II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

8. Plans
Guy Royale had made up his mind: it was time he got out of the Nebraska Territory. The Wanted posters issued by the Company made it impossible for him to move freely; he was more or less a prisoner at James´s ranch. If it hadn´t been for the want, he might have stayed, watching for a chance to dispose of Chris Larabee and make an attempt at getting his old job back; but the posters were displayed at every station between Wells Ranch and Salt Lake and all the way down to Denver--and probably east and west of those limits as well, since it was a Company want. That meant California was barred to him too, and his best chances lay in either the Oregon Country or New Mexico. The climate in the latter was more appealing, and he had about decided that that was where he would go.

But not before he collected on some debts.

Larabee and Standish were responsible for his being in this situation--Larabee because he had taken over the Division, and Standish because it was almost certainly he who had suggested Larabee´s name to Steele in the first place: he had definitely been the one who´d rented a buggy and taken Steele out to Fort Sedgwick. Stuart James already had a gripe with Standish and was taking steps to settle the score; like Lucas, Royale would have liked to be there to see the gambler get his comeuppance, but he had a good imagination and could take some satisfaction in the picture it presented him of the fate the rancher had planned for the elegant young man. But James had no real reason to act against Larabee, which made him Royale´s alone. Disgrace him in the Company´s eyes, get him fired from his job, maybe see him dead--that was what Royale wanted.

And he knew just how to do it.

The end of October was coming up, and with it the special stage that came through just before the first of each month with the payroll money for the employees of the line, dropping off a portion of it at each of the division points for distribution by the Superintendent. Four times a year-- November, February, May, and August--that payroll money was increased by the addition of the quarterly leasage money for James and Standish and the pay for the stocktenders at the swing stations. And this month there would be still more, to pay the extra men Larabee had hired to rebuild the burned-out facilities. With the monthly wage for the agents, cooks, and others at the home stations, the drivers and guards, and the personnel at the Jamesburg division point, the payroll for those in Salt Lake and westward, plus the operating cash that was allowed each Superintendent for the purchase of hay, grain, and other staples from local producers, the box would be carrying at least fifty thousand dollars, not counting anything the passengers might have entrusted to company security, or might be carrying on their persons, or anything that happened to be in the mail. Royale knew when that special stage was scheduled to come through--and he had always been careful to refrain from using that knowledge negatively, no matter how often he had betrayed his trust otherwise. He´d always had it in the back of his mind that that payroll could be used as a stake if he ever had to leave the country. Like now.

He´d need help, of course. A coach could be held up efficiently by three men--one to hold the horses, one to cover the victims, and one to rob them. But the Company and Wells Fargo would want to be sure the payroll got through and were likely to put extra security on the coach that carried it--maybe an extra shotgun guard out in the open, maybe an undercover man or two posing as passengers, maybe both. That meant a bigger complement would be needed to overpower them: six to ten men. Say ten; with the customary double share to the boss, that would give Royale over nine thousand dollars, and that, added to what he´d already gotten out of the deal in his months as an informant for Stuart James, would give him enough to make a very good start down in New Mexico, or even better below the Border, where a single American dollar was worth four or five pesos and everything cost less anyway.

He decided to take Lucas into his confidence. He knew the younger James wanted to have a bigger part in the hidden side of the family business, and was eager for an opportunity to prove to his uncle that he could handle the responsibility. He didn´t resent Stuart, exactly, and he was reluctant to do anything that might alienate the older man--he knew that he was Stuart´s closest kin and as such the likeliest heir to the empire he´d built up, which made him willing to be a lot more patient than he might have been under other circumstances.

Lucas, as he´d expected, took to the suggestion at once. “You find eight men,” Royale told him, “and we´ll split the take twelve ways. Two shares for you, two for me, one for each of the other men. That should give each of us better than eight thousand dollars minimum.”

Lucas´s eyes lit with greedy anticipation. “Where do we do it?”

“We need to hit the stage before it gets to Jamesburg, or we´ll lose out on a good half that figure. We could wait and let this Division´s payroll get dropped off, then try to get it out of the safe before Larabee has a chance to distribute it, but that´s risky; there won´t be much time to do the job, and we´ll have to go into the settlement, where there´ll be the risk of being seen. It´ll be better to take it off the stage; less opposition.”

Lucas frowned. “Larabee´s responsibility don´t start till Jamesburg,” he pointed out. “Everything east of that is in St. Joseph´s Division.”

“But it´ll be so close to the boundary that Larabee´s certain to take an interest in getting it back rather than taking the extra time to contact St. Joe and wait for them to send out help,” Royale replied. “If he doesn´t recover it, he´ll probably lose his job. Or maybe we can lay a trap and take him out. And Fargo will pay the Company in full for its losses, so your uncle will still get his leasage money--a little late, but he´ll get it.”

Lucas reviewed the terrain in his mind. The ideal spot to stop a coach was one where the trail was hampered by steep ground and passed a tongue of timber flowing out of a draw and sweeping down toward the road. Out here on the plain, of course, that was unworkable. But wayside brush and the timber that lined the plains rivers could also work to the advantage of road-agents, helping them to surprise the target and concealing their escape afterward. And although the ground flattened more and more as you neared the mountains, it was also cut across by deep, narrow, unexpected gullies and dry washes; a stage getting across one of these was nearly as helpless as a fish flopping on the bank, with its weight to hold it back once it was stopped, and the edges of the depression to give the robbers the advantage of height. “I think I know a good spot,” he said after a few minutes´ ruminating. “You know Cleft Butte?”

Royale nodded. It was one of those tall rock buttes that can sometimes be found surrounded by miles of almost rockless land. A good hundred and eight feet from top to bottom, it stood on the north bank of the South Platte about thirty-five miles downstream from Jamesburg and twelve above Wells Ranch. “A man on the top of it can see almost ten miles past Wells down the trail, more if he´s got a spyglass,” Lucas went on, “and get down in plenty of time to join his pards before it reaches ´em, being as it stops for team change and a meal in between. About three miles upstream from the Butte there´s a nice deep wash where we can lay for it. Put two or three men up on the west rim to get the drop on the messenger and as many more around the bend to come up fast on the driver´s left, in his blind spot, and the rest can sweep down from behind after the coach is down in the bottom.”

“Can you get the men?”

“I can get ´em, right here on the ranch. Put ´em in dusters with flour-sack hoods and nobody´ll ever be able to describe or identify ´em afterward. When´s the stage due?”

“They never send it through the same time two months in a row, for security reasons. But they don´t want to have the money sitting in the Division safes for three or four weeks at a time either. It starts out from St. Joseph anywhere between the fifteenth and the twenty-first of the month, and the only people outside the Head Office who are supposed to know the exact date are the Division Superintendents. That would bring it through here sometime between the seventeenth and the twenty-third. We´d best be in place, or near, a day or two ahead, just in case.”

Lucas nodded. “I´ll see to it. We can pull out tonight.”

+ + + + + + +

Once he had aroused from his comatose state, JD´s fever began to slowly decrease, and he began to spend as much time awake as asleep. As his temperature went down, he complained of more stuffiness in his nose, and his cough got worse. Nathan assured the anxious Buck that this was to be expected with influenza. “He´ll probably get well fast from here on, though he´ll need to stay in bed for at least a couple more days even after the fever breaks,” the healer said. “He´s like to feel overtired for a week or more, have a loose cough for even longer, and if he tries to get on with his regular routines too early, he could come down with some nasty complications--ear infection, sinus trouble, bronchitis, even pneumonia. But he´s past the worst stage of it now. It helps that he´s young and strong and ain´t got no chronic sicknesses or chest trouble.”

On the seventh day the fever finally broke. The relieved Wilmington, leaving Rain to tend the patient, took Nathan down to Ezra´s saloon and bought a round for the house to celebrate and in honor of the healer´s hard work.

Ezra watched enviously. Some of the stress had been removed from his life when Maude finally moved on to Denver after two weeks in the settlement--two weeks she had spent either gambling in the bar or trying to persuade Ezra to accompany her--but the realizations that had struck him as a result of her arrival were no less keenly felt. He had no desire to be like Nathan--an open, honest, hard-working man selflessly struggling to ease the pain and suffering of anyone who came to him for help. He had seen too many such burn out and become broken, bitter, and sometimes self-destructive, their souls trampled upon by their ungrateful, undeserving public. Yet he was amazed at Jackson´s character and capability. The man confided little of his past, but Ezra had observed the shackle scars on his wrists and knew Nathan had good reason to be exactly the opposite of what he was. Ezra wondered whether he could ever have risen above such dire misuse. And, sadly, whether anyone would ever respect his skills as the locals did Nathan´s, or feel such relief at his recovery from illness as Buck evidenced over JD´s.

He said nothing of these thoughts, of course. Training and habit were stringent, and in any case he had always felt that people should take him as he was. Yet he felt a need to demonstrate that what he was included far more than he ordinarily chose to reveal.

Larabee and his party had returned to Jamesburg the day before JD´s fever broke; the burial corps followed them two days later. Smoldering anger clouded the settlement like smoke from a distant fire; though much of the population was always transient, the Knutsons had been liked and respected, and the sheer number of deaths was impressive in a land so sparsely inhabited. There was a lot of hostile talk among civilians and common soldiers alike about the reprisal that should be visited upon the Indians, and Colonel Travis found it expedient to keep a small revolving detachment on duty to make sure no visiting Arapahoes got caught up in it. Mary Travis, composing the lead stories for the fifth number of the Clarion, did her best to think of ways to downplay the situation without abrogating her responsibilities as an editor. The fact that the Presidential elections were now less than two weeks away helped: the “patent insides” she had arranged to receive from the St. Louis Republican--national and foreign news pre-composed, an innovation that had been introduced about a decade earlier--were filled with political developments and speculation about the likely winner and the reaction of each section. It was beginning to be seriously said that there really was a chance of Lincoln winning, and the Southern fire-eaters were declaring that the South “would not submit to that till every man who could bear arms was shot down.” Already early Republican state victories in Pennsylvania and Indiana had convinced Mr. Douglas that “Mr. Lincoln is the next President,” and he had embarked on an exhausting speaking tour of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, not to press his own candidacy, but to appeal for the preservation of the Union. “I do not believe that every Breckenridge man is a disunionist,” he declared, “but I do believe that every disunionist is a Breckinridge man.” This, of course, only exacerbated the bad feeling, because one thing Breckinridge didn´t stand for was secession.

It was early afternoon on Saturday, the twentieth of October, and JD had moved out of Nathan´s dispensary and into the hotel room Buck kept (but slept in at best half the nights out of the week), when Ezra walked down to the Potters´ store to see whether the eastbound stage, which had pulled in at noon, had brought any mail or magazines of interest. He found two or three of Stuart James´s ranchhands present, serving as escort for Lucas´s Arapaho wife, Mountain Lamb, and her children, who had come in, along with the cook, to do the regular shopping and mail pickup. Lamb was a young woman, perhaps twenty-four, who had adopted to some extent the dress of her husband´s people: she didn´t lace, so she looked somewhat thicker about the waist than did most white women her age; she never wore more than a couple of petticoats (one of them always bright-colored, gay with ruffles, or both), and she clung to moccasins rather than tight, narrow, restrictive shoes, but her dark green dress, trimmed with lace the color of Jersey´s cream, was cut in the fashionable style--tight bodice, full bouffant skirt with three flounces, large bell-shaped sleeves with a lace undersleeve. An Indian cashmere shawl with a long, knotted fringe was draped about her shoulders, its rich colors satisfying her innate love of ornament. Her hair was dressed down her back in a single braid. She wore a ring set with a single large but tasteful diamond, said to be a gift from her husband´s uncle, and coral-and-pearl earrings. Ezra paused to tip his hat to her; she might be an Indian, but she was still a woman, and what was more a person of consequence in the district. As he did, he noticed she was wearing a new ornament--a brooch of onyx and yellow topaz bordered in platted gold. He turned away quickly before anyone could see the light that flashed through his eyes at sight of it. He knew that brooch.

Ezra´s profession had taught him to know and appreciate most of the finer things in life, especially if they had intrinsic value, and most of all if they were things that might end up staked in a poker game, like jewelry. Even now that he was no longer, at least for the present, a peripatetic gambler and con artist, habit kept him noticing such things when they presented themselves. He had seen a brooch like that one before, less than a month ago, gracing the plain blue dress of an emigrant woman on her way to Denver with her newly-wedded husband. Of course it was probably mass-produced; most things were nowadays.

But what if it wasn´t?

His mind was buzzing with speculation as he picked up a copy of the San Francisco Bulletin and claimed his mail, including the latest issue of the Golden Era. He had been the one to suggest that James was connected to, if not the mastermind of, the raiders who had created the dump Larabee and his two friends had found. If this were true, proof would be required. The raiders left no witnesses. But material evidence could speak with equal clarity, and was in some ways more desireable: it never got flustered, never forgot details or changed its story. It seemed likely that James would claim as his own cut items that were either potentially useful to him--food, cattle that could be turned out onto his range--or small and intrinsically valuable, yet not easy to convert to spending cash out here in the wilderness. Outlaw raiders might not have the familiarity with such things to keep from being cheated if they tried to sell them, even supposing they could find someone willing to buy; but James, who was an educated man, would. Perhaps he had noticed that brooch and decided to present it to his niece-by- marriage as he had the ring. Or perhaps Lucas himself had been one of the raiders who had struck the owner´s wagon train, and had taken the brooch as part of his share, to give to his wife. Either way, it supported Ezra´s initial speculation, and gave him a notion of how to incriminate the two men.

He returned to the saloon and struck up a conversation with George, guiding it skilfully until he could casually elicit the information that it was Stuart James´s habit to take a trip to Kansas City every winter soon after the New Year. That, Ezra reflected, made a good deal of sense. Jamesburg had no bank; there were no such institutions any closer than Denver, and even those hadn´t been there more than a year or so, yet James had been raising cattle--and selling them--all along, getting at least part of his pay in cash or military warrants, to say nothing of his income from his holdings in the settlement. Some of that cash would have to be kept at hand to pay his crew and buy whatever he might want to obtain locally, but he would have to have a bank account back East somewhere, so he could cash the warrants he got from the Army and write checks for anything he might want to special-order. Very probably his annual trip to Kansas City was intended to freshen that account with the past year´s revenue, licit and otherwise. He could put the cash in the treasure box, where Fargo would cover its loss in case of a holdup, and secrete the jewelry and such in the bottom of his trunk- -road-agents rarely bothered with luggage, it was too time-consuming and increased the likelihood that someone would come along and catch them in the act. Very possibly he knew of a crooked jeweller or pawnbroker in Kansas City or one of the other river towns--maybe more than one--who wouldn´t question why the same man kept turning up at the same time each year with an assortment not only of jewelry but, probably, thirty or more men´s watches; jewelry he could always claim to be family property, but very few men owned more than two timepieces.

Until he could dispose of that jewelry, he had to store it in some secure place--almost certainly a safe in his ranchhouse. He had implied strongly that such a thing existed when he offered to buy back his building from Ezra with the cash he admitted he had at his home. Money was anonymous, but jewelry might not be. Lockets often had portraits or daguerrotypes inside or were engraved with the owner´s initials. Wedding rings quite commonly had names or initials, with or without the date, engraved around inside. Men´s watches, too, were likely to include a photograph or a sentiment. For a man to have in his possession many items of jewelry, both male and female, with pictures and engraving that didn´t match one another or anyone in his own life would certainly point to his having gained them in a questionable fashion.

And Ezra, in addition to his other talents, was a skilled safecracker.

About a month after acquiring the building, he had bought a horse--a fine chestnut gelding he had named Gambit, since a con artist always had to have more than one. He rode ten miles minimum on the animal every day, usually in the early afternoon, between his late-morning breakfast and the first real rush of customers in the bar. Changing to a Prince Albert coat of Oxford-gray cheviot and a pair of horseman´s jackboots, he went down to the barn and had the animal saddled. He crossed the South Platte by the rush bridge and headed upstream, riding at a casual jogging pace.

He had never visited the James ranch, and doubted he´d be welcome, but he knew how to get there. He wanted to get an idea of the layout, and knew that tonight would be an ideal time to carry out his plan: since it was Saturday, the Jameses and most of their crew would probably be in the settlement, though Mountain Lamb and her children might return home early. He found the turnoff easily enough and followed it to the gate, which, after the usual custom, was a good quarter mile from the buildings, then turned aside and circled the fence line until he sighted an elevation from which he could examine the compound. He studied it with care, observing the natural hiding places, estimating how the shadows would lie at night, plotting several routes in and out and trying to build up a mental picture of how they would look at their own level in the dark. A retentive memory was always an asset in his profession--both of his professions--and after about forty-five minutes he thought he had a good idea of the best routes to take and where to leave Gambit. He turned down the back of the rise and circled until he hit the river, then headed downstream to the bridge.

It occurred to him that it might be best not to put Gambit back in the barn if he foresaw the need of the animal tonight. Vin Tanner was seldom one to stay up late, and he slept by habit in the loft; he might well be awakened by Ezra´s getting the horse ready, and ask questions Ezra wasn´t prepared to answer. One of the storage sheds behind Potters´ store was currently empty. He sneaked the chestnut into it, stripped the saddle off him and brought a bucket of water from the big windmill that serviced the whole community. “I apologize for the lack of solid sustenance, my dear friend,” he told the horse, “but it would be a good deal more difficult to bring it here clandestinely than it is drink. You were fed this mornin´, and would not be due for more until late evenin´ in any case.” He produced a couple of plums from his pocket and presented them to the eager animal, which consumed them with a loud crunching of pits. “Rest, faithful retainer, and I shall return when it is dark.”

He stopped in his room to change back into his usual street boots and colorful jacket, as he always did after his ride--it wouldn´t do to depart from his routine any earlier than he had to--and got his dinner at the restaurant, but ate lightly, choosing only one meat dish and two vegetables. After that he made his obligatory appearance at the saloon, watching and listening until he learned that he´d been right--the Jameses were both in, along with most of their crew: during the heavy working season this numbered fully a hundred, but now, with the fall gather complete, the majority had been let go, leaving only about thirty or forty, still too many for one man to dare running foul of. Given the crowded situation, nobody really noticed when he quietly slipped out.

Gambit lifted his head eagerly, ears shooting forward, as Ezra slipped into the shed. He had had to saddle up by touch before, and made short work of the process. Cautiously peering out to make sure he wasn´t being observed, he led the chestnut from its temporary lodging, mounted up, and headed for the river, being careful to chart a course that avoided the barn. The water was low now, and he was able to cross without resorting to the bridge, or even getting his boots wet. He retraced most of the course he had followed earlier that day, turning off the trail before he got to James´s road and circling around. A patch of fifteen-foot serviceberry provided a place of concealment for Gambit, and Ezra began moving in, following the route he´d plotted for himself and listening for dogs. He had provided himself with a supply of beef jerky in case any challenged him, but apparently the wind was in his favor tonight.

He had observed a light burning in one of the upper front rooms of the main house, but the entire lower floor was dark, along with the bunkhouse and cook shack. At the back of the house there was a porch, sheltering the kitchen door; this was locked, but the picks in his lapel made quick work of it. From the kitchen he quickly found his way to the butler´s pantry, and thence to a long, wide central hall, much like those common in his native South. He waited a moment until his eyes got used to its dimness, considering where his goal might be. James would probably keep his safe in his private study or office--any man of his standing would have one--and that would almost certainly be nearer the back than the front, if only because guests would enter by the latter and the rooms where they were entertained would be in proximity to it. Doors lined both sides of the corridor. Reasoning that the dining room must be on his right, on the other side of the pantry, he tried the second on the left. Moonlight filtering through the windows showed him that he had guessed accurately: the furnishings were clearly those of a gentleman´s retreat.

James had made no effort to conceal his safe, though he´d been careful to situate it against an inner wall. It was a tall, heavy thing of black iron, draped like a table with a flowered cloth. Ezra gently lifted a large framed engraving of Landseer´s “Stag at Bay” off the wall, stood it up against the front legs of one of a pair of Renaissance-style side chairs which he moved from its place flanking the chess table to one between the safe and the window, took a green-shaded lamp off the desk and lit it, turning the wick down as low as he could and shielding it from the window with the engraving, which also helped reflect its glow back on the dial. He flexed his fingers a few times, loosened his shoulders and neck with a simple exercise he had learned as a boy, brought his breathing under control and began his attack on the safe.

Though sturdy and heavy, the piece hadn´t been selected with the possibility of a really skilled burglar in mind, probably in part because such men would be rare in these sparsely settled territories. In less than five minutes Ezra had it open. Picking up the lamp, he held it close to the interior, which proved to be fitted up with shelves, pigeonholes, and drawers. The latter were occupied chiefly by ledgers and the like, which he ignored. The first drawer he tried, on the other hand, was paydirt. The faint glow of the lamp threw back glimmers from a tangle of jewelry, everything from four-strand necklaces through delicate cameos to small silver earrings. A velvet bag proved to be full of rings, some set with stones, others simple gold bands. He held one of the latter close to the lamp and made out the delicately inscribed legend: Louis to Emily, January 12, 1850, Xenia, Ohio. Quick random checks of several of the other pieces revealed numerous pictures, as he had anticipated, in the lockets and medallions. Another drawer was filled with men´s watches; one gold one had the initials ERT skilfully wrought on the inside of the case.

Ezra knew better than to empty out the entire cache. If all of James´s ill-gotten gains suddenly disappeared, and even more if all the jewelry did but the money remained untouched, the man would be sure to discover it and suspect that something wasn´t right, and he might bolt--or even decide to make some sort of pre-emptive strike. But there was a very good chance that he couldn´t describe every single item. Ezra picked and chose, selecting only those which seemed unique, whether by reason of craftsmanship or of personalization. He stowed them securely in a drawstring buckskin bag in his inside coat pocket, then gently shut the safe door and spun the dial before blowing out the lamp and returning it to the desk. He replaced the engraving and the chair and listened at the door for a minute or two before cautiously cracking it open and peering out. The hallway was as dark and still as it had been when he entered. Sticking close to the wall, where he was least likely to raise creaks from the floorboards, he made his way to the back door and slipped out. He couldn´t relock it from the outside; he´d have to take the chance that whoever found it to be unsecured would figure that someone had simply forgotten it in the hustle and bustle of getting ready to go into the settlement for Saturday´s recreation.

He never saw the man who appeared from behind a barrel directly behind him, chopping the neckcord below his left ear with the edge of his palm. The blow dropped him, paralyzed, and a quick blow with a gun barrel to his head insured that he would stay out longer.

Spencer Irely checked to make sure his victim was breathing, then searched him, grimacing in surprise as he discovered, successively, the Colt Navy Model 1851 in his hip holster, the Smith & Wesson No. 1 .22 under his left arm, the derringer up his sleeve, the Bowie knife in the riveted case in his boot, and the slender Italian blade suspended between his shoulderblades. Last to come to light was the buckskin pouch of takings from the safe. Irely was surprised that the gambler would have made away with so little; he had a good idea of how much was stowed in there. He frowned; something about this didn´t track. He had guessed something was up when he followed the muffled sound of a large body moving about to discover Standish´s chestnut gelding, complete with saddle, hidden away in the Potters´ storage shed. That the Southerner hadn´t returned the animal to its usual quarters in the barn suggested he had some reason not to wish to be found getting it out, and for that reason Irely had abandoned his usual surveillance of Chris Larabee in favor of Standish, or rather his horse. He had kept watch, concealed by the pump house under the windmill, until he saw the man lead his mount into the open and get into the saddle, then had quickly mounted his own waiting roan and followed at a respectful distance, tracking more by sound--which carried well in the dry prairie air, especially at night--and the smell of dust raised by the chestnut´s passage than by eye. He had reached the ranch headquarters just in time to see Standish disappear into the house, and rather than go in after him had decided to wait, knowing he was bound to exit eventually and might let down his guard at that point, especially if he´d done whatever he´d come for without being challenged.

He eyed the unconscious man thoughtfully, trying to decide on a secure place to put him, preferably one where he wasn´t likely to be discovered by any of the crew--or, worse, the Mexican house staff--going about its lawful occasions. After a moment he made his decision: the powder magazine. It was stout and strong, and if Standish yelled he wasn´t likely to be heard; it had a padlock on the door, to which Irely had a key; and there wasn´t a lot of chance that anyone would need to go in there in the next twelve hours or so.

He lifted Standish across his shoulder, surprised to find how heavy the man was and guessing, from his build, that most of it was muscle. Less than fifteen minutes later he had the Southerner secured, his hands and feet bound, weapons lain on top of a barrel of powder with his jacket thrown over them. He locked the magazine behind him and went to get his horse. Ordinarily he wouldn´t bother Mr. James on a Saturday night in town, but this was something he thought the man would want to know.


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