Despite his long journey, Bane Messenger rode easily astride his gelding. Tied to the pommel of his saddle, a chestnut horse followed his own roan. The little caravan was all but lost in the thick dust that rolled behind them, a wake in a sea of sand. As his mount scrambled to the top of a rise, among sage and junipers, he saw his destination laid out in the long valley below.
A few blocks of false-fronted buildings faced each other across several wide dirt roads full of ruts. The buildings were surrounded, at a distance, by slopes covered with aspens, firs, and pines. Beyond the town, tall mountains touched the deep, blue sky. Excelsior, Nevada, wasn't much to look at, despite the scenery that surrounded it, but it was as close to home as Bane had ever gotten in his twenty-six years.
Squinting, he adjusted his neckerchief. It was windy in these parts, as usual, and, at the lower altitudes, where the desert yet held sway, the gritty sand blew hard against him and the horses.
The man who accompanied Bane didn't object, though. His companion was a hard-bitten man who'd weathered more than most. Besides, he was dead. Bane had shot him when the outlaw had drawn his Colt, and, now, nothing would ever bother the desperado again, unless there was a hell; in that case, he'd likely have plenty to worry about.
If there was one thing Bane could do well, it was shoot. He had both quick reflexes and an unerring aim. Together with his cool head—and, some would add, his cold heart—these characteristics gave him a decided advantage over most other gunmen. The four years he'd spent in the Army hadn't detracted any from his skills with a rifle or a revolver, either; he'd had plenty of opportunities to practice his aim on targets during the Civil War.
When the war ended, he'd drifted, eventually into Nevada, where he'd teamed with Jake Miller, a retired Confederate colonel. Older, Jake had been, in some ways, the father Bane had never had.
Together, Bane and Jake had delivered the nation of quite a few robbers and killers during the nearly five years they'd partnered. Then, Jake had gotten sick or, rather, the sickness that had been in him had begun to win over him. Dying, Jake had had no choice but to end their partnership.
The colonel had left Bane with some parting advice: quit the business of bounty hunting, find a good woman, and settle down. “Live a little of the good life, before it's your time to die,” Jake had counseled.
The idea of a ranch of his own, outside town, with a vast, well-furnished house on acres that spread over the majestic mountain country just miles beyond Excelsior painted a pleasant picture.
It was too bad that the dust wouldn't prevent the citizens of Excelsior from seeing the latest corpse that Bane had brought them. They didn't cotton to his way of making a living. Most of them were God-fearing, law-abiding men and women who believed that an end had come, or should come, to the days of the Wild West.
They wanted a school and a church to go with the stores and homes they'd built, not more dead bodies for Pike to plant in the boot hill on the outskirts of the town. Still, to get the reward, Bane had to deliver the goods; otherwise, he'd have been happy to leave the corpse in the desert, for the coyotes and the buzzards.
From the corner of his eye, Bane saw that many of the townspeople were outside, lining the boardwalks that fronted the shops and stores on either side of the street, just as they'd been on previous occasions when he'd ridden into town, a dead man tied across his horse. Some might call their presence a coincidence, but Bane knew better, because he knew human nature.
As always, the news of his arrival had traveled fast.
Still, the good citizens of Excelsior had to keep up appearances, and they wore the same frowning faces he'd seen many times before, when he and Jake had ridden past their disapproving stares. The women gripped their children's hands, pulling them away from the sight of the dead man draped across the chestnut's saddle. Several of the men shook their heads.
Despite the unwelcoming committee, Bane felt glad to be back in town, among familiar, if not always friendly, faces. Riding through lonely landscapes made a man lonely himself; the want of society made him want society. Except for his Aunt Flossie's house on the Kansas prairie, where he'd lived as a boy, Bane had never known the comforts of hearth and home. Maybe he never would know them. Maybe living in the hotel in Excelsior, where he'd rented a room for nearly five years now, was the closest he'd ever get to putting down roots.
Looking neither to his left nor to his right, Bane rode slowly along the rutted street to Pike's. Dismounting, he looped his horse's reins around the hitching post, and entered the undertaker's establishment. “Pike?” he called. “Got one for you.”
A slender, wizened old man shuffled out of the back room, wiping his hands on an apron stained with dark splotches that might have been juice from the tobacco he worked like a cow chewing her cud—or might have been blood and other body fluids. He didn't offer his hand, but he did say, “Bane! It's good to see you. Who've you brought me this time?”
The undertaker's greeting sounded hearty, and Bane had no doubt but that it was, indeed, genuine. Over the years, Bane and Jake had brought him a good deal of business. He grinned at the mortician. “Do you really care?”
“Not personally,” Pike admitted, “but I have to put something on the headstone.”
“The government's paying for headstones, too, nowadays?”
Pike laughed. “If he has relatives, they might spring for one.”
“I doubt he has any who care, one way or the other, about him, but if he does, his name's Nate Charles.”
Pike's eyes widened. “Nate Charles! The skunk who robbed the stage outside Carson City and killed all the passengers on board, men, women, and children alike?”
Bane nodded. “That's him.”
Pike shook his head, letting out his breath. “I'm glad you killed him, Bane.”
“Well, you might tend to him. After three days in the saddle, he's kind of ripe. His own horse would have thrown him by now if I hadn't tied him in the saddle.”
“Help me carry him in?”
Bane chuckled. “Okay, Pike, but you have to bury him yourself.”
“You plug 'em, I'll plant 'em: fair's fair.”
Bane hitched his horse to the post in front of Sheriff Clay Monroe's office and stepped onto the boardwalk, standing before the wanted posters that Monroe had nailed up most recently.
Three desperadoes stared back at him. Bane studied the faces of the wanted men, his gaze moving from left to right. In addition to treason, they'd all committed robbery, murder, or both.
Bane read the copy on the first poster out loud:
IN GOLD COIN
Will be paid by the U. S. Government
for the apprehension
DEAD OR ALIVE
Wanted for Robbery, Murder, Treason
and other acts against the peace
and dignity of the U. S.
“Trying to commit them to memory?” Monroe asked. The lawman had stepped out of his office and was peering at the bounty hunter near his doorway.
Bane smiled. “A man's got to know his inventory.”
“Help yourself to a copy. I've got plenty to spare.”
Bane took the first two, leaving the last in place.
“Why didn't you take the third one?” Monroe asked. “He's wanted dead or alive, same as the other two, and bringing them back dead does tend to make your job a mite easier.”
“I can't argue with you there, Monroe,” Bane explained, “but the third one's a little young yet. Given time, chances are that the price on his head will rise.”
“He's just not worth the trouble?”
“Not yet, but I have high hopes for—” he read the name on the poster—“young Mr. Kyle Hollis. By the way, speaking of 'ripe,' I brought you the mortal remains of Nate Charles; what's left of him is waiting for you, over at Pike's.”
“I reckon you'll find something to occupy you while you're waiting for the reward?”
Bane grinned. “I'm sure I'll find something, Monroe.”
“You look like hell,” Rose told Bane.
He grinned. “Thanks. That's just what a man—and a paying customer, at that—likes to hear most after he's risked his life to make the money he needs to support you in the grand lifestyle to which you've accustomed yourself.”
“Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home,” the madam declared, looking around her, at the third floor of the bordello that she reserved for her own private living quarters. Her “girls” had rooms on the lower floors.
It was an opulent suite, indeed—and not merely by the meager standards of Excelsior; it could compete with any of the better establishments in Carson City or San Francisco. Rose had feathered her considerable nest well, with fine Victorian furniture. The living area was one oasis, the dining area a second, and the bedroom area a third. Each was separated from the others not by walls, but by their distinctive types of furniture and decorations.
In the living area, marble statues of fauns and nymphs frolicked among gilded white chaise lounges, well-upholstered armchairs, ornate lamps, and tables, and oil paintings of mermaids and water sprites hung against wallpaper bearing pink and red roses. The hardwood floor was covered, here and there, with rich Oriental carpets, and the tall windows were flanked by thick velvet curtains.
The flickering flames in the immense fireplace in the dining area added a soft shimmer to the silver accompanying the china on the long table braced with chairs. A china closet displayed handsome dinnerware, and a sideboard held fine linens.
The bedroom's canopy bed, however, was the centerpiece of the suite. Ornately carved of rosewood, it gleamed beneath a crystal chandelier, its velvet curtains open to reveal deep pillows, silk sheets, and four posts topped with angels who, despite their cherubic shapes and virtuous smiles, had borne witness to many acts that would have stripped them, long ago, of any pretense to innocence.
Off the bedroom, a bathroom featured a cast-iron claw-foot tub, a marble washstand with a china basin and pitcher—pink and red roses painted upon it, to match the wallpaper—and a flush toilet.
“Humble, indeed,” Bane replied.
“I won't have you sitting on anything—or lying on anything, including me—until you've had a bath, a shave, and a change of clothes,” she told him.
“I can oblige you on the first two counts,” Bane said, “but, as to the third, I don't have a spare pair of pants, let alone—”
“I have a shirt and a pair of trousers that should fit you until you've had a chance to get some of your own.”
“I'm not wearing some cowboy's cast-offs,” Bane protested.
“They're yours,” Rosie informed him, “from a prior visit.”
Bane grinned. “If you'll just bring me some hot water, then—”
“I've had indoor plumbing installed since you were here last,” she told him.
He frowned. “Indoor plumbing? How's that work?”
“Get your clothes off, get into the tub, and I'll show you,” she offered. “I'll introduce you to a scrub brush, too, that, with a lot of soap and water, just might be sufficient to scour the dirt off your hide, if not your soul.”
“You're all heart, Rosie.”
After he'd soaked the dirt off himself, Bane had to admit, he felt considerably better.
After he and Rose had made love, he felt even better yet.
Now, as they lay side by side, on the broad canopy bed, afternoon sunlight streaming through the tall windows, Rose asked, “More champagne?”
“Normally, I'd have a beer,” Bane replied, “or a whiskey, but beggars can't be choosers.”
She paused, the mouth of the bottle poised over Bane's fluted glass. “I could send for a bottle of bourbon, from Bill's saloon. Of course, being homemade, it's certainly not from Kentucky, and it's apt to make you go blind or insane, but—”
“I'll take my chances with your devil's wine,” he answered, using the term that she herself had once employed in reference to the beverage.
She poured. “Le vin du diable. So, you do listen to me,” she observed.
“Only when you speak French.”
They sipped. “Tell me about your last adventure,” she said.
“Nothing much to tell. Charles went for his gun, but I was faster. He got off a shot, but it went wild. Mine hit him in the chest, dead center.”
“I'm glad you're the one who survived.”
“You have plans for the reward money?” she asked. “Not that it's any of my business, of course.”
He shrugged. “Save it, I guess.”
“You must have a million dollars in the bank by now, the way you save money.”
He looked at her. “I doubt that even you have that much salted away, Rose.”
“Me? Where in the world would I get that kind of money? My girls are worth their weight in gold, all five of them, but, still—a million dollars!”
“Jake told me he thought I should settle down.”
“That old bastard gave good advice; he should have followed some of it himself.”
“If I did have a place, I don't know what I'd do with it. I'm not a rancher or a farmer. I couldn't ride herd on cattle or bust sod. I'm not good at much of anything but killing other people.”
“Oh, I don't know, Bane,” she said, setting her wine glass aside. “I think you might be pretty good at making babies with a woman who wanted them.” Her lips found his, and they kissed, long and deep. “Not that I'm such a woman myself, you understand.”
“I understand,” he said, and they kissed again, their hands exploring and caressing the contours of each other's bodies. They slid down, atop the sheets, the satin smooth and cool on their bare skin. The sunlight was dim, and, except for the sounds they made as they made love, the room was quiet. Rose smelled of the scent for which she'd been named.
They wore themselves out, awakening after sunset.
Rose sat up and stretched. She yawned. “I'm hungry,” she announced.
Bane yawned, too, shaking his head to clear his mind. “I could do with some grub myself,” he said. “How about a steak dinner?”
“You're buying, so you pick.”
Bane shook his head. Rose was probably the richest woman in northern Nevada and maybe the whole state, but a man would never know it by the way she quibbled over the cost of a meal. She'd probably have the audacity to charge him for the clothes she'd loaned him, regardless of the fact that the shirt and trousers she'd given him were his own. “Steak it is, then,” he declared. “I've been wanting to sink my teeth into a juicy slab of beef for a couple of weeks now. Coffee, salt pork, and beans may keep a man's body and soul together, but they're sure not much when it comes to taste.”
Finnegan's House of Beef, between the dry goods store and the apothecary shop across the street from Rose's place, was a two-story adobe structure with a flat roof. A plain balcony, consisting of a floor supported by rough-hewn timbers, shaded the elevated boardwalk in front of the establishment. Otherwise, the front wall was blank but for the lower floor's two unadorned windows, which flanked the doorway, and the three upstairs windows, which looked onto the balcony.
The side walls extended for thirty-six feet, with upper- and lower-story windows in tandem with one another, the first pair separated from the three sets that had been installed fifteen feet farther down the walls.
The architecture made little sense to Bane; probably, the structure had been expanded as business increased over the years and more tables and chairs were needed to seat additional diners. Despite the plain building, the proprietor, Patrick Finnegan, who was also the chef, cooked a variety of items better than most others who practiced his profession.
Finnegan's daughter, Sarah, who waited tables, started toward the couple, but Finnegan intercepted her. “Go upstairs. Take the rest of the night off,” he told her in a low voice.
“But, Daddy, we don't close for an hour yet; it could get busy, and—”
“Do as I say!” he hissed.
Sarah gave him a puzzled look, but she did as he bade her to do.
“Welcome!” Finnegan greeted his guests. “It's good to see you again, Mr. Messenger.” He nodded at Rose. “Let me show you to a table,” he said, leading them through the open archway that led into the smaller backroom, where a few tables had been set aside for the rougher element among the town's populace.
Spread with a linen cloth, the table bore a candle, a single red rose in a slender crystal vase, and four place settings, one before each of the table's chairs. Bane held a chair for Rose, then seated himself, his back to the wall, so that he faced the open doorway and the street beyond. Finnegan removed two of the settings and handed Rose and Bane each a menu.
It was later than most of the townspeople would venture out for their evening meal, and Bane and Rose had the place to themselves. Even so, Finnegan had seated them apart from the main dining room, just in case more respectable diners decided to have their evening meal here. “I guess my money's welcome,” Rose observed, “even if I'm not.”
“It's my money that's being spent,” Bane reminded her, “not yours. I doubt Finnegan's any more fond of bounty hunters than he is ladies of the evening.” He gave her a sardonic smile. “Besides, couldn't you say much the same about some of your own clients?”
She smiled back at him. “You say the sweetest things. That's why, every time you go after another vicious killer, I worry you won't come back to me.”
When Finnegan returned, they ordered the same dinners: T-bone steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, asparagus, and bread. For dessert, Bane planned to eat a slice of deep-dish apple pie, maybe two. “All we're missing is a violinist to serenade us,” he remarked.
“Do you mind if we're serious for a minute or two, Banan?”
His eyebrows lifted, and he sighed, resigned to the fact that she'd have her say, one way or the other, just as she insisted upon calling him Banan, rather than Bane. He didn't care for his given name, because he didn't care for the man who'd given it to him or for the reason it had been assigned to him. Except for the woman who'd raised him, no one but Rose called him Banan, or even knew that this was his given name. Reluctantly, he tolerated Rose's use of it. Their long and intimate acquaintance with one another had earned her the right to call him by his actual name.
He eyed her warily. “I said I'd pay for dinner, Rose.”
She smiled. “Tell me something. I can't figure why a man, especially a man as young and handsome as you are, would make his living by risking his life, hunting robbers and killers.”
He shrugged. “It's a living.”
“Not much of one,” she countered.
Bane sighed. “What are you, my mother now?
Hell, Rose, you're no older than I am.”
“I'm younger, by two years,” she reminded him, “but a woman has better sense than a man twice her age, any day of the week.”
He sighed again. She wasn't going to let it go, it was pretty plain to see. “I don't know how to do anything else. Killing's all I've ever been good at doing.”
“You could learn.”
“I don't see why I should.” He sat back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. “Do you?”
“Why did you become a bounty hunter? To right the wrongs of the world?” Her tone was light, but her gaze was direct.
Instead of answering her question, Bane smirked. “Did you get into your line of work to make the world a more loving place?”
“Are you saving for the future?”
“I live one day at a time, Rose, and what I do has nothing to do with justice, just money: I can earn more by killing a couple of desperadoes than I could by working years at a regular job.”
Their food arrived, and Bane pretended to eat with gusto. In truth, he'd lost his appetite, and he didn't bother with dessert.
“What the hell is that?” Bane demanded.
After dinner, they'd made love again, which had drained what was left of their respective energy, and the lovers had fallen asleep. Now, some horrendous noise had awakened them from the depths of sleep.
Another loud crash sounded below them.
“Della!” Rose cried. “Her room is below us: 206!”
“Is she 'entertaining'?”
“From the sound of it, no,” Rose declared, “but she should be. I think she's in trouble. I'd better get the sheriff.”
“No need,” Bane said. “I'll go.”
He was already out of bed, hobbling on one bare foot while he pulled on his pants. He stepped into the other pant leg, pulled it up, and buckled on his gun belt, not bothering to button his fly or shrug into a shirt. Barefoot, he sprinted across the suite, to the door connected to the hallway that led to the stairs.
Another crash sounded from below.
“Hurry, Bane!” Rose called, but he was already on the steps, running down the stairs.
At the second floor landing, Bane raced down the hallway; at Room 206, he didn't pause to knock, but turned the knob and hit the door with his shoulder. It slammed into the wall, and Bane saw Della, cowering on her knees before a hulking figure who was obviously enraged.
The broken table and the bashed-in display hutch told Bane all he needed to know as to the origin of the crashing sounds he'd heard in Rose's suite: Della's customer had shoved her into the furniture or she'd fallen against it as the result of one or more of his blows.
Her bruised face streamed not only with tears, but with blood, also, and the sight of the injured woman made Bane's own blood rise. He could not abide a man's striking a woman, and Della had certainly been struck, multiple times, from the look of things.
“Get away from her, mister!” Bane ordered.
Her attacker didn't so much as glance in Bane's direction. Keeping his menacing gaze fixed upon his victim, he snarled, “This doesn't concern you!”
“That's where you're wrong,” Bane replied. He struck the other man with all his force, and the blow sent Della's attacker sprawling into a splintering wardrobe. Upstairs, Rose undoubtedly heard another crash. “It concerns me a lot!”
The huge man regained his footing, but, before he could charge, Bane hit him again, twice, following a left hook with a right cross. The customer staggered backward, and Bane went in for the knockout.
However, dodging Bane's uppercut, the other man delivered a roundhouse blow of his own, which snapped Bane's head back and made his vision swim. Pressing his attack, the big man landed three punishing blows, one to Bane's midsection and two to his head. The bounty hunter felt his knees buckle, but, managing to duck another blow from his adversary, he dodged behind a divan.
Bane's evasive maneuver gained him a few seconds, but his opponent possessed tremendous strength, and the hulking figure tossed the small, backless sofa aside as easily as if it were a toy.
“You shouldn't have mixed in,” he warned Bane. “Now, I'm going to kill you.”
“Quite a few men have tried,” Bane retorted,
lifting a statue of the god Pan over his head.
Judging by the heft of it, the figure was carved of solid granite. He brought the sculpture down hard, aiming for the big man's head, but his adversary stepped aside, and the horned satyr struck a tremendous blow to his shoulder instead. Della's attacker screamed, twisting his upper body away.
“But, as you can see, I'm still here,” Bane said.
“Not for long.”
“You're a right big man,” Bane said, his tone suggesting that he was making small talk. “How tall are you, would you say?”
“What's it to you?”
“Nothing,” Bane admitted, “to me, but Pike's likely to want to know.”
“Pike? Who the hell is Pike?”
“The undertaker,” Bane explained. “When he makes a coffin, he likes to get the length right; otherwise, he might have to saw off your legs, or your head, to fit your body inside the box.”
“What's your name, mister?” Bane's opponent demanded.
“Now, it's my turn to ask: what's it to you?”
“His name's Bane Messenger,” Della volunteered. She said it as if she were speaking the name of the angel of death. In a way, Bane realized, she was, although Della probably didn't realize it. He gave her a sharp look. If anyone was going to share his identity with someone else, he'd just as soon it be he who did so.
The giant sneered, “I just want to make sure the newspaper gets your name right,” he told Bane, “in your obituary.”
“The only death notice that appears in this town's newspaper will be your own, mister.”
Apparently, Della thought introductions were in order, because she told Bane, “His name's Frank Fallon.”
Bane furrowed his brow. “Nope, you're not one of the ones I'm after—at least, not today—so I may not have to kill you, after all.”
“What do you mean, I'm not one you're after?”
Again, Della butted in on their exchange of words: “Bane's a bounty hunter.”
“All the more reason for me to kill him,” Fallon told her. “Then, I'll finish settling my score with you.” He rushed Bane, and, for a big man, he was surprisingly quick.
But Bane was quicker. He stepped aside, letting Fallon's momentum carry him past, and, before the giant could whirl back around, Bane stomped the heel of his boot into the back of the other man's knee, and Fallon started to fall backward.
Reaching his left arm around his adversary's neck, Bane locked the crook of his elbow around Fallon's throat so that his biceps and forearm compressed the carotid arteries in his opponent's neck, strangling him.
Fallon's eyes went wide with panic, and he clawed at Bane's arm, but the bounty hunter kept his arm locked, pressing hard against his left hand with his right to apply additional pressure, and the frantic clawing became feeble. In a few moments, it ceased altogether, and Fallon's purple face, which looked as if it might explode, began to relax as Bane slackened the muscles in his arm, letting blood flow again through his foe's arteries. However, Fallon had lost consciousness, and Bane let him fall to his knees and pitch sideways, onto the floor.
“Write this down,” Bane told Della, and he dictated a note to her. Although he didn't see anything amusing about his message, she giggled a few times as she read it back to him.
Bane stuffed the missive into his shirt pocket. “Now, open the door,” he told her.
Taking Fallon by his heels, Bane dragged the giant's considerable bulk across the floor, into the hallway, and down the stairs, the burly man's head striking each step on the way down. Fallon was going to have a terrible headache come morning, Bane thought, but no worse than the one he'd given Della.
After he'd dragged the unconscious man into the street, Bane paused long enough to transfer the note Della had written for him from his shirt pocket into Fallon's own. When he was able to sit up and had gotten his senses back, Fallon would read:
I could have killed you tonight. The next time you strike Della, or any other woman, I will.
Leaving the woman-beater in the dust, Bane climbed the stairs back up to the third floor. He figured Rose would still be awake, worried about Della, and she was.
She didn't act concerned, though. Still, Bane would have bet the reward money he was due to receive for Charles' apprehension that she was worried. Now, she wouldn't have to be.
“What was all the ruckus about?” she asked.
“You ought to have a talk with Della. She's young yet, and she might not realize how dangerous it is to make fun of a man, especially a mean one the size and strength of Frank Fallon, who has trouble maintaining—well, a certain level of excitement when he—”
Rose laughed, but, sobered by a sudden thought, she said, “Don't expect me to pay you for helping Della out with her customer. That was your idea, not mine.”
She snorted. “You do believe in justice, Bane, just like I said.”
“I didn't do it for justice,” he contradicted her, “and I didn't do it for Della.”
“Oh? Then why did you run off one of my best-paying, regular customers?”
“I did it,” he replied, “so I could get a good night's sleep.”
Quaking Aspen, Nevada, depended on three enterprises for most of its revenue: silver, cattle, and businesses that supported the mining and ranching operations, one of which was the bank. Despite the looks of the town, both mining and ranching were booming, and the bank's safe was about to burst with gold and cold, hard cash—at least, that's what Kyle Hollis had gleaned from conversations he'd had with the men who frequented The Gold Leaf Saloon.
Despite the wealth of some of its townspeople, it was just another two-bit, one-horse town, as far as Hollis was concerned. Weather-beaten false fronts faced off across a dirt road that was muddy in the winter and cracked and rutted during dry times. The buildings, except for the bank, were constructed of wood. False fronts with balconies ran the length of their non-existent second stories. Most were badly in need of paint, and a few looked on the verge of collapsing altogether.
On either side of the road, well-trod boardwalks led the length of the buildings, most of which butted up against one another, most without so much as an alley between them. The only break in the monotony of peeling paint and sagging awnings was provided by the few rain barrels, benches, hitching posts, and watering troughs stationed haphazardly along the storefronts and the wooden Indian outside the tobacco store where, earlier this morning, Hollis had bought makings for the cigarettes that, other than beer and whiskey, were his sole indulgences. About the only thing colorful in this desolate locale, besides its painted ladies, were the towering trees, and even those turned from green to gold only in the fall of the year.
The only substantial structure in Quaking Aspen was the bank, which was fairly new and built of brick. Its tall, narrow windows were not only curtained, but also barred. A tall, narrow doorway led in one side of the building, which stood alone, at the south end of town, across one of the few alleyways, adjacent to a dentist's office, and a second doorway, identical to the first, led outside. The former bore a sign that announced “Enter”; the latter, a sign that read “Exit.” The bank was one of the few structures in town that was located next to an alley—the one that separated it from its neighboring building to the north.
Huge water-powered ceiling fans churned the dust in the air, and a row of teller's cages, five in all, stood side by side, interconnected booths with barred windows that left a gap of six inches at their bottoms, over the counter that fronted them, so that customers could interact with the tellers. The safe was in the back of the bank, as was the banker's private office.
Well, a man couldn't expect much of a town that had named itself for a tree, Hollis thought.
In truth, he knew that, in time, the locals' prosperity would transform the place, if the town survived the mining boom. At the behest of their wives, some husbands would relocate their families to San Francisco, Carson City, Denver, or points east as soon as they'd mined enough silver or sold enough cattle to finance a better life in the city. Their wives were content, for now, to bide their time.
The women who couldn't persuade their men to move would insist, eventually, upon a school and a church, and they'd want to spend their money in stores that were modern and attractive, with paint on their walls, curtains at their windows, and potted plants and flowers on their windowsills or flanking new, wrought-iron benches on sidewalks out front.
Yes, such transformation was inevitable, if the town survived, but it was years away yet, Hollis suspected, which was fine with him. He didn't plan to become a permanent resident of this town or any other, at least not for a while.
It was late afternoon, and the saloon was fairly crowded, but the men at the bar made room for him.
“We were wondering when you'd turn up,” a mustachioed older man in a Stetson, a plaid shirt, a blue neckerchief, blue trousers, and chaps remarked, by way of greeting, as Hollis bellied up to the bar.
“Any whiskey left, Lloyd,” Hollis asked him, “or have you and Ben drunk it all?”
“Might be a bottle or two we ain't had time to drain yet,” Lloyd replied.
Ben called to the bartender, “Carl, Kyle's dry, and he wants to get wet.”
“A man needs to be drunk to drink in a dump like this,” Ben joked.
Carl Rogers, the bartender, who also owned the place, set a mug of beer and a shot of whiskey on the bar before Hollis. He smiled at Ben. “If you don't care for my establishment,” he suggested, “you can take your business elsewhere.”
“I would, if I could,” Ben shot back, “but your run-down watering hole's the only one around for forty miles.”
“I guess we're just stuck with each other, then,” Carl said.
Like the others, Hollis chuckled, but, he had to admit, if only to himself, that, despite Ben's joking demeanor, The Gold Leaf was among the most pathetic in which he'd ever sought to satisfy his eternal thirst. Small tables and chairs occupied the front of the one-room establishment. The walls were bare planks, unadorned but for a photograph of the proprietor, a picture of a desert landscape, a wall calendar, and a mirror behind the single, long counter that served as the bar.
There was also the picture of a naked woman that, as everywhere throughout the West, was a standard feature of a saloon's decor. Although a bit on the plump side, she was beautiful, young, healthy, and nicely rounded in the right places. Nevertheless, the portrait was a tad disappointing, because the more interesting parts of the figure were obscured by strategically positioned foliage.
One thing the saloon did offer in abundance, though, was information. Hollis had learned a lot about the town during his visits to the watering hole.
“Course, only a fool would think about robbing a place like the Quaking Aspen bank,” an old-timer had told him.
“Why's that?” Hollis had asked.
“Too much law.”
The old man had been right on that score, Hollis had found. There was not only a sheriff and two deputies, but most of the town's able-bodied men were ready, willing, and able to be deputized whenever the need arose. The only man to have tried to rob the bank, four or five years ago, had been shot from his horse and filled with lead by a dozen men firing rifles and six-guns from the street and the windows of their businesses and homes. “The townspeople of Quaking Aspen don't cotton to robbers and thieves,” the old man had warned.
To rob the Quaking Aspen bank, Hollis had determined, a man needed a plan. Over the weeks he'd been staying here, at the hotel, posing as a newspaper publisher who was awaiting the shipment of his press and other equipment before setting up shop as the town's newspaperman, he'd conducted several informal interviews and had learned a lot about the town. He'd also formulated a plan for robbing the bank.
Now, like the women who yearned to move away from this God-forsaken wilderness, Hollis was biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. It shouldn't be long in coming, he reckoned. In the meantime, he had plenty of money left from the stage holdup he'd committed a month ago to last him. He might as well enjoy the wait. He might as well keep the locals happy, too, as long as it served his purpose to do so.
“Drink up, boys,” he told Ben and Lloyd. “I'm buying.”
Good with a Gun
Bounty hunter Bane Messenger was good with a gun, but he wanted more out of life than hunting down fugitives from the law. He wanted a family: a wife and children. He wanted a home of his own. He wanted to know why his father had abandoned his mother and him. But all he knew was how to track and capture or kill the worst sort of men who roamed the West, taking what they wanted, whether money, property, or women, at the point of a gun. When he met the right woman, though, he vowed his life would change, he would change, if he could . . . .
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