At a little after one o'clock, the Tam o'Shanter's lawyer tucked his copy of the signed and witnessed contract into his briefcase, politely refused the superintendent's offer of a drink, shook hands with him and Elliott Blackner, and went out to his buggy. Halkett's secretary slipped out after him to his desk in the outer office to finish his morning's work; he got off for lunch at one-thirty. Blackner pocketed his own copy, bade Halkett a good afternoon, and joined the exodus as Halkett knelt to open his safe.
The Tam o'Shanter, closely neighbored by the Coming Wonder, Ginger Queen, Speculator, and Old Hammer outfits, was situated on an isolated flat a couple of miles up one of the tributary gulches that led off from Payday Canyon. Slightly higher and a quarter mile distant was a cluster of owners' and superintendents' tall frame mansions with their rococo gables and cupolas. Soon after the camp was founded, a geologist brought in by an Eastern outfit had strayed up here and noticed the volcanic formation of the rock up near the rim. He had staked out the Speculator claim for his employers. Within three months a total of five mines had taken up all the ground below the rim and the machinery was coming in. Two of them were the biggest producers in the district. Each of the five mine-works was similar in appearance to the rest: a sprawling layout in the form of a Greek cross, centering on a shaft collar flanked by a room for the hoisting-engine machinery and capped by a huge three-storey shaft house laced across, a third of the way down, by the great beams from which swung the tackle for the iron shaft car and the skip hoists. Most of the area of the house was filled in by the car, which was topped by a large metal bucket, or hopper, that would hold five tons of ore at a time. In each of the lateral drifts that radiated off the shaft at various levels and in different directions, men pushed ore cars along their lines of narrow-gauge rail to the "grizzly," a pocket at the edge of the shaft covered by steel rails, and dumped them before going back for the next load; the cage operator stopped at each level to fill the hopper at these pockets and took it up. As Blackner watched, the car came clanking up against the guide irons of the cage, the vast box of the hopper slowly edging into view and hitting the top, where it stopped, tripping automatically and spilling the ore into a huge bin, from which it ran down a chute beneath which an ore wagon had been driven. The broken rock roared down the incline till the wagon was filled, the metal door was dropped into place to cut off the flow, and the driver whipped his mules forward and around to the road leading to the mill, which was built stairstep-fashion on the hillside to permit gravity to assist in the processing of the ore--for the Tam, like its neighbors, possessed its own stamper. Another wagon pulled up in its place, and a second load was sent tumbling through the chute.
The largest building in the complex was the main plant, from which boomed the defeaning roar of ore-reduction machinery. Its north wing held the offices, as far away from the racket as practicality permitted. Corrals and stable, a battery of ore wagons parked in a shed, a shack to test samples in, candle house, magazine, water tank and windmill, pump house, machine shop, long sheds for the shaped timbers to be used underground, blacksmithy, and tool sheds completed the layout, most of the buildings either frame or log, with corrugated-tin roofs.
Blackner's roan mare waited at the tie rack, her ears flickering restlessly at the unfamiliar noise and bustle. He swung into the saddle and set off as if to head down the southward trail toward the camp. Before the second ore wagon could fall in behind him, he swung the mare off to the side and cut quickly up a narrow path that snailed its way across the low hump behind the shafthead, giving access to the air shafts spaced like chessmen on the slope, each with its fans shacked atop. He scrambled over it and down again, behind the long extension of the administrative wing, where he checked, slipped a rope around the mare's neck, tied its free end to a picket peg and pounded the peg into the ground with his boot, then unfastened his saddlebags and draped them over one shoulder. A large window of leaded and stained glass permitted ventilation to the meeting room at the back of the wing. It was neither locked nor barred, and Blackner found no difficulty in raising it and getting through. The unending clamor of the mill tended to cover most lesser sounds, and the sash was in any case well lubricated.
One door gave out of this room, and listening at the crack Blackner could hear the squeak of Halkett's swivel chair. He laid the saddlebags down beside the doorframe and eased the panel open by a crack. To his right was the door that led to the secretary's sanctum; to his left, the safe; and directly ahead of him, Halkett's desk, with a window on the other side of it, toward which the chair was turned as the superintendent lounged in it, scanning some sort of report. Blackner reached into the pocket of his suit-coat and pulled out the little lightweight Colt New Model Police .36 he'd bought in Trinidad on the way down from Pueblo, squeezing the trigger as he eared the hammer back, to prevent a telltale click. The weapon weighed only twenty-six ounces, barely enough to soak up its recoil, but its small caliber provided a minimum of that, and any of its five shots, at short enough range, was bound to be deadly.
He stepped out of the meeting room, holding the little Colt down at his side where the skirt of his coat would conceal it. Halkett turned his chair to reach for an ebony and gold pen socketed in the big inkstand beside the fancy silver-chased inkwell of red Bohemian glass. Blackner's movement caught his eye and he looked around, surprise registering. "How did you get back in here, Elliott? Did you forget something?"
Blackner smiled without humor. "Oh, no, Roger, I haven't forgotten anything." And he raised the little Colt and fired once. At point-blank range there was no chance of missing. Leaning slightly forward to rise, Halkett was thrown back against the chair's backrest, then slumped sideways to hang over the arm. He didn't make a sound.
Blackner felt under the man's jaw for a pulse, satisfied himself that there was none, and casually dropped the little Colt on the richly designed French carpet beside the chair. A glance at the immense bronze mantel clock with a robed, amply-built woman seated on top of the case confirmed that he had exactly fifteen minutes till the shift changed underground. He ducked back into the meeting room for his saddlebags and removed from them a shiny coil of fast-burning fuse and a couple of black-powder blasting cartridges wrapped in greasy yellow paper. After carefully checking the length of the fuse for small crimps which might cause it to misfire and go out, he quickly and deftly set to work affixing the cartridges to the knob of the squat black safe with its gold scrollwork lettering spelling out the words Tam o'Shanter Milling & Mining Company. Ruthlessly slicing a strip off the rug, he packed it around the charges to muffle their sound--it wouldn't do to block the door by buttressing it with the desk, though he knew that would do the job more effectively--and emplaced the fuse, then backed toward the meeting room, paying it out between his fingers and double-checking for crimps. He couldn't risk the time it would take to trim it, if it failed, and fire it again; the blast had to go off at a precise moment.
He recovered his saddlebags and tossed them out the meeting-room window, produced a match from his pocket safe, wiped it into life on the doorframe, and set it to the end of the fuse. A hiss, a short jet of orange flame, and an acrid smoke answered. Blackner positioned himself behind the half-open door of the meeting room, watching as the flame scurried across the carpet and the hands of the clock moved the final fraction of an inch. He ducked back behind the panel as the muted thump of the powder cartridges detonating and the faint shudder of air and floor was absorbed by the rumbling of underground blasts of Giant powder providing the ore for the incoming shift to muck out.
Blackner peered cautiously out, his nose wrinkling at the reek of powder. The safe door hung open at a crazy angle, papers drifting slowly out of its violated interior like falling leaves. Blackner hastily pulled out the petty-cash box, banged it against the edge of the heavy desk to break the lock, and stuffed its contents into his pockets, dropping the empty metal container beside the Colt. Then he scrambled out the rear window, pulling it shut after him, and picked up his saddlebags. He threw the bags into place behind his cantle, tied them, pulled up the picket pin, put it away, coiled and tied the tether rope, mounted, and turned to depart as he had come, over the hump behind the shaft houses. Minutes later he was safely on the downbound trail, his mare weaving her way through the stream of miners going off duty, most of them too weary to pay him any real attention. At the bottom of the path he cut to the right, away from the trail that led to the camp, and found a little patch of aspen timber--worthless for construction--to hide in. Here he would wait until he saw Larabee and his men turn up the way he had just come. He had originally planned to try to frame some miner for the act; since Halkett, unlike Hugh Sandlin of the Coming Wonder, had never been a working man himself and was besides an Easterner foisted on them from above, his workers had little real fondness for him, if no great antagonism either so far. But after thinking it over he had decided this might not be such a good idea. If a working man were jailed and threatened with death for the murder of a supervisor, there would be repercussions: miners always had friends among their own kind, who might try to break the accused out of jail, and that could lead to a kind of class warfare, even to a mass strike, which would make it hard for the Tam, or any of the other mines, to produce the amount of refined ore that would make the plot worthwhile. It would be better to pin the murder on strangers, men with no built-in partisanship in camp. Four gunslingers more or less wouldn't make it hard for anyone to sleep.
Presently he spotted them--four riders, the leader a lean thundercloud in black clothes on a black horse. Patting his pocket and smiling at the crisp rustle of the contract within, Blackner turned down the trail toward the next of the upward paths. Now that he could show he had gained the business of one of the big mines, he might be able to get more. As long as he had the mare saddled, he might as well pay them a visit.
+ + + + + + +
A timberman shaping stulls and cribbing in a long shed directed Larabee and his followers to the office wing. The gunfighter was mildly surprised to find no sign of a horse that Blackner might have ridden up from camp, but decided that as a friend of Halkett's he could have had it taken off to the stables to water and feed. The four men tied their own mounts and went in. The front office was a long narrow room with a counter along one side, fencing off half a dozen flat clerks' desks, a stove, some chairs, and a big walk-in wall safe--actually more like a vault--in which, presumably, the refined ingots would be stacked until they could be hauled down to the railhead. At the far end of the room, directly to the left of the swing gate by which the clerks passed in and out, was a door with a liveried watchman standing nearby. "Is this the way to the mine superintendent's office?" Chris asked him. "We're expected."
"Straight down the end of the corridor," the man agreed, and held the door open for them.
A long green-carpeted hall led past rows of gilt-inscribed doors--Assayer, Bookkeeper, Paymaster, Engineer, Shift Superintendent--to the outer half of the superintendent's office, where a rolltop desk stood vacant, presumably for a secretary who had stepped out for some reason. Vin stopped, his nose wrinkling. "You smell that?"
Buck sniffed and frowned. "Yeah. Gunpowder."
Chris hesitated, his nerves prickling as gunfighter's instinct sounded an uneasy warning. "All mines use Giant powder to blow out rock," he reminded them.
"Not in no office they don't," Vin retorted, eyeing the door to the inner sanctum as if he expected a bear to come charging out of it.
Larabee loosened his Colt in its holster. For just a moment he considered going back and summoning the watchman, but something in his nature drove him on. "Let's have a look."
No one responded to his knock, and after a moment he tried turning the knob. The door was unlocked, and beyond was a high-ceilinged room with rich oak panelling and leaded windows and an ornate walnut desk. A thin fog of white smoke hung in the air, though a good bit of it had already seeped out through the side window, which was open about three inches at the top for ventilation. Behind the desk a squat black safe stood open, the twisted and broken door giving plain evidence of how the powder had been used, papers and a shattered cashbox littering the carpet in front of it. And in the swivel chair a man hung sideways, unmoving. Under the fading reek of burned powder Chris caught another smell, an old familiar one.
Nathan made a lunge for the desk and cautiously half lifted the man in the chair. He looked to be about thirty-five, dressed in an immaculate ivory-colored China-silk summer suit which suggested that despite his title he no more ventured into the bowels of the earth than Ezra would willingly have done, with an initial R visible beautifully embroidered just above the protruding right cuff of his fine cambric shirt, a fancy red-and-white-checkered vest, and an emerald scarfpin holding a flowered cravat. His eyes were closed, and except for the tiny red blossom of blood on his shirt front, just over the left breast, he might almost have been thought to have fallen asleep. The healer felt at wrist and neck for a pulse and looked up, his fine dark eyes solemn and sad. "He's gone, Chris," he said, with a slow shake of his head.
"Nah. He's still warm. Can't been dead more'n half an hour."
"Powder smell's fresh too," Buck observed, as the training of past lawkeeping experience cut in. He looked narrowly around the room, focusing on a second door in the left-hand wall. "Whoever done it sure didn't come through the front office. What's in yonder?"
Vin went to look. "Big meetin' room," he reported. "Got a window, too."
Larabee and Wilmington traded glances and nods. "That's likely how he got in and out. Looks like he shot Halkett, probably for refusing to open the safe, then blew it and emptied the cashbox."
Buck moved slowly around the desk, eyes ranging over the carpet like the nose of a hound on a scent. "Here," he said, and knelt to scoop up a Colt Police .36, sniff at the barrel and open the loading gate for a look at the chambers. "One round out of it. Barrel's still warm."
Transfixed by the scene that had greeted them, none of them had thought to shut the door. Now a new voice spoke up behind Chris's shoulder. "Mr. Halkett? Is something--?"
The gunfighter turned to find himself facing a young man wearing a shiny black alpaca office coat and printed piqué waistcoat, a pince-nez strung around his neck on a black ribbon--probably the missing secretary. His brown eyes tracked past the grim-faced man in black, to the body in the chair, the blown safe, the small revolver almost lost in Buck's big hand, the knives sheathed on Nathan's back and the hunted-deer look beginning to show in Vin's blue eyes, and he gasped and ran for the corridor. "Help! Help! Murder! McGraw! Mr. Schuster! Help!"
"Aw, hell," Vin groaned, his eyes suddenly reproaching his best friend for not backing off as soon as they caught the gunpowder smell. Chris knew what he was thinking. It hadn't been very long since the false Marshal Yates had come to town and bluffed the tracker's friends into holding him in the jail until he and his "posse" could set out with him for Tascosa. To a man like Vin, who had spent his life in the open, freedom to come and go as he pleased stood at the center of his value system, and he wouldn't have had time enough yet to suppress the memory of what it had felt like to be confined, however briefly. Now he saw the prospect of the same thing yawning before him like the gates of perdition, and his normal calm levelheadedness didn't stand a chance before the panic that swelled up in his soul.
The secretary hadn't even reached the far door when it burst open and the watchman came through in a rush, a very efficient Smith & Wesson .44 clutched in his hand. A couple of the lesser office doors disgorged men in shirtsleeves, also armed. Before the four regulators could decide on a strategy, they found themselves facing a trio of ready guns and grim faces, with the secretary watching from over the shoulders of the other men. The watchman's alert gaze took in the scene in a single sweep and he spoke in a hard voice. "All right, drop your gunbelts."
"Do it, boys," Chris ordered quietly. Not that they couldn't have taken their immediate opposition, but they would still have the rest of the mine's personnel to escape from, not to mention the camp downcanyon, and there was also the matter of the job they had come here to do.
Slowly the other three began divesting themselves of their weapons, Buck gently placing the .36 on top of the safe before he lowered his hands to his belt buckle. "What will we do with them, McGraw?" asked one of the office men.
"Lock 'em in the powder magazine for now," the watchman decided, "and send somebody down to camp for a deputy and the undertaker."
"Damn it, man," Buck objected, "you can't be thinkin' we done this! You seen us come in yourself--how'd we had the time?"
McGraw glared at him. "Don't take but a minute to burn a foot of fuse to blow a safe," he growled, "and even less than that to shoot a man dead. If you didn't do it, that'll come out in court."
Somehow I wonder, Chris thought as his silver-conchaed gunbelt hit the floor with a soft slap. McGraw waggled the barrel of his gun. "All right, come on out of there. Carlow, after we've got 'em out, you gather up their guns--we can put 'em in the vault till the deputy gets here."
Vin had begun to tremble. "No," he whispered, so softly that even Chris almost didn't hear him. "I ain't gettin' locked up in no cell again. I ain't doin' it."
It was too late. The tracker broke--not for the blocked hallway, but back through the door into the meeting room. There was a cascading crash of glass shattering as he hurled himself out through the back window.
"Get him!" McGraw yelled, and one of the office men spun on his heel and went racing down the passage, shouting for assistance. Tanner's friends stood helplessly as bedlam broke out, first in the office, then in the yard.
McGraw stared grimly at his remaining prisoners. "He won't get far. He's unarmed and cut off from his horse. Get moving."
+ + + + + + +
The sun was still an hour short of setting, but the beetling walls of Payday Canyon were already shrouding much of Discovery in shadow, when Ezra Standish finally caught up with Darcy and her two "bodyguards" coming out of a mining-equipment store. Josiah and JD played their parts to perfection, the preacher remaining squarely at the young woman's back to block any possible shots from that quarter, JD keeping between her and the edge of the boardwalk. The Southerner waited a moment until he saw the trio turn across the frontage of an assay office that had closed for the night, then pulled a cigar out of his coat pocket and started toward them on an intercepting course. "Your pardon, gentlemen. Might I trouble one of you for a match?"
"Why, certainly, brother," said Josiah at once, reaching into his beaded vest.
Ezra spoke quickly, his voice low. "I have recently received some distressin' tidin's. It seems that our compatriots have been detained for the crime of murder."
"Murder!" JD repeated in a throttled yelp. "When? Are you sure?"
"No names have been released as of yet," the gambler responded, "but the descriptions are exact. Four men, one dressed entirely in black, one a Negro, one tall and with a mustache. I doubt seriously that even in a camp as crowded as this one, there are two groups which fit that portrayal."
"I seem to have left my matches in the room," said Josiah clearly--bless the man, he saw the need to draw out the meeting as long as he could. "JD, can you help our Southern friend?"
The youngest regulator hesitated a heartbeat, then began groping through the various pockets of his suit. "Who was killed, Ezra?" Darcy asked quietly.
"Roger Halkett, the superintendent of the Tam o'Shanter minin' property," Standish told her. "The tragedy apparently occurred around two o'clock. By five the word of it was makin' the rounds of the local resorts like a wildfire. I tarried only long enough to verify the salient details before settin' out in search of you."
"Halkett. I've met him," Darcy observed with a nod. "Does Pennoyer's office have a case?"
"From what I heard, Mr. Larabee and his companions were discovered standin' over the corpse, with the fatal weapon in Mr. Wilmington's hand. I understand that Halkett's office safe had been unsealed with explosives."
"Here y'are, Mister," JD said loudly, producing the sought-after lucifer and wiping it alight on a convenient awning post before he touched it to the tip of Ezra's cigar. "We can't leave 'em in jail," he hissed as the gambler slowly drew the smoke into life. "If Buck had the gun in his hand--God, they'll hang him! We gotta get 'em out!"
"Rest assured, Mr. Dunne, I have no intention of abandonin' our cohorts to their fate," Ezra retorted, his lips barely moving as he continued puffing on the cigar. "But we dare not act rashly. We must acquire further information, and we must have a plan."
"He's right," Darcy agreed. "All right, here's what we'll do. I'll take JD and Josiah back to my room and we'll hole up. Ezra, you make the rounds and find out whatever you can. When you think you've got a picture of the situation, come up the service stair so nobody can see you, and we'll talk."
"Consider it done, Miss Cullin." Ezra straightened and touched his hatbrim. "My gratitude, gentlemen, for your timely assistance. A good evenin' to you." And he turned away and headed across the street, weaving his way through the churning traffic with a dancer's grace.
Darcy glanced at JD's suddenly pale, pinched face and laid her hand gently on the sleeve of his coat. "Don't give up, kid," she advised. "We'll get to the bottom of this. But if it's got anything to do with Blackner suspecting that Mr. Larabee and the others are trying to get the goods on him, or even if it hasn't, we're a lot more vulnerable than we were. Let's get under cover and regroup before we go charging to the rescue."
+ + + + + + +
Sheriff Dalton Pennoyer was a lean, well-set-up, almost handsome man with jet-black hair and a curling mustache to match. Though he wasn't a gunfighter, he had some of the traits of a successful one: a cool head, physical grace, a touch of dignity in the following of his trade, a flair for style in his clothes and an inclination to dandiness. Like many lawmen, he saw no reason to make the arrest of a trigger-happy outlaw a game to be played with sixguns on a dusty street; on those occasions when it became necessary for him to actually earn his pay rather than foisting the job off on one of his deputies, he found that a shotgun had a salutary effect on the worst of the bad ones. In his black Prince Albert frock coat, gray and black striped trousers, and a magnificent waistcoat of yellow and gray brocade depicting the antics of nymphs and satyrs, with a discreet cameo pin in his green silk foulard tie, he looked more like a gambler than a lawman. His physical presence overwhelmed the cramped front office of the jail, where his own immaculate desk faced the cluttered utilitarian one of the on-duty deputy, backed by a couple of capacious wooden filing cabinets, across a big double window. The cell bloc was located in a mortared-rock wing at the back, reached by a heavy steel door with no knob or latch on the cell side, so it couldn't be opened from there, thus cutting down on the chance of escapes. A dozen cells lined the corridor on both sides, with a big twenty-man tank at the end. Nearest the door was an interview room, a soundproof cubbyhole for confidential lawyer-client conferences.
Chris sat on a little three-legged stool beside one of the two narrow low cots in his cell, tending a nauseated, semi-conscious Vin. The tracker had given the Tam o'Shanter's personnel a good run for their money, using the complex of buildings for cover with an expert's facility, but in the end the numbers and his lack of familiarity with the ground had brought him down. A couple of timbermen had caught sight of him and chased him almost into the arms of the lift operator, who had brought him down with a long monkey wrench; only the glancing character of the blow had prevented his head from being caved in, and he was still very weak and confused even now, more than five hours after he'd been slung unconscious into the powder magazine to join his friends. Shortly thereafter a deputy had arrived with a hastily gathered backup posse, and the four regulators had been placed on their own horses and taken down to the camp to be jailed.
Buck and Nathan watched from the cell next door, alternating their attention from their leader to the self-satisfied figure of Pennoyer, who strolled to and fro in the passage preening a bit over the excellent light in which he would be able to portray himself when Halkett's superiors asked him for the details of the case. "You boys must have been awful hungry," he observed, "to kill a man for as little as you got out of that cashbox. Mr. Halkett's secretary tells me there wouldn't have been any more than about three or four hundred in petty cash in there. If you'd waited a week, you could have had the mine payroll, and that would've been over eighty thousand dollars."
"We'd had to be awful damn stupid," Buck snapped, "to do it the way you think we done. Walk in like we owned the place, kill a man, blow the safe, walk out again and expect nobody'd connect us to what they found later on? Hell! You ain't no Pinkerton. You ain't even rightly no lawman. Ain't one half decent one I ever met would take that setup for evidence."
Pennoyer paused and nailed him with a frown. "You're a poor one to talk, son, with a gun in your hand the same caliber as the bullet our undertaker pulled out of poor Mr. Halkett's dead corpse," he said. "And your friend there making a break for it, like McGraw tells me he did, don't do a damn thing to make your case any better."
"He can't stand to be locked up," Chris snarled. "It makes him crazy. You're all lucky he's still alive, or I'd have a few words to say when I get out of here."
"The only way you're getting out of here," Pennoyer told him, "is to go to your trial--and then to the gallows, as soon as we get it built. I don't have to prove you're a bunch of smart murderers. I only have to prove you're murderers. I got a corpus delecti, a murder weapon, a motive, and I got four hundred and twenty dollars that was taken off your persons, plus witnesses to your presence at the scene. That's all Mr. Halkett's Board will ask for. The camp as a whole probably won't care much one way or the other, I'll admit; Mr. Halkett wasn't the most popular of men. The fact is, you're lucky you picked on him instead of, say, Mr. Sandlin up at the Coming Wonder. His people are as gone over him as I ever saw. If he was the one dead, there'd be eight hundred Wonder employees ready to take you out of here and hang you this very night, and there wouldn't be a damn thing my deputies could do to stop them."
Buck and Nathan traded looks. Most of the money Pennoyer had mentioned was, of course, what they'd gotten by cashing in the chips Ezra had provided, but attempting to explain that would mean having to reveal the entire story of why they were here and to disclose that they had backup--which might well place Josiah, JD, Ezra, and even Darcy and her packers in peril. By the black look that settled on Chris's features, he realized the same truth. "You're a fool, Pennoyer," the gunfighter declared flatly, "and what's worse you're a lazy fool. I'm gonna take a lot of pleasure in bringin' you down."
"If you were set up, which seems to be what you're saying," the sheriff responded evenly, "who did it, and why? From what I understand, you boys are strangers in town, didn't get in but night before last, haven't been in any trouble since. No reason I can see for anyone to want to see you strung up, as a group least of all."
Larabee took breath, then hesitated, frowning. Much as he hated to admit it, the man had a point. The only possible enemy they could have in Discovery would be Blackner, and he had no reason to think they were angling for his downfall. One key to survival as a gunfighter was an eerie genius at sensing human emotions: you not only had to beat your opponent's draw, but you had to sense the very moment he had reached his crisis. This facility easily extended itself to embrace the ability to tell when people were suspicious of you, when they were seeing you as a threat and therefore perhaps someone they should try to take down when they thought you weren't looking. Chris had picked up nothing of that from Blackner in the Varieties, and a check of his own perceptions against those of Buck and Vin had confirmed his opinion. They might be able to call on the testimony of the bartender who had passed on Blackner's message to them--if the man remembered it, which someone as busy as he might not, once it had been delivered--but that didn't prove Blackner had committed the crime; certainly he hadn't been there when they'd arrived. He might have been delayed, and gotten to the Tam after they'd been locked up in the magazine. And what motive would he have had? Very few people, in Chris's experience, committed cold murder just to hang it on someone else--unless they hated that someone else with a passion. What cause would Blackner have to hate them? Taylor, who knew that Chris had guessed he was wanted in Arizona, might feel better if Larabee were eliminated, but Chris didn't see him as one to originate a frame; he might call the older man out, or take a shot at his back if it presented itself, but a setup like this one would be out of character for a man of his kind.
"Sheriff?" came a voice from just the other side of the cell-bloc door, and Elliott Blackner appeared in the opening.
"Mr. Blackner," said Pennoyer smoothly. "I reckon you heard."
"About Roger? Yes, just a little while ago. It was a terrible shock. Hell, less than twenty-four hours ago you and I were playing poker with the man, and now he's dead."
The sheriff nodded, a professional look of lugubrious sympathy on his face. "Well, 'Man that is born of woman,' like the preachers say. At least he didn't suffer any, and we got the men that killed him." He indicated the cells.
Blackner's eyes raked across the imprisoned quartet, and in that instant Chris Larabee knew, without question or doubt, that he was looking at the man who had set them up, though he still couldn't imagine why. He held his silence, in part because just then Vin groaned and called his name in a thick voice. "Easy, cowboy," he said soothingly, dipping a rag into the bucket of water that stood beside his stool, wringing it out and easing it into place across the tracker's abused skull. "You're all right."
"No," Vin gasped. "No, I ain't. I'm in jail again, ain't I? I can't do this, Chris. I can't be caged. I gotta get out or I'll die, cowboy." He tried to struggle into a sitting position only to be pressed back firmly by Chris's hands against his chest.
"You stay still," the gunfighter ordered. "Nathan said you're lucky your head's in one piece, and you likely got a concussion. You ain't in no shape to be running around. You lay still and let us take care of this, hear? You do that for me, pard?"
Vin lay back, pale and sick, as his stomach heaved and roiled dangerously. "You gotta...get me...out of here, Chris," he whispered, and his eyes slid shut again.
Buck cursed softly from the other cell. Blackner addressed the sheriff again. "The real reason I came by was to ask if there would be any trouble with your office over my outfit taking a shipment of Tam o'Shanter ingots when it pulls out," he said. "I was up at Roger's office earlier and signed the contract--I have it right here," and he pulled a folded paper out of his coat pocket.
Pennoyer scanned it briefly. "Why, I don't see any reason I should object to this," he said. "It appears to be a proper worded document, witnessed and signed. Mr. Halkett's secretary is authorized to run things at the mine if he's absent or out of action, and I guess he'll be the one to keep it going till the Board can send out a new superintendent. If he and the mine's attorney say it's all right for you to move the bullion, my office sure won't have any reason to stop you."
"I thought you wouldn't," Blackner agreed, "but I didn't see any harm in making sure. You've done a splendid job, Sheriff. I'm sure the Tam's directors will be pleased." He took the contract back and returned it to his pocket.
It now became clear to Chris just how the setup had worked. Blackner had made his appointment with Halkett for an earlier hour and probably made sure plenty of people saw him come and go; certainly if the contract was witnessed, he would have testimony to the time he had been with the deceased. He'd allowed himself time to commit the crime, somehow circled around to that back window, gotten in and out unseen, and made sure that Larabee and his men would show up just in time to find a corpse and a rifled safe. Of course, he'd have had no way to guarantee that they'd actually be accused of the murder, but the odds had been at least even on it.
"Figure to stay for the funeral?" Pennoyer inquired.
"I haven't decided yet," the freighter admitted. "With bullion to move, time is literally money. Though I suppose I owe poor Roger at least that much, in the light of our common service as Union officers and all. When will it be held?"
"Well, he didn't have any close family in camp, so probably there'll be no reason to make a big thing of it. I'd imagine tomorrow afternoon. You could ask the undertaker, he'll know if the other mine supers and owners have decided to step in and make arrangements."
"I'll do that. Thank you." Blackner paused for a second glance at the prisoners and went out. Pennoyer, apparently deciding he'd said and heard all he had to, followed him, and the steel door shut with a metallic clang.
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