Authors: Tabor Evans
Longarm had his drink and then another. Finally he summoned the barkeep over to him. The man reached for a jug to pour from, but Longarm stopped him.
“I'm needin' information,” he said, “and I'm hoping you can tell me.”
“Depends,” the bartender said. “What is it you're wanting to know?”
“What's the best way to get down to Fort Collins?” Longarm asked.
The barman turned and pointed. “See that road out there?”
“Sure,” Longarm said.
“Follow it. All you got to do is go downhill. When you get out of the mountains, look around. You'll be in Fort Collins.” The man picked up the whiskey jug. “Do you want another or not?”
Longarm nodded. “One more, then I reckon I'd best be on my way.” He had that one, thanked the bartender, and made his way back to his mare and burro.
Fort Collins, or more to the point the nearest mining claims office, was a day and a half away. Longarm camped on the banks of the Cache la Poudre for the night and made it on into the town past noon the following day.
He was tired, all the more so because he doubted that he would learn anything here that would help him find the three men who had kidnapped Sybil Nellis and sent Jane Nellis into a panic.
Still, if you have only one card to playÂ .Â .Â . play it.
He got directions to the government land office, and then, assured that he knew where he was going, he found the nearest cafÃ©. He had not had lunch and was hungry as well as weary.
He tied the mare and the burro to a hitch ring on the side of the street, stretched, and paused for a yawn, then went inside. Immediately he was surrounded with the scents of freshly baked pies and roasted meats. They made his mouth water.
Longarm was the only customer in the place, it being too late for lunch and too early for supper. His entry was announced by a small bell hanging in the doorway, where the opening or closing of the door would ring it.
The ring was answered by a plump woman with her hair piled into a bun. She was red-faced and sweating and appeared none too pleased to see him. She emerged from a back room wearing an apron and a scowl. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“I, uh, I just came in for somethin' to eat. If you ain't open or, um, or something, just say so.”
She gave him a suspicious glare and said, “You aren't one of McGuire's men?”
“I'm a man. I'll go that far with it, but I don't know anybody named McGuire. Look, if you want me t' go someplace else, just say so. I don't wanna be a bother to you.”
“No, IÂ .Â .Â . Never mind.” She plucked a towel off the counter nearby and wiped her hands with it. “What can I get you?”
The pot roast and red-jacket potatoes were as good as they smelled, and the meal included seconds. Or, in Longarm's case, thirds.
He broke a soft roll in half and was using it to sop up the gravy on his plate when the waitress/cook/dishwasher/owner stopped in front of him and placed a small plate down. It held what appeared to be rhubarb pie, the pastry crust sparkling with baked on white sugar.
“Got room?” she asked with a smile.
“If that's as good as it looks, I'll make room,” he answered.
Longarm pulled the plate toward him and picked up his fork.
Behind him the door bell tinkled, and two men came in. Longarm glanced over his shoulder, then returned his attention to the rhubarb pie. His fork was poised over that tasty-looking crust when one of the gents at the door said, “Get out.”
Longarm half turned again. “Are you talkin' to me?”
“That's right,” the man in the lead growled. “Out.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder to point the way to the door and the street beyond. “No one's eating here.”
Longarm laid his fork down and swung around on the counter stool so he could face the two.
Both of the men were dressed in town clothes, more like workingmen than clerks. They wore heavy shoes, overalls, and knit caps. And they looked angry for some reason.
“Get out,” the second one repeated.
Longarm frowned. “I haven't finished my meal.”
“You've finished, cowboy. Now, get the fuck out of here.”
Longarm smiled at them. “Two things,” he said. “First off, you shouldn't use language like that in front of a lady. And second, I already told you, I ain't finished eating.” The smile disappeared, replaced by a glacial stare. “Now, fuck off before I get mad an' leave this here stool. And you don't want that. Trust me, boys, you don't.”
The nearer man, a lanky fellow with a close-trimmed beard and a mouse under his left eye, grinned at that. He turned to his friend and said, “I think the pilgrim here wants to get his ass whipped, Tommy me lad.” To Longarm he said, “Mister, you can either get up and leave nice and quiet, or you can stay where you are and we'll throw your ass out. Your choice.”
“You know the choice I'm making, boys.” Longarm was peeved to begin with, his vacation having been ruined, to say nothing of the fate of little Sybil Nellis. He flew off the stool, charging straight at them.
Before the nearer man had time to mount a defense, Longarm's hard right fist turned his nose into red pulp, blood flowing into his beard. He staggered backward, flailing his arms in an attempt to keep his balance. He failed. He went down onto his butt.
By that time Longarm was onto the man called Tommy. Tommy had more time to prepare himself for this irate stranger. He put up his fists to block Longarm's right, only to be tattooed by a left hook followed by an uppercut into his breadbasket.
Tommy turned pale, doubled over with a groan, and tottered a few paces away.
Longarm turned back in time to see the man with the nosebleed come off the floor with fire in his eye.
That did not last very long.
He rose up just in time to take another hard right to his already damaged nose.
Blood flew onto the nearby tables and he went down again, this time taking a pair of chairs crashing to the floor with him.
Tommy was down as well, lying on his side and retching like he was about to puke up everything he had eaten in the past week.
“Well?” Longarm demanded, standing over them with his fists balled and his blood up. “Get up, damn you. Get up and try me again.”
Instead Nosebleed staggered to his feet with the assistance of a table to cling to. He bent over Tommy and grabbed him by the elbow. “C'mon, lad. I don't think we're wanted here. Let's go.”
Longarm waited until the two were out of the door, then he returned to his stool and that rhubarb pie.
Longarm finished the pieâit was every bit as good as it lookedâstood, and dug a hand into his pocket.
“No you don't,” the plump cook said.
“Don't be bringing out any money. You don't owe me a thing.”
“Ma'am, I like to eat you outa enough t' feed five lumberjacks. Surely I should pay for all that,” he objected.
“Mister, it was worth that and twice as much again to see those two shakedown artists crawl out of here.”
“Shakedown, eh? That's not good,” Longarm said. “I just hope I haven't caused a problem for you once I'm out of here.”
The woman shrugged. “No more of a problem than I would have if you hadn't whipped their butts and thrown them out. Anyway, I enjoyed seeing it. You made my day.”
“But they can come back,” he said, “and it could go hard on you.”
“I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
Longarm smiled. “You're a gutsy lady. I got t' say that for you.”
“Not really. But I will admit that I can out-stubborn a Missouri mule. Listen, can I get you anything else? Anything at all?”
She seemed anxious that he not leave the cafÃ© just yet. Worried about those men returning, he supposed.
Longarm had work to do. Well, sort of. He needed to go over to that land claim office and see if he could get an idea of whether a claim had been filed in the past few days. And where.
On the other hand he did not want to take this lady's food and then toss her to the wolves. He was afraid that once he left the place, those shakedown boys would be back. Afraid that it might go hard on the woman ifâwhenâthat happened.
“Look, have you talked to the police about this? The local sheriff? Anybody?” he asked.
“Oh, I tried that. The first time they came in here, they demanded money. When I refused to pay, they broke up some things and threw all the food I had cooked out into the street. I locked up and went straight to our police chief.” She scowled. “You see what good that did. The police took down a report. On my way out the door I glanced back toward the chief. I saw him wad the report up and toss it into the trash. I don't actually know anything, of course, but I suspect that Tim McGuire is paying the chief to look the other way.”
“McGuire? Was he one of the ones who was just in here?” Longarm asked.
“Oh, no. McGuire doesn't soil his hands on the likes of me. He has employees who do that sort of thing. Employees who do all manner of other things too.” She sniffed her disapproval.
“Ladies of the night?” Longarm guessed.
“Exactly. The man is a whoremonger and a scoundrel. And I do not use that ugly word lightly.”
Longarm grunted. Then he smiled and said, “Thank you for the meal. It was excellent.”
“Come anytime. You will always be welcome here.”
“Thanks. But only if you promise to let me pay for my supper next time.”
“That is a promise,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron and reaching for a broom.
Longarm went out onto the sidewalk and stood for a moment, wondering which way he should turn now.
He got directions, then walked past the land office and on to a building three blocks away.
The office he wanted was on the third floor. The receptionist was large and hairy and looked more like a bodyguard than an office worker.
“Mr. McGuire, please.”
“I don't know you,” the bodyguard said. The man needed a shave, Longarm thought. Needed to buy a better shoulder holster too; this one showed itself too much.
Longarm smiled, innocent as a newborn baby. “That's right, you don't. Mr. McGuire, please.”
“You don't have an appointment,” Ugly said.
“No, I don't. Mr. McGuire, please.” Longarm's .45 came out and found its way to a point just beneath Ugly's nose. “Now!” He reached down and lifted the snub-nosed revolver out of the shoulder holster.
Longarm stepped back, and the bodyguard, a little pale now, stood and went to a door at the back of the room. He opened it and leaned inside. “There is, um, there is a man here to see you, Boss. He, uh, he didn't give a name.”
“I don't want to see nobody, Jimmy. Tell the fucker to go away.”
Longarm stepped inside behind Jimmy and shut the door in the big man's face. “This fucker don't feel like going away, Tim,” he said. His smile returned, and he nodded to the fellows who were standing in front of their boss's desk. “Nice t' see you boys again. Now get out o' here while I talk to Mr. McGuire.”
The two shakedown goons looked at their boss, who nodded. They immediately filed out, leaving Longarm alone with McGuire.
Big Tim McGuire had the look of a street fighter who had made his way up in the world. His suit was handsomely tailored. His cravat was perfectly tied, and a diamond stickpin the size of a quail eggâor a very good imitation of oneânested on the knot. His feet were propped up on his desk, displaying yellow spats and patent leather shoes. He wore the trappings of a gentleman, but his very often pulped nose and the puffiness around his eyes said he was a brawler at heart and always had been.
McGuire dropped his feet to the floor and swiveled his chair around to face Longarm. “Who the hell are you?”
“I'm the fellow who is gonna blow your sorry ass to kingdom come if you fuck with my friend anymore,” Longarm told him.
“Your friend? Who the hell would that be?”
“The lady that runs Belina's CafÃ© over on Fourth. Your inept bullyboys were just over there trying to shake her down. I expect that's what they were in here to tell you. That I run them out o' the place. Next time I wouldn't go so easy on them. And if there is a next time, it'd go hard on you too. I'd find you, Tim. Find you and put a .45-caliber sizzler up your left nostril. Blow your empty brains right out o' your head. Am I making myself clear?”
“I got protection, you know,” McGuire said.
“Not from me, you don't,” Longarm told him, stroking the butt of his Colt while he did so. “An' not from my boys if anything was to happen to me.”
“Your, uh, boys?”
“Federal deputies. They wouldn't be scared off by any o' your paid-off locals. They'd put you away, either by hanging or life inside. Their choice, not yours.”
“Why the hell would a federal deputy give a shit about you, mister?”
Longarm grinned. And flipped his wallet open, showing his badge. “Now d'you understand?”
McGuire swallowed and leaned forward. “Belina's, you said?”
Longarm nodded. “The lady is a friend. It'd distress me if I was to ever hear she was bothered again. So drop her off your list, and I'll drop you off mine. It seems a fair trade-off to me. How does it strike you?”
“I, uh, sure, Marshal. I'll be leaving her alone from now on.”
“Then we have no quarrel between us, Tim.” Longarm touched the brim of his hat and nodded. “Have yourself a nice day.”
He turned toward the door to leave. Heard McGuire's chair springs squeak. Spun around in time to see Big Tim McGuire reach into a desk drawer and bring out a Webley .455 revolver.
McGuire might have been good with his fists. But he was not nearly as quick with a gun as Longarm.
It was the last mistake he would ever make.