SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THIRTY-THREE
The events described in the closing paragraphs of the following story are known only because they were recorded by the protagonist. Owing to certain limitations imposed by his personality, plus his use of a blunt pencil and very coarse paper, it has been necessary for slight liberties to be taken with respect to a few words. However, there is no reason to question the accuracy of the account, which came to light as the result of a search organised by one Herbert Stebbins, attorney-at-law.
Following the death of his father, Simon Long was left in a strange position. Though he had become a wealthy man, he was no less mentally handicapped than before. In different circumstances, he might have received remedial attention, but the environment of the sparsely populated West in those days was not always conducive to such refinements. It wasn’t that people were uncaring, but rather that almost everyone needed to use virtually all their physical and psychological resources just to stay alive. Hardly anybody had surplus time or energy to deal with a problem as knotty as Simon’s mind.
Jacob and Alice Long had decided that their son’s affliction had been visited upon him – and them – because of their imagined sins in earlier lifetimes. In fact, they were thoroughly decent people. They saw Simon’s condition as their burden and no concern of anyone else. Also, they rejected the idea of seeking medical help, fearing that such a step might see their son consigned to some far-distant institution – a thought that filled them with horror.
Most townsfolk made allowances for Simon. They knew that he was not as they were and treated him accordingly, though it was noted that whatever his shortcomings, he did at times exhibit a certain low cunning. Unfortunately for Simon, there were enough of the other kind around; people who considered it not only legitimate but almost a duty to make fun of him, as though he had been placed among them for their entertainment. They did it in a variety of ways, ranging from merely unpleasant to downright dangerous.
As long as Simon’s parents were alive, his existence, though distressing to him, was just about tolerable. There was someone to turn to when he was being pestered, an arm to go round his big beefy shoulders and a kind word to console him when the tormenting was too severe. But first his mother died. That happened when he was twenty-one. Then, three years later, his father went too and Simon, as an only child with no other relations, was left alone.
He wasn’t helpless. A big, strong man, a inch or so over six feet in height and built like an ox, he was capable enough in terms of physical work, not that he was required to indulge in it if he did not want to, for he had no need to make a living. This came about as a result of his parents’ own inheritance, plus their shrewdness in commercial affairs. Well-off from early in life, they had prospered further by a series of successful investment decisions.
Before he died, Simon’s father had been seriously ill for over a year. Seeing the end coming and knowing that Simon was incapable of dealing with commercial matters, Jacob Long had liquidated his assets, in order to provide for his son in as simple a way as possible. His demise left Simon with the family home and bank balance sufficient to keep him in luxury for life. However, possibly on account of the severity of his own illness and the rapidity of his decline, Jacob made no provision for his son in the wider social context. After he passed on, nothing shielded Simon from the taunting and practical jokes which continued to come his way as youngsters passed on the sport to their junior siblings.
For a short while after his father’s death, Simon received visits from the more kindly disposed neighbours, but the frequency of their calls dwindled steadily, for he was anything but stimulating company. Gradually, he became a virtual recluse, seldom leaving his home. He wasn’t missing much, for other than what took place in the two saloons, there was little social life in the town. That more or less left Simon out, as he seldom indulged in alcoholic drink.
For two lonely and distressing years, Simon occupied himself by pottering around his house and garden. When he couldn’t find anything more to do, he usually sat in a wooden armchair on the porch, drinking water or apple juice, waiting for another day to end, hoping the baiters would leave him in peace. He seemed to be impervious to heat or cold and regardless of the weather, never wore anything over one of his thick wool shirts.
On the opposite side of town to Simon’s house, Ned Benson and Alvin Swain lived together in Benson’s split-log cabin. Nobody knew quite what to make of this pair. Like Simon, Benson had been born and raised in the area. Also, in the same way as Simon, he had inherited his father’s fortune, though in his case there had been precious little of it, comprising as it did a plot of untended hardscrabble land, largely taken up by a huge rock formation rising incongruously from the surrounding plain. Benson had not lived there since his adolescence, the only property on the land being a tumbledown shack that had been home to his parents.
Swain was a little more puzzling. He had drifted into the area, ostensibly as an old friend of Benson’s, moved into the cabin and shared it with his host for three years. The two became inseparable. At times they disappeared together for periods ranging from two weeks to a month.
The mystery concerning Benson and Swain arose from their mode of life, for neither of them ever indulged in anything as commonplace as work. Yet they seemed to get by – and not on a mere survival basis. Almost every evening they could be found drinking in the Polestar saloon, always playing cards. Most of the time they fared badly, often losing sums large enough to discourage the average small-time gambler. But they were never out of funds. That was odd.
It was this very matter of finances that occupied the two men as they sat by the pot-bellied stove in Benson’s place one chilly September morning, ceaselessly rolling and smoking cigarettes, tossing the makings to and fro between them. The subject had been brought up by Swain, a small slim man with a pale narrow face and dark evasive eyes. Having deposited the problem with his intellectual superior, he sat back to await developments.
Ned Benson had been pondering on the question for some time. In addition to being the thinker in the partnership, he was physically the more prepossessing of the pair. At thirty-one, he was two years Swain’s junior. A little over medium height and solidly built, he had fair wavy hair, an ingratiating smile and a pair of remarkably innocent-looking blue eyes. The facade masked a devious mind. Also, taken together with his earlier record of youthful recklessness, it gave him a reputation as a more or less innocuous scapegrace. That suited him perfectly.
“You’re right,” he said when Swain raised the point. “As it happens, I’ve been giving that a good deal of thought lately and I believe I have the answer.”
“Well, I wish you’d tell me what it is,” said Swain. “The roll we got left won’t keep us much longer.”
Benson laughed. “Al, your trouble is you have to have a situation right in front of you, then you react well enough. But maybe you ought to try your hand at a little thinking now and then.” Having made this suggestion, Benson immediately reconsidered it. “Then again, maybe you shouldn’t,” he grinned.
“Never mind what I ought to do,” Swain rapped back. “What about this thinkin’ you’ve been doin’?”
Benson tossed a cigarette butt into the stove, crooked his finger for return of the tobacco sack and, catching it, lounged back in his chair, resting his right ankle on his left knee. “Well, “ he said. “I see it this way. We’ve been together for quite a time and what have we done? I’ll remind you. We’ve robbed two stagecoaches, one freight office and one train and altogether we’ve picked up enough to last us until now and maybe for a couple of months more. See, what we’ve being doing is penny ante stuff. That’s not right for a couple of high-class gents like us. What we need is one big deal to set us up for good, or for a few years anyway.”
“It don’t take a genius to figure that out,” Swain answered. “If you’ve dreamed up a job, let’s get down to it.”
“Don’t rush me,” said Benson. “Just think about this. If you want to get hold of a lot of money, where do you look?” He chuckled at Swain’s blank stare. “You seek somebody who has it. And who has it around here? Nobody but Simon Long.”
“Simon,” Swain shouted. “Are you serious? He don’t play with a full deck.”
Benson was enjoying himself. “Oh,” he said, “I grant you that when it comes to brains, Simon doesn’t run more than fifty cents in the dollar, but there’s no doubt he’s the richest man in these parts. The Longs were already loaded with money before they came here and they went on doing well. It’s common knowledge that Jacob sold up and from the figuring I’ve done and rumours I’ve heard, I reckon he was worth at least forty thousand dollars and maybe even fifty thousand. Everything went to Simon and it’s sitting right there, in the bank.”
“What? All that cash?”
“Of course not. They don’t keep such amounts in a small bank. Most likely they’ve laid it off with the big boys somehow. There’ll just be a credit balance here.”
“I wish you’d quit talkin’ in riddles,” snapped Swain. “How does that do us any good?”
Benson sighed. “Al, if your mind was as quick as your trigger-finger, maybe you could help out a little with the planning around here. Anyway, what we do is offer Simon a proposition that persuades him, all legal and above board, to pass his funds, or most of them, over to us.”
Swain harrumphed. “An’ just how do we do that?” Benson explained his idea, Swain’s eyes getting wider and his smile craftier as the scheme unfolded. When Benson was through, his partner sat back, profoundly impressed. “I got to hand it to you,” he said in awe. “If it works, it sure is a beauty. Do you think he’ll really swallow it?”
Ned Benson shrugged. “We can only try,” he said. “Look at it this way. If he doesn’t, we’ll be no worse off than we are now. If he does, we’ll be rich. The only problem is, we need a stake to get the thing going. What the businessmen call starting capital.”
“An’ I suppose you got that figgered out too?”
“I think so. Since we’re on the subject of banking, you remember that little one-storey sardine can we looked at down in Colorado a while back?”
Swain nodded. “Yeah. Seemed real easy.”
Benson rubbed his hands together. “Well,” he said briskly, “I think it’s time we paid it a visit.”
Four weeks later, the bank Benson had mentioned was robbed. Tellers reported that the culprits were two masked men, one above average height and blue-eyed, the other small and thin, with dark shifty eyes. The incident happened early on a Friday morning, when the bank was holding either takings or payrolls for most of the local businesses. The loss was just over six thousand dollars.
It was a further three weeks before Benson and Swain returned to Montana and after ten days bustling around Helena, they finally headed back to Benson’s place. During their travels, they had spent over five thousand dollars and had received in return a fair quantity of high-grade gold ore, some dust and a few genuine nuggets of the metal and a tiny quantity of industrial diamonds. The whole pile didn’t seem all that much to Swain, but Benson reckoned it was enough. The pair employed themselves for a further week on the first hard physical work either had done for some time, then they were ready.
Simon Long was a very surprised man when Ned Benson called on him one evening in November. To avoid attracting attention, Benson had left his horse at the livery stable in town, waiting until full darkness before making his way, unseen by anyone, to the Long house. He found Simon sitting on the porch, unperturbed as ever by the cold. Benson strode up, smiling. “Hello there, Simon,” he said, the essence of joviality. “Haven’t seen you for a while.”
Though he was mystified by the visit, Simon had no quarrel with Benson who, unlike so many others, had never troubled him. “Hello Ned,” he said. “Thought you was out of town.”
“Yes,” Benson replied, “I’ve been away a few weeks. That’s what I’d like to talk to you about, if you can spare a little time. Can we go inside?”
“Oh, I always got plenty of time,” said Simon. “Come on in.” He led the way, motioning to his visitor to take an easy chair and depositing himself in its mate. “What do you want, Ned?” he said.
Benson closed the door and looked around cautiously. “We alone, Simon?” he whispered.
“Sure we are. Nobody comes around here any more.”
Benson settled back in his chair. “Well, I’m right sorry to hear that, Simon,” he said, his voice oozing candour. “I’d have called more often myself, only I’ve been real busy lately. That’s what I wanted to talk about. See Simon, I have a problem and I reckon you may be the only man who can help me.”
The idea of being considered as of possible assistance to anyone was a rare thing for Simon. He began to rock back and forth indicating how thrilled and excited he was to be sought out in this way. “Me?” he said. “What use could I be to you?”
Benson went smoothly into the routine he had been practising. “Well, it’s like this, Simon. You know that hill on my land?”
“Sure I do. Used to play there, if you remember.”
“Right. Well, you’ve been in that cave near the east corner. Now, I’ve been working in there for a good while and can you guess what I found?”
“I’ve no idea, Ned. What was it?”
“Just about everything, Simon, but mostly gold and diamonds.” Amazement and delight spread over Simon’s face. “Well, that’s good for you. I guess you’re rich, then,”
Benson spread his hands, palms outward. “In a way, Simon,” he said. “But it’s not that simple. See, the main reason I’ve been away is that I was visiting doctors. I’ve had a lot of trouble with my heart and they say I can’t work any more. So here I am, sitting on a fortune and I can’t do a thing about getting it out.”
Simon looked puzzled. “You got a friend,” he said. “Can’t he help?”
“I sent him away,” Benson replied quickly. “It’s true he’s a friend of sorts and maybe I’ll take up with him again when this is all over, but to tell the truth, I don’t think I can trust him as far as business is concerned.”
“Couldn’t you get somebody else to work it?” said Simon.
“That’s just the point. I have no money to pay anybody. And anyway, even if I could do that, they’d never keep quiet. Why, we’d have a gold rush here, and you know what that means. People getting shot and stabbed and suchlike. No, Simon, this has to be done without fuss or noise.”
Simon’s pleasure was wiped away, replaced by a glum expression. He could sympathise with people in trouble. “Well, what can I do, Ned?” he asked.
Benson was now thoroughly immersed in his tale. “It’s like this, Simon,” he said, again looking round warily. “I’ve got an uncle down Tennessee way. He has a big plantation with a lot of people to do the work for him. He’s nearly seventy now and he wants to sell up. Aims to spend some time doing the things he’s always had in mind. His place is worth eighty thousand dollars, easy. Now, I’m his only living kin and he’ll let me have it for half-price, but he says I have to close the deal pronto, or he’ll have to sell to somebody else for what it’s really worth.”
Simon, his excitement mounting, crossed his arms, kneading his biceps. “That sounds like good news for you, Ned, but what do you want with me?”
“I’m not really sure, Simon,” Benson answered, “but I reckon there aren’t many men a fellow can confide in these days. Now, I’m not greedy. If I can fix myself up with enough to get by on, that’ll do for me. I just wondered whether maybe you’d like to buy my place, so I could take up my uncle’s offer. That way I’d get the plantation for half its real value, I’d have other people to do the work for me, and you’d get the mine, which might be worth twenty times what you’d pay for it. ’Course, we’d have to do it real confidential, between the two of us. I reckoned maybe you’d like to come out with me and take a look. Seems to me there must be somewhere near a million dollars there, one way or another.”
Simon agreed about the need for silence. After his visitor left, he spent a restless night. The next morning he went out to Benson’s place early. He found the diamonds and the gold ore, carefully planted by the two schemers. He was as happy as he ever had been. The prospect of doing something interesting and productive was enticing, especially as, the way Benson had explained it, Simon could do all the work himself, using only the most rudimentary equipment.
There was no stopping Simon. He went along with Benson to see the bank manager and the Long family’s lawyer, Herbert Stebbins. Mindful of his vow of confidentiality, Simon remained close-mouthed. He wanted Benson’s land. He had plans for it, which he wouldn’t divulge, and he was willing to pay forty thousand dollars. There was no legal way of preventing Simon from doing as he wished. His funds – as it happened, almost exactly the sum Benson had guessed – were available to him to use as he pleased. Demur as they would, there was ultimately nothing that the bank manager or the lawyer could do about the matter and the deal went through.
Simon moved into the dilapidated shack near the treasure cave and set his brawn to the task of extracting a fortune from his newly-purchased land. He worked like a man possessed. All through the winter he never let up, not even when lawyer Stebbins rode up in January to tell him that some boys had burned his house to the ground, ‘just for fun’. He didn’t even slow down when he emerged from the cave one evening to find that the lean-to behind the shack, where he’d kept the hoard he and Benson had ostensibly found on that first day, had been looted. Diamonds, gold dust and nuggets were gone. Benson had handed the items to him as a sign of good faith, but in a last cruel refinement, had returned and stolen them.
By springtime, all Simon had to show for a winter of backbreaking toil was a part of the ore he had seen before buying the land. But even a man so intellectually circumscribed as he was is not necessarily precluded having a brainwave from time to time, and he did. He asked his lawyer to send off to Helena, to bring in a mine surveyor.
Tom Archer was as good as they came. He spent nearly a week boring, drilling, blasting, assaying and generally poking around. Finally he sat down with Simon, his face grim. “Mr Long,” he said. “You say you bought this land because the previous owner convinced you of its value by showing you this ore here and the other things you mentioned?”
Simon nodded and Archer continued: “Well, I’m very sorry to tell you that you’ve been swindled. It’s none of my business to ask what you paid for this place, but I can assure you that, as regards mineral resources, it’s worthless. This is as plain a case of mine-salting as I’ve ever seen.”
Simon was stunned, knowing that this was bad news, but still not sure what had happened. Archer went on: “It’s an old story. This man who sold you the mine, possibly along with the accomplice you mentioned, planted the stuff you found here at first and that’s all there ever was, or ever will be. If you’d really wanted this land, you could have picked it up for next to nothing. It’s happened often enough before and guess it’ll happen again. You’ve been robbed, Mr Long, and there’s not much you can do about it. My guess is that the same party who tricked you also came back and stole the diamonds and the gold, since nobody else would have known about them.”
Promising a written report within week, Archer departed, leaving Simon, alone and friendless, staring gloomily at the flames of the stove. Now, with the destruction of his house added to Benson’s deception, he was also near penniless. It was as low a point as a man might expect to reach. Simon reflected long and hard on his situation, giving particular attention to the observation that there was not much he could do about it.
Three days after Archer had delivered his verbal report on the fake mine, Ned Benson and Alvin Swain were sitting in the Polestar saloon, drinking the best the house had to offer, when the swing doors were flung open and an excited Simon Long rushed in. A look of alarm spread across Benson’s face, while Swain’s right hand strayed instinctively to where the butt of his handgun would have been, had he carried the weapon in town. Then both men saw that Simon was smiling broadly as he reached them and sat heavily on a vacant chair.
“Hello, Simon,” said Benson, forcing a grin. “Haven’t seen you for quite a spell.”
Simon regained his breath. “I’ve been busy, boys. Anyway, I thought you was away down to Tennessee.”
“Oh, that,” said Benson, with feigned disgust, perfected in case the occasion for it arose. “To tell you the truth, Simon, I was taken in. We were all set up for the deal and my uncle let me down. Sold his place to another fellow for the full price. Left me high and dry. I’m pretty sore about it.”
“I’m awful sorry to hear that, Ned,” said Simon. “Specially as I got some other news for you.”
“Oh, what is it?”
Simon looked around, his face the epitome of craftiness. He was making sure that nobody was within earshot. Satisfied, he leaned forward conspiratorially. “Can I talk with him here?” he asked, sticking a thumb in Swain’s direction.
“Sure,” Benson replied. “Al knows all about this whole thing now.”
“Well,” Simon said, “I guess you missed out on a real big one.” He tapped his nose with a forefinger. “I worked for months on that there mine an’ it’s a good deal better than you said.”
Benson and Swain looked at Simon then at each other, momentarily speechless with amazement. Then Benson recovered his equanimity. “Well, I’m very pleased for you, Simon,” he said. “What did you find?”
“Gold,” said Simon. “More than you reckoned. More than I ever heard of. I got a top surveyor over from Helena an’ he reckons there’s maybe ten million dollars worth. ’Course, I can’t sell the place back to you now, but I thought you’d like to take a look at what you missed.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Benson gasped. “Sure, Simon. We’ll come along. Drink up, Al.”
The three men went out to the cave, Simon burbling on all the while about how the richest ore ever known could be pulled out by the handful. They stopped at the shack, where he picked up a lantern, then they entered the cave, now extended by the winter of toil. “Just a minute, boys,” said Simon as they reached the innermost point. “I’ll bring my pick, then you’ll see.” He trotted back to the entrance, fumbled around for a moment, then returned with the tool. “Now this’ll surprise you,” he said, picking up the lantern.
It was clear that this was where Simon had concentrated his efforts. For most of the way in from the entrance, he had simply excavated a long narrow tunnel. Here at the end, he had attacked the sides, so the three men were standing in what was effectively a chamber, around ten feet square and seven feet high.
Simon set the lantern down on a rock and waved an arm about him. “Take a good look, boys,” he said gleefully.
The two miscreants poked at the walls for a good five minutes, finding nothing of interest. Unable to comprehend Simon’s exuberance, Benson shrugged his shoulders and stared at him. “Well,” he said, “maybe you see something we don’t. Where is the stuff?”
At that moment, Swain stiffened. “What’s that?” he said.
“What do you mean?” Simon asked in turn.
“That hissin’ noise. You got rattlers or somethin’ in here?”
“Oh, that,” Simon replied airily. “No. It’s the fuse.”
“Fuse?” said Benson sharply, a tremor of alarm running through him. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m just doing a little blasting,” Simon replied.” “It’ll only be a couple of seconds.”
In fact it was six seconds. With a shattering roar, the massive charge of dynamite exploded, then came the crash of falling rock. The air filled with dust and fragments, then there was a moment of silence before Benson, his face thunderous in the flickering lantern light, turned on Simon. “What the hell have you done?” he bawled.
“Worked good, didn’t it?” said Simon chirpily. “Now we’re stuck here an’ there’s close to a thousand tons of rock between us and the outside. I checked that with the surveyor feller.” He sat down calmly on the cave floor.
“Simon, are you crazy?” Swain bellowed.
“’Course I am,” Simon answered blandly. “Everybody knows that.”
“You maniac,” yelled Benson. “We’ll die in here.”
“That’s right,” said Simon. “Got the drop on you this time, didn’t I, boys?”
Swain looked frantically around the sealed chamber, dimly lit by the lantern. “What in tarnation do you mean, you got the drop on us?” he screamed. “You’ll go, too.”
“Sure I will,” said Simon, completely cool, “but it’s like this. When you’re a loony, life’s not much fun. Whether you’re rich or poor, folks still make your life a misery. Now, you fellers are right in the head and you could have had a real good time with the money you got from me with that trick you played. So the way I see it, when we peg out here, sometime tonight, you’ll be saying goodbye to a better life than I will. See, I fooled you.”
* * *