Sunset Stories : No. 30 - Taking A Chance

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
A wandering opportunist reaches a town where he has a bout with a professional boxer and other adventures.

Submitted: July 02, 2016

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Submitted: July 02, 2016

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TAKING A CHANCE

Jeff Connolly approached the small Rocky Mountain town of Lodgepole late in the morning of a bright, cool September day. An aimless,  opportunistic drifter, Jeff lived on his wits, worked when he had to, and whether he was in funds or broke depended on his most recent experience. His current bankroll was eight dollars and forty-seven cents. He had no idea that the place ahead of him was enjoying a rare day of excitement. That became clear as he rode along the main street and heard, off in the distance, the roar of raised voices. He was surprised to note that there was no traffic of any kind. None of the stores appeared to be doing any business. The only person in sight was an old fellow, snoozing in a rocking chair in front of a saloon.

As he proceeded southwards along the street, Jeff heard the massed voices more clearly, sometimes high with excitement, sometimes low with groans of disappointment. The din came from some spot at the far end of the town. Jeff had intended that his first call would be at the livery stable, but curiosity impelled him to ride on. It was only when he reached the last building in the street that he came upon the source of the racket.

In the space to the west was a boxing ring, mounted on a platform. It seemed that every chair in town had been pressed into service for the occasion. About two hundred people – mostly men – sat in three rows around the ring. Other onlookers stood two or three deep behind the seated spectators.

In the ring, two men were battling. One was tall, slim, fair-haired and fully dressed but for his hat. The other was stripped to the waist. He was three inches shorter than his opponent, but much more heavily built, with a deep chest and a dark craggy face. Both men wore padded gloves. The taller man was plainly having a hard time, constantly dodging and retreating.

Within a minute of Jeff’s appearance, the encounter was over. The shorter man stepped in, feinted with a right, then smashed a savage left at the other’s midriff. The taller man folded forwards, taking a cracking right to the jaw, which hurled him out between the ropes, landing him at the feet of three front-row spectators. The dark-faced, barrel-chested man used his teeth to begin untying his gloves. He knew his opponent would not renew hostilities.

It was then that Jeff noticed, forty yards from the ring, a wagon with high wooden sides, resembling a railroad boxcar. It was painted bright red and  along the side, in gold letters, was the legend: ‘Jim Farley – pugilist. English Champion.’

Directly in front of Jeff were two men who had distanced themselves from the main crowd. Both were well-dressed, one short and of middling build, the other tall and slim. It was a snort from the newcomer’s horse that attracted the attention of the pair, who turned as one. The shorter man smiled at Jeff. “Morning,” he said. “You seem to have arrived too late for the fun.”

Jeff grinned in return. “That’s a pity. All over, is it?”

“Looks that way. That man you just saw knocked out of the ring was our last hope.”

Jeff dismounted. “Oh,” he said, joining the two men. “Why’s that?”

The short man plucked a cigar from his shirt pocket. “This fellow Farley is travelling around, giving boxing exhibitions, taking on all comers. He stops at little towns like ours between visits to the big places.

“How does he work it?”

“Well, he comes into a town and he and his manager fix up the ring from parts they keep in the wagon. They work fast and have the thing ready in well under an hour. Then Farley appears in the morning from ten until eleven and again in the afternoon from three until four. In each one-hour session, he faces up to a maximum of six opponents, if there are that many available. There’s no charge for watching, but anybody who fights him pays ten dollars. If the challenger stays the course for three rounds, he gets his money back and fifty dollars more.”

Jeff’s eyes widened. “Isn’t he taking a big risk then, this Farley?” he asked.

“Seems not. He appears to finish everybody off easily. We only managed to put up five men and he knocked all of them out quick enough. Only one got through to the second round, and then for barely half of it.”

“How is it arranged?” Jeff asked. “I mean, what does he call a round?”

“Oh, he fights Marquess of Queensberry rules. He says everybody will do it that way in due course.”

Jeff was intrigued. “Who’s this Marquess, and what are these rules?”

“Queensberry’s a British nobleman and the aim of the rules is to reform prizefighting. The system was introduced a few years ago and the idea’s spreading. I’m not sure about all the differences, but with this man here, there’s no wrestling and certain punches aren’t allowed. A knockout means that a man has been downed for ten seconds. Each round lasts three minutes, then the fighters get a minute’s rest. And they wear these gloves with two or three ounces of stuffing in them. I hear they’ll soon be bigger.”

“Hmn. Sounds a little tame to me,” said Jeff.

The short man roared with laughter. “Friend,” he said. “If you’d seen more of Mr Farley, you’d not talk that way. They say nobody has taken the fifty dollars from him yet.  The word is that up in Montana he broke three jaws in one day.”

Jeff was intrigued. “Is he really champion of England then?”

“Well, they’re careful with the wording, but he’s from England all right and I guess he’s champion of some sort. If he isn’t, then they must have some real tough men over there. Farley stands five-foot-ten, weighs near two hundred pounds and has dynamite in both fists. It’s just a shame about this afternoon. We could have had some more entertainment if we’d had anybody to put up against him.”

“You do,” said Jeff, spurred by his impetuous nature and his financial plight “I’ll fight him for a chance of fifty dollars. Trouble is, I don’t have a ten-dollar stake.”

“Well now, you don’t need to worry about that, young man. If you’re serious, I’ll pay the fee. Consider it a gift.”

“Right you are,” Jeff replied. “Just one thing. I’ve been on the trail a while this morning. I could use a room to rest in for a couple of hours, but like I say, I’m a little short of money.”

The taller man took over from his companion. “No problem, friend,” he said. “I own the hotel back down the street there. Just go in and pick any empty room you like. You’ll get plenty of choice –  there’s only one taken right now.”

Jeff tipped his hat. “All right,” he said. “I guess I’ll see you at three o’clock, then.” He turned and led his horse to the stable.

The liveryman had already returned to his duties. He whistled in admiration as Jeff arrived. “Man,” he said reverently, “I seldom saw a finer-looking horse.”

“He’s about as good as they come,” Jeff answered. “Look after him well. I’ll need him again tonight.”

Strolling along to the hotel, Jeff was lost in thought. Not for the first time in his life, he wondered why he did not employ his talents more profitably. Living from day to day was exciting, but it was hard on the nerves. He had several times got hold of money, then frittered it away. So far, he had nothing to show for his efforts, apart from the superb horse. He had bought the animal eight months earlier, immediately after a big win at a card table. He recalled his departure from the scene of that minor triumph, pursued by a town marshal who was anxious to interview him about his playing methods. The lawman’s mount was outpaced by the splendid sorrel and he had abandoned the chase.

Jeff entered the hotel, picked out a room, sprawled on the bed and took stock of his situation. He still had over three hours before confronting Jim Farley. Though standing six-foot-one and not much below the boxer’s weight, Jeff had no illusions about his prospects. He knew that he could hold his own in a barroom brawl, but handling a professional fighter under strict rules was another matter. Unless he could find some kind of advantage, he would get a hiding, or possibly something worse. He thought of those three broken jaws in Montana. Well, he could back out, but in his present position, fifty dollars was no mean sum.

Jeff was nothing if not inventive, and within half an hour he came up with an idea. It wasn’t the best he’d ever had, but seemed worth a try. He left the hotel and walked along to the carpenter’s workshop he’d noticed on arriving in the town. There was nobody around, so Jeff picked up an offcut of wood.

The next call was at a hardware store, also open and unattended. Two minutes of rummaging produced a small saw. There was no price on the item, so Jeff left two dollars on the counter, hoping that would cover the cost. Finally he called at an establishment that catered exclusively for the women of the town. His request for stockings caused the owner some puzzlement, but money was money, however eccentric the customer. She supplied Jeff’s needs.

Back in his hotel room, his cash now nearly exhausted, Jeff unstrapped his bedroll, extracted a muffler and got to work. He busied himself for a few minutes then, satisfied that he had done all he could, settled down for another rest.

By two forty-five, the people of Lodgepole had assembled for what promised to be a brief diversion. They were not confident that the newcomer would put in an appearance, but anything that might relieve the monotonous daily round was welcome. If the man didn’t show, they could always gossip. At two minutes to three, Jim Farley emerged from his wagon, gloved and ready. He climbed into the ring and waited, half-sharing the crowd’s suspicion that the stranger would not turn up. Promptly at three, Jeff Connolly came into sight and strode towards the ring. He climbed in, to be met by the professional fighter’s manager, a small middle-aged man who introduced himself as Jonathan Drew. “Do you wish to buff, sir?” he said.

“What’s that?” Jeff asked.

“I mean strip to the waist. Most men don’t, but if you wish to –”

“No. Hardly seems worth it for a few minutes.”

“Perfectly all right,” said Drew. “It’s a little cold anyway.” He told Jeff that the townspeople had been sporting enough to accept him as referee then explained the rules of boxing and the conditions for this contest. If Jeff was knocked out, or otherwise made incapable of continuing, he would lose. If he knocked out Farley, or was still on his feet after three rounds, he would win. Drew then sent the contestants back to their corners, with instructions to come out fighting.

Jeff’s method of combat elicited hoots of derision from the crowd. Whereas Farley bounced out from his corner, plainly keen to make short work of the bout, Jeff moved timorously, intent on defence. His stance was laughable, forearms high and pressed together to cover his chest, gloves shielding his face, up to the eyes. He was the very picture of reluctance. “What’s the matter, man?” one wag howled. “Missing your mother?”

Jim Farley shuffled around, fists working in and out. It took him barely half a minute to decide what to do. His opponent was passably protected from low in the rib-cage almost to the forehead. What was needed was Farley’s speciality, the solar plexus punch, which had been so instrumental in the disposal of his last opponent. He needed only to distract his man, then give him one thump amidships. Suiting the action to the thought, he flicked out a harmless left which wasn’t intended to land anywhere, followed by a thunderous right to the midriff.

That dreadful blow was enough to fell any normal man. Jeff staggered back three paces to the ropes, gasping like a landed fish, left hand clapped to his abdomen.

But the effect on the challenger was modest compared with what happened to the champion. Farley gave a loud groan and stood rooted to his spot, left hand cupping right wrist, face twisted in a grimace of agony. This left him wide open and Jeff, presented with the only opportunity he was likely to get, mastered his own pain sufficiently to bound forwards, bringing up a right from his kneecap to the professional’s unprotected jaw. Farley thudded down on his rear end and rolled over sideways, still gripping his right wrist. Jonathan Drew was so amazed that three seconds elapsed before it occurred to him to start counting. Nevertheless, by the time he reached ten, Farley showed no sign of getting up, though he was conscious.

It was a sensation, setting the crowd alight, but it seemed that Jeff Connolly was in no position to savour his victory. He folded his arms across his mid-section, lurched to the ropes, ducked out between them and jumped to the ground. Jack-knifed, face contorted, he weaved through the spectators. “What’s wrong, feller?” one man asked. “You need help?”

“It’s all right,” Jeff groaned. “I guess I’m going to be sick. No need for you folks to see it.” He staggered to the street corner then, out of sight of the crowd, stood up, grinned and trotted to the hotel and up to his room. Closing the door, he tore off the two thick plaid shirts he’d been wearing. Next, he untied the ladies’ stockings, which were knotted at his back, pulling from them the shaped chopping board that had taken the brunt of Farley’s punch, then he unwound the muffler he’d wrapped around the board to absorb some of the impact.

Already a large area around where the blow had landed was red. Soon, it would be an ugly sight. But the idea had worked. If the shock of that terrible punch had been concentrated at the point where it had landed, Jeff would have been in a sorry state. As it was, the effect had been more or less evenly distributed over the whole area of the board. It was very painful, but not intolerable. Donning one of his shirts, Jeff went downstairs, left the hotel and walked back to the scene of his conquest.

It seemed that no one had left. Instead, the crowd had broken up into small, chattering groups, everyone wanting to swap views on the astonishing event. Farley had left the ring and returned to his wagon. His distraught manager was standing among a large group at the ringside. Jeff marched up to the man. “I’ll take my money now,” he said, rubbing his middle.

The manager was suspicious and would have liked to make an issue of the matter but assumed that Jeff was a local man and that it would be dangerous to antagonise the crowd.  He counted out the sixty dollars. “There you are, sir,” he said. “Now tell me, what’s your secret? Jim seems to have broken his wrist. He says it was like punching a brick wall.”

“Well, in a way it was. I’ve trained my stomach muscles so they’re extra hard,” Jeff lied airily. “Your man isn’t the first one to get hurt on them. They were my best weapon. I knew if he hit me there, he’d damage himself more than me.”

“Astounding, young man. Do you mind showing me those muscles?”

“Later. They’re mighty sore right now and it’ll take me two or three days to toughen them up again.”

Not daring to pursue the point, Drew had no choice but to nod his acceptance. He joined his fighter in the wagon and the crowd dispersed. A few men tried to detain Jeff, but he professed post-fight reaction, insisting on returning to the hotel, and nobody was inclined to upset the man who had just flattened the champion boxer.

Back in his room, Jeff lay on the bed, hardly able to believe that his crazy stunt had succeeded. He considered immediate flight, but decided to take a chance by staying until nightfall. Maybe, if the carpenter didn’t put two and two together and start talking, this was one of those lucky days.

It was seven in the evening when the hero appeared outdoors again, making his way along to the nearest saloon. Close to its doors, the sidewalk was taken up by two men, one middle-aged, the other around twenty. To the obvious amusement of his companion, the younger fellow delved into a small bag, snorted in disgust and returned whatever he had retrieved. “Hello there, young feller,” said the older man as Jeff approached. “You all right again now?”

“I’m fine,” said Jeff. “Hope you got your money’s worth.”

“Sure did. We’ll have something to talk about for a good while, thanks to you.” Then the man seemed to be struck by a thought. “Say,” he said. “You seem to be bright. Maybe you can settle this little matter we have going here?”

“Don’t know how you decided that I’m smart, but I’ll try. What’s the problem?”

“None at all to me. Young Robbie here is the one who has the headache. It’s like this. I keep taking money off him and he can’t see why. He has two balls in the sack, identical except that one’s red and the other’s green. Says he wants two reds in succession and it’s even money each time he makes two draws, and he wonders why I keep winning. I tell him I have two chances to his one. What do you say?”

“You’re both wrong,” said Jeff.

“How so? I say he can get either two reds, or red and green, or two greens. That’s two to one in my favour, isn’t it?”

“No,” said Jeff. “If you want to bet, I’ll give you odds of two to one and beat you, over a reasonable length of time. “

“I’ll take you up on that. What do you call reasonable?”

Jeff rubbed his jaw. “Let’s say as long as it takes us to make a hundred double-draws. I give you two dollars for each time you get two reds, you give me one dollar for every time you don’t. Shouldn’t take long.”

“You’re on,” said the man, “but with you paying out two to one, I reckon we’ll come out near even. Robbie, you do the drawing, then it’s guaranteed fair.” The young man, delighted to be involved in some game at which he wouldn’t lose, agreed,  volunteering to keep count.

It took twenty minutes. At the end of a hundred double-draws, two reds came up twenty-six times, failing seventy-four times. “There you are,” said Jeff. “I owe you fifty-two dollars for your twenty-six double-reds and you owe me seventy-four dollars for the failures. Overall, you owe me twenty-two dollars.” The older man handed over the money. “I don’t get it,” he sighed. “How did you know you’d win?”

“Well, you didn’t do so badly, Jeff replied. “In fact, you just beat the odds.”

“How do you work that out? It still seems to me they’re two to one.”

“No, they’re three to one. If you draw twice, you have four possible results. You can get red twice, or red and green, or green and red, or two greens. That’s three to one against two reds. If you keep at it, you’ll see I’m right.”

“Well, I never thought of it like that. I guess a man lives and learns.”

Pocketing his winnings, Jeff went into the saloon, ordered a beer and carried it over to an unoccupied table. He hadn’t been sitting there for more than five minutes when young Robbie walked in, bought a whiskey and came over to join him. “Do you mind if I sit with you?” he said.

“I guess not. Something on your mind?”

“I’ve been thinking about that matter out there.  Does it work with other bets, like throwing dice, for example?”

Jeff nodded. Different odds but same principle. If you can lay hands on some, we’ll have  go”

“I think Dave keeps a few behind the bar.”

“Fetch a couple and let’s try it out.”

Robbie scurried off, returning with two half-inch diameter black wooden cubes, the white spots painted on by hand. “These are all he has,” he said. “Will they do?”

“Not possible they’re loaded, is it?” said Jeff with a grin.

“I’d say not. If Dave had any like that, he’d keep them for his own use.”

“We’ll assume they’re okay. Now, how do you want to play this?”

Robbie scratched his head. “Well,” he said. “If I aim to get two sixes with a throw, I have one chance in six with each die, so that’s one in six altogether, isn’t it?”

Jeff smiled. “We’ll soon find out. Now, let’s suppose I offer you better odds.” He pulled a stub of pencil and an old envelope from his coat pocket, handing them over. “Say you do the throwing and keep score, so I’m not interfering at all. I’ll give you twenty dollars for each time you get double-six and you give me one dollar for each time you don’t. That’s giving you four times the odds you reckon. You throw for ten minutes by that wall clock over there, then we settle up. How’s that?”

“Fine. Let’s get to it.”

At the end of ten minutes, Robbie tallied the score, then shook his head in bafflement. “I don’t believe it,” he moaned. “I threw seventy-nine times. I got three double-sixes, so you owe me sixty dollars for that. I failed seventy-six times, so I owe you seventy-six dollars for that. I reckon I owe you sixteen dollars.” He counted out the money. “How did you know?” he asked.

Jeff took the cash. “Look, Robbie,” he said. “If you throw one die, you have six different ways it can come out, right?”

“Right.”

“Then you have the second die, so any one of the six sides on the first can turn up along with any one of the six sides of the second. That’s thirty-six possible results and double-six is only one of them, so it’s thirty-five to one against your getting it. Like that man outside, you beat the strict odds, which is always possible over a limited run, but you still lost plenty, and if we go on, the long-term trend will take effect and you’ll lose a good deal more.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Robbie. “You know a lot about these things.”

Jeff nodded. “You might say I learned the hard way,” he said.

“How?”

“Well, when I was a youngster, we had a visit from my uncle. He’s an eccentric fellow and  as rich as Croesus.”

“As what?”

“Not what, who. He was a king. Lived a long time ago in the place where coined money was invented. Anyway, my uncle stayed on for my eleventh birthday. When that came along, he stood in front of me, felt in his coat pockets and came up with a hundred-dollar bill in one hand and a half-dollar coin in the other. He said I had two minutes to choose. I could have the bill there and then, or he’d put the fifty cents into a bank for me that day. I’d get no interest but assuming that we both lived long enough and that the bank survived, he’d call there each year on my birthday, or on the following Monday if the anniversary was on a Sunday, until I was twenty-five, and would double what he’d put into the account the previous year, on condition that I didn’t draw out anything at all.”

“What did you say?”

“I just wasn’t smart enough to figure it out, my ma wasn’t there and my pa was no good with headwork, so I took the hundred dollars. Seemed like all the money in the world to me then. I bought my first horse and saddle and a few other things, all long gone now. My uncle said I was short-sighted and he left.”

“Then what?”

“In six weeks I’ll be twenty-five. If I’d made the right choice, my uncle would be going to the bank and putting in his last payment of eight thousand one hundred and ninety-two dollars and I’d have a total of fifty cents short of twice that amount.”

Robbie whistled. “You don’t say. I’ll bet you’re upset, aren’t you?”

“No. When I realised what I’d done wrong, I got interested in figures and odds and such things, so it was a good lesson.”

“I can see that. You’re sure smart. Must have done a deal of thinking. I mean, how did you work out these things, like with the balls and dice-throwing?”

Jeff laughed. “Oh, I didn’t work it out. That was done by a couple of French mathematicians, well over two-hundred years ago. I just learned it.”

“Well, I still say you must be a hell of a thinker.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t stop me from losing plenty at cards. You seem to have a high regard for thought, Robbie. Have you ever considered how easy it is to make other people think the way you want them to?”

“No, I haven’t, and that’s one thing I don’t believe.”

“You want to bet on it?”

Robbie pulled his remaining money from a pocket. “I can’t afford to bet much. You nearly cleaned me out with the dice. Maybe just a few dollars.”

Jeff looked around the room, counting the customers, then thought for a moment. “All right. I say I can show you an experiment that proves the point. I’ll do it just once. For every man who takes part and doesn’t do what I predict, I’ll give you fifty cents and for every man who does do it, you give the same to me. Apart from the two of us and the barman – we have to leave him out – there are fifteen people here, so neither of us can lose more than seven dollars and fifty cents.”

“Right,” said Robbie. “We’ll try it.”

“Okay. We’ll need, say, half a dozen pencils and some small pieces of paper – a little notebook will do. That general store down the street is still open. If you get the stuff, I’ll pay.”

Within five minutes, Robbie was back with the requisites. Jeff snapped each pencil into three pieces, sharpened the broken ends, then went to the bar, turning to address the room. “Gentlemen,” he said. “Robbie here and I want to try a little test and we need cooperation. We’ll leave out our barman here, so he can keep an eye on things. Anybody willing to take part only needs to do some real simple mental arithmetic. Now, I know some people don’t like games, so if you want to play, maybe you’d just raise an arm, so I’ll know how many are in.”

It was a neat way of avoiding embarrassment to any possible innumerates. All but two men raised their arms and Jeff gave each participant a piece of pencil and a sheet from the notebook, then went back to the bar, took another sheet from the book,  wrote something on it, folded it and handed it to the barman, then turned back to the players. “Right, we’re all set. You don’t need to write anything till I ask you to. Just do these little sums in your heads. Ready?” Getting general assent, he went on: “First, take away one from one. Okay, now take away one from two. Right, now take away two from three. Now take away four from eight. Done? Right, now quickly think of a number between twelve and five, jot it down right away and turn over your papers. Robbie will collect them.”

Two minutes later, the thirteen slips were on a vacant table. Jeff asked Dave the barman to open the paper he had retained and read out what was on it. Dave called out: “Number seven.”

“Now,” said Jeff. Just see what these gentlemen have written down.”

Robbie turned all thirteen papers face up. They showed two sixes, one eight, one nine, one ten and eight sevens. “Jeff grinned. “Seems you owe me one dollar and fifty cents,” he said.

“How the hell did you pull off that trick?” Robbie asked, dropping the money into Jeff’s hand.

“There’s no trick. I told you, it’s making people think what you want them to think.”

“But how?”

“It’s easy. You’ll recall I asked everybody do a few simple subtraction sums in quick succession. When I came to the last item, I didn’t ask them to take five from twelve, but I knew most of them would. It’s a question of conditioning people’s minds to act in a certain way. They’d got used to taking one number from another and they just carried on. It’s not guaranteed, but it works with well over half of all people, and that’s enough if the stakes are even.”

“Well, you were right and I’m impressed. I guess a man could learn a lot from being around you for a while.”

“Maybe, but not this time. I have to go now. Been nice talking with you, Robbie.” Jeff waved a general farewell to everyone, then went to collect his horse. He decided against food, as his mid-section was still painful from  Jim Farley’s punch. It had been an eventful day and he had picked up winnings of eighty-nine dollars and fifty cents, and as the man who’d paid the ten-dollar fee for the fight hadn’t asked to be repaid, Jeff had kept that, too. Having no intention of staying around for any possible inquiry into his boxing tactics, he rode off, heading south. He’d travelled less than two miles when he came upon a belt of trees to his left.

A rider emerged from the greenery, six-gun levelled. “Okay, feller,” he barked. Keep your hands where I can see them. I know you picked up a good deal of cash today an’ I want it.”

“No need for any shooting, mister,” said Jeff quickly. “Money isn’t worth it. But I’ve  a couple of questions, if that’s okay with you.”

“What questions?”

“Well, I have nearly two dollars in loose change. All right if I keep that –  a man has to eat?”

“Yeah, keep it. What else?”

“Just that I get real nervous around guns. Can I move on right away?”

“I didn’t plan on makin’ this a lifelong friendship. Hand over the poke an’ ride.”

Jeff nudged his horse forwards, came abreast of the bandit, fished a well-filled money clip from his shirt pocket and handed it over. The man snatched it and Jeff went off like a bat out of hell. The road agent chuckled to himself. “I guess all the brains an’ guts in the world don’t make much difference when a feller’s looking down the barrel of a forty-five,” he muttered.

On that fine horse, Jeff was already out of sight by the time the robber began to examine his wad of booty. He found a dollar bill at the top  and another at the bottom. Sandwiched between them was a sheaf of neatly cut newspaper. Immediately beneath the upper bill was a pencilled note. By dim moonlight, the bandit read the words: I’ve been keeping this bundle for a man like you. Don’t spend it all at once.

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