SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER TWENTY-SIX
Man Of The Cloth
Carl Lundgren paused, foot resting on his spade, eyes raised to scan the louring clouds. Apart from his half-hour noon meal break and a five-minute halt to drink a quart of water, the tall burly thirty-six year old Swedish immigrant had been hard at it since early morning, tussling with the quarter-section of Montana land he was turning into a home and livelihood for himself, his wife Karin and their ten-year old son, Tom. Lundgren had just finished the second year of the venture and it was hard going, even for a man with his exceptional strength and stamina.
Darkness was gathering early on this sultry evening and the homesteader was keen to do as much as possible before being forced indoors when the impending storm broke. Normally, Karin Lundgren almost had to beat him over the head to get him to stop, but for once he was about to call it a day himself. His decision was hastened by the movement caught with the corner of his eye.
The north-south trail ran near the edge of Lundgren’s land and it wasn’t unusual for riders to pass by. However, the one doing so now was different. Even from over a hundred yards in such bad visibility, the homesteader could see that something was amiss. The horse was plodding wearily, seemingly ever-slower, like a clockwork toy winding down. But Lundgren’s attention was fixed on the man slumped across the animal’s neck and apparently hanging on with difficulty.
In a land where people tended to avoid prying into the business of strangers, many a man might have let the matter pass. But the Swede was a compassionate fellow. He rammed his spade into the soil then set off with long rapid strides, on a diagonal path to intercept the horse and rider. It took him less than two minutes to cover the distance and confirm his first impression. The horseman was hunched forward, pitching, rolling and yawing in the saddle, like a rudderless ship in rough water. His left hand clutched shortened reins, while the right arm hung limply.
Hearing the purposeful tramp of Lundgren’s feet, the rider turned his head with an obvious effort. Poor though it was, the light allowed the settler to see that the man’s face was unnaturally pale, the eyes red-rimmed with pain, fatigue, or both. The hat was pushed back, revealing a patch of what looked like dried blood around the left temple. The left sleeve of the dust-caked coat also bore a dark stain. Gritting his teeth, the man tried to speak. “I’d . . . I’d be much . . .” that was as far as he got, before he began to tumble from the saddle.
Lundgren jumped forwards, easing the already unconscious rider into his arms. Snaking a hand free, the homesteader caught the reins and set off for his home, carrying the man and leading the horse. At five-foot-ten and around a hundred and sixty pounds, the fellow was no feather duster, but Lundgren’s strength was equal to the task. He carried his burden four hundred yards without stopping.
Unlike some homesteaders, Lundgren had built his house to be comfortable and to last. The split-log structure had timber floorboards, a pitched roof and sound weather-proofing. There was a single room for eating and leisure time, a bedroom for the parents and a smaller one for young Tom. Lundgren called to his wife as he manoeuvred his load through the doorway. “Got an injured man here,” he said. “I think we’d better put him in Tom’s room.”
Karin Lundgren, a year younger than her husband, was a thick-set woman, stolid and accustomed to handling exigencies. She dropped the knife she had been using to peel potatoes and bustled into Tom’s room, evicting the boy. “We’ll need to get some of these clothes off him,” she said, beginning the awkward job of removing the man’s hat, coat, boots and bandanna. Suddenly she paused, gasping in surprise. “Look,” she said, pointing at the bloody dog-collar she had exposed. “This man is a preacher.”
“So he is. Well, see if you can get him cleaned up. I’ll look to his horse. Tom, run over and fetch Joe Haskill. He’s the nearest thing to a doctor we have around here. Hurry now.”
The youngster dashed off. Half an hour later he was back, accompanied by Haskill, a tall thin fellow, who did his best to deal with the ailments that affected the few homesteaders. Setting down his wicker basket full of medicines and instruments, he looked over the still insensible stranger, probing at the ragged two-inch head-gash, then turning his attention to the arm. “Hmn,” he said at length. “We’ll need hot water, Karin. The man’s been shot. Looks like a glancing wound to the head and a bullet in his upper arm. I think I can handle this.”
The stranger never stirred as Haskill cleaned and dressed the head wound, but twitched and groaned when the bullet was being dug from his arm. “Don’t try to talk,” said Haskill. “I just patched up your head and I’m taking a slug out of you. Looks okay, but you’ve lost a lot of blood. Now I’m going to clean this spot” – he pointed at the arm – “and it’ll hurt a little.” It did. The stranger passed out again.
Having packed away his equipment, Haskill closed the bedroom door and gratefully accepted a shot of whiskey from Karin. “I’m sorry you got burdened with this,” he said to the waiting family, “but I don’t think it’s safe for him to move for a few days. He’s very weak.”
Karin nodded. “It’s all right,” she said. “He can stay where he is. I’ll make up a bed for Tom in here. And thank you, Joe.”
Haskill picked up his hat and basket, making for the door. “I’ll drop by again in a couple of days,” he said. “If he gets any worse in the meantime, send for me. And try to get some food into him.”
It was a considerable inconvenience for the Lundgrens, but they were stoical people and had coped with many difficulties in the past two years. The stranger was just one more and they would do their best for him. They could not have envisaged that night that the man in Tom’s bed would solve more problems for them than he would create, nor could they have foreseen his reason for doing so, let alone his methods. The stranger slept through the night and the following morning, waking a few minutes before Lundgren appeared for his midday meal. No sooner had the family seated themselves at the table than a noise came from the small bedroom as the man got up, stumbled and fell. Carl lifted him back into the bed, while Karin appeared with beef broth, bread and coffee, a couple of words and a projected palm adjuring the man to keep quiet, eat and drink.
The guest did justice to his nourishment, then spoke in a low weak voice. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m sorry to give you all this trouble. I seem to be in a daze. There was a man here, a doctor. I’d like to thank him, too.”
Karin brought the man up to date with what had happened. He nodded. “Well, I’m very grateful to all of you. ’Course, I’ll compensate you for any inconvenience, then I’ll move on.”
Karin shook her head emphatically. “You will stay here for a few days, like Joe Haskill said you should. I will not turn a sick man out of my house. You’ll just have to accept that. I wonder why men are so obstinate.”
The stranger smiled, then shrugged, wincing at the movement. “I’d better do as you say,” he replied. “To tell the truth, I don’t think I could mount a horse right now anyway.”
And so it was for over a week. The stranger slept most of the time for three days, then got up and began to walk around, his efforts confirming Haskill’s assessment – he was as wobbly as a new-born calf. The amateur medico made two further calls, dressing the wounds and repeating his injunction about premature travelling.
The Lundgrens were consumed with curiosity about the stranger, but mindful of a man’s right to privacy, asked no intrusive questions. Beyond saying that his name was Richard Carlton and that he had been attacked by road agents, the man volunteered no more about himself than was necessary to hold the simplest conversations, repeatedly pleading fatigue and what he called a dizzy feeling as a reason for his needing solitude. This led the Lundgrens to think at times that the head wound might have had something more than a superficial effect. Karin also wondered how her guest’s priestly garb squared with the heavy revolver she had removed from his waistband and placed under the bed that first evening. Carl was equally puzzled, but for a different reason – he’d noticed that the weapon had no sights.
Adopting the idea that everything comes to them who wait, the Lundgrens possessed their souls in patience, assuming that more information concerning their guest would emerge one way or another. In the second week of the man’s stay, it did. Each Saturday, Carl took the buckboard into the nearest town, seven miles northeast of his land. There he would buy a few supplies, drink a couple of beers and catch up on local news. Sometimes, the outing was an uneasy one for, like the other homesteaders, the Lundgrens were frequently harassed by Irving Tyler’s cowhands. Tyler led the ranching community and was fiercely hostile to the newcomers.
With fewer than three dozen buildings, it wasn’t much of town. Still, it served the needs of the scattered community. By far the most impressive structure was a large stone-built bank. On this occasion, having run the gauntlet of jibes from three of Tyler’s men, Carl Lundgren had got what he needed in the general store. The owner, Ed Hunt, tried to maintain an even-handed stance in his dealings with ranchers and settlers, usually having a friendly word for everyone. “See they’ve had some excitement down at Roundwood,” he said, after counting out change to the homesteader.
“I only know what I read in the newspaper that came in yesterday. Here, look for yourself.” He pushed the paper across the counter, pointing at a front- page article. Lundgren read:
UGLY HAPPENING AT ROUNDWOOD
A gun battle took place six miles from Roundwood last Thursday, when armed men attempted to rob the eastbound evening train shortly after it left the town. Four men, two of them security guards, the other two raiders, were wounded in the gang’s effort to steal gold bullion, said to be valued at over twenty thousand dollars. The train was forced to halt by an obstruction placed on the track. The marauders were out in strength, the fireman stating that though it was nearly dark, he was able to count a total of ten horsemen, five at either side, converging on the train. Fortunately, the consignment was well protected and the raid proved futile.
From the description given by one guard, it would seem that the raid was the work of the notorious band led by Roy Waters, sometimes known as either ‘The Reverend Waters’ or “Holy Waters’ because of his habit of wearing clerical attire during his criminal excursions. According to witnesses, the gang leader was struck by at least one bullet, possibly two, as the attackers were beaten off and dispersed hither and thither. Happily, the wounded guards are recovering well. Let us hope that this violent and fruitless occurrence will be a lesson to other desperadoes.
Lundgren pushed the paper back to Ed Hunt. “Bad business,” he said. “Say, how far away is Roundwood?”
“Fifty-odd miles south of here.”
“Pretty close. Well, I’d better be getting along.”
It was a thoughtful Carl Lundgren who drove back home that afternoon. When he arrived, he told his wife what he had learned. She wasn’t greatly surprised. “I knew there was something odd about him,” she said. “Still, it’s none of our business and if we get involved, we’ll be running around endlessly, appearing in court and such things. We can’t spare the time, Carl.” Practical as ever, Karin was probably right. Any wider social duty had to be balanced against the possibly disastrous loss of momentum in the work schedule.
The settlers were expecting an awkward time over the evening meal, for they were now convinced that they were harbouring a criminal. On the other hand, the man was hardly fit to travel. Carl was not sure what to do.
As it happened, the visitor himself raised the matter, asking the couple if they could spare him a few minutes before the meal. Young Tom was packed off to see to one of the endless chores around the place, while the adults sat at the table. As though he had sensed that the Lundgrens knew something, Waters came straight to the point.
“Well, Carl, Karin,” he said. “You’ve been very good to me. I reckon you and Joe Haskill saved my life. When I get through talking, maybe you’ll wonder whether that was wise.”
“It’s always wise to save a life,” said Karin. “Who knows what might come of it?”
“You may be right. Anyway, I had two things to say. First, I hate to be in debt. I know nobody could place a value on what you’ve done for me, but there are some costs a man can figure out, or at least estimate. If I’d been in any shape to make it to a city, I’d have had the best accommodation and doctoring available. I got that all from you and Haskill and I’ve already compensated him. I know this has been a lot of trouble to you and I know what time of year it is.” He fished in his inside coat pocket, pulled out five fifty-dollar bills and handed them across the table. “I guess this is the nearest I can get to paying you back and I want you to know that I’d be insulted if you refused it. And let me say that one thing I’m never short of is money.”
Carl was about to protest, but his wife silenced him with a sharp look. Cash was not plentiful in the Lundgren household and right then, two hundred and fifty dollars represented a fortune. It was a ridiculously large sum for the few days of board and lodgings, but the man’s attitude indicated that he would not take no for an answer. Karin picked up the money. “This is far too much for what we’ve done,” she said. “We know that, you know it and you know we know it. But I also sense that it would be useless to argue with you.”
“Yes, it would. Now, I said there were two things. The second one’s not so easy and isn’t so pleasant. When I’ve finished, I’ll leave right away. The truth is that my name isn’t Richard Carlton. I’m Roy Waters. Maybe you’ve heard of me?” Carl nodded. “We’ve heard, but it was only today that we pieced things together. Until this afternoon, we thought you were a man of the cloth.”
“I used to be. The dog collar’s genuine. Or it was. I’m afraid I got a good way from the straight and narrow a long time ago and I don’t think I’ll find the road back now. You must know the line of business I’m in.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you earlier. It means I’ve been enjoying your hospitality under false pretences, but in the circumstances I couldn’t do anything else. You’ve every right to bring in the law if you want to – I’m in no shape to stop you. But if you’ve a mind to let me go, I’ll leave now.”
Waters wasn’t wearing his gun and Carl could have subdued him with ease. But the homesteader reasoned that somehow that very fact gave a ring of candour to Waters’ words. However, it was Karin who spoke while her husband was assembling his thoughts. “Just look at you,” she said. “You’re in no state to go anywhere. Why, you’re still as white as a sheet. You will stay here for at least another three or four days. Maybe you have something to answer for, but that is between you and your maker. You will move on when you are well enough and not before.” So vehement was her outburst that its sincerity was unquestionable.
Roy Waters stared hard at the Lundgrens, repeatedly swinging his gaze from the one to the other. After a long pause, he sighed. “Karin, I hope to show you how much what you just said means to me. If you’re both sure, I’ll see how I cope with a little riding for a couple of days before I move on.”
“Do you have anywhere to go afterwards?” Lundgren asked.
“Yes. I’ll join up with the boys again. That’s our arrangement. If a job goes wrong, we scatter in whichever directions we’ve agreed on. Every man gets away as best he can, but we all know where to meet later.”
With the communication log-jam broken, the conversation became passably relaxed for the first time since Waters’ arrival. He knew little of farming, but was a good listener and soon had the Lundgrens telling him about their plans. It didn’t take long for them to get around to the question of the bitterness between ranchers and homesteaders. It was, Carl admitted, the one problem he couldn’t solve. “They don’t all give us trouble,” he said. “It’s mainly Irving Tyler. ’Course, he’s the biggest of them. He more or less runs this area – even owns the bank in town. I heard his wife died three years ago, then his daughter went east to study music. Seems he’s been specially cantankerous since then. He has a son, a big brute. Both of them and all their hands bother us every chance they get.”
“Can’t you do anything about it?” Waters asked.
“I don’t see how. We’re outnumbered, they all carry arms, the law’s a long way off and it would lean toward them anyway.”
“So you have a stand-off?”
“No. I wish it were only that. Tyler’s saying openly that when the roundup is over, he’s going to give us his full attention. Says we won’t last a week from then.”
For a long moment, Waters was silent, rubbing his chin with a thumb. “Hmn,” he said finally. “So that’s the way it is. When is this roundup due?”
“Tyler’s boys are working at it now. In a few days, the whole herd will be in the south pasture, just up the trail from here. The move to the railroad pens will start two weeks from Monday. Tyler wants us to know that. I suppose he reckons we’ll get out before he comes back. That’ll save him the trouble of driving us off.”
Waters nodded. “How many of you are there?” he asked.
“Six homesteads. One single man, two couples, three more with young children.”
“And if this Tyler leans heavily enough, you’ll go?”
“I don’t know. If we didn’t have to consider the women and children, the men alone might make a stand, but I doubt it. We’re farmers, not gunslingers. Anyway, that’s beside the point. We can’t just stow our families away somewhere while we fight it out. These are the only homes we have.”
At that point, Karin, who had left the table to rattle around with pots and pans, produced the meal. Over the food, Waters was very pensive and apart from complimenting his hostess on her cooking, had little to say. Afterwards, as soon as he decently could, he excused himself and spent an hour outdoors before going to bed.
Early the following afternoon Roy Waters saddled up, saying he wanted to try a little riding. He headed north for a while, then swung westwards off the trail, moving slowly, exploring the area. Looking north, he saw what was obviously the Tyler herd, building up for the big day. To the west was a long shallow slope. Waters rode up this incline, finding himself atop a two-hundred-foot cliff. He sat his horse, deep in thought. It was that profound contemplation, plus his weakened state, that dulled his awareness of approaching company until he heard a loud voice, coming from behind him: “What are you doin’ here, feller?”
Waters turned to see two horsemen, one middle-aged, one much younger. They had ridden up quietly and stopped thirty yards from him. Now they came on, both holding handguns. “I’m not doing anything in particular,” Waters answered. “Just taking in the air, you might say.”
“Oh, we might, might we?” said the older man. “Well, mister, you’re on Tyler land and the boss don’t care for people takin’ air here.”
“I’m sorry,” said Waters. “I’ll leave. I’m not seeking trouble.”
“Aren’t you now?” came the mocking reply. “Well, a man sometimes gets what he’s not seekin’. You’re comin’ with us to explain yourself to Tyler.” He waggled his gun eastwards and the two riders moved in behind Waters, the second man checking that the intruder was unarmed.
The trio headed towards the cattle, then swung away to the north, rounding an undulation to come upon Tyler’s headquarters. Despite his uncomfortable situation, Waters looked admiringly at the most handsome ranch house he had ever seen. Facing south, the single-storey building was long and low, constructed in neatly mortared, honey-coloured stone. The brown-tiled roof was extended at the front to form a railed and balustraded porch overhanging four long windows, two on either side of the massive door. All the woodwork was oak.
From his mounted position, the reluctant visitor noted that the inside was also lavish. Immediately west of the door was the living room. A wine-red carpet covered most of the floor. There was a large black leather sofa and an array of matching chairs, arranged around the huge fireplace. At the rear was a black grand piano. Adjacent to the door on the east side was the dining room, where Waters could see a long table and a row of chairs, oak again. Together, the house and contents must have cost a fortune.
A great hulk of a man was slouched against one of the porch pillars, chewing a matchstick. Putting the fellow’s age at about thirty, Waters remembered Lundgren’s comment that Tyler had a son, and wondered whether this was the man. A few seconds after the three riders stopped, another man appeared in the doorway and crossed the porch. He was short and thin. Waters judged him as sixty or so. The narrow mean eyes raked the horsemen with a hostile look. “Well?” he snapped.
“Found this jasper nosin’ around the old buffalo run, Mr Tyler,” said the small cowhand. “Thought you’d want to talk to him.”
Tyler nodded. “You did right. You can go now.” Then he turned his attention to Waters. “Light down, mister. I don’t like looking up at people.” The sharp high-pitched voice matched the man’s appearance.
Waters dismounted. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “I already apologised for trespassing. Do you want something more?”
Tyler emitted a short bark. “I don’t tolerate saddle tramps nosing around my land,” he said. “My son here,” he inclined his head to the big man still leaning against the pillar, “has the same view. Just show him how we feel, Will.”
The hulk straightened up, brushed past his father and stepped down from the porch to stand facing Waters. At the range of three feet, he looked even more formidable than before. He was all of six inches taller than Waters and must have been sixty or seventy pounds heavier. For a moment, he stood grinning, fists resting on his hips.
Waters knew exactly what was coming and was equally well aware that there was little he could do about it. Even fully fit he would have been no match for this ox. In his present condition, even token resistance would be futile.
Young Tyler stepped forwards, feinted with his left and as Waters tried to parry that, he barely saw the ham-sized right that smashed into his middle, dropping him to his backside. There was no need to try getting up, for the ogre hauled him to his feet, only to pound him with a sledgehammer right to the face, which downed him again. So it went on until Waters lost count of the times he was flattened and raised before he heard Tyler’s shout: “Get rid of him.”
Waters was barely aware of being heaved onto his horse. Clutching the reins, he began to move off, when he heard the high reedy voice again. “Maybe you’ll remember your visit to the Tyler spread.”
With a considerable effort, Waters turned his horse and faced the rancher. “I’ll remember,” he gritted. “You can bet on that.” He swung around and left.
Three hours later, an amazed Carl Lundgren found himself lifting Roy Waters from the saddle a second time. Lying on Tom’s bed, the outlaw mumbled a brief explanation and Joe Haskill was summoned again. He examined the mauled face and the ugly body bruises, “My word, sir, you live hard,” he said. After treating every mutilation he could find, he announced that there were no broken bones, and prescribed complete rest for a further week.
An hour after Haskill’s departure, the Lundgrens were astounded to see Waters leave for the barn, then reappear, ready for the trail. They protested, albeit less vociferously than before, but the battered bandit was now resolute and made his farewell brief. Clambering awkwardly into the saddle, he looked down at the homesteaders. “What will you do?” he said. “About Tyler, I mean?”
Carl shook his head. “I don’t quit easily, but I guess I’m beaten.”
“Don’t go,” Waters replied quickly. “Not yet. Do me one last favour. Hang on here until Tyler’s roundup.”
“Why?” said Karin..
“Never mind. Just give me your word.”
The Lundgrens agreed to stay.
Two weeks later, Roy Waters was back. With him were twelve riders, all hard men. At the rear of the group was a packhorse, carrying two wooden crates. By pale moonlight, the party passed the Lundgren place, moving northwards. Two hours later, Waters called a halt at Irving Tyler’s south pasture. Two men detached themselves from the rest, delved into the crates on the packhorse, got what they needed and after a few words with Waters, rode off
Three Tyler men were on night duty, circling the herd. Not one of them knew what hit him. All any of them noticed, and that only at last instant, was a presence approaching from behind. Each man was plucked from the saddle, knocked unconscious, bound, gagged and put aside.
Ten minutes later, a group of horsemen came racing in from the south. Whooping, yelling, guns blazing, they rushed at the herd. The alarmed cattle milled around, then began thundering off northwards. Another, larger bunch of riders, ranged in an arc to the north and east, charged in, bellowing and shooting. The cattle, with no other direction open to them, turned westwards, racing up the incline towards the spot where Roy Waters had earlier been accosted by the two cowpunchers.
The incident was as brief as it was terrible. Like the buffalo herds, driven by Indians for centuries before them, virtually the entire Tyler stock was stampeded over the cliff’s edge.
The din raised everyone left on the ranch – this being a Saturday night, some of the men were enjoying themselves in town. The foreman and the hands he could muster rushed off into the night in an attempt to avert the calamity. Tyler himself was last up. Dressing hastily, he rushed out onto the porch. Instantly, a shadowy figure moved in behind him, jabbing his spine with a six-gun barrel. “You’d be Tyler, right?” the gruff voice asked.
“Yes, yes,” snarled the rancher. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Got a message for you,” the intruder went on. “From the feller you had roughed up a couple of weeks ago. Said to tell you he’d remembered.”
Tyler was about to speak again, when the gun prodded him a second time. “Get away from this house, quick. It’s going to blow up any second.”
Impelled by the urgency of the man’s tone, Tyler ran off. He covered eighty yards, then stopped and spun around, beginning to think he’d been hoaxed. He turned just in time to see his opulent house reduced to rubble by a thunderous explosion. It was a thorough demolition job. The dust settled, to show bits of wrecked furniture poking out from the mound of debris. A long sliver from the piano lid stood up straight, gleaming in the moonlight. Tyler’s pride and joy, the home that had stood for decades, seemingly as permanent as the mountains, had gone.
Within half an hour of the events at the ranch, a second explosion roused the township a short way to the northeast. This time it was another symbol of Tyler’s power – his bank – that was wrecked, but not before the safe had been blown and emptied.
An hour after the uproar at Tyler’s ranch, Carl Lundgren was brought from his bed by knock at the door. He lit a lamp and opened up to see the stern face of his erstwhile guest. “Sorry to wake you, Carl,” said Roy Waters. “Just passing. Thought you might want to know that Tyler lost his herd tonight.”
“Lost it?” said Lundgren. “What happened?”
“Cattle got stampeded over the buffalo run. Appears his house was blown up too, and his bank, where I understand practically all his money was kept. He seems to be having a bad time. I did a little checking and as far as I can tell, he wasn’t insured against losses. Queer, isn’t it? This morning, he was a real big man. Now, he’s probably worse off than you are, and I guess he’s too old to start again.”
Lundgren looked at his visitor in horror. “You?” he said. “Roy, this is wrong. The Good Book says ‘Vengeance is mine.’ You must know that as well as I do.”
Waters nodded. “Yes. Maybe you recall who said it?”
“Of course I do. It was the Lord.”
“Well. I guess He can’t deal with all these little things Himself, so He uses delegates. Who could He have better than a preacher? Goodbye, Carl.”
* * *