A brisk October wind swept across the bay. The ferry plowed toward San Francisco, buffeted by the choppy waters. Directly ahead lay the waterfront, a sprawling collection of wharves and warehouses below the hill-studded city.
Luke Starbuck stood alone at the railing on the bow. The other passengers, crossing on the morning ferry from Oakland, were huddled inside the warmth of the main-deck cabin. Face to the wind, Starbuck appeared heedless of the damp chill and the spray that peppered him as waves slapped against the hull. His eyes were fixed on the harbor and the city beyond. He thought it the damnedest sight he'd ever seen.
Telegraph Hill, towering prominently above the waterfront, was cloaked in fog. Around the curving shore of the bay, the terrain formed a bold amphitheater, with inland hills surrounding the center of the city. The bay itself, perhaps the finest landlocked harbor in the world, was crowded with ships. At anchor were vessels of all nations, mast upon mast, their flags fluttering in the breeze. Westward, hidden by the fog-bound peninsula, was the Golden Gate. Through its channel, and into the harbor, sailed the ships of the China trade. Their cargo holds were filled with copra and raw silk, coconut oil and sugar, and myriad imports from the exotic Orient. The trade had transformed San Francisco into one of the richest ports on earth.
To Starbuck, who was not easily impressed, it was grander than anything he'd imagined. A former cowhand and rancher, he had grown to manhood in the Texas Panhandle. Circumstance had thrust him into the role of range detective, and several years were spent in the employ of Cattlemen's Associations across the West. As his reputation grew, he'd been hired by diverse organizations, like banks and mining companies. He was known to have killed at least twenty men, and among outlaws, he was considered the deadliest of all manhunters. Yet his skill as a detective by far exceeded his renown with a gun. His services were in constant demand, and though he was something of a lone wolf, his credentials were on a level with those of the Pinkerton Agency. He was celebrated as a man who never quit, that rare blend of bulldog and bloodhound. He got results.
For all his experience, however, Starbuck was not widely traveled. His work had been confined primarily to the Rocky Mountains and the Southern Plains. To him, Denver was a metropolis, and any body of water wider than the Rio Grande was beyond his ken. The sight of the bay, with tall-masted clippers and ocean-going steamers, was therefore a marvel to command attention. San Francisco, wondrously situated in a ring of hills, and several times the size of Denver, was like a storybook come to life. A profusion of cultures, cosmopolitan and sophisticated, it was the premier city of the West.
Watching it from the bow of the ferry, Starbuck felt a keen sense of exhilaration, and a quickening excitement. He told himself he'd been wise to accept Charles Crocker's summons. Whether or not he accepted the assignment was another thing, and suddenly not too important. Simply being here--San Francisco itself--was well worth the trip. He thought he might stay a while.
Only a week before, he'd been on the verge of accepting another assignment from Wells, Fargo. Then, out of the blue, he had received a wire from Charles Crocker, president of the Central Pacific Railroad. The message was terse, lacking specifics, but urgent in tone. Crocker requested Starbuck's presence in San Francisco, stressing the need for his professional services, and offered to pay all expenses.
Headquartered in Denver, Starbuck had never been retained by a railroad, and the idea intrigued him. He wired an affirmative reply and caught the next westbound. Arriving in Oakland yesterday evening, he had spent the night in a lodging house. Crocker's summons had indicated no need for secrecy, but by now it was second nature. He was entering San Francisco unknown and unannounced, one of the crowd.
When the ferry docked, he was the first to step ashore. He walked along the wharf and stopped on the corner of Market Street. The main thoroughfare of the city, Market began at the waterfront and bisected the business district. He stood for a moment, feeling somewhat like a hayseed, and simply stared. There was no question that San Francisco put Denver to shame. The buildings were taller. The people were more fashionably dressed, and crowded the sidewalks in greater numbers. There was a greater profusion of carriages and hansom cabs, blocking the street as far as the eye could see. The clamor and hubbub were deafening, and the whole scene put him in mind of an ant heap busily swarming with activity. Everything was bigger and louder, and somehow larger than life. He suddenly understood why the city by the bay was spoken of in awed terms.
Still, nothing daunted Starbuck for long. He took it all in stride, and quickly decided there was no reason to gawk. People were people, and ant heaps were all much alike, some merely larger and louder than others. Stepping off the corner, he dodged in front of a carriage and hopped aboard a horse-drawn streetcar. He paid his fare, asking the conductor for directions, and found a seat in the rear. Several blocks uptown, he spotted the triangle where Montgomery and Post intersected Market, and jumped down. He joined the crowd and walked north along Montgomery.
Crossing Sutter, he saw the Wells, Fargo Building kitty-corner across the street. He was tempted to step inside and pay his respects. Only four months ago, while working undercover for the stage company, he had been instrumental in running Wyatt Earp out of Arizona. With Earp's departure, stagecoach robbery in the Tombstone district had all but ceased. The company had awarded Starbuck a generous bonus for his part in routing the gang. Now, however, he resisted the impulse to stop by Wells, Fargo. He wasn't a tactful man, but neither was he a dimdot. Having hedged on accepting a new assignment, it wouldn't do to let them know he was in town to see Crocker. Wells, Fargo could wait.
At the next corner, in the heart of the financial district, he found the Mills Building. The corporate offices of the Central Pacific Railroad occupied the entire third floor. A rickety elevator deposited him in the waiting room, and he gave his name to a man seated behind a reception desk. An office boy scurried off to announce his arrival, and he took a chair. Several minutes later, a young man with thick glasses approached, introducing himself as Crocker's secretary. He led Starbuck down a long hallway and ushered him into a corner suite.
Charles Crocker's office was lavishly appointed. Overlooking the intersection of Montgomery and Bush, it was furnished with wing chairs and a sofa crafted in lush Moroccan leather. The floor was covered by an immense Persian carpet and the walls were lined with oil paintings of the California coast. At the far end of the room, framed between two windows, was a gargantuan desk that looked to be carved from a solid piece of teak. The room seemed somehow appropriate to the man who rose from behind the desk.
Starbuck was reminded of a whale. Charles Crocker topped six feet and weighed not a stone less than three hundred pounds. Age had begun to thicken his girth, and his muttonchop beard was flecked through with gray. Yet he moved with vigor and held himself in a posture of ramrod self-assurance that bordered on arrogance. His voice was deep and resonant, with a booming, organ-like quality.
"Welcome, Mr. Starbuck!" He extended an arm the size of a log. "Welcome to San Francisco."
"Mr. Crocker." Starbuck found his handshake only slightly less powerful than a bear trap. "Glad to be here."
"How was your trip?"
"No complaints. You run a pretty fair railroad."
"None better!" Crocker said affably, waving him to a chair. "We pride ourselves on that. Indeed, we do!"
Starbuck seated himself in one of the wing chairs. The secretary, without being asked, took the other chair. Adjusting his glasses, he pulled a pad and pencil from his pocket, and waited at stiff-backed attention. Crocker crossed behind the desk and lowered his bulk into a tall swivel chair.
"Well, now," he said in his orotund voice, "down to business. You haven't come all this way for chitchat, correct, Mr. Starbuck?"
"I'm all ears, Mr. Crocker. Fire away."
"Excellent!" Crocker gestured toward his secretary. "I'll just have Higgins take notes on our discussion. For the record, so to speak."
"Why do you need a record?"
"Standard practice," Crocker explained. "I trust you have no objection?"
Starbuck looked at him without expression. "I'm not much for talking on the record."
"May I ask why?"
"Things put down on paper sometimes come back to haunt you."
"Aren't you being overly cautious, Mr. Starbuck?"
"We all protect ourselves in different ways."
"Indeed?" Crocker said gruffly. "Well, suffice it to say, I never enter into an arrangement without a written record."
"Your privilege," Starbuck remarked in a dry, cold manner. "I never make a deal in writing. A handshake does it, or it doesn't get done."
"Suppose I break my word, decide not to pay you when the assignment's completed?"
Starbuck gave him a slow, dark smile. "You won't."
Starbuck was a rock of a man. He was sledgeshouldered, with lithe catlike reflexes, and taller than he appeared. His hair was sandy colored and his pale blue eyes took another man's measure in one swift glance. His gaze, now centered on Crocker, was steady and confident. The result was striking, somehow cold and very impersonal.
Crocker met and held his gaze. He was aware he'd underestimated the younger man. From all reports, Starbuck was a crackerjack detective; but those same reports indicated he was a mankiller, devoid of compassion or mercy when pushed beyond certain limits. After a moment's reflection, he was forced to admit Starbuck had a point. Today they wouldn't be dealing in vague abstractions. Their discussion, by necessity, would touch on the subject of death. That was something better left out of the record. A handshake would do very nicely.
"That's all, Higgins." He dismissed the secretary with a curt nod. "I'll call if I need you."
Higgins rose, looking slightly bemused, and walked from the room. There was a long, strained silence until the door closed. Then Crocker leaned back in the swivel chair, which creaked ominously under his weight.
"You're a cool one, Mr. Starbuck."
"No offense," Starbuck said woodenly. "A man in my line of work can't afford to take chances."
"I daresay," Crocker agreed, quickly moving on. "Now, as to the reason I asked you here. The Central Pacific has a problem with train robbers. I want it stopped."
"How serious a problem?"
"Very close to ruinous, Mr. Starbuck. Our express cars carry gold from the San Francisco mint and currency shipments from the banks throughout California. Over the past year we've been robbed on an average of twice a month. The losses, as you may well appreciate, have been staggering."
"No idea who's behind it?"
"The same gang every time?"
"We think so, but there's no way of knowing for certain."
"Any pattern?" Starbuck ventured. "Do they favor a certain section of the line? Or maybe strike at a certain time of the month?"
"Yes to both questions. More often than not they raid the southern line, somewhere between here and San Jose. As to timing, they always strike when we're carrying a large shipment."
"Always?" Starbuck regarded him with impassive curiosity. "Are you saying they know exactly which trains to hit?"
"I am, indeed," Crocker said in an aggrieved tone. "That's why I summoned you, Mr. Starbuck. We have a Judas in our midst--someone who supplies them with our shipment schedules. No matter what precautions we take--despite the utmost secrecy--they always know. Always!"
Starbuck's eyes were hard, questing. "What about your own security force? With the pattern established, they could've pulled a switch and waylaid the robbers."
Crocker looked painfully embarrassed. "We tried that on two separate occasions. In both instances, the train wasn't robbed."
"Your Judas tipped them off in advance?"
"So you're asking me to ferret out the Judas?"
"The Judas," Crocker said, watching him carefully, "and the gang leader. I want it stopped--permanently."
A stony look settled on Starbuck's face. He'd heard the same message many times before. Always phrased discreetly, never in the form of a direct order, it was nonetheless obvious. Someone needed to be killed, and he was being asked to do the job. He gave Crocker an evaluating glance, then shrugged.
"I work at my own speed and I do it my own way. If I take the assignment, then I'll report directly to you and no one else."
"Does that include Tom Kelly, our security chief?"
"That includes everybody and anyone. Either our meeting today stays inside these four walls or I want no part of the deal. One little hint, and your Judas would most likely punch my ticket."
"Where would you begin?"
"Where it's least expected," Starbuck said stolidly. "I'll let you know after I've had a chance to nose around."
Crocker's expression was speculative. "How would you report to me?"
"Never here," Starbuck told him firmly. "I'll figure a way to get word to you. If it's necessary that we meet, then it'll have to be somewhere else. Somewhere damn private, and always by yourself."
"In other words, you would operate independently and keep me informed as it suits your pleasure. Is that essentially correct?"
"That's the way I work," Starbuck said levelly. "So far it's kept me alive."
"An admirable record," Crocker observed with a tinge of irony. "Now, as to your fee. I presume you have a standard rate?"
Starbuck had done his homework on the Central Pacific. In 1862, two companies were awarded federal charters to build a transcontinental railroad: the Union Pacific, building westward from the Missouri River, and the Central Pacific, building eastward from California. Crocker and three business cronies--Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Collis Huntington--were the sole stockholders of the Central Pacific. Thereafter, they were known as the Big Four, and with reason. The government granted them nine million acres of land, $24,000,000 in federal bonds, and no strings attached. For four years, three thousand Irishmen and ten thousand Chinese coolies labored to build their railroad. One of the end results was San Francisco's fabled Chinatown. The other was a separate construction company, which had exclusive rights to purchase material and build the Central Pacific. Crocker and his cohorts, once again the sole stockholders, raised $79,000,000 in bonds and cash from the government and private investors. Of that amount, $36,000,000, not counting river frontage and ocean property, was siphoned off into their own pockets. The facts had slowly come to light, and now, in 1882, the holdings of the Big Four were conservatively estimated at $100,000,000 or more.
The newspapers of the day, never overly fond of robber barons, had characterized Crocker as "ruthless as a crocodile" and a man who believed in "the brute force of money." Having briefed himself on the Big Four in general, and Crocker in particular, Starbuck saw no reason to be charitable. He had come to the meeting fully prepared to deal with a crocodile, and he hadn't been disappointed. Then, too, having heard the assignment, he now had fewer qualms about holding Crocker's feet to the fire.
"One hundred dollars a day," Starbuck said at length. "All expenses paid and a minimum guarantee of a thousand dollars. That's my standard rate."
"Awfully steep, isn't it?" Crocker complained. "The Pinkerton Agency only charges half that amount."
"The Pinkertons won't do the job you want done, otherwise you would've hired them to start with."
"I'm afraid I don't follow you."
"It's simple enough," Starbuck said in a deliberate voice. "You want your Judas and the gang leader killed. No arrest, no trial, just a couple of quick funerals and the less fanfare the better."
"I didn't say that."
"Naturally." Starbuck cracked a smile. "If you had to say it, then I'd be the wrong man for the job. Tell me it's not so and I'll head on back to Denver."
Crocker gave him a faint nod of satisfaction. "Your terms are acceptable."
"I'll be in touch."
Starbuck heaved himself to his feet. Crocker rose and they shook hands, staring gravely into each other's eyes. Then, with no parting word, Starbuck turned and walked out. He closed the door softly behind him.
Crocker slumped back into his chair. His palms were sweaty, and he breathed a heavy sigh of relief. There for a moment, looking into Starbuck's eyes, he had experienced the sensation of fear. He knew it was justified, and he felt no shame.
He had the distinct impression he'd just struck a bargain with the Devil himself.
Copyright © 1981 by Matt Braun.