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Authors: Ed Gorman

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BOOK: The Killing Machine
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“This is quite a place,” I said.

“Really? Everybody tells me how small it is.”

There was even smoke twisting up from the chimney.

“If you're here long enough, I'll make dinner for you some night.”

“I'd appreciate that.”

She glanced at the door with a clear longing in her eyes. “Even David consented to have dinner here a few times. He didn't like the place very much. I think he thought it was a bit ‘common.' He always said that was the hardest adjustment your folks had to make—that they'd had to sell off most of the plantation and live like they were ‘common.'”

I laughed. “That sounds like David. My folks have been reduced to having only one palatial estate, rather than two, and instead of slavery they now pay their colored servants ten cents a day so nobody can con
fuse them with slaves. I'm sure my father thinks even that's too much. That was the only real problem we ever had—the war. My brother fought for the South. My only feeling was that I just wanted to find some other solution than all the killing that went on.”

Whatever melancholy had been in her voice and eyes went hard when I talked about the war. Now, voice and eyes were even tighter, harder. “David said that you were both spies and assassins.”

“It was war. There were some people we had to kill to win. That's how the South felt about it and that's how we felt about it. I used to have a boss who was a Pinkerton. He always said, ‘What you have to remember, son, is that this is nothin' personal. You're killin' them just because it's your job.' I used to think he was crazy, but by the end of the war I figured he was right.”

I knew I'd made a mistake even before I'd finished speaking. Her eyes filled with tears and a tiny sob caught in her throat.

“I wish you hadn't told me that,” she said, pulling away from me. “‘Nothing personal.' I don't like to think of either you or David that way.”

I watched until she was inside and lamplight bloomed in the window. Then I headed back to town, where the two men hiding in the alley found me and tried to beat my head in without quite doing me the service of killing me.

T
hey knew what they were doing.

They had apparently followed me for some time as I walked Jane to her place. They gambled that I would take the same route home, just reversed. Therefore, it made sense for them to wait in the alley. Therefore, it made sense for them to wear dark kerchiefs over their faces and low-riding wide-brimmed hats that would shadow even their eyes. Therefore, it made sense for them to lunge at me before I'd even crossed the mouth of the alley.

I had no time to react, especially not with my arm in a sling. I heard them and started to turn backward to see what they were doing—the scraping sound on the sandy alley soil told me that they were basically running for me, so instinctively I knew I was being assaulted—but by the time I was able to get my first glimpse of them one kicked me straight in the groin and the other one grabbed me around the neck with such force that I was in perfect position for the ball-kicker to crack his Colt across my head two or three times and send me off into the realm of cold darkness.

They'd blindfolded me. They'd lashed me to a straight-backed chair. They'd dumped several gallons of water on me. I was shivering.

My wound hurt, my groin hurt, my head hurt. I wasn't so much afraid as I was mad—mad at them for obvious reasons, but also mad at myself. Maybe I couldn't have stopped them from grabbing me, but I should have been a lot more aware of my circumstances. I'd been thinking about Jane, which I shouldn't have been doing in the first place.

“Give him some more water.”

Man's voice. Raspy with tobacco and whiskey.

Clank of a bucket handle. Grunt from the man lifting it.

Cold angry splash of water all over my head and most of my torso.

The splasher said: “Better be careful we don't drown him.”

Bossman: “We want him good and cold. We used to do this to them stinkin' Rebs all the time. They'd get so cold they'd tell you anything you want to hear.”

Splasher (walking right up to my face): “Where's the fuckin' gun, you asshole? The one your brother had.” Giggling. To Bossman: “Lookit that sumbitch shake.”

Bossman walking across the wooden floor, closer to me.

Where was I? Somewhere near the railroad yard. I could hear cars being switched to sidings in the long, dark, lonely, prairie night. Men shouting back and forth to each other; men at work. Probably somewhere near the big barn the railroad used for repairs.

Bossman: “Where's the gun?”

“I don't know.” I had to clear my voice and repeat myself. “I don't know. How about shutting the window?”

“Sure,” Splasher said. “And then how about a nice steak and then a nice big farm gal for some pussy?”

Bossman: “The window's open to keep you nice and chilly, Ford. You should see yourself. You're shakin' all over.”

Splasher put his face up to mine again. “Where's the fuckin' gun, you asshole?” Good ol' Splash. He was obviously the bright one of the two.

Bossman: “Don't mind him. He's getting cold, too. Just wants to close that window and get warm, same as you and me. Go get some more water from the creek.”

Splasher: “Shit, I just got some.”

Bossman: “You don't want to be here all night, do you? Now hurry up.”

Splasher muttered under his breath and picked up the clanking bucket and then went out, slamming the door.

Mention of the creek fixed the location for sure. Down behind the railroad barn ran a narrow creek that was deep enough for the workers to dive into when the summer heat got too much at night.

Bossman: “I was fooling you. We're cold as hell, too. We'll all end up with pneumonia, we're not careful.”

“I don't know where the gun is.”

“He was your brother.”

“I still don't know where it is. The last time I saw it, he was demonstrating it to the four men who were interested in buying it. No doubt one of them is probably paying you to work me over like this.”

It's hard to convey what my voice sounded like. My teeth were literally chattering and my voice was wavering up and down so raggedly that not all of the words came out clear.

“You like a smoke, Ford?”

“Is that a trick question? Of course I'd like a smoke.”

“I'm afraid your makings are pretty soaked. But how about I give you one of mine? One of those prerolled smokes.”

“I'll take it.”

And I did. I was shaking so hard the cigarette fell out of my mouth before he got it lighted. Then I got the cigarette so soaked from hair dripping water that he had to pitch it and give me another one. And then I finally started taking sweet, pure smoke into my lungs.

“Where the hell's that water at, anyway?”

The gunshot. One of them. Loud, lone. A muffled shout.

“What the hell was that?” Bossman said.

Walked to the door. Door creaking open.

“Where the hell is he?” Bossman, turning back to me: “You don't try nothin' funny.”

“What could I try?” I shivered, speaking around my cigarette.

He went outdoors. Footsteps on dry ground. Retreating. Searching.

I was curious, too, of course. Send a man out for a bucket of water to a nearby creek, how long could it take him? Then a gunshot. What was going on?

I smoked the cigarette down to the nub. The flame was about to burn my lips. I finally had to spit it out. With my arms tied tight to my torso, I didn't have a
hand to use. The arm in the sling was numb by now. They'd cinched the rope around me too tight. Not that this would have broken their hearts. They'd figure the extra pain would just get me to tell them about the gun. You read in books and stories how men, and sometimes women, stand up to hours of torture. I'm always chary of such claims. They know how to break you. It's trial and error; it's duration. Either they find the precise method to break you or they keep trying different methods until you snap from sheer exhaustion. I'm sure there are men and women who've stood up to whatever torture was imposed on them. But I doubt there are many of them.

Another gunshot. No muffled scream this time. Wind seemed to hide what sounded vaguely like a heavy weight slamming against the ground.

Then just wind. Showing off a little, I guess. Rattling trees, spraying sandy soil against the cabin I was in, whipping up the prelude to a real rainstorm—little drops of water blown against my already wet face.

No human sounds. No animal sounds. The wind hiding the noises of the railroad barn.

Becoming aware again of how cold I was. Sneezing. My throat already burning. I'd always had tonsil trouble.

Fuckers. You know how you get when you're getting sick. At least I do. Irrational rage. A reasonable amount of pain, I can handle. But not being sick. I didn't care so much now that they'd beaten me, kidnapped me, tied me up, demanded to know where the gun was. I wanted to get my hands on them and beat them to death—literally, at this point in my rage—because in addition to the gunshot wound and the sling holding me down, I would now have a bad
cold that was bound to slow me down. Assuming they didn't kill me.

Somebody in the doorway. A faint shoe-scraping sound. Then no sound at all except the wind. Pictured somebody in the door frame. Watching me.

“Hello,” I said.

But there was no answer. Footsteps coming across the floor. The man who'd fired the shots outside? “Hello,” I said again. But this time the wind took my voice. My strength left, too.

The darkness…just the darkness.

D
elirium. Pastpresent. Images of my lifetime merging. Remorse, bliss, fear, remorse.

Traveling. Bumpy road. My guess: bed of buckboard. Awareness: wound hurting. Scratchy blankets. Voice. Voices.

Scents: lamp oil, medicine, woman.

Voices.

“I'm telling you, Marshal, he's not in his right mind. Most of the time he just babbles. You'll need to wait till morning before you talk to him. Late morning.”

“His memory'd be fresher now.”

Shivering again. Entire body. Pastpresent. Images of my lifetime merging.

“Now, Marshal, please do what I say and go the hell on home.”

Laugh. “You make a persuasive case, Doc. You should've been a lawyer.”

“Careful now or I'll wash your mouth out with soap.”

 

Healing from the wound, I'd gotten broth and bits of bread.

From the beating and the dousing I'd taken last night, I got coffee, two thick slices of ham, three eggs and a huge slice of bread gleaming with fresh strawberry preserves.

I also got Nurse Jane.

“You could've died if the marshal hadn't found you in that cabin.”

I was busy eating—I imagined I was making a lot of noise smacking my lips and I didn't give a damn—which wasn't all that easy with one good arm. Shoveling food in your mouth usually takes two hands, at least at the rate I was jamming it in.

“Somebody killed the two men who kidnapped you.”

“You know who the men were?”

“Around here, everybody knows who they were. Their names were Bines and Selkirk. They were the last two of a gang that used to rob banks here in the Territory. That was what most people said, anyway. They lived here the past six or seven months and they were always in trouble for little things, mostly involving fights when they got drunk. One time they beat up this other prisoner in jail so badly he nearly died. The marshal got in the cell with them and then beat Bines bad enough to break his nose and two ribs. The marshal hated them.”

I paused, started to speak.

She said, “You have a piece of egg hanging off your nose.”

“I'll bet I look pretty handsome.”

“Let me get it for you.” She dipped a napkin into my water glass and then cleaned me up. The way a mom would.

I thanked her. “They wanted to know where David hid the gun.”

“Everybody in town wants to know where David hid the gun. It's all anybody talks about. They even stop me in the street. They think maybe he told me without telling me.”

“How's that again?”

“You know. They think David probably gave me a hint of where he hid it and that I'll be walking along the street someday and it'll just come to my mind. Meanwhile, they have all these guesses as to where it might be. That's what they always tell me, their guesses.”

“The gun could be long gone.”

“That's what I tell them.”

“Or one of the four men who came to town to buy may have it and be hiding it somewhere.”

“I tell them that, too. But they don't listen. I imagine the gold rush days were like that here. Everybody half-crazy thinking they'll get rich if they can just find it.”

“How's Fairbain?”

“About the same. Still unconscious. But he's not getting any worse, anyway.”

“I wish I knew who beat him.”

“So does Marshal Wickham. He's here twice a day.”

I looked at the empty dishes. “When do I get out of here?”

“The doctor said that he wants to look at you later this afternoon. Then he'll probably let you go. You have a slight concussion. That head of yours can't take much more punishment. And you've got a slight cold. You could've gotten pneumonia.”

I yawned. All the good food had made me logy. But at least the cold wasn't as bad as I'd feared.

She swept up the dishes with her usual skill and said, “The marshal'll be here in an hour or so. You should take a little nap.”

“I don't know if I'm that tired.”

Two minutes after she left my room I was asleep.

 

I could hear Marshal Wickham glad-handing the hospital staff from the front door all the way to my room. The good ones run for office 365 days a year, not just at election time. Smiles and handshakes and friendly hellos are remembered a lot longer than speeches and reelection fliers, and Marshall Wickham had obviously learned that a long time ago. I'd met a lawman just outside Kansas City who personally delivered donated groceries to poor families. And when the snows came, he spent the day shoveling paths to old folks and invalids. These are the good ones. The bad ones don't usually last long enough to matter.

He must have been after my vote, too, because even before he said anything he put a sack of Bull Durham and some cigarette papers on the stand next to my bed.

“No need to thank me for saving your life,” he said. And then laughed. “They were a pair, weren't they?”

“Thought I had the gun. Or the man who hired them did, anyway.”

“I still haven't figured out who that was yet. One
of the arms fellas, for sure. But I figure that between us we can figure out who it is.”

“Between us? You mean work together?”

“Sure. Why not? You got this notion that you Federales and local law can't work together. I'm here to show you otherwise.”

“I thought you thought I tried to kill Fairbain?”

“Crossed my mind, I'll admit that. But then I started realizing that you wouldn't have any particular reason to kill him. Then when I saw you tied up in that chair…” He made a gift of his big hand. His palm was as coarse as old leather. “Well, I can only hold these arms fellas a few more days. Once they're gone, we'll never be able to figure anything out.”

“I agree with you there.”

“Doc tells me you need a good night's sleep. When you get yourself ready in the morning, stop in and see me. I may be in court. The county attorney brought charges against this land developer who took all this money from some locals and then never got around to developing any land.”

“I could see where that would tend to piss somebody off.”

“Yeah, just a mite, especially if it was your life savings you handed over to him.” He grinned. “Now get some sleep. And when you wake up, Jane'll be here taking care of you. No wonder you like this place so much.”

After he left, I turned the lamp down and lay there thinking about the gun. It didn't weigh that much, it wasn't pretty except for its ability to fire a few more bullets with a little more precision, the mechanics of it weren't even all that different from the existing Gatling model. But men, intelligent men, chased it the
way they chased that beautiful woman who'd always just eluded them, the woman glimpsed on a sunny street, or in a dim train window or turned into a work of art on canvas. There was an almost sexual fervor about the chase for the gun. The difference being that the chase for the woman inspired beauty; the chase for the gun inspired death.

I had a smoke and thought about Jane for a time. Finally, the gods merciful, I slept the peaceful sleep of a ten-year-old who'd exhausted himself swimming and playing baseball all day.

 

What was supposed to be a routine surgery went bad in the morning—the doctor had ended up keeping me overnight—and the hospital became a grim and frenzied place. Both doctors and all three nurses spent the time in surgery trying to save the man's life. I hadn't been told what had gone wrong. I probably wouldn't have understood, anyway. I took a sponge bath, shaved, dressed in clothes some helpful citizen had brought over from my hotel room, and then left the hospital in search of the world's finest breakfast.

What were probably pretty ordinary eggs, ham, and sliced potatoes tasted like something not even a king should expect. The coffee, four cups of it, went down mighty fine, too. The last cup went down even better with a cigarette I rolled from the Bull Durham Wickham had given me. For the length of time it took me to burn the cigarette down, I thought back through the investigation so far and realized that I hadn't spent much time at all at the ranch where David had lived for so many months. I needed to go
back through everything, step by step, and then catch myself up to date. I reasoned the way Wickham did. We didn't have much time left to hold the four men who'd come here to bid on the gun. We had to get going.

Turned out Wickham, as he'd suspected, had gotten tied up in court. I went over to the livery and got myself a saddle and a horse and headed out for the ranch. Real fall was setting in. Despite the blinding beauty of the golden red leaves and the clean, blue sky and the pastoral look of farmers following plow and horse as they tilled their land, the bite of winter was on the air. It was nearly eleven a.m. and the temperature was around forty, and despite the full, clear sun there was no promise of it getting any hotter.

When I reached the crest of the hill that looked down on the ranch, I wondered for the first time if David had found any peace here. We'd always been a restless pair. And though we'd grown up on a plantation packed with privilege for two little white boys, there'd always been a streak of unhappiness in us. Every once in a while, and for no particular reason, my mother would go upstairs and close the door on her sewing room and sob. There was never any explanation for it. One time I heard my father trying to soothe her: “I wish you knew why these damned moods came on you, Susan.” And she'd said: “I can't even explain them to myself, dear.” Maybe it was Mother's blood that explained the unhappiness, the restlessness, the sense that happiness was motion. If you could run fast enough and far enough it wouldn't catch up with you.

I made my slow and careful way up to the ranch house. I avoided the barn. I had to work up to that.
Images of David with his throat slashed—I went through the house first. I was inside for maybe a half hour—not turning up much—when I heard him.

What he did was trip over a section of drainpipe on the ground. I didn't realize this at first, of course. All I knew was that somebody was outside, at the back of the house, and that he was making some kind of noise. I slipped my gun from my holster and went to have a look.

I found him on the side of the house, his hand to his forehead like a visor, peering in through the window.

“If you're looking for me, I'm right here.”

He was maybe five feet tall, with a shiny, bald head and a pair of store-boughts that clacked even when he wasn't talking. He wore a faded, red, woolen shirt and a filthy pair of butternuts. He had a knife the size of a sword stuck through the front of his belt. I could smell him from ten feet away. “Where's Ford?”

“I'm Ford.”

“The hell you say. You ain't Ford.”

“I'm Noah Ford.”

“Noah Ford?” He made it sound as if the concept that there could be two Fords on the planet was just too much for him to deal with. “This some kind of trick?”

“No. I'm his brother. Or was. He's dead.”

“He's dead? That sonofabitch.”

Despite the stench, which was considerable, I moved closer to him. “I'd be careful if I was you. Like I said, he was my brother.”

“Yeah? Well, mister, he owed me money. So that makes him a sonofabitch in my book.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Hobbins. Wylie Hobbins.”

I stopped moving toward him. The odor halted me.

“I got this skin disease is what you're smellin'. It looks even worse than it smells. This here woman saw me without my shirt on and she fainted dead away, and that ain't no bullshit.” He grinned with his store-boughts. “It's my secret weapon.”

“What did he owe you money for?”

“Trips to the island. I took him three times.”

“What island?”

“Parson's Cairn.” He winked at me. “That's where he took the married ones.”

“He was seeing married women?”

“Yep, two of them. I'd take David and one of them over on the raft and then come back for them a couple hours later. I'll tell you one thing, he sure didn't like to pay his bills. From what I hear, he run up debts all over the place.”

I'd forgotten that. Because of the way we'd been raised, David had this notion that people he considered to be commoners—which was basically everybody except our family—should be just double-damned delighted to wait on us and do our bidding in any way we saw fit. And if they wanted to get paid for these services? Well, sir, it just depended on his mood. Or if he liked you. Or if your coarseness didn't in some way offend his high-born sensibilities.

So David had owed a lot of people money. No surprise.

“How much did he owe you?”

He told me. I dug in my pocket, brought out a nice, shiny, gold coin and flipped it to him. “There you go.”

He caught it, looked at it this way and that, a real
trusting gent, shrugged, and put it in his pocket. “Who killed him? Some pissed-off husband?”

“I'm not sure yet.”

“You can bet it was a husband, the way he caroused around. He was one of them fellas that just couldn't keep his hands off other people's property.”

“Maybe I could invite you to his funeral and you could pay him a tribute.” But sarcasm was too subtle for this one. “You got the names of the two women he took to the island?”

“You got another one of them gold eagles?”

I wanted to hit him but I had to figure out a way of doing it without touching him. The stench was rotting flesh. I pictured leprosy or some variation of it.

I flipped him another coin.

“Paulie, Stu Paulie's wife, Della. That was one. And Don Hester's wife, Irene. That was the other. But they won't do you no good.”

“Why not?”

“Both moved away. Just picked up and left. Whole families and everything. Don Hester had him a nice hardware business, too. But the shame was too much. Irene Hester, she got mad when she found out about Della Paulie sneakin' off with your brother and she went right to Della's husband and told him what his wife was up to. He went to your brother and beat him up pretty bad. Bad enough that he got your brother to tell him about Irene Hester, too.” He was flipping his second gold coin in the air. Sunlight caught it and as it tumbled in the soft, blue air it was the color of flame. “The Hesters packed up and left about a year ago. The Paulies left about three months after. Just couldn't take all the whispers, I reckon. You know how a small town is.”

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