SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER EIGHT
If he had thought about the matter in advance, Jed Hall would have considered it almost impossible for him to fall foul of the law after less than an hour in a town to which he was a stranger. But he managed it. Early in a May afternoon that was, for the area and time of year, uncharacteristically dank and dismal, he arrived at the community of Little Bend, Arizona. Having arranged care for his horse, he drank two beers in the first saloon he came upon, then stepped out to the sidewalk and, seeing three unoccupied rickety wooden armchairs, sat his sturdy five foot ten frame in the middle one. Taking off his hat, he ran a hand through his mop of floppy black hair and dedicated himself to relaxation.
Jed was wandering the West, observing his surroundings and making notes. He hoped to write a book about his travels, but there was no hurry. At twenty-four, he expected to have plenty of time left. So far, he had seen a good deal of the coastal areas from Canada to Mexico and now he was moving back northwards, following an unplanned route further inland. Just as he wasn’t concerned about the passing of weeks or months, he had no worries about finding work. Money was no problem to him – he made his own.
After a post-school spell of helping out at the family ranch on the high plains, Jed had moved on to take a job as prison warder, serving for three years. During that time he had befriended an elderly inmate serving a long sentence for making counterfeit coins. Jed had taken a liking to the lonely man and when, dying of consumption, the fellow was moved to the prison hospital, the young guard visited him daily. Knowing that his end was near, the prisoner imparted his secrets to his friend, even revealing where he had cached the tools of his trade. Two weeks after passing on his knowledge, he died.
It took only a further month for Jed to leave his job and recover the old man’s equipment. Getting the hang of it wasn’t easy, but Jed applied himself and finally was able to turn out and artificially age fake gold eagles, double-eagles and Mexican fifty-peso coins that were good enough to fool anyone but an expert.
For four years, Jed had travelled in comfort, the contents of the money belt kept next to his skin providing him with all he needed. When he ran short, he returned to his secreted equipment and made himself a further supply of cash. With pieces of such denomination, carrying substantial funds was easy. On arrival in Little Bend, he had nearly nine hundred dollars.
Jed had been sitting for only five minutes, when a man came tramping along and stopped, facing him. The fellow was of medium height, grossly overweight, with small, pig’s eyes set in the fat-creases of a scowling red face. A tin star was pinned to his grubby grey shirt. “You’re under arrest,” he growled.
“Me?” said Jed, grinning at the seemingly obvious error. “What for?”
“Now just a minute, Sheriff,” said Jed.
“Deputy. The name’s Gilmore.”
“All right, Deputy Sheriff Gilmore. I can take a joke, but I think you’re going too far. Who am I supposed to have murdered?”
“John Durkin. Accountant at the Weissberg gold mine.”
“Oh. When did I kill him?”
“Two days ago. Evening of May eighteenth, around six-thirty. You stabbed him to death.”
“Three miles out of town, when he was on his way home.”
“Well now, that was damned clever of me. Two evenings ago I was in the mountains, forty miles from here.”
“Alone, were you?”
Gilmore crooked a beckoning finger. “That’s good enough. You’ll get your chance to tell your story later. Right now you’re coming with me. Move.” He drew his gun.
Jed was no longer amused. “Okay. I guess I’ll have to go along, but you’re making a mistake.”
“We’ll see.” Gilmore ushered Jed ahead of him at gunpoint, prodding him into the combined office and jail, then patting him down, seeking weapons. Jed had never carried a gun, but did keep a long, razor-sharp knife. Gilmore took it, putting it into a desk drawer. Satisfied with the perfunctory search, he allowed Jed to keep his remaining personal effects. Sitting at the desk, he picked up pen and paper. “What’s your full name?” he asked.
“Jedediah Frederick Hall.”
“Where are you from, Hall?”
“Nowhere in particular. I’m travelling around.”
“A drifter, eh? What work do you do?”
“I aim to make my living with a pen. I’m hoping my savings will last until I can finish a book I have in mind.”
“To me, you’re a vagrant. Anyway, that’s not important. You’re in deeper trouble. I’ll take your statement later. Now, get in that far cell there.”
Resistance being useless, Jed obeyed. Gilmore locked him in, then returned to the desk, where he sat writing for a while, then pushed aside his papers and bent low over the scarred deal surface, using some kind of tool he’d pulled from a drawer. Jed couldn’t see what the man was doing, but heard him cursing and grunting as he worked. He was at it for more than an hour, then he came over to the cell, a blood-spotted rag wrapped around his left thumb. “I’m going out now,” he said. “I’ll be gone a good while.” With a malicious grin, he turned and stomped off.
Though alarmed, Jed was not the panicking type and when Gilmore left, he inspected the cell. Pulling the thin apology for a mattress from the narrow bed, he managed a wry smile. The frame was of iron, with a flat wire mesh, tensioned by springs fastened through holes in the metal. Well, that was something. Getting out would be no trouble. During his period as a prison warder, Jed had learned just about every trick in the jail-breaker’s repertoire. He set to work and within ten minutes, had loosened a spring and removed and twisted one of the wire strands. Now he could pick the lock anytime.
Breaking out was one thing, but Jed had no intention of spending the rest of his days on the run for a crime he hadn’t committed. He was still baffled by the peremptory way he had been treated. There had to be some kind of reasoning involved. There was, as he was soon to discover. He still had his cigars and matches, so he lay on the bed, smoking and thinking. Gilmore was away for four hours. He returned, smiling triumphantly. “Well, feller,” he said. “I guess I’ll get a commendation for this. I got you all tied up now.”
“You mean you’ve got me set up,” Jed replied angrily. “How did you do it?”
“Wasn’t any bother at all. First I found a witness who can place you and your horse at the scene of the crime at the right time. Then I got this.” He brandished Jed’s knife.
“Of course you’ve got it. You took it from me.”
“No, I didn’t. I recovered it from where you threw it after you killed Durkin. Investigating the matter with my usual thoroughness, I searched the area and found this knife. You said your name is Jedediah Frederick Hall, didn’t you?”
“Well, here we are, then.” He held up the knife, the initials J.F.H. carved into the wooden handle, dried blood on the blade. It was a workmanlike job. The letters had had something, probably dirt or pencil lead, rubbed into them and had been smoothed around the edges. They might have been there for years.
“Why, you damned crook. That handle was plain. You put my initials there yourself. That’s what you were doing this afternoon. I suppose that’s your blood. You pricked your thumb and smeared it on the knife.”
“Did I? Well, I don’t think the court will agree. Judge Thomas is a sharp one. He’s at the county seat right now and he’ll be here to try your case in a day or two.”
Jed was fuming. “This is outrageous,” he shouted. “There must be someone here I can speak to. Don’t you have a town council or something?”
“Oh, sure,” Gilmore replied. “Chairman’s Major Stobart. Fine gentleman.”
“Where can I find him?”.
“You can’t find anybody, mister. You’re locked up.”
“Well, where does he live?”
“Big white board house with a picket fence, south end of the street, but you don’t need to worry about that because you’ll not be seeing him. Anyway, I’m going out again. I brought you something to eat here.” He passed a bowl of beef stew through the food flap then left, locking the outer door.
Desperate though his situation was, Jed saw no point in adding hunger to his troubles, so he ate the food, then took up his improvised wire key. Within two minutes, he had unlocked the cell door. He had no clear plan, so he first opened the desk drawer. There was the knife. Underneath it were two sheets of paper. One was a form, detailing the time and date of his arrest; two-thirty that afternoon, May twentieth.
The second paper was the deputy sheriff’s version of his inspired solving of the crime. So that was what he’d been writing before he started work on the knife. Jed read it with increasing puzzlement. The report stated that Gilmore had searched the crime scene, finding the knife. Having no secure repository in his office, he had taken the supposed murder weapon to the home of Major Stobart, who had put it into his safe. The oddest thing was that the report stated that Gilmore had done all this on the evening of the crime, May eighteenth, calling on Stobart at eight-thirty p.m. Yet there was the knife, two days later, in Jed’s hand. Obviously Gilmore had falsified the record. It would look good for him. The way he recorded it, he had acted within an hour of the crime and had arrested the culprit less than two days later. Exemplary work.
Jed’s mind raced through his options. First, he could take the knife and run, but he had decided earlier that he was unwilling to be a fugitive. Second, he could hide the knife. But if he did, how long might he be held on suspicion? Furthermore, for all he knew, the deck might have been stacked against him in other ways. He needed to prove his point.
Maybe there was some way of exposing Gilmore’s deceit. With pressure accelerating his thought processes, Jed had an idea within five minutes. He would locate this Major Stobart as quickly as possible. If the major confirmed Gilmore’s story that the knife had been put into his safe on May eighteenth, then the two were in league. Also, perhaps Stobart wouldn’t be needed at the trial and therefore not be required to confirm the lie. Whatever the circumstances, Jed would call on him. However, he would first try to cover himself. He thought he knew how.
Behind the office was a storeroom with a door to the rear. Jed wasted no time seeking a key, opting to pick the lock. With the evening gloom helping him, he left, stealing across the back lots to the telegraph office. He’d thought up a story for the operator. It was flimsy, but all he needed was a momentary distraction. As it happened, the place was unoccupied, the door locked. What happened to messages when nobody was there? Maybe they were somehow relayed straight through to the next point down the line. Jed didn’t know. Going to the back, he forced a window and clambered inside. In seconds, he found what he wanted; copies of that day’s wires. Removing the top two, he selected the third, checked that it would suit his purpose, then replaced the others, left the way he had entered and hurried back to Gilmore’s office. Then he picked up his knife and got to work.
Ten minutes later he was on the move again. Time to call on Major Stobart. It was dark, but Jed had no problem in finding the house Gilmore had described. He knocked on the door and fidgeted anxiously for half a minute until it swung open, revealing a tall slim silver-haired man, immaculately dressed. “Good evening, sir. What can I do for you?” The voice was that of an old-school southern gentleman, though Jed thought he detected artificiality in it.”
“I’m sorry to trouble you so late. Are you Major Stobart?”
“I am indeed, but I fear you have the advantage of me.”
“My name is Hall. If it isn’t too much trouble, I need a few words with you.”
The major inclined his head. “Very well. I was about to retire, but I’ll accommodate you. Please step in.” He led the way into a large sitting room. “You’ll take a drink, Mr Hall – whiskey, perhaps?”
“Yes, sir. I could use one.”
Major Stobart supplied the drinks, indicating an armchair by the dying fire and seating himself in a matching one opposite his visitor. “Now, how can I help?”
Mindful of his ignorance of the major’s role in the affair, Jed told his story, omitting only his visit to the telegraph office. He concluded by admitting his escape, throwing himself upon the major’s mercy. When he came to Gilmore’s assertion that the incriminating knife had been placed in Stobart’s safe, the major merely nodded, saying nothing. When pressed, he hesitated, finally saying that Gilmore had handed him a package on May eighteenth, but had not said what it contained.
When Jed finished speaking, the major steepled his fingers, staring upward. For a long moment, he was silent, then said: “Well, Mr Hall. I’ve noted what you say. It’s certainly a strange situation. However, what do you want of me?”
Jed shrugged. “You can see my position is pretty awkward. I don’t want to run away, so I thought that if there’s a Mrs Durkin, maybe she could help somehow. I don’t know in what way and it may be a foolish idea, but it’s probably better than doing nothing. Trouble is, I don’t have much time.”
Stobart nodded. “Yes,” he said, “there is a widow. In fact, she lives just across the street. It’s rather late, but I imagine that in the circumstances she would see us.”
“Yes. I think it would be as well if I were to join you. Shall we go?”
They crossed to the Durkin house. The widow answered and Major Stobart apologised for the late call, introduced Jed and briefly explained the purpose of the visit. “All right, gentlemen,” said the distressed lady. “I don’t see what I can do, but if you’d come in.” She seated them in a living room, where Jed repeated his story.
Mrs Durkin, a small, birdlike woman, listened in silence. When Jed finished, she spread her hands. “I don’t know what to say. It’s true that the night before he was killed, John was disturbed. He wouldn’t tell me why, but he did say there was something he had to write down. He stayed up late. There was just one other thing. He started early for work the following morning. He said he wanted to see James Fielding, the lawyer. I reminded him that James was away on business, but he said he’d call anyway.”
“Thank you, Mrs Durkin,” said the major. “I suppose your husband didn’t leave anything in writing with you?”
“No, he did not.”
After offering condolences to the widow, the two men took their leave and returned to Stobart’s house. “Well, Mr Hall,” said the major. “I really don’t know what to suggest.”
“I do,” Jed replied. “I need to get into that lawyer’s office and see whether Durkin left anything there.”
“I can do that,” the major answered quickly. “Perhaps you’d better return to your cell and I’ll see if there’s anything to be found.”
“I’m obliged to you, Major,” said Jed, “but I want to see for myself. I’ll break in if necessary.”
Stobart raised a hand. “No need for that. James Fielding is a bachelor. He lives alone, above his office. He always leaves his key with his next-door neighbour when he’s away. If you’re so adamant about this, we’ll deal with it now.”
The major’s prestige sufficed to get the two men into Fielding’s office. Three envelopes lay on the lawyer’s desk, placed there by his neighbour. “Must be one of these,” said Jed.
Stobart picked up the largest one. “This is it,” he said. “I’ve seen Durkin’s writing before. We’ll take it. I know that is very irregular behaviour, but I think it is justified.”
They went back again to Stobart’s home, where the major led the way into his study. Jed opened the big envelope, finding inside a smaller, sealed one and a short note to James Fielding. The note asked Fielding to keep the other item, to be used only in the event of any mishap to Durkin. Jed opened the smaller envelope and the two men hunched over the letter it contained. They read:
I am writing this letter in the hope that you will make the contents public if anything untoward happens to me. Frankly, I am in fear for my life and cannot tell what turn events will take. Time presses, so I will be brief.
Some weeks ago, I stumbled upon a swindle being carried out at the mine by two men, Mark Conway and Tom O’Sullivan. It will serve no purpose to go into detail, but the operation was clever, involving the regular evasion of security measures. I have always considered myself a liberal man, so before deciding whether to report the matter to higher authority, I confronted the miscreants, telling them that if they would stop their activities, I would say nothing further.
Conway and O’Sullivan asked me to meet them in secret, the following day. When I kept the rendezvous, I found not only the two men present, but also Deputy Sheriff Gilmore. It seemed that he – you may remember he once worked at the mine – was in on the whole thing. In fact, he had conceived the plan, but being no longer employed by the company, he had to get someone else to carry it out. The three men made no bones about their intentions. I was offered a share of their booty, in return for holding my tongue. If I did not agree, neither I nor my wife would be spared.
To my shame, I remained silent and took my share of the spoils. However, the affair has troubled me so much that I can stand no more of it. As you know, my wife is in poor health and for this reason I cannot confide in her. In fact I have not even spent any of my ill-gotten gains, for fear of causing her to wonder about a sudden improvement in our circumstances.
This evening, May seventeenth, I expressed my feelings to Lewis Gilmore. He said he would talk with Conway and O’Sullivan, but I did not like either his reaction or the looks he gave me. He also told me that there were complications, in that another party was involved. He would not reveal the man’s identity, but said that he was a harsh one and would be less tolerant of me than were the other three.
Gilmore asked me to stay my hand for twenty-four hours, to see whether something could be worked out. I agreed, but have my suspicions as to what that something may be. I have compromised my position intolerably and am now quite alone. If nothing is settled by tomorrow evening, I shall speak out, no matter what the consequences. Should I be unable to do so, I look to you to act for me in whatever way you see fit. I must close now.
Your foolish friend and client,
Jed whistled softly. “This is dynamite,” he said.
Major Stobart stroked his chin. “It’s quite a document, Mr Hall. Frankly, I’ve had my doubts about Gilmore for some time. Apparently they’re justified.”
“Well,” said Jed, “I guess I’ve got him now. I’ll keep this and show it at the trial.”
“No, no,” Stobart replied sharply. “That won’t do. Gilmore will check your pockets before the hearing. He’ll find the letter then, if not before. Let me think.” He paced rapidly to and fro several times, then clapped his hands. “I have it,” he said. “Wait here for a couple of minutes. I’ll fetch the bank manager and we’ll go along and put the letter into his vault. That way, it’s sure to be safe from Gilmore, and you won’t even need to trust me. Help yourself to a drink. I’ll be right back.”
Jed was uncertain. He could still run off with the letter and try to prove his innocence from a distance. He was on the verge of doing so, when Stobart returned, his demeanour changed. The eager cooperator was gone. Now the posture was rigid, the face a stern mask. “Now, my young friend,” he said, “I think you’ve done quite enough.” He stepped aside to reveal behind him the figure of Deputy Sheriff Gilmore, gun drawn.
Jed groaned. “So you’re the fourth man, Stobart?
“That’s right,” the major replied.
Five minutes later, his prisoner again behind bars, Gilmore took the explosive letter and grinned as he burned it to ashes before Jed’s eyes. Stobart was smiling broadly. “That should do it, Lew,” he said to Gilmore.
“Yes, I guess it will, Jason. Now, you’d better take this knife, and remember, you’ve had it in your safe since the night Durkin was killed. That’s what my report says.”
“Very well, Lew. See you later.”
For three days, Jed chafed impotently in his cell, to which a new and more secure lock had been fitted. On the evening of May twenty-third, Gilmore entered the office, beaming. “Well, Hall,” he said, “your wait is nearly over. Judge Thomas is here now and your trial’s tomorrow.
Jed spent a restless night. He now had only one high card and he would play it as well as he could.
The following morning, Gilmore searched his prisoner’s coat, trousers and boots, then took him to the school, where one of the two classrooms had been converted for the trial. The jury and as many townspeople as could be accommodated were waiting. The judge was to use the teacher’s desk and a chair would serve as the witness box. Punctually at ten o’clock, Judge Thomas appeared. He was around sixty years of age, slim and about five foot six in height. His sharp blue eyes sweeping the room, he moved briskly to his seat and declared the proceedings open.
The first witness called was a shifty-looking little fellow named Towler. He stated that he had seen Jed and his horse at the murder scene within minutes of the crime. The man seemed uneasy and kept looking at Gilmore, whose eyes bored into him as though compelling him to speak a rehearsed piece. When he had finished, the judge said: “Now, Mr Towler, I want you to be sure. Are you in any doubt?”
Towler shook his head. “Couldn’t be,” he said. “That Palomino sticks out a mile.”
“The horse is not on trial here,” the judge snapped. “Look at the accused again and tell us if you are satisfied.”
Towler shuffled his feet awkwardly. “I’m certain,” he said.
The next witness was the murdered man’s widow. The judge was solicitous. “Mrs Durkin,” he said gently, “I realise what a difficult time this is for you and I will not detain you longer than necessary. I have been informed that Major Stobart and the accused visited you late in the evening of May twentieth, Now, can you confirm that and if so, would you please tell us what took place then?”
Mrs Durkin stated clearly and correctly what had happened, saying that her husband had been worried about something he wouldn’t discuss. She mentioned that Durkin had intended to call on his lawyer, but that she had reminded him that the man was not in town. She could not think of anything else pertinent to the proceedings. The judge thanked her, asking her to remain in the courtroom.
Next came Major Jason Stobart. He inclined his silvern head to the judge, his manner indicating that he was dealing with a social equal. He stated that his involvement had been limited to receiving the knife from Gilmore on the evening of May eighteenth and locking it in his safe. Being a busy man, he had dismissed the matter from his mind until Jed Hall called on him late on May twentieth, with a story of having broken jail in an attempt to prove his innocence.
The two men had visited the widow, but had learned nothing, save that her husband had visited Fielding’s office on May eighteenth. Minutes after visiting Mrs Durkin, the major, badgered by Hall, had presumed upon his own status and his friendship with the still absent Fielding to borrow a key to the lawyer’s home, where Hall hoped to find some communication relevant to the tragedy. They had not found anything. At that point, Jed shouted: “Why, you liar, you –”
“Silence,” yelled the judge. “You will have every opportunity to speak in due course. In the meantime you will oblige me by keeping quiet. Continue, Major Stobart.”
The major repeated emphatically that the two men had found nothing and had then returned to his home, where he had found a reason to excuse himself for long enough to rush off and summon Gilmore, who re-arrested Hall. Stobart had heard no more until Gilmore called on him two hours before the trial, to recover the knife and present it as evidence.
The judge listened intently, making notes. “Thank you, Major,” he said when Stobart declared that he had nothing to add. “I have just two questions. First, the supposed murder weapon. You say you locked it in your safe at Deputy Sheriff Gilmore’s request on the evening of May eighteenth and that he recovered it from you this morning. You did not say whether it was in your custody during the whole of the meantime.”
“It was, Your Honour.”
“Second, did you consider trying to overpower Mr Hall immediately, when he called on you on May twentieth?”
“I did, Your Honour, but as you can see, he is a powerfully-built man and must be less than half my age. I feared he might attack me and abscond if I alarmed him, so I decided to humour him until I could find an opportunity to locate Mr Gilmore. It seemed the best course.
“Hmn. Yes. Very commendable. You appear to have shown remarkable presence of mind. You may stand down, but please stay with us.”
The last prosecution witness was Deputy Sheriff Lewis Gilmore. He told his story, lingering over the diligence of his search for the murder weapon. Again, the judge listened carefully, his rapid writing apparently keeping pace with what he was hearing. “Thank you, Deputy Sheriff Gilmore,” he said when the lawman finished. “It seems that you acted swiftly. Just one question. Doesn’t it seem strange to you that a man, having just committed murder, should throw away his weapon on the spot?”
Gilmore shrugged. “I guess he just got jumpy. It’s been my experience that killers sometimes act that way.”
“Very well. You may return to your seat, but please stay in the courtroom. Now we shall hear what Mr Hall has to say.”
Jed gave his version of events, stressing the recovery and subsequent destruction of Durkin’s letter to the lawyer, but not yet telling of his visit to the telegraph office. The judge was all attention. “So, Mr Hall,” he said as Jed paused, “your story rests largely upon this supposed letter, which no longer exists, if it ever did. You also disagree with the other witnesses with regard to this matter of the knife. Have you anything else to say?”
“Yes, Your Honour. I admit that with the letter gone, I can’t exactly prove my innocence.”
“You are not obliged to do so. It is for the prosecution to prove your guilt.”
“Thank you. I was going to say that what I can show is that Deputy Sheriff Gilmore and Major Stobart are lying. What happens if I can satisfy the court on that point?”
“Giving false evidence is a serious matter. However, what are you saying?”
Jed pointed to the knife, lying on the judge’s desk. “Well, Your Honour,” he said, “now I have to own up to breaking into the telegraph office on the night I let myself out of jail.”
“Really,” said the judge. “You seem to have quite a talent for that kind of thing.” He placed a hand over his mouth and coughed, but Jed thought he could see a trace of a smile on the narrow face.
“Yes. Well, I can’t be in more trouble than I am now. Anyway, if you look at the knife there, you’ll see it’s unusual.”
The judge picked it up. “It seems normal enough, except that the workmanship is excellent and the blade is heavy.”
“It was made specially for me by Jim Breed of Cheyenne.”
“I’ve heard of the man. An artist, they say.”
“That he is, Your Honour. Now, you’ll see the handle is made of rosewood, with two rivets set into it and a silver knob at the end.”
“Yes. Go on.”
“It’s not so much that the blade’s heavy – it’s the handle that’s light.”
“I see. Is this getting us anywhere, Mr Hall?”
“I hope so, Your Honour. Breed made a few knives like that, for men who might want to use them for throwing. It’s a question of getting the right balance. The handle is light because it’s partly hollow. Gilmore would have discovered that if he’d cut much deeper when he was carving my initials on it. The metal shaft is just wide enough to hold the rivets. That silver knob comes off. It’s a tight fit and not easy to detect. It unscrews clockwise and if you twist it hard, you’ll find something.”
The judge applied a wiry thumb and forefinger to the task. He took ten seconds to loosen the knob, then pulled from inside the handle a tightly rolled piece of paper. “What is this?” he asked, unfolding it.
“It’s a wire message,” Jed answered.
“Yes,” the judge said. “Carry on.”
“Well, that’s why I broke into the telegraph office. When I got out of jail, I read Gilmore’s report, where he made up the part about finding the knife. I guess he did it to prove how smart he is. He went too far when he mentioned giving the knife to Major Stobart on May eighteenth. Now, I knew I was going to call on Stobart, but I didn’t know how he’d react, so I tried to think of some way of covering myself – a way that only I would know about. I got that message from the telegraph office and put it into the knife handle. I had to tear a bit off to do that. There’s no doubt about it being genuine – there’ll be a copy at the place that sent it. So what I’d like Mr Gilmore and Major Stobart to explain is, if the knife was locked up in Stobart’s safe from eight-thirty p.m. on May eighteenth until this morning, how did I put an authentic message, stamped five thirty-eight p.m. on May twentieth, into the handle, in Gilmore’s office at after nine o’clock that same evening?”
A babble of voices began and was quickly silenced by the peppery little judge, who then turned his gaze on Gilmore, his eyes twin gimlets. “Deputy Sheriff Gilmore,” he said, “I’d like an explanation, too.”
A less irascible man might have tried to flannel his way through, but Jed’s question had hit Gilmore like a bullet. First his face turned purple, then his mouth worked convulsively, no sound emerging from it. The judge swung his head to stare at Stobart, who was scarcely less apoplectic than Gilmore. Beetroot-faced, the major was looking at the floor. The judge turned his gaze back to the lawman. “I’m waiting, sir,” he said, his little chin jutting.
Gilmore’s choleric temperament was hopelessly unequal to the situation. Suddenly he lunged towards Jed, “Why, you lousy –”
“Restrain that man,” yelped the judge. Three jurors leapt upon the unpopular law officer, showing more enthusiasm than strictly necessary in wrestling him to the floor.
Within ten minutes, the proceedings were over. The superficially urbane Stobart broke down, babbling that Durkin had been killed by the two miners, Conway and O’Sullivan and that Gilmore, anxious to avoid a more thorough investigation, had framed the first stranger he found.
Jed was acquitted. His break-in at the telegraph office was dismissed as a justifiable act of desperation. Gilmore, Stobart and the witness Towler were hustled off to jail, the judge having summarily appointed four jurors to guard them.
An hour later, the nightmare over, Jed was using some of the contents of his still intact money belt to enjoy his restored freedom in the saloon outside which the affair had started. With most people having returned to their normal business, the place was almost empty when the swing doors opened to admit a tall hefty man wearing a star on his shirt. He crossed to where Jed stood at the bar. “Morning,” he said. “I’m Sheriff Matthews. Came over to observe your trial. Got delayed and missed it.”
Jed nodded. “Well, I’m sure glad it’s over. That judge is a keen one.”
“That he is,” the sheriff replied. “Fact is, he’s an expert in various ways. Among other things, he’s a numismatist. You know what that is?”
“No, but I guess you’re about to tell me.”
“That’s right. Means he knows a lot about coins. He got this one in change for a fifty-dollar bill in this saloon when he stopped by last night.” The sheriff tossed a twenty-dollar coin onto the bar. “You spent this right here on the day you arrived. Judge Thomas spotted it for a fake. So, Jedediah Frederick Hall, you’re under arrest for passing counterfeit currency. I’ll have to search you, down to the skin, and if I find any more of the queer stuff on you, you’ll be in big trouble.”
* * *