The private car stood alone on a railroad siding bathed in the hot red blood of a desert sunset. Stepping down from the saddle, I tied my horse to the hitching rail, glanced again at the obvious opulence of the car, and took off my chaps and spurs, hanging them from the saddle-horn.
"Don't fret," I told my horse. "I'll not be long."
With a whip or two of my hat to brush the worst of the dust from my clothes, I crossed to the car and swung aboard. I paused an instant, then opened the door and stepped into the observation room. All was satinwood and vermilion.
A table, a carafe of wine, and glasses. A black man wearing a white coat stepped from the passage along the side. "Yes, sir?"
"I am Milo Talon."
He vanished and I stood alone. There was a distant murmur of voices and the black man returned. "This way, sir? If you please?"
The passage led past the door of two staterooms to the salon which doubled as a dining room. The room was comfortable but ornate with heavily tasseled and fringed draperies, velvet portieres, and thick wall-to-wall carpets.
Hat in hand I waited, catching a glimpse of myself in the narrow mirrors between the windows. For a moment I was seeing what others might see: a lean, dark young man in a wine-colored shirt, black tie, black coat, and gray pin-striped trousers. Under the coat a gun-belt and a Colt.
The office compartment into which I was shown was small but beautifully appointed, and the man behind the desk fitted the picture. He was square-shouldered and square-jawed, a man accustomed to command. He might have been sixty or more but seemed younger. His mustache and hair were black with scarcely a hint of gray. He wore a black, beautifully tailored suit. His manners, I felt, were as neatly tailored as his clothing. He gestured to a chair, then opened a box of expensive cigars and offered it to me.
"No, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Sit down, won't you"
"I'll stand, sir."
The jaws tightened a little; a short-tempered man, I thought, who does not like to be thwarted in even the smallest things.
"I am Jefferson Henry," he said.
"And I am Milo Talon. You wished to see me?"
"I wish to employ you."
"If I like the job."
"I will pay well. Very well."
"If I like the job."
The skin around his eyes seemed to tighten. "You're damned independent!"
"Yes, sir. Shall we get on with it, sir? What led you to me?"
"You were referred to me as a man who could do a difficult job, a close-mouthed man , and who if required would charge Hell with a bucket of water."
He did not like me. It was in his mind, I think, to tell me to leave, to get out. Something else was in his mind also because he did nothing of the kind.
"I want you to find someone for me, I want you to find a girl."
"You will have to find your own women," I started to put on my hat.
"The girl is my son's daughter. She has been missing for twelve years."
A moment longer I hesitated, then sat down. "Tell me about it."
"Fifteen years ago my son and I quarreled. He went west. I have not seen or heard from him since."
"Have you any idea," I asked, "how many men are simply swallowed up by this country? Men drop from sight every day and no one takes notice. Usually, nobody cares. I have helped to bury several."
"No doubt, but my son had a daughter. It is she whom I hope to find."
"And not your son?"
"He is dead." Jefferson Henry bit the end from a cigar. "My son was weak. He was bold enough when telling me to go to Hell, but he had done that several times and had always come back. If he was alive he would have done so again, so I know he is dead."
"What of his wife? The girls mother?"
Henry lit the cigar. "It was she we quarreled over. I have no wish to see her. I am not interested in her. I wish only to find my son's daughter."
He paused, considering the glowing end of the cigar. Then he said, "I am a very rich man. I am no longer young. I have no other heir, and I am alone. She must be found."
"And if she is not found? Who inherits then?"
His eyes were cold. "We will not discuss that. You are to find my granddaughter. You will be well paid."
"Your son disappeared fifteen years ago?"
"He married despite my wishes. He took his wife and their daughter and went west, working for a time in Ohio then in St. Louis." Jefferson Henry brushed the ash from his cigar.
"The daughter may not have lived."
"Of course. That is a contingency for which I am prepared."
"Or she may have become somebody whom you may not wish to claim."
"That is a possibility."
"You have been mentioned to me as a man who knows the west. You were a scout for the Army. You were mentioned as a man of perception and intelligence." He paused. "It was also said that you had acceptance along the Outlaw Trail."
"I might add--I knew your father."
"You knew him?"
"He was a hard-headed, opinionated, difficult man, but he was honest. We agreed on almost nothing, but once set upon a course he could not be turned aside."
"You were his friend?"
"I was not. Our dislike was immediate and mutual. It remained so. But I did not come two thousand miles to talk of him. When I hire a man I try to get the best man for the job. You were recommended."
He opened a drawer of the desk and took out a sack of gold coins. At least, by their apparent weight I judged they were gold. "There is one thousand dollars. I do not demand an itemized account of your expenses, only a general coverage. I understand that in such situations moneys often have to be expended that are better not accounted for."
From another drawer he took a large manila envelope. "This contains copies of letters, old photographs, some memoranda. It is all I have."
"You have be trying to find her?"
"Everything failed. Even the Pinkertons."
For a few minutes I considered it. There was something here I did not like, yet I could not put a finger on it for he seemed straightforward enough, yet every instinct told me the man was not to be trusted. Nonetheless, the problem fascinated me and I was foot-loose . . . and broke. Or nearly so.
"All right. If she is alive I will find her. If she is dead, I will know where she was buried."
He indicated the envelope. "My address is there, or you may find me through any Wells Fargo office. If you need more money you may go to any Wells Fargo office and draw up to one thousand dollars. If you need more than that, you must contact me personally."
"Up to how much?"
"Fifty thousand dollars. I am prepared to spend that much and no more."
It was a lot of money, an awful lot of money. I said as much.
He waved a hand. "It is. But she is the heir to all I have. If she is not my only living relative, as I believe, she is at least the only one whom I care to acknowledge."
"If I accept, what will I be paid?"
Jefferson Henry indicated the sack of gold. "Your expense will be paid. I shall pay you one hundred and fifty dollars a month during the term of your employment and a bonus of one thousand dollars if you find her."
"Two hundred a month," I said.
His eyes showed impatience. "You ask for two hundred? You've worked as a cowpuncher for thirty dollars a month!"
"This is not cowpunching." I got to my feet. "It is two hundred or no deal. The money to be paid to my account at the Wells Fargo office in El Paso."
He hesitated, not liking it or me, but finally he said, "All right, two hundred it is."
He took gold coins from another drawer and paid them over the desk. "See that you earn it."
Leaving the car, envelope in hand, I was puzzled. Stepping down from the car , I crossed to my horse. What was bothering me? It seemed a fairly straightforward proposition, although searching for missing persons had never been something for which I was noted.
Glancing back toward the car, I was startled to see another man in the salon where I had just been. He was standing close to Jefferson Henry and they were talking, gesturing. He was a tall, wide-shouldered man, larger than Henry, who was not a small man.
It was not the porter.
Now then, who was he ? And where had he been during my talk with Henry?
Mounting, I turned my horse toward the town's on street. From the private car a good view might be had of most of the street. On the facing the street there were a dozen buildings including the hotel, restaurant, another general store, a livery stable, blacksmith shop, and an assortment of small shops and offices.
Leaving the hostler with two bits to give my horse a bait of oats and a rubdown, I took my Winchester and saddlebags and started up the street to the hotel.
It was suppertime in town and few people were about. A cigarette glowed momentarily from a dark doorway and I felt the weight of the gold I now carried. Winchester in my right hand, I pushed opened the door and stepped into the lobby. Behind the counter was a man with a green eyeshade and sleeve garters. He was a pinchfaced man with a mustache too big for his face.
"A room," I suggested.
Red mustache glanced at men with sour distaste. He had seen a lot of cowhands. "Got one bed left in a room for three. Cost you a quarter."
"A room," I repeated, "a single room . . . alone."
"Cost you fifty cents," he spoke carelessly, expecting me to refuse.
My palm left a half-dollar on the counter. "Just give me the key," I said.
"No key. Folks just pack them off." He indicated the stairway. "Up and to your right. Corner room. You can put a chair under the doorknob if you figure it's needed."
"I sleep light," I said, "and I'm skittish. To much time in Indian country. If you hear a shot in the night you come up and pack somebody away."
He gave me a bored look and started to resume his newspaper.
"Where's the best place to eat?"
"Three doors down. Maggie's Place. She won't be in this time of night but the cook's one of the best."
The room was a good one as such rooms went, a double bed, a washstand with a white bowl and pitcher, two chairs, one of which was a rocker, and a knit rug on the floor. On another small stand beside the bed was a kerosene lamp which I made no move to light. My eyes were already accustomed to the dim light but I'd no wish to advertise which room I was in. Glancing down into the street without disturbing the curtain, I seemed to see that same figure lurking in the doorway.
Of course it could be some cowhand with nowhere to go or money to spend, or some lad waiting for his girl, but a man lived longer by being cautious.
He would see me when I left the hotel unless--at the bottom of the stairs I turned abruptly and went down the hall to the back of the hotel and out the back door.
Outside the door I side-stepped quickly into the shadows and paused, staring around into the half-dark and remaining in deep shadow. Following a dim path along the backs of the buildings, I almost stepped into the path of a pan of water a man was about to throw from the back door.
"Howdy," I spoke softly. "All right to come in through the kitchen?"
"If you've a mind to." The man in the white apron held the door wide. "Somebody out front you ain't wishful to see."
My smile was friendly. "Why, I don't rightly know. I've nobody huntin' my scalp right now that I recall, but on the other hand there's a gent across the street in that empty building who seems to have nothing to do but stand there. Are you the cook?
"Chief cook an' bottle-washer."
The cook dried his hands on his apron. "Got some roast beef tonight, scramble up a few eggs if you want."
"Be a pleasure. I haven't seen an egg in three months. But I'll take some of that roast beef, too."
"Figured on it." He paused, taking my measure. "My name's Schafer, German Schafer. The German's my proper name."
"I know you now. Cooked for the Lazy O-Bar, didn't you? I was reppin' for the Y-Over-Y."
"Know you. That Lazy O-Bar the boys used to call the Biscuit because of that flat kind of O we used. It was a good outfit."
Information was where you found it, so I suggested, "Rode in at the call of Jefferson Henry in the car yonder. Said he had a job for me."
"Henry? Never comes in here. Eats in that car of his'n, but I seen him. I seen that bodyguard of his'n, too." Schafer slanted me a look from under his brows. "You seen him? Tall, slope-shouldered man? Heavier'n you, almost as dark. Folks say he's mighty handy with a gun."
"Does he have a name?"
"John Topp. Southern man, I'd guess. Knows what he's about but he don't talk to nobody. Nobody. Least it's Henry himself."
Glancing past him I could see that but three or four tables were occupied. I started that way, then held up. "Henry been around long?"
"Just pulled in." German Schafer lowered his voice. "Some of the boys commentin' that he had his car side-tracked at a water-tank about twenty miles back. Stayed nearly a week. They done some ridin' from there. Carried horses in separate cars."
Nobody even turned a head when I walked in from the kitchen and sat down, taking a seat in a corner where I could watch both doors and the street outside. The doorway where I'd seen the watcher was a mite too far along to be seen from my seat.
At one table sat a rancher and his wife, fresh off the range for a change of cooking, at another table two railroad men in blue shirts and overalls. A drummer with a flashy imitation diamond stick-pin, and at a table near me a girl, quite young, quite pretty, and somewhat overdressed in obviously new clothing.
Her glance caught mine briefly, seemed to linger, then passed on. It was not an attempt at flirtation but a half-scared, half-curious sort of look.
Schafer came from the kitchen with a plate of beef, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes. He went back for a pot of coffee and a cup.
With my meal and coffee before me I took my time. There was much to consider. I'd taken a man's money and I meant to do the job he paid me for, but there were questions for which I needed answers.
To find a girl missing for twelve years might sound impossible in such an area of fluctuating populations. The Pinkertons were shrewd operatives accustomed to inquiries, and some of their operatives had come from the west, but did they know the country and its people as I did?
The ranching couple left the restaurant, and then the drummer arose, tried to catch the girl's eye and failed, then walked out.
Suddenly, turning toward me ever so slightly, the girl spoke, very softly. "Sir? Please, will you help me?"
"What can I do?"
The railroad men were leaving and one of them lingered, glancing my way. He hesitated, then walked out. Something in that glance and the hesitation fixed my attention. He acted as if he wished to speak to me.
"My supper, sir. I am very sorry but I cannot pay for it. I was very hungry."
"It would be my pleasure."
Her situation disturbed me. The west was a hard place for a woman alone and without funds. After a moment I asked, "You are passing through?"
"I was, sir, but I have no more money. I must find work."
"Here?" There was nothing in such a place for a decent girl. There were not sixty people in the town."
"I--I had to get away. I just bought a ticket as far as I could go. I thought surely--"
Being a fool with money would be no fresh experience. Despite the fact she was overdressed for the town, there was a freshness and innocence about her.
"Have you no family?"
This time I believe she lied. "No, sir."
"I am going to give you some money. You might find a job in Denver, in Santa Fe, or some larger town. There is nothing here--" An idea come to me as I spoke.
"I wish to stay. I like it here."
"I will give you one hundred dollars," I said. As I was thinking what a fool I was. That was three months work for a cowhand.
She flushed. "Sir, I--"
"I said give . If you wish it can be a loan. This is a dead end. There's nothing here for anyone unless they have cattle to ship." The thought of a moment ago returned. "Unless German Schafer can use you. He might need a waitress."
Taking five gold pieces from my pocket, I reached across to her table and placed them before her. "There. Now you have a choice. And if you are careful that will keep you until you have a job and pay your fare to Denver as well."
She started to speak but I waved it aside. "I've bee broke. I know how it is, and it's easier for a man."
Taking up the brown envelope received from Jefferson Henry, I opened it. There were several camera portraits, the first of a young man elegantly dressed, a hand on the back of a chair, one knee slightly bent.
The second picture was of the same young man, this time seated with a young woman. She had a pert, saucy expression that I found intriguing. The third picture was of the same couple, this time with the man standing, the girl seated and holding a child. The two latter pictures had been taken outside.
Placing the pictures at one side I refilled my cup and took up the letters. The names meant nothing to me. The girl I would be seeking would be Nancy Henry, the daughter. The mother would be older than I, but not by that much.
The Pinkerton report was exhaustive. They had spent a lot of time and money to come up with no answer, and for them it was unusual. Almost unbelievable, given the circumstances.
As I was shuffling the papers together to replace them in their envelope, the picture of the man and his bride fell to the floor. The girl at the next table picked it up to return to me. She gasped.
I glanced up. She was pale to the lips. "What's wrong? Do you know them?"
"Know them? Oh, no! No! It's just that--well, she's so pretty.
She handed the picture back to me a bit reluctantly, I thought. "Thank you. I was hoping you knew them."
"Are they relatives?"
"No, just some people I am trying to locate."
"Oh? Are you an officer?"
"It's a business matter." She was rising to leave. "You did not tell me your name?"
"Nor did you tell me yours." She smiled prettily. "I am Molly Fletcher."
"Milo Talon here." A glance toward the kitchen showed me German was hard at work. "He seems to be busy now, but if you wish to stay in this town I'd suggest talking to German Schafer. He might need some help."
She thanked me and turned away. I watched her out to the street and glanced after her as she started toward the hotel.
Suppose, just suppose that man across the street was not watching for me, but for her? It made a lot more sense. She was a very pretty girl.
One by one I began reading the letters, yet my attention was not on them.
Molly Fletcher--if that was her name--had recognized one or both of the people in that picture. There was no other way to account for that quick intake of breath.
Who was Molly Fletcher? Why had she come here, and why did she wish to stay?
Was her presence in the restaurant accident? And why had she chosen me to address? Of course, she may have simply been waiting until someone was alone, but the drummer had certainly let her know he was available. Women had seemed to find me interesting, although I never knew why. It might be that I talked of faraway places they had never seen.
Yet why did she wish to stay here, of all places? And why, when it came to that, had Jefferson Henry chosen this place to start his search over again?
And of all things, why me ?