Authors: Bill Pronzini
Ivy wasn't bad looking when she dressed properly and smiled rather than scowled down her pinched nose, and she had had a couple of other suitors in the past ten years. But they had all gone away before long. She was not interested in men; she was interested in gossip and giving orders and finding fault with people and being offended by some of the most natural and inoffensive things you can imagine. She was an old maid at heart, with an outlook on life that would have stood her in good stead with John Calvin and the other Puritans. It was a hell of a thing for a brother to think, but I had always suspected poor Herman Edwards had the marriage annulled out of sheer frustration, because he had been unable to convince Ivy to consummate their union.
We finished dinner in silence, which was fine with me. I helped Ivy clear the table. She asked me if I wanted to have coffee in the parlor and I said no. Instead I went and got one of my pipes and my tobacco pouch—Ivy doesn't allow smoking in the house—and put them into the pocket of my sheepskin coat. I was shrugging into the coat when Ivy came into the front hall.
"Lincoln, where are you going?"
"Out to make my rounds."
"No, you're not," she said. "You're off to see that woman again."
"Ivy, don't start on me."
"Well, you are. Why don't you admit it?"
"What I do is
"Not when it comes home to roost with me. Don't you think the whole town knows? Don't you think people are talking? Why, just yesterday, Melissa Conroy—"
"Melissa Conroy is a gossipy old biddy."
And so are you, I thought, but I didn't say it. "Tell her to tend to her own damn knitting."
"Watch your language! Why do you always have to curse in front of me?"
I buttoned my coat and went to the door.
"You know what kind of woman she is. You
it, Lincoln Evans. Why do you persist in seeing her? Can't you control your carnal appetites? Can't you understand how humiliated I feel when people tell me they've seen you sneaking up the hill to her house . . ."
I walked out and put the door between me and Ivy, between me and her nasty wagging tongue.
THE NIGHT WAS COLD AND CLEAR, WITH THAT BITE IN THE air that meant frost again toward morning. I packed and lit my pipe and walked on down to Main, where the street lamps put a yellow-white shine on the darkness. It was late enough so that all the stores were shut, but too early for the barflies to start filtering into the clutch of saloons on north Main. Not that there were all that many barflies in Tule Bend or much in the way of drink-related problems for me to contend with during the week. Saturday nights got rowdy now and then, particularly up at Swede's Beer Hall or over in one of the east-bank "drinking hells," as they were known locally. Otherwise, things were quiet and there was not much use in my making the rounds after dark. Saturday was the only night I had gone out on a regular patrol until Hannah Dalton moved back to Tule Bend six months ago.
I strolled down Main, smoking, savoring the night. In most ways this was a good town to live in. Busy, sure—there were quite a lot of goods shipped in and out of here, both by rail and on the creek—but not
busy and not growing anywhere near as fast as Petaluma was. Small enough for ease and comfort. And close enough to San Francisco so that you could take the train down to Tiburon and the ferry over to the city for an overnight visit whenever you were in the mood for city pleasures, which I was three or four times a year. Good fishing in the creek to the south, good hunting in the nearby Sonoma Mountains. Tule Bend had everything a man could want—a man like me, anyhow.
More than once I had been approached about running for county sheriff against Joe Perkins, but that would have meant campaigning and speeches, neither of which I was any good at, and if I won the election it would mean moving to Santa Rosa, the county seat. Santa Rosa was a nice town but I did not want to live there; for one thing, the creek ended at Petaluma and Petaluma was sixteen miles south of Santa Rosa. So as much as I wanted to see Joe Perkins voted out of office, I had turned down the invitation each time and I would turn it down again if it was offered.
Ivy said I had no ambition. Well, she was probably right. I liked Tule Bend, and I liked being town constable, and I liked the simple pleasures life here had to offer. Ambition had ruined more than one man; I was not going to let it ruin me. Besides, I had a suspicion that Ivy wanted me to become county sheriff so I
move out and she could turn the house into a fusty, dusty old maid's museum.
On my way downstreet I stopped at the Western Union office. Still no reply to my wire to Emmett Bodeen. George Brady, the night telegrapher, said he would run it up to the house if one came in before midnight.
I wandered down along the creek behind the saddlery and the carpentry shop. Nothing back there tonight except shadows. Downstream a ways, lantern light spilled off one of the big dredger barges and put yellow streaks on the black water. There were half a dozen dredgers working on the creek most months, on account of the heavy silt content backed up by the tides from San Pablo Bay.
Back on Main, I thought about walking up along Third Street, where Verne Gladstone and some of the other well-off citizens lived, but there did not seem to be much point in it. Hell, there wasn't much point in any of this aimless wandering. Saturday was still the only night I made regular rounds. The other nights I went out like this, it was purely to pay a call on Hannah. So why didn't I just go straight on up to her house? Why did I keep trying to fool myself?
Well, it was the town, I supposed—the way folks felt about her. A concession to propriety. And yet, as Ivy had said, the whole town knew I was calling on her two or three nights a week; by continuing to see her, wasn't I as good as thumbing my nose at propriety?
She was a scarlet woman, they said, little better than a whore. Ivy had used both those phrases more than once. And I reckon there was some justification for their scorn, if you did not look any deeper than the raw facts and the vulgar rumors.
Hannah had been born in Tule Bend, just as Ivy and I had—she was three years my junior—and she had blossomed into a beauty by age seventeen. I had taken notice of her then, just as most other young men in town had. But she hadn't been interested in any of us, and we soon found out why: she had been seeing a traveling man named George Weems, had got herself seduced and pregnant by him, and eventually ran off to marry him.
Her ma died not long afterward, some said from shame and a broken heart. Later on, word drifted back that Hannah had left the traveling man, abandoned her child, and taken up with a gambler. There were other rumors, too, over the years: She had had another illegitimate child; she had spent a year in prison on a bunco charge; she had opened a house of ill repute in a Nevada gold camp; she had been killed in a gunfight between two drunken cowboys in southern Idaho. That last one put a stop to the talk for a while. Then her father died, and when his will was read it surprised everyone to learn that he had left Hannah his entire estate—the family house up on the bluff just south of town, several thousand dollars in cash, and all the land he had owned hereabouts. But that surprise wasn't half as great as the one two months later, when Hannah showed up alive and well to claim her inheritance.
She came back to Tule Bend alone and she had lived in the Dalton house alone for the past six months. She came into town once a week to do her marketing, and nobody would have anything to do with her when she did. That seemed to suit Hannah, though, as if it was just what she'd expected and just what she wanted. Some folks said she was cold, soulless; that her past sins had robbed her of all her human qualities. But that wasn't it at all. Her aloofness was like a wall she had thrown up around herself, that she was hiding behind for her own protection. She had that wall up in my presence, too, most of the time, but every now and then she would peek out from behind it for a few seconds or a few minutes and let me see what she was truly like. And the real Hannah Dalton was nothing at all like her reputation.
The rumormongers—and Ivy was one of the worst—said other things about her. They said she was entertaining men up there in her house, not just me but others from town and elsewhere. The Whore of Tule Bend, Ivy had called her once, and I had almost slapped her for it. The truth was, the only person Hannah had entertained day or night in the past six months was me. And the only place she had ever entertained me was on her back porch: I had not once set foot inside her house, nor been invited to, nor had I asked to be.
It had been a Saturday night two months after her return that I had gone up that hill for the first time, and I had done it only because of a misconception. Out on my regular patrol, riding my bicycle as I sometimes did, I had seen what I took to be a smoky fire on the porch and pedaled up to investigate. False alarm: she had put too much kerosene into her lamp and it had started to smoke badly when she lit the wick. She thanked me in her cool way for my concern, and I said she was welcome. Then I said something about it being a fine night, and she allowed as how it was, and I mentioned that you could see spots of foxfire in the tule marshes farther south, and she said yes, they reminded her of the fireflies in the Midwest. And then I had tipped my hat and bid her good evening and gone about my business.
That should have been the end of it. But it wasn't. The next Saturday night I saw the lantern glow on her porch and in spite of my better judgment I went up that hill again. When she asked why I had come, with suspicion in her voice, I stood there like a fool with my hat in my hand and said I didn't know, I guessed I just wanted to see if she was all right. She looked at me for a time, measuring me, then without smiling she allowed as how it was a warm night and I was probably thirsty and would I care for a glass of lemonade. I said I would. We talked some while I drank the lemonade, and she kept watching me, as if she were waiting for me to say something other than what I was saying-something personal, I suppose, the kind of thing a man might say to a scarlet woman. But that was not why I was there, or why I kept coming back, and if she didn't know it that second night, or the third, she knew it by the fourth because that was when she quit looking at me in that cynical, expectant way and began to take her ease in my presence. Now, I fancied that she looked forward to my visits—the half hour or so I would spend with her each time—as much as I did. At least she had not asked me to stop calling on her.
There were times when I suspected that I was not just Hannah's only friend in Tule Bend but her only friend in the world. It was one of the reasons I kept visiting her. Glimpses of the real Hannah Dalton, those times when she peeked out from behind the protective wall—that was another reason. Could be I was smitten with her, too . . . well, hell, of course I was smitten with her. Why not admit it at least to myself? It was nothing to be ashamed of, because it wasn't for the reason Ivy and the other busybodies thought.
The bluff on which the Dalton house sat was just south of where lower Main hooked into Tule Bend Road, right on the creek. Tonight, because the weather was cool, she was sitting inside the screened part of the porch, the part that overlooks the town. During the summer, she had sat on the open part that feces east over the creek, past the alfalfa and barley fields and stretches of cattle pasture, to the low hills that rise up into the Sonoma Mountains. She sat on one part or the other every night, usually with her lamp lighted but sometimes in the dark. Reading, sewing, or just watching the night. Perhaps looking down on the town that spurned her, too, and hating the people in it. She had cause, if so. But she had never spoken a harsh word to me about any person in Tule Bend—any person anywhere, for that matter.
I went up and knocked on the rear porch door. She kept it locked, so she had to get up to let me in. She seemed pleased to see me, or at least not unpleased.
"Lincoln. I didn't expect you tonight."
"Why is that?"
''Trouble in town today, wasn't there? I saw all the commotion along the creek this morning."
We sat down, her in the Boston rocker she favored and me in a cane-bottom chair. She had reddish hair and the light from her rose-shaded lamp gave it the appearance of frozen fire. Lord, she was a handsome woman. Long slender neck, pale skin, green-gray eyes, that fiery hair piled up on top of her head and fastened with one of a dozen different types of comb. Every time I looked at her, up close like this, a lump came into my throat and I felt gangly and awkward and aware that I was not much to look at myself. Big and knobbly, arms too long, hands too big, thinning hair that would not stay in place, a nose that leaned over to the left side of my face. No woman as pretty as Hannah had ever looked at me twice. But then, I did not expect her to look at me that way. It was enough to be able to call on her, to be her friend.
"Trouble it was," I said. "Man was found hanged out back of the saddlery."
"Hanged?" The word seemed to catch in her throat.
"On that old black oak there. Never saw the like."
"Who was he?"
"Stranger. Drifter named Jeremy Bodeen, apparently."
"Did he take his own life?"
"Doesn't look that way. Looks to have been murder."
"Murder? But why would anyone hang a man in the middle of town?"
"No reason I can see. It's just the most puzzling and outlandish business I've ever come up against."
I told her about Roberto Ortega finding a man's horse, and the letter that had been in the carpetbag. She listened without speaking, and when I was done she looked out through the screen and still did not speak. Once I thought I saw her shiver, as if there were a sudden draft.
"Hannah? Something wrong?"
"No, nothing. Will you have coffee?"
"If you will."
"Yes, I'd like some."
She stood, went inside. The screen door made a dull closing sound behind her, like a gate locking shut in that wall she had around herself.
I repacked and lighted my pipe. There was a half moon and the star clusters were bright; together they put silver streaks on the creek's surface. No foxfire in the marshes to-night. Few lights anywhere south or east; in those directions the night had an empty, lonesome aspect.
Hannah came back with a tray and silently poured coffee. That silence was heavy between us for a time; I wanted to break it but I could not think of anything to say. She was the one who put an end to it, and the words she spoke surprised me.
"I saw a man hanged once," she said, soft.
"You did? Where?"
"In Kansas. A small town in Kansas." She shivered again; this time I was sure of it because the motion caused her cup to rattle against its saucer.
"How'd you happen to be there?"
She was silent for such a while that I thought she wouldn't answer. But then she said, in a voice that was not much more than a whisper, "I knew the man they hanged."
"Oh. I see."
"No, Lincoln, you don't see. Not at all."
"I'd like to," I said, choosing my words, "if you'd care to tell me about it."
"I would rather not."
"I'm a good listener, Hannah."
"Yes, I know you are. More coffee?"
I had the sense that she would prefer to be alone now, so I said, "No, I'd best be going. It's good coffee, though. Did I tell you that before?"