Sunset Stories
Chapter 1: Banking on It

Two men, different as cheese and chalk, sat facing one another across a handsome oak desk in the manager’s office of the Mercantile & Stockmen’s Bank of Grizewood, Montana. In one of the two customers’ chairs was Ezekiel Dawson. A slim-built man of medium height, he had been among the first of the homesteaders to arrive in the area. Where others had gone under, he’d survived, though by a hairsbreadth. Now, at thirty-nine, he was on the verge of going the way of so many of his kind in that part of the world. He cut a sorry figure in threadbare homespun clothing and worn-out work boots. His thin, prematurely lined face was twisted in a bitter expression.

At the other side of the desk was bank manager Harry Brewer. Grizewood was a community where not many had prospered, but he was one of that number. Twelve years Dawson’s senior, he was also of middle height, but that was the only common feature the pair had.

Brewer was undoubtedly the wealthiest man for many a mile around, and it showed. His affluence manifested itself not least in circumference, for he seemed to overflow his massive brown studded-leather chair. Now, pudgy hands clasped across his fashionably-wrapped paunch, he spoke as sonorously as his high-pitched voice allowed. The florid, purple-veined face – evidence, some said, of decades of heavy drinking – registered ill-concealed satisfaction as he gave his decision on the settler’s request for a loan. He leaned back, his original chin resting on the makings of a second.

Dawson spread his hands in resignation. “So what you’re saying is that you aren’t refusing the loan. You’re just making the conditions so hard that you know I can’t meet them. You’re nothing but a damned Shylock.”

The banker reached for a cedar wood box, pulling out a seven-inch imported cigar. Any largesse he may have had did not extend to offering one to his visitor. “You have to be realistic,” he said. “Anyway, just tell me again why you want so much?”

Dawson flapped his hands. “I thought I’d made it plain enough.” He had, but he knew that Brewer was enjoying his applicant’s discomfiture. “I need a cultivator. I can get one by mail order for seventy-five dollars. Carriage costs fifteen dollars. That’s ninety altogether.”

“And you wanted a hundred.”

“That’s right. I thought I might treat my wife to a little something, and I need a new pipe. Look at this.” He brandished an ancient blackened briar, reaching across the desk in an effort to shove it under Brewer’s nose. The mouthpiece was half chewed away, the stem held together in the middle by a ring of paper wrapped in button thread. “You’d hardly call that rich living, would you?” he snapped.

Brewer sniffed as though he’d been presented with a skunk. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said. “But I’ve given you my terms and you say you can’t comply with them.”

“Of course I can’t. If I get the machine, I’ll not see the benefit for a year, and there’s no way I can make payments in the meantime.”

Brewer, who knew that very well, puffed out smoke. “I’m sorry, Dawson,” he said. “The conditions I’ve offered are the best you’d get anywhere. One hundred dollars at ten per cent a year interest. That may seem high to you, but you have to consider that you’re a top-risk proposition.”

Dawson harrumphed his sarcasm. “I know, I know,” he said. “I heard that the first rule of banking is that you won’t lend anything to people who can’t prove twice over that they don’t need it. Anyway, you might like to know that you’re not the only one who can figure things out.”

“What do you mean?”

Dawson leaned forward. “All right, I’ll tell you. Now, I don’t single you out. Bankers are all the same. But, come the winter evenings, I get time to think about things and one matter I’ve thought about is how you do business. It’s a swindle from beginning to end.”

The complacent Brewer, having disposed of the main issue, condescended to hear out the homesteader. “Fascinating,” he said, smiling. “Tell me about banking.”

“Okay. Now look. You just told me that you’d lend me a hundred dollars at ten per cent a year interest, right?”

“Right.”

“And you said that a hundred dollars at ten per cent a year means repayment of a hundred and ten dollars. Right?”

“Also correct. So?”

“And you’d want me to make quarterly repayments at twenty-seven dollars, fifty cents a time?”

“That’s right. A hundred and ten dollars paid back. That’s your hundred dollars, plus ten per cent interest. What’s wrong with that?”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s a hell of a lot more than ten per cent a year.”

“Well, well,” said Brewer. “A homesteader-mathematician. How do you make that out?”

“It’s simple enough, even for me,” Dawson answered. “What it amounts to is that you wouldn’t be lending me a hundred dollars for a year at all.”

“Go on. You interest me.” In fact, Brewer was a little disconcerted.

“Well,” said Dawson, “what you’d be doing would be supplying me with a hundred dollars for three months until the first repayment. After that, I’d have the rest for a further three months before paying again, then I’d have what was left for a three more months, until the third instalment was due. Then you’d be lending me the last bit for a further three months, until I settled at the year-end. That isn’t lending a hundred dollars for twelve months.”

“What is it, then?”

“I’m no scholar, but what it amounts to, more or less, is that I’d be borrowing four lots of twenty-five dollars each, for a total of thirty months – twelve, plus nine, plus six, plus three. That’s like a hundred dollars for seven and a half months, and that’s the same as sixty-two dollars and fifty cents for a year. And for that, you’re asking ten dollars interest. That’s sixteen per cent, not ten.”

“You can figure it any way you like, Dawson, but that’s standard banking practice,” retorted Brewer, though he was now feeling decidedly ruffled.

“Maybe it’s standard, but it isn’t right,” Dawson replied. “Anyway, I can see I’m not going to get anywhere with you, so I’ll go. I just wanted you to know that other people can work things out as well as you can. Thank you for your time.” Without waiting for a reply, he stood, wheeled and stamped out.

That left two men with a good deal to think about. Dawson started the four-mile walk back to his place. He knew he had made a valid point, but it hadn’t done him any good. He still wasn’t about to get a cultivator. He also knew what the next move would be. Brewer would let him sweat for a while, then call him in again and agree to lend the money, on condition that the loan would form a mortgage on Dawson’s homestead. As soon as Dawson defaulted on a payment – which seemed inevitable – Brewer would foreclose. That wouldn’t be the first time. It was by such methods that Grizewood’s banker had got his hands on half the land and businesses in the area. However, identifying the problem was one thing and dealing with it was another. Still, this was a rare slack period in the usually grinding round that faced the homesteader. He would have time to think, and as he had just demonstrated at the bank, Dawson was quite a thinker when circumstances permitted.

Back at the bank, Brewer was also pondering. Dawson’s words had struck a nerve. It was all very well for financiers to be aware of the misleading way their quoted loan interest rates related to the repayments demanded, but for a layman – and a hick farmer at that – to grasp the idea was dangerous. If such thinking were to spread, well, it just wouldn’t do.

Brewer, originally from the East, had started out in Montana as a hardware merchant, but had soon perceived that his talents lay in a different direction. Nevertheless, his sympathies were still with the ranchers. Over the years, he had – rarely and cautiously – loaned money to settlers, usually on the security of their land and property. Eventually, he had got his hands on a good deal of that real estate. True, it was mostly hardscrabble stuff, but Brewer had been as selective as possible. Most of the land he now owned was strategically placed. Soon, the railroads would come along, then he would sell out at a handsome profit, which he would invest in the other businesses he owned. It was a long-term proposition of the sort that only an already well-to-do man could entertain, but it was working out nicely.

Acquisition of Dawson’s land would be a handy step in the banker’s overall scheme. Had the sodbuster not approached him, Brewer would eventually have offered to buy the man out. He reasoned that, sooner or later, Dawson would come to grief, with or without his damned cultivator. After all, the homesteader was not entirely his own man. He had a wife and therefore responsibilities beyond himself – a complication in life that the self-serving Brewer had avoided. It would have suited the banker better if the Dawsons had had children, but Brewer accepted that a man had to work with what was available and Dawson’s situation was surely difficult enough.

The homesteaders’ position in the community was uncomfortable. There was little friendliness shown to them in Grizewood, where ranching interests were dominant. It might have been different if the farmers had been wealthier. As it was, they led frugal and largely self-sufficient lives. Only rarely was any of them seen spending much money in the town’s stores and saloons. Their contribution to the prosperity of the local businesses was therefore limited. It was nobody’s fault. The two ways of life were different. The cowpunchers – and less frequently their bosses – spent freely when in town. Consequently, sentiment in the commercial ranks ran against the homesteaders. After all, it was felt, the area would hardly be worse off without them. There was not much outright hostility. It was more a case of uneasy accommodation.

Dawson owned a buckboard, but he had not used it to drive into town. He had walked intentionally, to give himself time to burn off some of the feeling of frustration and humiliation that had been building inside him at the thought of finally having to ask for a loan. The rain, which had been threatening all day, came when he was still a mile from home. He didn’t much mind getting wet, as the downpour was welcome. By the time he reached the shack, he was well and truly soaked.

Removing his saturated clothing, Dawson told his wife what had happened at the bank. “It just isn’t right,” he concluded. “I was banking on that loan.” Then, struck by the unconscious irony of the remark, he managed a barking laugh.

Alice Dawson was a match for her husband in psychological strength and indomitability. “No use fretting about it,” she said. “There must be a way out. We’re not going to go down. What can we do?”

During his stolid march home, Dawson had been mulling over his predicament. There was no doubt that he and his wife were on their beam ends. Still, he’d had the glimmer of an idea, probably crazy but the sort of thing desperate circumstances engender at times. “Let’s just talk something through,” he said. “How many are we in all?”

“That’s easy. Eleven homesteads.”

“And how many are single men?”

“Four. Then there are three with just man and wife and four with parents and children.”

“Okay. Is everybody home now?”

Alice’s mind swept the area. “No,” she said. “Mr Bullman and Mr Swenson are away together, getting supplies at Mason’s Cross.”

“When will they be back?”

“Tomorrow, I suppose. They’re usually away for two days and they went yesterday.”

“All right. I’ll go round and see the others after we’ve eaten. We’ll have a meeting here tomorrow night. Can you cope?”

“Of course I can.”

The following afternoon, a Tuesday, all the men gathered at the Dawson place. They were keen to hear what their host had in mind, for when calling on them the previous evening, he had not thought his scheme through in detail. However, he had worked on it most of the night and all day. When he presented it, the idea caused a good deal of debate. At various times, five of the homesteaders had asked Harry Brewer for loans and all had been offered ruinous terms. They immediately endorsed Dawson’s idea. The others agreed, one by one. The consensus was that it seemed like a crackpot project, but that they had little more to lose. It was make or break for them. If they failed, they would have to leave, and none of them had any prospects elsewhere.

At nine o’clock on the Wednesday morning, Harry Brewer’s bank opened. The scene was one never before witnessed in Grizewood. Strung along the sidewalk from the bank’s door was a line of seventeen people – eleven men and six women. Alice Dawson had been excused to look after the homesteaders’ children.

Brewer had never needed more than one teller. The man, who had been with the bank since its opening, was a short crusty character of fifty-odd, accustomed to dealing with customers from his position of – as he saw it – social superiority. Like so many people attuned to a routine life, he was staggered by what confronted him when he opened the door. Shaking his head, he took up his position. Brewer, who no longer wished to sully himself by too much contact with day to day business, had entered by the back door and was in his office, oblivious of the developments out front.

First in line at the counter was Zeke Dawson. “I want to open an account,” he said.

The teller was puzzled. “You already have an account,” he said.

“I know that. I want to open another.”

The teller shrugged. “All right,” he said. “How much do you want to deposit?”

“One cent.”

The teller’s eyebrows rose. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “We can’t open an account for one cent. It’s just not worth the paperwork.”

Dawson, apparently having all the time in the world, rested his elbows on the counter. “This is a bank, isn’t it?” he said.

“Of course it is.”

“Well then, what’s the problem?”

“It doesn’t make sense, that’s all. Why, if we were to open accounts for everybody who wanted to deposit one cent, we’d never get any other work done.”

Zeke Dawson smiled. “No,” he said, “you wouldn’t, would you? That would be too bad. Anyway, as it happens, I’ve one or two other matters to discuss.” He proceeded to ply the teller with a variety of banking-related questions, all superficially reasonable and without exception absurdly trivial. The teller’s bemusement increased. On the one hand, he suspected what was afoot, while on the other he was not willing to be offensive. He had his position to consider. It was twenty minutes before Zeke Dawson was satisfied, then, registering his disgust at not being able to open the new account, he walked off. Outside, he went to the end of the line, ready for his next interview, lit his pipe and began waiting patiently.

Inside, Dawson’s nearest neighbour, Irving Blenkiron, was at the counter. A tall, gangling, lantern-jawed fellow of forty-five, Blenkiron was an enigma, even to his neighbours. He was clearly a well-educated man, but had always been withdrawn and taciturn. Today, he was a revelation. Something about Dawson’s scheme had tickled him and he threw himself into the proceedings with relish. He wanted to talk about a loan. How much? Ten dollars, spread over three years.

The harassed teller responded in much the same way as he had to Dawson, but Blenkiron was not to be placated. He fired questions, initially like a human Gatling gun. The queries were well prepared and, after the first burst, became of such length and impenetrability that sensible answers were virtually impossible. Finally, after thirty minutes, Blenkiron expressed his discontent and sauntered out, joining Dawson at the end of the line.

Next at the counter was Blenkiron’s wife, a woman of vast girth and, as it turned out, of no little theatrical talent. Hers was a bravura performance. First, she insisted on a modicum of privacy, demanding that those behind her keep a respectable distance, so as not to overhear her confidential business. This was utter nonsense, since in such a tight-knit community as the homesteaders formed, there were few secrets.

Mrs Blenkiron was superb. She intoned high and low, she hectored, she implored, stamped and flounced, lassoing the beleaguered teller with questions that rivalled those of her husband in complexity and far outdid them in illogicality. Her script was liberally sprinkled with such comments as “Well, I really don’t know” and “I never heard of things like this.” It took over forty minutes for the perspiring cashier to get rid of her.

Before dealing with his next ‘customer’, the teller retreated nervously to his chief’s office. Keeping an eye on the money, he knocked on Brewer’s door and called for his boss.

Harry Brewer was neither physically nor morally courageous. But what he lacked in bravery, he usually made up in cunning. That quality had driven his rise to riches. When the teller failed to respond to his call to enter the office, Brewer waddled to the door, demanding to know what was going on. His employee explained.

Brewer weighed up the matter with remarkable speed. “All right,” he said. “Keep going and don’t lose your temper. I’ll look into the situation.” With that, he slipped out at the rear, bustled along a couple of back lots and emerged to see the line of people outside the bank, the end of which now comprised the ample form of Mrs Blenkiron, calmly awaiting her next extravaganza.

By now, it was nearly eleven o’clock. Several townspeople had already tried to carry out their banking affairs and, seeing the throng of homesteaders, had thought better of it. Most of the business houses used the bank almost daily, depositing their takings and doing whatever else they had in mind. Even as he watched, two of Brewer’s best customers walked towards his establishment, gaped at what they saw, then returned to their premises. This was becoming serious.

Brewer was not a man to be outwitted easily. Within minutes, he conceived a couple of ways of tackling the problem. First, he would consult the town marshal. He knew that his chances there were not good. Over the years, he had had differences with several local people, including Marshal Tom Dwyer. Such things rankled in a small community. Nevertheless, Dwyer was a law officer, was he not? He would have to do his duty. Brewer hurried to the marshal’s office.

Having explained to the lawman what was afoot, Brewer, anxious to keep out of sight, waited in the office until Dwyer had inspected the quiet, patient line of settlers. “Nothing wrong there that I can see,” said the marshal on his return.

Brewer was distraught. “Look,” he said, “these people are trying to disrupt my business. Surely there’s something to be done?”

Dwyer shook his head. “They’re peaceable enough,” he said. “My job is to uphold the law. They’re not disturbing it. I can’t do anything.” A fleeting smirk indicated his true feelings.

Brewer, baulked but not defeated, wobbled out of the marshal’s office and along to that of attorney Andrew Mackenzie. The dour Scottish lawyer listened to the banker’s outpouring, then shrugged. “It may be inconvenient, Harry,” he said, “but they’re not contravening any statute that I know of. I sympathise with you, but I just can’t help.” In fact, Mackenzie was not in the least sympathetic. He was concerned primarily with the letter of the law, rather than its spirit. Furthermore, being a secretive man, he did his own financial business at Mason’s Cross, thirty miles from Grizewood, so had no particular local bond in that respect.

Brewer trundled down the side of the lawyer’s office and retraced his path to the rear door of the bank. Out front, the line was undiminished. Sixteen people still waited, chatting quietly. Inside, the teller was dealing with another attempt to open an account for a risible sum, having in the meantime fended off an effort by one homesteader to get a loan of five dollars. That had taken time, as the man in question, normally quite a chatterbox, had, it seemed, been struck deaf and mute overnight and was obliged to convey his requirements by use of a grubby sheet of paper, plus a stub of pencil, the point of which broke repeatedly.

Brewer cogitated. Satisfied that there was no legal recourse available to him, he was seeking an alternative method. Like some others of his kind, Grizewood’s moneylender had found it necessary to cut corners at times, and in the course of doing that he had made contacts – not always of the most refined sort. He didn’t like what he was thinking, but there seemed to be no other way. He would call upon the services of Jim Starr.

The idea was certainly drastic. Starr was a gunman and bully-boy, usually available for hire. Brewer did not know him personally, but the man had been recommended to him by a lumber boss, who had once used the services of the hard case. Starr’s pedigree as an intimidator, strike-breaker and killer, was impressive. Among other things, he had operated as far away as the Pennsylvania coalfields, where he had been active in the battle against the Molly Maguires. He had a reputation for unpredictability, as well as violence. Also, he owed allegiance to the highest payer and had been known to change sides. Well, a successful banker was wealthy enough to buy the fellow’s services. And if Brewer’s information was correct, Starr could be contacted at Millboro, only forty miles south of Grizewood.

By midday, his mind made up, Harry Brewer went home and prepared his buggy for departure, then slipped back into his office and called in his by now frantic teller. “Just keep calm,” he said. “I have the answer. Talk to them, stall them, but try to avoid being offensive. We’ll soon have this settled.” With that disconcerting instruction, he left.

For the rest of Wednesday, the homesteaders besieged the bank, shutting out everyone else. At the close of business they dispersed, only to reconvene the following morning, to give a repeat day-long performance, before adjourning to prepare themselves for a third show. Their frivolous inquiries were in full spate when Brewer returned at nine-thirty on the Friday morning. Less than two hours later, Starr arrived. He was a tall grim-faced man, dark-clad, riding a handsome chestnut horse and wearing an ivory-handled Colt Peacemaker.

Starr was not a man to let grass grow under his feet. Within twenty minutes of his arrival, he had looked around the town and taken stock. That done, he strolled up to the settlers waiting outside the bank. His bleak grey eyes raked the line, picking out Dawson, who had been described to him by Brewer. “You Dawson?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

“You’re the ringleader of these people?”

Dawson stepped forward. “We don’t have a leader,” he said, “let alone a ringleader. But I sometimes speak for my friends, if they’re agreeable.”

Starr maintained his cold, hard look. “You’d better come along with me.”

Seeing the six-gun thonged down to Starr’s right thigh, Dawson, mindful in particular of the presence of the women, nodded and moved off with the gunman. Starr led the way around the corner of the bank and along the adjacent alley. When they reached the back of the building, Starr stopped. “I guess you know why I’m here?” he said, patting the gun.

Dawson had half-expected this. He nodded. “I can imagine,” he said. “I suppose Brewer’s hired you to break this thing up?”

“That’s right. Whether it’s to be the hard way or not is up to you.”

“Mind if I ask what Brewer’s paying you?”

“That depends. If you stop this and go home, I get five hundred dollars, flat fee. If it comes to shooting, it’s the same, plus two hundred a man.”

“What about the ladies?”

“I don’t charge for killing women,” Starr said dispassionately. “I’ll try to spare them, but if they get in the way, I give no guarantees.”

Dawson was as prepared as he could be. “Well,” he said, “we’re not armed, and anyway, most us couldn’t hit a barn from twenty paces. We’re no match for you. But I have an idea that might interest you, if you’ll listen.”

Starr nodded. “I always listen to people,” he said. “Tell me what’s on your mind, but make it quick.”

“All right. Now, you know what today is?”

“It’s Friday. So what?”

“Not just Friday. It’s the last Friday of the month. Now, as I see it...”

Twenty minutes after Dawson finished talking to Starr, he was back in line outside the bank, having briefed the other conspirators on what to expect. It was now almost noon, and apart from the settlers’ subdued talk, the usual midday hush had descended over Grizewood. Inside, the teller was preparing to close for an hour, to get a meal and prepare for another harrowing afternoon. Suddenly, the somnolence was broken by a single, sharp noise. “That sounded like a gunshot,” said Blenkiron.

Seconds later, Starr appeared at the corner of the bank. Stepping up onto the sidewalk, he walked slowly along the line of farmers, went inside and up to the counter. He elbowed aside a man who was trying to open an account with ten cents. Drawing his six-gun, he pointed it at the teller, while using his left hand to produce an empty flour sack. “You know what to do,” he said. “Fill it, and don’t fool around. I know near enough what you have in there. If you hold out, you die. Get to it!”

With panic overcoming paralysis, the teller scooped handful after handful of banknotes and coins into the sack. “Now the safe,” said Starr.

“I ... I’m not allowed to...”

“You open it in ten seconds, or I shoot you dead.” Starr’s flat tone was more effective than any rage would have been. The teller opened the safe, took out a tin box, brought it to the counter and emptied it into the sack.

It was all over in less than two minutes. Starr scooped up the haul. “Seems about right,” he muttered to himself, then he nodded to the teller: “Okay, lie on the floor, face down, and keep quiet.” The man needed no second bidding. Starr walked out, his gun still drawn. On the sidewalk, he waved the weapon at Dawson. “Come with me,” he said.

Once again, the two men disappeared around the corner and walked down the alley. At the rear end, Starr’s horse was waiting. The gunman turned to face Dawson then, apparently in no hurry, opened the sack and inspected its contents. “You were right,” he said. “There must be over three thousand here. Real smart of you to remember that it was payday hereabouts. Would’ve been a shame to kill a man as bright as you. Now, how much do you reckon your people had invested?”

“As near as I can say, we figure one-hundred and ninety-two dollars. I don’t think anyone would have lied to me.”

Starr pulled out two fifties, four twenties, a ten and two singles. “That covers it then,” he said. “Now, you said you were asking for a loan. How much?”

“A hundred dollars.”

Starr fished out five more twenties. “Okay, that’ll settle your problem.” Then he was struck by a thought, which brought the slightest flicker of a smile to his face. “You said Brewer was going to charge interest. What rate?”

“He said ten per cent, but it was sixteen, the way I figured it.”

“The damned crook,” snapped Starr. He dug into the sack again, drew out another fistful of bills and peeled off a ten, a five and a single. “There you are. You’ve got sixteen per cent interest, instead of paying it. Seems like your lucky day. Now, give me two hours, then go to the marshal’s office. You’ll find him tied up and gagged. Tell him not to follow me. That isn’t healthy.”

Dawson stuffed the money into his shirt pocket. What about Brewer?” he asked. “He’ll raise hell over this.”

Starr mounted his horse. “He won’t trouble you again. Where he’s gone, he won’t trouble anybody.”

Dawson recalled the gunshot. He looked up into those fathomless eyes. “For God’s sake, you didn’t –?”

“Never mind what I did. Just say I’m a man who doesn’t like loose ends.” Then Starr leaned down, his face finally showing real animation. “Remember that, in case you’re ever inclined to blab. Goodbye, Dawson.”

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Story tagged with:
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