SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER TWENTY-ONE
Kitty Quilty leaned across a scarred deal table, her eyes shining with excitement. “Almost there,” she said. “Just think of it. Tomorrow, or the day after, we’ll have our hands on Straker’s go – ”
“That’s enough,” snapped her companion, Hiram Banks. “Loose talk here could get us killed.”
“Sorry,” Kitty whispered. “It’s just that, well, we’re so close now.”
Banks nodded. “I know how you feel, but this is a rough town, full of hard men. Why, some of them would murder you for the price of the next meal, let alone what we’re seeking.”
The two were sitting in the dingiest of the three saloons in Taylorville, and Hiram Banks was right. This was a tough place. Outlaws lounged at every corner, tolerated by a town marshal whose social and legal position was only marginally different from theirs. Banks’s assertion that some of these men would kill for eating money was an exaggeration, but only because none of the town’s inhabitants was likely to be short of funds.
Taylorville was a spot people made for when they were unwelcome almost everywhere else. Two things precluded civic collapse in the town. One was the relative affluence of its population, including as it did many men sitting on the proceeds of crimes committed in other regions. The other was the code of honour among thieves, which was strictly observed, unless the temptation to breach it became too great.
Almost any standard of behaviour was acceptable in Taylorville, the law being administered in a whimsical manner by Marshal George Watts, who owed his appointment to a self-elected council of rogues, and who intervened in the affairs of others only when it suited him. Nobody argued with him, as it was widely known that he was well connected with some very hard men in other places, who would come in and back him if need be. Also, he was a formidable fellow in his own right. He was well over six feet tall and, though carrying a considerable paunch, was a quick mover and a fearsome brawler. And on the rare occasions when his ham shank fists were insufficient, Watts was more than handy with a gun.
A week short of twenty-six years old, Kitty Quilty was small, slim and fragile-looking, with short black hair framing a narrow pale face. What she didn’t have in footage or poundage, she made up for in pluck and tenacity and it was these qualities that had brought her over a thousand miles from her home in Missouri. Kitty was the niece and last living relative of the late Jonathan Straker.
Of the desperadoes who operated alone in the West, probably none outranked Straker in the public’s perception. He had roamed over a wide area, from Wyoming down into Texas and from the Mississippi River to California. Because of his reclusive nature, much of Straker’s life had been a mystery to most people. However, it was widely believed that whatever the form of his original loot, he always converted it into gold, for which he had an abiding passion.
Straker was never overtaken by the law. Somewhere along the line, he had married quietly and lived incognito on a ranch owned by his wife, sixty miles northwest of Taylorville. He died of consumption, ironically succumbing in the very area to which sufferers of the killer disease often moved for relief. Following his demise, several unsuccessful attempts had been made to find his cache, estimated by some as being worth a quarter of a million dollars. Even his wife had professed ignorance of the whereabouts of the treasure. The unfortunate woman had died at the hands of two villains whose interrogation became too vigorous.
How the map showing the location of Straker’s gold had come into the hands of Kitty Quilty was known only to her, but she had it and her possession of it had brought her to the Southwest.
Kitty hadn’t rushed the matter, having allowed two years to elapse after Straker’s death before she made a move. Then she hired the redoubtable Hiram Banks as companion-cum-bodyguard.
It seemed a wise choice. Banks, well past fifty years of age, was a tracker, guide and hunter of legendary status. He was cautious, thorough and a rifleman of outstanding skill, as several men could have testified, had they still been alive. Most of all though, for Kitty’s purpose, Banks was incorruptible. He knew what his companion expected to find, but it never occurred to him to behave dishonourably. He was being well paid, regardless of success or failure, and that was enough for him. If he had to put his life on the line, he would do so without hesitation.
The two had travelled west by a circuitous route and were now less than thirty miles from their destination. Banks was edgy. He had hoped to avoid Taylorville, but between them, Kitty and he had five horses – two for riding and three for their baggage plus what they hoped to find. Two of the animals needed a blacksmith’s attention, which was available only in this, the one township of any size in the area.
Banks’s admonition to his companion for her loose talk had been abrupt, but not quite swift enough. Had they been sitting there in the evening, Kitty’s remark would have been lost in the buzz of conversation. But this was midday and but for the words passed between the two newcomers, the place was silent. The bartender was busying himself with some chore in the back room and apart from Kitty and Hiram, the only drinker present was Tod Wilkins, a short, scrawny man. He had seated himself in the only shadowy corner of the room, a good spot for eavesdropping. He could hardly believe his ears when he caught what Kitty said. He sat in silence for five minutes, thinking over what he had heard, then he decided to act. He would call on the professor right away. He finished his beer, rose and went out into the blistering heat. This snippet could be too good to pass up.
The professor was a far cry from being a genuine academic. His title was a local one, bestowed upon him because of his penchant for using obscure convoluted language, which usually went above the heads of most people, thus giving him the opportunity of explaining his meaning in simpler terms. He would not have stood out in more sophisticated company but here he was sufficiently erudite to convince others of his intellectual eminence.
Few people in town had ever known the professor’s real name and most of those who had known it had forgotten it, substituting the now universal sobriquet. What, if anything, the man had once done for a living was a closed book to everyone in Taylorville – there weren’t even any rumours – but he appeared to be in a comfortable position and in the three years since his arrival, he had never done or sought work. He had moved into and smartened up a tumbledown wreck of a house, hurriedly abandoned by its previous occupant, who had injudiciously offended Marshal Watts.
The professor was on good terms with most people, but did not encourage intimacy, so it was a puzzle to many that he struck up a friendship with the crude Tod Wilkins. Nevertheless, the two were as thick as thieves. The more acute observers realised that the professor, who did not normally get about much, used Wilkins as his eyes and ears around town.
Apart from a carpet bag containing clothes, the professor’s only luggage on arrival had been a tin trunk full of books and it was with this reading material that he spent most of his time, leaving town only occasionally, sometimes alone, sometimes with his unlikely bosom friend.
Wilkins sauntered along the main street to the professor’s place, his casual air designed to avoid drawing attention to himself. It didn’t work. Marshal Watts was sitting at his office desk, fingers intertwined across his abdominal hemisphere, observing life’s ebb and flow. He watched Wilkins enter the house and shortly afterwards saw the door close. That was odd, for the professor rarely cut himself off that way in daytime, especially in hot weather. “Hey, step out here,” Watts bellowed to his deputy.
Jack Halliwell interrupted his cell-cleaning duties and came into the office. “Yeah, what is it?” he asked.
“I’m goin’ to get somethin’ to eat,” said the marshal. “Just keep an eye on the professor’s place. Tod Wilkins is in there an’ they got the door shut. See how long they stay holed up. I don’t trust them two worth a damn.” With that, Watts rose, crammed on his hat and left.
Wilkins found the professor in his usual place, sitting in an easy chair drawn up to the stove he kept going year round, irrespective of conditions outdoors. Lighting one of his rank cigars, the professor nodded Wilkins to the wooden armchair provided for his visits. “Welcome, my friend,” he said, stretching his long bony body “You look positively pregnant with information.”
“What’s that?” Wilkins asked, cranking his ponderous mental machine into action.
“Never mind. The news, please?”
After making a show of peering out at the street, then closing the door, Wilkins deposited himself in the chair. “I just heard somethin’ in Dolan’s place. Could be important.” He looked round, then eased forward, unnecessarily.
“Well,” said the professor, summoning a cynical smile, “unburden yourself.”
Wilkins lit a cigarette. “Two strangers come in this mornin’. Young woman an’ an older man. I heard ’em talkin’. Woman just said somethin’ about Straker. Sounded like she was goin’ to talk about his gold. Anyway, the man shut her up quick.”
The professor considered this for a moment. “Is the woman a small, black-haired type, middle twenties, with a thin sharp face?” he asked.
Wilkins nodded. “Yeah,” he answered, deeply impressed by the professor’s concise summary. “That’s right. You know her?”
The professor nodded. “That’ll be Kitty Quilty. She’s Straker’s niece and the last one left of his family.”
“How do you know all these things?” asked Wilkins.
“I make it my business to know them. Straker married a woman named Olivia Quilty. They had no children. Olivia had a sister, Eileen, who had a daughter out of wedlock. The girl was Kitty, and because the father vanished, she kept her mother’s family name and still bears it.”
“Well, that’s news to me,” said Wilkins. “You reckon these two are after Straker’s gold, then?”
“I can’t think why else they’d be in these parts. Now look, you’ve shown yourself, so you’d better stay here. I’ll go and get a bottle of whiskey and take a look at these two. This could be interesting. You say the man shut the woman up with some asperity?”
“Never mind. Just wait.” The professor bustled off, returning five minutes later. “Well, well,” he said. “That’s Kitty Quilty all right, and the man is Hiram Banks. I saw him some years ago. This can mean only one thing.”
“What do we do then?” Wilkins asked.
The professor rubbed his hands together. “We pack a few supplies right away,” he said briskly, “and we watch these two birds. When they move, so do we.”
Marshal George Watts returned to his office after downing a hefty meal. “Anythin’ happen?” he asked his deputy.
“Yeah. Professor went to Dolan’s place, stayed maybe two minutes, then went back home with a bottle. Then Wilkins come out an’ called at Baker’s store. Got a big sack o’ supplies. A lot more than he usually buys. Went back to the professor’s place, then to the livery stable. He’s there now. I’d say their plannin’ a trip.” Halliwell, who had been standing by the window, took a seat. Normally a man who used words as though he expected invoices for them, he was exhausted by this long speech.
Marshal Watts rubbed his jaw. “Okay,” he said at length. “We watch Wilkins an’ the professor. If they leave town, I’ll be right behind them. You keep your eyes an’ ears open here.” With that, the marshal strode off to add his contribution to the sudden upturn in business at Baker’s general store, which had already supplied Hiram Banks as well as Tod Wilkins
Ezra Dodwell was a power in the land around Taylorville, his ranch covering a large area to the north and west of the town. Like the professor, he was getting on in years, rarely left his house and used an agent to keep him informed of events in the community. In his case, the agent was Joe Baker. A scuttling little mouse of a man, he was no more than Dodwell’s hireling. He ran the general store more as a service to the rancher than as a business, for the place was a good listening post and precious little happened in Taylorville that Dodwell didn’t hear of.
After serving Marshal Watts, Baker closed the store, saddled his horse and headed off to see the cattle baron. He reported the arrival of the newcomers and the interest they had aroused, mentioning his own flurry of business, including that from the marshal. The autocratic rancher dismissed Baker, pondered briefly on what he had heard, then summoned his foreman, Barney Ryan, giving him the news.
“There may be nothing to it,” he said, “but if anything happens around here, I like to know. Now, these new people came in from the South, and there’s no marked trail east or west, so unless they go back where they came from, they’ll be heading north. That would take them along our eastern flank. You’d better watch out and if you see anything interesting, follow it up. You’ll know what to do.”
“Sure, Ezra.” Ryan didn’t need detailed instructions. He was not only Dodwell’s foreman, but also a friend and confidant of many years, having been with the old man through the hard wild times, when both had done things they didn’t care to remember. Ryan would follow up all right, and if he had to do anything drastic, it wouldn’t be the first time.
It was a strange procession that left Taylorville the following morning. First, before dawn, Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks set out northwards, riding slowly and quietly, leading their pack animals, all now in good condition. Early as they were, their departure was noted by Tod Wilkins, who was taking turns with the professor at watching developments.
The first few miles of the trail ran over open country, so Wilkins and the professor had to allow their quarry a good head start. They took a leisurely breakfast, setting off in pursuit two hours after full daylight.
Just as Wilkins and the professor had been watching out, so too had Marshal George Watts. Naturally, he also had to follow at a discreet distance, so it was a further two hours before he started out. He knew that with their three riderless horses, Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks wouldn’t be breaking into any gallops and if they couldn’t, neither could Wilkins and the professor.
Half an hour before noon, Kitty and Hiram passed the line shack marking the eastern extremity of Ezra Dodwell’s land. The wooden building seemed unoccupied, which was perfect for Barney Ryan’s purpose. He had left his horse out of sight and was sitting by a window, keeping an eye on the trail.
The ground was now becoming more broken and hilly, so Wilkins and the professor were able to narrow the gap between themselves and the lead party. Marshal Watts followed suit. Knowing of the marshal’s interest, Ryan waited patiently for him to come along. Having allowed all three parties to pass, he sat smoking for a further hour, then set off after them.
Four miles beyond the line shack, the trail passed through a narrow defile before veering slightly westwards, then straightening to due north again. The rock and tree cover increased and the four parties began to bunch up, though still remaining out of sight of each other. The elongated cavalcade was a sight likely to attract the attention of anybody situated high enough to observe it, and as it happened, there was someone. Sitting on the ridge above the pass was Jethro Russell.
Even in an area with more than its fair share of scoundrels, Russell was an exceptionally bad man. There was hardly a crime in the book he had not committed. He was making his way south and his reason for not being down on the trail was that he wanted to avoid passing through Taylorville. He was particularly anxious to step around Marshal Watts, who had score to settle with him. It was an inconvenient diversion for him, but he didn’t mind too much, for his progress was aimless anyway.
Having a good vantage point was second nature to Russell. He saw Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks long before they passed below him. His curiosity aroused, he scrambled back to his horse, pulling from his bedroll an old telescope. Because Kitty had made only the minimum concessions to travel, she was clearly distinguishable as a woman. It wasn’t every day that a female on horseback was seen in this area.
Sprawling atop the rock face, Russell took a good look at the travellers. He could make nothing of what he saw, but not having anything else to do, he swept the trail and noted, well to the south, the dust raised by another party. He kept watch. As the second pair passed below, he began to tingle slightly, for he recognised Tod Wilkins, having met the ferrety little loafer during earlier visits to Taylorville.
Russell began to wonder what mission had induced the normally indolent Wilkins to take to the trail. Continuing his vigil, he soon spotted the third party heading north, and within minutes, he had made out the bulky figure of Marshal Watts. “Now that’s damn funny,” he said to himself. It seemed clear that Watts was tailing Wilkins and his companion, who in turn were following the first party, which comprised two riders and, maybe significantly, three extra animals, only one of them with a load.
Though no intellectual giant, the outlaw had his share of cunning and more than a fair ration of opportunism. He reasoned that the first party was on its way to pick up something and that the something in question was important enough to attract Wilkins and his companion and Marshal Watts. Russell had already decided to follow the procession before he scanned the trail again, noting with amazement that there was a fourth presence heading north, maintaining the same pace as the others. It seemed as though the whole of Taylorville was turning out. Russell waited, allowing Barney Ryan to pass below, then he swept the trail once more. Satisfied that there was no one else in sight, and that the matter might be worth investigating, he rejoined his horse, wound his way down to the valley floor and set off after Ryan.
Now there were five parties involved, four of them tracking Kitty Quilty and Hiram Banks, each pursuer aware of all those ahead and unaware of any behind. Even in this more rugged country, concealment was problematical and in order for it to be effective, the whole train was strung out over a twelve-mile stretch.
Having paused only briefly since their early start, Kitty and Hiram made camp before dusk. Now, almost within sight of their goal, they moved quietly, ate cold food didn’t make a fire. The other parties all followed suit, moving in upon each other as closely as prudence permitted.
Anxious for the final act, Kitty and Hiram set out at dawn of what promised to be another day of searing heat. According to Kitty’s map, Straker’s hoard was just over a mile from the trail, in a line directly west of a rightward kink in the beaten path. It was buried midway between two low bushes, fifty-five feet due north of an iron rod, driven deep into the ground at the edge of a huge boulder on which a cross was carved.
The landmarks were there all right, but Banks didn’t like the exposed position. He cursed the dead bandit for not choosing a better spot. Straker could have done so, for there was plenty of cover here and the stone’s throw in every direction from the legendary cache was the only more or less open space around. It was this fact that enabled the followers to close in upon the spot, and each other. There was now less than a mile covering all five parties.
Leaving their horses in the nearest shade, Kitty and Hiram took a pick and shovel, he doing the heavy work while she helped as well as she could. It went quickly. In less than half an hour, Banks’ pick struck the lid of what proved to be a large metal trunk. Kitty’s heart leapt at the thought of being minutes away from becoming a very rich woman. Banks spent a further ten minutes loosening the ground, then grunted his satisfaction. “You stay here,” he said. “I’ll fetch a horse to haul this thing out.”
By this time, all the following parties had found suitable lookout positions. Wilkins and the professor were lying flat behind the top of a hillock, monitoring the activities of Kitty and Hiram. George Watts was slightly further away, scrunched behind a rock, watching both the excavations and Wilkins and the professor. Barney Ryan was viewing the other five from a fork in one of a small stand of trees, and Jethro Russell was ten yards to Ryan’s rear, keeping everyone under surveillance.
Someone had to make a move. Ryan decided that he had better be ready for whatever might happen. He clambered down, dangled for a moment from a low branch, then dropped, whereupon the fast-moving Russell leapt upon him from behind, cutting his throat.
Ryan died quietly, his brief gurgle not noticed by anyone but Russell, who regarded the killing as merely a step in the process of getting the odds right. Next, the bandit would deal with Marshal Watts – he owed the pseudo-lawman that anyway. Then he would eliminate Tod Wilkins and his partner, leaving only the woman and the old galoot who was riding with her. Russell didn’t give a hoot about disposing of these further obstacles to what just might be a worthwhile outcome, while a negative result of any butchery would not trouble his leathery conscience.
It was the professor who was responsible, albeit accidentally, for the next scene in the unfolding horror. To assist his weakening eyesight, he had produced a pair of spectacles and it was the glint from these that caught the attention of Hiram Banks, who turned and, with feigned nonchalance, strolled over to Kitty. She looked askance at him. “I thought you were bringing a horse, Hiram?”
“Just keep on looking busy,” Banks muttered. “We’re being watched. I’ll try to get behind whoever it is.” He tramped back towards the horses, while Kitty continued clearing loose earth from around the trunk.
Tod Wilkins made the next move. “Come on, quick,” he snapped to the professor. “We’ll get the woman. Banks won’t dare to interfere if we have her.” He led the way and within seconds, the two of them had scurried back to their horses and mounted. They came hurtling around the hillock and covered the short distance to Kitty Quilty in a few seconds. She was near-paralysed with surprise and fright as the two men thundered towards her.
Banks had just reached his horse when he heard the drumming hooves. Turning, he took in the situation quickly, grabbed his rifle and scrambled behind a clump of bushes.
At this point, Marshal Watts decided to take a hand. Judging that there wasn’t enough time to reach his horse, he emerged from cover and ran towards the group around the trunk. That wasn’t a wise move, as the dangerous Hiram Banks was well separated from the other three, and not fully in sight. Wilkins and the professor had dismounted and begun their intended abduction of Kitty, the idea being to first seize her and use her as a shield against any possible shooting from Banks.
The marshal bellowed at Wilkins to drop his weapon, and at the professor, who wasn’t yet holding a gun, to stand still. Wilkins might have chosen to resist, but seeing Watts’s rock-steady pistol he complied meekly, as did the professor.
While all this was going on, Jethro Russell had closed in. He was now in a fairly safe position, lying in a small hollow, a hundred yards south of the group around the trunk, while Banks was about the same distance away to the north.
It was the professor who, again inadvertently, induced what followed. He reached into a pocket, intending to pull out a handkerchief. Assuming that he was going for a gun, Marshal Watts swung his own weapon to face the danger. Wilkins, ten feet away from the professor, took a chance, bending to grab his own gunplay impending, Hiram Banks decided that he could wait no longer. He started shooting. Kitty Quilty screamed and threw herself into the hole, alongside the trunk. It was a wise move, probably saving her from being killed in the mayhem, which was brief. George Watts shot the professor in the head and, an instant after doing that, he took a bullet in the throat from Wilkins, who a second later was cut down by a shot to the heart from Hiram Banks.
Noting that Kitty had dived to safety, her guide made sure of things by slamming six further bullets into the three corpses. He was still unaware of the presence of Jethro Russell, who had seen no need to take part in these latest proceedings.
Banks, being a cautious man, allowed three minutes to pass before walking over to the sprawled bodies. Kitty had by then raised her head to take in the scene. Banks checked over the fallen men. “All dead,” he said, in the flat tones of a man who’d seen such things before.
“What do we do with them?” asked Kitty.
“Nothing. I’ll pull ’em over to one side and leave ’em. Buzzards have to eat too.” He moved the bodies, then set off once more to fetch a horse. He now had his back to Jethro Russell and was increasing the distance between them with each step. Russell was an excellent shot and wouldn’t get a better chance. The first bullet did it, hitting Banks high in the back of his head. He was dead before hitting the ground. Kitty looked on in astonishment as Russell appeared, striding towards her, rifle at the ready. “Who are you?” she said.
“Never mind,” Russell snarled. “What’s in that box?”
Kitty seemed utterly resigned. “I can’t stop you finding out now,” she said. “It’s Jonathan Straker’s gold. I’m his niece.”
“That’s interestin’. We’d better haul the goods out an’ see what’s what. You ain’t armed, are you?”
“Of course not,” Kitty replied. “I hate guns. They’re horrible things.”
Russell summoned his horse with a whistle. He moved it into position, set down his rifle, tied his lariat to the trunk and used the animal to haul Straker’s long-lost hoard out of the hole. That done, he wiped a hand across his face and smiled. “Now we’ll have a little look-see,” he said.
“I think not, sir. You’ve been quite helpful enough.” The sudden hard edge to Kitty Quilty’s voice made Russell turn. He found himself looking at the two barrels of a Derringer which Kitty had produced from somewhere in her riding skirt. He went for his side-arm and she promptly shot him once through the heart, keeping her second bullet, just in case. It wasn’t needed. The outlaw died as unpleasantly as he had lived. Grunting and gasping, he tottered a few steps, hand on his undrawn gun, then fell backwards.
Though he was flat on the ground and drawing his last breath, Russell was driven by ingrained reaction. With his final spasm, he fired a single bullet from the open-ended holster. It could have gone anywhere. Kitty Quilty felt the impact on her right heel and her leg folded under her. Moaning, she tried to get up. It took two painful minutes for her to realise the extent of her misfortune. Russell’s last act, though obviously not intentional, had been among the ugliest of his evil life. His shot had severed Kitty’s Achilles’ tendon. She wouldn’t walk again. It wasn’t long before she recalled the stories she had read about this being a punishment meted out by some of the tribes who had lived around here. The captives were incapacitated in the way she now was, then left to crawl around in the desert until the inevitable end.
Even in this desperate state, Kitty hauled herself over to the trunk. Finding it unlocked, she pushed up the lid. Inside was a collection of stones, atop which was an envelope, which she tore open. The single piece of paper inside bore a pencilled message. Kitty read:
To the Finder,
Don’t believe all you hear about bandits. I stole no more than twelve thousand dollars in my life and gambled every cent away. I live courtesy of my wife’s fortune, such as it is, and I’ll die without a penny to my name.
Late the following afternoon, a small hunting party of Indians encountered the scene. The shock, the disappointment, the violent ending and the pitiless sun had done their work. Kitty Quilty was hunkered down by the trunk, rocking, raving and babbling in delirium, her slender hands bloody from repeated beating and scrabbling at the trunk and the rocks.
Somehow, through her misery, Kitty saw the hunters and in a flash of lucidity, screamed for help. The men were not hostile to white people and ordinarily would have obliged. But in common with so many of their kind, they had a deep awe and fear of what they perceived as insanity. For a few minutes, they muttered among themselves, then rode off, leaving Kitty to the heat – and the gathering birds.
* * *