OUT WEST : NUMBER FOUR
It was a cool, overcast late September day in the mountains of Colorado. Having just finished a breakfast of bacon and beans, a man was saddling his horse, ready to set out for a destination not yet known to him. He had made cold camp the previous night and now he looked around, wondering what direction to take. There was no well-used trail nearby, but he saw a faint track leading due south. ‘Might as well try that way as any other,’ he muttered to his mount.
After nearly three hours of plodding progress, the rider consulted his pocket watch, noting that it was almost noon. Five minutes later he negotiated a slight kink in the track and saw straight ahead of him a town of sorts, comprising a single street, lined with about a dozen buildings on either side.
As the man drew closer, he saw that the place seemed largely abandoned. All the structures were of severely weather-beaten timber and most were clearly unoccupied. The only one that showed any obvious sign of life was a saloon, outside which five horses stood hitched. The newcomer tethered his own animal along with the others, clumped up onto a rickety boardwalk and pushed open the swing doors. Behind the bar stood a tall thin fellow. There were five patrons, all seated at one table, playing poker, one of them muttering something to the others.
When the doors opened, the speaker stopped talking and all eyes turned to the newcomer. He was given no indication of welcome. There were only stares, all of which seemed to combine curiosity and hostility. The stranger walked to the bar and ordered a beer, which he received without a word from the barman. A few minutes passed in silence, then, as he was about to finish his drink and depart, one of the card players grunted: ‘You lookin’ for somethin’ or somebody, mister?’
The stranger shook his head. ‘No. Can’t say that I am.’
‘On your way to somewhere in particular, are you?’
Another head shake. ‘No. Can’t say that I am.’
From the looks he was receiving, the stranger sensed that these men were determined to have some fun at his expense, and maybe even something beyond that. Their spokesman went on: ‘We don’t get many men callin’ on us, casual like. Mind lettin’ us know who you are?’
This was a flagrant breach of etiquette, but the stranger merely stared at his interrogater for a moment, then replied: ‘I can’t do that.’
That was meat and drink to the local fellow. He grinned unpleasantly. ‘You’re a real ‘can’t’ man, ain’t you?’
The stranger shrugged. ‘Sorry if that’s a problem for you, but it’s a bigger one for me.’
That provoked the interlocutor further.’ How about we just do somethin’ to loosen your tongue?’ he growled. Waving his cronies to their feet, he went on: ‘A little exercise might do us good.’ The men moved forwards, hemming the stranger in with his back to the bar. A look of alarm spread across his face. He was a big fellow, a couple of inches over six feet in height and scaling about two hundred and ten pounds, but five against one hardly seemed like a fair fight.
As if the odds against the newcomer were not already overwhelming, the bartender took a hand. ‘This feller looks real tough,’ he chuckled. ‘Guess I should soften him up, so he won’t be too hard for you boys to handle.’ He picked up a mallet he used when handling beer kegs – and awkward customers – and whacked the stranger on the back of his head.
The blow had quite an effect, but not the intended one. The stranger didn’t fall, or even wobble, nor did he rub the offended spot behind his left ear. He simply stood still for a few seconds, then his previously lustreless eyes took on a fiery gleam and he smiled broadly. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘this doesn’t seem to be your lucky day.’
With a speed that astonished his would-be assailants the stranger took a long stride to his left, shot out both arms simultaneously, delivering straight jabs to the throats of the two men nearest to him. As they began to gasp and choke, he reached out his open hands and clapped their heads together with a resounding crack. They reeled away, one falling unconscious to the floor, the other dropping onto his backside, then slumping back to thump his head against the bar’s foot rail.
Instantly the stranger turned his attention to his three remaining adversaries. Lashing out with his left foot, he kicked the nearest man’s feet from under him and chopped the side of his neck with a bladed left hand. The two remaining locals seemed almost too bemused to take any action at all, so the stranger made short work of them, thudding his right foot into the crotch of one and felling the other with a head-butt between the eyes.
Finally, the bartender got what he deserved. Ignoring the fact that the man was still holding his mallet, the stranger thrust out a long arm, grabbed a handful of shirt, pulled the fellow halfway across the bar and broke his nose with an elbow. The barman went down backwards, crashing against a shelf and bringing a dozen bottles to the floor.
With his burst of whirlwind action, the stranger had downed all six men in under two minutes. For a further three minutes or so he stood, watching the writhings and groanings of those who had retained their senses, then the local worthies’ spokesman got to his feet. The stranger took up an aggressive stance and bunched his large fists, but the mouthy fellow held up a hand, palm outwards. ‘No need for that’, he said. ‘You licked us fair and square an’ I don’t reckon we want to take any more.’ One by one, his companions stood up, all looking distinctly groggy.
The stranger nodded. ‘Okay, I don’t intend to dish out anything that isn’t necessary. The fact is, you boys were overmatched.’
‘What?’ exclaimed one of the other men. All of us together?’
‘That’s right,’ the stranger replied. ‘I’ve taken on similar odds a few times. It’s not unusual for me to clear out a saloon pretty quickly.’
‘Mister,’ said the man whose earlier words had caused the fracas, ‘I sure would love an explanation, an’ I guess my friends would too. I mean, why didn’t you just answer my questions. Where do you come from an’ who the hell are you?’
The stranger smiled. ‘I’ll answer you now. I said I couldn’t tell you my name. That was true when I arrived here. Three days ago, I tripped over a tree root and banged my head against a rock. When I came to, I’d lost my memory. Didn’t know who I was, where I’d come from or where I was going. I’ve been wandering around in that state since then. When your barman hit me, everything suddenly came back. As to where I’m from, I live north of here, up Cheyenne way. I’m heading south to see a cousin. With regard to who I am, my name is Steve Rawlings. I’m pretty well known where I come from. Folks there call me Brawling Rawlings. They say I’m the fightingest man in the West.’
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