Ike Loney tensed at the sound of the approaching horse. Only one man knew where he had holed up, and he wasn't expected. No surprise visitor would be welcome.
Loney was a compact man, as Westerners go, five foot seven inches, 140 pounds, face dominated by the black mustache that the Arizona Territory had plastered across one of its wanted posters. Small, he might be, but the resolute set to his stubbled jaw identified him as a man who made the world dance to his tune. Clad this morning only in his bloodied longjohns, and those unbuttoned to the waist and peeled back to expose the left side of his skimpy chest where he had been peppered by the blast of the shotgun, he had been sagging at the small table in what had once been the guard shack to an long-abandoned mine on the eastern slope of the Whetstone Mountains, while he mustered strength to face the pain as he resumed the task of digging out the remaining buckshot.
But now Loney had a visitor. He pushed himself up to his feet with his good arm and stepped over to the wall where his holster was hanging. In a smooth gesture, he eased his revolver into his hand. He turned, faced the door, and waited. The horse come to a halt outside the cabin and Loney heard the saddle creak as the horseman swung down. When his visitor tromped up to the door, Loney raised his pistol, aimed at the center of the door, and cocked. His visitor, whoever he was, had made a one-way trip.
"Hello the house," the newcomer sang out.
Loney down-cocked, slid his pistol back in its holster. As he eased himself back into the chair at the table, he said, "Come."
The newcomer shrugged out of his sheepskin jacket and shook off the snow that had been falling during the ride from Tombstone then reached out his hand to Loney. He was a buff man, with an easy grin on his face that brought a smile to a man's face automatically, as it did now to Loney. He was dressed as a city man might to go for a ride in the rough desert country of the San Pedro Valley . Of an age with Loney, a sense of self-assuredness,, but not a man of the saddle, a city man with a face which lacked the deep sun-darkened skin of men of the outdoors . But the business they'd done together made this man's unexpected visit welcome, especially in his current need. Loney lacked the energy to rise and grasp the sheriff's welcoming handshakes, but his gesture was welcome enough.
"Been forgetting to shave, Ike," the newcomer joshed. "What if some pretty rancher's daughter comes calling, looking for a man of action?"
Despite his fatigue, Loney smiled. "Didn't expect to see you."
"Stage driver said you got tagged. I knew you planned to be far on your trail, but I figured I'd ride out just in case you're needing some help."
Loney started to shrug, and then stopped because of the pain. "Could have been worse. I'm sitting here." He looked up meaningfully. "But I got the job done for you."
"Done him better'n I could've asked. Took the bastard a full agonizing day before he cashed out." He extracted a piece of paper from his pocket and passed it over. "Lancaster lasted long enough to give me a description of the man who done it to him."
Loney picked up the paper. "Short, dark-haired, wears a Stetson. Not even a drawing. Be hard to run a man in on this."
"Guess that's why it's not Dead or Alive. Wells, Fargo's got a hotshot team of investigators coming down from Denver to run you to the ground and sweat a confession out of you so the hanging can be all right and proper."
"Got to find me first. I'm pulling out for Tucson in the morning and then on the train to California to have a good time spending what I earned here. More than $10,000. I've got a fatter money belt then I've had in ten years of making gunsmoke," Loney said.
While they were talking, Loney slid his bloodied Bowie Knife across the table. "I spent most of yesterday afternoon digging up the buckshot that son of a bitch gave me, but some are hard to get to. Maybe you can give me a hand."
The knife fit easily in the visitor's hand as he stepped around the table and squatted next to Loney. "Take a pull on your whiskey first, then I'll start carving away."
Loney stuffed his left hand under his butt to get the arm out of the way, held tight to the table with the other, braced himself and said "go ahead." The pain was no less under someone else's hands than under his own, and to distract himself, Loney made conversation.
In five minutes, three buckshot had been sliced out, in what would've taken Loney half an hour, but there were still several more to go. He signaled to rest a moment. "Lucky day for me when you matched me with that Arizona Territorial dodger. Maybe being a notorious outlaw has its advantages."
"I see a couple more pellets," the visitor said as he knelt by Loney's side again and raised the Bowie knife . Loney clenched his teeth in anticipation and nodded to go ahead.
The knife slipped an eighth of an inch into Loney's side and probed for the pellet. ""You're a good man to work with, Ike. Just one more thing, since you're still here." Loney was listening. "Need to make sure that our little deal stays secret between us."
The pellet popped out and Loney could speak again. "You got nothing to worry about. I'll never rat you out."
"I know." The Bowie knife rammed hard up to the hilt and twisted viciously on its way out, as the killer quickly backed out of splatter range.
Loney gasped as pain spread across his innards. "You stinking polecat . . . " He slumped sideways, and hit the floor with a loud thud.
The cleanup took less than five minutes. While the aorta finished spewing blood, the killer gathered up the dead man's saddle, saddlebags, and gear and dumped them in the mine's air shaft. Then he dragged the corpse through the snow and toppled it in. The falling snow would quickly cover the two parallel tracks made by the dead man's boot heels. The killer gave one final look around the cabin. Anyone from town who swung by the shack, maybe as a base for elk hunting, would know the shack had been used as a hideout , but everything looked like the outlaw had pulled out with his loot.
* * *
David Mitchell's last visit to the Cochise County Courthouse in Tombstone had been lacking in either the
freedom he had always valued or the purpose he felt now. Less than a day it had taken for the prosecutor
to make his case, the jury to nod their agreement, and the judge to pronounce the expected, unwelcome, words: "Five years in Yuma."
A strange path he had been on, after youthful years earning his living by relieving Wells, Fargo stages of extra weight. A free life,
a life dedicated to pleasure, and he now knew, an empty life. He would claim no credit if St. Peter made him explain how he came by
the badge on his pocket. All credit belonged to the man by his side, Chet Collins, at five foot six inches the biggest man he had ever known. A man he had been inspired to be like, to try to imitate, even if it meant giving up the freedom to take what he wanted and instead to work for what he would have called paltry wages.
"It was a better bargain than I could have imagined," he told his partner as they walked up the steps to the Courthouse.
"Badge stink, I think you called it back then," Collins reminded his colleague and friend.
"Turns out, it was the fragrance of good honest sweat."
As a courtesy and sign of respect—and to size up what, if any cooperation might be expected—the two Wells, Fargo agents routinely began any assignment by introducing themselves to the local sheriff.
Sheriff Alvin Dinkins greeted them jovially. "Always glad to have someone do my work for me," he told them. "Don't know you'll get far." He explained that the robbery and murder had taken place at night, "by the time I learned of the robbery and got out to Rocky Point where poor Butch Lancaster was murdered, the trail was getting cold. The robber rode back toward Benson a few miles, I could tell that. Then he waded in a small creek. Couldn't find where he came out."
"We're not trackers ourselves," Collins said. "If you couldn't follow it, we'd have been no better." The tone of deference Collins had developed over the years to ease any tension in the natural resentment to "outsiders trying to do my job" that the agents had encountered from Idaho to Wyoming to New Mexico.
"You're welcome to try," Dinkins said. "I figure the robber is long gone, but you boys ain't limited by county line jurisdiction problems, and maybe you can track him down. Sure hope so. Folks liked Butch Lancaster "
"We'll do our best," Collins assured the sheriff. "Wells, Fargo's records show that stage robberies are down from the early years in Tombstone. How about crime generally?"
"There are our share of bad actors out in the bush," Dinkins said, "but mainly they make their money stealing Mexican cattle." Dinkins told the agents. "All sorts of robberies are down."
"Down since you been sheriff?"
Dinkins nodded, modestly avoiding any claim of credit. "Not as much money slopping around as in the early days. Never had a haul this big since I put on the badge."
As they got to up to leave, the agents promised to keep him up-to-date on whatever they found.
"The robber is long gone, your money with him," Dinkins said. "Good luck to you if you can find it. Folks here won't be happy until the murderer of Butch Lancaster is swinging from the gallows."
Dinkins watched the two agents leave his office with a politician's satisfaction. The more they looked, the less the Tombstone Epitaph could rant about his performance.
Since the driver of the stage quote was out on a run, the Tombstone Epitaph, as it turned out, was the next stop on the agents' itinerary. The Epitaph editor, always a good reporter, welcomed them to his shop and brought out the issues with reporting on the robbery and murder. But first he made sure he got their names and spelling right for his next issue. "Dave Mitchell? Name sounds familiar."
"Been here before," Mitchell admitted. "Wells, Fargo and me didn't see things the same way back then."
The newspaper report gave limited details about the robbery, nothing more than they had received from sheriff Dinkins. But there was a side-bar article expressing the community's grief at the loss of a "first-rate public spirited citizen" in Butch Lancaster. It concluded with the statement that the Republican Party would meet soon to select its new nominee for Sheriff.
The Tombstone Nugget went into more details about the robbery, focusing on the efforts of Sheriff Dinkins to track the robber and concluded that "no fault can be assigned to our competent sheriff that darkness and weather allowed the robber to escape."
"I notice you don't say much about Lancaster," Mitchell pointed out. "What do folks think about him?"
"He made himself popular in town, like politicians do, claiming he would bring law and order to Tombstone," the editor said. "But out in the county, which is sheriff's responsibility, most folks think he was just a troublemaker, trying to run down Dinkins in order to build himself up. Too bad he got killed, but none of the Democrats in the county turned up at his funeral."
Andy Clay was a stout man in his 40s who had driven for Wells, Fargo out of the Tucson District for ten years. They had already established that he had a good record, and was well-regarded by his superiors. The agents were waiting for him when he turned the stage into the Wells, Fargo yard after his run from Bisbee. Mitchell stepped forward to help him unharness the team, as Collins began loosening him up to talk about the robbery.
"Been knocked over maybe twenty times," Clay said. "More in the early years. Back then, it seemed, most of our robbers were down-and-outers, and would knock over a stage just for the money in passenger's pockets."
"Anything different about this robbery?" Collins asked.
"Now that you ask, yes. And I've been wrestling with it. Not got around to telling the sheriff yet. But
there's kind of a pattern you learn to expect. Usually, the robber tells you to stop and orders the shotgunner
to throw down his gun. Everybody knows it's the policy of Wells, Fargo to not make a gunfight with passengers
on board. But this fellow, first we knew he was there was when he fired his rifle and hit Butch. Didn't do for
Butch right away, and Butch got off both barrels of the shotgun before he fell off the coach. Funny, though,
after that, the robber seemed real experienced. Don't know what to make of it."
"You almost make it sound like an assassination rather than a routine killing," Mitchell said.
Clay pondered that. "Yes, you could say that." He thought a moment. "But no one around here has it in for Butch, so I guess that don't make much sense. Probably just an outlaw skittish about guns."
"How often did Lancaster ride with you?" Collins asked
"Like you know, Wells, Fargo only pays for a guard when it has something worth the guarding."
Mitchell confirmed that. "Unless I was down to my last two nickels, when I saw a stage without a guard, I let it go by and waited for the next one."
Clay continued. "I guess Butch rode for us maybe six, eight times a month. Wells, Fargo had a couple other men they could call on from time to time.
* * *
Both newspapers carried reports of their arrival and the start of their investigation. The Epitaph opined that "finally the murderer of Butch Lancaster faces real professionals who will bring him to justice." The Nugget had a different view: "Whether two out-of-towners can do what our sheriff hasn't been able to accomplish remains to be seen."
In the morning, the agents visited the office of the Contention Mining Company on Toughnut Street. The mine
manager was happy to talk to them about the robbery. "Don't know that I can tell you much, though," he said.
His main interest was in making sure Wells, Fargo was standing by its duty to make good his loss.
"No problem with that," Collins said.
Mitchell asked the obvious question . "Who would know of the shipment?"
"Anyone could know that the payroll was paid, twice a month. Sheriff Dinkins told us we should space up the
deliveries, and so we'd spread them out, and could be any day of the four or five days before payroll is due.
As to who would know? Well, there'd be me and my payroll clerk, the bank," he seemed almost embarrassed to
mention it, "and Wells, Fargo of course. And anyone who knew that Lancaster was working that night."
Later in the morning, the agents stopped in at the Oriental Saloon at Fifth and Allen Streets, their approach timed to beat the saloon's crowded time hours. The men coming off the mine's night shift had done their drinking and gone to their rooms to sleep, the day crowd had not yet come in for their lunch break and early afternoon drinking. So, after the bartender placed there beers in front of them, they were able to get a few minutes of his undistracted time.
"Butch Lancaster," Collins said, "you know him?"
"Sure did. He was a regular here."
"Trying to get a line on him. The way the two newspapers write about him, he could be two different people."
"Politics. The Epitaph is the Republican paper, it speaks for most of us folks here in town. The, Nugget, now, it gets most of its readers from the country. The Cow-Boys almost see it as their own property. So, with an election coming up, the Epitaph takes one side and the Nugget takes the other."
"Elections come and go," Mitchell said. "Anything to make this especially rancorous?"
The bartender looked nervously around at who was with me in earshot. "I'm happy to serve whiskey to Republicans, Democrats, even had a Monarchist hold forth once on why Louis XIV was the greatest man ever lived."
The bartender moved away to fill some other orders and Collins and Mitchell took their beers over to an empty table and sat down to reflect on what they had learned.
"What do you think, Dave?" Collins asked.
Mitchell reflected. "The sheriff lost the trail, and tells us there's no known outlaw in this area that
would pull off a job like this." He cocked his head to one side. "From what we know about the job so far,
I'm inclined to agree with him. It sounds like a good piece of work by a solitary robber. He knew what he
was doing, got himself a big haul, and pulled it off clean. That's not what someone does on his first try,
and if an experienced robber like that were in the area, there would be other crimes to prove it."
"So you think Dinkins is right that the robber has made his stake and pulled out."
"If it had been me, I'd have been twenty miles away by daylight, and lost in Tucson before anyone could track me." He paused reflectively. "Except for the time I was shot outside Leadville. Then I had no choice but to hunker down."
"Just buckshot, and we don't know how bad it was."
"True enough," Mitchell said. "but it would slow him down a day at least. It's a big countryside out there, but if we can find out where he holed up before the job, maybe we find some leads." He sipped thoughtfully at his beer before continuing.
"The one thing I can't really get to my mind, though, is the shooting of Lancaster," Mitchell said. "Without that, it was just money. And no one but Wells, Fargo would care about them. Any killing makes news across the territory. Yet the way Clay tells it, that almost seems the first thing on the robber's mind."
"So you're saying we should be looking for Lancaster's enemies?" But when Mitchell nodded, Collins pointed out, "Folks tell us he was pretty popular."
"That's why the whole thing puzzles me," Mitchell said.
The agents fell silent as each contemplated the mystery. In a moment, they looked up to see a white-bearded man slouching by their table. "Bartender said you are the two Wells, Fargo men in town looking to find who killed my friend Butch Lancaster."
Never be impatient, Collins had once told Mitchell. Even old codgers mumbling in their beer can sometimes give you a fact you need. So they waved the newcomer to a spare chair and said, "That's us. We've been wondering what folks in town have to say about who the robber is."
"Don't know," the man said. "Not a local, the way I see it, since he needed to use the old abandoned Prosperity Mine as his hideout before the robbery."
"You see him up there?"
"Just from a distance, Just a dark-haired man with a big caterpillar on his lip, nothing much to go on there. But nobody else goes out to Prosperity Mine these days. I mentioned it to Sheriff Dinkins the day after the robbery, so I figure if there were anything out there, he seen it." The man got up to leave. "Good luck to you. Butch didn't deserve what they did to him."
"Before you go," Collins said, "whereabouts we find this mine?"
* * *
The agents visit to Rocky Point did nothing to dispel Mitchell's intuition that the robber knew his business. Lancaster had been shot while the team was straining near the top of a long up-grade. The stage had stopped, the payroll transferred, and the robber had quickly been on his way, not even bothering to search the two passengers for their valuables. Mitchell found where the horse had left its calling card during the wait for the stop, a few boot prints in the dust, but nothing to stand out.
They followed the road north to the turnoff for Prosperity Mine. "Sheriff Dinkins thought he'd have turned here if he was hurt so badly he needed to go to town," Mitchell said. "But Sheriff Dinkins said he kept riding until he hit Iron Creek, so likely he's drinking up Wells, Fargo's money in Tucson."
The abandoned mine was ten miles west of a small intermittent creek in the foothills of the Whetstone mountains northwest of Tombstone and the agents were there by early afternoon. Except for patches in the shade, the snow had melted, leaving behind it the set of dusty, dirty ramshackle structures typical of any mining operation and which had not had their share of maintenance in the hot, dry, Southwest.
They swung down in front of the shack and, revolvers in hand just in case, swung open the door. At first glance, the shack looked as deserted as it probably had been since the mine closed. There was a bunk bed up against the wall, with a flattened and torn mattress, a table and chair in the center, and a stove against the wall.
"Been used lately," Collins quickly said. "Stovetop doesn't have dust on it ." He looked inside. "The ashes are a few days old, not more." But there was little more to see. No convenient saddlebags hanging on the wall with name and address of the robber, no letter from home. "Looks like we found the hideout all right. But he's long gone."
"Gone, all right," Mitchell said. "But maybe not the way Dinkins thought . Someone died here, Chet, got murdered here." Mitchell pointed to the thick bloodstain on the floor. "That means there's a body if we can find it."
The ventilation shaft was only fifty yards away, and had a rickety wooden ladder nailed into its wall. Down that ladder with its rot-weakened steps, Mitchell descended. When he got to the bottom, he turned and yelled to his partner "drop me down a rope."
With one end of the rope tightly under the arms of the dead man, the two agents together pulled and soon what was left of Ike Loney lay on the ground. Mitchell went back for Loney's discarded clothing and his saddlebags. "Shirt and Stetson may help the driver recognize him."
* * *
Back in Tombstone, Collins and Mitchell next stopped by the office of the Chief of Police. After introductions, Collins got right to the point. "Do you have any wanted posters for a fellow named Ike Loney?"
The chief rustled through some papers and pulled out one and handed it Collins. He scanned it and passed it to Mitchell. "Looks like a match."
"One more thing," Mitchell said. "We've been hearing you got a rip-roaring election coming up. But no one will tell us what it's about."
The chief nodded. "I tried to leave politics to the politicians ," he said . "But Butch was making that hard, with the charges he was making. He was telling everyone who would listen that Sheriff Dinkins was corrupt. Not that that would matter so much, politics being what it is, but he said Dinkins was getting paid by the Cow-Boys to let them have the run of things. I got to walk a narrow line here. Some folks in town think that the Cow-Boys only come to town to make trouble and they want me to come down hard on them. But the businesses, the saloons and such, they see the Cow-Boys as good business. So I tried to keep a loose rein on them so they had their fun without getting too far out of line. That means I tried to stay out of the fight Lancaster was looking for."
"Any special way Dinkins was supposed to be getting his pay?"
"Lancaster was making the charge that the rustlers were paying Dinkins a head tax on every Mexican steer they brought in to the Tombstone butchers. Not saying whether it's true, but it sure riled Dinkins up. And I don't see how it will help you run down your money."
"We're beginning to think it never left Cochise County. When we finish here, we're going over to compare our thoughts with Sheriff Dinkins. It may be interesting. Why don't you come along?"
* * *
Sheriff Dinkins looked up jovially from his desk when the two agents entered his office. "Afternoon, chief," he said as the Tombstone Police Chief came in behind them.
"He was asking how our investigation is coming," Collins explained, "so we figured it would save time if we all thought it out together, especially since it has some Tombstone angles."
"Got a lead on your money then?" Dinkens asked.
"First step is finding the man responsible for the killing, and Dave has come up with some thoughts about that. Tell him, Dave."
"There is an abandoned mine a few miles up in the hills, the Prosperity Mine. You know it, Sheriff?"
"Someone told me they'd seen things up there, and I went up to check it out," Dinkins replied. "Nothing there."
"Nothing in the shack, you mean. Mitchell said. "Nothing, except a big, thick bloodstain on the floor, not even old enough to collect dust. Someone was killed there, Sheriff, and not many days ago."
Dinkins was paying close attention. "And you figure . . . "
"Got a dodger for Ike Loney in your stack?" Mitchell asked.
Dinkins opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He began thumbing through them. "Who's Loney?"
"He is the man who killed Lancaster. The driver identified the body and his name was inked inside his empty money belt."
Sheriff Dinkins thumbed through his papers again. "Can't find one with that name."
"Thought you might not," Mitchell said. "The chief brought the Tombstone Police dodger along with him." He passed it over to Dinkins. "The description matches what Clay told us from the robbery, and fits the corpse."
Collins took the dodger back. "Take a look at what the dodger says. Loney is not a common robber, who just killed in the course of a robbery. He's a cold, calculating killer for money. Just the kind of man someone would hire. Especially if he could arrange it so Wells, Fargo would pay the bill."
Mitchell resumed the story. "The way we figure, the plan was that he would take the money as his pay for the murder and disappear. But when he got wounded and needed to go to ground, where maybe a couple of Wells, Fargo agents would find him, it was safer to kill him."
"Finding Loney's body, murdered by someone he trusted to get in close with a knife, was the key to solving the case. Anyone could have taken a notion to rob a big payroll," Mitchell said. "But we've come up with only one person who had a motive to kill Butch Lancaster."
Collins took the story up from there. "You knew Butch Lancaster was going to be guarding that shipment. And with him dead, nothing would interfere with the graft you're collecting from the Cow-Boys."
The chief stepped forward. "Alvin Dinkins, I am arresting you for murder and robbery."
The telltale stack of greenbacks from the payroll turned up when the Dinkins house was searched.
* * *
Mitchell took one look back on Tombstone as they crested the hill northwest of town. "Got to say my acquaintance with the Tombstone jail was more fulfilling this time than last time."