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The private car stood alone on a railroad siding bathed in the hot red blood of a desert sunset. Stepping down from the saddle, I tied my horse to the hitching rail, glanced again at the obvious opulence of the car, and took off my chaps and spurs, hanging them from the saddle-horn.
"Don't fret," I told my horse. "I'll not be long."
With a whip or two of my hat to brush the worst of the dust from my clothes, I crossed to the car and swung aboard. I paused an instant, then opened the door and stepped into the observation room. All was satinwood and vermilion.
A table, a carafe of wine, and glasses. A black man wearing a white coat stepped from the passage along the side. "Yes, sir?"
"I am Milo Talon."
"A moment, sir."
He vanished and I stood alone. There was a distant murmur of voices and the black man returned. "This way, sir? If you please?"
The passage led past the doors of two staterooms to the salon which doubled as a dining room. The room was comfortable but ornate with heavily tassled and fringed draperies, velvet portieres, and thick wall-to-wall carpets.
Hat in hand I waited, catching a glimpse of myself in the narrow mirrors between the windows. For a moment I was seeing what others might see: a lean, dark young man in a wine-colored shirt, black tie, black coat, and gray pin-striped trousers. Under the coat a gun-belt and a Colt.
The office compartment into which I was shown was small but beautifully appointed, and the man behind the desk fitted the picture. He was square-shouldered and square-jawed, a man accustomed to command. He might have been sixty or more but seemed younger. His mustache and hair were black with scarcely a hint of gray. He wore a black, beautifully tailored suit. His manners, I felt, were as neatly tailored as his clothing. He gestured to a chair, then opened a box of expensive cigars and offered it to me.
"No, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Sit down, won't you?"
"I'll stand, sir."
The jaws tightened a little; a short-tempered man, I thought, who does not like to be thwarted in even the smallest thing.
"I am Jefferson Henry," he said.
"And I am Milo Talon. You wished to see me?"
"I wish to employ you."
"If I like the job."
"I will pay well. Very well."
"If I like the job."
The skin around his eyes seemed to tighten. "You're damned independent!"
"Yes, sir. Shall we get on with it, sir? What led you to me?"
"You were referred to me as a man who could do a difficult job, a close-mouthed man, and who if required would charge Hell with a bucket of water."
He did not like me. It was in his mind, I think, to tell me to leave, to get out. Something else was in his mind also because he did nothing of the kind.
"I want you to find someone for me. I want you to find a girl."
"You will have to find your own women." I started to put on my hat.
"The girl is my son's daughter. She has been missing for twelve years."
A moment longer I hesitated, then sat down. "Tell me about it."
"Fifteen years ago my son and I quarreled. He went west. I have not seen or heard from him since."
"Have you any idea," I asked, "how many men are simply swallowed up by this country? Men drop from sight every day and no one takes notice. Usually, nobody cares. I have helped to bury several. No names, no other means of identification, no hint as to origin or destination. Some are killed by thieves or Indians, some die of thirst, cholera, or accident."
"No doubt, but my son had a daughter. It is she whom I hope to find."
"And not your son?"
"He is dead." Jefferson Henry bit the end from a cigar. "My son was weak. He was bold enough when telling me to go to Hell, but he had done that several times and had always come back. If he was alive he would have done so again, so I know he is dead."
"What of his wife? The girl's mother?"
Henry lit the cigar. "It was she we quarreled over. I have no wish to see her. I am not interested in her. I wish only to find my son's daughter."
He paused, considering the glowing end of the cigar. Then he said, "I am a very rich man. I am no longer young. I have no other heir, and I am alone. She must be found."
"And if she is not found? Who inherits then?"
His eyes were cold. "We will not discuss that. You are to find my granddaughter. You will be well paid."
"Your son disappeared fifteen years ago?"
"He married despite my wishes. He took his wife and their daughter and went west, working for a time in Ohio then in St. Louis." Jefferson Henry brushed the ash from his cigar.
"The daughter may not have lived."
"Of course. That is a contingency for which I am prepared."
"Or she may have become somebody whom you may not wish to claim."
"That is a possibility."
"You have been mentioned to me as a man who knows the west. You were a scout for the Army. You were mentioned as a man of perception and intelligence." He paused. "It was also said that you had acceptance along the Outlaw Trail."
"I might add--I knew your father."
"You knew him?"
"He was a hard-headed, opinionated, difficult man, but he was honest. We agreed on almost nothing, but once set upon a course he could not be turned aside."
"You were his friend?"
Jefferson Henry brushed the ash from his cigar. From under his thick brows his eyes were like blue ice. "I was not. Our dislike was immediate and mutual. It remained so. But I did not come two thousand miles to talk of him. When I hire a man I try to get the best man for the job. You were recommended."
He opened a drawer of the desk where he sat and took out a sack of gold coins. At least, by their apparent weight I judged they were gold. "There is one thousand dollars. I do not demand an itemized account of your expenses, only a general coverage. I understand that in such situations moneys often have to be expended that are better not accounted for."
From another drawer he took a large manila envelope. "This contains copies of letters, old photographs, some memoranda. It is all I have."
"You have been trying to find her?"
"Everything failed. Even the Pinkertons."
For a few minutes I considered it. There was something here I did not like, yet I could not put a finger on it for he seemed straightforward enough, yet every instinct told me the man was not to be trusted. Nonetheless, the problem fascinated me and I was foot-loose . . . and broke. Or nearly so.
"All right. If she is alive I will find her. If she is dead, I will know where she was buried."
"You will find her? Where others failed?"
"Why not? You would not have come to me if you did not believe I could find her."
He gave me that straight, hard look again. "I believe nothing of the kind. You are, however, my last chance." He indicated the envelope. "My address is there, or you may find me through any Wells Fargo office. If you need more money you may go to any Wells Fargo office and draw up to one thousand dollars. If you need more than that, you must contact me personally."
"Up to how much?"
"Fifty thousand dollars. I am prepared to spend that much and no more."
It was a lot of money, an awful lot of money. I said as much.
He waved a hand. "It is. But she is the heir to all I have. If she is not my only living relative, as I believe, she is at least the only one whom I care to acknowledge."
"If I accept, what will I be paid?"
Jefferson Henry indicated the sack of gold. "Your expenses will be paid. I shall pay you one hundred and fifty dollars a month during the term of your employment and a bonus of one thousand dollars if you find her."
"Two hundred a month," I said.
His eyes showed impatience. "You ask for two hundred? You've worked as a cowpuncher for thirty dollars a month!"
"This is not cowpunching." I got to my feet. "It is two hundred or no deal. The money to be paid to my account at the Wells Fargo office in El Paso."
He hesitated, not liking it or me, but finally he said, "All right, two hundred it is."
He took gold coins from another drawer and paid them over the desk. "See that you earn it."
Leaving the car, envelope in hand, I was puzzled. Stepping down from the car, I crossed to my horse. What was bothering me? It seemed a fairly straightforward proposition, although searching for missing persons had never been something for which I was noted.
Glancing back toward the car, I was startled to see another man in the salon where I had just been. He was standing close to Jefferson Henry and they were talking, gesturing. He was a tall, wide-shouldered man, larger than Henry, who was not a small man.
It was not the porter.
Now then, who was he? And where had he been during my talk with Henry?
If I'd learned one thing during my knockabout years it was that a man lives only through awareness, and it irritated me that I had not known of the man's presence.
Who was this other man? What was he? Had he been listening?
Why, after so many years, was Henry only now trying to locate his son's daughter? Pinkertons, he said, had failed. Why hire me, of all people?
Was it because they knew I had friends along the Outlaw Trail? Or did they believe, because of that, that I was an outlaw? Or did he have some reason to suspect that I already knew something about the girl? Suppose some of the clues the Pinkertons had found led to me?
But how could they? Certainly, I knew a few girls here and there, and of some of them I knew next to nothing of their history.
That the Pinkertons knew me I was fully aware, for they had a line on all who followed the Outlaw Trail and I'd been approached some time back as a possible agent.
Mounting, I turned my horse toward the town's one street. The railroad station, which was about a hundred yards from where the private car stood on its siding, was a two-story structure standing a few yards back of the street. The station had an overhanging roof on each story shading the windows from the glare of the sun.
From the private car a good view might be had of most of the street. On that side of the street which lay closest to the depot there were but three buildings, one of them a store, another a saloon. The third was empty.
On the facing street there were a dozen buildings including the hotel, restaurant, another general store, a livery stable, blacksmith shop, and an assortment of small shops and offices.
Leaving the hostler with two bits to give my horse a bait of oats and a rubdown, I took my Winchester and saddlebags and started up the street to the hotel.
It was suppertime in town and few people were about. A stray dog lying in the dusty street wagged his tail a few times, asking not to be disturbed, and several horses stood three-legged at the hitching rail. A cigarette glowed momentarily from a dark doorway of the empty building and I felt the weight of the gold I now carried. Winchester in my right hand, I pushed open the door and stepped into the lobby. It was a spacious, high-ceilinged room with a pillar in the center surrounded by a leather cushioned settee. There were several cowhide chairs and another settee against the far wall. Several large brass cuspidors offered themselves at strategic spots. Behind the counter was a man with a green eyeshade and sleeve garters. He was a pinch-faced man with a mustache too big for his face.
"A room," I suggested.
Red mustache glanced at me with sour distaste. He had seen a lot of cowhands. "Got one bed left in a room for three. Cost you a quarter."
"A room," I repeated, "a single room . . . alone."
"Cost you fifty cents," he spoke carelessly, expecting me to refuse.
My palm left a half-dollar on the counter. "Just give me the key," I said.
"No key. Folks just pack them off." He indicated the stairway. "Up and to your right. Corner room. You can put a chair under the doorknob if you figure it's needed."
"I sleep light," I said, "and I'm skittish. Too much time in Indian country. If you hear a shot in the night you come up and pack somebody away."
He gave me a bored look and started to resume his newspaper.
"Where's the best place to eat?"
"Three doors down. Maggie's Place. She won't be in this time of night but the cook's one of the best."
Whether it was the fact that I paid fifty cents for a room or his conversation about the cook that warmed him up, I didn't know, but the clerk was suddenly talkative.
He glanced at the register. "Talon? Ain't that some kind of a claw?"
"It is. An ancestor of mine taken it for a name because he had a claw where his right hand should have been. Scratched a lot of folks here and there. Or so I've heard."
He thought I was joking but I was not. Every Talon knew the story of that hard, bitter old man who started the family. It was a long time back and to most of us a few stories were all that remained, although there was rumor of property still in Talon hands and treasure buried here and there.
"Be around long?" he asked.
"Day or two." I paused. It was always better to provide a reason so they wouldn't worry about it. "I've been workin' all summer. Figured it was time to rest up a bit." They might, of course, have seen me leave the private car, so I added, "Not that I'd turn down a good job if it showed itself. I've been askin' around. Like to get me a job guidin' hunters or such-like. Seemed like the folks in that car yonder might want a guide but they don't. They don't want nothing. Even visitors."
From the Paperback edition.