Starbuck angled across Larimer Street, one eye on the police station.
The Colt .45 stuffed in the waistband of his trousers gave him an uncomfortable moment. He was accustomed to enforcing the law, and the city ordinance against carrying firearms struck him as damnfool nonsense. His suit jacket concealed the gun, but he was still irked that progress had put him on the wrong side of the law.
Denver, like most western cities, considered itself a progressive metropolis. With 1881 drawing to a close, the population was approaching 100,000 and frontier customs were slowly losing ground to the civilized edicts of reformers. Not that old Denver had completely succumbed to the new cosmopolitan posture; graft and bribes still assured the discreet operation of whore-houses, gaming parlors, and busthead saloons. Yet it was now a hub of commerce, with two railroads and an expansive financial district. And a law against carrying guns.
Starbuck began wondering why he’d ever left Texas. As he moved past the police station, it occurred to him that hindsight was the worst of all vantage points. However enlightening, it made a man feel very much the dimdot.
A brisk December wind whipped out of the northwest with biting force. He grunted, testing the wind for snow, and hurried along the street. Halfway down the block, he turned into the entrance of the Brown Palace Hotel.
In the lobby, he pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. The letter from Vernon Whitehead had indicated ten sharp, and he still had a couple of minutes to spare. He inquired at the desk, and much as he’d expected, Whitehead’s name commanded instant attention. The clerk pointed him in the right direction, all the while emphasizing that the gentleman in question occupied the hotel’s finest suite. Starbuck crossed the lobby, gazing around at the ornate decor and a garish mural covering the breadth of the ceiling. He thought it beat the hell out of a bunkhouse.
Mounting the sweeping staircase, he was reminded that the whole operation had been organized on a large scale. Early next spring, the presidents of every cattlemen’s association throughout the West would converge on Denver. Their purpose would be to unite in the formation of the International Cattlemen’s Association. Their primary goal, aside from joining forces against homesteaders, would be an organized, far-reaching campaign directed at rustlers and horse thieves. Vernon Whitehead, chairman of the Executive Committee, had extended an invitation for him to attend a preliminary planning session. He was to be considered for the position of Chief Range Detective.
John Chisum, perhaps the most respected of all western cattlemen, had recommended him for the job. Some months earlier, he had been instrumental in disbanding a gang of rustlers who were preying on Chisum’s vast New Mexico spread. At the same time, he’d had a hand in tracking down Billy the Kid, and was present the night Pat Garrett killed the young outlaw. The attendant publicity had advanced his already formidable reputation as a manhunter.
Upstairs, Starbuck proceeded along the hall and stopped before the door of the suite. He removed his hat, tugged the lapels of his jacket straight, and knocked. The murmur of voices inside quickly subsided, and a moment later the door opened. An older man, with a shock of white hair like candy floss, greeted him with an outstretched hand.
“You must be Luke Starbuck?”
“Yessir, I am. And you’re—?”
“Vern Whitehead.” Whitehead stepped aside. “C’mon in and meet the rest of the boys.”
The suite was lavishly appointed. A thick Persian carpet covered the sitting room floor and grouped before the fireplace were several chairs and a plush divan. The other committee members—Sam Urschel, Oscar Belden, and Earl Poole—rose and moved forward. After a round of introductions, Whitehead motioned everyone to chairs.
There was no attempt at smalltalk. These men were ranchers, with little polish despite their wealth, and today they were all business. From the outset, it was apparent that Whitehead would act as spokesman for the group. Moreover, it was equally clear the interview would proceed along the lines of an interrogation.
Whitehead assessed him with a shrewd glance. “You as good as John Chisum says you are?”
Starbuck wasn’t impressed. They obviously meant to put him on the defensive, and the tactic didn’t sit well. He let them wait while he rolled a smoke. After flicking a match on his thumbnail, he took a long drag and exhaled.
“No offense intended, but you shouldn’t have sent that invite unless you’d already checked me out.”
“Oh, we checked you out, Mr. Starbuck. We can’t afford to go on the say-so of nobody, not even John Chisum.”
“Then I reckon you got all you need.”
“Well, let’s see.” Whitehead extracted a sheaf of papers from inside his jacket. He snapped them open and began reading. “Says here you been a range detective since the summer of ’76. Headquartered at Ben Langham’s LX ranch, down in the Texas Panhandle. Worked out of there for the Panhandle Cattlemen’s Association.”
“Close enough.” Starbuck admired the tip of his cigarette. “Except for the time I was out on loan to Chisum.”
“Says here you’ve killed fourteen men.”
“I never took time out to count.”
Whitehead fixed him with an inquiring gaze. “Does fourteen include the ones you hung?”
“Nope.” Starbuck looked at him without expression. “That would make it considerable higher.”
“Not bad for a fellow”—Whitehead consulted his notes—“who’s just pushin’ thirty-four. How is it a man your age ain’t never been married?”
Starbuck smiled. “I like my work.”
“Do you now?” Whitehead tapped the papers with his finger. “According to this, you inherited the LX from Langham and sold out to a bunch down in the Panhandle. That must’ve left you sittin’ on easy street.”
“I got enough to see me along.”
“Hold on!” Oscar Belden interrupted. “You got money to burn, and you’re tryin’ to tell us you aim to keep on workin’ for wages. Some of us find that a mite hard to swallow.”
“I told you,” Starbuck said in a deliberate voice. “I like my work. How much I’ve got in the bank doesn’t concern you or anyone else. That’s my business.”
The words were spoken with the iron-sureness of a man who tolerated very little from others. Starbuck was a full six feet, but built along deceptive lines. He was lithe and corded, catlike in his movements, with a square jaw and lively chestnut hair. Five years as a range detective had brutalized him, and the vestiges of a violent trade were etched around his eyes. He had the steely gaze of someone who stayed alive by making quick estimates. And now, staring at the men, he wasn’t at all certain he wanted the job. They seemed far too picky to suit his style.
“Let’s suppose,” Whitehead resumed, “that we offered you the job. Could you recruit ten or twelve good men and teach ‘em to follow orders, no questions asked? I’m talkin’ about a squad of detectives that would go wherever they’re needed and do whatever they’re told.”
“On who gives the orders,” Starbuck said flatly. “I take assignments, but I don’t take orders. Either I do it my own way or I don’t do it at all.”
“John Chisum”—Whitehead paused as though weighing his words—“told us you was strong-headed. We might be willin’ to give you the leeway needed, if you was willin’ to hold yourself accountable to the Executive Committee.”
“I take it you mean yourself and these other gents?”
“Most likely,” Whitehead acknowledged. “Course, nothin’s official till the Association gets itself formed next spring. But that’s the way it stacks up right now.”
“Exactly what was it you had in mind that needs ten or twelve men?”
“Killin’,” Whitehead said bluntly. “We wouldn’t object if you brought in a few for trial, but we’d sooner see a thief hung than sent to prison.”
“Sounds like you mean to form a death squad.”
“Altogether I reckon ranchers lose a couple of million dollars a year in rustled stock. We aim to put a stop to it, and I don’t know no better way than the gallows tree.”
Starbuck unfolded slowly from the divan. There was a slight bulge over the sixgun in his waistband, and he adjusted his suit jacket. Then he looked from man to man, nodding last to Whitehead.
“I’ll let you know.”
Before the cattlemen quite realized his intent, he turned and walked to the door. The interview was concluded.
On the way downstairs Starbuck made a snap judgment. The job wasn’t for him. There was no denying the honor involved; as Chief Range Detective his prestige among cattlemen would be greatly enhanced. Nor were there any qualms about the killing. The past five years had hardened him to the sight of death. Hanging a man wasn’t pleasant, but neither was it repugnant. It was simply a function to be performed swiftly, an object lesson for those who robbed and murdered with godlike impunity. As for shooting a man who was trying to shoot him, there was no thought, no stirring of emotion, certainly no regret. He survived by allowing no man to threaten his life.
So the job itself wasn’t what bothered him. He was concerned instead about Vernon Whitehead. Some gut instinct told him the rancher had lied. He sensed that Whitehead would say anything—promise anything—to gull him into accepting the job. Further, he felt there was something of the tyrant about Whitehead. Though it hadn’t surfaced during the interview, the telltale signs were there. The rancher, little by little, would begin issuing orders rather than assignments. Eventually, like a drill sergeant, he would demand blind obedience and unquestioning loyalty. All of which meant they would come to loggerheads. Somewhere down the line Whitehead would show his true colors, and there would then be no choice but to sever the arrangement. It hardly seemed worth the effort, or the aggravation.
Then, too, there was no rush to accept the first job offered. As one of the committee members had pointed out, he wasn’t exactly hurting for money. Upon the death of Ben Langham, an old friend and something of a surrogate father, he had inherited the largest cattle spread in the Panhandle. Yet, even though Langham had thought to cure his wanderlust, the responsibility was ill-suited to his character. Some inner restlessness made it impossible for him to become tied down to people, or things. He traveled light and he traveled alone, obligated to no one but himself. Satisfied with his life, and under no great compulsion to change, he had sold the ranch only last month. The proceeds—some $200,000—was stashed away in a bank in Fort Worth. The interest alone was enough to cover his immediate needs, with plenty to spare for an occasional whirl at the sporting life. And that afforded him the independence to do whatever he damn well pleased. Especially where it concerned work.
By the time he reached the lobby, Starbuck had decided he wanted no part of the International Cattlemen’s Association. He wasn’t sure where the decision would lead, nor was he overly concerned about the future. His reputation was established, and there was work anywhere in the West for a range detective who got results. Tomorrow was time enough to ponder his next move. For the moment, he had a definite yen to sample the nightlife of Denver. He’d heard there were parlor houses that specialized in Chinese girls. Young sloe-eyed Orientals, whose plumbing was reportedly vice-versa to that of white women. The mere thought galvanized him to a quicker pace.
Approaching the hotel entrance, Starbuck noticed a man leaning against the wall. Heavyset and thick through the shoulders, he wore a bowler hat perched atop his head like a bird’s nest. He smiled, flashing a gold tooth, and stepped into Starbuck’s path.
“Your name Starbuck?”
“Mr. Griffin. Horace Griffin. He’d like to see you.”
Starbuck started around him. “I don’t know any Horace Griffin.”
“He knows you.”
“Why not let him tell you himself? Mr. Griffin’s Division Superintendent of Wells, Fargo—and that’s all I’m authorized to say.”
Starbuck stared at him a moment, then shrugged. “What the hell? Won’t cost me nothing to listen.”
The heavyset man smiled, indicating the door. Outside, they turned onto Larimer Street and set off at a brisk walk across town. Some ten minutes later they entered the Wells, Fargo & Company express station. There, Starbuck was ushered into a private office and greeted by a man who introduced himself as Horace Griffin. Solemn as a priest, Griffin wasted no time on amenities. He offered Starbuck a chair on the opposite side of the desk, and came straight to the point.
“Mr. Starbuck, I know all about your meeting with the Cattlemen’s Association. If you’ve accepted the position, then I won’t compromise you further. If not, then I have a proposition that may very well interest you.”
“How’d you get wind of the meeting?”
“One of the members on the Executive Committee is a close personal friend. Which one really has no bearing on our discussion.”
Starbuck eyed him, considering. “Suppose we just say I’m at loose ends.”
“Fair enough,” Griffin agreed. “I presume you’ve heard of Tombstone?”
Griffin nodded. “In the past year, we’ve had fourteen stages robbed in the Tombstone district. We carry express shipments and payroll boxes for the silver mines, so the losses have been substantial. Very substantial.”
“Sounds like you’ve got yourself a problem.”
“And getting worse.” Griffin leaned forward, elbows on the desk. “Ten days ago our station agent in Tombstone disappeared.”
“How do you mean—disappeared?”
“Vanished, Mr. Starbuck! Without a trace.”
Starbuck looked interested. “Any chance he was involved in the robberies?”
“More than a chance,” Griffin replied. “Have you ever heard of Wyatt Earp? Doc Holliday?”
“Seems like I read something in the papers a while back. Near as I recall, it involved a shootout of some sort.”
“The press dubbed it the OK Corral Gunfight. Of course, that’s neither here nor there. What does matter is that the Tombstone sheriff believes Earp and Holliday are behind the robberies. Unofficially, he also accused our agent, Marsh Williams, of being in league with them.”
“And Williams suddenly disappeared.”
“Has the sheriff brought charges?”
“Last year, shortly after one of the robberies, he arrested Holliday. All indications were that he had a good case. But the court dismissed the charges, even though there was strong circumstantial evidence. Coincidently, Holliday’s three alleged accomplices have since been killed in unrelated holdups.”
“So where do you stand now?”
“Facing a stone wall,” Griffin said dourly. “We transferred another agent into Tombstone, but he reports it’s hopeless. Everyone is convinced Wyatt Earp killed Williams, and they’re afraid to talk. We have no case, no evidence, and no way to stop the robberies.”
“I get the feeling you’re offering me a job.”
“We know of your work,” Griffin ventured. “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not referring to the men you’ve killed, but rather your investigative work. I was particularly impressed with the way you infiltrated that gang of horse thieves some years ago. Dutch Henry Horn, wasn’t that the ringleader’s name?”
“For a fact,” Starbuck noted. “You’ve got a good memory.”
“I’m also an excellent judge of character, Mr. Starbuck. Quite frankly, we need an undercover operative in Tombstone. I believe you’re the man for the job.”
Starbuck examined the notion. “I don’t know beans from buckshot about stage robbers. What makes you think I could pull it off when your own people have failed?”
“Thieves are thieves,” Griffin said equably. “Their mentality differs little, whether we’re talking about horse thieves or stage robbers. You’ve demonstrated a knack for thinking the way they do, and uncovering the evidence to expose them. In all candor, I believe you were made to order for Tombstone.”
There was a moment of calculation. Then Starbuck fixed him with a stern look. “I don’t work cheap and I’m plumb set in my ways. I do it at my own speed and I don’t follow nobody’s rules. Not even Wells, Fargo.”
“Have no fear,” Griffin assured him earnestly. “I’ll set no rules, and you can name your own compensation. Other than that, I have only two requests.”
“Oh?” Starbuck’s eyebrows rose in question. “What sort of requests?”
“First, keep me informed through Fred Dodge, the station agent in Tombstone. Second, end the robberies—by whatever means you deem expedient.”
“Unless I heard wrong, you’re authorizing me to catch them or kill them. Whichever works best.”
“I am indeed, Mr. Starbuck! And the quicker the better.”
“Mr. Griffin,” Starbuck grinned and stuck out his hand. “You just hired yourself a detective.”
Horace Griffin heaved himself to his feet. He grasped Starbuck’s hand in a firm grip, and wished him luck in Tombstone. He thought it not only the best solution, but perhaps the only solution. Indeed for Wells, Fargo & Company, it made imminent good sense.
Hire a killer to catch a killer.
Copyright © 1981 by Matthew Braun.