Read Winding Stair (9781101559239) Online

Authors: Douglas C. Jones

Winding Stair (9781101559239) (6 page)

BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
13.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
“George, this looks like more than just turning the wolf loose,” Schiller said. “Did Thrasher keep money here?”
“Not that anyone around here ever heard of,” George Moon said. “He made a little each year contractin', but mostly spent it as he made it. He traded a little corn each year with the store in Hatchet Hill, for tobacco and dress cloth. He may have made a little bettin' on races. But I don't think they were after money, except what was layin' around loose.”
“What was it, then?”
“It was the horse,” Moon said.
From beside me, Joe Mountain spoke, his mouth full of apple. “There ain't a horse left on the place now. There ain't no stock. There's a milk cow in the barn, been shot half a dozen times, and dead.”
“He had a few beef cattle,” Moon said. “They'd be up in the woods now, in some of those old clearings, out on spring graze.”
“They ain't no cattle tracks out of here,” Joe Mountain said.
“What horse are you talking about, George?” Schiller asked.
“He's a black racer. A stallion Mr. Thrasher bought in Texas a few years back. All black except for stockings on the rear hocks. Thrasher had some ordinary farm stock, but the black was a racer. Never bred to harness, Cap'n. Just a racer. Mr. Thrasher branded him with a
on the left flank, but it was hid by the saddle fender when he was rigged up. Mr. Thrasher didn't want no brand that showed on his hide in races, because I guess he didn't want to mark up that black coat at all.”
There was a long silence while the storm raged above us. Then Schiller spoke again.
“All right. The racer's gone. And the two women. What about the women, George? Tell me about the women.”
Once more, a long silence. Listening to the rattle of hail on the house, I wondered where the other Choctaw policemen and Blue Foot had taken refuge from the storm. Then George Moon spoke again.
“Well, Cap'n, Mrs. Thrasher was a barren woman but a rich one. Not money rich, but land rich. She's got family off down south of McAlester somewhere. But she owned this place, her and her first husband. They had no young'uns either. But she got this place when her daddy died, him as had come from Mississippi when he was a boy and took up this land.”
“Sure. When Mr. Thrasher married, he got hisself a well-to-do woman.”
“Did she gad around?”
“Hell, no. She was a comely woman but a homebody. She visited a little here on the mountain, but that's about all.”
It suddenly occurred to me that they were speaking of this woman in the past tense, as though she were already gone. As I sat there in the dark, it was not a comforting thought.
“All right, George. Now about the girl.”
“A real pretty little thing,” he said. “Blond hair and blue eyes. Jennie is what they called her.”
“Any beaus?”
“None I know of. Mr. Thrasher watched over her pretty close. He had a wagon fitted out for sleeping and cooking so when he went to races in different places, he'd take Jennie along and she'd make his meals and they'd live in the wagon. Sometimes on contract jobs, too.”
Above us, the storm seemed to be blowing over. But no one made any move to leave the cellar. Joe Mountain was eating another apple, his teeth grinding in the dark.
Somebody started speaking Choctaw and George Moon said a few words, too. I could tell they were questions.
“Charley Oskogee here lives down the road a ways,” George Moon said. “Sometimes he hires out to help Mr. Thrasher slaughter hogs or crib corn. His woman comes up now and again. He says there ain't many people come up this way. He says there ain't nobody courtin' on Miss Jennie. Charley Oskogee, he's one of my policemen.”
There was no need to point out that the man with this information was a Choctaw policeman, but George Moon did it as a binding seal to what had been said, like a notary public's imprint.
“Charley says in the last few weeks there's been some whiskey peddlers in the hills, sellin' their winter makin's.”
“What kind of peddlers? What did they look like?”
“Just peddlers. Charley says there ain't nothin' he can remember about any of 'em. Just down here in the hills peddlin' their winter makin's.”
“You don't remember any special ones, nosing around?”
“Charley says no, he don't.”
The talk stopped and we sat listening to the wind and rain. The howling storm had moved off to the east, into the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. The hail driving against the sides of the house was finished and now there was only the sodden roar of water falling on the roof. Climbing back to the kitchen, we could see shards of glass from a shattered window mixed with the other debris on the floor.
George Moon went out to see to his men and Oscar Schiller began questioning the one called Charley. It wasn't his real name, I knew. Many of The Nations people took up such names at least for their commerce with whites because tribal names were too often completely unpronounceable to English-speaking people, most of whom were not interested in learning Indian words, anyway.
The two of them walked through the house, Schiller pressing the Choctaw for anything he might remember having seen before that was missing now. Charley said he could think of nothing. Except maybe Mr. Thrasher's pearl hat. He said Thrasher always wore a black hat with a large mother-of-pearl button sewn on the front of the crown. He said they were always expensive hats, bought in Texas when Thrasher went there to race or on business. Schiller wrote it all down in his little book. Since we'd been at the Thrashers', Schiller had been writing in a book, which he'd taken from the store of goods he carried in his saddlebags.
Standing in the parlor, staring mutely at the ripped furniture, he took a small silver can from his pocket, not much larger than a thimble, that was filled with a light brown powder. He sucked on a wooden match until it was wet and dipped it into the powder. Deliberately recapping the can and slipping it inside his jacket, he put the matchstick back in his mouth and chewed on it. Father had told me there are many vices, women being one under certain circumstances. Hard spirits and black cigars, he'd said, would ferment the soul. But snuff dipping was just plain nasty. At least it explained the musty-sweet odor I'd noticed about Schiller.
One thing was not explained. When he had a match, chewing it between his taut lips, his eyes were brighter and he moved more quickly. He was more talkative, too, for a man so naturally taciturn.
Joe Mountain had the ham back in the oven. He had kicked up the fire again and the kitchen was warm and smelling of food. It was hard to reconcile that aura with all we had found in this place. He went into the root cellar and brought up a hatful of potatoes. Without bothering to brush the dust off, he put them in the oven.
Some of the men were still in the barn and others squatted along the walls under the porch roofs, smoking. It had grown dark, and the tips of their cigarettes made hot little points of red light. The yard was a muddy pool, the lamps we had lighted inside making shining reflections across it. I wandered through the house, tired, leg-sore, and hungry, all of that forgotten when the excitement was at high pitch.
Back in the kitchen, I found Joe Mountain carefully placing a number of bottles in Schiller's saddlebags. He looked at me and grinned.
“Found these in the cellar hid under the potatoes,” he said. “Old Thrasher made his own whiskey, I reckon.”
“What are you doing with it?”
“We confiscate whiskey,” he said, and laughed. “You can sell this kind of whiskey in Fort Smith for maybe fifty cents a bottle.”
“Sell it?”
“Sure, Eben Pay. Sell it. Nobody here gonna need it. We confiscate lots of whiskey in The Nations and sell it in Fort Smith. A little extra money don't never hurt nobody.”
“Does Marshal Schiller know you're doing that?”
Joe Mountain laughed again. The tattooed dots along his cheek were deep blue in the lamplight. “Hell, whose saddlebags you think these are?”
There in the kitchen with Joe Mountain, I sat and tried to let it all leave my mind. This farm, suddenly depopulated by some savage bunch of drunks, a good farm probably going back to weeds now like so many of those deserted fields we'd passed in the woods crossing the mountains. I thought about the people moved here by force, into a land new and hard, already claimed by someone else. And I thought of how the vices of all men, no matter what color, seem to multiply as old social orders break down and new ones try to establish themselves.
“How could they murder three men just for a horse?” I said, and it startled me that I'd said it aloud. Joe Mountain looked at me with that long-toothed grin that was no grin at all.
“We had one a spell back, up in the Cherokee Nation,” he said. “Traveler just passing through killed a man and his little son with a sledgehammer for a pair of button shoes.”
I started to protest the senseless brutality, and the seemingly blind acceptance of such a way of life by everyone concerned. But at that moment someone ran from the other end of the house into the breezeway and along it to the front porch, where George Moon and Schiller were talking.
“Cap'n!” the man shouted. “You better come. There's somebody in the bedroom attic. We just heard 'em.”
“Damn,” I heard George Moon exclaim. “I should have thought of an attic.”
ith the first cry that someone was hiding in the house, men came with weapons up and cocked, but Schiller pushed among them, knocking down the gun muzzles. He went up onto a chiffonier like a monkey, awkward but effective, his pale eyes shining behind the steel-rimmed glasses as he found the attic hatch and pushed it aside. Charley Oskogee went up with him, his pistol ready. But there was no need for it. In a moment the two of them were pulling a girl from her hiding place. She was slack-lipped and wide-eyed, limp with shock, her long blond hair hanging over her face. They handed her down, a slender form that seemed childlike. But as we carried her to the walnut four-poster bed, her cotton dress plastered to her body with sweat, it was obvious that she was no child but a young woman full-blooming.
Someone spread a heavy comforter over her, and Charley Oskogee bent close, pushing her hair back from her face. He spoke softly to her, but even though she had known him as a neighbor and had seen him many times, there was no sign of recognition on her face.
Oscar Schiller took a lamp into the attic but was back almost at once.
“Well, that's one of them anyway,” he said to George Moon. “But there's no sign of the other one up there.”
“This is Jennie,” George Moon said. “I better send Charley Oskogee for his wife. We need a woman here now. It don't look to me like you'll get much from this girl tonight, Cap'n.”
“No, I don't think so either. But don't send Charley. He ought to be here with the girl, because she knows him. Send one of your other boys.”
The girl stared at us blankly, her eyes blue above pronounced cheekbones. I was struck by the long neck and delicately small head as she lay with her hair on the pillow framing her face. She reminded me of a print I had seen of Bronzino's
, even to the length of her straight nose and the finely sculpted upper lip, all so much admired by the Florentine artists. Such a face in this wilderness seemed a startling contradiction, and if from that moment I was not actually in love with Jennie Thrasher, most certainly I was at least infatuated by her face.
Schiller quickly moved everyone out of the room excepting me and Charley Oskogee, myself because I was white, I supposed, and near the girl's age. We tried to comfort her, telling her we were friends and she had nothing to fear, but she obviously didn't hear a word we said. Once, as Schiller bent over her, she seemed to shrink back from the unblinking stare, and seeing that, he made no attempt to question her.
Joe Mountain came in with a white enamel chamber pot. “She been up in that attic a long time, I bet, Cap'n,” he said. “I found this slop jar in another room for her.”
“All right,” Schiller said impatiently. “Put it down, Joe. When the woman gets here, that can be taken care of.”
We sat around the bed, watching her, the rain pounding on the roof as it came straight down. Twice, her eyes went from one of us to the next, but it was a long time before she spoke. We could hardly hear her when she did.
“Where's my papa?” she whispered. “What happened to my papa?”
“He's gone, missy,” Schiller said in his sandstone voice. Her eyes seemed to draw back from him. “We're here to find who would do such a thing. I'm the law and these men are friends.”
Her expression did not change as she turned her head toward the dark window where the faces of Choctaw policemen looked in.
“I knew that was it,” she said, more loudly now. “I knew that was it when they did all that shooting.”
“What shooting, missy?” Schiller asked, bending over her. But the urgency in his voice had no effect and she said nothing more. Finally he turned away from the bed and shrugged.
She did not cry; her expression did not change, as she became aware for the first time of her father's death. She appeared strangely detached, or perhaps resigned to it, as though she not only expected such a thing just then but had been expecting it for a long time. She lay with her pale Florentine features, staring without seeing toward the Indians at the window, their faces as expressionless as her own.
Charley Osgokee's wife came in finally, having ridden from her farm with one of the Choctaws, her shawl and long gingham dress plastered to her fat body from shoulders to knees. She was wearing a wide-brimmed man's hat, which she threw into a corner, taking us all in with one quick sweep of her black eyes, saying nothing. She shooed us out like a flock of reluctant chickens and closed the door behind. In a moment, she opened it again and said something to her husband in Choctaw. Charley Oskogee hurried into the kitchen for hot coffee and meat gravy from the ham.
BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
13.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Love on Assignment by Cara Lynn James
Unknown by
The Juniper Tree and Other Tales by The Brothers Grimm
The Good Sister by Leanne Davis
Astra: Synchronicity by Lisa Eskra
Game of Love by Ara Grigorian
Sex in the Title by Love, Zack
Luke by Jill Shalvis
How Many Chances by Hollowed, Beverley