Read The Hangings Online

Authors: Bill Pronzini

The Hangings (10 page)

Chapter 11

TULE BEND ROAD WAS DESERTED THIS TIME OF MORNING, and so was the country road that connected San Rafael and Petaluma. Oak-furred ridges and rolling, dry-brown pasture- land hemmed it on both sides, with the creek winding its tortuous way through the tule marshes over east. The sun was up now and already it had warmed the morning enough to melt some of the frost; steam rose off patches of grass, and thickly off the creek and its flanking mud flats.

Out here I had to ride at a fast trot, rather than a gallop, because last winter's heavy rains, constant wagon travel through the mud, and the baking heat of this past summer had combined to badly rut the road in places. Fatigue put a grittiness in my eyes, a dull ache in my temples. But there was more anger in me than anything else. If I had been feeding on gall and wormwood yesterday morning, this morning I was gorged with them.

It took me the better part of twenty minutes to reach the S.F. & N.P. swing bridge. There was a graveled wagon road that led in off the country road to the bridge, the Bridgeman’s shanty, and the old self-operated ferry. To the south, the right-of-way bulked up in a long gradual curve to the bridge; on the far side it made the same kind of curve northward, where it straightened out for the run past Tule Bend and on into Petaluma. The bridge itself was a bone of contention among some local citizens. They said it jutted too far into the stream and interfered with shipping, and there was talk of replacing it with a drawbridge that could also be used for pedestrian and wagon traffic. But nothing was likely to be done about that for a good long while, if ever, the railroad being what it was and the county politicians being what they were.

The ferry landing was on the near side of the bridge, be-tween it and the Bridgeman’s shanty. It was not much as ferries go—just a small barge large enough for a wagon and horse or a handful of people, drawn back and forth by means of a pair of underwater cables that you had to work by hand. Ranchers and farmers over east used it enough to warrant its upkeep. The boatmen didn't like it, especially the steamer captains, because they were concerned about those under-water cables. There had never been any problem, though. The weight of the cables kept them sunk into the bottom mud except when they were being used. The steamers could not go upstream except at high tide anyhow, on account of the danger of their stern wheels foundering in the mud.

When I neared the shanty I spied Pop Baker standing on the creekbank at the rear. I rode on up to the building and dismounted there and walked down to where he was. The mist was heavy here; it had an eerie look under the sun, like living things writhing in pain and clinging desperately to the bridge, dying in the day's gathering warmth. The tide was at flood and the salt and tule-grass smells were sharp.

Pop had been bridgeman here from the day the first train crossed after the bridge was finished in 1880. He was tall and gangly, all arms and legs, with a nose like a beak and white hair that had the look of feather-down on a newborn chick; he reminded you of a big shorebird, the kind that poke around through the tules on their long, spindly legs. He was bundled in coat and gloves and cap, and he had a fishing pole in one hand and a second stuck in the mud nearby, both lines trailing out into the creek.

"Morning, Pop. Catch breakfast yet?"

"Not yet. What brings you out here so early?"

He hadn't seen the smoke or fireglow last night, nor had anybody been by yet to bring him news of the fire; elsewise he would have started clamoring right away for a full report. Just as well, because I had no time to waste.

I said, "Looking for somebody who might have ridden this way between three and four this morning. You hear anyone use the ferry around that time?"

"Sure did. Not one man, though. Two."

That took me aback. "
Two
men on horseback?"

"You said it."

"Together?"

"Nope. Few minutes apart."

"Both crossing from this side?"

"Yep."

"You happen to see either of them?"

"First one woke me up but I didn't get out of bed," Pop said. "Did get up for a look when the second one showed; hardly anybody ever uses the ferry that late and I wondered what was goin' on. But it was too dark to get a clear squint at him. Just a fellow on horseback."

"Thanks, Pop."

I went and got Rowdy and led him down to the ferry landing. The barge was over on the far bank. I made sure there was no creek traffic in sight before I hauled the barge back across. Then I put the chalk-eye and myself on board, closed the gate, and pulled us the seventy-five yards to the east shore.

The road that led away from the landing on this side was a narrow levee track though waist-high tangles of tules and cattails and salt grass. In the winter, when the rains were heavy, it was impassable. Even now it was so full of pocks and ruts that I had to let Rowdy pick his way along at not much more than a walk.

As I rode I thought over what Pop had told me. Two men, a few minutes apart. One following the other? That seemed the likeliest explanation. One of them figured to be Emmett Bodeen; but then who was the other? Was Bodeen the follower or the one being followed? And if one of them had killed Jacob Pike, as also seemed likely, which one was it?

I counted myself lucky that they had come this way, instead of continuing south on the main road. There were several towns and steamer landings in that direction—Bardells, Novato, Ignacio, Millers, San Rafael—and any number of escape routes by road, rail, or boat. Over east there were only a couple of hamlets, fewer roads and transportation points, a good deal of private and unsettled land, and the rugged Sonoma Mountains. By going that way, Bodeen or whoever was setting the course might be on his way to the Valley of the Moon or the Napa Valley or points east; or it could just be that he did not know his way around these parts very well and was traveling blind. In any case, I had at least a fair chance of tracking one or both men, and the knowledge took away some of my fatigue, gave me a fresh sense of purpose.

The levee road angled through the salt marshes for half a mile to Lakeville, where the creek began to straighten out for the last few miles of its route into San Pablo Bay. From there I could go in one of three directions—on south to Sonoma Landing at the mouth of the creek, back north toward Petaluma, or east to Stage Gulch and the road into the Valley of the Moon. If my luck continued to hold, somebody in or around Lakeville would be able to give me an idea of which direction my quarry had taken. Otherwise, I would have to make an arbitrary choice.

It was coming on nine o'clock when I reached Lakeville. Once it had been part of General Vallejo's huge rancho, and had derived its name from a big pond, Laguna de Tolay, that had sat among the low hills nearby. In the years following the Bear Flag revolt, Vallejo had sold off all of this land; and in the sixties, a German immigrant named Bihler had drained the lagoon so he could plant acres of corn and potatoes. Nowadays there was not much to Lakeville other than the wharf Vallejo had built, a few houses, and Hobemeyer's General Store.

Hobemeyer was open for business—would have been since eight, if I knew old Leo. His was the only store within several miles, and he liked the feel of money more than most. I tied Rowdy to the hitchrail in front, next to a farm wagon drawn by a slab-sided bay mare, and went on inside.

Cluttered place, Hobemeyer's, with shadowy corners and overstocked shelves and overflowing tables and counters. Tools, coils of rope, and other items hung from the ceiling beams. A dozen different savors vied with each other for dominance: smoked bacon, coffee, dried onions, pepper, beeswax, strong tobacco, cloth and drygoods, boot and saddle and harness leather. Against one wall a fat-bodied stove glowed cherry red and gave off pulsing waves of heat.

Old Leo Hobemeyer was nowhere in sight. Behind the main counter, Leo's chubby and pomaded son, Dolph, was waiting on a man I didn't know, a farmer in bib overalls and a straw hat. They both watched me as I approached the counter.

"Well—Constable Evans," Dolph said in his sly way. He greeted most men as if they were a cut below his level of intelligence, which was not so high as far as I could tell; and most women as if they were simpletons and he was doing them a favor by waiting on them. Nobody liked him much, including his father. Old Leo would have thrown him out long ago, I suspected, if he didn't suffer from the gout and need someone to run the store for him. "To what do we owe the honor?"

"Business matter, Dolph."

"More calamity in Tule Bend? You look as if you've been fighting a fire."

"Razor burn," I said shortly. He always did bring out the worst in me. "I'm looking for two men who rode through on the levee road sometime around four this morning."

Dolph and the farmer exchanged looks. "Do tell," Dolph said to me, and smiled like a bratty kid with a secret.

The farmer said, "Don't believe we've met, Mister. My name's Simon Fletcher. Bought a piece of land south of here last spring, moved my family up from the San Joaquin Val-ley."

I introduced myself and we shook hands.

"Say those men you're lookin' for was around here at four this morning?" Fletcher asked.

"That's right."

"Well, I was just tellin' Mr. Hobemeyer here, I heard shootin' around that time. Woke me and the wife up."

"What kind of shooting?"

"Pistol shots, sounded like. Half a dozen or more."

"One man firing or two trading shots? Could you tell?"

"Two different weapons, I'd say."

"Could you pinpoint the location?"

"South of my place, down toward Donahue Landing."

"Perhaps it was ghosts," Dolph said, and laughed. He had the damnedest laugh for a big man, squeaky and flatulent at the same time, like a mouse passing wind. "Donahue is filled with them, you know."

Fletcher didn't see the joke, such as it was. "No, sir," he said seriously, "that shootin' was real enough. Woke me and the missus up, like I say."

I asked, "You hear anything else after it stopped?"

He shook his head. "Last couple of shots sounded farther away, though."

"As if whoever was doing the firing was on horseback?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did you go out to investigate?"

"I wanted to, but my old woman wouldn't hear of it."

Dolph mouth-farted again. Neither Fletcher nor I paid him any attention.

"What about this morning?" I asked. "Before you came here?"

"Well, I took my wagon down that way, down to Donahue, but I didn't see anybody or anything."

Dolph snapped one of his galluses—another of his nettling habits—and asked me, "What did they do, Constable? The men you're after?"

I didn't answer him. Instead I nodded to Fletcher and turned for the door.

Behind me Dolph said, "If you're going to Donahue, Con-stable, do watch out. The banshees are particularly fearsome this time of year."

Silly damned jackass. I went out and slammed the door behind me.

Mounted again, I rode on to the fork and took the road south toward Donahue Landing. Pistol shots in the marshes, pre-dawn . . . it had to be Bodeen and whoever the second rider was. Antagonists, that seemed certain now. No reason for the shooting, otherwise. But I still didn't know which was which, or why one had been following the other, or what the outcome of the gunplay had been, or where either or both men were now.

It was only about a mile to Donahue Landing. Or what was left of it, and that was not much after ten years of abandonment. The remains lay rotting alongside the creek—a ghost in that respect, though there had never been any superstitious talk that I was aware of about the place being haunted. That was just more of Dolph's sly mouth-farting.

The town had been built nearly twenty years ago by Peter Donahue, a business tycoon and the man responsible for installing the first street lights in San Francisco and for bringing decent short-line rail service to Sonoma County. He had built up the San Francisco & Northern Pacific, and planned originally to make Petaluma its northern terminus; but when city officials there refused him permission to run his railroad straight down Main Street, he had declared war on the town by laying track on the east side of the creek, south past Tule Bend to a new terminus below Lakeville—Donahue Landing, built from the ground up on cleared marshland and named after himself.

For a few years the company town had flourished. There had been a long wharf at the water's edge, a roundhouse beyond that allowed his trains to pull out alongside docking steamers and his crews to transfer freight from the boats, most of which he also owned, onto the cars for shipment to rail points throughout the county. He had put up houses, stores, a firehouse, docks, a saloon, a combination stable and Saturday-night dancehall, even a forty-room hotel called the Sonoma House and a one-room schoolhouse that served farm children and the sons and daughters of his employees. Passenger trains ran through there, too, filled with folks taking day excursions up from San Francisco.

Eventually, though, Peter Donahue healed his rift with the politicans in Petaluma, mainly because he kept on expanding his holdings by buying up other short-line roads, connecting them to the S.F. & N.P., and extending them into San Rafael and down to Point Tiburon. Passengers preferred the new, faster routes, and so did shippers; business at Donahue Landing fell off to almost nothing. So the old man, who had been about as sentimental as a wolf in a shearing pen, dismantled the town a building at a time and used barges to float the lumber and fixtures down to his new terminus at Tiburon. When he got done, there was nothing much left except the wharf, part of the dancehall, most of the roundhouse, a few abandoned homes, and a lot of bare foundations. That had been in 1882, ten years ago, and so far as I knew, nobody had ever tried to claim squatter's rights since. The only occupants of Donahue in all that time had been an occasional tramp and, likely, whole platoons of rats.

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