I. Convergence

by Sevenstars

Jamesburg, June 13:

Ezra Standish was beginning to suspect he had bitten off more than he could chew. And it wasn't a feeling he enjoyed.

It wasn't that the Jameses or Russell, Majors, & Waddell had made him any trouble over the transfer of ownership. Stuart James had actually been much more civilized about it than Ezra had expected, particularly considering his hefty offer to buy the business back. He had emptied the cash out of the safe before he left, but Ezra could understand that, if not enjoy it: strictly speaking, any money earned by the business or his rents until he lost the place belonged to him, and he had the right to take it with him. He still owned the warehouses, the stable-smithy-wagonyard, and the toll bridge, so he dropped by on occasion and usually stopped in at the bar for a few drinks and a little poker. Apart from that, he seemed to have moved his base of operations out to his ranch. According to what Ezra had heard around the settlement, this encompassed four or five hundred sections, though only about forty acres of it were legally owned, and claimed a tally of some 15,000 cattle, plus stock horses to work them and breeder stock to keep the remuda replenished. James drove cattle to Denver and the neighboring camps for sale, and was also the chief contractor for beef to Forts Lupton and Sedgwick; he was said to dispose of 4500 head each year.

Ezra had been more than a little surprised not to have had any further trouble with young Lucas James, but in fact he'd seen nothing of the man since that first day. It bothered him, though he couldn't put his finger on a concrete reason for the feeling. As for the Company, Superintendent Guy Royale had been quick to inform his superiors of the change in the business's ownership, and they had promptly written to Ezra to inquire if he had any objection to continuing the contracts on their existing basis until they ran out and could be renegotiated. He had none and told them so by return mail.

He had discovered that the population of Jamesburg was about evenly divided between "decent" people, like the Potters, and the other kind. At first he had supposed that this was on account of the proximity of Fort Sedgwick, for an Army post was always the nucleus of a floating population: men working for the hay, beef, and wood contractors who supplied the post, teamsters, horse thieves looking for a chance to run off some cavalry mounts, whiskey peddlers, honest travellers, settlers selling produce, and the occasional wandering Indian, chiefly in this area Arapahoes, who traditionally claimed most of the country from the Front Ranges out a hundred miles or so east, and from the Platte south to a point somewhere above the Arkansas, though they shared it to some extent with their close kin the Cheyenne and their powerful allies the Sioux. And, inevitably, the bootleggers who turned up, as if guided by a sixth sense, just before payday with plenty of booze and a wagonload of grimy whores; they weren't allowed on the post, but they could and did set up camp just off the reservation, usually in some gully, to which they directed their customers by stakes with bits of white cloth tied to them. If there was no town nearby, such men often set up a permanent "hog ranch" that offered whiskey, gambling, and a few aging and degenerate women. These were less common with Jamesburg to provide the service; it was said that several early attempts by the breed to muscle in on the settlement's thriving monopoly had resulted in the 'leggers' shacks or wagons going up in flames.

Ezra's building served much the same purpose as a sutler's store, but differed from one in that it wasn't licensed by the post commandant. This was perhaps because it had been there first: Stuart James had built it in 1854, and Sedgwick hadn't been established till four years later, following closely upon news of the discovery of gold on Cherry Creek and the breaking of the South Platte Road, on the theory that the troops from Fort Laramie couldn't be expected to patrol the latter as well as covering the Platte from Independence Rock halfway back to Kearny. It was a nucleus for a good deal of vice, including a considerable population of more or less free-lance prostitutes, white, Negro, Indian, and mixed, and the lobby-bar was the center for drinking, gambling, and brawling by the enlisted men from the fort. The officers usually kept off to themselves in the second, smaller bar located at the back, which was unofficially the Officers' Club; this was sometimes called "the billiard saloon" from the lone battered, slate- topped table there, and the liquor was somewhat better than the vile two-bits-a-shot kind that dominated in the front room. Because the Fort personnel were paid once a month, the trade had a tendency to ebb noticeably after the first week or so, the enlisted men being notable for their improvidence. The rest of the time, the place was patronized chiefly by civilians, some local, others passing through.

Perhaps because the settlement had no need to cater to the Army's ideas of proper conduct, it had become a rendezvous for gamblers, loose women, and people Ezra suspected of being horse thieves and desperados, though he couldn't prove it. Mr. Potter had assured his new landlord that he and his wife Gloria had always treated the travellers fairly, but he didn't think the same was true of the assorted vice operations, and even now that Ezra was attempting to impose a higher standard of conduct on that part of the place that fell under his control, wild times remained a hallmark of its style.

The Southerner wasn't quite sure how he felt about the situation. His past history made him uncomfortable with the concept of imposing any sort of moral code on others, and leery of calling on help from without, though he supposed he had the right to do so, particularly in connection with the soldiers. And he recognized that drifters with money in their pockets and no family obligations to lay first claim to any of it could only improve his own finances as long as he retained ownership of the business, regardless of how fairly he treated them. He had never really thought of himself as conventional or as one who trod the straight and narrow. Yet he had always taken pride in the fact that even his grifts were aimed at people who could afford to be taken; Mother had always insisted that the basic principle of their kind of chicanery was to find victims who were basically crooked themselves, if only so they wouldn't run to the police every time you took them. Apart from this, in the going- on-three months since his momentous poker game with James, he had observed that the "floaters" who appeared to be merely drifters were often people who'd been by before, which he found puzzling; he knew they didn't work on James's ranch, so where were they getting their money? And there was just something about them that set his trained perceptions on edge. He knew there were undercurrents flowing around his thriving little business that he wasn't privy to, and he didn't like it. On the other hand, his pride would not permit him to crawl back to James and accept his offer of buyout, though it was a very fair one and would have permitted him to continue on his way to San Francisco with a fat stake.

And so he stayed, soothing his conscience (and how in the world had he ever acquired one in the first place?) with thoughts of the money that was accumulating in the safe and the hope that eventually some prosperous traveller would come through and see the potential of the place and make an offer that would compete favorably with James's. At least, he would tell himself, I have a comfortable bed and a good cook at my disposal, and as long as I remain here I can guarantee that any honest traveller who enters my doors will be used as he deserves. But I believe that if I had suspected property ownership to bring with it such annoying questions of ethics and virtue, I should have scorned the concept.

He had just finished his breakfast--eaten, as usual, several hours later than most of the settlement had theirs--and strolled out onto the gallery for a cigar and a look around, when he observed a string of emigrant wagons coming into the settlement from downstream. At the head of the column, with a civilian whom Ezra guessed must be the wagonmaster, rode a blond man in the uniform of a captain of cavalry, and half a horse-length behind the latter, as if to protect his flank, a big black-haired man with a mustache, eccentrically clad in a fringed jacket and high-top moccasins with his striped issue trousers and forage cap. Tracking down the column in an attempt to estimate its numbers, the Southerner observed that the fourth wagon in line was missing its left rear wheel; a limber pole had been lashed under the axle as an emergency measure to keep it off the ground. As he watched, the mustached man peeled away from the others and dropped back to fall in beside the crippled vehicle and speak to its driver, who urged the team out of line and toward the smithy under his direction. The wagonmaster raised his hand and ordered a halt, and the wagons ground to a stop while he conferred with the officer, then started up again as he gave the word. The officer drew aside and watched them pass, gradually being joined by several couples of privates, two corporals, and finally a lieutenant, who appeared to have been watching for stragglers at the rear of the column, and a supply wagon. Again there was a brief conference, and then the lieutenant saluted, formed up the corporals and EM's in column of two's with the wagon at the rear, and headed upriver at a brisk trot. The emigrant train, meanwhile, had pulled off to make its circle a quarter-mile or so beyond James's warehouses. Ezra pulled out his watch. Eleven-twenty. Apparently the wagons would lay over for nooning while their damaged compatriot was repaired.

In front of Yosemite's smithy, the moccasined man had dismounted and assisted the wagon driver to alight; Ezra observed with interest that this was a woman, a slender person with creamy-blonde hair, dressed in second mourning, with her bonnet trailing down her back by its strings. A small boy in a straw hat, with no jacket, scrambled across the calico-cushioned seat to be lifted down as well. The captain trotted back to join them and an exchange took place with Yosemite, and then the two men left their horses in charge of the stablehand and started up the street toward Ezra's position, the captain walking beside the woman but stiffly avoiding physical contact, the big man behind him holding the boy by the hand.

"Good mornin', Captain Larabee--Sergeant Wilmington," the Southerner greeted them as they reached him. He had recognized them from the first, of course; after having lived through three successive paydays in Jamesburg, he was familiar with all the officers from Sedgwick and most of the noncoms--certainly Wilmington, if only because of the man's shameless flirting with every woman he saw.

"Standish," Larabee responded with a meager nod. "Mrs. Travis, this is Ezra Standish. What Stuart James doesn't own of this settlement, he does."

Ezra swept off his hat and bowed. "A decided pleasure to make your acquaintance, Madam, although I must beg to correct the good captain's assertion; my holdin's in this humble hamlet are confined to the buildin' before which we now stand." He touched his lips to the back of her hand. "Travis? Some relation to the esteemed Colonel, perhaps?"

"He's my father-in-law," the woman explained. "My son and I have come out to live with him. Tell me, Mr. Standish, is there any place we might wash up and get something to eat?"

"Indeed, Madam. The very door you see behind me provides access to our restaurant. If you will go back to the kitchen and inform the cook that I sent you, she will furnish you with soap and water, after which you may obtain seats and dine as soon as the noon meal becomes available. I regret to say that will not occur for half an hour or so, but I do assure you it is worth the wait."

"That's quite all right. The smith says he won't have our wagon fixed for a couple of hours. Come along, Billy," she ordered, holding out her hand, and the little boy reluctantly released Sergeant Wilmington's and accompanied her inside.

Ezra watched them go, then turned, a sly twinkle in his eye, to address some remark to the captain, but Larabee didn't give him the chance. "Bar open, Standish?"

"I fear not the Officers' Club, Captain. There was a difficulty with the floorin' and it was necessary for me to order half of it torn up. If you have no objection to associatin' with lesser breeds in the lobby, you are of course welcome there."

"As long as I can get a drink of whiskey, I don't care who I associate with," Larabee grumbled, and disappeared through the main hotel door.

Ezra lifted inquiring eyebrows at Wilmington. The big man shrugged and grinned broadly. "Chris and Miz Travis been strikin' off sparks ever since we picked 'em up seven days ago. Last straw was when her wagon wheel broke, not too long after we started up this mornin'. Chris ordered that drag put on and told her it'd be enough to get her to the fort, but she wouldn't hear of it. Said there wasn't no way in hell she was gonna turn up in her new home lookin' like a poor relation. She meant to have four wheels under her even if it did mean stoppin' a mile short and layin' over till tomorrow."

Ezra's eyes widened in innocent amazement, but a smirk curved his lips; he knew something of Larabee's personality. "A lady of character and resolve, it would appear."

"Oh, she's got more'n her share of guts, I can tell you that," the taller man agreed. "You want to watch yourself with her, Ezra. She's the only person I ever met short of you that could flay a man's hide off in strips without ever raisin' her voice or usin' one single bad word. Must be from bein' married to a newspaperman."

Ezra let out a leisurely cackle of delight. "I can see how frustratin' Captain Larabee would find her. I presume he has sent the remainder of the escort on ahead to the fort?"

"Yeah, he said there wasn't no need them waitin' too. Our orders only said bring the lady back to Sedgwick safe. He told Lieutenant Bailey to take the rest of the men home and let the Colonel know Chris'd give his report as soon as he got in. Wagonmaster decided he'd noon here, seein' as it was about the right time of day to stop."

"So I had guessed," Ezra agreed. "Well, no doubt you desire to lay the dust; shall we join the Captain in the bar?"

"I don't figure Chris is in much mood for company right now, but I sure wouldn't mind a drink," Wilmington replied. As he turned toward the door, his eye lit on a quiet figure seated in front of Potter's store, back comfortably resting against a barrel, and picked out the ornamentation of the antelope shirt it wore. "Who's that?" he asked.

"I believe he is the new hunter at Wells Ranch," Standish explained. "Mrs. Wells and her niece drove in last evenin', and he accompanied them as escort. There are two others with them, the station blacksmith and a young man who rides for the Pony Express."

"Long ways from where he got that shirt, ain't he," Wilmington murmured, half to himself.

"I fear I am unqualified to comment, bein' unfamiliar with the various permutations of style in apparel amongst the native aboriginies of these territories," the gambler retorted with dignity. "Come, let us seek shelter from Phoebus's desiccatin' rays."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was right, JD had decided: Randolph and Gloria Potter's store was definitely larger and better stocked than the one attached to the station. He found it fascinating, because having lived most of his life in a large city, where mercantile establishments could afford to specialize, he had never seen a "general store" before. Its single sales room was about forty feet wide and sixty deep, stocking, Mr. Potter had told him, "everything from adze handles to zither strings, coal to coffins, needles to violin strings, stove bolts to spectacles, Sloan's liniment to crosscut saws," while farm equipment like plows, harrows, and cultivators was kept in a series of locked sheds out back, along with bulky items like stoves and furniture and some knocked-down Studebaker and Bain & Shuttler wagons. Hung from strings of wire or huge hooks driven into the rafters, to be hooked down by means of a long pole, were cane-seated chairs, single- and doubletrees, horse collars, trace chains, bridles, whips, spurs, ladies' shoes, men's boots, hats, smoked and cured sides and hams of meat, luggage, lanterns, coffeepots, shovels, scythes, steel spring traps, wooden tubs, pots and pans and dully-gleaming copper-bottomed boilers, a saddle or two, stocky three-gallon oaken well-buckets heavily bound in brass, and red-cedar stave ones for the back-porch "water shelf." Ceiling-high shelves ran around the walls, occasionally underlain by rows of heavy drawers with stout knobs and finger pulls that held all sorts of small or loose merchandise, and fronted by low, broad pineboard counters as piled with goods as they, everything from rifles and ammunition to babies' teething rings, heavy work harness to fragile china dishes, padlocks to faded pink corsets: groceries at the back, dry-goods and notions on the right, and opposite, in succession from front to rear, drugs and sundries, hardware, and saddlery, with the gun counter just beyond. Dividing the central floor space into passageways were rows of tables on which were displayed ready-made clothing, racks of dresses, and a shelved glass showcase stuffed with fancy merchandise such as shirtwaists, shoelaces, hatpins, fans, beads, kid curlers, curling irons, buttons, corset stays and stay laces, scissors, pins, thread, batting, handkerchiefs, embroidery silk, eyeglasses, mirrors, buttonhooks, hair straighteners, ribbons, shawl pins, millinery, sewing and knitting needles, hairpins and hair rats, garters, hooks and eyes, bottles of perfume and lavender water, corsets in deep slim boxes, socks and stockings, men's and ladies' hats, sunbonnets, net purses, gloves and mittens, side and tuck combs, collar studs and buttons, inexpensive jewelry, red flannel underwear, and, for men, paper collars and cuffs, shirt fronts, cravats, suspenders, shaving mugs, straight razors, dollar watches, bandannas, and bow and self- tied four-in-hand ties. Near the door on the right-hand side was the post office, a corner set apart by a high wall of official oak and a short polished board counter with the front pierced for a letter drop, a mesh cage of chicken wire above with a wicketed window in it topped by a placard that spelled out U. S. Post Office (as if anyone was likely to wonder), and behind it a hive of numbered pigeonholes. The dry-goods counter stretched from there back to the grocery department, and included as well footgear and kitchenware; the shelves behind it were piled high with at least three dozen different species of bolt goods in every color you could imagine, along with frogs and braid, ribbons and thread, yarns, dyestuffs, sheets, pillows, blankets, comforters, towels, workboxes, bolts of oilcloth, and Osnaburg sheeting for wagon covers. Nearest the back on that side was a smaller separate counter holding china and glassware, steel and pewter tableware, washbowls, pitchers, chambers, lamps and rows of plain and fancy replacement chimneys for them, pickle jars, tobacco jars, earthenware crocks and jugs. A display board held a circle of pocketknives, hunting knives, and razors, centered with the legend IMPORTED FROM ENGLAND - WORLD'S FINEST STEEL. Across from the post office was another heterogenous section devoted to an assortment of "sundries"--books, magazines, pencil tablets, pens and paper, lead and slate pencils, Valentine cards, comic postcards, chewing tobacco, snuff, cigars, laundry soap, shoebrushes, rolls of banjo and guitar and fiddle strings, mourning pins, lamp burners, bunches of strops, bottles and boxes of tooth soap, toothbrushes, hair combs, shaving mirrors, three-dollar carved- wood mantel clocks, fishing tackle, and, beside the cattle powders and poultry remedies, a patent-medicine shelf full of balms, balsams, compounds, cures, drops, elixirs, emulsions, liniments, mixtures, oils, onitments, pills, sarsaparillas, syrups, tonics, and waters of every description, plus such standards as castor oil, turpentine, salts, quinine, liniment, dried slippery elm, whole cloves for toothache, essence of peppermint, camphor, asafoetida, capsicum, aloes, flaxseed, calomel, morphine, laudanum, paregoric, chloral hydrate, anquitum for lice, quicksilver and corrosive sublimate for bedbugs, strychnine for wolves and coyotes, worm candy, and sulphur- and-molasses. Here too was a glass-top counter filled with bottles of herb tonics, dry herb mixtures, cans of pomade, hair tonic, fancy toilet and shaving soap, talcum powder, nursing bottles, black rubber nipples, fruit-jar rings, shoe polish, fishhooks, pipes, lead bars, balls of gum, and the like. There was even a little toy counter. Most of that side was taken up with hardware--kegs of nails, horseshoes, and varnished ax handles; farm, carpentry, and mining tools; piping, glass, wire, tarpaper, pitchforks, pots and pans, coffee mills, calf muzzles, washtubs and boards and boilers, churns and dashers, brushes and paint, axle grease, stacks of tin washbasins, raw iron bars for horseshoes, cooking utensils of every description, and "shelf goods" such as flints, hinges, hasps, staples and fasteners, screws, bolts, washers, springs, rivets, brads and burrs, padlocks, mousetraps, strainers, hog rings, bridle buckles, rat poison, currycombs, spaying needles, rattail files, harness snaps, cowbells and dinner bells, stove parts, fire shovels, sadirons, cans of carriage varnish, and papers of tacks. Beyond that was a row of saddles on a rack, a pile of saddle blankets stacked behind them, headstalls and harness hanging from pegs, and a swinging ring of whips dangling from the ceiling, and beyond those again rifles and shotguns, handguns, caps and premolded ball, powder and lead, shot and shells, gun oil, sheets of wadding, gun tubes, rifle boots, holsters and belts, and a big coil of whale line to cut lengths from as needed. The smell was as wonderful as the stock: a rich, heavy overtone of tempting salt herring and mackerel spiced with the celestial odor of sardines and ripe Cheddar cheese; the spicery of dried apples and smoked bacon; the earthy odor of potatoes, the peculiar pungency of molasses, the rich perfume of roasted coffee, the fragrance of salt cod, the sharp tang of dill and brine from the open pickle barrel, and a mixed effluvium of the glaze and sizing on the ginghams and calicoes, the polish on new shoes, oil and wax on saddles and horse collars and buggy harness, the paint on plow tools, herbs and spices, wool, challies, flannel sheeting, denim, velvets and heavy silks, naphtha, rats and mice, old stale dust, grain, jute bagging, kerosene and turpentine, liniment, peppermint, lard, vinegar, cured ham, tea leaves, broom straw, anise, licorice, ginger cookies, cinnamon sticks, sweet cider, axle grease, gunpowder, moldy clothes, salmon, asafoetida, horehound, peppermint and wintergreen candy, salt meat, oranges and bananas, whiskey and tobacco, raw red meat, green hides, damp cellar floors, rubber and leather boots, mixed "sweet" feed, gum ammonia to make cement for repairing crockery, pearl ash and unslaked lime to extract oil from floorboards or stone, potash for soapmakers, camphorated spirits to discourage mosquitoes, oil of vitriol for shoe blacking, the stove, the cat, and the customers. Yes, JD could see why Josiah had said that Potter's stocked many things Nettie's store didn't.


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