SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER TWENTY-SEVEN
“Mr Patterson, I assume. Come in. You must be tired. Have a seat over there. You’ll take a drink? Beer, whiskey, rum, brandy?”
The visitor dumped his leather bag. “Yes, I’m Michael Patterson, and thank you – a tot of brandy would be welcome.” He crossed the room and took one of the two easy chairs by the fire, which was blazing merrily this cool April afternoon.
Jack Turner busied himself with the drinks then, handing a king-sized measure to Patterson and holding a similar one for himself, sat in the other chair. The two men presented a sharp contrast. The immaculately dressed Patterson was of average height and slim build, while his six foot four, two hundred and thirty pound host was, as usual when at home – he owned a large two-storey house of white-painted timber – casually turned out.
“Now,” said Turner, “Judging by the way you hurried along from the station, this thing must be as urgent as you said.”
“Ah, you noticed my haste, did you?”
Turner smiled. “No great feat. This is a small town. The engine makes quite a racket and we’ve only the one arrival before late evening. You probably had to ask where my place was, and you still got here three minutes after the train stopped. I gathered from your wire that you’d be here today. Now, you think I can help you?”
Patterson took a pull at his drink. “That’s right – and I’m obliged to you for wiring back so promptly. I don’t really know what you can do, but my position is pretty desperate. I’m from Pittsburgh, so I guess you’d call me a tenderfoot here.”
“Some might,” said Turner. “I don’t like the term. I mean, depending on circumstances, you might class everyone that way. If I were in your backyard, you’d probably have the same notion about me.”
“I hope I wouldn’t. Anyway, until a matter of days ago, I had just one living relation, my uncle, Nathan Patterson. We rarely saw one another, but kept in touch by mail. Uncle Nathan owned a ranch in the Panhandle country. Only a small place, but valuable beyond its size, on account of its position with regard to water. My uncle mentioned several times that his immediate neighbour had been pestering him for years to sell out. This fellow, Tom Bateman, is a power in the land and made no secret of the fact that he was frustrated by my uncle’s refusal.”
“Not the first time that’s happened,” said Turner. “These things can get ugly.”
“I know that now. Well, some time ago, Uncle Nathan wrote to me, stating that he’d decided to sell his ranch and do a little travelling before it was too late – he was well over sixty. He asked me long ago whether I would want to take over his place in due course, and I told him that I saw no way that I could fit into those surroundings. The upshot was that he made a will, leaving everything to me. Now, in his latest letter, he wrote that he’d changed his mind and wanted me to visit him, help him to dispose of the ranch, then take the proceeds immediately. He said he had enough salted away to see him through he rest of his days, and the sale money would be more useful to me now than later.”
Turner nodded. “Very thoughtful of him. No doubt you were pleased.”
“Delighted, although he overestimated my ability to help him in the matter of the sale. He liked to think of me as having influence in the banking world. I am in that business, but merely a foot soldier. Anyway, he said that on no account would he sell to Tom Bateman, as there was too much bad feeling between the two of them. He asked me to visit him straight away. To make clear that his intentions were firm, he sent me a copy of the amended will, drawn up by his lawyer, confirming his intentions. Incidentally, he used a lawyer from another town, as he didn’t trust the local one.”
“He seems to have been remarkably thorough.”
“That didn’t surprise me. He was like that, almost to the point of eccentricity. Anyway, I agreed to do as he wished, got unpaid time off from the bank and headed west.”
“So that’s why you wired me from Texas and not Pittsburgh.”
“Correct. I arrived at Wadlow – that’s the local town – just over a week ago. I’ll try to spare you anything I don’t think relevant, but the fact is I’ve come up against a brick wall. First, I learned straight off that my uncle died less than week before my arrival.”
“My condolences. How did he die?”
“That’s a good point. He’d always been in excellent health. Of course I realise that people do keel over suddenly. Still, I was suspicious. And that was only the start.”
“Seems a hard enough one. What followed?”
“It was a nightmare. First, I saw the local doctor, who appears to be better acquainted with alcohol than medicine. He was adamant that my uncle must have had a heart attack, though it wasn’t clear to me how he could be so sure. Next, I called on the town marshal, who I later learned was a hireling of this Bateman fellow. His name’s Carter and he’s a blustering fool. He was downright unfriendly and I got nothing from him.”
“Hmn” said Turner. “Must have been discouraging.”
“It was. My next call was on Wadlow’s one and only lawyer – and I never came across a slyer type. From his breath, I’d say he’s about on a level with the doctor as regards drink. He made a fuss about my proving my identity, which I did, then he said that Uncle Nathan had sold out to Bateman for twelve thousand dollars. A day later, my uncle died. The lawyer couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give me any further information.”
“So you were stuck?”
“Not quite. It seemed to me that any big transaction might have involved the town’s bank. One of my uncle’s letters mentioned that he did a little business there, largely against his will. He would have preferred to go further afield but never had the time. I called on the manager. He raised every objection he could, and even after I’d properly identified myself for the second time within an hour, he was still obstructive. All I learnt from him was that he claimed to have had no dealings with my uncle for several months. Like the lawyer, he said that he hadn’t been required to witness any handover of funds. He suggested that the sale might have been a cash one and that possibly Uncle Nathan had secreted the money somewhere, then died.”
Turner spread his hands. “Within a day? That seems very convenient for everyone but him and you.”
“Indeed it does. However, having got that far I didn’t intend to be put off, so I visited Tom Bateman. He’s a strange one, smallish and slim-built, black suit, black beard and those black eyes that seem to burn through a man. He looks more like a hell fire and brimstone preacher than my idea of a rancher. When I told him who I was and why I was there, he made a show of understanding, offered his condolences and said it was tragic. He’d had his differences with my uncle, but had always respected him. He claimed that Nathan had had a change of mind and decided to sell, subject to his men being kept on.”
Patterson took a swig of brandy before continuing: “Bateman said that the sale had indeed been a cash deal, and that my uncle was to inform his hands the following day. That didn’t happen. The next morning, he was found dead by his wife’s grave, close to his house. There was no trace of the money. The general assumption was that he’d been overcome by his changed circumstances. When I pressed Bateman, he fumbled for words, then said my uncle had mentioned me, but had said I’d be relieved to get the funds and wouldn’t have wanted the ranch. As to the money, Bateman said that he could offer no explanation other than what the bank manager had surmised. I didn’t believe the man, but there was nothing I could do.”
Turner held up a hand for a pause, scooping up both glasses and moving off to refill them. Bringing two more large measures, he settled down again. “So,” he said, “you were at the end of your tether.”
“Yes, I was.”
“Which brings us to where I come in.”
“Right. That was pure coincidence. I’m no great socialiser, so I avoided the main saloon and picked out a little place at the edge of town. It’s owned and run single-handed by a man named Ed Foley, who seems to be one of the few people in Wadlow not under Tom Bateman’s thumb. In fact he said that Bateman, who already owns the big saloon, tried to buy him out. He refused and there’s no love lost between the two. It was Foley who gave me your name and address.”
“I was wondering about that,” said Turner. “How does he know of me and what did he have to say?”
“Well, it seems that he has a friend in El Paso, who has a cousin you helped out two years ago. This cousin reckons you’re the best private detective in the business.”
Turner grinned. “That’s only partly true. I did do a job in El Paso at that time, but you’d better be clear about my credentials. I’m neither a lawman nor a private detective. I don’t know what you’d call me. Maybe an adventurer. It just so happens that I’ve been able to help some people now and then. When I do, they usually pay me for my trouble. I’ve no official status and no set fees, but it’s only fair to tell you that when I do take on a job I see it through, even if it involves rough work, including shooting. And if I get on the wrong side of law, well, that’s just too bad. I’m no saint, Mr Patterson. When I act, I take a lot of risks and I don’t work cheap.”
“I appreciate your frankness,” Patterson replied. “I have nearly four hundred dollars saved, and I’m prepared to put most of it up to get to the bottom of this.”
Turner shook his head. “We’re not in hailing distance. My kind of work is often difficult and dangerous and I’m sometimes idle for weeks, or even months. I’m afraid your savings would be inadequate compensation for what I may have to do. Still, there may be one solution.”
“What would it be?”
Turner steepled his fingers. “If we can pull this off, you’ll be twelve thousand dollars to the good, won’t you?”
“Well then, my feeling is that if we can clear up a point or two, I should go down to Wadlow and look over the situation. I’ll meet my own expenses, so there’ll be no cost to you. If I think I can solve your problem, I’ll try. If I fail, you pay nothing. If I succeed, I’ll settle for twenty per cent of your twelve thousand. You also have to understand that there are times when I need to act on the hoof. If I see a quick way of doing a job, there may be no time to discuss things with you. So, what do you say?”
Patterson could think as quickly as the next man. “I didn’t mean to insult you with my offer, Mr Turner. You’ll appreciate that I’ve no experience of this kind of thing and that I’m completely out of my depth. I accept your proposal. After all, at present I’m short twelve thousand. If you fail, I’ll be no worse off, aside from the salary I’m losing. If you succeed, I’ll be up by nine thousand, six hundred. It seems reasonable. And as to your deciding things impromptu, I guess that’s fair enough.”
“Good. Well, I think I’ve grasped everything. Now, you’ll understand my caution, but anyone could call on me and claim to be the genuine Michael Patterson. Can you help me with that?
“Yes. I had no idea what to expect during my travels, so I took the precaution of getting an open letter from my employer, confirming my identity and that I’m on extended leave. I have it here, along with my uncle’s letter, a copy of the one he dictated to the lawyer and a copy of the amended will.” Patterson produced the documents and handed them over.
Turner read through all four items, noting that the first and third were on letter-headed papers. “Excellent,” he said. I think I can do something for you, but I need to bustle around a little. It’s one-thirty now. I suggest you take a room at our hotel, pass the day as well as you can and call on me again tomorrow, at about the same time as you came today.”
Patterson left and Turner got busy. He sent two wires, one to the lawyer and one to the bank. In both of them, he indicated that Michael Patterson had approached him for assistance in an urgent matter. The one to the lawyer was simply to establish that the man existed and that he was a legal practitioner, while that to the bank requested a description of Patterson.
By the time the Easterner called on him again the following afternoon, Turner had received satisfactory replies to both wires and was ready to act. He didn’t indicate in what way, but said that he still had work to do, and asked Patterson to spend a few hours as he saw fit, then get ready to leave and meet him at the railroad station at six o’clock.
Patterson took the advice, rejoining Turner as agreed, and noting that the large man was now well-clad. The two travelled south that evening, arriving the following day at the railroad halt nearest to Wadlow. The only other passenger to alight there was a tall thin well-dressed man who’d boarded the train along with Patterson and Turner.
Having explained what little he was prepared to divulge of his plan, Turner immediately hired a horse and went on ahead, leaving his would-be client to wait for the next day’s stagecoach. There was nothing to do in the railside settlement, so Patterson spent the night in the sole boarding house, trying to catch up on his sleep.
On boarding the stagecoach the following afternoon, Patterson found himself again in the company of the lanky fellow who had travelled in the train from Turner’s home town the day before. As the man hadn’t stayed overnight in what seemed to be the only place offering accommodation, Patterson wondered where he’d been. Not roughing it, by the look of him. There were three other passengers, a woman with a small boy and a garrulous little drummer travelling alone. As soon as he got into the stage, the tall man pulled his hat down over his eyes, evidently having no intention communicating with anyone.
It was shortly after eleven a.m. when Jack Turner arrived in Wadlow. He hadn’t expected anything in particular, but was mildly surprised to note that such a small place could be so noisy. The town comprised a main street running north-south with a single offshoot leading westwards, plus a few outlying buildings Most of the din came from a large saloon, which had its doors at the south corner of the two streets. A sign above the entrance bore a large likeness of an ace of clubs playing card, beneath which was the legend ‘The Clubhouse’. This was the big Bateman-owned place Patterson had mentioned.
There was nothing in the national calendar that called for celebration and Turner wondered what local event caused such carousing. He was about to investigate when the saloon’s batwing doors opened, disgorging a drunk who teetered to the edge of the sidewalk, swayed to an angle that seemed to defy gravity, then walked into an awning post, bounced off and wound up on his back in the street. If he was anything to go by, this was quite a party.
With a chuckle, Turner nudged his horse across the street and around the corner, to where it could stand in the shade, then he headed for the saloon to find out what was going on. He entered, finding himself in a room thirty feet square, a long bar taking up most of the right-hand wall. In the far left-hand corner, an elderly fellow was pounding a tinny piano. Between him and any incomer, about thirty men sat at a scatter of tables. Some were singing, their efforts bearing little resemblance to those of the pianist. Others were engaged in bawling conversation, while several sat quietly, glazed eyes indicating that they were too far gone to add to the cacophony. There wasn’t a woman in sight.
Turner crossed to the bar, ordered a beer and asked what was happening. The short bald roly-poly barman had taken a few belts of something himself. “My, you really are a stranger here, aren’t you?” he said. “This is Mr Bateman’s birthday. He always gives his boys the day off. It’s an annual event here.”
Turner feigned ignorance. “This Mr Bateman’s a big man in these parts, is he?” he said.
“He sure is. Why, nobody makes a move around here without his say-so. An’ he’s a damn good sort, too. I’ll fight anybody who says he isn’t.”
“No need to brawl with me, friend,” Turner replied. “I’m just passing through. Is Bateman a rancher?”
The barman’s eyes rolled heavenwards. “A rancher,” he said. “Did you ever hear of Goodnight, or maybe Chisholm?”
“I guess almost everybody has.”
“Well, Tom Bateman’s right up there with them. Fancy you not knowin’ that.”
“I guess we’re all ill-informed in some ways. I’d hardly know one end of a cow from the other. Anyway, I’ll drink to your man.”
The barkeeper was pleased to hear that. “I’ll join you,” he said, downing a whiskey, “an’ bein’ as you’re a stranger an’ this is a special occasion, your first drink’s on the house.”
“Much obliged,” said Turner, finishing his beer. “I’ll get myself settled in, then maybe I’ll be back to give you some genuine custom.” Having learned what was what, he left, striding past the still sprawled body of the drunk and on to the hotel. He got a room, saw to his horse, then made his way to Ed Foley’s small quiet saloon at the western end of the side street. His production of a gold eagle coin and request for a bottle of brandy were enough to hold the barkeeper’s attention, though there were no other customers to distract him anyway. From Patterson’s description, the man was clearly Foley himself. Turner gave no indication of his purpose, but being an expert in getting information without giving it, he passed himself off as a well-to-do traveller, while eliciting the saloon-owner’s feelings about local matters. What he heard confirmed Patterson’s report.
Turner’s initial objective was to be noticed as much as possible before Patterson’s arrival, to emphasise that the two were apparently unconnected. To that end he called in at the stage-and-freight office, asking about the frequency of services, then went to three stores, where he made small purchases. All of that helped to register his presence. Next, he went along to the bank, noting that, even for a town of Wadlow’s modest size, it was an unimpressive place.
Fortunately for Turner’s purpose, two customers were keeping the tellers occupied and two more were waiting. He went in, wandered around for a minute or so, then left. He made a point of passing the town marshal’s office. Carter, a jowly, red-faced, hugely overweight fellow of average height, stood in the doorway. Turner gave him a curt nod, getting nothing in reply, then walked by the lawyer’s place, which seemed to be closed. Concluding that that was enough for the moment, he went back to the hotel and sprawled on his bed, mulling over what he had in mind.
The evening stage rattled into Wadlow, depositing its three remaining passengers, the woman and the boy having left earlier and no other travellers having embarked. Michael Patterson led the way to the hotel. Behind him trotted the chatty little fellow, who was in the liquor business. Bringing up the rear was the man who hadn’t spoken a word during the journey.
Within half an hour of their arrival, both Patterson and the tall, taciturn man had been summoned to Turner’s room, where the two stagecoach companions were finally introduced. “I hope you’ll forgive the secrecy, Mr Patterson,” said Turner, “but I thought it best that you should travel as apparently separate parties. It may not matter, but the more information we have and the less the opposition has, the better.”
Patterson shrugged. “I guess you know what you’re doing.”
“I hope so. Well now, the gentleman here” – he waved at the quiet man – “is William Ward. He’s a professional actor. Maybe on this occasion he won’t have much of a role, but he has a certain presence which has helped me more than once and might do the same again.”
“I see, said Patterson. “So you have some kind of plan?”
“I have several. Some involve brute force and flying lead, but I hope we can do the job by other means. We have to find an Achilles’ heel. Riding into Bateman’s fortress won’t help. The lawyer’s probably too wily, even when he’s drunk, and I think you’re right about the marshal. He’s likely to be hostile. That leaves one possibility. By the way, can you ride a horse?”
“Yes I can.”
“Good. Hire a couple of decent ones, put them along with mine at the livery stable and see that they’re ready to go when I give the word.”
At ten past nine in the morning after the conclave in the hotel, Turner and Ward entered Wadlow’s bank, Patterson having remained in his room. There were no customers, so Turner presented the sole teller with an impressive letter – one of several in his collection – stating the bearer’s name and the nature of his business. He demanded to see the manager at once. The two newcomers were shown through to the back office, where they were greeted by a short fat man, who introduced himself as Jason Copping, head of the bank.
Turner showed his letter again. Copping examined it as though it was an explosive device, then motioned his visitors to sit. “What I can do for you?” he said.
“A good deal,” barked Turner, who now seemed a different man from the one who had spoken so softly to Michael Patterson the previous evening. “You’ve seen that I’m Henry Freeman, of the Treasury Department. My associate here is James Holbrook, of the Department of Justice. We’re here to investigate an irregularity concerning the affairs of the late Nathan Patterson. Our understanding is that he had business with you and we need to know the details of it.”
Copping smirked. “I dare say you do,” he said, “but there are two things you should know. First, I’m obliged to keep my customers’ affairs confidential. Second, this bank is fifty-one per cent owned by Tom Bateman. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, it should. Do you know what you’re dealing with here?”
Turner had assumed a fairly aggressive stance from the start. Now, he appeared to abandon all restraint. “My word, sir,” he bawled, “you have your share of gall. You’d better get it into your head that you’re the one who’s in trouble. This Bateman may be a big fish in this one-horse backwater. Outside of it, he’s far from that. Now, I have authority to close this bug-hutch you call a bank. In fact that might be a good start.” He waved at his companion. “Mr Holbrook, please step out there and inform the teller that he’s to –”
That was enough for Copping, who was a rank amateur in the matter of bamboozling. “Just a minute,” he yelled. “Let’s not be too hasty.” He was well and truly deflated. “What do you want?”
Turner signalled his associate to wait, while continuing to glare at the befuddled Copping. “I want the truth,” he said, his eyes boring into the bank manager like drilling bits. “Now, kindly let me see what documentation you have concerning Mr Patterson and Mr Bateman – and may God help you if it’s not as it should be.”
The humbled Copping dived into his safe. “All I have is in here,” he said, producing a ledger and handing it over to his tempestuous inquisitor.
Turner flicked through the pages, stopping at the one concerning Nathan Patterson. “There’s a balance of two hundred and twenty-nine dollars here,” he said. “What happened to the twelve thousand he got for his ranch?”
Copping shrugged. “I imagine he cached it away somewhere. Nothing wrong with that.”
Turner went to the pages recording Bateman’s transactions. He shoved the latest entries under Copping’s nose. “No,” he snapped, “except that there isn’t a debit here to account for the payment.”
“So?” said Copping. “I guess Mr Bateman paid in cash. That’s his privilege.”
“Hah,” Turner barked. “You expect me to believe that Bateman, who effectively owns this bank, just happened to have twelve thousand dollars under his pillow to pay off Mr Patterson, who mysteriously died the following day, after stowing away the money? You must take me for a fool. Patterson was no beginner in financial matters. He would never have exposed himself that way.”
Turner’s comments were improvised, but he was watching Copping closely and, seeing that the bank manager was overwhelmed, he pressed on: “This thing stinks a mile high. Now, I’m prepared to let you continue your business until I’ve made further checks. Meantime, you’ll stay here and won’t communicate with anyone. My associate will see to that. Please take over here, Mr Holbrook.”
The tall, quiet man seated himself opposite Copping, fixing the bank manager with a stony stare as Turner left.
An hour later, Copping sat fidgeting, while Ward/Holbrook sprawled, completely relaxed. Jack Turner flung open the door and slamming it shut behind him, crossed to the desk. Resting his knuckles on the surface, he glared at the manager. “Now, sir,” he rapped, “let me put you in the picture. Your town doctor, your lawyer and your marshal are all under arrest and in the custody of two federal marshals and two of my departmental associates, who arrived here this morning. Three more federal officers are on the way here. The charge will be complicity in the murder of Nathan Patterson. There is also a question of possible banking misconduct, involving you. Bateman will be arrested this afternoon.”
Copping stared, his chin wagging up and down as he sought speech. “But I . . . I . . . I know noth –”
“You may well stammer,” Turner bellowed. “It’s my belief that you’re in this conspiracy. However, for what’s it’s worth, I doubt that you had anything to do with the killing. I’ve said as much to Mr Patterson Junior, who’s here now and is prepared to drop any charges against you, subject to full and immediate payment of the twelve thousand dollars due to him in respect of the sale of his uncle’s ranch. Personally, I think he is too soft-hearted in your case, but that’s his right. Now, you can do this by debiting Bateman’s account and handing over the money to me, here and now.”
As Turner had guessed, Copping was no true banker, but an unqualified second-rate book-keeper and one of Bateman’s puppets. He began babbling again. “I don’t know what . . . look, I have to see Mr Bateman.”
“Evidently there’s something wrong with your hearing,” Turner shouted. “I just told you that Bateman will be arrested this afternoon and his funds are now seized. Speaking purely for myself, I’d sooner see you tried with the rest, but I’ve given you the only choice you’re going to get. So what’s it to be?”
When a man’s world is taken apart out of the blue in barely an hour, he might be excused for not thinking straight. Both physically and intellectually, Copping was a puny fellow. Now he was totally bemused and thinking only of his own skin. His face was sheet-white, his hands trembling as he mumbled: “I don’t have that much cash on hand.”
“How much do you have?” Turner was inexorable.
“My usual amount in the safe. Nine thousand dollars. Then there’ll be five or six hundred out front with the teller.”
“In a case of this kind, you’re answerable to the extent of your personal funds, and I advise you to use them. Where are they?”
The thoroughly panic-stricken Copping was far beyond making any effort to argue. “At home, just along the street. I have about two thousand eight hundred dollars.”
“Get it now. Mr Holbrook will go with you.”
Ten minutes later, Copping and Ward/Holbrook were back and Turner had bagged eleven thousand eight hundred dollars. “All right, Copping,” he said, still in stern mode. I accept that you’ve done what you can to redeem yourself. You may keep the money out front. You’re not free and clear yet, but I’ll do my best to keep your name out of this sorry affair. Don’t leave the area until you get my permission. Goodbye.”
Within three minutes, Turner, Ward and Patterson were jogging northwards. When well clear of town they increased speed, heading for the railroad halt. They made it with half an hour to spare, catching the northbound train. Here, Turner was circumspect. He paid for travel to a station well short of the true destination, even then insisting that the trio disembark two stops short of the place indicated on the tickets.
At last, as the train pulled out, the three men relaxed. Now in possession of the money, Patterson handed over Turner’s fee, adding enough to cover the party’s train fares. “As I said, I’m a tenderfoot here,” he said. “How on earth did you manage it?”
“Guesswork, bluff and bluster,” Turner replied, as he gave Ward his share. “It might have gone completely wrong, but I reckoned that the banker was the weak link and I was right. A man in my line of work gets a feel for this kind of thing. If I’d been wrong, we’d have had to quit that place even faster than we did. That’s why I wanted to be sure you could handle a horse.”
Patterson shook his head. “You’re an extraordinary man, Mr Turner, and I’m greatly obliged to you. Of course, I’d have liked to settle things more conventionally, but that was never likely, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t. Those people would have made a fool of you. And as to settling matters, nothing in this world is perfect. You didn’t want that ranch, you’ve got nearly all the money that was due to you and with regard to your uncle, he’s dead. Even stringing up those rascals wouldn’t reverse that.”
“Do you think they’ll come after us?”
“Well, it was sensible to take the precautions we have, but no, I don’t think they’ll do much. Bateman might have sent some of his men to the railroad stop, assuming they’re sober again after yesterday’s revels. And what will they find? They’ll learn that we headed north. That’s a lot of country, and they won’t even know where we left the train. In any case, after that business concerning your uncle, Bateman won’t dare to run the risk of a genuine investigation into his conduct. I think you can go back to Pittsburgh with as clear a conscience as man can expect to have.” With that, Jack Turner pulled flask from an inside coat pocket. “I don’t know about you gentlemen,” he said with a broad smile, “but I think we’ve all earned a drink.”
* * *