Libertyville appeared through a heat haze about two miles away. It was a typical western town with a Saloon, general store, livery stable and small assortment of other businesses fronting the main street with a couple of dozen houses scattered hither and yon on either side. It took Hiram Carson and his mule about an hour to cover the distance on foot. He was dressed like most of the other prospectors that occasionally wandered through the area searching for the mother lode. He wore a flat-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt for protection against the sun. Flat-heeled boots were better for walking than the cowboy style sported by most western men. He stood about 5'6" tall and weighed about 135 lbs after a good meal. An exceptionally well cared for mule, called Harriet by her owner, as were all her predecessors, carried a pack with Hiram's supplies. A well-used but clean Sharps .50 caliber rifle was carried in a scabbard attached to the forward edge of the pack frame. Appearances to the contrary however, Hiram was a little different from the other prospectors. He was done looking for the mother lode.
Hiram had been in the west since the late forties. He had wandered the west from Idaho to Texas, trapping with mountain men, living with Indians, hunting Buffalo, herding cows, and prospecting. He had taken up prospecting in the latter part of his western career after deciding that both hunting buffalo and herding cows were occupations not to his liking. Hiram had been blessed with an excellent memory. Once he had learned what to look for, he was able to reference the map of the west he had acquired through his years of wandering the plains and mountains and now carried in his head, to remember where and when he had seen promising streams and return to them. The result was that after 7 years of prospecting Hiram had found gold—a lot of gold. In an even more unlikely scenario, unlike most his few contemporaries who had struck it rich, he had not blown the money on whores and liquor. Hiram didn't have anything against whores and liquor. He just believed in moderation and, as a result, found himself a relatively rich man with deposits in various banks across the west.
Having no desire to flaunt his wealth, Hiram, who believed he was somewhere in the latter half of his sixties, had decided to try that one thing he had not yet done—settle down. To that end, he had decided to purchase a business. A livery stable had become available in Libertyville and Hiram had decided to buy it. He had always been good with animals and a livery stable was a business he thought he could understand and run. It would allow him the opportunity to keep busy and put down roots in one place. He looked forward to waking up in the same place every day. He even looked forward to the prospect of forming stable relationships.
Hiram entered the town and made his way to the livery stable. He introduced himself to the livery stable's proprietor. The arrangements had already been made and he and the current owner went to the local lawyer's office and then to the bank to conclude the transaction. After a brief familiarization back at the stable, the previous owner wished him well, saddled a horse and was last seen as a cloud of dust heading east.
Hiram settled into a routine at the livery stable. He appropriated one of the of the horse boxes and turned it into living quarters. Although most people would have found the accommodations spartan, Hiram delighted in sleeping off the ground and under a roof. He did most of his cooking over a stone pit but occasionally splurged at one of Libertyville's three restaurants. Cleaning out the stables, caring for the stock and small repairs usually took up the morning. After lunch Hiram would collect his Sharps and wander down to the front of the hotel. With the Sharps leaned up against the hotel wall, he would sit on one of the chairs and engage in desultory conversation with the four or five men who congregated there most afternoons. The names occasionally changed as their various business interests waxed and waned but, generally, about 5 men would show up for companionship and gossip. Hiram usually found himself at one end of the row of seats. The venue provided a good view of potential customers for the livery stable as well as the approaches to the town from the East, South and West.
One sultry afternoon found Hiram with his cohort. Pooling their collective wisdom, they had concluded that it was hot as two rabbits screwing in a sack. Hiram had not heard that particular country metaphor before and mused on it for a bit. After this piece of semi-intelligence was shared, a companionable silence descended until three riders were spotted approaching through a heat haze from the west. This prompted a good deal of discussion among the group members. From the way they rode it was clear they were working cowboys. After some desultory conversation among the regulars it was determined that the cowboys were most likely from the Slash Bar ranch. This conclusion was arrived at because the Slash Bar was the only big outfit in that direction. After some more discussion, and as details of the riders became clearer, it was agreed that the lead rider was probably Bart Shannon, the owner of the aforementioned establishment. The other two riders were most likely Tex and Wiley. Still more desultory discussion ensued but no definite conclusions emerged concerning what business Bart and the boys might be transacting in town.
The three riders drew up their horses in front of the hotel. All three wore cowboy garb but Bart's was cleaner than Tex and Wiley's. Tex and Wiley's well cared for and tied down handguns suggested that they might be paid for more than their cow handling skills. After the proprieties had been observed and Hiram had been introduced, Bart addressed himself to Hiram. "I had been planning on buying that livery stable."
"Was you?" was Hiram's laconic reply.
"I'd still like to buy it."
"If I decide to sell I'll let you know. No plans to do that now though."
"Suppose I encouraged you?"
"Planning on killing me?"
Tex and Wiley exchanged glances. Bart smiled at that one. "Of course not . Thought I would make you a better offer. You walk away with a profit on the deal"
"Thanks for the offer but I reckon I'll just keep the stable."
"If you change your mind, let me know."
"I'll do that."
"Thank you kindly. Good to meet you Hiram. Good afternoon gentlemen." said Bart nodding to reining his horse in the direction of town. His two henchmen followed him.
"Some folks just got to own everything." observed Jed who eked out a living swamping out the saloon in the mornings. He followed up this succinct observation with a wad of tobacco ejected in the general direction of a spittoon.
"I have no problem with ambition but I do not hold with some of his methods." observed Blake the lawyer from the middle of the row.
"Reckon them two hands of his is hard cases?" came a question from the other end of the row of chairs.
"They got some bark on them." replied Jed.
* * *
A few hours later, while returning to his livery stable, he spotted a familiar figure entering a saloon. It can't be, he thought. Better check was his next thought.
Crossing the road and mounting the wooden sidewalk, he approached the bat wing doors. Stepping through and to one side to avoid silhouetting himself in the doorway he scanned the room. Spotting his man bellying up to the bar, he approached from the man's right side which, in the unlikely event that he tried to draw his weapon, would make it difficult to bring it to bear on Hiram.
"Thought I recognized you John," said Hiram to the forward facing figure at the bar.
The figure at the bar stiffened slightly at the sound of Hiram's voice. The head turned to the right. Hiram found himself looking at a familiar face. Familiar deep set eyes peered from under craggy brows. Shaggy hair curled over his collar.
"Hello, Hiram. I'd say I'm glad to see you but I ain't. Drink?"
'Don't mind if I do, John. Thank you kindly."
John signaled to the bartender who came over and served them both. Hiram saluted John and received a salute in return.
"What brings you to Libertyville, John?" Hiram opened up the conversation.
"Business. How about you."
"Business. I own the livery stable here. Hope your business ain't nothing to do with that bank across the street. I keep some money in there."
"I will take that back to Cleon and the boys. They ain't gonna be happy though."
"As you have no doubt gathered from our previous encounter, their happiness ain't my primary concern." The previous encounter Hiram was referring to involved a box canyon, a stolen mule, and Hiram's Sharps .50 caliber rifle. The mule was returned with an apology. "I got friends here that will be hurt if that bank goes under. Tomorrow?"
John winced. "Cleon is getting predictable ain't he?"
"I always liked you, John. Don't make me shoot you."
"I always liked you too, Hiram. I don't want nothing to do with this bank. Not sure I want much to do with Cleon no more neither. He never had a great grasp on reality but lately he is crazier than a shithouse rat. He shot down a settler family two weeks ago for nothing. Me telling him you don't want this bank robbed ain't going to change nothing. He is holed up to the north and planning to ride in tomorrow morning. Reckon I won't be seeing him again to deliver your message. I'll be riding south as soon as I finish this drink."
Hiram and John finished their drinks, shook hands, and parted ways. John mounted his horse and left town on the road to the south. Hiram headed to the sheriff's office.
The sheriff, a portly man with a large handlebar mustache, seemed bemused by the news of the impending bank robbery.
"You recognized this man from where?" he inquired.
"They had a hideout near where I was mining for about two months." replied Hiram
"They didn't try to rob you?" he asked.
"Of course they tried to rob me. They is thieves."
"How did you stop them?'
"I had the water under my gun. I only let one of them up the canyon at a time."
"Why didn't they sneak up you at night?"
"I shot the closest one."
The sheriff, frustrated by Hiram's laconic responses, moved on to the main topic. "What makes you think there will be a robbery tomorrow?"
"I met their scout in town and dissuaded him from participating."
"You think they will still come if he doesn't show up?"
The next morning found Hiram on a chair outside the bank behind and slightly to the right of a filled water barrel with a Winchester across his lap. The water barrel would provide protection from a right handed shooter while still allowing Hiram to bring his weapon to bear. About 10:00 a cloud of dust approaching from the east could be seen as a group of about seven riders. The lead rider was Cleon Lamonte, a burly 6 footer whose air of command was sufficiently impressive to allow him to lead a group of criminal reprobates and bend them to his will. Next to him rode his Segundo, a smallish Mexican with two tied down guns on a showy black gelding. Five other disreputable looking riders followed the two leaders.
The group drew up in front of the bank. "Morning Hiram." said Cleon. "Surprised to see you here."
"I ain't surprised to see you."
"Met up with John did you?"
"Yup. Paco, there are three rifles on you right now. There are others on the rest of you boys but you can pull out any time. Take the road to the south like John did and you won't be bothered."
"Why three rifles on me?" asked Paco.
"You are the best gun hand here."
"How you know this?"
"Used to sneak up to your campfire sometimes at night. Seen you practice regular."
How you sneak up on campsite? We post sentry."
"Lived three years with the Crows. They is the best horse thieves on the plains. They can sneak into a herd of horses and the horses won't know they are there."
Paco, after noting that he was not on the list of those who would be allowed to ride out, decided that valor was better than discretion, caused his horse to hop two steps right, stood in his saddle and reached for his gun. Paco was extremely fast but three rifle shots sounded in a ragged volley before his handgun was leveled. He toppled out of the saddle with three holes in his chest.
"Them boys is better shots than I thought," observed Hiram. After a few moments and glances back and forth and a few glances at Paco, the five remaining riders filed out for the road to the south.
"Why am I still here?" asked Cleon.
"Small matter of that settler family over towards Dryden," replied Hiram. "We need to put a stop to that."
"Should I point out that most of your witnesses for that just left town?"
"I know that. Get off your horse and shuck your belt."
"You ain't taking me in."
"Never planned to."
Cleon gazed at Hiram and then reached for his gun. Hiram's Winchester described a short arc and his shot rang out before Cleon cleared leather. The first shot hit dead center in Cleon's chest. The second caught his head as he was falling from his horse.
A crowd formed as people emerged from their hiding places. Tex and Riley stood within earshot of Hiram.
"You get a shot off?" asked Tex of Riley.
"Nope. Damn fine shooting too. Going up against a stone killer and he put one in the chest and one in the head while he was falling and before he hit the ground."
"And that ain't even his rifle. Hell a good man with a Sharps can hit out to 500 yards."
"Damn. I didn't like the sound of that sneaking around business neither. Have to sleep with one eye open."
"Don't make a man easy in his mind thinking about it. Reckon Bart is on his own on this one."
"Suits me. I been getting tired of this town anyhow."
The next afternoon, as Hiram took his usual seat on the porch in front of the hotel, he realized the atmosphere had changed subtly. Jed, who had been one of the riflemen charged with targeting Paco, greeted him like a long lost comrade in arms. The other greetings were more familiar and somewhat deferential. He wasn't a stranger any more. He was a man to be respected. Hiram had become part of the fabric of Libertyville.