Authors: Tabor Evans
“Custis. Wake up.”
He opened his eyes to see Amanda bending over him in the dim light of a lamp that was turned down low. He had been dozing in an armchair in her parlor. “Wha time zit?” he mumbled.
“It's about two thirty,” she said.
“In the morning?”
“Yes, of course. It wouldn't be this dark at two thirty in the afternoon.”
“Oh, um, right.” He sat up and rubbed his eyes, continuing the motion to include his whole face. He felt numb. And very tired. At least partially revived, he asked, “What's up?”
“Your victim. She's awake now. I thought you would want to know. You said you wanted to talk with her.”
“Right. Thanks.” He stood, yawned, and stretched, then followed Amanda through the kitchen to the bedroom. LouAnne was seated in a comfortable chair beside the woman, who now lay propped up on a pair of fluffy pillows. She was dressed now too in a nightgown that almost certainly would be Amanda's. Either Amanda or LouAnne must have given her a wash and brushed her hair, because except for being pale, she appeared quite normal. For that matter, Longarm realized, she might have been pale to begin with.
He approached the bed. The woman looked up at him with no recognition whatsoever, so he said, “H'lo, miss. My name is Long. Custis Long. I'm a United States deputy marshal.” He hesitated, then added, “It was my horse you tried to steal. I'm the one as shot you.”
“Oh, IÂ .Â .Â . I'm sorry, Marshal.”
“Who are you, miss?”
“My name is Jane Nellis. Am I under arrest?”
“No. Not yet anyhow. Why were you tryin' to steal that horse, Miss Nellis?”
“It is Mrs. Nellis, not Miss. IÂ .Â .Â . My husband. I think he has been murdered. And our daughter kidnapped.”
Longarm's eyebrows went up. LouAnne reached out and took the woman's hand to offer comfort and encouragement.
“I was trying to go for help,” Jane Nellis said. She was beginning to cry now. “Our daughterÂ .Â .Â . she is only sixteen. The men took her. I can only imagine why.”
“But you got away,” Longarm said, not sure if the woman was telling the truth or merely angling for sympathy.
She nodded. “I slipped out under the back of the tent. I ran. Trying to get help. That is whyÂ .Â .Â . your horseÂ .Â .Â . I'm sorry.” The tears were coming heavy now, and snot streamed out of her nose.
“Tent?” he asked. “You were in a tent?”
“My husbandÂ .Â .Â . Frank NellisÂ .Â .Â . he is a geologist. We foundÂ .Â .Â . silver. CommerÂ .Â .Â . commercial quantitiesÂ .Â .Â . he thought. Was going to fileÂ .Â .Â . claim.”
Longarm could see that Jane Nellis was tiring. Her complexion was looking gray and unhealthy.
“Who shot him, Mrs. Nellis? Who took your daughter?”
“I don'tÂ .Â .Â . Some men. I didn't know them. I think Frank did. Met themÂ .Â .Â . I don't know.”
“And this tent?” he asked. “Where is the tent that you say they raided?”
Her tears came even more heavily. “I don'tÂ .Â .Â . I don't
,” she wailed. “Mountains. In theÂ .Â .Â . mountains. I don't know where. UpÂ .Â .Â . up there. Other side of mountain. I don't know.”
“Custis. Please,” Amanda said. “Can't you leave her alone now?” “And don't you worry,” LouAnne put in. “The marshal will find those men. He will get your baby back for you.”
Jane Nellis clutched LouAnne's hand. “Will he?”
“He will,” LouAnne declared, nodding emphatically. “I promise he will.”
That was news to Longarm, but Mrs. Nellis seemed to accept it as gospel. A smile flickered across her face. Then she closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
Longarm was not sure if he should thank LouAnne. Or punch the woman in the face.
“Custis, we have to talk.” Amanda was standing with her fists on her hips, looking like she was ready for a fight.
“'Bout what?” he asked.
“You know about what,” Amanda returned.
LouAnne, looking more than a little uncomfortable, stood and said, “I'll put a pot of coffee on to boil.” She quickly exited the parlor, where they had moved after Jane Nellis fell asleep.
“You have to find that little girl, Custis. You have to return her to her mother, and you have to find out what happened to her husband too. Why, the poor thing doesn't even know if she is a widow or not.”
“She was coming here to report the crime to the local law. What's wrong with you going to find your local sheriff or somebody and letting him take care of it.”
“Damn you, Custis, you know good and well that anything that happened on the other side of the mountain is outside the jurisdiction of our local people. They would just say it's a shame and go back home to bed. You, on the other hand, are a federal deputy. You have jurisdiction anywhere in the country.”
“Kidnapping isn't a federal crime, Mandy,” he reasoned.
“What about murder?” she countered.
“Murder neither. Not that we know for certain sure that anybody's been murdered.”
“SoÂ .Â .Â . soÂ .Â .Â . so maybe the kidnappers stole a piece of mail out of the Nellises' tent. I don't know, dammit. You figure it out. But in the meantime, go
something about it.”
“I got to go back up there to get the stuff I cached up top,” Longarm grumbled. “Maybe I could, um, maybe I could look around a mite. But there's an awful lot I'd need to know. Like how to find this silver strike that Frank Nellis is supposed to have made. Why, I don't even know the daughter's name.”
“Sybil,” LouAnne said from the doorway as she entered carrying a tray with a carafe and coffee cups.
“The daughter. Her name is Sybil. I remember Jane saying that.”
“I didn't hear any such,” Longarm said.
“Before we came to get you,” LouAnne said. She set the tray down and began pouring coffee and distributing a cup for each of them before finally pouring a cup for herself and settling onto the sofa. “She was talking about her little girl then. I remember she said the child's name is Sybil.”
“What about the place where her husband made this silver find? Did she say anything about that?”
“Of course she did. Cream, Custis? Sugar?”
“No, thanks. What about the place?”
“She said it is in a canyon. There is a stream running through it. There aren't any roads. She didn't mention anything else.”
“Hell, that covers pretty much half o' Colorado,” Longarm said.
“Can't you trail her back to where she was?” Amanda asked.
Longarm grunted. “Track a woman afoot over rocky ground? I'm good, Mandy, but I'm no magician.”
“Can't you even try?” LouAnne asked.
“Custis, you owe the lady that much.”
“After all, Custis, you are the one who shot her.”
“She might have gotten help sooner if you hadn't shot her.”
“She would have given your horse back to you. She told me so.”
“Whoa!” Longarm held a hand up, palm outward, to cut off the flow of comment and condemnation. “Hold up there, ladies. I've got to go up there anyway to get my stuff. Maybe, oh, maybe I'll take a quick look around while I'm there. See if I can find out anything about Nellis and the kid.” He tried the coffee. It was getting cold already. Damn thin-walled china cups was the problem, he silently thought. A good, heavy mug will hold the heat where this thin porcelain crap will not.
And yes, dammit, he admitted to himself, he was putting off saying what he knew good and well he would have to say.
He sighed and said, “I'll look for the girl. All right?”
Both Amanda and LouAnne smiled broadly. LouAnne picked up the carafe and leaned forward. “Can I heat your coffee, dear?”
Longarm stretched out on the sofa for the remainder of the night. When he woke up, he could hear the boarders coming downstairs for breakfast. His stomach rumbled a little at the thought of breakfast. He got up and went back into the kitchen.
He did not want to confuse the paying folks by showing up at the dining table for breakfast, but that did not stop him from grabbing a plate in the kitchen and helping himself to the platters of food before Amanda carried them into the dining room, and LouAnne made sure his coffee cup never became empty.
Two women waiting on him! That sounded mighty good as far as he was concerned.
After breakfast both women gave him passionate good-bye kisses. Each of them fingered his crotch and whispered promises in his ear.
“Now I'm damn sure anxious t' get back,” he said.
“We'll play all you like then, Custis, but right now go. Go!” Amanda said.
“Hurry back, Custis. But go. Go!” LouAnne said.
“I could put this off for a day or two,” he suggested, not entirely joking.
“Go!” both chorused as one voice.
He went. Went outside to collect his horse and burro. It took only a moment to throw the comfortable civilian saddle onto the brown mare and step onto her back, with the fuzzy-eared burro trailing at the end of the lead rope.
He had gotten a late start but this time was riding with intent rather than simply ambling along on vacation. It was still daylightâalthough barelyâwhen he reached the barren patch of ground on top of the mountain where he had left his packs.
Some passing travelers had used the stack of firewood he had laid there, but his things were untouched. The unknown travelers were honest men, it seemed, and he wished them well.
Once again he laid his bedroll out on the rocky ground, and while he still had a little daylight he scrounged enough wood for coffee come morning.
Longarm sat for a time smoking and looking out over the wave after wave of mountain peaks laid out before him. Frank Nellis's silver lode could be hidden within any of the thousand canyons that lay north of Silver Plume.
And the kidnappers of a sixteen-year-old girl named Sybil could be in any of those canyons or in any of the countless villages and mining camps out there.
How in hell was he supposed to find either? he mused.
He was fretting about those questions when he lay down to sleep, but he was finding no answers to them.
There were three men. No, correct that, there were at least three men. There could have been more, he supposed.
The number that he was reasonably sure of came from Jane Nellis by way of LouAnne, who said it was the way Jane described it to her in her rambling. Three men and one little girl. At least he sure as hell
there was still a girl out there to find. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that the sons of bitches took her, used her, and threw her away.
Despite his grumbling back there in Silver Plume, the thought of a child being abused made Longarm's blood boil.
He had no jurisdiction over most common crimes, up to and including murder. He could not go after these men in his capacity as a deputy United States marshal.
But as Custis Long, private citizenÂ .Â .Â . the bastards would do well to go find a judge and throw themselves at his feet. Beg the man for protection inside a jail cell. Because the wrath of a thoroughly pissed off private citizen could be an awesome thing to behold.
It would be even worse to view from the muzzle end of Longarm's .45.
With any luckÂ .Â .Â .
He stirred the coals of last night's fire and built it afresh, put a short pot of coffee on to boil, and took the rest of his water to the brown mare and the fuzzy burro. By the time he was done with them, his coffee water was bubbling at a brisk boil.
He used a stick to lift the lid off the pot and tossed in a handful of ready-ground coffee, then pawed through his saddlebags until he found a chunk of jerky that did not have too much lint sticking to it. That and the steaming hotâif a trifle weakâcoffee was breakfast. Not quite in the same category as the plates and platters of biscuits, sausage, flapjacks, and gravy he'd had back in Amanda's kitchen, but it would do.
When he was done with his sketchy meal, he poured the leftover coffee back into his canteen and saddled the mare. The burro took his packs without complaint, and once again their little caravan took to the trail, this time winding ever lower on the north shoulder of the mountain that sheltered Silver Plume.
Three or more men and a little girl.
They could be anywhere.
He intended to find them.
“No, sir, I don't recall any such,” the gent leading the pack train said. He turned in his saddle and motioned for his helper to come up from the back of the train. “Say, Bob, you seen anything of a bunch of men, three or maybe more of 'em, traveling with a young girl? Would've been sometime in the past few days. This fella here is looking for 'em.”
The helper rode around their string of mules and stopped beside the leader. He scratched his beard for a moment in thought, then shook his head. “Seen a couple other pack trains, but there wasn't no women with them. Sorry.”
Longarm's fear was that a group with no females included might only mean that the girl was dead by now, but that was not something that would be easy to ascertain, certainly not just by looking. Hell, for all he knew these two could have been among the men who raided the Nellis camp and took the girl.
And what of Frank Nellis? If he were still alive, surely he would show up somewhere soon. Or languish and die somewhere in one of those countless canyons if he'd been wounded and left behind by the raiders.
Come to think of it, why did Jane Nellis abandon the man? Sheer terror, he supposed. Nighttime. Guns going off. Her daughter in the hands of the raiders. So she ran. It was not an unreasonable thing to do.
Longarm had known women with sand, women who would have fought the raiders tooth and toenail to defend their child. Jane Nellis was not that kind.
She did run for help, she said. That was what brought her to his little mountaintop camp, trying to steal a horse.
Now the woman lay in Amanda Carricker's feather bed, warm and comfortable and well fed. Taken care of by a pair of helpful women while he was up here on the mountain trails trying to sort out what had happened to her daughter.
With very little effort, Longarm could resent Jane Nellis.
But then who was he to judge? Certainly he would have reacted differently in that situation. But he was not a frightened, perhaps normally timid woman under assault by strangers, strangers who shot her husband and may well have killed the man.
He sighed and thanked the men with this pack train. It was the third he had encountered and stopped to question so far today. No one had seen three or more men traveling with a young girl.
“Good luck to you, mister,” one of them said, pulling his horse off the trail and motioning for his partner to lead their mule train on up the mountain.
“And to you,” Longarm returned.
He nipped the twist off a cheroot, lighted the slender cigar, and hooked a knee over his saddle horn. He sat smokingâand thinkingâwhile the mule train lumbered past on its way south to Silver Plume or beyond.
There were times, Longarm had to admit, when he wished he had the sort of simple life that those men had. Nothing to worry about except their animals and getting their cargo delivered on time.
He grinned and blew out a series of smoke rings. Who the hell was he kidding anyway? He had tried the simple life. He had cowboyed, worked half a dozen other jobs. None of them had challenged him the way this one did. He was proud of his deputy U.S. marshal's badge. He was proud of the work he did with it.
And now he would be proudâand damned lucky tooâif he could find out what happened to Sybil Nellis and get the kid back to her mother.
The first step toward that end, he knew, would be to find Frank Nellis's prospecting camp. That had to be the starting point. Everything else would follow.
Longarm touched the brim of his Stetson in a silent salute of thanks to the tail man on the mule train, let the last animal pass, and then started on down the winding trail he had been following since morning.