by J.R. Lindermuth
This week we are featuring some mystery short stories that involve fathers in honor of Father’s Day. A Man in a Hurry was first published by Mysterical-E in August of 2012.
I’m sheriff over to Arahpot and one thing folks know about me is I don’t shirk my duty, especially not when it comes to women and kids. I just wasn’t prepared for what awaited me this day.
It was one of those quiet mornings, not even the fleas stirring on the jailhouse dog. I was in my office nursing a cup of coffee and contemplating taking the day off for a little fishing when the telephone rang. I’m still not used to the blamed thing and it probably took longer for me to answer than it should have.
“Sheriff Tilghman?” a voice squawked in my ear.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“You gotta get over here right away.”
“Who is this? I gotta get where?”
After a hiss of expelled air, the voice bellowed again. “It’s Maggie Snyder, that’s who. You gotta drop everything else and get on over here.”
“Now calm down, Maggie, and tell me what you’re blatherin’ about. Where do I have to go and why?”
“It’s little Charlie Purcell. He’s been missing since early this morning.”
Took no more than that to get me moving; I’ve known Ralph Purcell all his life. Good young fellow and a hard worker. His wife Irene is just about the sweetest thing you’d ever want to meet. And three-year-old Charlie, their first and only child, is their pride and joy. Smart, handsome little tyke, the sun rises and sets on him in that household.
Well, sir, when I reached their place Irene was in such a state she could barely talk. But Maggie Snyder was there and steamed up to tell me exactly where my duty lay. That woman has been the bane of my existence since I took this job. A nosey neighbor, an unprincipled gossip and a harridan who’s driven off at least two men who thought they might tame her with marriage.
“Now stop shouting, Maggie, and tell me what happened so I can figger what needs to be done.”
Hands on her hips, Maggie advanced on me like a hen protecting her chicks. “I’m telling you what you got to do. You gotta get after them.”
“I’d be glad to do that if you’d simmer down enough to tell me who you’re talking about. Take a breath, woman, step back and start at the beginning. I can’t do nothing unless I know what’s been done.”
Maggie hissed and hemmed a couple seconds longer, her eyes scouring me and her lips twisting like she had something bitter in her mouth. Then, going over to where Irene stood, she threw an arm across the girl’s shoulders and told me what happened. “Ralph was off to work. Irene put Charlie out in the front yard with a couple of his favorite toys and she come back inside to do up some dishes. She was only gone a little while and when she came back Charlie was gone. She checked with me and the other neighbors and then I called you.”
“Gone? And you think…”
“I don’t think. I know. The boy’s been kidnapped.”
“I’m getting to that if you’ll give me a chance, Tilghman.” She advanced on me again, those nasty eyes blazing. “Luther Gilger come out on his porch. Now he can’t see the front of Irene’s house from his. But he told me a team came slowly past his house just as he came out. Then, as it passed by Irene’s house, the driver whipped up his horses and they went flyin’ off in the direction of Masonville.”
“So you think…”
The thought of it put a stone in my stomach and my mouth went dry.
“So why are you standing here, Tilghman? Round up a posse and get after them.”
The woman was right. That’s what had to be done and I’m proud I rounded up a posse as quick as I did, most of the men being off to work. As I said, Ralph is a good boy and well-liked. His neighbors were glad to drop what they were doing and join in the search. Before long I had a half-dozen men on horseback and a number of others willing to pursue the team on foot.
We set off at a gallop, pausing at every little patch along the way only long enough to inquire if anyone had seen the team in question. The heat of the day came up and we went on, scouring the countryside for miles around. At every place we came to we heard the same refrain. A team passed, the driver whipping his horses and driving them at a furious pace. And it was always the same–the wagon went too fast for anyone to tell if a child had been aboard.
It was frustrating, but we went on. The men were bone-weary but how could we quit when a woman waited to learn the fate of her child?
Another eighteen miles and my horse threw a shoe. I drew up and dismounted. The others pulled up beside me, looking down, questioning without words what should they do. “Somebody loan me a horse,” I said.
“Our horses is all tired, Sheriff,” Luther Gilger’s son Ed said. “Maybe we ought to give it up.” Dusk was descending. Several of the others bobbed their heads and muttered in agreement.
“We can’t do that,” another voice rang out. I looked up and saw A. J. Kissinger wheel his big buckskin around so he could confront the others. All of them, especially Ed Gilger, hung their heads in shame. I don’t particularly like Kissinger. He’s a brusque, arrogant man who always has to be right. But this time I had to agree with him.
“He’s right, men,” I chimed in. “Ralph and Irene are depending on us to find their baby. Now who’s gonna give me a horse?”
Before anyone answered we heard the rattle of trace, the creak of wheel and snort of horses coming down the road toward us. It was too dark to identify them right away but we could make out a group of riders escorting a wagon out of the gloaming. “That you, sheriff?” a voice called out.
“Aye. Who’s there?”
Another moment and I discerned it was another group who’d later joined our posse. They’d split off an hour earlier when we’d come to a forking of the road.
“Who’s that with you?” I asked, walking over and looking up at the driver. Hunched on his seat, the man was pale and dust-covered. He had a rag wrapped around one hand. “Maybe a kidnapper,” one of the men said.
“That right, mister?” I gazed up at him. His eyes flashed in a bit of light as he swiveled them to meet my stare.
“I haint no kidnapper. I haint done nothin’.”
“He got blood on his clothes,” one of the men said.
“I haint never,” the man croaked. “I never seen no child.”
“Then where’d the blood come from?”
He spun round to face me, holding up the hand with the rag. “Told them, I cut myself in my camp this morning. I was choppin’ wood, the ax hit a knot and bunged me. Hurt like a bugger. Thought I might of lost a thumb.”
“And did you?”
“Nah. But it were a bad cut. Took forever to stop the bleeding.”
“So if you didn’t steal no child and didn’t do nothing bad why were you in such an all-fired hurry to get away?” Kissinger asked.
It was a question I would have asked and it irritated me to have the man butt in. “People said you drove fast and didn’t stop in any of the towns you passed through. What’s your big hurry?”
“I felt poorly. I just wanted to go home.”
“And where is that?”
“Next county over.” He jerked his head at the riders. “Been there by now if’n they hadn’t stopped me.”
Kissinger leaned forward in his saddle, seized the man by an arm and threw him off the seat. The man thudded to the ground between us, groaned and rolled over with his hands raised before him. “Please. Don’t hurt me. I haint done nothin’.”
“Then you better quick tell us what you done with that baby,” Kissinger blurted.
“Told you, I haint done nothin’,” the man said, rising to his knees and then standing. He peered from Kissinger to me, then back again. I could see him shaking like a man took with cold.
A tree limb cracked back in the bush and startled several of the horses. One of them snapped at Kissinger’s horse which bucked and swung around. The suspect took advantage of the opportunity and darted off between the horses, heading for the woods. “Hold on, you. Stop!” I shouted.
A ball whistled past my ear and I felt its wind before hearing the sound. It struck the man. He gave a little moan and pitched forward on his face in the brush.
Brandishing the revolver I hadn’t even known he was carrying, Kissinger urged his mount forward. I followed on shaking legs and bent beside the man. There was nothing more he would tell us. I glowered up at Kissinger who sat astride his horse like the hero of the moment. “What did you do that for?”
He shrugged. “You rather he got away?”
I rose and seized his bridle. The horse snorted, trying to shake its head. “He wouldn’t have got far. If he knew anything about the child he’ll not tell us now.”
I had the boys load the man into the back of his wagon and we started our slow way back to town. I dreaded the fact there was naught I could tell Charley’s parents and I felt sick about the fate of the man. He didn’t deserve to die like that whether or not he’d taken the child.
It was full dark by the time I stepped up on the porch of the Purcell home. I’d had the posse take the body over to Follmer’s funeral parlor and asked those who could to join me in the morning for another search. I was considering just where to look as I knocked on the door.
The door popped open and I staggered back in shock. There before me stood Ralph, cradling little Charlie in his arms.
Ralph grinned and waved for me to come on in the house. “Sorry to be such a bother, sheriff,” he said. “Had you out there roamin’ around half the day and there was no need. He was found right after you left. Little scamp was over in Luther Gilger’s barn playin’ with some new born kittens. Don’t that beat all?”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & watch for more Father related mystery short stories this week in our mystery section.