SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THIRTY-ONE
One Man’s Justice
Dave Stockton was half asleep and beginning to sway in the saddle. Small wonder, as it was close to noon and he’d been riding since dawn, with only a short break. That, plus the heat, was more than enough for a man who wasn’t the most hardened of riders.
There had been no choice for Stockton, his goal being unreachable by train or stagecoach. Now it was in sight, though that was not much comfort, as the town of Simpson, Arizona was hardly the end of the rainbow for a respectable man. The place was a known nest of brigands, a remote spot with no law officer, the nearest one being over fifty miles away. That gentleman, Jonas Hawkins, was a conscientious fellow, but no fool. He had many calls on his time. Perhaps he should have visited Simpson, but he could not rid himself of the feeling that if he did, his exit from the place might well be horizontal.
Two miles from the town, Stockton dismounted and spent five minutes performing a routine of bending and stretching exercises. He considered it important to appear sound in wind, limb and mind at any place where he was a stranger. Failure to do that might give the wrong signal to any human vultures around.
Deciding to review his position before riding on, Stockton walked to a nearby rock, made himself as comfortable as possible on it, then did something unusual for him. Normally, he smoked only three times a day, after meals, but the present commission was preying on his mind – and anyway, another half-hour couldn’t make much difference to the outcome. Pulling a short black cigar from his shirt pocket, he lit up and pondered.
Since the retirement of his mentor and predecessor as top operator of the Calloway Detective Agency, Dave Stockton had chalked up a string of successes. Now he had a nagging feeling that he had perhaps met his match. Like most men on the right side of the law, he knew that many of the criminals in the West were cowboys who had fallen upon hard times. They resorted to wrongdoing because they couldn’t find work of the kind they understood. Generally, they were incompetent felons and tracking them down wasn’t too difficult. But the others were professionals who planned and executed their work on a businesslike basis.
It had been a long and arduous chase. Stockton had been trailing his quarry for over a month, sustained by the knowledge that what he had done a dozen times before, he could do again. However, he was aware that the man he was pursuing now was quite different from most of those he hunted.
Vincent Cork had, as far as was known to anyone save perhaps himself, pulled off four jobs, all characterised by a high degree of originality and audacity. It was the last of these that had led to the offer of the current high reward and had put Dave Stockton on his trail.
Cork had performed the remarkable feat of robbing, in the same afternoon, two banks thirty miles apart. There had been nothing casual about the feat. It resulted from careful preparation and could have been halted in mid-flow, had that been necessary. Stockton considered the matter for the umpteenth time. The chain of events had been pieced together by the official forces of law and order and the few witnesses involved.
It seemed that Cork, posing as an Easterner seeking to enter the cattle business, had several times taken the train up and down the line concerned. Finally, he had registered at two hotels, one in each of his target spots. There was general agreement that he had played his part well. He’d impressed everyone as a free-spending, well-spoken fellow, whose regular and invariably modest card playing losses had been treated with mild amusement by the gambling fraternities in both places.
As far as could be established afterwards, Cork had retired for his customary afternoon rest in his hotel room at the northern end of his beat. Half an hour later, a shotgun-bearing man in shabby range garb had held up the local bank, then vanished among the back-lots. Five minutes after the incident, Cork had strolled out of his hotel, noting that the town was in uproar.
Nobody associated the fashionably-dressed amiable Easterner with the desperado who had just carried off the bank’s cash. And no-one noticed the ladder lying flat below Cork’s rear room. In a moment of striking boldness, Vincent Cork had accosted the sheriff, asking what had happened. On hearing the news, the brazen culprit had wandered off to the railroad station, where he’d expressed his shock and outrage to the deputy sheriff, who had been despatched to the spot to ensure that the miscreant did not get away by train.
Even after a major felony, most people go about their normal business. Vincent Cork caught the southbound afternoon train. He alighted at the next stop and went to his room. Ten minutes later, the bank, fifty yards from his hotel was robbed, exactly as its neighbour to the north had been. Again, the range-clad stranger who did the deed had disappeared and again, shortly afterwards, the immaculately-dressed Cork had left his hotel room, exchanging the odd pleasantry with the desk clerk before making his way through an alarmed throng to the town’s premier saloon.
Not until three hours had gone by did a member of the hotel staff notice that Cork’s rear billet was above a stack of timber which gave easy access to the bedrooms. Meantime, while the hubbub went on around him, Vincent Cork enjoyed a few drinks before ambling off with his carpet bag to catch the evening train, which took him further south. It was a whole day before anyone realised that he never reached the next town, to which he’d booked a ticket. Unnoticed by any of his travelling companions, he had disembarked from the back of the train at a spot where he knew it had to move slowly and, unnoticed by anyone joined his waiting horse and made good his escape.
Cork’s total haul had been thirteen thousand, nine hundred and twenty dollars, a sum which had caused the banks to combine resources in an effort to secure his capture. Calloway’s agency had been enlisted and Dave Stockton had drawn the case. He had traced his man to Simpson. Now he was almost there. Maybe Cork had already left the place, but Stockton’s instinct suggested otherwise. The town’s isolation inclined him to think that this was where he would find his man. He knew that Simpson lacked law officers, but was not unduly concerned. In his experience, such men had varying attitudes. Sometimes they were pleased to have private help, while on other occasions they regarded it as unwarranted meddling.
Finishing his smoke, Stockton remounted and covered the last stretch, arriving at the livery barn to find a wizened little fellow slouching against the open door, staring into space. On establishing that this man was in charge here, the detective dismounted and handed over his animal. In response to his attempts to strike up a conversation, he got barely intelligible grunts. He paid the hair-raising cost of a day’s care for his horse – inside and fed. The liveryman expressed no surprise when his new customer wanted to know exactly where the animal was to be stabled. Such caution was common among the sort of visitors this town received.
Stockton decided that there was no point in posing any more questions to the taciturn horse-minder, so unstrapped his saddle-roll and stepped into the main street. Midway along one side was a shabby-looking building proclaiming itself a hotel. That would have to do. As it happened, the newcomer would have had little choice anyway. Tramping along, he found the door open. Inside, to the right, was a reception desk, beyond which was a staircase leading to the bedrooms. To the left was a small lobby, furnished with two battered tables and half a dozen moth-eaten upholstered armchairs. Behind the desk, sitting on a stool and reading a novel, was a young fair-haired fellow. He looked up, but made no attempt to offer a welcome. Stockton nodded. “Afternoon. I’d like a room, a rear one if you have it. Might be quieter than the front.”
“Ain’t too rowdy anywhere, mister, but you can have number four. That’s as far back as she goes. Two dollars a day, in advance. Cheaper by the week – ten dollars.”
Stockton pushed over a gold eagle. “Make it a week. If I don’t stay that long, you can keep what’s left.”
That seemed to make the young fellow slightly friendlier. “Mighty thoughtful. You got to sign in.” He pushed a register across the counter, flicking a finger at an inkstand and pen. Stockton made a show of laboriously filling in the date, name and hometown columns. The desk clerk, who was accustomed to reading words upside down, produced a wry grin. “Obliged, Mr . . . Smith. I guess the J stands for John?”
Stockton gave him the blandest of looks. “That’s right. John Smith.”
“Common name hereabouts. We generally have a few in town. I believe there are two others right now.”
“Big family,” Stockton replied.
“True enough. From Chicago, I see. You’re a long way from home, Mr Smith.”
“So I am. Had to leave for health reasons. Weak chest. Heard good things about the climate here.”
“You heard right. A lot of men come here on account of their health. Funny thing, they all complain about the same thing back home. Too much lead content in the air.”
Stockton grinned. “Dangerous stuff, lead. Especially when it comes in certain ways. Where can a man get a little action here?” He made hand movements simulating the riffling of cards.
“We got four saloons,” the clerk replied. “Two of ’em are graveyards. The third gets pretty busy Saturday nights, but I’d say the only place that might interest you is Regan’s, just beyond the intersection on this side. Plenty going on there, day and night. There’s faro, blackjack and roulette and poker – mostly five-card draw.”
“Suits me,” said Stockton. He took the proffered key, tramped up to the room, dropped his saddle-roll onto the bed, swilled hands and face, went back downstairs and crossed the street to an eatery. The place was run by a hefty middle-aged woman who though far from jovial, was a first-class cook. She provided steak, roast potatoes, greens and apple pie, all beyond reproach. Stockton did justice to her efforts then returned to his room. Two cups of coffee with the meal had done little to counteract his fatigue and by two o’clock he was fast asleep.
It was after five when Stockton awoke. That seemed a reasonable enough time to look around the place while there was probably still some activity before the likely mid-evening lull. Leaving the hotel, he ambled along the main street. He was passing a store when a young woman emerged from its doorway and almost collided with him. Not devoid of the usual male instincts, he noted the straight, imperious carriage, the fine head of auburn hair and the fashionable dress. What could a man do? Stockton made a show of doffing his hat and looking awkward. “Beg pardon, ma’am,” he said. “I hope I didn’t startle you.”
The woman smiled and was about to reply, when a man stepped out of the store behind her. “Something wrong, Ellen?” he asked, his voice a striking gravelly bass.
“No, nothing at all,” she answered.
Stockton replaced his hat, but instead of going on his way, he stood staring at the man. Calloway’s leading operative was familiar with Vincent Cork’s description, which was in most respects unremarkable. The fugitive was of average height and build, had black hair, normally short, was clean-shaven and had no scars or obvious bodily peculiarities. However, almost everyone who had been in contact with him had commented on his green eyes and extraordinarily deep voice. Stockton was looking at the first characteristic and had just heard the other. He was rooted to his spot, eyes wide.
“Is everything all right, sir?” said the man. “You look surprised.” That voice again.
Stockton pulled himself together. “I’m fine,” he said. “Please excuse me. I didn’t mean to inconvenience the lady. I’m sorry.”
The man nodded. “No problem, I’m sure. Shall we go, Ellen?” The two walked off arm in arm across the intersection and along the side street.
Aware that he had blundered, but reasoning that he could hardly make matters better by hurrying off, Stockton hovered at the crossing, watching the couple’s departure. It was a short vigil. Within a minute, The pair stopped outside a house, the woman extracted something from a net bag and pointed at her left eye. The man produced a handkerchief and removed the offending object, then the woman handed something to him, opened the gate and went into the house. The man began to retrace his steps.
Stockton walked back along the main street, stopping to stare at gunsmith’s window display until he established which way Cork was headed. That turned out to be towards the hotel, so the detective ambled along, keeping his distance. Cork was carrying the small object he had taken from the woman. Without pausing, he held it up to his face, then put it into a pocket and wandered on, finally crossing the street and entering an alley. Forcing himself to maintain his casual pace, Stockton reached the spot, to find that Cork was not in sight.
Concluding that there was nothing more to be done for the moment, Stockton swung round and set off back along the main street. Deciding that his best course was to blend into the scenery, he went to his room, freshened up and sauntered out again, going back along the street to the saloon recommended by the hotel clerk.
Even at this early hour, the place was far from dead, with a little roulette and blackjack being played and two poker games, both four-hand, in progress. In addition to the dozen or so gamblers, there were as many more men just drinking and talking, some at the bar, others scattered around the tables.
Stockton was served with a beer, which he nursed for as long as seemed decent before ordering a refill. Nobody offered to engage him in conversation. Thinking that there was only one way to break into this society, he strolled over and asked to be included in one of the poker games. Nobody objected. Fortunately, the stakes weren’t high.
Working to the best plan he’d been able to devise, Stockton drank steadily, gradually allowing his tongue to loosen as the evening advanced. He was gratified to note that the outlaw etiquette he’d encountered in various other towns was reversed here, the usually tight-lipped attitude replaced by some boasting about deeds done. Perhaps it wasn’t too surprising, as many of these people were bandits and in Simpson they felt secure.
When it came to Stockton’s turn to recount his experiences, he let it be known that he was one Tom Roberts, on the run after an abortive attempt at train robbery up in Montana, where his accomplice had been shot dead. His story caused some mirth, although he noticed that there was one man present – a sallow-faced, black-bearded fellow – who didn’t join in the laughter. Stockton’s tale was not invented. The incident he related had happened as he stated it, and the name he gave was the right one.
Claiming lack of funds, the black-bearded man left the game. Stockton played on for a further hour, then excused himself, saying that he’d been up and about since the break of day and needed some sleep. He had lost thirty-seven dollars and hoped that his boss wouldn’t gripe too much at that item on his expense account. He returned to his room. It had been a long day. Still, he had found his man and, he hoped, established his own desperado credentials. That was a passable start. He snuffed the bedside lamp and was asleep in less than two minutes.
Early to bed, early to rise was not Dave Stockton’s way when he had a choice. The sun was high by the time he made an appearance. He crossed to the diner for a breakfast which was as satisfying as the meal he had enjoyed the day before. Loaded with food and coffee, he strolled back to the hotel, thinking about his next move. That was taken out of his hands. As he stepped through the doorway, two men who had been waiting inside closed on him. “You’re invited for a talk,” one of them rasped.
“Sounds pressing,” Stockton replied. “What if I don’t want to go?”
“You’re goin’.” A gun emphasised the order.
“Well, if you put it that way.” He was escorted across the street and down the alley where he’d seen Cork disappear the evening before, then ushered into a building, up a flight of stairs and into a large, sparsely-furnished room. At a table under the single window sat a smiling Vincent Cork. One of the escorts slipped a hand under Stockton’s coat, removing the gun from the detective’s waistband. Throwing the weapon over to Cork, the man stepped back onto the landing, joining his companion and closing the door.
“Good of you to call,” said Cork. “Have a seat.” He flipped a hand at the only available chair.
“Nice to be asked,” Stockton answered as he sat. “I won’t pretend to understand the reasons, but now that I’m here, what do you want?”
Cork’s good humour didn’t desert him for an instant. “Oh, dear,” he said. “I’m disappointed. I’d hoped you might tell me without prompting.”
“Tell you what?”
“Why, who you are, of course. I assume we can dispense with the ‘John Smith’, so where do we go from there?”
Stockton was forced to return Cork’s grin. “Okay, I’m not John Smith. Now, if you’re as well-informed as you seem to be, you’ll have heard that I’m Tom Roberts – and I’ll not deny that I’m wanted up north.”
“Not quite good enough,” said Cork. “I happen to know that the real Tom Roberts is in Colorado, resting up after being wounded in that little matter you mentioned yesterday. Now, I’m not what you’d call a natural killer, but if you want to get out of this room alive, I really do think your best course is to tell the truth. I offer no guarantees at this stage, but you might just escape with a whole skin if you can tell me a story I’ll believe.”
Reasoning that his luck had run out but that he might, just possibly, be dealing with a man who had some sense of honour, Stockton spread his hands in resignation. “Okay,” he said. “I guess I’ve come up with less than a straight flush. My name’s David Stockton. I work for the Calloway Detective Agency. I was hired to track down Vincent Cork, and I seem to have done that.”
“Yes, you have – and you’ve done it well. Incidentally, I lied about Tom Roberts. I don’t know where he is. You’re a resolute man, Mr Stockton.
“I like to think so.”
“Hmn. The thing is, you present me with a problem. Right now, I don’t know what to do with you.”
Stockton shrugged. “You seem to have all the cards. Most men would say that I should be silenced, permanently.”
“Oh, let’s not be hasty. You might have good work ahead of you. Tell me, have you time to listen to a little story?”
“Well, if you insist. To be candid, I’ve no other commitments at present.”
“I’m so glad. Help yourself to the whiskey. I don’t indulge.” He pushed a bottle and glass across the table. Stockton poured himself a good measure as Cork went on: “I’d like you to put yourself in the position of a young man who goes off to war, leaving his parents to struggle with a homestead in Wyoming. When he returns, he hears an all too common story. His parents are prematurely aged because of a combination of the hard work and the unwelcome attentions of a local rancher. Harassment, Mr Stockton. Does that sound familiar?”
“I’ve come across it.”
“Very well. Now, despite the … er … difficult social position, the homestead could be made to flourish. What it needs most is a little capital. So, the young fellow goes east and gets a city job. Of course, he has misgivings, but the parents insist that they can hold on until the cash comes in. Well, that takes nearly a year. Finally our man reckons he has enough money, which it seems might have been amassed just in time, as he gets a letter from his mother, saying that his father is bedbound with heart trouble, arising partly from further problems caused by the rancher. Little things like water diversion, crop destruction, the shooting of domestic animals and the like. You follow me?”
“No problem so far.”
“Good. Our man hurries back home to find that his father died three days earlier and that his mother is beside herself with misery. The two do their best, but a few weeks after her husband’s departure, the lady dies of grief and general weariness. Meanwhile, the neighbour trouble continues. Now, since the family is legally secure, the son tries to get redress through official channels. He finds that the peace officer is in the pocket of the rancher and that even the local lawyer is hardly more than a hireling of the same man. So, having buried both parents, the young fellow can’t hold onto the homestead. There’s too much effort involved and no-one else can help. Now, what I want to know is what you would do, faced with those circumstances.”
Stockton shook his head. “That’s a hard one,” he said. “I guess you were the young man concerned.”
“Well, you’re only giving me a minute or two to answer a question that the man must have thought about for a while. Offhand, I’d say that I’d be pretty steamed up, but when I calmed down, I think would have gone back east, started afresh and left retribution in the hands of God.”
“A good answer, Mr Stockton. That was what I thought at first. Then I came to the conclusion that I’d been cheated out of most of a lifetime of working on the homestead, which was what I would have chosen to do. A man can’t really put a price on that. Naturally, I couldn’t anticipate my prospects in the farming business, nor could I fairly include the element of satisfaction a man gets from working for himself, so in an effort to be reasonable, I didn’t try. What I did instead was calculate my likely earnings over thirty years of doing the only job I could evaluate, at least theoretically – the one I had in the East. You’re still with me?”
“Yes, and I think I can see where your heading, but go on.”
“Thank you. Now, I’ve told you that there was no way of squaring accounts locally. The rancher I mentioned was responsible, but was well protected. A war of attrition against him would have been hopeless. So, I decided that my complaint was not so much against the cattle baron concerned, but against the society we have created, which allows such injustices. I am a logical man, Mr Stockton, so I concluded that, since society had, in a manner of speaking, robbed me of my birthright, I would make restitution myself.”
“You decided to be judge, jury and, in a way, executioner.”
“That’s right. Having arrived at my figure, I set about taking back from society what it had taken from me – no more and no less. I’m not a common criminal.” Stockton chuckled. “True enough, Mr Cork. Whatever else you are, you’re not common.”
“I’m relieved to hear that you understand. I never had any intention of embarking upon a life of crime. I simply intended to get back what I considered due to me. Now, I couldn’t reasonably expect to do that over three decades of petty crime, so I decided to do it as quickly as possible. By the way, have you been in touch with your chief since you started chasing me?”
“Did you hear anything unusual from him?”
“The only thing I can think of was that he replied to a wire, saying that the second bank you robbed that afternoon had received an envelope containing eight hundred and forty dollars, with no explanation.”
“And didn’t you wonder about that?”
“Of course I did, but not to any great effect.”
“No, naturally you wouldn’t have been able to grasp that. It was an excess. I told you I’d arrived at my figure. The second robbery gave me too much, so I returned the difference. I couldn’t have worked it out on the spot, could I?”
“I guess not. You weren’t embarrassed with leisure at the time.”
“No, I wasn’t. You strike me as perceptive, Mr Stockton. You must have gathered enough from what I’ve said to show you that I don’t wish to go on in this way. I’ve recovered what I saw as my just compensation. My career as an outlaw is over. As it happens, despite the experience of war – or maybe because of it – I am not a man of violence.”
Stockton held up a protesting hand. “Not violent, you say. You’ve held up people at gunpoint. How do you account for that?”
“Good question. However, I can tell you that in every case, all I did was threaten. My gun was always loaded with blanks. I’ve seen quite a lot of killing and have no wish to add to the tally. Furthermore, you must have digested details of my career. If you’ve done your work properly, you’ll know that I could have pulled out of any of my escapades at any time, leaving other people with nothing worse than frayed nerves.”
Stockton nodded. “Very persuasive, Mr Cork. You put your point well, but that doesn’t resolve our problem. And by the way, I’m puzzled by your decision to stay in these parts when you could have gone back east.”
Now Cork laughed out loud. “That’s ironic,” he said. “I believe you told the hotel clerk that you had chest trouble. I imagine that was untrue?”
“Yes it was. So?”
“Well, as it happens, over the last two years or so, I’ve been affected that way myself. One of the few attractions here is the good air. That gives us a special difficulty. You know where I am and I can’t just let you wander off with that knowledge, can I?
“No, you can’t. So we’re back where we started.”
“Not quite. Now look, I don’t much like what I have in mind, but I have to balance several matters. You’ll have noticed that I’m not alone.”
“Yes. She finds life in Simpson uncongenial and wishes to be elsewhere. Most of us have to make compromises and I am inclined to accommodate her. That leaves you, and in the course of our little talk, I’ve made a decision.”
Stockton grimaced. “I can hardly wait to hear it.”
“Cheer up. The news could be worse for you. I’ve already indicated that I’m no killer, so what we’ll do is this: I shall depart with the young lady today and reappear elsewhere under an assumed name. You are to stay in town for seven days, supervised by the two gentlemen who brought you here. They are being very well paid to watch you and will get a large bonus for setting you free when the week is over. I have a method of making sure that they do the work and receive their full reward. Once released, you may do as you wish. Is all that clear?”
“Fair enough, Mr Cork. You win.”
And so it was. Dave Stockton was given his freedom as promised. He accepted defeat at the hands of Vincent Cork and filed the case as unsolved. Cork was never caught.
* * *