THREE men sat around a linen-covered table in the expansive dining room of the Windsor Hotel. The great clock on the mantel read well past midnight by the time their meeting commenced, and candlelight was all that lit the room, throwing the faces of the three diners into deep shadow.
Just a month prior to their meeting, John C. Baird had been in New York, watching as the city’s elite unveiled the Pearl Street Power Station and the magic of electricity had lit up the city. He missed that civilized place, and he looked on overgrown mining and cow towns like Denver with disdain he could not and did not want to conceal. There were a few buildings in the town that had electricity, but the Windsor Hotel did not yet number among them, no matter how elegantly appointed it was otherwise.
It didn’t matter how uncomfortable the trip had been for him, though. He was here on orders, and everything being asked of him hinged on this meeting. It would be worth a trip to this trumped up little silver town to make certain this was done properly.
The dining room was all but empty, save for a sparse number of diners and the hotel’s staff lingering to wait on them. One thing Baird found he did like about the western towns was that people knew how to mind their own affairs. They were in no danger of being disturbed.
“You’re late,” Baird said to the man sitting to his right, who was just settling into his seat.
“This is a fancy place,” the large man said in an annoyed, husky voice. His common cowboy clothes were dusty, and his hat had left an impression in his black hair when he’d taken it off. It appeared to Baird that he’d just made the trip to Colorado from Texas on the back of a bison rather than in a rail car. He wore thin leather gloves, but they didn’t conceal the fact that one of his fingers was missing on his left hand. “They weren’t gonna let me in,” the Texan explained, nodding to the grand lobby and the doorman who still stood watching them in distaste.
The man opposite Baird gave that a quiet snort. He was handsome, dressed to the nines, in clear contrast to the large Texan. Wiry and of average height, he carried himself with an insolent ease that Baird found both annoying and striking. He certainly wouldn’t have been refused entrance to the Windsor Hotel, or any other hotel on the continent, Baird thought idly. They hadn’t let his scruffy little puppy in with him, though, and the beast sat by the window, watching its master devotedly through the speckled glass.
His accent was that of an Englishman, though, and upon hearing him speak Baird had instantly decided he didn’t like or trust the man. This was government business. An Englishman had no right to be involved. But Baird’s orders were clear, and these were the two men he’d been told to contact. Before coming to his current position, Baird had been a Pinkerton agent, and a good one. He knew how to follow orders.
Baird glanced back at the Texan and looked him over with a critical eye. “Fine,” he said finally, not in any mood to deal further with the issue of his tardiness. He casually leaned back in his chair, his hand on the concealed gun under the table.
“I’d prefer it if we expedited this meeting,” the dapper Englishman requested drolly.
“If we what?” the Texan asked in a flat, unimpressed voice.
“Expedite. Hurry it along. Make it faster.”
“If you mean faster, just say faster.”
“Gentlemen,” Baird interrupted. Both men quieted and looked at him expectantly. Baird inclined his chin and gave them a smile. “You are the men known respectively as Dusty Rose and Bat Stringer, correct?” he asked them, looking first at the Englishman and then at the Texan.
Neither man flinched, though Baird had just spoken the names of two notorious gunmen. If either was surprised or concerned at the other’s presence, they didn’t show it.
“And if we aren’t who you say?” the Englishman asked as he kept one hand on the table.
Baird looked at him with barely concealed surprise. “If you aren’t who I say, then just who might you be?” he asked as he slowly moved the gun in his own lap until it pointed at the man. It was a misconception that it was easier to kill out West, that no one blinked an eye at murder. The crime was still considered heinous. Baird didn’t mind doing it, regardless.
The Englishman known as Dusty Rose returned his look passively.
The other man, the Texan, grunted at them both, still unimpressed. Baird turned an eye on him. He wasn’t merely an outlaw and a gunman with a reputation. He was one with something to prove, and that made him even more dangerous.
Baird didn’t know much more about Bat Stringer other than he’d been the second choice for this job. Baird’s contacts were supposed to have tracked down the man known as Whistling Jack Kale, an outlaw who helped lead a band of men near the border to Old Mexico, raiding and robbing and terrifying the general public. His gang was famous for their cleverness and always managing to avoid capture. Kale had come to the attention of Baird’s superiors after he and three other men had disappeared from inside a bank under the noses of the very authorities there to capture them.
Kale wasn’t the leader of the gang, but all reliable reports said he was the brains. He would have been perfect for this job. But, to Baird’s dismay, his man in Texas found that Jack Kale had disappeared over a year ago, nothing but his name and whispers of fear left behind him. Where he’d gone or why, no one knew. Some thought the leader of his gang had killed him over a disagreement or attempted coup. That was why Bat Stringer was here now. If they’d wanted a man like Kale for the job, they were almost as well served with his boss. He was said to be a smart man and a fast draw.
Dusty Rose sighed softly and looked away. The Englishman had a reputation as well. He too had a penchant for escaping from the hands of the law. He was famous for his skill at card games, but his reputation was more that of a gunman than a gambler. He was clever and charming, and rarely drew the gun he was said to be so adept at handling.
“I’ll get right to the point, gentlemen,” he told them in a low voice. “You don’t need to know who I am or who I’m working for. I won’t tolerate any questions about either subject.”
Stringer sat watching him much like a housecat would watch a canary in a cage, his dark eyes intelligent and patient. Rose, however, was still looking off to the side, shaking his head as if disgusted with himself simply for being there. Baird’s lips twitched into a smile. He’d made the shootist an offer he couldn’t easily refuse; the man had enough trouble with the law, he didn’t need any more.
Baird waited until it was clear that neither man would respond, and he continued. “At this very moment, there are soldiers working nearby, searching for an Indian artifact.”
“Artifact,” Stringer repeated with a frown.
Rose sat forward. “It’s a trinket, Mr. Stringer,” he supplied in a low voice, “with some sort of inherent value to it, be it regarding history or mankind.”
“I know what the damn word means,” Stringer growled to the man.
Baird rolled his eyes. He cleared his throat pointedly and both men once again looked back at him. “This artifact, if found, could be very important.”
“To?” Rose asked.
“What is it?” Stringer asked.
“That is none of your concern, Mr. Stringer,” Baird assured him. The man didn’t react other than to turn his head as he maintained eye contact. Baird was beginning to be unnerved by the big man. He almost preferred Rose’s sarcasm and insolence to being the object of such silent study.
“If the Army’s already searching for this trinket, why do you need us?” Rose inquired carelessly.
Baird stared at him, not intending to answer.
“Because you’re not Army,” Rose concluded with a slow nod. He looked away again and sighed heavily, as if just realizing how much trouble he might be in if he didn’t feel like cooperating. Good. That was how Baird wanted him: scared and backed into a corner.
“The Army is a redundant, stupid beast,” Baird claimed after a moment. “This item cannot be trusted in their hands. It must be taken from them and safeguarded properly. But as you have probably gathered, we cannot have one government agency blatantly stealing from another, and it’s best to keep this away from any official avenues.”
Rose laughed out loud. He looked at Stringer and shook his head, but Stringer wasn’t laughing. Upon seeing that, Rose cleared his throat and schooled his features into a more serious expression. Baird wasn’t amused by his antics.
“You want us to steal this artifact from the Army for you,” Stringer said in a soft voice. “So your hands stay clean.”
“That’s precisely right,” Baird told him with a pleased smile.
“You want the two of us to attack a battalion of soldiers in the middle of Nebraska, steal an Indian artifact from them, and ride off into the sunset without anyone the wiser?” Rose said in a flat, sarcastic voice as he leaned forward and put a finger on the table. “Are you insane, or are you just as stupid as you look?”
“I assure you I am neither,” Baird replied with a stiffening of his shoulders. He realized belatedly, as Rose’s lips curved into a smile, the trap in the words. His cheeks flushed with annoyance and embarrassment. “The plan is more complex than that,” he gritted out.
“I certainly hope so,” Rose grunted.
“What is the plan?” Stringer asked. He did not appear amused by Rose or impressed with what Baird was saying.
“You will be informed of the details when we come to an agreement on your services,” Baird assured him.
“On that note, why are my services even required here?” Rose asked. “I am no thief.”
“So you say. But you have spent time with the natives.”
“I believe you have specific information from them about this artifact, whether you are aware of it or not.”
“Is that so?” Rose asked, completely unperturbed by the extent of Baird’s knowledge.
“That is so. And you have a reputation,” Baird told him.
“For playing cards,” Rose supplied.
“Playing cards,” Stringer repeated, incredulous. He was looking at Rose speculatively, and Rose returned the look with a wary one, as if trying to gauge the threat from the big man. “If you’re a gambler, then I’m a seamstress.”
Rose scratched at his chin idly as he looked at Stringer, then he pointed one elegant finger at the man and narrowed his eyes. “Do you darn socks?”
Baird rubbed at the spot between his eyes, feeling an ache in his head coming on. “Gentlemen,” he said before the conversation could digress further.
Rose looked back at him sharply, all trace of sarcasm or humor gone. “I believe I made it quite clear in my initial answer to you that I am not for hire,” he reminded Baird in a low, smooth voice. His black eyes seemed to glint in the candlelight as he leaned back in his chair casually and looked at Baird, mirroring his stance. “You can threaten me all you please, Mr. Baird. It won’t change the fact that this is not my area of expertise.”
Baird was no fool. He knew what sort of men he was dealing with. He had every confidence in himself to handle them, however, and so he sat unflinching, returning the look. “We plan to pay you in solid gold, Mr. Rose. Surely that must pique your interest?” he inquired politely.
“No,” Dusty Rose answered blithely. “I have enough trouble on my own. I don’t need to go begging it from the Army, the natives, or whatever agency of the government you may be representing. My curiosity into such manners can only lead me so far before my better instincts prevail.” He sat forward and put a finger to the tip of his nose. “You smell of trouble I neither want nor need, Mr. Baird.”
Baird raised one eyebrow and turned his head to look at Stringer, who sat watching them silently. “And you?” he asked the big man.
“I’ll need to hear your plans before I give my answer,” Stringer told him without hesitation.
“Fair enough,” Baird agreed readily. He had expected no less. “You and I will discuss the finer points of the plan and the vast sums of money you’ll be receiving over dinner, right after we’ve taken care of the Desert Flower here,” he ordered with a gesture of his hand at Rose.
Rose pushed his chair back and stood in alarm. Stringer did the same, reaching for the gun that was concealed under his arm. China crashed at a table on the far side of the room as the diners there dove for cover. Several of the other patrons screamed or shouted.
“Gun!” one of the waiters called out.
Baird sat back calmly, a small smile on his face. There were people all over the country who would have paid good money to see a showdown like this; Dusty Rose and Bat Stringer toe to toe. And he had a front row seat.
Rose hesitated, not drawing his weapon for some reason Baird couldn’t fathom. Stringer held no such compunctions and his gun slid from its holster with practiced ease.
Suddenly, the floor beneath them seemed to roll and shudder. The candles shook and some of them blew out as a terrible rattling and creaking began to shake the very foundations of the hotel.
Baird gripped the table in front of him, looking up at the chandeliers and the plaster molds on the ceiling as they began to flake and fall around them.
“Earthquake!” someone shouted, this newer, more unusual threat overriding that of the guns.
Baird looked back at the two combatants and stood when he saw that Rose had disappeared. He had to duck again when a large piece of plaster landed in the middle of their table. Stringer had hit his knees and was covering his head, oblivious to anything but the danger of the falling debris. They both moved for the cover of the table and huddled there.
Several minutes later, the trembling finally stopped. Baird gripped the edge of the table and rose to his feet. He looked around the dining room and gritted his teeth, knowing Rose would be long gone.
“Damn the man,” he muttered.
“You want to go after him?” Stringer asked unenthusiastically as he holstered his gun.
Baird shook his head. “He knows nothing. He can’t hurt us.”
“You mean he can’t hurt you,” Stringer corrected, voice calm.
Baird looked at him sharply. “If you want to go running through the rubble of Denver to find him, then be my guest,” he snapped. “Just be aware he’s expecting you now. He won’t be quite so easy to kill.”
Stringer’s full lips curved into a wicked, frightening smile. “Another time, then,” he finally said in a low, anticipatory voice.
Baird shivered despite himself. At least he knew he had the right man for the job.