Four Corners: One Week Later
Since he had come to Four Corners, there was invariably one stagecoach Ezra made time to meet, and that was the half-past-one P.M. run from Denver. It was, after all, the stage likeliest to have aboard it people of substance, whether from the East or from Denver itself. And people of substance were the very best poker partners, not merely because they had the money to lose but because most of them had abysmal card sense.
On this particular day he was joined by Josiah Sanchez and JD Dunne, who idled up from opposite ends of the street soon after he reached the hotel porch where the driver always pulled up. "Well, good afternoon, gentlemen," he greeted them, with a two-fingered salute to the curled brim of his hat. "Mr. Dunne, I can understand why you, in your capacity as the sole official representative of law in this fair burg, might wish to be aware of who is arrivin' in it, but I must confess I am surprised, Mr. Sanchez, that you are not toilin' away at your church."
"Oh, it ain't my church, Brother Ezra. I just take care of the place. But the weather's too hot to be workin' outside right now. I've been up since four, got in a good six hours this morning and then decided to take it easy till some of the sting goes out of the sun."
"Yeah," JD agreed, "that's somethin' I been wonderin', Ezra. How is it you always seem to be so cool and neat no matter how hot it gets?" He had peeled off his own suit-jacket and hung it over the butt of his left-hand Colt Lightning, and his collar was two buttons open.
"My dear young sir," the gambler explained, "you must comprehend that I was reared, for the most part, in Charleston and points south, where the summer climate is not only quite warm, but notably damp. To me, this dry desert atmosphere has the effect of actually lowerin' the temperature. In any case, a true gentleman never sweats." And he grinned, with a flash of his gold tooth, as JD tipped his bowler back on his head and dragged his shirtsleeve across his brow.
"Here she comes!" came a distant yell, and Barney the driver brought his six-up helling into the center of town at thirteen miles an hour, all roar and pride and fancy reinwork, and then sat back hard on the lines and brake rod at a point precisely calculated to bring the dusty red Concord rocking to a halt with its door centered exactly on the hotel's own. "Four Corners, folks," he shouted to his passengers. "Half-hour stop for dinner and change of horses. Anybody stayin', tell Burt about it so he can hand your grips down."
"That will be us, driver," came a response, as two men swung out of the interior of the coach. Ezra and Josiah, with the care trained into them by their respective years of experience, looked the two strangers over with unobtrusive attention. They were close to an age, thirty-five or forty, one a veritable Ichabod Crane, lean and gangly-looking, with a neat mustache and oval gold-rimmed glasses, the other shorter, more muscular, well-knit and graceful in a way that reminded Ezra somewhat of himself, clean-shaven to show a winning smile, chestnut hair a bit overlong. They wore almost identical black frock coats of shiny broadcloth (now powdered with white trail dust), except that the shorter man's had a satin lining and binding and rolled collar-facings of green velvet. That one also sported a flag-red DeJoinville scarf at the throat of his frilled-fronted shirt, which Ezra noted was made of Irish linen, and a rich yellow brocade vest, while the other was less flamboyant in pleated-front shirt, plain tailored vest with dark blue bindings and buttons, and a beautiful gray cravat. He removed his hat and fanned himself briefly with it, revealing thinning hair of an indeterminate dirty-blond color, while glancing around with an air both worried and curious. Ezra frowned to himself. The showy one might be a member of his own profession, but not his friend--and they were clearly together.
The tall one, looking about, had observed the three men standing casually beside the half-glassed double doors of the hotel. He put a hand on the other's shoulder and murmured in his ear, and Ezra came to attention without seeming to, mentally taking inventory of his weaponry--the 1875 Remington in his side holster, the short-barrelled Colt Richards Conversion in the shoulder-rig under his jacket, and the derringer in the spring-clip up his sleeve. He could feel Josiah shift position in order to be readier to draw his Schofield Smith & Wesson .45.
The showy stranger followed his friend's look, nodded, and stepped forward. "Pardon my presumption, gentlemen," he began, "but am I correct in assuming that you are Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez, and Sheriff JD Dunne?"
"We are, sir," Ezra agreed. "Have you some...business with us?"
"My name is Blakemore, Mr. Standish--Jonathan Blakemore, of Emporia, Kansas. This is my partner, Franklin Henneman. We are attorneys, and our business is, in fact, with a man we understand to be a member of your company, a Buck Wilmington. Can you tell us where he might be found?"
Attorneys? Ezra wondered. Surely Mr. Wilmington is not to be assailed with a lawsuit--no, attorneys would hardly come all this way merely to serve papers. An inheritance, possibly? What a delightful thought.
"Uh, Buck's out of town." It was JD who stepped forward. "Him and one of our partners, Vin Tanner, headed down to Fort Sumner about a week ago to deliver a couple of prisoners the Army had wants on. Should be on their way home by now--we had a telegram from 'em three days back to say they'd made it okay."
"I see. In that case, we'll wait. Is this the best hotel in town?"
"It's the only hotel in town, brother," Josiah declared. "You stay here or you take a room at one of the boardinghouses, and that's mainly for them that plan to stay on. Does have a tub, though, and the cook knows her business."
"That's gratifying to hear. Thank you, gentlemen. Come on, Frank, let's get settled in and cleaned up."
The three peacekeepers watched as the Kansans gathered up their valises and vanished into the lobby. JD was practically quivering with excitement and interest and barely managed to restrain himself from speaking until the men reached the curving, right-angled, chest-high mahogany registration desk in the corner by the stairs. "How 'bout that! Hey, fellas, wha'd'you s'pose a couple'a Kansas lawyers'd wanta talk to Buck about?"
"I imagine we shall discover that in due time, Mr. Dunne," Ezra observed. "But I dare say that, so long as he is not wearin' either badge or weapons, no stranger in our town is any especial threat to Mr. Wilmington or any other member of our company."
He might not have been so quick to say it had he been aware of the presence of the man who'd been reading the latest issue of Mary Travis's Clarion in one of the worn red plush chairs of the lobby, just inside and to the left of the doors, where neither he nor his companions could see. Warren Freely had had to give up handguns after he lost his left eye. He had heard the voices of the three men and the arrival of the stage but had paid little attention until Blakemore mentioned his name and his partner's. At that he came alert. From behind the shelter of his paper he watched as the pair got registered and headed up the stairs. It was just possible that there might be more than one Jonathan Blakemore or Franklin Henneman in the world, but for there to be two of each in Emporia, and both attorneys in partnership, was beyond all belief. In any case, Freely had seen newspaper cuts of Henneman during his days as Assistant State Attorney-General, though the two had never had occasion to meet face-to-face: most of Henneman's time had been spent in his office, in court, or in the state law library, while Warren, though he'd been nominally a member of his cousin's staff, had mostly been out and about "doing the boss's business," as he privately called it; even Henneman and Bentann had only met at social gatherings and official public occasions like the Fourth of July. So, while Henneman wouldn't have been likely to recognize Freely, and Blakemore would have been even less so, Warren recognized the ex-New Yorker handily.
He frowned to himself behind the shield of the Clarion's pages. He knew, of course, that Henneman had announced for the same Senate seat that Marcus was going for. That was all right; this was a free country, after all, and any man had a right to seek any public office for which he was qualified. But over the last few months, Warren, who could go a lot of places where a man of Marcus Bentann's position and wealth would have been much too noticeable and therefore served as his cousin's eyes and ears, had begun hearing rumors that Henneman not only wanted to beat Bentann in the election, he wanted to discredit him personally. Apparently the man had somehow picked up hints of what Marcus had done before and during the War and was trying to gather proof of it. And that, of course, couldn't be allowed.
And now here he was, complete with partner, in the very town Buck Wilmington called his headquarters, asking openly after Marcus's old fellow-Regulator. Now that, Warren told himself, was entirely too thick for coincidence. He wondered just how Henneman had found out about Buck. Was there a leak? He was pretty sure none of Bentann's former associates or victims had been talking; Warren prided himself on being a man who got his point across, and he also had a keen perception for when men were telling the truth. He felt certain the people he'd bribed or scared on Marcus's behalf were going to stay that way, and as for the others, they weren't going to be talking to anyone, except St. Peter.
Well, that was secondary. As long as Henneman and Wilmington didn't get together, Marcus's past would remain closed. Or would it? Henneman had had a reputation for doggedness back in Topeka when he held state office. Wilmington would certainly have to be silenced one way or another, but it might not be a bad idea to see that Henneman met with an accident too. Indeed, if Buck were suddenly to turn up dead, it might only increase the lawyer's suspicions and goad him to dig even deeper.
Freely decided that, since he couldn't do very much about Wilmington until the man got back home, he'd keep his hand in with these two Kansans. He considered ways and means. The two didn't carry iron, so he couldn't rig a fight, and it would be better not to try for an ambush in the middle of town--too much chance somebody would see something. That still left one very good possibility, something he knew worked because he'd used it before.
Putting his paper aside, he headed for the room he had taken when he first got into Four Corners two days earlier. Sandwiched between layers of clothing in his carpetbag he found the sheepskin-lined leather pouch he sought, and inside it a distinctive blue bottle which Nathan Jackson would have recognized at a glance even if the label had been turned away from him, plus two tiny, slender tubes of glass, each plugged with a cork. Using an eye dropper, he delicately measured two ounces of the bottle's contents into each tube, then recorked them lightly and tucked them, open ends up, into the inside pocket of his vest. Now all he had to do was wait and watch. When Henneman and his partner went to supper, he'd make his move.
+ + + + + + +
The hotel dining room was just beginning to fill up well when Henneman and Blakemore, having bathed, shaved, and changed into clean clothes, came down to eat. Like most Western hotel dining rooms, it strove valiantly to offer some air of elegance, with some thirty four-seater tables arranged in orderly patterns about its edges, plus a single long family-style board down the center, each with a white cloth, a bunch of wax flowers, and a stand holding cruets of vinegar and oil. Waitresses in blue dresses and white aprons scurried around taking orders. In the front corner, as far back as he could get, Chris Larabee was just tucking into a platter of roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, while opposite him Josiah had ordered the broiled chicken with egg sauce, and JD the pork chops dipped in egg and crumbs and crisp-fried. In a hushed voice the young sheriff pointed the two attorneys out to his black-clad leader, repeating their assertion that they had come to talk to Buck. Chris stared at them a moment with his cold pale eyes, and JD, who still found that the famous Larabee glare made him squirm, wondered that the men didn't seem to feel the ice in it. He knew Chris and Buck went a long ways back and wondered whether Chris might have any idea what business these men could have with his old partner. But if he did, he wasn't saying anything about it, and JD knew better than to ask.
After scanning the hand-written bills of fare, Blakemore ordered the saddle of venison with mushroom sauce and Henneman the beef and dumplings. The waitress fetched two cups, tipped a coffeepot over them and dashed off to the kitchen. Warren Freely peeked cautiously past the beaded curtains that draped the arched doorway from the lobby, plotting his route. He hesitated just a moment when he saw three of the town peacekeepers were present, then shrugged off his misgivings. That was the great thing about laudanum and the reason he always preferred it to any other poison: it took long enough to work that you had the opportunity to get away, and by the time the victim started showing the effects, nobody was likely to connect you with his collapse.
It was Josiah who was first to casually notice the man with the eyepatch entering the room. He remembered the others mentioning him as having come in from Eagle Bend the day before yesterday, and indeed had seen him in the saloon both evenings since; he seemed a quiet fellow, didn't talk much to anyone, didn't make trouble, didn't even carry a gun, always just had a couple of drinks of whiskey and nursed them for an hour or two before calling it a night. Josiah watched as the man revolved a bit, still walking, so his one eye could remain fixed on a couple of young women paying for their meal at the cashier's desk. Not looking where he was going, he crashed into the edge of the table occupied by the two lawyers from Kansas who said they had business with Buck.
The noise brought Chris's head up sharply and JD half to his feet. There was a brief interval of confusion over there as One-Eye apologized profusely and helped the two men rescue their food. Josiah's companions, seeing that no trouble appeared likely to arise, settled back and returned their attention to their own meals. One-Eye, apologizing yet again and touching his hat politely, retreated to a table on the far side of the room and settled down to study the menu. The other diners, like the three peacekeepers, went back to their food and conversation. No one had noticed how Warren Freely, under cover of that flurry of apologies and quickly moving hands, had tipped a tiny glass tube over each of the two lawyers' coffee cups, then slipped the emptied vessels back into his vest.
+ + + + + + +
"There they are again," JD whispered.
Josiah glanced up from his cards as the two Kansas lawyers moved away from the swinging doors to a table near the middle of the room. "Saw them strollin' around the town as I was on my way over," he remarked. "Guess they were settlin' their supper, or just tryin' to see the sights."
"Such as they are," murmured Ezra. "Cards, gentlemen?"
"Two," Josiah decided.
"One for me," Nathan added.
"Uh...I'll keep these," said JD, who was still watching the new arrivals.
"Mr. Dunne," Ezra rebuked him gently, "I believe it is your turn to open. Believe me, I quite understand your interest in those gentlemen, considerin' your position and their expressed desire to confer with your closest friend, but eyein' them in that odious manner will not increase your store of information regardin' them, and will serve only to irritate those of us who wish to play a friendly game."
"Uh, sorry, Ezra." JD frowned at his cards. "Aw, hell, I fold."
Henneman and Blakemore had ordered a bottle of J.H. Cutter, and Blakemore was lighting up a slender Mexican Panatella cigar. The gambler noticed that he'd changed his scarf for a flowing sky-blue butterfly tie, a style just introduced that year. A man of fashion, it appears, he told himself. I wonder if it might be possible to entice him into a game? Properly plied, he could perhaps be persuaded to reveal some details of his interest in Mr. Wilmington. It surprised Ezra just a bit that he would be so concerned about the good-natured gunslinger, but then Buck was an easy man to like even if his manner was sometimes rough, and in any case, if there were any possibility of his being in danger, Ezra had no intention of leaving himself vulnerable to Chris Larabee's wrath should his old friend end up coming to harm.
Nathan was looking that way too now, frowning. "Somethin' ain't right," he murmured.
"What?" Josiah came alert too, and Ezra allowed himself a smothered sigh of martyrdom. The trouble with contracting to keep the law was the company involved. No attention to spare for anything else if their all-too-sensitive suspicions were aroused.
"The tall one--Henneman, 'd you say? He looks off. Too pale. Lookit him. There, moppin' his face--"
"Blakemore don't look a lot better," JD observed. "You think they're sick, Nathan?"
Quite suddenly Henneman lurched to his feet, looking around wildly, and threw himself toward the bar, where he fell to his knees and began vomiting into one of the brass spittoons ranged along its length on yellow cork doilies. Blakemore watched him in concern and astonishment, then abruptly bent double and threw up too, under the table. Nathan threw down his cards as the bartender yelled his name.
JD and Josiah headed for the table to help Blakemore. Nathan knelt beside Henneman, bracing him. "I'm the healer in these parts, Mister...what'd you have to eat last?"
"Beef...and...dumplings." Henneman's breathing was slow and shallow. "Jon...?"
"He's heavin' too. He eat the same?"
"No. Venison. Oh Lord--" and the tall lawyer started vomiting again.
Nathan frowned. Two different meals, yet both were sick to their stomachs. That made it seem unlikely that food poisoning, his first guess, was at fault. At this season most of the vegetables served in the various eating places around town were fresh, and if it had been one of the relishes, certainly there would have been others getting sick, maybe even JD or Josiah or Chris, since Nathan remembered that they had all been planning to eat at the hotel tonight. He held the man's head and watched the ex-preacher and the kid trying to ease his partner's discomfort. When Henneman's spasm ended, Nathan took hold of his wrist for the pulse. Weak. This ain't good. What the hell--?
Then, as the lawyer lifted his head to look for his friend, Nathan got a clear look at his eyes for the first time. Behind the gold-rimmed spectacles the pupils were contracted almost to pinpoints. My God. It couldn't be. Could it? "Josiah! Yours got a weak pulse?"
"He does that, brother." JD was talking to Blakemore in a low-pitched voice, fast and quiet and inaudible at this distance.
"Look at his eyes. Are the pupils down to little dots?"
Before Josiah could reply, Blakemore sagged, and JD yelled for help. Nathan hesitated, and then the bartender came over the counter and reached down to take over. "Go. See to him. I got this one."
"Much obliged, Frank." Nathan hurried across to the table, forcing his way through the gathering of curious which had assembled, and peeled Blakemore's eyelid back. "Damn. Him too."
"What is it, Nathan?" JD demanded.
"Blest if I can figure how, JD, but it looks to me like they both got hold of a touch too much laudanum, and it's poisoned 'em. They got the right symptoms--I seen this in the War sometimes."
"Laudanum?" Josiah echoed. "Both at once? How?"
"Figure that out later if they live long enough," Nathan replied. "Get him on his feet, Josiah. I'll get the other one. We gotta keep 'em movin' briskly. Get 'em out on the street where we got some room to move and start walkin' 'em up and down. It's the only thing I know that helps. Thank the Lord, I got to 'em fast--if this'd come on 'em in their hotel room where nobody'd seen, they'd been dead by mornin'."
"Allow me to assist, Mr. Sanchez." Nathan hadn't even seen Ezra arrive. "Mr. Dunne, go with Mr. Jackson."
The gambler looked paler than usual, a little sick himself, but Nathan thought it a sickness less of body than of mind, as if the attorneys' predicament brought an unpleasant memory to the fore.
By this time both men had apparently emptied their stomachs, though Henneman still seemed to be nauseous. The four peacekeepers quickly hustled their patients out the door, nearly colliding with Chris as he came in from doing a turn around the town. Seeing Nathan's involvement, the gunfighter had the good sense not to waste precious time with questions. He simply pushed JD aside and assumed half of Henneman's weight himself. "Where to, Nathan?"
The healer had had a moment to think, and knowing that this might take a while, had decided that the street might not be the best place for it after all; too much chance of getting into an entanglement with riders. "Down the alley and around to the back. Keep him movin', up and down. Don't matter if he drops off, just keep them legs goin', keep him active."
"What is it?" Chris wanted to know, following orders.
"Laudanum poisoning from the look of their eyes and the rest of the symptoms." Nathan was still bewildered as to the source of the drug. It was commonly available enough, being a staple in every drug-and-cigar store and every general-store medications case in the nation, the most popular of painkillers; he stocked it in his own clinic. But these two Kansans clearly hadn't been recently injured, and they didn't look like men who were in chronic pain. Unless, of course, they'd been taking some kind of patent medicine, most of which tended to be little more than water, alcohol, a little coloring and flavoring, and a greater or lesser amount of opium or one of its derivatives. But both of them with the same complaint? One he could have accepted; not two. Something wasn't right. If they lived, he'd question them.
He sent JD for water and turned his attention to the task at hand. The sustained motion brought Blakemore around after about ten minutes, though he seemed out of it, euphoric, his sense of time and space skewed. That was all Nathan really needed to confirm his earlier diagnosis: the man was clearly on some kind of narcotic. When Henneman began to complain of feeling itchy, trying to struggle free of Chris and Nathan's hands so he could scratch, the healer felt certain that the drug in question was laudanum.
Several hours later, five exhausted peacekeepers escorted the two lawyers back up to their room at the hotel. "You think they'll be all right now, Nathan?" Chris asked.
"I think so. Pulse and breathin're are back to normal, and the eyes look right again. Best if somebody stays with 'em--"
"I shall assume that duty, Mr. Jackson," Ezra interrupted. "No, gentlemen, I insist. My profession often demands sleepless nights; I am far more accustomed to such deprivation than are any of the rest of you."
Nathan was looking quickly around the room, checking drawers and the wardrobe. "What're you lookin' for, Nathan?" JD wanted to know.
"Nothin' I'm findin'," the healer replied. "I thought maybe they'd both been dosin' theirselves with one of them patent tonics, but there's no sign of any. Not even an empty bottle."
"Meaning?" Chris prompted.
"Meanin' somebody sneaked it into 'em, most prob'ly in food or drink. JD, didn't you say they'd been at the hotel eatin' the same time you was?"
"Yeah, that's right, Nathan. Chris'n'Josiah saw 'em too." The nods of the two older men confirmed the assertion.
"Damn. Have to look into it, but no point now; at this hour the dinin' room's long since closed. Ezra, you keep checkin' their eyes and pulse, but I think we got it pretty well neutralized now."
"You may depend upon me, Mr. Jackson." Ezra shuddered briefly. "A few years ago in New Orleans I was acquainted with a young actress, a lovely person, in character and soul as well as face. She became infatuated with a man, and upon learnin' that he was married took six ounces of this dastardly substance. I shall never forget the manner of her death. I would wish it on no man, not even my direst foe."
Well, that explains why he hates havin' to accept it for himself, Nathan reflected. I often wondered. A feller like Ezra, you wouldn't expect him to have the grit to stand up to pain, but he seems to rather hurt than risk what his lady friend went through. "'Preciate it, Ezra," he said. "Come on, the rest of you, let's leave 'em sleep, this would've took a lot out of 'em."
+ + + + + + +
When Warren Freely came down to breakfast the next morning, the whole dining room was buzzing with the news of how Nathan Jackson had saved the lives of those two Kansas lawyers who'd come in on the stage yesterday. Warren had stayed in the saloon only long enough to see them begin to display the symptoms, and had slipped out under cover of the confusion that had followed. This was the first he had heard that they hadn't died. Looks like that darky's better than I thought he was, he told himself.
It wasn't Freely's way to waste time in self-recrimination. If a plan failed, it failed, and you made another. Second-guessing got you absolutely nowhere. He ordered scrambled eggs and pork chops, fried cornmeal mush, stewed apricots, and hot biscuits with butter and honey, and set his mind to the problem of Wilmington and the lawyers. Since the healer had apparently recognized what was wrong with the latter, the peacekeepers might by now suspect that they'd been poisoned; and because they were strangers in town, it might mean the currently available five would be watching out for further attempts. That would make a second strike at them risky. But there was a fair chance that none of Wilmington's friends had, as yet, connected him with the attempt. It didn't matter too much what Henneman and his partner suspected as long as they couldn't prove it, and the only person in Four Corners who could help them do that was Buck. If he died before they could talk to him, they'd have no reason to stay around, and once they were back in Emporia it wouldn't be hard to do something about them.
So Wilmington had to be the target. And Dunne had said yesterday that he was on his way home from Fort Sumner, with just one other man, Tanner. Knowing where he'd gone, how far away it was, and when he'd arrived, Freely could make a good guess where he was right about now. It shouldn't be too hard to find a good spot from which to ambush him.
After enjoying his breakfast, the ex-bushwhacker headed up to his room and once again opened his carpetbag. Fitted neatly into the very bottom was a leather case that held a .44-90-400 single-shot Remington Rolling-Block Buffalo Rifle, taken down into two pieces, the barrel and the stock, breech, and trigger/lever assembly, along with a telescopic sight and a supply of the three-quarter-ounce bullets that fit it. It hadn't the power or carrying distance of a Sharps Big Fifty, but it wasn't as heavy either, and it was much easier to conceal. With half again the range of the common Winchester '73 and greater accuracy, Warren had found it to be perfectly adequate under most conditions.
He fitted the two halves of the rifle together, put the sight and shells in the pocket of his jacket, and went down to the livery stable to get the horse he had bought in Eagle Bend.
The south road out of Four Corners brought him, after an easy ride of a couple of hours, to just the kind of place he had hoped he would find. Here the road swept past a jutting prow of rock buttressed around its base with a score or so of big boulders. In their very midst, equipped with a canteen and several cold beef sandwiches, comfortably shaded by the big rock above, Warren settled himself, his horse hidden handily about twenty yards back. His nest was no more than six or eight feet above the road surface itself, so he wouldn't have to allow for overshooting, and about six hundred yards from the center of it. He laid out a row of bullets in a little fold of the rock just to his right. They were special bullets, similar to the British dumdum loads, which had been used in the Sepoy Mutiny twenty years ago. The casing of each round was weak at the apex and the leaden core was left uncovered. The soft nose was shallowly hollow-pointed so the bullet would flatten when it struck; the tearing and splintering inflicted great damage and thus was possessed of tremendous stopping power.
Freely fitted the telescopic sight in place on the Remington, loaded a round into the chamber, and prepared to wait.
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