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Authors: Douglas C. Jones

Winding Stair (9781101559239) (4 page)

BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
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I felt the skin on the back of my neck move. The man Emmitt described had been on the station platform the night I arrived in Fort Smith. He had passed near me and I had seen his puffy Indian face and the eye with a cataract, a short and stocky man with close-cropped black hair and thick lips turned down bitterly at the corners. But now wasn't the time to interrupt and I said nothing.
“Man with that bad eye, he take some stuff out'n the purse, then throw the purse over to the man on the horse still yet. Man on the horse didn't even look in it, just stuff it in a saddlebag.”
“Emmitt, did you see what the man with the bad eye took out of the purse?” Schiller asked.
“I dunno. He taken a little watch and some money.”
“Was it hard money?” George Moon asked.
“Yes, suh. It was silver money.”
“Would you know that watch again if you saw it?” Schiller asked.
“I reckon. It was jus' a watch, a little watch.”
“All right. What happened then, Emmitt?”
“The man with the bad eye jump off the wagon and him and them others drag Miz John off into the bushes. She hittin' at 'em and yellin'. I see her clothes tore almost off her. Then they had her back in them bushes and I couldn't see, but she was yellin' like no yellin' I ever hear before.”
Four Indian policemen were bringing the body back to the road, wrapped in the tarpaulin like a mummy. Only the high-button shoes were showing. The boy was facing away from them as they pushed the long bundle into the wagon bed. He started crying silently, the tears running down his cheeks and along his jawbone. His expression did not change, but the tears ran down his face, wetting his collar. Without prompting this time, he went on.
“That man who jus' sit on his horse all the time. He ride over close to me and look down and he's got a big pistol in his belt. I thought he'd shoot me. He jus' grin and then he got off and started unhitchin' Ole Blue. I was layin' in the road. And so when he started unhitchin' Ole Blue, I jumped up and run off. I run into them woods and he shot at me but didn't hit nothin'. So I kept on runnin', all the way to Hatchet Hill.”
“You didn't see any of them again?” George Moon asked.
“No, suh. I run through the woods. I stayed off the road so's they wouldn't catch me. I run all the way to Hatchet Hill in the woods. For a long time, I was runnin' and I could hear Miz John yellin'.”
“What was she yelling?” Schiller asked.
“Jus' yellin' for somebody come help her.”
The tears ran down his face as he looked at the smoke rising from the fire to the high treetops.
Now Schiller squatted beside the boy and laid a hand on his shoulder. Emmitt did not move away but neither did he look at the marshal.
“Now, son, when we catch these men, will you be able to tell us if we've got the right ones?”
The boy frowned. He rubbed his eyes with his fists and shook his head.
“They cut my guts out.”
“No. They won't. We're going to leave you with one of these policemen, in his house at Hatchet Hill, and nobody will bother you. But when we catch 'em, we'll need you to tell us if they're the right men.”
“You gonna catch 'em?”
“Yes. We are.”
“Well, I reckon I could tell you if you got the right ones.”
“Good,” Schiller said. He dug into his pocket and gave the boy a dime. “You can buy some ice cream. And later, when you come to Fort Smith, you can have lots of ice cream.”
For the first time, the boy looked up at Schiller.
“I'm comin' to Fort Smith?”
“Yes. When we catch 'em. There's lots of ice cream in Fort Smith.”
The tight knot of men around the boy began to break up then. One of the policemen took Emmitt away while two others were hitching a saddle horse to the wagon. Blue Foot had appeared, waiting to one side until the boy was finished. Now he came forward and spoke to Schiller, the first time I had heard his voice. His English was not as good as Joe Mountain's.
“Six horses, one without rider,” he said, pointing off into the woods. “They goin' up the mountain.”
“I figured,” Schiller said. “They'd want to stay off the road after this. How old is the trail?”
“Last night. About dark,” Blue Foot said.
Before the marshal could turn to his horse, I touched his arm and he turned to me, his eyes cold and unblinking.
“I think I've seen this man with a bad eye. A cataract, from what the boy said.”
“Where?” Schiller snapped.
“In Fort Smith at the train station. The first night I was in town. He met another man who'd been on the train with me.”
“What other man?”
“A white man. And he was wearing expensive clothes. I think they're the same two Emmitt was talking about here.”
“I'd bet on it. Describe this white man.”
“He was a good-looking man, about my age. Tall. Blond hair, blue eyes.”
Schiller frowned and shook his head.
“Could be anybody. But we know the other one, don't we, Joe?”
Joe Mountain laughed. “You bet. It's Milk Eye.”
“Milk Eye Rufus Deer. He's a Yuchi Indian. Hangs out in the Creek Nation mostly. I never knew him to get this far south.”
“Then we know who we're after?” I asked.
“We know one of 'em anyway. But finding him may not be so easy. He stays pretty well hid out. Now and again he shows up at one of these straightaway horse races they have over here in The Nations. He's a betting man. He's been in minor trouble for years, but he's busted his ax this time. Well, let's get to business.”
Some of the Choctaw officers would return to Hatchet Hill with the body and the boy. The rest of us, under Schiller's direction, would start the hunt.
We moved off into the timber, Blue Foot riding some distance up front, Joe Mountain just behind him, a Winchester across his lap. Blue Foot watched the ground for sign, but Joe Mountain looked ahead into the pines.
The experience had shaken me badly. Reading of murder and rape in Evans's office and seeing it lying naked and blood-soaked on the ground were very different matters. The sight of human flesh laid open by a blade was, I felt at the time, something that would haunt my sleep forever. I was to learn that even the most ghastly scenes soon pale in memory.
I had seen a violently killed person only once before. In Saint Louis when I was a small boy, my father and I had come onto a man lying in the street who had just been struck and killed by a beam that had fallen from a building under construction. Father moved away quickly, saying I should not stare at the man because it would embarrass him to be seen, lying helpless and formless and bloody in the street. Perhaps that was the worst part of what we had just seen, even worse than the assault itself on Mrs. John—her inability to avoid lying naked under the eyes of men, lifeless and stripped of all dignity.
Through all of this horror, Oscar Schiller had shown no emotion, no change in mood. He went about his business as though it were the most routine labor, like cutting lumber or plowing a cornfield. His cold, unblinking eyes took photographic images of everything, like a box camera, impersonally and without passion. When he gave the boy, Emmitt, a dime, his face was the same as it had been when the tarpaulin came off Mrs. John's body. I began to wonder if he perspired like other men, or if he was ever hungry or had ever been in love with a woman. I began to hate him a little.
We had ridden only a short distance when I realized Joe Mountain's companionship and conversation were badly missed. It had suddenly become important that the big Osage like me, even though we had met only a few hours before. The marshal said nothing more to me as the day wore on and we moved deeper into the pine woods of the Winding Stair.
ur column proceeded through the pines without a sound except for the whisper of horses' hooves on the carpet of needles and the occasional squeak of leather or tinkle of bit chains. Jays called harshly, and among the cedars we passed were pairs of bluebirds and redheaded woodpeckers showing their garish black, white, and red markings against the greens and blues of foliage. At first, the ground sloped upward gently but this soon gave way to steep ridges. We came to stands of hardwood and here the underbrush was thick and tangled. Sometimes the trail led around these groves of hickory and oak but many we plowed through, the branches of saplings slashing us across the face. The pace was set by Blue Foot's speed as he moved ahead, reading the sign left by the men who had done rape and murder.
At the head of the column, Blue Foot and Joe Mountain were generally out of sight in the trees, but Oscar Schiller and the Choctaw police chief, George Moon, were always there. Now and then, Schiller turned to look back along the line of march, and his gaze always sought me out as though he expected to see that I had fallen off my mare and disappeared into some brushy canyon. His features were set in that stony, hard-lipped expression. Sometimes, I saw him chewing a matchstick.
Once, we stopped to dismount and tighten our saddle cinches. Some of the Choctaws looked at me from under hat brims suspecting that I had no idea how to perform such a task. But although the saddle was strange to me, horses were not. Along the way, I caught a number of the Indians regarding my small hat and city boots with some dismay, as though they had never seen such things before. Perhaps, too, they found it odd that here among men so obviously well armed I would have no weapon. But then, neither did Schiller, at least no visible weapon.
The Choctaws smoked constantly, rolling their own cigarettes with tobacco from soggy-looking bags. To avoid setting the woods on fire, they pinched out the hot coals just before the cigarettes were smoked all the way down to their lips, afterward rubbing their fingers on saddle horns to ease the heat's sting.
Twice we rode past discarded and empty whiskey bottles. The Choctaws would point them out wordlessly, apparently thinking me incapable of seeing them.
It was past noon when we stopped to rest the horses. As I sat against a tree trunk, painfully aware of the blisters along my thighs, Oscar Schiller walked over and gave me a can of sardines and two baking soda biscuits. He said nothing but went back to squat with George Moon. There was no key on the sardine can but I was determined not to ask Schiller for an opener, no matter that I was famished after losing my breakfast. Joe Mountain came back from his forward position, grinning, and opened the can with that outlandish French trade hatchet.
“You gotta eat, Eben Pay. This chase has barely started.”
He had sardines and biscuits, too, and we sat together eating, sopping the oil with the dry biscuits. It had begun to cloud over, and without the sun the woods turned cool and gloomy. The birds had also disappeared, except for crows that always seemed to be on the next ridge setting up their infernal racket.
Joe Mountain looked up through the trees and said, “I told you we gonna get our asses wet.”
Oscar Schiller and George Moon had finished their meal and were talking about the case. They were near enough to overhear.
“They're going straight to something,” Schiller said. “They didn't stop for the night, or if they did, it wasn't for long. Blue Foot says the trail isn't getting any fresher.”
“Yes,” Moon said. “They're headed for someplace.”
“There's not many farms around here, are there?”
“A few miles ahead, if the trail don't change, we come back to the road where it comes up over these ridges and heads out for McAlester. There's farms along that road.”
“I think it means one of two things. They've got a farm where they'll hole up, or else they're out for more harm.”
“They don't come from around here,” Moon said. “Not that anyone knows of, so it's unlikely they'd have a place to hole up. I think they may be out for harm.”
“Well, I don't like it. They put me in mind of a Comanche war party. Anything gets in the way is in for trouble. I think they've let the wolf loose. Out on a hell-raising drunk. They've had enough liquor to be doing that. Too drunk to have any sense and not drunk enough to pass out.”
We rode on throughout most of the afternoon, the hills less rugged now and the timber thinning. We passed old logging roads, most of them abandoned long ago, and a few fields that had been left and were overgrown with small trees. From some of these, we could look out across the mountains to the west and see rain falling, like a thin blue-gray veil shrouding the ridgelines. Joe Mountain had been right. We were going to get our asses wet.
As the timber thinned, Blue Foot began to speed up his lead and sometimes we had to put our mounts to a trot to keep pace. It was difficult to read any sign in the pine needles, even after the horses ahead had passed, except that now and then there were droppings. At least I found I could tell the difference between the fresh ones and those dropped by the horses of the men we were hunting.
One of the Choctaws moved his horse up alongside and rode for a long time without saying anything. He offered me his sack of tobacco and a pack of thin cigarette papers, and I managed to roll a smoke as I rode, letting the mare follow the horses ahead on her own. When he did speak, it was quietly, as though he had no desire to break the continuing silence of the column's movement.
“I'm Charley. You a deputy, like the Cap'n?”
“No. I work out of the federal court in Fort Smith.”
“Ah,” he said and smiled. “Judge Parker, sure. You work for Judge Parker, like the Cap'n. That's good.”
I handed him the tobacco sack and thanked him. The taste of the smoke was good in my mouth, still oily from the sardines.
BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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