Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows Not Over 18.
Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.
WAGES $25.00 per Week.
Apply Russell, Majors, & Waddell, Leavenworth, Kans. Terr.
JD Dunne studied the poster intently, ignoring the bustle of the street around him and the occasional passing adult who jostled against his slight form. The biting air of mid-February sliced through his aging raglan topcoat and closely knit sweater almost as if they weren't there and tugged at his faded green muffler and the brim of his beige felt bowler as he tucked his hands in their heavy woollen gloves under the coat's ample shoulder capes. He knew cold well enough--New York's closely packed buildings, many now all of five storeys tall, tended to funnel and compress the wind off the Atlantic and make it seem even more bitter than it was-- but he hadn't realized that the broad Mississippi would inspire similar airs.
Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out a canvas-backed notebook and worn-down lead pencil and quickly scribbled the address specified before he picked up the canvas "telescope" suitcase that rested between his feet and began threading his way through the surging crowds. All the long cobbled slope of the landing was aswarm with rousters loading the close-ranked steamboats, and the riverport world was a world of sound. Bull-moan of boat whistles, clangor of bells, boom of barrels rolled down the stones, wheeze of steam. Rattle of a stage plank as the rousters went down its great springy length in the bouncing lope they called coonjine. Big baritone voices in an improvised work song: "Swing dem bunks o' black-eyed peas--load me down, load me down!" Faster chatter of a white-wooled sing-boss, calling rhythm for a gang moving bales of fur down from the Upper River and the great mountains beyond: "Now go back an' git de oder--you got de wrong one den! Now all pick it up, doo dah, doo dee, an' you walk, walk, doo dee, doo dah, an' you set it down, doo dee!" Crash went the bales and "Hiya-a-a-ay!" rang the work chorus.
It was like nothing JD had ever known, not even on his forays to the Battery from the uptown mansion where he had been raised, and later the boardinghouse room to which he and his mother had moved after she became too ill to work. The Ohio River wasn't open enough yet for steamer traffic, and JD had come west by rail--southwest across New Jersey to Philadelphia, thence in a long shallow arc to Harrisburg to pick up the Pennsy, which carried him to smoky Pittsburgh and the junction of the Pittsburgh, Columbus & Cincinnati, which, despite its name, required him to change again at Ohio's capitol and take the Little Miami to the Queen City; and thence across southern Indiana and Illinois by the Ohio & Mississippi to St. Louis, beyond which the rails still carried only a couple of hours' ride to Glencoe, though it was fondly hoped that they would one day reach to the Pacific. But from St. Louis down the Lower River, as they called it, remained sufficiently free of ice for traffic to ply it the year around, though without the volume of the spring-through-fall season, and already the rate of activity was picking up in anticipation of the flood of rafts and flatboats that would begin making their way downstream with the coming of spring. The waterfront was a close-packed, mile-and-a-half- long belt of warehouses, commercial buildings, and factories dating from the reconstruction that had followed the Great Fire of '49, and was crowded with mountain men in buckskin, colorfully garbed Mexicans, silent-footed Indians wrapped in bright blankets and with feathers in their hair, rough roustabouts (Negro and white) and rivermen, French-Canadian halfbreeds with gay-colored sashes wound around their middles, Germans from South St. Louis, steamboat captains, Southern planters, English noblemen, speculators as checkered as their vests, gamblers with their cards (and sometimes their derringers) up their sleeves, and Texans in broad slouch hats and high-heeled boots, who had come up with herds of steers being driven to market here and in Chicago and even New York. The cattle had been a common phenomenon in his city's streets throughout much of JD's boyhood--strange, slim-flanked, long-legged beasts in a myriad of coat colors, with horns that often attained a spread of six or seven feet from tip to tip, and occasionally even nine or ten. It was the sight of them, and the stories he read of the life of the miners in California, that had inspired in the boy a longing to go West himself, to see the country they came from and perhaps to make his fortune--in the mines, in the Santa Fe trade, however the chance might present itself. But Mamma had been set on his going to college--she had been scrimping and saving toward that goal all his life--and it was only after her death that he had looked at the money that was left and known it would never be enough. For the last couple of years it had been him supporting her, and even then his wages at the biggest stable in the city hadn't even been enough to cover their room and board, with nothing said of the doctors. She had said over and over that there was no need for him to be spending his college money on her, but he had no intention of giving up. In the end he had lost her anyway, but at least it was with the knowledge that he had done everything in his power to make her comfortable, if not to save her life.
Second-class rail fare had come to just over fifty dollars--no sleeping car, just nights sitting up in the coach--plus a dollar for each hastily- snatched station-lunch-counter meal, which the conductor was often not inclined to allow you the opportunity to eat, even though the schedule sometimes offered only as little as ten minutes for it, or fifty cents if you bought a basket lunch (as JD generally had) to consume later at leisure, thereby saving dyspepsia. The train boy roamed up and down the aisle about once an hour with his assortment of sandwiches, popcorn, chewing gum, candy, lozenges, fruit, bottles of pop, cigars and ready-made cigarettes, magazines, newspapers, cheap perfume and toys, decks of cards, picture postcards, and paperbound books, tossing items into laps depending on age and sex, returning to retrieve what was refused and collect money for what was accepted, counting chiefly on boredom to move the stock, and pausing to make change for the inevitable penny-ante poker players. JD had passed his time, almost two days total from New York, reading, staring out the window, and trying to visualize what the West might be like. He hadn't given a lot of thought to exactly how he would get there once the rails ran out. And the poster was distressingly vague on just what Russell, Majors & Waddell wanted its "young, skinny, wiry fellows" for. But twenty- five dollars a week? That was a fortune--more than twice as much as a college professor made, and two hundred a year beyond what the policemen in New York were paid. Surely it wouldn't take too long for him to save up enough to get an outfit together and complete his journey, to wherever he eventually decided to go--California, Texas, the new "Pike's Peak" or Comstock camps. From the talk he had heard and the newspapers he'd seen over the last half- dozen years, he knew that Kansas Territory lay just the far side of Missouri, and that Leavenworth, the civilian community adjacent to the major fort of the same name, was the head of the Smoky Hill, Santa Fe, and Oregon Trails. There would have to be some kind of regular passenger service there even if the Missouri River wasn't clear enough for boats yet.
Following the surging crowds, JD found his way to Market Street, a-roar with trolley cars, drays, coaches, buggies, surreys, phaetons, delivery wagons piled high with boxes and brewery wagons (there were, so he had heard, three dozen or more breweries in the city, owing chiefly to the heavy German presence) with barrels, one-and two-horse hacks, sometimes a buckboard, sometimes a barouche with a coachman in livery, now and again a farmer's wagon or a rider weaving his way through the press, and once a drove of four or five hundred mules, charging at full speed through the city streets from the terminus of the North Missouri Railroad half a mile above the Upper Ferry landing, bound for the river to be shipped south by steamer. He reflected with wry amusement on how the sight of this teeming metropolis must affect the country boys and took some pride in the fact that he was himself a native of an even larger city, and not so likely to fall for the traps and gulls that must certainly exist. A shoeshine boy provided him with directions to the Monroe House at the corner of Olive and Second, which proved to be not far from the river, but comfortable and pleasant, with clean, well-ventilated rooms and an offering of meals and bed for only two dollars a day.
"Russell, Majors & Waddell?" the waiter repeated when JD showed him his notebook in the dining room that evening. "Why, sure, son, everybody knows them. One of their owners, Bill Russell, and his first partner Jim Brown were the first civilian freighting outfit to get a government contract to carry supplies out to the Western forts, after the Army made a hash of trying to do it during the war with Mexico. In '54 he hooked up with Bill Waddell and Alex Majors, and within three years they had the go-ahead to deliver up to 2500 tons of stores to forts and depots in Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah. They hauled all the supplies for the trouble with the Mormons, and they just this month reorganized their stagecoach division as the Central Overland, California & Pike's Peak Express; it runs stages and delivers mail to Denver and Salt Lake, and word is it hopes to get hold of George Chorpenning's contract for mail delivery between there and Placerville."
That the man could so easily rattle off the company's accomplishments eased JD's mind: clearly this was no fly-by-night outfit, but a sound and respected business with a history behind it. "I got the name off a poster down near the landings," he explained. "It was advertising for young, skinny, wiry fellows willing to risk death daily.' Got any notion what they'd want 'em for?"
"Well, the way I hear it, the company's setting up a horseback mail service to California. Senator Gwin talked Russell into trying it, hoping that it can prove the superiority of the shorter central route and bring 'em a fat government contract, and promised to try to get Congress to put up money for the experiment. The company's already advertising that its Pony Express will deliver letters cross- country within ten days, at five dollars an ounce. I hear the business circles are buzzing about it like a hive about to swarm. My bet is what you saw was a recruitment pitch for riders."
JD nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, it makes sense. How would I get to Leavenworth from here?"
"Stagecoach. Ticket should run you about twenty-eight dollars, and the trip's a bit over a day and a half in good weather. Of course at this time of year you can't count on that, but if you do get held up, as long as you eat at the stations it's on the ticket. Anyplace else, it's on you. Figure to sign up?"
"If they'll have me," JD agreed. "I guess I oughtta be young and skinny enough to suit them, I don't weigh but a hundred and thirty pounds and I've been riding horses since I was eight. Even did some jockeying for a couple of years." He sighed. "And I'm an orphan, like the poster said, and I won't be nineteen till June."
"Well, good luck, then," the friendly waiter wished him. "It sounds like it'll be a hell of a thing to be part of, just the kind of job a young fellow like you should take to. Though I do hear the company's got some peculiar ideas about how its employees should behave. Why, they even expect you not to swear--can you imagine a freight driver not swearing? He'd never get his teams to move!"
"Guess I'll worry about that when I get there--and if they take me," JD replied. "Let me see...as long as the meal's no extra cost, I'll have the devilled oysters, and the stuffed squab..."
Ezra Standish positioned himself beside a bulwark of cotton bales whose shape would absorb his outline and afford, if needed, an excellent bastion against bullets, and waited quietly, his emerald eyes darting here and there through the thick darkness, while the cab driver hustled his trunk on board the waiting riverboat Catherine of Newport. Ezra had always liked the novels of Sir Walter Scott; perhaps the name would prove a fortunate one. He only hoped his devious grifter's mind had come up with a convoluted enough cover to prevent anyone from finding out which boat he'd taken. It was a pity this trouble hadn't waited a few months to come up; by June there would be such a bustle of craft coming and going that it would be impossible for his enemies to trace his course. But if there was one thing his career to date had taught him, it was that one didn't always have a choice. He wouldn't go quite so far as to say beggars couldn't be choosers--with almost two thousand dollars tucked away in his money belt, he'd hardly call himself a beggar--but the principle was much the same.
He cursed softly in French. He could have understood it if he'd gotten into trouble for one of his cons, but this-- Damn that fool Saint- Mémin! He'd admitted in so many words, as they stood back to back on the field of honor, that he'd never believed Ezra had cheated at cards. There was a young lady (name of course unspecified) who preferred Standish's attentions to his own; he intended to simplify her choice. And then he'd had to get wily and step aside just as Ezra squeezed the trigger; if he hadn't, the gambler would have hit him in the shoulder. It wasn't even as if old Martin Michel Guénolé de Saint-Mémin had lost his only son: he had three more, all as worthless as the eldest (in Standish's private considered opinion). And rather than throwing Ezra to the wolves of the law for breaking the statutes that forbade duelling (not that men didn't cheerfully ignore them a dozen times a week), he'd decided to make a personal crusade of it. His hired assassin had almost caught the young gambler once already, even though Ezra had by that time been warned and packing.
A footstep whirled him, his twelve-ounce, three-inch-barrel Smith & Wesson No. 1 seven-shot .22 revolver sweeping out of the shoulder holster under his perfectly tailored green clawhammer coat, and the cab driver leaped back with a gasp, his spread hands flying up to defend a face little less black than the night. "Damn," Ezra growled, rebuking himself almost more than the incautious hackie--his nerves were going to require three months to recover. He tucked the S&W back into its place as he demanded, "Is my baggage securely on board?"
"Oui, Monsieur, an' de boat, she is standing by to cast off."
Ezra fished a gold double eagle out of his pants pocket and handed it over. "You have forgotten you ever saw me," he said in a tight voice. "You have spent the last three hours conveyin' a fare from Jackson Square to Bonnabel Place and assistin' his wife in gettin' his inebriated person indoors. Do you comprehend me?"
"Oui, assurément, Monsieur, j'entends. No one will hear from me of your embarquacion." Ezra drilled him with a look. "En vérité, Monsieur, no one went aboard dis boat at all tonight."
"That is better." Standish drew the Colt Model 1851 revolver from his hip holster and cocked the hammer, drawing it back from the two nipples between which it had been resting as a safety measure; with six conical-headed, 140- grain .36-caliber bullets in the cylinder, it offered less firepower than the S&W, but its seven-and-a-half-inch barrel gave a long sighting radius and its forty-two ounces of weight--three and a half times that of the smaller gun--would soak up more recoil, permitting a more powerful load and therefore a better range. With a final sweeping glare around, he took off in a dodging run, making shrewd use of every bit of cover and finally scuttling up the stage plank to the thick shadows of the boat's bottom deck. The mate was waiting, a couple of deckhands at his back. The breathless gambler passed him the agreed-upon hundred dollars, waiting resignedly for a moment to see whether the man would demand an even larger bribe, and then smothering a sigh of relief as the signal was given and the dockworker slipped the Catherine's last remaining mooring line off the bollard and flipped it free. The big engines sighed into life, dead slow, and the sidewheeler eased away from the landing and out onto the black water. Ezra melted back into the shadows at the foot of the handsome gilded stairway that led up to the accomodations deck, his eyes on the shore, reflecting sourly on the amount of money this decampment was costing him. Quite apart from the fact that upriver fares were just a bit less than double the down- for passengers (more than that for freight), because it took longer and the boat had to burn more wood, and from the bribes he'd had to spread around to the staff of his hotel so they'd forget when he had left and what cab he had taken, the Catherine's captain--who was also her owner, as was generally the case, and in everything except matters of navigation was by right an absolute autocrat--had had to be greased with eight hundred dollars, as much as he paid either of his two pilots in two months, to persuade him to cast off twelve hours early, and without the usual clamor of bell and whistle. Magpie, Ezra thought bitterly. As if the majority of his passengers had not already tendered their fares; if they miss the boat, they have little recourse, and he retains the money--and reaps an even greater profit, since there will be less food consumed. Eight hundred dollars. Damn. After six years of being bounced from one relative to another, a decade of travelling around Europe and the United States with his mother apprenticing in the arts of gambling and the con, and another on his own, he had been, at thirty-two, so close to having the amount he needed for his dream, a small but elegant bar and gambling hall-- perhaps only a start-up, but enough to build upon--and now, while his stake remained respectable, there was the matter of getting clear; he didn't delude himself into thinking that he could simply disembark at St. Louis and forget about Saint-Mémin. He had made up his mind at the beginning that he would have to leave the river behind for good and all--far behind. San Francisco, perhaps, and that meant a cross-country stagecoach and another two hundred dollars spent. He wondered what it cost to establish a good saloon (or buy an existing one) in San Francisco. Doubtless rather more than I will possess by the time I arrive there.
But the Catherine was well out into the channel now, the pulse of her boilers picking up, and still no sign of a pursuing vehicle or riders. Perhaps he had made it. These big boats could do the upriver run from New Orleans in five days if called upon, less than four returning, but more often they loafed along at three to four weeks for the round trip, counting the customary three-day stopover at St. Louis and week at the other end. That meant the Catherine should cover the 1400 miles of bends in six to ten days barring accidents. If Ezra had been successful in the false trail he had lain, Saint-Mémin would believe he had taken a Gulf boat for Galveston, and as there was no telegraph in Texas yet, by the time he found out differently the gambler would be on his way overland.
The mate appeared quietly at his side. "Had your trunk sent up to your cabin, Mr. Sullivan," he said. "That's Number 14, off the saloon. No extra charge."
"I earnestly trust not," the young gambler drawled, and let the hammer of his Colt carefully down. He suddenly felt exhausted in body and mind, regardless of the fact that he had stayed up far later than this--and even gone without sleep altogether for as much as forty hours at a time--when a hot game was under way. Mother would be mortified that he was allowing it to show. "Appearances are everything, darlin'," she had said again and again. San Francisco. Well, he had often thought about visiting it.
He wiped his face with an Irish lawn handkerchief and started slowly up the stairs. The first thing he was going to do was jam a chair under the knob of his cabin door and sleep until noon--with the Colt under his pillow.
Vin Tanner's big blaze-faced gelding scrambled up the muddy bank and paused, without command, to shake the icy water from its hide, then rolled a white-rimmed eye back at its master, whom it had heretofore considered a rational being. Vin paid its crotchets no heed. Ignoring the chill breeze that pasted his thick woollen trousers, and the soft buckskin leggings that covered them, against his legs, he let the reins drop to the ground, slipped one foot out of the stirrup, rested his knee on the saddle, and reached up, one- handed, into the wild pecan tree directly above him, hauling his wiry frame onto the lowest branch and scrambling from there into the leafless limbs until he was high enough--about eighty feet above the ground--to see sixteen miles back into Texas over the sere rolling prairie. Throughout the climb, which he made using his feet and left hand, he never turned loose of the 1854 Volcanic carbine he held in his right. Though the model was no longer being made--its self- contained "Rocket Ball" cartridge, invented by Walter Hunt in '47 and consisting of a hollow-based lead bullet not unlike the more recently developed Minié ball and containing both gunpowder and a fulminate-of-mercury primer, had failed to gain much public acceptance--it was almost the only repeating long gun commonly available, and as such, though its ordinary market value was only about forty dollars, was both tremendously rare and tremendously valuable on the Texas frontier. With a sixteen-and-a-half-inch barrel, an overall length of just a tad under three feet, and a weight of five and a half pounds, it had less than four-fifths the length and three-fifths the heft of the durable but clumsy single- shot Hawken, which made it perfectly suited to carrying in a case under the stirrup leather rather than across the pommel, and lacked the escaping gases which made the Colt revolving rifle so unpleasant to shoot. Because the cartridge was no longer than the projectile itself--in fact, it was the projectile itself--its capacity was enormous: twenty shots carried in a tubular magazine under the barrel and fed into the chamber by a carrier block which was engaged by moving the lever down, forward, and then back and up. Very smooth, very fast, and something any Indian fighter--which every frontier Texan had the strong prospect of being--would kill for. Which was exactly what Eli Joe had set it up to look as if Vin had done.
Everyone around Fort Belknap had known that Lieutenant Jess Kincaid--of whom it was said, "What does he need with money? He knows the man who makes it"--owned such a rifle, and everyone had known that Vin had envied him its possession from the moment he laid eyes on it. Vin had offered his own powerful Sharps single-shot in trade, with boot-- up to and including his horse Peso; he had tried to maneuver the Lieutenant into staking it at poker, and thought of stealing it, though the thought was as far as he'd gotten. And then Lieutenant Kincaid had turned up dead, out behind the stables with his head bashed in and a knife wound in his back, and someone had ransacked his room in the BOQ and made off with the Volcanic. Vin hadn't found out about it until he got back from his latest despatch ride, which unluckily had begun only that same afternoon-- 270 miles south to San Antonio, where the commanding officer of the state's entire U. S. Army presence had his headquarters. And by a disastrous mischance, he returned carrying a Volcanic of his own, won at dice from a man in Cottonwood, a man who'd called himself Eli Joe and who, now that Vin stopped to think about it, hadn't been anywhere near as pissed off as he should have been to lose such a fine weapon.
Vin couldn't stand to be caged; the Army would have been better off to have shot him in the process of placing him under arrest. He had contrived to escape the very same night, and by great good fortune his gear and weapons had been stacked up in the corner of the guardhouse--including the Volcanic, which presumably was considered evidence. Vin figured that, having the name of murderer, he might just as well profit by it; Kincaid certainly wouldn't be needing the carbine any more.
He reached into the Comanche-made beaded pouch of loose openwork technique that hung at his waist (his pronghorn-antelope shirt, decorated with quills and beads and Mexican coins, had been designed Indian-fashion without pockets), and pulled out a folding brass spyglass to scan the southern horizon from west to east, slowly, lingering on anything that looked the least bit suspicious. Belknap lay sixty or seventy miles behind him, and he had done his level best to lay out sign that would suggest he was pointing for Mexico, but there were Tonk hunters on the fort payroll who, while not officially part of the scouting staff, had little love for a young white man who'd been reared in a Peneteka lodge and would bay like hounds on his track. And, of course, since it was the Army he was running from, just getting out of Texas wouldn't be enough to protect him. Probably he'd have been better off to have run for the Rio--or the Panhandle, where he'd have some prospect of rejoining the People. But he had never in twenty long years forgotten what his ma had told him as she lay dying of putrid fever: "Be brave...Remember, you're a Tanner." Fleeing to Mexico or to the Indians might be expedient, but Vin didn't think it was brave. Brave was staying in his own country and somehow finding a way to clear his name.
When he felt sure there was no pursuit within eyeshot, he tucked the glass back into his pouch, braced his moccasin against the treetrunk, and shifted carefully on the branch to study the sky to the north. No one knew better than a native-born Texian how tricksy the weather could be: blue northers that began in the fall and remained a threat for six months or more; extra-warm days--warm enough to go swimming--in the heart of January; late snow and a hard freeze as late as April. It was March now, a patchwork of warm bright days that set the green buds swelling on the trees, then cut them back with later cold spells, interrupted by days of shrouding fog and mist, overcast skies and slow drizzle, showers that came sudden from passing clouds and left the earth sweet-smelling--and occasional driving rains. Vin had been hoping for one of the latter, and his experienced eye told him that his wish was about to be granted. The day had started off warm and sunny, but now there was a queer stillness in the air, and a dark bank of clouds was rising in the north. The little breeze had died away, and everyday sounds, such as Peso shaking his saddle at the foot of the tree, seemed unusually loud. The wild birds had gone quiet. Vin paused long enough to whisper thanks to his guardians, then began scrambling down from his perch, not recklessly, but not wasting any time about it either. Reaching his horse, he flung himself into the saddle and urged the big gelding up the slope, knowing that storms around the Red could get mighty ornery: one minute it was a lot of mudflats and the next it was suddenly bank- full, and a good gully-washer upstream of where you were could start a flash flood when there wasn't a drop falling along your stretch of river.
At the top of the bank, just where the trees began to thin out, Vin dismounted again, tied and hobbled Peso, cut partway through the trunk of a small cottonwood with his short-handled camp ax, broke it over to the ground, and trimmed out the branches on the underside, piling them on top and weaving them into the sides, leaving an opening on the south. He gouged a trench around three sides of the shelter to channel off the coming rain, stripped the horse and dragged his tack and gear under his lean-to, then wove more branches into the brush for a windbreak to shelter the animal. As he worked, the clouds in the north boiled upward, blue-black, shutting out the light. Soon they were more than halfway across the sky, but low. Then, in the nearest trees to the north, Vin heard a deep, whispering sigh, and in the growing darkness he saw them bending before the wind and rain racing toward them. He had just time to throw an armload of branches under the lean-to and duck into it before they reached him, and with them a sudden icy coldness--for these northers could drop the temperature by thirty or forty degrees in a few hours. Hail rattled and bounced against the ground, bruising the early wildflowers. In fifteen minutes an inch-thick white crust lay on the ground and formed a shell over Vin's lean-to. Then the wind picked up again, straight out of the north, rising to a howl, and a slashing rain began, dissolving the crust from all but the most sheltered places. It blew in cold gray sheets across the flatlands, and the prairie began to run with thin snakes of water. The rain was freezing cold, with sleet in it.
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