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?”
“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.
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…
“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.
“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.
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.