II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

1. Meetings
Seventeen miles up the north bank of the South Platte River from the settlement of Jamesburg, a rutted trail turned off from the bottoms and wound its way two and a half miles over the water divide to the head of Paint Creek. There Stuart James had staked out a forty- acre claim that encompassed the entire source, and thereby gave him control of the length of the creek if he chose to exercise it-- fifteen miles or more of bends, and all the land back from it for as far as a cow would walk for a drink, which was ten miles, plus another five to fifteen for elbow room.

Only around the home claim itself was a single rail of fence visible: three-pole cottonwood barriers cut from the trees along the creek. Scattered out around the main house were a bunkhouse with attached cookshack, crew´s bathhouse with a spring-fed tank that heated over a huge grate and could be made to trickle water directly into the tubs to keep them warm, a cowshed, horse barn, hay-and-feed barn, and stables, a long open-faced wagon shed with a smithy at the end, four lesser sheds (machine, saddle, tool, and general-storage), shops for saddler, carpenter, and wheelwright, carriage house, smokehouse, chickenhouse, slaughterhouse, icehouse, springhouse, powder magazine, root cellar, feed yards for cattle and hogs, stack lots, calf pens, fattening pens, corrals with roofed snow shelters for working horses, corrals with stables with a long row of stalls for colts and young horses. Close by, too, was a fifty-acre pasture fenced with smooth wire, where the remuda, except for the wrangler´s pony, was turned out at night.

The low, rambling house, with its stone chimneys and shingled, gabled roof, had been built of peeled and notched logs, and except for its size looked little different, on the outside, from any settler´s cabin. Once past the front door, however, the distinction became evident. The furnishings under the low oak-beamed ceilings were comfortable, even luxurious, and if there was a certain masculine air to the decorating scheme, without the frills and furbelows that would have been added by a white woman´s hand, all the lesser items were of the highest quality. Mexican servants moved silently and deftly about their tasks, humble, obliging, and excessively and constantly good-tempered. The place had been a center of local social life since its establishment, entertaining military officers, naturalists, journalists, anthropologists, and other varieties of the better class of traveller, and had been planned to accomodate it; off the long wide central hall opened two drawing rooms, a grand dining hall, back parlor, pantries and kitchen, and a private study, and above, reached by a low-bannistered staircase with split-log risers and pine-plank treads, were seven or eight bedrooms, a sewing room, and an upstairs parlor.

Lucas James didn´t bother to circle around to the front of the house; he came in through the back, pausing only to wipe his boots on the braided-cornshuck doormat, whose upthrust rough “ear ends” scraped off mud, snow, and corral debri with equal facility. The great Spanish cartwheel rowels of his spurs announced his coming before he reached the study door. His uncle looked up from his flat-topped Italian table desk and scowled. “You´re late,” he said.

“Rebranding horses doesn´t keep a schedule,” Lucas retorted, removing his flat-crowned black beaver hat with the tip of a hawk wing tucked into the band and flipping it carelessly onto the massive black-leather couch before he crossed to the big glass-doored liquor cabinet and poured a generous tumbler-full of six-year-old copper-distilled Kentucky bourbon from one of the square cut-glass decanters arrayed on its top. “Royale,” he added, acknowledging the third man in the room with a nod.

“Lucas,” the Division Superintendent for Russell, Majors & Waddell replied evenly from the stuffed leather wingback chair that faced the desk. He came in age somewhere between the two Jameses, and like Lucas preferred a quality version of rider dress to Stuart´s impeccable well- tailored gray suit: his was tailor-made too, but of soft brown corduroy, with a red-and-white-checked shirt of high-quality cotton, open at the throat and garnished with a green silk bandanna. His twin Navy Colts were silver-trimmed and -mounted, but the ebony handles were panelled with strips of pinkish pearl set in the wood to eliminate slipperiness.

Lucas loosened the brass buttons of his golden-brown buckskin jacket with its fur collar and fancy fringing, revealing the loose open-throated black sateen shirt underneath, and threw himself into the other wingback, lifting his feet onto the round stuffed hassock and taking a secret delight in the way Stuart winced at the protesting squeak of the springs and the way his rowels dug into the stool´s surface. “So,” he said, “what´s the word?”

“Not good,” Stuart admitted with uncharacteristic bluntness. “First, of course, we´ve lost out on the income from the saloon, restaurant, hotel, part of the leasage fees from the Company, and the rentals from Potter and Willoughby. But that we could adjust to; it was nice to have, especially with so much of the money the raiders got eventually coming back to us by way of their spending, but it was really only a fraction of what we´ve been making. The real downturn started in June, when Harper´s outfit tried to hang that Negro and got themselves slaughtered for their trouble. They were the biggest group we had, and the most successful; Harper had his faults, but he knew how to set up a strike.”

“I´ve done the best I could,” Lucas pointed out defensively.

“I know that, but there´s only one of you, and you can´t be in more than one place at a time,” his uncle reminded him. “Besides, you don´t have Harper´s experience: he´s been plying his trade for fifteen years now. And apart from that, you´re in charge of the whole stock-laundering operation, and that takes up a lot of your time.”

“I still haven´t figured out why those six stuck their noses into it,” Lucas complained. “Hell, they mostly didn´t even know each other, from what I´ve heard.”

“Immaterial,” Stuart declared. “Why they did it doesn´t matter; they did, and it can´t be changed. Apart from that, now that I don´t have a legitimate excuse to be around the saloon more than a day or two each week, we don´t have the conduit for news that we did before.”

“You´ve got me,” said Royale. “I´ve got every good reason to be there. The settlement´s my headquarters.” He smiled slyly past his fragrant apple brandy. “Of course, I do expect a bigger cut for my time and trouble.”

“Don´t push it,” Lucas told him. “Any Company employee could do the same for us that you do.”

“Care to bet?” Royale inquired mildly, arching an eyebrow. “ ‘Any´ Company employee can pick up gossip. I get bulletins from the Home Office. I know when the schedules are going to be changed, when new stock is being brought out, when the Mint is shipping gold east, sometimes even when some big name is going to be on board, with his valuables in his pockets or the strongbox. And, as Stuart pointed out, I´m the only one of the three of us who has a perfectly legitimate excuse to be in Jamesburg most of the time. I think I´m owed a third share instead of a quarter.”

“Not of anything we don´t get off the stages or the Express,” growled Lucas.

“Oh, yes,” was Royale´s smooth rejoinder. “I repeat, I´ve got a legitimate excuse to be in Jamesburg--and an equally legitimate one to ride out alone from time to time; everybody knows I´m in charge of everything all the way back to Salt Lake, and they don´t think twice about my having to go and inspect a station or whatever. If I say that´s what I´m going to do, they never suspect I might be doing anything else, like checking out a wagon train, or coming here for a conference. It´s not enough to know that some emigrant outfit coming through is smaller than the usual. You need to know whether the men on it are alert and well-prepared, and whether it´s even worth your time to go after it. As Stuart pointed out, when you lost Harper you lost your biggest gang. Eight or ten wagons usually means twelve or fifteen men, and a decent chance they can fight off a head- on attack.”

“We´re not in the business of head-on attacks,” said Lucas. “I´m no more interested in losing men than an Indian war party would be. By the time these outfits pass Sedgwick they´re going off their guard, thinking of not much but the gold they hope to get out of the diggings one way or another. We can ride in openly, let them see we´re white, and then, once it´s dark, make our move. Just the way Harper used to do it.”

“You still can´t check on every outfit that goes through,” Royale insisted. “You need a set of eyes and ears in the settlement, and that´s me. The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

“All right,” Stuart put in. “That´s enough. The question isn´t how to split the money, it´s how to get more of it.”

“Getting rid of Standish would help,” Lucas observed bitterly. “I owe him one, anyway.”

“And suppose he´s made a will, or just has kin back East somewhere? They´d get his property and we´d be right back where we started from,” Stuart told him.

His nephew snorted. “You can´t tell me you wouldn´t like to see him dead. You know damn good and well he cheated you out of the building. And that´s cost all of us money.”

“He cheated, yes,” Stuart agreed, “but I cheated first. Actually, I respect the man; he´s damn good. That doesn´t mean I don´t want to see him get his comeuppance and get my own back. But first I need to know who, if anyone, is likely to benefit from his death.”

“That sounds as if you´ve got something planned for him,” said Royale, grinning slyly.

“Oh, I´m thinking about it,” Stuart assured him. “If I can work things out, Mr. Standish is going to be very sorry he ever wandered into Jamesburg. But I have to keep in mind that it wouldn´t be good politics for me to be openly involved in whatever becomes of him.”

“So let me take him,” Lucas suggested.

Stuart cocked an eyebrow at him. “That man is trickier than you´ll ever be if you live to a hundred, Lucas,” he said, “and better with a gun than you think. I´ve seen him, the way he stands and moves, and I know. Besides, there´s a certain...bond...that comes when men fight together the way he did with the other five. Wilmington likes him, and if Wilmington gets suspicious he´ll pull Larabee into it, and Larabee is Travis´s senior and most trusted captain. We don´t need the Army taking an interest in us.”

“So when are you going to move?” Lucas demanded. “We´ve already lost out on a good chunk of the summer´s business. It´s September now. At most we´ve got two months--more likely six weeks--before the wagon outfits stop coming through. The only thing that keeps us in action as long as we are is that people bound for Denver can keep pulling out of the river towns as late as the beginning of this month, because they don´t have to cross the mountains or the desert, and it only takes them a couple of months for the trip.”

“You´re too impatient, Lucas,” Stuart rebuked mildly. “It´s a failing of young men. There´ll be more wagon outfits next year.”

“Maybe,” Royale put in gravely. “Maybe not. By what I´m hearing from Company, the situation back East is getting worse every day. The Democrats have been coming apart for years, and the national convention in April just made it official. The delegates who walked out over the question of slaveowners taking their property freely into the Territories knew damn well they were destroying the national party, and they didn´t care; most of them had already made up their minds for secession. When Lincoln got the Republican nod, that clinched it. If he´s elected--and he may very well be, now that the Democrats have fissioned into three parties--the fire-eaters will take the South right out of the Union. Missouri´s a slave state; if it goes with its counterparts, that will mean the Mississippi and the river towns will be cut off from the rest of the country, and anyone wanting to go West will have to reroute across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and through Iowa rather than taking riverboat passage. It could have a big effect on the numbers of people who decide to make the trip--not to mention the ones who´ll stay where they are because their men have joined the Army.”

Lucas laughed derisively. “You don´t honestly think there´ll be a war, do you? Over Negroes?”

“Not over Negroes, not really,” Royale replied. “I know that´s what it looks like, but it´s a lot more complicated. The abolitionists make the most noise, so everyone thinks they´re the motivating factor, but the fact is they´re just a very vocal minority. The plain truth is, the whole thing´s been brewing these seventy-five years--ever since the Bill of Rights was passed. North and South don´t think alike, or feel alike, or interpret the Constitution alike. And God knows they don´t live alike! It´s an economic struggle. To grow rich the North must pass laws--tariff, for example--that the South sees as harmful. As new states enter the Union north of the Missouri Compromise line--where slavery would never work, even if the Dred Scott business three years ago hadn´t declared it unconstitutional; hell, even Governor Walker of Kansas, who traded in slaves when he was a young man, talked about how the ‘isothermal line´ must ultimately determine the location of the institution in this country--they give the North the political power to pass those laws. The South foresees its subservience to the North and wants to withdraw; the North needs the South´s subservience for its complete financial success, and won´t permit that withdrawal. The slavery question´s a convenient flag to wave, and some abolition fanatics have conveniently waved it. But there´s more than that to the problem--a lot of hate. In the North they´ve had to break their backs in toil and sour their lives in money-grubbing, and they´ve developed a harsh philosophy that values only the dollar. They´re bound to resent the easygoing attitude of the South, its pleasures, and the blacks who make both possible. The way they martyred John Brown this last winter shows that resentment clearly. To make a hero out of a man who wanted to see a quarter of the white population murdered in its beds--there must be a deep hatred there, to allow that.”

The Jameses listened to him with respect. Stuart had been born in Kentucky, which was a slave state, but he´d gone West thirty years ago and hadn´t been east of Kansas City since. Lucas had spent most of his life following his uncle around the Territories, and to him the eastern states and their quarrels were more alien than the Indians he´d been seeing and interacting with from early boyhood. But Royale came from a good South Carolina family, if he was a black sheep of sorts--some of the best Creole blood in the state ran in his veins--and he was in contact with people of power and influence throughout the region. If he said this was how they thought, his accomplices knew they could accept it as truth.

“So,” Lucas said at last, “isn´t that all the more reason for us to get back as much power as we can? A war will mean less emigrants, less soldiers, less money on all fronts--lawful and not. If it lasts, we´ll take a bad hit.”

“I told you,” Stuart reminded him, “I´m working on it. But I didn´t get where I am by moving before I was sure of my ground.”

+ + + + + + +

Sergeant Buck Wilmington smiled and raised a hand to the bill of his forage cap. “´Morning, Miz Travis.”

“Good morning, Buck,” the widow returned cheerfully, accepting the hand he extended as she maneuvered her skirts up the steps to the door of Headquarters. “How did your latest patrol go?”

“Oh, it went,” the big man told her with a grin. “Nothin´ happened worth talkin´ about, except Chris had a smoke with Crop-Eared Wolf, the Arapaho chief. I ever tell you what the Indians call him?”

“I´m sure I don´t care,” Mary replied.

“Oh, no, you´ll like this,” Buck insisted. “You know the Indian word ‘medicine´? It means anythin´ that´s different, mysterious, special, anythin´ they think the spirits might have a hand in. So Chris´s name is Medicine Eyes.”

The woman took a moment to think that over. “I...see,” she said at length, doing her best not to smile.

The sergeant chuckled at her reaction. “Told you.”

“Yes, you did,” Mary agreed. “Do you know if Orin is busy with anything, Buck?”

“Don´t reckon so, ´least not anything he can´t set aside,” Wilmington replied. “His office door was open just now, and he mostly don´t shut it unless to say he don´t want to be disturbed. But why come all the way across the parade ground in the heat of the day, ma´am? He´ll be home to supper and you can talk to him then.”

She eyed him measuringly. “I´m sure you´ll find out, eventually,” was all she said. And she swept on past him in a swirl of iron-gray silk. Her first year of mourning had expired the month before, and she had begun varying her black with shades of purple, lavender, or gray; this “second mourning” could sometimes be very becoming, especially to young widows with fair hair like herself, and the unattached officers--as well as some of the local civilians, like Guy Royale--had begun displaying a more than casual interest in her.

Past the door, with its plain oak- board sign lettered in black, a grim hallway lined with wooden benches for waiting enlisted men ran back to a door with a trooper on guard at it, who presented arms as his Colonel´s daughter-in- law passed. Beyond this was a large orderly room with windows in the front wall overlooking the porch and parade ground, and a couple more long wooden benches under them for officers and civilians to sit on while they waited to see the C.O. Deal tables and packing-case files provided work space for the sergeant-major and for the four enlisted company clerks and the HQ clerk laboring over their long ledgers. Off this in turn was a sizeable anteroom with two desks in it, one for the Colonel´s secretary and the other for the Officer of the Day, and behind it two offices: a small one for the adjutant and his unending paperwork--supervision, correspondence, orders, reports, requisitions; a larger one at the back, where less noise from the parade ground would reach it, for the “Old Man,” as the commanding officer of a post was always called, regardless of age or rank. As Buck had said, the latter´s door was open, a reflection of Colonel Orin Travis´s style of command: he might live by the book, but he was also known for his fairness and his willingness to do everything regulations allowed to make frontier life and duty bearable for the men under him and their families. Mary remembered being taught in school that the difference between a “strong” and a “weak” elected official--President, Governor, whatever--was that the latter refused to do anything the Constitution of his particular political unit didn´t specifically authorize him to do, while the former would do anything the document didn´t specifically forbid him from doing. By that definition, Travis was a strong commander.

She nodded courteously to the sergeant-major and the clerks and crossed the room to her father- in-law´s door to knock softly on the planked surface. “Orin? May I interrupt?”

“Mary!” Travis turned from the window. “Come in. Sit down. What brings you over? Is there a problem at home? Is Billy hurt?”

“No, Billy´s waiting for Buck to come and give him another riding lesson.” After almost three months of searching, Vin Tanner had finally found, early this month, a pony he thought suitable for Mary´s six- year-old son--a small, long-legged Arapaho gray--and had traded an amount for it that he adamantly refused to be repaid, or even to disclose. He had passed it on by way of Ezra Standish in Jamesburg, and Wilmington had promptly assumed as his right the task of teaching the boy to ride and care for it--something he had done for almost every child of that age on the post over the last couple of years. “Do you mind if we talk privately, Orin?”

He tilted his graying head, puzzlement and interest clear in his light eyes. “Of course not, if that´s what you want.” He saw her seated in one of the deep wicker chairs before crossing to close the door, then came back and settled in the black-leather-seated swivel chair behind the leather-topped mahogany table-desk. “What seems to be the trouble?” he asked, folding his hands on the blotter and giving her his entire attention.

“I know I could have waited till tonight, and brought this up at home, during supper or after,” Mary began, remembering what Buck had said outside, “but I felt that coming here would make it plain how much importance I attach to the issue. It seems more...official, somehow.”

She took a deep breath, choosing her words carefully. “I want you to understand, Orin, that I appreciate you and Evie offering to take us in. It´s made a great difference to Billy--having a permanent man in his life again, not having to go on living in the same house where his father died. He´s made more progress in the last three months than in the whole ten before. I´ll always be grateful to you for that--for giving us an opportunity to move on physically as well as emotionally, to find new scenes and challenges.”

“Steven would have wanted us to do it,” the old man told her quietly. “But it wasn´t just duty. You know I´ve always approved of you, Mary. You were what my son needed. Meeting you gave him the motivation to change his life, to find something he could do with it that he loved, that would permit him to produce something concrete. That was all he ever really dreamed of, but he didn´t have any real reason to go out and do it until he fell in love with you.”

“And that´s why I´ve come over today,” Mary said, “because of the choice he made and the life he exposed me to. I think I always wanted the same thing he did, except that I didn´t know it until I met him. When he went into newspaper work and drew me along with him, and especially when he started the Clarion, I felt as if--as if I could breathe with the full capacity of my lungs; does that make any sense? As if, for the first time in twenty-five years, I wasn´t being...smothered any more.

“Being here on the post has given me the chance to get my feet under me, to think, to look back on my life and forward toward what may lie in the future. All the ladies have been kind--I know it must have been difficult for them to welcome someone into their circle who´s never been Army, whose husband wasn´t even an officer--but quite honestly, what I´ve found here is just too much like what I left behind when I married. And I didn´t understand just how bitterly unhappy I was with that until I didn´t have to abide by its strictures any more.”

He nodded thoughtfully. After almost fifty years in the military, Orin Travis was well aware of how officers and their wives escaped boredom by creating a miniature society as rigid and formal as the Eastern community after which it was patterned. An endless round of parties, teas, literary and musical organizations kept them active and passed the time. In winter there were weekly “hops,” concerts, theatricals, shows, sleigh rides, and sometimes even hilarious “slow mule races;” in summer, if no campaigns were on, picnics, rides, and hunts beguiled the idle hour. But--as Buck Wilmington had said in Jamesburg three months ago--Army ladies couldn´t leave their fort without guards, even to walk down to the river; all their entertainment was within the walls--parties, sewing bees, the reading club which discussed new books, and to an extent domestic details, though black servants were common, relieving them of much of the household minutinae that might otherwise have occupied a large percentage of their time. Common among the men and women confined to the pathological, inert dullness of remote Army posts were passionate love affairs, broken marriages, and sexual melodramas. Many officers were deep in alcoholic escape. The women were a clannish, gossippy lot, divided by feuds and jealousy, though united from the moment their men moved out till the moment they heard the returning bugles in the distance. “What you´re saying,” he paraphrased, “is that you don´t feel useful here.”

“That´s it exactly,” cried Mary. “I´m just what I was in Philadelphia--an unattached woman to be matched up with some man, and until then entertained in some harmless, mindless way. And maybe if I´d never known Steven that would be enough--but if I´d never known Steven I wouldn´t be here, would I? Steven taught me how important it is to make use of one´s talents and to make a contribution to the world one lives in. I want--I need--to go back to doing those things again.”

“What did you have in mind?” Travis asked. “I doubt you want to go back to your own family.”

“The farther away from them I stay, the better it is for them and me,” Mary agreed. “No, I know what I want to do. After the Clarion´s press was destroyed, I used part of the insurance settlement to buy one of the little Army models, the same kind you use to make up the post newspaper. I know you don´t approve of the things that go on in Jamesburg, Orin, and the fact is that there are quite a few people living there who don´t approve of them either, but they don´t have anyone to show them a way to improve the situation. A newspaper could provide them with that leadership. I have a press, and I have experience in journalism. I can start that newspaper and run it.”

The Colonel hesitated before replying. “Are you asking my permission?”

“No,” Mary replied frankly, “because I know I don´t really have to have it. I´m not in the Army, and I´m an adult; I can go where I please and do what I wish. I don´t even have a husband to answer to any more, not that Steven ever tried to be a domestic tyrant. I´m not asking for your permission--only your blessing. I thought that, after everything you and Evie have done for Billy and me, it was the very least courtesy I owed you.”

“I see,” the man murmured. He was silent a moment, then stood and walked around the room, pausing before the large window toward which his desk faced. “You´re right, of course. I don´t really have any authority over you--though I hope you´d be willing to acknowledge that my experience and advice should carry some weight with you. And I know you well enough to know that, whatever other faults you may have, acting without thought isn´t one of them. You´re not impulsive; you can be brusque and opinionated, but you don´t make decisions without considering everything they might mean. I have to presume that you understand what you´d be putting yourself in for, if you went ahead with this plan.”

“We´d have to move into Jamesburg,” Mary agreed at once. “To stay here and run a civilian newspaper would give the appearance that you were being partisan, and in any case I´d have to commute every day, which would mean assigning me some kind of permanent escort. We´d have to rent or build some sort of house with space for an office; I spoke to Ezra about that when Evie and I went into town last time.”

“What did he say?” Orin inquired, thinking of the Southern gambler who had won the main building in the settlement six months earlier.

“He was scandalized at first,” Mary admitted. “He thought I´d be taking my life into my hands, taking a journalistic stand against all the vice and murder. But I think he´s just as unhappy with it as I am, in his way. He´s no saint, but if the settlement goes on being as wide-open as it is now, it won´t have much chance to ever grow--and growth could only mean an increase in his income. He´s enough of a natural businessman to know that.”

“Don´t you think he was right?” Travis pressed. “That it would be dangerous?”

“I suppose it might be,” Mary agreed. “But is anything worth while in life ever gained without risk? It was so important to Steven that he use the free press to attack corruption and chicanery and advance the reforms he believed in. He died for that, in the end. He´d want me to carry on his work. And I want to build something for Billy to have, which I can´t do if we go on battening off your charity. As grateful as I am to you, I can´t think it´s doing him any good not to see an example of--of useful work before him every day.”

Did you ever really have any idea what a treasure you found in her, Steven? Travis thought to his murdered son. “When do you want to move?” he asked.

He heard her catch her breath, as if she hadn´t really anticipated he would accept the suggestion so easily. “Before the week is out, if I can. I´ll send a note to Wells Ranch--Ezra knows an Indian boy who´ll carry it--and ask Nettie if she can spare Josiah to help; I know Buck will want to, if you can see your way clear to giving him the time off duty. I know of a vacant cabin in the settlement that I can take over; it isn´t large, but it should be adequate for the two of us.”

He came back to stand before her and take her hands in his. “You´re one of a kind, Mary, do you realize that? I feel very proud of Steven for having had the perception to choose you. You asked for my blessing. You have it, and any assistance I can legitimately give you.”

“Thank you, Orin,” she said, and laid her head against his hands a moment, as relief overcame her. Soon she would be free to do again what she believed in.


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