SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THIRTY-SIX
Calling It Quits
Mark Stevens took an instant liking to Burnett, Texas. There was something about the town. Perhaps it was the look of settled affluence. Two broad streets formed a letter ‘T’, the stem, on which Stevens arrived, a hundred and fifty yards in length and the cross street forty yards shorter. Having seen his share of dreary, crumbling, one-horse places, the newcomer was pleased to note that everything here looked well-kept. First, he encountered the houses, all in good repair and each with its tidy garden. Then came the business places, equally smart in their different way. Both streets were lined with young trees which gave promise of impressive maturity. This looked like a nice place to live.
Another thing that struck Stevens was the activity. It was a Saturday and not yet nine a.m., but people thronged the sidewalks and the stores seemed to be doing brisk business. Buggies and buckboards trundled to and fro. Outside what seemed to be the premier hardware place, a big freight wagon was being unloaded. The deluge of rain which had just eased to a trickle would have reduced the streets of many a town to ankle-deep mud. Here, the gravel surfaces appeared to be coping well with weather and traffic. Some care had gone into that.
Halting outside the Southern Star Hotel, Stevens dismounted, doffed his oilskin and entered, to find a reception desk attended by a small, well-dressed man in his early twenties. The clerk looked up from the register, appraising his latest visitor. He saw a middle-sized man of – as far as the moderate growth of mid-brown facial hair allowed him to guess – about his own age. He also took in the good-quality outfit – pearl-grey Stetson hat, suit, narrow tie and boots, all black, and the shirt, white but somewhat travel-grimed. “Morning,” he said. “Clearing up nicely.”
“That it is. Do you have a room?”
“By an amazing coincidence, I do. Only one.”
“One’s enough. Why the coincidence?”
“Oh, you don’t know?”
“No. Would you like to tell me?”
“Delighted to. This is the one day in the year when we’re usually full. Only reason we have a room now is that we heard from one of our regulars an hour or so ago. He’s sick. First time he hasn’t been able to get here for years. He’ll be sorry to miss the big occasion.”
The clerk overcame his surprise. “Well, I imagined you’d come for the contest.”
“No. I’m just passing through. What kind of contest?”
“Our annual rifle-shooting competition. This is the ninth year. We get people from miles around. That’s why I thought you’d know what’s happening.”
“I didn’t. Still, now I’m here, maybe I’ll look in on it. When does it start?”
“One o’clock. First there’s a little exhibition, then the real thing gets going. If you’re any hand with a rifle, you still have time to put your name down. The book’s open till noon. Nice prize. ’Course, you’d have to beat Ray Gentry.”
Stevens stiffened. “Ray Gentry?”
“That’s right. He came here four years ago. Entered right away and he’s won the prize every year from then on. Does the name mean anything to you?”
“I seem to remember hearing it somewhere. Anyway, I could use a little rest. You got the key?” Stevens paid for two days in advance, took his horse to the livery barn, bolted a breakfast at a busy restaurant, then went to his room. It was true that he needed to put his feet up. He’d been riding hard for too long. But what he’d heard from the clerk precluded relaxation. Had he heard of Ray Gentry?
What a question to ask Mark Stevens of all people. The two had grown up together in a small town in Idaho. Gentry, two years older and much bigger and stronger than Stevens, had pestered him for years, during and after schooldays, often inciting others to do the same. Finally, after receiving a beating from a gang led by Gentry, Stevens decided that life in the town was intolerable. He left within a month of the incident. Now, here they both were – assuming that it was the same Ray Gentry – six years later, in a place well over a thousand miles from where they’d started life.
There were few doubts in Stevens’ mind that the blame for his career after departing from his hometown could be laid at Gentry’s door. Stevens reasoned, or rather rationalised that, had he not banished himself from his birthplace, his affairs wouldn’t have taken the course they did. That path was one followed all too often by unskilled drifters. Mark Stevens had become a small-time bandit – he didn’t have either the imagination or the daring to undertake major operations. Still, he had done well enough out of it to feel that he could now put the past behind him and maybe set himself up in business. Apart from any other considerations, his conscience was troubling him. To date, he had not killed or injured anyone, but if he went on with this way of life, that would be only a matter of time. Now twenty-three, he reckoned he’d better straighten himself out.
It was an irony within an irony that Stevens had wound up in the same place as Ray Gentry. Strange that the two should have reached Burnett, and even more so that Stevens had arrived on this particular day.
There had only ever been one field in which Stevens had outshone Gentry. That was marksmanship. Gentry was good, but Stevens was better. He had in fact won two shooting competitions in the course of his travels, the second one netting him as a prize the Winchester he now owned, which was the best rifle he had ever handled. Now it seemed that fate had decreed this meeting. Well, it was a confrontation from which Stevens would not shrink. It was, he recognised, one of those crucial moments in life.
For well over an hour, Mark Stevens lay there thinking, stroking the still unfamiliar beard and moustache. He had grown the whiskers as a temporary measure after his last hold-up. Anything to confuse the pursuit, he’d reckoned. The change hadn’t yet been either a help or a hindrance, but now it amused him to think it might deceive Ray Gentry – not that deception was necessary. Having reached his conclusion, Stevens picked up his weapon and went to the reception desk, finding the young fellow still in attendance. “I think I’ll try my hand at the shooting,” he said. “What do I do?”
“Good for you,” the clerk answered. “Go along the street to the House of Cards saloon. Our town marshal, Bill Dooley, keeps the register there. You pay five dollars and take your chance. There’s just the one prize – two hundred and fifty dollars. They collect all the five-dollar entry fees and any shortfall below the prize money is made up by the town’s businesses. If we get more than fifty entries – not that we ever have done – the extra cash will go into our community chest.”
Thanking the man, Stevens left. He strolled around the town, confirming his favourable first impression, then went into the saloon, where the book was just about to be closed. “I’d like to take part in the shooting match,” he said to Marshal Dooley.
“Well, you just made it,” the lawman replied. “I guess you’ll be the last entrant. That’ll be five dollars. Better give me your name.”
Stevens handed over the money. “Name,” he said. “Oh, yes. Er . . . Marks. Stephen Marks.”
“As long as you’re sure.” The marshal was mildly amused by the hesitation.
“I guess I should know.”
“Okay, Mister Marks,” the marshal emphasised the name, “Being a stranger, maybe you need an explanation of how this thing works?”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“Okay. If you go see the mayor, John Wilby – that’s him, talking over yonder. He’ll tell you what’s what.”
Thanking the marshal, Stevens wandered over to the little knot of people surrounding the mayor, who was holding forth on some political point when he noticed the newcomer trying to attract his attention. Interrupting his discourse, he turned to Stevens. “Did you wish to speak with me?”
“Yes. The marshal was saying you’d tell me about the rules of this contest.”
“Certainly. You’re new here, are you not?”
“Well, we start in about an hour. First, we have little entertainment. Only a matter of minutes, but I think you’ll enjoy it. Then the contest opens. If I got the signal from Marshal Dooley right just now, you were the last to register. That makes thirty-nine.”
“So it’s likely to take a while, is it?”
“Probably not as long as you might think. We shoot in groups of five, with a last lot if necessary, so that’ll be four this time. Each contestant has five shots, which must be fired within two minutes, from an upright unsupported position, using only the naked eye. The targets are two feet square. They’re blue, with a white circle in the middle, and are initially numbered one to five. We start by setting them at three hundred yards. Those who get all five shots in the white circle proceed. Anyone who doesn’t falls out. Then we set up fresh targets further back, and so it goes on. Each time, more people fail, until we get a winner.”
“What if they all fail at the same point?”
“That’s never happened. If it did, I would adjudicate by examining the groupings for tightness, but I don’t think I need to go into detail right now.”
Stevens nodded. “I guess there won’t be many left at the distance I mentioned?”
“Very few. Ray Gentry, who lives here in town, has taken the prize four years running. As I recall it, he won last year at about that range. He got all his shots in the white circle and the only other fellow left missed with two of his. I don’t think we ever had to go out any further. No one knows what Gentry could do if pressed. Now, I have a few other matters to deal with. Are you satisfied?”
“Yes, sir. You’ve been very helpful. Thank you.”
The venue was the open space behind the back lots of the shorter street, and by the scheduled start time a crowd of around five hundred people had gathered for the event. Mark Stevens joined the other competitors and was given his number, thirty-nine. As the last to enter, he would shoot in the final group of four. He had already picked out the burly form of Ray Gentry, surrounded by admirers. The man was full of geniality, swapping banter with those around him. Well, thought Stevens, the local star would soon find it harder to maintain his good humour.
Mayor Wilby was chatting with group of other civic dignitaries. Promptly at one o’clock, he broke away. Walking over to stand on a little platform, he held his arms high and wide and called for attention. He was now in full speech mode. Orotund was the word. However, he kept it tolerably short, recounting briefly the history of the competition and the phenomenal success of the current champion, then offering good wishes to all contestants. Finally, he announced that the proceedings would, as usual, start with an exhibition with knife and handgun and that, for the fifth successive year, he had been able to secure the talents of that redoubtable gentleman, Charlie Two Trees. This brought enthusiastic applause, during which Wilby stepped down.
Mark Stevens turned to the man next to him. “Who’s this Charlie?” he said.
“He’s a Crow Indian. And before you ask, I don’t know what a Crow’s doing here. Nobody else does, either, except him. The rest of his people are way up north. Charlie’s one of a kind. Anyway, you’re in for a treat here. He’s amazing.”
The man himself had now appeared, dressed in a fringed belted buckskin jacket and matching trousers. He was a short stocky elderly fellow, his face alone a study. Looking at it, Mark Stevens was reminded of a roasted walnut. Charlie Two Trees deposited a wooden box on the ground. A boy assigned to help him carried an easel mounted on a little four-wheeled trolley to a point thirty feet away from the marksman, pinning to the frame a target, painted in concentric circles, blue on the outside, then white, then a four-inch bullseye in red.
The old Indian took a handful of throwing knives from his box, tucking them into his belt. He lined himself up with the target, shuffled his feet, then drew one of the knives. His right arm went up high and straight, then swept down, releasing the knife. It hit the target, dead-centre, to a burst of applause. Next, Charlie did the same thing left-handed, the second knife clanging against the first as it drove into the target. The crowd loved it.
The boy returned the knives to the Indian, who then took one in each hand. He tensed himself, standing still for ten seconds, then both arms went up and down together, releasing the two knives simultaneously. Both struck the bullseye close to the centre and barely half an inch apart. The acclaim was loud and long.
Now the boy fastened a length of rope to the trolley, which he pushed back a few feet before moving it to the right-hand side of the clearway, then running back to the left-hand side. At a sign from Charlie, he began to pull the easel from right to left, moving it at a steady walking speed. As the target traversed the space, Charlie, using his right hand, threw four knives, all hitting the shifting target, none more than an inch from the centre. Again, there was a tremendous response. Next, the boy returned the knives, then trotted across the clearway and began to haul the target rightwards. This time, Charlie hurled the four knives with his left hand. All hit the target as accurately as the first throws. The crowd’s reaction was appropriate to the feat.
Returning to his box, Charlie pulled out a gun belt with twin holsters, then he produced two double-action revolvers into each of which he put four bullets, to match the number of knives he’d used. Re-loading as required, he did with the guns what he had done with the knives, showing the same level of accuracy. That would have been remarkable enough if he’d raised the guns to shoulder height and taken careful aim. As it was, he fired from the hips, shooting the instant he cleared leather. Again there was tremendous applause.
Mark Stevens felt dig in his ribs from a short dumpy fellow standing on his right. “He’s going to give us his party piece now,” said the man. “He always saves the best for last.”
Stevens chuckled. “Calls for a drum roll or something, does it?”
“You’ll think so when you’ve seen it. Just watch.”
Charlie’s young assistant took from a coat pocket a small circular piece of stiff yellow card, which he tacked over the centre of the target, so that a clear ring of the red bullseye remained visible. The Indian still had the four knives in his waistband. He raised one in his right hand, threw it as before, then the hand continued downwards, drawing the right-side gun, which again was fired from the hip. Both knife and bullet hit the yellow card. The lad inspected the target and, turning with a wide grin, raised both thumbs, then loosened the card and held it up for all to see before replacing it with an identical one. Charlie repeated his effort left-handed, once more getting knife and bullet into the card. The youngster checked the target again, once more hoisting his thumbs, removing the card and waving it around, then fastening up another of the same size and colour.
Most of the spectators had seen this before and, knowing what was coming, were saving their show of appreciation. Charlie now composed himself for the finale. There was total silence as he raised a knife in each hand, threw them simultaneously, dropped both hands to the guns and fired them as one. Both knives and both bullets hit the yellow card, which the young fellow pried loose and brandished aloft. “Four hits,” he yelled.
As a deafening din broke out, Mark Stevens turned to the man next to him. “You were right,” he said. “It’s barely believable. That card can’t be much more than two inches in diameter.”
“Well, it’s a good deal smaller than the bull,” the man replied. “The mayor keeps those cards as mementos, so you’ll be able to measure one if you want to. You might like to know that one of the boys from our ranch saw Charlie practising at home a while ago. A bullet travels maybe eight or ten times as fast as a knife, and sometimes the old boy gets the slug off so quick that it makes a hole first and the knife goes through it.”
The astonishing Charlie Two Trees was clearly no socialite. He collected his belongings and walked away, leaving the stage set for the main event.
The shooters assembled, the crowd being kept behind them for safety. Apart from the target-setter, no-one was allowed at the butts. Out there, the blue and white cards were being attached to squares of planking nailed to wooden posts slotted into sockets in the ground. The first competitors took their positions. The land was flat and clear to the horizon over a width of eighty yards, the only features being a hillock to the right of the range and a clump of trees to the left of it, both far from the firing point.
When all was ready, Mayor Wilby announced the start of the shoot-off and the first group fired. The target setter collected the cards and brought them back for inspection by the mayor, who announced that two of the five men had failed.
So it went on. Of the thirty-nine contestants, eight fell at the first hurdle. When the targets were set back fifty yards, fourteen further failures were recorded. At the third stage, ten more men and the lone woman fell by the wayside. Now there were only six shooters left, including Mark Stevens and Ray Gentry. Two men dropped out at the next round and at the following one, two more, leaving only Stevens and Gentry to fight it out.
Every time he returned, the target man joined the competitors, talking mostly with Gentry. Stevens was pleased with his performance. On each occasion, his shots had been closely grouped, while Gentry’s efforts, though good, had been more erratic. The big man seemed unconcerned. Had the positions been reversed, Stevens would have been apprehensive.
The target setter, Bellamy, cantered off again, this time to set up fresh cards at six hundred yards. He collected them from a pile by the trees, fixed them in place, rejoined his horse and waved a white cloth, his signal that all was ready. Few doubted that this would be the deciding round. Surely it was too much to expect that both men would get five shots into the circle at such a distance. Gentry, as befitted his status, was to shoot at target number one, on the left. After reminding the two contestants of the two-minute time limit, Mayor Wilby raised a hand. “Gentlemen, are you ready?” he called. Both men nodded. “Good. You may start . . . now!”
Satisfied that he never been in better form, Mark Stevens completed his firing in less than half a minute. Gentry took almost the whole of the allotted time. Bellamy removed the cards, carried them to the trees and his waiting horse and galloped back to hand them to the mayor. Wilby inspected them, then stood on his platform, raising his hands for silence. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he bawled. “I think you will agree that we’ve had some wonderful entertainment and a magnificent contest. The winner, and still champion, is Ray Gentry.”
After pausing to let the crowd show its appreciation, Wilby went on: “If you will stay here for a moment, I shall present the prize. Meanwhile, a big hand please, for a gallant challenger.”
Mark Stevens got a generous burst of clapping. Gentry strolled over to him, grinning. “You were good, but not quite good enough, Stevens,” he said.
“Oh, you recognised me, did you?”
Gentry sniggered. “You always were a dumb one. I see you haven’t changed.” He pointed at Stevens’ rifle. “You thought of covering your face and you took care not to talk much, but if you want to stay anonymous, maybe you shouldn’t advertise your identity.”
It was true. Stevens had completely forgotten that when he had won the Winchester, his name had been engraved on the breech plate. Obviously, Gentry’s sharp eyes had noticed that at some stage.
But Stevens wasn’t through yet. He knew there was something wrong, though he wasn’t sure what. Mayor Wilby had stepped down from his platform and, ignoring Gentry’s jibe, Stevens approached Burnett’s most prominent townsman. “Pardon me, Mr Mayor,” he said. “Could I see those cards?”
“Certainly,” the mayor replied. He picked up the targets and handed them over. “Are you implying some impropriety?” he said.
Stevens looked at the cards. Number two showed three bullet holes in the white circle and two outside it. Number one showed a four-inch grouping of five bulls. At that range, from an upright stance, it was outstanding marksmanship. After his earlier uneven efforts, Gentry seemed to have risen to the occasion. Stevens was convinced that there had been some skulduggery, but he couldn’t think it through. In a desperate attempt to play for time, he handed the cards back to the mayor. “A word in your ear please, sir?” he said.
Wilby bent his head, listening carefully to what Mark Stevens said. Then he nodded and stepped back up onto his dais, waving his arms for attention. “My friends,” he bellowed, “it seems our entertainment is not over yet. The defeated finalist has offered us a special treat. Purely for exhibition, he will attempt to score five bullseyes from a distance of” – he paused for effect – “seven hundred yards!”
The reaction was muted. Who did this upstart think he was? Could he not take defeat like a man?
There was method in Stevens’ apparent madness. He was anxious to keep everyone on the spot and this was the only stratagem he could think of. The pieces of this infuriating puzzle were floating around in his mind, refusing to fall into place. A few more minutes might do it.
The target man, Bellamy, had mounted to resume his duties when the penny dropped. Mark Stevens remembered a conversation he’d overheard in a saloon years ago and the solution hit him like a blow between the eyes. He rushed over to the mayor, whispering into his ear.
Nobody could have fairly accused Tom Wilby of indecision. “Bellamy!” The mayoral roar could have stopped a cavalry charge. The horseman brought his animal to a halt, turned and came back. Stevens continued speaking to Wilby, who was nodding vigorously.
Having heard Stevens out, the mayor turned to Bellamy. “I’d like you to oblige me by staying here,” he said. “We’re making a slight change.”
The custodian of targets dismounted and stood, looking uncomfortable as the mayor peered around. “Stratton,” he yelled. “Harry Stratton. Where are you?”
“I’m here.” A bandy-legged cowpoke strode forward. “What is it, Mr Wilby?”
“Your horse is handy, I suppose?”
“Sure. What do you want?”
“This is just a precaution. I want you to take over from Bellamy and do as I say.” He put an arm round Stratton’s shoulders and whispered for two minutes. “Have you got all that?” he said finally.
“Yeah, it’s simple enough.” Stratton disappeared for two minutes, returning on his horse and riding off to the targets. He flattened one, then carried the other off into the distance, pacing out a further hundred yards, setting it up and pinning a fresh card in place. Then he waved his hat to indicate that all was ready.
Stevens was as tense as a fiddle string, but he was now committed, and anyway, he’d promised the crowd a show, so he would have to deliver. In the next few minutes he would either expose a fraud or make a monumental fool of himself. In his nervous state, the shooting alone would be a hair-raising task, but it was secondary to proving how Gentry had worked his swindle.
The challenge was beyond anything Stevens had ever tackled before. Still, he had never shot as well as he was doing today. At that range, even in this crystal clear air, most of the spectators could barely see the white circle, let alone dream of hitting it. Stevens took his time about settling down, but once ready, he fired even more quickly than he had during the contest.
At the target end, Stratton moved in, collected the card and returned to his horse. He paused for a moment in the trees, then rode back and handed over his burden to the mayor. He had brought back three cards. Wilby first inspected the top one. “Wonderful,” he said. “Congratulations, Mr . . . by the way, I heard Gentry speaking with you. What is your real name?”
“Mark Stevens, sir.”
“Right. Now, let’s see.” He raised the other cards, numbered one and two. “Where are the two previous cards?” They were handed over and, following Stevens’ suggestion, Wilby placed them over the two he had just received from Stratton, reversing the numbers. The bullet holes matched perfectly.
The mayor shook his head. “The scoundrel,” he said, almost to himself. Then, with a face like thunder, he strode over to Ray Gentry, beckoning Bellamy to follow him. He spoke to both men for nearly five minutes, then went to Mark Stevens, talking with him briefly, then returned to mount his platform and quieten the now restless crowd.
Tom Wilby demonstrated that he was not just a political windbag. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed. “I must apologise for keeping you waiting, but events have taken a strange turn and I now have some announcements to make. First, our newcomer, Mr Mark Stevens succeeded in placing all his five shots into the bullseye at seven hundred yards.” He waved a hand Stevens, inviting the crowd to show its appreciation, which was half-hearted.
The mayor went on: “Now, second, for reasons which I shall make clear in a moment, the earlier decision has been reversed. The prize goes to Mr Stevens.” Before the crowd could respond, Wilby again held his hands high. “One moment. I have also to tell you that Mr Stevens has chosen to donate his winnings to our community chest, which I hardly need –”
Nobody cared what the Mayor hardly need say. The applause was tumultuous. When it subsided, the mayor continued: “Now, I regret to tell you that my last duty today is less agreeable than the others. My friends, we have been the victims of a monstrous piece of trickery. Once again, we have Mr Stevens to thank, for it was he who revealed it.”
“Get on with it, Tom, yelled a man from the crowd. “What’s happened?”
“It amounts to this,” said the mayor. “Our previous champion” – he spat out the last word – “was sure of himself up to a point, but it seems he required some help beyond that. Each time Jim Bellamy returned here, he checked the position with Ray Gentry. When it came to a final shoot-off, Bellamy set the targets. He placed two cards, numbered one and two, for the contestants. But that was not all. Behind them, he placed two more cards, obviously undetectable to us, with the numbers reversed. So, if Gentry had genuinely won, Bellamy would have merely needed to remove all four cards, bring back the top two and drop the other pair out yonder. If Gentry failed, Bellamy simply had to discard the top two and bring back the others. Either way, Gentry was sure to win.”
The good people of Burnett showed in boos and hisses what they thought of that. Tom Wilby had some difficulty in restoring order. When he did so, he turned to Ray Gentry and went on: “As for you, sir, I almost wish I could say that words fail me. As it happens, they do not. I don’t know how often you have perpetrated this deception. Perhaps you were never the genuine champion. Be that as it may, you have been unmasked. Not only have you made game of us all and ruined our premier social occasion, but you have induced many people to wager their hard-earned money on what you knew was a foregone conclusion. I confess to not knowing offhand what law you have transgressed, other than that of common decency, to which most of us subscribe. Marshal Dooley could surely think of something. However, my advice to you is to leave these parts immediately, or I shall not be answerable for your safety. You may take it that this applies also to your accomplice, Bellamy.”
With that, Wilby stepped down, striding over to Mark Stevens. “Now, young man,” he said, “I realise that the circumstances are unfortunate, but I think I have done what I can to redeem the position and I hope you will not think too badly of us.”
“Not at all, Mr Mayor,” Stevens replied. “The fact is, I’ve taken quite a fancy to this place and I’ve a mind to stay here.”
“I’m certain you’ll find a hearty welcome. Now, are you sure you don’t wish to reconsider your decision and keep the prize yourself?”
“I’m sure, sir. To tell the truth, I reckon things have worked out about right.”
“I must say, the logic eludes me. It seems to me that you have the best of grounds for demanding redress. How do you explain your satisfaction?”
“It’s this way, Mr Mayor. I’ve been acquainted with Ray Gentry for a long time. You couldn’t know it, but he once drove me out of my hometown. Now I guess I’ve done the same for him. I’ll settle for calling it quits.”
* * *
The above story is the last one in the 'Sunset' series.