II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

5. Interlude
“His mother? You´re sure?” Stuart James demanded.

“I´m sure,” Spencer Irely agreed firmly. “George said so, the waiters at the restaurant said so, hell, she said so herself. She´s been playin´ poker in the bar every night since she got in and she always gives her name as Maude Standish. Don´t seem like it could be too common of one.”

“Least of all in the South,” James mused. “When I think of it, I always think of New England and Longfellow´s poem,” referring to The Courtship of Miles Standish, published two years before. “You say she´s a handsome-looking woman?”

“Well, she ain´t young, but she´s kept her looks, I´d have to say,” Irely told him. “Ain´t much thicker through the waist than Travis´s daughter-in-law is. Blonde, well-dressed, neat as a cat, moves like she knew she was somebody, and got a twinkle in her eye like the devil himself. I played a few hands with her and she knows her business.”

James nodded thoughtfully. “That´s likely where her son learned. And by now he´s told her how he won the place from me, so if I were to try to persuade her to stake it, she might be suspicious.”

“She can´t stake it. It isn´t hers to stake,” Guy Royale pointed out. “It belongs to her son.”

“But if he should meet with a tragic accident,” James reminded him with a sly grin, “it would revert to her. And then, if she were to become Mrs. Stuart James, whatever she owns would come into my hands. Judging by what Spence says of her, she might not be such an unpleasant helpmeet. And if he´s her only child, or her oldest, his violent loss might be something she´d need comfort for. I can be very comforting, when I want to.”

“She´s a poker player,” said Lucas. “And a good one. She has to know a woman don´t even own her own personal effects unless she´s got no husband, father, or brother. You can´t force her to marry you. There´s nobody short of Denver can perform the ceremony except the chaplain at Sedgwick, and he won´t do it if he´s got any reason to think she´s not willing.”

“In that case,” Stuart retorted evenly, “there are two routes I can take. I can offer to buy the property--she won´t want to stay on forever in a dusty little place like Jamesburg. And if she doesn´t want to sell, or wants to try peddling it somewhere else-- there´s only way she can get out of town, and that´s by stage. Stages get held up, and passengers get killed. Accidents happen in any place she might decide to go. If she should be the victim of some such tragedy, and I turn up with a bill of sale for the property, or a marriage license that shows us to have been quietly united somewhere between here and there, who´s going to dispute it? Travis? It´s no business of his. Larabee? He´s only got authority over Company property and employees. The Territorial government in Omaha? They haven´t even paid any attention to all the stage holdups and disappearing wagon outfits, why should they even hear about a quiet, legal transfer of ownership?”

His nephew frowned a moment, then his eyes brightened as he realized what the older man was planning. “That could work, I guess.”

“No guess. It will work,” Stuart declared firmly. “One way or another, that building´s coming back to me. All I have to do is arrange for something to happen to Mr. Standish, something that´s obviously not connected to us in any way.”

“Like what?” Lucas demanded. “You´ve said a couple of times now that you´ve got an idea. Don´t you figure it´s about time you let us in on it?”

Stuart considered a moment. He knew Lucas wanted to see Standish get his comeuppance, but he didn´t want any of the three of them--or, indeed, anyone known to be in their orbit--to be there when it happened, if he could work it out as he hoped to. There couldn´t be any sign that would lead back to here, or that a skilled tracker could commit to memory and later connect to them. But maybe, he reflected, it would be enough for Lucas to know just how he intended Standish to die.

“I´m still not sure how I´m going to work it out,” he admitted. “The opportunity has to be just right. But I think you´ll like this.”

+ + + + + + +

“You sent for me, Colonel?”

“Come in, Chris,” said Travis. “Close the door.”

Larabee frowned faintly, knowing his commanding officer´s habits, but did as he´d been asked. He settled into the chair Travis indicated and waited with a patience learned over years of dealing with Indians; if you pushed the issue with them, they got the idea you weren´t sure of yourself, and then you lost their respect.

A copy of the first number of the Jamesburg Clarion News lay at one corner of Travis´s desk. He turned it so Chris could see it and pointed to the second lead article, headed HORSE THIEVES RAID LODGEPOLE SWING STATION - SUPERINTENDENT LARABEE LEADS PURSUIT. “Mary mentions here,” he said, “that you took a tracker with you, a man named Vin Tanner. Is that true?”

Larabee took a slow breath. He´d been afraid of that, from the moment he first got a look at the sheet upon coming back from his aborted pursuit. It was inevitable that Travis would have gotten hold of a copy of it--hell, his daughter-in-law had probably sent him a complimentary one, let alone any the Fort personnel might have picked up on their own. For a moment he was angry at her, and then common sense won out. She had no way to know she shouldn´t give Vin's name. I should have taken the time to tell her before we left, but I was in such a damned hurry to get those replacement horses out to Lodgepole--and in any case, I didn´t realize she planned to bring it out so soon, though I should have. Ezra said she´d talked to him, and to Steele, and my taking over from Royale was news--he was right about that. The raid on Lodgepole only added meat to the story. Hell, she probably wouldn´t have agreed even if I´d asked, he told himself, remembering the way their relationship had started out, almost four months ago. “Yes, sir,” he agreed evenly, “it´s true.”

Travis opened one of his desk drawers and pulled out a sheet of paper bearing the letterhead of the Military Department of the West--all the country between the Mississippi and the Rockies, except for Texas and New Mexico, each of which constituted a Department of its own. He passed the paper across to the younger man without a word, clearly intending him to read it. It was a notice to all post CO´s within the Department to be alert for a man wanted at Fort Belknap, Texas, for murder, robbery, and flight to avoid prosecution. The description was exact and fitted Vin perfectly.

Chris remembered that the charges had first been brought against his friend back in March. After his escape, the commanding officer there would first have attempted to run him down, and Vin wouldn´t have made that easy for him; the pursuit might very well have had to go as far as the Rio Grande or the Staked Plains, if not both by turns, trying to figure out whether the false trails he´d laid were the genuine article or not. Once it became reasonably clear that he wasn´t going to be immediately apprehended, Belknap would have had to send a despatch describing him to Department HQ in San Antonio, and from there it would have gone to Houston and on to Galveston to be loaded aboard a coastal vessel for New Orleans, then transferred to an up- bound river steamer, and then delivered to Jefferson Barracks, which was the West´s DHQ. Even given perfect connections all the way and no mishaps to the despatch riders or either of the boats, it would have required fully three weeks to make the trip, and once at its destination it would have had to go through channels, be copied and distributed to all the Western forts; communications between St. Louis and Sedgwick, even by special military mail pouch aboard the stagecoaches, took all of four days and a half. Add on a month or so for the Belknap commander to exhaust all possibilities and the news might not have reached Travis any earlier than mid-May or even early June; maybe later, with delays. And Vin, of course, had known better than to show his face on post; the closest he´d come, since arriving at Wells Ranch, had been his occasional visits to Jamesburg to get together with Chris. Those hadn´t even begun till after the fight at the riverside, and Travis had probably figured the likelihood of his being anywhere that close to a military installation as vanishingly small: with all the time Vin had had to get clear, he could have been in Canada three times over by then, or at least thoroughly lost up in Sioux country. The Colonel would have read the notice and filed it, but he wouldn´t have expected an intelligent fugitive to be loitering in his district or having the gall to befriend one of his officers, so he hadn´t bothered to disseminate the description to his command. Not until Mary Travis published the hunter´s name would he have had any logical reason to suppose Vin was in the neighborhood.

“Is that the man?” Travis asked.

I could lie, but all he´d have to do is ask Mary, or Ezra, or the Potters. “Yes, sir.”

The old man´s sharp steel- gray eyes studied him less with rancor than with curiosity. “Did he tell you about this?”

“He knows he´s wanted, if that´s what you mean, sir. He was...distressed about the possibility of making trouble for me.” The young Texan´s words echoed in his mind: “If--if they know that-- about me and you bein´ friends--it´ll be--bad for you, Larabee.”

“Was he the tracker you mentioned the day Steele recruited you for the Company?” Travis continued.

“Yes, sir.”

The Colonel folded his hands on the desktop. “I think you´d better tell me everything, Chris.”

At least he´s not calling me by my rank, Larabee thought. “I think you should hear it, sir. This doesn´t give you very many details of the crime itself, and nothing at all of Vin´s side of the story.” Slowly he repeated Tanner´s version of how he had come into possession of the damning Volcanic carbine, then told how the two of them had met and described, as best he could, the sense of instant affinity and mutual perception and familiarity that had sprung into being between them on the gallery of Ezra´s building.

“So what you´re saying is that this Tanner claims he was framed,” Travis paraphrased when he´d finished.

“Yes, sir. He´s had time to think it over, and he believes this man Eli Joe either killed Kincaid himself or was closely in connection with whoever did. He figures the murderer must have been watching him for a while, or having him watched, and when he heard that Vin had been trying to persuade Kincaid to sell his carbine--and admitted to having been raised by the Comanches--he saw that as a perfect motive for murder. He waited until Vin had left on one of his despatch rides, then set it up to look as if he´d circled back after nightfall, caught Kincaid out behind the stables, killed him, searched his room, and made off with the carbine. Then Eli Joe intercepted Vin casually in Cottonwood on his way back to Belknap, lured him into a game of dice, and eventually staked the gun. If he´d slipped a set of loaded dice into the game, he could have thrown them so he´d lose. Vin had no way of knowing Kincaid was dead and his rifle was missing, so he went back to Belknap without any expectation of trouble.”

“All of which suggests that either Kincaid had an enemy no one suspected, or someone had some very pressing reason to want Tanner put out of the way, probably in some fashion that wouldn´t point to them,” Travis mused. He paused a moment, then added sharply: “Do you believe him, Chris?”

Larabee met those fierce eyes steadily. “Yes, sir. I do. Even before I knew all the details, I promised him we´d find a way to clear his name.” He waited for Travis to make the obvious connection.

“ ‘We,´ ” the Colonel repeated. “Meaning him and yourself?”

“Meaning us, yes, sir.”

“Why?” Travis asked.

“Because of what he did that day, sir. He didn´t know any of us, except for Josiah Sanchez and JD Dunne. He´d never met Nathan Jackson, didn´t even know his name. He didn´t even have any connections to the Brulé Sioux, which might have given him some natural sympathy with the man´s wife. He knew what the odds were; neither of us guessed that Buck and JD, Standish and Sanchez were ready to take a hand until they actually did it. And yet he was willing to risk his life to stop Harper´s gang from carrying out their plan. That´s not the act of a cold-blooded murderer, Colonel. That´s the act of a man who has a very strong sense of right and wrong, and is willing to die rather than stand idly by and see it violated.” He hesitated. “And apart from that, sir, I know Tanner. I realize it may not make very much sense to you, and I can´t really explain how it happened, but somehow, in that first moment, I was aware of him in a way I´ve never been aware of anyone--not even Buck--except, just maybe, Sarah. I think when I first met her I knew she was the one, but it took me a while to admit it to myself, partly because of her father´s attitude. The way I knew--know--Vin is similar to that, except that I saw it for what it was from the instant it happened. And the man I know is neither a murderer nor a liar. I don´t say he won´t kill, because he will; I saw him do it. But he won´t do it in cold blood, unprovoked. He´ll do it to save his own life, or to defend someone he cares about, or because some part of his code of ethics is somehow threatened. But he won´t murder a man in the dark just to gain something his victim owns.”

“You´re that sure,” said Travis, and it wasn´t a question.

“I´m that sure, sir. I don´t think I´ve ever been more sure of anything in my life.”

Travis picked up a millefiori paperweight and began turning it slowly in his hands, studying how the red and white overlays had been cut away to reveal the bright and intricate pattern within, made by fusing bunches of colored glass rods and cutting them crosswise; the heavy glass dome overall served as a magnifying lens. “Departmental Headquarters expects me to keep watch for Tanner, and to apprehend him and send him back to St. Louis for shipment to Texas and trial if I find him,” he said thoughtfully. “But, as you can see from its despatch, it doesn´t expect me to deliberately go in search of him. Our superiors know there´s just too much country out here where a man with Tanner´s skills can get lost and lie low for years. As long as I don´t happen to see a man who fits the description, I can´t be said to be neglecting any orders I´ve received to date. That presupposes no copies of the Clarion find their way to St. Louis, but I doubt anyone there would be too interested in what´s going on in a community as small as Jamesburg.”

“Vin has no intention of being seen,” Chris told him. “Of course, the fact that you hadn´t let anyone else know about this may have made us both a little complacent. He´s asked me, every time we´ve talked, whether I´ve heard of any official word on him, and I´ve always said I haven´t.”

“I probably should have passed it on,” Travis admitted, “but I couldn´t see why a man with the skills of a scout and hunter would deliberately linger so close to a fort when he knew the Army wanted him for murder- -especially when he´d served as a despatch rider and knew something of military communications.” He raised his eyes to Chris´s. “I´m taking a chance on this. On him, and especially on you. You understand that, don´t you, Chris?”

Larabee kept tight control of his breathing. “Yes, sir. I understand it.”

“Does anyone else know about the want?”

“I think Buck may suspect something, but I´m not sure how many details he has. I do know that if he felt Vin was any threat to me, he´d have taken steps to get him out of my life.”

“I thought of that,” the Colonel agreed. “With his broad experience, he may be even better equipped than you are to estimate a man´s character.” He set the paperweight carefully down in the exact place he´d taken it from. “This had better not backfire, Captain.”

“It won´t, sir. I´d stake my bars or my life on Vin, no question, any day in the week.”

“How do the two of you intend to establish his innocence?” Travis asked.

“We haven´t discussed it very much, sir,” Chris admitted. “Vin seems to feel that when the time is right, he´ll know. Meanwhile, he´s willing to help me improve the situation for the Company.”

“I understand you´ve begun to take me at my word about cleaning up the settlement,” Travis observed.

Chris felt the tension flow out of his spine at the change in subject. “I don´t know how much good it will do,” he admitted. “The prostitutes will be replaced quickly enough, and the store and saloon will still be there, though Standish knows something of my misgivings now and may consider that it´s in his interests to keep me informed of the presence of suspicious characters. But at least I´ve tried to make the place a little less attractive to them, as you suggested, sir.”

“You fired a good many of the men Royale had on the payroll, I´m told. How do you intend to get their work done? You and Buck can´t take it over yourselves; you have other concerns.”

“I´ve brought some men in from the outlying homesteads. Prairie farmers are always looking for temporary paying work; it´s so hard and expensive for them to get their crops to market, that´s one of the few chances they have to earn actual cash.”

“That can´t last,” Travis mentioned. “The winter storms will start sometime in November, if not sooner, and they won´t be able to commute easily. And most of them probably hunt and trap too, which brings in more money than you can offer them.”

“I thought of that,” Chris agreed. “I´ve composed a flyer that I´ll send to the Company agents in Denver and Fort Laramie and have them distribute for me. Free-lance prospecting isn´t very practical or attractive in winter, and a lot of people who haven´t hit it big will be thinking about heading East for the season. If they can get a decently paying job without having to go that far, I think they´ll take it.”

The Colonel nodded. “That makes sense. Are you going to have it printed there?”

“No, sir, actually I was just about to go and see your daughter-in-law when I got your message.”

Travis smiled faintly. “Keep it local. That´s good. All right, I´ll let you go.”

Larabee stood, recognizing the dismissal. “Thank you, sir. For everything.”

“Just make sure neither of us regrets it, Captain,” Travis warned him. “And remember, I can´t guarantee how long Headquarters will remain in blissful ignorance.”

“I know that, Colonel.”

+ + + + + + +

There was a wintry bite to the air as Chris headed back to Jamesburg and left off Blackhawk at the barn, and he was glad of his leather jacket as he cleared the scant protection of the latter´s door and headed down the street toward Mary Travis´s cabin. He was reminded that September was almost over, and that snow had almost certainly fallen more than once on the higher peaks and passes of the Front Range, though Jamesburg was too far away for him to see it. Out here on the plains the first blizzards weren´t likely to strike until November, but already the knowing inhabitants were preparing for the inevitable--not merely getting in their crops and branding any young stock born since about May, but stockpiling supplies and fuel, making sure their buildings were weathertight and their fences sound, checking traps and laying out the best locations to set them as soon as the fur was worth the trouble, considering the possibility of going after buffalo robes from November through February. Ezra and the Potters had been laying in stock for the winter--liquor, food, merchandise--for over a month and would continue to do so for fully another to come; after that the weather could at any moment cut off all travel and communication for ten to fourteen days at a time, forcing each little town and isolated homestead back on its own unassisted resources.

Owen Jerrenson had spent the three and a half days during which Chris and his companions were trying to track down the Lodgepole horse thieves in taking a complete inventory of the contents of the Company´s leased warehouse. Provided by Larabee with a tally of the number of stations in the Division and the headcount of personnel and stock supposed to be at each, he had reported that although Royale´s written inventory and accounts didn´t seem to exist, and therefore he couldn´t be sure how much materiél had been shipped in from Leavenworth until they could get a copy of the Company´s own tally, he was pretty sure they didn´t have enough to take them through the winter. Since Chris knew that the feed, at least, hadn´t been going to the stations in the volume it should, he figured Royale had been skimming, sneaking it out and shipping it to Denver for sale, either on his own or through James. Fortunately every station raised its own hay if at all possible, and for a hundred miles or so west of the settlement, and all the way south to Denver, they could always secure emergency supplies from some ranch if their own began to run short; but from Fort Laramie and beyond to Salt Lake, settlement being thinner except in the area of Laramie and Bridger, the relay stations received their food and fodder by light, mule-drawn wagons from the “home” stations, and if supplies there were low (as they might well be by now), or the freighters´ mules strayed or were stolen, real shortages could result. As Division Superintendent it was Chris´s responsibility to see that all of them were prepared to weather the season ahead. He had drafted a letter and sent it out by the last eastbound Pony rider--not JD Dunne, who had only just gone home to Wells Ranch yesterday, but the temporary replacement who´d been covering for him since he was wounded; the kid would go back on duty with Sunday´s westward relay. He could only hope that the weather would hold until a supply train could make the almost-five-week journey out--or that the owners would realize the urgency of the situation and send out a train drawn by mules, which were faster, averaging fifteen to twenty miles per day as compared to ten or fifteen for oxen; that would make for a journey of about twenty-six days if they didn´t lay over Sundays, ten less than a bull train. It would still mean cutting things pretty fine, and as insurance he´d also written to his counterpart in Salt Lake to ask if he might be able to spare at least enough to cover the hundred and seventy miles or so intervening between his headquarters and the broad 7550-foot-high saddle of South Pass. It might mean dealing with highway robbery on the part of Brigham and his people, they being very good farmers and not yet ready to fully forgive the Army´s incursion into Deseret two years earlier, but that would be better than letting horses, employees, and passengers starve.

The lean-to ell that served as the Clarion´s office and pressroom was cozily warm with the drift of chips burning in the corner stove, which magnified the smell of lye water, benzine, fresh-milled paper and strong black printer´s ink. A door had been cut in the west end of the ell, which measured only about fifteen feet square, compared to the main house´s dimensions of twenty feet by thirty, and above it a signboard jutted out, lettered with the sheet´s name in black paint. Directly to the left of the door had been installed a broad multi-paned window painted white halfway up to insure some privacy, and set under it was Mary Travis´s rolltop desk, untidily covered with papers, paste-pot, ink-bottle, pens, and exchange copies of journals from Denver, Salt Lake, and Omaha. A tall clothes commode stood against the party wall, and just beyond it, on the other side of the door to the main house, was a cabinet with its back to the door, fencing off the print shop. Through the open gap alongside it, Chris could make out a big square table against the side window, piled almost chest-high with papers, books, proofs, and boxes, besides an overflow of type books, exchanges, and yellow copy paper, and a huge dictionary at least nine inches thick. Beyond that, in the far corner, a stack of newsprint was piled against the angle of the walls, reaching as high as the boarded ceiling. The opposite wall was laddered with shelves holding rolls of paper, boxes of type, wire baskets, and assorted mysterious jars and cans, with the two imposing stones, the wide wooden type drawers, and the sorting font with its high stool fitted underneath. The little Army press occupied the center of the floor: a cylinder of about a foot in diameter on the top of a framework, under which a crank ran the type back and forth. A trip bell over the door jingled as Chris came in, and Mary Travis leaned perilously off the stool where she was setting up tomorrow´s edition, her maroon shirtwaist and full black bombazine skirt protected by a bibbed canvas apron and paper sleeve guards, a green celluloid eyeshade slightly askew on her brow. “Why, Mr. Larabee,” she greeted coolly, putting her work aside and slipping off her perch, “whatever brings you by?”

“Business, Mrs. Travis,” he replied with equal evenness. “I´ve made up a flyer I´d like you to print.” He pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his vest and handed it to her as she paused in the opening.

She pushed her eyeshade back, opened the paper out and scanned it, reading first as a printer for layout and spacing, then for the sense. “All right,” she said. “I´d suggest that this first line-- ‘Men Wanted´--be set in 288-point type; that´s four inches, to you laymen,” she added at his baffled stare, “and about as big as I´ve got. Then ‘Russell, Majors & Waddell´ in 144-point, and the rest in 72- and 36- . You want the company name to be highly visible because it´s so well known; that will catch people´s interest and draw them over to read the details.”

He nodded. “That sounds sensible. How else can you increase the chance of people noticing it?”

“Color,” said Mary. “The stock options for handbill jobs are yellow, red, blue, pink, lavender, and green. Red´s the most noticeable, but yellow´s easier to read, and better suited to the content and mood of your notice than any of the cooler colors.” She tilted her head to regard him with interest. “You seem to have something of a gift for composition, Mr. Larabee. This is very well put. Nothing superfluous, but everything people would really want to know.”

He shrugged. “I´ve been writing reports for the Army for twenty-one years. You learn to get your point across.”

“I hadn´t thought of that, but I can see how it would be true,” the woman admitted. “Is there a deadline on this?”

“I´d like two batches-- one to be ready to go out on the Wednesday westbound, the other on the Friday coach to Denver. About two hundred in each to start, I think. Can you handle that?”

“Certainly. Will the yellow stock be suitable?”

“It´ll be fine.”

Mary pulled a pencil from behind her ear and scribbled a reminder note on the corner of the paper before crossing to the desk to spear it onto the spike there. “I´ll get to it as soon as we´ve gotten the paper out. You´ll be able to spare Owen a little early, won´t you? I don´t want to cut this edition as fine as I did the first one, what with having to reshuffle the first page to make room for that horse-thief story.”

“He´ll be here.” Owen had elected to board with the Travises, paying his way by helping with the heavy lifting and the working of the press: Mary could do composition, typesetting, and layout, but some chores were a bit beyond her strength. Though Larabee hadn´t said so, he admitted to some private relief over this choice; at least there would be a man--well, a reasonable facsimile of one--on the property part of the time, particularly at night, when anyone with ill intentions was likeliest to pay a call. “What will the Company owe you?”

“I´ll make up a bill after the job is done, and you can pay me then.” Mary hesitated. “I was hoping we´d cross paths at some point. I wanted to thank you for what you´ve been doing the last couple of days--you and Buck, I should say; firing the slackers and pilferers, ordering them to clear out. I think it will make a difference.”

“Even if it cuts down on the number of people available to buy your newspaper?”

“Even then,” she said gravely. “Every newspaper editor worthy of the name stands against drunkenness and rowdiness, vice and impropriety, and supports cleanliness, order, and learning.”

“I didn´t do it for you, Mrs. Travis. I did it because it came with the job. I can´t have people making off with Company property or misusing Company passengers.” As soon as the words were spoken he wondered why he´d said them. Not that they weren´t true, of course. Technically he was still in the Army, and he would probably return to active service sooner or later, and eventually be transferred out of Sedgwick to some other post. What became of Jamesburg, as a community, was unlikely to make any real difference in his life, and he had little reason to care about the lives of any of its people who weren´t employed by the Company. “And those nine prostitutes we chased out will be replaced as soon as the word gets out that there are-- vacancies in the trade here, if not sooner: the Fort will be holding pay call in a few more days.”

“Still,” she said doggedly, only a slight hint of color showing in her cheeks at his invocation of the unmentionable profession. “All reforms have to begin somewhere, with someone.” A pause, then: “Would you care to join us for Sunday dinner?”

Chris´s eyes narrowed. “What are you angling for, Mrs. Travis, another interview?”
She frowned. “Is that a no?”

“It´s an honest question, and I think it deserves an answer. I don´t like surprises, Mrs. Travis; in my profession they can be deadly.”

“Are you deliberately trying to be difficult? Or should I say insulting?”

“Neither.” He waited. He knew, of course, why he felt reluctant to establish anything but a formal business relationship with her. It traced back to an exchange he´d had with her son just before she moved into the settlement. The boy had been riding his new pony across the parade ground and Chris had stopped to compliment him on his hands and seat. He´d said that he knew Billy wanted to learn more of riding and that Buck was a good teacher, but that Buck would often have military duties that would keep him from being available for the purpose. The boy had seemed to understand the concept of duty very well. “I know,” he´d said. “You and Buck have jobs to do, just like I do. My grandpa says I have to look after Ma now.”

Chris remembered Buck telling him something about how this boy was thought to have witnessed his father´s murder. The steadiness and courage he displayed in the face of that memory touched a part of the officer that he tried every day to forget. Adam had been just about Billy´s age when he died. Chris had recently marked the passage of his and Sarah´s eleventh wedding anniversary. Every woman and child he met--especially blond boys and spirited women--reminded him of what he had had and lost. Knowing Vin had made a change in him, but the idea of a new wife and family still disturbed him. How could he be untrue to their memories? Maybe if he could settle the scores for them--but that was next to impossible, he´d known it for years.

Mary cast her eyes downward, and he guessed she was counting silently to ten. “I suppose it was a fair question,” she admitted after a moment. “No, I´m not angling for an interview--though I do wonder about those Wanted posters on Guy Royale that the Company sent out on the last stage. Do you, or they, honestly believe he´s guilty of everything listed on them? He always seemed a perfect gentleman when I spoke to him, so well-spoken and polite--”

“Nothing about dishonesty has anything to do with politeness,” Chris interrupted. “Some of the worst men unhanged are polite, and can carry on a conversation that no lady would ever take offense at. But that doesn´t make them honest. The quicker you learn that, Mrs. Travis, the better all around for you and Billy. Not every villain behaves like a Border Ruffian.”

“I´m well aware of that, Mr. Larabee. Are you familiar with Shakespeare´s Hamlet? ‘One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.´”

“I´ve read it,” said Chris with a shrug. “I wasn´t sure you had--or had taken it to heart, if you did.”

“I´m not naive,” Mary told him. “If I ever was, I got over it a long time ago. You haven´t answered my question. Will you come to dinner?”

“I thought I was being rude enough for the invitation to be retracted.”

“I´m also a lot tougher than you seem to think I am,” said Mary. “I would have thought that my determination to set up a newspaper here would have told you that.”

Larabee remembered what Ezra had said the day Royale was fired. “...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.” Apparently this was equally true in matters not connected to the gathering of news. Hell, he told himself, it´s only one meal. It doesn´t have to mean anything. It probably doesn´t mean anything, on her part; she just wants to soften me up so she can ask about Royale. And she should know--all the more so because of what she said about him. Not that he´s likely to show up here and start paying court to her again, but it might make her stop and think the next time someone like him drifts into her life. Billy and Owen will be here; we´ll be chaperoned. And I´m not Buck, or some damn fool farm boy mooning over the girl in Sunday school. She´s a beautiful, intelligent woman, but I´m not interested in her. I won´t let myself be interested in her.

“All right,” he said, “I´ll come. What time?”

“Two o´clock,” she replied, naming the “fashionable” hour for the important meal of the day, though it was sometimes served as late as four on special occasions. “If you´d like to get here a little early, I bought a bottle of Hermitage whiskey from Ezra´s bar stock. My father always said that a quiet dram before eating gave you an appetite and made your food sit easier.”

“One-thirty, then,” he said. “I´ll be here.”

“I´ll try to have a proof of the poster ready for you to look over,” she promised. “I can set it up after we've finished the paper.”

After he had gone, she stood irresolute for a moment before turning back to her typesetting. She hadn´t really planned on that invitation, hadn´t known she was going to issue it until she had. Of course there was nothing incorrect about it: he was a person of consequence in the community and a major source of news, and it was now over thirteen months since Steven's death; a widow was only expected to wait a year before entertaining a suitor. Suitor? she asked herself, astonished at her mind´s use of the word. He isn´t a suitor. He´s scarcely even spoken to me unless he had to.

Yet in the going-on-four months since she had first met him, she had been unable to get him out of her thoughts. Buck´s story of the tragic loss he had suffered had only enhanced her interest in him. It was nothing romantic, she told herself, merely compassionate concern for a man with whom she felt some sense of identity, having herself known what it was to lose a spouse to violence--and to realize keenly the unlikelihood of the killer´s ever being brought to justice. Yet she couldn´t help but think of the fascination she had felt from the moment he pulled his horse up beside her wagon seat and introduced himself, the way her heart had seemed to constrict in her chest even before she knew about his family´s death, her reflection on his suitability to model for Milton´s Lucifer. Having learned more of him, she now thought he was almost Byronic; certainly his profound melancholy qualified him for the title, and there might be some madness there too, if not the depravity that Byron´s heroes so often displayed.

And you´re not a silly schoolgirl who thinks that melancholy in itself is fascinating, she rebuked herself. But still, Larabee was undeniably attractive. There was a certain quiet distinction about him that spoke of breeding. The man had come from somewhere; he had been somebody. And for all the loneliness and standoffishness there was in his character, there was a warmth in him too, as if he had a lot of friendship in him that hadn´t been used. His face was hard-boned and strong, with little warmth in it unless he smiled. There was loneliness in it, but nothing about him invited sympathy. This was a man who had been much alone, with no experience at sharing feelings--probably because there had been nobody to share them with. Still, anyone who could inspire loyalty and love from men as disparate as Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner, to say nothing of the respect of the cynical Ezra Standish, clearly must have more to him than most casual observers could discern. And she had seen how he softened when he was talking to Billy and believed no one was watching. The boy had been drawn to him from the first, and Mary knew that if there were two groups you could never fool, it was children and animals. They always knew when a man was no good, because they operated more on instinct than on logical thought.

She snorted to herself and gave her shoulders a shake, like a horse trying to rid itself of flies. Don´t be silly. He´s not interested in you, she told herself, and turned back to continue her work.


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