II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

Chris Larabee was not having the best morning of his life.

First of all, he had gone to bed a good deal later than he had intended, and with another long day of organizing ahead of him, he had found it wise to force himself to wake early, even if it did leave him short. Then, as Buck had suggested she might, Mary Travis had ambushed him in the restaurant when he went down for breakfast, and, guessing that she would probably keep on doing it until she was satisfied, he had, rather grudgingly, agreed to tell her the story of how he happened to be acting as Division Superintendent now, of what had occurred in Royale´s office and what he proposed to do next. Buck´s amusement, and even Vin´s, at their friend´s discomfited reaction to the exchange had been very plainly marked, and had done nothing positive for his mood. After that he had checked the division map hung over Royale´s desk (now his) and decided to send Buck west to Knutson´s, which was the next home station on the way to Laramie, and Vin back to Wells, where they were to ask the agents to provide written sketches of all the incidents of trouble and mismanagement they had heard of in the past year or so-- holdups, stock theft, supplies not getting to the stations where and when they were supposed to, whatever. He had heard vaguely of some of these things but had never paid them much attention while he was on active duty. Now he wanted to get some picture of just how bad the situation was and whether there was any pattern to the depradations, and the best way to do that was to inquire of the home- station agents, who had the passengers and drivers, guards and Pony riders, longer than anyone else did, were known to them and trusted, and heard their talk. True, Nettie Wells´s place didn´t come within the limits of Chris´s Division, but she was close enough to Jamesburg to get most of the news from there, and Vin felt at ease with her, so it seemed efficient to make use of them.

Having seen the two men off, he tried to settle down to bringing order out of the chaos Royale had called his files, but they soon got the better of him and he gave up in disgust. It was strange that a man who kept his person as neat and spruce as Royale did--who was almost as much a dandy as Standish--couldn´t do the same for the official papers that were his responsibility. But maybe it wasn´t so strange after all. Maybe Royale had figured that the harder he made it for anyone to figure out what he'd been doing, the more indispensable he´d be seen to be. As far as Larabee was concerned, he might have been right: Chris had always found paperwork to be the least congenial part of serving in the Army, and his written reports had been noted for their terseness partly on that account--anything to make the process go faster.

Buck and Vin would both be gone at least overnight; even travelling at a lope, the round trip to and from either of the stations would take a good six hours. That meant Chris had no one he could trust to watch his back. And Spencer Irely was still watching; he´d seen the man as he went to breakfast, and again on the way to the stable with Tanner and Wilmington. He´d been careful to give them their orders out of earshot of anyone else, but it wouldn´t take Irely very long to ask around and find out which way they´d gone. Still, that wouldn´t tell the man what they´d gone there to do, and Chris decided Irely was unlikely to move until he knew.

He was still resolved to pay off every man Royale had hired and to lay off the ones who were marked by Standish as being possible crooks, malingerers, or otherwise undesireable, but he didn´t want to do that until he had Buck and Vin at hand again. At the same time, the longer he delayed in making sure the change had taken effect, the harder it would be to do so. He decided on a test case. Buckling his Remington around his waist, he headed down to the barn.

Though it accepted the livestock of private travellers, part of the property was permanently leased for the board and care of stage and Pony Express horses. And, Jamesburg being a division point, it was also the central disbursement station for replacement stock, which was sent out as needed to the home and swing stations whenever horses were lost to thieves, sickness, or temporary conditions like galls or lameness. Some three hundred head were always on hand. Chris asked Yosemite, the blacksmith, where he could find the Company´s head stocktender, and was told that the man went only by the name of Max and was probably down at the carpenter´s shop. This was a long shed housing idle coaches and those undergoing repair. Max was a small man and so dirty that Chris could smell stable on him when he was still twenty feet upwind. He was talking to a carpenter who was working over a long thoroughbrace gripped between two vises. “Max?” Chris asked.

The man looked at him insolently and nodded. Larabee knew that in the twenty-four hours since the episode in Royale´s office, the word of his arrival and description had almost certainly reached every Company employee in the settlement; now they would be marking time, waiting to see what style of command he would follow and what changes he contemplated if any. He decided to start out as he meant to go. “I´m Larabee, the new Division Superintendent. Get up all the Company horses and throw them into the big corral. I want to inspect them for soundness and readiness to work.”

Through this brief speech he could see the disbelief mounting in Max´s eyes, and when he was finished the stocktender turned his head aside and spat. “Guy Royale´s my boss and that´ll have to be in writing,” he said.

It may as well start here, Chris thought. With his left hand he reached out and caught the man´s filthy shirt in his fist, turning him. With his unfisted right he clouted Max´s jaw with a force that sent the smaller man staggering back, as Larabee released him, to trip over a stage tongue and sprawl in the dirt. He sat in the dust for a moment, shaking the bells out of his head. Chris waited until he climbed to his feet, then walked slowly over to stand before him. “Either I´m your boss or you've got no boss, and I won´t put that in writing,” he said softly.

The truculence was gone from Max´s eyes as he stood there rubbing his jaw. Chris knew he had used his own superior size to advantage and didn´t feel very good about it--he knew Buck would have something to say when he heard, the man hated bullies--but he also knew he couldn´t afford to waste time. Royale had let things go slack for far too long, and if conditions were ever to improve in this Division, it would have to begin in a way that left no room for doubt. “Now,” Larabee went on, “either you get up those horses, or you get your gear together and start moving, east, west, or south, I don´t care.”

Max maintained his sullen silence until Chris was finished, then asked solemnly, “Do I clear this with Royale?”

“Have you seen Royale the last twenty-four hours or so?” Chris retorted.

“Seen him get his personal horses out of the barn and ride out yesterday. Didn´t think much of it, he´s off about half the time, checkin´ stations and so on.”

At least that suggested the man had cleared out of the settlement. “He´s out. Orders from the Head Office. As far as you´re concerned there is no Royale. Pass that word around to the rest of the Company people. Now, get those horses up, and when you´ve got them, send for me at the office. I´ll come down and look them over.”

Max nodded and started back toward the barn. Damn, Chris told himself, that felt good.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington made Knutson´s to find the black-haired kid, JD Dunne, staying over there while he waited for a Pony rider to come in from the west. Ever since the end of the Paiute War and the resumption of Pony service on June 26, the mail had gone from once a week to twice, which meant the kid made one and a half circuits of his 190-mile route each week. The horses had more rest than he did: Company policy was that they were to be allowed ten days between runs.

His Company obligations prevented the kid from getting into Jamesburg except to change horses on the fly, but over the last three months Buck had still seen him several times, when he and Chris took patrols past either of his home stations, Knutson´s and Wells. He found, somehow, that it always gave him a bit of a lift, regardless of how tired he was, to find Dunne´s bright hazel eyes and mobile face in the crowd of station staff that greeted the detachment when it trotted in to refill canteens at the well, rest men and horses for forty-five minutes or so. Wilmington was honestly a bit surprised to see how long and well the kid had stuck it out, being so obviously an Easterner. He hadn´t expected JD to last, or even to get the name he had among Company folk as a rider: whether or not the one he took over from was on time, JD always seemed to shave a few minutes off his time, and his mount was always in good condition; at his home stations he insisted on being the one to cool the animal out, rub it down, water and feed it, and turn it into the exercise yard before getting any rest or food for himself. Of course, Buck admitted, he hadn´t expected the kid to be as good in a fight as he´d shown himself to be that day down by the river, either. Even in the East, people still rode horses, but nowhere near as many of them got into gun battles as out here.

His curiosity aroused--the same insatiable inquisitiveness that had made him such a notorious gossip- collector on the post--Buck had taken the opportunity to talk with the kid, to question him about his roots. JD had spoken of his work as a stable and exercise boy, and briefly as a jockey; of New York and the Texas longhorn cattle he had seen in the streets there, of the newspaper reports he had read about California and Santa Fe, Kansas and Texas, and more recently Colorado and the Comstock, and of the gradual development of his dream of going West; of the galleries where he had learned to shoot, and eventually, with a hint of sadness, as he grew easier with the big man, of his mother, of how she had worked most of his life as a chambermaid in one of the city´s great houses, how she had longed to see him go to college and make something of himself, and how in the end she had come down with pleurisy and at last pneumonia and died. Buck knew what it was like to grow up without a father, to be raised by a lone working mother who was the focus of all the love you had to give, and in the end to watch her die; learning that JD had experienced something similar gave him a feeling of both empathy and compassion toward the kid. And while JD clearly had a tendency to impulsiveness, he was smart and eager to learn, gutsy and dedicated to his job. Buck liked that. Without willing it, he found himself liking the kid too, looking forward to the prospect of seeing him, thinking about things he might be able to impart, from his own long frontier experience, that would make JD´s way a little easier, increase the likelihood of his lasting beyond his first six months out West. Sometimes he wondered what was going on with him; he´d never been one to take on strays. But he had pushed himself in where he wasn´t wanted, for three long years, trying to keep Chris focused and alive. Maybe this was more of the same. Chris had Vin now, and it seemed to be making a difference; Buck could sense it. And, grateful though he was to Vin for doing what he apparently couldn´t, Wilmington did miss the closeness he had had with his captain the last twelve years. Both he and Chris had known, from their first meeting in New Orleans, that it was forever, but friendships, like any other living thing, were bound to grow and change as time went by. Buck didn´t fear losing Chris, exactly; he just knew that he was no longer Chris´s closest friend. He needed to find a focus for everything he had it in him to give. The bond that had sprung into being between the seven of them, that day at the river, gave him the opportunity to find that focus, just as it had given Vin and Chris the opportunity to find each other.

Knutson´s was always a pleasant place to stay: the man was a Mormon and highly skilled as a farmer; his wife Martha and fifteen-year-old daughter Rebecca were good cooks and gracious hostesses, and his two boys, Christopher and Robert, who were twelve and seven, were good company for a man who had always gotten along famously with children. They admired JD too, and Christopher was already talking about applying to be a rider as soon as he was fifteen. Buck did his level best to keep on the family´s good side, watching his language and never pressing himself on Rebecca, though she was a pretty little thing with her waist-length Scandinavian-blonde hair; he made it an article of faith never to seduce a virgin. A girl´s first time should be special.

“How you been, kid?” he asked JD, after he´d given Knutson Chris´s request, paid his respects to the ladies and put up his gray Cheyenne war mare Plata.

“I´m good. Made my best time yet this last run. Ninety-five miles in six hours two minutes.” He eyed the big man curiously. “What are you doin´ out of uniform?”

“I´m on leave of absence. Me and Chris. He got hired on by Russell, Majors & Waddell to be the new District Super, and he took me along with him.”

“Oh, yeah. Vin told us somethin´ about that. He rode into the settlement a couple days ago and came back to pick up his gear the next day, just before I had my run. Said Captain Larabee wanted him to track horse thieves and such.” The kid smothered a sigh. “I´m gonna miss havin' Vin around. He taught me a lot. I wouldn´t be able to do my job as good as I do, if he hadn´t drifted into Miz Nettie´s.”

“I reckon he´ll come out and visit whenever he can,” Buck assured him, recognizing the boy's frame of mind as being not dissimilar to his own. “He thinks real highly of Miz Nettie. Speakin´ of whom, you makin´ any progress with that feisty little niece of hers?”

“Huh? Casey?” The kid blinked. “What kinda progress am I s´posed to be makin´ with her?”

Buck slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Aw, hell, kid, don´t tell me you don´t know she´s sweet on you.”

JD levelled a basilisk's stare at him. “Buck, you´re full´a crap. Casey don´t know how to be sweet on anybody. ´Sides she´s only fourteen.”

Wilmington grinned. “I had my first girl when I was fourteen.”

“So you say,” the boy retorted. “And anyhow, I´m a Pony rider. We´re supposed to stay single.”

“Not that you couldn´t support a wife and family on what you make,” Buck teased. “And who said you had to marry her?”

The basilisk stare returned, harder than before. “I ain´t takin´ advantage of no girls, Buck. I seen it in New York and I don´t want no part of it.”

The big man lifted both hands, palms out. “All right, keep your britches hitched, I didn't say nothin´ about takin´ advantage of her either.” He decided it might be wise to change the subject. “You still carryin´ that Navy Colt?”

JD´s glare gave way to a puzzled frown. “Why shouldn´t I? It´s what Company issued me.”

Wilmington snorted. “Army issued me a horse when I first got to Fort Laramie. Didn´t mean I had to keep it. Soon as I could get the money together for the trade goods, I swapped for Plata from a Cheyenne brave.”

“She´s a good horse,” JD allowed. “But horses ain´t the same as guns. Why should I want a different one than what I got?”

“Give me yours and I´ll show you,” Buck suggested.

Curious, the kid handed over his lightweight sixgun. Buck laid it down on the head of a convenient barrel, drew his own long Remington .44, and placed the latter alongside it. “Okay, look. When you want to reload your gun, or change to a fresh preloaded cylinder, you gotta disassemble the barrel and the cylinder.” His big hands moved deftly, demonstrating. “To do that, you gotta remove the wedge pin, then the barrel, then slide the cylinder off its rod. Now you see the length of time that takes? And you gotta stuff the barrel into your belt or somethin´, and watch you don´t lose that damn little wedge pin. Now watch how you do it with a Remington. On that, the cylinder comes free independently of the barrel, by movin´ this lever. Out, in, snap into place, and you´re ready to go. No foolin´ around with small loose parts that can get broken or be dropped. Faster, too. S´pose you´re on horseback and somebody gets after you, Indians or road-agents. You gotta do all that at a full run, jugglin´ them three parts plus the frame and butt assembly, all the while guidin´ your pony by your knees and riskin´ that you´ll drop somethin´ important, most likely that fool wedge pin. You do that and you ain´t got a gun no more, just a real fancy seven-and-a-half-damn-dollar rock. That´s why us horse soldiers like the Remington--fast, smooth, no little bitty parts to drop, and it don´t take the kind of full attention the Colt does. Sam Colt had a damn good idea when he came up with the revolvin´ cylinder, but he didn´t think it all out as good as he should have. And another thing. The Colt ain´t got the range or the accuracy of a bow and arrow, and-- you see here?--my Remington´s got a top strap over the cylinder, and a brace underneath, which makes for a stronger frame. Colt don´t do so good as a club; you hit somebody with the barrel and you run a real risk of snappin´ the loadin´ lever´s retainin´ catch, or damagin´ the cylinder.” He reassembled the little Navy, passed it back to the kid and closed up his Remington. “You give a Cavalryman a choice and he´ll take the Remington over the Colt any day in the week, even if he has to spend half a month´s pay to buy one. I hear tell the guerrilla fighters in Kansas like it better too.”

“Yeah, but your hands are a lot bigger than mine,” JD pointed out. “You can get your grip around a bigger gun than I can, and you´ve got the muscles to cope with the recoil. I need the lighter powder load and the smaller butt. And anyhow, I´m paid to do my ride fast; I gotta ride light.”

“Remington´s got a Navy too,” Buck observed. “See this backup gun I got on my left? That´s one of ´em. Go on,” he invited, flipping it out of the holster, “try it out. See? Same as the .44, quick reload, strong frame, everything but the weight. Nice balance, too. With a Colt, if you plan to do any quick or real accurate work, you need to get a gunsmith to put some ballast in it, move the center of gravity back a bit. Them boys in Hartford make a decent piece, but it´s a mite heavy on the business end. The center of gravity on a gun, if it really fits you, is just a hair ahead of your hand´s relaxed strength. When you grip tight, it´s locked in line with your arm bones and you just have to point it like a finger. Most people are just naturally accurate that way--think about it a minute: when you´re arguin´ with somebody and he goes to pointin´ his finger to emphasize what he´s sayin´, if that finger was a gun, you´d be dead. So the idea behind shootin´ a hundred per cent accurately is to try to make the gun an extension of your hand, like your finger was spittin´ the lead. Some men do it by layin´ their forefinger along the side of the barrel and usin´ the second to squeeze the trigger. Once you get in the way of it, and train yourself to aim before you bring your weapon into line, you can shoot the knob off the back door from the batwings of the barroom.”

JD listened intently, but there was a dubious look on his face. “I don´t know, Buck. I mean, I see what you´re sayin´ and all, but I gotta think ahead. While the Pony was out for the Paiute trouble, Congress passed a law that granted forty thousand dollars a year for ten years to any company that could build a telegraph line from the western state line of Missouri to San Francisco. They´ve been surveyin´ a route for it all summer. It´ll likely take ´em two or three years to get the wires raised, but they´ll do it sooner or later, with that kind of money up for grabs. When they do, us Pony riders´ll be out of a job. I gotta build up my stake while I can. I may never get as good a chance as I got now.”

“Good Remington won´t cost you that much, kid,” Buck told him. “Hell, they pay you twenty-five dollars a week. Fanciest sixgun I ever saw, pearl handle and fancy gilt engravin´, went for forty- five.”

“But I´ll need a horse, and a saddle, and supplies, and maybe a pack mule,” JD insisted. “And somethin´ to live on in the diggings, or wherever I end up. I don´t figure to lay out no more money than I have to. I got almost seven hundred dollars in my trunk at Miz Nettie's. God, Buck, do you know how long my mamma would´ve had to work to make that much? Do you, huh? More than five years, and that would´a been if she´d saved every penny. Hell, the highest-paid maid in the city would´a taken almost two to do it. And I done it in six months. I feel as rich as the Endicotts, the family we worked for.”

Buck slid a hand along the kid´s thin shoulders. “I hear what you´re sayin´, kid,” he agreed, a note of sadness in his voice. “But we all got things in this life we gotta rise above. I know you grew up poor. Don´t let it turn you into a bitter old miser, boy. Money´s nice, but it don´t ease your heart when you´re lonely or keep you warm at night. You think on that, okay? Promise?”

JD hesitated, then nodded. “I´ll think. I promise.”

Just then Rebecca Knutson began ringing the dinner bell to call everyone to the noon meal. “Come on,” Wilmington said, forcing a heartiness into his tone, “let´s eat.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish sat on the back steps of the restaurant and watched the darkness rise from the eastward horizon toward the zenith. Idly he fished his watch out of his waistcoat pocket, popped the lid and tilted the timepiece so the light from the kitchen windows would fall onto the face. Seven twenty-three. Remembering the sun tables in the patent-medicine almanac, he meticulously moved the hands four minutes ahead before returning the watch to its place. He had kept to his office all day, half expecting his mother´s imperious knock--or, more likely, her unannounced entry--every minute, had asked Inez to bring his supper on a tray rather than venturing out to the dining room and risking any further entanglement with Maude, and finally, seeing that he wasn´t getting a great deal of work done, had slipped out through the back door of the bar and come here for some fresh air and quiet. He had caught sight of his mother´s jaunty little velvet hat in the midst of a circle of admiring men, at his table, of course--how very like her to claim it as of right!--and felt bitterly resigned to being an exile in his own bar until she finally made up her mind to move on. The one good thing about her being there was that, once settled in, she would probably play till closing time, which would give him the chance to get the rest of his personal possessions out of the room he had turned over to her and up to his temporary quarters in Eight.

He had been right; she had come here with an agenda in mind. He could only hope that he had made his feelings as clear to her as he thought, that she would refrain from doing anything that might, in the end, force him to go along with her. Although an unwilling accomplice was worse than none at all, and Maude was experienced enough to know that. But it wouldn´t necessarily prevent her from trying to get revenge for what she might see as an insult or a slight. She didn´t have to have him with her; she only had to make Jamesburg unbearable for him. It was obvious that she disapproved of what he was doing here. She couldn´t order him to leave, but Maude was seldom so direct as that in any case. Her entire life had been built on subtleties and underhanded maneuverings. He was good, but he didn´t delude himself into thinking he equalled her. And she could be nastily vindictive when she wanted to be.

He replayed in his mind all that he had said to her about the importance of his new-found role, about his determination to remain, to begin his life over. He had meant every word of it. And his bitter childhood memories still rankled. And for all that, he thought, there is still somethin´ missin´. I can sense it--not as a presence, but in the way a man is said to be able to feel the tingle of nerve ends reachin´ for an arm or leg that has been amputated.

The door opened behind him and he heard the swish of Inez's skirt and the scuff of her sandals against the floor of the little back porch as she came out to catch a breath of cool air. “You are still here, Señor Ezra?”

“Has it been so long?” he asked.

“More than an hour.” She settled down on the step beside him, tucking her skirts around her bare ankles. “You seem troubled, Señor. I have not seen you so in all the months I have known you. Is it su madre?”

“Is it so very obvious?” he retorted with a kind of wry sadness.

She shrugged. “Perhaps not to others. But between you and me there is a bond--a friendship, I hope. I work more closely with you than anyone except perhaps George, and I was the first person in the settlement you met by name. That means something, I think, and I am--fond of you, Señor. I owe you a great deal--for stopping Lucas James from having his way with me, for entrusting me with the management of the hotel and the restaurant. I would like to do whatever I can to repay that--even if it is only listening.”

Ezra hesitated. Long habit and stringent training made him reluctant to confide in others, to allow his own vulnerabilities to become visible. Yet he had told Maude that he wanted to strive for the trust of the people around him, and although he was uninstructed in that process, it seemed probable that trust was just as reciprocal a quality as its opposite; only by giving his own could he hope to gain that of the people around him. In fact, he mused, he already had Inez´s, and surely one who was as indispensable to his business as she deserved his confidence in return.

“She believes I am wastin´ myself and my talents in this community,” he said slowly. “She desires me to sell my interests here and go with her to Denver, to serve as her escort while she searches for a sixth husband.”

“Sexto? En verdad?” Inez echoed. “Madre de Diós, Señor Ezra, what a life of tragedy she must have had, to have lost five!”

He snorted in bitter amusement. “She ‘lost´ only two of them, my dear, if by that you mean to the Angel of Death. The other three she simply--discarded, when they ceased to be of advantage to her. I know to you that must seem scandalous, considerin´ the faith in which you were reared, and in my own defense I can only offer the fact that my father was the first of the series and died when I was six, so that I am, I can assure you with some reasonable hope of accuracy, legitimate, bastard though I have been called on occasion.” He sighed wearily. “I fear I must confess that I have been deceivin´ you, and that I am by no stretch of the imagination the just and honorable paladin you think me. Indeed, my defense of you on the day we met was the first occasion in longer than I care to recall when I have heeded the urgings of the better angels of my nature--if in point of fact they still exist.”

“You are a gambler, I know,” Inez agreed, “and I am sure you know many ways of cheating at games. But that does not make you a bad person, Señor.”

“Does it not?” he inquired, raising an eyebrow. “What of the Commandment regardin´ theft? Is it not theft to cheat? And even allowin´ for the fact that I strive not to do so unless I am first transgressed against, gamblin´ is only one of my professions. Do you know the word ‘con´?”

She frowned and shook her head. “No, Señor.”

He searched his vocabulary a moment. “Estafa. Swindle. Or, accordin´ to Roget, fraud, hoax, cheat, steal, gyp, embezzlement, trick, confidence game, racket. The pigeon drop, the Spanish Prisoner, and many others with which I will not bore you, but all of which are as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror. And in all of which I have been assistin´ my mother since I was very young.”

“She is una tramposa?” Inez sounded astonished. “But she seems such a fine lady! How is it possible?”

“The entire thrust of the con, my dear, is the ability to convince others that you are what you wish them to believe you,” Ezra pointed out. “Oh, my mother possesses all the airs and graces, make no mistake. She was extremely well schooled in them. But that came secondarily to the game, and it was in the game that she trained me, side by side with the use and manipulation of the cards, the knowledge of the odds, and the skill of the bluff. It is, of course, quite true that a professional gambler must always be somethin´ of a confidence man, with the ability to perform mental sleight of hand, convincin´ others that lies are truth and the truth a lie; his profession depends upon expert deception, and he does not last long without developin´ the ability to a peak. But few members of the fraternity exercise it except at the poker table. I, on the other hand, can claim no such a distinction.” He massaged his temples gently with his forefingers. “By what little I know of my father, I fear he would be ashamed to acknowledge me. He had his failures and his losin´ streaks as he did his successes and extensive wins, but he was a gentleman, and he had the patience to ride out the bad times without resortin´ to outright fraud.” He sighed and leaned back wearily against the post that upheld the porch roof. “When I was a mere unsophisticated child, I had no true comprehension of what Mother´s profession meant. I saw it as the game she portrayed it to be. I longed to become proficient in it so that she would see me as somethin´ other than a burden to be foisted off on our relations while she went about her business. And, in due course, I succeeded. From the time I was twelve we travelled together, outwittin´ and deceivin´ the populace of this country and several in Europe. And even though I knew myself to be a mere tool and apprentice, I took joy in it, because it meant I could be with her. It was only as I matured that I came to understand I would never be anythin´ else. There is no sincerity in my mother, no honor or integrity, and no tenderness or affection--not for her victims, or her husbands, or myself. To her, other people exist only to be used for whatever good she may get of them, and then abandoned. I sometimes wonder that she never cast me aside at the conclusion of one of our many dupes and gulls; particularly when I was a child, she must have considered it often enough, knowin´ that my tender years would preserve me from the worst fury of our pawns.” His eyes slid shut. “I admit my own culpability. I took the same delight as Mother did in provin´ the superiority of my intellect over theirs. And, Lord knows, I have my share of avarice. Yet I now realize that through it all, I was seekin´ somethin´ whose character I did not know. Here in Jamesburg I have found it, or at least some semblance of it. My own place, a sense of home, of security, the possibility of becomin´ not only wealthy but respected.” He shivered. “I do not wish to lose it. And I fear that Mother may be sufficiently resentful at my refusal to serve her ends that she will contrive to see that I do so, merely out of spite. After all the money I have helped her amass, it would be ingratitude for her to behave in so vindictive a manner, but I am persuaded, on the basis of my years of experience, that the softer qualities are quite foreign to her.”

Inez had listened attentively throughout his quiet monologue; now she put her hand on his shoulder and asked evenly, “Are you sure, Señor Ezra?”

He didn´t open his eyes. “Why should I be otherwise? I know her, perhaps, better than she has permitted anyone else to know her. I have seen her, Inez, in situations I doubt you could imagine, and always cool, always disciplined and composed, meetin´ all reverses--and all successes--with aplomb and presence of mind. What makes you think she is not precisely what I have described?”

“What you said of your father, Señor. That he was the first of her husbands and lived until you were six.”

He lifted his lids by a fraction, eyeing her with veiled curiosity. “I don´t understand the connection, my dear.”

Inez wrapped her arms around her upper body as if chilled, her eyes growing distant as they gazed out across the building´s wide rear yard. “It is very different for women than for men in this world, Señor. We have far less options than you do. When I left La Mesilla-- ” She stopped, was silent a moment, and then went on. “Señora Standish remained with your father until he died, no es verdad? And you with them?”

“So far as I can recall, yes,” Ezra admitted.

“Then it was only after she had lost him that your life, and hers, became--what they became. She was alone, Señor. A woman, with a small son to support and raise. For what had she been schooled? Could she do as I do, and cook, or manage a business? Had she money to live on until you were of an age to work? She had so little--her hands, her cleverness...her body. Would you rather she had sold that, to keep you fed?”

Ezra´s eyes flew open. “Inez!”

“You know that many women do so, Señor, even here in Jamesburg, because they have no other place to turn. Tell me, then. Would you have wished to be like their children? To be scorned by the mothers of those you sought for playmates? To live in poverty, to have not had the good education Señora Standish somehow contrived for you to get, to see your mother perhaps beaten or murdered or taking her own life in despair? I do not think so. And she loved you enough not to desire such a life for you. So she used the only tool, the only resource, that was left to her. Sí, perhaps she made mistakes. I do not say it was right that she persuaded you to follow in her footsteps. But she did love you, Señor. If you had been so unwanted a burden as you think, there was nothing preventing her from simply abandoning you--to your relatives, to the streets themselves. She did not. She loved your father, Señor Ezra: while he lived, she was faithful to him. It was his death that forced her to make a way for herself and for you, in the only way she saw. And she loved you. She loves you still, I think. She does not understand you, perhaps, because she had so little to do with your raising, but that is the price she paid, to keep you even a little in her life.”

Ezra was silent a moment, contemplating what she had said. “You are relentless, my dear. And a most capable and eloquent advocate. Why?”

She shrugged. “Because I have stood in a similar place, Señor. The difference is that I had no child to think about.” She slanted a flashing glance in his direction. “Do you believe me?”

He considered. “I would be overjoyed to think that I dared do so. But there remains one important question to be answered. It has been said that love is that condition in which the happiness of the person loved is more important than one´s own. If I have found happiness--even some frail semblance of it--here in this unexpected place, why should Mother, if she loves me, desire me to give it up? Why should she be so insistent that I leave behind all I have created, all I have the prospect of buildin´ in future, merely so that I may serve her as an adjunct in her quest for a wealthy spouse?”

Now it was Inez´s turn to ponder. “I have said she does not understand you. Perhaps it is merely that she does not truly believe you to be happy here.” With a wide-eyed, questioning look: “And are you so? You said ‘a semblance.´ Perhaps you are in more doubt than you wish her to believe?”

“Not...doubt, precisely,” he responded slowly. “More a sense that...that there is somethin´ missin´. That in order to know a complete species of happiness, there is somethin´ I need to add to what I possess.” A ghost of his usual angelic smile: “Perhaps, in your astonishin´ wisdom, you know what it may be?”

“Sí, Señor, I think I do. It is not enough for a man merely to be warm, and well fed, and sheltered from the rain. You know that, or it would not hurt you as it does to think you are not loved. A man is not only a body, but a heart, and that heart must be nourished too. He needs trust and friendship and love. He needs other people in his life, people to support and help him, people he can give to and get from. That is what you must seek, Señor, to complete what you have made for yourself here.”

“Friendship,” Ezra murmured thoughtfully. “Mother has always taught me that it is to be avoided--if, indeed, it exists. That carin´ too much about other people will only cripple a person in our profession. That one ends up paralyzed by the prospect of any harm comin´ to them. That one ends up placin´ oneself in peril for their sakes. That there is no gain in it. That if you let others know you, they will secure the ability to hurt you, because they will understand where your vulnerabilities lie--and, what is more, they will see through you, and be enabled to call you on a bluff or a scam. And that, in any case, it is a chimera. That everyone is out for number one, and will trample upon you without the slightest hesitation if they believe it is to their advantage.”

“There is much gain in it,” Inez retorted. “Not the gain of money, no, but of peace of mind and soul, of the knowledge that one is not alone and does not have to do it all for oneself. That if one is late returning from some errand or journey, there is someone who will notice, and wonder, and try to find out if one has met with some accident. That if one is sick, there is someone who will watch at the bedside. That if one is sad, or troubled, there is someone to turn to, to seek advice or comfort of.” Her hand moved lightly, gently, along his shoulders, reassuring him. “Señora Standish will die a sad and lonely old woman if she truly believes what you say she has taught you. She will be fortunate if she does not lose even you. But I think she does not truly believe these things. I think she has been hurt terribly and fears to suffer the same way again, so she wears a mask. She tries to keep everyone at a distance to protect her vulnerable heart. But I say again, she loved her father and she loved you. It is a mask, such as my people wear on Dia de los Muertes--no more than that.”

“Friendship,” he repeated. “Love. Trust. And do you suppose that there is anyone who will bestow these on a self-admitted con man?”

“You are more than that, Señor Ezra. What you did for me the day we met proves it. What you have done to better the treatment of your guests proves it. No one is ever truly lost, Señor, until the very last; that is why the Church gives last rites.”

He snorted in bitter amusement and was immediately contrite. “Forgive me, my dear, I did not wish to seem scornful of your faith--or your suggestion. It is merely that I have seen so much of the underbelly of human character, I often find it difficult to believe in virtue, or in the possibility of redemption.”

“You are a good man, Señor Ezra,” Inez insisted fiercely. “I know it, and one day others will know it also. You must only be patient, and continue as you have begun. What you did to help save Señor Nathan--that was a great step forward, more important even than what you had done to improve the business before. I think, maybe, you did it because you already knew what you needed, and you wished to prove yourself worthy of it.”

“Perhaps,” he said, but there was little enthusiasm in his tone.

She stood, bending quickly to kiss his cheek. “No. Not perhaps. A ciencia cierta. You are a clever man. Think, and you will see I am right.” And she turned in a rustle of skirts and disappeared inside again.

“Perhaps,” Ezra repeated in a soft murmur, and then he stood and moved slowly back toward the rear door of the bar.

Twenty-five feet away, behind the projecting vestibule where the pump to Willoughby´s bathhouse was sheltered, Chris Larabee listened to the soft crunch of the gambler´s retreating footsteps and felt at once embarrassed and oddly reassured. He hadn´t intended to overhear; he had been taking a stroll around the building to settle his supper, and had stopped in the shelter of the vestibule to light a cheroot, when he heard their voices carrying in the still air of dusk. He knew he should have either announced himself or quietly retreated, but his curiosity had been aroused when Ezra mentioned his mother´s five previous husbands, and when the gambler began to speak of his other profession, he had felt a certain obligation to remain. Standish was, as he had already decided, a valuable informant, but he wanted to have a clearer picture of just how far he could trust the Southerner. Now his suspicions were to some extent confirmed. But, at the same time, he had seen under Standish´s mask, and what he saw was hurtful. He hadn´t anticipated that the gambler might have had so traumatic a past, might be so emotionally insecure; he always seemed so self- possessed, so sure of himself.

He thought of what Vin had said in the barn months ago: “Don´t you be so damn all-fired arrogant as to think you's the only body in this world ever had pain.” He wondered if the hunter guessed how right he´d been. That was what I was thinkin´. But at least I had a home, folks I knew loved me, Ma and Pa, Buck, Sarah. The way it sounds, Standish never even had that much.

And yet he still knows enough to know he could have it, to know he wants it. Maybe Inez is right and he´s a better man than he thinks he is. Hell, he came down to the river that day when there was no good reason for him to do it--he sure didn´t stand much chance of gain. I should´a thought of that.

He turned back the way he had come, walking slowly, head down, deep in thought as he wrestled with the possibilities of what he had heard. As he rounded the front corner of the barbershop and stepped up onto the gallery, into the light of the lanterns hung under the roof, a voice called his name, a young voice: “Mr. Larabee?”

He stopped, uncertain, his hand dropping toward the Remington at his side while his eyes searched for the speaker. A figure was coming down the gallery from the door of the lobby-bar, and after a moment he recognized the face as that of the young man of last night, the one who had checked in with the older gentleman while Ezra was greeting his mother. “I´m Larabee,” he said.

The boy stopped a foot or two away from him and asked, “You sent for me, sir?”

Chris blinked. “I don´t recall doing it,” he replied.

“But you´re Mr. Larabee? The District Superintendent?”

Chris nodded and saw the look of puzzlement appear on the boy´s face. “I was in our room when a man knocked at the door and said you wanted to see me. He said you were outside here, and to look for a blond man wearing black.”

“When was this?” Chris asked.

“Just now. Couple of minutes, maybe.”

“Which room is yours?”


Without a word Chris pushed past him and headed for the lobby doors, premonition chilling him. He wrenched the storm door open and swept a look around the smoky room, seeing Maude Standish holding forth like a queen at Ezra´s favorite table with a growing pile of chips and coins in front of her, and beyond her, just coming out of the door that led back to his private quarters, Ezra with a neat black morocco satchel in one hand and an assortment of suit-jackets over his arm. “Standish! Come on!” he barked, and took the stairs two at a time. Over the creaking of the treads he heard the quick rhythm of the gambler´s footsteps growing louder and more distinct as he neared the bottom of the flight, then the sound of the lighter man climbing after him. By the time he got to the head of the stairs he had drawn his Remington. He paused, orienting himself. His own room, Sixteen, was the next-to-last on his left facing the rear yard of the hotel; Two would be at the opposite end of the corridor, the last before you hit the wall. He turned that way. The passage was dim, lit only by a single lamp suspended from the ceiling halfway down either branch; the door of Two was effectively in a shadowed corner.

With his peripheral vision he saw Ezra and the boy reaching the head of the stairs as he halted before the closed door of Two; the gambler had his Navy Colt drawn. He didn´t even bother to knock, but put his left palm to the door and gently pushed it open.

On the floor lay the older man with whom the boy had been travelling. He was sprawled on his back, his suit-coat off, and his whole shirt front was soggy with shiny blood. Chris saw at once that he had been expertly knifed, probably as he opened the door. His shirttail was out and the waistband of his plain cocoa-brown trousers had been cut. Larabee understood at once that in his haste to get at the man´s money belt before the boy returned, the murderer had slashed it.

He looked around. Nothing else in the room appeared to have been disturbed. There was a dark checked suit-coat draped over the back of the single chair, a toilet kit on the washstand, the pair´s four bags and the boy´s neatly tied bedroll tucked away in the corner. The pegboard on the back of the door held a gray derby hat, an overcoat with astrakhan collar, and a handsome wolfskin coat. The window, opposite the door, was open--wider open than it should be, considering the chill of approaching fall in the air. Chris moved around the body toward it, hearing Standish´s quick light footsteps in the corridor. When he leaned out, he saw the roof of the restaurant´s kitchen ell about four feet below him.

He drew back in and turned to see Ezra and the boy just inside the room. For a moment he thought the kid was going to faint; his face drained of color and he closed his eyes. Chris moved swiftly toward him, put an arm around his shoulder, turned him and urged him out into the passage, then gently propped him against the wall. “Is--is he dead?” the kid asked, not opening his eyes.

“I´m afraid so,” Chris told him, and wondered at the sadness he felt.

Standish emerged from the room then, sliding his Navy into its holster, and when Chris looked up he saw the smouldering fury in the Southerner´s green eyes. “I offer my sympathies, for whatever they are worth, young man. It appears you were decoyed out of this room so that your kinsman could be murdered and despoiled.”

“He was told I´d asked to see him,” Chris explained flatly. “Was it his father?”

“His uncle, accordin´ to my sainted mother, who shared the coach with them from St. Joseph. She suspected he was carryin´ a considerable sum of money.”

“Apparently she wasn´t the only one,” Larabee growled. “He had a money belt, kid?”

The boy only nodded.

Ezra seemed to consider his next move, then sighed and said quietly, “Come with me.” He shepherded the boy down the stairs, ignoring the questioning stares of Jacob and George and his patrons, and through the archway into the restaurant. Chris followed, halting at the threshold to watch as the gambler urged the stumbling kid through the kitchen door. After several minutes he reappeared, his face pale and expressionless. He walked back to join Chris and said, “Inez will see to him. I thought it best he not tarry on the upper floor until I can send someone to remove his uncle´s remains.” He shook his head. “We have no mortician here, and no clergy--although I do recall hearin´ some rumor that Mr. Sanchez at Wells Ranch once served in that capacity. If I send my Indian boy to fetch him, he should arrive by ten A. M.--provided he is willin´ to lend his services. I trust he will be amenable. The least I owe to the lad is to provide some semblance of a proper funeral for a man murdered on my property.” He looked up at Larabee, his eyes cold. “There have been men slain in the bar, and elsewhere about the buildin´, often enough before tonight, but never any so coldly and brazenly slaughtered in his own hotel room, not since I have owned it. I will not stand for this, Mr. Larabee.”

“What is there to do about it?” Chris demanded, his voice hollow with helpless rage. “In a town full of strangers, with no law to receive the report of the murder, who´ll hunt the killer down? Who, except you, is likely to concern himself with the death of a total stranger? Nobody will miss him except a bewildered, helpless boy--probably a penniless boy now.”

Ezra pinned him with a look. “You should concern yourself, Mr. Larabee. This murder was planned on your stage line.”

“How do you figure so?”

“Someone led the lad to believe that you had asked to see him. Asked for him specifically, by name. Who would know his name unless they had seen the passenger manifest--or been on board the coach with him? No man plottin´ murder is so imbecilic as to leave a trail by askin´ to see a hotel register.”

Chris´s eyes narrowed, but he felt a trace of respect for the Southerner´s quickness of mind, to have reasoned this out even under the stress and mortification of finding murder done on his premises. “And why was murder necessary?” Standish pressed on. “A stranger could have merely held Mr. Jerrenson up at gunpoint, demanded that he hand over his money, and departed. He did not. This suggests that Jerrenson knew his killer, had seen him before. So it was imperative that he die.”

“A passenger?” Larabee guessed.

“Passenger or not, it was certainly a conspiracy of two, at minimum. One, unknown to the lad or his uncle, to lure him from the room; if that one had been a passenger, the boy would have recognized him, which he apparently did not. After he had been decoyed away, someone known to Jerrenson murdered him for his money and fled by way of the window and the kitchen roof. Someone, I dare say, wearin´ moccasins, as Inez reports she heard no sound of footsteps overhead.”

Chris grunted. Moccasins left only a faint track at the outset, and within twelve hours the grass would have straightened up, showing no hint of where the wearer had gone. Maybe if Vin were here instead of at Wells, there´d have been some chance of finding at least the beginning of the trail, but he wasn´t here and couldn´t arrive any sooner than Josiah could--or, if he did, would only have to wait until the light got strong enough for him to hope for any success at tracking. And once off the grass, the killer would be crossing ground beaten down by the heavy traffic around the building; even Tanner probably wouldn´t be able to follow him much more than a hundred yards or so.

“It was planned,” Ezra concluded, “very meticulously planned.” He looked again at the taller man. “You understand, Mr. Larabee, that this is someone´s manner of declarin´ war against you. Your name was used to decoy the boy away, to leave his uncle alone and unsupported. The murderer could as readily have used mine, but chose not to do so.”

“Royale?” Larabee guessed.

“I would wager on it.”

Chris remembered the Southerner saying once that he abhorred gambling and as a matter of habit left nothing to chance. It had probably been said only half seriously--nobody could control everything--but still, if he said he would wager on something, that meant he considered it at least very close to a sure thing. “He´s too smart to have let anyone get sight of him,” Chris mused. “He´ll have picked up some cheap help to take the risks. Hell, he´s probably already long gone with his share of the money.” He fixed an eye on the gambler. “But you said, ‘declaring war.´ That means he´s got more planned.”

“You know yourself, from Mr. Steele, how the division has been plagued with horse thieves and holdups,” Ezra reminded him. “What if that was, not mismanagement or laziness on Royale´s part, but deliberate schemin´? What if he were the mastermind behind it all, the spider seated at the center of the web? What if he were the informant and director of the miscreants who soiled their hands with the actual crimes, and took in return for his trouble an executive´s share of the proceeds? I believe it is customary, when dividin´ the spoils, for the chief to lay out one share more than there are men, and take two for himself. We do not yet know--we may never know--the exact amount of losses the division has suffered, but surely it has been impressive, else why would the Company have sent Mr. Steele hither? I have warned you of Royale´s style, Mr. Larabee. He is not a plunger, not impulsive. He is patient. He waits for the luck to turn his way, then crowds it. A position of trust and responsibility, such as he formerly held here, would be such a turn, and he is intelligent enough to have seen it.”

Larabee listened thoughtfully. It made sense--a lot of sense. “So it´s not just his job and his pay that he´s mad at losing. It´s the inside track he had to Company affairs, the chance to pass information along and profit by it. But if he could figure all this out, he´ll guess that I could too-- with your help or without it. And he´ll know that once I do, I´ll be on the lookout for him. He´ll lie low.”

Ezra nodded gravely. “I concur.”

Chris frowned. What the gambler had said was logical, yet something still didn´t quite fit. He worried at it a minute, like a dog with a bone, then decided to set it aside for a while and let his subconscious mind work on it. “Steele´s in town yet, isn´t he?”

“Indeed. I observed him goin´ in to supper as I left my office.”

“Can you leave word for him to come down to the office after breakfast tomorrow, in case I miss him?” Larabee requested. “I want to talk to him about the possibility of getting the Company to put a reward out on Royale.”


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