazing, Tim,” said the old man. “I never heard of anything like it.”

“Neither did I.”

The colonel was silent for moment, then cleared his throat. “Er . . . Tim. Do you realise you’ve changed a lot since you arrived here?”

“Have I really? I reckon I’ve been too busy to think about that.”

“Ah, no doubt. Only, I was just thinking, you’ve put quite a bit of weight, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“I don’t mind at all, Colonel. It’s the way you good people feed me.”

“Oh, quite. Also, you had a head of dark brown hair in those days. It’s receded somewhat.”

“That it has, Colonel. Colour’s changed a bit, too. Business worries, I suppose. I also got rid of the moustache.”

“Yes. Forgive the mind-wandering of an old buffoon, Tim, but for some unaccountable reason, I’m reminded of that time you fell from your horse, three or four years ago.”

“Yes. Fortunate that you were passing that evening, Colonel. I could have had a hard time out there.”

“True. Do you recall that I picked up some of your things?”

“I certainly do, and I was grateful.”

“It was the least I could have done. I seem to remember your watch was thrown clear. The back flew open when it hit the ground.”

“That’s right. I believe you mentioned it.”

“Yes. I couldn’t help noticing that the initials J.R.H. were engraved inside. I supposed it was an inheritance, perhaps from a friend.”

“Quite right, Colonel. You’re very astute.”

“Ah, well, I must go. I wonder whether Mr Malcolmson will ever catch up with his man. What was the name? John Robert Hollingsworth?”

Duncombe’s premier businessman had not reached his position by being slow-witted. “I believe so. By the way, Colonel,” he said, “before you go, I have something for you. I’d intended to save it until your birthday, but I guess there’s no time like the present.” He went into his storeroom and returned, handing over the four boxes of cigars, stripped of their outer carton. “Have a smoke on me.”

“The old man, clutched the package in his liver-spotted hands. “You shouldn’t have done this, my boy. It’s far too much.” But he didn’t release his hold. To a man reduced for years to smoking something resembling decayed footwear, it was manna from heaven. “Tim, you’re a gentleman.”

“If that’s true, Colonel, I got my example from you.”

The old soldier’s spine straightened. “I hope I may still claim the distinction,” he said, then turning on the threshold added: “I believe people say that I’m quite discreet, too. Good day to you.”

* * *

October 27th, 2012, 06:03 PM

John Thorne was not the first of his kind, but for a brief period he was among the most successful. He was English by birth and had been raised in genteel and highly conventional surroundings in Sussex. At the age of twenty-six, no longer able to tolerate what was to him too circumscribed a lifestyle, he moved to the United States, where he found matters more to his liking. Here was opportunity for an intelligent, enterprising man, not enslaved by convention.

Having no aversion to either physical or mental effort, Thorne tried his hand at a number of jobs, working as a stevedore, a logger, a coalminer, a store manager and a bartender before deciding that none of these estimable occupations was right for him. What he wanted was to divide his time between scientific matters and humanitarian issues. In fairness to him, he did not wish to do either of those things for his own material gain. He really was intent upon both expanding his technical knowledge and serving the public. In order to do what he had in mind on a timescale he considered acceptable, he needed a short cut to financial independence.

As he was open to all possibilities and not in the least encumbered by inhibitions, Thorne concluded that the swiftest way to achieve social security was by relieving a number of his more affluent contemporaries of some of their shares of the world’s wealth. To him, the assessment was a simple one. The targets he had in mind would, even after receiving his attentions, still live well enough. What did another business coup or one more piece of jewellery mean to them? They would never be destitute.

Thorne’s reasoning extended to the idea that his plunder would be put into one bank or another, thus increasing the credit base of the whole national system. That was surely better than allowing people to have cash and trinkets just lying around. It would increase the rate at which money circulated, and as financial people were always moaning about lack of liquidity, that seemed to be a good thing. And anyway, many of the wealthy and privileged probably owed their advantages to means which, if usually not illegal, were often hardly more savoury than those Thorne was minded to employ. He knew that that was pure rationalisation, but contented himself with the moral fig leaf.

So John Thorne became a gentleman thief. He had no grandiose notions of one mighty coup that might see him though for life, but could alternatively put him behind bars for many years, or possibly subject him to relentless pursuit, which would be almost as inconvenient as incarceration. A man of breeding should not find himself hampered in such ways. A little here, a little there was Thorne’s motto. The odd few hundred dollars or some bauble – the latter always converted into cash – purloined would cause annoyance, but most likely no great uproar.

It was surprisingly easy. Thorne began with an evaluation of the prospective job. If he perceived any obvious risk, he went no further. Where there did not seem to be a problem, he proceeded. In short order, he laid hands on a good deal of money, which he invested in a dozen banks. But he was still in his middle twenties, and as restless as men of that age so often are. Also, even the most individualistic and precarious occupations can eventually become repetitive. The escape from routine becomes another kind of routine. A banker banks, a builder builds, a salesman sells and a thief steals. The stirrings did not induce Thorne to abandon his chosen line of work immediately. He would do so when the right time came. Meanwhile, a little variety would be welcome. Different scenery might be the answer.

During one of his spells of relaxation, Thorne read extensively about the burgeoning economic success in the wide open spaces of the West. Gold, silver and copper were, it seemed, being found in abundance. Admittedly this vast area was sparsely populated, so the way of life was often rather more basic than that in the East. But still, it was something new and it had been said that a change was a good as a rest. Thorne decided to try his luck west of the Mississippi.

He started in Colorado then worked his way north, across the High Plains, intending to reach the Pacific Northwest. His approach was simple. Endowed with the airs of an upper-class English upbringing, which he had no intention of discarding – a man had his standards – he projected himself as a wealthy Briton, seeking investment opportunities. He used several assumed names, dressed well, spoke with the affectation widely expected of him and generally conformed to a somewhat foppish image. But the openings he mentioned never appeared. After a short spell in whatever community he had selected, he moved on to some vaguely implied further port of call.

The thefts which coincided with Thorne’s presence in any town were never attributed to a man of his obvious affluence, especially as he usually made a point of staying on in the place concerned for some days after the unfortunate events. When involved in conversations with the locals about such matters, he was as outraged as anyone else. It was most baffling to a clearly upright English gentleman. Still, they all lived in a wicked world, he opined. These depredations were most likely the work of a gang and no doubt the law would catch up with the miscreants.

On a clear frosty December night, Thorne was about his business in Grant’s Ferry, Montana. He had spent two days looking over the town. It didn’t seem promising, but a man had to take what was available and as the last month had been kind to him, he was feeling buoyant. Having established that he could depart fast and far, he had decided that there was no point in dallying. Even before reaching this place, he had almost made up his mind that this would be his last outing as a lawbreaker. Though the whole thing was well within his intellectual and psychological scope, it was becoming a little too demanding in physical terms. Wriggling into and out of confined spaces was increasingly tiresome and not without danger. Only a week earlier he had sustained a nasty cut on the right hand, while exiting a house via a window he had broken to get in. He would pick up what he could that night, then return to his earlier haunts and think things out.

By three in the morning, Thorne was tired. Since midnight he had called at a saloon, a store and the freight office. The first two had produced acceptable pickings, but the third had been disappointing. He had decided to leave the small bank until last, guessing that its defences might be harder to penetrate than those of the places he’d already visited. He had in mind that his previous experience with banks had not been encouraging. First, he wasn’t the best of cracksmen – it wasn’t easy to get tuition in that art. Second, his black valise was now bulging with recent takings, and he didn’t really need to run any more risks. Third, if he was to keep to his schedule for departure, he hadn’t much time. However, it seemed remiss to pass up the obvious local cash repository. He would devote a few minutes to it.

Ingress didn’t take long, the back door yielding easily. Once inside, Thorne was helped by the bright moonlight. He inspected the tellers’ area and was not surprised to find it bare. Anything of value would be in the safe, which was likely to be in the manager’s office. The short corridor leading from behind the cash counter to the rear of the premises had a single door on each side. Thorne opened one, finding himself confronted with an assortment of cleaning paraphernalia. Trying the other door, he entered a room, about twenty by fifteen feet. Clearly, this was the inner sanctum. It was dominated by a large desk and a bulky item which was in deep shadow, but seemed to be his objective. At the far side of the desk was a high-backed chair, turned outwards, facing the window.

Thorne did not hesitate. He moved quietly across to the safe. Having reached it, he nearly leapt out of his skin when, with some creaking, the chair turned. “Were you looking for something?” The man’s voice was flat and seemingly disengaged.

Still aided by the moon, Thorne saw a small fellow, arms folded across his chest, in the massive chair. Accustomed as he was to happenings that would have unsettled most people, the intruder remained calm. “As a matter of fact, I was,” he said, “but I hardly expected to find company. Whatever are you doing here at this hour?”

“Doing? I’m not doing anything in particular, but I suppose you are. Robbing the bank, unless I’m much mistaken, eh?”

Thorne maintained his equanimity. “Well, to be truthful, I had some such notion,” he said, “but you seem to be rather in my way. I assume you are the owner or manager of this place?”

“I am both, sir,” said the man in the chair. “My name is Joseph Ransome and I assume you have drawn a predictable blank in the tellers’ drawers and you now intend to take the contents of the safe?”

“Quite so, but if you are adamant in your opposition to the scheme, I will not insist.”

“Adamant. No, I’m not. In fact, you’ve caught me at a particularly critical point in my life – the last hour, as it happens.”

Even for the urbane Thorne, this was startling, but he was nothing if not a quick thinker. “My goodness,” he said, “I hadn’t expected a discussion of this kind, but now that we’re engaged in it, I really do think we might have a little light in here. Would you mind?”

Ransome did not answer immediately, but struck a match, putting it to a lamp on his desk. Thorne took one of the two chairs facing him, seeing a man who really did seem to be in the state his words indicated. He was as diminutive as he had appeared to be in the dark, but looked somehow even more so, shrunken as he was in the large expanse of worn brown leather. His face was painfully haggard, the hue fish-belly. Thorne assessed him as being in his late forties.

The frustrated burglar rubbed his hands, not entirely because of the cold. This was something new and he was always ready for that, even in so awkward a position as his present one. “Now,” he said, with genuine joviality, “we can’t have this kind of thing. I would like very much to hear what’s on your mind, although I’d be just as well pleased if you could be brief. I’m rather busy.”

“Brevity is no problem to me, young man. I am ruined and have no wish to see the dawn. Is that brief enough for you?”

“Oh, come, old fellow” drawled Thorne. “I think you make too much of the matter. I never yet encountered the problem that did not have a solution.” He stabbed a thumb and forefinger into a vest pocket, withdrew a handsome gold watch, consulted it and shoved it back. “I fear I cannot allow your difficulty to impede my movements for very long. I have a timetable to maintain. However, I’ll happily give you half an hour. Perhaps I can suggest something that will help. These things are best discussed in a relaxed atmosphere, so I think we might as well get through a brace of those smokes you have there.”

Staring at his extraordinary caller, Ransome absently pushed across the desk a cedarwood box containing an assortment of cigars of various sizes and qualities. Thorne selected one of the largest, raising it to his ear and giving it the connoisseur’s roll between thumb and forefinger before piercing the end with a match. He lit up, taking his time about getting an even burn. “Do join me,” he said. “I find it so much more convivial when men smoke together, especially at twenty past three in the morning. Also, I cannot abide uncomfortable companions and you are fidgeting. Kindly do something with your hands.”

Still mesmerised, Ransome fumbled in the box, took out a panatella and got it going. He noticed that his right hand had twice within a minute been within six inches of the revolver with which he intended to end his life, yet he had not considered using the weapon, upon either himself or his visitor.

Thorne took a pull at his cigar and gave a contented sigh. “Jamaican, if I’m not in error,” he said. “I prefer Havana but this will do. Now, I indicated that my time is limited, so let us try to make best use of it. By the way, I’d be obliged if you would remove that firearm. I find that such contrivances come between gentlemen. So common, don’t you think?”

Ransome, mouth agape, took the gun and dropped it into a drawer.

“Excellent,” said Thorne, “though I must say you are not the best host I have ever had. I believe it is customary to offer a libation. At this time of day my first choice would be brandy, but I’ll be happy with whatever you have.”

Ransome fumbled in another drawer, extracting a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He poured handsome measures and slid one across the desk. “That’s the nearest I can offer you,” he said.

“It’s good enough.” Thorne raised his glass. “Here’s to your health. Now, what is the difficulty?”

By this time, Ransome was totally entranced, the surreal nature of the situation having already receded to the back of his mind. Also, as the result of a gulp of the whiskey and a few draws on his smoke, he was, to his surprise, mellowing at remarkable speed, associating with his interlocutor’s mood. “I’ve failed,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

“Failed? How?”

“Well, I fancied myself as a banking man, but I’ve come up short. Now, don’t get me wrong. I pride myself that I’m honest, but I’ve made errors of judgement. All along, I wanted to be straight – and I have been. Unfortunately, two of the last three winters have been disastrous. Ranchers and settlers have had their livelihoods destroyed. The mining and lumber interests have suffered, too. That’s affected all the businesses around here. Apart from a few lucky individuals, we’re all in big trouble.”

“Hmn. I see what you mean, but a man in your position is supposed to allow for these things, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is. That’s where I’ve been at fault. The truth is that I’m not hard enough for this game. People think that a banker has insides of flint. In my case, that isn’t true. I’ve tried to help, really I have, but I’ve made too many generous loans, with too little sound backing. Now, the bill has come in. The result is that I can’t meet my commitments. There’s nobody to blame but me. The word has got out and when the bank opens later today, I’ll not be able to cope with the withdrawals. If you can think of a way out of that, you’ll be the smartest man I’ve ever met.”

Thorne scratched his jaw. “You put the matter most succinctly. I’m not too familiar with these affairs, you understand, but what about calling in your loans, or foreclosing mortgages. You’re allowed to do such things, aren’t you?”

“What’s the point? There nothing to be gained by demanding payment from people who have no money because their lives have been wrecked by bad luck. Believe me, nearly all the loans I’ve made were to decent people, who would have made out well enough if fate hadn’t given them a raw deal. They’re industrious, and all they needed was a fair chance. As it is, they’ve come to grief. That applies to me, too”

Thorne pondered for a long moment, then said: “Dear me, you have miscalculated, haven’t you? However, you seem to have missed the points that matter.”

“What points?”

Thorne inspected his cigar, tapping off an inch of ash. “Offhand, I can think of two,” he said, “Tell me, what do you consider the most vital thing in life, for all of us?”

Ransome shook his head. “Right now, I guess it’s money,” he said.

Thorne shook his head. “Rubbish, man,” he replied. “There’s any amount of the stuff in this world. The art is to ensure that enough of it comes your way. Can’t you think of anything more important?”

Ransome extended his hands in resignation. “At present I can’t, unless it’s health.”

“Ah, you’re getting warmer,” said Thorne. “Anything else?”

“Not as far as I can see.”

Thorne took another long draw on his smoke. “Well,” he said, you’ve improved, but you still miss the critical element.”

“Please don’t play games with me,” groaned Ransome. “If you have a suggestion, make it.”

Thorne smiled. “Very well,” he said. “What about time?”

Ransome shrugged. “How does that come in?”

Finally, Thorne showed some sharpness. “You still don’t understand, do you?” he said. “I’ve already mentioned that there’s no end of cash around, which can buy you something by way of health, though I believe not much. There are also mountains of gold and silver, plus houses and carriages galore, but there’s only one thing we all have in limited supply, and that’s time. No matter how well off we may be, we all have only one share of it, and few people know how much they have left.”

“And in what way does that bear upon my present state?”

“Well, you may be an unsuccessful banker today and you may be a barroom-sweeper tomorrow, but who knows what you may be the day after? Good gracious, man, it’s clear from your conversation that you’re no fool. In a month or a year, your position could be vastly better than it is now. You might be in another and more rewarding line of work. You weren’t born to banking, or anything else. When the dust has settled on this matter, you’ll be able to move on and be almost anything you want to be.”

Ransome slapped his hands on the armrests of his chair. “I never thought about it that way.” he said. “It’s a new turn, and that’s a fact. Still, the question is how do I get out of this plight? If you can answer that, you’re a better man than I am.”

“No, I’m not a better man than you,” said Thorne. “It’s merely a question of different points of view. As it happens, I intend to desist from my current line of work in the near future. It’s a means to an end, but I have to confess, it’s rather distasteful to me.”

“I can imagine so. What will you do later?”

“I’d like turn my attention to higher matters. I hope to be of use to society by producing some inventions beneficial to the public, and I wish to do charitable work. In short, anything for the common good. It matters little, so long as things come out right in the end. Whatever the route, I need time to study certain subjects and in order to do that, I must have financial security. Perhaps I have an odd way of reaching my goal, but in the end I shall repay other people as a whole to a much greater extent than I have inconvenienced them individually. It’s a question of the end justifying the means. I don’t expect anyone else to approve of my methods, but I hope to make the point in due course. Still, that’s no help to you, is it?”

“No. The fact remains that against deposits of twenty-six thousand, I have two hundred and sixty-three dollars in the safe over there. For what good that will do me, you might as well take it as leave it.”

“I see. Now, as I said, I’m not well versed in your line of work. What proportion of your investment balances should you have in ready cash?”

“Oh, usually quite a small one – about ten per cent at most. Half of that is more than enough in normal circumstances. It would be even now. It’s just matter of confidence. So long as people believe that a banker has adequate resources at his disposal, they don’t worry. They panic only when they’re doubtful, and even then, they tend to calm down at the sight of plenty of money in their bank.”

“I see,” Thorne replied. “It’s rather like the way bankers see it. The more affluent the customers, the easier they find it to get credit, whereas anyone without obvious substance has trouble.”

“I couldn’t have put it better.”

Thorne knocked off more cigar ash. “Good,” he said. “Now, there’s surely another issue. Can you think what it is? I’ve already given you a clue.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to do more than that. You may have gathered that I’m not in the mood for solving puzzles.”

“Well,” said Thorne, “have you ever considered the difference between wealth and riches?”

“I can’t say I have. They both seem the same to me.”

“Oh, really,” Thorne replied. “For an intelligent man, you are being very obtuse. Surely wealth is what you have in your pocket, whereas riches are what you have inside yourself. You are an American, sir. Surely I don’t need to remind you of the words of Benjamin Franklin?”


“Yes. Did he not say that if a man puts the contents of his purse into his head, no-one can take the result away from him?”

“I’m not familiar with the expression.”

Thorne pursed his lips. “Let me try from another angle,” he said. It’s obvious to me, even from this short talk, that you are a man of above average acuity. You are equipped to succeed at whatever you put your mind to. I ask you to consider how many people are in that position. You may well conclude that there are few. Now, by what right do you deprive the world of one such person? It’s pure selfishness, sir. You have not only a right but an obligation to offer the rest of us what you can. One might say that by being born you have paid for your ticket through life and that you owe it to yourself and to everyone else to take the whole trip.”

Ransome fingered his chin “That’s an interesting way of looking at things,” he said. “I’m damned if I know what to say.”

“Well,” said Thorne, “I can’t give you any more of my time and I’ll not trouble you for your two hundred and sixty-three dollars. I think you’re a poor businessman. Your heart seems to be bigger than your head. However, I believe you’re fundamentally a good sort.” He delved into his valise, drawing out a wad of banknotes and handing them over to Ransome. “You’ll find four thousand dollars there,” he said. “From what you say, that should tide you over. Now, pull yourself together. I shall watch your progress and I hope you will not fail me. However, if you should decide to use your gun after all, remember that it should be put into the mouth, pointed upwards. Any other way and you could make a mess of things and become a burden to others. That happened to a young fellow I knew. Shot himself in the temple and wound up in a coma for ages. Terrible nuisance to his family. Most inconsiderate of him. Anyway, time is of the essence, so I really must leave you.”

With a dazed expression, Ransome retrieved his gun from the drawer and handed it butt-first to Thorne. “Thank you,” he said quietly “I don’t think I’ll need this now, but just to be sure, I’d be obliged if you take it with you.”

Following his talk with John Thorne, Joseph Ransome spent two hours in deep thought. Thereafter, he worked as a man possessed. By six that morning, he had hauled elderly Isaac Rowley, the town’s only accountant, from his bed and got him working at full speed. Next, the busy banker roused the local newspaperman, asking him to stand by to run off a single-page item later that morning.

Shortly after nine o’clock, Ransome’s first customers arrived to find a notice in the window, stating that the annual audit was in progress and that there would be business as usual after the noon break.

At one o’clock, the bank opened to a line of investors, resolved to recover what they could. On entering, they were confronted with a conspicuous display of cash behind the tellers and, thanks to the newspaperman, a pile of copies of the bank’s balance sheet, complete with Rowley’s certificate to the effect that the accounts had been inspected and that the reserves were substantially above average for a finance house. There was no requirement for any more details from the books to be made public, nor was the auditor obliged to explain how the conduct of the bank’s affairs had confounded widespread belief by leading to such a healthy position.

The truth was that Rowley had accepted that Joseph Ransome had produced an injection of money from his own resources to keep the business solvent. The elderly auditor had been mindful of that when doing his work. He had also carefully considered the damaging social consequences of a run on the bank. And he had been conscious of the fact that he was one of Ransome’s most substantial investors. Taking things all round, there did not seem to be anything to be said for rocking the boat.

Nobody in town was more respected than Rowley. His seal of approval was good enough. All those who had been ready to clamour for their money returned home, most of them shamefaced. It was striking that none of John Thorne’s victims of the night before connected their losses with Ransome’s show of soundness. Indeed, the fact that the bank had not been robbed was attributed to its impregnability. That was taken as a salutary lesson to all and sundry.

Joseph Ransome and John Thorne never met or corresponded after that fateful morning. Ransome survived the rough patch, stayed in his line of business and went on to become highly successful, managing at the same time to be well-liked by almost all his customers – no easy feat for a banker. He died of natural causes, twenty-two years after that early-morning talk with his improbable benefactor.

No-one but Thorne himself would ever know what went through his mind after he had spoken with Joseph Ransome. Riding fast on a rented horse, he reached the railroad halt north of Grant’s Ferry and caught the early morning train, heading back to the eastern seaboard, where his life in America had started. There, he consolidated all his bank accounts into a fund, financing a foundation and home for the rehabilitation of criminals who had served their prison sentences. He laboured day and night in that cause, exhausting himself physically and mentally, committing almost all his wealth to the effort and achieving success that made his name a byword in the field. For himself, he set aside from the beginning exactly the same sum of money he had left with Joseph Ransome – four thousand two hundred and sixty-three dollars. The cash was kept in a safe in his quarters – three rooms in the home’s premises.

For over two decades, Thorne brooked no distractions. He never even got around to the scientific work he had envisaged. By a curious coincidence, he died at the age of fifty-two, in the same week that Joseph Ransome passed away. On the last day of his life, Thorne was addressing his dozen charges in the common room when his quarters were burgled in broad daylight. His money was stolen, the loss leaving him penniless.

Miss Emma Strang, who had for many years doubled as Thorne’s housekeeper and matron of his institution’s premises, told police investigators that two hours after the break-in, she had heard Thorne in his apartment, laughing loudly. That was the only evidence of humour she had noticed on her employer’s part in all the time she had served him. A moment later, she heard a loud report. Unable to restrain her curiosity, she had gone to Thorne’s living room door and, on hearing nothing further, had knocked. There was no response, so she had entered the room, finding the public benefactor sprawled back in the chair behind his desk, dead of a self-inflicted head wound. The gun he had used – the one he had accepted from Joseph Ransome so long ago – was on the floor, though it was clear that he had fired the fatal short by placing the barrel in his mouth.

* * *

November 3rd, 2012, 07:15 PM

Baxendale was one of Montana’s more affluent towns. The original settlement became the hub of an area of cattle country and for some years the community thrived, though it was a one-industry place. Then, after the passing of the Homestead Act, settlers began to appear. Their arrival might have caused the same kind of trouble as occurred elsewhere. That it did not was attributable to the influence of Edmund Canfield, doyen of the ranchers.

Some of the cattlemen, possessive about their hallowed open range, resented the incursion of farmers, but no one wanted to make a hostile move without a lead from Canfield. They did not get the one they had in mind, for their spokesman had seen that the days of the unfenced range were numbered. The only question was whether the transition would be rough or smooth. Canfield counselled in favour of a welcome to the homesteaders, arguing that the town’s survival would depend on a broader base of activities.

The old man prevailed, as he did later, when the sheepmen arrived. Potentially, this was an even more explosive situation, but Canfield had studied the grazing habits of sheep and cattle and judged them to be more complementary than competitive. He was as right about that as he had been about the homesteaders.

To cap everything, shortly after the first sheepherders arrived, gold was discovered nearby. Again, the town was lucky, for this was not the placer metal that caused the familiar fever, but a limited and difficult seam, demanding and receiving the attention of a large mining company. It was just enough to enhance Baxendale’s prosperity without spoiling the place.

Among those gaining most from the town’s happy position was Maurice Laver. At the time of the gold find, he was forty-nine years of age. A man of medium height, his stocky build running to fat, he had luxuriant black hair with traces of grey and clear brown eyes in a smooth clean-shaven face. He liked the good things in life – first class liquor, top quality cigars, fashionable clothes and the like. His house was unquestionably the most imposing one in town, and he was taken to and from it in an imported landau, pulled by a perfectly matched pair of splendid horses.

Laver monopolised the law business in Baxendale. Trained in the East, he had moved west soon after graduation and had come upon the place by accident. Seeing its potential, he had put down his roots and was for six years the town’s only lawyer. At first, he had been satisfied with the ample rewards of his profession. Later, he was seized by ambition.

Like anyone in his profession, Laver became privy to many secrets and since he secured all the local business, he became a nerve-centre of confidential information. A more conventional lawyer would have accepted that as normal and thought no more of it. However, Laver began to see how he could turn various things to his advantage. He found that, in return for passing on, or refraining from passing on, sensitive details from certain sources to certain destinations, he could do very well for himself. In short, he became an extortioner. Nothing as crass as common blackmail, of course. More a question of clients compensating Laver for his malleable discretion. After all, it was difficult for a man to limit his social life for fear of taking one drink too many and possibly betraying trust. Some recompense was appropriate. Shall we say an increase of fifty per cent over normal fees? No, perhaps a hundred per cent. More secure that way.

When the railroad company put in a spur from the main line to Baxendale, the town got a telegraph office and Laver added another arrow to his quiver. It took a little bustling around and a few words in the right ears, but the result was to prove worth the effort. The lawyer got his cousin installed as wire operator. Thereafter, he was able to glean even more than before. Much of what came his way was useless, but things looked up when his proxy employee drew his attention to coded messages addressed to the mining company.

Though he had no talent for dealing with cyphers himself, Laver remembered a fellow who had been in the same year as himself at law school in Philadelphia. The man had had an addiction to conundrums of any kind. Baxendale’s lawyer was not one to pass up any opportunity to further his interests. Having traced his former classmate, who was still in the City of Brotherly Love, Laver copied three messages onto plain paper and sent them to him, with a letter explaining that the cryptic notes had turned up as part of the estate of a deceased client. Could they be deciphered?

There was no difficulty. The man’s love of puzzles was as great as ever. He replied quickly, saying that he hoped Laver might provide him with some more demanding material, as the code was merely a question of substitutions. All one needed to know was the relative frequency of letter usage in the language, from which point there was a little trial and error. Laver was supplied with the key.

The expert cryptographer did not allude to the fact the messages seemed to have no logical connection with what Laver claimed was their source. As it happened, they were far from sensational and gave away no secrets of any consequence. However, some later ones were much more informative, supplying details of investment plans, stocks and so on, which Laver exploited several times.

Nothing lasts forever. One day a fellow named Roland Sharp arrived in Baxendale. He was an attorney in his middle thirties and, having taken a fancy to the town, decided to stay. He found accommodation in the form of three rooms above a general store, accessed by a flight of wooden stairs. He was industrious and efficient and soon cut himself a sizeable wedge of the local cake in legal matters. Not the gregarious type, he made no effort to associate with Laver, or even to contact him. Sharp’s assessment was that there was enough work in the town for two lawyers. Laver’s view was different.

On a dark rain-swept evening, six months after Roland Sharp arrived in Baxendale, one of the townsmen was on his way home and somewhat the worse for drink, when he stumbled over what he first thought was a sack of trash in the street. Closer inspection revealed that it was Sharp, or more accurately his corpse. The body lay at the bottom of the stairs leading to the lawyer’s office. Three feet away was a rum bottle, almost empty.

Deputy Sheriff Tom Donaldson was summoned and he in turn brought in the town doctor, who pronounced that Sharp had died of head injuries, presumably suffered in a fall down the stairs, the flimsy hand rail being broken and leaning out over the adjacent alleyway. A strong smell of drink from the dead man’s mouth and his clothing was noted as a probable contributory factor.

It seemed an open and shut case, but Donaldson was puzzled. As a part of his duties, he took a close interest in newcomers to the town and had noticed that Sharp had always appeared a model of sobriety, never visiting the saloons. Being a thorough man, Donaldson toured the town, calling at any place that stocked the brand of liquor found near the body. The answer was clear. Sharp had looked after himself, buying such things as a small household might need, but no alcoholic beverages of any kind. Since arrival, he had never left the town, so if he had been a secret drinker, he must have brought his supply with him. But Donaldson recalled that the man had arrived with only a carpet bag and a cardboard box, open at the top and full of books, and had subsequently bought everything he needed from the local stores. Not conclusive, Donaldson thought, but odd.

Almost a year after the lawyer’s death, a young man named Alan Easterbrook arrived in Baxendale. Like the unfortunate Sharp, he was in the legal business and, being newly qualified, was seeking to make a name for himself. Apart from their common profession, Easterbrook was different from Sharp in many ways – physically much larger, clearly far better off and very flamboyant. He immediately found good premises on the main street and lost no time in making his presence felt. He adopted a high profile, renting the largest house available, buying a handsome carriage and touring the town and its surroundings extensively. He was, he maintained, in Baxendale to stay. Unlike Sharp, he made a point of calling Maurice Laver, stating his intentions.

Easterbrook certainly made an impact. With his dashing lifestyle, he was not everyone’s idea of a legal practitioner, but he was undoubtedly competent and no one for whom he acted had any reason to regret engaging him. He made inroads and gave every indication of doing even better than his deceased predecessor.

One day, four months after his arrival in Baxendale, Easterbrook set out to keep an appointment with one of the nearby ranchers. He never arrived. Several hours later, a cowboy from the ranch found the lawyer’s buggy, one wheel broken, at the trailside. He also found Easterbrook face-down at the foot of a tree, dead.

Again, Deputy Sheriff Donaldson was brought in and again, he summoned the doctor, who closely inspected a long gash on Easterbrook’s head. In and around the wound were fragments of tree bark. A large stone completed the picture. Obviously, the carriage wheel had struck the obstacle, throwing the lawyer head-first at the tree. It was no great surprise. Easterbrook had been a racy, extravagant fellow, and while his death was regrettable, the general view was that it somehow seemed to match his life. Donaldson could only concur. Still, it was strange that lawyers were coming and going in this way.

After Easterbrook’s death, eight months passed, then the residents of Baxendale were surprised to find themselves with yet another new lawyer. This time, the man’s name was Eugene Craine. He was a tall thin fellow in his late forties, dark-faced, with black hair and a small moustache. His explanation for his appearance in the town was that he had chest trouble and had been advised to move to the West on health grounds.

Craine settled in quietly. Like Sharp, he found premises which served him as both home and office. A withdrawn man, he made no great show but he did, at first slowly, then with increasing pace, build up a clientele. He was as sound as he was undemonstrative. Like Sharp and unlike Easterbrook, he made no effort to strike up acquaintanceship with Maurice Laver.

Over three months, Craine advanced to the point at which he was taking a significant share of the town’s legal business. Then, one morning, a rancher client called on him to finalise a deal. As there was no response to his knock, the cattleman tried the door. Finding it open, he walked in to see Craine sprawled back in the chair behind his cluttered desk. Unable to get any response from his lawyer, the rancher hurried off to Deputy Sheriff Donaldson. Once more, the doctor was brought in. Among the items on the desk was a small bottle. The doctor sniffed at it, then at Craine’s lips. “Almonds,” he said. “This man has taken poison.”

Tom Donaldson returned to his office in a thoughtful mood. For three hours, he gave his fellow deputy no more than the odd grunt then, in mid-afternoon, he picked up his hat and set off towards the telegraph office. Halfway there, he stopped abruptly, stood in the middle of the sidewalk, massaging his chin, then swung round and returned to his office. “I’m riding over to the county seat,” he said to his colleague. “Hold the fort till tomorrow, Ben, will you?” In answer to his partner’s query as to his reason for such a burst of energy, he shrugged his heavy shoulders. “I’d rather not say right now,” he mumbled. “Maybe I’m being foolish. We’ll see.”

Baxendale’s people had been startled by the arrival of Eugene Craine, and even more so by his departure. Their astonishment was still greater when, three weeks after his death, the afternoon train brought in two travelling companions. One was a small mousey man wearing a black suit, a narrow-brimmed hat, tie and shoes of the same colour, and a white shirt. The other was a short stout, woman, around forty years of age, blond-haired and dressed in dark-grey travelling clothes of high quality. The arrival of the couple was accompanied by a good deal of fuss, as they brought with them a prodigious amount of baggage.

The woman appeared to be in charge of matters and immediately sent the man off on some errand. Then she hovered by the five large trunks and three cases, which had been hauled off the train by the guard and a couple of fellow passengers. The woman had obviously made some arrangements in advance. Within five minutes, her travelling companion returned with the livery stable owner, another man and a buckboard. The mountain of possessions was moved to an empty house on the main street. When the unloading was finished, the liveryman grinned at the newcomer. “Jesus, lady, if you’ll pardon my language, nobody could accuse you of travellin’ light,” he said.

“Your language does not shock me, sir,” the woman replied. “I’m grateful for your help and as for the baggage, it is a necessary part of my business. It’s mostly law books. That is my profession and one I intend to practise here. I propose to start at once and if you wish to recommend me to any of your acquaintances, I shall be obliged.”

This was good news to the man, who was an inveterate gossip. Now unrestrained, he lost no time in spreading the word and by that evening, there was scarcely a person in Baxendale who wasn’t abreast of the development.

The following day, the town saw nothing of the woman, who was busy arranging her copious effects. Once, the small black-suited man called at her house, stayed for an hour, then returned to his own lodgings.

Shortly before noon the next day Maurice Laver was working at his desk when his secretary announced a lady visitor. Checking that he was at his impeccable best, Laver stood and invited in his caller, thus getting his first sight of the woman who had arrived the previous day. Her unpacking completed, she had decided to confront the entrenched opposition. “Good morning, sir,” she said brightly. “My name is Rose Faraday. I’m here to practise law. As we shall be competitors, I thought it best to speak with you at the outset.”

“Your frankness does you credit. I welcome your arrival and I hope we shall have a cordial relationship. Please take a seat.”

Rose Faraday was smartly turned out in a bright red jacket and skirt and white blouse, with a gold brooch at her throat. She sat facing Laver. “I do hope you are right,” she replied primly. “I am a woman in what is largely a man’s world, but I am a good lawyer with a very capable assistant, and I hope to succeed.”

Laver gave his visitor a broad smile. “Well spoken, Miss Faraday,” he said.

“Mrs. I am a widow.”

“Beg pardon ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t concern yourself, Mr Laver. I am accustomed to being alone and the situation suits me.”

“I see. And did you feel that I could help you?”

“I doubt that. I am an ambitious person and I think you should know that I intend to gather all the work I can. I’ve heard that there have been other lawyers who failed in Baxendale and it seems right that I should tell you here and now that I do not contemplate adding to that list.”

Laver spread his hands. “I understand, ma’am,” he said blandly. “As for myself, I must say that I have been saddened by the loss of, let me see . . . yes, three gentlemen who might have been valued colleagues. However, you have made your position clear and I appreciate that. Now, is there anything else?”

Rose Faraday stood. “No, sir. I think that is all. I must get to work now. As they say in sporting circles, may the better person win. Good day, Mr Laver.”

“Good day, ma’am.”

Rose Faraday’s speed matched her directness. As soon as she left Laver, she engaged a carpenter, who quickly converted the main room in her rented house into a consulting chamber. The trunks were unpacked and the newly-made bookshelves were stocked with an impressive array of tomes, most of them leather-bound, on all aspects of the law.

Baxendale’s latest legal practitioner toured the town and its surrounding area in much the same way as Alan Easterbrook had done, but with the remarkable difference that for an introductory period, she would provide her services free of charge. The goodwill generated would benefit her in the long run, she asserted. It was an aggressive tactic and resoundingly successful.

One thing the clients noticed was that the new lawyer’s assistant was always present during consultations. He had a small desk in one corner of the room. It was also observed that it was he who almost invariably took notes. Rose Faraday asked the questions, but seldom wrote anything down. She left that to the unobtrusive little fellow, speaking to him in the presence of a client only when a point arose which required an immediate unequivocal answer. Then Rose would hand the floor over to her helper, saying that the issue in question was one in which he specialised. All documentation was prepared by the man.

The effect of Rose Faraday’s activities upon Maurice Laver’s business was severe. Within weeks, Baxendale’s established lawyer found that the previously well-trodden path to his door became virtually unused. That didn’t surprise him. He knew he would not have won any local popularity contest and was well aware that his practice had flourished because, except for the three brief spells of competition, he had long had a stranglehold on legal work. Now the exotic newcomer had declared commercial war on him. Well, if rough and tumble methods were required, he would not be found wanting.

Rose Faraday lived alone above her office in the house she had rented. The assistant had a room in the better of the town’s two hotels. One evening, just over two months after her arrival in Baxendale, Rose retired early, read for a while, then settled down to sleep. She had been well aware from the outset that her bold conduct might well provoke an adverse reaction from at least one quarter, so she had taken precautions, always locking her bedroom door at night, securing the sash window catch and keeping a loaded two-shot Derringer on her bedside table.

The measures Rose had taken didn’t help her when the trouble came. At four in the morning, she was roused by the sound of her door being shoulder-charged open to admit a large man who crossed to the bed in three long strides. Seeing Rose’s small weapon, he swept it to the floor before she could get a hand free. “Get up, lady,” he said gruffly. “You an’ me’s goin’ for a little ride.”

Getting to her feet, Rose looked at the face she had seen many times around the town. “Very well,” she said, “if you’ll give me a minute or two to put on some clothes. Or do you propose to abduct me in my nightgown?”

“You can get dressed, but hurry it up. There’s a wagon waitin’ outside.”

Rose drew out the matter as long as she could, selecting a heavy, voluminous riding skirt of mid-brown tweed, a matching short coat and a hooded cloak. Then she fumbled again in the wardrobe, finding a short riding crop, which she tucked into her skirt waistband. The big man’s patience was running out. “Okay, if you’re through, or even if you’re not, just turn an’ face the window an’ put your hands behind you,” he grunted. “An’ from now on keep quiet, or you’ll be sorry.”

“Do you mean I won’t be sorry otherwise?” Rose asked rhetorically.

The man bound the proffered hands then, to be sure she wouldn’t rouse the neighbourhood, gagged his captive with a neckerchief. With Rose in the lead, the two left the house. A buckboard was waiting in the side alley. The man lifted Rose as though handling a bag of feathers, dumped her onto the passenger seat, then took the reins and moved off. It was still pitch dark, the streets deserted. Once clear of the town, the man increased speed, keeping up a brisk pace for almost an hour. Finally, he turned off the trail, rounded a low hill and drove a further mile, stopping at a derelict homestead. Then he removed his victim’s gag, untied her hands and told her to get down and walk ahead of him towards the dilapidated shack.

Rose Faraday was a quick thinker and not easily intimidated. After walking a few steps, she said, over her shoulder: “Well, what are you going to do with me, Mr Mason?”

“Oh, you know who I am, do you?”

“Really, sir. I have been in Baxendale for some time now. I could hardly not know who you are.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, how shall I put it? Let me see, I am five feet three inches in height. You are at least a foot taller and you must weigh over two hundred and fifty pounds. You loaf around the town nearly all of every day, with no obvious means of support. In a place the size of Baxendale, you are about as inconspicuous as a singing crocodile.”

“Smart lady, eh? Well, bein’ clever ain’t goin’ to do you no good now.”

Rose half turned, only to be roughly spun back and pushed onwards. That didn’t stop her talking. “What do you have in mind for me, Mr Mason? Am I to be intoxicated and thrown down a flight of stairs, or have my brains knocked out against a tree, or be forced to drink poison, or have you thought up something more original this time?”

“Nothin’ fancy. You’re goin’ down that hole yonder.” He pointed to the stone wall of an old well, over which a rusty iron bucket swung gently in the light breeze. “Ain’t no one ever comes out here any more. Coupla hundredweight o’ rocks on you should do it.”

Rose was walking a pace ahead of Mason and fractionally to his right, the big man’s six-gun held two feet from her back. Not that Mason believed that he needed the weapon. This was going to be an easy one – light relief after his disposal of the other lawyers.

With her right hand, Rose drew from a coat pocket a small cylindrical tin. Mason was so close that she could hear his breathing, which was heavy, as he was not in prime physical condition. The timing would be critical. If Rose was to succeed, she would need to catch the rhythm of that breathing. Ten yards from the well, Mason exhaled loudly. Now! Rose flicked off the top of the little container and, swinging her right hand around, threw the contents into Mason’s face. Half an ounce of ground white pepper, taken on the in-breath, is quite a shock and the big man began to gasp and splutter. Rose whipped out the riding crop and, making full use of her solid hundred and forty pounds, smashed the weapon down onto Mason’s gun-hand.

Incapacitated by the startling attack, the big man yowled, dropping the gun. Rose kicked it as far away as she could and scurried after it. Mason recovered from the effects of the inhalation of pepper to find himself looking down the barrel of his own weapon. He began to lurch forwards. “Why, you –”

“Stop,” snapped Rose. “Don’t move. You really must be careful here, sir. I am not accustomed to using firearms. However, I believe this is what is called a double-action gun. I understand that I don’t need to cock the hammer but only pull the trigger. Just to check that I have it right, we’ll try that old jug over there – and keep your distance, or I might pick a different target.” She pointed the gun at an empty, dust-coated earthenware crock by the door of the shack. Using both hands to hold the heavy gun steady, she fired, shattering the vessel. At nearly thirty yards, in murky light and apparently without any great effort to aim, it was either excellent shooting or an astonishing fluke. “Yes,” said Rose, “that seems satisfactory.”

If Mason had entertained any ideas of taking advantage of the digression, they were short-lived, for the gun barrel immediately swung back to cover him. “Now, Mr Mason,” said Rose, “I think you had better sit. Please make yourself as comfortable as you can on the ground. We are going to have a long talk.”

At noon on the day of the attempted murder of Rose Faraday, Maurice Laver was at his desk, drawing nervously at his third cigar since breakfast. He had good grounds for his tension. Mason should have reported back to him hours ago. The agitated lawyer was reaching for the brandy bottle in a desk drawer when his secretary knocked, opened the door and announced a visitor. Rose swept in, closing the door to exclude the employee. “Good morning, Mr Laver,” she said, all sweetness and light. “No, please don’t get up. I will take a seat though, if you don’t mind.”

Laver’s jaw dropped. “I . . . er . . . well, yes, please do,” he said.

Rose sat in the sole visitor’s chair, facing Laver. “You seem surprised to see me,” she said, smiling broadly.

“No. No, not at all, dear lady,” Laver answered, recovering as much composure as he could. “Is something wrong?”

Rose sat back, folding her hands in her lap. “Well, Mr Laver, that depends upon one’s point of view. From yours, I would say that everything is wrong.”

“I see. Or rather, I don’t see. To put it bluntly, Mrs Faraday, what’s up?”

“The game, Mr. Laver. As far as you are concerned, the game is up.”

“I think you’d better explain.”

“Gladly. I will spare you the details of dates and times, but to be brief, you arranged the deaths of Roland Sharp, Alan Easterbrook and Eugene Craine and you devised a similar fate for me. Very little in this life comes free of charge, Mr Laver, and now it’s time for you to pay.”

“Fascinating. I suppose you have proof of this absurd allegation?”

“Please don’t be tiresome. Of course I have proof. I did not need to call on you today, but felt that I should explain the position. I am not a lawyer. I work for the Bibby Detective Agency and I was engaged by the sheriff of this county to investigate the three murders I’ve just mentioned.”

“I see. You’re a bright one, Mrs Faraday. Of course, I realised that, but I didn’t rate you as quite so sharp.”

“Why, Mr Laver, I thought you might have realised that where there’s a rose, there are thorns.”

“A good point. Well, your methods seem to be very elaborate. You appear to have been practising law. How do you explain that?”

“A facade, Mr Laver. The gentleman who has been helping me is a qualified lawyer. All that he has done was perfectly valid. He was hired for the purpose. The same applies to all those law books. Most of them are what the theatrical people call stage properties. We knew we could not prove what you had done, without provoking you to try the same thing again. I think we did it quite well. It seemed appropriate that I should visit you before the matter was brought to a conclusion.”

As Rose spoke, Laver’s right hand moved to the upper drawer of his desk. He produced a single-shot Derringer, levelling it at his visitor. “I appreciate the courtesy,” he said. “Now, I think it might be wise on my part to arrange that conclusion here and now.”

“Oh, come, Mr Laver,” said Rose, clearly unconcerned by the threat. “You would be ill-advised to do that. Now, I am not normally one to lecture, but I must say that you were unwise in your choice of associate. Your hireling, Mr Mason, does not have the mentality to match his huge physique. When confronted with his misdeeds, he became most cooperative. I fear he has let you down. When I left him, fifteen minutes ago, he was signing a statement, confessing that he had killed three people on your instructions. He was most voluble.”

Until he heard that, Laver had felt that he might have had some way out. Now he was crushed. He answered in the rapid gabble of sheer bluster. “You’re lying, just to get an admission. It’s true I know Mason slightly. I’ve given him a few odd jobs now and then, but if you think they included murder, you must be insane.”

Rose assumed a pained expression. “Mr Laver, you are being fatuous. Dealing with Mason was quite simple. He is not accustomed to pressure. He will be hanged. I’m afraid I deceived him so far as to intimate that I could influence the court to moderate his sentence. Actually, I have no such power. As for your position, Deputy Sheriff Donaldson will be here within ten minutes and will take you into his custody. You may well share Mason’s fate. In terms of the machinery of justice, that would be the better course for you because the only legal alternative would be a life sentence with hard labour. Do you know anything about prison existence?”


“Well, if Mr Mason were facing jail instead of a death sentence, he would probably cope well with it. Being a big strong dull-witted man, he might be quite pleased to get food and accommodation, and no one would pester such a brute. Your situation is different. You are used to the good life. Almost certainly, the confinement and hard labour would kill you. But that isn’t all, Mr Laver. You have to consider the company. Goodness knows, the warders are not always the most humane of people. Then, much worse, think of the other inmates. A man softened as you have been would seem rather effeminate. You would be prey to the – what shall I say? – personal attentions of your fellow prisoners. And before that, there’s the horror and disgrace of a trial. That could be a long affair, which no one really wants. Not nice, Mr Laver. Not nice at all.”

“If you’re making a point, ma’am, please do so.”

“Very well. You have a gun there. I notice it is a one-round Derringer. If you wish to shoot me, there is nothing I can do to prevent that.” She stood, fixing Laver with an unflinching stare. “However, I intend to leave you now. You might care to decide for yourself the appropriate destination for your single bullet. Goodbye, sir.”

Deputy Sheriff Donaldson arrived at Laver’s office five minutes after Rose Faraday left it, his purpose being to arrest the stricken lawyer. He was too late.

* * *

November 10th, 2012, 07:18 PM

The Tinhorn had been in the little Texas town for less than a month, in which time he had come close to cornering the market in money. He’d cleaned out most of the cowpunchers and the few loafers and had made a considerable dent in the funds of the retail business ranks. That wasn’t too surprising. Being a professional card player he was, like others of his kind, likely to come out on top over a protracted spell of play. But this place had been extraordinarily good to him and his winnings were well beyond what he had guessed as a possible maximum.

He had been thinking that it was about time to move on. After all, there couldn’t be inexhaustible supplies of cash here. If he had been obliged to rely on the town alone, he would by now be playing for matchsticks. His decision to leave had been delayed only because the place was a popular riverboat stop. Owing to that, he had been able to augment his gains by entertaining such travellers as cared to exchange the diversions of waterborne gambling for their land-based counterparts. The boats stopped for only three or four hours, but that was enough for some players to lose heavily.

Around seven each evening, the Tinhorn would enter the Waterside Tavern and take his place at the table he had effectively commandeered. He was about thirty, of average height, slim, black-haired, clean-shaven, pale-faced and always fashionably – some said foppishly – dressed. His routine was unvarying. He would always sit in the same chair, facing the batwing doors, check his wallet, deposit his silver cigar case on the table top, light a panatella and start juggling with the cards.

It was an education to watch him. He could cut and shuffle with rare dexterity, making the cards do everything but sing and dance. After giving a brief example of his legerdemain, he would settle down to play patience until the gamblers appeared, then it would always be five-card draw poker. His dealing was something to behold. Where less skilled players would lean halfway across the table to hand out the cards, he always dealt from a spot right under his nose, flicking the pasteboards to land with unerring accuracy in front of the intended recipient. Aside from playing his part in the rounds of bidding and passing, he spoke little and then, oddly enough, almost always while he was dealing.

Naturally, the Tinhorn failed now and then, as the law of averages suggested he must, but in the course of an evening, he always won plenty. He seemed to have a sixth sense where the cards were concerned. When he lost, his reverses were usually modest. Sometimes he also won only small amounts, but on other occasions it was quite uncanny how he seemed to know when a major killing was to be made. Then he would up the stakes quickly, carrying others along in a gaming fever, then crushing them. Several times he beat what seemed like obviously winning hands and once he astounded a gaggle of onlookers by producing a jack-high straight flush against an opponent’s nine-high one – an amazing outcome.

One evening, a couple of the younger cowboys asked him, without suggesting any impropriety, how he managed to win so often and how he almost always knew when the big coup was to be made. “Well, boys,” he replied, “I guess it’s like any other field in this life. You’d expect a full-time player to beat an amateur over a distance. It’s because I know what to look for. Maybe I’m giving away too many secrets here, but I concentrate on a number of little things. Sometimes it’s the widening of a man’s eyes when he picks up a good hand. Occasionally, it’s just the twitch of a finger. Then there’s often a little something in a man’s voice when he’s stating his play. A man with a lot of experience just gets to be on the alert for reflexes that a casual player doesn’t notice. That’s all there is to it, but everything adds up over a matter of hours.”

There were people who were convinced that something more was involved, and several of them got to wondering whether anything could be done about it. Town Marshal Dave Barton, who had lost substantially to the Tinhorn over the first two weeks, hit upon an idea. Why not form a group of the biggest losers, to see how the situation should be handled? Barton soon recruited his committee. Including himself, there were five members, the others being the town’s physician, Doctor Timothy Donovan, the leading storeowner, Saul Holdsworth, the undertaker, Andrew Roper and the saddler, Otto Schnabel. The group met and within five minutes, agreed that the first step would be to invite Jonas Hathaway to help.

Hathaway was the most prominent member of the local ranching community. He ran a large spread, with headquarters twelve miles west of the town. In his younger days, he had been known as a very handy man at a card table. However, he was now seventy-three years of age and reckoned himself so arthritic that he could start up his own chalk factory by just rubbing his hands together. He seldom came into town any more, but was happy to receive the members of the action group at his ranch and agreed to help if he could. He was a rich man and didn’t mind the possibility of a limited loss, for old time’s sake. It was agreed that he would ride in the same evening and see what he could make of the situation.

Play started around seven-thirty and within two hours, the Tinhorn and Jonas Hathaway were the only players left, the others having excused themselves because of either shortage of funds or the departing boat. By midnight, Hathaway also gave up, claiming that his advanced years entitled him to a little sleep from time to time. Before going to his hotel room for the night, he conferred with the full action group. Marshal Barton asked him how he had made out.

Jonas shook his head. “I’m down four hundred dollars, boys,” he said. “I don’t know how he does it. He isn’t using marked cards, that’s for sure, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar he’s cheating somehow. I thought at one point I’d have to put the deed to my spread in the pot.” This brought a roar of laughter from the others, for everyone knew that Jonas no more had a deed to his ranch than he had title to the Louisiana Purchase. In fact he had acquired his land by shooting dead the previous occupier in a range war and thereafter defying all comers.

After Hathaway’s departure, the group started to puzzle out the next move. Marshal Barton shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I’m at the end of my tether,” he said. “Has anybody any ideas?”

Holdsworth paused in the act of lighting a cigar. “There’s a big gambler downriver a piece,” he said. “Doc . . . now what was it . . . Doc . . .?”

“Oh, it would be,” put in Roper, the tall, lugubrious mortician, his sarcasm palpable. “They’re always called Doc something or other. I suppose he’s consumptive as well – they usually are?”

“No, he isn’t,” snapped Holdsworth, piqued by this ridicule, “and I recall his name now. It’s Doc Robinson. Anyway, I just remembered that he’s no use to us at present.”

“Why not?” asked Roper.

“Because he’s in hospital. A case of poisoning, I heard.”


“Yes. Lead poisoning. He caught it from something that came out of a six-gun when he was holding cards that somebody thought he shouldn’t have had.” Marshal Barton rubbed his jaw. “Well, that rules him out,” he said. “Any other suggestions?”

Saddler Schnabel then made his single contribution, which turned out to be the vital one. “I think maybe we should send for Precious Pete,” he said.

“Precious Pete?” said Doctor Donovan, a relative newcomer to the town. “I seem to be at a disadvantage here.”

“Oh, right. I guess you wouldn’t know,” answered Marshal Barton. “It’s an old story. He used to be called ‘Precious Metal Pete’ and then the ‘Metal’ got dropped somewhere along the way. He’s a funny old buzzard, but a sort of institution here. He made a heap of gold in the California rush of forty-nine, then lost it all playing cards. After that he somehow got a piece of the Comstock business and made himself rich again with silver. Lost that pile in the same way as before. I guess he must have been skinned by pretty near every cardsharp in the West. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s met them all, from Canada to Mexico. He just fools around now, pretending to do a little prospecting. Lives in an old shack a few miles north of here.”

“You think he might be able to help?” asked the doctor.

“It’s worth a try. I’ll send my deputy to bring him into town tomorrow.”

At noon the following day, the group met again. The deputy marshal had brought in Precious Pete, a scruffy-looking old character who did not seem in the least downcast by having won and lost fortunes over the years.

Marshal Barton asked the old-timer if he could recommend a good card cheat who could be recruited, stressing that the action group was willing to look hard – far afield if necessary and if time permitted – for a reliable man.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” said Precious Pete. “You only have to go over into the next county. There’s a young fellow there by the name of Clarence Moon. He’ll fit your needs perfectly. Why, Clarence will cheat your eyeballs out with pleasure. Only you’ll pardon my askin’ gentlemen, but I’m just wonderin’ why you want somebody to swindle you, seein’ as how it’s so easy to lose money at cards anyway?”

Marshal Barton put a meaty arm around the old man’s shoulders. “No, Pete,” he said, “we don’t want to hire the man to cheat us. We want him to get the better of a gambler who we think has been taking advantage of us here in town.”

“Oh, I see,” said Pete. “Well, maybe I know the man. Who is he?”

That was a good question. The Tinhorn had never once mentioned his name and, in keeping with local etiquette, no one had asked him to do so. This necessitated a short adjournment, so that Marshal Barton could take Precious Pete to the saloon, where the ace gambler usually had an afternoon drink at around this time. It took only one glance for Pete to confirm that he didn’t recognise the man, whereupon he and the marshal returned and the meeting reconvened, Barton asking how the much-needed Clarence Moon was to be contacted.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Precious Pete, eager to take the opportunity of being useful for once. “I’ll bring him over myself. I know him well an’ I’ve nothin’ special on right now. In fact, I haven’t had anythin’ special on since I lost the pile I made in Nevada a good few years back. ’Course, you’ll excuse me for raisin’ the point, but Clarence is sure to want to know what’s in it for him?”

This was a knotty one. If Clarence Moon were to beat the Tinhorn, why should he not just pocket his winnings and depart, leaving the townspeople no better off than before his arrival? The question gave rise to a babble of cross-talk, sometimes with everyone speaking at once. Marshal Barton finally restored order and various proposals were discussed.

It was decided that a collection be arranged and that the marshal would ask all interested parties to contribute. It was felt that with a little persuasion and the prospect of the return of some or all of the money they had lost, the parties concerned should be able to amass a total of five hundred dollars. This would be handed to Clarence Moon as a stake for one evening’s play. Marshal Barton, who had formidable coercive powers, undertook to discourage unwanted would-be players, thus leaving the field to Clarence and the Tinhorn.

The proposition to be put to Moon was that he should not initially put in any of his own money. If he were to lose the stake supplied to him, he would cease representing the townspeople and decide for himself whether or not to continue playing on his own account. In the event of his winning substantially by use of the five hundred dollars, he would return that sum to the committee and any further gains would be shared equally between him on one side and the earlier losers on the other. Should he win only marginally, a gentlemen’s agreement would be negotiated.

No-one could think through every detail, but to the action group it seemed a good idea. Any additional losses to the townspeople would be limited to the stake they provided for Moon, whereas there was a reasonable chance of their recovering some or all of what they had so far lost, and possibly more. As for Clarence Moon, if he failed, he would not be out of pocket. If he succeeded, he would make himself richer by using, at least initially, other people’s money.

Precious Pete was not so sure. “You have to understand, gentlemen,” he said, “that Clarence Moon is a high-class fellow. Why, I’ve known him win or lose five hundred dollars or more on the turn of one card. ’Course, he may be havin’ a lean time right now. Anyway, I’ll go see him an’ do my best.”

The old man’s best was clearly good enough, for he returned three days later, accompanied by the expert card player. Clarence Moon was a handsome man in his late thirties, middle-sized, with a smooth bland face, a fine head of straight sandy hair and clear frank-looking blue eyes. He immediately met the action group and the proposal, already outlined by Old Pete, was put to him. He was an amiable well-spoken fellow and expressed himself willing to help. “As it happens, gentlemen,” he said, “I was thinking of taking a little vacation anyway and I’d heard good reports about your town. I’m glad to see that there’s some action here. I’ll try to recover your money, or maybe some of it, but naturally, I can’t give any guarantees. How much are you out of pocket?”

Marshal Barton had anticipated that question and amassed the details. “I’ve drawn up a list,” he said. “There are twenty-one of us involved and as of last night, the total is four thousand, nine hundred and sixty dollars. I’m out two hundred and ninety, and I sure as hell can’t afford that on my pay.”

It was fortuitous that Clarence Moon had arrived on that day, for only the evening before, the Tinhorn had confided to the marshal that restlessness had set in and that he was considering a change of scene. However, when he was told that a fellow professional player was on his way and hoped to meet him, the man had agreed to stay on for another day, saying that that was a matter of courtesy. The truth was that he would far rather have vanished at once, but had an uneasy – and fully justified – feeling that he wouldn’t be allowed to. Had he tried, Marshal Barton would have found some way of detaining him.

It was arranged that after spending the afternoon relaxing, Clarence Moon would look in at the saloon in the evening, watch the play for a while and report his observations to the marshal, who was serving as spokesman for the action group. Then Moon would sit in on the game, the marshal ensuring the gradual dropping out of other players, leaving only the two titans in action. Anyone else trying to get involved would be excluded by a word of advice – or if necessary something stronger – by the redoubtable Barton.

Clarence Moon strolled into the saloon at eight o’clock, downed a couple of drinks, took a third and wandered around casually for about half an hour, mingling with the Saturday evening throng and casting the odd, seemingly desultory glance at the card table. Then he strolled over to the bar, where he lounged, watching the play from a distance, for another half-hour. Finally, he drew the marshal aside. “All right,” he said breezily. “I’ve got it.”

Barton was amazed. “That’s mighty quick work,” he said. “I was afraid when you went off to the bar, you’d given up hope. How’s he doing it?”

Moon grinned. “Oh, it’s very simple. An old trick but it still works on just about anybody except another cardsharp. There are various names for it in the trade but I won’t bother you with such details. You just have to spot one or two little points.”

“Such as?”

“Well, you must have noticed that our man’s nearly always smoking those panatellas?”


“Now, have you also observed where he gets them from?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Watch him. He takes them loose, from his left inside coat pocket.”


“Well, doesn’t it strike you as funny that right under his nose he has a cigar case big enough to hold them?”

“Say, that’s true. He never uses it, does he?”

“No,” said Clarence Moon, “and for a very good reason. Maybe you’ve also noticed that he always deals with the cards held pretty close to him and never moves his hands more than absolutely necessary? Also, for a professional player, he deals slowly, and covers that by talking, which is interesting, since he never says more absolutely necessary at other times.”

The marshal nodded. “What does it all amount to?” he asked.

“It’s straightforward enough,” Moon replied. Every time he deals, he uses the top of the cigar case as a mirror, so he knows what cards the other players are getting before they know themselves. All he needs is a very good memory, and a man who gambles for a living is sure to have that.”

The marshal raised his hat and scratched his head. “I see what you mean,” he said, “but that’s only when he’s dealing.”

“True,” said Clarence Moon, “but you’ll have noticed that there are often only three or four men at the table. If he can be sure of winning, or of not losing, every time he deals, he’s sure to come out well on top in any lengthy period of play. When there are only two players, it’s sheer murder.”

“Damn the man,” said Marshal Barton. “Can you do anything about it?”

“Yes I can,” Moon replied. “I have a few different tricks. A bit more elaborate than the one this fellow’s using. I just need to be sure of one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“As you know, it’s quite normal for any player to call for fresh cards from time to time. When I judge it right, I’ll do that at the same time as I light a cigar, which will be my first because up to then I’ll have been smoking cigarettes. That will signal the showdown’s coming. All you have to do is make sure that the packs are all of identical pattern. Can you do that?”

“Sure. There’s only one type in this saloon anyway. The owner gets them from Saul Holdsworth’s store and insists that they always have to be the same style.”

“Good,” said Moon. “Who are those two fellows playing with our man?”

“They came in off the boat. It leaves in twenty minutes, so they’ll be going shortly.”

“Right,” said Moon. “I’ll join the game now and you just see that you keep your local boys out of it. I think I can promise you an interesting evening.” With that, he sauntered over to the card table, introduced himself and began to play. Within ten minutes, the riverboat whistle sounded and the two travellers made their excuses and left. Meanwhile, Marshal Barton moved around the busy barroom, unobtrusively making sure that no one else sat in to complicate proceedings at the card table.

The supposedly clandestine activities of the action group had not had quite the intended result. For one thing, the members had been obliged to collect the money for Clarence Moon’s opening stake. They had of course adjured the contributors to silence, but when nearly two dozen people are thus entreated, there is sure to be a risk that some will be found wanting. The upshot was that with the exception of the Tinhorn, every man in town knew what was afoot.

The Waterside Tavern was busier that evening than it ever had been before. There were townspeople present who hadn’t been in the place for years. Indeed, it was established later that the crowd included at least five men who neither drank alcohol nor gambled. There were also several women, most of whom were paying their first visit to the saloon. By the time the Tinhorn and Clarence Moon got to grips, the barroom was full.

The tension rose steadily as the two professionals manoeuvred, each probing the other’s style, looking for weaknesses. For a short time, the play was slow and cautious, but it soon became clear that Clarence Moon was struggling. The Tinhorn made things look respectable by losing occasionally on his own deals, but overall he was making serious inroads into Moon’s stake. Of course, there was nothing to prevent Clarence from playing on his own account if he lost all of the townspeople’s money, and that was exactly what happened.

By eleven o’clock, Clarence had lost the five hundred, but he went on without batting an eyelid. H was waiting for one special moment and at around midnight, he seemed to have got it. Lighting a cigar, he requested fresh cards. Marshal Barton obliged. Immediately afterwards, Moon upped the ante relentlessly. He was matched by the Tinhorn, who seemed quite unperturbed by the increasing size of the pot.

The spectators were enthralled. This was the first time the saloon had seen gambling of this order. High-denomination bills had been thrown into the pot with what seemed like abandon. Scattered among them were seven twenty-dollar gold coins. In the early stages of what seemed destined to be the final round of the clash, both men seemed confident, but as the bidding increased, the Tinhorn began to show the strain. His forehead glistened with sweat and his normally relaxed attitude gave way to continuous fidgeting. Clarence Moon was still cool. Undertaker Andrew Roper, scenting danger in the air, began to stare speculatively at the players, his mind part-occupied with the thought of possible business. Marshal Barton also prowled around, keeping the onlookers from getting too close.

Finally, Clarence Moon brought matters to a head. After tossing in a couple of big bills, he felt in a pocket and drew out a gold double-eagle. “The last of the Mohicans,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll put it in just for luck.”

The crowd was becoming noisy, so Marshal Barton turned from the table to signal for silence. He swung back as Clarence Moon said: “I guess it’s time to spread them, friend.”

The Tinhorn gave a slight nod. “Yes,” he said, his voice quavering a little, “I suspect you’ll find these good enough.” He laid his cards on the table, face up, poking them apart with a damp finger. It was a wonderful hand – nine, ten, jack, queen and king of diamonds.

Clarence Moon pursed his lips. “King-high straight flush,” he said. “It’s a beauty all right, but just short of requirements.” He exposed his own cards, fanning them casually – ten, jack, queen, king and ace of spades – a royal straight flush. The Tinhorn knew that of over two and a half million possible hands, only four outranked his array. Miraculously, Clarence Moon had produced one of them, beating the virtually unbeatable. The spectators close enough to get a clear view gasped in concert.

The Tinhorn, ashen-faced, gripped the edge of the table between thumbs and forefingers, the veins at his temples throbbing furiously as he struggled for self-control. Then his hot, dark eyes fixed the innocent blue ones of Clarence Moon. For a long nerve-wracking moment, there was complete quiet, then the Tinhorn took his hands from the table and flexed his fingers. “I believe, sir,” he said, “you have been cheating.”

Clarence Moon responded with a thin smile. “Do you, sir?” he replied. “Well, I think I could say the same of you.”

Moon’s words were no sooner out than the two men’s right hands flashed into their jackets, each emerging with a .41 single-round Derringer. Both shots sounded simultaneously, the two bullets crossing, each hitting its mark, the two hearts stopping as one. For an instant, both upper bodies straightened in their chairs, threatening to slump back, then they flopped across the table, the two heads thumping onto the baize in unison, only the heap of money separating them.

After a moment of stunned silence, pandemonium threatened, but Marshal Barton was equal to the occasion. “Quiet everybody,” he bellowed, holding up both arms to take command. “You can talk all you like in a minute. First we deal with this situation.” He moved to the card table and looked briefly at the two corpses. “I reckon we can leave these boys for now,” he said. “They seem to be as dead as doornails anyway. Now what have we got here?” His hands swept between the two inert heads, shovelling up the heap of money. He riffled through the notes, then stacked them, weighing down the pile with the eight gold coins. “Well, would you believe it?” he said to the crowd. “Five thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars. Including what we’d lost before and what we gave Clarence today, we got our money back right to the penny.”

* * *

November 17th, 2012, 07:11 PM

“Set them up, Keith. I’ll fetch a bottle.” Doctor Stefan Breitling bustled off to the kitchen, while his guest laid out the chessboard and pieces for the weekly battle. Breitling, a childless widower, German by birth, had practised medicine for many years in Boston. Following his wife’s death, he’d scratched a long-standing itch to move west. Here, in Copperhead, Idaho, at sixty-one and after eighteen months in his new surroundings, he had no regrets about the change.

Keith Hammond, a bachelor aged twenty-eight, had been raised in a small town forty miles north of Copperhead. He had moved to the larger place four months later than Breitling, when the opportunity had arisen for him to take over the local gunsmith’s business, on the death of the previous owner.

The fact that the two men were experts in their respective ways had caused them to gravitate toward one another, their disparity in years proving no bar to friendship. For nearly a year, they had spent every Friday evening at Breitling’s house, playing chess and putting the world right, frequently sidelining the former pursuit in favour of the latter. That didn’t disappoint Hammond too much, as it usually saved him from yet another drubbing in the game.

Breitling returned to the two high-backed leather fireside chairs, carrying a bottle of French wine and two glasses. “There we are. Now, my turn for white, I think.” He took his seat, savouring the sight of the handsome maple and rosewood board and the superbly crafted ivory figures.

“I do believe it is, Doc, but first I need your advice.”

The doctor smiled. “Well, that’s easily enough offered. What good it is might be another matter. On what subject do you need the view of an old goat like me?”

Hammond took a sheet of paper from a coat pocket and handed it over. “I got this letter today. Frankly, before I do anything about it, I’d like a second opinion.”

Breitling donned his spectacles and read the letter. “Hmn,” he said. “Most interesting.”

“What do you make of it?”

Breitling didn’t answer immediately. He read through the text again, then took off his glasses and peered closely at the writing, smelled the paper, turned it over and ran his hand across the blank reverse side. Then, still saying nothing, he got up and went to the sideboard. He returned with a large magnifying glass, using it to stare long and hard at the paper. Finally, he put down the glass, handed the letter back to Hammond, reclined in his chair and steepled his fingers.

Hammond was accustomed to his host taking some time over replying to any question and usually accepted the habit without comment. On this occasion, Breitling set a new record. Five minutes passed in silence, then his guest could stand no more. “Are you going to say anything, Doc?” he asked.

Breitling gave a little start. “Yes,” he said. “You know, Keith, one can learn a lot about people from their handwriting. It’s a matter to which I’ve given some thought.”

“Well, this is news to me,” Hammond replied. “What do you see here?”

The doctor was staring at the ceiling and continued as though his guest had not spoken. “There are three things which one cannot deduce with absolute certainty,” he said. “They are the age, sex and handedness of the writer. There are strong pointers of course, and an inference is often justified, but the thing is not watertight. Here, for example, the signature is Terry Little. Now, Terry could be a given name, or a corruption of Terence or Teresa. From the tone, I would imagine it is Terence.”

“Right. Terry Little is an acquaintance of mine.”

“I see,” said Breitling. “Now, as to age, there are weak or sick young people and vigorous old people. This is often reflected in the writing. In this case, from the wording, I assume we are speaking of a younger man, perhaps about your age.”

“Correct. What was the other thing?”

“Handedness. It is not always obvious, but there is enough here to suggest that the writer is left-handed.”

“That’s right. How do you know?”

“It’s helpful that the letter was written with pen that had a very poor nib. A right-hander tends to pull the writing instrument across the paper, left to right, whereas a left-hander pushes it. Consequently, there is often a spray of tiny ink particles thrown one way or the other. They show up at certain points and are particularly obvious with a left-hander, as the writer’s final stroke deposits more of them after the end of the line than is the case with a right-hander. Sometimes it’s undetectable, but here the magnifying glass shows it plainly.”

“Very good, Doc. It’s a young left-handed man. Of course, I knew that.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Breitling. That was the guesswork part. The rest is, I’m afraid, more certain.”

Keith Hammond leaned forwards. “You’re afraid. Why?”

“Oh, there’s no question of it, my friend. I hope you won’t be too shocked when I say that you are dealing with a devious and dishonest man.”

“Really? What makes you say that?”

The doctor brought his gaze back down to his guest. “Well, I’m sorry if this upsets you, but I have satisfied myself about the matter of handwriting as a character portrait. There are four basic styles of writing and within them, numerous other indicators, including about a dozen signs of dishonesty. Most of us show one or two of them, so that’s not really suggestive. It may be just that the person concerned has a tendency to self-deception. However, when one sees five or six, it’s time to be suspicious and when there are even more, as in this case, one can be quite sure.”

Doctor Breitling was known as a man who had several bees in his bonnet. His ideas were usually regarded with amused tolerance by most people. Keith Hammond was intrigued but sceptical. “Signs like what?” he asked.

“Look at the letter again,” said Breitling. “This man claims that he was writing in a great hurry and was extremely tired, worried and depressed. Now, the writing here is of mixed styles – that alone is odd – but is predominantly one of the more laborious kinds. Moreover, it is extreme of its type. The letter was written very slowly. Then, as to his alleged physical and mental weariness, he has written on unlined paper and you will see that his writing rises slightly from left to right. That is an indicator of good bodily condition, high spirits, or both. Had he really been in the state he suggests, the lines would have descended from left to right. Then there are such items as the ink-filled loops, the high incidence of hooks, the curls, the exaggerated enrolments, the misplaced capital letters and various other points. Taken together, these things are conclusive. I have heard of letters of credit, but I would call this a letter of discredit. Do not trust this man.”

Hammond suppressed his inclination to laugh as he put the letter back into his pocket. “Well, I’m grateful for your advice, but I think I’ll go see him.”

“When will you leave?”

“I’ll wire him tomorrow morning, then set out right away. I can get the train to within ten or twelve miles of this place he’s written from. Now that’s settled, make your move, Doc. I aim to demolish you tonight.”

Hammond’s ambition was thwarted and after suffering a couple of resounding defeats, he returned to his place and went upstairs to the two rooms he used as living quarters. Producing Terry Little’s letter, he ruffled his unruly mop of fair hair, sprawled his burly six feet in an easy chair, read and thought. He wondered why Little had written to him. There had not been any communication between them since well before Hammond had made his move south and they were not close friends anyway.

Terry Little followed one year behind Keith Hammond throughout schooldays. The two did not have much in common, but Little had always been grateful to the older and bigger lad, who had once saved him from a thrashing at the hands of three other boys. When Hammond left his hometown, Terry Little had still been there. Now he had written from Pike Point, fifty-odd miles south of Copperhead.

According to his letter, Terry Little was in serious trouble, the nature of which he did not specify. He had, it seemed, done nothing illegal. The matter was one he could explain only face to face and he was unable to travel. He had no one else to turn to and was at his wits’ end. Was Hammond prepared to help?

Keith Hammond was by nature an accommodating man and strange though the plea seemed, it did not occur to him to ignore or reject it. He had shown the letter to Breitling purely as a matter of interest. With regard to the doctor’s warning, Hammond was more amused than apprehensive. No doubt this was just another of the doctor’s forays into the esoteric. Keith Hammond would answer the call.

Doctor Stefan Breitling had also been thinking. After his guest’s departure, the slender little physician sat staring into space, time and again using both hands to ruffle his wild bush of snowy hair. He was trying to relate two points. It wasn’t long before the penny dropped. Keith Hammond would not be the only man travelling tomorrow.

Early the following morning, Hammond sent a wire to Terry Little at Pike Point, saying that he would be there that afternoon. He went back to his home, packed a small bag and told his next-door neighbour that he would be away for a couple of days. He dealt with two customers, then secured his stock, closed the shop and ate a leisurely lunch before catching the afternoon train. He had thought about calling again on Doctor Breitling, but decided not to. That was just as well, since a visit would have been fruitless, for the medico had been up and about unusually early. When his housekeeper arrived, she found him outside, his buggy ready for departure. Following up his idea of the previous evening, Breitling had decided to drive the thirty-two miles to the county seat. There was no other way, as Copperhead did not boast a permanent law office. The sheriff visited once a month to do whatever administrative work was necessary, calling only rarely at other times.

Keith Hammond arrived at Pike Point at four in the afternoon, to find Terry Little waiting for him with a spare horse. Hammond had expected to find his old schoolmate in an agitated state, but Little seemed unruffled. That struck the gunsmith as odd, but he said nothing about it. The pair departed from the railroad station, heading northwest. Hammond was bemused by his companion’s reaction to all questions concerning the letter. Terry Little appeared to wish to stick to generalities and reminiscences. When asked outright, he said he would prefer to get down to business when they reached their destination. They did that at close to six in the evening.

The place was a two-roomed homestead, long abandoned by its original owner but still solid-looking. Little waved his visitor ahead of him. Hammond entered to find a grim-looking black-bearded fellow pointing a heavy revolver at him across a battered table. “Evening,” said the man. “Just stand where you are till I say different.”

Doctor Stefan Breitling arrived at the county seat in mid-afternoon. He arranged care for his horse, then went to the sheriff’s office, where he found the short rotund middle-aged lawman at his notice board, fiddling with an array of posters. Sheriff Dan Baker turned. “Well, by all that’s holy, Doctor Breitling. What brings you out of your lair?”

“Good afternoon, Sheriff. Thank you for asking about my health. I’m fine.” The sarcastic rejoinder brought a sheepish smile from Baker as Breitling continued: “I hope you are well, too. As to what brings me here, I’m concerned about a small matter and I believe you may be able to clear my mind.”

“Well, sit down. A shot of something after your journey, maybe?”

“Thank you. I will indulge.” Breitling, who had a refined taste in liquor, was about to receive a shock, for the sheriff’s preferred type of ulcerating rotgut whiskey was a drastic departure from his visitor’s usual brand.

Breitling’s involuntary spluttering brought a grin from Baker. “When you’ve finished expressing your opinion of my hospitality, Doctor, what’s on your mind?”

“Quite a lot, Sheriff. The fact is, I have a young friend and I believe he may be heading into trouble. I thought you might be in a position to throw some light onto the affair. I suspect it concerns an occurrence that took place in Copperhead shortly before I moved there. I believe it was the only incident of note that’s happened in the town for some years.”

“Fire away,” said the sheriff. “If it concerned the law, I’ll recall it.”

“Yes, it was in your line. I’ve heard local accounts of the matter and that’s why I got to wondering. You remember the Dutton gang?”

“Oh, sure. We chased them from pillar to post. Got them cornered in Copperhead. They took over a store. Quite a shoot-out, that was. All five went into that place. We killed three. Jake Dutton and one other man escaped. The young fellow who owned the place was shot dead too. We never knew whether he was caught by one of our bullets or not. I remember that the man who took over the place also died within a few months. Seems like an unlucky location.”

“Yes,” said Breitling. “Now, perhaps you would just humour me for a moment. How did the Dutton gang wind up in Copperhead?”

“Just one of those things. Dutton operated mostly in Colorado and various points south of there. Eventually, the law down yonder found out where he and his boys were holed up, and moved in to take them. There was a leak somewhere. The gang got away, so the local sheriff notified peace officers far and wide. Dutton and company were pursued up here and the hunt ended in Copperhead.”

“I see. Now, forgive my ignorance in these matters, but would you not have expected the gang to have been . . .er . . . in funds?”

The sheriff shook his head. “Not necessarily. These fellows have a peculiar mentality. With most of them, it’s easy come, easy go. They think nothing of doing a job, then popping up five hundred miles away and losing the whole lot at cards. The way they see it, when they’ve no more cash, they just need to steal some more.”

The doctor nodded. “Yes, I understand,” he said. “Now, Sheriff, I have an idea. There may be nothing in it, but if you’ll hear me out…?”


Breitling explained.

Keith Hammond was thunderstruck. He looked at the rock-steady six-gun. Terry Little scuttled across to the door leading to the second room. The gunman waved a hand at another rough-looking fellow, lying on the lower of the two bunk beds. “Search him, Tom.”

The man hauled himself upright, clumped over to Hammond and patted him down. “He’s unarmed, Jake.”

“Good. You’d better see to he horses now.” With that, the gunman placed his weapon on the table. “All right,” he said to Hammond. “Just take it easy. My name’s Jake Dutton and I don’t intend to harm you. All you have to do is stay here for two days and keep quiet, then you can go. Meantime, Terry will feed you and you’ll sleep in the other room. Understood?”

“Not exactly,” Hammond replied. “For one thing, where am I?”

Dutton grinned. “It’s not where you are that’s important, friend,” he said. “It’s where you aren’t that matters.”

Within two minutes, Keith Hammond was in the smaller room, confined by a crude but effective wooden door-latch operated from the outside. His amenities comprised a narrow bed with a straw mattress and a blanket, both damp, an iron bucket and a shelf, on which there was nothing but a lamp and a box of matches.

Though he worked with guns, Hammond was normally a placid fellow, his interest in firearms being merely the handiest outlet for his technical skill. Now, he was anything but calm. He inspected his prison. There was a small window space across which three thick planks had been nailed. The log walls were massive and the heavy roof was intact. Pushing against the window boards, Hammond found them unyielding, so short of trying to dislodge them with an almighty din, it seemed the only way out was by the door. Well, so it must be, he thought, for he did not intend to be detained. The place was almost dark, and as the lamp reservoir was only half full, the remaining oil would have to be used sparingly.

Ten minutes after he had been fastened in, Hammond heard hoofbeats, diminishing in volume. That, he guessed, would be the two desperadoes departing, leaving Terry Little in charge. Half an hour later, there was a bang on the prison door, followed by a rasping as the latch was slid open. “Okay, Keith,” came Little’s voice. “If you’re not on the bed, get there and call out.” Hammond did that. The door opened and Terry Little appeared, holding an unsteady gun with one hand and awkwardly gripping a full plate and cup, both of tin, and a spoon with the other. He set the food and drink on the floor. “Stew and coffee,” he said

“Terry, what’s going on here?” said Hammond.

“No talk, Keith,” Little replied. “Just stay back there. You can eat when I close the door. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to.” The tremulous voice didn’t carry conviction, but Hammond was not yet ready to put the matter to the test. The door slammed and the latch was engaged.

Twenty minutes later, Little returned, instructing the prisoner to put his plate, spoon and cup by the door, go back to the bed and call out again. When Little opened the door, Hammond spoke: “Surely you can tell me what’s happening, Terry?”

Little, still armed, backheeled the tinware into the main room. “Well, I guess it won’t do any harm. You can’t change things now. But stay over there.”

“All right: just explain, for goodness' sake.”

“Okay. Well, Jake and Tom are riding to your place. They’ll be back here tomorrow night.”

“What do they want?”

“Two years ago, they were running from the law with the rest of the gang. They holed up at Copperhead and had a big gunfight. Three of them were killed but Jake and Tom got away. The boys had been chased up out of Colorado, carrying their plunder from a few jobs down there. They hid it in your place. ’Course, it wasn’t yours then. This is the first chance they’ve had to get the loot.”

“Where did they hide it?”

“There’s a trapdoor in the floor. They forced the owner to tell them about it, then killed him.”

“I’ve never noticed a trapdoor.”

“You probably wouldn’t have. Jake says you have to move the whole counter to get to it.”

“Why have they waited so long?”

“They didn’t mean to. Just happened that Jake was wounded in the shoot-out. He got a bullet in the chest and another in the leg. Was a close thing whether he’d live or not. Took him a long time to recover.”

“I see. And how did you get involved with Dutton and this Tom fellow?”

“That was accidental. I’ve been getting around since we last met. I was fishing near here. I’d no idea this was their hideout. They had a mind to kill me, but we got talking. They asked if I knew anything about Copperhead. I told them the only thing I knew was that an old neighbour of mine was the gunsmith there. One thing led to another and they offered me a share of the money if I’d write you that letter. They wanted to get you out of the way, so they could pick up their stuff without being disturbed.”

“You mean that even after Dutton recovered, they’ve been hanging around for months, waiting for a chance? How have they been living?”

“They didn’t say and I didn’t ask. Anyway, what they really want is the cache you’ve been standing on.”

“It must be a lot, to keep them here so long.”

“It is. Nearly thirty thousand, all in gold.”

“And how much are they giving you?”

“Two thousand.”

Keith Hammond had been thinking fast as Little was speaking. “Terry,” he said. “You must be crazy. What makes you think they’ll come back? They could just as well keep going, clear away into Canada.”

This seemed to be a new idea to Little. For a moment, Hammond could see the doubt flickering over the man’s face. Then the gun straightened. “Don’t talk that way,” he said. “I trust Jake. And that’s enough gabbing. You’ll get something to eat in the morning.” He closed and secured the door.

Hammond reasoned that he had achieved as much as could be expected so far. He had probably sown a seed in Little’s mind. That was something, but not enough. Somehow, he was going to have to either wear the man down with talk, or overpower him. He looked around in the gloom, trying to will the means to his end. But he had only his clothing, the bed, a blanket, a bucket a lamp and the matches. Well, a man had to use what was to hand.

An hour after sunrise the following morning, Terry Little banged on the inner door. “Breakfast,” he shouted. “If you’re not on the bed, go there – and no tricks.”

The response was a series of groans from the small room, then Hammond’s voice: “Get me a doctor. I’m sick.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know. I’m vomiting blood. I need help – quick.”

“You on the bed?”

Hammond emitted a loud wail. “Of course I am,” he gasped. “Where the hell else would I be?”

Little’s nerves were not up to this. He drew his gun, freed the latch and pushed at the door. Then various things happened to him. Upon giving that last distress call, Hammond had tip-toed quickly and quietly across the hard-packed earth floor. Now he lobbed the heavy bucket and its contents over the opening door and onto his captor. For a speedy and near-unsighted effort, the result was remarkable. The bucket covered Little’s head, resting momentarily on his shoulders. Next, Hammond swished the opened blanket around the door, half-enveloping his unfortunate warder, then threw his two hundred pounds against his side of the woodwork, slamming the smaller man into the jamb. Little, wet and disorientated, fell backwards into the main room, shedding the bucket and flailing at the blanket.

Hammond leapt through the doorway, flinging himself upon the writhing form and chopping at the outflung gun hand. As the weapon thumped across the floor, he yanked away the blanket and grasped Little’s throat, almost choking the life out of him. Then he released his hold, hauled the man up and sat him on the table.

While Little massaged his neck, Hammond retrieved the gun, training it on the jailer turned prisoner. “You’re not cut out for this kind of thing, Terry,” he said. “Go saddle a horse for me.” He prodded the hapless Little ahead of him. Within five minutes, Hammond was ready to leave. “Now,” he snapped, “there’s no advantage to you in lying. Tell me how Dutton and Tom are getting to Copperhead.”

“On their horses,” Little replied. “Train’s too risky for them.”

“So they’ll be there by now?”

“In and out, most likely.”

“No time to lose, then. Get into the back room.”

As Little moved, he whined: “You can’t keep me in here. How’ll I get out?”

“You probably won’t. I’ll send the law along. If you free yourself in the meantime, good for you. If not, you’ll take the consequences. It’s a better deal than you gave me. Now move.”

Having secured his man, Hammond had to decide whether to ride southeast to Pike Point or northeast the whole way to Copperhead, over forty miles distant. If he chose Pike Point, he might find that there were no convenient trains, this being a Sunday. The station telegraph office wouldn’t help, as there was no lawman in Copperhead to whom he could send a wire, and he was not prepared to risk getting anyone else to confront the bandits. He opted for the horse.

It was early afternoon when Hammond reached Copperhead. With but one thought in mind, he headed straight for his place. Approaching it cautiously, he found the door unlocked. On entering, he saw that the heavy counter had been hauled sideways, exposing the trapdoor, now open. He peered down and saw only a void, so he lit a lamp and lowered it. Still nothing. Dutton and Tom had beaten him to it. They could be far away by now.

Deflated, Hammond decided to call on Doctor Breitling. The medico would surely be happy to note that his young friend was unscathed and gratified to learn that his own assessment of Little’s letter had been accurate.

The housekeeper not being on duty, Breitling himself opened the door. He held a glass of brandy and seemed to be in excellent spirits. “Good afternoon Keith,” he beamed. “I heard you were back. Come in.”

“You heard? I’ve only been in town fifteen minutes.”

“Ah, my informants are everywhere.” Breitling led the way into his living room, where Keith was surprised to see Sheriff Dan Baker, whom he knew slightly, and another fellow, wearing a star. Breitling waved an introductory arm. “Now, Keith, I think you are acquainted with Sheriff Baker. The other gentleman here is Deputy Sheriff Farley. Take a seat. You must be tired.”

Keith Hammond sat in his chess-playing chair. “Tired isn’t the right word, Doc. Disappointed would fit better.”

“Oh, why’s that, Keith?”

Hammond gave a brief account of his adventure, asking the Sheriff to do something about the incarcerated Terry Little, then came to the distressing finale – no gold. When he finished, Doctor Breitling went to a corner of the room and, lifting a bed sheet, said: “Well, Keith, if you’re looking for a heap of gold, perhaps this will satisfy you.” He revealed four small sacks. “Sheriff Baker will see that this gets back to its rightful owners and I believe there’s a handsome reward involved. You must qualify for at least some of it.”

Hammond flopped back in his chair, rubbing his head with a hand. “This is too much, gentlemen,” he said. “I think somebody had better explain.”

The Sheriff laughed. “It’s your show, Doc. Tell the man before he expires.”

“Very well,” said the doctor, going into his finger-steepling, upward-staring mode. “It was fairly simple. Just a matter of connecting apparently disparate pieces of information. It started with that letter from Mr Little. You will recall, Keith, that I was suspicious of it?”


“Well, like you, I’d heard there had been an incident at your place before either of us came here. I wondered whether these two matters – the letter and the incident – were connected. I thought it over and realised that I needed more details. Not wanting to set local tongues wagging, I drove over to see Sheriff Baker and he supplied the answer.”

“What was it?”

“Mr Baker said that the Dutton gang arrived here that night, about two years ago, just ahead of the law. They hitched their mounts and two pack animals to the rail outside the saloon, across from your place. That was to give the impression that the men were drinking. In fact, their idea was undoubtedly to raid the gunsmith’s premises and stock up with ammunition.”

“Yes. I’d heard about that, but I still don’t see –”

“Patience, my friend. Now, from the account Sheriff Baker gave me, I was struck by two things. First, all seven horses were still hitched at the saloon after the shooting. The pack animals were not carrying anything. To me, that was odd. Then I learned that Dutton and this man Tom had escaped across the back lots and stolen two mounts from the livery stable. They were in such a hurry that they rode off bareback, carrying nothing but their side arms – there were two witnesses to that. It only remained for me to establish that Dutton and his men had been transporting their booty during their flight. A wire to the Colorado lawman confirmed that.”

“It’s a fact,” said the sheriff. “I guess we all overlooked that point in our satisfaction at getting three of the gang. We noticed that the pack animals weren’t loaded, but that wasn’t surprising. We figured them for nothing more than two spare horses. In the confusion, we just didn’t think it through.”

Breitling recommenced his story: “As far as we could establish, the gang had been pursued here so relentlessly that they couldn’t have had much opportunity to hide the gold on the way. So, if they had it when they arrived here and did not have it when they left, it was presumably still here. But apart from the gunsmith’s place, they had been nowhere in Copperhead. I put that together with Terry Little’s strange summons. The letter had such a ring of artificiality that the only construction I could put on it was that it might have been written purely to get you out of the way, and that the gold was possibly on your premises. Of course, I had no way of knowing how Little became involved.”

“Pure coincidence, Doc,” said Hammond. “He fell in with those people because he accidentally got close to their hideout. They were going to kill him until it came out that he knew me, then they realised what an amazing hand fate had dealt them.”

“Ah, I see. Well, I had most of the information, so it would have been surprising if I’d been wrong. And after all, one seldom has all the facts about any situation. I thought I had enough.”

Keith Hammond shook his head in wonderment. “Masterly, Doc,” he said. “You’re a genius. By the way, what happened to Dutton and Tom?”

Sheriff Baker broke in. “They’re locked up in the bank. That’s the only secure place here. We’ll take them away this evening.”

“How did you know when they’d turn up?”

“We didn’t, but what the Doc said persuaded me to come here and wait. We watched. They broke in the back way and we hung on until they showed us where the gold was, then took them.” Baker turned to the doctor. “And I’m bound to say that I agree with Mr Hammond, Doc. You’re entitled to take a bow. Maybe you should make a profession out of this kind of thing. Sort of consulting detective.”

The doctor inclined his head. “You are too kind,” he said. “However, I fear that if I were to do so, the idea would not be entirely original. I’m not sure whether it’s fact, fiction or just rumour, but I heard that there’s a man in London, England who is making quite a reputation for himself in that line. I believe his name is Holmes.”

* * *

November 24th, 2012, 07:20 PM

Nevada, 1870. Yes, it was a ghost town all right. Once, thanks to gold, it had been a rip-roaring hell-hole where men had money to burn and saloons, charging astronomical prices, had never closed. Storekeepers, barbers and others with goods or services to offer had made fortunes. Women had moved in, offering comforts to those men who would stop toiling for long enough to enjoy them. Along with the relatively durable structures, there had been a sprawl of distinctly temporary dwellings, in which hardy souls had alternately fried and frozen.

It hadn’t lasted long. All that remained of Sundown was a single street, barely a hundred yards long, lined with crumbling unpainted wooden buildings backed by long lots strewn with all kinds of trash. At the western end, timber construction gave way to what had been a jumble of tarpaper shacks, all now disintegrated. Some of the crude, hastily made signs had survived intact, while others dangled crookedly, one lying athwart the sidewalk, projecting into the street. Apart from the wind, chasing a Russian thistle along the street, the only noise was the clattering of doors flapping back and forth, the big one of the livery barn making a monotonous din.

Approaching from the east, Crazy Ben Magee moved into the street, riding one horse, leading another, the second animal bearing his modest stock of worldly goods. Heading straight for the stable, Ben dismounted, slammed the door shut and heaved a rock against it to keep it that way. He hated noise. He didn’t even like natural sounds, such as running water or bird song. In fact he hated a lot of things, the list getting longer as years passed. That might have been attributable to the brooding mindset acquired by a man who spent much time alone in remote places.

Perhaps it was the genius loci, or maybe the reason was that finally, at the age of sixty-two, Ben’s time had come. Whatever the cause, it was there, in the abandoned gold-mining town of Sundown that he had his great brainwave, a flash so intense that he later reckoned it must have been brought on by the heat of the summer afternoon. “There’s money in gold,” Ben soliloquized as he climbed back into his saddle, then, struck by his unconscious humour, he emitted a cackle of such pitch and volume that his horse bucked, nearly unseating him.

So swiftly were Ben’s thoughts moving that, even as he calmed the animal with one hand, he fumbled in his shirt pocket with the other, extracting his stock of cash. He counted it – fifty-one dollars. His only other monetary wealth was a handful of gold dust and a few nuggets, kept in a leather poke. He never included that in his reckoning. It was a memento of his only success in half a lifetime of prospecting, and had cost far more than it was worth.

Ben sat there under the blazing sun for twenty minutes, turning the money over and over in his hand. A lousy fifty-one dollars,” he muttered to himself. “I sure am sick an’ tired o’ bein’ poor. I’m goin’ to multiply this roll by one thousand an’ I’m goin’ to do it right here.”

It was a strange challenge for a man to set himself and seemingly a confirmation that Ben’s widespread reputation for mental instability was well founded. But he meant it. He was encouraged by his recollection of hearing an actor saying something about a man needing to take a certain tide in his affairs at the flood, if he wanted to make a fortune. Without moving an inch, he was consumed by the idea.

A month later, Ben appeared in Sourwater, the first sizable town east of Sundown. Within a day of his arrival, the change in his appearance was dramatic. He was bathed, presentably dressed and clean-shaven. The unkempt, matted grey hair had been disentangled and cut short. He looked respectable.

While getting himself groomed, Ben had forestalled any unwelcome speculation by explaining that his initial dishevelment was one result of his having spent some weeks in rough country. It wouldn’t have suited his purpose to have people thinking that he usually resembled a vagrant. To facilitate his scheme, he had decided to adopt a limp and, anxious to avoid accidentally lapsing from his role, he’d placed a small stone inside his left shoe, as a constant reminder.

After renting a room at the edge of town, Ben spent two more days acclimatising himself and blending in as an inconspicuous citizen. Then it was time to make a move. Leaving his lodgings on the fourth morning of his stay, he stood outside the local depot of the Calderwood Stage & Freight Company, the largest and most prestigious enterprise of its kind in those parts. Ben had established that the head office was in Saint Louis and that the Sourwater branch was one of many. According to the legend on the window, one Thomas Stoddart was in charge here. Ben entered, to find a young clerk in the outer office. A few well-chosen words sufficed to get the newcomer a private interview with the manager.

Ben got right down to business. His name was Benjamin Whitmore and he dealt in precious metals. He might be interested in arranging some freighting and naturally the Calderwood company had come to mind. Stoddart declared himself happy to oblige. Ben explained that this was merely an exploratory visit and that he would soon have concrete plans. Having ingratiated himself with the manager, a tall slim man of thirty-odd, Ben was about to go on to specifics, when he stretched out his left leg, sighed and began rubbing the knee. Stoddart looked sympathetic. “Troubles you, does it, Mr Whitmore?” he asked.

Ben smiled. “Just a little reminder of the war,” he said. “Were you involved too?”

Stoddart straightened in his chair, inflating his chest. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I had the honour to serve with General Lee.”

“Fine man, fine man,” Ben responded. “And did you also come across Old Stonewall?”

“No, sir. I was not so fortunate. Were you?”

“Yes,” said Ben promptly, continuing to exercise his hitherto dormant talent for mendacity. “As a matter of fact, I was very close to General Jackson when I got this wound. I guess I was too slow in dodging bullets.”

Stoddart hardly knew whether admiration or solicitousness was uppermost in his mind as he listened to this fine veteran. “It was a great thing for you to do at that time of life,” he said. “Must have been very strenuous for you.”

“It surely was,” Ben answered. “Keeping pace with those young fellows was harder than I’d expected. Anyway, I won’t bore you with war stories. We all have our share of them.” In fact, Ben had not been involved in the late conflict in any way, but the pretence was useful. He had been quite prepared to regale Stoddart with equally vague details of his service under Grant or Sherman, had the depot manager’s sympathies been with the Union side.

Ben made as though to leave, then appeared to be struck by a further thought. “Tell me,” he said, “your head office is in St. Louis, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. Does that mean something to you?”

“Well, I’ll be over there in a few days. Maybe I’ll call on your people, since I might be doing business with you in other places. As a matter of interest, is Calderwood himself the head of your company?”

“No sir. He died three years ago. The new chief is Gordon T. Lightowler”

Ben shot upright in his chair. “Well, well,” he said, smiling broadly. “That’s a coincidence.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I was a great friend of Gordon Lightowler many years ago, though we lost touch a long time back. Surely there can’t be many men of that name. Do you know him personally?”

Stoddart shook his head. “I’ve never met him. Not yet anyway. Of course, he writes frequently to me and to all the other depot managers.”

“Then I’ll bet we can settle it right away,” said Ben, seemingly full of enthusiasm to renew his old acquaintanceship. He had in fact never heard of Lightowler, but would have reacted with equal heartiness to whichever name had turned up, so long as its bearer was not personally known to Stoddart. “Gordon used to have a way of signing his name. If you have a letter or something from him that you could show me, I’d know for sure. Nothing confidential, you understand. I don’t want to pry into your company affairs.”

Stoddart was delighted to help. “No problem at all, Mr Whitmore. I have a heap of his letters and notes right here.” He rose, turned to a cupboard and pulled out a folder. “These are all from Mr Lightowler,” he said, pushing the file across his desk.

Ben glanced at the first item and let out a little whoop. “That’s Gordon all right,” he laughed. “No mistaking it. This is great news. I’ll make sure I see him. Just do me one favour, will you? Don’t tell him. I’d like it to be a surprise.”

Stoddart was almost as pleased as his visitor. “Oh, I’ll keep quiet,” he chuckled.

Ben looked at the wall clock. “Well,” he said, “time’s passing. I’d better go.” He placed a hand on the desk and began to haul himself up. Suddenly, he gasped and clapped a hand to his chest, his face contorting in a grimace of pain.

Stoddart leaned forwards, anxious. “What’s wrong, Mr Whitmore?”

Ben gasped again. “It’s nothing much,” he gritted. “Just a little heart trouble. Comes and goes. Reckon I have the war to thank for that, too.”

“Anything I can do? We have a doctor here. I’ll be happy to fetch him.”

Ben waved a hand. “No need for that, but you could do one small thing, if you’d be so kind. I noticed in the store a couple of doors down that they keep Pope’s Herbal Heart Mixture. I always use it. Meant to get a bottle only this morning. If you wouldn’t mind?”

“Certainly.” Stoddart was already crossing his office. “Should I bring my young man in to keep an eye on you?”

Ben shook his head emphatically. “No thanks,” he said. “I’m used to this. Best if I just sit alone and quiet till you get the medicine, if you’re sure that’s all right?”

“Of course.” Stoddart raced off. He would have been amazed to see the change in his visitor, the instant the door closed. Ben leapt up, rounded the desk and began to rummage in the stationery cupboard. Within ten seconds, he found a stack of notepaper, printed with the company’s title and head office address and Lightowler’s name. He stuffed a dozen sheets of the paper into a coat pocket, also helping himself to a few plain envelopes, then delved into the folder on Stoddart’s desk, pulling from it one of Lightowler’s letters to the branch. Taken from well down the sheaf, it was eight months old and the subject matter seemed innocuous. Probably Stoddart would never notice its absence.

It was fortunate for Ben that he had moved quickly, as the manager was back within two minutes, bringing the medicine. Ben, still apparently in the throes of his attack, thanked him, uncorked the bottle and took a huge swig. It was revolting, but Ben swallowed bravely, then leaned back in his chair. “Ah, that’s better,” he said. “Works every time. I’m much obliged.”

Stoddart was keen to do something more for his ailing guest, but Ben assured him that the elixir was enough. Within five minutes, the former Confederate stalwart was on his way.

Ben took a leisurely midday meal to recover from his morning performance, then made his next call, this time to the Cattlemen’s Bank. He was prepared for a variation of his cameo with Stoddart, but that proved unnecessary. Still posing as Benjamin Whitmore, he asked to speak with the manager. Again he had to go through the outer office, this time limping behind a teller and passing between two desks, one occupied by a man writing in a ledger, the other unattended. On both surfaces were piles of letter-headed notepaper.

Ben stumbled, flung out his hands to steady himself and in doing so, pulled the heap of paper from the unoccupied desk to the floor. Apologising profusely, he picked up the scattered sheets, managing in the confusion to tuck a few into his pocket. That concluded his real business with the bank, though the histrionics of his assumed persona required him to ask about investment opportunities before excusing himself and leaving.

It was going well. Ben returned to his room and sat down to his next chore. This would take him the rest of the day and part of the following one. First, he spent three hours assiduously copying and recopying the signature of Gordon T. Lightowler, resting only when he was able to write it quickly six times in succession, each effort virtually indistinguishable from any other and near enough identical to the original.

Next came the letters. Neither the Calderwood organisation nor the Cattlemen’s Bank had yet made use of the recently invented typewriter, so Ben’s task was to reproduce Lightowler’s normal handwriting, which unlike his expansive signature was small and neat. On the odd occasions he had needed the craft, Ben had always been a tidy, careful writer and what his formal command of language lacked, his inventiveness made up. If he couldn’t phrase a point one way, he found another.

The storm of activity precluded lengthy sleep and Ben was at his work again early the following morning. By noon, he was satisfied. He had produced two letters, one from the Cattlemen’s Bank to himself, in his real name, the other an open one from the Calderwood company to any recipient.

The first letter acknowledged Mr Magee’s gold deposit, confirming the value as twenty-four thousand dollars. The manager would have been pleased to handle all of his new customer’s business, but fully understood that a man had to spread risk and noted that Mr Magee had similar deposits with several other banks. The second letter, signed Gordon T. Lightowler, introduced the bearer as Benjamin Whitmore, special representative of the Calderwood Stage & Freight Company. The firm was planning an expansion of its activities and Mr Whitmore was authorised to make the necessary arrangements, including substantial purchases of supplies of all kinds. Business contacts were respectfully requested to observe confidentiality. Invoices were to be sent to the head office unless Mr Whitmore decided to settle accounts locally.

There was of course no chance that Ben would pay on the spot, but it was very unlikely that anyone would refuse to do business with the nationally known Calderwood organisation. That was as good as money in the bank. Putting the two letters into envelopes, which he placed in his inside coat pocket, Ben went to the nearest saloon, using some of his dwindling funds to restore himself with rum, and to plan his next move, for which he would need to acquire yet another skill. He would also need to find a large mass of humanity, for where there were many people, some of them were sure to be credulous.

The services offered by the recently opened transcontinental railroad were custom-made for Ben’s scheme. Of course, travelling cost money, of which he now had very little, so he had to leave his horses and learn how to move by freight train, free of charge. It wasn’t easy, but he worked it out and embarked for the long journey to Chicago. On arrival there, he made his way to the outskirts of the city. There he found a farm where, having concocted a story about being attacked and robbed within minutes of arrival in the wicked metropolis, he got an offer of free accommodation in a barn.

Walking into the city each day, Ben spent over a week among the lower echelons of saloon life, often nursing a single beer for hours. He had to school himself to patience, but finally found a group of six adventurous young men, possessed of energy and gullibility in about equal measure. That was just what he wanted. The first evening, he entertained them with tales, some of them genuine, of his travels and adventures in the West. He also spent much of his remaining capital in what he considered a necessary display of open-handedness.

The group met again the following evening, when Ben used up almost all the rest of his funds in producing a simulation of drunkenness. At first warily, then with studiedly increasing abandon, he let it be known that after many years of prospecting he had at last struck it rich. For a man who didn’t normally talk much, Ben could be spellbinding when the occasion so demanded. As conversation and drink flowed, he explained that he had discovered a source of placer gold in Nevada, an area not usually associated with that sort of find.

One of the young fellows said he had heard that gold-mining was an expensive undertaking. Ben explained patiently that he was speaking of simple panning, not mining. That was the beauty of it. A man didn’t require much equipment. Of course, he needed supplies and they were costly in the West, transportation being what it was. Still, with a small stake, a man could get himself enough equipment and food to keep himself going until he struck pay dirt. Why, if it came to that, for a hundred dollars, Ben would be happy to make up a prospector’s pack for anybody who wished to cash in. But, he emphasised, a man had to remember that the light in Nevada was different, so it was necessary to persevere, allowing around a month of sifting before being able to identify gold. That had been Ben’s biggest problem at first.

Why was he telling them all this, one man, more sceptical than his friends, wanted to know. Well, why not, was Ben’s reply. He was already well past sixty and had more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes. No reason now for secrecy. His cache was safe. Would he help them? Sure. There was plenty more of the metal where his had come from. He had travelled east only to put some of his hoard into safekeeping. Didn’t like cities anyway. He was going back to live in his ghost town. If the young gentlemen wanted to have a go, they could arrive in Sundown with nothing but the stake he’d mentioned. He would see that they got all they needed.

The suspicious fellow wondered why Ben would bother to collect a hundred dollars each from them, seeing that he was so rich. After giving the man a long, withering look, Ben told him bluntly that it was no part of the Westerner’s code to support shiftless people. If a man wasn’t willing to buy his initial supplies, he wasn’t worth helping. True enough, Ben didn’t need the money. However, he knew of an orphanage in Denver that was always desperate for funds. He would see that the hundred-dollar investments went to that cause. It was little enough for him to do, considering what life had bestowed upon him.

Should they keep this to themselves, the young men wanted to know. Ben thought hard about that one. He liked his peace and quiet, he explained. Didn’t want to start a stampede. However, his companions were obviously men of the world – that went down well. They could use their undoubtedly sound judgement. Maybe it would do no harm to let a few close friends know.

Did Ben have any proof of his tale? Well, yes, but now he became extremely cautious, looking around repeatedly before his next move. In his right coat pocket, he had two identical drawstring bags. One contained most of his stock of genuine gold dust and some sizeable chunks of iron pyrite – fool’s gold. The other held a tiny quantity of the dust, plus a few real gold nuggets. He produced the first bag, shook out half the contents into his cupped hand, displayed them, then slipped them back into the bag, which he returned to his pocket.

Was it the real thing, the sceptic wanted to know. Ben gave the man another disgusted look and fished in his pocket again, this time bringing out the second bag. He hefted it in his hand for a moment, then, clearly coming to a decision, tossed it down among the beer glasses. “Take it, young feller,” he said. “Have it assayed if you like. You can keep it. Share it out if you want to. Like I said, there’s a good deal more. Oh, just a minute.” He opened the bag and removed the two largest nuggets. “I’ll keep these. They were the first ones I found, so you could say they have sentimental value. Think I’ll have ’em mounted on marble.”

It was a convincing effort. True, Ben had been obliged to part with a quarter of his dust and a few small nuggets, but he had kept most of his store. He wasn’t through yet. As he talked, he was fidgeting around, gradually easing an envelope almost out of a hip pocket. Suddenly, he stood up. “Well, boys,” he grinned, “if I don’t relieve myself, there’ll be an accident around here. Maybe you’d get me a beer. Be back in a minute.” As he rose, he made sure that the envelope dropped onto his chair seat, then he wandered off to the back of the saloon, weaving unsteadily.

The man who had been sitting to Ben’s right saw the envelope and jumped up, starting to call out, but the sceptical fellow silenced him with a finger to the lips. “Let’s see what’s in there, Dusty,” he said. “Open it.”

Dusty tossed the envelope to the doubter. “Aw, Tom,” he said. “You know I can’t read. You take it.”

Tom opened the envelope, extracting and unfolding a single sheet of paper. He read slowly, then whistled. “Well, well, well,” he said.

“Come on, Tom,” said one of the others. “What’s so interesting?”

“Just this,” said Tom. “Old Ben seems to be genuine. This is a letter from the manager of the Cattlemen’s Bank in Sourwater, Nevada. Thanks Ben for his deposit of gold, value twenty-four thousand dollars. What’s more, it says they understand that Ben has other deposits like that with different banks, to spread his risk. Well, boys, I was suspicious of the old coot, but what with the gold and then this, I reckon he rings true.”

When Ben returned, the envelope had been replaced on his chair. He snatched it up, giving his companions a sharp look as he stuffed it back into his pocket. Picking up his refilled glass in a gesture that indicated he had dismissed the matter, he enjoyed the rest of the evening.

The following day, Ben gave his new friends directions for travel, telling them to allow him three weeks to get in supplies and, above all, to be very selective as to whom they informed of their plans. It was, Ben judged correctly, the most effective way to ensure that the news would spread. Out of any six men, one or two would be sure to blab, and those they blabbed to would blab further.

Ben’s next move was to revert to his Whitmore identity and go shopping. Even in big sprawling Chicago, the Calderwood name was well known and the fake letter from Gordon T. Lightowler was as good as cash. Only one place refused credit and Ben treated the owner with appropriate contempt. Not wanting to attract too much attention even in so big a city, he spread his purchasing widely, arranging transportation of the goods by train to the point nearest to Sundown. Freight-hopping again, he moved back along the line, stopping to make further purchases and delivery arrangements in Omaha, Cheyenne and Ogden. Finally satisfied, he returned to the railroad halt forty miles north of the ghost town, and waited.

Upon the arrival of his supplies, Ben, still using the Lightowler letter to get credit, hired ox-wagons to haul the goods to Sundown. He told the bemused drivers that a large party of surveyors would soon be arriving to assess the practicability of what he cagily described as industrial development in the area. He would not be more specific.

When the goods reached Sundown, Ben used the old general store as a warehouse and began the tedious work of breaking down the heaps of supplies into individual prospector’s packs. In each, he included an array of hardware, plus enough durable food to last an average eater a couple of months. When he was finished, the whole operation, from the first purchase in Chicago, had taken eighteen days. Then there was nothing for him to do but open a bottle of whiskey, light his old corn-cob pipe and do some more waiting.

The three weeks Ben had suggested to his companions in Chicago expired, then a further four days. It was becoming unnerving, but at last, over the rise to the east, he saw an open-topped wagon coming. An hour later, he was briefly reunited with the six eager young Chicagoans. They each paid their hundred dollars, took up their packs, listened to the simple directions to El Dorado and trundled off westwards.

For three days after that, nothing happened and Ben began to think his scheme had foundered. Then the real inflow began. For two weeks, each day saw its crop of potential millionaires. Most had the sense to bring pack animals, buckboards, or even handcarts. A few improvident souls overlooked such precautions and wound up trudging off, bent under impossible loads. Finally the flow dried up and for two days, no one appeared.

Ben was delighted. He’d been able to supply all the prospectors and he had a few packs left over. However, he judged it was time to leave before anyone got disappointed and came back. The miniature gold rush had brought six hundred and eighteen men and a party of five tough-looking women to Sundown. Each had paid Ben a hundred dollars, an excessive sum for what he had given in return. To the few who raised that point, he had explained that freight costs were high, and anyway, he had made it clear from the outset that he didn’t intend to help anybody seeking something for nothing.

Ben’s business ethics were custom-made. He was quite happy to fleece people who were in search of handouts, but he had no intention of duping honest businessmen. Had his scheme failed, he would have found a way of returning all he had bought. Since it had succeeded, he intended to pay his creditors. His ‘outlay’ amounted to eleven thousand one hundred dollars. His income from the six hundred and twenty-three prospectors was sixty-two thousand three hundred dollars.

Deducting expenditure from income, Ben found that he had a balance of fifty-one thousand two hundred dollars. Amazingly, he had kept his rash promise to himself, multiplying his original funds by one thousand and even having a two-hundred dollar excess. He was sitting and thinking about that surplus when he saw a lone man with a small bundle slung over his shoulder tramping towards Sundown. When he arrived in the town, the fellow was astonished to learn that, far from having to part with a hundred dollars, he was given twice that sum, plus a prospector’s pack, provided with a meal, then sent off westwards.

Ben left Sundown that evening and within ten days of starting at the railroad halt north of his temporary home, he had travelled east, this time as a paying passenger, settling accounts all the way to Chicago. That done, he returned west to collect his horses. He even paid retrospectively for his earlier free journeys, stumping up the full fares for his hobo outings.

A week later, Ben was back in the saddle, heading northwards, eighty miles from Sundown and making for the distant Snake River country. He looked as disreputable as before his great coup, though he had in his clothing and bedroll and on the packhorse gold, notes and high-value coins amounting to over fifty thousand dollars. He was riding along a tree-lined trail, when he heard a rustling ahead and two masked men, six-guns drawn, emerged from the trees.

“Okay, old-timer, let’s have your valuables,” said one, a youngster by the sound of his voice.

Ben hooted, his obvious derision almost convincing himself. “Valuables,” he chortled. “Oh, sure. I got valuables galore. I’m a loony millionaire. That’s why I travel like this. Why, I got better’n fifty thousand dollars on me right now.” He emitted one of his horse-frightening cackles.

The young fellow waggled his pistol menacingly. “Listen,” he snapped. “I said you’d better –”

“Stow it, Bob,” said the other, older man, swatting his companion’s pistol aside. “This here’s Crazy Ben Magee. Everybody knows he ain’t had more’n a grubstake since twenty year afore the war.” Turning to Ben, he waved him on. “All right, you old galoot,” he said. Get on your way an’ next time you’re held up, don’t be so sassy, or somebody might ventilate you just for practice.”

Ben moved off slowly, tipping his hat with thumb and forefinger. “Thank you, boys,” he said. “Better luck with your next customer.” The two bandits shuffled back into the trees as Ben departed. The last thing he heard was the older man, remonstrating with his junior. “A fine road agent you’ll make,” the man rasped. “I heard it’s hard to get blood from a stone, but you can take it from me, that’d be a cinch compared with gettin’ anythin’ worth havin’ from Ben Magee.”

* * *

November 26th, 2012, 02:24 AM
Great piece - your language together with the in depth logic of your characters calculations as well the historical backdrop make an entertaining read. To me the piece seemed to meander along nicely without getting to loose in its direction

keep it up :)

November 28th, 2012, 06:14 PM
I found 'shrugged and nodded' a bit messy because I didn't know whether to picture these actions happening at the same time (which looks weird) or one after the other. Maybe a comma after 'shrugged'?

And personally I am not sure about the chalk and cheese as it's kind of a cliche.

Just tiny points!

Really good dialogue. Great exposition.

December 1st, 2012, 07:22 PM

Kitty Quilty leaned across a scarred deal table, her eyes shining with excitement. “Almost there,” she said. “Just think of it. Tomorrow, or the day after, we’ll have our hands on Straker’s go – ”

“That’s enough,” snapped her companion, Hiram Banks. “Loose talk here could get us killed.”

“Sorry,” Kitty whispered. “It’s just that, well, we’re so close now.”

Banks nodded. “I know how you feel, but this is a rough town, full of hard men. Why, some of them would murder you for the price of the next meal, let alone what we’re seeking.”

The two were sitting in the dingiest of the three saloons in Taylorville, and Hiram Banks was right. This was a tough place. Outlaws lounged at every corner, tolerated by a town marshal whose social and legal position was only marginally different from theirs. Banks’s assertion that some of these men would kill for eating money was an exaggeration, but only because none of the town’s inhabitants was likely to be short of funds.

Taylorville was a spot people made for when they were unwelcome almost everywhere else. Two things precluded civic collapse in the town. One was the relative affluence of its population, including as it did many men sitting on the proceeds of crimes committed in other regions. The other was the code of honour among thieves, which was strictly observed, unless the temptation to breach it became too great.

Almost any standard of behaviour was acceptable in Taylorville, the law being administered in a whimsical manner by Marshal George Watts, who owed his appointment to a self-elected council of rogues, and who intervened in the affairs of others only when it suited him. Nobody argued with him, as it was widely known that he was well connected with some very hard men in other places, who would come in and back him if need be. Also, he was a formidable fellow in his own right. He was well over six feet tall and, though carrying a considerable paunch, was a quick mover and a fearsome brawler. And on the rare occasions when his ham shank fists were insufficient, Watts was more than handy with a gun.

A week short of twenty-six years old, Kitty Quilty was small, slim and fragile-looking, with short black hair framing a narrow pale face. What she didn’t have in footage or poundage, she made up for in pluck and tenacity and it was these qualities that had brought her over a thousand miles from her home in Missouri. Kitty was the niece and last living relative of the late Jonathan Straker.

Of the desperadoes who operated alone in the West, probably none outranked Straker in the public’s perception. He had roamed over a wide area, from Wyoming down into Texas and from the Mississippi River to California. Because of his reclusive nature, much of Straker’s life had been a mystery to most people. However, it was widely believed that whatever the form of his original loot, he always converted it into gold, for which he had an abiding passion.

Straker was never overtaken by the law. Somewhere along the line, he had married quietly and lived incognito on a ranch owned by his wife, sixty miles northwest of Taylorville. He died of consumption, ironically succumbing in the very area to which sufferers of the killer disease often moved for relief. Following his demise, several unsuccessful attempts had been made to find his cache, estimated by some as being worth a quarter of a million dollars. Even his wife had professed ignorance of the whereabouts of the treasure. The unfortunate woman had died at the hands of two villains whose interrogation became too vigorous.

How the map showing the location of Straker’s gold had come into the hands of Kitty Quilty was known only to her, but she had it and her possession of it had brought her to the Southwest.

Kitty hadn’t rushed the matter, having allowed two years to elapse after Straker’s death before she made a move. Then she hired the redoubtable Hiram Banks as companion-cum-bodyguard.

It seemed a wise choice. Banks, well past fifty years of age, was a tracker, guide and hunter of legendary status. He was cautious, thorough and a rifleman of outstanding skill, as several men could have testified, had they still been alive. Most of all though, for Kitty’s purpose, Banks was incorruptible. He knew what his companion expected to find, but it never occurred to him to behave dishonourably. He was being well paid, regardless of success or failure, and that was enough for him. If he had to put his life on the line, he would do so without hesitation.

The two had travelled west by a circuitous route and were now less than thirty miles from their destination. Banks was edgy. He had hoped to avoid Taylorville, but between them, Kitty and he had five horses – two for riding and three for their baggage plus what they hoped to find. Two of the animals needed a blacksmith’s attention, which was available only in this, the one township of any size in the area.

Banks’s admonition to his companion for her loose talk had been abrupt, but not quite swift enough. Had they been sitting there in the evening, Kitty’s remark would have been lost in the buzz of conversation. But this was midday and but for the words passed between the two newcomers, the place was silent. The bartender was busying himself with some chore in the back room and apart from Kitty and Hiram, the only drinker present was Tod Wilkins, a short, scrawny man. He had seated himself in the only shadowy corner of the room, a good spot for eavesdropping. He could hardly believe his ears when he caught what Kitty said. He sat in silence for five minutes, thinking over what he had heard, then he decided to act. He would call on the professor right away. He finished his beer, rose and went out into the blistering heat. This snippet could be too good to pass up.

The professor was a far cry from being a genuine academic. His title was a local one, bestowed upon him because of his penchant for using obscure convoluted language, which usually went above the heads of most people, thus giving him the opportunity of explaining his meaning in simpler terms. He would not have stood out in more sophisticated company but here he was sufficiently erudite to convince others of his intellectual eminence.

Few people in town had ever known the professor’s real name and most of those who had known it had forgotten it, substituting the now universal sobriquet. What, if anything, the man had once done for a living was a closed book to everyone in Taylorville – there weren’t even any rumours – but he appeared to be in a comfortable position and in the three years since his arrival, he had never done or sought work. He had moved into and smartened up a tumbledown wreck of a house, hurriedly abandoned by its previous occupant, who had injudiciously offended Marshal Watts.

The professor was on good terms with most people, but did not encourage intimacy, so it was a puzzle to many that he struck up a friendship with the crude Tod Wilkins. Nevertheless, the two were as thick as thieves. The more acute observers realised that the professor, who did not normally get about much, used Wilkins as his eyes and ears around town.

Apart from a carpet bag containing clothes, the professor’s only luggage on arrival had been a tin trunk full of books and it was with this reading material that he spent most of his time, leaving town only occasionally, sometimes alone, sometimes with his unlikely bosom friend.

Wilkins sauntered along the main street to the professor’s place, his casual air designed to avoid drawing attention to himself. It didn’t work. Marshal Watts was sitting at his office desk, fingers intertwined across his abdominal hemisphere, observing life’s ebb and flow. He watched Wilkins enter the house and shortly afterwards saw the door close. That was odd, for the professor rarely cut himself off that way in daytime, especially in hot weather. “Hey, step out here,” Watts bellowed to his deputy.

Jack Halliwell interrupted his cell-cleaning duties and came into the office. “Yeah, what is it?” he asked.

“I’m goin’ to get somethin’ to eat,” said the marshal. “Just keep an eye on the professor’s place. Tod Wilkins is in there an’ they got the door shut. See how long they stay holed up. I don’t trust them two worth a damn.” With that, Watts rose, crammed on his hat and left.

Wilkins found the professor in his usual place, sitting in an easy chair drawn up to the stove he kept going year round, irrespective of conditions outdoors. Lighting one of his rank cigars, the professor nodded Wilkins to the wooden armchair provided for his visits. “Welcome, my friend,” he said, stretching his long bony body “You look positively pregnant with information.”

“What’s that?” Wilkins asked, cranking his ponderous mental machine into action.

“Never mind. The news, please?”

After making a show of peering out at the street, then closing the door, Wilkins deposited himself in the chair. “I just heard somethin’ in Dolan’s place. Could be important.” He looked round, then eased forward, unnecessarily.

“Well,” said the professor, summoning a cynical smile, “unburden yourself.”

Wilkins lit a cigarette. “Two strangers come in this mornin’. Young woman an’ an older man. I heard ’em talkin’. Woman just said somethin’ about Straker. Sounded like she was goin’ to talk about his gold. Anyway, the man shut her up quick.”

The professor considered this for a moment. “Is the woman a small, black-haired type, middle twenties, with a thin sharp face?” he asked.

Wilkins nodded. “Yeah,” he answered, deeply impressed by the professor’s concise summary. “That’s right. You know her?”

The professor nodded. “That’ll be Kitty Quilty. She’s Straker’s niece and the last one left of his family.”

“How do you know all these things?” asked Wilkins.

“I make it my business to know them. Straker married a woman named Olivia Quilty. They had no children. Olivia had a sister, Eileen, who had a daughter out of wedlock. The girl was Kitty, and because the father vanished, she kept her mother’s family name and still bears it.”

“Well, that’s news to me,” said Wilkins. “You reckon these two are after Straker’s gold, then?”

“I can’t think why else they’d be in these parts. Now look, you’ve shown yourself, so you’d better stay here. I’ll go and get a bottle of whiskey and take a look at these two. This could be interesting. You say the man shut the woman up with some asperity?”


“Never mind. Just wait.” The professor bustled off, returning five minutes later. “Well, well,” he said. “That’s Kitty Quilty all right, and the man is Hiram Banks. I saw him some years ago. This can mean only one thing.”

“What do we do then?” Wilkins asked.

The professor rubbed his hands together. “We pack a few supplies right away,” he said briskly, “and we watch these two birds. When they move, so do we.”

Marshal George Watts returned to his office after downing a hefty meal. “Anythin’ happen?” he asked his deputy.

“Yeah. Professor went to Dolan’s place, stayed maybe two minutes, then went back home with a bottle. Then Wilkins come out an’ called at Baker’s store. Got a big sack o’ supplies. A lot more than he usually buys. Went back to the professor’s place, then to the livery stable. He’s there now. I’d say their plannin’ a trip.” Halliwell, who had been standing by the window, took a seat. Normally a man who used words as though he expected invoices for them, he was exhausted by this long speech.

Marshal Watts rubbed his jaw. “Okay,” he said at length. “We watch Wilkins an’ the professor. If they leave town, I’ll be right behind them. You keep your eyes an’ ears open here.” With that, the marshal strode off to add his contribution to the sudden upturn in business at Baker’s general store, which had already supplied Hiram Banks as well as Tod Wilkins

Ezra Dodwell was a power in the land around Taylorville, his ranch covering a large area to the north and west of the town. Like the professor, he was getting on in years, rarely left his house and used an agent to keep him informed of events in the community. In his case, the agent was Joe Baker. A scuttling little mouse of a man, he was no more than Dodwell’s hireling. He ran the general store more as a service to the rancher than as a business, for the place was a good listening post and precious little happened in Taylorville that Dodwell didn’t hear of.

After serving Marshal Watts, Baker closed the store, saddled his horse and headed off to see the cattle baron. He reported the arrival of the newcomers and the interest they had aroused, mentioning his own flurry of business, including that from the marshal. The autocratic rancher dismissed Baker, pondered briefly on what he had heard, then summoned his foreman, Barney Ryan, giving him the news.

“There may be nothing to it,” he said, “but if anything happens around here, I like to know. Now, these new people came in from the South, and there’s no marked trail east or west, so unless they go back where they came from, they’ll be heading north. That would take them along our eastern flank. You’d better watch out and if you see anything interesting, follow it up. You’ll know what to do.”

“Sure, Ezra.” Ryan didn’t need detailed instructions. He was not only Dodwell’s foreman, but also a friend and confidant of many years, having been with the old man through the hard wild times, when both had done things they didn’t care to remember. Ryan would follow up all right, and if he had to do anything drastic, it wouldn’t be the first time.

It was a strange procession that left Taylorville the following morning. First, before dawn, Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks set out northwards, riding slowly and quietly, leading their pack animals, all now in good condition. Early as they were, their departure was noted by Tod Wilkins, who was taking turns with the professor at watching developments.

The first few miles of the trail ran over open country, so Wilkins and the professor had to allow their quarry a good head start. They took a leisurely breakfast, setting off in pursuit two hours after full daylight.

Just as Wilkins and the professor had been watching out, so too had Marshal George Watts. Naturally, he also had to follow at a discreet distance, so it was a further two hours before he started out. He knew that with their three riderless horses, Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks wouldn’t be breaking into any gallops and if they couldn’t, neither could Wilkins and the professor.

Half an hour before noon, Kitty and Hiram passed the line shack marking the eastern extremity of Ezra Dodwell’s land. The wooden building seemed unoccupied, which was perfect for Barney Ryan’s purpose. He had left his horse out of sight and was sitting by a window, keeping an eye on the trail.

The ground was now becoming more broken and hilly, so Wilkins and the professor were able to narrow the gap between themselves and the lead party. Marshal Watts followed suit. Knowing of the marshal’s interest, Ryan waited patiently for him to come along. Having allowed all three parties to pass, he sat smoking for a further hour, then set off after them.

Four miles beyond the line shack, the trail passed through a narrow defile before veering slightly westwards, then straightening to due north again. The rock and tree cover increased and the four parties began to bunch up, though still remaining out of sight of each other. The elongated cavalcade was a sight likely to attract the attention of anybody situated high enough to observe it, and as it happened, there was someone. Sitting on the ridge above the pass was Jethro Russell.

Even in an area with more than its fair share of scoundrels, Russell was an exceptionally bad man. There was hardly a crime in the book he had not committed. He was making his way south and his reason for not being down on the trail was that he wanted to avoid passing through Taylorville. He was particularly anxious to step around Marshal Watts, who had score to settle with him. It was an inconvenient diversion for him, but he didn’t mind too much, for his progress was aimless anyway.

Having a good vantage point was second nature to Russell. He saw Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks long before they passed below him. His curiosity aroused, he scrambled back to his horse, pulling from his bedroll an old telescope. Because Kitty had made only the minimum concessions to travel, she was clearly distinguishable as a woman. It wasn’t every day that a female on horseback was seen in this area.

Sprawling atop the rock face, Russell took a good look at the travellers. He could make nothing of what he saw, but not having anything else to do, he swept the trail and noted, well to the south, the dust raised by another party. He kept watch. As the second pair passed below, he began to tingle slightly, for he recognised Tod Wilkins, having met the ferrety little loafer during earlier visits to Taylorville.

Russell began to wonder what mission had induced the normally indolent Wilkins to take to the trail. Continuing his vigil, he soon spotted the third party heading north, and within minutes, he had made out the bulky figure of Marshal Watts. “Now that’s damn funny,” he said to himself. It seemed clear that Watts was tailing Wilkins and his companion, who in turn were following the first party, which comprised two riders and, maybe significantly, three extra animals, only one of them with a load.

Though no intellectual giant, the outlaw had his share of cunning and more than a fair ration of opportunism. He reasoned that the first party was on its way to pick up something and that the something in question was important enough to attract Wilkins and his companion and Marshal Watts. Russell had already decided to follow the procession before he scanned the trail again, noting with amazement that there was a fourth presence heading north, maintaining the same pace as the others. It seemed as though the whole of Taylorville was turning out. Russell waited, allowing Barney Ryan to pass below, then he swept the trail once more. Satisfied that there was no one else in sight, and that the matter might be worth investigating, he rejoined his horse, wound his way down to the valley floor and set off after Ryan.

Now there were five parties involved, four of them tracking Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks, each pursuer aware of all those ahead and unaware of any behind. Even in this more rugged country, concealment was problematical and in order for it to be effective, the whole train was strung out over a twelve-mile stretch.

Having paused only briefly since their early start, Kitty and Hiram made camp before dusk. Now, almost within sight of their goal, they moved quietly, ate cold food and didn’t make a fire. The other parties all followed suit, moving in upon each other as closely as prudence permitted.

Anxious for the final act, Kitty and Hiram set out at dawn of what promised to be another day of searing heat. According to Kitty’s map, Straker’s hoard was just over a mile from the trail, in a line directly west of a rightward kink in the beaten path. It was buried midway between two low bushes, fifty-five feet due north of an iron rod, driven deep into the ground at the edge of a huge boulder on which a cross was carved.

The landmarks were there all right, but Banks didn’t like the exposed position. He cursed the dead bandit for not choosing a better spot. Straker could have done so, for there was plenty of cover here and the stone’s throw in every direction from the legendary cache was the only more or less open space around. It was this fact that enabled the followers to close in upon the spot, and each other. There was now less than a mile covering all five parties.

Leaving their horses in the nearest shade, Kitty and Hiram took a pick and shovel, he doing the heavy work while she helped as well as she could. It went quickly. In less than half an hour, Banks’ pick struck the lid of what proved to be a large metal trunk. Kitty’s heart leapt at the thought of being minutes away from becoming a very rich woman. Banks spent a further ten minutes loosening the ground, then grunted his satisfaction. “You stay here,” he said. “I’ll fetch a horse to haul this thing out.”

By this time, all the following parties had found suitable lookout positions. Wilkins and the professor were lying flat behind the top of a hillock, monitoring the activities of Kitty and Hiram. George Watts was slightly further away, scrunched behind a rock, watching both the excavations and Wilkins and the professor. Barney Ryan was viewing the other five from a fork in one of a small stand of trees, and Jethro Russell was ten yards to Ryan’s rear, keeping everyone under surveillance.

Someone had to make a move. Ryan decided that he had better be ready for whatever might happen. He clambered down, dangled for a moment from a low branch, then dropped, whereupon the fast-moving Russell leapt upon him from behind, cutting his throat.

Ryan died quietly, his brief gurgle not noticed by anyone but Russell, who regarded the killing as merely a step in the process of getting the odds right. Next, the bandit would deal with Marshal Watts – he owed the pseudo-lawman that anyway. Then he would eliminate Tod Wilkins and his partner, leaving only the woman and the old galoot who was riding with her. Russell didn’t give a hoot about disposing of these further obstacles to what just might be a worthwhile outcome, while a negative result of any butchery would not trouble his leathery conscience.

It was the professor who was responsible, albeit accidentally, for the next scene in the unfolding horror. To assist his weakening eyesight, he had produced a pair of spectacles and it was the glint from these that caught the attention of Hiram Banks, who turned and, with feigned nonchalance, strolled over to Kitty. She looked askance at him. “I thought you were bringing a horse, Hiram?”

“Just keep on looking busy,” Banks muttered. “We’re being watched. I’ll try to get behind whoever it is.” He tramped back towards the horses, while Kitty continued clearing loose earth from around the trunk.

Tod Wilkins made the next move. “Come on, quick,” he snapped to the professor. “We’ll get the woman. Banks won’t dare to interfere if we have her.” He led the way and within seconds, the two of them had scurried back to their horses and mounted. They came hurtling around the hillock and covered the short distance to Kitty Quilty in a few seconds. She was near-paralysed with surprise and fright as the two men thundered towards her.

Banks had just reached his horse when he heard the drumming hooves. Turning, he took in the situation quickly, grabbed his rifle and scrambled behind a clump of bushes.

At this point, Marshal Watts decided to take a hand. Judging that there wasn’t enough time to reach his horse, he emerged from cover and ran towards the group around the trunk. That wasn’t a wise move, as the dangerous Hiram Banks was well separated from the other three, and not fully in sight. Wilkins and the professor had dismounted and begun their intended abduction of Kitty, the idea being to first seize her and use her as a shield against any possible shooting from Banks.

The marshal bellowed at Wilkins to drop his weapon, and at the professor, who wasn’t yet holding a gun, to stand still. Wilkins might have chosen to resist, but seeing Watts’s rock-steady pistol he complied meekly, as did the professor.

While all this was going on, Jethro Russell had closed in. He was now in a fairly safe position, lying in a small hollow, a hundred yards south of the group around the trunk, while Banks was about the same distance away to the north.

It was the professor who, again inadvertently, induced what followed. He reached into a pocket, intending to pull out a handkerchief. Assuming that he was going for a gun, Marshal Watts swung his own weapon to face the danger. Wilkins, ten feet away from the professor, took a chance, bending to grab his revolver. Hiram Banks decided that he could wait no longer. He started shooting. Kitty Quilty screamed and threw herself into the hole, alongside the trunk. It was a wise move, probably saving her from being killed in the mayhem, which was brief. George Watts shot the professor in the head and, an instant after doing that, he took a bullet in the throat from Wilkins, who a second later was cut down by a shot to the heart from Hiram Banks.

Noting that Kitty had dived to safety, her guide made sure of things by slamming six further bullets into the three corpses. He was still unaware of the presence of Jethro Russell, who had seen no need to take part in these latest proceedings.

Banks, being a cautious man, allowed three minutes to pass before walking over to the sprawled bodies. Kitty had by then raised her head to take in the scene. Banks checked over the fallen men. “All dead,” he said, in the flat tones of a man who’d seen such things before.

“What do we do with them?” asked Kitty.

“Nothing. I’ll pull ’em over to one side and leave ’em. Buzzards have to eat too.” He moved the bodies, then set off once more to fetch a horse. He now had his back to Jethro Russell and was increasing the distance between them with each step. Russell was an excellent shot and wouldn’t get a better chance. The first bullet did it, hitting Banks high in the back of his head. He was dead before hitting the ground. Kitty looked on in astonishment as Russell appeared, striding towards her, rifle at the ready. “Who are you?” she said.

“Never mind,” Russell snarled. “What’s in that box?”

Kitty seemed utterly resigned. “I can’t stop you finding out now,” she said. “It’s Jonathan Straker’s gold. I’m his niece.”

“That’s interestin’. We’d better haul the goods out an’ see what’s what. You ain’t armed, are you?”

“Of course not,” Kitty replied. “I hate guns. They’re horrible things.”

Russell summoned his horse with a whistle. He moved it into position, set down his rifle, tied his lariat to the trunk and used the animal to haul Straker’s long-lost hoard out of the hole. That done, he wiped a hand across his face and smiled. “Now we’ll have a little look-see,” he said.

“I think not, sir. You’ve been quite helpful enough.” The sudden hard edge to Kitty Quilty’s voice made Russell turn. He found himself looking at the two barrels of a Derringer which Kitty had produced from somewhere in her riding skirt. He went for his side-arm and she promptly shot him once through the heart, keeping her second bullet, just in case. It wasn’t needed. The outlaw died as unpleasantly as he had lived. Grunting and gasping, he tottered a few steps, hand on his undrawn gun, then fell backwards.

Though he was flat on the ground and drawing his last breath, Russell was driven by ingrained reaction. With his final spasm, he fired a single bullet from the open-ended holster. It could have gone anywhere. Kitty Quilty felt the impact on her right heel and her leg folded under her. Moaning, she tried to get up. It took two painful minutes for her to realise the extent of her misfortune. Russell’s last act, though obviously not intentional, had been among the ugliest of his evil life. His shot had severed Kitty’s Achilles’ tendon. She wouldn’t walk again. It wasn’t long before she recalled the stories she had read about this being a punishment meted out by some of the tribes who had lived around here. The captives were incapacitated in the way she now was, then left to crawl around in the desert until the inevitable end.

Even in this desperate state, Kitty hauled herself over to the trunk. Finding it unlocked, she pushed up the lid. Inside was a collection of stones, atop which was an envelope, which she tore open. The single piece of paper inside bore a pencilled message. Kitty read:

To the Finder,

Don’t believe all you hear about bandits. I stole no more than twelve thousand dollars in my life and gambled every cent away. I live courtesy of my wife’s fortune, such as it is, and I’ll die without a penny to my name.

Jonathan Straker

Late the following afternoon, a small hunting party of Indians encountered the scene. The shock, the disappointment, the violent ending and the pitiless sun had done their work. Kitty Quilty was hunkered down by the trunk, rocking, raving and babbling in delirium, her slender hands bloody from repeated beating and scrabbling at the trunk and the rocks.

Somehow, through her misery, Kitty saw the hunters and in a flash of lucidity, screamed for help. The men were not hostile to white people and ordinarily would have obliged. But in common with so many of their kind, they had a deep awe and fear of what they perceived as insanity. For a few minutes, they muttered among themselves, then rode off, leaving Kitty to the heat – and the gathering birds.

* * *

December 7th, 2012, 07:00 PM
Another enjoyable piece. Very nicely written.

December 8th, 2012, 07:11 PM

John W. Harcourt was a worried man. He had good cause. As president of the Western General Railroad, he bore ultimate responsibility for the success of the company’s latest venture, a ninety-mile branch line, planned to transport an ever-increasing volume of supplies from Stonedale, Colorado, to the gold-mining town of Sand Creek.

Harcourt’s concern arose from his position with the railroad and his involvement in the mining operation. He was a man of many interests and having satisfied himself that the gold deposits were likely to be substantial, had invested heavily. As a major shareholder in both enterprises, he was massively committed to the two operations.

After rapid early progress, things were going wrong on the Western General’s new line. Forty miles had been laid before the first incident, when two explosions wrecked a length of track. No sooner had repairs been carried out than a further attack had destroyed another stretch. That too had been righted. Then, a week later, an even stranger incident had occurred. Six miles behind the railhead, several metals had been lifted from their ties and carried off, while on the same day – somewhere further down the line – a train had vanished. Drastic action was needed.

Harcourt bellowed a summons to his assistant, who appeared from the adjoining office, wearing the worried look he always showed when dealing with his autocratic boss, who was pacing around like a caged tiger, his florid face and hefty, five-foot-nine body radiating fury. “Find Scott,” he snapped. “I want him here, quick.”

“Yes, sir. I believe he’s over in –”

“I didn’t ask where he is,” Harcourt interrupted. “Just get him.”


Alec Scott, six-foot-two, lanky, clean-shaven and sandy-haired, was Harcourt’s troubleshooter. In his two years with the railroad, he had distinguished himself by averting or settling a dozen major difficulties. He moved around, finding out where the shoe pinched and trying to nip potential problems in the bud. When he was too late to do that, he had to adopt firmer methods. He never flinched from them.

John Harcourt employed many people. Most of them he considered interchangeable units. If one dropped out, another stepped in. None was indispensable, few even important. Minions generally deferred to his high-handed attitude. Scott was an exception. He didn’t seem to care whether he was employed or not, but he did know how valuable he was to the great man. There was no forelock-touching from Alec Scott. He was located on the day of Harcourt’s demand, only twenty miles from headquarters, where he arrived the following morning.

Breezing into the assistant’s office, Scott grinned at the harried man. “Morning, Charlie. What’s eating the old buzzard?” he boomed, affecting not to notice that the inner door was open.

Charles Tate’s attempted reply was overridden by Harcourt’s roar: “In here, young man, and I’ll thank you for less of the insolence.”

Scott entered the sanctum, closing the door behind him. “Morning, J. W. Something gnawing at your vitals?”

“Yes, and it’s about to gnaw at yours, too.”

“At your service, Milord. What’s afoot?”

“Plenty. Somebody’s stolen one of our trains.”

Scott chuckled. “Damned careless of us to let that happen. Gives a new twist to the idea of train robbing. Where, when and how big?”

“On the new line going north from Stonedale. Just over forty-eight hours ago. Locomotive, tender and a flatcar.”

“Only one car? Why?”

“We’re having delivery problems. Sometimes we have to run either metals or ties up to the railhead that way.”

“So, it was just a load of stuff for the laying boys?”

“Of course. What else?”

“Okay, keep your shirt on. I just wanted the facts.”

“If there’s much more of this banditry, I’ll not have a shirt to my name,” said the disgruntled tycoon. He went over the attacks on the new line, then the mystery of the lost train. “It set out from Stonedale for a forty-two-mile trip to the railhead, but never arrived.”

“What about the crew?”

“Two men, as usual. They both disappeared.”

“Have you had lookouts posted along the line?”

“I pay people for putting down track, not gaping at scenery.”

“Hmn,” said Scott, massaging his chin. “Why didn’t you send for me earlier?”

“Strange as it may seem to you, I have other things to think about. This is one headache among many. Anyway, you’re here now, so get going, pronto.”

“Yes, sir, Mr Harcourt, sir,” replied Scott with mock obsequiousness. “Okay if I stop to pick up my hat?”

Harcourt reddened. “Why are you still here?” he yelled.

Two days later, Alec Scott was twenty-eight miles north of Stonedale, heading northwards on a hired horse. His initial inquiries had elicited nothing beyond general mystification about the missing train and bafflement as to why the lengths of metal had vanished. That had left him no choice but to ride along the track, and so far he had seen nothing of consequence. He was just rounding a curve. To his right was broken terrain, mostly rock outcrops and open, sparsely vegetated land. On the left was the valley from which the track diverged on its way to Sand Creek

Scott’s task was complicated by the fact that snow had fallen since the incident he was investigating had occurred. A white carpet three inches deep wasn’t conducive to picking up clues. Also, not being a regular horseman was a drawback. Scott was saddle-sore, and he didn’t have the right footwear – riding boots might have helped. He was ready for a break, but it was a piece of paper fluttering in the breeze that finally caused his decision to halt. Dismounting stiffly, he noted that he had no way of tethering his horse, but the animal was hardly likely to wander far, as the only thing that might interest it was a clump of bushes among the scattered rocks off to the east.

Lighting a cheroot, Scott walked over to the object that had drawn his attention. It was a partly unrolled label, attached tenuously to a can that had contained peaches. Further investigation turned up two more empties, both having held sardines. So, someone had spent enough time here to justify taking a meal. Scott knew that John Harcourt had firm views on various matters, one of which concerned the depositing of trash by his workers as they moved along. Once he had fired a foreman and bawled out a crew for failing to tidy up a site before leaving it. Here, either the chief’s instructions had been disobeyed, or some other party had been around.

Scott wandered back over the track to look at the valley. Down there, about three miles to the north, was a huddle of buildings. From where he stood, the land, dotted with tenacious bushes and clumps of grass, fell away at an angle of about seventy degrees – except for a wide stretch immediately beneath him, where a massive fall halfway down had produced what seemed like an almost sheer cliff, with a huge mass of tumbled rocks and earth at the bottom. Landslides were not unknown here, but this was a big and odd-looking one.

Ambling back to retrieve his horse, Scott found that it had gone off to inspect the isolated group of bushes. He was about to lead it away when his eye took in a glint of sunlight from some object a further hundred yards to the east. He strolled over to take a closer look. What he’d seen was the end of a bent railroad metal, which wasn’t alone. There was another in the same state and two more, buckled and dented.

Scott walked the horse back to the west side of the track and stood pondering. It was not until he had finished his smoke and was about to mount and move on that his jumbled thoughts assembled themselves in the right order. The missing rails up ahead, the empty food cans, the deformed metals and that heap of rocks in the valley. Now he had it!

Though convinced that he was right, the railroad troubleshooter was bent on settling the matter before the day was over. Starting at the south end of the ground above the landfall, he dragged a boot along northwards, clearing snow and soon finding what he had expected to find – two wide heavy indentations in the rocky edge, near enough five feet apart.

Scott had to decide whether to return to his starting point or ride on to the railhead. He needed one item of equipment and that was available at both ends. He would be hard pressed to make it back to Stonedale, then out here again before nightfall. Knowing that the laying gangs usually kept two or three horses for emergencies, he decided to continue northwards.

At two in the afternoon, Scott reached the railhead. He paused only briefly for a meal, then rummaged in the supply tent, swapped his tired horse for a sturdy gelding and filled his water bottle. Less than an hour after his arrival, he was riding back south, regretting only that he couldn’t change his backside as easily as he’d picked up a fresh mount.

To get down to the valley, Scott was obliged to ride well south of the spot that interested him, then go back to it. Taking the sack he’d lugged from the construction gang’s store, he examined the mass of fallen rocks and earth he had viewed earlier from above. He was well-versed in the use of explosives, so knew how to set his charges. Two blasts did it, the second exposing one end of a flatcar. That was enough.

Scott wondered why, if his mental reconstruction was correct, the culprits had done so elaborate a job. They must have timed their effort so that snow, either actually falling or imminent would cover any blemishes in the scheme. They’d been aware of the train movements, had taken up the rails to the north and carted them back here. Then they’d derailed the train, probably by diverting the metals those few yards – that would work for a single passage of the engine over such a short distance.

After getting the result they wanted, the miscreants had taken the damaged rails away from the scene, then reinstated the track with the ones they’d stolen earlier. The idea might well have worked even without the snow. With it, the mystery would have been even deeper – but for Scott noticing that scrap of coloured paper, and his horse having wandered.

Though flushed with success, Harcourt’s sleuth realised that he couldn’t make it to Stonedale or to the railhead before dark. He was weary and decided to head for the settlement he’d noted from above. Forty minutes later, he reached the cluster of one-storey wooden buildings. At the northern end was a corral and livery barn. There was nobody in attendance, so Scott saw to his horse then went back to what looked like the community’s focal point, a ramshackle structure bearing the word ‘Saloon’, painted crudely on the door. He entered a room around twenty-five feet square, with a bar of planks on barrels along the rear wall.

The establishment was as depressing inside as outside, dim lights compounding an atmosphere that would have been glum enough whatever the illumination. Eight men – a trio, two pairs and a solo drinker occupied four tables, the remaining three being vacant. The short rotund near-bald saloonkeeper was alone behind the bar, eyes half-closed. If there had been any conversation before the newcomer arrived, it stopped on his entry.

Scott ordered a beer, which the barman produced without a word of greeting, his demeanour accentuating the palpable hostility toward the stranger. Finishing his drink, Scott ordered another. Still no one spoke. Well, if this was a chicken game, he would play it. Someone, probably the bartender, would break the silence before he did. He toyed with the second beer for five minutes before the host’s inquisitiveness overcame his passive animosity. “You just ridin’ through?” he grunted.

“Yes, but my horse needs a rest. You seem to have a big livery stable.”

“Yeah, well, we’re a relay station for the stagecoach line.”

“I didn’t know there was one hereabouts.”

“Fulton & Strong is the biggest stage an’ freight outfit in these parts.”

“That a fact?”

“Yes, sir. An’ likely to be bigger. Word is Jack Fulton’s buyin’ a whole new fleet of stagecoaches. Latest model from Abbott-Downin’.”

The subject seemed to touch the man’s conversation nerve. Scott raised his eyebrows. “Abbott-Downing eh?” he said. He was familiar with the name and reputation of the New Hampshire coachbuilders. “Well, that’ll cost him plenty.”

“Sure will. A good few thousand dollars.” As he listened, Scott was looking at the backbar mirror. One of the men in the threesome of drinkers wave a hand, palm downwards in a clear warning to the barman, whose flow of chatter ceased abruptly. Scott drank the rest of his beer, ordered a third, admitted that he’d stabled his horse on his own initiative and asked whether there was any chance of accommodation for himself.

“No rooms here, mister,” said the barman. “You could see Tom Robbins at the stable when he gets back. Maybe he’ll let you sleep in his hayloft, ’less you’re a railroad man, that is.”

“Not guilty,” Scott replied. “Is that a sensitive issue here?”

“It is. Those boys just ain’t welcome in –”

“Hey, Tom.” The interruption came from another of the trio of drinkers. “You goin’ to gab there all night, or can we get a drink here?”

“Be right with you.”

Using the mirror again, Scott saw that each of the three men had a near-full glass. Obviously they were intent on silencing the barman. Still taking in the scene behind him, Scott noted that the lone drinker, a short thin fellow, slunk off without a word to anyone. Maybe that meant nothing, but in such a small parochial place, it seemed more likely that the move had some significance.

It was now fully dark outside. Not knowing where he would spend the night, Scott had set out with a bedroll and supplies. Now he would need both, as he had no intention of staying overnight in this disagreeable spot. On his way to it, he’d passed a stand of pine trees, so he collected his horse, topped up his water bottle and returned there. Finding the spot suitable, he opted for cold food and bedded down.

Shortly after first light, Scott was up and about. While making breakfast, he thought about the remarks the barman had passed the night before. Who would benefit from disruption of the railroad’s activity? Scott didn’t like jumping to conclusions, but a stagecoach and freighting company, intent on expansion, seemed a likely candidate. Still pondering, he was preparing to leave, with no definite idea about his next move, when a voice snapped: “Hands up an’ face around.”

Scott obeyed, turning slowly to see a man advancing through the trees. It was the small fellow who had left the saloon so quietly the previous night. He had a six-gun, held level. “I been watchin’ you quite a spell, mister,” he said. “Now you’re ready, we can go. Drop the shooter, slow an’ careful, an’ get on your horse.”

Scott did as he was told and the small man picked up the weapon, mounted and waved his gun at a cleft in the low hills to the west. “Head for that openin’ yonder. Keep it to a walk.”

Scott moved off, his captor six feet behind him and the same distance to his left. For a few minutes, he rode in silence, then turned his head. “I suppose you wouldn’t like to tell me what this is all about?”

“No, I wouldn’t. Now keep quiet.”

The two men entered the gap and rode on for a quarter-hour until Scott was directed off through a narrow defile to the south. Five minutes later, having emerged into a small patch of open country, they arrived at a large log cabin. “Get down,” said the little man.

Scott dismounted. “Now what?” he asked.

“Cut the gab an’ get over there.” The man was nodding at the left-hand end of the building, where there was a flat-roofed lean-to with a door hung on leather hinges and kept shut by an iron bar slotted into two large staples driven into the woodwork. “Open up an’ get in.”

Scott complied, then turned. “What do you aim to do with me?” he said.

“Don’t know yet. Probably kill you. I was told to pick up any railroad snoopers an’ bring ’em here. You fit the bill.” With that, he closed the door and dropped the bar back into place. Evidently in no mood to waste time, he rode off at once.

Unable to stand straight in the confined space, Scott sat. Apart from his gun, nothing had been taken from him, so he struck a match and inspected his surroundings. Except for himself, the shed was empty. It was roughly a six-foot cube, with stout walls, as thick as those of the main structure. The heavy wooden door was badly fitted but seemed secure. Between its left-hand edge and the frame was a narrow gap through which a thin section of the iron bar was visible.

Scott tried the roof. Hoping that some of the nails that fastened it to the walls might be rusted, he began heaving upwards. Two minutes of effort persuaded him that he was wasting time. He kicked the door as hard as he could, half a dozen times. There was over half an inch of lateral play, but apart from that, he might as well have slammed his foot into a mountainside. There was no point in thrashing around, so he sat on the floor, staring at what he could see of his feet in the faint light that came through the few chinks.

It was fifteen minutes before the idea came to him – and he had been looking at it all the time. As one who walked much and rode little, Scott always wore either laced boots or moccasins. Today, it was the boots. If he could thread a lace out through the crack between door and frame, then get the end back in, possibly he could make a loop around the bar and lift it.

He recalled the position as seen from the outside. The door was two and a half feet wide, the staples hammered into the logs three inches clear of the frame on both sides. If the bar could be lifted high enough, it might fall back outside the staples. Scott fumbled in his pockets, seeking something that would help to recover the lace, once he had got it out through the crack. Being a man who travelled light, he found nothing but his cheroots and matches, a few coins and his money clip. So here he was, fingering a slim wad of currency. What use was that?

Maybe the succession of mind-scrambling experiences was affecting Scott because he it took him a further ten minutes to hit upon a possible solution – crisp paper. He selected a near-new ten-dollar bill and folded it lengthways. Next, he took out his left bootlace and poked it through the gap, wiggling it over the bar. Then he pushed the folded bill through the same gap, four inches lower. Now he had a miniature chute. He worked with both hands together, slowly feeding out the lace until he felt it falling into the fold of the banknote.

After a further half-minute of delicate manipulation, Scott was able to lower the bill inwards. The free end of the lace snaked back his way and he seized it. Now he had a grip on both ends, so he could raise the bar from inside. He tested the play he’d detected from kicking the door. Yes, it might be enough. He yanked upwards, pressing his right shoulder against the woodwork. The bar jerked up, fell back, clanged on the staple, then dropped clear. The door swung open.

Scott put banknote and bootlace back where they belonged, closed the door, replaced the bar, then went into the shack, which contained a stove, a table, two crates serving as chairs, a shelf and a pair of bunk beds. Scott’s gun was on the table. He grabbed it, then considered his next move. His former captor would surely soon return, probably with orders to shoot him.

Two hours later, Scott stood behind the door as the little man rode up, dismounted, glanced at the closed shed, then strode into the shack, to find the railroad man’s pistol in his ribs. “Now it’s your turn,” snapped Scott. “Undo that gun belt and hand it over.” Without a word, the man did so. Scott reversed his own gun, spun the man round and whacked him on the head, knocking him unconscious. Patting the inert form for other weapons and finding none, Scott went outside, where he took a lariat from his own horse. He returned, dragged the fellow over to the stove and trussed him in a way he had learned years earlier.

The little fellow regained his senses to find himself lying on the floor, firmly bound, with Scott sitting on one of the crates. “Now,” said the troubleshooter, “I want some information and I want it quick.”

“What goin’ on, mister?” squawked the man. “I can’t move.”

“Oh, you’ve noticed, have you?” Scott grinned. “I understand it’s an old Indian trick. Some people call it the Comanche Bind. Works well. See, your legs are drawn up behind you, then tied to your wrists, then the whole lot is fastened to your neck, with a nice smooth slip-knot.”

“For God’s sake, man, you’re choking me.”

Scott grinned. “No, I’m not doing anything. As long as you keep still, you’ll be fine. ’Course, you might get restless and start wanting to straighten out. I believe people start with the knees. If you do that, you’ll tighten the noose around your neck. You could strangle yourself. That would be your own fault. Now, who are you and what are you up to?”

“Name’s Parsons. I was hired to take care of you.”

“What else? What about the train wreck?”

“Yeah. I was in on that, too. You satisfied now?”

Scott was about to answer when a voice behind him said: “Hold it there. Drop your gun and kick it back here.”

With the tables turned once more, Scott obeyed.

“Good. Now get over to the back wall and turn around.”

Again Scott complied. Finding himself facing a stout middle-aged man, holding a long-barrelled revolver, he smiled ruefully. “You came up nice and quiet.”

The man nodded. “I’m the careful type.”

“You surely are. How do you fit in?”

“I’m Jack Fulton. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”

“If you put that together with ‘Strong’, yes.”

“You have it. You could call Mr Strong a sleeping partner. What about you?”

Scott was no novice at bluffing. “My name is Thompson,” he said. “I represent Abernethy & Strode, lawyers of Cheyenne. I’m looking for a man last heard of here.”


“They don’t tell me. My job is to find the party and inform him that he should contact Mr. Strode, who has information to his advantage. These things are usually inheritance matters. When I find the man, I get paid. No find, no fee.”

“A good tale. Now let me give you my version. Your name is Scott. You work for the Western General Railroad. You’re a detective, here to find the lost train. Now, I like my story better than yours. What do you say to that?”

Scott shrugged. “Not much. What’s your angle?”

“Well, I’ll give you the facts, since you won’t be repeating them. You’ll not be surprised to learn that railroads are bad news to me. I’ve worked hard on my business for eight years. Just before the iron way came out here, I was planning a big expansion. Sold up everything I could to raise money. Then I learned that John Harcourt isn’t satisfied with the line to Sand Creek. He intends to put a spur through this valley and most of the area I cover to the north. I was stuck with my commitments, so I found myself with nineteen thousand dollars in cash and a business facing ruin. To keep it short, I’m clearing out and going south of the border.”

“And your partner?”

“Strong isn’t well named. Mr Weak would suit him better. I’ve left him with a hundred dollars. That was the amount we had when we started out. He’s had precious little to do with building the business, so we’ll see how he copes alone.”

As Fulton was speaking, Scott saw to his amazement that the shadow of a man had been thrown across the yard. Reckoning that the new arrival could hardly worsen his position, he decided to keep talking in the hope of holding Fulton’s attention. “How did you know the train would go over the edge?” he said.

“The curve helped, but it wasn’t really necessary. As it happens, I have a background in engineering. I knew that at the usual speed of the train at that place, a derailment would leave it with only one direction it could go.”

“I see. And why replace the rails?

“That was just my sense of humour. A little refinement to make the search harder. There’ll be snow again any hour now, and with you out of the picture, Harcourt’s going to have a puzzle on his hands. He would have had anyway, but for Parsons’ carelessness and your stroke of luck. It was luck, wasn’t it?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, and speaking of Parsons, what about him now?”

“Ah, yes,” Fulton replied. “He’s been a disappointment. They say there’s no such thing as the perfect crime and I guess Parsons proves it. He led the group that was supposed to change the rails, then drop the damaged ones down the slope before the blasting. They did the one but not the other. Then he was to deal with you. He failed there, too. He’s no use to me any more, so I think I’ll –”

That was as far as Fulton got. Behind him, the shadow had changed into a man, who crept up on him and smashed a stone down on his head. Fulton dropped to the floor, unconscious. That revealed the newcomer to Scott. He was quite a sight. A tall, thin man with several days’ growth of grey whiskers, he wore a brown woollen shirt, blue bib overalls and heavy boots. A faded denim cap sat askew on his head. Apart from a large grease stain on one cheek, his face beneath the hair seemed sheet-white and his right arm hung limply.

For a moment, the man stood swaying, then fell flat on his face. Scott reacted quickly, hauling him across the floor and propping him up against the rear wall. The cap had fallen off, revealing a terrible wound across the man’s forehead and right temple. The four-inch long furrow and the surrounding skin displayed an alarming array of colours.

First things first. Scott retrieved Fulton’s gun, putting himself in charge of the situation again. Seeing a half-full whiskey bottle and a tin cup on the shelf, he poured a large slug. As he drank, the gaunt old-timer groaned. Scott bent over him, dribbling a little of the liquor between his lips. Spluttering, the fellow opened his eyes. Scott was relieved. “I’m glad to see you, friend,” he said, “but who are you?”

“Name’s Ganley. I was driving the train that got wrecked.”

“You mean you survived that fall?”

“That’s right. When the engine ran over the edge, the fireman went with it. I jumped clear. Fell some way an’ hit one o’ them bushes stickin’ out. I kinda spun round it and fell again, onto a ledge. The fellers up above couldn’t see me. Must have thought I’d gone down the whole way. I crawled as far as I could, workin’ my way near to the bottom, then there was a hell of a racket. Blast threw me almost all the way down. Saw later that they’d dynamited the cliff.”

“What then?”

“Well, I was hurt bad. There was this thing on my head, my right arm wouldn’t move an’ I think I’d busted some ribs. I couldn’t climb back up, so I kept on goin’ sideways till I found a spot where I could slither down. Lost my footin’ an’ rolled a good way then went head-first into a big rock. I must have been out for hours. When I came to, I knew there’d be no help around here for a railroad man, so I made for the trees. Then I passed out again. Was in and out o’ my senses for a while. Got water from the creek back yonder, but had nothin’ to eat for four days.”

“Man, you’ve had a rough time. How did you get here?”

“I got a friend in the next valley, west of here. I knew about this shack. Thought maybe there’d be some supplies left around, so I part walked, part crawled. When I got here, I saw two horses outside, then one feller rode away. I figured somebody else was still inside, so I waited. Watched you get out o’ the shed, then saw the little jasper come back, then that man I hit over the head rode up.”

Scott fed the man more whiskey. “Why did you come out of hiding?” he said.

“Couldn’t stand it any longer. I aimed ask for help. I came up close and heard what was said about you bein’ with the railroad. Then I took a hand.”

“Well, I’m grateful. Now, you need a doctor. If I see to that, can you handle a gun well enough to keep an eye on these two?”

“Sure. I can shoot all right with the hand I got left.”

Scott handed over Fulton’s gun, then turned and made for the door. Parsons yelled: “You can’t leave me like this.” He’d barely got the words out when the gun in Ganley’s hand spat. Scott spun round to find that Parsons had taken the bullet in his head.

“Good grief man, you didn’t have to do that,” said Scott, horrified.

Ganley swung the gun, training it on the detective. “Stand still,” he snapped.

Scott grasped that there was something amiss with Ganley beyond his physical injuries.

“Easy, friend,” he said. “You’ve taken a bad knock. Maybe you have concussion or something. If you –”

“Shut up,” snarled Ganley. “Now listen. I’ve been thinkin’. I’m gettin’ old. I’ve been workin’ for that louse Harcourt for seven years an’ I’m purely sick of his attitude. I’ve had enough of him an’ his like, so I’ll tell you what I’ll do.”

“Look, Ganley, just let –”

“I told you to keep quiet. I don’t want to kill you, so don’t force me. What I’ll do is what Fulton had in mind. I’ll take his horse an’ his nineteen thousand dollars, an’ go south, to a spot where a feller can live pretty good with that kinda money.” As he spoke, he was pushing and heaving against the wall with his shoulders, using them to get himself upright. Managing it with difficulty, he stood there for a moment, then began to go back down, knees buckling, eyes glazing, gun drooping.

Scott bounded forwards. At full stretch, he overbalanced as his right hand reached for the gun while his left grabbed Ganley by the throat. As both men fell, the engine driver’s body was gripped by a massive spasm. The gun, almost down to floor level, was still in his grasp. The convulsion caused him to jerk the trigger. Fulton, still lying face-down, was beginning to stir when the bullet smashed into his left ear.

Ganley’s legs were flat on the floor, his upper body against the wall, his eyes wide open, seeing nothing. Scott picked up the gun, walked to the door, then turned to survey the carnage. Sickened, he went outside. Seeing Fulton’s heavily laden horse, he opened the saddlebags, finding wads of money.

Trudging back into the shack, the railroad detective stood, arms akimbo. A few minutes earlier, there had been four men in there, all alive. Now he was the only one left. A fine job for the court to sort out. The court! That was a point. Scott already had a reputation for using violence to settle his cases. How would this look? Nobody would believe that he wasn’t responsible for the killings.

It took Scott only seconds to make a decision. Going back outside, he took the dead stage line owner’s money, unsaddled and turned loose the two horses that no longer had riders, then mounted his own animal. “Well, boy,” he said, patting the gelding’s neck. “Fulton didn’t make it and neither did Ganley. Maybe it’s third time lucky. We’re going to Mexico.”

* * *

December 15th, 2012, 07:10 PM

Neil Hadley had covered more than three hundred miles in a week, and like his Appaloosa mount he was ready to give the riding a rest for a while. It was early in the evening of a murky October day and darkness was gathering when Hadley reached the small township of Stansfield, Wyoming. Already there were lights in most of the houses and such stores as were still open. Heading along the main street, the new arrival recalled his last visit to the place, two years earlier. He now reckoned that if there had been any change in the meantime, it wasn’t for the better.

The journey had been almost due south from the Montana ranch where Hadley worked. When the young cowhand had shown his boss the letter he had received from his uncle, the rancher had given him a month’s leave, which Hadley felt would be enough to either solve the problem or fail in the attempt.

Uncle George was Hadley’s only living relative. At fifty, George Hadley was now exactly twice his nephew’s age, though the generation gap had never mattered to either man. The two saw little of one another, but maintained contact through occasional letters and rare brief visits.

George was a homesteader, located five miles south of Stansfield. He had been shrewd enough to get land abutting a reliable water supply running down from the Wind River Mountains. Proving up his land wouldn’t have posed too many problems but for the fact that, in common with many settlers, he had found himself at cross-purposes with the ranching community, or rather with one member of it, for the others were unambitious small-time operators. Tom Spencer was different.

From the beginning, Spencer had seen George Hadley as particularly irritating. The rancher had initially limited his hostility to talk, then it had become more open, including trespassing and harassment. Twice before, George Hadley had mentioned this when writing to his nephew. The latest letter had left Neil in no doubt. Uncle George was a tough, independent man, not given to whining, but the younger Hadley, reading between the lines, had detected a note of desperation. His boss, who had an accommodating attitude toward settlers, had gladly given Neil the time off.

Halting outside Dutton’s saloon – the only watering hole in Stansfield – Hadley was undecided. His journey was almost over, but he was weary and the prospect of a couple of beers was tempting. The saloon matched the day in that, defying the dusk, it showed no lights. A man inside passed the doors, looked out, then moved back further into the barroom.

After a minute’s hesitation, Hadley dismounted, crossed the boardwalk and pushed at the batwings. The next instant would be imprinted upon his mind for a long time. From behind the right-hand door, a huge fist whirled out of the gloom. Hadley, struck on the chin, was momentarily aware of a large form facing him, then he was tottering backwards. He caught a heel on the warped planking and fell into the street. Getting to his feet, he heard ribald laughter from within the saloon. He massaged his jaw. Painful, but not broken.

Hadley was not a man to accept such treatment without retaliation. He reached into his bedroll, pulled out his old revolver and a box of bullets, loaded the gun and wedged it firmly beside the sheathed knife he always kept hanging from his belt. He would shoot only in defence of his life. Though no gunfighter, he had half-expected to need the weapon, if not quite so soon. He looked at the front of the two-storey saloon. Nothing helpful there.

The building was bracketed by two alleyways. Hadley walked along the left-hand one. At the rear, the ground floor was used as a storeroom and was a blank wooden wall. The upper floor had four single casement windows. Three were closed, but the left inner one was either badly warped or open a crack. The back wall was lined with empty beer casks. Hadley heaved one atop two others under the likely-looking spot and mounted the improvised platform. He was prepared to break in if necessary, but found that the window was open an inch or so. He yanked at the frame, swung his legs over the sill, eased himself to the floor and began to step across the room. His entry had not been noiseless and as he approached the door, a high, tremulous female voice called out from the bed: “Who’s there? What are you doing?”

“It’s all right ma’am,” Hadley replied. “I mean you no harm. I’m just trying to get to the barroom.”

The woman’s voice lowered slightly. “Who are you? What do you want? And what’s wrong with the doors?”

“My name’s Neil Hadley ma’am. I’m sorry to intrude like this. Didn’t know you were here. I tried to get in the usual way and somebody punched me.”

“Oh, that would be Block,” the woman answered.


“Yes. His real name’s Jack Petty, but everybody calls him Block, on account of his size. He sometimes does that with strangers. It’s kind of a game with him.” Her tone had subsided to conversational level.

“It’s a queer pastime,” Hadley replied. “Doesn’t anybody react?”

The woman was now fully composed. “Not when they see Block.”

“Don’t you have any law here?”

“What we have is a long way off. Just a minute.” There was scrabbling sound as she fumbled with matches at her bedside commode, then a lamp lit up the room. “Come here,” she said.

Hadley took off his hat and walked over to bed. The woman was sitting up. She had straight black shoulder-length hair and dark eyes, set in a broad pale face, marred by a three-inch scar, running over the cheek from the outer corner of the left eye.

What the woman saw was a rawboned six-footer, a hundred and ninety pounds in weight, clean-shaven, black-haired and dark complexioned. “Block did this,” she said, pointing at the disfigurement.


“No special reason. He was drunk. He hit me with a broken glass. That’s why you don’t need to worry too much about intruding. I don’t get many callers now.” Hadley nodded. “Well, this Block has something to answer for, hasn’t he, ma’am?”

“Yes. I hate him. And you needn’t bother with the ‘ma’am’. My name’s Molly Parker.

“Okay. Is anything keeping you here?”

“Nothing except that so far I haven’t saved up enough money to leave.”

“I see. Well, Molly Parker, I’m going to pay Block for what he’s just done. Maybe I’ll give him a bonus for what he did to you.”

“Be careful. He works for Tom Spencer, who’s top dog around here.”

Hadley recalled the name from the correspondence with his uncle. “How do I spot Block?” he asked.

“You can’t miss him. He’s very big and his face is a mass of black whiskers.”

“I’m obliged to you. If I finish what I came here to do, I’ll . . . er . . . intrude again sometime, if that’s all right with you.”

“It is.”

Hadley crossed to the door, opened it a crack, then dropped to all fours. Peering out, he found himself roughly midway along a landing, the stairs at the end leading down to the barroom, where the lights were now on. The saloonkeeper was sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper. The only patrons were five men, standing in a group near the bar. There was no mistaking Block. He gave the impression of being about a yard wide and stood seven or eight inches above the tallest of his companions. Hadley put him at six-four and at least two hundred and fifty pounds.

One of the group turned to the barman, asking for a pack of cards. That was the cue for the five men to seat themselves around one of the half-dozen tables, Block sitting facing the batwings, with his back to the landing.

Hadley left the door ajar, crept back and looked around the bedroom, Molly Parker following his roving eyes. “Are you seeking something?” she asked.

“Yes. I need some kind of surprise.” As Hadley spoke, he noticed the water pitcher and basin on the commode. Walking over, he hefted the jug. “Nearly full,” he said. “Seems a shame to break it, though.”

Molly pointed at the corner by the wardrobe. “If it’s only water you want, there’s plenty in that pail. You’re welcome to it.”

Hadley picked up the nearly full two-gallon oak bucket. “Thanks,” he said. “This might do.” He carried the unlikely weapon over to the door. “Now, ma’am . . . sorry, Molly Parker, wish me luck.”

“Believe me, I do.”

Hadley opened the door wider, finding that the card game was in progress. Standing upright, he was able to see that the back of Block’s head was five feet or so below the landing, laterally about eight feet distant from it and almost directly in line with Molly’s door. All the players were studying their cards and the barman was still engrossed in his newspaper. There would be no time for tiptoeing around or taking careful aim, but it was now or never.

Hadley stepped out onto the landing. Giving the bucket a swing, he heaved it over the handrail. The shot wasn’t quite right, but good enough. The vessel fell a little short, hitting the back of Block’s neck, flinging his head and upper body across the table. Hadley couldn’t afford to wait to see the full effect. He swung over the banister, steadied himself for a moment by dangling one-handed from it, then dropped to the barroom floor.

Block had already pushed himself back from the table, kicked his chair away and turned to face the source of his discomfiture. For a brief moment the scene was frozen, then the woolly mammoth closed in. “I don’t know what your game is, mister,” he grunted, “but it’d better include prayers.”

Knowing what an awesome sight he was, the bully boy obviously expected his opponent to retreat. Instead, Hadley stepped forwards, his fists weaving in a comical caricature of prizefighter style. So intent was Block on the newcomer’s eyes and those weird hand movements that he failed to anticipate what came next. Satisfied that he had captured his opponent’s attention, Hadley lashed out with his left leg, his boot thudding into Block’s crotch.

The big man was completely taken aback. His eyes opened wide as breath whooshed from his gaping mouth. He dropped to his knees, both hands clutching the injured spot. That suited Hadley nicely. As his left foot returned to the floor, the right one swung up, the sole and heel hitting Block in the face, mashing his nose and mouth. Hadley hadn’t spared the vigour. The kick threw Block backwards and downwards, his head banging on the floorboards, blood and teeth spraying from the mangled features.

Instantly, Hadley drew his gun, leapt upon the fallen man and rammed the weapon through his beard. “You may be a big fish here, Block,” he snarled, “but this is a small pool. Out in the real world, you’re not even minnow.” Block had difficulty in speaking through shredded lips. “You crazy?” was all he could manage.

“That’s right. I’m a madman. There’s no telling what I might do. Now, you’ll soon be able to talk right again. When you can, tell Spencer I’ll be calling on him.” Standing, Hadley waved his gun at the barman. “You,” he snapped. “Fill that pail. Take it up to Molly Parker and tell her I apologise for disturbing her. And remember that I’ll be along later to check that you’ve done it.” With that, he backed out of the saloon, leaving Block groaning on the floor, the barman doing as he was told and the other four men silent and motionless.

An hour later, Hadley sat facing his uncle. George Hadley had built his place with comfort in mind. It was made of sawn lumber, with two rooms, a pitched roof and floorboards raised over a foot-high void. The older man was delighted that his nephew had responded to the veiled call for help. “I was never so glad to see anybody,” he said, ladling out stew for both men.

Neil Hadley recounted the incident in the saloon. George was not surprised “It’s what you’d expect, Neil,” he said. Then he went on to relate how Tom Spencer had been intimidating him in every way short of personal violence, which seemed imminent.

“How many men has he got?” asked Neil.

“Besides himself, seven hands, including Block, plus a cook, then the foreman, Stewart. Funny thing about him. He hasn’t been around long and he never comes here with the others when they’re bothering me. I don’t think his heart’s in it.”

Neil Hadley nodded “Well,” he said, “you’re here legally, aren’t you?”

“Sure I am, but this is traditionally open range country. Spencer figures he’ll keep it that way if he gets rid of me. He’s scared off some of the other settlers.”

“He’s living in the past,” Neil Hadley replied. “In a few years, there won’t be any open range.”

“Maybe, but there’s more to this. Now, you know how the water runs down here from the mountains?”

“Sure. So?”

“Well, you’ll have noticed that around where my land starts, the river curves and widens.”


“Right. Now, do you know what happens when a waterway does that?”

“I’ve never thought about it?”

“I’ll tell you. It throws more deposits than in other spots. And what do you think it’s deposited right here?”

Neil Hadley’s eyes widened. “Not gold?”

“Yes, gold. There isn’t much. This is no Sutter’s Mill, but it’s nice pickings for a man who’ll work hard enough. I’ve been sifting for two years. Come with me and I’ll show you.”

George led the way into the bedroom, where he dragged aside the bunks, pulled up a loose square in the floorboards and hauled out a flour sack, showing his nephew twenty pounds of nuggets and dust.

“There it is,” he said. “Worth over six thousand dollars. I’ve no other kin. It’s yours as much as mine.”

George Hadley replaced his hoard and the two men went back to the other room. “What do you think, Neil?” said George.

“Does anyone else know about this?”

“No. I only pan when there’s nobody watching. That’s why it’s been such a long haul. I get barely half an ounce a day, but it adds up.”

“How do you value it – compared with the homestead, I mean?”

“Hardly at all. It means little to me. I’d far sooner work my land here undisturbed. The gold’s just a bonus. You could call it a sort of insurance in case I’m forced out. Trouble is that apart from being a nuisance to me directly, Spencer’s leaning on the general store in town. I’m having trouble getting supplies.”

“Is that all?”

“That’s it. ’Course, the law’s on my side as regards water.”

“How’s that?”

“I didn’t know about it until I was told by a man who claimed he’d had a good deal to do with these things. He said that the systems are different east and west of the Mississippi.”

“In what way?”

“In the East, they have what’s called riparian rights. That means if you have river frontage along with others, you can take what you want from any part of the waterway, not just the bit adjoining your land, so long as what you do is otherwise legal. Here, it’s called water rights. That means you have sole claim to make use of whatever you find in the stretch that abuts your land, no matter where it comes from.”

“I get it. You mean in the East, anybody can, say, moor a boat on your bit and drag up what suits him. Here, he can’t.”

“I’ve never had it checked by a lawyer, so I could be wrong, but that’s my understanding. I don’t know what happens if two people have riverbank land directly opposite one another. Maybe they each have rights as far as the middle. Anyway, it doesn’t help me, with the law being so far away and not always friendly to settlers.”

“Don’t worry. Let’s get some sleep. We’ll work it out.”

At nine the following morning, Neil Hadley arrived in Stansfield on his uncle’s buckboard, halting outside Elroy’s general store. George Hadley had wanted to go along, but Neil argued otherwise, saying that with only the two of them, it was better that they should avoid being caught together. It was a specious argument, for the younger man’s real reason was his desire to act alone.

As Hadley jumped down, a man left the store, sauntered along the sidewalk, then turned to face him. Nothing was said for ten seconds, but that was long enough for Hadley to sense something about the fellow. He was around five foot ten, slimly built, clean-shaven and remarkably well turned out in all respects. From light-brown Stetson hat, through spotless buckskin coat and open-necked cream shirt to black boots of tooled leather, everything about him was immaculate. Hadley, far from scruffy himself, thought that he had never seen a smarter-looking fellow.

Finally, the man nodded, offering a thin smile. “Morning,” he said. “You’d be Hadley’s kinsman, I guess?” The voice was quiet and neither friendly nor hostile.

“Morning. That’s right. And you’re . . .?”

“Vic Stewart. Spencer’s foreman.”

“I see. Well, I imagine this won’t be our last meeting, then.”

“Probably not. I heard about your run-in with Block. He says you don’t fight fair.”

“I never claimed to.”

That seemed to amuse Stewart. “I suppose the big hunk had it coming. Seems you broke his nose, crushed his lips, busted out three teeth and damaged his manhood. Now he can’t breathe or eat right – and there’s another thing he can’t do.”

“Ah, poor man. I wish I could say my heart bleeds.”

“Do you always kick the living daylights out of people when you fight?”

“If they’re a lot bigger than me and downright mean, yes.”

Still the smile, as though Stewart got some mild entertainment from the childish antics of others. “Well, Mr Hadley, I’m not a giant, but then” – accidentally on purpose, he allowed or helped the breeze to flick open his jacket, revealing an ivory-handled six-gun tucked into his waistband, butt reversed and angled for a fast cross draw – “I’m not like Block in any other way, either. As to meanness, I don’t think it would be good for anyone concerned if you try to find out.”

“I’ve a feeling you’re right,” Hadley replied.

The foreman nodded. “Well, be seeing you, I imagine.”

“Most likely.”

Stewart turned and strolled lithely away. Everything about him indicated economy combined with purpose. There, thought Hadley, was a man to be reckoned with. The outward relaxation suggested barely masked explosive potential. The exchange of words had been accompanied by a less definable but more important interplay of another kind. Hadley had no doubt that Stewart shared his feeling that a current had passed between the two men. It was a powerful flow and yet, strangely in the circumstances, not quite adversarial. Perhaps, Hadley reckoned, they were two of a kind. Could they really be on opposite sides?”

Musing on the encounter, Hadley entered the store, finding only the owner in occupation. The short paunchy balding Elroy looked up from a ledger. “Morning. Oh, you’re Hadley’s boy, aren’t you?”

“His nephew. Morning. I’d like you to fill this order.” Hadley tossed a scrap of paper onto the counter.

Elroy looked around, as though hoping for support, then shrugged. “Be pleased to help you, mister,” he said, “but I just don’t seem to have these items you w –”

That was as far as he got before stopping in astonishment as Hadley pulled the old Colt from his belt, his eyes flickering over the comprehensive stock and coming to rest on a row of five small kegs lined up along the floor. “Looks like whiskey there,” he said.

“It is. Now just a minute, friend, I have a business to –” and again he halted in mid-flow as Hadley shot a hole in the left-side keg, just below the middle. As the liquid began to run out, Elroy moved, intending to save what he could.

“Leave it!” The snap in Hadley’s voice stopped the storekeeper as though he had walked into a wall. “Now, let me tell you how this works, Elroy. What you do is get those supplies together and put them in the buckboard out there. Then you tell me what they cost, then I pay you, then you can see to your liquor. The faster you do it, the less you lose. Maybe I won’t have to start on the second barrel. It’s up to you.”

Seeing his commercial lifeblood leaking away, Elroy moved quickly. Flour, salt, bacon, coffee, tobacco and an assortment of canned goods were gathered and hastily tossed into the buckboard, the storeowner scampering over his precious whiskey in his comings and goings, Finally, he totted up the cost. “Seventeen dollars and ninety cents,” he gasped, wiping sweat from his forehead.

“Okay. Now, I’ve always reckoned myself a reasonable man. How much of that whiskey do you reckon you’ve lost and what do you figure it’s worth?”

Elroy shook the keg. “At least two gallons,” he said. “I’d say twenty dollars.”

“No, no. I mean what you pay for it, not what you sell it for.”

“Well . . . er . . . sixteen dollars.”

“You’re trying my patience. That stuff’s pure rotgut. Now, guess again.”


“Still high, but close enough.” Hadley took three ten-dollar bills and some loose change from a coat pocket. “So that’s thirty-one dollars and ninety cents. I’m giving you thirty-two. Maybe you can use the extra dime to help plug that hole.” He strode out, climbed onto the buckboard and moved off.

Within an hour, the supplies were offloaded, to the older Hadley’s amazement and delight. “How did you manage it, Neil?” he asked.

“Negotiating skill,” was the reply.

By noon, the homesteader and his nephew had dealt with a few small chores and eaten. George Hadley, accustomed to a slow pace of life, reckoned that enough had been achieved for one day. Neil disagreed. “Seems to me we have the initiative,” he said. “I don’t have much time, so I aim to push hard, right away.”


“I’m going to see Spencer. You’d best stay here, like we agreed.” George Hadley protested vainly. Neil saddled the Appaloosa and having got directions, headed southwest.

It appeared that most of Spencer’s hands were off about their business, though two saddled horses were tethered to corral posts. The combined bunkhouse and cookshack stood sideways on to the ranch house and thirty yards distant from it. A tree belt offered shelter from the prevailing wind.

The only man in sight was Vic Stewart. He was leaning against a corner post of the ranch house porch. As Hadley stopped, the foreman, still wearing that world-weary smile, dropped a cigarette butt, grinding it into the dust. “Well, well, he said,” you turn up everywhere, don’t you?”

“Hadley grinned, feeling again that certain something between the pair. “Amazing how I get around,” he answered. “I was looking for Tom Spencer.”

“You found him.” The new voice, coming from the ranch house doorway, was a loud growl. A man stomped out onto the porch, stuffing a grey shirt into black pants. He was sixtyish, of middle height, heavily built, with a full head of iron-grey hair and a military moustache. “What do you want?”

“My name’s Neil Hadley. I’m George Hadley’s nephew.”

“Oh, you are, are you? Well, I won’t ask you to light down – you won’t be here long enough. Why the visit?”

“I hear you’ve been bothering my uncle. I came to ask you to stop.”

Spencer was a chronically irritable man and Hadley’s forthright words seemed to raise him to near-apoplexy. “By God, you have a nerve,” he snorted, almost pawing the porch. “Just tell me, what’s to hold me back from stopping your clock right now?”

“Only this,” said Hadley, sounding far more confident than he felt. “I can promise you that if there’s any rough stuff here” – his right hand moved ostentatiously to his gun – “whoever starts it and whoever gets it, you’ll be the first to go. You have a fair-sized business to lose. I’m a thirty-a-month cowhand, so I don’t give a damn. Figure it out.”

The audacious gambit worked. Spencer banked his fury. “I’m making allowances for you because you’re a stranger, Hadley. Don’t push it. Just go while you can.”

As the rancher spoke, Hadley was watching both him and Stewart, who still wore that mildly humorous, seemingly disinterested expression. Realising that he’d got all he was going to get from the rancher for the time being, Hadley played his last card. “All right,” he snapped, “I’ve said my piece. I’d be obliged if your foreman would keep me company till I get off your land.”

“Oh, so now you need a nursemaid,” said Spencer. “Well, you can . . .?”

Stewart broke in. “It’s okay, Tom. If he needs somebody to hold his hand, I don’t mind.”

Whatever further comment Spencer had in mind was halted by his foreman’s prompt words. Moving over to the tethered horses, Stewart called over to a man who had appeared in the bunkhouse doorway. “Tell Deakin I’m borrowing his mount for a few minutes.” He swung into the saddle, motioning Hadley to precede him. “Guests first,” he grinned.

When the two were clear of the buildings, Stewart pulled alongside the visitor. “Now, Mr Hadley,” he said, still with that mocking smile, “You didn’t need an escort, so what’s the game?”

“No, Mr Stewart, I wasn’t seeking protection but I believe we might have something to discuss, if you’re willing to listen?”

“I am.”

“How long have you been Spencer’s foreman?”

“About eighteen months.”

“Mind telling me how you got the job?”

“You might say it was accidental. I arrived here casually and in practically no time, I had a serious disagreement with the previous foreman.”

“What happened to him?”

“He departed this life.”

Hadley chuckled. “Well, I have an idea. It goes like this . . .”

Three hours later, Neil Hadley started out again for Spencer’s place. Shortly before reaching it, he stopped at a clump of bushes, where he occupied himself for five minutes before proceeding. On arrival at the ranch house, he saw Stewart leaning against the porch support, exactly where he’d been early that afternoon. The foreman stuck up an affirming thumb, saying nothing.

Hadley returned the salute, halting outside the ranch house. “Mr Spencer,” he called.

A moment later, the rancher appeared in the doorway, wearing his seemingly standard bellicose expression. “You again,” he grunted. “Now what?”

“Good evening to you, too” said Hadley, hands crossed on his saddle horn. “I thought matters over. Seems to me a waste to involve anyone else. Why don’t we have it out, man to man. Just the two of us. Fists, guns … hell, bows and arrows if you like?”

Spencer glared red-faced at the upstart caller. “You insolent whelp, we’ll see about that.” He stomped back inside, reached above the door lintel and came out with a double-barrelled shotgun, pointing it at Hadley. “Now, mister, I’ve a mind to spread you all over this yard, pronto.”

“No you won’t.” This from Stewart, the voice as ever low but clear.

Spencer swung rightwards to face his foreman. “What?” he roared.

Hadley was directly in front of the rancher, twenty feet from him. The foreman was parallel with Spencer at about the same distance, the three men forming a right-angled triangle, with the burly rancher at the ninety-degree point. The cowhands, all now back at base, spilled out of the bunkhouse doorway.

“I said you won’t,” Stewart answered. “I’ve stood for a good deal here, Tom, but I’ll not see you gun down a man in front of a bunch of witnesses. Even you can’t get away with that.”

“Damn you, Stewart, do I have to settle your hash as well?”

“That depends on you,” said Stewart. He stood easy, facing his boss, both hands hanging loose. Even in that relaxed position, Hadley thought, Stewart exuded menace in near-visible waves. The Montana ranch hand blessed his decision to avoid tangling with the enigmatic foreman.

“That’s right, Spencer, it’s your call,” Hadley said.

“Make up your mind, Tom,” Stewart added.

“If it’s murder you have in mind, get to it,” said Hadley.

“Think fast, Tom. You can’t shoot both of us,” Stewart put in.

“You might kill me but you’ll go, too.” This from Hadley.

The goading was deliberate, and as the two voices alternated, Spencer’s head switched from one source to the other, as though manipulated by a puppeteer. For once in his simple one-track existence, he was nonplussed. He had never before been challenged in any way by a hireling. As his eyes flitted between Hadley and Stewart, he realised they were right. If he got one, the other would get him. The hands stood by, apparently irresolute. For a moment, there was silence, then, with an incoherent oath, Spencer stamped back into the house, leaving the door open.

Stewart, seemingly unmoved by the incident, nodded to Hadley. “Wait a minute,” he said. He disappeared behind the cook’s quarters, returning on a trail-ready horse. “After you,” he said to Hadley, then he called to the men by the bunkhouse door. “Rayner, give us a minute, then follow us,” he ordered. “Meantime, warn me if the old man comes back outside armed.”

They had covered no more than fifty yards when a shotgun blast sounded from the house. Both men turned to see the rancher’s body, his feet on the threshold, the rest of him indoors. “Seemed like he used both barrels,” said the laconic Stewart.

“That it did,” Hadley replied.

They rode on in silence until reaching the bushes where Hadley had busied himself earlier. As they dismounted, Stewart signalled the man behind them to stay in sight but out of earshot. Hadley grovelled in the greenery, retrieving two small sacks and handing them to the foreman. “The whole lot was worth six thousand dollars. I’ve divided it as near even as I could without a proper scale. One third of the total for you, one third for your boys for not interfering, and my uncle’s kept a third for himself.”

“Fair enough,” Stewart answered. “Frankly, I was a little surprised that George Hadley didn’t object to buying off the enemy. Sort of paying a ransom, in a way.”

“I didn’t put it to him like that. Just told him that you were available and that our best plan was to hire you. After all, that’s what Spencer was doing, right?”

Stewart laughed. “You’re quite the diplomat, Mr Hadley.”

“I have my moments. What would you have done if Spencer hadn’t turned that shotgun on himself?”

“If he’d tried to shoot you or me, I’d have killed him. If he’d just backed down, I’d have kept him tame afterwards. Probably better like this, though.”

“Still, what he did was drastic.”

“He was the same as most tyrants. They get their way by intimidation. If they’re called out, they usually collapse. I guess you didn’t know that Spencer’s eyesight was failing and would have been gone pretty soon. He concealed that from the boys by using me as a go-between, so obviously I was aware of it. He had serious heart trouble, too. All told, his time was about up and he knew it.”

“What will you and the others do now?”

“Well, two hundred and fifty dollars each amounts to eight months wages for the boys. They’ll clear off. All of them were sick of Spencer’s attitude anyway. Brand loyalty is okay up to a point but pestering farmers is another matter. As for me, two thousand’s a tidy sum. I’ll leave, too.”

“What about the spread?”

“There’s no next of kin, so I’ll ask the neighbours to look after it until the legal details are settled.”

“You don’t think there’ll be any trouble with the other cattlemen?”

“No. Spencer was the only one who really hated the homesteaders. You’ll be all right now. What will your uncle do?”

“He’ll stay here. He doesn’t care about the gold. It was a legacy.”

“Inherited it, did he? Well, I’ll take your word for that. Now, I have to be getting on. I’m glad it wound up this way, Mr Hadley.”

“I’m more than pleased to say the same, Mr Stewart.”

Hadley returned to the homestead to give his uncle the news, then rode into town. It was dark when he arrived there. Settling his horse for the night, he went to the saloon, climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of Molly Parker’s room. She appeared, looking first surprised, then pleased. “Good evening,” Mr Hadley. “I didn’t expect you back at all, let alone so soon.”

Hadley grinned. “Well, I keep my promises and I don’t care to waste time.” He held out a small drawstring bag. “I’ve no other way of thanking you, but that should be enough to get you away.”

Being of a practical turn of mind, Molly took the money.

“Now,” Hadley continued, “I said I’d intrude again, if you’d have no objection.”

Molly beckoned her visitor inside. “And I said I wouldn’t have. Intrude away.”

* * *

December 22nd, 2012, 07:32 PM

Chris Hardy was in a good mood, and not without reason, for he was on his way to what promised to be a highly profitable meeting. Moreover, though prepared to cope with the odd surprise, he was confident that he could have written in advance much of the script for the coming interview, including practically all of the part that mattered. He knew why he had been summoned, and was aware that the man who had sent for him was ignorant of that fact.

Like the rest of the dying breed of former range detectives, Hardy had been obliged to widen his scope when the cattle rustling problem diminished. Now the few men left in the business tackled wrongdoing on a broad front. Hardy knew of only four men of his kind in the Southwest. Three of them – himself, Jack Shaw and Tom Nevins – met from time to time to exchange notes. The fourth, William F. Pullman, remained largely aloof from the others. Hardy had met him only once. The most successful of the quartet, Pullman was not inclined to divulge much about his methods, nor did he seem to feel the need to gather information from the others.

The man now awaiting Hardy’s arrival was the redoubtable Major-General Michael Colbert. In earlier days, Colbert had been regarded by many as the army’s most dashing and ingenious officer. Now, ten years after the end of his soldiering career, the master of strategy and tactics had carved out for himself as distinguished a place in business as he had had in military service.

Hardy had received the summons at his El Paso home, insofar as he thought of the place as a residence. He owned no real estate, preferring to live in a single room – albeit the best one – in a small hotel, keeping the place on a long-term basis, paying for it whether he was there or not. The hotel owner, an elderly widow, stood in awe of her slim dark-complexioned black-haired – well, greying slightly – quasi-permanent guest. Hardy had no desire to be tied down by property. His measure of wealth was strictly cash, of which he had more than most men but never enough to satisfy him.

Having alighted from the train at Blundell, Hardy had hired a horse and buggy for the four-mile ride to General Colbert’s fastness. He had arrived at the station early in the afternoon and intended to catch the westbound evening train for the return journey. Now he was travelling due east and had almost reached his destination.

There was no mistaking the general’s home. Situated on rising ground south of the straight east-west trail, it was marked by the owner’s surname in raised letters on a varnished wooden plaque by the open entrance gates. A long straight drive led through extensive grounds to a huge antebellum house. Hardy had no interest in architecture or horticulture, so he merely noted that the surroundings seemed commensurate with the standing of the man he was about to meet. It seemed that his approach had been watched, for as he came to a halt, a front door that would have done justice to a cathedral swung open. A short portly balding man in a black suit appeared “Mr Hardy?” he asked.

“That’s right. I believe I’m a little early.”

“Perfectly in order, sir. The general is in his study. If you’d follow me, I’ll inform him you are here.” He showed the visitor to a waiting room, then strode off in the way only men in his position – Hardy had correctly assumed that he was the butler – seemed able to do. It was three minutes before he returned, resuming the ‘please walk this way’ routine. They went to the rear of the house, where the man knocked on a door, went in, announced the visitor and retreated.

Hardy’s immediate impression was that a man who needed a study this size must have a good deal of thinking to do. The room was about thirty by twenty feet, with a ceiling twelve feet high. Hardy had entered by the only door, at the end of the room remote from a massive desk, situated between the two windows in the short outer wall. The other long wall, opposite the door, also had two windows, one on either side of a large stone fireplace.

To Hardy’s left was a low circular walnut table surrounded by six chairs, in an arrangement that seemed designed for informal meetings. There were no fireside chairs and no evidence of books anywhere. The walls held an array of landscape paintings. A deep-piled plain grass-green carpet covered most of the floor. In front of the desk were two handsome visitors’ chairs of studded brown leather, and behind it a much larger one in the same style, in which Colbert was sitting.

The general didn’t speak, but crooked a beckoning hand. Hardy set off across the indoor lawn, thinking that a scythe might have been useful. Before he reached the desk, his host stood, revealing himself as about the same height as his guest’s five-eleven, but of much heavier build. The large square fleshy face was clean-shaven, the grey eyes clear and penetrating. Colbert had a full head of hair the colour of iron filings. He was dressed in a black suit, not unlike Hardy’s. His posture suggested that the decade since his retirement from the army had done nothing to affect the ramrod stance of earlier years.

Remaining silent, Colbert waved a hand at the visitor’s chair to Hardy’s left. Wondering at his host’s continued silence, the detective matched it, sitting quietly. The wordless encounter continued for a further ten seconds, then Colbert spoke. “They say you’re good, Mr Hardy.”

“That’s nice of them.”

“Yes, I’m told you’re smarter than the others. What do you say to that?”

“Can’t tell. I don’t know all of them.”

“Good answer. I like that. Now, as you’re here and presumably available, you’ll just have to be good enough, won’t you?”

Hardy was becoming irritated by the general’s odd way of conducting a conversation. Concluding that it was an invitation to him to behave likewise, he said: “Tell me, General, are you making a special effort for me, or do you treat all your business callers this way?”

The general smiled. “Can’t tell. I don’t meet all of them.”

Hardy simulated a yawn. “That must be frustrating for the unlucky ones. I guess we’re about even now. Was there something you wanted of me, or are we just enjoying a joust?”

For a long moment, the two pairs of eyes locked, the minds behind them wondering if there was any point in further banter. Then, by mutual consent, both men began to grin, the general first by a split second. “Excellent, Mr. Hardy,” he said. “I must ask you to excuse my unorthodox approach, but I’ve found that it saves time. A little exchange like this tells me more than an hour of verbal fencing.”

Hardy chuckled. “It’s your time and your money, General. If that’s the way you want to spend both, it’s all right with me.”

“Well spoken, Mr. Hardy. I think we’ll get on. Now, I’m being pestered and I hear you’re the right man to investigate the matter.”

“Who told you that?”

“It was an odd coincidence. I give my domestic staff a good deal of free time. Most of them spend it at one of the saloons in Blundell. My butler, Harris, is different. I must tell you that he’s not only a butler, but also something of a confidant. He rightly considers himself a cut above the others and he takes his afternoons off at the hotel, where he’s a crony of the manager and the barman. Now, a short time ago a man stopped off there briefly, on his way back from a job east of here. He was recovering from a gunshot wound and a broken arm. Apparently, he’s in the same line of work as you. His name is Jack Shaw?”

“Oh, yes. A good man, I believe.”

“Do you know him personally?”

“We met once, but only for a matter of minutes.”

“Well, he seems to know a lot about you. Praised you to the skies. When my problem arose, I consulted old Harris – he’d already mentioned that he had spoken with this Shaw fellow, and happened to have established where he lived. I had Harris make contact again, but it seemed that Shaw needed time to recover from his wounds. He said he couldn’t oblige me, but he suggested that you might be willing to step in.”

“That was thoughtful of him. What’s the problem?”

“Harassment. I have industrial and commercial interests beyond the imagination of most men. I own six companies outright. Three of them are mines, working respectively gold, silver and copper, with some overlap. Then there’s a lumber company, a furniture-making concern and a shipping line. Also, I have stockholdings, in some cases controlling ones, in over a dozen other enterprises – railroads, banks and so on.”

“So you haven’t wasted your time since you left the army.”

“No, but enough of that. The reason I approached Shaw was that I got news of attacks on some of the businesses I own. There were explosions at all three mines in quick succession. Fortunately, and I think intentionally, the incidents occurred between shifts, so nobody was hurt anywhere, but two of the operations had to be halted temporarily. That’s expensive. Also, shortly after those incidents, the offices of the lumber company were blown up, then the furniture place was almost destroyed by fire. Mr. Hardy, someone has declared war on me.”

“So it seems. Where are these places?”

The general opened a drawer, pulled out a map and unfolded it on the desk. “You’ll see I’ve marked them all.”

Hardy studied the layout for a few minutes, asking several questions, then sat down again. “Thank you, General. Anything else?”

“Yes. A day after the last mishap, a man handed in a letter to the freight depot in Blundell, which serves as our post office. I tried to get a description, but it wasn’t helpful – middle age, middle height, middle everything. Nobody here knew the fellow and he vanished immediately after making his delivery. This is what he brought.” Colbert pushed a single sheet of paper across the desk. The message was written in a small precise hand on the unlined white paper. Hardy read:

Major-General Colbert,

I was sorry to hear of the unfortunate events at your various places of business. Sadly, this is a sign of our times. However, you may feel the need of some reliable assistance. I am in a position to help you, but regrettably cannot do so cost-free. My associates and I deal only in cash, so if you could amass $50,000 in untraceable bills of denominations no higher than $50, I would be happy to act for you. I fear I cannot reveal my identity, but you may be sure that should you be favourably disposed to my intervention, I have resources sufficient to ensure that no further similar misfortunes will befall you.

If you accede, I suggest that you gather the sum mentioned within ten days from the date of this letter. Should you fail to respond positively, I really cannot say what might happen, save that whatever occurs will certainly be detrimental to your interests, as I am convinced by information received that certain parties are intent on engineering your downfall. I adjure you to be circumspect with regard to enlisting the aid of the law. The forces ranged against you are powerful and totally unscrupulous. I hope that I have made myself clear and shall contact you again.

A Wellwisher

Hardy tossed the paper back onto the desk. “Polite, isn’t he?” he said.

Colbert picked up the letter and dropped it into a drawer. “What do you make of that? Mysterious, isn’t it?”

“No, General. I think it’s plain enough.”

“What? You mean you understand?”

“I believe so. This has the hallmark of a Lawrence Drake job.”

“Lawrence Drake? I think you’d better explain.”

“Let me put it this way. When you were an army man, you had the reputation of being a genius in your line, right?”

Colbert spread his hands. “It’s true that some people exaggerated my achievements,” he said modestly. “What of it?”

“Only this, General. I’m aware that there are military masterminds. They have their counterparts in the criminal world.”

“I imagine so. Go on.”

“Look, you’ve spent your time on the right side of the law and you’ve been considered a wizard. I don’t want to minimise your efforts, but just think how much brighter a man has to be to get a similar reputation on the other side. With every hand against him, he has to be brilliant. Lawrence Drake is just that, and this sort of approach is typical of him.”

“Well, good God, if he’s a crook, why isn’t he locked up?”

“Because as I just said, he’s a genius in his way. Oh, he’s not the first. There was a fellow named Jonathan Wild in England over a hundred and fifty years ago. He was caught and hanged eventually, but in the meantime he controlled an underworld empire. Drake’s from the same mould but even cleverer. Offhand, I’d say that half the illegal activity in the Southwest could be laid at his door.”

“I see. And I suppose the official forces of law and order would tell me that they can’t do much because they’re short of manpower, eh?”

Hardy nodded. “Right. They have limited resources. Also, they have to go by the book. I don’t. They have their views about Drake, but they can’t prove anything. As I told you, the man’s a master in his field. He arranges things and rakes in a percentage without involving himself in the rough stuff. This time, maybe he’s finally blundered. He wants it all. Usually he sees that jobs are done, then takes his share. And don’t get any illusions about the man. He rules his world with a rod of iron. There’s only one penalty for crossing him, and not many people want to chance that.”

“As a matter of interest, where is he?

“He has several locations. In fact one of them isn’t far from where I live. He does a little horse-breeding there.”

“Hardy, you’re going into a world alien to me. You say this fellow is an arch criminal, just living openly. He must be brought to book, mustn’t he?”

“You might think so, but he operates a system of cut-outs and blind alleys. No trail ever leads back to him. Take your case, for example.”

“By all means let us do that.”

“Right. Well, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll defy him, in which case he’ll keep on attacking your companies and costing you far more than the whole thing’s worth, or you’ll agree to his terms, in which case he’ll leave you alone. By the way, I believe he has a peculiar sense of honour. If you meet his demands, he’ll make sure that nobody else bothers you.”

“Really? You seem to have no doubt that this man is the culprit. Why?”

“I’m not absolutely certain, but everything points to him. First, he’s probably the only one who could have organised the manpower for all these strikes at your places, so widely separated. Second, look at the letter. Drake is an educated man. The style is just what you might expect of him, although oddly enough that’s the only thing that leaves me a little puzzled. I’d have expected him to lower his usual literary standard. The fact that he hasn’t done so indicates to me that he’s either cocksure or has made a mistake – and he isn’t one to blunder.”

“I see. Now, with regard to the letter, couldn’t someone recognise his handwriting? And anyway, why not use a typewriter?”

“As to your first point, you can be sure this isn’t Drake’s writing. He’ll have dictated it to one of his hirelings. And with regard to typing, I grant you that it seems anonymous, but there still aren’t all that many machines in this part of the world and they can sometimes be as individual as handwriting. They have inconsistencies in alignment, little characteristics in some of the letters and so on. A good detective, given enough time and persistence, might just trace the source. There’s no guarantee, but it’s the sort of thing Drake would consider.”

“I never heard the like of this. I mean, if I were to pay up, surely the trail could be followed?”

“No. You’d find yourself handing over money to some roughneck who’d be paid to pass it on to someone else – he wouldn’t know the whys and wherefores – and so on. The last contact would be one of Drake’s inner circle. There would be someone watching all the time. If the position ever looked doubtful, some contact wouldn’t turn up, so the chain would be broken. “

“Astonishing. You seem to have a grasp of these matters, Mr Hardy.”

“Well, you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? After all, it’s my job.”

“Yes, of course. Just as well you’re here. Have you any suggestions?”

“I have an idea. If it works, we could get Drake once and for all, but it would need your cooperation.”

“In what way?”

“First, could you raise the fifty thousand in time?”

The general dismissed that with a flick of the hand. “I could do it several times over, but why should I?”

“Bait, General. Look, I’d better go back to my place and get my ear to the ground. Meantime, I recommend that you come up with the money. Now, I don’t want to raise false expectations. If I’m right, we’re dealing with one of the sharpest minds in the land. Still, I’ve had my successes, too. If I could bring this man down, it would be the making of me. But we’ll probably have to use your funds to do it, and I have to tell you that it could go wrong.”

“So then I lose my money – and there’s your fee as well.”

“Don’t worry about that. If I fail, I charge expenses only. In this case, they’d probably include at least one bribe and maybe two – I have to pay for information. Now, I can’t put myself in your shoes, but you might want to think about balancing your chances of losing money against the fact that you may have the only opportunity there ever will be of putting a public menace behind bars. How do you feel about that?”

“Well, if you think it’s the only way …”

“I’m not certain of that right now. Maybe I’ll work out something better, but I’d say we should cover all possibilities, then pick the best course.”

“Very well. Incidentally, if you succeed, what will your charge be?”

“In this case, a flat two thousand dollars, however long it takes.”

“You don’t work cheap, do you?”

“Well, General, when you consider that I sometimes don’t work at all, and that when I do, it’s often twenty-four hours a day of constant danger – so far I’ve collected two bullets and a knife wound – I don’t think the fee’s excessive, but if you’ve –”

Colbert held up a hand. “No buts. The way you put it, the figure seems reasonable. Now, I notice you haven’t mentioned a need for increased security at my business sites. Why not?”

Hardy laughed. “I don’t want to be offensive, but just think about it. Mostly, the sort of men you’ll get for security work, especially if you want them at short notice, are second-rate types. If a real problem came up, they’d probably duck and stay down. They certainly wouldn’t be a match for the people Drake would use.”

The general scratched his head. “Well, Hardy, I never thought to be in this position, but now that I am, I think you should go ahead and do as you see fit. And it wouldn’t do me any harm to be involved in the capture of this fellow, would it?”

“You’d be helping to rid the world of a pest, General, but only you can decide. Just remind me, when does this ultimatum expire?”

Colbert looked at the letter. “This is dated the fifteenth,” he said. “He gives ten days, so that takes us to the twenty-fifth. Today is the eighteenth. That leaves just a week.”

“Very well, General. Now, I can’t be of any use here, so I’d better get the train back. Assuming that we don’t hear anything in the meantime to cause a change of direction, I’ll be here again on the twenty-fourth and we’ll make a final decision.” The general consented and Hardy left.

Six days later, Chris Hardy reappeared at Colbert’s home and was shown into the study. “Any developments, General?” he asked.

“Yes. One of my ships was damaged three days ago, near Galveston. Anything at your end?”

“I think so, but I’m not entirely sure. I’m afraid I’ve run us up a bill of five hundred dollars in bribes –”

Colbert wafted an impatient hand.

“ – but I think we’re on firm ground. Did you get the money?”

The general produced a valise, dropping it onto the desk. “It’s there,” he said “Now what?”

“Well, we’re on the last lap, General. You can still pull out, if you want to, but I do believe we’ll have him within a day or so.”

“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Colbert replied. “As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to relish this. What’s our next move?”

“The big one. I haven’t been idle. I made indirect contact with one of Drake’s henchmen. I had to use my initiative, so I put across the idea that you’re very annoyed, but that fifty thousand dollars is a price you’ll pay to be rid of such a nuisance. Even went so far as to get the opposition to accept that, as your agent, I make the first handover of the money. I don’t know how long the chain is, but I’ve laid my plans and engaged a few reliable men – they’ll cost us eight hundred, by the way – and I think I’ve allowed for every eventuality. I thought about bringing in the official people, but I believe that would be more hindrance than help. If everything goes as I hope it will, you should have news within twenty-four hours. It’s up to you now, General. Do we go on?”

“Yes, Mr Hardy. I hope for tidings by this time tomorrow.” After leaving his host, Hardy caught the evening train bound for El Paso. There were only three other passengers in his car, a young woman with a fractious infant and a tall dark-clad man with extravagant black whiskers, including a moustache of awesome proportions. Hardy didn’t go the whole way. There were six intermediate stops and at the third of these he alighted. He didn’t waste time, proceeding straight to the livery stable, where a saddled horse awaited him. He set off westwards and after a ride of six miles turned off the trail, working his way through rough country. A further two miles brought him to a long-abandoned mine. Seeing a horse tethered near what was once the office, he smiled. So far, so good. He hitched his own mount and pushed open the door. Waiting inside was Jack Shaw. “Evening, Chris,” he said. “Everything okay?”

“Hello, Jack,” Hardy answered. “Couldn’t be better. I believe we’ve done it.” He tossed the valise onto the table.”

Shaw laughed. “Wonderful,” he said. “You did a great job.”

“You did all right yourself, Jack.”

“Oh, my bit was pretty easy. Just had to strap on a couple of bandages and act like a man in pain.”

“More than that. You had to see to the mine explosions and various other things. How much are we paying those boys for the fireworks and general shenanigans they laid on?”

“Two thousand will cover it. I’ll pay them off, if you’re happy about that.”

“Sure. So, we have forty-eight thousand to share.”

“That’s right. I’ve got to hand it to you for figuring out how much the old boy could rustle up in ready cash. It’s a tidy sum.”

Hardy grinned. “I wasn’t sure, but I think we got near enough all he had available without too long a wait.” He didn’t see the need to dent his credibility by telling his partner that the general could have paid much more.

Shaw rubbed his hands together. “Well, Chris, I guess we’d better split it up and make dust. No point in hanging around until Colbert gets ideas. Did he give you any trouble?”

Hardy chuckled. “None at all. Maybe I’m a born confidence man, Jack, or it could be that I’m a good actor. Either way, I guess I fooled him.”

“Not quite. I think the expression is ‘stick ’em up’, boys.” The new voice came from the doorway, where a tall gaunt man stood, holding a forty-five revolver. The astonished conspirators looked at the newcomer, who was pulling off the black whiskers and moustache he had worn while on the train with Hardy.

“Damn,” said Shaw. “Bill Pullman. How the hell did you get into this?”

Pullman smiled. “I never did have a high opinion of you two but even allowing for that, I’m disappointed,” he said. “You must have been crazy to think that a man like General Colbert would be fooled by that taradiddle you dreamed up. He contacted me shortly after you left him last week, Chris. It hadn’t taken him five minutes to figure out that this Lawrence Drake you mentioned was a figment of your imagination. I guess he reckoned he needed a real detective.”

Hardy was not quite finished. “Just a minute,” he said. “There’s only the three of us here. Can’t we make a deal?”

“I don’t see how. I’ve recovered the money, so you haven’t anything to offer. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why I shouldn’t get moving.”

Shaw leaned back, allowing his coat to fall free from his holstered pistol. “And how are you going to do that?” he said. “Seems to me we’re in a pretty out of the way place and there are two of us. You might get one, but the other will most likely get you. Have you given that any thought?”

“Oh, did I forget to mention that I have a trio of lawmen out here who’d be happy to save the jury a job if you make a fuss? Sheriff!”

A tall burly man wearing a star appeared in the doorway. At the same time, the two windows were broken by a pair of rifle barrels, trained on the seated men. “Now,” said Pullman, “I’d like you to put your hands on the table until my associate here checks things out.”

The lawman stepped in, removing two guns from Shaw and one from Hardy. “I think that’s it,” he said.

“Thank you,” Pullman replied. “Now, we’ll take the money and be on our way.”

Hardy was bemused. “What about us?” he asked.

“You?” It seemed almost an afterthought for Pullman. “Oh, yes. Well, I was thinking of having you arrested, but I’ve changed my mind. You can go.”

Hardy shook his head. “I don’t get this,” he said. “You aren’t taking us in?”

“I don’t think so,” said Pullman. “That would involve a lot of messy paperwork. No, we’ll settle for the cash.”

“What about the sheriff here?” said Shaw.

“I can square things with him,” Pullman replied. “He’s out of his bailiwick anyway, so I don’t intend to bother him any further?”

Shaw was as baffled as his partner. “How will you explain this to the general?” he said.

“Shouldn’t be too difficult,” Pullman answered. “We took you by surprise. You put up a fight and escaped in the gun battle, but you had to leave the loot. Okay with you, Sheriff?”

“I guess so,” the lawman replied.

“Good. How’s that, Chris?”

“Why are you doing this?” said Hardy.

Pullman grinned. “Well, you’re fellow detectives,” he said. “Call it a tradesman’s favour. ’Course, if you’d rather do ten years in the penitent –”

“No, thanks,” Hardy broke in, “I admit you got the drop on us, but I don’t aim to spend any time in prison.”

“Well then, mount up, move fast and far, and don’t look back.”

Hardy and Shaw needed no second bidding. Within two minutes, they were off in a cloud of dust. As they disappeared, Pullman addressed his three companions. “Okay, gentlemen, the party’s over. You can dispense with those badges now.”

The bogus lawman and his deputies pulled off the tin stars and threw them away. Pullman delved into the valise, hauled out a handful of fifty-dollar bills and counted out two hundred of them. “There you are, ‘sheriff’,” he chuckled. “Ten thousand for you three to share and the rest for me, on account of my doing all the planning. The general’s going to come up fifty thousand short, but he can afford it. Are you happy?”

“Sure,” the imposters’ hefty leader answered. “Easiest money we ever earned. Any time you want to think up something else . . .”

“We’ll see,” said Pullman. “Right now, I’m temporarily retired. They say it’s very pleasant up in Canada at this time of year. So long.”

* * *

December 29th, 2012, 07:21 PM

“Where is he now, if that isn’t too stupid a question?”

“We’ve no idea, sir. There are lots of rumours. Some say he has a hideout way south of here. Others claim he’s up in Montana. Then there are those who reckon he spends most of his time in the East and comes out here only when he has a job in mind. Truth is he could be just about anywhere. Needles and haystacks come to mind.”

“Yes, they do. Still, the chance of this sort of plunder might bring him out. You know, when I consider all that money, I sometimes get improper ideas.”

“So do I. It makes a man think.”

“Well, this is no way for men in our position to be talking.”

“No, sir. I reckon not.”

The first speaker was Lieutenant Richard Ames of the U.S. Army, the second, his immediate subordinate, Sergeant Michael McMahon. The subject of their conversation was the outlaw Conrad Perry and the reason they were interested in him was that Sergeant McMahon was about to select a detachment of six men, led by a corporal, to escort a consignment of bullion, coin and banknotes south to Santa Fe. Perry had several times demonstrated an uncanny ability to locate money on the move, so it had been deemed sensible to take every precaution.

The army didn’t make a habit of doing this kind of work, but it happened that the local commanding officer was a friend of Hugh Jennings, joint head of the mighty Jennings & Reid Construction Company, which was about to embark on a big expansion programme, to be administered by its southern office in New Mexico. The consignment was the first of two, intended to finance the plan. It was not strictly necessary for such large sums to be transferred that way, but Jennings and his partner Donald Reid had satisfied themselves that the step was appropriate on this occasion. Jennings frequently spent evenings with the local army chief, Colonel Sampson, and had mentioned that he was about to employ a private agency to accompany the money. The colonel had offered to provide soldiers to do the job and Jennings had been pleased and relieved to accept.

Of all the unusual characters living on the wrong side of the law in the West, probably none was odder than Conrad Perry. To some, he was a common bandit. That was only partly true. He was a bandit all right, but far from common. His crimes were characterised by such finesse and audacity that they engendered, even among the forces of law and order, more admiration than opprobrium.

There were those who considered Perry an ethical thief, as no one was ever killed during his exploits and only one person – a young man who accidentally got in the way – had been injured, slightly and inadvertently, and not by Perry but by an associate. Even so, the master organiser considered the incident a blot on his escutcheon, since it was an article of faith with him that no one should be maltreated during his escapades. He would have abandoned a job rather than break that rule. In the case of the injured man, Perry had surreptitiously returned a large part of his loot to the family concerned.

A strange man in many ways, Perry was a thinker and planner who could have made his mark by legitimate efforts. He was intensely interested in mathematics, physics and chemistry, this analytical trait accounting for the meticulous preparation and execution of his capers. He was a reclusive fellow, preferring his own company to that of others. Only one man ever got close to him. That was Sam Elliot, who had worked with Perry several times and who usually served as his link with the outside world. This was necessary, for Perry’s physical description was as well known as his deeds, and equally distinctive. Five foot seven, slim-built and fair-haired, had a pronounced limp and a livid three-inch scar on the left side of his face, both features the result of a boyhood accident.

Perry would have trusted Elliot with his life anytime, and had done so more than once, but that confidence didn’t extend to anyone else. Elliot, a tall thin fellow with black hair and a straggly moustache, was responsible for passing information to Perry, who rarely dared to show himself, except when he had work to do. For his part, Elliot would have faced any hazard in Perry’s company. He realised that, though he had nerves of steel and a fair measure of intelligence, he lacked the creative spark which characterised his friend. So he provided the news and Perry decided what, if anything, was to be done.

For Conrad Perry, the whole thing was a game, his misdeeds being more a challenge to his ingenuity than a route to wealth, for which he had no great regard. On account of his instantly recognisable appearance, the fleshpots would have been out of bounds to him, even if he’d had any taste for them. He enjoyed comfortable living as much as the next man, but preferred it in solitude.

In order to find a lifestyle that matched his necessarily circumscribed movements, Perry had found a hideaway in New Mexico. It was a remarkable place, a side canyon, accessed from its larger neighbour only via a rock fissure wide enough for one man and a horse to ride through. Though Perry had long had a vague hope of finding something of the sort, he’d usually thought of the idea as a pipe dream, so considered himself lucky to have come upon the spot.

Fastidious about his wellbeing, Perry had bought a freight wagon and team, loaded everything he would need for some time, then driven to his prospective lair. With Elliot’s help, he had moved the supplies through the narrow crack and set about making himself comfortable. Elliot had driven the wagon away and kept it for further use. Perry, a good workman, built a home, using the stone around him and the timber, tools and explosives he had brought.

The anchorite lifestyle had drawbacks. There was neither woodland nor game around, and Perry had to set about drilling for water, as the nearest surface source entailed too much hauling. However, he had food, wine, brandy and cigars, plus his precious books, and the place was a safe haven. Elliot would bring in further supplies as needed and his partner would emerge when there was a job in prospect. Sergeant McMahon had been right in saying that anyone seeking Conrad Perry would have a difficult time.

In the course of their earlier activities, Perry and Elliot had made the acquaintance of the scheduling manager of the Colorado & Southern Railroad. Having concluded that the man was no more honest than strictly necessary, Perry had made him a proposition. If the manager were ever able to supply beneficial information, he would be amply rewarded. There was nothing niggardly about Perry. He gave the railroad employee five hundred dollars as a token of good faith.

Nothing happened for eight months and when he could be bothered to think about it, Perry wondered whether he had wasted his money, though that caused him no concern. Then one day Sam Elliot arrived at the hideout. The railroad man had news of the Jennings & Reid consignment. The sum involved was rumoured to be seventy thousand dollars. The scheduling manager would be interested to know what was in it for him if he supplied full details. He needed to know quickly. Perry sent Elliot back with the news that if a robbery seemed feasible, which Perry would decide after reconnaissance, the railroad man could count on receiving ten per cent of the take.

Moving fast, Elliot returned to the hideout with the news that the terms were acceptable. The consignment was to be moved in ten days and was to leave on the morning train from Gainsboro, travelling south to the Colorado & Southern’s terminus at Dalton’s Brook, where the transfer for the run to Santa Fe would take place. Of the six-man escort, one would be behind the tender, one among the paying passengers and the other four with the guard in his caboose.

There was no point in considering any attack between Dalton’s Brook and Santa Fe because the trains that ran between the two places were usually crowded and often used by troops. If a raid was practicable at all, it would have to be before the consignment was transferred.

Six days before the proposed movement, Sam Elliot arrived in Gainsboro, accompanied by a man on crutches, face swathed in bandages. It was an adequate disguise for Conrad Perry, who early the following day introduced himself to the depot manager as a New York newspaper reporter, commissioned to write a series of articles about communications in the West. Unfortunately, he’d had an accident, but intended to complete his assignment. He found a kindred spirit in the manager, a railroad enthusiast who was delighted to answer his questions.

Having travelled up from Dalton’s Brook, Perry had studied the geography. Now he acquainted himself with the timetable, which could hardly have been simpler. There was one train a day in each direction, the morning one leaving Gainsboro at eleven o’clock. The trains were capable of maintaining a speed of well over thirty miles an hour, but the terrain made that impossible for part of the way, so the journey of a hundred and eighteen miles took five hours. The return train from Dalton’s Brook arrived in Gainsboro exactly twelve hours after the morning departure. The composition and length of both trains were constant, comprising locomotive and tender, one passenger car, two boxcars and the caboose.

The sham journalist was particularly interested in safety, and went to great pains to establish the braking distance of the train, especially in an emergency. He asked many other questions, most of them irrelevant to his plans, but music to the ears of the depot manager. Thanking the man profusely, Perry left him, staying the night in the town’s only hotel.

The following day, Perry and Elliot left Gainsboro on the morning train. Armed with mental notes from his two journeys, Perry had considered the lie of the land, which wasn’t too promising, but did have possibilities. The area he felt most worthy of his attention was a stretch of serrated country where the track was carried across chasms and rivers by five trestle bridges. He rejected the three over dry land, but the two spanning waterways were interesting. Conveniently for his purpose, both were within thirty miles of Dalton’s Brook.

By the time the train reached its southern terminus, Perry had the outline of a scheme in mind. “I think I have a plan,” he said to Elliot as the two disembarked, “but I’d like another man. He’ll need to be active and he’d better be able to swim. Any ideas?”

Elliot rubbed his jaw for a while. “Yes,” he said finally, “There’s Tom Bean.”

“Tom?” Perry answered in surprise. “I thought he was in jail.”

“He was,” Elliot replied. “He got out two months ago. They released him early – for good conduct, if you can believe that.”

Perry laughed. “It takes some imagination,” he said. “I always thought that Tom Bean and reasonable behaviour went together like milk and vinegar. Anyway, he’s the right man for this kind of game. Can you get him, quick?”

“Probably. I guess we could have him here by tomorrow night, if I start now.”

“Good. Do that. We have a little riding ahead of us.”

The conversation between Perry and Elliot had taken place on a Monday evening. As good as his word, Elliot returned to Dalton’s Brook on the Tuesday night, bringing with him Tom Bean, a slim, middle-sized, bearded man and a rapscallion who didn’t give a damn about anything or anybody. However, once having agreed to do a job, he was totally reliable. This satisfied Perry, who had decided to include a third man because he was not as energetic as he once had been, and saw no reason to overtax himself. After all, he was in business for art’s sake more than anything else. Bean wasn’t essential, but he would be a helpful addition. Among other things, he could do much of the donkey work.

During Elliot’s absence, Perry had been busy. Still using his disguise, he had bought a packhorse and a mysterious assortment of items, some of which puzzled his companions. The great planner, who had a well-developed dramatic sense, would not be drawn, saying that he would reveal all at the right time. Bean was nonplussed, but Elliot, who had experience of Perry’s mental gymnastics, merely smiled. He had every confidence in his wily partner.

During the night, Perry finally disposed of the crutches and bandages, and the three men left Dalton’s Brook before dawn on the Wednesday, riding as far as possible parallel with the railroad. By noon, they reached the first of the five bridges. Perry was not interested in that one. The second was four miles further north and there he called a halt. He dismounted and wandered around for over an hour, examining the surroundings, then he left his companions, crossed the bridge on foot and carried out a careful inspection of the far side before returning to stand gazing down at the river for a further half-hour. During all that time, he said nothing.

The country was rugged. Approaching from the north, the train would run through a cleft which had been blasted out of the rock, cross the bridge and run into another opening, similar to that at the northern side. The bridge, a hundred and forty feet in length, crossed the water at a height of around fifty feet. The gorge formed a shallow U shape, the river being more than a hundred feet wide. Over a width of several feet on both sides, the water was lined with jumbled rocks, some deposited naturally, others the result of the construction crew’s blasting. The steep sides of the declivity precluded access from the top, other than by rope. There was a stand of trees half a mile east of the bridge, the only other vegetation being the tenacious bushes clinging to the sides of the gorge.

“What do you think, Con?” asked Elliot, breaking the long silence.

Perry rested his chin on a fist. “It’s not perfect,” he answered, “but I think it comes pretty close. Just follow me, boys, and don’t talk for a minute. I need to do some counting.” Starting at the southern end of the bridge, Perry paced slowly southwards along the track. After a minute or so, he stopped. “Right, Tom,” he said to Bean. “This’ll be your first job. I’ll tell you how to go about it.” He explained what he wanted done, then turned again, making for the horses. “Next thing is we need some of that wood yonder. It’s going to be a help to us that it’s upriver. We’ll just ride over and take a look.”

Fifteen minutes later, the three men were standing in the welcome shade of the stand of pines. Perry looked over the timber, nodded, then walked the hundred yards to the river bank. He came back, smiling broadly. “Couldn’t be better,” he said. “There’s a spot over there where the ground’s broken away and it’s only about twenty feet down to the water. Now we can get started.”

Elliot grinned. “I swear, Con, you should have been on the stage, or maybe writing novels. You’ve got imagination enough for three normal men.”

“I like to see a problem, think things out, then present my conclusions without explaining the steps between. Makes it all look like magic. This time, I’ll go into the details shortly. Now, remember one thing, boys. Nobody gets hurt.”

Bean looked startled. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Seems to me if we run into opposition, somebody might catch a little lead.”

“No, Tom. I believe we can overcome any resistance by using our heads. What we can’t do with brains, we’re not going to do with bullets. If we have to call this off, I’ll compensate you. We may have to threaten violence, but we don’t carry it out. You’d better be clear about that.”

“Okay, don’t get excited,” Bean replied. “You’re the boss.”

Moving to the packhorse, Perry unstrapped its load, dumped four bundles onto the ground and opened them. One long package contained an assortment of carpentry tools. Another had in it three lengths of rope, a can of grease and, of all things, a megaphone. A third had a short pole, a flat length of wood, a crowbar and a box of dynamite, and the fourth had a small empty keg with a round hole drilled through the bottom and a matching one in the lid. “Now,” said Perry, “I think you’ve both been patient enough. I’ll go through what I have in mind, then we’ll set things up.” He revealed his plan.

Shortly before three o’clock on a blazing hot afternoon, the train from Gainsboro, travelling at less than twenty miles an hour, emerged from the cleft in the rocks and began to rumble across the bridge. Seconds later there was an explosion up ahead and a mass of rock and rubble crashed down onto the track. Sparks flew as the brakes were applied.

It was a close run thing, the cowcatcher only three or four feet from the debris when the train stopped. Well east of the track, crouching among the bushes and in line with the southern end of the bridge, Conrad Perry inspected his handiwork. It wasn’t absolutely right, but good enough. The plan had been to have the train stop with only the caboose remaining on the bridge and the other rolling stock on terra firma at the south side. As it was, the coupling forward of the caboose and nine or ten feet of the rear boxcar hadn’t made it. Still, there was plenty of weight up front to keep everything in place for the next stage of the operation.

As Perry had expected, there was no instant reaction from inside the train. The occupants would be trying to come to terms with the shock. Picking up the megaphone, he went into action. “You, in the caboose,” he bawled. “Open the door and tell me who’s in charge there. Speak up, and be quick.”

The door opened slightly and a voice, less than stentorian but clear, reached Perry. “I’m Corporal Simmons, U.S. Army. I lead this detachment.”

“Good. Now, I’ll keep this short because you don’t have much time. I want the guard to stay where he is, and the four of you to throw your weapons out, then get down to the track, now.”

“How come you know there are four of us?”

“Never mind that. There’s a charge of dynamite under you and you’ll need to move fast.”

“What if I refuse?”

“You’ll be blown up. Listen, Corporal, you’re army trained. You don’t need me to remind you that your first duty is the safety of your men. If you don’t do as I say, and hurry it up, you’ll be committing suicide. You may have the right to kill yourself, but not the others.”

Perry was right. That was the corporal’s weak spot. If he got his men out, they might live to fight another day. If he didn’t and they were all killed, it would be his fault, even though he would go, too. He realised that Perry might be bluffing, but what if he wasn’t? Simmons reached his decision in less than a minute. The door opened wide, four rifles were dropped to the track and the soldiers jumped down. Perry realised that they might have retained some firepower and that his cover wasn’t bullet-proof. He picked up the megaphone again. “You did the right thing, Corporal. There are guns pointing at you. I don’t want to kill you if I don’t have to. Now get your men up forward with the others. And stay there.”

The troopers clumped along the track to join their two comrades, the train crew and the handful of passengers. As they moved off, the guard yelled out to Perry. “What about me, mister? I don’t want to get killed.”

“You won’t be, if you do as you’re told,” Perry answered. “I want you to uncouple the caboose from the boxcar, then you can go. You have a minute and a half.”

The frantic guard didn’t need that much time. He scuttled off and released the coupling. “It’s done,” he shouted.

“Good. Get moving – and tell everybody to keep well clear.” The guard ran off. Now it was time for stage three. There was indeed a charge of dynamite fixed to the bridge, directly beneath the caboose. That was the reason why Tom Bean was under there, clinging to the trestle-work.

At Perry’s shout, Bean lit the fuse, then slithered down the rope he’d tied to the bridge. Reaching the riverside, he scrambled westwards to where the three men had moored a raft, made from the stand of trees. It was a small but workmanlike job, with a pole for fending off obstacles and a simple, stout rudder, next to which was mounted a contraption dreamed up by Perry. This consisted of a short log, nailed perpendicular to the raft timbers and coated with grease around the top and bottom. The barrel, with holes in lid and base, had been lowered over the log, to form a drum, rotatable by means of a short plank nailed across the top, off-centre. A long coil of rope wound around the outside made the apparatus a crude winch.

The troopers had not been completely idle. One of them began to clamber up the pile of fallen rocks, trying to worm his way into an advantageous position. This was where Sam Elliot came in. He had taken his rifle and positioned himself high above the northern end of the bridge, where he had a clear view of the train. The soldier had been climbing for no more than twenty seconds when Elliot bracketed him with two warning bullets, both hitting the rocks within a foot of his body. The man instantly scuttled back to join the others. “It’s no use,” he said to Corporal Simmons. “We’re sitting ducks for this fellow.”

As Tom Bean got clear of the bridge, Perry waited. Bean reached the raft two minutes after lighting the fuse. The instant he climbed aboard, the second explosion came. Perry ducked. “Now we’ll see what gravity can do,” he muttered. He’d used a big charge and it worked as planned. A thirty-foot length of the southern end of the bridge was destroyed. As the mangled woodwork gave way, the caboose crashed through to splinter on the riverside rocks, exactly as Perry had envisaged.

Now there was no time to lose. Perry moved back to the rope he had fixed to a bush, lowering himself swiftly to the riverside, taking a few scratches on the way. Splashing through the shallow water, he joined Tom Bean. “I’d say it’s going all right so far,” he said.

“Even better than you thought,” Bean replied. “The strongbox got thrown clear. See it yonder?”

“Yes, and that’s a bonus. I hoped it might happen, but couldn’t be sure. I thought we might have to poke around in what was left of the caboose, or maybe even do some serious underwater work, but all it needs is a little dive. Now, you go and attach the line and we’ll haul in the money.” Bean waded off, unspooling the rope. The makeshift winch proved useful. With Perry turning the capstan bar at one end and Bean pushing and guiding the strongbox at the other, it took less than five minutes for the two to get the heavy metal container aboard the raft. Bean freed the mooring rope and the drift downstream began.

Sam Elliot had drawn the easy part of the job. His role had been to stop any interference. He finished his work by loosing off a volley of shots, his bullets spanging off the rocks, well above the train’s occupants, but close enough to ensure that they would stay quiet for a while, then he hurried off to his horse. Because of the lie of the land’s contours, he had to cover four miles to meet his partners, who had to float less than half that distance, to where they’d left their mounts.

By the time Elliot arrived, Perry and Bean had opened the box and were surveying the contents. “How’d we do?” said Elliot.

“Fine,” Perry answered. “I reckon there’s as much here we figured.”

“Wonderful. I got to take my hat off to you, Con. Sheer magic. Man, you have a hell of a mind.”

Bean, who had never before worked so closely with Perry, was entranced. “Yeah, Con,” he said. “You sure are a brilliant organiser. Just tell us again. How did you think it all up?”

“Well, we’ll have to be moving on pretty soon, but I guess we can take a short rest. Now, you know how I work. First, I avoid gun battles. They’re crude and they cause casualties. I don’t like that. Then I try to find where the other side has a weakness. I didn’t see much chance of a successful attack in open country because the trains usually move too quickly there, but I thought the bridges were more promising. I didn’t like the looks of the three over dry land because in each case the contours would have made a getaway awkward. That left the other two, and you’ll remember that the water under one of them was quite a torrent and too deep for our purpose. So, this was the only place where I thought we could pull it off.

“I found out how long the train would be and how quickly it could stop in an emergency. I also got our helpful depot manager in Gainsboro to confirm my assumption that trains on this line slow down when they’re approaching bridges and never stop on them unless that’s unavoidable – too much potential danger there. When we arrived back yonder, I paced out the distance beyond the bridge, so the train would stop, leaving just the caboose to crash down after the explosion. It turned out close to my expectation. We were lucky that the strongbox fell clear, but because the water was fairly shallow, the plan would have worked anyway. It would have just taken a little longer and might have involved a short dive for Tom. I figured that with the soldiers pinned down, we’d have time to get the money and float it away.”

Elliot chuckled. “You can call it what you like, but I say it’s wizardry. ’Course, those boys back there won’t wait for ever. We’d better get going.”

Bean started laughing. “Oh, my, Conrad Perry,” he said. “It’s a pleasure working with you.”

The mirth was infectious and within seconds, partially out of triumph and partially from sheer relief, the three desperadoes were all convulsed with near- hysterical laughter. They were still splitting their sides when two rifles cracked from a tangle of bushes sixty yards away, the bullets bracketing the trio, spewing up dust and rock splinters. “Hands high,” came a shout, as two uniformed men marched up.

“Who the hell are you?” said Bean.

“Never mind that,” answered the man in officer’s dress. “Just shed the guns, take off your coats, shirts, pants and boots get onto that raft.”

As they were not in a position to argue, the bandits complied. When they were afloat, Perry spread his hands in resignation. “Okay, you’ve got us fair and square,” he said, “but I’d appreciate an explanation.”

The officer smiled. “Well, I think a man as smart as Conrad Perry is entitled to that. We’ve been watching you ever since you showed up in Gainsboro.”

“How come?”

“I’m afraid your choice of associates was faulty. That railroad man you trusted is a cousin of my partner here. Maybe blood is thicker than water. Anyway, your man lost his nerve and tipped us off, so we’ve been watching you all the way, mostly with field glasses. Even saw you building that raft. It was clear you intended to take it downstream, so we just kept you under observation. We reckoned this would be a likely spot, but that didn’t matter because we could have picked you up almost anywhere after you left the bridge.”

Perry rubbed his forehead. “Well,” he said, “I hope I’m a fair enough man to know when I’ve been outwitted. But why? I mean, you could have got us back there.”

“We have our reasons. Now, you have transportation, so move.”

“I don’t get this. Why aren’t you taking us in? You’re army men, aren’t you?”

As Perry spoke, the two soldiers were doffing their uniforms, revealing civilian clothes underneath. “Not exactly,” came the reply. “From the moment we saw that strongbox, there was no more Lieutenant Ames or Sergeant McMahon. We’re just plain folk now. We have different names and you’re free. By the way, your railroad man will get his fair share.” He fished in a pocket, produced a gold coin and tossed it to Perry. “Use that to buy some new clothes,” he said, “I told you to go. There’s a fairish current here, so if you’re not way downriver within two minutes, I’ll open fire on you.”

Without further comment, the crestfallen train robbers departed.

* * *

January 5th, 2013, 07:29 PM

Carl Lundgren paused, foot resting on his spade, eyes raised to scan the louring clouds. Apart from his half-hour noon meal break and a five-minute halt to drink a quart of water, the tall burly thirty-six year old Swedish immigrant had been hard at it since early morning, tussling with the quarter-section of Montana land he was turning into a home and livelihood for himself, his wife Karin and their ten-year old son, Tom. Lundgren had just finished the second year of the venture and it was hard going, even for a man with his exceptional strength and stamina.

Darkness was gathering early on this sultry evening and the homesteader was keen to do as much as possible before being forced indoors when the impending storm broke. Normally, Karin Lundgren almost had to beat him over the head to get him to stop, but for once he was about to call it a day himself. His decision was hastened by the movement caught with the corner of his eye.

The north-south trail ran near the edge of Lundgren’s land and it wasn’t unusual for riders to pass by. However, the one doing so now was different. Even from over a hundred yards in such bad visibility, the homesteader could see that something was amiss. The horse was plodding wearily, seemingly ever-slower, like a clockwork toy winding down. But Lundgren’s attention was fixed on the man slumped across the animal’s neck and apparently hanging on with difficulty.

In a land where people tended to avoid prying into the business of strangers, many a man might have let the matter pass. But the Swede was a compassionate fellow. He rammed his spade into the soil then set off with long rapid strides, on a diagonal path to intercept the horse and rider. It took him less than two minutes to cover the distance and confirm his first impression. The horseman was hunched forward, pitching, rolling and yawing in the saddle, like a rudderless ship in rough water. His left hand clutched shortened reins, while the right arm hung limply.

Hearing the purposeful tramp of Lundgren’s feet, the rider turned his head with an obvious effort. Poor though it was, the light allowed the settler to see that the man’s face was unnaturally pale, the eyes red-rimmed with pain, fatigue, or both. The hat was pushed back, revealing a patch of what looked like dried blood around the left temple. The left sleeve of the dust-caked coat also bore a dark stain. Gritting his teeth, the man tried to speak. “I’d . . . I’d be much . . .” that was as far as he got, before he began to tumble from the saddle.

Lundgren jumped forwards, easing the already unconscious rider into his arms. Snaking a hand free, the homesteader caught the reins and set off for his home, carrying the man and leading the horse. At five-foot-ten and around a hundred and sixty pounds, the fellow was no feather duster, but Lundgren’s strength was equal to the task. He carried his burden four hundred yards without stopping.

Unlike some homesteaders, Lundgren had built his house to be comfortable and to last. The split-log structure had timber floorboards, a pitched roof and sound weather-proofing. There was a single room for eating and leisure time, a bedroom for the parents and a smaller one for young Tom. Lundgren called to his wife as he manoeuvred his load through the doorway. “Got an injured man here,” he said. “I think we’d better put him in Tom’s room.”

Karin Lundgren, a year younger than her husband, was a thick-set woman, stolid and accustomed to handling exigencies. She dropped the knife she had been using to peel potatoes and bustled into Tom’s room, evicting the boy. “We’ll need to get some of these clothes off him,” she said, beginning the awkward job of removing the man’s hat, coat, boots and bandanna. Suddenly she paused, gasping in surprise. “Look,” she said, pointing at the bloody dog-collar she had exposed. “This man is a preacher.”

“So he is. Well, see if you can get him cleaned up. I’ll look to his horse. Tom, run over and fetch Joe Haskill. He’s the nearest thing to a doctor we have around here. Hurry now.”

The youngster dashed off. Half an hour later he was back, accompanied by Haskill, a tall thin fellow, who did his best to deal with the ailments that affected the few homesteaders. Setting down his wicker basket full of medicines and instruments, he looked over the still insensible stranger, probing at the ragged two-inch head-gash, then turning his attention to the arm. “Hmn,” he said at length. “We’ll need hot water, Karin. The man’s been shot. Looks like a glancing wound to the head and a bullet in his upper arm. I think I can handle this.”

The stranger never stirred as Haskill cleaned and dressed the head wound, but twitched and groaned when the bullet was being dug from his arm. “Don’t try to talk,” said Haskill. “I just patched up your head and I’m taking a slug out of you. Looks okay, but you’ve lost a lot of blood. Now I’m going to clean this spot” – he pointed at the arm – “and it’ll hurt a little.” It did. The stranger passed out again.

Having packed away his equipment, Haskill closed the bedroom door and gratefully accepted a shot of whiskey from Karin. “I’m sorry you got burdened with this,” he said to the waiting family, “but I don’t think it’s safe for him to move for a few days. He’s very weak.”

Karin nodded. “It’s all right,” she said. “He can stay where he is. I’ll make up a bed for Tom in here. And thank you, Joe.”

Haskill picked up his hat and basket, making for the door. “I’ll drop by again in a couple of days,” he said. “If he gets any worse in the meantime, send for me. And try to get some food into him.”

It was a considerable inconvenience for the Lundgrens, but they were stoical people and had coped with many difficulties in the past two years. The stranger was just one more and they would do their best for him. They could not have envisaged that night that the man in Tom’s bed would solve more problems for them than he would create, nor could they have foreseen his reason for doing so, let alone his methods. The stranger slept through the night and the following morning, waking a few minutes before Lundgren appeared for his midday meal. No sooner had the family seated themselves at the table than a noise came from the small bedroom as the man got up, stumbled and fell. Carl lifted him back into the bed, while Karin appeared with beef broth, bread and coffee, a couple of words and a projected palm adjuring the man to keep quiet, eat and drink.

The guest did justice to his nourishment, then spoke in a low weak voice. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m sorry to give you all this trouble. I seem to be in a daze. There was a man here, a doctor. I’d like to thank him, too.”

Karin brought the man up to date with what had happened. He nodded. “Well, I’m very grateful to all of you. ’Course, I’ll compensate you for any inconvenience, then I’ll move on.”

Karin shook her head emphatically. “You will stay here for a few days, like Joe Haskill said you should. I will not turn a sick man out of my house. You’ll just have to accept that. I wonder why men are so obstinate.”

The stranger smiled, then shrugged, wincing at the movement. “I’d better do as you say,” he replied. “To tell the truth, I don’t think I could mount a horse right now anyway.”

And so it was for over a week. The stranger slept most of the time for three days, then got up and began to walk around, his efforts confirming Haskill’s assessment – he was as wobbly as a new-born calf. The amateur medico made two further calls, dressing the wounds and repeating his injunction about premature travelling.

The Lundgrens were consumed with curiosity about the stranger, but mindful of a man’s right to privacy, asked no intrusive questions. Beyond saying that his name was Richard Carlton and that he had been attacked by road agents, the man volunteered no more about himself than was necessary to hold the simplest conversations, repeatedly pleading fatigue and what he called a dizzy feeling as a reason for his needing solitude. This led the Lundgrens to think at times that the head wound might have had something more than a superficial effect. Karin also wondered how her guest’s priestly garb squared with the heavy revolver she had removed from his waistband and placed under the bed that first evening. Carl was equally puzzled, but for a different reason – he’d noticed that the weapon had no sights.

Adopting the idea that everything comes to them who wait, the Lundgrens possessed their souls in patience, assuming that more information concerning their guest would emerge one way or another. In the second week of the man’s stay, it did. Each Saturday, Carl took the buckboard into the nearest town, seven miles northeast of his land. There he would buy a few supplies, drink a couple of beers and catch up on local news. Sometimes, the outing was an uneasy one for, like the other homesteaders, the Lundgrens were frequently harassed by Irving Tyler’s cowhands. Tyler led the ranching community and was fiercely hostile to the newcomers.

With fewer than three dozen buildings, it wasn’t much of town. Still, it served the needs of the scattered community. By far the most impressive structure was a large stone-built bank. On this occasion, having run the gauntlet of jibes from three of Tyler’s men, Carl Lundgren had got what he needed in the general store. The owner, Ed Hunt, tried to maintain an even-handed stance in his dealings with ranchers and settlers, usually having a friendly word for everyone. “See they’ve had some excitement down at Roundwood,” he said, after counting out change to the homesteader.

“What happened?”

“I only know what I read in the newspaper that came in yesterday. Here, look for yourself.” He pushed the paper across the counter, pointing at a front- page article. Lundgren read:


A gun battle took place six miles from Roundwood last Thursday, when armed men attempted to rob the eastbound evening train shortly after it left the town. Four men, two of them security guards, the other two raiders, were wounded in the gang’s effort to steal gold bullion, said to be valued at over twenty thousand dollars. The train was forced to halt by an obstruction placed on the track. The marauders were out in strength, the fireman stating that though it was nearly dark, he was able to count a total of ten horsemen, five at either side, converging on the train. Fortunately, the consignment was well protected and the raid proved futile.

From the description given by one guard, it would seem that the raid was the work of the notorious band led by Roy Waters, sometimes known as either ‘The Reverend Waters’ or “Holy Waters’ because of his habit of wearing clerical attire during his criminal excursions. According to witnesses, the gang leader was struck by at least one bullet, possibly two, as the attackers were beaten off and dispersed hither and thither. Happily, the wounded guards are recovering well. Let us hope that this violent and fruitless occurrence will be a lesson to other desperadoes.

Lundgren pushed the paper back to Ed Hunt. “Bad business,” he said. “Say, how far away is Roundwood?”

“Fifty-odd miles south of here.”

“Pretty close. Well, I’d better be getting along.”

It was a thoughtful Carl Lundgren who drove back home that afternoon. When he arrived, he told his wife what he had learned. She wasn’t greatly surprised. “I knew there was something odd about him,” she said. “Still, it’s none of our business and if we get involved, we’ll be running around endlessly, appearing in court and such things. We can’t spare the time, Carl.” Practical as ever, Karin was probably right. Any wider social duty had to be balanced against the possibly disastrous loss of momentum in the work schedule.

The settlers were expecting an awkward time over the evening meal, for they were now convinced that they were harbouring a criminal. On the other hand, the man was hardly fit to travel. Carl was not sure what to do.

As it happened, the visitor himself raised the matter, asking the couple if they could spare him a few minutes before the meal. Young Tom was packed off to see to one of the endless chores around the place, while the adults sat at the table. As though he had sensed that the Lundgrens knew something, Waters came straight to the point.

“Well, Carl, Karin,” he said. “You’ve been very good to me. I reckon you and Joe Haskill saved my life. When I get through talking, maybe you’ll wonder whether that was wise.”

“It’s always wise to save a life,” said Karin. “Who knows what might come of it?”

“You may be right. Anyway, I had two things to say. First, I hate to be in debt. I know nobody could place a value on what you’ve done for me, but there are some costs a man can figure out, or at least estimate. If I’d been in any shape to make it to a city, I’d have had the best accommodation and doctoring available. I got that all from you and Haskill and I’ve already compensated him. I know this has been a lot of trouble to you and I know what time of year it is.” He fished in his inside coat pocket, pulled out five fifty-dollar bills and handed them across the table. “I guess this is the nearest I can get to paying you back and I want you to know that I’d be insulted if you refused it. And let me say that one thing I’m never short of is money.”

Carl was about to protest, but his wife silenced him with a sharp look. Cash was not plentiful in the Lundgren household and right then, two hundred and fifty dollars represented a fortune. It was a ridiculously large sum for the few days of board and lodgings, but the man’s attitude indicated that he would not take no for an answer. Karin picked up the money. “This is far too much for what we’ve done,” she said. “We know that, you know it and you know we know it. But I also sense that it would be useless to argue with you.”

“Yes, it would. Now, I said there were two things. The second one’s not so easy and isn’t so pleasant. When I’ve finished, I’ll leave right away. The truth is that my name isn’t Richard Carlton. I’m Roy Waters. Maybe you’ve heard of me?” Carl nodded. “We’ve heard, but it was only today that we pieced things together. Until this afternoon, we thought you were a man of the cloth.”

“I used to be. The dog collar’s genuine. Or it was. I’m afraid I got a good way from the straight and narrow a long time ago and I don’t think I’ll find the road back now. You must know the line of business I’m in.”


“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you earlier. It means I’ve been enjoying your hospitality under false pretences, but in the circumstances I couldn’t do anything else. You’ve every right to bring in the law if you want to – I’m in no shape to stop you. But if you’ve a mind to let me go, I’ll leave now.”

Waters wasn’t wearing his gun and Carl could have subdued him with ease. But the homesteader reasoned that somehow that very fact gave a ring of candour to Waters’ words. However, it was Karin who spoke while her husband was assembling his thoughts. “Just look at you,” she said. “You’re in no state to go anywhere. Why, you’re still as white as a sheet. You will stay here for at least another three or four days. Maybe you have something to answer for, but that is between you and your maker. You will move on when you are well enough and not before.” So vehement was her outburst that its sincerity was unquestionable.

Roy Waters stared hard at the Lundgrens, repeatedly swinging his gaze from the one to the other. After a long pause, he sighed. “Karin, I hope to show you how much what you just said means to me. If you’re both sure, I’ll see how I cope with a little riding for a couple of days before I move on.”

“Do you have anywhere to go afterwards?” Lundgren asked.

“Yes. I’ll join up with the boys again. That’s our arrangement. If a job goes wrong, we scatter in whichever directions we’ve agreed on. Every man gets away as best he can, but we all know where to meet later.”

With the communication log-jam broken, the conversation became passably relaxed for the first time since Waters’ arrival. He knew little of farming, but was a good listener and soon had the Lundgrens telling him about their plans. It didn’t take long for them to get around to the question of the bitterness between ranchers and homesteaders. It was, Carl admitted, the one problem he couldn’t solve. “They don’t all give us trouble,” he said. “It’s mainly Irving Tyler. ’Course, he’s the biggest of them. He more or less runs this area – even owns the bank in town. I heard his wife died three years ago, then his daughter went east to study music. Seems he’s been specially cantankerous since then. He has a son, a big brute. Both of them and all their hands bother us every chance they get.”

“Can’t you do anything about it?” Waters asked.

“I don’t see how. We’re outnumbered, they all carry arms, the law’s a long way off and it would lean toward them anyway.”

“So you have a stand-off?”

“No. I wish it were only that. Tyler’s saying openly that when the roundup is over, he’s going to give us his full attention. Says we won’t last a week from then.”

For a long moment, Waters was silent, rubbing his chin with a thumb. “Hmn,” he said finally. “So that’s the way it is. When is this roundup due?”

“Tyler’s boys are working at it now. In a few days, the whole herd will be in the south pasture, just up the trail from here. The move to the railroad pens will start two weeks from Monday. Tyler wants us to know that. I suppose he reckons we’ll get out before he comes back. That’ll save him the trouble of driving us off.”

Waters nodded. “How many of you are there?” he asked.

“Six homesteads. One single man, two couples, three more with young children.”

“And if this Tyler leans heavily enough, you’ll go?”

“I don’t know. If we didn’t have to consider the women and children, the men alone might make a stand, but I doubt it. We’re farmers, not gunslingers. Anyway, that’s beside the point. We can’t just stow our families away somewhere while we fight it out. These are the only homes we have.”

At that point, Karin, who had left the table to rattle around with pots and pans, produced the meal. Over the food, Waters was very pensive and apart from complimenting his hostess on her cooking, had little to say. Afterwards, as soon as he decently could, he excused himself and spent an hour outdoors before going to bed.

Early the following afternoon Roy Waters saddled up, saying he wanted to try a little riding. He headed north for a while, then swung westwards off the trail, moving slowly, exploring the area. Looking north, he saw what was obviously the Tyler herd, building up for the big day. To the west was a long shallow slope. Waters rode up this incline, finding himself atop a two-hundred-foot cliff. He sat his horse, deep in thought. It was that profound contemplation, plus his weakened state, that dulled his awareness of approaching company until he heard a loud voice, coming from behind him: “What are you doin’ here, feller?”

Waters turned to see two horsemen, one middle-aged, one much younger. They had ridden up quietly and stopped thirty yards from him. Now they came on, both holding handguns. “I’m not doing anything in particular,” Waters answered. “Just taking in the air, you might say.”

“Oh, we might, might we?” said the older man. “Well, mister, you’re on Tyler land and the boss don’t care for people takin’ air here.”

“I’m sorry,” said Waters. “I’ll leave. I’m not seeking trouble.”

“Aren’t you now?” came the mocking reply. “Well, a man sometimes gets what he’s not seekin’. You’re comin’ with us to explain yourself to Tyler.” He waggled his gun eastwards and the two riders moved in behind Waters, the second man checking that the intruder was unarmed.

The trio headed towards the cattle, then swung away to the north, rounding an undulation to come upon Tyler’s headquarters. Despite his uncomfortable situation, Waters looked admiringly at the most handsome ranch house he had ever seen. Facing south, the single-storey building was long and low, constructed in neatly mortared, honey-coloured stone. The brown-tiled roof was extended at the front to form a railed and balustraded porch overhanging four long windows, two on either side of the massive door. All the woodwork was oak.

From his mounted position, the reluctant visitor noted that the inside was also lavish. Immediately west of the door was the living room. A wine-red carpet covered most of the floor. There was a large black leather sofa and an array of matching chairs, arranged around the huge fireplace. At the rear was a black grand piano. Adjacent to the door on the east side was the dining room, where Waters could see a long table and a row of chairs, oak again. Together, the house and contents must have cost a fortune.

A great hulk of a man was slouched against one of the porch pillars, chewing a matchstick. Putting the fellow’s age at about thirty, Waters remembered Lundgren’s comment that Tyler had a son, and wondered whether this was the man. A few seconds after the three riders stopped, another man appeared in the doorway and crossed the porch. He was short and thin. Waters judged him as sixty or so. The narrow mean eyes raked the horsemen with a hostile look. “Well?” he snapped.

“Found this jasper nosin’ around the old buffalo run, Mr Tyler,” said the small cowhand. “Thought you’d want to talk to him.”

Tyler nodded. “You did right. You can go now.” Then he turned his attention to Waters. “Light down, mister. I don’t like looking up at people.” The sharp high-pitched voice matched the man’s appearance.

Waters dismounted. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “I already apologised for trespassing. Do you want something more?”

Tyler emitted a short bark. “I don’t tolerate saddle tramps nosing around my land,” he said. “My son here,” he inclined his head to the big man still leaning against the pillar, “has the same view. Just show him how we feel, Will.”

The hulk straightened up, brushed past his father and stepped down from the porch to stand facing Waters. At the range of three feet, he looked even more formidable than before. He was all of six inches taller than Waters and must have been sixty or seventy pounds heavier. For a moment, he stood grinning, fists resting on his hips.

Waters knew exactly what was coming and was equally well aware that there was little he could do about it. Even fully fit he would have been no match for this ox. In his present condition, even token resistance would be futile.

Young Tyler stepped forwards, feinted with his left and as Waters tried to parry that, he barely saw the ham-sized right that smashed into his middle, dropping him to his backside. There was no need to try getting up, for the ogre hauled him to his feet, only to pound him with a sledgehammer right to the face, which downed him again. So it went on until Waters lost count of the times he was flattened and raised before he heard Tyler’s shout: “Get rid of him.”

Waters was barely aware of being heaved onto his horse. Clutching the reins, he began to move off, when he heard the high reedy voice again. “Maybe you’ll remember your visit to the Tyler spread.”

With a considerable effort, Waters turned his horse and faced the rancher. “I’ll remember,” he gritted. “You can bet on that.” He swung around and left.

Three hours later, an amazed Carl Lundgren found himself lifting Roy Waters from the saddle a second time. Lying on Tom’s bed, the outlaw mumbled a brief explanation and Joe Haskill was summoned again. He examined the mauled face and the ugly body bruises, “My word, sir, you live hard,” he said. After treating every mutilation he could find, he announced that there were no broken bones, and prescribed complete rest for a further week.

An hour after Haskill’s departure, the Lundgrens were astounded to see Waters leave for the barn, then reappear, ready for the trail. They protested, albeit less vociferously than before, but the battered bandit was now resolute and made his farewell brief. Clambering awkwardly into the saddle, he looked down at the homesteaders. “What will you do?” he said. “About Tyler, I mean?”

Carl shook his head. “I don’t quit easily, but I guess I’m beaten.”

“Don’t go,” Waters replied quickly. “Not yet. Do me one last favour. Hang on here until Tyler’s roundup.”

“Why?” said Karin..

“Never mind. Just give me your word.”

The Lundgrens agreed to stay.

Two weeks later, Roy Waters was back. With him were twelve riders, all hard men. At the rear of the group was a packhorse, carrying two wooden crates. By pale moonlight, the party passed the Lundgren place, moving northwards. Two hours later, Waters called a halt at Irving Tyler’s south pasture. Two men detached themselves from the rest, delved into the crates on the packhorse, got what they needed and after a few words with Waters, rode off

Three Tyler men were on night duty, circling the herd. Not one of them knew what hit him. All any of them noticed, and that only at last instant, was a presence approaching from behind. Each man was plucked from the saddle, knocked unconscious, bound, gagged and put aside.

Ten minutes later, a group of horsemen came racing in from the south. Whooping, yelling, guns blazing, they rushed at the herd. The alarmed cattle milled around, then began thundering off northwards. Another, larger bunch of riders, ranged in an arc to the north and east, charged in, bellowing and shooting. The cattle, with no other direction open to them, turned westwards, racing up the incline towards the spot where Roy Waters had earlier been accosted by the two cowpunchers.

The incident was as brief as it was terrible. Like the buffalo herds, driven by Indians for centuries before them, virtually the entire Tyler stock was stampeded over the cliff’s edge.

The din raised everyone left on the ranch – this being a Saturday night, some of the men were enjoying themselves in town. The foreman and the hands he could muster rushed off into the night in an attempt to avert the calamity. Tyler himself was last up. Dressing hastily, he rushed out onto the porch. Instantly, a shadowy figure moved in behind him, jabbing his spine with a six-gun barrel. “You’d be Tyler, right?” the gruff voice asked.

“Yes, yes,” snarled the rancher. “What the hell’s going on?”

“Got a message for you,” the intruder went on. “From the feller you had roughed up a couple of weeks ago. Said to tell you he’d remembered.”

Tyler was about to speak again, when the gun prodded him a second time. “Get away from this house, quick. It’s going to blow up any second.”

Impelled by the urgency of the man’s tone, Tyler ran off. He covered eighty yards, then stopped and spun around, beginning to think he’d been hoaxed. He turned just in time to see his opulent house reduced to rubble by a thunderous explosion. It was a thorough demolition job. The dust settled, to show bits of wrecked furniture poking out from the mound of debris. A long sliver from the piano lid stood up straight, gleaming in the moonlight. Tyler’s pride and joy, the home that had stood for decades, seemingly as permanent as the mountains, had gone.

Within half an hour of the events at the ranch, a second explosion roused the township a short way to the northeast. This time it was another symbol of Tyler’s power – his bank – that was wrecked, but not before the safe had been blown and emptied.

An hour after the uproar at Tyler’s ranch, Carl Lundgren was brought from his bed by knock at the door. He lit a lamp and opened up to see the stern face of his erstwhile guest. “Sorry to wake you, Carl,” said Roy Waters. “Just passing. Thought you might want to know that Tyler lost his herd tonight.”

“Lost it?” said Lundgren. “What happened?”

“Cattle got stampeded over the buffalo run. Appears his house was blown up too, and his bank, where I understand practically all his money was kept. He seems to be having a bad time. I did a little checking and as far as I can tell, he wasn’t insured against losses. Queer, isn’t it? This morning, he was a real big man. Now, he’s probably worse off than you are, and I guess he’s too old to start again.”

Lundgren looked at his visitor in horror. “You?” he said. “Roy, this is wrong. The Good Book says ‘Vengeance is mine.’ You must know that as well as I do.”

Waters nodded. “Yes. Maybe you recall who said it?”

“Of course I do. It was the Lord.”

“Well. I guess He can’t deal with all these little things Himself, so He uses delegates. Who could He have better than a preacher? Goodbye, Carl.”

* * *

January 12th, 2013, 07:43 PM

“Mr Patterson, I assume. Come in. You must be tired. Have a seat over there. You’ll take a drink? Beer, whiskey, rum, brandy?”

The visitor dumped his leather bag. “Yes, I’m Michael Patterson, and thank you – a tot of brandy would be welcome.” He crossed the room and took one of the two easy chairs by the fire, which was blazing merrily this cool April afternoon.

Jack Turner busied himself with the drinks then, handing a king-sized measure to Patterson and holding a similar one for himself, sat in the other chair. The two men presented a sharp contrast. The immaculately dressed Patterson was of average height and slim build, while his six foot four, two hundred and thirty pound host was, as usual when at home – he owned a large two-storey house of white-painted timber – casually turned out.

“Now,” said Turner, “Judging by the way you hurried along from the station, this thing must be as urgent as you said.”

“Ah, you noticed my haste, did you?”

Turner smiled. “No great feat. This is a small town. The engine makes quite a racket and we’ve only the one arrival before late evening. You probably had to ask where my place was, and you still got here three minutes after the train stopped. I gathered from your wire that you’d be here today. Now, you think I can help you?”

Patterson took a pull at his drink. “That’s right – and I’m obliged to you for wiring back so promptly. I don’t really know what you can do, but my position is pretty desperate. I’m from Pittsburgh, so I guess you’d call me a tenderfoot here.”

“Some might,” said Turner. “I don’t like the term. I mean, depending on circumstances, you might class everyone that way. If I were in your backyard, you’d probably have the same notion about me.”

“I hope I wouldn’t. Anyway, until a matter of days ago, I had just one living relation, my uncle, Nathan Patterson. We rarely saw one another, but kept in touch by mail. Uncle Nathan owned a ranch in the Panhandle country. Only a small place, but valuable beyond its size, on account of its position with regard to water. My uncle mentioned several times that his immediate neighbour had been pestering him for years to sell out. This fellow, Tom Bateman, is a power in the land and made no secret of the fact that he was frustrated by my uncle’s refusal.”

“Not the first time that’s happened,” said Turner. “These things can get ugly.”

“I know that now. Well, some time ago, Uncle Nathan wrote to me, stating that he’d decided to sell his ranch and do a little travelling before it was too late – he was well over sixty. He asked me long ago whether I would want to take over his place in due course, and I told him that I saw no way that I could fit into those surroundings. The upshot was that he made a will, leaving everything to me. Now, in his latest letter, he wrote that he’d changed his mind and wanted me to visit him, help him to dispose of the ranch, then take the proceeds immediately. He said he had enough salted away to see him through he rest of his days, and the sale money would be more useful to me now than later.”

Turner nodded. “Very thoughtful of him. No doubt you were pleased.”

“Delighted, although he overestimated my ability to help him in the matter of the sale. He liked to think of me as having influence in the banking world. I am in that business, but merely a foot soldier. Anyway, he said that on no account would he sell to Tom Bateman, as there was too much bad feeling between the two of them. He asked me to visit him straight away. To make clear that his intentions were firm, he sent me a copy of the amended will, drawn up by his lawyer, confirming his intentions. Incidentally, he used a lawyer from another town, as he didn’t trust the local one.”

“He seems to have been remarkably thorough.”

“That didn’t surprise me. He was like that, almost to the point of eccentricity. Anyway, I agreed to do as he wished, got unpaid time off from the bank and headed west.”

“So that’s why you wired me from Texas and not Pittsburgh.”

“Correct. I arrived at Wadlow – that’s the local town – just over a week ago. I’ll try to spare you anything I don’t think relevant, but the fact is I’ve come up against a brick wall. First, I learned straight off that my uncle died less than week before my arrival.”

“My condolences. How did he die?”

“That’s a good point. He’d always been in excellent health. Of course I realise that people do keel over suddenly. Still, I was suspicious. And that was only the start.”

“Seems a hard enough one. What followed?”

“It was a nightmare. First, I saw the local doctor, who appears to be better acquainted with alcohol than medicine. He was adamant that my uncle must have had a heart attack, though it wasn’t clear to me how he could be so sure. Next, I called on the town marshal, who I later learned was a hireling of this Bateman fellow. His name’s Carter and he’s a blustering fool. He was downright unfriendly and I got nothing from him.”

“Hmn” said Turner. “Must have been discouraging.”

“It was. My next call was on Wadlow’s one and only lawyer – and I never came across a slyer type. From his breath, I’d say he’s about on a level with the doctor as regards drink. He made a fuss about my proving my identity, which I did, then he said that Uncle Nathan had sold out to Bateman for twelve thousand dollars. A day later, my uncle died. The lawyer couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give me any further information.”

“So you were stuck?”

“Not quite. It seemed to me that any big transaction might have involved the town’s bank. One of my uncle’s letters mentioned that he did a little business there, largely against his will. He would have preferred to go further afield but never had the time. I called on the manager. He raised every objection he could, and even after I’d properly identified myself for the second time within an hour, he was still obstructive. All I learnt from him was that he claimed to have had no dealings with my uncle for several months. Like the lawyer, he said that he hadn’t been required to witness any handover of funds. He suggested that the sale might have been a cash one and that possibly Uncle Nathan had secreted the money somewhere, then died.”

Turner spread his hands. “Within a day? That seems very convenient for everyone but him and you.”

“Indeed it does. However, having got that far I didn’t intend to be put off, so I visited Tom Bateman. He’s a strange one, smallish and slim-built, black suit, black beard and those black eyes that seem to burn through a man. He looks more like a hell fire and brimstone preacher than my idea of a rancher. When I told him who I was and why I was there, he made a show of understanding, offered his condolences and said it was tragic. He’d had his differences with my uncle, but had always respected him. He claimed that Nathan had had a change of mind and decided to sell, subject to his men being kept on.”

Patterson took a swig of brandy before continuing: “Bateman said that the sale had indeed been a cash deal, and that my uncle was to inform his hands the following day. That didn’t happen. The next morning, he was found dead by his wife’s grave, close to his house. There was no trace of the money. The general assumption was that he’d been overcome by his changed circumstances. When I pressed Bateman, he fumbled for words, then said my uncle had mentioned me, but had said I’d be relieved to get the funds and wouldn’t have wanted the ranch. As to the money, Bateman said that he could offer no explanation other than what the bank manager had surmised. I didn’t believe the man, but there was nothing I could do.”

Turner held up a hand for a pause, scooping up both glasses and moving off to refill them. Bringing two more large measures, he settled down again. “So,” he said, “you were at the end of your tether.”

“Yes, I was.”

“Which brings us to where I come in.”

“Right. That was pure coincidence. I’m no great socialiser, so I avoided the main saloon and picked out a little place at the edge of town. It’s owned and run single-handed by a man named Ed Foley, who seems to be one of the few people in Wadlow not under Tom Bateman’s thumb. In fact he said that Bateman, who already owns the big saloon, tried to buy him out. He refused and there’s no love lost between the two. It was Foley who gave me your name and address.”

“I was wondering about that,” said Turner. “How does he know of me and what did he have to say?”

“Well, it seems that he has a friend in El Paso, who has a cousin you helped out two years ago. This cousin reckons you’re the best private detective in the business.”

Turner grinned. “That’s only partly true. I did do a job in El Paso at that time, but you’d better be clear about my credentials. I’m neither a lawman nor a private detective. I don’t know what you’d call me. Maybe an adventurer. It just so happens that I’ve been able to help some people now and then. When I do, they usually pay me for my trouble. I’ve no official status and no set fees, but it’s only fair to tell you that when I do take on a job I see it through, even if it involves rough work, including shooting. And if I get on the wrong side of law, well, that’s just too bad. I’m no saint, Mr Patterson. When I act, I take a lot of risks and I don’t work cheap.”

“I appreciate your frankness,” Patterson replied. “I have nearly four hundred dollars saved, and I’m prepared to put most of it up to get to the bottom of this.”

Turner shook his head. “We’re not in hailing distance. My kind of work is often difficult and dangerous and I’m sometimes idle for weeks, or even months. I’m afraid your savings would be inadequate compensation for what I may have to do. Still, there may be one solution.”

“What would it be?”

Turner steepled his fingers. “If we can pull this off, you’ll be twelve thousand dollars to the good, won’t you?”


“Well then, my feeling is that if we can clear up a point or two, I should go down to Wadlow and look over the situation. I’ll meet my own expenses, so there’ll be no cost to you. If I think I can solve your problem, I’ll try. If I fail, you pay nothing. If I succeed, I’ll settle for twenty per cent of your twelve thousand. You also have to understand that there are times when I need to act on the hoof. If I see a quick way of doing a job, there may be no time to discuss things with you. So, what do you say?”

Patterson could think as quickly as the next man. “I didn’t mean to insult you with my offer, Mr Turner. You’ll appreciate that I’ve no experience of this kind of thing and that I’m completely out of my depth. I accept your proposal. After all, at present I’m short twelve thousand. If you fail, I’ll be no worse off, aside from the salary I’m losing. If you succeed, I’ll be up by nine thousand, six hundred. It seems reasonable. And as to your deciding things impromptu, I guess that’s fair enough.”

“Good. Well, I think I’ve grasped everything. Now, you’ll understand my caution, but anyone could call on me and claim to be the genuine Michael Patterson. Can you help me with that?

“Yes. I had no idea what to expect during my travels, so I took the precaution of getting an open letter from my employer, confirming my identity and that I’m on extended leave. I have it here, along with my uncle’s letter, a copy of the one he dictated to the lawyer and a copy of the amended will.” Patterson produced the documents and handed them over.

Turner read through all four items, noting that the first and third were on letter-headed papers. “Excellent,” he said. I think I can do something for you, but I need to bustle around a little. It’s one-thirty now. I suggest you take a room at our hotel, pass the day as well as you can and call on me again tomorrow, at about the same time as you came today.”

Patterson left and Turner got busy. He sent two wires, one to the lawyer and one to the bank. In both of them, he indicated that Michael Patterson had approached him for assistance in an urgent matter. The one to the lawyer was simply to establish that the man existed and that he was a legal practitioner, while that to the bank requested a description of Patterson.

By the time the Easterner called on him again the following afternoon, Turner had received satisfactory replies to both wires and was ready to act. He didn’t indicate in what way, but said that he still had work to do, and asked Patterson to spend a few hours as he saw fit, then get ready to leave and meet him at the railroad station at six o’clock.

Patterson took the advice, rejoining Turner as agreed, and noting that the large man was now well-clad. The two travelled south that evening, arriving the following day at the railroad halt nearest to Wadlow. The only other passenger to alight there was a tall thin well-dressed man who’d boarded the train along with Patterson and Turner.

Having explained what little he was prepared to divulge of his plan, Turner immediately hired a horse and went on ahead, leaving his would-be client to wait for the next day’s stagecoach. There was nothing to do in the railside settlement, so Patterson spent the night in the sole boarding house, trying to catch up on his sleep.

On boarding the stagecoach the following afternoon, Patterson found himself again in the company of the lanky fellow who had travelled in the train from Turner’s home town the day before. As the man hadn’t stayed overnight in what seemed to be the only place offering accommodation, Patterson wondered where he’d been. Not roughing it, by the look of him. There were three other passengers, a woman with a small boy and a garrulous little drummer travelling alone. As soon as he got into the stage, the tall man pulled his hat down over his eyes, evidently having no intention communicating with anyone.

It was shortly after eleven a.m. when Jack Turner arrived in Wadlow. He hadn’t expected anything in particular, but was mildly surprised to note that such a small place could be so noisy. The town comprised a main street running north-south with a single offshoot leading westwards, plus a few outlying buildings. Most of the din came from a large saloon, which had its doors at the south corner of the two streets. A sign above the entrance bore a large likeness of an ace of clubs playing card, beneath which was the legend ‘The Clubhouse’. This was the big Bateman-owned place Patterson had mentioned.

There was nothing in the national calendar that called for celebration and Turner wondered what local event caused such carousing. He was about to investigate when the saloon’s batwing doors opened, disgorging a drunk who teetered to the edge of the sidewalk, swayed to an angle that seemed to defy gravity, then walked into an awning post, bounced off and wound up on his back in the street. If he was anything to go by, this was quite a party.

With a chuckle, Turner nudged his horse across the street and around the corner, to where it could stand in the shade, then he headed for the saloon to find out what was going on. He entered, finding himself in a room thirty feet square, a long bar taking up most of the right-hand wall. In the far left-hand corner, an elderly fellow was pounding a tinny piano. Between him and any incomer, about thirty men sat at a scatter of tables. Some were singing, their efforts bearing little resemblance to those of the pianist. Others were engaged in bawling conversation, while several sat quietly, glazed eyes indicating that they were too far gone to add to the cacophony. There wasn’t a woman in sight.

Turner crossed to the bar, ordered a beer and asked what was happening. The short bald roly-poly barman had taken a few belts of something himself. “My, you really are a stranger here, aren’t you?” he said. “This is Mr Bateman’s birthday. He always gives his boys the day off. It’s an annual event here.”

Turner feigned ignorance. “This Mr Bateman’s a big man in these parts, is he?” he said.

“He sure is. Why, nobody makes a move around here without his say-so. An’ he’s a damn good sort, too. I’ll fight anybody who says he isn’t.”

“No need to brawl with me, friend,” Turner replied. “I’m just passing through. Is Bateman a rancher?”

The barman’s eyes rolled heavenwards. “A rancher,” he said. “Did you ever hear of Goodnight, or maybe Chisholm?”

“I guess almost everybody has.”

“Well, Tom Bateman’s right up there with them. Fancy you not knowin’ that.”

“I guess we’re all ill-informed in some ways. I’d hardly know one end of a cow from the other. Anyway, I’ll drink to your man.”

The barkeeper was pleased to hear that. “I’ll join you,” he said, downing a whiskey, “an’ bein’ as you’re a stranger an’ this is a special occasion, your first drink’s on the house.”

“Much obliged,” said Turner, finishing his beer. “I’ll get myself settled in, then maybe I’ll be back to give you some genuine custom.” Having learned what was what, he left, striding past the still sprawled body of the drunk and on to the hotel. He got a room, saw to his horse, then made his way to Ed Foley’s small quiet saloon at the western end of the side street. His production of a gold eagle coin and request for a bottle of brandy were enough to hold the barkeeper’s attention, though there were no other customers to distract him anyway. From Patterson’s description, the man was clearly Foley himself. Turner gave no indication of his purpose, but being an expert in getting information without giving it, he passed himself off as a well-to-do traveller, while eliciting the saloon-owner’s feelings about local matters. What he heard confirmed Patterson’s report.

Turner’s initial objective was to be noticed as much as possible before Patterson’s arrival, to emphasise that the two were apparently unconnected. To that end he called in at the stage-and-freight office, asking about the frequency of services, then went to three stores, where he made small purchases. All of that helped to register his presence. Next, he went along to the bank, noting that, even for a town of Wadlow’s modest size, it was an unimpressive place.

Fortunately for Turner’s purpose, two customers were keeping the tellers occupied and two more were waiting. He went in, wandered around for a minute or so, then left. He made a point of passing the town marshal’s office. Carter, a jowly, red-faced, hugely overweight fellow of average height, stood in the doorway. Turner gave him a curt nod, getting nothing in reply, then walked by the lawyer’s place, which seemed to be closed. Concluding that that was enough for the moment, he went back to the hotel and sprawled on his bed, mulling over what he had in mind.

The evening stage rattled into Wadlow, depositing its three remaining passengers, the woman and the boy having left earlier and no other travellers having embarked. Michael Patterson led the way to the hotel. Behind him trotted the chatty little fellow, who was in the liquor business. Bringing up the rear was the man who hadn’t spoken a word during the journey.

Within half an hour of their arrival, both Patterson and the tall, taciturn man had been summoned to Turner’s room, where the two stagecoach companions were finally introduced. “I hope you’ll forgive the secrecy, Mr Patterson,” said Turner, “but I thought it best that you should travel as apparently separate parties. It may not matter, but the more information we have and the less the opposition has, the better.”

Patterson shrugged. “I guess you know what you’re doing.”

“I hope so. Well now, the gentleman here” – he waved at the quiet man – “is William Ward. He’s a professional actor. Maybe on this occasion he won’t have much of a role, but he has a certain presence which has helped me more than once and might do the same again.”

“I see, said Patterson. “So you have some kind of plan?”

“I have several. Some involve brute force and flying lead, but I hope we can do the job by other means. We have to find an Achilles’ heel. Riding into Bateman’s fortress won’t help. The lawyer’s probably too wily, even when he’s drunk, and I think you’re right about the marshal. He’s likely to be hostile. That leaves one possibility. By the way, can you ride a horse?”

“Yes I can.”

“Good. Hire a couple of decent ones, put them along with mine at the livery stable and see that they’re ready to go when I give the word.”

At ten past nine in the morning after the conclave in the hotel, Turner and Ward entered Wadlow’s bank, Patterson having remained in his room. There were no customers, so Turner presented the sole teller with an impressive letter – one of several in his collection – stating the bearer’s name and the nature of his business. He demanded to see the manager at once. The two newcomers were shown through to the back office, where they were greeted by a short fat man, who introduced himself as Jason Copping, head of the bank.

Turner showed his letter again. Copping examined it as though it was an explosive device, then motioned his visitors to sit. “What I can do for you?” he said.

“A good deal,” barked Turner, who now seemed a different man from the one who had spoken so softly to Michael Patterson the previous evening. “You’ve seen that I’m Henry Freeman, of the Treasury Department. My associate here is James Holbrook, of the Department of Justice. We’re here to investigate an irregularity concerning the affairs of the late Nathan Patterson. Our understanding is that he had business with you and we need to know the details of it.”

Copping smirked. “I dare say you do,” he said, “but there are two things you should know. First, I’m obliged to keep my customers’ affairs confidential. Second, this bank is fifty-one per cent owned by Tom Bateman. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, it should. Do you know what you’re dealing with here?”

Turner had assumed a fairly aggressive stance from the start. Now, he appeared to abandon all restraint. “My word, sir,” he bawled, “you have your share of gall. You’d better get it into your head that you’re the one who’s in trouble. This Bateman may be a big fish in this one-horse backwater. Outside of it, he’s far from that. Now, I have authority to close this bug-hutch you call a bank. In fact that might be a good start.” He waved at his companion. “Mr Holbrook, please step out there and inform the teller that he’s to –”

That was enough for Copping, who was a rank amateur in the matter of bamboozling. “Just a minute,” he yelled. “Let’s not be too hasty.” He was well and truly deflated. “What do you want?”

Turner signalled his associate to wait, while continuing to glare at the befuddled Copping. “I want the truth,” he said, his eyes boring into the bank manager like drilling bits. “Now, kindly let me see what documentation you have concerning Mr Patterson and Mr Bateman – and may God help you if it’s not as it should be.”

The humbled Copping dived into his safe. “All I have is in here,” he said, producing a ledger and handing it over to his tempestuous inquisitor.

Turner flicked through the pages, stopping at the one concerning Nathan Patterson. “There’s a balance of two hundred and twenty-nine dollars here,” he said. “What happened to the twelve thousand he got for his ranch?”

Copping shrugged. “I imagine he cached it away somewhere. Nothing wrong with that.”

Turner went to the pages recording Bateman’s transactions. He shoved the latest entries under Copping’s nose. “No,” he snapped, “except that there isn’t a debit here to account for the payment.”

“So?” said Copping. “I guess Mr Bateman paid in cash. That’s his privilege.”

“Hah,” Turner barked. “You expect me to believe that Bateman, who effectively owns this bank, just happened to have twelve thousand dollars under his pillow to pay off Mr Patterson, who mysteriously died the following day, after stowing away the money? You must take me for a fool. Patterson was no beginner in financial matters. He would never have exposed himself that way.”

Turner’s comments were improvised, but he was watching Copping closely and, seeing that the bank manager was overwhelmed, he pressed on: “This thing stinks a mile high. Now, I’m prepared to let you continue your business until I’ve made further checks. Meantime, you’ll stay here and won’t communicate with anyone. My associate will see to that. Please take over here, Mr Holbrook.”

The tall, quiet man seated himself opposite Copping, fixing the bank manager with a stony stare as Turner left.

An hour later, Copping sat fidgeting, while Ward/Holbrook sprawled, completely relaxed. Jack Turner flung open the door and slamming it shut behind him, crossed to the desk. Resting his knuckles on the surface, he glared at the manager. “Now, sir,” he rapped, “let me put you in the picture. Your town doctor, your lawyer and your marshal are all under arrest and in the custody of two federal marshals and two of my departmental associates, who arrived here this morning. Three more federal officers are on the way here. The charge will be complicity in the murder of Nathan Patterson. There is also a question of possible banking misconduct, involving you. Bateman will be arrested this afternoon.”

Copping stared, his chin wagging up and down as he sought speech. “But I . . . I . . . I know noth –”

“You may well stammer,” Turner bellowed. “It’s my belief that you’re in this conspiracy. However, for what’s it’s worth, I doubt that you had anything to do with the killing. I’ve said as much to Mr Patterson Junior, who’s here now and is prepared to drop any charges against you, subject to full and immediate payment of the twelve thousand dollars due to him in respect of the sale of his uncle’s ranch. Personally, I think he is too soft-hearted in your case, but that’s his right. Now, you can do this by debiting Bateman’s account and handing over the money to me, here and now.”

As Turner had guessed, Copping was no true banker, but an unqualified second-rate book-keeper and one of Bateman’s puppets. He began babbling again. “I don’t know what . . . look, I have to see Mr Bateman.”

“Evidently there’s something wrong with your hearing,” Turner shouted. “I just told you that Bateman will be arrested this afternoon and his funds are now seized. Speaking purely for myself, I’d sooner see you tried with the rest, but I’ve given you the only choice you’re going to get. So what’s it to be?”

When a man’s world is taken apart out of the blue in barely an hour, he might be excused for not thinking straight. Both physically and intellectually, Copping was a puny fellow. Now he was totally bemused and thinking only of his own skin. His face was sheet-white, his hands trembling as he mumbled: “I don’t have that much cash on hand.”

“How much do you have?” Turner was inexorable.

“My usual amount in the safe. Nine thousand dollars. Then there’ll be five or six hundred out front with the teller.”

“In a case of this kind, you’re answerable to the extent of your personal funds, and I advise you to use them. Where are they?”

The thoroughly panic-stricken Copping was far beyond making any effort to argue. “At home, just along the street. I have about two thousand eight hundred dollars.”

“Get it now. Mr Holbrook will go with you.”

Ten minutes later, Copping and Ward/Holbrook were back and Turner had bagged eleven thousand eight hundred dollars. “All right, Copping,” he said, still in stern mode. I accept that you’ve done what you can to redeem yourself. You may keep the money out front. You’re not free and clear yet, but I’ll do my best to keep your name out of this sorry affair. Don’t leave the area until you get my permission. Goodbye.”

Within three minutes, Turner, Ward and Patterson were jogging northwards. When well clear of town they increased speed, heading for the railroad halt. They made it with half an hour to spare, catching the northbound train. Here, Turner was circumspect. He paid for travel to a station well short of the true destination, even then insisting that the trio disembark two stops short of the place indicated on the tickets.

At last, as the train pulled out, the three men relaxed. Now in possession of the money, Patterson handed over Turner’s fee, adding enough to cover the party’s train fares. “As I said, I’m a tenderfoot here,” he said. “How on earth did you manage it?”

“Guesswork, bluff and bluster,” Turner replied, as he gave Ward his share. “It might have gone completely wrong, but I reckoned that the banker was the weak link and I was right. A man in my line of work gets a feel for this kind of thing. If I’d been wrong, we’d have had to quit that place even faster than we did. That’s why I wanted to be sure you could handle a horse.”

Patterson shook his head. “You’re an extraordinary man, Mr Turner, and I’m greatly obliged to you. Of course, I’d have liked to settle things more conventionally, but that was never likely, was it?”

“No, it wasn’t. Those people would have made a fool of you. And as to settling matters, nothing in this world is perfect. You didn’t want that ranch, you’ve got nearly all the money that was due to you and with regard to your uncle, he’s dead. Even stringing up those rascals wouldn’t reverse that.”

“Do you think they’ll come after us?”

“Well, it was sensible to take the precautions we have, but no, I don’t think they’ll do much. Bateman might have sent some of his men to the railroad stop, assuming they’re sober again after yesterday’s revels. And what will they find? They’ll learn that we headed north. That’s a lot of country, and they won’t even know where we left the train. In any case, after that business concerning your uncle, Bateman won’t dare to run the risk of a genuine investigation into his conduct. I think you can go back to Pittsburgh with as clear a conscience as man can expect to have.” With that, Jack Turner pulled flask from an inside coat pocket. “I don’t know about you gentlemen,” he said with a broad smile, “but I think we’ve all earned a drink.”

* * *

January 19th, 2013, 07:31 PM

Cal Saunders was a thoroughly unpleasant man, seemingly devoid of redeeming features. Other than innate character, there was no reason for his anti-social attitude. He had been brought up in a small town in the Midwest, where his parents owned a clothing store. They were quiet, conventional, law-abiding people and were as surprised as anyone else by the conduct of their only child.

Young Saunders was one of those people who give the impression that that their main purpose in life is to induce headaches and heartaches in others. Well before he reached school age, he demonstrated an aptitude for seeking and finding trouble. He pestered other youngsters, maltreated animals and generally got up to all the usual kinds of mischief, plus a few varieties he thought up himself.

If Saunders’ infancy had been disruptive, his educational curriculum was downright chaotic. He was sent home time and again because of his violent ways. On every occasion, his mother pleaded with the school to take him back. Each time she succeeded and invariably, further mayhem ensued. As far as his school contemporaries were concerned, the main trouble with Saunders was that in addition to his mean streak, he was well above average in size and strength and a ferocious brawler, so even if a thrashing would have cured him, there was never anyone near enough his own age around at the right time, able and willing to give him one.

When the question of work arose, it produced another problem. In such a tight-knit community, everyone knew everyone and nobody wanted to employ young Saunders. For a time he helped, or more often hindered, around the family store, but his behaviour – even his very presence – made matters nearly intolerable for his parents. When he was seventeen, his mother died. Liberated from the need to consider her intercession, Calvin Saunders senior acted quickly. A month after becoming a widower, he stuffed young Cal’s belongings into a sack, which he threw to the end of the garden, giving his son firm instructions to follow it, and return only if he mended his ways.

Moving to the Northwest, Saunders spent three years crisscrossing a large area, getting such casual work as he could. He never stayed long in one place. Usually, his temper caused him to be fired from whatever nondescript position he held. Once, he assaulted a ranch hand with such fury that the man was permanently scarred. Another time, he came within an ace of choking a man to death. In due course, he graduated to firearms.

A hefty six foot one frame, a savage disposition and a ready six-gun made a formidable combination. It didn’t take long for Saunders to kill a man, though the fellow had been seeking trouble and it was a fair fight. Soon afterwards, Saunders killed again, this time a back-shooting. Fortunately for him, there were neither witnesses nor circumstantial evidence, so he escaped retribution.

Saunders was about to try his luck further south, when word reached him that his father had died, leaving the family business to him. He lost no time in returning to his birthplace, selling the store and setting out again, well supplied with funds.

A further four years passed, during which time Saunders carried on much the same as before, except that his gambling losses increased, while his spells of employment shortened. He realised that he would at some point need to acquire more money, though getting steady work did not feature in his list of methods for doing so.

Now, after seven years of drifting, Cal Saunders was lying near the top of a grassy hill that overlooked a small town in northern Colorado. He had reached the end of a month-long vengeance trail. The town was home to Jim Curry, the man he’d been following. Knowing that Curry had been making for this place, where he had family and friends, Saunders had been hoping to overtake his man before the two arrived at this spot. He had fallen short by only three miles, having seen Curry enter the town that morning.

There was one thing in the pursuer’s favour. With the exception of his vantage point and a large stand of trees a little way to the north, the terrain was flat and featureless. It would be easy to see whether Curry tried to leave in daylight. The hours of darkness didn’t matter, for Saunders didn’t intend to wait so long. Smoking cigarettes in rapid succession, he considered his next move. He also reflected on how he came to be there.

It had started on the one and only night Saunders had spent in the Montana township of Bitterroot Gap. The only reason for the existence of the place was mining. Mushrooming as a result of local gold strikes, the town had grown from next to nothing into a community of two thousand souls, almost all imbued with the single desire to get rich quickly. Some worked their own claims, some were employed by the two large operators who had grabbed the lion’s share of the spoils and paid high wages. Still others brought goods and services, offered at wildly exorbitant prices.

Cal Saunders entered this rumbustious place one July evening. He was on his way from nowhere in particular to no special destination. Psychologically, he was starting a new journey, which he hoped would lead to financial security. Two months earlier, he had found himself in Helena, where he’d been thinking about his cash situation. Then he made the acquaintance of an old man, a former cardsharp who had abandoned his calling because of arthritis in his hands,

Saunders had paid the man three hundred dollars and received in return a great deal of instruction. Expecting this investment to be the best one of his life, he had been an attentive and apt pupil. The older man was pleased. He hadn’t really needed payment for imparting his knowledge, but was gratified at having ensured that his art would survive. It seemed a mutually beneficial transaction.

Saunders’ arrival in Bitterroot Gap was for him an auspicious occasion, as the place was to be the venue of his first solo effort at cheating with cards. He lost no time in making a tour of the town’s saloons. Grattan’s Bar, a dingy but well-patronised place, looked as likely as anywhere, so he decided to begin there. Most men in his position would have approached what he had in mind with some trepidation. He didn’t. He was tense, but not scared.

The newly graduated swindler joined a game with three other men who were playing casually, concentrating more on their conversation than on the cards. One of the trio was much older than the other two. He was Bob Cresswell, an under-manager at one of the larger mines. The other two were miners, plain and simple, working for the same company as Cresswell. Both were in their early twenties. One was Dave Backhouse, a tall dark fellow with not much to say for himself. The other was Jim Curry. He was a short slim fair-haired man and an irrepressible chatterbox.

Saunders was not to know it, but Jim Curry was described by some people as ‘quite a character.’ There was no malice in the man, but he had one attribute which had made him the talk of his hometown. He was a prankster, given to such japes as crawling under tables to tie drunks’ shoelaces together or balancing bags of flour atop half-open doors, then concealing himself to await events. Once, he had sneaked into the church and loosened all the strings of the piano. The preacher’s wife, arriving for her evening practice was, so she later claimed, convinced that she had suddenly gone deaf. On another occasion, Curry had made wooden cut-outs of two enormous bare human feet and pressed them into the dust of the main street at distances indicating ten-foot strides. The town was in uproar at the prospect of dealing with a feral giant.

There was plenty of money circulating in Bitterroot Gap and though Cresswell, Backhouse and Curry could have played for substantial stakes, they never did so. Cresswell, who notwithstanding his seniority in years was more reckless than the others, would have gambled less temperately, but the younger men were disposed to hold on to their money. Also, they didn’t entirely trust their companion.

It didn’t take long for Saunders to show what he had gathered from the tutelage in Helena. With most of his funds now gone, his opening bankroll was a modest hundred dollars. He was soon well ahead and continued to win throughout the evening. Backhouse and Curry folded frequently, keeping their reverses to modest levels, but the under-manager was less circumspect and lost heavily. Shortly before midnight, the game broke up, with the young miners having suffered little. Cresswell was cleaned out. He had lost nine hundred dollars – a setback he could ill afford.

Saunders, who had taken a room at the saloon, moved over to the bar, where he drank a lot of whiskey very quickly, then took a full bottle and lurched upstairs. Cresswell had left, but Backhouse and Curry were still there, in conversation with a small, well-dressed man at the bar. As usual, Backhouse made mostly monosyllabic contributions to the talk, but Curry quizzed the dapper fellow at some length. At last, Backhouse and the small man left. Curry stayed behind, lost in thought.

In his room, Saunders got to work on the whiskey bottle. His preparations for bed were perfunctory. He removed his hat, coat and gun, then yanked off his boots, shoving his money into the right one. A quarter of an hour after entering the room, he had sunk two-thirds of the liquor and collapsed onto the bed. Five minutes later, he was snoring mightily.

It was well after midday when the barkeeper looked up as he heard his only guest clumping down the bare wooden stairs, looking dishevelled, shirt half hanging out of his trousers, face like thunder. Saunders had emerged from his stupor to find that apart from his original hundred-dollar stake, all the money he’d had the night before had disappeared. Furious, he demanded to know how he’d been robbed.

The barman, a truculent fellow, shrugged. “Don’t ask me, mister,” he said. “You look after your own troubles. I got mine.”

That didn’t help to moderate Saunders’ rage. “It wouldn’t have happened if you had locks an’ keys in this damned place,” he yelled.

“We’ve never needed them here,” the barkeeper replied. “Maybe you’re used to them where you come from, and you can take that any way you like.”

That was the last straw for Saunders. No sooner had the barman got the words out than he was felled by a savage right-hand blow. He was then hauled to his feet by the enraged guest, who shook him hard. “It was them fellers I was playing with last night, wasn’t it?” Saunders roared. “Talk, or I’ll beat it out of you.”

The terrified barman held up calming hands. “All right, mister,” he said. “No need to get rough. I don’t know who did it, but two of those boys were hanging around for some time after you’d gone to bed. One of them went upstairs a while later and I didn’t see him again.”

Saunders continued yanking the man back and forth. “Which one of ’em was it?”

“The little feller. Jim Curry,”

“Where is he now?”

“Probably working. I think he’s on the eight till four shift this week.”

“What about the other one?”

“That’s Dave Backhouse. He’ll be doing the evening shift, from four till midnight. He’s in town now. I saw him not ten minutes ago, outside Lindley’s dry goods place.”

Saunders pushed the man back against the wall and hurried upstairs to collect the rest of his things. He went out into the street, looking for Dave Backhouse. There was no search involved, for the man was still where the barman had seen him, leaning against an awning post, smoking a cigarette. Saunders drew his gun while still five yards from the man. “Where’s Curry?” he snapped.

“At work.”

“Till when?”

“Finishes in around three hours.”

“He’ll be finished for good when I find him. He stole my money last night. I reckon you were in on it, too.”

Backhouse looked at the gun, his innards quaking. “Now just a minute, mister, he said. “Jim’s nothing to me. Just a feller I work with. If he’s done anything wrong, I had no part in it. Jim’s crazy enough to do most anything, but I never heard of him stealing.”

“Well, he’s started now an’ I intend to take it out of his hide. Where’s he live?”

“In Ward’s rooming house. Along the street there. Second-last place on the right.”

Saunders could see no sense in pushing the matter further with Backhouse. Better to intercept Curry when he came back from work. No point in going to the mine, where the man might be surrounded by friends. Taking up a position in an alleyway almost opposite the rooming house, Saunders sat on an empty barrel and waited. His vigil was to be fruitless, for Dave Backhouse had rushed off to the mine and got word to Curry that his life was in danger. It was true that Backhouse had had nothing to do with Curry’s activities during the night, but he knew what they were.

Jim Curry, for once in his harum-scarum existence scared stiff, did not return to his lodgings. He drew what money he had coming and, not daring to show himself at the rooming house, bought a horse and raced off southwards, leaving his few belongings in Backhouse’s care. If he he’d kept his nerve, he might have been able to talk his way out of the situation. But he panicked. Having listened to his friend’s description of Saunders’ mood, his only thought was of flight.

By six that evening, Cal Saunders realised that he was waiting in vain. Never a man to stand on ceremony, he burst into the house where six lodgers were eating. He demanded to know what had become of Jim Curry, his drawn gun reinforcing his bellowed words. The men, all miners, were a tough enough crowd, but none of them owed any favours to Curry, nor did any of them see a reason to tackle an armed and near-berserk man. It took only seconds for one of them to relate what had happened, and to say that Curry was making his way back to his Colorado home. Saunders knew from the previous evening’s conversation where the place was. He rushed to the livery barn, saddled his horse and set off in pursuit.

Now, over four weeks later, Cal Saunders had caught up with his quarry. During the zigzag, thousand-mile chase, he had several times come close to laying hands on Jim Curry, then found that the elusive fellow had slipped away. Finally, to Saunders’ disgust, he had actually had his man in sight when Curry reached his goal. Well, it was a problem, but it could be surmounted. Saunders had been resolute at the outset, but during the chase, he had become obsessed. Nothing mattered to him but catching the young madcap.

Temporarily damping his ire, Saunders worked out his next move. He did not doubt that Curry would hole up here, where he would feel safe. If that was his idea, he was in for a surprise. For one thing, Saunders knew the town, as he knew so many others after his years of wandering. It was a quiet cow-country place, where nothing much happened and few strangers appeared.

It didn’t take long for Saunders to conclude that head-on attack was his best option. Aware that the town was small, peaceful and sleepy, he would pick his moment, ride in and intimidate anyone who might cross him. He would roust out Jim Curry and he would do it quickly, giving nobody time to think. Should anyone get in the way, that would be just too bad. If necessary, he would shoot first and deal with any consequences later.

Timing being critical, Saunders decided to wait until late afternoon, when the townspeople might be at their most vulnerable. That was the point at which they would have their guard down, thinking that this was just another uneventful day. They would be thinking about meals. The few businesses would be preparing to close, the saloons quiet before the evening activity. Yes, four-thirty seemed about right.

There was a sprinkling of pedestrians, mostly women, no wheeled traffic and no other riders as Cal Saunders entered the town. A big newcomer on a large black horse, keeping to the middle of the street, he was likely to attract attention. In for a penny, in for a pound was his style, and having opted to instil fear into whomever he encountered, he didn’t intend to dawdle. A lad of around twelve stood on the west sidewalk, to the right of the newcomer. He would do as well as anyone. “You, boy,” Saunders grunted. “I want Jim Curry. Where is he?”

“I’ve no idea,” the boy answered. “It’s none of my business.”

Saunders’ right hand fell to the butt of his revolver. “Oh, a smart one eh? You know where he is, an’ you’d better tell me if you want to stay healthy.”

A woman emerging from a store a few yards away heard the exchange between Saunders and the boy. She hurried along to the youngster, put an arm on his shoulder and drew him behind her. “What do you want with my son?” she said.

“I’m looking for Jim Curry and that boy’s goin’ to tell me where he is, or it’ll be the worse for him.”

The woman stepped forward, chin up in defiance. “Why don’t you pick on someone more your own size, you big ox?” she said.

Chivalry toward women was an alien concept to Saunders at any time, let alone when he was incensed. “Okay, lady,” he said. “You’ll do instead. Now you tell me where Curry is. Better still, you can take me there.”

By then, two more women and another boy were standing nearby, wondering what was happening. This was fine by Saunders. The more people he could frighten quickly, the better his scheme would work out. There was no fear in him and he had not the slightest doubt of his ability to get the result he wanted at top speed. He had correctly assumed that word of Jim Curry’s plight was already known throughout the township, so surreptitious enquiries would be pointless. Nobody would reveal anything without being forced to do so.

The woman was about to speak again, when there was a shout from across the street: “Hey, hold on.” The words came from a man of around sixty, middling in height, corpulent and slow-moving. He lumbered up to the scene. “Somebody care to tell me what’s going on here?” he said, addressing everyone present but looking directly at the newcomer.

Saunders scowled down at the man. “This woman’s goin’ to take me to Jim Curry. You’d better mind your own business, unless you aim to take a hand. If you do, start now.”

The man was taken aback, but answered quickly enough. “My name’s Gutteridge,” he said. “I’m town marshal here and any disturbance is my concern. You look like trouble and my advice to you is to move on. You got that?”

It was a brave little speech from the local lawman, but he was not accustomed to this kind of thing. He was a part-time officer. Normally, his most onerous job was to offer Saturday night accommodation in his single-cell four-bed jail to any cowpunchers too drunk to make it back to their spreads until the Sunday morning. He had never had occasion to deal with real trouble and his handgun was more for decoration than use. Now he made the mistake of letting his hand stray towards it.

Saunders was right-side-on to the lawman. Without an instant’s hesitation he whipped out his gun and shot Gutteridge through the heart while the man was struggling to draw. The grim horseman’s abrupt action stunned the small crowd. These were orderly people, who had never experienced anything like this. Saunders himself had not expected to have to act so brutally at such an early stage but was in no doubt that having embarked on his course, he had to pursue it decisively.

After a few seconds of silence, a man stepped over to the fallen marshal, who was beyond help. This was a vital moment for Saunders. He could not afford to let resistance build. He wagged his gun at the woman who had sought to defy him. “You, lady. I know Jim Curry’s in town. Take me to him, and don’t keep me waitin’, or somebody else is goin’ to get hurt.”

The woman’s resistance had been shattered by what she had just witnessed. “There’s no need for me to take you,” she answered. “Jim Curry lives just along the street, in the third house beyond the barbershop. He’s there now, and I wish to goodness he weren’t.”

Saunders was riding off before the woman had finished speaking. Leaping from his horse, he jumped onto the sidewalk outside the house he’d been directed to, and put two bullets through the downstairs window. “Jim Curry,” he shouted. “This is Saunders. Come outside an’ hurry it up. I got dynamite here, an’ if I have to wreck the place, I’ll do it. You got one minute.”

In fact the only explosive thing Saunders had was his temper, but Curry didn’t know that. He’d seen trouble approaching and was cowering in the house with his widowed mother and fourteen-year-old brother. He didn’t need a minute. In his hand was an old pistol, which he hadn’t used since inheriting it from his father. It was loaded, though Curry was no hand at shooting. Now, hoping desperately that he might pull a last-minute trick, he stuffed the weapon into his belt, at the small of his back. He wanted to face Saunders apparently unarmed. “All right,” he called out. “I’m coming.” He opened the door and emerged, hands high.

Saunders was still holding his gun, for he had no high-minded notion of giving his man an even chance. “I’ll not waste words on you, Curry,” he said. “You stole nine hundred dollars from me. I want it. Give it back an’ maybe you’ll live.”

Curry’s reaction was strange. He began to laugh. It was a queer mirthless sound. “Oh, man,” he said. “If only you knew.”

“I’ve no time to play around with you,” Saunders answered. “If you’ve anythin’ to say, get it out.”

Curry was about to reply when the exchange was interrupted. Inside the house, young Bob Curry had excused himself from his mother and dashed upstairs. Though frightened as never before, he felt compelled to see what was going on. He crept across the front bedroom to the sash window and began to raise the lower half. He tried to do it quietly, but the warped frame was stubborn. A firmer pull raised the window three inches – with a loud grating noise.

Edgy as he was, Saunders reacted instinctively. His eyes flicked to the source of the sound and, turning his gun, he fired at it, causing the youngster to dive to the floor for safety. Jim Curry, sensing that this was the only chance he would be likely to get, scrabbled at his back for the old weapon. It was a futile effort, for Saunders re-trained his gun and shot twice. Jim Curry went down backwards, both hands clutching at his middle.

Saunders stepped up to the fatally injured man. “You damn fool,” he rasped.

Curry raised his head, blood seeping through the fingers laced over his midriff. “Wasn’t . . . wasn’t no need for that,” he wheezed. “I’d have told you what happened.”

Saunders knew the man was dying, but at this stage was intent upon his own priorities. “What the hell do you mean?” he snarled.

Curry groaned. “I guess I don’t have much time,” he said.

“Maybe not,” Saunders replied. “They say a gut-shot man can last an hour or two, or a good deal less. Where’s my money?”

Curry raised a blood-soaked hand and pointed to his head. Just prop me against the wall here and I’ll tell you, if I hold out long enough,” he said.

Saunders obliged. “Your lights are goin’ out, man,” he answered. “You’d better talk.”

“Was this way,” Curry said, speaking between moans. “You remember you won a lot that night?”

“’Course I do. Nine hundred and fifty dollars.”

“That’s right. Dave Backhouse was out thirty dollars and I was down twenty. Bob Cresswell lost the nine hundred. He walked out right away. You changed some of the money for big bills at the bar, then went upstairs. Backhouse and I got to talking with that fancy feller who’d been hanging around. Remember him?”

“I do. What about it?”

“Turned out he knew a lot about card play. He said both you and Cresswell had been cheating, but you did it better. I always was a man for fun and games, so I bet Backhouse I could take the money back off you. Never did mean to keep it, except the fifty dollars you got from the two of us.”

“I don’t follow you. What did you do?”

Curry, blood running from his mouth, was now moaning and gasping with almost every word. “Do you recall that there were three bedrooms, that you had the middle one and the others were empty?”

“That’s right. So?”

“Well, the inner walls are very flimsy. They’re just thin floorboards turned upright and fastened with two small screws each, one at the top and one at the bottom, to slats that run across the floors and ceilings.”

“Go on.”

“I went up ahead of you, to the room on your right, loosened one of the boards with my pocket knife and eased it to one side. I watched every move you made after you went into that room.”

“I didn’t notice anything.”

“You were so drunk, you probably wouldn’t have noticed if there’d been a horse in your bed. I figured you’d sleep on the money, so I was surprised when you had that idea of putting it under the pitcher in the washbasin. I’d never have thought of looking there if I hadn’t seen what you did. Anyway, after all that whiskey, you were snoring like a sawmill in no time. I could have got the money, even if you’d had it under your pillow. I came in and took it.”

“So you’re a robber.”

“Hear me out. I reckoned there was nothing to choose between you and Cresswell. You were both cheats. So I kept the fifty dollars. I took the other nine hundred to the livery stable and found your saddle. I cut the stitching at the rear left-hand side, put the money in and sewed it up again. I’ve done quite a bit of leatherwork, so I made a neat job of it pretty quickly. You’ve been carrying that money around with you all the time. I never stole anything in my life. You’ve killed a fool, Saunders, not a thief. I hope your conscience won’t trouble you too much.” Those were the last words Jim Curry spoke.

Saunders went back to his horse. He was dazed. Within five minutes, he had killed two men and terrorised a town – a spectacular performance, even by his standards. It was then that he experienced, for the first time in his life, remorse. It hit him hard. He picked up the reins and walked the horse northwards out of town. For some reason, mounting didn’t occur to him. He moved as though in a trance, staring vacantly ahead. No-one dared to pursue him. After an hour, he stopped at the trees he’d seen earlier. He took a clasp knife from a coat pocket, cut the stitching of his saddle at the place Curry had indicated, and found the money. It was all there – nine hundred-dollar bills. He rolled them together and stuffed them into his shirt pocket.

“Stay where you are and shuck the gun belt.” The voice came from behind Saunders and to his left. He did as he was told, then turned to find Bob Cresswell advancing from the greenery, bearing a levelled shotgun. “I’ve been trailing you for quite a spell,” said the miner. “I was going into town to get you, then saw you coming this way. I want my money.”

Cresswell was jittery, expecting some kind of trick, but Saunders merely took the roll of bills from his pocket and flipped it through the air. It landed midway between the two men. “All there,” he said in a hollow, lifeless voice. “Nine hundred dollars. Take it.”

Advancing to pick up the money, Cresswell kept the shotgun aimed at Saunders. “I’m no killer,” he said, “but you caused me a lot of trouble and I’ve a mind to blast you, if only for that.”

Saunders’ response was not what Cresswell expected. He held up placatory hands. “You won’t need the gun,” he said quietly. “Just do me one favour. Give me ten minutes to myself. I give you my word I’ve no other weapons.” He didn’t wait for permission, but turned his back and walked to the trees, leading his horse.

Despite his threat, Cresswell would not have shot any man, except to save his own life. “No tricks,” he shouted at the retreating figure. Saunders didn’t seem to hear. He disappeared among the trunks. The miner waited nervously for twenty minutes, then, curiosity overcoming apprehension, he followed. First, he saw Saunders’ riderless horse chomping what little grass it could find. It took him only a further minute to find the tree, the stout branch, the noosed lariat and the dangling body.

* * *

January 26th, 2013, 07:28 PM

“You mean to tell me that one little old man did all this?” Douglas McCormack, head of one of the Northwest’s largest lumber companies, leaned forward in his king-size chair, slapping meaty hands on his desk and glaring at his field manager.

Shifting uneasily in his more modest seat, Bill Wooldridge nodded. “That’s about it, Doug.”


“Well, I heard there are some Indians he’s friendly with. I think there’s about half a dozen, but I’ve never seen any of them. They might have helped a little. I guess we have to accept that he did most of it himself.” Shifting his five-foot-nine, two hundred pound heft back in the chair, McCormack took a large cigar from a cedarwood box, which he pushed across the desk to Wooldridge, who shook his head and produced his own pack of noxious black smokes, lighting up in unison with his boss

McCormack shook his head in wonderment. “Bill,” he said quietly, “if I didn’t know you better, I’d have a hard time taking this in.” He stabbed a finger at the single sheet of paper on his desk. It was the letter he had received from Wooldridge three days earlier, informing him of serious problems with the company’s latest logging operation and stating that the field manager was on his way to headquarters to discuss the matter.

“I’ve read what you say here,” McCormack said, tapping the note again, “but I think you’d better tell me face to face, then maybe I’ll start believing it.”

Wooldridge, a lean six-footer, rubbed a forefinger under his nose and sprawled back in his seat. “Okay. Well, I went up there to the Bitterroots, like we agreed. Took Sam Dawes along. We scouted around some, saw a few spots, but nothing that really impressed us. Then, after five days, we came across as fine a belt of timber as I ever saw. Mostly fir and hemlock. Stretches for about five miles along the foothills and varies from just under a mile to nearly two miles deep. We did the surveying and found things just about right, even down to a river near the low end of the timber. Perfect position for a slide, so the logs could be floated down to the main fork. You know where that is.”

“McCormack nodded. “Yes, but it’s a good way from where you’re talking about.”

“That’s right, but it’s a clear run, or it was.”


“I’ll come to that later. We were just about through and were sitting there, talking it over, when this skinny little old man, must be around seventy, came tramping along. Said his name was Francis Bradbury and asked what we were up to. We told him and for minute I thought he’d gone crazy. He said we’d no right to do it and if there was any logging done there, it would be over his corpse. When he calmed down a little, he pointed out some of the trees to us. Said they were ancient long before our grandparents were born – some of them old before Columbus came across. He claimed that one of them was thirty-two feet in circumference at chest level and two hundred and sixty feet tall. Another was thirty-five feet around and two hundred and forty-eight feet in height. The little jasper seems to know every tree there individually. Reckons he’s their guardian.”

McCormack rasped a thumb along his jaw. “Then what?”

“Well, we weren’t inclined to take him too seriously. Didn’t see what he could do. There’s hardly anybody around there, apart from this family of Indians and Bradbury. We don’t know where the Indians are at any particular time – they seem to move around. Bradbury has an old shack but he’s never there. He appears to live mostly in the open. Nearest place with any habitation is a settlement called Jackson Halt. That’s about twenty miles north of the site and it’s nothing but a livery stable, a general store-cum-saloon and six or seven houses. Wouldn’t even be that much, except that the trains stop there. So, like I said, we ignored this little runt. I picked up a team of good men. Got John Appleyard as foreman. You know him. And that Chinese cook we used down Gallatin way. We laid out the quarters like always.”

McCormack’s provision for his workers was exemplary in the industry. In addition to good food, the accommodation was invariably comfortable and was built by the loggers themselves, before commercial work began. It was of a standard pattern, a single log building comprising combined sleeping and eating quarters, with a few square feet partitioned off, so that the manager could do his paperwork. At either end of the large room was a separate section, one for keeping tools, the other for the cook. Both were accessed internally from the main area and externally from doors in the end walls.

Wooldridge eased forward, stubbing out his smoke. “Problems started right away,” he said, his face a picture of weariness as he recalled his experiences. “I’d planned to leave the boys to it and go off with Dawes to do some more scouting, but we never got to that. Seemed as though Bradbury had been watching every move we made. Would have been easy for him too, with so much cover.”

“And you never saw him?”

“Not once, after that first day I told you about.”

“Well, how did he and these Indians, if they were there, manage to do all this and keep out of sight?”

“It’s a way of life with such people. They’re expert woodsmen.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“Well, we were all ready. Got ourselves bedded down, figuring on an early start the following day. We got up, had breakfast, went for the tools and found they’d all been stolen during the night. There was a pencilled note on the door, saying that that was just a beginning. Little varmint must have gone in from the outside door, quiet as a mouse. Took everything except the grindstones.”

“I’ll be damned,” said McCormack. “So you had to get fresh tools?”

“That’s right, and being as the place is so remote, that took four days. While we were about it, I bought a few solid locks and started up a night guard system. The boys didn’t like it, but I insisted.”

“What next?”

“He stole the cook.”

“McCormack sat bolt upright. “How the hell did he do that?”

“Was just after we got back with the new tools. We were ready to start again. Cook was up first, like always. He went down to the stream that feeds into the river. Took his buckets to get water. When he didn’t come back for a while, I went to look for him. Buckets were there all right, with the bottoms busted, and there was another note tied to one of them. Said that Bradbury had ‘reasoned’ with the Chinaman. Hadn’t done him any harm, but we wouldn’t see him again.”

McCormack’s head rose ceilingwards. “What did you do?”

“Well, you know how these men are about food. They were pretty mad, especially as they knew it would take a while to get another cook. None of them wanted to do the job, so I set up another duty roster, giving it to a different fellow every day, and sent Dawes off to find a full-time man. I don’t mind telling you, the situation was getting tenser by the hour.”

“I can imagine that. Then what?”

“Bradbury poisoned the water.”

“Am I really hearing this?”

“Yes, you are. Happened the day after he went off with the cook. We know how he did it. Anyway, just after we’d eaten, we all started feeling queer. Pretty soon, we were all down with gut gripes and the runs. It must have happened when the feller who was on cooking duty went down to get water – we’d repaired the buckets. He’d just filled up when he heard a noise across the stream, saw what he thought was a man moving about and went to investigate. He prowled around for a few minutes but couldn’t find anything, so he came back. Then we ate. Next morning, we were all groggy and in no state to work. Then we found a note on the bunkhouse door, saying we’d be feeling sick for a couple of days because a little something had been put into the water while our man’s attention was distracted.”

McCormack sighed. “I thought such stories only came in dime novels.”

“Yeah, well, the Mexicans have a word for this kind of thing. They call it guerrilla tactics. I think it means little war.”

“That’s right. What next?”

“Right. Well, we were all laid up for two days and the boys were feeling downright mutinous by then. They may be tough, but they reckon they’re paid for working and they sure weren’t doing that. So, by the second morning after the poisoning, we’d had no other incidents and we were ready to get going again. When the first man showed at the bunkhouse door, there was rifle shot and a bullet hit the woodwork, six inches from his head. That went on all morning and afternoon, every time anybody tried to get out. By the time it was over, that door and the frame were in quite a state.”

“What about the night guard? Couldn’t he do anything?”

“No. He’d gone inside first thing, to rouse everybody else. Anyway, he’d heard nothing untoward.”

“So what did you do?”

“We tried to get out by the end doors, but naturally, we’d locked them from the outside. I guess we slipped up there, but we were getting a little confused.”

“I don’t blame you. I might have done the same myself. It’s a natural tendency to put padlocks on the outside. What then?”

“I suppose we could have busted out, but then we reckoned he’d just keep on peppering whichever door we used. Anyway, those boys aren’t soldiers. None of them wanted to chance it. We had a couple of rifles with us, so in the end I took one and decided to dash through the main doorway, figuring that Bradbury didn’t aim to kill anybody and that maybe I could weave around him somehow. I was about ready to make my move, when a stone hit the door. I looked out and there it was, with a piece of paper wrapped around it. I picked it up, went back in, wondering what the rascal had to say. The note just read: ‘That’s all for now’.”

“Damn it, Bill,” said McCormack. “I’m sorry about what you went through, but I have to say I don’t know whether to hate this little devil or admire him. Carry on.”

“Well, by then, there was no point in trying to get any work done that day, so I did my best to pacify the boys. We bedded down early, then this loony started with the crackers.”


“That’s right. Firecrackers. Made a hell of a racket. We found out afterwards that he was fastening the damned things to arrows and shooting them from God knows where. Kept us awake all night. I guess that’s when the Indians might have been helping him. I don’t see how one man could have kept up that din by himself. The following morning, what with just getting over the poisoning, then being penned up all day, then getting no sleep, everybody was mighty grumpy. I let the boys have the day off and promised to see them right for pay, thinking we’d get started at first light the next morning.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No. Bradbury did nothing till after dark, then he started with his fireworks again, so we had another night without sleep. That was enough. The crew quit.”

“All of them?”

“Everyone but Sam Dawes. Appleyard said they’d talked it over among themselves. I offered to keep them on day wages till we’d sorted things out, but they reckoned the place was jinxed. Said there was plenty of work where they wouldn’t have to put up with being pestered like that, so they just walked off. I can’t say they were at fault. Those weren’t exactly normal working conditions.”

McCormack stubbed out his cigar. “I doubt that anybody ever heard a stranger tale than this. What did you do then?”

“Dawes and I set off to find another gang. We tried to be quick about it, but the boys who’d quit were putting the word around faster than we could move. Anyway, we did find some men. Not a full team and maybe not as good as the first lot, but we did our best. Got them on site and ready. To tell the truth, I was surprised find the old buzzard hadn’t burned down the bunkhouse while we were away. We’d carted the tools off with us, to avoid losing them again.”

“So, he didn’t try to take the wagon or horses, right?”

“He never interfered with them. I don’t know why that was, except maybe he wanted to leave us with the easiest means of getting away from there. Anyway, we reckoned we were finally primed to start.”

“Then you got stopped again?”

“We surely did, and this time it was a good deal more drastic.”


“We’d just turned in, the night before we planned to get going. There’d been no harassment during the day and when nightfall came, there were no more fireworks, but around ten o’clock, we heard a loud noise, like thunder, then a rumbling sound. Seemed to come from some way north of us. We figured there must have been a storm somewhere, although it wasn’t that kind of weather. Then, about fifteen minutes later, there was another sound, just like the first one, then another, then another, so that was four altogether, spread over forty-five minutes or so. That was all. There were no more disturbances. So we had breakfast, then I walked down to check the gradient for the slide. Went to the river, only it wasn’t there.”

“The river not there? Bill, what are you saying? I can just about buy a cook being stolen, but not a river.”

“Well, that’s how it was. Just a trickle of water. So I took Dawes and a couple of the boys and we walked upstream. Five miles or so north of the site, the river flows, or flowed, through a narrow gorge with steep rock walls on either side. Except that most of one side and a fair amount the other weren’t there any more. That was what we’d heard the night before. Bradbury had dynamited the faces and the river was dammed.”

“So there’s a flood up there?”

“There is, but the spot where the job was done isn’t far below the lake where the river flows from. We didn’t have time to go up there, so all I can say is that water’s backed up all right. I don’t know the full extent of it, but one of the new crew says there’s another outlet running westwards from the lake. I can’t confirm that, and anyway it doesn’t matter to us.”

“Could you have cleared the obstruction?”

“Doug, believe me, there’s half a mountain in there. Putting that right isn’t a job for a lumber gang. Some of the stuff is just dust and rubble and some of the rocks are as big as this office.”

“Good grief. Bradbury must have used hell of a lot of dynamite to do that.”

“He did. We discovered that later.”

“How did he get hold of so much?”

“Easy. Like I said, this Jackson Halt place has a railroad siding. It’s common enough for trains to stop there and shunt some of the cars aside. The engines go on and leave those cars until they’re joined by others over the next few days, then they move on together. One of the boxcars in that siding was full of dynamite, bound for the Goodbody Mining Company.”

“Surely the railroad people have some sort of security precautions?”

“Seems not. They never had need of them, or not before this incident. ’Course, the car was locked up, but a determined man could have got in without too much trouble. And they don’t come any more determined than Bradbury. He must have shifted the dynamite somehow. My guess is he loaded it quietly during the night. Maybe he had a wagon, or mules. However he did it, nobody knew about it for three days.”

“Why was that?”

“I guess Bradbury must have got in, taken what he wanted, then locked up again. No reason for anybody to check till the consignment got to the mining people. When they looked into the matter, it turned out that Jackson Halt was the only place where the car had been standing still long enough for the stuff to have been stolen.”

“I suppose there’s no doubt that it was Bradbury who did it?”

“I was coming to that. You wouldn’t expect him to come right out and admit it, but when we got back to the site, the boys showed us an arrow that had been fired at the bunkhouse door. Had a note pinned to it that left us in no doubt.”

McCormack’s mind was working fast, his pragmatic businessman’s sense performing a dance with his more humane assessment of Francis Bradbury’s amazing crusade.

“So,” he said at length, “now we have no operation at all unless the gorge can be cleared?”

“That’s right,” Wooldridge answered, lighting up another of his venomous stogies. “But I tell you, Doug, that’s a big job. Would need either a fair-sized construction outfit, or maybe the army.”

McCormack waved a dismissive hand. “Not the army, Bill. Why, I’d be a laughing stock, admitting that one man had brought us to a standstill. I do know one or two people in the construction industry but they’re all at full stretch and likely to stay that way. I hate to say it, but I think we really do have a problem here. Despite what he’s done, I’m bound to say I’d like to meet this Bradbury. He seems to be one of a kind.”

“He’s that all right, but as to meeting him, the man’s a phantom. If he doesn’t want to be found, nobody will find him. And before you ask about the law, don’t bother. There isn’t much of it up there, and a man like Bradbury could give it the runaround for years.”

McCormack sat pondering for a nearly a minute, then stood abruptly. “Okay, Bill,” he said. “Leave this with me. Stay at the hotel and come in tomorrow morning, around nine.”

As Wooldridge walked out, he was replaced immediately by McCormack’s office manager, who handed a scruffy brown envelope to his boss. “This was handed in for you a few minutes ago,” he said.

“Who brought it?”

“A small boy. Said a little old fellow gave it to him this morning. Told him to bring it here at noon and gave him a dollar to do it.”

Little old man! Before he opened the envelope, McCormack knew the note inside was from Bradbury. He dismissed the office manager, pulled out the single sheet of lined paper and read the neat pencilled writing:

Dear Mr McCormack,

I guess by now Wooldridge has told you about our differences over the trees he has been trying to fell. I do not intend to be so foolish as to call on you, but I want to leave you in no doubt as to my strength of feeling in this matter. I am no great writer, but I am willing to meet you and discuss the position, if you wish. I am prepared to see you and you alone and I have a suggestion as to how that can be arranged.

If you get to Jackson Halt by noon on Thursday of next week, you will see that there is an old narrow trail leading directly westwards. Six miles along it, there is a big lone tree. You cannot miss it, as it is the only landmark for a long way around. I would be happy to meet you at that tree at three o’clock in the afternoon. If you come alone – and I shall be able to check this – we can talk. You may come armed if you wish, though I have no violent intentions toward you. I cannot wait for your reply, so I shall see whether you turn up or not. If you do, we may have a meeting of minds. If not, you must accept the consequences.

Francis Bradbury

The following morning, Bill Wooldridge called on his boss and was shown the note. “What will you do, Doug?” he said, tossing the paper back across the desk.

“I’ll see him,” McCormack replied. “Might do me good to get away from here for a few days anyway. We’ll go up there together, then I’ll leave you at this Jackson Halt place.”

Four days later, having travelled first by stagecoach, then by hired horses, McCormack and Wooldridge, on the last lap of their trip, reached the trees that had been the focus of all the trouble. Having pointed them out, Wooldridge was all for pressing on, but his chief called a halt and dismounted. “Wait here, Bill,” he said. “I’d like to spend a little time alone.”

For over two hours, McCormack wandered back and forth, working his way through two of his big cigars. When he rejoined Wooldridge, he was uncharacteristically quiet, remaining so until the two men reached Jackson Halt later that day, the eve of the scheduled meeting with Bradbury.

On the Thursday, at one-thirty in the afternoon, McCormack mounted his horse and set off, alone and unarmed, along the old west trail. There was no mistaking the meeting place, for the big tree was indeed the only feature of note for a long way in any direction. Reaching it, the lumber boss heaved himself from the saddle and looked around him. There was no sign of anyone approaching.

McCormack had a restless drive that rarely allowed him to stand still. He looked at his watch, ensured that he had arrived punctually and began pacing to and fro. Checking the time again ten minutes later, he was close to concluding that he’d been hoaxed. “Damn the man,” he said aloud, moving towards his horse. “Where the hell is he?”

“Right here.” With a rustle and a slither, Bradbury emerged from the foliage, dropped onto the lowest branch of the tree and swung himself down, retaining full control of an old rifle. “I was just making sure you didn’t have company,” he said.

“There’s nobody backing me up and I have no gun. I’m a businessman, not a bandit.” McCormack looked down four inches into the clear light-blue eyes of the scrawny buckskin-clad old man. “You’re Bradbury, are you?”


“What do you want of me?”

“An assurance that you’ll stop trying to fell my trees.”

“Your trees. And how, may I ask, did you come by them?”

“Well, it’s true I don’t own them. Let’s say I’m their custodian. Do you know how long some of those trees have been there, McCormack?”

“Yes. Bill Wooldridge told me you gave him a lecture on the subject. No need to go over it again.”

“All right. Just tell me, what do you suppose is the largest living thing on the Earth?”

“I didn’t come here to play games,” snapped McCormack.

“Oblige me this once,” the old man replied calmly.

“I don’t know. An elephant, I guess.”

“No. Try again.”

“Well, a whale, then.”

“No, Mr. McCormack. It’s a tree. Some of those that you have your eye on weigh hundreds of tons. They have a life, just like you have. And they’ve been around a lot longer than you. They support creatures who have as much right to live as you do. Without making a sound you can hear, they each hoist many a gallon of water aloft, day in, day out. They’re magnificent, McCormack, and I tell you that as long as I have breath in my body, I shall defend them.”

“You can’t protect every tree in the country, Bradbury.”

“One day, somebody will. Meantime, I can only do my share. Tell me something else. You’ve felled a lot of trees in your time. How many have you planted?”

“That’s not my job,” retorted McCormack.

“Well, it should be,” Bradbury shot back. “You don’t expect to harvest wheat if you don’t plant it and trees are no different. What you’re doing, McCormack, is stealing from the past and the future to pay yourself now. How long do you think you can go on doing that?”

“All right, Bradbury. You’ve made your point. What are you suggesting?”

“I can’t be responsible for what happens anywhere else. All I’m saying is if you let my trees be, I’ll leave you in peace. If you don’t, I’ll fight you right to the end. And believe me, you haven’t seen all my tricks yet.”

McCormack grunted. “Speaking of tricks, how did you do that thing with the dynamite? I’m just curious to know how a man moves all that weight so quickly without being noticed.”

“It wasn’t much of a problem,” said the old man. “I broke into the boxcar back yonder at night. Borrowed packhorses from some friends. The dynamite was in handy-sized crates, so I loaded up during the night. Took only a few trips.”

“Trips to where? You were fifteen miles from the place you blew up.”

“I needed the horses only to go to the river’s edge, a mile and a half from the railroad siding. That’s where I transferred the loads to three rafts I’d made and tied together. I floated the stuff down to the gorge, then unloaded it again – those friends I mentioned helped me with the lifting at both ends. Then I did the drilling and placed the charges. You know the rest.”

“How come you’re so handy with dynamite?”

“The only paid job I ever did was blasting. I know a lot about it.”

“Well, this is the queerest thing I ever heard,” said McCormack. He turned away and stood still, staring at the sky for a good two minutes, then turned sharply back to the old man. “I can beat you, Bradbury,” he said quietly. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes. I realise you can win in the end. I’m also aware that you’d have to use up a good part of your resources to do it. There’s a few moves left to me yet and I’ll try them all. You’ll find me ten times more trouble than this whole thing is worth. You said you’re a businessman, so figure it out.”

McCormack turned away again, staring upwards in silence for so long that Bradbury wondered if the lumber chief had forgotten he had company. The old man tried to continue: “If it’s any –”

“Be quiet,” snapped McCormack. “How do you expect a man to think if you keep talking?” Bradbury fell silent and not another word was said for over twenty minutes more, then McCormack turned again to the old dendrophile. “All right,” he said. “I don’t like your way of making your point, but I respect the point itself. I can’t speak for anyone else in the lumber business, but you have my word that my company will leave your trees alone. Goodbye, Bradbury.”

“Goodbye, McCormack.”

* * *

February 2nd, 2013, 07:17 PM

Jeff Connolly approached the small Rocky Mountain town of Lodgepole late in the morning of a bright, cool September day. An aimless, opportunistic drifter, Jeff lived by his wits, worked when he had to, and whether he was in funds or broke depended on his most recent experience. His current bankroll was eight dollars and forty-seven cents. He had no idea that the place ahead of him was enjoying a rare day of excitement. That became clear as he rode along the main street and heard, off in the distance, the roar of raised voices. He was surprised to note that there was no traffic of any kind. None of the stores appeared to be doing any business. The only person in sight was an old fellow, snoozing in a rocking chair in front of a saloon.

As he proceeded southwards along the street, Jeff heard the massed voices more clearly, sometimes high with excitement, sometimes low with groans of disappointment. The din came from some spot at the far end of the town. Jeff had intended that his first call would be at the livery stable, but curiosity impelled him to ride on. It was only when he reached the last building in the street that he came upon the source of the racket.

In the space to the west was a boxing ring, mounted on a platform. It seemed that every chair in town had been pressed into service for the occasion. About two hundred people – mostly men – sat in three rows around the ring. Other onlookers stood two or three deep behind the seated spectators.

In the ring, two men were battling. One was tall, slim, fair-haired and fully dressed but for his hat. The other was stripped to the waist. He was three inches shorter than his opponent, but much more heavily built, with a deep chest and a dark craggy face. Both men wore padded gloves. The taller man was plainly having a hard time, constantly dodging and retreating.

Within a minute of Jeff’s appearance, the encounter was over. The shorter man stepped in, feinted with a right, then smashed a savage left at the other’s midriff. The taller man folded forwards, taking a cracking right to the jaw, which hurled him out between the ropes, landing him at the feet of three front-row spectators. The dark-faced, barrel-chested man used his teeth to begin untying his gloves. He knew his opponent would not renew hostilities.

It was then that Jeff noticed, forty yards from the ring, a wagon with high wooden sides, resembling a railroad boxcar. It was painted bright red and along the side, in gold letters, was the legend: ‘Jim Farley – pugilist. English Champion.’

Directly in front of Jeff were two men who had distanced themselves from the main crowd. Both were well-dressed, one short and of middling build, the other tall and slim. It was a snort from the newcomer’s horse that attracted the attention of the pair, who turned as one. The shorter man smiled at Jeff. “Morning,” he said. “You seem to have arrived too late for the fun.”

Jeff grinned in return. “That’s a pity. All over, is it?”

“Looks that way. That man you just saw knocked out of the ring was our last hope.”

Jeff dismounted. “Oh,” he said, joining the two men. “Why’s that?”

The short man plucked a cigar from his shirt pocket. “This fellow Farley is travelling around, giving boxing exhibitions, taking on all comers. He stops at little towns like ours between visits to the big places.

“How does he work it?”

“Well, he comes into a town and he and his manager fix up the ring from parts they keep in the wagon. They work fast and have the thing ready in well under an hour. Then Farley appears in the morning from ten until eleven and again in the afternoon from three until four. In each one-hour session, he faces up to a maximum of six opponents, if there are that many available. There’s no charge for watching, but anybody who fights him pays ten dollars. If the challenger stays the course for three rounds, he gets his money back and fifty dollars more.”

Jeff’s eyes widened. “Isn’t he taking a big risk then, this Farley?” he asked.

“Seems not. He appears to finish everybody off easily. We only managed to put up five men and he knocked all of them out quick enough. Only one got through to the second round, and then for barely half of it.”

“How is it arranged?” Jeff asked. “I mean, what does he call a round?”

“Oh, he fights Marquess of Queensberry rules. He says everybody will do it that way in due course.”

Jeff was intrigued. “Who’s this Marquess, and what are these rules?”

“Queensberry’s a British nobleman and the aim of the rules is to reform prizefighting. The system was introduced a few years ago and the idea’s spreading. I’m not sure about all the differences, but with this man here, there’s no wrestling and certain punches aren’t allowed. A knockout means that a man has been downed for ten seconds. Each round lasts three minutes, then the fighters get a minute’s rest. And they wear these gloves with two or three ounces of stuffing in them. I hear they’ll soon be bigger.”

“Hmn. Sounds a little tame to me,” said Jeff.

The short man roared with laughter. “Friend,” he said. “If you’d seen more of Mr Farley, you’d not talk that way. They say nobody has taken the fifty dollars from him yet. The word is that up in Montana he broke three jaws in one day.”

Jeff was intrigued. “Is he really champion of England then?”

“Well, they’re careful with the wording, but he’s from England all right and I guess he’s champion of some sort. If he isn’t, then they must have some real tough men over there. Farley stands five-foot-ten, weighs near two hundred pounds and has dynamite in both fists. It’s just a shame about this afternoon. We could have had some more entertainment if we’d had anybody to put up against him.”

“You do,” said Jeff, spurred by his impetuous nature and his financial plight “I’ll fight him for a chance of fifty dollars. Trouble is, I don’t have a ten-dollar stake.”

“Well now, you don’t need to worry about that, young man. If you’re serious, I’ll pay the fee. Consider it a gift.”

“Right you are,” Jeff replied. “Just one thing. I’ve been on the trail a while this morning. I could use a room to rest in for a couple of hours, but like I say, I’m a little short of money.”

The taller man took over from his companion. “No problem, friend,” he said. “I own the hotel back down the street there. Just go in and pick any empty room you like. You’ll get plenty of choice – there’s only one taken right now.”

Jeff tipped his hat. “All right,” he said. “I guess I’ll see you at three o’clock, then.” He turned and led his horse to the stable.

The liveryman had already returned to his duties. He whistled in admiration as Jeff arrived. “Man,” he said reverently, “I seldom saw a finer-looking horse.”

“He’s about as good as they come,” Jeff answered. “Look after him well. I’ll need him again tonight.”

Strolling along to the hotel, Jeff was lost in thought. Not for the first time in his life, he wondered why he did not employ his talents more profitably. Living from day to day was exciting, but it was hard on the nerves. He had several times got hold of money, then frittered it away. So far, he had nothing to show for his efforts, apart from the superb horse. He had bought the animal eight months earlier, immediately after a big win at a card table. He recalled his departure from the scene of that minor triumph, pursued by a town marshal who was anxious to interview him about his playing methods. The lawman’s mount was outpaced by the splendid sorrel and he had abandoned the chase.

Jeff entered the hotel, picked out a room, sprawled on the bed and took stock of his situation. He still had over three hours before confronting Jim Farley. Though standing six-foot-one and not much below the boxer’s weight, Jeff had no illusions about his prospects. He knew that he could hold his own in a barroom brawl, but handling a professional fighter under strict rules was another matter. Unless he could find some kind of advantage, he would get a hiding, or possibly something worse. He thought of those three broken jaws in Montana. Well, he could back out, but in his present position, fifty dollars was no mean sum.

Jeff was nothing if not inventive, and within half an hour he came up with an idea. It wasn’t the best he’d ever had, but seemed worth a try. He left the hotel and walked along to the carpenter’s workshop he’d noticed on arriving in the town. There was nobody around, so Jeff picked up an offcut of wood.

The next call was at a hardware store, also open and unattended. Two minutes of rummaging produced a small saw. There was no price on the item, so Jeff left two dollars on the counter, hoping that would cover the cost. Finally he called at an establishment that catered exclusively for the women of the town. His request for stockings caused the owner some puzzlement, but money was money, however eccentric the customer. She supplied Jeff’s needs.

Back in his hotel room, his cash now nearly exhausted, Jeff unstrapped his bedroll, extracted a muffler and got to work. He busied himself for a few minutes then, satisfied that he had done all he could, settled down for another rest.

By two forty-five, the people of Lodgepole had assembled for what promised to be a brief diversion. They were not confident that the newcomer would put in an appearance, but anything that might relieve the monotonous daily round was welcome. If the man didn’t show, they could always gossip. At two minutes to three, Jim Farley emerged from his wagon, gloved and ready. He climbed into the ring and waited, half-sharing the crowd’s suspicion that the stranger would not turn up. Promptly at three, Jeff Connolly came into sight and strode towards the ring. He climbed in, to be met by the professional fighter’s manager, a small middle-aged man who introduced himself as Jonathan Drew. “Do you wish to buff, sir?” he said.

“What’s that?” Jeff asked.

“I mean strip to the waist. Most men don’t, but if you wish to –”

“No. Hardly seems worth it for a few minutes.”

“Perfectly all right,” said Drew. “It’s a little cold anyway.” He told Jeff that the townspeople had been sporting enough to accept him as referee then explained the rules of boxing and the conditions for this contest. If Jeff was knocked out, or otherwise made incapable of continuing, he would lose. If he knocked out Farley, or was still on his feet after three rounds, he would win. Drew then sent the contestants back to their corners, with instructions to come out fighting.

Jeff’s method of combat elicited hoots of derision from the crowd. Whereas Farley bounced out from his corner, plainly keen to make short work of the bout, Jeff moved timorously, intent on defence. His stance was laughable, forearms high and pressed together to cover his chest, gloves shielding his face, up to the eyes. He was the very picture of reluctance. “What’s the matter, man?” one wag howled. “Missing your mother?”

Jim Farley shuffled around, fists working in and out. It took him barely half a minute to decide what to do. His opponent was passably protected from low in the rib-cage almost to the forehead. What was needed was Farley’s speciality, the solar plexus punch, which had been so instrumental in the disposal of his last opponent. He needed only to distract his man, then give him one thump amidships. Suiting the action to the thought, he flicked out a harmless left which wasn’t intended to land anywhere, followed by a thunderous right to the midriff.

That dreadful blow was enough to fell any normal man. Jeff staggered back three paces to the ropes, gasping like a landed fish, left hand clapped to his abdomen.

But the effect on the challenger was modest compared with what happened to the champion. Farley gave a loud groan and stood rooted to his spot, left hand cupping right wrist, face twisted in a grimace of agony. This left him wide open and Jeff, presented with the only opportunity he was likely to get, mastered his own pain sufficiently to bound forwards, bringing up a right from his kneecap to the professional’s unprotected jaw. Farley thudded down on his rear end and rolled over sideways, still gripping his right wrist. Jonathan Drew was so amazed that three seconds elapsed before it occurred to him to start counting. Nevertheless, by the time he reached ten, Farley showed no sign of getting up, though he was conscious.

It was a sensation, setting the crowd alight, but it seemed that Jeff Connolly was in no position to savour his victory. He folded his arms across his mid-section, lurched to the ropes, ducked out between them and jumped to the ground. Jack-knifed, face contorted, he weaved through the spectators. “What’s wrong, feller?” one man asked. “You need help?”

“It’s all right,” Jeff groaned. “I guess I’m going to be sick. No need for you folks to see it.” He staggered to the street corner then, out of sight of the crowd, stood up, grinned and trotted to the hotel and up to his room. Closing the door, he tore off the two thick plaid shirts he’d been wearing. Next, he untied the ladies’ stockings, which were knotted at his back, pulling from them the shaped chopping board that had taken the brunt of Farley’s punch, then he unwound the muffler he’d wrapped around the board to absorb some of the impact.

Already a large area around where the blow had landed was red. Soon, it would be an ugly sight. But the idea had worked. If the shock of that terrible punch had been concentrated at the point where it had landed, Jeff would have been in a sorry state. As it was, the effect had been more or less evenly distributed over the whole area of the board. It was very painful, but not intolerable. Donning one of his shirts, Jeff went downstairs, left the hotel and walked back to the scene of his conquest.

It seemed that no one had left. Instead, the crowd had broken up into small, chattering groups, everyone wanting to swap views on the astonishing event. Farley had left the ring and returned to his wagon. His distraught manager was standing among a large group at the ringside. Jeff marched up to the man. “I’ll take my money now,” he said, rubbing his middle.

The manager was suspicious and would have liked to make an issue of the matter but assumed that Jeff was a local man and that it would be dangerous to antagonise the crowd. He counted out the sixty dollars. “There you are, sir,” he said. “Now tell me, what’s your secret? Jim seems to have broken his wrist. He says it was like punching a brick wall.”

“Well, in a way it was. I’ve trained my stomach muscles so they’re extra hard,” Jeff lied airily. “Your man isn’t the first one to get hurt on them. They were my best weapon. I knew if he hit me there, he’d damage himself more than me.”

“Astounding, young man. Do you mind showing me those muscles?”

“Later. They’re mighty sore right now and it’ll take me two or three days to toughen them up again.”

Not daring to pursue the point, Drew had no choice but to nod his acceptance. He joined his fighter in the wagon and the crowd dispersed. A few men tried to detain Jeff, but he professed post-fight reaction, insisting on returning to the hotel, and nobody was inclined to upset the man who had just flattened the champion boxer.

Back in his room, Jeff lay on the bed, hardly able to believe that his crazy stunt had succeeded. He considered immediate flight, but decided to take a chance by staying until nightfall. Maybe, if the carpenter didn’t put two and two together and start talking, this was one of those lucky days.

It was seven in the evening when the hero appeared outdoors again, making his way along to the nearest saloon. Close to its doors, the sidewalk was taken up by two men, one middle-aged, the other around twenty. To the obvious amusement of his companion, the younger fellow delved into a small bag, snorted in disgust and returned whatever he had retrieved. “Hello there, young feller,” said the older man as Jeff approached. “You all right again now?”

“I’m fine,” said Jeff. “Hope you got your money’s worth.”

“Sure did. We’ll have something to talk about for a good while, thanks to you.” Then the man seemed to be struck by a thought. “Say,” he said. “You seem to be bright. Maybe you can settle this little matter we have going here?”

“Don’t know how you decided that I’m smart, but I’ll try. What’s the problem?”

“None at all to me. Young Robbie here is the one who has the headache. It’s like this. I keep taking money off him and he can’t see why. He has two balls in the sack, identical except that one’s red and the other’s green. Says he wants two reds in succession and it’s even money each time he makes two draws, and he wonders why I keep winning. I tell him I have two chances to his one. What do you say?”

“You’re both wrong,” said Jeff.

“How so? I say he can get either two reds, or red and green, or two greens. That’s two to one in my favour, isn’t it?”

“No,” said Jeff. “If you want to bet, I’ll give you odds of two to one and beat you, over a reasonable length of time. “

“I’ll take you up on that. What do you call reasonable?”

Jeff rubbed his jaw. “Let’s say as long as it takes us to make a hundred double-draws. I give you two dollars for each time you get two reds, you give me one dollar for every time you don’t. Shouldn’t take long.”

“You’re on,” said the man, “but with you paying out two to one, I reckon we’ll come out near even. Robbie, you do the drawing, then it’s guaranteed fair.” The young man, delighted to be involved in some game at which he wouldn’t lose, agreed, volunteering to keep count.

It took twenty minutes. At the end of a hundred double-draws, two reds came up twenty-six times, failing seventy-four times. “There you are,” said Jeff. “I owe you fifty-two dollars for your twenty-six double-reds and you owe me seventy-four dollars for the failures. Overall, you owe me twenty-two dollars.” The older man handed over the money. “I don’t get it,” he sighed. “How did you know you’d win?”

“Well, you didn’t do so badly, Jeff replied. “In fact, you just beat the odds.”

“How do you work that out? It still seems to me they’re two to one.”

“No, they’re three to one. If you draw twice, you have four possible results. You can get red twice, or red and green, or green and red, or two greens. That’s three to one against two reds. If you keep at it, you’ll see I’m right.”

“Well, I never thought of it like that. I guess a man lives and learns.”

Pocketing his winnings, Jeff went into the saloon, ordered a beer and carried it over to an unoccupied table. He hadn’t been sitting there for more than five minutes when young Robbie walked in, bought a whiskey and came over to join him. “Do you mind if I sit with you?” he said.

“I guess not. Something on your mind?”

“I’ve been thinking about that matter out there. Does it work with other bets, like throwing dice, for example?”

Jeff nodded. Different odds but same principle. If you can lay hands on some, we’ll have go”

“I think Dave keeps a few behind the bar.”

“Fetch a couple and let’s try it out.”

Robbie scurried off, returning with two half-inch diameter black wooden cubes, the white spots painted on by hand. “These are all he has,” he said. “Will they do?”

“Not possible they’re loaded, is it?” said Jeff with a grin.

“I’d say not. If Dave had any like that, he’d keep them for his own use.”

“We’ll assume they’re okay. Now, how do you want to play this?”

Robbie scratched his head. “Well,” he said. “If I aim to get two sixes with a throw, I have one chance in six with each die, so that’s one in six altogether, isn’t it?”

Jeff smiled. “We’ll soon find out. Now, let’s suppose I offer you better odds.” He pulled a stub of pencil and an old envelope from his coat pocket, handing them over. “Say you do the throwing and keep score, so I’m not interfering at all. I’ll give you twenty dollars for each time you get double-six and you give me one dollar for each time you don’t. That’s giving you four times the odds you reckon. You throw for ten minutes by that wall clock over there, then we settle up. How’s that?”

“Fine. Let’s get to it.”

At the end of ten minutes, Robbie tallied the score, then shook his head in bafflement. “I don’t believe it,” he moaned. “I threw seventy-nine times. I got three double-sixes, so you owe me sixty dollars for that. I failed seventy-six times, so I owe you seventy-six dollars for that. I reckon I owe you sixteen dollars.” He counted out the money. “How did you know?” he asked.

Jeff took the cash. “Look, Robbie,” he said. “If you throw one die, you have six different ways it can come out, right?”


“Then you have the second die, so any one of the six sides on the first can turn up along with any one of the six sides of the second. That’s thirty-six possible results and double-six is only one of them, so it’s thirty-five to one against your getting it. Like that man outside, you beat the strict odds, which is always possible over a limited run, but you still lost plenty, and if we go on, the long-term trend will take effect and you’ll lose a good deal more.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Robbie. “You know a lot about these things.”

Jeff nodded. “You might say I learned the hard way,” he said.


“Well, when I was a youngster, we had a visit from my uncle. He’s an eccentric fellow and as rich as Croesus.”

“As what?”

“Not what, who. He was a king. Lived a long time ago in the place where coined money was invented. Anyway, my uncle stayed on for my eleventh birthday. When that came along, he stood in front of me, felt in his coat pockets and came up with a hundred-dollar bill in one hand and a half-dollar coin in the other. He said I had two minutes to choose. I could have the bill there and then, or he’d put the fifty cents into a bank for me that day. I’d get no interest but assuming that we both lived long enough and that the bank survived, he’d call there each year on my birthday, or on the following Monday if the anniversary was on a Sunday, until I was twenty-five, and would double what he’d put into the account the previous year, on condition that I didn’t draw out anything at all.”

“What did you say?”

“I just wasn’t smart enough to figure it out, my ma wasn’t there and my pa was no good with headwork, so I took the hundred dollars. Seemed like all the money in the world to me then. I bought my first horse and saddle and a few other things, all long gone now. My uncle said I was short-sighted and he left.”

“Then what?”

“In six weeks I’ll be twenty-five. If I’d made the right choice, my uncle would be going to the bank and putting in his last payment of eight thousand one hundred and ninety-two dollars and I’d have a total of fifty cents short of twice that amount.”

Robbie whistled. “You don’t say. I’ll bet you’re upset, aren’t you?”

“No. When I realised what I’d done wrong, I got interested in figures and odds and such things, so it was a good lesson.”

“I can see that. You’re sure smart. Must have done a deal of thinking. I mean, how did you work out these things, like with the balls and dice-throwing?”

Jeff laughed. “Oh, I didn’t work it out. That was done by a couple of French mathematicians, well over two-hundred years ago. I just learned it.”

“Well, I still say you must be a hell of a thinker.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t stop me from losing plenty at cards. You seem to have a high regard for thought, Robbie. Have you ever considered how easy it is to make other people think the way you want them to?”

“No, I haven’t, and that’s one thing I don’t believe.”

“You want to bet on it?”

Robbie pulled his remaining money from a pocket. “I can’t afford to bet much. You nearly cleaned me out with the dice. Maybe just a few dollars.”

Jeff looked around the room, counting the customers, then thought for a moment. “All right. I say I can show you an experiment that proves the point. I’ll do it just once. For every man who takes part and doesn’t do what I predict, I’ll give you fifty cents and for every man who does do it, you give the same to me. Apart from the two of us and the barman – we have to leave him out – there are fifteen people here, so neither of us can lose more than seven dollars and fifty cents.”

“Right,” said Robbie. “We’ll try it.”

“Okay. We’ll need, say, half a dozen pencils and some small pieces of paper – a little notebook will do. That general store down the street is still open. If you get the stuff, I’ll pay.”

Within five minutes, Robbie was back with the requisites. Jeff snapped each pencil into three pieces, sharpened the broken ends, then went to the bar, turning to address the room. “Gentlemen,” he said. “Robbie here and I want to try a little test and we need cooperation. We’ll leave out our barman here, so he can keep an eye on things. Anybody willing to take part only needs to do some real simple mental arithmetic. Now, I know some people don’t like games, so if you want to play, maybe you’d just raise an arm, so I’ll know how many are in.”

It was a neat way of avoiding embarrassment to any possible innumerates. All but two men raised their arms and Jeff gave each participant a piece of pencil and a sheet from the notebook, then went back to the bar, took another sheet from the book, wrote something on it, folded it and handed it to the barman, then turned back to the players. “Right, we’re all set. You don’t need to write anything till I ask you to. Just do these little sums in your heads. Ready?” Getting general assent, he went on: “First, take away one from one. Okay, now take away one from two. Right, now take away two from three. Now take away four from eight. Done? Right, now quickly think of a number between twelve and five, jot it down right away and turn over your papers. Robbie will collect them.”

Two minutes later, the thirteen slips were on a vacant table. Jeff asked Dave the barman to open the paper he had retained and read out what was on it. Dave called out: “Number seven.”

“Now,” said Jeff. Just see what these gentlemen have written down.”

Robbie turned all thirteen papers face up. They showed two sixes, one eight, one nine, one ten and eight sevens. “Jeff grinned. “Seems you owe me one dollar and fifty cents,” he said.

“How the hell did you pull off that trick?” Robbie asked, dropping the money into Jeff’s hand.

“There’s no trick. I told you, it’s making people think what you want them to think.”

“But how?”

“It’s easy. You’ll recall I asked everybody do a few simple subtraction sums in quick succession. When I came to the last item, I didn’t ask them to take five from twelve, but I knew most of them would. It’s a question of conditioning people’s minds to act in a certain way. They’d got used to taking one number from another and they just carried on. It’s not guaranteed, but it works with well over half of all people, and that’s enough if the stakes are even.”

“Well, you were right and I’m impressed. I guess a man could learn a lot from being around you for a while.”

“Maybe, but not this time. I have to go now. Been nice talking with you, Robbie.” Jeff waved a general farewell to everyone, then went to collect his horse. He decided against food, as his mid-section was still painful from Jim Farley’s punch. It had been an eventful day and he had picked up winnings of eighty-nine dollars and fifty cents, and as the man who’d paid the ten-dollar fee for the fight hadn’t asked to be repaid, Jeff had kept that, too. Having no intention of staying around for any possible inquiry into his boxing tactics, he rode off, heading south. He’d travelled less than two miles when he came upon a belt of trees to his left.

A rider emerged from the greenery, six-gun levelled. “Okay, feller,” he barked. “Keep your hands where I can see them. I know you picked up a good deal of cash today an’ I want it.”

“No need for any shooting, mister,” said Jeff quickly. “Money isn’t worth it. But I’ve a couple of questions, if that’s okay with you.”

“What questions?”

“Well, I have nearly two dollars in loose change. All right if I keep that – a man has to eat?”

“Yeah, keep it. What else?”

“Just that I get real nervous around guns. Can I move on right away?”

“I didn’t plan on makin’ this a lifelong friendship. Hand over the poke an’ ride.”

Jeff nudged his horse forwards, came abreast of the bandit, fished a well-filled money clip from his shirt pocket and handed it over. The man snatched it and Jeff went off like a bat out of hell. The road agent chuckled to himself. “I guess all the brains an’ guts in the world don’t make much difference when a feller’s looking down the barrel of a forty-five,” he muttered.

On that fine horse, Jeff was already out of sight by the time the robber began to examine his wad of booty. He found a dollar bill at the top and another at the bottom. Sandwiched between them was a sheaf of neatly cut newspaper. Immediately beneath the upper bill was a pencilled note. By dim moonlight, the bandit read the words: I’ve been keeping this bundle for a man like you. Don’t spend it all at once.

* * *

February 9th, 2013, 07:19 PM

Dave Stockton was half asleep and beginning to sway in the saddle. Small wonder, as it was close to noon and he’d been riding since dawn, with only a short break. That, plus the heat, was more than enough for a man who wasn’t the most hardened of riders.

There had been no choice for Stockton, his goal being unreachable by train or stagecoach. Now it was in sight, though that was not much comfort, as the town of Simpson, Arizona was hardly the end of the rainbow for a respectable man. The place was a known nest of brigands, a remote spot with no law officer, the nearest one being over fifty miles away. That gentleman, Jonas Hawkins, was a conscientious fellow, but no fool. He had many calls on his time. Perhaps he should have visited Simpson, but he could not rid himself of the feeling that if he did, his exit from the place might well be horizontal.

Two miles from the town, Stockton dismounted and spent five minutes performing a routine of bending and stretching exercises. He considered it important to appear sound in wind, limb and mind at any place where he was a stranger. Failure to do that might give the wrong signal to any human vultures around.

Deciding to review his position before riding on, Stockton walked to a nearby rock, made himself as comfortable as possible on it, then did something unusual for him. Normally, he smoked only three times a day, after meals, but the present commission was preying on his mind – and anyway, another half-hour couldn’t make much difference to the outcome. Pulling a short black cigar from his shirt pocket, he lit up and pondered.

Since the retirement of his mentor and predecessor as top operator of the Calloway Detective Agency, Dave Stockton had chalked up a string of successes. Now he had a nagging feeling that he had perhaps met his match. Like most men on the right side of the law, he knew that many of the criminals in the West were cowboys who had fallen upon hard times. They resorted to wrongdoing because they couldn’t find work of the kind they understood. Generally, they were incompetent felons and tracking them down wasn’t too difficult. But the others were professionals who planned and executed their work on a businesslike basis.

It had been a long and arduous chase. Stockton had been trailing his quarry for over a month, sustained by the knowledge that what he had done a dozen times before, he could do again. However, he was aware that the man he was pursuing now was quite different from most of those he hunted.

Vincent Cork had, as far as was known to anyone save perhaps himself, pulled off four jobs, all characterised by a high degree of originality and audacity. It was the last of these that had led to the offer of the current high reward and had put Dave Stockton on his trail.

Cork had performed the remarkable feat of robbing, in the same afternoon, two banks thirty miles apart. There had been nothing casual about the feat. It resulted from careful preparation and could have been halted in mid-flow, had that been necessary. Stockton considered the matter for the umpteenth time. The chain of events had been pieced together by the official forces of law and order and the few witnesses involved.

It seemed that Cork, posing as an Easterner seeking to enter the cattle business, had several times taken the train up and down the line concerned. Finally, he had registered at two hotels, one in each of his target spots. There was general agreement that he had played his part well. He’d impressed everyone as a free-spending, well-spoken fellow, whose regular and invariably modest card playing losses had been treated with mild amusement by the gambling fraternities in both places.

As far as could be established afterwards, Cork had retired for his customary afternoon rest in his hotel room at the northern end of his beat. Half an hour later, a shotgun-bearing man in shabby range garb had held up the local bank, then vanished among the back-lots. Five minutes after the incident, Cork had strolled out of his hotel, noting that the town was in uproar.

Nobody associated the fashionably-dressed amiable Easterner with the desperado who had just carried off the bank’s cash. And no-one noticed the ladder lying flat below Cork’s rear room. In a moment of striking boldness, Vincent Cork had accosted the sheriff, asking what had happened. On hearing the news, the brazen culprit had wandered off to the railroad station, where he’d expressed his shock and outrage to the deputy sheriff, who had been despatched to the spot to ensure that the miscreant did not get away by train.

Even after a major felony, most people go about their normal business. Vincent Cork caught the southbound afternoon train. He alighted at the next stop and went to his room. Ten minutes later, the bank, fifty yards from his hotel was robbed, exactly as its neighbour to the north had been. Again, the range-clad stranger who did the deed had disappeared and again, shortly afterwards, the immaculately-dressed Cork had left his hotel room, exchanging the odd pleasantry with the desk clerk before making his way through an alarmed throng to the town’s premier saloon.

Not until three hours had gone by did a member of the hotel staff notice that Cork’s rear billet was above a stack of timber which gave easy access to the bedrooms. Meantime, while the hubbub went on around him, Vincent Cork enjoyed a few drinks before ambling off with his carpet bag to catch the evening train, which took him further south. It was a whole day before anyone realised that he never reached the next town, to which he’d booked a ticket. Unnoticed by any of his travelling companions, he had disembarked from the back of the train at a spot where he knew it had to move slowly and, unnoticed by anyone joined his waiting horse and made good his escape.

Cork’s total haul had been thirteen thousand, nine hundred and twenty dollars, a sum which had caused the banks to combine resources in an effort to secure his capture. Calloway’s agency had been enlisted and Dave Stockton had drawn the case. He had traced his man to Simpson. Now he was almost there. Maybe Cork had already left the place, but Stockton’s instinct suggested otherwise. The town’s isolation inclined him to think that this was where he would find his man. He knew that Simpson lacked law officers, but was not unduly concerned. In his experience, such men had varying attitudes. Sometimes they were pleased to have private help, while on other occasions they regarded it as unwarranted meddling.

Finishing his smoke, Stockton remounted and covered the last stretch, arriving at the livery barn to find a wizened little fellow slouching against the open door, staring into space. On establishing that this man was in charge here, the detective dismounted and handed over his animal. In response to his attempts to strike up a conversation, he got barely intelligible grunts. He paid the hair-raising cost of a day’s care for his horse – inside and fed. The liveryman expressed no surprise when his new customer wanted to know exactly where the animal was to be stabled. Such caution was common among the sort of visitors this town received.

Stockton decided that there was no point in posing any more questions to the taciturn horse-minder, so unstrapped his saddle-roll and stepped into the main street. Midway along one side was a shabby-looking building proclaiming itself a hotel. That would have to do. As it happened, the newcomer would have had little choice anyway. Tramping along, he found the door open. Inside, to the right, was a reception desk, beyond which was a staircase leading to the bedrooms. To the left was a small lobby, furnished with two battered tables and half a dozen moth-eaten upholstered armchairs. Behind the desk, sitting on a stool and reading a novel, was a young fair-haired fellow. He looked up, but made no attempt to offer a welcome. Stockton nodded. “Afternoon. I’d like a room, a rear one if you have it. Might be quieter than the front.”

“Ain’t too rowdy anywhere, mister, but you can have number four. That’s as far back as she goes. Two dollars a day, in advance. Cheaper by the week – ten dollars.”

Stockton pushed over a gold eagle. “Make it a week. If I don’t stay that long, you can keep what’s left.”

That seemed to make the young fellow slightly friendlier. “Mighty thoughtful. You got to sign in.” He pushed a register across the counter, flicking a finger at an inkstand and pen. Stockton made a show of laboriously filling in the date, name and hometown columns. The desk clerk, who was accustomed to reading words upside down, produced a wry grin. “Obliged, Mr . . . Smith. I guess the J stands for John?”

Stockton gave him the blandest of looks. “That’s right. John Smith.”

“Common name hereabouts. We generally have a few in town. I believe there are two others right now.”

“Big family,” Stockton replied.

“True enough. From Chicago, I see. You’re a long way from home, Mr Smith.”

“So I am. Had to leave for health reasons. Weak chest. Heard good things about the climate here.”

“You heard right. A lot of men come here on account of their health. Funny thing, they all complain about the same thing back home. Too much lead content in the air.”

Stockton grinned. “Dangerous stuff, lead. Especially when it comes in certain ways. Where can a man get a little action here?” He made hand movements simulating the riffling of cards.

“We got four saloons,” the clerk replied. “Two of ’em are graveyards. The third gets pretty busy Saturday nights, but I’d say the only place that might interest you is Regan’s, just beyond the intersection on this side. Plenty going on there, day and night. There’s faro, blackjack and roulette and poker – mostly five-card draw.”

“Suits me,” said Stockton. He took the proffered key, tramped up to the room, dropped his saddle-roll onto the bed, swilled hands and face, went back downstairs and crossed the street to an eatery. The place was run by a hefty middle-aged woman who though far from jovial, was a first-class cook. She provided steak, roast potatoes, greens and apple pie, all beyond reproach. Stockton did justice to her efforts then returned to his room. Two cups of coffee with the meal had done little to counteract his fatigue and by two o’clock he was fast asleep.

It was after five when Stockton awoke. That seemed a reasonable enough time to look around the place while there was probably still some activity before the likely mid-evening lull. Leaving the hotel, he ambled along the main street. He was passing a store when a young woman emerged from its doorway and almost collided with him. Not devoid of the usual male instincts, he noted the straight, imperious carriage, the fine head of auburn hair and the fashionable dress. What could a man do? Stockton made a show of doffing his hat and looking awkward. “Beg pardon, ma’am,” he said. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”

The woman smiled and was about to reply, when a man stepped out of the store behind her. “Something wrong, Ellen?” he asked, his voice a striking gravelly bass.

“No, nothing at all,” she answered.

Stockton replaced his hat, but instead of going on his way, he stood staring at the man. Calloway’s leading operative was familiar with Vincent Cork’s description, which was in most respects unremarkable. The fugitive was of average height and build, had black hair, normally short, was clean-shaven and had no scars or obvious bodily peculiarities. However, almost everyone who had been in contact with him had commented on his green eyes and extraordinarily deep voice. Stockton was looking at the first characteristic and had just heard the other. He was rooted to his spot, eyes wide.

“Is everything all right, sir?” said the man. “You look surprised.” That voice again.

Stockton pulled himself together. “I’m fine,” he said. “Please excuse me. I didn’t mean to inconvenience the lady. I’m sorry.”

The man nodded. “No problem, I’m sure. Shall we go, Ellen?” The two walked off arm in arm across the intersection and along the side street.

Aware that he had blundered, but reasoning that he could hardly make matters better by hurrying off, Stockton hovered at the crossing, watching the couple’s departure. It was a short vigil. Within a minute, The pair stopped outside a house, the woman extracted something from a net bag and pointed at her left eye. The man produced a handkerchief and removed the offending object, then the woman handed something to him, opened the gate and went into the house. The man began to retrace his steps.

Stockton walked back along the main street, stopping to stare at a gunsmith’s window display until he established which way Cork was headed. That turned out to be towards the hotel, so the detective ambled along, keeping his distance. Cork was carrying the small object he had taken from the woman. Without pausing, he held it up to his face, then put it into a pocket and wandered on, finally crossing the street and entering an alley. Forcing himself to maintain his casual pace, Stockton reached the spot, to find that Cork was not in sight.

Concluding that there was nothing more to be done for the moment, Stockton swung round and set off back along the main street. Deciding that his best course was to blend into the scenery, he went to his room, freshened up and sauntered out again, going back along the street to the saloon recommended by the hotel clerk.

Even at this early hour, the place was far from dead, with a little roulette and blackjack being played and two poker games, both four-hand, in progress. In addition to the dozen or so gamblers, there were as many more men just drinking and talking, some at the bar, others scattered around the tables.

Stockton was served with a beer, which he nursed for as long as seemed decent before ordering a refill. Nobody offered to engage him in conversation. Thinking that there was only one way to break into this society, he strolled over and asked to be included in one of the poker games. Nobody objected. Fortunately, the stakes weren’t high.

Working to the best plan he’d been able to devise, Stockton drank steadily, gradually allowing his tongue to loosen as the evening advanced. He was gratified to note that the outlaw etiquette he’d encountered in various other towns was reversed here, the usually tight-lipped attitude replaced by some boasting about deeds done. Perhaps it wasn’t too surprising, as many of these people were bandits and in Simpson they felt secure.

When it came to Stockton’s turn to recount his experiences, he let it be known that he was one Tom Roberts, on the run after an abortive attempt at train robbery up in Montana, where his accomplice had been shot dead. His story caused some mirth, although he noticed that there was one man present – a sallow-faced, black-bearded fellow – who didn’t join in the laughter. Stockton’s tale was not invented. The incident he related had happened as he stated it, and the name he gave was the right one.

Claiming lack of funds, the black-bearded man left the game. Stockton played on for a further hour, then excused himself, saying that he’d been up and about since the break of day and needed some sleep. He had lost thirty-seven dollars and hoped that his boss wouldn’t gripe too much at that item on his expense account. He returned to his room. It had been a long day. Still, he had found his man and, he hoped, established his own desperado credentials. That was a passable start. He snuffed the bedside lamp and was asleep in less than two minutes.

Early to bed, early to rise was not Dave Stockton’s way when he had a choice. The sun was high by the time he made an appearance. He crossed to the diner for a breakfast which was as satisfying as the meal he had enjoyed the day before. Loaded with food and coffee, he strolled back to the hotel, thinking about his next move. That was taken out of his hands. As he stepped through the doorway, two men who had been waiting inside closed on him. “You’re invited for a talk,” one of them rasped.

“Sounds pressing,” Stockton replied. “What if I don’t want to go?”

“You’re goin’.” A gun emphasised the order.

“Well, if you put it that way.” He was escorted across the street and down the alley where he’d seen Cork disappear the evening before, then ushered into a building, up a flight of stairs and into a large, sparsely-furnished room. At a table under the single window sat a smiling Vincent Cork. One of the escorts slipped a hand under Stockton’s coat, removing the gun from the detective’s waistband. Throwing the weapon over to Cork, the man stepped back onto the landing, joining his companion and closing the door.

“Good of you to call,” said Cork. “Have a seat.” He flipped a hand at the only available chair.

“Nice to be asked,” Stockton answered as he sat. “I won’t pretend to understand the reasons, but now that I’m here, what do you want?”

Cork’s good humour didn’t desert him for an instant. “Oh, dear,” he said. “I’m disappointed. I’d hoped you might tell me without prompting.”

“Tell you what?”

“Why, who you are, of course. I assume we can dispense with the ‘John Smith’, so where do we go from there?”

Stockton was forced to return Cork’s grin. “Okay, I’m not John Smith. Now, if you’re as well-informed as you seem to be, you’ll have heard that I’m Tom Roberts – and I’ll not deny that I’m wanted up north.”

“Not quite good enough,” said Cork. “I happen to know that the real Tom Roberts is in Colorado, resting up after being wounded in that little matter you mentioned yesterday. Now, I’m not what you’d call a natural killer, but if you want to get out of this room alive, I really do think your best course is to tell the truth. I offer no guarantees at this stage, but you might just escape with a whole skin if you can tell me a story I’ll believe.”

Reasoning that his luck had run out but that he might, just possibly, be dealing with a man who had some sense of honour, Stockton spread his hands in resignation. “Okay,” he said. “I guess I’ve come up with less than a straight flush. My name’s David Stockton. I work for the Calloway Detective Agency. I was hired to track down Vincent Cork, and I seem to have done that.”

“Yes, you have – and you’ve done it well. Incidentally, I lied about Tom Roberts. I don’t know where he is. You’re a resolute man, Mr Stockton.

“I like to think so.”

“Hmn. The thing is, you present me with a problem. Right now, I don’t know what to do with you.”

Stockton shrugged. “You seem to have all the cards. Most men would say that I should be silenced, permanently.”

“Oh, let’s not be hasty. You might have good work ahead of you. Tell me, have you time to listen to a little story?”

“Well, if you insist. To be candid, I’ve no other commitments at present.”

“I’m so glad. Help yourself to the whiskey. I don’t indulge.” He pushed a bottle and glass across the table. Stockton poured himself a good measure as Cork went on: “I’d like you to put yourself in the position of a young man who goes off to war, leaving his parents to struggle with a homestead in Wyoming. When he returns, he hears an all too common story. His parents are prematurely aged because of a combination of the hard work and the unwelcome attentions of a local rancher. Harassment, Mr Stockton. Does that sound familiar?”

“I’ve come across it.”

“Very well. Now, despite the … er … difficult social position, the homestead could be made to flourish. What it needs most is a little capital. So, the young fellow goes east and gets a city job. Of course, he has misgivings, but the parents insist that they can hold on until the cash comes in. Well, that takes nearly a year. Finally our man reckons he has enough money, which it seems might have been amassed just in time, as he gets a letter from his mother, saying that his father is bedbound with heart trouble, arising partly from further problems caused by the rancher. Little things like water diversion, crop destruction, the shooting of domestic animals and the like. You follow me?”

“No problem so far.”

“Good. Our man hurries back home to find that his father died three days earlier and that his mother is beside herself with misery. The two do their best, but a few weeks after her husband’s departure, the lady dies of grief and general weariness. Meanwhile, the neighbour trouble continues. Now, since the family is legally secure, the son tries to get redress through official channels. He finds that the peace officer is in the pocket of the rancher and that even the local lawyer is hardly more than a hireling of the same man. So, having buried both parents, the young fellow can’t hold onto the homestead. There’s too much effort involved and no-one else can help. Now, what I want to know is what you would do, faced with those circumstances.”

Stockton shook his head. “That’s a hard one,” he said. “I guess you were the young man concerned.”


“Well, you’re only giving me a minute or two to answer a question that the man must have thought about for a while. Offhand, I’d say that I’d be pretty steamed up, but when I calmed down, I think would have gone back east, started afresh and left retribution in the hands of God.”

“A good answer, Mr Stockton. That was what I thought at first. Then I came to the conclusion that I’d been cheated out of most of a lifetime of working on the homestead, which was what I would have chosen to do. A man can’t really put a price on that. Naturally, I couldn’t anticipate my prospects in the farming business, nor could I fairly include the element of satisfaction a man gets from working for himself, so in an effort to be reasonable, I didn’t try. What I did instead was calculate my likely earnings over thirty years of doing the only job I could evaluate, at least theoretically – the one I had in the East. You’re still with me?”

“Yes, and I think I can see where your heading, but go on.”

“Thank you. Now, I’ve told you that there was no way of squaring accounts locally. The rancher I mentioned was responsible, but was well protected. A war of attrition against him would have been hopeless. So, I decided that my complaint was not so much against the cattle baron concerned, but against the society we have created, which allows such injustices. I am a logical man, Mr Stockton, so I concluded that, since society had, in a manner of speaking, robbed me of my birthright, I would make restitution myself.”

“You decided to be judge, jury and, in a way, executioner.”

“That’s right. Having arrived at my figure, I set about taking back from society what it had taken from me – no more and no less. I’m not a common criminal.” Stockton chuckled.

“True enough, Mr Cork. Whatever else you are, you’re not common.”

“I’m relieved to hear that you understand. I never had any intention of embarking upon a life of crime. I simply intended to get back what I considered due to me. Now, I couldn’t reasonably expect to do that over three decades of petty crime, so I decided to do it as quickly as possible. By the way, have you been in touch with your chief since you started chasing me?”


“Did you hear anything unusual from him?”

“The only thing I can think of was that he replied to a wire, saying that the second bank you robbed that afternoon had received an envelope containing eight hundred and forty dollars, with no explanation.”

“And didn’t you wonder about that?”

“Of course I did, but not to any great effect.”

“No, naturally you wouldn’t have been able to grasp that. It was an excess. I told you I’d arrived at my figure. The second robbery gave me too much, so I returned the difference. I couldn’t have worked it out on the spot, could I?”

“I guess not. You weren’t embarrassed with leisure at the time.”

“No, I wasn’t. You strike me as perceptive, Mr Stockton. You must have gathered enough from what I’ve said to show you that I don’t wish to go on in this way. I’ve recovered what I saw as my just compensation. My career as an outlaw is over. As it happens, despite the experience of war – or maybe because of it – I am not a man of violence.”

Stockton held up a protesting hand. “Not violent, you say. You’ve held up people at gunpoint. How do you account for that?”

“Good question. However, I can tell you that in every case, all I did was threaten. My gun was always loaded with blanks. I’ve seen quite a lot of killing and have no wish to add to the tally. Furthermore, you must have digested details of my career. If you’ve done your work properly, you’ll know that I could have pulled out of any of my escapades at any time, leaving other people with nothing worse than frayed nerves.”

Stockton nodded. “Very persuasive, Mr Cork. You put your point well, but that doesn’t resolve our problem. And by the way, I’m puzzled by your decision to stay in these parts when you could have gone back east.”

Now Cork laughed out loud. “That’s ironic,” he said. “I believe you told the hotel clerk that you had chest trouble. I imagine that was untrue?”

“Yes it was. So?”

“Well, as it happens, over the last two years or so, I’ve been affected that way myself. One of the few attractions here is the good air. That gives us a special difficulty. You know where I am and I can’t just let you wander off with that knowledge, can I?

“No, you can’t. So we’re back where we started.”

“Not quite. Now look, I don’t much like what I have in mind, but I have to balance several matters. You’ll have noticed that I’m not alone.”

“The lady?”

“Yes. She finds life in Simpson uncongenial and wishes to be elsewhere. Most of us have to make compromises and I am inclined to accommodate her. That leaves you, and in the course of our little talk, I’ve made a decision.”

Stockton grimaced. “I can hardly wait to hear it.”

“Cheer up. The news could be worse for you. I’ve already indicated that I’m no killer, so what we’ll do is this: I shall depart with the young lady today and reappear elsewhere under an assumed name. You are to stay in town for seven days, supervised by the two gentlemen who brought you here. They are being very well paid to watch you and will get a large bonus for setting you free when the week is over. I have a method of making sure that they do the work and receive their full reward. Once released, you may do as you wish. Is all that clear?”

“Fair enough, Mr Cork. You win.”

And so it was. Dave Stockton was given his freedom as promised. He accepted defeat at the hands of Vincent Cork and filed the case as unsolved. Cork was never caught.

* * *

February 16th, 2013, 07:16 PM

It was a rare thing for a stranger to visit the tiny settlement of Chalca, Colorado. The man who arrived on this November day did not seem like a beneficent waft of providence as he turned his lathered dun horse towards the L-shaped building which formed most of the remote community. It was one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and most of the residents had succumbed to the lethargy that usually overtook them at this point in the week. An exception was the ever-busy storekeeper. He had heard the approaching rider and stepped out onto the porch. “Hello,” he said.

“Afternoon. Hope I’m not disturbing your day of rest.”

“Not at all. We don’t often get visitors here. I’m Pete Simmons, and if you don’t mind my saying so, you look worn out.” Even from a distance of eight feet, he could see that the newcomer’s eyes were glazed and rimmed with what looked like lack of sleep, and that he was just about ready to fall from his mount.

“My name’s Howard Baines, and you’re right. I’m tired.”

“Well, light down and come in. I’ll see to your horse, if you like.”

“That’s an offer I’ll not refuse,” said the stranger. Dismounting stiffly, he stepped up onto the planking, extending a hand, which Simmons grasped as he nodded at the door. “Get yourself inside, Mr Baines. I guess you could use a drink or two and something to eat.”

“Right again.”

Ushering his guest into the front room, Simmons seated him at the two-sided home-made corner bench which, along with a few chairs, accommodated the whole community on Sunday evenings, and any other time they chose to get together. The storekeeper produced a stiff belt of whiskey. “Get that down you. I’ll be back shortly and we’ll see about food.”

Simmons left to attend to the horse. He was away for only a few minutes, but when he returned, Baines was laid back, head resting against the top of the bench, fast asleep. The storekeeper had already noted that his visitor was about six feet in height and slimly built. Now he took his first chance to get a close look at Baines’s face. About forty years of age, was his verdict, though the three or four day growth of dark stubble didn’t help the assessment.

It was close to two hours and three pipes of tobacco later when Simmons noted the stranger’s eyelids flickering. The man woke and looked around, startled. Simmons grinned. “I guess that’s done you good, Mr Baines,” he said. Now, how about a little beef stew?”

“I’d be more than pleased. I haven’t eaten much in the last couple of days.”

Simmons bustled off, returning with a steaming bowl and two large hunks of bread. “Don’t bother about talking. Just get outside that. A man can’t discuss things on an empty stomach.”

The hungry traveller needed no second bidding. He disposed of the food in short order. Simmons, who was quite proud of his cooking, nodded appreciatively. “Care for a second helping?” he said.

Baines held up a hand. “I couldn’t manage any more, thank you. But I’d like to say I never tasted anything better. I’m grateful.”

“You’re welcome. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?”

A sigh came up from Baines’s boot soles. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. How long was I out?”

“Nearly two hours. Is that important?”

“Could be. Look, I’m much obliged to you, but I should move on now. If I stay, there may be trouble.”

“That a fact? How so?”

Baines grimaced. “In a way, you could regard me as being on the run.”

“In a way? Is there more than one?”

“A few days ago, I’d have said not. Now I know different. We might be interrupted, but I’ll tell you the tale, if you’re minded to hear it.”

“Don’t see how it can do any harm. Go on.”

“Well, I’ll give it to you as straight as I know how. Just in case I don’t get to finishing, I have to tell you that there’s a bunch of people after me. I guess they call themselves a posse, but from what little I could gather, I’d say lynching party would be a better description.”

“I see. Why do they want you?”

“It started on Thursday night, in a little place called Banham, northeast of here. I have enough money invested to keep me going for a while, and I’ve been moving around with no particular aim in mind. I registered at a hotel then went to a saloon. I was intending only to have a couple of drinks, but I saw what looked like a friendly poker game going on, so I thought I’d take a hand. Funny thing is I don’t play cards much, but I fancied a little company. Anyway, there were four other players. Three of them were in their forties or fifties. The fourth was younger, in his early twenties I guessed. Nobody said it outright, but I got the impression that the older fellows were cowpunchers and the young one was their boss’s son. He was the problem. He had a lot to say and not much of it was too pleasant. I reckoned the older men were pretty embarrassed by his talk.”

Simmons nodded. “I suppose they were tolerating him for the sake of their jobs.”

“I’d say so. Well, for a time he was just cussing in general, but then I won a few hands – not much money because the stakes were low. That was when the young fellow started in on me. He made some provocative comments, but I didn’t rise to the bait. Then he came right out and accused me of cheating. It was downright stupid. I don’t imagine anyone with the skill to cheat would play such a penny-ante game. Well, I couldn’t let that one pass, so I handed out a sharp remark to him. He’d been drinking plenty and I guess he was bad-tempered to start with. What I said must have stung him because he jumped up, pulled a knife from his belt and flung himself across the table at me.”

Simmons’ eyes widened. “That must have been a surprise.”

“It sure was. I guess what I did was pure reflex. I wasn’t armed, so I just pushed my chair back and stuck out my arms, thinking to fend the fellow off. Well, he was coming at me like a pouncing wildcat. My left hand grabbed his right. I was only thinking of stopping that knife. I did that all right, but the rest of him kept moving. The knife turned and went into his neck. It must have hit a jugular vein. He dropped flat over the table, blood pumping out of him. I was knocked back and fell on my rear end.”

Baines gave another huge sigh, then went on: “One of the onlookers took a hand by helping me up. He whispered in my ear: ‘You’d better get out of here right quick, mister. That’s Dave Hewitt and I reckon you’ve killed him. I know you couldn’t help it, but his pa runs things in these parts, including the law. You’ve no chance of an even break here. They’ll hang you for sure – and you’ll not get a trial first.’ Well, I thanked the man and got going. I dashed to the livery stable. Didn’t bother about my things at the hotel. I managed to saddle up and as I was moving off, I saw some men running my way. To keep it short, they’ve been after me since then.”

Simmons shook his head. “That’s a bad experience,” he said. “How far behind are they?”

Baines shrugged. “Hard to say for sure. I’ve tried to watch out, but mostly I’ve been doing my best to keep ahead. I’d say it can’t be more than four or five hours. And they’re sticking to it. I don’t think they’ll give up easily.”

“What made you come here?”

“I was hoping to make it over the pass to the west, but my horse was near tuckered out. Knowing a little about these parts, I figured that the track down here was probably the only turn-off. There must be a dozen of these men and it’s a sure thing they’ll send two or three along this way, just in case. I’d say they’re about due.”

Simmons jumped up. “Don’t worry. Just wait here and I’ll be right back.” He left, returning within two minutes. “Okay, that’s settled,” he said. “I’ve sent old Dick Rogers up to our lookout point. If anybody comes, he’ll tell us in good time.”

“I’m indebted to you again,” said Baines. “I can’t really expect you to believe me, but I’ve told the truth.”

Simmons waved his hands. “It’s not a question of believing,” he replied. “For what it’s worth, I do believe you, but the point is that we’re peaceable folk here. We’ve no time for rough justice. If these men turn up, we’ll hide you. Now relax.”

“That’s mighty kind of you, Mr Simmons. I’m real sorry to be such a nuisance, but I swear I’ve given you a straight story. And now I’d be interested to know how you came to be here.”

Simmons laughed. “That’s another strange tale,” he said. “We were part of a wagon train, going west over the pass you mentioned. One day we came upon an old Indian who didn’t seem quite right in the head. He babbled about gold. Said there’d been a white man who’d found plenty of it at the end of the valley, which is right here. Best we could make of it was that the Indian’s name was Chalca, or some such. He disappeared that same day we met him, but a few of us decided to take a chance and look things over. To cut a long story short, we got locked in by a blizzard and when it cleared up we decided to stay and call the place after our Indian friend. Now we’re at the end of our tether. There are only nine of us – seven men and two women – and we can’t hold out much longer. It’s a pity. If we’d found the gold that old fellow talked about, we’d have made out well enough, what with the wildlife and timber and all. We could have paid for other supplies to be brought in.”

“But you didn’t find any gold?”

“No. We found traces up there” – he waved a hand at the horseshoe of mountains that almost surrounded the place – “but if there ever was anything worth taking, somebody must have got it. The fact is that much as all of us would like to settle here permanently, we’ll be hard pressed to last out until spring. Right now we’re trying to decide when to go back to the pass and strike out to the west. Like I said, it’s a shame. We gambled and we lost.”

Simmons was about to go on, when an old man came rushing in. “They’re comin’,” he yelled. “Three of ’em.”

“I knew it,” said Baines.

His host was unperturbed. “Thanks, Dick,” he said to the old-timer. “I’ll see to it.” He turned to Baines. “Just get up. You’re sitting on your salvation.”

Baines stood, looking amazed. “My salvation?”

“That’s right. Lift that seat.”

Still baffled, Baines did as he was told. The section of the bench he’d been sitting on was seven feet long. Underneath, it was hollow and completely empty. “I used to keep some of my supplies in there,” said Simmons. “Now you see what’s left. There’s a couple of air holes. If you climb in and keep quiet, we’ll get rid of these boys.”

It was probably sheer fatigue that decided the matter. Baines simply couldn’t flee, so he clambered into the box. “Now remember, keep quiet and leave things to me,” said Simmons, lowering the lid.

Ten minutes later, three hard-looking men rode into Chalca, to be greeted by Pete Simmons. “Afternoon, gents. This is rare honour. We don’t normally get visitors, even one at a time. Never had three at once before.”

The rider in the middle nodded. “Howdy. We’ll not keep you long. We’re looking for a man who might have come this way. He’s running from the law.”

Simmons shook his head. “Sorry to disappoint you,” he said. “You’re the first strangers we’ve had here in quite a while. Still, if you want to rest up, I guess we could – ”

The spokesman waved a hand. “Thanks, but there’s no need for that. We have to keep going. Came here just on the off chance. Don’t seem like our man could have bypassed your place.”

“That’s impossible,” Simmons replied. “There’s only one way in or out of here. If your boy came this way, we’d have seen him. What did he do?”

“Killed a man in Banham. Stabbed him in the throat.”

Simmons shook his head in sorrow at the ways of his fellows. “Sounds gruesome. You’d be a posse, I guess.”

“Part of one. The others are heading west. You ever heard of Fred Hewitt?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Well, it was his son got killed. Hewitt draws a lot of water where we come from. If the killer turns up here, you hang onto him and you’ll get a big reward.”

“Oh, he’s worth something, is he?”

“You can reckon on two thousand dollars. If the man turns up, just keep him, get along to Banham and ask for Hewitt.”

“I’ll remember that,” Simmons said. “I suppose you’ll get the same payoff if you catch him, right?”

“We’re Hewitt riders,” the spokesman replied, “so we’d want the man no matter what, but I guess we’ll be compensated for our extra work when we get him. Anyway, time we got back to the others. Sorry to have bothered you.”

“No trouble at all. I told you we don’t get much company. Wish you could stay.”

As the trio left, Old Dick hurried to the lookout point and watched them move out of sight, then returned to report that all was clear. It was only then that Simmons lifted the seat and beckoned his guest out. “You’re safe now, Mr Baines. They’ve been and gone.”

Baines climbed out. “I’m sure thankful for all you’re doing. I can assure you that you’ve saved an innocent man from doing a rope dance.”

Simmons shrugged. “We’d have done the same even if we hadn’t accepted your version of what happened.”

“You would?”

“I already told you what everybody here thinks about that. Whatever you did or didn’t do, you have the right to a proper court hearing, and from what you said and from the looks of those three fellows, I don’t think you’d have made it that far.”

“No, I wouldn’t. I can’t prove to you that I’m not guilty, but you’ve made the right choice. If you’d done otherwise, I’d be decorating a tree this evening.”

“What will you do now?”

Baines shrugged. “I’m not sure. The fact is I’m pretty shaken. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a little walk around. Get the kinks out of me and clear my head before full dark. Have a look at my horse, then we’ll see.”

“Okay, do that. But you can’t go far. Your mount’s over yonder at the barn. We’ll be eating in an hour or so and you’re welcome to join us.”

“Thanks. I’ll be back.”

Simmons, who usually prepared the Sunday evening meal for everyone, went about his work. For once, when the whole population gathered to eat, they would have some variety in their conversation, which normally revolved around their straitened circumstances.

An extra chair was brought in for the visitor who, to everyone’s surprise, did not appear. “He can’t have got lost,” Simmons said. “I mean, there’s nowhere to go, except the way he came, or up into the hills and down again.”

“He didn’t go back along the trail,” said one of the women. “I was by the front window all afternoon and I’d have spotted him.”

“He came to my place,” said Bill Oliver, who looked after the barn. “He sure is attached to that animal.”

“Did he take it away?” Simmons asked.

“Not that I noticed, but I wasn’t watching all the time. Maybe I’d better go see.” He strolled off. Two minutes later, he was back. “No horse, no saddle, no Baines,” he said. “What’s he up to?”

“I don’t know,” Simmons replied. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I’m usually pretty good at sizing people up. Hope I didn’t make a mistake this time.”

“Well, never mind,” said old Dick, an enthusiastic trencherman. “Let’s get to the groceries. If he turns up, so be it. If not, we’re no better and no worse off than we were this mornin’.”

That summed up the general feeling and the nine good people of Chalca turned their attention to the inevitable Sunday evening stew. They made short work of it and the plates were being cleared away when there was a clopping of hoofs outside. Simmons hurried to the door, to find Howard Baines beside his horse, hauling from the saddle a large canvas bag. The Chalca storekeeper heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe he wasn’t wrong about human nature after all. “Evening, Mr Baines,” he said. “You’re a little late, but there’s something left in the pot for you.”

Baines grinned. “Sorry to upset your arrangements. I had a little job in mind and it took longer than I expected. I’d be right tickled to have another go at your food.”

“Come in, man.” Simmons had a feeling that something interesting was afoot, but had no intention of neglecting his duties as host. He preceded Baines inside, waving a hand by way of a general introduction. Baines let his heavy bag thud to the floor, then took a seat. Nobody wanted to disrupt his delayed appointment with the meal, so there was some awkward, desultory conversation among the locals as he ate. When he was through, Simmons distributed whiskey to those who wanted it and water to those who didn’t, then there was silence as all eyes fixed on the guest.

Baines knew what was expected of him. “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I’m not much given to speeches, but I want you to know that I appreciate what you’ve done for me. I guess Mr Simmons here has passed on to you what I told him, and that’s the truth of the matter. I wouldn’t intentionally kill a fly, let alone a man. That incident I mentioned in Banham was exactly as I said it was. I might have stood my ground in some places, but up there I’d have been strung up for sure. Now, if you’d care to hear me out, I have a few things to say.”

Simmons, who seemed to be accepted as spokesman, opened his arms. “You’ve come across straight enough so far, Mr Baines,” he said. “Speak your piece.”

The visitor smiled. “Thank you. Now, I understand that you met an old Indian fellow called Chalca and heard his story about a white man who’d got a heap of gold here. I was that man.”

Baines took a sip of whiskey as his words sank in, then he continued: “When I arrived here, there was nobody around but old Chalca. It’s true that he wasn’t quite right in the head, but he was nice enough and I spent a few days with him. He managed a little broken English and I did the same with his lingo. I gathered from him that a party of Indians had been here some time earlier – I couldn’t work out when that was, or how Chalca knew about them. Maybe he was just hanging around, watching them. Anyway, he said that most Indians don’t set much store by gold, except sometimes as a means of trading. These boys had quite a pile of the stuff. As far as I could understand it, they’d been attacked by a bunch of white men right where we are now. They’d got away, but had left some of the gold. I don’t know why. Possibly they just couldn’t take all of it and still travel fast enough.”

Baines paused for another nip at the liquor, then went on: “I’d been prospecting for a while and I had a few things with me that I knew most Indians prized, so I did a deal with Chalca. I gave him what oddments I had and he showed me where the gold was. He had no interest in it. Shortly after we’d done our business he wandered off and I didn’t see him again. I was still here when a group of white men came in sight. I don’t know whether they were the same ones the old boy had talked about, but I hid myself and watched them, just in case. They seemed a rough crowd and I reckoned that, like the Indians who’d left earlier, I had to get away and couldn’t carry all the gold. I took what I could and buried the rest up in the hills yonder, thinking to come back. Well, I did pretty nicely with what I’d got and was intending to buy a packhorse and make my way here to pick up the rest when that thing in Banham happened.”

With his audience entranced, Baines finished his drink. “Like I said to Mr Simmons here, I was riding up the pass this morning, ahead of Hewitt’s men. I was well acquainted with this area and it was plain enough that my horse was dead beat, so I headed here. The rest you know, except this.” He stood and heaved up his bag, dumping it onto the table and opening it, to reveal a heap of gold dust and nuggets. “They say that one good turn deserves another. You’ve saved my life. Now I’d like you to accept this.”

The assembled population of Chalca looked on in amazement. Simmons stared at Baines. “You can’t do this,” he said. “Why, there must be at least fifty pounds of the stuff here.”

“About sixty-five,” Baines answered. “It’s worth a little over twenty thousand dollars, but compared with a human life it’s nothing. Maybe it’ll help you all to get started again. Just call it payment with interest, and I’ll take it kindly if you don’t argue because I aim to leave it on this table anyway.”

As the settlers sat staring at the bag, Baines stood. “I’d like to stay with you people,” he said, “but as far as you’re concerned, I’m bad news. Incidentally, you’re wrong about this place. There is a way out over the hills up there. It’s hard to find, but that was how I got away from that band of white men I mentioned, and it’s where I’m headed now. I’d appreciate it if you’d all just sit there as you are. That may not mean much to you, but it’ll be a nice memory for me. So long, friends.”

The three Hewitt horsemen had almost got back to the main pass when the man on the left slapped his thigh, turning his head to the party leader, Prior. “Damned if I ain’t the biggest fool in all of Colorado,” he moaned.

“I won’t contradict you,” Prior answered, “but how so?”

“The hat. I just knew there was somethin’. Now I know. I wasn’t in on that card game back home, but I was only a few feet from the table. The man we’re after was wearin’ a hat I’d know anywhere – Montana peak, black, with a thin silver band. You don’t see too many of them in these parts. An’ this one had a white flash at the back, like some chemical had dropped on it. Unless I’m much mistaken, that same hat was hangin’ on a peg back yonder, right behind that feller we talked to.”

Prior groaned. “Too bad it took you so long to remember that, but better late than never. We’re going back.”

For once, the settlers of Chalca were having a joyful evening. Normally, they would have bedded down early, if only to save lamp-oil. Now there was no need for economy. Having dribbled their new wealth through their hands for a while, they had stowed it away under the bench that had hidden their departed benefactor. It was a great occasion. The last keg of whiskey had been tapped and the contents were flowing freely.

There was no warning of the last intrusion of the day, the Hewitt men having halted their horses fifty yards down trail and crept forwards on foot. Suddenly, Simmons’ door was flung open and the three men stepped in, guns drawn. Prior was in the lead. “All right,” he growled. “Where is he?”

Simmons, just returning from the kitchen, confirmed his social standing by being the first Chalca resident to overcome the collective shock and recover the power of speech. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Don’t give me that,” Prior snapped. “If you want to live through this night, you’ll tell us. We know our man was here. I guess you stowed him away, but his hat was on that peg, right beside you. Now talk.”

It was as well that the lamps were low and that Simmons was at the far end of the room. That combination concealed the flush that swept over his face. When he’d hustled Baines into the chest, neither man had thought about the hat.

Simmons, a quick-witted man, regained his poise and decided that until he got a better idea, bluster was required. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he bellowed, “but you’ve made some mistake. You might care to know that you’re disturbing our evening service. This is Sunday, in case you hadn’t noticed. Now, if you’ve lost somebody, you can look around here all you like. We’ll not stop you, but I told you before, you’re the first visitors we’ve had here in quite a while. And what’s all this about a hat?”

“Was a Montana peak, black, with a thin silver band and a white patch at the back. Hanging up there, like I said. Now see, we don’t aim to be around here all night. You” – he waggled his gun at old Dick – “rustle up a couple of lamps and be quick about it.”

The old-timer did as he was told and Prior held the population of Chalca at gunpoint while his two companions looked in every nook and cranny of the settlement. They found no trace of Howard Baines who, complete with hat, was long gone on the obscure track he’d mentioned.

When his men came back with a negative report, Prior gave Simmons a hard stare. “Just what the hell’s going on here?” he snarled.

“Only what I said,” Simmons answered. “You came in on our Sunday meeting. Now, I just might be able to help you, if you’re not too riled up to listen.”

“Help? How?”

“Well, which of you claims he saw the hat?”

“Young Bob, here,” said Prior nodding at the man on his left.

“That’s right,” Bob said. “Saw it plain as could be.”

Simmons walked over to the young fellow. “Just look me straight in the eye,” he said. “Don’t blink. Good. Again. Right, now follow my forefingers.” He moved the two digits slowly in an intricate pattern for twenty seconds, watching the man’s eyes, then nodded, strode back across the room and turned, staring at the bemused Bob. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s just as I suspected. Now, I have some knowledge of medical matters and I can tell you that unless you get some rest – and soon – you’re going to need attention. What you have is Lemaire’s disease. Some people call it dystomania.”

“What’s that?”

“First, tell me how long you’ve been hunting this fellow you mentioned.”

“Since Thursday evening.”

“And you’ve ridden long and hard?”

“Sure we have.”

Simmons nodded. “I thought as much. Lemaire’s disease is brought on by physical exertion and the victims usually get fixations. They start to see what they want to see. It might be anything, and in your case it’s the hat. You’ve been concentrating on it and if you don’t slow down, you’re going to start seeing it everywhere. Same thing happened to a man in Texas a while ago. Somebody stole a chestnut gelding from him. He rode day and night to track the man down and within seventy-two hours, every horse he saw – black, dapple, palomino or whatever – became his lost mount. He even laid claim to a bull. He just kept going and wound up in a madhouse.”

Turning his stern gaze upon Prior, Simmons went on: “Now, sir, you seem to be in charge of this party. In view of your behaviour, I don’t owe you anything, but I’m advising you to get this young man back where he belongs and see that he stays in bed for at least two weeks. If this is his first attack, the peace and quiet will probably cure him. If not, there’s no telling where it will end.”

Baffled and overawed, the Hewitt riders left Chalca. As they departed, old Dick stared at Simmons, shaking his head. “Amazin’, Pete,” he said. “I always figured you were a little ahead of the rest of us as to education, but I didn’t know you had a medical background.”

Simmons grinned. “I haven’t.”

“Well then, what was all that about this ailment, dysto-something?”

“Oh, I just made that up. Seemed to convince them, didn’t it? Now, let’s have another look at that gold.”

* * *

February 23rd, 2013, 07:30 PM

The events described in the closing paragraphs of the following story are known only because they were recorded by the protagonist. Owing to certain limitations imposed by his personality, plus his use of a blunt pencil and very coarse paper, it has been necessary for slight liberties to be taken with respect to a few words. However, there is no reason to question the accuracy of the account, which came to light as the result of a search organised by one Herbert Stebbins, attorney-at-law.


Following the death of his father, Simon Long was left in a strange position. Though he had become a wealthy man, he was no less mentally handicapped than before. In different circumstances, he might have received remedial attention, but the environment of the sparsely populated West in those days was not always conducive to such refinements. It wasn’t that people were uncaring, but rather that almost everyone needed to use virtually all their physical and psychological resources just to stay alive. Hardly anybody had surplus time or energy to deal with a problem as knotty as Simon’s mind.

Jacob and Alice Long had decided that their son’s affliction had been visited upon him – and them – because of their imagined sins in earlier lifetimes. In fact, they were thoroughly decent people. They saw Simon’s condition as their burden and no concern of anyone else. Also, they rejected the idea of seeking medical help, fearing that such a step might see their son consigned to some far-distant institution – a thought that filled them with horror.

Most townsfolk made allowances for Simon. They knew that he was not as they were and treated him accordingly, though it was noted that whatever his shortcomings, he did at times exhibit a certain low cunning. Unfortunately for Simon, there were enough of the other kind around; people who considered it not only legitimate but almost a duty to make fun of him, as though he had been placed among them for their entertainment. They did it in a variety of ways, ranging from merely unpleasant to downright dangerous.

As long as Simon’s parents were alive, his existence, though distressing to him, was just about tolerable. There was someone to turn to when he was being pestered, an arm to go round his big beefy shoulders and a kind word to console him when the tormenting was too severe. But first his mother died. That happened when he was twenty-one. Then, three years later, his father went too and Simon, as an only child with no other relations, was left alone.

He wasn’t helpless. A big, strong man, a inch or so over six feet in height and built like an ox, he was capable enough in terms of physical work, not that he was required to indulge in it if he did not want to, for he had no need to make a living. This came about as a result of his parents’ own inheritance, plus their shrewdness in commercial affairs. Well-off from early in life, they had prospered further by a series of successful investment decisions.

Before he died, Simon’s father had been seriously ill for over a year. Seeing the end coming and knowing that Simon was incapable of dealing with commercial matters, Jacob Long had liquidated his assets, in order to provide for his son in as simple a way as possible. His demise left Simon with the family home and bank balance sufficient to keep him in luxury for life. However, possibly on account of the severity of his own illness and the rapidity of his decline, Jacob made no provision for his son in the wider social context. After he passed on, nothing shielded Simon from the taunting and practical jokes which continued to come his way as youngsters passed on the sport to their junior siblings.

For a short while after his father’s death, Simon received visits from the more kindly disposed neighbours, but the frequency of their calls dwindled steadily, for he was anything but stimulating company. Gradually, he became a virtual recluse, seldom leaving his home. He wasn’t missing much, for other than what took place in the two saloons, there was little social life in the town. That more or less left Simon out, as he seldom indulged in alcoholic drink.

For two lonely and distressing years, Simon occupied himself by pottering around his house and garden. When he couldn’t find anything more to do, he usually sat in a wooden armchair on the porch, drinking water or apple juice, waiting for another day to end, hoping the baiters would leave him in peace. He seemed to be impervious to heat or cold and regardless of the weather, never wore anything over one of his thick wool shirts.

On the opposite side of town to Simon’s house, Ned Benson and Alvin Swain lived together in Benson’s split-log cabin. Nobody knew quite what to make of this pair. Like Simon, Benson had been born and raised in the area. Also, in the same way as Simon, he had inherited his father’s fortune, though in his case there had been precious little of it, comprising as it did a plot of untended hardscrabble land, largely taken up by a huge rock formation rising incongruously from the surrounding plain. Benson had not lived there since his adolescence, the only property on the land being a tumbledown shack that had been home to his parents.

Swain was a little more puzzling. He had drifted into the area, ostensibly as an old friend of Benson’s, moved into the cabin and shared it with his host for three years. The two became inseparable. At times they disappeared together for periods ranging from two weeks to a month.

The mystery concerning Benson and Swain arose from their mode of life, for neither of them ever indulged in anything as commonplace as work. Yet they seemed to get by – and not on a mere survival basis. Almost every evening they could be found drinking in the Polestar saloon, always playing cards. Most of the time they fared badly, often losing sums large enough to discourage the average small-time gambler. But they were never out of funds. That was odd.

It was this very matter of finances that occupied the two men as they sat by the pot-bellied stove in Benson’s place one chilly September morning, ceaselessly rolling and smoking cigarettes, tossing the makings to and fro between them. The subject had been brought up by Swain, a small slim man with a pale narrow face and dark evasive eyes. Having deposited the problem with his intellectual superior, he sat back to await developments.

Ned Benson had been pondering on the question for some time. In addition to being the thinker in the partnership, he was physically the more prepossessing of the pair. At thirty-one, he was two years Swain’s junior. A little over medium height and solidly built, he had fair wavy hair, an ingratiating smile and a pair of remarkably innocent-looking blue eyes. The facade masked a devious mind. Also, taken together with his earlier record of youthful recklessness, it gave him a reputation as a more or less innocuous scapegrace. That suited him perfectly.

“You’re right,” he said when Swain raised the point. “As it happens, I’ve been giving that a good deal of thought lately and I believe I have the answer.”

“Well, I wish you’d tell me what it is,” said Swain. “The roll we got left won’t keep us much longer.”

Benson laughed. “Al, your trouble is you have to have a situation right in front of you, then you react well enough. But maybe you ought to try your hand at a little thinking now and then.” Having made this suggestion, Benson immediately reconsidered it. “Then again, maybe you shouldn’t,” he grinned.

“Never mind what I ought to do,” Swain rapped back. “What about this thinkin’ you’ve been doin’?”

Benson tossed a cigarette butt into the stove, crooked his finger for return of the tobacco sack and, catching it, lounged back in his chair, resting his right ankle on his left knee. “Well, “ he said. “I see it this way. We’ve been together for quite a time and what have we done? I’ll remind you. We’ve robbed two stagecoaches, one freight office and one train and altogether we’ve picked up enough to last us until now and maybe for a couple of months more. See, what we’ve being doing is penny ante stuff. That’s not right for a couple of high-class gents like us. What we need is one big deal to set us up for good, or for a few years anyway.”

“It don’t take a genius to figure that out,” Swain answered. “If you’ve dreamed up a job, let’s get down to it.”

“Don’t rush me,” said Benson. “Just think about this. If you want to get hold of a lot of money, where do you look?” He chuckled at Swain’s blank stare. “You seek somebody who has it. And who has it around here? Nobody but Simon Long.”

“Simon,” Swain shouted. “Are you serious? He don’t play with a full deck.”

Benson was enjoying himself. “Oh,” he said, “I grant you that when it comes to brains, Simon doesn’t run more than fifty cents in the dollar, but there’s no doubt he’s the richest man in these parts. The Longs were already loaded with money before they came here and they went on doing well. It’s common knowledge that Jacob sold up and from the figuring I’ve done and rumours I’ve heard, I reckon he was worth at least forty thousand dollars and maybe even fifty thousand. Everything went to Simon and it’s sitting right there, in the bank.”

“What? All that cash?”

“Of course not. They don’t keep such amounts in a small bank. Most likely they’ve laid it off with the big boys somehow. There’ll just be a credit balance here.”

“I wish you’d quit talkin’ in riddles,” snapped Swain. “How does that do us any good?”

Benson sighed. “Al, if your mind was as quick as your trigger-finger, maybe you could help out a little with the planning around here. Anyway, what we do is offer Simon a proposition that persuades him, all legal and above board, to pass his funds, or most of them, over to us.”

Swain harrumphed. “An’ just how do we do that?” Benson explained his idea, Swain’s eyes getting wider and his smile craftier as the scheme unfolded. When Benson was through, his partner sat back, profoundly impressed. “I got to hand it to you,” he said in awe. “If it works, it sure is a beauty. Do you think he’ll really swallow it?”

Ned Benson shrugged. “We can only try,” he said. “Look at it this way. If he doesn’t, we’ll be no worse off than we are now. If he does, we’ll be rich. The only problem is, we need a stake to get the thing going. What the businessmen call starting capital.”

“An’ I suppose you got that figgered out too?”

“I think so. Since we’re on the subject of banking, you remember that little one-storey sardine can we looked at down in Colorado a while back?”

Swain nodded. “Yeah. Seemed real easy.”

Benson rubbed his hands together. “Well,” he said briskly, “I think it’s time we paid it a visit.”

Four weeks later, the bank Benson had mentioned was robbed. Tellers reported that the culprits were two masked men, one above average height and blue-eyed, the other small and thin, with dark shifty eyes. The incident happened early on a Friday morning, when the bank was holding either takings or payrolls for most of the local businesses. The loss was just over six thousand dollars.

It was a further three weeks before Benson and Swain returned to Montana and after ten days bustling around Helena, they finally headed back to Benson’s place. During their travels, they had spent over five thousand dollars and had received in return a fair quantity of high-grade gold ore, some dust and a few genuine nuggets of the metal and a tiny quantity of industrial diamonds. The whole pile didn’t seem all that much to Swain, but Benson reckoned it was enough. The pair employed themselves for a further week on the first hard physical work either had done for some time, then they were ready.

Simon Long was a very surprised man when Ned Benson called on him one evening in November. To avoid attracting attention, Benson had left his horse at the livery stable in town, waiting until full darkness before making his way, unseen by anyone, to the Long house. He found Simon sitting on the porch, unperturbed as ever by the cold. Benson strode up, smiling. “Hello there, Simon,” he said, the essence of joviality. “Haven’t seen you for a while.”

Though he was mystified by the visit, Simon had no quarrel with Benson who, unlike so many others, had never troubled him. “Hello Ned,” he said. “Thought you was out of town.”

“Yes,” Benson replied, “I’ve been away a few weeks. That’s what I’d like to talk to you about, if you can spare a little time. Can we go inside?”

“Oh, I always got plenty of time,” said Simon. “Come on in.” He led the way, motioning to his visitor to take an easy chair and depositing himself in its mate. “What do you want, Ned?” he said.

Benson closed the door and looked around cautiously. “We alone, Simon?” he whispered.

“Sure we are. Nobody comes around here any more.”

Benson settled back in his chair. “Well, I’m right sorry to hear that, Simon,” he said, his voice oozing candour. “I’d have called more often myself, only I’ve been real busy lately. That’s what I wanted to talk about. See Simon, I have a problem and I reckon you may be the only man who can help me.”

The idea of being considered as of possible assistance to anyone was a rare thing for Simon. He began to rock back and forth indicating how thrilled and excited he was to be sought out in this way. “Me?” he said. “What use could I be to you?”

Benson went smoothly into the routine he had been practising. “Well, it’s like this, Simon. You know that hill on my land?”

“Sure I do. Used to play there, if you remember.”

“Right. Well, you’ve been in that cave near the east corner. Now, I’ve been working in there for a good while and can you guess what I found?”

“I’ve no idea, Ned. What was it?”

“Just about everything, Simon, but mostly gold and diamonds.”

Amazement and delight spread over Simon’s face. “Well, that’s good for you. I guess you’re rich, then.”

Benson spread his hands, palms outward. “In a way, Simon,” he said. “But it’s not that simple. See, the main reason I’ve been away is that I was visiting doctors. I’ve had a lot of trouble with my heart and they say I can’t work any more. So here I am, sitting on a fortune and I can’t do a thing about getting it out.”

Simon looked puzzled. “You got a friend,” he said. “Can’t he help?”

“I sent him away,” Benson replied quickly. “It’s true he’s a friend of sorts and maybe I’ll take up with him again when this is all over, but to tell the truth, I don’t think I can trust him as far as business is concerned.”

“Couldn’t you get somebody else to work it?” said Simon.

“That’s just the point. I have no money to pay anybody. And anyway, even if I could do that, they’d never keep quiet. Why, we’d have a gold rush here, and you know what that means. People getting shot and stabbed and suchlike. No, Simon, this has to be done without fuss or noise.”

Simon’s pleasure was wiped away, replaced by a glum expression. He could sympathise with people in trouble. “Well, what can I do, Ned?” he asked.

Benson was now thoroughly immersed in his tale. “It’s like this, Simon,” he said, again looking round warily. “I’ve got an uncle down Tennessee way. He has a big plantation with a lot of people to do the work for him. He’s nearly seventy now and he wants to sell up. Aims to spend some time doing the things he’s always had in mind. His place is worth eighty thousand dollars, easy. Now, I’m his only living kin and he’ll let me have it for half-price, but he says I have to close the deal pronto, or he’ll have to sell to somebody else for what it’s really worth.”

Simon, his excitement mounting, crossed his arms, kneading his biceps. “That sounds like good news for you, Ned, but what do you want with me?”

“I’m not really sure, Simon,” Benson answered, “but I reckon there aren’t many men a fellow can confide in these days. Now, I’m not greedy. If I can fix myself up with enough to get by on, that’ll do for me. I just wondered whether maybe you’d like to buy my place, so I could take up my uncle’s offer. That way I’d get the plantation for half its real value, I’d have other people to do the work for me, and you’d get the mine, which might be worth twenty times what you’d pay for it. ’Course, we’d have to do it real confidential, between the two of us. I reckoned maybe you’d like to come out with me and take a look. Seems to me there must be somewhere near a million dollars there, one way or another.”

Simon agreed about the need for silence. After his visitor left, he spent a restless night. The next morning he went out to Benson’s place early. He found the diamonds and the gold ore, carefully planted by the two schemers. He was as happy as he ever had been. The prospect of doing something interesting and productive was enticing, especially as, the way Benson had explained it, Simon could do all the work himself, using only the most rudimentary equipment.

There was no stopping Simon. He went along with Benson to see the bank manager and the Long family’s lawyer, Herbert Stebbins. Mindful of his vow of confidentiality, Simon remained close-mouthed. He wanted Benson’s land. He had plans for it, which he wouldn’t divulge, and he was willing to pay forty thousand dollars. There was no legal way of preventing Simon from doing as he wished. His funds – as it happened, almost exactly the sum Benson had guessed – were available to him to use as he pleased. Demur as they would, there was ultimately nothing that the bank manager or the lawyer could do about the matter and the deal went through.

Simon moved into the dilapidated shack near the treasure cave and set his brawn to the task of extracting a fortune from his newly-purchased land. He worked like a man possessed. All through the winter he never let up, not even when lawyer Stebbins rode up in January to tell him that some boys had burned his house to the ground, ‘just for fun’. He didn’t even slow down when he emerged from the cave one evening to find that the lean-to behind the shack, where he’d kept the hoard he and Benson had ostensibly found on that first day, had been looted. Diamonds, gold dust and nuggets were gone. Benson had handed the items to him as a sign of good faith, but in a last cruel refinement, had returned and stolen them.

By springtime, all Simon had to show for a winter of backbreaking toil was a part of the ore he had seen before buying the land. But even a man so intellectually circumscribed as he was is not necessarily precluded having a brainwave from time to time, and he did. He asked his lawyer to send off to Helena, to bring in a mine surveyor.

Tom Archer was as good as they came. He spent nearly a week boring, drilling, blasting, assaying and generally poking around. Finally he sat down with Simon, his face grim. “Mr Long,” he said. “You say you bought this land because the previous owner convinced you of its value by showing you this ore here and the other things you mentioned?”

Simon nodded and Archer continued: “Well, I’m very sorry to tell you that you’ve been swindled. It’s none of my business to ask what you paid for this place, but I can assure you that, as regards mineral resources, it’s worthless. This is as plain a case of mine-salting as I’ve ever seen.”

Simon was stunned, knowing that this was bad news, but still not sure what had happened. Archer went on: “It’s an old story. This man who sold you the mine, possibly along with the accomplice you mentioned, planted the stuff you found here at first and that’s all there ever was, or ever will be. If you’d really wanted this land, you could have picked it up for next to nothing. It’s happened often enough before and guess it’ll happen again. You’ve been robbed, Mr Long, and there’s not much you can do about it. My guess is that the same party who tricked you also came back and stole the diamonds and the gold, since nobody else would have known about them.”

Promising a written report within week, Archer departed, leaving Simon, alone and friendless, staring gloomily at the flames of the stove. Now, with the destruction of his house added to Benson’s deception, he was also near penniless. It was as low a point as a man might expect to reach. Simon reflected long and hard on his situation, giving particular attention to the observation that there was not much he could do about it.

Three days after Archer had delivered his verbal report on the fake mine, Ned Benson and Alvin Swain were sitting in the Polestar saloon, drinking the best the house had to offer, when the swing doors were flung open and an excited Simon Long rushed in. A look of alarm spread across Benson’s face, while Swain’s right hand strayed instinctively to where the butt of his handgun would have been, had he carried the weapon in town. Then both men saw that Simon was smiling broadly as he reached them and sat heavily on a vacant chair.

“Hello, Simon,” said Benson, forcing a grin. “Haven’t seen you for quite a spell.”

Simon regained his breath. “I’ve been busy, boys. Anyway, I thought you was away down to Tennessee.”

“Oh, that,” said Benson, with feigned disgust, perfected in case the occasion for it arose. “To tell you the truth, Simon, I was taken in. We were all set up for the deal and my uncle let me down. Sold his place to another fellow for the full price. Left me high and dry. I’m pretty sore about it.”

“I’m awful sorry to hear that, Ned,” said Simon. “Specially as I got some other news for you.”

“Oh, what is it?”

Simon looked around, his face the epitome of craftiness. He was making sure that nobody was within earshot. Satisfied, he leaned forward conspiratorially. “Can I talk with him here?” he asked, sticking a thumb in Swain’s direction.

“Sure,” Benson replied. “Al knows all about this whole thing now.”

“Well,” Simon said, “I guess you missed out on a real big one.” He tapped his nose with a forefinger. “I worked for months on that there mine an’ it’s a good deal better than you said.”

Benson and Swain looked at Simon then at each other, momentarily speechless with amazement. Then Benson recovered his equanimity. “Well, I’m very pleased for you, Simon,” he said. “What did you find?