Summary: Deputy Clem Foster is trying to solve a crime. Little Joe is eager to help until his father becomes the main suspect.
Written for the Poker Tournament in 2013 Rating T WC 3100
Murder, He Wrote
Wheels bounced over rocks and ruts. The stage pitched forward and jerked backward in a steady speed. Occasionally it seemed even to roll sideways as only the wheels on one side passed over a depression in the road. We braced our feet and clutched the armrests, violently shaken and nearly lifted from the seats with each jolt.
Whip Winston forced the team forward as fast as possible. Our driver was one of the best, but the sudden onset of winter made the rough narrow path up the mountain an unexpected dangerous adventure.
The rolled-down leather side curtains shielded us from the cold, snow and blowing wind. Only the little glass windows in the doors let in some light and lit the stage’s passenger compartment dimly. I glanced at my fellow passengers. The three gentlemen in the opposite seat were wrapped in warm blankets but shivered though. Whether for fright or for cold I didn’t know. Their conversation had stopped. As long as the road was fairly smooth and the stage teetered forward Doc Edwards and Doc Roidiere had chatted about diseases and cures endlessly. On their way home from a meeting of the Medical Association in San Francisco they hadn’t been aware how boring their conversation was for the rest of the group. Poor Mister Shwartz, a small plain travelling salesman sat squeezed between them. He had his arms pressed around the sample case in his lap and looked ready to pass out any minute now.
I shared the other seat with Ben and Little Joe Cartwright. We were on the way to Virginia City after giving testimony in court in San Francisco. The trial lasted three tiresome days and ended with a verdict of guilty. Now we were looking forward to be home soon.
Suddenly the stagecoach rumbled to a halt. A moment later the driver’s head appeared at the window of the stage door. With his white hair, the rosy cheeks and the profound belly Whip resembled Santa Claus even in summer. But now, with the snow that clinched in his beard and eye brows and piled up on the brim of his hat the striking resemblance put a smile on the passengers’ faces. We somehow expected a deep voiced “ho ho ho” next.
Instead he announced a break at a way station. The team suffered under the extreme weather and needed to be changed, he said. And he worried about the road condition. The way to Virginia City went over the mountains in a small curved road. With the heavy snow and fierce wind the coach was in permanent danger to hurl hundreds of feet down a steep canyon at each bend.
Another man joined us. Whip introduced him as Grumpy Applewhite, the stationmaster. And Grumpy took over the moment he materialized from the twirling snow. He pointed to a dark shadow behind him barely visible because of the heavy snowfall. With eagle eyes we recognized the way station building and the barn. A smaller shadow next to it turned out to be a big timber pile already covered with a thick layer of snow.
“Planning to extend the business, Grumpy?” I asked nodding in the direction of the stacked logs.
“Stage company wants a nicer place for them passengers. Sudden onset of winter put a stop to it for now. Better come in gentlemen, come in. Fresh coffee is waiting, all free. And a cozy fire, no extra charge.”
So far Grumpy seemed to be everything but grumpy. To our surprise his other side came in sight when we climbed out of the stage. Living only hours from Virginia City he knew me and the Cartwrights of course. When I introduced the other three passengers to him, his face darkened.
“Doc Edwards and Doc Roidiere? Two medicine men?” he asked, an unfriendly undertone swinging in the question.
“Yes, we are. Always at your service,” Doc Edwards confirmed with a little bow. “How can I help you?”
“You can’t,” the stationmaster grumbled. “I hate doctors. They killed the missus!”
He spewed his chewing tobacco close to Edwards’s boots, turned around and shuffled back to the house. I had to explain to the speechless “medicine men” that Grumpy’s wife died of pneumonia a year ago and Grumpy was unshakeable convinced it was her doctor’s fault. We rushed into the house. The homely warmth revived us somewhat. We placed jackets and coats in a heap by the stove to dry them. Then we perched round the big table placed in the center of the little station room. Grumpy, now a friendly host again, put mugs on the table and soon the promising aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the room.
“I’m fifty-seven years old and I’ve never seen so much snow in my life,” Roidiere said looking out of the window in disbelieve, “how about you?”
“Well, I have. I live in Boston. We get a blizzard or two each winter, but not so early in the year. Where are you from, Doctor Ro-ud-air?” Shwartz replied, struggling with the French name.
“Call me Victor, it’s easier,” Roidiere offered amusingly. “I’m from New Orleans. Our winter is mild, the summer is hot and in between we only get a hurricane or two.”
Ben Cartwright joined the conversation. “Boston and New Orleans are quite different. But both are beautiful in their own way,” he said.
“Have you been there?” Doc Edwards asked curiously.
“Oh yes. I found the love of my life there,” Ben confirmed.
“In Boston or in New Orleans?” Shwartz asked curiously.
“In Boston and in New Orleans.” Ben noticed their bewilderment and added with a smile “Elizabeth from Boston was my first wife. She died from childbed-fever. Many years later Marie from New Orleans became …”
“… his wife and my mother. She was beautiful,” Little Joe proudly joined in.
The conversation stopped here because our driver entered the station house. Whip announced: “It’s getting worse. We’ll stay here for the night. Better make yourself comfortable.”
Nobody was happy with the prospect of a night huddled together in a small room sleeping on an uncomfortable chair.
“It isn’t far to Virginia City. Only a couple of hours I guess. Don’t you think…” Doc Edwards objected and Whip nearly exploded.
“You again! I’ve heard nothing but complains from you all day! I’m responsible and I say we stay!” he shouted. “I’m not mad enough to drive a stage in a blizzard like this. You want to go? You’re a happy to do so. But don’t dare to take one of my mares.”
With that he stomped out to unhitch the horses. We took our coats and followed to get our bags and belongings from the stage. Outside we understood Whip’s decision immediately. Gale-force winds made it nearly impossible to walk erect and the snow was falling so heavily you couldn’t recognize the person moving two steps in front of you.
Little Joe climbed on top of the stage to unpack mailbags, small trunks, bags and some other cargo. We grabbed what he handed down, hustled in, put it on a heap in the corner and hurried out again to get the next load. Done with it Bachk in the house we started sorting out what bag belonged to whom. Suddenly the door burst open and Whip stumbled in.
“Sheriff! Come quickly! It’s the doc! He’s dead!”
I rushed out of the house with him, the other men in tow. Doc Edwards lay by the timber pile. A lot of blood covered the snow. It came from a deep wound in his head obviously caused by the bloody ax sunken into the snow next to him. Doc Roidiere kneeled down besides the man to feel the pulse and to check for breathing. He shook his head.
“He’s dead. Looks like an accident to me. Someone left an ax stuck in the timber and the storm loosened it,” Roidiere said.
Doubtfully I eyed the pile and then the men surrounding the scene. They all nodded in agreement. Ben’s eyes met mine and he nodded, too.
“Sounds reasonable,” he confirmed.
“Let’s take him inside. I want Sheriff Coffee have a look at him tomorrow,” I ordered. It looked like a very strange accident to me. But I was the only the deputy, maybe my boss had more insight.
“Not the house! Don’t even think about it,” Grumpy protested heatedly. “Let’s take him to the tack room.”
He grabbed the dead man’s boots and Little Joe took him by the shoulders. Together they carried the body to the barn. It was a horrible sight, the limb corpse between them, his lifeless arms dangling along, leaving small tracks in the snow.
Shaken by the tragic incident we watched in silence until they disappeared in the barn and returned a couple of minutes later. Then we hurried back to the station house. Back in the comforting warmth we recovered slowly from the shock. Shwartz and Roidiere were the most upset. With a greenish-white face Shwartz headed to the outhouse. When he came back, Roidiere left in a hurry, too. Whip wanted to make sure the horses were stabled safe and sound. He went out again, just when the station master came in with the coffee beans he brought from the larder. Grumpy began to prepare coffee and something to bite. Ben joined him to assist.
Plenty of hot coffee splashed with whisky and sandwiches helped to get over the shock. Soon an agitated conversation took place. We agreed that an awful accident had killed Doc Edwards and everybody added ideas when we tried to reconstruct what exactly had happened. Strictly speaking everybody except Joe, who sat aside by the fireplace watching and listening but otherwise uninvolved.
Suddenly the young Cartwright fumbled a small pencil from his pocket and scribbled something on a piece of paper he tore from an old newspaper. Then he rose, crossed the room and shoved the paper strip right under my nose.
“Murder,” he wrote. And: “Can’t talk here – must be someone in this group.”
Murder? Bull****, was my first thought, he is playing detective again. It was a simple case of ‘to be in the wrong place at the wrong time’. Problem was I had a strange feeling about the sudden death myself and the young Cartwright wasn’t stupid. I better found out what smelled fishy in his opinion. We needed to talk without witnesses.
“We can use some more logs to keep the fire going. I take care of it. Joe, mind to give me a hand?”
Clever kid. He got the idea at once. Little Joe grabbed his coat and followed me into the freezing cold before Grumpy decided it was his duty to do so.
The weather was getting worse every minute. Snow, driven by the fierce storm, came toward us from every direction. We fought our way across the yard to the barn.
“Alright Joe, what make you think it was murder?”
“The ax wasn’t there when we got the bags in. I had a look at the timber pile from the coach roof.”
“Sure you didn’t miss it in the snow? It must have been somewhere. An ax is not a tool you carry around in your pocket.”
“Yes, it must have been somewhere,” Little Joe shouted back hot tempered as usual. “But it was not sticking in a log on top of that pile!”
“If he was killed…”
“Not if! He WAS killed.”
“Easy Joe. Let’s assume he was killed. Why? You don’t get killed because of tasteless stories about stomach ulcer.”
“He looks wealthy in this expensive suit. Maybe it was robbery – as simple as that.”
He had a point here. We hurried to the tack room. I hesitated but it had to be done. In disgust I searched the corpse and found his wallet with more than 200 Dollars. It also contained a letter addressed to “Doctor Matthew Edwards, Cedar Rd, Boston.” In it he was informed that he won an award for his research, to be given to him during the meeting. The address was a useful find for later when we had to inform his next of kin. Edwards had a golden watch in his pocket, too. Robbery was definitely not the reason for his death. And then I found something else. It took a while to unwind the little shiny thing from his clutched hand. I recognized what it was. Suddenly I was convinced Doc Edwards had been killed.
Lost in thought Joe didn’t notice my last find. “There must be a reason” he murmured disappointedly. And suddenly: “Clem!” With his typical finger snap he exclaimed: “That’s it! It’s in his past!”
“What is in his past?”
“The reason he got killed of course.”
“And what reason would that be?”
“What what what …I don’t know. You’re the sheriff. It’s your job to find out and arrest someone!”
“Maybe I found out already,” I said and received an angry stare from Joe.
I showed him the little shiny item. Like me he recognized the silver concho from his father’s vest immediately and was totally stunned.
“Clem! You can’t possibly assume Pa killed him!”
“This is evidence, Joe. And someone he met in the past? Your father has been in Boston. Let’s go back to the house, I have to do my job and arrest someone.” With these words I turned around and left the barn.
“Clem, no!” Joe shouted in despair and followed hastily. I ignored him.
Back in the house I found them all sitting at the table, drinking coffee again.
Grumpy snapped at me: “What takes you so long? And where is the firewood?”
“Forget the firewood. We have more important things to talk about.”
As hoped this attracted the men’s attention. They turned to me with a look of expectancy and curiosity.
“I had another look at Mister Edwards. I think we have to drop the idea of an accident. One person in this room is a murderer.”
For a moment the men petrified. Ben was the first to recover from the news.
“What makes you think so?” he asked.
“I have my reasons,” was all I wanted to give away at the moment.
“Come on Sheriff, this is ridiculous!” Grumpy said, “Who had a reason to kill that man?”
“You, for example, Mister Applewhite. Don’t you hate all doctors since your wife died? But you’re not the only one, I think. Mister Winston was obviously fed up with this passenger, too. Maybe Mister Edwards complained one time too often.”
Whip and Grumpy looked at me, then at each other, then started to laugh. “Naw, Sheriff, we ain’t no killers. We don’t have the time to go around and ax people when the stage rolls into the station.”
“If it wasn’t you, it has to be one of my fellow passengers. How about you, Doctor Roidiere? You take your research as seriously as Doctor Edwards. Do you think it was fair he got an award in San Francisco and you went away empty-handed?”
Doc Roidiere blushed. Obviously I struck a nerve. But he disagreed vehemently: “Absolutely. My colleague was an outstanding eye specialist and deserved the award more than anyone.”
Next to him sat Ben but I directed my next question to Shwartz instead.
“Living in Boston like the Doc, did you ever meet Edwards before boarding the stage?”
“No…yes…I mean… I live in Boston…I’m rarely home, you know…”
Why was he so nervous? And why didn’t he answer the question? Before I could ask again, Doc Roidiere interfered.
“Poor Mister Shwartz can hardly carry his case without help. Why didn’t you ask Cartwright? He has been in Boston, too. He is much more capable to swing an ax if you ask me.”
“I know Ben Cartwright for a long time. Nothing gives rise to the suspicion that he is involved in this crime.”
Roidiere jumped up. “And the concho? Didn’t you notice the concho? Or did you stash it away to help your good old friend Ben Cartwright?” he asked with a smirk.
“Ah yes, the concho,” I said calmly. “You’re right the concho is evidence. It exposes the murderer.”
The group was so quiet now you could have heard a pin drop. I noticed Little Joes hand slowly moving to his gun. I hoped the boy didn’t do anything stupid.
“The murderer made two mistakes,” I continued. “First: he planted the concho in Edwards’ hand. I’m sure his hands were empty when Grumpy and Joe carried the body to the barn. And second: how come you know about the concho, Mister Roidiere? Joe and I didn’t mention it.”
When he realized he was caught in a trap the man turned pale. He seemed to resign without fight so I didn’t I pull my gun on him yet.
“Before I arrest you, tell us why you killed Doc Edwards. We all want to know.”
“Why I killed Edwards?” He burst out laughing hysterically. “I had no reason to kill Edwards. It was a mistake, a bloody mistake in the snow. I wanted Cartwright. I want him dead! Dead! Dead!”
Suddenly Roidiere grabbed his gun and aimed at Ben. Little Joe drew a split second faster, fired. Hit by the bullet the man stumbled a few steps backward then collapsed to the floor. Blood colored his shirt red.
Joe kneeled by the dying man. Roidiere opened his eyes, saw him and with his last breath he whispered barely audible: “Your mother – I did it for …” His body went limp. Roidiere was dead.
The men in the room looked down at the body in shock and disgust. The gun in his clenched fist was still pointing at Ben Cartwright. Even in his death bottomless hatred filled Roidiere’s face.
“Why?” Ben asked flatly. Shaking his head in disbelief he added “We never met before.”
Later I discovered the answer in Roidiere’s belongings. A small bundle was packed away at the bottom of his carpet bag. It was carefully wrapped in black silk. Inside I found a blue velvet ribbon, a silver brooch and the faded photo of a beautiful, young woman. “á mon ami Victor, who will be in my heart forever – Marie” was written on its back. An old newspaper completed the strange romantic collection. To my surprise it was an issue of the Territorial Enterprise, the newspaper of Virginia City. In big bold letters this headline sprang into the eye: A Tragedy: Mrs. Ben Cartwright Killed in Horse Accident! Rants and curses were scribbled all over the article: Ben Cartwright’s fault…took her away…killed her…his life for yours, Marie…Ben Cartwright must die…
Other Stories by this Author
- (Un)Silent Night (by heike)
- Virginia City Tea Party (by heike)
- Smelling a Rat (by Heike)
- One Out Of Six (by Heike)
- Kama… WHAT? (by heike)