Army scout, Indian fighter, bounty hunter, and great nephew of the legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone, Jedidiah hung up his guns and retired to his mountain hideaway. An Apache massacre and kidnapping of two young girls changed all that.
Jedidiah will need all these skills and more as he battles the harsh elements of the vast New Mexico deserts, the warriors of the Apache, Cochise, and the comanchero, Scarface to rescue the captive girls before it's to late.
A shrill scream pierced the early morning stillness and invaded eleven year old
Elizabeth Fargo's dream world. She bolted upright to a sitting position in bed and blinked the world into focus. It must have been just a bad dream, she tried to reason, swallowing the lump of fear from her throat back down to a churning stomach.
Beside her, Rebecca whined and uncurled herself from the covers, rubbing her sleepy eyes and swiping her long golden hair from her face with the back of a small hand. Something had awoken her, too. Usually, you had to pry her five-year-old sister out of bed.
The ear-shattering blast of a gunshot interrupted her thoughts and exploded the air around them and—then another!
Elizabeth's body jerked with each shot and went cold, as terror spiraled through her. Her ears rang. Rebecca screamed and plunged into her arms, shaking uncontrollably. Elizabeth saw her little sister’s eyes go wide in a chalky face, blank with horror, blurry with tears.
Elizabeth encircled her sister with shaky arms and drew her close. They clung to each other, too frightened to cry. Elizabeth's own body quivered and her heart thundered against the wall of her chest. Hot tears breached the rims of her eyes. Her chest contracted and a sob squirmed its way up the back of her throat. They waited-straining, shaking.
“What is it, Liz?” the five year old demanded, her panicky voice quivering.
“I don't . . .”
The door to their bedroom suddenly burst open, choking off the rest of Elizabeth's words.
Her eyes rounded white. What she saw sent a chill racing up her spine. Standing in the doorway was the first Indian she had ever seen.
Winston Taylor leaned back in the comfortable upholstered chair and drew a long pull on a fat cigar. He inhaled deeply and let the excess smoke slide from his lips in a long, blue tendril that drifted lazily toward the ceiling.
His boss had listened intently as the requested report was given, then, without a word, he had stood and strode to the window. For what seemed like an interminable time, William G. Fargo stared out the window, apparently lost in thought.
Winston waited; he knew a lot about waiting. As the youngest of six brothers, it seemed he had spent half of his life waiting for one reason or another: He had waited until his older brothers ate their fill before he was allowed the meager leftovers from the supper table. He waited for their hand-me-down shoes and clothes until they were so worn out they would hardly stay on.
Even at West Point he had waited to be accepted by the snobby sons of the wealthy or high-ranking officers--it had never happened. To their way of thinking, he was just a nobody that shouldn't even have been there and they never missed an opportunity to make that crystal clear. He waited anyway, and watched, and learned. After graduating with honors and receiving his commission as a first lieutenant he waited some more. Then the Civil War broke out and his waiting was over. He proved himself in battle and rose steadily through the ranks to become a full colonel by war's end. At the age of thirty-eight, after serving twenty years in the military, he retired.
He had gone to work for the Wells Fargo agency shortly after his retirement. Mr. Louis McLane, the president of the agency at the time, hired him and put him in charge of the floundering stagecoach branch of the agency.
It was in trouble and badly in need of new management. In less than six months he had completely turned the business around and expanded it into a nationwide network of more than one hundred-eighty stage stations stretched across the country, over twelve hundred head of stock, and employing four hundred men. After buying out the Butterfield stage line, Wells Fargo boasted of delivering passengers from St. Louis to San Francisco in just twenty-five days.
While he waited for Mr. Fargo to finish his thought process, Winston's gaze slowly circled the large, elaborately furnished office. His searching gaze admired the original paintings in gilded frames that hung on wine-colored silk brocade wall covering, and the thick, imported rug on the floor. He noted the wide, mahogany, desk with a high-backed, leather chair. On the desk were neatly organized stacks of papers, and a wooden humidor full of expensive cigars. It was an office befitting the President of the sprawling, banking and express conglomerate known as the Wells Fargo Agency.
“How do you know this man—what did you say his name was?” Mr. Fargo finally asked. He didn't bother turning to face his employee. He continued to stare out the window of the red brick building with green trim on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, the headquarters of Wells Fargo.
“Boone,” Winston Taylor replied, “his name is Jedidiah Boone. His grandfather was Squire Boone, brother of the famous Daniel Boone, the explorer and frontiersman. Jedidiah served with me in the army as a scout. He's the best I ever saw. They say he can trail a snowflake in a howling blizzard.
“He's worked for us here at Wells-Fargo on a couple of special jobs. He's the one who brought in the Wilbourn brothers that robbed so many of our stages up in southern Colorado. He also tracked down and killed Lone Wolf and a half-dozen Apaches that ambushed our stage and slaughtered our driver, the shotgun messenger, and eight passengers near El Paso about a year ago.”
The big man turned from the window to face Winston. William Fargo was a tall man, big boned with wide shoulders. A leonine shock of salt-and-pepper hair crowned his head. Both it and his mustache were well trimmed. He wore a dark broadcloth business suit with fresh-creased legs and a starched white shirt. A pearl stickpin gleamed from the cravat cinched around his stiff winged collar. His very appearance conveyed an impression of authority. It seemed his dark, flashing eyes had a way of looking right into a man's soul. Those penetrating eyes were now fixed squarely on Winston Taylor.
“Can this man do what has to be done?” Fargo asked pointedly.
“Mr. Fargo, if it can be done, Jedidiah Boone can do it. The only question is, will he do it?”
“What do you mean?” Winston's boss asked, a concerned furrow plowing across his forehead. “Didn't you say he works for us?”
“Well, no sir, not exactly. Like I say, he's done a couple of jobs for us on occasion, but that was by a special arrangement I made with him. I paid him time, expenses, and the reward we had posted on those fellows. Jedidiah is an independent sort of fellow, always has been. He's his own man, beholden to no one.
“He's mostly a loner. Lives way back in the middle of nowhere-halfway-to-the-sky at a place called Angel-Fire Mountain. It's in New Mexico Territory not too far from Taos. He found the place while on a scouting expedition during the war.
“When the fighting was over, he went back to Missouri and brought back a black man and his wife that had been with the Boone family for years. They built a little log cabin on a shelf about two-thirds up the side of that mountain. Ain't but one way up or down.”
“Is he the kind of man we can trust?” Mr. Fargo asked, his probing eyes still fixed on his employee.
“Mr. Fargo, I've trusted Jedidiah Boone with my life on more than one occasion.”
“Very well then, it's settled. You and I will go to Sante Fe, New Mexico Territory to meet with this Mr. Boone. We'll take my private coach. I want two of the best drivers we have and two shotgun messengers to ride along. We'll need fresh teams of horses ready and waiting at our stage stations along the way so there will be no delay.
“Arrange a meeting with Mr. Boone in Sante Fe on the thirteenth. I'd like my presence in Sante Fe not be known. As you well know, we're presently involved in delicate negotiations with the government in Washington for the nationwide mail contract. If news of my presence in Sante Fe became public knowledge, it would undoubtedly call attention to the tragic events surrounding my brother and his family.
“Our competitors might somehow use that information to cast doubt on our ability to fulfill the government mail contract. Wells Fargo desperately needs that contract to continue our nationwide expansion.
“Make it appear as if it is you and you alone meeting with Mr. Boone. You will remain in Sante Fe until this matter is resolved. Remember, only you and Mr. Boone are to know of my presence, is that understood?”
“Yes sir,” Winston Taylor said briskly and stood to his feet, well aware the meeting was over and he had been excused. “It will be taken care of.”
He hurried from the office, cognizant of the importance of his task. Innocent lives and the very future of the Wells Fargo Agency might well depend upon the secrecy and success of this mission.
A wisp of a cool breeze crept down the high mountain. It whispered through thick stands of golden aspen trees that hugged the steep slopes. Their leaves shimmered like tiny flakes of pure gold and set the mountainside ablaze with splashes of brilliant color.
The morning was half-spent and still the tall man sat pushed back in the rocking chair on the front porch of his mountain log cabin. His legs were propped up against a peeled cedar post. Long-fingered hands laced around a steaming cup of coffee. His wheat colored hair hung near shoulder length under a battered old dirty, gray Stetson tilted low on his forehead, partly shading his sky-blue eyes. A golden-hair handlebar mustache spread widely above a slash of a mouth. Weather-darkened skin testified to the unmistakable effect of too many days in the sun and belied his twenty-six years.
Behind the cabin, the mountains rose steeply against a backdrop of limitless sky.
Beside him a large wolf dog lay sleeping. As if by some unheard signal the big dog jerked up his head. Narrow-set, dark eyes peered into the distance. A low growl rumbled deep in his huge chest and he climbed to his feet.
“I see ‘em,” the big man mumbled and swallowed the last gulp of coffee from his cup. He set the cup on the porch, slowly knuckled his mustache, and pulled out the makings for a smoke. Creasing a rolling paper, he sprinkled tobacco into the fold and ran his tongue along the edge. He twirled it, popped a sulfur, and drew a long inhale. His narrowed eyes peered into the distant valley as a slow streamer of blue smoke escaped his lips and drifted upward.
In the valley far below, two riders picked their way laboriously along the bank of the Angel-Fire River. A mist rose from the thundering stream and hung in the morning air like a dense fog. The valley clearings were ruffled with flaming dogwoods and lime-green sweet gum trees. Fall violets spread their colorful flowers across the valley floor like a bright blue carpet.
The mountain stream emerged fresh-born, sparkling fresh and icy-cold, from cavernous rock springs high above and behind Jedidiah's mountain hideaway. It rushed within twenty yards of his log cabin before plunging over the edge of a rock shelf and falling several hundred feet into Angel-Fire valley. It tumbled noisily over and around house-sized boulders and fought its way through heavy stands of ponderosa pine as it began its long journey toward the sea. A continuing roar from the valley below drifted up the mountainside.
The riders were still a couple of miles away but even at that distance Jedidiah thought he recognized the black and white pinto. Only one fellow he knew rode a horse like that. He remembered because it looked so much like the brown and white pinto he, himself rode.
“Mose,” the big man called out, his deep voice filling the mountain air. “We've got company. Better get the wife inside just in case.”
Off to the end of the peeled-log cabin, a giant of a man stilled the double-bladed ax from his wood chopping and raised to his full height, a full hand above six feet. Sun glistened off his ebony, sweat stained and shirtless chest as he lifted a muscled arm to swipe the sweat from his forehead.
“You heard Mr. Boone, woman,” his bullfrog voice boomed out.
A heavyset black woman in a flour-sack dress and a white apron tied around her ample middle hung the last pair of wet britches across the clothes' line. She scooped up the empty basket and hurried toward the cabin mumbling to herself.
“Lawd a-mercy,” she complained. “How's a body supposed to get her work done around here nohow?”
“Who you reckon it is, Mr. Boone?” the black man asked, arming sweat from his forehead and strolling over to retrieve his own rifle that was canted against the cabin.
“I can't rightly tell for shore,” the tall man said, uncoiling himself from the chair, stretching, and leaning a big shoulder against the cedar porch-post, the rifle clutched loosely in his left hand. “It seems to me I recall that Wells Fargo detective from down in Santa Fe riding a pinto like that. Don't recognize the other fellow.”
They watched the two riders splash across the stream and rein up. The man on the pinto swiped his hat off and mopped the sweat from his forehead with an arm as he raised his gaze to follow the narrow trail up the steep mountainside.
It took another half-hour before the riders crested the rocky shelf and walked their horses half-a-hundred yards across the grassy space toward the mountain cabin.
“Okay if we ride in?” the fellow on the pinto shouted above the roar of Angel-Fire Falls.
“Come ahead,” Jedidiah replied, lifting the Henry to rest comfortably in the crook of his arm.
The two riders walked their horses slowly forward and pulled up a short distance from the front porch. The rider of the pinto was a tall, thin fellow with shifty eyes and a gaunt looking face. He wore a black broadcloth suit that several days trail dust had turned a dingy brown. A Colt pistol in a cutaway holster rested on his right hip.
The second man was a big, wide-shouldered bear of a man with a barrel chest and a full beard that hid his facial features. He also wore a two-piece suit and one of those funny-looking black bowler-derbies. The bulge under his left coat flap did little to hide the gun in a shoulder holster.
“You'd be Jedidiah Boone, I reckon?” the taller man said, doffing his dusty Stetson and mopping the sweat from the inside sweatband with a red bandanna.
“I'm James Hume. I'm chief of detectives with the Wells Fargo Agency. We've never actually met, but I saw you once over in Taos when you brought in the Wilbourn brothers face down across their saddles. This here is my partner, George Honeycutt.”
“I remember you,” Jedidiah said. “You were pointed out to me. You fellas just out for a morning ride or did you come with something in mind?” he asked, still not moving his rifle from the crook of his arm. “We don't get many folks up this way.”
“Yeah,” the one called Hume said. “I can shore see why. A fellow's got to come here on purpose. So this is the mountain they call Angel-Fire? We never would have found your place if we hadn't run into a trapper down on the Mora River. We liked to never convinced him into telling us how to find you. He said you didn't take kindly to visitors.”
“We ain't much on socializing,” Jedidiah said. “Now that you found me, Mr. Hume, what's your business?”
“I come bringing an urgent message for you,” the detective said, his voice betraying some displeasure at the task. “Mr. Winston Taylor himself, a vice-president with the Wells Fargo Agency, would like you to meet him in Sante Fe on the thirteenth, that's just three days from now. Don't know if we can make it or not. We've been searching for you for near a week. How far is it from here to Sante Fe?”
“Maybe forty or fifty miles as the crow flies,” Jedidiah told them. “But we ain't crows.”
“The message said it's urgent,” the detective said impatiently. “He's coming all the way from San Francisco by special stagecoach. We're supposed to accompany you there. I figure it's near three days hard ride so we better get started.”
“What's he want?” Jedidiah asked.
“The message didn't say, but it must be awfully important. Like I said, Mr. Taylor is coming all the way from San Francisco. I've been with the agency three years and I've never even met him. He's an awfully powerful man though.”
Silence stretched on a space. Jedidiah engaged himself in his usual habit of fingering an earlobe while he was in deep contemplation. Finally, having made up his mind, he pushed his shoulder away from the post.
“You boys' lite and sit a spell while I get my things together,” Jedidiah told them. “Mose, see if Minnie's got some left over coffee for these fellows. Throw my packsaddle on Mule and saddle my pinto. Load on three days grain ration. I'll gather my trail supplies. You men are welcome to sit the porch. She'll bring some coffee directly.”
It took half-an-hour before Jedidiah toed a stirrup and swung into his saddle. He settled his six foot-three inch frame into the saddle of the brown and white pinto. It had been a spell since the big gelding had limbered his legs and he nervously high-stepped and tossed his head, held in place by a tight rein in a strong hand.
“When you be coming back, Mr. Boone, sir?” the big black man made inquiry.
“Like always, Mose,” Jedidiah said. “Look for me when you see me coming.”
“That's a fine-looking mount you got there,” the one called Hume said admiringly. “Just like mine except for the color.”
“He'll do,” Jedidiah said off-handily, giving the lead rope to his pack mule a half-hitch around the saddle horn. “Let's go, Dog.”
“You mean you're taking that wolf-dog with us,” Hume asked critically.
“Dog goes where I go,” Jedidiah replied, reining the big pinto around and touching his booted heel to a tender flank.
Just shy of sundown of the third day three trail-weary riders plodded down the dust-thick street of Sante Fe, New Mexico Territory. The Spanish had originally established the town. It lay in an arid, desert-like valley in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. At an altitude of seven thousand feet, it was surrounded by mountain ranges. The riders fixed a stare as they passed the sprawling governor's palace, and the newly erected tall, granite monument commemorating the Civil War, dead in the center of the town plaza. It had become a local landmark of sorts.
Across the plaza, the distinctive two-story, red brick building with green trim marked the Sante Fe office of Wells Fargo.
Passers-by stopped to gawk at the strange little procession. In the lead was a tall man wearing buckskin pants under a long linen duster and riding a brown and white pinto gelding. He sat his saddle determinedly, stoically. The rider's dusty gray hat, wide brimmed with an open crown tilted low, partially hid the sky-blue eyes that fixed straight ahead, seemingly unaware of the onlooker's stares.
Behind him on a short lead was a floppy-eared mule with a heavy packsaddle. Trotting beside the buckskin was a large wolf dog whose head swung constantly from side to side, his dark eyes taking in every detail of his surroundings. Farther back rode two other fellows in dust-covered suits that hardly drew a glance from the onlookers.
Jedidiah's eyes roamed the dusty street seeking the livery but saw mostly saloons instead.
“Either of you gents know where the livery is?” he asked over a shoulder.
“Straight ahead on the right,” detective Hume offered reluctantly.
That fellow's shore got a burr under his saddle about something or other, Jedidiah told himself.
Finding the livery, he reined up under an open shed. He swept a gaze at the clean stalls that lined one side of the livery and was pleased. Climbing stiffly from the saddle, he handed his reins to the crippled up old Mexican fellow that hobbled forward. Detective Hume and Honeycutt did likewise.
“My mounts are used up,” Jedidiah told the man, untying his saddlebags and swinging them across a shoulder. “A double measure of grain for my two and an extra dollar if you'll stall the pinto and rub him down good. My dog will be staying with my horse.”
Jedidiah slid his Henry rifle from the backward saddleboot as his two companions made arrangements for their own horses.
“Bueno hombres,” the old timer said, a crooked grin breaking across his weathered face. “I will treat your horses as I would my own.”
While he waited on his two traveling companions, Jedidiah rolled himself a smoke and flicked a glance at the fading sunset. Even as he watched, it gently kissed the western mountaintop, quickly died for the day and was buried somewhere beyond the distant horizon.
He was bone tired. A good meal and a soft bed shore would go good right now. It had been a hard fifty-mile ride across the mountains between his Angel-Fire home and Sante Fe.
“Dog,” Jedidiah said softly to the big animal as if he were speaking to a child. “Stay.”
The three men strode side by side down the dusty street toward the two-story hotel. A breeze fluttered Jedidiah's long duster. Little plumes of dust puffed away from their boot heels as they walked and were swept eastward by a hot wind.
Spurs jingling, they pushed through the door of the Grand Hotel. A bald headed little desk clerk with a sallow complexion barely spared a glance over the top of a newspaper as they entered. He didn't seem at all pleased for the interruption and went back to his reading, ignoring their presence.
“We'll be needing three rooms,” Jedidiah said, plopping his rifle on top of the counter loudly.
Clearly annoyed, the desk clerk slowly pushed to his feet. Over the rims of his tiny spectacles he looked at the rifle, then up into the eyes of the tall man staring back at him. Something he saw in those eyes caused his own to wall white. He hurriedly handed Jedidiah the ink quill and spun the registration book for him to sign his name.
“Yes . . .yes, sir,” he stammered, twisting to grab three keys, dropped one, and retrieved it quickly. “Would there be anything else, sir?”
“Is Mr. Winston Taylor registered?” detective Hume asked.
“Yes sir!” the fellow said proudly. “You must be the gentlemen he has been expecting. He said when you arrived to tell you he'd be pleased if you would join him for dinner at eight o'clock at the Sante Fe Café. It's over on the next street and to your right.”
“Where might a fellow arrange for a bath?” Jedidiah asked, scooping up his rifle and a key.
“You'll find bath stalls right out back,” the little man said, suddenly overly helpful. “I'll be more than happy to instruct Juanitta to prepare a hot bath if you like.”
“You do that. I'll stash my stuff in the room and be out shortly. Don't know about you boys,” Jedidiah told his two companions, “but I'm gonna wash off some of this trail dust before supper. Whatta-you say we just meet over at the restaurant at eight?”
“I'm gonna wet my whistle at that saloon across the street,” James Hume mumbled as he snatched his key from the desk clerk's hand.
“Think I'll tag along with you,” his partner told him.
Jedidiah found room number four and pushed inside. It wasn't much bigger than a good-sized horse stall. It contained only a bed, a washstand with a blue-speckled pitcher and washbasin, and a single straight-backed chair. He propped his Henry rifle beside the bed, checked the sheets, and tossed his saddlebags on the bed.
Unbuckling the strap to the bags, he withdrew one of the two rolled up bundles of clean clothes Minnie had packed for him. From past experience he knew the tightly wound roll would contain underclothes, socks, shirt, and britches, all rolled up and tied with a rawhide pigging string.
With the roll of clothes tucked under one arm and his straight razor in his hand, he stepped to the single window and lifted a curled finger to push aside the faded curtain. He peered through the dirty glass at the settling darkness. The North Star winked its companions awake and punched light holes in the velvety canopy that had captured the countryside.
Jedidiah knew that back at the cabin, Mose and Minnie would be sitting on the front porch, most likely looking up at those same stars. Mose would be sipping a second or third cup of coffee and smoking that old corncob pipe of his. Minnie would be snapping beans or darning socks and singing that Rock of Ages song as she rocked back and forth in that old straw-bottomed chair.
They were like family. Like his papa, and his papa's papa, Mose had been with the Boone family all his life. Jedidiah looked on him like a brother. In lots of ways, he was closer to the big black man than he was to any of his own four brothers.
His thoughts were scattered by a heavily loaded freight wagon drawn by six tired looking horses lumbering down the street, undoubtedly nearing the end of a long haul from somewhere.
The driver most likely had a wife and kids waiting supper on him. That would be nice. Jedidiah shook the thought from his mind, turned abruptly and headed out the door.
He found the bath stalls out back of the hotel and was greeted warmly by an attractive young Mexican senorita that couldn't have been more than eighteen.
“Do you speak English?” Jedidiah asked awkwardly.
“Si, senor,” she replied, handing him a bar of soap and a towel. “My name is Juanitta. I will help you with your bath.”
She pulled open a curtain on the first booth and stood aside for him to enter. He hesitated. The slightest hint of a smile creased her lips as she noticed his embarrassment.
“Don't reckon I need any help to take a bath,” he told her.
“Then I will return in half an hour,” she said, flashing a pretty smile.
He stepped inside and waited until she closed the curtain before undressing. A thin vapor of steam rose from the large, round, wooden tub. Leaning over, he gingerly tested it with a finger, then slowly climbed inside. The hot water felt heavenly.
As he soaked, he thought about why he was here. Wonder what Winston's got on his mind? Must be mighty important for him to come all the way from San Francisco just to meet with me. How long has it been since I've seen him? Close to a year I reckon. It'll be good to see him again.
Jedidiah pushed through the door of the Sante Fe Café and swept the large room with a searching glance. His entrance drew only a few looks from a scattering of locals, drummers, and cowboys that occupied half of the dozen tables in the place. Most were too busy filling their bellies to give him a second glance.
The two detectives, Hume and Honeycutt, had already arrived and were sitting at a corner table with Winston Taylor. Jedidiah headed that way.
Winston didn't seem to have changed much in the year or so since he had seen him. Even without the uniform, a blind man could tell he was every bit a military man. Tall, square shouldered, well built. A shock of dark hair was well trimmed and neatly combed. He sat a chair the same way he rode a horse, erect and alert, his brown eyes taking in every detail, probing every movement. He spotted Jedidiah and snapped to his feet.
“Jedidiah,” the businessman greeted, extending a hand. “ That life of leisure doesn't seem to have hurt you any. It's good to see you again.”
“Howdy, Winston,” Jedidiah replied, taking the offered hand in a firm handshake. “It's been awhile.”
“Way too long to my way of thinking,” the businessman said, releasing Jedidiah's hand, motioning him toward an empty chair and filling his own.
Hume and Honeycutt glanced back and forth between each other and seemed bewildered as Jedidiah lifted out a chair and folded into it.
“You didn't tell me you already knew Mr. Taylor,” Hume complained.
“Don't recall you asking,” Jedidiah replied.
“Jedidiah and I served together in the war,” the Wells Fargo executive explained. “We've been up and down the trail together more times than I care to remember. You ever think of the old days, Jedidiah?”
“Yeah, now and again. We had some high times, didn't we?”
The waitress came and poured coffee for everyone before taking their orders. Small talk occupied the time until their steaks arrived and for half an hour during the meal. The food was passable. Afterward, they relaxed over an after-dinner cup.
“So,” Jedidiah asked, unable to contain his curiosity any longer. “What brings you all the way from San Francisco?”
“I'd like for you to take a little ride with me in the morning. How about meeting me at the livery at first light?”
“You want us to ride along?” detective Hume asked anxiously, shooting a quick glance at his partner.
“Not this trip,” Winston told him. “You two boys just stay close and we'll talk later in the day.”
“Yes sir,” Hume replied, pushing out of his chair. “It's still early. Think I'll knock down a nightcap before I turn in. Come on, Honeycutt. You owe me a drink.”
Jedidiah watched the two detectives over the lip of his coffee cup as they strode from the room.
“That fellow seems a might itchy,” he commented.
“Hume?” Winston said, glancing at his employees as they pushed out the door. “Oh, he's all right. He fancies himself something of a gun hand. They're both pretty fair detectives, though.”
Jedidiah and Winston spent another hour reminiscing about their adventures in the war before saying goodnight. Not a word was spoken about the reason they were there. Jedidiah figured his friend would explain what was on his mind in his own good time.
Dawn crept silently over Sante Fe. A gentle blending of blue-gray pushed aside the dark velvety canopy of night and swallowed up the myriad of stars. Yellowish patches of light from coal oil lamps cast checker board squares along the dusty street.
Somewhere a rooster crowed. A dozen replies answered quickly and added music to the miracle birth of another day. A dog barked and the rhythmic beat of a blacksmith's hammer joined the chorus. The town was coming alive. Jedidiah loved the early mornings.
He strode down the deserted street with measured steps. A long linen duster mostly hid his buckskin britches and shirt. One side of the duster was hooked behind the bone-handled Colt that rested in a greased cutaway holster tied low on his right leg. A Henry rifle dangled loosely from his left hand and a saddlebag rested over his shoulder.
Dog crawled to his feet in the pinto's stall and trotted to meet him as Jedidiah approached the shed. He paused to squat and ruffle the dog's hair and pat him on the head.
“Didn't know whether to feed him or not,” the old holster said as he limped forward with a feed bucket in his hand. “Kind of afraid to get too close. I get the idea he'd tear a man's arm plumb off.”
“Don't want him fed,” Jedidiah said. “Don't want him getting use to taking handouts. He looks out for himself.”
“I've got Mr. Taylor's mount saddled and waiting,” the old liveryman said. “He sent word he'd be riding out early—at first light.”
“Then I reckon he's late,” Jedidiah commented as he led Butternut from the stall and threw a saddle on him.
“Who's late?” Winston asked, strolling up.
“Never knowed you to be on time in all the years we rode together,” Jedidiah joshed. “You'll likely be late for your own funeral.”
“Sure hope so.”
Jedidiah toed a stirrup and swung into the saddle. Winston spurred a big, rawboned sorrel up beside him and they rode stirrup to stirrup as they had so many times in the past.
“You haven't changed a bit,” Jedidiah commented as they rode up the street. “You still sit a saddle like a sitting hen on a nest full of eggs afraid you might break one.”
“I can still out ride you seven-ways-to-Sunday,” Winston shot back at his friend. “Is that wolf going with us?”
“He's only half wolf,” Jedidiah said. “He goes everywhere I go.”
“Sure hope he knows I'm a friend.”
“Where we headed?” Jedidiah asked as they left the edge of town behind them and headed south into the desert-like countryside.
“There's a horse ranch about six miles ahead. That's where we're headed. I'll explain when we get there.”
The red sun-ball peeked over the eastern horizon and sent its spiked rays racing across the desert. Within minutes it warmed the white sand and sent heat waves radiating upward. Only the soft crunching of the horse’s hooves, the steady creaking of saddle leather and an occasional snort from one of their mounts broke the early morning desert stillness.
Cresting a low hill, they reined up. They sat their horses, and peered down into a beautiful little green valley with a stream creasing its middle. A high wall surrounded a sprawling adobe hacienda. Several large barns with pole corrals stood nearby. It was an impressive layout.
“That place belonged to Benjamin Fargo. He lived there with his wife, Henrietta, and their two girls. Eleven-year-old Elizabeth and five-year-old Rebecca.”
“What happened to them?”
“Don't know for sure. The sheriff says it was Indians. It happened about three weeks ago. A neighbor was riding by and spotted the buzzards circling. They didn't just kill them. They butchered the father and mother as well as a half-dozen workers.
“They found the Mexican vaqueros still in their bunks, their throats slashed from ear to ear. Ben Fargo's stomach had been slit open and his intestines strewn around the kitchen. The sheriff says he was most likely still alive at the time. He had been scalped too.
“They did unspeakable things to his wife. When they got through with her they cut off her breasts and slit her throat.”
“What about the two girls?” Jedidiah asked, already suspecting the answer before he asked the question.
“Not a trace of them,” Winston told him. “The sheriff speculates the Indians took them captive.”
“Was this fellow part of the, Fargo, as in Wells Fargo?”
“Benjamin was William G. Fargo's younger brother. Mr. Fargo is now president of the entire Wells Fargo Company.
“I see,” Jedidiah said, expelling a slow slide of air. “Let me guess. I'm supposed to get the girls back, right?”
“Winston, you realize I've got about as much chance doing that as a billy goat sprouting wings. Even if I could find ‘em, which ain't likely, the odds against them still being alive are more than I can count.”
“But will you try?” his friend's voice had a pleading sound to it.
For a long space of time Jedidiah sat his saddle, fingered an earlobe, and stared off at nothing.
Winston sat silently, knowing his friend was struggling within himself, weighing the problems and the possibilities, not wanting to say no, but afraid of saying yes.
“Let's ride down and take a look around,” Jedidiah finally said, touching heels to
Butternut's tender flanks, “but I ain't promising nothing, mind you?”
“I understand. What do you expect to find after three weeks?” Winston asked as they approached the large hacienda. “The sheriff said he went over the whole area with a fine-tooth comb.”
“Most likely nothing, but we'll never know till we look.”
They looped reins around the hitching post near the front entrance to the walled compound and strode through the open gate. The large courtyard was filled with flowering azaleas, blooming cactus, and yucca plants. A winding path, interrupted by two log benches, circled the garden. It was an impressive place.
Jedidiah's eyes flicked from side to side, absorbing every detail of the large hacienda, searching every corner, looking for something, anything, that shouldn't be there, something that didn't fit the character of the house.
The place had been ransacked. Drawers pulled out, clothes strewn about, furniture overturned. He knew there would be nothing of value left behind. The sand-scrubbed wooden floor of the kitchen was discolored by two large dried pools of blood and testified to unfathomable acts of brutality.
“According to the sheriff, they found Benjamin here near the outside door,” Winston explained. “He figured the ones that did it must have been waiting outside when Ben unbarred and opened it that morning. Henrietta was over there in the corner. Her clothes had all been ripped off and there were signs she had been raped repeatedly. They cut off her breasts. Why would they do that, Jedidiah? Why would they do something like that?”
“They make pouches from the skin of a woman's breast. They hang them from a rawhide cord around their neck. It's a status thing, like having a scalp hanging from their belt.”
“That's horrible!” Winston exclaimed. “That's inhuman! What kind of man would do that to another human being?”
“An Apache,” Jedidiah replied absently.
Jedidiah stood, silently staring at the blood discolored spots on the floor. His finger and thumb tugged at his right earlobe, his mind lost in deep thought.
“There's something bad wrong here,” he told his friend. “This was done by Apaches sure enough, but there's something about it that's got me bum-fuzzled.”
“So?” Winston asked, not understanding what his friend was getting at. “This whole area of New Mexico Territory is crawling with Apache. What's unusual about that?”
“Just like the United States is made up of separate states, each with their own state lines defining their boundaries. Each state is then divided into different counties, each with their own county lines.
“Well, the same is true with the Apache Nation. It is divided into twenty-four separate and distinct groups. Each of those groups is then subdivided into tribes. Each of those tribes and groups has their own boundaries, which they guard jealously. It is a serious infraction for one group or tribe to cross into another’s territory. It often is the cause of war between tribes.
“Each of those groups and tribes also have their own customs and traditions that identify them from all the others; sort of like a trademark or calling card. This massacre was the handiwork of the Chokonen tribe of the Chiricahua Apache. The chief is a renegade named Cochise.
“Remember what they're calling the “Bascom Affair” that happened back in ‘61?”
“Oh yeah,” Winston said. “Something about a young greenhorn lieutenant that accused some Apaches of stealing a young white boy. The lieutenant arrested and hung a bunch of them over near Fort Bowie, wasn't it?”
“That's the one. The Apache he tried to arrest was Cochise. Turned out he wasn't the one that done it. That stupid act started a war that's still going on to this day. They say Cochise and two hundred or so followers are holed up somewhere in the Dragoon Mountains. The army's been searching for them several months but, so far, haven't been able to flush them out. That's four hundred miles southwest of here.”
“So, let me see if I'm understanding you,” Winston asked, rubbing his chin. “Are you saying this was done by Cochise and his men?”
“No, that's the thing that's strange about it. Oh, it's their trademark sure enough, no doubt about it. They're the only Apache that's known to slit their victims’ belly open and string the intestines all over the place like that. They're also the only ones I ever heard about that use a woman's breasts to make their medicine pouches.
“But the thing is, they would never come this far north to raid. First off, they'd be crossing the territorial lines of several other groups; they'd never do that. Second, it's clear from the tracks I saw coming in, they stole a bunch of horses and headed them south. There's no way they're gonna drive stolen horses four hundred miles. If they're gonna steal horses, they could do it a whole lot closer to their hideout.
“Even allowing they did ride this far north to make a raid, why here? Why this particular ranch? They must have passed a hundred places that had horses, and why didn't they burn the place down like they always do?”
“So what are you suggesting then?”
It took a long minute before Jedidiah answered.
“I don't rightly know,” Jedidiah told his friend honestly. “Something just don't add up. It don't seem right. I can't put my finger on it, but . . .it just smells funny.”
A hundred miles to the south, in a small hut among a cluster of adobe shanties scattered along the Rio Hondo River high in the El Capitan Mountains, Rebecca Fargo clung to her older sister. She lifted her dirty, tear-streaked face to stare through red, swollen eyes at Elizabeth.
Her breath came in jerky spasms. Fear flavored every word. Her eyes puddled with tears. “Wh . . . what are they gonna do to us?” she stammered. “Are the ugly men gonna hurt us?”
Until she heard the terror in her sister’s voice Elizabeth, herself, had been smothered in her own grief; held captive to her own fears. Suddenly she realized she was the older one here. Like it or not, she was now responsible for her sister. She must say something to reassure Rebecca-but what?
With no small difficulty she closed her eyes and waited for her heart to stop pounding in her throat, for her legs to stop quivering.
“Shh”. . .Elizabeth placed a finger across her lips. “They might hear you.”
“Will daddy come and take us back home?” Rebecca whispered.
The fear and confusion in Rebecca's voice swelled the ache around Elizabeth's heart. She didn't answer right away; she couldn't. How could she explain to her little sister their daddy wouldn't be coming? What could she possibly say that would offer some measure of hope? How could she explain what she had seen as they were being carried from their home? How could she begin to explain why their parents were killed when she didn't understand it herself? Rebecca must never know the awful things they had done to their father and mother.
Elizabeth's stomach did flip-flops and bitter bile surged into her throat every time she remembered the unspeakable scene in the kitchen of their home. She would never forget it. The memory of it would haunt her until the day she died.
After their capture they had been slung across a horse in front of an Indian. They had ridden most of the morning, hid in a wooded canyon until dark, then ridden all night. The next two days were like the first. Riding all night, hiding during the day, then riding again.
She had no earthly idea where they were. She only knew they were a long way from home and her parents were both dead—and she and Becky probably soon would be. Until then, Elizabeth knew she must try to keep her little sister as calm as she could.
“It's going to be all right, Becky,” she promised, drawing a shaky breath and wishing she could believe her own words.
“Try not to cry. Daddy will find us.”
Elizabeth hugged her sister close, swaying in the age-old rhythm she had learned in her mother's arms. Rebecca buried her face in Elizabeth's shoulder; sobbing as if her heart would break. Sunlight slanted through a crack in the door of the single room of the adobe hut where they had been held since their capture. The heat was stifling. The air hung thick with the smell of dust and sweat and fear. The stench from their own excrement drifted from a corner where they relieved themselves, and stung Elizabeth's nostrils.
Just then an old Indian woman swung the door open. In her hands she carried two bowls of pasty something that had become their daily ration. The woman spoke broken English and had told Elizabeth earlier her name was Two-Deers-Running. Her once a day visits had become a time Elizabeth looked forward to. On several occasions she had tried to question the woman about what was going to happen to them but had met with only stony silence.
Their nightgowns had been replaced with soft, deerskin dresses with a fringe around the sleeves and hem. The old woman had brought moccasins for their feet and a blanket apiece for their beds.
“You eat,” she said, sitting the bowls in front of them.
Other than Two-Deers-Running, only two other people had come to the little hut where they were being held. One was the tall Indian that had taken them from their home. He was the leader of the group that raided their ranch. He was ugly and the cause of both her and Rebecca's reoccurring nightmares.
The other man had come to their hut only once. He was a man Two-Deers-Running was very scared of. She spoke his name only once in a frightened whisper—Scarface. He seemed to be part Indian and part white man. He was tall, heavily muscled, and had a long scar that started at the corner of his eye and ended at a twisted lip.
“When can we go home?” Elizabeth asked the woman.
Two-Deers-Running only shook her head sadly and hurried from the room, locking the door behind her.
“Let's rein up here at the Wells Fargo office,” Winston Taylor told Jedidiah as they rode into Sante Fe. “There's someone I want you to meet.”
They looped reins over a hitching post and pushed through the door of the two-story red brick building with green trim. The sign over the door identified it as the Wells Fargo Agency.
A young clerk with a green eyeshade straightened behind a chest-high counter as they entered. An armed guard eyed them searchingly from his post near the front door.
Winston led the way to a stairway attached to the wall and climbed the stairs quickly. Jedidiah followed. At the top, they turned left along a hallway to a closed door. Winston knocked and paused, waiting until he heard a voice from inside before opening the door.
The room was a large office with a connecting door that Jedidiah could see led to an adjoining bedroom. A large desk sat before a window that faced the street. At the desk sat a large, distinguished looking man with a full beard and dressed in a business suit. He rose to his feet as they entered.
“Jedidiah, I want you to meet the President of the Wells Fargo Agency, Mr. William G. Fargo. Mr. Fargo, this is Jedidiah Boone.”
The businessman came around his desk with a hand extended and a genuine looking smile showing through his neatly trimmed beard and mustache.
“Mr. Boone,” he said in a deep voice. “It's my pleasure to meet you. Winston has told me a lot about you.”
The businessman pumped Jedidiah's hand in a warm and firm handshake.
“It's good to make your acquaintance,” Jedidiah said, feeling kind of intimidated by the businessman's presence.
“Have a seat,” the Wells Fargo executive said in a friendly tone and pointing to two chairs as he folded into a big one behind his desk. “Would you like a cigar?”
“Thanks, but no, sir,” Jedidiah told him, hooking his hat over a bent knee. “I never took up the habit, Only because I couldn't afford them, he thought to himself.
“We've just returned from the ranch,” Winston hastened to explain. “Jedidiah made some fascinating discoveries.”
“Oh?” Mr. Fargo asked, his interest immediately aroused.
“I'll let him explain,” Winston said, swinging his gaze in Jedidiah's direction.
“Well, sir,” Jedidiah said. “First off, I want to say how sorry I feel about the loss of your brother and his family. It's a terrible tragedy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Boone. That's very nice of you.”
“There's no doubt in my mind it was Apaches that done the deed. There's something bothering me about the whole thing though. All the signs point to one particular tribe of the Chiricahua Apache. The trouble is, that tribe's territory is four hundred miles to the southwest. They're holed up in their stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains. There's no way they'd raid this far north.”
The businessman steepled his fingers, intent on what was being said, his face displaying a contemplative expression.
“Are you saying that's the group who kidnapped my nieces?” Mr. Fargo asked.
“I can't rightly explain it just now,” Jedidiah told him, “but it shore looks that way.”
“Mr. Boone, Benjamin was the only brother I had. Our mother died giving him birth. Our father died a year later. I've never married. Those two nieces of mine are the only family I have in this world. I'll do anything to get them back safe.
“Winston tells me you've worked for Wells Fargo on a couple of special jobs in the past. He says you're the best tracker he's ever seen. Would you consider taking on this job for me?”
Jedidiah's features went stony. He looked down, studying the floor for a long moment. When he glanced up, his mouth was set in a tight line. His eyes locked with those of the big man. They were pleading eyes. Desperate eyes. They were the eyes of a man who was dying inside; who was about to lose everything that mattered in life. How could he say no?
“Mr. Fargo, I have to be honest with you. The chances of me finding the ones that did this are might-near impossible. They could be anywhere. More than that, even if I could find them, I've got to tell you, the chances of me getting them back alive . . .or getting out myself . . .well . . .there just ain't any.”
“I can't give up, Mr. Boone!” Fargo came near shouting. “I won't give up! Until I know for sure that they're not alive, I'll never stop searching. They're all I have.”
What could he say? Could he blame the man? Wouldn't he do the same if they were his own family?
“Will you help me, Mr. Boone? Will you try to find them?”
For a long space of time Jedidiah stared off into space without answering. No one spoke to break the silence. Finally, having made up his mind, he lifted his head.
“Give me some time to think on it,” he told the businessman as he rose to his feet and shook Mr. Fargo's hand. “I'll let you know later this afternoon.”
Neither he nor Winston said a word as they descended the stairs and pushed through the front door into the street.
“I think you've already made up your mind,” Winston finally said as they led their horses toward the livery. “You're going to take the job aren’t you?”
“I'm leaning in that direction, Winston. Leaning hard. Guess I just have a hard time saying no when good people ask for help. I was never one to turn a deaf ear.”
“You know this is a suicide mission, Jedidiah. A whole regiment couldn't go in there and get those girls back alive.”
“No,” Jedidiah agreed. “But one man might stand a chance. Not likely, but enough that I've got to give it a try.”
Later that afternoon Jedidiah and Winston returned to the office over the Wells Fargo office. William Fargo stood as they pushed through the door at his invitation. A worried, questioning look occupied his face.
“I'll do my best, sir,” Jedidiah told him simply.
“Thank you, Mr. Boone. Thank you. You have my deepest gratitude. Winston will remain in Sante Fe until this matter is concluded. He will provide whatever you need. Winston, place those two detectives of yours at Mr. Boone's disposal. I understand Major Sheldon is the officer in charge at Fort Cummings. Arrange with him to assign a squad of soldiers to assist Mr. Boone.”
“I appreciate the thought, Mr. Fargo, but I work alone,” Jedidiah said.
“But surely you'll need help. They'll only be there to assist you, I assure you,” The businessman pressed.
“Mr. Fargo,” Jedidiah said. “With all due respect, sir, it's gonna be a full time job just trying to stay alive out there, much less having to explain every move I make to somebody. No, I go alone or I don't go.”
“Very well then,” Fargo said, accepting Jedidiah's judgment. “Winston will arrange to pay you generously for your time and expenses, of course, and there'll be a five thousand-dollar reward for each of the girls you bring back alive and well. If there's anything else you require, just let Winston know.”
“I ain't doing this for the money, Mr. Fargo,” Jedidiah said, pushing to his feet.
“Never-the-less that would be a small price to pay to have them returned safely.”