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Stone of Vengeance
By Vickie Britton, Loretta Jackson
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2008 Vickie Britton Loretta Jackson
All rights reserved.
Charles Kingsley, one of Rock Creek, Wyoming's most prominent citizens, lay flat on his back, eyes closed, mass of greying hair spilling back from his pale, fleshy face. He looked so peaceful he could have been asleep — if not for the bullet holes in his chest.
Acting sheriff Kate Jepp's heart plummeted as she knelt beside him. She had just taken over yesterday, and now it had fallen to her to solve the biggest crime in Belle County history. What else could go wrong?
Sheriff Ben Addison, faced with a long stay in the hospital, had overlooked his senior deputies and appointed her as his replacement and this had caused untold havoc in the department. From the moment he had hired her two months ago, she had according to them three strikes against her: she was young and inexperienced, fresh out of the Michigan Police Academy and worst of all, she was not a local. Since Ben had left her in charge, she had tried unsuccessfully to humour the other two deputies, to ignore the undercurrents of resentment toward her that continually surfaced.
Lem Blye, a thin balding man nearing retirement age, carefully ignored her and addressed Jeff Ryman. 'Looks like a simple case of break and enter,' he said. 'During the night Kingsley caught some intruder in his study. They fought and the robber killed him.'
Not satisfied with that conclusion, Kate continued to examine the body. What she found startled her: a stone had been deliberately placed beneath the victim's head. About the size of an open palm, it looked flat, grey and ominous.
Not able to overcome her surprise, Kate, deep in thought, rose and wandered toward the shattered glass of the door that opened onto a wide, columned porch. Kingsley's colonial-style mansion lay in the centre of vast stretches of rolling land. Kate skimmed the deep draws filled with trees and patches of high grass, brown and gold with the approach of autumn. Her attention locked on a ridge of granite rising from the pasture close to the house.
A clump of granite, just like the hundreds in the field outside. But why would the killer go out of his way to place a stone under Kingsley's head?
Behind her Jeff, just making the discovery, called, 'What do you make of this, Prep?'
Kate ignored the jibe. Lem Blye had given her little support in the sheriff's absence, but not much guff, either. Not so with the younger deputy Jeff, who sorely resented the advancement he had naturally assumed would be his. Ever since her promotion over him, Jeff had considered it the height of cleverness to change her last name from Jepp to Prep.
Kate turned from the doorway, wishing she did not have to see Kingsley's face again, almost peaceful in death.
Jeff moved the dead man's head slightly to the right. 'A rock,' he said. 'Placed like a pillow.'
'That's the stone the thief used to gain entry,' Lem observed. 'He broke the glass, reached in and unlocked the door, then carried it with him into the house.'
'But that doesn't explain,' Kate responded, 'how the stone ended up under Kingsley's head.'
'He certainly didn't use it as a weapon,' Lem replied.
'Which leads us to the question,' Jeff said, dismissing the stone as insignificant, 'what happened to the gun?' As he spoke, Jeff moved in that slow, easy way of his toward the massive desk, whose right drawer gaped open. 'From what I've been told, Kingsley owned a Western Six-shooter, a Hawes .22 which he kept right here in this desk, fully loaded. And now it's missing.'
'My guess is that the intruder never intended to murder him.' Lem said. 'He sneaked in here thinking he'd rob the place, believing Kingsley was still out of town, and Kingsley surprised him. The robber either knew about Kingsley's gun, or he wrestled it away from Kingsley, shot him and ran.'
'If this is a robbery, then why isn't anything missing?' Kate asked. Kate scanned the study, which revealed fine taste and abundant wealth. Kingsley must have spent a lifetime collecting Western memorabilia. A shiny saddle-set in the corner beneath a tin sign promoting the "Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show". Golden spurs, probably having a special history of their own, gleamed from a glass case, along with a rare beaded Indian breastplate, a buckskin shield, and a scattering of spears and arrowheads.
A faded document set in a place of honour to the right of Kingsley's desk. Kate noticed right away that the expensive frame hung at an odd angle. She stepped closer and gave a slight lift to the bottom. The fastening behind the frame had started to break loose, as if someone had attempted to pull it from the wall.
'What do you make of this?' she asked.
'You're looking at the old man's pride and joy,' Lem said, 'an authentic invitation to Tom Horn's hanging. One addressed to Charles Kingsley's grandfather. Kingsley told me himself that this little bit of paper is worth one heck of a lot of money.'
Office of Edwin J. Smalley
November 15, 1903
Mr Harold Kingsley,
You are requested to be present at the legal execution of Tom Horn which will occur Friday morning at two o'clock, November 20, 1903 at the Laramie County Jail.
E.J. Smalley, Sheriff
'Prep probably hasn't even heard of Tom Horn,' Jeff said smugly. 'Wyoming's hero turned outlaw,' he explained for her benefit. 'He worked as a hired gun for the big cattle barons around here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Everyone in these parts knows his motto: "killing men is my specialty".'
'Haven't you noticed the way the document is hanging? All the other items are in perfect order, but not this frame.'
'We'll dust it for prints, but if the intruder came here to rob, he was no doubt wearing gloves.' Lem regarded the item for a while in silence. 'I'd say he planned to steal the whole collection, until he laid eyes on Kingsley. He must have known the niece lived here too, and thought that the minute she heard the shots, she would call for help.'
'What's keeping her anyway?' Jeff demanded, glancing at Kate. As if he were the one in charge, he said in his usually overconfident way, 'Your first order of business should be to get a rational statement from the only other person in the house.'
Kate, from the moment Charles Kingsley's niece had admitted them, had been struck with the thought that Kingsley's death might be an inside job. As far as she knew, Charles Kingsley had only one heir, and Kingsley possessed a vast fortune made from land and cattle.
'The best time to grill a suspect is before they've had time to make up a story. Just go up to her room and get her,' Jeff prodded. 'If she has anything to tell, I'll get it out of her.'
'The girl's had a great shock,' Kate replied. 'No matter what she knows, we're going to have to go slowly. If we don't gain her confidence, she'll tell us nothing.'
'You're the boss,' Jeff said sarcastically.
Why couldn't he work with her instead of against her? When she had first joined the office, fresh out of the police academy, she had liked this big man with his all-the-time-in-the-world air and his slow smile. She had often caught him looking at her, as if he approved of her slender form, her suntanned face, her tousled black hair. She had probably been wrong in thinking he would ever do anything but reject her.
Not wanting to argue with him, Kate turned to Lem. Being a newcomer, she didn't know the local families the way he did and that put her at a disadvantage. 'What can you tell me about Kingsley? I've heard rumours that he had a long list of enemies.'
'How right you are,' Jeff spoke up before Lem could reply. 'The one that leaps to mind is his neighbour.'
'You mean the owner of the Double S?'
'Right. Sam Swen, but everyone around here just calls him Swen. The Rocking C and the Double S have been involved in open warfare for years. I heard through the grapevine that Charles Kingsley had just threatened to take Swen to court. Claimed he had proof that Swen was rustling his cattle.'
Rustling cattle — just like the days of the Old West.
'Ah, that's just talk,' Lem scoffed. 'They're both millionaires three times over. Besides, the two of them had been fighting forever. Water rights, range rights — they almost made a game of it. If Swen really wanted Kingsley dead, he'd have killed him years ago.'
Still, a legal battle could be serious business. Kate looked down at the dead man. No testimony, no court case.
'It's the stone under the dead man's head that doesn't fit it,' Kate said at last. 'There's certain to be more to this than a bungled burglary.'
'You may be right there.' Lem's attention had returned to the invitation to Tom Horn's hanging. 'In that legend about Tom Horn, they say that whenever he killed a man, he left behind a kind of signature. He always placed a stone under his victim's head.'
Jeff chuckled. 'Are you saying that Tom Horn's ghost murdered poor Charles Kingsley?'
Not a ghost, Kate thought. Her eyes shifted back to the invitation to Tom Horn's hanging. Had the rare collector's item been what the thief had really been after? If so, why hadn't he taken it? Maybe the invitation to Tom Horn's hanging had never been the cause of the crime, but it must certainly have inspired the killer to put the stone under Kingsley's head as a symbol of vengeance. But who had put the stone there and as vengeance for what crime?
Charles Kingsley's niece, Mary Ellen, stood immobile in the doorway, white knuckled fingers holding talon-like to the doorframe. Her thin body shivered and her narrow face remained lowered, half-obscured by straight dark blonde hair.
Mary Ellen had gone upstairs to change from her robe and slippers. The little-girl image Kate had noticed earlier was now magnified by the pale, flowered blouse and the denim jumper. Kate thought again, as she had when she had first seen her, that most murders are committed by members of the victim's own family. Kingsley's niece, a young woman in her late twenties, the last of the Kingsleys, would likely inherit the whole of the cattle baron's fortune.
Kate glanced at Mary Ellen again and began to doubt her snap judgment. This wispy figure seemed less a cold-blooded killer than some frightened and dependent child.
Jeff didn't notice her shattered condition or didn't care. His tone became gruff, void of that slow drawl he used when addressing Kate. 'We need a full account. Starting with the last time you saw your uncle.'
'That would be at the evening meal. I left right after that and went up to my room.'
Mary Ellen's hands gripped the doorframe tighter. She swayed a little and for a moment Kate thought she might faint.
'Three shots.' Her voice fell to a mere whisper. 'They sounded so loud, like cracks of a whip. By the time I had run down the steps, whoever had killed him was gone.'
'You didn't glimpse anyone,' Kate asked gently, 'or hear any scraps of conversation?'
Mary Ellen shook her head. 'The outside door was flung wide open. Uncle Charles was lying on the floor beside his desk.' She drew in her breath sharply. 'Then I saw the blood ...' Her hands fell to her side, and she took a step backwards.
'Did you call us right away?'
'You phoned in at eleven fifty-five. That sets the time of death at just before midnight.'
The tears that streamed down her face didn't faze Jeff in the least. 'What happened before that? Did you hear the sound of breaking glass?'
'I didn't.' Mary Ellen's voice caught in a sob, 'I'd been asleep and then those shots sounded. I thought. ...'
'Thought what?' Jeff demanded.
The girl covered her face with her hands as if about to totally break down.
'Just let me talk to her,' Kate replied, reaching Mary Ellen and ushering her through the hallway to the kitchen. Mary Ellen slumped down at the dining table. Kate busied herself refilling the coffee maker, saddened by the young woman's desolate, whimpering sounds.
Even after the coffee was poured, Kate waited in silence for Mary Ellen to collect herself. She had the most to gain by Charles Kingsley's death, that fact didn't change because of tears. Kate studied her, reminding herself that Mary Ellen's total devastation was as likely to spring from guilt as from grief.
After a while, unprompted by Kate, Mary Ellen said in a small, quiet voice, 'When Uncle Charles returned from Casper, he told me he had got married over the weekend.'
Kate stared at Charles Kingsley's niece, her major suspect altering as she did. Kingsley's hasty marriage, unless he had a prenuptial agreement, would change the main beneficiary of his fortune. 'Whom did he marry? Is she someone you know?'
'Jennie Irwin. I've met her, that's all. Hal Barkley, that's Uncle Charles' foreman, introduced her to him at one of our barbecues last summer. I didn't even know they were dating, so this sudden marriage really took me by surprise.'
'He hadn't even hinted?'
'Not a word. But Uncle Charles was that way. He made his own decisions without considering. ...' Mary Ellen retreated, changing her last word, 'without ever talking things over with anyone else.'
'What can you tell me about Jennie Irwin?'
'She has a good job as a secretary for Talbart's Insurance in Casper. She lives in an apartment downtown, but I can't tell you the address.'
Kate left to relay the information to Jeff. 'We'll have to contact her before his death is released to the paper,' she said.
Jeff raised his eyebrows as he looked across the room to Lem. 'I didn't know that,' he said sarcastically.
With irritation mounting, Kate replied, 'Just see to it that she is contacted at once.'
'Will do,' Jeff drawled with the same air of teasing disrespect.
Lingering anger remained with Kate as she returned to the kitchen. She tried to keep it from sounding in her voice as she asked, 'How did you feel about your uncle's bringing a wife home?'
'Uncle Charles lived alone for so many years. His wife died when he was just starting out in the cattle business. When I was seven years old, Dad was killed in a plane crash, and he took me in. How could I not want him to be happy?'
Her words rang into the silence, sounding for some reason unconvincing.
'So you welcomed the idea? Even though you don't know that much about her.'
'I had expected him to stay in Casper for a few days, so it surprised me when he came back yesterday. He said we had to talk. He wanted me to understand that we could all live here together, but I told Uncle Charles that starting a marriage with someone else in the house was not a good idea. I told him I intended to leave. He argued a while, then said if that was what I wanted, he'd help me find a suitable place.'
'Most people are killed over money,' Kate said, 'in one form or another. My deputy believes this is a simple robbery or robbery attempt. Did Mr Kingsley keep a lot of cash in the house?'
'What about his Wild West collection? Even what's displayed behind the desk, the Bill Cody memorabilia, the invitation to Tom Horn's hanging, the breastplate that belonged to a Shoshone chief, all that must be worth quite a lot of money.'
'Some sneak thief could have broken in. If that's what happened, Uncle Charles must have walked in on him.' Mary Ellen stared for a long time at her untouched cup of coffee, then burst out, 'It was probably some thief after cash. I can't believe he was intending to steal those historical items for they would be much too hard to peddle.'
That had a ring of truth, unless the robber had some inside connection. 'But if the intruder intended to rob, I find it strange that he didn't take anything at all. When he didn't find money, it seems he would have taken what he could and run,' Kate said. 'There's something else I find odd, too.' Kate told her about the granite rock, ending with, 'they say Tom Horn always left a stone under the heads of the men he shot. It was his way of tagging his victims so people would know it was one of his kills. Whoever murdered your uncle was mimicking this unusual trademark.'
Mary Ellen took off her glasses. Her large hazel eyes, void of the thick lenses, looked stark and deeply shocked. After a while she put them on again gazing at Kate intently, 'This could be related to Tom Horn,' she said in the same small voice, 'but not in the way you think.'
Kate leaned forward. 'In what way?'
'My uncle has a neighbour, Sam Swen. You've probably heard of him.'
'Yes, the owner of the Double S.'
'The two of them were bitter enemies. Right before he left for Casper, I heard my uncle talking to Swen on the phone. He was very angry. He told Swen he was going to bring charges against him for cattle rustling. That this time he could prove it.'
'But we found no papers concerning any lawsuit.'
Excerpted from Stone of Vengeance by Vickie Britton, Loretta Jackson. Copyright © 2008 Vickie Britton Loretta Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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