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By Tabor Evans


"Come in, come in!" United States Marshal Billy Vail called from behind his huge and cluttered desk. "I've been expecting you."

Custis Long removed his Stetson, beat a cloud of trail dust from his clothes, and entered from the outer office. To Billy he looked the very picture of a frontier lawman. Custis was a big man, just over six-two and broad-shouldered, with a deeply tanned face and gunmetal gray eyes. He wore a handlebar mustache, fashionably curled at the tips, and on his hip was a well-used double-action Colt Model T. caliber.44-40. Custis always looked formidable, but today even more than usual as he slouched into a chair, removed a nickel cheroot from his pocket, and jammed it into his mouth. "Want a light?" Billy offered.

"Nope, prefer to chew the damned things now, I expect you know that, Billy."

"Sure." Billy regarded his best marshal with some concern. "You look worn down, Custis. This last assignment was pretty tough, huh?"

"Damn right it was," Custis growled around his cigar. "You told me to find and arrest Trace Hollaway. But what you didn't tell me was that he had a whole pack of brothers that were every bit as mean and trigger-happy as he was."

"The brothers gave you trouble?" Billy asked.

"Sure they did! I caught Trace in Central City,humpin' a whore and I smacked him on the head with my sixgun. Hauled his naked ass out the second floor of the whorehouse and was lashing him across the back of my packhorse when those ornery brothers came rushing up to help."

Billy leaned forward in his chair. "I expect that was quite a fight, huh?"

"You damn sure betcha it was. I tried to explain that I had a warrant for Trace's arrest and was doing everything legal, but they wouldn't listen. One of the fools went for his gun and I had to kill him, then I shot the rest of 'em all to pieces. It was a real mess."

"How many did you kill?"

"Four," Longarm spat. "Well, three, actually. One lived, but he'll be a gimpy sonofabitch for the rest of his life. My last bullet caught him in the hip. I expect he won't be sending me any love letters."

Longarm's eyebrows forked downward and he jabbed a finger at his boss. "Billy, why didn't you tell me that Trace had four meaner-than-snakes brothers?"

"I thought they were still hiding out in Wyoming," Billy explained. "There was a stagecoach robbery up there and the four were identified."

"Well," Longarm said after a moment, "it's clear that they came back to Colorado. It would have helped me some to have known about 'em. That kind of thing can get a man killed."

"It sounds as if it did."

"Gawdammit, I meant me," Longarm snapped. "If you knew about those other four, I should have had some backup."

"I apologize," Billy said with a very benign and disarming smile.

"You do?" Longarm leaned back in his chair. He'd worked for Billy Vail a good many years now, and while this wasn't the man's first apology, it was one of a very few.

"Yes," Billy said in complete agreement. "And I mean to put your name in for a Governor's Commendation as soon as I get your written report. Those four brothers were wanted for stage and train robberies in at least three states, including this one."

Longarm actually smiled. "Any chance of picking up a little reward money?"

"Of course not! You know better than that. A reward doesn't come with your job."

"A job," Longarm groused, "that is long on commendations but damned short of cash."

Billy chuckled as he leaned back in his big, soft chair and steepled his short, pudgy fingers. In contrast to Longarm, he was round and jovial-looking, although that was quite deceptive. Billy had a very impressive record from his years of working as a deputy marshal out in the field. He was so harmless-looking that he always managed to lull his opponents into a false sense of security before making his move. Billy Vail had courage, and there was muscle under that thick layer of flab. Now Billy's eyes twinkled. He plucked a cigar from an open box, but replaced it after a moment's consideration and returned his attention to the deputy marshal. "I've another assignment waiting for you, Longarm."

"Oh, no!" Longarm stopped chewing his cigar. "You told me that I could have a week off after I brought Trace in for sentencing and that's what I mean to do, take a full week off."

"And you richly deserve that week and much more" Billy exclaimed, nodding his head so emphatically that his double chins quivered. "But this is a special assignment, my friend! Very special."

"I don't care if it's to escort the Queen of England! I need a rest, Billy. I haven't even had time to spend my last six months worth of government paychecks."

"Then you should save them," Billy said earnestlY. "You know, field work is for young men. And how old are you, Custis?"

"You know damn good and well how old I am, Longarm spat. "I'm old enough to be seasoned and still plenty young and quick enough to handle whatever trouble comes in my direction."

"Yes, yes, of course," Billy said. "I know that, but in a few more years ... well, you really ought to begin a savings plan now, Custis. I'm enrolled in one. Most of the senior men in our department are."

Longarm groaned. "Billy, just give me that week off and we can talk about all this later," he said, pushing himself wearily to his feet. Billy also came to his feet. He was dressed in a black, pin-stripped suit, with a white shirt with starched collar and a wine-colored tie. He looked quite natty as he skirted his massive mahogany desk and reached up to lay a pudgy hand on Longarm's shoulder.

"Look, I tell you what I'm going to do."

"Oh, no," Longarm said, brushing Billy's hand aside and confronting the man. "Don't give me any of that bullshit of yours, Billy. What you are going to do is to give me the full week of paid vacation time that you've been promising for the last two years."

"I'M going to do that," Billy persisted, "and more."

Longarm's voice dropped. "You are?"

"Sure! Actually, I'm going to give you two weeks of paid vacation."

"Really?" Longarm allowed himself to smile. "If I had two weeks, I'd go to St. Louis and then maybe take a riverboat down to New Orleans."

"Hell," Billy chuckled, "that kind of trip would take you two months! And even then I'd be lucky if I got you back in one piece. Those riverboats are pretty wild and dangerous."

"I've been on 'em," Longarm said. "And I can handle whatever comes my way."

"I know that full well," Billy said, returning to his chair. "Sit down and let me tell you exactly what you'll have to do in order to earn that extra week of paid vacation."

Despite his better judgment, Longarm returned to his seat. He stretched his long legs out and laced his hands behind his head. He would take whatever Billy said with a heavy measure of skepticism. "All right, Billy, but I know you well enough to recognize a trap when I'm about to be snared."

"This is no trap," Billy promised. "In fact, most any deputy marshal in this office would crawl over broken glass to have this assignment."

"Sure," Longarm drawled, not believing a word Billy said. "Let's hear it."

Billy had a flair for the dramatic and he liked to draw out anything suspenseful, so he picked up a cigar again, contemplated it for several long moments, then replaced it in his open box. "Custis, there is a very special prisoner that needs to be delivered to the Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma."

"Oh, kee-rist!" Longarm said, jumping to his feet. "That's a hellhole! And even to get there is a real sonofabitch. Don't you know that the Apache are raisin' hell again down in that part of the country?"

"Crook has all but put them under his authority," Billy said with a smile.

"How come this prisoner has to be transported to Yuma, of all places? Why can't he just be tried here?"

"First of all," Billy explained patiently, "the prisoner has committed a crime in the Arizona Territory, with which we have a reciprocal agreement for prisoner exchanges. That means that we agree to give up our prisoners and transport them to Arizona and they agree to hand over any prisoners who have committed federal felonies here in Colorado. So you see, Custis, it works both ways."