THE GREAT PRETENDER
Alonzo Pratt, alias Robert Grant, has always survived by his wits, working his way up from petty pickpocket to polished con artist. Saddlebags bulging with disguises, he is a master impersonator, whether limping in a Civil War uniform or toting a Bible dressed in black. On occasion, a tin star pinned to his vest is just the ticket to winning the trust of his innocent marks.
When Federal Marshal Jacob Stone happens to come across another lawman while taking in a wounded prisoner, he’s grateful for some assistance. And when he hears tell that Cal Grissom’s gang is roaming these parts, he enlists Deputy Grant to help him track down the thieves. But he does wonder why his new partner seems so…reluctant.
Alonzo never planned to join a manhunt. But now he’s shooting Sioux and rescuing an outlaw’s gorgeous daughter. His disguise may have fooled the marshal, but it won’t stop lead…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The one-armed rider came out of the woods and drew rein on the crest of a hill overlooking a small farm. Placing his right hand on his saddle horn, he grinned. “It looks plumb ripe for pickin’, doesn’t it, Archibald?”
His horse, a bay, pricked its ears at the mention of its name.
“Let’s get to it, shall we?” the rider said eagerly. “I’m hungry enough to eat one of those cows.”
The rider wore a loose-fitting blue uniform. Patched at the elbows, and with a tear in the left pants leg, it gave the impression he’d worn the uniform a good many years. So did the gray in his hair and mustache. His sparkling blue eyes and complexion, though, hinted at youthful vigor and vim. The effect made it hard to guess his age. He could be anywhere from twenty to fifty.
Halfway down the hill the rider again drew rein. “I’m gettin’ careless. I forgot I washed up in that creek this mornin’.” Dismounting, he searched about for a patch of bare earth. Finding one, he scooped at the dirt with his fingernails, then rubbed a little on his cheeks, forehead, and neck to further disguise how young he truly was. “Don’t want to overdo it,” he said to the bay.
Climbing back on, the rider stared at his empty left sleeve. “It’s a darned nuisance but it never fails to work.”
He clucked to his mount and presently they reached a fenced pasture where half a dozen cows grazed or lay watching him with idle interest.
The farm wasn’t much, a house and a barn and a chicken coop, but the buildings were well tended, and that gave the rider hope. “They keep the place up,” he said. “That usually means hard workers, and hard workers usually have more than layabouts, don’t they?”
The sun had barely cleared the eastern horizon, and the farm was stirring to life. Clucks came from the chicken coop. Smoke curled from the chimney atop the house. A large wagon filled with manure, the team already hitched, stood between the barn and the coop.
The barn door was open, and as the rider approached, out of the barn strode a big-boned middle-aged man wearing bib overalls and a straw hat and carrying a pail. He drew up short, his eyes narrowing, his other hand curling into a fist.
“What do we have here?”
The rider smiled his friendliest smile and brought the bay to a stop. “How do, mister? I hope you don’t mind my bein’ on your property. I’m just passin’ through and was wonderin’ if I could maybe buy me a meal.”
The farmer studied him and the bay. “You’ve come a far piece.”
“Yes, sir,” the rider said politely. “All the way from Kansas City, in fact. I’m headin’ west to the mountains.”
“You’re off the beaten trail by a long shot.”
“I reckon I am, at that,” the rider admitted, and chuckled. “I figure I’ll find Denver eventually. Folks say it’s right big.”
“Denver, you say?”
“Yes, sir. I hear it’s boomin’, and I figure there’ll be work to be had, even for someone like me.”
The farmer glanced at the rider’s empty left sleeve, hanging limp at his side. “Lost that in the war, did you?”
“Yes, sir. And you’d be surprised at how many folks won’t hire a cripple.”
“That’s not very Christian.”
“No, sir, it’s not,” the rider said sadly.
“We don’t see many in uniform these days,” the farmer mentioned. “It’s been, what, a dozen years, or thereabouts.”
The rider touched his dusty shirt. “These are the only clothes I have.”
The farmer came closer. He looked at the rider’s waist and then at the saddle where a scabbard would be. “Why, you’re not armed.”
“No, sir,” the rider said. “I gave up guns when I mustered out. I had enough of them in the war.”
A hint of friendliness came into the farmer’s face, and he unclenched his fist. “That’s admirable. But it might not be wise. You’re headed into dangerous country. West of here there are hostiles. To say nothing of all the outlaws and hard cases.”
The rider shrugged. “I’ve put my life in the hands of the Almighty. What will be, will be.”
“What’s your name, anyhow?”
The rider happened to notice a pump over by the farmhouse. “Waterton,” he said. “Jules Waterton.”
“Well, Mr. Waterton—”
“Corporal Waterton, if you don’t mind,” the rider said. “I’m not in the army anymore, but I still like to be called that.”
“Corporal Waterton,” the farmer amended, and hefted the pail. “I just got done milkin’, and the missus and me are about to sit down to breakfast. How would you like to join us? I’m sure Martha won’t mind.”
“I don’t want to be any bother,” the rider said. “And I can pay.”
“The meal is free,” the farmer said. “It’s the least we can do, given what you lost in the war.”
“I never ask to be treated special,” the rider said. “I can make my own way.”
The farmer smiled. “I’m sure you can, Corporal. I admire that. But let us treat you anyhow. I’m Sam, by the way. Sam Carson.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
Carson conducted the rider to the pump and told him to help himself while he went in to break the news to his wife.
“I’m very grateful, sir.” The rider dismounted, putting on a show of moving stiffly to add to the illusion that he was old. The moment the front door closed on the farmer, the rider chuckled. “This uniform does the trick every time, Archibald.” He worked the pump handle until water spurted, then cupped his right hand and raised it to his lips.
It wasn’t two minutes that the door opened and out came Sam and Martha Carson. She was what some would call pleasingly plump, with a face that made the rider think of the cows in the pasture. Her dress was homespun, and she wore a white apron.
The rider doffed his hat and gave a little bow.
“How do you do, ma’am?”
“Corporal Waterton, is it?” the woman said.
The rider nodded. “I’m awful sorry to bother you. I told Sam, there, that I’m willin’ to pay for breakfast but he wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Neither will I,” Martha said. “Come on in and I’ll set another place. We don’t often get visitors.”
“We’re a bit far out,” Sam said.
“You have a nice farm,” the rider said. “It shows a lot of hard work went into it. My pa used to say that hard work is good for the soul.”
“Your pa sounds like he knew what he was about,” Martha said.
“He did,” the rider said, and grew sorrowful. “He died while I was off fightin’ to free the slaves. I never got to attend his funeral.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Martha commiserated, and beckoned. “Come. Join us. I have bacon on the stove and don’t want to burn it.”
“Whatever you say, ma’am.”
A long parlor brought them to an immaculate kitchen. The floor was clean enough to eat off of, gleaming utensils hung on the walls, and in a frying pan, long strips of bacon sizzled.
The rider inhaled and happily grinned. “Smells just like home when I was a boy.”
“We always wanted children,” Martha said. Taking a fork, she speared a bacon strip and turned the strip over. “But it wasn’t meant to be.”
“I would have liked a son,” Sam said. He indicated a chair. “Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.”
The rider eagerly complied. Two plates and silverware had already been set out, and shortly Martha brought over a plate for him.
“Here you go. It’s about ready.”
“My belly is rumblin’ like a starved bear’s,” the rider said.
Sam sat the head of the table and made a tepee of his hands. “It’s none of my business, but what do you plan to do with your life? Ten to twelve years is a long time to wander where the wind takes you, and I have the notion that’s exactly what you’ve been doing.”
“You have me pegged,” the rider said, and chuckled. “I’ve been livin’ hand to mouth for so long, I don’t know any other way.”
Martha took cups and saucers from a cupboard, placed them in front of her husband and their guest, and went to the stove for the coffeepot. “Tell me a little about your travels, if you don’t mind. I haven’t done much traveling, and I do so love to hear about other places.”
“Martha, don’t bother the man,” Sam said.
“That’s all right,” the rider said. “It’ll be my way of thankin’ your missus for her generosity.” So saying, he launched into an account of how, after he was discharged, he drifted through a number of Eastern and Southern states, taking jobs where he could get them, and finally decided to try his luck west of the Mississippi River. “It’s all folks talk about. ‘Go West, young man,’ that newspaper fella said. Well, I’m not so young anymore, but I reckoned it was high time I took his advice.”
“You certainly look younger than your years,” Martha said.
“Even with the gray in my hair?”
Martha nodded. “It’s your face. As smooth as a baby’s bottom, my mother would say. It doesn’t go with that hair.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” the rider said with an odd grin.
Sam Carson coughed. “Enough of that. Is the food ready, or what?”
“Oh.” Martha got up and hustled about, and soon a heaping bowl of scrambled eggs and a long plate of bacon, and a stack of toast joined the butter dish and the sugar bowl in the center of the table. “Dig in,” she encouraged them.
The rider took her urging to heart. He filled his plate to overflowing and ate as if ravenous. The farmer and his wife looked on and shared smiles.
Only when he’d wiped the last bits of egg from his plate with the last bit of crust in his hand did the rider sit back, pat his stomach, and say, “That was right fine, ma’am. Sam is right lucky to have such a good cook for his helpmate.”
“Oh, pshaw,” Martha said, and blushed.
“I have to be careful,” Sam said, and patted his own belly, “or I’ll end up like our sow out in the barn.”
“Speakin’ of which,” the rider said. “I don’t suppose I could rest in there a while? Out of the sun? I could use a nap after a fine feed like this, and my horse is a bit tuckered.” He quickly added, “It wouldn’t be for more than an hour or two, and then I’ll be on my way.”
“Nap as long as you like,” Martha said.
Sam pushed his chair back. “I have manure to spread and a shutter to fix, so I’ll be busy. You rest up and head out when you please.”
The rider gave them a kindly look. “You’re the salt of the earth, the both of you. I wish you all the best, your whole lives long.”
“Why, aren’t you a dear?” Martha said.
Stretching, the rider smothered a yawn, and stood. “See how tired I am? A pile of straw would be like a featherbed right about now.” He thanked them, shook Sam’s hand, and made his way out the front. Taking hold of the bay’s reins, he led his animal into the barn. No sooner were they out of sight than he stepped to his saddlebags. Taking out a coiled gun belt with a Colt in the holster, he palmed the six-shooter, replaced the belt in his saddlebag, and tucked the Colt under his belt. Pulling his shirt out to hide the revolver, he said to Archibald, “Just in case.”
The ladder to the hayloft posed no great difficulty. He lay on his back and rubbed his left shoulder. It wasn’t long before he heard heavy footsteps.
“Jules? Are you in here?”
“Up in the loft,” the rider replied in a sleepy voice. “If that’s all right.”
“You sleep away,” Sam Carson said. “Sorry I disturbed you.”
When the farmer’s footfalls faded, the rider descended. Peeking out, he saw Carson about to climb on the manure spreader. A flick of the reins, and the farmer headed for his fields.
“Couldn’t ask for better,” the rider happily declared. Turning, he ran the length of the middle aisle to the rear door. The latch rasped when he pressed it. Squinting in the bright sunlight, he sidled to the corner. Forty feet of open space separated the barn from the house. “Can’t be helped,” he said, and took off like a shot, racing to the back of the house. Ducking under the kitchen window, he removed his hat and peered in.
Humming as she worked, Martha Carson was busy washing and drying the dishes.
Quickly, the rider sprinted to the front. He’d paid particular attention and knew that the front door wouldn’t squeak when it was opened. And he wasn’t wearing spurs, so his bounds to the stairs were as silent as an Apache’s. Swiftly climbing, he glided to the bedroom. The bed was made up, the flowered quilt smooth as glass. A chest of drawers gleamed with polish. He tried the drawers first. There were the usual clothes, undergarments and socks, shirts and blouses. In the top left were a folding knife, a tobacco pouch and pipe, and other manly things. In the top right there were a necklace and several rings. He was tempted but left them be.
Rubbing his chin, he turned to the bed. “It’s nearly always the bed,” he whispered to himself, and hunkering, he shoved his hand under the mattress and groped about, moving from top to bottom. Nothing. Hurrying around to the other side, he repeated his groping. Suddenly he froze, and smiled.
Some people kept their money in pokes, some in tin boxes, a few in jars. This time it was a leather pouch. He flipped it open, saw mostly coins, double-eagles and the like, and a few bills.
Clutching the pouch to his chest so it wouldn’t jingle and give him away, he hurried to the stairs and was about to go down when he realized the humming had grown louder.
Martha was coming down the hall.
Backpedaling, the rider retreated into the shadows. He could see the top of her head, and hoped she would go on by.
Instead, she started up the stairs.
When Federal Deputy Marshal Jacob Stone rode into Hebron, Nebraska, he wasn’t expecting trouble. Hebron was a small farming community, its residents as peaceful and law-abiding as Quakers. Hebron didn’t even have a saloon. So when he wearily drew rein at the hitch rail in front of the general store, the last thing he expected was for the owner to come hurrying out with half his face swollen and black-and-blue.
It startled him, and it shouldn’t have. Stone had worn tin for a good many years. More than any other Federal lawman on the frontier. By all rights he should have handed in his badge and taken to a-rocking by now. In fact, his superiors had been putting pressure on him to either do just that or agree to a desk job.
Stone would rather be shot. He couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting behind a desk all day, pushing papers. It would be a death in itself.
For almost forty years now, in several jurisdictions, he had dutifully done his job to the best of his ability. He liked always being on the go, never staying in one place too long. Liked the sky over his head for a ceiling and the ground under his feet for a floor. He could no more sit at a desk all day than he could give up his pipe. It was his one vice, and the reason he’d stopped at the store—to buy tobacco.
The owner came to the hitch rail and pointed at the ruin of his face. “Do you see, Marshal?” he practically wailed. “Do you see what they did to me?”
Stone had to think to recollect the man’s name. “Mr. Applebaum, isn’t it? Looks like you stuck your face in front of somebody’s fist.”
Applebaum was portly and balding. He had thick lips, which quivered when he was mad, and he was furious. Gripping the rail, he stabbed a thick finger at Stone. “Was that supposed to be funny? Why are you just sitting there? Didn’t you hear me? Go after them. They might still be out there.”
“Simmer down, Mr. Applebaum.”
“I’ll do no such thing. They deserve to be shot, those animals. Riding in here and doing the terrible things they did.”
Stone was aware of others coming from all directions. The sleepy little hamlet was coming alive. “You need to stay calm,” he said politely. He was always polite, always courteous. Back in his day, that was how folks did. There was none of the sass and rudeness so common these days.
“Calm, my ass,” Applebaum said.
Stone bent forward, his gray eyes flinty. “And watch your language. There are ladies comin’.”
“What?” Applebaum said. “Who cares about that? Look at my face!”
Before Stone could reply, a heavyset woman who waddled when she walked came up and placed a pudgy hand on his leg.
“Have you heard about them, Marshal? Have you heard what they did?”
Half a dozen people ringed Stone’s roan, all of them talking at once. They stopped when he held up a hand and barked, “Enough! I’ll take you one at a time. After I climb down.”
The woman waddled back, saying, “Well, I never.”
Stiffly dismounting, Stone put a hand to the small of his back. Long hours in the saddle tended to bother him some. In his younger days, he could ride forever and not feel a thing.
Stepping onto the boardwalk, Stone caught sight of his reflection in the store window. At five feet, ten inches, and spindly of frame, he was hardly imposing. His gray hair, and the gray on his chin when he didn’t shave, lent him a grandfatherly look. His hat, his clothes, were plain, his boots ordinary. Even the Colt on his hip was an over-the-counter model. There was nothing flashy about him at all, nothing to draw the eye except the badge on his shirt.
The townspeople were looking at one another and some of them fidgeting as if they couldn’t wait to say what they had to. Up and down the street, more people were coming.
“Suppose you give me the facts, Mr. Applebaum, and then I’ll point at each of you and you can each have your say.”
Applebaum pointed at his face again. “You see this? The two of them did this. Beat me with their pistols. They must have struck me ten or eleven times.”
Stone doubted it. Anyone hit that many times, their face would be pulped. “Two who, Mr. Applebaum? How about you back up and start at the beginnin’.”
With an effort, the store owner composed himself, and coughed. “Very well. I apologize for yelling at you. But I’m terribly upset.”
“We all are,” the heavyset woman said. “They took our town over and terrorized us.”
“You’ll get your turn, ma’am,” Stone said. “Go on, Mr. Applebaum.”
“It was yesterday, toward sunset, that they rode in. Two of them. Scruffy sorts. They hadn’t bathed in ages, and they were wearing guns. You know the kind.”
Stone refrained from pointing out that on the frontier, guns were as common as teeth. “Can you describe them better? Did you hear their names?”
“Franks and Loudon, I heard them say,” Applebaum said. “Franks is tall and has a scar. He did most of the talking. Loudon didn’t say much but he’s the mean one. The one who struck me when I didn’t move fast enough to suit him. Then Franks hit me, too.” He closed his eyes and shuddered.
“Go on,” Stone encouraged him.
“Well, they came into my store and looked around as if they were going to shop, but then they came to the counter and the one called Franks asked me if I had any liquor. I told him we don’t have a saloon, and he said that wasn’t what he asked. He looked at me and sort of bared his teeth and asked if I had any liquor. I told him I had a bottle of whiskey that I hardly ever touch, and he told me to fetch it. When I said it wasn’t for sale, that’s when he hauled me over the counter and Loudon hit me. Franks stood over me and asked where the bottle was, but I was so shocked, I couldn’t answer. So he hit me, too.”
Stone frowned. He knew where this was going. He’d seen it before, more times than he could count. “They forced you to tell them and treated themselves.”
“If by ‘treat’ you mean they drank the bottle dry, and it was nearly full, then yes,” Applebaum said. “They left me on the floor, and went around smashing things and turning my shelves over. You should see it in there. My store is a mess. They must have done hundreds in damage.”
Stone turned and looked through the window. The place was indeed a shambles.
“The more they drank, the more they carried on,” Applebaum was saying. “I don’t know why they picked on me. I hadn’t done anything.”
“Men like that don’t need an excuse,” Stone said.
The heavyset woman couldn’t curb her impatience any longer. “That’s not all they did. They came out into the street and began shooting at people, and laughing all the while.”
“Did they hit anyone?”
“No, but what does that matter? They were shooting at us. That was enough.” She pointed up the street. “They shot out the window to the feed and grain, too.”
Stone hadn’t noticed the shattered glass when he rode in. But then, he was bone tired.
“They demanded more whiskey, Marshal,” another man said. “Warned that they’d hurrah the town if we didn’t give it to them.”
“And did you?”
Yet another townsman spoke up. “I had a bottle I kept for special occasions. I gave it to them and pleaded for them to go and leave us be.”
“And did they?”
Applebaum answered. “They rode out to the wash north of town and made camp. Built a fire and sat there drinking, as brazen as anything. We know because Levi’s oldest boy snuck out and took a look.”
“They might still be there,” the heavyset woman said. “You can catch them if you hurry.”
Stone glanced skyward. The sun was only a few hours high. The pair might still be there, at that. Stepping to the roan, he swung back up.
“Be careful, Marshal,” Applebaum said. “They’re dangerous.”
Stone would have been inclined to think the pair had just gotten carried away, except that they’d beaten the store owner before they got their hands on his liquor. “I’ll have a talk with them.”
“Talk?” the woman snorted. “You should arrest them. It’s indecent, what they did. Scaring people like that.”
“Don’t forget my face,” Applebaum said.
Some of the others started talking all at once.
Stone reined around.
“The wash isn’t far, Marshal,” a man called out. “You can’t miss it.”
Hebron fell behind him. He hadn’t gone a quarter of a mile when tendrils of smoke drew him to the east. He left the road, holding the roan to a slow walk. The smoke made it easy. When he was fifty yards out, he drew rein and advanced on foot, his hand on his Colt.
The pair were bundled in their blankets, asleep. An empty bottle lay in the dirt between them. They’d had the sense to use picket pins for their horses but hadn’t stripped their saddles. The fire had burned low but hadn’t gone entirely out, which explained the smoke.
Stone squatted on the rim, rested his arms across his knees, and studied the troublemakers. He had a long memory when it came to faces, particularly those who were wanted, and neither jogged his recollection. That was good. Hardened outlaws were more apt to resist, and he could do without the aggravation. Clearing his throat, he hollered down, “Mornin’, gents.”
Neither so much as stirred.
“Mornin’, gents,” Stone yelled a little louder. “Rise and shine. You’ve got some explainin’ to do.”
One of them rose onto his elbows and sleepily looked around. “What?” he said thickly. “What was that?”
“I said mornin’,” Stone said.
Blinking against the glare, the man squinted up at him. “What was that? Who the hell are you?” He had straw-colored hair and was missing part of his left ear.
Standing, Stone tapped his badge.
The man sat bolt upright. “A lawdog!” he exclaimed, and glanced at his companion. “Loudon! Loudon! Wake up.”
“You must be Mr. Franks,” Stone said. He stayed on the rim, his hand still on his Colt.
Franks was struggling to collect his wits. He vigorously shook his head, and winced.
“I hear you boys drank a lot last night,” Stone said. “Your noggin must be hammerin’ right about now.”
“Well, hell,” Franks said. Jamming his hat on, he threw his blanket off. He’d fallen asleep fully clothed, with his gun belt on. Either his six-shooter, a Remington, had fallen out, or he’d set it beside him. He went to reach for it.
“Don’t,” Stone said.
Franks froze. “What is this?” he demanded.
“I hear you pistol-whipped a man,” Stone said. “You and your pard.”
Loudon picked that moment to roll over. He had black hair and close-set dark eyes, and was scowling. Smacking his lips, he gazed confusedly about. “What’s all the racket? What’s goin’ on?”
“We have company,” Franks said. “A tin star.”
That woke Loudon right quick. He, too, sat up, his blanket sliding around his waist. “Him?” he said, spotting Stone.
“You see anyone else?” Franks said.
“What is this?” Loudon said. “We didn’t do anything.”
“The storekeeper’s face says different,” Stone replied. “So does his store. And there’s the matter of the feed and grain window, and shootin’ the town up.”
“Well, hell,” Franks said. “We were just havin’ fun.”
“That’s right,” Loudon said. “Sowin’ some oats is all we done.”
“You sowed a little hard,” Stone said. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to collect your things and come with me.”
“Well, hell,” Franks said. It seemed to be his favorite expression. “Can’t we just agree to pay for the damages?”
“We don’t know what they are yet,” Stone said, “and that’s not up to me, anyhow. It will be for the judge to decide.”
“Are you arrestin’ us?”
“Afraid so,” Stone said. He was watching Loudon, who had placed his hands flat on the ground close to his blanket and his hips.
“Well, hell,” Franks said.
“If it was only drunk and disorderly, I might be willin’ to let you go if you could pay the damages,” Stone elaborated. “But you had to go and beat Mr. Applebaum.”
“We only hit him once,” Franks said.
“Each,” Stone amended. “With your six-guns.”
“All we wanted was a bottle,” Franks said. “All he had to do was give us one without any fuss. But he went and lectured us on the evils of drink.”
“So you hit him.”
“I wasn’t in no mood for no lecture,” Franks said. “I told him to shut up and he wouldn’t.”
“That’s a poor excuse,” Stone said. “Now how about the two of you put yourselves together so I can take you back into town?”
“Maybe we don’t want to go,” Loudon said.
“I’m the law,” Stone said.
“That don’t make you God Almighty, you old geezer.”
Franks glanced at his partner. “Loudon, don’t.”
“I hate high and mighty,” Loudon said. “I hate it more than anything.” He gave his head a vigorous toss, as if to fully wake up.
“No, I say,” Franks said.
“Do you want to go to jail? I sure as hell don’t. And I sure as hell won’t.” With that, Loudon jerked his hand out from under the blanket and pointed a revolver.
The rider reached the bedroom in several long bounds. Darting around the bed, he yanked the closet door open, crouched, and slipped inside. Long dresses filled half of it, and he slid behind them, leaving a gap so he could see out. He left the door open a couple of inches, enough that he could see the doorway and part of the bed.
None too soon.
Martha appeared. She was humming to herself. She crossed out of his line of vision, toward the chest of drawers. He heard a drawer scrape open. Whatever she was after didn’t take long to find. The drawer scraped again and she reappeared, about to depart. Unexpectedly, she glanced at the closet.
The rider held his breath. She might remember that the door had been closed and wonder why it was open. But no, after a few moments she walked out, humming softly as before.
The rider quietly let out his breath. The last thing he needed was to be caught. He prided himself on always getting away clean. Not that there hadn’t been a few times when he’d been lucky to make it out alive.
He stayed put several minutes, just to be safe. Finally easing out, he crept to the door. From downstairs came the clatter of pots.
On cat’s feet he descended and was out the front with Martha none the wiser. There was no sign of Sam. Hastening to the barn, he shoved the pouch into his saddlebags, brought Archibald out, and rode at a walk until he was sure he was out of earshot. Then he gigged Archibald to a trot, back to the hill and up it into the woods.
His packhorse was right where he’d left it, dozing. Climbing down, he unbuttoned the uniform shirt and eased his left arm from behind his back. The arm was a little stiff from being bent behind him for so long, and he flexed it and moved it up and down. Satisfied, he shoved it into the sleeve, untied the lead rope, and got out of there.
He had no doubt that if Sam Carson and his wife discovered the theft, Sam would be after him with a shotgun.
“Let him,” the rider said to Archibald, and grinned. “That was pretty slick, huh?”
The rider used his heels and held to a trot for about half a mile. That should be enough, he reckoned, that he could relax some, and he slowed.
The day was sunny and bright. Butterflies fluttered about a patch of wildflowers, and songbirds warbled.
“Yes, sir,” the rider happily declared. “Life is lookin’ good.”
It hadn’t always. In his mind’s eye he flashed back to when he was ten, to that horrible day when his ma died of the consumption that had slowly been killing her for years. His pa went to pieces and took to the bottle, sucking the bug juice down as if there would be no tomorrow. Which, in his pa’s case, turned out to be the truth. In less than a year his pa was dead, too.
The worst day of all was the day of his pa’s funeral. His aunts and uncles brought him home and sat in the parlor discussing what was to be done with him. They didn’t know he was eavesdropping, didn’t know how it crushed him to hear them say that none of them wanted to take him in. One uncle flat-out said he wasn’t their responsibility. An aunt said that she already had four kids and couldn’t afford to raise another. Another aunt, a spinster, said that she’d never wanted children, and wasn’t about to change her ways because “the black sheep of the family,”’ as she called his pa, had drunk himself to death.
The upshot was that they decided to put him in an orphanage.
Four years. That was how long he was stuck there. Four years of pure hell. Four years of being switched for the slightest infraction. Four years of barely enough to eat, of threadbare blankets in the cold of winter, of hand-me-down clothes that never fit, of shoes that were either too tight or too loose, of lights out at eight and always up at five, of scrubbing and sweeping and not being allowed to visit the outhouse without permission.
Was it any wonder he’d hated it? Was it any wonder that one day he decided enough was enough, and snuck out in the middle of the night? He hiked over ten miles to the city.
Chicago. He hadn’t known much about it at the time, except that there were an awful lot of people and it would be easy to lose himself amid the teeming throngs. Nearly three hundred thousand, he would learn, and growing by leaps and bounds.
It was a whole new world. A scary world. At first he scrounged in the trash and refuse bins in alleys for food. He slept in discarded crates, in empty houses, anywhere dry and somewhat safe.
In time he graduated from refuse to thievery. He’d swipe fruit from stalls, snatch clothes from street vendors. He learned that other urchins were adept at picking pockets, so he became adept at it, too. His early attempts were clumsy, and only his fleetness of foot spared him from winding up behind bars. He might not have improved much if he hadn’t made the acquaintance of Old Tom, who was a master at relieving others of their valuables. Old Tom taught him the most valuable trick of all. Being quick was fine, and having a light touch was dandy, but the true secret to being a successful pickpocket was what Old Tom called “the art of distraction.” Which was a highfalutin way of saying you bamboozled your victim.
A common method was to bump into someone, hard, and then, while saying how sorry you were, you patted and smoothed their clothes while relieving them of their purse.
His own favorite was to carry a jug of water around, and when he spotted a well-dressed mark, he’d intentionally walk into them just as he started to take a drink from the jug, spilling water all over.
Old Tom and some others were friendly enough, but the streets were a dangerous place. He wasn’t the only one scrabbling to stay alive. The city was packed with immigrants, many of them barely getting by. And then there were those without anywhere else to live, and no family, besides. Street urchins, they were called. Like wolves, many roamed in packs, and like wolves, they were fiercely protective of the streets they roamed.
Twice a pack had caught him unawares.
The first time, it was late at night, and he was in a part of the city he’d never explored before. He was searching for a place to sleep when, without warning, he was jumped. Over a dozen sprang out of the darkness, but only a few of the older ones came at him with clubs. That was what saved him. If all of them had attacked at once, he’d have been overwhelmed. As it was, he’d barely escaped. Twisting and dodging, he’d taken blows to the shoulder, chest and arms, and then he was through them and ran with all the speed he could muster. Howling and yelling, the pack gave chase, but in the dark he was able to slip away.
The next time was more serious.
He’d been in the city a couple of years. He knew it like the back of his hand, and grew overconfident. He’d decided to spend the night in a seldom-used shed at the stockyards. He had slept there before, and wasn’t expecting trouble.
Little did he know that a new gang had claimed the stockyards as their territory, and as he stepped up to the shack, he was suddenly ringed by boys bristling with knives and clubs.
Their leader waved a knife and demanded money, “or else.”
Every cent he had at the time, he’d come by the hard way. He decided he would be damned if he’d hand it over. He’d pretended to give in, nodding and saying, “Sure. Whatever you want.” He’d made as if to reach for his poke—and kicked the leader where it would hurt the most. Unfortunately, the leader had oysters made of lead and came at him in earnest, intent on relieving him of his life.
He’d tried to flee and been shoved back by some of those who ringed him. He would have died, then and there, but the leader toyed with him like a cat with a mouse. As it was, he was cut four times. Not deeply, not to where the cuts were life-threatening, but they hurt and they bled, and he was sure he was a goner.
In desperation he’d leaped at the older boy and gouged a fingernail into the boy’s eye. The gang leader shrieked and clutched at his face.
The next was hazy. Somehow, he wrenched on the leader’s arm and got hold of the bloody blade. He attacked the circle, swinging wildly, voicing savage cries. To his amazement, they gave way, and he’d fled into the night.
That was it for Chicago. He’d laid up for a week. By then he was healed enough to jump on a freight train headed west. He didn’t care where he ended up. One city was much like any other, or so he’d reckoned.
Kansas City proved him wrong. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Chicago, it was downright lackadaisical. The pace of life was a lot slower, the people a lot friendlier. That the population wasn’t much over thirty thousand might have had something to do with it.
He continued to ply his pickpocketing craft and took up gambling, in a small way. He made enough that instead of living on the street, he rented a room at a boardinghouse. He dressed better, and ate better, and might have stayed there forever if it hadn’t been for the Finch episode.
Oliver Wendall Finch was a leading citizen. A banker, he had made his first million by the time he was forty, or so the story went. Now past sixty, he indulged his one vice—bucking the tiger—every chance he could. Finch happened to frequent the same saloon—the Frontier House—that the rider did. Why, he never could figure out. With all the money Finch had, it made more sense for him to spend his time at one of the luxurious gambling palaces.
As curious as everyone else, he’d joined the onlookers watching Finch play one night, and noticed that Finch was a heavy cigar smoker. A lot of men were. There was nothing unusual in that. But it gave him an idea.
At any hour of the day or night, a person could find a hawker selling virtually anything under the sun. Cigars included. Hastening out, he’d scoured nearby streets, and as fate would have it, found an elderly man selling cigars. He offered to buy every one, plus the tray the old man carried them in. The old man was reluctant. He had to offer twice what the cigars would have fetched—on average, two for fifteen cents—and throw in another couple of dollars for the tray.
Then he posted himself outside the Frontier House, and waited. The moment Oliver Wendall Finch came through the batwings, he began bawling, “Cigars for sale! Get your cigars here! Finest quality!”
The truth was, he couldn’t tell a good cigar from a bad one if his life had depended on it. He was taking a gamble.
Finch stepped to a carriage and was about to climb on when he heard the cry and glanced over.
Hoping against hope, he hollered, “Cigars! Cigars! From five cents to twenty-five!”
Finch came over. “Twenty-five?” he said. “Let me see your selection, young man. What brands do you carry?”
He hadn’t bothered to find out. The important thing was to lure Finch close. And now, as Finch reached toward the tray, he pretended to stumble and upended it onto Finch’s legs and shoes.
“My word!” the great man had exclaimed. “Let me help you.”
Together, they bent and collected cigars. They were so close that Finch didn’t think anything of it when they bumped shoulders. So close, that his hand darted in and under Finch’s coat and out again without Finch being the wiser. They finished picking the cigars up. Finch examined a few, produced a coin from a pants pocket, and bought a couple.
He would never forget the feeling he had, watching the great man clatter off in the carriage, the great man’s wallet in his own jacket. The snatch had been flawless. Quickly setting the tray down, he hurried to his room at the boardinghouse to collect his belongings.
He didn’t look in the wallet until he was ready to leave. Seated on the bed, every nerve tingling, he opened it and counted the thick sheaf of bills. Six hundred and forty-three dollars. For him, a fortune.
Giddy with delight, rolling back and forth, he’d laughed until tears trickled from his eyes.
A knock on his door brought his glee to an end. His landlady said that a constable was there to see him.
He went out the window. His room was on the second floor. He dropped his bag, hung from the sill, and dropped. Fear lent wings to his feet, and the next morning, he bought a horse and took the road to Atchison, Kansas. He had a hankering to see Denver, but to get there he’d have to cross nearly six hundred miles of hostile-infested countryside. By his lonesome, he invited an early grave. So he sold the horse and bought a ticket on the Butterfield Overland Despatch. The man who sold him his ticket told him that the stage line might be shutting down soon because it couldn’t compete with the railroad.
That was a shame, because he enjoyed the trip. Relay stations at regular intervals were welcome breaks. The food was tolerable, and he got to see a lot of prairie country.
The other passengers talked a lot about Indians, but they didn’t see a single hostile the whole way.
Denver suited him down to his marrow. It used to be known as Denver City until it was picked as the new territorial capital. Thanks in large part to the Pikes Peak gold rush and a silver boom in the high country, Denver became a hub of commerce and travel. It also, he soon discovered, was a hub of corruption.
Saloons and sporting houses outnumbered churches twenty to one. Card sharps, confidence men, and ladies of ill repute thrived.
For a pickpocket, Denver was a feast of opportunity. But it wasn’t enough. He yearned for something more. Something that would reap the kind of money he’d gotten from Oliver Wendall Finch. He’d picked Finch’s pocket, sure, but he’d done it while impersonating a cigar hawker.
Impersonation. That was where the big money lay. To that end, he came up with a scheme to fleece several of Denver’s elite out of a lot of cash. He thought his brainstorm was brilliant.
He never expected to be lynched.
Federal Deputy Marshal Jacob Stone never knew it to fail. Liquor and stupid went hand in hand. He couldn’t count the number of drunks he’d had to confront in his long career. And a lot of them ended as this one was about to end: badly.
Stone knew that Loudon was going to draw before Loudon did. He could tell by Loudon’s attitude, his tone. Men like Loudon did what little thinking they did with their six-shooters.
Stone, on the other hand, prided himself on being a thinker. He’d often said that any man who toted tin should use his brain more than his six-gun. Unfortunately, in this instance, he was forced to use both. He drew his Colt even as Loudon raised that revolver from under the blanket, and shot him in the shoulder. At the blast, Loudon was knocked onto his back and his six-gun fell from fingers gone limp.
Franks sat there in shock.
“You shouldn’t ought to have tried that,” Stone said.
Scarlet was spreading down Loudon’s shirt. He stared at the wound as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “You shot me,” he bleated.
“You point a gun at a deputy marshal, what do you expect?” Stone descended into the wash, keeping them covered.
Franks found his voice. “You damned jackass,” he said to his pard. “You’re no gun hand.”
Seemingly fascinated by his own blood, Loudon replied, “I don’t want to go to prison over raisin’ a little hell.”
Excerpted from "Guns on the Prairie"
Copyright © 2015 David Robbins.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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