OUT WEST : NUMBER TWENTY
None Of Your Business
Dave Merrick was making his way southwest from Montana and had almost reached the southern end of Colorado. He was in no hurry and didn’t have any particular destination in mind. For the time being, his bankroll was adequate to support his frugal lifestyle and he would look for work again when he had to. That wasn’t likely to be a problem because he had plenty of experience as a ranch hand, had done a wide variety of other jobs and was usually willing to try whatever came up.
At thirty-four, Merrick was trying to put off the day when he might have to settle down. So far, he was footloose and fancy free and had hopes of remaining that way for some time. It was a few minutes after ten in the morning of a mid-August day and a brief downpour of rain had temporarily freshened up the hot, humid atmosphere.
With his horse at a plod, Merrick was passing through open country when he came upon an apparently abandoned homestead. Cutting across it, he was startled to hear what sounded like a human voice, though there was nobody in sight. Thinking that the dilapidated old shack ahead of him might be occupied, he headed for it. To reach it, he had to pass a well and it was there that he heard the sound again. Yes, it was a voice all right, and to his amazement it seemed to be coming from the well.
Merrick dismounted and peered over the well’s circular stone wall. He couldn’t see the bottom clearly. “Who’s down there?” he called out. The answer was an indistinct moan. The well was topped by two posts fixed to the stonework and connected by a free-turning iron pole with a handle, but there was neither a bucket nor a rope.
Fortunately, Merrick had a lariat. He attached it to the pole and with a few a bumps and grazes, lowered himself to the bottom of the shaft, where he found a man lying awkwardly atop a scatter of loose stones. “How did you get down here?” Merrick asked. The reply was an unintelligible groan. “Never mind,” said Merrick. “I’ll try to get you out.” There was just enough free rope for him to make a loop around the injured man’s chest and tighten it under his armpits, then Merrick used his own belt to strap the man’s arms to his sides, so that they wouldn’t be accidentally pulled over his head during the ascent.
Scrambling back up was harder than getting down, but Merrick made it without mishap, then he began turning the pole handle to haul the man up the shaft. It was hard work but in ten minutes the fellow was lying beside the well, grunting and gasping. Merrick carried him over to the shack, which didn’t offer much shelter, as more than half of the roof was scattered across the floor.
Merrick fetched his water bottle and managed to get the man to take a few sips. That enabled him to answer when asked how long he’d been in the well. “Not sure. I think it was five days. I scooped up a little water down there.” When questioned about his injuries, he replied: “Hurts like hell everywhere.” He gave his name as Eli Roach, then lost consciousness.
For several hours, Dave Merrick thought that Roach wouldn’t regain his senses, but he finally surfaced late in the afternoon, albeit in no better condition than he had been earlier. He couldn’t eat anything, but was able to respond when asked how he’d wound up in the well. “I was thrown down there,” he said.
“Who did that?”
“Feller named Dan Crow.”
“Why did he do it?”
“Just wanted my money – twenty-seven dollars. I was restin’ here for a while when he came by. Started out all friendly, then jumped me when I wasn’t lookin’. Took my horse as well.”
“And you didn’t know him?”
“Never saw him before.”
“So he had no reason for what he did, except to rob you?”
“That’s right. Guess he left me for dead.”
Merrick shook his head. “What a lousy trick.”
Roach seemed to go into a kind of delirium. He babbled incoherently, his breathing was stertorous and blood dribbled intermittently from his mouth. At shortly after eight in the evening he opened his eyes and saw Merrick still sitting by his side. With a great effort, he spoke: “I guess I’m about to cash in my chips.”
Merrick nodded. “I’m sorry to say that I think you are.”
“Well, would you do somethin’ for me?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“If you ever come across Dan Crow, maybe you’d mention me. You might even pay him back for what he did here, but you’d better not give him much time to talk about it. He gets into action mighty quick.”
“I’ll deal with him. That’s a promise. Any way I can recognise him, apart from his name?”
“He’s very tall and thin. Around six-two an’ I’d say he weighs less than one-fifty, but don’t let that fool you. He’s tough and real strong. Oh, an’ he has tooth missin’. Top front one, on his right side. I doubt he’ll get that fixed. Then there’s his hat.”
“What about it?”
“It’s a real expensive one, so I don’t think he’d change it. It’s low-crowned, light brown an’ he must’ve had an accident with it at some time. Left side as you look at it, near the front, where the brim curls. It’s kinda singed. Big dark patch. You can’t miss it.”
The effort of talking so much in his condition was the last straw for Roach. He’d been struggling all along. He tried to add something but after panting and choking for about twenty seconds, he gave a final gurgle and died.
The following morning, Merrick looked for some implement he could use to bury Roach. Finding nothing, he settled for covering the corpse with pieces of the shack’s fallen sod roof, topped off with stones, which he had to carry from the homestead’s periphery.
Having done what he saw as his duty, Merrick rode off. As did so, he was struck by a thought. If Roach and Crow were not acquainted before they met at the well, how did Roach know his assailant’s name? It seemed hardly likely that a man intending to kill a stranger would introduce himself. And why had Roach cautioned Merrick against allowing Crow to talk about what had happened? Ah, well, there wasn’t a lot of sense in pondering on either point. Not much chance that he’d encounter this Crow fellow.
On a July morning, nearly two years after the incident at the well and over three hundred miles from the place, Dave Merrick was riding along aimlessly. Having plenty on his mind, he thought only occasionally and fleetingly about the late Eli Roach. With the Sun beating down and the temperature close to three figures, he approached a small Texas town. It comprised about thirty drab, shabby buildings, all of timber, with barely a lick of paint to be seen on any of them. There was a single street running north-south, with one narrow alley on either side, and unlike so many other communities, this one didn’t even boast a town sign proclaiming its name to anyone approaching.
It was shortly before eleven when Merrick rode into the town. No mathematician would have been able to calculate the odds against what was about to happen to him within a few minutes of his arrival, for that depended upon several imponderables. One of these was the remote chance of the meeting of two specific men wandering around the West’s vastness, one of them unaware that the other had a score, albeit a vicarious one, to settle with him. Another factor was Merrick’s mental state. Normally a fairly relaxed fellow, he was now depressed and edgy. He hadn’t been able to find work for far too long and his funds were at a record low level. He was close to the end of his tether, primed to explode if anything occurred to annoy him – and it did.
Merrick’s forward foot landed on the boardwalk immediately outside the entrance to the Lone Star saloon at the precise instant that its batwing doors opened and a small, skinny man hurtled out backwards, evidently propelled by some considerable force. He cannoned into Merrick and the two men tumbled into the street, the ejectee uppermost. That was the last straw for Merrick. He pushed the little fellow aside, sprang up and barged into the saloon. Without looking around, he bawled: “Who threw that jasper my way?”
The bar ran along the room from front to rear, a little to Merrick’s right. Directly in front of him, at a distance of ten feet or so, a man stood, arms akimbo, hat pushed back, seemingly satisfied with what he had just done. “I did,” he replied. “What of it?”
“I don’t care to have gents tossed at me,” Merrick growled.
“You aim to do something about it?”
“I’ll settle for a nice apology, and if I don’t get it, I’ll take it out of your hide.” At an inch under feet, scaling a hundred and ninety pounds and handy with his fists, Merrick had no doubt that he could be as good as his word if that proved necessary.
The man sniggered. “First, that feller isn’t big enough to have hurt you much. Second, I’m through with brawling for today, so if you want to make anything of this, you’ll have to do it with a gun.”
“I don’t have one.”
The man turned to the barkeeper. “Give him one, Andy,” he snapped.
“Okay, if that’s the way you want it, Dan.” The barman bent, fumbled around on a low shelf, produced a forty-five and handed it to Merrick. “It’s loaded,” he said.
Merrick might have been able to bring the matter to a non-violent end, but he was too worked up to think about that option. Though he’d handled six-shooters before, he was no gunman. He shoved the weapon into his right pants pocket, which would have to serve as a holster. Clearly untroubled by the prospect of flying lead, the tall man grinned – and it was then that the penny dropped for Merrick. He was looking at a man named Dan, six-two in height and very slim. The hat brim showed a singed patch and the open mouth revealed that the right-side upper front tooth was missing. This was the fellow who had put Eli Roach into that well in Colorado. “I guess your name’s Crow,” said Merrick.
“That’s right. What’s it to you?”
“Just that a couple of years ago you left a man named Roach to die at the bottom of a well, quite a way northeast of here. I promised that if I ever ran into you, I’d even the score for him, and I’m in the mood to do that now.”
Crow nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I was responsible for Roach being in that well. Didn’t expect him to get out.”
“I got him out. He died a few hours later. Now, are you ready to pay up?”
“Mister, you’re a fool, but I’ll accommodate you and I don’t aim to talk all day. Draw!”
Even at that last moment, Merrick could have backed down, but he was seeing red and completely carried away. He made a slow and awkward job of pulling out the bulky revolver. Before he had it level, he’d been struck by two bullets, one in the chest and one in the abdomen. He fell backwards. Crow strode over to him, went down on one knee by his side and said: “Believe it or not, I feel bad about this. I should have tried to talk you out of gunplay.”
Speaking with great difficulty, Merrick answered: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s a pity we were both riled up at the same time. Probably more my fault than yours.”
Crow shook his head. “I don’t think so. Anyway, while you can still hear me, I’ll tell you about Eli Roach. He spent two days as a guest in my home. You don’t need to know why. While I was out, he raped my wife and beat her on the head with a branding iron. She lived just long enough to tell me. It was over a year before I caught up with that louse. I didn’t exactly drop him down the well. I hit him and he fell into it. Now you know the whole story, and maybe you’ll appreciate that it was none of your business. If you hadn’t been in such a hurry to fight, you might have heard the truth in time to save your skin.”
Merrick was fading fast and struggled to reply. “I understand,” he wheezed finally. “I guess I’m about to cash in my chips.”
Crow nodded. “I’m sorry to say that I think you are.”
Somehow, through his agony, the thought came to Merrick that this last exchange of words was, with the positions reversed, exactly the same as the one he’d had at the well in Colorado, just before Eli Roach died. Then he too left this world.
The above story concludes the 'Out West' series.
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