Sunset Stories : No. 23 - Hadley's Vacation

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
A young cowhand travels south to help his troubled settler uncle, who is having problems with an overbearing rancher.

Submitted: May 14, 2016

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Submitted: May 14, 2016

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HADLEY’S VACATION

Neil Hadley had covered more than three hundred miles in a week, and like his Appaloosa mount he was ready to give the riding a rest for a while. It was early in the evening of a murky October day and darkness was gathering when Hadley reached the small township of Stansfield, Wyoming. Already there were lights in most of the houses and such stores as were still open. Heading along the main street, the new arrival recalled his last visit to the place, two years earlier. He now reckoned that if there had been any change in the meantime, it wasn’t for the better.

The journey had been almost due south from the Montana ranch where Hadley worked. When the young cowhand had shown his boss the letter he had received from his uncle, the rancher had given him a month’s leave, which Hadley felt would be enough to either solve the problem or fail in the attempt.

Uncle George was Hadley’s only living relative. At fifty, George Hadley was now exactly twice his nephew’s age, though the generation gap had never mattered to either man. The two saw little of one another, but maintained contact through occasional letters and rare brief visits.

George was a homesteader, located five miles south of Stansfield. He had been shrewd enough to get land abutting a reliable water supply running down from the Wind River Mountains. Proving up his land wouldn’t have posed too many problems but for the fact that, in common with many settlers, he had found himself at cross-purposes with the ranching community, or rather with one member of it, for the others were unambitious small-time operators. Tom Spencer was different.

From the beginning, Spencer had seen George Hadley as particularly irritating. The rancher had initially limited his hostility to talk, then it had become more open, including trespassing and harassment. Twice before, George Hadley had mentioned this when writing to his nephew. The latest letter had left Neil in no doubt. Uncle George was a tough, independent man, not given to whining, but the younger Hadley, reading between the lines, had detected a note of desperation. His boss, who had an accommodating attitude toward settlers, had gladly given Neil the time off.

Halting outside Dutton’s saloon – the only watering hole in Stansfield – Hadley was undecided. His journey was almost over, but he was weary and the prospect of a couple of beers was tempting. The saloon matched the day in that, defying the dusk, it showed no lights. A man inside passed the doors, looked out, then moved back further into the barroom.

After a minute’s hesitation, Hadley dismounted, crossed the boardwalk and pushed at the batwings. The next instant would be imprinted upon his mind for a long time. From behind the right-hand door, a huge fist whirled out of the gloom.  Hadley, struck on the chin, was momentarily aware of a large form facing him, then he was tottering backwards. He caught a heel on the warped planking and fell into the street. Getting to his feet, he heard ribald laughter from within the saloon. He massaged his jaw. Painful, but not broken.

Hadley was not a man to accept such treatment without retaliation. He reached into his bedroll, pulled out his old revolver and a box of bullets, loaded the gun and wedged if firmly beside the sheathed knife he always kept hanging from his belt. He would shoot only in defence of his life. Though no gunfighter, he had half-expected to need the weapon, if not quite so soon. He looked at the front of the two-storey saloon. Nothing helpful there.

The building was bracketed by two alleyways. Hadley walked along the left-hand one. At the rear, the ground floor was used as a storeroom and was a blank wooden wall. The upper floor had four single casement windows. Three were closed, but the left inner one was either badly warped or open a crack. The back wall was lined with empty beer casks. Hadley heaved one atop two others under the likely-looking spot and mounted the improvised platform. He was prepared to break in if necessary, but found that the window was open an inch or so. He yanked at the frame, swung his legs over the sill, eased himself to the floor and began to step across the room. His entry had not been noiseless and as he approached the door, a high, tremulous female voice called out from the bed: “Who’s there? What are you doing?”

“It’s all right ma’am,” Hadley replied. “I mean you no harm. I’m just trying to get to the barroom.”

The woman’s voice lowered slightly. “Who are you? What do you want? And what’s wrong with the doors?”

“My name’s Neil Hadley ma’am. I’m sorry to intrude like this. Didn’t know you were here. I tried to get in the usual way and somebody punched me.”

“Oh, that would be Block,” the woman answered.

“Block?”

“Yes. His real name’s Jack Petty, but everybody calls him Block, on account of his size. He sometimes does that with strangers. It’s kind of a game with him.” Her tone had subsided to conversational level.

“It’s a queer pastime,” Hadley replied. “Doesn’t anybody react?”

The woman was now fully composed.  “Not when they see Block.”

“Don’t you have any law here?”

“What we have is a long way off.  Just a minute.” There was scrabbling sound as she fumbled with matches at her bedside commode, then a lamp lit up the room. “Come here,” she said.

Hadley took off his hat and walked over to bed. The woman was sitting up. She had straight black shoulder-length hair and dark eyes, set in a broad pale face, marred by a three-inch scar, running over the cheek from the outer corner of the left eye.

What the woman saw was a rawboned six-footer, a hundred and ninety pounds in weight, clean-shaven, black-haired and dark complexioned. “Block did this,” she said, pointing at the disfigurement.

“Why?”

“No special reason. He was drunk. He hit me with a broken glass. That’s why you don’t need to worry too much about intruding. I don’t get many callers now.” Hadley nodded. “Well, this Block has something to answer for, hasn’t he, ma’am?”

“Yes. I hate him. And you needn’t bother with the ‘ma’am’. My name’s Molly Parker.

“Okay. Is anything keeping you here?”

“Nothing except that so far I haven’t saved up enough money to leave.”

“I see. Well, Molly Parker, I’m going to pay Block for what he’s just done. Maybe I’ll  give him a bonus for what he did to you.”

“Be careful. He works for Tom Spencer, who’s top dog around here.”

Hadley recalled the name from the correspondence with his uncle. “How do I spot Block?” he asked.

“You can’t miss him. He’s very big and his face is a mass of black whiskers.”

“I’m obliged to you. If I finish what I came here to do, I’ll . . . er . . . intrude again sometime, if that’s all right with you.”

“It is.”

Hadley crossed to the door, opened it a crack, then dropped to all fours. Peering out, he found himself roughly midway along a landing, the stairs at the end leading down to the barroom, where the lights were now on. The saloonkeeper was sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper. The only patrons were five men, standing in a group near the bar. There was no mistaking Block. He gave the impression of being about a yard wide and stood seven or eight inches above the tallest of his companions. Hadley put him at six-four and at least two hundred and fifty pounds.

One of the group turned to the barman, asking for a pack of cards. That was the cue for the five men to seat themselves around one of the half-dozen tables, Block sitting facing the batwings, with his back to the landing.

Hadley left the door ajar, crept back and looked around the bedroom, Molly Parker following his roving eyes. “Are you seeking something?” she asked.

“Yes. I need some kind of surprise.” As Hadley spoke, he noticed the water pitcher and basin on the commode. Walking over, he hefted the jug. “Nearly full,” he said. “Seems a shame to break it, though.”

Molly pointed at the corner by the wardrobe. “If it’s only water you want, there’s plenty in that pail. You’re welcome to it.”

Hadley picked up the nearly full two-gallon oak bucket. “Thanks,” he said. “This might do.” He carried the unlikely weapon over to the door. “Now, ma’am . . . sorry, Molly Parker, wish me luck.”

“Believe me, I do.”

Hadley opened the door wider, finding that the card game was in progress. Standing upright, he was able to see that the back of Block’s head was five feet or so below the landing, laterally about eight feet distant from it and almost directly in line with Molly’s door. All the players were studying their cards and the barman was still engrossed in his newspaper. There would be no time for tiptoeing around or taking careful aim, but it was now or never.

Hadley stepped out onto the landing. Giving the bucket a swing, he heaved it over the handrail. The shot wasn’t quite right, but good enough. The vessel fell a little short, hitting the back of Block’s neck, flinging his head and upper body across the table. Hadley couldn’t afford to wait to see the full effect. He swung over the banister, steadied himself for a moment by dangling one-handed from it, then dropped to the barroom floor.

Block had already pushed himself back from the table, kicked his chair away and turned to face the source of his discomfiture. For a brief moment the scene was frozen, then the woolly mammoth closed in. “I don’t know what your game is, mister,” he grunted, “but it’d better include prayers.”

Knowing what an awesome sight he was, the bully boy obviously expected his opponent to retreat. Instead, Hadley stepped forwards, his fists weaving in a comical caricature of prizefighter style. So intent was Block on the newcomer’s eyes and those weird hand movements that he failed to anticipate what came next. Satisfied that he had captured his opponent’s attention, Hadley lashed out with his left leg, his boot thudding into Block’s crotch.

The big man was completely taken aback. His eyes opened wide as breath whooshed from his gaping mouth. He dropped to his knees, both hands clutching the injured spot. That suited Hadley nicely. As his left foot returned to the floor, the right one swung up, the sole and heel hitting Block in the face, mashing his nose and mouth. Hadley hadn’t spared the vigour. The kick threw Block backwards and downwards, his head banging on the floorboards, blood and teeth spraying from the mangled features.

Instantly, Hadley drew his gun, leapt upon the fallen man and rammed the weapon through his beard. “You may be a big fish here, Block,” he snarled, “but this is a small pool. Out in the real world, you’re not even minnow.” Block had difficulty in speaking through shredded lips. “You crazy?” was all he could manage.

“That’s right. I’m a madman. There’s no telling what I might do. Now, you’ll soon be able to talk right again. When you can, tell Spencer I’ll be calling on him.” Standing, Hadley waved his gun at the barman. “You,” he snapped. “Fill that pail. Take it up to Molly Parker and tell her I apologise for disturbing her. And remember that I’ll be along later to check that you’ve done it.” With that, he backed out of the saloon, leaving Block groaning on the floor, the barman doing as he was told and the other four men silent and motionless.

An hour later, Hadley sat facing his uncle. George Hadley had built his place with comfort in mind. It was made of sawn lumber, with two rooms, a pitched roof and floorboards raised over a foot-high void. The older man was delighted that his nephew had responded to the veiled call for help. “I was never so glad to see anybody,” he said, ladling out stew for both men.

Neil Hadley recounted the incident in the saloon. George was not surprised “It’s what you’d expect, Neil,” he said. Then he went on to relate how Tom Spencer had been intimidating him in every way short of personal violence, which seemed imminent.

“How many men has he got?” asked Neil.

“Besides himself, seven hands, including Block, plus a cook, then the foreman, Stewart. Funny thing about him. He hasn’t been around long and he never comes here with the others when they’re bothering me. I don’t think his heart’s in it.”

Neil Hadley nodded “Well,” he said, “you’re here legally, aren’t you?”

“Sure I am, but this is traditionally open range country. Spencer figures he’ll keep it that way if he gets rid of me. He’s scared off some of the other settlers.”

“He’s living in the past,” Neil Hadley replied. “In a few years, there won’t be any open range.”

“Maybe, but there’s more to this. Now, you know how the water runs down here from the mountains?”

“Sure. So?”

“Well, you’ll have noticed that around where my land starts, the river curves and widens.”

“Yes.”

“Right. Now, do you know what happens when a waterway does that?”

“I’ve never thought about it?”

“I’ll tell you. It throws more deposits than in other spots. And what do you think it’s deposited right here?”

Neil Hadley’s eyes widened. “Not gold?”

“Yes, gold. There isn’t much. This is no Sutter’s Mill, but it’s nice pickings for a man who’ll work hard enough. I’ve been sifting for two years. Come with me and I’ll  show you.”

George led the way into the bedroom, where he dragged aside the bunks, pulled up a loose square in the floorboards and hauled out a flour sack, showing his nephew twenty pounds of nuggets and dust.

“There it is,” he said. “Worth over six thousand dollars. I’ve no other kin. It’s yours as much as mine.”

George Hadley replaced his hoard and the two men went back to the other room. “What do you think, Neil?” said George.

“Does anyone else know about this?”

“No. I only pan when there’s nobody watching. That’s why it’s been such a long haul. I get barely half an ounce a day, but it adds up.”

“How do you value it – compared with the homestead, I mean?”

“Hardly at all. It means little to me. I’d far sooner work my land here undisturbed. The gold’s just a bonus. You could call it a sort of insurance in case I’m forced out. Trouble is that apart from being a nuisance to me directly, Spencer’s leaning on the general store in town. I’m having trouble getting supplies.”

“Is that all?”

“That’s it. ’Course, the law’s on my side as regards water.”

“How’s that?”

“I didn’t know about it until I was told by a man who claimed he’d had a good deal to do with these things. He said that the systems are different east and west of the Mississippi.”

“In what way?”

“In the East, they have what’s called riparian rights. That means if you have river frontage along with others, you can take what you want from any part of the waterway, not just the bit adjoining your land, so long as what you do is otherwise legal. Here, it’s called water rights. That means you have sole claim to make use of whatever you find in the stretch that abuts your land, no matter where it comes from.”

“I get it. You mean in the East, anybody can, say, moor a boat on your bit and drag up what suits him. Here, he can’t.”

“I’ve never had it checked by a lawyer, so I could be wrong, but that’s my understanding. I don’t know what happens if two people have riverbank land directly opposite one another. Maybe they each have rights as far as the middle. Anyway, it doesn’t help me, with the law being so far away and not always friendly to settlers.”

“Don’t worry. Let’s get some sleep. We’ll work it out.”

At nine the following morning, Neil Hadley arrived in Stansfield on his uncle’s buckboard, halting outside Elroy’s general store. George Hadley had wanted to go along, but Neil argued otherwise, saying that with only the two of them, it was better that they should avoid being caught together. It was a specious argument, for the younger man’s real reason was his desire to act alone.

As Hadley jumped down, a man left the store, sauntered along the sidewalk, then turned to face him. Nothing was said for ten seconds, but that was long enough for Hadley to sense something about the fellow. He was around five foot ten, slimly built, clean-shaven and remarkably well turned out in all respects. From light-brown Stetson hat, through spotless buckskin coat and open-necked cream shirt to black boots of tooled leather, everything about him was immaculate. Hadley, far from scruffy himself, thought that he had never seen a smarter-looking fellow.

Finally, the man nodded, offering a thin smile. “Morning,” he said. “You’d be Hadley’s kinsman, I guess?” The voice was quiet and neither friendly nor hostile.

“Morning. That’s right. And you’re . . .?”

“Vic Stewart. Spencer’s foreman.”

“I see. Well, I imagine this won’t be our last meeting, then.”

“Probably not. I heard about your run-in with Block. He says you don’t fight fair.”

“I never claimed to.”

That seemed to amuse Stewart. “I suppose the big hunk had it coming. Seems you broke his nose, crushed his lips, busted out three teeth and damaged his manhood. Now he can’t breathe or eat right – and there’s another thing he can’t do.”

“Ah, poor man. I wish I could say my heart bleeds.”

“Do you always kick the living daylights out of people when you fight?”

“If they’re a lot bigger than me and downright mean, yes.”

Still the smile, as though Stewart got some mild entertainment from the childish antics of others. “Well, Mr Hadley, I’m not a giant, but then” – accidentally on purpose, he allowed or helped the breeze to flick open his jacket, revealing an ivory-handled six-gun tucked into his waistband, butt reversed and angled for a fast cross draw – “I’m not like Block in any other way, either. As to meanness, I don’t think it would be good for anyone concerned if you try to find out.”

“I’ve a feeling you’re right,” Hadley replied.

The foreman nodded. “Well, be seeing you, I imagine.”

“Most likely.”

Stewart turned and strolled lithely away. Everything about him indicated economy combined with purpose. There, thought Hadley, was a man to be reckoned with. The outward relaxation suggested barely masked explosive potential. The exchange of words had been accompanied by a less definable but more important interplay of another kind. Hadley had no doubt that Stewart shared his feeling that a current had passed between the two men. It was a powerful flow and yet, strangely in the circumstances, not quite adversarial. Perhaps, Hadley reckoned, they were two of a kind. Could they really be on opposite sides?”

Musing on the encounter, Hadley entered the store, finding only the owner in occupation. The short paunchy balding Elroy looked up from a ledger. “Morning. Oh, you’re Hadley’s boy, aren’t you?”

“His nephew. Morning. I’d like you to fill this order.” Hadley tossed a scrap of paper onto the counter.

Elroy looked around, as though hoping for support, then shrugged. “Be pleased to help you, mister,” he said, “but I just don’t seem to have these items you w –”

That was as far as he got before stopping in astonishment as Hadley pulled the old Colt from his belt, his eyes flickering over the comprehensive stock and coming to rest on a row of five small kegs lined up along the floor. “Looks like whiskey there,” he said.

“It is. Now just a minute, friend, I have a business to –” and again he halted in mid-flow as Hadley shot a hole in the left-side keg, just below the middle. As the liquid began to run out, Elroy moved, intending to save what he could.

“Leave it!” The snap in Hadley’s voice stopped the storekeeper as though he had walked into a wall. “Now, let me tell you how this works, Elroy. What you do is get those supplies together and put them in the buckboard out there. Then you tell me what they cost, then I pay you, then you can see to your liquor. The faster you do it, the less you lose. Maybe I won’t have to start on the second barrel. It’s up to you.”

Seeing his commercial lifeblood leaking away, Elroy moved quickly. Flour, salt, bacon, coffee, tobacco and an assortment of canned goods were gathered and hastily tossed into the buckboard, the storeowner scampering over his precious whiskey in his comings and goings, Finally, he totted up the cost. “Seventeen dollars and ninety cents,” he gasped, wiping sweat from his forehead.

“Okay. Now, I’ve always reckoned myself a reasonable man. How much of that whiskey do you reckon you’ve lost and what do you figure it’s worth?”

Elroy shook the keg. “At least two gallons,” he said. “I’d say twenty dollars.”

“No, no. I mean what you pay for it, not what you sell it for.”

“Well . . . er . . . sixteen dollars.”

“You’re trying my patience. That stuff’s pure rotgut. Now, guess again.”

“Fourteen.”

“Still high, but close enough.” Hadley took three ten-dollar bills and some loose change from a coat pocket. “So that’s thirty-one dollars and ninety cents. I’m giving you thirty-two. Maybe you can use the extra dime to help plug that hole.” He strode out, climbed onto the buckboard and moved off.

Within an hour, the supplies were offloaded, to the older Hadley’s amazement and delight. “How did you manage it, Neil?” he asked.

“Negotiating skill,” was the reply.

By noon, the homesteader and his nephew had dealt with a few small chores and eaten. George Hadley, accustomed to a slow pace of life, reckoned that enough had been achieved for one day. Neil disagreed. “Seems to me we have the initiative,” he said. “I don’t have much time, so I aim to push hard, right away.”

“How?”

“I’m going to see Spencer. You’d best stay here, like we agreed.” George Hadley protested vainly. Neil saddled the Appaloosa and having got directions, headed southwest.

It appeared that most of Spencer’s hands were off about their business, though two saddled horses were tethered to corral posts. The combined bunkhouse and cookshack stood sideways on to the ranch house and thirty yards distant from it. A tree belt offered shelter from the prevailing wind.

The only man in sight was Vic Stewart. He was leaning against a corner post of the ranch house porch. As Hadley stopped, the foreman, still wearing that  world-weary smile, dropped a cigarette butt, grinding it into the dust. “Well, well, he said,” you turn up everywhere, don’t you?”

“Hadley grinned, feeling again that certain something between the pair. “Amazing how I get around,” he answered. “I was looking for Tom Spencer.”

“You found him.” The new voice, coming from the ranch house doorway, was a loud growl. A man stomped out onto the porch, stuffing a grey shirt into black pants. He was sixtyish, of middle height, heavily built, with a full head of iron-grey hair and a military moustache. “What do you want?”

“My name’s Neil Hadley. I’m George Hadley’s nephew.”

“Oh, you are, are you? Well, I won’t ask you to light down – you won’t be here long enough. Why the visit?”

“I hear you’ve been bothering my uncle. I came to ask you to stop.”

Spencer was a chronically irritable man and Hadley’s forthright words seemed to raise him to near-apoplexy. “By God, you have a nerve,” he snorted, almost pawing the porch.  “Just tell me, what’s to hold me back from stopping your clock right now?”

“Only this,” said Hadley, sounding far more confident than he felt. “I can promise you that if there’s any rough stuff here” –  his right hand moved ostentatiously to his gun – “whoever starts it and whoever gets it, you’ll be the first to go. You have a fair-sized business to lose. I’m a thirty-a-month cowhand, so I don’t give a damn. Figure it out.”

The audacious gambit worked. Spencer banked his fury. “I’m making allowances for you because you’re a stranger, Hadley. Don’t push it. Just go while you can.”

As the rancher spoke, Hadley was watching both him and Stewart, who still wore that mildly humorous, seemingly disinterested expression. Realising that he’d got all he was going to get from the rancher for the time being, Hadley played his last card. “All right,” he snapped, “I’ve said my piece. I’d be obliged if your foreman would keep me company till I get off your land.”

“Oh, so now you need a nursemaid,” said Spencer. “Well, you can . . .?”

Stewart broke in. “It’s okay, Tom. If he needs somebody to hold his hand, I don’t mind.”

Whatever further comment Spencer had in mind was halted by his foreman’s prompt words. Moving over to the tethered horses, Stewart called over to a man who had appeared in the bunkhouse doorway. “Tell Deakin I’m borrowing his mount for a few minutes.” He swung into the saddle, motioning Hadley to precede him. “Guests first,” he grinned.

When the two were clear of the buildings, Stewart pulled alongside the visitor. “Now, Mr Hadley,” he said, still with that mocking smile, “You didn’t need an escort, so what’s the game?”

“No, Mr Stewart, I wasn’t seeking protection but I believe we might have something to discuss, if you’re willing to listen?”

“I am.”

“How long have you been Spencer’s foreman?”

“About eighteen months.”

“Mind telling me how you got the job?”

“You might say it was accidental. I arrived here casually and in practically no time, I had a serious disagreement with the previous foreman.”

“What happened to him?”

“He departed this life.”

Hadley chuckled. “Well, I have an idea. It goes like this . . .”

Three hours later, Neil Hadley started out again for Spencer’s place. Shortly before reaching it, he stopped at a clump of bushes, where he occupied himself for five minutes before proceeding. On arrival at the ranch house, he saw Stewart leaning against the porch support, exactly where he’d been early that afternoon. The foreman stuck up an affirming thumb, saying nothing.

Hadley returned the salute, halting outside the ranch house. “Mr Spencer,” he called.

A moment later, the rancher appeared in the doorway, wearing his seemingly standard bellicose expression. “You again,” he grunted. “Now what?”

“Good evening to you, too” said Hadley, hands crossed on his saddle horn. “I thought matters over. Seems to me a waste to involve anyone else. Why don’t we have it out, man to man. Just the two of us. Fists, guns … hell, bows and arrows if you like?”

Spencer glared red-faced at the upstart caller. “You insolent whelp, we’ll see about that.” He stomped back inside, reached above the door lintel and came out with a double-barrelled shotgun, pointing it at Hadley. “Now, mister, I’ve a mind to spread you all over this yard, pronto.”

“No you won’t.” This from Stewart, the voice as ever low but clear.

Spencer swung rightwards to face his foreman. “What?” he roared.

Hadley was directly in front of the rancher, twenty feet from him. The foreman was parallel with Spencer at about the same distance, the three men forming a right-angled triangle, with the burly rancher at the ninety-degree point. The cowhands, all now back at base, spilled out of the bunkhouse doorway.

“I said you won’t,” Stewart answered. “I’ve stood for a good deal here, Tom, but I’ll not see you gun down a man in front of a bunch of witnesses. Even you can’t get away with that.”

“Damn you, Stewart, do I have to settle your hash as well?”

“That depends on you,” said Stewart. He stood easy, facing his boss, both hands hanging loose. Even in that relaxed position, Hadley thought, Stewart exuded menace in near-visible waves. The Montana ranch hand blessed his decision to avoid tangling with the enigmatic foreman.

“That’s right, Spencer, it’s your call,” Hadley said.

“Make up your mind, Tom,” Stewart added.

“If it’s murder you have in mind, get to it,” said Hadley.

“Think fast, Tom. You can’t shoot both of us,” Stewart put in.

“You might kill me but you’ll go, too.” This from Hadley.

The goading was deliberate, and as the two voices alternated, Spencer’s head switched from one source to the other, as though manipulated by a puppeteer. For once in his simple one-track existence, he was nonplussed. He had never before been challenged in any way by a hireling. As his eyes flitted between Hadley and Stewart, he realised they were right. If he got one, the other would get him. The hands stood by, apparently irresolute. For a moment, there was silence, then, with an incoherent oath, Spencer stamped back into the house, leaving the door open.

Stewart, seemingly unmoved by the incident, nodded to Hadley. “Wait a minute,” he said. He disappeared behind the cook’s quarters, returning on a trail-ready horse. “After you,” he said to Hadley, then he called to the men by the bunkhouse door. “Rayner, give us a minute, then follow us,” he ordered. “Meantime, warn me if the old man comes back outside armed.”

They had covered no more than fifty yards when a shotgun blast sounded from the house. Both men turned to see the rancher’s body, his feet on the threshold, the rest of him indoors. “Seemed like he used both barrels,” said the laconic Stewart.

“That it did,” Hadley replied.

They rode on in silence until reaching the bushes where Hadley had busied himself earlier. As they dismounted, Stewart signalled the man behind them to stay in sight but out of earshot. Hadley grovelled in the greenery, retrieving two small sacks and handing them to the foreman. “The whole lot was worth six thousand dollars. I’ve divided it as near even as I could without a proper scale. One third of the total for you, one third for your boys for not interfering, and my uncle’s kept a third for himself.”

“Fair enough,” Stewart answered. “Frankly, I was a little surprised that George Hadley didn’t object to buying off the enemy. Sort of paying a ransom, in a way.”

“I didn’t put it to him like that. Just told him that you were available and that our best plan was to  hire you. After all, that’s what Spencer was doing, right?”

Stewart laughed. “You’re quite the diplomat, Mr Hadley.”

“I have my moments. What would you have done if Spencer hadn’t turned that shotgun on himself?”

“If he’d tried to shoot you or me, I’d have killed him. If he’d just backed down, I’d have kept him tame afterwards. Probably better like this, though.”

“Still, what he did was drastic.”

“He was the same as most tyrants. They get their way by intimidation. If they’re called out, they usually collapse. I guess you didn’t know that Spencer’s eyesight was failing and would have been gone pretty soon. He concealed that from the boys by using me as a go-between, so obviously I was aware of it. He had serious heart trouble, too. All told, his time was about up and he knew it.”

“What will you and the others do now?”

“Well, two hundred and fifty dollars each amounts to eight months wages for the boys. They’ll clear off. All of them were sick of Spencer’s attitude anyway. Brand loyalty is okay up to a point but pestering farmers is another matter. As for me, two thousand’s a tidy sum. I’ll leave, too.”

“What about the spread?”

“There’s no next of kin, so I’ll ask the neighbours to look after it until the legal details are settled.”

“You don’t think there’ll be any trouble with the other cattlemen?”

“No. Spencer was the only one who really hated the homesteaders. You’ll be all right now. What will your uncle do?”

“He’ll stay here. He doesn’t care about the gold. It was a legacy.”

“Inherited it, did he? Well, I’ll take your word for that. Now, I have to be getting on. I’m glad it wound up  this way, Mr Hadley.”

“I’m more than pleased to say the same, Mr Stewart.”

Hadley returned to the homestead to give is uncle the news, then rode into town. It was dark when he arrived there. Settling his horse for the night, he went to the saloon, climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of Molly Parker’s room. She appeared, looking first surprised, then pleased. “Good evening,” Mr Hadley. “I didn’t expect you back at all, let alone so soon.”

Hadley grinned. “Well, I keep my promises and I don’t care to waste time.” He held out a small drawstring bag. “I’ve no other way of thanking you, but that should be enough to get you away.”

Being of a practical turn of mind, Molly took the money.

“Now,” Hadley continued, “I said I’d intrude again, if you’d have no objection.”

Molly beckoned her visitor inside. “And I said I wouldn’t have. Intrude away.”

* * *

 


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