SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER NINETEEN
Letter Of Discredit
“Set them up, Keith. I’ll fetch a bottle.” Doctor Stefan Breitling bustled off to the kitchen, while his guest laid out the chessboard and pieces for the weekly battle. Breitling, a childless widower, German by birth, had practised medicine for many years in Boston. Following his wife’s death, he’d scratched a long-standing itch to move west. Here, in Copperhead, Idaho, at sixty-one and after eighteen months in his new surroundings, he had no regrets about the change.
Keith Hammond, a bachelor aged twenty-eight, had been raised in a small town forty miles north of Copperhead. He had moved to the larger place four months later than Breitling, when the opportunity had arisen for him to take over the local gunsmith’s business, on the death of the previous owner.
The fact that the two men were experts in their respective ways had caused them to gravitate toward one another, their disparity in years proving no bar to friendship. For nearly a year, they had spent every Friday evening at Breitling’s house, playing chess and putting the world right, frequently sidelining the former pursuit in favour of the latter. That didn’t disappoint Hammond too much, as it usually saved him from yet another drubbing in the game.
Breitling returned to the two high-backed leather fireside chairs, carrying a bottle of French wine and two glasses. “There we are. Now, my turn for white, I think.” He took his seat, savouring the sight of the handsome maple and rosewood board and the superbly crafted ivory figures.
“I do believe it is, Doc, but first I need your advice.”
The doctor smiled. “Well, that’s easily enough offered. What good it is might be another matter. On what subject do you need the view of an old goat like me?”
Hammond took a sheet of paper from a coat pocket and handed it over. “I got this letter today. Frankly, before I do anything about it, I’d like a second opinion.”
Breitling donned his spectacles and read the letter. “Hmn,” he said. “Most interesting.”
“What do you make of it?”
Breitling didn’t answer immediately. He read through the text again, then took off his glasses and peered closely at the writing, smelled the paper, turned it over and ran his hand across the blank reverse side. Then, still saying nothing, he got up and went to the sideboard. He returned with a large magnifying glass, using it to stare long and hard at the paper. Finally, he put down the glass, handed the letter back to Hammond, reclined in his chair and steepled his fingers.
Hammond was accustomed to his host taking some time over replying to any question and usually accepted the habit without comment. On this occasion, Breitling set a new record. Five minutes passed in silence, then his guest could stand no more. “Are you going to say anything, Doc?” he asked.
Breitling gave a little start. “Yes,” he said. “You know, Keith, one can learn a lot about people from their handwriting. It’s a matter to which I’ve given some thought.”
“Well, this is news to me,” Hammond replied. “What do you see here?”
The doctor was staring at the ceiling and continued as though his guest had not spoken. “There are three things which one cannot deduce with absolute certainty,” he said. “They are the age, sex and handedness of the writer. There are strong pointers of course, and an inference is often justified, but the thing is not watertight. Here, for example, the signature is Terry Little. Now, Terry could be a given name, or a corruption of Terence or Teresa. From the tone, I would imagine it is Terence.”
“Right. Terry Little is an acquaintance of mine.”
“I see,” said Breitling. “Now, as to age, there are weak or sick young people and vigorous old people. This is often reflected in the writing. In this case, from the wording, I assume we are speaking of a younger man, perhaps about your age.”
“Correct. What was the other thing?”
“Handedness. It is not always obvious, but there is enough here to suggest that the writer is left-handed.”
“That’s right. How do you know?”
“It’s helpful that the letter was written with pen that had a very poor nib. A right-hander tends to pull the writing instrument across the paper, left to right, whereas a left-hander pushes it. Consequently, there is often a spray of tiny ink particles thrown one way or the other. They show up at certain points and are particularly obvious with a left-hander, as the writer’s final stroke deposits more of them after the end of the line than is the case with a right-hander. Sometimes it’s undetectable, but here the magnifying glass shows it plainly.”
“Very good, Doc. It’s a young left-handed man. Of course, I knew that.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Breitling. That was the guesswork part. The rest is, I’m afraid, more certain.”
Keith Hammond leaned forwards. “You’re afraid. Why?”
“Oh, there’s no question of it, my friend. I hope you won’t be too shocked when I say that you are dealing with a devious and dishonest man.”
“Really? What makes you say that?”
The doctor brought his gaze back down to his guest. “Well, I’m sorry if this upsets you, but I have satisfied myself about the matter of handwriting as a character portrait. There are four basic styles of writing and within them, numerous other indicators, including about a dozen signs of dishonesty. Most of us show one or two of them, so that’s not really suggestive. It may be just that the person concerned has a tendency to self-deception. However, when one sees five or six, it’s time to be suspicious and when there are even more, as in this case, one can be quite sure.”
Doctor Breitling was known as a man who had several bees in his bonnet. His ideas were usually regarded with amused tolerance by most people. Keith Hammond was intrigued but sceptical. “Signs like what?” he asked.
“Look at the letter again,” said Breitling. “This man claims that he was writing in a great hurry and was extremely tired, worried and depressed. Now, the writing here is of mixed styles – that alone is odd – but is predominantly one of the more laborious kinds. Moreover, it is extreme of its type. The letter was written very slowly. Then, as to his alleged physical and mental weariness, he has written on unlined paper and you will see that his writing rises slightly from left to right. That is an indicator of good bodily condition, high spirits, or both. Had he really been in the state he suggests, the lines would have descended from left to right. Then there are such items as the ink-filled loops, the high incidence of hooks, the curls, the exaggerated enrolments, the misplaced capital letters and various other points. Taken together, these things are conclusive. I have heard of letters of credit, but I would call this a letter of discredit. Do not trust this man.”
Hammond suppressed his inclination to laugh as he put the letter back into his pocket. “Well, I’m grateful for your advice, but I think I’ll go see him.”
“When will you leave?”
“I’ll wire him tomorrow morning, then set out right away. I can get the train to within ten or twelve miles of this place he’s written from. Now that’s settled, make your move, Doc. I aim to demolish you tonight.”
Hammond’s ambition was thwarted and after suffering a couple of resounding defeats, he returned to his place and went upstairs to the two rooms he used as living quarters. Producing Terry Little’s letter, he ruffled his unruly mop of fair hair, sprawled his burly six feet in an easy chair, read and thought. He wondered why Little had written to him. There had not been any communication between them since well before Hammond had made his move south and they were not close friends anyway.
Terry Little followed one year behind Keith Hammond throughout schooldays. The two did not have much in common, but Little had always been grateful to the older and bigger lad, who had once saved him from a thrashing at the hands of three other boys. When Hammond left his hometown, Terry Little had still been there. Now he had written from Pike Point, fifty-odd miles south of Copperhead.
According to his letter, Terry Little was in serious trouble, the nature of which he did not specify. He had, it seemed, done nothing illegal. The matter was one he could explain only face to face and he was unable to travel. He had no one else to turn to and was at his wits’ end. Was Hammond prepared to help?
Keith Hammond was by nature an accommodating man and strange though the plea seemed, it did not occur to him to ignore or reject it. He had shown the letter to Breitling purely as a matter of interest. With regard to the doctor’s warning, Hammond was more amused than apprehensive. No doubt this was just another of the doctor’s forays into the esoteric. Keith Hammond would answer the call.
Doctor Stefan Breitling had also been thinking. After his guest’s departure, the slender little physician sat staring into space, time and again using both hands to ruffle his wild bush of snowy hair. He was trying to relate two points. It wasn’t long before the penny dropped. Keith Hammond would not be the only man travelling tomorrow.
Early the following morning, Hammond sent a wire to Terry Little at Pike Point, saying that he would be there that afternoon. He went back to his home, packed a small bag and told his next-door neighbour that he would be away for a couple of days. He dealt with two customers, then secured his stock, closed the shop and ate a leisurely lunch before catching the afternoon train. He had thought about calling again on Doctor Breitling, but decided not to. That was just as well, since a visit would have been fruitless, for the medico had been up and about unusually early. When his housekeeper arrived, she found him outside, his buggy ready for departure. Following up his idea of the previous evening, Breitling had decided to drive the thirty-two miles to the county seat. There was no other way, as Copperhead did not boast a permanent law office. The sheriff visited once a month to do whatever administrative work was necessary, calling only rarely at other times.
Keith Hammond arrived at Pike Point at four in the afternoon, to find Terry Little waiting for him with a spare horse. Hammond had expected to find his old schoolmate in an agitated state, but Little seemed unruffled. That struck the gunsmith as odd, but he said nothing about it. The pair departed from the railroad station, heading northwest. Hammond was bemused by his companion’s reaction to all questions concerning the letter. Terry Little appeared to wish to stick to generalities and reminiscences. When asked outright, he said he would prefer to get down to business when they reached their destination. They did that at close to six in the evening.
The place was a two-roomed homestead, long abandoned by its original owner but still solid-looking. Little waved his visitor ahead of him. Hammond entered to find a grim-looking black-bearded fellow pointing a heavy revolver at him across a battered table. “Evening,” said the man. “Just stand where you are till I say different.”
Doctor Stefan Breitling arrived at the county seat in mid-afternoon. He arranged care for his horse, then went to the sheriff’s office, where he found the short rotund middle-aged lawman at his notice board, fiddling with an array of posters. Sheriff Dan Baker turned. “Well, by all that’s holy, Doctor Breitling. What brings you out of your lair?”
“Good afternoon, Sheriff. Thank you for asking about my health. I’m fine.” The sarcastic rejoinder brought a sheepish smile from Baker as Breitling continued: “I hope you are well, too. As to what brings me here, I’m concerned about a small matter and I believe you may be able to clear my mind.”
“Well, sit down. A shot of something after your journey, maybe?”
“Thank you. I will indulge.” Breitling, who had a refined taste in liquor, was about to receive a shock, for the sheriff’s preferred type of ulcerating rotgut whiskey was a drastic departure from his visitor’s usual brand. Breitling’s involuntary spluttering brought a grin from Baker. “When you’ve finished expressing your opinion of my hospitality, Doctor, what’s on your mind?”
“Quite a lot, Sheriff. The fact is, I have a young friend and I believe he may be heading into trouble. I thought you might be in a position to throw some light onto the affair. I suspect it concerns an occurrence that took place in Copperhead shortly before I moved there. I believe it was the only incident of note that’s happened in the town for some years.”
“Fire away,” said the sheriff. “If it concerned the law, I’ll recall it.”
“Yes, it was in your line. I’ve heard local accounts of the matter and that’s why I got to wondering. You remember the Dutton gang?”
“Oh, sure. We chased them from pillar to post. Got them cornered in Copperhead. They took over a store. Quite a shoot-out, that was. All five went into that place. We killed three. Jake Dutton and one other man escaped. The young fellow who owned the place was shot dead too. We never knew whether he was caught by one of our bullets or not. I remember that the man who took over the place also died within a few months. Seems like an unlucky location.”
“Yes,” said Breitling. “Now, perhaps you would just humour me for a moment. How did the Dutton gang wind up in Copperhead?”
“Just one of those things. Dutton operated mostly in Colorado and various points south of there. Eventually, the law down yonder found out where he and his boys were holed up, and moved in to take them. There was a leak somewhere. The gang got away, so the local sheriff notified peace officers far and wide. Dutton and company were pursued up here and the hunt ended in Copperhead.”
“I see. Now, forgive my ignorance in these matters, but would you not have expected the gang to have been . . .er . . . in funds?”
The sheriff shook his head. “Not necessarily. These fellows have a peculiar mentality. With most of them, it’s easy come, easy go. They think nothing of doing a job, then popping up five hundred miles away and losing the whole lot at cards. The way they see it, when they’ve no more cash, they just need to steal some more.”
The doctor nodded. “Yes, I understand,” he said. “Now, Sheriff, I have an idea. There may be nothing in it, but if you’ll hear me out…?”
Keith Hammond was thunderstruck. He looked at the rock-steady six-gun. Terry Little scuttled across to the door leading to the second room. The gunman waved a hand at another rough-looking fellow, lying on the lower of the two bunk beds. “Search him, Tom.”
The man hauled himself upright, clumped over to Hammond and patted him down. “He’s unarmed, Jake.”
“Good. You’d better see to he horses now.” With that, the gunman placed his weapon on the table. “All right,” he said to Hammond. “Just take it easy. My name’s Jake Dutton and I don’t intend to harm you. All you have to do is stay here for two days and keep quiet, then you can go. Meantime, Terry will feed you and you’ll sleep in the other room. Understood?”
“Not exactly,” Hammond replied. “For one thing, where am I?”
Dutton grinned. “It’s not where you are that’s important, friend,” he said. “It’s where you aren’t that matters.”
Within two minutes, Keith Hammond was in the smaller room, confined by a crude but effective wooden door-latch operated from the outside. His amenities comprised a narrow bed with a straw mattress and a blanket, both damp, an iron bucket and a shelf, on which there was nothing but a lamp and a box of matches.
Though he worked with guns, Hammond was normally a placid fellow, his interest in firearms being merely the handiest outlet for his technical skill. Now, he was anything but calm. He inspected his prison. There was a small window space across which three thick planks had been nailed. The log walls were massive and the heavy roof was intact. Pushing against the window boards, Hammond found them unyielding, so short of trying to dislodge them with an almighty din, it seemed the only way out was by the door. Well, so it must be, he thought, for he did not intend to be detained. The place was almost dark, and as the lamp reservoir was only half full, the remaining oil would have to be used sparingly.
Ten minutes after he had been fastened in, Hammond heard hoofbeats, diminishing in volume. That, he guessed, would be the two desperadoes departing, leaving Terry Little in charge. Half an hour later, there was a bang on the prison door, followed by a rasping as the latch was slid open. “Okay, Keith,” came Little’s voice. “If you’re not on the bed, get there and call out.” Hammond did that. The door opened and Terry Little appeared, holding an unsteady gun with one hand and awkwardly gripping a full plate and cup, both of tin, and a spoon with the other. He set the food and drink on the floor. “Stew and coffee,” he said
“Terry, what’s going on here?” said Hammond.
“No talk, Keith,” Little replied. “Just stay back there. You can eat when I close the door. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to.” The tremulous voice didn’t carry conviction, but Hammond was not yet ready to put the matter to the test. The door slammed and the latch was engaged.
Twenty minutes later, Little returned, instructing the prisoner to put his plate, spoon and cup by the door, go back to the bed and call out again. When Little opened the door, Hammond spoke: “Surely you can tell me what’s happening, Terry?”
Little, still armed, backheeled the tinware into the main room. “Well, I guess it won’t do any harm. You can’t change things now. But stay over there.”
“All right: just explain, for goodness sake.”
“Okay. Well, Jake and Tom are riding to your place. They’ll be back here tomorrow night.”
“What do they want?”
“Two years ago, they were running from the law with the rest of the gang. They holed up at Copperhead and had a big gunfight. Three of them were killed but Jake and Tom got away. The boys had been chased up out of Colorado, carrying their plunder from a few jobs down there. They hid it in your place. ’Course, it wasn’t yours then. This is the first chance they’ve had to get the loot.”
“Where did they hide it?”
“There’s a trapdoor in the floor. They forced the owner to tell them about it, then killed him.”
“I’ve never noticed a trapdoor.”
“You probably wouldn’t have. Jake says you have to move the whole counter to get to it.”
“Why have they waited so long?”
“They didn’t mean to. Just happened that Jake was wounded in the shoot-out. He got a bullet in the chest and another in the leg. Was a close thing whether he’d live or not. Took him a long time to recover.”
“I see. And how did you get involved with Dutton and this Tom fellow?”
“That was accidental. I’ve been getting around since we last met. I was fishing near here. I’d no idea this was their hideout. They had a mind to kill me, but we got talking. They asked if I knew anything about Copperhead. I told them the only thing I knew was that an old neighbour of mine was the gunsmith there. One thing led to another and they offered me a share of the money if I’d write you that letter. They wanted to get you out of the way, so they could pick up their stuff without being disturbed.”
“You mean that even after Dutton recovered, they’ve been hanging around for months, waiting for a chance? How have they been living?”
“They didn’t say and I didn’t ask. Anyway, what they really want is the cache you’ve been standing on.”
“It must be a lot, to keep them here so long.”
“It is. Nearly thirty thousand, all in gold.”
“And how much are they giving you?”
Keith Hammond had been thinking fast as Little was speaking. “Terry,” he said. “You must be crazy. What makes you think they’ll come back? They could just as well keep going, clear away into Canada.”
This seemed to be a new idea to Little. For a moment, Hammond could see the doubt flickering over the man’s face. Then the gun straightened. “Don’t talk that way,” he said. “I trust Jake. And that’s enough gabbing. You’ll get something to eat in the morning.” He closed and secured the door.
Hammond reasoned that he had achieved as much as could be expected so far. He had probably sown a seed in Little’s mind. That was something, but not enough. Somehow, he was going to have to either wear the man down with talk, or overpower him. He looked around in the gloom, trying to will the means to his end. But he had only his clothing, the bed, a blanket, a bucket a lamp and the matches. Well, a man had to use what was to hand.
An hour after sunrise the following morning, Terry Little banged on the inner door. “Breakfast,” he shouted. “If you’re not on the bed, go there – and no tricks.”
The response was a series of groans from the small room, then Hammond’s voice: “Get me a doctor. I’m sick.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know. I’m vomiting blood. I need help – quick.”
“You on the bed?”
Hammond emitted a loud wail. “Of course I am,” he gasped. “Where the hell else would I be?”
Little’s nerves were not up to this. He drew his gun, freed the latch and pushed at the door. Then various things happened to him. Upon giving that last distress call, Hammond had tip-toed quickly and quietly across the hard-packed earth floor. Now he lobbed the heavy bucket and its contents over the opening door and onto his captor. For a speedy and near-unsighted effort, the result was remarkable. The bucket covered Little’s head, resting momentarily on his shoulders. Next, Hammond swished the opened blanket around the door, half-enveloping his unfortunate warder, then threw his two hundred pounds against his side of the woodwork, slamming the smaller man into the jamb. Little, wet and disorientated, fell backwards into the main room, shedding the bucket and flailing at the blanket.
Hammond leapt through the doorway, flinging himself upon the writhing form and chopping at the outflung gun hand. As the weapon thumped across the floor, he yanked away the blanket and grasped Little’s throat, almost choking the life out of him. Then he released his hold, hauled the man up and sat him on the table.
While Little massaged his neck, Hammond retrieved the gun, training it on the jailer turned prisoner. “You’re not cut out for this kind of thing, Terry,” he said. “Go saddle a horse for me.” He prodded the hapless Little ahead of him. Within five minutes, Hammond was ready to leave. “Now,” he snapped, “there’s no advantage to you in lying. Tell me how Dutton and Tom are getting to Copperhead.”
“On their horses,” Little replied. “Train’s too risky for them.”
“So they’ll be there by now?”
“In and out, most likely.”
“No time to lose, then. Get into the back room.”
As Little moved, he whined: “You can’t keep me in here. How’ll I get out?”
“You probably won’t. I’ll send the law along. If you free yourself in the meantime, good for you. If not, you’ll take the consequences. It’s a better deal than you gave me. Now move.”
Having secured his man, Hammond had to decide whether to ride southeast to Pike Point or northeast the whole way to Copperhead, over forty miles distant. If he chose Pike Point, he might find that there were no convenient trains, this being a Sunday. The station telegraph office wouldn’t help, as there was no lawman in Copperhead to whom he could send a wire, and he was not prepared to risk getting anyone else to confront the bandits. He opted for the horse.
It was early afternoon when Hammond reached Copperhead. With but one thought in mind, he headed straight for his place. Approaching it cautiously, he found the door unlocked. On entering, he saw that the heavy counter had been hauled sideways, exposing the trapdoor, now open. He peered down and saw only a void, so he lit a lamp and lowered it. Still nothing. Dutton and Tom had beaten him to it. They could be far away by now.
Deflated, Hammond decided to call on Doctor Breitling. The medico would surely be happy to note that his young friend was unscathed and gratified to learn that his own assessment of Little’s letter had been accurate.
The housekeeper not being on duty, Breitling himself opened the door. He held a glass of brandy and seemed to be in excellent spirits. “Good afternoon Keith,” he beamed. “I heard you were back. Come in.”
“You heard? I’ve only been in town fifteen minutes.”
“Ah, my informants are everywhere.” Breitling led the way into his living room, where Keith was surprised to see Sheriff Dan Baker, whom he knew slightly, and another fellow, wearing a star. Breitling waved an introductory arm. “Now, Keith, I think you are acquainted with Sheriff Baker. The other gentleman here is Deputy Sheriff Farley. Take a seat. You must be tired.”
Keith Hammond sat in his chess-playing chair. “Tired isn’t the right word, Doc. Disappointed would fit better.”
“Oh, why’s that, Keith?”
Hammond gave a brief account of his adventure, asking the Sheriff to do something about the incarcerated Terry Little, then came to the distressing finale – no gold. When he finished, Doctor Breitling went to a corner of the room and, lifting a bed sheet, said: “Well, Keith, if you’re looking for a heap of gold, perhaps this will satisfy you.” He revealed four small sacks. “Sheriff Baker will see that this gets back to its rightful owners and I believe there’s a handsome reward involved. You must qualify for at least some of it.”
Hammond flopped back in his chair, rubbing his head with a hand. “This is too much, gentlemen,” he said. “I think somebody had better explain.”
The Sheriff laughed. “It’s your show, Doc. Tell the man before he expires.”
“Very well,” said the doctor, going into his finger-steepling, upward-staring mode. “It was fairly simple. Just a matter of connecting apparently disparate pieces of information. It started with that letter from Mr Little. You will recall, Keith, that I was suspicious of it?”
“Well, like you, I’d heard there had been an incident at your place before either of us came here. I wondered whether these two matters – the letter and the incident – were connected. I thought it over and realised that I needed more details. Not wanting to set local tongues wagging, I drove over to see Sheriff Baker and he supplied the answer.”
“What was it?”
“Mr Baker said that the Dutton gang arrived here that night, about two years ago, just ahead of the law. They hitched their mounts and two pack animals to the rail outside the saloon, across from your place. That was to give the impression that the men were drinking. In fact, their idea was undoubtedly to raid the gunsmith’s premises and stock up with ammunition.”
“Yes. I’d heard about that, but I still don’t see –”
“Patience, my friend. Now, from the account Sheriff Baker gave me, I was struck by two things. First, all seven horses were still hitched at the saloon after the shooting. The pack animals were not carrying anything. To me, that was odd. Then I learned that Dutton and this man Tom had escaped across the back lots and stolen two mounts from the livery stable. They were in such a hurry that they rode off bareback, carrying nothing but their side arms – there were two witnesses to that. It only remained for me to establish that Dutton and his men had been transporting their booty during their flight. A wire to the Colorado lawman confirmed that.”
“It’s a fact,” said the sheriff. “I guess we all overlooked that point in our satisfaction at getting three of the gang. We noticed that the pack animals weren’t loaded, but that wasn’t surprising. We figured them for nothing more than two spare horses. In the confusion, we just didn’t think it through.”
Breitling recommenced his story: “As far as we could establish, the gang had been pursued here so relentlessly that they couldn’t have had much opportunity to hide the gold on the way. So, if they had it when they arrived here and did not have it when they left, it was presumably still here. But apart from the gunsmith’s place, they had been nowhere in Copperhead. I put that together with Terry Little’s strange summons. The letter had such a ring of artificiality that the only construction I could put on it was that it might have been written purely to get you out of the way, and that the gold was possibly on your premises. Of course, I had no way of knowing how Little became involved.”
“Pure coincidence, Doc,” said Hammond. “He fell in with those people because he accidentally got close to their hideout. They were going to kill him until it came out that he knew me, then they realised what an amazing hand fate had dealt them.”
“Ah, I see. Well, I had most of the information, so it would have been surprising if I’d been wrong. And after all, one seldom has all the facts about any situation. I thought I had enough.”
Keith Hammond shook his head in wonderment. “Masterly, Doc,” he said. “You’re a genius. By the way, what happened to Dutton and Tom?”
Sheriff Baker broke in. “They’re locked up in the bank. That’s the only secure place here. We’ll take them away this evening.”
“How did you know when they’d turn up?”
“We didn’t, but what the Doc said persuaded me to come here and wait. We watched. They broke in the back way and we hung on until they showed us where the gold was, then took them.” Baker turned to the doctor. “And I’m bound to say that I agree with Mr Hammond, Doc. You’re entitled to take a bow. Maybe you should make a profession out of this kind of thing. Sort of consulting detective.”
The doctor inclined his head. “You are too kind,” he said. “However, I fear that if I were to do so, the idea would not be entirely original. I’m not sure whether it’s fact, fiction or just rumour, but I heard that there’s a man in London, England who is making quite a reputation for himself in that line. I believe his name is Holmes.”
* * *