OUT WEST : NUMBER THREE
Getting The Point
“So, gentlemen, to echo Julius Caesar’s words, the die is cast. I don’t know any more than the rest of you how this will work out, but we’re committed now.” The speaker was George Wilkinson, chairman of the town council. He was addressing his three fellow councillors and had just concluded his report on the assignment he’d been given at the last meeting, a week earlier.
The town didn’t boast anything as grand as a mayor. Indeed, it had the small council only because of the initiative of Jonas Harper, who owned the hardware store. He did not want formal civic responsibilities himself, but had organised a vote and suggested how many people should be elected. His idea had been received with enthusiasm and the institution was now enjoying its third year of existence, with another election coming soon and few people expecting any of the incumbents to be unseated. So far, all council meetings had been held in the dining room of the chairman’s home.
Wilkinson had been speaking on the topic that had become a serious local issue. For some years, the nearby Circle M ranch, under its elderly and philanthropic bachelor owner, had been a beneficial influence in the town. When the old man died, the spread was inherited by his only living relative, a nephew, who promptly sold it to a group of Bostonians, none of whom even came to see their investment. They’d appointed a foreman named Ray Stockwell, a stranger to the area, and that was when the trouble started.
There had always been a little rowdiness in the town once a month, when the cowboys came to spend their wages, but things had never got out of hand. Barely a week after arriving at the ranch, Stockwell had sacked several of the longer-serving hands and hired replacements more to his liking. He took another step, which had proved extremely unpopular with the townspeople. Instead of restricting his men to their monthly outing, he allowed them to ride in every Saturday evening, and he accompanied them.
Had the cattlemen controlled themselves, as their predecessors had done, their frequent presence would not have caused many raised eyebrows. After all, they put money into the local coffers. However, their conduct became increasingly rowdy and within a short time, they were terrorising the town. No Saturday evening passed without a bunch of them swaggering around drunk, blasting volleys of gunfire into the air and sometimes into buildings. It seemed increasingly likely that sooner or later somebody would get in the way of one of their bullets.
There was no official law enforcement in the town, and until the cowboys started misbehaving, none had been necessary. The nearest lawman was eighty miles away and on being approached had curtly dismissed a request for his intervention. That rebuff had led the council to decide that a less conventional solution was needed. It was then that chairman Wilkinson had been delegated to make contact with Cole Rankin.
It wasn’t an everyday occurrence for a community to employ a town-tamer, so there were not many men in that line of work. From what the council had been able to establish, Cole Rankin was as effective as they came. According to reports picked up by George Wilkinson, Rankin had cleared troublemakers out of at least five towns. Moreover, it seemed that once having agreed to take on a job, he had always carried it out successfully.
The council meeting was dealing with only one item and Wilkinson was coming to the end of his report. “So there you have it,” he said. “I got in touch with Rankin through a middleman who explained our proposal and conveyed the message that we can put up three thousand dollars. Rankin said that’s well below his usual charge for this kind of job, but he claims he once spent a little time in this area, got to like it and is sympathetic to us. I sent word that we were meeting here this evening. He replied that he’d be with us at seven o’clock and it’s almost that now. I understand he has a reputation for punctuality, so I suggest we have a drink and wait.”
The councilmen didn’t get their drink immediately. Wilkinson had just finished speaking when a knock at the door heralded the arrival of Cole Rankin, who was shown into the room by the chairman’s wife. He was about five-nine in height, slim and sallow-faced, with black eyes that gave no indication of what went on behind them. He accepted the invitation to take a seat and after a few introductory words, Wilkinson asked him how he intended to act and what arrangements he expected with regard to payment.
“There’s only one way to do a thing like this,” the town-tamer answered. “Fast and firm. I’ll do what I have to do right away. You pay me as soon as I’ve done it, and you have my word that I’ll hang around for a little while to make sure there’s no comeback.”
George Wilkinson’s investigation had convinced him that Rankin’s word was good with respect to remaining in town to ensure that his work didn’t have adverse repercussions. “Very well, Mr Rankin,” he said. “Now, I asked you to arrive today because it’s Saturday, so you’ll be able to see at once what we’re up against. It’s only shortly after seven and you probably heard the noise coming from Dexter’s saloon, where the cowmen go to get their fill of drink before they start scaring the townsfolk half to death.”
Rankin nodded. “I heard them. Now, your message said that a fellow named Stockwell’s their boss. Where is he?”
“In there with the rest of them.”
“And he’s the one who lets it all happen, right?”
“He’s the worst of them. He provokes the others.”
The town-tamer got to his feet. “Okay. Wait here. I’ll be right back.” He sauntered off.
The councillors began muttering to each other, speculating about what Rankin had in mind. They didn’t have to wait long. Being out of earshot of the din emanating from Dexter’s saloon, they were not aware that the place had suddenly fallen silent. Five minutes after he’d left the house, Rankin was back, strolling in as casually as could be. Placing his hands on the back of the chair he had occupied earlier, he said: “Stockwell won’t trouble you any more. He’s dead.”
The councillors stared at Rankin, astounded by his statement. Wilkinson was the first to recover the power of speech. “You mean you just went in there and killed him?”
“That’s right. One head shot. I gave his men five minutes to get out of town if they want to avoid more bloodshed, and I made it clear that they’d better not come back. I pointed out that there’s another little settlement thirty-odd miles west of here where they can go and make a nuisance of themselves. They’re already pulling out. I’ll take my pay now and stay around for a while, but those boys won’t bother you again.”
Nobody was going to argue with Rankin about his demand for prompt payment. He collected his fee, moved into the hotel’s best room and settled down. Unfortunately for the town’s business people, he did not pay for anything, and for a man alone, he acquired a surprising variety and amount of things. It was almost as though he was challenging the locals to react to his conduct. Finally, after an impromptu council meeting, George Wilkinson approached him and expressed the general feeling.
Rankin’s reply was disturbing. “You’d better get used to it,” he snapped. “I’ve taken a fancy to this town and I aim to stay here for a while. What’s more, I’m bringing in a few friends, and in case you’re wondering, they’ll be living on the same terms as I am.” He offered no explanation for this strange moral stance and Wilkinson was too taken aback to press him.
It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Having been relieved of one evil, the townspeople were about to have another inflicted upon them. In one way, the impending misery seemed likely to be even worse than the one it replaced, in that the cowmen paid for what they obtained, whereas Rankin’s associates clearly would not. Also, the newcomers would be around all the time, not just on Saturdays.
The day after Cole Rankin’s stark words to the council chairman, Jim Bland arrived back in town. He’d been away continuously for twelve years, most of that time spent at sea, where he had worked as a harpooner on a whaling boat. One reason for Bland’s return was that he’d heard of the death of his father, a widower. That event had coincided with Jim’s desire to become a landlubber again. His well-paid job had netted him a good deal of money and he’d saved most of it. Now he intended to buy a business of some kind, or at least a substantial share in one. He brought home a sample of the main tool of his trade, a memento of his seafaring days. Although harpoon guns had been in existence for many years, the hand-held weapons were still widely employed and Jim Bland, slightly above average height, broad-shouldered and possessed of remarkable strength, had been an expert in their use.
The Bland family house was a small place at the northern edge of town. Jim moved into it immediately and set about buying provisions. Early in the afternoon of his first full day back home, he met Cole Rankin. It was a foolish encounter on the part of both men. They were strolling along the sidewalk in opposite directions and when they came face to face, neither man would move an inch to accommodate the other.
After ten seconds of mute confrontation, Rankin said: “You’re in my way, mister.”
“I could say the same of you,” Bland replied. “If you step aside, you’ll solve the problem.”
“Cole Rankin steps aside for no man,” the town-tamer grated. “You’ll let me get by, if you know what’s good for you.”
“Looks like we could be here all day,” Bland retorted. “Maybe I’ll settle this by tossing you into the street.” He’d hardly uttered his last word when Rankin reacted. With a speed that took Bland by surprise, he whipped out his handgun and slashed the barrel across the seaman’s face, then instantly struck again with a savage blow to the head. Bland fell unconscious. Rankin strode over him and went on his way.
When Jim Bland came to, he found himself looking up at a man who helped him to his feet and escorted him to the doctor’s house, where he was examined and treated. “That’s a nasty cut, young man,” said the medico. “I think you’ll have a permanent scar on your cheek. What happened?”
The man who’d accompanied Bland was still with him. He’d seen the incident and gave an account of it. “Damn that fellow,” said the doctor. “He’s a one-man plague. You’d better keep out of his way until we can think of something to do about him. If you cross his path again, he’ll probably kill you. We’ve already seen that he’s quite capable of murder.”
“Do you reckon he’s the only one?” was Bland’s reply.
Two days after injuring Jim Bland, Cole Rankin was taking his morning stroll, or rather swagger, which took him along the main street from north to south, then back again on the opposite side. As usual, everyone gave him a wide berth. Having indicated that the first of his reinforcements was imminent, he’d become even more arrogant than before.
Thompson’s livery barn stood at the southern end of the street, twenty yards away from any other building. Rankin reached the place, turned and started back northwards. He’d gone no more than ten yards when a voice called out behind him. “Hey, Rankin. Call yourself a man. My pa’s only got one arm an’ he could take you apart. Most likely I could too.”
The town-tamer turned and saw that the words had come from a boy of about twelve, who was standing between the barn’s double doors, which were a part-open, the gap about two feet wide.
It was already well known in town that Rankin had a terrible temper and the boy’s taunt brought it out in all its ferocity. “Why, you little varmint,” he yelled. “We’ll just see how tough you are.” He rushed towards the lad, who at the last instant stepped nimbly back and disappeared behind the door to his left.
Seeing that the youngster was confined to the front of the barn, and to one side at that, Rankin flung himself round the door – straight onto Jim Bland’s harpoon. Driven with all the force the seafarer had acquired through his long experience, the tip went clean through Rankin’s abdomen and protruded three inches from his back. With a stifled grunt, he folded to the ground.
Jim Bland handed the boy a dollar, the reward he’d promised him for baiting Rankin. “You did well, son,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to see this. There’s nobody but us here now, so you’d better hop along and we’ll leave our friend here to die alone. That won’t take long.” As the boy ran off, Bland bent to remove Rankin’s gun from its holster. Then he looked down at the writhing body and spoke the last words the town-tamer would ever hear: “That’s what I call getting the point.”
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