He took his time getting up and preparing for the day. The door took him out through the small office and a tiny square vestibule, one wall of which was filled by a door to the kitchen, and from there directly into the lobby-saloon, where a swamper was mopping the floor and George the bartender was checking inventory. "'Morning, sir," the man greeted him.
"Good mornin', George. I'm goin' to obtain some breakfast, and after that I wish to meet with the chief tenants and all the employees of the business in the office. Will you please see that they are informed?"
"Sure thing, boss."
Boss. What a very satisfyin' thing to be called, Ezra mused, and headed for the dining room. A waiter took one look at him and vanished into the kitchen. A moment later Inez came out, smiling. "I heard of what happened last night, Señor Standish. Mil felicitaciónes, patron."
"Thank you, Inez." Ezra winked at her. "May I now presume that I have the privilege of orderin' precisely what I wish for my meals?"
"Sí, a ciencia cierta. I will even serve them in your room if you wish. Señor James often preferred to dine there."
Ezra glanced around the big room, which, at a quarter to eleven, was all but deserted, the breakfast crowd having long since finished and the dinner people not yet arrived. "For the present, this will suffice, though I may indeed wish to eat my evenin' meal privately. Now, as to breakfast--"
Later, happily replete with with ham and eggs, grits, fried potatoes, biscuits with wild-strawberry jam and gooseberry preserves, broiled tomatoes, apple pie, and hot coffee, Ezra settled behind the polished mahogany desk in the office, leaned back in the swivel chair to caress the top of the half-ton, yard-square black steel safe in the corner behind him, and addressed his tenants and employees. "First, Mr. Potter and Mr. Willoughby--" that was the barber-- "permit me to assure you that I propose to continue your rental arrangements on the same basis as did Mr. James. I have not yet had the opportunity to examine the books, but I presume that rents are due on the first of each month?" At their nods: "Very good. Simply continue tenderin' them on schedule and we will experience no conflicts. As to the rest of you, as soon as I have determined your rates of pay and customary times for its distribution, compensation will be apportioned as it has been heretofore. All positions will remain secure for the nonce, but I will review your performance at the end of thirty days, and if I find evidence to warrant it, I will not hesitate to turn you out at that time. Those whose conduct is found to be satisfactory will receive a pourboire in proportion to their salary. Should any of you have some complaint, I will be ready at all times to hear it. If, on the other hand, I should receive complaints regardin' you, I will expect full and proper justification. Cleanliness and service are to be our watchwords. All customers are to be given their money's worth in full. There will be no waterin' of drinks and no underhanded maneuverin' at the tables. I realize that location is in our favor, but to take too blatant an advantage of that fact will only encourage some ambitious rival to establish a competin' resort somewhere nearby. Pilferin' of business property will be sternly met with, and theft from your tills, as there appears to be no mechanism for the enforcement of law in this community, with dismissal and a fine equal to three times the value of what was taken. You will find, ladies and gentlemen, that I am not to be trifled with, but will return good service with loyalty and protection. I trust I make myself clear? Excellent. Then if there are no questions, you may return to your duties. George, if I should wish to send a message to some person outside the settlement, how would I go about it?"
"I can get you an Indian boy, boss. Got his own pony and knows the country. Who was you figurin' to write to?"
"The commandin' officer at Fort Sedgwick. I wish to inform him of the alteration in ownership and assure him that his officers and men will be welcome here as previously, rumblin's of discontent in the East to the contrary. What is his name and rank?"
"That would be Colonel Orin Travis, boss, Second Cavalry."
"Thank you." Ezra jotted it down. "Now, everyone, to your tasks. Within the next day or so I shall make a full inspection of the property and determine whether any repairs or changes in routine appear warranted."
Vin Tanner slept the night in the Company hayloft, though Nettie offered him the option of taking a bed in the passengers' room or unrolling his blankets in front of the dining-hall fireplace. "No, ma'am," the Texan said in his diffident way, "I'm obliged to you, but I ain't used to sleepin' in houses. I reckon your hay is warm and thick enough to make me a bed better'n plenty I had, and your roof's tight. Anyhow, me'n'Peso been together so long every time I snore he answers."
In the morning he seemed self-absorbed and thoughtful, eyeing JD under the loose brim of his hat. "What you said about a job, ma'am--that still go?"
"It sure does, son. You thinking of taking it after all?"
"Just been broodin' some on what JD here was sayin', how y'all was hooked up with this Pony Express thing that 's s'posed to git the mail all the way through to California 'n ten days. Seems like he's right thinkin' he's gotta know how to change horses fast. Reckon I could teach him. Denver ain't likely to go nowheres. I can stay on a spell, 'least till you get more folks passin' through with the full spring and one maybe's willin' to take over huntin' for you."
"Well, you're certainly welcome, son," Nettie told him, "but what changed your mind?"
Tanner's eyes shuttered off. "Reckon you wouldn't understand, ma'am. It's just a notion I got." But JD saw how his hand went to the breast of his shirt, above where the locket hung, and wondered what the gesture meant.
The Texan proved to be a quiet man who came and went like a ghost, but as a teacher of horsemanship and trailcraft he was without peer. He first asked JD to explain exactly what the Express was about and to let him look over all the equipment a rider was expected to carry. When he heard that the mail carriers were under strict orders never to fight unless absolutely necessary, he said, "All right, then first thing is you leave off the rifle and one of them Colts. You carry just the one extra cylinder and you keep your eyes open. You don't go at no all-out run; you keep to a canter and watch for sign. Plenty time a man can know if he's bein' watched or like to be ambushed afore he sees the folks doin' it. If he knows, and if he's got a good grain-fed horse like yours gonna be and ain't wore it to a nub yet, he can swing off and get away from anythin' like a Injun that's ridin' grass-fed." He and JD, with Josiah as a guide, rode the length of the circuit JD was to cover while the Texan drilled the young rider in the arts of understanding rivers and streams, knowing quicksand, judging the chances of swimming a flood, and reading the marks of man and beast. Back at Wells Ranch, he showed JD how to stand up in his stirrups and loosen the mochila with one hand as he approached his change station, toss it ahead to the men waiting with his fresh horse so that they could throw it over the saddle, jump off the near side of his tired horse and on the off side of the fresh one, and give a little leap, as he did, to make the shift without touching foot to ground. To JD it seemed that his head was being crammed with more new knowledge in less time than at any point in his life heretofore. But he was by nature quick and a close listener, and his eagerness to prove himself insured that he would do his level best to retain everything Vin told and showed him. In a single tightly-packed week of lessons his whole life seemed to turn around. His change time plummeted like a falling rock until it hit a maximum of thirty seconds. On the afternoon of the second of April Vin pronounced him ready for his first ride.
By this time, despite the Texan's quiet manner, JD had come to look on him as both a hero and a friend. Nettie determinedly mothered the young frontiersman and seemed determined to put some meat on his bones. Even Casey respected him and begged him to teach her some of his tricks. As for Josiah, once JD overheard him talking to Vin in a strange guttural language whose sounds were clearly audible when the Texan's lighter voice responded, in a tone that suggested surprise. Vin never said exactly why he had been going to Denver, but as he grew easier with them he admitted that he'd spent the last few years mostly working for the Army down in Texas--riding despatch, breaking horses, hunting for the post messes, serving as an interpreter and scout. Even with the tight and crowded schedule he had as JD's teacher, he still found time to keep the station in meat, and Nettie swore she never had to remove more than one bullet from any kill he brought in.
At three-thirty on the morning of April fifth, the entire Wells Ranch staff, from Nettie with her stop-watch and record book and Josiah on down to Casey, stood under the frosty stars waiting for the momentous arrival of the first rider from the East. Though the calendar proclaimed it to be spring, the temperature was barely above freezing, and snow still lay in the hollows and shady places, while the river ice cracked and softened every day and reformed in a thin crust at night. JD had his sweater on under his red uniform shirt, but had left off his buckskin: the rush of blood in his veins as anticipation and excitement surged through him kept him warm enough without. His single Navy Colt was belted at his right side, and hung crossways from his shoulder on his left was a small canteen full of cold tea (which Nettie said had more "kick" than coffee) and a light pouch that held his extra loaded cylinder, a handful of Navy biscuit, and a few strips of bacon. Vin had said it was a bad idea to stuff yourself if you had a far or fast ride ahead of you, so he'd eaten only a couple of eggs and one cup of coffee while the stocktender saddled his horse. He had asked to have the mare; out of his experience as a jockey he thought her low mass would make her the fastest of the three, and regardless of what any other rider might do, JD was resolved to do his part to make sure the first mail the Express ever carried got through on schedule.
"Here he comes!" yelled Ned from the watchpost by the gate, and Josiah dragged the barrier aside as a scurrying dot appeared against the pale dead grass and patchy snow of the prairie. The thin toot of a horn reached their ears, followed by the rider himself sweeping into the yard like a whirlwind. JD stood at the mare's side while Tom, the second stocktender, held her head; she was beginning to prance now, sensing the excitement of the humans. "All right, girl," JD told her, "easy, now--we'll have plenty of time for a good run--steady--"
The rider swung down, the mochila in his hand, and tossed it toward JD like a bat on the wing. The flying twenty-pound weight almost knocked him down as he caught it with both hands and flipped it onto the mare's waiting saddle. He felt a quick slap on the shoulder from Vin, heard Josiah's "God ride with you!" and Casey's whoop of "Good luck, JD!", and then he was up and Tom had let go the bridle, and the mare reared and lunged forward. JD spun her in mid- stride so she was pointing toward the gate, but she hardly needed it: that opening in the stockade that had circumscribed her life since coming to Wells Ranch was all she needed to know that beyond lay the freedom she yearned for. Through and out and away, tearing at full tilt down the trail already well marked by freight and emigrant wagons and stagecoaches.
JD knew from past experience that all stage drivers liked to make a grand entrance and exit, and he supposed a Pony rider had the right to do likewise, but he remembered what Vin had said, and after the first lunging mile he began checking back, talking to the mare, patting her neck and shoulder, urging her to save her strength, until she was going at an easy canter. He knew he would be changing horses twice before he hit Jamesburg, both times in the dark since the almanac had told him that sunrise wasn't till six-thirty, and twice again between there and his other home station, which he was scheduled to reach at ten minutes to ten. It would be just around a quarter to seven when he passed through the settlement, which was also a division point for the Company, the headquarters of the superintendent whose duty it was to look after or at least supervise the bookkeeping, inventory, mail sorting, ticket sales, and disbursement of pay, see that livestock was kept in good condition, apprehend horse thieves, keep the stations supplied, hire the drivers, stocktenders, blacksmiths, and carpenters, and make sure substitutes were available if a rider fell ill, was injured, or suddenly quit the service. His responsibility extended west all the way to Salt Lake City, so he was frequently on the move. JD didn't know how much he was paid, but he knew Nettie got seventy-five dollars a month for agenting at the ranch, plus extra for maintaining a home station, so he guessed that, with almost 550 miles and seven home stations to look after, the super might receive five hundred dollars or more a month. He'd met the man, briefly, when he and Vin and Josiah went through scouting his route: Guy Royale, his name was, a man known to be very quick with a gun and not to be trifled with, despite a smooth manner that had reminded JD a bit of that Southerner in the maroon coat who'd passed through on the stage the day Vin arrived.
He hit a good steady pace and kept to it, watching for landmarks. Vin had said that even on flat prairie there were things a man could watch for that would tell him where he was, and here along the river the signs would be even more abundant: rocks of distinctive shape or size, groupings of trees, deviations in the course of the South Platte. JD wanted to know where he was in relation to the next relay station every minute, so he could begin preparing for his change of mounts. Of course the country looked very different in the dark from what it had in daylight, but his eyes were young and quick, and he found too that the mare's steady pace helped him: he could keep a mental count of the distance she should have covered and use that as a check. Fortunately one of his most prominent marks, which lay about a mile below the first relay, was one that could be seen clearly even at night: a great mass of light gray granite on the south side of the trail, with a lightning-blasted tree, its trunk bleached by wind and rain, just the far side of it. When he saw these, he began watching ahead for the buildings.
The relay or swing stations were much smaller and cruder than the home stations like Wells Ranch, staffed each by two stocktenders and a blacksmith. They didn't include stores as some of the bigger stops did, and because they were likely to be prime targets for Indian war parties hunting horses, not even the stages lingered there long, so the life was a lonely one and the men very often either drifters or wanted by the law. There wasn't much to do but tend the stock, watch the road, and wait for the stage--or now the rider--so nobody wanted to make a career of the job: most stayed only a few months before moving on.
As the first station came in view, JD could make out a light-colored horse waiting in front of the sod house, and none too patiently: it was taking both of the 'tenders to hold it down. Since that meant neither would be free to catch and emplace the mochila if he threw it on ahead, JD changed his plan and did more or less as his predecessor had: slipped it off as he alighted, tossed its slitted apertures over the horn and cantle on the fresh horse, and swung aboard with part of the same motion, giving the animal the spurs as soon as he was up to discourage it from trying to buck. The horse was a buckskin gelding the color of dirty canvas, with a wicked eye and--as JD quickly found out--a rather hard mouth, but it could run. He let it.
It was a quarter to six and full blue when, still on schedule, he made his second change, this time to a "blue," or dark metallic gray, gelding with a black mane and tail, a horse of spirit but not as wicked as the buckskin: it needed only one man to hold it and he was able to change as Vin had taught him. Since it was now light enough to read by, and he knew there was a post office at Jamesburg which received not only its own mail but anything bound for Denver, the latter to be picked up by a branch Pony line from the city, he took the time to sift through the letters in the right front cantina. They were wrapped in oiled silk to help the oilskin lining of the pouch in keeping them dry. He sorted out everything that would need to be handed over at Jamesburg and stuffed it into his shirt, returning the through mail to its place.
Daylight. The big log buildings of the settlement appeared like elephants on the plain. The new horse was waiting for him in front of the barn, with the postmaster, who was also the general-store keeper, and Superintendent Guy Royale close by. A knot of other settlement folk watched from the long roofed gallery that fronted the huge multi- purpose building. JD pulled the drop-off mail out of his shirt and held it, coming off his horse in a long controlled tumble and passing his handful to Mr. Potter, who had in turn a small bundle to give him, while a burly young man with shaggy blond hair and beard--JD thought he was the blacksmith--grabbed the mochila off the gray and swung it to the waiting strawberry roan mare. He stashed the pickup in his shirt to be stuffed into the cantina on the run and made a running mount, his feet almost spurning the earth as the horse started moving before he'd done more than get his hands on the horn and cantle. As he swung aboard he caught sight of a vividly-skirted woman with an intriguingly dark skin tone among the group on the gallery, and next to her--he could have sworn he knew that dark maroon coat: was it the Southerner from last week? There was no time to be sure; the mare was hitting her stride and he had to get up or get left.
Onward yet, over the rush bridge and curving northwesterly. The flutter of excitement that had tautened his belly was giving way to a hollow feeling, and he gulped tea on the run, tossed down a biscuit-and-bacon sandwich and washed it down with a second swallow of tea. Change to a liver- and-white pinto gelding that jerked its head down and heaved its rump as he mounted, shoulders rising, twisting, back arching. JD wasn't used to buckers--Eastern horses didn't seem to be given to it--but somehow his body knew what to do: throw his feet forward, lean back in the saddle and pull back hard on the reins; saw fiercely on them as the horse tried to swing his head for a bite, jerking it straight again. Three miles along the trail the pinto spooked at a rabbit, got the bit in his teeth and bogged his head. JD didn't have a quirt, so he hit the animal between the ears with his fist--not hard, just enough to sting and surprise him and make him let go of the bit so his head could be hauled up--and then gave him a quick taste of the spurs to get his mind back on business. Change again, this time to a red sorrel with four white legs; check for any mail ticketed to the upcoming home station. And at last there it was and he was down, knees suddenly going to rubber as a cheering knot of people received him and grabbed his arms to steady him and the new rider took the mochila and was away. "Nine thirty-seven, son!" the stationkeeper was shouting in his ear. "Thirteen minutes ahead of schedule! Good going!"
JD gave the man a loopy smile, and then something seemed to pass between him and the sun and he tumbled into darkness.
He woke to find himself in the bed that had been put aside for him, with the station blacksmith kneading the insides of his legs and the agent standing by with a bottle of liniment. "You okay, son? You just passed out on us."
"I'm fine," JD insisted, struggling to sit up, "I just never had to ride a hundred miles in six hours at speed before." His heart shot up in his throat. "The mail! Did the mail get away? And what about my pony?"
"Your pony's okay. He's being taken care of right now. And the mail's likely to the next relay already. You settle. You had anything to eat?"
"Just some eggs and coffee about a quarter after three, and a mouthful in the saddle right after I left Jamesburg--"
"Martha!" the agent shouted. "Rustle this boy up a bait of food!" He clapped a hand to JD's shoulder. "You did real good, son. You'll make a fine Pony rider, no doubt of it."
And JD, suddenly weak with happiness and satisfaction, stared up at the muslin sheeting that covered the ceiling and was content as he couldn't recall being ever before in his entire short life.
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