SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THIRTY-TWO
Paid With Interest
It was a rare thing for a stranger to visit the tiny settlement of Chalca, Colorado. The man who arrived on this November day did not seem like a beneficent waft of providence as he turned his lathered dun horse towards the L-shaped building which formed most of the remote community. It was one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and most of the residents had succumbed to the lethargy that usually overtook them at this point in the week. An exception was the ever-busy storekeeper. He had heard the approaching rider and stepped out onto the porch. “Hello,” he said.
“Afternoon. Hope I’m not disturbing your day of rest.”
“Not at all. We don’t often get visitors here. I’m Pete Simmons, and if you don’t mind my saying so, you look worn out.” Even from a distance of eight feet, he could see that the newcomer’s eyes were glazed and rimmed with what looked like lack of sleep, and that he was just about ready to fall from his mount.
“My name’s Howard Baines, and you’re right. I’m tired.”
“Well, light down and come in. I’ll see to your horse, if you like.”
“That’s an offer I’ll not refuse,” said the stranger. Dismounting stiffly, he stepped up onto the planking, extending a hand, which Simmons grasped as he nodded at the door. “Get yourself inside, Mr Baines. I guess you could use a drink or two and something to eat.”
Ushering his guest into the front room, Simmons seated him at the two-sided home-made corner bench which, along with a few chairs, accommodated the whole community on Sunday evenings, and any other time they chose to get together. The storekeeper produced a stiff belt of whiskey. “Get that down you. I’ll be back shortly and we’ll see about food.”
Simmons left to attend to the horse. He was away for only a few minutes, but when he returned, Baines was laid back, head resting against the top of the bench, fast asleep. The storekeeper had already noted that his visitor was about six feet in height and slimly built. Now he took his first chance to get a close look at Baines’s face. About forty years of age, was his verdict, though the three or four day growth of dark stubble didn’t help the assessment.
It was close to two hours and three pipes of tobacco later when Simmons noted the stranger’s eyelids flickering. The man woke and looked around, startled. Simmons grinned. “I guess that’s done you good, Mr Baines,” he said. Now, how about a little beef stew?”
“I’d be more than pleased. I haven’t eaten much in the last couple of days.”
Simmons bustled off, returning with a steaming bowl and two large hunks of bread. “Don’t bother about talking. Just get outside that. A man can’t discuss things on an empty stomach.”
The hungry traveller needed no second bidding. He disposed of the food in short order. Simmons, who was quite proud of his cooking, nodded appreciatively. “Care for a second helping?” he said.
Baines held up a hand. “I couldn’t manage any more, thank you. But I’d like to say I never tasted anything better. I’m grateful.”
“You’re welcome. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?”
A sigh came up from Baines’s boot soles. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. How long was I out?”
“Nearly two hours. Is that important?”
“Could be. Look, I’m much obliged to you, but I should move on now. If I stay, there may be trouble.”
“That a fact? How so?”
Baines grimaced. “In a way, you could regard me as being on the run.”
“In a way? Is there more than one?”
“A few days ago, I’d have said not. Now I know different. We might be interrupted, but I’ll tell you the tale, if you’re minded to hear it.”
“Don’t see how it can do any harm. Go on.”
“Well, I’ll give it to you as straight as I know how. Just in case I don’t get to finishing, I have to tell you that there’s a bunch of people after me. I guess they call themselves a posse, but from what little I could gather, I’d say lynching party would be a better description.”
“I see. Why do they want you?”
“It started on Thursday night, in a little place called Banham, northeast of here. I have enough money invested to keep me going for a while, and I’ve been moving around with no particular aim in mind. I registered at a hotel then went to a saloon. I was intending only to have a couple of drinks, but I saw what looked like a friendly poker game going on, so I thought I’d take a hand. Funny thing is I don’t play cards much, but I fancied a little company. Anyway, there were four other players. Three of them were in their forties or fifties. The fourth was younger, in his early twenties I guessed. Nobody said it outright, but I got the impression that the older fellows were cowpunchers and the young one was their boss’s son. He was the problem. He had a lot to say and not much of it was too pleasant. I reckoned the older men were pretty embarrassed by his talk.”
Simmons nodded. “I suppose they were tolerating him for the sake of their jobs.”
“I’d say so. Well, for a time he was just cussing in general, but then I won a few hands – not much money because the stakes were low. That was when the young fellow started in on me. He made some provocative comments, but I didn’t rise to the bait. Then he came right out and accused me of cheating. It was downright stupid. I don’t imagine anyone with the skill to cheat would play such a penny-ante game. Well, I couldn’t let that one pass, so I handed out a sharp remark to him. He’d been drinking plenty and I guess he was bad-tempered to start with. What I said must have stung him because he jumped up, pulled a knife from his belt and flung himself across the table at me.”
Simmons’ eyes widened. “That must have been a surprise.”
“It sure was. I guess what I did was pure reflex. I wasn’t armed, so I just pushed my chair back and stuck out my arms, thinking to fend the fellow off. Well, he was coming at me like a pouncing wildcat. My left hand grabbed his right. I was only thinking of stopping that knife. I did that all right, but the rest of him kept moving. The knife turned and went into his neck. It must have hit a jugular vein. He dropped flat over the table, blood pumping out of him. I was knocked back and fell on my rear end.”
Baines gave another huge sigh, then went on: “One of the onlookers took a hand by helping me up. He whispered in my ear: ‘You’d better get out of here right quick, mister. That’s Dave Hewitt and I reckon you’ve killed him. I know you couldn’t help it, but his pa runs things in these parts, including the law. You’ve no chance of an even break here. They’ll hang you for sure – and you’ll not get a trial first.’ Well, I thanked the man and got going. I dashed to the livery stable. Didn’t bother about my things at the hotel. I managed to saddle up and as I was moving off, I saw some men running my way. To keep it short, they’ve been after me since then.”
Simmons shook his head. “That’s a bad experience,” he said. “How far behind are they?”
Baines shrugged. “Hard to say for sure. I’ve tried to watch out, but mostly I’ve been doing my best to keep ahead. I’d say it can’t be more than four or five hours. And they’re sticking to it. I don’t think they’ll give up easily.”
“What made you come here?”
“I was hoping to make it over the pass to the west, but my horse was near tuckered out. Knowing a little about these parts, I figured that the track down here was probably the only turn-off. There must be a dozen of these men and it’s a sure thing they’ll send two or three along this way, just in case. I’d say they’re about due.”
Simmons jumped up. “Don’t worry. Just wait here and I’ll be right back.” He left, returning within two minutes. “Okay, that’s settled,” he said. “I’ve sent old Dick Rogers up to our lookout point. If anybody comes, he’ll tell us in good time.”
“I’m indebted to you again,” said Baines. “I can’t really expect you to believe me, but I’ve told the truth.”
Simmons waved his hands. “It’s not a question of believing,” he replied. “For what it’s worth, I do believe you, but the point is that we’re peaceable folk here. We’ve no time for rough justice. If these men turn up, we’ll hide you. Now relax.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, Mr Simmons. I’m real sorry to be such a nuisance, but I swear I’ve given you a straight story. And now I’d be interested to know how you came to be here.”
Simmons laughed. “That’s another strange tale,” he said. “We were part of a wagon train, going west over the pass you mentioned. One day we came upon an old Indian who didn’t seem quite right in the head. He babbled about gold. Said there’d been a white man who’d found plenty of it at the end of the valley, which is right here. Best we could make of it was that the Indian’s name was Chalca, or some such. He disappeared that same day we met him, but a few of us decided to take a chance and look things over. To cut a long story short, we got locked in by a blizzard and when it cleared up we decided to stay and call the place after our Indian friend. Now we’re at the end of our tether. There are only nine of us – seven men and two women – and we can’t hold out much longer. It’s a pity. If we’d found the gold that old fellow talked about, we’d have made out well enough, what with the wildlife and timber and all. We could have paid for other supplies to be brought in.”
“But you didn’t find any gold?”
“No. We found traces up there” – he waved a hand at the horseshoe of mountains that almost surrounded the place – “but if there ever was anything worth taking, somebody must have got it. The fact is that much as all of us would like to settle here permanently, we’ll be hard pressed to last out until spring. Right now we’re trying to decide when to go back to the pass and strike out to the west. Like I said, it’s a shame. We gambled and we lost.”
Simmons was about to go on, when an old man came rushing in. “They’re comin’,” he yelled. “Three of ’em.”
“I knew it,” said Baines.
His host was unperturbed. “Thanks, Dick,” he said to the old-timer. “I’ll see to it.” He turned to Baines. “Just get up. You’re sitting on your salvation.”
Baines stood, looking amazed. “My salvation?”
“That’s right. Lift that seat.”
Still baffled, Baines did as he was told. The section of the bench he’d been sitting on was seven feet long. Underneath, it was hollow and completely empty. “I used to keep some of my supplies in there,” said Simmons. “Now you see what’s left. There’s a couple of air holes. If you climb in and keep quiet, we’ll get rid of these boys.”
It was probably sheer fatigue that decided the matter. Baines simply couldn’t flee, so he clambered into the box. “Now remember, keep quiet and leave things to me,” said Simmons, lowering the lid.
Ten minutes later, three hard-looking men rode into Chalca, to be greeted by Pete Simmons. “Afternoon, gents. This is rare honour. We don’t normally get visitors, even one at a time. Never had three at once before.”
The rider in the middle nodded. “Howdy. We’ll not keep you long. We’re looking for a man who might have come this way. He’s running from the law.”
Simmons shook his head. “Sorry to disappoint you,” he said. “You’re the first strangers we’ve had here in quite a while. Still, if you want to rest up, I guess we could – ”
The spokesman waved a hand. “Thanks, but there’s no need for that. We have to keep going. Came here just on the off chance. Don’t seem like our man could have bypassed your place.”
“That’s impossible,” Simmons replied. “There’s only one way in or out of here. If your boy came this way, we’d have seen him. What did he do?”
“Killed a man in Banham. Stabbed him in the throat.”
Simmons shook his head in sorrow at the ways of his fellows. “Sounds gruesome. You’d be a posse, I guess.”
“Part of one. The others are heading west. You ever heard of Fred Hewitt?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Well, it was his son got killed. Hewitt draws a lot of water where we come from. If the killer turns up here, you hang onto him and you’ll get a big reward.”
“Oh, he’s worth something, is he?”
“You can reckon on two thousand dollars. If the man turns up, just keep him, get along to Banham and ask for Hewitt.”
“I’ll remember that,” Simmons said. “I suppose you’ll get the same payoff if you catch him, right?”
“We’re Hewitt riders,” the spokesman replied, “so we’d want the man no matter what, but I guess we’ll be compensated for our extra work when we get him. Anyway, time we got back to the others. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“No trouble at all. I told you we don’t get much company. Wish you could stay.”
As the trio left, Old Dick hurried to the lookout point and watched them move out of sight, then returned to report that all was clear. It was only then that Simmons lifted the seat and beckoned his guest out. “You’re safe now, Mr Baines. They’ve been and gone.”
Baines climbed out. “I’m sure thankful for all you’re doing. I can assure you that you’ve saved an innocent man from doing a rope dance.”
Simmons shrugged. “We’d have done the same even if we hadn’t accepted your version of what happened.”
“I already told you what everybody here thinks about that. Whatever you did or didn’t do, you have the right to a proper court hearing, and from what you said and from the looks of those three fellows, I don’t think you’d have made it that far.”
“No, I wouldn’t. I can’t prove to you that I’m not guilty, but you’ve made the right choice. If you’d done otherwise, I’d be decorating a tree this evening.”
“What will you do now?”
Baines shrugged. “I’m not sure. The fact is I’m pretty shaken. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a little walk around. Get the kinks out of me and clear my head before full dark. Have a look at my horse, then we’ll see.”
“Okay, do that. But you can’t go far. Your mount’s over yonder at the barn. We’ll be eating in an hour or so and you’re welcome to join us.”
“Thanks. I’ll be back.”
Simmons, who usually prepared the Sunday evening meal for everyone, went about his work. For once, when the whole population gathered to eat, they would have some variety in their conversation, which normally revolved around their straitened circumstances.
An extra chair was brought in for the visitor who, to everyone’s surprise, did not appear. “He can’t have got lost,” Simmons said. “I mean, there’s nowhere to go, except the way he came, or up into the hills and down again.”
“He didn’t go back along the trail,” said one of the women. “I was by the front window all afternoon and I’d have spotted him.”
“He came to my place,” said Bill Oliver, who looked after the barn. “He sure is attached to that animal.”
“Did he take it away?” Simmons asked.
“Not that I noticed, but I wasn’t watching all the time. Maybe I’d better go see.” He strolled off. Two minutes later, he was back. “No horse, no saddle, no Baines,” he said. “What’s he up to?”
“I don’t know,” Simmons replied. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I’m usually pretty good at sizing people up. Hope I didn’t make a mistake this time.”
“Well, never mind,” said old Dick, an enthusiastic trencherman. “Let’s get to the groceries. If he turns up, so be it. If not, we’re no better and no worse off than we were this mornin’.”
That summed up the general feeling and the nine good people of Chalca turned their attention to the inevitable Sunday evening stew. They made short work of it and the plates were being cleared away when there was a clopping of hoofs outside. Simmons hurried to the door, to find Howard Baines beside his horse, hauling from the saddle a large canvas bag. The Chalca storekeeper heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe he wasn’t wrong about human nature after all. “Evening, Mr Baines,” he said. “You’re a little late, but there’s something left in the pot for you.”
Baines grinned. “Sorry to upset your arrangements. I had a little job in mind and it took longer than I expected. I’d be right tickled to have another go at your food.”
“Come in, man.” Simmons had a feeling that something interesting was afoot, but had no intention of neglecting his duties as host. He preceded Baines inside, waving a hand by way of a general introduction. Baines let his heavy bag thud to the floor, then took a seat. Nobody wanted to disrupt his delayed appointment with the meal, so there was some awkward, desultory conversation among the locals as he ate. When he was through, Simmons distributed whiskey to those who wanted it and water to those who didn’t, then there was silence as all eyes fixed on the guest.
Baines knew what was expected of him. “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I’m not much given to speeches, but I want you to know that I appreciate what you’ve done for me. I guess Mr Simmons here has passed on to you what I told him, and that’s the truth of the matter. I wouldn’t intentionally kill a fly, let alone a man. That incident I mentioned in Banham was exactly as I said it was. I might have stood my ground in some places, but up there I’d have been strung up for sure. Now, if you’d care to hear me out, I have a few things to say.”
Simmons, who seemed to be accepted as spokesman, opened his arms. “You’ve come across straight enough so far, Mr Baines,” he said. “Speak your piece.”
The visitor smiled. “Thank you. Now, I understand that you met an old Indian fellow called Chalca and heard his story about a white man who’d got a heap of gold here. I was that man.”
Baines took a sip of whiskey as his words sank in, then he continued: “When I arrived here, there was nobody around but old Chalca. It’s true that he wasn’t quite right in the head, but he was nice enough and I spent a few days with him. He managed a little broken English and I did the same with his lingo. I gathered from him that a party of Indians had been here some time earlier – I couldn’t work out when that was, or how Chalca knew about them. Maybe he was just hanging around, watching them. Anyway, he said that most Indians don’t set much store by gold, except sometimes as a means of trading. These boys had quite a pile of the stuff. As far as I could understand it, they’d been attacked by a bunch of white men right where we are now. They’d got away, but had left some of the gold. I don’t know why. Possibly they just couldn’t take all of it and still travel fast enough.”
Baines paused for another nip at the liquor, then went on: “I’d been prospecting for a while and I had a few things with me that I knew most Indians prized, so I did a deal with Chalca. I gave him what oddments I had and he showed me where the gold was. He had no interest in it. Shortly after we’d done our business he wandered off and I didn’t see him again. I was still here when a group of white men came in sight. I don’t know whether they were the same ones the old boy had talked about, but I hid myself and watched them, just in case. They seemed a rough crowd and I reckoned that, like the Indians who’d left earlier, I had to get away and couldn’t carry all the gold. I took what I could and buried the rest up in the hills yonder, thinking to come back. Well, I did pretty nicely with what I’d got and was intending to buy a packhorse and make my way here to pick up the rest when that thing in Banham happened.”
With his audience entranced, Baines finished his drink. “Like I said to Mr Simmons here, I was riding up the pass this morning, ahead of Hewitt’s men. I was well acquainted with this area and it was plain enough that my horse was dead beat, so I headed here. The rest you know, except this.” He stood and heaved up his bag, dumping it onto the table and opening it, to reveal a heap of gold dust and nuggets. “They say that one good turn deserves another. You’ve saved my life. Now I’d like you to accept this.”
The assembled population of Chalca looked on in amazement. Simmons stared at Baines. “You can’t do this,” he said. “Why, there must be at least fifty pounds of the stuff here.”
“About sixty-five,” Baines answered. “It’s worth a little over twenty thousand dollars, but compared with a human life it’s nothing. Maybe it’ll help you all to get started again. Just call it payment with interest, and I’ll take it kindly if you don’t argue because I aim to leave it on this table anyway.”
As the settlers sat staring at the bag, Baines stood. “I’d like to stay with you people,” he said, “but as far as you’re concerned, I’m bad news. Incidentally, you’re wrong about this place. There is a way out over the hills up there. It’s hard to find, but that was how I got away from that band of white men I mentioned, and it’s where I’m headed now. I’d appreciate it if you’d all just sit there as you are. That may not mean much to you, but it’ll be a nice memory for me. So long, friends.”
The three Hewitt horsemen had almost got back to the main pass when the man on the left slapped his thigh, turning his head to the party leader, Prior. “Damned if I ain’t the biggest fool in all of Colorado,” he moaned.
“I won’t contradict you,” Prior answered,” but how so?”
“The hat. I just knew there was somethin’. Now I know. I wasn’t in on that card game back home, but I was only a few feet from the table. The man we’re after was wearin’ a hat I’d know anywhere – Montana peak, black, with a thin silver band. You don’t see too many of them in these parts. An’ this one had a white flash at the back, like some chemical had dropped on it. Unless I’m much mistaken, that same hat was hangin’ on a peg back yonder, right behind that feller we talked to.”
Prior groaned. “Too bad it took you so long to remember that, but better late than never. We’re going back.”
For once, the settlers of Chalca were having a joyful evening. Normally, they would have bedded down early, if only to save lamp-oil. Now there was no need for economy. Having dribbled their new wealth through their hands for a while, they had stowed it away under the bench that had hidden their departed benefactor. It was a great occasion. The last keg of whiskey had been tapped and the contents were flowing freely.
There was no warning of the last intrusion of the day, the Hewitt men having halted their horses fifty yards down trail and crept forwards on foot. Suddenly, Simmons’ door was flung open and the three men stepped in, guns drawn. Prior was in the lead. “All right,” he growled. “Where is he?”
Simmons, just returning from the kitchen, confirmed his social standing by being the first Chalca resident to overcome the collective shock and recover the power of speech. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Don’t give me that,” Prior snapped. “If you want to live through this night, you’ll tell us. We know our man was here. I guess you stowed him away, but his hat was on that peg, right beside you. Now talk.”
It was as well that the lamps were low and that Simmons was at the far end of the room. That combination concealed the flush that swept over his face. When he’d hustled Baines into the chest, neither man had thought about the hat.
Simmons, a quick-witted man, regained his poise and decided that until he got a better idea, bluster was required. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he bellowed, “but you’ve made some mistake. You might care to know that you’re disturbing our evening service. This is Sunday, in case you hadn’t noticed. Now, if you’ve lost somebody, you can look around here all you like. We’ll not stop you, but I told you before, you’re the first visitors we’ve had here in quite a while. And what’s all this about a hat?”
“Was a Montana peak, black, with a thin silver band and a white patch at the back. Hanging up there, like I said. Now see, we don’t aim to be around here all night. You” – he waggled his gun at old Dick – “rustle up a couple of lamps and be quick about it.”
The old-timer did as he was told and Prior held the population of Chalca at gunpoint while his two companions looked in every nook and cranny of the settlement. They found no trace of Howard Baines who, complete with hat, was long gone on the obscure track he’d mentioned.
When his men came back with a negative report, Prior gave Simmons a hard stare. “Just what the hell’s going on here?” he snarled.
“Only what I said,” Simmons answered. “You came in on our Sunday meeting. Now, I just might be able to help you, if you’re not too riled up to listen.”
“Well, which of you claims he saw the hat?”
“Young Bob, here,” said Prior nodding at the man on his left.
“That’s right,” Bob said. “Saw it plain as could be.”
Simmons walked over to the young fellow. “Just look me straight in the eye,” he said. “Don’t blink. Good. Again. Right, now follow my forefingers.” He moved the two digits slowly in an intricate pattern for twenty seconds, watching the man’s eyes, then nodded, strode back across the room and turned, staring at the bemused Bob. “Thank you,” he said. “It’s just as I suspected. Now, I have some knowledge of medical matters and I can tell you that unless you get some rest – and soon – you’re going to need attention. What you have is Lemaire’s disease. Some people call it dystomania.”
“First, tell me how long you’ve been hunting this fellow you mentioned.”
“Since Thursday evening.”
“And you’ve ridden long and hard?”
“Sure we have.”
Simmons nodded. “I thought as much. Lemaire’s disease is brought on by physical exertion and the victims usually get fixations. They start to see what they want to see. It might be anything, and in your case it’s the hat. You’ve been concentrating on it and if you don’t slow down, you’re going to start seeing it everywhere. Same thing happened to a man in Texas a while ago. Somebody stole a chestnut gelding from him. He rode day and night to track the man down and within seventy-two hours, every horse he saw – black, dapple, palomino or whatever – became his lost mount. He even laid claim to a bull. He just kept going and wound up in a madhouse.”
Turning his stern gaze upon Prior, Simmons went on: “Now, sir, you seem to be in charge of this party. In view of your behaviour, I don’t owe you anything, but I’m advising you to get this young man back where he belongs and see that he stays in bed for at least two weeks. If this is his first attack, the peace and quiet will probably cure him. If not, there’s no telling where it will end.”
Baffled and overawed, the Hewitt riders left Chalca. As they departed, old Dick stared at Simmons, shaking his head. “Amazin’, Pete,” he said. “I always figured you were a little ahead of the rest of us as to education, but I didn’t know you had a medical background.”
Simmons grinned. “I haven’t.”
“Well then, what was all that about this ailment, dysto-something?”
“Oh, I just made that up. Seemed to convince them, didn’t it? Now, let’s have another look at that gold.”
* * *