Read Murder at Thumb Butte Online

Authors: James D. Best

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Westerns

Murder at Thumb Butte (4 page)

BOOK: Murder at Thumb Butte
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I’m one of the marshal’s new deputies. Jeff has been deputized, as well. Please tell your man to step out of the back hall and into the room. He makes me nervous, hiding back there.”

Without flinching, Sheriff Madison sniffed. “Why the hell should I care if you’re nervous?”

Where was Clive? Did the sheriff know about our scheme? And why wasn’t he surprised that Clive had deputized us? I told myself to clear my mind and concentrate on the situation in the room.


Since we’re all lawmen, you don’t need your man lurking around back there,” I said.


I do.” He just stared at me like I was a curious specimen captured in a bottle.


Steve, let ’im hang out in back if he wants.” Sharp picked up his newspaper and snapped it taut as he prepared to get back to reading.

I sat down with deliberation and followed Sharp’s lead by picking up my book.


What are you reading, Deputy?” The sheriff’s tone was derisive.


Roughing It
,” I answered without looking up.


Good yarn, but exaggerated … for humor, I suppose.”


Did you laugh?”


I did.”


Then the embroidery did its job.”

So, the sheriff was not only literate but read books. I suspected this was not idle chatter. He probably wanted me to know I wasn’t dealing with a dunderhead. I put the book down and swiveled to face him.


Have you seen the marshal this afternoon?” I asked.


Nope, but gonna look for him.” The sheriff turned his attention to Sharp. “Why would a big mine operator take a deputy position?”


I asked for his help,” Clive barked. He stood behind the sheriff, aiming a rifle at his head. “George Madison, you’re under arrest for extortion, assault, and accessory to murder. Your deputies are also under arrest on similar charges.”

Sharp appeared to lay the newspaper back on the settee but used the motion to grab his Winchester by the barrel with his left hand and flip it up to his right shoulder. Before Clive had finished his first sentence, Sharp had the sheriff’s deputy in his rifle sight. My task was to cover the deputy in back. I rose and my gun came smoothly out of my holster, but I realized we had made a mistake. Sharp’s rifle would have been a better weapon to face a man hidden behind a wall. I slid to my left to get a better angle on the deputy but saw only part of his boot and the edge of his hat. Damn.


Why, Marshal, you’re just a town appointee. You can’t arrest a duly elected official of Mineral County.”


Call your man out from the back,” Clive commanded.


Stay calm,” the sheriff said evenly. Then he raised his voice almost to a yell. “Matt, did you take care of those men out back?”


Yep,” responded the deputy behind the wall.

I got a sick feeling. Sharp’s two mine guards were supposed to come in behind the deputy. If they were covered, Madison had anticipated both our intent and strategy.

Then Peter Humphrey confirmed my fears when I heard him say, “I have a gun on Clive, Sheriff.”

A quick glance confirmed that the bank manager had a rifle trained on the marshal. If the situation hadn’t been potentially deadly, I would’ve laughed. The small hotel lobby was full of men getting the drop on other men who had the drop on still other men.

Clive sounded nervous when he said, “Looks to be a Mexican standoff.”


You’re misreading the situation,” Madison said as he slowly turned, using his left hand to lightly brush Clive’s rifle away so it no longer pointed at him.

Clive’s allowing that was a mistake. I realized that my life was not safe in his hands. Damn. What had I been thinking? I swung my gun around, aiming at the sheriff. “Sheriff Madison! Do not move!” Then I added quietly, “Because I
will
shoot you.”

The face that turned in my direction was fierce. “Put that gun down, or my men will kill you.”


I prefer a Mexican standoff to being at your mercy.”

After a hard stare, he smiled broadly. With a tip of the hat, he said, “You and Mr. Sharp may go.” After a theatrical pause, he added more firmly, “But don’t return to this town … either of you.”


The others?” I asked.


I’m afraid townspeople must pay for their sins.”

Sharp, having seen me abandon my target, shifted his aim away from the deputy in front to the deputy hiding behind the wall in the back of the room.


My men?” Sharp asked, over his shoulder.

Madison grinned like a jack-o’-lantern. “Probably dead. I hired some wardens from the mines to split their skulls.” He looked exceptionally pleased with himself.


That’s a shame,” I said. “They were your only bargaining chip. Jeff, shoot that deputy behind the wall.”

Three rapid reports from Sharp’s Winchester rattled the glassware in the room. When the sheriff and his deputy went for their guns, I yelled, “Stop!” My ears were ringing and smoke stung my eyes, but I kept my sight on the sheriff. Suddenly, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I shifted aim and shot the second deputy just as he was raising his gun barrel in my direction. I had let the sheriff hold my attention with his eyes as his deputy smoothly slid his pistol out of his holster. My usual practice was to concentrate on the top dog, but in this instance, it almost got me killed.

The sheriff wasn’t moving, so I glanced behind me and saw the first deputy stumble into view from around the corner and slump helplessly to the floor. Sharp’s bullets had passed right through the thin layers of planking and severely wounded the man.

Everybody remained as still as an etching in a book. Finally Madison shrugged and said, “I guess we’re even: your men for my men. Put your guns down and leave. We won’t bother you.”


We still have the matter of my friends’ safety. No … I think the best place for you is jail.”


Peter could kill the marshal.”


Jeff?”


Already got ’im in my sights.” Sharp had brought his gun around to take aim at the weaselly banker.


Do we all start shooting again?” I asked.

After a slight hesitation, Humphrey yelled, “No!” The terrified banker snapped his rifle straight up and repeatedly shook his head. His face was as pale as a freshly washed bed sheet. Without the sheriff to give him courage, the Peter I had known had returned.

As I kept my aim on Madison, Sharp disarmed him. Clive wheeled around and snatched the rifle out of Humphrey’s hands. After all the weapons clattered to the floor, I stepped around my chair and marched over to Peter. Without hesitation, I holstered my gun and hit him hard in the face, sending him slamming against the wall, then tumbling to the floor. I restrained an impulse to put my boot in the middle of his chest.


If you’ll excuse me,
Mr. Humphrey
, I need to go over to the telegraph office and get you fired.”

Chapter 5

 

That evening, a meeting of townspeople elected a new sheriff of Mineral County. Much to his disappointment, it wasn’t Clive. The town was done with lawlessness, at least for this one evening, and elected one of the more respected mine wardens. Due to his help in dispatching the sheriff and his deputies, Clive’s continuing role as town marshal was not challenged.

All day, I had traded telegrams with officials in Carson City, and eventually everything had been worked out to my satisfaction. Humphrey was no longer employed, an almost-honest judge would be dispatched first thing in the morning, and Richard would send a capable prosecutor. It was agreed that beyond the criminal cases, the judge would also examine county tax assessments, and if deemed confiscatory, the property would be returned to the owners.

After a long, stressful day, the meeting had run late, but the outcomes pleased me. Things had been set about as right as possible for Pickhandle Gulch. As we stepped out of the meeting into the still night, Sharp ruined my good mood by asking, “What about Jenny?”

After a moment, I said, “I guess I’ll ride up to Mason Valley to kill her … probably bury her next to her mother-in-law.”

Instead of the rise I expected out of Sharp, he replied with all apparent seriousness, “A befittin’ outcome, to be sure.”


Indeed?”

Sharp laughed in his unaffected manner and slapped me on the back. “Let’s get a beer. Meetin’s and politickin’ parch me.”

As we hurried ahead of the crowd toward the saloon, I wondered what I would do about Jenny. I couldn’t believe she’d set these wheels in motion just to get even with me. Granted, a woman spurned could be treacherous, but her husband had been on a march to run just about everything in this state, and his mother—Jenny’s tutor of sorts—had encouraged him. Jenny was probably following in their footsteps. Unlike her husband and mother-in-law, however, she was smart enough to make it happen.

Of course, I knew what I would do—nothing. I had been infatuated with Jenny since the first time I had seen her, but she had never allowed me to court her. After I realized that she was not the woman for me, I impolitely rode off without saying goodbye. She had been trained by her vicious mother-in-law to avenge any and all offenses. She might be seeking revenge, but the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that she was just extending her empire to the southern part of the state. If anything, she was killing two birds with one stone: getting control of Mineral County while sending a message to me. At least, that’s what I hoped.

After we grabbed a couple of beers from the bar, we found a table toward the rear of the saloon. My beer was half gone with the first long swallow. After Sharp gulped an equal amount, I asked, “Jeff, have you ever read Powell’s book about his adventures on the Colorado River?”

He looked at me askance but simply answered, “Yep.”


I want to see the Grand Canyon.”

Sharp’s expression turned from mild annoyance to anger. “Ya still wanna go south, don’t ya?”


I do. Let’s go to Arizona. Together. Lots of new silver. Hell, Leadville can—”


Damn it, Steve, despite what happened here, I’m still sellin’ out my holdin’s. Nevada’s too corrupt, but it’s heaven on earth compared to the Arizona Territory. I ain’t sinkin’ my fortune into that privy hole.”


I’m not asking you to invest.”


Ya just said there’s lots of silver down there. Why the hell did ya bring it up if ya weren’t suggestin’ we invest?”

He was right, so I went in another direction. “Jeff, Leadville’s frozen solid. It’ll be three months before you can throw a pick into the ground. Besides, it’s a four-day ride back to Carson City to catch the train. I want to see the Grand Canyon and Arizona. We can still be in Leadville by May.”


Nothin’ to see in Arizona. It’s a wilderness filled with Apaches, bandits, and poisonous creatures that bite ya for the fun of it. ’Sides, I already saw the Grand Canyon.”


Not worth seeing again?”


Well, ya got me there.” He tilted his mug high in the air and downed the last of his beer. “Let’s get another beer an’ I’ll think about it.”


All I ask.”


No, it isn’t.” There was an edge to his voice.

Chapter 6

 

Sharp and I had been riding south for four days, and I couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary on the horizon. All I could see was flat landscape evenly broken by low scrub. Due to the lateness of the afternoon, we would have to make camp soon, and another day would be behind us.

In 1869 and 1872, Major John Wesley Powell had led river expeditions through the Grand Canyon. His published journal,
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons
, was a remarkable tale, and I could look at the numerous illustrations over and over again. After studying the book for several years, I felt I knew the Grand Canyon. But where was it? Could Sharp be leading me astray because I coerced him into going to Arizona?


How much further?” I asked.


Just up ahead, greenhorn.” The lilt in his voice told me he was kidding with the greenhorn
crack.


This is supposed to be one of the great wonders of the world.” I stood in my stirrups. “I don’t see anything.”


Damn it, Steve. It’s a canyon, not a mountain.”


I thought by now I’d see some evidence of a monstrous gorge.”


What d’ya ’xpect, a signpost?”


I don’t know. Something. Powell’s illustrations showed soaring cliffs, huge monuments, and alcove gulches going off in every direction.”


You
are
a greenhorn.” No lilt this time. “Powell was on the river … at the bottom. We’re approaching the rim.” Sharp shifted in his saddle to look at me. “Powell looked up at those soaring cliffs; we’re gonna look down.”


I guess I hadn’t thought this out.” I felt disappointed. Powell’s book had sparked my interest, and I wanted to see the canyon the way the book presented it. “Can we ride to the bottom?”

Sharp gave an exasperated sigh. “Ain’t ridin’ a horse down cliffs so steep a mule deer can lose its footin’. The only way ya can get to the bottom is to start in Utah and float the river down.”

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