"Three Dead, $10,000 Taken."
Dave Mitchell set aside his envy at the take, a better day's pay than he had scored in all his years
working stages; the sloppiness of the robbery offended him.
Mitchell put down the Denver Union Democrat and thought back to the afternoon in Vernal, Utah after his role
in the capture of Jed Fowler and to the confrontation he had rehearsed in his mind for days, nerving himself
up to face down the only person he ever looked up to and throw off his shackles.
Two whiskeys had helped steady his nerves, but still he still quivered with trepidation as he began.
"Tell the man I quit."
Collins, his pencil scratching out the report on the Brown's Park assignment, barely looked up. He didn't seem
as surprised as Mitchell had expected. As he had hoped? "What? Quit Wells Fargo?"
"I know the man won't like it. He figures he's got his lead rope tight around my neck with the dodger and the
sentence to Yuma. Not telling you where I'll be, but I'll take my chances I can keep out of his grasp."
Collins put down his pencil and sipped his whiskey as he waited for Mitchell to continue. "Tell him, he don't
need to worry about me going back to my old line of work."
"What will you do?" Collins asked, maybe just making idle conversation. But maybe more, maybe doing The Man's work.
"Try to find somewhere I don't need to wash the slime off every night." Mitchell knew better than to blabber his
plans to Wells Fargo. Five years in Yuma had taught him the danger of letting anyone see inside him. "Skulking in
outlaw holes, doing undercover work, I can't learn to be a man like you."
"A man with badge stink?"
Mitchell shifted resentfully. Flinging his words in his face always shushed a man up. Finally, his eyes met Collins'
and he admitted that he'd finally seen the truth. "It don't stink when you wear it, Chet."
Collins seemed disappointedly relaxed at Mitchell's declaration of independence. After their days on the trail together,
the battles they had fought, each of them coming close to death one time or another, Mitchell wanted to hear at least
the pretense of regret that their relationship was ending. In a rush, Mitchell understood that the professionalism he
had admired in Collins, had tried to emulate, meant he himself was just one more man Collins had to work with.
* * *
Mitchell put behind him the unsettling Vernal confrontation that had ended one phase of his life and picked up the
newspaper again. This time he read with the professional scrutiny of a man adept at the business of stopping stages.
"Brutal murder" read the subheadline.
* * *
In a brazen daylight robbery not more than six miles south of the town limits of Boise City, three armed, hooded riders
hailed the stage from Silver City last Tuesday. As reported by the driver, Frank Williams, when Dave Olmeg, the shotgun
rider, was slow to toss down his weapon, he was dispatched with a single shot.
The passengers, including L. F. Carpenter, a respected local businessman, and Andrew McCausland, a drygoods salesman,
were shot down as they dismounted the stage, hands in the air. In the confusion, Williams escaped into the brush despite
a flurry of shots seeking him. While the U.S. Mail was left untouched, the bodies and luggage were searched. Carpenter's
partner reports that he carried over $9000 in gold dust from Silver City miners for deposit in the Boise banks in addition
to at least $1000 in greenbacks. How much was stolen from McCausland is unknown.
Sheriff Kemble declared that the full resources of his office will be devoted to finding the robbers described by Williams
only as men of medium height and dressed in miner's garb. Wells Fargo has posted a $500 reward for information.
* * *
Robbing stages was a business of choice. Mitchell remembered back to his early days, sixteen years old and happy to
find that stages carried money free-for-the-taking. As a robber, he had all the advantages. Stop the stage wherever
he chose, far from any settlement, leave the stage driver afoot, and there'd be no pursuit for hours. By then, his
spoor would disappear in the trail dust of a town, and he could not be tracked. Sure that no timely alarm could be
given, no killing was needed. If it ever was. All part of good planning.
The experienced robber in Mitchell had questions the news story couldn't answer. Why was the Boise-Silver City stage
stopped so close to Boise? An inexperienced team of robbers not having calculated that the stage could be stopped
safely in the rocky hill country near Silver City? The description of the robbers by Williams, so general that it
fit half the men on the streets of Boise City, was of no help. And how did they know that one of the passengers
would be carrying so much gold dust?
* * *
Mitchell set down the paper again and puzzled through what he had learned that he could use. For he had not set the
concerns of crime behind him. Robbery, especially stage robbery, remained his profession.
In Vernal, after his announcement, Collins had continued writing up their report, seemingly with no more interest in
his former "partner." Finally, Collins finished and passed over the report. While Mitchell read the report of him
taking down the Fowler Gang, making him sound like a hero out of a dime novel, Collins fished for something in his
saddlebags. It clinked when it landed on the table in front of Mitchell.
"Mr. Crandall said the day would come when you're ready to put it on. We'll still be partners, Dave, but well be riding
Wells Fargo had cancelled the reward on him and used its influence in Flagstaff to secure a pardon by the Governor. And
his life out of the shadows began.
After the career of stopping stages, after five years in Yuma Penitentiary, after a life organized around the conviction
that "riding free" summed up the essence of manhood, Mitchell had thought the emblem of his new life would tear his shirt
with its weight. It still felt alien, unsettling, but in a different way than he expected. The 5'6" man crossing the saloon
was the biggest man Mitchell had ever known. The tin circle on Mitchell's chest carried the burden of being worthy to ride
with Chet Collins.
"You read it?" Collins asked as he pulled back the chair. "What do you think?"
"Why do they have to kill, Chet? Taking money, that I understand. Ten thousand dollars! Never made such a good haul myself."
"Never killed either, Dave." But he had killed, shot a man in the back, brought down Ed Quentin as he drew a bead on someone
in the Willcox posse, maybe Collins. How did he feel about killing an outlaw? Mitchell decided that it was good he couldn't
answer the question.
* * *
From Denver, the train ride to Boise City, changing railroads at Cheyenne and then at Ogden, took two days, but the drudgery
of chasing after a hot trail belonged to local law.
The regular rhythm of iron wheels as they rode over the expansion joints in the rails lulled a man hypnotically; a man could
think "clickety-clack" and let his mind idle. But Mitchell couldn't allow himself that luxury. He had work to do, to think,
to try to put himself in the mind of the robbers, to resolve the problems posed by the newspaper report, to use the experience
he had, the only thing that made him of any value to Wells Fargo, the only thing that justified his space here in the seat
next to the dozing Chet Collins.
"I can't do it," he muttered aloud. Collins' eyes blinked open. "Can't figure out the killings. Even Jed Fowler knew putting
a man in the dirt increased the risk."
"Amateurs, you think?"
"In my first year in the business, just a kid, I knew better. But they got away with it so easy, likely they'll try again."
And so they had. When Mitchell and Collins alighted from the train in Boise City, the Ada County Gazette screamed the headline.
"Two Dead in Daring Stage Robbery." This time the robbers hit the Boise-Placerville stage ten miles north of town. With no
passengers, only the stage driver and guard had been killed, and the strongbox looted.
* * *
After a cursory glance at the agents' credentials, the Ada County Sheriff gave the usual sniffy welcome Collins
had come to expect from local law. "Maybe you city boys figure Idaho's only a dinky little territory, but we like
to think we're smart enough to solve our own crimes up here."
Facing touchy local law was a new experience to Mitchell, but Collins turned it into a springboard. "Sometimes robbers
move from one territory to another, Sheriff Kemble. If we see something here that connects up with other robberies, it
may give you some ideas."
Kemble shrugged. "I can't stop you, just don't get in my way. Let me know if you turn up anything." It was clear that
Kemble expected little from the agents but the promise was easily made, and Collins and Mitchell were after results,
not bragging rights. Maybe mollified, the sheriff began to talk. "Likely holed up in the hills someplace," Kemble
speculated. "Could be anywhere."
"Three of them, the paper said," Collins prompted.
"So said Williams, and I guess he'd know," Kemble replied. "That afternoon, we had one of them brisk summer squalls
sweep across southern Idaho before Williams even got in with the news, him being afoot. By the time I got there, all
the prints had been blotted. Yesterday where the Placerville stage went down, all I could find was one set of hoofprints."
He shrugged. "Maybe a different fellow got the idea stages carry money after reading how much they took off Carpenter."
Collins and Mitchell got up to leave. "One thing I can tell you," Kemble continued. "None of them give a bucket of warm
spit about human lives, not the way they buck their guns."
* * *
The agents received no warmer a welcome when they presented their credentials to the Wells Fargo stationmaster. Men from
outside are always resented, their simple presence standing as a reproach, a statement that only someone "from the big
city" knows how to solve the local problem.
Experience had taught Macklin that offended outsiders with the ear of higher-ups would send in a tattle-tale report to
Division, no matter how unfounded. So he masked his hostility with pretended civility as he answered their questions.
But right away, they got off on a hostile footing.
"Someone with a grudge against Wells Fargo?" the Boise stationmaster repeated. "You saying I'm at fault for the killings?"
"You've been in charge for . . . "
"Two years, come summer," Macklin said. "Built the business, too. Wells Fargo just ran a long-distance freight in these parts,
letting feeder companies handle short hauls. But that left too much money on the table. I put on local runs, kept ahead of
the competition—not that any of them had a chance, not with the Division manager telling me to run a line at a loss
to get the job done. A lot of our stages even run empty, but now that we squeezed out the small fry, I'll be cutting back
and pushing profits up."
"Good man. Reliable. Never missed a run, until this week. Of course, there was . . . "
"Nothing really. Him and me had a run-in a month ago. Claimed he'd been here longest of the drivers and shouldn't have to
pull the night runs. I said, 'I'm a fair man. I don't play favorites.' A working man's entitled to cuss out his boss once,"
Macklin said. "Maybe he groused some, but he pulled his runs like always.
"The men who got killed?" he continued. "No complaints. Been with Wells Fargo four-five months. Came with experience,
though; knew their routes. I signed them on when I added to the schedule."
* * *
"I want to talk to that fellow Williams," Mitchell said as they left the station.
They found him packing a small valise. "I'm quitting Wells Fargo," he told them, "Leaving on tomorrow's train
to Ogden. Ain't worth a man's life to ride stages for you. I'm just lucky I swapped shifts with poor Bob Wakefield,
or I'd be the one being fitted out with the coffin."
Williams could tell them little about the first robbery that they hadn't learned from the Union Democrat article.
"Young, old, how could I tell?" he asked. "Like I told the sheriff, they all wore hoods."
Mitchell shifted uneasily at Williams' unhelpful answer. A man's posture, his agility, even the gruffness of his voice,
usually told a lot about him, but Williams seemed a dull, unobservant fellow.
"Cold, the way they done Olmeg," Williams continued. "Just said, 'Wells Fargo paying enough for this?' And fired away.
That's when I took off running."
* * *
Over supper Mitchell reflected on how little they knew. He didn't see how a man like Collins could build anything on
such scraps of information. He tried to think on what was missing in the picture, what was discordant. He shook his
head."None of the outlaws I knew ever liked to work that hard."
"What are you thinking, Dave?"
"Whether it's Brown's Park, Parsons Den, Hole-in-the-Wall, ordinarily robbers ride out when they need to fatten their
wallets, they stop a stage or visit a bank, and then ride back to their hideout. They just need money for whiskey,
food, and shoving back and forth across the poker table."
"The Silver City haul should last them a long time," Collins said, "but I don't hold with Kemble's idea of two
different sets of robbers."
"Both of them less than an hour's ride from Boise City," Mitchell said. "Jed Fowler liked to travel far from Brown's
Park when he was working," he added. "Bunching robberies together calls the local law down on you."
* * *
In the morning, mounted on saddle horses from the Wells Fargo corral, the two agents left Boise City behind,
following the road south toward the Snake River ferry and the road to Silver City. "What do you expect to find?"
Mitchell asked his companion.
"Nothing," Collins replied.
"Facts first, opinions later," Collins told him. "If a man knows what to expect, likely that's what he'll find.
Might be he won't even hear what the scene is screaming at him."
The road traveled through open terrain, not many trees left this close to the city. The native fir had been
cleared to make way for the small farmsteads they passed, but Mitchell knew things would change as they neared
the descent to the Snake and the ferry. The ferry! That was a thought. Robbers couldn't let the ferryman see
them cross the river. But that meant the robbers holed up near Boise City. Maybe in the city itself?
Collins drew up. "Right along here is where the sheriff said it happened."
"I guess those must be the trees Williams ran to." Mitchell pointed to a small stand of fir across a meadow.
"A hundred yards, while three rifles were trying to take him down," Mitchell said. "Maybe his Mama was an antelope."
"Or the robbers had little experience with rifles. Miners, maybe," Collins speculated. "Men who don't work with guns."
Collins swung down and knelt to examine the blood stains while Mitchell tried to understand the scene through the
eyes of a man in the business, to look at the scene as any robber would. The road was level, ditches on both sides
to prevent the stage from trying to flee across the fields, the stage was trapped. As easy stage stop. Too easy.
Collins rose from his knees and looked around, seeing the same view Mitchell saw. Finally he shook his head. "At
least I don't know less than before," he said as he placed a boot in the stirrup.
"This is the wrong place." Mitchell's voice expressed his certainty.
"Look at the blood-stained gravel," Collins said. "When the summer squall washed away most sign, Carpenter's body
covered the gravel where he fell. He died right here."
Mitchell saw a different picture. "Three years I spent stopping stages," Mitchell reminded his partner. "I'd never
do it this way." He stretched his arm out and pointed three hundred yards down the road where it came around a
bend as it emerged from a small stand of trees. "Say the stage comes into view, no way off the road but to pull to
a halt. Nice and convenient? Money in their pocket. Right?" He waited while Collins nodded his agreement. "And
what does Olmeg do when he spies three hooded men blocking the road? He'd have his scattergun cocked and aimed
before they got in range. Williams left something out."
"Unless he took the afternoon train, we'll ask him."
* * *
Williams missed his train.
Collins got no answer when he rapped on the door to Williams' third-story room in the boarding house on Bannock
Street, so he tried the doorknob. Williams was inside.
"Throat cut," Collins reported to Sheriff Kemble. "A quick slash from behind when he turned to pick up his valise."
"Turned his back?" Kemble asked. "Then he trusted the killer."
"And his valise opened and the contents scattered."
"Who'd think he would have anything worth stealing?"
"Maybe his share from the robbery?" Collins suggested.
"How'd the robbers know Carpenter would be along with a big payoff for them? They had someone inside,"
Collins said. "And they figured, now that he'd quit Wells Fargo and couldn't help them anymore, he
didn't need his cut."
"Didn't need to answer any more questions, either," Mitchell added.
"All the action is close to Boise City," Collins pointed out, "even when a well-planned robbery would be
where pursuit couldn't get on their trail for hours. The robbers are men who need to stay close to town."
"Keep mum about Williams for now," Kemble told them. "I'll see if I can track down his buddies."
* * *
The agents were at supper when Sheriff Kemble found them. "No one admits to being much of a friend of
Williams," he reported, "but I learned he did his drinking at the Hard Rock Saloon. Liked late hours."
Mitchell was new enough to the badge that he didn't carry the stamp yet. So he was the choice to stroll
into the all-night saloon on Idaho Street, down the block from the Wells Fargo station. After a couple of
whiskeys, he invited the barkeep ("Folks call me Jimmy") to join him and let it be known he was new to
Boise City. "Looking for work," Mitchell admitted. "Done me enough hard rock mining for a lifetime. Pulled
some time as a teamster under an Army supply contract. Guess I could handle mules and horses."
"Not much of that around."
"Saw a Wells Fargo office. Never driven a stage, but how hard can it be?"
Behind the bearded face, the glower came through. "Stay away from them bloodsuckers," Jimmy told Mitchell.
"They drive a man down, roll their big Concord coaches right over him and grind him into dust."
Mitchell mentioned that a friend had told him to look up Frank Williams, but the barkeep was distracted by
another customer and the conversation was over.
* * *
The morning edition of the Ada County Gazette carried a report of the Williams' murder and a front page editorial
headlined "Murder Wave Continues—Kemble At a Loss." Aside from demanding that Sheriff Kemble lead posses
throughout the county searching for the hideout of the outlaws or resign, the paper contributed nothing. "Sells
papers, I guess," Collins said to Mitchell.
But newspapers can give information even when they don't know it. So Collins went to the office of the Gazette and
read through a year's worth of back issues. "I checked the ads," Collins reported to Mitchell when they met for
lunch. "The Ada County Express Company ran an ad in each issue until about three months ago. The editor said the
company went out of business when Wells Fargo took their customers."
While Collins visited the newspaper office, Mitchell had found his way to a building that occupied a full block on
Idaho Street under the sign: "Carpenter and Rollins, General Mercantile, Boise City and Silver City."
Hostility greeted Mitchell when he displayed his badge. "We were the Ada County Express Company's biggest customer,"
Josiah Rollins told Mitchell, "before Wells Fargo beat their prices and Macklin promised us Wells Fargo had a better
safety record. When I told Jimmy Bowers I'd go back to Ada County Express even at his prices he cursed me out proper
and said he wished I'd been on the stage with poor Lem."
"Carpenter's practice of carrying dust and money was well known," Mitchell reported to Collins. "He says Carpenter
always carried dust, there being no bank in Silver City, so miners give it to him to deposit in Merchants Bank here.
All the robbers needed to know was that Tuesday was Carpenter's regular day to come in to Boise City."
"So that eliminates the coincidence that robbers from somewhere just got lucky."
"Narrows it down to a few thousand who live around Boise," Mitchell concluded. "That sure helps."
Conversation lapsed as the waitress placed their orders in front of them. As he spooned in tomato soup, Mitchell began
to think his undercover work in the Fowler Gang had been the easy job. He went over the puzzling parts one more time.
Williams as an inside man, silenced when he quit. That was easy enough. Carpenter known to be carrying money. Fine.
Making the robbery this close to Boise? Sure, robbers from town couldn't cross the ferry. But why out on the open road?
Why had Olmeg not done his job? And how many robbers? And finally, that angry statement they had thrown at Olmeg had
never made sense either.
Suddenly he put down his spoon and surged to his feet. "Come," he told Collins as he strode across the diner. "Food can wait."
Collins tossed some coins on the table and caught up to Mitchell in the street.
"I couldn't figure the low payoff on the Placerville robbery if they had inside information," Mitchell told Collins as
they turned in at the stage station. "It isn't about money."
Collins was still trying to make sense of Mitchell's words as they entered the stationmaster's office. "How many of your men
used to work for Ada County Express?"
"Just four now, since . . . "
"Where are they?"
"Chaz Littleton and Val Gorman are off today. Andy Lacey and Luke Hazen are on the Silver City run." Macklin looked at the
wall clock. "You can talk to them when they get in. Should be around two."
"That's cutting it close," Mitchell said. "We got to rustle our hocks if we're going to get to them before they're dead."
"Relax, mister," Macklin said, no longer bothering to mask his hostility, "like I told you first day, we ain't as dumb out
here as you hotshots like to think. If the robbers stop them, Hazen's got orders to toss down the shotgun."
"It won't matter." Mitchell stepped over to the rifle rack, selected two Winchesters and checked their loads. "Get saddles
slapped on your two fastest horses."
"I don't take orders from—"
"Yes, you do," Collins barked, as an understanding of Mitchell's urgency suddenly flooded into him. "Now!"
In the moment, Mitchell was too intent on trying to prevent two more killings to appreciate the lesson he had just received.
Collins had no more right to give orders than Mitchell, but speak boldly like you expect to be obeyed and people jump. But
that lesson was for future reflection.
In five minutes both agents were in the saddle. "Tell Sheriff Kemble where we're going. If we're in time, he'll have an arrest to make."
* * *
Impatiently, the two Wells Fargo agents pressed south on Idaho Street, avoiding other horsemen when they could, knowing each
second a slow-moving wagon kept them back endangered two men.
Finally, as they reached the edge of town, Collins moved up alongside Mitchell. "So Carpenter was just an unlucky passenger."
"He was the target. It wasn't robbery. It was out-and-out murder." They had passed into open country, traffic had thinned out.
"Let's move," Mitchell said as he kicked his horse into a trot.
The miles fell away, slowly, slowly it seemed to Mitchell, but as fast as he dared push an unfamiliar horse over the distance.
Now they were no more than a mile and a half from the turn where the road dropped down to the ferry, just over the next rise
and they would have the last stretch of open road in sight. Mitchell began to hope they were in time to stop the murders.
Up ahead, a rifle barked.
* * *
The first shot brought down Luke Hazen before he could toss down the shotgun. "We had orders to surrender, Mr. Bowers. You
didn't even give him a chance."
"Toss down the box, Lacey," the robber ordered.
Lacey wrestled with the strong box, got it to the edge of the coach roof. When it fell to the road, Jimmy Bowers swung up
his rifle. "I done what you want, Mr. Bowers. I—"
"You and them other curs ruined my life," Bowers said. "Three years you took my money. Then you sold me out. You earned
some termination pay."
From four hundred yards and on the back of a galloping horse, Mitchell's shot had no chance of going home. He'd be as
likely to hit Lacey as Bowers. But firing in the air did the job.
Alert to his danger, Bowers forgot about Lacey and turned to see Mitchell and Collins thundering down the road toward him.
Horsemen riding directly at a rifle make good targets. Mitchell was thirty yards away when the muzzle flashed. He heard
Collins grunt but then his horse was colliding with Bowers, sending him sprawling, his rifle clattering away.
Mitchell swung down. He turned toward Bowers, on the ground and rolling for his rifle. Mitchell dropped his own rifle and
palmed his revolver. Beyond Bowers, Mitchell could see Collins, stretched out in the road.
Mitchell stepped toward Bowers and wordlessly swung his revolver up.
As he saw the end coming, Bowers was unrepentant. "Putting a Wells Fargo badge-toter down," Bower said. "At least I done
something good today."
Mitchell looked down at Jimmy Bower's bearded face, defiant even in defeat, no longer the face of a man, but the face of
evil. Hatred surged into Mitchell's breast. In a moment the world would be a better place. He felt the terrible power,
the intoxicating power over death grasp his soul.
He thumbed back the hammer.
* * *
Mitchell knew he had crossed a divide, one that left him changed forever.
He paced from the window to the door of small front parlor, pacing, because his mind churned too violently to let him sit.
What right had Jimmy Bowers to live? he had asked himself as his finger began its satisfying squeeze. Why should Bowers
pollute the world with breath when Collins had been lying there, blood gushing from his wounds? What kind of man would
not avenge his downed partner?
Manhood, the glory of self-reliance, of being someone who made his own way in the world had been Dave Mitchell's driving
goal since leaving home. As his finger curled he thirsted for the ultimate proof that he made things happen.
Whether he had passed his test or failed it, men could debate and never resolve. The evil that was in Jimmy Bowers needed
to be destroyed, he knew that even as he heard what sounded like Chet Collins' voice echo in his imagination speaking of
the duty of a badge and his oath . . . his oath to what? he had demanded. An oath that allowed evil
to go unpunished?
Mitchell's breathing had come fast in the rush of the moment as he gloried in what he was about to do, as he tried to
shush the voice of his partner. Death! Kill! He made his voice override Collins'. He focused on the rage-filled face
of Jimmy Bowers.
And so Bowers, snarling like an animal, an animal that took pleasure in killing, an ugly face whose viciousness mirrored
the hate consuming Mitchell, determined his own destiny. Mitchell's finger relaxed. Not for him the twisted soul that
took pleasure in killing. The evil that was in Jimmy Bowers would end swinging from a hangman's rope. Mitchell had
proved worthy to ride tall in the saddle next to Collins.
Except . . .
Except the doctor had been in the back room too long.
Finally the door down the hallway swung open and Doctor Sharpe plodded heavily down the corridor, spent from his efforts
over his patient. Mitchell looked at the weary face of the doctor. When Sharpe started to speak, Mitchell was afraid to listen.
"He wants to know why the report isn't ready for his signature."