Authors: Bill Pronzini
When a drifter was found hanged behind the saddlery shop, the sleepy little town of Tule Bend suddenly came alive with terror and suspicion. Who would murder a stranger—and why? Constable Lincoln Evans knew his job was on the line if he didn't find the cold-blooded killer.
But when more corpses started swinging from trees, Evans suddenly realized he had to move fast to find this mad murderer—because he was next on the hangman's list.
SPEAKING VOLUMES, LLC
Copyright © 1989 by Bill Pronzini
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author.
Table of Contents
IT WAS SAM MCCULLOUGH WHO FOUND THE HANGED MAN, down on the creekbank behind his saddlery shop.
Straightaway he came looking for me, being as I was the town constable and Tule Bend's only full-time peace officer. But he ran into Ed Bozeman first; Boze, who is both a close friend and my part-time deputy, was on his way to the Far West Milling Company, where he also works part-time. So it was the two of them that showed up at my house on Second Street—mine and my sister Ivy's, I should say. Time was half an hour past sunup on a Wednesday, one of those frosty mornings northern California sometimes gets in the early part of November.
Ivy and I were having breakfast. She is five years older than my thirty-one; we were both born in that house and have lived in it together pretty much ever since. She went to answer the ring at the door and showed Boze and Sam into the dining room. When Sam told about the hanged man she let out a little shriek, but none of us paid her any mind. Ivy has a dramatic way about her at the best of times, even when the things that shock her are no more meaningful than fleas on a dog's back. It's just one of her faults.
But in this case she had cause. I was more than a little shocked myself, and had trouble believing it at first. Nothing like a hanging had ever happened in Tule Bend. This was such a peaceable little town that I sometimes wondered why the council didn't vote me out of a job, since I did so little to earn my pay.
Sam said, "Well, how do you
?" Like Ivy, he was an excitable sort, and close to dithering right now. "I like to had a hemorrhage when I seen him hanging there on that black oak. Damnedest sight a man ever stumbled on."
He had forgot himself by cursing in front of Ivy—she was hell on cursing, Ivy was—but she was so het up herself she didn't even notice. She said, "You say he's a stranger, Mr. McCullough?"
"Stranger to me. Never seen him before."
"You make sure he's dead?" I asked.
That earned me a snort. "I ain't even going to answer that," he said. "You just come along and see for yourself."
I got my coat and derby, and asked Ivy to go and inform Doc Petersen, who lived a block away. Then I hustled out with Sam and Boze. The air was knife-edge cold, the sky clear and brittle looking, like blue-painted glass; the sun had the look of a two-day-old egg yolk. When we came in alongside the saddlery I saw that there was mist on the surface of Petaluma Creek, coils and streamers of it among the tules downstream. And on the grass along here and down on the creekbank there was a layer of silvery frost. You could hear it crunch when you walked on it.
The hanged man had frost on him, too. He was strung up on the old oak that grew between the saddlery and the creek, opposite a high board fence separating Sam's property from Joel Pennywell's carpentry shop next door. Dressed mostly in black, he was—black denims, black boots, black cutaway coat that had seen better days. He had black hair, too, long and none too clean. And a black tongue pushed out at one corner of a black-mottled face. All that black was streaked in silver, and there was silver on the rope that stretched between his neck and the thick limb above. He was the damnedest sight a man ever stumbled on, for a fact. Frozen up there, silver and black, glistening in the cold sunlight like something cast up from the Pit.
We stood looking at him for a time, not saying anything. There was a thin wind off the marshes downstream and I could feel it prickling up the hair on my neck. But it did not stir the hanged man, nor any part of him or his clothing.
Boze cleared his throat, did it loud enough to make me jump. "You know him,
"No," I said. "You?"
"No. Drifter, you think?"
"Got the look of one."
Which he did. He had been about halfway through his thirties, smallish, with a clean-shaven fox face and pointy ears. His clothes were shabby: shirt cuffs frayed, button missing off his cutaway coat. Drifters came through this area all the time, up from San Francisco or over from the mining country after their luck and their money ran out—men looking for river or farm or cattle work, or such other jobs as they could find. Sometimes looking for trouble, too. Boze and I had caught one just two weeks before and locked him up in the town jail for chicken stealing.
"What I want to know," Sam said, "is what in hell he's doing
Boze shrugged and took off his cap and rubbed at his bald spot, the way he always does when he's fuddled. He was the same age as me, but he had been losing his hair for the past ten years; in another ten he would be bald as an egg. He said, "Appears he's been hangin' a while. All night, maybe."
I asked Sam, "What time'd you close up last evening?"
"Six, same as usual."
"Stay on long?"
"About an hour."
"See anyone when you left?"
"No. Sure not
"Could have happened any time after seven, then. It's a lonely spot back here after dark. Don't suppose there's much chance anybody saw what happened."
"Joel Pennywell stays open late some nights," Boze said.
"Well, we can ask him."
Sam said, "But why would anybody lynch a man like that?"
"If he was lynched. Might be he did it himself."
"It has been known to happen."
Doc Petersen showed up just then, a couple of other citizens with him. Word was starting to get around, thanks to Ivy. Doc, who was sixty and dyspeptic, squinted up at the corpse, grunted, and said, "Strangulation."
"Strangulation. Man strangled to death. You can see that from the way his tongue's out. Neck's not broken—you can see that, too."
"Does that mean he could have hanged himself?"
"All it means," Doc said, "is that he didn't jump off a high branch or get jerked hard enough off a horse to break his neck."
"Wasn't a horse back here anyway," I said. "Be shoe marks if there had been. Ground was soft enough last night, before the freeze. Bootprints here and there but that's all."
''I don't know anything about that,'' Doc said in his crusty way. "All I know is, that gent up there died of strangulation. You want me to tell you anything else, you'll have to get him down first."
I sent Sam to the saddlery to fetch a plank and a horse blanket. The other end of the rope was tied tight around one of the lower branches; I reached up and sawed through it with my pocket knife. Then Boze and I lowered the body to the ground. It was not good work; my mouth was dry when it was done.
While Doc took a look at the dead man, Boze and I went over the area. There was nothing to find. I got down and peered at the clearest of the boot tracks, to see if there might be something distinctive about the footwear that had made them. One pair narrow, the other wide—that was all. The narrow tracks appeared to have been made by the cracked and worn black boots on the dead man's feet.
When Sam came back we laid the corpse on the plank he'd brought and covered it with the blanket. Then we carried it out to Doc's wagon, and Boze and I went along to Spencer's Undertaking Parlor.
After Doc and Obe Spencer stripped the body, I went through the clothing. There was no identification of any kind; if he had been carrying any before he died, somebody had filched it. No wallet or purse, either. All he had in his pockets was the stub of a lead pencil, some lucifers, a short-six seegar, a nearly empty Bull Durham sack, three wheatstraw papers, a silver dollar and a two-bit piece, an old Spanish
coin, and a dog-eared and stained copy of the Beadle dime novel called
Captain Dick Talbot,
King of the Road; Or, The Black-Hoods of Shasta
"Drifter, all right," Boze said when I was done. "Don't see how he could be anything else."
I nodded. "But even drifters have more belongings than this. Shaving gear, extra clothes—at least that much."
"You'd think so. Might be he had a carpetbag or the like and it's somewhere along the creekbank."
"Either that or it was stolen," I said. "We'll go have a look when Doc gets through."
Doc did not have much to tell us when he came out. The hanged man had been shot once a long time ago—he had bullet scars on his right shoulder and back—and one foot was missing a pair of toes. There was also a fresh bruise on the left side of his head, above the ear.
I asked, "Big bruise, Doc?"
''Could he have been hit on the head hard enough to knock him out?"
"By somebody who hung him afterward, you mean."
"That's what I mean."
"Good possibility of it, I'd say. Rope burns and lacerations on his neck, just as there'd be if somebody hauled him up over that tree limb."
"Can you tell how long he's been dead?"
"Last night some time. Best I can do."
Boze and I headed back to the saddlery. The town had come alive by this time. Merchants had opened their shops along the four-block business district; there were citizens on the boardwalks, horses and wagons and bicycles moving along the rutted surface of Main Street. The dead man was getting plenty of lip service on Main and among the crowd that had gathered back of the saddlery to gawk at the black oak and trample the grass. Several people tried to buttonhole Boze and me; I ignored them and he took my cue and did the same.
But we could only get away with that temporarily. Fact is, nothing much goes on in a small town like Tule Bend and such a bizarre thing as a hanging was bound to stir folks' imaginations. There had not been a killing in the area in years. And damned little mystery since the days when General Mariano Vallejo owned most of the land hereabouts and it was the Mexican flag, not the Stars and Stripes, that flew over California.
None of the crowd had found anything in the way of evidence on the creekbank; they would have come running to tell me if they had. None of them seemed to know anything about the hanged man, either. That included Joel Pennywell, who had come over from his carpentry shop. He had closed up around 7:30 last night, he said, and gone straight home.
Boze and I commenced a search along the creek, southward first. Creek is what it's called, but actually it is a saltwater estuary. Fourteen miles long, running through long stretches of tule marsh and mudflats between Petaluma, a few miles north of Tule Bend, and San Pablo Bay. And so full of twists and turns that steamboat pilots never dare to take their eyes from the stream the whole way up or down, for fear of their vessels floundering in the mud.
There was activity on the creek now, too. A clumsy-looking scow schooner loaded with lumber had made its way upstream from San Francisco, and two of its crew—on shore with slings around their chests and tow lines stretching back to the foremasthead—were pulling her in to the wharf at Beecher's Lumberyard, up near the basin. Another schooner, this one's broad deck loaded with eggs and squawking poultry, was just passing under the Basin Drawbridge, on its way downstream. There was always plenty of creek traffic, no matter what the time of year—scow schooners, melon boats, fishing boats, barges, dredgers. A steamer now and then, too, though the sternwheelers did not ply the creek nearly so often as in the old days, now that the San Francisco & North Pacific Railroad was well established. Folks in this part of Sonoma County ship all sorts of farm and factory goods down to San Francisco by way of the creek: fish, hay, hides, horses and cattle, dairy products, huge quantities of eggs and poultry. And we import quantities just as large of grain and feed, lumber and hardwood, glass, hardware, and vehicles of one kind or another.
The day had warmed some; the wind was down and the sun had burned off the last of the frost and mist. A few other townspeople joined Boze and me, eager and boisterous, as if we were on an Easter egg hunt. It was too soon for the full impact of the hanging to settle in on most folks. Hadn't occurred to them yet that maybe they ought to be concerned.
A few minutes before ten, while we were combing the bank up near the Basin and still not finding anything, the Whipple youngster came pedaling up on his bicycle to tell me that Roberto Ortega and Morton Brandeis wanted to see me at the Brandeis Livery Barn. Roberto owned a dairy ranch just south of town and claimed to be a descendant of a Spanish conquistador, which he probably was. He was an honest man and a good citizen, two facts that contributed to his being in town this morning. He had found a saddled horse grazing on his pastureland and figured it for a runaway from the livery, so he'd brought it in. But Morton had never seen the animal before Roberto showed up with it. Nor had he seen the carpetbag that was tied to the saddle.
When the Whipple boy finished telling about the horse and carpetbag, Boze said, "They must belong to the dead man,
. Maybe there's something in the carpetbag to tell us who he is."
I said, "We'll go find out."