by Sevenstars

Bentann exchanged a quick look with his cousin. "Where is he and what's he doing?"

"He's in New Mexico Territory, Mr. Bentann, in a little town called Four Corners. It seems he and several other men have been hired by the Federal circuit-court judge for the district, a man by the name of Orin Travis, to keep the peace there."

"A lawman?"

Waxley frowned. "Not in the official sense, sir. He doesn't wear a badge, although there is an appointed sheriff, one of the other men--a boy, really, I don't think he's more than eighteen. Most of the men don't seem to have any official titles; they're just referred to as ‘our peacekeepers' or ‘our seven.' "

Bentann's brows rose. "Seven men for one town? Rather extreme, isn't it?"

"From what I was told, sir, I'd say not. It seems most of them first wandered in there about five months ago; two stopped the lynching of a local black man who holds some regard as a healer, a sort of self-taught irregular doctor, and then the group of them banded together to beat off some ragtag former Confederates who were harassing a nearby Indian village. At the time the town was pretty wild--a lot of outlaws using it as a layover and amusement spot, a couple of big local cattlemen pretty much doing as they pleased, and trailhands coming through at intervals and kicking up a ruckus. These seven men killed a lot of the bad ones and chased the rest out, backed the cattlemen down, and after breaking a few heads made it clear to the trailhands that they expected manners to be minded within the city limits. Each gets full free room and board for himself and his horse, plus a dollar a day; it doesn't come to much more than most towns would pay for a marshal and two deputies. Travis backs them to the hilt, and his daughter-in-law--she's a widow, took over her husband's newspaper after he was murdered--is their staunch advocate. There are some who still feel a little dubious about them--at least one has a nasty reputation and a worse temper--but most of the townsfolk seem to accept them and to feel grateful to them."

"Hmm." Bentann took a minute or two to think the information over. "I realize, Mr. Waxley, that I only hired your agency to trace Wilmington. But since you seem to have picked up quite a bit of information on the side about the other men, I'd like you to tell me everything you know of them. Names, descriptions, reputations, what their relationship with Wilmington is like."

Later, after Jeremy had been summoned to show Waxley out, Bentann sipped his whiskey and eyed Warren over the rim of the glass. "What do you think about that?" he mused, a hint of laughter in his voice. "Our old riding partner Buck Wilmington a town-tamer with a badge in his background. I wonder what the people he's protecting would say if they knew what he was up to twenty years ago."

"Not much," was Warren's opinion. "Most settlers in New Mexico never had much to do with Kansas. A lot of 'em probably went there just because they heard about the trouble and didn't want to get mixed up in it."

"I suppose that's true," Bentann agreed. "And the fact that we've never heard anything from him, all these years, suggests he'd just as soon forget it all. Still, he knows a lot of things I'd rather not have made public. He apparently doesn't realize we're still around; that should work to our advantage."

Warren grinned slyly. "Figured you'd say that. You want him bought, or otherwise?"

"I don't think a man who was nearly hanged is going to be easily or cheaply bought," said Bentann. "He may hold a grudge. No, I think it would be best if he's permanently quieted. On the other hand, we've never had to go quite so far afield before, and I'd like to be close by--close enough to see him, maybe, and make him understand, before he dies, who I've become and what I'm on my way to. I'll have Jeremy check out stage routes. He and Cora and I will make our way to the closest town to Four Corners, and you'll go on ahead. It's too hot to do much campaigning, anyway; we might as well take a couple of weeks' vacation and rest up a bit, build up our strength for the fall."

Warren frowned briefly. "Why Jeremy?"

"Why not? I'll still have my business interests back here, I'll need him to help me keep abreast of things. Don't tell me you still feel suspicious of him, Warren."

"Not...suspicious, exactly. Uneasy. It's just a little thick for coincidence, Marc, that somebody with all his schooling should more or less fall off a train just when you need him, and accept the job too, instead of going on to, oh, Denver, say, or Cheyenne; hell, a governor'd be lucky to have him."

"Maybe one will," grinned Bentann.

"No-o," drawled Warren thoughtfully, choosing a second cigar, "I don't think you'll be satisfied with state office once you've made it to Washington. It'd be a comedown, and you've always been one to go upward."

That was true, Bentann considered. Unlike many of his old comrades in the Raysville Regulators, he'd had his eye on the main chance from the very start. His father had been a prosperous hardware merchant in southeast Pennsylvania, but with a farm outside of town, where the young Marcus had learned to ride and shoot; he'd seen to it that his sons had good educations, and Marcus had in fact been intended for a legal career. Instead he very early showed himself to be the black sheep, the kind of man who often makes the worst sort of outlaw, and had headed West at sixteen, running away from school to join the California Gold Rush. He made expenses but didn't hit it big, and also killed his first men. When news of the burgeoning Kansas troubles reached him, in '56, he turned eastward again. He was too late for the big excitement around Lawrence, but soon gathered unto himself a group of like-minded compatriots who got themselves accepted as "protectors" of the settlers of Bourbon County.

Most of the Regulators blew the proceeds of their plundering in debauchery, but not Bentann. He turned it into gold and silver and cached it, and when the War ended, he had a stake. He returned to the northeasterly part of the state, where people were less likely to have any personal experience of his activities, and began investing his money. He bought land and acquired rental real estate. In Lawrence he served as chief of police and Deputy U.S. Marshal. When the Jameses and their ilk began cutting up on the Missouri side, he made shrewd use of his reputation as a tough fighter and got himself elected sheriff on the promise that he'd keep the Rebel vermin out of his county, or make them sorry they'd come in if he couldn't. From there he moved up to superintendent of schools, county commissioner--for the board was a powerful group which even county sheriffs were disinclined to buck--state treasurer, and the state legislature, besides serving a term on the Kansas State Board of Examiners, which licensed attorneys to practise. Meanwhile he shifted his base of operations to Wichita, getting into livestock buying as the town served for a time as railhead for the drives up out of Texas. Although it had surrendered its mantle to Dodge City two or three years ago, it was still the center for a thriving cattle-rearing and -finishing business, and Bentann was in the thick of it. He was also a grain broker, which kept the farmers anxious to stay on his good side. He owned a piece of the bank and sat on its Board of Directors. It was generally said around Wichita that if there was a business he didn't have a share in, it was housed in a building he owned, and while the assertion was facetious, it wasn't far off the mark. His individual rents weren't large--ten to fifty dollars a month--but, as a whole, they brought in a steady income of better than $173,000 a year, quite apart from his other interests. He got married at thirty and lost his wife ten years later; his two sons by her, Lawrence and Dayton, were now twelve and seven years old, and while his status as a widower gave him an air of legitimacy, as marriage has always done for men of business, he was also eligible and therefore attractive to the ladies, especially the ambitious mammas with daughters they were anxious to see married well; women might not have the vote, but they had their own ways of putting pressure on the men of their households, and he made shrewd use of that. When his older sister and her husband died in a railroad accident, back in Pennsylvania, he managed (not without some opposition from his brothers) to get himself named executor of their estate and guardian of their daughter Cora, who was now nineteen and had lived in his home for the last ten years.

This was to be a Senatorial election year, and Bentann had decided it was time to take the next step up, into the national arena. He might not be a lawyer, as most Congressmen were, but he was a businessman, as most of the others were. He was also wealthy, well-spoken, and generally well-regarded, if only because his money made people anxious to keep him thinking well of them. He'd given brief thought to the House of Representatives as an interim stop, but had decided against it. The Senate was, after all, intended to represent the propertied classes, and he was definitely a member of that. And, while it didn't pay as much as the House did, it was commonly regarded as the more prestigious and influential half of the national legislature. Bentann liked the idea of being a part of the body that approved and rejected Presidential appointments of ambassadors, cabinet officers, and Supreme Court Justices, ratified or rejected treaties, and tried officials impeached by the House. He also knew that a Senator, unlike a Representative, could count on gaining statewide visibility and perhaps regional or national notice if he chose to speak on the important issues of the day. And since every Senator of necessity served on several subcommittees, any who wished to develop influence over the subject matter of one or two of them could do so, and could in effect become spokesman for the Senate as a whole.

As long ago as three years, when he first began seriously thinking about Washington, he'd known it would be necessary to whitewash some of his past. It was even more necessary now: Reconstruction was finally ended, and most people wanted to forget about the War and get on to the business of acquiring for themselves some of the easy money of the day. Senators were not yet directly elected, and the state legislatures that chose them, in this Gilded Age, were becoming subject to pressure from special interests. But those legislatures knew they had to pay some heed to the sensibilities of their constitutents if they didn't want to commit political suicide. If a man with a bloody Border-raider past tried to gain national office, many people might be dubious.

So, with Warren's help, Bentann had begun cleaning house. Some of his old command had been killed in the War, and others had drifted off to join other groups or light out on their own; many of these latter had eventually gone outlaw. Bentann wasn't too worried about them: they weren't likely to stand still long enough to denounce him. The worst they'd be likely to do was wait till he got voted in, then come onto him for blackmail--and he was pretty sure he could take care of that, one way or another. The ones who bothered him were those who, like himself, had managed to hang onto a stake and make a new beginning for themselves (though none had had anywhere near his success), plus the people who'd received stolen goods from him and any who might have survived his raids, particularly those in Kansas. Over the last couple of years he had bought some of them off, scared most of the rest into silence, and made sure the few last stubborn souls met with tragic accidents. The one loose end was Buck Wilmington. Bentann didn't like loose ends. He doubted the man would have forgotten that Bentann had nearly hanged him, and even if it weren't for that, Wilmington could testify to the atrocities and crimes committed by the Regulators; given his personal grudge, he might well consider it worth condemning himself if he could bring down his old chief into the bargain. That was why Bentann had hired the Pinkertons.

"What about Waxley?" Warren asked out of nowhere.

"What about him?" Bentann retorted. "He's done his job. He'll turn in his report to the agency, they'll send us a copy and their bill, and he and they will go on to other cases. Why should he ever bother to check back and see what's become of Wilmington? And in any case, the man's a lawman of sorts; Waxley told us so himself. Lawmen get killed all the time."

"That's true," Warren agreed. "You want me to go on in after him, then."

"He's a lot less likely to recognize you than me," Bentann pointed out; his cousin had lost an eye in '64, and had also begun wearing a close-cropped beard which was now beginning to show streaks of gray. "Yes, I think you'd better handle the direct contact. If you need any help, you should be able to find some; Waxley's report suggests there might be any number of people out that way who wouldn't mind seeing at least one of these Seven finished off."

"I'll get him," Warren promised.

"I have every faith in you, Warren," Bentann told him. "Now let's turn in. There'll be a lot to do tomorrow."

Emporia, Kansas: The Following Day

"Franklin? Franklin, I think I've found him."

"Found who?" asked Franklin Henneman, pushing his glasses up off his nose and onto his forehead.

His law partner, Jonathan Blakemore, regarded him with an expression half humorous, half disbelieving. "Now who in the sacred name of Blackstone and all his commentaries have we been trying to find for the last year?" he demanded. "Bucklin Wilmington."

Henneman sat up straight. "Where? How?"

"Take a look," said Blakemore, and tossed a small pamphlet onto the younger man's desk.

"What?" Henneman looked at it in astonished disgust. "This is a dime novel, for God's sake!"

"It is that. Found my boy Martin reading it last evening. But just look at it. Look at the names of the men in it." He leaned over the desk, his long finger tapping one of the seven faces on the cover illustration. "This is him, Frank. This is Buck Wilmington."

Henneman took a second look, then quickly opened the book and began scanning rapidly through the pages. Blakemore watched with the same respect he always had for his partner's ability to absorb and remember the most quickly and casually noted written matter. When Henneman looked up again, there was a new spark of hope in his brown eyes. "Do you really think it could be?"

"I don't think it can be all that common a name," Blakemore observed. "And while I'd be the first to admit the illustration isn't much to go by, it does fit the description we have, which, after all, came direct from a man who rode with Wilmington and should know what he looks like. I think we need to at least look into it a little further, Frank. If you're serious about stopping Bentann, that is."

The younger man's lips compressed. "I'm serious, Jon."

Franklin Henneman was thirty-five; he'd left his home in upstate New York at eighteen to enlist for the Union when the first bugle blew, and later, like so many veterans, had drifted West, restless and itching to do something that might help draw the shattered nation back together--and, not incidentally, provide him with a decent living.

Lawyers were the most numerous professionals to be found on the Plains, especially in county-seat towns where politics thrived; a ratio of one to every sixty-three citizens was typical. Ambitious young men taught school and read law in hopes of eventually hanging out a shingle and enjoying the respect and prestige due the profession and the opportunity to make profitable investments and move toward high political office. Much of their income tended to be derived from cases dealing with land claims--straightening out old pre-emptions, helping claimants prove up, and settling disputes, "contests," and claims of one homesteader against another as to whether the law had been complied with. In addition they handled litigation over brawls, fires, and unpaid debts, drew up deeds, summonses, subpoenas, wills, contracts, notes, conveyances, bills of sale, mortgages, leases, agreements, and bonds. Often they also collected debts, served as notaries, and functioned as land agents and legal representatives of distant firms, and loan brokers as well, securing money from a friend or business connection in the East and charging a ten per cent commission. Such a practise wasn't showy, but it could yield a solid three to twelve hundred dollars a month all year long. Many were semiliterate and poorly trained, shysters who preyed on the public, or extroverted, flamboyant showmen; others were quiet, learned, unambitious men or scholarly individuals well suited to the bench. Some--Blakemore among them--were literally popular heroes: men would ride for miles to hear one of the best-known of them argue a case, and the town would be crowded with people. They were much admired, their quotations recognized like old friends, and their arguments analyzed in cracker-barrel debate. They for their part knew perfectly well that the public came for the show, and usually managed to put on a good performance; most were handy with quotations from Shakespeare, Milton, Gray, Alexander Pope, and Francis Bacon as well as the Bible. Even those who knew but little law were long on common sense and shrewd readers of people, including juries; the emotional appeal was important, and they wasted no opoportunities. In the South the most ordinary lawyer could make an income of two or three thousand dollars a year, and some as much as five to seven; in the West there might not be as much cash to be had, but the prestige was no less. After a year or two in Kansas, young Henneman had decided it was the law that held his future.

Like many would-be attorneys of the day, he had never set foot inside a law school; instead he'd come up by reading law, working as a clerk in the office of an established lawyer, drawing up briefs, copying and filing documents, looking up precedents, running errands, delivering summonses, rounding up witnesses (and riding herd on them if a trial lasted several days), acting as a messenger while court was in session, hauling water, building fires, carrying the mail, cleaning the spittoons and sweeping out, and on the side reading the books in his master's library, attending court, familiarizing himself with trial procedure, learning the knack of pleading cases and how to draw up writs and complaints and contracts. It took no longer than the formal college-and route would have done--anywhere from four to eight years--and the chief advantages of the system were that he earned as he learned, and once he was admitted to the bar he ordinarily became a member of the same office and inherited a part of the clientele to get him started. Henneman was bright and dedicated, and he finished his apprenticeship at twenty-eight. His master happened to be Jonathan Blakemore's father, and when the old man died a couple of years afterward, the two of them took over the whole practise. They had been together ever since.

Henneman didn't always approve of some of Jonathan's foibles, like refusing to attend church (though his wife didn't), standing treat in Emporia's saloons, and once even defending an accused murderer when all the county was dead set against him--and getting an acquittal out of it. But Jonathan knew the law and his business and was a good friend, and in many ways the two complemented each other. Jonathan preferred the criminal cases, leaving the civil ones with their niggly detail work to the more scholarly Henneman. Henneman for his part had higher ambitions than did Jonathan, who was perfectly content showing off before juries and driving a fine horse and rig about the area; he wanted a judgeship eventually. He worked at it, as he did at all things, methodically, getting himself elected to county clerk, then District Attorney, and serving a term as Assistant State Attorney-General. It was in the latter capacity that he'd met, and become aware of, Marcus Bentann, who was then in the Legislature. Though the two had little direct contact, Franklin disliked and suspected the handsome businessman from Wichita. There were just too many shadows of whispers of rumors about him, about what he'd done in the War and before and where he'd gotten the money to start his little empire. Franklin knew perfectly well that rumor wasn't worth the paper it wasn't printed on, legally or otherwise, being hearsay, but as Bentann's ambitions became clearer he decided to see if he could find anything to substantiate them. It was Blakemore who had first suggested inserting a spy into Bentann's household, though the spy was Franklin's kin: a young cousin of his whose doctor had advised him to go West for his health. Since Jeremy was the son of the sister of Franklin's mother, the surnames were three full degrees apart, and the likelihood of Bentann discovering the truth seemed vanishingly low.

Henneman had never really envisioned himself in high national office, but once Bentann announced for the Senate, he'd realized he had no choice but to do likewise. Blakemore threw his full support behind his partner and took on the task of managing his effort. Meanwhile, through Jeremy they had, over the last couple of years, been hearing even more disturbing things, though none of it up to now had been anything proveable: given the means Bentann and Warren Freely were supposedly using to silence possible tattlers, nothing was written down, and it was only the fact that Jeremy had unquestioned access to Bentann and lived in his house that had even gotten them as much as they had. But when Bentann hired the Pinkertons to find the man he called Bucklin Wilmington, that was different. That meant written correspondence, and reports coming in. The firm of Blakemore & Henneman lacked the wealth of Marcus Bentann and couldn't afford professional investigators, but Jonathan had contacts everywhere, and he put the word out. So far none of it had turned up anything as to Wilmington's whereabouts, though they'd picked up a good deal about his history and reputation. So far. Until now.

There was a knock at Henneman's office door, and Tommy, the telegraph delivery boy, put his head in. "Mr. Henneman? Got a wire for you from Newton."

Both partners pricked up their ears at that. Knowing the power Bentann was in Wichita, Jeremy was careful never to send his telegrams from there. Henneman saw to it that he had enough money of his own to hire a reliable messenger at need, and that messenger invariably rode up to Newton, which was the nearest substantial town to Wichita, to send whatever message he'd been given. When a telegram came into Blakemore & Henneman from Newton, they knew it was Jeremy sending word.

Jonathan flipped the boy a quarter while Franklin tore the envelope open and read his cousin's latest. "Damn," he said querulously. "We're not the only ones who've tracked Wilmington down, Jon. Bentann's tame Pinkerton got in last night with a report. It looks like Martin's dime novel is at least based on fact. The man's in Four Corners, New Mexico, helping to protect the town from outlaws and rowdies."

"Damn," Blakemore agreed. "What's Bentann doing about it?"

"Jeremy says he's been told to look into stagecoach schedules out that way. And he says he overheard enough to know that Bentann is planning to have his cousin eliminate Wilmington as a possible denouncer. He thinks Bentann wants to confront his old riding mate first--he knows the man's planning to travel as close to Four Corners as he can get--but he can't swear to it."

"All right," said Blakemore, "then it looks like we've got a trip to make, doesn't it?"


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