Unearthing the Bones
A Warbonnet Mystery
Copyright 2015 by Robert Kresge
ABQ Press Trade Paperback Edition 2015
Cover design by Matt Kresge
Author's website by Darren Wheeling of www.blackegg.com
ABQ Press logo
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Other works by this author:
The Warbonnet Historical Mysteries:
--Murder for Greenhorns (2010)
Finalist, 2011 Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery
Finalist, 2011 New Mexico Book Awards
--Painted Women (2011)
Finalist, 2012 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards
--Death's Icy Hand (2012)
--Warrior Hearts (2014)
--Saving Lincoln (2013)
Winner, 2014 Tony Hillerman Award for Best Fiction
Finalist, 2014 Sue Feder Award for Best Historical Mystery
Finalist, 2014 Best Historical Fiction, New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards
Finalist, 2014 Best Mystery/Thriller, NM-AZ Book Awards
All the above works published by ABQ Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico
--"Ground Truth" (short story)
In the anthology Outlaws and Lawmen (2012)
Published by La Frontera Press, Cheyenne, Wyoming
Dedicated to the memory of John Evans Hill, 1945-2015
Award-winning Wargames Designer,
Civil War Expert,
Husband, Father, Grandfather,
East of the Town of Warbonnet
Two men on horseback looked down on the North Platte River where the east road passed close by Sloan’s Ford. Both were bearded and needed a bath. Like their bandana-masked riders, their tired and winded horses looked to have seen better days. And many days, better ones or not.
“Them fine fillies don’t look like they’ll be ridin’ this way today. Reckon we can’t predict when they’ll ride by or when they take this partic’lar trail. I heared sometimes they ride west of town.”
“Don’t matter much,” said the other, slightly older by his graying beard. “We couldn’t take on all three women. One of ’em always carries a rifle in a scabbard. We’d have to get lucky and find one alone. And you can figger our chances of finding that out in enough time to take advantage. None or nearly.”
“What’ll we do then?”
“I heered there’s to be a kissing booth comin’ up at the end of summer fair. I’ll wager some of those fillies will either be givin’ out kisses or at least in attendance. Might have to settle for that. Consider it a scouting trip.”
“What’ll we do? Can’t both of us come into town at once.”
"I know that. We’ll figger somethin’ out by the time the fair rolls around. And no more takin’ chances stoppin’ the stagecoach to look for women in it. Don’t know what we were thinkin’.”
“Leastways, nobody saw our faces and none of the passengers or the driver and shotgun guard live around Warbonnet anyway.”
With that, both men reluctantly turned their mounts away.
A bone-tired and sweaty Monday Malone rode his buckskin cow pony Lightning over to Joe Fitch’s livery stable. Bull Devoe put down his hammer at the forge and came over to greet the marshal.
“Reckon I don’t hafta ask,” the blacksmith said. “Your sad face says it all. Underneath all that trail dust, I don’t see no sign you found anything.”
“No, that’s a good guess, Bull.” Monday tossed the big black man his reins and stepped down from his horse. It had been a windy day and his chin was marked by muddy tracks where water from his canteen had dribbled down his dusty face more than once. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his sweat-darkened sandy hair.
“Got a barrel of cool water over here, Marshal. People water. We fill the horse troughs from that barrel over there.” He grinned as Monday knuckled the small of his back and picked up a tin cup from beside the drinking barrel, filled it, and drank.
“Fresher than my canteen water,” he said, filling the cup again.
“Nothing at all to report, Bull. No sign of the two men who stopped the stage last month and found no gold headed for Cheyenne. I swear I’ve done all I can. The story ran in the last two issues of The Drumbeat—and in the Laramie and Cheyenne papers, too.”
Monday put down his cup. He removed the bridle, unsaddled his horse, and turned him loose to the hay and water trough in the corral. Only after he’d placed his saddle over the corral fence did he pick up his filled cup again and take greedy gulps. Then he refilled it, took off his hat, and poured another cupful over his head.
Bull laughed as Monday shivered a little and shook off the excess water. He put his hat back on.
“Not to mention the sign you posted along the trail at the east edge of town,” the big man said. “Fewer wagon trains through here every year now and peak season’s over. None of them saw any sign of the two men?”
“Nary a word reported to me.”
They were interrupted by the sound of the twice weekly westbound stagecoach jingling, creaking, and stamping to a halt just behind Monday, who moved out of its dust cloud and into the shade of the stable.
As he came out of the barn, bushy-bearded Joe Fitch called over his shoulder, “Buck, get a move on with that team. Stage is here early.”
The livery owner went opened the coach door and put down a single step beside it. He helped passengers down to use the necessary and get something to drink at this short stop if they wanted. Just two men and a woman this trip.
As the town council had ordered him to do, Monday ambled over to mind the cash box on the coach, so the driver and shotgun could eat something, drink, and use the necessary during the stop. They’d all have supper and likely overnight in Old Fort Caspar, a few hours farther west. He’d heard there wasn’t really a fort there anymore. The Army maintained a telegraph station at the end of the Platte River bridge and a few hardy folks had put up some houses and a stage relay station there. Bound to be a saloon and maybe a place for folks to rest their heads. It was out of Albany County anyway and he hadn’t been that far west in the course of his duties.
By the time Joe had the four-horse team unhitched, Bull and young Buxton Haskell brought out the fresh replacements. Monday tipped his hat to the boy, who grinned back at this sign of respect. Buck was just starting a growth spurt and Monday had no idea how tall his late daddy had been. Joe Fitch had married Martha Haskell last fall and the widow’s renowned good cooking had gone to Buck’s length and Joe’s width.
Monday stepped up onto a wheel hub and looked into the foot space under the stage driver’s seat to make sure there was a strongbox chained and locked in place on this trip. As he got down, he glanced across the street at the bank. Noah Crandall didn’t come out, nor did he send his clerk, so he must not be expecting an order of cash from Cheyenne or Laramie today. The banker kept some gold in his big safe and he and Mr. Simmons the assayer mostly used eastbound coaches to take gold to a bigger bank in Cheyenne. No robberies since this stage line opened last fall. Just that unsuccessful attempt last month and Monday hadn’t been able to find the tracks of the two would-be hold-up men. Yet.
Buck led the tired team away. Monday knew the boy was big enough now to handle exhausted horses. The team had trotted the whole fifteen miles from the stage stop east of here. Joe began to hitch up the new team.
As Buck paused with his team as he passed the marshal, the boy reached back and handed Monday an orange-covered book he’d had rolled up in a hip pocket.
“Driver told me some man left this on yesterday’s eastbound stage. My ma says I can only read something like this if a grown-up says it’s OK. Would you check it out for me, Marshal? Miss Shaw don’t approve of me reading dime novels.”
“Sure, Buck. Glad to. I ain’t a very fast reader, though. But if you’re not in a hurry, reckon I can get through it this week. If everything stays quiet, I’ll slip it back to you some time when Miss Shaw ain’t lookin’.”
“OK,” the boy said, grinning and holding back one impatient horse. “See you at supper time?”
“Sure thing. But I don’t smell any better than those horses you’re handlin’. I’ll probably hafta eat my supper by myself in your ma’s kitchen.”
The boy laughed at that and Bull helped him lead the horses to a wipe down before food and water in the corral beyond the barn.
Monday slapped the thin book against his leg and glanced briefly at the cover drawing of two cowboys shooting it out while a woman looked on in alarm, back of her hand to her mouth. When he looked up, here came Miss Shaw herself. He rolled the book quickly, put it in his hip pocket, and turned to face her.
Long blond hair, put up into an old maid’s bun today. But his favorite blue calico dress. Matched her eyes.
He knew his dusty, sweat-stained form wasn’t nearly as presentable.
“No luck in this week’s search, I take it.”
“No, Ma’am. But out east I cut some sign of Indian ponies headed north. No buffalo tracks, though, just Indian riders. Buffalo are gettin’ more and more scarce.”
“Goodness. How close to town were the Indians?”
“Not close. Between the old mines and the last stage station before Fort Fetterman. Looks like they want to give both Warbonnet and the fort a wide berth. I hear Custer’s leading a party up north into the Black Hills, up Dakota way. That man draws Indians like a picnic draws flies.”
Neither of them mentioned Custer’s role in last year’s survey of a route for a Northern Pacific Railroad. The failure of that venture had led to the bank panic back East that had been in all the papers. Monday had heard a bank had failed in Cheyenne, too.
“Are you going to talk about today’s search at supper tonight?”
“I ought not to, Kate. Don’t want to alarm folks that we might still have road agents active in this part of the county. Tales of nearby Indians and bandits scare most folks. And after all, the two men didn’t rob the coach or the passengers. Only looked to see who was in it.”
“Good. That would be the considerate thing to do. Speaking of considerate, shouldn’t you bathe before supper rather than after?” She grinned at him while pinching her nose.
“I prob’ly should, but I oughtn’t to get the first and warmest tubful tonight. Maybe Martha’d feed me out on the back stoop.”
“Not a bad idea,” she teased, but took his arm to walk with him anyway. Her hand brushed the rolled up book in Monday’s hip pocket and she glanced at it.
“What’s that? Dime novels are not bound to improve your mind.”
“Uh, no, Kate. Somebody left it on the incoming stage. Figured I’d just glance at it and put it out for the next stage to take.”
“Well, don’t give it to Buxton. I’ve caught him with things like that more than once. My pupils have serious reading assignments, even over the summer.”
Bet they do, Monday thought.
But he knew Kate well enough not to say anything like that out loud.
The same evening
Kate passed around the water pitcher and wondered what she’d do if she had to go out back to the pump and refill it soon. She was careful not to grin at the thought.
Martha Haskell had taken one look at—and sniff of—Monday Malone when the marshal arrived for supper and decreed that he get a bath before joining her table tonight. So Monday had dragged the bathtub from the kitchen out onto the back porch and filled it with one boiler of hot water before refilling the boiler and placing it back on the stove to heat. He’d added a bucket of cool water to the tub and gone to collect some clean clothes over at the jail. Right now he was bathing on the back porch. Kate had noticed the back door curtains were slightly parted when she’d brought out the last items for the meal.
“Kate, what did the marshal have to report this afternoon,” Martha asked. “Joe told me you and him talked a mite, down to the livery.”
“I don’t think he found anything new about the hold-up attempt, but he wants to report that to the town council before his lack of success gets bandied about through the whole town.”
Kate cast a stern expression at the other diners—Martha, her children Sally and Buxton, Joe Fitch, and Valentina’s gray-haired Russian mother Irina, whose English was much improved over the last two and a half years.
“Is nothing I can tell no one,” said Irina, passing the potatoes.
Kate knew Irina was right. Her daughter had married Corey Masterson last fall and their baby—a beautiful daughter—had arrived seven months later. “Prematurely,” they told everyone, but Kate knew Valentina and Corey had been lovers all last summer.
Kate glanced ruefully at an empty place where Valentina’s dress shop partner and former English maid Regina Clarke, had sat. Regina herself had given birth to a healthy baby boy—Harold—four months ago. But Regina died shortly thereafter, saying she knew she’d been too old to have a child. Nothing had been heard from little Harold’s father, a young English travelling photographer who’d spent a single night with Regina in the spring last year.
“Is there something wrong with those potatoes,” Martha asked.
“Uh, no. But I forgot the butter.” Kate made to rise from her chair, but Sally jumped up.
“You shall not, young lady,” said her mother, pointing to her daughter’s chair. “Miss Shaw can fetch it. I have no idea what state the marshal is in, bathing on the back porch, but you’re too young to find that out while you’re supposed to be looking for the butter.”
Sally plunked herself back down, a little more firmly than she needed to.
“I’ll get it, Martha,” said Kate, rising quickly. “Forgetting it was my fault.”
She went through the pocket door to the kitchen and slid it carefully behind her. She knew where she’d left the butter crock, but took time to glance through the parted curtains on the back door.
Monday Malone looked about to stand up out of his tub.
Kate called out to him through the half-open door.
“Are you going to stay out there all night, Malone?”
“I’ll be outta here in a few seconds more, Kate. Better turn your back if you’re gonna.”
Kate laughed. “There’s no hurry. Dinner’s about over anyway. Besides, the way that boy Buxton eats now, there may not be a thing left for you.”
Monday changed the subject and asked, “How’s Valentina looking these days? She looked awful tired last time I saw her.”
“What do you expect? She’s lost Regina, her partner in the store, dying in childbirth. Now she’s taking care of her own son by Grand Duke Alexis, her daughter with Corey, and now Regina’s son, too. That’s too much burden for even two women and she’s doing it all.
“All right, I’m going back to the dining room. You can turn around now.”
And she did as she said. She was proud to have better manners than Monday Malone.
Kate returned with the butter, passed it, and seated herself.
Martha raised an eyebrow in her direction.
Kate said only, “Soon” and resumed eating.
Monday came in a few minutes later, dressed, but his hair still damp. They’d known he was coming when he stomped into his boots out in the kitchen. Kate had a plate ready for him.
As he sat down, he appeared to notice all eyes on him.
“Nope,” he said, starting to cut his meat. “Nothing to tell you about this week’s search. The stage driver brought newspapers from Cheyenne, but no gossip you’d be interested in.”
“We are not interested in gossip, Marshal,” Martha said. “That is the passion of petty minds.”
Martha rose and went to get coffee. Kate grinned.
“I’m a mite tired and sore from my latest search,” Monday said. “So I might scale back my rounds tonight some. Only visit the saloons twice, maybe.”
As he ate, Martha poured coffee. Of the three saloons that had been open last year, Kate had helped her buy the one that had failed and hoped Martha could realize her plan to build a hotel over it, using the ground floor for a restaurant.
The coming of the stage line, continuing population growth, and the success of Warbonnet’s newspaper might augur well for such a business, Kate thought.
“Will you two be back late tonight from the council meeting,” Martha asked, finishing the round of coffee with Monday.
“No,” Joe and Kate said, virtually together. They laughed.
“Don’t expect so,” Joe said.
Kate said the two of them would walk to the meeting together. When he and Martha married, the other town council members had decided that it would set a bad precedent to have a husband and wife making up half of that four-person body. Martha, the town’s first elected female council member, had resigned, but only on condition that the group appoint Kate to fill that vacancy. Kate had demurred, but the other council members and Martha prevailed on her to accept.
“Remember, Kate,” Martha said. “A woman on the council was a landmark. There ought never again to be a representative body without at least one female member.”
Tonight was the weekly town council meeting.
“I expect I’ll be back early, Martha,” Kate said. The male council members were accustomed to sharing whiskey after the meeting, a habit neither she nor Martha approved of, but Kate always left before the bottle and glasses came out. Monday was asked to appear at some meetings and he stayed for the drinks afterwards. He’d been invited to talk to the council after each of his recent search rides and Kate knew he’d probably be there tonight.
As Monday ate, Kate noticed the backs of his hands. She couldn’t help but notice the knuckles on one hand were bruised and scabbed. He saw her looking at them.
“Goodness. What happened to your hands?”
“They don’t hurt as bad as they look, teacher. Got into a little dust-up with an hombre in the Mermaid saloon while I made my rounds last evening. He didn’t settle down, so we traded a couple of blows each. He left the fight early, you might say. Trick I learned from fightin’ with my brother Tom. When you hafta punch somebody, strike as if your fist is gonna go right through the other fella’s jaw. That way you don’t pull your punches and the fight’s over quicker.”
“I’m sorry I asked. That’s more information than I wanted this table to hear.”
She smiled at him though and spooned out some dessert before passing it.
“Thanks, Miss Kate. Got to make my rounds at least twice and I want to turn in early. I’m dog tired.”
“I’m sure that Martha, as a former council member, will want to know if you’ll have any progress to report on the ‘crime of the century’.”
Monday nearly choked on his coffee and quickly took a napkin to his chin.
“Uh, no. Not yet. Haven’t turned up anything on those missing tickets.”
She had her suspicions about how the three missing rolls of tickets, ordered from Kansas City for the kissing booth at the upcoming end of summer fair, might have gone astray. But her own investigation—no one said she couldn’t look into it—had yielded no results yet either. And it was only a few weeks until the fair.