SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER EIGHT
Trapper Jerry Cobb, squinting through watery morning sunlight, just managed to make out the faded lettering on the weather-worn signboard, leaning around twenty degrees from the perpendicular. The legend informed him that he had reached the community of Abundance, Idaho, population one hundred and ninety-four, elevation three thousand seven hundred feet.
Jerry had just spent three months far south of his normal haunts, visiting an old friend who had been sick, helping out around the little cattle spread until the rancher was able to handle his chores again. Now the mountain man was heading back north by a route new to him, returning to his shack in the Bitterroot range, intent on resuming his normal life, hunting, trapping and generally fending for himself.
The fact that he was an anachronism was not lost upon Jerry Cobb. He lived much as many men had done decades earlier, but few still did. Now thirty-seven years old, he was hoping to continue pursuing his solitary course indefinitely. He wasn’t blind to the fact that his lonely, exposed existence might eventually present problems – what does a loner do if his faculties fail? – but he had no intention of dealing with exigencies before they arose.
Owing to the unfamiliar work, Jerry had found his spell of cow-punching strenuous and he was glad to be on his way back to the only place he considered home – insofar as he thought of a home at all. He had been proceeding slowly until twenty-four hours earlier, when he had met two men heading south and had learned from them that snow was already falling further north. There was now some urgency, if he was to complete his journey without undue discomfort. Still, there was time enough to stock up with a few supplies. He headed for the livery stable, arranging for his horse to be fed and groomed. “Okay if I leave my plunder?” he asked the hostler.
“No trouble at all,” the man answered. “Make sure you shuck the rifle. Marshal Waddilove don’t like folks wanderin’ around with firearms. He’s got things peaceful an’ aims to keep ’em that way.”
Jerry nodded, saying he would be back in a hour or two, then he stepped out into the single street that made up almost the whole town. It seemed a bleak place, just a bulge in the trail. A double-row of frame buildings fronting onto dilapidated sidewalks on either side of the heavily rutted thoroughfare. The only unusual feature was what looked like a saloon, standing alone athwart the end of the street, staring down the long, straight southern approach. The path to the North curved westwards around this building, which stood on a low mound and had a covered porch, accessed by a short flight of wooden steps. A sign over the awning told visitors that this was ‘The Hill Place’, though the little hump hardly qualified for such a title.
Opposite the livery stable was a general store, the faded sign above the single window proclaiming it the establishment of Joseph Tanner. Jerry walked in, encountering a pleasant if bewildering mixture of smells and an amazing jumble of wares. To the left of the door was a table, loaded with vegetables. On the floor were sacks of flour, corn, potatoes, coffee beans and a few other items, less readily identifiable. Three of the four walls were fitted from floor to ceiling with shelves, displaying all manner of cans, bottles, jars and packets. The counter, to the right of the door, offered the bare minimum of space for transactions. The left-hand end of this business surface was piled with an array of sweetmeats, cigars and tobacco. The right end supported a massive hunk of smoked bacon and, under glass, a slab of elderly dark-yellow cheese, cracked, shiny and looking strong enough to raise the dead. That block would, Jerry thought, be marginally easier to cut than a house brick.
Tanner was a jolly, talkative fellow, short, fat and balding. Jerry ordered the few things he needed, indulging himself so far as to pick up a box of cigars. He smoked only when the mood was upon him, but with winter coming on and with no prospect of further supplies until spring, he considered the extravagance justifiable. “Odd name for a place, Abundance,” he said. “Must have a reason, I guess?”
“Oh, sure,” said Tanner, pleased to have someone to talk with. “Came about from the feller who first lived here. Seems he intended to go right on, but found plenty of game and fish around here, so he stayed for quite a while. When the next people came along, they asked him if the place had a name an’ he said he guessed Abundance would do pretty well, so that’s what they called it.”
“Well, that’s a good story,” said Jerry.
Tanner laughed uproariously. “Sure is,” he said. “’Course, it probably ain’t true. We reckon somebody just made it up, but it’s a nice tale to tell newcomers an’ nobody knows the real facts anyway.”
Jerry joined the storekeeper in chortling at the local sense of humour, then picked up his supplies and made for the door. “Wouldn’t mind a beer,” he said as he reached the threshold. “I guess the Hill Place is a saloon. Not much of a hill, though.”
Tanner laughed again. “Oh, the name’s got nothin’ to do with that itty-bitty rise. As it happens, another story goes with that, too. Come to think of it, a couple of stories.”
“Are you going to tell me they’re made up as well?” Jerry grinned.
“No. They’re genuine. For one thing, it was supposed to be called ‘The Hill Palace’, but the painter feller got drunk an’ missed out the first ‘a’, so it just stayed like that. Second thing, the ‘Hill’ bit comes because it’s owned by a widow, name of Ellen Hill. Leastways, that’s what she’s called now. Took her maiden name back after the shootin’.”
“Well, Ellen was married to this Mexican feller, Sanchez. Hot-tempered little rooster he was, too. Got hisself killed when he called Con Webster a dirty, no-good gringo bum.”
“Doesn’t seem to be grounds for a killing.”
“Maybe not, but see, same time as he was saying that, Sanchez was tryin’ to take Webster apart with a hayfork, so Webster reckoned it was self-defence. Judge agreed an’ acquitted him.”
Jerry chuckled: “You folks sure know how to have fun. I’ll be going now.”
“Yeah, so long. Been nice talkin’ to you. Don’t bother to give my regards to Arnie. He keeps bar at the Hill Place. He’s a mean cuss an’ he serves the worst beer in the Territory.”
Jerry dumped his purchases at the livery stable, then strolled off for his drink. Apart from its unusual position, the Hill Place was a saloon like a thousand others. The barroom was around thirty feet wide and twenty-five feet deep. The bar ran along most of the rear wall from the right, then turned to abut the wall, close to a back room door. The floorboards were bare, rough pine and a rickety stairway ran up to a balcony, at the rear of which were four doors, leading to bedrooms. All but one of the dozen tables were unoccupied, the exception being the one nearest to the bar, where four young cowpunchers were playing a desultory game of poker.
Jerry made for the short section of the bar, near the back room door, ordered a beer and propped himself against the rear wall. The bartender, paunchy, grey-haired, middling in height and surly-looking, seemed annoyed at being disturbed. Reluctantly, he bestirred his bulk and wordlessly delivered the drink, which tallied with Tanner’s description. It was a lukewarm, acrid soup. But it slaked the trail dust and Jerry drank most of it gratefully enough. He was just about to down the rest and order another, when the swing doors were pushed open. A short bandy man wearing bib overalls and heavy work boots, his arms wrapped around a paper bag, stood uncertainly in the doorway. He seemed to be having doubts about entering, then, his mind made up, he strode over to the bar and ordered a beer.
Immediately the newcomer arrived, the atmosphere changed. The four card-players fell silent for a moment, exchanging looks among themselves, then they began muttering in tones so low that Jerry could not hear what was said. Suddenly, one of the four pushed back his chair and rose. He was a big burly fellow, around two inches taller than Jerry’s even six feet. He looked to be in his early twenties, with fair tousled hair showing beneath his tipped-back hat. “Hey, Arnie,” he called to the barman. “Thought I told you before, this place was built for real drinkers. Guess I’ll have to prove it.”
The bartender said nothing, but his malicious grin left no doubt that he was looking forward to some entertainment. Following the big fellow’s lead, the other three men stood, the four making a menacing semicircle, crowding in on the small fellow. He was scared all right, but he dumped his bag onto the bar and prepared to defend himself.
Nine times out of ten, Jerry would have had no part in such goings on, but this time something came over him. “That’s enough.” His voice whipcracked across the room. The four aggressors and their intended victim turned as one, staring at the craggy, buckskin-clad trapper.
There was an ominous silence, then the big man spoke. “You got something to say about this?”
Jerry eased himself away from the wall. “Just that it doesn’t seem altogether fair,” he replied quietly.
“Maybe you figure to take a hand?” The retort was as much a taunt as a question.
“Maybe,” said Jerry, swilling the rest of his beer around in the glass.
“You’d better straighten this gent out, Curly,” grunted one of the hulky fellow’s cronies.
Pushing his hat further back on his straw thatch, Curly swaggered towards Jerry. “Okay, mister,” he said, his youthful confidence and his knowledge of support behind him bringing an insolent grin to his face. “We’ll do it like this. First I put you out of action, then we see to this runt here. How’s that suit you?” He squared up, coiling a meaty right hand. Jerry flicked his left wrist, hurling what was left of his beer into Curly’s face. As the lumbering cowhand tried to contend with that, Jerry fetched a bony right fist up from barely above his knee. It landed with a dry-twig snap, a shade to the left of Curly’s chin. The big man’s eyes rolled up as his body went down. He was going to be out for a while.
Jerry pushed his jacket wide open, his hand playing around the handle of the long skinning knife sheathed at his side. He glared at the three remaining cowhands, none of them seeming anything like as formidable as their felled spokesman. For a moment, the scene was frozen, then Jerry turned his eyes to the small fellow by the bar, still half-crouched in the attitude of a man prepared to sell his life dearly, but looking hard at him. Somehow, the interlocking stares established a rapport. Jerry nodded at the doors. “I’m leaving now,” he said. “If you want to go with me, you’re welcome.” Needing no second bidding, the man picked up his bag and joined his rescuer.
Reaching the doors, Jerry turned once more to the still awestruck cowpokes. “You’d better not follow us,” he said calmly. “I could get real annoyed anytime now.” The three men stood motionless. The bartender, mouth agape, had paused in his activity of wiping a dirty glass with a dirty towel.
Outside, the small man vented his relief with a prodigious sigh. “I don’t know who you are, friend,” he said “but I sure am grateful.”
“Name’s Jeremiah Cobb. Make it Jerry.”
“Well, Jerry, I’m Ed Teasdale. Reckon I should’ve had more sense than to walk in there. I’d have been wiser backing out when I saw that bunch.”
“Don’t worry about my getting tangled up,” said Jerry. “Nobody forced me.”
“I guess not, but I’m mighty glad you took a hand. Say, I don’t have much to offer, but I’d take it kindly if you come by my place an’ eat with me. I’m around three miles north o’ town.”
“Sounds fine,” Jerry replied. “I’m headed that way.” He collected his horse and supplies then joined Teasdale, who was on foot. As they walked along, Jerry explained that he didn’t make a habit of poking around in other people’s business, but that since he’d done so, he would be interested to know what was what. Teasdale shrugged his shoulders, putting out his free hand, palm upward in resignation.
“Trouble’s pretty well all one-sided, Jerry,” he said. “I moved in over a year ago. Built myself a small place. Put in some vegetables an’ a little wheat. Figured to get myself a cow an’ a horse an’ maybe a few chickens this year. Then Duncan Draycott rode up one day. He’s the man them fellers back there work for. He told me I was on his land an’ I’d better move on, or he’d know what to do about it. Since then, he an’ his boys have been givin’ me a hard time.”
“Well, is he right?” Jerry asked. “About the land, I mean. Does it belong to him?”
“No. He’s a free-range man. He covers a lot o’ land hereabouts, but the spot where I am ain’t deeded to anybody, far as I can tell.”
“You’re not here under the Homestead Act then?”
“No. I got to admit I’m not an official sodbuster. I just kinda settled here.”
“Can’t you get the law to help you?”
Teasdale snorted. “Only law around here is Marshal Waddilove. First point is he’s nothin’ but a hired hand o’ Draycott’s. Second is there’s a whole lot o’ things Waddilove don’t like an’ right on top o’ that list is settlers. He’d be real pleased to see somethin’ drastic happen to me.”
“Hmn,” said Jerry, who had never had occasion to involve himself with the law in any way. “Well, if you’re done for here, why don’t you just up stakes and move somewhere else?”
“I guess I’m just stubborn,” Teasdale replied. “Seems to me I’ve as much right here as Draycott has. Anyway, I got run off a place once before an’ I don’t aim to let it happen again. I guess if Draycott’s so keen to see me go, he’ll have to kill me, ’cause I ain’t goin’ any other way. Fact is, it’s practically got to that already. He’s threatened to set Con Webster onto me.”
“Oh,” said Jerry. “That’s the second time I’ve heard that name today. Some sort of hard case, is he?”
“He’s a killer. Done away with four or five men, so it’s said. Nothin’ ever pinned on him, though. He’s another one on Draycott’s payroll. The boss pulls a string an’ Webster dances. Wouldn’t be surprised to see both of ’em this evenin’ after that little ruckus we just had back yonder.”
The country north of Abundance was bleak, the only evidence of human handiwork the two men passed being a half-collapsed wooden hut. When they reached Teasdale’s place, Jerry noted that the little fellow was quite a workman. He had built himself a shack close to a rock face that sheltered him from the prevailing wind. It was constructed of split logs and measured about fifteen by ten feet. There was even a small garden in front of the place, neatly fenced and gated. A deep path of sand and gravel ran from the gate to the door, by which stood a pushcart and an assortment of tools.
“Got this from the riverbank,” said Teasdale, pointing to the path. “Useful for cleanin’ boots when it’s messy outside. An’ bein’ crunchy it might give me a warnin’ when there’s a caller I don’t want, which means just about everybody.”
Teasdale proved to be an efficient cook and the two men soon sat down to a tasty stew, which they ate largely in silence. The eating over, Teasdale produced two tin mugs and coffee and Jerry lit a cigar, offering one to his host. “No thanks. I don’t use ’em,” said Teasdale. He sat, bent forward on a simple, home-made stool, hands clasped between his knees, a picture of dejection as the seriousness of his position pressed in upon him. “I guess you’ll be movin’ on now?” he said, a note of desperation in his voice.
“Reckon so,” Jerry replied. “Heard it’s snowing in the mountains.” As he spoke, he was trying to make up his mind about his troubled companion. He wasn’t sure which feeling was uppermost, sympathy with a man in such a difficult position or bafflement at the fellow’s cussedness. He was just finishing his coffee when Teasdale jumped up at the sound of approaching horses. He went to the door, peered out, then turned back to face Jerry. “You’d better stay out o’ sight,” he said. “It’s Draycott an’ that murderer, Webster.”
Teasdale went out and strode halfway along the path. Ignoring the caution, Jerry followed as far as the door, leaning against the frame. Draycott sat his horse by the gate. A middle-aged, grizzled, hefty, tough-looking man, he gave the impression of being as compassionate as a rockslide. A few feet behind him and to his right was the gunman. He looked the part. Black, Montana peak hat, grey woollen shirt, open black leather vest, black pants and boots. A six-gun was holstered at his right thigh. Even in repose, his narrow, angular face managed a look that combined dispassion and arrogance.
Draycott looked quizzically at Jerry. “You’d be the feller who tangled with my boy earlier?” he said.
“I tangled with somebody,” Jerry replied. “Don’t know whose boy he was.”
The rancher’s eyes flicked back to Teasdale. “It’s Tuesday,” he said gruffly. “Come Thursday, I want you out of here.”
Teasdale stood, arms akimbo. “First place,” he said, “you got no more rights here than I have. Second place, what’ll you do if I stay?”
Draycott laughed, but the humour didn’t reach his eyes. “Rights,” he said. “I brought my rights along with me.” He jerked a thumb at the now grinning Webster. “I didn’t come here to debate with you, Teasdale. I’ll be along on Thursday morning. If you’re still here, I’ll go back to my place and around four, my associate here will pay you a visit. And don’t go looking for Marshal Waddilove – he’ll be out of town. Going fishing, I believe he said.”
“You made it clear enough,” Teasdale replied. “You expect me to fight it out with your hired killer.”
“Killer?” said Draycott, simulating astonishment. “Mr Webster is my agent. He deals with some of the more difficult aspects of my business interests. You’d better watch that tongue of yours, Teasdale.” His eyes moved to Jerry. “I guess young Curly got what he deserved today,” he said, “but from now on, your best plan would be to keep out of this.”
“Not my party, mister,” Jerry answered. “I’m moving on.”
Draycott and Webster wheeled their horses and rode away.
“You still aim to stay?” asked Jerry as the hoofbeats receded.
“Yes,” Teasdale replied emphatically. “I’m not runnin’, so I reckon he’ll have to go the whole way. Still, if you’ve any advice to offer before you go, I’ll listen. I already admitted that I’m hard-headed, but that don’t mean I’m stupid.”
Jerry moved outside. “Let’s just see,” he said. “Maybe you have some advantages somewhere.” He went out of the garden, turned, looked closely at the rock face, then back at the shack. Still puffing at his cigar, he paced around, remaining lost in thought for well over half an hour as Teasdale watched him in silence. Suddenly, Jerry discarded his unfinished smoke and rubbed his hands together. Turning, he tramped up the garden path. “That hut we passed a mile or so down the trail,” he said. “It seems to be derelict. Has a door on leather hinges, doesn’t it?”
“That’s right. Nobody’s used the place in years, so I was told. What about it?”
“Well, I just got an idea. Maybe crazy, but it’s the only line of country I know. Is it safe for you to go back into town?”
“I reckon so. For today, anyway.”
“Okay. Here’s what we do.” He took a stubby pencil and a piece of an old envelope from his shirt pocket, scribbled for a moment, then handed the scrap of paper to Teasdale. “You take that pushcart to Tanner’s store, get these things and bring them back here. I’ll fetch that door and a couple of other items. You have money?”
“Sure. That’s how I’ve managed to stay here so long.”
“Right. Get moving. We have a busy evening ahead.”
True to his word, Duncan Draycott rode up to Teasdale’s place at noon on the Thursday, finding the obstinate little fellow sitting on a crate in doorway. Nothing had changed since the Tuesday except that in front of the garden gate was a tangle of barbed wire, weighed down by four rocks. Draycott shook his head in disbelief. “You figure to keep Webster out with this?” he sneered.
“Never mind what I figure,” Teasdale replied. “You can see I’m still here, so I guess you’d better send your gunman.”
“Where’s that galoot who was here on Tuesday?” Draycott asked.
“He’s gone,” said Teasdale. “Like he said, this wasn’t his party.”
“Well, he’s got more sense than you have. I’ve met all kinds of fools, Teasdale, but you top the lot. I reckon you just want to die.”
“Could be. Anyway, you have my answer. Now it’s your move.”
Draycott stared in puzzlement at the indomitable little terrier sitting there, defiant to the last. Deep down within himself, the rancher had to admit a grudging admiration for Teasdale. Yet a man had to do what was expected of him. Draycott was a harsh man in a harsh land. He could not afford to distinguish openly between empathy and weakness. If he showed the former, it would be construed as the latter. Not inclined to spend any more time on his distasteful mission, he turned his horse. “You still have until four o’clock, then Webster will be here,” he snapped.
“I expect he’ll be alone, so we can have it out face to face,” replied Teasdale.”
“He’ll be alone. Webster doesn’t care for spectators in his business.” Draycott galloped off.
Punctually at four that afternoon, Webster rode slowly up to the shack. Teasdale was standing at the open door, a garden fork held tightly across his chest. Since Draycott’s departure, the barbed wire had disappeared from the gate. Webster dismounted cautiously, not quite able to believe that his job could be as simple as it seemed. “You comin’ out to take it like a man, or do I have to come in there an’ get you,” he shouted.
Teasdale stepped backwards into the doorway. “You have a gun an’ all I have is this,” he said, brandishing the fork. “I guess you’ll have to come an’ get me. But this ain’t a fight, Webster, it’s a killin’ an’ you’ll fry in hell for it.”
Webster drew his gun. “Mister,” he grated, “you’re plumb crazy.” He kicked open the flimsy gate and strode forward.
Whump! Draycott’s hired killer plunged into space. He landed with an impact that twisted one ankle and jarred the rest of him from base to apex. The gun fell from his grasp and to augment his discomfiture, a mass of sand and gravel showered down on him. When the cascade stopped, he was conscious but injured, confused and in darkness. Then he heard above him the scratching of stone on wood.
“What the hell is this?” he yelled.
For a moment the only answer was that scraping noise, then Teasdale’s voice came down. “Worked just fine, didn’t it? Was that trapper feller’s idea. You just dropped into what’s called an oubliette. That’s a French word. Somethin’ to do with forgettin’. Don’t ask me what. I forget.” He gave a cracked, near-hysterical laugh. “See, Webster, we cleared part of the path an’ dug a hole – you’ll have noticed it’s plenty deep – then we put an old door over it, with leather straps round a wooden pole in the middle. Makes a kind of axle. Then we put the path back on top, balanced just nice, with a stick on the house side, to stop it rollin’ over. I put the barbed wire outside to stop Draycott walkin’ in this mornin’, then I took it away again, so when you came an’ trod on the far end, it just naturally swung over an’ dropped the path on you. Clever, ain’t it?”
“You damned loony,” Webster bellowed. “Let me out.”
Teasdale hooted. “Oh, no. You ain’t comin’ out. I’ve put a heap o’ rocks on this board now an’ jammed everythin’ in place with two poles. You wouldn’t move this lot now, even if you could get to it, which you can’t.”
“This is murder,” screamed Webster.
“Well, you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” came the reply. “Anyway, it ain’t murder. All I did was dig a hole. You walked into it yourself. Pure carelessness, I’d say. I’ll be along to fill you in later, an’ if I was you, I wouldn’t move around too much. That stuff you’re crawlin’ in down there is quicklime. Goodbye, Webster.”
* * *