© T.J. Spears
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
*This is another episode from the third novel ‘The Stanton Chronicle’ in the series featuring Nat Hopper and Eva Jelinek. Stanton is a small town which has sprung up on the recently opened Central Pacific Railroad. The year is 1872. Though the geographical and time setting might place it in the ‘Western’ genre and this particular episode does feature rough justice I hope ‘The Stanton Chronicle’ as a whole will have a wider appeal.
(Nat is now settling in to his job as deputy to crippled Town Marshal, Tobias Spark.) *
That Sunday I went into the office a little earlier than usual. The town watchman was sleeping in Marshal Spark’s chair, his boots propped up on the desk. Just as I reached across to shove them off he swung them on to the floor.
“Marshal Spark let you put your feet on his desk, Limacks?”
“Thought I was asleep, did ye Deputy? Recognized yer steps on the sidewalk a hundred yards off.” He tugged at an ear. “See them ears? Acute they are. Nocturnal ears. Don’t miss anything.” He spun the chair round a couple of times and then stood up, but made no move to go. I took out the log book dipped the pen and wrote ‘Sunday night - nothing to report.’
Limacks edged around the desk and peered over my shoulder. “Nothing to report. Why, ifn it was me writin’ in that book I could fill a page every night. Things that goes on in this burg after dark, you wouldn’t believe. You think that schoolmarm, Miss Prosser, is so high and mighty butter wouldn’t melt in her drawers? Guess who I saw sneakin’ into the schoolhouse at midnight?”
I closed the book, pushed Limacks aside and put it on the low shelf.
“And that boy that works for the livery stable. Things he does with Brand’s daughter when she slips out after the old folks are bedded. They think that timber store is a dark enough little lovin’ nest but they ain’t taken into account old Titus Limacks bein’ on duty.”
“Limacks I believe I hear Marshal Sparks trap outside. Why don’t you go home?”
“Just on my way,Deputy, but you bear in mind once the sun goes down, in this town it’s all sex, sex, sex. It ain’t decent and it ain’t healthy.” He hung his oily black slicker over his shoulders and rubbed his hands together. “Convey my best respects to the lovely Miss Eva, Deputy.” He leered at me and slipped out on to the street.
In a few moments the Marshal swung in on his crutches, nodded to me and sank into his rolling chair. He took down the log book. “So, a quiet night.”
“Sunday. Money all spent. Folks resting up for another week of work.”
He sat down in his chair, arranged his pens, brushed some mud off his desk and raised an eyebrow.
“Limacks’ boots. He makes himself at home. Didn’t have time to wipe it yet. Sorry, Marshal.”
He shrugged and said, “Had a brief visit from the seamstress woman yesterday afternoon.”
“I’ll allow that wouldn’t be no hardship. Guess she must be the prettiest widow in Stanton.”
“Reckon you ain’t the only one that thinks that. Anyway she wasn’t in the office but a few seconds when Mayor Brand came in and set himself down to wait. Missus Russell looked a bit discomposed, and said she’d only come in to say she’d be obliged if I could call in on her when convenient.”
Eva, being a woman uncommonly interested in clothes and requiring things to be shortened, lengthened, tightened, puffed out and various other fancy tweakings, was a frequent customer of the Widow Russell, and had told me some of her story. It seems her husband had been an engineer working with the gangs who’d driven the Central Pacific line over the high Sierras. One day he’d been lowered down a rock face to inspect the blast holes drilled into the granite by the Chinese laborers. A rope had parted, or a belay had pulled free of the rock - it was never exactly established what was the cause - but the poor man had plunged a thousand feet to his death. The only thing remarkable about the accident was that the victim was an American for such events occurred by the hundred among the Chinese workforce. Fortunately, unlike so many unfortunate widows, Missus Russell had a skill much in demand and with the small compensation paid out by the Central Pacific set herself up as the only seamstress in Stanton.
Since it wasn’t but a few yards along from our office the Marshal swung himself along the sidewalk on his crutches squeezing past the barrels and boxes of goods stacked outside the store fronts. In the row of hardware, dry-goods, feed and butcher shops on Stanton Main Street Missus Russell’s Dress and Millinery, Alterations, Repairs and Paris Designs stood out like a rose in a basket of potatoes. It had a narrow wooden canopy over the door, with a window alongside rigged out with lace curtains. From the canopy Missus Russell had hung buckets with some kind of trailing flower growing out of them. The sidewalk was swept clean along the whole length of the frontage, and two half barrels crammed with lupines stood on each side of the door. I declare, that shop would have graced any street in Sacramento, so I could see why Eva favored it with her custom.
Marshal Spark pulled on the bell cord, and right away the door opened and Missus Russel greeted the Marshal very charmingly, though she looked at me with a question in her pretty blue eyes.
“This here’s, Nat,” said the Marshal. “New deputy. Guess you must have seen him around town.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Missus Russell. I believe you have taken a hand in outfitting my woman, Eva Jelinek.”
“Oh, Eva, of course. That bustle I lowered for her last week. Is she still happy with the effect?”
“I believe she is delighted, Missus Russell,” I said, which was a damned lie because I was not aware of any change in the altitude of the mysterious thing, the matter of clothes not being a subject on which Eva was inclined to seek my opinions.
She stood aside and let us in to the little shop. The sun streamed through street window and was reflected off two tall mirrors. A wrought iron sewing machine stood where it caught the best of the light. There were shelves of different colors of threads and bolts of cloth. A Chinese folding screen was set up across one corner, presumably to protect the modesty of customers.
Marshal Spark had settled into the customer’s armchair and now engaged in a lively conversation concerning his wife’s wardrobe, much of it being of a somewhat intimate nature so I took a close interest in the treadle sewing machine by way of diversion. The brass plate on the stand read Singer’s Model 13. I’d never seen one before and I was mighty curious as to how it could possible do the work of ten nimble fingers. I was contemplating putting my head underneath to observe whatever magic was hidden there, but at that moment Missus Russell reached past me and took a pasteboard sign from the window sill. “Closed for a Fitting. Please return in half an hour.”
She propped it up in the window, drew the lace curtains closed and said. “When I tell you what concerns me you will understand why I desire the utmost privacy and discretion.” Marshal Spark caught her apprehensive glance in my direction.
“I can vouch that Nat can be trusted with whatever information you disclose, Missus Russell.”
She drew out the stool by the sewing machine and would have me sit down but I shook my head. “I’d prefer to stand, Missus Russell. Why don’t you set down yourself and tell us what is on your mind?”
She sat facing us on the stool, her hands on her lap, wringing one against the other as her tale came out.
She said she had had suspicions for some time that she was being spied upon. Then last night she had seen a man peering through her bedroom window.
“You got another room down here, Missus Russell, with a window on to the street?”
“No, Marshal, there’s only one room on the ground floor. The bedroom is up that staircase. If you wish I will show you the window.”
The Marshal looked at the narrow stairway leading to the upper rooms and said, ”I ain’t fit to haul myself up there, my dear. If it don’t discommode you, Nat will look it over and tell me about it.”
Well she seemed chirk enough with that and I followed her shapely posterior up to the little bedroom. It was a snug little chamber. A trundle bed with white linen, a painted pine armoire, a pine chest to match, and a washstand with a fine oval mirror just about filled it. It seemed to me that sewing up other folks’ clothes hadn’t made her fortune yet. She stood looking at me kind of warily, as if waiting for me examine the window.
“Maybe you could recount what happened for me. Perhaps say what time it was; things like that could be helpful to the Marshal.”
She began. “Must have been around eleven. It wasn’t full dark on account of the full moon. I was sitting by that mirror brushing my hair -”
“You done already changed into your night shift? I ain’t inquiring to be curious, but if there’s to be a case it might be important.”
She blushed, “Oh, I don’t want there to be a case, Deputy, I just want nothing like that to happen again.”
“But you was in your nightwear?”
She nodded. I looked around the room. “You’d a lamp lit?”
“No lamp. Candles on the washstand.”
“I was looking in the mirror, and then I had a feeling that someone was close by. I don’t know why. Maybe I heard something. After I unfroze myself I tilted the mirror a little towards the window and then - I saw a pale shape. I knew it was a face. I made myself keep brushing and brushing like I’d seen nothing. Then I said to myself, you can’t just sit there brushing all night, so I took up a candle and moved real slow as if there were nothing amiss, and when I got to the window I moved as quick as I could and set it on the sill.”
“There was someone there? You wasn’t mistaken.”
“It was a man. He started back and lost his grip on the sill and rolled down the canopy. He must have landed on his feet because he ran away down Main Street, but pretty stooped over like he’d hurt his back.”
“When you put the candle close up to the window you got a close look at the man. Did you recognize who it was?”
She nodded. “Maybe it’s best I tell Marshal Spark that. He’ll know what’s best to do.”
I was a little put out by that, but I could see why she said it. There was something about old Tobias Spark that gave folks ten times more confidence than I could muster up.
Anyway down we went and she told the story again.
“It ain’t my business to be critical, Missus Russell, but don’t you have curtains on your bedchamber window?” asked the Marshal.
“I never needed them,” said the Widow, “It’s Spillum’s hay loft across the way. Besides on moonlit nights I like to lay and watch the moon set down behind the mountains. I’ve never slept sound since my husband passed on. It helps me settle my mind.”
I confirmed that her window wasn’t overlooked by the other buildings in the street. The Marshal said, “Nat, you go out and see if you can get on to the canopy without a ladder.”
Well it wasn’t too difficult.I checked there was no-one coming down the street. Then, one foot on the flower tub, step on to the window sill, reach for the lowest corner, a heave with my arms and I bellied on to the shingles. I kept my weight spread over the little roof and wriggled up to the bedchamber window. It didn’t take a moment to see that any scoundrel who cared to perform these acrobatics of an evening when the room was candle-lit would have a prime view of the occupant.
I was about to descend, when a voice I recognized as the busybody wife of the mayor called from below, “Deputy Hopper, what in God’s Creation are you doing up there?”
“Just doing the widow a favor, Missus Brand. She’s concerned that some of these shingles ain’t been nailed down right. Shoddy carpenters.” I crawled about a little, tapping them with my knuckles. ”Seems sound enough. Reckon they’ll hold for another season.”
“Humph,” she said, and sailed on down the sidewalk. I wagered to myself that Eva would be informed that I was honeying up to the lovely widow before the hour was out.
Back in the shop I told Marshal Spark that any half limber fellow could be peering into Missus Russell’s bedroom within ten seconds of leaving the sidewalk.
“Well this particular one will not be doing it again,”said the Marshal his brows as black as thunder. “Missus Russell says it was Titus Limacks at her window. Bring round the buggy. You and me are going to wake him from his slumbers this instant.”
Missus Russell caught the marshal’s arm. “Mister Spark, I would be mortified if this incident became known throughout the town. I have no wish to confront him in a court of law.”
Marshal Spark assured her that the matter would be resolved informally, and that her mind could rest easy.
As we left the shop the shop Missus Russel’s hand appeared in the window removing the pasteboard ‘closed for fitting’ sign. Unfortunately this caught the eye of Toots Trimble, the town’s sauciest layabout who happened to be coming out of a nearby liquor store. He stopped, and let his jaw drop in a most comical manner. “What’s this, Marshal, you gettin’ measured up for a frock? Deputy Hopper an’ all. Whaddayaknow, we got a pair of Mary Annes upholding the law in Stanton.”
The Marshal quick as a flash came out with, “Ain’t you ordering up a new bonnet for Missus Trimble? Ain’t too late for Easter, Toots. Some of us got ladies who appreciate a little pampering.
Toots laughed and swayed off down the street. It was well known in town that Missus Trimble, a woman twice his size and as mean as a wolverine, had threatened to cut off his tallywhacker if he should venture back into the family home where she was raising half a dozen skinny children.
Limacks lived in what had been a Central Pacific gunpowder store some way out of town - a squat stone built windowless shed, half underground at the bottom of a shallow draw where the townsfolk had taken to dumping out their trash. A black stove pipe had been jammed through a hole in the roof, but no smoke emerged from it. Neither was there any sign of life inside as I helped the marshal out of the buggy and approached the heavy oak door. “Could be he’s asleep,” I said, “He’s always boasting about being nocturnal, so I guess he has to catch up on his slumbers during the day.”
“Nocturnal like a haint,” said Marshal Spark. “Town children believe he don’t sleep in a bed like regular folks. They say he drove a railroad spike into the wall in there. During the day he hobbles his ankles together and hangs himself upside down sleeping like a goddamned bat.” He hammered on the door frame with one of his crutches. “Limacks, you in there? Open the door.”
“Maybe can’t hear you. Them walls are mighty thick.”
The marshal prodded with his crutch at a broken skillet laying nearby. “Pound on the door with that skillet, Nat.”
I did so, and in a minute the door eased open a crack and Limacks’ pasty face peered out and blinked at us.
“Want to talk to you, Limacks, open the damned door and let us in.”
“Certainly, Marshal, honored to have you visit,” He opened the door, did a little bended knee dip and waved us inside. “A pleasure to have your company, I’m sure.”
It was a dim hovel. A tiny candle burned under a doleful crucified Christ. I could barely make out an army cot heaped with old clothing, a dead stove and a broken down settle that looked as if it had been been salvaged from a wrecked Pullman car. Unwashed plates lay on a tool bench standing service as a dining table. An uncovered chanty pot stood in one corner, its contents awaiting disposal into the weeds outside.
“Christ, Limacks, light a proper lamp, will ye,” said the Marshal. “Its as dim as the inside of a cow in here.”
“That I can’t do, Marshal sir, not being in possession of any lamp oil at present. The likes of myself, being largely nocturnal, have little use for such an appliance. The candle will have to suffice. Beggin’ yer pardon for the inconvenience.”
“Nat, push the door wide open. Let some light into this hovel.”
Well, I didn’t raise no objection and did just that, seizing the opportunity to catch a breath or two of fresh air before going back into that foul smelling hutch. Limacks turned the bench towards Marshal Sparks and stood kind of uncertain in his grubby union suit and began rubbing rubbing his hands together like a bluebottle on piece of rotten meat.
Marshal Spark ignored the bench. “I ain’t sitting down, Limacks, this ain’t a social visit. I got a complaint about you and I aim to deal with it right now.”
Limacks said, “It ain’t unusual for us working in the law business to rub folks up the wrong way on occasion. If I see a felony being committed on my rounds it is my bounden duty to report it. I ain’t afraid to make enemies in upholdin’ the law.”
“Workin’ in the law business, horseshit. You’re a goddamned night watchman and nothin’ more.”
Limacks cast his eyes down and said, ”I’ve always endeavored to give satisfaction, Marshal. If I’ve fallen short of your high standards …” His voice broke and he gave a little sob.
The weeping seemed to enrage Marshal Spark. He swung himself forward and prodded Limacks on his scrawny chest with the point of his crutch.“Last night you was spying on Missus Russel at her toilet. She recognized you. God knows what other sordid capers you’ve gotten up to that decent folks are too mortified to report.”
Limacks wriggled clear and set himself down on the cot.
“That ain’t true, Marshal. That woman is lyin’. That never happened. You ain’t heard my side of the story.”
“Suppose you just happened to find yourself on her canopy. Maybe chasin’ down a miscreant on your law-keepin’ duties?”
“Ain’t no need to mock me, Marshal. Sure enough I ain’t nothin’ but a humble watchman. It’s only fair you hear me out, telling you what really happened.”
The marshal stood grim faced but didn’t reply. Somewhat encouraged Limacks took a breath and started out on his tale.
“It was like this, Marshal Spark. The Widow Russel ain’t an early bedder. Last few nights she’s been keepin’ a look out for me at her shop window. Always a little wave when I pass on my rounds. Well, last night, must have been around midnight, not a soul on the street, she opens the shop door and says, ‘Why Limacks, ain’t you got the most lonesome job. Don’t you want to come in and just set and visit for a while?’ It bein’ tolerable early, and I’d already done one tour, I thinks to myself, ‘Titus, there can’t be no harm in passin’ a few minutes in consolin’ conversation with an unfortunate lady as has lost her husband. I believe there is comfort in such socializin’. As they say, a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Anyway I goes in and right away she starts to undo the buttons on that lacy shirt I seen her wearin’ on warm afternoons. And then she was comin’ at me and tryin’ to kiss me. ‘Oh no,’ I says, ‘I know you widow women have needs but I’m a Christian man on town business.’ And all the time she was pulling at my pants, so I kinda caught her by the wrists and said, ‘Ma’am, you goin’ to have to control them urges. It ain’t decent and ladylike.’ And then she got mighty sore and started slapping at me and I managed to get out the door and ran down the street. If anyone seen me runnin’ they could tell for sure that I’d had a powerful scare.” He turned to his crucifix, put his hand on his heart and said, ”I swear by Our Saviour Jesus that that is the honest truth.” Then he crossed himself for good measure.
I was torn between laughter and anger at this preposterous yarn. Not so Marshal Spark. He loomed over Limacks and said, “That’s your tale, is it?”
“It is, Marshal, and that’s the statement I will swear to before a judge, that is if she cares to accuse me of wrongdoing. It ain’t that I can’t pay for a lawyer, Marshal, I got money put by. A man is entitled to his day in court if falsely accused.”
The marshal whipped his right side crutch around and pressed the shoulder pad against Limacks’ throat driving him down on to the foul bedding. “You listen to me, Limacks, this ain’t ever going before a judge. I’m going to deal with it right here and now.” He leaned hard on the crutch and Limacks’ lips began to turn blue. After a moment he relaxed the pressure a little. “You still listening?”
Limacks gasped for air and tried to seize the crutch and twist away. The marshal bore down again. “If I ever hear one word of that pack of lies you just invented, just one word breathed around town, I’m going to tell Nat here to beat you just enough so that you’ll still know what is happening when he drops you in Olinger’s ore crusher.” He took away the crutch and propped it under his arm. “What do you say to that, Limacks?”
Limacks struggled upright grasping his neck. “You done busted my gullet, you bastard,” he croaked.
“Nat,” said the Marshal, “I do believe he’s a slow learner. Maybe you could take over his education for a bit.”
I never was one for playing the bully boy, but sometimes a little force applied early enough and with a will can ward off a heap of misery later. I put on my grimmest face and took a step towards the cot. Limacks drew up his legs and shirked away. “Ain’t no need for that. I’ll forego my day in court.” He wiped spittle from his face. “I ain’t goin’ to say anythin’ round town.”
“Nor Whitman, nor anywhere, Limacks. The only way you’re goin’ to save your dirty hide is by keepin’ your filthy trap shut. Missus Russel ain’t goin’ to say a word, so the only consequence is that the town has lost its watchman, which nobody ain’t goin’ to grieve over. You got a weapon in this hovel, Limacks?”
“Same as most folks. Got a shotgun under the bed. Use it to keep the rats down.” He rubbed his bruised throat.
“Well don’t get any ideas about sneakin’ up one night and shootin’ either of us in the back. We’re headin’ back to the bureau now to write up an account of what happened last night, so if anything unfortunate befalls Nat or myself you’re goin’ to be first in line to be suspicioned.”
Back in the buggy I said, “How do you reckon he squares that outrageous lie with his religious stuff?”
“His brand of religion reckons it don’t matter much what wickedness you do as long as you confess it all to a priest before you croak. Priest does some kind of ceremony and forgives you and that makes it all all hunky dory with God and you don’t get shoved into hell.”
“Seems kinda stupid. You could be a real villain all your life and then dodge justice.”
‘It’s all a matter of timing. You need to get to a priest before you expire. Keeps plenty of them in a job, so there’s usually one on hand when needed.”
“Ain’t seen many out west. Not that I’m hankerin’ for a passel of them to show up.”
“Don’t worry they’ll be along by and by.”
I thought about my good friend old Lafeet for a bit. He’d studied to be a priest and then got scunnered of it and headed off to the Texas wars. I wondered if he’d hadn’t been killed so sudden, maybe lingered for a few hours, he’d have got some comfort from a priest. Somehow I didn’t think so, and then I put him out of my mind for recalling the last day we spent together always made me blue.
As we were pulling into Main Street I said, “You reckon that Limacks will keep quiet?”
“Can’t see it’s any advantage for him to talk. Nobody respects a peeper. He ain’t stupid though, Limacks, that tale about Missus Russell making advances on him was a smart way of tellin’ us that he’d make it hell for the poor woman. Maybe a sharp lawyer could convince a mutton headed out-of-town judge, but the townsfolk here would know it was all a pack of lies. No, I reckon he’ll lie low and we’ll hear no more about it.”
We were silent for a while. Before we reached the office I said, “You ever thrown a miscreant into the ore crusher - I mean before your accident?” Marshal Spark didn’t seem to have heard. “Not necessarily the ore crusher, but you know what I mean. Informal justice would be its Sunday name.”
Then after a bit he said. “Can’t say I ever took it to that level.”
“Would you with Limacks?”
“I’m gamblin’ that if we throw a powerful enough scare into him we won’t have to. It’s called deterrence.”
“And come the time when deterrence don’t work?”
“Well, then everyone gets hurt I guess, Nat.”