by Guy Belleranti
This mystery short story was first published by Hand Held Crime in August 2001. It was also published as podcast by The Way of the Buffalo in January 2012.
Deputy Latimore stepped out from the rest of the posse as Marshal Ben Clagget reined in his horse. “Marshal,” Latimore said, “those stage robbers were hiding out here by the creek just like you thought. The boys and I had ‘em surrounded before they could make a run. Got all three of ‘em hand-tied and ready for the ride back.”
Clagget dismounted. “Good work. I’ll water and rest my horse a bit, and then- Wait a minute. You only got three tied? Where’s the fourth?”
Latimore shuffled his feet. “Dead, sir.”
“Yeah. Uh, murdered.”
“Murdered?” Clagget’s blue eyes flashed.
“Not by us, Marshal. By one of their own. Right before we got here.” Latimore removed his big Stetson, mopped the sweat from his brow with his red checkered kerchief, and went on. “Buck Jameson is the dead guy. Stabbed in the back.”
“Where is he?”
“Through those trees. But watch out, there’s a drop-off on the other side. That’s where he is. At the bottom of the drop-off.”
Clagget walked the direction Latimore indicated. Latimore followed on his heels. Sure enough, the forest opened up to a sudden gorge, and forty feet down lay the crumpled figure of a man. “You go down to make sure he’s dead?”
“Yep. Took that little trail starting right next to those manzanita bushes. Lot easier than going straight down and also figured you wouldn’t want me to mess up anything. I figure the killer’s gotta be Percy Cronin, Thad Long or Jeb Hunter, but I don’t know which.”
“Don’t they know?”
“They’re blaming each other. Stage robbing is one thing, but murder…that means hanging.”
Clagget sighed. “It does at that. Reckon I better go down and take a closer look at Jameson. Then I’ll come back for a few men to help haul him out.”
“Seems like a lot of effort for a no-good outlaw,” Latimore said.
The Marshal gave him a sharp look.
“Not that I’m saying we shouldn’t do it. It’s just….” Latimore trailed off with a shrug.
“We’re the law, Latimore. Seldom easy, often pretty thankless, but that’s the way it is.”
Deputy Latimore threw up a hand, his long face reddening. “Forget I said anything, Marshal. You’re right, of course, and I’m sorry. Guess I was just letting my lack of sleep get the better of me. It won’t happen again.”
Clagget chewed the end of his mustache for a moment, nodded, turned to make his descent and then swung back. “Oh, Latimore, have one of the men water my horse. And keep a close eye on the prisoners. Before we head back to town I’ll want to talk to all three of those scoundrels.”
Clagget hiked down the rocky path Latimore had indicated, and took a good long look around. Buck Jameson lay on his stomach, arms stretched out, head to one side. The sun glinted off his metal-framed spectacles and the eyes behind them stared as if in shock.
Clagget moved closer and bent low, studying Jameson’s dusty boots and pants. Then he saw the knife. Stabbed in the back sure enough. Had never even had a chance to draw his gun.
Clagget eyed the knife’s hilt. Pretty fancy – silver studded with turquoise. Shouldn’t be hard to find out which of the three remaining outlaws owned it. “Yeah,” he muttered. “That’s where I’ll start.”
Percy Cronin shook his heavily bearded head in answer to Clagget’s question. “Knife’s not any of ours. Fact is it was Buck’s. He won it in a poker game from some mountain man. Wouldn’t even let us touch it. Mostly kept it in his saddlebag.”
“Well one of you took it out and used it,” Latimore said.
“Wasn’t me. Like I told you before, I was downstream filling my canteen.” The outlaw looked at Clagget, then at his two cohorts. “These two, however…. I don’t know what either of them was up to.”
“Why you dirty weasel.” Thad Long’s blue eyes flashed fire, and a jagged three inch scar pulsated on his left cheek. He swung to the Clagget. “I’m no killer, Marshal. Don’t know anything about what happened to Buck.”
“He started that way, but I was too busy after that to notice.”
“Yeah. Searching in the woods, hoping to find us a couple rabbits or quail for lunch.”
“Did you get a couple rabbits or quail?”
“Nah. I heard Jeb yelling before I could and…Jeb, you tell it.”
Jeb Hunter shrugged his massive shoulders. “I was checking on the horses. We had ‘em tied back in those trees, and if you go check it out you’ll find you can also see that cliff where Buck was shoved over.”
“Shoved over?” Clagget asked.
“Yeah. I spotted him standing there, then all of a sudden he lurched forward and over. That’s when I saw the figure behind him.”
“Figure?” Latimore asked. “Who?”
“Don’t know,” Hunter said. “Just a blur of someone disappearing into the trees.”
“Someone like Cronin or Long?” Clagget asked
“I tell you I don’t know. Could’ve been, I guess.”
“What d’ya mean could’ve been?” Thad Long glared. “Jeb, you know darn well it wasn’t me, that I came running just a minute after you yelled.”
“Say, that’s right. You did, didn’t you? Which means…?”
“Which means it had to be you, Cronin,” Long finished.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Cronin cried out angrily. “I was down by the creek. Check my canteen if you don’t believe me. It’s full.”
“Proves nothing,” Long snarled. “You could’ve filled it before. Or after.”
“And you could’ve been hunting more than rabbits in the woods,” Cronin snapped back. “You could’ve swiped Buck’s knife, then snuck up on him and–”
“No! I didn’t.”
“Or, how ‘bout you, Jeb?” Cronin continued, swinging on the other outlaw. “How do we know you’re not lying? Maybe you knifed Buck and then shoved him into that gully, hoping to increase your share of the stage loot.”
Jeb Hunter’s face purpled. “If I wasn’t tied…you were the first to raise a ruckus when he took the biggest cut from the stage job, not me.”
“Only ‘cause you and Thad were afraid to.”
“Afraid to?” Thad Long lunged awkwardly toward Cronin, but Marshal Clagget moved quicker, and stuck out a boot tripping him up. “Now that’s enough of this…from all of you.” He caught Latimore’s eye, and the two of them moved a short distance away from the rest.
“Marshal,” Latimore said, “I don’t see that this is leading anywhere.”
“Yeah,” Clagget agreed, “I thought the same thing at first. But now I’m not so sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“What? You’re kidding me.”
The marshal shook his head, smiling grimly. “I never kid about murder, Latimore. You ought to know that.”
“Well, yeah, but then…who? Who did it?”
“Yeah. He said he saw Buck Jameson falling into the gorge, but that’s got to be a lie because of the spectacles.”
Clagget nodded. “Yeah. When I went down to look at the body I noticed Jameson was wearing spectacles.”
“So, a fall of forty feet would have knocked the spectacles off his head. Probably would’ve busted them as well.”
Latimore’s eyes widened. “Say, that’s right.”
The two lawmen returned to the circle of outlaws. When they confronted Hunter he tried to make a break for it.
Of course with his wrists tied behind his back he didn’t get far. Caught this second time, he lost all control of his tongue. “I’d had it with Jameson,” he raged. “It was simple swiping that knife from his saddlebag, and when I got the chance I followed him down the path into the gorge. He never heard me coming, never knew a thing ‘til it was too late.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.