Sunset Stories : Banking On It And Others. - Page 3


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  1. #21

    Set-Up

    SET-UP

    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?”

    “Murder.”

    “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.”

    “Where?”

    “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?”

    “Yes.”

    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.”

    “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.”

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 30th, 2016 at 07:26 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  2. #22
    STUBBORN SETTLER

    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.”

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; April 5th, 2019 at 01:42 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  3. #23
    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!

  4. #24
    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
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  5. #25
    THE AVENGER

    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.

    * * *

    Last edited by Courtjester; April 9th, 2019 at 01:11 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

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  6. #26
    Not bad at all - The Avenger. Always good to read a story with a twist at the end.
    Smashwords profile: Hidden Content

  7. #27
    CLARION CALL

    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?”

    “Yes.”

    “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?”

    “Yes.”

    “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.”

    “And?”

    “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:

    CLARION CALL

    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:

    VERITY’S CURSE

    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.

    * * *

    Last edited by Courtjester; April 10th, 2019 at 01:43 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  8. #28
    BOUNTY HUNTER

    “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:

    Dave,
    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.

    * * *

    Last edited by Courtjester; April 13th, 2019 at 12:34 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  9. #29
    THE EASTERN VIEW

    “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.”

    * * *

    Last edited by Courtjester; April 14th, 2019 at 01:14 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  10. #30
    A MATTER OF HONOUR

    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.

    * * *


    Last edited by Courtjester; April 16th, 2019 at 03:00 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

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