Authors: Ron Franscell
THE DEADLINE published by:
1153 Bergen Pkwy Ste I #114
Evergreen, Colorado 80439
Copyright 1999, 2014 by Ron Franscell
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.
WILDBLUE PRESS is registered at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices.
978-1-942266-01-3 Trade Paperback ISBN
978-1-942266-02-0 eBook ISBN
Book Interior and Book Cover Design by Elijah Toten
“This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow —
First chill — then Stupor — then the letting go --”
“In the earnest struggle
to influence men’s minds ...
you must alienate some.”
n the sunlight, the child’s blood was brilliant red and smelled like wet, musty earth. His frightened hands were sticky with it.
He wished for her to wake up, nearly spoke it out loud, but she was pale and dead. He was sure of it, even before he brushed a fly from her lifeless lips with his bloody finger.
A nervous sweat prickled on his back. Her tiny body was heavier than before. She was only nine years old, with only ten feet between the car and the abyss, but he could barely lift her out of the back seat.
His rapid breathing suddenly stopped.
His heart thundered inside his chest, choking him. He froze.
A plume of dust rose from the road, two or three miles back. The dry air scratched his unblinking eyes as he watched the dust curl toward heaven, then disappear.
A dust devil.
He wasted no more time. He wormed his arms beneath her body, clutching her to his aching chest. As staggered away from the car, he felt her blood seeping into his shirt. He draped her over the railing like a rag doll on a fence wire while he caught his breath.
For a moment, death seemed a soothing thought. He never wanted to hurt her. He looked down into the dizzying canyon and the railing dissolved under him. In his mind, he plummeted through his shame, toward the water. She would open her eyes and go for help, and the whole awful mess would be finished.
Tears streamed down his face. He stood in a puddle of his own piss.
And before he let her corpse drop, he looked over the edge to make sure she would hit the water, not hang up on a canyon outcrop or a steel rod. The only sounds he heard were the prairie winds whistling across the gaping maw of the gorge and the thundering brown water far below. It boiled and growled, waiting to be fed.
The solitary witness was a red-tailed hawk that drifted in wide circles in the cloud-shredded blue sky over the gorge. He spotted it only because he’d looked up when he let her body slip over the railing; he couldn’t watch her fall, so he looked at the sky.
The bird’s presence unnerved him. He filled his mind with crazy thoughts so he wouldn’t hear her splash. For a moment, he even imagined she had transformed into the hawk, that her soul had taken wing as she plunged toward the water. But he knew better. It was just a carrion-eater in search of dead flesh to eat.
By the time he finished vomiting in the road, she had been swallowed by the river and was being slowly digested in its icy bowels.
A drunken fisherman named Pick Sandefur found her bloated body wedged between some jagged rocks in the Black Thunder River. He smelled putrefying flesh long before he stumbled upon it. Water-logged flesh floated in the backwash like a fringe of pale lace around her fish-belly white corpse.
Sandefur scrambled out of the canyon and floored his pickup over twelve miles of bad road back to Winchester, mumbling to himself all the way. He was still so shaken when he arrived, he bounced his truck onto the courthouse lawn and left it to catch its breath while he ran inside to tell the sheriff.
Though it was no longer recognizable to the deputies who fished it out of the water, they knew what it was: Aimee Little Spotted Horse, a nine-year-old girl, had been missing for ten days.
The day Aimee disappeared, in the fallow time between midsummer haying and fall roundup, her mother and father were riding the Sun-Seven Ranch’s fence, a barbed-wire boundary that encircled more than seventy-thousand acres of prime prairie grasslands. They’d left her alone that morning, as they often did, while they tended to ranch chores for their boss, Jack Madigan.
The last time they saw their daughter she was still asleep in a tangle of handmade quilts on a wooden pallet in their abandoned homesteader’s shack on Poison Creek.
It was dark when they returned, and Aimee was gone.
An unfinished garland of yellow tickseed flowers was scattered on the rough-hewn porch, a little girl’s idle project in pieces. The door was standing open and her only pair of shoes was still in the cabin. Nothing else was missing, except Aimee.
Search parties combed the north-county for a week, but their numbers dwindled as swiftly as their hope that she was still alive. When Pick Sandefur, the fisherman, found Aimee’s body in the river, she was more than twenty-eight miles from the Poison Creek homestead. She didn’t get there alone.
Derealous McWayne, the only mortician within eighty miles, had been elected eight times as the county coroner because nobody else in Perry County felt so comfortable in the company of death. So it was McWayne’s official duty to ease his lumbering Oldsmobile hearse up the rutted road to a narrow turn-out below the Iron Mountain Bridge. A renowned eater whose prodigious appetite was never quelled by his work, the corpulent mortician waited on the road for the deputies to carry Aimee Little Spotted Horse’s body up the steep talus slope. They stumbled all the way, like drunken pall-bearers, her water-logged body slung between them on a tarp.
Just standing there in the afternoon heat, letting his protruding eyes scan the precipitous canyon and the rumbling water below, the fat coroner sweated profusely.
A photograph in Winchester’s weekly
showed a fleshy-faced Derealous McWayne, his short-sleeved white shirt stained with sweat beneath the arms, sliding a metal gurney into the back of his fat, black hearse. On it was a bloated heap hidden by a wet sheet. She’d been in the water too long for there to be any recognizable shape to her tiny body in death.
Within a few hours, a deputy found a scrap of Aimee’s thin cotton blouse fluttering from a bolt on the guardrail of the Iron Mountain Bridge, a mile upstream from where her tattered, pulpous body was lodged. A day later, bloodhounds found more of her shredded cotton blouse and bloody denim trousers washed up on a sand bar.
A small-town coroner who had no experience in forensic pathology, McWayne could not officially determine the direct cause of Aimee’s death. Her body was too damaged by the violent river even to know for sure if any of her wounds were inflicted before she went into the water. And in some places, her mushy flesh had been nibbled by fish. Her hands were shriveled from soaking in the river, and the skin slipped easily off in his hands. Her body’s advanced decay suggested she’d died around the same time she disappeared. He’d seen “floaters” like this before, clumsy fishermen whose gassy bodies were fished out of the voracious Black Thunder River every other summer. But they died accidentally; Aimee was something different altogether.
The next day, Dr. Henry Gwinnett, for three decades the only doctor in Winchester and, at 74, dying slowly from diabetes, performed a superficial autopsy.
Despite his training, the soft-spoken Dr. Gwinnett had always been disturbed by the sight of a child’s body in the morgue. He prayed briefly before he cut a wide incision from her neck to her groin. A rancid stench belched out as mossy, brown water spilled onto the floor of Derealous McWayne’s usually immaculate embalming-room floor and splashed the old doctor’s scuffed wingtips. The scummy fluid had seeped in through numerous tears and gashes in her frail skin.
Her internal organs were decomposing. Gwinnett examined and weighed her heart and liver, opened her stomach and bowels but found nothing unusual. He respectfully waited until McWayne was called out of the room to inspect the girl’s vagina and rectum. He finished in a few minutes and made some notes to himself before the coroner returned.
Gwinnett found enough water in Aimee’s lungs to leave open the possibility that she had drowned, but not enough to say it definitely caused her death. No diagnosis of drowning was ever certain, but usually the result of eliminating all other possible causes of death. Aimee Little Spotted Horse was not shot and did not appear to have any stab wounds, but beyond that, the condition of her body made it impossible for him to determine if she’d been strangled, poisoned or beaten.
“My best guess,” he told the sheriff later, “is she was alive when she went over the rail, and died in the water. I pray to God she never knew what happened.”
Perry County Sheriff Deuce Kerrigan further surmised Aimee was thrown into the water at least partially clothed, but the violently raging waters had swept her little body toward oblivion and ripped her clothing off. He had no stomach for lurid details, real or imagined; the job of notifying the next of kin was difficult enough without the odd horrors that accompany death.
In the end, the coroner simple wrote on the death certificate what Kerrigan told him to write: “Homicide.” How it happened that Aimee Little Spotted Horse turned up dead so far from home, he couldn’t say. He couldn’t even guess. He left the guessing to the sheriff and went home to dinner.
The whole town of Winchester, Wyoming, was gossiping about the murder of Aimee Little Spotted Horse. The stories had their own lives, suffused with secret spites and shades of fancy. Her father was a heathen drunkard and probably beat the little girl to death in one of his boozy rages, they said. He’d beaten her before, they knew from the court blotter in
, so it was a good theory for lawyerly housewives trying the case over the back fence.
Or the girl’s mother did it, they said, because squaws’ savage breeding robbed them of the proper instinct. Like killing a litter of unwanted kittens by tying them in a burlap sack and tossing them in the irrigation canal, which was a sorry task that fell to any farm wife, but that was very different. Civilized mothers would never do that to a child, but Indian mothers would, the proper white ladies said over their laundry and bridge tables, as if the raw genetics of self-survival had flooded out the native mother’s instincts to protect her children.
Two weeks after the quiet funeral in the Madigan family cemetery, an out-of-work sawmill hand named Neeley Gilmartin was arrested for the murder of Aimee Little Spotted Horse.
Gilmartin had been fingered by a couple of the pool-hall regulars. They claimed Gilmartin was dead drunk when he lost a stud poker game a few months before in the back room at the Cozy Club out Highway 57. He picked a fight with Charlie Little Spotted Horse, who’d finally had a bellyful of being called “a cheatin’ mother-fuckin’ prairie nigger.”
Gilmartin threw the first punch, they told the sheriff, a blow that flattened the Indian’s nose and spattered blood on the other players. Charlie flew across the table. The two men tumbled in the sawdust until he got his hand on a beer bottle and smashed it across Gilmartin’s skull.
And they were fairly certain that the enraged Neeley Gilmartin, blood spattered in a red web across his face, promised “to make that dirty fuckin’ squaw-nigger sorry he ever was fuckin’ born.”
That was enough for Deuce Kerrigan. Just after sunrise on a dewy September morning, Deuce himself arrested Gilmartin. He found him still asleep in the arms of a prostitute at a brothel down on the railroad tracks. The sheriff had his Colt cocked and ready when a startled Gilmartin leaped straight up in the bed and stood there on the mattress confused and naked, his penis semi-erect.
His only possessions were a bottle of bootleg whiskey he’d bought at the front desk, a pile of smoky clothes, a couple of torn ticket stubs from the Biograph Movie Theater, and a black leather wallet containing eighty-five dollars.
The authorities of Perry County knew Gilmartin well enough. The former sailor spent a month of Sundays in the drunk tank, and done two six-month sentences in the past four years for assault and battery. He couldn’t stay out of bar fights and he couldn’t tell the truth to save his life. In one, he’d bitten a man’s ear clean off and denied he was even in the bar. Once he dried out, he got on well with his jailers, but he was such a violent drunk, deputies regularly beat him with the thick oak truncheons hidden in a jail broom closet.
Gilmartin was a tough son of a bitch. Short and sturdy, he was barely twenty-five years old and well suited to the heavy work in the mill, when he was sober. His arms were smooth and well muscled, with a malevolent tattoo on his left biceps: TERROR. His chest was thick and hairy, tapering down his flat stomach to narrow hips.
Gilmartin’s black hair was shaved close on the sides, but tumbled in uncombed, greasy curls across his forehead. A swollen red welt kept his left eye almost closed, and his thick upper lip was split by a fresh gash.
Perry County Judge Darby Hand appointed the unluckiest lawyer in Winchester to defend him. Not that he had much of a choice. Simeon Fenwick, who had the pretentious habit of signing “Esq.” after his name, even on his personal checks, was one of only four lawyers in town. And to be fair, none of them had ever defended a capital case.
The choice of Sim Fenwick was defensible, if only because he had as good a shot as any of them to get his client acquitted, and that chance was zero. Zero because the public sentiment against Gilmartin was already simmering, and because the lackluster, bookish Sim Fenwick had never tried a criminal case before.
When Sim Fenwick, just six years out of law school, first visited his new client in the courthouse’s basement jail, a deputy sat nearby and later reported every word to Sheriff Kerrigan. But it didn’t matter. A defensive, nervous Gilmartin told his lawyer what he’d told the sheriff and the two deputies who’d roughed him up that first morning: He didn’t know anything about anything.
“Where were you on the day she disappeared?”
“What day was that?”
“Fuck if I know,” Gilmartin growled, taking a long drag on a cigarette. The smoke curled toward the open barred jailhouse window high above them. It was the only ventilation they had.
“Did you ever threaten the girl’s father?” the lawyer asked him.
Gilmartin shrugged, staring at the floor.
“Can you help me at all?” Fenwick said.
Gilmartin rocked silently with his head bent forward above his knees. His powerful forearms rippled as he laced his calloused hands behind his head, covering his ears.
Gilmartin was headed straight to Hell and he knew it.
County Attorney Calvin Davis, a stuffed shirt whose rancor for criminals was rivaled only by his political savvy, was on his way up. Playing matchmaker to the child-killer Gilmartin and “Big Sparky” — the pet name of the Wyoming State Penitentiary’s electric chair — would only enhance his gubernatorial prospects.
Gilmartin’s lawyer was a nervous little mouse, the public was growing more antagonistic as each day passed, and the judge was known among the county’s criminal class as severe and unmerciful. Without saying as much, a photograph in the local paper made him out to be a child-killing monster. Worst of all, he had no alibi and his mind was too muddled to lie convincingly.
Gilmartin saw no forgiveness in his abbreviated future.
He pressed a lighted cigarette against the inside of his wrist and tried to imagine what it would feel like to have a lightning bolt rip through his body, cooking his guts and frying his brain. After dark, demons visited his sleep. One night, he shit his pants there in the dark and awoke crying like a baby.