Authors: Ed Gorman
henever I needed to pick up a couple freelance helpers, the first place I checked was the local stage line. They generally steered me to shotgun riders who worked part-time or had the day off. Given all the bank and stagecoach gangs working this part of Montana Territory, the shotgun men had to be good. And not be afraid of a little violence if necessary.
The Northeast Stage Line had a full house in back. Four coaches, everything from one of the new Concord models to an Abbott & Downing mudwagon to a pair of newly restored Deadwood stages that could carry eighteen passengers.
There had been some bad accidents with stagecoaches lately, the coach owners saying they were due to bad roads and acts of nature, the editorial writers saying they were due to drunk drivers and overworked horses. They were probably both right. Every coach in this lot had a small sign stuck on its doors:
A RECORD OF SAFETY
A man in a flat-crowned black hat, blue shirt, black trousers, and a small badge on the flap pocket
of his shirt was talking to a youngster who was giving a muddy Concord a soapy wash with a bucket of water.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The deputy took a photograph of me with his eyes and filed it away for future reference. That's a common trait in well-trained lawmen. He had a blandly handsome face and hard, dark eyes that made snap assessments of every human who walked or ran or crawled in front of their lenses. He didn't dislike me, his gaze revealed, but only because he didn't think I was worth bothering with.
“Morning,” he said, “help you?”
“I'm actually looking for the boss.”
He put forth a hand that was even harder than his eyes. “Frank Clarion. I'm a day deputy in town here.”
“Nice to meet you, Clarion. Can you point me to the boss?”
“Right over there. And he's not only the boss, he's the owner.”
“Tib Mason,” the boy chimed in, wiping sweat from his face with the sleeve of his black-and-white-checkered shirt. “That's his name. He's my uncle. Same as the marshal's Mr. Clarion's uncle.”
Now, I'm not one of those people who believe that it's necessarily a bad thing to hire your kin. I've known any number of father-son, uncle-nephew, cousin-cousin lawmen partnerships that work out just fine, even though most folks are automatically suspicious of them, suspecting nepotism and nothing more.
But Clarion's bland face tightened some when the kid mentioned that the marshal was Clarion's uncle.
He tried to make a joke of it. “Thanks for pointing that out, Merle.”
Merle's bright-blue eyes dulled. He realized then that he'd said a bad thing, and that Clarion was going to kick his ass, verbally if not physically, as soon as he got a chance.
Having said the wrong thing many times in my own life, I tried to help the kid out a little. “I was a deputy onceâand my uncle was the sheriff. Same setup as yours, Clarion. I imagine you get razzed about it sometimes as much as I did. But I did my best and got along just fine. And I'm sure that's how it works for you.”
The dark gaze showed me a little more charity. Maybe I wasn't just another drifting saddlebum after all. Maybe I was a man of taste and discernment.
“Yeah,” he said, and for an instant there he was almost likable, “they sure do like to kid you about working for your uncle.”
Merle looked relieved. He went back to his washing with a smile on his freckled face.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, and offered my hand to Clarion again.
Tib Mason turned out to be a short, beefy man in a tall, white Stetson, working a horse inside a rope corral. I walked over and watched him finish up with the animal. The paint wasn't much bigger than a colt. Mason kept everything gentle. He used his short whip only once, and then with obvious reluctance. When he saw me, he went up to the paint and stroked its neck several times, gentling it down. Then he walked over to me.
“If you're looking for Tib Mason,” he said, “you found him.”
“You're mighty nice to that paint.”
“I like horses. We've got the best in the Territory on this line. And I personally tamed just about every one of them. And I didn't get mean with any of them.” He took out his sack of Bull Durham, then his papers, and went to work. “So what can I do for you, mister?”
“Need to hire a couple of men.”
I told him what I wanted him to know, which wasn't much. I also showed him my badge.
“They could get hurt.”
“That's why I'm paying them so well.”
“This Ford character out to that ranch. Nobody around here has much time for him. He made it plain that he didn't want anything to do with us. And we obliged him. We didn't want nothing to do with him, either.” He got his cigarette lighted with a stick match and inhaled deeply. “He looks like he could be a tough sonofabitch.”
“You know him, do ya?”
“He's my brother.”
He surprised me. He didn't look startled. He just grinned. “That'd probably make you just as strange as he is.”
“It probably would.”
Another drag. “How come you didn't go to the marshal and ask for some deputies?”
“Local law isn't always cooperative. We have to run the show and they resent that.”
“You can't blame 'em for that, can you?”
“No, I can't blame them. But on the other hand, I need to do things the way the Army wants them done. I don't act on my own. I take orders.”
He said, “How about me and a man named James Andrews? Full-blooded Cree. That kind of money, we'll do it. Just don't cheat him. He makes a bad enemy.”
“Don't we all.”
He shrugged. “I suspect you do. And I suspect your brother does. But that doesn't mean we're all like you, thank God.”
“You'll go out to my brother's with me?”
“Sure. All those coaches you see over thereâI owe the bank for every one of them. This should be some easy money for us.”
I watched the paint before I spoke. He dug at the dirt with a long leg, as if he was going after buried treasure. He was young and strong. I almost hated to think of him spending his life on stage trails.
“Me and the Cree're good shots. And we're used to taking orders. The customers are our bosses. Same with folks we hire out to. You won't have any trouble with us. None at all.”
“If he's Cree, why's his name James?”
“He shook his Stetson'd head. “Missionaries gave it to him. That's the name he prefers. I actually never heard him even say his Cree name.”
“I'll need a buckboard.”
“That won't be any trouble.”
“And we'll meet here just about five? Buckboard and shotguns?”
“Fine by me, friend.” He nodded to the paint inside the rope corral. “Better get back to work. He's getting restless.”
I had supper just before four o'clock in a cafÃ© that catered to townspeople of the merchant variety. You could deduce this from the headwear they wore, mostly homburgs. I was there for a steak and eggs. They were there for drinks.
I wasn't sure when or where he'd find me, but I knew he would. They come, of course, in different shapes, sizes, ages, dispositions. The canny ones choose a persona and pretty much stick to it. They can hide in the persona so that you can never guess their real thoughts or attitudes. Some strut like gunfighters; others kind of shuffle, trying to seem harmless; and some are crisp and curt, like bank managers who don't plan to give you a loan.
Then there is the grandfather school. When he came in the front door, several conversations paused, a couple of the waitresses froze in place momentarily, and the man you paid at the front counter put on a smile big enough to please a politician.
He wore no hat. Wouldn't want you to miss that head of long, pure white hair. Checkered shirt, somewhat wrinkled, the way a grandfather's would be. An inexpensive leather vest. Cheap gray trousers of the kind laborers wear. He had blue, blue eyes and a youthful grin, and the left hand he raised to wave withâthere was a hint of the papal wave in itâwas twisted just slightly with arthritis.
The badge he wore on the inexpensive vest was small. He wouldn't, being a granddad, want to give the impression of vanity or undue pride.
The corncob pipe was the nicest touch. No expensive briar for him. No, sir. Just a plain, ordinary, five-cent pipe, as befitted the good old trustworthy gramps that everybody knew and loved.
After he shook a few hands, the blue, blue eyes narrowed and lost a bit of their friendliness. He was hunting somebody. He was hunting me.
He fixed me with a gaze that would've made God tremble in his boots, and then he blessed the crowd with another sort of pope-like general wave (hell, he might have been absolving them of all their sins, the piss-elegant way he did it) and then he ambled over in my direction, pausing here and there for a few words with the men who worked hard at giving the impression that they were important, and probably were by town standards.
When he finally reached me, he said, “You mind if I sit down? I hate to bother you, but these old feet of mine are killin' me. And just about every table's filled up.”
There were four empty tables in plain sight. But I knew he was going to sit down here anyway and so did he.
“Be happy for a little company,” I said.
“Now that's mighty nice of you, friend.”
A serving woman with a wide waist and a face full of freckles appeared with a schooner of beer, setting it down in front of the town marshal as if she'd been chosen to serve royalty. What was interesting and impressive about her behavior was that she seemed taken with the marshal out of respect, not because of fear. Which was the general reaction. That was to his credit.
When she left, he said, “Name's Wickham. Charley Wickham. I'm the town marshal.”
We shook hands. “You seem to have a lot of friends.”
“I'm not a bully and I generally don't hold
grudges. I give a lot of second chances, and if I get the opportunity to help a good man in bad trouble, I generally do it. I'm not a prude and I'm not a busybody. They've elected me to four two-year terms, and I expect they'll elect me a couple more times before I take my badge off this old vest of mine.”
Now how the hell were you going to come back to that? There wasn't any brag in it, he was just stating what he saw were facts, and I had no doubt they were. If I lived here, I'd vote for him five or six times.
I hadn't told him my name. He said, “Now, Mr. Ford, you know and I know that I've checked you out and know that you're an investigator with the Army and that you've hired Tib Mason and James to go out to your brother's place at sundown. Now the thing is, I can keep right on going with this cornball bumpkin bullshit or I can cut right to it and ask you why the hell you didn't come to me before you looked up Tib. I could've gotten you a couple deputies and made it all legal.”
“It is all legal, Marshal. I had a year of law school in Washington as part of my job. When Tib and James are with me, they're legal associates of mine. As long as what we do is legal, anyway.”
“Tib tells me you were afraid I might not cooperate. Hell, Ford, I cooperate with every kind of investigator who comes through here, and that includes the Pinkertons, who can really get on a fella's nerves sometimes.”
“Then I was wrong about you and I apologize.”
He laughed. “I think we're quite a bit alike, Ford.”
“Oh? How would that be?”
“You like to pretend to be all nice and reasonable and civil because you learned that that was the best way to hide what you're really after. Once a fella gets everybody all riled up, he's not gonna get his way except by force. And the only thing that force gets you eventually is dead. This town had four marshals in one year. You can find them up on the hill where the cemetery is. I had to apply three times for this job because they thought I was too quiet and gentle for it. I been marshal here for eight years now and in that time I've had to kill eighteen men, all of them white. But I didn't pick those fights, they did. I'm not especially good with a gun and I consider myself a serious coward. Every time I've been forced to shoot somebody, I spend a good hour puking my guts up afterward. I'm still scared of how close I came to dyin'. But what kept me alive is the one thing that none of those eighteen men had. And that was a calm temperament. Just like yours.”
My food came and he said, “I'm going to let you eat in peace, Ford. But I just wanted to say that I'd appreciate you stopping by my office tonight and telling me how it went out at your brother's. I never have figured out what he's doing in that barn of his. He's got a Gatling gun that he fires a lot; his neighbors tell me that. But he's never given me or any of mine the time of day. Now all of a sudden here's this Army investigator who happens to be his brother going out thereâ¦”
He stood up. “You'd be curious, too.”
“I sure would,” I said, eager to start on my steak and eggs. “I'll stop at your place soon as I get back in town.”
“I'd sure appreciate that.” Then: “Tib and James.” He made a sound not unlike a giggle. “Them boys is a pair of wild cards, let me tell you. Really wild cards.”
Then he started working his way toward the front door, laughs and handshakes and back slaps for those he'd missed before.
ib Mason sat in back with the shotguns. James rode on the seat with me. Autumn night came quickly. Frost gleamed on the prairie; shadows danced in the broken moonlight of the woods. An owl's cry followed us for some time.
There were flashes in the forest, mostly moonlight, but it was more fun to pretend the way the youngest soldiers used to, that the flashes were kinâgrandfathers and dead brothers and maybe even sweetheartsârisen fresh from the land beyond to soothe and comfort the scared and worn young troops who could no longer even remember what they were fighting for.
I hoped David had changed his mind. I suspected he didn't want a confrontation any more than I did. Which didn't mean, of course, that he wouldn't get involved in one if he had to. I had to convince him that he'd be free to walk away if he just gave me this gun. Neither of us would be foolish enough to think this would make him give up the kind of life he led.
Of course neither David nor others like him would
have been able to even learn about new weapons if the government wasn't so sloppy and corrupt.
The leak would have been in Washington. There was a good reason that President Lincoln had turned over all spy and espionage operations during the Civil War to the Pinkertons. It was because the Army could rarely keep secrets. Gun merchants, foreign and domestic, preyed on the Army people in the nation's capital. They used cash, sex, blackmail, whatever was required to pry secrets from the staffers back there. This didn't mean that they had any specific advance word of experimental weaponry, not usually. No, the cash, sex, and blackmail were used to trawl though the staffer's mind. He'd confide the number and nature of projects and they'd judge whether any of the projects sounded of interest to their sponsors. The men representing the gun manufacturers were mostly freelancers. If even one out of ten of the weapons proved desirable to their clients, a lot of money would be made.
The dusty road was pale gold. Road apples were heavy, thanks to stage traffic. Even with the railroad running full bore now, the stage in this part of the Territory was still used constantly. Every mile or so you'd see the lights of a tiny farmhouse. People had rushed here for gold. What didn't get talked about as much was all the people from back East who came here for several acres of land and a chance of communities better suited to their liking than the ones they'd happily left behind.
James said, “For my people, that is not a good sign.”
I didn't have to ask what he was talking about. The icon of the ominous owl cut across a lot of racial
and cultural lines. I'd spent three months in the Ozarks. The poor whites there had a whole legend of owls worked up. Some owls were good and some evil. I'd seen granny medicine reliant on scalding an owl to death in a huge, boiling kettle over a fire sprinkled with the bone dust of a raven. The scalded and seared juices of the owl were supposed to cure the cancer that had opened crater-like scabs on the neck of an old man.
“We'll be all right.”
“Tib said there could be trouble. Trouble between brothers is not good.”
“I'm hoping there isn't trouble, James.”
Tonight he wore a dark headband to collect his long, gray-streaked hair. The buckskin shirt and trousers would keep him warm if there was a standoff in the long, cold night.
From the bed of the buckboard, Tib said, “My old lady has a funny feeling about tonight. She didn't want me to come.”
“If you'd feel better about it,” I said, “you can drop off here. No questions asked, no hard feelings.”
“You're an easy cuss.”
“Not really. But if you're all spooked up, you're not going to do me much good. Same with James and the owl. If you're uneasy about this, James, I don't want you along, either.”
Tib laughed. “Hell, sounds like you're tryin' to get rid of us. You ain't figured us out yet, Ford. We maybe don't look like it, but we're downright mercenary.”
It usually works. Make fun of a man and his fears and he'll turn on you, tell you what a brave sumbitch he is and what a stupid sumbitch you are for doubting his manliness.
“This is your call, Tib.”
“You think we're pussies?” Tib said.
“I don't buy into owls and your old lady's spooked feelings, but I have to admit we don't know what we're riding into. Maybe my brother'll be reasonable and there won't be any trouble. Or maybe he's got a bunch of men there with carbines, just waiting to use them on us. There's always a chance we'll be outnumbered. That's something you have to take into account, I guess.”
“I'm not a pussy.” That white word in the mouth of a red man sounded kind of funny, like a little kid cussing. I smiled to myself.
“I sure don't think you are, James.”
“Well, I sure ain't, either,” Tib said.
“Never said you were, Tib.”
Then Tib asked, “What exactly are we tryin' to get back from this brother of yours?”
“Must be some gun.”
I didn't like or trust either of them. Couldn't explain it; just felt it. Maybe it was the way they were always glancing at each other. Their contempt for me was clear in the tone they took with me.
We reached the hill where I'd sat my horse earlier in the day. The night smelled of wood smoke and forest and snowy mountains. Fifty voices cried out their complaints, everything from baby birds to coyotes.
Now that it was dark, nothing was the same. A mountain wind had started ripping away the last of the remaining leaves. Shadows in crevices and gullies lent the landscape a mysterious, even treacherous, look. In daylight this area had been a sweet autumn
land with apple trees and tilled acres and even a stream for fishing. But night wore a mask, and not a kind one. It could be hiding anything. I was an expert at night. I'd learned to use it pretty well back in the days of the war.
I grabbed my field glasses and stood up in the buckboard.
The house was dark. So was the barn. No sign of humans or horses. A couple of raccoons ate at spoiled apples in the backyard, their dark eyes gleaming whenever moonlight touched them.
James's breathing got heavier. The excitement of danger. Sometimes that made for the best kind of warrior; sometimes it made for the most reckless and foolish kind. I was beginning to get the sense that James belonged in the reckless category.
The three of us jumped down to the ground. Each of us toted a carbine, as well as a holster and sidearm.
“I can scout it for you,” James said, confirming my sense that he was eager to get to the shooting, if there was to be any. And I guessed that if it didn't look like there would be any shooting, James would start some on his own.
“I appreciate that, James. But this is my fight. You're here for backup.”
“That means what exactly?” Tib asked.
“Means I'm going down there and try to reason with him.”
“Maybe they are gone,” James said.
“Maybe. But I doubt it. He has men in this town who have money for him. He couldn't have made a deal that fast. We were supposed to meet and talk. That's what I hoped we'd do, anyway. Obviously, he
had other ideas. We can't just pull our wagon up in the yard. We don't know what's waiting for us.”
“He'd just shoot you down?” James said.
“I don't think so. But I can't be sure. We haven't spent a lot of time together since before the war. That's a long time ago. People change. That's the only thing you can count on.”
Then: “You wait here,” I said. “You've got my field glasses. You should have a pretty good sense of what's going on. I'll see you in a while.”
I set off.
I swung west a quarter mile, into the loam-smelling woods, immediately entangled in underbrush as I sought some sort of trail. I found mud, feces, holes that tripped me, branches that lashed that broken face of mine, thorns that cut my hands, and at least half-a-dozen dead little critters that scavengers of all kinds had had their way with.
I emerged at a fence line, barbed wire, and eased myself between two strands. There was no other way in. None, at least, any safer than this. I half-expected sniper fire to pick me off. Or at least try to scare me off, unless my brother had decided to make quick work of me. The only place to hide was the outhouse to the east. I kept listening for any human sound. There was always the possibility that Tib or James had inadvertently mentioned to somebody that we'd be coming to the ranch tonight. Or maybe not inadvertently. It was pretty obvious that these two were the type who'd sell you to the highest bidder. Maybe
they'd sold me out to David, and now David was waiting for me after setting the trap.
The ranch house had a shingle roof and adobe walls. Nothing moved in the dark windows; no smoke coiled from the tin chimney; no sound intruded on the silent yard. Sometimes you get a sense of places you're unfamiliar with. Some instinct allows you to take a reading. Danger or not danger. But I got no sense of the place. The house could be empty or there could be an army inside.
From here I couldn't see the front door, only the pine rear door. Ten feet away was the well. A small cross had been jammed into a tiny hill of dirt some time ago. A small animal of some kind. My brother and I had always been partial to animals. One of the quickest ways to be favored with a Ford punch in the face was to display any kind of cruelty to an animal.
I hefted my carbine. I told myself that I was estimating the amount of time it would take me to reach the back door from my present position. What I was doing was stalling, of course. I was thinking about what six or seven bullets tearing into me would feel like. I'd been wounded in the war. I didn't look forward to being wounded again. Even if I could trust David, I didn't know anything about the men with him. Maybe they'd shoot me and worry about David later.
But at this point, I wanted to get close enough to stand in front of him and make my case. It's a lot harder to shoot a man who's standing right in front of you. You have to take into account his humanity. Even the worst of us has a little bit of that left in us. I never assassinated anybody from close range. I couldn't afford to think of them as men with wives
and children and lives. If I did, a lot of them would still be walking the earth. That was why I got sick of men on both sides bragging about the war. A lot of good men, wearing both colors, had died.
I crouched down and began a zigzag run toward the back door of the house. Even in the cool night, I was sweat-soaked by the time I ducked just below the doorknob. I was also out of breath, which was why for three or four full minutes, I just haunch-sat there, letting my body repair itself. I didn't need another reminder that I was no longer young. But there it was.
I reached up and put my hand on the doorknob. My fingers anticipated a mechanism that would not give. I was right. I spent five minutes on it.
I stood up, took several deep breaths. I was still sticky with sweat and my breathing was still somewhat ragged. I needed to piss, but now was not the time.
The door creaked and croaked as I opened it. I paused every time the door advanced an inch, expecting a blaze of gunfire. I planned to pitch myself to the ground left of the door at the first hint of trouble from inside.
But no such hint came.
The door was as noisy as one of those root cellar doors that remain closed for months at a time. Loud as coffin tops after a decade or two with the worms.
But no response from inside.
The interior was much larger than I'd assumed. Pale moonlight displayed good oriental rugs, solid furniture of mahogany and dark leather, even a few paintings more serious than big-eyed dogs and doe-eyed children covered the walls. The booze was of
good quality; that would be David's doing, of course. Same with kitchen, both bedrooms and the workshop David had fashioned for himself on the large back porchâall neatly laid out and organized.
I went through drawers. I turned up nothing. The only things I found of note were photographs of David's children. There must have been twenty pictures. I'd had the sense that he'd left them behind mentally, as well as physically. But you don't keep this many pictures unless the kids are actively on your mind. Holding the photographs, seeing those sweet little earnest faces, I liked my brother much more than I had in years.
I heard something, or thought I did, and swung around, Colt ready.
The gray kitten with the tiny white paws looked at me and I looked at her. She mustn't have found me terribly interesting. She meowed once and then walked with a great deal of flounce and dignity out the back door I'd left open. She disappeared right through it.
I walked over to the window facing the yard. From there I had a good look at the rolling front doors of the barn. They were almost completely closed. There was maybe a foot between the two edges of them. Not so much as a glimmer of light from inside. The silence started to bother me again. It was unnatural. Maybe I'd guessed wrong. Maybe David had packed everything up and headed for the border. Now that he knew the Army was on to him, he might stay just across the Canadian border. He'd stayed there before. I needed to try the barn.
I took another walk-through of the house. It was one of those irrational acts you give into because you
don't know what else to do for the moment. I'd searched it thoroughly. I wasn't going to turn up anything a second time through. And I didn't.
I went back to the window. I saw James and then Tib. They were making their way along the far side of the barn, keeping to the shadows of the chicken coop and a large shed. They were being careful, which told me that they probably hadn't tipped David off to me coming out here. If they were working with him they wouldn't have to worry about somebody spotting them and shooting.
They probably weren't all that brave. But they'd probably gotten bored sitting up on the hill waiting for something to happen. That's one thing you learn to fight against when you have to assassinate somebody. You have to wait them out till the moment's exactly right. A few minutes too early, a few minutes too late, can throw everything off. You might kill him all right, if you act too soon or too late, but you might blow your whole escape plan in the process.