Bounty Hunter (9781101611975) (4 page)

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
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While she went inside, Bladen made conversation with the man with the rifle. Asked about the four perpetrators, he echoed Hannah's opinion, though his description of Gideon Porter's evilness, and Enoch's atrocious way with small domestic animals, was a good deal more graphic.

Finally, Hannah called from the front door and Bladen climbed the steps. He made a point of removing his hat and wiping his feet, something that had become his second nature growing up in Virginia, where a man was measured by his politeness.

“I want you to
get
that Gideon Porter once and for all!” Leticia Blaine exclaimed without the formality of an introduction.

She was seated in a large, overstuffed chair in a small room opposite the parlor. He figured that she was avoiding the parlor, and understood that she had good reason. Another woman about her age, probably a friend, was hovering nearby. The side of Mrs. Blaine's face was deeply black-and-blue, and she had a long cut in her lower lip that had been stitched.

“Yes, ma'am,” Cole said.

“I want that Gideon Porter six feet under.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Cole repeated. “He's the one who done this to you?”

“Darn tootin' he is,” the spunky widow confirmed.

“And shot your husband?”

“Yes sir,” she affirmed angrily. “He is a
madman
. John rose to my defense and lost his life for it!”

“Ma'am, if you don't mind me asking, do y'all have any idea
why
they did this? Why they came to your home to shoot people?”

“My husband fired that cur six months ago, and he had to have his revenge, of course.”

“Why do you reckon that he waited so long?”

“How should I know?”

“He just came here asking after your husband?”

“That's right. I answered that door right there and . . . they barged through . . .”

“Into the parlor here?” Cole asked, stepping into the other room. The bloodstains on the rich oriental-style carpets, now turned dark and all the more deathly, painted a vivid picture of the place where each victim had stood. In the room beyond, the dinner dishes from that night still had not been cleared.

“That's right,” she shouted, remaining in her chair as Cole left the room. “My husband was in the dining room with Virgil Stocker and Dawson Phillips. They all came into the parlor when they heard the commotion. Porter shot John, then his brother murdered Dawson and then Mary . . . it was
terrible!

On this note, Leticia Blaine dissolved into tearful sobbing, and her friend moved in to comfort her. Bladen Cole thanked her for her time and expressed his sympathies, as he and Hannah Ransdell retreated out the front door.

“Any chance I could go talk to this man, Virgil Stocker?” Cole asked as he put on his Stetson.

“I suppose we could do that,” Hannah said. She was kind of interested in the bounty hunter's “investigating,” and she certainly didn't mind being seen around town with a handsome stranger. Nor did she mind taking an occasional glance at the whiskers that studded his face. His were a bit on the shorter side for her tastes, but she did have a fondness for a younger man with a beard.

“You been long in the Territory, Mr. Cole?” she said as they walked.

“No, ma'am. I passed through a couple years back and was headed back up north to do a little hunting when your father's friend, Mr. Olson, approached me in the cafe.”

“Hunting?” Hannah said with a knowing tone. “I'd speculate that in your line of work that has a little bit of a double meaning?”

“Yes, ma'am, it does,” he nodded. “But in this case, it was mule deer I was after . . . some for trade . . . some to dry for winter.”

“Heard the stories about you down on the Green River,” she said.

“Justice required . . . justice done,” he said, phrasing his few words in such a way that he hoped to close out the topic.

“How did you get into this . . . mmmmm . . . line of work, Mr. Cole?”

“I sorta fell into it, Miss Ransdell.”

“How does one . . . ?” Hannah began.

“When one finds that he's good with a gun, he can find himself on one side of the law or the other.”

“And you picked . . .”

“I don't mind sleeping with one eye open sometimes,” he interrupted. “I just figured that I couldn't live with having to sleep with
both
of them open.”

*   *   *

L
ETICIA
B
LAINE'S ANGER WAS A MERE TRIFLE BY COMPARISON
to the rage expressed by Virgil Stocker, and the expletives he used were considerably stronger than “cur.”

Likewise, Stocker's facial injuries were of an order of magnitude greater than those endured by Mrs. Blaine. She had suffered under the fist of her attacker, while he had been struck by the butt of a gun. Even the jagged cuts that remained unbandaged would leave a permanent reminder of that night in the mirror of Virgil Stocker.

As to the question of
why
this happened, Stocker's opinion coincided with the conventional wisdom. Angry at being fired, Gideon Porter had come for retribution, and things got horribly out of control.

“And the women . . . the poor
women
,” Stocker's wife interjected. She had sat quietly through her husband's tirade but felt the need to insert her own perspective on that terrible night. “Gideon Porter said that the women were not
supposed
to be hurt, but . . . poor Mary . . . For a man to strike a woman . . . much less shoot her . . . poor Mary Phillips. To watch her . . . writhing . . . writhing on the carpet . . . that terrible expression . . .”

“What do you think he meant by saying the women were not
supposed
to be hurt?” Hannah asked.

By this time, Mrs. Stocker was sobbing uncontrollably, reliving the horror of the deaths of friends with the survivor's guilt of knowing that of the six, only she remained unscathed—physically.

“She's been through
hell
,” Virgil Stocker said, rising to his feet and moving toward his guests in a gesture signifying the end of their visit, with Hannah's query unanswered. “She's been through
enough
.”

“Mr. Cole,” Stocker said from the doorway as Bladen and Hannah crossed the porch. “I understand that the warrant has language in it that says . . . or at least insinuates . . . ‘dead or alive.'”

“It does,” Cole nodded.

“I hope you make sure that
none
of that bunch ever again breathes the air of Gallatin County.”

*   *   *


T
HERE'S ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW,”
H
ANNAH
said as they walked back in the direction of Main Street.

“What's that?”

“You know how my father said those men were his associates?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, they were all having dinner at the Blaine home . . . the associates and their wives. My father was supposed to have been there, but he had a meeting.”

“So he nearly . . .”

“Yes, he nearly wound up in the line of fire. That's why this is sort of personal. The reward money is coming from him . . . personally.”

“Guess he and your mother are counting their blessings,” Cole said.

“Um . . . actually my mother passed away three years back. If he
had
gone to that dinner party . . . he would have taken
me
.”

Chapter 4

“I
T'S HIM.
I
T'S
J
OHN
H
OLLIN,”
E
DWARD
J
.
O
LSON SAID, THE
color draining from his face as he was overcome by the stench. “I recognize his shirt.”

The sun was just coming up as Bladen Cole and the three men from Gallatin City descended the trail toward the place where Sixteen Mile Creek emptied into the Missouri River. When he had told them that he planned to leave “first thing in the morning,” he had meant it. To the three men who had asked to accompany him as far as the ambush site to recover the bodies, it had been the middle of the night.

Cole studied the bluffs above the place where the bodies lay as the men from the town began the grisly chore of wrapping the deceased in canvas. They would soon be loaded on mules for their last ride home.

“Reckon this is where we part company, gentlemen,” Cole said, touching the brim of his hat.

“Good luck, Mr. Cole,” Olson said, his tone of voice suggesting that he figured the bounty hunter would
need
it.

With that, Cole rode north.

The breeze was rustling in the changing leaves of the cottonwoods as he paused to let his roan drink before they forded the creek. The Porter boys had left no tracks, but they were easy to follow.

After killing men whose deaths were guaranteed to raise the ire—or at least the attention—of Montana's powers that be, the next leg of their trail after the ambush was obvious. To have crossed west of the Missouri River would have taken them on a heading toward the territorial capital at Helena, while staying to the east would have taken them through Diamond City, which all agreed was an outpost of lawlessness.

Cole reached Diamond City as the autumn sun was dipping toward the mountains in the west and stepped into the Diamond Bar Saloon on the main street of Meagher County's seat for a late afternoon beer.

“Hello, darlin,' buy a girl a drink?” the seductively attired woman asked with an enticing smile.

After observing that the floozies were out early, and appreciating the attractiveness of Hannah Ransdell by comparison to this girl, Cole smiled broadly and did, indeed, buy the girl a drink.

He knew the end to which the proprietor who employed her intended the interaction to lead, and he knew where
he
intended it to lead.

She had a few years on Hannah, and she had led a much different life. Her name was Aggie, or so she said. She had come to the lawless West with her father, a preacher, or so she said. Bladen told her that he had come west in the wake of the war, because there was nothing for him in Virginia, which was more or less true.

He let her sit on his lap, and she let him touch her leg. It all felt good to Cole, and he was tempted to allow it to play out as the proprietor had intended.

Knowing that her drink contained little but cherry extract and soda water, he insisted that she chase it with a beer. He knew that she wanted to, and so she did, and it loosened her tongue.

When she was at last comfortable, and had shared her fictional life story with him, talk turned to his “old friend” Gideon, who Cole was hoping to catch up with on the trail.

“Yeah, I believe I reckon to recall a man by that name was in here,” she reckoned to recall. “I remember the name because it's from the Bible . . . and my daddy was a preacher, y'know. But you missed him . . . not my daddy . . . your friend Gideon. Day before yesterday, I think.”

“He buy you a drink?”

“No, not me . . . I think Crystal . . . no, Crystal, she was talkin' with the one with his hand all bandaged up. I was with their partner. Your friend was in here with a couple of partners.”

“Three partners?”

“Yeah . . . I believe there was three . . . total of four with your friend, Gideon. I was with this squirrely little fellow who kept saying he was good.”

“Goode?”

“Yeah, that's what I said . . .
good
 . . . 'cept your friend Gideon kept callin' him ‘good-for-nothin,' and that made him mad. As it turned out, he wasn't very good at all . . . if you know what I mean . . . and that made him
real
mad.”

“Sure wish I'd not missed 'em,” Cole said, trying not to laugh out loud at Aggie's previous remark. “They say where they were headed?”

“Up Smith's River way,” she said thoughtfully. “They were talking about Fort Benton and Blackfeet country.”

Having gotten the essential information he needed, Cole let the small talk spin off in another direction, allowing their discussion of the man named “good,” who
wasn't
very good, to be buried in the blur of other topics touched upon.

When at last Aggie got around to telling him that it was time to seal the deal of their implied contract, Bladen told her that it was time for him to get his horse taken care of for the night.

“I'll be right back, darlin,'” he promised as he touched the brim of his hat.

He had lied.

*   *   *

B
LADEN
C
OLE BEDDED DOWN IN THE HILLS EAST OF TOWN.

Sleeping with your head on a saddle was not nearly as desirable as sleeping with your head on a pillow—and not
alone
on that pillow—but if that pillow was in Diamond City, these arrangements in the hills east of town went further toward guaranteeing that your saddle would still be around in the morning.

Aggie was beautiful in that striking way that comes in part from being skilled at the brushwork that transforms a woman's cheeks and eyelids—and she was shrewd in that resourceful way that comes in part from being skilled at identifying what you want and knowing how to get it.

Naturally, he had also found himself comparing Hannah Ransdell to Sally—or more to the point, Sally as he had first known her. When you spend five years with a woman, she becomes a benchmark of comparison when a man finds himself crossing the paths of other women, even though in his present frame of mind with regard to Sally, it was more a contrast than a comparison.

Hannah did remind him a little of the younger Sally, the Sally with whom he had fallen in love—if it really was
love
. After all, he was not sure he knew what “love” meant.

Hannah was easy on the eye in a way that was different from the beauty of a woman such as Aggie. The color in Hannah's cheeks was as natural as the blush of a Georgia peach. Her girlish grin and those freckles on her nose were enough to make a man smile back just by watching her.

Hannah reminded him a little of Sally, when he had first crossed her path. Each woman was as sharp as a tack, and like Sally had been, back then, Hannah had that streak of stubborn idealism that comes from being long on brains yet still short on the experiences that come with years. For Hannah, these would come over time. With Sally, the time and experiences
had
come, and would continue coming. Naturally, Cole chose not to allow his mind to wander down the road of speculation as to the
nature
of the experiences Sally had been sharing with J. R. Hubbard out in San Francisco.

Cole fell asleep dreaming that the three stars in the heavens directly above his head were the freckles on Hannah Ransdell's nose.

*   *   *

C
OLE WAS BOILING HIS COFFEE WHEN THE NEW DAY WAS
just a narrow, pinkish-purple sliver on the distant horizon.

It was growing noticeably colder as the man and his horse made their way through the Little Belt Range, heading ever northward. Cole had ridden this roan for more than a year without naming him. The closest he got was “
whoa, boy
,” “
hya, boy
.” He figured the roan didn't mind going nameless. The naming of horses had always been a matter of pride to the planters back in Virginia. Maybe that was why Cole now shied away from the practice.

They camped a second night where the Little Belts give way to the Plains and where Cole could look out and see the lights of the scattered, distant settlements and farmsteads along the Missouri.

If the Porter boys had kept to the plan that Aggie had overheard, they would certainly have come this way. They were running from the law, so wintering in Blackfeet country was a logical thing to do.

They could have crossed the Missouri to head north at any number of places between the Great Falls and Fort Benton, but provisioning at Fort Benton made sense. As a river steamer port, it was both big enough and transient enough for them to get what they needed and not attract too much attention.

With this, Cole naturally wondered, aloud, whether boys who were as witless as the Porter boys were supposed to be would think so logically.

Riding alone for the past couple of days, Cole had been doing a great deal of wondering. He had been going over the Gallatin City shooting in his mind and had been wondering about a lot of unanswered questions.

The Porter boys were impulsive punks who he could easily picture drawing their guns in a barroom brawl, but he had a hard time getting his head around Gideon Porter harboring a grudge for half a year before drawing his gun.

Cole also wondered why Gideon Porter had barged into John Blaine's house, with his gang, in order to shoot his former employer in front of a room full of witnesses. From the universal impression of Gideon Porter, he seemed to be the type of lowlife who would be more at home shooting a man in the back in the dark of night.

Another question that nagged Cole was one Hannah Ransdell had asked of Mrs. Stocker. What indeed had Gideon Porter meant when he told the impetuous Enoch that the women were not
supposed
to be hurt?

He hadn't said “don't hurt the women,” he had said the women were
not supposed to be
hurt.

To Cole, this implied that the men
were
supposed to be hurt, and by “supposing” anything, the statement implied that they had gone to Blaine's house with a
plan
. This explained why it took four men. It was not an angry madman settling a score, it was a deliberately conceived
plan
.

The conundrum that Bladen Cole pondered most particularly as his campfire turned to embers that night was
whose plan
it had been.

As much as he was taken with the memory of gazing upon the loveliness of Hannah Ransdell, Cole wondered about her father. Why had Isham Ransdell
not
been at the dinner party? Of course, he had a reasonable explanation that was certainly believable, but why had he not been there,
really
?

Why had he been so anxious to hire a bounty hunter—at great expense and with his own money? Of course, his stated reasons were both reasonable and understandable, but why had he been in such a hurry to hire Cole,
really
?

Whose plan, indeed?

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
3.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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