On the last day of his life, Walter Hancock was in good spirits as he kissed his wife, shook hands with his son Billy, at eight years too "growed-up" to accept "mushy stuff," and stepped out the door of the small house on Cedar Street which his wages from Wells Fargo allowed him to provide for his family. Hancock hummed contentedly on the three-quarter mile walk to the Raton depot, thinking of Billy, of the best pleasure a man could have: watching his own flesh grow to manhood.
As he crossed the lobby of the Southern Pacific stationhouse, Hancock waved at the stationmaster. "Running on time today, Zeb?"
"Ten minutes late out of Las Vegas, Wally. May make up some of that time."
In the Wells Fargo office, Hancock found Sherm Addison checking the schedule of express freight to be loaded. "Manifest shows a goodly cash shipment coming over from The Bank of Raton," he told Hancock. "But not much weight to be transferred."
"Easy day, then."
As Hancock and Addison prepared for their routine run, fifteen miles away, three gun-hung men rode toward Raton Pass with business of their own. The two older men, muscular of body and resolute of face, had slapped their saddle bags on the two spare mounts. Their younger associate's demeanor pretended to a hardness he hadn't earned and this morning his face was flushed with the excitement of a day that would make him set for life.
At the separation point, one of the men shrugged into his heavy knapsack. The youngest man grasped the reins of the two spare horses and watched his companions ride south before he turned up the trail toward the agreed meet-up point.
As the two senior men rode along the post road toward Raton, the younger voiced the notion he had been turning over in his mind. "Devlin," he said. "It don't seem right, us taking all the risk and the sprout getting a full share."
Devlin rested his hands on his pommel as he eyed Reynolds. "You know what you're saying, Butch?"
"Once we pick up the horses, all little Bobbie means to us is the cost of one grey bean." Reynolds laughed viciously. "What's a spent cartridge among friends?"
The unanticipated brutality lurking behind his partner's words reminded Devlin how little a man sometimes knows about the depth of his confederates. "Something to think about," Mitch Devlin agreed. "Money's all that matters."
* * *
Even as it slowed for the upgrade, the Denver Express moved at a deathly speed for any man foolish enough to try to swing aboard. Nor could a horse outrace the multiples of "horses" in the steam-powered engine. Still, as the train came around the bend, two men were up the right-of-way, sitting their saddles where the grade eased a bit, waiting for their chance. Devlin swung his roan's head parallel to the track and rammed in the spurs, Reynolds behind him, racing ahead of the train like many a carefree cowhand had done, would do, wherever iron rails crossed cattle country. Even as they punished their horses, the train closed the gap, inevitably overtook them and chugged by. As the engine pulled even, Devin kept his head down, away from any eyes that might glance his way from the cab. He struggled against the muscular gelding between his thighs as it fought to turn aside from the thundering, shaking iron beast spewing hot smoke at horse and rider from not three feet away.
Finally, the rear wheels of the tender passed Devlin and the express car drew near. Devlin kicked free of the stirrups and began to synchronize has body with the swaying motion of the train. Then, the most critical action, his hand closed around the grab bar of the express car. He hoisted himself from the saddle as the train's momentum slammed him hard against the car's wooden wall. But then his body was traveling at the same speed as the train and he began to mount the ladder. To his rear, Reynolds had begun his own climb.
Devlin eased himself over the top rung and crawled to the narrow center walkway, stood and braced himself spread-legged. When the rhythm of the train had become his own, he trotted forward to the car's mid-point. He unlimbered the pack from his back and swung out the two heavy weights to opposite sides of the roof's walkway where they held the pack steady. A quick scratch of a quirly along his pant leg, a touch of the flame to the one-minute fuse protruding from the pack, and he dodged back to his end of the car where he hunkered down for the explosion.
Reynolds sprang through the hole, feet first and gun blazing. While Addison staggered, Hancock's hands flashed up.
Reynolds's gun barrel motioned to the safe. "Open it," he ordered, as Devlin landed behind him, the canvas sacks in his hand.
The transfer was quickly made. "More money than we expected, Mitch," Reynolds said. "That ranch in Montana is in our hands."
Hancock wished the robber hadn't said those words. He wanted to see Billy again.
"Guess that's all they got for us," Devlin said as he finished emptying the safe. "Give me a boost." Using Reynolds's cupped hand as a stirrup, Devlin sprang up and clutched the edge of the roof. Quickly he hauled himself up and reached back through the hole as Reynolds handed up one canvas bag and then the other. Devlin balanced them for the ride to the upslope and the pickup point where Bob would have the horses.
In the express car, Reynolds was a thorough man. After he reholstered his smoking revolver, he bent at the knees and bounded upward. Both hands closed around the splintered edge of the hole in the roof and he hauled himself up.
As Reynolds's head cleared the edge of the roof, his eyes came level with the fire-blackened bore hole of Devlin's well-used pistol.
* * *
At Trinidad, the team of Wells Fargo agents moved forward to the cab of the Denver-Santa Fe Southbound where they received a less-than robust welcome.
"Station master told me, I got to put up with two men crowding in on me," the engineer complained. "Don't see what you expect to find out."
"Never know what we'll learn until we learn it," the time-tested Chet Collins axiom. "You drove the Northbound on the day of the robbery. We've read your statement to the sheriff—"
"Said all I saw," the engineer interrupted. "Couldn't see it helped any."
"We want to see the track the way you saw it that day."
"I got a train to run. Mister," the engineer snapped. "Not here to do chit-chat. Stay back and don't get in my way."
The hasty statement Farnum had given the sheriff had been sparse of details. "Everything was fine in Raton when the new express crew joined the train. Then when we slowed down for Trinidad, the brakeman found the blast hole in the roof. When we pulled in at the station, we found the dead men and empty safe."
"Don't try to tell us anything about the robbery," Collins said as the engineer prepared to open the throttle. "Just talk about anything that comes to mind as we roll along."
Two miles out of Trinidad, a mile after passing the last out-buildings of the town, the train began its descent through Raton Pass. "Like always, we labor on this long up-slope," Farnum told the agents. "Probably the slowest we go through the entire canyon. If I had to jump, this is where I'd do it."
Many miles down the Pass, Collins probed. "Must have heard the explosion when they blew the roof."
The engineer ignored him but Jasteen rested his muscles between two shovels of coal. "Somewhere along about here, I felt something jostle the train, but rattling along as we labor the upgrade, we're shaking all the time. As for hearing anything, I can barely hear myself shouting to you now."
The railroaders had little more to say until they neared the end of the journey when Jasteen gave a short laugh. "Remember a couple of cowhands lolling along the side of the tracks when we rounded the bend and started the upgrade. When they saw us, they spurred their horses into a gallop, thinking it fun to race the train, like even the fastest stallion could gallop along at over 40 miles an hour."
"What'd they look like?" Mitchell asked.
"Dirt-and-sweat cowhands all look alike," Farnum said. "Why would we pay any attention to them?" He turned away and began applying the air brakes as the train started to slow for Raton.
* * *
In Raton, the agents made the usual inquiries. Who would know of the bank shipment? Who had been checking the train schedule? They learned no more than they expected. If two unknown cowhands had appeared in Raton that day, they had remained invisible.
"We're looking for anything out of place," Collins said as the two agents began their trip north on horseback. "Maybe they left something behind."
Something had been left behind, as it turned out, but that was still miles ahead. Meanwhile the agents plodded along, slowing to search for hungry horses where the engineer had seen the racing cowhands. "Been two days," Mitchell suggested, "likely they wandered back down the right-of-way looking for company."
A few miles further up the Pass, they found some debris beside the tracks. Collins swung down to pick up a shard of lumber and examined it. "Blown planking from the explosion," he reported.
Late in the afternoon they neared the northern end of the canyon. "This is where the engineer thought the killer must have got off," Collins said. "See anything?"
Mitchell pointed to a clearing screened from the railroad by a fringe of brush. "Yonder looks like a good place to stash the horses out of sight." In a moment, they had found where Bobbie had hobbled the horses and let them graze while the robbers did their work.
"No doubt we found the right place," Mitchell said, extending his arm toward the sprawled form. "In the back. Dead center." He swung down and rolled the body over. "Not much more than a kid," he said. "Nineteen, maybe twenty." From the pocket of the dead outlaw's work shirt, Mitchell withdrew a much-read letter.
"We've got a name, an address and a return address."
* * *
The small farming community of Fair Play, Colorado sat nestled in the high grasslands of South Park under the shadows of the silver-rich Park Range, a town of barely 300 souls taking its sustenance from the trade of farmers, the surviving small-scale gold and silver mines, and, since the coming of the optimistically-named Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad, from the commerce of transshipment. Lying along the banks of the Middle Fork of the South Platte, Fair Play traced its history back to those first hopeful miners of the 1859 Gold Rush. Whether the town's adjudication of mining claims met the pretensions of its name, its more recent history had included violence as a preferred means of settling differences of opinion.
A squat square stone structure at the center of town served as the Park County Courthouse with brick steps leading up to a single courtroom which fully occupied the main floor, and above the steps, the window from which John Hoover had dangled the night the community showed it displeasure with the outcome of a certain murder trial. Collins ignored the steps and followed the path around to the basement door painted with the words "Sheriff of Park County." Sheriff Wiggins wore his badge easily over a faded woolen shirt whose two open buttons accommodated a comfortable curve around the waist. But Collins was not looking for a vigorous posse boss.
"You've got three men missing this past week or two," Collins told Wiggins after displaying his credentials. "Likely men you're as glad to have gone."
"Men come and go. Got any names?"
"Robert Stuart is one of them."
"Stuart!" Wiggins made a face. "Just a rambling no-account, not worth the sweat to run him out of town."
"But maybe a man you'd trust to hold your horses?"
Wiggins shrugged. "Got himself a big head after two of my real hard-cases took him under their wing. From that day on," Wiggins continued, "Stuart swaggered around Fair Play like the iron on his hip made him bigger than Samson with all his hair."
"Tell me about his partners?"
"Not sure they'd accept being called a partner of that drifter, whatever they let him think, but they're tough nuts. They'll kill as soon as not, you ask me. We've had some miners turn up dead in their shacks, their pokes missing, but all I got is guesses. Scorpions, both of them."
"Looks like Stuart felt the barb of their stingers." Collins told Wiggins what brought him to Fair Play. "Two men robbed the train, but one had a different idea about the split." He described the robber left behind on the train.
"So, I'll never see Butch Reynolds again. Good riddance." Collins took notes as Wiggins described Mitch Devlin. "He'll never see thirty again. Thick beard that can't hide the scowl he carries like it came from his mama's womb. Dark haired. Just shy of six feet. Bulky build. He'll use his fists when he needs to, but if you ask me, he finds guns quicker."
Fair Play had three small saloons, each attracting its own breed of men. Collins passed by the townie saloon and the cattleman's watering hole. The Nugget, Wiggins had assured him, was where Devlin and Reynolds hung out.
The bartender's eyes hooded over when Collins asked about Reynolds. "I sell whiskey, mister. If you want information, go read the Fair Play Flume."
A man down the bar spoke up. "I know Reynolds. Always good to stand a fellow for a drink or two."
Collins took the hint and the two men moved to a side table with a bottle of Double Anchor whiskey. "Not seen him for a week or more," Collins' new acquaintance told him. "Pals around with Mitch Devlin. Two men who know what they want in life and tell you they mean to get it."
"I been told to look him up for some action that may be in his line," Collins said. "Solid man, is he?" The gossip told him little, but kept coming, especially as the level in the whiskey bottle lowered.
"Reynolds grew up on a ranch," one of his new companions mentioned.
"Fancied himself a cattleman, him and his buddy Devlin. Talked about going into the ranching business," another drinker added. "Said we'd not see him again. But he always talked a bigger game than he played."
* * *
Mitchell dipped his coffee leisurely in a small diner in Sydney, Nebraska, waiting. When a young woman paused just inside the door, he got to his feet. She moved toward him with a determined step.
"Are you Mr. Mitchell?" she asked. "I got your note. What is this about?"
Mitchell tried to start with words of sympathy. "I didn't want to disturb your Mama by coming to your home, Miss Stuart. I know she's doing poorly."
"How do you know about my mother?" she demanded, instantly alert, suspicious, even more antagonistic than the presence of the gun belt strapped around his waist should mean to a resident of a peaceful farming town.
Grudgingly, she sat and waited stiffly while the waitress brought her a cup of coffee. "Your note claimed this was about Robert." By her posture, the strength of her voice, he knew that this Miss Stuart was not a simpering town maiden, but a strong-willed product of a frontier farm. And Mitchell lived in a world of men; he knew little of such a woman.
"In your letter, you told Robert to come home if he wanted to see your mother again." He paused.
"That was a personal letter," she snapped. "Why would Robert have you read—? Are you a friend of his? How did you get—?"
When she broke off, he saw a glimmer of realization begin to grow. "Robert . . . He's in trouble, isn't he?"
Mitchell waited. It would make his task easier.
Her voice dropped and he barely heard her words. "More than trouble?"
"I'm sorry." He let those words lie between them for a moment, letting her absorb its meaning. "I didn't know Robert, but I could tell you cared a great deal about him."
"He has a wild streak" she said. "But he's so young . . . Not bad, Mr. Mitchell. He just wants . . . wanted adventure. What . . . "
She recoiled at the harshness of the word.
"And you?" She demanded, suddenly suspicious again. "What is your part in all this? Is that how you got his letter?"
Her antagonism flooded across the table, as though she held him responsible for the news he delivered. But for reasons of his own that he didn't fully understand, it was vital to overcome the hostility of this strong woman. He placed his Wells Fargo badge on the table and eased it across to her. "I'm bound to find his killer."
Maybe that helped. She seemed less hostile. But through her grief, it was hard to tell. "His killer robbed the Denver-Santa Fe train, killed two Wells Fargo express men, then murdered his partner. We think Robert held the horses for their escape. The killer covered his tracks well. No way to know who he was."
"You think I know? I—"
"We identified Robert from your letter that he carried in his pocket. It must have meant a lot to him. I'm thinking he wrote to you, too."
"He said he made friends. He never mentioned names."
"But he said something about what he was doing, about his plans. Tell me about Robert."
He let her talk about her brother as a child. "So active, always into everything," she remembered. About how he resented farm chores, about how their father died and they had to move to town, about how he chafed at taking responsibility for the family. "He was still so young. He just craved excitement," she concluded. "He always talked about seeing big places, doing big things, even in his last letter he spoke of finding his big opportunity. But nothing specific. Nothing helps, I'm afraid."
Finally, she broke down in tears. "How will I tell Mamma that he went bad? He was her pride."
Mitchell felt drawn to reach across the table, to let his hand rest on hers, to comfort this strong but vulnerable woman, to let his unexamined feelings overcome a disciplined professionalism. As his eyes met hers, and he felt the depth of her sorrow, he struggled to find words to ease her pain.
"Maybe a story will help. A story about a Texas boy who trailed cattle to Arizona for excitement, who found he liked having money better than he liked having work. For three years, he robbed stages, thinking he was living a good, manly life. Five years in Yuma Penitentiary did nothing to point him to a different trail so he started robbing again. By accident he met a man. The first real man he ever met. That changed his life."
She waited for him to continue, then the meaning of the tale came to her. "You?"
Mitchell nodded. "Maybe all Robert needed was to meet that kind of man. I mean to find whoever took that chance from him."
Mitchell waited silently, letting her come to terms with her grief. Finally, she spoke.
"I remember something. His last letter said I should write in care of General Delivery, Billings. Does that help?"
Mitchell grinned. "They call Montana the Big Sky Country. Guess I'm going to find out what that means."
* * *
Spring had come to Montana when spring always comes. Late.
By the time the screeching brakes brought the Northern Pacific Express to a halt at Billings, range routines were shifting from the winter chores of moving cattle among patches of sparse grass that had survived the snows of January, of spreading hay, and of mending fences, tack and the like to the tasks that followed winter break-up, rounding-up heifers and branding their calves, and for men whose sprit of enterprise exceeded their commitment to "townie" ethics, mavericking any calves who could be separated from their branded mamas. Mitchell's second-hand range garb marked him as a rough man of the saddle, a man who would be at home in any cow camp.
Collins had arrived in Billings a week earlier, ensconced now in his room at The Billings House, credentials presented to the local law, but not the arrest warrant, not when it might leak out. Even an honest sheriff could unintentionally loosen his lips over a whiskey.
When the Wells Fargo men compared notes in Denver, they had determined on an approach that combined their strengths. Impatiently, they waited out what remained of winter, giving Devlin time to arrive in Billings, ready to use his blood money to buy an existing spread, or perhaps to drive a herd up from Wyoming. Somewhere the ambitious start-up cattle rancher would be found among the lands left open by the Great Die-Off of the harsh winter of 1887. A long search, perhaps, but two dead Wells Fargo men meant San Francisco gave them orders to take as long needed.
And so, an out-of-work saddle tramp named Dave Mitchell "rode the grub line" from one small ranch house to another, from one thrown-together cow camp to the next. "Looking for work," he told whoever would listen, whoever would trade at least a supper and breakfast for some chores on the woodpile, mucking out the damp-smelling straw in the barn, or whatever task gave welcome relief to the cowhands and earned him a supper, a place to toss his bedroll, a breakfast, and maybe a chance to hear range gossip.
"Any outfit around looking for hands?" he always asked as he saddled up in the morning. "Anyone new to the area still getting settled in and don't have his full crew yet?" "The Lone Star," he was told by one man. "New fellow using the Anchor brand", another told him. But Devlin hadn't been a Texan, and when he saw kids playing in front of the Anchor cook tent, he knew his search would go on.
"Double Ess drove some cattle in this spring," a homesteader named Warner told him. "Nice fellow like you don't seem like their sort, though."
The SS "ranch house" was canvas, stretched between the trunks of two lodgepole pines. The "kitchen" was a fire pit fifty feet upland from a burbling creek. Brush had been cut and dragged to build a small corral. Some land had been spaded level and a pile of fresh lumber lay stacked nearby for the first ranch building . . . bunk house? Cook shack? A sign the men here had only recently arrived but planned on staying.
Mitchell pasted a scowl on his jaw and timed his arrival to fit the supper schedule and force a range-courtesy meal if nothing else. As he approached the corral, a tall, clean-shaven, surly-looking cowhand strode forward. "Who do you think you're eyeballing, drifter?"
The contrast to western range courtesy told Mitchell that he was among dangerous men, the kind of men who would scorn a polite request to "trade some sweat for a supper." Here, a show of subservience would get him run off. It was not his scruffy range garb that declared him as one of their kind; it would be the edge on his voice.
"Saw me enough to know you're not the boss man of this outfit," Mitchell said as he swung down uninvited, matching discourtesy for discourtesy.
"He's got you spotted, Culver," one of the other hardcases said with a guffaw.
But Culver was a man with no back-down in him. "You're packing iron, mister. Let's see how much heft you got."
Mitchell could not back down either. Two brisk steps brought him nose-to-nose to Culver. "Fists, knives, or guns, bucko. How do you want it?"
"Put a cork in it, Culver." The voice of the man emerging from the tent didn't have enough weight to handle Culver, not by itself. Perhaps no man could handle this crew by voice alone. But under his beard, he scowled with the intensity of a man certain of his command.
Culver glared at Mitchell but reluctantly let his gun arm go slack and turned away. "We got plenty of time."
"Your business?" the man in charge demanded. Other men in Montana fit Devlin's general description, but not many overlorded a tough outlaw crew.
"Seen enough to know you need some real hands," Mitchell told the boss. "I can do most any range-riding work you got, herding cattle, breaking horses, making steers." He took a chance. "Handling quick branding fires when there's a need."
The boss studied Mitchell skeptically. "Range courtesy says you get your supper. Turn your horse into the corral." As Mitchell prepared himself for an evening of grilling, he knew he had found the Denver Express killer. He knew as well that if he failed to impress Devlin, he need never see Billings again.
A man learns many things in life if he tries. And Mitchell's first month in Yuma impressed upon him that a few words could substitute for a sentence, a grunt could substitute for words. Just as he could spot which of the SS hands had learned their lessons from brutal jailors, the men around the cook fire quickly recognized him as one of their kind.
For three days, Mitchell rode the range with the SS crew, once with the lanky Zeb Lyons, a man who made no effort to hide the three deep grooves scratched into his gunbutt, once with the knife-scarred breed, Johnny 'Pache, never with Owen Culver. On the third day he sided "Steve Slater" as the boss called himself. Duty didn't tax his skills. Cutting a calf's ear to show its hide had been scorched and claimed made it easy to spot a new SS addition from a distance. Maybe the heat of a quick branding fire didn't sear as deeply as range standard, maybe dragging a running iron to transform S-Bar into a sloppy SS wouldn't hold up if the hide were stripped by a range detective interfering with a free man's business, but such niceties were for settled ranges.
Mitchell had made a show of holding back his life story. "Done my work down south," he said, not bothering to mention which of the troubled ranges he had ridden. If he seemed reticent, if he left the impression of a man who rode the unfriendly side of the law, no one seemed to mind. When pressed for his reason for trying the cold north, he gave a vague explanation. "Got tired of being hassled with all the homesteaders crowding the range. Then I heard Montana was open and free and a man don't have to bow and scrape to them Eastern fat cats."
"They run the law down there, don't they," Slater mentioned, on the surface just making idle conversation.
Mitchell flashed a sidelong glance. "I'm not packing law trouble, if that's what you're asking." Then he dropped his voice confidentially. "Not that I know of anyway."
"You stay here, you're going to have to kill Culver sooner or later, you know that?"
"He thinks he's a red-tailed hawk, but some I cell-mated with make him look like a one-winged sparrow." Mitchell rode on in silence for a moment and then turned so his eyes met Slater's and held them. "Did I just hear an order?"
"I'll tell you when," Slater replied, satisfied he had learned what he needed about Dave Mitchell.
* * *
Two weeks had passed, a score or more calves had been separated from their mamas, and a dozen yearlings of diverse provenance had felt the SS brand burned into their shoulder. Then, one night, Slater announced: "We're not finding many more calves needing our iron. Time to do our riding on some of the fillies in Billings."
Established in 1882 when the Northern Pacific had chosen it as a western railhead, Billings was already a large town with several thousand souls clustered along the banks of the Yellowstone River, its prosperity based upon the railroad that served cattlemen throughout South Central Montana, with the attendant stockyards, rail maintenance yards, and commercial industriousness. It served as well as a shipment point for the Montana coal that provided energy not only to power the Northern Pacific steam engines but also the electrical plants of cities and towns throughout the Northwest.
From the livery stable, Slater led his crew down Grant Street and through the batwings of the Big Horn Saloon, a suitable watering spot that served the cowhand trade but stood nearly empty on this midweek day. After draining his first beer, Mitchell shoved back from the table. "Now that I got some coins jangling in my pocket, I'm going to see about getting rid of some of them."
Culver started to rise as well. "Guess I'll mosey along and make sure you don't get in trouble off by your lonesome." Culver's smile was as false as an alligator and maybe as hungry, but Mitchell played along.
"You can help me pick out a shirt that don't have a hole in it. You're welcome to watch the shearing down to the barber shop, if you like. And I'll not turn bashful when he takes me into his back room and tries to scald the hide off me. But when I'm prettied up, I'm off to a place where a man don't take kindly to gawkers." Mitchell paused, then provocatively showed Culver all his teeth. "But I always like some flunky to scrub my back. You'll find me a good tipper, if you do the job right."
Culver's hand swung toward his hip. "You can get your hot bath right here, cowboy."
"Do it on the range, you two," Slater barked. "Don't mess up my drinking."
Mitchell went about his business, letting anyone interested watch him pause as he wavered between a green plaid and a plain maroon shirt, picked the maroon and tossed in a pouch of Bull Durham, seemingly alone, though likely with eyes watching him from not far behind. The barber snipped away and then filled a tub for Mitchell's leisurely soak. Finally, Mitchell strode down a side street to a building the barber had mentioned. In the front, and out the back and on to work.
* * *
An hour later when Mitchell returned to the Big Horn Saloon, the crew sat listening as Slater proclaimed his philosophy of life. "It don't matter what a man does to get his start. Once you run enough cattle, they all truckle to you."
Mitchell waved over another beer from the barkeep. A long swallow and he eased back, settling himself into the gentle flow of the conversation, of boastful tale telling, that surrounded him.
No man looked up or noticed the new man who pushed through the batwings and strolled over to the bar. Nor did the fact that he turned his back to the mirror, hooked his elbows on the mahogany and idly scanned the room as he raised his glass to his lips cause apprehension. Just another lonesome horseman, or so Chet Collins seemed.
Nor did the entry of the sheriff attract notice. This was his town and none of the SS crew had trouble with the local law.
Slater was chaffing Lyons over an incident on the trail drive when the sheriff's voice rumbled authoritatively across the saloon. "I'm holding a warrant for Mitch Devlin, wanted for train robbery and murder."
At first no one seemed to pay attention. "Riding for the SS brand now," the sheriff continued. Devlin tensed, but still seemed confident that a single man, badge-toter or not, would be no problem against his curly crew.
"No Devlin at this table, Sheriff," he replied. "Go look somewhere else."
Collins had shifted sideways from the bar, and now triangulated the outlaw table. "Devlin's a burly, black-bearded gent, stands near six feet, that's what the Park County Sheriff told me. Wells Fargo doesn't take kindly to killing its men."
Devlin looked at Collins. "Not good odds, lawdog. Two of you against five."
That was Mitchell's cue. "Count again, Devlin." When the revolver resting in his lap clicked to full-cock, not even Culver sought to continue the discussion.
As soon as Devlin was properly ensconced in the Yellowstone County jail, Collins led Mitchell once again to the Big Horn Saloon.
"Back there?" Mitchell challenged. "They're a pack of wolves, sharp fangs and all."
"They're not thinking kindly of us, you especial. We can let them get their spirits up and make a move on their own time, or we can face them down now."
Mitchell and Collins took their beers to a corner table where they could watch the animated discussion of the SS crew. In moments, it seemed a decision had been reached. Culver asserted his dominance as he strode across the saloon with Lyons and 'Pache in his wake. "You bankers—"
"No gold watch on a chain across our broad bellies," Collins interrupted. "We're just men working for wages and doing our job."
"A blood-sucking job," Culver said. "You figure we'll let you take our boss south to hang just for taking some rich man's money?"
"Maybe a bit more than simple robbery," Mitchell told them. "Three robbers found the job smooth as silk, money packed in the saddlebags and then a couple of gunshots and the robbery was over."
Culver showed no concern for the killing of men paid to guard banker's money. "Man dumb enough to take a job like that knows what can happen." Beside him, Lyons shrugged indifferently. 'Pache, like others of his tribe, concealed his thoughts.
All but the most vicious of the men Mitchell had known over the years riding the dark side held to a core ethic of their trade. "Three men in the operation, but only one man rode away with the money."
"Two of his partners dead," Mitchell continued. And then the ultimate. "One of them in the back." Even Culver frowned at that.
"Still, it ain't good for a man's rep to let the law waltz in and take his boss away," Culver said. "You two'll pay hell getting him and the herd back to Denver."
"We came for a killer," Collins pointed out. He shrugged as though he hadn't thought about the cattle. "Don't know who'll take charge of the herd."
Mitchell saw the dollar signs flash in Lyons' eyes. Zeb had always seemed the smartest of the crew. He stuck his thumb in Culver's side and jerked his head. The three men withdrew across the room and conferred.
"I'd say the wolves are discussing their dinner," Mitchell commented. "I'm betting they got an appetite for beef on the hoof." Shortly, an agreement was reached. Culver and 'Pache turned toward the door. It was Lyons who braced the Wells Fargo men.
"A man double-crosses his partners, he's on his own," Lyons told Collins. "You keep your nose out of our cattle business and vamoose with your killer, pronto." He glowered at Mitchell. "You ever show your mug in Montana again, Texas boy, and you'll be feeding the coyotes."
As the two Wells Fargo agents watched Lyons leave, their job accomplished, Mitchell sipped his beer thoughtfully. "In the old days, I used to spend free-for-the-taking stage money for my whiskey," he told his partner. "But when a man works to earn it, saloon beer tastes mighty fine."
* * *
Two months later, at noon in the courthouse square at Trinidad, Dave Mitchell performed the most unwelcome duty of his Wells Fargo experience. The suits in San Francisco had decreed that respect to the two murdered Wells Fargo men required that the company be represented at the hanging. Mitchell felt no sympathy for Devlin, but witnessing a defenseless man mount the scaffold, seeing the noose pulled tight around the doomed man's neck, hearing the trap door bang open and finally watching a one-hundred-seventy-pound weight jerk the rope taut was an experience Mitchell could have done without.
* * *
Jostling north, riding free in the Wells Fargo express car, Mitchell tried to banish the constriction he had felt around his own neck as he watched the trap sprung. He blotted the image and looked ahead. He had some days off coming. A visit to Sydney, Nebraska would raise his spirits.