Sunset Stories
Chapter 35: Runaround

Copyright© 2016 by Scriptorius

It was a small meeting. Of the four men present, two represented the government, the senior one, Stephen Martin, being only a rung or two from the top of his departmental ladder. He was accompanied by his most trusted assistant. The third man was a railroad official. A tall gaunt fellow with a long craggy bearded face, he bore a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. The fourth man was Simon Calloway, head of the detective agency that bore his name.

The gathering had been convened by Martin, a short stout man in his early fifties. He had brought the quartet together to discuss the theft, five days earlier, of a consignment of gold which had been on its way to the Denver Mint. The government men and the railroad official were already aware of the details, which the chairman was now imparting to Calloway.

“It was as fine a piece of effrontery as I ever heard of,” said Martin. “Mr. Ledgard here” – he gestured at the railroad man – “will agree, I’m sure.”

Ledgard nodded and Calloway produced a pencil and paper. “You’d better give me all the details you have,” he said.

The chairman shrugged. “There isn’t really much to tell. The train was a direct one, but there were stops along the way. The incident happened eighty miles from the destination. It was nine o’clock on Monday evening. There were no refreshments on the train, so it had stopped for forty minutes, as usual, to accommodate anyone wanting a meal. About eighty yards from the station, there’s a small hotel that caters for the railroad, even down to serving food on board for passengers who don’t want to get off.”

Calloway was making notes. “And that’s when it happened?” he asked.

“Correct. Now, the consignment was in a boxcar and well guarded, as you’d expect with gold worth over sixty thousand dollars involved. There were three armed officials of my own department locked inside the car and, for the duration of the halt, two more on sentry duty outside. All were under strict instructions not to leave their posts. Their requests for food and drink were passed on to the hotel. There’s an old black fellow there, who delivers orders to the train. At ten minutes past nine, he left the kitchen by the back door, wheeling a trolley with the meals for our men – on that occasion all the passengers who wanted to eat had gone to the hotel. Four or five minutes later, the trolley turned up at the train, but wasn’t delivered by the black waiter.”

“And your men didn’t suspect anything?”

“No reason why they should. None of them had ever been there before, so the switch of waiters meant nothing to them. They all ate beef and vegetable stew and each of them drank two beers, which is the most we allow them in these circumstances. Within a few minutes, they were unconscious. Something had been put into the food or the drink.”

“Probably the stew,” said Calloway. “That would most likely disguise the taste, if there was any.”

“That’s what the doctor thinks. Anyway, when the other passengers got back to the train, they found both outside sentries lying on the ground, senseless. The train was detained and the town marshal brought in. It was then discovered the lock was broken on the car door, that the men inside had also been drugged and that the consignment had gone. The black fellow was found tied up and gagged. He’d been overpowered from behind, so couldn’t describe who attacked him, nor could he help us in any other way. There was a theatrical touch, in that a note had been pinned to the inside of the car door, thanking us for our cooperation and signed ‘Daniel Turpin’.”

“Aha,” said Calloway. “I thought the job bore his stamp.”

“Oh, you’re familiar with his methods, are you?”

“I surely am. Every detective in the West is. We even have a good description of him. Nobody knows anything about the rest of his gang, though. All we can say with any confidence is that there’s around half a dozen of them We don’t have any names.”

“I see. Well, naturally, the hue and cry went up, but it didn’t help. The thieves seemed to disappear into thin air in a matter of minutes.”

Calloway nodded. “That’s what you’d expect with Turpin. He’s an extraordinary man. Probably he had an informant in this case. He’s reputed to pay well for inside knowledge and nobody has ever betrayed him.”

Martin sighed. “Well, I can’t tell you anything more. Now, we really must do something about this. It’s not just a matter of the value of the gold, though that’s bad enough. There’s also a question of public confidence. Imagine what people will think if it comes out that some ruffian can fool around with us like this.”

“I understand. As to publicity, I don’t see how you can avoid it – the train passengers will see to that. And don’t underestimate Turpin. He’s no run-of-the-mill bandit. We’re dealing with a very clever man.”

“Evidently. However, can you help?”

“I think so. My best operative, Bob Graham, is available, so I can put him to work right away. Believe me, if he can’t settle this, nobody can.”

“That gives me some encouragement. Now, I won’t keep you any longer. You know where you can contact us. I have to get back and deal with other work now, so I’ll wish you luck. Goodbye, sir.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Martin.”

The meeting broke up just before midday. Calloway made the short rail trip back to his base, reaching it by two in the afternoon. His top field man was in the outer office, which he shared with the seven other agents, who came and went like pigeons to and from a loft. Graham was making heavy weather of his paperwork when Calloway summoned him and imparted the details.

“Turpin again,” said Graham, a tall slim clean-shaven man of thirty-five. He ruffled a thick thatch of straight dark-brown hair. “He’s a cool one. Got the right name for his trade, too. You know, I often wonder whether he has a horse called Black Bess.”

Calloway grinned. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, I’ve no idea how we get started on this, but I don’t intend to pass up a big fee. Have you any thoughts?”

“Not offhand, but I usually come up with something. I’ll work on it.”

Graham didn’t have to find a way forward. Ten minutes before the office closed, Calloway received a telegraph message. It read:

If you’re seeking Daniel Turpin, come to the Mother Lode saloon here.

Ask for Dave Lambert.

The communication had originated in Burn Ridge. Calloway took it into the outer office and showed it to Graham. “Short and sweet,” said the agent. “Let’s see. If I have my geography right, Burn Ridge is just over fifty miles southwest of here.”

“That’s right. I wonder what this fellow’s game is?”

“He’s after a reward, I guess,” Graham replied. “Maybe it’s a lead, maybe a wild-goose chase, but I’d better check it.”

“Do that. Pity we’ve no rail or stage link with Burn Ridge. Looks like plenty of riding for you.”

“So it does. I’ll get going and keep you advised.”

It was early the following evening when Graham reached the scruffy little community of Burn Ridge. He crammed down a badly-cooked meal at town’s only diner, then went to the saloon, enquiring for Dave Lambert. The bartender nodded at lone drinker in a shadowy corner. Graham crossed the floor and introduced himself to the man, who waved at a chair. He was a fair-haired thin-faced fellow with a foxy smile. “So, you’re looking for Turpin, are you?” he said. “What’s it worth to you?”

As Calloway’s most senior man, Graham had wide latitude in the matter of rewards for sound information, and firm ideas on how to get it. “If you give me a good lead, I’ll pay fifty dollars down. If it really helps me to find Turpin, there’ll be more.” He took five ten-dollar bills from his pocket.

“That ain’t much for a big fish like Turpin,” muttered Lambert.

“Make up your mind, mister,” Graham said. “I have other leads. If you want to do business, get on with it.”

“Okay. Turpin was here three days ago. I shared a bottle or two with him. Pretty soon, he was good and drunk. That was when I found out who he was.”

Graham was not impressed. “Doesn’t sound like Turpin,” he said. “He’s reckoned a sober man and not a great lover of company.”

“Well, I’m not real proud about how I got the details. He didn’t say he was Turpin. Just said that he’d been in a gang that did a big a job. Seemed they cleaned up plenty, then the other fellers turned on him, took his share and left him with nothing. Told him they were fed up with him not pulling his weight. He was purely disgusted with human nature, I can tell you.”

“This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of gang members squabbling among themselves” said Graham. “How did you identify him?”

“Well, like I told you, I was none too decent about that. He’d got so much liquor in him, he could hardly stand up. Told me he was staying at the hotel across the street. I helped him back and put him to bed. He dropped off to sleep right away. I went through his pockets and found a wanted dodger with Turpin’s name, picture and description on it. I don’t know why he was carrying it, but there was no mistaking who he was. I’d bet my poke on it.”

“Okay,” said Graham. “Anything else?”

“Maybe, if you’ll pay extra. I could tell you where he’s headed, and why.”

Graham fished out two more tens. “Look friend,” he said. “Seventy dollars is as far as I can go. Don’t push it.”

“All right. Well, he was making for Walford. Said one of the gang, name of Ed Stone, had connections there. He was going to look up Stone and make him sorry for what he’d done. Then he was going after the other two boys who were in on it. I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes. Turpin was real bitter.”

“He didn’t mention the other names?”

“No.”

Graham nodded. “So, you know the man you met was Turpin, but he probably doesn’t know you know that. He headed for Walford to look up this Ed Stone, which sounds like bad news for Stone. Is that everything?”

“Just about. Turpin left the following afternoon. That’s all I can tell you.”

Graham pushed the money across the table. “Okay, Lambert. I’d say that’s more than a fair price for what you’ve told me. Now, where’s this Walford?”

“It’s a little place, forty-odd miles south-west of here. There’s a stage goes once a week, but it left yesterday.”

“Right. Just one more thing. How come you contacted us?

“Wasn’t any problem. I’m not stupid. I reckoned the only three agencies big enough to go after Turpin would be Pinkerton’s, Bibby’s and yours. Am I right?”

“Probably. So?

“I checked with the other two. They weren’t interested. That just left you. As it’s turned out I spent next to nothing and got seventy dollars. Now, our business is over, so I’d be obliged if you’d leave me alone. I got some drinking to do.”

Graham decided to stay the night in Burn Ridge’s sole hotel. He saw no point in exhausting himself too early in the chase, if it was a chase, and he was far from persuaded of that. Lambert’s story was plausible, if not totally convincing. However, there was no other trail to follow.

Leaving early the next day, Graham rode slowly, unwilling to flog the horse or himself. He stopped well short of his destination, making cold camp. At eleven the following morning he reached Walford. Lambert was right. The place was smaller than Burn Ridge and even seedier, comprising a haphazard jumble of unpainted timber buildings. Graham took his horse to the livery barn, then called at the combined hotel and restaurant. He ate a poorly prepared meal, then booked a room for the night, only half-expecting to use it and more concerned with getting a look at the register. To his surprise, a message had been left for him. Opening the grubby envelope, he found inside a pencilled note, printed in capital letters. He read:

Mister,

I don’t know your name, but I guess your looking for me and Dan Turpin. Don’t waste your time here. Turpin didn’t find me and you won’t. You try and the best you’ll get is a bullet. If you want to catch up with Turpin, head for Sunset. He has a score to settle with a man there, name of Billy Hunter. You can ask for Billy at Doris Hendry’s whorehouse. You’ll be doing me and everybody else a favour if you catch up with Dan. He’s crazy. Ed Stone

Graham asked when the message had been left and was told that a stranger had handed it in early that morning. The hotel-owner claimed he didn’t know either Ed Stone or Dan Turpin. Finally, he announced with ill-concealed satisfaction that there was no representative of the law in Walford.

Going to his room, Graham lit a cigar and began trying to make sense of things. First, how had Ed Stone known of his impending arrival and purpose in Walford? The town had no telegraph office, so there was seemingly no way of any communication reaching the place from Burn Ridge faster than by horse. Graham had himself travelled by the main trail. He had seen nothing that seemed like a short cut and nobody had passed him. Maybe his informant Dave Lambert had started out even earlier than had Graham himself. But why?

Then Graham asked himself whether Turpin would have given up so quickly, if he really wanted to find Ed Stone? Maybe he reckoned on squaring accounts with this other fellow, Billy Hunter, then returning to Walford to find Stone. Maybe the whole thing was some loony game. Maybe almost anything. However, Graham reasoned, he’d got this far, so he might as well push on, though a long downpour of rain persuaded him to stay put overnight.

Having established that Sunset was fifty miles or so northwest of Walford, he made an early start the following morning. He didn’t try to cover the whole distance in the one day. Arriving dog-tired late in the evening at a town about which he knew next to nothing would have left him vulnerable, so wasn’t good policy. On reaching a sheltered spot which he reckoned was about ten miles short of the place, he stopped, again making no fire and eating cold food. His musings along the way had left him no wiser than he had been that morning.

The next day, once more timing his arrival for an hour or so before noon, Calloway’s leading investigator found himself in yet another little town, slightly larger than either Burn Ridge or Walford, but no less squalid and like those two places, lacking railroad and telegraph connections. After arranging care for his horse, Graham treated himself to a meal – inevitably in these parts steak, potatoes and apple pie but this time well cooked. Fortified, he decided to deal with his problem head-on and, having located the whorehouse, he presented himself there and was taken to an upstairs room, where he met Doris Hendry.

Graham’s vision of a frilly lady’s boudoir was dispelled when he found himself in a small room, plainly-decorated, simply-furnished and dominated by a large desk, behind which stood the proprietor, a tall angular hard-faced woman, severely dressed and looking thoroughly businesslike. Graham put his cards on the table, giving his real name and trade and saying that he wished to see Billy Hunter, who might be able to help him locate another man. He wanted only to talk and would need no more than a few minutes of Hunter’s time.

Doris Hendry’s impenetrable grey eyes surveyed the detective for a long moment before she replied. Finally, she rounded the desk. “Okay, Mr. Graham,” she said in a deep, gruff voice. “I can introduce you to Billy, but you need to know that we have protection here. You’d better let me have your pistol until you leave, and make sure that all you do is talk. If you try to do more, you won’t succeed. Understood?”

Graham nodded. “That’s fine with me, ma’am.” He handed over his gun. “Maybe Billy can tell me something, maybe not. I won’t know until I see him.”

“All right. Come with me.” She took him along the landing, knocked at the last door and in response to a grunted summons, preceded Graham into a bedroom. The only occupant was a small dark-haired sallow-faced fellow, sitting in a wooden armchair, his left leg stretched out on a stool and looking as stiff as a plank. The woman waved Graham forwards. “A man here to see you, Billy,” she said. “If you need me, you know what to do.”

The man gave his hostess a weak wave. “Yeah. Thanks, Doris.” He stared at Graham. “Have a seat, mister.” He waved at a second chair.

Graham sat as the woman left.

“What do you want?” said Hunter.

“You could say that among other things I might want you, but not right now. If you can lead me to Daniel Turpin, I’ll forget this meeting for a while.”

Hunter grinned. “I’ll bet you will.”

“Well, Billy, what’s your answer?”

Using both hands, Hunter pulled up his left trouser leg, revealing splints. “Turpin did this to me,” he said. “Shot me in the knee. I’m told I won’t walk properly again. I’ll help you all right?”

“Thank you,” Graham answered. “I’m sorry about your knee. Now, I don’t know what happened between you and Turpin, but I want him, quick. Where is he?”

Hunter gave a short gasp of pain as he readjusted his trousers. “Dan left here less than two days ago, headed for Ryderville,” he said. “He was aiming to catch up with Tom Thornton. Said he’d give him the same treatment he gave me.”

“I see,” said Graham, rubbing his nose. “This Thornton. Where do I find him?”

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