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King Blood

By:Jim Thompson

*Chapter One*

Just before first-light, just before dawn began its streaky buttering of the Territorial Oklahoma prairie, Critch stepped out to the open vestibule of the train and stood waiting there for the soldier's bride. She had to stop by the toilet (small wonder!) before she could join him, so there was time to brace himself for what he would do if her attitude demanded it; to visualize the ultimate scene in a drama of robbery and rape.

Let the little lady get troublesome, and he'd knock her off the platform. Send her down between the two cars, and the grinding wheels of the train. There were seven cars behind this one. By the time they were done with her, the little lady would be mincemeat. A nothingness which would be less than nothing when daybreak brought coyotes and buzzards.

Chuckling softly, Critch lighted a cheroot, thinking how praiseful Ray would have been had he been alive to praise. Oh, Ray would have approved handsomely. With, perhaps, one minor reservation.

_Your eye on the target, dear boy. The vital spot. Which, I may add, is never found in the uterus. Unless – ha, ha – you're much better equipped than I._

Ah, Ray, Ray! But there were exceptions to all rules; and sometimes a pupil outstrips his teacher. The money was under her clothes, so how else could he get at it, except through the guise of love? And getting the money where he had gotten it had been his insurance. Unless she were a fool, she couldn't talk now. Unless a fool, she wouldn't try to retaliate. Otherwise, and regardless of her innocence in her despoiling, she would have to explain what could never be explained. Not to a husband. Not to any man who would be her husband. Not in this day and age.

Critch puffed at his cheroot, meditating with unaccustomed wistfulness on Ray, the man who had been his guide and guardian for so many years. It was hard to think of Ray as having gotten old, of losing any of the craftiness which had pulled him out of so many tight places. Yet, despite the youthfully dapper body and the incredibly young face, he had aged. Ray had gotten old, and his age showed in his tendency to waver when decisiveness was imperative, his quibbling and pettiness, and an incipiently fatal furtiveness of eye and manner.

As Critch saw it, there was only one thing to be done. That which Ray would have done had their situations been reversed. Having done it, survival required that he put distance between himself and the victim of his betrayal. He put it there, brushing out his tracks as he fled.

Ray remained in Texas. Critch wound up in the distant Dakotas. So, happily, he had not been present at the end, and could only witness it vicariously via a newspaper artist's eyes.

Critch sincerely hoped that either the eyes or the artist had been bad. It would have pained him – for a little while at least – to believe that Ray's handsome neck had been stretched the length of his body.

_(Critch tossed away his cheroot, impatiently. What the hell was keeping her? Had the damned fool fallen in the toilet?)_ *b*

_Tulsa lochopocas._ A clanning place of the Osages.

It stood at the twin-forks of the Arkansas, near the confluence of the Verdigris; a center of commerce (in so far as there was any) and a conference site long before white man ever set foot on the American continent.

_Tulsa lochopocas._ Tulsey town. Tulsa.

Critch had liked the looks of it from the moment he stepped off the train from Kansas City. It was a higgledy-piggledy kind of place, with streets running casually whatever way they damned pleased, and buildings sprawling and crawling all over hell and back in the ages-old pattern of quick money.

It was his kind of town, he had thought. An easy-money town. A railroad and river town, a cotton and cattle town. Furs, lumber, foodstuffs. All flowed into and through Tulsa, an endless stream of increment. And now there was even oil, for prospectors with a spring-pole rig had drilled through the red-clay soil to a respectable gusher. In these surroundings, and without refining facilities, it had little commercial value as yet, being almost as worthless as some of those minerals you heard about only in books; uranium, for example. But never mind. There was plenty of money without oil, and the place virtually shouted the news that here one could do whatever he was big enough to do.

Thus, Critch saw Tulsa. Correctly, he saw it so. What he did not see was something indefinable, something that far wiser and better men had failed to see at first glimpse of Tulsa (Tulsey Town, _tulsa lochopocas)._ Men who nominally _were_ big enough to do whatever they attempted.

Approximately two centuries before, a man named Auguste Choteau led a small army of his countrymen up the Arkansas, professional hunters and trappers who had followed him profitably and safely all the way from France; and they had tied up their long-boats here at the twin-forks of the river – so patently perfect it was for their ends – and they had gone about their business of getting rich quickly.