A Warbonnet Mystery
Also by this author:
The Warbonnet historical mysteries:
Murder for Greenhorns (1870)
Painted Women (1871)
Death's Icy Hand (1872)
Saving Lincoln (standalone)
All published by ABQ Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico
"Ground Truth" (short story)
In the anthology Outlaws and Lawmen
La Frontera Press, Cheyenne
Copyright 2014 by Robert Kresge
ABQ Press trade paperback edition 2014
Cover Design by Matt Kresge
Author's website by Darren Wheeling of www.blackegg.com
Albuquerque, New Mexico
With gratitude to the readers of my first three novels,
who knew I'd return to Wyoming tales.
Thanks for your patience.
The Red Dress of Courage
Sioux Territory, Wyoming
Kate Shaw reined in her roan pony atop a rise and drank in the beauty that surrounded her. Wyoming in early spring was rebounding from another hard winter. The yellowed grassy slopes were already turning to vivid green. Yellow daisies competed with purple larkspur, and here and there taller thistles tirelessly bowed and bent to the ever present high plains wind. The sunshine warmed Kate's yellow braids. She’d rolled her coat behind her saddle this morning.
Reverend Jonah Barnes stopped beside her. He stroked his dark beard and quietly admired the colorful vista, but Kate noted his eyes strayed more often to her faded red gingham dress than to the multihued flowers around them.
“Oh, Jonah, this is marvelous. What a wonderful morning. A trip like this can almost make me forget mundane cares of the week. I can revel in the possibilities of this endless horizon.”
“That’s a glorious turn of phrase, Kate. Perhaps you should consider writing poetry—or descriptive prose.” He removed his hat and wiped his forehead with a bandana. He put the bandana away and offered Kate his canteen. She took it, unscrewed the cap, and sipped.
Kate returned the canteen and waited as Jonah drank. At length, they tore their eyes away from the vista and trotted their horses along the ridge, moving southward toward the Platte River and home.
Warbonnet. With more than three hundred souls now, the town had doubled in size since Kate arrived. She’d spent her first nineteen years in Buffalo, New York, but the last three years in Wyoming had given her a whole new life. Coming west was truly like starting over.
“Your braids are very becoming, Kate, with beads, ribbon, and those little feathers at the ends. I didn’t think you’d leave your hair that way. You told me you've never liked braids.”
Kate brought the ends of her long braids forward over her shoulders. This would scandalize her hostess Wizanzan—Moonlight—back in the camp they’d just left. Braids down the back identified maidens in this Sioux band; wearing longer braids forward meant a woman was married. They were pretty done this way, she had to admit, but braids had always made her feel like a little girl. At least this old red dress wasn’t a pinafore.
“Thank you. I was wrong and you were right about everything on this trip. I did conquer my fear of Indians by spending a night in their village. At first, I couldn’t get to sleep in that teepee full of women, but I must have nodded off at some point. I’m aware, though, of a rock that spent the night in the small of my back.”
“You did well on your first overnight with the Sioux. You were braver than during our two short visits last fall, when they were camped closer to town.”
Kate smiled at the thought. She’d come to Wyoming despite her fears of "red savage" depredations against white women. Tales spread by Eastern newspapers.
This had been their first visit since the long winter and the first time she’d stayed the night.
“I must say,” Jonah continued, “that despite the absence of most of their hunters this time, Red Legs’ band was just as appreciative of Zhi-zhi Pahin as they’ve ever been.”
Kate stole a sideways glance at Jonah as he said her Lakota name. Red Legs and his warriors had given her that name two summers ago when she encountered them on a raid to steal horses from the Crow. Zhi-zhi Pahin, they’d called her. “Golden Hair.”
“That’s just because Red Legs and his men thought I brought them good medicine on their horse raid up in the Yellowstone country. The most horses they’d ever taken and no casualties among their own warriors or the pursuing Crow. I didn’t think I’d ever become inspiration for a band of horse thieves. Oh, the surprises Wyoming can spring on you.”
Jonah turned his horse left at a small rock that stood at the top of a fan-shaped draw. He indicated they should descend into the vale at this point.
“Why here, Jonah? Can’t we ride along the ridge a little longer? It’s glorious up here and I don’t see any wildflowers down there.”
“Indeed, there are usually none there yet. I always used to approach Warbonnet from the east along this same ridge when I was a circuit rider. This draw goes down to Sloan’s Ford, where we can cross to the south bank of the Platte and follow the river into town.”
They started down the long slope in silence. They were halfway to the mouth of the draw when Jonah pulled up suddenly.
“What is it?” Kate asked.
“Maybe nothing. Saul has begun to limp a little. I want to look at his right rear shoe.” The young preacher got down next to a small stump.
“That suits me, too. I can stretch this back of mine and Opie can crop some of this new grass.” Kate got down, but didn’t keep her pony’s reins. She knew her horse wouldn’t stray far.
“Ahhh, a pebble caught in his loose shoe. It’s rubbing the soft sole. I can get it out, but perhaps I’ll walk him for a while down this draw.”
Kate knuckled the small of her back, then sat on the stump while Jonah got out his clasp knife. Down the slope, a brown haze rose between them and the river, nearly a mile away. She recalled what such a haze could mean out here. Her misgivings led her to jump to her feet and speak rather too sharply.
“Jonah, there’s a—”
Her calling out at that moment must have caused the preacher to jab too hard with his knife. Saul whinnied and lashed out with the pricked hoof, catching Jonah in the chest and knocking him flat. Kate tried to break his fall, but his head thunked against the stump. Saul sprang away up the slope, followed closely by Opie.
Kate called after the horses, but they didn't slow down. She went to Jonah and checked him carefully, as a doctor’s daughter had learned to do. He was breathing regularly. He moaned when Kate touched him.
She rose to her feet.
Oh, bother. She'd have to tramp all the way up the slope and see where the horses had stopped. But there was no help for it. She gathered her skirts and looked from Jonah down the draw.
The brown haze was higher now, and closer. Kate’s misgivings turned to fear. She crouched and placed her palm on the ground. She could feel the vibration of the earth. Buffalo! No wonder no wildflowers grew here. Jonah’s customary route to Sloan’s Ford must also be the Indians' favorite avenue to drive increasingly scarce buffalo up this way after crossing the river.
Kate looked around quickly. The herd was still a minute away but coming fast. The hunters who drove them would want to tire the animals on this long slope.
She and Jonah were closer to a steep wall of this draw. Maybe a hundred feet. If they could get there, they’d be safe from the thundering hooves. The hunters behind the buffalo would drive them right over this spot and might never see two people on foot.
Five hundred yards now, Kate estimated.
She reached down and took Jonah by the shoulders. The slim preacher wasn’t bulky, but he was tall and must have outweighed her by sixty or seventy pounds. She could barely drag him a foot from the stump. There was no time to cover the distance.
Four hundred yards.
She could hear the rumble now, as well as feel it. What would Monday Malone do? The young marshal had survived a cattle stampede while afoot by shooting some of the animals, then burrowing under the carcasses as the herd parted or clambered over the bodies of the fallen.
Three hundred yards. But Kate’s rifle—Monday’s old Henry repeater—was in a scabbard on Opie. Far out of reach.
Two hundred yards. Leaders could be easily distinguished now. A few shaggy brown bodies stood out against the cloud of dust. What had Monday told her Comanche women did to channel a herd? They waved blankets. Buffalo saw the flimsy wool fabric as solid obstacles and shied away. But her blanket and coat were rolled behind Opie’s saddle.
A hundred yards. So this was it. After all she’d survived in the last three years, she and Jonah would be crushed by this onrushing tide. The warriors probably wouldn't notice their bodies afterward, even her bright hair and faded red dress.
Her dress! That had to work. It was all she had. Kate gripped the bodice and pulled it apart, popping some of the buttons. Then she crossed her arms and pulled the dress over her head. She took it by the shoulders. The first animals were charging by on either side now. Would those behind them be able to see her pathetic rag and react to it?
Kate began to flip her dress from side to side in a figure eight pattern, blinking as the rising dust stung her eyes and choked her. She moved forward slightly to stand over Jonah’s body. Would this rhythm be enough to fool the creatures? They ran with their heads down. Would they even see her?
She couldn’t keep her eyes open. Her whole world became noise and vibration. Cows and calves bawled. The wind of their passing threatened to collapse her insignificant banner. Her shoulders and back ached from the effort of whipping this makeshift flag.
Breathing became harder. Dust filled her nose. She dared not open her mouth. She could feel it settle on her hair, on her bare shoulders. Kate shook her head even as she strained to keep waving. It was working, but for how long? How many more buffalo? She was tiring.
O God, give me strength.
Kate imagined the herd might be thinning. There was less noise, less vibration. She tried to open her eyes. Bad idea. The swirling dust that clogged her nose and throat stung her eyes anew. Fresh tears coursed down her dusty cheeks as she continued to wave the dress. At least her eyes could produce some moisture. She wished she could spit. She settled for coughing and nearly threw up. She fell to her knees beside Jonah. He was covered in dust and dirt clods.
As the sound and fury of the buffalo faded, Kate laid the dress on the ground. She tried to relieve the pain in the small of her back and in her shoulders. No use.
She became aware of new sounds. A few hooves. Horses? No jingling of tack. Indians. Men! She groped blindly for her dress, found it, and struggled back to her feet.
She brushed a hand over her face and wiped off enough dust that she could blink rapidly and see, with some difficulty. Nearly a dozen warriors on painted ponies looked down at her. She held the dress in front of her.
Kate glanced down. Her bosom, her camisole, her drawers, everything was the same dun color. Her hair must look the same. She shook her head to get rid of the dust, but the dusty braids flew around and hit her in the face as she did so, making her cough again. With her hair so caked, would they recognize her as Zhi-zhi Pahin? A white woman surely, from her underclothes. Some of them got down from their ponies.
The first Indians bent to look at Jonah. “Wicasa Tankan Oyate,” the Sioux used to call him—Man Without a Tribe—because he traveled alone. Since he settled in Warbonnet, they began to call him “Wicasa Tankan Wikoska,” Man Without a Woman.
She wanted to tell them he was indeed Wicasa, a friend of Spotted Tail and not to be harmed. She wanted to tell them she was Zhi-zhi Pahin. But when she tried to talk, she couldn’t even manage a decent croak. The warriors gathered round her. Those behind her touched her braids. Hanging behind her now, they meant she was a maiden and so belonged to no man.
The name Zhi-zhi Pahin went round the dismounted warriors. One warrior, taller than most and with what looked like a burn scar on his left shoulder, pushed through the group to look at her. From the bulge in the front of his breechcloth, she knew what he was thinking. She fumbled for the hem of her dress, to pull it over her head. The scarred warrior snatched it from her grasp.
But at a word of command from the back of the group, the warriors parted and let an undistinguished medium-sized man come forward. He gestured to the man with Kate’s dress, who grudgingly returned it to her. He spoke again and two warriors quickly took off after the buffalo. The leader spoke to Kate’s would-be assailant. He must have said something disparaging, because the man turned away angrily and vaulted onto the back of his pony. All the men except Kate’s rescuer sped away.
The man came over to Kate. She pulled her dress over her head. No more buttons. She held it closed.
The Indian held out a canteen with “U.S. Army” stamped on it. Kate didn’t care to think how he might have acquired it. She sipped a little water to wash the dust out of her mouth, spat, then drank from it gratefully. She knelt by Jonah and blew dust from his face, then cradled his head and tried to drip a little water into his mouth. He groaned but didn't swallow. She hoped he'd come around soon.
Kate stood to hand back the canteen and saw two Indians returning with Saul and Opie. It looked like all their gear was intact, including Kate’s rifle and their canteens.
“Wopida,” she said, the only word of thanks that she knew. She made the sign for "thank you," bringing her right palm away from her face and nodding a slight sort of bow. Kate gave the leader back the canteen and touched her chest. “Zhi-zhi Pahin,” she said, introducing herself. He made no reply.
The leader took the reins of their horses and sent his last two warriors on their way. He turned to Kate and placed a hand on his own chest.
“Tashonka Witco,” he said. Then he added something she couldn’t understand, gesturing to where the buffalo came from, where they went, and indicated the gathering of his warriors. Was he apologizing for the behavior of his men? She couldn’t be sure. The Sioux were as likely to apologize as they would be to smile, she thought.
At length, he reached out and touched her chest lightly. “Wachisa Tancodan om Tatonka,” he said. He repeated it before removing his hand. Was he giving her a new name? She knew “tatonka” meant buffalo. When she didn’t seem to comprehend, he pantomimed dancing as he said “wachisa.” Then he pointed to her, up and down, and said “tancodan.” She was all dusty. Did the name mean “Dusty Buffalo Dancer?” He turned and vaulted smoothly atop his horse.
“Wopida,” Kate called again. He reached down to shake her hand. He might not know English, but at least he knew that white man’s custom. As he rode away, Kate heard Jonah stir. She quickly got a canteen from his saddle horn for him.
In a few minutes, the preacher could sit up, propped against the little stump. Kate recounted the buffalo stampede to explain the crushed grass and dust all over them both. And the dress she'd used as a flag and now had to hold closed.
After Jonah drank some more water, she reluctantly helped him to his feet. He showed her he could walk, and so could probably ride. Kate told him of their final visitor, the Indian who gave them water and ordered their horses returned. When she repeated his name, Tashonka Witco, Jonah stopped fumbling with his stirrup.
“Was that really the name he gave you, Kate?”
“Yes. As faithfully as I can render it.”
“Was he average height, broad across the chest, scar to the right of his nose, about 30 years old?”
“Yes, that sounds like him. Why? Do you know him? Is he a friend of yours?”
“Hardly. I don’t know him, but I’ve heard about him. So have you, Kate. Was there anything peculiar about his hair?”
“His hair? Well, it was worn loose, with two feathers in it that hung downward. He had one braid on the right side of his head. Oh, I remember something else. He had a pebble on a thong that passed under his right arm. A smooth little stone.”
“My Lord,” Jonah said. This was most unlike him, Kate thought. He never took the Lord’s name except in prayer.
“Kate, your rescuer is not the friend of any white man—or woman either, for that matter. It seems we are beholden today to Crazy Horse.”
Early May 1873
Kate Shaw hurried across Main Street from her boarding house. Her long blond ponytail whipped back and forth as she glanced anxiously up the street toward the church construction site. She didn’t want to be seen by the men working up there. At least not yet.
She was glad it was a hot day. That would suit her plans. Actually, her friend Valentina’s plan. The former Russian Countess Kuznetsov had gotten off Grand Duke Alexis’ train a year ago last winter and settled here in Warbonnet, working as a dressmaker with her former maid, Regina Clarke. Valentina had taught Kate a few dozen words of Russian, but her friend was doing much better in English than Kate could manage in response.
A dabbler. That’s all she was, Kate reflected as she made her way behind the houses and stores and worked her way through back yards down toward the dressmakers’ shop. A little French in school, a few words and signs in Lakota Sioux. And she dabbled in murder, too. Well, in solving murders, not committing them. In her first eighteen months, she’d helped the marshal, Monday Malone, in a few murder investigations. But things had been quiet for the last year and half. No killings, thank God. Just straightforward robberies, an assault or two, and the odd drunk or occasional rustled steers.
And in these quiet months, many things in Warbonnet had changed for the better. Doc had retired from the town council and Kate had become Martha Haskell's "campaign manager" and engineered her election to a council seat last fall. She'd gotten the women of the town and outlying farms and ranches to band together and persuade husbands and other men not to run against her.
After that heady experience, Kate knew she should be happy just teaching school. She had a class of nearly thirty pupils of all ages now, most of them bright and eager to learn. She chalked up her current state of mind to worry. About the class play later this month. More a dramatic reading of Romeo and Juliet, but with some stage combat, if the boys had their way. Maybe it would come off all right. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the disaster she feared. Just one more thing for her to dabble in, directing a play.
Kate dodged a stray dog and came to the back door of the dressmakers'. They had set up comfortable living quarters, with their shop directly out front, facing Main Street. She smoothed this flattering new blue gingham dress they’d made for her and knocked. Valentina’s mother let her in.
“Good morning, Mrs. Stavrov. I want Valentina,” Kate said in her halting Russian. She wanted to ask about Valentina's little boy, but her Russian wasn’t good enough.
“I get her," Irina Stavrov said. "She feed Alexei now. You sit.” Mrs. Stavrov’s English was also better than Kate’s Russian. Besides Valentina and her mother, only Regina, who'd been a maid in Russia, could speak the language.
“Katya,” Valentina called from one of the bedrooms. “Come see little Alexei before he takes sleep.”
“Nap,” Kate said automatically, coming to the door. “A little sleep.” There was no denying he was a darling boy, all blond curls and chubby cheeks. Her friend was just finishing nursing him. He'd been born last fall and was almost nine months old. Kate and Regina had noticed his resemblance to the Grand Duke, Valentina’s former lover. Kate was relieved he hadn’t looked like George Custer, who had also enjoyed the countess’s favors. As far as the town was concerned, little Alexei was the son of the late Count Voroshilov.
Valentina handed the dozing child to Irina, who took him to his crib. His disposition was the talk of the town, at least among its women. He slept for hours at a time and didn’t cry except when he was hungry. He could say “Mama” and was already trying to stand. Kate had never seen a prettier pair than this raven-tressed Russian Madonna and her fair-haired child.
Kate held up her picnic basket. Valentina stood and adjusted her clothing. Instead of a camisole, she wore a long cotton scarf that she said Russian mothers wore while nursing. It came around her back, crossed over her breasts, then was tied behind the neck.
It was such a practical garment that their friend Becky Masterson had made more of them, for herself and for Kate. These bands supported their breasts during their weekly gallops with Valentina. They thought of themselves as the Three Musketeers as they raced across the plains, letting their hair stream out behind them and laughing as Valentina waved her sword. A gift from one of her many admirers at Fort Fetterman.
Kate realized with a start that she was still jealous of her new friend. Valentina tied the breast band at her neck. The rest of Warbonnet’s women had also noticed how quickly the beautiful Countess had regained her figure. Kate and Becky used to vie for the attention of the young men at the monthly church dances here in town and some times at Fort Fetterman, but Valentina seemed to have cornered the market on admirers. Besides her good looks and her long black hair, she also had an exotic accent that even Jonah Barnes said he found captivating.
Captives. Hmmpf! That’s what all the men of Warbonnet were now, slaves to the countess.
But she couldn’t resent Valentina for long. They laughed together as they walked up the back yards toward the shops and homes on River Street. They were following Valentina’s plan and delivering the noon meal to Monday and Jonah, who had been working all morning on the new church. When the two women came out to the street next to the assayer’s office, they could see the skeletal structure at the corner where Main Street dead-ended into River. Just a foundation and a frame so far, but the two men had finished the roof last week and were framing windows and doorways now. Kate and her friend brought them the noon meal each day. It had been Valentina’s idea to sneak up on them today.
If they walked up Main Street to the church, the two men would see them coming and put their undershirts on long before Kate and Valentina could get close. Valentina had said in her halting English, helped by Regina, that she wanted to look at the two of them without their shirts as often as possible. Kate was initially shocked, but after they performed this stunt the first time, she had to admit her friend’s scheme was worth the effort.
The two women came around the back of the church. Monday and Jonah stood at the far end of the building, looking down the street as if in anticipation of their meal.
“Well, if you get too hungry, I suppose you could always come looking for us,” Kate said. Both men jumped and turned around.
Kate grinned as Jonah went to fetch their undershirts from a saw horse.
Sandy-haired Monday Malone was taller and broader across the chest than dark-haired and bearded Jonah Barnes. Monday seemed to have as much trouble raising any hair on his chest as he did facial hair. Jonah’s chest hair matched his beard.
As Kate spread out the four lunches, Valentina asked Monday about plans for the upcoming dance at Fort Fetterman.
"Yeah, this'll be the first one we've been able to hold out there since last fall. Same system of picking dance partners from a hat each dance. And folks out at the fort don't generally chip in as much for the church fund as the soldiers do when they come to town dances."
"But work on church is go well, yes?"
"Yes, very well. Jonah says we have enough now to go on and do the walls next. Biggest expense will be the windows and their frames."
"Katya and me, we can help, too?"
"Sure. Besides lunch for the work crew, there'll be need for help with the walls and the windows."
This carpentry work seemed to agree with Monday. But she thought he was uncomfortable to be under scrutiny by two women and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
Jonah returned with his undershirt on and Monday's in his hand.
They sat on nail kegs and used a board for a table. Valentina managed to sit next to Monday, but Kate got a better view sitting across from him.
Kate tried to keep up a conversation with Jonah as they ate. Her friend’s exotic accent had obviously ensnared Monday. Jonah asked Kate a question, but she found herself blinking rapidly. She was remembering the night of the dance last month when she’d come around a corner about midnight and found Monday kissing the countess. He was holding her in a tight embrace. Neither of them noticed her and she stepped back into the shadows quickly. After a decent interval, she looked around the corner as they broke the kiss, but not the embrace. Kate had gone home quietly. She didn’t want to know how long they lingered that evening.
"Did you hear me, Kate?" Jonah broke into her reverie.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that last part clearly.”
Jonah put down his sandwich and looked at her. “I said that since the bishop has called me to Denver and I leave tomorrow, I asked if there was anything I can bring you while I’m there.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot your trip was coming up so soon. I, uh, I may think of a book, if that’s not too much trouble. I’ll see you at supper tonight and give you some money.” She couldn’t think straight right now. Valentina had leaned forward and put her hand on Monday’s bare arm.
“Well,” Kate said to all of them, in an attempt to get Monday’s attention. “We will certainly miss you at this Sunday’s service, Jonah, but I’m sure Monday will miss you more while he’s working.”
“Ah, yes,” the young preacher said. “I shall be gone more than a week. What’ll we do for labor, Monday?” He was smiling as if he and the marshal shared some secret.
“Well . . . ,” the marshal drawled. Valentina released his arm so he could pick up his sandwich, “Reckon I could re-form the ‘Tina Brigade’ again.”
Kate nearly choked. Tina? How dare he call her Tina? Only Kate and Becky called her that. How did he even know that nickname?
Kate’s vexation turned to confusion. The three of them were laughing. Laughing so hard that Monday put down his sandwich to wipe tears with his bandana. Valentina choked and Kate slapped her on the back before Monday could. Jonah was brushing crumbs from his beard.
“What’s so funny?” she demanded. “Do you all know something amusing that I don’t?”
Jonah got his voice back first. He looked at Monday, who nodded. While Monday drank some water, the preacher explained.
“The Tina Brigade is made up of admirers of your friend here. Do you recall that last summer, before she and her mother and Regina had that addition built behind their shop, they had a big tent attached to the back?”
“Of course I remember. That was their temporary living quarters. I was upset that her baby would have to sleep in the shop at night in order to stay warm. I urged the town council to solicit volunteers—”
“And we got them, maybe two dozen,” Monday said, picking up the thread of the conversation. “You just don’t know how, is all. Nobody does but us three.”
“And the members of the Brigade, of course,” Jonah chuckled.
“I tell,” Valentina said. “One night I take bath and Regina go to Torricelli home. Borrow some flour. She see men between houses. Few men. Some boys. Very quiet. Oh, I cannot say all right words.”
“Those men,” Jonah said, “and boys too, had made pinholes in the canvas and were watching your friend here bathing in her boudoir, so to speak.”
“I take long baths, Katya. You know this from that time in Cheyenne hotel.”
“Why, that’s terrible! Scandalous! What did Regina do, shoo them off or run for the marshal?”
“Neither, actually,” Jonah continued. “She got what she needed from next door and went back to the shop quietly. Later, after all the lamps were put out and everyone was getting into bed, she told Valentina what she’d seen.”
“So we light lamp again. This time I go out, look. I find light show through many little holes. Like stars. I see Mama and Regina and baby. I go back in.”
“Next day Regina comes to see me,” Monday said, picking up the tale.
“Didn’t know if what was going on was against the law or what she should do. I didn’t know. Couldn’t find nothing in the legal papers the town council gave me. So we talked and I came up with a plan. Tina and her family needed a warmer place to live for the winter. We had the church foundation dug but we were gonna need lots of help to put up this building come spring.”
As Monday paused to take a bite of his sandwich, Jonah picked up the tale again.
“So Monday went to Mrs. Torricelli and asked if he could look out her kitchen window for the next few nights. Valentina agreed to serve as a decoy and bathe on a regular schedule. Monday took good notes on the ten men and four boys who came to the pinholes most nights.”
“Boys? Boys came to spy on her? How old were they? Which boys?” she sputtered.
Monday held up his hands.
“Ain’t gonna tell you, Miss Kate. That was the deal I struck with ’em. Said I wouldn’t tell their wives or their sweethearts, their mothers or their fathers, but they’d have to work off a penalty. Couldn’t let this invasion of a lady’s privacy go unpunished.”
“Ah, I begin to see. So you made them—”
“I suggested they might want to stay on my good side by building some nice rooms onto the back of the dressmakers’ shop. And they did, before winter set in. But come the spring, I told Jonah about what had happened . . . .”
“And you blackmailed those men, those boys, to work on this church. That’s awful.”
“Well, perhaps so, Kate," Jonah said. He was grinning now, too. "But you do recall we had a good week getting this frame up and lots of helpers? Twenty-four on one day alone. That work went quickly.”
“And fourteen of them were the, what—peeping Toms—you cajoled into helping with the church, too. That’s awful, Jonah. What would the Lord think of this?”
“The Lord helps those who help themselves, Kate. But he also helps them to help other causes as well. I’d like to think the Lord might sometimes have a sense of humor. Perhaps a better developed sense than our schoolteacher seems to have today.” The three of them were grinning at her.
“Oh, I had no idea that the men I was living with, some of the boys I teach—was Buxton one of them? Joey Crandall? Tell me little Petey wasn’t involved.”
“Kate,” Monday spoke, no longer trying to control his grin. “You aren’t gonna find out who they are. I promised. I didn’t tell Tina. I didn’t tell Jonah. And I’m sure not gonna tell you. I’m just pleased to have an army of helpers—a brigade—I can call on for help while Jonah’s away. Some folks are entitled to keep their secrets. At least now you know the story.”
Indeed. And had Marshal Malone gone to those pinholes, too, to check the view? In the name of gathering evidence? Was that why he’d been so thick with Valentina—he was calling her Tina now—since last fall?
Kate tore into her sandwich. She wanted some time alone with Monday. Some time to see how he felt about her friend. Kate didn’t have any claim on his affections, but she couldn’t fathom what a countess would see in him, a former cowboy.
As Valentina reached out and laid her hand on Monday’s arm again, Kate thought maybe she knew what her friend saw in Monday. She had to get the conversation to focus on something else. Anything.
“Poetry. A couple months ago, you mentioned poetry, Jonah. That reminds me.” She took a hasty sip of water to gather her thoughts as the other three looked at her.
“My students will be performing Romeo and Juliet at the end of the school term. Shakespeare is difficult for many of my students to memorize, so only Romeo, Juliet, Friar Lawrence, and Juliet’s nurse will play their roles from memory. Jonah, you’ve been studying Friar Lawrence. I've decided I should be Juliet's nurse, so I can coach dialog from on stage or in the wings.”
Stage. Wings. What a conceit, she thought, looking around. The church wasn’t finished, didn't even have walls. But they’d be able to use it for the play, since it had a roof now and could accommodate nearly the whole town, even if most of them would have to sit on the floor.
The whole thing had been young Mary Oberdorf’s idea. Kate had foolishly lent the girl her own copy of the play to read. Now Mary wanted to perform it, with her smitten young man, Andy Sundquist, as Romeo. Such an event could help raise more funds for the church construction.
At sixteen, the blossoming dark-haired farmer’s daughter was in love with Andy, the son of a neighboring rancher. He had a lot of trouble learning his lines, but Kate or Mary coached him every day.
Kate found it ironic that the son of a rancher was playing Romeo and the daughter of a farmer would be Juliet. Almost as incongruous as a countess getting together with a former cowboy. She pushed that thought aside. Monday agreed to play Mercutio, but he couldn’t handle Shakespeare’s language very well yet.
“This is a far cry from my own turn as Romeo three years ago in Normal School, but I think I’ve solved some of the memorization difficulties everyone is having. Monday, I’ve turned some of the old English into more modern speech and you’ll be able to just read that, if you'd prefer."
Valentina looked lost at all this. Good. Kate grinned.
“Well, I guess that’ll help me," Monday said. "Still don’t know how I’ll practice that fancy sword stuff you told us about.”
“At Fort Fetterman,” Kate said, wiping her lips. “We’ll borrow a few swords when we go there for the dance and someone will show you how to use one.”
“Couldn’t I just borrow Tina’s sword?”
He was calling her Tina again. Kate groaned. Things weren’t working out at all like she’d hoped.
The road from Fort Fetterman
Monday reined in Lightning as he came back to the wagon full of women. Joe Fitch and Martha Haskell, sitting close together on the seat, saw him first. Then all the faces—Kate, Becky, Mary, and the others—turned toward him as well.
“What was it, Monday,” asked black-bearded Joe. “Just some old buffalo carcass, like we figured?”
Monday tried to keep his voice low, but he knew the whole wagon could hear him.
“No, Joe. Like I thought, the number of vultures called it. Dead bodies. Two of ’em. I seen buzzards circling dead folks before.” Before. When renegades had taken over his home town in Texas six years ago.
“Reckon I won’t be your armed escort back to Warbonnet. You’ll hafta go on without me. I gotta get back there.”
Auburn-haired Becky Masterson took the rifle from beside Joe’s leg. Monday didn’t have to worry. Becky could outshoot most men. Her low-cut green dress and flirtatious manner might break a few hearts, but her steady hand meant she could ventilate more hearts than she broke.
“Two dead, Monday? Do we know them,” Kate asked.
Monday took off his hat and wiped sweat from the inside with his finger.
“Not sure enough to say yet." He put his hat back on.
“And before you ask, it’s murder. No accident.”
Kate stood up in the wagon.
“Then I’m coming with you.” Before he could say anything, she gathered the skirts of her old red gingham traveling dress and leaped over the side of the wagon box. Her skirt billowed up as she descended, showing a glimpse of summer white stockings.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Kate. The killer—or killers—may still be around.”
“You know that’s not so. The buzzards wouldn’t be circling if there were any danger to them. You taught me yourself how shy they are.”
She would remember he'd said that. He guessed there'd be no arguing with her.
“All right, then. You can come with me. Maybe you’ll see something I don’t. Joe, can you do a couple things for me when you get back to town? Send Doc Gertz out to the fort. That’s where we’ll be taking the bodies and I’d admire his opinion on how they died.
"And see if that old scout Sean Finnegan’s still in town. I may have to go palaver with some Indians and I’d like him along to talk for me.”
“Sure thing, Monday.” Joe turned to make sure the other women were settled.
“Probably be some time late this afternoon ’fore you see Doc, though.”
Joe smacked the reins on the rumps of the two mules and the wagon lurched away, down the Oregon Trail and back toward Warbonnet to the west.
Kate stood ramrod straight in the hot sun. Her broad-brimmed straw hat left her face in shadow. Monday couldn’t see her eyes, but from the clenched fists at her side, she looked like she was primed for a fight. Well, he wouldn’t give her a reason to start one. He turned Lightning off the trail to the north, back the way he’d come.
He stopped the horse and Kate joined him.
“You want to ride?”
“Certainly not. Some lawman taught me not to ride into trouble aboard a horse. You make yourself a bigger target that way.” She grinned.
Maybe she didn’t want to fight with him today. She’d sure been touchy the last few days, though. Watched him like a hawk when he danced with Tina under the light of the full moon last night.
Monday got down. There was no hurry and no immediate danger where they were going, but he'd be damned if he was going to ride if a woman was going to walk. He pulled the canteen off the saddle horn, unscrewed the top, and passed it to her. He watched her put her head back and take a couple good swallows. It was a hot day and they’d be able to hear the flies buzzing in a little while.
When she passed the canteen back to him, Monday put it to his mouth and pretended to drink. He wasn't thirsty, but he savored the feeling that Kate’s lips had just wet the mouth of the canteen. He screwed the cap back on and rehung it on the saddle horn.
“Spite of what I think, this might be dangerous, Kate. You want the rifle or the pistol?”
“The rifle. It’s heavier, but I can use both hands. I can’t hold the pistol very steady when I fire it. I’m better with the rifle.”
Monday wished he’d been the one wrapping his arms around her during target practice, but Becky’s good-looking big brother Corey had been teaching Kate how to shoot. He pulled his new Winchester out of the saddle scabbard and tossed it the three feet to Kate. She caught it effortlessly in both hands and jacked the lever to chamber a round. She knew he didn’t carry it ready to fire. He took the hammer loop off his pistol.
“Who do you think they are, Monday? Or who were they?”
He watched her examine the faint track ahead and to the left as they walked. Monday did the same on the right. The well-trained cowpony trailed them both.
“I’d rather not say just yet. You’ll probably know the woman by her dress, but all soldiers look alike from a distance in them blue uniforms.”
“A woman?” Kate shuddered, despite the heat.
“Don’t worry. Didn’t look like the buzzards have been at ’em much yet, and they ain’t been scalped.”
In a few minutes, they came closer to the nearly dry creek that nourished the stunted trees in this little hollow. They were about two miles west of the fort, Monday estimated. The track opened out into a clearing maybe a hundred feet across. To the east, the land dipped down to the wider creek bed in the direction of Fort Fetterman. A breeze whipped up some dust.
In front of them lay the two bodies.
The man was to their right, at the base of a little slope. Dressed in blue uniform pants and a checked shirt, he lay on his back. Three arrows protruded from his chest and belly. Monday and Kate walked closer, careful to look for footprints. They could see none in the bare dusty earth. The soldier’s holster was unsnapped, but he hadn't drawn his pistol.
“Lieutenant Lattimore,” Kate said. “Harvey, I believe his first name was. I danced with him just last night. How horrible.”
Monday glanced at her. Kate was taking this well, he thought, searching the body and the area around it for clues. She straightened up and turned toward the woman, a fair distance from the man. They walked over to her body next.
Her long dark hair spread out over her shoulders. She lay face down, facing away from the man. A lone arrow stood in her back, just to the left of her spine. She wore an ivory-colored summer dress. The back of the garment was bloody and dirty--grass-stained, too.
They looked without success for footprints, finding only a few indistinct, wind-whipped depressions. When they stepped to where they could see the woman’s face, Kate gasped and brought a hand to her mouth.
“Oh, my. Daisy Grayson. She was at the dance last night. Monday, did you dance with her?”
“Not last night. I only danced a few times. With you and Tina, Becky and Sally Haskell ‘cause she wanted me to. Isn’t she Mrs. Grayson?”
“Yes. I think her husband is a captain. Luke, I believe. I didn’t see him at the dance last night.” She reached out a tentative hand to touch the arrow, then drew back.
“How horrible. This will be awful for all the peaceable Indians in the area, too. The Army will likely be ruthless in hunting down the renegades who did this.”
“Indians? That’s why I sent for Doc. I don’t think Indians did this, Kate.”
Kate had done just what Monday had asked. He’d insisted on remaining at the murder scene and sent her off to the fort to fetch a wagon and some men.
“I don’t want to leave you out here alone, Kate, and with Lightning and my rifle, you’ll make it safe to the fort.”
She’d left him the little notebook and the stub of pencil she always carried in her reticule. Then he watched her ride out of sight.
Kate rode in between the buildings on the south side of the fort, where the telegraph line came in from Fort Laramie back east along the Oregon Trail, and went on west to Warbonnet. There was no stockade around this post and it wouldn’t match an Easterner’s expectation of a frontier outpost. It certainly hadn’t matched hers, the first time she’d laid eyes on the place. Mostly whitewashed clapboard structures—barracks, big stables, a mess hall and some scattered buildings for the post headquarters, officers and family housing, a laundry, a guardhouse, and the sutlers’ store. At least it had a couple of watchtowers. They faced the direction of probable threat—north and west.
She’d been told that no Indians had attacked a fort in Wyoming for more than five years. A fort’s strength lay in the size of its garrison force and not in the solid wall of a log palisade. Besides, long, thick, straight poles were too hard to come by out here on these windswept plains.
Fort Fetterman’s strength lay in four companies of the 14th Infantry and C Troop of the Third Cavalry, nearly six hundred men, counting staff, clerks, and stablehands. A couple dozen wives.
Kate reined in at the quarters of Colonel George Woodward, the post commander. Since it was a Sunday morning, she hoped she’d find him at home rather than his office. Mrs. Woodward, a thin severe woman with grey curls, answered her knock at the door. The woman’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Why, Miss Shaw. What are you doing back here? The ladies and I saw your group leave only an hour or so ago.”
“I’ve just come back on an errand. I need to find the colonel, Mrs. Woodward. Is he in?”
“No, you’ve just missed him. He’s inspecting some of the barracks right now. Is it something serious?” The woman studied Kate’s face for some sign of the nature of the mission she was on. Monday hadn’t had to tell her not to discuss the matter with anyone but the colonel. But he’d told her anyway. Did he think she was a child? She was nearly twenty-three now and had some experience in dealing with violent death since she came to Wyoming three years ago.
“I’ll go see the duty sergeant at post headquarters then. Sorry to have troubled you.”
Kate was in luck. The Sunday duty sergeant was Amos Wheeler, a frequent dance partner and as sensitive a man as she’d ever met in uniform. Not your typical sergeant, and one she knew she could trust. She took Wheeler into her confidence and he sent a runner to fetch the colonel. In a few minutes, the three of them met in the commander’s office.
George Woodward was as broad as his wife was thin. He was going bald on top, but his thick brown Burnside whiskers and his height made him a formidable figure. Jonah had told her that with all the postwar cutbacks in Army strength, Woodward had likely been a general eight or nine years ago and was lucky to be wearing the silver oak leaves of a lieutenant colonel now.
Kate shuddered at the recollection of the similar rank of George Custer, whom she’d met last year aboard the Grand Duke’s train. She couldn't think of Indians without thinking of Custer. The Washita "battle" five years ago. Even Monday now conceded it had been a massacre.
Kate briefly recounted what she knew for Colonel Woodward.
“Sergeant Wheeler, have another sergeant get two men and a wagon and team. I want this handled discreetly for as long as possible. Does the runner you sent for me know this story?”
“No, sir. Miss Shaw told me about it in private.”
“Good. Mrs. Grayson was, ah, popular among the officers and men, as was Lieutenant Lattimore. I wouldn’t want rumors to start or anyone to fly off the handle over this. Miss Shaw, I take it you’ll guide the wagon back to where the marshal is waiting.”
“Yes, Colonel. But Marshal Malone asked me to send a pair of telegrams for him. I can do that while the wagon is being prepared.”
“Very good,” said Woodward, standing up. “Sergeant, have the runner get the detail sergeant first, then rouse the telegrapher. Miss Shaw will meet him at his office. I’ll tell my wife the story and we’ll have a group of officers and their wives to see the wagon in when it arrives. This will hit Captain Grayson hard, I’m afraid. He has no use for Indians in the best of circumstances.”
“When will you tell him, Colonel?”
“Oh, this evening, I imagine, Miss Shaw. He and a detachment have been riding the northern patrol circuit for a few days and are due back around sunset.”
"Marshal Malone asked me to ask you if we could keep the deaths secret and have the bodies covered with a tarpaulin when the wagon returns. He didn't tell me why he wanted this temporary secrecy or why he thought the tarp would be a good idea."
"All right. That seems reasonable, Miss Shaw. He's the law in this part of Albany County, outside the confines of this post. I'll ask him why the secrecy when he returns with the wagon."
Sergeant Wheeler cleared his throat.
“Where should the wagon take the, um, bodies, sir?”
“Marshal Malone asked if we could have them taken to the infirmary,” said Kate. “In one of the telegrams, he’s asking Doctor Gertz to come out from Warbonnet. He has some questions about the murders that he thinks Doc will be able to help him with.”
That raised two pair of eyebrows.
“I thought you said there were arrows in both bodies, Miss Shaw. That hardly needs a skilled physician for an interpretation. Our post surgeon should be able to tell us how they died. Even I could probably do that.”
Kate said nothing. Monday had promised her an explanation when she returned with the wagon. But first, the telegrams to Doc and to the new sheriff of Albany County, Tom Dayton in Laramie. Monday was also a deputy sheriff of Albany County, the farthest northern lawman working for Dayton. She’d only met the new sheriff once since his election last year, but neither she nor Monday liked him as well as his predecessor, Nate Boswell. Still, Monday made it a point to keep a good working relationship with Boswell’s successor.
# # #
Monday was waiting for them when the wagon bounced noisily across the creek and stopped at the dusty clearing. He directed the mounted sergeant and the wagon to a point near Mrs. Grayson’s body. He must have finished whatever examination of the site he needed in the hour since Kate left him. She rode Lightning over to where Monday stood near Lattimore’s corpse and he helped her dismount. She’d ridden behind the wagon all the way here so that the two soldiers wouldn’t have a constant view of her stockings and the legs of her drawers. She didn’t like a sidesaddle and had brought no proper riding skirt with her today.
“Let me show you what I’ve found, Kate, while they pick up Mrs. Grayson,” Monday said, coming back from speaking with the detail. Some greeting, she thought. Some gratitude. He got this way sometimes when he focused too tightly on his job. She took him by the arm.
“In a moment. I sent the telegrams as you asked, in the order you requested. Sheriff Dayton says you’re the man on the scene and you should investigate. Just as you hoped. I got his reply right after I sent the telegram to Doc. The wagon was ready to bring me back here, so I didn’t wait for Doc's reply. The colonel says that Captain Grayson has been leading a patrol north of the fort for a few days and will likely be back by dark."
“That’s all right. Joe Fitch will probably pass Doc and Sean, if he's in town, before the women’s wagon gets back to Warbonnet.” Kate was gratified that he hadn’t had to ask her if she’d mentioned Sean in the telegram to Doc. She and Monday worked well together and he trusted her judgment and thoroughness.
“And I’m glad you decided to stay, Kate. Doc may ask for your help for part of what I want him to do. Come on over here for a minute.” He took her to the little slope a dozen paces behind Lattimore’s body.
“Do you see all them little holes in the hill here? About a dozen of them.” He gestured and Kate moved her head around until she could see several small holes in the slope hidden among fallen leaves and dead grass.
“Yes, I can see some. I’ll take your word for the number. What . . . ?” She trailed off as she looked over her shoulder at the lieutenant’s body, then back at the little hill. “Bullet holes? In this hillock? That would make no sense.”
“That’s what I thought.” He pointed to one larger hole, the mouth of which was surrounded by fresh dirt. “So I dug down into one. Went all the way to the end of the hole, about six inches. No bullet. I’m gonna assume the rest of them are clean, too.”
“Then what are they for?”
“Don’t know yet. Got an idea, but I might need to look around the fort a little first. Now come on over here with me.” He led her south to the creek bed.
“Here are the tracks of two horses. I backtracked ‘em a little ways and they came from the fort. Must have been the horses Lattimore and Mrs. Grayson rode out on.”
Of course, Kate thought. They wouldn’t have walked out here two miles. But then where were the horses now?
As if reading her mind, Monday said, “They’re not here, Kate. If Indians did this, they mighta stole the horses. But maybe not. Finding two horses in an Indian camp with ‘US’ brands would be pretty strong evidence of guilt, don’t you think? Maybe they just run off. If they did, we'll likely find 'em back at the post stable.”
That made sense. Monday led her past the wagon detail and over to where the creek continued on the north edge of the clearing.
“This was a little harder to read. Two horses came from this direction. Tracks indicate one rider musta been lighter than the other. Both shod horses. Not Indian ponies.” They moved a little further.
“See this broken bush here? Those two horses were probably tied right here, but maybe not for long. This ripped branch here might mean somebody pulled reins loose hard and fast. I went over to the other side of the creek. Three sets of hoof prints lead away. Two of 'em deep enough to indicate riders aboard. Long strides. That means they were running hard.
"Then over there,” he pointed a little way further east. “One set of tracks comes back again, but just walking. I couldn't follow the other two very far, but they went away in the direction of the fort. Only the one came back this way.”
“My, it looks like a regular convention here this morning. Are all these tracks from the same horses the victims rode out on? Can you tell?” She knew Monday was proud of his tracking skills, taught to him by an old Indian in Texas.
“The tracks that came from the fort are different from the two that came from the north. I found different nail patterns on the shoes down in the soft creekbed mud. Where the two horses from the north left. Guess our killer or killers rode off that way again.”
“But what about the three horses that left at a gallop and then one returned?”
“Don’t know what to make of those tracks. Gotta think on that a bit. Thanks for your notebook. I drew the hoof prints and a map of this area. Maybe it’ll help clear my head when I want to work this out later.” He turned toward the wagon detail. They were picking up Lieutenant Lattimore’s body now.
They’d laid Mrs. Grayson prone in the wagon bed, her head turned to the left.
“Monday, why didn’t you have them take the arrow out of her so they could compose her body—her remains—decently?”
The men carried Lattimore’s body with the three arrows in it and laid it face up in the wagon, the arrows in his torso waving like stalks of wheat. They laid a tarp over the bodies.
“Told ’em not to. I got a hunch. And I want witnesses around when we take those arrows out.”
Kate and Monday turned to walk over to the wagon. By prior agreement, she would ride Lightning back, behind the wagon again. Monday, evidently thinking of her sensibilities, said he’d ride on the wagon with the corpses.
All this talk of arrows and hoof prints. Kate knew she was out of her element. She’d had something to contribute to each of their previous murder investigations, but she was lost with this one so far. Monday had become the teacher this time. She’d try to be a good student. She knew he believed in her and expected that she’d have something to contribute before the end.