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Published on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fool's Errand

By Lilith Michael

 

Save for the preacher and a few other mourners at Frank Jessup's funeral, the bone orchard on the hill outside of town was lonely. The sun shone bright, but a chill wind scattered autumn leaves among the tombstones and whistled in the tree branches overhead. I shivered despite my heavy coat.

Frank had been an ornery cuss--a swindler, a two-bit horse thief, and a liar. He'd also been a familiar face at the gambling tables in the Diamond Saloon, with a liking for poker almost as keen as my own.

When a cowboy turned up dead and missing his right hand not long after a card game in which he had played well and Frank had fared poorly, Frank had summarily been arrested and charged with the murder. The evidence presented at his trial had been thin, but the jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to hang.

The sheriff's deputy had slipped a black hood over Frank's head and tightened the noose. Seconds later, the trap door underneath Frank's feet had sprung open and he dropped through, stopped short by the rope. His body had twitched in that dance peculiar to the hanged, and then stilled. The crowd, silent during Frank's final moments, scattered just as quietly.

   

After the funeral, I lingered a while; watched the preacher's buggy amble down the hill and the other mourners walk or ride slowly back to town. I faced the fresh grave one last time, gave the brim of my hat a tug, and then searched the upright markers for the one belonging to the unfortunate cowboy. Spotting it, I turned up my coat collar and made my way across the graveyard to where it stood.

I pondered the few words engraved on the marker, and then started back to town, intent on putting the cemetery and its buried memories behind me.

"Stay awhile, Mick."

There was no mistaking the familiar voice. For a moment, I couldn't move--didn't want to; then I turned. Sitting on the cowboy's tombstone looking a lot healthier than when I'd last seen him was Frank Jessup. I pushed the front of my coat aside so I could lay a hand on my Colt, small comfort though it might be against a ghost.

"You come for me too?" I said, managing to keep my voice steady.

"You ain't on my list."

"Lucky me." I let my coat drop, and then pulled tobacco and paper from a pocket. I hoped Frank wouldn't notice my trembling fingers as I rolled myself a smoke.

"I need a favor," Frank said.

"What kind of favor?"

"I buried a strongbox at the base of the big hickory tree on the old Indian trail. I want you to dig it up and make sure Peg Winthrop gets it."

I raised an eyebrow as I put the cigarette between my lips and patted my pockets, searching for matches. Margaret "Peg" Winthrop was, to put it delicately, a hostess at the Diamond Saloon. "Leggy Peggy?" I struck a match against a tombstone and lit my cigarette. "Why her?" I shook out the match and set it on the tombstone.

Frank fixed me with a dark scowl. "No concern of yours. Just make sure she gets it."

I blew a couple of smoke rings, thankful the tobacco was calming my nerves. My hands no longer shook. "What's in it for me?"

"You can keep a fistful of what's in the strongbox."

I narrowed my eyes, suspecting a trick. "And what would that be?"

"Open it when you dig it up. You'll see."

I took another long drag and mulled over his offer. What else would he bury in a strongbox but money, the sum of his ill-gotten gains? I shrugged and flicked the ash from the end of my cigarette.

"All right, Frank. I'll do you this favor."

Frank grinned, a grin that sent a chill through me and made me wonder what he wasn't telling me.

The strongbox was where Frank said it would be. I'd dug into the earth about three feet, wondering if Frank had sent me on a fool's errand, when my shovel struck something solid--the strongbox. I loosened the dirt around it and pulled it free, setting it on the ground at the edge of the hole. The box was heavy and padlocked. Frank had said to open it when I dug it up, so I took a hammer and broke the lock. The hinges were gritty and stiff, but I managed to lift the lid enough to see the box was filled with gold and silver coins. Satisfied, I closed it and tied it to the back of my saddle; then I filled the hole, packed my tools, and rode back to town.

Back in my hotel room, I washed away the grime and changed clothes. Before stashing the strongbox under the bed, I took a handful of the treasure, as much as would fit in my fist just like Frank had promised me. I tucked a few coins into my vest pocket and stowed the rest in an old sock, which I hid behind the dresser; then I left for the Diamond Saloon to find Peg.

She stood at the bar flirting with two men sitting on either side of her, one caressing her hip, the other kissing her shoulder. I sized up the competition, reckoning I'd have to make a gesture that would draw Peg away from them. I caught her eye and touched the brim of my hat as I sat at the other end of the bar. Then I took a gold coin from my vest pocket and dropped it on the bar. The solid jangle it made seemed to do the trick.

"Pardon me, boys," Peg said, pulling the one man's hand away and escaping the embrace of the other.

From the corner of my eye, I watched her sashay toward me, hips swaying, bosom bouncing. The bartender put a bottle of bourbon--the good stuff--in front of me as Peg sidled up, leaning partly on the bar and partly on me.

"Howdy, Michael. Looks like this is your lucky night."

I laughed and poured bourbon into the shot glass. "More like your lucky night, Peg." I turned to face her. "I got something for you." I tossed back the whiskey, sucking air through my teeth as it burned down my throat.

"Do you, now?" Peg's gaze lowered to my crotch, and then she lifted her chin and laughed. "Wha' do you got for me?"

"It's in my room."

Peg laughed again, but she glanced at the gold coin on the bar and smiled as she slipped her arm through mine. "Show me."

I grabbed the bottle and led Peg out of the saloon back to my hotel room. She sat on the bed. I was tempted to buy what she was selling before giving her the strongbox, but so far, I'd followed Frank's instructions and I didn't want to jinx anything. She leaned forward when I stooped to look under the bed, her face flush with curiosity.

"What are you doing down there?"

"I told you I got something for you." I brought out the strongbox and set it next to her.

"Mercy!" She jumped to her feet and stood at one of the corner bedposts, keeping the post between her and the box.

"Recognize it?"

Peg stared wide-eyed at the box. "Where'd you get it?"

"Frank Jessup wanted you to have it."

She frowned. "I don't want it."

I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, shoved my hat from my forehead, and said, "Why not?"

"Do you know what's in it?"

I thought of the sock stashed behind the dresser. "Yes."

She glared at the box. "I thought he'd gotten rid of it."

"Guess he was saving it for you."

Peg gaped at me. "You're as bad as he was."

I scratched the back of my neck, perplexed by her refusal. Frank hadn't told me she might react this way, hadn't told me what to do. He'd only said to make sure she got the box. I set my hat on straight and put both hands on my hips.

"Peg, I don't understand why you wouldn't want what appears to be a substantial sum left by Frank for your benefit and welfare."

Peg frowned. "Did you look in the box yourself?"

"I did. It's full of gold and silver. Frank said to make sure you got it."

Peg sat back on the bed and put her hand on the box. "Maybe it's not the same box."

"Not the same?" My patience wore thin. I gestured at the box with a nod. "Open it and see for yourself."

Peg hesitated, her fingers tapping lightly on the box. Then she flipped up the clasp and slowly lifted the lid. A small smile curved her lips when the lid was high enough for her to see inside. Then she closed the box and fastened the clasp.

"Anything else you want to show me?" Peg asked.

"No, that's all."

Peg smiled and leaned back on the bed. "You sure?"

A little later, I walked Peg back to the Diamond. I saw her and the strongbox to her room, but I didn't stay. I'd done what Frank had asked, and had a sock full of gold and silver for my trouble. The coins in my vest pocket aimed to burn a hole, so I got myself dealt into a card game to see what more I could make of that money before I returned to my room for the night.

The next day, I walked out of the hotel to a commotion at the Diamond. Several hostesses huddled together weeping, and the sheriff had the Diamond's bartender to one side in deep conversation. Curious as to what had transpired, I was about to inquire when two deputies came out of the Diamond, a covered stretcher between them. I caught a glimpse of a hand from under the sheet and gasped when I recognized Peg's favorite ring on one finger.

The sheriff walked over to me. "Ed says you were with Peg last night."

"Ain't a secret."

"You had a box with you."

"It was Peg's. I carried it to her room for her. Is it missing?"

"No, it's still in her room. Know anything about it?"

"Used to belong to Frank Jessup."

The sheriff nodded. "We found Peg's diary. Turns out she conspired with Jessup to kill that cowboy for his money. She did the actual killing, Jessup hid the money. But Jessup was arrested and--you know the rest of it. Funny thing was, when that cowboy was murdered, his hand went missing. It ain't missing anymore."

"It turned up?"

"Yes, in Peg's box, along with the money."

I stared at the sheriff. I'd seen what was in the box, and it surely hadn't contained a dead hand. I put the peculiarity out of my mind and asked, "What happened to Peg?"

"Strangled."

My mouth dropped open.

"Don't worry," the sheriff said. "You ain't a suspect. Peg was seen at the bar after you left, in good spirits. She went back upstairs alone."

The sheriff excused himself to talk to one of the deputies. I rushed back to my hotel room. The sock was still behind the dresser, heavy with gold and silver. I poured the coins onto the floor and sat staring at them a good, long time.

They wrapped the hand in burlap and buried it in the cemetery the next day--dug up the cowboy's grave and dropped it atop the coffin. They buried Peg a day later, not far from Frank's grave. Throughout the service, I glanced often at Frank's tombstone, half expecting to see him sitting on it, grinning.

After Peg's funeral, I decided it was time to try my luck somewhere new. I packed my bags and left for San Francisco.

THE END

 

An avid fan of traditional Westerns, Lilith Michael also writes Western Romance and "Weird Westerns." She is an active member of Scribophile, the online writing workshop community at www.scribophile.com. A native Californian, she is married to a Civil War buff and "Lincolnophile" with whom she has a 8-year-old son with an affinity for model trains.

 

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