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I was killing a conductor on the Northern Pacific between Butte and Garrison when my orders changed.
He wasn’t a real conductor. They all have bad feet, to begin with, and the three-inch Texas heels poking out of his serge cuffs caught my eye just before he tried to punch my ticket with an Arkansas toothpick the size of a sickle. I was half out of my seat and used the momentum to grasp his wrist, deflect the blade, and butt him under the chin, crushing the crown of a good pinch hat and making him bite through his tongue. He bled out both corners of his mouth. I drew my Deane-Adams awkwardly with my left hand, jammed it into his crotch, and fired.
He fell on top of me, there not being any other place to fall in a sleeping compartment. I had several pounds on him and I’m not a big man, but deadweight is deadweight. I was still climbing out from under when someone knocked at the door. In the throbbing echo of the .45’s report, he might have been tapping on a door at the other end of the train.
I was plastered with blood from collar to knees when I opened the door. The Negro porter paled beneath his deep brown pigment at the sight of the blood and the revolver in my hand, but he had an old scar on his cheek that looked combat-related, a saber cut, and in any case, they’re trained by Pullman not to panic easily. He held out a Western Union envelope.
“Wireless for Deputy Murdock,” he said.
I holstered the Deane-Adams, tore open the flap, and read while he took in the heap on the floor:
RETURN TO HELENA AT ONCE STOP YOUR LIFE IS IN DANGER
“That man ain’t a conductor on this train,” said the porter.
“I guessed that when he tried to hack me open. Is there a detective aboard?”
“No, sir. We ain’t been robbed on this run all year.”
“When do we get to Garrison?”
He had a little trouble thumbing open the lid on his turnip watch. “Eighteen minutes.”
“The town marshal’s name is Krueger. He knows me. Send someone to tell him I’ll need help with this extra baggage.”
“I needs to tell the conductor.”
“If that’s his uniform, you might have trouble getting an answer.”
He dipped a knee and turned the dead man half over on his side. Then he stood.
“Yes, sir. Mr. Fenady was missing that there third button this morning. You reckon this fellow kilt him?”
“He didn’t strike me as the bargaining kind. What’s that?” I pointed to something on the floor that glinted.
He bent and picked it up. “It must of dropped out of his pocket when I turned him over.” He handed it to me.
It was a double eagle, solid gold, the size of a cartwheel dollar. It threw back light in insolent sheets, and the edges of the eagle’s wings were sharp enough to cut a finger. “See if there are any more.”
If I expected the porter to balk at the prospect of rifling a dead man’s pockets, I was disappointed. He knelt again, and in less than a minute he rose, shaking his head. He was used to searching drunken passengers for their tickets to find out where they belonged.
I felt the coin, reading san francisco, california, with the ball of my thumb. “Is your Mr. Fenady the kind to carry around uncirculated double eagles?”
“No, sir, he sure ain’t. That, or he lied about not having the cash to replace that lost button.”
I pocketed the coin. He watched without expression. I said, “You want a receipt?”
“No, sir.” He turned to go.
I put a hand on his arm, stopping him. It was hard under the uniform sleeve, roped with muscle from carrying trunks and hoisting fat women aboard parlor cars.
“Thirty-sixth Infantry?” I asked.
“No, sir. Tenth Cavalry. Buffalo soldiers. I was too young to serve in the War of Emancipation.”
“That doesn’t look like a tomahawk scar.”
He grinned joylessly. “Wasn’t always the red man we was fighting, sir.”
“What’s your name?”
“Edward Anderson Beecher.”
“Did you ever consider serving the law, Beecher?”
“What’s the pension?”
“No pension. Congress covers the cost of your burial.”
“Thank you, sir. I reckon I’ll go on taking my chances with
Mr. J. J. Hill.”
“That’s the problem. The good ones are too smart to serve for the money.”
He said nothing, saying plenty.
“Don’t forget to tell Marshal Krueger about the double eagle,” I said.
That took a moment to filter through. This time when he grinned, the sun came out. “Yes, sir.”
“Did you think I intended to keep it a secret?”
“It ain’t my place to think, sir.”
“I’m a killer, not a thief.”
“Stop calling me sir. I quit the army in sixty-five.”
After he left, I took the coin back out and weighed it on my palm. Its face value was twenty dollars. That bothered me more than the attack. I’d thought my life was worth a little more.
Copyright © 2004 by Loren D. Estleman