Authors: Robert B. Parker
Tags: #Parker, #Everett (Fictitious character), #Westerns, #Fiction - Western, #Fiction, #Robert B. - Prose & Criticism, #General, #Virgil (Fictitious character), #American Western Fiction, #Westerns - General, #Hitch, #Cole
IRGIL’S HOUSE hadn’t changed much in the time we’d been away. Allie and Laurel cleaned it up as soon as we arrived back in Appaloosa, and we moved right in. I bunked with Virgil in one bedroom, and Allie slept with Laurel in the second.
All four of us were sitting on the front porch sipping whiskey in the early evening while it was still light, when a tall, thin man with a big mustache walked up the front path. It was Stringer, the chief sheriff’s deputy.
“Ev’nin,” he said.
“Stringer,” Virgil said.
“I’m down to pick up a prisoner, heard you folks was back in town. Thought you might be drinking whiskey.”
“Sit,” I said. “Have some.”
Stringer adjusted his gun belt a little and sat.
“Allie,” Virgil said. “You remember Deputy Stringer.”
“I don’t recall us meeting,” Allie said.
“You was with the Shelton brothers,” Virgil said. “Probably thinking ’bout other things.”
“At the train,” she said.
“That’s me,” Stringer said.
“How do you do,” she said to Stringer, and made a small curtsy.
“Glad you’re well,” Stringer said. “Who’s this young lady?”
“Her name’s Laurel,” Virgil said. “She don’t say much. Laurel, this here is Deputy Stringer.”
Laurel looked at Stringer and nodded slowly and made her small curtsy. Then she went to Virgil and whispered to him. He whispered back. She whispered again.
“Well, sure, sort of like Pony Flores,” Virgil said.
“She shy?” Stringer said.
“Indian took her,” Virgil said. “She had a pretty bad time till we got her back.”
“Her folks are dead,” Allie said. “I’m looking out for her.”
“Since we got her back,” I said, “won’t talk to nobody ’cept Virgil.”
Stringer sipped some whiskey.
“Who’s Pony Flores?” Stringer said.
“Tracker,” Virgil said. “Helped us get her back.”
Laurel whispered again to Virgil. He listened and nodded.
“He gave her a gun,” Virgil said. “She wants to show it to you.”
Stringer nodded. Laurel took the derringer out of the pocket of her pinafore and held it out in the palm of her hand. Stringer looked at it carefully.
“That’s a very fine derringer,” he said.
He looked at Virgil.
“Loaded,” he said.
“She knows how to use it,” Virgil said. “Makes her feel safer.”
“What are you boys gonna do here?” Stringer said.
“We’re posturing that,” Virgil said.
“Or pondering,” I said.
“Pondering,” Virgil said. “That’s what we’re doing. Everett went to the Military Academy.”
“Could speak to the sheriff for you,” Stringer said.
“Foraged up some money in Brimstone,” Virgil said. “We figure to take some time and look around.”
“You boys good at anything but gun work?” Stringer said.
“Might be,” Virgil said.
“Like what?” Stringer said.
“We’re ponderin’ that, too,” Virgil said.
“Meet the new chief of police?” Stringer said.
His voice was neutral, but there was something in the way he said “chief of police.”
“Yep,” Virgil said.
“And?” Stringer said.
“Offered us a job,” Virgil said.
“Which you turned down,” Stringer said.
“Everett and me don’t like him,” Virgil said.
Stringer studied the surface of his whiskey for a moment and then drank some.
“How come?” Stringer said.
Virgil looked at me.
“He annoyed Virgil,” I said. “Kinda full of himself.”
“Don’t make no mistake with him,” Stringer said. “He’s a horse’s ass, okay, but he knows what he wants. He’ll do what he needs to get it. He can shoot, and he will. Got some people working for him can shoot.”
“Twelve people working for him,” I said.
“Town got big fast,” Stringer said.
“Virgil and me ran it with two,” I said. “It get six times bigger?”
“More people work for you, more power you got,” Stringer said. “Callico’s ambitious.”
“He want to be sheriff ?” I said.
“It’s the next step,” Stringer said.
“To what?” Virgil said.
“Why’s he want to be governor,” Virgil said.
“Probably ’cause it’s the next step to senator,” Stringer said. “I don’t know what Callico wants.”
“What kind of lawman is he?” Virgil said.
“Tough, strict, fair enough, I think,” Stringer said. “But he got no heart.”
“Heart don’t do you much good,” Virgil said.
“ ’ Course it doesn’t,” he said. “Makes you soft.”
“Get you killed,” Virgil said.
Stringer said, “You think Virgil Cole got heart, Laurel.”
Laurel was sitting next to Virgil with Allie on her other side. She showed no sign of having heard Stringer’s question.
“She hear me?” Stringer said.
“She don’t much talk with anybody but Virgil,” I said.
“Hell,” Stringer said.
Laurel leaned in close to Virgil and whispered to him. Virgil smiled. He looked at me for a moment, then at Stringer.
“Laurel claims I got the most heart in the world,” he said.
HE BOSTON HOUSE had changed hands twice since I had killed Randall Bragg. But Willis McDonough in his starched white shirt was still the head bartender. And he bought us each a drink when Virgil and I went in to say hello.
“New owner’s a fella from Chicago named Lamar Speck,” Willis said. “Nice enough fella, I guess. You boys looking for work?”
“Might be,” Virgil said.
“No peace-officer work, I guess,” Willis said.
“I guess,” Virgil said.
As always, Virgil was looking at the room, paying no attention, seeing everything. I didn’t bother. Virgil would do it anyway, and he saw more than I did.
“Got more peace officers than you can shake a stick at,” Willis said.
“Need ’em all?” Virgil said.
“You boys kept things pretty well buttoned up with just two of you.”
“So why so many?” I said.
Willis looked around at the near-empty bar, then leaned forward and lowered his voice.
“Might be another plan,” he said.
“What?” Virgil said.
“I’m just a bartender,” Willis said, “but. . . .”
Willis looked around again and leaned in toward us even closer.
“Not much happens around here anymore without Chief Callico having something to do with it,” he said softly.
“Payoffs?” Virgil said.
“I’m just the bartender.”
“But you hear things,” Virgil said.
“I think Mr. Speck gives him money.”
“What happens if he don’t?” Virgil said.
“There’s trouble, police are too busy, ya know? Too busy to get here.”
“And you got nobody to keep order?” I said.
Willis shook his head.
“Was a fella named Hector Barnes,” Willis said. “Worked the lookout chair with his brother, Chico. But they quit.”
“Why?” Virgil said.
“I think the police was bothering them about things.”
“They run ’em off ?” Virgil said.
“Ain’t here no more,” he said.
“And Speck is making his payments,” Virgil said.
“Might be,” Willis said.
“Anybody say anything to the sheriff ?” I said.
“He’s a day’s ride from here,” Willis said.
“Something might happen to you or your place, by the time the sheriff got to sending a deputy down.”
“So, how come you’re telling us,” I said.
“Figured it might be a job opening for you boys,” Willis said.
“Keepin’ the peace in the Boston House?” I said.
“I tole Mr. Speck I’d speak to you, first time you come in,” Willis said.
“Should we talk to Mr. Speck,” I said.
“I can arrange it,” Willis said.
I looked at Virgil. He nodded slowly. I nodded with him.
“Why don’t you,” Virgil said to Willis.
AMAR SPECK was a little skinny guy with a big Adam’s apple and a prominent nose. He dressed like a dandy. Black coat with velvet lapels, a red-and-gold vest, striped trousers. He sat at a big rolltop desk in the back office of the saloon, and swiveled around in his chair and stood when Willis showed us in.
“Mr. Cole,” he said. “Mr. Hitch. A pleasure.”
We agreed that it was a pleasure.
“I understand that you gentlemen are looking for work,” Speck said.
“Might be,” Virgil said.
“Sit,” Speck said. “Please.”
We sat. McDonough was looking at Virgil as he talked. Everybody always talked to Virgil.
“I have of course heard of you gentlemen, especially, Mr. Cole. And of course I know you used to be the lawmen in town.”
“We were,” Virgil said.
“And I know that most of our citizens respect you both,” Speck said.
“They surely do,” Virgil said.
He didn’t show it. But I knew Virgil was getting restless. It drove him crazy when people rambled on, except when it was him.
“So, I thought to myself
, Lamar, here’s a chance to get some first-rate help.
If you boys will agree, I’ll hire you, and if there’s trouble, you’ll take care of it.”
“How much?” Virgil said.
Speck told him.
“You don’t have anybody sitting lookout?” Virgil said.
“The police arrested my last one,” Speck said. “Turns out he was wanted in Kansas.”
“Kansas,” Virgil said, and looked at me.
“The police keep a sharp eye in Appaloosa,” I said.
“We run our own show,” Virgil said. “Post a list of rules, people obey them or they leave. People give us trouble, we shoot them.”
“You think people gonna obey the rules ’cause they like us?” Virgil said.
“Well, ah, no, of course not, I guess.”
“They obey the rules ’cause they know we’ll shoot,” Virgil says. “Which means maybe, now and then, we’ll have to.”
“Well, I . . . certainly. You know this work best.”
“Police gonna be helpful?” I said.
“I’m sure they will be pleased to have help,” Speck said.
“They been helpful in the past?” I said.
“They are often very busy,” Speck said.
“Ain’t had any trouble with Callico?” Virgil said.
“Certainly not,” Speck said. “Except for my lookout.”
“We’ll come by in the morning,” Virgil said. “Give a list of our rules. You agree to post them. We’ll start work.”
Speck stood and put out his hand. Virgil ignored it.
“Virgil don’t shake hands,” I said. “Nothing personal.”
“Oh,” Speck said. “Oh, well, very good. I’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
As we stood on the porch outside the Boston House, Virgil said, “You ain’t wanted in Kansas, are you?”
“No,” I said. “You?”
“Maybe Callico’s just enforcing the law,” I said.
“That’s getting to seem harder than it used to,” Virgil said.
HE PAY was regular at the Boston House, and the work was easy. Most people in Appaloosa had heard of Virgil Cole.
When things were slow, Virgil and I would drink coffee with the whores in the back of the room, or lean on the bar and talk with the bartenders. When the place was busy we’d move through the room, making sure nobody was heeled and, occasionally, soothing a belligerent.
I was up front one evening, talking with Willis, when one of the whores yelled for Virgil. I looked. A man in a fancy frock coat had hold of the whore’s arm and was trying to drag her out of her chair. Virgil walked over. I picked up my eight-gauge and strolled up to where I could watch Virgil’s back.
The whore’s name was Emma Scarlet. She was a pleasant whore, and I liked her.
“I’m not going with you,” she said.
“You’re selling your ass,” he said, “and my money’s as good as anybody’s.”
“You don’t like to fuck,” Emma said to the man in the frock coat. “You like to hurt people.”
“You can let her arm be,” Virgil said to the man in the frock coat.
“Who the fuck are you?” the man said.
He was tall and slim with long, blond hair and a white shirt buttoned to the neck. I didn’t see a gun.
“Virgil Cole,” Virgil said.
“What makes this your business,” the man said.
“I’m not going to fuck with this,” Virgil said. “You let her go, or I’ll kill you.”
The man let go of the whore’s arm and took a step back, as if Virgil had pushed him.
“That’s better,” Virgil said.
“Kill me?” the man said. “Over a fucking whore in a saloon?”
“Got trouble with this whore, find another one,” Virgil said.
“Some other place,” Emma said. “Nobody here’s gonna let him do anything.”
“Any of you ladies care to do business with this gentleman?” Virgil said.
No one said anything. Several of the whores shook their heads.
“Guess not,” Virgil said to the man. “Try down the street.”
“You’re kicking me out?” the man said. “Because the whores don’t like me?”
“I am,” Virgil said, and stepped aside to let him pass.
“You got no idea who I am, do you?”
“I don’t,” Virgil said, and nodded toward the door.
“My name’s Nicholas Laird,” he said. “That mean anything to you?”
“Means none of these ladies want your business,” Virgil said.
He took hold of Laird’s right arm with his left hand. Laird tried to shake it off and couldn’t.
“We’ll walk to the door,” Virgil said.
“You’re heeled,” Laird said. “And I’m not. And you got the shotgun over there.”
“Bad odds,” Virgil said.
“Next time you see me,” Laird said, “odds are gonna be different.”
Virgil’s face changed slightly. No one else probably could tell. But I knew he was smiling.
“Maybe not,” Virgil said.
E WERE DRINKING coffee at the bar with Willis
“Would you really have shot him?” Willis asked.
“Certain,” Virgil said.
“She’s a whore,” Willis said.
“She is,” Virgil said. “But she ain’t a slave.”
Willis nodded and looked like he didn’t get it, but he didn’t need to.
“Well, you bit a pretty big end off the plug,” Willis said. “His old man is General Horatio Laird. Took over Bragg’s place after”—Willis looked at me—“after he, ah, died. Bought that Scots bull, too.”
“Black angus,” I said.
“Yeah,” Willis said. “Them, and the cows, and made a killing with ’em. People back east was eatin’ them fast as Laird could slaughter the steers.”
“Rich man?” I said.
“Damn straight,” Willis said.
“What’s the ‘general’ for.”
“Still hanging on to it,” I said.
“Proud of it,” Willis said. “Proud of a lot of things. But the kid ain’t one of them.”
“Nicholas,” Virgil said.
“The general must have done some bad stuff in his life, ’cause Nicholas is a big punishment,” Willis said.
Virgil didn’t seem to be listening. He scanned the room aimlessly. But I knew he heard everything. Just like he saw everything.
“Wild?” I said.
“Thinks he’s a gun hand,” Willis said. “Tell me he practices an hour every day with a Colt.”
“Ever shoot at live targets?” Virgil said.
“Heard he might,” Willis said. “ ’Specially he got some folks behind him.”
“Folks,” Virgil said.
“General’s getting on,” Willis said. “He’s tryin’ to let the kid run things, so he’ll be ready when the general steps off the train. Kid has hired himself some second-rate riffraff up there worse than Bragg had.”
“Be some bad riffraff,” Virgil said. “They shooters?”
“Most of ’em couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a shovel,” Willis said.
“Useless, too,” Virgil said.