Will agreed. “After she was sure Zeke was gone, Dorothy headed out over the meadows toward old lady Gulch’s place.”
Herb took notes as he followed the play-by-play. “With the chainsaw?”
“Nope.” Will looked confused. “Left it stuck in that hickory tree.”
“This struck you as odd?” Herb’s brow peaked.
The boy grunted in affirmation. “Left her weapon at the crime and took off like she was on a mission.”
“Yup,” Herb said. “A tad odd.” His pen wove a flurry of words. “And, you kept after her at this point?”
“There was a couple o’ hundred yards or so across that field.” Will strode closer. “She was unarmed.”
He trailed behind Dorothy as she tromped across the open fields.
An opening. Will sped up his pace, closing the gap between them.
She didn’t even turn her head when a frightened deer leaped up and fled from her path. Laser focus. Her attention fixed on the two-story plantation home in the distance.
Not much time. He pushed his legs up a gear. Wrestle her to the ground? Nah. Too messy. He needed a weapon. Will surveyed the rolling turf ahead and found his answer. He stopped long enough to unearth the rusted piece of a muffler, and then sped back off after his target.
She had no idea of what hit her. Will’s pipe impacted the side of Dorothy’s head, bending it at an obtuse angle. An explosion of rusty flakes. The girl staggered to his left before collapsing to the grass. Out cold.
“Hey there!” A pair of Gulch’s sentries on horseback redirected their animals in Will’s direction.
“Shit.” Will ditched the pipe and hustled over a few knolls back into the shadows of the forest on Gulch’s land.
The two men galloped up alongside the unconscious girl. One hand a well-groomed handlebar moustache, and the other sported a full red beard that hung down to his chest.
Moustache scanned the area for Will’s whereabouts. “He was just here a second ago.”
Red spat a line of tobacco juice into the field. “Couldn’t have gone far, I reckon.” He sat a gloved hand on the pommel of his saddle. “What ya figure we should do with her?” His head tilted toward Dorothy.
Moustache grumbled and dismounted into the swaying grasses. He rolled her sleeping body over with the tip of his boot. “Hellfire.” The cowpoke stooped down at her side and brushed a few lone strands of hair aside. “Walloped her a good ‘un upside the noggin.”
Red broke wind and cursed the lunch Cookie had made. “You ‘spose we should leave her out here?”
“Damn.” Moustache rested a palm on the butt of his pistol and eyed the passing clouds. “Now you’re gonna go and make me do some work, aincha?”
Red chortled and spat another stream into the weeds.
“Least you can do is get down here an’ help a feller out.”
Red’s left knee creaked and crackled as he heaved his rotund form out of the saddle and down onto the turf. He waddled up to the girl, shaking his round head. “Why would anybody go an’ do sum like ‘at to a --” his gaze widened at the sight of blood all over her dress. “Sweet Christ! She’s in some sorta mess.”
“Quick,” Moustache said, grabbing her arms, “take that end, and let’s git her down to Miss Gulch. “She’ll know what to do.”
The two men draped her over the neck of Red’s horse. Moustache mounted his own and turned the mare back in the direction of the homestead. “Go on and take her down to Miss Gulch. I’ll head back to the bunkhouse and round up the others.” He spurred his ride over the knoll. “If he’s still out there, we’ll hunt him down.”
Will took his time poking his head around the large stump he’d been hiding behind in the woods. I might have thirty minutes before they come back. He scanned the meadows ahead and the deep forest behind.
“Out there, I won’t last long.” Will’s troubled gaze turned back into the shadowy glade.
Kids in the area had all heard the tall tales of headless apparitions roaming the woods in Old Lady Gulch’s forest. Every Halloween a group of kids wandered into these woods and came back with hair-raising tales of one sort or another. His head lowered as he bounded off the soft underbelly of the forest.
Will sped off into the elder and deformed trees. Other than the occasional cawing of a crow, nothing stirred. Roots twisted and snaked from the ground, some running for several yards before they plunged back into this cursed land. Leaves in these boughs didn’t sing like those of other forests Will knew. They hissed. Like angry rattlers, these trees made his unwelcome presence known.
The boy’s muscles clenched in the unnatural silence. “Creepy ole place.”
As he wove among clustered saplings, Will formulated a plan. “After beatin’ her half to death, they’ll likely wanna shoot first and ask questions later.” He ducked under a low swaying maple branch. “Gulch will say I was trespassin’. More reason to shoot.”
A large blackbird spread her glistening wings and disappeared into the heart of the sun.
Will’s heartbeat thumped in his throat. “God dang it.” He took a breath. “I gotta make sure she doesn’t try and lay any of this on me.” A sweaty hand cleared the bangs from his face. “Gulch will call in the sheriff. Once they see the blood, find me, and show the sheriff that pipe --” a sharp breath, “lights out.”
He approached a low stone wall ahead. Tufts of green moss poked out here and there, giving away the structure’s relative age. Old iron rods jutted up around the perimeter at odd angles. Some had been bent and contorted from storms past, while others had been damaged by obvious human interaction.
Will took cautious steps in parallel. What a weird place to put a graveyard.
Crooked and weathered, the collection of headstones looked like more of a warning to him than memorials to those long since departed. As Will rounded the front corner and strode in the direction of the Gulch home, something long and leathery scuttled across his boots.
He kicked the slithering black snake several feet away into the trunk of a tree. It hit the ground with a dull thud and raced off into the solace of the shade.
“No wonder there’s stories about this place.”
The towering plantation style mansion crept up over the rolling meadow as the teen neared the edge of the woods. Will tucked himself behind a fallen tree at the invasion of thundering hooves in the distance.
The cowboys’ voices remained muffled at their current distance, but Will understood enough.
“We saw him up over there a while ago,” one said. “Clubbed her with a pipe o’ some sort by the look of it.”
Their horses whinnied.
“Spread out and patrol the perimeter.” A pair of ranch hands galloped in Will’s direction. “If he’s still here, he ain’t far.”
By his assessment, the riders held at a distance of hundred yards, give or take. The odor of decay and rot clouded his nose as Will balled up behind the trunk. The two work hands trotted to within a stone’s throw of his hiding place and turned back in the direction of the plantation.
“You see the state of that girl?” one voice asked.
The other grunted.
“Blood all over her.” He spat. “Duffy said he couldn’t find a scratch on her. Damnedest thing.”
Will edged an eye out around a splinter. The fat one started up again. “Why do ya reckon she’d be covered in blood and not have a scratch, Bood?”
Bood leaned into his pommel and surveyed the fields. “Dunno. If it ain’t hers, then whose is it, Crocker?”
Crocker rocked to one chubby side. “Don’t see how someone her size could do that sorta damage.” He spat out into the weeds. “Might be eighty pounds soakin’ wet.”
Bood chuckled. “Maybe she was runnin’ from the boy.” His saddle creaked as the cowpoke righted his muscular torso. “Suppose he did something.”
Crocker cleared his throat. “Could be.” He spurred his horse to a slow gait. “That’d explain why he lopped her upside the head.”
Will’s muscles clenched. A cold sweat formed at the nape of his neck. I knew it!
Bood popped the haunches of his mare, coaxing her to join her companion. “Whose blood does she have on her, then?”
Crocker tossed up a gloved hand. “Beats the hell outa me.” He turned his ride back toward the others on the far end of this meadow. “We’d best join up with the others. Gotta whole lot of land to cover before sundown.”
Bood slapped his reins and his horse responded, galloping over the hill with Crocker. “Old Gulch owns about half of the damned county.”
Will waited until they had disappeared over the farthest knolls before hopping to his feet. “That’s decided.” He dusted off his rump and made a dash for the sprawling home. “I’ve at least gotta see what she tells the others.”
He paused a safe distance from the bunkhouse and waited. Sounds like no one’s stirring. Satisfied, he jogged to the back side of the structure and took a knee at the corner. All of Gulch’s men had taken up the manhunt for him. His keen gaze studied the long strip of dirt road. Not one sign of a car or horse at all.
The old woman’s squeaky voice resounded from the home’s kitchen. “Well, what am I supposed to do with her? She’s out cold and covered in who knows what.”
Heavier boots made the floorboards sag. “Well, ma’am,” a deep male voice said, “the men found her beaten on your property and thought it best to bring her here.”
Gulch’s form drifted past a window on the back of the home. “I have no business with that girl or her sinister little mutt. Go find some of the others, and have them help you dispose of her.”
“In what way, ma’am?”
Will quickly ducked behind the bunkhouse as Gulch spun and glared out the window. “However you see fit.”
“Yes, ma’am.” His heavy steps clopped across the kitchen and disappeared.
Ms. Gulch shook her head and turned back into the kitchen. “Hey!” She sounded astonished to Will. “Just what do you think you’re doing up and about in your condition young lady?”
He ran to the bottom step at the rear of the mansion.
“You’ve been a very wicked witch.” The girl’s lighter steps slid across the wooden flooring. “Wicked, wicked, witch.”
Gulch’s voice morphed into a bark. “Just who are you calling a witch? I’ll have you know I could have you thrown in jail for things like that.” Something fell to the floor. “Hey, hey! What do you think you’re doing?” A heavy mass thumped against the kitchen’s exit. “Where did you get that gas can?”
Will crept up the narrow stone steps and peered through the opening in the curtains covering the back door. Dorothy unscrewed the lid to the metal can. It dropped to the kitchen floor with a clank. Gulch’s arms waved around like the wings of a helpless bird as she stammered into her fridge. “What are you doing?”
The girl’s head wagged in slow and deliberate motions. “Tried to put us under – make us sleep and forget it all.”
“Th-that wasn’t me!” One of Gulch’s crooked digits jabbed at the forest out the back window. “Another boy knocked you out in my fields.”
Dorothy’s head bobbed. “Poppy fields, I know.” She reared the can back in both hands and flung a ribbon of fluid onto Gulch’s head and chest. “You wanted us to forget all about Emerald City and getting back home didn’t you?”
Will couldn’t see Gulch’s face, but worry drenched her every word. “Poppies, City of Emeralds? That must be one bad bump on your head, dear. Let me call --”
“No.” Dorothy tossed another deluge of gasoline over Gulch.
“What do intend to do?”
Gale dropped the spent canister. “Your broom.” She opened a drawer next to the stove and came back with a box of matches. “I need it.”
Gulch went into hysterics. “A-a broom? You come into my home and splash me with gas over a broom!” She took a quick step toward the girl. “My men pulled you from the mud and saved you, and this is how you plan to repay me?”
Dorothy ran the match along the box, igniting it. “Your broom. Where?”
The old lady whimpered and pointed to a small closet beside the fridge.
Dorothy’s form moved through the crack in Will’s view. The woman wailed as her body went up in a ball of orange. Gulch’s hands grasped for the faucet in her sink, but by the time she’d taken three steps, the fire had overwhelmed her.
Torture and agony whistled out of the old woman’s face as it melted. It reminded Will of the same sound damp logs make when they burn.
As the flooring caught and the yellow tongues licked up the kitchen walls, Dorothy strode to the front of the house, wielding her prize.
Halbert concealed the notes that he’d penned (they thought Will Fischer did it?) as Will leaned up against the wall beside him. “Quite a story, Will.”
The teen crossed his arms over his chest. “The whole place went up soon after I left.”
“And Gale?” He slipped the notepad back into his inside jacket pocket.
Will shrugged. “Guess she got picked up out front at some point by the fire brigades or the cops. Maybe both?”
Herb studied his body language. Something was off. “And you?”
“Meh,” he kicked a screw with his foot, “I ran back home. Ma and the others were all bent outa shape.”
Herb grumbled. “I see.” An odd sensation curdled his gut. “It’s strange to me.”
Will picked up on the peculiar vibes. “What is?”
“You had the authorities,” Herb rattled his hands, “right there. Yet, instead of you chose to flee the scene.”
“Like I said,” Will cocked his blond hair to one side, “they’d already done everything but hang me. I was scared they’d take me in for beatin’ her an’ tryin’ to stop her.”
Halbert started for the way out of the abandoned factory. “Yeah. You said it.”
Will followed him back into the fading daylight. “What time ya got, Mr. Halbert?”
Herb flipped his wrist over. “About three. Time to head back?”
“Yup,” Will said, walking down a worn rut. “Got some stuff to do.”
Herb glanced into the azure horizon. “Need a lift?”
“Nah.” Will motioned to the approaching truck. “My brother’s here. Thanks.”
Herb strode to his car and unlocked the door. “Well, thanks again for your time. I’d expect to see a notice from the judge in our mail in the not-too-distant future.”
Will tossed up a hand as the dented and dingy pickup slowed to a stop.
“Take care, Mr. Fischer.”
By the time Herb had arrived at his motel room, it had gotten on to dinner time. The umber rays of the sun settled beneath sparse Kansas horizon as he unlocked his door.
His gaze went to the shallow amount of Scotch in its decanter. “Another rough day at the office, dear.”
Halbert dropped his briefcase on a chair and unwound. Off came the jacket, soon followed by the shoes. He stretched as he walked to the booze and poured himself the last of it.
“Interviewed the Fischer boy today.” He swirled the caramel concoction. “Went through Hell from the sound of it, but,” he tossed back a gulp, “somethin’ still doesn’t quite add up on him. Can’t put my finger on it.”
Halbert paced to the door. “Could he have wanted to take out some neighborly competition? Maybe.” He knocked back another swig. “Seemed like an awful lot of trouble for a kid to go through to eliminate a farm that doesn’t compete in the orchard business.”
The phone’s high jingle derailed his train of thought.
“Erb? It’s Marv.”
He sank into the mattress. “Oh, hey, Marv.”
“I tried callin’ ya earlier, but no one answered.”
Herb crossed a leg. “Sorry. I was out on an interview for this case.”
Marv chuckled. “Yeah. Speakin’ of, I got the skinny on your guy Diggs.”
Some papers shuffled on Marv’s end of the line. “Let’s see. Oscar Zoroaster Diggs, also known as Phadrig Issac, a.k.a. Norman Henkle, and Emmanuel Ambroise Diggs.”
Herb massaged his temple. “He gets around.”
“Oh, yeah.” Marv took a swig of something and sighed through his release. “A confidence man. Born to a wealthy Nebraska senator… yada, yada, yada.” More rustling. “Ah! Diggs was passed over on the inheritance when they kicked it. Oscar’s dad didn’t like the fact that he wanted to be an entertainer instead of a doctor or lawyer.”
“Yup,” Marv said. “He went on to do some work for the circus as a magician, ventriloquist, and hypnotist. Got strapped for cash, and swooned a gal,” more papers shuffled, “Glinda Miller, and proceeded to hold up four different banks in Nebraska.”
Herb choked on his drink. “Holy moly.”
Halbert spun his empty tumbler on the nightstand. “So, she helps this bum pull off the heists, then what?”
Marv barked an order to a coworker on his end. “Sorry, Erb. That’s where Nebraska authorities lost their trail. That is, until your fiasco in Kansas.”
“How much we talkin’, Marv? Thirty, forty large?”
Marv busted his gut. “These two meant business, bub. Try two hundred an’ fifty big ones.”
“Good god.” Herb’s face dropped into his hand. “What did they do with that much dough?”
“Beats me,” Marv hiccupped. Must be an Irish coffee, “and Nebraska law, too.”
“If Diggs was traveling in this circus,” Halbert said, “chances are he didn’t stash that wad on his wagon. Where did he hide it?”
A rattling belch came through the receiver. “Think he buried it on Gale’s farm?”
“Nah. She woulda dug it up.” Herb rubbed his narrow chin. “Hah!” An epiphany struck.
“Whadaya thinkin’, Erb?”
He grabbed a pen from hid jacket pocket. “Maybe he buried the money in the farm just not in the ground.”
“I don’t follow.”
Herb snatched his pad and put his thoughts down. “Don’t worry. Thanks for the info, Marv.” He slid his jacket on. “Gotta run.”
“Good luck, Erb.”
“Yup.” Halbert set the receiver down and headed out to his coupe. If he timed it right, he’d still get in an hour of digging before the courthouse closed. Post 1: https://redd.it/83bbsq Post 2: https://redd.it/83y3p7
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