Western Short Story
The Strangers Business
L. Roger Quilter


Western Short Story

The sun slipped behind the western mountains as he rode into town. If you glanced at him, you could see a tall, middle-aged man, slumped in the saddle of a sturdy horse. Lashed to the pommel, a lariat connected to his packhorse hung slack as the animals strode together at a walking pace.

Lean of figure, with a nondescript air about him, he rode through the deserted main street to the hotel. Dismounting, he tied the lead horse’s reins to the rail in front of the edifice, grabbed his satchel and entered the foyer.

The desk clerk looked up in surprise, as business was quiet in this town. Only the odd drummer and stage passengers stayed overnight, and the stage was not due for a few more days.

“Good evening Sir, are you wanting a room?” The clerk sounded indifferent, his mustache twitched as he spoke.

“Yep! How much a night?” Not bothering to say much, the stranger grabbed the registration book and turned it so he could sign with a flourish. He withdrew several dollar coins from his vest pocket and threw them on the counter after the clerk asked for a dollar.

“I may stay several days; I’ll let you know, later.”

It took less than a minute before he picked up a key to room number four and, taking his bag with him, strode to his room and walked inside.

The clerk seemed intimidated. One look from the steely eyes transfixed him into a, “Yes Sir, no Sir,” attitude. He looked at the signature, but it was indecipherable.

Minutes, after entering his room, the stranger reappeared and walked through the lobby.

He asked the clerk where the livery stable was located.”

“East end of the street, Sir,” the clerk answered, but the man was already out of sight.

Stabling his animals, the man dickered with the livery owner for feed and water. Having seen that everything was satisfactory, he removed the pack and the two saddles and rubbed both animals down.

A few people lounged about as he walked back to the hotel. Several pairs of eyes surreptitiously stared at him as he passed, but he studiously ignored them.

They could see a long-legged slow striding person, dressed in typical range gear, checkered red shirt, denim pants tucked into a pair of scuffed boots and a Stetson tipped forward over his eyes. The eyes bored through a man, slate gray and hooded. The narrow, lean face, slightly ravaged by age, showed a determined look that brooked no nonsense.

The forty-five on his right hip shone as the street lights struck it. The pistol, a Colt, showed wear and tear on the handle, but the weapon seemed part of the man, a gunfighter, by the look of him. Men stepped aside as he passed.

Back at the hotel, he cleaned up and left to grab a bite to eat at a small diner across the street, where he spent half an hour over his meal. His next stop, the saloon, boasted a few patrons and appeared quiet.

Pausing as he entered, he looked around, noting each individual and sized him up, before he walked to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser.

Halfway through his beer, a commotion outside made him turn his head and watch as four cowboys, already half drunk, crashed into the room.

The four sat down at a table, while the barkeep poured beer into four glasses and carried them over to them. Obviously, these men were regular customers.

As he overheard their conversation, the stranger learned a lot about them. He appeared to be engrossed in his own thoughts. The youngest man, in his early twenties, named Paul, seemed to have an air of rancor, as he looked around the room ready to start an argument. His clothing was in better condition and the stranger reckoned these cowpokes worked on a nearby ranch and the youngster was the rancher’s son.

Of the other three, one stood out. Middle-aged, red-faced from hours in the sun, the stranger classified him as a foreman. The other two he dismissed as ordinary hired hands.

After a while, the names of each man became clear. Knowing one of the four would soon brace him, because he was new around here, the stranger decided to leave.

Before he finished his beer, the kid called Paul sauntered over and lurched against the bar, breathing alcohol fumes into the stranger’s face.

“Who the hell are you?”

There was no reply.

“My pa owns this town and he’ll want to know what yer business is.”

Still no answer.

“I’m talkin’ to you, fella.” The kid reached out and pushed the stranger’s beer glass behind the bar, where it smashed on the floor.

“Another beer, barkeep, please, and this gentleman will pay for it.” The tall man disregarded Paul who reached out and tried to pull the stranger’s shirtsleeve to turn the stranger to face him.

It seemed like a blur to the bar’s patrons. One instant the kid tried to get attention to his raving words, next moment, the stranger held a gun in his left hand, grasping it across the barrel. The kid’s hand grabbed at an empty holster and stepped back in bewilderment.

His adversary had swiftly drawn Paul’s gun as quick as any fast-draw gunman and held it towards Paul.

“Lookin’ fer this?” he drawled.

It was Paul’s turn to stay quiet.

“Listen, fella, I didn’t ask who you are or what you do, that’s yer business. Kindly leave me be, my business is mine alone.” He emptied the bullets from the pearl handled weapon and threw them on the floor. He placed the gun back in its holster and said, “I don’t shoot drunks. Thet’s a hanging offence, now git!”

The other three punchers stood, and the oldest one slowly approached the kid.

"Paul, let it be. Ye're drunk an’ yer pa won’t like it. We’ll get yer home, pronto.”

He gazed at the stranger and said, “Kid’s feelin’ his oats, jist turned twenty-one. If yer don’t mind, I’ll pay fer the beer. G’night.”

Throwing a coin on the bar, he guided Paul towards the door, followed by the other two cattlemen, who carefully carried their arms well away from their guns.

Paul shouted, “Better git outa town, fella, my pa will kill you.”

As they left, the bartender explained, “Salty bunch, them Double-T hands. The old guy is the foreman, pretty solid guy, you kin trust him. Other two are no-account hired hands. Kid has a problem, his Pa, John Wright, owns most of the land around here and most of the businesses. Spoiled Paul all his life; has him believin’ the world owes him. The old man may come to see you, he don’t like not knowin’ what’s goin’ on.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind,” the stranger finished his beer and left, adding, “Who is the sheriff?”

“Jim Coutts,” came the reply, “Be on his rounds about now.”

“Thanks!” With that, the tall man disappeared out the door.

*

Ten o’clock the next morning saw the stranger leaving the diner, picking food from his teeth with a wooden sliver. As he crossed the street, the noise of approaching horses caused him to turn to see who it was.

He noted two riders, one the foreman from last night’s encounter, the other, a man about the stranger’s age, with an air about him that showed this was Paul’s father.

His assumption turned out correct, as the two rode up to the hotel, dismounted and tied their horses to the rail.

The stranger slowly walked up to them and said, “Mornin’, you here to talk or take me to task?”

“Boss, this here is the man I told you about. Wasn’t his fault Paul got in to trouble.”

Staring pointedly at the stranger the rancher introduced himself.

“The name’s Ike Frost. I heard about you, Sir.” He did not extend his hand, but quietly added, “Not much goes on around here that I don’t know about. You look like a gunfighter to me so I’ll ask you this question and I want an answer, did Jenkins hire you?”

For a moment, there was no reply as the stranger stared at the irate man.

After a long pause, he softly replied, “It seems everyone is anxious to know about my business. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ about it, because I don’t know you or Jenkins. I’m here for a purpose thet I ain’t disclosing’. I ain’t interested in you, Jenkins or anyone else. I mind my own business and I sure will appreciate it if you leave my business to me.”

This was the longest speech the stranger had uttered since his arrival and it caused the rancher to bristle in indignation. “By God sir, tread carefully around here or I’ll run you out of town.”

“Hope you don’t try,” came the answer, “Could cause you a lot of trouble and I don’t recommend it.” The rancher stepped back as angry eyes stared at him. “I’ll be leavin’ in a day or two.”

“See that you do.” With that, the two mounted and departed, the foreman looked back and shrugged as if offering an apology.

Stepping onto the boardwalk, the tall man walked to the sheriff’s office and stepped in.

Onlookers wondered what was going. They found out several minutes later, when the stranger emerged, followed by two deputies carrying shotguns. Pinned to the stranger’s vest they could see a US marshal’s badge.

The trio strode into the bank as soon as the door just opened and remained there. Customers, arriving at the door found themselves greeted by the stout banker, Ed Smith, who told them to leave without conducting any business.

Word soon got around about the strange goings-on and nobody approached the bank after that.

Around noon, five men raced into town and pulled up outside the bank, where they got off their horses. Observers noted they all wore masks and carried pistols in their hands. Handing the reins to one, the other four barged into the bank, issuing commands, “Git down on the floor, this is a robbery, git down or die.”

Four gunshots rang out in rapid succession rang out from inside the bank, sounding like a Gatling gun. All four outlaws fell dead. The stranger’s gun appeared in his hand so quickly he’d fired four bullets before the men realized there was opposition.

Before the fifth outlaw could react, the two deputies raced towards him from behind the bank. Two shotguns erupted, and the horse-handler left his feet and fell in the street. As swiftly as it began, the action ended, with all five outlaws dead.

On reaching the street, as someone scattered sawdust on the rapidly congealing bloodstains, the marshal waited as the sheriff strode towards him.

He smiled at the stranger and said, “Thanks, Clint, glad you knew the Simpson gang wuz coming here.” He shook hands with his old friend.

Clint Wilson grinned, “Got a tip about this robbery. Someone overheard their plans when they were drinking in a saloon, giving me the time and place, so I followed it up. Thanks for your help, boys.” He nodded at the two deputies.

People stared at the group and whispered to each other.

“That’s Clint Wilson, US marshal. They call him hell-on-a-horse.”

“Fastest gunslinger ever.”

“Hate to hev him on my tail.”

Several hours later, Clint rode his horse back through town riding back in the direction from his arrival, his packhorse tied to his saddle, only glancing towards boothill, where a burial service was proceeding for the outlaws.

He ran into a group of riders led by Ike Frost, who stopped to speak to him.

“I take it you’ve heeded my advice.” The rancher’s statement caused Clint to stop and stare at the man.

“My business is finished, so I am leaving. Good day.” Clint rode past the group and rode on.

Paul Frost stared warily at Clint seemingly aware that the marshal could have killed him the night before.

His father watched Clint, until he disappeared around a bend. The marshal had bested him in their short meetings, but he felt no anger. The marshal was that kind of man.

Turning in his saddle, he addressed his boy, “Son, that man is a man to be reckoned with. I think I’ve learned a valuable lesson about pushing people too far. By God, I hope you got something out of it, too.”


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