Read A Death Online

Authors: Stephen King

A Death

A DEATH

Stephen King

Jim Trusdale had a shack on the west side of his father’s gone-to-seed ranch, and that was where he was when Sheriff Barclay and half a dozen deputized townsmen found him, sitting in the one chair by the cold stove, wearing a dirty barn coat and reading an old issue of the Black Hills Pioneer by lantern light. Looking at it, anyway.

Sheriff Barclay stood in the doorway, almost filling it up. He was holding his own lantern. “Come out of there, Jim, and do it with your hands up. I ain’t drawn my pistol and don’t want to.”

Trusdale came out. He still had the newspaper in one of his raised hands. He stood there looking at the sheriff with his flat gray eyes. The sheriff looked back. So did the others, four on horseback and two on the seat of an old buckboard with “Hines Mortuary” printed on the side in faded yellow letters.

“I notice you ain’t asked why we’re here,” Sheriff Barclay said.

“Why are you here, Sheriff?”

“Where is your hat, Jim?”

Trusdale put the hand not holding the newspaper to his head as if to feel for his hat, which was a brown plainsman and not there.

“In your place, is it?” the sheriff asked. A cold breeze kicked up, blowing the horses’ manes and flattening the grass in a wave that ran south.

“No,” Trusdale said. “I don’t believe it is.”

“Then where?”

“I might have lost it.”

“You need to get in the back of the wagon,” the sheriff said.

“I don’t want to ride in no funeral hack,” Trusdale said. “That’s bad luck.”

“You got bad luck all over,” one of the men said. “You’re painted in it. Get in.”

Trusdale went to the back of the buckboard and climbed up. The breeze kicked again, harder, and he turned up the collar of his barn coat.

The two men on the seat of the buckboard got down and stood either side of it. One drew his gun; the other did not. Trusdale knew their faces but not their names. They were town men. The sheriff and the other four went into his shack. One of them was Hines, the undertaker. They were in there for some time. They even opened the stove and dug through the ashes. At last they came out.

“No hat,” Sheriff Barclay said. “And we would have seen it. That’s a damn big hat. Got anything to say about that?”

“It’s too bad I lost it. My father gave it to me back when he was still right in the head.”

“Where is it, then?”

“Told you, I might have lost it. Or had it stoled. That might have happened, too. Say, I was going to bed right soon.”

“Never mind going to bed. You were in town this afternoon, weren’t you?”

“Sure he was,” one of the men said, mounting up again. “I seen him myself. Wearing that hat, too.”

“Shut up, Dave,” Sheriff Barclay said. “Were you in town, Jim?”

“Yes sir, I was,” Trusdale said.

“In the Chuck-a-Luck?”

“Yes sir, I was. I walked from here, and had two drinks, and then I walked home. I guess the Chuck-a-Luck’s where I lost my hat.”

“That’s your story?”

Trusdale looked up at the black November sky. “It’s the only story I got.”

“Look at me, son.”

Trusdale looked at him.

“That’s your story?”

“Told you, the only one I got,” Trusdale said, looking at him.

Sheriff Barclay sighed. “All right, let’s go to town.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re arrested.”

“Ain’t got a brain in his fuckin’ head,” one of the men remarked. “Makes his daddy look smart.”

They went to town. It was four miles. Trusdale rode in the back of the mortuary wagon, shivering against the cold. Without turning around, the man holding the reins said, “Did you rape her as well as steal her dollar, you hound?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Trusdale said.

The rest of the trip continued in silence except for the wind. In town, people lined the street. At first they were quiet. Then an old woman in a brown shawl ran after the funeral hack in a sort of limping hobble and spat at Trusdale. She missed, but there was a spatter of applause.

At the jail, Sheriff Barclay helped Trusdale down from the wagon. The wind was brisk, and smelled of snow. Tumbleweeds blew straight down Main Street and toward the town water tower, where they piled up against a shakepole fence and rattled there.

“Hang that baby killer!” a man shouted, and someone threw a rock. It flew past Trusdale’s head and clattered on the board sidewalk.

Sheriff Barclay turned and held up his lantern and surveyed the crowd that had gathered in front of the mercantile. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t act foolish. This is in hand.”

The sheriff took Trusdale through his office, holding him by his upper arm, and into the jail. There were two cells. Barclay led Trusdale into the one on the left. There was a bunk and a stool and a waste bucket. Trusdale made to sit down on the stool, and Barclay said, “No. Just stand there.”

The sheriff looked around and saw the possemen crowding into the doorway. “You all get out of here,” he said.

“Otis,” the one named Dave said, “what if he attacks you?”

“Then I will subdue him. I thank you for doing your duty, but now you need to scat.”

When they were gone, Barclay said, “Take off that coat and give it to me.”

Trusdale took off his barn coat and began shivering. Beneath he was wearing nothing but an undershirt and corduroy pants so worn the wale was almost gone and one knee was out. Sheriff Barclay went through the pockets of the coat and found a twist of tobacco in a page of an R.W. Sears Watch Company catalogue, and an old lottery ticket promising a payoff in pesos. There was also a black marble.

“That’s my lucky marble,” Trusdale said. “I had it since I was a boy.”

“Turn out your pants pockets.”

Trusdale turned them out. He had a penny and three nickels and a folded-up news clipping about the Nevada silver rush that looked as old as the Mexican lottery ticket.

“Take off your boots.”

Trusdale took them off. Barclay felt inside them. There was a hole in one sole the size of a dime.

“Now your stockings.”

Barclay turned them inside out and tossed them aside.

“Drop your pants.”

“I don’t want to.”

“No more than I want to see what’s in there, but drop them anyway.”

Trusdale dropped his pants. He wasn’t wearing underdrawers.

“Turn around and spread your cheeks.”

Trusdale turned, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart. Sheriff Barclay winced, sighed, and poked a finger into Trusdale’s anus. Trusdale groaned. Barclay removed his finger, wincing again at the soft pop, and wiped his finger on Trusdale’s undershirt.

“Where is it, Jim?”

“My hat?”

“You think I went up your ass looking for your hat? Or through the ashes in your stove? Are you being smart?”

Trusdale pulled up his trousers and buttoned them. Then he stood shivering and barefoot. An hour earlier he had been at home, reading his newspaper and thinking about starting a fire in the stove, but that seemed long ago.

“I’ve got your hat in my office.”

“Then why did you ask about it?”

“To see what you’d say. That hat is all settled. What I really want to know is where you put the girl’s silver dollar. It’s not in your house, or your pockets, or up your ass. Did you get to feeling guilty and throw it away?”

“I don’t know about no silver dollar. Can I have my hat back?”

“No. It’s evidence. Jim Trusdale, I’m arresting you for the murder of Rebecca Cline. Do you have anything you want to say to that?”

“Yes, sir. That I don’t know no Rebecca Cline.”

The sheriff left the cell, closed the door, took a key from the wall, and locked it. The tumblers screeched as they turned. The cell mostly housed drunks and was rarely locked. He looked in at Trusdale and said, “I feel sorry for you, Jim. Hell ain’t too hot for a man who’d do such a thing.”

“What thing?”

The sheriff clumped away without any reply.

Trusdale stayed there in the cell, eating grub from Mother’s Best, sleeping on the bunk, shitting and pissing in the bucket, which was emptied every two days. His father didn’t come to see him, because his father had gone foolish in his eighties, and was now being cared for by a couple of squaws, one Sioux and the other Cheyenne. Sometimes they stood on the porch of the deserted bunkhouse and sang hymns in harmony. His brother was in Nevada, hunting for silver.

Sometimes children came and stood in the alley outside his cell, chanting, “Hangman, hangman, come on down.” Sometimes men stood out there and threatened to cut off his privates. Once, Rebecca Cline’s mother came and said she would hang him herself, were she allowed. “How could you kill my baby?” she asked through the barred window. “She was only ten years old, and ‘twas her birthday.”

“Ma’am,” Trusdale said, standing on the bunk so that he could look down at her upturned face. “I didn’t kill your baby nor no one.”

“Black liar,” she said, and went away.

Almost everyone in town attended the child’s funeral. The squaws went. Even the two whores who plied their trade in the Chuck-a-Luck went. Trusdale heard the singing from his cell, as he squatted over the bucket in the corner.

Sheriff Barclay telegraphed Fort Pierre, and after a week or so the circuit-riding judge came. He was newly appointed and young for the job, a dandy with long blond hair down his back like Wild Bill Hickok. His name was Roger Mizell. He wore small round spectacles, and in both the Chuck-a-Luck and Mother’s Best proved himself a man with an eye for the ladies, although he wore a wedding band.

There was no lawyer in town to serve as Trusdale’s defense, so Mizell called on George Andrews, owner of the mercantile, the hostelry, and the Good Rest Hotel. Andrews had got two years of higher education at a business school back East. He said he would serve as Trusdale’s attorney only if Mr. and Mrs. Cline agreed.

“Then go see them,” Mizell said. He was in the barbershop, tilted back in the chair and taking a shave. “Don’t let the grass grow under your feet.”

“Well,” Mr. Cline said, after Andrews had stated his business, “I got a question. If he doesn’t have someone to stand for him, can they still hang him?”

“That would not be American justice,” Andrews said. “And although we are not one of the United States just yet, we will be soon.”

“Can he wriggle out of it?” Mrs. Cline asked.

“No, ma’am,” Andrews said. “I don’t see how.”

“Then do your duty and God bless you,” Mrs. Cline said.

The trial lasted through one November morning and halfway into the afternoon. It was held in the municipal hall, and on that day there were snow flurries as fine as wedding lace. Slate-gray clouds rolling toward town threatened a bigger storm. Roger Mizell, who had familiarized himself with the case, served as prosecuting attorney as well as judge.

“Like a banker taking out a loan from himself and then paying himself interest,” one of the jurors was overheard to say during the lunch break at Mother’s Best, and although nobody disagreed with this, no one suggested that it was a bad idea. It had a certain economy, after all.

Prosecutor Mizell called half a dozen witnesses, and Judge Mizell never objected once to his line of questioning. Mr. Cline testified first, and Sheriff Barclay came last. The story that emerged was a simple one. At noon on the day of Rebecca Cline’s murder, there had been a birthday party, with cake and ice cream. Several of Rebecca’s friends had attended. Around two o’clock, while the little girls were playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Musical Chairs, Jim Trusdale entered the Chuck-a-Luck and ordered a knock of whiskey. He was wearing his plainsman hat. He made the drink last, and when it was gone he ordered another.

Did he at any point take off the hat? Perhaps hang it on one of the hooks by the door? No one could remember.

“Only I never seen him without it,” Dale Gerard, the barman, said. “He was partial to that hat. If he did take it off, he probably laid it on the bar beside him. He had his second drink, and then he went on his way.”

“Was his hat on the bar when he left?” Mizell asked.

“No, sir.”

“Was it on one of the hooks when you closed up shop for the night?”

“No, sir.”

Around three o’clock that day, Rebecca Cline left her house at the south end of town to visit the apothecary on Main Street. Her mother had told her she could buy some candy with her birthday dollar, but not eat it, because she had had sweets enough for one day. When five o’clock came and she hadn’t returned home, Mr. Cline and some other men began searching for her. They found her in Barker’s Alley, between the stage depot and the Good Rest. She had been strangled. Her silver dollar was gone. It was only when the grieving father took her in his arms that the men saw Trusdale’s broad-brimmed leather hat. It had been hidden beneath the skirt of the girl’s party dress.

During the jury’s lunch hour, hammering was heard from behind the stage depot and not ninety paces from the scene of the crime. This was the gallows going up. The work was supervised by the town’s best carpenter, whose name, appropriately enough, was Mr. John House. Big snow was coming, and the road to Fort Pierre would be impassable, perhaps for a week, perhaps for the entire winter. There were no plans to jug Trusdale in the local calaboose until spring. There was no economy in that.

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