“You probably had a halfway decent reason for comin’ up here, Brant,” Hughes said. He winked at Peck. “Maybe you’d like to share it with us.”
Brant shook his head in disgust. Locally he was a man who brooked no insolence. Townspeople feared him financially and his mine guards physically. But these drifters, these lowborn killers, they had no respect for who Brant was—or at least who he planned to be after he took things over around here.
“I want to have a meeting down at the mine. And I want you down there.”
“I hope it doesn’t run as long as that last meeting,” Peck said. “I damned near went to sleep.”
Brant’s face flushed deep red. He looked out of place up here in his city suit. Out of place and at the moment completely at the mercy of the mocking men he badly needed right now. “I’ll expect you along in ten minutes. And not one minute later.”
He turned and tromped back down the hill.
Hughes and Peck ridiculed Brant, of course. Daniel made a good audience. His laughter was deep and genuine.
But as the jokes kept coming, he thought how strange his life had become. A man hires you and you make fun of him. And he hires you to kill other people.
Yes, indeed. How strange Daniel Parker’s life had become.
You don’t just bring dead bodies into a town without there being some questions asked. The next morning, the inquest with the marshal in front of a magistrate took less than a half hour, with Cain and one of his men giving their side of the story after Fargo gave his. They were all cleared and the judge actually thanked them for taking care of the problem.
Fargo had no doubt that this gang of thieves wasn’t the main problem. More than likely, by getting rid of them, he was going to force Brant into hiring more experienced and dangerous men to go after Cain’s gold.
After dinner the night before, Fargo had asked around and it seemed that no one recognized the men lying in coffins in the morgue, and no one had inquired about their horses or their gear. He hadn’t expected anyone to, but it never hurt to ask.
Outside the stone courthouse, on the edge of the dusty street, Marshal Davis stopped Cain and Fargo. He stood about the same height as Fargo, slightly taller than Cain, and looked like he would be a formidable foe in a fight, even though gray was touching his hair on the sides. He had on a black suit jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. The matching Colts that the marshal carried comfortably in leather on his hips told Fargo the man could shoot with both hands, probably with deadly accuracy. And from what Fargo had heard about Marshal Davis, the man was harsh but fair, and kept the streets of Sacramento pretty much under control.
“Fargo,” the marshal said, staring directly into Fargo’s eyes. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you. You mind? I got a question for you.”
“Fire away, Marshal. Not sure I have an answer, but I’ll do my darnedest.”
Marshal Davis smiled. “Are you working the Placerville road for Mr. Parker?”
“I am,” Fargo said.
Cain laughed. “Thank all the heavens that he is. It would be me and my men lying in that morgue without him helping me out.”
Marshal Davis nodded. “Glad you’re on the job. I need all the help I can get on that road with all the robberies going on and the amount of gold being transported into town. And from the looks of them, I doubt these men are the main problem.”
“I have the same hunch,” Fargo said.
Cain laughed again and slapped Fargo on the back. “I trust your hunches, Skye. You’re the only one who can get my shipments through. They’re the ones that seem to be getting attacked the most.”
“I’ve noticed that as well,” Marshal Davis said. “That’s why I’m glad Fargo is with you. That alone should cut down on some of the problems on that road. Your reputation precedes you, sir.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” Fargo said. “Kind of like a bad smell.”
Placerville had expanded down a valley and spread out like an ugly weed over the hillsides. Tents, shacks, and lean-tos surrounded the two-story buildings that formed the town’s core. Mine tailings dotted the hills like scars in all directions and there wasn’t a tree in sight left standing.
By the time Fargo left Cain at his mine and rode into town, it was getting close to dark. The heat of the day still hovered over the buildings, keeping everything feeling dusty and tight.
Cain had been hoping that Fargo would stay with him in his big, empty house, but Fargo had declined, saying it just wasn’t his style. Cain had laughed and said he knew that, but had to offer. Then Cain had suggested that Fargo stay in the nicest hotel in town and put it on his tab. Fargo intended to take him up on his offer. While he preferred sleeping on the trail, he wasn’t about to turn down an occasional hotel and well-cooked food.
The Wallace Hotel filled a corner and part of one block of the boomtown. It had been built with rough stone and painted wood, with large windows and a covered wooden porch and sidewalk area that wrapped around the big building. On one street was the entrance to the saloon; around the corner on the other street was the entrance to the hotel.
Fargo went in the hotel entrance and looked around. The hotel had a lobby that was separate from the saloon, and like the hotel in Sacramento, there was a grand staircase made out of marble and polished wood that soared upward in a wide curve over the stuffed chairs and couches of the lobby.
There was a separate dining area off of the lobby and a door that marked the entrance into the saloon and kept the noise in the lobby down. The smells coming from the dining area were inviting and Fargo set his mind on a good dinner, then maybe a little poker and a drink to round off the evening.
He arranged for a bath to be drawn in his room as he checked in. Before going upstairs, Fargo poked his head in to the saloon to take a look around. The place had a number of what looked like high-stakes poker games going and a stage for dancers later in the evening. It smelled of cigar smoke and whiskey and felt inviting. A brass spittoon sat near every table and behind the long wooden bar. The wall was full of bottles arranged around a huge ornate mirror. Fargo had no doubt he could spend many a comfortable evening in the place.
He was about to head to his room when a woman in a dark dress with pink trim stepped into the saloon from a back room. She had long brown hair, beautiful white skin, and green eyes that could hold a man firmly in place no matter what the occasion. Fargo knew that for a fact, since he had spent many a pleasurable night staring into those eyes in Colorado a few years before.
Her name was Anne Dowling, and she was the widow of Wallace Dowling. Wallace had been a rancher and had been killed by rustlers. Anne had run the ranch for years before Fargo met her. They had become lovers and he had helped her out with two of her ranch hands who were threatening her and trying to take over her ranch.
Her bubbling personality made her one of those people whom it was almost impossible to say no to. And she had been a lover like none he had known since.
Fargo stared, taking in her beauty and flowing movements as she headed behind the bar like she owned the place. Then it dawned on him that likely she did. This was the Wallace Hotel. Her husband had been named Wallace.
He moved through the saloon, watching her work on something on the back counter. He finally reached the bar and stood staring at the white skin of her neck above the collar of her dress. He had loved the feel of her skin. The memory was as if they had made love yesterday, not four years before.
The bartender approached him. “What will it be, sir?”
“A simple hello from a beautiful woman would be a nice start.”
The bartender frowned and started to say something when Anne spun around, all smiles. “Skye!”
She moved to the bar, took Fargo’s hands, and squeezed them, then almost climbed up on the bar to kiss his cheek.
Her green eyes sparkled with excitement at seeing him. He had to admit, he was excited in more ways than one at seeing her again as well.
“What are you doing in Placerville?”
“I was about to ask you the same question,” Fargo said, laughing.
“Long story.” She squeezed his hands again, her smile beaming just as he remembered it. “Have you had dinner?”
“Just going up to my room to drop off my gear, get cleaned up, and do exactly that.”
“Wonderful,” she said, laughing. “Mind if a woman invites herself to your table?”
“Anne, it would be my pleasure,” he said, bowing slightly.
She released her grip on his hands and turned to the bartender. “Reg, this is the Trailsman. He doesn’t pay for a drink in here.”
Reg smiled and nodded to Fargo, clearly recognizing the name. “Nice meeting you, sir. Anne has spoken of you often and I’ve heard many other stories. It is an honor and a pleasure.”
“A bartender who serves me free drinks,” Fargo said, shaking the bartender’s solid hand and smiling. “I think the pleasure is all mine.”
“Anything to keep you around a little longer,” Anne said, laughing.
“Oh, I might be here awhile,” Fargo said. Then, before she could ask, he said, “Long story. I’ll tell you all about it over dinner. Give me thirty minutes to clean off a week’s worth of trail dust for such wonderful company.”
She half climbed up on the bar again and kissed his cheek for the second time. “I’ll be in the dining room. Don’t keep a girl waiting too long. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Then she winked and turned and headed for the back room.
Fargo watched her go, his mind filled with memories of all their nights together.
“She’s quite a woman,” Reg said.
“You’ve known her for a while then?”
“Tried to get her to marry me—that’s how well I’ve known her.” Then he smiled. “Oh, don’t worry. Those days are long behind me. Mostly just my daydreams more than anything else. To her I’ve never been more than a friend. Sort of like a big brother. But you”— he smiled—“all she does is talk about you. Skye this and Skye that. She has her own daydreams when it comes to you.”
“Well, I’ve had a few about her too.”
“You don’t strike me as the settling-down kind.”
“No. I’m not. But once in a while she makes it very tempting. All these years go by and I still think of her. Then I run into her—”
Reg had to move down the bar to serve a pair of new customers. He was a burly, quiet gent, one of those men whose presence had a calming effect on people. A real asset in the bartending business, especially given the nature of Western saloons, where fights were as common as beers. Fargo imagined that when a brawl broke out Reg had two weapons—the ball bat behind the bar and his own assertive presence.
When Reg came back, he said, “You’ve probably noticed we’ve got a lot of crazy people running around these streets of ours.”
Reg nodded. “Sort of ugly what gold does to people. You take a nice, decent feller everybody trusts— he gets a little gold and suddenly he sees everybody as his enemy. He’s got to protect the gold. I’ve seen it over and over. Works the same way from the other side too. You have two friends and one of them gets a strike and the other doesn’t. The one without the strike gets jealous. A lot of time—and I’ve seen this happen too—he gets so jealous that some night he’s all drunked up and he kills his old friend in cold blood. That’s the kind of effect gold has on people.”
“And then you’ve got one mine owner trying to take over another mine owner.”
“That’s what’s going on around here. Already been a lot of men killed. The more gold, the more killing.” He laughed. “That’s why I’m happy to stay behind the bar here and mind my own business.”
Reg had to serve a few more customers. Fargo looked around the place. Lamps were lowered over poker tables. A man in a funny little hat and red sleeve garters was sitting down to play the piano. Three men at one table were rolling dice.
Boomtown. You’d find men here from Europe, from Asia. All trying to get rich. Reg was right. Otherwise decent, reasonable, realistic men would leave their homes and families to come west to search for gold. And when they got out here, something happened to them. They changed, no longer decent, reasonable, or realistic. Too many of them changed into hungry wolves.
Reg came back. “This probably sounds kind of crazy, giving advice to the Trailsman. But this is one of those towns where it’s hard to know who to trust. I want Anne to be happy. I doubt she’ll get you to the altar but she’s got a chance as long as nobody turns you into a corpse. So just watch yourself. I don’t want to see that little gal disappointed.”
This time when Reg went down the bar, there was an air of sadness about him. Fargo figured that despite his earlier words, the man was still painfully in love with Anne. It must have been hard for him to talk to Fargo about the woman he loved—the woman who loved Fargo and not him.
But Reg was one of those rare people—he put the wishes and needs of his friend Anne above his own wishes and needs.
Anne was lucky to have a friend like Reg.
Fargo hadn’t enjoyed himself this much in a long time. The steak cooked exactly the way he liked it, the potato soft and moist, the waiters around only when needed. But it was the company of Anne that made the meal memorable.
After they had eaten, they talked far into the night over fine wine, far after the restaurant was closed to the regular guests.
As he had guessed, she was the owner of the hotel. She had sold her ranch after one rough winter and headed west, ending up here with enough money and the right timing to build Placerville’s largest and nicest hotel and saloon. She hadn’t remarried and had no intention to.
“You spoiled me, Fargo,” she said at one point, putting her hand on his and looking into his eyes. “Not only for other men, but you showed me that there was more to living than just a ranch and cattle.”
“So, are you happy here?”