Way Out West : Incident In Texas And Others - Page 2

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  1. #11

    Way Out West : Number Seven


    Shilton! End of the line! Shilton! End of the line! The conductor needn’t have bothered to bawl out his message. All the passengers knew that this was the terminus and everyone was already standing and more than ready to disembark after an uncomfortable journey. As the locomotive gasped to a halt I dawdled, allowing all the other twenty or so people to alight before I did.

    My name is Owen Price and I was returning to Shilton after four years in prison. I was innocent of course. So many of them say that, don’t they? In my case it’s true and I hope this account of the matter will demonstrate that point to anyone who might be interested, though I’m writing it as much to get things off my chest as for any other reason.

    Shilton isn’t my hometown and I had only one purpose in coming back. I was not and am not concerned with rehabilitating myself because I don’t intend to stay here. I wanted justice and knew I wouldn’t get it through legal channels. My route would be vengeance.

    The tale began when I had few sharp words with John Handley. Both of us were attracted to Rita Hart, widely regarded as the most attractive young woman in town. I won’t go over the conversation we had. It was a little juvenile for a couple of fellows in their middle twenties, especially as Rita had never said or done anything to encourage either of us, though we had no doubt she was aware of our interest in her. We parted late in the evening. Two days later, Handley was found sprawled in an alley. He’d been attacked and had taken a beating that left him paralysed from the waist down.

    To my amazement I was arrested later that day, accused of carrying out the assault. I was even more astounded when two men came forward, claiming that they’d seen me give the fallen man a last kick, then leave the spot. They said they had rushed to see whether they could help Handley but weren’t able to do anything for him, so had summoned the town’s doctor.

    I was tried for the crime, found guilty and given the four-year sentence. The prospect of life in prison filled me with foreboding. It was indeed a grim existence, but I fared better than most of the inmates. For one thing, the guards soon grasped that I had had a good education and to my surprise they seemed to respect that. I also taught two of them to play chess. They became fascinated with the game and passed on to some of their colleagues what they’d learned from me. With about a dozen of them taking up the pastime, they set up a club. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t be a member, but I was asked to offer some offer some of the players tips from time to time.

    When the Handley incident occurred, I had been in Shilton barely a year. Apart from my parents, who lived in New England, much too far away to travel to the Southwest on my account, I had no family, nor had I any close friends. During my confinement, I received only one visitor – and that was a big surprise. The man turned up eight months after I’d started serving my sentence. He was no more than a casual acquaintance. I’m not going to reveal his identity here and nobody will be able to trace it at the prison because he gave a false name there.

    My case had been preying on my visitor’s mind since the trial and he could no longer keep what he knew to himself. What he said astounded me. I hadn’t been aware that Rita Hart was in the sights of one of Shilton’s most prominent businessmen, Jacob Fenner. It was he who had orchestrated my downfall. Somehow he’d learned that both John Handley and I had designs on Rita. He’d hired two thugs to beat up and cripple Handley. They were of course the same pair who’d claimed to have seen me in the alley and whose testimonies had led to the guilty verdict.

    An intentional aspect of the horrible scheme was that the assault on Handley put an end to any ambition he had as far wooing was concerned, so Fenner had disposed of two birds with one stone and left the way clear for himself. Less than a year after the start of my incarceration, he had married Rita. Well, I could hardly blame her for choosing the path of security and affluence, even though it was with a man nearly twice her age.

    I was almost beside myself with fury when I heard my visitor’s story. He gave me the additional information that the two men Fenner had engaged to thrash Handley and frame me had disappeared from Shilton a few days after my trial. He also said that he intended to leave the town in due course. I’m not saying here whether he did or not, and anyway, many people have come and gone in the meantime.

    In the three years and four months that passed between that man’s visit and my release, my anger remained unabated. I was determined to get even with Fenner as quickly as possible, then leave Shilton right away. There was no accommodation awaiting me. I didn’t even expect to book a room in the hotel or either of the two boarding houses.

    The train had arrived shortly before eight in the evening. Fenner lived in a vast, luxurious house three miles out of town. I had no means of getting there other than on foot, and by nine o’clock I was standing in front of the massive oak door of my quarry’s mansion. They say that revenge is a dish best taken cold but I paid no heed to that dictum, and I was soon to realise that I should have done so, for I was far too impetuous.

    My idea was to bypass or overpower any servants Fenner might have and get to him as quickly as possible. I hadn’t even stopped to consider that he might not be at home. I was prepared to break a window if necessary, but the door was unlocked, so I went inside and found myself in a long, wide hall. On either side of it were two doors, the first pair facing one another, both about ten feet from me, the second pair twenty feet or so further along. Directly ahead of me, around twenty-five feet away, was a staircase.

    The first door to my right was open, revealing a room in darkness. The one to my left was ajar. I gave it a push and stepped into a dining room, unlighted and unoccupied. I moved to the second door on the left, opened it and there was Fenner sitting behind a large desk in what was clearly his study. He'd been poring over some papers. When he saw me, his eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “What the hell are you doing here?” he barked.

    I took a couple of steps towards him. “I'm here to make you pay for what you did to me and John Handley,” I answered. “And don't pretend ignorance. I know the whole story.”

    He was quick on the uptake. “I won't say I don't know what you mean, Price,
    he said. “I thought it was quite a neat operation to get you and Handley out of the way at the same time. Now, I have to say you seem to be an even bigger fool than I took you for. If it's killing me you have in mind, what makes you think you could get away with it?”

    “I don't propose to kill you, Fenner,” I replied. “I spent some of my time in prison helping the doctor and I picked up quite a lot of knowledge about anatomy. I'm going to give you the kind of beating your hirelings gave Handley and leave you in the same state he's in.”

    That was where my rashness was exposed. In my desire to get to Fenner at top speed, I hadn't stopped to think that he might be on the alert in his own home. He whipped open a desk drawer and pulled out a handgun. “You'll be dead before you reach me,” he said. “Come to think of it, I might as well send you to the next world no matter what you aim to do. I mean, I'll only be protecting myself against a violent intruder in my house.” He trained the gun on me.

    "No!" Rita's voice came from behind me. I hadn’t heard her coming in. Her tone had the cracked edge that denotes extreme stress. Fenner bellowed at her to get out and leave him alone with me. She moved to my side and I saw that she also had a gun, a big forty-four that looked incongruous in her slender hand. She told me later that she’d been in the room with the opened door, sitting in darkness. She’d heard me entering the house and seen me walking towards the study. Recognising me, she guessed that something serious was about to happen. Following her intuition, she’d gone back into the darkened sitting room, picked up the gun Fenner kept there and steeled herself to take a hand in the matter.

    I stood speechless as Fenner again yelled at Rita to get out. She responded by steadying her gun with her left hand under the barrel as she stared wild-eyed at her husband. “I said no, Jacob. Your days of ruining lives are over. I’ve just heard you admit that you were responsible for crippling John Handley and getting Owen sent to prison. You’ve also done your best to destroy me. Since our wedding, you've virtually kept me as a captive in this house. You cut me off from my friends. You've beaten me repeatedly and humiliated me in a dozen ways. Now it’s finished.”

    Fenner directed his gun at Rita. “Do I need to get rid of you, too?” He sounded almost bored, as though disposing of his wife was just another unexpected little chore.

    Without replying, Rita shot at him twice. The first bullet missed, the second struck him in the right arm. His gun fell to the floor. She stepped right up to the desk, leaned across it and fired once more, this time getting him in the heart. Then she threw down the gun, turned and hurled herself into my arms, sobbing.

    I don’t know how long it took Fenner to die. Perhaps only seconds. But with him slumped back in his chair, Rita poured out everything, at times almost gabbling. She told me that she’d hoped that I would make some overtures to her before my misfortune, that any approach would have been well received and that she’d later responded to Fenner’s advances because he’d shown her only his charming side. She’d been seduced more by the prospect of a comfortable future than by any genuine attraction to him.

    Since the marriage, Rita been kept in seclusion, confined to the house and grounds, watched continuously by a married couple, the wife being Fenner’s housekeeper, the husband his gardener. Fenner had regarded Rita as no more than a trophy. She had no relatives to help her. Three friends had tried to contact her and had been rebuffed without getting into the house. Sadly, and to my mind reprehensibly, none of them had pressed the matter. It was an astonishing and distressing tale.

    Rita was taken into custody and a trial was arranged in short order. There was never much chance of an acquittal, but witness after witness came forward, testifying to the fact that Fenner must have held his wife in isolation. The clincher came when first the housekeeper then her husband broke down under questioning, admitting that they’d been under instructions to keep Rita confined to the house and grounds. In view of her mental state at the time she killed Fenner, the mitigating circumstances included diminished responsibility. The outcome was a custodial sentence of five years, with the possibility of parole. Rita asked if I would be prepared to wait for her. I think I shall. After all, but for her intervention Fenner would surely have killed me, so I guess you could say that I was saved by the belle.

    * * *

    Last edited by Courtjester; June 5th, 2019 at 03:19 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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  2. #12

    Way Out West : Number Eight


    Luke Jessop was sitting alone at a saloon table in the remote Arizona hamlet of Barnsdale, which comprised only the watering hole, a general store and a stagecoach relay station. The sole customer at this time of day, early afternoon, Jessop was very pleased with himself. By his profoundly anti-social standards he had good reason, for three days ago he had pulled off a remarkable criminal stunt, a single-handed train robbery. He wasn’t sure whether he was the first man to do this, but he hadn’t heard of any other instance.

    Less than an hour after he had entered the saloon, Jessop was thinking of moving on when a hefty man of middling height walked in. He strode over to the lone drinker, flicked aside his coat lapel to reveal a star on his shirt, and pulled out a sixgun. ‘You’re under arrest,’ he said.

    Jessop raised his eyebrows. ‘Who are you and what do you think I’ve done?’ he replied.

    ‘I’m Deputy Sheriff Dave Gordon, out of Hobman’s Creek, which in case it’s slipped your mind is the town closest to where you robbed that train on Monday. Now take your gun out, nice and slow, with your thumb and forefinger, and put it on the table.’ Jessop obeyed. Gordon picked up the weapon, stuffed it into a pocket and pointed his Colt forty-five at the door. ‘Let’s go,’ he snapped.

    Outside, Gordon motioned Jessop to mount up. The captive gave a puzzled look. ‘Aren’t you going to tie my hands, or something?’ he asked.

    ‘No need. You’ll be right in front of me all the way. Just remember that if you make one wrong move, you’ll die. It’s all the same to me whether I deliver you dead or alive. Head north.’ They moved off, the horses at a walk.

    After two hours of steady progress, Gordon called out: ‘Turn left off the trail and carry on till I say otherwise.’ They rode across open country for twenty minutes, then Gordon called a halt. ‘Now get down and sit on that big rock over there,’ he said. ‘We’re going to have a talk.’

    Jessop did as he was told and Gordon sat on a smaller boulder, his gun trained on the robber. ‘Time for a little confession,’ he growled. ‘The fact is I don’t aim to take you in at all. If you play this right, you might just get away with a whole skin and maybe a little profit.’

    This brought a thin smile from Jessop. ‘Let me guess. Your name isn’t Dave Gordon and you’re not a lawman, right?’

    ‘Yes, on both counts. As for the name, you’ll have to settle for the one I’ve given you. With regard to work, I’m in more or less the same line as you, except that I usually go for banks. You were pretty careless to show your face in Hobman’s Creek just before you did the train job.’

    ‘I didn’t have a choice. My horse needed attention and that was the only place I could have the work done. And you must have been as reckless as you say I was, if you were in the town too.’

    ‘Similar reason. I ran out of supplies. I wasn’t planning to do anything to attract attention to myself anyway. Fact is there are wanted posters out for both of us. I saw them on the wall of the sheriff’s office when I walked past. Recognised you and knew you were in the gang that got away with two train robberies last year. I had a hunch you might be up to something here, so I kept an eye on you. Used my field glasses to watch your effort with the train, then tagged along. Lost sight of you for a couple of hours around here, then picked you up again. You were carrying the loot when you gave me the slip and you’re not hauling twenty-eight thousand dollars around now. I know that because I checked your belongings at the livery barn and I can see you don’t have it on you. Where is it?’

    He was right. Jessop had cached the money less than five miles from where the two men now sat. His idea had been to vanish from the area for a while, then retrieve the money when the fuss died down. ‘Supposing I don’t tell you?’

    ‘Then I’ll kill you. Simple as that.’

    ‘And what’s your deal if I do tell you?’

    ‘I’m not greedy. You can keep half.’

    Jessop nodded. ‘Mighty generous, but how do I know you won’t kill me anyway and walk off with the whole lot?’

    ‘You don’t, but you know what I’ll do if you refuse to play it my way. Figure it out. One way, you die for sure, the other way, you take my word that you’ll live and keep fourteen thousand dollars.’

    ‘You make it clear enough. Now, just to satisfy my curiosity, you could have caught up with me earlier. Why didn’t you?

    ‘Because I didn’t want to wind up holding the money so close to where it was stolen. Reckoned I’d let you carry it for while, along with the risk.’

    ‘Very smart. Okay, Gordon, you win. We can get the money within an hour.’

    ‘Right, we’ll see to it now. Mount up.’

    They rode northwest across broken country and after forty minutes, Jessop pointed at a small jumble of rocks. ‘There,’ he said.

    ‘Get it out,’ Gordon replied. ‘If you happen to have put a gun in there, remember I’m right here and you’ll have no chance to do anything tricky.’

    Jessop pulled a slab from atop the pile and took out a package. ‘Oh, damn,’ he muttered, staring at it in dismay. ‘Look at this.’

    Two long strides allowed Gordon to see what had caused Jessop’s reaction. It was the remains of a thin cotton sack that had been almost completely taken apart. Insofar as it was still capable of holding anything, it contained a heap of shredded paper. ‘Termites,’ snarled the disgusted train robber.

    Gordon peered more closely at the mess Jessop had revealed. It was what remained of a large number of banknotes, almost beyond recognition as such. ‘You idiot,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you put the money in a leather bag or something?’

    ‘I had an oilskin pouch, but I lost it in getting away. Didn’t aim to go back into all that flying lead. I just took a chance. I know that some of those blasted insects feast on paper and cardboard, but I’d no idea there were any of them around here.’

    Gordon heaved a huge sigh. ‘So there’s nothing left. I ought to kill you just for your stupidity. Or I could take you in for the price on your head. But I can’t do that because there’s an even bigger reward offered for me.’

    Jessop continued to look glumly at the useless pile of paper. ‘What are we going to do now?’ he asked.

    Gordon shrugged. ‘I know I threatened to kill you, but that was just to get to the money. I don’t really want to add murder to my record. Still, you’ll have to pay for the inconvenience you’ve caused me, and anyway, you might just get it into your head to follow me for some reason and I don’t want that. I’m taking your horse and the rest of your stuff and leaving you here. Come to think of it, that might amount to the same as killing you, but if it does I’ll never know, so it won’t be on my conscience. You’ll just have to take your chances.’

    Without further comment, Gordon rode off. He didn’t seem to give much thought to the fact that Jessop made no protest at being left in the middle of nowhere, without a gun, horse or any of his other possessions. The train robber simply sat there on a rock, chin in hands, watching as the horseman became a speck in the distance.

    As soon as Gordon had vanished, Jessop gave vent to a burst of loud laughter, then he walked two hundred yards to the southwest, where he came to another small pile of rocks. He pulled the top two away and produced the oilskin pouch he’d claimed to have lost. It was stuffed with banknotes to the value of nearly twenty-five thousand dollars.

    When he’d been fleeing from the scene of his exploit with the train, Jessop had noticed that he was being followed and that for some reason his pursuer made no attempt to narrow the gap between them until he’d finally showed up to make the fake arrest. Jessop had not tried to outrun Gordon, but had evaded him for a little while, then intentionally reappeared and allowed himself to be trailed again.

    In the time he was out of Gordon’s sight, Jessop had separated the money he’d stolen into two piles of unequal size. The large one comprised the low-denomination notes, mostly of one dollar, but with a few fives and tens thrown in. To make what he had in mind convincing, the wily robber also included four twenties, two fifties and two hundreds. The far smaller heap contained the rest of the higher-value notes.

    Not wishing to be chased all over the country with so much money, Jessop had secreted the small stack, then spent nearly an hour tearing the bills in the big pile to pieces not much larger than confetti. He made sure that several fragments of the eight high-denomination bills were large enough to leave the numerals intact. Those pieces he placed on top of the pile. Since all the money was in greenbacks, the operation would have deceived anyone not intent on a very close inspection. Finally, Jessop had ripped the thin sack in half a dozen places, cached it, then made his reappearance and allowed Gordon to continue tailing him.

    Jessop had not carried out the elaborate exercise merely to fool the bogus deputy. He’d planned it anyway in case he’d been hunted down by genuine law officers, in which event he would have played the same trick on them as he had on Gordon. He might have had to face a spell in prison, but would have had something to look forward to on release. After all, if the lawmen had been satisfied as to what had happened to the money, they would not have kept an eye on him after he’d regained his freedom.

    Before robbing the train, Jessop had scouted out the area for a long way south of Hobman’s Creek. He knew that only three miles from where he’d put the money, there were at least two occupied cabins. He didn’t know who lived in them, but he had no doubt that he could reach one or the other on foot, and with a fortune in his pockets, buy his way out of his predicament. He succeeded.

    * * *

    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. #13

    Way Out West : Number Nine


    Owing to the uneven rock surface, Saul Cotton’s position wasn’t comfortable but it was the best he could get. Sprawled atop a bluff, he was two hundred yards distant from and sixty feet higher than the spot his target would soon occupy. No great problem. It was just as well that the victim would not be looking in his killer’s direction at the critical moment for in that case Cotton would have had difficulty concealing himself. As matters stood, he would manage that by pushing himself backwards for two or three minutes when his man appeared. If he’d been able to shoot from a little further back, he would have had low bushes for cover but there were none at the edge and that was where he needed to be.

    This was Cotton’s sixteenth undertaking of its kind and only one had not gone to plan. On that occasion he’d been frustrated by circumstances beyond his control and further developments had resulted in the contract being cancelled. Each success enhanced his reputation and enabled him to increase his fee for the next contract. Being a man who enjoyed his work, he seldom considered taking up a different way of life. He was amoral and did not think about what his victims had done to deserve the executions he carried out. When approached, he agreed terms with the principal concerned, invariably half the fee in advance and the balance on completion. He’d been operating that way for nearly five years and had earned enough to buy his way into a legitimate business, but had no intention of doing so. Like many specialists, he found that his occupation gave him all the gratification he needed.

    Though he experienced long gaps between commissions, Cotton was seldom idle. His jobs were always done with a rifle and since there were times when he couldn’t be sure of details ahead of the event, he had to be extraordinarily proficient with his weapon. He made certain of that, rarely allowing a day to go by without a session of practice. An expert at all ranges and angles and in any reasonable atmospheric condition, he had once killed a man from over six hundred yards. One shot did it. But his eleventh outing had given him more satisfaction than any other. He’d been four hundred and fifty yards from the target and obliged to contend with a sharp crosswind. A very difficult assignment and again a single bullet was enough.

    On the ground by Cotton’s side was his most treasured possession, a Winchester rifle, a very special piece of workmanship. Only a small number of that kind had been made, some in 1873, others in 1876. The deadly marksman’s pride and joy was one of fewer than seventy produced in the later year. Because of their remarkable accuracy, each of these prized firearms had been dubbed ‘one of one thousand’ and their cost reflected that description. Still, a top tradesman needed the best tools and Cotton had been so glad to lay hands on this outstanding weapon that he had paid the high price without haggling.

    Today’s task was among the simpler ones Cotton had faced. He was to dispose of a Mexican fellow named Ortega, who had spent many of his forty-one years involved in a variety of criminal activities, including robbery on a large scale and murder. A vicious character, he had killed four men and arranged the deaths of a dozen other people, including three women, and had ruined the lives of many more, male and female. There was hardly any branch of crime he hadn’t tried at one time or another. The world would be a much better place without him, though that did not interest the man who was preparing to despatch him from it. All that mattered to the professional executioner was the pay, which was by some margin his highest to date.

    Cotton had been informed of Ortega’s habits and had verified them by two days of observation, using his field glasses and taking advantage of a high hill nearly a mile from where he was now. Every morning, after a late breakfast, the Mexican emerged from his front doorway, strolled around his large garden then sat on a bench facing his extensive flower beds, lit a cigar and spent half an hour enjoying nicotine and nature. His back and shoulders would be resting against the thick wooden slats of the bench, but that didn’t trouble Cotton, who had a head shot in mind anyway. He almost always did. Even his six-hundred-yarder had been carried out that way.

    At eleven fifteen, Ortega came out of the house and went through his usual routine, pausing a few times to admire flowers and shrubs before taking his seat on the bench and lighting his smoke. Though he could afford the very best, he had a predilection for the third-rate products he received gratis from their maker, whose business he had supported with a generous donation long ago. He had become accustomed to the brand and never contemplated a change.

    Those closest to Ortega were often struck by the fact that for a man given to extreme behaviour in business matters, especially when dealing with rivals, he was restrained and conservative in his personal habits. He limited the cigars to three a day and his alcohol intake to two glasses of cheap wine with his main meal. He rarely drank hard liquor and then only in very small amounts and he did not take drugs. His view was that a man with a complex network of enterprises to run should have a clear head at all times. Like many men of his kind, he was equipped with a high regard for his own safety. That was hardly surprising, as there were several people who would have been happy to learn of something drastic befalling him.

    With his target settled down, Cotton didn’t intend to waste time. Weather conditions were perfect for his purpose. It was dry and there was no problem with either sunlight or wind, so visibility was excellent. As if trying to make things easier for the killer, Ortega had taken off his hat. It was show time. The murderer picked up his rifle, gave a final wiggle to get himself into the perfect posture, then . . . crack!

    On hearing the shot, Ortega smiled, stood and began to amble back to the house. On the bluff, his bodyguard, Luis Ramirez, came forward to take a look at the hole his forty-five bullet had made in the back of Cotton’s head. He didn’t bother to examine the exit wound. Having metaphorically lived by the sword, the multiple murderer had died by it.

    Ortega was no fool. He was well aware that the bluff presented a good vantage point for anyone wanting to get rid of him. It was part of his protector’s work to attend to that point and Ramirez did so assiduously. He’d known about the killer’s presence in the area all along and had been keeping an eye on him. Shortly after Cotton had moved into place at eleven o’clock, Ortega’s man had crept stocking-footed to within five yards of him, then held aloft a bright red bandana, the signal to his boss that all was in hand. Ortega’s acknowledgement had been the removal of his hat.

    In the twenty minutes since he’d moved into place, Cotton hadn’t looked to his rear. Had he done so, he would have met his end at that instant. As it was, Ramirez had amused himself by waiting until the last moment before disposing of Cotton, acting only when the would-be killer began to snug the rifle to his right shoulder. Setting the valuable Winchester aside – it would make a fitting trophy for his boss – Ramirez reached out a muscular right arm, yanked up the corpse by its left leg, heaved it over the cliff’s edge and watched its two-second fall. ‘Un buen trozo de carroña,’ he muttered. He was right. A nice piece of carrion was a fair description of the deceased assassin.

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 7th, 2019 at 12:03 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

  4. #14

    Way Out West : Number Ten


    It was one of those things that make people wonder at times whether such events come about by happenstance or design. One coincidence affecting the same pair of people in the same place at the same time may be regarded as just part of life’s rich pattern, but two occurrences of that kind in quick succession might be interpreted as fate. The first arose when the toss of a coin decided that a horseman would ride one way rather than another at a particular moment.

    Will Grant could perhaps have been best described as one of those pieces of flotsam that drifted around the West. For twenty years he had moved from place to place and job to job, making enough money in one location to press on to wherever appealed to him as the next port of call. There he would do enough work to set himself up for a little more wandering. He’d tried his hand at a variety of occupations and had acquitted himself well in all of them. He was capable of almost any kind of labour. A wiry five-foot-ten frame made him physically agile enough for whatever came up, and he was well equipped for any thinking that might be required.

    Born and raised in Missouri, Will had left home at seventeen. His parents owned a store and had hoped that their only child would take over the business in due course. They were doomed to disappointment, for Will had wanted to see something of the world. This divergence of views led to an uncomfortable domestic position which young Grant resolved by starting out on his travels. He wrote home from time to time but had never been back there and didn’t intend to unless a parental death induced him to do so. Occasionally, when he was in one place long enough to get mail, he received a letter from his mother. The last time had been eight months ago and both she and his dad had been well.

    For some time Will had been thinking about his future. In two decades of peregrination, he had seen a great deal of the land around and to the west of the continental divide, but he was well aware that he would sooner or later face the choice of either settling down somewhere or probably becoming an old vagrant. The second possibility wasn’t attractive. Maybe thirty-seven was the right age for a man to stop roaming. A permanent home had advantages.

    On an overcast day late in July, Will was riding through Montana, heading for Idaho, when he lobbed up a silver dollar as a way of establishing whether he would go east around the hill ahead of him or climb it and see what kind of view that would offer. Following the coin’s decision, he ascended fifty-odd feet. The vista was not much different from that at ground level. Around the isolated rise, the land was flat for miles in every direction.

    Ten minutes of leisurely riding brought Will almost to the end of the hill, which fell away gently to the arid-looking plain. Just as he was about to descend, he noticed, off to the west, what seemed like a homestead. That should mean water for horse and rider. Will negotiated the slope and headed for the two buildings – a cabin and a barn. He’d noticed from the hill that someone was working outside and as he got closer he saw that it was a woman. She was trying to set a fence post and seemed to be having quite a tussle with it. Intent upon what she was doing, she didn’t hear her visitor’s approach until he was almost upon her. She turned and looked up. “Do you want something?” she said.

    Will sensed a wary, defensive attitude on the woman’s part. He tipped his hat. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he replied. “I was hoping to get a drink for my horse and myself, but if you don’t mind my saying so, you appear to have a tough job to do there. Would you like a hand?”

    The woman wiped her brow. “I guess I could use it,” she said. “Help yourself to the water over there first.”

    The immediate outcome of the encounter was that Will wound up planting not one but three fence posts. The woman worked alongside him and as the afternoon progressed they exchanged information about their respective backgrounds. Her name was Myra Hawkins and she was a widow, two years older than Will. She had a son aged thirteen. The family had moved from New England, lured by the promise of the Homestead Act.

    The couple had proved up as required for ownership, though the work had been hard. Myra explained that they would have been far better off if they had taken land further west but they hadn’t known that until it was too late, so they’d done their best in trying circumstances. Barely a year after they had assumed title the husband, Jim, had died of a heart attack. That had come out of the blue, as neither of them had known that he had a weakness of any kind.

    Myra had been battling on for two years. It seemed clear to Will that she was the indomitable type, as she mentioned that most of the other homesteaders who had taken land nearby had become dispirited and either moved to some other part of the West, or gone back to where they had come from. Only a few had qualified to own their places and of that handful the majority had finally left the area.

    There was no talk of any monetary compensation for Will’s efforts – he wouldn’t have accepted that anyway – but he was invited to partake in the evening meal. Even though Myra had been working hard for some time before her visitor’s arrival and had stayed with him throughout his four-hour stint, she got on with the cooking, not pausing for even a minute’s rest.

    After the meal, Will was about to ride off when Myra suggested that he stay the night. There was room in the small barn. The offer was accepted with gratitude. The only jarring note since Will’s arrival was the surly attitude of the boy, Josh, who turned up just in time to eat. His mother was obliged to speak sharply to him about his manners, the rebuke causing him to retire to his tiny lean-to bedroom. Myra apologised to her guest, who dismissed the matter with a grin and the observation that he remembered how he and his friends had behaved when they were the same age as her son.

    The following morning, Will’s leave-taking was postponed again, this time ostensibly because of rain. However, the truth was that, with Josh having gone to school, neither Myra nor her visitor was anxious to part company. They had breakfast together and as they ate, Will mentioned that he had noticed gaps in the barn’s wooden roof and some rot in several of its wall panels. When Myra said that she simply couldn’t get around to everything in a timely manner, Will volunteered to do what he could.

    Repairing the barn took much longer than had at first seemed likely – or perhaps Will tackled the work in a more leisurely way than he’d initially intended. Four days later he pronounced the structure as sound as he could make it. While toiling over that job, he’d seen a few other things that needed attention. He offered to deal with them and for nearly three weeks in all he turned his hand to a variety of tasks he’d never tried before, while Myra fed him. Young Josh remained sullen and Will tried to ignore him.

    There was so much to do around the place that Will wondered how Myra had coped alone. She was of slightly above average height for a woman and sturdily built, but it was astonishing that she hadn’t been overwhelmed by the physical demands placed upon her. Yet she never complained, though she did admit that the results didn’t justify the effort. Still, there appeared to be nothing else for her to do but struggle on. She seldom laughed, which wasn’t surprising as she had little to be joyful about. Ah well, that wasn’t really any of Will’s business, was it?

    One morning, three weeks after Will’s arrival, Myra went out to call him in for breakfast and found him saddling his horse. She was disappointed but concealed the fact. “Leaving us, Will?” she asked, keeping her tone casual.

    “Yes, Myra. I figure it’s about time to get across the mountains while that’s still possible.”

    Conversation over the meal was somewhat stilted for a while, then Will went into full flow, explaining that he’d tried various occupations. Among other things, he’d worked as a copper miner, lumberjack, sawmill hand, stevedore, security guard and freight wagon driver. The truth was, he finally admitted, that in all the positions he’d filled, there had been a definite end to the day’s labours. He was accustomed to having evenings to himself for recreation and spending what he’d earned. Homesteading seemed to be different. There was no end to the chores and no money to be made. Then, in this part of the country, there was the possibility of cabin fever in the long winters.

    Though Will’s analysis made dismal listening for Myra, she had to agree with it. The settler’s lot was all too often a thankless one. There was no sense in labouring the point and seemingly nothing more to be said. Shortly after eating, the two parted company with a few banal words, each sensing that something more might have come from the other but neither supplying it.

    Ten days after Will Grant left the homestead, Myra Hawkins was standing by the stove, chopping vegetables. The weather was unseasonably cool, perhaps a portent of the bone-chilling months to come, but the door was open, admitting a fresh breeze. Myra was dwelling on her drab life, in which the only notable events seemed to be emergencies of one kind or another. Like some other boys of his age, her son was becoming unmanageable and was of little use around the place.

    Sunk in her morose musings, Myra was surprised when the light from the doorway was suddenly blocked. She looked up to see a man standing there. That was puzzling, as she had heard nothing of his approach. He was of about average height, heavily built and had several days’ growth of black stubble. A gun was holstered at his right thigh. His face broke into an unpleasant grin that revealed yellow teeth. “Well, well,” he said. “A little lady all alone.”

    The man’s demeanour sent a tremor of alarm through Myra, but she tried to keep her presence of mind. “I’m not alone,” she replied. “My husband will be back soon.”

    That brought a chuckle from the man. “Woman of your age should know it’s wrong to tell lies,” he said. “I been camping out on that ridge yonder for two days an’ I know for a fact that you don’t have a man here. There’s just you an’ the boy, an’ he won’t be home for a while.”

    Myra was now well and truly frightened. “What do you want?” she snapped.

    “Well now, I have quite a few wants, an’ you’re goin’ to satisfy a couple of ‘em. First you’d better get that grub cookin’, then you can go back yonder” – he waved at the bedroom door – “an’ we’ll have a little entertainment.”

    “I’ll give you a meal but you can forget the second thing,” Myra answered.

    The man’s attitude changed to downright menace. “You’ll do as I say,” he growled, “an’ you’ll jump to it, right now. I’ve a mighty persuasive argument here.” He patted his handgun and started to move towards Myra but had hardly lifted a foot when an arm snaked around the door frame and a revolver butt slammed down on his head. He crumpled to the floor and there, standing behind him, was Will Grant.

    Amazement and relief swept through Myra. “Will,” she cried. “Thank goodness you came, and just in time. But why?”

    “Just a minute, Myra. I’ll take this bird’s gun and tie him up. When he comes to I’ll take him into town and hand him over to the marshal. He’s probably wanted for something but even if he isn’t, I’d say that threatening conduct toward a lady should make him a mite unpopular.”

    With Myra watching in stunned silence, Will dragged the fallen man outside and, using the fellow’s trouser belt and bandana, bound him hand and foot. That done, Myra’s rescuer came back into the house. “I guess I’ll have to tell it the wrong way round,” he said. “First, I was coming back anyway. I happened to see this man a good distance ahead of me, then I realised he was making for your place. I kept an eye on him and got suspicious when he tethered his horse behind your shelter trees. If he’d come with good intentions, he’d have ridden right up to the door. When I saw him pussyfooting along, I was sure he wanted to get to you before you had a chance to grab your rifle, so I slipped off my boots and tiptoed up. It’s handy that the trees are north of the house and your door faces south. I was on him before he knew it.”

    Myra’s mind was still reeling but she sensed there was more to come. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you, Will. You said you were returning here. You must have had a reason. What is it?”

    Will shuffled his feet awkwardly. “Well, I’ve been pondering on various things in the last few days. Taking stock, you might say. It seems to me that there’s more to life than making money and spending it, like I’ve been doing. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss. Then it dawned on me that you have harvest coming up and might be hard pressed.”

    “You’re right about that. It’s very strenuous.”

    Will’s thoughts moved on. “When I saw that fellow creeping up, I was struck by two coincidences. One was the fact that I arrived here in the first place, considering what I’d been dwelling on for a while. The other was that I turned up again, at the right moment, just like last time.” By now he was looking distinctly sheepish.

    Myra’s intuition told her what Will was trying to say and that he was having trouble getting it out. She decided it was time to prompt him. “Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”

    He looked even more embarrassed than before, but managed a broad grin. “I think I’m thinking what you think I’m thinking.” He took a short, hesitant step forward.

    Myra took a longer, firmer stride his way, putting them three feet apart. They looked at one another in silence for a moment, then a radiant smile lit up Myra’s face.

    “Welcome home, Will.”

    “Glad to be back, Myra.”

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 8th, 2019 at 12:23 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

  5. #15

    Way Out West : Number Eleven


    Ben Cooper brought his horse to a halt and for nearly ten minutes sat in the saddle, looking at a signpost. It was a crude piece of work. A length of sapling trunk, set in the hard ground, rose to a height of nearly eight feet. In a cleft at the top, fixed by a nail, was a two-foot length of fence wood pointing southwest and bearing the legend ‘Parry 5 Miles’, in uneven characters of black paint.

    The name struck a chord with Ben. It had been mentioned to him by an elderly prospector with whom he’d had a casual encounter two weeks earlier. The fellow had spent a few hours in Parry. He said it was the only town for a long way in any direction, adding that it seemed to him an unusual kind of place, especially in matters of law and order, which were in the hands of an officer named Constable Fox, a man best avoided.

    Since speaking with the old man, Ben had not given any further thought to their conversation, but now he was pondering on it. He hadn’t slept in a comfortable bed or eaten a properly cooked meal for some time, and was overdue for a bath and a haircut. He was heading due south, but recalling the prospector’s words caused him to consider a minor change of course. It seemed reasonable to suppose that since there was a side-trail to Parry from the northeast, there might be a similar one leading southeast out of the town, back to the main north-south route. On that assumption, and remembering what Pythagoras observed about right-angled triangles, Ben concluded that the detour would probably add only three miles or so to his long journey. He would try it.

    Like many men who spend a lot of time alone, Ben was given to bouts of introspection, and as he headed towards Parry, he took stock of himself. At twenty-five years of age, he was physically in good shape. An even six feet in height and sturdily built, he scaled almost two hundred pounds, all in the right places. His usually tidy hair was sandy, his eyes blue. He’d had a passable education and taken full advantage of it. The only fault he found with himself was his tendency to react too swiftly and fiercely to anything he considered annoying. The phrase ‘no sooner a word than a blow’ would not have been an entirely inaccurate description of his attitude in such matters.

    The reason Ben found himself in this part of Colorado was that he was on his way to join a cousin in California, who’d offered him a forty percent share in a fruit-growing business, already thriving under the cousin’s sole ownership. Ben had been pleased to accept and as there was no great hurry, he’d decided to treat himself to the trip of a lifetime by following the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains from his home in Montana down to Santa Fe, then swinging westwards through New Mexico and Arizona to his destination.

    An hour after leaving the main trail, Ben rounded the foot of a hill and found himself within half a mile of Parry. One glance was enough to show him that the old prospector had been right in describing the place as unusual. It was laid out somewhat like a fort, with four long low timber-built blocks surrounding a large square, access to which was via gaps at the corners between the buildings. There were several outlying structures, the only one of any size being a barn with an attached corral, obviously the livery stable. Ben headed there and was greeted by the owner, a small, wizened oldster. He asked how long Ben intended to stay in Parry. “A couple of days,” Ben replied. “I aim to get myself cleaned up, take in some decent food and have a little rest.”

    “You can get a bath at the barber’s place, south corner of the west block yonder. Hotel’s halfway along the north block and Nellie Spruce runs a nice little diner on east block. You’ll be all right here as long as you don’t tangle with Constable Fox.”

    “Funny you should say that,” Ben answered. “Fellow I met some way north of here told me the same thing.”

    “He was right. Just try to keep clear of our lawman – and don’t tell anybody that advice came from me.”

    Two hours later Ben left the hotel, where he had a bed in a north-facing room that was cool, even on this hot day. He’d had a haircut, shave and bath and was looking forward to a beer or two and something to eat. Walking along the east block, he took in tantalising smells from the diner. He established that the place would be open until seven o’clock. That gave him well over an hour to have a couple of drinks and what seemed likely to be a good meal.

    After glancing at the two saloons, Ben decided to try the smaller one on the south block. Admittance was by a plain wooden door that led to the right-hand side of a room about twenty-five feet square with a bar running along the rear wall. A dozen drinkers were seated in twos and threes at five of the eight tables. Ben ordered a beer and was for a moment the only patron at the bar. Then he heard a chair scraping across the floorboards and ten seconds later a short thin scruffy-looking man joined him, banged down the half-full glass he’d brought from his table and grunted: “You’re in my place, mister.”

    Ben was close to the middle of the bar. He took a big step sideways, increasing the distance between the two men to six feet. “That suit you better?” he asked.

    Apparently it didn’t, for the fellow shuffled along to within arm’s length of Ben. “You’re still in my place,” he said.

    With another stride, Ben widened the gap between the two again. Now his back was almost touching the east wall. “That’s as far as it goes, friend,” he answered. “And I have to say you need a hell of a lot of room, considering your size.”

    The man sniggered. “You don’t get it. When Jake Hollins drinks, he needs the whole bar, an’ he specially don’t want to to share it with a gent who smells like you.”

    “Oh, and how do I smell?”

    “Like a farmyard. Anyway, what with you bein’ so quarrelsome an’ all, I guess I’ll just have to make my point another way. He straightened up and began to lower his right hand to the butt of a sixgun, slung low on his thigh, his movements curiously leisurely, as though he was trying to get a reaction before using the weapon.

    Ben was unarmed, but he’d had quite enough of this provocation. His short temper surfaced and he lashed out, felling the troublemaker with a right uppercut to the chin, then he stooped, drew the man’s gun and tossed it over the bar. “Anybody else got anything to say?” he snapped.

    There was no reply from anyone in the room, but an answer to Ben’s question came at once, when the door was flung open and a man stomped in. He was about five-nine and hefty, with much of his poundage around the middle. He was also pointing a forty-five at Ben. “Well, well,” he said, “seems like we have another stranger disturbing the peace. Getting to be a regular thing here. Come with me.”

    Ben stifled a protest. Faced with the gun, he reasoned that his best course was to do as he was told until he could make sense of what was happening. The man directed him to the north end of the east block. “Who are you and what are you going to do with me?” Ben asked.

    “Name’s Fox. I’m the law in Parry and you’re going to be my guest till I make up my mind what fine you’ll pay for the trouble you’ve caused.”

    “Well, it’s obvious that I’m the victim of a set-up, so how long do you aim to keep me here?”

    “Getting uppity won’t do you any good. You’ll stay till I decide otherwise. A week or two on bread and water might calm you down.” By now the pair had reached Fox’s combined office and single-cell jail. The lawman ushered Ben ahead of him.

    As they’d been crossing the square, Ben’s mind had run through what he’d heard about Fox, first from the old prospector then from the hostler. He had no illusions about the plight he was in. To his mind, the man behind him was behaving more like a bandit than a law officer. Desperation gave speed to Ben’s thought processes. He must not let himself get locked up. Fox moved almost abreast of him as they reached the empty cell. “Get in,” he growled.

    At that moment, inspiration came to Ben. He pointed at the floor under the bed. “Hey, you can’t keep a man in jail with a thing like that,” he yelled. “You might as well shoot me now.” He was giving a convincing impression of being panic-stricken.

    “What are you talking about?” said Fox. He strode forwards almost involuntarily and stooped to establish what was causing his detainee’s agitation. Now he was just ahead and slightly to the right of Ben. There was nothing but dust to be seen.

    It was now or never. Ben stepped directly behind Fox, put both palms on the lawman’s rear ribs and pushed hard, augmenting the effort with a vigorous hip thrust to the broad backside before him. Fox was propelled across the bed. His head thudded against the wall, his upper half slumped to the mattress and the gun fell from his hand to the floor. He was unconscious.

    Acting rapidly, Ben threw Fox’s gun into the office before pulling him from the bed and dropping him to the floor, face up and breathing stertorously. There was a thin sheet on the bed. Ben grabbed it and tore it into three long strips. He used one to bind the the lawman’s hands behind his back, the second to tie his legs together and the third to gag him.

    Intent on delaying any possible pursuit, Ben went over to Fox’s desk. In a drawer, he found a ring holding two keys, one to the cell door, the other to the outer one. After checking that nobody was in sight outside, Ben locked both doors, then lobbed the keys back into the office through an open window. Forcing himself to appear nonchalant, he sauntered off to the livery barn, where he surprised the hostler by asking for his horse. “I thought you aimed to stay at least overnight, young feller. Changed your mind already?”

    “That’s right. I’m all tidied up and I’ve had a rest. I don’t think I can afford to lose any more time.”

    “Well, you’ll have one advantage in getting away. You won’t have to deal with Constable Fox.”

    Ben managed a smile. “There’s that name again. Before I go, just tell me what the story is with this man. Why is he called a constable and is everyone here afraid of him?”

    “He got the constable title from the council, when we had one. It was dissolved following a big argument, a year or so after Fox was appointed. Since then there’s been nobody to control him. His wage is paid by the town’s businesses and still collected and handed over to him by the man who used be council chairman.”

    “So why is he such a terror?”

    “Oh, he doesn’t bother the townsfolk much. But he has an odd way with outsiders. He works with a feller named Hollins. They take note of any stranger who arrives and if he looks like what you might call a man of means, Hollins finds some way to argue with him, maybe in a saloon or store, and goad him into fighting. Then Fox steps in and jails the newcomer for a while. A couple of weeks of our constable’s hospitality is enough to make any man glad to part with everything he has and get away from here. It’s a right nice little business for Fox. You’ve been lucky not to tangle with him.”

    Ben chuckled. “I guess you’re right. Supposing somebody crossed him and made a run for it, what would Fox do?”

    “Nothing. He never leaves town. Too lazy, I guess. If a man got a little start, he’d be safe enough. Anyway, the nearest town with any real law is eighty miles south of here, and the marshal there has no time for Fox. Wouldn’t lift a finger to help him.”

    “Very interesting,” said Ben, keeping his face straight. “Well, I’ll be going. Goodbye, old man.”

    “So long, son.”
    * * *

    Last edited by Courtjester; July 26th, 2014 at 06:28 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

  6. #16

    Way Out West : Number Twelve


    One minute to noon. Mark Fairburn set down his pen and shoved his chair back from the desk over which he’d been bent for two hours. He hauled his lanky hundred and seventy pound frame up to its full six-foot-one, stretched his arms high and wide to uncramp his shoulders, then looked down at the report he’d been writing. A further short session in the afternoon would see it finished.

    Fifty yards down the street, Ma Collins would be expecting Fairburn to turn up for the beef stew he invariably ate around midday. The elderly Irish widow didn’t offer much variety in her cooking but what she provided was good and the portions were substantial.

    Rounding the desk, Fairburn took his hat from its peg. Before leaving, he paused for five minutes to take stock of his situation. At just turned thirty-two, he’d been marshal of the small New Mexico town of Silver Dunes for three and a half years. When he was appointed by the council, some townspeople took the view that a man of his age could hardly be mature enough for the job. In fact he had done it well. The only controversial step he’d taken was to ban the carrying of handguns in town. Several visiting cowpokes had shown some resistance, but after Fairburn had lectured and disarmed one of them, the rest had fallen into line.

    In addition to being respected for doing his work satisfactorily, Mark Fairburn was well liked in the town because he frequently entertained people, especially the children, with his repertoire of conjuring tricks and associated feats, performed on festive occasions.

    Apart from initially enforcing the firearm ordinance, the young marshal had had very little trouble. His modest pay reflected the generally light duties. Normally the most onerous task he faced was using his one-cell jail to accommodate the odd Saturday night drunk. He concluded that, all things considered, he was well pleased with his largely uneventful life. But it is sometimes tempting providence to entertain such thoughts. As he moved to the door, Fairburn heard feet pounding on the sidewalk and a moment later the hardware storekeeper, Edgar Simms arrived, red-faced and breathless. “Oh, Mark,” he gasped, “I’m sure glad you’re here.”

    Fairburn’s eyes widened. “You seem excited, Edgar. What’s up?”

    “Well, you know that I usually call in at Al’s saloon on the way home for my noon meal? Just one beer.”

    “I guess everybody knows that. And as for the beer, you’re probably the only one who’s counting. Anyway, you didn’t come here in such a rush to report that, did you?”

    “No, I didn’t. I came to tell you that there’s trouble brewing.”

    “In what way?”

    “Three strangers in there, father and two sons from they way they talk. They’re all wearing sixguns and they keep making nasty remarks about the town and the saloon. One of them just said something about livening the place up with a little hot lead.”

    “All right, Edgar. I’ll look into it.”

    “Be careful, Mark. Do you want any help from me?” Simms’ manner and tone suggested that he was hoping for a negative answer.

    “Thanks for the offer, but I’m the one who gets paid to deal with things like this. You’d better get on home and I’ll let you know what happens.”

    Simms needed no second bidding to go about his business. Fairburn picked up his gun belt, strapped it on, checked his forty-five and walked out. His office was at one corner of the main thoroughfare and the side street where Al Glover’s place was located. On sighting the saloon, he stood rubbing his chin for two minutes. He was trying to devise a way of doing his duty without getting killed. He crossed the street, stepped up onto the sidewalk and peered over the swing doors. Glover was in his usual rest position, sitting on a stool behind the east end of the bar. There were no drinkers other than the three newcomers, who were lined up along the bar at the west end.

    Moving to the right side of the doors, Fairburn waved an arm, trying to attract Glover’s attention. That didn’t take long because the saloonkeeper was constantly on the lookout, hoping that someone would turn up.

    Fairburn put a forefinger to his lips in the hush signal, then drew away along the wall, trying to decide what to do. He considered walking in upon the three men with his gun drawn but rejected the idea. They might be reckless enough ignore his advantage and start shooting. Creeping in surreptitiously was impossible because Al Glover hadn’t oiled his door hinges for years and they emitted loud squeaks when anyone entered or left the place. There was the further factor that one of the visitors was facing the end of the backbar mirror and kept glancing into it.

    One way or another, Fairburn would have to confront the three men, but he needed an edge of some kind. It took him a few minutes to come up with an idea. He didn’t have much confidence in it, but it was the best he could think of. From time to time, the townsfolk cleared the streets and when they did that, stones were often swept under the sidewalks. Fairburn quickly found a fist-sized one. He stepped back onto the sidewalk, again attracted Glover’s attention. Peeping over the doors once more, he waited until the man in line with the mirror wasn’t looking at it.

    The saloon had a staircase to a landing, off which were three bedrooms. This was to Fairburn’s right. Offering up a prayer, he heaved the stone. It did as he’d hoped, dropping onto the uncarpeted landing with a loud clatter and staying up there. Part one of the plan had worked. All three drinkers half-turned toward the source of the noise. “What was that?” said one of the younger ones.

    “Probably one of my boarders dropped something,” Glover replied.

    “You mean you get people to stay in this fleapit?”


    At that point Mark Fairburn entered the saloon and walked halfway across the floor in Glover’s direction. “Morning, Al,” he said cheerily. “I’ll have a beer, please.”

    This time all three of the visitors did a full turn. Seeing Fairburn’s star, the middle one grinned mischievously. “Well, look at this,” he said. “I do believe we have a lawman here. What do you say to that, boys?”

    One of the younger men laughed. “You know what we think, Pa. The only good lawman is a dead one.”

    Fairburn stopped and looked at the men. “That doesn’t sound too friendly,” he said.

    At a signal from the father, the three men fanned out in line abreast, a little more than arm’s length apart and facing Fairburn at a distance of ten feet. “No, it ain’t meant to be friendly,” answered the father. “So what are you goin’ to do about it?”

    “Well, first of all, I need to tell you that we have a law against carrying handguns in this town, so I’d be obliged if you’d hand yours over until you leave.”

    All three men laughed in unison, then the father spoke again. “Sonny, I reckon we just don’t want to hand over our guns. Now, aside from that no-account barman yonder, you seem to be all alone, so how do you aim to handle the three of us?”

    With a huge effort, Fairburn summoned a smile. “I guess you reckoned without my deputy up on the landing. You all set there, Joe?” he called out, at the same time raising his left hand and rubbing his nose with a knuckle.”

    “Ready, Mark,” came the gruff reply.

    The ruffians were startled and baffled. Where had the new voice come from? Not from in front of them. It didn’t seem to have emanated from anywhere in particular. Then it dawned on all three at the same instant that they’d heard the noise of Fairburn’s stone on the landing. They turned as one and looked up. Seeing nobody, they swung back – and found themselves facing Mark Fairburn’s drawn gun. Now he was smiling in a slightly more relaxed way. He addressed the whole trio, while training his forty-five on the father’s chest. “I had my doubts about whether you’d fall for the ‘look behind you’ ruse. It’s the oldest one in the book, but I freshened it up with a couple of things.”

    The father shook his head. “How the hell did you do that, an’ where’s the other feller?”

    “There is no other fellow. The first thing I did to set you up was to toss a stone onto the landing behind you. That was to give you the idea that there was somebody upstairs. Second thing was more difficult. Anyone in town would tell you that I put on a magic show now and again. I perform a few tricks, then finish with some ventriloquy and what’s called distant voicing. Now, I knew I couldn’t throw my voice from in front of you to behind you. I doubt that anybody can do that. But I was sure I could throw it far enough to puzzle you. When you heard what you thought was my deputy, you connected that with the noise you heard when that stone landed up there. I was relying on those two points to confuse you, and they did.”

    “Well, I’ll be damned,” the father replied. Neat as anythin’ I ever saw. Still, it ain’t done you much good. There’s three of us an’ one of you, so we’ll come out on top.”

    “That depends on you, old man. If lead starts flying, maybe I’ll catch some, but just bear in mind that the instant any of you shows the slightest sign of trying to draw, you’ll die. I can’t miss from here. I don’t see a wife around you, so I’m assuming you don’t have one. Now, unless you want these two boys of yours to be orphans, you’ll do as I say.”

    “An’ what’s that?”

    “I want you to move very slowly, keep your hands where I can see them, unbuckle your gun belts and let them drop. When you leave town you can have them and the guns back, but no bullets.”

    “Okay, boys,” said the father, “do it.” They did.

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 10th, 2019 at 01:23 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

  7. #17

    Way Out West : Number Thirteen


    Southeast California, 1879. The small town roasted in a three-figure temperature. It was late afternoon and hardly anyone had been outdoors since midday. Now a horseman appeared, coming in from due east. The main street was simply a continuation of the trail and on reaching it he rode its whole length, casting black eyes rapidly from side to side, taking in everything. At the western end of town he came to the livery stable. He left his horse there and walked back eastwards, stopping outside China Joe’s little restaurant.

    Pausing on the sidewalk, the stranger slapped dust from his clothing. His high-crowned hat, shirt and boots were black, the short jacket and trousers navy blue, worn shiny in several places. The only contrast to his general appearance of darkness came from the white bone handles of two thonged-down Colt .45 revolvers. They were of the type known as Peacemakers, but the man didn’t look as though that name applied to him. He entered the restaurant by flinging open the door with a force that caused it to rebound sharply from its metal stop, then backheeling it shut with a slam that shook the wooden building.

    China Joe had lived in the town for six years and had become a local institution. His real name was not known to anyone but himself and nobody could now remember how the sobriquet had been dreamed up. Though his English was passable, he spoke little and never revealed anything about his background. Within a week of his arrival, he had set up his diner and started providing excellent dishes, both Chinese and American. His fare was so good that the staff of the nearby hotel often passed up their free meals and paid for what he offered. In addition to the gastronomic attractions, people liked to visit Joe’s place on account of his appearance. Six-foot five and beanpole thin, he invariably wore a long, elaborate silk robe with a striking pattern in red, yellow, black and green. No matter how much time he spent in his kitchen, the splendid garment always looked immaculate.

    The atmosphere in China Joe’s place was quiet and soothing, as though he had imbued the structure with his own calm personality. The only disturbance had occurred a few months after his arrival, when a young miner got out of hand. With too much drink in him, he refused to pay his bill and became extremely aggressive, finally pulling out a handgun and threatening to use it on Joe. Not one of the other half-dozen patrons was able to follow with any real clarity what happened next. The troublemaker had been standing in the open doorway, waving his weapon, then there was a flicker of movement from Joe and the man was not only disarmed, but sent spinning across the sidewalk to land in the dusty street. From that point on, nobody had cared to antagonise the enigmatic restaurateur.

    Joe’s place had only six tables, three on either side of a narrow aisle and all designed to seat four. Diners took one of the chairs with backs to the walkway, or a space on one of four benches, two set against each side wall. The dark-clad man appeared on a Tuesday, Joe’s slackest day. When he stormed in, the only other person in sight was a young man who’d eaten and was finishing his coffee. He took one look at the grim-faced newcomer, left his cup half full and scuttled out.

    Joe came out of his kitchen as the stranger shuffled round a table and seated himself on a bench abutting the north wall. He took off his hat, revealing a tangle of black hair, rasped his left hand across several days’ growth of stubble and stared at Joe for ten seconds, then growled: “Get me a big steak an’ some taters, an’ make it quick.”

    Joe nodded and returned to the kitchen. He came back a few minutes later and placed before his sole patron a plate laden with a perfectly cooked steak that weighed at least a pound, accompanied by a generous helping of fried potatoes, He also provided a bowl of salad. The stranger looked down for a moment, then glared at Joe. “Call that a big steak?” he barked. “Take it away an’ bring me somethin’ man-sized.” Then he pointed at the salad. “An’ get rid o’ this pap. It ain’t food.”

    Without a word, Joe removed plate and bowl and went back into his kitchen. Five minutes elapsed, then he reappeared with an even bigger steak, as well prepared as the first one, plus a larger portion of potatoes. The stranger gave this offering less of his time than he’d devoted to the first one. Pushing it back across the table he narrowed his eyes to slits. “Listen to me, you long streak o’ dog meat,” he snarled. “I want a real big steak an’ plenty o’ taters, cooked right. Now, if I don’t get what I’ve ordered, I’m gonna blow a hole through you that you can put your arm in.”

    Joe disappeared again and the stranger took off his coat, put it beside him on the bench and sprawled back in his seat. He knew that there had been no reason to complain, but he didn’t like foreigners, especially those with Joe’s background, and he was satisfied that he had treated the gangling Chinese fellow in a fitting manner.

    It was ten minutes before Joe came back with a replacement meal – and what a meal! On a huge oval platter, eighteen by twelve inches, reposed a truly monstrous steak. It was over an inch thick and overlapped the plate at both ends and sides. That gigantic slab of meat must have scaled four pounds. There was an element of artifice about it, for Joe had cut off one edge of each of a pair of vast steaks and deftly sown the two main parts together. Another curious thing about the gut-wrenching acreage of beef was that its whole surface showed a pattern of cross-hatching.

    In addition to the meat, Joe plonked down a very large bowl of potatoes. As the man looked goggle-eyed at the food, Joe stepped over to the door, locked it and turned the reversible card to show that his place was closed – an unprecedented occurrence at that time of day. Then he pulled down the blinds to cover the glazed part of the door and the whole window. The stranger stared at these proceedings. He was mystified and speechless. But not for long. Joe took a chair facing him, then nodded at the victuals. “You eat,” he said.

    The stranger’s eyes blazed. “Sure I’ll eat, you damned idiot,” he retorted. “But first I’ll put a hole in you, just like I promised.” His right hand flashed down to the gun that had consigned more than one man to the afterlife – but he wasn’t quick enough. With the speed and dexterity of a conjurer, China Joe dropped his left hand into the sash he wore to secure his robe and drew out a knife, which he sent whizzing across the table. It passed through the stranger’s shirt sleeve, took a sliver of the outside of his right forearm with it, and thunked into the pine backrest, pinning the limb.

    The man could have freed the arm but chose instead to go for his left-side gun. Joe was ahead of him again. Producing another knife from his sash, he repeated his quasi-magical performance. This time the weapon made a groove in the inside of the stranger’s left elbow and fastened that arm to the bench, too. Before the man could make any further move, Joe delved into the folds of his robe and pulled out a knife that dwarfed the pair he had just used. With a blade over a foot long and more than two inches wide at the hilt, it was a superb example of the cutler’s art. In a flash it was tickling the stranger’s throat, leaving him without the slightest chance of getting either of his guns into action.

    Joe flicked a forefinger at his by now very frightened patron. “You put hands on table,” he said. The man pulled his sleeves free and complied. Still holding the big knife close to the man’s throat, Joe pushed a fork across the table. “You eat,” he said again.

    “How the hell do you expect me to do that with a blade at my gizzard?” the captive customer replied, all bravado having deserted him.

    Joe was inexorable. “You use right hand and fork. You not eat, you die. Now.”

    The town doctor, Amos Belfield, was always China Joe’s first customer of the day. His breakfast never varied and he had usually eaten and left before anyone else turned up. At six in the morning after Joe’s one and only early closure, Belfield arrived to find the place apparently open for business as usual. He walked in and saw Joe sitting opposite the stranger, who was sprawled back against the bench with his eyes closed and a large lump of steak in his open mouth. The enormous plate and the bowl in front of him were both empty. Joe pointed at him and glanced in the doctor’s direction. “You looksee,” he said.

    Belfield carried out a brief examination of the stranger, feeling various parts of his body, then he nodded curtly and turned to Joe. “If those two pieces of crockery were full when he started eating, I’d say this is a clear case of over-ingestion. Anyway, he’s dead. Now, what about my bacon and eggs, Joe?”

    * * *
    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. #18

    Way Out West : Number Fourteen


    Farnsworth was a quiet little town, widely regarded as a place where not much happened. The ambience rubbed off on visitors to such an extent that miners, loggers and cowboys from the surrounding area rolled up at weekends not to let off steam but to have a few drinks in peace and quiet.

    The normal atmosphere prevailed at three o’clock on a dull April afternoon. In the grandly named Southeast Avenue – a fifty-yard offshoot from the main street – two old-timers sat on chairs outside the barbershop. They were conducting a meandering conversation, which as usual ran at an average of about ten words a minute, when a newcomer arrived. With his horse at a plod, he rode as far as the office of lawyer Roland Hanson, putting him within ten yards of the oldsters.

    Dismounting was a laborious business. Having taken his time about getting his right foot to the ground, the rider paused for a further ten seconds before freeing his left boot. He then stood for close to a minute, hands on his saddle, seemingly preparing himself for whatever he had in mind. He was a couple of inches over six feet in height, of average build, with a gaunt face and a generally rugged, rawboned look. His extra-long jacket was of fringed tan leather and his dark trousers were tucked into high brown boots. On his head was a coonskin hat.

    With an air of fatigue, the stranger hauled himself up onto the boardwalk and tramped into Hanson’s office. The two old-timers had a consultation about the stranger, concluding that he was probably a mountain man. They didn’t have long to speculate, for he had been in the lawyer’s place less than five minutes when the peace was disturbed by a loud crash as the office window shattered. Hanson burst through the aperture and thudded onto the planking amid a scatter of shards. As he lay prostrate, the newcomer appeared in the doorway bearing a paper in one hand. He looked down at Hanson, pocketed the document, mounted his horse and left as slowly as he’d arrived.

    It would be an exaggeration to say that the two old fellows rushed across the street – both were troubled by arthritis – but they did reach Roland Hanson as he began to pick himself up. “You okay?” asked one of them.

    “I think so. I can’t feel any broken bones.”

    “What happened in there?”

    Hanson shook his head. “Queerest thing I ever experienced. That man came in, said his name was Daniel Lambert and that he’d come to, as he put it ‘clear things up’ after Obadiah Naylor’s death. You’ll remember that the old boy passed on a month ago. I told Lambert there was nothing to be cleared up because the only business Obadiah had was his gold claim and he’d sold that to Henry Bates, whose plot of land abutted his. Lambert said he had a letter from Obadiah, in effect giving him the claim. We both got a little ruffled. Lambert insisted on seeing the deed of transfer to Bates. I wasn’t obliged to show it to him but I did. He grabbed it and promptly tossed me through the window.”

    After accepting commiserations from the two old-timers, Hanson went off to report the incident to the law officer, Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith.

    Three hours after speaking with Roland Hanson, Deputy Sheriff Smith, rode up to the late Obadiah Naylor’s claim, twelve miles west of town. Smith had headed there after learning that Daniel Lambert had been seen riding that way. The stranger was there, leaning on the handle of a broom he’d been using to sweep out the late prospector’s cabin, into which dust had been blown.

    Smith dismounted and strode to within six feet of the stranger. “You Daniel Lambert?” he asked.

    “That’s right. Who are you and what do you want with me?”

    The lawman pointed at his star. “I’m Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith and I’m here to arrest you on a charge of assaulting Roland Hanson this afternoon.” As he spoke, Smith drew his gun and pointed it at Lambert.

    With a flick of his hand, Lambert jerked up the broom so that the head gave Smith a sharp tap under his right hand before he’d taken full control of his weapon, which flew up six feet. As it began to fall, midway between the two men, Lambert reached out and grabbed it. Smith looked on, startled. He was even more surprised when Lambert handed him back the gun, butt first, with the words: “I’ll go with you and settle whatever’s troubling you, but don’t point that thing at me again.”

    Chastened, Smith asked Lambert to mount up and the pair set off back to town. During the ride, the deputy sheriff established that Lambert was indeed one of the breed commonly called mountain men. He surprised Smith yet again by saying that he had no objection to spending time in jail pending a trial, so long as he was reasonably well fed. He was unperturbed even when told that the hearing might be delayed for some time because the circuit judge was sick.

    It took ten weeks for Judge Joseph Townend to get to Farnsworth, where Daniel Lambert’s assault on Roland Hanson was the only case awaiting his attention. The proceedings took place in the school hall, and on this occasion there was no jury.

    The judge stated that Lambert was facing two charges, his attack on the lawyer and his allegedly unauthorised takeover of Obadiah Naylor’s gold claim. Lambert admitted his guilt on the first charge. He was relieved to hear that in the judge's opinion, the time he had spent in custody, through no fault of his, was an appropriate punishment for the assault on Roland Hanson.

    With regard to the second charge, Judge Townend had on his desk a deed of transfer, drawn up by lawyer Hanson, conveying ownership of the disputed land from Obadiah Naylor to Henry Bates. He also had a paper that was supposedly a bill of sale of the claim, from Naylor to Bates, and he had the letter from Naylor to Daniel Lambert. In order to make the trial fair, Lambert had been allowed to see the first two papers.

    When the judge called for Henry Bates to come forward, there was silence. His honour then asked if anyone could enlighten him as to Bates’s whereabouts. An elderly man from near the back of the courtroom said that Bates had left the area a week earlier, telling nobody where he was going, but confiding to the speaker that he had no intention of appearing in court.

    The judge summoned Roland Hanson and began by asking him why, when preparing the deed of transfer, he had spoken to Henry Bates but not to Naylor. Hanson pointed out that Naylor had died immediately after signing the bill of sale, which recorded that he had received from Bates the agreed sum of three thousand dollars. With nobody to enlighten him, further, Hanson had accepted Bates’s version of events and proceeded accordingly, keeping the bill of sale to support his action.

    Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith was then called. All he had to say was that he had arrested and jailed Lambert, who had been remarkably patient and a model prisoner during his incarceration.

    Daniel Lambert was then asked to give his account of the affair. He pointed at the judge’s desk. “You have three papers there,” he said. “One’s genuine, two are part of some kind of swindle. There’s no way that Obadiah Naylor would have sold out to this man Bates.”

    “I see,” the judge replied. “Can you now tell me how I am to verify what you say?”

    Lambert shrugged. “No, I can’t. All I can do is give you my word that –”

    “Perhaps I can help.” The new voice came from a smartly dressed man standing at the back of the court. He looked to be in his thirties and was accompanied by an older man, also very well turned out.

    “I certainly hope someone can,” the judge answered, beckoning the man to approach him. “Who are you, sir?”

    “My name is Anthony Naylor. I’m the only child of Obadiah Naylor and he had no other living relations. The gentleman with me is my lawyer. If I could see the documents Mr Lambert mentioned, maybe I’d be able to throw some light on the matter.”

    At a motion from the judge, Anthony Naylor picked up the papers, looked at them for a few seconds then dropped them back onto the desk. “Yes, I think I can guess what happened,” he said. “That deed of transfer doesn’t tell us much, but the letter from my father to Daniel Lambert is certainly authentic. There’s no doubt about dad’s handwriting. As for the bill of sale, I’m sure that wasn’t written by him. Even if it had been, the signature is nothing like his. I regard that piece of paper as worthless.”

    The judge nodded. “I see. Have you anything else to say?”

    “Yes, I know dad wanted to give his claim to Daniel Lambert. He said so several times. He regarded that as his method of repayment for an incident many years ago, when Mr Lambert saved him from being mauled by grizzly bear. I’ve no objection to the idea and I’m quite sure that dad wouldn’t have sold the claim to anyone else.”

    “Very well,” said the judge. “Now, I’m in the familiar position of being required to make a decision without being aware of all the facts. However, it seems clear that this Henry Bates has intentionally avoided being present today, which suggests to me that there is something he does not wish to be revealed. I am persuaded that he probably either applied pressure to Obadiah Naylor to sign the bill of sale, or that he did not even discuss it with Mr Naylor. If Bates did indeed pay three thousand dollars for the claim, it would appear that nobody knows what became of that money.

    “I understand from Deputy Sheriff Smith that the cause of Obadiah Naylor’s death is not known. He was found in his cabin with a large gash on his head and we have no idea whether he had an accident or was the victim of violence. In the circumstances I am going to ignore the supposed bill of sale and instruct Roland Hanson to draw up a document transferring Obadiah Naylor’s claim to Daniel Lambert and – ”

    “I don’t want it.” The interruption came from Lambert.

    “I beg your pardon,” said the judge. “You do not want the claim?”

    “That’s right. I came here to say so to Obadiah but he died before I arrived. I’m not interested in seeking gold. It’s not much use in my part of the world. I hunt and trap and trade what I have for what I need. That’s how I intend to go on. I’m fifty-eight years of age and never had more than forty dollars in cash. I’d like you to transfer the claim to young Mr Naylor here, then he can do as he likes with it. That’s my final word and now I’d like to go back to where I came from, right away.”

    The judge gave a resigned sigh. “All right, Mr Lambert. I’d appreciate your staying here for an hour or so, during which time Mr Hanson will prepare the necessary document, then you may go.”

    And so it was.

    * * *
    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. #19

    Way Out West : Number Fifteen

    The tale below is the first of three which originally appeared as ‘Madazine’ items in the Humour Forum. As they are all set in the Wild West, I am taking the liberty of transferring them to this series. Cj


    ‘Yessirs,’ croaked the ancient raconteur. Surrounded by listeners, he was the only person seated in the saloon’s back room, made available so that he could give the authentic account of an incident involving a long-dead pistolero. ‘Yessirs,’ he repeated, his toothless mouth expelling an orange pip at almost eye-defying speed. The projectile hit a spittoon, described a half-circle inside the rim and whizzed off to strike the nose of a man who, in trying to avoid the impact, thumped his head against a doorpost and consequently lost interest in the proceedings.

    ‘Yessirs,’ the old-timer said yet again to his audience, now reduced to eight, one being a large woman whose general Wagnerian aspect was accentuated by a helmet-style hat atop a huge coil of fair hair. ‘And ma’am,’ added the oldster, noting the unexpected presence of a lady. ‘I mind well the time when Three-Gun Kellaway come to town. Showdown was right there.’ He pointed an arthritic finger at the doorway to the barroom. ‘He come here . . .’

    ‘What was that?’ The interjection came from a fresh-faced youth, bearing a notepad and pencil.

    ‘What was what?’ snapped the taleteller.

    ‘You said Three-Gun Kellaway.’

    ‘Well, so what?’

    ‘Sir,’ said the young fellow, ‘I’ve known of two-gun this and two-gun that, but I never yet heard of three-gun anybody.’

    ‘Son,’ snarled the oldster, mustering as hostile a gleam as his rheumy eyes could manage, ‘first place, I’m tellin’ this story. Second place, you’re still wet behind the ears an’ third place, you won’t never hear much of anythin’ if you keep interruptin’ folks.’

    ‘Sorry’, said the chastened youngster. ‘It’s just that I’ve only recently arrived from the East and this is my first assignment. I have to get my facts right or my editor will be mad at me. I was wondering how a man was able to handle three guns.’

    ‘Well, if you listen you’ll find out,’ retorted the wizened narrator, his temper fraying rapidly. ‘As I was goin’ to say when you busted up my thinkin’, this Three-Gun Kellaway was a plumb desperate character. Killed over a dozen men in his time. Anyway, he come here lookin’ for Bad Billy Brewster, an’ he was loaded for bear.’

    ‘Loaded for what?’ the reporter broke in again.

    ‘Bear,’ gritted the anecdotist, grimly curbing his ire.

    ‘What does that mean, exactly?’ the diffident newshound asked.

    ‘Darn it,’ yelled the venerable one. ‘Means Kellaway was an ornery critter an’ more’n a mite proddy. How the hell are you goin’ to report this if you don’t speak English?’ The oldster’s voice, squawky at the best of times, rose to a falsetto warble.

    ‘Beg pardon,’ mumbled the scribe.

    ‘What happened?’ This from the large woman, whose tongue was running eagerly around parted lips as she envisioned blood soaking the sawdust.

    ‘Well, I’m comin’ to that, ain’t I?’ screeched the crusty historian, his face now alarmingly purple as he yanked at the chair arms until he realised that he was not in a rocker.

    ‘I’ll bet they shot it out,’ said the woman, her imagination running riot. ‘There must have been gore everywhere.’

    ‘That’s what I came all the way from Philadelphia to find out,’ said the eager reporter.

    ‘Naw,’ said one of the men, a lanky, lugubrious fellow. ‘Wasn’t like that at all, way I heard it.’

    ‘Well, you wouldn’t know,’ chimed in a short fat man, waving a large cherrywood pipe, from which sparks were scattering around the company. ‘Was before your time, anyway.’

    ‘I heard it different, too,’ put in a third man. ‘I was told that Bad Billy Brewster couldn’t face three guns, so he skedaddled out of town and Kellaway knew it, so he wasn’t taking much of a chance.’

    ‘Nope,’ drawled another. ‘Feller told me they called off the fight an’ spent the night drinkin’ whiskey, right here in this saloon.’

    ‘That don’t square with what I heard’, said the fifth man, the town undertaker. ‘Old Tom Boone was here an’ he told me what went on. Just before he died, it was. He said Kellaway shot off his own kneecap when he tried to draw that third gun.’

    ‘Well,’ said the sixth and last of the local men, ‘I reckon you’re all wrong. My great uncle Dan worked with Kellaway on a little gold-prospecting. Before they split up, Kellaway admitted to Dan that he’d run off when he heard that Bad Billy Brewster had got hold of a Gatling gun and aimed to make a sieve of him.’

    A babble broke out, which intensified until the young reporter called for order. ‘Come now, gentlemen . . . and madam,’ he cried. ‘We seem to have a number of different versions of the event. As I understand it, the only person still alive around here who was present at the time is telling the story. Let's establish the truth from him. Sir?’

    They all turned their attention to the old man, but it was too late. As a result of being unable to get a word in edgeways, that testy chronicler, overcome by exasperation, had expired.

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 14th, 2019 at 01:10 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. #20

    Way Out West : Number Sixteen


    It was hot, even for summer in the Southwest. The shimmering air was not conducive to comfort for anyone unfortunate enough to be outdoors – and someone was. A weary horseman headed at snail’s pace towards a huddle of buildings that made up the only settlement for many miles around. Coated with the ubiquitous dust, man and beast looked almost like a single creature – a moving statue.

    On reaching the livery stable, the man arranged care for his mount, then crossed the baking street to the saloon, finding it occupied only by the owner, Sean O’Reilly, who paused in his work of cleaning the bartop to cast his eyes over the apparition before him. ‘Howdy,’ he said with a nod. ‘Warm out there.’

    The newcomer took off his hat and used it to batter the rest of his apparel, raising a storm that would later keep the fastidious host busy for half an hour. ‘Sure is,’ he replied, ‘an’ I reckon I’ve had my share of it. You can give me the longest beer you have, then maybe a few more.’

    Observing his visitor’s condition, O’Reilly summoned a look that managed to combine pain and embarrassment, then turned up his palms. ‘Sorry, I can’t oblige you right now.’

    ‘What’s that?’ said the fatigued stranger, his forearms resting on the bar.

    O’Reilly shrugged resignedly. ‘Like to help you, friend, but we have a town ordinance against drinkin’ in public places before six o’clock an’ it’s only four forty.’

    The stranger’s face took on a hostile look. ‘You tryin’ to make fool of me?’ he snapped.

    ‘Nope. We got a deputy sheriff here who’s mighty touchy about such things. If I sell you any liquor before time, he’ll likely close me down.’

    ‘Beer ain’t liquor.’

    ‘It is here.’

    The stranger straightened sharply. ‘Mister,’ he rasped, ‘I mean to have a beer, an’ if you won’t serve it, I’ll help myself.’ He had no way of knowing that the saloon-keeper was the most formidable brawler in the county and never loath to demonstrate his pugilistic power.

    O’Reilly stepped out from behind the bar, loosening his apron strings. ‘You’re out of line,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ll have to put you right.’ He cocked his fists in a reflex action, yet for once he didn’t really like the idea of doing what was in his mind. He saw that apart from being dead beat, the stranger was obviously well over a decade ahead of his own thirty-two years and, though matching him in height at five-eleven, was a stringy hundred and fifty pounds or so, facing a hard-packed two hundred and ten.

    Having noted that O’Reilly was unarmed, the gaunt stranger might have chosen to enforce his will with the threat of lead, but he knew there was a code. He opened his gun belt and tossed it onto a table. ‘Let’s get started,’ he growled.

    It was a memorable bout. For a man in his state and conceding so much else, the stranger gave an astonishing account of himself, drawing on a reserve of nervous energy that drove him beyond his apparent physical limits.

    Wary circling was interspersed with toe-to-toe slogging and liberal use of thumbs, foreheads and elbows. Once, they tumbled out onto the boardwalk locked together, O’Reilly trying to apply a rib-crushing hug to his opponent, who was seeking to throttle him. They broke by mutual consent to escape the furnace heat. The instant they were inside again, the stranger was thrown halfway across the room, sliding on his back until his head struck the base panel of the old piano with a resounding dong. He sprang up and resumed the contest.

    At one point the saloon-keeper hurled his opponent clear over the bar and against the rear wall with a crash that brought down a dozen bottles from the shelves. Even that didn’t stop the stranger, who bounded back over the woodwork to dive upon his adversary. The local champion bruiser began to feel as though he was trying conclusions with a grizzly bear. But the stranger was weakening.

    O’Reilly seemed to see his chance. He stepped forwards incautiously, straight into a cannonball right that put him down. He clambered to his feet and the tussle went on. Finally, the stranger’s flagging resources caused his arms to fall to his sides. O’Reilly leapt forwards and rammed a knee into his midriff. He jackknifed and O’Reilly, giving himself plenty of room, delivered a right uppercut. The stranger fell backwards and lay spreadeagled near the door. He was out.

    Several minutes passed before the fallen warrior came to his senses, to find O’Reilly, now all solicitude, bending over him and wiping his face with a damp towel. ‘Glad to see you awake again,’ said the saloon-keeper. ‘You’re a hell of a scrapper. I’ve licked ‘em all around here, and not one lasted half as long as you did.’

    The stranger levered himself upright. ‘Quite a battle,’ he said, grinning wryly. ‘Pity you didn’t get me when I was fresh.’

    O’Reilly chuckled. ‘I sure would hate to do that,’ he said. ‘I’d as soon tackle a family o’ wildcats as try you again. Anyway, I ain’t too proud about how it ended. Some might call kneeing you like that a foul move.’

    ‘Wasn’t the only one, either side,’ the stranger answered, rubbing his jaws. ‘Anyway, nobody said it had to be a fair fight. Now, what time is it?’

    ‘Five fifteen.’

    ‘Later than I thought. Well, you made your point. You have rules an’ I suppose I’ll have to abide by them. When six o’clock comes, I’ll take that drink.’

    ‘On the house,’ said O’Reilly. ‘Would you like a beer while you’re waitin’?’

    * * *

    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

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