Each weekday on this blog you will find an episode of a western short story featuring Rance Dehner, a detective who operates in the old West. When the story concludes, it will be archived for those readers who prefer to read a story from start to finish.
Jim Goodman was lost in the wilderness. He gazed at the sky hoping to spot the
big dipper or some such constellation which could help him find his way. The
pastor saw nothing helpful. Heaven seemed to be mocking him with its twinkling
westerner I am,” He said to his horse. The pastor recalled the letters he had
sent to Amanda back in Boston. Tales of how he was living like a dime novel
hero, dealing with hard cases. Such tales would surely make her realize that he
was a far better catch than Henry Yates the bank teller.
man shouldn’t lie to the woman he loves,” Reverend Goodman whispered. In fact,
he had never dealt with outlaws in his position as the associate pastor of The
First Methodist Church of Dallas. The main trouble he had encountered was with
the senior pastor of the church, who didn’t like his assistant and had found a
way to give him the boot.
Goodman’s thoughts flashed back to last Sunday. Bishop Karl Larkin had stood in
the pulpit and smiled benignly. “Our associate pastor, Jim Goodman, has heard
the Lord calling him to a ministry in Antioch, about fifteen miles northwest of
here.” Bishop Larkin’s voice was as silver as his hair. “I’m asking the
officers of the church to come forward and lay hands on Jim as we all pray for
laughed bitterly. The church officers came forward all right, most of them
smirking. They knew what was really going on.
Amanda be willing to marry a preacher with a church in a small, dusty western
town? He had written her about his new “calling” a few weeks ago and repeated
his plea for her to marry him. So far there had been no response.
Goodman’s mind returned to the present. He spotted smoke coming from a distant
grove of trees. Smoke probably meant a campfire, and a campfire meant people.
rode briskly toward the thin wisps of smoke, grateful for a well- lit night.
For the first time since leaving Dallas, the pastor felt a small surge of
pastor stopped his horse. This was odd. A thick line of trees ran in front of a
stream. The smoke was escaping from inside the grove. He could spot a faint
light. Why take a chance on building a campfire in a place where there was a
good chance the fire could get out of control? They could easily have made camp
in front of the trees.
Goodman felt uneasy as he patted his horse. Of course, there could be several
answers to his question, but one was obvious. He may have stumbled onto an
owlhoot camp. The men were trying to conceal their fire because they were
outlaws. An unusually bright night had betrayed them. Maybe he should ride on.
Goodman’s horse nickered. He could hear movement from inside the grove. He had
no choice now, “Hello the camp!”
was silence then a voice shouted back. “Welcome stranger. Ride in. You’re
welcome to a cup of joe.”
voice was deep and the friendliness artificial. Goodman wanted to spur his
horse and ride off. But if they were outlaws they could catch up with him
easily enough. Besides, he was hopelessly lost. Maybe the Lord had guided him
to some friendly strangers.
Goodman gently spurred his horse and rode into the camp.
narrow, twisting aisle ran between the trees. The pastor guessed that some
people had gone to a lot of trouble to conceal their whereabouts.
tried to calm his anxiety as he rode closer to the fire. There was a clearing
but it was very small. Still, there appeared to be only two men. Most of the
owlhoot camps he had read about consisted of at least a half dozen outlaws.
he approached the fire, a man holding a gun walked toward him. “Get off the
intend you no harm, sir! If you wish, I’ll gladly turn my horse around and--”
off the horse! Then put your hands up.”
did what he was told. He faced a man about his own size, slightly under six
feet, with a boyish face. The gunman’s brown hair was curly, making him look a
bit like the drawings Jim Goodman had seen of angels. But the angels held harps,
not six guns.
are you?” The gunman snapped.
Goodman. Reverend Jim Goodman.”
gunman’s face remained placid. “Fargo, check his saddle bags.”
Goodman began to again feel hopeful.
The man holding the gun seemed to be relaxing a bit. The look on his face now
reflected curiosity more than antagonism.
“Nothin’ much here, Abner,” Fargo
shouted. “Jus’ a Bible and lots of papers. Some of the papers are letters.”
“Where are you heading, preacher?”
Abner still held the gun but now he was pointing it at the ground.
“Antioch,” Goodman replied good
naturedly, or as close to it as he could get. “A town with a fine Biblical
“Watcha mean?” Fargo spoke as he
moved back toward the fire. He was shorter than Abner and more than a few
pounds overweight, with narrow eyes set in a pudgy face.
Perspiration dotted Goodman’s
forehead but he tried to sound light hearted. “Antioch is mentioned in the
Bible several times. In Acts Eleven we are told that it was the first place
where Christians were called…Christians.”
Abner holstered his gun as he looked
over the new comer’s clothes, including the black frock coat and black hat.
“You’re a real reverend, ain’t you? Not just some guy who preaches in a
“Yes!” Goodman’s voice was buoyant
with relief. He was no longer looking at the front end of a gun. “I was
educated in Boston. I just left a calling in Dallas. I’m now going to Antioch
where the citizens are preparing to build a new church.”
Abner’s voice was also buoyant. “I’m
afraid you’re a bit lost, preacher. The best trail to Antioch is back a ways.”
“Would you mind drawing me a map?
I’m afraid I have lost my way.” He laughed nervously. “It’s not good for a
preacher to lose his way.”
Fargo didn’t laugh, but Abner did: that
made Jim Goodman feel good. Abner appeared to be the leader of the two men.
do better than that, Reverend,” Abner said. “Fargo and me will ride into
Antioch with you tomorrow.”
“You’re being too kind, I can’t
Abner cut him off. “My partner and
me are just two saddle bums. Ridin’ from one job to the next. I hear tell there
are some big ranches around Antioch. Maybe we can find us some work.”
“You’re being very kind.”
“No trouble attall. Fargo, fix
Reverend Goodman a cup of coffee.” Abner pointed to a log beside the fire.
“Take a load off your feet, Reverend.”
Jim Goodman felt relieved. These two
men obviously lived rough lives. They were crude but respected his position as
a man of God. The words he had spoken to Amanda on their last evening together
in Boston came back to him:
“The West is full of ruffians and
scoundrels. It is a land that can only be conquered by a man who is willing to
look tough men in the eye and speak the truth in love. I am that man, Amanda.”
The young woman had looked doubtful.
“Are you sure this is the Lord’s calling on your life, Jim?”
Jim Goodman stared at the fire in
front of him. He had been sure, but for all the wrong reasons. He had just
escaped flunking out of college with grades that were barely passing. Several
professors had told him that they could not, in good conscience, recommend him
for any position.
But the Dean had shown more
compassion. “The West may be the place for you, Mr. Goodman. The standards
there are…ah…less demanding.”
Dean Howell had written to Karl
Larkin. Bishop Larkin had agreed to take on Jim Goodman on a temporary basis.
After a few weeks Bishop Larkin had informed his associate pastor that the
position was going to be very temporary. His demeanor had not been friendly.
“Are the folks friendly?”
The question yanked Reverend Goodman
back into the present. “Ah…excuse me?”
Abner handed the pastor a cup of
coffee. “Are the folks in Antioch a friendly bunch?”
Jim mouthed a thank you before
speaking. “I’ve never actually been there. I’ve communicated by letter with the
town’s mayor, Frank Dunning. But Antioch is a town that takes faith very
“Whatcha mean by that?” Fargo spoke
as he placed the coffee can back over the fire.
Goodman blew gently on the liquid in his cup.
“The people there want to build a church. A beautiful church with stained glass
windows and an altar made with the finest wood: a church that will stand for a
hundred years or more. They think I’m the man to lead the project.”
“I’m sure they’re right about that,
Reverend.” Abner remained standing. He smiled down at the newcomer.
“But…stained glass windows…the finest lumber…ain’t that gonna cost big money?”
The pastor sipped his coffee, then
answered the question. “Yes, but they have already raised most of it. I’m going
to be responsible for ordering the windows and…”
“Anything wrong, Reverend?” Abner
Reverend Goodman took a long drink
of his coffee. The warm brew settled in his stomach and felt good. “You know, I
decided to ride from Dallas to Antioch instead of taking the train because I
felt that I needed the experience. Needed to sleep under the stars and all
that. Well, I got lost and, I’ll admit it. I was scared.”
The pastor laughed whimsically. “But
I ran into two good Samaritans. Maybe the Lord wants me in the West, after
Abner’s laugh was loud and harsh. He
slammed a fist into Goodman’s neck. The pastor dropped his coffee cup and
rolled onto the ground, gasping for air.
the second time that night, the pastor was staring directly upwards. Only now
he was on his back and the branches of trees blocked out much of the sky.
Tendrils of smoke from the fire seemed to be wrapping around the branches like
Then Abner’s face, red and full of
hate was suddenly blocking his view. A huge fist once again came down on his
neck, and something heavy pressed against his throat.
For a moment, Jim Goodman was back
in Boston, walking through a park with Amanda. They stopped beside a river. She
smiled at him and the two of them embraced.
Then everything vanished and there
was only darkness.
Abner gradually arose and looked
down at the corpse. “That was easy enough.”
“Coulda been a lot easier,” Fargo
replied. “Why didn’t you jus’ shoot the sky pilot?”
Abner walked over to the fire and
picked up a cup. “Any coffee left?”
Abner removed the can from over the
fire and poured coffee into his cup. “What did you think of our last job?”
Fargo shrugged his shoulders. “Sorta
disappointin’. The payroll wasn’t on that stage like we heard.”
Abner returned the can to the spider
web over the fire. “We got a little over sixty-five dollars and we had two
jaspers helpin’ us.”
“I’ve seen some of them stained
glass windows in Denver.”
“I saw me one in Dallas,” Fargo
said. “They’re pretty enough, I guess.”
“Pretty and very expensive,” Abner
“Those good church goin’ folks in
Antioch must have raised a lot of money, and they’re gonna turn it over to the
new sky pilot once he hits town.”
Fargo laughed. “I think I’m
beginnin’to understand where you’re goin’.”
Abner glanced back at Goodman’s
corpse, then returned his gaze to Fargo. “To get back to your first question. I
didn’t shoot the Reverend because I didn’t want blood on his clothes. Antioch
is still gettin’ their new pastor tomorrow: a pastor who will be ridin’ out
with money stuffed in his saddle bags.”
Fargo’s laughter continued. “Like
takin’ candy from a baby!”
Abner smiled and took another sip of
coffee. Fargo was a decent enough partner, but he was a fool. He was a man who
would spend his life robbing the wrong stagecoach and getting one fourth of
sixty-five dollars for his efforts.
But, he still needed the fool. Fargo
had no idea how much money was involved here. Abner did. He had already killed
one man for that money. He’d kill more if necessary.
Frank Dunning looked at himself in
the large mirror that was located in a corner of his bedroom. One hand was
pressed against a side wall. He was a tall, angular man with black hair,
restless eyes and a scar running down his left cheek. The scar was one memento
of his service as a volunteer deputy. He had tackled a killer who was about to
ram a knife into the back of Sheriff Len Swayze. The killer had managed one
painful slash across Dunning’s face before Frank overcame him. The deputy then
helped to cart the snake off to prison and, eventually, to a rope.
Reluctantly, Frank’s eyes went to
the pinned up trouser leg on his left side. The business man sighed as he
reached beside him for the two crutches that were now such an integral part of
Frank whispered curses at himself as
he made his way out of the bedroom. Every morning seemed to begin with reliving
that horrible day out on the prairie. It was a little over a year ago. He had
once again been a volunteer deputy, this time part of a posse that was pursuing
a gang of bank robbers. They had captured the robbers and retrieved the money,
but not before he took two bullets in his left leg.
A violent rain storm had delayed the
return trip to Antioch. By the time they got back his wounds had become
infected. “I’m sorry, Frank,” the doc’s voice had been low but firm. “The leg
has to go. Tonight. Otherwise, you’ll die.”
Frank put on his black flat crowned
hat which nicely complimented his gray suit. He left the small house and began
his morning journey to Hurley’s Café. By the time he stepped onto the
boardwalk, Frank had redirected his thoughts onto the day’s responsibilities in
his gun shop. “Mornin’ Mr.
Dunning!” The two Conklin boys were walking toward him. They were on their way
to the livery where they would help their father for an hour or so before going
“Good morning, boys!” As Frank spoke
one crutch went through a hole in the boardwalk. He staggered for a moment but
kept his balance.
“You okay, Mr. Dunning?” Bobby
Conklin, the oldest lad spoke.
Frank attempted a friendly
laugh. “I’m fine. I make this walk every
morning. You’d think I’d remember where that hole is.”
The two boys smiled, nodded and then
continued on their way. A few moments later, Frank Dunning heard the sound of
suppressed giggles. The kids were laughing at him.
Dunning’s immediate reaction was anger.
He recalled Sheriff Swayze’s words to him a few days after his leg was
amputated. “Frank, if it wasn’t for you, those robbers would have gotten away
with the money. A bank this town depends on would have closed. You will always
be a hero in Antioch.”
Some hero, Dunning thought to
himself. The Conklin boys got their sense of humor from their father. He had
heard Bert Conklin telling a “gimp” joke one night at the Paradise Saloon. Of
course, Bert didn’t know he was in ear shot, but…
Frank Dunning stopped and took a deep
breath. Feeling sorry for himself was no way to get a day started. Besides,
kids are cruel by nature, especially boys. Their mother was a fine woman.
Hopefully, she would help them grow out of it.
He continued his journey and within
a couple of minutes was entering Hurley’s Café. The place was about half full,
as it usually was at this time in the morning. There were some quick hellos all
around. Hurley’s Café always had a few drifters grabbing a meal before moving
on but most of the customers were familiar faces: men like himself with no
woman in their lives.
Stella Hurley smiled at him from
behind the counter and shouted, “Glenn, the mayor just walked in!”
Glenn Hurley was in the kitchen.
Soon, Frank would have steak and eggs fixed exactly the way he liked it.
Frank sat at one of the half dozen
tables. After a year, he still felt guilty about taking an entire table but
since losing his leg, the chairs at the counter were too uncomfortable for him.
A newcomer stepped into the café. He
was better dressed than most, wearing a black frock coat. “Howdy,” Stella shouted. “Find yourself a
place at the counter or take a table--”
“I’m lookin’ for Frank Dunning. Went
to his store, but it ain’t open yet. A fella passin’ by tole me Dunning usually
has breakfast here.”
“There’s the gent you’re looking
for,” Stella pointed at Frank.
Abner walked over to Dunning’s
table. “My name’s Jim Goodman. I’m the preacher you sent for.”
Dunning stood up, propped a crutch
under his arm and extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Reverend Goodwin.
The whole town’s been looking forward to meeting you. It is great that you
arrived on a Wednesday. We’ll have a good turnout tonight.”
The smile on Abner Coogan’s face was
tentative. “I don’t quite follow you.”
“We have a prayer meeting every
Wednesday night. Didn’t I mention that in one of my earlier letters?”
Coogan’s smile turned into a nervous
laugh. “Oh, yes, of course.”
“Have some breakfast on the house,
Reverend!” Stella shouted from behind the counter.
“Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.”
“Steak and eggs, okay?”
“Okay by me. Could you scramble
Stella smiled brightly. Dunning had
trouble sharing her enthusiasm. Revered Goodman was supposed to be an educated
man from the East. But the man who was now sitting across from him at the table
talked like a saddle tramp. Something wasn’t right and he needed to find out
what it was.
Olson sat at her writing desk and hastily brushed a tear from her right eye.
Adam would be home from school soon. She was behind in preparing dinner.
tried not to worry about Amanda but couldn’t stifle her fears. The woman opened
the middle drawer of the desk and gently removed the paper. For what seemed the
hundredth time, she read her daughter’s letter: the letter which had lay on the
kitchen table that horrible morning.
Dear Father and Mother,
I know you will not approve of what
I am doing. I can only hope you will understand.
I have decided to accept Jim
Goodman’s proposal of marriage. I am ashamed of myself for doubting his call to
be God’s servant in the West. Jim has left a prestigious position in Dallas to
serve a small, struggling community. His last letter broke my heart and made me
realize how selfish I have been. Jim Goodman is a godly man; I am humbled that
he has chosen me to be his helpmate.
I am leaving on a train this morning
and will write when I arrive at my destination. Of course, I know my decision
will cause you both anguish. This saddens my heart because I love you both
dearly. Please remember that I am acting within the Lord’s will and please pray
put the letter away and for several minutes was lost in thought. Suddenly, she
looked at the clock directly over the desk. There was still something she could
do to get Amanda back and she could do it today.
Coogan shook hands with people, smiled and wished he had spent more time in
church. Everyone was being nice, but he wasn’t certain if his charade was
felt relieved when the Wednesday night prayer meeting began and he could sit in
the front pew of the small, dilapidated church and listen to Frank Dunning. His
talks with Dunning earlier in the day had seemed to go well but he still had detected
some suspicion in the mayor’s mind.
mayor opened the meeting in prayer, then moved immediately to what everyone was
thinking. “Tonight is a very special one for The Antioch Methodist Church as we
welcome our new pastor, Reverend Jim Goodman.”
paused while there were several “Amens.”, then continued. “Reverend Goodman
comes to us well prepared for his ministry in Antioch. He told me this morning
that he has worked to get rid of his Eastern way of speaking and now talks
Western, so all of you folks can understand him.”
scattering of laughter spread across the church. Abner smiled broadly and
squirmed a bit. Coogan had found it impossible to imitate the speech of an
educated man and concocted the best story he could for a cover. He hoped the
mayor had bought his lie, but couldn’t be sure.
Goodman will officially become our pastor this Sunday,” Dunning said. “At that
time we will hand funds we have collected for the new church to our new pastor.
The work of building a beautiful house of God in the town of Antioch will
was another chorus of “Amen.” Abner looked fleetingly at Wilbur Lewis, the bank
president. He would have to work hard at winning that man’s friendship. Coogan
had learned earlier in the day that he would be given control of an account at
the bank for the building of the church. He would have to come up with a
plausible reason for withdrawing all of the funds from that account.
had already been giving it some thought…
Coogan has very modestly asked that he not preside over our meeting tonight,”
Frank Dunning said. “He wants to get to know everyone better before leading us
in prayer. So, I will get us started and then all of you pray as you feel led.”
bowed his head and listened carefully. He needed to learn how this praying
aloud was done. He hadn’t actually heard a prayer in years. Coogan also
reflected on his good luck. Among the papers in Jim Goodman’s saddle bags was
the sermon he had written for his first Sunday in Antioch. That would be
enough. He would get the money and be gone before another Sunday rolled around.
the meeting was over, Coogan remained inside the church talking with the
various members of the congregation. After fifteen minutes or so, he began to
leave the building along with everyone else. A figure emerged from a patch of
woods immediately across from the church.
Moonlight cascaded over the figure and it became apparent that he was
carrying a gun.
the new preacher ever one has been jawin’ about?” he yelled at Coogan.
brother, I am.”
newcomer pulled back the hammer of the gun. “Well, I’m here to kill you!”
crowd huddled in front of the church was shocked. Several men instinctively
began to reach for guns that weren’t there. Nobody carried a gun to church.
Sheriff Len Swayze took a step
toward the gunman, but Coogan placed a hand on the lawman’s chest. “Let me
handle this, Sheriff. I think this man fits my calling more than yours.”
Abner Coogan walked directly toward
the gunman, placing himself between the barrel of the gun and the crowd behind
him. Coogan was scared. Fargo was no actor and there was already the hint of a
nervous grin on his face. Could his partner help him to pull off the charade?
Fargo lifted the barrel of the gun,
so it was aimed directly at Abner’s head. “You the one they call Reverend
Abner grimaced. This wasn’t getting
off to a good start. “Yes, brother, and what’s your name?”
“Fargo.” Abner knew his partner
couldn’t handle two fictional names.
“Why do you want to kill me, Fargo?”
The tension in Coogan’s voice was real. They were now at the hardest part of
“That God you preachers talk about
so much,” the gun in Fargo’s hand began to shake as he spoke. Abner hoped the
fool remembered to unload it.
Fargo continued, “That God let my
brother get killed in a accedent. Ruined my life--”
Fargo was off script. The original
plan called for him to talk about a sister who died of a disease. Abner cut in.
He didn’t trust him to go much further.
“You’re angry with God, aren’t you
“God understands your anger, Fargo
and you know what?”
Fargo couldn’t mess up this line. “What?”
“God isn’t angry with you, Fargo.
Not one bit. The Lord loves you, jus’ as much as he loves ever one here.”
Fargo looked down. With Coogan
standing in front of him, it appeared to the people in front of the church that
Fargo was crying.
Abner placed a hand on his partner’s
shoulder. “Why don’t you let me have that gun?”
Fargo handed Coogan the six shooter.
Abner kept his hand on Fargo’s shoulder as he turned to the people gathered in
front of the church. “If you’ll excuse us, I think this brother and I need to
go into the church and pray together for a spell.”
There were a few grateful “ahhs”
from several people in the congregation. Some folks shouted, “Good work,
preacher” and other compliments as Abner and Fargo stepped into the church.
Frank Dunning followed behind them.
He relit two kerosene lamps that were attached to the walls directly beside the
door. “Will that be enough light?” he asked in a quiet whisper.
“Yes, Brother Frank, thanks.” Abner
whispered back as he and Fargo settled into the back pew and folded their
The mayor left the church, talked
with the folks outside for several minutes, and then got into his buggy.
Placing his crutches on the seat beside him, Frank Dunning felt ashamed of
himself. How could he have doubted that Reverend Jim Goodman was a genuine man
of God? The pastor had boldly approached a deeply troubled man who was waving a
gun and threatening to kill him!
Dunning closed his eyes, “Lord
forgive my doubt…” The prayer was short and intense. The mayor still felt
ashamed as he drove off.
Abner Coogan looked through the
partially opened double doors of the church and watched Frank Dunning’s buggy
fade into the darkness. He then exclaimed, “We pulled it off, Fargo!”
Both men laughed as Coogan returned
to the pew. He opened Fargo’s six shooter. The moron had left the gun loaded.
Coogan closed the gun and continued to laugh as he sat down beside his partner.
No harm done.
“What next?” Fargo asked.
“I’ve got a room at the hotel. A
member of the church owns the place. You’re gonna get a room there.”
“I could make camp outside of town.”
“I want you in Antioch all of the
time! You’ll be praising the Lord and praising me for helping you to see the
“How exactly do I go ‘bout that?”
“Tomorrow morning you’re going to
the bank and apply for a job. A guy named Wilbur Lewis is the head man there.
Tell him you’re willing to do anything: clean floors, clean windows…you’re a
Fargo’s eyes went to the
ceiling. Abner continued. “It will only
be for a few days. I saw the look on Lewis’ face when I walked with you to the
church. The guy thinks I’m a saint!”
“So you go swamp out his floors!”
“It won’t be for long! Next Monday,
I’m walkin’ into that bank and withdrawin’ the money for the new church. I’ll
have a good story. But I want you there as a reminder to Mr. Lewis that I’m a
guy who can work miracles.”
Fargo went silent for a moment, then
he laughed. “I guess I can do some honest work for a few days. I won’t have to
work on Sunday, will I?”
“I’m sure a fine Christian gentleman
like Mr. Lewis would never ask you to work on the Sabbath!”
Fargo’s laugh became louder. “Abner,
“Call me Reverend Goodman. Remember,
I am Reverend Jim Goodman!”
“Yeah, Fargo, it would be a real shame
to mess-up Abner’s scheme!” A large burly man walked into the church. “You
forgot to close the door completely after ya watched the mayor ride off. Guess
you’re not use ta dealin’ with church doors, Abner. Course, ya don’t want the
good folks of Antioch knowin’ that.”
The newcomer remained on his feet
with one hand not far from the .44 strapped to his waist.
stared at the vaguely familiar face. He needed a few moments before he could
say, “Chet Wooster.”
“That’s right,” Wooster replied.
“Been a while, huh?”
“Yeah, about three years.” Abner
Coogan remembered Wooster from a bank holdup. Back then, Coogan had worried
about Wooster’s drinking, but Chet Wooster’s problem had been under some
control now seemed to have become weaker. Wooster’s nose was a collection of
red veins. Weight had dropped from his medium frame, apparently because he now
drank a good part of his diet. He wasn’t drunk at the moment, but his hand was
trembling. He appeared to be having the shakes.
long have you been in town, Chet?”
enough to hear ‘bout all the money bein’ saved for a new church. Long enough to
be in the café when ya tole the mayor you was a sky pilot. I guess the real
Reverend Goodman is coyote food.”
kept his voice friendly, “What have you got in mind, Chet?’
Fargo and me pulled off that bank job pretty good. Reckon I’ll help ya with this
job. You’re cuttin’ me in, Abner. If not, I go to the mayor and tell ‘em who ya
slowly got up from the pew. As he did, Wooster’s hand moved closer to his gun.
“Sure, Chet, I’ll cut you in. Reckon you can be a big help.”
eyes fastened on the gun which was still in Coogan’s hand.
saw the distrust in the face of his former cohort. He opened the six gun,
rodded out the bullets and handed them to Fargo. “Put those back in your
gunbelt.” He then handed his partner the gun. “And you can holster the gun. This
is a time for a little celebratin’.”
turned back to Wooster. “I have a bottle in my saddle bags. What say the three
of us step outside and have a little drink to celebrate our new partnership?”
caution vanished from Chet’s face. “Sounds good.”
the three men left the church, Coogan shot his partner a quick glance. Fargo
understood the meaning: be ready for anything.
my horse tied up over there,” Coogan said. The three men walked to the grove of
trees across from the church. Abner opened one of the saddle bags, pulled out a
bottle and handed it to his partner. “Open that up, Fargo, but let Chet have
the first sip. After all, he’s our new partner.”
Fargo took the bottle and walked toward the horse’s head. Chet’s desperate eyes
followed the bottle. Wooster now had his back to Coogan, his attention centered
fully on the treasure in Fargo’s hand.
Coogan smiled inwardly. This was almost too easy. He removed a large knife from
his saddle bag and rammed it into Wooster’s back. He clasped a hand over the
outlaw’s mouth as he fell, and then Coogan slowly laid Chet Wooster face down
on the ground.
me carry him into the trees,” Abner whispered to Fargo.
two men carried their latest victim far into the grove until they reached an
area wide enough for a grave. They dropped Wooster onto the ground. Coogan
placed two fingers on his neck.
he still alive?” Fargo asked.
by much. He’ll probably be gone by the time we dig a hole for him.”
chuckled, “I almost hope he ain’t.”
never buried no one alive before. Might be kinda fun.”
Dehner looked at the fine church which stood in the middle of Dallas. The
stained glass windows and towering steeple were, in a way, inspiring. On those
Sundays when he was in the city, Dehner attended a small Baptist church which
met in a decent but unimpressive building. Still, the detective was glad that
this magnificent church was a part of Dallas.
was about to enter the church through one of the ornate wooden doors when his
boss stopped him: “Karl’s study is on the side of the building.”
entered a well-cared for path that took them to a side door. Bertram Lowrie,
the owner of the Lowrie Detective Agency, knocked lightly. Lowrie belonged to
the church, which he praised as being “the closest thing to The Church of
England available in Dallas.”
door was quickly opened by a distinguished looking man, who was probably in his
mid-forties. “Good to see you, Bertram, please come in.”
men stepped into the pastor’s study and Bertram Lowrie introduced his
“associate” to Bishop Karl Larkin. The bishop resembled Lowrie in a superficial
way. Both men were silver haired, tall and slim. But Karl Larkin carried a bit
more weight than Lowrie, who looked bony and emaciated, though he was an agile,
strong man. Larkin’s face was fuller and evenly proportioned, unlike Lowrie who
had a hawk nose.
noted that the pastor’s study did, indeed, look like a study. All four walls
were lined with books, most of them in English but some in Latin and Greek and
a few in German.
afraid this rotten sinner has committed some shameful acts. I am in need of a
detective,” Larkin said.
smiled broadly. “‘Rotten sinner’. Those are words designed to make this Baptist
feel right at home.”
was light laughter all around as Larkin sat down while pointing his guests to
two chairs in front of his desk. For an awkward moment, no one spoke, then
Lowrie broke the silence with a genial question. “Karl, why don’t you tell us
about this wretched sin that is plaguing your conscience?”
Larkin nodded his head. “I’m from Boston and have a good friend in that city:
Jeremiah Howell. Jeremy is a seminary dean and a good man. But he has some odd
notions about the West. He thinks of the West as a place to send students that
he can’t find anything for in the East.”
Lowrie grimaced. “Dean Howell, I can only assume, was the man responsible for
sending us young Jim Goodman.”
Larkin returned the grimace. “No, Bertram, I must accept that responsibility. I
allowed Reverend Goodman to come here.”
grimace turned to a mischievous smile. “Ah, Karl, but when you discovered what
an incompetent he was, you found a graceful way to dispatch him.”
bishop sighed, stared at his hands for a few moments, then looked back at his
visitors. “I’m not proud of what I did.”
asked his first question. “What exactly did you do, Bishop Larkin?”
now spoke in a matter of fact manner. He wanted to lay the problem out. “For
several months I have been corresponding with a Mr. Frank Dunning. He is the
mayor of Antioch and the lay leader of the Methodist Church there. They are getting ready to construct a new
church and can now support a full time pastor instead of relying on a circuit
stifled a smile. “And you sent them Reverend
I said, I’m not proud of what I did. Those people obviously need a man of
sterling quality and I sent them a bungler. I was thinking only of myself,
trying to gracefully get rid of an associate who was a headache.”
Lowrie looked a bit confused. “I understand your remorse, Karl. But why do you
require the services of a detective?”
Bishop picked up a telegram that lay on his desk and began to read. “‘Goodman
here. Took gun from outlaw. Maybe saved lives. Town grateful.’ It is signed
lifted both hands in a questioning manner. “Sounds like Goodman’s fitting in
just fine, what’s the problem?”
replied in an emotionless voice. “Jim Goodman couldn’t take a stick from a
rambunctious seven year old boy.”
Lowrie’s voice was also a monotone. “As a deacon in this church who had to deal
with Reverend Goodman’s frequent blunders, I can vouch for the accuracy of
tossed the telegram back onto his desk and picked up another. “This message came
from Boston. ‘My daughter Amanda left home to marry Jim Goodman. Please advise
of his location. Urgent.’ It is signed Cynthia Olson.”
foolish romanticism of the young,” Lowrie sighed. “The girl probably reads the
Bishop’s voice became forceful. “I want to make up for my past, selfish
actions. Something has gone wrong and matters could verge on getting much
worse. Bertram, could you send an operative to Antioch and ascertain exactly
what is going on?”
Dehner will be leaving on the first available train.”
nodded in agreement and wondered at the odd nature of his assignment. He was to
investigate a young preacher whose personality seemed to have changed overnight
and deal with a young woman who was a hopeless romantic.
detective had a feeling his trip to Antioch was going to be very eventful.
Dunning sat in Wilbur Lewis’ office at The Antioch Community Bank. Frank was
there in his capacity as mayor of the town.
that abandoned property west of Antioch, Frank, I think the town council needs
to…” Lewis pulled out a handkerchief and began to cough.
you okay, Wilbur?”
yes, thank you. My throat is just a bit scratchy this morning.”
well. I need you. No one else on the council knows a hoot about business.”
try not to let you down, Mr. Mayor.” Wilbur laughed as he put away the
handkerchief. He then picked up a cigar from the ashtray on his desk and
the banker blew a large stream of smoke, Frank glanced out the open door of the
office and spotted an angel. The young woman appeared confused. She looked about
the bank, then headed for one of the teller’s cages and out of Frank’s
mayor inwardly sighed and resumed his conversation with Wilbur Lewis. But,
within moments their talk was interrupted by a young man who appeared at the
Roy,” Wilbur said. Roy was a teller at the bank.
is a lady here who says she needs to see the mayor. Fred, at the train station,
told her he’d be here.”
her in…please!” Frank spoke up immediately.
mayor’s hopes were realized. The angel stepped into Wilbur Lewis’ office. She
had light brown hair surrounding a perfectly proportioned face and blue eyes.
introduced the lady as Amanda Olson, then returned to his duties. Both the
banker and the mayor were now smiling and on their feet.
to Antioch, Miss Olson.” Frank said.
you, sirs, I have just arrived from Boston.”
my, you have come a long way!” Lewis exclaimed.
his friend pontificated on how the railroad had transformed Antioch, Dunning
kept an eye on Amanda, or, at least, he watched her to the degree that
propriety would allow. When Frank had first stood up, the woman’s eyes went to
his crutch and missing leg. She had quickly looked away not wanting to appear
concluded his lecture on the progress of Antioch with, “So, tell us, Miss Olson:
what brings you to our town?”
am very sorry to have interrupted your meeting--”
don’t feel that way, Miss Olson,” Frank interjected. “Roy said that you wanted
to see me.” Never before had Frank Dunning felt so puffed up about being the
Mr. Dunning. I have come to Antioch to join with my fiancé, Reverend Jim
Goodman. Some people at the train station told me that you would know where to
no longer felt puffed up. “Why, yes, of course…”
fiancé is quite the hero in this town, Miss Olson!” Wilbur’s voice was
bombastic. “Yes, two nights ago, Jim Goodman...”
Dunning experienced a flash of anger over Wilbur’s hero remark. Not that long
ago, he had been the town hero. Frank
quickly brought his wrath under control and laughed inwardly. “Town hero” was a
very temporary title. Besides, Amanda Olson should take pride in her
as Wilbur was recounting Reverend Goodman’s brave exploits, the mayor felt
uneasy. There were a lot of little things about Jim Goodman that seemed wrong.
Like Goodman’s first day in town, when the pastor had not said grace before
eating breakfast at Hurley’s Café. And,
Goodman had not mentioned having a fiancée. All small matters, but…
mayor checked his thoughts. He had been very smitten by Amanda Olson and had
just found out that she was engaged to Reverend Goodman. Maybe he wasn’t being
very objective right now.
was obviously overwhelmed by the banker’s tale. “Jim devoutly believes that the
Lord has sent him to the West. What happened last Wednesday certainly proves
him right.” She faced Frank directly. “Could you take me to Jim? I’m very
anxious to see him.”
course!” Wilbur’s voice was still bombastic. “We can finish this meeting later,
Frank. You and Miss Olson run along. Reverend Goodman told me he would be
working on his sermon for much of this day. You’ll probably find him at the
and Amanda Olson left the office and were walking toward the front door of the
bank when a voice stopped them. “Ah, Mr. Mayor…”
turned and smiled, “Fargo! Good to see you.” He introduced Amanda Olson, who
was very excited about meeting the man her husband had confronted and
leaned on his broom. “Please to meet ya, Miss Olson. While I was sweeping up, I
heard ya talkin’ with the boss. ‘Fraid I got bad news.”
The woman looked alarmed.
waved his hand as if dismissing her concern. “Nothin’ too serious. But I saw
Reverend… ah… the Reverend on my way to work this mornin’. He tole me he had to leave town for a spell.”
it some problem with a member of the congregation?” Frank added. “Someone who
lives out of town?”
That was it.”
tilted his head in a questioning manner. “Well, he should be back by tonight.”
Olson’s face had fallen in disappointment. Dunning tried to cheer her up. “Jim
will be back before you know it. Where are your bags, Miss Olson?”
the train station. The man there said he’d keep an eye on them for me.”
buggy is out front. Why don’t we retrieve your bags and get you settled in at
the hotel. Then, if you’d like, I’d be honored to take you to lunch.”
you, Mr. Dunning. That would be wonderful.”
followed the couple out the door. He swept the boardwalk in front of the bank
as Dunning and the town’s new arrival got into his buggy. Fargo watched as they
rode off to the train station.
real looker, that Amanda gal. Too bad we gotta kill her.”
Olson sat alone in her hotel room and wiped away tears. The day had not gone as
she had planned. She had assumed that Jim Goodman would be overjoyed to see
her. They would immediately begin to make marriage plans. Jim would arrange for
her to stay with a family in the congregation until they could be married.
day would have been a disaster except for Frank Dunning. Mr. Dunning had taken
her to both lunch and supper and insisted on paying for her hotel room. Without
him, she would have gone hungry and without shelter. She had arrived in Antioch
with almost no money.
thoughts continued to center on Frank Dunning. She wondered how he had lost his
leg. The lady in the café had made a remark which implied he’d been involved in
more than one confrontation with outlaws. But Mr. Dunning ignored that remark.
He hadn’t once bragged on himself.
Dunning was the mayor of the town and worked as a gunsmith. But he had spent
little time in his gun shop on this day. He’d given generously of his time to
her. In fact, he seemed to be smitten by her. But, no, he had spent much of the
day praising Jim Goodman. He insisted that she not worry about Jim. Her fiancé
was late getting back to town only because his duties as a pastor required him
to be elsewhere.
hoped Frank Dunning was right.
was a knock at the door. Elated, the young woman bounded from her chair and
threw open the door.
greeted her with what looked like a leer. “Howdy, Miss Olson.”
evening, Mr., ah…”
call me Fargo. Ever one does.”
can I do for you, Fargo?”
what I can do for you. Reverend Goodman is back in town.”
wants me to take you to him.”
was battling between joy and suspicion. Standing before her was a man Jim had
converted. But she couldn’t bring herself to completely trust him. “Why didn’t
Reverend Goodman come himself?”
rightly know. Think he has somethin’ special planned for you at the church.”
church, is that where Jim Goodman is right now?”
Amanda’s doubts eased. “I’m not sure
where the church is located…”
“That’s why he sent me.”
Amanda gave a joyful laugh. “Well
then, let’s get going! But first, could you wait for just a few minutes? I want
to freshen up a bit!”
She hastily closed the door and
didn’t see the malevolent smile that spread across Fargo’s face.
Frank Dunning tried to focus on the
rifle he was working on. He had lost almost an entire day’s work attending to
Amanda Olson. He glanced through the front window of his gun shop at the hotel
across the street. Miss Olson must be getting very anxious about her fiancé,
maybe he should check in on her…
Dunning sighed and shook his head,
dismissing his own thoughts. Miss Olson was deeply in love with Reverend Jim
Goodman. No doubt, they would be married soon. He needed to keep his school boy
infatuation with the lady in check.
The mayor once again wrestled with
his doubts about Goodman. Where was the man?
Dunning remembered the encounter that morning between himself, Amanda and
Fargo. Fargo had been the one saying that Reverend Goodman had left town, but
he had seemed totally confused while he was saying it. Out loud, Dunning
muttered, “He sure grabbed onto my saying that it must have been an emergency.”
Boisterous sounds came from the
street. Saturday night in Antioch: lots of activity at the saloons. Maybe he
should give up on work and lose himself in a card game.
The gunsmith put the rifle and his
tools away. As he began to take off his work apron, he glanced through the front
window and saw Amada Olson leaving the hotel with Fargo. From what he could
see, the woman looked happy. He didn’t get to look very long. Both she and
Fargo were walking fast.
Reverend Goodman must be back in
Antioch. But why would he send Fargo to get his fiancée, especially on a
Saturday night when the street was filled with revelers?
“None of my business,” Dunning
whispered to himself as he put the apron away.
But all of the odd events that
surrounded Reverend Jim Goodman assaulted the gunsmith’s mind as he put on his
grey coat. This time he spoke to himself in a normal voice. “Won’t hurt to look
He paused for a moment and then
strapped on the six gun he hadn’t carried since the doc amputated his left leg.
Some folks might think he looked funny with a gun tied down to his one leg.
“Let ‘em laugh!” Frank almost shouted as he put on his hat and left the shop.
Amanda Olson felt increasingly
uneasy as she and Fargo stepped off the end of the boardwalk and continued
their journey. “Is the church very far?” She hoped her voice didn’t reveal her
“Not too far,” Fargo answered. “I
suggested we use horses, but no, he wouldn’t listen to me.”
That reply impressed Amanda as being
a bit odd. But she didn’t have time to give it much thought. Two shots sounded
The woman’s shoulders hunched
upwards as she gasped and turned around. “What happened?!”
Fargo laughed in a mocking manner
and let out a few curses. He then shook his head, “Look lady, this here is the
West. Jaspers get drunk on Saturday night and fire off their guns!”
“Yes, of course, I apologize for
acting the way I did.”
As they continued to walk along the
increasingly rough path, Amanda tried to be charitable in her thoughts toward
Fargo. The man was a recent convert. He couldn’t be expected to immediately
turn from his old ways. She needed to demonstrate patience and kindness.
A flicker of yellow could be seen in
the distance. Amanda walked faster as she realized that they were approaching
the church. She spoke out loud, primarily to herself, “I wonder what kind of
surprise is waiting for me.”
“You’re gonna find out real soon.”
Fargo’s voice was firm, almost business-like. He had killed several men.
Tonight, for the first time, he would kill a woman.
Frank Dunning moved quickly but
carefully down the boardwalk. The mayor knew where every hole and loose board
was located, but he could still stumble when his mind wandered. Frank wouldn’t
let that happen tonight.
As he approached the Happy Times
Saloon, it appeared that the establishment had been well named. Outside the
saloon, a group of three young cowboys from a nearby ranch were laughing and
yelling in a raucous manner.
“Jeb, I always thought you was a
lady’s man. Why that pretty thing would rather stay with a ugly old man ‘stead
of lettin’ you buy her a drink!”
Jeb took a sip from the bottle in
his hand, then glared at his two laughing companions. “Why don’t you jaspers
Dunning overheard the conversation
and stopped in front of the three men. “Did the lady say where she was going?”
Jeb was anxious to save face with
his buddies. “Well, gents we is certainly honored tonight. This here is the
mayor of Antioch.” He started to take another drink.
Frank grabbed the bottle from Jeb’s
hand. “I’ll ask you nice- like once more, did the lady say where she was
Jeb stared into Dunning’s intense
eyes. He was silent for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and replied in an
almost apologetic manner. “I think she said somethin’ ‘bout meetin’ a man at
“Thank you.” Frank handed the bottle
back and quickly made his way toward the church.
As they watched the mayor recede
into the darkness, both of Jeb’s companions were tempted to hooraw him for
backing down to a man on crutches. But neither man said a thing. They knew that
they also would have backed down to Frank Dunning.
Fargo opened the church door, “Here
Amanda had been anxious to get to
the church. Now, she felt frightened as she gazed inside. “It’s very dark. Only
one lamp seems to be lit.”
Fargo tried to wave her inside, “No
need for much light,… come on!”
Amanda stood several feet in front
of the clapboard building, its wood now turned gray. “I can see why they need
to build a new church. This place looks like it is about to collapse.”
Fargo’s voice became angry. “You
comin’ in or ain’t you?!”
The young woman stood silent for a
moment, then spoke in a near angry voice. “I am not coming in! Tell my fiancée
that I will be here tomorrow for Sunday worship. He can see me then!”
She turned and began to angrily
stalk off. She didn’t get far. A tight cloth suddenly gagged her mouth. Her
head felt trapped in an iron vise, and she was dragged into the church.
The woman could see nothing in the darkness, but Amanda could hear Fargo’s
screeching laughter. “Your plan worked, Coogan. Just needed a little fixin’ up
at the end.”
“Call me Jim Goodman! Remember, I’m
A leering face suddenly appeared in
Amanda’s view. The cloth tied firmly around the woman’s head muffled her
Saliva oozed from the side of
Coogan’s mouth. “You were right, Fargo. She’s a right pretty woman. What say we
have us a little fun before we kill her?”
Frank Dunning pumped his arms, his
crutches sending up spurts of dust as he ran toward the church, grateful that
it didn’t have a porch. His crutches would have made noise against the wood.
Dirt provided no such problem. From a distance he had seen Fargo and the man he
knew as Jim Goodman forcing Amanda into the ramshackle building.
He stopped at the church entrance
and listened. The rotted wood of the church’s double doors provided holes from
which the voices inside could escape.
“Let’s carry her down to the front,
the carpet there is thicker. Make things a bit more comfy.”
Fargo’s high pitched laughter
followed. “I guess you get to go first, Coogan.”
“Call me Goodman. Jim Goodman! Oh,
yeah, I’m going first.”
Dunning had heard enough. He
breathed deeply and tried to calm himself. He was a man with one leg. That
wouldn’t stop him from helping Amanda Olson, but he’d be a fool to ignore his
handicap. He needed to act wisely, but quickly.
He placed one crutch against the
side of the church and kept one crutch under his left arm where it could
compensate for his lost leg. Using his right hand he opened one of the church’s
double doors, lifting it slightly, so it wouldn’t brush against the floor.
Peering inside he could see Fargo
lighting a kerosene lamp which was attached to the wall near the front of the
church. Fargo continued his near insane laughter. “Such a pretty lady, be a
shame not to have a good view.”
From his position, Dunning could see
that the additional light worked in his favor. Only one other kerosene lamp had
been lit: the one on the immediate right side of the door. Frank eased into the
church on the left side and drew his gun. He had a good view of both Fargo and
the man Fargo had called Coogan. Both were at the front of the church, on the
right side, between the altar and the front pew. But where was Amanda?
Coogan answered the question for
him. The killer looked down toward the floor and spoke. “You know, girlie, you
can make this a lot easier by just goin’ along. Hated to tie you up. I know
you’d enjoy gettin’ to know me.”
Amanda was obviously lying on the
floor, the view of her body blocked by the pews. Frank knew he had to act
immediately. There could be no question as to what her two captors had in store
for the woman.
The mayor took one step backwards,
placing himself deeper in darkness. He lifted his .45. “Freeze!” he shouted.
“Both of you!”
At first, the two outlaws obeyed the
command almost completely. Only their heads moved as they tried to locate where
the voice came from.
Frank again shouted. “Hands up!”
The two killers obeyed but the second
order allowed them to place Dunning’s location. This time it was Coogan’s turn
to shout. “Is that you, Mr. Mayor?”
Keeping his gun pointed at his
prisoners, Dunning moved slowly toward them down the center aisle of the
church. He had to be careful. The floor of the old church provided plenty of
cracks and holes for him to stumble over. “You men have an appointment with the
“Anything you say, Mr. Mayor,” Abner
Coogan responded. “But why don’t you let me free the young lady?” Coogan
pointed downwards with one hand.
Dunning stopped and again raised the
gun which he had lowered to hip level. The .45 was now pointed directly at
Abner Coogan’s chest. “Hands in the air, Coogan, I mean it. I see that gun
strapped to your waist. I should have trusted my instincts. You’re no
Abner waved his arms as if in a
friendly gesture. “You’re right, Frank. Still, you don’t want this nice young
lady to be--”
The trick was old and Frank Dunning
was ready for it. As Coogan tried to distract Dunning by moving his arms, Fargo
went for his gun. Dunning moved his .45 a few inches and sent a red flame
burrowing into Fargo. The man yelled and dropped to the floor. Frank swung his
weapon back at Coogan.
“Good shootin’, Mr. Mayor!” Abner
Coogan’s voice remained friendly but both of his arms were now lowered. “Why,
you plugged that old owlhoot right in the chest.”
“Get your hands back up, Coogan.”
“Sure.” He raised both hands. “This
high enough for you?”
Fargo buoyed onto his knees, gun in
hand. He fired a shot. Dunning felt a horrible burn in his right arm and let
his .45 fly off into the darkness. Fargo collapsed. He was losing blood quickly
and no longer a threat. But Abner Coogan was. Dunning let go of his crutch and
dropped to the floor. He began to pull himself in the direction of where he had
inadvertently tossed the gun. He could hear Coogan’s footsteps moving toward
Frank’s right hand collided with the
weapon. He gripped it and turned his head in time to see Coogan coming at him,
gun in hand.
“Well, well, Mr. Mayor. I guess we
got a stand off, here. Think you can fire that gun before I kill you?”
I die tonight, Coogan, I’ll take you with me. Leave this place right now and
ride. It’s your only hope.”
“I can’t do that Mr.Mayor, I got me
a sermon to preach tomorrow mornin’.”
Frank Dunning knew the old church
building well. He thought he heard a front door begin to brush against the thin
carpet as it opened. The mayor needed to stall.
“Your charade is finished, Coogan!”
Dunning yelled, hoping to cover the footsteps of whoever was entering. “How are
you going to explain my death, or for that matter, the killing of the young
woman? There’s going to be blood all over the church tomorrow morning.”
“You’re right, Mr. Mayor. But if I
let you and the lady live, there will be a posse on my heels tonight. If I kill you now, I got a whole night to get
A voice suddenly boomed from the
shadows. “You’re going to a jail cell or a graveyard, mister, make up your mind
Coogan stared into the darkness.
“A man who is going to fill you with
hot lead, unless you drop that gun.”
Coogan lifted his weapon toward the
voice. Two loud shots roared through the darkness. Abner Coogan twirled and
Rance Dehner looked through the
window into Hurley’s Café. Amanda Olson was sitting at a table. Frank Dunning was
with her, along with a kindly looking couple, who Dehner guessed owned the
café. There were coffee cups in front of everyone.
The café was obviously closed for
business; Dehner walked in anyway.
“I’m sorry, sir--”
Frank interrupted the woman. “This
is the man I told you about, Stella. The detective who saved our lives a few
hours ago.” He turned to the newcomer. “Rance, meet Stella and Glenn Hurley.”
There were hellos all around. After
shooting Abner Coogan and untying Amanda, Rance had explained that he was a
detective employed by Bishop Karl Larkin who was concerned about Jim Goodman.
He didn’t go into details about Larkin regarding Reverend Goodman as an
“How’s your arm?” Rance asked Frank
as he sat down at the table.
“Fine. The bullet just grazed me.
What’s the story on the two outlaws?”
“Fargo died less than half an hour
ago. According to the doc, Coogan will live to hang. He’s wanted for murder.”
Amanda’s voice sounded frail and
shaky. “Did he say what they did to Jim?”
Dehner nodded his head. “He confessed
to killing Reverend Goodman. Coogan posed as the pastor in order to get the
money which was saved for the new church.”
Amanda stared into her coffee.
A jittery silence followed. Frank
broke it with a question. “Tell me, Rance, how did you know we were at the
“I arrived in town this evening,”
Rance explained. “Bishop Larkin had given me your home and work address. When I
didn’t find you at either place, I decided to check out the saloons. It seems
you had a little run in with a cowboy named Jeb. He told me where you were
The conversation drifted along for a
few more minutes. It was obvious that Frank Dunning and the Hurleys were
primarily concerned with Amanda’s well being and Dehner’s presence wasn’t much
help in that regard. The detective excused himself, saying he wanted to get a
good night’s sleep before leaving town the next day.
Pausing outside the restaurant,
Dehner looked through the window again and watched three fine people try to comfort
a grieving young woman. He had an odd feeling which came to him often: a
feeling that he didn’t belong.
Eight months later, Dehner checked
his mail at the office of the Lowrie Detective Agency before leaving on an
assignment to Arizona. He found an invitation to the wedding of Amanda Olson and
Frank Dunning. Amanda had included a letter:
and I have been talking about you recently, how you saved both of our lives and
then left the next day. Frank, at least, said thank you. I fear that I was very
caught up in my grief and ignored you. Please allow me, even at this late date,
to thank you for all you have done.
consider myself to be more mature than I was when we first met. I do not know
why things happen in life the way they do. But I thank God for bringing a fine
man like Frank Dunning into my life. My parents also love Frank and are looking
forward to the wedding.
will be the first wedding in the new church, the construction of which was just
finished last week. Our pastor is a wonderful man who values Frank as a lay
and I look forward to seeing you again.
Dehner smiled as he read the letter, but still
felt a bit melancholy. He realized that he was a man with few close friends. It
was the nature of his work. He would arrive somewhere, do a job, and then leave
and often never return.
But he hoped that he left things
better than he had found them. Letters like the one he had just received were
important to him.
The detective also hoped he would be
able to attend the wedding. Dehner knew
he would keep the letter.
“May God bless both of you.” He
spoke aloud to two people he might never see again. He then left the office
hurriedly. A job awaited him in Arizona.
Episode One of The Silent Child
of relentless heat passed in front of Rance Dehner as he rode away from what
had been a bloody confrontation in an Arizona town. Two days back, Dehner had
killed five men: men who needed killing. The job was finished, but the horror
would stay with him.
Dehner gazed at the purple mountains which
stood like a stone fortress. Their strength and timelessness seemed to mock
him. Rance felt weary and wondered if his life was becoming a strange sort of
trap. Could he ever settle down and start a ranch or open a store or do any of
the things normal men do to make a living?
The question made him restless.
Sundown was still an hour or more away but a belt of water looped down nearby
from the mountains. He decided to make camp early and give himself some extra
time to read. Two books were in his saddle bags: a Bible and a volume
containing Hamlet and King Lear.
Dehner planned to start with
Shakespeare. He was in a mood for tragedy.
Without prompting, his horse began
to move faster as they approached the water. The detective halted near a large
grove of trees. He dismounted, allowed his horse to drink, then bent down and
began to cup water in his hands.
A cracking noise sounded from the
trees. Instinctively, Dehner sprang to his feet
and drew his .45. The sound continued but Dehner couldn’t place it.
Whatever was behind those trees didn’t sound like an animal or a man, at least
not a man who was trying to keep his presence a secret.
The sound was coming closer. Dehner
watched intently as a few branches parted and a child stepped out.
The detective holstered his weapon
and smiled at the girl as he slowly approached her. Dehner figured the kid to
be about seven years of age. She had blondish-brown hair, a round face and blue
eyes that were vacant.
Rance smiled as he crouched in front
of the child. “Hello.”
The girl said nothing. Her eyes
looked directly at Dehner, but her expression conveyed no emotion. Her dress
was tattered and her shoes covered with dirt.
“My name is Rance. What’s your
The girl remained silent.
“Do you know where your mommy or
The child said nothing and Dehner
stopped with the questions. The look on the girl’s face caused him to pause. He
had seen that empty expression before, on the face of people who had witnessed
death and destruction on a massive scale.
The detective sighed inwardly. He
had been through hell only a few days ago. He had a feeling that this little
girl had been through something even worse.
tried to keep his voice friendly and kind. “For a little while, I’m going to
call you ‘Pixie.’ A pixie is sort of like an elf. Some folks say pixies live in
the woods.” He nodded with his head toward the grove of trees the girl had just
emerged from. “You can be ‘Pixie’ for a while, then you can get your real name
The girl didn’t respond. Dehner
didn’t really expect her to. He knew the area reasonably well. Candler was the
nearest town. If he couldn’t find the kid’s home or her family, he would take
“We’re going to ride on my horse!”
Dehner kept his voice happy and upbeat though he suspected the girl didn’t
really care. “Maybe we can find your people.”
Pixie didn’t resist as Rance lifted
the child up, carried her to his horse and seated her on the saddle. He then
climbed up behind her and carefully looked over the rocky area. The stream got
larger as it flowed East from the mountains and the land became greener. A good place for a ranch: maybe he could find
some people there who would recognize Pixie.
The detective kept an eye on the
girl as they rode in the direction of green land. He paid no heed to the row of
boulders on their left side.
Dehner’s horse went up on two legs as the
sound of a shot echoed off the mountains. Pixie screamed and jumped from the
bay, landing on her face. She scrambled up and began to run back toward the
grove of trees. The sound of a second shot whined over the land.
Dehner drew his .45 and fired twice
toward the boulders. The move was
primarily intended to provide cover as he grabbed a Winchester from its boot.
He slid off the bay and ran toward the girl, snapping off a shot at the attackers
with his .45 while toting the Winchester in his left hand.
He caught up with Pixie and pushed
her to the ground. The girl continued to scream hysterically. “Stay down!”
Dehner yelled as he crouched on one knee in front of the child. He hastily
tossed down his Colt and aimed the Winchester toward the boulders.
He saw sunlight glint off the barrel
of a rifle and sent a red spear in that direction. A man’s yell echoed across
the mountain range mixing with the sounds of a ricocheting bullet. Dehner
reckoned his shot had missed the mark but the enemy had fallen down on hard
stones in his attempt to duck.
Sounds of horses in retreat
followed. Dehner was sure there was more than one horse but couldn’t tell how
many. Pixie’s crying overwhelmed the
Rance lifted the child to her feet
and spoke calming words. It didn’t work. The detective had to give Pixie about
ten minutes to exhaust herself with the loud cries. As she screamed, Dehner
tried to get her to talk, to tell him at least a little bit about what had
happened to her. That didn’t work either. Finally, he was able to take the girl
by the hand and walk with her back to his horse. The bay was now grazing on
some grass that lined the stream.
Pixie had again become silent. Rance
found that to be more nerve wracking than the screams. He decided not to try
and locate Pixie’s family. He needed to get the child into town and make sure
she was safe.
And he needed to find out who was
trying to kill her.
Dehner rode slowly into the town of
Candler. He had known of the town’s existence but never been there. Rance was a
stranger. He hoped Pixie wasn’t.
His eyes gazed through the large
open doorway of Harper’s Mercantile. A man wearing a badge stood inside talking
with a couple behind the counter. All three of them gave the stranger arriving
in town a curious look.
The detective pegged Harper’s
Mercantile as a good place to start. He dismounted and lifted Pixie down. The
child remained in an almost hypnotized state. Dehner couldn’t tell if Pixie
recognized the town or not. He tied up his horse, took the little girl’s hand,
and walked with her into the store.
There were smiles all around, even
from the man with a piece of tin hanging on his shirt. The local law often
greeted Dehner with caution. Having a cute little kid with you does make a
difference, the detective mused.
“Howdy. The name is Clint Bolger,
I’m the sheriff around here.” He nodded at his two companions. “This here is
Enoch and Kate Harper. They run the store. That’s why they get to be behind the
Clint Bolger was a big shouldered
man with a wide craggy face. Dust covered much of his clothes and Dehner
figured the sheriff had just returned to Candler after taking care of some
problem out on the prairie.
Enoch was tall and stringy with
muscled arms, a thick brown mustache and black mischievous eyes. His wife
wasn’t quite as tall, her hair matched her husband’s eyes but her eyes were
green and kind. After a quick, “Hello” those kind eyes looked downward at the
child, then returned to Dehner. “You must be friends with the Thompsons.”
The green eyes suddenly looked
confused. “Well… isn’t that their little girl?”
Dehner gave a quick account of how
he had found and named “Pixie”, including the fact that some people were trying
to kill the child. He explained that he was a detective with the Lowrie Agency
and asked the lawman and the Harpers if they knew Pixie’s real name. He
received blank stares.
“The Thompsons only came to our
store once,” Enoch explained. “Dropped by yesterday. They’d just arrived from
Indiana and needed a whole heap of supplies for a ranch they was starting. The
man’s name was Gerald, can’t remember the rest.”
“Me neither,” his wife added. “The
woman was very pretty and very nice but…” Kate snapped her fingers. “She didn’t
stay long! They had promised the child some candy and we were sold out. She
took the little girl over to the Bushrod Brothers’ General Store.”
Sheriff Bolger’s mind had been on
other matters. “I talked with the Thompsons while they were here but not for
long, just a howdy. Do you remember where the Thompsons were starting their
Enoch crunched up his face. “Reckon
it was East of here where the creek begins to turn into a river.”
“Exactly where I found Pixie.”
“I’d better ride out there,” the
sheriff said. “You wanna come along, Dehner?”
“Sure do. I’m taking Pixie over to
the General Store to see if anyone there remembers her, then I’ll meet you at
“Good enough. I need to track down
my deputy and fill him in on some things he’s gotta do. See you!” The sheriff
hurried from the store.
Dehner suddenly realized that for
the last few minutes he had almost completely forgotten about the little girl
who was standing trance-like beside him. Did she understand the conversations
going on around her?”
The detective eyed Enoch and Kate.
“Ah, when I’m through at the General Store would you two mind--”
“We’d love to look after Pixie!”
Dehner paused, obviously rethinking
his request. Enoch understood why. He reached under the counter of the store
and brought out a Henry. “A store owner can’t be too careful. Before marrying
Kate, I worked as a barkeep. Handled plenty of rough customers. Anybody that tries
to harm the girl will have a fight on their hands.”
Harper, I’m here to clean the stables for ya.” A pudgy man of medium height
entered the store. He was wearing a battered Stetson, a shirt with two buttons
missing, and shiny brown pants. Much of his face was covered with black and
“Go right ahead, Laszlo. I don’t
think I’ll have any work for you in the store today.”
Laszlo smiled at Pixie, revealing
several broken teeth. “Pretty little girl.” He looked back at Enoch, who nodded
“I’ll get to work now.” Laszlo clomped
out of the store.
Several moments of silence followed
Laszlo’s departure, then Enoch shook his head and explained in a low voice. “No
one seems to know why Laszlo is the way he is. But he’s a good worker. Laszlo is
a swamper for the town’s largest saloon. He also cleans our stable out back and
does a few chores around the store. We can’t pay him but we let him sleep in
“He also comes to church with us on
Sunday,” Kate added. “And he has supper with us a few times a week.”
The detective was glad that Laszlo lived in a
town like Candler. In larger cities, people like Laszlo were often ignored.
Dehner nodded his head and took Pixie by the hand. “We’ll be right back.”
The Bushrod Brothers’ General Store
was located across the street from Harper’s Mercantile but seemed to be located
in a different world. The place looked dilapidated. Even from a distance, Dehner could tell that
the inside of the store had a look of disrepair and negligence.
As he stepped inside, he noted that
the store had one customer, a dapper looking older man in a brown suit and
matching derby. On second glance, Dehner wasn’t sure the gentleman was a
customer. His face indicated that, whatever
his status, he was not happy. As the well dressed gent turned to walk out, a
stocky man with thick red hair grabbed a stick of licorice and ran after him.
“Here Mr. Candler, have some
licorice on the house! Remember when you was just a boy and somethin’ sweet to
eat would make everythin’ better?”
Judging by the scowl on his face,
Mr. Candler did not appreciate the reminiscing. “When I became a man I put away
childish things,” he proclaimed.
The man holding the licorice stick
beamed in an approving manner. “Good thinkin’, Mr. Candler. This town needs
more men like you. Men who are well versed in the Good Book! I’ll tell that to
the preacher…ah…next time I see him.”
Mr. Candler stomped out of the
Bushrod Brothers’ General Store. The red headed gent with the licorice stick
shook his head, “The way that man acts, you’d think his family owns the town.”
“They do,” came a shout from behind
the counter. “This is Candler, Arizona, remember?”
“Oh yeah.” the redheaded man took a
bite of the licorice stick as he smiled at Dehner.
There were quick introductions all
around. Rance learned that the man with the licorice was Rupert Bushrod, and
the man behind the counter was his brother Clarence. The men were twins, and
could easily have passed for each other except for Clarence’s thinning hair and
“Sorry you had to arrive when we
were so busy, Rance.” Rupert leaned against the counter as he took a final bite
of the candy. “Mr. Candler is the town banker. He’s a might irritated with
Clarence and me…or is that Clarence and I…because we ain’t made our payments of
“It’s ‘Clarence and me’, Dehner
instructed, then asked, “You mean you haven’t been able to make your mortgage
shrugged his shoulders. “Right now there are so many payments we are behind on,
you can pretty much take your pick. We got lots of payments, not many
customers. Most folks prefer to shop at Harper’s Mercantile. Can’t figure out
held up an index finger, “Maybe it’s cause the Harpers are more helpful, their
store is cleaner and their prices lower.”
nodded his head in a thoughtful manner, “Guess that could have somethin’ to do
you can help us out, Rance.” Hope permeated Rupert’s voice. “We got anythin’
here you’d like to buy?”
“I’m hoping my little friend might
like some candy,” Dehner replied. “Do either one of you gentlemen recognize
Neither Bushrod brother had paid any attention
to Pixie when Dehner brought her into the store. Both men now gave the child a
“She does look a mite familiar,”
“Do either one of you know her
Both men shook their heads, then
Rupert exclaimed, “Oh boy!”
“Do you remember her now?” Dehner
“Na, but I sure remember her mother.
Her name was Judy.”
yes,” Clarence’s face brightened. “I remember Judy, too. A really beautiful
woman. She brought the kid here because they was sold out of candy across the
never sell out of nothin’,” Rupert added.
watched Pixie carefully. The little girl had no reaction to the mention of her
long did Judy stay in your store?” Dehner threw the question out to either
caught it. “Not long enough. Did we mention that she was real good lookin’?”
recall words to that effect,” the detective said.
Rupert continued: “After she bought the kid
some rock candy, she talked for a few minutes ‘bout the ranch she and her
husband were startin’. Gonna raise horses as I recall. Then she looked out the
door and saw the Harpers helpin’ her husband load up his buckboard. She took
the girl and went to help.”
that the last time you saw her?”
‘Fraid so,” Clarence ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Seems a shame, a beautiful
woman like that workin’out on a ranch when she could have a great job right
here in town as a saloon girl.”
kid did come back for a moment,” Rupert added. “She brought a penny with her
and bought more candy.”
getting’ to the point where we remember every sale we make with great
fondness,” Clarence declared.
for the information, gentlemen.” Dehner placed a couple of coins on the counter
and took several pieces of rock candy from a jar. He tried to hand one piece to
Pixie but she didn’t respond at all. Her hands remained at her side.
detective felt baffled. What had the little girl witnessed and why were there
people out to kill her?
Dehner dropped Pixie off at Harper’s
Mercantile, then took a fast walk to the south end of Main Street and the
sheriff’s office. As he entered, Sheriff Clint Bolger was talking to a nervous
young man who kept working his hands and nodding his head. The tin on his shirt
was shiny and looked like he had polished it that morning.
“One more thing,” the sheriff seemed
to be coming to the end of a long list. “The ladies are having their weekly
luncheon at the church today. Reverend Connors is out of town. If Jesse Larson
shows up, get him out of there, but do it quiet like. If Jesse tries to go
back, put him in jail for the afternoon but give him a warning first. Remember,
you are dealing with Jesse Larson, not Jesse James.”
“Yes, Sheriff, I’ll remember
Bolger gave the detective a quick
glance. “Ah, Deputy Emory Logan, this here is Rance…”
“Dehner.” Rance shook the hand of a
man who was probably a year or two shy of twenty. His long oval face was topped
by sand colored hair which ended in a curl that bobbed over his forehead.
“We gotta be leavin’,” the sheriff
said. “Try to see that the town is still here when we get back, Emory.”
“Yes, Sheriff.” Emory’s voice
Detective instincts were not
required to notice that Clint Bolger was not happy with his deputy. Rance
waited until he and the sheriff had ridden out of town before asking, “Emory
Logan not working out too well?”
Bolger began to talk in the fast,
jerky manner of a man getting something off of his chest. “Emory is a good kid,
but he reads too many dime novels. He wants to be Wyatt Earp. Emory treats
jailing a drunken miner as if he had single handedly brought in the Dalton
gang. Now, he doesn’t rough up jaspers unless it’s necessary, and he’s not
trigger happy, I’ll give him that, but he needs to calm down …”
Clint continued to unload his frustrations
as the two men rode out to where Rance had encountered Pixie earlier in the
day. They had just passed the grove of trees where the little girl had emerged
when Dehner changed the subject. “I was carrying Pixie in this direction when I
Bolger nodded his head. “From what
the Harpers say, you was probably takin’ the kid home, even though you didn’t
know it at the time. The Thompsons probably have their ranch up ahead.”
Both men suddenly went silent,
stunned by what they saw.
“Looks like smoke,” Rance said.
“Yep. Right where the Thompson ranch
Dehner and the sheriff spurred their
horses into a fast gallop. The ears of Dehner’s bay went back and his mane
began a wild dance. Landscape whizzed by. As their horses ate up the ground,
the men could see a large ranch house being consumed by fire.
focused on the horror in front of him, and the detective repeated a mistake he
had made only hours before. He ignored the large rocks surrounding the mountain
to his left. Once again, the mistake was dangerous.
The pop of rifle shots mixed with
the crackling sounds of fire. The two riders reined off toward a large boulder
in front of the corral, beside the burning house. They dismounted, pulled
rifles from their saddle boots, and let both horses run.
“They’ll head for water,” the
sheriff yelled. We’ll find ‘em.”
The two men took cover behind the
boulder and looked toward the mountains. “Any idea of how many of ‘em there are
or where they are?” Bolger asked as his eyes searched the mountainous area.
“No. And we’ve got no time to think
about it. Cover me, I’m going inside the house.”
“Are you sure there’s people in
“Probably are. And they may be
alive. Why else would someone be firing at us?”
Clint nodded his head as the
detective crouched into a jackknife position and ran toward the house. Gunfire
ignited again. Some people didn’t want their deadly plans interrupted. One shot
shattered a front window of the house. Dehner kept moving toward the angry
clouds of smoke that flowed from an open front door.
Dehner held his breath and plowed through
the gray billows to be confronted by a red death which was gorging on the back
wall of the house and spreading fast to the ceiling. Suddenly, the fire seemed
to be coming at him like a wild animal that had just picked up the scent of a
Two bodies lay on the floor, a man
and a woman. Dehner lifted the woman’s body, placed her over his shoulder and
ran back to the doorway. He held his breath again and charged into the
Gunshots greeted him as he ran off
the porch and onto the yard of the ranch house. Dehner hastily placed the body
down then dropped to the ground himself. From the corner of his eye, he could
see an explosive flash which cut the night like a monstrous lightning bolt. A
massive fireworks display of red then covered the sky as the roof of the house
The detective glanced backward at
the rampaging fire. The man he had left in the house was beyond rescue.
flames continued their destructive rampage. The corral beside the house was now
on fire. Dehner wondered how long Clint Bolger could remain safely behind the
boulder which fronted the coral.
As if answering the question, Bolger
moved cautiously from behind the large rock. No shots came from the mountain
area. “I think they’ve gone, Rance,” Clint shouted. “I heard hoofbeats riding
off when the house came down.”
Dehner sprang to his feet. No one
fired, but the beast behind him seemed to be growing. He picked up the body of
the young woman and carried her away from the flames.
“Is she still alive, Rance?” Clint
met the detective several yards in front of the burning house.
“Don’t know,” Dehner coughed as he
gently laid the woman on the ground.
“You okay?” The sheriff asked.
“I’m fine.” Both men crouched over
“This is the Thompson woman,” the
Dehner coughed once again, his eyes
were still watering from the smoke. “She was shot at close range. Someone
killed her and then set fire to the house.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Don’t know. Her husband was
probably shot too.” Dehner glanced back at the inferno which now raged where a
house had been. “It’ll be a while before we can retrieve his body.”
When Dehner turned back, he saw the
sheriff lift Judy Thompson’s arm. “Have you seen many corpses, Rance?”
“Me too. I don’t think Judy Thompson
was killed recently. She’s been dead at least a few hours.”
The detective took a closer look at
the corpse. “I think you’re right. That means Judy Thompson and her husband
were probably killed this morning. About the time I found Pixie,--or she found
“But why would the killers come back
and set fire to the house?”
Dehner shook his head. “I can’t say.
All we know for sure is that someone murdered the parents of a little girl. And
now they want to kill the child.”
Rance stepped out of the Candler
Hotel. He had taken a room there and had just finished supper in the hotel
restaurant. The town’s main street was now an erratic collection of filmy,
yellow blotches from the windows of saloons and the lanterns that hung over most
stores. Even in the limited light, Dehner could see that the man walking toward
him was angry.
“Good evening, Deputy.” Dehner tried
to sound cheerful, but not too cheerful.
“Evenin’,” came the sullen reply of
“On a round?”
“I’m on my way to the livery, mind
if I join you for a few minutes?”
Dehner tried to think of something
to say that might make the boy feel better. Emory was failing at his job.
Nothing Deputy Logan did seemed to go right. Hardly an unusual situation for a
green kid, but Rance recalled how painful it could be.
Before Dehner could think of
anything encouraging to say, Emory spoke up. “Hear you’re riding out to the
Thompson place tonight.”
“Yes. I’m going to rent a buckboard
from the livery. The fire should have burned itself out by now. I can retrieve
the body of Gerald Thompson.” Rance shook his shoulders in a resigned manner.
“We want to retrieve the body before the coyotes get to it.”
“Understand the doc pulled two .44
slugs out of Mrs. Thompson’s body.”
“Of course, you’d know. You were
there. Guess the sheriff doesn’t want me to take a hand in this matter.”
The welcome intrusion came from Rupert
Bushrod, who was tying up his horse in front of Bushrod Brothers’ General
Store. Dehner figured a few minutes spent with the Bushrods might benefit Emory
“Where have you been, Rupert?” the
“At the home of Albert and Stella
The deputy looked surprised and
impressed. “They’re the wealthiest family in town.”
“Sure enough are! The Candlers are
our leadin’ citizens. Got high standards, too. That’s why I have to deliver
stuff to Mrs. Candler. Bad enough that her husband has to get dust on his suit
by comin’ in the store to remind us we’re broke. She don’t want to be seen
anywhere near Bushrod Brothers’ General Store. The lady’s got a reputation to
his brother spoke, Clarence ambled to the doorway. “Did she make you come in by
the servant’s entrance again?”
“Yeah, but this time she instructed
the butler to call me Rupert instead of lazy, no good bum.”
Clarence smiled broadly. “See, I
told you that down deep they was just regular folks.”
“What did you deliver to Mrs.
Bushrod?” Dehner asked.
“Jewelry. We give her first look at
anything we get in.” Rupert pulled a check out of his pocket and waved it in
front of his brother’s face. “Mr. Candler paid me tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll give
this back to him. Take it to the bank and deposit it.” Rupert turned his head
toward the deputy. “You won’t have to evict us. Not for another month or so,
“This is a cause for celebration,”
Clarence declared. “Why don’t you gents come in and feast on a piece of rock
Dehner could see Emory’s eyes
brighten but the deputy was still a tad reluctant. “Well…I’m supposed to have
my round done by eight--”
Clarence pulled a timepiece from his
pocket. “You got plenty o’ time. It ain’t quite seven yet.”
“The glass on your timepiece is
cracked,” Dehner said.
“Yeah.” Clarence returned the gold
colored piece to his pocket. “Blasted glass broke shortly after I bought the
thing. Where did I get that piece of junk from anyhow?”
“Bushrod Brothers’ General Store,”
“Oh yeah,” Clarence smirked and
tilted his head. “Should’a knowed. I do recall paying too much for it.”
Dehner laughed and gave the deputy a
pat on the shoulder. “You better take up the candy offer. You’re going to need
the energy for that day when you have to evict these guys. They’ll have you
laughing silly the whole time.”
The sullenness left Emory’s face.
“Say, Rance,” Clarence spoke as the
detective started to walk off. “How’s that kid doin’?”
“I saw her about an hour ago. Pixie
isn’t talking yet, but she looks more relaxed. Being with the Harpers seems to
be doing her a lot of good.”
“Bring her by again, soon as you
can,” Clarence implored. “She might be wantin’ some more candy.”
Dehner shrugged his shoulders. “She didn’t want any today.”
“Yeah, but you paid for it!”
Clarence raised an index finger. “That’s what counts!”
“Businessmen has got to put first
things first!” Rupert declared in an officious manner.
Dehner laughed as he continued his
walk to the livery. The sense of merriment stayed with him until he drove the
buckboard out of town. He then remembered that he was off to retrieve a burnt
Enoch Harper lay in bed and listened
carefully to his wife’s breathing. He was certain she was now asleep.
The day had been long and the night
even longer. He and Kate had been saddened and shocked to hear of what had
happened to the Thompsons. For such fine people to be brutally murdered was a
Kate had said nothing to him yet,
but Enoch knew that his wife wanted to keep the child. It made sense in a way.
While in the store buying things, Gerald Thompson had said that neither he nor
his wife had family living back in Indiana. That was one reason they had come
What would become of Pixie? Kate had
been fussing over her all evening, listening to make sure Pixie was sleeping
and getting up to sing to her on the many occasions the little girl woke up.
Enoch sighed. Why hadn’t he and Kate
been able to have children of their own? He wanted a daughter as well as a son
but, Enoch admitted to himself, he didn’t want a silent child, a Pixie, who
might remain a strange creature for the rest of her life. But there were Kate’s
feelings to consider, what--”
Enoch suddenly became tense. He
thought he heard the sounds of an intruder. Lack of sleep can do things to a
man’s imagination, he mused, but it sounded as if someone had forced open the
side window and crawled inside.
The store owner remained frozen, his
ears alert to any foreign sound. A faint squeak wisped from the store area.
Enoch pegged it as someone slowly opening a drawer.
He slipped out of bed and into the
pants which were lying on a nearby chair. As Enoch picked up the Henry that was
propped in the corner behind the chair, he turned and saw his wife sitting up.
Her eyes were questioning and alert.
He placed a finger to his lips, then
pointed toward the store area. Kate nodded her head, quietly left the bed and
rushed over to the pile of blankets where Pixie was sleeping. She gently awoke
the child and then pulled back part of the rug, revealing a trap door. She
lifted the door, wrapped Pixie in a blanket and carried her into the
Enoch knew his wife wouldn’t be down
there long. She would make sure Pixie was comfortable and then come back up. He
needed to act fast. Enoch entered the store area where an intruder awaited him.
of the kerosene lamps along Main Street were now out. There was only a small
cut of moon in the sky, leaving the store in almost total darkness.
Enoch spotted a bulge in the
darkness. The figure was several yards away from him and seemed to be looking
under the counter, but for what?
The store owner lifted his Henry as
he spoke. “Stand still and put your hands up or I’ll kill you.”
Enoch’s words seemed to shock the
intruder. He froze for a moment, then put his hands up.
Enoch slowly stepped toward the dark
figure. He didn’t want to trip over anything. “Okay friend, you and I are going
to take a walk to the sheriff’s office. You’re going to have to answer a few
“You’re the one that should be
answerin’ questions!” The figure stepped around the counter. “You’re the one
that kept company with Judy Thompson!”
The store owner was shocked by the
accusation but more worried that the intruder now had his arms down. “Get your
hands back up and freeze. I mean it, I’ll shoot!”
A frantic voice shouted back, “I
ain’t takin’ orders from you!”
The figure’s right hand seemed to
move toward his hip. Thoughts of his wife and the child flashed through Enoch’s
mind. He fired the rifle.
There was a loud cry of pain. The
figure jerked backwards and fell.
“Enoch!” The door to the living
quarters flung open. Pixie’s screams sounded from far away like cries from
“I’m okay, Kate. I shot the thief.”
“Is he dead?”
Encoh’s voice was almost a sob.
“Don’t know. Please, look after the kid.”
Kate returned to the child. Enoch
made his way to the edge of the counter where there was a kerosene lamp and a
box of matchsticks. He struck one of the matches against the counter, then
lifted the chimney and placed the flame against the lamp’s wick. He blew out
the match and returned the chimney.
Enoch told himself that he had not
lied to his wife. He didn’t know for certain if the man he had shot was alive
or dead. Still, he thought there was little chance the intruder had any life
left in him. The body lay still on the floor. There were no painful moans.
Pixie’s screams sounded closer. Lamp
in one hand and the rifle cradled in his arm, Enoch approached the body on the
One glance convinced Enoch that he had been right. The man was dead. Still, the
store owner placed the lamp down and picked up the wrist of the corpse, feeling
for a pulse that wasn’t there.
store owner looked back at his wife, who stood a few feet behind him holding
the child. Pixie’s face was pressed into her chest. “Dear God, Kate, I just
killed a deputy sheriff.”
Clint Bolger looked down at the corpse. A myriad of emotions played across his
face. Dehner understood. Bolger hadn’t gotten along well with Emory Logan, but
the man had still been his deputy. He had been responsible for him.
returning to Candler, Dehner had left the body of Gerald Thompson with the town
doctor. He had then reported to the sheriff’s office. He and Clint Bolger were
discussing the murders when Enoch Harper arrived with the announcement that he
had just killed the deputy sheriff of Candler.
go over this once again,” the sheriff spoke to Enoch. “You have no idea why Logan
broke into your store?”
you certain he was going for his gun?”
voice had a pleading quality. “He wouldn’t keep his hands up like I told him!”
are you sure he was going for his gun?”
think so, but…I don’t know…I just don’t know…”
looked downward and ran a hand through his hair. His wife looked on
sympathetically. Dehner noticed that Pixie remained silent but seemed less
trance-like. The little girl held Kate’s hand and her eyes seemed to reflect
some comprehension of what was happening.
Bolger continued his questioning. “Now,
just one more time, tell me what Logan said before you shot him.”
store owner lifted both arms and gestured with them in exasperation. “He said
that I had ‘kept company’ with Judy Thompson. Nonsense! I only saw Mrs.
Thompson once in my whole life!”
was when she and her husband came here to buy stuff for the ranch they were
startin’?” the sheriff asked. “That’s when I met ‘em.”
And Mrs. Thompson wasn’t even here the whole time. She went across the street
with her little girl to buy her some candy.”
I don’t have any more questions,” Sheriff Bolger sighed as he spoke. “Rance, I
know you’ve already carried one corpse, tonight. Would you--”
I’ll help you carry the deputy.”
left the Red Dog saloon and headed for the stable behind Harper’s Mercantile.
It had been a good night. There had been no fights at the saloon and everyone
had been nice to him. Nobody was cruel. It had been a quiet night which ended
early, giving him a chance to clean the saloon and get to the stable behind
Harper’s Mercantile long before sunup.
felt tired. He would sleep on his cot and then clean the stable before
breakfast. He wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Harper would have any extra chores for
him. He didn’t mind if they did. They were nice people, never yelled at him or…
good mood suddenly turned cold. Across the street, two lamps had been lit
inside the store area of Harper’s Mercantile. People were moving about inside.
One of them was Sheriff Bolger.
wasn’t good. Laszlo stepped back into the shadow cast by the overhang from Bushrod
Brothers’ General Store. He could see Sheriff Bolger and another man whose name
he couldn’t remember carrying something out of the store. Oh, no. It was a
and Mrs. Harper and that cute little girl were okay. He could see them. But
they all looked so serious. And the man who was carried out, he looked dead,
not drunk or sick.
leaned against the front of the general store. Why did things have to be like
this? Why did people have to fight and say nasty things? Why did people have to
kill each other?
of the lamps went out and Mr. Harper was carrying the other one as he opened
the door into the living area. Mrs. Harper and the child were with him. Mr.
Harper closed the door and the store stood dark.
swamper crossed the street, wondering, once again, what had happened to him
long ago. He recalled people, nice people, in another town telling him he had
been in a fight with a lot of other people. They even showed him special
clothes he had worn for the fight. A uniform they called it. They told him he
had been hurt very badly in the fight.
began to walk by the side of Harper’s Mercantile to the stable. He could
remember being excited when the railroad came to the town. He saved up his
money to get on the train. He had given the man at the station all the money he
had saved and the man gave him a ticket. But the ticket ran out and he had to
get off the train at Candler.
first people asked him where he came from. He had to tell them he didn’t know.
After a while, people stopped asking those questions.
opened the door to the stable and walked carefully inside toward the lantern
which was perched atop an old battered stool. He lit the lantern and held it
up, giving the stable a cursory glance. His eyes went first to the four horses
that he cared for, and the buckboard. Everything looked fine.
on second glance, he noticed something out of place. A saddle and saddle bags
rested on the wall of one of the stalls. One of the bags was open. He was sure
all of the bags had been closed when he had looked in on the stable a few hours
the lantern, he walked over to the open bag and glanced inside. The bag was
empty, save for one thing. He pulled it out and gasped. This was something very
beautiful. Very special. Something this lovely shouldn’t be kept in a stable!
Harper was probably asleep by now. He wouldn’t bother him. But he knew he
couldn’t put his discovery back into a saddle bag. This was not only something
beautiful, this was important.
would take it to the sheriff. Yes, he would take it to Sheriff Bolger right
Clint Bolger and Rance Dehner walked back to the sheriff’s office from Harold’s
Barber Shop. Harold was also the town undertaker.
stay in town until this thing gets settled, Clint.”
it, Rance. I’ll need help now that I don’t have a deputy. What got in to Emory
Logan anyhow? Emory wasn’t a good deputy, but he was a decent enough kid. Why
would he accuse Enoch of sparking with Judy Thompson?”
you accept Enoch’s version of what happened tonight?”
nodded his head. “I’ve always known Enoch to be an honest man. My instincts are
usually right in these matters.”
is waving at us.”
The two men started walking faster. After several steps, the sheriff greeted
the man standing in front of his office. “Mornin’, Laszlo.”
Sheriff. I got somethin’ to show you. Somethin’ special.”
The sheriff unlocked and opened the door. “Step inside.”
three men entered the office. Clint lit the lamp on his desk, then gave Laszlo
a friendly smile. “What have you got to show me?”
handed him the object.
heavens!” the sheriff’s voice was a loud whisper. “This is a photograph of Judy
beautiful! Very beautiful lady!”
Laszlo, she is, or was…”
looked at the picture. “The Thompsons came from Indiana. They might not have been
too far away from Chicago. The picture was probably taken at a photography
did you get this, Laszlo?” the sheriff asked.
the stable, where I sleep.”
stable behind Harper’s Mercantile?”
I found it in one of Mr. Harper’s saddle bags. I noticed because the bag was
open, not like usual.”
Clint Bolger stared silently at the photograph for a few moments, then spoke
quietly to Dehner. “Maybe my instincts aren’t so good after all.”
Bushrod opened the front door of Bushrod Brothers’ General Store. His brother
Clarence stepped out onto the boardwalk. “This is my favorite time of day,” Clarence
declared. “No loud mobs of people around to bother a man.”
talkin’ about?! There ain’t no loud mobs of people inside our store at any time
yeah. But in the very early mornin’, I don’t hav’ ta watch folks goin’ into
Harper’s Mercantile. That can do somethin’ to a man’s pride.”
you got a point there.” Rupert looked up the street. “The town thinker is comin’ this way.”
shouldn’t talk about Laszlo that way.”
all right! I don’t say nothin’ mean to the man’s face. I just make jokes about
him behind his back.”
is the more gentlemanly way of doin’ things.” Clarence ran a hand through his
thinning hair. “Dehner is with him.”
could be a good omen. Last time Dehner was in the store, he bought two pieces
made up ‘bout twenty-five percent of our sales for that day.”
Dehner and Laszlo approached the Bushrod brothers, Laszlo pulled a few coins
from his pocket. “Mornin’ Rupert. Mornin’ Clarence.”
Laszlo,” Rupert nodded at the four pennies in the swamper’s hand. “I see your
investments have paid off.”
what Dehner could tell Laszlo was aware that Rupert had just made a joke but
didn’t understand it. The swamper continued to smile as he handed the coins to
Rupert. “I got paid this morning. Here is the money I owe you.”
smile broadened as he took the money. “Pay day is always a cause for
celebration. Come on inside Laszlo, and have a licorice stick on the house.
Care to join us, Rance?”
but no thanks.”
Dehner wants to look at the stable behind Harper’s Mercantile,” Laszlo’s eyes
were already looking inside the store at the glass containers of candy on the
detective decided to tell the Bushrod brothers what they would soon find out
anyway. “Emory Logan was killed last night. He had broken into Harper’s
Mercantile and Enoch shot him, not knowing who he was. I’m helping Sheriff
brothers looked shocked. For the first time since Dehner had met him, Rupert
spoke in a serious voice. “I recollect bein’ woke up last night by a shot. I
thought it was just some drunk.”
for helpin’ the sheriff, Rance,” Clarence’s voice was subdued.
noticed the confused look on Laszlo’s face and placed a hand his shoulder.
“That licorice is still on the house. Come on in, Laszlo.”
Bushrod brothers nodded at Dehner, who then turned and crossed the street. As he entered the stable, a predawn sky was
providing enough light that Rance could easily find the lantern on the rickety
saddle bag where Laszlo had found the picture remained open. Dehner could find
nothing else of interest in the saddle bags or anywhere else. Still, he didn’t
want to leave. The stable provided him with a place to think. And he had a lot
to think about.
Enoch Harper began to close down Harper’s
Mercantile and, he hoped, the worst day of his life. That morning he had killed
Emory Logan, a young man who had never committed a crime in his life before
breaking into Harper’s Mercantile. He would never forget the pale, empty look
on Emory’s face as he looked down at him.
he should have closed the store. But he desperately needed something to do and
there were customers who were dependent upon him.
let out a caustic laugh as he rearranged items on the shelves which had been
scrambled by the Pickford kids a few hours before. His customers that day had
hardly been a comfort. Most of them wanted the whole story concerning Emory’s
death. A few men had even asked him where the bullet entered Emory Logan.
gets into people?” Enoch asked in a low whisper.
he finished with the shelves, Enoch glanced backwards toward the door that led
to their living area. Kate was putting Pixie to bed. His wife had been…well…a
bit distant with him all day. Of course, Logan’s death also hit her hard. That could explain it.
Harper walked back to the store’s counter where he kept the key to Harper’s
Mercantile. Did Kate suspect him of carrying on with Judy Thompson? How could
she? He had only seen Mrs. Thompson on one occasion, when she came to the store
with her husband.
store owner sighed deeply as he removed the key from a nail under the counter.
How did that picture of Mrs. Thompson end up in his saddle bag? He had told
Kate and Sheriff Bolger the truth. He had never seen the photograph before in
had said they believed him. Enoch had detected a wave of doubt in both of their
Enoch approached the entrance to the store, two familiar gents appeared. Enoch
smiled and gestured for them to step inside. A few minutes with the Bushrod
Brothers might be just what the doctor ordered.
brung a white flag of surrender with us,” Rupert spoke as he and his brother
ambled into Harper’s Mercantile.
brother was speakin’ sym-bolically,” Clarence said.
you go, usin’ big words,” Rupert responded. “Never shoulda bought you that
didn’t buy it for me!” Clarence fired back. “I borrowed it off the shelves. One
of many items we never sold.”
yeah.” Rupert placed a hand on his coat and looked upwards in the style of an
orator. “What I means is, Rupert and
Clarence Bushrod are closin’ down the Bushrod Brothers’ General Store after
years of service to our fine community.”
added, “Of course, our fine community preferred to be serviced by Harper’s
am sorry,” Enoch’s words were sincere.
should be!” Rupert declared. “Why, you didn’t play fair. You was always workin’
hard, orderin’ stuff on time, figurin’ out in advance what your customers would
be needin’, keepin’ the store neat and clean--”
knowed we was no good at that sort of thing!” Clarence proclaimed with mock
Harper laughed hard. It felt good.
we’re not here for sympathy,” Clarence continued, “even though, in our opinion,
we deserve it.”
were wonderin’ if maybe you’d be interested in buyin’ some of our inventory,”
Rupert explained. “Once you get the dust off, some of it is pretty decent.”
maybe.” Enoch flipped the notion over in his mind. “What if I come over for a
moment and take a look at what you’ve got?”
the words right out of our mouths!” Clarence said.
give me a minute, I need to tell Kate what’s going on.” Enoch stepped quickly
toward the door to the living area. As he opened it, he saw Kate sitting beside
Pixie’s makeshift bed. His wife was talking in a low voice to the child.
a moment, the store owner became completely engrossed in the scene before him.
Pixie was nodding her head! The child seemed to understand what Kate said to
her and was responding to his wife’s words.
voice sounded behind him. “Move inside the room, Enoch. I have a gun pointed at
store owner turned around slightly. “Put that thing away, Rupert! After what
happened this morning, Kate is in no mood for jokes--”
raw and wild appeared in Rupert’s eyes. “This ain’t no joke, Enoch.” Rupert
cocked the six shooter. “Move inside, now!”
moved into the living area still half believing the Bushrod Brothers were
playing an elaborate joke. That slight hope was quickly demolished. Pixie stood
up on the pile of blankets that was her makeshift bed and began to scream. At
first her voice was an inarticulate screech. Then words shot out from her. “I
remember ! I remember !” She pointed at the Bushrod Brothers. “Those men killed
my mommy and my daddy!”
Bushrod quickly pulled a gun and pointed it at Pixie. “Shut that kid up!
Harper was in a state of near shock. Pixie was talking and two men that she had
always thought of as lovable jokers were now threatening the child with guns.
repeated his order. “Quiet that kid, Kate. Now!”
was close to being hysterical. Kate tried to comfort the child with soft words
as she placed a hand over Pixie’s mouth.
pulled back the carpet, revealing the trapdoor underneath. He yanked the door
open and motioned with his gun. “Ever’ one downstairs.”
looked shocked. Rupert answered his unspoken question. “Laszlo told us ‘bout
your secret basement.”
be surprised how a few pieces of candy can loosen a man’s tongue,” Clarence
added. “We’ve found out quite a bit ‘bout the Harpers.”
wonderful folks!” Rupert smiled broadly as he spoke. “The kind of people who
are needed to help bring civilization to the west. Darn shame you’re all gonna
be dead in a few minutes. But, wouldn’t you know it, that’s what often happens
to the kind of people who are needed to help bring civilization to the
west.” He once again motioned with his
looked at her husband, who nodded at her to follow the instructions. She picked
up Pixie and walked down the wooden steps into darkness.
if you will be so kind as to accompany the missus.” As Rupert spoke, Clarence
lit the lantern on the bedside table. He was the last to go down the stairs to
the basement, following his brother who kept his gun on Enoch. Clarence closed
the trap door behind him.
looked around. The scant light from the lantern provided very limited
visibility. “Just the kind of basement I’d expect the Harpers to have. Neat and
clean. A bit dank, perhaps, but you really can’t help that.”
in the dim light, flames could be seen in Kate’s eyes. “You two are monsters!”
The woman kept an arm draped around Pixie who was now at her side clinging to
her right leg.
ma’am, I guess we are,” Rupert replied.
ma and pa just didn’t raise us proper,” Clarence said. “Never sent us to Sunday
never did learn the ten commandments,” Rupert added.
nodded his head. “The preacher came by our store a year or so back, I think he
might have mentioned a few of those commandments. They sounded like good
Clarence and me have never been ones to take good advice.”
was stunned. The Bushrod brothers were carrying on in their usual humorous
manner, bouncing jokes off of each other. But there was nothing funny about
are you men doing this?” Enoch’s voice reflected amazement as well as anger.
“We never hurt you!”
in a way you kinda did,” a smile remained on Rupert’s face. “Harper’s
Mercantile has plum taken away all of our customers. We ain’t far from goin’
out of business.”
and Rupert and me is too old to start workin’ honest at this point in our
lives.” Clarence continued to hold the lantern in his left hand and a six
shooter in the right hand.
guess it all came clear that day Mrs. Thompson came into the store with her
kid. It was obvious to us that she only stopped by cause you folks was sold out
of candy. We’d never see her or her husband in the store again.”
she left, Rupert and me got to talkin’--”
Rupert and I!”
yeah. Rupert and I got to talkin’. We decided that the only way we could
survive was to eliminate the competition.”
cut in. “We coulda done that by hard work and total dedication to our
like we said earlier, Rupert and I have never been good at that. So, we decided
to burn Harper’s Mercantile down. Of course, we’d have to kill the Harpers in
you folks woulda rebuilt. Been an inspiration to the town.”
I don’t understand.” Kate caressed Pixie’s head as she spoke. “Why did you kill
the Thompsons and try to kill Pixie?”
pure carelessness,” Clarence answered.
see, my brother and I,” Rupert smiled condescendingly at Clarence, “were
discussing our plans to murder you folks after Mrs. Thompson left the store.”
had just put the finishing touches on a dandy scheme, when we turned around and
there was this kid. Her mother had given her a penny to come back and buy
another piece of candy.”
and I had been makin’ our plans from behind the counter. Never occurred to us
that a customer might come in.”
voice was now steely. “So, that afternoon you rode out to the Thompson’s place
and murdered them. You couldn’t take a chance that Pixie wouldn’t tell her
mother and father what she had overheard.”
Clarence shook his head. “Didn’t bother wearing masks. Seemed no need. We
killed the kid’s folks, but she got away. We searched all over for her. That
Dehner fella found her before we did. We tried to take her from him, but it
lot of stuff hasn’t been workin’ out, Clarence. Think this whole project is
always was too superstitious, Rupert. Running from black cats and all that.”
so. This basement is givin’ me the shakes. I’ll be glad when Laszlo gets here.”
jaw dropped. Could Laszlo be an accessory to murder?
chuckled; he understood Enoch’s shock. “Laszlo thinks we’re playin’ a game with
the child. He’s gonna kick on the trap door when the nine ‘o clock train pulls
into town. We might not be able to hear the train down here.”
make a lot of noise,” Rupert explained. “We think bein’ in this cellar is
enough. But we can’t be sure somebody won’t hear the shots and get the
“Some of our ideas ain’t worked out
“So far, all of our ideas ain’t
worked out so well. But we have high hopes for this one. We’re gonna kill you
folks while the train is a whistlin’ away and then burn this place down.”
never get away with it!”
laughed. “You don’t sound very convinced, Enoch. Sure we’ll get away with it.
That picture of Mrs. Thompson in your saddle bags sure has tongues wagging. The
way we see it, people will think you killed Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, then went
plum crazy: set fire to the store, killed your wife and the kid and, for an
encore, killed yourself.”
smiled contentedly. “The town will be talkin’ about it for years. A lot of that
talk will take place over the cracker barrel at Bushrod Brothers’ General
ain’t got a cracker barrel!”
me to order one.”
voice sounded from above. “Rupert, Clarence, gotta talk to you. It’s Laszlo.”
oh,” Rupert said. “There’s the weakest link in the chain.”
is it?!” Clarence shouted.
Runyon at the train station tole me somethin’ you need to know.”
the lantern still in his left hand, motioned with his gun hand at the Harpers
and Pixie. “All of you move back and keep silent. Rupert, talk to the town
fool, and find out what’s on his mind, which probably isn’t much. Keep your gun
pointed low. In the darkness Laszlo probably won’t spot it.
Harpers moved backward into the darkness as directed. Pixie was still clinging
to Kate. Clarence stood beside Enoch, holding the lantern in one hand and
pressing the barrel of a gun into Enoch’s side with the other.
the trap door and come down, Laszlo,” Rupert shouted.
door opened. Rupert noted that there wasn’t much light from above but he wanted
keep his gun out of Laszlo’s sight. “Be sure and close the door behind you.”
stumbled in the darkness coming down the steps. “Hurt ankle!” He said as
reached the ground floor.
swamper began to stagger around the basement, whining like a child. He suddenly
slammed into Clarence, grabbing the gun from him as Clarence fell to the floor.
him down, Enoch! Drop the gun, Rupert!”
recognized the voice as coming from Rance Dehner. The lantern was now lying on
the floor, spewing a gush of light upwards. Rupert fired at what he thought was
a moving shadow, then immediately realized that he had made a mistake. The
orange-red blossom from his gun gave away his location.
a panic, Rupert turned and ran. His foot collided with the first step of the
stairway. He began to scramble up the wooden planks. He heard a few quick steps
behind him and then his neck was trapped in an iron vise. A tight grip wrapped around his gun hand.
it up, Rupert!” Dehner ordered.
Bushrod was breathing in puffs. “Okay, okay, you got me. Guess Shakespeare was
right. The race is to the swift.”
voice thundered from the floor of the basement. “That’s “The race is NOT to the
swift.” And it’s from the Bible, not Shakespeare.”
sighed. Maybe my brother shoulda spent less time readin’ and more time tendin’
Rance, you got it right,” Rupert Bushrod said from his jail cell. Clarence and
I killed the Thompsons yesterday mornin’, but the kid got away. We looked ever
where and couldn’t find her till we spotted her ridin’ with you. We took a
couple of shots at you.”
Clarence spoke from the same cell. “But did you hav’ ta shoot back so good? Made
my brother and me run like rabbits.”
and Clint Bolger were standing outside of the jail cell talking to the two
prisoners. The detective and the sheriff shared the same thought: these two men
are killers, we shouldn’t be having so much fun talking to them.
pushed his hat back an inch or two before speaking. “The first time I came by
the store asking about the Thompsons, you rode back there because Clarence
discovered he had dropped his watch in the Thompson’s cabin.”
did you figure that out?” Clarence asked.
night, I noticed that the glass on your timepiece was broken,” Rance explained.
“The crack looked recent. And, after I spotted it, you were mighty quick about
getting that timepiece back into your pocket.”
shook his head. “The book of Psalms is right: ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive.’”
Walter Scott wrote that, you dummy!” Clarence shouted.
he the guy who wrote the Psalms?”
we could get back to the matter at hand,” Rance interrupted. “When you returned
to the Thompson’s place, you stole some stuff, and then you set the place on
fire in case one of you had dropped something else that could be incriminating.”
knew the sheriff would be ridin’ out there,” Rupert said. “When we saw the two
of you approachin’, we delayed your journey with a few shots. Wanted to make
sure the place burned good.”
story you handed me about taking valuable jewelry directly to Mrs. Candler was
a big mistake, fellas.” Dehner smirked and then continued. “The Bushrod
Brothers’ General Store never carried valuable jewelry. You stole that jewelry
from the Thompson’s place, then sold it to Mrs. Candler along with a tale about
how you got it. I talked to Mr. Candler, he verified that you never sold
anything to his wife before.”
man never has been helpful,” Clarence sighed.
Bolger scratched his forehead. “I still don’t understand how all this ties in
with Emory Logan breaking into Harper’s Mercantile.”
you see, Sheriff, Clarence and I have never been paternal types, never cared
much for kids.”
that Pixie girl did nothin’ to change our minds,” Clarence explained. “We was
out and out relieved when Rance first walked into our store with her. The kid
looked plum frozen. But we knowed that wouldn’t last. Sooner or later, she’d
we’d hang.” Rupert tilted his head toward his shoulder. “Of course, as things
turned out, we’re gonna hang anyway…”
our plan weren’t bad,” Clarence cut in. “Enoch’s good with a gun. We needed to
get him outta the way in order to kill the kid. We had stole that picture of Judy
from the Thompson place, so we put it in Enoch’s saddle bag.”
flared in the sheriff’s voice. “Then you informed Emory that Judy Thompson had
told you guys that she had once sparked with Enoch and that he had a picture of
her. You knew that the green kid would try to find the picture and be the big
hero. The man who uncovered evidence proving Enoch was a killer.”
nodded his head. “If it helps any, we thought he’d check the stable first: the
easiest place. With Enoch in jail, we could get rid of the kid. But things
didn’t quite work out that ways and we was obliged to come up with a plan B,
which Mr. Dehner stopped.”
“How’d you wise up to us, Rance?”
“After that story about the jewelry,
I’ve been keeping an eye on you guys. I noticed that you were being very kind
to Laszlo and spending some time with him. Fortunately, Laszlo was happy to
share about the joke you were playing on the Harpers. Of course, you’d have had
to kill Laszlo too.”
Rupert rolled his eyes upward. “But
we never got that far. Guess the plan had a fatal flaw.”
Clarence sighed deeply. “’Fatal’ is
a good way to put it. For once, brother, you called it right.”
Dehner rode his horse from the
livery as the sun was beginning its rise. The detective felt restless. The talk
with the Bushrod Brothers had ended only a few hours before. Rance couldn’t
figure out what was bothering him.
“Mr. Dehner!” A female voice called
out to him.
He pulled up in front of Harper’s
Mercantile. “Good morning, Mrs. Harper. Good morning, Pixie.”
Kate’s face was beaming, so was that
of the little girl. “Pixie has something she wants to say to you. Go ahead,
Pixie looked at him shyly. “Thank
you for helping me.”
Dehner responded in a soft voice, “Happy
to do it, Pixie, and it is great to hear you talking.”
Enoch strolled out onto the
boardwalk. “We’ve decided, all three of us, that Pixie is going to be her name
from here on out. Pixie Harper. That name sounds good to all of us.”
Dehner laughed, “That marks the
first time I ever had a hand in naming a child.” As he waved good-bye to the
Harpers, he wondered if it would be the last.
He was miles away from Candler
before he understood what had been bothering him. The detective had really
wanted to stay in town long enough to watch the Bushrod Brothers hang. But not
for the right reason, not because he’d be watching two cold blooded killers get
what was coming to them.
Dehner was sure that Rupert and Clarence would
make it a barrel of laughs.
Episode One of
Save the Girl!
Carrie Whiting’s voice sounded
magnificent in the large theater. The two people listening were totally
entranced. Carrie was not. She held up a palm. Her accompanist stopped
“Sorry Lawrence,” she smiled at the
short, pudgy man at the piano. “I know we want a lively song at this point in
the show, but this number needs to be slower. After all, it’s about a girl
losing her true love in the War between the States. Let’s move this song to a
later spot and do something else here. What do you think?”
Lawrence nodded his head anxiously.
“Good idea, Miss Whiting!”
Carrie thanked her pianist but realized
the question had been unfair. Lawrence was, for all practical purposes, her
employee. She couldn’t expect him to disagree with her. She looked at the one
person sitting in the audience. “What about it, George?”
George McLeod was Carrie’s agent and
surrogate big brother. McLeod was a large man in his early forties, with a face
still doughy from his short career as a boxer. George rarely talked about those
days, simply referring to them as a time of “youthful indiscretion.”
George picked up a stack of sheet music
on the chair next to him. “I was thinking likewise. Gotta song here somewhere,
“I must see Miss Whiting right away,” a
female voice cried from the lobby. “It is about my baby, my only daughter!”
“Look lady, you’re gonna hav’ ta leave
“I no leave quietly! This is about my
Maria! I am her mother, I have a right…”
George McLeod turned his head backwards
toward the lobby, then looked at Carrie and shrugged his shoulders. “I better
look into this.”
Carrie Whiting glanced toward the lobby
where a guard posted by the theater was trying to shoo away a woman who seemed
to be hysterical, or close to it. Carrie was accustomed to people trying to
crash her rehearsals. Often the culprits were reporters, always they were men.
“This is a bit odd, Lawrence,” she
continued to look straight ahead while talking to the pianist. “Maybe I’d
better see if I can give George a hand.”
“Yes, Miss Whiting.”
Carrie hurried off the stage and up the
center aisle. George had taken over from the guard, who was now standing back
and looking confused as Carrie’s agent tried to calm the intruder. The woman
flung her arms about and continued to yell, “I must see Carrie Whiting, she
take my baby from me!”
“What do you mean, madam?” Carrie’s
voice was soft and inquisitive.
woman’s hysteria subsided and something resembling hope came into her eyes.
“You are Carrie Whiting!” Despite her earlier demands she sounded surprised to
actually be facing the singer.
“Yes. And your name?”
“Anna.” Anna was a short, stocky Italian
woman. Her hands were calloused and the fingernails ragged.
Carrie Whiting had been born into
poverty, but hadn’t stayed there. She had also been born with blond hair,
remarkable beauty and a tremendous singing voice. The young woman was aware of
her good fortune, and the childhood poverty had ingrained into her a concern for
those who were poor and struggling.
“How can I help you, Anna?”
“My Maria, she leave because of you.
Please, you bring her back.”
“She left because of me, what do you
“This!” She handed Carrie a copy of Godey’s Lady Book. The current edition appeared
typical. There were four circles on the cover, each depicting a woman engaged
in a particular activity: playing with a child, cooking, teaching a class, and
reading a book under a tree. As usual, the bottom of the cover provided the
information that, “We can always supply
The singer gave Anna a confused half
smile. “I still don’t understand. How does this involve me?”
“You look inside.”
Carrie opened the magazine cover and
immediately saw her own name in large letters. At first glance, she seemed to
be looking at a page in the magazine, but a careful look caused her to realize
that it was a flyer that had been carefully stuck into this edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book.
pulled the flyer out and read it:
between the ages of Sixteen and Eighteen!
You Can Be the
Next CARRIE WHITING!
Richardson Talent Agency, which represents CARRIE WHITING, The Songbird of the
West, is now searching for talented young women for our musical productions.
Auditions will be held at the Palace Theater at 320 Jupiter Street on Thursday,
April 26 from One to Seven PM.
Don’t Miss This
Once in a Lifetime Opportunity!
“Oh,no,” Carrie’s voice was a worried
whisper. “Anna, I know nothing about any of this. I’ve never been represented
by the Philip Richardson Talent Agency.”
Anna looked shocked and then, once
again, she sounded close to hysteria. “Then what about my Maria? What happened
For a moment, Carrie Whiting stood
silently and watched the panic which contorted Anna’s face. The singer knew the
answer to Anna’s question, but couldn’t speak it out loud.
George McLeod took the flyer from his
client and read the contents. His face went ashen. “I’ll get in touch with Brad
Simons, our lawyer, right away. We’ll put a stop to this!”
“My Maria!” Anna cried loudly, “She go
like the paper say. She not come back. Gone for three days now. The law do
nothing. Can you bring back my Maria?”
“No Anna, I can’t,” Carrie replied. “But
I know somebody who can. We’re going to bring your daughter back to you, Anna.”
The singer pressed her lips together and then added. “I promise. We’ll bring
Rance Dehner walked cautiously down
Jupiter Street. This was a neighborhood in which Dallas took no pride: a place
where you had to be cautious even in the mid-afternoon. The street was filled
with several saloons, a few brothels, and the desperation that always oozed
from establishments that are intent on grabbing coins from men who have very
Dehner was there on professional
business. The flyer Carrie Whiting had shown him instructed gullible girls to
go to the Palace Theater on Jupiter Street for auditions that would lead to
stardom. The auditions were held by a talent agency with no offices in Dallas.
Maria Martino had followed instructions and had now been missing for three
days. He needed to move fast.
The Palace Theater stood as a parody
of its elegant name. It was situated next to the Laughing Lady Saloon and
looked like it had been built as an afterthought to compliment the booze hole.
A burly, balding man stepped out of the theater carrying a sign, a hammer and a
can of nails. He placed the sign against the front of the theater and dropped
the other items in front of it.
As Dehner approached he read the
sign: The Most Beutiful Gals in Texas!
Show Starts at Eight.
The detective spoke in a good natured
voice. “Excuse me.”
The large man looked inquisitively
at Dehner. People didn’t often say “Excuse me” in this section of town.
Rance pointed to the sign. “You
“Get outta here.”
“I need to see the manager of this
theater. My name is Rance Dehner.”
“I’m the manager,” he pointed a
thumb at his chest. “Name’s Harry. If you’re an agent trying to sell talent,
forget it. I get plenty of talent from next door.” He gestured with his head
toward the Laughing Lady.
“Do you rent out the Palace much,
“Why d’you wanna know?”
“I’m a curious guy.”
“Yeah, well my time is valuable,
Dehner handed Harry a coin. “Tell me
what you know about the Philip Richardson Talent Agency.”
“Not much,” Harry pocketed the coin.
“A guy who calls himself Philip Richardson rents the place two or three times a
year. Always in the afternoon. Doesn’t interfere with regular business.”
“What exactly does this guy who
calls himself Philip Richardson do with the Palace Theater when he rents it out
for an afternoon?”
“He holds auditions for shows that
he puts on in another town.”
Dehner saw the leer on Harry’s face
when he gave that answer. The detective’s face remained expressionless as he
handed the theater manager another coin.
“What’s this for?”
“The truth, Harry. You just held out
on me. I’ll let it pass this one time. Now tell me the truth.”
The theater manager looked down and
laughed. “Guess I shoulda known better than to try and fool…”
Harry was fast. He grabbed the
hammer and swung it at Dehner. Rance bent down in a jackknife position, then
came up quickly. Harry’s swing had been too hard. The theater manager was now
off balance. Dehner delivered two rapid fire punches to the head. Harry went
down flat on his back . Dehner landed on him, placing a knee on each of Harry’s
arms and an arm against his throat.
“Now Harry, I know you are a
prominent man in this neighborhood. You don’t want your fellow citizens to hear
and see you crying like a little kid. That’s what you’ll be doing if you don’t
answer my questions. Understand?”
“Philip Richardson not only pays for
the use of the building, he pays you to keep quiet, doesn’t he?”
“Where does he take the girls?”
Harry went silent. Richardson had
paid him well.
Dehner back handed him across the
face, then pressed down harder on his wind pipe. “I’ll turn you into a
blubbering baby, Harry. Out with it!”
eased the pressure on his opponent’s throat. The ploy had achieved its purpose.
Harry was close to panic.
“Alcott. They go to Alcott.”
“What does Richardson own in
“A theater,--the Emerald.”
“Does he own a saloon too?”
“Yeah. The Big Diamond.”
“How’d you find this out?”
“I hang around during the auditions.
The girls are nice to look at. Heard Richardson talk to them ‘bout the theater.
He tells ‘em that most parents have a very old fashioned idea about singers and
actresses. They shouldn’t tell their families where they’re going. Just leave a note and run off. He says when
they are famous like Carrie Whiting their families will thank them.”
“How did you find out about the
“He told me when he paid me to…keep
quiet. Richardson is a funny guy. He doesn’t want other people talking about
him much but he likes to brag on himself.”
“What does the funny guy look like?”
“Brown hair, medium height. Tries to
talk like a limey, but the accent is phony.”
“How many girls does he take from
“Five… ten at the most. They gotta
be pretty, but they also hav’ta be able to sing some. Phil likes ‘em young and
innocent like. Doesn’t want girls who’ve worked in a saloon.”
Guffaws sounded from behind. Three men
were standing outside the Laughing Lady enjoying Harry’s humiliation. One of
them ducked back into the booze hole, apparently to get more patrons for the
free show. Worry came over Harry’s already pale-white face. The tough guy was
scared of losing his reputation.
Dehner exploited that fear. “One
more topic and then our conversation is over.”
“At the last audition, did you hear
Richardson call any of the girls he hired, ‘Maria’?”
Harry paused; he seemed to be
revisiting recent memories. “Yeah. I think his special lady this time around
was named Maria.”
always selects one of the girls as his special one. He really talks it up with
that phony limey accent. He will make her the star of the show, introduce her
to real important people, all that stuff. If you ask me, bein’ Phil’s special
lady means only one thing.”
“Thanks.” Dehner stood up and sighed
deeply. Maria’s “special lady” status was nothing to be happy about.
The detective kept an eye on Harry
while walking off, but the theater manager began to nail the sign as if nothing
had just happened. The spectators who now numbered five were not fooled. They
were laughing and nudging each other.
Harry was a thug who had thought
nothing of attacking Dehner with a hammer. But the detective walked away from
the scene feeling low. Humiliating such a man had brought him no pleasure, only
an uneasy sense that he had diminished himself.
Dehner shook his head, trying to rid
himself of those thoughts. Maria was in serious trouble. She needed a
detective, not a philosopher.
Rance Dehner admired the large,
shady trees in one of Dallas’ finest areas as he looked for the house belonging
to Carrie Whiting. This was the first time he had met with Carrie in her home.
The previous case where he had met the singer had taken place entirely in a small
town northeast of Dallas.
After Anna Martino had come to the
theater where Carrie was rehearsing that morning, the singer had taken the
distraught mother to the office of the Lowrie Detective Agency. Dehner had
immediately left for the Palace Theater while his boss, Bertram Lowrie, began a
background check on Philip Richardson. They had been on the case for less than
a day, but they needed to move fast.
Rance admitted to himself that he
was excited to once again be on a case that involved Carrie Whiting. And the
prospect of having a few minutes alone with the Songbird of the West more than
excited him. He felt like an eleven year old boy who had just swiped a Carrie
Whiting card from his dad’s box of cigars.
Dehner noted that Carrie’s home was
smaller than the others and there were fewer stables in the back. No surprise.
After all, Carrie Whiting was on the road at least six months out of the year.
He tethered his horse and walked the path
across the expansive yard. Arriving at the front porch, he straightened his
string tie before pulling on the rope by the door. Chimes sounded inside and
the door opened, revealing a large boned man in a suit which fitted well but
still didn’t look right on him. “Mr. Dehner?”
“Come on in. Miss Whiting is
expectin’ ya. I’ll take your hat.”
“Thanks,” Rance stepped inside and
handed his hat to a man whose nose had been broken and whose face was puffy
from past battles. “You’re Floyd Rayburn, aren’t you?”
“Yup. I mean, yes sir, I sure am.”
“I saw you fight Pete Jackson about
two years ago. You knocked him out in the sixth round.”
“Sure did. I won that one. But I
lost some later on.” He pointed at his nose. “Like most pugs in the boxin’
game, I fought one fight too many.” He turned, opened a closet door and placed
Dehner’s hat on an upper shelf. “But I can still handle trouble.”
He motioned for Rance to follow him
down a long hallway, towards the sounds of a piano and a female voice singing
the scales. The detective reckoned Floyd wouldn’t mind a question. “Has there
been any trouble?”
“Nothin’ serious. Reporters try ta
barge in and some guys look at her picture and get kinda nutty; nothin’ too
bad. They don’t mean no harm. But Mr. McLeod wants Miss Whiting ta be safe, so
I’m here as a butler and bodyguard. I ain’t so good at the butler part yet, but
Mr. McLeod don’t mind as long as I’m a gentleman. By gentleman, he don’t mean
knowin’ which fork goes where, he means--”
“I know what he means, Floyd.”
They reached the end of the hallway and
entered a large elegantly furnished room. The room was tidy except for the far
left side, which contained a piano. Sheet music lay scattered over the top of
the piano and a table that sided it. Carrie sat at the key board playing and
singing the scales. She stopped and smiled at the two men who had entered.
“Miss Whiting, Mr. Dehner is here.”
Carrie stood up and began to walk
toward her guest and her butler. “Thank you, Floyd.”
Floyd started to leave, then turned
around. “Ah, Miss Whiting, would ya like me to get Lilly ta make--”
“Lilly has already made the coffee,”
she gestured to a small, ornate table on the neat side of the room. “We’ll be
fine, thank you.”
Floyd nodded his head and hurried
off. Carrie watched him with an affectionate smile. “When I first moved into
this house, I didn’t know how I could live with two people always around. Now,
I can’t imagine getting by without Lilly and Floyd. You know, they’ve been
happily married for eleven years.”
last statement sounded wistful, and for a moment Carrie’s eyes glanced out the
back window and a view of lush trees. She quickly returned her glance to
Dehner. “Lilly and Floyd are going to
New York with me.”
“I didn’t know you were going to New
“Yes, the show I am rehearsing right
now opens in New York next week. We’ll be leaving in two days. But you and I
have more important things to discuss.” The singer again gestured toward the
ornate table. “We can talk over here.”
At the table, Carrie lifted a carafe
made of fine china, placed a finger on the lid to hold it in place, and poured
coffee into two cups. She handed one to Dehner. “Care for some sugar, or
“I’m with you. I like the taste of
They settled into two comfortable
chairs on different sides of the table. Carrie got to the point. “George McLeod
was here earlier with my lawyer, Brad Simons. They’ve learned a lot. The
company that distributes Godey’s Lady’s
Book in Dallas was following a common procedure when they placed those
flyers in the magazine.”
Dehner nodded his head. “The
distributors sell local advertising for national publications this way. They
can even place flyers only in magazines that are being delivered to certain
neighborhoods. My guess: the flyers you’re worried about went to the poorer
“What does your lawyer say about
bringing action against the Philip Richardson Talent Agency? After all, they
lied in the advertisement when they claimed to have represented you.”
Carrie sipped her coffee and gave
her shoulders a quick shrug. “Mr. Simons claims there is not much we can do. He
exchanged telegrams with Philip Richardson. Mr. Richardson is sending him a
letter apologizing for what he calls a mistake and promising not to use my name
again. Brad Simons believes most judges would be satisfied with that.” The
young woman’s voice turned angry, “I wish most judges would talk to Anna
“Were you able to get that picture
for me?” Dehner asked.
“Yes.” She picked up a large
envelope on the table, carefully extracted a photograph, and handed it to
Rance. “This was taken two years ago when the Martinos opened their store.
Maria is the only girl in her family. She was thirteen at the time.”
Dehner studied the photo carefully.
Five well dressed people were standing outside a building with a large sign
proudly proclaiming, Martino’s Groceries. Two were boys, both under ten, both
looking restless as they stood militarily-erect beside their father. Mr.
Martino had a thick mustache and a glum expression, and held a derby in his
right hand. Anna Martino stood beside
him, the smile on her face more nervous than happy.
Only Maria Martino, standing on the
other side of her mother, seemed to be enjoying the experience. Her entire face
looked radiant. The girl appeared out of place, not only with the rest of her
family but with the entire drab neighborhood. Rance thought about Maria’s days.
She went to school, where according to her mother she did well, and then the
girl returned home to help out in the store. There was homework before going to
And through it all, Maria Martino
had dreamed the dreams of the young. Some despicable snakes had taken advantage
of those dreams. They now had Maria.
Rance handed the picture back. “Thank
Anna for me. Seeing the picture will help.” He leaned forward, a strong
undercurrent of determination in his voice. “And tell Anna I will get her
daughter back.” Dehner related his experiences that morning at the Palace
After hearing Dehner’s account,
Carrie stood up and began to walk about the room slowly caressing her hands.
“The stage is such a strange taskmaster. It can give you a beautiful life or it
can throw you into perdition.”
Rance also stood up; like the singer
he was feeling restless. “No one is throwing Maria into perdition. I’m leaving
for Alcott in the morning.”
Carrie looked at Rance, a fierceness
in her eyes. “I know the kind of people you are going after. Do whatever you
The detective’s voice was toneless.
“If I have to kill to get Maria back, I will.”
The Songbird of the West stared at
Dehner for a moment, then spoke to him in a whisper. “Do you recall any of the
conversations we had back in that small town?”
“I recall every moment I’ve spent
with you, Miss Whiting.”
Carrie continued to speak in a
whisper. “I told you that being a singer is lonely and isolating, but that it
has such magnificent moments, I could never give it up. The expression that
came onto your face, Mr. Dehner, when you told me what you’d do to get Maria
back…you could never stop being what you are, either. I guess we’re two very
strange, hopeless people. But I’m very happy that I know you, Rance Dehner.”
“And I am very happy to know the
Songbird of the West.”
The two continued to look at each other
as if something else needed to be said but neither one of them could quite
decipher it. Finally, Dehner managed a, “I should be going now.”
“When you get back, I’ll be on my
way to New York,” there was an odd wave of sadness in Carrie’s voice.
“I’ll hand in my full report to the
McLeod Agency. I’ll telegraph you about Maria.”
“Yes…of course…that will be fine.”
Carrie looked at the detective with confusion in her eyes. Those eyes went
downward when she spoke again. “Good bye, Mr. Dehner.”
“Good bye, Miss Whiting.” Dehner
nodded politely and left the room. Outside, he felt an overwhelming urge to go
back and speak to Carrie Whiting. He stopped in the hallway, but he couldn’t
think of a single word to say to a young woman who was the most beloved singer
in the nation. He continued his walk down the hall, pausing only for a quick
“thank you” as Floyd handed him his hat at the door.
Years later, he would wonder what
might have happened if he had only turned and gone back.
Rance Dehner rode into the town of
Alcott, carefully taking in the local landscape. The Emerald Theater and the
Big Diamond Saloon were easy to find. The enterprises stood side by side,
prominent fixtures along the town’s Main Street.
Philip Richardson’s establishments
obviously carried a lot more prestige in Alcott than they would in Dallas.
Dehner figured Dallas was a recruitment center for Richardson’s operations.
Richardson probably realized he could never own Dallas, but he could own a
place like Alcott.
The detective knew he was dealing
with a man who was smart and methodical. Such a man would be ready for brutal
competitors trying to take over his operation and, of course, there was the
law. Rance wondered if Richardson had the local sheriff in his pocket. The
detective would find out soon enough. Dehner had to be careful, but he also had
to move fast. It wouldn’t take a man like Philip Richardson long to ruin the
life of Maria Martino.
Rance dismounted in front of the Big
Diamond and had barely tied his horse to the hitch rail when he heard a woman’s
scream coming from the saloon. He hurried inside and saw a familiar figure
twisting the arm of a saloon girl. He also saw the flash of a gun being hastily
drawn from its holster.
Dehner dropped to the floor as a
bullet whizzed over his head. He drew his Colt and sent an orange-red flame at
the figure, who was getting ready to fire again. Patrons hit the floor and
scrambled for cover as Dehner’s second shot found his attacker’s forehead. The
man collapsed. Dehner scrambled to his feet.
“Ya haven’t changed one bit, Rance,”
The man who had been assaulting the saloon girl picked himself up from the
floor, eyeing the detective.
“I guess not, Briscoe,” Dehner
replied. “I still take offense when someone tries to kill me.” The detective
holstered his gun. Briscoe was a killer who wanted a fight. He was going to get
what he wanted.
Briscoe Parker’s medium frame had put on
several pounds since Dehner last encountered him. The man’s eyes had always
looked bloodshot, but the red seemed more prominent now that Briscoe’s black
beard covered most of his face.
Parker nodded at the corpse on the
floor. “Ya jus’ put a bullet in my partner.”
“You were keeping bad company,
Briscoe. You and your partner robbed a bank in Houston. You got away from me
“A man’s gotta make a livin’.”
Briscoe Parker casually took a few steps back toward the bar. He took pride in
the accuracy of his draw.
The saloon’s patrons began to
scramble off the floor and bunch together along the front walls of the Big
Diamond. They wanted to be safe, but they didn’t want to miss the
Dehner spotted the saloon girl who Briscoe had
been abusing. She was staring at the detective with an intense curiosity.
Rance couldn’t pay her much heed. There
was a killer getting ready to draw on him. Dehner continued to talk with his
enemy. “You killed a teller and didn’t stop there. You gunned down a woman and
her nine year old son who walked into the bank at the wrong time. I don’t care
much for the way you make a living, Briscoe.”
“Well, Rance, I hate ta make an old
friend unhappy. Let me buy ya a drink. “Barkeep!”
Briscoe pretended to start looking
around the saloon for the bartender as he went for his gun. Rance’s draw was a
few seconds faster. He sent a blaze into Briscoe’s chest, then crouched for
another shot, ducking a bullet by inches. Rance fired again, a necessary move.
Even staggering, Briscoe Parker was capable of a good shot.
The killer hit the floor, less than five
yards from his partner’s corpse. The bartender, a surprisingly young man with a
boyish face, disconnected from the crowd standing against the wall and hastily
looked at both fallen outlaws.
“Both of these owlhoots are ready for
Solemn Sam, the Undertaker. One free drink for each cowpoke who helps carry
them over there. The rest of you will have to pay for your drinks. After all,
the show was free!”
Laughter filled the Big Diamond as the
barkeep scooted behind the bar. He eyed the newcomer and spoke in a voice that
was low and respectful. “You handle a gun well, stranger. I’d say you’re
entitled to some free suds.”
“Thanks,” Dehner replied. “I’ll accept
As the bartender began to pour, Dehner
looked over the establishment. Men were already picking up the bodies in order
to tote them over to Solemn Sam. An elderly, stooped man who appeared to be a
swamper was carrying a bucket and mop over to where Briscoe Parker had hit the
floor. Some of Parker’s blood and perhaps a few small portions of his body were
about to be mopped up. As he began his task, the swamper looked over at where
the other jasper had landed. This was turning into a busy day.
The patrons of the Big Diamond paid
little attention to the clean up. Card games resumed, a roulette wheel began to
spin, and a Chuck –A- Luck wire cage went back into action. And, of course,
people flocked toward the bar.
One of the flock was the saloon girl who
Briscoe Parker had been harassing. She smiled at Dehner as she approached the
bar. “Tommy, I hope that beer you’re pouring is on the house.”
is, Miss Jerri, can I fix you something?”
Tommy reached under the counter for a
bottle and glass. He poured a light brown liquid for Jerri. Probably tea,
Dehner guessed. A saloon girl’s day is long and “the usual” is often tea or
water. Of course, the customer who is buying her the drink doesn’t know that.
“The name is Jerri Mae Swanson.” Her
voice was deep and husky.
“Pleased to meet you, Jerri Mae. My name
is Rance Dehner.”
“Thanks for taking care of those two
Dehner shrugged his shoulders. “The Big
Diamond is a place for meeting old friends.”
Mae smirked and looked at her companion carefully. “You impress me as a man who
has a lot more enemies than he does friends. Let’s sit down, maybe you and I
can strike up a friendship.”
Jerri Mae glanced around the saloon,
then began to walk toward a far table which was safely out of the swamper’s
way. Walking beside her, Dehner noted that Jerri Mae was about five foot seven,
with black hair, prominent cheek bones and green eyes. The woman appeared to be
in her mid-twenties. Jerri Mae was very attractive but had taken on the weary,
artificial mannerisms of a woman who works in a saloon.
They sat down at a corner table that was
immersed in a cloud of stagnant tobacco smoke. Rance spoke first. “What do you
do here, Jerri Mae?”
The woman laughed and briefly looked
down at her garish yellow dress. “No one has ever asked me that before. Guess
you could say I’m here to keep the cowboys happy.”
“Oh, come on,” Rance tried to sound
casual. “You do more than that. Tommy, the bartender, called you Miss Jerri.”
“I don’t think he calls all the girls,
‘Miss’. You carry some authority at The Big Diamond, Jerri Mae.”
The woman waved her left hand as if
brushing off an unimportant fact. “Guess you could say that. I’m a bit older
than most of the girls here. I sort of look after them, help the new girls fit in. What brings you to town, Rance?”
The question sounded casual enough. But
the detective wondered if Jerri Mae wasn’t trying to glean information from
him. After all, he had planned on trying to get more than a few details about
Philip Richardson from her.
There was little time to speculate on
the matter. The bat wing doors swung open and a very well dressed couple
paraded inside. They immediately became the center of attention, a fact they
both seemed to relish. The man removed a cigar from the side of his mouth and
shouted, “I am given to understand that there was a show here at the Big
Diamond just a few minutes ago.”
was a scattering of laughter. The man continued. “Well, gentlemen, I am proud
to inform you that there’s going to be a show at the Emerald tomorrow night
which will be a lot more interesting than a couple of two bit hooligans
A loud chorus of whoops followed the
announcement. Dehner spoke in a low voice to his companion. “Is that Philip
“The one and only,” Jerri Mae stared at
her drink for a moment and then added, “I forget his real name, but it wasn’t
distinguished enough for him, so he became Philip Richardson.”
Richardson stood at slightly less than average height. He had brown hair and a
compact face dominated by intense blue eyes. He impressed Dehner as a man who
smiled a lot but was rarely happy.
“Tomorrow night, a new show will be
premiering at the Emerald Theater!” Richardson proclaimed. “It is now my honor
to introduce you to the star of the latest Philip Richardson production,
directly from Rome, Italy, Princess Maria!”
Another loud chorus of whoops followed
as men began to close in on Richardson and the young woman who was with him.
Philip held up both hands and motioned the crowd back. “Please, gentlemen,
please! I don’t want you to stop gambling. That’s how I make a profit on this
The joke was weak but still met with
raucous laughter. Richardson had the crowd in a good mood. The saloon owner
continued, “I know you all want a good look at our new star, so I’m going to
ask her to stand up on the bar!”
In an exaggerated, courtly gesture,
Richardson offered Maria his arm and walked her to the bar, where he gently
lifted her up. The young woman began to wave at the patrons, and spoke in an
Italian accent, “I hope all of you come and see me tomorrow night at the
Her words were met with loud, approving
shouts. Dehner remained quiet as he
looked at the girl. Princess Maria was definitely the Maria in the photograph
Carrie had shown him. The radiance was still there and two years had added much
to her beauty. At fifteen she looked closer to nineteen. She was wearing a
tight fitting red dress and more make up than required.
The girl was obviously basking in her
status as Princess Maria. Dehner realized that getting the girl away from
Philip Richardson could require force. I may have to fight a young tigress, he
thought to himself.
Richardson’s voice again boomed across
the Big Diamond Saloon. “The princess would love to stay, but she needs to
rehearse for tomorrow night’s show!”
The saloon owner looked directly at his
star. It was obviously a cue. Maria quickly glanced around the saloon. “See you
all tomorrow night!” She placed both hands on her lips and threw a kiss to the
Philip lifted Princess Maria from atop
the bar and hurried her out of the saloon. Most of the men in the Big Diamond
yelled good-bye at Maria and punctuated their farewells with whistles and
whoops. It took a few minutes for business to get back to normal in the saloon.
Dehner mused that Princess Maria had disrupted the routine at the Big Diamond
more than his gunfight with Briscoe Parker.
The entire incident seemed to have put
Jerri Mae in a somber mood. The woman’s head was down and she was moving her
index finger over the table as if writing out a message for help.
Rance decided on a direct approach. “For
a woman who says her job is to keep cowboys happy, you don’t look very happy
Jerri Mae looked at him directly. Her
eyes were moist. “You don’t sound so jovial yourself. Why not?”
The detective’s voice was low and
forceful. “Because a fifteen year old girl who is only guilty of being naïve is
about to have her life ruined. Right now Maria is a princess, in a few weeks
she’s going to be…”
Dehner stopped talking and Jerri Mae
said nothing. In the background, they listened to a drunk curse the roulette
wheel and a saloon girl purr encouragement to him. “Try again, honey, your luck
has just got to change.”
“Men are fools.” Jerri Mae’s face flamed
with hatred. She paused, taking a bit more control of her emotions. “He does
this about twice a year.”
Dehner’s voice remained low and he
softened it a bit. “You mean, twice a year Philip Richardson goes to Dallas to
Jerri Mae nodded her head. “He brings
back about a half dozen girls. They can all sing and dance a bit.”
“And one of them is always his special
“Yeah. The star of the show. Some star.
After the show closes she gets sold to the highest bidder.”
“What do you mean, Jerri Mae?”
“Like I said, men are fools. They see a
girl prancing about the stage in a frilly costume and they’ve got to have her.
Richardson always follows the same routine. The show runs for three nights.
Then, Phil holds a private auction. The girls in the chorus are the first to be
up for bid. The highest bidder gets to spend a night with a chorus girl. Then
comes the big prize, a night with the star. This time it’s Princess
Dehner paused and looked around the Big
Diamond. The jasper who had cursed the roulette wheel was still losing. “What
if a girl doesn’t cooperate?”
The woman gave a scornful laugh. “What
can the kid do? She’s in a strange place away from everyone she knows. Phil
owns the law in this town.”
Dehner gave a long sigh. “And I’m sure
there are some jaspers who find pleasure in a girl who puts up a fight.”
“Yeah, some do. Like I said--”
Dehner finished for her. “Men are fools.
Yes, some are. How about Richardson? Does he take liberties with his leading
lady before the auction?”
An emotion moved across Jerri Mae’s face
which Dehner couldn’t peg. The woman was quiet for a moment, then gave her
shoulders a slight shrug. “Sometimes. Sometimes not.”
The detective realized he would get no
further information on that topic. “What happens to the girls once the ordeal
The woman waved a hand in a circle.
“Look around you! Former star attractions are everywhere. Of course, they’re
damaged goods now. But they are still okay for a trip to one of the cribs out
“Is there a bawdy house in town?”
“Yes. That’s where you go when you’re
“Richardson only pulls this stunt twice
a year,” Dehner said. “What happens to the Emerald Theater the rest of the
“He rents it out to legitimate shows,”
Jerri Mae shot back. “Mostly to troupes that are on their way to Dallas. Of
course, the theater is unused much of the time. Still, Philip Richardson makes
money off the Emerald. Phil does nothing if there isn’t money in it.”
“I hope I get a chance to kill the
“What?!” Jerri Mae’s hand hit her glass,
knocking a dollop of liquid onto the table.
“I’m in Alcott to do a job,” anger
seethed from Dehner’s eyes. “I’ve got to get Maria Martino, that’s her real
name, back to her family. Once I’ve done that, I may pay Alcott a return
The detective took a deep breath, trying
to get his anger in check. He only partially succeeded. “Where do the girls
stay before opening night?”
“The Alcott Hotel, it’s at the other end
of the street.”
“Do they stay in one room?”
“The girls in the chorus do. The star
gets a separate room.”
The detective took a sip of his beer,
then fell silent and considered his options. He could try to rescue all of the
girls, but that probably wouldn’t work. All of them would resist. They thought
they were on the first step to becoming the next Carrie Whiting. He would have
to limit himself to Maria Martino, who would probably be a handful.
“I have to be going. Thanks for the
information, Jerri Mae.”
“Aren’t you going to finish your beer?”
Dehner stood up. “I’m not thirsty
“I’ve met some strange cowpokes, Rance,
but you are…well…different.”
“I guess you’re right,” the detective
chortled. “Not many cowpokes are kidnappers.”
The space between the general store and
the barber shop was too wide and too short to qualify as an alley. But on a
starless night with only a small scar of a moon in the sky, the area was dark
enough to provide Dehner with cover as he watched the Alcott Hotel.
Behind the general store stood a
buckboard, fronted by four strong horses; his own horse was tethered to the
back of the wagon. Dehner had purchased the wagon and horses from the livery.
The hostler hadn’t trusted him enough for a rental. In a way, that made things
simpler. He planned on tying up Maria Martino, putting her in the bed, and
providing her with a return trip to Dallas. Now he wouldn’t have to worry about
returning the wagon or horses. He’d sell them in Dallas, or at least that was
detective hadn’t worked out all the details yet. Kidnapping was new to him.
About two hours earlier he had listened as Philip Richardson addressed a group
of men in front of the Emerald Theater:
“Regretfully, gentlemen, I cannot allow
you to watch the rehearsal. The girls won’t have it. You see, in the theater it
is considered bad luck for outsiders to watch a rehearsal. Those beautiful
girls want to save all the fun and surprises for tomorrow. Princess Maria asked
me to personally send along her greetings and to tell you that tomorrow night
is going to be very special.”
Laughing female voices could be heard
meandering down the boardwalk from the theater. Dehner stopped leaning against
the side of the general store and watched as a gaggle of young women entered
the hotel. Philip Richardson was with them.
The street appeared to be otherwise
deserted. All of the revelry was going on up the street at the Big Diamond and
another, smaller saloon. Dehner remained in the shadows. After several minutes
a light appeared in a second floor window of the hotel. He could see a woman
push back one of the curtains at the window and look upon the street below.
He was sure the woman was Maria Martino,
or as sure as he could be. It made sense. After all, the star got her own room
. That room would probably be on the second floor: a room that looked out on
the main street. Dehner had a first floor room at the hotel. The rooms on the
first floor only looked out on the back.
The detective watched as Philip
Richardson left the hotel. Dehner again leaned against the wall of the general
store and waited. About fifteen minutes later the light in Maria’s room went
out. He would still need to wait a bit.
The notion of kidnapping a fifteen year
old girl made Rance very uncomfortable. Of course, he was kidnapping her in
order to get her back to her family and out of a hellish life of prostitution.
Still, Dehner vowed to never take a job like this one again.
Rance laughed inwardly. Who was he
trying to fool? Dehner knew he could never refuse a request from Carrie Whiting
no matter how uncomfortable it made him feel. The detective grinned as he
realized that the exact same thing could be said about almost every man in the
country. He’d be smart to forget any foolish notions he might have about Carrie
The detective decided he had waited long
enough. There was no sense in even trying to speculate as to how long Maria
would take to fall asleep. The kid thought tomorrow would make her a star. Any
sleep that might come to Maria Martino would be restless. Dehner felt his back
pocket to make sure the cloth he planned to use as a gag was there.
He walked across the dark street and
into the hotel. It was time to kidnap Maria Martino.
The Alcott Hotel contained no restaurant
or bar. The one light in the lobby came from the front desk where a clerk had
his head on a newspaper that lay beside the register. He was sleeping. Dehner
approached the desk quietly: a needless precaution. The clerk didn’t stir. As
he drew near, Dehner noticed that the paper was a week old edition of the Dallas Herald. Peeking out beside the clerk’s gray head was
a drawing of Rutherford B. Hayes. President Hayes was obviously doing nothing
that interested the clerk.
What was in the register did interest
the detective. Princess Maria signed in for room 204. Dehner stepped behind the
desk to where the hotel kept its second room keys on a wide board. He took the
key for 204 and left his own room key on the desk. He wouldn’t be spending the
night after all. The detective then headed up the stairway. As he did, the
clerk began an airy snore.
The second floor was in total darkness.
Dehner stood still for a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust, and then made his
way down an uncarpeted hallway to room 204.He unlocked the door and stepped
inside. He had to pause again in order to locate the outline of a bed in the
cave-like darkness of the room. The detective stepped quietly but quickly
toward the bed and put an arm around the head of the occupant, cupping a hand
over her mouth.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Dehner
whispered anxiously. “Don’t be scared--”
He heard a step behind him but didn’t
have time to react. An explosion went off inside his head and he dropped to the
floor, fighting to maintain consciousness. Dehner could hear the strike of a
match and then a yellow blur floated above him. Partially illuminated in the
kerosene light was the face of Philip Richardson.
“Is this the gentleman who caused you
all the trouble?” Even given the circumstances, Richardson maintained his phony
Another vaguely familiar face came into
the yellow glare of the light. At first, Dehner didn’t recognize it.
“Yeah, that’s him. The tough guy. Don’t
look so tough any more, does he?”
Dehner felt the sharp toe of a boot slam
into his side, directly under the ribs. He was glad for small mercies. His
attacker’s anger had caused him to miss the mark.
“You’re not as smart as you think you
are, detective,” the attacker said. “Those men you had laughin’ at me back in
Dallas, one of them recognized you. Mr. Rance Dehner, a snoop for the Lowrie
Detective Agency. I thought Mr. Richardson would be interested in knowin’ a
detective was lookin’ into his affairs. Took off quick for Alcott. Got here a
little before you did. Guess I should thank you, detective. I’m making more
money workin’ for Mr. Richardson than I made lookin’ after that lousy dump.”
Dehner now recognized the theater
manager he had questioned in Dallas. “Making your way up the ladder of success!
You’re right out of a Horatio Alger novel, Harry.”
“Huh?” Harry replied.
Philip Richardson chuckled as he looked
down at his prisoner. “The man has a wonderful sense of humor! I’m sure that we
are in store for a delightful few hours with Mr. Dehner. Delightful indeed!” He
turned his head. “Jerri Mae, please hold the light while we secure Mr. Dehner’s
hands and feet.”
The woman took the kerosene lamp and
bent over Dehner as the two men retrieved the ropes. “I’m sorry.” Her voice was
both a whisper and a sob. “You’ve got to understand. Philip Richardson owns
this town. He told me to be on the look out for you, and to set up this
Dehner tried to think of something funny
to say in order to buttress his standing as a wit. He was working on it when
the yellow light vanished and darkness overwhelmed him.
Jerri Mae Swanson carefully guided the
buggy toward the small cabin. Richardson had given her a map to the place, but
warned that the road became very rocky. Richardson had told her not to start
out until sunrise, but she had departed Alcott the moment there was decent
light. She needed to get to Rance Dehner while he still had enough strength
left to fight.
Once again, the woman asked herself why
she was doing this. Helping the detective meant she would have to leave town
and go…where? She didn’t know, but she knew she had to help a good man who
wanted to rescue an innocent girl from a horrible life: a life like the one she
Of course, she shouldn’t have gone along
with Richardson’s plan to trap the detective in the first place. If she had
warned Dehner when she first encountered him, he wouldn’t be in this mess.
“Guess that’s the story of my life,” she
said to herself as the buggy drew near the cabin. “Always doin’ the right thing
She pulled up, grabbed the large basket
she had brought with her and hurried for the cabin. Richardson’s voice boomed
“Mr. Dehner, I appreciate the moral
dilemma I’ve placed you in. A detective isn’t supposed to divulge the name of
his client. I do admire your professional ethics. But, you see, this client of
yours could pose a threat to my entire operation. A business man can’t be
indifferent when it comes to opposition. Therefore, I must ask you again for
Jerri Mae stopped and listened
carefully. She could hear Dehner’s voice, but not what he was saying. She did
hear Richardson’s reply: “Very well. Harry, continue your efforts to persuade
Mr. Dehner, as to the wisdom of cooperating with us.”
The sound of flesh hitting flesh mixed
with Harry’s laugh. The woman stepped quickly into the cabin.
Philip Richardson appeared modestly
surprised by the woman’s sudden appearance, though he didn’t seem angry.
“You’re a mite early, Jerri Mae.”
“I figured you’d be getting hungry.” She
strolled to the left side of the cabin and placed the basket on a rickety
“You figured right!” Harry shouted.
Richardson walked toward the basket.
“Did you bring along that special item I requested?”
Jerri Mae lifted the towel that covered
the basket, yanked out a bottle and handed to Richardson. “I sure did, Mr.
Richardson looked approvingly at the
label on the bottle. “Ahhh, an excellent wine.” He held the bottle up and
approached Rance, who was bound to a chair. Jerri Mae noted that Rance’s hands
were tied at the wrists behind the chair. His legs weren’t bound at all. After
Dehner had suffered a hard assault on his head back at the hotel, Harry and
Richardson had assumed he would be easy to control.
So far, their notion seemed correct. The
detective’s face was red, with one eye partially closed. Blood dripped from his
mouth. He had to be in terrible pain.
Richardson intended to exploit that
pain. “You must be uncomfortable, Mr. Dehner. I have something here that not
only will cure your thirst but will also dull any pain you may be feeling at
the moment. We’re going to break for breakfast right now. That will give you
time to reconsider your stubbornness. If you change your mind soon enough, you
can even join us for what I am sure will be a delicious meal.”
As Richardson spoke and Harry watched
him, Jerri Mae removed a small, sharp knife from the basket. She held it inside
her left hand which became a fist. The woman thought Dehner had seen her
action, but couldn’t be sure.
Richardson and Harry approached the table, the lady walked in a slow,
provocative manner toward Dehner. She gently caressed the detective’s swollen
face. “That was nice of Mr. Richardson to offer you a drink, detective. Maybe I
can offer you something to go with the wine.”
Harry laughed as Jerri Mae kissed Dehner
on the forehead, then put her arms around him, caressing his shoulders and
back. “All you have to do is show Mr. Richardson some cooperation, and then maybe
I can cooperate with you.” The woman quickly ran the knife over the rope
binding Dehner’s wrists, then placed the knife in his right hand. He took hold
of it immediately. No doubt now, he had seen her take the knife from the
The woman returned to the table and her
two companions. “Let’s eat and give Mr. Dehner a little time for meditation.”
Harry laughed again, but Philip
Richardson looked irritated. Jerri Mae smirked inwardly. Richardson was
actually jealous of her kissing Dehner, even though he thought she was doing it
to help him, and even though he knew that at the Big Diamond she…
Men are fools, Jerri Mae thought to
herself once again.
The woman put out the plates and food.
The three sat down to eat. Jerri Mae was pleased when Harry sat with his back
to Dehner. No such luck with Richardson, who sat across from Harry where he
could see the detective. He smiled mockingly at Dehner as he poured a glass of
wine and then lifted it up, as if toasting the detective.
The woman also watched Dehner. He was
working the knife against the rope slowly without betraying himself with body
movements. After several minutes, She saw that his eyes were fixed on the six
shooter strapped to Harry’s waist. The detective then glanced at her. She hoped
she got the message right. His hands were free but he still needed help in
grabbing that weapon.
Jerri Mae smiled at Harry. “Do you get
lonesome in Alcott?”
Harry was surprised by the question, but
it was a good surprise. “I’ve been keeping pretty busy since I arrived here.”
Jerri turned up the smile a bit. “Yes,
but I bet you had plenty of female friends back in Dallas. Don’t you miss the
Harry laughed as his eyes gave the woman
an appreciative look. “Sure, I get lonesome.”
had heard enough. He glared at Jerri Mae. “As soon as we are finished eating,
you need to get back--”
Both men were now looking directly at
Jerri Mae. Dehner leapt from the chair and ran at Harry. His footsteps wavered
but were still fast.
“Look out!” Richardson stood up and went
for his gun.
Dehner slipped Harry’s Colt from its
holster and fired. Richardson yelled and collapsed to the floor. Harry tackled
Dehner and the two men hit the floor as the henchman tried to wrestle his gun
back. Harry managed to get on top of the detective. Dehner fired again; Harry’s
body jerked backwards then fell onto Dehner.
Rance breathed hard. He had absorbed a
beating and felt weak. He inhaled and then pushed off Harry’s corpse. As he
did, he could hear Jerri Mae talking to Philip Richardson.
turned and saw that the woman had Philip’s arm around her shoulder and was
helping him up. “Rest in the chair for a few minutes sweetheart, then we’ll get
you to a doctor.”
Philip still held a gun in his hand but
kept it pointed at the floor. He watched Dehner getting up and noticed the
detective was also holding a weapon.
Richardson went quiet for a moment, as
if piecing together what had just happened. “You helped the detective, didn’t
you Jerri Mae?”
Jerri was filling Philip’s wine glass.
“Yes, sweetheart, I couldn’t let--”
Richarson sent two bullets into the
woman. Jerri Mae spun and fell against the table, knocking it over and loudly
scattering its contents over the floor. Dehner fired at Richardson who slammed
against the back of the chair. The chair teetered. Richardson dropped to the floor.
on shards of broken plates, Rance staggered over to where Jerri Mae lay on the
floor and bent over her. “Thank you, Jerri Mae. You saved my life.”
“I owed you, cowboy. I’m the one who got
you into this mess. Did it for love.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think Phil loved me. I loved him.
Couldn’t let him become a killer. Did you know I was his first girl?”
A look of happiness, or something close to
it came into the woman’s face as she pulled up one of her few happy memories.
“Was nine years ago. I was sixteen. Phil brought me to Alcott. I was the star
of the first show ever in the Emerald Theater.”
The woman suddenly appeared horrified.
“Maybe Phil didn’t love me. How could he love me, he--”
placed a finger on her lips. “Love can be a very strange thing,” he said
softly. “And remember, men are fools.”
Jerri Mae gave a wistful smile. She
lifted one hand and stroked Dehner’s face. “Not all men,” she said. The hand
went down and her eyes closed.
Rance Dehner slowly stood up. He felt
empty and unable to handle the tasks that were in front of him. He made his way
onto the porch of the cabin and sat there for a couple of hours as the sun came
up. The morning turned warm but he still felt cold and empty inside.
Getting Maria Martino and the other five
girls back to Dallas was a headache. All of the girls were upset over losing
their opportunity to become the next Carrie Whiting. They cried when told of
the death of Philip Richardson. Dehner tried to explain that Richardson had not
brought them to Alcott for “good” purposes, but his words were wasted.
Richardson had owned Alcott and his
death threw the town into turmoil. In the midst of the confusion, Dehner piled
the girls into his newly purchased buckboard and began the trip to Dallas. The
girls complained all the way. A few threatened to run off and return to Alcott,
though none actually tried it.
Arriving in Dallas, things got better.
Anna was overjoyed at having her daughter returned. Maria cried and seemed
genuinely remorseful at causing so much anguish.
other scenes were similar to that of Maria Martino. But the situation with the
remaining two girls troubled Rance. One family seemed angry with their daughter
for running off. They expressed no joy that she was back. The other family
seemed only vaguely aware they had a daughter who had been missing. In those
last two cases, Dehner was certain that the girls would run off again. He hoped
they wouldn’t find another Philip Richardson.
The detective wrote up his report and,
as promised, took it to the office of the McLeod Talent Agency. A secretary
accepted the report and informed Rance that Carrie Whiting would soon be in New
York. “I have instructions not to give Miss Whiting’s address to anyone. Yes, I
can send a telegram informing Miss Whiting that this… ah… Maria Martino is
safely home with her family.”
Six weeks later, returning to the
offices of the Lowrie Detective Agency in Dallas after a long, exhausting
assignment, Dehner was greeted by his boss, Bertram Lowrie. “This arrived while
you were gone,” he handed Rance an envelope, then stood by obviously hoping his
employee would open the letter right there.
A quick glance at the envelope provided
the reason why. The first line of the return address was the name Carrie
Whiting. Dehner placed the envelope in the pocket of his jacket. “I’m going
home to get some rest, it that’s okay. I’ll be back first thing in the
“Yes, of course.” Lowrie was obviously
disappointed, but to ask Rance Dehner to open the letter and read it aloud
would be a violation of propriety. Besides, Lowrie would never confess to being
interested in a letter written by a popular singer.
moment he arrived home, Dehner opened the letter and read:
Dear Mr. Dehner:
you for bringing Maria home safely. The moment Anna Martino told me about her
daughter, I knew a very special man was needed to save Maria. I never doubted
you were that man.
life has taken a new turn. The concert in New York provided an opportunity for
George and me to meet with some producers. I am now scheduled to star in a
musical which will open in New York in two months. The rehearsals have already
started. I am very excited.
I also battle with melancholy. I have no right to feel blue. George has turned
most of the work of his agency over to others and now concentrates on my
career. Lilly and Floyd are with me and, as always, they are wonderful. I live
in a fine house, though it is rented. I am not prepared to give up my home in
Dallas. I guess the Songbird of the West feels a bit out of place in New York
pray for your safety. I know, first hand, how dangerous your work can be and
the importance of that work for many people. Carrie Whiting and Maria Martino
are two people you have rescued. I am sure there are many others.
write when you get the chance. I am always pleased to hear from a friend in
Dallas. I hope this letter finds you happy and well.
Dehner would reread the letter many
times that night. He would wonder if there was a message for him between the
lines. Should he take some time off and go to New York to attend the opening of
the new musical starring Carrie Whiting? He knew from past experiences that
Carrie would be surrounded by important people: prominent politicians, high
society types, wealthy businessmen and, of course, a crowd of reporters. He’d
be lucky to be able to say hello to the woman. Still…
He couldn’t come up with an answer. Finally,
in exasperation he spoke to an empty room.