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Authors: Ed Gorman

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BOOK: The Killing Machine
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The kitten had strolled out in front of the barn and now stood before the sliding doors, apparently watching James and Tib. I wanted to get those two the hell out of there. Any chance we had of sneaking in was likely gone now. Surely they'd been spotted by somebody inside the barn.

Maybe there was still time to wave them off. To proceed on the notion that they hadn't been seen. And then figure out a way to sneak into the barn myself. Maybe there was a haymow door in the back.

But for now I couldn't afford to clutter up my mind with thoughts. Now was time for simple action. To get them the hell out of there.

I got to the back door. Looked left, right, hefted
my carbine, proceeded along the back of the house as invisibly as I could. The moon didn't help. The roof didn't have but an inch or two of overhang. There were no deep shadows to hide in. The moon was like a huge cosmic lantern. If a shooter had a bead on me, the moonlight made me easy pickings.

There was a stubby oak tree to the east of the barn. I crouched behind it and picked up a few small pebbles. I'd never been much of a pitcher in baseball. But I could throw well enough to get their attention. I launched the first, then the second, of the pebbles.

I got Tib on the arm. The way he spun around, the way his face went startled and ugly, the way his gun sought out somebody to unload on—all these responses in just a second or two. I stuck my face out for him to see. You could almost feel his rage and curiosity drain away. He waved. I waved back.

James saw what he was doing. His eyes narrowed and looked for me in the gloom around the trees. He saw me. Scowled. He was ready for action and I was stopping him. If he didn't get action soon, maybe he'd turn on me.

I waved them off again. They nodded, understanding quickly what I wanted them to do. To fade into the trees behind them. Tib went quickly. James lingered in the moonlight. He wore a big frown. By not moving, by glaring at me, he was challenging my authority. He would be thinking that I was some Federale from the East and what the hell did I know about how things were done out here in the West and I wasn't paying him all that much money, anyway, and just why the hell was he taking orders from me, anyway? Plus, at some point or another he'd also be thinking about the gun itself. David's gun. The entire
focus of my trip and the four arms merchants who wanted it. James had to be at least daydreaming how much money could be his if he could somehow steal the gun for himself.

But he relented. Shook his head in disgust and then turned toward Tib and started walking.

From the chicken coop came a sudden cacophony of excited hens. Maybe a dustup of some kind. Chickens certainly had a sullen temperament. The noise was raw on the silence. Usually chickens sounded sort of comic. But tonight there was something threatening in their anger. They battled there for what seemed a long, long time. But I used the distraction. If David was in the barn, the fighting in the chicken coop would distract him just as much as it distracted me.

It took me ten minutes to get behind the barn. I was sweaty again, shaky. I also had the feeling once more that at least one pair of eyes was watching me. Amused, maybe, but with that power hidden observers always have—the ability to surprise you. The ability to do just about any damned thing they want if they're clever or nasty enough.

There was no haymow door in the back of the barn. There was a single, small door but it didn't offer much hope to an intruder. The barn was big, but not big enough to allow anybody to open a door without being heard. I hunched down and walked around to the side of the barn. A small hatch sat very near the eave of the roof. With a good rope I could probably climb up the side of the barn and climb in through that hatch. But I didn't have a good rope, now, did I? Not even a bad rope, for that matter. And there was the noise problem
again. Even if I reached the hatch, they'd probably hear me when I opened it.

I did the only thing I could. I crouched behind a hay wagon, watching the back of the barn as if it had some secret to reveal to me. But tonight it was keeping its secrets to itself.

I decided to find Tib and James and see if between the three of us we could figure out some way to get me into the barn. It was funny, hunched down this way, the barn so near and familiar. A barn was a barn. But not this one. For all its familiarity—I saw barns just like it every day—there was still that unknown quality about it. That menacing quality. Maybe it was knowing the gun was inside.

I worked my way around the far side of the grassy land to the tree line and then stayed to the shadows, trying to find Tib and James who were, presumably, anyway, hiding somewhere in the near oaks and hardwoods. The silence was on the land again. For thirty seconds there not even one of the night birds sang or cried. The barn loomed more ominous than ever, a kind of forbidden quality to what was nothing more than a stack of two-by-fours, nails, and white paint.

A familiar feeling from my war days came back. Isolation. Three of us had been trying to sneak into the house of a Confederate general whose grown daughter was working as a spy for her father. She was known to be home for a few weeks. She was also known to have seduced a Union Army captain out of some important battle plans. We wanted to know who she'd shared those plans with. The back of the mansion sat along the edge of a river. We reached it by raft. Now we were coming up on the mansion it
self. I was, anyway. When I glanced over my shoulder, I realized something was wrong. The two men working with me had stayed below on the raft. I hurried back to the small cliff above the river. When they saw me, they started laughing and pointing to something behind me. I felt isolated in a way I never had before. The world had completely turned around on me. The two men working with me were double agents. And I guessed correctly that behind me now I'd find one or two soldiers with rifles pointed at my back.

I had that sense again. Isolation. Was I the only person in the entire world?

“Hey! Here!” Tib stage whispered.

And damn I was glad to hear another voice.

The woods did a damned good job of hiding them. Not even the moonlight exposed them. They couldn't have been much more than a few feet inside the shifting shadows of the woods, but I hadn't seen them until Tib spoke up. I eased my way between two hardwoods and some oaks.

James told me that he'd climbed up in a tree for a better look at the barn. He hadn't seen or heard anything. He said he still didn't think the barn was empty but Tib just shook his head and said it was, the Indian was crazy.

Everything we said was in whispers, three men huddled together on a sandy little trail.

“Nothing in the house?” Tib asked.

“Nothing.”

“Then they're in the barn,” James said.

“If they're here.”

“You thinkin' they're gone, Noah?”

“Considering it. I didn't think so at first. But it's
awful damned quiet. You said you didn't hear anything. I didn't, either.”

Tib said, “Even if they're gone, we still get paid, right?”

“Hell, yes,” I said.

“Just checkin'.” I must've sounded harsh to Tib.

“I want you two to find an angle on the front door. Then open fire. That'll give me cover to get into the barn the back way.”

“Why not just sneak in the back door without no gunfire?” Tib said.

“Good chance they'd hear me. I need to surprise them.”

“If anybody's in there,” James said, “I guess we'll know pretty fast.”

“We should get closer than these woods, if we're going to do any good,” Tib said. “Then we'll just make a run at the front doors. Soon as you hear us shootin', that's when you head for the back door. Is that right?”

“Right,” I said.

I was getting suspicious again. They didn't seem bothered by charging the front door of a barn that could very well be hiding a powerful new kind of weapon and maybe three or four men besides. Maybe they were just eager for action, or maybe the people inside the barn—if there were any—were in on the whole ruse.

James said, “We can sneak up on the barn from an angle, pepper the front doors, but be in a place where they can't get us with their guns. There ain't no windows on this side of the barn. They want to hit us, they'll have to come out of the barn to do it, and I doubt they'll do that.”

“All right,” I said. “Give me a few minutes to get to the back of the barn. Then you open fire. You ready?”

Tib said, “I'll count to a hundred and then we'll start shootin'.”

I backtracked pretty much the same way I'd come. I tried to keep any noise down, not only so they wouldn't hear me, but so I could hear them if they made any sound. If they were in there, they sure knew how to wait somebody out. Not a sound. And by this time, the chickens and the roosters had long been quiet, too. We were back to the wind crying in the spare autumn trees.

I found the hayrack and crouched behind it. Soon as the gunfire started I'd sprint over to the door.

I started to wonder if something had gone wrong. Tib had had plenty of time to count to a hundred, but still there was no gunfire. A coyote, loud and lonely; night birds crying, entangled in the maze of the woods. But no gunfire.

Finally, it came. Harsh and harrowing on the air. Tib firing his six-gun, James firing his carbine.

I used the noise and the time to race to the back door of the barn. Weather had warped the wood so that the door had swollen tight against the frame. I reached behind my back for my knife. I'd have to slit the swell open sufficiently to pull the door wide enough to slip through.

I didn't notice it at first, the fact that there'd been no response whatsoever. I was too busy with my knife.

But Tib brought my attention to it by yelling loud and clear: “Yipee! C'mon around and walk in the front door like a white man, Noah! Nobody's home!”

I wasn't sure how I felt about that. Nobody's home
meant that I wouldn't have to confront my brother. But nobody's home meant that the experimental gun—the only one like it—was on the open market; David was gone. Once again the gun was open to bids from foreign governments that meant us harm. (The State Department had heard whispers that Germany had had “informal” talks with Mexico about someday invading America with German help, giving the Germans a sure foothold on this continent.)

“Be there in a minute!” I shouted.

I slid my knife back into its scabbard, grabbed my carbine. I heard James laugh about something and then Tib laugh, too.

I'd taken maybe three or four steps, still pretty far away from the rear corner of the barn, when the world came to an end.

That was what it sounded like, anyway. All the rage and commotion I'd heard when David had demonstrated his gun in a few short bursts for his visitors was quadrupled in the fury that ripped the night now. This was David's gun put to full power. Somewhere in the tumult of the bullets tearing from his experimental weapon I heard the screams of James and Tib.

My mind formed an instant picture of them. Their faces stricken with the knowledge that death had set upon them, their arms and legs flying in contrary directions, their screams so startled that they weren't even real screams—just choked, gasping sounds exploding from their throats.

That was my last thought: James and Tib are dead. The machine gun turrets were relentless. And now they were turned on me, the bullets ripping through the weathered wood of the barn.

And then I had no other thought at all because I felt several bullets tearing into me. I had just time enough to make my own screams; just enough time to feel my own arms and legs fly in contrary directions; just enough time to feel my own death set upon me.

T
he mayor of a prosperous Colorado town once told me that the mark of a town that was going somewhere was twofold. First, it got itself an important railroad connection, and then it got itself a hospital with at least two doctors who'd graduated from an accredited medical school.

I woke up in a white room made even whiter by the late morning autumn sunlight. A squirrel sat on the ledge of my window, as curious about me as I was about it. The pain in my upper back made even the slightest movement difficult, but somehow I was able to fasten my full attention on the nervous squirrel. I like to think that we exchanged smiles of a sort but that, I realize, was probably drugged-up nonsense.

I lay there listening to the hospital sounds. After the war I'd visited a number of friends in the big vets' hospital in Washington, D.C., the one where they dealt with the amputees. The same faces told conflicting stories—happy to be alive, resentful that they'd never be whole again. Some of them adjusted pretty damned well, considering—probably a lot better than I would have—but some of them were
headed to angry, bitter lives with the whiskey bottle their only consolation. I didn't have any bitterness or conflict of feelings. Wherever I was exactly, I was happy to be alive.

She came through the door in a uniform as crisp and white as her personality. A slender blonde wearing a shy smile on her pretty, melancholy face. She carried a tray with three small bottles of medication on it. She brought it to the table next to my bed and said, “I understand that you've already talked to the doctor.”

“He didn't tell me much.”

“Well, there isn't that much to say, really.”

“A bullet in my right shoulder.”

“That's right. And you picked up a very high fever from the infection.”

She was a pillow-fluffing, bedclothes-straightening, fresh flower-arranging whiz. Most impressively, she could talk even while doing all this. I suppose I was more impressed with her skills than I should have been, but then I was only half alive and she was awfully damned pretty. I'd also noticed that she wasn't wearing a wedding ring. I fixed her at midtwenties.

“I'd really like to change your sheets. You sweated through them.”

“Fine with me.”

“I'll have to have you sit in a chair. It'll hurt.”

“I'll give it a try.”

I tried being stoic about it all, the way men are supposed to be. Even though I nearly blacked out twice, I held my response to the pain of sitting up to a few choked-off grunts and groans.

“You're a strong man, Mr. Ford.”

“I was hoping you'd say that.”

She blessed me with a smile. As she stripped the bed and wiped down the rubber sheet beneath with disinfectant, she said, “Women like to hear they're pretty and men like to hear they're tough.”

“You must hear ‘pretty' a hundred times a day.”

“A hundred would be a slight exaggeration.” She wasn't facing me, but I could feel her smile. “But you're running a fever so I'll let it go this time.”

In a few minutes, I had a fresh new bed. I was holding as tough as I could but I was getting groggy. The fever was making me fade in and out of awareness. She got me back into bed and said, “You need to sleep.”

“Yeah. I think you're right.” Then: “Tell me something.”

“What?”

“You said that doc who came in this morning—if he told me how I got here, I don't remember.”

“I'm told you were brought here by the marshal and two of his deputies.”

“All I can remember was hearing Tib and James start screaming. You know who they are?”

“I'm sorry, they're both dead.”

“You know anything more than that?”

She laid a cool, work-roughened palm on my forehead. “You're burning up. Let me give you something for that and then you get some sleep. The marshal said he'll be here late morning.”

“So you know what happened last night?”

“A little bit about it. Not much. The marshal said not to talk to you about anything.”

“You afraid of him?”

The smile. She had the kind of slightly crooked teeth that are attractive. “Not afraid of him. But I like him and so I'll do what he asks.”

The pain was starting to black me out every couple moments.

And then I realized how bad off I was. I'd been awake here for maybe ten minutes and I remembered that Tib and James were dead, but I'd forgotten all about the person who mattered most.

“My brother David…” I started to say.

This time her smile was completely mechanical. She pulled my covers up to my chest and said, “The marshal will tell you everything when he gets here.”

“He's dead, isn't he?”

“Please don't put me in the middle of this, Mr. Ford.”

“Just tell me the truth. Then I won't ask you any more questions. My brother—he's dead, isn't he?”

She sighed. “Yes, Mr. Ford. I'm afraid he is.”

She turned and walked out of the room.

I lay awake for what seemed a long time. I was so exhausted from the wound that I didn't feel the news as sharply as I might have otherwise. It was a fact more than a feeling. My brother David was dead. So many memories, good and bad, and yet these, too, were pictures that didn't bring with them any particular emotion. Maybe I was willing myself not to feel anything. Maybe my body knew, even if my mind didn't, that to deal with David's death directly would weaken me even further. I thought of my parents, too, and how each of them would handle the news. Once they learned that I was involved, they'd wonder if I had a hand in his death. They would try not to think the worst of me because that suspicion, along with the reality of his death, would simply be
too much for them to reckon with. But they would say—or at least think—that now both their sons were dead. And even though that wasn't literally true, it was spiritually true to them. I'd perished a long time ago.

 

“I wish you'd have let me go along with you. Or asked me to let Frank here join in.”

Marshal Wickham opened with these words. They were about what I'd expected. It's hard for most of us not to say I told you so.

But in this case I had to disagree. “My brother's dead. The whole point of it was keeping him alive. I guess he didn't care about living as much as I thought he did. Tib or James must've gotten lucky and shot him before they died.”

Deputy Frank Clarion stood next to his uncle and said, “I'm not a great shot, but I could've helped.” The dark eyes hinted at a friendliness I hadn't seen the other day at Tib Mason's stage line. “We like folks to enjoy themselves when they come here. Even Federal agents. Hell of a way to spend your time here.” Then, as if realizing that this wasn't the time for humor, he said, “I'm sorry about your brother.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that.”

He nodded to the marshal and said, “Well, I better go check the mail and see if there's anything I need to take care of.”

When he'd gone, Wickham said, “A lot of people think I hired him because he's my kin. My sister's a widow and she had to raise him alone and he got into his share of trouble. But I'll tell you, he's turned out
to be a damned good deputy, no matter what people might say.”

“He sure seems like it.”

He pulled a chair up to my bedside. He'd walked into the sunny room bearing a cup of coffee in one hand and his corncob pipe in the other. Once he was seated, he fired up the pipe, took a sip of his coffee and said, “How you feeling?”

“Fine and dandy.”

“How was it that damned gun didn't cut you down, too?”

“I was trying to sneak in the back way. David opened up through the front of the barn.” I'd had some food, some coffee, and most importantly, some sleep. Last night was reshaping itself in my mind. I kept wondering how Tib or James had managed to kill David. Unless they'd hit him when they'd fired into the barn when they were hoping to spook up some kind of response.

“That the big mystery your brother was working on? The gun?”

“Yep.”

“There're four men over to the hotel who won't talk to me. You have any idea who they are?”

I made the mistake of trying to shrug. Pain stopped the gesture instantly. “Not by name.”

He studied me. “Not by name—then by what?”

“I'm not sure I want to bring you in on this. I was thinking of wiring St. Louis. Bring a couple of the brass up here to help me work on this.”

He leaned back in his chair. Gramps. His white hair was almost ghostly in the sunlight. “Way ahead of you on that one. I wired the territorial governor and explained that you were wounded and that I
needed to get involved in this right away so no time would be wasted. He's wiring the Department of the Army right now. I expect they'll tell him that I can proceed.” A tug on his pipe. “So you might as well tell me what the hell's going on here. First of all, what was your brother doing on that ranch for nearly a year?”

Flashes of memory. David and I playing cowboys and Indians. David taking his stupid horn lessons and me making fun of him. Me jumping him from this hiding place I had in the tree near the line of forest on our plantation. David and I with our father on the steamboat trips he used to treat us to.

Wickham watched me. He obviously sensed what I was feeling. “I lost my brother when he was ten. He'd strayed off the farm. Tornado came and a tree crushed him. I still can cry about it. Sometimes I won't even be aware I'm thinkin' of him. I just start cryin'. It's a terrible thing to say, but I don't even do that for my poor wife, God rest her soul. Cry like that, I mean.”

If he was using a dead little brother—if he even had a dead little brother—to convince me that we shared the same kind of loss and therefore that made us kin of a kind—well, it worked.

“You can trust me, Ford.”

“I guess I'll have to.”

This time he took coffee instead of the pipe. “I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me as much as you're up to. The doc only give me fifteen minutes with you. Those four men I mentioned. They were here several months ago. I pretty much figured out they were some kind of contraband agents.”

So I told him. As a story, it was a simple one. Six,
seven sentences and you pretty much had it. Brother David lost his plantation and everything else in the war. Became a thief who usually dealt with arms that could be sold for big money to arms merchants, domestic and foreign.

“That a big business?” This was the only time he interrupted me.

“Between foreign powers that want to be more powerful and seditionist groups that still believe the war is going on and average, everyday thugs who want to move up in the world—it's a huge business.”

“Dangerous, too.”

“Well, he got killed, didn't he?”

His expression changed. “There's something you need to know, Ford. And that's why I told those four men that they can't leave town until I give them permission. I told the fellas down to the train depot and the fellas over to the stage line and the fellas over to the livery that if any of them try to go anywhere, they're to run to my office and let us know immediately.”

“Kind of people they are, I'm surprised they were so cooperative.”

“Either that or I told them they'd spend their time in jail. These're city slickers we're dealing with.” He smiled. “Idea of them spending three, four nights in a hick-town jail tickles the hell out of me—but it sure don't do much for them. So they cooperated.”

“Do any of them have the gun or know what happened to it?”

“I'll get to that in a minute. When I leave here I'm gonna give you all the things I got from talkin' to them. Spent about an hour each with 'em. Wrote it down in pencil and had my office lady print it up on
that noisy damned machine we got in the front office. You're gonna need another rest here pretty soon. But when you wake up, I'd like you to look these things over. Maybe it'll help us figurin' out who killed him. I'm pretty sure one—or a couple of them together—were the ones who killed him.”

“But I told you—Tib and James fired a lot of shots into the barn.”

“Wasn't bullets that killed him.”

“What the hell do you mean?”

He sucked on his pipe, but it had gone out. “Somebody cut your brother's throat, Ford, and did a hell of a bloody job doing it.”

 

I slept the rest of the day. It was an automatic response, I suppose, to David being dead. We mourn those we love; that's sad enough. But to mourn somebody you loved, yet at times hated—that's even sadder, because one feeling corrupts the other. But there wasn't a whole hell of a lot I could do about it. I was pretty sure he'd felt the same about me.

I was awakened by the day's end rush. Staff people saying goodbye to each other; trays of food being delivered to the sixteen patients in the place; early visitors to see family members. You could smell dinner coming. Weak as I was in some respects, I sure had a good appetite. I sipped some water and then made my first struggling attempt to roll and light a cigarette one-handed. By the time I had a lumpy white cylinder rolled, I had spilled a third of the Bull Durham pouch on the nightstand and torn four cigarette papers. A wizard I wasn't. I didn't fare much
better with the matches. I burned the hell out of my thumb. The flesh around it was now brittle and brown, and the nail itself gray from the match heads.

The smoke tasted good. I took it down deep and true, and when I expelled it, it looked gas-jet blue in the sunlight. A nurse peeked in to say see you tomorrow, Mr. Ford, and the woman who'd cleaned the room asked if I was done with the magazines I'd told her she could have. I told her sure. She said her daughter would be very excited.

I had succumbed to the pace of the hospital. You can fight it, but why bother? Either your wound or illness or the sheer monotony of the place will get you eventually, anyway.

BOOK: The Killing Machine
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