Buffalo Bill's Dead Now
by Margaret Coel
"I hear you're calling yourself Trevor these days." The big man with bushy, steel-gray hair and big hands with stubby fingers folded himself into the booth across from Trevor Pratt. A skinny guy, Hispanic, black hair slicked back from a horse-like face took the edge of the bench. The skinny guy looked familiar. Trevor bit off a chunk of hamburger and took his time washing it down with beer. Music had started thumping from the speakers tacked up on the walls of the Empire Lounge, and two or three couples sauntered out onto the dance floor and began gyrating. Lights from traffic on Federal Boulevard flashed in the pane glass window alongside the booth.
Trevor set the beer bottle on the table, leaned back and stared at the big man. Hol Chambers hadn't changed much in the last dozen years. A little paunch, a few extra pounds, the vein-traced nose and leathery look of a drinker, but not the kind of change that mattered, that went to the heart of things, not a change in character. Trevor could see it in the man's eyes.
"Do I know your friend?"
"Raphael here? Raphael Luna. We partnered up a few times since you took that trip to jail. Tried to catch up with you that one time in Colorado."
"How'd you find me here?"
The big man emitted a laugh that sounded like a truck motor starting up. "Come on, Trevor. You know the network keeps track of business associates. Let's just say you were spotted at an auction, going by the name of Pratt. I started following your success." He shook his head, as if he had thought of a tragedy that might have been avoided. "Nothing compared to what might've been yours."
"What do you want?"
"Thought it was time to pay you a little visit. For old times' sake. Cowboy at the ranch said you were dining out at the Empire Lounge." Hol shrugged a shoulder in the direction of the skinny guy beside him. "Figured we'd join you. Have a little chat."
"Nothing to chat about." Trevor pushed his plate into the middle of the table, swallowed the last of the beer and signaled the waitress for the check. The lounge was stuffy. Cigarette smoke swirled about the rafters, and odors of burned tobacco, beer and fried potatoes clogged the air. He felt old suddenly, and weary, as if the weight of the past had crashed onto his shoulders. He would never escape the past. He had come so far, built a new, legitimate life. The Bar Z Ranch, a couple hundred head of cattle, three cowboys on the payroll, pastures and meadows that wound into the foothills of the Wind River range. A house filled with museum quality parfleches, pipes, bows and arrows, beaded moccasins, vests, tanned deer skin ceremonial dresses. He had never lost the passion for Indian artifacts, with their mystical connection to the past. Each item belonged to him, and he had the sales receipts and other documents to prove their provenance. That was the biggest change from the past. He was a dealer now, collector and dealer. He bought American Indian artifacts from around the world—the quantity of artifacts in Japan, the Middle East, Europe never ceased to amaze him. He never shipped a package to a foreign address without a dull sense of regret that the artifacts were leaving the place where they belonged. And yet, all of it tenuous, hanging by a thin thread. Mortgages on the ranch and stock that he scrambled to meet every month. He'd even borrowed to purchase artifacts, but the market had slowed. Museums and wealthy collectors were holding onto their money.
"We have a chance to do some real business," Hol said. The waitress slid a check onto the table, and he told her to bring three more beers. "Arapaho artifacts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Due to arrive in Riverton any day now, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor. Raphael here sent me the newspaper article. Had Trevor Pratt written all over it. Raphael thought I might be interested in how you bought the collection in Berlin and was donating it to a third-rate museum at an Indian mission. I was interested, all right. I got a client nuts about Buffalo Bill stuff. Original Indian artifacts from the Wild West show—you know how rare they are? Museums have grabbed most of it. Hasn't been a collection on the market like this in years." He gave a quick nod. "My client will write a check that'll put us both out of the game. No more hustling, looking for the big score. You can retire on your ranch, buy all the artifacts you want."
"I'm not in the game," Trevor said. "I paid my dues." He set some bills on top of the check and started sliding across the booth.
"Hold on," Hol said. "You can't be serious! Donating a collection like that to a museum at some Indian mission nobody ever heard of? That's not the Tom Plink I used to know. Tom would never let a score like that get away."
Trevor reached the end of the bench and stopped. "It's Trevor Pratt," he said. "The artifacts are going home where they belong."
"You said you could talk to him," Raphael said.
"Shut up." Hol spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "I'll tell you where the collection belongs. Real nice house, lots of windows, three, four stories high up in the Spring Mountains, lights of Vegas in the distance, and the whole place a museum filled with stuff to knock you cold. Like I said, the client is nuts over Buffalo Bill and the Show Indians. He'll pay any price. He wants the Arapaho collection." He leaned back and waited while the waitress delivered three glasses of beer. Then he took a long drink, set the glass down and said, "You're the new owner. You can make the collection go wherever you say."
"What's in it for you?"
"Finder's fee, thirty percent of what the client pays. Don't be a fool. Tom Plink would jump at this."
"Tom Plink has debts to pay." Trevor started to his feet, then sank back. The idea of a windfall shook him to his core, enough to pay off the mortgages, hold on until the collectors and museums wanted to buy again. A last score. He felt a ripple of excitement slice through him.
"You think you can give back what you stole fifteen, twenty years ago?" Hol said. "The artifacts we dealt with are gone. In the houses of collectors that appreciate them. You can't bring them back to the tribes."
"I can bring back some things."
Raphael let out a giggle and Hol told him to stifle it. The music throbbed and thumped. The dance floor was full—a swaying motion of blue jeans, boots and flowing skirts. A cowboy spun around a girl who lurched sideways toward the booth. Trevor reached out to steady her, but the girl righted herself and headed back to the dance floor, hugging herself, giggling.
"You haven't changed," Hol said. The words, low and distinct, sliced through the beat of the music. "Always the gentleman. What happened to Kim?"
Trevor leaned over the table and brought his face close to the man. "You bastard! You should have gone to jail with me."
"You, being a gentleman, didn't snitch on your friends. Good man. In case you want to know..." He took a long drink of beer. "Kim didn't stick around. Evidently I wasn't her type. Heard she got married. Somewhere in California. New name, new life, just like you. Besides, what do you care? You had yourself a new gal in Colorado."
"This chat is over." Trevor got to his feet.
"Hold on." Hol stood up beside him and moved in close, as if the conversation were just beginning. "All we need is information, and we'll take it from there. I'll see that you get your cut. Nothing will be traced to you. You can collect a million dollars in insurance." He paused, but Trevor didn't say anything. "I guessed right then." Hol broke into a grin. "The collection is worth a million easy, even though an old horse trader like you paid the dealer—what? Half million?" He put up the palm of his hand before Trevor could say anything. "Don't forget, we're in the same business. Maybe on different sides, but the same. We saw in the newspapers how the Arapaho collection turned up in Berlin after a hundred and twenty years. Some dealer bought the whole collection from a developer that found it in the basement of a building he was about to bulldoze. We would've paid the dealer a couple hundred grand more than what you paid, but the fool had already signed a contract with you."
"I paid what he asked," Trevor said. He was thinking that he had paid all he could borrow by mortgaging the rest of his own collection. "The artifacts are going back to the Arapahos."
"Oh, yeah. Still full of high-minded ideas."
"You're crazy if you think I'm going to help you steal Arapaho artifacts," Trevor said, but Hol wasn't listening. He was going on about a win-win proposition, how the artifacts would be preserved in a climate-controlled environment, enjoyed by generations of well-heeled and appreciative owners. Who knew how the artifacts might be preserved in a two-bit museum? He was only thinking of the artifacts, what was best for them. Hol Chambers could have been a politician.
Now Hol was talking about a time schedule, and Trevor tried to concentrate on the man's words. "All I need from you is shipping information. Flight numbers, schedule for when the artifacts leave Berlin and reach Denver. Flight number from Denver to Riverton and arrival time. You got all that information. All you gotta do is arrange to store the artifacts in an airport warehouse overnight, before they can be trucked out to the mission. That'll give us our chance."
Trevor could feel the stiff smile cracking his face. Simple. In return for the schedule in his desk drawer and a telephone call with instructions to house the artifacts in a warehouse for a few hours, he could collect a million dollars in insurance money, another three quarters of a mil from Hol, and the ranch would be free and clear, his own collection secure. It surprised him, the way temptation could rise up like an old, familiar hunger and start to gnaw at his insides, take him over, push him off balance.
"Get outta my face." Trevor could feel his fists clenching, the nails biting into his palms. "If anything happens to the artifacts, I'll..."
"You'll do nothing," Hol said. Raphael was also on his feet. Both men leaned in close. "We'll swear you were in on it. You gave us the information."
Trevor slammed a fist into Hol's jaw, then dodged Raphael's fist and caught the man in the throat with his elbow. The music was still pounding, but the swaying on the dance floor had stopped, and out of the corner of his eye, Trevor saw three cowboys heading for the booth. Raphael bent over, coughing and sputtering. Hol had collapsed into the booth. Trevor could feel the man's eyes fixed on him like laser beams.
"You're a dead man." Hol mouthed the words.
"Little business taken care of," Trevor told the cowboys as he shouldered past. The waitress was huddled across the lounge, but she jumped forward and pushed the door open for him. He strode out into the chilly Wyoming autumn.