Authors: Ed Gorman
“You had yourself a pretty good day.”
He gave the gold coin another toss and said, “I shoulda been doin' business with you 'stead of your brother. I like the way you pay up real prompt and all.”
I couldn't handle him anymore. “Get the hell out of here.”
The store-boughts clacked as he laughed. “Ain't my fault your brother was a no-account.” He started to turn away and said, “You ever need me for anything, you just ask for Wylie Hobbins. People'll point you to where I am.”
Yeah, I thought, they can tell by the smell.
I waved him away with great disgust.
“He was somethin', that brother of yours,” he giggled over his shoulder, walking away. “He sure as hell was.”
I returned to town without anything to show for the trip, except for losing a little money to Wylie Hobbins. The first place I went was the hospital. I wanted to see if Fairbain had come to yet or if he was still in a coma. I wanted to talk to Jane, too, but she was busy helping a very old lady walk down the first floor corridor. My morning's bad luck held fast. Fairbain was still unconscious. I supposed it was even worse luck for him.
He was waiting for me outside. At first I didn't recognize him in the ten-gallon hat. On him it was comical. A New York cowboy, as they were known.
“Had any lunch, Mr. Ford?”
“Oh, it's you. I just went to see your friend, Wayland.”
“Oh, c'mon now, if you mean Fairbain, he's no friend of mine. He's no friend of anybody's. And neither am I. Not anybody who's in my business, anyway. We're competitors and nothing more and nothing less. Now, how about some lunch?”
Two good reasons to take up his offer: I wondered what he wanted and I was hungry. “All right.”
“Up for something fancy?” That was when I realized he'd had a few drinks. He was acting a little tougher than usual.
“Chili's about as fancy as I feel right now.”
“Cold day, hot chili. Let's try that cafÃ© over there.”
A couple of merchants were putting election signs in their windows. Just in case you don't think the Wild West is dead and goneâif it ever really existedâthe signs would convince you otherwise. A man named McLaren was running on three issues: a better school, better garbage collection, and better care of the streets. You can bet that the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James never once gave a thought to any of these matters.
The chili was advertised as “Texas chili,” and while it wasn't as hot as all that, it did make your esophagus plead for mercy at least a couple of times.
“You're showing me the sights, Mr. Ford.”
“How would that be?”
“Place like this.”
“I don't follow you.”
“Look around. Salt of the earth. Working men. Sleeves rolled up. Heavy clothes so they can work outdoors in chilly weather. Grateful that they've got a job. They're the backbone of this country.”
“You're an arrogant sonofabitch.”
His head jerked back a bit, as if something had just
bit him. “What's that supposed to mean? Salt of the earth? Backbone of this country? What's wrong with that?”
“You make them sound stupid. Like pack mules. Do their jobs, salute the flag, give thanks to all millionaires who don't pay them enough for the work they do or the chances they take.”
His smirk didn't surprise me. “I wonder if the Army knows that they have a labor agitator on the payroll.”
“Don't fool yourself. A lot of people who don't have anything to do with labor think the way I do. We just saw the last part of the railroad west being built. All the men who died building it so the rich men could get richer. Especially the Chinese who died. The railroad people didn't even bother to keep count of them.”
We were finished with our chili. We'd sat back, he with a pipe and I with a cigarette. His hat got a couple of amused glances from a burly bald guy on his way out the door.
“I guess I'll have to be very careful of how I approach you, won't I?”
“Approach me for what?”
“For selling me the gun.”
“I don't have the gun.”
“You're his brother.”
“Is that supposed to mean something?”
“You were out there when he died. You were there because he had the gun and because he was your brother.”
“I still don't see what you're driving at.”
“Well, let's suppose you're a man who's tired of what he's doing. I don't mean to be churlish about
this, but you look pretty worn out, Mr. Ford. The years are catching up with you.”
I laughed at how obvious he had gotten all of a sudden. “So you're worried about me. You think I should retire and buy myself a cabin somewhere and finish out my years catching fish and knocking back some good whiskey.”
“Or living in a nice big city with a lot of nice big ladies in it and plenty of other diversions like gambling and musicales andâ¦”
I shook my head. “No point in going on. I don't have the gun. I don't know where the gun is. And even if I did have the gun I wouldn't give you or anybody else a bid because my plan is to take the gun back to the Army Department in Washington, which is the rightful owner.”
“You surprise me, Mr. Ford.”
I stood up and tossed some coins on the table. “Well, you don't surprise me, Mr. Wayland. You're just the kind of whore I thought you were. You might even have killed my brother, Mr. Wayland.” I picked up my hat, cinched it on tight. “And God help you if you did.”
hat afternoon the hospital was quiet. No nurses bustling about; no patients slowly walking the halls; no relatives quietly weeping.
In the small room that the docs and nurses used for eating and relaxing, I found Jane reading a magazine. When she became aware of me, she looked up and smiled. “You're starting to get some color back in your face.”
The room, like every room in the hospital, was painted white. A skeleton stood in the corner, the attitude of its long bones suggesting that it was about to break into a dance. The walls were covered with lithographs of great figures in medicine. Most of them I hadn't heard of. Which made us even up, I suppose. They probably hadn't heard of me, either.
“Help yourself to the coffee,” she said, before I had a chance to speak.
I poured myself a cup. In a room somewhere on the first floor, a patient coughed. It was the loudest noise I'd heard since coming here.
“Quiet,” I said.
She smiled. “You're witnessing a miracle. Most of
the patients are sleeping. Dr. Roussel even had time to look for a birthday present for his little daughter. He said to mark this day on our calendars.”
I angled my chair so that I could stretch my legs out. “I was out at David's place earlier today.”
It's funny the effect a single word can have on the right person. Just the mention of his name changed her entire being. The head raised up a bit higher; apprehensionâmaybe even dreadâshowed in the lovely eyes; and the lips parted dryly. I imagined her pulse rate went up, too.
“You know some man named Hobbins?”
She put her magazine down. “Hobbins? No, I don't think so.”
“Claims he took David to a place called Parson's Cairn. You know where that is?”
“It's on this tiny island downstream. In the early days some river pirates hid there. The story is that they buried treasure somewhere on the cairn.”
“I think so. Nobody's ever found anything there that I know of.”
“So David never mentioned Hobbins or Parson's Cairn?”
“Not that I remember.”
I sipped coffee.
She said, “There's something you want to tell me. Or ask me.”
“What makes you think that?”
“You seem nervous. That's not like you. And then you just show up and ask me questions about somebody named Hobbins and Parson's Cairn.”
One of the other nurses came in. She nodded to both of us and then went to a cupboard where she
found some hard candy. “Mr. Daly will be waking up soon. This'll be the first thing he asks for.” The voice was fond. “He's like a little kid about his candy.”
“So what is it?”
“What is what?”
“Oh, c'mon, Noah, say what you came here to say.”
I sighed. Raised my eyes to look at the colorful leaves just outside the window. Merry as children, they looked.
“This Hobbinsâand he may have been lyingâhe told me that David used to take married women to the island.”
The hospital got even quieter. She began to fidget with her fingers. She stared at them as if they were creatures somehow separate from her and she was curious about what they'd do next. “Do I really need to hear the rest?”
“I'm trying to find out who killed him, Jane.”
“One of those men who wanted the gun.”
“Maybe. Probably. But I have to make sure.” I leaned forward. I brushed her hand with mine. “I'm sorry I have to ask you this.”
She didn't raise her head. “I'm sorry you have to ask me, too.”
“So you think it's true?”
“You heard the talk? Hobbins told me that there were two women. When everybody in town figured out that they were seeing David, their husbands packed up the families and they moved.”
The pretty face came into view again. “There was a man there one day just when I was riding in. He
was shouting at David. And waving a pistol at him. Threatening him. I never was sure what he was so mad about. Not then, I wasn't. But then Della Paulie and her husbandâthey had a very public argument one day. Right after church, in fact. A lot of people heard it. And one day as I was leaving David's place, I saw a woman on a horse sort of hiding on the edge of the woodsâit was the Paulie woman. So I pretty much knew then that David was the man involved.”
“Did you tell him you knew?”
“Noânot right away. But I must have been acting withdrawn or something, because one night he made me talk about it. He said he was tired of the way I was acting. That he expected to have fun with me, but that I'd become this really cold person. So I told him.”
I knew what she would say then because I'd grown up with David and knew how he reacted any time he was accused of something that he was guilty of.
“I guess I was pretty naÃ¯ve. I thought he'd tell me that he was sorry or something like that. But instead he got really mad. Told me to go home. Told me that it wasn't any of my business. Told me that I didn't have any right to question what he did.”
Pure David. Change the subject. Put you on trial instead of him. Twist things to the point where you almost wanted to apologize to him for bringing it up in the first place.
The scream that ended the quiet. The scream that set feet to running, not only on the first floor, but
down the steps from the second floor. The scream that ignited a dozen startled conversations.
Jane was up out of her chair so quickly that she knocked the chair over behind her. She didn't so much as glance at me, let alone say anything. She simply took off running.
Whoever had screamed was now shouting “Dr. Hopkins! Dr. Hopkins!”
Jane wasn't in the hall. I stood outside the break room watching half a dozen people hurry through an open door near the front of the hospital.
A male voice, stern and angry: “How the hell did this happen?”
A low buzz of voices. From what I could hear, none of the other people in the room had anything meaningful to say. They just babbled words that hoped to quell the anger of the male voice.
I eased myself down to the room where everything was going on. A cleaning woman charged out of there, knocking against me, not saying a word. Her face was frozen in shock.
I'd been so caught up in the melee that the room number hadn't registered. This was Fairbain's room. I stood behind three hospital workers who were leaning in for a look. The doc blocked my view of Fairbain's head and upper torso. But from the chest down it was easy to see that Fairbain was having convulsions. His body jumped and jerked with so much force that the bed itself was moving at an angle. The doc shouted to Jane and another nurse, “Hold this bed down!”
I pushed past the workers and crowded my way inside. I grabbed the metal end of the bed and held on to it. Jane and the other nurse were anchoring the
head of the bed. The doc glanced up at me and glowered, but went right back to his work.
Fairbain's face was a greenish color. His blue eyes stared hard at the ceiling. There was madness in them. He had puked all over himself. Vomit was still dribbling out of the right side of his mouth. The vomit was a deeper green than the color of his face. His face was glazed with sweat. His teeth clacked, his body was shaking so hard. The part of me that stays detached at moments like theseâI suppose it's a way of not fully registering the horror I'm witnessingâwondered what kind of poison somebody had given him. Not that it mattered. There would be a medical examination and the poison would be given a name and that name would be read to the judge, but the name didn't matter to anybody but the docs and the lawyers. What mattered, to me anyway, is that the one man who might have been able to identify the killer was just a few seconds from dying. The one man who'd offered some small hope now offered no hope at all.
His convulsing stopped. One moment he was death-dancing all over his bed and then he was corpse-still. But his labored breathingâcoming in snorts now, snorts that expelled long strings of wet snot from both his nostrilsâhis breathing had a rattle to it now and there was no doubt about what that meant.
The doc stopped, too. “Somebody's going to lose their job over this,” he said, glaring at Jane and the other nurse. Then he glared at me. “And just who the hell are you?” He needed to unload his rage, his failure, and I probably looked like the deserving type.
I showed him my badge.
“You think I can read that sonofabitch from here? What kind of badge is it?”
Fairbain's bowels exploded then. The smell made everybody move back a foot or two from the bed. The body convulsed again a few times as well.
“It says I'm an Army investigator.”
“Oh,” he said, “so you're Ford.”
He was finding his emotional footing again. He took a deep breath. Let it out. “Marshal Wickham mentioned you. Sorry I didn't recognize you.”
He nodded to Jane and the other nurse. “Sorry I was yelling, ladies. Someday somebody's going to take me seriously about security in this place. I keep telling the Board that this place is wide open to anybody who wants to come in here. And now we see what can happen.”
He was still angry, but now he was angry at a lower and more socially acceptable decibel. The nurses offered him sympathetic gazes and I nodded my head and said, “You have to have security everywhere these days.” Now there was a brainstorm, but the doc was so het up I thought I'd agree with him on general principle.
He glanced down at Fairbain. “Tell Rooney to run and get the marshal, would you, Marge?”
“Of course, Doctor.”
Two male workers came in with buckets and mops and bleach, followed by a nursing assistant with fresh bedclothes. The various smells were starting to accumulate.
To the nursing assistant, the doc said, “Open the window and then close the door. Let this air out for at least eight hours.”
He glanced at me. “I need to consult with the other doctor, Mr. Ford. He knows a lot more about poisons than I do.”
Jane found me on the back porch. She went over to the edge of it and looked down at a buckboard filled with boxes that were being offloaded by two Mexican men. Her eyes were slick with tears.
We stood in a far corner. I rolled a cigarette. She'd taken to staring down at her fidgeting fingers again. I knew better than to say anything. She'd speak in her own time.
“I've never seen anybody die that way.”
“Me, either,” I said.
“You think you're pretty much used to everythingâyou know, after being a nurse for six years and everythingâbut then something like this happens.” She touched my arm. “It's about the gun, isn't it?”
“I guess so. It would seem to be. That's why Fairbain came to town. He wasn't here long enough the first time or this time to really get to know anybody. So I suppose somebody poisoned him for the gun. But it doesn't make sense when you think about it.”
“Maybe Fairbain knew something and the killer didn't want him to talk to you.”
“That's about the only thing I can figure, too.”
“Maybe he knew where the gun was. Maybe he had a partner. Maybe the partner killed him because he didn't want a partner anymore.”
Then she leaned into meâthe only parts of our bodies really touching were our armsâbut there was a gentle intimacy in the move, and we stood there
silent for a time, letting our bodies speak much more eloquently than our tongues ever could.
A nurse came then and said quietly, “Jane. We need you.”
Jane left immediately.