OUT WEST : NUMBER TWELVE
Tension At Silver Dunes
One minute to noon. Mark Fairburn set down his pen and shoved his chair back from the desk over which he’d been bent for two hours. He hauled his lanky hundred and seventy pound frame up to its full six-foot-one, stretched his arms high and wide to uncramp his shoulders, then looked down at the report he’d been writing. A further short session in the afternoon would see it finished.
Fifty yards down the street, Ma Collins would be expecting Fairburn to turn up for the beef stew he invariably ate around midday. The elderly Irish widow didn’t offer much variety in her cooking but what she provided was good and the portions were substantial.
Rounding the desk, Fairburn took his hat from its peg. Before leaving, he paused for five minutes to take stock of his situation. At just turned thirty-two, he’d been marshal of the small New Mexico town of Silver Dunes for three and a half years. When he was appointed by the council, some townspeople took the view that a man of his age could hardly be mature enough for the job. In fact he had done it well. The only controversial step he’d taken was to ban the carrying of handguns in town. Several visiting cowpokes had shown some resistance, but after Fairburn had lectured and disarmed one of them, the rest had fallen into line.
In addition to being respected for doing his work satisfactorily, Mark Fairburn was well liked in the town because he frequently entertained people, especially the children, with his repertoire of conjuring tricks and associated feats, performed on festive occasions.
Apart from initially enforcing the firearm ordinance, the young marshal had had very little trouble. His modest pay reflected the generally light duties. Normally the most onerous task he faced was using his one-cell jail to accommodate the odd Saturday night drunk. He concluded that, all things considered, he was well pleased with his largely uneventful life. But it is sometimes tempting providence to entertain such thoughts. As he moved to the door, Fairburn heard feet pounding on the sidewalk and a moment later the hardware storekeeper, Edgar Simms arrived, red-faced and breathless. “Oh, Mark,” he gasped, “I’m sure glad you’re here.”
Fairburn’s eyes widened. “You seem excited, Edgar. What’s up?”
“Well, you know that I usually call in at Al’s saloon on the way home for my noon meal? Just one beer.”
“I guess everybody knows that. And as for the beer, you’re probably the only one who’s counting. Anyway, you didn’t come here in such a rush to report that, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. I came to tell you that there’s trouble brewing.”
“In what way?”
“Three strangers in there, father and two sons from they way they talk. They’re all wearing sixguns and they keep making nasty remarks about the town and the saloon. One of them just said something about livening the place up with a little hot lead.”
“All right, Edgar. I’ll look into it.”
“Be careful, Mark. Do you want any help from me?” Simms’ manner and tone suggested that he was hoping for a negative answer.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m the one who gets paid to deal with things like this. You’d better get on home and I’ll let you know what happens.”
Simms needed no second bidding to go about his business. Fairburn picked up his gun belt, strapped it on, checked his forty-five and walked out. His office was at one corner of the main thoroughfare and the side street where Al Glover’s place was located. On sighting the saloon, he stood rubbing his chin for two minutes. He was trying to devise a way of doing his duty without getting killed. He crossed the street, stepped up onto the sidewalk and peered over the swing doors. Glover was in his usual rest position, sitting on a stool behind the east end of the bar. There were no drinkers other than the three newcomers, who were lined up along the bar at the west end.
Moving to the right side of the doors, Fairburn waved an arm, trying to attract Glover’s attention. That didn’t take long because the saloonkeeper was constantly on the lookout, hoping that someone would turn up.
Fairburn put a forefinger to his lips in the hush signal, then drew away along the wall, trying to decide what to do. He considered walking in upon the three men with his gun drawn but rejected the idea. They might be reckless enough ignore his advantage and start shooting. Creeping in surreptitiously was impossible because Al Glover hadn’t oiled his door hinges for years and they emitted loud squeaks when anyone entered or left the place. There was the further factor that one of the visitors was facing the end of the backbar mirror and kept glancing into it.
One way or another, Fairburn would have to confront the three men, but he needed an edge of some kind. It took him a few minutes to come up with an idea. He didn’t have much confidence in it, but it was the best he could think of. From time to time, the townsfolk cleared the streets and when they did that, stones were often swept under the sidewalks. Fairburn quickly found a fist-sized one. He stepped back onto the sidewalk, again attracted Glover’s attention. Peeping over the doors once more, he waited until the man in line with the mirror wasn’t looking at it.
The saloon had a staircase to a landing, off which were three bedrooms. This was to Fairburn’s right. Offering up a prayer, he heaved the stone. It did as he’d hoped, dropping onto the uncarpeted landing with a loud clatter and staying up there. Part one of the plan had worked. All three drinkers half-turned toward the source of the noise. “What was that?” said one of the younger ones.
“Probably one of my boarders dropped something,” Glover replied.
“You mean you get people to stay in this fleapit?”
At that point Mark Fairburn entered the saloon and walked halfway across the floor in Glover’s direction. “Morning, Al,” he said cheerily. “I’ll have a beer, please.”
This time all three of the visitors did a full turn. |Seeing Fairburn’s star, the middle one grinned mischievously. “Well, look at this,” he said. “I do believe we have a lawman here. What do you say to that, boys?”
One of the younger men laughed. “You know what we think, Pa. The only good lawman is a dead one.”
Fairburn stopped and looked at the men. “That doesn’t sound too friendly,” he said.
At a signal from the father, the three men fanned out in line abreast, a little more than arm’s length apart and facing Fairburn at a distance of ten feet. “No, it ain’t meant to be friendly,” answered the father. “So what are you goin’ to do about it?”
“Well, first of all, I need to tell you that we have a law against carrying handguns in this town, so I’d be obliged if you’d hand yours over until you leave.”
All three men laughed in unison, then the father spoke again. “Sonny, I reckon we just don’t want to hand over our guns. Now, aside from that no-account barman yonder, you seem to be all alone, so how do you aim to handle the three of us?”
With a huge effort, Fairburn summoned a smile. “I guess you reckoned without my deputy up on the landing. You all set there, Joe?” he called out, at the same time raising his left hand and rubbing his nose with a knuckle.”
“Ready, Mark,” came the gruff reply.
The ruffians were startled and baffled. Where had the new voice come from? Not from in front of them. It didn’t seem to have emanated from anywhere in particular. Then it dawned on all three at the same instant that they’d heard the noise of Fairburn’s stone on the landing. They turned as one and looked up. Seeing nobody, they swung back – and found themselves facing Mark Fairburn’s drawn gun. Now he was smiling in a slightly more relaxed way. He addressed the whole trio, while training his forty-five on the father’s chest. “I had my doubts about whether you’d fall for the ‘look behind you’ ruse. It’s the oldest one in the book, but I freshened it up with a couple of things.”
The father shook his head. “How the hell did you do that, an’ where’s the other feller?”
“There is no other fellow. The first thing I did to set you up was to toss a stone onto the landing behind you. That was to give you the idea that there was somebody upstairs. Second thing was more difficult. Anyone in town would tell you that I put on a magic show now and again. I perform a few tricks, then finish with some ventriloquy and what’s called distant voicing. Now, I knew I couldn’t throw my voice from in front of you to behind you. I doubt that anybody can do that. But I was sure I could throw it far enough to puzzle you. When you heard what you thought was my deputy, you connected that with the noise you heard when that stone landed up there. I was relying on those two points to confuse you, and they did.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the father replied. Neat as anythin’ I ever saw. Still, it ain’t done you much good. There’s three of us an’ one of you, so we’ll come out on top.”
“That depends on you, old man. If lead starts flying, maybe I’ll catch some, but just bear in mind that the instant any of you shows the slightest of trying to draw, you’ll die. I can’t miss from here. I don’t see a wife around you, so I’m assuming you don’t have one. Now, unless you want these two boys of yours to be orphans, you’ll do as I say.”
“An’ what’s that?”
“I want you to move very slowly, keep your hands where I can see them, unbuckle your gun belts and let them drop. When you leave town you can have them and the guns back, but no bullets.”
“Okay, boys,” said the father, “do it.” They did.
* * *