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Authors: Ed Gorman

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BOOK: The Killing Machine
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I
met Marshal Wickham on the steps outside.

“You figured anything out yet?” he asked.

“He was poisoned.”

“No wonder they pay you Federales so much money. Bright ideas like that.”

“I guess that's about all anybody knows about it at the moment.”

He raised his head, his eyes taking in the front of the hospital. “You could sneak an army into that place.”

“Yeah, they were talking about that.”

He scowled. “Fairbain must've known something.”

“Might have.”

Deputy Frank Clarion came walking toward us, fast. The next minute or so showed me how well the two men worked together. They didn't say much, didn't need to. That comes from years of working together, competent years.

“I heard about Fairbain,” Clarion said.

“Yeah.”

“You talked to the people inside yet?”

“You're better at that sort of thing.”

All Clarion did was nod and then glance at me, as if seeing me for the first time. “How's the shoulder?”

“A little better every day.”

“Good.”

He walked upstairs, went indoors.

“He's a good man,” Wickham said. Then he grinned. “Even if he is my nephew.”

 

It didn't take long to find Wayland, Brinkley, and Spenser. They sat around a large table in the back of the restaurant in the hotel. They weren't talking, which meant that they'd heard about Fairbain.

“You aren't welcome to sit down,” Spenser said.

“Oh, for God's sake,” Wayland said, “sit down, Ford.”

Brinkley shrugged.

I considered ordering food, but then I remembered the color and texture of Fairbain's vomit and I wasn't hungry at all.

His death apparently didn't have much effect on the other men's appetites. They ordered the special, which was mutton, along with a loaf of hot bread and boiled potatoes with gravy.

I said, “One of you could clear this whole thing up pretty fast.”

“And how would that be?” Brinkley said. A stray beam of sunlight caught the birthmark on his cheek, turning it a vicious red.

“Well, one of you killed Fairbain. Maybe two of you. Whichever one of you three is innocent is probably going to die next.”

“I want to digest my food,” Spenser said, an enormous man of enormous anger. “Which will be impossible if I have to listen to this nonsense.”

“Then who killed Fairbain?” I said.

“How the hell would I know who killed Fairbain?” Spenser said.

“Somebody who wanted the gun,” I said.

“Have you ever considered,” said Brinkley, looking more like a sour minister than ever, “that there could be someone else in town who knows about the gun—someone who wants it as bad as we do—someone Fairbain saw and could identify.”

“A possibility, I suppose. But you three are still at the top of the list.”

“Why did you ask this damned fool to sit down?” Spenser snapped at Wayland. “Are you happy now?”

“I thought it would be a little more cordial than this, I guess,” Wayland said quietly. He was the least demonstrative of the three.

“Cordial,” Spenser scoffed. To Brinkley he said, “Our friend Wayland doesn't seem to understand that Ford here is accusing at least one of us of murder.”

I addressed my words to Wayland: “You could be the next one who gets killed, Wayland. You still want the gun and you have to play out your hand. But you're scared now. One of your friends here killed Fairbain and you know it.”

Spenser laughed. “Well, at least you're playing to the right one, Ford. Wayland here is a pantywaist. You should've heard him complaining all the time on the train. Too hot, too cold, too noisy, too dangerous. I don't know how he ever got a job like this.”

Wayland surprised us all by making himself even more vulnerable. He stood up, threw down his cloth
napkin, and said, “Because my father is a bully just like you, Spenser, and for some reason I'll never understand I want to prove to him that I can be as successful at arms trafficking as he was.”

We sat in embarrassed silence until he left.

Spenser smiled around a mouthful of lamb, not a pleasant sight. He spoke mockingly: “There's your killer, Ford. A sensitive nancy boy who just wants the love and respect of his father.”

“Oh, shut the hell up, Spenser,” Brinkely said. He didn't seem the kind to take the part of a weak one like Wayland, but I liked him better for doing it.

Then it was my turn to stand up. “Maybe you two'll do the world a favor and kill each other off.”

Spenser said, “Does this mean you don't like us, Mr. Ford?”

 

You'd never have guessed that James Andrews was Cree, not by looking at his house you wouldn't. It was a two-story white clapboard arrangement with a picket fence, flowers planted across the front of the house and a swing on the porch. In back and to the side were a small red barn, an outhouse, and a rope corral. There was a long windbreak of pines on the south side of the property and a clean, narrow creek running parallel to the north.

It was some house for a man like James. It would be some house even for an attorney of middling success. I saw why his wife Gwen was suspicious of where the money had come from. She'd left a note at my hotel for me to come see her.

Except for a breeze gently swaying the pines, the
place was silent. Even the lone bay in the rope corral was napping.

I dismounted, grabbing my carbine from the scabbard as I did so. There had been a number of deaths in a short span of time in this town. The general feeling seemed to be that there would be more.

The family watchdog proved to be a sweet-faced border collie. I presented her with a tough decision. She knew she should bark, so she did, at least a bit. But she seemed more inclined to jump at me and lick my hand. She seemed starved for human company. She opted for the latter, running in circles around me till I relented, bent over, and started petting her.

She trotted alongside me as I went through the gate in the picket fence and made my way to the front door. Nobody answered my knock. I walked over to the window, my boots and spurs making way too much noise for the stealthy investigator. I peeked inside. Nicely furnished front room and behind that a small dining room. I expected the kitchen would be beyond, in the back. A yellow cat came strolling out of nowhere, walked to the center of the front room, extended its paws, had a nice stretch, a nice yawn, and then lay down and went immediately to sleep. If it had seen me, it hadn't been much impressed.

A clattering sound came from the south, beyond the windbreak. A rickety old wagon of some kind, I suspected.

Gwen Andrews waved at me as soon as she reached the edge of her property. I'd walked around to the side of the house to wait for her. She had a young girl next to her on the seat of the buckboard. Everything on the wagon made a noise. You got the
impression that someday the thing would just fall apart.

She pulled up, jumped down, grabbed the small girl in the gingham dress and matching bonnet. She set the girl down on her feet and then took her hand and brought her over to me.

“This is Julia.”

“Hi, Julia.”

She was a rough draft of her mother, Julia was. The same piquancy in the eyes and on the mouth. The same sinewy body, same tanned face and arms. A farm girl with an appealing, freckled, prairie face.

Julia didn't say hi, just shyly stood next to her mother with her head down. She looked to be about five.

“I was going to come to town to see you,” Gwen said.

“Something come up?”

“Maybe. Why don't you come inside? The little one here needs her nap and I need my coffee. How's that sound?”

It sounded fine. Julia was asleep in Gwen's arms even before we reached the back door of the house. A cider mill stood on the back porch, adding the scent of apples to other fall scents. Red, flawless apples filled the bin on top. On the handle, a brown cotton work glove drooped. No matter how efficient a given mill was, it could still give you blisters after a while. Next to the back door was a line of six clear glass bottles filled with the product of the mill.

Gwen put Julia to bed and came out to where I waited in the front room. I'd been studying a print of a fierce and noble Indian warrior. His eyes were terrifying, or meant to be anyway. He was supposed to
be a mythic warrior, I suppose. But Indians aren't any different from white folks. Dying is too strange and spooky to allow for myth. The bravest man of all will still cry out for his mother when he's dying. That's just the way the human beast is constructed.

“There's cider, too.”

“Coffee, I guess.”

“Want to sit on the back porch? I'll still be able to hear Julia if she cries. It's such a nice day.”

We enjoyed the breeze and the cider smell. She sat watching a hawk sail on a wind current. She wore a work shirt and dungarees, her gray-streaked black hair pulled into a loose bun. She had quite the profile and almost perfectly uptilted breasts for a woman her age. I enjoyed looking at the profile and the breasts even more than I enjoyed the scents of wind and apples.

She excused herself a moment. She returned quickly, a group of white, business-sized envelopes in her hand. She sat down and handed them over to me.

I opened the flaps on each of the four. Empty inside. Then I saw, reading the return addresses, why she wanted me to see them.

“Fairbain,” she said, “New Orleans.”

“He lived there when he wasn't traveling. Wife and son.”

“I think there were bank drafts inside.”

“What makes you think that?”

“One day when James was leaving, I saw him fold something and stick it in his pocket. I've been thinking about it since he was killed. I'm pretty sure it was a bank draft. A certified check, maybe.”

“I wonder why Fairbain would send him money. If he did, I mean.”

“No idea. But as I told you the other day, he did come into money all of a sudden.”

“Maybe Fairbain wanted him to steal the gun,” I said.

“That's what I was thinking.”

“Paid him in advance. Where'd you find these envelopes?”

“Pocket of his Sunday suit. The jacket. Folded over. I think he hid them there. You know, from me.”

“You said he kept secrets.”

Sad, slow smile. “I'll never know the half of them.”

“Odd way to pay in advance, though. Four payments. Why not all at once?”

“Maybe Fairbain couldn't raise the money all at once.”

“I know the people he worked for. They have plenty of money. For a chance at the gun they would have given him just about anything he asked for.”

“You can keep the envelopes.”

“Thanks.” Then: “You be OK?”

“Sometime in the not too distant future I will. It's Julia I'm worried about. She's had terrible nightmares the past few nights. I'm sure it's because of James dying.”

I stared down at the envelopes. What did they mean? While the gun was still the focus of the investigation, the envelopes confused the issue. And I wondered about Wylie Hobbins, the odd, diseased man I'd met at David's place. Hobbins said he'd taken David to a small island many times. That seemed overcareful on David's part. Did he need to go to an island to sneak off with married women? Was the island used for something else as well?

“This has been a tough year for me,” Gwen said softly. “My best friend Louise died last year. One of the sweetest people who ever walked the earth. Pretty, too. Very pretty. Slipped off a cliff and drowned.”

“Did she live around here?”

Gwen pointed to the west. “Had a small cabin over on an island. At first Louise really liked it there. Then her husband and son died a few years ago. Influenza came through here just like an invading army. Killed a whole lot of people. She had some insurance money to live on, though it would've run out sooner than later.” Her dark eyes glistened. “Anyway, I sure wish she was around to talk to.” Then she made a self-deprecating gesture. Waved herself off. “But you didn't come here for that.”

Just then Julia cried out, sounding afraid. Maybe she was having nightmares in the daytime. “I'd better check on her.” She was off her chair in less than a second, headed toward the back door.

“I need to get back, too. Thanks for these envelopes.”

Julia yelped again. Gwen vanished inside.

T
wenty minutes later I was half a mile from town.

That was when my horse was shot out from under me. The shooter, hidden in some shallow woods to the south, had obviously meant to hit me but had missed.

This piece of road had buffalo grass on either side. No trees, no boulders, nowhere to hide. I had to lie flat on my belly, using the horse to hide as much of my six feet two as I could.

The first thing I did, once my heart and brain adjusted to what had happened, was shoot the animal in the top of the head. It had taken the shooter's rifle bullet in its heart and was in misery. The second thing I did was yank my carbine from its scabbard on the poor dead animal. I now had some parity with the shooter.

Flies, loose bowels, and ghoulish twitches made the horse less than the ideal hiding place. The shooter got off two more shots.

He was firing from behind some hardwoods. There was enough forest shadow to obscure him completely. A couple times I caught a sun-flash of his rifle barrel, which helped me direct my own bullets.

He apparently didn't like the idea that I was firing back, because after a quiet two or three minutes, I could hear his horse thrashing through a narrow path in the woods. And then, momentarily, the heavy thud of his horse in a clearing, pounding ground in escape.

When I was pretty sure it was safe, I stood up and began the hard and sweaty process of getting the saddle off. Try it some time, moving around the dead weight of an animal this size while trying to undo various straps and ties. I didn't like to think of what scavengers would do to its body once I started walking to town. You'd think after everything I'd seen in the war that I'd have made my peace with the innocent horror of nature, of scavengers. But it's difficult sometimes. You begin to resent animals for being animals, but it's just their nature, and that's a fool's waste of time.

It wasn't that long a walk, or wouldn't have been, without the saddle slung over my shoulder. I was just at the town limits when a farmer in a buckboard headed in my direction stopped and offered me a ride. I laughed and said that I might as well walk the rest of the way since the livery was about half a block away.

Livery stables are the second most populated places for male gossip. Barbershops are first. Saloons are third, only because most of what is said is forgotten in hangover by morning.

I was almost at the livery when I saw Beth Cave, the mortuary secretary who'd tried to tell me something about a woman named—and then I made the connection. Louise. She'd been telling me something about a woman named Louise. Just as Gwen had been talking about a woman named Louise.

Given one arm in a sling, a saddle slung over my shoulders, and pretty damned weary legs, I hurried as fast as I could to the corner she stood on.

She made a little joke, which, given her prim, taut face, surprised me. “Isn't a horse supposed to go with that saddle?”

But her joshing faded when I told her that my horse had been shot out from under me.

“Oh, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made light of it.”

I said, “You were telling me about a woman named Louise.”

Her cheeks turned scarlet. “I—I shouldn't have said anything. Mr. Newcomb almost fired me.”

“I'd appreciate it if you'd finish what you were going to say.”

Instead of a black dress, today she wore a black suit. She was so thin, she resembled a scarecrow. “I need my job, Mr. Ford. I'm the only support of my sick father. If I ever got fired….”

Tears in her eyes, her voice. “I'm sorry, Mr. Ford. Very sorry.”

She hurried away, her gait awkward and somehow lonely.

 

By the time I set my saddle down in the barn, there must've been a dozen men standing in the sun-blasted entrance, listening to me tell my story to the livery man.

You could sense the men were disappointed. Couldn't I at least have been attacked by Indians or a bear or found myself trapped in a pit full of rattlers? Even with the horse dead, it wasn't all that much of a tale.

Then they remembered what it was possibly all about and got interested for the first time.

“That gun.”

“Durn right. That's what the shooter was after.”

“Probably figured Ford here was goin' after it himself.”

“Wound him and make Ford take him to the gun.”

“Get the gun, kill Ford, and have the gun all to himself.”

“Live like a king the rest of his life.”

“Frisco and gals with tits out to here.”

Bret Harte had nothing on these men. In fact, if Harte ever wanted a collaborator, I knew just which livery stable to send him to.

To the livery man, as I was paying him for the horse, I said, “You could always send a wagon out there and pick him up.”

The man nodded. He wore a greasy old derby on top of a greasy old head. “Yeah. Don't want his bones picked clean. Me'n the colored fella works with me'll go get him now.”

“Thanks.”

 

After stopping by my hotel for gloves and a heavier jacket, I walked over to the river and a boatyard. It was a jumble of a place, filled with rowboats, schooners, rafts, and skiffs, some of which were being repaired, some of which were up for sale. That was up front. In back was a mountain of pieces of boats, schooners, rafts, and skiffs. I doubted the owner knew what all was in that towering pile.

A big man with a long, gray beard came hobbling
out of the little shack that said
SEECRAFT
over the door. I hoped he was better at boating than he was at spelling.

In case you questioned his seaworthiness, he wore an eye patch, which might or might not have been for effect; and jerked about on a peg leg, which was very much for real. He might have lost his leg on a ranch or a city street, but who was I to question him? Better for both our sakes to think that he'd lost it on a pirate ship while raiding a Spanish galleon. I was like the men back at the livery. I liked a good story, too.

“He'p you?” he asked. He wore a black wool turtleneck and regulation Navy dungarees. On his right leg, the pegged one, the dungarees had been cut off right above the knee. He hadn't shaved or bathed for a while.

“You rent boats?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“Who wants to rent it.”

“For the hell of it, let's just pretend it's me.”

“Watch that mouth, mister, or I'll throw your ass out of here. This is private property.”

A mangy old dog dragged himself out from beneath the mountain of parts, looked around as if to see if anybody was watching, and then took a crap. We were only ten yards away. Apparently he hadn't seen us. Maybe he should have worn an eye patch, too.

“Look,” I said in my best civil voice, “I need a rowboat.”

“You got one arm.”

“You got one leg.”

“You need two arms to row.”

“I'll be fine. Now do I get a boat or what?”

“For what?”

“I want to go to Parson's Cairn.”

“For what?”

“For none of your fucking business, for what.”

He grinned. His teeth were so rotted they were more wormy brown than white. “I just like t'test people. See how much shit they'll take.”

“Yeah, well, you picked the wrong one to test.”

“The cap'n, he'd always tell me to do that with the ones what wanted to sign on. Be as cranky as I could just to see if they could stand up to the way of the cap'n. He didn't want no pussies goin' to sea with us.”

“Good for him. Now, how about that rowboat? You got one or not?”

“I want twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars? That's crazy.”

“How do I know you'll bring it back?”

I waved him off, sick of him, and started to turn.

“Then when you bring it back, you get fifteen of it back.”

“You got one that doesn't have any holes in the bottom?”

He grinned again. “I imagine I could find one somethin' like that. Now let's see your money.”

 

Some kids dream of running away to the circus; some dream of running away to Arabia, the land of scimitars and harem girls; and some dream of running away to sea. Personally, I never dreamed of running away to anyplace except Cindy Dunning's gazebo, where I'd hoped to hide so I could see her undress every night.

The circus was too seedy for me, Arabia was too far away, and being on water for any length of time always had the same effect on me: I got queasy. I'd take watching Cindy Dunning undress any day.

Eyepatch was right about needing two arms to row. He sent his daughter with me. Daughter might evoke pictures of a scruffy young woman who, beneath the grit and grime, was a shy and appealing piece of womanhood.

I never did find out her name. She rowed. Her biceps were bigger than mine. She had a fist-broken nose, teeth like her old man's, a baseball-sized plug of chewing tobacco laid against her right cheek, and a disposition that made Quantril's seem saintly. She was probably forty, but looked sixty. Maybe it was the gray hair that had been chopped off short and the huge forearm tattoos that were various forms of the word
FRED
. I decided that it probably wouldn't be a wise idea to bring up the subject of Fred, as it was obvious that she'd tried to scrub and scratch the tattoos off.

She said, “I ain't goin' on the island because the Eye-talian woman told me it was haunted.”

“Fine.”

“I s'pose you don't believe that.”

“That the Eye-talian woman told you that or that it's haunted?”

“My pop, he told me you was a wiseacre.”

“No, I don't believe it's haunted.”

“Well, then I'm gonna let you find out for yourself.”

“Fine.”

“Don't say I never warned you.”

“I won't.”

“And if I hear you a-screamin', I'm rowin' right back to my daddy's boatyard.”

“I wouldn't expect anything else.”

“And quit lookin' at my tattoos.”

“All right.”

“Fred ain't none of your business.”

“Fine.”

“It was what my aunt called an ‘unhappy episode.' She reads books is why she talks like that.”

I started the process of making a cigarette one-handed. She rowed. I didn't think about haunted islands; I didn't look at her Fred tattoos; and I didn't think about her aunt who knew how to read.

It wasn't far from the boatyard, the island, and it was bigger than I'd expected. You could set up a hamlet here; maybe even a tiny town. There was enough length and width for it. It was pretty, too, with a wide, sandy beach and a stretch of autumn colors on the trees that lined the shore.

She rowed us up to the shore. Wanting to impress her with my manliness, I climbed out of the boat and dragged it up onto the sand. Pretty good for a onehander. She didn't seem to notice.

“Don't take all day.”

“I paid your daddy five dollars.”

“My daddy don't have to sit here and be bored.”

I spent fifteen minutes walking around the entire beach. When I got back to the boat, she said, “You ready to go back?”

“I just wanted to see what the beach was like.”

“What the hell you think it's like? It's sandy.”

“I'll be back.”

She spat tobacco juice into the water. I'd been
wondering what she did with all that tobacco runoff in her mouth. Maybe she swallowed most of it.

I found a trail that eventually wound its way into the heart of the island and a wide clearing that ran maybe a quarter mile. In the center of the clearing was the cairn. It stood maybe ten feet tall and three feet wide. It was a craggy assemblage of pieces of stone dragged from several points near various parts of the shore. The markings on it looked Indian but not exactly Cree. Maybe Ute or Blackfeet.

A dozen yards away was a small log cabin. This was the second generation of log cabins, not just the board roof covered with sod and the shanty look of it. This had a shake shingle roof and squared timbers.

I pushed the door open and went inside. It smelled damp, apparently from recent rains. But I didn't see anything wet. The furnishings were simple but store-bought, two cots for sleeping and a couch big enough to double as another bed. The floor was finished with wood so you could sleep on that, too, if you wanted. There was a fireplace, two cupboards sparsely stocked with canned goods, a cast-iron stove for cooking, and a large steamer trunk.

There were four windows, meaning that somebody had gone to some considerable expense. Sunlight angled through the windows facing the west and in the sun splash on the floor I saw the stains.

They were the color of grapes, the stains, as if they'd been a dark red at one time, scrubbed down as much as possible and then lacquered over. I assumed they were blood stains, but since this cabin was used by men who hunted and fished, it wasn't necessarily human blood.

I was gone an hour in all. I didn't find anything
there that made me feel that the trip had been worthwhile. I'd hoped to find some connection to the gun. I wondered if any of the men who'd wanted to buy it knew about this place. They could hide it here until they were ready to leave. But I didn't find any secret hiding places in the cabin and I'd even gone back to the cairn to see if it was wide enough at its base to conceal a weapon. No luck.

When I got back to the rowboat, she was sitting on the shore Indian-legged, a .45 in her lap.

“You took your time.”

“I had a lot to do. What's the gun for?”

“I got the feeling somebody was watching me.”

I turned and looked at the autumn-tinted span of trees. “Somebody in there?”

“Somebody…or something.”

“Ghosts?”

“You go ahead and laugh. You're a city boy. You don't know how spooks operate. Some Indians run away from the Trail of Tears and hid out here so the soldier boys wouldn't find them. But they found them, all right, and killed every one of them: man, woman, and child. Except for one old man, so the story goes. He built the cairn and then cut his wrists and bled on it. That way the cairn was cursed. It's his blood that haunts this place.”

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