Sunset Stories
Chapter 8: Set-Up

Copyright© 2016 by Scriptorius

If he had thought about the matter in advance, Jed Hall would have considered it almost impossible for him to fall foul of the law after less than an hour in a town to which he was a stranger. But he managed it. Early in a May afternoon that was, for the area and time of year, uncharacteristically dank and dismal, he arrived at the community of Little Bend, Arizona. Having arranged care for his horse, he drank two beers in the first saloon he came upon, then stepped out to the sidewalk and, seeing three unoccupied rickety wooden armchairs, sat his sturdy five foot ten frame in the middle one. Taking off his hat, he ran a hand through his mop of floppy black hair and dedicated himself to relaxation.

Jed was wandering the West, observing his surroundings and making notes. He hoped to write a book about his travels, but there was no hurry. At twenty-four, he expected to have plenty of time left. So far, he had seen a good deal of the coastal areas from Canada to Mexico and now he was moving back northwards, following an unplanned route further inland. Just as he wasn’t concerned about the passing of weeks or months, he had no worries about finding work. Money was no problem to him – he made his own.

After a post-school spell of helping out at the family ranch on the high plains, Jed had moved on to take a job as prison warder, serving for three years. During that time he had befriended an elderly inmate serving a long sentence for making counterfeit coins. Jed had taken a liking to the lonely man and when, dying of consumption, the fellow was moved to the prison hospital, the young guard visited him daily. Knowing that his end was near, the prisoner imparted his secrets to his friend, even revealing where he had cached the tools of his trade. Two weeks after passing on his knowledge, he died.

It took only a further month for Jed to leave his job and recover the old man’s equipment. Getting the hang of it wasn’t easy, but Jed applied himself and finally was able to turn out and artificially age fake gold eagles, double-eagles and Mexican fifty-peso coins that were good enough to fool anyone but an expert.

For four years, Jed had travelled in comfort, the contents of the money belt kept next to his skin providing him with all he needed. When he ran short, he returned to his secreted equipment and made himself a further supply of cash. With pieces of such denomination, carrying substantial funds was easy. On arrival in Little Bend, he had nearly nine hundred dollars.

Jed had been sitting for only five minutes, when a man came tramping along and stopped, facing him. The fellow was of medium height, grossly overweight, with small, pig’s eyes set in the fat-creases of a scowling red face. A tin star was pinned to his grubby grey shirt. “You’re under arrest,” he growled.

“Me?” said Jed, grinning at the seemingly obvious error. “What for?”

“Murder.”

“Now just a minute, Sheriff,” said Jed.

“Deputy. The name’s Gilmore.”

“All right, Deputy Sheriff Gilmore. I can take a joke, but I think you’re going too far. Who am I supposed to have murdered?”

“John Durkin. Accountant at the Weissberg gold mine.”

“Oh. When did I kill him?”

“Two days ago. Evening of May eighteenth, around six-thirty. You stabbed him to death.”

“Where?”

“Three miles out of town, when he was on his way home.”

“Well now, that was damned clever of me. Two evenings ago I was in the mountains, forty miles from here.”

“Alone, were you?”

“Yes.”

Gilmore crooked a beckoning finger. “That’s good enough. You’ll get your chance to tell your story later. Right now you’re coming with me. Move.” He drew his gun.

Jed was no longer amused. “Okay. I guess I’ll have to go along, but you’re making a mistake.”

“We’ll see.” Gilmore ushered Jed ahead of him at gunpoint, prodding him into the combined office and jail, then patting him down, seeking weapons. Jed had never carried a gun, but did keep a long, razor-sharp knife. Gilmore took it, putting it into a desk drawer. Satisfied with the perfunctory search, he allowed Jed to keep his remaining personal effects. Sitting at the desk, he picked up pen and paper. “What’s your full name?” he asked.

“Jedediah Frederick Hall.”

“Where are you from, Hall?”

“Nowhere in particular. I’m travelling around.”

“A drifter, eh? What work do you do?”

“I aim to make my living with a pen. I’m hoping my savings will last until I can finish a book I have in mind.”

“To me, you’re a vagrant. Anyway, that’s not important. You’re in deeper trouble. I’ll take your statement later. Now, get in that far cell there.”

Resistance being useless, Jed obeyed. Gilmore locked him in, then returned to the desk, where he sat writing for a while, then pushed aside his papers and bent low over the scarred deal surface, using some kind of tool he’d pulled from a drawer. Jed couldn’t see what the man was doing, but heard him cursing and grunting as he worked. He was at it for more than an hour, then he came over to the cell, a blood-spotted rag wrapped around his left thumb. “I’m going out now,” he said. “I’ll be gone a good while.” With a malicious grin, he turned and stomped off.

Though alarmed, Jed was not the panicking type and when Gilmore left, he inspected the cell. Pulling the thin apology for a mattress from the narrow bed, he managed a wry smile. The frame was of iron, with a flat wire mesh, tensioned by springs fastened through holes in the metal. Well, that was something. Getting out would be no trouble. During his period as a prison warder, Jed had learned just about every trick in the jail-breaker’s repertoire. He set to work and within ten minutes, had loosened a spring and removed and twisted one of the wire strands. Now he could pick the lock anytime.

Breaking out was one thing, but Jed had no intention of spending the rest of his days on the run for a crime he hadn’t committed. He was still baffled by the peremptory way he had been treated. There had to be some kind of reasoning involved. There was, as he was soon to discover. He still had his cigars and matches, so he lay on the bed, smoking and thinking. Gilmore was away for four hours. He returned, smiling triumphantly. “Well, feller,” he said. “I guess I’ll get a commendation for this. I got you all tied up now.”

“You mean you’ve got me set up,” Jed replied angrily. “How did you do it?”

“Wasn’t any bother at all. First I found a witness who can place you and your horse at the scene of the crime at the right time. Then I got this.” He brandished Jed’s knife.

“Of course you’ve got it. You took it from me.”

“No, I didn’t. I recovered it from where you threw it after you killed Durkin. Investigating the matter with my usual thoroughness, I searched the area and found this knife. You said your name is Jedediah Frederick Hall, didn’t you?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, here we are, then.” He held up the knife, the initials J.F.H. carved into the wooden handle, dried blood on the blade. It was a workmanlike job. The letters had had something, probably dirt or pencil lead, rubbed into them and had been smoothed around the edges. They might have been there for years.

“Why, you damned crook. That handle was plain. You put my initials there yourself. That’s what you were doing this afternoon. I suppose that’s your blood. You pricked your thumb and smeared it on the knife.”

“Did I? Well, I don’t think the court will agree. Judge Thomas is a sharp one. He’s at the county seat right now and he’ll be here to try your case in a day or two.”

Jed was fuming. “This is outrageous,” he shouted. “There must be someone here I can speak to. Don’t you have a town council or something?”

“Oh, sure,” Gilmore replied. “Chairman’s Major Stobart. Fine gentleman.”

“Where can I find him?”.

“You can’t find anybody, mister. You’re locked up.”

“Well, where does he live?”

“Big white board house with a picket fence, south end of the street, but you don’t need to worry about that because you’ll not be seeing him. Anyway, I’m going out again. I brought you something to eat here.” He passed a bowl of beef stew through the food flap then left, locking the outer door.

Desperate though his situation was, Jed saw no point in adding hunger to his troubles, so he ate the food, then took up his improvised wire key. Within two minutes, he had unlocked the cell door. He had no clear plan, so he first opened the desk drawer. There was the knife. Underneath it were two sheets of paper. One was a form, detailing the time and date of his arrest; two-thirty that afternoon, May twentieth.

The second paper was the deputy sheriff’s version of his inspired solving of the crime. So that was what he’d been writing before he started work on the knife. Jed read it with increasing puzzlement. The report stated that Gilmore had searched the crime scene, finding the knife. Having no secure repository in his office, he had taken the supposed murder weapon to the home of Major Stobart, who had put it into his safe. The oddest thing was that the report stated that Gilmore had done all this on the evening of the crime, May eighteenth, calling on Stobart at eight-thirty p.m. Yet there was the knife, two days later, in Jed’s hand. Obviously Gilmore had falsified the record. It would look good for him. The way he recorded it, he had acted within an hour of the crime and had arrested the culprit less than two days later. Exemplary work.

Jed’s mind raced through his options. First, he could take the knife and run, but he had decided earlier that he was unwilling to be a fugitive. Second, he could hide the knife. But if he did, how long might he be held on suspicion? Furthermore, for all he knew, the deck might have been stacked against him in other ways. He needed to prove his point.

Maybe there was some way of exposing Gilmore’s deceit. With pressure accelerating his thought processes, Jed had an idea within five minutes. He would locate this Major Stobart as quickly as possible. If the major confirmed Gilmore’s story that the knife had been put into his safe on May eighteenth, then the two were in league. Also, perhaps Stobart wouldn’t be needed at the trial and therefore not be required to confirm the lie. Whatever the circumstances, Jed would call on him. However, he would first try to cover himself. He thought he knew how.

Behind the office was a storeroom with a door to the rear. Jed wasted no time seeking a key, opting to pick the lock. With the evening gloom helping him, he left, stealing across the back lots to the telegraph office. He’d thought up a story for the operator. It was flimsy, but all he needed was a momentary distraction. As it happened, the place was unoccupied, the door locked. What happened to messages when nobody was there? Maybe they were somehow relayed straight through to the next point down the line. Jed didn’t know. Going to the back, he forced a window and clambered inside. In seconds, he found what he wanted; copies of that day’s wires. Removing the top two, he selected the third, checked that it would suit his purpose, then replaced the others, left the way he had entered and hurried back to Gilmore’s office. Then he picked up his knife and got to work.

Ten minutes later he was on the move again. Time to call on Major Stobart. It was dark, but Jed had no problem in finding the house Gilmore had described. He knocked on the door and fidgeted anxiously for half a minute until it swung open, revealing a tall slim silver-haired man, immaculately dressed. “Good evening, sir. What can I do for you?” The voice was that of an old-school southern gentleman, though Jed thought he detected artificiality in it.”

“I’m sorry to trouble you so late. Are you Major Stobart?”

“I am indeed, but I fear you have the advantage of me.”

“My name is Hall. If it isn’t too much trouble, I need a few words with you.”

The major inclined his head. “Very well. I was about to retire, but I’ll accommodate you. Please step in.” He led the way into a large sitting room. “You’ll take a drink, Mr Hall – whiskey, perhaps?”

“Yes, sir. I could use one.”

Major Stobart supplied the drinks, indicating an armchair by the dying fire and seating himself in a matching one opposite his visitor. “Now, how can I help?”

Mindful of his ignorance of the major’s role in the affair, Jed told his story, omitting only his visit to the telegraph office. He concluded by admitting his escape, throwing himself upon the major’s mercy. When he came to Gilmore’s assertion that the incriminating knife had been placed in Stobart’s safe, the major merely nodded, saying nothing. When pressed, he hesitated, finally saying that Gilmore had handed him a package on May eighteenth, but had not said what it contained.

When Jed finished speaking, the major steepled his fingers, staring upward. For a long moment, he was silent, then said: “Well, Mr Hall. I’ve noted what you say. It’s certainly a strange situation. However, what do you want of me?”

Jed shrugged. “You can see my position is pretty awkward. I don’t want to run away, so I thought that if there’s a Mrs Durkin, maybe she could help somehow. I don’t know in what way and it may be a foolish idea, but it’s probably better than doing nothing. Trouble is, I don’t have much time.”

Stobart nodded. “Yes,” he said, “there is a widow. In fact, she lives just across the street. It’s rather late, but I imagine that in the circumstances she would see us.”

“Us?”

“Yes. I think it would be as well if I were to join you. Shall we go?”

They crossed to the Durkin house. The widow answered and Major Stobart apologised for the late call, introduced Jed and briefly explained the purpose of the visit. “All right, gentlemen,” said the distressed lady. “I don’t see what I can do, but if you’d come in.” She seated them in a living room, where Jed repeated his story.

Mrs Durkin, a small, birdlike woman, listened in silence. When Jed finished, she spread her hands. “I don’t know what to say. It’s true that the night before he was killed, John was disturbed. He wouldn’t tell me why, but he did say there was something he had to write down. He stayed up late. There was just one other thing. He started early for work the following morning. He said he wanted to see James Fielding, the lawyer. I reminded him that James was away on business, but he said he’d call anyway.”

“Thank you, Mrs Durkin,” said the major. “I suppose your husband didn’t leave anything in writing with you?”

“No, he did not.”

After offering condolences to the widow, the two men took their leave and returned to Stobart’s house. “Well, Mr Hall,” said the major. “I really don’t know what to suggest.”

“I do,” Jed replied. “I need to get into that lawyer’s office and see whether Durkin left anything there.”

“I can do that,” the major answered quickly. “Perhaps you’d better return to your cell and I’ll see if there’s anything to be found.”

“I’m obliged to you, Major,” said Jed, “but I want to see for myself. I’ll break in if necessary.”

Stobart raised a hand. “No need for that. James Fielding is a bachelor. He lives alone, above his office. He always leaves his key with his next-door neighbour when he’s away. If you’re so adamant about this, we’ll deal with it now.”

The major’s prestige sufficed to get the two men into Fielding’s office. Three envelopes lay on the lawyer’s desk, placed there by his neighbour. “Must be one of these,” said Jed.

Stobart picked up the largest one. “This is it,” he said. “I’ve seen Durkin’s writing before. We’ll take it. I know that is very irregular behaviour, but I think it is justified.”

They went back again to Stobart’s home, where the major led the way into his study. Jed opened the big envelope, finding inside a smaller, sealed one and a short note to James Fielding. The note asked Fielding to keep the other item, to be used only in the event of any mishap to Durkin. Jed opened the smaller envelope and the two men hunched over the letter it contained. They read:

Dear James, I am writing this letter in the hope that you will make the contents public if anything untoward happens to me. Frankly, I am in fear for my life and cannot tell what turn events will take. Time presses, so I will be brief.

Some weeks ago, I stumbled upon a swindle being carried out at the mine by two men, Mark Conway and Tom O’Sullivan. It will serve no purpose to go into detail, but the operation was clever, involving the regular evasion of security measures. I have always considered myself a liberal man, so before deciding whether to report the matter to higher authority, I confronted the miscreants, telling them that if they would stop their activities, I would say nothing further.

Conway and O’Sullivan asked me to meet them in secret, the following day. When I kept the rendezvous, I found not only the two men present, but also Deputy Sheriff Gilmore. It seemed that he – you may remember he once worked at the mine – was in on the whole thing. In fact, he had conceived the plan, but being no longer employed by the company, he had to get someone else to carry it out. The three men made no bones about their intentions. I was offered a share of their booty, in return for holding my tongue. If I did not agree, neither I nor my wife would be spared.

To my shame, I remained silent and took my share of the spoils. However, the affair has troubled me so much that I can stand no more of it. As you know, my wife is in poor health and for this reason I cannot confide in her. In fact I have not even spent any of my ill-gotten gains, for fear of causing her to wonder about a sudden improvement in our circumstances.

This evening, May seventeenth, I expressed my feelings to Lewis Gilmore. He said he would talk with Conway and O’Sullivan, but I did not like either his reaction or the looks he gave me. He also told me that there were complications, in that another party was involved. He would not reveal the man’s identity, but said that he was a harsh one and would be less tolerant of me than were the other three.

Gilmore asked me to stay my hand for twenty-four hours, to see whether something could be worked out. I agreed, but have my suspicions as to what that something may be. I have compromised my position intolerably and am now quite alone. If nothing is settled by tomorrow evening, I shall speak out, no matter what the consequences. Should I be unable to do so, I look to you to act for me in whatever way you see fit. I must close now.

Your foolish friend and client, John Durkin.

Jed whistled softly. “This is dynamite,” he said.

Major Stobart stroked his chin. “It’s quite a document, Mr Hall. Frankly, I’ve had my doubts about Gilmore for some time. Apparently they’re justified.”

“Well,” said Jed, “I guess I’ve got him now. I’ll keep this and show it at the trial.”

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