Late afternoon shadows fell across the rickety wagon as it made its methodical way down the rough incline of Clear Creek Canyon. Leland Gordon shaded his eyes with one hand while holding the reins to the two mules with the other. Worn a little over the ears and parted near the middle, his hair was more gray than black these days. They were four days outside of Idaho Springs and he grunted to himself, satisfied at what he saw.
"Charlie, honey," he said over his shoulder. Charlene, his 18-year-old granddaughter, was supposed to be resting in the back of the wagon but was more likely to be sulking. She always liked to work the reins herself. "We've arrived. Time to start settin' up."
No response at first but then there came a low moan from the wagon followed by, "Alright Pops. I'll start getting dressed."
"Make sure you put on that new dress darlin'. You know the one I mean."
Half an hour later, the wagon had been positioned strategically inside one of the largest mining camps on the South Platte River. It lay at the base of the Rocky Mountains, east of Golden City. Leland had researched the area in preparation for this job and knew that Clear Creek was originally named Cannonball Creek as early as 1820. The French hunters of the expedition of Stephen H. Long had named it so after the river rocks in its bed. In the 1830s it became known as Vasquez Fork or Vasquez River, after the fur trader Louis Vasquez, who had his fort at the mouth of the river. It had gained its present name from the gold rushers in 1859, almost two years ago.
Leland's wagon had gained little attention thus far, such was the nondescript nature of it. The inhabitants of the hectic camp were scurrying about and too busy to care about yet another mule-drawn wagon. Another half hour would see the setting of the lazy sun and everybody hustled to get their activities finished up while there was still light to see by. Some had their own light sources and prepared to strain and drain throughout the night hoping to wring one more shiny nugget from their efforts.
But satisfaction with the location settled on Leland's features. He had backed the wagon up next to a large clear area that was staked out for a building of some kind yet to be built. The jammed-together tents of miners and equipment suppliers surrounded it. From where he stood at the back of the wagon, he let his pale blue eyes scan across the tops of the tents. There were a number of rough buildings with signs for saloons, assayer's offices, chow halls, and so forth. The further the sun sank, he noted, the more whores appeared on the muddy pathways.
"Ready Charlie?" he asked. "I've got the lanterns in position."
His granddaughter poked her head out of the wagon and wrinkled her nose. "It sure does stink here."
"I suppose they get used to it." Leland glanced at her and then did a double-take. "Aren't you a little old for pig tails?"
"Oh, thanks. I forgot." She proceeded to remove the cloth wraps from her hair, allowing the soft curled locks to spring free and swirl about her head. The effect was like a churning ball of dancing fire.
"How's that?" Charlene smiled. Her flaming red hair was always cut short and never anything but wild. She couldn't tame it no matter what she tried so it was easier to let it do its thing. A liberal supply of freckles sprinkled across her cheeks only enhanced the effect.
"Honey, with that dress on I'm starting to rethink this approach." Leland winked at her, satisfied with the resulting blush. He had to be happy she still did that, given the nature of their lives these days.
"OK. Enough lolly-gagging," said Leland. He stomped one foot in the dirt like a bull preparing to charge. "Time to get this show started." He grabbed a coarse rope attached to the very top of the wagon and gave it a firm tug.
The wagon transformed like magic. Large pieces of wood slid down into place at the back of the wagon forming a raised platform. A rickety set of steps led up to it. Colorful painted leather signs unfurled on all sides reading:
"Leland's Liniments and Miracle Elixirs!"
"Cures Disease, Smooths Wrinkles, Removes Stains, Prolongs Life!"
"Safe! Swift! Effective!"
Leland wasted no time in shuffling out several sample display cases. Then he jumped nimbly up to the platform, jamming a top hat on his head. At the same time, Charlene emerged from the confines of the wagon. She was careful to not let her long shimmering sleeveless golden dress drag through the mud. Her usual trousers always provided her with freedom of movement. Why did dresses always have to be so damned confining? This one had a slit in the side which made it easier. She hoped Pops wouldn't notice its extra length, a result of some swift work with scissors and thread last night. That slit along with her corset-boosted cleavage should attract and maintain plenty of attention. And that was the point, after all.
Charlene struck a lucifer match, lighting a short fuse that in turn set off a dozen or so firecrackers. All the bluster cut through the general cacophony of the camp. Heads swung toward the wagon, eyebrows raised in curiosity. Strange sights and odd noises, even the occasional discharge of a pistol, were commonplace but here was something new.
A small crowd gathered.
"Keep a look-out for Padgett," Leland reminded his granddaughter. "He may have shaved off his mustache since that wanted poster was printed. Course I doubt he'll give up his trademark suspenders. They say he made them from dried human skin."
Charlene rolled her eyes. "Talk about twisted. I know he uses them to intimidate people but that's plain crazy." She shook her head and added, "I'll watch for him Pops. You just do your thing." She grabbed a couple of bottled samples and then strode around to the assembling crowd. She made sure to keep her smile sweet but firm. A few whistles and catcalls rose from the men adding to the growing size of the cluster around the wagon.
"Come one, come all," came Leland's booming voice from atop the platform, a shade deeper than his normal tones. He had a marvelous ability to project his voice when necessary. "Step right up and hear of the miracle elixir from yours truly, the famous Leland Gordon. A cure-all for whatever ails you! You heard that right! It doesn't matter if you're suffering from coughs, boils, constipation or hemorrhoids. One bottle will cure it. Dysentery? Not to worry. Effluvium? It cures that too. What I want to offer you, my friends is no mere medicine. It's far more than that! It's a tonic, an elixir to purge the body and lift the spirits!"
Leland lifted a bottle in one hand while pointing at individuals in the crowd with the other. He was trying his best to affect a more New England tone than his Scottish heritage would allow.
"You sir. Could that be a case of lockjaw? Just ten dollars a bottle will take care of that overnight. I hear you can pull that much gold out of the ground in these parts in less than 20 minutes. Or you," he pointed at an older man near the back of the crowd. "I sure hope you aren't suffering from Scrofula but from here, it would appear so. Well, I'm here to tell you, sir, you should never have to suffer from such a skin disease as the King's Evil. No sir. One bottle of Leland's Miracle Elixir for just ten dollars will have the ladies swooning all over you in no time."
A low laughter rippled through the crowd.
"Or if you're a little down on your luck and feel the need to revive your sagging spirit. Well friends, my nostrum works twice as well as the rotgut whiskey you've been swimming in and without the head-splitting after-effects."
"I'll take two," came a call from near the front. Charlene took that as her cue and started passing out bottles in exchange for cash or even a bit of gold dust. Leland started jabbering on about other creams, ointments, and psychics. He made unbelievable claims that nevertheless had the gathered men rapt with attention. Charlene smiled at Leland's technique. He had a gift for playing this type of role. Forcing herself to tune it out, she circulated through the gathering. Frank Padgett was out there somewhere. To find him would be a difficult task though, she soon realized, due to the general conditions of the camp. The dirt these men wore was nothing if not consistent. Dull brown seemed to be the fashion for all. Faces and the hair upon them tended to look the same with so much dirt and dust ground into them.
After a while, the crowd started to grow a little restless and some began to wander off.
"How much for Red?" came a call from a younger man in the middle of the packed crowd. "She can cure what ails me in no time."
"In no time is right, Carmondy" came an answering call. "That's how long you'd last with a filly like her."
"Mr. Carmondy, is it?" Charlene shouted over the hubbub. She had recognized that name as one of Padgett's gang. "No real need for me to examine your boneless pork to know Leland's elixir can cure even the most hopeless cases!"
The entire gathering roared with laughter. Charlene raised one bare arm high in the air, acknowledging their appreciation. Carmondy's smile disappeared from his lips and he stalked off in retreat. Leland smothered a grin of his own, knowing he needed to take back control.
"You there, mister. That's right, you in the black hat and the duster." Leland's outstretched arm pointed at a tall man who lurked at the edge of the crowd. "A Pinkerton man, if I'm not mistaken. Perhaps you could tell us what might be bothering you and I can proscribe an appropriate cure from my wagon."
The subject of Leland's question was a tall, rugged, broad-shouldered man who wore a dangerous look the way pumas looked at wounded mule deer. His eyes were steely-gray and he wore a full mustache that drooped over his upper lip. Beneath the long duster, his hips were narrow and one could easily see a Colt .45 Peacemaker nestled there. It wasn't hard to imagine a second on the opposite side, strung low for a quick draw.
Doffing his hat and revealing a full head of obsidian-black hair to match his mustache, the man smiled. He allowed his gaze to move away from Leland and towards the crowd. The quiet built as he massaged his hat, the color of a newborn fawn. It had a hand-rolled brim and a healthy pinch in the crown.
Finally, the man spoke in a deep baritone. "I'm afraid nothing from that wagon can help me in the slightest, unless, maybe you're hiding Frank Padgett and his gang inside."
A low murmur rippled through the gathered men.
Charlene could see a jagged scar over the man's right eyebrow. "Are you huntin' a bounty, sir?"
"I am. Edward Flint's my name but most folks call me Tandy."
More murmurs from the men this time accompanied by some shuffling of feet and more than one head bobbing down as if to avoid being seen. Whispers of 'It's Tandy Flint' and 'Tandy the Tracker" floated on the still air.
"Well sir," came a voice from somewhere in the thick of the throng. "I seen Carmondy there working with Padgett. Heard tell of that bunch working out of someplace up in the hills. They don't seem to be minin' though." Charlene tried to make out who had spoken but from her position on the ground, she couldn't see over the taller men's heads.
"Carmondy?" repeated Flint. "I would be pleased to make his acquaintance if anybody saw where he ran off to."
It seemed nobody had.
Except Leland. From his position on the platform at the back of the wagon, he had been able to see everything clearly. Carmondy had left after Charlene's timely quip had cut him down to size. He had stomped off past a newish-looking saloon with a hastily-painted sign over the door reading "Robby's Roost". From there he had been swallowed by a swarm of tents that advertised a host of gambling opportunities. The man had a distinctive gate, probably the result of an ankle injury at some point. He shouldn't be too hard to locate and that should then lead them to Padgett.
Time to wrap up the sales effort. The plan was working out just as he'd hoped.
* * *
"We cain't ignore this, Frank," Nate Remine said in his high-pitched voice. "If what Carmondy says is true, then we got Tandy Flint on our trail. That guy don't stop to let the clover grow under his boots."
Frank Padgett stared at Nate and let one hand play with his thick bristly mustache. It curled up on one side but not on the other. Light from the sole lantern in the tent cast playful shadows that contradicted the mood inside the small tent.
Finally, Padgett glanced around at the other four men and said, "We got a good thing going here. I'm not ready to vamoose." His deep voice was raspy like a trail drover fresh off a round-up. Pausing briefly and still playing with the one side of his mustache he seemed to consider for a moment before continuing. "If we pull up stakes now, we'll be leaving behind all we've built over the past month or so. And with the amount of color we've heard tell of, and the dust we've seen, the businesses around here are anxious to pay to secure their operations. And at a hefty price too. Who else would be able to provide that public service as good as us?" His grin was as wide as it was devious.
Some chuckles greeted that but more subdued than it might have been.
A stringy-haired thin man from Mexico named Reymundo Aguire spoke up, "I say we ambush heem. Don't let heem push us around."
"I don't know," started Cat Maes, a wiry youngster with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. "You know Tandy's reputation, right? They say he can track a feller over bare stone for miles and tell you what he's had for breakfast, his shoe size, and whether or not he's married. He's a killer too. Never lost a gun battle and always brings in his quarry, man or beast. He wouldn't just stumble into no ambush."
"Easy there, Cat, said Padgett. "Let's not make him out to be some sort of mystical force of nature. He's a man like any other and he'll bleed like any other." One more stare down with each of his men as if to gauge their mettle.
All managed to meet his eye except for Nate who kept his glued to the glow of the lantern. He was a chubby man with a short wispy blonde beard and big round eyes that were always darting about. It gave him a look of perpetual nervousness that matched his demeanor.
Padgett frowned, grunted, and then reached across the narrow gap and slapped Nate hard across the cheek. "Wake up, man. We either take care of this Tandy problem or he'll take care of us."
"Yes sir!" Nate's left cheek glowed red from the force of the slap.
Padgett seemed content with that answer so settled back and started playing with his mustache once again.
"We'll ambush him all right. But we'll set him up for the fall first." He glanced over at Carmondy. "Tom, since you're the one who seen him, and let him see you, I want you to let it slip that we're going to be up at the ranch house. You know the one I mean? That one up in the hills west of here that we passed by on the way."
Carmondy looked glum but knew when to take orders. "That one up near Quartz Hill? Sure I know it. But why let Tandy know where we're going to be?"
"Because we won't be there. We're going to set up our ambush on the trail a smidge south of there."
Aguire spoke up again, "You do not think he would suspect an ambush?"
Padgett smiled a deep satisfied smile and let the questioning silence linger for a bit. Finally, he said, "I've seen men like Tandy all my life. They get a reputation like he has and they start to get comfortable. Too comfortable. They start to rely on their reputations and let that do all the work for 'em. No, he'll plan to ride right up to that ranch house and flush us out or some such plan he'll formulate. But he won't know that we know he's coming so he won't be expecting an ambush. It'll be quick and easy and then we can all get back to weighing down our pockets with little gold nuggets."
Nods and smiles came to the other four men in the tent; it was difficult to tell which ones were forced.
* * *
Charlene had completed the conversion of the wagon back to its original configuration by the time Leland returned and poked his head back inside.
"Did you find Carmondy?"
"Better than that," he grunted. "I found Padgett himself and the rest of his men." He heaved himself up into the back of the wagon and saw Billy Swain was already inside. He grinned at him.
"You did a fine job there, 'Tandy'", he winked.
"Thanks boss," replied the rough-looking man who had posed earlier as the Pinkerton Bounty Hunter, Tandy Flint. "It's pretty easy to play a role like that. Merely gotta let the reputation carry you through."
Charlene squirmed with impatience. "So what'd you find out, Pops?"
Leland told them how he had followed Carmondy, asking around and tracing his movements to one of the tents out near the edge of the large camp. Then it had only been a matter of positioning himself nearby, trying to filter out the rest of the rowdy camp noise so he could eavesdrop on Padgett's plan. For a moment, he had thought of trying to take them all right then and there but one against five, even with the element of surprise would have been foolish. "It seems Padgett's gang is running a bullying scheme of some kind. They're making the local saloons and other business owners pay for their protective services."
"Ah," said Billy. "I've seen that sort of thing before. One time, the theater troupe I belonged to up in Frisco had to pay a local gang to keep them from causing disturbances at our performances. That's low, if you ask me."
"Yes, and a not unexpected occupation for our Mr. Padgett," said Leland. "So now we know where they plan to ambush you, Billy. It should only be a matter of me riding up there in your place and springing their trap. They won't harm me because I'll be an innocent passer-by. They'll still have to take me back to their ranch house hide-out to keep me from alerting anybody."
"Or, they might just shoot you," said Charlene. "You know how these plans of yours never go exactly the way you say they will."
"No, I don't think they'll do that, at least not right away. They won't want to risk anybody investigating my disappearance, at least not yet. I told the crowd tonight that I'd be back to follow-up on their use of the elixirs we sold."
Charlene didn't seem convinced. "I suppose with Tandy Flint in town they won't be targeting anybody but him. But after that . . . "
"Yes, after that . . . well, they'll no doubt make me disappear for good as a way of letting everybody know they aren't to be trifled with. That would help their bullying business. It's a short term victory for them at best but based on what I overheard tonight, short-term is the way they think."
"So how does that get us any closer to capturing Padgett and his gang and collecting the bounty?" Billy looked pensive, a normal expression of his when he wasn't playing a role. "We'll be one man down. Won't that put us deeper in the hole?"
Leland grinned at him once again and then grabbed an old sackcloth from the side of the wagon where it hung from a rusty nail. "Behold my latest and greatest colic treatment," he said, pulling a small stoppered glass bottle filled with green-tinged liquid. "It's actually a sleep draught, guaranteed to knock out somebody for ten hours or more. Not even a buffalo stampede would rouse them." He shrugged and added, "Hell of a headache when they wake up though."
Charlene glanced across at Billy and said, "So the plan is for Pops to get captured, then get them to drink that stuff somehow. Then when they're dead to the world, you and I will be on hand to tie them up nice and tidy and prepare to cart 'em back to Denver to collect the bounty."
"Sounds easy." Billy cocked an eyebrow. "Maybe too easy. Remember I'm Billy Swain, not actually Tandy Flint. I've shot a gun only twice in my life and didn't hit nothing, either time."
"Don't worry about that," said Leland. "We only hired you for your acting talent, not your gunslinger skills. We just need you to get back out there now and be seen around camp as Tandy Flint. Keep up the swagger and dropping hints about looking for Padgett and his boys. Make sure folks know they're accused of robbing the stage from the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. Also that they're wanted for the murder of a sheriff's deputy in Taos. Folks like to know specifics and robbing a mail coach is nothing short of downright evil. It would be good if the miners here are on our side. Meantime, Charlie and I will get a couple of hours shut eye so we can be ready for the next step. I'll be riding out early to get caught up in their ambush while Charlie follows behind to find out the location of their hideout. It's somewhere up near a place called Quartz Hill."
Silence filled the wagon and there didn't seem to be any more questions. So Billy climbed back out of the wagon, instantly assuming the persona of the infamous Pinkerton bounty hunter and strode off toward the various saloons where revelry remained in full swing.