Read The Hangings Online

Authors: Bill Pronzini

The Hangings (4 page)


"Put chicory in it, don't you?"


"Well, it's fine coffee," I said, and I felt more awkward than ever. I seemed to have lapses around her, when I could not think straight and the things I said sounded plain foolish. She never seemed to notice, though. At least she never commented on it if she did.

We said our goodnights and I went down off the porch and down the drive. When I glanced back I could see her through the window, sitting still as death in the lamplight. What a sad and lonely woman she was, I thought, with all the secrets she had locked away inside her.

No question that I was smitten with her. The hell of it was, I didn't know what to do about it. I just did not know what to do.

Chapter 4

I HAD BEEN IN MY OFFICE TEN MINUTES THURSDAY MORNING when Boze showed up with Floyd Jones in tow. Floyd was the night bartender at the Elkhorn Bar and Grill on north Main. He reminded you some of Santa Claus—fat and jolly and white-haired—and he liked it when you told him so.

Boze said, "Floyd here saw the hanged man Tuesday night, Linc. Recognized the body over to Obe Spencer's just now."

Floyd bobbed his head up and down. "He came into the Elkhorn about seven, looking for work."

"How long did he stay?" I asked.

"Half an hour, maybe. I told him we already had a swamper but he spent five minutes trying to convince me he'd do a better job. Gave it up when he saw I wasn't listening, and bought a beer and nursed it over by the stove. Seemed he didn't have anywheres else to go."

"He give you his name?''

"Just his first name. Jeremy."

"Jeremy Bodeen," Boze said. "That's who the dead man is, all right."

"He say anything else to you?" I asked Floyd.

"Asked if I knew anybody who was looking for hired help."

"What'd you tell him?"

"Told him no, not in Tule Bend. Ed Sperling, out Two Rock Way, is looking and I told him that, but he said he wasn't much good at cattle work. Town work was what he wanted. So I said he should go up to Petaluma and try there."

"He talk to anybody else."

"If he did I didn't notice. Seemed to be the sort who keeps mostly to himself."

"Anything happen while he was there? Trouble of any kind?"

"No, sir," Floyd said. "A real quiet night."

"What time did he leave?"

"After nine. I couldn't say just when."

"Anybody leave when he did?"

"Can't tell you that either. One minute he was there, the next he was gone."

"How about other strangers in the Elkhorn that night?"

"Weren't any. Just regulars."

"Name them."

Floyd thought about it and rattled off a dozen names, all of which I knew. I wrote the names down anyway, to make sure I didn't forget any of them.

When Floyd was gone, smiling as though he had done something special, like giving a sackful of Christmas presents to a needy family, I said to Boze, "You take half these names and I'll take the other half. If we're lucky, somebody on that list can help us get to the bottom of this."

But we weren't lucky. We spent most of the day tracking down the men on Floyd's list, and only three of the twelve said they recalled seeing Jeremy Bodeen in the Elkhorn Tuesday night. And only one of the three, Clete Majors, who ran cattle in the foothills west of town, exchanged words with him. Clete said there had been a dish of salted nuts on the table where Bodeen was sitting and he had asked Bodeen to pass them over; the stranger had said, "Here you are," when he obliged. None of the twelve owned up to knowing who Bodeen was or how he happened to be in Tule Bend.

So all we knew for certain was that Bodeen had come to town, probably sometime between six and seven, for that was when he walked into the Elkhorn. Which direction he had come from was still unknown. So was
he'd come, though him asking Floyd Jones about work confirmed he was a transient and indicated that he had liked the look of Tule Bend and decided to try his luck here. The dollar and a quarter we had found in his pocket said that he had just about been broke.

The big mystery was what had happened to him after he left the Elkhorn. Who around here would want to murder a stranger, a drifter with a dollar and a quarter to his name? And not just murder him—hang him from a tree practically in the middle of town? Where in hell was the sense in that?




There was no word from Emmett Bodeen that day, nor on the morning of the next day, Friday. Nothing else came along to help me get to the truth of the drifter's death, either. Between us, Boze and I talked to perhaps a hundred citizens in and around Tule Bend, and not one of them—not one—claimed to have heard of Jeremy Bodeen or to have seen him anywhere on Tuesday evening.

I sent wires to law officers in half a dozen nearby towns and one to the sheriff of Marysville, Jeremy Bodeen's last known place of residence. I put the dead man's description in each one and asked for any information that might prove enlightening. All of the wires brought the same answer: Jeremy Bodeen was unknown by name or by sight among the lawmen in this part of the state.

As if all of this was not irritation enough, by noon on Friday folks had quit viewing the hanging as just a thrilling mystery and built the whole business up into a scare as well. Rumors kept flying around like leaves in a storm, most of them wild and crazy-sinister. You'd have thought we had a wild-eyed cutthroat in our midst, like that self-styled Jack the Ripper that had terrorized London, England, a few years back.

Mayor Gladstone heard the rumors and blistered my ear twice more. He was not the only one. Half the town seemed to think I ought to be able to produce explanations out of thin air, the way a stage magician produces rabbits and silk scarves. And because I couldn't, some people seemed inclined to question my ability to do my job. Not to my face, but the whispers got back to me anyhow. They always do in a small town.

At ten past noon I left my office and walked down to Main. The Germany Cafe was my eventual destination but I took a roundabout way of getting there—down past Kelliher's Grocery and Produce Store on south Main. I had been doing that most Fridays for the past couple of months and I no longer tried to fool myself about why I did it. Friday was the day Hannah came in to do her marketing, usually right about noon. And Kelliher's was always the first place she stopped.

When I got there, her spring wagon was drawn up in front and Hannah, dressed in gray and white, was on the sidewalk talking to another woman. That surprised me at first, considering how most everyone took pains to shun her. But then I saw that the other woman was Greta Parsons, and I thought wryly: Well, wouldn't Ivy's venomous tongue start to wag if she were here to see this. Wouldn't it just.

Ivy was one of several who kept trying to paint Greta Parsons with the same scarlet used to brand Hannah. Mrs. Parsons and her husband, Jubal, had taken over a small tenant farm on property owned by the Siler brothers out near Willow Creek about ten months ago. He was a big strapping fellow and she was pretty as they come, with long hair the color of fresh-churned butter. Too pretty, to hear Ivy and her cronies tell it. They claimed she had the look, mannerisms, and doubtful morals of a tramp and would not have anything to do with
either. It was all hogwash, to my mind, just as it was with Hannah. Pure malicious gossip. She and her husband must have got wind of some of it, too, and been hurt by it, because you seldom saw them in town. They did not come to any of the social events at the Odd Fellows Hall, not even to church of a Sunday. Jubal Parsons showed up every week or so for supplies, but this was the first I had laid eyes on Mrs. Parsons in three months.

As I approached them, it occurred to me that Hannah knew of the gossip about Greta Parsons (it was a wonder to me how much of Tule Bend's business Hannah did know, seeing as how she had no friends here except me) and had deliberately engaged Mrs. Parsons in conversation as a gesture of defiance. It was the sort of thing she would do. My sympathies being with both of them, I didn't keep my distance like everyone else; I walked right up to them and tipped my hat and said, "Afternoon, Miss Dalton, Mrs. Parsons. Fine day, isn't it?"

Hannah said, "Yes, it is, Mr. Evans," but her smile was the same cool, distant one she used on everybody. I did not blame her for that. I had no right to expect anything more.

Greta Parsons smiled and said nothing. Up close, her prettiness was hard rather than soft. You looked into her eyes and you felt she had seen things, maybe done things, that polite society wouldn't approve of. Not that that made her a tramp, any more than Hannah's past indiscretions made her one.

"Your husband in town today, Mrs. Parsons?" I asked.

"Yes. He's gone to see Mr. Brandeis about renting a horse. One of our plow animals died."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Wasn't disease, was it?"

"Old age and hard work. If you'll excuse me, I have shopping that needs to be done . . ."

I said, "Surely," but she was no longer looking at me. She gave Hannah a small smile and disappeared inside Kelliher's.

Hannah and I looked at each other for a few seconds. It was an awkward moment, at least for me, and I was relieved when the shriek of a locomotive's whistle over east put an end to it: the northbound passenger train from Tiburon, scheduled in at 12:30 and right on time today. Before the echo of it died away Hannah had nodded to me—no smile, no words—and was turning to follow Mrs. Parsons inside the store.

There was an unsettled feeling, almost a crustiness, in me as I made my way to the Germany Cafe. A bowl of hamhocks and lentils did nothing to improve my mood, even though the Germany serves the best lunch in Tule Bend. And the stranger who interrupted my dessert added enough to the crust to make it thicker than the one on the slab of peach pie I was trying to eat.

First off, he was rude. He came waltzing up to my table, planted his feet, and said in a hard, snappy voice without any preamble, "I was told I could find the town constable here. That you?"

I looked him over before I answered. He was not much to look at. Youngish, leaned down, black hair almost as long as an Indian's, thick mustache, icy blue eyes. Wearing a dented derby, a shirt with frayed cuffs, a brocade vest with one of its buttons gone, a pair of gold butternut trousers, and boots that hadn't had polish or cloth put to them in a long while. There was something vaguely familiar about him but I could not have said then what it was.

"It would," I said, slow. "Lincoln Evans is the name. Something I can do for you?"

"I just arrived from San Francisco."

"That so?"

"Don't know yet who I am, do you?"

"Should I?"

He sat down without being invited, poked his head halfway over to my pie plate, and said, "You sent me a wire two days ago. I'm Emmett Bodeen."

So that was why he had struck me as familiar. There was not much resemblance between him and the hanged man lying over at Obe Spencer's, just enough to stamp them as brothers. "Well, Mr. Bodeen," I said, "I was beginning to despair that the wire never reached you."

"It reached me."

"Might have wired me back before you left Stockton," I said mildly. "We were about to make our own burial arrangements—"

"Never mind that. You sure the dead man you got here is my brother Jeremy."

"Seems that way. There was a letter from you among what we believe to be his belongings. And I'd say you resemble him."

"Where's the body?"

"Spencer's Undertaking Parlor."

"I want to see it. Now."

I did not care for him or his manner, but then it wasn't a close relative of mine we were discussing. Without saying anything I pushed my chair back and got up and went to pay for my lunch. Bodeen didn't wait; he walked straight out into daylight. He was leaning against one of the posts in front when I came out.

Neither of us spoke on the short walk to Obe Spencer's. Obe fussed some when he realized he might have a paying customer, instead of having to bill the county for a potter's field burial at a reduced rate. But this Emmett Bodeen shrugged him off the same way you would a bothersome fly. "Just show me the body," he said, nothing else.

Obe led us back into his embalming room and lifted the rubber sheet covering one of the tables. Emmett Bodeen stared down at the hanged man's corpse for more than a minute; the look of him was all the confirmation I needed, even though I would have to ask the question anyway. His face turned ruddy and sweated. His eyes blazed and yet underneath they were still cold, so that gazing into them made you think of fire burning on ice.

I said, "That your brother, Mr. Bodeen?"

The words jerked his head away from the table. He said to Obe, "Lower that sheet," and then aimed a nod in my direction. "Those marks on his neck—they come from a rope?"

"Afraid so."

"Hanged or dragged?"


"Christ. Tell me what happened."

I told him as much as we knew. Few men would take such news well, but not many would take it the way Bodeen did. That fire in him got even hotter, so hot that it started him shaking. I began to feel uneasy. There was violence inside that man, close to the surface and highly explosive. Mr. Emmett Bodeen was a stick of human dynamite, I thought, with a weak cap and a short fuse.

He blew a little just then, too. Stood there shaking and fulminating and then surprised me and startled the hell out of poor Obe by lunging at the nearest wall and hammering at it with his fist, near hard enough to crack a bone. I thought he was going to do it again but he didn't. Instead he leaned against the wall and said without turning, "Who did it? Why?" in that hard, snappy voice of his.

"We don't know yet."

That brought him around. "Don't know? God Almighty, you've had two days to find out!"

"Easy, now, Mr. Bodeen—"

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