SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER THIRTY-FIVE
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?”
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?”
“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:
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.
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?”
“All I can tell you is he’s friendly with a feller name of Rawlins, who runs the only saloon at Ryderville. Maybe Thornton’s holed up there. If he is, Turpin will have found him easy enough. To be honest, I don’t think Dan’s in his right senses.”
“Could be he has reason. I hear he was swindled by his own gang. Would you know anything about that?”
Hunter smiled. “I’d say I’ve talked enough. You’re chasing Turpin and I’ve told you where he went. If you get him, you’ll save me the trouble of looking him up. That’s all I have to say.”
Graham rose. “Much obliged, Billy,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do. Guess you won’t be going anywhere in a hurry?”
Hunter tapped his injured leg. “Would you?”
“I guess not. So long.”
Graham recovered his gun, then spent a fruitless afternoon mulling over this baffling case. If he was to believe all he was told, he was constantly on the heels of Turpin, who was in turn tracking down one or other member of his sundered gang. Having established that his next port of call required a further ride of over forty miles, this time northeast, Graham decided to make a start that evening and cover as much ground as he could.
It was early the following afternoon and blazing hot when Calloway’s sleuth reached Ryderville. There was no obvious choice but to locate Tom Thornton as quickly as possible and, resolved on confrontation, Graham sought out Rawlins’s saloon. He was prepared for trouble, but the owner, a tall hefty black-bearded man was surprisingly accommodating. Yes, Thornton was staying with him. He was occupying a bedroom. Graham followed the saloon owner up the bare stairs to the middle one of three rooms. Unlike Doris Hendry, Rawlins made no effort to relieve the visitor of his gun. He opened the door, growled to the occupant that he had caller, then went back downstairs.
Graham entered, finding the occupant lying on the double bed, his right arm in a sling, his head bandaged. He was stubbing out a cigarette, the last in a series which had produced a thick fug of smoke in the unventilated space. “What are you seeking?” he snapped.
Graham, tired and exasperated, was in no mood to dally. “I want Daniel Turpin,” he said, “and I hear you can help me.”
“Mister, if you can catch Dan Turpin, that’ll be okay with me, considering this.” He pointed at the injured arm, then at his head.
“Turpin did that?”
“He did. I’m not saying he was wrong to get riled up, and maybe I deserved a crack on the head, but he’d no right to smash my gun arm.”
Graham nodded. “I can see how that would annoy you. Want to tell me about it?”
“No, it’s a private matter, but like I said, I won’t be sorry if you can pin Turpin down. Are you some kind of lawman?”
“Close enough. What about Turpin? Where is he now?”
“Only thing I can tell you is he lit out from here after he’d seen me. That was yesterday morning. He was headed for Burn Ridge.”
“Well, that’s dandy. I’ve been hunting him from there since Saturday. Why would he go back?”
“Damned if I know. Far as I can tell, he has no contacts there. But that’s where he was going. If you ask me, I think he’s gone mad.”
“I’ve already made it plain enough that he had a fair grudge against me, but I’m not going to talk about that. Anyway, what he did to me was out of line, so if you catch him, you sure have my blessing.”
“Okay. How far away is Burn Ridge?”
“Forty or fifty miles southeast of here.”
“That all you can tell me?”
“It’s all I’m going to tell you.”
“Good enough. Maybe I’ve a bone to pick with you, but that can wait. Thanks for the information.”
“My pleasure. Don’t hurry back.”
Graham left the saloon and got a room at a boarding house. Again unable to send a message to his headquarters, he took his mind off the mystery by spending the evening immersed in a novel.
The following day, Graham stuck to his adopted policy – doing what he could to spare himself and his horse. He left Ryderville after a late breakfast, had an uneventful ride and stopped short of his goal in the evening. Early the next morning, he arrived back in Burn Ridge. Still baffled, he made for the Mother Lode saloon and asked about Dave Lambert.
The owner shook his head. “You missed him. He left two days ago. Didn’t say where he was headed.”
Graham booked in at the hotel, ate a meal, drank two beers, then went to his room and sat on the bed, chin in cupped hands, trying to work out what he had missed. Having concluded that he had concluded nothing, he was about to wash and spend a while considering what do next, when there was a knock at his door. He drew his gun and called: “Come in.”
The door opened, admitting a man. With Daniel Turpin’s description burned into his mind, Graham had no difficulty in recognising the short, stocky, black-haired, moustachioed bandit who held up placatory arms and smiled broadly before he spoke. “Evening. You’d be Graham, I guess?”
“I am. And you, if I’m not mistaken, are Turpin?”
“That’s right. I see you have a chair there. Mind if I use it? I seem to tire easily these days.”
“Okay, sit. But you sure seem to take chances, walking into a gun like this.”
Turpin chuckled. “You can dispense with the shooter,” he said. “If I wished you any harm, I could have done it ten times already and as for my taking chances, if you use your gun on me, that’ll be the last thing you do. Now, can we talk?”
There was something about the calm assurance of the man that precluded any argument. Graham holstered his weapon. “All right,” he said. “Say your piece.”
Turpin moved to the chair, sitting heavily. “Nice to meet you at last,” he said. “I imagine you’re wondering why I dropped in like this?”
“It crossed my mind. I get the feeling I’ve been given a runaround here.”
“Yes, you have. I suppose you’d like an explanation?”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“Fair enough. Now, what do you think you’ve been doing for the last few days?”
“Going in circles, I’d say.”
“Just one circle. You started out from here, then you went south-west, then north-west, then north-east, then south-east. You’ve covered around two hundred miles and now you’re back where you started.”
“I already worked that out. What’s the reason?”
“I’ll tell you. First, you might like to know a little about the geography hereabouts. If you were to make a ring showing where you’ve been, you’d see that there’s another little place called Purbright, pretty near the middle. It’s just a spot on the map and until dawn today I was there all the time. I’ve been no more than thirty miles or so from you since you first arrived here.”
“Okay, so I’ve circled Purbright. Why?”
Turpin chuckled. “Let me just remind you. First, you met a fellow named Dave Lambert, right here. Then you went to Walford and got a message from Ed Stone. Then you went to Sunset and ran into Billy Hunter, where you found him with an injured leg. Then you went on to Ryderville and came across Tom Thornton, who had a broken arm and a head wound. Right?”
“Yes. Keep talking.”
“Well, if you’ll take my advice, you won’t go back looking for any of those men. By now they’re all on their way to distant parts. They were members of my gang and what they did was done because I paid them to do it. The whole thing was an act. Neither Hunter nor Thornton was really hurt. The hotel manager at Walford was in on it, too.”
Still bemused, Graham spread his hands. “I suppose this is where I should say that I’ll be damned, so you can take it as said. Does that satisfy you?”
“It’s a start. Now you’re still wondering why, aren’t you?”
“I can’t deny it.”
“All right, I’ll put it the way I think you’ll understand it best. It’s a question of personal gratification. You take pride in your work, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“So do I. Now, I imagine you’d say that Simon Calloway runs the best detective agency in the country?”
“Right. Well, let’s have no false modesty here. I know a little about your work and it’s generally reckoned that you’re Calloway’s top agent. Do you agree?”
“I’m teaching a young man who’ll soon be at least my equal, but I’d say I’m considered number one at present.”
“Good. Now, the most powerful force in this land is the US government. I imagine you wouldn’t contest that?”
“I guess not.”
“Fine. So we can say that the most potent organisation in the country employed the finest detective agency available, that agency sent its best man after me and I’ve beaten you all. Still agreed?”
“I suppose so.”
“Well, that’s what I mean by a question of pride. Like you, I’m a professional. We just have different callings.”
“That’s one way of putting it, but why did you do this now?”
“Because it’s my last bow. The whole thing’s over for me, Graham. The gang’s disbanded and the boys all dispersed.”
“Well, that’s a relief, but it still doesn’t answer my question about your timing.” This brought a rueful smile from Turpin. “For a good while now, I’ve known this was coming. The fact is I have a growth in my head and it’s getting bigger. The doctors can’t help and about ten months ago they told me to reckon with a year at most. Even told me how it would feel towards the end. They were right, so I’ve been on the alert for a chance to pull off my last and biggest job.
“It was a close call with regard to time, but I did it. I knew the money would be no use to me, but I had this idea. Two of my six boys are still here to support me and they’re outside now, keeping an eye on us. They’ll be leaving for California soon. The other four agreed to help with this game we’ve just played. I divided my share of that last job evenly among the six of them, on condition that they would go along with my little scheme. Lambert’s job was to lure you here, then send you on to Stone, who sent you on to Hunter, who sent you to Thornton, who sent you to me, and here we are.”
“That’s quite a story,” said Graham. “If it makes you feel better, I’m astounded. I concede you’ve beaten me, my company and the US government. Now what? Are you turning yourself in?”
“No, I’m not. You can’t leave here without my permission. However, I’ll release you if you give me your word that you’ll go straight back to your headquarters and abandon this case. If you do, I’ll promise to see that you’re notified about what happens to me. Do you agree?”
“I can’t pretend to be happy about it, but yes.”
Turpin held out a hand. “We’ll shake on it. That’s good enough for me. Now, you’d better clear off as soon as you can. So long, Graham. I guarantee you’ll hear more.”
Graham returned to his office and reported to Simon Calloway, who took the matter philosophically. “Well, Bob,” he said, “it’s a queer affair and we’ll get nothing out of it, but you gave your word, so I’ll back you.”
Two weeks later, Graham was groaning through his paperwork, when he received a wire sent to him from the small town of Compton, eighty miles south of Burn Ridge. Opening it, he read:
For ten days, I have been caring for a man with a brain tumour. Until yesterday I was unaware of his identity. Knowing his end was close, he informed me that he was the bandit Daniel Turpin. He died an hour ago. His last wish was that I should tell you that he had kept his part of a bargain he had with you. He said you would understand. Forgive my brevity but I have urgent business with those still living. William A. Garrowby, M.D.
* * *