Authors: Tabor Evans
Tags: #Westerns, #Fiction
He was up early the next morning, dressed and shaved and ready to go about finding a door that would open into the illegal whiskey business.
He sauntered through the resplendent lobby, his boots echoing off the marble floor. There were throw rugs here and there and big overstuffed chairs occupied by men in business suits who were reading newspapers and dropping cigar ashes down their fronts. He found the dining room and went in to the pleasant smell of ham and eggs and baking-soda biscuits. As he stood in the door, he spotted a man from the poker game of the previous day, the one who had been sitting to the left of Morton Colton and who had dealt the hand from the cold deck. Longarm stood a moment, glancing toward the man. He was middle-aged, with a pleasant face, and was wearing a pinched-back suit coat and a white shirt and collar with a foulard tie. On a whim, Longarm decided to walk over and say hello. The man glanced up as he neared and nodded in a friendly way. Longarm came up to his table and stopped. He said, "Well, look here. It seems we meet again."
The man indicated a chair opposite him with a nod of his head. He said, "I'm about to order breakfast. Would you care to sit down and join me?"
Longarm pulled out a chair and sat down. He said, "Don't mind if I do."
The man stuck out his hand. He said, "The name is Bob Greene, that's green with an e on the end."
Longarm shook the man's hand and gave his name, Custis Long. He said, "Glad to meet you, Mr. Greene. It's a shame we had to be involved in that scruffy business yesterday with Mr. Colton."
Mr. Greene nodded. "Yeah, I can't say that I cared much for that, myself. I'm a peaceful man by nature and don't care much for trouble."
Longarm looked around the dining room. He said, "You staying here at the hotel, Mr. Greene?"
Greene shook his head quickly. "No, Mr. Long, I'm a widower and not much of a hand in the kitchen. I take my breakfast here at the hotel and sometimes my dinner. There's a little cafe down the street, near the bank where I work, where I generally eat the noon meal." Longarm said, "Ah, you're a banker?"
Mr. Greene shrugged. "You might say that. Actually, I was a land speculator before I kind of got in the banking business in a left-handed way. Before that, I was mainly in the timber business."
"So you were in the businesses that needed capital. I guess that's the way you got to know the banking business."
Mr. Greene smiled. "Not many would understand that, Mr. Long. My congratulations."
"Well, without seeming nosy, is that what you do down at the bank? Make loans?"
A little frown flitted across Mr. Greene's face. He said, "Not exactly, Mr. Long. I, well, I sort of advise them on different investments."
Longarm said, "I see." But he didn't really. It was an odd sort of work for someone to advise banks on how to run a bank. At that moment, a waitress came up and their conversation ceased while they ordered. Longarm asked for ham and a half dozen fried eggs with biscuits and brown gravy on the side and coffee and he decided to order a slab of apple pie to top it all off.
Mr. Green looked amused. He was not a very big man, but he was carrying a little extra weight. He said, "Oh, Mr. Long, I remember the days when I could eat like that. Now, with this sour stomach of mine, I've got to be careful. I'm just going to have some soft scrambled eggs and some dry toast."
Longarm nodded sympathetically. "It's a shame when a man's stomach goes to acting up on him. I guess that's the second most tender area a man hates to see put out of business."
Mr. Greene said, "Ain't that the truth."
When the waitress was gone, the thought fluttered through Longarm's mind that Mr. Greene, who appeared tohave been a longtime resident of the Little Rock area, might be a source of information about the whiskey. He intended to pass himself off as a buyer, just as Billy Vail had suggested, and Mr. Greene seemed to be an innocent enough person to begin with. He had no earthly idea if the man would talk to him, but it was certainly worth a try. He intended to ask very openly around town and get some word circulating until someone came up to him and started talking whiskey.
But during the meal, Longarm kept the talk general. At one point, Mr. Greene inquired what business might have brought Longarm to Little Rock. The deputy marshal had sidestepped the question, passing up the opening and giving some inconsequential answer. He had earlier in the conversation described himself as an investor, a man who looked for an opportunity to make money in any variety of ways. He said he was from Phoenix, Arizona, and had investments in land and cattle.
Mr. Greene had looked up at him with a slight twinkle in his eye. He said, "You seem to have come over quite a lot of ground to end up in a place like Little Rock looking for business opportunities."
Longarm answered comfortably, "Oh, I'm a traveling man. Once I got started, it seemed easy enough to stay on the train and visit friends here and there. I figure I might eventually end up going on up into Tennessee, perhaps."
When they had finished eating and were taking their time over coffee, Longarm casually said, "I understand they do a little business in whiskey around here, Mr. Greene. Would you know anything about that?"
Mr. Greene looked away for a second and then came back to Longarm. He said, "Oh, I suppose everyone that has ever been in this part of the country knows something about whiskey. I take it that you're talking about the kind of whiskey they make back in the hills that some people call white lightning or moonshine?"
Longarm nodded. "That would be the kind of whiskey that I'm inquiring about."
Mr. Greene said, "Well, there's no secret that it's a pretty brisk commodity around here. No law against it, as far as I know. Not so long as a man buys some to drink for himself."
"Well, that kind of whiskey ain't exactly my choice for drinking purposes," Longarm said. "I was thinking more along the lines of pretty large quantities of the stuff, quantities a man might be able to sell for a profit."
Mr. Greene's eyes twinkled slightly again. He said, "Mr. Long, that's illegal. I'm a banker. I wouldn't know anything about that sort of thing."
Longarm smiled again. "As I understood you, Mr. Greene, you said that you were an advisor to a bank. That doesn't necessarily make you a banker."
Mr. Greene laughed. He had a pleasant laugh that seemed to poke fun at both himself and the situation. He said, "Well, you may be right, Mr. Long. I'm really not a banker. I suppose in some ways, we are a lot alike. I've spent most of my life searching out opportunities in land and timber, and I guess I've done the odd livestock trade here and there."
"But you don't know anything about the whiskey trade?"
"I didn't say that, Mr. Long," said Mr. Greene. "I just said that the kind of whiskey trade you're talking about was illegal."
"Well, it's been my experience that a thing that don't hurt nobody and don't scare the horses and the law don't find out about ain't exactly illegal."
Mr. Greene said, "I believe you have a good point there, Mr. Long."
"Call me Custis."
"Most folks call me Bob."
"All right. Let's just say you were me and you were in town kind of interested in getting into the whiskey business with an eye for reselling it for a profit. You didn't know anybody, but you had heard about the transactions--kind of like a rumor. If you were me and in that situation with no contacts, how would you start in on this business?"
Mr. Greene laughed. "Well, one of the first things I wouldn't do is stick a gun into the face of the man who is right in the midst of it."
"That fellow Colton?"
"That fellow, Morton Colton. Yes, you've picked the wrong man, Custis, if you wanted a shortcut into the business."
"He's got a lot to do with it then?" said Longarm.
Greene shook his head. "Not directly, no. He sort of runs a protection outfit that makes sure the flow of whiskey and money don't get interrupted."
"Is that a fact?"
Mr. Greene nodded again. "Like I told you yesterday, Custis, he's a bad man to fool with on either side of the law. That's what makes him valuable to the whiskey trade around here. He's some kind of friend to the sheriff and it's the sheriff that allows the business to go around here. I'm not telling you anything you can't find out on the street. It's all pretty well known. It's a business that's been going on quite a few years, even back when Arkansas was just a territory, so it's not like it's something that's not an old, established operation. What I'm trying to say is that there is a lot of buyers that come down here looking for a quick profit, so the fact that you're willing to buy some whiskey doesn't make you special to these folks. They are damned near selling all they can make right now."
Longarm frowned. "I can't believe that there ain't a way I can't get my foot in the door. I don't know what the going price is for whiskey in big lots, but I reckon if I raise that price, I can do business. That's the way we do business in Arizona, and I doubt seriously if it'll be any different here in Arkansas."
Mr. Greene shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you can always get your foot into the water and see how cold it is... or how hot."
Longarm said with careful casualness, "You wouldn't care to tell me where that water is or what that lake's name is, would you?"
Greene regarded him from across the table. "Are you asking me for the name of somebody in that business?"
"You could say that would be what I'm asking you."
Greene shook his head slowly from side to side. "Mr. Long, meaning no disrespect to you, sir, but I don't know you from Adam. I never saw you before yesterday. You are as complete a stranger to me as most of the people in this room. I hope you understand that I am a fifty-year-old gentleman, and I would like to get older. Some of the people involved in this whiskey business are a rough crowd. Some of them are just plain ignorant, and some of them are just plain mean. The combination isn't a good one. No, sir, I'm afraid that I can't help you."
Longarm shrugged. "Well, I can't blame you for looking after your own hide. I reckon I'd do the same were I in your shoes. These people are in the business of selling whiskey to outsiders; surely they would want the word to get around to a prospective buyer like me."
Greene said carefully, "They want the word to get around to people that they know and trust, if you take my meaning. They're not anxious to have the whole of the county and part of the state knowing their business. Some of those folks back up in the hills have been inbreeding for so long that they are all kin to one another. It's not a good combination. It doesn't breed a family of intelligent, free thinkers. They are a suspicious, calculating, bushwacking, deadly lot. You met one of them yesterday. Take the fine clothes off of him and he wouldn't be any different than any of the others that you would find were you to ride fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred miles northeast of here, maybe even a little closer."
Longarm said, "Well, without calling names, could you tell me where I might find that gentleman I met yesterday?"
Again, Mr. Greene shook his head. He said, "Mr. Long, again, if you will pardon me and not take offense, I beg to be no longer a part of this conversation on that subject. I have said my last on the matter."
"I can appreciate that, Mr. Greene, and I respect it. I reckon I can figure a way into that inner circle somehow."
"I don't know whether to wish you good luck or not. Good luck trying to get in might turn out to be bad luck trying to get out."
Longarm laughed without much humor and reached over and picked up the check. "At least I can buy breakfast, Mr. Greene. You will accept that much from me?"
Mr. Greene shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not a man to argue, as I explained earlier."
For much of the rest of the day, Longarm wandered around the city, stopping in different saloons, leaving word of his interest in purchasing some large amounts of whiskey. The information was uniformly received by the people he talked to, mostly by bartenders or other patrons, with blank faces and stony stares. In the afternoon, he sought out the saloon where he had played poker in the back room the day before. To his disappointment, no game was in progress. The table sat empty, the chairs back, and a deserted deck of cards spilled across the table's top. When Longarm inquired as to where he might find Morton Colton, the bartender just shook his head and said, "Wouldn't know him."
Longarm glanced down the way at the second bartender, the same man who had brought the tray in the day before. He said, "Yeah, I bet you don't."
The second bartender gave him a hard look. He said, "Mister, your trade ain't welcome here. I'd reckon you'd do better doing your drinking other places."
To his great distress, Longarm decided on a plan of sampling different brands of whiskey in different saloons to see if he could tell which were colored moonshine. He managed to find quite a few in several saloons. He left each one feeling like he'd just had a good drink of kerosene. He had found the whiskey, but he was still no nearer to the source.
That evening, he went back to the hotel for a dinner of smothered steak and mashed potatoes with green beans and stewed tomatoes. Mr. Greene was not in attendance nor was any other familiar face. As he ate, Longarm reflected on the way Bob Greene had characterized the whiskey makers as inbred, mean, vicious, suspicious bushwackers. It was virtually the same description that Billy Vail had given him. He was going to have to ask, once he got back to Denver, how Billy Vail came to know so much about the breed of people who lived back in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains and tended their stills in the little hidden groves and hollows and cutbacks.