"How bad is it?"
Pete Morgan looked up as the dark-haired horseman reined in before the small log cabin, the man who had made
the proposal that could make him and his brother set for life, able to buy that horse ranch they had set their
eyes on, the man whose plan got them into this. He wasn't sure yet what he thought of the plan.
But he'd think about that later. For now, for every minute of time since they stopped the Wells Fargo wagon
the prior afternoon, worry and fear took all his energy. "It took him high in the chest. He lost a lot of
blood by the time I got him here."
"Missed them, thank God, and the fever's down some overnight. Beginning to hope he'll make it. If he don't . . ."
"The guard died," the visitor said.
"Didn't need to," Morgan said. "We had the drop on him. We didn't figure he'd make a try against two leveled Colts. But he
triggered at Lonnie quick and didn't have no "give-up" in him, so I had to stop him. After that, the driver panicked and I had no choice."
"You got the money. That's what matters." The visitor seemed less concerned about the killings than Morgan. Maybe
it was just part of the work.
"We figured to be back at the bunkhouse by now, just like we'd had a long spree in town," Morgan said. "Now I don't know . . ."
"This shack hasn't been used for years. Nestled in the pines, no one'll ever find you here."
Morgan reminded himself he had never done this kind of work before. His companion's assurance settled him some.
After the horseman swung down and wrapped the reins around a post the old wolver had rammed into the ground, Morgan led him into the shack.
"I counted out your money," Morgan said, as he pointed to the stack of greenbacks on the table. "You can count it if you like."
The dark-haired man hefted the pile, and gave a quick riff of the bills. "A good piece of business."
"If he makes it."
"If he's awake, I'll look in on him."
Pete Morgan led the visitor through the doorway to the narrow back room where Lonnie lay restlessly on a pile
made from both their blankets. His kid brother, so full of energy, of hope for the good life and now . . ?
The dark-haired man's two-shot Derringer slid from his pocket: one for the back of Pete's head, the other for Lonnie's
right eye, and there was no need to count the split.
He'd planned well.
* * *
An unwelcoming Platte County Sheriff looked up as the two dusty riders strode into his office. Without an invite,
the shorter one swung open the gate in the railing that set the lawman's desk off from the center of the room and
the barred cells beyond.
The man stepped slapped some papers on the desk. "Like to talk, Sheriff."
Sheriff Stansfield examined the credentials. "Wells Fargo agent are you, Collins? Your sidekick too?"
"Dave Mitchell," Collins said as Mitchell pulled out his papers. Sheriff Stansfield waved them away impatiently.
"You big shots flounce in here, ready to throw your weight around, like no small town sheriff can do his job.
Far as I'm concerned—"
"We're on the same side, Sheriff," Collins interrupted. Lawman hostility was a story he'd encountered from
Arizona to Idaho. Without invitation, he sat in the chair across the desk from the sheriff. "Wells Fargo just
wants its money back. We like it when the local law gets credit. Ask Sheriff Kemble over at Boise City and
he'll tell you."
"You the two that brought Bowers in?"
"We're the two that gave Kemble some extra riders to track down leads, riders that didn't think county lines
were fences. Kemble brought in the killer," Collins insisted. "The local paper didn't even know we were there."
Stansfield remained reserved, Mitchell thought, but who wouldn't be? A man's got to protect himself, protect
his turf, not let the voters think someone from the outside had to come in to do his job. Maybe politics was
public service, but it was also a ball-and-chain to a man who had always valued riding free. As Mitchell
brought over a chair from the deputy's desk and sat down next to Collins, he felt Stansfield's eyes following
him speculatively. Mitchell tensed as he saw his name click in the sheriff's memory.
"Mitchell" the sheriff said. "Dave Mitchell. I've seen paper on someone with that name. Bank robber? Jail
"Never killing," Mitchell insisted. "Consolidated Miner's Bank down in Tombstone. Jury said guilty and the
judge said five years," he acknowledged. "Stopped my share of Wells Fargo stages too. Yet here I am."
"Full pardon," Collins said. "Wire the governor at Flagstaff if you need to check. He's been my partner
for over a year."
Stansfield's noncommittal grunt proclaimed his continuing suspicion. Mitchell wanted to attack the man's
conviction that an outlaw never changes, but he knew by now that distrust was central to a lawman's nature.
Collins knew he was riding a different trail. That was enough for Mitchell.
"It's Wells Fargo's money," Stansfield admitted. "I guess you've got a right to look for it."
The sheriff told the two agents what little he knew of the robbery. The wagon taking the money to the
depository at Cheyenne had been stopped ten miles out of town. "No one except Wells Fargo was supposed to
know about the shipment."
"But someone did."
"Gunned the driver and guard, transferred the gold," Stansfield continued, "but they heard someone coming
before they could check their work and scampered."
Stansfield bristled. "Sure, there was a trail. Sure I followed it. And sure, I lost it. Just a small
town sheriff, right?"
"Don't know yet." Collins knew enough to keep his voice nonjudgmental. "Tell us about the trail."
"They rode into the brush, quartered up the hillside and onto Sherman Ridge, then after a mile looped back to
the County road. I tracked them a little further. Nothing nice and convenient like a horse coming up lame or
a nick in a shoe. Just two nags in good condition."
Stansfield paused, considered the question. "Range horses, not riding horses, I'd say. Handled the upslope to
Sherman Ridge better than my saddle horse, no stumbling or slowing, must have muscular legs accustomed to
working hilly terrain like any hard-working cowpony."
"A detail any swivel-chair sheriff would be sure to notice," Collins suggested.
Ready to take offense, Stansfield's eyes flashed before the words got through to him. His lips curled up and
he started to relax with the interlopers. "Maybe. Still don't tell us where they went. Headed south, that's
all I can tell you. For all I know, I might have followed them to Cheyenne and not learned anything. My place was here."
* * *
They found Bud Givens lying limply on a bed in the back room of the town doctor's house. The bullet had torn
through his guts, the bleeding had stopped, but the infection was doing its work. "Waiting to die," he told
them. "Just want to get it over."
"What can you tell us?"
They learned little more from the dying man than they had from the sheriff. Two men with bandanas over their
faces and dressed like any range rider. "Thought one seemed not much more than a kid," Givens said. "That's
the one Sy blasted before his partner cut him down." He groaned wearily. "I tried to back him up but . . ."
Collins rested his hand on Givens' shoulder."We'll get them for you," he promised. "Sorry we can't do more."
The two agents turned to leave. Collins was already in the hallway and Givens' tired voice barely carried across the
small room. "Double H," he told Mitchell. "Saw that brand on one of the horses. Don't know if it helps."
"If that brand's around, we'll find it."
* * *
The Double H ranch spread for ten miles north from Arrowhead Creek to the high country. In the ranch yard,
the two Wells Fargo agents found a man with the stance of authority conferring with another man.
Collins got straight to business. "Are you missing a couple of horses, Mister Holland?"
"And the riders that go with them. Lonnie and Pete Morgan. You know where they went to?"
Collins ignored the question. "What kind of men are they?"
"Pete came from Indiana six years back, green as sour apples. But worked hard, learned his job. Brother's
only nineteen. When he came out, I had an easy choice. Make a job for Lonnie or lose Pete. He's still
learning, but he works."
"Ambitious, both of them," the foreman added. "They got dreams of running a horse ranch."
Holland agreed. "Came to me for a letter saying they were good workers. They went to town to see the banker
about a loan to buy the Middleboro spread." Holland sniffed. "I could have told them not to waste their time.
All that skinflint can think about is the date mortgage payments come due. He'd sooner stick his money in a
gopher hole than bet on young kids."
"Killers, you think?"
"Pete's a good hand." Holland paused before continuing reluctantly. "But there's nothing he wouldn't do to
protect his brother."
Working a ranch takes all a man's energy. Holland had given little thought to the town gossip the cook had
brought back the prior night from his supply run. But Collins' questions brought it into focus. "The robbers?
You think . . . ?"
"Any idea where they might hide out, one of them being wounded?"
"We'll check our line shacks. I don't hold with robbery or killing, Collins. If they're on my range, we'll
bring them in."
The Wells Fargo men were a mile down the road before Mitchell turned to Collins. "We learn anything?"
"Two missing Double H horses, two missing Double H riders. Likely we have the names of the killers. But how did
they know about the shipment? Someone else must be in this. Maybe those line shacks won't be checked too closely."
"A prosperous ranch like this?" Mitchell said. "The range is dotted with Double H cattle."
"We see a lot of land and a lot of cattle. We don't see Holland's bank book. More than one rancher has turned
robber to pay his mortgage."
* * *
Collins walked down Cheyenne Street, past the dry goods store, past the milliner's amd a gun shop, until he
found the black-painted door window with the gold lettering that pretended to a greater dignity than the
small storefront could command. "Bank of Wheatland, Lloyd Briscoe, President", it proclaimed. He turned
the doorknob and entered the shotgun-style building. Two teller cages and a low railing set off the customer
area from the bankers' domain.
Collins raised his hand and flashed the Wells Fargo badge to the man bent over the books of account. "Like to
talk to Mister Briscoe." Floyd Briscoe emerged briskly from the office in the rear, his tailored broadcloth suit
the emblem of prosperity and cut to emphasize his slender, aristocratic build.
Once Collins identified himself, Briscoe asked the only question Collins ever got from the victim of a robbery.
"When do I get my money?"
"I'm here to start the process. We've got to file a claim."
"I gave the money to Wells Fargo. You let it get stolen. What more is there to know? Is this some way of Wells
Fargo to get out of paying? Make it look like they never lost the money?"
Showing sympathy for a man like Briscoe usually worked. "You know what lawyers are like. The suits in San Francisco
think the world runs on paper. Whatever you and I know isn't a fact until it is set down on the Proof of Loss form
and sworn to before a notary."
"I don't have time to go writing. I've got a bank to run."
"Let me confirm the facts. I'll write them up tonight and you can sign it tomorrow. That'll get San Francisco
off my back and I can get down to my real job, finding that money."
Briscoe was only slightly propitiated. He paused as he led Collins past the man at the desk. "Barber, here, is
the auditor from Cheyenne. Got word last week he'd be up to see if we still know how to add and subtract." The
two men shook hands. "Tell Barber that book entry I made is good. That Wells Fargo will pay my loss."
"Wells Fargo always makes good on losses, Mister Barber."
Briscoe's office was appointed with a dignity that expressed a solidity and affluence not evident in the working
lobby of the bank. Behind Briscoe's desk were engravings of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Grant, not overly welcoming
to a man of southern heritage like Collins, but this was Wyoming.
"You should be out looking for the robbers," Briscoe told Collins as he seated himself behind his mahogany desk.
"Nothing you can find out here."
"We rode out to the ranch they ride for this morning. Got their names and descriptions to our Denver office and
alerts are going out across Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Even in a town as big as 40,000 like Denver, two
strange cowhands, one of them wounded, get noticed quick." Mitchell's observations came to mind. Maybe Collins
was just making conversation. Maybe he was probing. "You've got a lot of prosperous spreads in this country."
Bankers like to show they have greater wisdom than sweaty men of business. "Beef on the hoof doesn't pay the
mortgage. Most Wyoming ranchers thought the eastern money-spigot would never stop gushing. They're learning
that a financial panic like the one back East means folks stop eating beef. The railroaders charge almost as
much to ship a six-hundred-pound Wyoming steer to Chicago as the slaughterhouses pay. The crash came on so
sudden, even smart men of affairs lost money. Lost some myself," he admitted. "Banks across the state are
finding mortgage payments hard to come by."
He paused as the idea sunk in. "Are you sasying Double H had a hand . . . ?"
"Pete and Lonnie Morgan did, for sure. Know them?"
Briscoe took a moment to reflect. "Young, no-account cowhands?" Collins nodded. "Ambitious beyond their experience.
They wanted me to give them money so they could buy a horse ranch. I asked them how much they'd saved, what
collateral they had." Briscoe scoffed at their pretensions. "About what you'd expect from dirt and sweat cowhands.
I told them to come back in a couple of years when they could show they didn't drink away all the money in their
pockets. They said they couldn't wait. Middleboro's ranch was for sale now."
"You turned them down," Collins said. "Nothing else you could do."
"They weren't happy when they left here."
"Could they have learned about the shipment?"
Briscoe showed his offense at the question. "Not from me." Then Briscoe paused. "Mister Tanner, my chief teller, stuck
his head in while they were there to check some detail, but didn't say much."
"The teller knew?"
"Of course. He had to put the count together. You don't think Tanner—"
"Someone talked. We'll ask them when we find them."
* * *
The road south of Wheatland ran through open country, past occasional farms with creaking windmills that
hoisted water from the aquifer far below to nourish fields a man's muscles had scratched into the earth.
Cattle, in small clumps, grazed their way across the table land. Platte County was a peaceful country, a
productive country, a working man's country.
Five miles out of town, where the road bent southeast, Mitchell paused and gave the scene a professional
appraisal, based on his three years working that side of the business. Here, according to the Sheriff, the
two outlaws had waited, hailed the Wells Fargo wagon, and forced it to a stop. It was a good location, Mitchell
decided, with no farmhouse in sight. In a country with little cover, a slight dip in the road gave what element
of surprise an outlaw could expect. Halt the wagon, disarm the guard, transfer the cash, and leave tracks up the
hillside. Tracks meant to be followed? Mitchell speculated. The animal trace left an obvious trail that invited
tracking. Were they professionals leading a deliberate false scent or amateurs on their way to a Double H line
shack? Were the horses part of the misdirection: kill two Double H riders, use their horses to send the law north
to Double H while the robbers put miles under their hooves as they headed for the safety of their hideout? But
how would outlaws from out of the area know of the shipment?
Mitchell decided he had learned nothing from the robbery site. As before in his still-new life with Chet Collins,
he wondered how even a smart, experienced man like Collins ever solved a case. He kneed his horse forward, down
the road, puzzling over what questions Collins would be asking.
One thing his experience taught him—however professional or amateur they were, their plans had changed. No
robber figures on being shot. Almost any close-in gunshot wound would be too serious for a long distance escape run
to Cheyenne, let alone a reliable hideout in Browns' Park. Givens' shot had shattered their plans.
Mitchell remembered the pain and weakness that afternoon outside Leadville. Only a mile from the robbery he had
struggled to hold his saddle. His only chance for survival depended on finding a hole he could pull in around
himself and hunker down. The Morgans must have faced the same imperative need.
A quarter mile off the road he saw a farmer plying his hoe on recalcitrant water-stealing weeds. Mitchell reined
aside, and pulled up at the edge of the fields. For a moment he watched as the man labored intently to coax a few
vegetables from the tired soil. Finally he spoke.
"Hello, the field."
The farmer turned in surprise. "Howdy."
Mitchell palmed his badge and flashed it, indistinguishable at the distance, but the gesture asserted confidence in
his right to ask questions. "Maybe you heard there was a robbery and killing last Saturday," he began. "The killers
headed south, likely looking for a place to hole up. A cave, maybe a deserted cabin. Not too far. Know of any?"
The farmer studied Mitchell as he decided whether to answer. "Old Jed, he was a wolver years back. He had a shack
somewhere down Sherman Ridge. Don't know exactly where."
* * *
About three miles west of the road, Sherman Ridge extended for miles, a long fold in the earth that rose two,
three hundred feet above the prairie. Scouring the scrub along Sherman Ridge could take days. Any one-horse
trail not in regular use got covered over by brush, sometimes overnight it seemed. Mitchell knew he could ride
within a hundred yards of a hideout and not see it.
But a wolver's cabin was predictable in some ways. He wouldn't build it down on the flats where winter would come
at him from all sides. Nor would he build on the wind-swept crest of Sherman Ridge. He'd look for a place where
pines sheltered him from weather and gave him handy firewood.
Mitchell had spent three years living the owlhoot life, camping in the Colorado and Arizona outback between
"patronizing" Wells Fargo stages. A man develops an instinct, maybe not something he could explain to another
man, but as he told Chet Collins later, "I could almost smell the shack a mile away." When he saw a recently-broken
pine branch, his senses went into overdrive. Maybe there was even something he could do better than his partner to
earn his space.
As he pushed up the trail, his finger flicked off the keeper thong that held his six-gun secure. If he was right,
two killers would give him a hot-lead welcome.
* * *
Later that afternoon, as Chet Collins waited for Mitchell's return, he nursed a beer and reviewed the pieces of the
puzzle. Only Wells Fargo and the bank knew about the shipment—or someone tipped off by a pair of loose lips.
He was mulling over the limited possibilities when Ralph Barber put his hand on the chair across the table.
"Join you?" asked Barber, the man he had been introduced to briefly at the bank, the auditor doing the routine annual
review of the bank.
"Have away," Collins said. "How's your work going?"
"Looks like I'm finished tonight, two days early. I'll be pulling out tomorrow."
"So the bank has—"
"You know, my work is confidential. I can't talk to you about the audit."
"Of course." But then, Collins wondered, why are you sitting with me?
The waitress brought Barber his beer and the auditor leaned back to enjoy it. But it seemed he was a man who liked to
talk. "Not telling you anything out of school when I say the Bank of Wheatland keeps a good set of books, loan
documents are all in good shape. Briscoe's a meticulous paper-pusher."
Barber took another swig and Collins waited. The man wanted to talk, to get something out of his craw. Push him, and
he'd remember his ethics.
"Easy work, then."
"Even the cash balances come out almost exact. To within six bits.
"Always thought bankers kept a close rein on their money."
"Sure. All of them do. Even so, Briscoe's bank stands out special. Never seen a cash tally come so close to the book tally.
Even in any well-run bank, maybe a teller miscounts a deposit or withdrawal. Numbers can be transposed when they are written
down, or a three can look like an eight, a one can look like a seven, figures don't get added up right sometimes. Little
errors, honest mistakes. But things don't balance. That's normal. Even bankers are human. Maybe careless, but human."
"I'd think that's what you were looking for."
"What we look for are the crooked ones, the ones that doctor the books to make them balance with the cash. I look for paper
entries that try to bring the books into line with the cash balance, a poorly-documented loan with just the right amount,
for example. Everything adds up nicely and I'm supposed to put on my happy face and clear out of town."
"But you don't."
"You do this for a living, ten years now, you know how to doctor books in ways a small town banker has never thought of. I
figure I know all the tricks."
"But the books here are good, you said."
"The best. No phony loans. I'm not talking about the Bank of Wheatland, you understand. No sudden write-offs of loans just before
I arrive. None of the things I look for. Everything's just as it should be. And yet the cash count is off the book balance by only
six bits." He gave a short laugh. "It's almost like someone made the cash balances fit the books, instead of the usual way. And if
he did that, there's no way an auditor can track it down."
* * *
Off in a corner of the saloon, Collins learned that the robbers had not escaped with the money. "They knew their killer,"
Mitchell reported. "Let him get in their cabin. Shot with a small bore, likely a derringer. They'd been rat-chawed. I figure
dead maybe three days."
"The robbery was Saturday, four days ago."
"So they ran to ground, and the next day someone showed up and had a different idea of how to split. Someone they trusted.
Pete had no reason to be cautious."
"They would trust their boss. You think—"
"Not Holland," Mitchell spoke with conviction "No horseman would leave horses penned up in the corral to die without forage or water."
"Then . . ."
"The killer wore town shoes, not riding boots. New heels put on recently, the prints showed no wear. I made a trace of the footprints
so Sheriff Stansfield can figure out the size of the killer's shoes."
That was all Mitchell had to report. Collins' discussion of his afternoon added little. "Can't figure out Barber, though. He wasn't
just talking to warm the air. He was trying to give me a message."
They relaxed their way through their whiskey, Collins reminiscing about robberies he'd worked, some successful, some not. Mitchell
couldn't take his mind away from two cowhands, young men with hopes and dreams, betrayed and murdered by a thief without honor. He
thought of Barber's conversation with Collins. In moments, the picture became clear to both men.
"Looks like we earned our pay today, saving Wells Fargo fifteen thousand dollars." Mitchell leaned back, a welcome glow spreading
through him. "We got us a good job, Chet. Lucky for me the day I got teamed up with you."
"Thought you liked riding free, Dave."
"Riding free." He'd always seen that as the measure of manhood. But having his words thrown back at him no longer rankled, not
now that they were the measure of how far he had come since his shiftless days.
"A man learns things," he said. "Freedom without responsibility is hollow."
* * *
"Thought you had left."
Barber stepped into the banker's office. "I was settling my bill with the hotel, when these two told me I should sit
in on their meeting with you, Mister Briscoe."
The two Wells Fargo agents entered the office behind Barber. Neither man sat. "You bring my money?" Briscoe demanded.
Collins didn't answer. Or maybe he did. "Let me tell you a story, Mister Briscoe. Say an ambitious small-town banker buys
railroad stock, as much as he can. Say when the market crashes, he has to find money quick to cover his margin calls.
Say he has access to a bank vault with stacks of greenbacks and thinks he solved his problem. Next, say he gets notice
that his bank is being audited. Then two young cowhands apply for a loan and he tells them another way to get the money
they need. Say he visits them Sunday morning. All the money ends up back in the bank's vault and the books balance. An
interesting story, Mister Briscoe."
"You trying to blame those riff-raffs on me? Prove it."
Collins' business was done. "The robbery's all Wells Fargo cares about. Your claim is denied. If you want to talk proof,
you can sue for the money." Collins had reached the doorway. "Assuming you want the story to come out in a courtroom."
The one-time outlaw, consumed by fury at a murderer's callous betrayal of two young cowhands, had more to say. "As to
the killing, you'd be surprised what the sheriff can learn when he knows what questions to ask. Maybe the hostler at
the livery stable remembers who rented a horse for a ride Sunday morning. Maybe some farmer out hoeing his fields saw
the killer turn toward Sherman Ridge, someone the killer didn't even notice. The town cobbler will remember who recently
had his shoes re-heeled, maybe a pair of shoes the right size for the footprints I traced. It's hard to get away with
murder, Mister. Briscoe."
As they crossed the bank lobby, the two agents heard Barber delivering his news. "This changes my audit report, Mister
Briscoe. A fifteen thousand dollar shortage in cash balances is the usual sign of embezzlement. The law can track
down stock purchases."
Mitchell and Collins were concluding their briefing with Sheriff Stansfield when a gunshot sounded. As the sheriff
stood to strap on his gun belt, they heard someone running in the street. In a moment, Tanner from the bank flung wide the door.
"Sheriff, come quick. Mister Briscoe just killed himself."