Placer Crime

Beau Clayton loves the hustle of Eureka Gulch. Men swarmed to the growing town, caught in gold fever. A perfect place to begin a new life, build a new library, and bring culture to the new community.

Twice now his love of detective stories led him to help solve crimes. Sheriff Mullins wants help again with a dispute over a claim.

Trouble is, the story the miners tell sounds impossible.

💀

Gold fever wasn’t an illness. The people of Eureka Gulch didn’t lie around in their beds moaning with sweaty brows. They did puke in the streets, mostly outside of any one of the twenty some-odd saloons and similar establishments that had sprung up faster than the miners could dig out the ore. If anything gold fever made them stronger than normal men; the sound of hammers never stopped in Eureka Gulch these days.

Yes, things were happening and Beau Clayton was right in the middle of it all. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Creasor, owner of the Creasor hotel and other valuable properties, and the support of Ms. Emily Collins, Beau’s public library was getting a proper building after spending the past weeks in a log-base tent. The new construction was going up conveniently right across the road from the current tent library. The support came in part thanks to his help in resolving questions in a couple unfortunate deaths.

He was thin, of average height, with a dark charcoal suit, patched and worn. He wore a bowler hat over dark hair. His face was clean-shaven with high cheek-bones, a strong jaw and dark, intelligent eyes hidden under a deep brow. A thoughtful face, turned now to the building going on across the street.

Beau sat in a split log chair, sanded now to prevent splinters, with a copy of The Strand in his lap. It had only just arrived on the last stage up from Spokane with the camp’s mail, and Beau was quite excited to see it contained a new story by none other than A. Conan Doyle, “The Story of the Beetle-Hunter.”

He hadn’t started reading yet, choosing to savor the moment and he was distracted by the sight of the walls of the library going up. Built with strong timbers and then raised up. Down came the hammers! A flurry of nails driven into place and in moments the walls stood erect on their own.

He was the only one paying any attention to the library’s construction. All around the camp new buildings were going up. General merchandise stories, druggists, clothiers, mining supply companies, and of course, the saloons that the temperance movement couldn’t touch out here.

Each day he took a walk through the streets, marveling at the growth in the town as the population swelled in anticipation of the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral claims. Yet again those hopes had been dashed, a week earlier on June 8th, when the anticipated announcement had failed to come.

The mood in the camp was tense, swollen to bursting with dreams of getting rich. Thousands had poured into the region from all over. Sooners spotted claims out in the country, not legal claims yet, but there were many out there waiting for the word. The hotels were full, the women’s boarding houses and the drinking establishments alike were busy with customers. The merchants couldn’t keep enough shovels and picks in stock to meet the demand. Many men dreaming of their own claims had turned instead to working the already richly proven mines in the north half, like the Republic and Lone Pine claims. Everyone waited for word from President Grant that the bill had passed.

This was all a long way from his father’s established law offices and the courtrooms where he practiced. There had been a letter too, among the post, from his father’s firm. The letter sat unopened next to his coffee cup, on the stump beside his chair.

The Strand or the letter? Which to read first? With the Strand the outcome was already decided. He would enjoy reading the magazine. With the letter? That outcome was also already decided. There wouldn’t be any good news coming from that letter.

When he had broken the news of his decision to head north and establish a library, his father had thought him mad. So did everyone else. Who threw away a legal career in one of the most exciting cities in the west? Spokane was a center of activity and prosperity. It benefited from its placement, from the natural resources surrounding it, and the stream of men moving north to places like Eureka Gulch and Idaho. It was a modern city, full of modern ideals, and was a good place for a law firm to prosper.

Had Beau wanted to pursue that career, his future would have been secure. Instead he had thrown it to the wind to establish a library. A mad dream, yes, perhaps. Yet he was absolutely convinced, to the depths of his soul, that reading was the ultimate key to prosperity. He had always enjoyed reading. Everything, anything that he could get his hands on. It came to him that he could do much more good in the world by encouraging others to read. By offering books to all, and classes in reading, he could have far more impact on people than his father ever had in his law firm. Making the wealth of human knowledge available to everyone, what higher calling could there be? Surely that was better than the role of a lawyer!

Try telling that to his father who saw most common people as barely a step above illiterate savages. Given the examples of humanity that he saw in his practice, that was hardly a surprising attitude. When it became clear that Beau really meant to leave the firm and pursue his mad dream, his father had threatened to disinherit him. For all he knew, that was the contents of the letter. It’d be like his father to serve official notice that he had been disinherited.

Stuff it all. He’d left that behind and didn’t need the reminder. Beau left the letter untouched.

Across the street, the men working on the library swung down from the beams. They dropped their tools and walked away down the street. Beau pulled his pocket-watch out. Past noon already. They wouldn’t resume their hammering until later in the afternoon, when it began to cool slightly. This would be a good time to get some reading done. Or would be, except that sheriff Mullins was making his way down the street toward the library. The sheriff’s attention was clearly fixed on Beau, although his eyes still watched everyone around him. He nodded congenially to those he passed, his clear blue eyes catching everything with a hawk-like intensity. His long mustache and sharp nose emphasized the hawkishness of his face. He was young, but there was nothing green about the sheriff. He had that look on his face as he got closer.

It was a look that said Beau wasn’t going to get a chance to read his magazine. He set it aside and stood as the sheriff strolled up, boots kicking up dust.

“Mr. Clayton.” Mullins extended his hand.

Beau shook. The sheriff’s grip was strong. “Sheriff. Looking for something to read?”

Mullins’ lips twitched. “I haven’t finished the Tolstoy you gave me to read. Maybe I should have waited for winter.”

Beau chuckled. “Maybe.”

The sheriff turned and looked across the street. “The new library is coming along.”

“Yes. As fast as they work, we’ll be moving the books in before long. Ms. Collins is already arranging a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”

Mullins stroked his mustache. “She is a fine lady. It’s hard to credit the doctor with such a daughter.”

Dr. Collins was an odd man and maybe slightly too fond of whiskey for “medicinal purposes” to be considered strictly professional. Ms. Collins had mentioned that the loss of her mother had changed him. Hardly surprising.

“I think her late mother deserves much of the credit.”

“Just so,” Mullins said. He looked like a man at a loss for words.

“You didn’t come by to discuss Ms. Collins,” Beau said. “And since you’re not looking for another book, there must be another reason for the visit.”

Mullins stuck his thumbs behind his suspenders. “Yes. I did have a reason, although seeing the library going up, I see that there’s little point in raising the matter.”

“Sheriff, you might as well tell me since you came down here.”

“Okay, then. I will. I was thinking of asking if you’d like a deputy position. I could use someone smart and educated to keep me from making a fool of myself.”

“You don’t need me for that,” Beau said. “No one would make the mistake of thinking you a fool.”

Mullins’ blue eyes sparkled. “Maybe not. I still could use someone like you, if you weren’t busy running a library, that is.”

Beau glanced at the letter from his father’s law firm. A sheriff’s deputy? No, he wasn’t really suited to that either. He looked back at Mullins.

“You’re right, I’ve got a library to run. And you need men that can shoot straight and break up fights. That’s not me.”

“Of course. Sorry to trouble you.” Mullins started to turn.

“Sheriff?”

Mullins turned back around.

“I would have time to consult, from time to time, as needed.”

“Consult?” Mullins rubbed his chin.

“Reading isn’t the camp’s favorite vice, although my storytelling sessions have attracted a fair share of miners interested in hearing something other than the Bible. What I mean, is, if there are problems that require someone smart and educated, I expect I’d have time to assist.”

“As it so happens, I’ve got a dispute between some men right now, that could use some expert advice.”

“A dispute?” Beau scooped up the letter and pocketed it. The Strand he left on his chair. “Tell me more.”

💀

Beau’s borrowed mare bounced him in his saddle as he followed Mullins along the San Poil. The river was still high from the flooding a couple weeks earlier, but down from that torrent. The water was mostly clear now, instead of the muddy, foamy froth that had rushed down the river bed during the storm.

Other than the sound of the horses’ hooves on the packed trail, once they were away from Eureka Gulch, a quiet fell. The sort of quiet that city men never knew. It still struck Beau when he was away from the bustle of Eureka Gulch just how quiet it was in this wilderness. The sound of the shallow river flowing over the rocks, the bright bird song off in the trees that shaded the river bank, and little else. Truthfully, it was a bit unnerving. Beau watched the woods carefully. Would a bear make a noise before it attacked? What about wolves? There was probably more to fear from half-savage sooners that camped out in the wilderness waiting for the chance to strike gold when the south half opened. Not to mention the Indians from the reservation. Twelve tribes, including Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, and some men were bound to hold grudges. Either way, the quiet made him uneasy.

“How far are we going?” He asked Mullins.

The sheriff’s gelding clopped along in an unhurried  fashion. The sheriff twisted around to look back. “Not far now. Not as far south as that trouble we had.”

That trouble being the murder of one Indian, and the attempted murder of both the Mullins and Beau. Fortunately a fate they had avoided.

“Just up here, around this bend.”

Around the bend revealed a wide sunny bank stripped of plants and a good deal of dirt. Two men sat on piles of dirt. Panning gear, a rocker box, and shovels had been left lying on the ground while the men ate what looked like a rabbit roasted over a small, almost smokeless fire. Horses were tethered further up the bank. Both men were dressed in dirty clothes, worn and patched. They were skinny, with deep-sunk eyes and similar long faces. They might have been brothers, although the one on the left had deeper creases in his face, less hair and what there was of it tended to gray. A father and son, then?

The older man dropped his tin plate and stood up. The younger slowly followed. Dark eyes glanced at Beau and back to the sheriff.

“Sheriff,” the older man said. His few teeth were yellow and long. “You find that thief yet?”

Mullins’ reined in his horse. “Not yet, Mr. Higgins.”

A scowl deepened the lines on the man’s face. “What’re you doing back here, then?”

Mullins gestured at Beau. “I brought my consultant down to hear what happened. This is Beau Clayton, he’ll be helping me out.”

“Consultant?” The younger man said.

“That’s right,” Mullins said agreeably. “You just tell him your story.”

Mr. Higgins spit, a high long arc that splashed into the slow-moving river. “Couldn’t you jus tell him yourself, instead of riding out here?”

“I could,” Mullins said. “Except I want him to hear it from you so he can ask questions if he wants.”

“I’ll try not to waste your time,” Beau said.

The young man laughed, which earned him a scowl from the other. Mr. Higgins hitched his thumbs in his suspenders.

“Fine. What happened, Mr. Clayton, is that a dirty con man took our money and left us an empty claim.”

Clayton looked at the torn up bank above the river. “You bought this claim?”

Mr. Higgins nodded. “Yup. Paid twenty dollars for it. We were working our way down stream looking for a place to work when we came across a man here. He only had a shovel and a small pan, not much equipment, but we could see the gold in the pan as we rode up.”

“So you offered to buy his claim?”

The younger man spoke up, his tone bitter. “No. We didn’t. Would’ve moved on. Should have done.”

“Yeah, we should’ve done so. My son told me as much, but I didn’t listen. He had the gold right there in his pan. Told us he was finding it much harder work than he had thought, and wanted to go back to making shoes, and wondered if we’d like to buy the claim. He even dug out some more ground and washed it right in front of us, showing us the gold.”

Beau recognized the story. “So he took the gold he had already found, your money and left you with the claim.”

“Right,” Mr. Higgins said. “I feel the fool. He was gone on his donkey and we got to work. We found a few small flecks, nothing more. By the time we stopped, he was long gone. I sent my son up to talk to the sheriff.”

“And I brought Mr. Clayton to consult on this,” Mullins said.

“What’s so confusing about this?” Mr. Higgins said. He jabbed a finger at the dig. “There’s no gold here!”

“I’ve read about cases like this,” Beau said, trying to calm the man down. “The con man loads a shotgun with a small amount of gold and shoots it into the ground. Then he pretends to discover the gold but lacks the means to realize the claim himself so sells it off to someone else.”

Mr. Higgins shook a finger at Beau. “See! That’s what happened! He shouldn’t be that hard to find, sheriff! Mark told you what he looked like!”

Mullins tipped his hat up. “Yes, he did. Why don’t you just tell Mr. Clayton and be done with it?”

Clearly, Mr. Higgins was reluctant to say anything. He rubbed his jaw, and spit again with great accuracy into the river.

“Jus tell him Pa!” Mark Higgins said.

“Fine!” Mr. Higgins squinted up at Beau. “He was small, a dwarf. Odd-looking, his face wrinkled but somehow he didn’t really look old. He wore a funny coat, square and red, worn and patched but dressy, with a ruff round his neck and lace at the ends of the sleeves.”

Beau rocked back on his horse. Surely, the man wasn’t describing what it sounded like.

Mr. Higgins went on. “Also had buckles on his shoes, a leather apron and a cocked hat on his head! That’s the way he looked, I tell you!”

Mr. Higgins’ jaw clenched, as if he dared Beau to dispute him.

“And you said he rode off on a donkey?”

“That’s right. Man that size, he’s not going to ride a horse, is he? Ask around, you’ll find ‘em and get our money back!”

Everyone was looking at Beau, Mullins and the miners. Was this a joke? Mr. Higgins certainly didn’t look like he was kidding, and less likely to have read Yeats.

“Forgive me, Mr. Higgins, maybe I’m misunderstanding something. Are you saying that this man was a leprechaun?”

“Leprechaun!” Mr. Higgins scowled. “I never said that!”

“No,” Mullins said. “You didn’t call him that, but this is why I asked Mr. Clayton to come down and talk to you. He’s setting up a library back in Eureka Gulch, he’s an educated man and I thought he might recognize what you were describing.”

The younger Higgins surged to his feet, hands clenching into fists. “What are you saying? My Pa told you what he looked like!”

Beau held up a hand. “I didn’t mean any offense, son. A man named Yeats compiled a book ten years ago on fairy and folk tales. The  man you describe sounds like a leprechaun, the one-shoe fairy.”

Mr. Higgins turned to Mark. “Get it.”

Mark turned fast, nearly tripped and scrambled across the uneven ground to the other side of the fire where he rummaged in their gear. He ran back holding something in his hand and gave it to his father. Mr. Higgins turned and offered it up to Beau.

It was a shoe. Beau took it. The shoe was leather and well-made, narrow at the tip with a silver buckle across the top. It looked new. The smooth leather didn’t show any signs of wear. There was little dirt on it, mostly from the miners’ hands. He passed it on over to Mullins, who turned it over in his hands too.

“Where was this?” Beau asked.

Mr. Higgins pointed over to a log near the dig. “Found it over there, figured he left it.”

Mullins said, “You didn’t mention this before.”

Mr. Higgins shrugged. “Didn’t see no point. Might be worth something, we don’t get our money back. You mind?”

Mr. Higgins held up his hand.

Mullins  glanced over at Beau.

Beau shrugged. Keeping it wouldn’t help them find this man, leprechaun or not. Mullins tossed it down to Mr. Higgins.

The man caught the shoe. “So, sheriff? You gonna look for ‘em or not?”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out for a little man in a red coat on a donkey. If I see him, I’ll ask about your money. My guess? He’s moved on already.”

“Figures,” Mr. Higgins said. “Just our luck, you know?”

“Keep the shoe,” Beau said. “Maybe it’ll turn out to be lucky when the south half opens.”

Mr. Higgins held it up, looking at it. “Maybe so.” He pointed the shoe at Beau. “You believe us?”

“Mr. Higgins, I’d be delighted if we found this man you talk about, I’d have many questions for him.” That much was true.

💀

The ride back to Eureka Gulch passed mostly in silence as the day wore on. Beau mulled over the story in his mind. The miners hardly seemed the sort to make up such a story. And what about the shoe? It was real enough, quality craftsmanship. Just one shoe. What did that prove? Mr. Higgins could have heard the stories about leprechauns, but why make up the story? What would it gain him, except ridicule if word got out?

Riding over the last hill, the town lay beneath them. Mullins reined in his horse and fell in beside Beau.

“You’ve been quiet,” Mullins said. “What do you think of their story?”

“The details are right,” Beau said. “The obvious answer is that they set it up themselves. Except I don’t get the sense that Mr. Higgins would deliberately lie about what they saw. He seemed genuinely angry about the money he claims he lost.”

“That’s my sense too.” Mullins chuckled. “A leprechaun, though? Running a scam like that?”

“It’d fit. According to the legends they are fond of pranks, gold and drink. A town like this? They’d be right at home. You might want to start looking for him in the saloons, sheriff.”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out. Somehow I doubt I’ll have much luck.”

They reached the rode and headed on into town. The noise of Eureka Gulch washed over Beau, a welcome change from the quiet out in the wilderness around town. He touched his hat.

“Thank you sheriff, that was an interesting diversion. I wish I was more helpful.”

“You’ve helped plenty,” Mullins said. “Thank you for your time.”

“You’re welcome. I’m always happy to help.”

Their paths separated. Beau rode back to the livery and left the horse. He was on his way back to the library when he spied a familiar, and welcome sight coming down the street ahead.

It was Emily Collins, the lovely daughter of Dr. Collins. She wore a simple blue hat, with a white ribbon, over her dark hair and a plain but neat blue dress. Today she also wore white gloves. She smiled warmly as he approached, then wrinkled her tiny nose when he got close.

“Mr. Clayton, you are covered in dust! What have you been doing?”

“The sheriff and I rode out to talk to a couple of miners, victims of a prank at a placer mine.”

“Prank?”

He doubted the sheriff wanted stories of leprechauns spreading around the camp, but the rest of it didn’t matter. “A con man discharged gold from a shotgun into the San Poil river bank, then panned it out of the ground, thereby proving that there was an easy deposit of gold to be found. He sold the claim to the miners and left with the gold and their money.”

“The lure of gold does attract all sorts of men,” Ms. Collins said. “Any chance that the sheriff will catch the man responsible?”

“Perhaps,” Beau said. “His description was distinctive.”

“I hope he is caught. We don’t need thieves around here!”

“Better the sheriff catch him before anyone else,” Beau said. “The men around here tend to believe in a very swift form of justice at the end of a rope.”

“I would hope that they would respect the order of law.”

“As I would,” Beau said. “Would you like an escort?”

Ms. Collins’ smile widened. “I would. I’m returning back to my father’s house for supper. Would you like to join us?”

Beau’s stomach rumbled in response. Ms. Collins laughed.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

He smiled in return. “I do apologize, the sheriff took me away before lunch.”

“Then you must join us. I insist.”

“It’d be my pleasure.” He brushed at the dust on his clothes. “If I’m not too dusty?”

She laughed. “We will manage.”

Beau gestured and they walked on down the street.

Ms. Collins was just telling him about the progress on building the new school when he saw a small gray donkey tied up outside of one of Eureka Gulch’s many saloons. “The Cobbler’s Tankard,” according to the sign.

His heart nearly skipped a beat. He touched Ms. Collins’ arm. “Excuse me, one moment.”

“What is it?”

It was a mad, impossible thing, but he had to see. “I need to see a man about a book.”

He hurried off to the saloon. The donkey was covered in long hair, and wore a tiny leather saddle. There was a rolled blanket across the back, and bags of goods strapped to the small beast. The stock of a shotgun stuck up out of the rolls.

Beau went on past, up onto the wood porch, and shoved open the door. The interior was dim and smelled of smoke, beer, bread and meat. His stomach growled again. Behind the bar the bartender, a gray-haired man gone wide around the middle, leaned on the bar and watched him over a drooping mustache. Other than the bartender, there were only a few men, sitting alone or in small groups around the rough wood tables in the place.

None were wearing red jackets or a cocked hat. He got a few glances in his direction, standing in the doorway, but most were more interested in their drink or food. He turned, feeling foolish, except for the fact of the donkey outside.

Back in the shadowy corner, light glinted on metal. His eyes began to adjust and he made out the small shape of a man at the table. He made his way across the room, expecting something, anything except what he saw when he reached the table.

A wizened face peered up at him from the dark shadows beneath his cocked hat. Thick whiskers ran down the sides of his jaw. Dark eyes looked back at him. The man’s coat was red, with golden embroidery and rows of shiny buttons. Just as Mr. Higgins had described, there was an Elizabethan ruff around the collar and lace on the ends of the sleeves.

“Ye been lookin’ for me?” The man said, his voice high-pitched.

“The sheriff is looking for you,” Beau said. “About a claim you sold to some miners.”

The man, Beau couldn’t think of him as a leprechaun, leprechauns didn’t exist, lifted his glass and drained it down. He clunked it down on the table and belched.

“That’s what I think of de sheriff!” His dark eyes glittered. “What business is it of yers?”

“He asked for my help.” Beau took a breath. “Why don’t you come with me back to the sheriff’s office? We’ll straighten it out there.”

The man stood up on his seat, which put him nearly at Beau’s height. He sneered. “I don’ think so.”

He reached into his coat and pulled out a silver snuff box. He opened the lid and offered it up to Beau.

Beau lifted his hand. “No, thank you. I really think —”

The man took a pinch of the snuff and flung it at Beau. The dust hit Beau’s face with the rich scent of tobacco. He coughed and the dust tickled his nose. He sneezed explosively and heard the man laugh. He sneezed again, then a third time before he recovered. He rubbed a hand across his face and looked for the man.

He was gone. The table was empty.

Beau spun around. None of the other customers were paying him any attention, and there was no sign of the little man.

He rushed to the door and burst outside. There wasn’t any sign of the man, and the donkey that had been tethered outside was gone. Ms. Collins stood right outside of the saloon looking up at him. Her eyebrows raised.

“Mr. Clayton, are you quite alright?”

“Did you see where he went?”

“Who?”

“A little man, in a red coat…” How foolish did that sound? Beau stopped himself before he could continue. The leprechaun — what else could describe him? — was gone.

“Little man?” Ms. Collins said. She looked up and down the street. “I didn’t see anyone. Does this have to do with the man the sheriff was seeking?”

Beau looked down at her. If he chased this, he’d look crazier than he already did. He smiled. “Yes, but I must have been mistaken. I thought I recognized him from the description, but he’s not here.”

“Okay. In that case, should we continue to my father’s house? He does get grumpy if his supper is late.”

Beau descended to the street. He took her arm. “Supper sounds fantastic. Don’t let me delay things any longer.”

“Very well.”

They started walking. Beau decided not to mention this to the sheriff. The library was getting built, no matter how crazy it might seem to his father. He touched his jacket and felt the letter. Later, he’d read that and see what news it contained. For now, tonight he wanted to enjoy a meal with the lovely Ms. Collins and Dr. Collins, safe from troubling news or meddlesome leprechauns.

There was enough gold fever in Eureka Gulch without chasing after fairy stories!

💀

4,721 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 71st weekly short story release, written in July 2013. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story The Greatest Gig.

Sooner Murder

Beau Clayton left behind the job of a lawyer with the family firm to head out west and bring books to the gold miners and their families.

He set up in Eureka Gulch, planning to convince the booming gold-mining town to support a library. Helping expose corruption hadn’t been part of the plan.

Now the new sheriff wants his help solving a murder — when he would rather enjoy a picnic or a good book.

Beau Clayton, first appearing in Two for Death returns for another mystery for lovers of books and westerns.

🔍

The quiet on the hill was very welcome. No shouts of whiskey-drunk miners. No pounding hammers. None of the frenzy of Eureka Gulch as thousands gripped by gold fever filled the region. Here, above it all, one got a sense of the idyllic peacefulness of this region.

Beauregard Clayton’s gaze fell not on the rolling green hills and forests, but on his companion for this picnic. Ms. Emily Collins, sitting smartly in her plain blue dress, her motions as she unpacked the picnic basket, graceful. She carried grace about her, this daughter of the town doctor. And sharp wits. He was, without a doubt, quite besotted over her.

Their horses moved slowly away across the hillside, chomping at the plentiful grass.

“It is really lovely up here, isn’t it?” Ms. Collins unwrapped tins of roasted chicken, potatoes and even a carefully packed mason jar with gravy. There were even fresh golden biscuits.

Easily the most perfect day since he had come in on Mr. Gerlick’s pack train with his books to set up a public library. And get away from a future spent working in his father’s law offices. The population in Eureka Gulch continued to swell with miners and merchants, all anticipating the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral speculation. New buildings went up daily. Thousands of men, “sooners” spotted claims in the south half in anticipation of the day. The sounds of hammering never stopped and the Prohibition Party was drowned out beneath a sea of spirits that spewed from the numerous drinking establishments in the new town.

With all the commotion, this chance to get away with Ms. Collins above the noise and dirt was most welcome. He had worn his least dusty suit and bowler hat for the occasion and still, he knew, looked a bit of a mess. He was grateful for the company, and the food. As yet the town leaders had not agreed to fund his library. His own funds, mostly spent on his books, were dwindling. If things continued this way he would either have to stake out his own claim or pack up the whole idea of a library. He might try selling the books, but he’d likely have more luck with that in Deer Park or even back in Spokane. If it came to that, he might as well return to practicing law. If his father would even let him return to the practice.

“Mr. Clayton?”

That was the second question that Ms. Collins had asked. Beau took his hat from his head and ran his fingers back through his hair. “Excuse me, Ms. Collins. I’m afraid you’ve caught me drifting away in thought. There will be no more of that! I’m here, and yes, it is lovely. I was just thinking of how nice it is to get away from the town.”

“It is quite busy,” Ms. Collins said. She handed him a tin plate and fork. “Please, dig in. I know how men like to eat.”

“I do appreciate this, Ms. Collins. I haven’t had a decent meal in weeks!” He helped himself to a chicken leg, and a big piece of breast meat, piled on potatoes, poured the thick brown gravy across and added a couple biscuits. More food than he usually ate in a couple days.

Ms. Collins added food to her own plate as well.

The rich aromas added to the perfection of the day. The chicken was favored with rosemary and delicious. A rare treat that even pulled his attention from his companion. He had finished the leg and one of the biscuits before he looked up and caught Ms. Collins’ bright smile. Her eyes sparkled with delight.

She laughed sweetly. “Don’t stop on my account!”

Beau was about to answer when the sound of hooves rapidly approaching caught both of their attentions. Their horses heads came up. Beau’s gelding snorted and snapped his tail.

“Who could that be?” Ms. Collins said.

Beau stood up and faced south, down the slope where a cloud of dust was kicked up by the rider’s horse. Whoever it was, they were riding the horse hard. The rider corrected its path to bring it straight on at Beau. Ms. Collins gathered herself to her feet and stood beside him. She took his arm in her hands. Beau pressed his hand briefly to hers and smiled, what he hoped was a reassuring smile even as his stomach tightened.

He didn’t carry a gun. He had never fired a gun in his life, so even if he had one it would prove of little use.

“We’ll see what he wants soon enough. Do you recognize him?” Beau said.

“I don’t.”

He didn’t either. At this distance, the man’s features were indistinct and shaded somewhat by the broad brim of his hat. A bushy beard and mustache further shrouded his features. He wore a plain shirt, dark pants with suspenders. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to see at this distance. He could have been any of hundreds of men in the camp working the north half mines, or planning to spot his own in the south half. As far as the man’s horse, it was dark colored with a blaze of white down its forehead.

“Stay here,” Beau said. He patted Emily’s hand again and stepped forward, not content to wait for the rider to reach them. It was clear by this point the rider was coming for them, for whatever purpose there was in it.

Tall grass brushed against Beau’s legs. It didn’t take long before the rider reined in his horse to a stop in front of Beau. Dry dust blew around them in a slow-moving cloud that tickled Beau’s nose.

“You’re the library fellow, right?” The man asked.

Up close the fellow had the rough look of many of the men, hollow-eyed and thin with dirt ground into his pores. His horse was out-fitted for the rough country with bags and a rifle.

Beau touched his hat. “Beauregard Clayton, friend. I run the library.”

The man grunted. “Jack Little. Sheriff Mullins sent me out to find you.”

“The sheriff? What for?”

“What’s this about Mr. Little?” Emily asked.

The man touched his hat. “Ms. Collins. Sorry to interrupt your afternoon. The sheriff wants to see you, Mr. Clayton. He wants you to take a look at something.”

“This whole business sounds odd to me,” Beau objected. “What is this all about?”

“There’s been a murder.”

Emily made a noise. “A murder? Where?”

“In the south half, miss. An Indian has been killed, they’s claiming a sooner did it, and the sheriff wants Mr. Clayton here to look at the body.”

“Me? Why I’d think that Ms. Collins’ father, Dr. Collins, would have more business looking at the body than a librarian.”

Jack Little grinned, which wasn’t a pretty sight given he was missing more than one tooth and those that remained were yellowed and stained. “Ask me, I don’t see the fuss.”

“Over a man dying?”

Little spit into the dirt. “Happens. Men go scratching underground they die too. That sheriff, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing out here. He heard that you had something to do with that business with the old marshal, guess he thought you might be useful. You coming or not?”

Sheriff Mullins was a young man. Unmarried. Came up on Gerlick’s pack train a few weeks back. He’d been deputy down in Spokane, if Beau remembered correctly, before coming out to take over as sheriff. New to the job, he probably wanted advice.

Beau turned around to Emily. She was standing, lips pressed together in a bit of a smile. She inclined her head. “A man has died, Mr. Clayton. If the sheriff believes you would be of assistance, than we’d better go, hadn’t we?”

“If you’re coming, let’s get on with it,” Little said. “I get paid the other half when we get there and I want to get on over to the boarding house before dark. Told my brother I’d meet up with him there.”

With that last Little leered at Ms. Collins. She turned away, color riding up in her cheeks. Beau took a step closer to Little’s horse. Little’s head snapped around, his dark eyes as fixed as a hawk.

“Don’t do anything stupid, mister,” Little said. “Get your things and we’ll go.”

Emily was already gathering up their interrupted picnic. Beau clenched and unclenched his fists, then went to help.

🔍

The dead man wasn’t far south of Eureka Gulch, but Beau wouldn’t have found the place on his own. Little led him up into the rocky hills above the Sanpoil river, following the bed of a small stream that trickled down through the rocks. The hill was steep enough that they had to dismount and lead the horses.

Beau’s legs burned with the effort and already ached from the day’s riding. He hadn’t ridden much since coming north. He was thankful, at least, that Emily had agreed to stay in the town rather than follow them on out to the site of the crime. She was strong, but the terrain in the south half was much more rugged than that in the north. It wasn’t hard to see why the reservation was split, leaving the Indians with this challenging land, as unfair as that was to those people. First the north half was opened for settlement and now there were men all throughout this part of the reservation lands spotting claims. What was going to be left for the Indians when they were done digging out the gold?

Little pointed up the slope. “Just over that ridge there.”

Beau didn’t have breath to comment. The ridge was up a particularly steep portion of hillside covered with loose pine needles and rocks that slipped away beneath his feet. His horse snorted and turned away across the hillside. Beau almost fell, but for his grip on the reins. The horse pulled back with his eyes wide and nostrils flaring.

Beau moved close to the horse and patted its neck. He ran his hand along the strong muscles. “Shh, boy. It’s okay. Okay.”

Meanwhile Little had led his uncomplaining horse around them and tackled the treacherous slope at an angle, working his way across and up to the ridge rather than trying to go straight up. Beau brought the his horse’s head around and followed. Apparently seeing the other horse ahead settled his horse’s nerves and there was no more trouble as they climbed up to the ridge.

Even so, by the time they reached the top, Beau’s legs and lungs burned. The air, clean and fresh with the sun-warmed scent of pines, did nothing to sooth his lungs. He would have liked to rest except Little was continuing on and there were other men visible now, just down the way where the ridge dropped down slightly. Three of them, with horses. Two were sitting on boulders near the horses, until they saw Little and Beau approaching and came to their feet.

Indians. They weren’t dressed that differently than the men in town, in worn clothes, dirty and as unwashed as any other man. Their faces were dark, expressions shrouded. The one on the right was older and wore a battered wide-brim hat. The younger man at his side had a bare head with dark hair that caught the sunlight.

Beau pulled off his hat and took out his handkerchief to mop at the sweat gathered on his brow. The air was growing warmer by the hour with not a single cloud visible in the blue sky above the trees.

The man that came forward to meet them was sheriff Mullins. He was young, with straw-colored hair and deep blue eyes that skipped past Little to fix on Beau. A long mustache covered his top lip, but his chin was beardless and recently shaved. His clothes were in good condition, dusty from the ride out, but well-cut. He wore a wide-brim hat that further shaded those dark, penetrating eyes. Young or not, Mullins gave the impression of a capable man.

Little stopped near Mullins, and said something that Beau couldn’t hear. The sheriff gestured to where the two Indians stood.

“Mr. Clayton?” The sheriff called.

Beau approached, feeling the weight of the other men watching him. He extended his hand. The sheriff shook, his grip tight and palm rough. Clearly the sheriff was accustomed to hard work.

“What can I do for you, Sheriff?”

Little moved off to the side, not near the Indians, standing on his own with his horse.

“We’ve got a dead man, and I’d like to get your opinion on the circumstances.”

“I’m not a doctor. I don’t have any medical training. I’m not clear why you’d like my opinion.”

Mullins looked hard at Beau and spoke in a low voice. “These two say that a white man killed their friend. Maybe a sooner. I don’t see that as likely.”

“That a white man would kill an Indian?”

Mullins ignored the question. “You’re an educated man, Mr. Clayton. You’ve got your library, your books. Mr. Creasor and others have told me about that business with the demon horse. I want a clear mind looking at this.”

It didn’t sound like a good situation, but Beau’s curiosity was piqued. Unlike the sheriff, he didn’t have any trouble imagining that a white man might have killed an Indian. Men like that had rounded up the various tribes and stuffed them onto the reservation, and now were opening up the south half for miners to come in and dig out the gold. It wasn’t that long ago that Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce had been escorted out here by the cavalry. Only last year he had gone to Washington D.C., there were bound to still be problems and tensions between white men and the Indians. And between the twelve tribes thrown together on the reservation. There’d been plenty of words written on that subject.

“I’ll look, although I don’t promise to shed any light on the matter.”

Mullins nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not asking anything more than that.”

“Where’s the body?”

The sheriff turned to the waiting men. “This is Mr. Beau Clayton. He’s going to take a look and give us his opinion.”

The younger Indian scowled. Beau resisted the urge to take a step back from that gaze. “Another white man?”

Mullins stepped forward. “Mr. Clayton is a librarian, an educated man. He’ll give us his honest opinion and then we’ll decide what to do next.”

The older of the two nodded and gestured off to the side.

Beau’s gaze slid across the rock and grasses to a small crease in the ridge, the start of a gully, where reddish rocks lay exposed. One in particular gleamed white in the sunlight and looked wet.

He blinked and it wasn’t rock that he was looking at, but a skull. What he’d taken as a pile of rocks in the crease was in fact a body. The victim lay tumbled, half-covered almost in pine needles and dirt so that his dirty gray clothes almost looked like rock. Had looked like rock a moment ago, but now that Beau had seen the body he couldn’t miss it. All this time that they were talking he hadn’t realized that they were so close to the body. Fat black flies twisted in the air, and when he inhaled he picked up the faint slaughter-house smell of the corpse.

How observant was he, that he had missed it?

No one commented on the fact. Beau took off his hat and mopped his face again with the sweaty handkerchief. Everyone was watching him. He walked forward, watching the dusty ground. There were boot prints and other signs of people, many of them on top of each other. Scuff marks in the pine needles. A clump of grass smashed and bent as if someone had stepped on it.

A big black and yellow wasp buzzed around Beau’s face. He brushed it away with his hat.

There were more long scuff marks and blood splashed and soaked into the ground near the body. A struggle, obviously. Bright shards of broken glass lay on the ground. Beau crouched and picked up a piece with a torn label. Whiskey. The ground beneath the pieces was mostly dry, apparently the bottle wasn’t full when broken. It would evaporate, of course, but maybe not so fast. He couldn’t be sure but if they had some more whiskey he could pour it out on the ground and observe how fast it evaporated. If that was even relevant. If he was a brilliant man, like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, he’d already know the answer. Even the blood, splashed on the pine needles where it sparkled like rubies, or soaked into the sandy ground, must speak volumes about what had happened here.

Beau rubbed his chin. The illiterates must feel this way when studying a page in a book! There was information here, unfortunately it didn’t tell him much. He lacked the education to read this properly. And the sheriff had called him an educated man?

He considered begging off, and quitting. Yet there were four pairs of eyes watching him and pride forced him back to the task. Whatever he could make of this, he’d share, let the sheriff do with it as he wanted.

The body, which he had avoided since seeing it for what it was, lay tumbled in the small ditch, a gully of the sort where snow melt had cut into the ridge to expose rocks. The gully was dry at this time of the year. A whole swath of ground was disturbed down to the gully, the pine needles and dirt scattered, and dark splotches of blood marked the ground in a line to the body.

Like a wheel that has rolled through a puddle, leaving wet spots behind it.

The man had rolled down the gully. His wounds bleeding and depositing the blood with each turn in the dirt. That also accounted for the fact that the body was liberally covered with pine needles and dirty, stuck to his clothes and skin because of the blood as he rolled into the gully.

Dead, then, or at least senseless as he rolled down the slope.

Reluctantly, Beau studied the man himself. An Indian, like the other two. His braided hair flung back, a whole patch of skin torn up on his scalp to expose the wet bone beneath. That was the bright patch that had caught Beau’s eye when he first saw the body. Up along the right side of the man’s head the scalp was torn up. A nasty wound that would have likely bled a considerable amount. His dark lined face was slack, the tongue protruding slightly, red with blood. His eyes stared vacantly at ants gathering in the dirt around the body. The slaughter house smell was stronger here close to the body.

Beau’s stomach heaved and he turned his head away, closed his eyes and hastily pulled out his handkerchief to press over his nose. His stomach heaved again, reminding him of the time he had gotten sick after eating at a questionable establishment on his way to Spokane. This time, fortunately, he didn’t vomit the remains of the picnic Emily Collins had prepared. One of the men chuckled. He didn’t need to look to recognize Little’s voice.

As Beau’s stomach settled he turned back to the body. Clearly the wound to the Indian’s scalp was obvious, but the bone was solid and intact, not crushed. He leaned closer.

An explosive shout rang out behind him. Beau twisted around and saw the younger of the Indians glaring at him, the other holding his arm. Sheriff Mullins’ hand was on his pistol. Little was holding the stock of the rifle in his horse’s saddle bags.

“Mr. Clayton,” Mullins said easily, “I don’t think he wants you to touch the body.”

Beau lifted his hands. “I’m simply looking for clues about his killer.” He didn’t want to touch the body, but if he couldn’t it would limit what he learned. “I don’t mean any disrespect.”

The older Indian spoke. “Okay.”

The younger moved and the other turned, snapping out words in their native tongue. Beau’s curiosity flared. Had their language been written down? What would it look like? He knew French, Latin, of course, and German, but those were all related. How would it be to study a language that wasn’t connected to those?

The younger man settled back. The sheriff took his hand from his pistol. “Go ahead, Mr. Clayton.”

“I’ll be careful,” Beau said. “I want to help find out what happened.”

“We know what happened!” The younger Indian snapped.

Little spit in the dust, his hand still on the rifle stock.

Mullins’ hand touched the pistol as he lifted his other hand. “Whoa there, now! Mr. Clayton will be respectful, but he needs to look at the body.”

The elder gestured. “Okay.”

Beau turned back to the body. His pulse throbbed in his neck. He swallowed and tried not to think about the four pairs of eyes drilling into his back as he studied the body. Other than the head wound, there wasn’t any obvious wound he could see. As gruesome as that wound was, could it have caused the man’s death? How was he to know? He wasn’t a doctor, not even a drunken doctor like Emily’s father. He studied the wound.

There was a sharp line of blood across the lower part of the skull and it nicked across the man’s ear. A small piece was missing. The edges there were clean, the line in the bone narrow. Whatever had made that mark had a sharp edge.

Beau rocked back on his heels. Another wasp circled his head. More would come, and flies, the longer the body lay here. A blow to the side of the head, with a knife, maybe? Then in the struggle the man’s braid was pulled, tearing up the flap of skin that exposed the bone? Maybe. Possibly.

Gently, not looking back but feeling the others watch him, Beau rolled the man’s body as best he could as the man was already stiffened in death. The arms clutched at his mid-section and there was considerable blood and dirt stuck to the front of the shirt. Some ants dropped away from the mess, slow and sticky with blood.

Grimacing, Beau picked at the cloth and found several slices, about two inches long in the shirt. Even to his eye it was clear the man was stabbed, repeatedly, as if the killer had gone into a frenzy. He counted the wounds. Seven, in all, slicing through the shirt and into the man’s chest and abdomen. Three alone in the vicinity of the man’s heart.

Carefully Beau let the man down.

He stood up, brushing his hands with his handkerchief and walked back to Mullins. He pulled his hat off to mop the sweat from his forehead.

“I believe they are telling the truth,” Beau said, his voice pitched low. “The attacker was most likely a white man.”

Little spit again into the dirt.

Mullins eyed him. “What makes you think that?”

“The wounds are clean and sharp. He was stabbed repeatedly. Neither of them has blood on them, or a knife that I see. Even if they did, would they have a knife of that quality?”

“What about the scalping?”

Beau shrugged and twisted the hat in his hands, running his fingers along the brim. “I don’t know if any of these tribes scalped people, but if they did I expect they’d be better at it. Though the cut is sharp, it’s along the side of the head, and the edges of the flap are torn up. I’ve never seen anyone scalped, but in reading accounts of the process I believe they usually start at the front cut around all the edges peeling back the skin as they go. This looks like a single cut and then the scalp was torn upwards, suggesting the man was already dead or dying on the ground at the time.”

“Is that all?”

Beau shook his head. “No. The smashed whiskey bottle.” He pointed at the broken glass. “That was probably used first, striking the man to render him senseless. Then he was stabbed seven times, at least three of those near his heart. I expect he fell and in his death spasms, rolled into the gully. When he came to rest there, I expect his killer decided to try a hasty scalping, perhaps to take a trophy or to deflect suspicion on to the Indians.”

The sheriff was silent. The Indians watched them both. Beau had kept his voice low, they may not have heard everything that he was saying. Little had produced a flask from somewhere and was sipping at its contents.

“Whiskey.” The sheriff rubbed his jaw and pushed past Beau. He walked over to the broken glass and fished among the pieces for those with bits of the torn label. He spaced them out in his hand and showed them to the Indians.

“Do you know any white men who sell this whiskey?”

The elder said something to the younger man, who scowled but nodded. “We know him.”

“Then that’s the man I want to talk to.” Mullins looked down at the body. “You’ll take care of him?”

“Yes.” The elder’s voice was firm.

“What’s the man’s name?”

Expression and color drained from the younger man’s face. Only then did Beau hear the crack of the gunshot. A red spot bloomed in the front of the younger Indian’s chest. He sank to the ground, the elder kneeling with him, holding him.

Little held his rifle steady. He shook his head and spit into the dirt.

“I can’t have you going after my brother, sheriff. It’s nothing personal, just the way it is. Toss your piece onto the ground.”

Beau stood very still, and very aware of the sun shining on Little’s gun. “This the same brother you were meeting at the boarding house?”

The sheriff snapped a look at Beau, but said nothing.

Little grinned, showing his disgusting teeth. “That’s right. You’re a smart one, all right. Figured out pretty much what happened, except the part where that buck tried to stiff my brother what he owed him.”

“It’s against the law to sell whiskey to the Indians,” the sheriff said. “That’s why you were on the road. You weren’t down here spotting claims, you were selling to the Indians!”

Little laughed. “Me and my brother, we think any man has a right to drink, savages too. Not our problem if they can’t handle it. My brother said that one of ‘em had got away. He never does anything right. I was coming back to fix things up, when you came along. Figured I’d play along, for a time.”

It was in Little’s voice. He meant to kill them all. Beau hadn’t made it this far in life without running into men like him, who would kill to get what they wanted. His own father defended men like this. That was a part of the job Beau hadn’t cared for at all. It wasn’t the future he wanted. Until now he had thought that setting up the library, maybe even courting Emily Collins, was going to be his future.

“I couldn’t be sure what you’d do about it, just damn savages. Hell! Some men, they’d buy us a drink! But not you and this librarian. Toss the piece, sheriff.”

The humor had drained from Little’s voice. As soon as Mullins tossed the gun, it was obvious that Little was going to shoot him. Beau and the elder Indian would be next, but the elder was focused on his slain companion.

Beau’s hat was still in his hands. If he was going to die anyway? He flicked the bowler at Little and rolled forward. There was a shout, and the loud crack of the rifle but nothing hit him. He came out of the roll right in front of Little and lunged up to grab at the rifle.

Little cursed.

They struggled over the gun. Beau held on. He loved books, but crates of books were heavy. He wasn’t a weakling. He wrenched the rifle around and caught Little across the jaw with the stock.

Stunned, the man fell back a couple steps.

Beau stumbled, trying to catch his balance.

Little yanked a long knife from his belt. The wicked edge caught the light.

“Don’t do it!” Sheriff Mullins shouted. His pistol was out and pointed right at Little. “I’ll put you in the Earth, God help me. Drop the knife!”

Beau brought the rifle up to his shoulder and steadied it, aiming at Little’s chest. The dirty fabric was wet at Little’s arms from sweat. The man swore and tossed the knife into the dirt. He sagged.

Mullins kicked the knife back. The elder looked up at them all, watching.

Mullins said, “You got him?”

“Yes,” Beau answered, holding the rifle steady despite the pounding in his chest.

The sheriff approached Little, still with the pistol ready. “Show me your hands!”

Little extended his hands. “Hell, sheriff. It isn’t like they didn’t deserve it! That Indian, he tried to steal from us. My brother was justified.”

“Not in my book,” Mullins said as he fastened handcuffs on the man. “Now you’re both going before the judge on charges of murder as well as illegally selling whiskey to Indians.”

Cuffed the fight had gone out of Little. The sheriff bound his hands together with rope too, doubly making sure the man wouldn’t escape and tied the other end of the rope to his saddle.

“You’re going to make me walk?” Little protested.

The sheriff’s gaze was cold. “No problem for me if you want to be dragged.”

Beau lowered the rifle. His arms burned he passed it over to the sheriff.

“Thank you, Mr. Clayton. They were right about you, you’ve got a sharp mind for this kind of thing. I may call on you again.”

“I rather hope we don’t have more of this happening.”

Mullins shook his head. “If that was true, I’d be out of a job.”

“I guess so.”

The sheriff walked over to the elder Indian, who laid down his dead companion and rose, facing the sheriff.

“Do you need help with them? I can dispatch some men when I get back to town.”

“No.”

“He’ll get justice for this, and his brother.”

The Indian gazed past Mullins at Little. His gaze was as hard and hot as the sun pounding on Beau’s neck. Despite the heat, Beau shivered. That was a look that he never wanted directed at him.

Mullins tethered Little’s horse to Beau’s and then led the way down the mountain. Beau followed, leading the two horses, until they were back down on the valley floor. Then they switched, the sheriff tied Little’s horse to his own and made the man mount up, hands still bound.

“Try anything, and I’ll shoot you dead,” Mullins said.

“I don’t doubt it,” Little replied dryly.

So arranged, they rode back to Eureka Gulch.

🔍

The next morning Beau sat on his split log chair at the opening to his library tent feeling every ache in every muscle of his body. A cup of black tea and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds sat on the stump beside his chair. He was unaccustomed to so much riding. The library wasn’t much, yet, a tent building with a low wood frame and rough wooden shelves for his books. A small cot at the back provided him a place to sleep. His new sign, still oozing sap, hung from a post in front of the library.

“Library.” The sign’s letters rough and chiseled into the wood.

Around the library Eureka Gulch rang with the noises of humanity. Of horses and hammers, men laughing and a shrill giggle from the boarding house down the street. When he had purchased this spot it was near the outskirts of the new town, and already there were more buildings past the library as the town swept out like a wave.

Turning, he saw the slim form of Emily Collins making her way down the street in her practical gray dress. A few curls had escaped her hat, and she smiled warmly on her approach. In her hands, she held a book clasped tightly.

“Mr. Clayton, I’m relieved to see that you returned to us intact from apprehending that man.”

“I believe it was the sheriff that apprehended him.”

“That’s not what I hear from the sheriff.” Her lips curled in a wide smile. “Something about a hat, I believe?”

Beau’s neck burned. “I simply offered some observations, that led to conclusions. Little gave himself away in the cowardly murder of an unarmed man.”

“And the sheriff arrested his brother in the boarding house, I’m told. Apparently the man was so drunk that he didn’t realize what was happening until the sheriff had him in jail, absent the bloody clothes he had left on the floor.”

“I heard that as well. Good for the sheriff. About time Eureka Gulch had an effective lawman.”

“And about time that Eureka Gulch had an effective librarian.” Ms. Collins extended the book. “I finished this one, what do you recommend next?”

Beau took the book. “I have just the thing.”

And he did.

🔍

5,504 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 65th weekly short story release, written in June 2013. I meant to get it posted last week and couldn’t get to it. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Your Eyes.

Two for Death

Beau Clayton moved west to Eureka Gulch seeking to share knowledge rather than find gold. He planned to establish a public library in the booming mining town.

A mysterious death propels him into the role of his favorite detective fiction, to solve the mystery of the camp.

If you love westerns and books, check out Two for Death.

📚

Beau Clayton came to Eureka Gulch in early May, on the heels of the rumors of the south half of the Colville Indian reservation opening for mineral location. It wasn’t the gold and silver that drew Beau north from Spokane, riding with the pack train over the forty miles from Rossburg, but the men, women and children gathering at the camp. Mr. Gerlick, that ran the pack train, remarked on Beau’s many heavy bags of books as the horses were loaded.

“I am a librarian,” Beau explained. “I intend to create a public library for the camp.”

Mr. Gerlick laughed heartily. “Drink, cards and women are more sought by miners than books!”

“I have many practical books that may assist them in their efforts. Plus books for the women and children. When the library gets established I expect people will take notice.”

“Well, Mr. Clayton, do you know what miners and your books share in common?”

“What is that?”

“They both gather dust!” Laughing at his own joke, Mr. Gerlick left to attend the rest of the train.

Beau didn’t let such skepticism deter him. With the rich strikes being made on the northern half of the reservation, there was much interest in the camp. By all accounts the population was swelling by the day, and where there were people there was a need of a library. Even though the camp wasn’t more than two years old it already offered much in the way of civilized amenities.

Surely, once they saw the advantage of having even the tiny library, he could convince them to raise a tiny tax to fund the ongoing operation of the library. Including a modest salary for himself, as the librarian. He had already spent nearly everything he had saved from working at his father’s law firm to purchase the books necessary to start this venture.

As it turned out, Mr. Gerlick was more right than Beau had anticipated. On reaching the camp he used his dwindling sums to purchase a tent building at the far end of camp to use as the temporary library. The bottom frame was split logs, four high, with a canvas tent raised up over the top. It had formerly been used by an enterprising merchant who had sold out his stock to return to Boston. It came with shelves for the books, and a small cot in the rear for him. Beau was in the camp for three weeks before he came to the notice of much of anyone, and then not in the fashion he had anticipated.

On that day Beau was sitting in front of his tent on the hard pine chair that dug into his backside when he sat too long. The sky was a pretty picture of fluffy white clouds against the bright blue sky. He held in his hand a copy of H.G. Well’s latest book, The War of the Worlds, but he wasn’t reading. His attention was drawn to shouts approaching camp. As heads started turning, Beau stood up, placed the book down on his chair, and joined the curious in seeing what the commotion was all about.

Coming into camp up the wagon road were three men walking a thin sorrel horse. A fourth man lay across a blanket over the back of the horse. His hands and feet were lashed together, and tied underneath the horse to prevent him from slipping off. Clearly something had happened to the man. The three men leading the horse all had the dirty, rough look of men that prospected in the surrounding countryside. Perhaps a dig had fallen in on the man?

The leader of the three had a long swooping mustache and dark sunken eyes. He shouted out again. “It took ‘im! In the night, it came!”

By now a crowd of more than a couple dozen people had gathered. Many of them prospectors, some merchants and not a few children that happened to be near. Beau made his way to the front of the crowd as the men brought the horse to a stop.

The one with the mustache looked at the gathered crowd. “Get the marshal here! He’s dead, this one!”

The man hooked his thumb back at the man on the horse. “It was the demon horse that took him in the night!”

Demon horse? Uncertain murmuring passed through the crowd. Many of the more superstitious took a few steps back. Beau took a step closer to the man.

“I’m Beau Clayton, the librarian of the Eureka Public Library. What do you mean when you say a demon horse took him? Did he get trampled?”

The miner squinted at Beau. “Phil Raddnick’s my name. I meant what I said. The demon horse came and ripped out his soul!”

Beau heard a womanly cry behind him, but didn’t look for the source. “A demon horse? Did you see this phantom?”

“No, didn’t need to. Alex there —” Phil pointed at one of the men leading the horse. “— He saw it. Black as night, with a red mane and tail, as if they’d been dipped in blood. That’s right Alex?”

“Right ‘nough,” Alex said with the same agreeability of a cow chewing its cud.

“It came into our camp while we slept,” Phil said. “Struck the ground twice with its hoof, right outside Jimmy’s tent, and whinnied a cry that’d turn your piss to ice. Spooked our horses to break loose. Only just caught this one this morning. Too late for Jimmy. He was already dead, of course.”

“And you believe that this horse had something to do with his death?”

Phil shook his head. “You just have to look at him to see that. Michael, show ‘em!”

The third miner, a big red-headed fellow with a round face, grabbed the dead man’s head by its dark hair and lifted it up from the horse’s side.

Wide open eyes stared at the crowd with a sightless look of surprise or fear. At that more people in the crowd cried out and pulled back even farther. It looked to Beau as if the whole crowd might suddenly turn and run, but right then another man pushed through the crowd and came into the empty space around the miners.

This man was neat. His suit was as clean and black as a newly polished stove pipe. Beau felt self-conscious about the dust on his own clothes, almost like he could still hear Mr. Gerlick laughing. The man took a silver pocket-watch from his coat pocket and made a show of checking the time. Then he tucked it back away.

“Alright then, Phil. Who have you got there?”

“Jimmy Ryan. Died in the night from the demon horse, Marshal.”

Marshal? Beau looked at the neatly dressed man. If he was the marshal, that’d make him Mr. George Baisley. Beau had heard the name around camp, but hadn’t met the man yet. Rather than wait, Beau crossed the distance between them, well aware of the many people watching.

“Marshal Baisley? Beau Clayton. I’m the librarian setting up the public library.”

Marshal Baisley looked down his long nose at Beau. “Yes, the librarian. Been meaning to stop by, but this matter is hardly has anything to do with your books. Or the law for that matter.”

The marshal gestured at Phil. “Take him on up to the doctor’s tent, turn him over to there. The doc’ll issue the notice and see that he gets planted in the common lot.”

From the crowd a man called out. “What about the demon horse, Marshal? What’re you going to do about that beast?”

Marshal Baisley turned and fixed the man with a steely gray-blue gaze. “I’m not doing anything about a whiskey dream. The man died of heart-failure, that’s all. Why don’t you all clear on out?”

The marshal’s words had the desired effect and the crowd started drifting away back to other interests. Phil and the other men with him clucked the horse into motion and continued on into the camp.

Beau hurried to the marshal’s side before the man went more than a couple strides. “Marshal, if I may, I no more believe in demon horses than you, but don’t you want to keep this investigation open? The man may have died of unnatural, but entirely man-made causes.”

Baisley gave Beau that same hard look he’d given the other man, but Beau was close enough that he could see the skin under Baisley’s left eye twitching. It gave the marshal an unsteady look that made Beau nervous.

“And if the doctor says something like that, then I’ll listen. But who’d want to kill some broke spotter like Jimmy? And if they did it’d probably be in a brawl or a shoot-out. He wouldn’t be dead with his face all twisted up like that.”

The marshal had a point there, but Beau still wasn’t convinced that the man died of natural causes. Or unnatural. But he knew that the man hadn’t died of supernatural agency. He’d have to go on up to the doctor’s tent himself and see what the man said.

He turned around and nearly collided with a woman that had come up unnoticed behind him. Beau caught himself in time and stepped back, lifting his hat.

“Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“It’s my fault,” she said. She had a pleasant, sweet voice that matched the rest of her. By her modest dress he assumed she was the wife of one of the merchants setting up in town. She was young, with a simple hat over dark hair. She held out a hand. “Ms. Emily Collins. You’re a librarian, mister?”

Beau took her hand, gently. “Yes, Ms. Collins. Beauregard Clayton.” He released her hand to gesture at the modest tent up the row of tent buildings. He didn’t even have a sign yet. “I came to set up a public library.”

“A public library!” Ms. Collins pressed her hands together. “That’s marvelous. There are many in the camp that are working to establish a proper school, but a library would be most welcome.”

“Would you like to see?”

“Oh, may I?”

“Of course,” Beau said. “Allow me to show you.”

They walked together to the tent. Ms. Collins stopped at the chair in the tent opening and picked up the book that he had left on the seat.

“War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells! I’ve heard of this, but I haven’t seen a copy. I understand it was serialized last year?”

“Yes,” Beau said. “It is a fantastical tale, but so is this story of a demon horse causing the death of that poor miner.”

“It does seem an unlikely story, but the way he looked!” Ms. Collins shook her head. “Whatever the cause, it did not look like he went to his Maker peacefully.”

“Our marshal seems uninterested in investigating the matter,” Beau said. “He seems convinced that it was heart failure that took the man.”

“And you disagree?”

Beau shook his head. “I don’t have the medical background to make that determination. I had thought to inquire with the doctor, and hear his conclusion.”

“If you want a conclusion drawn from the bottom of a whiskey bottle, you’ll be in luck,” Ms. Collins said. She touched the edge of the canvas opening. “May I?”

“Of course. Let me help with that.” Beau went around her and quickly rolled up and tied the canvas flap.

As Ms. Collins went on into the tent, her shoes tapping gently against the rough wood floor, he tied up the other side. Inside the tent he had four shelves along the walls, and a small table at the back with his second chair. A selection of books he felt would appeal to the camp residents were on the shelves, while his other volumes were still stacked and bound in their protective bags near the back, beside the table.

Ms. Collins went along the shelves, the fingers of her right hand hovering just above the book spines.

“You can touch them, take them down and look at them if you like,” Beau said.

“You don’t mind?”

“Not at all, that is the point of a public library. Of course I hope that it grows much more than this small sample. I brought these as a demonstration, but I hope that the good folks here will see fit to expand the library.”

“It is an excellent idea,” Ms. Collins said, as she continued the circuit of the small collection. “You have many wonderful books. A sign out front might help encourage people to venture inside.”

“I agree. A man has promised me a sign the day after tomorrow.”

“Wonderful!” Ms. Collins returned to the front of the tent. She looked down at the H.G. Wells book still in her hand, then slowly held it out. “Here is your book, thank you for showing me the library. I shall certainly return.”

Beau refused to take the novel. Instead he picked up his ledger from a crate near the entrance. “Please, take it with you. Just put your mark in the ledger.”

“You were reading it!”

“And the books are here for anyone to borrow and read. I have plenty to keep my mind occupied.” He smiled. “And besides, it will give you an excuse to return.”

Beau laid out the ledger on the crate, and uncapped the inkwell. “Do say yes.”

“Very well,” Ms. Collins said. She took the offered pen and wrote her name quite beautifully in the ledger. “What about these other columns?”

“Don’t worry about those,” Beau said, taking back the pen. “I will complete that portion.”

Ms. Collins took a step outside, the H.G. Wells held firmly in her hands. “Thank you. I shall enjoy reading what Mr. Wells has written.”

“Very good,” Beau said. “You can tell me all about it.”

“And you can tell me what you learn from the doctor,” Ms. Collins said. “Good day, Mr. Clayton.”

Beau remained standing at the front of the library until she walked some distance down the wide wagon road between the rough buildings. In the older section of town there were real wood structures now, rather than the tent structures hastily thrown up as the town grew.

It was nice to meet someone like Ms. Collins that might support the library. He looked forward to getting to know her better, and couldn’t help wonder whether or not she had anyone special in her life. He returned to the tent and completed the ledger entry with the title and author of the book, and the date. He left the column for the due date empty, having no need to establish due dates at this point.

He capped the ink, put everything away and thought then that he would seek out the doctor. The fanciful story intrigued him, and he wondered if the doctor would have anything to say about the matter. Or if Ms. Collins’ remark on the doctor was accurate.

📚

After some searching, Beau found the doctor’s small building, not in the front row of structures facing the wagon road, but on one of the smaller lanes around the back. It was a nice square house, well-built, with a small sign on the wall beside the door. There wasn’t anyone about when Beau went up to the door and knocked.

The man that answered was graying at the temples, with a short black mustache and bleary red eyes. He wasn’t wearing a coat, his shirt sleeves were rolled up and there was an alcohol smell around him like a cloud. But he smiled kindly and when he spoke he sounded alert enough.

“You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve been involved with an examination. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting, Mister?”

“Mr. Beau Clayton,” Beau said, offering his hand.

They shook. The doctor’s grip was cool but strong, not unlike having a nest of snakes wrapping around his fingers. “Doctor Eugene Collins, a pleasure to meet you.”

Beau carefully kept his face steady, but was relieved when the doctor let go.

“I’m the librarian,” Beau said. “I was there when they brought in Mr. Ryan with that outlandish story.”

Then what the doctor had said sunk in. “Collins? Are you related to Ms. Emily Collins?”

Dr. Collins beamed. “Why yes, she’s my daughter.”

Dr. Collins’ laughter showed just how unsuccessful Beau had been in keeping his surprise off his face. He shook his head ruefully. “You’ll have to forgive me, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Forget about it, Mr. Clayton. Clearly she didn’t tell you. How is it you know my daughter?”

Beau shook his head. “We only just met, when they brought in Mr. Ryan.”

“Yes, the dead man. That’s what you came about? Not Emily, I take it, if you only just met her?”

“Right,” Beau agreed quickly. “Marshal Baisley said he thought that the man died of heart failure, the men that brought in the body claimed it was due to some sort of spirit. I wondered what you found?”

Dr. Collins nodded and stroked his chin with his hand. “Well, there’s no signs of violence on the body. No unusual marks. No signs of infections. Nothing really to say one way or the other. It is possible, of course, that both explanations are correct.”

“Excuse me? Surely you’re not suggesting that a demon horse killed the man?”

“No, not exactly. But suppose the man was superstitious? Could not someone, aware of his character, created the appearance of a demon horse to terrify the man?”

It was a reasonable explanation. “You’re suggesting a prank?”

Dr. Collins shrugged. “Speculating, nothing more. By its very nature, such an event would have left no evidence on the body.”

A wagon came down the narrow lane, rattling beneath a heavy load under canvas. Beau moved closer to the building, which unfortunately put him closer to the alcohol cloud clinging to the doctor. After the wagon passed Beau took several steps out into the lane, glad to breath fresher air.

“Thank you doctor, you’ve been helpful. I guess the question now would have to go more to motive. What reason would someone have to scare Mr. Ryan?”

“That’s making the assumption that such a prank even occurred,” Dr. Collins said.

“Yes, but why else would the men that brought in the body tell such a story? Why not just say that they found him dead in the morning? I need to talk to them.”

“Good luck to you then, Mr. Clayton. I believe that they were looking to drown their grief in drink after they deposited their friend here.”

“Thank you again, Dr. Collins. Good day.”

“Good day to you.”

📚

Tracking down the three men in the camp was going to take some time, but Beau was hooked the way he got hooked on finding an answer in his books. A librarian had an obligation to find the full answer to a question and in this case he felt as if the dead man had asked the question. If the marshal wasn’t going to pursue it, Beau felt someone ought to.

The old familiar hunger to seek out the answer gnawed at him.

Walking through camp Beau was reminded of his studies of history and nomadic peoples. Eureka Gulch was like a nomad camp. The impression heightened by the number of structures that were low walls topped with tents like his own library. In the core section of the camp were solid structures like the Stack Mercantile and the Deaver Hotel and many others, but the farther out you got the less permanent the camp seemed. Even those buildings were less than two years old. It gave the whole place an atmosphere of unreality, a fever dream brought about by the gold hidden beneath the rolling green hills and forests.

Over all of it drink commanded a noticeable presence with not less than twenty drinking establishments, saloons and gambling operations in the camp. Beau hadn’t counted them all, but they had sprouted everywhere in the rich soil of the mining camp. The numbers of drinkers swollen lately by the rumors regarding the opening of the southern half for mineral location.

If the men that brought in Mr. Ryan had gone drinking, he had no recourse to finding them but to walk the street and check in each establishment. He didn’t know their full names, but no doubt they would be retelling the story of how their friend had died. That might help direct his search.

Turning on the main wagon road through the camp Beau approached the first men he saw, both in well-worn clothes suggesting time spent living rough.

“Excuse me, gentlemen. I’m looking for the men that brought in the body earlier?”

Both stared at him with blank, dull-witted looks. Beau smiled and shook his head. “Never mind. Good day.”

One thing was abundantly clear as he walked the street—the Prohibition Party hadn’t reached Eureka Gulch. Beau hadn’t spent any time in the drinking establishments since reaching the camp and didn’t plan to do so. He wasn’t a drinking man. Not that he was an active member of the Prohibition Party, but there was no denying that drink had contributed its shares to the misery of many. He sympathized with their aims, but the notion put forward for government to prohibit drinking left him unsettled.

In his own situation he saw no need of spirits. He preferred to keep his wits about him and the drunken antics he had witnessed over the years did little to stir any interest in him to sample such drinks.

In the first few places he checked, the bartenders didn’t know the men, and said that they would. They kept bottles for each of the men that came in, and kept them all straight.

The fourth place that he entered was not much more than a small cabin. A sign above the door said the name of the place was the Jolly Pig. The interior was lit with dim lanterns and hazy with fumes from tobacco and drink. The men sitting at the few tables and the bar were quiet for the most part, weary from the look of them. The man behind the bar was rangy with a bushy beard and deep eyes like two newly dug mine shifts.

A few bleary gazes met Beau’s as he stepped inside. He cleared his throat. “I’m looking for the men that brought in the body earlier. One was called Phil Raddnick. The other two men with him were Alex and Michael.”

“Ain’t seen ‘em,” the bartender said. “Bastards. I hear they’re keeping their cups over at the Sour Bottle now, up across the street, these days.”

“But they had been coming here?”

“Yep, and you see ‘em, you tell ‘em they still owe me. If they can afford the prices over there, they can afford to settle up!”

“I see, thank you. Good day.”

Beau stepped back outside, welcoming the fresher air. From across the road came the sound of hammering as men worked on raising a new frame structure. Already the town sported several two story frame buildings that towered over their neighbors, but construction never stopped. In contrast to those drinking inside, stepping back out into the light was to return to a bustling growing town.

After waiting for a wagon filled with crates and barrels to pass, Beau picked his way across the street to the other side and started walking along the establishments looking for the Sour Bottle.

Finding it took some searching, but he did find it between a druggist’s and a lawyer’s office. The building was so new that the timbers used still smelled fresh cut. Unlike the first place he had stopped, the Sour Bottle had large glass windows in the front. On the whole it appeared a finer class of establishment.

Stepping inside, Beau saw that it was in fact a nicer place than the last. The bar positively gleamed from fresh polish. The bottles in the rack behind the bar sparkled. And over the smell of tobacco and alcohol there was also the smell of fresh baked bread, and hot meat. And it was crowded. Most of the tables and the seats at the bar were full.

Many of the men were dressed better than digging clothes, but not all. Some had the rough look of living in the wilderness. In the past few weeks in camp he had heard stories of how it was for such men. They lived in bare lean-tos, meager respite from the weather. They spent long days with steel drills strapped to their wrist, hammer in hand, pounding out a few holes that they could pack with powder and blast. Then came the hauling from their small digs with buckets. It was dirty, dangerous work but had the potential to make a man rich if they struck a strong vein like the Republic mine. For such men a trip to town meant a respite, a meal that wasn’t cooked in the same pan as the last, a drink and perhaps time spent at the female boarding house.

It only took Beau a moment to see the men he sought, holding court at a table near the piano at the back of the large room. That was also the source of conversation that carried across the room.

Phil Raddnick sat at the head of the conversation, an empty plate and several empty glasses keeping company with the glass in his hand. His companions sat on either side, and arrayed around the two tables was a collection of other gentlemen. Phil was speaking as Beau walked up to the table, wondering how he might join the cluster of men.

“I think,” Phil paused to take a long drink. “I think that it must be the Indians!”

Several of the men nodded, there were murmurs of encouragement from Alex and Michael.

“Indians, sure,” Michael said.

“Yes, sirs. You think about it! They worked some of their magic and summoned up the demon horse! Must’ve thought it’d drive us off!”

“That’s it,” Alex added. “On the head. They don’t want the south half opening.”

Phil’s eyes narrowed. “I was about to say that!’

“Sorry,” Alex said placidly.

“Right.” Phil eyed his glass, then took another long drink. “Right. They don’t want the south half opening. They mean to keep the gold themselves.”

Beau spoke up. “Are you seriously suggesting some sort of black magic summoned up a spirit horse to kill your friend?”

Phil blinked and leaned forward. “You’re that librarian, right?”

“Right, Mr. Raddnick. My name’s Beau Clayton. With all that science has discovered in the past century, surely reasonable, rational men cannot put much stock in such primitive superstitions!”

“Then what do you think happened to Jimmy?” Alex asked sharply. The looked of bovine contentment was gone from his broad face. Beau noted the red flush working up Alex’s neck.

“Simply that the agency of your friend’s death had more to do with earthly causes than those from the beyond.”

His words were having an effect. Beau saw nods of agreement from several of the gentlemen around the circle. One man in a fine black suit, with a long mustache stood up and turned to offer Beau his hand.

“Philip Creasor. I heard we had a librarian in town.”

“Beau Clayton.” They shook. He’d heard of Philip Creasor. Who in camp hadn’t? He owned the best hotel, a lucrative share in several mines and many other business interests. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. I had hoped we would get a chance sometime to discuss the public library.”

“I look forward to it,” Mr. Creasor said. “But right now I am expecting a telephone call at the hotel. You knew that the telephone lines finally reached our distant corner of the world?”

“Yes, sir. I had heard that.” At the end of the table Beau could see Mr. Raddnick drinking quickly, while his friend Alex whispered something to him.

“Before I go I just wanted to say that I think you are right on target, Mr. Clayton. I will have a word with Mr. Baisley. There may be more to investigate in Mr. Ryan’s death.”

“Thank you, sir,” Beau said. “Good day.”

“Good day.” Mr. Creasor nodded at the crowd gathered, and carrying his hat, left.

Tables scraped against the wood floor. It was Mr. Raddnick and his companions rising. Phil put down his empty glass. “I think we’ll get on out too.”

Phil pointed a finger at Beau. “But mark my words, this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the demon horse! When you hear his hooves strike twice, know you’ve been marked for death!”

It sounded like a threat. Beau felt chilled at the thought, but before he could respond the three men left together, stomping out of the establishment. The gathering started breaking up as the other men returned to their own business.

Still feeling out of sorts from what may, or may not, have been a threat, Beau went to the bar. The man behind the bar looked young, in his twenties, maybe, with a bright smile as Beau reached the bar.

“Can I get you something? We’ve got the best selection in town.”

“A glass of water, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.” Beau held out his hand. “Beau Clayton.”

“Mike Swinger.” They shook. Mike poured water from a pitcher and put it on the polished bar in front of Beau. “You’re that librarian fellow, aren’t you?”

Beau settled onto one of the stools. He took a sip. The water was cool, with a strong mineral taste. “That’s right. I’m trying to get a public library up and running here in camp.”

“Don’t know that a lot of people around here have much time to read.”

Beau shook his head. “There’s always time to read. And some of the books I’ve got will help people save time, with innovative new methods of farming, working the land or maintaining a home. Or running a bar.”

Mike laughed, picked up a glass and started wiping it dry. “I don’t run the place, just work the bar for Mr. Wellington. He’s the owner. He’s got places like this all over.”

“But you’re in here most of the time?”

“Yeah, you could say that. Mr. Wellington, he doesn’t let us close the place. He’s got a couple other guys, we rotate, you know?”

“Those gentlemen that were in here, Phil Raddnick and his friends. They come in often?”

Mike shook his head. “Nope, not until last week. Couldn’t afford too, but that’s the beauty of a place like this. A man can get a rich strike and turn things around. Almost makes me tempted to go out and try my hand at it when the south half opens.”

“Are you going to do that?”

Mike laughed and shook his head. “Naw. Me, in a tunnel like that? I don’t think I could. I don’t care much for closed in places.”

“It wouldn’t be my first choice either,” Beau said. “What about the man that died, Mr. Ryan? He come in here with the others?”

“Sure, once. Last week, but if he came in again it wasn’t on my shift.”

“Any signs of disagreement between them?” Beau sipped his water. He felt steadier just talking to someone.

Mike shook his head. “Nope, they all seemed in good spirits. Mr. Clayton, if you don’t mind, what does this have to do with the library?”

“Nothing. It was just the story they told, of the demon horse. It interested me.”

“It’s true,” Mike said. “I’ve heard people talk of it. They say it’s death himself, riding herd on the souls of the dead.”

“Do you really believe that?”

Mike shrugged. “I might, I just hope I never find out.”

Beau thanked the bartender and left feeling dissatisfied. No one seemed to want to question the implausible story told by the miners. True, Mr. Creasor said he’d talk to the marshal and he obviously had influence in the community.

Out in the open air he was struck by the energy of the camp. So much enthusiasm. Hammers still rang. Men shouted and there was a constant sense of excitement in the air. Beau touched his hat to two well-dressed women walking past and went on back up to the library. When he arrived he could see at a glance that nothing had been disturbed. He had very little, other than the books, and those didn’t appear to be of much interest to the inhabitants. At least not yet.

Beau sat down in his chair, hoping he wouldn’t get a splinter and considered the matter. What more could he do? The facts were few. Switching bars, it sounded like the men had come into more money. Could there could have been some sort of falling out between them? One that resulted in Mr. Ryan’s death? And if the men had somehow scared Mr. Ryan to death, it still didn’t explain why they would tell everyone the story. They had to know how it would sound! Why not say nothing? With no evidence to the contrary there wouldn’t have been any interest in investigating.

Instead Mr. Raddnick and his friends were still going on about the demon horse, as if they really believed it.

Beau rose from the chair, pinching his lower lip. What if they did? What if it wasn’t just about the dead man, but all the men? He felt a mounting excitement, just like when he discovered a rare book in a collection. He’d been approaching this from one end, but what if the answer had to do with all of the men?

He needed to talk to the marshal. Mr. Baisley hadn’t put much stock in the story either, but he might be prepared to do more with a stronger theory.

📚

“Preposterous!” Mr. Baisley thundered after Beau had tracked him down and explained his theory that someone was using the stories of the demon horse to scare all the men.

They were in Mr. Baisley’s offices, a narrow frame-built building in the new town. At the back was a small, simple cell. The rest of the room had a desk, a gun rack and not much else, except nice glass windows on either side of the door at the front with Mr. Baisley’s name and Town Marshal painted on the glass in gilt lettering.

“The bartender at the Jolly Pig said that they must have come into money,” Beau said. “Mike over at the Sour Bottle confirmed that they’ve only been coming in there recently.”

“So what?” Mr. Baisley thumped his desk. “A man’s got a right to change where he drinks, doesn’t he? At least right now, so long as those Prohibitionist types don’t get their way.”

“I’m not arguing that, sir. I’m just suggesting that, if they did find a potential rich claim, that someone might be trying to scare them off. And if that’s the case, what’s to stop them from trying again?”

Mr. Baisley shook his head. “Claim jumping? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Yes. If those men believe the story, it might work too. And if they up and abandon the claim, what then?”

“If they don’t update the notices then they forfeit the claim. But if it’s in the south half they can’t legally have a claim anyway.”

“But they might have spotted it?”

“Sure.”

“And the money? If they took a sample to an assessor?”

“Yes, they might’ve gotten something for it.”

“Then that’s what we have to do,” Beau said. “We talk to the assessors.”

Mr. Baisley shook his head. “Won’t work. They won’t have any records until an official claim is found. Before then anything they saw could have come from anywhere.”

“We have to find those men. If someone is trying to scare them off they might take more drastic measures if it doesn’t work.”

“Maybe you ought to go back to reading your books, rather than trying to do my job.” Mr. Baisley took out his silver pocket watch and checked the time. “I think I’ve given you plenty of time, sir.”

“Has Mr. Creasor spoken to you?”

Mr. Baisley pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and rubbed at the watch. “Mr. Creasor isn’t in charge of the camp, whatever he thinks. I decide what to investigate. Not him. Or librarians that just arrived in camp.”

Beau was disgusted. “So you’re not going to do anything?”

Mr. Baisley tucked away the watch. “I told you earlier, when they brought in that poor man. If the doctor found anything I’d look into the matter. He didn’t. It’s closed. Heart-failure, just like I said.”

That was what the marshal had said, with barely a cursory glance at the body. And what had he called Mr. Ryan? A broke spotter? Beau didn’t like where the train of thought was taking him. He cleared his throat.

“I guess there’s nothing I can do to convince you?”

“I can’t investigate a crime when one didn’t happen.” Mr. Baisley smiled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me? I have other work that demands my attention.”

“Of course.” Beau touched his hat. “I’ll let myself out. Thank you for your time, Marshal.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Beau felt only slightly better when he got outside. How long was it going to be before the demon horse came calling at the library? He had no evidence, but he was convinced that Mr. Baisley was involved in the death of Mr. Ryan. It was the only thing that explained his reluctance to investigate what was going on.

But how was the marshal involved? That was the question.

And to answer the question Beau needed to flush out those involved. Well, gossip spread as fast as fire in a camp like this. A few words dropped in the watering holes would probably do the trick.

Beau straightened his coat. Today he’d have to set aside his distaste for drinking. He didn’t have to go far at all before he found the first watering hole, a place called the Firewater.

By the time he reached the fourth establishment his head was feeling as if he’d stuffed it full of bees. Beau chuckled at the thought. If that was the case he’d soon have honey dripping out of his ears. If any bears wandered into camp they might mistake his head for a hive!

Beau laughed at the idea. A couple along the street threw distrustful gazes his in direction, the man glowering over a sweeping mustache. Beau straightened up his walk.

He lurched into their path. “Do you happen to have a library card?”

“No,” the man said, his voice gruff and deep. “Move on, now. Go sleep it off, man.”

Beau shook his head. “Can’t do it. Got to get the evidence and take it to the judge. They’ve got to know what’s going on!”

The man started to reply, but his wife pulled on his arm. With a snort the man let his wife lead him away.

Beau rubbed his eyes. His head was spinning. He laughed.

Where was he going? Right, back to the library. To sleep it off, as that gentleman had suggested. Sleep it off and see if his words spooked anyone.

📚

It took some doing to get back to the library, helped by the wide main road through the camp to edges. Beau stumbled into the library tent and there was a squeak of surprise.

He blinked, and focused on Miss Emily Collins. Delicate eyebrows rose as she took in his condition.

“You’re drunk, Mr. Clayton.”

Beau dropped onto a stack of books and teetered there. “Yes. The first time, if you can believe it. I don’t normally drink.”

“I see.” Miss Collins took two steps closer to the tent flap. “Perhaps I should come back another time, when you’re more sober.”

Beau shook his head, which was a mistake. He groaned and grabbed his skull as the world spun. Why did people insist on doing this? It was baffling.

He heard more footsteps on the wood. Right! Miss Collins! Beau looked up and saw she was nearly at the opening of the tent.

“Wait!”

She stopped and looked back, her lips pressed to a thin line.

“Please, Miss Collins. I hate to think how I have fallen in your eyes. I tell you the truth.” His stomach churned and he groaned. He placed his hand on his stomach. “I don’t drink. I only did to draw out the ones behind the death of that man.”

Miss Collins turned around fully. “How does getting drunk reveal those responsible?”

“I might have made up a story about evidence. The guilty party, suspecting that I’m drunk, will try to recover what they think I have. Then we’ll know the culprits!”

“And if they decide to get rid of you?”

“They wouldn’t,” Beau said. “Not if they have any sense!”

“Assuming you are correct, I think their willingness to kill a man has already been demonstrated.”

Beau opened his mouth to argue, but nothing came out. What she said made sense, but there had to be a flaw with it somewhere. If he could just find it…

“Mr. Clayton?”

“Yes?”

“I should think you would have thought this plan through.”

“I thought I had. The marshal’s involved, I believe. Or he knows something. I’m not sure.”

Miss Collins shook her head. “I should get you out of here, take you to my father. He’ll know what to do.”

“No, my dear.” Beau tried to stand but things starting spinning around again. “I need to be here. Or they won’t come. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

“You won’t be fine. Not by yourself. I’m going to go get help.”

“No! If you do, they’ll know.”

Miss Collins walked around the table piled with books at the center of the tent and stood quite near. She looked rather fetching, even in her plain dress.

“I will be discreet and quick. Be careful. And if you feel the need to be sick, do not throw up on the books!”

“Excellent point,” Beau said. Then the thought of it did make him sick and he closed his eyes, groaning and clutching his stomach.

Why had he drank quite so much? And why did people subject themselves to this horrible sensation? His sympathies for the Prohibition Party were growing by the moment.

“I think that you’d better —” Beau broke off, realizing he was alone. Miss Collins had left.

That was for the best. If there was trouble, he didn’t want her in the way.

Carefully he stood up only long enough to pull his cot from beneath the table, just enough to roll onto the stiff canvas. He lay on his side and tipped his hat down over his eyes. Let the demon horse come along with anyone else. Just so long as this feeling passed!

The world kept trying to spin him off, but Beau closed his eyes and clung to the cot. It was his raft in the tempest.

📚

Two sharp cracks like shots woke him in darkness. Beau blinked, and gradually saw a dim red light filtering through the heavy canvas of the tent. He had fallen asleep!

A shrill whinny rose and fell outside! The demon horse! Beau stood up quickly and in the dark crossed to the opening of the tent. He yanked the flap aside.

A big black stallion stood in the night outside. Firelight from a lantern sitting outside the tent caught the red in its mane. The stallion snorted and reared in front of him, black hooves striking out!

Beau stepped back out of range as the horse came down with a hard thud.

“Shhh.” Miss Collins rose from the chair at the front of the library. She laid a book down on the chair.

Beau realized she had been sitting out there, no doubt watching over him, with the lantern beside her to read.

“Shhh,” Miss Collins said. She reached her hand to the horse. “It’s okay. Would you like a sugar cube?”

Her gloved hand disappeared for a moment into her small bag and came back out with a sugar cube on her palm. She held it out. “Here you go, that’s a good boy.”

The stallion snorted and took a step closer. Its big nose sniffed the air. Beau didn’t dare move. Demon horse it wasn’t, but if it kicked Miss Collins it could still strike her dead.

Beau’s head started to hurt. He ignored the pain.

With a snort the stallion came close enough to tease off the sugar cube with its fat lips. Miss Collins reached up and stroked the big head. It snorted, but held still, then nuzzled her hand.

She laughed, a clear, joyful sound. “Oh, you greedy horse. You want more don’t you?”

A loud shout in the night brought the stallion’s head up sharply. Miss Collins put her hand on the bridge of his nose. “No, calm down. It’s okay.”

“Got ‘im!” A man shouted. Other voices answered.

Beau peered out into the dark, wondering what was happening. He didn’t have long to wait for answers. Marshal Baisley appeared in the dark shoving Alex forward. Mr. Creasor and several other tough-looking men were with him, all focused on Alex.

Miss Collins patted the stallion’s neck and fed it another sugar cube. It seemed sufficiently occupied with her that Beau eased out.

“What happened?”

“It worked as you planned, Mr. Clayton,” Miss Collins said, loud enough to be heard by the approaching men. “He tried to send the horse to scare you and revealed himself in the process.”

The men came close, holding Alex tight and several had guns pointed in his direction. The spotter looked glummer than ever. Marshal Baisley looked at Beau.

“How’d you know that there really was a horse?”

Beau gestured back to the tent. “I read a great deal, Marshal. You might enjoy reading something by Arthur Conan Doyle, he writes about a detective you might like.”

“Right now I’d just like to know what’s going on here?”

Mr. Creasor spoke up. “I think our librarian can explain easily enough.”

“I don’t think that he meant for Mr. Ryan’s death,” Beau said. “But their insistence on the story didn’t make sense. Why tell people about the demon horse? It occurred to me that someone wanted to gain by scaring spotters away from a find.”

“So he trained the horse to do it,” Marshal Baisley said.

“I didn’t do nuthin’!” Alex glared at them all. “I ain’t ever seen that horse before.”

“You were seen leading it into town,” Mr. Creasor said. “Your denials are pointless. We caught you red-handed.”

“In a literal sense,” Miss Collins said.

“Excuse me?” Mr. Creasor said.

Miss Collins held up her glove. Beau saw dark reddish smudges on the fabric.

“He painted the horse’s mane red. I doubt he avoided getting paint on him too.”

Beau eased around the horse until he stood facing the man. Alex was looking down, but he seemed calm. Too calm for a man facing possible murder charges. It only made sense if he thought he would get away with this, but why would he think that?

“Who’re you working with?”

Alex’s head snapped up. Even in the dim light Beau could see the flush rising on the man’s neck.

“I ain’t working with anyone!”

“No? Marshal, what do you have to say? What was the deal he made with you?”

Marshal Baisley’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t want to investigate. You kept trying to get me to stop questioning what happened to that man.”

“He weren’t supposed to die,” Alex said. “Just get scared a bit.”

“And the other two? Where are they?”

“They took off,” Alex said. “Got spooked by the horse and left. That’s the truth, they was fine the last I saw them.”

Marshal Baisley turned to look at Mr. Creasor. “I didn’t have anything to do with this, that’s the truth.”

Beau looked at Alex. “Is that the truth, Alex? It sounds to me like the Marshal won’t be able to help you out of this. You’re going to go down for this by yourself.”

“He said he’d look the other way for a cut if—”

Marshal Baisley cuffed Alex across the back of the head. “Stop lying!”

Alex swore and ducked away but raised his hands in the air. “I swear! It’s the truth! He knew about our spot. Said if I could scare off the others, we’d get a bigger cut. He was paying us to spot locations before the south half opened.”

“I think we’d better talk, Mr. Baisley,” Mr. Creasor said. “Gentlemen, let’s take this down to the marshal’s office. Mr. Clayton, Miss Collins, thank you for your assistance.”

“Of course,” Beau said.

At gunpoint the two men were led off into the camp. Miss Collins patted the stallion’s neck. “I’ll take him down to the livery. They can keep him there.”

Beau eyed the big stallion. “That sounds like a good idea. I’ll walk with you.”

“Thank you, sir. That’s very kind.”

“Not at all, you saved the day. You must have gone to talk to Mr. Creasor, to tell him what I’d done?”

Miss Collins smiled. “Well, you were too drunk to have thought it entirely through. I’m not sure how you expected to apprehend the guilty party all on your own.”

Beau shook his head and regretted it immediately. A throbbing headache was building in his temples. He rubbed the side of his head. “Yes, that’s a very good point. You saved the day.”

Miss Collins laughed. She patted the stallion’s neck and clucking her tongue, convinced the horse to turn and walk beside her. It seemed quite besotted with her.

That, was something that Beau understood all too well.

 

📚
8,338 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 50th weekly short story release, written in August 2012. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Alien Conspiracy Theory.