Longarm and the Horse Thief's Daughter (5 page)

Chapter 16

Shortly before sundown Longarm reached a . . . he supposed it would be considered a village. Certainly it was not a town, but it was larger and better established than a mere encampment. It remained to be seen whether it would survive and prosper enough to eventually become a town.

A sign carved into a split shingle and posted beside the road read
BEDLAM
.

Longarm did not know the cause for Bedlam being established here beside a rushing mountain stream. Almost certainly the people here would be mining something from the rock, silver or gold, copper or magnesium. What really mattered was whether there was enough of the material to justify the creation of a real town.

As it was, Bedlam was mostly a collection of tents. Half a dozen structures along the side of the main street had log walls and canvas roofs. Those, Longarm assumed, would be business locations. The population lived either in tents or in mud dugouts carved into the sides of the canyon.

Longarm located a cook tent mostly by following his nose. Literally. A mouthwatering scent of frying meat reached him even before he entered Bedlam, and he followed it to a ragged tent where two men and a haggard woman were cooking slabs of meat and a huge pot of rice.

The diners lined up under the shelter of a canvas fly, paid their two bits, and walked away with a tin plate of meat and rice. Split logs laid beside the creek served for seating. You brought your own utensils if you wanted any—a good many of the men who were having their supper now did without, just grabbing with their hands and shoveling food in as best they could—and you were expected to turn your plate in when you were finished. Washing those plates appeared to be optional, although perhaps the owners of the establishment would do some washing up between meals.

Longarm tied his horse to a sapling that somehow had survived the rush to collect wood, paid his quarter, and got his plate.

“Beef?” he asked the man who slapped the slab of meat onto his plate.

“You have to be kidding, mister. It's elk.”

“Ah, right.”

“That okay with you?”

“Plenty. Elk is perfect by me.”

“Move along then. There's others that want to eat too.”

Longarm was fairly sure that Colorado had enacted game laws that restricted the taking of elk to the fall and winter, and this meat was certainly fresh. And out of season.

Not that it was any of his business. Out of his jurisdiction, like so much of what he was running into lately.

He had a fork in his packs on the burro, but he did not want to bother digging it out. He settled for a seat on one of the log benches, picked up the chunk of fried elk steak and gnawed a hunk off with his teeth. The meat was tasty. A little dry but otherwise past excellent, the poorest elk being better than any piece of beef he could get in the finest restaurant in Denver.

The rice, of course, presented a messier problem, but hunger made up for the lack of that fork. He scooped the fluffy grains onto his fingers and stuffed them into his mouth the way nearly everyone around him was. The rice had a slightly nutty flavor. It was not his favorite food, but out here it made sense. It was easy to transport in bulk, cooked up larger than when dry, and stored far easier than potatoes.

Longarm was nearly done with his supper when he saw someone standing on the other side of his burro.

Longarm dropped his plate unheeded onto the muddy ground and ran across what passed for a street.

A man in bib overalls and a tattered red undershirt had one hand stuffed into one of Longarm's packs while trying to appear disinterested, as if he just happened to be standing beside the burro.

Longarm did not wait for an explanation.

He charged the thieving son of a bitch and used that momentum behind a powerful right, straight to the thief's jaw.

The man went down, out cold or as close to it as did not matter.

Longarm barely stopped himself from delivering a kick once he had the piece of shit down on the ground.

He stepped back, ready to take on any of the man's friends who wanted to join in, but not only did no one come to the fellow's defense, no one seemed to pay any attention to the dustup.

The one reaction he did get was from one of the cooks in the dining tent. “Hey, you. Pick up that plate and put it in the bucket if you expect to eat here again.”

Welcome to Bedlam, Longarm thought, as he went back to collect his plate and put it into the bucket ready for the next man.

Chapter 17

A gent who had shipped in some five-gallon casks of whiskey—or anyway of alcohol, since coloring and water could be added locally—was doing a bang-up business in a large tent beside the creek. Longarm stepped up to the raw plank that was serving as a bar and laid a quarter down.

“You want change or a second shot?” the barkeep asked. The man was tall and bald and seemed to have no joints in his floppy limbs.

“The shot,” Longarm told him.

The fellow bared his teeth in a grin. “Ah, you're a brave man,” he said as he poured a double shot into a mug. “I have water if you want to cut that.”

“Thanks, but let me try it first.” Longarm tasted the raw whiskey, made a sour face, and shivered. “Good Lord, man, what'd you put in this stuff?”

The grin flashed again. “You don't want to know.”

“Friend, I believe you're right about that.”

“So, do you want some water to smooth that out?”

“Did you dip it out of the creek over there?”

“Yeah. The fellows pissing upstream give it that snappy flavor.”

Before Longarm could react, he added, “But I'm joshing you about that. We have a well over there a ways.” He pointed. “I get my water from there. Although I would think that whiskey would be strong enough to cleanse pretty much anything it touched.”

Longarm tried the vile stuff again. It went down easier that time.

“Water?” the barman offered again.

Longarm shook his head and tossed back the rest of the liquor. “Whew! One more time then.” He placed another quarter on the plank. It quickly disappeared, and another double shot was poured into his mug.

“I'm looking for some folks,” he said.

“One second, friend.” The barman held up a finger, turned, and hurried down to the other end of the plank to serve some other gents, then quickly returned to Longarm. “You were saying?”

“I said I'm looking for some people. Three men. Traveling with a young girl.”

“What do they look like?”

Longarm shrugged. “I don't know. That's the thing, I don't know what they look like. I was told to meet them. Three men . . . more could've joined them by now . . . and a young girl.”

“That isn't much to go on,” the barman said.

“You aren't telling me anything I don't already know.”

“Is it important that you meet these people?”

Longarm nodded. “It sure is.”

“When are you supposed to meet them?”

“A couple days ago, actually. Is that a problem?”

“Not for me, it isn't,” the friendly barkeep said with another toothy grin. “If you like, though, I can keep my eyes open. I'll let you know if I see anybody that might be your party.” The man was careful to avoid asking anything that might have been of a personal nature, anything that Longarm might have taken offense to.

“I'd appreciate it. Thanks.”

Longarm had another couple whiskeys—they tasted better and better the more he had of them—and went back out to collect his animals.

He walked a hundred yards or so outside Bedlam and laid out a camp of sorts. He did not need to cook for himself this time, not even coffee, but he could certainly use some sleep.

Bedlam was as noisy as, well, bedlam, but he was pretty much beyond the distance where the noise might bother him, so he stretched out in his blankets with his .45 resting in his hand. Just in case.

Then he closed his eyes and went promptly to sleep.

Chapter 18

“Shit!” Longarm snapped up into a sitting position seconds after a bullet slammed into his bed, not missing his head by more than inches.

“Watch where you're shooting, asshole. There's somebody tryin' to sleep over here,” he yelled.

His answer was another gunshot. This time the slug passed on the other side of his head with a loud crack.

The son of a bitch was shooting at him deliberately.

Longarm jumped to his feet and snapped off a shot of his own. In the darkness he had nothing to aim at except the muzzle flash of the other man's gun, so he sent a .45-caliber sizzler of his own in that direction and was rewarded with a yelp. Whether that sound was a matter of pain or of frustration he could not tell.

He dropped back onto his blankets to pull his boots on, and another gunshot came at him out of the darkness, and from a different location.

This one passed overhead by a good two or three feet. Apparently they had not seen him drop down.

Two shooters? Or one man quietly on the move. He could not know that.

Longarm stayed low and moved silently in the direction of that last gunshot, Colt in hand, alert for motion within the shadows. His night vision had been disrupted by his own gunfire, but it was returning now.

He did not know how long he had been asleep. More to the point, he did not know how long the nightly drinking and rowdiness in Bedlam generally went on, but by now there were few lights and no noise coming from the village. He would have welcomed more light, actually. It would have made it easier for him to find the bastard or bastards who'd shot at him.

Longarm darted forward from shadow to shadow all the way down to the creek without finding anyone to shoot at and without being shot at again himself.

Disgusted, he turned back uphill and returned to his bedroll.

It was quite obvious that whoever it was that wanted him dead knew where he had laid out his blankets. Equally obvious was that the person or persons, whoever he was or they were and whatever his or their motives were, could choose to try it again.

It just did not seem like much of a good idea to lie down and go back to sleep in that same spot, and so, reluctant but resigned to the necessity, Longarm saddled the mare and loaded his burro again. Then he led the two animals well away from Bedlam, to a grassy spot just above a grove of young aspen.

For the second time that night, Longarm laid out his bedding, removed his boots, and lay down.

This time he did not drop into sleep immediately. This time he lay awake for a little while trying to work out who might have wanted to shoot him.

Jane Nellis's attackers? They would certainly have good reason to want him dead or at least wounded badly enough to stop him from following them. But that made no sense. Not at this point, since they would have no way to know that Longarm existed, much less that he was on their trail.

He had seen no one in Bedlam he had ever encountered before. No wanted criminals who could have recognized him and assumed that he wanted them.

Of course just because he had seen no one like that, it was always possible that some wanted felon could have seen him and made the assumption.

Longarm sighed. This was some damn vacation he was having. He would have to remember to thank Billy Vail when he got back to Denver. Hell, working would be a relief after this vacation.

With that thought in mind, he drifted back into a light and fitful sleep.

Chapter 19

No one shot at him when he led his animals around the stand of aspen and down toward Bedlam. Longarm considered that to be something of a plus.

He walked into the town and back to that same cook tent.

“Twenty-five cents, mister. Cash only, no credit.” It was the friendliest greeting—and the only one—he'd gotten that morning. He paid the quarter and plucked a tin plate out of the washtub beside the money man.

This time he had remembered to bring his own knife, fork, and spoon out of his pack.

Breakfast turned out to be flapjacks, all you wanted, with a ladle of sorghum syrup poured over them. He had had worse.

Longarm hunkered down and placed his plate on his knees, then proceeded to fill up. The hotcakes were thin but tasty, but the syrup had too much of a sulfur flavor for his taste. All in all, not bad.

After he finished gorging himself, he walked down beside the creek and had a smoke.

He was just walking back up toward his animals, wondering if he could find Frank Nellis's camp—and for that matter if he might find Frank Nellis—when it happened again.

Some sorry son of a bitch threw a shot at him.

He caught a glimpse of rapid movement off to his right. Looked that way and saw the familiar figure of the thief in the bib overalls and red undershirt.

This time the man had a rifle in his hands and was taking aim. At Longarm.

Chapter 20

Longarm did not really want to kill the man, despite the asshole's habit of shooting at people he did not like.

Longarm snapped off two shots, one beside each of the fellow's ears. The idea was to discourage him.

It did. Sort of.

At least it made him turn tail and run. But the idiot kept shooting; he stopped every few yards to turn and fire back at Longarm.

Fortunately he was a dreadfully bad shot. His bullets came fairly close, but they did not connect.

Longarm's worry was that if the thief kept this up, sooner or later he would get lucky. At which point Custis Long would be terribly
un
lucky. Sooner or later one of those slugs was going to hit, hit either Longarm or somebody else. Either of those would be bad. Longarm certainly did not want some bystander to be hit any more than he wanted to take a slug himself.

The only real defense he had, Longarm figured, was to properly discourage the son of a bitch.

He fired again, coming close to the man but careful to avoid hitting him.

The man must have heard the whip-crack of Longarm's bullet sizzling past his ear, because he turned and ran. Ran across the flimsy wooden bridge to the other side of the creek and up the side of the hill on the far side. He disappeared into the dark mouth of a mine opening after first tossing his rifle aside.

Longarm followed, stopping every once in a while to encourage the retreat by sending another .45 slug close to his heels.

At the entrance to the dark and narrow mine, Longarm was stopped by a burly fellow in overalls. The man had a clipboard and an official air about him. He grabbed Longarm by the arm and yanked him to a stop.

“Are you after Henry?” he asked.

“I'm after the fella that just ran in here. I got no idea what his name is.”

“His name is Henry. You could say he's our town bully.”

“And you could say,” Longarm said, “that Henry is about to get his ass whipped.”

“That's fine,” the miner said, “but you aren't going in there with that pistol you're carrying.”

“And why the hell not?” Longarm demanded.

“Because those cartridges are explosives, and explosives cause concussion, and concussion like that can start a cave-in. There's four men in there . . . no make that five if you want to count Henry . . . that I'd just as soon
not
see die in a damn cave-in. And that's to say nothing of the month or so it might take to dig it all back out again. So bottom line is, if you want to go in after Henry, be my guest. But you aren't taking that gun in there with you.”

Longarm frowned. But he removed his gunbelt and laid it beside Henry's rifle. “Satisfied?” he asked.

“Yup,” the miner said. “Oh, one more thing. You don't know this place. You might want to take one of those carbide lamps.” He grunted. “That's if you want to see past the end of your nose once you get more than a few paces in.”

There was a pile of the small but amazingly powerful little lamps inside a shack beside the mine entrance. They were worn on the head like caps. The miners generally strapped them around soft caps. Longarm picked one up and examined the thing.

“Here, let me light it for you,” the helpful fellow—Longarm assumed he was the foreman—said, taking the lamp and striking a match.

In broad daylight the lamp seemed to give off no light at all, but Longarm knew that once he was in darkness he would appreciate the bright glow. “Thanks, mister.”

“Mind a piece of advice?”

“As long as I don't have t' promise to take it.”

“Our Henry is a brawler. Nobody likes him, but nobody can whip him either. If you find him, take him fast and take him dirty, because that's what he'll try to do with you. Here.” The fellow bent down and picked up a chunk of wood that was about three inches thick and three feet long. “If you can find him, use this.”

Longarm whistled. “You boys play rough, don't you?”

“Neighbor, our Henry won't be playing. If you go in there, he'll try and kill you.”

“He's been doing that already, damn him,” Longarm snapped. “I'm tired of it. It stops here.”

“Good luck to you then.” The foreman stepped back and touched the brim of his soft cap.

Longarm took a deep breath. And entered the world of the miners.

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