“Telegram fer Mrs. Hattie Prosser!”
We waited till the courier rode on into the yard before I told him, “No need to yell, Johnny. Gotta let the morning dew burn off a bit before we hit the hayfields anyway; we ain’t going anywhere. Henry, would you run that in to Hattie?”
Nodding eagerly, the five year old boy snagged the envelope from Spence’s hand and took off fer the house at a dead run. Tripped over his own feet once, about halfway there, but bounced back up without hardly slacking pace. He had a thing about incoming mail, did young Henry Tamson.
“Got time fer a bite?” I asked. As early as he’d gotten here, there was no way his Mom had managed to fix breakfast before he’d saddled up and headed outa town. The youngster was sprouting up some, a good hand taller than he’d been the last time we’d seen him. He looked like he could eat half a horse and still come up hungry.
“I thank you, but no. Opportunity knocks. Got seven more messages to deliver before nightfall and close to thirty miles to cover doing it. Glad I got a chance to come out this way, though. Last time I seen the Flywheel, you didn’t have but the one house built.” He spat, a grownup move that sent a brown stream off to the side, nailing a dung beetle I was purty sure he’d been aiming at. Man stuff, emphasizing jist how impressed he was with our progress.
Which, come to think of it, was considerable. Two houses fer the owners, one bunkhouse, a barn, the round corral, a machine shop. When you’re building things, it’s easier to notice what’s left to be done than what’s been done.
“Guess we have gotten a few things accomplished,” I admitted. “What about you?”
“Started my own business.”
Tam raised an eyebrow at that. “Heck, Johnny, you’ve had your own business fer years, carrying messages.”
“No, I mean–I started my own real company. Call it Spence Courier Services, SCS fer short. Even registered the brand.” He turned his gray, a fair match fer Marie’s big mare, except this one was a gelding. The SCS brand on the big horse’s left hip looked fairly fresh, not more’n a month old.
Jim Bodeen found this highly interesting. “There’s money in courier work? I know the Army uses such and always has, but….”
“You’d be surprised,” the lanky boy grinned, “at what folks will pay good money to have passed on to other folks, specially iffen they know the courier don’t talk outa school.”
“Can’t answer that without talking outa school.”
I tossed him a silver dollar. He snagged it from the air, give us all a two-finger salute, turned his horse, and was gone. The big gray had a right purty lope you wouldn’t have expected of him.
“Grandpa Daniel will be arriving in Walsenburg on the afternoon train.” Hattie’s broad frame practically quivered with excitement, but she looked a mite nervous, too.
“Let me guess,” Tam told her, straightfaced, “You need to ask if Jack can have the day off to escort you into town to meet him at the station.”
“Don’t see why not. How long’s he coming for? Did he say?”
“No. Maybe just a short visit. But he didn’t say.”
The tale teller straightened from cleaning the frog on Smokey’s left hind hoof. He looked mighty thoughtful fer a long moment before he said, “I don’t think so, Hattie. I suspect he’s coming to stay.”
“What–why do you say that?”
“You wrote your folks about Dawson saving you from them three hooligans, didn’t you.?”
“Sort of,” she shrugged, “But I didn’t tell them the villains had me naked on my back and one of them had his pants down before I got saved. Mom and Dad aren’t like the people here at Flywheel. You just don’t go around telling them everything.”
“No matter. Daniel seen that letter; you can count on it. Honey, I knowed that man before you was a gleam in your Daddy’s eye. He can read between the lines as well as anybody out there. He knows it was close or I miss my bet. Bet you a dollar to a doughnut hole, he intends to see you’re never left unprotected in this wild and woolly West ever again.”
Hattie looked a mite unsettled at the prospect, but her husband heaved a deep sigh and said, “That is the best news I’ve heard all week.”
Cougar headed on out to start mowing. Jim Bodeen would be raking the field Coug had cut yesterday. It’d be three, maybe four days before the windrows were ready fer hauling and stacking, so in a sense Daniel Morgan’s arrival couldn’t have been timed any better.
We’d decided to take the freight wagon. Hattie had told us her grandpa might not be able to ride a horse any more without hurting himself, and there weren’t enough room on a buckboard seat fer two people as wide as Hattie and Daniel.
Jack handled the team, but Hattie rode in the freight box–which made fer a sight I suspected Walsenburg would not soon forget, especially once her grandpa was added to that load. Tam and I went on ahead, unwilling to travel at the relative snail’s pace of the wagon. Besides, we needed to round up a few supplies, have ’em ready to load by the time the Prossers made it into town.
Daniel had aged considerably, but you couldn’t miss either the bulk of the man or the way his eyes took in everything around him. Not the swivel-headed, eye-darting sort of observation you see them nervous Nellies making, but a pure awareness. Back in the day, enemies and friends alike had said Daniel Morgan had eyes in the back of his oversized head.
They were right.
His hair had gone about half gray, giving him a distinguished sort of look, and he moved with some care. But he still wore a hogleg on his right hip, and there was absolutely zero doubt in my mnd he still knew how to use it.
Watching him and his granddaughter hug each other looked a bit like what I’d imagine a collision between a couple of them African hippos might resemble. When they separated, though, it didn’t take him long to zero in on me.
“Long time no see, Crazy Rifle,” he said quietly, extending a huge hand. Which I took, and gladly. He coulda crushed my fist like a bug, but he don’t work that way.
“Long time, Daniel. Long time.”
I didn’t expect the next words out of his mouth, though. “Got a place we can talk?”
We settled at the far corner table in Ethel’s Eats, asking fer a pot of coffee, a whole apple pie we could dish up ourselves, and some privacy. Ethel didn’t even raise an eyebrow at that.
“Two rounders on the train,” Daniel began without preamble. “Overheard ’em talking. Couldn’t catch everything, but enough to come up with a purty highly educated guess they’re assassins.”
“Assassins? Jist out-and-out hired murderers? Not bounty hunters or anything like that?”
“Couldn’t be a hunnert percent sure, but close enough I’d stake my life on it.”
“And the rest of what I heard…something to do with Flywheel Ranch and the outlaw girl Trisha Cobb, the one that supposedly got killed by the Army up in Wyoming Territory a couple of years back. Only they never did find the body.”
Dawson was sitting to my right. I could feel the sudden tension in him. Hold on, partner, I thought at him. Let’s see where Daniel is going with this. Better yet, let’s lay the cards on the table.
“You got it figured out,” I said aloud. It wasn’t a question.
My old shooting instructor jist nodded, waiting.
White Bear couldn’t keep quiet any longer, which didn’t surprise me none. Were it Laughing Brook being hunted, I didn’t figure I’d have done no better.
“Before we go any farther,” Dawson spoke softly, “We need to git word back to the ranch. Johnny Spence would be best, but he’s busy today–”
“Speak of the Devil.” I got up, walked over to the counter where Ethel was signing fer an envelope the courier had jist handed to her.
“Know you’re busy,” I told him.
Spence looked at me with that steady way of his. We had a deal.
“He’ll push that gray to his limits getting there.”
Hattie looked downright amazed. “How did you do that? He said he had all those other messages to deliver.”
“He does. Some of ’em will have to wait till tomorrow.” I grinned at Dawson. “Double eagle.”‘
When he relaxed a bit, hearing that, I explained to the others. “Johnny done us a service one time. White Bear here, he flipped the boy a double eagle ’cause he’d earned it. Sorta gave us a baseline from then on, you know? We got a message that has to be delivered in a hurry, we hand him a double eagle, and everybody else can all of a sudden jist damn well wait their turn.”
Daniel, Jack, and Hattie were on their way, trundling the loaded wagon full of ranch supplies and wide people back toward the ranch. Dawson and I had some work to do, a track to run on. It had taken a heap of careful prodding to git Morgan to remember every little thing he’d overheard on the train, but the gold nugget had finally showed up in the pan. Jist one word:
Banker Jerome T. Newsome, the rat bastard who’d reneged on a $20,000 reward owed us fer bringing in the fools who’d robbed his bank–sort of–and kidnapped his customer and her daughter.
Banker Newsome, the sumbitch who’d been set to foreclose on Tom Pringle’s place when he and his wife ended up dead in their own kitchen.
Banker J.T., third or fourth richest man in Walsenburg, who hated Flywheel with a purple passion, partly because we did our banking out of town, called him a chiseling weasel, and made no bones about it.
It was Hattie who’d figured out why he’d hired assassins instead of spilling the beans.
“Any good Philadelphia lawyer could get her off scot free.”
“Really?” Dawson was plumb curious. “How did you come to that conclusion?”
“Really. Despite the law wanting her badly, nobody ever knew much about Trisha Cobb. Even back East, we heard about her–there just aren’t that many female outlaws with gunslinger reputations. She made for good copy, sold a lot of newspapers. But there was never a photograph taken of her, and nobody could agree exactly on her appearance. Height, weight, hair color, age, nothing.”
“She’s right,” Daniel agreed. “I read everything I could find on her over the years.”
“So,” Hattie pointed out, “If Marie was arrested, Flywheel would get her the best lawyer available. She’d be proven in a court of law not to be Trisha Cobb, and the banker would have gone to all that effort for nothing. From what you’ve all told me, he’s not the sort of man who’d appreciate that very much.”
“No,” I shook my head, “he’s not.”
The silver lining–if you could call it that–was the likelihood Newsome had shared his insight about Dawson’s wife with no one else. He jist wasn’t a sharing kind of individual.
“We can’t kill him, White Bear.”
“Why the Hell not, Tam?”
“You’re thinking with your heart. He deserves killing, no doubt about it. But we’d never pull it off. Remember, a bunch of people in this town, starting with Doc Chouteau, pulled together the greatest coverup this town has ever seen to protect Flywheel after Cougar’s set-to with them Schraft cousins. But a rich local banker ain’t the same as a bunch of lowlife drifters.”
“Nope. He’s a sight worse.”
“Agreed. But can you see what I’m getting at?”
My friend sighed. “I see it all too well, partner. What I don’t see is how we can handle this one.”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing I’ve got a plan. Maybe. Let’s go see about a hotel room.”
Fortunately, the hotel was nearly empty when we checked in. We’d been prepared to come up with all kinds of reasons to git either room #32 or #34, but the song and dance hadn’t been necessary; the clerk handed us the key to #34 right off the bat.
Next to #33, which housed our targets. My theory was based on reading I’d done, so it might or might not hold water, but everything I’d seen in print said the really good assassins don’t like to move too quick. Rather, they’ll study the lay of the land, figure out the best way to take down their quarry before they so much as load their rifles or sharpen their knives. They’d take their time, and right now, they were in their hotel room, resting up from the train ride.
“You sure this is gonna work?” Dawson whispered.
“Nope,” I whispered back. “You got a better idea?”
Much louder, in a voice meant to penetrate the paper-thin hotel walls, I started the “discussion”.
“You shoulda known! He’s stiffed seven other men the same way, let ’em do the job and then refused to pay! You shoulda seen it coming!”
“Oh, right!” Dawson sounded so righteously indignant, I was even buying it. “How was I s’posed to know a damn banker would be running a scam like that! Sure, now we find out it’s always the same story, go kill this woman and I’ll pay you a small fortune! We shoulda asked questions!”
“Our kind don’t ask questions, idjit! That ain’t the way it works! But I’ll tell ya what, we’re getting ours! No damn Banker J.T. Newsome laughs at us without paying the price! Let’s jist do what we agreed, head on down the the Singlejack, throw down a few drinks, kill some time. Then come closing time, we’ll go kill us a damn lying banker. That, and help ourselves to the Army payroll he keeps hidden under the damn floorboards!”
“Sounds good to me. I do need to simmer down a little, jist enough to enjoy shooting his eyeballs out! Jist so nobody beats us to him. It’d be a bitch, finding out somebody else had offed the bugger before we got there!”
Dawson slammed the door so hard on our way out, it sounded like a shot echoing down the hall. Our bootheels stomped furiously past room #33, not lightening up till we turned into the lobby. The clerk had likely heard a bit of noise even here, but he didn’t look particularly surprised when we told him we needed to check back out due to remembering we had business elsewhere.
The business of establishing an alibi, that is. If this worked, we might need to prove we’d been seventeen miles out of town before the sun set.
Johnny Spence rode into the ranch yard shortly after sunup. “Jist in time fer breakfast,” I told him.
This time he accepted.
“No message? Plenty of bacon; you don’t have to stop at two slices.”
“Got a message,” he said soberly, “Jist not one I’d care to put in writing. Doctor Chouteau said to tell you, nice work.”
“Huh. Did he explain that?”
“Nope. But there was a bit of excitement in town last night. Banker Newsome’s house burned down.”
“Yep. Also, he was in it. Or what was left of him was, anyway. Doc took a look at the charred remains, says he was likely dead before the fire started.”
“Well,” I observed sagely, noting the remarkably light mood in the room that hadn’t been there a few minutes earlier, “if anyone would know, it’d be Doc. Any suspects?”
“Only a couple of strangers and most of the town. Newsome hasn’t been winning any popularity contests lately.”
Not until Johnny had climbed back into the saddle did he spill the rest of it. “Jist so you know, I’m personally tickled spitless to see Newsome get his. I never was able to collect my payment fer any message he wanted delivered, either up front or after the fact. Finally give up and refused to talk to the sumbitch. Iffen I’d been able to figure out how to git away with offing the rat bastard, I’da done it myself.”
Once he was gone, Jack spoke up. “Tam, I was sitting right there at the table when you told Dawson, We can’t kill him. That’s what you said. We can’t kill him.”
“Yep,” I nodded, “That’s what I said.”
Prosser looked honestly confused till Dawson come to his rescue. “Jack, he said we couldn’t kill him. Never said his own paid assassins couldn’t do the job for us.”
“When Crazy Rifle speaks, you gotta learn to pay attention.”