OUT WEST : NUMBER ELEVEN
Ben Cooper brought his horse to a halt and for nearly ten minutes sat in the saddle, looking at a signpost. It was a crude piece of work. A length of sapling trunk, set in the hard ground, rose to a height of nearly eight feet. In a cleft at the top, fixed by a nail, was a two-foot length of fence wood pointing southwest and bearing the legend ‘Parry 5 Miles’, in uneven characters of black paint.
The name struck a chord with Ben. It had been mentioned to him by an elderly prospector with whom he’d had a casual encounter two weeks earlier. The fellow had spent a few hours in Parry. He said it was the only town for a long way in any direction, adding that it seemed to him an unusual kind of place, especially in matters of law and order, which were in the hands of an officer named Constable Fox, a man best avoided.
Since speaking with the old man, Ben had not given any further thought to their conversation, but now he was pondering on it. He hadn’t slept in a comfortable bed or eaten a properly cooked meal for some time, and was overdue for a bath and a haircut. He was heading due south, but recalling the prospector’s words caused him to consider a minor change of course. It seemed reasonable to suppose that since there was a side-trail to Parry from the northeast, there might be a similar one leading southeast out of the town, back to the main north-south route. On that assumption, and remembering what Pythagoras observed about right-angled triangles, Ben concluded that the detour would probably add only three miles or so to his long journey. He would try it.
Like many men who spend a lot of time alone, Ben was given to bouts of introspection, and as he headed towards Parry, he took stock of himself. At twenty-five years of age, he was physically in good shape. An even six feet in height and sturdily built, he scaled almost two hundred pounds, all in the right places. His usually tidy hair was sandy, his eyes blue. He’d had a passable education and taken full advantage of it. The only fault he found with himself was his tendency to react too swiftly and fiercely to anything he considered annoying. The phrase ‘no sooner a word than a blow’ would not have been an entirely inaccurate description of his attitude in such matters.
The reason Ben found himself in this part of Colorado was that he was on his way to join a cousin in California, who’d offered him a forty percent share in a fruit-growing business, already thriving under the cousin’s sole ownership. Ben had been pleased to accept and as there was no great hurry, he’d decided to treat himself to the trip of a lifetime by following the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains from his home in Montana down to Santa Fe, then swinging westwards through New Mexico and Arizona to his destination.
An hour after leaving the main trail, Ben rounded the foot of a hill and found himself within half a mile of Parry. One glance was enough to show him that the old prospector had been right in describing the place as unusual. It was laid out somewhat like a fort, with four long low timber-built blocks surrounding a large square, access to which was via gaps at the corners between the buildings. There were several outlying structures, the only one of any size being a barn with an attached corral, obviously the livery stable. Ben headed there and was greeted by the owner, a small, wizened oldster. He asked how long Ben intended to stay in Parry. “A couple of days,” Ben replied. “I aim to get myself cleaned up, take in some decent food and have a little rest.”
“You can get a bath at the barber’s place, south corner of the west block yonder. Hotel’s halfway along the north block and Nellie Spruce runs a nice little diner on east block. You’ll be all right here as long as you don’t tangle with Constable Fox.”
“Funny you should say that,” Ben answered. “Fellow I met some way north of here told me the same thing.”
“He was right. Just try to keep clear of our lawman – and don’t tell anybody that advice came from me.”
Two hours later Ben left the hotel, where he had a bed in a north-facing room that was cool, even on this hot day. He’d had a haircut, shave and bath and was looking forward to a beer or two and something to eat. Walking along the east block, he took in tantalising smells from the diner. He established that the place would be open until seven o’clock. That gave him well over an hour to have a couple of drinks and what seemed likely to be a good meal.
After glancing at the two saloons, Ben decided to try the smaller one on the south block. Admittance was by a plain wooden door that led to the right-hand side of a room about twenty-five feet square with a bar running along the rear wall. A dozen drinkers were seated in twos and threes at five of the eight tables. Ben ordered a beer and was for a moment the only patron at the bar. Then he heard a chair scraping across the floorboards and ten seconds later a short thin scruffy-looking man joined him, banged down the half-full glass he’d brought from his table and grunted: “You’re in my place, mister.”
Ben was close to the middle of the bar. He took a big step sideways, increasing the distance between the two men to six feet. “That suit you better?” he asked.
Apparently it didn’t, for the fellow shuffled along to within arm’s length of Ben. “You’re still in my place,” he said.
With another stride, Ben widened the gap between the two again. Now his back was almost touching the east wall. “That’s as far as it goes, friend,” he answered. “And I have to say you need a hell of a lot of room, considering your size.”
The man sniggered. “You don’t get it. When Jake Hollins drinks, he needs the whole bar, an’ he specially don’t want to to share it with a gent who smells like you.”
“Oh, and how do I smell?”
“Like a farmyard. Anyway, what with you bein’ so quarrelsome an’ all, I guess I’ll just have to make my point another way. He straightened up and began to lower his right hand to the butt of a sixgun, slung low on his thigh, his movements curiously leisurely, as though he was trying to get a reaction before using the weapon.
Ben was unarmed, but he’d had quite enough of this provocation. His short temper surfaced and he lashed out, felling the troublemaker with a right uppercut to the chin, then he stooped, drew the man’s gun and tossed it over the bar. “Anybody else got anything to say?” he snapped.
There was no reply from anyone in the room, but an answer to Ben’s question came at once, when the door was flung open and a man stomped in. He was about five-nine and hefty, with much of his poundage around the middle. He was also pointing a forty-five at Ben. “Well, well,” he said, “seems like we have another stranger disturbing the peace. Getting to be a regular thing here. Come with me.”
Ben stifled a protest. Faced with the gun, he reasoned that his best course was to do as he was told until he could make sense of what was happening. The man directed him to the north end of the east block. “Who are you and what are you going to do with me?” Ben asked.
“Name’s Fox. I’m the law in Parry and you’re going to be my guest till I make up my mind what fine you’ll pay for the trouble you’ve caused.”
“Well, it’s obvious that I’m the victim of a set-up, so how long do you aim to keep me here?”
“Getting uppity won’t do you any good. You’ll stay till I decide otherwise. A week or two on bread and water might calm you down.” By now the pair had reached Fox’s combined office and single-cell jail. The lawman ushered Ben ahead of him.
As they’d been crossing the square, Ben’s mind had run through what he’d heard about Fox, first from the old prospector then from the hostler. He had no illusions about the plight he was in. To his mind, the man behind him was behaving more like a bandit than a law officer. Desperation gave speed to Ben’s thought processes. He must not let himself get locked up. Fox moved almost abreast of him as they reached the empty cell. “Get in,” he growled.
At that moment, inspiration came to Ben. He pointed at the floor under the bed. “Hey, you can’t keep a man in jail with a thing like that,” he yelled. “You might as well shoot me now.” He was giving a convincing impression of being panic-stricken.
“What are you talking about?” said Fox. He strode forwards almost involuntarily and stooped to establish what was causing his detainee’s agitation. Now he was just ahead and slightly to the right of Ben. There was nothing but dust to be seen.
It was now or never. Ben stepped directly behind Fox, put both palms on the lawman’s rear ribs and pushed hard, augmenting the effort with a vigorous hip thrust to the broad backside before him. Fox was propelled across the bed. His head thudded against the wall, his upper half slumped to the mattress and the gun fell from his hand to the floor. He was unconscious.
Acting rapidly, Ben threw Fox’s gun into the office before pulling him from the bed and dropping him to the floor, face up and breathing stertorously. There was a thin sheet on the bed. Ben grabbed it and tore it into three long strips. He used one to bind the the lawman’s hands behind his back, the second to tie his legs together and the third to gag him.
Intent on delaying any possible pursuit, Ben went over to Fox’s desk. In a drawer, he found a ring holding two keys, one to the cell door, the other to the outer one. After checking that nobody was in sight outside, Ben locked both doors, then lobbed the keys back into the office through an open window. Forcing himself to appear nonchalant, he sauntered off to the livery barn, where he surprised the hostler by asking for his horse. “I thought you aimed to stay at least overnight, young feller. Changed your mind already?”
“That’s right. I’m all tidied up and I’ve had a rest. I don’t think I can afford to lose any more time.”
“Well, you’ll have one advantage in getting away. You won’t have to deal with Constable Fox.”
Ben managed a smile. “There’s that name again. Before I go, just tell me what the story is with this man. Why is he called a constable and is everyone here afraid of him?”
“He got the constable title from the council, when we had one. It was dissolved following a big argument, a year or so after Fox was appointed. Since then there’s been nobody to control him. His wage is paid by the town’s businesses and still collected and handed over to him by the man who used be council chairman.”
“So why is he such a terror?”
“Oh, he doesn’t bother the townsfolk much. But he has an odd way with outsiders. He works with a feller named Hollins. They take note of any stranger who arrives and if he looks like what you might call a man of means, Hollins finds some way to argue with him, maybe in a saloon or store, and goad him into fighting. Then Fox steps in and jails the newcomer for a while. A couple of weeks of our constable’s hospitality is enough to make any man glad to part with everything he has and get away from here. It’s a right nice little business for Fox. You’ve been lucky not to tangle with him.”
Ben chuckled. “I guess you’re right. Supposing somebody crossed him and made a run for it, what would Fox do?”
“Nothing. He never leaves town. Too lazy, I guess. If a man got a little start, he’d be safe enough. Anyway, the nearest town with any real law is eighty miles south of here, and the marshal there has no time for Fox. Wouldn’t lift a finger to help him.”
“Very interesting,” said Ben, keeping his face straight. “Well, I’ll be going. Goodbye, old man.”
“So long, son.”
* * *