by Sevenstars

"He get anything?" Chris asked quietly as Vin returned to his seat.

"Tell you when we's private," the tracker replied. "Miss Darcy's comin'. Ez done spotted her. 'Siah'n'JD's with her."

The gunfighter nodded. "All right."

The batwings slapped open to admit the lady muleteer and her small entourage--not only the missing members of the Seven, but Fernando Miramontes and his son Francisco; Diego, being the oldest, had probably been left in charge of his brothers and the stock. Despite the tendency of camp residents to choose their saloons according to ethnicity, no one objected to the Mexicans' presence any more than they had to Nathan's; the Varieties was neutral territory of sorts. Darcy paused in the doorway a moment, eyes tracking around the room behind her silver-rimmed spectacles, brushing across Chris and the others and lingering a moment on Blackner; then she led her group toward the bar. Larabee noted that as they arranged themselves along it, she and Josiah carefully managed to maneuver JD so he'd be at the end of the line. He glanced toward Blackner. The man had ceased turning his shot glass in his hand and was eyeing his rival narrowly, with considerable attention to the two Anglos who accompanied her. He waited until the bartender had served them, then pushed to his feet and started working his way in her direction. One of his hired guns followed him--a man of perhaps twenty-three, with light hair and pale gray eyes, his sixteen-inch Texas boots with their two-inch riding heels decorated with the Lone Star worked in beads on the upper of each. His black-metalled sixgun--a Smith & Wesson Russian .44--had ivory buttplates, the inner curve of the grip shaped to his fingers, and was carried in what Larabee guessed, by its lack of tiedown, was a swivel holster. The other two men remained at the table, doubtless to provide wide cover of Darcy's entire group if it was needed. "Nathan," Chris ordered softly, "watch 'em."

The healer nodded once and shifted position slightly so he could draw either sidearm or knives depending on the demands of the moment. Blackner edged his way through the throng and in between Miramontes and his patrona. "Hello, Darcy," he said blandly.

The young woman turned slowly to face him, unsurprised at his advent. "Elliott," she acknowledged. Watching over her shoulder, Josiah could see that the man flinched a bit at the intimacy.

"You don't seem too surprised to see me," the other packer said, after a moment.

"I make a point of knowing what the opposition's doing," Darcy retorted.

"I heard you'd had a little trouble on the trail," Blackner mentioned. "Something about most of your mules drifting off?"

Darcy tilted her head. "Now how would you have found out about that, Elliott?"

The man shrugged. "With three thousand people in this camp, not counting visitors, who can remember where they pick things up?" he replied, almost as if he were challenging her to call him a liar.

She knew better. "It's immaterial. What brings you over here anyway, Elliott? My boys and I have had a long day, and we'd like to enjoy our drinks in peace."

"You don't seem to have let the problem stop you," Blackner pursued.

Darcy snorted. "You didn't think I was going to turn around and go home and leave six and a half ton of freight piled up on the prairie for whoever wanted to salvage it, did you? Come on, Elliott, you've got your faults, but you're not stupid."

"When are you going to realize this is no line of work for a woman to be in, Darcy?" Blackner demanded. "I offered you $6560 for your stock and equipment last winter. I upped the figure to $7900 last month. I'll go to $10,500 here and now. It's twice what everything's worth. I'll write you a check this minute, if you like."

She narrowed her eyes. He was only average height, though that put him a good head over her own. Josiah loomed behind her left shoulder like a thundercloud. Miramontes and Francisco were keeping an eye on the Texan gunman, who was staring at them like a wolf trying to goad a rival into making a move; if he was like most of his breed, he'd been reared to vote the straight Democratic ticket, to love good whiskey, and to hate Mexicans, which was probably one reason Blackner had brought him over--it wouldn't take much to push him into provoking a quarrel, or perhaps pretending they'd been the first to do so. The older packer's teeth were clenched, and Francisco's nostrils were slightly flared.

"You just don't get it, do you?" she said. "I don't care if you offer me twice what my outfit's worth, or five times, or ten. I told you last winter, I told you last month, and I tell you again: I'm not interested in selling, and especially not to you." Her voice took on a flat note. "I hope I don't have to tell you why."

"I wish you would," Blackner responded, a hint of a purr underlying the words. "I'd really like to know why you refuse to be sensible."

"I'll bet," said Darcy.

Larabee and his group couldn't make out the words of the exchange over the background gabble and roar of the saloon, but they all knew how to read expressions and body language: none would have survived to his present age without that skill. "All right, Buck," the gunfighter said quietly.

For a moment his old friend's eyes met his, pleading silently to be excused from the role assigned him. "I don't like this, pard."

"I know you don't. Would you rather he got caught in a crossfire? Do it."

Buck's lips tightened and he pushed up out of his chair and moved toward the bar. JD, unable to keep track of things with Josiah's bulk intervening, had edged his way out past the preacher and was standing in ready posture, coattails flicked back, hands on hips, arms angled ninety degrees to spine so his elbows thrust out slightly behind him. Buck deliberately jostled one of those projecting joints, his greater weight almost knocking the kid off his feet, and glared down at the smaller figure as JD reflexively half turned to face him. "I'll just be damned," Buck said in a loud, quarrelsome tone that fetched the attention of both Blackner and his Texan, as it was intended to do. "They're lettin' anybody strap on hardware these days, ain't they? Hell, them guns must weigh damn near as much as you do, boy. Don't you think one's enough?"

The expressions of surprise, bewilderment, and then comprehension and anger that chased each other in quick succession across JD's face were too genuine to be faked--which was exactly why Chris had decided he wasn't to be forewarned of what had been planned. He simply didn't have the experience to counterfeit them, especially when it was his best friend and "big brother" playing the part of scornful bully. His anger, of course, wasn't so much at Buck, as it was at his leader for, as he saw it, dismissing his worth--something Chris had been doing less and less over the last few months. The unexpectedness of the tactic guaranteed that it would hit him with powerful effect. As he realized what Wilmington was angling for, resolve joined the bright spark of fury in his hazel eyes. "Why'n't you just watch where you're goin', Mister, and then it wouldn't matter?" he demanded.

Buck's sardonic grin held more than a hint of self-mockery, which those watching easily mistook for contempt for the kid glaring up at him from a six inches' disadvantage in height. Gradually a ring of silence began spreading out from the pair, through the room. "Well, you're damn easy to miss, boy," the big man observed. "Shit, if it wasn't for that fool hat, I could take you for part of the floor. It is supposed to be a hat, ain't it?" And he swept his hand out in a cuff that tipped the bowler off JD's head so the boy's unruly overlong hair tumbled out from behind his ear and into his face. JD grabbed for his falling headgear with his left hand and missed, and Buck stepped on it as it hit the floor.

"Hey!" JD yelped indignantly. "Gimme that back!"

Josiah pushed in between the combatants. "Why don't you try picking on someone a bit nearer your size, brother?" he rumbled easily.

"Oh-ho," Buck laughed, the humor somewhat forced, "so he ain't quite such a banty rooster as he acts like, is he? Gotta have him a chain dog to watch the chicken yard? Well, you're sure big enough to fight the weasels off." He bared his teeth. "Except I ain't a weasel, and I sure as hell ain't your brother, big man."

"Reculad, ladrón," snapped Francisco, going for his Colt, "y dejad en paz nuestro chiquito."

Chris came to his feet, his chair tumbling over, sixgun in his hand and cocking before the move was fully complete. Vin was up too, mare's leg snapped out of its sideleg sheath and wavering ever so gently between the young Mexican, his father, and their boss. "Put it up, greaser," the gunfighter grated, his voice thin.

Blackner discreetly eased back, out of the line of fire. His Texan was watching Larabee with interest, though still keeping an eye on Darcy and Miramontes in case one of them might decide to take advantage of the distraction and put a bullet in his boss's brisket. Francisco's dark eyes flashed. All Mexicans are proud people, and none of them cares to be called by that term, but he was clever enough to sense something of what was going on here; he had seen Buck with JD that first evening in camp together, he knew Chris and his patrona were allies, and he saw this was a charade that needed to be played to its limit, if he didn't exactly understand why. "What business is it of yours, gringo?" he demanded in English, using the word his people reserved for an American who had no understanding or respect for the ways or persons of Mexicans, but treated them as if they were of less importance than the lowliest dog.

Buck turned and grinned at him. "Ponerse en popa, quebracho," he suggested, with a slow wink.

You can steal a Mexican's horse, cheat him at cards, and insult him in almost any way you wish, but you should never insult his mother, his sister, or his manhood unless you're looking for a permanent enemy. Only Francisco's newfound comprehension of the situation saved Wilmington from the probability of a knife out of a dark alley later on. Miramontes caught his son's arm and pulled him back, rattling off rebukes in Spanish, reminding him that they were covered by two guns and that Darcy was in the line of fire.

"Buck," Chris said quietly. "Sit the hell down and shut up."

"Aw, no, pard," the big man chuckled. "I ain't half done here."

"Sit. Down." The words rang in the silence.

Buck hesitated, looking almost lazily from Josiah to JD. "We'll finish this another time," he said, and slowly moved back to the table to join his friends.

"You just name it, any one or all of ya!" JD snapped.

"JD!" Now it was Darcy's voice ringing like a whip's crack. "That's enough!"

"I ain't--" the kid began, blustering.

"--Don't say it," Darcy interrupted. "No--don't," as he took breath. "We're all tired. Let's save this for a better time. Josiah--get him out of here."

The preacher put a firm hand on JD's slim shoulder, bent to scoop up his crushed hat and plopped it onto his head. "Come along, hermanito," he said, and urged the protesting kid out the door.

Darcy's spectacle rims glittered in the light of the dozen $5000 crystal chandeliers from Italy, hung by solid silver chains from the high rafters, as she looked Chris slowly up and down, her gaze just barely short of the insolent. "I don't know who you are, cowboy," she said evenly, "but you need to keep better control of your men. This discussion isn't ended. And as for you, Elliott, keep out of my way or you may just find out what line of work I'm suited to. Nando, Francisco, let's go." She turned her back on the gunfighter with a defiant air and walked out, her spurs making small sweet music in the quiet. The two Mexicans edged after her, slitted eyes on Larabee's table.

The room seemed to draw a long collective breath, the music started up again, and the hundred conversations took up where they'd left off, accompanied by a buzz of speculation. Ezra slowly relaxed and urged his fellow players to return their attention to the game at hand. Nathan, Chris, and Vin eased back into their chairs, returning their sidearms to the holsters. Buck bolted down his whiskey and poured a second. All of them seemed to ignore Blackner entirely. But under the tipped-down flat brim of his black Mexican hat, Larabee's eyes were alert, watching as the man moved over to exchange quiet words with his Texan before both returned to their table to rejoin the other two gunmen. A waiter was summoned, scurried back to the bar, and a few moments later appeared at Chris's elbow with a bottle on a tray. "We didn't order that," the gunfighter pointed out.

"Compliments of Mr. Blackner, sir," the waiter explained, and nodded toward the freighter's table.

Chris glanced that way and fielded a jaunty salute from Darcy's rival, who had refilled his own glass and now hoisted it in a quick toast. He squinted thoughtfully at the label on the bottle as the waiter set it down next to their original, and still mostly untouched, one. It was Old Crow bourbon, which would have cost three dollars the bottle in the saloon at home, compared to one for the cheapest kind it stocked, and probably went for around fifteen up here. Nodding his acceptance of the gift, he reached out to twist the cork out and tip the bottle briefly over each of their four glasses. Now, he told himself as he raised his own to his lips, let's see how long it takes him.

+ + + + + + +

Twenty feet up the boardwalk JD finally twisted free of Josiah's grip and spun back toward the Varieties, only to be confronted by Darcy and the Mexicans coming along behind. "Hold up, kid," the young woman told him. "What do you think you're gonna do, go back in there and challenge Buck to a shootout?"

"You know I wouldn't do that!" JD exclaimed. "But why didn't anybody tell me what was gonna happen? I thought I was a part of this outfit, I thought I'd proved I could pull my weight! Damn you all, don't you trust me?"

"JD." Darcy's flat rebuke cut across his rant. "We trust you. You wouldn't be here if we didn't. Just stop a minute and think. Buck told me you don't always do that before you make a move, but do it now. Mr. Larabee doesn't have a lot of time to establish his bona fides and get on Blackner's good side. He has to act while Blackner and I are both in your territory and in the same town. He needed to make it look like he and the men riding with him are just the kind of men somebody like Blackner would find useful in a shadow war the sort he's waging on me--bullies, prejudiced, just about anything you wouldn't care to associate with, but not afraid to get into a public fight either. And the best way to do that was to stop just short of the edge of getting in a brannigan with me or one of my boys. Since he knows you and Josiah better than he does Nando and his sons, one of you made the obvious choice."

"You knew about this too, didn't you?" JD was staring at her with a hurt expression.

"I knew, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Because it was necessary, JD. Sometimes the end has to justify the means, or there'd be no point to employing any means at all." Her hand came out to squeeze his upper arm lightly. "Yes, Mr. Larabee and I set you up. And I'm sorry we had to do it, because I saw very early on how much it matters to you to be accepted as an equal by the others. I don't doubt Mr. Larabee regrets it just as much--maybe more, because he knows you better. And as for Buck...you know how Buck feels about you, don't you? If you think for one minute this didn't half rip the heart out of him, you're not near as sharp as I think you are. Certainly not sharp enough to be riding with this outfit." She waited a moment till that sank in. "We trust you, JD. We trust you to watch our backs and to stand up in a fight and do your part. But we all knew you'd never be able to carry off that little set-to as an act. You and Buck are too close. It had to hit you as a total surprise, and Blackner had to see that it did and that it made you furious. Now settle down."

JD's mobile features betrayed first perplexity and abashment, then the gradual dawn of comprehension. Josiah's big hand settled lightly on the back of his neck and began slowly massaging the tight knot of nerves there. After a moment or two the kid drew a deep breath, removed his brutalized hat, and began using his fist to restore the crown to its proper shape. "'M sorry," he apologized. "I was actin' like a fool kid again, wasn't I?"

A flicker of a smile crossed Darcy's face. "No comment. Are you all right now?"

"I will be." He turned to gaze up at the preacher, then back at her. "But after this is finished me and Buck are gonna have some words." He peered at his two older accomplices under drawn-down brows. "What's the rest of the plan?"
"Mr. Larabee figures that Blackner's next step will be to strike directly at me, or else at the men who surround and protect me," Darcy explained. "If he can cut down my defenses and eventually take me out of play, my company will go to Vandy as junior partner, or maybe to all three of my brothers as my nearest kin, and then he can buy it from them, because they won't have the kind of personal attachment to it that I do. Probably won't have to lay out as high a price for it, either," she added as an afterthought, "which always appeals to people of his stripe."

JD nodded thoughtfully. "That's why Chris put Josiah and me with you?"
"Exactly. Think about it. Josiah's a big man, and many big men are slow movers. You're a kid, or at least you look like one. Blackner and his guns aren't likely to see either of you as the kind of threat they might Buck, say, or Vin, who can both look like pretty salty professionals. The poorer quality he thinks my defenses are, the likelier we are to lull him into a false sense of security and trick him into making a move. If he does that through one of his guns, and we can catch him in the act, we'll have a decent chance to prove a connection, because there'll be people in the Varieties and elsewhere who'll testify that they came in with him. If he decides he'd rather hire Mr. Larabee on a less permanent basis, the fact of his giving orders to Mr. Larabee and the others will show intent. It's a little like knocking down the domino at the end of the row, JD: once you get it started the whole structure collapses. Blackner's guns will do what he's hired them to do, because when you accept a man's pay you agree to the job. Fail and you're a thief. But if you get caught, nothing in the code says you have to go on protecting the man who gives you your orders."

"We've seen that with Stuart James and Guy Royale," Josiah agreed.

"I remember," said JD. "So what's next?"

"Next we go hole up in the hotel, but with you or Josiah always on guard duty, and we wait. In the morning I start going around the camp hustling for contracts to pick up more freight. And we see what happens."

+ + + + + + +

Blackner gave Chris and his group about fifteen minutes to come down off their edge before he rose and made his way over to their table, watched by all three of his guns but not accompanied by any of them. "Gentlemen," he said, with a little dip of his head. "I trust the whiskey met with your approval?"

"It's fine," Larabee agreed. "So what do we have to do to earn it?"

"I wonder if you'd like to join me over at my table," the freighter responded. "I may have a business proposition to make you."

The gunfighter pretended to think it over for a moment. It wouldn't do to seem too eager. "Got nothing better to do," he observed after a moment. "Come on, boys."

They all tramped over to insert themselves around the table's perimeter wherever there was a chair available. "I suppose the first order of business should be names, since with a group this large none of us will know who we're talking to otherwise," Blackner began. "Mine is Elliott Blackner. I own Southern Colorado & Trans-Divide Freight & Express in Pueblo. These gentlemen are Dave Taylor, Ben Morrison, and Ray Lockwood." Taylor was the one who had backed him up at the bar. Morrison was slightly shorter than average, dark-haired, dark-complected, with startling blue eyes; he carried two guns, one hanging low on his right thigh, the other belted high on his left hip. Lockwood was probably the youngest of the lot; certainly he was slight and boyish in appearance. Though he was far too young to have ridden with it, his Remington .38 was carried in the style of the Texas Light Cavalry, low on his right thigh, butt forward, in a contoured, tied-down fast-draw holster. That would require a twist-hand draw, such as Chris and Buck had had to learn during the War, and if he was good enough at it to earn his living that way, he was probably the fastest of the trio. His eyes were the clear, direct, very pale blue type sometimes known as "killer's eyes"--the kind Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Sam Bass were described as having.

"Chris Larabee," the gunfighter replied. "My brother Vin...Buck Wilmington...Nathan Jackson." He and Vin had agreed that it would be best to confuse the issue as best they could by not revealing the tracker's real last name. His poster might or might not have been seen by someone in the camp, though among the crowds he was likely to go largely unnoticed, but there was no point in tempting fate any further than they had to. Chris studied Taylor with quiet interest. "Taylor, is it?"

"That's right." The answer was brief, but delivered with all the calm, sturdy insolence of the born Texas gunman.

"Seems to me," Larabee mused idly, "that I heard of a man wanted out on the Mogollon who was described as looking like you. The reward was offered by a rancher who claimed this feller shot his father in the back over a grass matter. Only the name was Turnbull, Dee Turnbull." He knew, of course, that when a man chooses an alias, he's likely to stay with the same initials he had before.

"Are you callin' me a liar?" Taylor demanded.

"Now, don't go startin' pissin' me off," Chris warned. "It ain't a good beginning to a professional relationship." He smiled thinly. "Just seems like we should all know who we're playin' with."

"Seems to me," said Morrison, "that I heard something about a Chris Larabee who was keeping the peace down mountain from here." He met Chris's eyes. "Just so we all know who we're playin' with, like you said."

The gunfighter had anticipated that, and he had a response ready. "Never claimed I wasn't," he pointed out. "Let's just say the man who was payin' me didn't always approve of the methods I used to do the job." Which was true, but because those methods accomplished the ends he had hired them for, Judge Travis often turned a blind eye to them, as he did to Vin's want.

"All right," Blackner put in. "Let's not try to antagonize one another, gentlemen. This should be an association of equals." He turned his attention to Chris. "You and your brother seem to know what to do with those guns you wear, Mr. Larabee. Now, let's suppose that little incident at the bar had come to shooting. You no doubt noticed that the boy and the Mexican were apparently associated with a woman--one who also carries a sidearm. If she had declared herself into the affair, what would you have done?"

This, Chris knew, was one of the places where it could get dicey. Owing to the fact that women were numerically in the minority in the West--sometimes by two or three to one--they tended to be regarded as valuable and therefore sacrosanct, an attitude reinforced by the high proportion of former Southerners in the population; one result was that there were few things thought of as badly as a woman-killer, no matter under what circumstances he killed. By implying that he and his group were willing to risk that stigma, he could establish at a single stroke their ruthlessness and thus their potential usefulness to Blackner--but he had to make it good. "If you play with the big boys, you have to be ready to play by their rules and risk gettin' hurt," he said. "She carries a gun, like you said, and right out in the open, not in a reticule or somethin' for self-defense. I don't propose to get shot by anyone without defendin' myself. Is that answer enough?"

Blackner considered it a moment. "I think so."

"Just who is she, anyhow?" Buck put in. "She don't look like much. Four eyes and no bigger'n a picket pin. What the hell's she doin' in this place?"

"Don't underestimate her, Mr. Wilmington," Blackner warned. "I don't. Her name is Darcy Cullin. She's from Pueblo, like myself, and she ramrods a train of pack mules with cargo for this camp. This is her second season operating this route, and her fourth independently in business. She may be an arrogant, unnatural little Irish bitch who has no idea of where a woman belongs, but she's honest, smart, and tough, and though I don't know the boy and the big Anglo who were with her, her Mexicans are incredibly loyal to her. Standard wage for a packer is forty dollars a month. I've offered them sixty to leave her and come work for me. They refused to a man."

Buck's breathing quickened at the slur. He was never one to tamely accept an insult to any woman, and in any case he liked Darcy. True, she was unconventional. But to Buck, who knew women almost better than he did his own sex, she was also understandable. She was like a young unbroken horse, impetuous and wild. In her motherless childhood she had been more boy than girl, a state only reinforced by the fact of having only three older brothers to raise her, and she still was. He realized that Blackner was the kind of man who had at best a tolerance for women; he knew they were necessary to the continuation of the human race, but he didn't look much beyond that. He saw their vanities and featherheadedness and was amused; he forgave them their surface emotion and weakness just because they were pleasant to look at and be with. He saw only the surface of Darcy and thought she hardly understood what many women--and men--would call the obligations of womanhood; but Buck knew, from the things she'd told him and JD in Four Corners, that she did. She had known what it was to love a man, and to suffer because of him--not on account of his mistreatment or thoughtlessness, but because she had lost both him and his baby. Yet the reasons Buck liked her had nothing to do with that. She put a man's value on words; they counted, like money, and they were as sound as money. She loved work for its own sake more than for any monetary reward. She had a streak of humor that was gay and tolerant and sometimes sardonic--not unlike his own mother. She had the iron a woman had to have to survive in the West, only not as well hidden under propriety and conventionality as it was with most women; indeed, it was an iron she was so proud of that she had to let it show, much the way JD showed his skill with a gun by wearing two of them, fancy ones, so prominently. Was that vanity? No. The Kid had proved himself over and over, and so had Darcy, if in a different arena. Vanity was conceit, sham, vainglory. There was none of that in JD or in Darcy. What they had was earned pride, and Buck loved them both for it. But he knew he couldn't let it, or his indignation, show. The stakes for which they played were too high. He swallowed his emotions down and listened.

"Sounds like you might be thinkin' of runnin' her out of business," Chris was saying idly.

"More than thinking, Mr. Larabee--trying. She doesn't belong in a man's world, competing with men. She thinks she does, but she's wrong. I consider it only just and fitting that she should be bought out. And I'm willing to pay her well; at the bar, just now, I offered her twice what her physical assets are worth, cash on the spot. She wouldn't take it."

"That I heard," Larabee agreed. "Somethin' about you keepin' out of her way." He tilted his head curiously. "Is she such a big operator that she's a threat to you?"

"No, she's just a shirttail outfit, one string, fifty mules--though she's had a good run of luck since she started the business. She's putting money away, and given time, she could expand, but it would still take her years to reach the level of my company. Hell, I own more than a hundred times as many head as she does in pack stock alone, to say nothing of wagon teams and stage horses. That's exactly the reason I don't care to have her nibbling away at the foundations of what I've built up. SC&TDF&E dominates the freight, passenger, and express business from Pueblo south to the New Mexico line and west all the way to the Ute Mountain Reservation. But once you get a name, there are inevitably people who try to take it away from you--as a man in your line should know even better than I do. I don't enjoy looking over my shoulder, Mr. Larabee; it puts a kink in my neck."

Chris nodded, his face unreadable. He understood, now, exactly the sort of man he was dealing with; he'd thought so from the morning he sat in Mary's living quarters listening to Darcy talk of her troubles, but now he knew. Blackner was no different from Guy Royale, except that Royale had wanted to be the big frog among cattlemen, and Blackner wanted that same position among freight operators. Neither man had any tolerance for any rival smaller than himself, and both would resort to whatever tactics seemed indicated to push them out. Royale, being what he was, had simply been more willing to use open, direct violence than Blackner had to date. That might be about to change now that a public confrontation had occurred--which was why Chris had wanted to stack the deck.

"In any case," Blackner went on, "I'm sure you've seen enough of these mineral towns to know that the boom always goes bust sooner or later. Not that I wouldn't like to extend my interests down this way and become a power in freighting in the Territory, and not that I won't happily bring in wagons if they ever get around to putting in a decent road up here, but I'm realistic enough to know that I shouldn't count on reaching that goal through Discovery. What I can do is make a killing before the mines are worked out and the place collapses."

"Hmmm," Chris murmured. "And I'm betting one of the best ways to do it would be to get the contract to move all the bullion out of camp?"

"Exactly. As long as I have competition, as long as shippers have an alternate option, I have to hold down the prices I charge. Last season the mines mostly did their own hauling, which, of course, was cheaper on base, since they weren't trying to make a profit off it, but made for a lot more bookkeeping and general bother. This year the Coming Wonder, which is the biggest outfit in the camp, has awarded a trial contract to Darcy's company, along with one of the combines of small proprietors, and most of the other mines are holding back to see how she performs. If they like her record with the Wonder, odds are very good that they, or at least some of them, will take a chance on her. Once she has contracts from them in hand, she can get loans for more mules and saddles, on the strength of guaranteed income. That could give her a big boost and even cut me out of a large percentage of the business. I'd like to...discourage...her before that happens."

"Wouldn't you still have to go with whatever rate them contracts was made for?" Buck asked. "Even if you was to buy up her whole business?"

"Oh, certainly. But such contracts are ordinarily fairly short-term, because the mineowners never know when the vein will peter out, and they don't want to be stuck with a big penalty at the diminishing end of income. I'm willing to take the gamble that the boom will last long enough for me to renegotiate the terms next season, and at a higher rate of return. Even if it doesn't, I'll have the stock and equipment, and I can always find some other route to use them on. It might take me a little while longer to make my costs back, in that case, but I'd make them, sooner or later."

Again Chris inclined his head in understanding. Like Darcy, his business had taught him that everything was a gamble. "Okay. So you've made it clear enough why you don't want this Darcy Cullin treadin' on your heels. But why move on her down here, if that's what you're planning? You said she was from Pueblo, same as you are. That's known ground for you, not like here. She might even have kin there, or property. Why not hit at that? Or, if you're figurin' on somethin' more...personal...why not wait till she's at home and maybe goes off her guard? Reckon she don't wear that Peacemaker to bed."

Morrison snorted in amusement. Blackner remained serious. "I don't think it would be strategically sound. In Pueblo our rivalry is well known and can be testified to, and in any case she's a friend and poker partner of the sheriff there and has a brother who's a prominent young attorney. Here she has no such partisans, and the local law may be reluctant to go outside its own district, to say nothing of the territory, to conclude an investigation of any tragedy that may befall her. In any case, Pueblo has nothing like the population or general atmosphere of Discovery. All sorts of accidents can happen in a camp like this one and the truth about them never come to light."

"So what do we have to do with it?" Chris pressed carefully.

"The pattern of incoming orders is such that neither Darcy nor I can count on being able to pick up two successive ones for the same group of consignees twice," Blackner explained. "That means both of us have to lay over here for at least a day or two, interviewing possible customers, getting copies of the orders they're expecting in at the railhead so we can check them against the bills of lading when we make the pickup, and negotiating rates. There's where the window of opportunity opens. I can always use Taylor and the others, but they are known to be associated with me. You gentlemen are different. You're strangers, no one can prove any connection between us except for this one casual conference--which, if we're asked, we can both claim came to nothing. Understand, I haven't necessarily decided what my next move will be. But for when I do, I'd just like to know--are you planning to be in Discovery for a while? Did you come here with some promise of employment held out to you, or are you at liberty?"

"We're at liberty," Chris replied. "And we got no better place to be. We were kinda figurin' there had to be some kind of work open in a camp like this, security at one of the mines, deputy maybe. But honest work means honest pay, which ain't always good pay. And the prices up here are damn high." He eyed the other man challengingly.

"The laborer is worthy of his hire," Blackner agreed. "Taylor and the others are on retainer, a hundred a month. Of course that's long-term. For a one-time job I'd be willing to go higher. I just wanted to assure myself that you were available. If I decide I can make use of you, where can I contact you?"

"We ain't settled on any place to stay yet," the gunfighter admitted. "How about you leave word for us at the bar? One or another of us'll likely be in and out. If you need to talk, just make sure we know where and when. It don't have to be here where half the camp can see." That too was deliberate, a declaration that they were willing to involve themselves in clandestine arrangements.

"That seems efficient enough. I'll do that." Blackner reached into his vest pocket for an old key-winding Waltham watch and clicked the lid open. "And now it's getting late, and I've spent the day on the trail, as I imagine you have too. I have a hotel room waiting for me and I'm going to make use of it." He stood, his gunmen copying him. "It's been a pleasure, Mr. Larabee. I'm sure we'll talk again." And he put his hat on and headed for the doors.

"Son of a bitch," Buck growled when he was sure they were out of earshot.

"Yeah," Chris agreed, "but at least we got him thinkin' we're the same. Now we got to wait and see if he wants to take it to the next level."


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