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"VICIOUS criminals are ravaging the southern half of this territory. They've got to be stopped." With a scowl of disgust written on his bearded face, Governor John Sterling replaced the cork stopper on the cut-glass decanter. He handed the fresh drink across to Major Gerald Bowen.
Tumbler in hand, Bowen sat back on the captain's chair in front of the long mahogany desk cluttered with documents and considered his place in this matter. Dressed in civilian clothing, he felt less powerful than he had in uniform. He still had to make a lot of adjustments to civilian life. Sterling sounded a little more than upset, but sitting there, Bowen felt uncertain what he could do to solve the man's problems.
"Right here, I have three newspapers complaining about the Border Gang. That's what they call them. This bunch of killers made headlines in Yuma, Tucson and some rag printed in Casa Grande." Sterling stacked the copies on the front of his desk for Bowen to look at.
"Who are they?" Bowen asked, glancing at the front pages.
"Damned if I know, and I'm not getting any answers either. I wired Durwood Allen, the chief U.S. marshal in Tucson, and he sent me back a moronic telegram about how he would investigate the reports. Investigate, hell! Why, thedamned newspaper in that town knows more about them than the federal law does down there."
Bowen watched the tall, bearded man in his three-button suit pace the office floor like a trapped animal. He knew full well that Sterling's first six months as President Hayes's appointee to the territorial governorship had been hectic. Earlier in the year, the Arizona "Machine" voted down his request to the legislature for a troop of rangers to enforce law statewide. Bowen clearly recalled how the whole thing unfolded. With nine of the ten county sheriffs in the capitol that entire week openly campaigning against the act on the legislature floor, it was doomed to failure from the start. After the ranger issue went down in solid defeat, the legislature promptly adjourned for the day. They all jubilantly retired to the Palace Bar on Whiskey Row and the sheriffs bought rounds of drinks for all of them until the wee hours. Their bar bill alone must have run over a thousand bucks.
"Those scalawags told me that the county sheriffs could handle anything," Sterling continued. "But all they have to say is, 'They aren't in my county and that relieves me of any responsibility.'" He tossed down his own drink and set the crystal glass back on the tray with a deep sigh. "Talk to me, Gerald."
"Hire a few tough men."
"A few? My gawd, this Border Gang alone must have fifty members. What could one or two men do against them?"
"It's obvious that the legislature isn't going to write you an a la carte law enforcement program."
"They won't do anything. This county-by-county sheriff deal is so sweet and such a political plum, they won't dare to change it. Why, from their percentage take of the tax collections alone, these sheriffs earn thousands upon thousands of dollars a year, then they have the nerve to claim they don't have the personnel to chase down these criminals."
"You need a strike force. Not a posse."
"And how do I get that?"
Bowen felt cornered by the man's question. The two of them were boxed in by the territory's most powerful politicians from solving Arizona's law enforcement needs. His experience was military, not keeping civilians happy, but perhaps like what George Crook did to combat the Apaches would work in this instance. Sterling needed a lightningfast team of experienced lawmen and without many rules to hamper them. They would need good trackers as well. The formula incomplete in his mind, he speculated out loud.
"What about hiring a few tough men to locate the outlaws and then let the local law have all the glory of making the arrest?"
"It sounds awfully far-fetched. That bunch of mealymouthed legislators from Senator Green on down is going to scream like a stuck pig if they learn I've done anything like that."
"They'll do that anyway." Bowen sipped on his whiskey. Sooner or later, Sterling was either going to bite the bullet and buck the politicians or let the outlaws rule.
"You're right, they won't like anything I do. Tomorrow morning, Supreme Court Judge Nelson Tripp will be here from Tucson to confer with me about this matter. Would you meet with us and go over some of your ideas with him?" Sterling made a wry face as if another distasteful notion had struck him and rapped his knuckles on the newspapers. "If any of those headlines ever get out of the territory, the telegraph wires between here and Washington will burn down."
"They will," Bowen said to grimly reassure him.
"I wish you and George Crook could handle it like you did the Apache deal."
"Remember the latest thing on posse comitatus? The use of federal forces to combat lawlessness is null and void these days."
"That doesn't mean it's not a good idea to call out the army and round up all these hoodlums."
"I'm certain the president does not want to call a state of emergency for the Arizona Territory."
"Heavens, no! He wants a much lower profile than that."
"I best be going. I promised my wife I'd be home to handle a few details."
"Retirement suits you?"
"No. But with the sorry state the military is in these days, I belong in civilian life."
"I understand. Give my regards to the wife."
"I will, John. Ten tomorrow morning?" Bowen asked.
"Yes, that will be fine. Then maybe the three of us can devise a way to bring law and order to the territory."
Bowen agreed and picked up his hat. He quickly tossed down the whiskey and handed the glass back. The man served good liquor. Maybe with the judge there they could figure out a solution. Sterling was in a hot seat and from the sounds of things, he needed some action and quickly.
"Tomorrow," they repeated to each other and Bowen headed for the front door.
Half a block away, Ella Devereaux paused while dressing and used her long index finger to move the lace curtain aside enough to see better from the second-story window of her apartment. Who was coming out of the governor's mansion? Well, it was Major Gerald Bowen. My, my, what was that ex-military man doing up there talking to the governor?
"I swear, Sassy," she said to her black servant girl. "What do you reckon that Major Bowen wants with our governor?"
"A job?" Sassy moved toward the curtain to see who she meant and Ella stuck out her hand to stop her.
"Here, stay back. He don't need to know we're peeking at him, does he?"
"Haven't you got some kinfolks who work over there at the mansion?"
"Yous knows I do."
"After you help me into this dress, why don't you take that cousin of yours around to the back door of the drugstore? You knock real nice and you ask Mr. Harvey or his boy, whoever comes back there, to fix each of you a bowl of ice cream."
"Sure will do it, Missy." Her lips peeled back and exposed her large white teeth in a smile.
Ella let her finger fall from the curtain, then quickly spun around and pointed it at the girl. "And you learn everything she knows about what that major was talking to the governor about this afternoon."
"What if shes don't know nothing, Missy?"
"Then she better find out something or I ain't spending no more damn dimes on her eating ice cream. Is that clear?"
"I'll tells her." Sassy made a worried face and held the stiff green dress up to place it over Ella's head
"Just a minute, don't rush me." Ella pulled the corset higher to make certain shifts and adjustments so her ample cleavage looked about to spill out of it. Then she raised her hands up for Sassy to dress her.
"Your cousin's name is Daisy, right?"
"Yes, ma'am, Daisy B. Boudean."
"What's the B stand for?"
"I never knowed. Her mama always called her Daisy B. Boudean, all her life." Sassy moved in and began to fasten the hook and eyes up the back that drew the stiff dress in around Ella's mature figure. Anyway, Ella considered her shape mature. Why, half the fifteen-year-olds who worked for her were skinny as deer. Luckily for her, different men liked different forms of women.
She arranged the front of the dress before the tall mirror until she was satisfied with her appearance. A last shift of the waist and she went to the dresser and drew two dimes from her change purse. This better be a good investment.
At a distance she held out the two silver coins like bait. "I want information about that meeting they had today."
"I's knows that."
"Be off and don't be gone all day. And Sassy!" shecommanded with such sharpness the girl stopped in her tracks, turned around and faced her.
"Don't you screw none of those boys at the stable in those clothes."
Ella shook her head to dismiss Sassy's lying. She knew damn good and well what that little fantail did with those boys at the stables every chance she got. "You better hear me. You get Daisy B. and go right over there to get that ice cream and you come right back here to me with what she knows. You can do that whoring around on your day off. Hear me?"
"Yes, ma'am." Sassy made a curtsy.
"And find out something."
"I will. I sure will." Sassy ran off down the hallway
Ella went back to the window and stared at the traffic in the street. A few clouds were gathering. There might be an afternoon thundershower. She watched twenty-three-year-old Tommy Dean drive by in a buckboard. Just married to that Nichols girl. They wouldn't see him back at the Harrington House for several weekshe'd been a regular customer up until the nuptials. Oh, that horny boy would be around to see her again. He liked to do kinky things with one of her girls that his little virgin bride would never do for him.
The Harrington House was a wonderful place for gentlemen to relax. Many of the most successful businessmen in the territory dropped by when they were in the capital and she knew them well. Discretion, clean girls, the latestmodel billiard table right from St. Louis, a concert-grade piano and lots of services to please the individual. Nothing in all of Prescott even matched the decor or the elegance of her place. Besides, she paid some debts, like keeping the right people informed about what was happening. This new governor, John Sterling, along with being too damn pious to even come into her place for a simple drink, was a thorn in the side of many of the territory's leading citizens andlegislators. People whom she must keep informed of his actions.
She started down the quiet hallway. At this time of day her girls would all be napping in their rooms. They would need to get their rest because business started just before six o'clock. Some customers, however, never showed up until dark. This helped cover their entrance into the courtyard, where they could stable their horses or teams in the great barn, hidden from prying eyes. The kitchen help was her next thing to check on. They were always a problem for her.
"Where's that Sassy be going in the middle of the day?" Abraham asked from the foot of the stairs. The towering ex-slave had anger in his bloodshot eyes over something when she came down to the entranceway.
"I sent her on an errand. It's all right. But I warned her not to screw any stableboys this time. She's finding out for me something that just happened over at the governor's mansion."
"She done told me that. If she'd-a been lying to me, I was going to bust her ass a good one."
"No, she's working."
"Good. all I needs to know." Abraham was her man for everything. He kept the yard, cleaned the stables and gave her horses good care. He chauffeured her around in the twoseater when she or the girls wanted to go anywhere. If anyone became too rowdy in the house, Abraham would subdue them. He even disposed of corpses. There had been a few of those during her three-year tenure in Prescott. Two of the girls overdosed on laudanum; the other was strangled in her bed, but the matter was tastefully handled and the young man who was responsible for it came from a very wealthy family and was promptly sent off to school back East. A case of perhaps a little drunken rage at his own impotency, but with all the consideration shown and her discretion, she managed to keep the whole matter quiet and left herself in good stead with the prominent men of the city.
The big ex-slave from Mississippi came with her to Arizona from Westport. Indispensible to her, he looked after her business around the clock.
She stood with her hands on her hips in the doorway to the kitchen and startled the help so badly they jumped at her words.
"What in the hell's going on in here?"
"Oh, nothing, señora."
"That's what I thought." She began giving orders and clapping her hands for the three Mexican girls to get busy fixing supper. Sassy and that meeting were still on her mind; she wondered what the girl would learn from her cousin.
A saucy blue jay scolded him from the limbs of the pine tree; Lamas sat on a crude stool behind the rough table. Around him, the peaks of the blood-red Dragoon Mountains towered over the deep canyon filled with tall ponderosas. Lamas liked this place. Few people knew about it. Water from a good spring gurgled down the creek bed. There was plenty of grass for their tired horses. With Cochise and his Chirichuas marched off to the San Carlos Reservation, this mountain location made a good stronghold for his men to meet at.
His job under the warm sun was to pay off his soldiers. In four weeks, they had robbed the mine near Silver City, New Mexico, taken a mine payroll, rustled a great herd of horses and sold them below the border and robbed another stage with a gold shipment. The various scenes of their many crimes were vivid in Lamas's mind. Like the rancher in the buckboard returning from selling his cattle to the army and his long-toothed ugly wife. He could even recall her screams. This had been a wonderfully successful raid due to his careful planning and good informers, whom he paid well. His men's efforts had filled Lamas's pockets with much money and gold. He would pay them well for their loyalty and bravery. It was time to let them go home. These were the husbands and brothers who came from the smallvillages in Sonora to ride with him. Good but simple people. He called out their names one at a time, then each man came forward with sombrero in hand to receive his pay. He issued each of them fifty silver cartwheels. That way it felt like they got more money than to pay a small pile of thin gold coins.
His fancy black sombrero on his shoulders, the expensive brocade coat brown with dust, Lamas casually counted the money out on the tabletop, reaching down into the small chest beside him for more to finish the sum.
From the line of a half dozen men, the young man hurried forward with a grim look on his face.
"I am sorry your brother, Raphael, was killed. Will you take this money to his widow and tell her we all cried for him?"
"Sí, señor." Jose nodded soberly he would do so.
"Jose." Lamas reached over and placed his hand on the man's arm gathering up the cartwheels. "You will be sure that the poor woman gets all this money, won't you?"
Their brown eyes met. Jose swallowed hard and said, "Oh, yes, I will."
"Good man. Now I will count your money."
"Gracias, Don Lamas."
He liked the Don Lamas part. Silver dollars filtered out the ends of his fingers until fifty were stacked for Jose. The young man quickly scooped them up and joined the others.
"Where is Diego Fernandez?" His absence bothered Lamas. One of his best men had not shown up. The head shakes in the line told him enough; no one had seen the man since the stage robbery. Had some bronco Apache gotten him?
"Who will take this money to his wife?"
"I will, Don Lamas," Benito said with a sly grin as he hurried forward.
"If you don't deliver it to her ..." Lamas held the money in his fingers.
"He will deliver it," someone catcalled. "She's got bigtits." They all laughed. Lamas paid the man and then he stood up to give them their instructions.
"All of you must take different ways home from here and I will send word when I need you again."
The men raised their rifles and shouted, "Viva Don Lamas!"
He nodded politely at them, but his attention was upon the big Texan Ezra Black, who stood beside the heavily laden packhorse. The panniers bulged with sacks of gold dust and booty from their month-long raid. With what he stashed in secret places and carried on that horse, Lamas was a very rich man.
At the sounds of hoofbeats, Lamas looked up sharply. A familiar rider charged into camp and everyone who had their hands on their gun butts let them relax. It was Sanchez, his Yaqui tracker. The rat-faced man jumped off his lathered horse and rushed up to Lamas.
"Two prospectors coming off the ridge trail. They look dirty and tired." He tossed his head to indicate where they were at.
"They're coming out?" Lamas asked, then he smiled at the man's nod. "Good job, Sanchez."
"All the rest of you head for your homes by different ways." Lamas waved the men away. "Sarge, you and the kid go with Sanchez. He has a surprise for us."
"Muchas gracias," one of the departing men said to him, then mounted his horse and rode away after the others.
Lamas waved after him and watched them file out. Once away from the mountains, they would scatter like dust to the winds and go their separate ways back to their casas. Time to go see about this new find. He dropped the lid down on the chest half full of silver and stood. His back muscles felt stiff from sleeping on the ground so much. He carried the small strongbox in both hands. Black unflapped a canvas lid for him to place it inside the pannier on the horse.
"You've got them all paid and sent home. What did Sanchez find?" Black motioned toward the mountain.
"Two prospectors anxious to be robbed."
Black nodded his approval, recovered the pannier's straps and set it up straight on the crossbuck.
"What about the kid?" Black asked. "You haven't paid him yet."
"I will pay all of you back at the ranchero, even him." Lamas made a face at his discovery that the boy still sat there. "Stupid boy anyway. Why didn't he ride out to help the others capture those two?"
"Jimmy! Get off your lazy ass and go help them!" Lamas pointed up the canyon.
The lanky boy blinked, bewildered, then scrambled to his feet and hurried for his horse. In an instant, he was gone.
"Black, bring the big horse along," Lamas said over his shoulder. The Texan made the best guard for it; he couldn't be separated from that packhorse. Lamas knew Ezra Black lived without fear: Nothing ever shook the big man. Then Lamas smiled to himself. His own portion from the four weeks of hard work made him a very wealthy man.
At the mouth of the canyon, Lamas stopped his dark bay horse on a high spot. He could see that Sanchez, Sarge and the kid already had the two men captured. Black rode up cradling the .44/.40 in his arm and leading the sorrel.
"How rich are they?" Lamas asked him.
"How in the hell should I know?" The Texan scowled.
"You always say that, Black. But you know."
"Looks of them from up here, they've been working a claim or some diggings for a while. If they found anything, they're wearing it."
"My thoughts exactly." Filled with newfound pleasure at the prospect of getting more gold, Lamas spurred the horse from under the pine trees. It went stiffly down the steep grade. The two prospectors stood on the trail, floured with dust from their uncut hair and beards to the tip of their caked boots, hands raised over their heads. Lamas's three men held their guns on them.
He rode up close to the taller one.
"I want your gold."
"Ain't got none." The man shook his head with a sour grimace on his face. His eyes were bloodshot from all the dust and grit. He seemed drawn and tired from his labors.
Lamas took a hard look at the two men. They were on their way out of the mountains. Prospectors went in with supplies and came out with gold. Lamas seldom bothered any going in; he knew the difference.
"Open your mouth," Lamas ordered and booted his horse closer to him. "Wider. Open it wider."
He drew his Colt, cocked the hammer and stuck the muzzle inside the man's mouth. Then he pulled the trigger. In a burst of gun smoke and a spray of blood and bone, the man flew over backward, a portion of his head blown away. He lay on the trail, kicking his right boot in the last spasm of death.
"I believe you are next," he said to the other prospector. Then he glanced down at the dark spot in the man's crotch that began to drip.
"You piss in your pants?" he asked the man in disbelief.
The man nodded woodenly, still looking wide-eyed in disbelief at his dead comrade, then back at Lamas. The other outlaws snickered and motioned to each other at the man's accident.
"When Lamas asked for his gold, what did this dead man say?"
"Nothinghe said he had none."
"That was a lie, wasn't it?"
"But he was stupid. You are not stupid, are you? No." Lamas shook his head at the man as if to dismiss his concern. "Where is your gold?"
"Here." The man hastily ripped out a leather pouch from inside his worn shirt, secured by a leather string looped around his neck. He took it off and offered it to Lamas.
"Thank you. Is that all the gold you have?" Lamas weighed it in his palm.
"Where is his gold?"
"Around his waist."
"Sanchez, come here."
Dressed in the filthy white clothing of a peon, a wide-brimmed palm-frond hat and bearing a rifle, the Yaqui stepped forward. His rat like face looked up at his boss for his next command.
"Get the money belt off that dead one and check him over good for any more." Lamas holstered his gun and watched the Yaqui unbuckle the belt and pull it free from the dead man's waist. It felt heavy when he handed it up to him
Carefully Lamas examined it. Dull yellow gold dust and plenty of it in each individual pouch around the canvas belt. ,He closed it and nodded in approval. With care he opened the flap on his saddlebags and shoved the belt deep inside it. Then, politely, he smiled at the prospector. "Gracias; amigo."
A wave of relief spread over the man's blanched face. He began breathing deep and grinning. "Oh, thank you, señor. Yes, thank you."
"You three know where to meet us?" Lamas scanned the gang members but glared at the kid most of all.
"Yes," came the chorus. Good, they knew the place on the border. His method of dispersing his gang and having them join up again drew less attention from the law. So far it had worked perfectly. He drew a deep breath of the turpentine-smelling air through his nose and reined the impatient gelding around. Time to go.
"Sanchez, you, Sarge and the Kid all head for that cantina on the border near Clanton's. Wait there. I may have more work for you three." Lamas checked his impatient horse, made sure his men understood what he expected of them, then half-grinned at the paleface prospector. "Kill him and make it look like the Apaches did it."
"Nooo!" the man cried, but by then Lamas was headed back up the slope to where the tall Texan sat aboard histhick-built roan and held the lead on the sorrel packhorse.
"Let's ride. We must meet with Old Man Clanton tonight. I want to make a deal to sell him some more cattle. He is expecting us."
"You know where the cattle are yet?" Black asked, not turning back toward the prospector's desperate pleading that echoed off the canyon's walls.
"We will take them from whoever has them rounded up."
"Makes it easy enough. I just hate giving that old man all the profit."
"All the profit. You and I can't sell them to the army or the Indian agents. We have to have that old goat."
"I don't have to like him."
"No, Ezra, you don't have to like him," Lamas said as the two riders spurred their horses up the canyon. He knew the big Texan wanted to be called Black; no one else dared to call him Ezra. He did it to bait him.
They came to the pass at the head of the canyon. A fresh wind swept Lamas's sweaty face and cooled him. He gazed across the yellow-brown grassland that spread from the base of the Dragoon Mountains far south into Mexico and Old Man Clanton's place. They had many miles to travel if they wished to speak to the old man that night.
The prospector's cries reverberated through the mountain pass. He was tougher than Lamas thought he would be. Lamas's spurs urged the horse to go faster. He wanted to sleep in a bed at Clanton's compound this night, instead of on the hard ground.
Copyright © 2000 by Dusty Richards.