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      "Uh-huh. You boys with the badges think you can get away with anything. I'll tell you one thing, though. He gives me any trouble—tries to molest me or kill me—I'm gonna sue this town for every penny it's got. You know right now that he's a rapist or a killer. Or maybe both. But you won't tell me, will you?"

      "I appreciate your time, Mrs. Chambers. Thank you."

      As he was walking down the front steps, she said, "You remember what I said. I'll sue this town for every damned penny you've got, you hear me?"

      There was an empty lot directly across the street from Mrs. Chambers's. Just after dark, Prine climbed up in the large oak on the far edge of the lot, moving fast so she wouldn't see him, and waited for Karl Tolan to come home. He had to take a chance that Tolan wasn't already home.

      The autumn leaves were just full enough to hide him well. The only way he could pee was to lean forward and splash it down the back side of the tree.

      Several times, he wanted to roll a cigarette but decided he'd better not. At one point, a couple of teenage boys came along. Wouldn't it play hell if they decided to climb the same tree he was in?

      What they did was sit under the tree and share a corncob pipe and argue about which girl at school had the biggest breasts. They both had favorites and they were both adamant about those favorites. (Kids determined to indulge in the forbidden pleasures of the pipe are oblivious to such things as a thirty-two-degree temperature. The debate went on for some time, during which Prine froze his balls off.) The argument ended when one of the boys decided to throw faces into the mix. He might concede that his friend's favorite had bigger tits by a smidgen or two, but if you figured faces into the mix—big tits and a pretty face—well, then, there was no contest, was there? His friend had to agree, though he did say several times that we were talkin' about tits here and you had to go and throw in faces. After about half an hour of this, they got up and went home, each in a different direction, each calling goodnights to each other in the chilly darkness.

      Karl Tolan got home around ten o'clock.

      He weaved a little, indicating he'd been drinking. He went up the front steps and disappeared inside.

      The voices erupted shortly thereafter. Mrs. Chambers was screaming at him. Prine couldn't hear the words, but he could pretty well imagine them. Lawman was here askin' about you, but I got a pretty good idea what you're wanted for. Rape and murder. And I ain't about to have no rapist or murderer under my roof, you can bet on that.

      A few shouts from other boarders. Shut up! Tryin' to sleep!

      Followed by one of those silences that are angrier than any words could be. Feet stomping up the second-floor stairs—presumably Karl Tolan—a door banging shut. Presumably him going into his room and packing things up. No shouts from the boarders for obvious reasons. Karl Tolan was nobody to rile.

      Footsteps stomping down the stairs. Mrs. Chambers's last self-righteous statement: "Ain't safe no more for decent people! Not even in their own homes!"

      Shrill in the night.

      And then Karl Tolan appeared, tromping off toward town. If he was drunk when he got home tonight, the argument must have sobered him up. He wasn't drunk now. He was mightily pissed off. He swung a swollen carpetbag as he stomped along.

      Prine dropped down from the tree and followed Tolan back to town.

      The man took a room in The Majestic, a remnant of the boom days when even a prison cell of a room brought a formidable rent for the owner. The place was so vile that a couple of town council members had tried to have it torn down.

      Prine waited a half hour across the street. Then he went home, to bed.

      Chapter Four

      Next morning, after a quick and early breakfast at The Friendly Café, Prine rode out to the Neville spread where Cassie and Richard Neville lived and oversaw their beef empire. An idea had come to him, a plan really. Maybe making the acquaintance of a rich woman—and a damned fine-looking one at that—wasn't out of the question at all.

      He tugged his horse into a copse of birches about a quarter mile from the entrance to the ranch. Even from here, he could see the house. Hard to miss. It was built of native stone and wood, with three long wings off the central house. It reminded Prine more of an institutional building than a home. It was compelling, but coldly so. Even the shade trees around it had been planted with military precision, so that you were more impressed by the landscaping than the trees themselves.

      Prine had brought his field glasses this morning. He had no trouble spotting the man who rode past him and pulled his horse into a copse of jackpines not far from Prine.

      This man wore a derby and a nice suit and looked like a businessman. But as soon as he pulled his railroad watch out, checking the time, and then the small notebook from his back pocket, Prine realized that the man was working the same thing Karl Tolan was.

      Twenty minutes later, Cassie appeared in his fringed buggy, heading for town. She was the prettiest sight on a morning of pretty sights.

      The man gave her a ten-minute head start and then directed his horse out from behind the jackpines and started back to town himself. Prine, in turn, gave the man the same amount of head start and then he, too, took off to town.

      Prine did his work. He had a court appearance, he had some possible minor rustling he checked out, and he had some paperwork to catch up on.

      He spent the last hour of the day going through three stacks of old Wanted posters. Some of them were long out of date. Those he pitched. A few of the posters made him smile. The descriptions of the wanted men sounded like dime novels. "Maybe the fiercest man to draw breath since Billy the Kid." Since the man was described as fifty-three years old with one blind eye and a bum leg, Prine had his doubts.

      He came upon a poster for Karl Tolan just before quitting time.

      He was wanted on two charges of fraud. Several posters later, Prine found the man he'd seen following Cassie Neville this morning. Ted Rooney. Same charges as the Tolan character. Fraud. Not too difficult how the division of labor went with these two. Tolan the brawn, Rooney the brains. He was surprised their legal charges weren't more severe. But all that meant was that they hadn't been caught for other and more serious crimes.

      He was already getting a sense of what they were likely up to. He was surprised, in fact, that it hadn't been tried before.

      He folded the posters neatly and put them in his back pocket.

      That night, he sat alone at a table in a saloon, drinking slow beers and sketching out quick ideas of how the thing would actually come off.

      Kidnapping had become one of the staple crimes in the New West, as the editorial writers now liked to call their frontier states. There was risk involved, of course, but from the criminal's point of view, the odds were in their favor.

      You take a kid and make damned sure he or she is treated well in your custody, then send a note to the robber baron or would-be robber baron detailing just how much money you want and where you want it placed. You say that if these things are done right, the kid will be dropped off at so-and-so a place at such-and-such a time.

      Now, for sure the local law will want to try and grab you, but in most cases the parents will say no, let's pay them. They look at you like these vile wild animals capable of anything. You try and cheat on them, they know damned well you'll kill their child. You think they want to be responsible for you killing their child?

      That's where this kind of operation really falls down. Doing something to the kid—that is, killing, accidentally or on purpose, him or her. If the kid gets returned sound of mind and limb, they'll come after you, but only with measured zeal. You kill the kid, they'll spend every cent they have hiring bounty hunters and assassins to hunt you down. Mexico? Canada? No matter. Plenty of lean and hungry bounty hunters and assassins there, too. If you

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