OUT WEST : NUMBER NINETEEN
The settlement of Benstock was a meeting point for people scattered thinly over several hundred square miles of Wyoming. It wasn’t a place that normally detained strangers for more than an hour or two, one reason being that they were seldom given a hearty welcome by the inward-looking locals. This frosty attitude meant that almost everyone on the move was glad to get out of the hamlet as quickly as possible.
Shortly before noon on a hot summer day in 1891, a newcomer appeared. He stayed no longer than the average visitor, but while there he caused quite a stir. He arrived alone, driving an eye-catching four-wheeled two-seater covered chaise. The handsome little carriage had hardwood coachwork painted black and yellow and was drawn by one horse. After stopping at the livery barn to arrange short-term care for his animal, the man set out to seek refreshment. Halfway along Benstock’s only street, he paused. To his left was a dingy no-name saloon. Facing it, on the east side, stood a small eating house.
Opting for drink before food, the man entered the saloon. There were nine men already in the barroom and every pair of eyes fixed upon him. No wonder, for he was a striking figure. A shade over six feet in height, he was of slightly slimmer than average build. His clean-shaven face was pale and he wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses. What really drew attention was his attire. It comprised an immaculate black cutaway coat, equally flawless black trousers, a yellow five-button waistcoat, a stiff-collared white shirt, a crimson silk puff tie and gleaming black shoes. His hat was a straw boater, perhaps not totally congruous with the rest of his apparel and probably a concession to the weather.
Seemingly oblivious of having aroused general interest, the newcomer strode over to where the barman, Joe Dobbs, stood gaping at him. “Good morning,” he said. “I will take a glass of your best sherry.” His accent was unmistakably that of an upper-class Englishman.
Dobbs, a notoriously grumpy fellow, returned the man’s smile with a grimace. “You’ll what?” he snapped.
“I believe my enunciation was clear, but to repeat, I will take a glass of your best sherry. I would prefer a fino. Failing that, an amontillado will suffice, but I must eschew oloroso – too full-bodied for this time of day.”
Dobbs was getting the idea that the man wanted a drink. “We sell beer an’ whisky,” he growled. “Which’ll it be?”
The dandy made a wry face. “I will have whisky. Scotland’s finest, if you please.”
“I don’t keep it,” Dobbs replied. “I got redeye an’ I got rotgut,” Make your choice, an’ make it quick.”
“Give me the less toxic kind.”
Dobbs had no idea what toxic meant. He selected the more venomous of his two offerings. “You want the bottle?” he asked.
“Goodness, no. A tot will do. Purely a pre-prandial primer, if you will pardon my alliteration. A little aperitif for my impending Lucullan repast at your restaurant across the road.”
That sped past Dobbs like a bullet. He didn’t attempt an answer. The stranger took a sip of the ulcerating liquor, grimaced and knocked back the rest. He paid with a dollar and didn’t pause for change, which suited Dobbs. The Englishman was halfway to the door when a rough voice called to him. “Hey, fancy man, you ain’t leavin’ here before you say you’re sorry for all that insultin’ talk.”
The dandy turned to find a massively built, belligerent-looking fellow glaring at him. “Are you addressing me?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you.” The speaker was Tom Egan, a chronically aggressive man who was always ready to start a brawl, especially with a stranger who would rise to the bait. The fact that his words were not entirely appropriate did not trouble him. “I reckon it’s time for me to teach you some manners.” He moved across the room and stood facing the dandy at a distance of six feet, big fists at the ready.
To Egan’s surprise, the Englishman smiled, not seeming at all apprehensive. “I was not aware of uttering any insults,” he said. “However, you appear to be intent on fighting. It is only fair for me to warn you that I am not unversed in the art and science of pugilism, so the contest may not be a fair one. However, if you insist on taking a risk, by all means do so.” As though taking off a cloak, he had suddenly shed all trace of the effete, foppish demeanour he had displayed earlier. Now there was the light of anticipation in his eyes.
The onlookers were agog. Over the past few years, Egan had thrashed at least a dozen men in Benstock, some in the saloon, others outdoors. Superficially, the impending encounter seemed like a mismatch. The dandy was the taller man by about two inches, but was conceding a good forty pounds in weight. He also looked to be ten or twelve years older than Egan, who was in his middle twenties. Had there been time to place bets, the spectators would have put every penny on the local man, who would certainly have backed himself to the hilt. Pointing at the dandy’s face, he rasped: “You better take them glasses off.”
The dandy shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. Unless you are highly proficient in the field of boxing, you are not likely to get anywhere near them. Excuse me while I remove my hat.” He half-turned to do that. Egan, not content with having boundless confidence in his ability to prevail on even terms, tried to cheat by taking his man unawares. He moved in quickly, but wasn’t fast enough. Somehow the dandy sensed what was coming. He whipped around and his right arm shot out like a ramrod. The punch took Egan amidships. He gasped and went down, his backside thumping the floorboards with an impact that shook the room. He sat, almost jackknifed and struggling for air. The dandy folded his arms and waited.
Egan overcame his surprise and pain, got to his feet and charged in, but didn’t get far before he found himself on the end of a series of rapid, stabbing left-hand blows which peppered his eyes and nose, preventing him from getting to close quarters with his opponent. The dandy moved to and fro like lightning, his menacing right cocked. Finally he unleashed it and Egan, caught on the chin, crashed down again, this time flat on his back, where he remained for nearly ten seconds. When he’d hauled himself upright, he moved forwards, trying to get to grips with the dandy, but being tattooed once more around his upper face by that long, unerring and seemingly tireless left.
The exhibition continued for a further two minutes, at the end of which time Egan’s right eye was blackening and almost closed and the left one was quickly following suit. He could barely see the dandy, who showed no sign of fatigue. Making an effort to execute a bear hug, Egan flung himself at his man, only to be caught with another savage right hook. He went down for the third time, head hitting the floorboards, eyes glazing. He wasn’t unconscious, but was probably concussed. Still, he managed to get up once more.
The dandy held up a hand, palm outwards. “Enough,” he said. “If you persist with this foolishness, you will be severely injured. Now be a good fellow and have a drink on me.” He produced a coin and tossed it to Dobbs. “Barman, give him anything he desires.”
A cowpuncher called out from a far corner: “The man’s right, Tom. You’d better call it a day. You’ve been knocking hell out his fists with your face.” As laughter broke out, Egan wobbled to the bar, accepting defeat for the first time in his life.
“A remarkable performance, sir.” The voice came from Amos Langley, who owned a large ranch north of Benstock. A middle-aged man and socially a cut above the other locals in the room, he had been enjoying himself immensely, first by following the Englishman’s flowery speech, then by watching the demolition of Tom Egan. “However did you learn to fight that way?”
“Oh, it’s quite the new thing. Generally speaking, a roughneck has no chance against a skilled practitioner. I have seen men of ten stone – sorry, a hundred and forty pounds in your parlance – cut much larger fellows to ribbons by speed and making maximum use of their weight. The common bruiser usually fails on both of those counts.”
“I see. To change the subject, do you mind my asking what brings you to this remote place?”
“Not at all. I am trying to see as much of your land as my time permits. I have always felt drawn to it. The affinity is mixed with a sense of deep sorrow that our two countries experienced that unfortunate episode rather over a century ago.
“I regret that too. There should have been a more amicable conclusion.”
“Yes. It is distressing that governments allow these things to happen when they should be straining every sinew to prevent them. If the puppeteers who sit in safety and send soldiers and sailors to face death and mutilation were to face the same fate themselves, they would be less inclined to belligerence.”
Langley nodded. “You won’t get any argument from me about that.”
“I’m glad you concur. Perhaps one day we shall reach a position in which ordinary people all over the world will be able to communicate with each other instantly. That might induce them to force their leaders to avoid warfare. It is my opinion that if there had been true democracies in Britain and here at the time we are speaking of, our two populations would have applied pressure to those in high public office and insisted on a peaceful settlement.”
“I agree, but since that didn’t happen, may I ask where you would have stood in the matter had you been present on this side of the Atlantic when conflict became unavoidable?”
“I would have taken the revolutionaries’ side. Indeed, had I been in Concord when the sad event began, I would most likely have offered myself as a two-minuteman.”
“Why not a minuteman?”
“I am not what you would call the precipitate type.”
Langley laughed. “An extra minute to think things over, eh? Very good. Well, you provide a refreshing conversation, and I don’t get many of them.”
“Nor do I. Now, that bout of exercise has sharpened my appetite, so if you will excuse me I shall attempt to satisfy it.” He headed towards the door.
“You ain’t just walkin’ out like that.” This was Egan, speaking from the bar. Paying little heed to his impaired sight, he had drawn his gun.
The dandy turned and to everyone’s astonishment, walked to within three feet of Egan, fiddled in his left coat sleeve, produced single-shot Derringer and said: “You might have been able to shoot me with impunity while I was over yonder. At this range you cannot. If you were to use your gun, I would reciprocate and almost certainly we would both die. The difference between us is that you may well have many years of life ahead of you, whereas I have an ailment which will certainly cause my demise within a few weeks. Therefore, you have potentially far more to lose than I have. In fact, I would welcome a swift exit, so if you wish to fire, do so at once.”
For a moment, Egan stared at the man, utterly bemused, then he holstered his weapon. “Aw, hell,” he grunted, “get goin’.”
The dandy turned and headed for the door again. The sight of his back was too much of a temptation for Egan, who began to draw his gun a second time. “Stop that!” Amos Langley’s voice whipcracked across the room. He glared at Egan. “You were beaten fair and square, and you were outfaced likewise. Now put that pistol away. As long as he stays here, the Englishman is under my protection and anyone who does him harm will answer to me.”
Langley was the most formidable man with a handgun for many a mile around and even though he hadn’t used his .45 in anger for a long time, nobody in the area would have wished to try conclusions with him. As Egan rammed his gun back into its holster for the second time, the dandy turned, gave Langley a slight nod – one gentleman to another – and strolled off to get his meal, a beef stew. He left Benstock immediately after eating it and never returned.
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