SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER SEVENTEEN
Where There’s A Rose
Baxendale was one of Montana’s more affluent towns. The original settlement became the hub of an area of cattle country and for some years the community thrived, though it was a one-industry place. Then, after the passing of the Homestead Act, settlers began to appear. Their arrival might have caused the same kind of trouble as occurred elsewhere. That it did not was attributable to the influence of Edmund Canfield, doyen of the ranchers.
Some of the cattlemen, possessive about their hallowed open range, resented the incursion of farmers, but no one wanted to make a hostile move without a lead from Canfield. They did not get the one they had in mind, for their spokesman had seen that the days of the unfenced range were numbered. The only question was whether the transition would be rough or smooth. Canfield counselled in favour of a welcome to the homesteaders, arguing that the town’s survival would depend on a broader base of activities.
The old man prevailed, as he did later, when the sheepmen arrived. Potentially, this was an even more explosive situation, but Canfield had studied the grazing habits of sheep and cattle and judged them to be more complementary than competitive. He was as right about that as he had been about the homesteaders.
To cap everything, shortly after the first sheepherders arrived, gold was discovered nearby. Again, the town was lucky, for this was not the placer metal that caused the familiar fever, but a limited and difficult seam, demanding and receiving the attention of a large mining company. It was just enough to enhance Baxendale’s prosperity without spoiling the place.
Among those gaining most from the town’s happy position was Maurice Laver. At the time of the gold find, he was forty-nine years of age. A man of medium height, his stocky build running to fat, he had luxuriant black hair with traces of grey and clear brown eyes in a smooth clean-shaven face. He liked the good things in life – first class liquor, top quality cigars, fashionable clothes and the like. His house was unquestionably the most imposing one in town, and he was taken to and from it in an imported landau, pulled by a perfectly matched pair of splendid horses.
Laver monopolised the law business in Baxendale. Trained in the East, he had moved west soon after graduation and had come upon the place by accident. Seeing its potential, he had put down his roots and was for six years the town’s only lawyer. At first, he had been satisfied with the ample rewards of his profession. Later, he was seized by ambition.
Like anyone in his profession, Laver became privy to many secrets and since he secured all the local business, he became a nerve-centre of confidential information. A more conventional lawyer would have accepted that as normal and thought no more of it. However, Laver began to see how he could turn various things to his advantage. He found that, in return for passing on, or refraining from passing on, sensitive details from certain sources to certain destinations, he could do very well for himself. In short, he became an extortioner. Nothing as crass as common blackmail, of course. More a question of clients compensating Laver for his malleable discretion. After all, it was difficult for a man to limit his social life for fear of taking one drink too many and possibly betraying trust. Some recompense was appropriate. Shall we say an increase of fifty per cent over normal fees? No, perhaps a hundred per cent. More secure that way.
When the railroad company put in a spur from the main line to Baxendale, the town got a telegraph office and Laver added another arrow to his quiver. It took a little bustling around and a few words in the right ears, but the result was to prove worth the effort. The lawyer got his cousin installed as wire operator. Thereafter, he was able to glean even more than before. Much of what came his way was useless, but things looked up when his proxy employee drew his attention to coded messages addressed to the mining company.
Though he had no talent for dealing with cyphers himself, Laver remembered a fellow who had been in the same year as himself at law school in Philadelphia. The man had had an addiction to conundrums of any kind. Baxendale’s lawyer was not one to pass up any opportunity to further his interests. Having traced his former classmate, who was still in the City of Brotherly Love, Laver copied three messages onto plain paper and sent them to him, with a letter explaining that the cryptic notes had turned up as part of the estate of a deceased client. Could they be deciphered?
There was no difficulty. The man’s love of puzzles was as great as ever. He replied quickly, saying that he hoped Laver might provide him with some more demanding material, as the code was merely a question of substitutions. All one needed to know was the relative frequency of letter usage in the language, from which point there was a little trial and error. Laver was supplied with the key.
The expert cryptographer did not allude to the fact the messages seemed to have no logical connection with what Laver claimed was their source. As it happened, they were far from sensational and gave away no secrets of any consequence. However, some later ones were much more informative, supplying details of investment plans, stocks and so on, which Laver exploited several times.
Nothing lasts forever. One day a fellow named Roland Sharp arrived in Baxendale. He was an attorney in his middle thirties and, having taken a fancy to the town, decided to stay. He found accommodation in the form of three rooms above a general store, accessed by a flight of wooden stairs. He was industrious and efficient and soon cut himself a sizeable wedge of the local cake in legal matters. Not the gregarious type, he made no effort to associate with Laver, or even to contact him. Sharp’s’ assessment was that there was enough work in the town for two lawyers. Laver’s view was different.
On a dark rain-swept evening, six months after Roland Sharp arrived in Baxendale, one of the townsmen was on his way home and somewhat the worse for drink, when he stumbled over what he first thought was a sack of trash in the street. Closer inspection revealed that it Sharp, or more accurately his corpse. The body lay at the bottom of the stairs leading to the lawyer’s office. Three feet away was a rum bottle, almost empty.
Deputy Sheriff Tom Donaldson was summoned and he in turn brought in the town doctor, who pronounced that Sharp had died of head injuries, presumably suffered in a fall down the stairs, the flimsy hand rail being broken and leaning out over the adjacent alleyway. A strong smell of drink from the dead man’s mouth and his clothing was noted as a probable contributory factor.
It seemed an open and shut case, but Donaldson was puzzled. As a part of his duties, he took a close interest in newcomers to the town and had noticed that Sharp had always appeared a model of sobriety, never visiting the saloons. Being a thorough man, Donaldson toured the town, calling at any place that stocked the brand of liquor found near the body. The answer was clear. Sharp had looked after himself, buying such things as a small household might need, but no alcoholic beverages of any kind. Since arrival, he had never left the town, so if he had been a secret drinker, he must have brought his supply with him. But Donaldson recalled that the man had arrived with only a carpet bag and a cardboard box, open at the top and full of books, and had subsequently bought everything he needed from the local stores. Not conclusive, Donaldson thought, but odd.
Almost a year after the lawyer’s death, a young man named Alan Easterbrook arrived in Baxendale. Like the unfortunate Sharp, he was in the legal business and, being newly qualified, was seeking to make a name for himself. Apart from their common profession, Easterbrook was different from Sharp in many ways – physically much larger, clearly far better off and very flamboyant. He immediately found good premises on the main street and lost no time in making his presence felt. He adopted a high profile, renting the largest house available, buying a handsome carriage and touring the town and its surroundings extensively. He was, he maintained, in Baxendale to stay. Unlike Sharp, he made a point of calling Maurice Laver, stating his intentions.
Easterbrook certainly made an impact. With his dashing lifestyle, he was not everyone’s idea of a legal practitioner, but he was undoubtedly competent and no one for whom he acted had any reason to regret engaging him. He made inroads and gave every indication of doing even better than his deceased predecessor.
One day, four months after his arrival in Baxendale, Easterbrook set out to keep an appointment with one of the nearby ranchers. He never arrived. Several hours later, a cowboy from the ranch found the lawyer’s buggy, one wheel broken, at the trailside. He also found Easterbrook face-down at the foot of a tree, dead.
Again, Deputy Sheriff Donaldson was brought in and again, he summoned the doctor, who closely inspected a long gash on Easterbrook’s head. In and around the wound were fragments of tree bark. A large stone completed the picture. Obviously, the carriage wheel had struck the obstacle, throwing the lawyer head-first at the tree. It was no great surprise. Easterbrook had been a racy, extravagant fellow, and while his death was regrettable, the general view was that it somehow seemed to match his life. Donaldson could only concur. Still, it was strange that lawyers were coming and going in this way.
After Easterbrook’s death, eight months passed, then the residents of Baxendale were surprised to find themselves with yet another new lawyer. This time, the man’s name was Eugene Craine. He was a tall thin fellow in his late forties, dark-faced, with black hair and a small moustache. His explanation for his appearance in the town was that he had chest trouble and had been advised to move to the West on health grounds.
Craine settled in quietly. Like Sharp, he found premises which served him as both home and office. A withdrawn man, he made no great show but he did, at first slowly, then with increasing pace, build up a clientele. He was as sound as he was undemonstrative. Like Sharp and unlike Easterbrook, he made no effort to strike up acquaintanceship with Maurice Laver.
Over three months, Craine advanced to the point at which he was taking a significant share of the town’s legal business. Then, one morning, a rancher client called on him to finalise a deal. As there was no response to his knock, the cattleman tried the door. Finding it open, he walked in to see Craine sprawled back in the chair behind his cluttered desk. Unable to get any response from his lawyer, the rancher hurried off to Deputy Sheriff Donaldson. Once more, the doctor was brought in. Among the items on the desk was a small bottle. The doctor sniffed at it, then at Craine’s lips. “Almonds,” he said. “This man has taken poison.”
Tom Donaldson returned to his office in a thoughtful mood. For three hours, he gave his fellow deputy no more than the odd grunt then, in mid-afternoon, he picked up his hat and set off towards the telegraph office. Halfway there, he stopped abruptly, stood in the middle of the sidewalk, massaging his chin, then swung round and returned to his office. “I’m riding over to the county seat,” he said to his colleague. “Hold the fort till tomorrow, Ben, will you?” In answer to his partner’s query as to his reason for such a burst of energy, he shrugged his heavy shoulders. “I’d rather not say right now,” he mumbled. “Maybe I’m being foolish. We’ll see.”
Baxendale’s people had been startled by the arrival of Eugene Craine, and even more so by his departure. Their astonishment was still greater when, three weeks after his death, the afternoon train brought in two travelling companions. One was a small mousey man wearing a black suit, a narrow-brimmed hat, tie and shoes of the same colour, and a white shirt. The other was a short stout, woman, around forty years of age, blond-haired and dressed in dark-grey travelling clothes of high quality. The arrival of the couple was accompanied by a good deal of fuss, as they brought with them a prodigious amount of baggage.
The woman appeared to be in charge of matters and immediately sent the man off on some errand. Then she hovered by the five large trunks and three cases, which had been hauled off the train by the guard and a couple of fellow passengers. The woman had obviously made some arrangements in advance. Within five minutes, her travelling companion returned with the livery stable owner, another man and a buckboard. The mountain of possessions was moved to an empty house on the main street. When the unloading was finished, the liveryman grinned at the newcomer. “Jesus, lady, if you’ll pardon my language, nobody could accuse you of travellin’ light,” he said.
“Your language does not shock me, sir,” the woman replied. “I’m grateful for your help and as for the baggage, it is a necessary part of my business. It’s mostly law books. That is my profession and one I intend to practise here. I propose to start at once and if you wish to recommend me to any of your acquaintances, I shall be obliged.”
This was good news to the man, who was an inveterate gossip. Now unrestrained, he lost no time in spreading the word and by that evening, there was scarcely a person in Baxendale who wasn’t abreast of the development.
The following day, the town saw nothing of the woman, who was busy arranging her copious effects. Once, the small black-suited man called at her house, stayed for an hour, then returned to his own lodgings.
Shortly before noon the next day Maurice Laver was working at his desk when his secretary announced a lady visitor. Checking that he was at his impeccable best, Laver stood and invited in his caller, thus getting his first sight of the woman who had arrived the previous day. Her unpacking completed, she had decided to confront the entrenched opposition. “Good morning, sir,” she said brightly. “My name is Rose Faraday. I’m here to practise law. As we shall be competitors, I thought it best to speak with you at the outset.”
“Your frankness does you credit. I welcome your arrival and I hope we shall have a cordial relationship. Please take a seat.”
Rose Faraday was smartly turned out in a bright red jacket and skirt and white blouse, with a gold brooch at her throat. She sat facing Laver. “I do hope you are right,” she replied primly. “I am a woman in what is largely a man’s world, but I am a good lawyer with a very capable assistant, and I hope to succeed.”
Laver gave his visitor a broad smile. “Well spoken, Miss Faraday,” he said.
“Mrs. I am a widow.”
“Beg pardon ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t concern yourself, Mr Laver. I am accustomed to being alone and the situation suits me.”
“I see. And did you feel that I could help you?”
“I doubt that. I am an ambitious person and I think you should know that I intend to gather all the work I can. I’ve heard that there have been other lawyers who failed in Baxendale and it seems right that I should tell you here and now that I do not contemplate adding to that list.”
Laver spread his hands. “I understand, ma’am,” he said blandly. “As for myself, I must say that I have been saddened by the loss of, let me see . . . yes, three gentlemen who might have been valued colleagues. However, you have made your position clear and I appreciate that. Now, is there anything else?”
Rose Faraday stood. “No, sir. I think that is all. I must get to work now. As they say in sporting circles, may the better person win. Good day, Mr Laver.”
“Good day, ma’am.”
Rose Faraday’s speed matched her directness. As soon as she left Laver, she engaged a carpenter, who quickly converted the main room in her rented house into a consulting chamber. The trunks were unpacked and the newly-made bookshelves were stocked with an impressive array of tomes, most of them leather-bound, on all aspects of the law.
Baxendale’s latest legal practitioner toured the town and its surrounding area in much the same way as Alan Easterbrook had done, but with the remarkable difference that for an introductory period, she would provide her services free of charge. The goodwill generated would benefit her in the long run, she asserted. It was an aggressive tactic and resoundingly successful.
One thing the clients noticed was that the new lawyer’s assistant was always present during consultations. He had a small desk in one corner of the room. It was also observed that it was he who almost invariably took notes. Rose Faraday asked the questions, but seldom wrote anything down. She left that to the unobtrusive little fellow, speaking to him in the presence of a client only when a point arose which required an immediate unequivocal answer. Then Rose would hand the floor over to her helper, saying that the issue in question was one in which he specialised. All documentation was prepared by the man.
The effect of Rose Faraday’s activities upon Maurice Laver’s business was severe. Within weeks, Baxendale’s established lawyer found that the previously well-trodden path to his door became virtually unused. That didn’t surprise him. He knew he would not have won any local popularity contest and was well aware that his practice had flourished because, except for the three brief spells of competition, he had long had a stranglehold on legal work. Now the exotic newcomer had declared commercial war on him. Well, if rough and tumble methods were required, he would not be found wanting.
Rose Faraday lived alone above her office in the house she had rented. The assistant had a room in the better of the town’s two hotels. One evening, just over two months after her arrival in Baxendale, Rose retired early, read for a while, then settled down to sleep. She had been well aware from the outset that her bold conduct might well provoke an adverse reaction from at least one quarter, so she had taken precautions, always locking her bedroom door at night, securing the sash window catch and keeping a loaded two-shot Derringer on her bedside table.
The measures Rose had taken didn’t help her when the trouble came. At four in the morning, she was roused by the sound of her door being shoulder-charged open to admit a large man who crossed to the bed in three long strides. Seeing Rose’s small weapon, he swept it to the floor before she could get a hand free. “Get up, lady,” he said gruffly. “You an’ me’s goin’ for a little ride.” precaution
Getting to her feet, Rose looked at the face she had seen many times around the town. “Very well,” she said, “if you’ll give me a minute or two to put on some clothes. Or do you propose to abduct me in my nightgown?”
“You can get dressed, but hurry it up. There’s a wagon waitin’ outside.”
Rose drew out the matter as long as she could, selecting a heavy, voluminous riding skirt of mid-brown tweed, a matching short coat and a hooded cloak. Then she fumbled again in the wardrobe, finding a short riding crop, which she tucked into her skirt waistband. The big man’s patience was running out. “Okay, if you’re through, or even if you’re not, just turn an’ face the window an’ put your hands behind you,” he grunted. “An’ from now on keep quiet, or you’ll be sorry.”
“Do you mean I won’t be sorry otherwise?” Rose asked rhetorically.
The man bound the proffered hands then, to be sure she wouldn’t rouse the neighbourhood, gagged his captive with a neckerchief. With Rose in the lead, the two left the house. A buckboard was waiting in the side alley. The man lifted Rose as though handling a bag of feathers, dumped her onto the passenger seat, then took the reins and moved off. It was still pitch dark, the streets deserted. Once clear of the town, the man increased speed, keeping up a brisk pace for almost an hour. Finally, he turned off the trail, rounded a low hill and drove a further mile, stopping at a derelict homestead. Then he removed his victim’s gag, untied her hands and told her to get down and walk ahead of him towards the dilapidated shack.
Rose Faraday was a quick thinker and not easily intimidated. After walking a few steps, she said, over her shoulder: “Well, what are you going to do with me, Mr Mason?”
“Oh, you know who I am, do you?”
“Really, sir. I have been in Baxendale for some time now. I could hardly not know who you are.”
“Well, how shall I put it? Let me see, I am five feet three inches in height. You are at least a foot taller and you must weigh over two hundred and fifty pounds. You loaf around the town nearly all of every day, with no obvious means of support. In a place the size of Baxendale, you are about as inconspicuous as a singing crocodile.”
“Smart lady, eh? Well, bein’ clever ain’t goin’ to do you no good now.”
Rose half turned, only to be roughly spun back and pushed onwards. That didn’t stop her talking. “What do you have in mind for me, Mr Mason? Am I to be intoxicated and thrown down a flight of stairs, or have my brains knocked out against a tree, or be forced to drink poison, or have you thought up something more original this time?”
“Nothin’ fancy. You’re goin’ down that hole yonder.” He pointed to the stone wall of an old well, over which a rusty iron bucket swung gently in the light breeze. “Ain’t no one ever comes out here any more. Coupla hundredweight o’ rocks on you should do it.”
Rose was walking a pace ahead of Mason and fractionally to his right, the big man’s six-gun held two feet from her back. Not that Mason believed that he needed the weapon. This was going to be an easy one – light relief after his disposal of the other lawyers.
With her right hand, Rose drew from a coat pocket a small cylindrical tin. Mason was so close that she could hear his breathing, which was heavy, as he was not in prime physical condition. The timing would be critical. If Rose was to succeed, she would need to catch the rhythm of that breathing. Ten yards from the well, Mason exhaled loudly. Now! Rose flicked off the top of the little container and, swinging her right hand around, threw the contents into Mason’s face. Half an ounce of ground white pepper, taken on the in-breath, is quite a shock and the big man began to gasp and splutter. Rose whipped out the riding crop and, making full use of her solid hundred and forty pounds, smashed the weapon down onto Mason’s gun-hand.
Incapacitated by the startling attack, the big man yowled, dropping the gun. Rose kicked it as far away as she could and scurried after it. Mason recovered from the effects of the inhalation of pepper to find himself looking down the barrel of his own weapon. He began to lurch forwards. “Why, you –”
“Stop,” snapped Rose. “Don’t move. You really must be careful here, sir. I am not accustomed to using firearms. However, I believe this is what is called a double-action gun. I understand that I don’t need to cock the hammer but only pull the trigger. Just to check that I have it right, we’ll try that old jug over there – and keep your distance, or I might pick a different target.” She pointed the gun at an empty, dust-coated earthenware crock by the door of the shack. Using both hands to hold the heavy gun steady, she fired, shattering the vessel. At nearly thirty yards, in murky light and apparently without any great effort to aim, it was either excellent shooting or an astonishing fluke. “Yes,” said Rose, “that seems satisfactory.”
If Mason had entertained any ideas of taking advantage of the digression, they were short-lived, for the gun barrel immediately swung back to cover him. “Now, Mr Mason,” said Rose, “I think you had better sit. Please make yourself as comfortable as you can on the ground. We are going to have a long talk.”
At noon on the day of the attempted murder of Rose Faraday, Maurice Laver was at his desk, drawing nervously at his third cigar since breakfast. He had good grounds for his tension. Mason should have reported back to him hours ago. The agitated lawyer was reaching for the brandy bottle in a desk drawer when his secretary knocked, opened the door and announced a visitor. Rose swept in, closing the door to exclude the employee. “Good morning, Mr Laver,” she said, all sweetness and light. “No, please don’t get up. I will take a seat though, if you don’t mind.”
Laver’s jaw dropped. “I . . . er . . . well, yes, please do,” he said.
Rose sat in the sole visitor’s chair, facing Laver. “You seem surprised to see me,” she said, smiling broadly.
“No. No, not at all, dear lady,” Laver answered, recovering as much composure as he could. “Is something wrong?”
Rose sat back, folding her hands in her lap. “Well, Mr Laver, that depends upon one’s point of view. From yours, I would say that everything is wrong.”
“I see. Or rather, I don’t see. To put it bluntly, Mrs Faraday, what’s up?”
“The game, Mr. Laver. As far as you are concerned, the game is up.”
“I think you’d better explain.”
“Gladly. I will spare you the details of dates and times, but to be brief, you arranged the deaths of Roland Sharp, Alan Easterbrook and Eugene Craine and you devised a similar fate for me. Very little in this life comes free of charge, Mr Laver, and now it’s time for you to pay.”
“Fascinating. I suppose you have proof of this absurd allegation?”
“Please don’t be tiresome. Of course I have proof. I did not need to call on you today, but felt that I should explain the position. I am not a lawyer. I work for the Bibby Detective Agency and I was engaged by the sheriff of this county to investigate the three murders I’ve just mentioned.”
“I see. You’re a bright one, Mrs Faraday. Of course, I realised that, but I didn’t rate you as quite so sharp.”
“Why, Mr Laver, I thought you might have realised that where there’s a rose, there are thorns.”
“A good point. Well, your methods seem to be very elaborate. You appear to have been practising law. How do you explain that?”
“A facade, Mr Laver. The gentleman who has been helping me is a qualified lawyer. All that he has done was perfectly valid. He was hired for the purpose. The same applies to all those law books. Most of them are what the theatrical people call stage properties. We knew we could not prove what you had done, without provoking you to try the same thing again. I think we did it quite well. It seemed appropriate that I should visit you before the matter was brought to a conclusion.”
As Rose spoke, Laver’s right hand moved to the upper drawer of his desk. He produced a single-shot Derringer, levelling it at his visitor. “I appreciate the courtesy,” he said. “Now, I think it might be wise on my part to arrange that conclusion here and now.”
“Oh, come, Mr Laver,” said Rose, clearly unconcerned by the threat. “You would be ill-advised to do that. Now, I am not normally one to lecture, but I must say that you were unwise in your choice of associate. Your hireling, Mr Mason, does not have the mentality to match his huge physique. When confronted with his misdeeds, he became most cooperative. I fear he has let you down. When I left him, fifteen minutes ago, he was signing a statement, confessing that he had killed three people on your instructions. He was most voluble.”
Until he heard that, Laver had felt that he might have had some way out. Now he was crushed. He answered in the rapid gabble of sheer bluster. “You’re lying, just to get an admission. It’s true I know Mason slightly. I’ve given him a few odd jobs now and then, but if you think they included murder, you must be insane.”
Rose assumed a pained expression. “Mr Laver, you are being fatuous. Dealing with Mason was quite simple. He is not accustomed to pressure. He will be hanged. I’m afraid I deceived him so far as to intimate that I could influence the court to moderate his sentence. Actually, I have no such power. As for your position, Deputy Sheriff Donaldson will be here within ten minutes and will take you into his custody. You may well share Mason’s fate. In terms of the machinery of justice, that would be the better course for you because the only legal alternative would be a life sentence with hard labour. Do you know anything about prison existence?”
“Well, if Mr Mason were facing jail instead of a death sentence, he would probably cope well with it. Being a big strong dull-witted man, he might be quite pleased to get food and accommodation, and no one would pester such a brute. Your situation is different. You are used to the good life. Almost certainly, the confinement and hard labour would kill you. But that isn’t all, Mr Laver. You have to consider the company. Goodness knows, the warders are not always the most humane of people. Then, much worse, think of the other inmates. A man softened as you have been would seem rather effeminate. You would be prey to the – what shall I say? – personal attentions of your fellow prisoners. And before that, there’s the horror and disgrace of a trial. That could be a long affair, which no one really wants. Not nice, Mr Laver. Not nice at all.”
“If you’re making a point, ma’am, please do so.”
“Very well. You have a gun there. I notice it is a one-round Derringer. If you wish to shoot me, there is nothing I can do to prevent that.” She stood, fixing Laver with an unflinching stare. “However, I intend to leave you now. You might care to decide for yourself the appropriate destination for your single bullet. Goodbye, sir.”
Deputy Sheriff Donaldson arrived at Laver’s office five minutes after Rose Faraday left it, his purpose being to arrest the stricken lawyer. He was too late.
* * *