Authors: Thomas Shawver
The Widow's Son
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Thomas Shawver
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover art and design: Scott Biel
“May there be a generation of children on the children of your children.”
âAn Irish blessing
“There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb, or a calf, or of turtle dove, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man.”
âBrigham Young, the second Mormon prophet
“No matter what one doubts, one never doubts the faeries, forâ¦âthey stand to reason.'â”
âWilliam Butler Yeats
UNE 27, 1844
Four Mormons resided on the second floor of the Carthage jail when the attack began.
The mob crashed the door down and Hyrum Smith was the first to die, felled by five musket balls. Joseph fired six shots at his brother's killer, nearly severing the man's arm. More bullets and balls poured into the room from the hallway, missing Willard Richards but wounding John Taylor. Joseph rushed to the window, only to be greeted by a seething multitude of vengeful men below.
In full-throated despair the Mormon prophet cried out the Masonic symbol of distress: “Oh, Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow's son?” Then bullets fired from the doorway struck him in the back so that he fell from the window. He landed on his shoulder and rolled over unconscious. One of the militia ran forward and pulled him against a well curb. Joseph Smith opened his eyes but there was no light in them. Colonel Levi Williams of the Warsaw militia ordered his men to “shoot the damned rascal.” Four men did their duty: The Prophet was dead.
When one of the killers stepped forward to cut off Smith's head with a bowie knife, the sun shone through the overcast sky for the first time that day, illuminating the yard. The butcher's hand froze, the four who had fired the killing shots dropped their muskets, and the fear of an angry God scattered the rest.
Two nights later, a select group of Saints met in the cellar of the temple to take a sacred oath. They called themselves Danites, the shock troops of the Nauvoo Legion. Sidney Rigdon, Porter Rockwell, Lewis Dana, Bill Hickman, and Alonzo Stagg formed the sharp edge of a very bloody sword.
Each had killed without fear of earthly or heavenly retribution those apostates who had fled from Mormonism and any gentiles who dared challenge them. Each had served as personal bodyguard to the Prophet. They had been bloodied in the Missouri wars and they would be bloodied again.
In the flickering light of forty candles they donned their special garments and sang a hymn of vengeance. When it ended, Sidney Rigdon, self-proclaimed protector of the church, held out a bucket containing slips of paper with the names of the traitors and said: “Here you go, boys. Take these men that you can't do anything with but cut their throats and bury them. You'll be saving a wicked man's soul by spilling his blood on the ground like Joshua of old.”
Lewis Dana picked the first slip. He nodded grimly when he read the name of his friend, Jonathan Dunham. The fate of Frank Worrell, a jail guard who had let the mob pass through the front door, belonged to Porter Rockwell. Bill Hickman selected Governor Thomas Ford, leaving Colonel Williams to be handled by Alonzo Stagg. But the latter insisted on trading with Hickman for the governor.
As the men prepared to leave the cellar, Alonzo Stagg proclaimed: “Because it was I who was used by the villain to take our beloved lamb to slaughter, I will avenge the blood of the Prophet in my lifetime; and I will teach my children to avenge the blood through the taking of the murderer's children and then have them teach their children and children's children to the sixth generation as long as there is one descendant of the murderers upon the earth.”
Sidney Rigdon clasped Alonzo in his arms and through manly tears declared, “Thy will be done!” Taking from the table his own Book of Mormon, the one given him by Joseph Smith many years earlier, he inscribed something on the front page and dated it. Then he silently handed it to Stagg, who accepted the gift with the solemnity of a vigilant soldier.
Nearly two centuries later, three young men stood trembling before five caskets that held the bones of their ancestors. A sixth lay empty, awaiting the final avenger.
Exit 214 onto I-80. Twelve years in that 8
cell behind me. Never want to see them red bluffs again. Bus ain't bad now that I got that monkey mouth behind me to shut up. Thirteen hours to K.C. countin' piss and eat stops. Good barbeque I hear. What else? Hell if I know. Gotta be better than Rawlins. Best get some sleep.
“Who was the deceased?” the investigator from the coroner's office asked as the Fire Department EMTs packed up their respirator. “And why is he dressed in that getup?”
Rolls of flab stuck out between the corpse's deerskin shirt and breeches. The long scarlet wig had slipped off the bald pate; a cheap replica of a torque hung just under the double chin. On a nearby chair, someone had set a pair of leather dancing pumps and a plastic shield. A long spear, its rubber tip bent at a forty-five-degree angle, leaned against the makeshift stage.
Neither I nor anyone in the small crowd of mostly mothers and their preteen daughters responded to the question. They were still recovering from the shock of witnessing a fifty-year-old man, who, half an hour earlier, hadâwith left leg extended horizontally before him, right foot tucked neatly under his bum, and back straight as the letter Lâelevated twenty inches above the deck before crashing to earth in a lifeless heap.
The kids had thought it was part of the act and laughed. Now they whimpered in the arms of their horrified parents. Each of the girls but one was dressed in a sequined dance costume costing upward of a thousand dollars. The outfits had nothing Irish about them except for elaborately embroidered Celtic designs.
The fashion exception was an adolescent girl. She wore soft-toed shoes like the other dancers, but the plaid skirt and light blue blouse were her Catholic school uniform. Perfectly straight hair, pale as an August moon, hung below her shoulders. Colorless, too, was her skin, so much so that I might have mistaken her for an albino had it not been for the orange-brown eyes that gazed straight ahead as if in a trance. She clutched a small comb in her right hand.
“This is no time for shyness,” urged the investigator, whose name was Buford Higgins. “Who's the unfortunate fella?”
Natalie Phelan, she of the fiery gait and flashing temper who ran the Kansas City Celtic Heritage Center, piped up with equal bits sorrow and wonder as if the body belonged to the Savior himself. “That's Liam O'Halloran, Mr. Higgins. How could you not know?”
O'Halloran of Bog Swirl fame?”
“The very same. A few years past his prime, of course.”
“More like an eternity.”
Pushing aside the EMTs who had rolled a stretcher next to the stage, Higgins knelt beside the corpse to better study the face.
When he spoke again his voice was reverent.
“So it is, Mrs. Phelan. Sure, and he's a long way from Carnegie Hall.”
During O'Halloran's salad days he and the supporting cast of Bog Swirl had indeed performed the
Cattle Raid of Cooley
in that prestigious New York City venue. The
was O'Halloran's signature epic, played hundreds of times before thousands of enraptured fans wherever in the world the Irish Diaspora planted its tricolor flag. Millions more became acquainted through his performances on Public Television so that almost overnight three quarters of the English-speaking world claimed to have a touch of the green in their genes.
O'Halloran, whose real name was Augustus “Augie” Tatem of Ottumwa, Iowa, rode the wave for nearly a decade, culminating in command performances for the Taoiseach in Dublin and the Prince of Wales at Royal Albert Hall. Tens of thousands of people who wouldn't be caught dead attending a ballet had been thrilled to watch the long-haired dancer, shillelagh in one hand and pagan maiden in the other, kick, leap, and prance across an enormous stage to the sounds of thundering drums and trilling pipes.
But it couldn't last. The end of Bog Swirl came when O'Halloran broke his leg doing one too many signature backflips at a national Knights of Columbus convention in Allentown, Pennsylvania. After the last of the pipers was lured away by the siren call of a Carnival Cruise gig, O'Halloran fell to drink and dissipation.
It was Natalie's plan to bring him out of retirement in Omaha to reminisce for a few minutes about the good old days then take a seat to watch the youngsters from the Doolan Academy perform.
Liam O'Halloran's name still carried sufficient star power to entice women of a certain age who remembered his vulpine looks and the scandalous way he winked at the audience before leaping to save sacrificial Druid virgins. And, despite their initial shock at seeing what the years and drink had done, most felt his mere presence justified the fifteen-dollar entrance fee.
Clothed in his Hound of Ulster costume, he'd talked for over an hour in a soft lilt that none of the actual immigrant Irish in the audience could quite placeâDan Regan, the Kerryman, thought it was from Connaught; the Dubliner Bannon guessed Mayo; and Mrs. Hurley, always the cynic, suggested somewhere south of Pittsburghâbut his stirring rendition of
The Hunt of Sliabh Truim
proved that, no matter his origins, O'Halloran was a great Gael.
Many hundreds were in pursuit of the deer
Around us on the southern hill,
The battalions were on the watch for themâ
Fierce was the onset!
The only boy in the Doolan Dance Academy stood off to the side of the stage. A ginger-haired kid, he was dressed in a canary yellow suit that made him look like a cross between Elton John and a doorman at the Hilton.
“It was Claire's fault,” he said to Higgins, pointing a finger that nearly brushed the girl's cheek.
“Here now, Rory,” his mother scolded. “There will be none of that.”
“But it started with her, like it did with Gramma.”
True or not, something strange certainly had occurred at the Center. Beautiful in one sense, horrific in hindsight. O'Halloran had finished his talk and started to climb off the low stage to polite applause when suddenly the pale girl began to sing, locking her eyes with his in a mystical embrace.
Her velvety voice was shimmering and clear and she sang in a language that might have been Gaelic, but possibly something else; something that came before that ancient tongue. Neither child nor adult moved as the mesmerizing notes wove sinuously through the room.
Then, in mid-voice, she abruptly stopped, returned to her chair, and slowly ran the comb through her hair as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Long seconds passed in eerie silence until O'Halloran stepped back onto the stage.
“If you don't mind, Mrs. Phelan,” he asked quietly, “might you play a reel for me? Just one for ol' time's sake that I can strut to. Then we'll let the young ones show their stuff.”
Toss the Feathers'
here,” Natalie responded, pulling a CD from a box near the portable disc player.
“It will do fine.”
Soon the room reverberated with the rhythms of the fast fiddle. O'Halloran thrust his arms straight down on either side of his body and sprang into action, quick-stepping to the
beat as if he were twenty-five again. His feet matched the ever-increasing accents on the first and third beats repeated at every eight bar segment until he was in full glory, the great Cu Chulainn once more shedding the scales of time.
With every twirl and leap the crowd applauded and hurrahed, oblivious to the swelling of the carotid arteries on their hero's neck. Suddenly, just as the music was to shut off, there came that final leapâaccompanied, I regret to say, by a tremendous fartâand the Hound of Ulster landed on the flat of his back with feet in the air like a shotgunned pigeon.
Someone commented that for him to die of a heart attack while performing his signature back step sweep was as fitting as it was tragic. But it was two women who had known him growing up in Ottumwa who captured him best.
“Poor Augie,” Sister Mary Catherine Browne said. “He's gone to heaven, no doubt.”
“Perhaps,” her cousin Mary Margaret Scanlon replied. “But he won't like God.”
It was only after the EMTs had wheeled the body through a side door that Higgins spotted me hovering in the back of the room holding a 1762 edition of Edmund Burke's
Account of European Settlements in America
I hadn't planned on seeing the performance. I was there because in a weak moment six months earlier I'd agreed to appraise four thousand rare books that had been donated to the Center by a wealthy Irish American from Paola, Kansas, named Ted Follis.
“How's the shop doing, Mike?”
“Couldn't be better.”
“That was quite a reopening you had. The place looks beautiful.”
As soon as the word came out, I regretted it.
Buford Higgins, former lead homicide detective for the Kansas City Police Department, no longer held that position. After a thirty-year career that included the Department's highest honor, the Medal of Valor, the big man had repeatedly punched a handcuffed prisoner in front of witnesses. It didn't matter that the victim was a pedophile who had molested a five-year-old boy. The prosecutor had no choice. An hour after being charged, there came a hastily negotiated plea resulting in two years' probation, a hundred hours of community service, and thirty days of jail “shock time.” The decision was still out as to whether Higgins would ever be allowed to work in law enforcement again.
The Fire Department would have offered Higgins temporary work, but he was too old and fat to clamber up a ladder, and, by his own admission, he didn't have sufficient chemistry smarts to be a HazMat inspector. However, he asked the right questions, took good notes, and wasn't overly bothered by goreâqualities that the Jackson County Coroner's Office considered sufficient to overlook one moment's lack of judgment.
Compared to most of the grisly things Buford Higgins encountered in his line of work, the O'Halloran matter was a piece of cake.
We agreed to meet sometime for a beer when the boy named Rory appeared at our side. Looking directly at Higgins, he demanded, “Well, aren't you going to ask her?”
“Ask what, young man?”
The kid stared at Higgins as if he was dumber than a post. Then, quietly so his mother couldn't hear, he said, “Why does Claire Phelan always sing when someone is about to die?”