It was from a ridgeline to the north of the trail that he saw the five men taking up positions in a stand of tall trees and thick brush to ambush the gold shipment.
He had left his horse and moved silently down on them.
From the looks of the two men crouched in front of him, Cain had gotten Fargo on the job just in time. The wagon and the men guarding it didn’t stand a chance against five guns blazing a short distance from the narrow corridor between the trees.
The two thieves were dressed like miners. They wore stained and faded overalls over dirty white undershirts, rough work boots, and thin-brimmed hats. These men were not professional robbers. They had been hired by someone to do this, which meant Cain had a much bigger problem than these five. This was no gang of trail thieves and gun sharps. This sounded like another mine owner with money who was after the gold ore coming out of Sharon’s Dream.
The rumbling of the heavy wagon echoed ahead through the trees and brush, and the two men both raised their guns, their attention completely on the road. With his Colt in hand, Fargo stepped toward them.
Fargo could move silently like a mountain lion when he wanted to. He was within a step of the closest robber when the man glanced around and said, “What . . . ?”
It was his last word before Fargo smashed his fist into the man’s face, the punch slamming him back into a boulder. The man slid down, unconscious.
“No!” Fargo said, pointing his Colt at the other man, who was just now turning to fire on Fargo.
Fargo put two bullets into the man’s right shoulder. Fargo could see him teeter, then fall to the ground. But the man wasn’t done yet. Lying flat on his back, he fired as he brought his gun up, his shot smashing wide and splattering into a tree behind Fargo. Fargo put two quick shots into the miner, then ducked behind a tree to make sure he was out of the way of fire coming from across the trail.
“Harry!” someone shouted from across the road. This one was hiding in a stand of trees about thirty paces away and slightly up the road toward the wagon.
It seemed that one of the two men had been named Harry. Fargo didn’t much care which one. They had planned on bushwhacking and killing good men trying to do an honest day’s work. They didn’t even deserve names on the crosses over their graves. Actually, as far as Fargo was concerned, they were better served as buzzard meat.
One man eased out from behind a tree, glancing first up the road at the now stopped wagon and then over at where his friends were.
“Get back!” another robber said from his hiding place.
At least one of them had a slight bit of sense.
Taking no chances, Fargo aimed at the man who had left his cover and smashed his gun hand with a clean, quick shot. The man spun like he’d been dancing with a pretty girl in a saloon, then went over backward in a dance move no one would ever want to try to repeat.
Two guns opened up, splintering bark chest-high from the tree Fargo was using as a shield.
Fargo dropped to the ground, spotted where one gun was firing from, and patterned the area with three quick shots.
The shout of pain and then the sound of a body falling into the brush were clear as Fargo sat with his back against the tree and quickly reloaded all six cylinders.
For a moment, the forest was silent; then came the sound of a man crashing through the brush as the last ambusher ran for his life, trying to make it to where they had tied off their horses.
Fargo dashed across the road, his heavy boots pounding the dust.
Down the road he could see that Cain and his men had done exactly as he had told them to do when they heard gunfire. Cain had pulled the wagon off the road and into the closest shelter available. Everyone had dismounted and taken cover, their guns up and ready.
Up ahead of him, the ambusher was making a lot of noise as he scrambled up the open rock slope to the horses. Fargo burst out of the trees on the other side of the small grove just as the man worked to mount a reluctant steed. He also looked like a miner, but the horse and gear he rode didn’t fit him.
And he clearly wasn’t used to mounting and riding fast as he struggled to hold the horse still enough for him to get in the saddle.
Fargo took a deep breath. No point in killing him. Fargo almost smiled. The way the man was riding— looking like he was ready to fall off his horse—maybe he’d kill himself anyway.
Carrying his Colt in a ready position, Fargo climbed up the hill the rest of the way to check on the remaining horses. They were well kept and the tack was expensive, the type you’d find the owner of a ranch using, not a fellow dressed like he was fresh out of a mine. Or, for that matter, the man down in the trees who looked like a typical rustler. Someone with money was behind this and had given them good horses for the job.
Marshal Tal Davis pushed his way through the batwings and strode into the saloon. He recognized just about everybody in the place.
He was looking for faces he
recognize. The burly, red-haired man behind the bar who went by the name of Irish was pouring a couple of miners rye when he glanced up and exchanged a familiar look with the lawman. Like all the bartenders in town, Irish was on notice to report any stranger who might be a hired gun. While paid killers didn’t all look the same— nor were they the same in age or nationality—they tended to be cocky about their calling. Davis always laughed about how many hired guns got themselves killed in saloon shoot-outs by some local. It wasn’t that the locals were so fast on the draw; it was simply that hired guns tended to have mouths as big as their reputations. They often got drunk and got into arguments that left them dead at the hands of a talented— and more sober—amateur.
Irish had sent a runner to tell the marshal that a suspicious-looking man was sitting in the back of the place playing poker and bullying the other four men sitting in.
A long bar of crude pine ran along the west wall. A small stage ran the length of the back wall. The tables filled up the eastern part of the place. A low fog of tobacco smoke hovered over everything.
Davis didn’t have any trouble figuring out who the probable gunny was. At the moment the man was slamming his wide fist down against the table, making it dance, toppling poker chips. His harsh voice was made even harsher by his drunkenness and anger. “You think I don’t know when a bunch of rubes are cheatin’ me?” he said.
The other players watched in shock and fear as the gunny suddenly produced a shiny Colt .45 and pointed it at the face of a bald man.
“You been cheatin’ me all along,” the gunny said, “and now you’re gonna pay.”
“This is an honest game, Kelly,” the bald man said. He managed to sound calm. “You’re havin’ a run of bad luck is all. And to be honest, it don’t help that you managed to put away all them drinks while we’ve been playin’. Now my advice to you—”
“I don’t want no advice from you!”
The few drinkers who hadn’t been watching the card game now swung their attention to the man holding the gun on the cardplayers. They also paid attention to Davis. He now stood no more than six feet in back of the gunny, his own Colt drawn.
“I don’t want trouble, mister. I’m the marshal here and as anybody’ll tell you, I don’t enjoy shootin’ people. Now I just want you to turn around slow and easy and hand me your gun without me having to kill you to get it.”
The gunny’s shoulders and head jerked at Davis’s words. His broad back, covered in an expensive white shirt—getting a better grade of gunnies in town, the lawman noted wryly—hunched some and his elbow rose. He was getting ready to turn on Davis and fire.
But the marshal, despite rheumatism, arthritis, and advancing age, moved with surprising speed. In four quick steps he was standing within inches of the gunny. Just as the man started to turn, Davis slammed his Colt into the back of the gunny’s head. He was still a powerful man. The gunny stayed conscious long enough to spin half around. But by then the lawman’s fist had exploded on the side of the man’s face. The gun dropped to the floor and the man followed seconds later.
“We sure do appreciate it, Marshal,” the bald card-player said. Even though he’d sounded calm when the gun was on him, his voice now sounded shaky. Sweat gleamed on his forehead. Sometimes a man didn’t get scared until afterward.
“Just doin’ my job, boys. But you could do me a favor by cartin’ this one over to the jail and throwin’ him into a cell. There’ll be a deputy there to help you.”
“Hell, yes, we will,” the bald one said. He glanced down at the unconscious gunny. “Be our pleasure, matter of fact.”
The other players voiced agreement.
Davis went back to the bar. Irish shoved a glass of beer at him.
“Thanks for letting me know about him,” Davis said. “At least that’s one less I have to worry about.”
Irish scanned the place, making sure that business was getting back to normal. Didn’t want to lose any money just because a gunny raised a little hell. Then his eyes returned to Davis. “It’s the damned gold shipments. No easier way to make money than to hire some gunnies to hijack the gold.”
“Yeah, and no easier way to take over somebody else’s mine than by stealing all their profits.” He took a deep swig of beer. Irish knew who he was talking about. Nothing more needed to be said.
“I’m your first stop?”
“Yep. Now I check out the other saloons and hotels. They’re not all as cooperative as you. Easiest way to deal with gunnies is to get to them before they can do anything. But to do that I need people to keep an eye out. Most folks just don’t want to be bothered.”
“Or they’re afraid.”
Davis sighed. “Yeah, I guess I forgot about poor old Millard.”
Ab Millard had run a saloon a block down Main Street. He’d sent a runner telling the lawman that a drifter who looked a lot like a gunny was doing some drinking and bragging in his saloon. Davis showed up and arrested the man without incident. He held him for five days, then sent him packing without any guns or weapons. Unfortunately, this particular gunny held a grudge. Three days after his release, now armed, he snuck back into town and killed poor Ab for cooperating with Davis.
“Glad you killed that little bastard when you caught him, Marshal,” Irish said bitterly. “If you hadn’t, I would’ve.”
And Davis reckoned he would have at that.
“Thank the heavens you were with us today,” Walt said to Fargo as he and two others piled the bodies on a tarp on top of the gold boxes in the wagon. Fargo and another man had already rounded up the robbers’ horses. It looked like Cain was not only going to get his gold into Sacramento, he was going to gain some nice horses for his stable.
“You men would have done all right against these idiots,” Fargo said as he dismounted. Then he turned to Cain. “You recognize any of this gear or the horses?”
Cain shook his head. “None of it, but they don’t go with these men. At least the four miners.”
“Noticed that, huh?”
Cain laughed. “Yeah. Don’t miss a detail, do I?”
Fargo glanced around at the other guards. “Anyone recognize any of these jokers or the horses?”
One of the guards said he might know one of the men, but he wasn’t sure. He thought he’d seen him in town, and he more than likely worked for another mine in the Placerville area. He didn’t know which one though.
No help at all.
But it made sense that Cain and his men didn’t know the robbers. The Placerville area had exploded in size to a small city, and the men working in each mine tended to stay together and drink together and not mix much with others from other mines. The mine owners liked it that way as well and tended to demand as much loyalty out of their men as they dared.
What Fargo wanted to know was how men from another mine knew when Cain was planning an ore shipment into town. There was a leak in Cain’s organization, and Fargo intended to plug it, more than likely with lead. But bringing up that subject standing in the hot sun with dead bodies in the wagon and guards listening didn’t seem like a good idea.
Fargo had the wagon wait twenty minutes before starting back up to give himself time to scout ahead. But he didn’t find any problems, and they reached Sacramento just before sunset.
They dropped the bodies off with the undertaker and reported in to the marshal, then took care of the gold ore. After that, Cain got rooms for his men in a boarding house on the edge of town and stabled all the horses together. Cain and Fargo had to take rooms in a cheap hotel because the expensive hotel was all booked up.
Fargo’s room was being cleaned when he reached it. He saw a slim but shapely bottom clothed in blue gingham as a young woman was bent over the bed tugging the covers into place. When she heard him and faced him, he saw she had the freckle-faced prettiness of a lot of pioneer girls.
“I’m just about done here,” she said in a sweet little voice.
“No hurry,” Fargo said. “It’s a pleasure to watch you work.”
She blushed but then allowed herself a tiny smile. “Well, that’s not a very polite thing to say, but I appreciate it.”
Fargo dumped his saddlebags in a corner and surveyed the room. Not that there was much to see. One cheap hotel room was the same as another no matter where you were. Bed, chair, bureau, washbasin, pitcher. It was a step up from a prison cell and a step down from where respectable folks stayed. At that he had to laugh at himself. That was one of the few things he’d never been called—respectable.
“My name’s Fargo. What’s yours?” he asked her as she moved to dust off the bureau.
“Sally DeWitt. My uncle owns this hotel.”
The sunlight streaming through the window made her reddish blond hair glow. The deep blue eyes glowed too. He watched the rise and fall of her fetching breasts. He felt himself stir in a pleasant way.
He crossed the room to the bed. He sat down and began to pull his boots off. He was pleased to see her come over to him. “Here, I can get those off for you.”