SUNET STORIES : NUMBER TWENTY-EIGHT
No Joking Matter
Cal Saunders was a thoroughly unpleasant man, seemingly devoid of redeeming features. Other than innate character, there was no reason for his anti-social attitude. He had been brought up in a small town in the Midwest, where his parents owned a clothing store. They were quiet, conventional, law-abiding people and were as surprised as anyone else by the conduct of their only child.
Young Saunders was one of those people who give the impression that that their main purpose in life is to induce headaches and heartaches in others. Well before he reached school age, he demonstrated an aptitude for seeking and finding trouble. He pestered other youngsters, maltreated animals and generally got up to all the usual kinds of mischief, plus a few varieties he thought up himself.
If Saunders’ infancy had been disruptive, his educational curriculum was downright chaotic. He was sent home time and again because of his violent ways. On every occasion, his mother pleaded with the school to take him back. Each time she succeeded and invariably, further mayhem ensued. As far as his school contemporaries were concerned, the main trouble with Saunders was that in addition to his mean streak, he was well above average in size and strength and a ferocious brawler, so even if a thrashing would have cured him, there was never anyone near enough his own age around at the right time, able and willing to give him one.
When the question of work arose, it produced another problem. In such a tight-knit community, everyone knew everyone and nobody wanted to employ young Saunders. For a time he helped, or more often hindered, around the family store, but his behaviour – even his very presence – made matters nearly intolerable for his parents. When he was seventeen, his mother died. Liberated from the need to consider her intercession, Calvin Saunders senior acted quickly. A month after becoming a widower, he stuffed young Cal’s belongings into a sack, which he threw to the end of the garden, giving his son firm instructions to follow it, and return only if he mended his ways.
Moving to the Northwest, Saunders spent three years crisscrossing a large area, getting such casual work as he could. He never stayed long in one place. Usually, his temper caused him to be fired from whatever nondescript position he held. Once, he assaulted a ranch hand with such fury that the man was permanently scarred. Another time, he came within an ace of choking a man to death. In due course, he graduated to firearms.
A hefty six foot one frame, a savage disposition and a ready six-gun made a formidable combination. It didn’t take long for Saunders to kill a man, though the fellow had been seeking trouble and it was a fair fight. Soon afterwards, Saunders killed again, this time a back-shooting. Fortunately for him, there were neither witnesses nor circumstantial evidence, so he escaped retribution.
Saunders was about to try his luck further south, when word reached him that his father had died, leaving the family business to him. He lost no time in returning to his birthplace, selling the store and setting out again, well supplied with funds.
A further four years passed, during which time Saunders carried on much the same as before, except that his gambling losses increased, while his spells of employment shortened. He realised that he would at some point need to acquire more money, though getting steady work did not feature in his list of methods for doing so.
Now, after seven years of drifting, Cal Saunders was lying near the top of a grassy hill that overlooked a small town in northern Colorado. He had reached the end of a month-long vengeance trail. The town was home to Jim Curry, the man he’d been following. Knowing that Curry had been making for this place, where he had family and friends, Saunders had been hoping to overtake his man before the two arrived at this spot. He had fallen short by only three miles, having seen Curry enter the town that morning.
There was one thing in the pursuer’s favour. With the exception of his vantage point and a large stand of trees a little way to the north, the terrain was flat and featureless. It would be easy to see whether Curry tried to leave in daylight. The hours of darkness didn’t matter, for Saunders didn’t intend to wait so long. Smoking cigarettes in rapid succession, he considered his next move. He also reflected on how he came to be there.
It had started on the one and only night Saunders had spent in the Montana township of Bitterroot Gap. The only reason for the existence of the place was mining. Mushrooming as a result of local gold strikes, the town had grown from next to nothing into a community of two thousand souls, almost all imbued with the single desire to get rich quickly. Some worked their own claims, some were employed by the two large operators who had grabbed the lion’s share of the spoils and paid high wages. Still others brought goods and services, offered at wildly exorbitant prices.
Cal Saunders entered this rumbustious place one July evening. He was on his way from nowhere in particular to no special destination. Psychologically, he was starting a new journey, which he hoped would lead to financial security. Two months earlier, he had found himself in Helena, where he’d been thinking about his cash situation. Then he made the acquaintance of an old man, a former cardsharp who had abandoned his calling because of arthritis in his hands,
Saunders had paid the man three hundred dollars and received in return a great deal of instruction. Expecting this investment to be the best one of his life, he had been an attentive and apt pupil. The older man was pleased. He hadn’t really needed payment for imparting his knowledge, but was gratified at having ensured that his art would survive. It seemed a mutually beneficial transaction.
Saunders’ arrival in Bitterroot Gap was for him an auspicious occasion, as the place was to be the venue of his first solo effort at cheating with cards. He lost no time in making a tour of the town’s saloons. Grattan’s Bar, a dingy but well-patronised place, looked as likely as anywhere, so he decided to begin there. Most men in his position would have approached what he had in mind with some trepidation. He didn’t. He was tense, but not scared.
The newly graduated swindler joined a game with three other men who were playing casually, concentrating more on their conversation than on the cards. One of the trio was much older than the other two. He was Bob Cresswell, an under-manager at one of the larger mines. The other two were miners, plain and simple, working for the same company as Cresswell. Both were in their early twenties. One was Dave Backhouse, a tall dark fellow with not much to say for himself. The other was Jim Curry. He was a short slim fair-haired man and an irrepressible chatterbox.
Saunders was not to know it, but Jim Curry was described by some people as ‘quite a character.’ There was no malice in the man, but he had one attribute which had made him the talk of his hometown. He was a prankster, given to such japes as crawling under tables to tie drunks’ shoelaces together or balancing bags of flour atop half-open doors, then concealing himself to await events. Once, he had sneaked into the church and loosened all the strings of the piano. The preacher’s wife, arriving for her evening practice was, so she later claimed, convinced that she had suddenly gone deaf. On another occasion, Curry had made wooden cut-outs of two enormous bare human feet and pressed them into the dust of the main street at distances indicating ten-foot strides. The town was in uproar at the prospect of dealing with a feral giant.
There was plenty of money circulating in Bitterroot Gap and though Cresswell, Backhouse and Curry could have played for substantial stakes, they never did so. Cresswell, who notwithstanding his seniority in years was more reckless than the others, would have gambled less temperately, but the younger men were disposed to hold on to their money. Also, they didn’t entirely trust their companion.
It didn’t take long for Saunders to show what he had gathered from the tutelage in Helena. With most of his funds now gone, his opening bankroll was a modest hundred dollars. He was soon well ahead and continued to win throughout the evening. Backhouse and Curry folded frequently, keeping their reverses to modest levels, but the under-manager was less circumspect and lost heavily. Shortly before midnight, the game broke up, with the young miners having suffered little. Cresswell was cleaned out. He had lost nine hundred dollars – a setback he could ill afford.
Saunders, who had taken a room at the saloon, moved over to the bar, where he drank a lot of whiskey very quickly, then took a full bottle and lurched upstairs. Cresswell had left, but Backhouse and Curry were still there, in conversation with a small, well-dressed man at the bar. As usual, Backhouse made mostly monosyllabic contributions to the talk, but Curry quizzed the dapper fellow at some length. At last, Backhouse and the small man left. Curry stayed behind, lost in thought.
In his room, Saunders got to work on the whiskey bottle. His preparations for bed were perfunctory. He removed his hat, coat and gun, then yanked off his boots, shoving his money into the right one. A quarter of an hour after entering the room, he had sunk two-thirds of the liquor and collapsed onto the bed. Five minutes later, he was snoring mightily.
It was well after midday when the barkeeper looked up as he heard his only guest clumping down the bare wooden stairs, looking dishevelled, shirt half hanging out of his trousers, face like thunder. Saunders had emerged from his stupor to find that apart from his original hundred-dollar stake, all the money he’d had the night before had disappeared. Furious, he demanded to know how he’d been robbed.
The barman, a truculent fellow, shrugged. “Don’t ask me, mister,” he said. “You look after your own troubles. I got mine.”
That didn’t help to moderate Saunders’ rage. “It wouldn’t have happened if you had locks an’ keys in this damned place,” he yelled.
“We’ve never needed them here,” the barkeeper replied. “Maybe you’re used to them where you come from, and you can take that any way you like.”
That was the last straw for Saunders. No sooner had the barman got the words out than he was felled by a savage right-hand blow. He was then hauled to his feet by the enraged guest, who shook him hard. “It was them fellers I was playing with last night, wasn’t it?” Saunders roared. “Talk, or I’ll beat it out of you.”
The terrified barman held up calming hands. “All right, mister,” he said. “No need to get rough. I don’t know who did it, but two of those boys were hanging around for some time after you’d gone to bed. One of them went upstairs a while later and I didn’t see him again.”
Saunders continued yanking the man back and forth. “Which one of ’em was it?”
“The little feller. Jim Curry,”
“Where is he now?”
“Probably working. I think he’s on the eight till four shift this week.”
“What about the other one?”
“That’s Dave Backhouse. He’ll be doing the evening shift, from four till midnight. He’s in town now. I saw him not ten minutes ago, outside Lindley’s dry goods place.”
Saunders pushed the man back against the wall and hurried upstairs to collect the rest of his things. He went out into the street, looking for Dave Backhouse. There was no search involved, for the man was still where the barman had seen him, leaning against an awning post, smoking a cigarette. Saunders drew his gun while still five yards from the man. “Where’s Curry?” he snapped.
“Finishes in around three hours.”
“He’ll be finished for good when I find him. He stole my money last night. I reckon you were in on it, too.”
Backhouse looked at the gun, his innards quaking. “Now just a minute, mister, he said. “Jim’s nothing to me. Just a feller I work with. If he’s done anything wrong, I had no part in it. Jim’s crazy enough to do most anything, but I never heard of him stealing.”
“Well, he’s started now an’ I intend to take it out of his hide. Where’s he live?”
“In Ward’s rooming house. Along the street there. Second-last place on the right.”
Saunders could see no point in pushing the matter further with Backhouse. Better to intercept Curry when he came back from work. No point in going to the mine, where the man might be surrounded by friends. Taking up a position in an alleyway almost opposite the rooming house, Saunders sat on an empty barrel and waited. His vigil was to be fruitless, for Dave Backhouse had rushed off to the mine and got word to Curry that his life was in danger. It was true that Backhouse had had nothing to do with Curry’s activities during the night, but he knew what they were.
Jim Curry, for once in his harum-scarum existence scared stiff, did not return to his lodgings. He drew what money he had coming and, not daring to show himself at the rooming house, bought a horse and raced off southwards, leaving his few belongings in Backhouse’s care. If he he’d kept his nerve, he might have been able to talk his way out of the situation. But he panicked. Having listened to his friend’s description of Saunders’ mood, his only thought was of flight.
By six that evening, Cal Saunders realised that he was waiting in vain. Never a man to stand on ceremony, he burst into the house where six lodgers were eating. He demanded to know what had become of Jim Curry, his drawn gun reinforcing his bellowed words. The men, all miners, were a tough enough crowd, but none of them owed any favours to Curry, nor did any of them see a reason to tackle an armed and near-berserk man. It took only seconds for one of them to relate what had happened, and to say that Curry was making his way back to his Colorado home. Saunders knew from the previous evening’s conversation where the place was. He rushed to the livery barn, saddled his horse and set off in pursuit.
Now, over four weeks later, Cal Saunders had caught up with his quarry. During the zigzag, thousand-mile chase, he had several times come close to laying hands on Jim Curry, then found that the elusive fellow had slipped away. Finally, to Saunders’ disgust, he had actually had his man in sight when Curry reached his goal. Well, it was a problem, but it could be surmounted. Saunders had been resolute at the outset, but during the chase, he had become obsessed. Nothing mattered to him but catching the young madcap.
Temporarily damping his ire, Saunders worked out his next move. He did not doubt that Curry would hole up here, where he would feel safe. If that was his idea, he was in for a surprise. For one thing, Saunders knew the town, as he knew so many others after his years of wandering. It was a quiet cow-country place, where nothing much happened and few strangers appeared.
It didn’t take long for Saunders to conclude that head-on attack was his best option. Aware that the town was small, peaceful and sleepy, he would pick his moment, ride in and intimidate anyone who might cross him. He would roust out Jim Curry and he would do it quickly, giving nobody time to think. Should anyone get in the way, that would be just too bad. If necessary, he would shoot first and deal with any consequences later.
Timing being critical, Saunders decided to wait until late afternoon, when the townspeople might be at their most vulnerable. That was the point at which they would have their guard down, thinking that this was just another uneventful day. They would be thinking about meals. The few businesses would be preparing to close, the saloons quiet before the evening activity. Yes, four-thirty seemed about right.
There was a sprinkling of pedestrians, mostly women, no wheeled traffic and no other riders as Cal Saunders entered the town. A big newcomer on a large black horse, keeping to the middle of the street, he was likely to attract attention. In for a penny, in for a pound was his style, and having opted to instil fear into whomever he encountered, he didn’t intend to dawdle. A lad of around twelve stood on the west sidewalk, to the right of the newcomer. He would do as well as anyone. “You, boy,” Saunders grunted. “I want Jim Curry. Where is he?”
“I’ve no idea,” the boy answered. “It’s none of my business.”
Saunders’ right hand fell to the butt of his revolver. “Oh, a smart one eh? You know where he is, an’ you’d better tell me if you want to stay healthy.”
A woman emerging from a store a few yards away heard the exchange between Saunders and the boy. She hurried along to the youngster, put an arm on his shoulder and drew him behind her. “What do you want with my son?” she said.
“I’m looking for Jim Curry and that boy’s goin’ to tell me where he is, or it’ll be the worse for him.”
The woman stepped forward, chin up in defiance. “Why don’t you pick on someone more your own size, you big ox?” she said.
Chivalry toward women was an alien concept to Saunders at any time, let alone when he was incensed. “Okay, lady,” he said. “You’ll do instead. Now you tell me where Curry is. Better still, you can take me there.”
By then, two more women and another boy were standing nearby, wondering what was happening. This was fine by Saunders. The more people he could frighten quickly, the better his scheme would work out. There was no fear in him and he had not the slightest doubt of his ability to get the result he wanted at top speed. He had correctly assumed that word of Jim Curry’s plight was already known throughout the township, so surreptitious enquiries would be pointless. Nobody would reveal anything without being forced to do so.
The woman was about to speak again, when there was a shout from across the street: “Hey, hold on.” The words came from a man of around sixty, middling in height, corpulent and slow-moving. He lumbered up to the scene. “Somebody care to tell me what’s going on here?” he said, addressing everyone present but looking directly at the newcomer.
Saunders scowled down at the man. “This woman’s goin’ to take me to Jim Curry. You’d better mind your own business, unless you aim to take a hand. If you do, start now.”
The man was taken aback, but answered quickly enough. “My name’s Gutteridge,” he said. “I’m town marshal here and any disturbance is my concern. You look like trouble and my advice to you is to move on. You got that?”
It was a brave little speech from the local lawman, but he was not accustomed to this kind of thing. He was a part-time officer. Normally, his most onerous job was to offer Saturday night accommodation in his single-cell four-bed jail to any cowpunchers too drunk to make it back to their spreads until the Sunday morning. He had never had occasion to deal with real trouble and his handgun was more for decoration than use. Now he made the mistake of letting his hand stray towards it.
Saunders was right-side-on to the lawman. Without an instant’s hesitation he whipped out his gun and shot Gutteridge through the heart while the man was struggling to draw. The grim horseman’s abrupt action stunned the small crowd. These were orderly people, who had never experienced anything like this. Saunders himself had not expected to have to act so brutally at such an early stage but was in no doubt that having embarked on his course, he had to pursue it decisively.
After a few seconds of silence, a man stepped over to the fallen marshal, who was beyond help. This was a vital moment for Saunders. He could not afford to let resistance build. He wagged his gun at the woman who had sought to defy him. “You, lady. I know Jim Curry’s in town. Take me to him, and don’t keep me waitin’, or somebody else is goin’ to get hurt.”
The woman’s resistance had been shattered by what she had just witnessed. “There’s no need for me to take you,” she answered. “Jim Curry lives just along the street, in the third house beyond the barbershop. He’s there now, and I wish to goodness he weren’t.”
Saunders was riding off before the woman had finished speaking. Leaping from his horse, he jumped onto the sidewalk outside the house he’d been directed to, and put two bullets through the downstairs window. “Jim Curry,” he shouted. “This is Saunders. Come outside an’ hurry it up. I got dynamite here, an’ if I have to wreck the place, I’ll do it. You got one minute.”
In fact the only explosive thing Saunders had was his temper, but Curry didn’t know that. He’d seen trouble approaching and was cowering in the house with his widowed mother and fourteen-year-old brother. He didn’t need a minute. In his hand was an old pistol, which he hadn’t used since inheriting it from his father. It was loaded, though Curry was no hand at shooting. Now, hoping desperately that he might pull a last-minute trick, he stuffed the weapon into his belt, at the small of his back. He wanted to face Saunders apparently unarmed. “All right,” he called out. “I’m coming.” He opened the door and emerged, hands high.
Saunders was still holding his gun, for he had no high-minded notion of giving his man an even chance. “I’ll not waste words on you, Curry,” he said. “You stole nine hundred dollars from me. I want it. Give it back an’ maybe you’ll live.”
Curry’s reaction was strange. He began to laugh. It was a queer mirthless sound. “Oh, man,” he said. “If only you knew.”
“I’ve no time to play around with you,” Saunders answered. “If you’ve anythin’ to say, get it out.”
Curry was about to reply when the exchange was interrupted. Inside the house, young Bob Curry had excused himself from his mother and dashed upstairs. Though frightened as never before, he felt compelled to see what was going on. He crept across the front bedroom to the sash window and began to raise the lower half. He tried to do it quietly, but the warped frame was stubborn. A firmer pull raised the window three inches – with a loud grating noise.
Edgy as he was, Saunders reacted instinctively. His eyes flicked to the source of the sound and, turning his gun, he fired at it, causing the youngster to dive to the floor for safety. Jim Curry, sensing that this was the only chance he would be likely to get, scrabbled at his back for the old weapon. It was a futile effort, for Saunders re-trained his gun and shot twice. Jim Curry went down backwards, both hands clutching at his middle.
Saunders stepped up to the fatally injured man. “You damn fool,” he rasped.
Curry raised his head, blood seeping through the fingers laced over his midriff. “Wasn’t . . . wasn’t no need for that,” he wheezed. “I’d have told you what happened.”
Saunders knew the man was dying, but at this stage was intent upon his own priorities. “What the hell do you mean?” he snarled.
Curry groaned. “I guess I don’t have much time,” he said.
“Maybe not,” Saunders replied. “They say a gut-shot man can last an hour or two, or a good deal less. Where’s my money?”
Curry raised a blood-soaked hand and pointed to his head. Just prop me against the wall here and I’ll tell you, if I hold out long enough,” he said.
Saunders obliged. “Your lights are goin’ out, man,” he answered. “You’d better talk.”
“Was this way,” Curry said, speaking between moans. “You remember you won a lot that night?”
“’Course I do. Nine hundred and fifty dollars.”
“That’s right. Dave Backhouse was out thirty dollars and I was down twenty. Bob Cresswell lost the nine hundred. He walked out right away. You changed some of the money for big bills at the bar, then went upstairs. Backhouse and I got to talking with that fancy feller who’d been hanging around. Remember him?”
“I do. What about it?”
“Turned out he knew a lot about card play. He said both you and Cresswell had been cheating, but you did it better. I always was a man for fun and games, so I bet Backhouse I could take the money back off you. Never did mean to keep it, except the fifty dollars you got from the two of us.”
“I don’t follow you. What did you do?”
Curry, blood running from his mouth, was now moaning and gasping with almost every word. “Do you recall that there were three bedrooms, that you had the middle one and the others were empty?”
“That’s right. So?”
“Well, the inner walls are very flimsy. They’re just thin floorboards turned upright and fastened with two small screws each, one at the top and one at the bottom, to slats that run across the floors and ceilings.”
“I went up ahead of you, to the room on your right, loosened one of the boards with my pocket knife and eased it to one side. I watched every move you made after you went into that room.”
“I didn’t notice anything.”
“You were so drunk, you probably wouldn’t have noticed if there’d been a horse in your bed. I figured you’d sleep on the money, so I was surprised when you had that idea of putting it under the pitcher in the washbasin. I’d never have thought of looking there if I hadn’t seen what you did. Anyway, after all that whiskey, you were snoring like a sawmill in no time. I could have got the money, even if you’d had it under your pillow. I came in and took it.”
“So you’re a robber.”
“Hear me out. I reckoned there was nothing to choose between you and Cresswell. You were both cheats. So I kept the fifty dollars. I took the other nine hundred to the livery stable and found your saddle. I cut the stitching at the rear left-hand side, put the money in and sewed it up again. I’ve done quite a bit of leatherwork, so I made a neat job of it pretty quickly. You’ve been carrying that money around with you all the time. I never stole anything in my life. You’ve killed a fool, Saunders, not a thief. I hope your conscience won’t trouble you too much.” Those were the last words Jim Curry spoke.
Saunders went back to his horse. He was dazed. Within five minutes, he had killed two men and terrorised a town – a spectacular performance, even by his standards. It was then that he experienced, for the first time in his life, remorse. It hit him hard. He picked up the reins and walked the horse northwards out of town. For some reason, mounting didn’t occur to him. He moved as though in a trance, staring vacantly ahead. No-one dared to pursue him. After an hour, he stopped at the trees he’d seen earlier. He took a clasp knife from a coat pocket, cut the stitching of his saddle at the place Curry had indicated, and found the money. It was all there – nine hundred-dollar bills. He rolled them together and stuffed them into his shirt pocket.
“Stay where you are and shuck the gun belt.” The voice came from behind Saunders and to his left. He did as he was told, then turned to find Bob Cresswell advancing from the greenery, bearing a levelled shotgun. “I’ve been trailing you for quite a spell,” said the miner. “I was going into town to get you, then saw you coming this way. I want my money.”
Cresswell was jittery, expecting some kind of trick, but Saunders merely took the roll of bills from his pocket and flipped it through the air. It landed midway between the two men. “All there,” he said in a hollow, lifeless voice. “Nine hundred dollars. Take it.”
Advancing to pick up the money, Cresswell kept the shotgun aimed at Saunders. “I’m no killer,” he said, “but you caused me a lot of trouble and I’ve a mind to blast you, if only for that.”
Saunders’ response was not what Cresswell expected. He held up placatory hands. “You won’t need the gun,” he said quietly. “Just do me one favour. Give me ten minutes to myself. I give you my word I’ve no other weapons.” He didn’t wait for permission, but turned his back and walked to the trees, leading his horse.
Despite his threat, Cresswell would not have shot any man, except to save his own life. “No tricks,” he shouted at the retreating figure. Saunders didn’t seem to hear. He disappeared among the trunks. The miner waited nervously for twenty minutes, then, curiosity overcoming apprehension, he followed. First, he saw Saunders’ riderless horse chomping what little grass it could find. It took him only a further minute to find the tree, the stout branch, the noosed lariat and the dangling body.
* * *