Front Page of the
In a surprising addition to her nationwide tour, Artist
Gwendolyn Pigeon, known perhaps most famously for her stunning engagement as
Bruunhilde in Die Walkure in
A noise woke him. A soft tap against the window pane. Turning over in his bed, JD vigorously wiped the sleep form his eyes and looked towards the offending noise.
Another pebble hit the window, and the young man understood. Someone was trying to get his attention. Since he could plainly see that the sky was that ill color that heralded the pre-dawn, he was not too pleased.
Falling out of the lumpy mattress, he stood on shaky legs, stretched, scratched, and, still blinking furiously to get the crud out of his eyes, somehow made it to the window without stubbing a toe.
With a grunt, he threw up the pane and stuck his head outside. He scowled at the sight of a very wide awake Vin sitting astride Peso on the ground below, grinning up at him. The tracker dropped the other little stones in his hand, no longer needing them.
"Vin?" JD yawned, covering his mouth after a moment. "What's going on?"
"Nothin'," the other man said, still smiling. "Just wanted to let someone know that I've decided to stay outside town for a while, since there's so many people visitin'. Soon as that woman leaves, and things get back to normal, I'll be back. Will ya tell Chris that?"
JD frowned, "Whyncha tell him yerself?" he muttered, more awake now. "And are you going far?"
"I'm tellin' you because I ain't mad enough to go waking Chris up before dawn, and because he'd probably tell me to stay. And, nah, I'm not goin' far. I'll be around. Just not visible. I'll be there if y'all need me. Oh, and can you do me one other favor?"
JD shrugged, "Hell, sure, why not."
Vin chuckled, then threw a thumb in the direction of the livery, "Will ya tell Nathan they're magpies? In the tree? A whole family, from the looks of it."
JD blinked a bit more, "What?"
"He asked me if I could identify the noisy birds nesting in the big tree next to the grocer's. They're magpies."
"Oh...yeah. Sure. Magpies. Got it."
"Thanks kid. I'll see you around."
"Sure, sure," JD yawned again, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, Vin was gone. Still annoyed, but less now that he was more awake, he wandered over to the wardrobe to wash his face and get ready for the day.
Page four of the Fort Bratt Newsletter, September 4:
Two days ago, two men convicted of murder, robbery and
assault escaped from the
Two riders made their way slowly into town, keeping their heads low as they passed by the outlying buildings. As they reached the livery, they halted their mounts and looked cautiously around the wakening town. They had meant to arrive later, to blend better into the swelled town, but tiredness and the idea of a hot breakfast prompted them to come sooner.
With interest, they read the signs that had hastily been placed in many of the windows, proclaiming different residences as “Guesthouses” and “Bed & Breakfasts.” The residents were obviously capitalizing on the large number of visitors. Dozens of people were also camped outside of town, and the sounds of fiddles playing and laughter filled the normally quiet hills. The chance to hear something as different as an opera singer was drawing them from all over.
The smell of freshly baked goods and cooking fruit drifted out of windows here in town, as several more homes than usual opened their doors to offer their hospitality. One of the two strangers wondered if prices had been raised too, and if they might end up paying too much for some poor man’s pancakes and apple sauce.
The other man smiled, and dismounted. “Finally,” he said, taking off his light colored hat to wipe matted blond hair off his forehead, “civilization.” His dark brown eyes sparkled, looking alive for the first time in days.
“Yeah,” the other man never cracked a smile, glaring out at the town from behind ice blue irises. “Wonderful.”
The first looked back at his friend, his eyes narrowed. "Something the matter?"
"Just the usual," the second man dismounted, feeling the creak of his bones imitate the creak of the saddle leather. He was a tall, thin man with black hair, most of which was hidden beneath a low crowned hat. "My ass is numb from this damned rented saddle. There's dust up my nose, filth in every crease of my clothes and a film across my eyes. And, to top it all off, we've managed to end up in yet another backwater town in this backwater territory that looks just the same as every other town we've passed through so far...." He lifted off his bags and a long rifle from the saddle.
"Not quite the same," the blond man said, slapping his hat back on and grinning. "There's money here. You can smell it. And there’s that brooch. That brooch means freedom. Freedom means..." he paused, waggling his eyebrows at his friend.
"Women, booze and a soft pillow," the second man finished for him. "Yeah, yeah. Heard it all before, Kite."
"Jay, you're losing your sense of humor, you know that?"
"Nah, I'm just getting old. We do this, then we disappear forever. Settle down. Maybe
"S'fine with me," Kite said, grinning. "Shall we dump these nags and go explorin'?"
Front Page of the Clarion News, September 6:
Opera To Ring Through the Four Corners
Tomorrow the town of
Since news of this unusual concert spread, visitors have
flocked to this small hamlet in the last couple of days from as far away as
Gwendolyn Pigeon will be performing at the Grain Exchange in
The woman’s voice screamed out from the hotel lobby, prompting JD to stop short in his tracks as he walked past the open double doors. Turning, he watched as an enormous woman of about forty years of age proceeded to beat on Mr. Sykes, the hotel’s night manager, with her purse. She was at least a head taller than the small man, and a good three times his width, with a shock of wild blond hair curled atop her scalp like a little girl’s, complete with pink ribbons. They shook as she summarily hit, whapped and beat on the poor man.
“Thief! Larcenist! Reprobate! Low-born swine!” her voice fairly sang out as it rose in volume, echoing through the hotel.
JD stood opened mouthed as Mr. Chambers, the day clerk, dashed out of the side room to pull her off the poor man. She fought like a cat, turning her “weapon” on Mr. Chambers and then back to Mr. Sykes. Neither man was much over five and a half feet tall, and she towered over both.
“Where is my brooch you slimy toad!” she screeched, whapping Mr. Sykes so hard he actually fell backwards. Mr. Chambers grabbed the bag before she could bring it to bear again and wrenched it from her hands.
“Madam, please!” he squealed. He’d only just arrived, ready to take the shift from Sykes, and was not ready, this early in the morning, to deal with a woman’s screaming. The woman in question, however, was not about to be quieted.
“Where is the hotel manager,” she demanded of him, grabbing the purse back. “I demand to see him!”
“He has not arrived yet, madam,” Mr. Chambers replied. “Can I do…?”
“No! No! I trust you about as much as I trust this vagrant,” she glared at poor Mr. Sykes. The night manager was hiding behind the desk now, cowering with his back against the post office boxes. She raised her purse again threateningly, and he actually emitted a worried peep at the sight.
“Um, then can I help?” JD asked, stepping inside. Both Mr. Sykes and Mr. Chambers relaxed visibly upon his appearance, even smiling slightly, and for a brief moment JD swelled with pride.
The feeling lasted long enough for the woman to open her mouth.
“Yes, boy, indeed you can. Fetch me the sheriff of this town, at once! I want this man arrested for theft!” She pointed a finger at Mr. Sykes.
“Uh, actually, ma’am, I am a member of the law here. If Mr. Sykes has….”
“A member of the law? Oh heaven help us! Well that certainly explains things! A lawless town for certain if a boy is in charge,” she cried, throwing up her hands. Then she wagged a finger at JD, as if he were a little boy who had tried to insert an opinion into an argument without leave, “I demand you fetch someone with authority, young man. Someone who doesn’t look like they have to get home before nine or their mother will take a paddle to them.” Standing up, she crossed her arms across an enormous breast and stared hard at JD, her girth and height overshadowing both clerks that stood by her arm.
JD’s eyes narrowed slightly, and he was about to argue, when she spoke again.
“And don’t even think of arguing, boy,” she hissed, the fingers on her left hand tapping her right arm. “I am the victim here, don’t you forget. Moreover, I am a celebrity of some renown. I will not allow mistreatment of my person to occur in any way, or, so help me, I will write to the governor. Do you understand me?”
The kid swallowed, sighed, and nodded in acquiescence. As he turned away, however, he smiled. Truth be told, it was a bit of relief. He wondered who he could sick her on.
Letter to Mary Travis, anonymously shoved under the door of the Clarion, dated September 6,
Do not trust your seven men. They know more than they are telling you, and one of them is a thief. You already know which one.
Stepping back outside, JD listened to the woman arguing with the two clerks again as he quickly scanned the street for someone to help. It was still early, too early for Ezra, Buck and Chris, and Vin was already gone. Only a few townsfolk even wandered around….
JD stopped and smiled. Sitting on the steps of the church, Josiah was leaning against the railing and appeared to be reading. His hat was low on his head, obscuring his face, but there was no mistaking the large man. Picking up the pace, JD was in front of him in moments.
That’s when he realized Josiah was snoring.
Man was asleep sitting up.
“Josiah?” the kid said softly, squatting down to try and see the man’s face. No response. With a grimace, JD reached forward and patted the preacher’s arm. “Josiah?” He said the name more loudly.
Still no response.
Standing up, an increasingly frustrated JD kicked out at one of the preacher’s legs, just knocking it.
“Josiah, wake up!” he ordered.
The snoring came to an abrupt stop with a loud snort. The man’s sprawled legs gathered themselves together, and the hat brim lifted. Angry blue eyes blinked up at JD for only a moment before the hate brim lowered again.
“Somebody had best be dead, John Dunne, or, so help me, someone soon will be,” Josiah growled. JD offered the top of the hat a wan smile.
“Ah, no, see, there’s some trouble at the hotel….”
“Is someone dead?”
“Um, no, not….”
“Is someone dying?”
“Uh, no ….”
“Is someone threatening to kill someone else?”
JD didn’t even bother to answer, just shifted his weight.
“Then go away, boy, and leave me in peace,” Josiah waved a hand, and settled himself back down again.
“No, Josiah, please, I need someone to back me up. That opera singer, Wendy what’s-her-name, insists that someone has stolen something of hers. She’s accusing Mr. Sykes. I tried to get the facts, but she won’t talk to me. She wants someone older.” JD stared hard at the top of Josiah’s hat, willing the man beneath it to listen. He got silence for a time, and, for a moment, he thought Josiah might have gone back to sleep.
“You need someone older,” Josiah said finally.
“Yes,” JD smiled, thinking he had him.
JD’s smile fell, “Huh? Are you kidding? But he’s still sleep….”
“As was I, and again so shall I be. I had a long night, JD. I’m going back to sleep. Get Ezra. He and Sykes are friends, of a sort, so he may not kill you.” With that thinly veiled threat, the preacher levered himself up off the steps with a groan like a man three times his age, and trudged away inside. As he was shutting the church doors, however, he added on more piece of advice: “just watch out for derringer bullets on the way in.”
JD frowned as the doors to the church shut, cutting off the amused chuckle of the preacher.
“Get Ezra,” he mimicked sarcastically. “Just watch out for derringer bullets on the way in.” He snorted, shaking his head. “Thanks a lot, preacher man.” Turning, he started walking slowly back into town, thinking over his options.
Buck would laugh in his face and Chris probably would have his head for waking him. There was always Nathan, but, frankly, JD didn’t expect the opera singer to appreciate the healer anymore than she appreciated JD. And…Ezra really did like the night manager – it might not be so bad.
JD reached the saloon by the back door (Inez still had the storm doors closed in front) and knocked. The woman herself opened the door, a yawn on her lips, and let him inside with barely a hello. Nodding his thanks, he jogged past her, up the backstairs and to Ezra’s door. Gritting his teeth, he reached up and knocked on the wood.
“Ezra? Ezra, wake up! It’s JD, and I need your help.”
He moved quickly to the side -- just in case -- and lowered his head, listening. No sound came from the other side. Grimacing he stepped forward and hit the door with more force, banging with the side of his fist.
“Ezra? Wake up, damn it!””
He jumped ten feet as something loud thunked against the other side of the door, his heart leaping into his throat because he thought it was a gunshot. The door still shook with the force of the throw as JD got his breath back. Ezra had thrown something at it – probably a boot.
The kid smiled as he calmed down again. Ez was awake. He returned to the door and tapped.
“Ezra, listen, Sykes, Mr. Sykes, he’s in trouble. And maybe Mr. Chambers too. I need your help.”
Pressing his ear to the door, JD’s smile grew as he heard a week groan of annoyance. The bed creaked, and then something landed on the floor. Faltering footsteps in the direction of the door caused the kid to back up. He tried to wipe the smile from his face.
The lock came loose with a clunk, and the door opened a sliver. A shadowed green eye peeked out at him, blinking away tiredly.
“Sykes? The hotel’s night manager?” the man’s voice croaked.
“Is he dead? Or dying?”
JD’s own frown came in then. Déjŕ vu.
“No. No one is dying.”
“Is someone threatening his life?”
JD’s face got darker, “No, but….”
“Then leave me alone,” Ezra shut the door with a slam.
“Ezra!” JD’s whine was piercing. Had he seen Ezra’s cringe on the other side of the closed door, he probably would have grinned. “Damn it! I already got this crap from Josiah. Now I need your help. Sykes has been accused of theft. I think he might be in serious trouble.”
From the other side of the door, Ezra muffled voice asked, “Explain to me, please, why you can not deal with it?”
“The woman doing the accusing doesn’t believe I’m old enough to….”
“Ezra, please. It’d be much better for Mr. Sykes and Mr. Chambers if you came. Please. You can’t turn your back on them.”
He could almost hear Ezra’s mouth opening to ask, “why not,” but something stopped him. Probably the fact that Mr. Sykes lets him ensconce himself in the hotel’s front parlour whenever he has insomnia, or Mr. Chamber’s letting him hide in there every so often when avoiding the others, or because Mr. Sykes stood up for him when Nathan’s girl Boston Bound had been in town. For whatever reason, both clerks had become people the gambler liked.
“Okay, okay,” Ezra sighed, and JD could almost hear him wiping a hand down his features. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Go first and get as many details as you can.”
JD nodded, and grinned. “Thanks, Ezra.” He meant it – he really didn’t want to face that woman again without back-up. Turning, he meant to walk back down the back stairs, when the door opened again behind him.
“JD,” Ezra opened the door again and leaned out, “The woman…who is it?”
“The opera singer. Wendy what’s-her-face.”
Ezra sighed heavily, then shook his head. “Gwendolyn,” the gambler said softly, “Not Wendy. Gwendolyn Pigeon. Good lord. All right…I’ll be there soon.” He shut the door again.
Mary yawned into her hand as she trudged down the steps into the main office of the Clarion. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she did her best to peer at the wall clock above the filing cabinet, demanding that the numbers come in clearly. When they finally did, she sighed. Still early. She had time for coffee before opening up.
As she guided herself around the press, a piece of paper on the ground near the door caught her eye. Grimacing, she bent over, her back protesting with a creak, and lifted up the scrawled letter.
The grimace turned into a frown as she read the strange message.
“A friend?” she wondered softly, pale green eyes looking out on the dawn-lit street through the large pane window.
Good to his word, a cleaned up Ezra walked into the front of the hotel almost exactly fifteen minutes later. He was wearing his navy jacket, a plain shirt and a black and silver waistcoat. For Ezra, this was about as subdued as it got. He wore his hat, but immediately took it off as he walked inside and viewed the group sitting at a table in the restaurant.
Mr. Sykes looked peaked from where he sat next to the hotel manager, who was intent on the woman. JD sat in another chair, taking notes in a little book as Gwendolyn Pigeon proceeded to tell him her life’s story. A bellboy nodded at the gambler from where he was manning the front desk, indicating he should walk right in. The boy was obviously eavesdropping as much as possible.
Sykes was on his feet instantly as Ezra walked in, and, for a moment, Ezra was taken aback by the look of sheer relief the man gave him. He’d never seen anyone look at him like that before, with so much hope and trust. Nodding at the night manager, he had to divert his eyes to JD and the woman in order to hide how uncomfortable Sykes had just made him. Next to Mrs. Pigeon, The hotel manager was less forthcoming in his show of appreciation, but, he too, seemed pleased at Ezra’s entrance.
“Mr. Standish, thank goodness you’re here!” Mr. Chambers walked in from the back rooms with a tray of coffee cups, and laid it on the table, his voice also heavily laden with relief. He grinned at Ezra, “Mr. Dunne said you were coming, but…” he trailed off, and shrugged, looking over at Sykes. The night manager was still smiling stupidly up at Ezra, as if the gambler was going to wave a wand and make all his problems fade away. For a moment, Ezra wished he could do exactly that. Instead, he simply smiled at them both and approached the woman.
“Mrs. Pigeon,” he said, taking the hand she offered
him. It was gloved in pink satin, and
she wore a large opal ring on her ring finger.
He kissed the hand. “I once had the
opportunity to hear you sing at the Opera House in
She smiled, and blushed. “Yes, indeed, I did play that role, Mr…Standish was it? Though it was many years ago.”
“Six years ago, I believe.
And, if I recall, I believe you also played Gilda in Rigoletto in
Her face lit up, “I did indeed! My, my, Mr. Standish, you have quite a memory. That was before the war, when I was just a young thing. You couldn’t have been much older than a boy!”
“An impressionable one, madam, however.” He grinned. Two marks for Ezra, he thought slyly. He’d never actually heard her sing, just knew bits and pieces of her career from Mary’s paper. Gwendolyn was still blushing, and even batted her eyes at him.
“And, you are here to help me in my hour of need, I see,” she cooed.
“Yes, Madam. I am a member of the law in this town, along with Mr. Dunne.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” she shook her head, too blond curls flopping around. “I was afraid I would be forced to work only with simpletons in this dust bowl.”
Ezra lowered his eyes, seeing JD’s face purple out of the corner of his eye. She had said “simpletons,” but the tone made it seem more as if she had said “peasants.”
“Yes, well, perhaps you could apprise me of the details of what happened?”
She nodded, “Of course. As I was telling your young man here,” she indicated JD, who’s face flushed in annoyance, “a piece of my jewelry was stolen from my room last night.”
“Stolen?” Ezra glanced at Sykes, who shook his head imperceptibly, silently denying any culpability. The gambler nodded at the night clerk, trying to assure him.
“Yes,” she sighed, the actress in her coming out as she placed a hand to her forehead, “Sometime in the night, while I was asleep, someone must have entered and taken my emerald brooch.”
“Emerald?” Values of gems started whirring in the gambler’s mind.
“Yes, and it means a great deal to me. The stone rests inside a gold inlay in the shape of a bird in flight….”
“How big was the emerald?” the gambler asked, interrupting.
“Around 3.5 carats, Mr. Standish. And there were also smaller stones embedded in the wings – white sapphires, mostly, and small blue sapphires for eyes.”
Ezra’s lips were pursed, his eyes a little wider than normal. 3.5 carats. He had to swallow hard to stop himself from drooling. A 3.5 carat emerald, cut finely, with sapphires….
Luckily the opera diva failed to notice his distraction, and continued with her description. “You must understand, Mr. Standish, that brooch was a gift and has great sentimental value to me. I might even be willing to offer a reward….”
“Oh no,” Ezra held up a finger, cutting her off. The word ‘reward’ had cut through his daydreaming, though his eyes were still a little glazed. No one was going to find that emerald before him! “I, um, I would not offer a reward just yet, Mrs. Pigeon,” he said, “not until we are certain that a crime has indeed been committed….”
Her eyes narrowed immediately, “I’m sorry? What does that mean? You don’t believe that it was taken?”
Whoops. The gambler realized his mistake a little too late, and stammered quickly, “My apologies, madam. I’m not suggesting that you have made this story up. No, no, what I meant to say is that we, uh…we are not certain of the nature of the crime that has been committed. Obviously, you are missing your brooch. I just want to ensure that it was a simple theft and not something more nefarious. You have admitted great interest in the item. Someone might think that they can extort something from you in exchange for its safe return.” He smiled. Mrs. Pigeon’s eyes remained narrowed, but were less angry.
“Mr. Dunne,” Ezra spoke quickly to JD, trying to distract her gaze, “have you got most of the details?”
JD looked at his little notebook, and nodded. He’d seen Ezra’s eyes glaze over before at the mention of the emerald, but had chosen to ignore it.
“Yep. Mrs. Pigeon arrived yesterday morning by stage, accompanied by her manager, Mr. Gadwall and her companion, Miss Plover. She came straight here to the hotel for the first few hours. Around , she met with Mrs. Travis and several other women in town over in the front parlour, ate in the restaurant with Mr. Gadwall and Miss Plover, and walked around town a bit. She wore the brooch for most of the day yesterday. She only took it off when she went to sleep. When she woke this morning, the brooch was gone.” He looked up, expectant. The diva didn’t say a word, agreeing with the facts as he set them forth.
“Excellent, JD. Well, shall we go look at the room?” the gambler suggested, looking at the others brightly.
Ezra and JD made quick work of the opera singer’s bed chamber, checking for a forced lock on the door, looking under the bed and the other furniture in the room in case the brooch might have just fallen, and, finally, looking out the wide open window next to the dresser upon which the jewelry had ostensibly been set.
The dresser was right next to the window, such that anyone standing outside might simply have reached in and taken the brooch without making a sound.
Well, they might have, had the window not been on the top floor of the building. There was nothing outside the window except empty air.
There were two other windows in the room, framing the bed on either side and facing the front of the hotel, but the balcony that fronted the hotel was a full floor down, acting as a roof for the boardwalk. Both windows had been mostly closed, to keep out the noise from the street below, and it took JD some heaving and creaking to lift them up. Anyone entering that way would most certainly have made enough noise to wake the singer. The open window was the only real possibility…other than someone entering with the key.
Ezra leaned out the alley window, looking down at the dirt ground twenty feet below, then up at the eave and gutter above. The window looked out the side of the hotel, onto a wide alleyway. Across the way, at an angle, you could see the large tree where the magpies’ nested, and, if you looked the other way, towards the back of the hotel, you could see the back of the Grain Exchange where Mrs. Pigeon would be singing that night.
“Well, there are two possibilities,” he said, as the others watched him look around. “Either the thief dangled from the roof, or he climbed up from below.” Ducking his head back inside, he looked at JD. “Why don’t you go check the alley, see if there are any obvious tracks, or ruts that a ladder might have left. I’m going to check the roof, to see if there is any place someone might be able to hitch a rope.”
“What about Mr. Sykes?” the hotel manager asked, looking at his despondent night clerk. Ezra shook his head.
“Other than the fact that Mr. Sykes held a spare key to this room, there is nothing that even remotely suggests that he had a hand in this affair.”
“What?” Mrs. Pigeon shrieked. “You mean…you’re just going to let him go? You’re not even going to search him or his rooms?”
“He’s not a thief, madam,” Ezra said plainly. “But even so, may I point out that you yourself have more jewelry than that single brooch; namely the heavy jewelry box sitting over there on the dressing table by the wardrobe? Surely anyone actually in this room would have probably taken the entire jewelry box? No, it seems to me it is more likely that someone somehow simply grabbed the jewel off the dresser through the open window and fled.”
“But as I’m sure you know, Mr. Standish,” the opera singer sniffed, drawing herself up derisively, “emeralds are one of the rarest of gems, and therefore exceedingly valuable. Combined with the other precious gems, that brooch is probably worth more than the entire contents of my jewelry box combined.”
Ezra stared at her quietly, not disputing the fact. A long pause occurred while he considered his next words.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I suppose, if Mr. Sykes is willing, that we could do such a search. Only if he will allow such an invasion, of course. I personally see no need and want to make it clear I believe it to be a waste of time.”
“Would…would it further help to prove my innocence?” Sykes piped up, looking at Ezra openly. The gambler grimaced at him and shrugged.
“Then go ahead. I have nothing to hide.”
“You can search my room as well,” Mr. Chambers interrupted. “After all, I knew where those keys were as well as Sykes.”
Ezra gave him a small smile in thanks, then looked over at the kid.
“JD, do you want to conduct the searches while I go look at the alley and the roof?”
JD shrugged, pleased that Ezra had asked him instead of ordering him to do so.
“Sure. Lead on, Mr. Sykes, Mr. Chambers,” JD said, indicating the door.
“I’ll go with you, young man,” Mrs. Pigeon said, “to make sure you do not miss anything.” She sniffed, clearly not happy with the way things were progressing. Soon, it was only Ezra and the hotel manager in the room. Ezra was leaning out the window again, looking up at the eaves.
“Did you mean that, Mr. Standish? About Sykes?”
Ezra looked back at him, and sighed. “Yes. But, if Mrs. Pigeon hasn’t made this story up, or if her companions, whom I will need to interview, aren’t trying to pull something, then I’m not sure how much more help we can be, sir. We’ll have to check out everyone staying at the boarding house and the saloon as well as here, and to see if we can find some sort of trail. I have to warn you, there may be no solution to this. However,” he looked around the room, “neither Mr. Sykes or Mr. Chambers are in any danger. I know they didn’t do anything.”
The manager nodded, thankful for the promise. Slowly, he watched as Ezra did another search of the room before heading downstairs to go check the alleyway.
Ezra grimaced, staring at the roof like it had betrayed him. He’d hoped to find some sign of a prowler. A print on the dusty slats, stray strands of rope, evidence of the gutters having been bent or otherwise damaged by a weight. Worse, there really wasn’t anywhere that one could anchor a rope. The chimney was substantial, yes, but it was poorly located behind a gable of an attic room. The rope would have had to be long to stretch around it, and even then, the prowler would have had to have been worried about fray with all the friction.
It didn’t make sense.
Heading back to the open trapdoor leading to the roof, Ezra shook his head at the hotel manager as he stood next to it, waiting.
The hotel manager sighed. He’d expected as much.
“I assume nothing was found in either Mr. Sykes’ or Mr. Chambers’ rooms?” Ezra asked.
“No,” the manager smiled slightly. That, at least, was a piece of good news. The opera singer had become less accusing of the two clerks now.
“Where is Mr. Dunne now?”
“He’s gone to ask
“Someone that transient wouldn’t have been able to plan such a crime. Not unless they were planning on a bigger score. One emerald brooch, even one like hers, doesn’t seem like it would be worthy of someone who could erase their tracks this well,” the gambler replied as he sat down next to the door. He looked around, finally focusing on the large tree next to the grocer’s that you could see from Mrs. Pigeon’s room. He could see movement amongst the leaves…birds, shifting from tree to tree.
“So, what is next?” the manager sat next to him and looked out at the town from the warm perch.
“Interview Mr. Gadwall and Miss Plover and anyone else in the hotel who might be in the mood to talk,” Ezra sighed, eyes returning to the slats of the roof. “I don’t suppose anything else has been stolen?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“What about…what about over the past few months?” Ezra asked. “Have there been complaints of other small items, like jewelry, disappearing? Missing?”
The hotel manager frowned, “Smaller items?”
“A pair of earrings here, a watch there…smaller items,” Ezra explained. “Perhaps this thief is more interested in the stealing than the items he steals.”
The manager looked at him askance, clearly not understanding. The gambler smiled.
“What I’m saying, sir, is that, perhaps it is someone in town. Someone who likes to collect smaller items. He might do it for two reasons. One, he likes the thrill of getting away with a theft, hence the idea that he is more interested in the stealing than what is stolen. On the other hand, it could be someone who is building up a small horde over time, rather than your average thief looking for the big job. The people who lose items may think they’ve just lost them through mischance, misplacement. They may not think to accuse someone of theft. Has anything like that occurred?”
The hotel manager furrowed his brow, “You put it that way, it could be anyone.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“I’ll think about it,” the manager promised.
“Are Mr. Gadwall and Miss Plover available, do you think?”
“I saw them in the restaurant a few moments ago. You planning on talking to them now?”
Ezra grinned, “No time like the present.”
JD frowned, shaking his head. He’d found out nothing from the stable operators. No one who had rented a space had left during the night. Yosemite even mentioned that he’d been awake most of the night because of a promise he made to fix the surrey of one of the town’s wealthier citizens by the next day, so had been outside in the smithy for most of that time. He hadn’t seen anyone moving about except Vin and Josiah. Besides noting Vin’s early start, the church was across the way, and he’d noted that the preacher had been awake much of the night for some reason, burning the oil. Then, as the birds had started trilling, around four in the morning, the preacher had come out onto the steps to greet the dawn, carrying some book. Yosemite thinks he may have fallen asleep sitting there.
JD smiled. Yes he had.
The smile fell then as he contemplated that he was no closer to finding the thief. He hoped Ezra had more luck.
Looking up as he passed the saloon, he saw Chris and Buck sitting out front, both enjoying a coffee as they watched the world wake up. Turning in their direction, he decided they should know what was going on.
“JD?” a woman’s voice called his name, stopping him. He smiled as he saw Mary headed in his direction, papers in her arms.
“Mrs. Travis,” he greeted, “can I help you with those?”
“Oh no, I’ve got it,” she replied. “These just have to go to Bucklin’s now. No, actually, I was wondering what it is that has you running around so much this morning. Any news I should know about?” The letter she’d gotten that morning felt like it was burning a hole in her pocket.
JD pursed his lips, then shrugged. “Well, yeah, I guess there is,” he nodded. “There’s been a theft, and me and Ezra are investigating….”
Miss Plover kept tearing up, somehow convinced that, despite all of Ezra’s assurances, she was being accused of theft. She admitted to a past full of indiscretions…some even as desperate as once having stolen a newspaper that had a picture of her favorite pianist in it.
Actually…that was pretty much it. She was about as villainous as a new born kitten.
Mr. Gadwall was more composed, but no less unhelpful. He’d crossed his arms early in the
conversation, certain that the whole affair was somehow designed to ruin “his
artist’s career.” Ezra had no idea why
stealing her brooch would have that result, but Mr. Gadwall was certain there
was some vast conspiracy against him and “his artist.” Someone was out to get them, he was
sure. Oh, certainly, he had no real
proof….but he did have evidence. In
“Liquor? Hell no. Don’t be an idiot, man. Someone put,” he shuddered, “milk in her flask! May as well pour acid down a singer’s throat! Do you have any idea the damage milk, especially fresh, creamy milk can do?”
Ezra’s eyebrows just shot up. Clearly…no. Gadwall didn’t notice. He’d found an ear for his theories, and his eyes grew wilder.
“Luckily, I took the liberty of checking the flask before she took a sip. Talk about a disaster barely averted! Milk! The insanity!”
Ezra gave a weak smile, his pencil swirling over his pad.
“Well, that doesn’t sound so….”
“In the middle of winter?
Do you have any idea how cold it gets in
“And don’t get me started on
“Oh, no, it was the middle of the summer then. No…What is
Ezra waited a moment, realized belatedly that Gadwall hadn’t meant it to be rhetorical question, then smiled. “Oh, um…abolitionists?”
“What?” Gadwall frowned, clearly confused by the response.
“Ah, right, sorry, knee-jerk reaction,” Ezra shrugged, “the Revolution?”
Gadwall rolled his eyes, “No.”
“All right…” Ezra hands opened and parted over the table, “Thanksgiving?” At Gadwall’s blank stare, Ezra shook his head, “Witches? Irish immigrants? Uh…cold northern cynicism?”
“Molasses, man! Molasses!”
Ezra stared at him, blinking. “Molasses?”
“Biggest distilleries in the country.”
“Really,” Ezra drawled, “fascinating.”
“And someone gave Gwendolyn a large box of Molasses sweets right before the concert. And her sweet tooth is just enormous, let me tell you.”
Ezra just stared at him, gritting his teeth to stop himself from laughing out loud.
“It was a good thing I was there,” Gadwall nodded solemnly. “At least she managed to make it through half the concert. When Miss Plover made the mistake of eating one at intermission, well, you can just imagine what Gwendolyn thought of that….Like watching someone take the last piece of cake at the birthday party and it wasn’t the birthday girl. All of a sudden, like a pig at the troth….”
Ezra broke the tip of his pencil on his pad. Looking down, he figured his doodle of Mrs. Pigeon with her feet trapped in a block of ice, drinking a glass of milk and fingers in a half drawn jar of molasses probably wasn’t much use anyhow….
Ezra’s attempts to learn more about the origins of the brooch and who might know about its value met with even more useless information. According to Miss Plover, the opera singer had always had that brooch. Wore it at every concert. Even should her voice never be as strong as it was when she was younger, even if all her money were to dry up, Miss Plover believed Mrs. Pigeon would never part with that brooch. Mr. Gadwall was pretty certain it had something to do with the elusive Mr. Pigeon. But he’d flown the coop (so to speak) back when Mrs. Pigeon was still making her name. He’d been her original manager. Then he’d disappeared.
That, at least, was of some interest. Ezra started writing down the name of the vanished husband when Gadwall sighed and added…”of course, he’s dead now.”
Ezra looked up at that, “Dead? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I was there when they buried him. Died in a debtor’s prison. Too proud to ever ask his wife for money, so they say. Couldn’t stand the idea of her being richer than him. Once, though, he got lucky on the stock market, and I think he might have given her that brooch then. Not sure though.” He shrugged, “Fact is, she never said where it came from. One day she just had it.” He trailed off. Ezra waited for a moment, before prompting him to continue with his story of what happened to Mr. Pigeon.
“Oh, well, stocks go up, and stocks go down. He lost everything a few months later. Debts piled up. He went to prison. He died there, of the fever. We buried him. That’s it.” Gadwall crossed his arms more tightly, “That answer your questions about Pigeon?”
Ezra crossed the husband’s name out in his notebook. Looking up, he smiled weakly at Mr. Gadwall.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Good, now, listen, I never did get to tell you what
Ezra just gave him an impish grin, stood up, and walked out of the restaurant. Gadwall stared after him with an open mouth.
“How rude,” he sighed to himself finally. “Men…they’re all the same….”
“Chris?” Mary had followed the gunslinger into the saloon after he had spoken with JD, not having hidden the fact that she had partially eavesdropped on their conversation when the kid had reported to him and Buck. Chris glanced at her as he handed his tin cup back to Inez for a refill of coffee.
“Mary,” he greeted. “Something the matter?”
“Well…,” she looked a little sheepish, as if she was embarrassed about what she was about to say, and Chris tried not to get annoyed. He hated it when she looked like that. It always led to something ugly.
“What’s wrong Mary,” he prompted gruffly.
“Well, JD told me about the theft this morning, and I overheard some of his conversation with you,” she said, lifting her head to meet his gaze, “and I was wondering if you think that you’re handling this situation in the correct manner?”
Chris’s eyes narrowed as he turned to face her, “Correct manner?”
“I’m talking about Ezra,” she blushed, “As much as I like Mr. Standish, his reputation, should it get back to Mrs. Pigeon, might….”
“Mary, just because he is a gambler….”
“No, Chris. I meant,” she blushed harder and lowered her voice, “I meant…the time he took that $10,000,” she whispered. “He’s…he’s perhaps not the right person to have at the front of an investigation into a theft. I’d like Mrs. Pigeon to leave with the impression that we are an honest town, despite this occurrence, and if she learns that Mr. Standish is not the most…untarnished…of characters, she….”
Chris raised a hand, “Why is it so important to you what this woman thinks?”
Mary’s eyes narrowed, “Because she is famous, Chris. She has presence, the ability to make or
break a place based on her word alone.
It’s my fault she came here – my articles describing
Chris’s jaw tensed, “Mary….”
“Please Chris,” she shook her head, “I know that sounds horrible, and you don’t have to tell him why, just…could you take over?”
The gunslinger stared at her hard, but she didn’t back down. Just met his gaze, pleading. Finally, he lowered his head and gave a quick nod. She breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you,” she whispered, turning and dashing out of the saloon before he changed his mind. Inez had been standing within ear shot the whole time, ostensibly wiping down some glasses, and she couldn’t avoid clicking her tongue in disapproval as she walked away.
“Great” the gunslinger muttered, “so what do I tell him?”
Ezra walked despondently out of the hotel, covering up a yawn. JD walked up to him from the direction of the jail, the same grim look on his face.
“No luck?” the kid asked, searching Ezra’s face as he matched his step.
“The two companions of Mrs. Pigeon seem as innocent as they come, Mr. Dunne. I can see no reason for duplicity on the part of any of them, at least not now.” He shook his head and looked askance at the kid. “I take it you had no luck with the livery keepers?”
"Possibly," Ezra frowned.
“Ez....the, uh, the hotel manager mentioned to me your idea about someone stealing for the heck of it,” JD said. “I think it makes the most sense right now. Problem is….”
“…Who could it be?” Ezra agreed, finishing the statement. “I have no idea, JD. None. And if I'm wrong and it is one of the many visitors here, why would they go through so much trouble just to steal that one item? And how are we supposed to differentiate among them all these people?”
"I could check the bills, look for familiar faces," JD suggested. "But, from the numbers of folks here, there might be any number accused of theft who had nothing to do with it." He grimaced, while Ezra just shrugged. JD sighed, "It could take days to try and interview them all, by which time...."
"....The real thief could be long gone. We need a lead, JD. Something solid."
JD nodded. Frustrated as he was, though, he felt oddly pleased to be having this conversation with the gambler. He'd never felt so in tune with the man before, and it was somewhat neat.
“Mr. Dunne, Mr. Standish!”
Both men turned around to look back at the hotel, watching as the hotel manager and Mr. Chambers jogged over. The portly hotel owner seemed out of breath, but he held up a ledger in his hands.
“Mr. Standish – your guess was accurate. There have been other thefts. For at least six months now…little things. Earrings, cufflinks, pendants….they’re so few and far between, that for the most part we thought these things were just misplaced by the patrons. None were of much value. But that might substantiate your theory, don’t you think?”
Ezra nodded, but he was frowning.
“So…it could really be someone here…in town,” JD looked at the gambler, who had a strange look on his face. “But why would they steal something so valuable now?”
Ezra looked at JD, and shrugged. The hotel manager looked at them both, the smile fading from his lips. Somehow he thought he was bringing them good news. Now he realized that he’d actually just made it worse. For one thing, it made Mr. Sykes and Mr. Chambers both culpable again.
“Um…well,” the hotel manager looked up at Mr. Chambers, who had his eyes downcast. “Well, I guess we’d best get back. Mrs. Pigeon is threatening not to sing unless we find her brooch.” He plucked at Mr. Chambers’ sleeve, and the two men turned around. In moments, the two were heading up the steps back into the hotel.
“Well,” JD said. “Now what?”
“Breakfast,” Ezra stated. JD grinned, and followed as Ezra headed towards the saloon.
In the background, the women headed out to do their morning shopping were soon keeping their heads together, already talking about the theft….
Buck was sitting outside the saloon, his hat low on his face, looking half asleep as he finished drinking his coffee. He greeted Ezra and JD with a tired nod as they reached him.
“Hey Buck,” JD said, "How's things?"
"About as sunny as the underside of a rock with a rattler sleepin' under it," the hungover ladies' man replied darkly.
Ezra gave a wry smile at the comment, then looked up as Chris pushed through the batwing doors.
“Kid told me there’d been a theft,” the gunslinger stated, taking up position in front of them and leaning on a post. Ezra nodded.
"You've heard correctly, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Dunne and I have...."
“You sure it wasn’t Sykes, or Chambers, or even the manager?” Chris cut him off brusquely, looking at the gambler carefully.
“It wasn’t them,” Ezra confirmed, eyes squinting slightly at the shortness.
“You’re sure. After all,” Chris shrugged, “aren’t they sort of friends of yours?”
Ezra’s face darkened, “It wasn’t them, Mr. Larabee.”
Chris nodded, “Maybe. But I’m thinking a more thorough search of the hotel and the area around it might be a good idea, including another look around their rooms.”
Ezra’s face continued to darken, “Mr. Larabee, I’m sure that Mr. Dunne’s search of their rooms this morning was more than….”
“No offense,” Chris said, glancing at JD, “but the kid may have overlooked something.”
JD’s eyebrows rose, then furrowed. How could he not take offense? Especially when the gunslinger talked about him as if he weren’t there?
“And no offense to you either, Ezra,” Chris focused back on the gambler, “but I think maybe someone else should take over. Everyone knows you like Sykes…and Chambers. You may not see them clearly enough to….”
“Mr. Larabee,” Ezra cut him off, his voice tight, “Those gentlemen are both innocent. There is nothing, short of finding a horde of goods in their own hands and a signed confession, that would make me think otherwise, and it has nothing to do with my relationship with them. I know those men, sir. They would not steal.”
Chris pursed his lips, then shrugged. “Maybe. Fact is, it might look less suspicious if either me or Buck does the searching.”
“Suspicious?” Ezra’s brow furrowed with confusion. “Did you just say ‘suspicious’? Why would it be…,” he stopped talking, his eyes narrowing as he read the gunslinger’s stone cold expression.
Chris stayed silent, eyes not quite looking at the gambler. Ezra licked his lips, then gave a short laugh.
“Mr. Larabee…for my acts to be suspicious,” he spelled out slowly, “then that must mean you consider me a suspect.”
Chris pursed his lips, still not quite meeting his eyes.
Ezra smiled, “That, if either Sykes or Chambers are involved, that I might also be involved. Is that the idea?”
The gunslinger’s eyes were hard, and he didn’t deny the suggestion. JD’s jaw dropped at the silence, and even Buck was now sitting up straight, watching them intently.
The gambler’s jaw tensed, the cold smile growing into a wry smirk, “Or…perhaps…I might even have stolen the brooch myself.”
“I’m sorry, Ezra,” Chris looked way.
Ezra lifted his eyebrows. JD gasped.
“Wait,” the kid jumped in, “Chris, no….”
“You have a history,” Chris explained, still talking to Ezra. “Can’t deny that.”
“Ah. Of course,” the gambler nodded in understanding, his eyes looking into the distance. “The incident with Governor Hopewell and the ten thousand dollars.”
Chris nodded, “Ezra…you stole that money….”
“Yes, yes,” Ezra raised a hand, still focused somewhere else. “You are perfectly correct. I am clearly not trustworthy, and you lack of confidence in me is soundly based.”
“Now, hold on,” Buck interrupted, his expression matching JD’s. “Just a minute here, this ain’t the same….”
“No, Mr. Larabee is right,” Ezra looked at Buck. “I am a common thief, Mr. Wilmington. In fact, of all the people in this town, I am probably your best suspect.” He looked at Chris again, his tone glacial, “Would you like to arrest me now, or wait until after breakfast?”
“Ezra,” Chris sighed, “Don’t be an ass. All I am doing is taking you off the case.”
“Then by all means, take it over,” Ezra responded, green eyes flashing.
Chris nodded. “Thanks, but I didn’t need your permission.”
“Well, you’re not getting permission from me!” JD said suddenly, angrily. Chris and Ezra both looked at him in surprise. “And I think Ezra’s been right so far. On everything. There hasn’t been anything that would point elsewhere.”
“JD…,” Chris began.
“Don’t you ‘JD’ me, Chris. And don’t go arresting innocent men like Chambers and Sykes and Ezra and putting them in my jail, understand?”
Chris’s eyebrows remained raised in surprise, then he grinned. “Your jail?”
“I ain’t never seen you sweeping it out,” JD replied, “or keeping the locks oiled or the bills stacked and current. And who among us spends the most time there?”
“Kid’s gotta point, old dog” Buck said, an amused smile on his face at the nonplussed expression of the gunslinger. Chris just stared at the two of them, then shook his head and stepped off the boardwalk, ignoring JD’s glare and Ezra’s still cold expression. He stopped only once to look over his shoulder at the ladies' man still half lying down in the chair in front of the boardwalk. The ladies’ man looked like he was about to settle back down into an early morning snooze now that the excitement was over.
"Aw hell," Buck muttered. He swigged the rest of his coffee as both JD and Ezra smiled at his discomfort. Buck gave them both dark looks, levered himself out of his chair, and jogged over to join the gunslinger.
In moments, they were both over by the hotel, heading in through the doors.
“Bulls in a china shop,” JD sighed, watching the double doors shut behind the black duster.
Ezra, still smiling, actually started laughing. “Thank you, Mr. Dunne. I needed that.”
The kid grinned, glad to hear the gambler laugh. He looked at his friend, and jerked a head at the saloon. “Breakfast?”
Ezra’s smile faded. Then he nodded.
“Head on in, JD. I’ll be there in a minute, just need to go see about something first.” He tipped his hat at the kid, then turned and headed towards the end of town…towards the church. JD sighed, watching the man’s still heavy steps, then pushed into the saloon.
“Someone’s been here before us,” Kite said, closing the door of the room he’d rented with Jay at the boarding house and tossing his hat onto the bed. “The opera singer’s brooch was stolen already. Our landlady couldn’t wait to gossip with me about it when I got back from the grocer’s.” He dumped the bag of apples he’d bought on the bed.
“What? Shit. By who?” Jay asked, standing up from where he’d been watching the town through the window and brushing a hand through his thick black hair.
“Whom,” Kite corrected absently. “Not sure. See any familiar faces?”
Jay leaned back in his chair, quickly scanning the street outside. Then he shook his head.
“If it’s been stolen, Kite, then there’s lots of possibilities. There’s the gamblers,” Jay indicated the saloon. “There’s a bunch in town for the show – seen ‘em filing into the big saloon there like parishioners goin’ to church on Sunday -- and there’s some dumb farm kids over there,” he pointed out some of Guy Royal’s ranch hands hanging out in front of the mercantile, “and at least a dozen more. An’ there are both coloreds in this town and some chinamen. Real transient place – any number of ‘em could be our guys.” He looked back at Kite, “Law got any leads?”
“I don’t know. But my guess is they don’t got squat. Still too soon…unless they got lucky with something..”
“Who is the Law?”
“Not sure on that either. Thought I might do a quick walk about to find that out.”
Jay nodded, sitting back down on his chair. “I’ll keep watch from here.”
Kite snorted, “Nope. You’re going to the saloon.”
Jay grimaced, “Why?” He’d wanted to catch a couple of hours sleep on the mattress with Kite gone.
“Because, if the thief’s a lowlife, that’s where he’ll be for breakfast. If he’s highbrow, they’ll be in the hotel restaurant.”
Jay’s frown deepened. “How do you know the thief’s even still here?”
“I don’t,” Kite said, putting his hat back on.
Josiah woke up, his head filled with cottonballs and his eyes drier than a desert wind. Blinking, he waited for the brightly lit room to come into focus, then considered going right back to sleep. His sky blue eyes started to close again, when something in the church rafters moved.
Instantly, they were open again, and Josiah stared up into the face of a large black, white and blue bird.
“How in the world….” Josiah frowned. How did it get in here?
The magpie made a sound like nails on chalkboard, and the preacher cringed. Josiah fell off his pallet, gathered his feet under him, then shook a fist at the bird.
“Get out of here, you jackdaw!” he yelled. “Out! Go torture someone else’s eardrums!”
The bird screeched again, this time the sound more reminiscent of a screaming baby, and lifted itself off the rafters. It headed for a corner of the roof, and then actually lifted part of it with its head. In moments, it was gone.
“A loose tile,” Josiah shook his head, staring at where the rood tile settled itself back into place, then grimaced as the beginnings of a headache took hold. “Only a magpie would go where no other sensible bird would even think to look,” he muttered.
Sighing, he looked down at his disheveled appearance and stretched.
“According to the old rhyme, seeing just one magpie foretells sorrow,” a voice said softly from the somewhere behind him.
Josiah jumped at the sound and turned around, spotting Ezra where the gambler was leaning on the wall just to the left of the main doors. He was almost completely in shadow, which was why Josiah hadn’t seen him at first.
“Christ, boy, you scared the hell out of me. What are you doing here?”
Ezra had been staring at his feet, his arms locked behind his back. At the preacher’s question, he looked up at Josiah, his eyes bearing a haunted expression. It was the same expression Ezra had held the last time he’d come to ask Josiah for “advice.”
“Ezra?” Josiah put a hand to his forehead. A headache was forming. “Something the matter?”
“An emerald brooch has been stolen, Josiah,” Ezra straightened up, his eyes bright even though his face was in shadow, “and I need to know something. Do you think I’m capable of stealing it?”
Josiah stared at Ezra, completely confused. “What?” he said stupidly. “What are you talking about?”
“Do you think I am a thief? Is that what you all think of me? That deep down, that is my true nature?”
Josiah tried to read the man’s face, but his mind was still too cloudy too focus. Rubbing a hand across his eyes, he turned around and headed back to his pallet to splash some water on his face from the ceramic bowl on the table next to it.
“Josiah? Have I failed to earn back any trust at all? Will I ever?”
Josiah cupped the water in his hands, staring for a moment at the man he could see reflected in the small looking glass propped up next to the bowl. There was fear in the usually placid green eyes. Then he splashed the water over his face and vigorously rubbed it into his eyes and face.
“Why ask me?” he asked, blinking as the water stung his eyes a little.
“Because…you’re the only one who knows the answer. You’re the only one who sees me clearly.”
Josiah froze at that statement, amazed at the honest pain that accompanied it, then went back to washing his face.
“Ezra…only you know what you are. Deep down. If deep down you think you are a thief, that is what you are.” Blinking liquid from his eyes, he reached for the towel sitting next to the bowl, and dried his face. “Look. I’m very tired. Come over here and tell me what has happened, and then maybe I can answer your question properly.” Lifting the towel from his face, he turned his head back to the door.
Ezra was gone. The church door was still sliding shut as Josiah watched.
A pit of dread filled the preacher’s chest. Whatever that was…he had a horrible suspicion that he’d just failed some important test.