Mason woke with the dawn, surprised to find himself still clothed from the night before. Although a common occurrence when he was drunk, unusual now that he was sober.
The book he set aside. The coat- slightly wrinkled- tie, and shirt, were likewise discarded. Mason stripped down to his long johns.
Good enough for shave, he thought.
Mason lit some kindling in the stove and put a small pan of water on to heat. This gave Mason time to strop his razor and add a bit of the warm water to his shaving cup. A brisk stir, and the shaving cream was ready.
The face in the mirror looked back at Mason as he lathered up. Not a bad looking face, he thought. A bit weather beaten, with some extra lines around the eyes, earned from fifteen years of wandering. Dark brown hair, soon to be parted neatly in the middle. And the scar near his right eye, obtained in an incident Mason would rather forget, stood out a little whiter on his tanned skin. Mason was clean shaven, except for a mustache above his lip. He had tried a fashionable handlebar mustache in the past, but he didn’t think it suited him, settling for a smaller, straighter, bit of facial hair.
Mason finished dressing. Black suit today, with a black bolo tie and a white, freshly washed handkerchief in the breast pocket. He thought about fixing a simple breakfast before he had to open his office. He looked at the clock on the back wall. Plenty of time to go to the New York House restaurant for a plate of eggs and bacon, and a cup of good coffee.
Mason left through the back door, locking it behind him.
Walking around to the front of his law office, he encountered his friend Odysseus Martin, known around Laramie as Odd Martin. But what astounded the lawyer was that Odd was walking down the street with his hands in the air, with a stranger holding a Winchester pointed at his back.
Odd must have been at work at Edmondson’s livery, Mason surmised. His clothes, although patched and worn, were clean and well cared for. Odd’s wavy black hair was likewise clean and combed.
Mason could not place the look on Odd’s face. He was most certainly dazed by this situation, but, for the rest, Mason was unable to tell if Odd was scared, confused, or resigned- just a wave of emotions Mason couldn’t completely read.
Mason reached down for his own .45, but he realized that it was still at his home. He never expected to need it when all he was doing was going to breakfast.
Mason had earned his law degree twenty years earlier, and he had spent the last fifteen years gambling. He felt he was a good judge of character. The man holding the rifle was of medium height- maybe four inches short of Mason’s almost six feet. He was thin, but appeared wiry. He was dressed in clothes suitable for a life on the move- wearing a Mexican sombrero, pulled low over his eyes, and a neckerchief tied under a receding chin, which had a three-day growth of beard. The stranger was wearing a dark gray shirt, a brocaded vest, and a tan overcoat. A gun belt showed between the halves of the unbuttoned coat. Denim pants, tucked into functional boots. The Winchester rifle was held in gloved hands. He had a bag that he carried by its strap, over his shoulder. His face was impassive, eyes almost invisible by the shade created by the hat. A huge brown handlebar mustache graced his upper lip. Mason had seen his type before. Lawman of some kind. A badge? Peace officers sometimes hit their badges behind a coat lapel, and this man sported no visible badge. Maybe a U.S marshal.
Bounty hunter, Mason guessed. All business, this one.
Not a good sign.
Odd saw Mason and called out, “Mistah Mason, Mistah Mason, ol’ Odd need your help somethin’ desperate.”
The stranger gave Odd a shove and said, “Shut up and keep moving.”
Mason stepped up in front of Odd, stopping the two.
“Get out of the way,” the stranger snarled. “You have no business here.”
“I believe you are mistaken,” Mason replied firmly. “And on three counts. First, Mr. Martin is a good friend of mine, and I don’t take kindly to anyone sticking a gun in his back. And second, I am an attorney here in town, and if my friend has a legal issue, I intend to help. And lastly, if you don’t tell me the nature of the problem, I’ll see that Sheriff Nathaniel Boswell gets to the bottom of this.”
The stranger chuckled but did not lower his gun. “Sheriff Boswell? That’s a lucky coincidence, since that’s exactly where I’m taking this prisoner.”
“Then I guess I’ll come along, all peaceable like, and see that this situation is dealt with correctly.” Mason stepped to one side.
“Mr. lawyer, you can walk with me, but I don’t need any funny business, or you may find yourself with a bullet in your gut.”
Mason spread his coat. He faced the stranger with a bit more bravado than he felt. But, much like a poker game, a good bluff was worth a try.
“Then you would be shooting an unarmed man. And Nathaniel K. Boswell would not take kindly to that type of incident happening in his town. The territorial penitentiary is across the river, and I’m sure there would be a cell, or maybe a noose for you, for shooting an unarmed man, and a lawyer to boot, in Boswell’s town. But as I said, I’m coming along, all peaceable, so don’t get any ideas. Let’s just head up the street to the sheriff’s office.”
The stranger started walking again, jabbing Odd in the back with his rifle. “I know Boswell’s reputation, and I intend to make a sizable amount of money. But I’ll behave if you will.”
Here we go again, Mason thought. It was just about two months ago that I was one of a trio of men marching to see Boswell. Only that time, I was the one holding the gun. I wonder what Constance will say this time.
The town of Laramie was beginning to stir this fine September morning. There were enough people in the street to look quizzically at the group. Most citizens knew Mason, at least by reputation, and a good number knew Odd, the simple-minded stable hand who was especially good with horses. It was apparent that something was amiss, but they saw the rifle and kept their questions to themselves.
Mason was sure word of this procession would get to Beth, the proprietor of Rose’s Boarding House, and to Constance, who would be ready for business at her millinery and dry goods store. And he was going to have to explain this to Constance and try to tell her it wasn’t his fault. Mason didn’t know how many times he could keep saying that and have Constance accept him at his word.
Sheriff Boswell was in his office, probably having just completed his rounds for the morning. On the potbellied stove in the corner, a pot of coffee kept warm. Boswell was doing paperwork, but stopped and looked up when Mason, Odd, and the stranger walked in.
“All right, Mason, what kind of trouble did you get yourself into this time?”
“Not me, Sheriff. I just ran into this gentleman, with a rifle pointed at Odd’s back.”
Boswell rose from his desk and looked at the stranger. “All right. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on? And lower that gun.”
The stranger didn’t budge. “Nope. This man is my prisoner, and I don’t want him running off. He’s wanted dead or alive, and I don’t much care which.”
Boswell stared at the man. Mason knew that stare. Boswell could still intimidate with a look. A nice trait to have. “And I know Odd Martin,” he said, still staring at the bounty hunter. “You won’t be running off, will you, Odd?”
Odd shook his head vehemently. “An’ get shot? No suh, I ain’t goin’ anywheres.”
“Good enough for me,” said Boswell. “Now, stranger, I’m telling you again to lower that rifle. Don’t make me ask a third time. I would take a very dim view of your lack of cooperation.”
The stranger’s eyes never left Odd, but he slowly lowered the gun.
Boswell nodded curtly. “Much better. Now let’s start with your name, stranger.”
“Name’s Tracker. J. D. Tracker.”
“I’ve heard of you,” Boswell said. “Good name to take for a bounty hunter.”
Mason stood quietly by. He thought, I was right, another bounty hunter. And I just went though this with that fellow Jones, who also claimed he was a bounty hunter.
“So you’re Tracker,” said Boswell. “What brings you to Laramie, what do you want with Odd Martin, and, most importantly, when are you leaving my town?”
Tracker reached in his bag and pulled out a wanted poster.
“My original plan was to stay in Laramie no longer than a day, but as I was getting my horse stabled, I ran into this fugitive. There’s a bounty of $500 on his head.”
When Tracked mentioned a bounty, Mason’s ears pricked up.
Bowell glanced at the wanted poster and handed it back to the bounty hunter.
The sheriff stroked his beard. “I believe I’ve seen this before.”
He turned, went to his file cabinet, and pulled a stack of wanted posters out of the drawer marked Active. Shuffling quickly through them, Boswell pulled one out of the pile.
“From 1878,” Boswell murmured. “‘Wanted for the Murder of one Dr. George de Wolfe of New Orleans, the Negro Odysseus Martin, also of New Orleans. $500 reward. Dead or Alive.’”
Boswell tossed the document on his desk. “No picture or drawing. Odd showed up here in Laramie about the same time as I got this poster, and I never made a connection between Odd and some Negro name Odysseus. I mean, Odd doesn’t look like a Negro. I had him pegged as being at least part Italian. Family may have wanted their name to sound more American and changed it from Martinelli or something.”
“He’s a former slave,” said Tracker. “That he‘s lighter skinned don’t change the fact that he’s a black man and wanted for murder. I plan to go to New Orleans with this murderer and collect the reward.”
Mason had read the wanted poster on Boswell’s desk. “Odd told me a little about his life, Mr. Tracker. He was the son of a quadroon mother and a white father. The owner of the plantation, in fact. That makes him an octoroon. One-eighth black. Hardly counts as a Negro in my book.”
“There you’re wrong,” said Tracker, a smug smile on his face. “Laws in Louisiana and throughout the south are pretty clear. White mother, black slave father, the child is white, and raised a free man. White father, black slave mother, the bastard is black, doesn’t matter how much, and is raised a slave. Odysseus Martin was a slave and was probably a slave until he was freed after the War. I’ve heard a story of a black slave woman who was only one-sixteenth Negro.”
“I know the word, Tracker. I grew up in Virginia. Our plantation had slaves. The word for a person who is one-sixteenth Negro is hexadecaroon.”
Tracker smiled. It was not a friendly smile. “So you know some things about slaves, Mason. Don’t go preaching to the choir, and don’t try to tell me Martin here is no white boy. He’s going back to New Orleans to be tried, convicted, and hung. And I’m five hundred dollars richer for a lucky find I wasn’t even expecting.”
“He’s still a free man, Tracker.” Mason let his anger boil to the surface. “And he was a free man before the end of the war. His mother bought her freedom, and his. So he has all the rights of a free man anywhere in this country.”
“I don’t much care what the hell you call him,” said Tracker. “I’m taking him by train down to New Orleans, as soon as I can buy two tickets.”
“Then I’ll be buying one for myself, Tracker,” said Mason. “And I will be happy to accompany you and Odd to Louisiana and be of help with the legalities.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Oh yes, I can.”
“Shut up, both of you,” Boswell snapped. “Yes, Tracker, it’s a free country, and if Mr. Mason intends to go to New Orleans and exercise his law degree, he has a perfect right to do so. Now why don’t the two of you go buy your train tickets, and I’ll provide Odd a jail cell until such time as the train leaves the Laramie station.”
Boswell turned to Odd. “I’m sorry, young man, but the bounty hunter is within his rights. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to hold you for a spell.”
“It’s all right, Sheriff. Ol’ Odd promises ta be no trouble a’tall.”
As Boswell led Odd back to a waiting jail cell, Mason and Tracker left the office. I would be more likely to accept Sheriff Boswell’s word about a free country, Mason thought, only I suspect he was going to be at least partly happy to see me somewhere else and out of his hair.
Mason’s entrance into Laramie society had not gone smoothly, and Mason knew that Boswell was always happy to see Mason go away- anywhere.
Mason and Tracker walked to the depot without much notice from the citizenry. Had they known, the residents of Laramie might have garnered some amusement from the lawyer and bounty hunter walking stride for stride towards the train station, neither looking at each other or talking to each other, their mouths set in grim lines.
The train tickets were easy enough to procure, although a train route to New Orleans was somewhat torturous. From Laramie east, on the Union Pacific line, to Kansas City, a jog east to St. Louis, then south to New Orleans, with a several stops along the way. Faster than a horse or a stage coach, but still a good five days to get to Louisiana. Tracker purchased two tickets, one for himself and one for Odd. He asked for a receipt, muttering, “This is an expense, and I should be reimbursed.”
“Long way around, Tracker,” said Mason, considering the rail routes.
“You want to take a riverboat, Mason? Get to St. Louis, then take a riverboat to New Orleans? Adds two or three weeks to the trip.”
“Then I’ll be right there with you when we make rail connections, Tracker.”
The bounty hunter glared but said nothing.
Mason got his ticket from Elmer, the stationmaster and telegraph operator.
“Train leaves tomorrow, one in the afternoon,” said Elmer.
Tracker looked around. “Is that a hotel?”
“Yes sir. Best in Laramie.”
Tracker turned toward the hotel without another word.
“Not very friendly, is he, Mr. Mason.”
“No, Elmer. He seems to be missing the polite bone in his body.”
“And you’re traveling with him?”
“Let’s just say we’re going in the same direction, for the same reason. ‘With him’ is not the way I would describe it.”
“Hmm. Well, best of luck to you, Mr. Mason.”
“Thank you, Elmer.”
Mason took his leave of the stationmaster.
“I suppose I should pay a visit to Constance’s store and try to explain, before she hears about what happened from someone else,” he said to himself.
* * * * *
It was a quick walk to the dry goods store, and the sun would have felt good on Mason’s back, except he felt more like a truant school boy about to go before the headmaster.
The bell above the door tinkled as Mason entered. Constance glanced up from a customer, nodded a greeting, and finished with the lady’s purchase. After the woman left, Constance looked Mason squarely in the eye. Her forehead wrinkled and he mouth was a straight line. She obviously was not happy to see the lawyer.
“Beth just dropped by with the news. So you were walking to the sheriff’s office with Odd Martin and a stranger. You were taking that same walk just over two months ago.
“Roland, this is just too much.”
“Constance,” Roland started, “I know how it looks, but a coincidence is a coincidence.”
“Why is it, for you, a coincidence always has to include a drawn gun and a march to the sheriff’s office?”
“I don’t know. What I do know is that I had to make that walk. And please know that I was not the one holding the gun, nor was I the one being aimed at. I was just walking with the two of them, to find out what was going on.”
“Then what in the name of God was it this time?” Constance, the church goer and proper lady in public, never swore. At least, not without being seriously provoked. This was one of those times. Roland was determined to tread lightly with his new fiancé.
He slowly approached the counter. The straight truth was best, he thought.
“I had just left my office when I ran into Odd, who was being marched down the street by a stranger with a Winchester rifle.”
Constance forgot her frown at that moment. “Why would anyone want to point a gun at young Odd? He’s never hurt anyone.”
“Apparently, someone thinks he did. Constance, that man was a bounty hunter. When we got to the sheriff’s office, he produced a wanted poster for one Odysseus Martin. It seems Odd is wanted for murder down in New Orleans. A reward of five hundred dollars was offered. Odd is locked up in jail right now.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“I don’t, either. But here is the problem. The bounty hunter- Tracker is his name- is taking Odd back to New Orleans for trial. The poster said ‘wanted dead or alive.’ I feel I have a valid concern for the life of our friend, since dead would be easier. No transportation or watching a dead man, and the reward would be the same.”
“That’s awful,” said Constance. “Do bounty hunters actually kill people because it’s convenient?”
“Don’t know for sure. I’ve heard that it happens. So.” Roland took a deep breath. “The only way I could think of to guarantee Odd’s safe arrival in New Orleans was to go with him.”
Constance was now on the verge of tears. “Roland, you just returned from a month away from Laramie.” Constance looked around. They were alone.
“And away from me. Now you’re going to leave me again.”
Constance stopped and squared her shoulders.
“But you must. Odd is more than a friend.”
“He has saved my life on more than one occasion,” as Mason completed her thought.
“Yes, he has, and you have to go to New Orleans. This time you are going to save him. Aren’t you, my love?”
“I will make sure he arrives safely, that he gets a fair trial, and I hope I can prove he did not commit a brutal crime that happened three years ago.”
“W-when do you leave?”
“The train leaves tomorrow at one o’clock.”
“So soon? When will you return?”
“If I can gather evidence quickly, in three weeks’ time. If the case is more difficult, a month.”
Constance stifled a sob, but there were tears in her eyes. “Oh, my love, my love-”
“I promise to be back as soon as humanly possible. I wish I could fly, but the train will have to do.”
The bell tinkled. Another customer. Constance fled to her back room.
The lady looked at Roland.
“Please give Mrs. Sweeny a minute. She needs to check on something… for another customer.”