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  1. #21

    Way Out West : Number Seventeen


    A battered sign, tilted twenty degrees from the perpendicular, read: ‘Bedrock. Straingers not welkum.’ Especially not if they’re literary folks, thought the Pinto Kid, noting that the population number below the hostile message had been crossed out and changed six times, reducing from 163 to 98. The Kid raced into town, bringing his green-tinted mare to a slithering, hock-wrenching halt outside the Lonesome Toad saloon. He dismounted with a leap, the operation marred only by his failure to extricate his left foot from its stirrup, a bungle that caused him to land rump-first in thick dust. It was an inauspicious entrance to an unpleasant community.

    A cadaverous oldster who occupied a rickety chair on the porch, to the left of incomers, hawked hugely and directed a nine-foot squirt of tobacco juice at the Pinto Kid’s feet, getting it within an inch of the target. ‘Missed,’ he snarled. He usually did.

    In the street, immediately in front of the sidewalk and to the Kid’s right, stood what seemed like a dummy Indian brave, immobile, unblinking and ramrod straight. Approaching this figure, the Kid waved a hand before its unresponsive face. ‘Are you real?’ he said.

    ‘I am. Name’s Billy Two-Eyes.’

    ‘Why do they call you that?’

    ‘Because I have two eyes.’

    ‘We all have. What’s different about you?’

    ‘I didn’t say anything was. You’re the one with the questions.’

    ‘Good point,’ said the Kid, using the Indian’s leathery cheek to strike a match, which he applied to his own mouth before realising that he hadn’t inserted a smoke.

    The saloon’s batwing doors swung open, revealing the owner, Ned Falselove, a tall bald monstrously obese man, sweat-beads bespangling his pasty visage. His small black eyes – two raisins in a pat of dough – fixed on the newcomer. ‘What’s wrong with your horse, mister? he said. ‘Queer colour. She sick or somethin’?’

    ‘She’s a paint,’ snapped the Kid. ‘You heard of a paint horse, ain’t you?’

    ‘Sure, but I didn’t know they was hand-painted.’

    ‘Mescalero,’ the Kid responded enigmatically.

    His interest exhausted, Falselove moved his mountain of lard back into its gloomy lair. The Pinto Kid pranced up the two steps to the sidewalk, snagging his troublesome left boot-heel on the overhanging plank. He recovered his balance with commendable agility. ‘Damned foot,’ he muttered. The cud-chewing old-timer cackled maniacally, then lolled back in his chair, eyes closed, attention probably occupied by some idea making its lonely way around whatever served him as a mind.

    The Kid inflated his chest to its full thirty-four inches, then flung open the swing doors before starting to step inside. Being controlled by unusually strong springs, the batwings returned sharply, striking him amidships. He tottered backwards and sideways, caught his posterior on the hitch rail and made a three-quarter turn which deposited him face-down in the street. ‘Damned doors,’ he mumbled. Rising quickly, he bounded back onto the sidewalk and adroitly avoided another ejection of the once more wide awake old-timer’s tobacco juice. Negotiating the saloon doors, this time successfully, he swaggered to the bar, slapping his palms hard on the greasy splintered deal surface. It was a painful gesture, causing him to jam ringing hands into his armpits.

    ‘What’s it to be, feller?’ said Falselove. ‘Sarsaparilla or milk?’ His heap of blubber shook as he enjoyed the witticism.

    The Kid summoned a steely glint. ‘Look, mister,’ he replied, ‘I don’t nohow and nowise take none o’ them sissy drinks. Not now, nor never. See?’

    Ned chuckled. ‘You’re big on negatives. Why are you talkin’ so funny?’

    ‘I have to. I’m the Pinto Kid.’

    ‘Well, you sound like a loony to me.’

    ‘Look here, Shorty,’ said the Kid, staring up nine inches into the saloon-keeper’s eyes, ‘I don’t cotton to folks what don’t – ‘

    ‘Give it a rest,’ Falselove interrupted. He produced a sawn-off shotgun, rammed the twin barrels under the Kid’s chin and twitched them upwards, stretching his visitor’s neck by three inches. ‘See here,’ he grunted, his mirthless grin revealing an interesting mosaic of black and yellow teeth, ‘if you’ve come here to act mean, you’re in the wrong place.’

    ‘Why?’ said the Kid, squawking on account of his distorted vocal chords.

    ‘I guess you don’t understand,’ Falselove answered. ‘This is a tough town. I’m the softest man around, an’ even I’m givin’ you trouble. Now, if you was to meet some real rough company, like maybe Oxbow Duggan, you’d soon eat craw.’

    ‘Eat what?’


    ‘What’s that?’

    ‘I don’t know. It’s just an expression we have in these parts.’

    ‘Well, you must be mighty queer folks if you say things an’ don’t know what they mean. Anyway, as it happens, I’m lookin’ for Duggan.’

    ‘Mister,’ said Falselove, yanking the Kid’s face up another inch, ‘you act more like a head case than a hard case. An’ speakin’ of coincidence, here’s Oxbow hisself.’

    At that moment, the doors were torn from their hinges and hurled across the room by a raging giant. Six-foot-eight and three hundred pounds, he was dressed in wolfskins and armed with a huge rifle, two sixguns and three knives. Crazed obsidian eyes glared out from his thicket of long head hair, beard and whiskers, all jet-black. ‘Redeye,’ he yelled.

    ‘Comin’ right up,’ said the quivering saloon-keeper. ‘On the house, like always.’ He produced a bottle of rotgut whiskey and tossed it to the colossus, who smashed off the neck on a table and downed two-thirds of the liquor at a single gulp. Falselove quaked on: ‘We just got through sayin’ how nice it would be if you was to call in, Oxbow. Young feller here’s lookin’ for you. He’s the Pinto Kid.’

    Duggan’s face turned sheet-white as he dropped the bottle and his rifle. ‘Now wait a minute,’ he said, voice and body trembling in unison. ‘Easy now, Kid. I heard about you. We got no quarrel. I was only callin’ in anyway. Didn’t aim to meet you. No offence meant. I’ll be goin’ on.’ He turned and dashed through the doorway, vaulting onto a diminutive pony, hardly more than twice his own weight. ‘I gotta get myself a real hoss,’ he growled, lashing the lilliputian beast into a brisk stagger down the street.

    ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ gasped the barman.

    ‘Probably,’ the Kid replied, fingering his twin Colts as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, where his ill-fated left boot was finally struck by a jet of tobacco juice.

    ‘Third time lucky,’ screeched the oldster, instantly falling asleep.

    The Kid strolled to his horse, pulled a large sack from his saddle-roll, enbagged the wizened fogey and with a show of amazing strength whirled him one-handed for half a minute before flinging him across the street, where he thudded against the adobe wall of a store. Mounting his horse, the Kid left Bedrock. ‘Just another town,’ he soliloquised. ‘They’re all the same.’

    * * *

    The above trip into lunacy is the last ‘Way Out West’ item for the time being – all together now: ‘Oh, what a relief!’ There may be one or two more later, if I can persuade my mind to return to its normal deranged state. Cj

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

    Hidden Content

  2. #22

    Way Out West : Number Eighteen


    At shortly after nine o’clock on a cold, overcast Saturday morning, Pete Weeble was standing on the boardwalk outside the Mercantile Bank in a small Idaho town. He’d stood at the same spot at the same time on the two immediately preceding Saturdays and had noted that apart from him, the street had been deserted, as it was now. There wouldn’t be a better time for what he intended to do.

    Swiftly fastening a neckerchief over his lower face, Pete pulled a handgun from a coat pocket and burst into the bank. Directly in front of him, at a distance of fifteen feet, the teller stood behind the counter. In his early sixties, of medium height and slim build, he was a permanently irritable fellow. Twenty feet behind him, the manager sat at a battered desk, totting up figures in a huge ledger. He was about the same age and height as the teller, but considerably bulkier and, except when dealing with a questionable loan application, marginally less peppery. There were no other staff members and no customers.

    Pete took two strides towards the counter, waggled his gun and started to speak, then nature took over. “Stick . . . sti . . . st . . . atishoo!” was what came out of him. A major sneeze expels air from a human body at great speed. On this occasion the blast was accompanied by morsels of breakfast. Pete was momentarily incapacitated. Among other things, the gust that rushed from him blew his neckerchief up almost to the horizontal, so that nearly all of his face was briefly revealed.

    When Pete recovered such poise as he could, he saw that the teller was staring at him and sneering. “If you were about to say ‘stick ’em up’”, he said, “I’ve no intention of doing that.”

    “Oh, and what about this?” Pete retorted, brandishing his weapon.

    “Son,” said the teller, “if you want to hit anything intentionally, you’ll need to get the kink out of your gun barrel. You could shoot around corners with that thing.”

    Still discomfited by being shaken from top to bottom, Pete was further put out by the surprising comment. He looked down to inspect the perfectly straight barrel of his .44. “There’s nothing wrong with my shooter,” he snapped.

    “Nothing wrong with mine, either,” replied the teller, who had used the intentional distraction to whip out a shotgun from under the counter.

    Pete’s weapon wavered in his unsteady hand. “Seems we have a stand-off,” he said, his quavering tone failing to convince himself, let alone the teller.

    “No we haven’t. Evidently you don’t know much about this kind of thing. Pistols aren’t much good except at very close range. Even if you could hold that one straight, you’d have a less than even chance of hitting me from where you stand, whereas I could hardly miss you with this cannon. By the way, I see you’re the Weeble boy from Loonyville.”

    “No I ain’t. I’m the Cottonwood Kid. And don’t call my hometown Loonyville. It’s Birch Creek.”

    “There you go. You’ve pretty well admitted it. Not that you needed to. Seeing your face wasn’t really necessary. That squawky voice of yours would have been enough. And don’t say ‘ain’t’. I’m sure you were brought up to know better than that.” Keeping his eyes fixed on Pete, he shouted to the manager, who had been too preoccupied with his arithmetic to notice what was happening. “A lad here wants to rob us, boss. What would you like me to do with him?”

    “Damn,” said the manager, “I was nearly at the bottom of this column. Now I’ll have to go over it again. Er . . . inform him that we’re not in the market for any robberies today and tell him to go away.”

    The teller gave Pete a sour look. “You heard what the chief said. Personally, I’d have you locked up, but it seems like your lucky day. Now scoot. If you’re not out of this town in one minute, you’ll get a backside full of buckshot.”

    The thoroughly embarrassed Pete needed no second bidding. He dashed from the bank. Having intended to make a speedy getaway, he’d left his horse untethered. The animal had taken the opportunity to wander off forty yards along the street to the water trough outside the blacksmith’s forge. It was now turned with its backside facing its owner.

    Hurrying towards his mount, Pete did some quick thinking. He recalled having seen some fancy riding at a rodeo and decided he would emulate what one of the performers had done. Prancing up to the horse, he placed his hands on its haunches and vaulted into the saddle. His crotch hit the leather with a thud that made him gasp and sent a wave of nausea flowing through him.

    Regaining a modicum of composure occupied Pete for what remained of the period of grace he’d been given to leave town. He then ordered the horse to head off. The animal was in a recalcitrant mood and more interested in drinking than flight. Ignoring Pete's instruction, it turned back to the trough. Anxious to expedite his departure, Pete kicked the creature in the ribs. The horse took exception to that and bucked, tossing its owner into the street. He rose with a curse, clambered aboard the beast again and continued urging it to get moving.

    Well over two minutes after Pete had left the bank, he was still trying to induce the horse to obey him, when he heard footsteps at his rear. A moment later he was looking into the eyes of the town marshal, Fred Hopkins. Having emerged from his office at the same moment that Pete had started running along the street, the lawman, whose waistline circumference was not much less than his height, had waddled along to establish what was going on. As he’d passed the bank, the teller had given him a quick summary of what had happened.

    With a stern look at Pete, the marshal said: “Now, young man, what do you mean by barging into our town and disturbing the peace? And anyway, what’s a whippersnapper of your age doing with a gun?”

    “I’m old enough,” Pete answered. “I’m pushing twenty.”

    “Pushing from how far away? Sixteen?”


    “Try again, and tell the truth this time.”


    Well, I ought to arrest you, but I’m sixty-one years of age, I’m tired and I don’t like paperwork. You’re young enough to straighten yourself out, so I’m going to give you a chance to do that. But if you decide to carry on with the desperado way of life, I’ll give you some advice. First, get in a lot of practice, preferably with an experienced bandit. You’ll never be competent until you’ve learned the trade, like any apprentice. Second, buy a decent horse. I suspect this nag you have here is wind-broken. Anyway, whatever you do, do it somewhere else.”

    Satisfied with his lecture, the marshal gave Pete’s horse a resounding slap on the rump. The startled beast bucked a second time, once more unseating its rider, who again found himself sprawled in the street. Hopkins shook his head, flapped a dismissive hand at the scene and ambled back to his office.

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

    Hidden Content

  3. #23

    The settlement of Benstock was a meeting point for people scattered thinly over several hundred square miles of Wyoming. It wasn’t a place that normally detained strangers for more than an hour or two, one reason being that they were seldom given a hearty welcome by the inward-looking locals. This frosty attitude meant that almost everyone on the move was glad to get out of the hamlet as quickly as possible.

    Shortly before noon on a hot summer day in 1891, a newcomer appeared. He stayed no longer than the average visitor, but while there he caused quite a stir. He arrived alone, driving an eye-catching four-wheeled two-seater covered chaise. The handsome little carriage had hardwood coachwork painted black and yellow and was drawn by one horse. After stopping at the livery barn to arrange short-term care for his animal, the man set out to seek refreshment. Halfway along Benstock’s only street, he paused. To his left was a dingy no-name saloon. Facing it, on the east side, stood a small eating house.

    Opting for drink before food, the man entered the saloon. There were nine men already in the barroom and every pair of eyes fixed upon him. No wonder, for he was a striking figure. A shade over six feet in height, he was of slightly slimmer than average build. His clean-shaven face was pale and he wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses. What really drew attention was his attire. It comprised an immaculate black cutaway coat, equally flawless black trousers, a yellow five-button waistcoat, a stiff-collared white shirt, a crimson silk puff tie and gleaming black shoes. His hat was a straw boater, perhaps not totally congruous with the rest of his apparel and probably a concession to the weather.

    Seemingly oblivious of having aroused general interest, the newcomer strode over to where the barman, Joe Dobbs, stood gaping at him. “Good morning,” he said. “I will take a glass of your best sherry.” His accent was unmistakably that of an upper-class Englishman.

    Dobbs, a notoriously grumpy fellow, returned the man’s smile with a grimace. “You’ll what?” he snapped.

    “I believe my enunciation was clear, but to repeat, I will take a glass of your best sherry. I would prefer a fino. Failing that, an amontillado will suffice, but I must eschew oloroso – too full-bodied for this time of day.”

    Dobbs was getting the idea that the man wanted a drink. “We sell beer an’ whisky,” he growled. “Which’ll it be?”

    The dandy made a wry face. “I will have whisky. Scotland’s finest, if you please.”

    “I don’t keep it,” Dobbs replied. “I got redeye an’ I got rotgut,” Make your choice, an’ make it quick.”

    “Give me the less toxic kind.”

    Dobbs had no idea what toxic meant. He selected the more venomous of his two offerings. “You want the bottle?” he asked.

    “Goodness, no. A tot will do. Purely a pre-prandial primer, if you will pardon my alliteration. A little aperitif for my impending Lucullan repast at your restaurant across the road.”

    That sped past Dobbs like a bullet. He didn’t attempt an answer. The stranger took a sip of the ulcerating liquor, grimaced and knocked back the rest. He paid with a dollar and didn’t pause for change, which suited Dobbs. The Englishman was halfway to the door when a rough voice called to him. “Hey, fancy man, you ain’t leavin’ here before you say you’re sorry for all that insultin’ talk.”

    The dandy turned to find a massively built, belligerent-looking fellow glaring at him. “Are you addressing me?” he asked.

    “Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you.” The speaker was Tom Egan, a chronically aggressive man who was always ready to start a brawl, especially with a stranger who would rise to the bait. The fact that his words were not entirely appropriate did not trouble him. “I reckon it’s time for me to teach you some manners.” He moved across the room and stood facing the dandy at a distance of six feet, big fists at the ready.

    To Egan’s surprise, the Englishman smiled, not seeming at all apprehensive. “I was not aware of uttering any insults,” he said. “However, you appear to be intent on fighting. It is only fair for me to warn you that I am not unversed in the art and science of pugilism, so the contest may not be a fair one. However, if you insist on taking a risk, by all means do so.” As though taking off a cloak, he had suddenly shed all trace of the effete, foppish demeanour he had displayed earlier. Now there was the light of anticipation in his eyes.

    The onlookers were agog. Over the past few years, Egan had thrashed at least a dozen men in Benstock, some in the saloon, others outdoors. Superficially, the impending encounter seemed like a mismatch. The dandy was the taller man by about two inches, but was conceding a good forty pounds in weight. He also looked to be ten or twelve years older than Egan, who was in his middle twenties. Had there been time to place bets, the spectators would have put every penny on the local man, who would certainly have backed himself to the hilt. Pointing at the dandy’s face, he rasped: “You better take them glasses off.”

    The dandy shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. Unless you are highly proficient in the field of boxing, you are not likely to get anywhere near them. Excuse me while I remove my hat.” He half-turned to do that. Egan, not content with having boundless confidence in his ability to prevail on even terms, tried to cheat by taking his man unawares. He moved in quickly, but wasn’t fast enough. Somehow the dandy sensed what was coming. He whipped around and his right arm shot out like a ramrod. The punch took Egan amidships. He gasped and went down, his backside thumping the floorboards with an impact that shook the room. He sat, almost jackknifed and struggling for air. The dandy folded his arms and waited.

    Egan overcame his surprise and pain, got to his feet and charged in, but didn’t get far before he found himself on the end of a series of rapid, stabbing left-hand blows which peppered his eyes and nose, preventing him from getting to close quarters with his opponent. The dandy moved to and fro like lightning, his menacing right cocked. Finally he unleashed it and Egan, caught on the chin, crashed down again, this time flat on his back, where he remained for nearly ten seconds. When he’d hauled himself upright, he moved forwards, trying to get to grips with the dandy, but being tattooed once more around his upper face by that long, unerring and seemingly tireless left.

    The exhibition continued for a further two minutes, at the end of which time Egan’s right eye was blackening and almost closed and the left one was quickly following suit. He could barely see the dandy, who showed no sign of fatigue. Making an effort to execute a bear hug, Egan flung himself at his man, only to be caught with another savage right hook. He went down for the third time, head hitting the floorboards, eyes glazing. He wasn’t unconscious, but was probably concussed. Still, he managed to get up once more.

    The dandy held up a hand, palm outwards. “Enough,” he said. “If you persist with this foolishness, you will be severely injured. Now be a good fellow and have a drink on me.” He produced a coin and tossed it to Dobbs. “Barman, give him anything he desires.”

    A cowpuncher called out from a far corner: “The man’s right, Tom. You’d better call it a day. You’ve been knocking hell out his fists with your face.” As laughter broke out, Egan wobbled to the bar, accepting defeat for the first time in his life.

    “A remarkable performance, sir.” The voice came from Amos Langley, who owned a large ranch north of Benstock. A middle-aged man and socially a cut above the other locals in the room, he had been enjoying himself immensely, first by following the Englishman’s flowery speech, then by watching the demolition of Tom Egan. “However did you learn to fight that way?”

    “Oh, it’s quite the new thing. Generally speaking, a roughneck has no chance against a skilled practitioner. I have seen men of ten stone – sorry, a hundred and forty pounds in your parlance – cut much larger fellows to ribbons by speed and making maximum use of their weight. The common bruiser usually fails on both of those counts.”

    “I see. To change the subject, do you mind my asking what brings you to this remote place?”

    “Not at all. I am trying to see as much of your land as my time permits. I have always felt drawn to it. The affinity is mixed with a sense of deep sorrow that our two countries experienced that unfortunate episode rather over a century ago.

    “I regret that too. There should have been a more amicable conclusion.”

    “Yes. It is distressing that governments allow these things to happen when they should be straining every sinew to prevent them. If the puppeteers who sit in safety and send soldiers and sailors to face death and mutilation were to face the same fate themselves, they would be less inclined to belligerence.”

    Langley nodded. “You won’t get any argument from me about that.”

    “I’m glad you concur. Perhaps one day we shall reach a position in which ordinary people all over the world will be able to communicate with each other instantly. That might induce them to force their leaders to avoid warfare. It is my opinion that if there had been true democracies in Britain and here at the time we are speaking of, our two populations would have applied pressure to those in high public office and insisted on a peaceful settlement.”

    “I agree, but since that didn’t happen, may I ask where you would have stood in the matter had you been present on this side of the Atlantic when conflict became unavoidable?”

    “I would have taken the revolutionaries’ side. Indeed, had I been in Concord when the sad event began, I would most likely have offered myself as a two-minuteman.”

    “Why not a minuteman?”

    “I am not what you would call the precipitate type.”

    Langley laughed. “An extra minute to think things over, eh? Very good. Well, you provide a refreshing conversation, and I don’t get many of them.”

    “Nor do I. Now, that bout of exercise has sharpened my appetite, so if you will excuse me I shall attempt to satisfy it.” He headed towards the door.

    “You ain’t just walkin’ out like that.” This was Egan, speaking from the bar. Paying little heed to his impaired sight, he had drawn his gun.

    The dandy turned and to everyone’s astonishment, walked to within three feet of Egan, fiddled in his left coat sleeve, produced single-shot Derringer and said: “You might have been able to shoot me with impunity while I was over yonder. At this range you cannot. If you were to use your gun, I would reciprocate and almost certainly we would both die. The difference between us is that you may well have many years of life ahead of you, whereas I have an ailment which will certainly cause my demise within a few weeks. Therefore, you have potentially far more to lose than I have. In fact, I would welcome a swift exit, so if you wish to fire, do so at once.”

    For a moment, Egan stared at the man, utterly bemused, then he holstered his weapon. “Aw, hell,” he grunted, “get goin’.”

    The dandy turned and headed for the door again. The sight of his back was too much of a temptation for Egan, who began to draw his gun a second time. “Stop that!” Amos Langley’s voice whipcracked across the room. He glared at Egan. “You were beaten fair and square, and you were outfaced likewise. Now put that pistol away. As long as he stays here, the Englishman is under my protection and anyone who does him harm will answer to me.”

    Langley was the most formidable man with a handgun for many a mile around and even though he hadn’t used his .45 in anger for a long time, nobody in the area would have wished to try conclusions with him. As Egan rammed his gun back into its holster for the second time, the dandy turned, gave Langley a slight nod – one gentleman to another – and strolled off to get his meal, a beef stew. He left Benstock immediately after eating it and never returned.

    * * *
    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. #24

    Dave Merrick was making his way southwest from Montana and had almost reached the southern end of Colorado. He was in no hurry and didn’t have any particular destination in mind. For the time being, his bankroll was adequate to support his frugal lifestyle and he would look for work again when he had to. That wasn’t likely to be a problem because he had plenty of experience as a ranch hand, had done a wide variety of other jobs and was usually willing to try whatever came up.

    At thirty-four, Merrick was trying to put off the day when he might have to settle down. So far, he was footloose and fancy free and had hopes of remaining that way for some time. It was a few minutes after ten in the morning of a mid-August day and a brief downpour of rain had temporarily freshened up the hot, humid atmosphere.

    With his horse at a plod, Merrick was passing through open country when he came upon an apparently abandoned homestead. Cutting across it, he was startled to hear what sounded like a human voice, though there was nobody in sight. Thinking that the dilapidated old shack ahead of him might be occupied, he headed for it. To reach it, he had to pass a well and it was there that he heard the sound again. Yes, it was a voice all right, and to his amazement it seemed to be coming from the well.

    Merrick dismounted and peered over the well’s circular stone wall. He couldn’t see the bottom clearly. “Who’s down there?” he called out. The answer was an indistinct moan. The well was topped by two posts fixed to the stonework and connected by a free-turning iron pole with a handle, but there was neither a bucket nor a rope.

    Fortunately, Merrick had a lariat. He attached it to the pole and with a few a bumps and grazes, lowered himself to the bottom of the shaft, where he found a man lying awkwardly atop a scatter of loose stones. “How did you get down here?” Merrick asked. The reply was an unintelligible groan. “Never mind,” said Merrick. “I’ll try to get you out.” There was just enough free rope for him to make a loop around the injured man’s chest and tighten it under his armpits, then Merrick used his own belt to strap the man’s arms to his sides, so that they wouldn’t be accidentally pulled over his head during the ascent.

    Scrambling back up was harder than getting down, but Merrick made it without mishap, then he began turning the pole handle to haul the man up the shaft. It was hard work but in ten minutes the fellow was lying beside the well, grunting and gasping. Merrick carried him over to the shack, which didn’t offer much shelter, as more than half of the roof was scattered across the floor.

    Merrick fetched his water bottle and managed to get the man to take a few sips. That enabled him to answer when asked how long he’d been in the well. “Not sure. I think it was five days. I scooped up a little water down there.” When questioned about his injuries, he replied: “Hurts like hell everywhere.” He gave his name as Eli Roach, then lost consciousness.

    For several hours, Dave Merrick thought that Roach wouldn’t regain his senses, but he finally surfaced late in the afternoon, albeit in no better condition than he had been earlier. He couldn’t eat anything, but was able to respond when asked how he’d wound up in the well. “I was thrown down there,” he said.

    “Who did that?”

    “Feller named Dan Crow.”

    “Why did he do it?”

    “Just wanted my money – twenty-seven dollars. I was restin’ here for a while when he came by. Started out all friendly, then jumped me when I wasn’t lookin’. Took my horse as well.”

    “And you didn’t know him?”

    “Never saw him before.”

    “So he had no reason for what he did, except to rob you?”

    “That’s right. Guess he left me for dead.”

    Merrick shook his head. “What a lousy trick.”

    Roach seemed to go into a kind of delirium. He babbled incoherently, his breathing was stertorous and blood dribbled intermittently from his mouth. At shortly after eight in the evening he opened his eyes and saw Merrick still sitting by his side. With a great effort, he spoke: “I guess I’m about to cash in my chips.”

    Merrick nodded. “I’m sorry to say that I think you are.”

    “Well, would you do somethin’ for me?”

    “Sure. What is it?”

    “If you ever come across Dan Crow, maybe you’d mention me. You might even pay him back for what he did here, but you’d better not give him much time to talk about it. He gets into action mighty quick.”

    “I’ll deal with him. That’s a promise. Any way I can recognise him, apart from his name?”

    “He’s very tall and thin. Around six-two an’ I’d say he weighs less than one-fifty, but don’t let that fool you. He’s tough and real strong. Oh, an’ he has tooth missin’. Top front one, on his right side. I doubt he’ll get that fixed. Then there’s his hat.”

    “What about it?”

    “It’s a real expensive one, so I don’t think he’d change it. It’s low-crowned, light brown an’ he must’ve had an accident with it at some time. Left side as you look at it, near the front, where the brim curls. It’s kinda singed. Big dark patch. You can’t miss it.”

    The effort of talking so much in his condition was the last straw for Roach. He’d been struggling all along. He tried to add something but after panting and choking for about twenty seconds, he gave a final gurgle and died.

    The following morning, Merrick looked for some implement he could use to bury Roach. Finding nothing, he settled for covering the corpse with pieces of the shack’s fallen sod roof, topped off with stones, which he had to carry from the homestead’s periphery.

    Having done what he saw as his duty, Merrick rode off. As did so, he was struck by a thought. If Roach and Crow were not acquainted before they met at the well, how did Roach know his assailant’s name? It seemed hardly likely that a man intending to kill a stranger would introduce himself. And why had Roach cautioned Merrick against allowing Crow to talk about what had happened? Ah, well, there wasn’t a lot of sense in pondering on either point. Not much chance that he’d encounter this Crow fellow.

    On a July morning, nearly two years after the incident at the well and over three hundred miles from the place, Dave Merrick was riding along aimlessly. Having plenty on his mind, he thought only occasionally and fleetingly about the late Eli Roach. With the Sun beating down and the temperature close to three figures, he approached a small Texas town. It comprised about thirty drab, shabby buildings, all of timber, with barely a lick of paint to be seen on any of them. There was a single street running north-south, with one narrow alley on either side, and unlike so many other communities, this one didn’t even boast a town sign proclaiming its name to anyone approaching.

    It was shortly before eleven when Merrick rode into the town. No mathematician would have been able to calculate the odds against what was about to happen to him within a few minutes of his arrival, for that depended upon several imponderables. One of these was the remote chance of the meeting of two specific men wandering around the West’s vastness, one of them unaware that the other had a score, albeit a vicarious one, to settle with him. Another factor was Merrick’s mental state. Normally a fairly relaxed fellow, he was now depressed and edgy. He hadn’t been able to find work for far too long and his funds were at a record low level. He was close to the end of his tether, primed to explode if anything occurred to annoy him – and it did.

    Merrick’s forward foot landed on the boardwalk immediately outside the entrance to the Lone Star saloon at the precise instant that its batwing doors opened and a small, skinny man hurtled out backwards, evidently propelled by some considerable force. He cannoned into Merrick and the two men tumbled into the street, the ejectee uppermost. That was the last straw for Merrick. He pushed the little fellow aside, sprang up and barged into the saloon. Without looking around, he bawled: “Who threw that jasper my way?”

    The bar ran along the room from front to rear, a little to Merrick’s right. Directly in front of him, at a distance of ten feet or so, a man stood, arms akimbo, hat pushed back, seemingly satisfied with what he had just done. “I did,” he replied. “What of it?”

    “I don’t care to have gents tossed at me,” Merrick growled.

    “You aim to do something about it?”

    “I’ll settle for a nice apology, and if I don’t get it, I’ll take it out of your hide.” At an inch under six feet, scaling a hundred and ninety pounds and handy with his fists, Merrick had no doubt that he could be as good as his word if that proved necessary.

    The man sniggered. “First, that feller isn’t big enough to have hurt you much. Second, I’m through with brawling for today, so if you want to make anything of this, you’ll have to do it with a gun.”

    “I don’t have one.”

    The man turned to the barkeeper. “Give him one, Andy,” he snapped.

    “Okay, if that’s the way you want it, Dan.” The barman bent, fumbled around on a low shelf, produced a forty-five and handed it to Merrick. “It’s loaded,” he said.

    Merrick might have been able to bring the matter to a non-violent end, but he was too worked up to think about that option. Though he’d handled six-shooters before, he was no gunman. He shoved the weapon into his right pants pocket, which would have to serve as a holster. Clearly untroubled by the prospect of flying lead, the tall man grinned – and it was then that the penny dropped for Merrick. He was looking at a man named Dan, six-two in height and very slim. The hat brim showed a singed patch and the open mouth revealed that the right-side upper front tooth was missing. This was the fellow who had put Eli Roach into that well in Colorado. “I guess your name’s Crow,” said Merrick.

    “That’s right. What’s it to you?”

    “Just that a couple of years ago you left a man named Roach to die at the bottom of a well, quite a way northeast of here. I promised that if I ever ran into you, I’d even the score for him, and I’m in the mood to do that now.”

    Crow nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I was responsible for Roach being in that well. Didn’t expect him to get out.”

    “I got him out. He died a few hours later. Now, are you ready to pay up?”

    “Mister, you’re a fool, but I’ll accommodate you and I don’t aim to talk all day. Draw!”

    Even at that last moment, Merrick could have backed down, but he was seeing red and completely carried away. He made a slow and awkward job of pulling out the bulky revolver. Before he had it level, he’d been struck by two bullets, one in the chest and one in the abdomen. He fell backwards. Crow strode over to him, went down on one knee by his side and said: “Believe it or not, I feel bad about this. I should have tried to talk you out of gunplay.”

    Speaking with great difficulty, Merrick answered: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s a pity we were both riled up at the same time. Probably more my fault than yours.”

    Crow shook his head. “I don’t think so. Anyway, while you can still hear me, I’ll tell you about Eli Roach. He spent two days as a guest in my home. You don’t need to know why. While I was out, he raped my wife and beat her on the head with a branding iron. She lived just long enough to tell me. It was over a year before I caught up with that louse. I didn’t exactly drop him down the well. I hit him and he fell into it. Now you know the whole story, and maybe you’ll appreciate that it was none of your business. If you hadn’t been in such a hurry to fight, you might have heard the truth in time to save your skin.”

    Merrick was fading fast and struggled to reply. “I understand,” he wheezed finally. “I guess I’m about to cash in my chips.”

    Crow nodded. “I’m sorry to say that I think you are.”

    Somehow, through his agony, the thought came to Merrick that this last exchange of words was, with the positions reversed, exactly the same as the one he’d had at the well in Colorado, just before Eli Roach died. Then he too left this world.

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 17th, 2019 at 12:51 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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