SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THIRTY-FOUR
Donovan And Goliath
For the first time in over a year, Paul Donovan was a happy man. He had spent far too long riding the grub line, seeking work, following a planless path from West Texas, through New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, finally reaching the Powder River country of Wyoming, where he’d arrived at the Halford ranch. The timing was fortuitous, as he appeared the day after one of the riders had been obliged to quit, to return to his parents’ home in Arkansas, where he was needed to deal with a family emergency.
Joe Halford was an unusual character. A tall gaunt bachelor of sixty-four, he had spent many years carving out a niche for himself. Now, a little bowed, with lined face and thinning grey hair, he was largely resting on his laurels, leaving the day to day running of the spread to his foreman, Walt Sadler. But nobody underestimated Halford. A man who had made his mark in such harsh conditions was not one to be taken lightly, and there were those who could remember the days when few would have wished to tangle with him. Gun or fist, it had all been the same to Joe Halford. These days, life being more settled, he was making good what he had neglected in earlier times. He was getting himself an education. Books of all kinds had arrived by mail order at the ranch in the last five years and he’d devoured the lot.
During that half-decade, Halford had changed markedly. Once a fairly sociable man, he had become reclusive. He hadn’t visited the nearby town, nor had he either called on or received any of his neighbours. Each day, he rode to the southern edge of his own range, walked for an hour, then returned to his reading. He ate and drank sparingly and involved himself in the daily round only when there was hiring or firing to be done. He correctly considered himself a good judge of character, which accounted in part for the low turnover of men at his spread. That had nothing to do with money, for Halford paid no more than the going rate. However, he did provide his men with superior accommodation – and there was the legendary food. Halford’s cook, Abe Gibbons, was fifty-eight years of age and chronically cantankerous, but his culinary skill would have landed him a top restaurant job, had he been inclined to seek one.
Then there was the moral attitude. Even under financial pressure, Joe Halford would keep his men, when some other ranchers took a more casual view of such matters. Consequently, when a rider secured a billet at the Halford spread, he was usually reluctant to leave. Apart from Gibbons, the man most senior in years was the foreman, Sadler. Now forty-six he had, like the cook, been with Halford for nearer two decades than one. The other riders ranged from nineteen to twenty-eight, and with the exception of Donovan, had served the rancher for at least three years, most of them much longer.
One November morning, Paul Donovan was tending to his chores when Sadler told him that he was wanted by the boss. Entering the ranch house, Donovan found Halford in one of the twin armchairs before the stone fireplace. “Take a seat, Paul,” said the chief, waving a hand at the other chair. Donovan sat.
“You’ve been with us for two months. You seem to fit in here.”
“No reason not to,” Donovan replied. “I like the place.”
“Good. I’m not often wrong about men. I hope you’ll stay.”
“I hope so, too. This beats wrestling longhorns in the Texas brush country.”
“Well, you seem to know the cattle business. Ever done anything else?”
“Yes. I’ve been around a bit. Did some logging, worked on a paddle steamer, spent a year in a circus and a few months on a railroad.”
“Must have been interesting. Now, I’d be grateful if you’d run a little errand. John Collingwood at the freight office in town has a package for me. I’d like you to collect it. Take your time. Have a beer or two if you like.”
“Well, maybe just one. Wouldn’t mind taking a bath while I’m there.”
“Do that. Nothing special about the job. Just my tobacco supply. Parcel about a foot square and three inches deep, so you won’t need the wagon. Give you a chance to exercise that fine mount of yours. Have you had him long?”
“Since last summer. I reckon he carried me over fifteen hundred miles until I got here.”
“Well, give him a run. See you this afternoon.”
Donovan left, saddled his bay gelding and headed for town – a loose term for the small scatter of buildings that made up Farnham’s Cross, six miles east of the Halford ranch. Still, that was the only spot with anything approaching township credentials for a long way around. Every Saturday evening, the local cowpunchers who had enough money would ride in, drink their fill, play a little low-stakes poker and get back to their places. Donovan, who cared little for drink and less for cards, had so far joined the others only once. He was interested in replenishing his depleted cash resources.
No one knew who Farnham was, or what he had crossed. Some said it was the local stream. If so, the name was more than a little fanciful, for as often as not, an active man could have taken a short run and jumped the narrow waterway. The place would probably have died without a name, but for the fact that it was well-positioned as a stop on the stagecoach line, so it had to be formally identified. Having given his horse a workout, Paul Donovan reined the animal in to a walk as he entered the settlement. Reaching the freight office, he stopped and was about to go in when the manager, Collingwood, emerged. A short chubby man of about Halford’s age, he stepped forward to meet the new arrival. “Morning. You’re Joe’s new man, aren’t you?”
“Now, don’t tell me. It’s Don . . . Donnelly, right?”
“Well, I was close. You’ve come for the package, I guess.”
“Right, but I aim to wallow in a hot tub first. I’ll come by in an hour or so, if you’ll be around.”
Collingwood grinned. “Oh, I’ll be around.” He spread his arms, to take in the few buildings and the great open space beyond. “Where else would I be?”
“I see what you mean. Okay, an hour.” Donovan turned and strolled along to the barbershop, established that it would take twenty minutes for hot water to be ready, then crossed over to Jim White’s saloon.
From his single earlier visit and the comments of the other Halford hands, Donovan had no notions of scintillating conversation with the saloon owner. Jim White was a notoriously taciturn man, never using two words where one would do, and none at all if a gesture would suffice. His attitude was an odd one for a fellow in his chosen line of work. But then, everything about Jim White was a mystery. He’d drifted in, lounged around for while, then bought the saloon from a fellow born and raised in Farnham’s Cross, who had wanted to sell up and go off to see something of the world.
Apart from not having worked since his arrival, White had given no indication of being a man of means, but he had paid the high asking price without demur. Rumour had it that he had lived a different and more colourful life under another name. If that was so, he clearly intended to keep it to himself, for when he spoke at all, he never referred to his past, except in the most general terms.
Donovan, whose Celtic antecedents predisposed him to gregariousness, curbed himself, simply ordering a beer, which he carried over to one of the half-dozen tables, all unoccupied. For a moment, he thought he was he was the only customer, then he noticed that there was someone else. At the far end of the bar, where it angled at ninety degrees to join up with the rear wall, he saw both extremities of another patron. At one, there was a mop of black hair and a sliver of forehead, at the other, two feet, encased in hobnailed boots, caked with mud and dust, stuck out beyond the bar corner. Evidently the man was sprawled in a chair.
Donovan concentrated on the boots. It wasn’t their condition or style that caught his attention, so much as their size. Even at a distance of twenty-five feet, he could see that they were abnormally large. What manner of man would have footwear that looked twice the size of Donovan’s own?
The young cowpuncher was not left wondering for long. Within two minutes of his arrival, a hand reached out, depositing a glass onto to the bar top. Then the man himself appeared. He got up, and up, and up. It was an impressive operation. He straightened out his various hinges, like a carpenter unfolding a jointed wooden ruler. Finally, with a stretch of his arms, he stepped around the end of the bar, revealing himself as by far the biggest man Donovan had ever seen. He was not only remarkably tall, but also well-built. There was about him nothing of the lankiness often evident in exceptionally lofty men. He was simply very large all round. Even without his hat on, his head was not far short of the rafters. He grunted some monosyllable at Jim White, getting an equally short reply, then headed for the doors.
Donovan sat staring open-mouthed as the big man strode across the room, seemingly intending to pass by without comment. Then, when he had almost done that, he turned, looking down at the cowpoke. “Something bothering you?” he said. The mighty basso profundo voice emerged from the man like the sound of a cave-in rumbling up a mine shaft.
Donovan realised that he had been gawking. “Er, no, sorry. No offence intended. I guess I was just – ”
“Doesn’t matter,” said the giant. Maybe you just want the figures. Most folks do.”
“Six-ten and two eighty-five.”
Donovan was surprised, but like many Irishmen, was quick on the uptake. “Six-ten … oh, I get it. Well, I’d have figured you for an even seven feet and the full three hundred pounds.”
The faintest trace of a smile appeared at the corners of the man’s mouth. “See, it’s like looking up at a mountain,” he said. “You can’t tell how high it is.” Now they were into conversation, where Donovan was at home. “Or like being on a lakeside,” he said. “At eye level, you don’t know how wide it is.”
“Right,” replied the behemoth, then he turned and started away again. But his progress was halted once more. He was still a few feet short of the doors when they swung open, admitting two young cowpunchers, one talking loudly, the other laughing. The instant they saw the giant, both stopped, like a couple of dogs at point. They were both short wiry men, one wearing a six-shooter, holstered at his right thigh, the other unarmed.
The gun-toter looked up at the big man. “Well, well,” he grinned. “If it isn’t Mister Bristow. “We were just hopin’ to meet you.”
“Fancy that,” said the mammoth. “What would you want with me, Carter?”
“Oh, nothin’ special,” said the cocky youngster. “Fact is, we were wonderin’ if you could dance.”
“That’s right. Only, we had a big shindig over at Colonel Dumont’s place a while back. You didn’t show up, so we figured maybe you couldn’t dance. Jack here was bettin’ me that you could an’ I said you couldn’t. I reckoned maybe if I put a slug or two around your feet, we’d find out. I guess now’s as good a time as any.” His hand dropped towards his gun.
Donovan couldn’t work out whether Carter was joking or not, but the big man’s reaction was prompt. The hat he had been holding in his right hand was instantly flung at the young cowboy’s face, impeding the threatened gunplay then, with the left hand, Bristow whipped up a chair, hurling it at Carter, sending him stumbling back against the wall. Leaping upon the startled cowboy, the man mountain hauled him into the air, resting his midriff on an enormous right hand. With what seemed like no effort at all, he heaved Carter out over the batwings. Sailing and flailing, the mouthy cowpuncher not only cleared the doors, but also the sidewalk, his scrawny body thumping onto the hard ground. His companion rushed outside to check the damage.
Without a further word, the giant walked out to his loaded mule and led it off. Donovan looked over at the impassive Jim White. “Who’s that?” he asked. White allowed himself one his rare fits of conversation. “Dick Bristow,” he said. “Prospector. Comes once a month for supplies. Lives in the mountains, south of here.”
“He seems a regular Samson. What possessed the little fellow to act like that?”
“Carter’s a fool. Fancies himself as a firebrand but he’s just plain stupid. Since he got that gun, he’s never stopped seeking trouble. Serves him right.”
Donovan finished his beer and returned the glass. “Well, glad I got here in time for the show. Be seeing you.”
When a man lives alone in vast open spaces, he experiences more than one kind of solitude. That may affect him in any of a number of ways. Some take to it like ducks to water. Some like it for a time, needing to reflect. Others succumb to cabin fever or to extreme lethargy. There are no hard and fast rules, but the one certain thing is that loners rarely have anybody with whom to discuss their thoughts, so there is usually nothing to moderate their more extreme notions.
Big Dick Bristow trudged westwards from Farnham’s Cross to his shack, fifteen miles from the town and well up in the hills. He had been prospecting for eight years, his efforts netting him the bare minimum needed to keep body and soul together. He was no intellectual, but it was getting through to him that this might not be the best way to pass a human lifetime. Always intensely introspective, he became even more so as he walked. That was unfortunate, as he began to dwell upon the peremptory way he had dealt with young Carter, and to wonder what other consequences his attributes might have. He took stock of them.
Bristow’s size alone set him apart from others. When it came to physical confrontation, no normal man would take issue with him. Still, this was the land of that great equaliser, the gun. With the exception of his ancient hunting rifle, the prospector had limited experience of firearms. Maybe he should do something about that. It might also be a good idea to look into the matter of mobility.
Putting the idea into action, Bristow visited the next town south of his camp. There he bought a six-gun, a supply of ammunition, a very large horse, a saddle and a pair of outsized riding boots, the last item hair-raisingly expensive, being specially made in a great hurry. Returning to his shack, he abandoned his gold-grubbing in favour of target practice and riding. In two weeks, he turned himself into a reasonably competent pistolero and a passable horseman. It was time to act.
The inhabitants of Farnham’s Cross were surprised to see Dick Bristow appearing among them less than three weeks after his last visit. Normally, they could almost have set their clocks by his monthly arrival. The horse also caused raised eyebrows. But any thoughts the locals had regarding those things were to be overtaken by the events they were about to witness.
Dismounting outside Jim White’s saloon, Bristow entered the place and ordered whiskey, of which he downed an impressive quantity before demanding a dozen bottles to take away. Jim White supplied the liquor, stating the price. Bristow sniggered, pointing at a spot on the west wall of the saloon. “See that knot in the wood, near the top?” he said.
“Yes,” White replied. “What of it?”
Bristow drew his gun and fired one shot. The knot disappeared. “That’s what of it,” he answered. “Now, I’ll pay when I’m ready. You want to argue?”
That was just the first manifestation of Bristow’s unusual behaviour. On leaving the saloon, he visited the hardware store, the barbershop and the dry goods establishment, everywhere extracting the deference due to his intimidating presence. Within two hours, laden with all he wanted and not having paid a cent for anything, he left the town.
Farnham’s Cross was anything but an affluent place and Bristow’s demands caused a stir. Clearly, the man had gone wrong in the head, but the local population wondered what was to be done about this odd conduct. The evening after Bristow’s visit, a meeting was held in Jim White’s saloon. Cosgrove, the dry goods and hardware man, favoured legal intervention. This was easier said than done, for the nearest law officer was far distant and, like most of his kind, overburdened.
Jim White, in rare vociferous mood, was against the idea. Possibly he had his own reasons, but his volubility was persuasive. Farnham’s Cross, an introverted community, had not been visited by a lawman for a long time and nobody but Cosgrove was anxious to change that. Finally, a decision was postponed. Some said that maybe the huge prospector’s outburst was a freak incident and that perhaps he would not appear again.
Working on the principle that people do not expect lightning to strike twice in the same place, Dick Bristow reappeared in Farnham’s Cross a week after his first unconventional visit, repeating his outrageous conduct. The queer, wild look in his eyes indicated that he was deranged. It also deterred everyone from attempting to tackle him. Word spread to the outlying homesteads and ranches. This was without doubt the strangest thing that had ever happened in the place.
A further meeting was held. Cosgrove, whose store had been virtually ransacked for the second time, took matters into his own hands. He saddled his horse, announcing that he could take no more and that irrespective of what anyone else thought, he would bring in the sheriff. He left on a Saturday morning, one week after Bristow’s second bout of depredation.
That same evening, cowpunchers from far and wide began to drift into town. They all wanted to talk about the recent happenings. By seven o’clock, Jim White’s place was doing brisk business. Even the dour proprietor was contributing to the only topic of conversation. Paul Donovan was among the thirty men in the saloon when, shortly after eight, the batwings were flung open and Bristow entered, stomping over to the bar, demanding whiskey and telling White to leave the bottle. “Are you going to settle up for this, Dick?” said the saloonkeeper.
“Don’t push it,” Bristow grunted.
“Pay him, you big ox.”
The giant turned slowly, identifying the speaker as Paul Donovan. “You want to butt in here?” he growled.
For a moment, there was total silence, then Donovan spoke again. “I said pay him. Do you think we all live on credit here?”
Automatically, Bristow’s hand strayed towards his six-gun. “Oh,” he said, “a man on a white horse. What’s your interest in this, mister?”
“Fair play,” Donovan answered. “Maybe you reckon that shooter’s a help. Well, I don’t have one. You fancy your chances without it?”
Bristow stood for a moment, arms akimbo. Then he unbuckled his gun belt, letting it drop it to the floor and kicking it aside. “You’re way out of line, boy,” he said. “If you’re tired of life, step over here.”
For five seconds nobody spoke or moved, then one of the Halford hands tugged at Donovan’s shirt sleeve. “Don’t be a fool, Paul,” the man said. “Wait till the law gets here. Bristow’ll kill you.”
Donovan shrugged off the man’s hand. “I feel lucky,” he replied.
On the face of it, the contest was a ridiculous one. Bristow was well over a foot taller than Donovan and was nearly twice the young cowpuncher’s weight. But when a man, whatever his size, is pure hellcat, totally reckless and possessed of special skills, then anything might happen.
Bristow stood, vast ham hands still on his hips. Donovan bounded forwards, then suddenly went down on his hands and executed a half-cartwheel. Instead of being confronted with flying fists, Bristow found two hard boots in his face, one hitting him on the chin and right cheek the other raking his neck, both bringing blood.
Donovan was on his feet again immediately. He was well aware that he needed to compensate for his disadvantage in bulk and intended to do so by a combination of speed and the use of every part of him that could be brought into action. He knew that the bone of the human forehead is exceptionally thick and that, used properly, can be a powerful weapon. Now he dived forwards, head-butting Bristow in the midriff. The giant, momentarily disorientated and preoccupied with wiping blood from his chin and neck, was caught partially off balance. Emitting a great ‘oof,’ he fell backwards to the floor.
Again, Donovan was erect in a flash. Without a second’s hesitation he bent, seizing Bristow’s left foot in both hands. Directing his whole energy and every ounce of his body weight to the next move, he performed a somersault over Bristow’s body, still clutching that foot. He landed upright, just clear of the big man’s head, then bore down savagely on Bristow’s now taut leg. This brought a loud yell from the mighty prospector. Immediately, Donovan sprang clear of those great clawing hands. He knew his risky manoeuvre had succeeded – he had hamstrung his man. So far, to the astonishment of the onlookers, Donovan had made the colossus look totally inept.
But Bristow could think, too. The young cowboy’s surprise tactic had placed him in the small confined rear corner space formed by the angle of the bar. He was trapped. Grasping the point, Bristow lumbered to his feet, at once realising that he could barely stand. Yet, he crowded in on Donovan. Wriggle as he might, the smaller man could not get out of this one. He was grabbed by those enormous hands and lifted, much as young Carter had been weeks earlier. Despite his injured leg and the burden of Donovan’s thrashing body, Bristow hopped to the middle of the room, then hurled the cowpoke at the far wall. It was an awesome display of strength. Bristow groaned again, clapped both hands to his damaged leg and dropped to his knees.
Donovan smashed through the wooden wall, his upper body sagging out into the adjacent alleyway, his head and legs still in the saloon. Even that shattering impact didn’t stop him. Now functioning on pure nerve energy, he heaved himself upright.
“Your leg, man,” shouted one of the spectators. Donovan looked down, to find a foot-long splinter from a wall plank hanging from his left calf and blood streaming down his leg and pants. He pulled out the sliver and flung it aside. But he knew he was badly hurt. It wasn’t the wood, but a severe pain raging around his chest and back. Blood trickled from his mouth.
Yet, there was a task to complete, and it had to be done without hesitation. Bristow was still on his knees, convinced that the battle was over. Donovan danced forwards, eyes blazing. He knew what he had to do, and that if he didn’t succeed quickly, he was finished. Bristow was halfway up again when the young cowman flung himself low through the air, feet first, body twisting to the right. He snapped his left leg straight, slamming it at Bristow’s right knee. With yelp of pain, the giant dropped back to all fours. Now, in addition to his left leg being largely out of action, his right kneecap was shattered. Still, he struggled to his feet, those murderous arms reaching for Donovan, who was also again standing.
Now there was a space of ten feet separating the combatants. The mercurial Irishman noticed that about halfway between the two was a chair, displaced by the fray. In a twinkling, Donovan decided what to do. Leaping forwards, he put his right foot up onto the chair seat and again hurled himself at Bristow, this time spinning sideways. He hit the big man at shoulder height, his own body parallel with the floor. It was an amazing stroke of audacity.
For an instant, the two men seemed to be motionless in a cruciform position, then Bristow was carried over backwards by his opponent’s momentum. The pair, Donovan on top, crashed to the floor with a force that loosened boards and sent sawdust leaping. The cowpoke’s hip landed on Bristow’s throat, threatening to choke the life out of him.
The red mist of rage began to clear from Donovan’s eyes. “Okay,” he gasped at the near-throttled prospector. “I’m letting you up now. If you try anything else, I’ll kill you.” He rolled free, leaving the purple-faced hulk desperately massaging his neck. The instant he could breathe again, Bristow lunged to the spot where he had dropped his gun. Outfought, he intended to finish the matter with lead.
“That’s enough!” Jim White’s voice lashed across the room. Nobody in Farnham’s Cross had ever seen White with a firearm. Now, he held a revolver in his right hand. “Leave the gun, Bristow,” he snapped. “You were beaten fair and square. Get going and don’t come back.”
Moving on all fours, the fallen Goliath dragged his useless legs across the floor. Outside, he managed to haul himself aboard his horse. Slumped along the animal’s neck, he left the town. He was found by a passing ranch hand two weeks later and twelve miles away, frozen stiff in a gully. It was assumed that he had fallen from his mount on that fateful evening.
The encounter would be talked of for many years. One of those present said that it was like a puma attacking a buffalo. All the immense strength of the prospector had not prevailed against the agility, ferocity and inventiveness of the young cowpuncher. Paul Donovan had rid the town of a pest.
But there was a heavy cost. As Bristow crawled out of the saloon, Donovan stood alone near the bar. The heat of battle over, he had turned chalk-white. He was breathing with difficulty and blood still dribbled from his mouth. Suddenly, he gave a loud groan, clapped both hands to his ribcage, then dropped face down to the floor, unconscious.
Six other Halford men were present, including foreman Walt Sadler. It was he who now sprang to the collapsed man, turning him over. “I don’t like the look of this,” Sadler muttered. “Let’s get him back where he belongs.”
An hour later Donovan was, at Halford’s insistence, in the rancher’s own bed. Sadler had told his boss of the events in Jim White’s saloon.
“All right, Walt,” said Halford. “Go right now to the doctor at Dry Spring. He’s a lousy medical man and drunk half the time, but we've nobody else in these parts. Tell him to come quickly. Bring him at gunpoint if you have to.”
As Sadler hurried away, Donovan came to, gasping for air. Halford made his employee as comfortable as he could. Naturally, the rancher was curious to know what had possessed his new hand to try conclusions with the gargantuan prospector. “It’s not so much why you did it, Paul,” Halford said, “but how. What’s the secret?”
Donovan spoke through gritted teeth. “It’s not all that strange,” he said. “Remember I told you I worked in a circus for a time?”
“Yes, I recall that.”
“Well, a man picks up a few things as he goes along. Among those I learnt was a good knowledge of anatomy. That can be useful when you’re an acrobat.”
The doctor arrived shortly before noon the following day. He was an irascible little fellow, accustomed to having his always perfunctory and frequently inaccurate diagnoses accepted without question. After an examination that was cursory even by his standards, he emerged from the bedroom and announced that there was nothing he could do and that Donovan probably wouldn’t last until nightfall.
It was then that Joe Halford gave an indication of what had made him so formidable in his earlier days. He walked over to a chest of drawers, opened one of them and fished out a .44 revolver, which he pointed at the doctor. “Now,” he said, “I’m aware that your ministrations have caused a few unnecessary deaths, so let me make this clear. If my man doesn’t pull through, he won’t be the only one needing a coffin here. If you have any other appointments, you’re not going to keep them. Get to work.”
For over a week it was a close call, but Donovan survived the crisis and within a month he had made a complete recovery.
* * *