II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

11. Showdown
Ezra awoke with a start, his heart hammering so rapidly he thought it would burst out of his chest. For several minutes he lay absolutely still, his body rigid, eyes wide, staring up into the darkness above him. He could make out the pattern of tree branches, mostly bare, and beyond them sky, stars, a moon trending toward three-quarter. Over the pounding in his ears he heard a snore, a voice mumbling something he couldn´t quite understand, a muffled loose cough. And then a quiet drawl next to him: “Hey, Ez, y´okay?”

His muscles relaxed slowly. He knew where he was now: the willow island in the South Platte. He wasn´t with the Arapaho any more. The others, Mr. Larabee and the rest, had come to get him--which was still almost more than he could comprehend or accept, even though he knew it was true. Mr. Larabee had talked with the pursuing Indians and they had gone home. He was safe. He turned his head to see Vin´s bright, almost luminous blue eyes watching him with concern. Since he had no blankets of his own, the hunter had offered to “split the bed” with him, on the theory that his buffalo robe was about the warmest bedding in the group. In any case, Tanner´s build was slight, like his own; the only man of the seven smaller than them was JD. He wouldn´t crowd the rescued gambler out by sheer size, the way one of the four bigger, older men might.

“Yes, Mr. Tanner,” he said evenly, “I´m quite well. I was merely-- dreamin´.”

“Ain´t s´prised,” the Texan observed. “Maybe shouldn´a´ told you what they had in mind for you.”

“No. I appreciate your honesty. I wanted to know why; it seems somehow correct that you should also have mentioned what.”

Vin pushed himself up a little higher, propping his head on his hand. “Been with Indians myself,” he said slowly. “Seen somethin´ of what they do. Y´ever need to talk...I´ll listen, Ez.”

“Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I mean that, sincerely. But I...I believe I must ask for some time to...to fully process all that has happened to me.”

“Sure,” Vin agreed. “Said before, reckon it´ll take some doin´.” He twisted his head around at the sound of another muffled cough. “Damn, JD ain´t soundin´ good. Buck ain´t gonna be happy with him.”

Ezra snorted. “Hardly his doin´, I should say. He certainly didn´t ask to fall victim to the malady.”

“No, but he made it damn clear he ´s figurin´ to help find you,” Tanner replied. “Bucklin wanted him to stay in town, but he wasn´t havin´ none of it.”

“Possibly the affliction is merely rendered more severe by the evenin´ dews and damps,” the gambler suggested. “Once the sun warms him--”

“Reckon so,” Vin agreed. “Didn´t seem to be troublin´ him none durin´ the day.”

“Speakin´ of day,” Ezra added, “how much longer do you estimate we must wait until Phoebus shows his face?”

The hunter squinted up through the intervening branches. “Reckon ´bout three hours,” he decided. “You wasn´t thinkin´ of settin´ up, was you?”

Standish sighed. “The thought had occurred to me,” he admitted. “After all, I am hardly unaccustomed to unconventional patterns of sleep.”

“Gotta face up to it, pard,” Vin said quietly. “Can´t run from somethin´ like this. Gotta sleep sometime. You go on and close them eyes. You don´t gotta deal with it alone no more.”

And that, the Southerner thought as he turned over and squirmed into a slightly more comfortable position, is the wonder of the thing. That I am not alone. That someone--more than one--may actually care. I still find it difficult to believe, and I cannot fully understand how it has happened. And yet I have made my livin´ through readin´ others, and I see that it is true. He tucked his forearm under his head and thought about his conversation with Inez on the kitchen porch, the night Arthur Jerrenson was murdered. It appears that, even then, I possessed what she maintained I was seekin´. Certainly I know of no act by which I might have earned those things since. How could I not have realized it earlier? My perception, it seems, is sadly lackin´ toward the more positive aspects of human character. He smothered a snort. And that, at least, is somethin´ I can understand, considerin´ my associations to date.

He sighed and closed his eyes. I cannot promise I will never disappoint you in future, Mr. Larabee. But I will do my best to be worthy of your effort. No one ever cared enough to risk his life for me, until now. Suddenly there are six. That is not somethin´ a man can forget.

He slept, and no more dreams disturbed him.

+ + + + + + +

It was a little after eleven-thirty A.M., and Rain Jackson, with her infant daughter Susannah in her cradleboard, had come over to the Travis cabin to borrow some eggs, when the two women, standing on the doorstep, heard the steady rhythm of hoofbeats on the trail that passed by less than seven hundred feet from the building. Knowing by the volume that there was more than one horse, they both turned to look, hoping to see Chris Larabee and his company returning with Ezra Standish safely in their midst. Instead a group of riders and packhorses swept by from the downstream direction, casting no glance toward them.

Wagon traffic had fallen off almost to nonexistence over the last couple of weeks, but some late parties of horsebackers continued to come through on their way to the diggings. The group might well have passed for such a one if Mary hadn´t already interviewed the driver and the wounded Fargo agent off the special coach. She noted at once the big dark-dappled gray mare, with black stockings and muzzle and an irregular stripe on the face, that one of the leading riders bestrode, the broad-brimmed fawn-colored hat the man wore, and the red-dust roan Appaloosa, Mexican spurs, and black hat with the tip of a hawk wing tucked into the band that distinguished the man beside him. She realized in an instant that these were the road- agents. Surely they were aware that their surviving victims would have seen at least their hats and horses and passed their descriptions on to Larabee. Why, then, would they ride openly into the settlement? The only possible answer was that they were up to no good.

“Rain, get inside, quickly,” she ordered. “Get down in the cellar with the baby and stay there.”

“What?” the younger woman echoed, allowing herself to be drawn into the shelter of the cabin. “Why?” Billy, working over his reader at the table, looked up curiously.

“Just do it,” Mary insisted. “Those are the men who held up the special coach. Their descriptions match the ones I got from the driver and the guard.” She pulled aside the rag rug that concealed the trapdoor to the cellar and lifted it.

“But why are they here, then?” Rain wondered.

“I don´t know,” Mary admitted grimly, “but I know it can´t be good. Billy,” she added, “I need you to do an errand for me.”

“What, Ma?” the boy asked.

Mary kept her voice steady as she carefully lowered the trap on Rain´s vanishing form, kicked the rug back over it, and went to the fireplace to take Steven´s big shotgun down from its pegs on the chimneybreast. “Go get your pony,” she said, “and ride to the Fort. Tell your grandpa there are some bad men in the settlement, the men who took the Company payroll on Sunday.” With only a mile separating the military compound from the civilian community, she didn´t doubt that the word had reached the former almost as quickly as it had spread through the latter. “Tell him Captain Larabee isn´t here to do anything about them, and we need him to send soldiers to arrest them. Don´t go down the main street. Make a big circle east, past the last cabins, and come back to the trail after you´ve passed the barn. Can you do that?”

Billy listened attentively, his face solemn. “I can do that, Ma,” he agreed, and for a moment it saddened her that he felt obliged to act so grown-up at the age of six.

“Go, then,” she said, taking his blanket coat and round-crowned black hat off their pegs by the door and handing them to him. He flailed hastily into the garment, not bothering to fasten it, and slapped the hat onto his head as she carefully opened the door and peered out. The riders had gone on into the settlement and were hidden from view, which meant they couldn´t see the cabin either.

Billy scuttled around the corner toward the shed where his pony lived. Grasping the heavy shotgun, Mary waited until she heard the animal´s quick, light hoofbeats fading into the distance. Then she fixed her eyes on the back door of Potters´ store and began moving in that direction. She was still twenty yards away from it when she heard the first gunshots.

+ + + + + + +

Buck scowled at JD as the boy tried to muffle his third cough in less than an hour. “Didn´t I tell you to stay in town?” he demanded. “Didn´t Nate tell you you had to take it easy? Hell, no, you know better´n both of us. I hope that´s a lesson to you.”

JD did his best to glare at the big man, but fell well short of Chris Larabee in his attempt. Before he could say anything, a volley of gunshots sounded from the direction of Jamesburg, now no more than three-quarters of a mile downstream. After breakfasting off the last of their supplies, the seven had crossed over to the main emigrant trail on the south bank of the river and headed homeward, passing the gates of Fort Sedgwick only minutes earlier. They slowed and checked at the sound, exchanging worried looks. Jamesburg was a wild little place, but shots in that number were rare, least of all on a Wednesday noon, and the transient population was much lower at this season than it had been four or five months earlier, offering less opportunities for friction and trouble.

“Rider comin´,” said Vin, and a moment later: “Shit, that´s Billy.”

“You sure?” Chris demanded.

“Picked that pony out myself. Reckon I know her when I see her.”

The boy had apparently seen them too, and he checked his pace uncertainly, then recognized Blackhawk and Chris´s dark dress at the head of the group, Buck´s height and his horse´s pale coat, Josiah´s bulk and Nathan´s dark face, and booted the pony on to meet them. Vin reached out to catch the bridle of the long-legged little gray, noting with a mixture of concern and approval that the boy hadn´t taken time to saddle her. “What´s going on, Billy?” Larabee demanded. “Where are you going?”

“Ma told me to go to the Fort and get Grandpa,” Billy replied, “on account of you weren´t home. She said some bad men had come to town and we needed somebody to arrest them.”

Chris shot a puzzled look at Vin. “How did your ma know they were bad men, Billy?”

“I don´t know, but she said to say they were the ones that took the money off the special coach.”

“Hell,” said Buck. “Royale and James.”

“Mary is a newspaperwoman,” Josiah observed. “She´ll have talked to the driver and gotten descriptions. She must have recognized them as they came in.”

“But why would these miscreants ride openly into our community?” Ezra wondered. “Surely they must be aware that, havin´ left survivors, their distinguishin´ marks would be disseminated. Should they not rather be fleein´ the country, or at least seekin´ some remote place of refuge where they may rest and divide their ill-gotten gains?”

“If it was anybody but Royale and Lucas James,” Chris replied, “you´d be right. Royale´s got a grudge against me--you pointed it out yourself. And Lucas doesn´t have a lot of reason to like you. My bet is that they´ve come hunting. They must have brought the rest of the gang with them, too, if Mrs. Travis thinks the Colonel should send troops to deal with them.”

Buck frowned. “Them boys ain´t got no reason to be gunnin´ for any of us,” he pointed out. “Only one way James and Royale could´a hooked their interest, and that´d be money. Potter´s got a safe, Ezra´s got one, and there´s the Company one in your office and the tills besides. And they might be thinkin´ about runnin´ off the Company horses from the barn when they leave.”

Chris nodded and squinted thoughtfully in the direction of the settlement, where the racket of gunshots had fallen off to silence. The transients wouldn´t be likely to take a hand in something they´d rightly see as none of their business. The male population of the place tallied slightly over a hundred and would have the road- agents outnumbered, but they weren´t organized under a single leader (or even two) as the latter were, and a lot of them were Company employees who´d figure their first obligation was to protect the barn and stock, not to mount an offensive. “We need to get a better idea of where they are and what they´re doing,” he decided. “And we can´t let them know we know they´re there. Billy,” he told the boy, “go on to the Fort like your ma told you to do. Tell your grandpa we´re home and we´re going to take care of those bad men, but that if he doesn´t hear from us in three hours, he should send Lieutenant Mosely in with Company D.”

“Okay, Chris,” Billy agreed. Vin turned loose of the pony´s bridle and the men fell back to let him pass.

“How d´ya figure on doin´ it, cowboy?” the tracker asked.

“If Royale´s brought the whole bunch with him,” Larabee responded slowly, thinking out loud, “odds are they´re planning to scatter once they´re finished--or else, as Buck said, strip the settlement of horses and head for Denver. Either way, they´ll have the stolen money with them. They won´t want to leave that where anyone would come upon it casually and be able to run off with it. If I was Royale, I´d know that the men at the barn would recognize me and be ready to fight, so I wouldn´t even try to leave my horses there. I´d put them down in the trees along the riverbank with a couple of men to watch them. If we can take those men out and move the horses, we´ll set the gang afoot and make it harder for them to get away. Besides, the brush will give us cover to reconnoiter from. Let´s get across the river here and see if we can take the horse-holders in the rear.”

The low autumn water made the crossing easy, even though they were still well above the rush bridge. Chris guessed that the road-agents´ horses would be somewhere fairly close to the latter´s east end, enabling them to cover it. He led the way past the bridgetender´s sod shack, sticking close to the trees so no one on the settlement side of the river would be likely to spot them, and paused when he figured he was just about even with the door of Ezra´s saloon. “All right,” he said. “We´ll leave our own horses here, so Royale and his gang will be less likely to find them and take them for substitutes, and cross back. Vin, think you can find the horse-holders?”

Tanner grinned ferally. “Easy.”

“I shall accompany you, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra announced. “What?” he added, feeling the eyes that turned to study him. “As Mr. Wilmington so rightly pointed out, I stand to lose from these miscreants as surely as the Company has. In any case, if I am to be of any use in the altercation that lies before us, I must procure some sort of weaponry. Where better to obtain it than from our foes? And if young Mr. James feels he has some score to settle with me, I have equally as much reason to harbor similar sentiments toward his family. I remind you that it was his uncle who attempted to arrange my execution at the hands of the Arapaho. I have known blood feuds to start from less.”

Buck eyed the gambler solemnly. “He´s got a point, pard.”

Chris looked at Vin and received the faintest hint of a nod. “All right,” he said. “Watch your backs.”

+ + + + + + +

It took Vin only minutes to home in on the sounds made by the road-agents´ horses. He was surprised to notice how quietly Ezra was able to move--not as soundlessly as himself, owing chiefly to the fact that he was wearing boots rather than moccasins, but with a lightness and grace that could only be compared to a dancing master´s. The Southerner allowed him to direct their course, patient and sure in the knowledge that he would have his chance.

There were, as Chris had guessed, two horse-holders, keeping watch over ten saddled and four pack animals, two of the latter apparently carrying little or nothing in their panniers; maybe the gang intended to supply itself from its incursion into Jamesburg. There was no further sound of shooting from the settlement, and Tanner hazarded a guess that the initial barrage had been intended to cow the inhabitants and scatter the transients into hiding. The hunter frowned. Gunfire not their own might warn the outlaws that someone was taking an interest in them, which would cut down on the advantage of surprise that Chris clearly counted on. “We gotta do this fast and quiet, Ez,” he declared. “You know how to use a knife?”

The gambler snorted delicately in scorn. “I am a Southerner, Mr. Tanner,” he pointed out. He didn´t need to say anything else. Though the same might not be true in the older, civilized East, no Westerner or Southerner, even in the big cities, was considered fully clothed unless he had at least one knife on him somewhere.

Vin reached into his left sleeve for the eight-inch Spanish dagger sheathed on his forearm. “You take this, then, and give me a count of three hundred to get set. When you see me move, you do the same. I´ll take the boy in the buffalo coat, you get the redhead.”

“Consider it done,” Ezra agreed, accepting the slender blade.

Vin faded off to the right, circled, and moved in, keeping to cover. Using the horses to screen his approach, he worked his way closer, keeping a mental count of elapsed time. The animals shifted restlessly, disturbed by his Indian-like scent and stealthy movements. The horse-holders turned their attention from the bridge and surrounding growth, splitting up to circle the knot of horses and see what was bothering them. Vin lowered himself flat in the grass and waited. When the man in the buffalo coat came past him, he held himself in readiness until he saw the fellow´s foot lift off the ground, then pounced, seizing the ankle with his left hand and drawing his Bowie with his right. The outlaw cried out and went for his gun, but before he could get it clear he was down and Vin was on top of him. There was a scuffle, a gasp, and the man lay dead with Tanner´s Bowie buried to the hilt in his chest. Vin heard a whistle, followed almost instantly by the muffled thump of a thrown blade meeting flesh: Ezra had attracted the redhead´s attention, stood up from his covert as the man turned, and hurled the dagger like a stiletto. It had taken the man´s throat out.

Vin stood up and eyed the body. “Not bad, pard.”

Ezra lifted two fingers to his brow in a wry salute. “Comin´ from one of your experience, Mr. Tanner, I shall treasure that compliment. Your knife, sir,” he added, wiping it clean on the dead man´s trousers and tossing it underhand into the tracker´s waiting palm. He quickly stripped the twin Navy Colts and harness from his victim´s body and strapped them in place around his own waist. “Shall we remove these horses and rejoin Mr. Larabee?”

+ + + + + + +

Chris glanced up as Vin slid into position belly-down on his right with Ezra just beyond him. He didn´t bother to ask if they had carried out the task assigned them; if they were here, the horse-holders were on their way to judgment. “Got ´em spotted, cowboy?” the hunter asked.

“We got here just in time to see them split up,” Larabee told him. “Royale and another went into the stage office, which makes sense: he´s the only one of the lot who´d know the combination to the office safe. James is in Potters´ with two others. The rest are in the saloon. We can´t tell exactly what´s going on inside, because of the distance and the shade of the awnings, but at least there hasn´t been any more shooting.”

“Have you devised a plan?” Ezra inquired.

Chris frowned. “The odds are almost even with the horse-holders out of it, but I don´t like the notion of dividing my forces,” he said. “They can´t get to where they think their horses are without our seeing them. It might be best if we just wait till they come out. By then, with no opposition mounted against them, they may be starting to let their guard down. We brought your rifles along--Buck, pass them over here.” He handed the Volcanic and the Sharps on to the two men and waited while they checked the weapons over.

A distant crash sounded from the saloon. Ezra clenched his teeth. “The wretched miscreants are undoubtedly wreckin´ my bar,” he growled.

“More likely one of them dropped a bottle. Like Buck said, the only one with a personal grudge against you is James,” Larabee observed. “My guess is they´re there to empty out the tills behind the bar and the registration desk, and load up on whiskey for the road. But they won´t want to take any more time about it than they have to; the longer they linger, the better the chance someone will get up the grit to organize some kind of resistance against them.” He pulled his long Spencer up onto his forearms and settled. “We´ll wait.”

+ + + + + + +

Randolph Potter, like all general- storekeepers, did a good bit of his business on a barter basis: the farmers and small ranchers expected as of right that they would be carried on his books from year to year, selling their produce to him in the fall and paying their accounts if they had enough money, and in turn being rallied round the whiskey barrel for drinks by the tin dipperful. He would accept just about anything--linen rags, wool, fleeces, skins and hides, furs, hog bristles, wood ashes, fat and grease, cut firewood, game-meat, herbs and other useful plants, and old worn-out articles of copper, brass, and pewter as well as hay, grain, field and garden crops, and livestock, either slaughtered or on the hoof--and as a rule when the books were balanced once a year, there was little to tell either way. The “kind” he took in he shipped east by the Company freight wagons heading home empty, and a cousin of his in Kansas City, serving as his “factor” after the Southern model, sold it, took a commission for his trouble, and deposited the money that was left over in his bank account. Most of the dealings he had with the transients and the permanent in-town population were done in cash, however, so he usually had a fair stash of it on hand. Because there was no bank, he also accepted and held sums of it for people he knew, paying two and a half to three per cent interest, and made loans at three and a half to five. Three or four times a year he would ship his funds east in the Fargo box, and his cousin would put them in the bank for him. His rental payments to Ezra and his remittances to his various wholesalers he could then make by checks drawn on the Kansas City account. All this meant that he had, of necessity, a safe--a large, solid-looking combination one of heavy steel, set behind a higher section of the counter in the corner. Most of the time it was kept closed, and the day´s operating cash rested in a little iron petty cashbox under the counter; in the evenings and at other times when business was slack, Potter would work on his books and orders.

As in all family-operated businesses, his children, Amelia and Reuben, helped out as their size and ability allowed, mostly bringing in fuel for the stove, dusting and sweeping, and shelving small items; once that was done, there being no school in the settlement, they did their lessons under their mother´s eye, then were free to play with their friends until home chores beckoned. Heavier work such as the unloading and storage of stock, making of deliveries, raising and lowering of shutters, waiting on customers and helping to load their wagons was in the hands of the clerks, five or six full-time ones at thirty-five dollars a month during the high season, down to two or three part- timers at sixteen in the winter. And, of course, his wife Gloria did a large share of work too, particularly when there were female customers to be tended to. Now that the transient traffic had fallen off, he had let most of the clerks go, and Gloria had been just about to head home to their cabin to prepare the noon meal when Lucas James and his two cohorts barged in with guns drawn and held everyone at bay in the corner near the desk. Fortunately at that hour most people were either at home beginning their own dinners or at work waiting for their breaks, and no customers were present; and the children, their tasks and lessons complete, had been released to play about half an hour before.

Lucas and his backup hadn´t bothered with their dusters and hoods, but they had covered their faces with bandannas, and Lucas had left his distinctive buckskin coat tied to his saddle. Under the counter, near the cashbox, was a supply of clean gunny sacks for the convenience of riders who were outfitting. He dumped the contents of the cashbox into one of these and dropped it on the floor beside him, passing a couple of others to each of his men, who immediately began looting the stock for food and ammunition while Lucas kept the Potters and their clerks covered. “Open the safe,” he ordered.

“Go to hell,” Potter retorted. He resolutely kept his eyes away from the shelf under the coffee mill, where a revolver taken in trade was kept against the possibility of holdups; since it was several feet to the left of the cashbox, Lucas hadn´t noticed it.

“Not before you,” Lucas growled. “Open it.”

“You won´t shoot me,” said Potter defiantly. “I can´t unlock the safe if I´m dead.”

Lucas considered that possibility and was forced to admit its truth. Doubtless the combination was written down somewhere, in the desk or in the Potters´ cabin, in case the man were absent or indisposed and his wife needed it, but they didn´t have the time to search. “I won´t kill you,” he agreed, “but I can blow out your kneecap, or break your shoulder. You´ll live, but you´ll hurt every day that´s left to you.” Then he smiled behind his bandanna. “Better yet, I can kill them, one at a time, till you agree to do what you´re told.” He nodded toward the clerks and Gloria, crowded into the angle where the desk met the wall. “Now, should I leave your wife for last, or not? If I kill her, you´ll know I´m serious. How do you figure to explain to your kids that you let their mamma die for the sake of money that can´t buy her back?”

Potter made his move. In a wild community like Jamesburg he had thought it wise to be prepared, and had practised this maneuver from various angles, over and over, until it was almost second nature. He was still a young man, barely thirty-five, and faster than his occupation might have suggested. He actually got his hand on the ancient Colt, the hammer drawn back and the barrel swung half around, before James had time to react.

Mary Travis had reached the loading dock at the back of the store without being seen. A single door gave onto it, always left unlocked during business hours since it was the most convenient way to get to the privy. Beyond that door, she knew, was the storeroom, piled to the ceiling with boxes and barrels and equipped with a crowbar, an extra meat saw, and other useful tools; from it an inside stair led down to the cellar, which was also served by a slanted exterior door and ramp. Holding her breath and praying that Randolph kept the hinges well oiled, she cautiously turned the knob and pushed at the door with the muzzle of her shotgun. She had a moment to wonder why she was doing something that should properly be the task of a man, and to think how scandalized her mother would be if she knew. But Gloria Potter was a friend of hers and possibly in danger. Mary already felt she had failed Steven by not being there the night he was murdered, however often and truthfully Eleanor Pruitt had insisted that if she had, she might well have been killed too, leaving Billy an orphan. She had no intention of failing Gloria and her children the same way.

She stepped cautiously into the dim storeroom, her eyes on the bead curtain that intervened between it and the main sales floor. The sound of two shots and the scream of a woman almost startled her into letting fly with the shotgun; it took her a moment to realize no one had seen her. From the store she could hear Gloria sobbing, shrieking her husband´s name, and knew she was too late.

Lucas James growled a vicious curse under his breath as he watched Gloria hurl herself across her husband´s body. It had happened so damned fast he´d shot to kill on reflex. Now Potter was dead, and any hope of emptying his safe with him.

Lucas quickly toed the once-fired Colt away from the storekeeper´s slack hand, bent and picked it up and stuffed it through his waistband, watching the shocked clerks out of the corner of his eye. Then he backed up, glancing around to see whether his men had finished getting the supplies they needed. Both had turned and drawn their own guns at the sound of the shots; their gunny sacks bulged in a way that suggested they had completed their tasks. “Put ´em up,” he ordered, and glared at Potter. “Damn fool.”

Furious at the dead man for forcing his hand and at himself for not taking the time to aim better, Lucas´s seething anger demanded release. He already knew Standish was out of town, though he had no idea where the man had gone; he´d shaken that information out of a fleeing resident in the street, before coming in here. But men who went out of town usually came back eventually. If he couldn´t kill the Southerner and settle up for their first meeting, he could make sure Standish would get home to find a clear message that he´d made the wrong choice that day.

“Let´s go,” he commanded, and spun away from the store people, toward the front door.


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