II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

“´S blood here,” said Vin, hunkering in the middle of the trail in the classic tracker´s squat. “Looks like somethin´ hit the dirt purty hard. Likely that road-agent the kid said he shot out the saddle.”

Chris and Buck watched from their saddles. “Not likely this trail will show much else in the way of sign, it´s too heavily travelled,” Larabee guessed.

“Reckon so,” Vin agreed, turning to swing up onto Peso's back without touching the stirrup. “Oughtta be able to see where they come up outen the ravine, though, ´n´ backtrack ´em from there.”

It was Saturday midmorning. After seeing the westbound stage safely from Lodgepole station to Jamesburg and on halfway to Wells Ranch, the three men had cut back through the settlement, paused to get some breakfast at the restaurant and pick up supplies at Potters´, and now were working their way westward toward the raided station. “Would´a worked, if the kid was right,” Buck mused. “Stage would´a come through here somewhere between three and five in the morning, men on the box chilled and tired, passengers asleep in their seats. Lucky if they´d even seen the bastards before they was on ´em. No way tired horses in the dark could´a got away without pilin´ up.”

“Could be coincidence,” Chris observed. “We didn´t see any sign of trouble.”

Wilmington snorted. “You don´t no more think that than I do, pard, so don´t try and feed me no line of bullshit. Once them boys seen JD´d got away from ´em, they likely pulled off and kept watch. Seen us all ride out to Lodgepole with the replacement horses, loaded for bear, and figured best to be content with what they had.”

Larabee nodded grudgingly. “With the Express horses, the coach teams, and the station stock, the saddle horses and buckboard pair, they could get probably three thousand dollars or more in Denver. Of course they´d have to rework the brands on the Company animals and wait a few days for them to heal.” Pony Express horses were distinctively branded XP, and stage teams likewise bore a Company mark; anyone who hoped to sell them off and not get caught at it would have to “run” the designs into something innocuous- -or else blot them altogether and rebrand, which would be even more time-consuming.

Vin, watching the margin of the trail, pulled up. “Got ´em. Here´s where they come off the prairie.”

The trail led them to a ravine, just as JD had described, and here the sign showed plainly that as many as six men had loitered for some time. From there Vin was able to backtrack to a deep coulee, well sheltered by brush, where the stolen horses had apparently been penned after being swept up off the prairie. “Likely they done been watchin´ Lodgepole a spell,” he guessed, “gettin´ a feel for how the stocktenders does things. Reckon them boys is lucky they´d left the stock to itself like they done, else these fellers´d likely come down on ´em Injun-style, killed whoever was doin´ the loose-herdin´ and run the bunch off all to once´t.”

“Looks like this lets out Sioux or Cheyenne,” Larabee mused.

Vin nodded. “All these horse tracks is shod, and the men was mostly wearin´ boots. Maybe a halfbreed or two in the bunch, but that´d be all.”

“They circled back after they lost JD?” Chris pursued.

“Yeah, they´s two lots of tracks--the one we followed, and another swingin´ in from the north. Can see the same tells in both. One horse got a twisted frog on the off fore. ´Nother´s missin´ a nail out the near hind shoe, and one of the riders got a broken sole to his boot.”

“Like I figured,” Buck said, “they came back here to pick up the stole horses. They sure ain´t here now.”

“Think you can follow ´em, cowboy?” Chris asked.

Vin just gave him a silent look and led out.

The trail wound generally southward for about twenty-five miles, leading them, late in the afternoon, to the South Platte River an uncertain distance above Jamesburg. “They done took to the water here,” Vin decided. “Don´t reckon we can follow ´em too much further; be losin´ the light soon. Best we camp, and go on in the mornin´.”

Chris frowned at the water. “This thing´s full of quicksand. If they figured to go any distance in it without losing any of the bunch, they must be local, familiar with where the worst patches are.”

“Reckon so,” Vin agreed. “Good trail hider, though. Horse makes deep prints in wet sand. Clearer stream, they´d stay plain on the bottom an hour or more. He disturbs the stones on the bottom too, only they ain´t many in a river like this, and not much moss for him to bruise.”

“Must´ve gone on upstream,” Buck guessed. “Wouldn´t dare to go down, it´d just take ´em straight to Jamesburg where the horses´d be spotted.”

“Well, they´ll have to leave the water sooner or later,” Chris observed. “Which side do you reckon they´ll do it on, pard?”

Vin thought. “Most fellers expectin´ to be chased, iffen they´s just lookin´ to get away safe and not get someplace particular, leave a stream on the same side they go in by. Odds are these´ll do that.”

A long scout up the north bank the next day, however, showed no sign that the thieves had, and around noon Chris decided to ford and move back along the other. Here, of course, the coach-and-wagon trail to Denver offered plenty of concealment for the drove´s tracks, but eventually they did manage to discover where it had come out of the water. Riding along the far south edge of the trail, out of the way of the vehicles forging steadily along it, they presently made out the sign of the horses being driven off across the prairie; Vin said there were bug tracks in their prints, which showed that they had been moved by night, probably so no wagoners would notice them. The trail wound between a couple of recent campsites and took off approximately south, as had been its trend before. Tanner guessed that eventually it would curve around west, toward Denver; there were enough small creeks running northward into the South Platte for the herd to be able to camp on one every night and still avoid the gaze of witnesses along the main wagon route.

They crossed Frenchman and Red Willow Creeks and started off across a thirty-five-plus-mile stretch of open plain intervening before Sand Creek. Just about halfway they hit another coulee, shallower than the one they had begun from, but deepening as it ran eastward. Vin checked, frowning, and swung down, quartering to and fro like a hound that has lost the scent. Chris was no expert, but even he could see that the trail of the stolen horses remained plain, if somewhat weathered now. “What do you see, cowboy?” he asked.

“Been wagons along here,” Tanner muttered in a perplexed tone. “Not freight, I don´t reckon; wheel rims is too narra. Some with horse teams, some mule, and ´most all movin´ east down the coulee. Different times, too, and looks like in small bunches, six, eight, maybe ten at a time. ´Pears to´ve been riders alongside of ´em, but nobody afoot, the way you´re like to have with most emigrant outfits.”

Chris frowned. He knew that some private wagon trains, as opposed to the tightly organized commercial ones, were willing to risk the Indians if they thought a low number would get them to their destination faster or if--as happened frequently--they had fissioned off from a bigger group due to quarrels with their neighbors or the edicts of the wagonmaster, the rugged individualism of pioneers giving even the best diplomat a rough time. Eight or ten wagons was about the minimum. But while the women would ordinarily ride, you could usually count on some of the men being afoot, and the restless children jumping on and off at intervals, running alongside for a while, often pressed into service to gather chips and other fuel as they came upon it. “Any sign of loose stock?” he asked.

“None I can see,” the hunter admitted. He looked up at the two older men, his blue eyes puzzled. “Even if this was a reg´lar trail, it don´t make sense only one size of outfit´d be usin´ it. You all know this country better´n me; any notion where they´d be goin´?”

Unease prickled up Larabee´s spine. He tried to tell himself it was no business of theirs; their job was to follow the Lodgepole horse thieves and try to catch them before they could rebrand the stolen stock, get it to Denver and sell it. But his instincts, his experience, and his two years´ familiarity with the area told him something was going on here that he didn´t understand, and that could mean trouble. “If they were busted Peakers,” he said slowly, “they´d use one of the regular trails; that way they´d at least know where to find water and good campsites. We´re close to eighty miles north of the middle route to Denver, and that cuts due west over sixty or seventy miles of dry flats; it´s the shortest way to the diggings, but there´s not much water and you go through some of the most hostile Indian country on the plains. It doesn´t make sense that anyone would choose to break a whole new trail midway between it and the main Platte road, and it makes less sense that the ones who did would all be travelling in small parties, especially with the Indian risk.” He pondered for a minute or two, aware of the other men´s eyes on him. “Let´s check it out. Vin, take point.”

The hunter drew his Volcanic carbine from the scabbard under his stirrup leather and kneed Peso forward without a word. Larabee fielded an uncertain look from Buck but didn´t try to explain his misgivings to his oldest friend; if he was right, the reason for them would soon become plain to the taller man.

They rode eastward down the coulee for two or three miles, and then Vin disappeared around a bend and the others heard Peso check and the young Texan swear explosively in the Comanche tongue. As they caught up and fell in to either side of him, they joined him in staring in astonishment at what he had found. The entire width of the coulee was choked with the charred and weathered remains of burned wagons. The jam appeared to extend several hundred feet on down it, and at the far end the debri was piled up as if some of the vehicles had been tipped in from the level prairie above before being fired.

Vin turned Peso and sent him scrambling up the wall of the coulee so he could follow it on the level. Chris could see his lean shape bending from the saddle as he peered downward into the tangle. At the far end he paused, studying the upper layer and the ground around him, for several minutes before he came back, dropping down to rejoin them. He dismounted and walked up to the head of the jam, looking it over carefully, reaching out to touch the nearest pieces of blackened wood, rubbing his fingers against them, then lifting his fingers to sniff at the ash adhering to them and touch it to his tongue.

“My God,” said Buck quietly. “There must be a hundred or more of ´em.”

“Reckon that leastways, Bucklin,” Tanner agreed. He swung back up into the saddle. “Can´t tell much on account of the way they´s all piled up, but I´m guessin´ th´oldest ones been here twelve, fifteen months, and the newest maybe a couple days. Looks like they´s mostly stripped for parts afore they´s fired--wheels, tongues, single- and doubletrees, trace chains, hoops and covers, water barrels, jacks, ´most anythin´ that´d come loose.”

“Any sign of...remains?” Chris inquired.

The hunter shook his head. “Like I said, ain´t easy to tell by sight. But if I´s guessin´ right about the time, if they was any bodies burned with the recentest, I oughtta still be able to get a little bit of the smell. Burned flesh ain´t somethin´ you forget once you caught it, and the damp night air brings out scent, plus it´s rained here the last twelve hours or so.” He pointed toward the rim with his chin, Indian-fashion. “Found some tracks goin´ away up yonder, looked like a big freight wagon by the tire width, not more´n a day or two old. Horses pullin´ it, not bulls like most freighters use. ´Peared to be pretty fair loaded, most likely with the salvage off the last dump.”

“That lets out Indians,” said Buck.

“Sure does, and they was riders on shod horses with it, drivin´ loose stock--teams off the burned wagons, I reckon,” Vin agreed. “Seemed as they´s headed due north--small outfit like that could make Red Willer by nightfall easy and camp on water. Whatever they´s doin´, it´s somethin´ they done afore.”

“Getting rid of the evidence,” Chris guessed. “You said when we first picked up these tracks that you didn´t think they were freight wagons, which leaves emigrant. Probably small splinter outfits, the kind Buck and I have seen every year we´ve served on the plains.”

“But if they´re burnin´ the wagons,” Buck mused slowly, “that´s gotta mean two things. First, they already off-loaded everything they thought they could use or sell--supplies, personal goods, valuables. And second--what about the people?”

Larabee looked at him. “You know the answer to that, Buck.”

“All dead?” Wilmington guessed. “But what the hell did they do with the bodies?”

“Probably the same thing emigrants do sometimes, when they think the Indians might guess they´re doing poorly, or dig up the graves. Dig one mass hole, in the trail itself if possible, dump everyone in it, then burn gunpowder over it and drive the wagons and the loose herd across, so that every head of stock in the outfit stomps over it. By the time that was done, odds would be nobody´d notice anything. Take the wagons and stock on to wherever their hideout is, sift through the stuff and decide what to keep and what to sell, shift it to freight wagons for appearances´ sake, and bring the empties here to dispose of them.”

“Damn,” Buck whispered, his shock plain on his face.

Chris swung Blackhawk around. “Come on. We´re going back.”

“Back?” Vin repeated. “Thought you´s wantin´ to run down them horse thieves.”

“I´ve got a feeling we´re dealing with something a lot bigger than horse thieves,” Larabee told him. “I need some time to sit down and think about this, maybe talk to Standish again. What becomes of emigrants may not be Company business, but as Company agents we´re about as close to civil law along the trail as there is. We need to figure this out before we find ourselves riding into the middle of something we´re not equipped to handle. Vin, how far do you think we are from Jamesburg right now?”

“´Bout sixty mile on a straight line,” the hunter guessed. “Can make it by some time tomorra even if we don´t push.”

“Let´s go, then,” Chris ordered.

Tanner looked questioningly at Wilmington, who responded with a shrug half resigned, half uncertain. The two fell in half a horse-length behind their leader, one on either side, as he sent his black scrambling up the north wall of the coulee and lined out toward distant Red Willow Creek.

+ + + + + + +

Late on Tuesday morning JD was sitting in a canvas Army camp chair in the angle where Nathan´s dispensary linked onto the main house, blocking off the north and east winds and providing a sunny spot for basking. He had run a low fever for twelve hours or so, but Nathan´s cold compresses and herbal potions had managed to reduce it, and now, while his side wasn´t yet sufficiently healed as to permit him to go back to regular duty, he could get around on his own, with a hickory stick from Potters´ store to provide support. He had been surprised to discover that he suffered very little stiffness or pain; Nathan said it was because of the cone-plant paste that had been applied to the wound, a remedy the Indians swore by for precisely that reason. He was off what he considered an invalid´s diet and eating ravenously as his depleted body sought to make up the energy and blood it had lost. Mary Travis had come over with the first edition of the Jamesburg Clarion News, featuring the story of Chris Larabee´s instatement as District Superintendent, the murder of Arthur Jerrenson, the raid on Lodgepole and his own mishap, as well as a dish of tender young frying chicken done in a skillet with minced green pepper and breadcrumbs, which she said was a favorite with the Quakers in whose country she had grown up, and a crock of Pennsylvania corn salad; Mrs. Potter had sent her children, Amelia and Reuben, with a loaf of baking-powder bread, a pot of tart buffalo-berry jelly, a jar of pickled peaches dotted with cloves, and a clean red shirt out of store stock; Inez had contributed a bread pudding with currants and a dash of spice and fat blue raisins in the custard, well sprinkled with cinnamon and topped off with a pink sauce; and even Casey had ridden in from the ranch on her red “medicine hat” pinto, Partner, bringing a dressed thirty-pound channel catfish she had caught in the South Platte, some of her aunt´s homemade elderberry wine, a couple of new story papers and the latest Beadle´s dime novel. Rain had skinned the catfish, cut it up, rolled it in cornmeal and fried it, and JD, Casey, Josiah, and the Jacksons had enjoyed it together last night, before the blacksmith escorted the girl home, promising to return in a couple of days to bear JD company on the same journey. Nathan seemed very well pleased with the way he was healing; he had said that strong young flesh recovered fast, and he didn´t think JD was even going to have much of a scar, thanks in part to his having been able to get to the healer´s care as quickly as he had.

The almanac declared that first frost wasn´t to be expected for almost a week yet, but already the fall weather was coming in, the hot dry wind typical of the prairie in summer giving way to a series of rainstorms as moisture- laden winds blew up from the Gulf of Mexico to meet cold fronts forging down from the Arctic. When the southerlies dominated, as they had for the last several days, the climate was warm and lazy, perfect for a recovering invalid to soak up sun. Nights were cool, but not cold--not much below forty--and JD´s cot in the corner of the dispensary was warm and snug.

The sound of footsteps on the board path roused the young rider from his doze, and he sat up sharply, the Clarion sliding off his chest to fall in a little flurry beside his chair. “Hey, kid,” a familiar voice greeted him, “you´re lookin´ a lot better than you were the last time I saw you.”

JD squinted against the high noon sun, lifting a hand to shield his eyes as he tried to make out the identity of the backlit figure standing before him. “Buck?” he guessed, noting the height and the broad-brimmed hat.

“Right first go,” the big man agreed, lowering his long self into a comfortable heel-squat in front of the chair. “How ya feelin´?”

“Pretty good,” JD told him. “Nathan says maybe I can go home day after tomorrow. See, I got rid of the sling.”

“Good to hear it.” Wilmington reached out to gather up the loose sheets of newsprint from the ground. “What´cha got here? Jamesburg Clarion News?” He scanned the four six-column seven-and-a-half-by-ten-inch pages with interest. “Damn, so she really started it. Not too big, is it?”

“Her editorial says she hopes to make it bigger,” JD explained, “as soon as she can set up a clipping exchange with some of the papers that come in by stage. And she says she´ll be doublin´ as a book- publishing house once she gets fully set up, and she´s lookin´ for job-printing contracts and ‘amateur contributors´--local antiquarians, historians, an-thro-polo- gists,” he stumbled over the word, “poets. What´s an antiquarian, Buck? Or an anthro- whatsit?”

“Hell, kid, I don´t know. Ask Ezra, he´s the man with the five-dollar words.” Buck skimmed the front page. “Huh, I see we all got our names in print, you and me and Vin and Chris.”

“Yeah. Did you get Lodgepole´s horses back?”

The big man's face sobered. “That´s part of what I came by for. Nate in?”

“Mixin´ up something in the dispensary, I think. Why? What´s he got to do with the horses?”

Buck hesitated and looked down at his hands, restlessly folding the sheets of the Clarion in two and then in two again. “Chris says he wants to have some place to talk where we ain´t likely to have to worry much on eavesdroppers, and that lets out Ezra´s building and anywhere around the stables. We found somethin´ he don´t much like the look of, and he wants to pick Ez´s brain some and toss his own notions out. He figures a private house like this one might be the best place to meet, and he figures Nate bein´ kind of a doctor he knows how to keep his mouth shut. Him and Vin´ll be along soon as they´ve cleaned up some at Willoughby´s, but he sent me along to ask first, mannerly like. I told him I wanted to check on you anyhow.”

An hour later they gathered around the homemade cottonwood table in Nathan and Rain´s private quarters. JD and the Jacksons had already eaten their dinner, but Rain poured coffee for everyone and set out a platter piled with sandwiches of half-inch-thick antelope steak, strips of melon pickle, and a whole canned-peach pie; she had been taking lessons in white- style cooking from Inez and Mrs. Potter since coming to Jamesburg and had proved an apt pupil. Vin, with his typical prodigious appetite, set right to work on one of the sandwiches, but Buck, who was almost as notorious a bottomless pit, only nibbled at his, and Chris ignored the whole offering, though he cradled a cup of steaming coffee in his hands as if somehow drawing comfort from it. Ezra simply seemed bewildered as to why he had been invited to attend the conference.

Larabee described what they had found in the isolated coulee, his words blunt and flatly delivered. “Good Lord,” said Standish in a hushed voice when he had finished, “you cannot be in earnest, Mr. Larabee? Do you truly imagine that any group of conspirators can have been carryin´ out a program of this magnitude for as long as Mr. Tanner estimated, and without their nefarious activities bein´ found out?”

Chris met his wide astonished eyes levelly. “You´re still new out here, Standish, but you´ve seen something of the numbers of people who go through this settlement in season, and those are only a fraction of one year´s worth of travellers. Think about it. The ‘Great Migration´ to Oregon in ´43 is said to have included more than three thousand people, including one train that began with a hundred and twenty wagons, about 250 men, 130 women, 610 children, and five thousand loose cattle; but the people bickered and squabbled till the train divided into two and then four different groups, with some lone wagons straggling along after each. The same thing has happened every year since. One estimate has it that the emigrants of ´49 numbered 42,500 men, 5000 women, and 2500 children, and during the ´50´s about fifty thousand people each year went west on the Oregon-California Trail, fifty-five in 1850--and that doesn´t count the ones who took the southern route or the Santa Fe. Most of those people weren´t expected by anyone on the other end, so no one would question if they didn´t get there, and if they were expected, communications are so slow and uncertain that for months the people waiting would probably just figure their friends or relatives had turned back or stopped midway for some reason; by the time they began to suspect the truth, the trail would be so cold there´d be no way to find out what had happened. And every emigrant family heading West has a wagon, stock, supplies, personal items it hopes to use to make a comfortable home for itself, often money from the sale of a farm or other property back East. It´s a situation made to order for marauders. As long ago as twenty years, gangs of thieves were operating from hideouts along the overland trails, falling on luckless travellers bound for California and Oregon, and by the ´50´s the caravans on the Santa Fe Trail were attracting white raiders as well as Indians. Most probably concentrated on running off loose stock when it was put out to graze, but this isn´t the first time Buck and I have found the remains left behind by the more ambitious kind; it's just a better job of covering than most of them are up to.”

The gambler rubbed his thumb thoughtfully along his lower lip. “Indeed, I begin to comprehend how it might be accomplished. Mr. Tanner spoke of a freight wagon; it seems probable the miscreants possess more than one. They could bide their time until they had accumulated a full lading of the more anonymous sort of plunder--food, livestock, firearms and ammunition, hardware, wagon parts--and then convey it into Denver quite openly and dispose of it on the market there or in some of the neighborin´ satellite camps, probably at a lower price than the legitimate freighters are willing to settle for. The smaller and more intrinsically valuable items could be shipped, or more probably taken, East, perhaps at the close of the travellin´ season, and sold in the river towns; the malefactors would in all likelihood prefer not to linger on the open prairie durin´ the rugged winter months, when there would be no possibility of gain except from stagecoach holdups. If in two seasons they took a hundred wagons, the proceeds might amount to anywhere from thirty thousand dollars on up. Dependin´ on the length of time for which they have been practisin´ their art, it could be greater; we have no way of knowin´ whether this dump you have discovered is the only one in the vicinity. Is it your opinion that their custom is to attack openly?”

“No,” Chris admitted thoughtfully, “there´d be too much chance of some neighboring outfit hearing the ruckus if they did. You´ve seen how close together some of them are at midsummer. Even an eight- or ten-wagon emigrant outfit would have fifteen or twenty men in it; those odds are too close to even for most outlaws looking for an easy knockover. No, I´m thinking they use a tactic a lot like the river pirates I heard about when I was a boy in Indiana. Eastern greenhorns are usually in a hurry to make the crossing--that´s one reason there are so many cutoffs further West; they´re scared of getting caught in the snow the way the Donners did. Maybe the outlaws send a man or two in posing as guides, offering to show the outfit a quicker or better-grassed or - watered route. Or they could follow John Murrell´s favorite method, but on a bigger scale. Ride into the camp all open and friendly, gain the confidence of the wagoners, then wait till it´s dark, take out the night guards, kill the rest of the company in their sleep, bury the bodies under cover of darkness, throw dirt over any bloodstains that might be left behind, and move on as if they were the legitimate owners. Better yet, send one or two spies ahead to make sure the train´s worth their bother, then have the rest move in at some prearranged signal. That´s probably one reason they concentrate on emigrant outfits, which are a lot less experienced and wary than the freighters. And this stretch just before the mountains is a perfect place for them to work. The trains have had a couple of months to start to break up, but the stock isn´t worn down to near worthlessness, and a lot of heavy saleable goods haven´t been thrown off to lighten the loads--and there´s still a pretty fair amount of supplies left on each wagon.”

“I recall hearin´ tales of those same marauders when I was a lad,” Ezra agreed. “Do you suspect some connection between these raiders and the group of which Mr. Dunne fell afoul?”

“What they´ve been doing takes planning and patience,” Larabee pointed out, “and so does the kind of scheme JD suspected was behind the ambush that almost took him out. It doesn´t really make much sense that such a big gang would come after him for his own sake; the Pony doesn´t carry valuables the way the express boxes on the stages do. All they´d be likely to get for their trouble would be his pony, and they already had a good haul in the stock they ran off from Lodgepole.”

“And the guys there said the horse thieves hit them two or three times a year,” JD remembered, speaking up for the first time. “You s´pose there´s been a stage holdup right after each raid?”

“I´ll have to write to Steele and ask if he can supply any details to support that idea, but I wouldn´t be surprised,” Chris admitted. “You thought of it yourself: tired horses, tired men on the box, darkness, and people bound east from California or the Comstock...it would be a perfect setup for a gang that likes sure things.” He eyed Ezra as if waiting for him to make the obvious connection.

“As unsuspectin´ emigrants would be a sure thing,” the gambler drawled, “or an innocent lad lured from his uncle´s side after a shrewd and circumspect ‘distressed traveller´ had ascertained that the latter was likely to be carryin´ cash. You are thinkin´ that there is one mastermind behind all, are you not?”

“Royale,” said Chris with a nod. “With headquarters here, he´d see the outfits passing through, and have the opportunity to count the wagons and men in them. He´d also notice which of them were going on West and which were turning off for Denver. He´d notice the ‘busters´ heading back East too.”

“But Royale ain´t here no more,” Nathan objected. “He left the same day you and Steele fired him, from what I´ve heard.”

“He still knows a lot about the Company--schedules, routines, where the stations are and how many men are posted at each,” Larabee told him. “Most of that I couldn´t change on my own recognizance, so all he has to do is loiter around somewhere close and he can still get good pickings. And since we don´t know who or how many he has working for him, he can send them in or post them along the trails to gather information for him. All the more reason for me to clean out everyone working for the Company who might serve as a conduit to him.”

Ezra sat back in his chair, his expression thoughtful. “I believe this may be the most comprehensive and lucrative con of which I have ever heard,” he murmured. “Although I do con artists an injustice in callin´ it so; we--they--seldom resort to violence. Clearly the originator of the scheme is a person of foresight and imagination. But, Mr. Larabee, are you quite certain that Royale is that originator?”

Chris lifted an eyebrow. “You were the one who suggested he was declaring war on me with Jerrenson´s murder.”

“And that I still maintain to be the case,” Ezra agreed. “But consider the magnitude of the conspiracy. Mr. Dunne reported seein´ only six would-be felons in the group which attacked him. Said felons would be absent from these environs for several days, perhaps as much as a week or two, while they altered the brands on the stolen horses, drove them to Denver and effected their sale. That would bar them from any possibility of spyin´ out small emigrant trains or prosperous coach passengers. In addition, the smallest such train, in my admittedly limited experience, numbers eight or ten wagons, a figure you have substantiated. Would a mere half-dozen be sufficient to overwhelm its people? And if it were, one must make allowance for drivers enough to transport all the emptied vehicles to the dump at the coulee. I believe we may be dealin´ with several bands, possibly of varyin´ size accordin´ to the particular target each contemplates. Then there is the question of the plunder taken from the wagons. It must be put in storage in some location where it is sheltered from the vagaries of the weather and unlikely to be discovered by passin´ aboriginies until the miscreants can find the opportunity to determine its exact amount and nature, settle on what items of it they will retain for their own use, apportion them in whatever manner may be customary among them, and dispatch the remainder to some locality where it may be profitably dispensed, be that Denver or elsewhere. Few such facilities exist on these lonely plains apart from the military installations, which are hardly likely to accept responsibility for civilian goods even if their commandin´ officers lack any reason to suspect the truth. Indeed, I personally know of only two in this region. One is the warehouses here in Jamesburg, and the other is Stuart James´s home ranch, which, although I have not seen it, I have heard to be extensive.” He watched Chris keenly. “Need I spell out what I am thinkin´?”

“Shit!” Vin whispered in astonishment.

“Good God in the foothills,” Buck murmured.

Chris hit the table a slap with the palm of his hand that rattled every dish and cup on its surface. “I´m a damn fool! The night Jerrenson was killed and you suggested Royale was behind it, I knew what you were saying made sense, but I still had a feeling that something didn´t quite fit. It´s not even just what you´re saying about storage. The men we´re talking about are as ruthless as any pirate on the high seas. How the hell would Royale have even had the chance to find them, with the need to stay here in Jamesburg a good bit of the time? And how could he guarantee that they wouldn´t just make off with the proceeds and lose themselves in Denver, or go on to the Washoe or California or Texas, without ever turning his share over to him? There has to be somebody else he´s working with, somebody the outlaws are scared of, or respect, enough to take orders from him, leave their plunder in his care, maybe even let him serve as their conduit for the sale of it. Royale´s a big part of the puzzle, but he´s not the keystone; he´s just an informer. You told me yourself that he and James were thick, and I didn´t see the obvious connection. Hell, James has been here since ´49, long before Royale ever showed up. There´s no reason he couldn´t have been running this racket all along; until you got here, this was his town, barrel, bottle, and bungstarter--nothing happened here that he and his crew weren't aware of. I knew that, from serving so close by these last two years. Royale was an afterthought; when the Company began running stages along this central route and brought him in as Division Super, James probably got to know him, saw that he was willing to betray his employers for enough of a return, and offered to bring him in as a junior partner in return for the information he could supply.”

Ezra was nodding steadily. “Precisely. You mentioned certain musters of humans and animals in connection with the wagon companies. Five thousand loose cattle for a hundred and twenty wagons, I believe, and there would almost certainly be horses in addition. Given the same proportions on down the line, that would permit of a minimum three- hundred-odd such creatures in even the smaller outfits such as the raiders concentrate upon. Mr. Wilmington, I believe I have heard you mention workin´ in the cattle trade in Texas in your youth. Over eleven years´ time, what would be the natural increase that one might legitimately look for?”

Buck frowned in thought. “Figurin´ on natural die-off from wolves, weather, sickness and what not, plus Indians and rustlers takin´ their bite...even if you started off with all she-stuff, by six years along you shouldn´t have much better than eight hundred head, yearlings and over, for every hundred of your original herd.”

“And Mr. James is said to tally fifteen thousand,” the Southerner observed, “which would require him to have begun with close to nineteen hundred head of breedin´ cows, to say nothin´ of bulls. Mr. Dunne, your Mrs. Wells has been tradin´ in emigrant cattle for as long as James has dwelt in these parts, takin´ two footsore or otherwise unfit animals for each road-ready individual. Many of those were of course not, shall I say, sexually functional. Yet even she boasts, I believe, only some eleven hundred cattle in total. What was the number of calves she branded this past spring?”

JD thought. “Two hundred twenty-six, I think.”

“You mostly figure you got five head of grown for every one young you brand,” Buck said. “So Ez is pretty close to the mark. Eleven hundred and thirty, maybe. And, hell, that don´t even count how many James has been sellin´ to the Army or drivin´ down to Denver. All he´s gotta do is throw all the cattle from the wagon outfits onto his range, rebrand ´em with his own mark, and nobody´d think anything of it; a horse is mostly branded just the once, and if he´s sold the buyer relies on his bill of sale to prove ownership, but cows are branded as often as sold. I´ve seen some that have changed hands so often you couldn´t hardly find a square foot of useable leather on ´em for all the vented brands.” He shook his head in amazement. “Damn, it´s almost more than I can take in. And what would you bet he don't even bother sellin´ a lot of the supplies he gets off the wagon trains? He just throws ´em into storage at his headquarters, and his crew eats ´em. Nobody´d ever find the evidence even if they knew what the hell they were lookin´ for.”

“It is, veritably, a nearly flawless state of affairs,” Ezra agreed. “And definitely unmatched in my experience. I cannot approve the wholesale slaughter that permits it, but I must confess to a near reverence for the acuity of the mind that designed the scheme. The infamous Murrell himself, even the monstrous scheme of John Brown, were no more ambitious and probably no more lucrative.”

“So what do you figure to do about it, cowboy?” Vin wanted to know.

“Every chain´s got a weak link,” Larabee mused. “My bet is Royale is this one´s. He´s careless; the way he played slacker at his Company job proves that--if he´d covered his tracks better, there´s no telling how long he could have kept his end of the racket going. If we can get our hands on him--he probably knows a lot of the details, including some we may not even have thought about. Steele agreed to talk to the owners about issuing a reward on him as soon as he got back to Leavenworth, and to send out flyers by the next mail if he could persuade them to agree. There´s no formal law out here; if Royale´s captured alive, he´ll have to be tried in Omaha. But the complaint will be coming from the Company, and if he could be convinced that they´d reduce the charges in return for his co- operation, he might be willing to bring James down.”

“And till we get our hands on him? What then?” Buck pressed.

“Till then,” said Chris, with a predatory smile, “we do just what Colonel Travis suggested. We clean up the town.”


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