Read The Hangings Online

Authors: Bill Pronzini

The Hangings (13 page)

A tightness came into my chest, so that I began to have a little trouble breathing. My hands curled into fists.

"But that ain't all," Ramsey said. "Way I heard it, there was a message tied to that rock. 'Course I don't know what was on it, but I can imagine. Yes sir, I sure can imagine what that message must of said."

Chapter 15

HANNAH'S PARLOR WINDOW HAD BEEN SMASHED, ALL right: only a few jagged shards of glass still remained in the frame. She had found a piece of plywood somewhere and fixed it up on the inside, to keep out the cold wind that blew across the bluff. Seeing the shards and the plywood pushed my dander up even higher. If I found out who was responsible . . .

Ramsey swore he hadn't done it, swore he didn't know who had. Maybe that was the truth and maybe it wasn't; the only way to tell for sure was to beat up on him some, and I was not ready for that—not yet. So I had ordered him to delay an hour before he brought the new pane of glass Hannah had ordered—I wanted to talk to her alone, without him and his flappy ears around—and then I had come straight here myself.

I climbed onto the front porch, twisted the bell. The door had leaded-glass panes in it and I saw her draw the curtain aside briefly to see who it was. At least she was being cautious. A few seconds passed before she opened the door. She wore a silk shirtwaist and a figured cloth skirt, clothing that showed off her comely figure to good advantage, and she had braided her hair rather than piled it atop her head—a style that made her look younger than her thirty years. But this was a business matter, not a social call; I felt none of the yearning that filled me on those nights with her on the rear porch.

She said in grave tones, "Good morning, Lincoln."

"Hannah."

"You look tired. You haven't been hurt again?"

"No. I expect you know why I'm here."

"The window. I had hoped you wouldn't find out."

"Why, for heaven's sake? Why didn't you come and tell me about it?"

"You have enough on your mind. And I knew you would be angry. You're angry now."

"Well, why shouldn't I be? Aren't you?"

"No. It isn't important."

"The hell it isn't . . . excuse me, but it
is
important. Malicious mischief is a crime—and it could have been worse. What if that rock had hit you?"

"I was in bed, asleep. It was after midnight."

"That's not the point, Hannah, and you know it."

She sighed faintly and pursed her lips. She had that wall up around herself today; I could see it in her eyes.

I said, "I'd like to come in, if you don't mind."

"No, I don't mind."

She stood aside to let me enter, then closed the door and led me into the parlor. It had her stamp on it: oil paintings of garden scenes dominated by roses, new-looking banquet lamps with rose shades, rose-brocaded arm sleeves on a velveteen couch. I knew she was fond of roses; she grew them in her garden and often had vases of red and white buds on the porch tables. But there were other things here, too, such as a home graphophone and a cottage organ, that reminded me I did not know her well at all. She had never had occasion to tell me she was fond of music or that she played the organ. And I had never thought to ask if she had any such interests.

I went and looked at the rose-patterned carpet beneath the tacked-up piece of plywood. No glass shards, and no sign of the rock. I turned to face Hannah again.

"What did you do with the note?"

The question startled her. "How did you know there was a note?"

"Ervin Ramsey. I ran into him in town."

"But I didn't mention it in the message I sent him. . . ."

So then how did he know? I would ask him as soon as I was done here—with my fists, if necessary.

"Where is it, Hannah? I want to see it."

"I burned it."

"Why?"

"I don't want any more trouble, Lincoln."

"Neither do I—not for you or anybody else. But that means putting a stop to mischief like this, not ignoring it."

"Even if you find out who was responsible, it won't stop people from hating me. You must know that."

"I know that I have a job to do and that I'm going to do it," I said. "What did the note say?"

She was quiet for a time, back behind her protective wall. Then, abruptly, she said, " 'If you stay in Tule Bend, the next rock will break your head instead of your window.' That is what it said, word for word."

My chest was tight again. "And you say that's not important? That's a death threat, Hannah!"

"No. It's idle mischief. No one is going to hurt me."

"You can't be certain of that. There's a madman on the loose in this
      
town. . . ."

"Oh, Lincoln, he isn't going to come after me. Did the killer write notes to his victims? Break their windows?"

"Who can tell what a madman will or won't do? Living up here all alone . . . you're vulnerable."

"Do you honestly believe I would be any less vulnerable living in the middle of town?"

I didn't intend to say the words, did not mean them, but they came out anyway: "There are other towns."

"Yes, there are other towns. I've lived in some of them—too many other towns. It has always been the same; it always will be the same for women like me."

"What do you mean, women like you?"

"You know what I mean. I am not going to run any more. This is my home and I intend to stay here. No one is going to drive me away, do you understand? No one."

Her eyes blazed for a few seconds; then she drew a deep breath and retreated once more behind her wall.

I said, "I don't want to drive you away, Hannah. Believe me, I don't. I'm only thinking of you, your safety."

"I know," she said.

"That rock and note . . . I feel responsible."

"Why should you?"

"It may have been done on account of me. There has been talk in town. About my visiting you evenings . . . scandalous talk."

"I see. And the ones doing the talking think you have been spending too much time with me, at the expense of your duties."

"Yes."

"You can't help what they think. It isn't your fault. People are frightened and they don't care who they blame for their fear."

"I don't care if they blame me. It's you I'm concerned about, Hannah."

"You needn't be. I'll be fine."

"Isn't there anywhere you can go for a few days, until we've got that madman in jail?"

"No, Lincoln. I've no more family, and no friends—nowhere to go at all."

"You could spend a few days in Petaluma or perhaps San Francisco. . . ."

"I'd rather not."

"Hannah . . ."

"Yes, I know, I am being stubborn. But I told you, I won't run away any more. Now you mustn't worry about me. I have a pistol and I know how to use it. I can take care of myself."

There was no arguing with her. And it was not my place to make any demands. I said reluctantly, "All right. If that's the way it has to be."

For a space we were both silent. Outside I could hear the wind rattling shingles and whistling under the eaves, as if it were playing games with the house.

Hannah asked then, "Do you think I'm a hard woman?"

"Hard? Why do you ask that?"

"The town thinks I am."

"Well, I don't."

"Even though I say I can take care of myself, that I don't need a man to do it for me?"

"Stubbornness," I said, "not hardness."

"A little of both, perhaps. I have seen enough of life—and enough of death—to put steel into me."

"Death?"

"My second husband killed two men while I was married to him," she said softly. "At least two, and the last one in cold blood."

I stared at her.

"He was the man I saw hanged in Kansas," she said. "Daniel Philip Tarboe was his name."

"My God." They were the only words that came to me.

"He was a gambler," Hannah said. "A good one but not good enough, according to his lights. He found it necessary to cheat." She paused, and then said, "You've heard the rumors about my . . . fall from grace. Some of them are quite true."

"I've never asked, Hannah."

"But you've wondered."

"Yes. I've wondered."

"I met Mr. Tarboe in Saint Louis," she said. "I was still married to George Weems then. George was the traveling man who . . . the father of my child, the man I ran off with. I left him for Mr. Tarboe. I would have left him eventually in any case. He was fickle and careless and there was nothing more between us."

"And the child?"

"My daughter. Samantha. She died of scarlet fever in her second year."

She had emerged from behind the wall again, the real Hannah, the vulnerable Hannah. There was pain in her voice and in her face: she had loved her child deeply.

"So I divorced George Weems and married Mr. Tarboe," she said. "It was an exciting life he led and he was good to me—at first. But then he was caught cheating in a high-stakes poker game with the owner of a Mississippi River steamer company and all but run out of the city, and after that his luck turned bad and he grew mean. He took his meanness out on me . . . and before long on a man in El Paso who won five hundred dollars from him at faro. Mr. Tarboe shot the man dead."

"Was he tried for the shooting?"

"Yes. And acquitted on his claim of self-defense. We left Texas soon after and traveled to Nebraska and then to Kansas. There was a fight in a resort in Bent Fork—another man accused Mr. Tarboe of cheating at cards. Mr. Tarboe shot him dead, too. This time, his claim of self-defense fell on deaf ears; he was convicted of willful murder and sentenced to hang. He did not die with dignity. He died weeping and begging for his life."

There was another silence while I tried to frame words. At length I said, awkwardly, "You must have loved him to stand by him to the end."

"No, you're wrong," Hannah said. "I did not stand by him—or love him any longer. I stayed in Bent Fork to see him hanged because I had no money and just enough pride left not to come crawling home to my father. I wish now, with all my heart, that I had. Pa never stopped loving me, despite the things we said to each other before I left Tule Bend with George Weems. I should have known that."

"How long did you stay in Bent Fork?"

"Four months. Long enough to earn enough money in a laundry to return to Saint Louis."

"Why Saint Louis?"

"It was a place I knew, with people I knew who would help me find decent work for decent wages. For two years I was a seamstress and milliner's helper. There were no other men in my life; have been none since Mr. Tarboe. The rumor mongers are wrong about that. I might still be in Saint Louis, living alone and working long hours, if word hadn't reached me of my father's death and his bequest."

"You could have had the house and property sold and the money sent to you in Saint Louis," I said. "Why did you decide to come back to live here instead?"

"I told you—I was weary of running away. I wanted—needed—familiar surroundings again. And this is my home, the only real home I've ever known."

I said nothing, because there was nothing to say. But Hannah misinterpreted my lack of response.

"Hardly a pretty tale, is it?" she said.

"Is anyone's life so pretty when you strip it to the bare bones?"

"Perhaps not."

"Hannah . . . why did you tell me all that?"

"You're the only person in Tule Bend who has treated me decently since I came back," she said. "The only person who seems to care. I didn't want you to wonder any longer.''

"Knowing or not knowing . . . it doesn't make any difference in how I look at you."

"I'm glad. Thank you, Lincoln."

I felt the awkwardness again, and to cover it I said, "I had best be going now. Ervin Ramsey will be along directly and I want to talk to him before he starts work on your window.''

"Just as you say."

"Will you let me know right away if anything else . . . unpleasant happens? At least promise me that."

"Yes. I will."

"Well, then. I'll call again soon, if I may."

"You're always welcome. I believe you know that."

"Tonight, perhaps. Or tomorrow night."

An odd little smile—one I could not quite read—moved her lips briefly and then was gone. "Yes," she said. "Tonight or tomorrow night. Any night at all."

Chapter 16

WHEN I GOT TO THE BOTTOM OF THE BLUFF, ERVIN RAMSEY was just pulling his wagon off Tule Bend Road. I waited for him, raised my hand when he neared and called out for him to stop. Then I asked him, straight out, how he had known there was a note tied to the rock chucked through Hannah's window.

It took him aback; he was more mean than bright. But he covered up by saying, "I heard somebody say it."

"Who?"

"I don't recall."

"Where?"

"On Main. Somebody on Main this morning."

"Well, hear this," I said. "If I find out it was you wrote that note and threw that rock, I'll not only put you in jail, I'll chew on you like a rabid dog. And the same goes if there are any other incidents involving Miss Dalton."

"Can't hold me responsible for what somebody else does," he said sullenly.

"No? Well, if you hear somebody else making plans along those lines, you had better step right in and put a stop to it. Because you're the one I'll be coming after if you don't."

I left him to stew in his own juices and walked back into town fast and hard, to take the edge off my anger. A detail of nearly a dozen men and boys, half a dozen wagons, and a couple of sling-harnessed draft horses were laboring under Bert Lawless's supervision to clear away the wreckage of the three burned-out buildings. They had made considerable progress already; the site would be ready for rebuilding to begin within a week. One of the workers was Sam McCullough, I noticed—up and around in spite of his injuries from the falling roof beam. I drifted over to where he was moving stiffly through what had once been his saddlery shop, using a pry bar to poke among the ashes and charred fragments.

He had taken his loss hard. His face was etched with pain and fatigue lines and his eyes were hound sad. When I asked him how he was feeling he said, "Leg's all right but the cracked ribs are giving me hell. I can't hardly breathe."

"Lucky thing that beam didn't hit you a more solid lick."

"Lucky? Chrissake, Linc, my whole livelihood went up in that fire. Eight thousand dollars worth of saddles and harness and tools . . . everything I had. Been better if that beam had taken my head clean off and put me out of my misery."

"Come on, now, Sam, it's not that bad. Waldo Thomas will let you have a bank loan to rebuild. Won't be so long before you're back in business. Inside of six weeks, if the rains hold off."

"Won't be the same," he said morosely. "And I won't be out of debt again until the day I die." Then a thought seemed to occur to him that narrowed his eyes and put the shine of anger in them. "I heard it was that Emmett Bodeen set the fire. That true, Linc?"

"Far as we know, it is."

"Well, he better not come back to Tule Bend. If he does I'll kill him."

I said with pure honesty, "No need for that. He won't get away with his crimes—you have my word."

"Your word don't seem to be worth much these days."

"Soft, now. Friends sniping at friends doesn't do anybody a damn bit of good."

"Ah, Christ," he said, but his voice had gone dull again. He was not really one of those who were blaming me.

I asked him, "You heard about Morton Brandeis, Sam?"

"I heard."

"Odd, wouldn't you say?"

"Reckon."

"You and he are good friends. Any idea where he went or why?"

"No. Morton is close-mouthed, you know that."

"Never mentioned anything to you—any plans he might have, or any trouble?"

"No."

"He drew out half the money in his bank account before he left," I said. "More than three thousand dollars."

Sam frowned at that. "The hell he did. That sounds like he don't intend to come back."

"Sure does."

"Never said a thing to me, not a thing. Never offered condolences after the fire, never said goodbye. That's a hell of a way for a friend to behave."

I agreed that it was.

"You talk to Luke Preston?" he asked. "Luke's thicker with Morton than I ever was."

Luke Preston ran a gunsmith shop out of his house on Rollins Road, just north of town. I said, "Not yet, but I will. Let me know if you hear anything about Morton, will you? And keep your chin up."

"Sure," he said. "Sure."

I walked up through town. Busy day, like most days in Tule Bend. Folks hurrying along the sidewalks, hunched against the brine-sharp wind; farm and dray wagons maneuvering into and out of Main Street; plenty of activity along the basin, too, where three heavily laden scow schooners and the last of the regular steamers that plied the creek—the little sternwheeler
Petaluma
—were in on the morning tide. But there was a difference in the bustle today—a tenseness, a kind of collective fear that you could see in the way people moved and talked, could almost smell coming off them. Men and women I had known all my life slipped past me without a word, a smile, or a nod. And on the faces of a few I saw thinly veiled hostility—as if I were an accessory to the murders, rather than one of the men who were trying to put an end to them.

On north Main, the saloons were doing a brisker business than usual for a weekday afternoon. There was a small crowd outside the Swede's, and as I passed by on the opposite side of the street I saw why: Joe Perkins was holding court, on the pretense of doing the job he was elected to do. He did not see me and nobody in the crowd noticed me either; I quickened my pace to make sure of it. My getting involved over there would only have brought some of the veiled hostility out into the open.

The trek to Rollins Road netted me nothing at all. Luke Preston wasn't home; his apprentice said he had taken the train to Santa Rosa for the day, to bid on some handguns that were being sold at auction. I told the youngster to tell Luke when he got back that I wanted to see him. Then, taking a roundabout route to avoid north Main, I paid my second visit of the day to Morton Brandeis's house on First Street.

When I got there Maude Seeley was just coming out of the front gate, all dressed up and wearing her ostrich plume hat. She didn't see me in time to scoot back inside. What she did do, though, was close up like a longneck clam as soon as she laid eyes on me. You could see her do it: her thin mouth got thinner, her narrow little eyes got even more squinched up, and she tucked her chin down into the wrinkly skin on her neck. She wasn't much to look at at the best of times, but right now she reminded me of a mean and scrawny old hen with her feathers preened, defending a barnyard corner.

She said in a no-nonsense voice, "I have nothing to say to you about Mr. Brandeis. Neither has my sister."

"Why not? Why all the secrecy?"

"That is none of your affair."

"It is if there is mischief involved."

"Mischief? What do you mean, mischief?"

"Just what I said. Why did Morton leave town so suddenly?"

"I told you, Mr. Evans, I have nothing to say about that."

"He drew more than three thousand dollars out of the bank before he left," I said. "Did you know that?"

Apparently she didn't. Her mouth popped open and she made a little gurgling noise in her throat; then her mouth snapped shut again, into such a thin line this time she might have been born without lips.

"Well, Mrs. Seeley?"

She glared at me for two or three seconds, said, "I have an urgent appointment and I shan't be late," and stalked off down the sidewalk. I called out to her, but my voice only put more stiffness in her spine. There was nothing else I could do to stop her or make her talk to me; I stood there feeling vexed and watched her out of sight.

Morton, I thought, just what in hell did you go and do?

 

*****

 

The four o'clock conference took place in the council chambers and was nothing more than a windy rehash of the morning session. Nobody had found out anything worth a tinker's damn, including the fact that Emmett Bodeen's corpse was lying on a table in Obe Spencer's embalming room. Perkins and the mayor prattled on like a couple of politicians at a voters' rally, Perkins still stumping for the use of deputies to conduct a house-to-house search. He about had Mayor Gladstone convinced he was right. All it would take was for either of them to get a sniff of the truth about Emmett Bodeen.

As it was, the meeting broke up after an hour or so without anything being resolved except that half a dozen armed deputies would patrol Tule Bend, beginning tonight. I had no objection to that. If nothing else, it would keep hotheaded citizens from forming vigilante patrols of their own.

I went straight home afterward, for the first time in two days. Wasn't any point in avoiding Ivy any longer and I needed a hot bath, clean clothes, a decent meal, and a good night's sleep. I endured a ten-minute tongue-lashing and what seemed to be an endless string of questions and opinions. When she started in on Hannah and what the gossips were saying about "that woman" and me, I told her flat out to shut her mouth; then I left her with it hanging open instead and went and had my bath.

Over supper Ivy said primly that she didn't know what to make of me lately, that I was rude and short-tempered and Mother must be turning over in her grave to hear the way her only son talked to his sister. I said, "That's a lot of damned nonsense and you know it," which put an end to the conversation. She did not say another word to me. I thanked the Lord for small favors.

After I finished eating I took a walk to smoke my pipe. The madman, Morton Brandeis, Hannah . . . my thoughts kept skipping back and forth from one to the other.

Just how badly was the murderer hurt? I had checked in with Doc Petersen before the four o'clock meeting; he'd had nothing suspicious to report. Could be that the madman had sought medical attention in Petaluma or some other town, though Joe Perkins had sent word to all doctors throughout the county. More likely, the man had either doctored himself or been treated by someone he felt he could trust. Was he bedridden, or able to get up and around? And if he
was
able to get around, had his bloodlust been satisfied by three victims or would he come prowling after a fourth?

Then there was Morton's disappearance. It puzzled everybody I had talked to; no one could or would shed any light on his motives. I knew he couldn't be the madman, and I could not bring myself to believe he was mixed up in the hangings. And yet, the possibility kept nagging at my mind. Why had he picked Monday morning, right after hearing the news about Jacob Pike, to pack up and skedaddle if he
wasn't
involved somehow?

And then there was Hannah. That threatening note bothered me more than I cared to admit. Likely it was just idle mischief, as she'd suggested, but you could never be sure about a thing like that. I did not like the idea of her up there alone in that house, isolated as it was; even if she was handy with a pistol, she might not have the chance to use it if she were taken by surprise. She could scream her head off up there and nobody would hear her.

I thought about going to her place, checking on her, but I didn't do it. If anyone decided to break in on her, he would surely wait until long past midnight—and there was just no way I could stay up all night, every night, to guard her. Better not to bother her at all tonight, I decided. Best I get some rest, so I could face tomorrow's trials afresh.

I went back home, and a little while after that I went to bed and straight to sleep.

But not for long.

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