Authors: Jake Logan
Battered, head hurting worse than anything she had ever endured, she faced him. Gasping for breath, hands on her knees, she watched as he got to his feet. His fists looked larger than quart jars.
“I changed my mind. I don't want you. After you tell me what I want to know, I'm gonna pass you around to all my men. You'd like that, wouldn't you, whore? You do a passel of men ever' night, don't you, whore?”
Marianne recognized the tactic. He tried to anger her to improve his chances to grapple. If she made a mistake, clawing for his eyes or trying to kick him again, he would take the pain and she would be his prisoner in a flash. Her hand brushed across her torn skirt and the knife tucked away in the pocket.
“What is it you want? You have to tell me!” She played for time now, in a way different from Carstairs. Her fingers fumbled at the sheathed knife, trying to get it pulled free so she could use the wickedly sharp blade to defend herself.
Hell, she'd kill him if she got the chance!
“It ain't turned up, so Texas Jack did somethin' with it. You and him was fornicatin'. He turns up dead, so I reckon you kilt him and took it off his corpse.”
Carstairs edged closer, then pounced like a mountain lion. Marianne tried to yank the knife free but it caught in her skirt. Twisting slightly so her right side was to the charging man, she braced the butt of the knife handle against her thigh an instant before he grabbed for her.
He let out a high-pitched keening and jerked away. She had opened up a cut across his belly. Carstairs reached down and pressed his fingers into the wound. The expression on his face boiled with hatred.
“You can't cut me, whore. I don't care if you got the papers or not, I'mâ”
She never let him finish. She attacked, the knife free of her pocket now. A savage slash at his eyes sent him stumbling back. He caught his foot on the box filled with the silver chunks and fell hard. His head snapped back as he collided with a big rock. Wary of a trick, Marianne edged forward, the knife handle turning damp in her sweaty grip. She made a few tentative stabs at him but Carstairs lay still. Blood oozed from the belly wound, which was only a shallow scratch and not the disemboweling stroke she had intended.
“Hey, Carstairs, where are you? We heard a commotion. Where'd you git off to?”
From the argument between the men coming from the camp, she faced three or four miners. Marianne stood over Carstairs, who moaned and tried to sit up. A single quick thrust would end all her problems.
She could kill a man. She couldn't murder one, not even a lowlife like Carstairs.
She almost panicked when the miners came toward her. Marianne bent and grabbed the box that had downed Carstairs, opened the lid, and then emptied it on the man's chest. The silver gleamed in the starlight.
She threw down the box and ran as if a pack of rabid dogs came after her. Panting harshly, heart pounding, she tried to calm herself. The miners found their boss. Tracking her in the dark wouldn't be in the cards. Circling the tent camp, she found her horse and started to mount when she realized she still clutched the knife.
Her first impulse was to throw it away, but good sense prevailed. She stared at the blade and saw the thin sheen of drying blood on it. The blade slid easily back into the leather sheath jammed in her pocket. Settling the knife so it wouldn't fall out, she stepped up and tugged on the reins, getting the horse trotting away from the mining camp.
All the way back to Silver City she fumed and fussed at how Carstairs had beat her up. Her eye was swollen and moving her left arm proved almost impossible. The fight had been over fast, but she had taken more of a beating than she thought at the time. With her head threatening to split, she rode to the stables and left the horse.
Seeing a light in the front window of the hotel, she sneaked around to the back stairs and carefully mounted. Every muscle in her body ached, except for the ones that downright hurt. She winced as she touched her cheek. Her left eye had swollen shut. Fumbling, she got the door open and made her way to her room. Pausing in front of the storage room where Randolph made his bed, she started to open the door to look in on him. A moment's dizziness hit her.
“No way I could let him see me like this,” she said, squinting out her blurry right eye. The decision to turn in was an easy one. She had gone through too much to stay on her feet any longer.
Marianne took a few minutes to soak a rag and press it onto her left eye, then collapsed on the bed, physically and emotionally exhausted.
She came awake with a start, sunlight slanting through the window. Marianne looked up at the bloodstained tip of a knife.
“You're under arrest,” Sheriff Whitehill said, “for the murder of Lester Carstairs.”
“Slocum,” came the distant voice. “Slocum!” This time a heavy hand shook him awake. He came up, ready to fight. When he saw Dan Tucker, he sagged back to the blanket stretched out on the straw in the back stall of the livery stable.
“Go away,” Slocum said.
“The sheriff arrested her, Slocum. You want to let her rot in jail or are you gonna do something?”
Slocum's eyes snapped open as he stared hard at the deputy.
“What do you mean? Who's Whitehill gone and arrested?”
“You'd sleep through the Great Flood,” Tucker said. The deputy perched on a keg of nails, put his hands on his knees, and leaned forward. “The sheriff arrested your lady friend for killing Carstairs. He's got real good evidence against her, too.”
Slocum knew how het up Marianne had been when he'd seen her the day before, but to kill Carstairs stretched beyond any horizon he could see. He sat up and yawned. Sleep was slow in leaving his brain.
“Is there something I can do about this?”
“Well, Slocum, you ain't the law. Whitehill's got evidence and a suspect, so there's no reason for him to stop, think on it, and then make more work for himself findin' another suspect.”
“Let the jury decide,” Slocum said. That would doom Marianne for sure. She hadn't been on good terms with anyone in town. He thought it went beyond her hooking on the side, too. The other soiled doves working in town didn't cause such disdain and even outright hatred.
It had to be something else, and Slocum had decided it was Texas Jack Bedrich. The prospector had ruffled feathers, and being linked in everyone's mind with him worked against Marianne.
“That's about the size of it,” Tucker said. “I'd help you out since I don't think she done the deed either, but Whitehill's got me doin' a dozen different things. I let them slide, he fires me. “'Tween you and me, I need this job. Been too long since I did anything respectable.”
Slocum pulled on his boots, got to his feet, brushed off the straw, and finally strapped on his gun.
“You watch yourself, Slocum. If she didn't kill Carstairs, somebody else did and they won't cotton much to anyone pokin' about to find 'em.”
“Thanks, Dan,” Slocum said. He left the stable and stared into the sunrise. Silver City was just now beginning to stir, merchants moving goods to the boardwalk to entice miners and farmers to stop and buy, bakers putting out the bread they'd begun hours earlier, others with an eye toward making it through another day.
His thoughts drifted aimlessly like a buzzard circling above the desert, but his feet knew the way to the jailhouse. He might as well have taken up the sheriff's offer to bunk down in the cell. The way things ran, Whitehill would find more evidence against him for Bedrich's murder and let him spend more time with Marianne in the next cell than he wanted.
The sheriff looked up from a stack of papers when Slocum came in. Whitehill rocked back so his hand was closer to his holstered six-shooter.
“Figgered you'd be by sooner or later, Slocum. Dangerous Dan tell you about the new guest back there?” Whitehill jerked his thumb over his shoulder at a cell where a blanket had been strung up to give the inmate some privacy.
“Don't get many women prisoners, do you, Sheriff?”
“One's more 'n I want.”
“She didn't kill him. Marianne's not capable of that.”
“Dan couldn't have told you the details since he didn't know 'em. You're blowin' smoke, Slocum, 'cuz you don't have the facts. She did it. She was shootin' off her mouth all over town how she was goin' to slice up Carstairs. That's how I found him, his guts all exposed by a knife slash.”
“That's a big jump from being mad to saying she killed him.”
“Found her knife. Had fresh blood on it.”
“That doesn't prove anything.” Slocum clamped his mouth shut when he started to alibi Marianne by saying she had taken Randolph's knife from him. It didn't help anyone dragging the boy into this.
“I have enough to let a jury decide.” Whitehill sounded tired beyond his years. “Doin' this doesn't make me feel the least bit good, but I took an oath to do my duty and to follow the law.”
“Let me talk to her.”
“Just knock,” Whitehill said with a touch of irony in his tone. “And leave that six-shooter of yours here on the desk.”
Slocum slipped the Colt free and softly placed it on the desk atop the papers Whitehill had been poring over. He went to the back cell and pulled the blanket aside. Marianne sat disconsolately on the cot, her hands cupping her forehead. She looked up with dull eyes.
“It took you long enough to come, John.”
“News travels slow when you're bunked out in a stall. The deputy had to tell me. What happened?”
“I heard the sheriff's rendition of it.” She stood and came over, her hands clutching the bars so they touched Slocum's just enough. Silently she mouthed, “Thanks for not telling on Randolph.”
“You weren't shy about letting everyone know you had it in for Carstairs. How'd your knife get blood on it?”
“I told the sheriff. I rode out to the Argent Mine and spied on them, on Carstairs. He was stealing from the mine, putting big chunks of silver into a box for himself.”
Slocum said nothing. This meant nothing in the woman's defense.
“I confronted him about all he'd done.” Her hand went to the shiner. The vivid yellow and purple bruise half closed her left eye. “He hit me.”
“So it was self-defense,” Slocum said flatly. He started to go argue the matter with Whitehill when she reached through the bars and clutched at his sleeve.
“We fought and I cut him, but he fell and hit his head. When miners came, I hightailed it away from their camp, but Carstairs was alive when I left. He ordered his men to chase after me, but I had a horse and they didn't.”
“It was night, too,” Whitehill piped up. “Ain't many miners who're capable trackers, much less good enough to trail a horse in the dark.”
“I came straight back to town and went to bed. The sheriff woke me up around sunrise. He had my knife.”
“That she used to kill Carstairs,” Whitehill added.
“I don't deny fighting with him.” She looked down at her dress and the bloodstains. “This is his blood. On the knife, too, but he was alive when I left.”
“That so, Sheriff? What'd Carstairs's men have to say about that?” Slocum asked.
“You surely do want it all ways to Sunday. You called the same men liars when they alibied him out of jail the other night. Now you want to believe them?” Whitehill snorted, spat, then said, “They never saw Marianne, and they did talk to Carstairs after the fight near the mine. He got on his horse 'round midnight and rode out. A rancher comin' to town for flour and cornmeal saw the body smack in the middle of the road and brung it in.”
Slocum studied Marianne closely as the sheriff recited the facts. He played poker and could read gamblers well, but Marianne was a closed book to him. She had cried enough to leave dirty streaks on her cheeks, but now her face presented an emotionless mask. The despair he had seen when he first spoke to her had been pushed aside, buried.
“How'd you decide she was the killer?” Slocum asked.
“She told me to my face she wanted to carve him up. I asked around. I wasn't the only one she'd said somethin' similar to, so I took it upon myself to search her room and found the murder weapon.”
Slocum's mind raced. Marianne had probably returned to town by the time Carstairs got his innards all sliced up. Why had he ridden out of camp so late at night, after he'd been carved up by her earlier? Revenge? Had Carstairs found her along the road and she had killed him? It could have happened that way. Whitehill obviously thought this explained the crime.
And it had a completeness to it that bothered Slocum. Marianne had mouthed off about wanting to kill Carstairs for what he'd done to her. She was all beat up and admitted to slicing him with the knife. That nobody had seen the crime, that Carstairs acted strangely riding out of his camp after the fight, only made for more confusion.
In his gut he doubted Marianne had it in her to kill Carstairs in cold blood. From her rendition of the fight, she had the chance to kill him. If Carstairs had caught her, she could still claim self-defenseâand it would have been. Even a coldhearted jury would see how a man's fists had battered her good looks. There couldn't be a single man in Silver City who wouldn't have shoved his knife into Carstairs himself if threatened in such a powerful way.
She refused to admit she had killed him. From all Slocum knew of Marianne Lomax, she wouldn't lie. And there was little reason to if the two had met up once more on the road. Carstairs would have been furious at her, making her knife work on his guts again self-defense. If she had killed himâand she said she hadn't.
The only thing that made sense to Slocum was that she told the truth. Massaging the facts just a little would bring her to another claim of self-defense, which she refused to state.
“Where's the body?”
“I had the rancher lug it on over to the undertaker's store. Olney was all drunk and passed out on his own examination table.” Whitehill chuckled. “I think poor ole Rafe had drunk some of that there embalmin' fluid of his.”
“Mind if I look at it?”
“Slocum, I don't care what you do to while away the hours, but there's nothin' to see. One body's same as any other, and Carstairs is very dead.”
He reached through the bars and brushed his hand against Marianne's arm. She drew away as if his touch burned her. That reaction irritated him, even as he understood her reasons. The charges against her looked insurmountable, and even self-defense might not hold water if the prosecutor claimed she had been beaten up, then laid an ambush for Carstairs.
Slocum scooped up his six-shooter from the desk and headed straight for Rafe Olney's Funeral Parlor down the street. From the front door of the undertaker's, he could see the cemetery not twenty yards down the road. That made it handy for the undertaker but gave Slocum a tiny shiver of dread. Carstairs might already be buried. Digging up the body wasn't something he looked forward to, should the need arise.
Inside the small office, the heavy wine-colored velvet curtains, which might have come from a successful burlesque theater, made him stop for a moment. All sound was deadened by those curtains, so it came as a surprise when they parted and a small, thin man with a hatchet face and bloodshot eyes stepped out. Slocum's hand had already reached the butt of his Colt. He forced himself to relax and ask, “You Rafe Olney?”
“I am, sir. How may I help you in your hour of bereavement? Has a brother or parent died? A partner from the silver fields?”
“Lester Carstairs,” Slocum said.
“Ah, you are in his employ. A sad thing when such a fine, upstanding citizen is cruelly dispatched.”
“He was a bully and tried to rape Marianne Lomax,” Slocum said. “The night he died, he beat her up.”
“Ah, the woman who stabbed him to death. You a friend of hers?” Olney pulled the curtain half around him, as if he could do a magician's disappearing act using the velvet drape.
“I want to look at Carstairs's body.”
“This is highly unusual. If there is to be a viewing, it ought to be arranged by someone in the deceased's family. Or a business partner.”
“He in the back?”
“Sir, I can'tâ”
He let Slocum push past into a narrow corridor. Only two doors opened off it. Slocum saw one led to a bedroom where Olney lived. The other revealed a larger room with two waist-high tables. On one lay Lester Carstairs. Even in death a sneer marred his face, as if he knew his death would falsely indict Marianne.
“What do you want of him? Are you paying for his funeral?” Olney stood in the doorway behind Slocum, fearfully wringing his bony hands and shifting from foot to foot.
“He had plenty of silver nuggets to pay for his burying,” Slocum said. He doubted any of it had been found. The miners who had saved him from Marianne at the mine likely took what the woman said had been scattered over Carstairs's chest. Even if the foreman had hidden the silver again, there wasn't any reason for him to take his ill-gotten silver with him when he rode out hours later.
Or was there? If one of the men working for him had seen the silver and Carstairs had tried to leave with it, robbery could be an explanation for his death. There'd never be any way to find his killer or prove who did it. That meant Marianne would be convicted and the real killer would get away scot-free.
A cursory look at the man's knuckles verified what Marianne had said about the fight. Carstairs had connected more than once with her face and had skinned his knuckles. The raw look and torn flesh showed these were recent injuries. Slocum peeled back the man's shirt and looked at the cut across his middle.
“This is what killed him? That scratch?”
“The sheriff thought it so,” Olney said. The undertaker went to a cabinet and opened it, hands shaking. He took out a silver flask, popped out the cork, and took a long drink that settled his nerves. A second draft, consideration of a third that he finally avoided, then the flask was placed back in the cabinet.
The undertaker's voice was firmer now, as was his spine.
“You cannot be here. Illegally interfering with a corpse is a criminal offense.”
“How do you properly interfere with a corpse?” Slocum asked. He peeled back more of the shirt stuck to Carstairs's belly by dried blood, hunting for a deeper wound.
Marianne had been frightened during the attack. Slocum knew how she must have felt; he had seen so many raw recruits during the war. The first shot, the first threat, their brains turned off. Their bodies might react but there'd been no telling what they would do. He had seen one youngster, hardly sixteen, fire his musket repeatedly, never once putting in a bullet. A fistfight with Carstairs would have disoriented Marianne. She had cut Carstairs enough to make him bleed like a stuck pig, but maybe there had been a deeper wound.