SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER TEN
When young Harold Fairbrother founded the first newspaper in Yellow Spring, Montana, he decided that as well as reporting everything noteworthy in the present, he would steep himself in the history of the place. To that end, he toured the area, talking with everyone who could remember anything that might be worth recording. His idea was to supplement the limited news material he had available with a number of articles concerning the town’s formative years.
Fairbrother didn’t gather as much as he’d hoped, but did meet William Birkett. What he learned during that encounter was, he felt, so interesting that he overcame his editorial proclivity so far as to ask the older man to write the story in his own words, to be presented without amendment. Birkett claimed that he was no storyteller, so the exercise took time, but the account finally appeared. It is given verbatim below:
We never knew the stranger’s name. He arrived in the settlement one day, stayed in the area for three weeks, did a couple of things that shook us all up, then left. It’s well over thirty years ago now and I reckon I’m the only one still around who remembers the episode. I’m certainly alone in knowing exactly what happened because I got the details from the only authentic source.
I suspect that I’m already in danger of putting the cart before the horse and I’ll have to apologise for any shortcomings I may have as a narrator. The fact is, I never expected to put all this down in black and white and I see now that this writing business isn’t as simple as it seems. I wouldn’t do it at all, except that we’re a real town now and our esteemed newspaper editor has suckered me into it. Says he’s collecting tales from our early days, so he can run a series. He asked me to tell it in my own words. Harold’s a pushy fellow and hard to resist.
Anyway, as I say, it was over thirty years ago. I remember it well, because I was there when the stranger first arrived. When I say ‘there’ I mean in the settlement, which was a long way from being a town in those days. We were just a spot on the trail and remote, even by Montana standards. All there was to the place was a livery stable-cum saddlery, a forge, a general store, which served as a stage depot, a saloon and a few shacks, some of them abandoned by people who’d moved on.
I’d driven the buckboard in that day to pick up a few items that Sam Harker, the saddler, had been repairing for us. By ‘us’ I mean the old Doyle ranch. We could have done the work ourselves, but Sam did it better and quicker and he didn’t charge much, so old man Doyle liked to put as much business as possible his way. I’d have remembered the day even if the stranger hadn’t turned up. It would have stood out because of Josh Naylor and his anvil.
Josh was the blacksmith and I guess he was the strongest man I’ve ever seen. That’s always struck me as strange because at around five-foot-ten in height, he was no giant. At first glance, he didn’t even seem all that muscular, but then you noticed the exceptionally deep chest. Then there was the steep slope from neck to shoulders. I once heard you get a better guide to a man’s strength from that than from the high, squared-off look that some fellows have. Maybe that was why Josh was so powerful.
When I arrived, he was passing the time of day with three young boys, the only children in the settlement. I picked up the leather gear from Sam’s place and strolled over to join the little group. Just then, one of the lads was tugging at the anvil which Josh had bolted onto a massive oak base, the whole thing standing under an awning, so he could work in fresh air in almost any weather. The boy looked at Josh, who was filling his pipe. “How did you get this thing up onto the block?”
“Well, I just lifted it there.”
“Gosh,” said the boy. “It must be awful heavy.”
Josh smiled. “They come in different sizes. This one weighs around two hundred pounds.”
One of the other boys laughed. “Bet you can’t really lift it.”
Josh didn’t reply. He just loosened the four bolts that held the anvil in place, took hold of each end of the thing and heaved. For about five seconds he stood there, that great chunk of metal at full arms’ length over his head, then he let it down onto its base, even managing to do so slowly and gently.
“Amazing, sir.” This new, deep voice came from the stranger, who had arrived quietly while Josh was performing his feat. I’d seen the newcomer way back down the trail, but thought nothing of it. He moved his horse forwards and dismounted, seeming awkward in doing both things, as though he wasn’t a regular rider. That was the case, as we learned later. He’d rented the horse from the railhead stable, northeast of our little place. He was a tall man, about six-foot-two, solidly built without being bulky. I put him at about the same weight as Josh Naylor’s anvil. He was kind of raw-boned and durable looking. His clothes were smart – light brown pants, hip length jacket of plain buckskin, white shirt, narrow black tie, black boots and pearl-grey Stetson hat.
He asked whether a man could rent a room and Josh directed him to Sam Harker’s livery stable. At the back of his place, Sam had a lean-to which he occasionally rented out to travellers, who usually spent no more than one night there. “Much obliged,” said the man. He led his horse off to make the arrangements. Visitors being so uncommon, the few tongues we had around soon started wagging, especially when we learned from Sam Harker that the stranger intended to stay for a week or two.
“What do you make of him, Sam?” asked Ralph Boardman later that day. Ralph owned the saloon.
Sam scratched his head. “Can’t rightly say,” he answered. “He’s from the East, for sure. Asks a fair few questions, but don’t say much about himself. Says he has business here that won’t take long. I tried to get his name. Told him I didn’t seem to have picked it up and he just smiled and said he didn’t recall dropping it.”
That was as far as we got to pinning down either the man’s identity or his business until things came to a head. He rode out every morning, always in the direction of Spruce Flats, twelve miles south of us. Not much left of the place now, but it was a busy little spot then.
All any of us could make of the matter was that the stranger poked around and made a lot of inquiries over there, without giving much away. Usually he was back in the settlement by late afternoon, but once he stayed away for two nights. He called in at the saloon every evening, drank a couple of beers then bedded down early. Anyway, let me go back to the day the man turned up. After that little incident with Josh Naylor and the anvil, I went back to my work. In those days, the Doyle spread was by far the biggest in these parts. The ranch-house was about five miles from the settlement, in the direction of Spruce Flats.
Ephraim Doyle was a little over sixty at the time and a widower. He was a rancher in the old style and the most influential man for many a mile around. Not that he threw his weight about much. He was a tough fellow, but a fair one and pretty far-sighted. Unlike some of the other ranchers, he had no objection to the few homesteaders living in the area and tried to avoid friction with them. That wasn’t easy for him, mostly on account of his son, Vincent.
There was practically no nonsense that Vince Doyle didn’t get up to in his twenty-seven years. He was an all-round hellion. In fact it was through him that old Ephraim kept me on at the ranch, doing odd jobs. That was after I couldn’t ride properly because of my stiff leg, which got that way when Vince backed a loaded wagon over it one day, fooling around as usual. I was only sixteen then and I’ve had this handicap ever since. Ephraim figured he owed me for Vince’s recklessness, so he paid me back as well as he could.
I wasn’t the only one to suffer from Vince Doyle’s behaviour. At one time or another, he infuriated nearly everybody in the area, especially the settlers. More often than not he got out of trouble because of his father’s standing, but if that wasn’t enough, Vince usually rode around with four or five of the meaner ranch hands, who would back him up in return for various favours. That bunch wrecked the furniture in Boardman’s saloon on two occasions, and caused similar trouble at Spruce Flats half a dozen times.
Toby Wainwright, the fellow I mentioned earlier, had more cause than most to hate Vince Doyle. Toby helped out in Fawcett’s general store in the settlement. One day, egged on by his cronies, Vince forced Toby into a fight and beat him up pretty badly. Toby never got over that.
All those things were troublesome enough, but Vince’s worst outrage wasn’t made public until long after it happened. I knew about it but, rightly or wrongly, I reckoned there was little I could do. For one thing, I wasn’t supposed to know. For another, I was in a vulnerable position, being pretty much dependent upon Ephraim’s goodwill. I did tell Toby Wainwright what I knew, but he was as powerless as I was.
The affair concerned a woman in Spruce Flats. I got over there only occasionally, but Vince Doyle went two or three times a week. I never met the woman, but I saw her once and believe me, she was worth seeing. She came from Boston, where she had been widowed early when her husband got himself killed by falling off a church roof he was repairing.
This woman, Ruth Morris, was around five-foot-seven. She carried herself well and had a shape which I guess must have been the envy of most of her sex, plus striking rust-coloured wavy shoulder-length hair. I never was much of a ladies’ man myself, but if I had been, I would have had more than a passing interest in her.
As soon as Vince Doyle clapped eyes on Ruth, he just had to do something about it, and he did. I got the story second-hand, but it seemed that Vince set his hat at this vision in a big way. At first she was cool, but the two were more or less of an age and Vince was a good-looking man. He just battered away at her until she caved in. Vince ended up spending nearly as much time at Spruce Flats as at the ranch.
One morning, three or four months after the amorous affair started, a friend of Vince’s rode up to the Doyle spread at full gallop, all heated up. He said that Ruth Morris was dead. She had been found that morning in the house she’d rented, a bullet hole in her head. Whoever had done it had fired through a pillow to dampen the sound. Nobody in the town knew who had killed Ruth, but it was known that two hard-looking strangers had ridden in the previous evening and had been long gone by the time the body was found.
Vince Doyle sent his friend back to Spruce Flats, saying that he would ride over there himself that afternoon. This is where I come to the part about my knowing what I wasn’t supposed to know. Ephraim Doyle had set me to work weeding the garden, which he always kept well tended, in memory of his wife, who had been very keen on growing things.
I was kneeling, or as near I could get to that position with my game leg, and was maybe six feet away from the side window, which was slightly open. All the other hands were away about their business and apart from me, only the two Doyles were around the house. I was working in near silence and I think the boss had forgotten about me. I heard a door slam, then the Doyles’ voices. At first they were just talking normally, but within a couple of minutes the noise level went up. Pretty soon they were having a real set-to. I didn’t get the first bit, but then I heard Ephraim shouting: “You idiot. What the hell possessed you?”
“I guess I reckoned I wasn’t through having fun yet,” Vince answered. “I didn’t mean it to get this far. It just got out of hand. I’m sorry, Pa.”
“You’re sorry,” Ephraim yelped, almost choking. “You get a woman pregnant, then have her killed because she might have saddled you with some responsibility. And you’re sorry. That’s just dandy, I suppose?”
“Yes . . . I mean no,” Vince spluttered. “Anyway, calm down. It can’t be traced back to us.”
“Us? There’s no ‘us’ this time Vince. I’ve got you out of a lot of scrapes, but if you’re ever found out on this one, you’ll swing for it. Make no mistake about that. Now get out, damn you.”
Vince clumped across the floor and I reckoned it would be a good thing for me to be somewhere else when he came out, so I moved to the back of the house, found something to do and kept my head down.
As I said, I passed on what I’d heard to Toby Wainwright, and we both knew that if I’d reported the details to anyone else, my words wouldn’t have carried much weight. Most likely they would have been widely regarded as a delayed attempt on my part to get even with Vince because of what he’d done to me. Also, I’d have lost my job and would have had little chance of getting another. So I kept quiet.
Anyway, before I get this story into a tangle again, I’ll go back to the stranger. He’d been with us for nearly three weeks when he got involved in the first of those incidents I spoke about. Not that he could have done much to avoid it. He’d called in at the saloon for his usual two beers. It was a Saturday evening and business was brisk. I was there, along with a bunch of our hands. Vince Doyle wasn’t around, but Heck Brogan was.
There were several small spreads abutting the Doyle empire, and Brogan was foreman of one of them. He was a real terror. A huge man, he stood close to six-foot-six and was built like an ox. He was mean enough sober, but with drink in him he was just about crazy. He would find some pretext to have a brawl with almost anybody, and if a fellow wouldn’t defend himself, Brogan would thrash him anyway. There was more than one man who had been injured by standing up to or backing down from Heck Brogan. I sometimes wondered what might have occurred if he’d squabbled with Josh Naylor, but that never happened, as Josh always went to bed early and being no friend of alcohol, never patronised the saloon. I doubt that the two men ever met for more than a couple of minutes at any one time.
For some reason, Vince Doyle always got along well with Brogan. Maybe it was mutual respect. Being of average height and slim build, Vince was no match for Brogan physically, but he was very fast with his six-gun and not afraid of using it anywhere, anytime. Possibly each man saw something to admire in the other. Whatever the grounds, the two were on good terms.
As I said, business was booming in the saloon. Heck Brogan – by the way, his real first name was Hector – had got himself well lubricated and was clearly on the way to doing something unpleasant. He was staring around, scowling at anybody who was fool enough to catch his eye. That was when the stranger came in. He went over to the bar, quiet as usual, ordered a beer and was carrying it over to sit at a table when Brogan said something to him. They exchanged a few words which I didn’t hear, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on. Suddenly Brogan slammed his whiskey glass down on the bar, hunched those huge shoulders and moved towards the stranger. “I ain’t asking’ you to apologise for that, mister,” he bellowed. “I’m just goin’ to take it out of your hide.” He lumbered on, that enormous right fist cocked.
Well, I’ve watched one or two barroom scuffles in my time and seen a few big punches landed, but never one like I saw that night. The stranger, having set down his glass, had turned to meet what was coming and Brogan was on the verge of firing his cannonball. Then at the last instant, when it seemed as though he wasn’t about to defend himself, the stranger fetched up a right hand from somewhere in China. It landed on Brogan’s jaw with a crack like a rifle shot.
Big though he was, Brogan was knocked off his feet and thrown backwards, smashing against the bar with a force that shook the whole building. The fifteen-foot length of pine was nailed to the floor. Maybe the fastening wasn’t too secure but anyway, the whole front rose a good two inches.
Brogan was still falling on impact and took the force mostly with his back, below the shoulder blades, in a crash that made me wince. His head jerked backwards at what seemed a near-impossible angle, then he slithered down the woodwork onto his rear end and slumped over sideways, well and truly out.
It was dead quiet in the place for a good ten seconds, then the stranger went back to his beer, drank it in one go and walked out without a saying a word. After he’d gone, we all started jabbering about what we’d seen. For maybe two or three minutes, nobody thought of doing anything about Brogan, who was still senseless. Then a couple of his cowhands hauled him out, loaded him onto a buckboard and took him back to their spread. We found out afterwards that he went off to see doctors in Helena, Cheyenne and Denver but, at least as long as he remained in these parts, he was never right again. That one thunderous punch appeared to have taken the steam out of him for life. ’Course, considering his record, he didn’t collect much sympathy.
Like I said, I didn’t hear all that passed between Brogan and the stranger, but some of the boys who were closer to the action heard it all and it was clear that Brogan had been looking for trouble as usual. Well, he found it all right and I guess we were all glad to see him carted away.
Most of the men who turned up on those Saturday evenings were decent enough sorts, who never wanted to do anything worse than get drunk. This time, with Brogan out of the way, they got on with it in style. There was the usual innocent fooling around as the evening wore on, including some nonsense outside the saloon, but it was all pleasant enough and eventually everybody was satisfied and we all went home. Being halfway sober, I drove the buckboard for the Doyle boys.
The following afternoon, I had to go back into the settlement to pick up a few items from the store, which was open until two o’clock on Sundays. I’d done what was necessary and was passing the time of day with Sam Harker at the livery stable when Shorty White, who was one of our hands and close to Vince Doyle came in, riding fast. He threw himself from the saddle, near-breathless, asking for the stranger. As it happened, the man himself walked out of the lean-to just as Shorty was speaking. Full of his own importance and obviously carrying big news, White swaggered over to the fellow. “Got a message for you,” he said.
The stranger wasn’t given to displays of emotion. “What is it?” he replied, his voice low and flat.
Shorty puffed himself up. “It’s from Vince Doyle. Says to tell you he’s real riled up about you. Says you been askin’ a lotta questions about him at Spruce Flats. On top o’ that, you’ve hurt Heck Brogan real bad an’ Vince an’ Heck are big friends. Vince says to tell you he’s comin’ for you this evenin’. He’ll be in just afore six an’ take a drink. When the saloon clock strikes the hour, he’s comin’ out, an’ you’d better be there with a gun. He aims to settle up, an’ he says don’t try to get out, ’cause he has boys posted north, south, east an’ west.”
That was probably the longest speech Shorty had ever delivered and he gabbled it out fast, like he’d been memorising it word for word and wanted to unload it before he forgot anything. The stranger took it in, then nodded his head maybe an inch. “Is that all?” he said.
“Sure,” Shorty answered. “Ain’t it enough?”
“Yes, I suppose it is. My compliments to Mr Doyle and tell him I’ll be here.”
Shorty mounted and left. Sam Harker turned to the stranger. “I hope you’re handy with a six-shooter, friend,” he said. “Vince Doyle’s quick as a sidewinder. There’s no man around here who’d care to try him out.”
The stranger spread his hands, palms upward. “I hardly know one end of a gun from the other,” he said. “It’s true I have a score to settle with Vincent Doyle, but I had in mind dealing with it legally.”
Sam shook his head. “You’ll not do that now,” he said. “Nearest law is in Spruce Flats and the marshal there is very friendly with Ephraim Doyle. Look, mister, what Vince has in mind for you just amounts to murder.”
The stranger shrugged. “I don’t seem to have any choice,” he said quietly.
“Well, you can’t get away from here and that’s a fact,” Sam replied. “Tell you what, though. I got an old .44 here and a few shells. I’ll let you have both if you like. Maybe you can get in a little practice for a couple of hours. I know that’s not much, but I reckon it’s your only hope.”
The stranger nodded. “All right,” he said. “Thank you. I’d heard you have some drastic ways of settling differences out here, but I didn’t expect to play a part in them. Still, I’ll do my best.” That was the second of those two things I alluded to near the start of this tale. I mean, the man could have refused the challenge and maybe have put Vince into an awkward position, but if that idea occurred to him, he must have rejected it.
I’d promised to get back to the ranch to make up the number in a card game, but it would have taken far more than that to induce me to leave the settlement at that point. Sam told everybody what was going on, then he went out behind his place and gave the stranger a few pointers about handling the gun – not that Sam was much good at it himself. The man was no more adept with the weapon than he was with a horse. He tried, but like Sam said, it was going to be nothing less than a killing.
I never experienced such suspense before or since as I did in those two hours after Shorty White’s departure. Sam went to the store and hunted up another box of shells for the old firearm. After using most of them, the stranger had improved a fraction, but at the end he was still just a shade above downright useless. Then we saw Vince Doyle in the distance and everybody went quiet. The victim – we already regarded him as such – sat atop a barrel in Sam’s place, stuck the gun inside his belt and waited. I didn’t dare to dwell on what might have been going through his mind. What does a man think about when he’s facing the certainty of violent death?
Vince made the most of his entrance, riding in slowly, looking relaxed and casual. He dismounted at Boardman’s place, tethered his horse and stood for a moment, looking up at the batwing doors. To his right was the tie-rail, to his left the big iron-bound wooden horse trough that Josh Naylor had made. Then he went on into the saloon, scuffing over a length of old lariat that some joker had tied to the bottom of one of the hitch-rack posts and thrown along the steps and boardwalk, apparently during the previous night’s horseplay.
It was ten minutes before six when Vince entered the saloon. I couldn’t see anybody outdoors. Some of us had taken positions from where we could watch at least part of the action, but owing to the haphazard way the buildings were laid out, it wasn’t possible to get a good view in safety. Visibility was poor anyway, as darkness was beginning to fall. The tension was enough to give a man heart trouble.
Just before six, the stranger came out of Sam Harker’s place, walked over and stood near the far end of the horse trough, about fifteen feet from the saloon doors. He opened his jacket so he could get at the borrowed gun, then let his arms fall. Knowing as well as the man himself what awaited him, I had to admire his courage.
It was so quiet that even from across the way I fancied I heard Boardman’s clock start to strike. Maybe I really did hear it because a few seconds later, Vince Doyle came out. I saw him smirk as he looked down at the stranger. “Well, mister,” he said. “Are you ready to meet your maker?”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” the stranger answered, “but I want you to think about something before one of us perishes, Doyle.”
“Oh, what’s that?” Vince said, grinning.
“I’d like you to take your mind back a while, to a woman named Ruth Morris.”
Vince’s body tensed. “What about her?” he said.
“Only this,” the stranger replied. “You had her killed. Don’t bother to deny it. I have proof. I intended to settle this matter in court, but I see now that’s not to be. You may be a gunman, Doyle, but I want you to know that Ruth Morris was my sister, and if there’s any justice in this world, you’ll be the one to die here.”
Vince didn’t answer the stranger’s accusation, but obviously decided to end the matter without more ado. “You can stow the talking now,” he snapped. “When I get my feet on the ground, haul out that gun.” He started to step down. Though it was clear that the stranger had virtually no chance against him, Vince obviously wanted to give himself even better odds, or possibly just wished to silence the man before anything else came out. Anyway, he didn’t wait for a classic face-off. The instant he began to move off the boardwalk, his right hand flashed to that notorious gun. He cleared leather while the stranger tugged awkwardly at his own weapon.
My position inside Sam Harker’s place put me at an awkward viewing angle, so I wasn’t entirely sure what occurred next, except that it happened mighty fast. In mid-stride, with his .45 already out, Vince collapsed forwards. His head hit the iron rim of the horse trough with a thump that I guess could have been heard fifty yards away. He almost bounced off, landed on his left shoulder, rolled over face-up and lay still, his unfired Colt skittering away in the dust.
After that, nothing happened for about twenty seconds. There was total silence and nobody moved. Then, as we all began to come out of hiding, the stranger stepped forwards, very slowly, like he didn’t trust the situation. He had his pistol out by then, but seemed to have forgotten he was holding it. He bent over Vince, knelt, then straightened up again. “Dead,” he whispered.
A verdict of accidental death was recorded. The only one who knew what really occurred that day was Toby Wainwright. He kept it to himself until just before he died, twelve years ago, then he told me and I’ve said nothing about it to anybody until now. It was like this: Toby overheard us discussing Vince Doyle’s intentions, then he wandered off. When nobody was looking, he put in place that lariat I mentioned earlier. At six o’clock he was hunkered down around the corner of the saloon, pretty well concealed from everyone, except maybe the stranger, whose eyes were firmly fixed on Vince and who probably would not have seen what little of Toby was visible anyway, as Vince blocked his line of sight.
The instant Vince began to step off the boardwalk, Toby yanked the untied end of the old rope. Then he slipped off into the gloom as the rest of us gathered around Vince’s body. He joined us five minutes later, all innocence.
* * *