Sunset Stories : No. 14 - A Matter Of Honour

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
A young Easterner goes west to seek his fortune. He has mishaps on the way, but becomes a shrewd business man. Finally, he clashes with a road agent who abducted him on his initial journey.

Submitted: March 12, 2016

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Submitted: March 12, 2016

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A MATTER OF HONOUR

It seemed that fate had turned against Adam Hawkswell. Having just sideswiped him once, it was about to do so again, in a way that would cause him to wonder why he had been selected for such treatment. Having survived the first blow, he was heading westwards in a stagecoach, with no inkling of the second misfortune to cloud his horizon.

Adam was an artist. More accurately, he was a man with artistic talent, for he had never come close to making a living from his painting and sketching. He excelled at portraits, which he produced equally well with brush or pencil. His predilection was good for the soul, but not the pocket. The work he did for friends and relations was largely taken for granted and what he did for others was poorly rewarded.

Born into a comfortably placed Boston family, Adam had been regarded by most of his contemporaries as a harmless, virtually useless nonentity, who would never amount to anything. Dabbling with oils, crayons and the like was all very well, but not the sort of thing a man did if he was to make any kind of mark. Adam was considered as particularly unsuitable for business, which was remarkable, in view of what was about to happen in his life.

Notwithstanding any shortcomings, a man had to make a living somehow, and having revealed no gifts beyond his artistic endeavours, Adam earned his daily bread for some time by working in a shoe store – the Hawkswell family did not carry passengers. His parents were disappointed and not loath to drop hints indicating as much. It was an uncomfortable situation, not conducive to domestic harmony.

Adam’s place of employment was a high-class establishment, but for him, attending to the pedal oddities of discriminating patrons was soul-destroying. Moreover, it was physically unpleasant, being demanding on the back and knees. To cap it all, the store was owned by a man of very strict views on discipline in the workplace. Taking things all round, Adam’s position was not an enviable one. By the time he reached the age of twenty-two, many people in his circles were wondering whether he would ever show a little spirit. They were soon to find out.

This was a time when many young men were heeding the call to go west and, having read a glowing magazine article about the opportunities in the wide open spaces, Adam decided to join the throng. Like many an artist, he was not the most practical of men. In fact his outlook was decidedly romantic. When he opted for the great adventure, it didn’t occur to him that he lacked most of the qualities desirable for success. He had no knowledge of hunting or fishing and was equally ignorant of the skills needed to make even simple furniture, let alone build a house. He knew nothing about horses, cattle, sheep, farming, cooking or fending for himself generally. However, like a character he had read about in a book by Charles Dickens, he was convinced that something would turn up.

Matters were brought to a head in the shoe store one day, when Adam was unwise enough to antagonise a particularly valued and thoroughly exasperating customer. The gentleman’s fine, flowing white moustache twitched ever faster as his apoplexy increased until the boss became involved. After placating the bebunioned patron, Adam’s employer gave his troublesome minion a severe lecture, emphasising the embarrassed young fellow’s weaknesses in general and his daydreaming in particular, expressing the hope that the words would be helpful to Adam in his future work, which he would be well advised to arrange at once, as he was to be unemployed with immediate effect.

The storeowner undoubtedly had a point, for Adam was indeed an apparently incorrigible wool-gatherer. Earthbound was not the first word that came to the mind of anyone thinking about him. Still, he did not lack vision and was about to demonstrate that he also had his share of will. Faced with this new turn in his affairs, he reacted promptly. Within a week, he put together such possessions as he expected to need, bade farewell to parents and sister and began his passage west.

The move was decided in a classically unscientific manner. Adam closed his eyes and stuck a pin in the most detailed map he could find. His instrument landed in the Territory of Montana, in the area between the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. The only place of any consequence near the pinprick was Butler’s Mill. Adam had a vague recollection of having read somewhere that this was mining and cattle country. It seemed to the Hawkswell scion that this would be as good or bad a spot as anywhere to make a start. However, there were two important things he did not fully grasp. First, the region in general offered even less scope for his limited experience than almost anywhere else in the West. Second, the particular area he had chosen was infested with outlaws. Adam’s reasoning was that Butler’s Mill was a town. It would have paved roads, street lighting and other amenities associated with civilised living, would it not?

Having established that the place was accessible by stagecoach – a journey of seventy miles northwest from the nearest railroad station – Adam went about his adventure in a leisurely manner, breaking his journey twice. He set out with all the articles he valued. He was wearing his best outfit – sober dark-brown suit, plain yellow vest, new black shoes, bought cut-price from his erstwhile employer, white shirt, black tie and flat-crowned tan hat. He looked quite a dandy and was struck by how much more so he seemed as he progressed westwards.

Adam’s other possessions were carried in a black leather valise that held his artist’s materials, and a large carpet bag containing the rest of his clothes, his toilet articles and a few prized books. About his person, he had a wallet, in which he kept such cash as he expected to need en route, plus a money belt, worn next to the skin and holding his savings of three hundred and forty dollars. The only other item of any note was a second wallet, of exceptional quality, kept in a pocket on the inside of his vest. This folder opened out into a small flat chess set, for Adam was an avid and accomplished player of the game.

The dapper young Bostonian had just completed the railroad part of his journey, when providence dealt him the first blow. He alighted from the train late one evening, left the station and began plodding along the dark main street of dingy little town. His intention was to find a room, where he would spend two nights before leaving for his destination. He had covered no more than fifty yards and was scanning the drab, mostly unpainted wooden buildings when two men emerged from an alley and leapt upon him. He received a sharp crack on the head from the butt of a revolver and fell unconscious to the ground.

A minute or two later, Adam became aware that he was being shaken back to his senses. He opened his eyes, wincing at the pain in his head, and found himself looking up at a gaunt, elderly scarecrow of a fellow. “Couldn’t do much to help you,” said the man.  “I noticed what happened, but when them two gents saw me, they ran off down the alley there. Don’t know who they are, but I guess they took your baggage.”

Adam pushed himself up to a sitting position, gently fingering the swelling behind his right ear. “Thank you, sir,” he said, looking around him ruefully. “Is this the usual way a stranger is received here?”

“It varies,” said the emaciated rescuer. “You seem to have made a worse than average start, but this is a tough town, even for the local folk. If you’re passin’ through, you’d best pass quick.” On getting to his feet, Adam found himself still looking upward at the man who exceeded his own five foot seven by nearly a foot and was remarkably thin. For a moment, perhaps deranged from the head blow, he had the dizzy feeling that he had been saved by an animated telegraph pole.

Responding to Adam’s enquiry, the man recommended a rooming house at the end of the main street as being the least squalid accommodation available. He accompanied the unfortunate newcomer to the place before taking his leave, with the sobering suggestion that Adam might as well spare himself the trouble of trying to recover the stolen belongings. “No use callin’ on the law,” he said flatly. “We don’t have much of it here anyway, an’ what we do have is busy enough tryin’ to catch rustlers an’ killers.”

After an initial burst of inwardly expressed indignation, Adam allowed the phlegmatic side of his character to assert itself, deciding that he would regard the matter philosophically, accepting that he had moved west in search of adventure. He was certainly having that, and nobody said that it was always pleasurable. Taking stock of his position, he noted that both items of luggage were gone, as was the cheap wallet with the travelling funds. Happily, the ruffians had been disturbed before getting further than rifling through his coat pockets.

The following morning, Adam breakfasted early, then set out to replace his lost possessions. The few illusions he had evaporated quickly as he scoured the small scruffy town. This wasn’t anything like Boston, where a man’s every material need could be met in short order. He was able to get a cheap carpet bag, but there was no clothing to match the quality of what he had lost, so he took what was available. He wasn’t able to replace his paints, so had to content himself with picking up a few pencils.

Twenty-four hours later, he was on his way northwest by stagecoach, his equanimity largely restored. He had managed to get a new wallet. His savings were hardly dented and he would have a supply of artist’s requisites sent on to him in due course, and had no doubt that he would find suitable clothes somewhere. All in all, he thought, things could have been worse. Indeed they could have – and soon they would be, for he was about to be buffeted by the second blow.

The stagecoach journey was nearly over, with only fifteen more miles to go to Butler’s Mill. People had boarded and alighted along the way, but for this last lap, there were only two other passengers, a young married couple returning home from a trip to the East.

As the stage left the rolling grassland to enter a rugged, rocky stretch of the trail, Adam heard a voice ahead shouting something to the driver, who halted. Being in a rear-facing seat, Adam turned, craning his neck to see what was happening. He was horrified to note that the stage was being held up by a lone horseman, most of whose face was covered by a red bandanna.

There was a brief exchange of words between the bandit and the driver, followed by a thud as the strongbox was thrown to the ground. The driver then clambered down and was ordered to stand with his back to the hold-up man, who dismounted, shot away the lock of his imagined treasury and kicked open the lid. He rummaged in the contents for a moment, then grunted in disgust.

“I told you there wasn’t nothin’ much in there this time,” said the driver. “Just a few papers you can’t use.”

“Shut up,” snapped the bandit, “and keep your hands where I can see them. Now, you folks inside, just step down, slow and careful.”

The three passengers climbed out to find the road agent waving his six-gun at them. “All right, you three,” he said gruffly. “Just hand over anything you have in the way of money and valuables and there’ll be no trouble. If you don’t, I guess you know what will happen.”

The couple seemed unsurprised at these proceedings. The man took out his wallet and made a show of extracting all the money it contained, which he handed over to the robber, now only a couple of paces from his victims. Then the woman stepped forwards and emptied her purse into the bandit’s left hand. That done, the young fellow said that, being accustomed to travelling in this area, he and his wife made a point of not carrying anything of value. That seemed to be good enough for the hold-up man.

Adam was incensed. “Look here, sir,” he shouted. “What kind of place is this? You’re the second party to attack me since I arrived in these parts.”

“Well, well,” said the bandit. “A man from the East, if I’m not mistaken. What brings you out here, mister?”

“Not that it’s any concern of yours,” replied Adam hotly, “but I’m an artist and here to follow my profession.”

“Now that’s real nice. And what sort of artist might you be?”

“Any sort, given the opportunity. Mostly, I paint portraits.”

The bandit nodded. “Very interesting. Now it’s been my experience that men like you coming out here usually carry their money neat and tidy, in a belt under their clothes, so I’ll just trouble you to let me have yours. And don’t make me come and get it, ’cause that could make me mad and I might just blow your head off.”

Realising the futility of further protest, Adam fumbled his money belt free and handed it over. Apparently satisfied that he had got all that was to be had, the bandit ordered the passengers back into the stage and the driver aloft, then waved a hand in dismissal. As the stage rumbled off, the thief swatted at an insect that was bothering him. In doing so, he inadvertently swiped the bandanna from his face. Having thus revealed himself, he looked at the departing stagecoach, to find that Adam was staring at him. Reacting quickly, he bellowed at the driver to stop again, nudging his horse along to the stagecoach door. “You,” he shouted at Adam. “Get down here.”

Adam climbed out once more, looking up angrily at the bandit. “Now what do you want?” he asked.

“You’ve seen me now,” the man replied, “and you just told me you’re a portrait painter. You’ll have my picture all over Montana Territory within a week if I let you go, so you’re coming with me.”

Adam began to object again, but it was useless. The only concession he could wring from the thief was permission to get his bag from the rear of the coach. It wasn’t much, but at least it saved him from the trouble of losing most of his apparel twice in less than three days. Sending the driver on his way again, the desperado set Adam off walking ahead of him across the bleak terrain.

During the three-hour trek, Adam made several efforts to start a conversation with his abductor, but was able to establish only that the man’s name was Frank Purdy, and even that information came with the sinister addendum that the knowledge would do his captive no good. At last, with Adam close to exhaustion, they reached a dilapidated wooden structure, almost surrounded by a horseshoe of high rock. This was Purdy’s base, a former line shack, furnished with a pair of bunk beds, a table, two chairs, two shelves and a small stove.

Telling Adam to sit on one of the chairs and keep quiet, Purdy took from the shelves bacon, beans, coffee and a can of peaches and busied himself making a meal for both men. After they’d finished the food and coffee, he produced a bottle of whiskey and poured king-sized measures into the two tin mugs, one of which he pushed across to Adam. Not normally a drinker, the young Easterner took a swig, spluttered, then spoke for the first time in close to an hour. “What are you going to do with me?”

“I don’t know yet,” Purdy answered. “You’re a problem.”

“Do you intend to kill me?”

The bandit seemed genuinely shocked. “I’m not a murderer,” he said sharply. “I never killed a man in my life – yet.”

“Well, what else can you do?”

“I’m thinking it over,” Purdy replied, “and if you don’t stop gabbing, I might plug you, just to keep you quiet.”

“Sorry,” said Adam. “If you don’t mind, I’ll amuse myself while you’re pondering.” He reached into his vest, extracting and opening his pocket chessboard.

“What are you doing there?” Purdy asked.

“Just trying out a few chess moves.”

“Chess?” A remarkable change came over the road agent, his grim face lightening several shades. “You play chess? Why didn’t you say so before?”

“Well, that’s an odd remark,” Adam replied. “You’ve spent most of the last four hours telling me to be quiet.”

“Never mind that. Are you a good player?”

“Reasonably,” said Adam. “At least, when I came up against Paul Morphy, he was kind enough to say I had promise.”

“What? You played Morphy himself?” Purdy almost shouted in his excitement. “When?”

“Oh, a few years ago. I was a youngster then. It was one of those simultaneous displays these great players give. Paul said I’d done pretty well to last out for thirty-nine moves against him.” This was merely Adam’s daydreaming taking over. He had never played against the great Morphy. Had he done so, he would have received the same kind of trouncing that the Louisiana wizard administered to almost all of his opponents. But Adam had fantasised about the fictitious encounter until he almost believed it himself.

Purdy’s brown eyes were burning, his position as Adam’s custodian temporarily forgotten, for the bandit was a chess fanatic and seldom got an opportunity to indulge himself. “Well, that’s really something,” he said, clearly fascinated. “I’m a fair hand at chess myself. Comes of having a lot of time on my hands. I reckon we’ll have a game or two while I decide what to do with you. ’Course, I usually play for money.” The man’s love of gambling was another powerful drug.

“Oh, so do I,” said Adam, lying with an impromptu facility which later amazed him, for he had never risked a penny betting on anything in his life.

Purdy’s face took on a crafty look. “Just a minute,” he said, rasping a thumb and forefinger over his black chin stubble. “I already took all your money, so if I win, you can’t pay up.” This problem caused a good deal of dickering, but it was finally agreed that if he won, Purdy would accept Adam’s marker then, should he decide against all expectations to release his prisoner, Adam would give his word to discharge his debt when he was able to.

Adam was satisfied on this point, but expressed doubt as to what would happen if he won. After all, he was in Purdy’s power. The desperado was shocked at Adam’s attitude. “Why, that’s no way to talk,” he said, obviously surprised. “What do you think I am –  some sort of crook?”

“Well, you are, aren’t you?” Adam answered, equally taken aback.

“Gambling’s different,” said Purdy. “Everybody knows a man pays off that kind of debt – it’s a matter of honour. What sort of world would it be if we didn’t keep our word in such things?”

That settled, Purdy fumbled under the lower bed, bringing out an old battered chessboard and a set of boxwood pieces. The two aficionados got to grips. It was soon clear that although Purdy was a fairish run-of-the-mill player, he was below Adam’s class. In less than twenty moves, he had been outmanoeuvred and by the twenty-fifth move, he had scarcely a viable option left. However, Adam had been thinking beyond the chessboard. Having satisfied himself as to his superiority, he first decided to prolong the game, playing in subtle cat and mouse fashion, merely to gain time. Then, as move followed move, he developed a more ambitious plan.

It wasn’t easy to extend the game without arousing Purdy’s suspicions, but Adam managed it, taking the encounter to forty-six moves before he administered the coup de grace. The stakes were fifty dollars a side, so Adam had made a start on winning back his savings.

There was no stopping Purdy, whose twin passions had never previously been fused in this way. No sooner had the tussle ended than he began to set up the pieces for another try, this time for hundred-dollar stakes. Before the second game started, the two men had a brief inquest on the first. Adam managed to persuade his opponent that the battle had been much closer than it really was and that Purdy had twice come within an ace of winning. The bandit believed that because he wanted to believe it.

As it turned out, that first clash was the beginning of a marathon. Pausing only for coffee and the lighting of lamps, the two players continued game after game, on into the evening and all through the night, finishing just before noon the following day, with both players near-prostrate with fatigue.

It was an extraordinary feat on Adam’s part. Merely beating Purdy would have been child’s play. The difficult part was to keep the charade going, feeding the outlaw’s addiction, giving him the impression that he was repeatedly coming close to winning, then seemingly finding a desperate resource which defeated him. Just once, when the farce seemed likely to falter, Adam allowed Purdy to win a game, giving him fresh hope.

The gambling side of it was equally complicated and delicate. Steadily, Adam won back all of his savings, then established that Purdy had no other money. Business had been slow lately, the outlaw explained. He did however, have a few gold and silver watches and three gold rings, which he put up as stakes – and promptly lost. After he was cleaned out, Purdy insisted on continuing, writing markers to cover his further reverses.

When he was finally satisfied that he could not protract the sham any further, Adam, red-eyed, made short work of the last game, smashing through feeble defences to win in under twenty moves. Taking stock, the two men found that the Bostonian had not only recouped his savings and taken his opponent’s valuables, but also held markers totalling exactly one thousand dollars.

Adam was still convinced that Purdy would not let him go, but the outlaw proved that his words concerning gambling debts were not empty ones. There could be no violation of the code. He would pay up, but he would need time. Moreover, he was prepared to release his captive, requiring only that Adam give his solemn word that he would say nothing about the whereabouts of the hideout. Being glad to escape with his life, Adam agreed, then, to his further astonishment, Purdy asked how much time he was to be allowed to clear his debt, repeating that his recent pickings had been slim.

Adam suggested that a year would suit him, but Purdy asked for more time. After a little haggling, they agreed on two years. The outlaw was confident that, if he worked harder and widened his operating radius, he could meet his commitments. Still not fully comprehending what was happening, Adam picked up his carpet bag, shook hands with Purdy and tramped off across the rough, undulating land, making for the spot, nine miles away, where he had been abducted. He reached it by late afternoon and within two hours, was picked up by a group of cowboys, heading for his destination in a buckboard. They accepted the cock-and-bull story he had devised to account for his predicament. He reached his goal by nightfall, collapsing into a bed in the first boarding house he found.

The streets of Butler’s Mill were not paved with gold. In fact they were paved, or rather covered, with just about everything else. Horse, ox and dog droppings abounded. Other substances, of less clear origin, lay in and around the wagon ruts which, being alternately baked and frozen, were more often than not only slightly softer than railroad metals. It did not seem like a promising place for a man to make a fresh start.

Adam Hawkswell noted the squalor, but was resolute. His brush with Frank Purdy had brought out the iron which had been lurking in his soul all along. And it marked a dramatic change in his fortunes. There would be hard work ahead, but Adam got right down to it. He rented a small house on the fringe of town, then visited the bank, depositing his cash and the valuables he had won from Purdy. On the strength of that collateral and his air of being man of substance, the bank was ready enough to advance money to him.

Adam was on his way. He soon revealed a financial acumen that would have astounded his parents. From the beginning, everything he did confirmed him as a man with the Midas touch. His first investment was the purchase of an ailing general store. He left day to day matters to the previous proprietor, who stayed on as manager, but it was the new owner’s injection of capital and innovations that rapidly made the business a resounding success.

Like so many men starting in a new place, Adam was unencumbered by distractions. He was largely impervious to the pleasures of the flesh, so he toiled almost incessantly, the lamps in his house always burning into the small hours. Within weeks, he had diversified his interests and in less than six months, he had stakes in eight different enterprises, including cattle, mining and lumber. A year after his arrival, he was making money as fast as he could count it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a price not quantified in the cash books. It was paid in the change that came over Adam’s personality. The pleasant, languid dreamer of Boston disappeared, to be replaced by a hard, incisive man of affairs. There was never anything outright improper in his conduct, but much of what he did was on the perimeter of legality. Because he always kept his word, he became known as an honourable man, but very sharp. Anyone dealing with Adam Hawkswell would be all right, so long as he counted his fingers after the concluding handshake.

The bank had cause to rejoice, for Adam soon outstripped all rivals to become its biggest customer. To provide himself with a constant reminder of his new beginning, he withdrew from safe deposit the few valuables he had originally handed in, keeping them in a tin box under his bed. By the time another year had passed, he was the wealthiest man for many a mile around Butler’s Mill.

Two years to the day after his strange meeting with Frank Purdy, Adam was sitting in his living room on a bright, sunny morning, when he heard a knock at the door. Calling for the visitor to enter, he looked up from a ledger he was checking. His jaw dropped as the door opened and the outlaw walked in. Alarmed, Adam began looking round for something he could use as a weapon. He didn’t need to, for Purdy was all smiles. “Morning,” he said. “How are you?”

“What … what do you want?” asked the startled Adam.

Purdy chuckled. “Me?” he said. “It’s not what I want. It’s what you want. I’ve come to pay up.”

“Pay up?”

“Yes. You can’t have forgotten. I owe you a thousand dollars. I told you I always pay gambling debts. Here it is, one thousand dollars.” He tossed a bag onto the table that stood between the two men. Earlier, Adam would have been profoundly glad at such a turn of events. Now however, he was so transformed by his experience in the crucible of finance that his mind raced along on quite different lines. “Thank you,” he said coldly. “Now what about the interest?”

“Interest?” said Purdy. “What do you mean?”

“It’s simple enough,” Adam replied. “In effect, I made you an advance of a thousand dollars for two years. Now, I’m not accustomed to lending money without payment of interest. My terms are the same as you’d get from the bank – ten per cent a year, compounded.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” asked the nonplussed outlaw, whose abrupt change of attitude should have been enough to stop Adam’s harangue.

“Ten per cent per annum, per annum, and pro rata per part-annum,” Adam went on remorselessly. “That means that for the first year you owe me a hundred dollars in interest, then for the second year, interest on the original principal plus the first year’s interest. Altogether, you owe me a further two hundred and ten dollars, and I’ll trouble you to pay it now. All the time we’re talking, the clock’s ticking, so you’ll owe me more by tomorrow.”

As Adam was speaking, Purdy’s mood was becoming uglier. By the time the last word fell, his eyes were blazing. “Damn you,” he snarled. “All this time, I thought I was dealing with an honest man. Now I see you’re nothing but a swindler. I’ll show you how I deal with your kind. I once told you I’d never killed a man. I haven’t done since then, but now I’ll make a start.” He whipped out a Colt .45 and put a bullet between Adam’s eyes.

Holstering his gun, Purdy stepped forwards, picking up the bag of money he had thrown down. He hefted it longingly for a moment, then dropped it in disgust. “I guess I owe it to him, dead or alive,” he sighed. Then he left.

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