In the tinderbox of Virginia City, fireman Morgan Mason learns the hard way that he just volunteered for the most dangerous job in town in this scorching new Western in Ralph Compton's bestselling Sundown Rider series.
Thanks to the discovery of the Comstock Lode, Virginia City, Nevada has made many a rough-hewn millionaire. It seems like everyone is looking to strike it rich, but to Morgan Mason the real prize is being selected as one of the volunteer firemen who are seen as heroes in the dry, tinder box of a town. Recently inducted into the fire brigade, Mason is called to put out a blaze and stays to investigate its cause. His searing discovery? The fire was no accident--it was deliberately set.
As a series of mysterious fires burns through the town, Mason begins to perceive a pattern no one else can. And when the fiery trail leads to the Wells Fargo building--holding what he suspects the arsonists are really after--Mason knows he is the only one who can take the heat and catch the crooks before the wealth of the entire town goes up in smoke.
Release date: May 25, 2021
Print pages: 288
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Ralph Compton Flames of Silver
The bullet tore a fist-sized hole in the wood beside Morgan Mason's head. He jerked back and collided with the whiskey salesman crowded close behind him in the stagecoach, anxiously waiting to exit. A strong hand shoved him forward. Mason stumbled and landed on one knee in the dust. He looked around frantically for whoever had taken the shot at him. The Virginia City street was crowded with men and women going about their noontime business. No one paid him any heed.
No one seemed to notice the gunfire. He brushed off his trousers and settled his coat. His vest had ridden up a bit over his paunch. Trying not to be too obvious, he pulled it down and fastened the bottom buttons that had popped open.
"Here. You left this in the stage." The whiskey peddler tossed him his bowler, then lithely jumped to the ground and took a deep breath. "There's that aroma in the air. Isn't it grand?"
Mason sucked in a breath and almost gagged. This was nothing like the sea air blowing off the Pacific Ocean or the Bay in his hometown of San Francisco. Acrid smoke mingled with horse dung and more than a little whiff of alcohol blowing from the three saloons lined up side by side across from the Wells Fargo depot.
"It's awful," he gasped out.
"It's wonderful," the peddler insisted. "That's the smell of thirsty miners wanting just one more shot of my fine whiskey before they return to work." The peddler laughed in delight, hefted his case and left. Mason heard the contents of the leather suitcase gurgle. The salesman carried his wares inside. Without so much as a look back, the whiskey peddler went into the nearest saloon.
"You all right, Mister?" The shotgun guard dropped from the driver's box. "You're looking a mite peaked, but then you got a pale complexion just like most of them miners. Only they don't look fair of skin because they're Irish. They look that way because they spend their lives underground. You thinking on becoming a miner?" The guard looked skeptically at Mason, his bulging waistline, his mussed fiery red hair and then into eyes so blue they rivaled the sky.
"You think I look like a miner?"
"Well, now, ain't my place to say." The guard pushed back the canvas flap on the boot and dragged out Mason's bag. He dumped it to the ground.
Mason cried out and tried to keep it from crashing into the dirt. He failed. The peddler's wares were liquid and alcoholic. His were more specialized and far deadlier. The pints of acids and bases he had in that bag matched anything on the shelves around Virginia City. He had wasted a considerable part of his fortune sending telegrams to inquire about assayers and land agents and then purchasing the chemicals in San Francisco, where there was an abundance of supply off the ships rounding the Horn.
"Don't get so worked up. Whatever you got in there's already survived getting bounced all over on the road coming up the mountain."
"Yeah, there's that," Mason said dubiously. He stood back and waited to see if any of the chemicals leaked out. If they mixed, the least that would happen would be a toxic puddle. The most might be an explosion, followed by a cloud of noxious gas capable of killing a horse. Not seeing any obvious damage, he hefted the case. Then he took out a small bag with his clothing and personal items.
He stood stock-still for a moment and looked around.
"You lose something? You got the look of a man who's not sure of himself." The guard fastened the canvas flap back down and rested his scattergun in the crook of his left arm.
"I was shot at when I got off the stage."
"No, you wasn't."
"There. Look there." Outraged that the man called him a liar, Mason pointed out the huge hole blasted through the dried wood. He shoved his finger through, into the compartment, and wiggled it. "See?"
"I heard the shot. Nobody much cares what happens to these old coaches."
"Somebody shot at me!"
"Ain't you the prima donna, thinking anybody cared about a stranger getting off the stage. There's lead flying around all the time. Nobody's aiming at you or likely anyone else. They're just letting off steam."
The driver called to the guard.
"You settle down and you'll find Virginia City a whole lot more welcoming." The guard walked to the front of the team, grabbed a harness on the lead and led the team away, the driver gently snapping the reins to get the other horses pulling.
In seconds Morgan Mason stood all by himself in the middle of Virginia City's main street. He looked around and wondered where to go. The town was built on the side of a steep hill, with three or four levels below him. The streets were extreme enough that ladder-like sidewalks had been installed. Going downhill required a reckless abandon, but climbing up meant a considerable exertion. He had lived most of his life at sea level. Up here in the mountains, breathing was something of a chore for him. Mason rested his hand on his belly. Altitude and being out of shape cut his wind in a hurry.
He chose not to descend but to remain on the street, at least for the time being, until he regained his breath. As far as he could tell, one level was like another, though he thought he saw a tree-shrouded cemetery just off the lowest level.
Warily looking around, not certain the stagecoach guard told the truth about the bullet that had greeted him as he stepped down, Mason walked along the street, taking in the sights. Every other building housed a saloon and did a thriving business. He was almost sorry he had brought hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide and all the other chemicals instead of whiskey. The peddler had a distinct edge on him and was likely to do a land office business.
At that thought, he stopped and stared. The city surveyor shared a building with an assayer. The surveyor had a closed sign on the door, but the assay office was still open. Mason hitched up his trousers and smoothed wrinkles in his coat and vest. His starched collar and tie were a complete loss after the long trip here. From the dishabille of most Virginia City citizens around him, he doubted anyone would think him out of place. Stride sure and confident, he crossed the street, adjusted his bowler and tucked a shock of red hair under the brim, then entered the office.
"Leave your sample on the counter. Fill out your name on the form. I'll get it done by the end of next week." The clerk hunched over his desk, his face only inches from a newspaper.
"I'm not here to have an ore sample analyzed," Mason said.
"Ain't got money to give to a beggar."
"It's not that."
"I don't buy into mining claims or grubstake prospectors." The clerk looked up, pushed his glasses back with an acid-stained finger and peered hard at Mason. "You don't look like any of those. Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying."
Such a negative attitude irritated Mason. He drew himself up to his full five-foot-eight height and tried to sound as authoritative as possible.
"I am a chemist and have my own laboratory equipment to aid you in your work." He looked around the room. The chemical odors were whisked away by a strong breeze gusting through two open windows at the rear of the room. Tattered linen curtains stood out, caught in the wind blowing up the slope from Virginia City's lower levels.
"Not hiring any assistants. Not hiring anyone. I'm the town's only assayer, and I intend to keep it that way."
"That sounds a mite threatening," Mason said.
"Good. That means there's nothing wrong with your ears." The clerk looked back at the newspaper in obvious dismissal.
"How much do you pay to restock your reagents?"
The assayer looked up, adjusted his glasses, then said in measured tones, "You got some to sell?"
Mason patted his pockets. He had spent virtually every penny he had buying the ticket for the Wells Fargo coach. Rumor had it that Virginia City streets were paved with silver and they weren't able to find enough workers for the mines. That meant to him that considerable talent was required to support the assay and smelting. He had experience as a chemist as well as geologist. Two such skills must be in demand if Virginia City was the boomtown everyone in San Francisco claimed.
"I'm thinking another assayer might offer more."
The clerk laughed harshly. He pushed back in his chair and hiked his feet to the desktop. One sole had a hole in it. A piece of cardboard in the shoe did little to patch the damage.
"I'm the only one in town."
"Perhaps it's time for competition to move in," Mason said. The clerk's expression warned that something about this fine ambition was flawed.
"You got to pay the license fees. You got a thousand dollars? The mayor's talking about increasing business fees to a hundred a week, in addition." The assayer laced his fingers behind his head. His smile was pure evil. "Me and the town clerk're cousins. Even if you had the money, getting a business license might take . . . months. You willing to wait around?"
Mason worked to keep his Irish temper in check. His pa had spent more than one night in the calaboose for failing to keep his choler under control. Mason had long ago vowed not to follow in his old man's footsteps. The last time he'd been thrown in jail, it had been with a drunk sailor who'd killed a man on the Barbary Coast. Whatever had happened between the men, the sailor had claimed another life before morning by hanging himself in the cell.
"I have everything you need." Mason cast a quick look at the beakers and bottles on the shelves. "You're running low on what you need to precipitate silver chloride."
The assayer unlaced his fingers, dropped his feet to the floor with a thud and came around the counter.
"Let's see what you got."
The clerk tried to steal the chemicals with a lowball offer. Mason stood his ground. He'd sooner pour the acids out onto the plank floor than be cheated. After a long back-and-forth, he got more than twice what he'd paid for the chemicals in San Francisco, and had the feeling the clerk only paid half what ordering from the bigger city would have cost him. In a way, they both profited.
As he wandered about after the transaction, Mason found that prices in Virginia City were outrageous, even by San Francisco standards.
He settled down in a chair at the rear of a saloon that hadn't bothered thinking up a name, nursing a fifty-cent warm beer. When it had been drawn, it didn't even build a decent head. Flat, warm and ten times what it ought to have cost. He sipped at the bitter brew and had never tasted better despite its warmth. It had been a very long day for him.
"You got the look of a newcomer to town." A giant of a man peered down at Mason. "Mind if I pull up a chair?"
Mason pointed to the chair across the table. The man settled in. Wood creaked under the weight. Mason felt better about his own girth, only his new companion was pure muscle and gristle. If there was an ounce of fat anywhere on his body, it was hidden under the flannel shirt stretched to the breaking point. He wore canvas trousers that had seen better days and folded his hands on the table. From the calluses and nicked skin, those hands had seen a powerful lot of hard work recently.
"You a miner?" Mason watched the man's reaction.
"How'd you guess?" The miner laughed heartily, deep and resonant and carrying real mirth.
"I'm a chemist and I've seen plenty of gold hunters. You have the look." And Mason spoke the truth. There was a hint of eagerness to get into the hills and begin tearing away at the rock to find riches that turned all these men into a secret society. Or not so secret. It was more than greed. It was the need to prove themselves and become someone special.
"I didn't peg you to be a miner. You're dressed all wrong for it."
"Having been rejected by the clerk over at the assay office, where, by damn, I could double the productivity with some tricks I learned in San Francisco, I find myself without employment and with very little money. Is there any job opening in town?"
"I got to hand it to you, Mister. You don't mince words. No howdy, weather's nice, you see the new gal over at the Crazy Eights, and how about that new strike up along Calabasas Creek. No, sir, you get right to the heart of the matter."
Mason found himself taking to the man. He motioned for the barkeep to bring over two beers. They were dropped on the table and his silver dollar taken. When the man didn't immediately reach for the second beer, Mason pointed.
"Much obliged." The giant of a man picked up the mug and drained it in one heroic gulp. He wiped his lips with his sleeve and put the empty down on the table. Mason vowed to never get into a drinking contest with him.
"My big-city manners need to be honed, it seems. Weather's nice, not a cloud to be seen. So, no rain anytime soon. Since I just breezed into town, I haven't seen that pretty filly, but if you say so, I'm sure she's quite a looker. Now, are there jobs to be had?"
The man laughed again and said, "You didn't mention the new strike."
"I don't know where this Calabasas Creek is, but if you're commenting on it, it must be spectacular." Mason nursed his second beer and studied the man over the rim. "I'm sure I'd have been of real help. Besides being a chemist, I'm a fair geologist."
"Do tell." The giant returned his appraising gaze. "Now it just might be I have need of a geologist. I got a rich strike to work, but the ore's all scattered about inside the mine. Never seen the like before."
"So it'd be a good thing if a man knowledgeable about rock formations and how gold and silver form took a gander, it might just be possible to go straight for the metal and leave the dross for less capable miners?"
"Something like that. I'd be willing to hire you, but I ain't got much in the way of money."
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