Read an Excerpt
A Lobo Blacke/Quinn Booker Mystery
By William L. DeAndrea
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1997 William L. DeAndrea
All rights reserved.
Since there was a lady within earshot, I suppressed the profanities that sprang to my lips when heavy pieces of headline type slid off the galley I was carrying and smashed like an avalanche into my right instep.
Still, it was not a pain that could be contained in silence. I emitted a noise, something between a wail and a yelp, then hopped to a chair near the composing table and grabbed for my aching foot.
Rebecca Payson came running in from her station behind the business desk in the anteroom.
"What's the matter, Quinn?" she asked. The concern in her voice and in her blue eyes was a comfort in itself.
"He dropped some type on his foot, Miss Rebecca," Merton Mayhew said helpfully. Merton was fourteen, and he worked part-time at the newspaper, setting type, cleaning up, and sometimes writing. He enjoyed the work, but that wasn't what kept him around. He had an enormous crush on Rebecca, and if she had spent most of her time at the livery stables, he would have developed an enthusiasm for shoveling muck. Merton didn't know, as most people in town didn't know, that when I had first met Rebecca she was a Lady of Temporary Affection in a house a few days' ride south of here, in Boulder, Wyoming. Her affection for Lobo Blacke had proven to be permanent and, nursing him back to health after the back-shot that had paralyzed him from the waist down, she had thrown over her former life and continued to care for him. She called him "Uncle Louis" now, and I think most people actually did believe she was his niece.
She bent over to look at my foot, as though the pain of it would somehow be visible through my boot. She brushed a wisp of tawny hair back from her forehead and said, "Does it hurt?"
People do ask the most foolish questions. I wondered if she thought the tears in my eyes were for the beauty of the scene, but I simply said, "Yes, quite a bit."
On the far side of the room, Clayton Henry looked up from his worktable. He was irritated, as usual, and his side-whiskers bristled with indignation.
"I do wish you people would be more quiet. How am I supposed to finish this woodcut for Saturday's Witness in the midst of all this clamor?"
Henry was the latest addition to the staff of the Black Hills Witness. He was a perpetually frustrated man because he could not live up to his own standards. It was not enough for him that he was undoubtedly the best violinist, the best painter, the best engraver, and, since the murder last winter of his mentor, Edward Vessemer, the best photographer within five hundred miles. Henry knew he was not the best in the world at any of those things, and he despised himself for it. Lobo Blacke had caught (and killed) Vessemer's murderer, with Henry's help, and the man had grumpily agreed to stay and work on the Witness as photographer and woodcutter.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Henry," I said. "The next time I severely injure myself, I'll try to do it so severely that I lose consciousness in the process." I put my foot back on the floor and winced as I did so. It continued to throb, and by now, I fancied I could see the pain through the boot.
"That won't do any good," Henry said. "People will only fuss around you all the more, and splash water on you. Just try to be more careful."
"I will," I said. "Thank you."
Sarcasm was lost on him. He sniffed and went back to his work.
That was when the door to the inner office opened and Lobo Blacke wheeled himself out. He was in a bad mood, too. There had been a lynching to the east, in the Dakota Territory not too far from here, and the ex-lawman was writing an editorial about it. He'd shown me a first draft last night, scrawled in his large, untidy hand.
"There is nothing we appreciate," he had written, "better than a good necktie party. It has the double virtue of removing vermin from our community, and of providing moral example to our youth. But both of these virtues are removed when the hanging is done outside the law. Even if you lynch the right man, he will have kinfolk saying that he could have proved his innocence in a trial, and a hanging is something you don't want second-guessed, because that clouds the moral issue.
"Furthermore, when a group of citizens catches somebody and strings him up without a trial, they are depriving one or more hardworking government employees of their living wage. So we urge the citizens of Wyoming Territory, a wiser and more temperate breed than our neighbors to the east, by all means exercise your right and duty as citizens to bring in outlaws of all kinds. But bring them in. Collect the reward, and let the professionals take it from there. A rustler hanged by a judge and jury is just as dead as one who's had a bucket kicked out from under him.
"True, the process of the law takes more time, but that's all the better for all those concerned to ponder the frailty of human nature. And when he finally does dangle, it will be much more likely to be the right man at the end of the rope."
It seemed pretty good to me, and I didn't know why he'd spent most of the morning in his office trying to improve it, but he had been, and he wasn't too happy about it.
He wheeled himself around to me, and saw the pain on my face. "Booker, you clumsy oaf, what have you done to yourself this time?"
"Try not to be so overcome with sympathy," I gasped in reply.
"He dropped a galley full of headline type on his foot," Merton said helpfully.
"And made an ungodly noise in the process," Henry added.
"Thank you, too. God bless you, Rebecca."
"Don't be silly, Quinn."
"Well, I'd better have a look at it." With a groan, I got my foot across the opposite knee and grabbed the boot, bracing myself for the pain of yanking it off.
"Don't do that," Blacke said.
Now I was beginning to get irritated. "And why not, pray tell?"
"Because once you take the boot off, it will swell up like mad and hurt worse. Furthermore, if you've broken it, yanking off the boot might do you a serious mischief."
Speaking of mischief, there was a flash of it in his gray eyes.
"And we couldn't have that," he went on. "There's room for only one cripple at this newspaper, and the post is already occupied. We'd better have Merton's father have a look at that before we try anything."
He was right, of course. The town of Le Four, Wyoming Territory, was extremely fortunate in having Merton's father, Hector Mayhew, M.D., Ph.D., in residence. Most communities the size of Le Four had no doctor at all, let alone one with Dr. Mayhew's credentials. I had been amazed, when I had first come here five months ago, to find in the middle of the prairie a doctor who had not only heard of Pasteur's germ theory of disease but of Lister's carbolic treatment to prevent sepsis. It was a proven fact that Dr. Mayhew's patients avoided infection much more frequently than did those of any other practitioner within reach, certainly any closer than Cheyenne. As a result, gunshot victims came from far and wide, and Hector Mayhew prospered while continuing to enjoy the small-town life he preferred for his family.
"I'll go get Dad," Merton offered.
"I'd rather you'd help me get to him," I said. "I don't want to distract people around here anymore."
"Excellent idea." Henry didn't look up from his work.
"Do you think you can make it?" Blacke demanded.
"Let's see." I struggled to my feet; or rather, to my left foot. The right one was too sore to put any appreciable weight on.
Merton came around and put my right arm around his shoulders and took some of my weight. He was a tall lad, and very thin, but strong enough to help. With his support, I thought I could make my way the hundred yards or so down Main Street to the doctor's office.
I decided to go without my suit coat, and the warm May weather outside made me glad I did. "Le Four" means "the oven" in French, but the forgotten fur tappers who named this place must have done so in the summertime. Since I had arrived, temperatures had ranged from cold to bitter cold. The vernal equinox came and went, and a month went by, and still nothing that could be even vaguely described as spring appeared. It was only during the past week that the weather had truly broken.
Spring came late to Le Four, but it came enthusiastically, and all at once. In the five or six days since the air had first softened, the earth had become fragrant, the prairie around us had thrown up some brave flowers, and the sparse trees were already in bud. The grass that had been brown and coarse (when not covered by snow) in the winter was greening nicely. Soon the cattle would be munching contentedly on it.
Very little of this could be seen from Main Street, of course, but there were other signs of the season. No visible breath, for instance. The absence of overcoats and capes, letting the women of the town be seen in their colorful finery. More goods from stores displayed on the boardwalks in front of them. This made walking a little more of a challenge for an invalid such as myself, but it was still nice to see signs of life. As a New Yorker, I liked to see some bustle. It made things more alive.
It also, I hoped, boded well for the newspaper. Since the murders last January, there had been very little in the way of news in these parts. Births—usually of humans, but frequently of calves—were common front-page stories. I must admit that circulation did not seem to suffer from a lack of news. In the wintertime, in the absence of more robust amusements, just the twice-weekly appearance of something new to read, however vacuous, was a great boon to the citizenry.
As Merton and I made our way down the boardwalk, however, we came upon something that promised a remedy to both conditions. A young man in a swallowtail coat and a flattopped derby hat was posting bills all along the street. Printed in black on bright yellow paper, they read:
*THE GREAT MEDICINE SHOW!!!*
Dr. Theophrastus Herkimer
(creator of OZONO, miracle medicine of the ages)
Well, actually he intended to present quite a lot—dancing, music, fire-eating, juggling, prestidigitation that had astounded the crowned heads of Europe. Actually, it was unclear whether the whole extravaganza was what had astounded them or just the prestidigitation.
Merton wondered the same thing.
"I don't suppose it matters much," I told him. "Judging from what I've seen out here and back east, the crowned heads of Europe are an easily impressed bunch."
The young man gave his most recent tack a few more taps with the small hammer he carried, then turned to me and said, "You may scoff now, but when you see the show you'll change your tune." He was a handsome fellow, about halfway between Merton's age and mine. Young enough so that the glossy black moustache he supported seemed stuck on rather than grown. It bristled with the earnestness of his defense of his product.
I fought to keep amusement out of my voice. "I beg your pardon; I meant no offense. Am I addressing Dr. Herkimer?"
"No," he said. "I have the honor to be his assistant and apprentice. Joseph Feathers is my name."
Had I been wearing a hat, I'd have tipped it, as he did his. Instead I bowed, as well as I could, forcing Merton into a bow at the same time.
"I am Quinn Booker, and this is Merton Mayhew. We represent the Black Hills Witness, whose office is just a few doors down. I would be quite pleased to interview you for our columns. At your convenience, of course."
"Thank you. I was, in fact, going to go there presently, to see about the purchase of advertising space."
"We have it to sell," I assured him. "And please see me about that interview. I see by the flyer that Dr. Herkimer plans to arrive in town on Saturday. That is the day of our next publication."
The grin under the moustache was self-effacing and sly at the same time. "That is no accident, Mr. Booker. The doctor's zealous in reaching the maximum number of people with the miracle of Ozono. Forgive me a personal remark, but I can't help noticing that you are limping rather badly on your right foot, and that the young man is assisting you. Gout, perhaps? Gravel? Rheumatism?"
"Actually, no," I began.
He waved a hand to cut me off.
"It doesn't matter. Whatever the ailment, Ozono never fails to give relief. See me, and I'll arrange for you to receive a complimentary bottle. You will see for yourself what a benefactor to mankind Dr. Herkimer truly is."
"I see that you truly believe in your product."
"Dr. Herkimer's product. And one must believe the evidence of one's senses and experience, you know."
I told him I'd talk to him later. He smiled, nodded, shook my hand, and pressed one of his bills on Merton.
He looked at it as we walked on, muttering from time to time. "Cancers, asthma, phistic, ulcers, hemorrhoids, male and female complaints, flatulence, incontinence, bruises, sores, chilblains, constipation—this stuff could put my father out of business!"
"Sure it could," I said. "If it worked."
We walked on a little way, and the warm air and the exercise had loosened my damaged foot enough so that I could walk just holding on to the hitching railings that ran along the boardwalk.
"Come to think of it, that must be wonderful stuff."
Merton was puzzled. "Why?"
"Because we were just talking about it, and my foot feels better."
Compared to the claims made in the handbill, Dr. Mayhew's big buff, black, and red sign was almost sedate. All he promised was "prescriptions expertly compounded" and "gunshot wounds a specialty."
As we entered the foyer of the doctor's house, the bell rang, and we could hear Mayhew's voice coming from another room. Much to my surprise, the usually amiable medical man sounded harsh and impatient.
"... And you must realize, Mrs. Simpkins, it would be unethical for me to prescribe for your husband, sight unseen. If he refuses to come to me, or see me if I call, there is little I can do."
Mrs. Simpkins's voice was much quieter, and wavered a little, the way the voices of very old people sometimes do. "Yes, I quite understand, Doctor. I—I'm sorry to have wasted your time. I was just hoping ..."
Mayhew was a little calmer, but not much. "Yes, I know it can be difficult. But please try to persuade your husband to take serious medical advice. There is nothing I can do otherwise—I am, alas, no miracle worker."
Merton made a face. "I was afraid of this," he whispered. "Dad always—"
He cut himself off as Mrs. Simpkins came into the room. She was a small, slim lady with bright blue eyes that seemed sharp even without the aid of spectacles. She wore a dark gray bonnet over snow white hair, and she managed a sad little smile for us.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. Merton, my, how you are growing. In a few more years, you'll be taller than your father."
"So nice to see you both," she said, though I'm sure she hadn't the slightest idea who I was.
Mrs. Simpkins had been Le Four's schoolmarm for years, teaching generations of the town's young people. Then, about the time Merton was born, and she was just about sixty, she'd married Big Bill Simpkins, the second-biggest rancher in this area, a widower with a grown son.
Gloria Simpkins was still active in town charities and activities. She still directed the students' annual Shakespeare play each summer, and she was a founding member and chairwoman emeritus of the Le Four Home Health Visitors. She'd had to slow down a little in recent months because Bill Simpkins was starting to feel his age (he was nearing eighty) and he needed more care. "Charity begins at home," Gloria Simpkins never tired of reminding me during our conversations. I went out of my way to talk to her because I'd read so much about her in the Witness morgue and found her fascinating.
A few seconds after she was gone, Dr. Mayhew came in. He was very tall, perhaps six feet five, and so thin as to seem a poor advertisement for his own medical skills. But his grip was as strong as Lobo Blacke's, and his voice boomed.
Especially now, when he saw the bill in Merton's hand and said, "Get that foul thing out of my house!"
Excerpted from Fatal Elixir by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1997 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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