A leathery middle- aged woman set out a big platter of tiny brown quails, from which a delicious aroma rose, and Ezra perked up and hastened to get a seat. The birds had been fried with exactly the right amount of grease, no more, and were piping hot and so tender the meat almost fell off the bones at a touch. There was a big boat of red gravy, feather-light soda biscuits, creamed hashed potatoes, spring greens flavored with just a hint of salt pork, sliced boiled beets, and an impressive array of pickles and preserves. Even the pie, though it was only dried apple, was better than the ordinary run: it was served swimming in cream, and Ezra could taste lemon extract in it, besides the plump raisins that studded the filling. "Madam," he said, "permit me to say that this is undoubtedly the finest repast I have been offered since I departed St. Joseph. You are a veritable genius with skillet and range."
"I hope that was a compliment, fancy man," the elderly lady retorted spryly, but he caught a telltale twinkle of pleasure in her fierce eyes.
"A heartfelt one and unfeigned, Madam, I do assure you. I feel somehow gloomily assured that this experience will stand forth in my memory as the jewel of my journey to the glitterin' coast of California." He caught her fingers in his as she reached for his well-cleaned plate and kissed the back of her hand lightly, smiling all the way back to his gold tooth. "I comprehend that it is considered unmannerly to tender a gratuity to employees of the line, and indeed mere pecuniary guerdon would be but a frail and adulterated expression of the delight and satisfaction I find myself experiencin', but possibly you might accept a consideration of another sort?" He felt in his pocket and extracted a cross-shaped onyx brooch, a relic of his encounter over cards with Saint-Mémin.
"I can't take this, Mister," she protested as he pressed it into her hand. "It's too dear."
"Madam, I tender you my oath as a gentleman, it cost me nothin' except a modicum of skill at the poker table, and its color is quite in disharmony with my personal style, even if I were inclined to array myself in women's trinkets. Please, you will offend me if you refuse it."
The boy and the scruffy long-haired man were listening to the exchange with close attention, though the former seemed only to be catching about three words out of five. The woman actually blushed (which seemed somehow not to suit her angular face), hesitated, and then nodded and curled her fingers about it. "I try never to offend folks that ain't done the same by me first. Thank you."
"Indeed, it is I who thank you." The driver stood up, which was a signal to his passengers that he was ready to get started again, and Ezra rose, bowed deeply with a sweep of his hat, and turned for the door. Just as he reached it he caught a hint of a crooked smile from the long- haired man, a sly twinkle in the vivid eyes and the touch of a forefinger to the loose slouched brim of his hat. Then he was outside again, with darkness already veiling the shapes of the buildings, and striding across the yard to the waiting coach, whose square-sided brass coach lamps in their brackets just below and back of the driver's seat had been lit to offer some illumination of the road ahead and whose fresh team pawed and fretted, eager to be on their way. And yet, as he settled himself on the Concord's russet-leather seat, he had, for an uncharacteristic moment, the oddest premonition that he hadn't seen the last of these people.
He snorted to himself. Now he was giving in to fancies like a rank amateur. He was going to San Francisco. Of course, he had been thinking he would break his journey in the next settlement, lay over a day or two and nurse the bruises with which the coach had left him...
It was almost two A. M. when the stage pulled into Jamesburg, but sound and light still proceeded from one of the buildings, enough at least to arouse Ezra from his uneasy doze. He could see very little of the place in the darkness, but he had now been on this vehicle for more than sixty-five hours and had made up his mind that he would never again remain aboard such an inconvenient and uncomfortable mode of transportation for more than forty-eight at a stretch if he could find any other place to stop. For this run Jamesburg served only as a change station where fresh teams were put on, and the stop would last, he knew from his experience on the journey so far, no more than ten minutes. He had no time to waste. But his profession had taught him to make quick decisions on the basis of the information at hand, and he was ready when he heard the conductor of the mail sound his brass bugle from the box. He clambered past the knees of the Army officer sitting next to him--the man had ventured the information that he was bound for his new posting at Fort Laramie--and pushed the door open, swinging down by the holdbar and hanging steel step-plates and almost getting run down by a scurrying station worker. "Guard," he called up, "kindly pass my trunk down. I have made up my mind to lay over a day or two."
"Sure thing, Mr. Simpson," came the messenger's voice out of the darkness, and a moment later the brass-cornered trunk came tumbling down from aloft and hit the ground with a thud, barely missing Ezra's toes as he leaped aside like a mountain goat. The Southerner had just time to assure himself that it was in fact his trunk and not someone else's before the stocktenders jumped back, releasing the heads of the fresh team, and the driver squalled a command that sent the animals forward in a single great lunge. Ezra and the hostlers were left behind, coughing in the dust, one of the latter already gathering up the lead lines of the tired team to take them to the barn. The second was quickly persuaded to enrich himself by a dollar by carrying Standish's luggage to the lighted building, which also seemed to be the largest one in sight. In the darkness Ezra could hear horses shuffling around in a corral, snorting and nickering, wakened by the passage of the coach.
A pair of soldiers, drunk and quietly quarrelling, sat on the split-puncheon steps up to the building's front door. The room beyond, about sixty feet deep and thirty wide, clearly doubled as a saloon, with the bar on the left running its length and the tables taking up most of the floor space, the pine counter that served as a registration desk close by the door on one side with the stairs just beyond, an arched doorway hung with bead curtains intervening, leading perhaps to a dining room which was dark at this hour. The lobby section, nearest the counter and stairs, consisted of three wicker chairs, each with a spittoon beside it, and a hard-bottomed mahogany settle with another at each end. Vivid chromos and mounted heads of game decorated the walls. A score of men with nothing better to do-- immigrants, miners bound for Denver, escort troops and dusty travellers--lined the bar, although the 'tender was apparently refusing further service, and the half-dozen men at the faro table in the rear were beginning to gather up their chips while the dealer unfolded the canvas cover and began draping it over the rig. At the largest poker table a middle-aged man in an expensive deep-brown suit was closing out a game. There were a couple of sleepy-looking women present too, dressed in frothy boot-top-length dresses with bare shoulders, little puff sleeves, and double flounces around the hem, underlain by vivid silk petticoats and matching stockings, with high- heeled, tassel-decked kid boots laced and brightly polished.
"Closing for the night, friend," the bartender proclaimed as Ezra paused in the doorway to get his eyes used to the light, which emanated from a row of wagon-wheel chandeliers with six of the new kerosene lamps hanging from each. He wasn't an especially tall man, but heavy-set, with slightly rounded shoulders and a prominent belly. His collarless candy-striped shirt was open at the neck under a flowered vest, sleeves rolled back to the elbows to reveal an orange undershirt and secured by red elastic garters, graying black hair heavily sleeked back with pomade and round face ornamented with a trailing handlebar mustache.
"Quite acceptable, sir," the Southerner replied. "At the moment my chief concern is to obtain sleepin' quarters."
A heavy-eyed young man with lank, thinning blond hair and a rather prominent nose that appeared to have been broken and badly set at some time in the past was leaning on the registration counter in shirtsleeves and a horizontally-striped vest which he perhaps hoped would give his lanky body some appearance of heft; he perked up a bit at Ezra's words and opened a dog-eared canvas-backed register book, pushing forward a squat bottle of ink and a blunt-pointed steel pen speared into a shrivelled potato. Ezra wrinkled his nose at the grab of the pen's point on the paper but didn't feel up to getting his own pen case out of his pocket. Still he signed with a flourish--Estes Palmer Sayres, Charleston--and graciously received the tagged key the clerk took from one of the line of hooks on the wall behind him. The stocktender waited patiently for his dollar, Ezra's trunk balanced on his shoulder. "Onward and upward, my dear sir," Standish told him, and headed for the stairs. He could feel the eyes of the man in the brown suit watching him speculatively until his legs disappeared from view.
The muted hubbub of the midday dinner crowd roused him the next day, and as he shaved and dressed he took the time to examine his quarters, which he had barely noticed earlier any further than was necessary to determine the location of the bed. The room was only about eight feet by ten, with a narrow bedstead of white-enamelled iron, chipped and scratched, pushed side-on to one wall, a small table beside it with a single lamp, a straight-backed deal chair, a pegged wallboard on the back of the door for clothing, and an unpainted pitch-pine washstand holding a simple enamel washing set, glass tumbler, bar of soap, and limp, threadbare gray towel, with a small oval mirror hung from a nail above. Instead of wallpaper, pictures from Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine had been pasted to the wall and even up over the ceiling, which Ezra had to admit at least gave the guest something interesting to look at, and the outer wall was mostly occupied by a door to what he supposed was the second-floor gallery and a high, narrow window hung with brown cambric curtains and a holed dark-green shade.
The cook wasn't as creative as the one who'd provided his supper, but the meal was at least well prepared and filling; it was served family style in a room set up to seat forty people at a time, and featured roast beef, boiled ham, fried pork chops, broiled venison cutlets, fried catfish with bacon, and potted pigeons with a rich brown gravy, any or all of which the diner was free to sample. Home- canned peas and green beans, hominy, squash, sweet and white potatoes, and stewed corn were set out in large dishes, and dessert was pie and fruit. After a leisurely last cup of coffee, Ezra set out to explore the town--though "town" quickly proved to be a misnomer. The chief structure was the one in which he had spent the night--a vast three-storey log building, its main block over a hundred feet wide and no less than eighty deep, that held a big general store (surprisingly well stocked, as Ezra observed when he stepped in for a look), a post office, two bars, a restaurant, and a barbershop on the first floor and thirty-five hotel rooms on the second and third. It was flanked by a fenced wagon yard, feed stable, and blacksmith shop on one side, a couple of warehouses on the other, and a tangle of freight and immigrant wagons beyond. The other side of the "street" was the jungle of oak, redhaw, hackberry, western juniper, willow, redbud, valley cedar, persimmon, dogwood, and above all cottonwood, underpinned by thickets of wild cherry, wild roses, wild plums, wild gooseberry, currant and chokecherry bush, that lined the South Platte River. Like many High Plains streams, this had multiple channels, each of which was no more than a few hundred feet wide in the dry season, even though the riverbed itself was a good mile across. It was also full of the queer Western quicksand, whose tiny grains were flat and stuck together tenaciously, forming a crusted top across which a man, beast, or ridden horse could usually walk without trouble provided he kept going; but if he once paused, he sank and found himself encased in sand as solid as concrete, whose tension increased in response to an upward pull, so that the more he fought for freedom the deeper he went. Where the water wasn't, the riverbed was taken up with sandbars and willow islands, all grown over with low, scrubby, thickety little willow bushes. The major crossing--since the stream was too shallow for a ferry--was a bridge of great bundles of rushes, tied together and floating, so big that a wagon could go over without getting more than its tires wet. But, like a good ferry, its ownership was a venture steeped in profit. The rates, posted on a neatly painted sign, were complex and comprehensive:Foot passengers, 2c.
Horse and rider, 8 1/4c.
Horses, loose or led, 6c. ea.
Cattle, 4c. ea.
Swine, sheep, and calves, 1c. ea.
Two-wheel cart with span, 11c.; each addl. ox or span of horses or mules, 4c.
Four-wheel carriage, one horse, 25c.; 12 1/2c. ea. addl. animal
Wagon, emigrant or freight, 1-2 animals, 12 1/2c.; 4 animals, 18 1/2c.; 6 animals, 43 1/2c.; ea. addl. animal 25c.
Ezra wondered that there was no rate for stagecoaches, then decided the bridge owner had probably worked out a contract with the company for those.
Besides the commercial buildings, the settlement included about thirty-five soddies and cabins, with what the Southerner estimated might be around 185 persons total. From what he had heard on the stage and at the stations, the place was not only a major stop on the coach line but a terminus for service and private travel to the south and west, the South Platte being the most popular roadway to Denver and the satellite diggings spreading out from it. A branch line of the COC&PP met the main overland trunk route here and took on passengers transferring for the last hundred and fifty-five miles of the trip. Being about the closest thing to a town between Fort Kearny and Fort Laramie, and just about midway, it was a natural place for weary overland emigrants to stop and rest after the four hundred and fifty miles or so that they had covered since leaving the Missouri, and a layover for commercial freight drivers. It was the major resort of the soldiers from Fort Sedgwick, a mile upstream, whose commanding officer was understandably choice about permitting whiskey, women, and games to flourish openly in his bailiwick, but couldn't do a damn thing about the ones outside the lines of the reservation. It was also a tough little settlement, wide open and red hot, and more men per square foot had been killed in it than in any other one settlement along the transcontinental stage route. Nebraska Territory might have been organized for all of half a dozen years, but its administrative facilities were located on the Big Muddy, and except in the diggings and east of Kearny, the population simply didn't justify any sort of official law enforcement; even there, if any was wanted, it generally had to be financed locally.
Standish strolled leisurely around to the back of the row of buildings, not really sure why he did it except that his grifter's instincts compelled him to get a comprehensive picture of all possible hiding places, boltholes, and back exits. Here a tall windmill tower and an immense tank, with a pump house at the foot, stood between the main building and the stable, with a poultry house and the barren expanse of a vegetable patch beyond. A flurry of activity near the side of the pump house caught Ezra's attention and he paused like a hound on point. Then he saw the swirling skirt and caught the flash of sun on steel, and heard the harsh voice of a man: "Aagh! Bitch!"
The gambler's feet were responding even before his brain fully comprehended what was happening. The man was young and lean, good- looking enough, but with a petulant cast to his features; his golden- brown buckskin jacket was collared in fur, fastened with brass buttons, fancily fringed across the shoulders and down the arms, and decorated with beadwork and fancy Mexican silver trinkets, with quilled patterns on the sleeves and diapers of black velvet let into the skirts. One side of the fringe had been lined, before it was cut, with red felt, to give a striking effect as it stirred to his movements. Below its hem, hard-twisted striped breeches ran down to handmade silver-inlaid boots, probably of Mexican manufacture. The tip of a hawk wing was tucked into the band of his flat-crowned black beaver hat, and a short-lashed quirt, which he was trying to get up to strike at his opponent, hung looped from his wrist. The woman was twisting and fighting silently, not wasting her breath in screams; a thin razor-edged knife was held in her right hand with a competence Ezra recognized at once, but immobilized by the man's left, which was clamped around the wrist and slowly twisting it back. To judge by the raw quadruple stripes that ran down the man's right cheek, she'd already used the nails of her left hand to good effect, but he was keeping clear of them now, using his foot to block her as she tried to swing her body in for another blow, and paying no heed to the moccasined kicks that flailed against his shins.
Ezra threw his right arm out briskly, snapping his hideout derringer into his hand, and stepped up behind the man to shove the twin over-and-under barrels against his skull directly back of the ear. "I believe, sir, that the lady finds your attentions distasteful," he drawled flatly. "Release her forthwith or I shall take great pleasure in providin' you with an eighth cranial aperture."
The man caught his breath. "Who the hell--?"
"That is immaterial to the matter at hand," Ezra interrupted grimly. "What is not is that I have a gun and am not at all reluctant to use it on such a despicable reprobate as yourself. Now, in the event that you failed to understand me, turn her loose. Immediately."
The man opened his hand, and the woman wrenched loose as soon as his grip was eased enough for her to do it, fluent Spanish profanity pouring from her lips. Knowing from past experience what the man was probably going to do next, Ezra stepped back quickly by a pace or two, just in time to get his derringer and gunhand out of the way of the other's upward hand-sweep as he turned. Failing in his tactic, the young man settled into a poised but cautious stance, his hand hanging curved a few inches out from his side, level with the Colt Army .44 Model 1848 that hung there. "Mister, you are askin' for big trouble," he growled. "Do you know who I am?"
"I do not, sir, nor do I care," Ezra told him. "Now I suggest most urgently that you vacate this locality with all possible alacrity before I am tempted to relieve the community of the misery of your existence. Go."
There was a momentary hush as the other seemed to try to gauge the seriousness of the threat and the woman edged quietly back out of the line of fire; then he bobbed his head in a curt nod and walked stiffly, like a dog displaying to a rival, over to a horse tied at the corral rails, a red-dust roan with a faded-brown mane and tail and lighter hindquarters splotched with rusty-brown stains. He was spinning it around even as he rose into the saddle, pausing a moment to level his forefinger at the alert gambler. "You haven't heard the last of this, Mister."
"I am at your service at any hour, sir," Ezra replied, and waited until the horse had gone lunging up the broad alleyway that divided the two buildings and its hoofbeats had faded into silence. With a deft maneuver of his hand he returned the derringer to the hidden spring-clip up his sleeve and turned to the woman. "Are you quite uninjured, my dear?"
She was a young woman, not more than early twenties, with a lissome grace that even the big bright-colored shawl, heavy-woven of fine-quality wool, loosely draped about her head, shoulders, and upper body couldn't completely conceal. Under its hem showed a bi-colored skirt, yellow satin above, scarlet cashmere embroidered in gold and silver below, and Sioux moccasins decorated with bear-claw designs in porcupine quillwork. Her features were fine, almost aristocratic-- slender nose, generous mouth with a graceful shape to it, clean line of jaw, beautiful bones--and her skin no darker than a good saddle; she had lovely brown eyes and long fine hair with no hint of curl, very thick, dark brown with a taupe tone. "Sí, Señor. I am grateful for your help."
He smiled, his green eyes warming, at the familiar purl that lay under the words. "It was my honor and pleasure, I assure you. You are a long distance from the Rio Grande, are you not?"
"I am from La Mesilla, sí." She hesitated, searching his face. "My name is Inez Rosillos. I am cook in the posada." Her nod indicated the back service door of the hotel.
He swept off his hat and bowed. "Ezra Standish, Señorita Rosillos, a sus órdones." He wasn't quite sure why he offered her his real name when he'd used an alias to register last night, but somehow it seemed appropriate. Perhaps it was that she was of Spanish blood, and therefore her sense of honor would not permit her to let a personal kindness go unrequited, even if her gratitude went no farther than pretending not to recognize the name in case anyone later asked her about him. "And may I add that the viands you presented at dinner were far superior to any I had expected. I feel singularly favored to have discovered two locations in succession where the comestibles are of such quality. I thank you for the pleasure."
A hint of color showed in her cheeks. "You are very welcome, Señor Standish. I am not often so complimented."
"In that case, the guests in this hostelry must all be philistines or quite devoid of any sense of gustatory satisfaction." He offered a crooked elbow. "May I conduct you safely to your kitchen?"
There was a quick flirt of skirt as the knife--it was actually a dagger, with a gem- studded hilt topped by an emerald, and a blade of good Oaxaca steel damascened in blue and gold--vanished into whatever concealed sheath held it when it wasn't wanted, and Inez nodded and slipped her slim hand onto his arm. "Sí, gracias. I will send the dishwasher to see to the chickens, I think." She studied his profile as they started across the yard. "You have made a bad enemy, Señor Standish. That pajero is Lucas James. Sí," she agreed at the lift of his eyebrow, "as in Jamesburg. His uncle is the owner of the bridge, the townsite, the buildings, and the businesses in them, and he has also a rancho twenty Yanqui miles upstream."
"And if this uncle was responsible for the young man's upbringin'," Ezra ventured, "he is clearly not a gentleman, or he would have instilled more respect for a woman's preferences in his ward."
"No, Señor. El patron is a decent enough man; he has always behaved properly toward me. I do not know how long Lucas has lived with him; I have been here only a year."
Two green-shaded windows and a back door opened from the shedlike kitchen annex onto a small porch. Beyond, the big room was as clean as yesterday's stage station, with a long serving table down the center, a vast black iron range, big sink with a pump, and a door opposite that probably let into a serving pantry intervening before the dining room. "Will you be safe, my dear?" Ezra inquired.
She seemed to understand his meaning and nodded toward another door on the right wall. "I have my own apartamiento there, Señor Standish, and there is a lock on the door. Also I brought with me from La Mesilla an escopeta--a shotgun; I will keep it within reach en lo sucesivo."
"I believe I would recommend that stratagem, Señorita. Young Mr. James reminds me most unhealthily of another overindulged and irresponsible child of power with whom I had unfortunate dealin's in N'Orleans."
Inez met his eyes gravely. "If there is anything I can do to settle the debt I owe you, Señor, please, do not hesitate to ask."
Ezra smiled. "I doubt I shall be lingerin' in Jamesburg long enough to call in that marker. Although, as you mentioned chickens, if you happen to know how to smother one, I should delight in havin' it for my supper this evenin'."
She gave him an arch look. "We do not ordinarily take orders for the food, Señor. One takes what we have and is grateful. But I will see what I can do to oblige."
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