Authors: William W. Johnstone
uck knew he wasn't going to tolerate much living in the hotel. He didn't like the closed-in feeling. The sheets were clean, and that was nice, but the bed was soft and made his back hurt. Buck was not accustomed to the finer things in life. So-called finer things. To Buck, the finer things were the clean smell of deep timber; the high thinness of clean air in the mountains; the rush of a surging stream, wild white water whipping and singing; the cough of a puma and the calling of a bird. Now
was fine living!
He walked down to the cafe in the coolness of the early morning. The eastern sky was just beginning to streak with silver, but the cafe was busy, the smell of bacon and eggs and frying potatoes filling the air.
Conversation stopped when Buck walked in and took a seat at a far table, his back to the wall. When the waitress came to take his order, Buck said, “If the food's as good as it smells, I'll take one of everything on the menu.”
The waitress smiled at him. Buck ordered breakfast and said, “The owner must make a fortune in this place, the food's so good.”
“The owner?” the waitress asked, a curious look in her eyes.
“Yes. Are you the owner?”
She laughed. “Not hardly, sir. Mr. Stratton is the owner. Mr. Stratton owns everything in Bury. Every building and every business.”
“Interesting,” Buck said. “
Buck mulled that over in his mind while he ate. The buzz of conversation had returned to normal and the townspeople were ignoring Buck, concentrating on eating. Eating was serious business in the west. Not to be taken lightly. Not at all. Buck thought, The waitress might think Stratton owns everything in sight, but Potter and Richards are right in there as well.
So no one owns their own business. Good. That will make it easier when I burn the damn place to the ground.
Buck was halfway through his breakfast when Deputy Rogers blundered in, closing the door just a bit too hard. Obviously, he wanted everyone to know he had arrived.
Rogers plopped down in a chair facing Buck and said, “Mr. Richards wants to see you.”
“When I finish eating. Now go away.”
Rogers could not believe his ears. “Hey, gunslick! I saidâ”
“I heard what you said. So did the entire crowd. I'll see Mr. Richards when I'm finished. Now go away.”
Rogers wanted to start something. He wanted it so badly he could taste his personal rage. But he had orders to leave Buck alone. Uttering an oath, he stumbled from the table and slammed the door behind him.
The cafe was totally silent. Even the cook had stepped out and was staring in disbelief at Buck. The one collective thought among them all was,
No one, absolutely
keeps Mr. Richards waiting.
The front door opened. Josh Richards stepped in. He nodded politely to the crowd and walked to Buck's table, pulling out a chair and calling to the waitress to bring him coffee.
“Ham and eggs are real fine,” Buck said. “I recommend them.”
Richards smiled. “All right. Ham and eggs, Ruby!”
Buck held out his right hand. “Buck West.”
Richards took the offered hand. “Josh Richards. You don't much care for Deputy Rogers, do you Mr. West?”
“I don't think he's got both hands in the stirrups, that's for sure.”
“Quaint way of putting it. I'll have to remember that. Oh, you're right, Mr. West. Rogers is a bit weak between the ears. But he does what he is told to do.”
“That's important to you, Mr. Richards?”
“Money's right, I can be as loyal as any man. More than most, I reckon.”
“I imagine you can. Are you looking for a job, Mr. West?”
“I'm lookin' for Smoke Jensen, sir. But that gunhand's backtrail is gone cold.”
“Yes. I've had a lot of men looking for Jensen. So far, to no avail. Tell you what I'll do, Mr. West. I can put you on the payroll today. Right now. Fighting wages. That's good money. Five or six times what the average puncher makes. You hang around town, the ranch. Just let your presence be known. Every now and then, I'll have a job for you. Sometimes, Mr. Stratton, Mr. Potter, or myself have to transfer large sums of money from place to place. Highwaymen have taken several of those pouches. I need a good man to see that it doesn't happen again. How about it?”
“All right,” Buck said with a smile. “Oh, one more thing?”
Buck pointed with his fork. “Eat your breakfast. It's getting cold.”
Buck met Stratton and Potter. It was all he could do to conceal his raw hatred from the men. He shook hands with them and smiled, nodding in all the right places.
When the meeting was over, he returned to his hotel room and washed his hands with lye soap. They still felt dirty to him.
He saw to his horses and found the livery boy true to his word. Both Drifter and the pack animal were getting extra rations of grain.
He walked the town, getting to know the layout of Bury. As he walked, he noticed a buckskin-clad old mountain man leaning against the wall of the not-yet-opened general store. The mountain man appeared not to be watching Buck, but Buck knew he was watching him. His name came to Buck. Dupre. The Louisiana Frenchman. He remembered him from the rendezvous at the ruins of Bent's Ford, back inâ¦was it '66? Buck thought it had been.
Dupre looked as old as time itself, and as solid as a granite mountain. Buck had been raised among mountain men, and he knew these old boys were still dangerous as grizzly bears. Not a one of the mountain men still left alive could tell you how many men they'd killed. White men. Indians didn't count.
When Buck again caught his eyes, Dupre was talking to the store owner. Not owner, Buck corrected himselfâmanager. The two men went inside. Buck continued walking. Unlike most men who spent their lives on the hurricane deck of a horse, Buck enjoyed a good stroll.
It was a pretty little town, Buck thought. And not just thrown haphazardly together, like so many frontier towns. He took his time, speaking to the men and doffing his hat to the ladies he passed. He noticed suspicion in many of the eyes; open hostility in a like amount. He wondered about that.
“You're up early,” a voice called from Buck's left.
He stopped and slowly turned. Sally Reynolds sat on her front porch, drinking what Buck guessed was coffee.
“I enjoy the early morning, Sally.”
“So do I. Would you care for a cup of tea?”
“Sure. I guess so. Never acquired much of a taste for it.”
“I can make coffee.”
“No, no. Tea will be fine.” He pushed open the gate and took a chair on the porch.
It wasn't fine. Buck thought he was going to gag on the stuff. It didn't taste like nothing. But he smiled bravely and swallowed. Hard.
Sally laughed at him. “Please let me make you some coffee, Buck. It will only take a few minutes.”
“Maybe you'd better. I sure would appreciate it. This stuff and me just don't get along.”
Buck sat alone on the small porch and watched as Dupre rode past, riding slowly, his Henry repeating rifle held in one hand, across the saddle. As he rode past, the old mountain man nodded his head to Buck. “Nice mornin', ain't it, son?”
“Yes, it is. Have yourself a good day.”
“My good days are twenty year down my backtrail,” Dupre said. “But I still manage to git by.” He rode on, soon out of sight.
“Who in the
was that?” Sally asked. She placed a cup of coffee on the small table between their chairs.
“You probably read about them in school,” Buck said. “Mountain men?”
“Oh, yes! But I thought they were all dead.”
“Most of them are. The real mountain men, that is. But there's still some salty ol' boys out there, still riding the high lonesome.”
“The high lonesome? That's beautiful, Buck. Do I detect a wistful note in your voice?”
“Means a longing, or a yearning for something.”
Could he trust her? Buck didn't know. She could very well be a spy for Stratton or Potter or Richards. Then he remembered how she had stood up to Sheriff Reese. He made up his mind. All right, he would tell her just enough to bait her.
“I guess so, Sally. I came out here just a boy. Alone,” he lied. “I grew up in the mountains. Met a lot of mountain men. They was, were, old men even then. But tough and hard as nails. They knew their way of life was about gone, even then. But it was a fine way of lifeâfor them; not for everybody.”
“And for you, Buck?”
“For me? Do you mean did I enjoy it?”
Buck smiled. “Oh, yes. I'll get a burr under my saddle one of these days and you won't see me for several days. I'll have to shake the staleness of town off me; head for the high country. Me and the horses. But I'll be back. If it matters to you, that is.”
She was silent for a very long moment. So long that Buck thought he had offended her with the statement.
“Yes, Buck. I think it does matter to me. Inâ¦a way that I can't explain. Not just yet. Buck, I am a very perceptive personâ¦”
“A what kind of person?”
“Perceptive. That means I have a keen insight, or understanding, of things.”
“Terrible to be as ignorant as I am,” Buck said.
Sally did not pursue that, for she did not believe Buck to be an ignorant person. Just a person who was hiding something. For whatever reason.
“And your insight tells you what about me, Sally?”
“That you don't fully trust me.”
“I don't fully trust anybody, Sally. Out here in the west, trust is something that has to be earned. It has to be that way 'cause your life might depend on it.”
“Yes. I've heard that from several people since I've been out here.”
“It's very true. You have a lot of outlaws working out here. You have a half-dozen Indian tribes on the warpath. Long as you stay close to Bury, you probably won't have to worry about the Indians attacking. It's too big for them. But get a mile away from town, and your life is in constant danger. You've got to know the man or men you ride with. Will they stand with you or turn tail and run? See what I mean about earning trust?”
“Yes. I suppose so. I won't tell you what else my insight tells me about you, Buck. Not until I've earned your trust. Do you suppose that will happen?”
“I imagine so.”
Buck checked in with the Big Three's office manager, the office located in a building in the center of town, and told the dour-faced and sour-dispositioned little man he was riding out; be gone for a day or two. Give his horse some exercise.
MacGregor grunted and told Buck to be back day after tomorrow. He had to ride south to deliver a pouch.
“I'll be back.”
He rode north out of Bury, following the Salmon River. He headed for a small town called Salmon. A rough-and-tumble mining camp.
He had no intention of going to Salmon; Buck just wanted to see if he was being followed. He wanted to test how much trust Richards had in him.
“Not much,” Buck grunted. He was back in the deep timber, hidden, watching his backtrail. He was watching a half-dozen riders slowly tracking him. Using his spyglass, Buck pulled them into closer view. He knew their faces, having seen them loafing around Bury, but didn't know their names.
Buck rode deeper into the timber, making a slow circle, coming out of the timber behind the riders. Now he was tracking them. He wore an amused look on his face as he watched the gunhands slowly circling, having lost Buck's trail, trying to once more find it. Buck rode up to within five hundred or so yards of the men and sat his horse, watching the men.
One rider finally lifted his head, feeling, sensing eyes on him. “Crap!” the man's voice drifted faintly to Buck. “He's watchin'
The PSR riders bunched and rode slowly toward Buck, reining up a respectable distance from him. One said, “This ain't nothin' personal, partner. We ride for the brand, just like you.”
“No offense taken, boys. Town was closing in on me. I wanted some space. You know what I mean?”
“Know exactly what you mean,” a scar-faced rider said. “We got biscuits and coffee and it's 'bout noon. Let's build a fire and jaw some.”
Cinches loosened, bits out, the horses ground-reined, they grazed. The riders sat on the ground, munching biscuits and drinking cups of strong black coffee. The scar-faced rider was Joiner. The oldest of the men, a hard-eyed puncher, was Wilson. Buck took an immediate dislike for Wilson and he sensed the feeling was mutual. McNeil had practically nothing to say. But he kept eyeballing Buck. The man's head was totally bald. Long was short and stocky. He wore one gun tied down low and his second gun in a shoulder-holster rig. Davis was a long lean drink of water; looked like a strong wind would blow him slap out of the saddle. Simpson was big and mean-looking.