“Good to see you again, Sheriff,” Marie dimpled, “Almost seems like Flywheel is becoming your home away from home.”
Robert Olsen hung his hat on a hook and tucked his knees under the table, smiling back at my wife. “Good to see you, too, Mrs. Trask. And the rest of you fine ladies.”
“Call me Marie. Coffee?”
“Thought you’d never ask. I’ve come to feel at home here, no question about that, but I do purely hate having to roll out early enough to git here at this time of day.”
Good point. It was a touch beyond gray light, but the sun hadn’t yet peeped up over the eastern ridges. Considering the time it took a man to saddle a horse and ride the seventeen miles from Walsenburg to the ranch, he must have been stuffing his feet in his boots by three a.m.
“That is a purely hateful thing,” Cougar said, reaching out with his fork to spear another couple of flapjacks. “Which means something serious.”
“Yeah. It’s serious, all right. Ezekiel Jacobson turned up dead yesterday.”
All motion ceased fer a moment at hearing that. Zeke was–or I guess had been–our neighbor to the south. His property bordered ours along the peaks towering on the backside of the Hidden Lakes country. Not a big spread, barely topping two thousand acres, but Zeke had built it up from nothing almost single handed.
“How?” Tam asked. “And where?”
“Bullet in the back, face down in the pine trees out west of his cabin.”
“Damn.” Tam swore fer all of us.
“Damn right, damn. His nephew Ephraim found him. He works down at the Mercantile, but yesterday was his day off, so he rode out to see his uncle. Saw him, all right. What was left of him.”
I had one question of my own. “Any idea who?”
“More’n jist an idea, Dawson. I know who done it, or had it done. Can’t prove it, though.”
We all looked around the table at each other, breakfast forgotten fer the moment. The others left it to me to voice what we were all thinking.
Sheriff Olsen nodded. “Exactly. Goss Cattle Corporation has been looking fer some way to get a toehold in that country ever since he found out a fellow named Tam Tamson had locked up ownership on this side of the mountains with Evans owning most everything on the other side. If Justin Goss can git title to Zeke’s property, he can base punchers in there to start pushing at the edges both ways.”
Figuring the odds didn’t take a whole lot of brain power. Goss had been running roughshod over weaker neighbors fer nigh on four years now, pulling ever shenanigan known to man in order to expand his reach. Doing right well at it, too; his JGC brand marked the hides of more’n ten thousand head in Huerfano County alone. Reminded me of Tam’s tale about George White out in Round Valley, California.
He wasn’t an idiot; Goss would never dare tackle either Flywheel or Evans directly. Evans was too big, and Flywheel jist flat-out had too many hands who could shoot straight. But would he overstock Jacobson’s little ranch, encourage them beeves to accidentally wander over the ridges to fatten on our grass?
Yes, he would most certainly do that.
“Robert, why’d you come to us first? It’s a shorter ride to Oscar Evans’ place.” Considerably shorter; the OE headquarters were situated. barely five miles east of town.
“Truth is, I didn’t come to you first. I come to you only. Oscar won’t be hearing from me one way or the other about this. I know he didn’t have nothing to do with killing Zeke; he don’t work that way. But I also don’t much like the man. Whenever there’s been people needing help in this county and Flywheel could do something about it, you’ve done it. Evans don’t care about nothing but making money; he’d skin his own mother and sell the pelt if there was a market fer her hide.”
“Letter of the law, not the spirit?” Tam had his eyebrow cocked. “Cold fish?”
“That’s him. Here’s the thing, tale teller. Ezekiel left a will. Turns out he’s got a fair number of heirs, starting with his nephew Ephraim here in Walsenburg but also including a bunch of people back East. He set it up so’s whenever he died, his property had to be sold at auction and the proceeds divided equally among all of ’em.
“It’ll take a little while fer the Court to authorize the go-ahead fer the sale, but not as long as elsewhere. This is still the West, and we’re still doing things in a hurry.
“I rode out here at this ungodly hour jist so’s I could give you a heads up and git back to town before my absence gits overly noticed. Iffen Justin Goss is the successful bidder and adds Zeke’s ranch to his ill gotten gains, there’s gonna be a range war in Huerfano County. Evans won’t put up with the JGC pushing ’em, and neither will you folks. I wouldn’t, either, in your position.”
He picked his hat back down from the hook and apologized fer his rudeness. “Sorry to leave without so much as tasting your cooking, ladies. It ain’t right, but I’m looking to be busier’n a one-armed paper hanger till this is settled one way or the other.”
“We understand, Robert,” Tam told him, waving him to the door. “It ain’t easy being you.”
“That it’s not. Jist do me one favor.” The tin packer swept his gaze around the room, including all of us in his final entreaty. “Make damn sure Jacobson’s place ends up as part of Flywheel.”
“Huh,” I remarked after the door had closed behind him. “I’m beginning to wonder why we ever thought that man was stupid.”
Our first challenge was going to be cold, hard cash. It would be nice to be able to acquire Zeke’s land at the same price per acre–about two cents–that the United States had paid fer Alaska eight years ago. Uh-huh.
If wishes were fishes.
“I’d say it’ll run somewhere between $2 and $10 an acre,” I told the clan. “fer what that’s worth. We know Evans and Goss will be bidding. Not too likely anybody else will think it’s a healthy idea, jumping into the meat grinder between the three of us. Coug, what have you found out?”
Cougar had been researching Oscar Evans, the huge cattle baron operation to the south and east of us. “He won’t go over $8. Wouldn’t fit his style. He’s a skinflint in that regard, rather pay gunhands to enforce his borders than spend too much fer a parcel. It’s jist how he is.”
“That’s good, then. Eliminates one unknown. Dawson, you were the one who volunteered to check out Goss.”
“Yep. That I have, in detail. It’s interesting.” The former infantry sergeant stretched out his legs, leaning back in his chair, looking fer all the world like he was enjoying having a captive audience. The man had been spending entirely too much time around me. “He’s been involved in a lot of auctions these past few years. As you know, most folks that come out this way to homestead haven’t made it, and neither have most of the wannabe ranchers that start small with little money to put into a place.
“Goss has managed to buy up a lot of those failures, either when they were outright abandoned or by offering the poor suckers a few dollars to sign over title to the land and git outa Dodge. But a fair number of the down-and-outers at least took a shot at getting something fer their efforts and sold out at auction before they left.”
“We know that, cowboy,” I told him a trifle impatiently. “Git on with it, wouldja?”
“Hold yer water, Tam; I’m getting there. Done said all that to say all this: When he does buy at auction, which he’s done dozens of times, he always does his own bidding. He doesn’t often bid way high, but he’s done so on occasion. I can’t think he’ll stop at $10 an acre this time. Not fer this piece.”
“That don’t sound good.” I could see my own frown echoed around the table. “Iffen he goes higher’n that, there’s no way. $10 puts the total at a shade over $20,000. Even with the money Daniel put in and selling every calf we dare, that would be cutting it close to the bone.”
“I’d agree with you,” Dawson grinned, “except fer one weakness Goss showed at an auction over in Pueblo County some three years back. He got distracted by an overly friendly horsefly and forgot to bid in time, lost the piece he was after. It only happened once so far as I heard, but it give me an idea.”
“We have a ranch, will you bid one dollar! One dollar-one-na-na-one dollar one-na-na-bid one dollar!”
Evans raised a finger, jist up by his cheek. The ring man on that side caught the bid, shouting louder than the bid caller himself. “One dollar!”
The auction was on. The one dollar was per acre, of course, not fer the whole ranch.
I’d be bidding fer Flywheel, Cougar covering my back. Assassination in an open forum like this didn’t seem likely, but his nephew finding Zeke drygulched on his own ranch hadn’t seemed likely, either.
Dawson and Bodeen were both circulating, keeping an eye on things as it were. Daniel and Jack had decided to stay home and work the new corrals east of the ranch yard, jist in case.
Goss jumped in at two dollars an acre. We had us an auction.
No need fer me to bid yet, not until Evans dropped out. Which he did not do at $8 as my son had predicted he would. Goss bid $8, and Oscar come right back at $9. It was looking like our brilliant battle plan purty much sucked. But I couldn’t hang back any longer; it was time to go for it.
“Ten!” I bellowed, shooting both hands high in the air, fingers splayed. That wasn’t standard practice, announcing your own bid like that, but it surely did get the auctioneer’s attention. Which was entirely the point.
“We have ten dollars!” The man was good, besides which he’d been keeping an eye on me the whole time, waiting to see when I was going to make my move. It also helped that they’d set up a special stage jist fer this sale, so he was standing well above the assemblage and could see us all without hardly trying. “Ten dollar ten-na-na ten-na-na ten-na-na will you give eleven!”
Nobody responded. The auctioneer started getting a bit of a puzzled look on his face, unaware of the man who’d stepped up on the stage behind him and was kind of jist…looking…staring around at anything and everybody like he was confused, or lost, or something. He’d look at the auctioneer’s back, and then out at the audience, and grab his chin between thumb and forefinger like he was trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
A rancher in his late forties from the look of him, from the round-brimmed hat right down to his scuffed, dusty boots.
“Going once! Going twice….”
The fellow’s confusion seemed to vanish with the crack of the auctioneer’s gavel as it came down on the podium. “Sold!” The bid caller thundered. “Ten dollars an acre to Flywheel Ranch!”
We gathered at the Singlejack Saloon to celebrate. Our people at the ranch would be anxious to hear the outcome, but we couldn’t help ourselves. Dawson had come up with the plan, but it was Martin Cross, the bartender–Jack’s replacement on day shift–who’d turned in the stellar performance that had won the day.
“Martin,” Trask told him, “you are definitely the Man of the Hour!” We all lifted our glasses in salute, then threw the shots down our throats. James Q. Bodeen, Dawson Trask, Tam and Cougar Tamson–and now a down-at-the-heels onetime stage actor by the name of Martin Cross. The combination had shucked Justin Goss like a ripe ear of corn. We had a lot to celebrate.
“Aw shucks,” the thespian grinned, “T’was nothing.”
“Hell, Cross,” Cougar shook his head admiringly, “you nearly had me fooled, and I knew what was coming! You stunned ’em all, watching the ghost of poor, murdered Ezekiel Jacobson come wandering out on stage while his beloved ranch was being peddled to the highest bidder, obviously confused and not sure if he was dead or what!”
“Yep,” I agreed, “You done the job and then some. You didn’t startle jist one but two of our competitors. Neither Evans nor Goss lifted a finger till the auctioneer hollered SOLD! and it was too late!”
Bodeen, who’d been watching from the window, called out, “Change the topic! Customers a-comin’. What say we keep mum about this, let the paper report the appearance of the dead rancher’s ghost in the middle of Walsenburg during broad daylight? Eh?”
One and all, we agreed that was a fine idea.