by Camille LaGuire
Mr. Albert Wilkins was dead, and there was no arguing that. He sprawled across his bed, one arm hanging down. His eyes weren't open, but the rope around his neck, the angle of his head, and the blueness of his face made it clear.
The blue might have been due partly to the cold in the room. The window was open and the cold mountain air hung still in the room like death. The sheriff pushed past us and stepped over the shards of the wash basin Mrs. Holt had dropped when she'd opened the door. The water from that basin had washed across the hall, but some was in the room, and it was already looking a little slick and icy around the edges.
The sheriff swore, leaned out the window, and then swore again. Then he turned and came back at us.
"He did not get out!" he said. "He did NOT get out."
He rushed back out and headed down the stairs to chase after his prisoner. I looked at Casey, my wife and partner.
Casey stood in the doorway, stiff and alert, like an animal sniffing the wind. She was only about seventeen--I didn't know exactly because Casey wasn't one for giving out personal information, even to her nearest and dearest--but she was a sharpshooter and tough as any six guys I'd met. I was in my twenties, and pretty fast on the draw, and I could maybe look big enough to intimidate if I remembered not to grin or talk too much. But the pair of us were short on experience and reputation, and I could see we were going to get the blame for this. We had been hired to keep the half-alive Mr. Wilkins from becoming all dead, and we had somehow failed.
"He get past you?" I asked. She gave me a hard look. I tried to judge if she was angry at herself for screwing up, or at me for asking. I decided it was at me--which meant old Cherty Stevens had not got past her. And I knew he hadn't got past me.
I paused to look at the body. The rope around his neck was bent with old marks, like it had been put to other uses for most of its life. I pulled back the blanket and saw that the bandages around his gut showed little blood. As far as I could tell, he probably had not struggled, and had died quickly.
Case crept up behind me and looked hard at the man's face. She didn't bother to look at anything else, because she left things like that to me. His distorted face, though, she took in as a point of honor--something to get revenge for, or something to remember in case it turned out to be our fault.
No snow had blown into the cold room. The window was sheltered by the alley. I closed it and glanced around. Other than the bit of wet where the sheriff had walked in with snow on his boots, there was no sign of snow or slush. No boot prints from the window. Nor had I seen any in the snow outside the window, one story down.
Sense said the killer was somebody from inside the house, but I didn't believe it. It was Cherty, it had to be.
Cherty Stevens was a bad man. He was the kind who liked to take revenge in the nastiest way possible, but he was generally sneaky about it. Albert Wilkins had not been all that nice himself. He had made a fool out of Cherty in a poker game a week back, and Cherty had threatened him. Then the night before, Mr. Wilkins had been found behind the saloon with a batch of knife cuts in his belly. Wilkins, however, was tough, and still alive, although unable to say who knifed him. It seemed likely to be Cherty.
The town didn't have a jail. Didn't even have its own law office, but the sheriff from Laidlaw was there. He found an empty room on the third floor of the house next to the doctor's house, and he locked Cherty up there. Cherty said there was no proof he did it, and maybe he was right, but Wilkins was still alive, and the doctor said there was a good chance he would recover enough to say who'd knifed him.
Casey and I happened to be in town, having joined up with the sheriff to discuss the possibility of a reward if we tracked down a certain road agent who was giving trouble to travelers up mountain. The sheriff had quick deputized us, and we had helped carry Mr. Wilkins up to a bed in the doctor's house.
And since Cherty was claiming loudly that he hadn't done it, and that whoever did would go finish Wilkins off during the night, we had taken the job of sitting on the stairs all night to keep him safe. The stairs were the only way up there, and the only ones who had gone near him were the doctor and Mrs. Holt. And us.
We ran down the stairs after the sheriff, thinking it would be easy to track Cherty in the snow, but as it turned out, we didn't need to track him. He had left no tracks at all. He was still up in that storage room where the sheriff had locked him up the night before.
The owner of the house next door, a man named Tucker, showed us up a long flight of stairs.
"It seemed like a good place to lock him up," said Tucker. "All the way up there. We don't even use the third floor at all, because my wife is awful afraid of fire." He paused. "She's afraid of him too. I sat on the landing with a shotgun all night. I don't think he did it. He couldn't have got out."
We found the sheriff in a little room at the top of the house, glowering down at Cherty, who was squatting by the little box stove, grinning. The room was empty except for them and a big empty hutch and a little bit of wood for the fire. There wasn't even a bed.
"I was here all night," said Cherty sweetly. "Why, sheriff, you were out there watching the door, and you heard me. I was complaining about the cold half the night. How could I have got out?"
The sheriff wasn't arguing, and he didn't look ashamed, as though he hadn't been watching the door. I might have turned around right then and had a close talk with that doctor and his housekeeper, but I could tell by the smirk on Cherty's face that it wasn't necessary. Cherty somehow had done it.
The sheriff kicked at a piece of wood that Cherty was feeding into the fire and stalked to the door to think or fume. I grabbed up the wood.
"What's this?" I said.
"It's my chair. They didn't give me anything to keep warm with, so I burned it."
The sheriff came back in and took the bit of wood away from me and kicked at the other couple pieces.
"Well, you ain't burning no more of it."
Cherty just grinned. "You're freezing me."
The rest of us went back out into the hall. I brought the bit of wood--a rail from the back of the chair, I thought--and looked it over.
"You let him burn this? Or...?"
"He was yelling about the cold last night, and then I heard him break something, and he had already busted up the chairs when I got into the room."
"You sure that's what he was doing?"
"Yes, I am sure. He busted up the two chairs for firewood, and since they were already broke and it was cold as hell in there, I let him burn them on the promise he would shut up about the cold."
"You know he was burning to cover something up."
"Like what? It was two chairs. Two old chairs. They didn't help him get out of that room."
He turned away and I could see he was full of doubt.
"You know he did it," I said to him. "You know that."
He turned and advanced on me.
"If he did, then he got past me."
"Yeah," I said, reluctantly, but I had to lay it out there.
"And he had to get past you, and her too."
He stabbed his finger at Casey. She just stood there, looking impassive, except I think she was grinding her teeth. I tried not to grind my own, as I looked him in the eye and nodded.
"He must have."
The sheriff didn't like me saying that, since it meant he was at fault as much as we were. The landlord piped up.
"He didn't get past me either. He couldn't have got out of the house."
"He had to have."
The sheriff shook his head.
"I sat against this door all night, and I did not sleep."
"What about the window?"
"Look in the alley."
I had already looked in the alley from Wilkins' room, and I knew it was pure and undisturbed. I also knew that it had stopped snowing while Wilkins was still alive.
"Maybe the wind drifted it over," I said, but the sheriff just shook his head.
We both stood, silent and thinking, and I couldn't see any way around it, but then I hadn't had a good look at that alley. I turned and went downstairs, Casey following.
"Sheriff Hatch did it," said Case, as we went out into the blinding white of the snow.
"Did not," I said with a growl, and I squinted into the alley, which was currently a mix of bright shadow and even brighter sunlight.
"Did not!" I emphasized each word and turned to look at her. She just looked at me, narrow-eyed. "It was Cherty, I know it was him. I could tell by the look on his face."
"Sheriff helped him then."
I took a deep breath. She had a point. I couldn't see any other way of it. "Maybe," I said. "You got any reason to think that, other than that it had to be?"
"If it had to be, I don't need no other reason."
"Except then it had to be that one of us helped him too."
She didn't like that, so she scowled at the snow.
"Maybe somebody else helped him."
Like the doctor or Mrs. Holt. Or maybe somebody else had climbed in through a second story window on the other side of the house.
We went out into the street, and kept clear of any tracks that went from one house to the other. Mrs. Holt was just opening the front door, but I called to her and asked her and the doctor to stay in for a little bit while we looked at the tracks. She nodded and went back in without stepping in the snow at all.
My call had attracted the attention of two men and a boy who were across the street near the saloon. I waved them over to join us as Casey looked at the tracks.
"This snow ain't gonna stay around," I said. "So would you fellas be witnesses?"
They agreed to take the job. Casey had sharper eyes than anybody and was particularly good at tracking, so she took the lead. She stood away from the tracks and pointed.
"That's where the sheriff ran in when Mrs. Holt called. That's where he ran out, and that's where we followed."
"Is that how it looks to you guys?" I asked.
They nodded and agreed that was how it looked. None of us could see any other tracks going into the front door. After that we trooped around the house and found no tracks at all. Not to the back door, not to a window.
But it was the alley that had the most interest to me, because even though a killer could have got in a lot of ways, Cherty could only have got out through that window on the alley.
There wasn't a mark in the alley.
It was narrow, although I thought jumping from one side to the other was unlikely. Tucker's house had been lightly dusted with lines of snow on every detail along that side, but the doctor's house had escaped the wind, and there was no snow to leave a mark of entry. It looked to me like there was less snow on the ledge of Cherty's window, but it was too high to tell for sure, and I couldn't see disturbance on the surfaces below.
It was cold to be standing around, so the other fellows went back across the street to the saloon. Casey bent over for another look at the sheriff's boot prints.
"I'm remembering now," she said as she straightened up, "that there were no prints out here at all when he came running up from the other house. The snow was clean."
She'd been at that door with Mrs. Holt, so she'd seen it.
"That means it was either us, the doctor or Mrs. Holt," I said.
"Shit!" I said. I stared at the snow, which was no longer smooth, but was still white. People say I'm dumb and stubborn, and maybe I was. I am not a vindictive guy, though. I didn't want to believe that I was accusing Cherty out of spite. It was just that there was something about the way that body had been laid out. It didn't seem...necessary. Like whoever had done it was showing off.
I looked up at Casey. "No," I said. "No, it isn't them."
I turned and went back to the other house. She caught up with me as I paused to kick the snow off my boots.
"You got a reason," said Case, her voice low.
"Yeah, I got a reason. It ain't evidence, but it is a reason."
We stamped on in, and up the stairs. We met Tucker, the sheriff, and Cherty coming down. I stopped and looked up at them.
"You ain't letting him go," I said.
"No reason to hold him," said the sheriff, and he started to push on through. I put my hands on each wall of that narrow staircase and stayed put.
"Yeah there is," I said. "Look, if you say it wasn't him because there was no tracks, then it had to be the doctor or Mrs. Holt...."
"Or you," said Cherty.
"Yeah, or us," I agreed. "But if that was so, why kill him that way? Why make it so obvious it was a murder? Why not use a pillow to smother him quiet, or give him too much laudanum or maybe take a scalpel and give him another cut just to make sure? Then folks would think the guy died in his sleep, and Cherty'd get the blame."
The sheriff was thinking on it, so I went on.
"The only reason to wrap a rope around that man's neck and drag him half off the bed was to make sure everybody knew it was a murder, and to give Cherty an alibi."
"He didn't get out of here," said the sheriff.
"Not through the door," I said. I looked at Cherty, and he just looked flat at me. Maybe his lip curled a little. Whatever way he'd done it, I could tell it wouldn't be easy to prove.
"It had something to do with those chairs," I said.
"Oh yeah," said Cherty. "I used them as wings to fly through the walls."
"Shut up," said the sheriff.
I turned to Tucker. "Was there anything special about those chairs?"
"Like...like were they bigger than usual, or... anything?"
He thought and then slowly shook his head. Casey poked me so I'd move over, and she squeezed in the middle of us all.
"What about the seat? Was they cane bottom? Or maybe rush bottom?" she said. "He could make a rope out of that."
"No, they were just wood."
I looked up at the sheriff, and he was considering hard. He took Cherty's arm and shoved him back up the stairs, and we all went on up. I talked to Tucker all the way up. The chairs were ordinary, maybe a little crude, since he had made them before he was good at carpentry. There weren't any others just like them, because he'd got better at it. That was why they'd been up in the room--they'd left them when they'd moved out of the upstairs.
"What do you mean moved out?" I asked.
"Oh, like I said, my wife was scared to be up here. We kept hearing about bad hotel fires back east where people got burned to death, so we moved everything downstairs. That's how come it was empty enough to use as a cell." He paused and glanced over his shoulder. "Don't tell her he lit a fire up here last night, or she'll have a fit."
I promised not to, although I thought I'd likely break that promise. A woman with fears is a woman to ask about details. But first I wanted another look at that room.
The sheriff started poking through what was left of the wood and Casey prowled over to that big hutch, but the first thing I did was go to the window and look out. The snow had been disturbed all right. Mostly wiped away, at least partly into the room by the little bit of puddle on the floor.
"So what did you open the window for?" I asked Cherty.
"The piss pot stunk, so I emptied it," he said.
"Did not," said Casey, looking into the pot, which was the only thing on a shelf in the hutch.
"I had a lot to piss. I decided it was too cold to open the window the second time."
"And how is it the snow is so white and pure below your window?"
"I got pure and white piss."
"Do not," said Casey again, stepping back from the pot and making a face.
I pushed up the sash and let some cold air in. The house across the way was two stories tall, and I could see the roof was covered with unmarked snow. Straight across, though, was a small attic window sheltered from the snow by a gable. Not a damn bit of snow to leave a mark behind. It was lower than Cherty's window, and it might have been possible to jump. I turned to look at Cherty. He was short, and not too light, nor was he particularly young. I would not have liked my own chances of making that jump. And while that window was up in the attic far from where anybody was sleeping, I didn't see anybody making the jump without making a lot of noise--even with luck, planning and agility.
And I sure didn't see him getting back.
I turned back to the window and leaned out as far as I could, and twisted around to look and see if there was some place he could have tied a rope and swung or climbed to a different window. I didn't see a place to tie a rope, and the wind had caked snow in fine lines along all the edges of the clapboards. And none of that was disturbed but the snow on his ledge, and maybe a tiny bit down the wall where some snow from the ledge had fallen.
He must have gone out that window, but I couldn't see any direction for him to go but straight out through the air. I looked at that window across the way again.
"I suppose we should check out that attic room," I said.
"You go on ahead," said Cherty with a chuckle. "You just look at that whole house. Won't find anything to do with me."
I believed him. I would go check eventually, but I had the feeling that if there was any sign of how Cherty had managed it, it was lost in those ashes with the chairs. It had to have something to do with those chairs.
"Hey," said Casey from across the room, her voice muffled. I turned and didn't see her. All I could see was the big hutch across the room, empty and doorless. Casey squeezed out from behind it. "Pulled out from the wall."
The sheriff beat me across the room, so I turned and looked at Cherty. He squatted by the fire, rubbing his hands, his eyes hooded, and watched the sheriff pull the hutch out further. He didn't look as satisfied as a moment ago, but he didn't look nervous either.
"Is there a secret door back here?" asked the sheriff.
"No," said Casey and Tucker in unison.
He pounded on the wall for a while to be sure. Cherty chuckled. He was satisfied again. I turned back to the window.
"Will you close that?" said Cherty.
"Nope," I said. Casey joined me to look out.
"I'd a jumped," she said.
"I know you would have," I said, "but I don't see even you making it back."
I looked down at the remains of the snow on the sill, which I had been careful not to disturb. Unfortunately, whatever he'd done, he had brushed nearly all the snow off, and there were no signs left of what he'd done. All there was was some black ice and some crystallized snow, and none of it showing the mark of a boot, or a jumping machine, or a rope. Like he'd brushed it off, and then the ice had formed after.... I paused and I looked at it again.
"How many chairs were there in this room?" I said.
"Two!" said Tucker.
"And there were no doors on the hutch?"
"No," said Tucker. He looked at me puzzled, and I thought I'd better check things out before I made a fool of myself. I went out and into the other room across the hall. It was even more empty than Cherty's cell, and about the same temperature. I tugged up the window and brushed away the snow, and found no ice at all.
I went back into the cell, where they were looking at me like I was crazy. I looked at the sheriff.
"Something else was in this room," I said. "Something big, and something that would burn." I went over to the window and pulled it open again, since somebody had closed it. "There was a big fire in this room last night. Big enough to melt this snow while the window was open."
I turned to Tucker and paused.
"Like maybe a fire ladder?" I said. His eyes opened wider and I could see him remember. "Like maybe one you forgot you had, because you didn't need it down on the first floor?"
"I...thought it was in the other room," said Tucker, as the sheriff started cussing him out.
"And it was long enough to reach to the other window, wasn't it?" I added. "There ain't enough room in here for one that would reach the ground."
"I tried making an extension," said Tucker, "but it didn't work out right, so my wife wanted it long enough to reach the window. I just built what she wanted and forgot about it."
Cherty wasn't smirking so much now. He stood up and looked hard at me, and I could see if he got out of this I would need Casey watching my back.
"I guess you'll find all the evidence you need, then," he said. "If I went and burned up a ladder, there must be some fittings in those ashes."
"No," said Tucker. "That ladder was all wood. It had rope tying the extension together. A whole bunch of rope." He turned apologetically to me. "I wasn't real good at carpentry then."
"Well, that's just too bad," said Cherty, his smirk returning. "Now you got no proof. You just got some unlikely speculation."
"No," I said, "it's more than speculation...."
Cherty turned to the landlord.
"You said you'd left that ladder someplace else. So you can't testify that it was here, can you?" He smirked as Tucker shook his head, and then he turned to the sheriff. "And if you'd seen it here, you wouldn't have left it with me, would you?"
"It was behind the hutch," I said. "And you moved that hutch."
"Well, it was cold in here, and I was considering trying to burn it. You got no proof there was a ladder. No, all you got is speculating after the fact." He turned back to the sheriff. "He's just a young saddlebum is trying to talk his way out of trouble."
I was aware that Casey wasn't in the room any more. I wasn't sure when or why she'd left--maybe to go off and be sure the ladder wasn't in one of the other rooms. Cherty looked smug, and the sheriff looked doubtful.
"You don't believe him, do you?" I asked.
"No, I don't," he replied. "But he's right. There isn't any evidence. Not any more than what gives him an alibi. If I just had something in hand...."
Justice could be swift in this part of the country, and not everybody cared about getting it right. I was glad that the sheriff didn't want to get it wrong. I didn't myself feel comfortable being the one rushing to judgment. I wasn't that kind of man. I wanted evidence too.
The sheriff squatted down by the fire, and started stirring it around, looking for something in the ashes and coals. I looked at Tucker, and he looked uncertain. Cherty looked pleased, and I suppose I did not.
But that was when Casey came back. She stuck her head in the door, just staying out in the hall.
"Hey," she said, looking at Tucker. He turned and she squinted at him. Then she pulled a hand from behind her back and held up a twisted bit of rope. The landlord took it from her.
"That's the kind of rope that was on the ladder," he said.
"It was around Wilkins' neck," said Casey, smirking back at Cherty.
"That ain't proof it's the same!" said Cherty.
Tucker, though, was looking over the rope closer.
"It's the same," he said. "Look, you can see where it was double-wrapped and tied to two round rungs, just like I'd tied up the ladder. See the marks?"
He wrapped the rope around, and you could see how it had been. It was enough for the sheriff, and later on it did turn out to be enough for a jury.
We didn't get paid for the job of protecting Mr. Wilkins, since he was dead and we had not been hired to protect the stairs. Still, the sheriff admitted--under his breath but in front of witnesses--that I wasn't as dumb as my reputation had led him to believe. That was pretty good. And we got hired to sit on Cherty for the next couple of days. After all, it was clear he needed close watching until he could be got to a real trial, judge and jury--and the appointment with the rope that would help him escape from this world.
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