II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

The stage office occupied a little ell tacked onto Ezra´s building at the end of the store, fronting the line of feed rooms--it had probably been designed as a feed room itself, originally. In the front was a small boarded-up section with a counter and a crudely railed enclosure set with chairs where passengers could wait for the incoming coach. This was the ticket office, whose day-to-day business was looked after by crusty old Virgil Watson; he had been associated with stage lines in one capacity or another for over forty years and had even driven in his young days, in his native New England, on the prestigious Broadway run, and along the National Road. His three sons were now following in his footsteps as drivers, one for the COC&PP, one in California, and the third for Butterfield on the southern transcontinental route.

Behind Watson´s office, a door led into the District Super´s sanctum. The morning after the confrontation at Potters´, Guy Royale strolled in over an hour behind time, as he usually did, and nodded to the scowling Watson as he unlocked it. He paid no heed to Vin Tanner, lounging in front of Potters´ display window. Vin watched him go in, then rose and padded quietly down the gallery to the restaurant, where Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington were having breakfast with Ezra. He drifted up behind Larabee and murmured, “He´s here.”

Chris looked around. “Thanks, Vin.” A glance at Buck: “Ready?”

“Born that way, pard,” Wilmington assured him with a wink, but the hand that slid down to caress the new Remington holstered at his hip told a different tale.

Ezra watched, sipping his chicory, as the two tall men stood, straightening their jackets and settling their weapons. Larabee looked even taller and slimmer than he had in uniform thanks to the simple unrelieved black clothing he had chosen--whipcord pants tucked into high-heeled boots, open-throated sateen shirt, leather jacket, Kossuth hat. Only the wink of silver at his waist and where his spurs hung against the counters of his boots relieved his monochrome look. Buck looked positively gaudy beside him in his calico shirt and bright red vest, greenish woollen pants and fringed Arapaho jacket. Each man carried a Remington Army .44 in plain view at his right side, a lighter Navy holstered for a cross-draw high on his left hip, and a Sharps derringer in his boot-top; Buck in addition had a long knife sheathed on the back of his belt and a Root´s Patent Model Colt .28 in a hideout under his vest, and had picked up a sawed- off twelve-gauge shotgun from the floor where it leaned against his chair.

“I advise you once again, gentlemen,” Standish drawled, “do not make the mistake of underestimatin´ your opposition. You have had little opportunity to observe him in action, and what is more you may not be familiar with his type. I have known many like him, and I have watched him at cards, over, let us say, twenty or thirty evenings. Or watch him play faro. He never ventures any substantial bet until the dealer is down to perhaps twelve cards. He memorizes every card that falls before that. He doesn´t win every wager of consequence that he makes, but he wins most of them. The odds are far out in his favor. He has an unholy amount of patience. He bides his time. Then when his luck comes along he crowds it to the limit.”

Larabee cocked an eyebrow. “Meaning?” he prompted.

“Meaning,” the gambler replied evenly, glancing from one to another of the trio, “that I consider it improbable that he will make any play against such odds as you are presentin´ him. Once you have relieved him of his position, you will have no true authority over him, and--unless you can prove some wrongdoin´ against him--no reason to eject him from the settlement or otherwise inhibit his movements. He will know that. And I do assure you, Mr. Larabee, that men of his blood do not lightly accept bein´ humiliated before their peers, much less those they consider inferiors. Whatever passes between you today, he will not forget it. He will wait and watch, and when he believes he sees an opportunity, he will strike, and have his revenge.”

Chris was silent a moment, then nodded once. “We´ll keep it in mind. Let´s go, boys.”

The three strode out, and Ezra turned in his chair to glance at Inez, watching from the kitchen door. “My dear, would you kindly put my breakfast in the warmin´ oven for a time? I shall return anon.”

“Sí, Señor Ezra.” The woman´s voice was subdued. Ezra rose, settled his jacket and adjusted his cuffs, and strolled casually out after the others.

Chris headed down the length of the gallery at an easy, measured pace, hearing the chink of Buck´s lightweight Texas spurs and the iron ring of Vin´s big Spanish ones sounding counterpoint to the chime of his own silvers. There was a good feeling to having these two men with him, each holding a perfect half-pace to his rear, one right, one left; one tested in time and battle and grief, the other seen and known in an instant, not by reason, but by an instinct neither could deny. It occurred to him that he had heard of, and seen, his share of men trying to run from things they didn´t like to remember, but he had never heard of it working out. For the last three years he had been trying to do the same. Now he had run far enough. He had known it, somehow, that first day, three months ago, when he stepped off this same gallery and headed down to the river to keep Nathan Jackson from being lynched. With that one act he had bound himself to this settlement in a way his casual association through the fort, over his two years there, had never done. What he was doing now was merely a confirmation of something that had begun then. Steele had given him a purpose that the Army hadn´t been able to supply, and on some instinctive level he had recognized it-- and Vin--as his salvation.

Buck listened to the rhythm of their three sets of spurs and smiled tightly at the perfect way their steps matched. He felt the familiar hum of anticipated battle along his nerves, the quickening pulse of his blood, and knew his eyes were alight with the joy of what was to come. He was a man who liked good times, but he took them within a certain framework of ethics; even when he fought, it was by the rules. He had never in his life betrayed a trust--except perhaps once, when he´d persuaded Chris to stay over a night at South Pass for that emigrant wedding, and so brought them home to Fort Laramie just too late to be there for Sarah and Adam. From what Steele had said to Chris, Royale was making a business of betraying his trust. Buck didn´t like people who did that. He was going to take a lot of pleasure in seeing Chris take Royale down. Perhaps by helping in that he could expiate some of his own guilt.

Vin kept his eyes on Chris´s back, very much aware of the Volcanic carbine that swung from his hand, the carbine he was said to have murdered Lieutenant Jess Kincaid to get. Chris had said they would find some way to clear his name, and Vin didn´t doubt his word, nor did he believe that Chris would expect any kind of repayment, whether before or after the fact. But Vin, raised by Comanches, knew that the world demanded balance. He wouldn´t ask Chris to watch his back without proving that he was willing to return the favor.

Miners and travellers aimlessly crossed and recrossed the wide street or idled along the gallery or around the stable complex, waiting on the stages that would take them on to their destinations. As they caught sight of the trio their movements slowed and their eyes extrapolated the likely course of the three men. Slowly they began to drift along behind or parallel. Jock Steele emerged from the doorway of the lobby-bar just before Chris reached it, and tramped purposefully behind a freshly lighted cigar toward the end of the walk. The early crowd of idlers who had been passing time inside followed him curiously, saw the deliberate air of the group and joined the hesitant progress of their counterparts. Even a couple of Arapahoes who had been squatting before the store, wrapped in their blankets, fell in with them. Nathan Jackson, who had been in the store replenishing his supply of laudanum, saw them go by, recognized three of his saviors and went to the door to watch; then, as Ezra came leisurely past, his eyes widened and he followed. Randolph and Gloria Potter went no farther than their own threshold, but their attention was fixed on the door of the stage office.

Virgil Watson looked up from his counter as the four men stepped into the room. “Royale?” Chris inquired, tilting his head toward the door that led into the back chamber.

Watson blinked; he recognized the face, but had never seen the man out of uniform. “Ayah,” he agreed in his Down East drawl.

Vin sidestepped and turned to face the door, carbine butt grounded between the toes of his cougar moccasins, wrists crossed on the muzzle, vivid eyes fixed on the opening. Just outside, Ezra and Nathan, without so much as a meaningful look, assumed seemingly casual positions that would permit them to watch and cover the crowd of onlookers from two angles. Steele made for Royale´s office door with Chris and Buck right behind him.

Royale sat sidewise in a swivel chair beside a rolltop desk, two fingers of each hand jammed into the pockets of his corduroy vest, booted feet resting among a mass of papers atop the surface. He seemed to be giving orders to a pair of roughly dressed men, while a third, wearing a long plaid capote, lounged beside the door, his back against the wall. At the entrance of the three men, he broke off his conversation and tipped his head toward the door, a gesture of dismissal. The third looked over his shoulder and straightened as the new arrivals passed him, but Royale didn´t move, didn´t even take his feet off the desk. With a kind of kingly indifference, he nodded and said, “Something I can do for you?”

Steele was in company domain and sure of himself. He took the cigar from his mouth and said flatly, “Royale, I want your books, your inventory of company property, all cash and keys turned over to me by this afternoon. I also want an accounting of all United States mail.”

Royale said nothing for a moment; even his face didn´t change, and Chris remembered what Ezra had said of him. He regarded Steele impassively. “Why?” he asked then. “And just who are you, anyway?”

Steele removed a long white envelope from an inner pocket of his coat. “Jock Steele, from the Head Office. My credentials. You are dismissed at District Superintendent, effective immediately.”

Chris was watching Royale, knowing he could depend on Buck to cover him. Wilmington saw the swift anger tighten the lips of the man in the capote, the wild disbelief mount in his eyes, and now Royale looked past Steele and Larabee at this man as if for backup or confirmation. Then he returned his gaze to Steele, slowly lifted his feet off the desk, set them wide apart on the floor and put a hand on each knee.

“Who do you propose to get to run Company affairs, Mister Steele?” he demanded evenly. “Watson?”

“No,” Steele replied. “This gentleman behind me. I think you may have met. Chris Larabee.”

Royale snorted. “Larabee´s Army. He can´t assume a superintendent´s duties. It would be a conflict of interest, and it would interfere with his military obligations.”

“No, it won´t,” Chris told him. “I´m on leave of absence. So is Buck Wilmington here.”

Royale leaned back in his chair, scowling. “Seems like a man should have more notice than this.”

“You knew when you took this job that there were responsibilities that went along with it,” Steele replied. “You knew that Russell, Majors & Waddell has certain expectations, and that if you didn´t meet them you could expect to forfeit your position. You can´t run a stage line, Royale. You can´t move people safely. You can´t move mail or express at all. You can´t protect your stock or your employees. You can´t even feed them.”

“You´re getting rid of me for that?” Royale seemed half scornful and half unbelieving. “Let me point out a few facts of life to you, Mister Steele. First, I´m one man, and I can only be in one place at a time. Second, I don´t own an inch of this town; if you have some objection to the way the passengers are treated, you might better talk to Standish--it´s his hotel and saloon. Third, with five hundred plus miles of trail to supervise, thousands of square miles contiguous to it, hundreds of freighters--Company and otherwise--and travellers in and out of here every day and God knows how many floating around just out of sight, and the Indians to add to the mix, how am I to watch the bad ones?” He glanced at Chris. “You think Larabee can?”

“Yes, he can,” said Chris.

“And how do you propose to start?” Royale demanded, addressing him for the first time.

“By paying off every man who works for the Company in Jamesburg,” Larabee said quietly. He saw the chill menace in Royale´s eyes and knew that he had perhaps added unnecessarily to the man´s humiliation. Still, he wanted no misunderstandings.

“We´re not discussing my choice of superintendent, Royale,” Steele put in flatly. “I know all our space here is leased from either Standish or Stuart James, simply because James was here first and it was easier to lease than to build. If necessary, I´ll negotiate with them separately. My business with you is very simple. I´ve stated it once, and I think you heard it clearly enough.”

“That´s dangerous talk,” said Royale, but he was looking at Chris, not Steele. “Dangerous for you or any other man who doesn´t have the Army to back him up any more. You´re getting into deep water, too deep for you to swim out.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” Chris told him. “I´ve waded deeper water a few times, Royale, and where I couldn´t wade, I could swim. And if I couldn´t swim I'd build some land under me.”

Buck lifted his sawed-off shotgun into view as the man in the capote began to sneak a hand under his coat, and the latter´s movement ceased. Royale stood up. “Take the place, then,” he said, still as evenly as before. “Take the job too, and go to hell--all of you.” He pulled the end of his watch chain out of his pocket and detached the key ring that hung there. Slamming onto the desk, he added, “As for an inventory, I´m no longer an employee of the Company. You said so yourself. So I don´t see that counting things that belong to it is any responsibility of mine.” Reeling in the man in the capote by eye, he pushed past Chris and Buck and tramped out.

Hours later, Chris pushed the swivel chair back from a desk somewhat restored to order, rubbed his eyes wearily, and stood up, leaning forward to turn down the lamp wick. Buck, lounging patiently in a chair set where he´d be behind the door if it opened, straightened up and reached for his shotgun. “Callin´ it a night, pard?”

Larabee nodded. “There´s plenty still to do, but at least I think I´ve got a notion of how many people Royale had working for him here and how much pay they´re due.”

“You serious about cannin´ every one of ´em?” Buck asked mildly. “Even Yosemite and old Virg?”

“I´m serious about getting a look at every one of them,” Chris told him, “and calling them in here to get their money is the best way to make sure they all show up.”

Buck nodded. Over the years both of them had learned to read the men who opposed them, mentally tagging them as nothing much to bother with or as real trouble. “Reckon that makes sense. I was just wonderin´ who you´d get to replace the ones you fire. Exceptin´ the men on post we don´t either of us know a single man in five hundred miles who can work for us, unless it´s Josiah and the Kid out at Wells.”

“I´ll burn that bridge when I get to it,” Larabee said, and moved to the door.

The outer office was dark, Virgil Watson having closed up and gone home at six. A soft rustle in the corner resolved itself into a slim light-colored blur of a shape that stood up from a comfortably cross-legged position, the faint light from the lanterns along the gallery filtering through the window to shoot a gleam off the brass of the carbine it held.

“You didn´t have to stay, Vin,” Chris told him, almost gently.

“Got no place better to be,” Tanner observed with a shrug. “Work for you now, reckoned I best be close lest you´d need me.”

“Not for a while, I´m afraid,” the older man said with a sigh. “Let´s get something to eat.”

“Restaurant´s done closed,” Vin mentioned. “Seen Miss Inez lockin´ th´outside doors ´bout nine.”

“Ezra oughtta be able to rustle up somethin´ cold, even if it´s just sandwiches,” Buck suggested.

“I thought so too,” Chris agreed, locking the office door behind him and taking a slow look around the darkened room. This building, he guessed, would house his business for some time to come, and he had seen worse. It was out of the weather, convenient to passenger lodging, food, and drink, and familiar to every traveller. Out on the gallery, he locked the outer door and paused in the chill darkness to regard the corrals, barns, smithy and wagon sheds to the south, all constructed from cedarwood logs hauled from the mountains--a distance to reckon with, since the Rockies didn´t become visible until you hit the Beaver Creek Station, almost ninety miles up the South Platte, and even then you didn´t get into the foothills for another hundred-plus. Stuart James had made a bold gamble building here; much labor and expense had gone into the creation of the town.

The aroma of tobacco and the steady dimming and brightening of a red eye of flame betrayed a man sitting on the bench in front of Potters´ darkened store window. “How long has he been there, Vin?” Chris asked quietly.

“Since Royale left,” the young Texan told him. “Reckon he´s got Injun blood, maybe, or lived with ´em some. Ain´t hardly stirred all day.”

The three of them moved down the length of the gallery toward the warm lights of the lobby-bar, whose glassed storm doors were shut against the chill of the September night. Chris´s peripheral vision picked up the watcher as they passed and recognized him as the man in the plaid capote. His back between the shoulder blades itched as the gap between them lengthened, even though he knew Buck and Vin were right behind him.

The bar was quiet. Word of Royale´s firing had spread through the little settlement like the blink of a heliograph, and people were keeping low, waiting to see what would happen next. They were accustomed to Royale, but Chris they knew only by reputation. The bad element would need time to take his measure, and the decent ones would want to stay out of the line of fire until they saw how the situation seemed likely to resolve. Jacob the night clerk, George the bartender, and the faro dealer were still on duty, but the women who usually loitered about the room in the evenings had recognized that business would be dead and had gone home. Ezra was sitting at his favorite table under the stairs, playing solitaire. He looked up from his game and a quick flash of his gold tooth in the lamplight betrayed his welcoming smile. “Gentlemen. I presumed from the absence of gunfire that no untoward action had been taken against you, but I had not expected you to call.”

“We could use some food,” Chris told him, “and maybe a drink of whiskey.”

“George, my bottle,” Ezra ordered. “Jacob, go to the kitchen and assemble some sort of refreshment for Mr. Larabee and his companions. Do strive to be reasonably soundless at your task; there is no need to awaken Señorita Rosillos.”

“Yessir,” the clerk agreed, and ducked out under the dropleaf and through the strung-bead curtains into the dark room beyond.

An hour or so later Chris, Buck, and Vin sat back contentedly, and Ezra eyed the crusts and crumbs on the serving platters and shook his head. Jacob had proved himself a competent provider of a very substantial cold meal: a big pile of sandwiches of corned beef, pickled pork, cold ham, headcheese, and bologna; sauerkraut, pickled salmon and oysters, canned sausages, and an assortment of cheeses from the free-lunch counter; cold roast potatoes, pickled eggs, beets, and onions, and two deliciously-browned, nine-inch apple pies left over from supper.

“And so,” the gambler said. “Might I venture to ask what occurred at the stage office today?”

Chris´s lips twitched. So he was to “sing for his supper,” then? He took a moment to consider the elegantly dressed younger man. Even after six months, there was much about Ezra Standish that he didn´t know: where he was from (except in the most general sense), why he had come to Jamesburg, why he stayed when it was known that Stuart James had offered to buy back the building and business at a very good price. Though he had never been much of a gambler, Chris had met enough of the Southerner´s type over the years to feel uneasy about trusting them. He knew they were often unworthy of it, and he found it hard to break the habit of a lifetime. In addition, Standish had a certain natural arrogance about him which irritated the new Superintendent, and his sly subtle wit was little to Chris´s more direct taste. Yet he knew, too, that the Southerner had made significant changes in the operation of the hotel and saloon. The restaurant had been a good place to eat ever since Inez Rosillos arrived a year and a half ago, settled in and took hold and turned it spotless and brought her gift for excellent cooking and deft service into play. But Ezra had ordered the rest of the building scrubbed and scalded from top to bottom, had spent money on repairs, improved the bedding and the service, put Inez in charge of the entire operation except for the saloon, stocked better liquor in the bar, fired at least one faro dealer who´d been caught cheating, and barred from the saloon the dirtier and more brazen of the community´s prostitutes, probably on the theory that most of the regular customers knew where to find them anyway, and the casual travellers could easily learn by asking around. And he had supported Chris and Vin that day down by the river when there was no logical personal reason for him to have done so. These things, which were concrete and unmistakeable, suggested hidden depths to the man. Despite his two years at Fort Sedgwick, Larabee had never had a lot to do with the people and affairs of the civilian settlement; his military duties had precluded it. He knew that Ezra probably had a much better picture of the capabilities and interactions of the inhabitants than he did, as well as being in the very middle of the best center for gossip for fifty miles in any direction. Two decades in the Army had only improved upon Chris´s natural bent toward practicality. He understood that if he could work with Ezra, and get the gambler in turn to work with him, his way could be made a lot easier.

He described the exchange with Royale and spoke of the watcher in front of Potter´s store. Standish listened attentively, without comment, but Larabee saw his emerald eyes light when the man in the capote was described. “You know him?”

“I know of him. We have not been formally introduced, but I have often observed him here or elsewhere in the settlement. His name, I believe, is Spencer Irely, and he is said to be from Missouri, by way of the recent difficulties in Kansas. He is not an employee of the Company, but of Stuart James. He has been much more in evidence than formerly ever since I acquired this property, which I can understand. Mr. James no longer has as much business here as he did, yet he retains a leasage agreement with the Company with regard to his corrals, barns, bunkhouse, and warehouses, and must continue to do business with it. That he would wish to maintain a liaison here, to keep him informed of sudden developments that might affect his relations with the Company, is not illogical.”

Larabee nodded thoughtfully. “And James always was pretty thick with Royale, wasn´t he?”

“They were, to all appearances, good friends,” the Southerner agreed. “I have heard that they often dined or played poker together. Of course, their backgrounds are not dissimilar, and in a community as small as this one, with few recreational options, it is only to be expected that they would find each other at an early date.”

“What´s your estimate of Irely?”

“Reckless, a fighter, a man of deep hatreds and savage pride. Without James to direct and protect him, he would have been dead long ago. He has already seen his chief demoted and humiliated, and now he has watched as his chief´s friend suffers the same fate. I suspect that he would cheerfully kill either you or myself, and only James checks him. For the present, at least, he will watch. Your every move will come under his eye and be reported to James, yet at the same time Irely will draw his own conclusions, because he is, in his way, intelligent.”

“Why James?” Buck wondered. “He ain´t a Company employee. He ain´t ever been one. He just leases property to ´em.”

“But this is his town--or at least it was,” Ezra pointed out. “Anythin´ the Company does affects him. He is well aware that they could, if they so desired, build a competin´ facility either just upriver or just down-, abrogate their contract with him, and thereby reduce his business by half at a stroke. To do so would be expensive, and it would take time, but it is still possible.”

Larabee nodded again. It occurred to him that the gambler´s report had been delivered with a telling simplicity, rather than being couched in his usual elaborate prose, and he suspected that meant something. He also found that he agreed with Standish´s estimate of Irely. The man was real trouble. There was a wildness in his eyes that had alerted Chris: he sensed the danger in Irely as he could sense it in a bad horse or a vicious dog. Royale´s pride had been hurt, and, as Ezra had observed this morning, he came of a background that wouldn't permit him to accept that. But he lacked James´s power, wealth, and influence. He was, on the other hand, James´s friend, and, as Ezra had also pointed out, the shift in his fortunes might eventually have repercussions for James. It might occur to James that a pre-emptive strike would be worthwhile, if only because Royale did, after all, know the territory and the Company´s property along his stretch of trail, and if Chris were removed from the scene, it might be possible for Royale, if he grovelled sufficiently, to get reinstated, because he would be here, on the scene, and the Company couldn´t afford to let the Superintendency go vacant for weeks--or perhaps the whole winter-- while it searched for a replacement back East and got him out here to take over. A lot would probably depend on just how close Royale was with James. But much of this settlement did still belong to the latter, and even the non-Company business that went on here was tied to the Company employees and passengers who passed in and out. If they were removed, the place would revert to being what it had been in the beginning, a trading post. And the mere fact that the Company had gone to the expense and trouble of establishing independent facilities for itself might be enough to give that trading post such a bad reputation that the honest business would gravitate toward the new community. With a dark certainty, Chris knew that much of his future, and Buck´s and Vin´s as well, lay in James´s temper, and that Irely, James´s executioner, would be the man to watch as a gauge of that temper. For now, until he had an opportunity to consult with his boss, he would restrain himself. But that wouldn´t last forever.

Ezra´s estimate of the man had closely matched his own, and he realized once again how valuable the gambler could be to him, as a source and as a check on his own picture of people and events. Whether he exactly trusted the Southerner he wasn´t sure yet. Ezra was a fighter worth reckoning with despite his airs and graces and flowery language, and he was a businessman; if the Company did decide to shuck its arrangement with James and move on, he would have to either go to the bother and expenditure of moving with it, or risk suffering the same decline in his income that James would. For that reason alone, it was to his interest to find ways to keep the Company here, and that meant keeping Chris alive and informed of anything that might affect Company affairs. Self-interest, Larabee mused, was a powerful motivator--possibly almost the only one in which he still believed. He decided that, on one level, Standish could be trusted. If it was something that held the prospect of affecting his business, he would tell the truth.

“Did Mrs. Travis speak to you at all today, Mr. Larabee?” the gambler inquired suddenly.

Chris pinned him with a look. “Should she have?”

“I dare say,” Ezra agreed. “Certainly you were aware of her plan to establish a newspaper here; her departure from the Fort cannot have gone without your notice, and knowin´ Mr. Wilmington as I do, I doubt that he failed to inform you of the reason for it. A development such as occurred today is, without any doubt, news, and somethin´ eminently suitable to serve as the central story of her first edition. She was here earlier, as soon as the word reached her of your confrontation with Mr. Royale. She inquired of me as to what I knew, and she interviewed Mr. Steele at some length. By that time the crowd about the agency door had dispersed, realizin´ that violence seemed unlikely, and I was under the impression that she had started off in that direction, with some thought of seekin´ an audience with you.”

“Virg must´ve told her not to bother you, pard,” Buck guessed.

“Likely,” Larabee agreed. “But he won´t be able to keep her out forever.”

“He won´t have to,” the big man observed. “All she´s gotta do is make sure she´s here in the mornin´ so she can catch you at breakfast. You might be able to keep her out of your office, but the only one can throw her out of the restaurant is Ez here.”

“And I would never be so discourteous as to follow such a course,” said the gambler, eyeing Chris with sly amusement. “I suggest, Mr. Larabee, that you give serious thought to what you will say to the lady. My observations of her to this point suggest that she is not one to be indefinitely balked in her course. She is indomitable and persistent, and if she believes herself to be in the right, she will prevail, as drippin´ water prevails over stone, by sheer doggedness.”

Buck grinned. “Yeah, and if she´s figurin´ to run a newspaper, she´ll think pretty highly of the public´s right to know. Reporters always do.”

Larabee grunted and sipped at his whiskey. Much as he respected the grit common to pioneer women, he wasn´t sure it was a good idea for the Colonel´s daughter-in-law to venture into journalism in this rough little settlement. That she was a newspaperwoman´s widow he knew, and it was commonly supposed that her husband had died because he displeased the border ruffians in Kansas. Almost certainly she had learned something from him. Yet it was one thing, in Chris´s opinion, for a widow to take over her husband´s farm--or even his store or similar retail or service business--and quite another for her to do what Mary Travis seemed resolved to do, most of all in a community like this one. It wasn´t just James or Royale that she´d have to reckon with. They had the power, but they didn´t control everything that went on. If she ruffled enough feathers, she could find herself in serious trouble. Damn the woman, didn't she think anything of her son, of what would happen to him if she got hurt or worse?

That reminded him. “Tell me about the people on Royale´s payroll, Standish.”

The Southerner obliged, supplying names, positions, and a brief sketch of the character and connections of each man. His impressions of both Watson and Yosemite were positive, but that was all. As his monologue continued, Larabee realized that most of the Company employees would have to be either disciplined or replaced. Some would fall into line when others did, and that would have to begin soon--no later than tomorrow. But there were some who would clearly have to go: the ones who seemed to have more money to spend than their positions would justify, the ones--and there were several--who were the husbands or reasonable facsimiles of some of the settlement´s prostitutes and not only tolerated the women´s profession but actually expected them to use it to improve the family´s finances. Chris found himself remembering what Colonel Travis had said of the prospect of cleaning up the settlement. Removing some of the prostitutes and probable habitual petty crooks from its environs would be a start toward that goal. If some of those crooks happened to be nominal Company employees, he certainly had the right to fire them, and if they no longer had jobs, in a community this small, they would almost have to leave, because they would no longer have the fiction of employment to use as an excuse for the acquisition of the money they spent. And if they went, there was at least some chance that the women, or some of them, would go too.

He mentioned something of this, just to see what Standish would think of it, and garnered a shocked reaction from Buck. “Hell, pard, you ain´t gonna go preacher on me, are you?”

“He´s got a point, Chris,” Vin murmured. “You throw out all th´easy ladies, that´ll just mean men´ll go to botherin´ the good´ns--´least till some new women come in, and they will. Town so close to a fort, it´s bound to happen. I seen it down Texas.”

“I know that,” Larabee retorted impatiently. “I just want to improve the level of the service a little. If a woman rolls a passenger or picks his pockets, or if she´s living with a man who pilfers Company property, she comes under my authority, and I don´t plan to tolerate her. If she behaves herself with regard to passengers and doesn´t associate with people enriching themselves at Company expense, I´ve got no quarrel with her.” His expression softened a bit. “Don´t worry, Buck, Blossom´s safe.”

“Wasn´t thinkin´ of just Blossom,” Buck grumbled. “Shit, if you´re gonna expect me to stick with one lady, I might just as well get married and to hell with it.”

Chris laughed out loud and was surprised at the sound of it. How long was it since he´d laughed and meant it? He suddenly found himself remembering again that day three months ago. When Mary Travis had told him that Buck had shared the story of Sarah and Adam´s deaths with what amounted to a table-full of strangers, his first reaction had been cold fury. Buck knew he didn´t like people to know about that. That the Colonel would was of course unavoidable, but at least he didn´t gossip. And Buck, for all his tendency to talk, had managed, up till then, to respect Chris´s wishes with regard to his family. What the hell had come over the man all of a sudden?

It was Mary´s news that Vin seemed to be planning to leave that had kept Larabee from seeking out his old friend and noncom and breaking his nose, or his jaw--or perhaps worse. Immediately his first concern had been to seek Vin out and somehow prevent his departure. It was after their exchange in the stable, after Vin had confessed to his Comanche background and to the raids he had gone on, after he had been assured that Chris didn´t hate him for becoming “Indianized”--which, in the eyes of many whites, was considered a retrograde step, and which moreover he had been sure would bar him from any possibility of friendship with a man whose wife and child had been killed by a Sioux raiding party--and that he was not only accepted but was wanted to stay by Chris and Buck alike, that the young Texan had spoken of what had gone on in the restaurant.

“You ain´t fixin´ to climb Bucklin ´bout tellin´ us what become of your family, are you, Larabee?”

“Why shouldn´t I? He knows he should keep his mouth shut about that, most of all around strangers.”

“He didn´t do it to hurt you none.” Vin´s tone was quiet, but his blue eyes were nearly incandescant in the dim stable. “It don´t take my spyglass to see he done it on account he cares about you, and he cared about your family. He´s been carryin´ his own hurt around a long spell, not sharin´ his burden with nobody, respectin´ your wishes. What happened today...he knowed we ain´t strangers no more, after that. And he reckoned somebody owed it to the rest of us to ´splain how come you went stormin´ out like you done.” He looked down, his long hair falling around his solemn face in a curtain, hiding his expression but not the pain that sounded in his soft drawl. “Holdin´ things inside of you don´t do much to heal ´em, Larabee. I got reason to know that better´n most. You got a lot of goods to haul, you don´t throw ´em all on one horse. You split ´em up ´twixt two or three or more, and it goes easier. Same with any other kind of load that wants carryin´. Troubles ain´t so hard to deal with if you share ´em with others.”

“I don´t want sympathy,” Chris growled. “And I don´t want pity.”

“I say you´s gonna get either one?” Vin retorted. “I ain´t claimin´ I know what you got from the folks around you after you lost your wife and boy. But we ain´t them folks. We´s us, and I got a notion we all got hurts and secrets that weighs just as heavy on us as yours on you. Don´t you be so damn all-fired arrogant as to think you´s the only body in this world ever had pain.”

Chris stared at him as if he couldn´t quite believe what he was hearing. “What gives you the right--”

You give me the right, when you ast me to stay,” Vin interrupted coldly. “You can´t have it two ways, Larabee. You let a man in, ´spect him to be your friend, then you gotta ´cept they´s times he´ll git in your face, if he thinks it´s needed. That´s one of the things friends do. Just ´cause I ain´t hardly had none don´t mean I don´t know that. How come you think I been wantin´ some for so long?” A pause, then: “I reckon Bucklin´s a good man, and he done the best he knowed for you, but he´s been too damn soft and easy.”

“That´s a lie!” Chris snapped. “I´d never have gotten through those first six months without Buck. He risked everything--his stripes, his career, everything we´d built up over nine years together--to keep me going.” Then he stopped in mid-career at sight of the wry little half-smile twisting the Texan´s lips. “Damn you, Tanner. You are one sneaky son of a bitch.”

“I´s a Peneteka warrior,” Vin reminded him. “´S what we do.”

Larabee felt his own mouth soften. “All right. I won´t get on his case. Is that all right with you?”

“Ain´t about what´s all right with me. ´S about what´s right,” Vin said.

He eyed the young man out of the corner of his eye and wondered at the serenity that seemed to radiate from him, the way Vin´s mere presence could ease his hurt and soothe his anger. The anger that had been his defense against the world for a long time. How had this happened? Once again he marvelled over the chance that had brought them together, the way Vin seemed to know him instinctively, to know exactly what to say--even to know when he was going to be in Jamesburg: wanted by the Army as he was, he hesitated to venture onto the post, but every time Chris had come into the settlement on a pass in the last three months, Vin had always turned up, sooner or later, and they had spent at least a couple of hours together, usually sitting out on the gallery and watching the traffic go by. They didn´t need to drink or talk; it was enough for each that the other was there. Since he´d lost Sarah and Adam, he no longer believed in miracles; he wasn´t even sure he believed in God. Yet something had brought this scruffy young Comanche-raised Texan into his life, and he could hardly believe his good fortune.

Distantly from outside came the sounds of the westbound coach changing horses. There seemed to be a good deal more fuss attendant on it than he thought should be normal. But no one had come running to get him, and even if the driver and guard hadn´t heard of the change in directorship, the stocktenders would know of it and know that he´d be staying at the hotel at least temporarily: part of the Company´s leasage agreement with Standish involved a room for the Superintendent.

At length he heard the yell of the driver, muffled by the storm doors, and the surging thunder of the coach getting under way again. He thumbed his battered old nickel-plated watch out of his tailored vest and popped the lid. Damn, past two A. M., and he had another long day ahead of him tomorrow. He hadn´t realized he´d been sitting here so long, but he´d needed Ezra´s input, and the gambler never got up before ten in the morning.

Steps on the gallery--somebody must have gotten off the stage, either to break their journey as Standish had done all those months ago or to wait for the branch from Denver. That might explain the bustle.

Suddenly the door burst open and a woman´s voice cried, “Ezra, darlin´!”

The gambler lost every hint of his color and his pupils dilated in a way that reminded Chris of the Chinese he´d seen high on opium when he was serving at the Presidio. “Oh good Lord,” he whispered in a shocked tone. “Mother!”


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