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Authors: Douglas C. Jones

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BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
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When Oscar Schiller came in he glared at me once and went directly to Henryetta. They conversed in low tones for a moment and then the marshal indicated that I should follow him into one of the small alcovelike rooms where the open doors were hung with strings of colored beads. They made a small crystal tinkling as we pushed them aside and sat at a table before a bay window overlooking the Frisco yards. Schiller dipped into his snuff can with a match and stared at me, unblinking.
“Mr. Pay.”
“Marshal.”
“How have you been?”
“Busy,” I said.
“That's the best way to be. What we've got here is an informant. A whore who thinks she's heard something. She has a child in Memphis and she goes there now and again, and I've been able to help her in that.”
I thought of the railroad passes he always carried and wondered if the Frisco officials ever imagined their free tickets were being used in such a way.
“Where's Joe Mountain and Blue Foot?” I asked.
“Over in the Osage reservation, I guess.”
He said nothing more and I sat watching the small switch engines working the cars in the Frisco yards. Beyond them, a sternwheeler was pushing a barge along the river toward the Fort Smith docks. In the larger room, Henryetta was still leaning against the bar, half dozing, one fat elbow hooked on the polished mahogany. Big Rachael was swatting at June flies. Neither of them paid any attention when a young woman appeared at the stairs and came toward us, brushing the beaded curtain aside with a flourish.
She was small, but not so small as Jennie Thrasher. Though her flame red hair was piled in curls on top of her head, she was not yet painted for the night's work, and she wore a simple cotton dress with long sleeves and high neck. She sat sideways at the table, her legs in my view, and deliberately yanked up her dress so I could see her ankles, above black patent leather shoes.
“Who's this good-looking young devil?” she asked. Her lips were full and sensuous but when her teeth showed, the whole effect was ruined. Between each tooth was a charcoal black mark of decay. It was like the mouth of a child who had eaten too much candy.
“This is Mr. Pay,” Schiller said. “He's here to help me listen to this story of yours.”
“I talk better with a gin drink,” she said, smiling at me.
Big Rachael was already bringing a water glass filled with pink liquid. He spilled some of it as he placed it on the table before her.
“Do you like sloe gin, Mr. Pay?”
Schiller gave me no chance to reply. “All right, Lila, let's start with it.”
After a few sips of sloe gin, Lila told us she had a special lover who came to Henryetta's each time he was in Fort Smith.
“He's a real ladies' man,” she said. “A handsome boy, almost as handsome as you, Mr. Pay. He's always bragging about the women he's humped. He says I ought to pay him, he's so good.” She laughed, showing the bad teeth. “He always says he's going to hump every woman in The Nations before he's finished, and a few in Arkansas besides.”
She sipped her drink, watching me as Oscar Schiller chewed on his matchstick and looked at the tabletop, no expression on his face.
“Well, he was in here one night about a week ago. Maybe a little more. Maybe ten days ago. Anyway, he says he'd been over in The Nations and he'd been boozing bad. He asked for me, of course. I'm the only one he ever asks for. After another customer, I had him up to the room for the night. He's always got the ten dollars for a whole night. He likes to talk, just lay there and talk.”
“Get on with it, Lila,” Schiller said.
“That night, he was nervous as a feist dog in heat. He asked me to get him some newspapers and he read those. He got a bottle of rye from the bar and drank most of it and then tried to do me, but couldn't, but it didn't seem to bother him much. He just wanted to loll around and talk. He was silly drunk after a while. He started telling me all the things he done and what a bad, mean man he is. He said he'd just got even with this son of a bitch in The Nations who'd done him dirt. He showed me a knife he had. It wasn't no hunting knife but you had to pull the blade out of the handle. It was a big, mean-looking knife. He said nobody was gonna put anything over on him, and then he blabbed on about all the women he'd humped.”
She gave another laugh, and it had no mirth in it. She seemed to drop it into the conversation absentmindedly, like a stone falling into a pool of water, making a quick circle of motion, and then disappearing. I couldn't help thinking that although she was foulmouthed, if it hadn't been for the bad teeth, she would have been a beautiful woman.
“Then he said something about this same son of a bitch trying to hide himself down in the Winding Stair Mountains with his little china-doll daughter but him and his friends had found this son of a bitch anyway. That's when I started getting interested because I'd seen all that stuff in the papers about the massacre and the things done to that Choctaw woman and all the blood. I asked him who this man was, but he just laughed and started telling about the time he was a little kid and he was playing with another little kid who made him mad. So he poured coal oil on this other kid and set him on fire. He said his daddy had lots of money and could get him out of anything he might get into anyway. Then he started bragging again that there was no son of a bitch who could keep him from humping anybody he wanted to, just layin' there on the bed naked—excuse the expression, Mr. Pay—and bragging about how all the women loved him.”
The blood had begun to pump through me and I was so absorbed in what Lila was saying, I hardly noticed as Big Rachael came in and placed another gin lemonade in front of me.
“This boyfriend, Miss Lila?” I said. “Who is he?”
She tilted her head back and glanced at Oscar Schiller, who seemed unaware of anything that had been said.
“Well, I can't just throw out his name without no deal first, can I?” she said.
“Tell the rest of it,” Schiller said harshly.
“There ain't any more to tell. He just kept saying him and his friends in The Nations would show anybody who turned out to be a son of a bitch what a mean bunch they was. He said they was worse than the Daltons and the James boys up in Missouri years ago. He said they didn't even bother robbing banks and trains but just went around when they felt like it, looking for pussy and livestock. You'll pardon the expression, Mr. Pay, but that's the way he said it.” She laughed and winked at me.
“Do you know any of his friends?”
“Not his friends in The Nations. We don't let Indians in here and even them whites in The Nations are more Indian than the Indians. And outside The Nations, I bet he hasn't got any friends. Not men friends. He knows how to make a woman feel good when he's sober, but men don't seem to take to him much.”
“You never saw him come in here with another man?”
“No, never. Most men come here in bunches and half-drunk by the time they get here, like it was to get up the nerve to do it. But my boyfriend never comes with anybody. He got drunk one night upstairs and started crying about not having any friends and no brother or anything, and I said like a joke, ‘Well, if you did, you just set 'em on fire,' and he slapped me real hard a few times.”
“He cried?”
“Not the time I'm telling you about. That was a while ago. When he was drunk. Lots of men cry when they get drunk sometimes, don't they?”
“What else did he say about the Winding Stair Mountains?”
“Nothing. Just what I told already. I thought about it and read those newspapers again and talked to Henryetta. She said I'd best tell the Cap'n or else he might get displeased and come troopin' in here sometime with a whole flock of local laws and start to—”
“All right,” Schiller cut in, a dangerous edge to his voice. “He's not interested in that part of it.”
“I was just sayin' what happened, is all. We decided I better tell. So we sent Big Rachael over to the courthouse with a note to the cap'n here, for him to come see us when he got back from wherever he was. So that's what happened. And here you are, Mr. Pay. Why ain't I ever seen you in here before?”
“Let's get to business,” Schiller said, leaning across the table toward her. “Who is this boyfriend, Lila?”
“How much?”
“Don't step on my toes, Lila.”
“Cap'n, you know what he'd do to me if he ever found out I'd talked with you about this. He'd do something terrible.”
“I might do something terrible myself if you don't tell us his name,” Schiller said.
“You got money for these things, haven't you? I can't tell his name without some money.”
Schiller looked at me. “You think we might come up with some money out of Evans's office?”
“Not for what we've heard this far,” I said. “But if we get the man's name . . .”
We both watched her closely. Now showing me her legs was forgotten. She toyed with the glass before her, frowning.
“Well,” she said. “Well, I'd want twenty dollars.”
“Five is more like it,” Schiller said.
“Five? Five? Jesus Christ, I'm takin' my life in my hands right now, and if I tell you that—”
“I could arrest you for withholding evidence. I could get your butt on the witness stand, and if you refused, then Parker'd give you six months in the federal jail for contempt. And if you lied about it, he'd give you six years in Detroit for perjury.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Lila said. Concern was plain on her face, and the laugh was no longer there. She leaned across the table toward Schiller and laid a hand on his, and when she spoke she whined like a child about to be spanked.
“Jesus Christ, Cap'n. Don't be mean to me now. I told you all this, and you know I could use the money. I'm just a girl trying to make a living. Jesus Christ, Cap'n.”
“Make it ten,” I said. Schiller glanced at me, pulling his hands away from Lila's. He shrugged.
“All right,” he said. “Ten. That's all. Ten dollars.”
“Well,” Lila said. “Can I have another drink of sloe gin?”
“Why not? Henryetta's paying for it.”
Big Rachael brought her another full glass. This one she took in long swallows. I could hear the switch-engine bells clanging. It had grown dark, and their headlamps were turned on.
“Well?” Schiller said impatiently.
“Johnny Boins,” she blurted out, as though if she said it fast enough and had it over with, no one could be sure she'd said it.
“Johnny Boins? Do I know him?”
“He's nice and tall, like Mr. Pay here, and with blond hair and blue eyes with them long lashes.”
“I know that name,” Schiller said as I sat there with the hair standing on the back of my neck. It was the man I'd seen with Milk Eye; I was sure of it. The man on the Frisco depot platform the night I arrived in Fort Smith. He had been on the car with me during part of that journey, and I tried to recall where he had boarded the train. But it was unclear in my mind. I had hardly noticed him until he and the small man with the puffed brown face and the white eye had passed me as I waited for my baggage.
“He ain't from around here. But he's been in trouble a couple times in Parker's court for whiskey in The Nations. But he never has been convicted. He hangs out over in the Creek Nation.”
“He live there?”
“No. He lives in Eureka Springs, up in Carroll County, Arkansas. Up in that wild mountain country.”
Schiller leaned back in his chair with a sigh. He looked at me and was almost smiling.
“Give her the money, Mr. Pay,” he said. I hesitated, watching Lila.
“Miss Lila,” I said, “would you be willing to go before a grand jury and tell them what you've told us?”
“Jesus Christ! No, I won't tell nobody a thing. You send me off to jail if you want to, but that's better than gettin' my head caved in.”
“Give her the money,” Schiller said.
Outside, the evening breeze was coming off the river and I was aware of my damp shirt. My hands were shaking with excitement.
“She'll be on the first train to Memphis,” Schiller said. We started back along the tracks toward Garrison Avenue.
“What about Johnny Boins?”
“We're going after him. Tonight. There's a Frisco freight later on. We'll take that to Seligman and change to the North Arkansas line and ride right into Eureka. Be there before noon tomorrow. Now, you get over to the commissioner's office and have him issue a warrant for Boins's arrest. Tell him what we've heard. But don't get a murder warrant. I want a little time with this Johnny Boins before he really knows what we've got him for. Get a warrant for being in Indian country without a permit.”
“That's a misdemeanor.”
“Yes, but it'll never be tried. Once we get him here, that nigger kid can identify him and then we'll hold him for a hearing with the commissioner and I suspect he'll be bound over for the grand jury. We'll just hold him until we catch those other four.”
“We could get a murder warrant now, I'd bet.”
“No. I want a little time with him. Until we've got an identification on him that will hold in court, we don't even know if he's one of our men. This may be a wild-goose chase.”
“No, it isn't,” I said. “I'll bet my life he's the one I saw on the Frisco station platform with Milk Eye that night.”
I had hoped my revelation would stun him, shake him somehow. But he kept walking, the streetlights shining against his glasses, his frail body hunched forward as we walked. I might as well have commented on the weather.
BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
5.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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