Longarm and the Horse Thief's Daughter (10 page)

Chapter 38

He might as well have entered one of those English mazes like he had read about. The tangle of canyons, gulches, and gulleys was a mass of twists and turns, but Longarm kept reminding himself: Follow the water. All of the creeks and streams branched off the same core. So what he needed to do was follow the water and investigate the side branches one by one. It was tedious but necessary if he wanted to find his way to those minerals claims.

That brought him inevitably back to Bedlam. It was familiar territory, even if it was not remembered with any degree of fondness. Still, it was a place where a man could get a meal and a drink.

Longarm stopped in front of the same familiar tent and dismounted, weary from the travel and—more importantly—from the likelihood of failure. He doubted there was a chance in hell of his being able to find and identify the men who had raided the Nellis claim.

Frank Nellis had surely been killed immediately, and by now the daughter would just as surely have been murdered as well. Once the raiders had their fun with the girl, they would almost certainly have killed her to keep her from talking.

Besides all that, his damn vacation was almost over and he had not had a moment of the rest and relaxation he had been looking forward to.

His fishing pole was still back there on the burro. He had not wet his line a single moment since leaving Denver, and that pissed him off. So his mood was less than good when he walked under the tarp at the front of the cook tent.

The hairy man who was serving up the food today smiled when he saw Longarm. “Liked us so good you couldn't stay away, is it?”

“Yeah, somethin' like that,” Longarm grunted. “What do you have to eat today?”

The fellow grinned. “Are you sure you want to know?”

“I'm curious. Hungry too. So what is it?”

“Bear meat,” the man said.

“Hell, I've eaten bear before this. Bring it on.” He grabbed up one of the tin plates in the washtub and held it out for a large helping of the pungent, greasy stew with chunks of meat, turnips, and carrots. Along with some bits of this and that that he could not identify and thought it probably best to not ask about.

“Tasty,” he said after the first bite.

He carried his plate to one of the logs provided for seating, settled there beside the creek, and proceeded to polish off that first plate, then go back and pay for another. The bear meat tasted much like pork, he thought.

“I guess you do like it,” the server said. “Say, there's a fella that would like to talk with you. I just remembered.”

“All right,” Longarm said. “After I eat. What does this man want and where can I find him?”

“He'll tell you himself what he wants. He's in that log outfit down there on the right. It's a mercantile. Ask for Sy.”

“All right, thanks.” But right now the bear stew took precedence over any conversation.

Chapter 39

Sy Monroe was a middle-aged man with an iron-gray mustache and bright blue eyes over leather-tanned apple cheeks. He was the sort another would meet and immediately feel comfortable with.

“Fella over at the cook tent said you're wanting to speak with me,” Longarm said by way of introduction.

“If you are the man who took down Henry Lewis, I do,” Monroe said.

“Reckon I'd be him,” Longarm admitted.

“Come inside, please. We'll sit and have a drink and talk about a few things.”

Longarm followed Monroe into his cluttered general store. The man carried almost everything a man could want—sturdy clothing, cured tobacco, canned milk, shovels and picks and gold pans. His log building was small, but even so it was impressive in the scope of products he offered.

“How in the world did you get all this stuff in here?” Longarm asked. “I don't see no wagons outside.”

“I used wagons, of course. I follow the strikes and set up wherever I think a claim has staying power. Some peter out in a few days or a few weeks. I'm betting that Bedlam will last. We'll turn into a real town, just you wait and see.”

“And your wagons?”

“I have two of them,” Monroe said. “They're busy now hauling ore down to Fort Collins.”

“Those must've been yours that I passed on the way up here then,” Longarm said.

“Likely,” Monroe agreed. “They stay busy traveling back and forth. Ore going down and general freight coming back up.” He smiled. “It's all honest business that one of these days will make me a rich man. And no risk even if a mine or a town plays out and goes under.”

“You're a thinking man,” Longarm said.

“So I be, if I do say so,” Monroe said. “I also happen to head our citizens committee. Which is the point of what I wanted to talk with you about, mister.”

“All right.” Longarm pulled a cheroot out of his jacket. Before he could get a match out of his pocket, Monroe had come up with one of his own. The canny storekeeper snapped the Lucifer aflame and held it for Longarm to light his cigar. “Thanks.” Longarm took a long pull on the cheroot, drew the smoke into his lungs, and slowly let it out. “You were saying?”

“I was saying that Bedlam has potential, Mr. Long. It has legs, and our citizens committee has faith in this camp. We want to prosper and we want to grow. In order to do that we need to structure ourselves as a real town. And that means law and order. Are you following me?”

“I certainly agree that Bedlam needs some law and order,” Longarm said. “I have some personal reasons to say that, as I reckon you already know.”

“Of course. Henry Lewis,” Monroe said. He cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Long, our committee has voted to offer you forty dollars a month in cash plus a hut to live in free of charge and found. You would take your meals with Barnabas down the block there. Those would be free of charge too, of course.”

“You're sayin' you want me to be your town marshal?” Longarm asked.

“Exactly.” Monroe smiled. “We don't have a badge for you to wear, but I can order one out of the Sears catalog. In the meantime we could fashion something that would serve the purpose.”

Longarm laughed. And pulled out his wallet. “Something like this one here?”

Monroe leaned forward to peer at the badge Longarm displayed. Then he rocked back on his heels. “You are . . . ?”

“Uh-huh,” Longarm said. “I'm a deputy U.S. marshal. I happen to be on vacation right now, though you wouldn't know that from the way things are goin' for me lately, but, yes, I am one. I work for Billy Vail down in Denver.”

“I guess you think our offer pathetic then.”

“Not at all,” Longarm told the man. “Fact is, I'm flattered that you would think of me, and I hope you'll find someone to take the job and do it justice for you. And for Bedlam.”

Monroe sighed. “I will tell the committee, of course.”

“If there is anything I can do for you . . . short of wearin' your badge, that is . . . just ask.”

“You already did quite a lot for us when you killed . . . defended yourself from Henry Lewis. Bedlam is a nicer place for it.”

“The man was, um, something of a nuisance, I'd guess,” Longarm said.

“That and then some,” Monroe agreed.

“Say, while I'm right here, d'you have any good jerky I could buy?”

Monroe the town committeeman immediately turned into Monroe the salesman. “I have some of the best,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Deer, elk, or bear. No beef, I'm afraid. No point in hauling it all the way up here when we can make all we need from the mountains around us. And for you . . . my best price.”

“Elk jerky then. Five pounds of it. An' a sack o' rice. And coffee. I'm a little low on coffee too. I'll look around while you're getting those together and see if I can think of anything else I need.”

Chapter 40

Two days out of Bedlam, and after three false starts into drainages that were not what he wanted, Longarm found the first of the claims noted on the Fort Collins land office clerk's map.

It was a hardscrabble outfit if Longarm ever saw one. It consisted of a Sibley tent set up on a bench beside the waters of a small stream, along with a tarp strung on what was left of some tree trunks after the tops had been harvested for some reason.

The beginnings of a mine showed on the canyon wall above the camp. A trash heap of broken rock spilled down the hillside below the mine opening.

Longarm did not know how many men might have been inside the hole, but he clearly saw the one who set aside the pans he was busy washing and picked up his rifle at the first sight of a stranger approaching.

“That's close enough, mister,” the guard called out when Longarm was about thirty yards downstream from the claim. “Halt and state your business.”

“Passing through, that's all,” Longarm shouted back to the man.

The fellow was lean and shaggy. It looked like it had been weeks since he'd had a shave, longer since his last haircut. He was hatless and dressed in bib overalls but no shirt and no shoes.

“You're alone?”

“I am,” Longarm shouted. “I don't mean you no harm. Mind if I come in an' climb down off'n this animal for a while? It would feel awful good to stretch my legs and have a human person to talk to. I ain't had nobody but these two animals to visit with for days, and they don't say much.”

The guard laughed and said, “All right then. Come ahead.”

But Longarm noticed that the fellow did not set his rifle aside.

Longarm nudged the mare with his heels and the sturdy horse moved forward. He reined to a halt near the tarpaulin fly and dismounted there. He tied the mare to one of the stakes holding a guy rope for the tarp and left the burro's lead rope tied to the horn on his saddle.

He introduced himself—by name but not by occupation—and got back, “Charles Jones. I'm one of the owners here.”

One of the owners, Longarm already knew from the claim filing, along with Jerry Wilson, Thomas Wilson, Randall Oakes, and Cory Bettencort.

“Light and have a cup of calico tea if you like,” Jones offered. “We're all out of coffee, but we have a little tinned milk left to make the calico tea.” He smiled. “It ain't bad once you get used to it, even without sugar, which we also run out of.”

“Oh, I've been down to calico a time or two,” Longarm said. It was the truth. And the stuff was not awful. At least it was hot and filled a man's belly. “I thank you for the offer, but I'll pass for now. No offense, I hope.”

“None taken,” Jones said. “I don't suppose you'd sell that burro, would you? Me and my partners walked in. Had us a burro of our own, but something took and ate it. Catamount, maybe, or a bear.”

“How do you figure to get your ore out when you want to sell it?” Longarm asked, genuinely curious.

Jones shrugged. “Pack it out on our own backs, whatever ones of us go down to civilization. That should pay enough that we can buy some animals. And some supplies. Say, you wouldn't have any coffee or beans or anything you'd sell to us, would you? We don't have much in the way of cash, but we'd pay what we could.”

“Reckon I could share with you,” Longarm said, looking around for horse droppings. Jane Nellis had made it clear that the men who raided their claim had come on horseback. She had mentioned something about their animals. And the fact that they had two packhorses with them.

That information pretty much ruled out Charles Jones and partners as the Nellis raiders.

“I have a little coffee here too if it would help,” he said.

“Coffee? Lord, mister, any one of us would kill for a cup of coffee,” Jones said.

Longarm chuckled and said, “Let me dig some out o' my pack then an' we'll brew up a pot. How are you fixed for eatables? I got a little rice I could share, I think, an' some cornmeal.”

“Mister, you are a godsend,” Jones said, setting the rifle aside and coming eagerly forward. He turned, cupped his hands to his mouth, and called, “Hey, boys. Coffee. We got coffee a-brewing down here. You'd best come quick or I'll damn sure drink it all.”

He was grinning broadly when he turned back to face Longarm.

Chapter 41

Jones and his partners were a pleasant bunch. Young, all of them, and determined to make their fortune in mining. Longarm saw the quality of their ore—silver—and suspected this mine would not be the basis of anyone's fortune.

But one find was not necessarily the end of the road for their hopes. When this claim petered out—and he suspected that it would—he felt sure these boys had the determination to pick up and move on. Searching. Scrambling. He hoped they would fulfill their dreams. Eventually. Not here, perhaps, but eventually.

He left them with half his coffee and a third of his rice but declined their invitation to stay the night in their camp.

That was only partially because he did not want to eat what little they had to offer.

Mostly it was because he was uncomfortable lying down to sleep among strangers. A man just never knew . . .

Longarm shared a cup of java with the boys, then wished them well and swung into the saddle again.

“I have an hour or so of daylight. Reckon I'd best use it. Say, you haven't run across any other fellas out this way, have you?”

“We haven't done any wandering,” Tom Wilson told him. Wilson was a lean scarecrow of a man, his brother Jerry looking like a twin despite a two-year difference in their ages. Wilson smiled ruefully and said, “If we wanted to walk, we'd walk down to Bedlam for some supplies. You said it's a couple days by horseback? Think what that hike would be for us without no horse nor even a burro.”

“What you need,” Longarm said, “is mules, but they come awful dear. An' that's to say nothing 'bout feeding them.” He looked around. “There sure ain't much for an animal to eat on around here. Nothing but rock.”

“Yeah, but rock is where you find the mineral,” the other Wilson said. “Are you sure you won't stay the night?”

Nice fellows. But Longarm had the sneaking suspicion that they would like to have his horse and burro.

He touched the brim of his Stetson in farewell.

And touched a spur to the side of the mare. She and her fuzzy-eared friend moved out smartly, and the first of the four mines on his map was quickly left behind.

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