Way Out West : Incident In Texas And Others


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  1. #1

    Way Out West : Incident In Texas And Others

    The story below is the first of what I expect to be a number of tales roughly along the lines of my earlier Sunset Stories but much shorter. My intention is to make most of these yarns predominantly serious but I intend to include humorous aspects in some of them. I hope readers will find them entertaining.

    INCIDENT IN TEXAS

    With forty minutes to go until noon, the temperature had just passed the three-figure mark. It was going to be a scorching day. Not one of the townspeople was outdoors. The only sign of movement in that baking heat was a horseman coming in from the west. Inside the grandiosely named Western Palace saloon the owner, Ed Martin, sat on his stool behind the bar that ran along the rear of the room. He was diagonally leftward of anyone coming in.

    In the shady front corner, also to the left of incomers, the elderly swamper was on all fours, cleaning up a mess left the previous night. This fellow, Tom – he hadn’t mentioned his surname and nobody had shown any interest in knowing it – had arrived in town six months earlier, seeking employment. Now he spent some of his working hours tidying the saloon and the rest helping out in the livery barn, where he slept in the loft. When asked his age, he’d said that he was a little over sixty, leading one wag to retort that in flattering light the old boy might pass for eighty-five.

    The only customers were two young cowboys who were having a second go at the hair of the proverbial dog. This was Monday and they had been in town since Saturday evening. Because they were too drunk to return to their ranch, the town marshal had invited them to spend the night in jail. Not needing to work on the Sunday, they had treated themselves to another binge and a second night as the marshal’s guest. Now they were making the most of their last couple of hours before going back to their duties.

    The two cowpokes were at the north end of the long bar, twenty-odd feet from Martin. They were having fun at his expense, mostly by trying to think of appropriate names for what they were drinking. It was nominally whiskey, but they had found a few other expressions to indicate their feelings. Coffin varnish was their latest effort, to which Martin had retorted that they lacked originality, as the term was old and overused.

    Though their remarks were made in fun, the cowboys were perhaps closer to the mark than they realised, for Martin was much like many another saloon-keeper in that part of the world, in that he was not averse to selling sub-standard liquor. When it came to whiskey, he often supplied neat alcohol mixed with tea, burnt sugar, chewing tobacco or any other liquid he could find to impart the right hue. And the provenance of his main ingredient was sometimes questionable. A customer had once asked Martin half in jest whether it was ethyl or methyl. The reply was short and cutting, but so ambiguous that it hadn’t entirely dispelled the doubts of some other patrons. One certainty was that the most common description of the stuff, rotgut, was accurate enough.

    Outside, a burst of foot-stamping and beating of clothes heralded the arrival of the lone horseman, who was shedding dust before entering the saloon. Batting open the swing doors, he stepped in and took a slow look around before walking over to the bar, midway between Martin and the cowboys. About thirty-five years of age, he was a little under six feet in height, burly and with the exception of a white shirt, clad in black. His jacket was short enough to allow him easy access to a walnut-handled Colt forty-five revolver, worn low on his right thigh and held to his leg by a leather thong, indicating that he was a man accustomed to drawing in a hurry.

    As if to bear out what the young cowpunchers had been saying, the newcomer demanded a bottle of Martin’s best whiskey. That meant he wanted a widely recognised brand and that he expected the vessel to be stoppered and sealed. No moonshine for this customer. The Western Palace kept only one such product, but it seemed to satisfy the stranger, who helped himself to a generous measure, knocked it back and poured another.

    Ed Martin was garrulous enough with people he knew, but taciturn with others, so he didn’t make any effort to converse with the newcomer, who also gave no evidence of wishing to talk. As he worked his way slowly through his second drink, he stared down at the bar, seemingly sunk in thought.

    A few minutes before midday, the cowhands were about ready to leave, which was all right with Martin, as they were becoming increasingly noisy. Suddenly the stranger looked their way. “Cut out that damned racket,” he growled.

    One of the cowboys, Charlie Sawyer, a fair-haired fellow in his early twenties, stared at the man. “Mister,” he said, “you’d better watch your manners or somethin’ bad could happen to you.”

    The stranger squared away from the bar and faced Sawyer. “And just who might make it happen?” he replied quietly.

    Sawyer was a brash young man at any time. Now, with a few drinks in him, he was more than usually so. A wiser man would have noted not only the stranger’s thonged gun, but also his menacing stance, the arms hanging loosely, the fingers of his right hand a little below the butt of his weapon. The cowboy didn’t seem to register either point.”

    Could be me,” he retorted. “An’ who the hell do think you are, comin’ in here an’ tellin’ us how to talk?”

    “Oh, I know who I am,” the stranger answered, still in that low tone of voice. “My name is Lee Barstow.”

    A look of alarm appeared on Sawyer’s face. “You . . . you the man they call Black Death Barstow?” he said.

    The man nodded. “Some do.”

    Now Sawyer understood what the exchange of words had brought upon him. There was no more notorious gunslinger than Barstow. Apart from himself, nobody knew how many men he’d killed but his tally was certainly in double figures. Ed Martin saw trouble brewing and called out from behind the bar: ”Now take it easy, gents. There’s no need for – ”

    “Shut up,” snapped Barstow, not taking his gaze from Sawyer. “This boy here practically called me out. Now he’ll have to back up his words. Come on, sonny,” he taunted. “Make something bad happen to me.”

    Sawyer had a sixgun stuffed under his belt. He was a better than average shot and could hardly miss from this range of twelve feet, but he wasn’t particularly fast with his gun and certainly nothing like a match for Barstow. He looked into the deadly gunman’s fathomless black eyes. “Just a minute, mister, I’m – ”

    “No excuses,” Barstow interrupted. “It’s time for you to make your move. I’m not a patient man, so don’t keep me waiting.”

    Suddenly there was a change in Sawyer’s posture. He stood straighter and crooked his right arm, putting the hand close to his gun, which was at his left-hand side, butt reversed for a cross-draw. He seemed to have decided to go through with the fight. For a brief moment Barstow was slightly puzzled. He’d expected the ranch hand to start begging to be be let off. The fool now appeared to be setting himself for a burst of suicidal bravado.

    Sawyer tensed his slim frame and shouted to the saloon-keeper: “Call it, Ed.”

    For five seconds, there was total silence, then Martin yelled: “Now!”

    Barstow whipped up his gun at lightning speed, but he didn’t level it. Instead he felt the thudding impact of a full pint bottle against the back of his head. Eyes glazing, he sank to his knees as his dropped weapon hit the floor. Standing behind him was the scrawny little swamper, bottle aloft again ready to administer another blow. He didn’t need to. Barstow remained in a state of involuntary balance for a second, and that was all the time Sawyer needed. He’d intended to try to shoot his opponent in the chest, that being the biggest target on offer. As it turned out, Barstow’s slow collapse put his head briefly where his torso had been and Sawyer’s bullet struck him an inch above the bridge of his nose.

    The young cowboy watched open-mouthed as his adversary pitched face-down to the sawdust, the forward momentum caused by the blow to his head more than counteracting the bullet’s opposing force. The scene was frozen for a moment, then Sawyer, who had been staring at the dead man, turned his attention to the swamper. “I’m mighty grateful to you, Tom,” he said. “If you hadn’t taken a hand like that, he’d have killed me for sure. But how did you get that bottle of whiskey without goin’ to the bar?”

    “It isn’t whiskey. The bottle was on the table back there, empty. When I saw what was coming up, I filled it with water from my bucket. Thought it would come in handy.”

    “Well, that was quick thinkin’. Then there was the way you crept up on him.”

    “That wasn’t too hard to do. There isn’t a backbar mirror and I wear these old moccasins, so he couldn’t see or hear me.”

    “An’ you really wound yourself up to hit him so hard.”

    “I needed to with a head like his. Maybe I killed him before you got off that shot. Anyway, you don’t need to get upset about him. He’s no loss to the world. He hadn’t a decent bone in his body. Never did have.”

    Sawyer nodded. “I guess you’re right, but I seem to be gettin’ the idea that you know more about him than the rest of us do.”

    “That’s not surprising,” Tom answered, “seeing that I’m his father.”

    * * *

    Last edited by Courtjester; May 30th, 2019 at 01:50 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. #2
    Glad to see some Westerns on here--I myself am much a fan and short story writer of the genre as well.

    Overall it was a good short short story--plenty of wit, and a twist at the ending. The only things I would give for improvement would be more description of the setting and some wording changes to suit my preference, but that probably would not concern you. I would like to see more of these stories on here if you finish them.
    The beauty of writing is in the well crafted sentence.

  3. #3
    WF Veteran Elvenswordsman's Avatar
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    Bravo. Just a couple of comments on the writing.

    Thesaurus, increase your description during the dialogues (A straight wall of quotation marks is a bad sign), and round out some of your other imagery.

    Cheers, keep up the good work.

  4. #4
    A very good read...sprinkled with fun
    The only one who can heal you is you.




  5. #5
    Hello fenbields5, Elvenswordsman and escorial

    I hope you don't mind my responding to you in one message. Thank you for your comments. I'm pleased to note that there is still some interest in short Westerns and I hope to produce a dozen or so, all of which will be, as indicated at the outset, much shorter than the Sunset Stories I offered recently. At the age of seventy-seven, I find that time is indeed the great enemy, so after completing a tale, I have little opportunity to revisit it, unless I become aware of a glaring blunder.

    Best wishes, Cj

    - - - Updated - -
    Last edited by Courtjester; December 11th, 2013 at 08:18 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. #6

    Way Out West : Number Two

    PISTOLEROS

    Journey’s end. Billy Niddle stood outside the Nickel & Dime Saloon in Stovepipe, Idaho. Peering in from the sidewalk, he saw the head and shoulders of his arch-enemy, Dick Dobbins. Time for the showdown. Dobbins was slouched with his back to the bar, supporting himself with his elbows on the grubby pine surface. He was directly facing the batwing doors and staring out over them, but apparently not seeing Billy.

    The Saloon’s owner, Jack Mitchell, had given the place its name because he charged the same price, fifteen cents, for all his drinks, the variable element being quantity. A customer got a glass of beer or a shot of rum or whiskey. Mitchell didn’t sell anything else. He ran a strictly spit and sawdust business.

    Billy had decided that his method of entering the saloon would be swift, explosive and unconventional. He noted that, as usual with such establishments, there was a good deal of space below the doors. That would be his point of ingress. He drew his two six-shooters and dived across the boardwalk.

    The barroom’s few occupants were certainly surprised by Billy’s arrival, but things didn’t go entirely as he had planned. His intention was to train both guns on the spot where he guessed Dick Dobbins’ knees would be, two feet or so below his belt buckle, drill his legs from under him and finish the job with a bullet through the heart.

    As it happened, Dick’s legs were spread wide apart, so Billy’s two shots would not have done what he had in mind, even without the complication caused by the snagging of his right spur on the back of his left boot. This affected his plunge. He wound up with his chin scraping along the floorboards and the gun barrels crossed at an angle of about forty-five degrees. The two slugs made holes in the side walls, but not before the one travelling leftwards had shattered a full glass of beer which a miner was just lifting to enjoy his first drink of the day.

    Dick Dobbins now noticed his hated foe. Perceiving at once that he had been presented with a golden opportunity to get rid of Billy, he hauled out his twin .45s. However, he had within the last hour consumed ten shots of Jack Mitchell’s whiskey. That accounted for why he hadn’t seen Billy earlier, over the saloon doors. It also influenced his draw and his aim. The former was extremely clumsy, the latter wildly inaccurate. Instead of shooting Billy through the head, as he intended, he missed by over six feet with both bullets – quite a feat as the distance between his guns and Billy’s head was barely ten feet.

    Looking up from his prone position, Billy realised that he had a second chance to down his man. He pushed himself up to all fours, but that was as far as he was going to get for the time being. The miner who had been deprived of his beer snatched an almost full glass from in front of his drinking companion and hurled it at Billy. It was right on target, striking the rising man’s left temple and dropping him back flat on the floor, barely conscious.

    Now the glassy-eyed Dick Dobbins set himself for another crack at Billy. Once again he aimed his guns as well as his befuddled condition permitted. ‘Goodbye, Niddle,’ he yelled, at the very moment that Jack Mitchell grabbed his long, greasy hair from behind and yanked it hard. This intervention deflected Dick’s second pair of shots, both of which went through the ceiling.

    Mitchell then produced a sawn-off shotgun from under the bar and bellowed at the trigger-happy duo to drop their weapons. The instruction was obeyed by Dick and unnecessary for Billy, who had lost contact with his anyway. ‘Now, boys,’ said Mitchell, ‘I want you to stand up straight, facing one another, a yard apart – and no fighting or I’ll blast the pair of you.’

    The two men did as they’d been told, and Mitchell, still holding the shotgun, came out from behind the bar and stood by them, taking up the stance of a prize-fight referee about to lecture the combatants before hostilities. ‘Now, boys,’ he said, ‘I’m going to tell you a couple of home truths, then we’ll settle this matter.’

    Keeping a wary eye on both men, Mitchell picked up their guns and put them on the bar, then turned to resume his monologue. ‘I remember the pair of you from Abilene,’ he said. You were the laughing stock of the town there and I guess you have been in other places too. The first thing you need to know is that as gunslingers you’re the worst operators west of the Mississippi. I doubt that either of you could hit this saloon from across the street even when you’re sober, which most of the time you aren’t. Second thing is that I know you’re feuding over a girl you both admired. You can forget her. She’s keeping company with a man of substance and wouldn’t give you the time of day if she had two watches to do it with.’

    Billy and Dick began to speak at the same time, but Mitchell silenced them with a raised hand. ‘I’m not through yet,’ he snapped. ‘Third thing I have to say is that it’s time for somebody to tell you that in addition to your uselessness with handguns, you’re probably the dumbest pair of jackasses in the United States. Still, it’s no crime to be stupid. I guess you were born that way.’

    Michell then picked up the sixguns from the floor, put them on the bar and fiddled with them for a couple of minutes before throwing one to Billy and another to Dick. ‘There you are,’ he said, taking up the other two himself and pointing one of them at each man. ‘These two guns I’m holding are fully loaded. You have one bullet each. Holster the irons and walk away to opposite side walls, turn around and face one another.’

    The pair obeyed and Mitchell went on: ‘Now, since you’re so keen on a gunfight, what we’re going to have here is a good, old-fashioned duel, only we’ll put a twist on it. You’re going to take out your guns, hold them nice and level and spin the cylinders, then drop the hammers and reholster your weapons. When I kick the bar with the back of my heel, you’ll draw, raise your guns to shoulder level, arms straight out, then shoot, just once. If you both survive, we’ll repeat that, up to six times if necessary, and if you both get through that, we’ll call it even. Understood?’

    Spellbound, Billy and Dick nodded. When they were ready, Mitchell kicked the bar and the duellers drew and fired, then again and again, six times in all. No live round was discharged. Mitchell called the two men together again. ‘Right, lads, it’s over,’ he said. ‘Not that I care a cuss word one way or the other what you think, but are you satisfied?’

    ‘I am,’ Billy replied.

    ‘Me too,’ Dick responded, but what was all that about one shot at a time and the cylinder spinning? Did you think that made anything fairer?’

    ‘Yeah,’ said Billy. ‘I’d like to know that too.’

    Mitchell chuckled. ‘I already told you what a pair of fools you are. You think you’re gunfighters and you don’t know the first thing about that kind of game. Let me explain. There was only one bullet in each of your guns. And what happens when you put a slug into a chamber of a sixgun, hold the cylinder level, spin it, then shoot?’

    Dick shrugged. ‘You take your chance, one in six.’

    ‘Right, and sooner or later the lead flies,’ Billy added.

    Jack Mitchell shook his head. ‘You’re wrong,’ he said. ‘The fact is that the loaded chamber is heavier than the others, so it goes to the bottom every time you spin the cylinder, and the hammer never falls on it. Barring an accident, you could have pulled your triggers all day without either of you coming to harm.’

    Billy and Dick stood dumbstruck as Mitchell dropped their second guns onto the bar, then turned back to them. ‘So, you two heroes of the West, I pronounce your dispute over. Now shake hands and smile, and if you want to leave this town alive, you’d better really mean it.’

    Billy and Dick shook hands, then smiled – and they really meant it.


    After the two former enemies left the saloon, arm in arm, the miner who’d thrown his companion’s beer glass at Billy addressed Mitchell. ‘Hey, Jack, what about that stuff with the heavier chamber and cylinder spinning? Does it really work the way you said?’

    Mitchell grinned. ‘That’s what I was told by a gunsmith in Kansas. I’ve no idea whether it’s true or not, but it worked this time, didn’t it?’

    * * *
    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. #7

    Way Out West : Number Three

    GETTING THE POINT

    “So, gentlemen, to echo Julius Caesar’s words, the die is cast. I don’t know any more than the rest of you how this will work out, but we’re committed now.” The speaker was George Wilkinson, chairman of the town council. He was addressing his three fellow councillors and had just concluded his report on the assignment he’d been given at the last meeting, a week earlier.

    The town didn’t boast anything as grand as a mayor. Indeed, it had the small council only because of the initiative of Jonas Harper, who owned the hardware store. He did not want formal civic responsibilities himself, but had organised a vote and suggested how many people should be elected. His idea had been received with enthusiasm and the institution was now enjoying its third year of existence, with another election coming soon and few people expecting any of the incumbents to be unseated. So far, all council meetings had been held in the dining room of the chairman’s home.

    Wilkinson had been speaking on the topic that had become a serious local issue. For some years, the nearby Circle M ranch, under its elderly and philanthropic bachelor owner, had been a beneficial influence in the town. When the old man died, the spread was inherited by his only living relative, a nephew, who promptly sold it to a group of Bostonians, none of whom even came to see their investment. They’d appointed a foreman named Ray Stockwell, a stranger to the area, and that was when the trouble started.

    There had always been a little rowdiness in the town once a month, when the cowboys came to spend their wages, but things had never got out of hand. Barely a week after arriving at the ranch, Stockwell had sacked several of the longer-serving hands and hired replacements more to his liking. He took another step, which had proved extremely unpopular with the townspeople. Instead of restricting his men to their monthly outing, he allowed them to ride in every Saturday evening, and he accompanied them.

    Had the cattlemen controlled themselves, as their predecessors had done, their frequent presence would not have caused many raised eyebrows. After all, they put money into the local coffers. However, their conduct became increasingly rowdy and within a short time, they were terrorising the town. No Saturday evening passed without a bunch of them swaggering around drunk, blasting volleys of gunfire into the air and sometimes into buildings. It seemed increasingly likely that sooner or later somebody would get in the way of one of their bullets.

    There was no official law enforcement in the town, and until the cowboys started misbehaving, none had been necessary. The nearest lawman was eighty miles away and on being approached had curtly dismissed a request for his intervention. That rebuff had led the council to decide that a less conventional solution was needed. It was then that chairman Wilkinson had been delegated to make contact with Cole Rankin.

    It wasn’t an everyday occurrence for a community to employ a town-tamer, so there were not many men in that line of work. From what the council had been able to establish, Cole Rankin was as effective as they came. According to reports picked up by George Wilkinson, Rankin had cleared troublemakers out of at least five towns. Moreover, it seemed that once having agreed to take on a job, he had always carried it out successfully.

    The council meeting was dealing with only one item and Wilkinson was coming to the end of his report. “So there you have it,” he said. “I got in touch with Rankin through a middleman who explained our proposal and conveyed the message that we can put up three thousand dollars. Rankin said that’s well below his usual charge for this kind of job, but he claims he once spent a little time in this area, got to like it and is sympathetic to us. I sent word that we were meeting here this evening. He replied that he’d be with us at seven o’clock and it’s almost that now. I understand he has a reputation for punctuality, so I suggest we have a drink and wait.”

    The councilmen didn’t get their drink immediately. Wilkinson had just finished speaking when a knock at the door heralded the arrival of Cole Rankin, who was shown into the room by the chairman’s wife. He was about five-nine in height, slim and sallow-faced, with black eyes that gave no indication of what went on behind them. He accepted the invitation to take a seat and after a few introductory words, Wilkinson asked him how he intended to act and what arrangements he expected with regard to payment.

    “There’s only one way to do a thing like this,” the town-tamer answered. “Fast and firm. I’ll do what I have to do right away. You pay me as soon as I’ve done it, and you have my word that I’ll hang around for a little while to make sure there’s no comeback.”

    George Wilkinson’s investigation had convinced him that Rankin’s word was good with respect to remaining in town to ensure that his work didn’t have adverse repercussions. “Very well, Mr Rankin,” he said. “Now, I asked you to arrive today because it’s Saturday, so you’ll be able to see at once what we’re up against. It’s only shortly after seven and you probably heard the noise coming from Dexter’s saloon, where the cowmen go to get their fill of drink before they start scaring the townsfolk half to death.”

    Rankin nodded. “I heard them. Now, your message said that a fellow named Stockwell’s their boss. Where is he?”

    “In there with the rest of them.”

    “And he’s the one who lets it all happen, right?”

    “He’s the worst of them. He provokes the others.”

    The town-tamer got to his feet. “Okay. Wait here. I’ll be right back.” He sauntered off.

    The councillors began muttering to each other, speculating about what Rankin had in mind. They didn’t have to wait long. Being out of earshot of the din emanating from Dexter’s saloon, they were not aware that the place had suddenly fallen silent. Five minutes after he’d left the house, Rankin was back, strolling in as casually as could be. Placing his hands on the back of the chair he had occupied earlier, he said: “Stockwell won’t trouble you any more. He’s dead.”

    The councillors stared at Rankin, astounded by his statement. Wilkinson was the first to recover the power of speech. “You mean you just went in there and killed him?”

    “That’s right. One head shot. I gave his men five minutes to get out of town if they want to avoid more bloodshed, and I made it clear that they’d better not come back. I pointed out that there’s another little settlement thirty-odd miles west of here where they can go and make a nuisance of themselves. They’re already pulling out. I’ll take my pay now and stay around for a while, but those boys won’t bother you again.”

    Nobody was going to argue with Rankin about his demand for prompt payment. He collected his fee, moved into the hotel’s best room and settled down. Unfortunately for the town’s business people, he did not pay for anything, and for a man alone, he acquired a surprising variety and amount of things. It was almost as though he was challenging the locals to react to his conduct. Finally, after an impromptu council meeting, George Wilkinson approached him and expressed the general feeling.

    Rankin’s reply was disturbing. “You’d better get used to it,” he snapped. “I’ve taken a fancy to this town and I aim to stay here for a while. What’s more, I’m bringing in a few friends, and in case you’re wondering, they’ll be living on the same terms as I am.” He offered no explanation for this strange moral stance and Wilkinson was too taken aback to press him.

    It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Having been relieved of one evil, the townspeople were about to have another inflicted upon them. In one way, the impending misery seemed likely to be even worse than the one it replaced, in that the cowmen paid for what they obtained, whereas Rankin’s associates clearly would not. Also, the newcomers would be around all the time, not just on Saturdays.

    The day after Cole Rankin’s stark words to the council chairman, Jim Bland arrived back in town. He’d been away continuously for twelve years, most of that time spent at sea, where he had worked as a harpooner on a whaling boat. One reason for Bland’s return was that he’d heard of the death of his father, a widower. That event had coincided with Jim’s desire to become a landlubber again. His well-paid job had netted him a good deal of money and he’d saved most of it. Now he intended to buy a business of some kind, or at least a substantial share in one. He brought home a sample of the main tool of his trade, a memento of his seafaring days. Although harpoon guns had been in existence for many years, the hand-held weapons were still widely employed and Jim Bland, slightly above average height, broad-shouldered and possessed of remarkable strength, had been an expert in their use.

    The Bland family house was a small place at the northern edge of town. Jim moved into it immediately and set about buying provisions. Early in the afternoon of his first full day back home, he met Cole Rankin. It was a foolish encounter on the part of both men. They were strolling along the sidewalk in opposite directions and when they came face to face, neither man would move an inch to accommodate the other.

    After ten seconds of mute confrontation, Rankin said: “You’re in my way, mister.”

    “I could say the same of you,” Bland replied. “If you step aside, you’ll solve the problem.”

    “Cole Rankin steps aside for no man,” the town-tamer grated. “You’ll let me get by, if you know what’s good for you.”

    “Looks like we could be here all day,” Bland retorted. “Maybe I’ll settle this by tossing you into the street.” He’d hardly uttered his last word when Rankin reacted. With a speed that took Bland by surprise, he whipped out his handgun and slashed the barrel across the seaman’s face, then instantly struck again with a savage blow to the head. Bland fell unconscious. Rankin strode over him and went on his way.

    When Jim Bland came to, he found himself looking up at a man who helped him to his feet and escorted him to the doctor’s house, where he was examined and treated. “That’s a nasty cut, young man,” said the medico. “I think you’ll have a permanent scar on your cheek. What happened?”

    The man who’d accompanied Bland was still with him. He’d seen the incident and gave an account of it. “Damn that fellow,” said the doctor. “He’s a one-man plague. You’d better keep out of his way until we can think of something to do about him. If you cross his path again, he’ll probably kill you. We’ve already seen that he’s quite capable of murder.”

    “Do you reckon he’s the only one?” was Bland’s reply.

    Two days after injuring Jim Bland, Cole Rankin was taking his morning stroll, or rather swagger, which took him along the main street from north to south, then back again on the opposite side. As usual, everyone gave him a wide berth. Having indicated that the first of his reinforcements was imminent, he’d become even more arrogant than before.

    Thompson’s livery barn stood at the southern end of the street, twenty yards away from any other building. Rankin reached the place, turned and started back northwards. He’d gone no more than ten yards when a voice called out behind him. “Hey, Rankin. Call yourself a man. My pa’s only got one arm an’ he could take you apart. Most likely I could too.”

    The town-tamer turned and saw that the words had come from a boy of about twelve, who was standing between the barn’s double doors, which were a part-open, the gap about two feet wide.

    It was already well known in town that Rankin had a terrible temper and the boy’s taunt brought it out in all its ferocity. “Why, you little varmint,” he yelled. “We’ll just see how tough you are.” He rushed towards the lad, who at the last instant stepped nimbly back and disappeared behind the door to his left.

    Seeing that the youngster was confined to the front of the barn, and to one side at that, Rankin flung himself round the door – straight onto Jim Bland’s harpoon. Driven with all the force the seafarer had acquired through his long experience, the tip went clean through Rankin’s abdomen and protruded three inches from his back. With a stifled grunt, he folded to the ground.

    Jim Bland handed the boy a dollar, the reward he’d promised him for baiting Rankin. “You did well, son,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to see this. There’s nobody but us here now, so you’d better hop along and we’ll leave our friend here to die alone. That won’t take long.” As the boy ran off, Bland bent to remove Rankin’s gun from its holster. Then he looked down at the writhing body and spoke the last words the town-tamer would ever hear: “That’s what I call getting the point.”


    * * *
    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. #8

    Way Out West : Number Four

    STRANGER DANGER

    It was a cool, overcast late September day in the mountains of Colorado. Having just finished a breakfast of bacon and beans, a man was saddling his horse, ready to set out for a destination not yet known to him. He had made cold camp the previous night and now he looked around, wondering what direction to take. There was no well-used trail nearby, but he saw a faint track leading due south. ‘Might as well try that way as any other,’ he muttered to his mount.

    After nearly three hours of plodding progress, the rider consulted his pocket watch, noting that it was almost noon. Five minutes later he negotiated a slight kink in the track and saw straight ahead of him a town of sorts, comprising a single street, lined with about a dozen buildings on either side.

    As the man drew closer, he saw that the place seemed largely abandoned. All the structures were of severely weather-beaten timber and most were clearly unoccupied. The only one that showed any obvious sign of life was a saloon, outside which five horses stood hitched. The newcomer tethered his own animal along with the others, clumped up onto a rickety boardwalk and pushed open the swing doors. Behind the bar stood a tall thin fellow. There were five patrons, all seated at one table, playing poker, one of them mumbling something to the others.

    When the doors opened, the speaker stopped talking and all eyes turned to the newcomer. He was given no indication of welcome. There were only stares, all of which seemed to combine curiosity and hostility. The stranger walked to the bar and ordered a beer, which he received without a word from the barman. A few minutes passed in silence, then, as he was about to finish his drink and depart, one of the card players grunted: ‘You lookin’ for somethin’ or somebody, mister?’

    The stranger shook his head. ‘No. Can’t say that I am.’

    ‘On your way to somewhere in particular, are you?’

    Another head shake. ‘No. Can’t say that I am.’

    From the looks he was receiving, the stranger sensed that these men were determined to have some fun at his expense, and maybe even something beyond that. Their spokesman went on: ‘We don’t get many men callin’ on us, casual like. Mind lettin’ us know who you are?’

    This was a flagrant breach of etiquette, but the stranger merely stared at his interrogater for a moment, then replied: ‘I can’t do that.’

    That was meat and drink to the local fellow. He grinned unpleasantly. ‘You’re a real ‘can’t’ man, ain’t you?’

    The stranger shrugged. ‘Sorry if that’s a problem for you, but it’s a bigger one for me.’

    That provoked the interlocutor further. How about we just do somethin’ to loosen your tongue?’ he growled. Waving his cronies to their feet, he went on: ‘A little exercise might do us good.’ The men moved forwards, hemming the stranger in with his back to the bar. A look of alarm spread across his face. He was a big fellow, a couple of inches over six feet in height and scaling about two hundred and ten pounds, but five against one hardly seemed like a fair fight.

    As if the odds against the newcomer were not already overwhelming, the bartender took a hand. ‘This feller looks real tough,’ he chuckled. ‘Guess I should soften him up, so he won’t be too hard for you boys to handle.’ He picked up a mallet he used when handling beer kegs – and awkward customers – and whacked the stranger on the back of his head.

    The blow had quite an effect, but not the intended one. The stranger didn’t fall, or even wobble, nor did he rub the offended spot behind his left ear. He simply stood still for a few seconds, then his previously lustreless eyes took on a fiery gleam and he smiled broadly. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘this doesn’t seem to be your lucky day.’

    With a speed that astonished his would-be assailants the stranger took a long stride to his left, shot out both arms simultaneously, delivering straight jabs to the throats of the two men nearest to him. As they began to gasp and choke, he reached out his open hands and clapped their heads together with a resounding crack. They reeled away, one falling unconscious to the floor, the other dropping onto his backside, then slumping back to thump his head against the bar’s foot rail.

    Instantly the stranger turned his attention to his three remaining adversaries. Lashing out with his left foot, he kicked the nearest man’s feet from under him and chopped the side of his neck with a bladed left hand. The two remaining locals seemed almost too bemused to take any action at all, so the stranger made short work of them, thudding his right foot into the crotch of one and felling the other with a head-butt between the eyes.

    Finally, the bartender got what he deserved. Ignoring the fact that the man was still holding his mallet, the stranger thrust out a long arm, grabbed a handful of shirt, pulled the fellow halfway across the bar and broke his nose with an elbow. The barman went down backwards, crashing against a shelf and bringing a dozen bottles to the floor.

    With his burst of whirlwind action, the stranger had downed all six men in under two minutes. For a further three minutes or so he stood, watching the writhings and groanings of those who had retained their senses, then the local worthies’ spokesman got to his feet. The stranger took up an aggressive stance and bunched his large fists, but the mouthy fellow held up a hand, palm outwards. ‘No need for that’, he said. ‘You licked us fair and square an’ I don’t reckon we want to take any more.’ One by one, his companions stood up, all looking distinctly groggy.

    The stranger nodded. ‘Okay, I don’t intend to dish out anything that isn’t necessary. The fact is, you boys were overmatched.’

    ‘What?’ exclaimed one of the other men. All of us together?’

    ‘That’s right,’ the stranger replied. ‘I’ve taken on similar odds a few times. It’s not unusual for me to clear out a saloon pretty quickly.’

    ‘Mister,’ said the man whose earlier words had caused the fracas, ‘I sure would love an explanation, an’ I guess my friends would too. I mean, why didn’t you just answer my questions. Where do you come from an’ who the hell are you?’

    The stranger smiled. ‘I’ll answer you now. I said I couldn’t tell you my name. That was true when I arrived here. Three days ago, I tripped over a tree root and banged my head against a rock. When I came to, I’d lost my memory. Didn’t know who I was, where I’d come from or where I was going. I’ve been wandering around in that state since then. When your barman hit me, everything suddenly came back. As to where I’m from, I live north of here, up Cheyenne way. I’m heading south to see a cousin. With regard to who I am, my name is Steve Rawlings. I’m pretty well known where I come from. Folks there call me Brawling Rawlings. They say I’m the fightingest man in the West.’

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 2nd, 2019 at 01:00 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  9. #9

    Way Out West : Number Five

    A HANGING MATTER

    Starfall had seen better days. It was never quite a boom town, but did prosper when silver was found in the nearby mountains. When the mining finished, it returned to catering for cattle and farming interests, which was how it grew in the first place. The miners’ appearance had led to quite a number of new businesses being opened. Now some of them were gone. Five stores, two of the three saloons, the hotel, one of the two rooming houses and the assay office had closed. A number of homes had been abandoned and were falling into disrepair.

    Some institutions came wholly or partly unscathed through the contraction. Both church and school were still well-attended. The bank remained open, albeit with activity well below what it had been in the heady years. The town marshal’s office and jail had survived, though the duties concerned no longer justified a full-time incumbent. Now the work was carried out on a part-time basis by the blacksmith, Fred Dunning, who received a derisory salary for the job and did it largely because of his public-spirited attitude.

    As to how the town got its name, there were several explanations, some of them highly fanciful. The most widely accepted one was that a wagon train on its way to California had halted overnight at the spot and several members of the party had seen a meteor that evening. Supposedly, one married couple had taken the sighting as a propitious omen and decided to pull out of the trek and stay put. They hadn’t wanted to call the place Meteor and thought that Falling Star was not catchy enough, so had settled for the wife’s suggestion, Starfall. Nobody still living in the town knew whether the story was true, but it was seldom questioned.

    There was rarely any great excitement in Starfall, so an attempt at a major crime created a sensation. It happened one May afternoon, when a young man named Chris Paley rode into town and tried to pull off a single-handed bank robbery. He failed, and in the process the sole teller, who had refused to hand over any cash, was shot dead. As Paley rushed out into the street, brandishing his revolver, two passing ranch hands realised instantly what was happening. Showing great presence of mind, and not inconsiderable courage, they pounced on the miscreant and managed to disarm him. Marshal Dunning had been summoned and had jailed him.

    The bank manager had been in his private office and saw nothing of the incident. The only eyewitness was a cattleman, Joseph Rogers, who entered the bank at the moment the trouble started. He was wearing a sidearm and said he’d tried to draw it but had been too slow. He gave Marshal Dunning a statement to the effect that he had seen Paley fire the fatal shot.

    On a Tuesday morning, six weeks after the occurrence, with young Paley still in custody and awaiting the arrival of the circuit judge, Fred Dunning was about to leave his office when a tall thin hollow-cheeked man of about thirty walked in. “Morning,” said the marshal. “What can I do for you?”

    “Mornin’. I called to see if you have any interestin’ wanted posters.”

    “I don’t know what you’d call interesting. I haven’t received anything lately and all the ones I have are out of date. Why are you asking?”

    “I’m a bounty hunter. I usually call at the lawman’s office in every town I pass through, just to check up on things.”

    Dunning’s attitude to men in his caller’s line of work was ambivalent. On one hand he considered their occupation distasteful and on the other he realised that they often saved the official forces of law and order a lot of time and trouble. “Well, I’m sure I’ve nothing worth your attention,” he said. “As far as I know not many bandits pass this way and very few bad things happen around here, although we did have a killing a few weeks ago. The man who did it is in my jail right now, awaiting trial.”

    “Oh yeah,” the visitor replied. “I heard about that north of here a few days back. Name of Paley, if I remember rightly.”

    “That’s him. And he won’t be with us much longer. Judge Seward’s due here on Thursday and our carpenter’s got all he needs for the gallows he’ll have to build. I reckon we’ll be saying goodbye to Mr Paley within forty-eight hours.”

    The bounty hunter chuckled. “From what I hear, you’ll most likely be doin’ that a day early.”

    “How come?”

    “I guess news travels slow around here. In case you didn’t know, Judge Seward had a seizure on Saturday evenin’. They say he’s at death’s door.”

    “You’re right about the speed of information in these parts,” Dunning answered. “I hadn’t heard. Henry Seward’s a good man and I’m sorry he’s so sick. But what’s that got to do with the trial being early?”

    “Seems that another judge, name of Langton, was in the area. He’s been appointed to take on Seward’s cases an’ he’s in a hurry to fit them in. From what I heard, he’ll be with you tomorrow.”

    “Quick work,” said Dunning. “Thanks for telling me. Are you staying for the big event?”

    “No. I have to make a livin’ an’ I’ll not do that waitin’ around here. I hope you enjoy your necktie party. So long, Marshal.” With that, the man went out and rode off.

    Fred Dunning spread the word about a replacement judge coming. He sent a message to the rancher, Rogers, asking him to be sure to get into town early the following day, as he would be required to testify. The townspeople became increasingly excited and were at one in their certainty that the Paley affair would be a hanging matter.

    At ten o’clock on the Wednesday morning, Dunning was again in his office when the door opened and a man entered. He was about five foot ten in height and of very slender build. Apart from a crisp white shirt, he was dressed in black from hat to boots. The most striking feature of his gaunt, clean-shaven face was a pair of deep-set, penetrating hazel eyes. He removed his hat, revealing a head of salt and pepper hair. The marshal guessed him as close to sixty years of age.

    “Good morning,” said the visitor. “Am I correct in assuming that you are Marshal Dunning?”

    “You are. Can I help you?”

    “Yes. I am Judge Andrew Langton, here to take over the duties of my old friend, Henry Seward.” The deep, resonant voice had an air of authority. “I understand there is only one matter to be dealt with here.”

    “That’s right. The Paley trial.”

    “Very well. Now, as you can imagine, I have an extremely full schedule, so I need to proceed with this case at once, then move on without delay. I’d be obliged if you would pass the word that I intend to conduct the trial at eleven o’clock. I understand the school is not in session, so I propose to use its premises.”

    Though astonished by Judge Langton’s speed, the marshal was anxious to cooperate. “All right,” he said. “There’s just one thing. I might have trouble finding twelve men to serve as –

    Langton interrupted him with an impatient hand-wave. “No need for that. In view of the exigencies ensuing from Judge Seward’s indisposition, I am fully authorised to act as judge and jury, pro tem.”

    Marshal Dunning was struggling with the two-dollar words but he wasn’t going to argue with a judge and anyway, the idea of bustling around to find a dozen jurors in less than an hour would not have been congenial to him, so he was pleased to be relieved of the task.

    In accordance with the judge’s requirements, the hearing began within an hour of his arrival in town. The single-room schoolhouse was packed. Langton listened to testimonies from the eyewitness Rogers, the two cowboys who had overpowered Paley, the bank manager, the Marshal and finally the defendant.

    The judge didn’t make any notes but asked a number of questions, some of which seemed irrelevant to his listeners. Having heard all he wanted to hear, he used that sonorous voice to silence an outbreak of muttering, then gave his summing up:

    “We are dealing with two charges. First, there is the attempted robbery. The bank manager told us that at the time of the incident he had on his premises only such funds as he expected to need for the business he anticipated doing over the next few days. We heard him mention a figure of about six hundred dollars. In my opinion, even a successful robbery of such a sum amounts to barely more than petty larceny. As it happened, the effort failed, and I am mindful that Mr Paley has been incarcerated for forty-four days. I regard him as a fool rather than a knave and am inclined to the view that he has already paid for his stupidity. I therefore acquit him on the first charge.”

    This decision gave rise to an outbreak of angry comments from the crowd, causing the judge to demand order, failing which he would clear the room and continue the hearing in camera. Langton’s interpretation of the law with respect to robbery was strange enough, but it was to be followed by something even more bizarre when he moved on:

    “We now come to the killing of the teller. The only witness, Mr Rogers, claims that the bank’s employee was shot by the defendant. However, he also says that he tried to draw his own handgun. We have no proof that he did not succeed in doing so. Neither his gun nor that of the defendant was examined at the time. That was most remiss.” Langton glared at Marshal Dunning before continuing: “I have noted that the bullet passed through the victim’s head and was never recovered. Presumably it disappeared when the office was later cleaned, so even if we could learn something by examining it, that course is not open to us. It hardly stretches anyone’s imagination to picture how confused the situation might have been. For all we know, Mr Rogers, in his zeal to prevent a crime, may have pulled out his gun and shot the teller by accident. We have only his word that he did not.”

    Rogers began to shout a protest but had barely got out a word when the judge quelled his outburst with a stentorian bellow. “Quiet, sir. You have had your say. It is for me to interpret your words and those of the others who have testified here.” The rumble of unease that had rippled through the crowd stopped abruptly, everyone fearing that Langton would indeed empty the room, though he had no credible means of carrying out his earlier threat to do so. His listeners were cowed by nothing more than their respect for law’s majesty.

    The judge leaned back in his chair and swept the improvised courthouse with a slow look before coming to his conclusion. “I would remind everyone that in order for a person on trial to be convicted of a crime, the judge or jury must be satisfied beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the act in question. In this case I am not convinced that Mr Paley did fire the shot that killed the teller. I have therefore no choice but to acquit him.” He nodded at Paley. “You are free to go, and as I imagine you are not well-liked in this town, I suggest you leave immediately.”

    Chris Paley almost ran from the room as the crowd sat dumbstruck. For a moment Judge Langton glared at the assembly, seemingly daring anyone to speak, then he stood and put on his hat. “These proceedings are closed,” he barked. “You will oblige me by remaining seated until I leave, then you may do as you wish.” He strode briskly from the room. Such had been his command of the situation that his departure was followed by a brief, stunned silence before pandemonium broke out.

    Fred Dunning didn’t take part in the uproar, but sat stupefied until a group of men approached him, demanding that he do something, though nobody was clear what that should be. Nearly ten minutes after the judge had departed, the marshal went outside to look for him. He’d been in the street only a matter of seconds when a woman accosted him, wanting to know what was going on. She had been shopping and had seen ‘that man who’d been in jail’ riding out of town at full speed, then two minutes later another man ‘all dressed in black’ racing off in the opposite direction. On looking into the matter, Dunning was surprised to learn that two horses had been saddled and waiting in an alley adjacent to the school.


    Friday dawned with the townspeople outraged and nonplussed in equal measure by what had happened the previous day. Fred Dunning was trying to take his mind from the experience by working hard in his forge. A few minutes after eleven o’clock he heard a familiar voice behind him. “Time for you to leave that, Fred. We have other things to do.”

    Dunning needed no second bidding to down tools, for in his astonishment he dropped his hammer. Turning, he saw Judge Henry Seward. “What . . . what . . . what are you doing here?” he gasped.

    Seward raised his eyebrows. “What I usually do when I call on you, Fred. On this occasion I expect to try that young rapscallion you’ve been holding for me.”

    Still bewildered, Dunning peered at the judge. “You’re not sick, then?”

    “No. Never been better. What’s amiss, Fred? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

    Dunning took off his leather apron. “I think we’d better go to my office. There’s something we need to get to the bottom of here.”

    With the judge seated in a visitor’s chair, Dunning related what had happened on Wednesday and Thursday. Seward listened carefully, interrupting only to ask the marshal to describe the visitors he’d had on Tuesday and Wednesday. When the story had been told in full, he rubbed his jaw. “Hmn, Tom and Edward,” he muttered.

    “What do you mean?” the marshal asked.

    “Your visitors. The supposed bounty hunter was Chris Paley’s older brother, Tom, and the fake judge was his father, Edward. From what you say, there’s no doubt about it. They’re as ripe a trio of scoundrels as you’ll ever come across. I don’t wonder that you believed what you heard. The father could fool anyone. He was an actor in his earlier days. That was when he cultivated the authoritative voice and that magnetic stare you must have noticed. You needn’t bother trying to catch up with those fellows. They’re experts at vanishing. So, Marshal Fred Dunning, you’ll just have to accept that you’ve been duped.”

    “Oh, hell,” said the marshal.

    * * *
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 3rd, 2019 at 01:15 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. #10

    Way Out West : Number Six

    EASY COME, HARD GO

    Bob Nelson was riding north at top speed, pursued by five very angry men. He had no illusions about what would happen if they caught him. He would be either shot dead or lynched. Twenty minutes earlier he had been sitting in a saloon in Elton, Idaho, calmly taking money from the men in a game of poker. He’d been doing that since late the previous evening and it was well into the early hours of the morning when he had asked to be excused briefly to answer the call of nature. Once outside, he’d hurried to the livery stable, saddled his horse and left the town.

    When Nelson hadn’t returned to the game after ten minutes, the other players began to get restless. Every one of them had lost heavily. They were all local men of some substance: three ranchers, the town’s banker and the doctor. Two of the cattlemen were down by over a thousand dollars each, the third by close to seven hundred, the doctor about four hundred and the banker a little over six hundred. In proportionate terms, the medico was hardest hit, for his practice did not net him anywhere near enough to allow losses on this scale. He’d succumbed a combination of drink and gambling fever.

    The discomfited players were muttering among themselves when a well-dressed stranger who had been standing at the bar and watching the game for some time went outside, apparently for the same reason as Nelson had done. A few minutes later he returned and walked over to the five men, who were still bemoaning their losses. ‘Excuse me, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘but I’m wondering whether you expect your companion to come back.’ On being told that they certainly were, he went on: ‘Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think there are two things you ought to know. First, your man left a little while ago, heading north and not wasting any time about it. Second, he’s been cheating you ever since I arrived, and I imagine before then too.’

    ‘Damn,’ said one of the ranchers, ‘I thought he was having more than his fair share of luck. How’s he been doing it?’

    ‘I may have missed some of the tricks he used, but I know he had holdout cards a few times and he did a little bottom dealing.’

    ‘Why didn’t you tell us earlier?’ snapped the doctor.

    ‘I didn’t see it as any of my business. Still don’t, but when he rode off I changed my mind and thought you might appreciate being told. Incidentally, his final refinement was quite clever. You may have noticed that he put nearly all his winnings into his coat and trousers, but left what looks like about a hundred dollars on the table to give the impression that he wasn’t through with you.’

    Another of the ranchers nodded. ‘The scoundrel. Thank you, sir. Your information comes a little late but it’s welcome anyway. I think my friends here will agree that we should go after him.’ They did.

    By the time the five men had saddled up and got underway, Nelson had a substantial lead. Then disaster struck. His horse went lame. He checked that there was nothing he could do about that on the spot, then he turned his mind to the matter of temporary cover. When riding south earlier, he’d taken note of the terrain, so he knew that to his right was open country and to his left a long line of cliffs, almost abutting the trail. He recalled that the escarpment went on unbroken for at least three or four miles from his present position, so there was no possibility of turning off that way. However, there had been a number of rockfalls, some of which had brought down huge boulders. Nelson had just passed one of these.

    Having little doubt that he was being followed but not knowing how far behind any pursuers might be, he took what seemed the least hazardous course by leading his horse back to the big rock. He made it shortly before the unofficial posse thundered past. In daylight, the concealment wouldn’t have been adequate, but for the moment it was good enough.

    Nelson considered his next move. As far as he could remember, the only habitation for some way ahead of him was a cabin. He recalled noticing smoke rising from its chimney as he’d passed the spot when riding south. Potentially more important was the fact that he’d also seen a small corral there. Maybe he could buy a horse. There was no safety for him in either staying put or walking back to the town he had just left. With the way east barred by the cliffs, the only options were to continue north or head west. Nelson quickly rejected the second course. This being summer, daylight would come soon, then a man walking across the flat, open country in crystal clear air might be visible to a rider on the trail for a long time. Very risky. The isolated cabin seemed like the least bad bet.

    It turned out that Nelson’s immediate goal was closer than he’d thought. Leading the horse, he arrived at the place in less than fifteen minutes. The cabin belonged to a crusty old prospector named Abe Wright. Nelson rapped on the door and was treated to a burst of strong language from within. This was followed by the lighting of a lamp, then the door opened to reveal the grizzled owner. ‘Damned if I know what a man has to do to get a little sleep around here,’ he barked. ‘What the hell do you want?’

    ‘Sorry to bother you at this time of night,’ Nelson replied. ‘I’d have waited a while but the fact is I’m in a hurry to deal with some business and my horse is lame. I’m hoping to buy another and wondered whether you might have one for sale.’

    Wright fingered his chin. ‘Come in an’ let me have a look at you.’ Nelson complied and Wright appraised him closely before going on: ‘Where was you when the horse got lame an’ where are you goin’?’

    ‘It happened a mile north of here and I’m heading south.’ Nelson had wanted to allay any suspicion concerning his true plight, but as soon as he’d spoken, he feared that he might have given the wrong answer to a crafty question.

    Wright shook his head. ‘Try again, an’ this time I’d like to hear the truth.’

    ‘What makes you think you haven’t just heard it?’

    ‘Don’t test my patience, son. If you’d been ridin’ south an’ had the trouble so close to here, you’d have met them boys from town who just hauled me out of bed, an’ if you had, you sure wouldn’t be with me now. So let’s agree that you’re on the run from Elton.’

    It was clear to Nelson that further protestations on his part would do him no good. He gave a rueful smile, spread his hands, palms up in resignation and asked: ‘What do you intend to do with me?’

    Wright went to the wall behind him, took a rifle from a shelf and pointed it across the table at Nelson, who was unarmed. ‘Well, that’s a good question,’ he replied. ‘You say you want to buy a horse, an’ I can tell you that barrin’ the ones in town, which ain’t available to you, the only one for miles around here is mine. He’s a fine animal. Mighty valuable.’

    Seeing at once where the conversation was going, Nelson tried to keep it short. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘How much?’

    Wright scratched his head. ‘Let me see. Takin’ everythin’ into account, I’d say he’s worth around four thousand five hundred and ninety dollars.’

    So that was it. Wright had stated the exact sum the five local men had lost. Obviously they’d called on the prospector and told him the whole story. ‘That’s a hell of an expensive animal,’ said Nelson. ‘Can’t you be a little more reasonable?’

    Wright chuckled. ‘Oh, I’m bein’ reasonable. You hand over the money, put your saddle on my mount an’ head off straight west. That way you get away with your life. ‘Course if you don’t reckon you’re worth that much, you can stay here till the boys from town come back this way an’ I’ll hand you over to them.’

    Nelson nodded. ‘Okay, here it is.’ He fished in various pockets, dug out the full amount and handed it over.

    Wright smiled. ‘Sensible choice, young man. You’ll leave these parts no worse off than when you arrived and a damn sight better off than you are right now. I suppose you feel bad about havin’ to part with the money, but just remember you got it without doin’ any honest work. I guess you could say it’s a case of easy come, hard go.’

    ‘I reckon you’re right, but how do I know you won’t put those men on my trail anyway?’

    Wright laughed. ‘For a man who does such a good job of swindlin’ at cards, you’re not too bright, are you? If I send them fellers after you, they’ll most likely catch you an’ you’ll tell ‘em you gave me the money, then they’ll come back an’ take it off me. You think I’m that kind of fool?’

    ‘I guess not.’

    ‘All right. Now, ride west fifteen miles an’ you’ll find a narrow road runnin’ north. There’s enough moonlight for you to be well on your way to it an’ far from here by dawn. You won’t come across any obstacles. Get goin’.’

    Nelson got going.
    * * *

    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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