Ira “Doc” Pearson is brought to an almost-dead body found beside the road. Before the man can reveal who his killer was, he expires, leaving Ira to uncover the mystery. And Ira doesn’t even know the identity of the dead man!
Meanwhile, someone is bringing in a lot of toughs to Van Bendt, TX, and the surrounding towns. Someone who has deep enough pockets to keep them paid, under controlled, and even satisfied with imported “working women.” Is someone just reopening one of the nearby gold or silver mines, or setting up a corridor for trafficking stolen goods across the border? Or does someone have imperial designs much bigger than that?
Can Dr. Ira Pearson, former Texas Ranger, uncover and even thwart the plot?
“He was like that when I found him, Doc.” Wandy Mitchell was squatting near the man who lay in the dirt, his neck at a seemingly impossible angle and a fresh bullet wound in his back. Wandy, himself, was a stout man of middle age, a family man, and known as a decent worker when sober.
The doctor reached out with expert hands and checked for a pulse. To his own surprise, he said, “This man is still alive!”
“I wasn’t sure,” Wandy mumbled. “But I, um, I had heard you should’na move a feller with a neck injury like that.”
“That is correct. Still, this man is alive. See if one of you can fetch me a buckboard. And a plank at least as long as this man is that we can use to put him in the buckboard.”
“Hawthorn has a buckboard,” someone in the small crowd that was gathering commented before the sound of scrambling feet indicated they were rushing to fulfill the doctor’s order.
“I seen a plank over by that barn yonder. C’mon Red, let’s go see is it long enough.” More feet moved out after that.
Erstwhile Texas Ranger Ira Pearson, now the town doctor in Van Bendt, Texas, was kneeling over the body. It did look at first glance as if the man’s neck were broken. If so, Ira wondered, what was the best treatment? He was likely paralyzed from the neck down, and would be for life—whatever life were left to him. Would he be better off living or dead? Ira knew that wasn’t his call to make, but it was a question he couldn’t help but asking.
Still, how was the man alive at all? A broken neck, a bullet wound that if it wasn’t right through the heart or spine could not have missed either by much. If this man lived another minute, it would be a miracle, Ira thought.
“Anyone know this man?” he asked, without looking up. There were several responses, all in the negative. Out of long habit, Ira glanced at the crowd now and then as he examined the man on the ground.
As Ira did his best to make sure the man’s breathing was unobstructed, he gave a quick glance to the man himself. Mid- to late-twenties, Ira guessed. Unremarkable features but with the latest hair style. Large mustache, carefully trimmed and waxed at the ends. His clothes were nice but showed some wear. The jacket he wore was something of an odd cut, shorter on the sides than most local men wore—almost like some of vaqueros from south of the border, but not quite.
The plank was soon there and Ira instructed the men how to position it and the man while Ira held the man’s neck and head as immobile as possible. Shortly after they had him on the plank, Wandy was there with the buckboard. Enlisting even more people—for at least one woman pitched in—they gently moved the man into the buckboard while Ira continued to brace the man’s neck with his own hands. Once the man was in the buckboard, Ira instructed, “Wandy, let’s get this man to my office. Don’t stop for anything, but drive as if you were transporting the baby Jesus himself.”
“Aye-aye,” replied Wandy, starting the buckboard off gently.
To the crowd, Ira said, “I’d appreciate it if some of you would come to my office and help us unload him.” Most of the crowd followed along, on foot, talking lowly as they did. Someone commented that it was like being in a funeral procession for a live person and was quickly shushed.
The man had been found just off the main trail to the north, not so well-traveled as the road to the west that connected the town to El Paso, but with a steady stream of travelers most days. Wandy, from his seat on the wagon, said, “I didn’t see nobody but this feller around, Doc. No horse, neither. How you reckon he got there?”
“Horse probably ran off when the rider was shot,” Ira replied. He was trying to focus on the patient, but his mind kept going to questions along the lines of what Wandy was discussing. “You didn’t see anyone riding off into the distance?”
“Naw, but it was close enough into town that whoever done it could have ducked into or around a building easy enough.”
“There are no powder burns on this man’s clothes,” Ira commented, not really caring whether such information should be disseminated or not. So it could have been a rifle shot from some distance away. Knocks him off his horse and he lands hard, hard on his neck, I mean. It’s a wonder the man is still alive. You check his pockets for any identification, Wandy?”
“Nope. I didn’t touch him. I was riding with Dewey—me and him been doing some work for MacKnight—and we seen this body beside the road. I don’t think Dewey did see him ‘til I pointed him out. When we come closer, I thought about just sending Dewey on to the undertaker. Ain’t that right, Dewey?”
Ira hadn’t realized Dewey was one of the men traveling along until Wandy asked his question. Dewey replied, “That’s right, Doc. I thought o’ coming to the undertaker, too. Couldn’t see no way that man was alive.”
“Did either of you hear a shot?” Ira asked.
“Not me,” Wandy replied, to be echoed by Dewey.
“This man was shot, obviously, and by the amount of blood under him I don’t think it could have been too long before you two showed up. Dewey,” Ira said suddenly, “How do you feel about blood?”
“Go back to where you found this man and see if you can find the slug. There was blood under him, so the bullet had to have passed all the way through.”
“That’d be the wildest kind of luck, wouldn’t it?” Dewey asked. “I mean, if that bullet passed through this feller, it could be a hunderd feet from the body.”
“Right. Well, get a hold of the Sheriff and Chubby. Maybe they can find it. You’re right: it’d be the wildest kind of luck, but it might help us.”
“I’ll go tell Sheriff Wood,” Dewey said before wheeling his horse in the direction of the Sheriff’s Office. It turned out he needn’t have done so for Ben Wood was waiting for the procession at the doctor’s office.
He, along with the crowd who had walked along, helped Ira get the patient into the doctor’s office and surgery. There, Mina Pearson—Ira’s wife and nurse—was setting out the instruments she anticipated the doctor needing. They got the man onto the operating table, chest up—though with his head still at that odd angle. Ira gave her a thankful nod, thanked the crowd of helpers, then politely ran them out of his surgery. As Ira was washing his hands, Sheriff Wood asked, “Do you know what—”
“I know almost nothing, Sheriff,” Ira replied, hoping not too shortly. “Wandy and Dewey came up on this body—this man—on the northbound trail. They’re the ones you ought to talk to.”
“Right,” Wood responded. An ex-Army officer, he was not used to being brushed off, but he had enough sense to know that—in matters such as this—the doctor needed to put his complete focus on the patient. He wanted to ask more, but turned smartly on his heel and went outside to question the two locals. It was made somewhat difficult by the fact that everyone who helped carry the man—and a few who only walked along—had an opinion they needed to share.
“Who is this?” Mina asked as she began to cut away the man’s coat and vest and shirt.
“No one’s recognized him so far, or admitted they have, anyway,” Ira replied.
“I’ve sure never seen him,” Mina commented in that southern drawl of hers.
The man never woke up before he died.
And Ira Pearson could not figure out how he had lived as long as he did. A broken neck, a shot to the spine. If there were any solace, it was that the man did not appear to have suffered. At least, there were no outward signs of pain or indications that he was even aware of his injuries—or anything.
He was a man of pale skin—that skin which hadn’t been out in the sun, anyway—some sunburned on his face and neck. He wore a western cowboy hat that had seen some wear, but wasn’t worn out. Light brown hair thinning on top, brown eyes. The rounded shape of his head made Ira think of the few men he had met of eastern European descent, but he knew that wasn’t an absolute. Other than that coat, which was differently cut but probably didn’t amount to the category of strange, he was dressed like any other man who might have been riding that part of the range on that day: woolen trousers, shirt and vest off a rack, cowboy boots stamped on the inside as being from the “Boot Top – Odessa”, which might be one place to start. No gun, but fewer and fewer men were wearing them anymore.
There wasn’t much in his pockets. A silver pocket-watch engraved, “With love, Leona,” was the most telling item, though what it told they couldn’t tell right away. A few coins and paper money adding up to seventy-one dollars—not a paltry sum, but if the motive had been robbery the would-be thief had been scared away by the appearance of Wandy and Dewey. A pocket knife of no distinguishing significance. A half-empty packet of smoking tobacco but no sign of a pipe or papers.
Sheriff Wood put out word to the major papers and various law enforcement agencies describing the man and asking for information—no word of his death—but did not carry a lot of hope in the endeavor. There was just a description of his person and his clothes, that he was last seen around far west Texas, and had an acquaintance named Leona. In the meantime, the man was interred in the local cemetery as a “John Doe” and wrapped tightly in oil cloth should the need to exhume him arise. Most of the folks who had helped carry him came to the funeral, as well as the Sheriff, the doctor and his nurse, and a few curiosity seekers who never missed a funeral anyway. The preacher from the church where Ira and Mina attended said the obsequies under a cloudless and hot, west Texas sun.
After the crowd had mostly dispersed, Sheriff Wood asked Ira in a low voice, “You get word to the Rangers?”
“I assumed you had,” Ira replied.
“I did, but, well, I thought they might take more notice if it were to come from you.”
“I can send a wire, but I’m not a Ranger anymore. I think they’re more likely to pay attention to a duly-elected official than me.”
“Maybe.” He took off his hat and ran his hand through his now-thinning hair, then said, “Me and Chubby have both been out there. We sure can’t find any sign of the bullet that killed this fellow. You think it’s important?”
“Probably not. If it were some uncommon caliber and we knew of only one man in town who had a rifle like that—but no. Not likely.”
“The best bet,” Mina injected, “Is that someone will see that notice in the paper and realize it’s their cousin or husband who was out this way and hasn’t checked in.” She shrugged, as if embarrassed, and added, “That’s not exactly a ‘good bet’ is it?”
“You’re right, though,” Wood said. “Me and Chubby’s been all over that area out there the last couple days. No sign of an unclaimed horse that might be that man’s ride, no unexplained tracks nearby—well, I mean, it’s right by a major trail. Lots of tracks, but none suspicious. What would the Rangers do in a case like this?” He quickly defended, “I know how to keep peace and diffuse arguments before they turn into fights, but I must admit I know little of investigations.”
“Keep your ear to the ground. Lot of times, someone saw something that they didn’t know they saw, or they don’t remember it until later.” Ira offered a smile as he patted the sheriff on the shoulder and said, “The fun part is sifting through all the people who remember things they just made up or don’t matter in any way to the situation at hand.”
As they parted ways, Ira was reminded of the strange relationship he had with the Sheriff. Ira was a former and well-thought-of Texas Ranger. Ben Wood was a retired army officer used to command. Ira frequently told anyone listening—and himself—that he had no interest in returning to the Ranger fold, but the town still seemed to think of him as “their Ranger” as much as “their doctor”. This rankled Wood, but the sheriff was also smart enough or wise enough to use a good resource when one was available. So while he would have preferred to take on all such matters alone, he knew the value of having a pipeline to the Rangers handy. He was also becoming enough of a politician to keep up appearances of a good relationship with someone the town liked so much.
When Wood was out of hearing range, Mina asked—though still in a quiet voice, “How would you investigate this, if you were still a Ranger?”
“Mostly, I would do just what he’s doing: send out notices and ask questions. There’s always someone who saw something. A dog that barked when it was thought no one was around. A shirt that went missing off a laundry line. The first thing I would probably do—and Ben may be doing it—is to try and find out how that man got where he was. If he were shot from a horse, what happened to the horse? Even if he walked to that point, where did he walk from? We’re assuming he came in from the north, so I’d start asking people up along that way if they had seen him come by. If he were on horseback, then he must have watered his horse somewhere. Was it at a farm or in a community?”
“It’s a cinch he didn’t walk in from the north, not in this weather. And his boots would be worn to a frazzle.” Mina smiled at his enthusiasm and asked, “Do you wish you were still out there, on the trail as it were?”
Ira smiled and replied, “That’s a bit of a loaded question—or the answer is. That aspect of it, the puzzle and the thinking, I liked that. And I liked being on horseback and seeing new horizons.” He leaned over and gently drew her into a kiss before saying, “But then, I really like working with the world’s prettiest nurse, and coming home to her as my wife. And I like—well, I don’t want it to sound like I like to see someone in pain—but I do like it when someone comes in and they don’t know what’s wrong with them and we figure it out—you, me and the patient. You’re good at asking the right questions, you know.”
“I find that interesting, too. Sometimes, I think you should be in a research hospital, or at least in a big city somewhere, helping a lot more people than you do here.”
“If I did that, we couldn’t delay for a few minutes after a funeral and just talk. Shoot, we probably couldn’t even get away to go to the funeral.” As he started his horse toward the office, he added, “I think I have the distinct advantage over a younger man in that I have learned what’s important to me. I get to help people, I get to ride a horse, and—best of all—I have you.”
“Why Doctor,” she said, exaggerating her Alabama accent, “You do go on, don’t you?” She waved in front of her face as if she were holding a paper fan, such as southern women like her grandmother used to do. She remembered her grandmother, still trying to hold on to the “genteel south” long after everything had changed and the image made her shake her head—not with sadness but with a sort of ironic wistfulness for her grandmother.
“You all right?” Ira asked quickly, noticing the look on her face.
She forced a smile and said, “Mostly. Just a brief vision of the past, is all.”
Mina had never really regretted leaving Alabama, for there had been nothing left for her there except the prospect of trying to hold on to a past she had never experienced. She had made—or been given—a wonderful and fulfilling life out in the dry town of Van Bendt, so different from where she had grown up as to seem like something out of one of the more fantastic pulp stories. Still, she did miss her family at times, just not enough to go back.
“Want to go for a ride?” Ira asked as they were closing up shop for the day, the number of people in Van Bendt in need of doctoring having been unusually low that day.
“Always,” Mina replied with a light laugh. “But why do I get the feeling you have something in mind for this ride?”
“I have no idea, Nurse,” he replied as he put on his hat. Locking the door to the office, they went to where their horses were standing in the little corral adjacent and led them past the gate.
The gate closed and latched, they mounted up and—before they had even taken a dozen steps—Mina asked, “We’re going to go look at the scene of the slaying, aren’t we?”
He gave her a mock scowl and replied, “It’s really not a good idea for a Ranger to be this predictable.”
“Good thing you’re not a Ranger anymore,” she laughed in return. “And honestly, I doubt that anyone knows you as well as me, anyway.”
“That is probably true,” he said as they set out.
“What are you hoping to find?” Before he could answer, she quoted in a voice that loosely approximated his bass, “’I’ll know it if I see it.’” Back in her normal voice she asked, “This is one of those moments, isn’t it?”
“If I didn’t love you so much that could get annoying.”
There was still a spot of blood on the sand, which marked where the John Doe had fallen. Ira was surprised no one had covered it in the two days since the presumed murder, if not with intent to do so but just the milling about of people curious to see the site of a murder.
“We’re all assuming murder,” Ira said as he got off his horse. Mina stayed on hers for two reasons: she knew Ira was apt to mount and dismount frequently during such a pursuit and she really enjoyed riding a horse. Side-saddle (like this day) or astride, she really didn’t care, she just like being horseback.
“What else could it be?”
“Hard to say. Might be some scenario where this was self-defense, though that seems unlikely. About all I can rule out is suicide.” Ira stood there, hands on hips, trying to picture exactly how the body had lain. With that in mind, he reoriented himself slightly, trying to guess where the shot had come from. Talking mostly to himself, he said aloud, “The shot hits him square in the back, and goes through on a pretty straight path. The shooter seems to have been on a level with the victim. Was the victim mounted or walking?”
“If he were mounted,” Mina offered, “That makes it harder to tell where the shot came from, doesn’t it? The horse could have bucked him off, or even if he fell right away there’s no telling whether he slumped off to the side of the horse or went tail-over-teakettle over the horse’s head.”
“Right. Still, let’s pick an idea. Say he falls off to the side of the horse—no, I’m thinking the shot slammed him forward, then the horse bucks him off backward and that’s how he broke his neck. Still,” he looked around and said, “There’s just no indication which direction the bullet came from. Since none of us have ever seen him before—at least, no one has come forward who admits it—we assume that he was heading into Van Bendt. He’s shot in the back. He falls forward,” Ira didn’t go all the way to the ground, but pantomimed what it might have looked like.
Then, he shook his head and said, “That wouldn’t explain the broken neck, I don’t think. I’ve been shot in the back and you just fall forward, you don’t break your neck going down.”
“Unless you hit your head on something.”
“That’s true. But there wasn’t a rock nearby that would explain that or an accompanying bump on the head, and there sure weren’t any tracks to indicate the man had been shot somewhere else and dragged over here. There was enough blood pooled under him—and enough still here now—to make me think he was shot right here.”
“Any chance someone broke his neck somewhere else, then brought him here and shot him?” Mina queried.
“I’d stake everything I know about bullets and anatomy to say that shot came from a longer distance away than someone just standing over the body.” He went over to his saddlebags and pulled out a small spade he had carried in there for time out of mind, going back to his earliest days with the Rangers. He started digging where the blood stain was and soon got below the distance the blood had seeped. As he dug, he chopped up the dirt a bit to make sure he didn’t miss anything withal.
Mina, meanwhile, was walking her horse in a slow, ever-widening circle, to see if she could see anything—though she didn’t know what she was looking for, either. She was several yards away when Ira told her, “I’m not finding a bullet, which is consistent with my theory.”
“How far into the soil can a bullet go after passing through a body?”
“I don’t know for sure, but hard ground like this, and no further than from a man’s hand to the ground, I wouldn’t think it would be very far. I’m sure not seeing any indication at all that a bullet passed through this soil.”
Mina made her way to a clump of rocks and ocotillo, saying as much to herself as Ira, “This would be a good place to hide. Provide a level field of fire—maybe even if John Doe were on horseback.”
“Maybe, but being in among rocks will also echo the sound. I can’t figure our man was shot too long before Wandy and Dewey came along. Why didn’t they hear a shot?”
Mina was still on her horse, peering among the rocks in hopes of seeing a shell but wary about getting down for a cool spot in the shade of a rock would be an excellent hiding place for rattlers as well as snipers. She offered, “How sober were they?”
“Good question, but I don’t remember seeing anything that made me wonder at the time.”
“Smoke’s Livery isn’t too far away. If he’s got a good rhythm going while he beats out a shoe, could that noise drown out the sound of a bullet?”
“Maybe. Like you say: he gets a rhythm going when he’s hammering. If the shooter times his shot to that rhythm, it might be hard to distinguish a gunshot from one of his dings. ‘Specially depending on the distance the listener was away from the shot.”
“Aren’t there things you can put on your gun to make it quieter?”
“Silencers?” Ira called back, for she was several yards away by that time. “They’re not as effective as the stories would make you believe. They can also altar the accuracy of the gun and it sure looked to me like whoever shot our man was an expert marksman.”
Walking around in a widening circle of his own, he commented, “Presumably, someone shoots this man in the back with a rifle. Then runs up and break his neck just to make sure? Then he’s got to get away before Dewey or Wandy see him.”
“Why do you assume it’s a man? Women can pull guns on men as easily as other men.”
He gave her a sardonic smile, for the first time they had met she had been holding a gun on him, then said, “Take a pretty strong woman to break a man’s neck like that. There may be women who could do it, but not many, I wager.”
“Would provide a strong motive, though,” she said as she rode back closer to him. At his puzzled look, she said, “Jealousy. Infidelity. Maybe she pulls the trigger and her lover or husband steps over and snaps his neck just to make sure.”
“You have a scary imagination, Nurse.”
“Comes from being married to a Ranger,” she replied. Then, “Are you sure his neck was broken? I mean, did you actually cut into his neck and find the broken bone—or bones?”
“No, but you saw how he was laying—”
“And he was still breathing. I remember this man that lived near me in Houston. Sweet man, probably in his fifties or so—not really old. Anyway, there was something wrong with his neck and he was always walking around looking like he was watching his feet. If you spoke to him and he wanted to reply, if he wanted to see your face he had to move his whole upper torso. What would cause that?”
“Something wrong with the musculature in his neck, I suppose. I’ve seen that before once. Read about it, too. I suppose that’s possible, ‘specially the way he seemed to be breathing just fine.”
“Man like that, he’s going to have a hard time seeing an attacker.”
“Another good point.” He stopped and looked around again, focusing on the rocks Mina had ridden among, as he said, “Still, someone wanted this man dead, and succeeded. Why? Was it a robbery but the assailant hadn’t counted on Wandy coming up just then? Was there some other reason to want this man dead?”
“There’s always a reason,” she countered. At his surprised look, she said, “You’ve been around long enough to know that if someone gets it in their mind to kill another human bein’, they’ll think of a reason. It may be a weak reason to everyone else, but it works in their mind. And like you and the sheriff were saying: a lot of men have been killed for less than seventy dollars.”
Ira nodded and added, “Or if whoever did it had some reason to think John Doe had more than seventy dollars on him.”
Mina snapped her fingers and asked, “What if he did? We looked closely at the neck so I think we would have seen if there were marks where some sort of valuable necklace had been yanked away. But what if he were wearing a valuable ring, or a bracelet of some sort?”
“A bracelet? On a man?” Ira challenged dubiously.
“Some men do. It’s not common, but some do. Or what about a money belt? How long would it take to pull one of those off?”
“A money belt plus seventy dollars in his pocket?”
“Sure. The seventy might be his own but he’s carrying a large sum for someone else in—say! What if it weren’t money? What if the man had a paper on him of some value? A land deed, or a bank certificate or something like that. If the killer knew where it’s being carried, like in his vest pocket, it might take no time to snatch it and run.”
Ira nodded, saying, “That makes as much sense as anything. Still, they had to be quick. Make the kill, grab the papers, run.”
“Not if it’s a local person,” Mina told him. At another of his puzzled looks, she said, “You were telling me how quickly the crowd gathered. Where’d they come from? You didn’t see them when you rode up but seconds later they’re there. If people can come up that quickly, someone can disappear as quickly, right? Or what if it were someone in the crowd? They perform the murder, hide behind a rock or something when they hear Wandy and Dewey, then when they see the crowd they just act like part of it. That would also give them a chance to see if the sentiments of the crowd are leaning one way or another—or if someone saw something.”
“It would be chancy, but this sure looks like cold-blooded murder and someone that cool might have the nerve to stand in a crowd like that.” He shook his head and said, “I saw everyone in the crowd that day. No strangers, other than the dead man.”
“We don’t know the hearts of our fellow townspeople,” she pointed out.
“You’re getting scary again.”
“Not necessarily. And I’m still not saying that murder is good or justified, but who knows what was in the killer’s mind? Maybe he knew John Doe, or knew of him, and somehow was convinced he had to kill him before he got to town. Maybe it goes back to something a long time ago.”
“John Doe wasn’t that old—”
“He wouldn’t have to be. Maybe he was just the emissary for someone else, or the son of someone our local man knew. Maybe he killed John Doe thinking it was the man he fought with back in the war or even further back.”
Ira nodded again, saying, “You’re right. I mean, I don’t know that your scenario is right, but you’re right that we should come up with as many possibilities as we can think of, based on the facts on hand, then start eliminating them.”
“A diagnosis, then?”
“Y’know, Doc, other wives get called ‘Honey-Pie’ or ‘Sweetie.’”
“Ah yes, but are those other wives as loved and respected as you are by your husband?”
“All right, I suppose it was your turn to make an excellent point.”