Read The Hangings Online

Authors: Bill Pronzini

The Hangings (2 page)

Chapter 2

THE LIVERY BARN WAS ON THE SOUTH END OF TOWN, ON the creekbank near where Main Street hooked over and turned into Tule Bend Road. The main San Rafael-Petaluma road was a fifth of a mile to the west along there.

Morton Brandeis and Roberto Ortega and Morton's helper, Jacob Pike, were waiting out front. Morton was a handsome, taciturn, dour man who wore a black leather engineer's cap every day of his life, rain or shine; would have worn it to church, it was said, if he was a religious man, which he wasn't. He hadn't always been dour, or at least not so noticeably as in the past six months. His wife Lucy, had taken sick in early spring and was confined to her bed; Doc Petersen said she had some kind of bone disease and would never walk again. Privately Doc had told me her chances of living much more than a year were pretty slim.

I liked Morton well enough, and I liked Roberto, but I did not much care for Jacob Pike. He was young and not too bright, good-looking in a slickery kind of way—he used so much pomade on his hair that I had seen it melt and run down his face like sweat on hot days—and he fancied himself a pistol with the girls. He was always making sly remarks to females, regardless of how old they were; he had made one to Ivy once and I hadn't heard the end of it for weeks. On a Saturday night he would hang around in front of the Sonoma Pool Emporium with a couple of his friends and whistle and throw his sly remarks at any woman who happened to pass by. I had had to warn him more than once about his language. He had never been in any real trouble, with a woman or otherwise—"Not many girls silly enough," Boze had said once, "to want to consort with a fellow that smells of lilac grease and horseshit"—but I had always figured the potential was there.

Morton said, "Stray's inside,
Linc
."

I nodded. "You look inside the carpetbag?"

"No. Waiting on you."

"I looked," Roberto said, "when I found the horse."

"Anything to identify the owner?"

"Not that I saw. But I didn't look closely."

"Where'd you find him?"

"Near my front gate, nuzzling grass."

We all went into the barn. It was a big, cavernous building, cleaner than most liveries—Morton was a stickler for that—and more than three-quarters of the stalls were occupied. Ever since I was a boy, I have liked the mingled smells inside a livery barn: the heavy, warm odor of animals, the dusty savor of leather and hay and manure. I used to devil Ivy with descriptions like that. She is the type who finds offense in any smell stronger than sachet or cut flowers or baking bread. How she ever brings herself to enter the privy out back of the house has always been a wonder to me. Puts a clothespin on her nose, maybe.

The horse in the stall Morton led us to was a whiskery, sway-backed roan that ought to have been turned out to pasture, instead of still serving duty as a saddle animal. The saddle he wore was a cheap Mexican type, cracked in places, and the carpetbag tied behind the cantle was old and battered. All in all, the belongings of a man down on his luck— a drifter who had never been anywhere much and who was on his way to more of the same. On his way to a grave, now, if he was the man lying on Obe Spencer's embalming table.

Pike said, "I'll untie that bag for you, Mr. Evans," and started into the stall.

"No, you won't," I said. "I'll do it."

He gave me a look and backed off. He didn't like me any more than I did him.

The rawhide strings came off with no trouble. I lifted the bag down and carried it back to the front doors, where the light was better and there was a table to put it on. The others followed, grouping around while I opened the bag. Inside there were two changes of clothing, both old and worn; a rain slicker; a Colt Dragoon revolver, unloaded, the barrel speckled with rust spots; shaving tackle; and a woman's garter, soiled, the elastic broken. I commenced a search of the clothing, and that was when I found the letter—folded up in the pocket of one of the shirts.

It was in its envelope, and the envelope was addressed to Jeremy Bodeen, care of General Delivery, Marysville. In the upper left-hand corner was a return address: E. Bodeen, Delta Hotel, Stockton. I pinched the letter out and opened it. Single page of notepaper, dated three weeks ago yesterday, the words on it written in a bold, untidy hand. It said:

 

Dear Brother,

I am now in Stockton and trust you are still in Marysville, as you said you would be stopping there until the thirty-first of the month.

I am onto something here which I believe will pay big money, and I mean BIG. I am not exaggerating. There is more than enough for both of us, if you are interested in giving up the nomad life for the lap of luxury.

Write to me at the Delta Hotel, downtown, and let me know if you will be coming here and when.

Emmett

 

Boze had been reading over my shoulder. He said, "Sounds kind of mysterious, don't it?"

"Not necessarily," I said, but it did.

"Well, at least we know the dead man's name. Jeremy Bodeen."

"So it would seem."

I asked Morton if he would board the roan at city expense; he said he would. Then Boze and I took the carpetbag over to Obe Spencer's to put with the rest of the hanged man's belongings. I would have liked Boze to join me in asking around about this Jeremy Bodeen, if that was his name, but a pair of grain barges were due upstream from San Francisco at eleven, for unloading and return, and Boze was expected at Far West Milling to help with the work. His job at Far West paid more than his position as deputy constable, and he had a wife and two kids to support. So I let him go. I could make inquiries on my own, once I was finished with a couple of things that needed doing first.

There were none of those newfangled telephones in Tule Bend yet, though there probably would be before much longer. Mayor Gladstone was talking of having poles and wires strung in and telephones installed in the city offices. When that finally happened, Ivy would be the first private citizen in line for one of the things. Then she wouldn't have to leave the house to do her tongue-wagging.

Until Mr. Bell's invention arrived, our main line of communication with the rest of the world would continue to be Western Union. So I walked on down to their office and composed a wire to Emmett Bodeen, care of the Delta Hotel in Stockton:

 

REGRET TO INFORM YOU MAN FOUND DEAD HERE TODAY UNDER SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES MAY BE YOUR BROTHER JEREMY STOP POSITIVE IDENTIFICATION NECESSARY STOP PLEASE CONTACT UNDERSIGNED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

LINCOLN EVANS

TOWN CONSTABLE

TULE BEND

 

I gave the yellow sheet of paper to the day telegrapher, Elmer Davies. "Send it right away, will you, Elmer. And if there's a reply, let me know as soon as it comes in."

"Will do,
Linc
."

I probably should have sent a second wire, to the county sheriff's office in Santa Rosa, informing Joe Perkins of what had happened here this morning. But I didn't do it. Perkins was next to useless as a law-enforcement officer. Just a fat-bottomed political hack who came through Tule Bend once or twice a month to look things over and to stuff himself on pig's knuckles and sauerkraut at the Germany Cafe. Nothing would get done if I turned the investigation over to him. As a matter of fact, he would stir folks up even more with his ham-fisted ways—turn the hanging into a circus sideshow.

I made my way to the Odd Fellows Hall on First, a block from the Basin. It was a two-story building, the lower half of which housed the city offices. The old joke about the town officials being pretty odd fellows in their own right was wearing thin—perhaps thin enough to shame people into voting the necessary funds for a new city hall next election. I sure as hell hoped so.

The constable's office and jail were at the rear. You could get there by going in through the front, but that way you had to pass the town clerk's office, the mayor's office, and the council chambers. I always entered by way of the alley at the rear—the way the council had decreed prisoners were to be taken in and out, so as not to offend the more sensitive among our citizens. Not that there were ever many prisoners to offend anybody; a few Saturday night drunks and an occasional sneak thief or vandal was about all. But Verne Gladstone, who had been mayor for the past twelve years, was hell on appearances. Which was also a local joke, considering that Verne weighed three hundred pounds—he was his own best customer at the Gladstone Brewery—and had a knack for wearing expensive suits in a way that they looked like a ragpicker's hand-me-downs.

I made sure the mayor was nowhere to be seen before I went around and down the alley to my office. He was a windy old coot, and once he got his conversational hooks into you, you were hard-pressed to wriggle free. This hanging business would sharpen his tongue and make him even more loquacious than usual.

There was a file of wanted circulars in my desk; I got it out and leafed through them. I had no particular reason for thinking that Jeremy Bodeen might be wanted, but I was bothered by the curious way he had died and the wording of that letter from his brother. But if he
was
wanted anywhere, neither his face nor his name was among the circulars I had collected. I didn't have a flyer on an Emmett Bodeen, either.

That done, I headed back down to the creekbank behind Sam McCullough's saddlery. There were still some folks out gawking and poking around—kids, mostly. None of them had anything to tell me about the dead man. I moved upstream, following the bank to where it bellied in to form the western rim of the basin. The creek was nearly a hundred yards wide there. The town wharf jutted out midway along, on this side, and there were also docks for Far West Milling, Beecher's Lumberyard, and one of three big storage warehouses, Creekside Drayage. The other two warehouses were on the east bank. The east side was the poorer section of town. The S.F. & N.P. tracks and depot were over there; so was what Ivy and others called Shanty town, where railroad workers and rivermen lived with their families and there were several working-class saloons and lodging houses.

The grain barges were in at the Far West dock and I saw Boze working on them with some other men. No point in my asking questions there. I went ahead to Creekside Drayage and talked to half a dozen men and did not find out a thing. I was of a mind, then, to make inquiries on the east side. But it was quite a while before I got to do that. A great big gust of wind stopped me when I got to the Basin Drawbridge.

The wind's name was Verne Gladstone, and as I had feared, he was all set to blow up a storm.

 

*****

 

Over supper that night, Ivy asked, "Haven't you a clue to what that man was doing there, Lincoln? Not even a clue?"

"No," I said. "Nobody seems to have seen him around town. Or anywhere else, for that matter."

"Well then, he couldn't have taken his own life."

"Why not?"

"Pshaw. A man doesn't ride into a strange town, a place where he doesn't know a soul, and hang himself on the creekbank."

She had a point and I admitted it.' 'But on the other hand,'' I said, "a man doesn't ride into a strange town where he doesn't know a soul and get himself hung by somebody else, either. Shot or knifed, possibly, if he had money or valuables worth stealing. But not hanged."

"Mightn't he have had money or valuables? You said you didn't find a wallet or purse."

"He might have, yes. But then why was he wearing shabby cloths and riding an old swaybacked horse?"

"It hardly makes sense any other way."

"Maybe it will when I hear from Emmett Bodeen."

"Why
haven't
you heard? My land, you sent that wire this morning ..."

"Ivy," I said with more patience than I felt, because these were the same sort of questions Mayor Gladstone had bombarded me with earlier, "Emmett Bodeen may be working long hours at his job, or he may have left Stockton on business, or he may have left Stockton for good. How the devil do I know, one way or another?"

Her mouth and nose got pinched up together in the middle of her face, as usually happens when she is annoyed or offended or outraged (or all three at once). It makes her look like one of the witches in
Macbeth
. "I'll thank you not to curse at the dinner table, Lincoln," she said in her school-marmish voice.

"Devil isn't a curse word."

"It is as far as I am concerned."

"Ivy . . ."

"Eat your stew, if you please."

I sighed and went on eating my stew. It was good stew; tasty cooking is one of Ivy's virtues. One of the few. She is my sister and I love her, but living with her can be a godawful chore sometimes. I don't know why I don't move out, take a room at the Union Hotel or one of the lodging houses-except that this is as much my home as it is hers. No room I could rent would be half as comfortable.

Still, the prospect of spending the rest of my life under this roof with Ivy is not one I care to dwell on. If I don't move out sooner or later, that is what will happen. Ivy surely isn't going to leave. She has lived here all her life, except for the time ten years ago when she married Herman Edwards and moved to San Francisco to set up housekeeping with him. The marriage lasted three and a half months. When she came back she told everyone poor Herman had died of the grippe; but I found out later that he was not only alive and kicking but still selling drug sundries for his livelihood, and that
he
had been the one to have the marriage annulled.

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