The Look of a Stranger
By Kayak Lady
With thanks to my husband for the editorial work.
Story inspired by Effie's Lean & Hungry Look Challenge on the yahoo group RobertFullerFandom.
Laramie isn't mine and no profit was made.
The stage traveled along the new road through sun beaten, brown, rolling hills. The hot summer wind blew the dust along the roadway while the thundering hooves of the four-up created a massive cloud, which smothered the stage and choked its passengers. Topping a rise the driver called out through the grit, "Rawlings in 20 minutes."
The passengers lethargically stirred themselves from the mangled positions they had discovered as least torturous. The small town was located at the base of the Saw Tooth Range. North of it stretched the badlands, an area that looked as if angry axe wielding giants had hewed the earth leaving huge gaping wounds. These axe wounds held little or no water and were difficult, even treacherous, to cross.
While most of the passengers paid little attention to the wilderness area one somewhat more disheveled passenger closely observed the area. He was a large man with an oval face; his bearing was that of a range toughened cowboy. He was friendly enough, with his fellow passengers, saying that he was seeing someone in town about some land. Still there was a hardening of his eyes, as he looked at the badlands, which would have disquieted the others if they had possessed the energy to notice.
As the stage pulled into the town, most of the passengers tried to straighten up their appearances. The exception was the hard eyed cowboy, who just scratched at his undershirt through the gapping opening that his unbuttoned work shirt allowed. He was the last off the stage and, running a hand through his short brown hair, took a look around him.
He immediately spied the one and only saloon in town and ambled towards it. After the roasting stage ride a cold beer would go down sweet. Not to mention that most bartenders knew everyone in the area. If he played his cards right, he should be able to find the man he hunted.
Passing the general store, the traveler paused to observe its' bustling activities. Store keepers were almost as good as information sources as saloon owners. He watched as a barrel-chested man, in a red checkered shirt, loaded a wagon for a man in overalls. The overalls seemed to indicate that this was a farmer, a suspicion he confirmed by eavesdropping.
"Well that ought to keep you and the misses supplied until harvest." The man in the checked shirt remarked wiping the sweat off his forehead with his bandana.
"Yep I reckon it should." The rest of his reply was drowned out by a booming voice from within the store. "Get a move on, I ain't paying you to jaw the day away; times a wasting."
The checkered shirted man just cracked a grin, and shrugged his shoulders, cheerily remarking, "Ah, once more into the breach dear friends."
"Boy howdy, you come up with the darndest sayings," the man in overalls opined at him.
"I'm not near so clever. My Father was right fond of the old Bard and so I was weaned upon the good man's words." With that the man darted back into the store. From the look on the farmer's face it was apparent that he didn't have a clue as to who or what a bard was … a condition he shared with the eavesdropping cowboy.
Several hours had past and the eavesdropping cowboy now had his target in sight. The bartender was correct as the man always showed up after work for a beer. "Well I'll be danged, it is that funny talking guy working out of the general store," the cowboy thought to himself as the man wearing the red checkered shirt sidled up to the bar and said, "My usual Jeremiah."
The cowboy waited until his target's beer was almost empty when he approached the bar and asked, "You wouldn't know anyone in town who could tell me about the old QB spread?" He already knew the answer to his question when the store clerk practically exploded in his ear, "Lord a mighty what do you want to know about that old patch of dirt."
"I take it that you know the place?"
"Know it, I used to own it. I tell you what that miserable hunk of ground dang near killed me."
"Well then, friend, let me buy you a beer and you can tell me about it," the cowboy said in him friendliest voice. The clerk looked darkly at him and, for a moment, the man thought he would be refused. The moment passed and the two men found themselves seated at a table with two beers in front of them.
The red checkered shirt wearing clerk introduced himself, "Charlie Quesenberry, at your service. What on earth do you want to know about my old homestead?"
"Name's Stack," the cowboy replied, "I was thinking about using the water on the QB when I drive stock across the Badlands to Laramie." This was a total lie that he was careful not to let it show.
"Mr. Stack that would be a fool's errand, the QB only had one water hole and it turned to alkaline on me. If the miserable thing hasn't dried up by now it has probably turned to quick sand, and even if you were able to dig down to water it's more than likely to still be poisonous."
Stack, inwardly rejoicing, worked to make his face appear disappointed, "Well now that's a plum shame, but there's got to be other water sources between Rawlins and the old Laramie road."
"Trust me there isn't. That's why I said that the old QB almost killed me," Charlie responded darkly, "When I got the place there were a bunch of small water holes but those are only full in the spring. So when my main water turned to poison I had to drive my stock to the closest water here in Rawlins. It was high summer, and I lost over half my stock pushing them for 2 days through 60 miles of pure misery. I tell you, if it wasn't for the good horse I had I wouldn't have made it myself."
The two men continued to talk awhile longer although Stack had already gained the information he was looking for. When Charlie was almost at the bottom of his second beer Stack rose, bid him a good night, and departed the bar. Once Stack was out the door Charlie's friend Dave quietly asked him, "I didn't think you liked to drink with strangers. Who was that guy?"
"I don't make a habit of drinking with men I don't know; that is for sure and certain. But I don't like to buy trouble when it can be avoided either. I tell you that man had a lean and hungry look, such men are dangerous."
Dave gave him an odd look and asked, "What?"
"Sorry, I was just quoting the play Julius Caesar but that man was definitely trouble. I sure hope I don't ever set eyes upon him again."
The following morning Charlie was happy to watch Stack saddle a fine dapple-gray horse and head out of Rawlins. If he had heard the comment Stack made to his horse as he crossed the ridge toward Laramie he would have been less pleased. "Yep, things are shaping up right," Stack said to his new mount in a voice that was full of self satisfaction, "In about two weeks I'll be back in Rawlins and 30,000 dollars splits up just fine when I'm the only one getting a share."
Charlie couldn't remember a summer this hot in ages. Every day felt like an oven and he was grateful for quitting time so that he could dive into the cool dark confines of the saloon and relax with his customary beer. His quitting time joy was diminished on Thursday when Stack burst into the saloon and bellowed, "Drinks are on me boys I've got some celebrating to do."
What followed was a massive party hosted by the newly jovial and congenial Stack. After the third round on the loud cowboy Dave said to Charlie, "I don't know about you, but this guy is one of the friendliest cusses I've ever run across." Charlie was hard pressed to disagree with his friend as this Stack was almost the complete opposite of the man who had been in Rawlins less than 14 days ago. Still something about the man set his hair on end, and teeth on edge. Charlie made an early night of it.
"Hey don't you know its quitting time?" Charlie smacked his head on the shelf above his head, startled by Dave's booming voice. He looked around the store noting the absence of any petticoat clad clients and growled, "Consarn it Dave! Don't you know it's not nice to sneak up on a body like that?"
"I was just funning with ya. What do ya say I make it up to ya by buying ya a beer?"
It didn't take Charlie long to finish up with his final tasks, and his boss was happy to let him out the door. The man was a task master, but he also valued the importance of Friday night rituals. So with a wave and the admonishment of, "I'll see you tomorrow at eight and don't do anything I wouldn't do," he shooed the two friends out the door.
As they approached the saloon they noticed Stack's big grey tied up at the hitching post. Dave stated, "Looks like that friend of yours started the party early."
"He ain't a friend of mine."
"Well could have fooled me, last night, the way he was buying ya drinks."
"That was last night, and I bet you a dollar that the only ones Stack is buying for tonight are wearing skirts," Charlie challenged his friend.
Whether his challenge was going to be accepted or not was interrupted by a commotion in the street. A man and two women staggered into town from the direction of the badlands and proceeded to rush to the nearest horse trough. It only took a glance at their sunburned faces to know that these three had just endured a horrible journey. The fact that both women wasted no time in first splashing themselves, and then drinking the somewhat greenish water, confirmed the watching townspeople's impression that these three travelers had been in serious trouble.
The male of the group plunged his head and shoulders into the trough. He stayed submerged almost a beat too long and Charlie wondered if the half-baked man had just passed out with his head underwater. Then he came up for air and ordered the nearest townie to get a doctor for the women.
The fierce eyed and sun fried man staggered across the street towards Charlie and Dave, almost losing his footing in the street. He saved himself by first stumbling into the grey horse and then clutching a handful of mane. Charlie noticed that the man's left arm had a bandage with blood seeping through. The man righted himself, pulled two pistols, stumbled across the boardwalk, and into the saloon. As he passed in front of the two friends Dave whispered, "Now that man has a lean and hungry look."
The rest of the unfinished quote was affirmed by the sound of gunfire erupting in the saloon. A moment later the sun fried man staggered back out of the bat winged doors. His face no longer held the aura of barely contained anger; instead he reminded Charlie of a man he had seen during the war. A courier had run into camp, gasped out his report, and then died where he stood. This guy had the same look about him, so it wasn't surprising when the man's eyes rolled and he collapsed into a boneless heap on the boardwalk.
Charlie was the first to reach the collapsed stranger. Laying his fingers along the man's neck he quickly found the man's pulse which was racing. He also noticed that, while the man was dripping wet from the water trough, everywhere else he was bone dry. "Not good, this guy's sun sick. We've got to cool him down and get water into him, or he's going to die on us," Charlie announced to no one in particular.
Turning his attention to some of the men pouring out into the street from the saloon he caught a friend's eye and ordered, "Jud, go back inside and get some towels and ice from Jeremiah," Jud acknowledged him with a nod and was gone. Charlie pulled his jack knife and proceeded to start cutting off the sun sick man's shirt when Dave said, "I don't think you should be doing that right now there's ladies present."
"Then move them out of here, this guy needs to cool down now, and we've no time for the niceties."
Charlie heard Dave leap into action while he finished cutting open the guy's undershirt. He could almost see heat waves coming off the man's chest. All of a sudden he heard Dave yelp in pain and a woman shoved her way to the other side of the injured man. Dropping to her knees she said, "Use this," in a sultry soprano. She thrust a dripping wet and wadded up petticoat into Charlie's hands.
Focusing his attention on this Florence Nightingale, he recognized her as the brunette that had stumbled into town with the guy on the ground. "That's a good idea but I've got a better one," the massive clerk said as he lifted up the sick man, like a sack of grain, and walked around the corner of the saloon. There was a shaded horse trough that had cooler water than the one across the street.
"Ma'am, grab his head so it doesn't go under," Charlie ordered the pretty woman as he bodily dropped his load into the water.
"Jess, can you hear me?" she called to the man in the water. There wasn't any response. Nor was there a reaction when Charlie applied another bandage over the old one and applied pressure to stop the arm bleed.
The ice Jud brought drew a small groan, and gave Charlie some hope that Jess was going to stay in the land of the living. He turned his attention to the comely woman and realized that she was still suffering from the sun's heat. He handed the woman her wet petticoat and softly said, "Ma'am, I don't mean to be crude but you don't look much better off then Jess here. Use this to cool off, 'cause I can't afford to have you passing out on me."
"I'm not offended; by the way my name's Lottie."
"A pleasure ma'am, I'm Charlie."
In the meantime a raucous debate flew around the street. Along with the expected cries, for the sheriff and the doc, men were shouting that Jess had murdered Stack in the saloon. Others were shouting that it was a case of self defense. Into this mass of agitated humanity the sheriff and the doctor arrived.
The pair added to the commotion instead of quelling it. The sheriff wanted to arrest Jess on suspicion of murder and was ordering him taken to the jail. The doctor argued that he wasn't about to let the man out of the horse trough until his temperature came down. He then wanted Jess taken to his office where he could care for all three exposure victims without having to move back and forth. The resulting standoff caused tempers to flare as various townsmen took sides.
A commanding woman's voice broke through the hubbub, "My name is Mrs. Gloria Pierce, my husband is Major Franklin Pierce of the United States Cavalry in Green River, and I will have my say. That man is Mr. Jess Harper, and he is a hero, not some common outlaw. Why if it hadn't been for him, Lottie and I would have perished in the badlands and Stack would have absconded with 30,000 dollars of the United States' money. I demand that you grant Mr. Harper the utmost respect which his heroic actions have warranted." The blond woman ended her verbal assault but, by her flashing eyes, every man present knew exactly what she wasn't adding, "If you don't, my husband will hear about this, and he WILL find a way to make your lives miserable." Since many townspeople made good money off the US garrison in Green River a large number of people grew quiet at the unvoiced threat. The result was that the sheriff backed off from jailing Jess. Eventually all three desert survivors were bedded down in the doctor's office/home.
A few days later Charlie was pleased to wave at Jess Harper as he loaded a strongbox aboard the stage. As Charlie watched the recovered shot gunner he noted to himself, "Wow, that new style bib shirt sure shows off a man's shoulders." At that moment Lottie and Gloria joined Jess next to the stage and judging by the ladies reactions Charlie figured that he wasn't the only one to notice the fit of Jess' new shirt. "Maybe I need to quit buying my daily beer and invest in some sharper duds myself," he continued his internal musing, "I'm just glad Jess doesn't live around here, or it wouldn't matter if I dressed in solid gold." Turning back to go inside the store a random quote from Shakespeare came to him. "Beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green eyed monster." Charlie chuckled at himself for being jealous of a man who was leaving town and likely would never return. While the man had him beat in looks, Charlie Quesenbury had him beat where it counted. He was a local.