When Alexander Jessup moves with his two daughters to the Badlands to run a ranch, he’s unprepared for the West’s deathly perils. But despite the dangers, his daughter Edana is determined to manage the Diamond B. And it may be possible, thanks to ranch’s foreman, Neal Bonner, and his partner, Jericho, an expert gunman.
But Edana’s headstrong sister, Isolda, has other plans. She has no interest in herding cows—or in polite society, for that matter. So she latches onto cutthroat conman Beaumont Adams, and the two scheme to take over the Diamond B with the help of the worst criminals in the Badlands.
Now Edana, Neal, and Jericho must face down a pack of stone-cold thieves and murderers to save their ranch—or die trying.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
WELCOME TO THE BADLANDS.
Also by David Robbins
A pale moon had just risen into the darkening sky when the three men rode into Whiskey Flats.
The single dusty street was flanked by a couple of log cabins, several shacks, and the only building that showed any light. A crudely painted sign announced it was the Three Aces. Under it was the claim that DRINKS ARE CHEAP and under that the news that the saloon boasted THE ONLY DOXIE BETWEEN HERE AND UTAH. Several horses were tied at the hitch rail, and a cat was licking itself under the overhang.
The three riders drew rein and looked at the sign.
“Gentlemen, I believe we’ve found civilization at last,” declared the shortest, grinning. He had a florid face and wide whiskers, and wore a bowler, a suit, and Hessian boots. “Which one of you wants to go first with the doxie?”
The other two were as different from the short man as the pale moon was from the sun. Both were big and broad-shouldered. Both had the weathered aspect of men who spent a lot of time outdoors. And both wore six-shooters, while the man in the bowler did not. There their similarities ended.
“I reckon I’ll pass,” said the one with curly sandy hair. He had brown eyes and a jaw like an anvil. A Stetson that had seen a lot of use crowned his head. His clothes were those of a typical cowhand and had seen as much use as his hat. His revolver was an over-the-counter Colt, as plain as the man himself.
A savvy onlooker wouldn’t peg the last rider as a cowboy, although he did work cattle. His hair was long and straight and black as pitch. His eyes were a startling blue. His hat was black, his shirt the same, his pants gray. A savvy onlooker would also notice that there was nothing plain about his six-gun. A nickel-plated Colt with pearl grips, it nestled high and slightly forward on his right hip. His right hand was never far from his holster.
The man in the bowler chuckled. “How can you let an opportunity like this go by?” he teased the sandy-haired man. “A doxie, by heaven.”
“You’re plumb amusin’, Mr. Wells,” the sandy-haired cowboy said in a tone that suggested Wells wasn’t.
“And you, Mr. Bonner, are much too serious,” Wells said. “You need to learn to see the humor in things.”
“Do I, now?”
“Indeed.” Wells motioned expansively at the saloon and the cabins and shacks and the benighted wilds beyond. “Think of where we are. In the middle of the Badlands. Hundreds of miles from anywhere, and we find an outpost of humanity advertising the wares of a wanton woman as if she were the Holy Grail of life.”
“How you talk, Mr. Wells.”
Wells laughed. “I’m a cynic, I’m afraid. Which is why the incongruities of life delight me so.”
“Never mind, Neal.” Wells dismounted with the awkward form of someone not accustomed to going about on horseback. Looping the reins, he smacked at his clothes, raising puffs of dust.
Neal Bonner alighted with the fluid ease of a true horseman. Glancing at their black-haired companion with the pearl-handled Colt, he said, “Are you fixin’ to stay out here and admire the stars or would you care to join us?”
The black-haired man’s thin lips quirked, and he swung down. His movements had a pantherish quality, with no wasted movement. He was down, his reins tied off, and his thumbs hooked in his gun belt, all seemingly in the same motion.
Wells had finished smacking and turned. “Let me do the talking. That’s why they sent me, after all. But interject where you feel necessary.” He glanced at the black-haired man. “As for you. Mr. Jericho, you hardly ever speak anyway, so that won’t be an issue with you.”
“No mister,” Jericho said.
About to go in, Wells paused. “Sorry?”
“It’s just ‘Jericho.’ I told you before.”
“And you think I’m peculiar?” Wells said to Neal. Chuckling, he strode to the batwings.
Neal grinned at Jericho. “Easterners.”
“For a rooster, he’s tolerable,” Jericho said.
Inside the saloon, everyone had stopped what they were doing to stare at Wells. At the bar were two older men in grimy clothes with the blurry eyes of heavy drinkers. They smiled in a friendly manner.
There was nothing friendly about the four poker players at a corner table. They bore the stamp of hard cases, their flinty eyes regarding the newcomer with predatory interest.
Wells stepped to where a balding bartender was stacking shot glasses into a pyramid. “How do you do, sir? My name is Franklyn Wells. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The bartender was carefully aligning a glass and didn’t look up. “Can’t you see I’m busy? I’ll fetch you a drink in a minute.”
“It’s not liquor I’m interested in so much as information,” Wells said. “You see, I represent the Portland Whaling Consortium, and I’m—”
Raising his head above the glasses, the bartender arched an eyebrow. “Whalin’, did I hear you say?”
“Yes, you did,” Wells confirmed. “And I—”
“You mean those big fish that those fellers on ships harpoon for their oil and whatnot?”
“Well, actually, they’re mammals,” Franklyn Wells said. “But yes, and you see—”
The barman raised his voice so the men at the table and the bar would be sure to hear. “If it’s whales you’re after, we have plenty over at Bear Creek. Just the other day I saw one swimmin’ in the shallows.”
The two old men cackled and several of the hard cases playing poker smirked.
The one who didn’t pushed back his chair and approached. As thin as a broomstick, he had a hooked nose and wore a Remington rigged for a cross draw. His store-bought clothes hadn’t been washed since he bought them and his teeth were as yellow as sunflowers. “What do we have here?”
“Didn’t you hear him, Dyson?” the barman said. “He’s one of them whalers.”
“No, actually, I’m not,” Wells said. “I represent the Portland Whaling Consortium. “They are whalers. Or, rather, they were. The whaling trade has about died off, as I’m sure you’re aware, thanks to kerosene. However, some of the former captains of some of those whaling vessels are looking to invest their considerable capital. The consortium is in the process of establishing the Badlands Land and Cattle Company to take advantage of the coming boom.”
“Will you listen to you?” Dyson said. “You sure love to jabber.” His hand darted out, and he snatched the bowler.
“Here, now. What are you doing?”
“I’m about to have me some fun,” Dyson said. Tossing the bowler to the floor, he placed his hand on his Remington. “Let’s see how many times I can make it skip.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Wells said. “It cost me a pretty penny.”
“What’s to stop me?” Dyson taunted.
“How about me?” Neal had entered unnoticed and stood just inside the batwings. Ignoring the men at the table and the bar, he strode over, picked up the bowler, and jammed it onto Wells’s head. “You lost your hat.”
Dyson took a step back and tensed as if he expected Neal to draw. When Neal didn’t, he looked Neal up and down and said, “You look like the real article, but you must be another weak sister.”
“My folks used to say that I’m as strong as an ox,” Neal remarked.
“But not very smart,” Dyson said, and snapped his fingers at his friends at the table. They were quick to rise and come over, spreading as they came so they were between Neal and Wells and the batwings.
“We’re not huntin’ trouble,” Neal said.
“No, sir,” Franklyn Wells said, bobbing his head. “All we want is some information, if you would be so kind.”
Dyson curled his lip in contempt. “You rile me, little man. You and your city clothes, and pretendin’ to be so damn polite, even when you’ve been insulted. It ain’t natural.”
“Sure ain’t,” a heavyset man in buckskins said. He had a Sharps in the crook of his arm, and wore a beaver hat.
Neal moved in front of Franklyn Wells. “You can insult us all you want, but we won’t be prodded. Answer Mr. Wells or things will get ugly.”
“What will you do?” the man in the beaver hat asked. “Slap leather against all four of us?”
“Slappin’ is my job,” said a new voice.
Jericho stood just inside the batwings, his arms at his sides, as casual as could be. But there was nothing casual about the glint in his blue eyes. He moved his right arm slightly, and the pearl grips on his Colt gleamed bright in the light.
“Who are you and how do you fit in?” Dyson demanded.
“I squish flies,” Jericho said.
“I’d like to see you try,” the man in the beaver hat declared.
“Careful, now, Stimms,” Dyson said. “I don’t like the looks of this one.”
Stimms turned toward Jericho and placed his thumb on the hammer of his Sharps. “You heard him say he can squish us. Who does he think he is? That fancy Colt don’t scare me none.”
“It should,” Neal said.
Just then someone coughed, as if to get their attention.
Another man had come out of a hall to the back. Uncommonly handsome, he was attired in a frock coat such as gamblers wore, and a white shirt with frills. He wore no gun that anyone could see.
His arm was around the waist of a woman twice his age. Once, she had been beautiful, but the ravages of years on the line hadn’t been kind. Her dress, too, was past its prime, and here and there red thread showed where patchwork held it together. “Strangers, by God, Beaumont.”
“I can see that, darlin’,” Beaumont said. “And someone has started a fracas without my say-so.”
“We were only havin’ a little fun,” Dyson said quickly.
“In my saloon,” Beaumont said.
“You were in the back with her,” Dyson said. “We know better than to disturb you when she’s relaxin’ you, as you like to say.”
“I have a name,” the woman said. “It’s Darietta.”
“Hush, darlin’,” Beaumont said. Letting go, he smoothed his expensive jacket and came over and offered his hand to Franklyn Wells. “I always judge a man by his clothes, and yours, sir, cost more than both of your friends’ combined. Beaumont Adams, at your service.”
“Some civility, at last,” Wells exclaimed happily. “I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. “These other gentlemen seemed intent on—what’s the expression? Bucking us out in gore?”
“You don’t need to worry there,” Neal said. “That’s why I brought Jericho along.”
“Introduce me to your friends,” Beaumont said to Wells.
“Certainly. The man who just addressed you is Mr. Neal Bonner. He was foreman at the Diamond T Ranch in the panhandle country until my employers hired him away to work for them. They say he’s forgotten more about cattle raising than most men ever learn.”
“Do tell,” Beaumont said. He indicated Jericho. “Who is he and what does he do?”
“He squishes things,” Neal said.
“How interestin’,” Beaumont said. “Did you hear them, Dyson? And you, Stimms? Don’t you find it interestin’, too?”
Dyson and Stimms looked at each other in confusion.
“How about you finish your card game while I deal with these gents?” Beaumont said.
The pair offered no argument. If anything, they were anxious to please.
“My word,” Franklyn Wells said. “Look at them scurry. You’d think they were scared to death of you.”
“You would, wouldn’t you?” Beaumont said. Smiling, he clapped Wells on the back. “How about I treat you to drinks?”
“As I was telling the bartender,” Wells said, “we’re really only in need of information.”
“I insist,” Beaumont said. “To make up for the shabby treatment you received from those in my employ.” His hand still on Wells’s back, he ushered him to the bar. The two old men hastily moved aside. “Floyd, a bottle of the best brandy for my new friends.”
“The best?” the bartender said.
“Do I have to tell you twice?”
Floyd blanched. “No, sir.” He picked a bottle from the back of a shelf thronged with all kinds.
“I took you for a brandy man,” Beaumont said to Wells. “But if you’d rather have whiskey or somethin’ else, say the word.”
“Brandy is fine,” Franklyn Wells said.
“What would your friends like?”
“None for me, thanks,” Neal said. “I’m workin’.”
“How about your blue-eyed partner yonder?” Beaumont said. “Does he drink or does he only squish?”
“He doesn’t drink when he’s on a job, neither,” Neal said. “But yes, he’s the best squisher I know.”
“Is he someone I’d have heard of?”
“Down to Texas you would have. But not in these parts,” Neal said, adding, “Yet.”
“Do tell,” Beaumont Adams said. “This gets more interestin’ by the minute.”
Lice McCoy was dozing in his chair in front of his fireplace when his dog commenced to bark and growl. It took a bit for the barking and growling to seep through Lice’s besotted brain and to bring him out of the chair with an oath. Shaking his head to clear it, he went to the gun rack and took down his shotgun. “Must be that damn bear again,” he muttered.
Lice always kept the shotgun loaded. He lived miles from anywhere in the heart of the Badlands and never knew but when hostiles or a wild animal might pay him an unwanted visit. The bear was the latest to give him fits. A big black, and not, thank the Lord, a griz, it had been nosing around his place a couple of times now, even though he’d fired in the air once to scare it off.
“This time I’ll shoot it dead,” Lice vowed as he moved to the front door to his small cabin.
“Lice” was his nickname. His given name was Isaiah Pickford McCoy. His mother had called all seven of her children after biblical prophets. Lice never liked his much. He liked being called Lice even less. But then, he never liked to take a bath, either, which was why he always crawled with lice and was forever picking them off. So the nickname stuck.
Now, stepping out into the cool of the night, Lice leveled his shotgun and hollered, “Where are you, bear?” He hoped his shout would be enough to drive it off.
His mongrel, tied at a corner of the cabin, was still raising a racket, its hackles raised and teeth bared.
“Where is that critter?” Lice said, sidling to his dog’s side. He didn’t have a name for the dog. He just called it “Dog” and let it go at that. Thinking up a name was hard work, and work was one thing Lice avoided if he could.
Dog rumbled deep in his chest.
Lice peered in the direction the dog was looking and gave a mild start. It wasn’t the black bear, after all. Two riders were approaching. His first thought was that they must be Injuns, but no, he could make out hats and saddles. His second thought was that they must be owl hoots. “Hold it right there.”
The pair complied and the smaller of the two called out, “Would you be Mr. McCoy? Mr. Isaiah McCoy?”
“Who the hell are you?” Lice demanded. He didn’t like visitors. He didn’t like people, period. Which was why he lived so far from everybody. He wanted to be alone and to be left alone. Unfortunately his constant craving for alcohol meant he had to go into town every couple of weeks for a bottle. But that was a small price to pay when the rest of the time he lived in cherished solitude.
“Franklyn Wells, pleased to meet you,” the small man said cheerily.
“What do you want?” Lice didn’t like having his dozing interrupted. “It’s damn late to be traipsin’ over the countryside.”
“We’re here specifically to see you, Mr. McCoy,” Wells replied. “I apologize for the lateness of the hour, but we’ve come a very long way and I wanted to conclude our business as soon as possible.”
“What sort of business do you have with me that you show up now? It must be pushin’ ten o’clock.”
“I’ll gladly tell you all about it if you’ll lower that cannon,” Wells said.
“Not hardly,” Lice said. “How do I know you ain’t outlaws?”
The other rider spoke in a deep, low voice. “Would outlaws ride right up like this? Use your head, old-timer.”
“I am usin’ it,” Lice rejoined angrily. “Some outlaws are trickier than others. You might have rode up thinkin’ I’d think you must be honest folk, and then you gun me in the back.”
“We’re not here to harm you in any way,” Wells said. “I assure you.”
Lice snorted. “You expect me to take the word of a gent I don’t know from Adam? You must reckon I’m stupid.”
“Please,” Wells said. “Lower that shotgun so we can talk.”
“You have one minute to tell me what you’re doin’ on my place and then I let fly with buckshot,” Lice said.
The other rider raised his deep voice. “Enough of this. Jericho.”
“Jericho?” Lice repeated. “That’s a city, not a prophet, you lunkhead. Don’t you know your Bible any better than—” He suddenly stopped. A hard object had been pressed to the side of his head, and he heard a gun hammer click.
“I’ll say this only once,” said someone in a manner that sent a shiver down Lice’s spine. “Hand the howitzer to me or I splatter your brains.”
Lice believed him. “Sure, mister,” he said quickly. “Go easy with that hardware.” He held the shotgun to one side, careful to keep the barrels pointed at the ground. A hand reached out and took it, and the object gouging his head went away.
“Come on in, Neal. The old tom cat has been declawed.”
Lice looked at the man who had taken his shotgun, and swallowed. He flattered himself that he was good at reading folks, and this one was a curly wolf if ever he saw one. Raising his hands, he said, “Take whatever else you want. Just don’t kill me.”
The man in the black hat and shirt was holding a pearl-handled Colt in one hand and the shotgun in the other. Unexpectedly, he twirled the Colt forward a few times and then backward and slid it into his holster with a flourish, all as naturally as breathing. “No one’s goin’ to kill you, you old goat.”
Lice was terribly confused. He decided to keep quiet and await developments. The man at his side scared him. He knew a gun hand when he saw one.
The other pair rode up and dismounted.
“Let’s try this again,” Franklyn Wells said. “You can lower your arms. I was serious when I told you we’re here on business.”
His confusion climbing, Lice shook. He also shook the hand of the man with the deep voice, a big cowboy with as strong a grip as Lice ever felt. “It sure is strange, you showin’ up out of the blue like this.”
“How about if we go inside and I explain everything?” Wells proposed.
Lice was relieved when only the little fella and the big cowboy followed him in. The gun shark stayed outside. Lice indicated his table with its two chairs and stepped to his own by the fireplace. Crossing his legs, he folded his hands in his lap and waited.
The scary fella had given the shotgun to the big cowboy and now the cowboy propped it against a wall.
“This is Neal Bonner, by the way,” Franklyn Wells introduced him. “He’ll be the ramrod, I believe it’s called, for the Badlands Land and Cattle Company.”
Wells took a seat and set his bowler on the table. “The firm I represent. I’m a lawyer. I’m here on their behalf to make you a generous offer.”
“Mister,” Lice said, “I hope to hell I’m drunk and dreamin’ all this, because it makes no kind of sense.”
“Permit me to enlighten you,” Wells said. “The BLCC needs land, and lots of it. Some months ago, Mr. Bonner and I looked over this part of the Badlands, and he’s of the opinion that it can be turned into a profitable cattle enterprise. Nearly all of it qualifies under the Homestead Act and can be filed on, with two exceptions. The first is Whiskey Flats. The second is your homestead.”
Lice didn’t know where this was leading, so he didn’t say anything.
“My employers regard the town as an eventual supply hub for their ranch. But your homestead is another matter. Your land is at the very heart of their proposed enterprise.”
“I don’t mind havin’ a rancher for a neighbor,” Lice said.
“They’d rather avoid that situation, if they could.”
“How’s that again?”
“Think of it, Mr. McCoy. The Diamond B will have thousands of head of cattle. Perhaps hundreds of thousands if all goes well. And if your homestead is in the middle of the ranch, they’ll be trampling all over your property unless you put up a fence. Not only that, the cattle will have to be driven around you to get from one place to another. Does that sound logical to you?”
“I don’t know about logic, but I know I like it here,” Lice said.
“I don’t blame you,” Wells said. “This site of yours is ideally located.” He paused. “You have your own well, we’re given to understand.”
Lice nodded. “I dug it my own self. Plumb surprised me, how the water came pourin’ out of the ground like it did.”
“Water is one thing my employers need to ensure that their ranch is a success. Which is another reason why they’ve authorized me to offer you a substantial amount to buy you out.”
“Is that why you came all this way?”
“None other,” Wells confirmed.
Lice became angry. He’d meant it when he said he liked living there. The winters were harsh, but he always stocked up on firewood and bottles and got by until spring. “You can turn around and go back again. I’m not sellin’ out. Not now. Not ever.”
“You haven’t heard my offer yet,” Wells said.
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Undeterred, Wells said, “They’ve left the amount to my discretion. And after meeting you, and this short talk we’ve had, I feel confident in proposing to purchase your homestead for the princely sum of three thousand dollars.”
Lice was dumbfounded. That was more than he’d ever had at one time at any point in his entire life. More than he could ever dream of having. It was far more than his property was worth. Which made him suspicious. “Why so much?”
“I’ve already told you,” Wells said. “It wouldn’t do to have your place in the middle of the ranch. Plus, you have water, a valuable commodity. My employers can afford to be generous to expedite things.”
“Lordy, the words you use,” Lice said.
“Big words or little, they all mean the same. Three thousand dollars. What do you say?”
“I don’t know,” Lice said. He honestly and truly didn’t want to sell. But three thousand! His mind reeled at how many bottles he could buy. To say nothing of a new rifle and some new clothes and a new pipe. His brain flooded with images of his richness.
“I happen to have the money in my saddlebags,” Wells mentioned. “All you will have to do is sign several documents I’ve brought and the money is yours.”
“You have it with you?” Lice said. “You must have been awful confident I’d sell out.”
“Not that so much,” Wells said, “as I believe in always being prepared. I brought the money in case you agreed. It saves me having to ride all the way back and then pay you a second visit.”
“That’s smart,” Lice had to agree.
“What do you say?”
“I still don’t know,” Lice said. “How much time do I have to think it over?”
“Take all night if you have to,” Wells said. “My friends and I will make camp just a little ways off, and I’ll come over in the morning to hear your decision. Does that sound reasonable to you?”
“It does,” Lice said. He’d be the first to admit he wasn’t much of a thinker. Not a quick one, anyhow. He did his pondering nice and slow and came to his decisions only after a lot of deliberation. “I’m obliged.”
“No, Mr. McCoy,” Wells said, “we’re the ones who are grateful that you’ll consider our offer.” He stood. “I’ll leave you to get to it. It’s been a terribly long day and I would like to turn in.” Shifting, he said, “Coming, Neal?”
“Hold on,” Lice said. “I’d like to talk to the cowpoke alone, if you don’t mind.”
Franklyn Wells stopped in midstep. “Whatever for?”
“That’s between him and me.”
Wells looked at Neal Bonner and shrugged. “I don’t see why you need to, but I don’t see any reason not to, either. I’ll wait with Jericho.” He touched the brim of his bowler and went out.
“Is it me or does that gent have the talkin’ talent of a patent medicine man?” Lice joked.
“He does at that,” Neal said.
“Which is why I want to talk to you,” Lice confessed. “You have an honest face. That law wrangler is too oily and that gun gent is spooky. But you’re normal, like me.”
“You can’t know how I am,” Neal said. “I haven’t hardly said a thing since I got here.”
“See? You’re even honest about that,” Lice said. “So tell me. What do you think of this here offer of theirs?”
“It’s generous,” Neal said. “The filing fee for your homestead was, what, eighteen dollars? You don’t have more than a hundred in improvements, if that. And you haven’t done a lick of farmin’ or ranchin’, as required by the law.”
“There’s the cabin,” Lice said. But the cowboy was right. He’d done the bare minimum.
“Which they’ll likely tear down to make room for their own buildings,” Neal said.
“But I like livin’ here,” Lice said yet again.
“I don’t blame you. It’s quiet and peaceful. If I had a place of my own, I’d likely live off from everybody, too. Only I’d raise cows for a livin’.” Neal gazed at the cabin’s simple furnishings. “I reckon you aimed to live out your days here. But the thing is, you can do that most anywhere. You can find another spot, build another cabin, and have enough money to last out your born days, besides.”
“You’re not sayin’ that just because you stand to be their foreman?”
“You asked my opinion,” Neal said. “And the other thing is, no one else will ever make you an offer like this one. Not unless another conglomerate comes along, and how likely is that? This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime deals. Just like their offer to make me their foreman.”
“I told you that you were honest,” Lice said, and smiled.
“What will you do, old-timer?” Neal asked.
“What any sensible coon would do.”
Beaumont Adams had claimed his usual table and was treating himself to a glass of his best stock. Taking a long swallow, he smacked his lips, smiled with contentment, and began whistling the tune to “Home on the Range.”
Darietta sat beside him, her elbow on her knee, her chin in her hand. It was obvious she was bored and trying not to show it. His whistling perked her interest. “What’s gotten into you, Beau?”
“How do you mean, darlin’?”
“Why are you so happy all of a sudden?”
“Nothin’ sudden about it,” Beaumont answered. “If you’d been payin’ attention when those three gents were in here, you’d know why. But because you’re as dumb as a stump, you don’t.”
“Here, now,” Darietta said. “You have no cause to insult me.”
“You work for me, darlin’,” Beaumont said. “I’ll insult you all I want.” He went on whistling but stopped when the batwings parted and in came Dyson and Stimms.
They made straight for his table.
The only other person in the saloon was Floyd, the barkeep.
“It was like you said, boss,” Dyson began.
Beaumont held up a hand. “Take off your hats.”
“How’s that?” Dyson said.
“There’s a lady present,” Beaumont said. “The proper thing for a gentleman is to take off his hat in her presence.”
“It’s only Darietta,” Stimms said.
“She’s just a whore,” Dyson said.
Beaumont’s smile faded. He placed both arms on the table and there was a thunk, as of something hard hitting the wood. “Do I have to tell you twice?”
“No, sir,” Dyson said, and slicked his hat off as quick as could be.
Stimms, his face scrunched in bewilderment, removed his beaver hat and looked at it as if he couldn’t believe it wasn’t on his head. “This beats all.”
Beaumont sat back and chuckled. “In light of all the changes I foresee for Whiskey Flats, you need to learn more manners, boys.” He gestured. “Enough of that. Tell me what happened. Don’t leave anything out.”
“There’s not a heap to tell,” Dyson said. “We followed them, like you wanted. It weren’t hard since we knew where they were goin’.”
Stimms nodded. “We were careful not to get too close, like you told us.”
“They went straightaway to McCoy’s,” Dyson said. “We saw the old buzzard come out and wave his shotgun at them, but that cowhand with the fancy Colt stuck it to his head and took the shotgun away.”
“Did he, now?” Beaumont said, laughing. “And quit callin’ him a cowhand. He might work cows, but he’s more than that.”
“More how?” Dyson asked.
“He’s a squisher. Don’t you remember? But go on.”
Stimms said, “We couldn’t hear what they were sayin’, but we could see some of it from the light that spilled out the window.”
“The other cowboy and the little feller went inside and were in there awhile.” Dyson took up the account. “Then the little feller came back out. Him and this squisher made camp and then the cowboy joined them and they turned in.”
“We took turns keepin’ watch,” Stimms said. “Along about daybreak they were up and about, and not long after, Lice came out of his cabin and they jawed a spell and Lice and the little one shook hands and went back inside. Maybe half an hour later the little one came back out. He was foldin’ papers and appeared happy as can be.”
“Do tell,” Beaumont said.
Dyson nodded. “That’s about all except for the three of them threw on their saddles and came this way, but they circled Whiskey Flats and kept on goin’.”
“Just like you said they would,” Stimms said.
‘How did you know they wouldn’t stop?” Dyson asked.
Beaumont began refilling his glass. “They had no reason to. They’d gotten what they were after. That little feller, as you called him, would want to get the news to his bosses right away.”
“What news?” Dyson asked.
About to raise the glass, Beaumont regarded the pair with disappointment. “Pitiful. You don’t have a brain between you. I always have to do the thinkin’. A gold mine has been dropped in our laps and you’re too dumb to see it.”
“Those fellers were cowmen,” Dyson said. “How did gold get into this?”
“Have a seat,” Beaumont said.
“At your very own table?” Dyson said in surprise. “The last peckerwood who did that, you shot.”
“He was drunk and wouldn’t get up when I told him to,” Beaumont said. “Have a seat before you make me mad.”
With the air of men roosting on shards of glass, the pair obeyed.
“Now, then,” Beaumont said, “I’m goin’ to explain things to you two and Darietta here. You’re the closest thing I have to lieutenants and you need to know.”
“To what?” Stimms interrupted.
Beaumont frowned. “Ever hear of the army?”
“Why, sure. Everybody has,” Stimms said. “Are you sayin’ we’re one? How can that be when there’re only three of us?”
“Honest to God, I could shoot you.”
“I’m only tryin’ to savvy, is all,” Stimms said. “To be smarter, like you’re always sayin’ you want us to be.”
“I had that comin’,” Beaumont said, and sighed. “All right. You know how the army has generals and colonels and captains and such?” He didn’t wait for them to respond. “Think of me as the general and you as my lieutenants.”
“Oh!” Stimms exclaimed as if it were the greatest revelation ever. “Now I get it. Lieutenant Stimms. I like the sound of that.”
Beaumont drummed his fingers on the table.
“What?” Stimms said.
“Back in your buffalo huntin’ days, did you accidentally shoot yourself in the head?”
Stimms’s eyebrows tried to climb into his beaver hat. “If I’d done that, I wouldn’t be sittin’ here. A Sharps doesn’t shoot birdshot. It leaves a hole you could stick your fist through.”
“I can see the hole,” Beaumont said.
“Where?” Stimms placed a hand to the side of his head.
Beaumont extended his arm across the table and jabbed his finger into the middle of Stimms’s forehead. “Right there.”
Stimms colored, and Dyson laughed.
“Now, then. Where was I?” Beaumont paused. “If you’ll recollect, Mr. Wells informed us that the Badlands Land and Cattle Company plans to start up a ranch. You were right here. You heard him, the same as I did.”
“So?” Dyson said.
“So it hasn’t occurred to you how that will change things? There will be someone to run it, maybe his family, and that foreman, and fifty to sixty hands, if not more. Plus those that do work besides tendin’ cows. Some of them will have families, too. All of them will need things. Supplies and clothes and tools and the like.”
“It’s too bad there’s not a general store hereabouts,” Stimms said. “The owner would make a lot of money.”
“Yes, I will,” Beaumont said.
“You own the saloon, boss,” Stimms said. “Why would you give it up to run a general store? You like whiskey more than you do pickles.”
“I really could just shoot you.”
“I think I savvy,” Dyson said. “Beaumont is plannin’ to open his own store plus have the saloon. Am I right?”
“You’re now my captain,” Beaumont said.
Darietta snorted. “If that’s all it takes, you should make me a general. Because if I know you, you won’t stop there. You’ve been sayin’ since I met you how you’d like to run your own town someday, or some such nonsense.”
Beaumont Adams smiled, then uncoiled like a striking rattler and backhanded Darietta across the face. He hit her so hard both she and her chair flipped backward, with her screaming in stark terror. The chair turned as she fell and came down on top of her. She went to cast it off, but Beaumont sprang and pressed on the chair’s legs, forcing the back of the chair against her neck and chest. “Talk to me like that again,” he growled. “I dare you.”
Chalk white, Darietta stopped struggling and got out, “I didn’t mean nothin’. Honest.”
“Since when is it nonsense to want to be rich? Since when is it nonsense to want to be king of the mountain?”
“It’s not! It’s not!” Darietta squealed. “I apologize. Let me up. Please. This chair is hurtin’ me.”
Beaumont bore down with all his weight. “Good. Maybe the pain will teach you a lesson.” Stepping back, he kicked the chair and it slid half a dozen feet. “What do you know, you dumb cow? What do you know about anything? All you’ve ever done is spread your legs for money, and you barely ever make enough to get by doin’ that.” He balled his fists as if to hit her. “I have big plans. Grand plans. Runnin’ this two-bit saloon isn’t enough. I only own it because the man who built it didn’t have the sense to give me a half interest and run it for the both of us.”
“So you snuffed his wick,” Dyson said, and laughed. “I still recollect the look on his face when you shot him between the eyes.”
Beaumont stepped back, his fury fading. “I never intended to stay on. Figured I’d save enough to head for greener pastures. But now all that has changed. Now a godsend has been dropped in my lap and I aim to make the most of it.”
“The godsend bein’ the new ranch,” Dyson said.
Beaumont nodded, then bent and offered his hand to Darietta. She shrank back, afraid to take it. “Let me help you, damn you. I shouldn’t have knocked you down, but you made me lose my temper and you know what happens when I do.”
“Don’t ever make the boss mad,” Stimms chided her. “He ain’t nice when he’s mad.”
“Out of the mouth of idiots,” Beaumont said, and held his hand lower. “Do you really want to make me mad a second time?”
Shaking her head, Darietta let him pull her to her feet. When he swiped at a stray bang, she recoiled.
“Stupid cow.” Beaumont reclaimed his sat. “Someone pick up her chair. Floyd, keep the brandy comin’. If I know Lice McCoy, it won’t be long before he pays us a visit.”
It was the next day, shortly after noon, that the man they were waiting for rode up to the hitch rail, visible out the front window.
Beaumont Adams was at his table with Darietta. “Get in the back,” he commanded, and she left without a word.
Beaming happily, Lice alighted, wrapped his reins, grabbed his saddlebags and slung them over a shoulder, and sauntered to the batwings. Pushing through, he called out, “Barkeep! Set me up with a bottle of Monongahela. And not the cheap stuff, neither.”
Beaumont Adams raised an arm. “Bring the bottle over here, and a glass, too. It will be on me. That is, if you don’t mind, Lice.”
“Mind a free drink?” Lice said, and chuckled. “That’ll be the day. You don’t need to, though. I have the money to pay.”
Beaumont patted an empty chair next to him. “I insist. It’s the least I can do for the man who has been the cause of my deliverance.”
“You’re what, now?” Lice asked, coming over. He placed his saddlebags on the table and sank down.
“My deliverer,” Beaumont said.
“Like in the Bible, you mean?” Lice said. “Hell, you must have me confused with that travelin’ parson who came through here about a year ago.”
“Oh, it’s you, sure enough.” Beaumont filled the glass Floyd brought and slid it to Lice. “Here you go. Drink hearty. And while you’re at it, I’m curious. How much did they offer you?”
“Who is this ‘they’?” Lice asked.
“Play innocent if you want, but everyone knows,” Beaumont said. “Or didn’t they tell you they stopped here to ask how to find your place? I treated them to drinks, and the short one let it drop about the ranch and how they were hopin’ to buy your land.”
“Darned leaky mouth,” Lice grumbled.
“I’ll ask you again,” Beaumont said. “Not that it’s any of my business, but I’d very much like to know how high they went. I shouldn’t think more than a thousand.”
Lice snickered. “Shows how much you know.”
“Fifteen hundred, then,” Beaumont said. “Any more than that, they’d have to be loco.”
“Maybe I’m smarter than you give me credit for,” Lice boasted. “Maybe I held out for twice that.”
Beaumont shook his head in amazement. “Three thousand dollars? Is that what you’re tellin’ me? And all of it there in your saddlebags?”
“Three thousand, yes,” Lice confirmed, and caught himself. “Wait. I never said anything about my saddlebags.”
“You didn’t have to. You’ve never brought them in with you before. Only one reason you would. You don’t want to let the money out of your sight. But you had to have a few drinks to celebrate, so here you are, and my nest egg, besides.”
“Your nest egg?”
“I need money to improve my saloon and to start up a general store, among other things. Between what I have socked away and your three thousand, I should just about have enough.”
“What in hell makes you think I’m goin’ to give you my money?” Lice snapped. “I’d have to be addlepated to do a thing like that.”
“No,” Beaumont Adams said. “You’d just have to be dead.” So saying, he gave a sharp flick of his right arm and a derringer appeared in his hand. Lice bleated and started to throw up his hands, and Beaumont shot him in the face.
Thousands of square miles of what some would call the most godforsaken country anywhere. To others they were a magnificent display of the Almighty’s handiwork in the natural world.
Rocky buttes and towering mesas brushed the clouds. Winding canyons and deep ravines slashed the earth. Washes were dry most of the year but not all. Ridges crisscrossed every which way. Occasional streams accounted for green valleys nestled amid the brown of rock and earth.
The Badlands Land and Cattle Company had chosen their range wisely. It contained a lot of green. There were more year-round streams than elsewhere, and wells produced plentifully. A lot of work was called for, but the Diamond B promised to become a thriving enterprise if managed wisely.
That was where Alexander Jessup came in. Jessup had no experience running a ranch—that was why the BLCC hired Neal Bonner—but Jessup did have an impeccable record at managing large businesses. Even better, he’d demonstrated a talent for turning a profit from every business he was involved with.
“Alexander the Great,” his peers had dubbed him. It was a measure of the man that he regarded it as a title, not a nickname. “Am I not Alexander the Great?” became one of his pet replies when someone questioned his judgment.
When the consortium approached him about managing their new cattle venture, Alexander was overseeing a chain of dairy farms. He’d organized them so efficiently he dominated the dairy market in New York City and other large Eastern cities.
Alexander lived with his two grown daughters in a mansion on the Hudson River, a mansion he’d named Macedonia, and had a sign put up to that effect.
The consortium sent Franklyn Wells to negotiate, and Alexander told him he could make his case over dinner.
Wells was dazzled by the luxury the Jessups seemed to take for granted. After a sumptuous three-course meal, the men lit cigars, sat back, and got to it. After presenting the particulars of the consortium’s offer, Wells ended with “We realize we’re asking a lot. Cattle raising in the West is nothing like the dairy empire you’ve established.”
“Nonsense,” Jessup replied. “Cows are cows.”
“Be that as it may, we’ve hired Neal Bonner, one of the best ranch foremen west of the Mississippi, to be your second-in-command, as it were. He knows all there is to know about ranching, and then some.”
Alexander Jessup harrumphed. “In the first place, I don’t have seconds-in-command. I lead, others follow. If you want him to be foreman, fine. But he’ll take orders from me like everyone else.”
“Of course,” Wells said.
“In the second place, what I don’t know about ranching I’ll soon learn. In case your background on me is incomplete, I’m a very quick study. It’s one of the secrets to my success.”
“Am I to take it that you agree to our terms, then?”
“Provided your consortium agrees to mine,” Alexander replied. “I shall operate at my complete discretion. They may advise me as they see fit, but the final decision in matters relating to the ranch is mine and mine alone.” He had held up a hand when Wells went to speak. “A house must be provided. I don’t expect another Macedonia, but I won’t live in a hovel. The house must be ready in advance of my arrival.” Jessup paused. “My daughters go with me. They accompany me everywhere, and are indispensable. Both are outstanding businesswomen in their own right. You might have heard I had them privately tutored by some of the best instructors in the country.”
“I have, in fact, heard that,” Wells said.
“If I can’t take them, I won’t go.”
“The consortium wouldn’t think of refusing your request.”
“Then I must ask,” Alexander said. “What are the perils involved? Not for me, but for them. Besides the obvious.”
“The obvious?” Wells repeated.
“Oh.” Franklyn Wells coughed. “Well, there will be the climate. It’s a lot harsher than what you’re accustomed to, with temperature extremes in the summers and winters.”
Alexander dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “We won’t let a little weather bother us. Go on. What about hostiles?”
“The nearest tribe are the Dakotas, or the Sioux, as they are more commonly known.”
“The ones who wiped out Custer?”
“They had a part in it, yes. But General Crook and that other fellow, Miles, have put an end to their depredations. Their raiding days are over.”
Wells tapped his cigar on his ashtray. “There is one thing I should mention. I’ve never lived in the West, you understand. But I went to Texas to make our offer to Neal Bonner, and learned a lot about the nature of the men who do. You see, Mr. Bonner had conditions of his own, and one of them was that he bring his pard, as he calls him, along. The gentleman’s name is Jericho. He’s what they call a shootist.”
“I’m unfamiliar with the term.”
“Jericho is uncommonly proficient with a firearm.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Alexander said. “From what I hear, everyone in the West wears a gun. Every male, that is.”
“Many do, as I saw with my own eyes,” Wells said. “But few are any shakes at it, as Mr. Bonner would say. Jericho is. They’re quite reticent about it, but I was able to learn that Jericho has turned five to ten men toes up, as another of their quaint expressions has it.”
“Wait,” Alexander said. “You’re saying this Jericho is a killer?”
“At least five times over, probably more.”
“And I’m to have him in my employ?”
“No Jericho, no Neal Bonner, and we need Mr. Bonner. And you need Jericho.”
“Hear me out.” Wells took a puff and blew a smoke ring. “You asked about the dangers. I’m enlightening you. One of them has to do with the character of the men out there, or the lack thereof. You see, Mr. Jessup, the West is home to many bad men. Gunmen, confidence men, cheats, cardsharps, thieves of every stripe, and, more to the point, rustlers. They’re much more common than you can possibly imagine, and they are why you need a man like Jericho on your payroll.”
“I’m still not sure I understand,” Alexander admitted.
“Think of him as a deterrent. Those who live outside the law will be much less likely to give you trouble when they know that they must ultimately deal with Jericho.”
“Westerners aren’t like us,” Wells said. “Their character, their fundamental natures are different. They’re highly self-reliant. They respect three traits in a man more than any others. His honesty, his devotion to keeping his word, and how lethal he is.”
“By God, you are serious.”
“Never more so. Shootists, they call them, are held in great esteem, and widely feared by the criminal element. I’m sure you’ve heard of Wild Bill Hickok, shot down in Deadwood not that many years ago. With a man like him on your payroll, no bad man would dare come near you or the Diamond B.”
“This Jericho is as widely feared as Hickok?”
“Oh, goodness no. But he does have a reputation. And as Mr. Bonner put it to me, once Jericho has bedded down a few coyotes of the human variety, you should have no more trouble with any of their kind.”