Authors: Ed Gorman
He said, “Your shit don't stink, huh?”
“He don't gotta go, Fred. He's got a badge.”
“So does my grandson. I got it for him for his birthday.”
They got on their horses and rode away. I hid behind a boulder. I could hear them in there, their voices but not their words.
I spent most of my time trying to figure out if Wayland had gotten out of town before the deputy got him. He seemed to have a way of finding out things faster than just about anybody. He couldn't leave on a train because the deputy would check that. He couldn't rent a horse and wagon because the livery man would tell us. But what he could do was buy a horse and wagon from a private citizen, pay the man enough to keep his mouth shut, and then take off
across country with the gun in the wagon bed and his mind filled with dancing dollar signs.
I thought of David then, and my folks. Sometimes I got sentimental and thought about going back there. But even if I wanted to make it up with them, my presence there would shame them. They probably didn't even speak of me anymore, as if I'd died or had never existed in the first place. A well-raised boy like me fighting on the side of the Union. It was not anything that could ever be lived down. Not for my parents. Society, no matter what society you care to name, never has room for people who betray its most sacred principles, even if those principles are clearly wrong.
The girl came out first. She didn't run. In fact, she moved so slowly I guessed that she was still in some kind of shock. She stumbled a couple of times, but didn't fall. Then right in the middle of the clearing, between my position and the shack, she sat down, probably on Wickham's orders. The two men were still talking inside the cabin. Their voices had raised.
I walked out into the clearing and picked up Julia. Her eyes had the eerie blankness you saw in children of the war. I'd once shot a slaver who was holding three Yankee prisoners. I'd faced him off and told him to turn them over to me. He'd refused and then his son, in the haymow, had leaned out into the sunlight, his rifle barrel glinting. I killed the father first and then the son. A little girl came running out from the back door. She ran straight to the bodies. Her mother came then, trying to comfort the girl. When the girl looked up at me, the emptiness of her gaze
startled me. No hatred; not even anger. Just this strange, flat stare. There are some realities the mind doesn't want to register. Julia looked like that now.
There were two shots inside the shack. If my ear was true, two shots from the same gun. Julia started to cry quietly. The sound of the gunshots had probably brought everything back to her, especially the death of her mother. I said, “I'll be right back.”
She just stared at me.
But I didn't have to walk far. Wickham came out from the shack. His Colt hung precariously from his fingers, as if he didn't want it. And apparently he didn't, because he let it drop to the ground. Then he just fell back against the shack. The entire structure swayed on the edge of collapse. He wasn't a small man, Wickham.
“What the hell am I going to tell my sister Emma?” he said when I reached him.
He staggered forward, as if he might fall facedown. I got a shoulder against him and said, “Take it easy.”
“I didn't have any choice.” Tears shook his voice. “He was going to shoot me.”
“C'mon, we need to get back to town.”
In the middle distance, Julia stood up. Sunlight gleamed on top of her head. Sight of her seemed to make him forget Clarion a moment.
“You go on to her,” I said. “I'll get a look at Clarion.”
“At Clarion? What the hell for?”
“Make sure he's actually dead, for one thing.”
“Oh.” He settled down.
“Then I'll get his horse and pitch him over it.”
“My poor sister.”
“You go on now, Marshal. That little girl could use a friend about now.”
He nodded groggily, as if he was only understanding about half of what I said to him.
went inside the shack. The dirt floor smelled like an old grave. The other smell gave the impression that every animal within a radius of fifty miles had used this shack as a toilet at one time or another. On top of these smells were the smells Clarion made. He was dead, all right. I didn't need a pulse or a mirror beneath his nose to tell me that. He was dead, all right.
Ten minutes later, I slung him across the back of his horse, tied him down as good as I could, and then I rode back to where Julia and Wickham waited on his horse. She was talking some now. Her eyes shone with life again. A pained expression, true. But life, real life.
The trip back seemed endless. Julia would get crying so hard that we'd have to stop and take turns holding, almost rocking, her like a little baby. She kept asking if her mom was still alive, as if asking it enough times would change the same whispered answer we always gave her.
The men from the posse were in the marshal's office. He went in there and talked to them and I took Julia over to the hospital.
The first thing Jane did was get her two cookies and a glass of milk. We sat at one of the tables in the break room. Julia said she wasn't hungry. She was still young enough to fit nicely on Jane's lap. Jane rocked her and talked to her and suggested that Julia at least try the cookie. She did. She looked ashamed for liking it. How could you eat a cookie when your mother had just been shot to death? But then, like a tiny animal, her small, pale hand darted out at the saucer with the cookie on it and she took another bite.
When I walked into Wickham's private office, he was pulled up tight to his desk. His head was in his hand. He stared straight down at the shiny, empty surface of his desk.
I sat down. “You talk to your sister?”
“Yeah.” Not looking up.
“How'd it go?”
“How'd you think it'd go?”
I said nothing. There was nothing to say.
He said, “You should've heard her cry. She lost a five-year-old once, mule kicked the little boy in the back of the head. She didn't cry as much then as she did today. She sounded crazy today.” He looked up. His eyes were red. He face was old in an ugly way. “Really crazy.”
“You did what you had to.”
“She kept saying I could've handled it better.”
“People always say that. They can't help saying it any more than you could help doing what you did. It's shitty for everybody involved all the way around.”
He needed somebody to take it out on. He said, “It's probably different for you. Washington pays you to kill people. Probably doesn't bother you.”
“I ever tell you I think you're a cold, dishonest ass-hole?”
“Not quite in those terms, Marshal. But I got the point.”
“I killed my own fucking nephew.”
He brought down a huge hand with Biblical wrath. I expected to see the desk be cleaved in half.
He scowled at me. “You think you could whip me?”
“Your sister went crazy. That's enough for one family.”
“That supposed to be funny, you sonofabitch?”
By the time he finished saying it, he was up on his feet and coming around the desk, starting to charge me.
“That supposed to be funny, I said?” Bellering.
He was too far away to swing, but he swung anyway. I felt sorry for him, but he was tough enough that he could inflict some damage.
I took two quick steps toward him and threw a hard right to his gut and then an equally hard left to his jaw.
He looked betrayed. It was almost funny. He could've looked mad or surprised or physically hurt. But for that first long instant when time froze, just then he looked as if the only friend he'd ever had had betrayed him in a way that never would, or never could, be forgiven.
Then he turned around, staggered back to his desk, and started puking in the wastebasket.
I went up front and talked to Bob Lindsey, the night deputy. “Anybody ever find Wayland and Brinkley?”
“Not yet, I'm afraid. There's a good chance they left town. They're still looking. That's why Wickham pulled me in early. So I could watch the desk here while they looked.” His head jerked toward the office in back. “He kill Clarion?”
“About time somebody did.”
“Didn't like him, huh?”
He leaned forward so he could stage-whisper and be heard. “He'd cover things up for money. Wickham's a smart old bird and knew what Frank was doing. But what with his sister and all, Wickham pretended he didn't know what Frank was up to.”
“He cover up serious things?”
“He did if you consider murder serious.” Then: “You're pretty good with that.”
I was rolling a cigarette one-handed. “Tell me about the murder.”
“Something happened out to this cabin that tourists use for hunting.”
The cabin floor. The bloodstains. I knew instinctively he was talking about the place.
“Richard Benson, he came in here one night all upset and wanting to see the marshal. Told him he was taking his meal. The marshal used to eat at home; then when he was seeing the Cree woman Louise, he'd always meet her at the cafÃ© for supper. Now he just eats there alone. I asked Benson if I could help him. He said no. Then, just as he was going out, Frank comes in. Benson starts yelling all over again. Then Frank invites him up the street for a beer. I always had the sense that something hap
pened because they found Louise dead not long after and the way I get it there was blood on the cabin floor. I can't say for sure that the two tied together but I do know that Louise's inquest was kind of rushed through and that her death was ruled an accident.
“The marshal wasn't himself for a long time. He'll come out and joke with you a lot of the time. But not then. And every once in a while he'd get into these long arguments with Frank. In his office. With the door closed. The deputies could never figure out what they were arguing about exactly. But one day the marshal give Frank one hell of a shiner, I know that much.”
The door opened. A middle-aged woman came in and said, “They ran through my flowers again tonight, Deputy.” Gingham dress, matching bonnet; broad, stern face.
Lindsey sighed. “I thought I had them straightened out, Mrs. Holdstrom.”
“It's like I told you the other night, I don't blame them. I blame their folks. They let those kids run around like wild Indians.”
“They do a lot of damage?”
“Ran right straight through my roses.”
Lindsey shook his head. I had the sense that he was genuinely angry about the kids. It's the niggling things that get to us. In some ways a lawman can deal with a murder much more easily than he can a stupid little crime committed over and over again by the same people.
“Well, I can't go right now, Mrs. Holdstrom. But I'll handle it later tonight.”
“If the mister was alive, he would've taken a shot
gun to 'em. He always said that sometimes a man just had to take the law into his own hands.”
Lindsey smiled at me, then looked at her. “Well, I know you're mad, Mrs. Holdstrom, and I sure don't blame you, but I don't think trampling roses is a killing offense.”
“Well, he would've scared 'em off for good, at least.” She turned at the door and said, “It won't do any good to just talk to them. A hickory stick is what's needed here.”
She went out.
Lindsey smiled. “The little bastards. I wouldn't mind takin' a shotgun to them, myself.”
small lamp burned deep in the dusk darkness as I peered in through the front window of the real estate office. A heavy man in a white shirt, the collar open and the cravat hanging free, bent over papers on a desk, a long pen in a pudgy hand made golden by the lamp glow. I knocked on the window and he looked up. He shouted something I couldn't hear, but with the wave off he gave me it was easy to guess that he'd said he was closed for the day.
I knocked again. This time he set his pen down and put on a big theatrical frown. My impression of fatness disappeared when he stood up. He was burly. And surly. A real-estate man, you think of as civilized. But I had the sense, as he stalked toward the front of the office, that he'd probably cleaned out a few saloons in his time.
He damned near ripped the door off its hinges.
“I take it you haven't learned how to read yet?” It was chilly enough now to see your breath. Two dragons talking.
“I can read any word as long as it's got under four letters in it.”
“The sign says
“That's too long a word for me, I guess.”
I wasn't making a friend here. “Who the hell are you?”
I showed him my badge.
“What the hell's an Army investigator want with me?”
“How about we go inside?”
“I have to? I mean, can I refuse?”
“You can refuse, but it wouldn't do you a hell of a lot of good.”
“I've got a wife waiting dinner.”
“You didn't look like you were in much of a hurry when you were working at your desk.”
The frown grew even more impressive. He turned around and stalked back into the shadows.
I glanced up at the stars. They looked damned cold, damned indifferent. When they looked like that, or struck me that way, I always wanted to be inside somewhere with a glass of whiskey and a book or a magazine and a fire going, away from their alien, maybe even sinister, light.
He turned up the lamp and took his seat. Even though I hadn't been invited, I sat down.
“You rent out a hunting cabin over on Parson's Cairn.” I explained the one I was talking about.
The eyes went a little funny on me. He knew that I knew something that might be some kind of trouble for him and he didn't like it at all.
“I was out there. Went inside and looked around.”
“I'm not sure that's legal.”
“We can always talk to the county attorney.”
“Just get the hell to the point.”
“I found blood on the floor.”
“Of course you found blood on the floor. Hunters use the cabin. Sometimes they bring in whatever they killed. You make it sound suspicious or something.”
“I think it's human blood.”
“I think you're full of shit.”
“Somebody scrubbed it down as fine as they could. You don't see it unless sunlight strikes it directly.”
“Funny nobody else has ever mentioned it. Till somebody like you comes along.”
Every answer got increasingly belligerent. I knew he knew that I was close to something.
“Ten months ago you rented that cabin to four men who sell arms for a living.”
“I'd have to check that out.”
“You don't remember?”
“I rent that cabin out to a lot of different people. Why would I remember them?”
“David Ford probably set it up for them. They were visiting his ranch. You knew David Ford?”
“Yes, and I know he was your brother. So what if he set it up? So what if they stayed there a few nights?”
“A woman died. A Cree woman named Louise.”
This time it was the mouth that went funny. The lips kind of crawled around over themselves, as if not quite sure which way to settle. Then he blinked violently and I realized that the lips and the blink were part of the same process, a nervous reaction.
“Yes. Louise did die. She fell and cracked her skull and drowned.” He had composed himself again. “Are you supposed to be some kind of brilliant detective, Ford? The four men stayed out there and the woman cracked her skull and drowned. So what?
Separate incidents. Things like that happen all the time.”
“I don't think that's how it happened.”
“Well, when you can prove it happened otherwise, come back and talk to me. Right now I intend to go home and have dinner with my wife.”
He walked over to his coatrack in the corner and picked off his derby. “You want to talk any more, Mr. Ford, you'll have to arrest me. Barring that, I want you to get the hell out of my office so that I can leave.”
This time he walked to the front door, turning down the lamp as he passed it. His footsteps were loud in the sudden gloom. The shadows became sinister. He knew a secretâa secret I was beginning to understandâand his deceit lent everything an unclean quality. A nice comfortable little life that he didn't want to disturb, even though a woman had been murdered. The secret was in the air of the place.
He locked up without saying a word. He walked quickly away when he was finished, leaving me to stand alone in the night. Saloon music, the fainter sound of a few wagons and buggies headed home, the lonesome bark of dogs in the night.
The lobby of Brinkley's hotel was busy with guests who'd just come in on a train. Two women in dusty silk dresses and their husbands in dusty dark business suits. They were piling bags up on the frail old arms of a colored man and taking pains to make him understand their contempt for him. His arms were filled
with four large bags piled on top of each other and they weren't done yet.
“For God's sake, if you can't even hold a few bags, they should get somebody else.”
“Hold still, will you? I'm trying to put another bag on top here.”
“Don't expect any kind of remuneration. I heard that word you just called my husband under your breath.”
They were lovely people; they ran the world, just ask them. There seem to be more and more of them these days, everywhere you go. Sleek and rich and arrogant.
Since I was going up the stairs anyway, I grabbed the two bags they were determined to pile on top of the already four-deep pile.
“And just who might you be?” said the woman as I took her bag. The eyes sparked disapproval of my range clothes.
“His boss. I help out with the overflow.”
“But you're wearing a gun,” said her husband.
I winked at the colored man. “This is a dangerous hotel.”
“Well, maybe we shouldn't stay here, Theodore,” said the woman.
“This isn't a dangerous hotel,” Theodore said. “I looked it up in the brochure and the brochure said that it was perfectly nice and perfectly safe.”
“Perfectly,” said his friend. “I read the same brochure Theodore did.”
The colored man went up ahead of me. He swayed a lot. I thought he might fall over. But he made it up the steep stairs.
He set the bags down and got the door opened. “I thank you, mister.”
“I was coming up here, anyway. See a man named Brinkley.”
“Oh, yeah, Brinkley. I don't think he come back from supper yet.”
You could hear them coming up the stairs. The women with their birdy chatter, the men with their gruff, somber voices discussing how things should go in this world of ours.
The old man was listening to them, too.
“How can you stand 'em?” I said.
He grinned out of his ancient black face. “Barely is how I can stand 'em, mister. Barely.”
I left before I'd have to see them again.
Brinkley wasn't in, or at least he wasn't answering my knock. I went down the back stairs. I didn't want to see four world rulers again.
I walked back to my hotel. The clerk said there were no messages. I went up to my room.
Brinkley was waiting for me. Somebody had tied him to a straight-back chair, blindfolded and gagged him, and then rammed a long kitchen knife deep into his heart.
I locked my door from the inside and got to work.
I went through his pockets. There wasn't much use to doing it, of course. The killer would have done it thoroughly. Anything left behind would be worthless.
Death has a way of becoming routine. That's the secret of war. If it didn't become routine, you'd have
most of your troops shooting their leaders and heading back home. It's a matter of accretion. First you see one body and then you see a couple of bodies and in no time at all you're ready to see your first pile of bodies. Then you're just what your commander wants you to be. A man who sees death as routine.
I had just turned away from Brinkley, toward the door and the stairs and the street that would take me over to Marshal Wickham's office where I'd tell him about yet another corpse, when whoever it was made a terrible mistake by making a single but noisy move in the closet.
Instinct took over. Out came my gun. Up went my heart rate. Narrow became the width of my eyes as they focused on the closet door.
The heroic thing to do would have been to storm the door and fling it open. And someday it'd be nice to be reckless and heroic like that. Say on the day when the doc told me that with my newly diagnosed disease he'd give me about thirty-six hours to live. That would be the time to be reckless and heroic, when it wouldn't matter anymore. When it would be better to just get it over with, anyway. But right now I looked forward to several more years of breathing, so I stood where I was and said, “C'mon out before I start shooting. I pump enough bullets into that closet door, I'm bound to kill you.”
“Don't shoot. Please.”
The voice was familiar, but as yet I couldn't put a name to it.
“I'll come out with my hands up.”
“Good. Then do it.”
The door was flung open and out stumbled Wayland. He had his hands up way over his head and he
was biting his lower lip. He said, “Brinkley there. I didn't kill him. I came up here to talk to you and I heard a groaningâhe was all bound up like this. But he wasn't dead. Not quite. And then I heard you coming and jumped in the closet.”
“You didn't hear anybody else?”
“Why'd you come up to talk to me?”
He looked at Brinkley. “It was time somebody told you the truth.”
“Yeah? And that's what you were going to do?”
“I couldn't handle it anymore.”
“Waiting to die. Till it was my turn to be killed.”
The old belligerence was gone. He was broken now. A boy, no longer a man. I pointed the barrel of my gun exactly at his stomach and said, “You have a gun?”
“A shoulder setup.”
“Throw the gun on the bed. But first take off your coat so I can see you handle the gun. No surprises or I'll kill you on the spot.”
“That's all there is on this trip.” He said it with a sob in his voice. “Killing and killing and killing. I want out of this place and this life. I don't give a damn if my father approves of me or not. I'm going to be a schoolteacher. He doesn't think that's âmanly' enough for the family name. But to hell with him.”
“Oh. Yes. Sorry.”
He carefully took off his suit coat and flung it on the bed. He had a small, expensive shoulder rig and a small, expensive .32 riding in it.
“Now the gun.”
He took it out with the tips of his fingers.
“Maybe if I throw it on the bed, it'll go off.” He really was scared.
“Then walk it over there and put it down nice and gentle.”
“You probably think I'm a sissy, the way I act. My old man thinks I'm a sissy. He's always told people that. Even when I was standing right next to him.”
“Look, I'm sorry about you and your old man. But mostly I don't give a shit. Right now I'm going to take you down to the bar and buy you a drink and you're going to tell me what's going on. I've got an idea, but I need to hear it confirmed.”
He seemed surprised. He nodded to Brinkley. “You're just going to leave him here?”
“You think he's going to get up and walk away? We'll lock the door. Nobody should bother him. There were four of you. Now you're the only one left.”
“I know,” he said, wistfully. “I didn't like them. They were a lot like my old man. But I didn't hate them enough to want to see them get killed like that.”
“You can put your arms down now.”
He glanced at one of his arms. It seemed to look strange to him, as if he'd never seen an arm before, and was trying to figure out exactly what it was and exactly what it did.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks. They were kind've getting numb. Up in the air like that, I mean.”
I checked the room one more time, trying to make sure that I hadn't overlooked anything. I didn't find anything.
“He's starting to smell,” Wayland said. He didn't
sound disgusted or put off especially. He just remarked on it, as if he'd never been around anybody who'd been killed recently. As maybe he hadn't.
“Yeah,” I said. “He does sort of stink. Now let's go get you that drink.”