by Sevenstars

"What does Chris think Blackner will do next?" JD asked over breakfast.

Darcy paused in the act of salting and peppering the baked potatoes that had come with her home-cured ham and gravy. "The big advantage we have," she said, "is that since he's in the same business I am, I can predict what he has to do. He came here with a loaded pack string, like us. Whether or not he can manage to pick up some bullion to pack out, he still needs to stay on a day or two, finding out what merchants, saloonkeepers, or whatever are expecting orders of goods up at the railhead at Pueblo, whether any of them are willing to give him the commission to pick those orders up and bring them in on his next run, and what exactly is supposed to be in them. He has to get contracts, written or not, negotiated, and maybe get an advance on the fee, if he can. That takes time, especially in a camp as big and busy as this one. Of course I have to do the same." She began slicing into the ham. "There are three possible routes he can take. One, he can try to get his hands on the payments I got for the stuff I delivered yesterday, figuring that if he does, I won't be able to pay my expenses, and can be pressured into selling. Well, that's not likely to work too well. I don't have that many expenses. I grow my own hay and feed, I have my own land and barn where my mules stay when they're not on the trail, I don't have any outstanding indebtedness in my own name that he might be able to buy up from the bank and use to put the squeeze on me; just the loan Vandy got and passed on to me, which Blackner can't be sure of. The worst that could happen in a case like that is I wouldn't be able to meet payroll, and Nando and the boys will let that slide. Anyway, I don't take my pay in cash. You were with me when I made the rounds. All my consignees gave me checks or bank drafts. If anyone but me tries to cash them, he'll have trouble. Of course he could burn them and destroy the evidence, but I know Blackner and I don't think he'd do that. He got into this business to make money. Burning it, in whatever form, would be cutting off his nose to spite his face. I have a notion it would cause him real pain. He'd much prefer to buy me out with my own money instead of having to lay out any of his."

"So he likely won't try to rob you," JD guessed.

"Right." Darcy forked a pink slab of ham into her mouth, followed it with a bite of sourdough bread spread with egg-butter--a creamy mixture of eggs and molasses, much easier to keep than dairy butter--and a sip of coffee. "So two. He can try to take out my packers, since without them to handle my mule string, I'm stuck; I might be able to get home all right, but I couldn't make the trip back loaded. Well, Nando and his boys are a pretty salty lot, they're all armed, and since there are six of them, they can look out for one another. They already have their orders: none of them goes anywhere alone, not even the jakes. Blackner's got those three guns who were with him last night, but probably no more than that; he didn't get where he is by throwing his money around like a drunken sailor. He spends what he has to, but no more. His packers will fight quick enough if they're attacked on the trail, but they're not professionals and they won't pick a fight for their boss's sake. Which leaves three. Me, like I told you on the boardwalk last night."

"Brother Chris has always been a master strategist," Josiah observed from his chair opposite Darcy's, where he was keeping an eye on the restaurant door while savoring a simple but excellent cereal of cornmeal with butter and sugar. Fried apples with salt pork and a dish of eggs liberally spread with horseradish completed his order.

JD thoughtfully poked a knifeload of butter in between two of his hotcakes and spread it around, dropped the cake over it so its warmth would melt it, and repeated the process with the next layer, then reached for the blue pitcher of hot maple syrup. "Darcy, did you ever kill anyone?" he asked.

Josiah looked up sharply, his deep-set blue eyes flashing. "That's no question to ask, son," he rumbled rebukingly.

The kid flushed. "I think that depends on why he's asking it, Josiah," Darcy observed. "Why are you, JD?"

"I just..." The youngest regulator hesitated, searching for words. "Well, it ain't like I don't think girls, I mean women, can shoot. Casey can, and Miz Nettie's almost as good as Vin with her Spencer, and Mrs. Travis has a big shotgun that she's not scared to pull out when she thinks it's needed, but...well, I just never saw one who could use a belt gun the way you did with that rattler nest, and...and I guess I just wondered if--if you'd ever had to face up to a target that shot back," he ended lamely. "Buck told me almost the first thing, that's a lot different from shootin' at targets, or even at game or varmints."

"Buck was right," Darcy agreed. She was silent a moment. "And the answer to your question is yes, I have. When I was sixteen I shot a man who kept pestering me after a dance. He just didn't know how to take no for an answer, and then he went a little too far, ripped my dress at the shoulder and got hold of my hair and started kissing me, down from my neck. I pulled his own gun out of the holster, shoved it up against his brisket and told him to quit. He didn't believe I'd have the guts to pull the trigger, but I did. He died three hours later." A moment's pause. "Then when I was nineteen I killed a thief who was trying to make off with twenty half-kegs of whiskey that Dad and I had in the load we were moving. It wasn't much for a man to die over--the most he could have gotten from some low-end saloon operator would have been about $275 for the lot--but he had a gun and he shot at me, and I shot back, and it was too dark for fancy stuff, so I fired at center mass. Blew out his lung; he was dead in fifteen minutes." She sighed. "At least Blackner steals bigger than that, or tries to. And three years ago I killed the Indian who killed my dad, or at least one of his friends. So, yes, I've killed someone, three someones to be exact. And, yes, I'd do it again if I had to, to protect myself, or my cargo, or anyone I cared about. And I don't think that makes me evil. What it makes me is alive and determined to stay that way. Self-preservation is the first law, so they say. I think where evil comes into it is when you take money knowing it's to kill someone, or when you kill them without cause, just to advance your own reputation, or because you can, or whatever." She eyed Josiah. "Does that shock you, Father?"

"I'm not Father any more," Josiah replied, a touch of sadness in his voice. "But, no, it doesn't. Most people think the Commandment says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' But the Hebrews killed a lot of people in their wars, and God didn't turn His face from them. He even honored them by incarnating Himself as one of their own, where He could have chosen from any society on Earth. I've read the Bible in the original languages, and the literal translation is, 'Thou shalt not do murder.' "

"I don't think it really hit me at first," JD said, his words slow and soft. "The first fight we were all in together it had to be ten to one, and there was so much shootin' goin' on I couldn't be sure whether it was me or one of the others who'd taken somebody out. We haven't had odds like that since, but for a while it was more of the same, mass fights or running ones, and no sure way to know who'd shot who. Then, after we'd been together about a month, an outlaw named Coltraine tried to force a lady safecracker to help him rob our bank. I got stabbed and was up in Nathan's place when I heard all hell breakin' out in the street. I wasn't strong enough to put my Colts on, but I found a shotgun and went downstairs. One of Coltraine's men tried to ride me down. I don't know to this day how I got that shotgun up with only one good hand, but I did, and I blew him out of the saddle. He was dead before he hit the ground, Nathan said later. It was the first time I could ever be positive I'd hit who I was aimin' at."

"And you didn't like the way you felt afterward," Darcy guessed. "And that's as it should be. It's when you start feeling nothing--or worse, liking what you feel--that you'd better hang it up, if you can. Most can't; by then they're just so much ordnance. But this is a wild land, and like all frontiers since the beginning of history it attracts the lawless. It's all very fine to talk about peace and advancement and such, but sometimes you have to break some eggs to make an omelette. It's better the ones that get broken are the bad ones. I think there are people who are just born to fight, and what makes the difference is whether they find the right side to fight on. And I think you're one of them. I knew when I saw you shooting into those rattlers, both hands by turns. Anyone can lay down cover fire like that, and make the opposition keep its head down, but to do it and actually hit what you're aiming at--that's impressive. I can't do it. If I tried shooting with my left I couldn't hit a flock of barn doors flying low. The funny thing is, when I use my rifle, I pull it into my left shoulder, and I usually get what I'm pointing it at, too. And you've probably noticed that I always hold my fork or spoon in my left hand."

JD grinned in spite of himself, and Josiah shot an appreciative look at the young woman. He hadn't realized JD was still agonizing over that; he'd figured the boy would have talked it over with Buck, who'd been more or less of a fixture beside his bed during his convalescence, the two of them helping each other over what had happened that time--Buck had gone through his own rough time, abducted to Purgatorio by Coltraine's men. On reflection, Josiah decided that maybe that was the very reason JD hadn't confided in his "big brother" as he usually did. Buck had had concerns enough, trying to protect his fellow-captive Terry Greer, fretting over JD's condition. But surely the boy had known he could have come to one of the rest of them, especially Josiah? Already that early they had learned they could depend on one another for more than just backup in a fight. On the other hand, maybe the very fact that Darcy

wasn't one of them, that she could stand off by a degree and look on the incident with a lack of passion none of them--even Ezra--would have been able to bring to it, must mean a lot to JD. She was a stranger, without the kind of interest in his emotional well-being that his friends had, yet she could say, and mean it, that he'd done nothing to be ashamed of. And, because she didn't make her living by the gun as they did, she could also provide him with an example of necessity and of a personality that had found a way to adjust to what had been required of it. That, Josiah realized, was why JD had asked his question. Darcy seemed so steady, so thoroughly adjusted to the life she had chosen to live, that he had needed, for the sake of validation, to know whether she had ever had to face the ultimate test of soul, and how she had dealt with it. Now that he knew even a woman could face up to it and go on, resolved to do the same thing if it ever became necessary, he would begin to heal too--as he must, if he were to go on riding with the Seven.

"And so where do you intend to begin?" the preacher asked.

"I might as well check with the businesses I've carried for already, since they know I can be depended on," Darcy replied, accepting without comment his transparent attempt to change the subject. "Biggest first, since they're likely to have the biggest incoming shipments. And I need to take a ride up to the Coming Glory and let Hugh Sandlin know I'm in camp so he can start making arrangements for the bullion to be loaded."

"Might better do that first," JD offered.

"All right. You two are my bodyguards, and you're the professionals, so I'll figure you know best. Let's finish here and get our horses."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish was quietly pleased with himself. It was only his third evening in Discovery and he'd managed to get an in to the biggest game in town. The opportunity had come, as he had hoped it would, through Roger Halkett of the Tam o'Shanter, to whom he had introduced himself in the Pacific Hotel's dining room. But almost more meaningful to the gambler than the opportunity to make some money in the line of duty was the fact that Elliott Blackner proved to be one of the other players. There were few venues like a good high-stakes poker game for getting a close look at human character.

The Pacific was the camp's biggest hotel, six storeys and two hundred rooms, all with shiny new plumbing, though only a third of them actually ran water. The sprawling all-wood building was awash in cupolas and gingerbread trim; not one room was smaller than sixteen feet square, and many were twenty, while each had a six-foot marble mantel and a corner washbasin, very French, like the Hotel de Paris in Georgetown. The rooms were furnished comfortably, in the height of Victorian splendor, and the public spaces rich with red plush carpet, bright paint, brassy murals, crystal and gold braid. There was a hydraulic elevator lined with mirrors, a billiard room, music room, ballroom, children's dining room, and "committee rooms" for card games. The barroom featured neither music nor girls nor a crowd; the gambling--for the highest stakes in town, to be sure--was done in some adjoining room. This one, with its built-in seats lined with deep leather cushions, was for drinking--and scheming. Men moved slowly, talked in low voices, smoked excellent cigars, drank the best liquor, and devised ways to take more money from the patient mountains and their own stockholders. The builders of the place had tried to ape the fine living of San Francisco. Yet it missed elegance. The dining room smelled of cooked food, the waiters were unshaven, and it was easy to track a round dozen of the less well-dressed diners across the carpet by the dirt they had left on it. The slovenliness of the frontier still stamped it. It was typical of a camp whose boom knew no planning, whose gamblers possessed no shrewdness, whose foresight reached barely into tomorrow.

It was a setting with which Ezra had grown quite familiar since he left the river and the cities behind, and none of it surprised him. What did was the presence in the game of Dalton Pennoyer. Young though Discovery was, the wealth had been taken over and its division settled long since; every foot of ore-bearing land was at a premium, and there was no room for the hopeful latecomer. A substantial part of the town's men carried the money by hard work, all the others fed on them and pandered to their vices, and everyone seemed to get fun and money out of it. There was a carnival air to the place, for it was a camp on the upswing, and all the footloose trash from all over the West had come to provide it with the inevitable swindling and drinking and rioting that gold and silver always seem to attract. A million ounces of ore had been taken from the twenty biggest mines along the canyon in less than a year, and the mine managers, not unreasonably, had demanded and gotten adequate protection from the law. Aside from that, nobody could expect several thousand people of varied extraction to mix without trouble. Consequently the sheriff's office was a large affair, its active work done by three hard-working deputies, for Sheriff Pennoyer was not a peace officer in the true sense of the word; he was a politician, alert to the fact that a man who administered the law in Discovery to the satisfaction of a handful of millionaires might go far in Territorial affairs. His office was properly a twelve-by-fourteen cubbyhole in the busiest block of the main street, but in actuality it was the Pacific, except when it was in the sumptuous office of one of the mines or reduction mills. In such places Sheriff Pennoyer could generally be found, drinking, scheming, backslapping, promising and fawning. He was about thirty-five, well-dressed, dapper, and discreet. Nowhere on his person could be found a gun or a badge. He was, at least outwardly, indistinguishable from the many rich men--stock riggers, reduction-mill superintendents, mine promoters, mine managers, mine lawyers, and mine supply men--who lined the Pacific's elegant bar.

All this, too, Ezra had anticipated, for Darcy had told Chris Larabee everything she knew about the man that she had considered at all pertinent to the job they had come here to do. His deputies were far more of a threat to the Seven than he was: like many cowtown lawmen, he would be inclined to look the other way as long as any trouble that erupted confined itself to nonresidents, and his chief concern would be with stroking the mine superintendents and their crowd. But the gambler hadn't suspected that Pennoyer would be considered enough of an equal by the big men in town to be offered a seat at their games--nor had he supposed that Pennoyer would make enough money to afford the privilege. The highest-paid sheriff the Southerner had ever heard of made a hundred dollars a month, where a marshal in a tough town could rake in ten times that quite legitimately: it was considered fair by all involved that he should be well compensated, since his was actually often the toughest kind of peace-officering work--it might end at the city limits, but he was exposed to badmen and outlaws, or at least the possibility of them, every day, not to mention outsiders who visited in search of pleasure, usually involving some combination of liquor, games, and women, any or all of which could and often did ignite trouble. On the other hand, a sheriff, like a marshal, had to be an adroit enough politician to satisfy both of the factions that inevitably existed within his sphere of responsibility--those who wanted strict law enforcement to protect their lives and property, and those who, being in the business of purveying the various indulgences, wanted visitors with plump wallets treated diplomatically. In addition, a symbiotic relationship often existed between frontier lawmen and vice, and the job of sheriff especially offered almost unlimited opportunities for the collection of bribes and graft, with one of the easiest responsibilities to assume being the monthly collection of gambling, prostitution, liquor, and theater fees. Double taxation was common, with one fee recorded for the public accounts book and the other quietly going into the sheriff's pocket. The community looked the other way as long as citizens could remain undisturbed by the sordid realities around them, the general attitude seeming to be that their officials deserved anything they could get in return for the unsavory job of dealing with the criminal element. Even the respectable element rarely demanded the expulsion of "undesireables;" practical businessmen understood that a flourishing vice community attracted money, and preferred to concentrate on restricting it to a given area and curtailing the most flamboyant behavior there. In a town such as Discovery, where the resorts probably made up more than half the total businesses, such corruption would lead very quickly to a cozy nest-egg. At the going rate of ten dollars a week for each saloon and $17.50 for the gambling operations, those alone would bring in--the gambler calculated in his head--just a few dollars short of $34,800 a year. Damn your deplorable honesty, Ezra Standish, he thought mournfully. If your associates had not succeeded so thoroughly in ruinin' you, you could be doin' the same. Admittedly not on so large a scale, but still--

He shut the speculation off. He was who he was, and this was business. The room in which the game was held was heavily curtained, cutting off much of the clamor from outside, and as well furnished as any of the private ones upstairs. There was a sideboard stocked with Kentucky bourbon, Baltimore rye, Glenlivet Scotch, London Dock gin, de la Frontera brandy, and even a really excellent French burgundy wine whose equal Ezra hadn't encountered since he was last in New Orleans. The dozen men gathered around the table might not be professionals (except for himself) or plungers, but they were serious about their play and could afford it. By the time the party broke up, around midnight, Ezra had enriched himself by fully $2000 from Blackner, who was the evening's big loser, and $1500 each from Halkett and Pennoyer, besides lesser amounts from the other gentlemen present. If I had had this amount when Mother was last in town, he told himself, I might have been enabled to outlast her and retain title to the tavern. Well, there will be another opportunity. Mr. Tanner can no longer force the truth from Eli Joe, yet he has not given up hope of clearin' his name. If he can retain his optimism in the face of a noose, who am I to do less?

Reluctant to keep his winnings in his boot in this strange, crowded camp, especially when none of his associates might be at hand in the event of trouble (and those who were might hesitate to be seen lending him a hand), he stopped at the desk to have them placed in the safe. As he was getting his receipt, he noticed Blackner and Halkett crossing the lobby toward the stairs and starting up the flight. They didn't seem troubled by the possibility of his seeing them, but his instincts were engaged immediately. As a professional conman, Ezra had a keen sense for when things didn't quite fit. As he had told Vin, Halkett was a resident of one of the suites upstairs, but Blackner was staying at the Empire. It was late and tomorrow was a business day; why would Blackner go upstairs with Halkett at such an hour? To be sure there was that hint of a personal link between them, which their behavior toward each other at the table had tended to substantiate, but they had just spent four hours in each other's company; if there was anything they had wanted to discuss, why not do so in the breaks between hands? And if it were legitimate business, such as the question of Blackner getting the contract to move the Tam o'Shanter bullion, why not save it for tomorrow and meet in Halkett's office at the mine? The answer was clear: because it wasn't legitimate, and they didn't want anyone to overhear it. Quickly thanking the clerk and tucking his receipt into his coat pocket, Ezra started up behind them, walking on his toes and sticking close to the banister, since stairs were likeliest to creak in the middle of the tread.

The second floor of the hotel was occupied chiefly by the very large suites, with the lesser, two-room ones, such as Halkett rented, directly above, and three floors of singles over that, Ezra's among them. At the third-floor landing the gambler paused and peeped cautiously around the frame of the archway that led off it to the wing where Halkett lived. Sure enough, the low-turned gaslights spaced along the corridor, fed from the camp's own small gas plant, revealed the two men standing outside Halkett's door while he unlocked it.

Ezra pulled back so they wouldn't see him and waited. The hotel was quiet at this hour and he was clearly able to hear the soft click of the latch shooting home as the door closed behind the two men. Ezra moved softly down the carpeted hallway to the door of the suite next to Halkett's. He thumbed his trusty lockpick out of its hiding place and in thirty seconds had conquered the lock. He didn't know whether this suite was currently occupied, but a quick glance at the underdoor crack had shown him that there were no lights on in the room just beyond, and he knew from the spacing of the doors along the passage that the suites were laid out with parlor abutting parlor and bedroom bedroom. If anyone was at home, they were safely tucked away for the night, and if they weren't in yet--well, that was the chance he would have to take.

The parlor was dark. Ezra paused just inside the door, shutting it softly and closing his eyes for a moment to let them adjust. His night vision had always been good, and after about twenty long breaths he was able to make out the basic shapes of the furniture. As he had hoped, there was a sideboard, and on it, in the light filtering through the front window, he caught the gleam of glass. The management provided drinking ware; something to put in it was the responsibility of the guest. Ezra scooped a shot glass up from the tray that held it, moved silently to the party wall between this suite and Halkett's, set the mouth of the glass against the partition and his ear to the base, and leaned in to listen.

Muffledly he could hear the clink of glass on glass, the creak of furniture, and then a voice--Halkett's. "Not your night, was it, Elliott? Mr. Standish took you for a nice round sum."

"Yours wasn't exactly flat, Roger," came Blackner's retort, but there was no such note of bitterness in it as Ezra had often heard from disgruntled losers.

"Very true," Halkett agreed good-humoredly. "Did you see Dalton's face, though? I thought he'd have an apoplexy."

Blackner snorted. "He'll make it back in graft in a week. As someone said to me last evening, if you play with the big boys, you have to be ready to play by their rules and risk getting hurt."

Mr. Larabee, without doubt, Ezra told himself. It sounds exactly the sort of maxim our fearless leader would utter. He wasn't surprised to hear his suspicions of the dapper sheriff confirmed.

"When do you want to come up and sign the contract for the bullion?" Halkett inquired.

"Tomorrow, if that's good with you," was the reply. "There's no need for me to stay in town any longer than I have to, after all. My boss packer already has enough agreements in hand to load all but about thirty of my mules on the next trip in. He should finish the job before noon."

"Then I won't be seeing you again," said Halkett.

"Not unless I have to come back next season and renegotiate," Blackner agreed, and Ezra frowned. Why should the man not have to do exactly that? Surely, once he had established to the satisfaction to the Tam o'Shanter's directors that he could fulfill their needs, he would want to keep them as clients?

"Are you sure this will work?"

Pause. "You're not going to back out on me, are you, Roger? You don't think the Board is going to go on forever in blissful ignorance of the fact that you don't know any more about mining than a skunk does about table manners? The only reason you've got this job is that two of your cousins between them own twenty-four per cent of the stock. As long as everything goes smoothly, you'll be fine. But eventually there'll be a strike, or a cave-in, or the vein will pinch out, and that's when you'll be called on to show what you're made of. When you can't deal with it, they'll drop you faster than a red-hot horseshoe, and you know it."

"I'm not backing out," Halkett protested. "I just want to be sure you can pull it off."

"I didn't serve three years with the Cavalry without learning how to use explosives," said Blackner. "God knows we got enough abuse from the Engineers for merrily blowing up bridges that they'd have to come along behind us and rebuild. And that was before they invented dynamite. All I'll need is the right terrain and the right amount of snow. I'll make sure mine is the last pack train to leave, so nobody gets trapped, and after it's passed through I'll drop back and set the charge. To anyone who comes out for a look, it will seem that a slide caught us and wiped out the entire train. Once the trail is blocked, no word can get in or out of here till spring, so no one in Pueblo will realize I'm supposed to be dead. I'll load the bullion into three of my jerkline outfits and get across the prairie to Kansas City and onto a riverboat before anyone figures out that I should have sent a shipment east to your Board. Even with a ten-thousand-dollar payoff to each of the men helping with the transfer, two hundred mule-loads of ingots will leave $13,764,000 for the two of us to split."

The shot glass slipped out of Ezra's fingers and hit the carpeted floor, which fortunately cushioned any sound it made, as the Southerner, suddenly weak in the knees, turned and slumped against the wall, his heart racing. Good Lord! Even I have never contemplated a con of such magnitude. Thirteen million dollars...it's stupendous! I can scarcely believe it. And by the time the trail is clear and the search parties attemptin' to recover the bullion realize it isn't there to be recovered, Blackner will be in Europe. Since no one is likely to suspect Halkett's complicity, he can simply take his time over resignin' his position, travel East in a leisurely fashion, and eventually either rejoin his partner in whatever location they have agreed upon, or simply pick up a...package...left for him in some safe place. Gemstones, perhaps, or bearer bonds. An even split of the figure Blackner mentioned will give each of them $6,882,000. Good Lord.

He frowned. He will, of course, have to abandon his company. An attempt to sell it off quickly might arouse suspicion. Still, I doubt that his total assets can be any more than five per cent of what he stands to net in this brazen larceny. And even if the mine's directors succeed in bringin' suit against an absent perpetrator, they will lose spectacularly.

But if he has been contemplatin' this plot all along, as he almost must, why is he so anxious to break Miss Cullin before he folds his tent, like the famous Arab, and flees away into the night?

Groping swiftly on the carpet, he recovered his shot glass and repositioned it. "--doesn't?" he heard Halkett saying.

"Then we put it off a season," Blackner replied, and Ezra realized the mine superintendent must have been asking what option they would have in case the weather failed to co-operate, as occasionally it was bound to. "It might almost be better, at least for me, if we have to. I can start quietly selling things off and sending the proceeds out of the country."

"So you come out ahead."

"No, I don't," was the retort. "Not having to kick back five per cent of my fee to you."

Halkett laughed. "Oh, yes, you do. And it was worth it, after all. You know you needed to have me to arrange for the contract. The Board wouldn't listen to one penny on five thousand dollars otherwise. It's twice what Darcy Cullin's charging."

"And I've got bigger expenses, and my string can carry four times what hers does, plus I've got three of them working this camp," Blackner reminded him. "Besides, once I drive her out of business, I'll make up your little slice of graft in a month. I'm not about to flee the country leaving that little bitch with the idea that she's won."

Ezra clenched his teeth. Foul-mouthed damnyankee bastard, he thought. I shall make it a point to call you to account for that. Naturally if he and his associates could nail Blackner on any charges connected to his harassment of Darcy, the plot would fall apart: the man would be in prison, and the mine's directors would require Halkett to find some other carrier for their ore--they wouldn't want it to just keep piling up in Discovery. But Ezra had changed a good deal since he'd been one of the Seven, and the concept of a man betraying his position of trust, using it to gain financially at the expense of those who had awarded it to him, disturbed the gambler more than he had ever expected it to. Since Halkett knew what Blackner's strategy was, he might even suggest to the new carrier that he employ it, and in the end the theft would still occur. Standish wondered if there might be some way to let Halkett's superiors know what kind of viper they were nursing in their bosoms. And, of course, I would modestly accept any small remuneration they might elect to bestow upon me, he admitted to himself. I must give the matter my closest consideration. Later.

He returned his attention to the voices from the next room in time to hear Blackner saying, "All right. I'll ride up tomorrow and we'll get the contract signed. You'll make sure we have witnesses?"
"I'll call the mine's attorney up from town, and we can have my secretary there. You're calling it a night?"

Ezra heard a yawn. "It's been quite a day--and even more of an evening. See you tomorrow, Roger."

The Southerner waited until the door of the suite had closed, counted to twenty to give Blackner time to get to the stairs, and then softly eased his way out into the corridor and headed for the service stair and his own quarters on the next floor. Even more of an evening, indeed, he thought. Well, we shall see.

+ + + + + + +

Buck jackknifed his long body into a chair between Chris and Nathan. "You order what I told you to?" he asked.

"Steak with onions and hash browns. It's comin'," his oldest friend assured him. "Any word at the Varieties?"

The taller man's brow furrowed. "Yeah. Blackner left a message for us to meet him at the Tam o'Shanter mine office at two-thirty."

Vin and Nathan frowned. "Why'd he want us there?" the healer wondered. "Figger better he'd look to be private if he 's lookin' to use us to hit at Miss Darcy."

Larabee considered it. "We know he wants to get the contract to haul out ore for one or more of these mines," he mused. "Ezra said he had some kind of connection with Halkett that might give him a foot in the door, but Halkett's still got people above him that he has to answer to. Even cast in ingots the way Miss Cullin described, that gold could still be vulnerable; a big enough gang could hit the train on the way down, cut out at least some of the loaded mules and drive 'em off. Maybe somebody on Halkett's Board is a worrier and wants him to pick a carrier with a good security force. If Blackner has us and them three hired guns of his to show, he can make a good case for bein' able to beat off just about anything. Maybe he just wants to use us as window-dressing."

"Makes sense, I reckon," Nathan agreed. Vin looked dubious but didn't say anything.

"Two-thirty," Buck repeated. "Shift changes at two. We'll likely have some downbound miners to make our way through. Best allow a little extra time for the ride."


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