SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER FIFTEEN
Big Bill Gardner
Duncombe, Texas, shortly after noon on a hot June day in 1881. A lone rider on a bay horse moved slowly along the single street that, with a few outlying buildings, made up the town. The man’s grey-green eyes roved around, scanning the place. It seemed to have possibilities. A livery barn, a forge, a stage-and-freight office, a tiny bank, a church, two stores in business and a third with windows and door boarded over – that could be interesting – a crumbling hotel, a saloon, a barbershop, an eatery and nothing else readily identifiable. There was no obvious presence of a law officer. All the structures, even the bank, were of timber, taken from the extensive woodland nearby.
Turning at the end of the street, the horseman rode back to the saloon. He dismounted, stepped up onto the sidewalk and shook dust from his clothing – smart suit and hat in matching light-grey, white open-necked shirt and black boots of tooled-leather. He looked along the street again. Yes, this place looked promising. Not quite gone to seed, but fairly dilapidated. It might be suitable.
The single saloon door was fastened open. The man took off his hat and walked into the relative cool of the barroom. The owner, Walter Johnson, was sitting on a stool behind his twenty-foot length of battered pine, staring into space. He turned to greet his first customer of the day, noting him to be around five foot nine, of middling build, with short dark-brown hair and facial growth comprising only a small neat moustache. “Mornin’. What’ll it be?”
The stranger looked sheepish. “Well,” he said, “what I had in mind was a beer and a whiskey, but I guess I may have a problem with payment.”
Johnson had heard something of the sort before. “Sorry, no credit, specially not to drifters,” he said, with palpable disgust.
The newcomer’s embarrassment level rose a notch. “I . . . er . . . well, I don’t think it’s what you think,” he replied.
“What do you think I think?”
“I think you think I think –”
“Whoa. Stop right there,” said Johnson. “There’s too much thinkin’ goin’ on here. You’d better say what you mean an’ save us any more brainwork.”
The stranger smiled. “Yes, you’re entitled to an explanation. The fact is, I’d two hundred and ninety dollars in my pocket when I set out this morning. Around fifteen miles east of here, I was waylaid.”
“You were what?”
“Waylaid. Accosted by a couple of road agents. They robbed me.”
Johnson was unmoved. “So you’re broke.”
“Not exactly. I just don’t want to cause problems. I do need a drink, but I’ve no small change left. All I have is a five-thousand dollar bill.”
Johnson had begun to wipe the bar. He stopped, mouth agape. “Five . . . thousand . . . dollars,” he said softly. “Did you say a five-thousand dollar bill?”
“That’s right. I’m sorry. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a fact.”
“Mister,” said Johnson, “if that’s a joke, I got to tell you my sense of humour ain’t too good. Anyway, how come these fellers didn’t take this bill?”
“Because I keep it pretty safe. I need to, seeing as it’s all the wealth I have.”
Despite his cynical nature, Johnson was intrigued. This was a new approach. “I thought I’d heard them all,” he said, “but I didn’t even know there was a bill that big. Mind if I see it?”
“Not at all, but I’d be obliged if you’d look the other way while I get it out.” Johnson turned and gazed at the wall for a moment, then, answering the stranger’s call, swung back to find himself looking at a banknote. He peered at it, then at the man, then back at the bill. “Well, I never saw the like of it,” he said, awed. “An’ that’s all the cash you got?”
“That’s right. Maybe your bank could help?”
Johnson gave a short laugh. “Not hardly,” he said. He wasn’t a profound thinker, but he was quick enough, and it took only seconds for him to realise that he was out of his depth. “Listen, friend,” he went on, filling a beer glass, “I think I’d better go see somebody.” Looking at a selection of whiskey bottles he kept out of sight, he picked one that had no more than three or four shots left in it and pushed it across the bar, along with the beer. “Help yourself,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
As Johnson bustled off, the stranger pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit it and got busy with the beer and whiskey. It was ten minutes before the saloon-owner returned, accompanied by a short stout man of, the newcomer judged, well over sixty, florid-faced, with hair, moustache and goatee beard of snowy white.
Going back behind the bar, Johnson produced another whiskey bottle, pouring a shot for his companion and one for himself. “Now, friend,” he said to the stranger, “this is Colonel Tyrell. Maybe you should talk to him.”
“Good morning young man,” said the colonel, “Perhaps I can be of assistance.”
The stranger took the proffered hand. “Pleased to meet you, Colonel,” he said. “I hope you can help. I never expected to be in this situation.”
The colonel waved a dismissive hand. “I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t handle, sir,” he said. “Walt here has told me of your problem. I hope you’ll allow me to buy you a drink.”
“Thank you,” said the stranger. “I’ll confess I need to settle my nerves after my experience this morning.”
“Yes, indeed,” the colonel answered. “I’ve just heard. Most distressing for you. Now, I don’t want to pry, but how are we to address you?”
“Oh, sorry,” said the stranger. “The name’s Gardner. Timothy Gardner. Call me Tim.”
“Very well. Now, Tim, I hope you don’t mind the inquisitiveness of an old man, but are you on your way to a particular destination?”
“No, Colonel. I’m travelling westwards, looking for a new home. I aim to settle in these parts and I’ve been seeking a small town where I can put down roots.”
“Indeed. You may find things a little tame out here, after the bright lights. I imagine you’re a city man?”
“That’s right. I’ve spent most of my time in Boston, New York and Philadelphia but I just couldn’t stand any more of the big towns. All those buildings crowd in on a man. I needed space and thought I’d find it hereabouts, although I was really heading further west.”
The colonel nodded. “I see,” he said. “And what do think of what you’ve seen of our fair state so far?”
“I like it. I never thought there’d be so many trees and so much nice scenery. Seems to me a man could feel at home here.”
“He certainly could,” said the colonel. “However, you might find things less agreeable further west.”
The retired officer stroked his moustache. “Well now, Tim, I don’t wish to speak ill of any part of this fine state, but I must say that, if you go on westwards, you’ll find things different.”
“In what way?”
“Frankly, it’s harsh. Here, you have good vegetation, hills, timber and the like. To the west, you’ll find nothing but brush-country, plains, dust, heat and cows. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Tim Gardner was enjoying himself. He was sure he’d made the desired impact. His brief inspection of the neglected state of the buildings had suggested to him that the town was in decline. The arrival of a man of apparent substance would be welcome, he’d reasoned. “I’m glad to have the advice, Colonel,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just stop here. It seems pleasant enough.”
The colonel appeared delighted to hear that, but he was also gripped by a curiosity he could no longer contain. “I’m sure we’d be pleased to have you, Tim,” he said. “Now, with regard to your immediate problem, I don’t recall seeing a five-thousand dollar bill for some time.” In fact, like most people, he had never seen one. “Do you suppose I might have a look at it?”
“Certainly,” said Gardner, producing the banknote, this time without security measures. “Doesn’t look like much, considering it represents a good few years of work and an inheritance.”
The colonel made a less than convincing show of nonchalance as he peered at the bill. “No,” he said. “It’s very similar to the last one I handled. Now, I’m perhaps behind the times, but I understood that these notes were no longer convertible into gold. Isn’t that so?”
“No. The convertibility was suspended for a good while after the war, but it was restored two years ago. I keep this because I figure it’s the best way of carrying money. After all, it’s easier than handling sixteen pounds of gold.”
“Ah, that’s the present rate, is it?”
“My goodness,” said the veteran, “I imagine if you were to stay in these parts with a banknote like that, you’d become known as Big Bill Gardner.”
Chuckling, Tim put the bill into his inside coat pocket. “Could be, Colonel,” he said. “I never thought being financially comfortable would cause such a problem. I was saying to Walt that maybe your bank could help.”
“I think not. Why, I doubt that old Saul Danby – he runs it – has handled anything bigger than a fifty in his life. He only opens his place two afternoons a week. It’s more a pastime than a business. I’m afraid you need a larger town.”
“I see. Are there any around here?”
“Not for some way. We’re rather a backwater. The railroad runs east-west, a little way south of here. The only towns of any size are Stackville, twenty-five miles southeast of us, and Crow Creek, forty-odd miles southwest. They’re both on the railroad. We weren’t deemed important enough to justify a diversion.” Tim held up a forefinger. “Just a minute, Colonel,” he said. “Did you say Crow Creek?”
“Well, that’s a coincidence. Could be the answer, too. As it happens, I have a friend who knows something about currency matters. Name of Ed Lander. He used to work for the government. He gave that up a while ago and I know that since then he’s spent most of the summer every year with his daughter at her house near Crow Creek. He’ll help, I’m sure.” That was one of a variety of falsehoods Tim Gardner had prepared, to be used according to circumstances.
“Good, good,” said the colonel. “Now, if you were to stay with us, what would your intentions be?”
“That’s easy, Colonel. I’ve always fancied running a store. I noticed one here that doesn’t seem to be in use. Do you think I could take it over?”
“I’m sure you could. It was a hardware place until last year, when Jeremy Williams died. He was the owner. Since then, people have got what they wanted from Stackville, but it’s inconvenient. We’ve tried to get our dry goods man to expand, but he’s getting on in years and doesn’t want to take on any more responsibilities. To have local supplies again would be helpful. Jeremy had no family. His place is derelict. Strictly speaking, I suppose the county should take it over, but we don’t worry too much about such things here, so there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t move in, if that’s what you want.”
And so it went. Tim Gardner moved into the hardware store and, armed with his obvious affluence, he had no trouble in getting all the credit he wanted, pending his decision on the fate of his banknote. For a few days, people would call on him, just to get sight of the big bill, then interest dwindled and he became a part of the scenery. He proved to be a shrewd and enterprising businessman. However, after three months in the town, he had done nothing about converting his greatest financial asset into something more readily negotiable, that might find its way into other local coffers. This was a cause of concern to the colonel who, in his circumlocutive way, managed to convey his feelings to Gardner.
It was time for some sort of show. Gardner explained that he had been so preoccupied in building up trade that he had almost forgotten the bill. “Tell you what, Colonel,” he said. “That fellow Ed Lander I mentioned when I arrived here is probably still out Crow Creek way. I’ll close the store tomorrow, ride over to Stackville and send him a wire, asking him for advice. I’d go all the way to Crow Creek, but I can’t spare the time, and anyway, I wouldn’t care to just drop in on him and his daughter. That’s not my idea of good manners. Better all round if I pay the telegraph people to deliver the message.”
The following day, Gardner made a dawn start and rode fast to Stackville, where he sent a wire to the fictitious Ed Lander, to be collected at the Crow Creek telegraph office. The wording needed to satisfy two requirements. It had to seem reasonable, in order to elicit a reply that would placate the colonel and appear sensible to anyone else, and it had to avoid mentioning the big bill, since that would have attracted unwelcome interest. Gardner’s solution was to say that he had a set of three very old books – he invented a collective title – and to ask whether he should sell them, either separately or together, or hold onto them.
Having dealt with that, Gardner took the late morning train to Crow Creek where, having changed his clothes and donned the fake whiskers he’d used several times before, he introduced himself at the telegraph office as Edward Lander, saying that he’d been expecting a wire from his old friend Tim Gardner of Stackville. He collected the message, sent a reply, to be collected, then travelled back on the early evening train to Stackville, discarding his disguise on the way. Since he wasn’t known at Crow Creek, he hadn’t really needed it, but it was as well to be thorough. He picked up the wire he had sent to himself, then rode back to Duncombe.
When the colonel dropped by the following morning for his daily chat, Gardner entertained him for a while, then produced the message. “Take a look at that,” he said. The old soldier made a show of putting on his spectacles. He read:
To Timothy Gardner, Stackville. To be collected:
Very few of these in public domain. Rarity indicates increasing value. Strongly suggest keep intact pro tem. Am returning east next week. Will contact later with proposal. Regards. Lander.
The colonel handed back the wire and folded his glasses. “Well, Tim, I imagine this gives you a problem?”
“It does. I intended to use the money for expansion, but from what Ed says, I could do better by holding on. Maybe he knows a collector. I’ll have to think it over.”
“So you will, my boy. Anyway, thank you for your confidence. Now, I must be on my way.” He strolled off, his simple vision of Tim Gardner’s fortune being distributed rapidly throughout the town shattered. Not being an economist, he hadn’t considered the implications of a sharp rise in the sum of cash around, without a commensurate increase in the amount of goods and services available. Boom towns had proved often enough that sudden deluges of money in pursuit of limited supplies had caused prices to shoot up.
The initial interest having subsided and the colonel’s curiosity having been satisfied, Tim Gardner had to decide what to do about keeping the bill safe. Duncombe’s primitive bank was no option. Tim came up with an idea that was to stand the test of years. He lived above the store and his bedroom door was clear of the floorboards by nearly an inch. He took strip of card slightly longer than the bill, the precious item itself and two thumbtacks. Next he folded the bill lengthways, placed it on the card and pushed the tacks through the card, clear of the bill. Finally he slid this contrivance under the door-bottom and pulled the tacks into the wood by running the flat of a knife blade under them and yanking it upwards. Now the door could be opened and closed for years – as indeed it was to be – without anyone suspecting what was fixed underneath it.
Having disposed of the immediate problem, Tim sat down, lit a cigar and reviewed his position. Until three months earlier, he had been a security officer with the US Treasury. His brief was to work with his much older partner in preventing the circulation of counterfeit banknotes. The pair’s greatest coup had come when they had caught the Frenchman, Michel Bernard, probably the most sophisticated forger of his day. Bernard’s speciality was bonds and certificates, but his one essay into banknote plate engraving had been an alarming development for the authorities.
The capture of Bernard and his equipment had come just in time. There were several talented engravers around on the wrong side of the law, almost all of them coming to grief by their failure to steal, buy or make the right paper. Bernard solved that problem by finding a way of leaching the ink out of existing low-denomination banknotes. He then had genuine paper and his plates gave forgeries which could be detected only by expert examination.
Bernard’s work had been at the experimental stage and he was caught before distributing any of it. He had produced many bills of middling-to-high face value, but only one five-thousand dollar effort. His plates were put into safekeeping and it fell to Tim Gardner and his colleague to destroy the fake bills, excepting two which were to be kept as museum pieces. The older man, seriously ill and only weeks from permanently finishing work, supervised the operation. When they got to the large bill, he handed it to his young partner. The senior official had been repeatedly denied promotion to what he saw as his rightful position. Sensing correctly that he had little time left to live, he had decided to retaliate by putting into circulation the only near-perfect five-thousand dollar forgery in existence.
The older man duly retired – he died two months later – and his young partner resigned, having decided that he would make capital from his remarkable asset and that he would move west to do so. He had never intended attempting to spend the bill and before reaching Duncombe he had tried out his stratagem in two other small towns, in both cases without success. Then he had hit the jackpot by getting as much finance as he needed to set up in business, purely on the strength of his apparent wealth. Now he was doing nicely and had no thought of passing the big bill. He didn’t even need it any longer. Things had worked out well.
Twelve years passed, during which time Tim ‘Big Bill’ Gardner prospered. He expanded his own business and bought others, sometimes outright, sometimes by forming partnerships in which he was in control. He became a power in the locality and well beyond it, gradually supplanting Colonel Tyrell as the man to whom others turned for advice. Nevertheless, he remained on good terms with the old man, who still called on him every day. Then a curious incident occurred.
When saloon-owner Walt Johnson had died, leaving his saloon to a nephew who didn’t want it, the only man in town with the funds necessary to buy the place had been Tim Gardner. He had moved promptly, taking over ownership and employing as bartender a young fellow named Jack Simpson.
It was a day similar to that on which Gardner himself had arrived in Duncombe, early June and hot. He was in his study at the rear of his extended premises, going over outstanding invoices. The last one was particularly satisfying. It required payment for a large carton which stood in a corner of the room. Inside it were four boxes, containing in total two hundred of the finest cigars money could buy. Gardner had bought them as a special treat to mark his success. Soon, he was going to enjoy them. He was savouring the thought when a breathless Jack Simpson knocked at the door and rushed in. “You’ll never guess what’s just happened,” he gasped.
Gardner put down his pencil. “Probably not,” he said. Why not save us time and tell me?”
“Well, a young feller just come in, bought a couple of drinks an’ asked if there was anybody here who could get him change for a five-thousand dollar bill.”
Tim Gardner was astounded. “Well, well,” he said. “What a coincidence. Where is he now?”
“In the saloon. I asked him to wait. ’Course, I probably made a mistake. I told him about when you came here. Hope I didn’t do wrong.”
Gardner’s mind raced. “No,” he said, after a short silence. “It’s all right, Jack. You’d better send this fellow to me.”
Five minutes later, the man was sitting with Tim Gardner, explaining his predicament. He displayed his banknote. “I know it seems ridiculous,” he said, “but it’s all I have. When I changed my savings into one bill, I never thought it would be such a headache. Now I’ve run out of other cash. I understand the same thing happened to you.”
Gardner nodded. “Yes, it did. Now look. There’s no-one within hundreds of miles of here who can change a bill that size. The one I arrived with caused me endless bother and I still have it.”
“You have? Could I see it?”
For once, Tim Gardner had blundered. It would have been better if he had kept quiet. Still, it was too late now. “All right,” he said. “Wait a minute.” He went upstairs and returned with the bill, pushing it across the desk. “Maybe there’s a lesson here for you,” he said. “There was never any chance that this would be of use to me, and the one you have will bring you nothing but grief in these parts.”
The man picked up the bill, peered at it then returned it. “You may be right,” he said. “Problem is, without other funds. I just don’t know what to do.”
Tim Gardner reasoned that unless he dealt decisively with this matter there could be trouble. “Tell me,” he said, “where were you heading?”
“Nowhere in particular. Just making my way west. I’d nothing special in mind.”
Gardner took his cash box from a desk drawer and drew out ten twenty-dollar bills, sliding them across the table. “I’ve had my share of good luck,” he said, “so I can afford to put something back into a world that’s been kind to me. You can consider this a loan without repayment date, but I want you to give me your word of honour that if you take it, you’ll head back east, right away. This is a bad place to be, and the further west you go, the worse it gets. Believe me, I know. With a banknote like you have, your life is in danger. Now, there’s an afternoon stage to Stackville. I think you’d better be on it, then get the eastbound train.”
The young man took the money and the advice, departing two hours later. Waving him off, Tim Gardner heaved a sigh of relief. His own operation had worked once, but there was no scope for a repetition anywhere in this area.
Time passed and Gardner pushed the incident to the back of his mind. Then, one day, six months after the young fellow had left, the noon stage brought three men to Duncombe. They headed immediately for Gardner’s place. Colonel Tyrell was there, talking with the owner. The three newcomers fanned out, facing the desk. In the centre was a short thin smartly-dressed man of about fifty. He was flanked by a tall burly fellow, more casually attired, and the young man who had visited Duncombe so briefly, half a year earlier. It was he who started the proceedings by handing four fifty-dollar bills to Gardner. “Your loan returned with thanks,” he said, then stood back.
The man in the middle took over. “Mr Gardner?”
“That’s right. What can I do for you?”
“Sir, our business is private. The gentleman here?” – he waved a hand at the colonel.
Gardner spread his palms. “Colonel Tyrell is a close friend of mine,” he said. You may speak freely.”
“Very well. My name is Malcolmson. I represent the US Treasury. “This” – he indicated the big man – “is Deputy US Marshal Bennett. I understand you know my other companion. Now, I believe you are in possession of a banknote with a face value of five thousand dollars and I have to tell you that that note is a forgery. I intend to settle this matter quietly, but I must inform you that I have authority to search these premises. I hope that won’t be necessary.”
Gardner shrugged. “I have no secrets,” he said. “You’re welcome to see the thing. Just a moment.” He went upstairs, got the bill and handed it to Malcolmson.
The Treasury official held it up to the light, then placed it on the desk and inspected it minutely with a jeweller’s loupe. Then he turned to Tim Gardner. “Yes, sir,” he said. “This is the one.”
“Oh,” said Gardner. “How do you know that?”
“I’ve been seeking it for years. Fortunately, Mr Gibbons here” – he waved at the young man on his right – “is very observant and has an excellent memory. The bill he showed you recently is genuine, but he was struck by the strange coincidence and noted the number of yours. Now, Mr Gardner, this is a serious matter.”
It had never occurred to Tim Gardner that young Gibbons might really have been a man of means. He stared at Malcolmson. “Maybe you’d better explain.”
“Certainly. First, there’s the question of passing counterfeit currency.”
“What do mean, passing it? I never did that. It’s right here.”
“Well then, there’s the question of attempting to pass it.”
“I didn’t do that, either. Why, the colonel here will tell you that I never made any effort to convert it. Everybody here knew I had it, but I never tried to spend it. Colonel?”
The aged soldier was happy to concur with his friend in overlooking that long-ago first day when the risible offer to use the banknote in payment for a drink had occurred. He nodded. “That’s right, sir. We all knew that Mr Gardner had the bill, but he never tried to pass it. I’d testify to that.”
The Treasury man was discomfited. “Very well,” he said. “There’s also the matter of possession of counterfeit currency. What do you say to that, Mr Gardner?”
“This is the first I ever knew about the bill being a forgery. I won it in a poker game in Saint Louis.”
“What? You played poker with stakes of five thousand dollars?”
“No, I didn’t. Not that it’s any of your business, but I got into a game and wound up four hundred and seventy dollars ahead. I wanted to call it a day then, but the fellow I was playing with insisted on another hand. He offered that bill against the pot, plus anything I had left. I had about eighty dollars, so I took a chance. It was the bill against the amount on the table, plus my eighty dollars. I won.”
“Did it not strike you as odd that a man would put up five thousand dollars in such circumstances?”
“Not at all. If you’ve had anything to do with gamblers, you’ll know that they get a fever. It’s well known. Why, they sometimes bet the title deeds to their homes, or any other possessions, for one more hand of cards. Anyway, I’d no way of knowing the bill wasn’t genuine. For all I knew, the man could have been a millionaire.”
Malcolmson was now clearly bemused, but he pressed on. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it,” he blustered. “I could still have you arrested.”
Scenting victory, Gardner grinned. “Maybe you could,” he said, “but I’d like to see the look on your face when the jury laughed you out of court. You haven’t a leg to stand on.”
The Treasury man thought for a moment, then said: “Very well, Mr Gardner. In the unusual circumstances, I’m prepared to accept what you say. But I must still impound this banknote. We can’t have forged currency in circulation.”
“By all means take it,” Gardner replied. “The damned thing never was much use to me.”
Malcolmson picked up the bill. “All right, Mr. Gardner. My main purpose was to lay hands on this, so we’ll regard the matter as closed. Of course, we’re still looking for the man who caused all the trouble. He stole the bill originally and knew it was a forgery.”
“Best of luck to you,” Gardner answered. “By the way, who was he?”
“A fellow by the name of John Robert Hollingsworth. He was with the US Treasury before my time. Perhaps he was the man who played cards with you. Could you describe him?”
“Well, it’s a long time ago. I couldn’t tell you about his height because he was sitting all the time, but I’d guess he was very ordinary. Dark brown hair, tidy little moustache, average build. That’s about all. What happens if you find him?”
“What he did qualifies him for a long spell behind bars. However, I consider our business here concluded.”
“Fine. The stage changes horses here. If you hurry, you’ll be able to catch it, but before you go, how do I know you’re who you say you are? Come to think of it, maybe I should run over to Stackville and send a wire to the Treasury Department.”
“No need for that, sir.” This came from the big lawman on Malcolmson’s left. “I have a letter here from this gentleman’s employer.” He produced it and Tim Gardner recognised the headed notepaper. “You’ll see that it confirms my appointment to meet Mr Malcolmson and accompany him. I picked him up at his office and have been with him the whole time since then.”
Gardner nodded. “Well, I guess that’s good enough.”
The visitors left on the afternoon stage for Stackville. Gardner and the colonel saw them off, then went back into the store. “Amazing, Tim,” said the old man. “I never heard of anything like it.”
“Neither did I.”
The colonel was silent for moment, then cleared his throat. “Er . . . Tim. Do you realise you’ve changed a lot since you arrived here?”
“Have I really? I reckon I’ve been too busy to think about that.”
“Ah, no doubt. Only, I was just thinking, you’ve put quite a bit of weight, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I don’t mind at all, Colonel. It’s the way you good people feed me.”
“Oh, quite. Also, you had a head of dark brown hair in those days. It’s receded somewhat.”
“That it has, Colonel. Colour’s changed a bit, too. Business worries, I suppose. I also got rid of the moustache.”
“Yes. Forgive the mind-wandering of an old buffoon, Tim, but for some unaccountable reason, I’m reminded of that time you fell from your horse, three or four years ago.”
“Yes. Fortunate that you were passing that evening, Colonel. I could have had a hard time out there.”
“True. Do you recall that I picked up some of your things?”
“I certainly do, and I was grateful.”
“It was the least I could have done. I seem to remember your watch was thrown clear. The back flew open when it hit the ground.”
“That’s right. I believe you mentioned it.”
“Yes. I couldn’t help noticing that the initials J.R.H. were engraved inside. I supposed it was an inheritance, perhaps from a friend.”
“Quite right, Colonel. You’re very astute.”
“Ah, well, I must go. I wonder whether Mr Malcolmson will ever catch up with his man. What was the name? John Robert Hollingsworth?”
Duncombe’s premier businessman had not reached his position by being slow-witted. “I believe so. By the way, Colonel,” he said, “before you go, I have something for you. I’d intended to save it until your birthday, but I guess there’s no time like the present.” He went into his storeroom and returned, handing over the four boxes of cigars, stripped of their outer carton. “Have a smoke on me.”
“The old man, clutched the package in his liver-spotted hands. “You shouldn’t have done this, my boy. It’s far too much.” But he didn’t release his hold. To a man reduced for years to smoking something resembling decayed footwear, it was manna from heaven. “Tim, you’re a gentleman.”
“If that’s true, Colonel, I got my example from you.”
The old soldier’s spine straightened. “I hope I may still claim the distinction,” he said, then turning on the threshold added: “I believe people say that I’m quite discreet, too. Good day to you.”
* * *