The Unpleasantness at the Circle P

© 2010 Jeffrey J. Mariotte. All Rights Reserved.

 



The Chain Story


 

1

 

“Mr. Ravensthorpe,” Hugh Pritchett said, “your astonishing tale of the Night of the Rat God was simply . . . well, what can I say? Astonishing it is. Thank you so much for sharing.”

Jack Ravensthorpe acknowledged Pritchett’s compliment, but another member of the Wanderer’s Club was already calling him over, no doubt wanting to hear Ravensthorpe’s tale for himself. Pritchett watched him go, then took a seat that Lionel Franks had been holding for him. Franks had someone he wanted Pritchett to meet, and he promised another crackerjack story from his guest.

Outside, the streets were filled with people marching and carrying signs, their voices raised in protest of—oh, what does it matter? There are always those pressing for peace and others who profit from the deaths of the young, and those latter usually have their way.

Inside the Wanderer’s Club, however, the voices of both sides were stilled.  Hugh Pritchett had spent the last hour listening Ravensthorpe, and after that was done he roamed about the club’s multiple rooms, looking for another engaging story.  In this room, conversation was hushed, barely audible as a low murmur from one grouping of chairs to the next. Hugh Pritchett sat in a high-backed wing chair, flanked by another member, Lionel Franks, and a third man.  This other man was tall, rangy, with silver hair and a horseshoe-shaped mustache draped over his lower lip.  His suit was tailored, black with lighter gray stripes, almost invisible in the club’s indirect lighting.  Hugh had thought at first glance that there was something familiar about him, but it wasn’t until they were sitting close together and he could see the man’s eyes, as blue as the Caribbean surf and hooded by folds of flesh, that he recognized him.  Franks had said he was bringing a special guest today, a celebrity.

“Hugh Pritchett,” Lionel said when he brought the men together, “this is Cody Landers.”

Hugh mentally fumbled for context, but then he glimpsed the man’s eyes and it came back to him.  He hadn’t known Cody Landers was still alive—not that he had given the question any thought.  “The cowboy actor?”

“That’s the one,” Landers said.  His voice was more gravelly than it had been during his prime, but the inflection, the tone—those things hadn’t changed, and Pritchett was hurtled backward through time and space, to Saturday evenings on the couch at his parents’ home in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Landers chuckled, and that was familiar too.  “Probably thought I was dead and buried.”

“I confess, I hadn’t given it much thought either way.”

Now the man released a full-barreled roar of a laugh that culminated in a coughing fit.  His face—what was visible around the drooping mustache--turned bright red, and a gloved attendant showed up almost immediately with a pitcher of cool water and three glasses.

“The reason I thought you’d like to meet Landers,” Franks said as they took their seats, “is that you’re such an admirer of tales of adventure.” He leaned toward Landers, as if sharing a secret.  “The more outlandish, the better.”

“You like ‘em outlandish,” Landers said, “I think I might have something for you.”  He took a sip of the water, then downed most of the whiskey he had brought into the room with him, and began.

 


 

2

 

A man with a hit TV program or movie series was like a king in this country in those days—beautiful women throwing themselves at him, cash by the truckload, millions of adoring fans. 

At least, that’s how I heard it from Roy, Gene, Hopalong, Rex and some of the other cowboy stars around, when I ran into them at the grocery store or Ciro’s or the Derby, on those occasions I was lucky enough to get my agent, Bernie Binstein, to take me there.

My series, Medicine Bow, was no Gunsmoke or Wagon Train, I’m afraid.  If Monument Pictures had gotten into the Western television game earlier on, it could have been, but by the time they made their move, all the best writers and directors had been snapped up and the cowboy program boom was headed toward bust.  Private eyes were coming on in a big way.  The man who wrote most of our teleplays, Owen Monroe, had only come to Hollywood from Connecticut two years ago.  He had written a couple of Broadway plays, but if you stuck an actual horse in front of him, he wouldn’t have known if he should get on facing front or back.

Medicine Bow debuted in September, 1960, and had been picked up for its third season, but I needed to find other work to keep the old feedbag full, especially during summer hiatus—which explained why I had driven out to Winslow, Arizona, towing Geronimo the Equine Marvel, a chestnut Morgan, behind my red Coupe de Ville convertible.  The Caddie had real longhorns mounted on the hood and six-shooter door handles and the shift knob was made in a horseshoe shape.  It was everything the successful cowboy star should be seen in, and the payments were nearly as big as my Medicine Bow paychecks.

The owner of some local grocery stores had hired me to appear at the grand opening of his new “Hansen’s Route 66 Supermart,” riding Geronimo through the aisles to demonstrate how wide they were, and then to do a couple of stunts for the crowd standing outside in hundred-degree sunshine.  It was not the ideal job, and Geronimo wasn’t all that fond of being inside the store—I think he feared maybe he had some family behind the butcher’s counter—but all in all, it was an easy way to make a couple thousand dollars.  They could have had Comanche Bill, the Papago Indian who played my sidekick on the program, for another fifteen hundred, but that had proven too rich for Mr. Hansen’s budget.

Despite the small-time nature of the gig, I looked perfect. Nudie the Rodeo Tailor had crafted my shirt and pants; the red gabardine shirt had three layers of fringe, six-guns and bullets embroidered on the collars, and a big Geronimo (the horse, not the Apache) on the back.  The blue-on-blue striped trousers had slash pockets with railroad stitching, and they tucked into my custom-made Paul Bond sharkskin boots with tulip stitching, just like Tom Mix used to love.  A cowboy star didn’t have to be Mr. Universe, but he needed to look the part, and I did.  I kept my sandy blond hair cut like Alan Ladd’s in Shane, my tan was real, my build solid, shoulders broad.  My eyes were brown, the color of cinnamon, and I’d been blessed with great cheekbones.  A scar from a boyhood run-in with barbed wire had healed in such a way as to look like a huge dimple running down my right cheek; paired with a real, considerably smaller dimple on my left, they gave me a rugged air and kept me from being a pretty boy.  I had taken a chance (almost giving Bernie a stroke in the bargain) by choosing to wear a dark brown hat, instead of white, to my first audition, but Mr. Dodson of Monument Pictures liked it, and that had become one of my trademarks.

I knew I looked good because Julia Pennyworth, the store employee assigned to keep me happy and to keep the fans from mobbing me, kept stealing glances when she didn’t think I would notice.  I’ve never been a man who doesn’t notice pretty girls, though, and Julie—brunette with contrasting pale blue eyes, button nose, lush figure swelling her pink snap-button Western shirt and tight denim Capri pants—was a very pretty girl indeed.  I sensed a hint of sadness in her from the start, but it wasn’t until the job was done and the crowd dispersed that she let it come to the fore.

I had collected my pay envelope from Mr. Hansen and loaded Geronimo (reluctantly—he enjoyed the attention, the rubbing of his muzzle and the apples and carrots folks were buying for him in the supermart) into his trailer, and then gone into the back of the store to use the restroom before hitting the trail back to Los Angeles.  That done, I looked for Julia to say goodbye.  A stock boy said he had seen her go into the back alley, so I passed through an open loading dock door and found her sitting on a concrete staircase, a tissue to her nose, sobbing softly.

“Is everything okay, Miss Pennyworth?” I asked.

She started, since she hadn’t heard me coming, and then nodded her head, trying on a smile that didn’t quite fit.  “I’m—it’s just…I have allergies.”

“I do too,” I said.  “I’m allergic to sad girls trying to tell me tall tales.”  I sat on the steps next to her.  She slid over a little to give me room, but our legs touched anyway.  “Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?  Sometimes it helps to chew things over with someone else.”

“But you’re a big Hollywood star,” Julia said.  She blinked back tears; her liquid eyes were the exact blue of the strip of northern Arizona sky I could see above the alley.  “You don’t have time to listen to my troubles.”

“You’d be surprised how much time I have.  Shooting for the next season doesn’t start for three more weeks yet.”

“But…why would you care, Mr. Landers?”

“Call me Cody,” I said, shooting her my sincerest smile.  “And I’m not whatever it is you think I am.  I’m just a ranch kid who got a lucky break.  My real name isn’t even Cody Landers, it’s Allan Huddleston, but my agent didn’t think anyone would buy that as a cowboy actor’s name.”  My series, Medicine Bow, was every bit as realistic as my moniker—it was set in Wyoming but shot on a back lot in Culver City, with occasional location shooting in San Bernardino.  I’d knocked bank robbers or rustlers or escaped prisoners off just about every surface of the Vasquez Rocks, and sometimes our crew had to wait in line when other cowboy programs or movies went overtime shooting at the same spot. My maternal great-grandfather, a Texas lawman named Gideon Brood, could have done all the things I did on TV and then some, according to the stories I’d heard. But that was him and I was me, and we were very different men, living in different times.

Julia looked away, sniffling into her tissue a little more.  I examined the curve of her slender neck.  “Look, I’ll go home in a little while and probably never be here again, so it’s not like I’ll be able to give away your secrets to anyone you know.  I just think you should get it off your chest.”

Said chest heaved with a sigh.  “Maybe you’re right, Mr. Landers.  I just…I’ve been holding it in so long it’s like I’m afraid to let it out.”

“I really am a nice guy.  Try me.”

“I can tell that.  So is my dad.”

“This is about your father?”

“That’s right,” she said.  She shifted on the step so she face me more, and it brought her knee up against my thigh.  “Dad’s in some kind of trouble.   I think he’s being blackmailed.”

“Gosh, that’s rotten,” I said.  “Do you know by who?”

“I have no idea. He’s been . . . troubled, for a couple of years. Since shortly before my mother died, I guess.  He’s one of those old-fashioned rancher types who won’t talk about his troubles with anybody, least of all his daughter. And now there’s money trouble on top of that, that’s why I mentioned blackmail.  Things have been getting tighter and tighter lately, because he’s been giving his money to someone.  He just sold two hundred head of cattle for a decent price, which should have made things okay.  A while ago, he had to let Jim Frye, our foreman go, because he couldn’t afford to pay him.  And he said he might not be able to keep up the mortgage payments on the ranch and we’d probably have to live in town, on my salary.  Besides my late mother, that ranch is just about the only thing he’s ever loved—I know he wouldn’t let it go unless he had to.”

“Maybe he’s been holding some bad hands of cards,” I suggested.  “Or backing some losing horses.”

She shook her head.  Red rimmed her eyes, and now that I took a closer look at her I could tell she’d probably been crying off and on for days.  “He’s no gambler.  He’s a dedicated rancher and family man through and through.”

“Sounds grim, Julia.  Have you asked him about it?”

“Till I’m blue in the face.  He just tells me it’s none of my business, and he’ll take care of things.  But he looks bad, like he’s worrying himself into an early grave.”

Something about this girl plucked at the catgut I had for heartstrings.  Every bit as lovely as Delilah Dee (who played Carla, my love interest on Medicine Bow, and whose outer beauty disguised the heart of a true harridan), Julia combined vulnerability with a core that I suspected was made of pure steel.  I couldn’t have said why I wanted to help her—maybe I just knew she liked the way I looked and I wanted her to like the man I was on the inside just as much.  Maybe it had to do with growing up on the ranch with my mother and three older sisters, none of whom cried unless things had gone seriously crosswise.

 “A lot of men won’t admit when they’ve bought some kind of trouble,” I said.  “Especially to a young daughter they think they still need to take care of.  Let me poke around a little, see if I can’t figure out what’s going on.”

“Why would you do that, Mr. Landers?”  She fixed me with a steady gaze, as if she could read me from the inside out.

“Maybe I just want to stick around long enough to hear you call me Cody,” I said.

 


 

3

 

Before I left, I got four important pieces of information from Julia: the location of the nearest stable, where I boarded Geronimo for the night, the nearest motel to board myself, the address of Jim Frye, who’d worked for the Pennyworth ranch longer than any other hand (and consequently drew the highest pay), and the address of the ranch itself.  I also asked her to borrow a car from a friend and drop it off for me at the motel.

After getting the Equine Marvel (a chestnut Quarter Horse, handsome as a groom in a hundred-dollar suit and twice as proud) settled in, I made for the Bide-A-Wile, which turned out to be a far cry from the elegant La Posada in which I’d stayed last time I had come to town.  That one had closed in ’57, though.  Anyway, I hadn’t planned on spending an extra night so didn’t want to drop most of what Hansen had paid me on a room. 

I washed up and changed out of my Nudie’s finery into a more casual H Bar C plaid shirt with sawtooth pockets and pearl snaps, dungarees, and everyday boots.  Tugging my hat back onto my head, I left the relative cool of the refrigerated motel room, back out into the late afternoon Arizona sun.  The keys to a green Ford pick-up truck waited for me when I checked in, so I went to that—the Caddie, with its cowboy ornamentation, being a little too showy for what I had in mind—and drove to Jim Frye’s place. An old cowman would tell his long-time foreman things he’d never reveal to his daughter.

After being fired, he had moved to a little adobe house near the edge of town.  A few clumps of unhealthy grass poked up through the gravel in the front yard.  Next to the house a beat-up red truck had been parked; in its bed somebody had left appliance boxes that had once contained a big console television set and an electric washer and dryer.

I parked in front and knocked on Frye’s door.  Only a few seconds passed before a big man with leather skin and a thick mustache pulled it open.  He squinted at me through folds so deep I was surprised he could see at all. Jackie Gleason blared inside.  Bang, zoom.  “You’re that guy from the pictures.”

“I’m Cody Landers, yes,” I said.  “I’m honored that you recognize me.”

“Wouldn’t’ve, I hadn’t of read in the paper you’d be at the store where Julia works. She have somethin’ to do with you bein’ here?”

“In a way.  I was hoping you could tell me a little about your old boss, Hale Pennyworth.  I understand he’s in some trouble.”

“I don’t hold no truck with Hollywood types, mister.”

“I don’t blame you a bit.  I was raised on a ranch in the eastern Sierra Nevada, myself.  Just got lucky, when my ma sold the ranch, that I’d met some folks in the movie business, shooting around Lone Pine.”

That relaxed him a little and he stepped outside, walking like a man who hasn’t yet realized there’s no saddle under him.  “What do you want to know?”

“You have any idea what kind of fix he’s in?  Where all his money’s going?”

He pawed at his mustache as if trying to rub it off.  “Not to me, that’s all I know.”

“He done anything someone might blackmail him for? There any trouble in his life?”

Frye shook his head slowly.  “Wife died a couple years ago.  That tore Hale up pretty bad.”

I interrupted him.  “What happened to her?”

“Fell off a horse,” he said.  There was a faraway look in his eyes. “Snapped her neck. But Hale, he’s clean as a whistle, far as I know. Even if someone had some dirt on him, with Cecelia gone, who would they tell?  Julia’s all the family he’s got left, and she thinks the world of him.  I don’t know that he could’ve got mixed up in somethin’ hinky, and even if he did she wouldn’t give a damn.”

“Is he a gambler?”

“Won’t find a more cautious man this side of the grave,” Frye said.

I asked a few more questions, and Jim Frye gave me a few more unhelpful answers. He was nice enough for a guy who’d been fired, but he didn’t go out of his way for me.

Which left me with no ideas but one.  I drove out to the Pennyworth ranch, about twelve miles from town.  Above the gate a wrought iron sign showed the ranch’s Circle P brand.  I parked the truck about a quarter mile down the road, where I could see the gate.  The sun had lowered to the horizon and then seemed to hang there like it had snagged on the western mountains.  Julia had told me that her father went out almost every evening after dinner, to where she didn’t know.  He had taken to coming home late, his mood sometimes improved, but he wouldn’t address her questions about his nocturnal excursions.  Sounded like a drinking problem to me, although it seemed like she should be able to figure that out if he came home stinking of smoke and booze.  Short of that, I wondered if Winslow had a brothel.

The sun finally vanished, a quarter moon came out, stars blossomed from the blackness like daisies after a spring rain.  I’d been there a couple of hours when headlights bounced through the gate, then washed over the truck.  I scootched as low as I could get in the seat until they had moved on, then I followed.

Hale Pennyworth drove a wood-sided station wagon he must have owned for a decade or more.  Wherever he was spending his money, it wasn’t on new cars.  He drove through Winslow and stopped at a place near the airport.  As soon as he walked inside, I nodded to myself.  I knew where the money had gone.

When Pennyworth emerged from Madame Gelder’s Fortunes and Palm Reading, he found me leaning against his station wagon, arms folded over my chest.  In the glare of the floodlights illuminating her small stucco building, his eyes looked red and puffy, his nose raw.  He’d been crying, I guessed.  Maybe it ran in the family.

More than likely he’d do more of it before I finished with him.

“Can I help you?”  He had a soft voice, like the whimper of a beaten pup.

“Not me personally.  But you might want to tell Madame Gelder that you want your money back, before you lose your ranch and your daughter,” I said.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a friend of Julia’s.  She didn’t ask me to butt in, but here I am anyway.  Now that I see where you’ve been throwing your money away, I’m sorry I didn’t butt in sooner.”  Not that I could have, but he didn’t know that.

He shook his head rapidly.  A big man, he looked hollow, like something had sucked all the moisture out of him and left nothing but empty skin hanging off his bones.  His hair was wispy and gray.  “You don’t understand, sir.  My wife—”

“I know you lost her,” I cut in.  “And I know you miss her something terrible.  But Madame Gelder is just stealing you blind.  If she says she’s communicating with your late wife, then she’s lying.”

He clamped his lips together as if something terrible might escape them.  The lower one started to quiver.  “You’re a skeptic, sir,” he said.  “I understand that.  I used to be one too.  But you aren’t inside there with me.  Madame Gelder knows things that only my Cecelia did.  Through her I can talk to her and not feel so…so damn alone!”

“You don’t drive her away, you’ve always got Julia,” I said.  “As for Madame Gelder knowing things, how do you figure Jim Frye’s out of a job but buying up brand new appliances that won’t hardly fit in his little house?  You figure maybe he’s got his eye on buying up a ranch when the bank sells it off?”

“Frye?”  Something shifted behind his eyes, and I thought I saw where Julia got some of her steel.  “I never thought of that.”

“Think, Mr. Pennyworth,” I suggested.  “I’m pretty sure he would have known most of whatever Madame Gelder does.”  I inclined my head toward a pay phone outside a filling station on the corner.  “We can call the police, or you can march back in there, tell her you know she’s a fraud, and try to get as much of your money back as you can.  If she knows you’ll go to the cops she might give back whatever she and Frye haven’t already spent.  Then we can go see Frye and do the same with him, get him to return the things he’s been buying.  They both deserve jail, but if we go to the police first you’ll likely never see your bankroll again.”

Hale Pennyworth shook my hand, thanked me and took my suggestion.  He promoted one of his hands to foreman, and with Julia’s help, they were working the ranch back into the black.

Julia Pennyworth thanked me, too, only there were more kisses than handshakes involved.  Which was fine by me.

And in between some of those kisses, she finally called me Cody.

 


 

4

 

“So that was it, then?” Pritchett asked.  He clipped the end off a Cuban, jammed it between heavy lips, and an attendant was there with a lighter and an ashtray before he could reach into a pocket.  The smoke was both aromatic and calming.

“Oh, not by a long shot,” Landers replied.  Finally noticing that his whisky glass had been refilled, he drained off the top inch or so.  “No, that was just the beginning.”

“Go on, then . . . what happened next?”

Landers settled back into his chair.  He seemed younger than he had, as if telling his story had relieved him of some kind of burden.  “That’s as much of it as I ever told, until Lionel here drew it out of me a couple of weeks ago.”

Pritchett eyed Franks.  The two had been friendly rivals for decades.  When Franks had invited Pritchett to meet him at the club tonight, he had promised an “incredible tale.” So far, the tale had been intriguing, its teller an interesting find, but the whole thing was far from incredible.

“Go ahead, Cody,” Pritchett urged.  “Tell him the rest.”

The cowboy actor took some more amber liquid into his mouth, held it there for a moment, then swallowed.

 


 

5

 

I went back to Los Angeles. Summer was ending, and we shot the first few episodes of Medicine Bow’s next season.  The show was struggling, and the network cut our budget, but we soldiered on.

One Saturday morning, after four long days in a row, I was trying to sleep in past six.  My phone started ringing at quarter till.  I ignored it for as long as I could, but eventually I realized I was putting so much effort into ignoring it that I might as well just answer it.  I got out of bed and picked up the handset.  “Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“C-cody?” 

The voice was feminine, unmistakable, even though it had been weeks since I had talked to her.  “Julia? Is that you?”

“Cody, thank God.”  She sounded troubled, hesitant.  “I was afraid—”

“Afraid of what?”

“That you had, I don’t know, changed your number or something.”

“Julia . . . I’ve been busy, that’s all.  Shooting.  It doesn’t mean—”

She interrupted me.  “I know, Cody.  I’m being silly.  It’s just—it’s Dad.  He’s gone.”

“Gone how?”

“He . . . he had a phone call last night.  He hardly said anything, just listened.  When it was over, he was absolutely white.  Pale as I’ve ever seen him, even when Mom died.  I asked him what was wrong, and he just said her name once.  ‘Cecelia.’  Then he wouldn’t talk to me anymore.  He went to bed early.  This morning, he was gone.  His car, his suitcase.  He didn’t sleep in his room.”

“You’re sure he didn’t go somewhere on business?”

“I would have known.  I handle most of the ranch’s business affairs for him.”

“Have you called the sheriff?”

“First thing this morning.”  Her voice caught again and for an instant, I thought she was going to start sobbing.  “H-he told me that Madame Gelder broke out of jail.”

“She busted out? How?”

“He didn’t tell me that.  He said he was sending an officer over to watch the house.  But I’m worried—her getting out, and Dad disappearing at the same time.  They’ve to be connected.”

“That’d be my guess.”

“Can . . . can you come, Cody? I need someone around I can trust.”

I rubbed my palm over my sandpaper chin.  I had the weekend off but shooting continued on Monday.  By the time I could get there, the weekend would be shot.

But Julia needed me. We didn’t have any claims on each other, but there was something special about her just the same.  “Let me make some calls,” I said.  “I’ll be out there as soon as I can.”

My first call was to my agent, to whom I was giving the unenviable task of telling the production office that I’d be absent for a few days. Next I called the airport and arranged a flight to Winslow.  I’d have to wrangle a ride when I got there, but it would be faster than driving.  I called my hired stable hand and told him he’d have to take care of Geronimo for a few days.  Finally, I called the Winslow sheriff, who refused to tell me anything over the phone. What he agreed to, however, was to meet me at the air strip.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that celebrity doesn’t have its privileges.

When I landed late that afternoon, the sun was hovering over the mountains in the west like a man afraid to turn a corner without knowing who waited on the other side.  The airstrip was a cleared, paved patch set amid desert scrub, like a bandage on a stubbled face, and the small plane came down hard and fast as a falling stone.  We bounced around for a few minutes before it came to a stop.  When my stomach had settled and I stepped down from the airplane, a man lounging against a sheriff’s patrol car tilted his hat toward me.  “Cody Landers?”

“That’s me. Least it was when I got in the plane.  All I know, somebody else has got my boots on by now.”

“I’m Ned Nickles,” he said, peeling himself off the car’s fender and offering his hand. I shook it—rough and callused as a rancher’s hand should be. “You wanted to see me?”

“I wanted to find out about Madame Gelder’s jailbreak.  And to see if there’s any news about Hale Pennyworth.”

“I surely wish I could tell you there was news.”  He opened the driver’s side door and tipped his head toward the other side.  “Come on, I’ll drive you over there.”

I climbed in on my side.  The pilot tossed a wave and started to taxi, and we had barely left the strip when he was airborne again.

“I’ve had a man out at the Circle P since this morning, when Julia called me,” Nickles said.  “And we’ve been scouring the county for Hale.  No leads yet.”

“What about Gelder? How’d she get out?”

Nickles drove in silence for a couple of minutes, working his jaw but not saying anything.  “Damndest thing,” he finally muttered.

“What?”

“She’s been in there for three months.  Goin’ to trial next month, finally.  Not exactly a model prisoner, but not one of the problem ones, either.  Judge set her bail high on account of she was a flight risk, and she never could meet it, nor Jim Frye neither. Figured we’d be seein’ both for some time to come, once their trials came and went.  But night before last, Gelder—her real name is Sally Mae Green, I don’t know where she got that Madame Gelder business—anyhow, Green or Gelder or whoever, started gettin’ real damn sick.  Doubled over on the floor of her cell, some kinda green puke or snot or something leakin’ out of her nose and mouth.  Deputy on duty called for a doctor, and then he heard someone in another cell screamin’ bloody murder.  He went down there and Green was standin’ at her cell door, arms reachin’ through the bars.  The deputy made the mistake of getting too close.”

He stopped here and drove in silence for another several seconds.  Night was draping over us fast and he had switched on his headlights.  I saw a jackrabbit, big as a dog, standing by the side of the road watching us go by.  Then Nickles swallowed once and kept talking.  “Now, what I’m tellin’ you is what the witnesses told me, and they was all other prisoners, so they could be lyin’. But if they are, then they got their stories straight because ever one of ‘em tells the same thing.  They say the deputy didn’t really get too close, but that Green’s arms, Gelder’s, whatever, stretched out to where he was and grabbed him.  She yanked him to the cell door and then through the bars.  I don’t mean between the bars, neither.  I mean they cut through his flesh and muscle and bone like big, dull knives.”

I must have made a noise in the back of my throat.  “You don’t have to believe me, but this much I saw.  His body was still there when I got called in, and it was the worst thing I’ve seen in all my days.  Anyhow, she did that, and then she got the keys from her belt and she unlocked her cell.  She went into the other side of the cellblock, the men’s side, where Jim Frye was, and she opened up his cell.  If anything, his body was worse than my deputy’s, because she took and ripped his head off, then she must’ve grabbed at his neck and kinda peeled him down, like a banana.  Another deputy went in, alerted by all the screamin’ from the other cells, and fired six shots at her.  Just about point blank range. We didn’t find none of them rounds, neither.  He hit her, sure enough. And she crushed his skull like a dried-out desert gourd you step on with your boots, and walked away.”

“You’ve had a bad couple days,” I said.  “Sorry to hear about all that.  And I’m amazed you had time to pick me up.”

I could see the Circle P’s gate with the brand over it when he answered.  “I couldn’t hardly not, in case you knew anything that could help me find her,” he said.  “I’m sorry Hale’s disappeared, but I got bigger things on my plate.  Unless he’s with her, then someone else is gonna have to do most of the work of findin’ him.”

“I expect that’s what I’m here for,’ I told him.  “Not sure if I’m any good at that sort of thing, but whatever Julia needs me for, I’ll try to do.”

“You see why I couldn’t tell her about Green’s escape, right? Some things a woman shouldn’t oughta hear.”

“I’ll try to keep it quiet,” I promised.  “If I do have to tell her, I’ll skip the bloody details.”

Sheriff Nickles drove through the gates and came to a stop in front of the house.  A plume of dust welled up around the car, and then a light breeze picked it off and whisked it away.  Julia was at the door before I emerged from the car, as pretty as ever despite a nose as red as a Christmas ornament from all the crying she’d been doing.  I took her in my arms and held her, feeling her quake against my chest, and the sheriff drove off and we were alone except for the deputy sitting in a cruiser fifteen feet from the front door, who tapped the brim of his hat with one finger when I tossed him a nod.

Inside, I kicked the door shut and swept Julia into my arms again.  My lips found hers, and it was a minute before the thought crept into my reptilian brain that I was taking advantage of a woman in trouble.  From the tales I’d heard of my cowboy great-grandfather, I wasn’t sure if he would do such a thing or not, but I knew the kids who watched Medicine Bow wouldn’t approve.

I broke the clinch.  “Sorry,” I said. “I’m just so glad to see you.”

“I am too.”  She laughed, but it was a laugh without much mirth behind it.  “I mean, glad to see you, Cody.”

“I got that.”

She invited me to actually come into the house and sit down.  It wasn’t a showplace, but a lived-in, well-used ranch house. And it hadn’t been cleaned for company, which I found refreshing.  She made a pot of coffee and put some slabs of beef in a frying pan.  I sat in the kitchen as she worked, catching up on what we’d each been up to.

After about ten minutes, she stopped what she was doing.  A steak dangled from a big fork, just above the pan.  “Oh! I almost forgot, I did what you said.  I looked around the whole house for anything that might be out of place, or missing, or that might tell me where he’s gone.”

“Did you find something?”

“I found something that’s not there. But it’s strange.”

“That’s okay. What is it?”

“By the front door we have a few hooks with keys on them.  Most of them are old, keys we never use anymore but that we keep around because...well, I couldn’t tell you why. We just do.”

“It’s always hard to throw away a key. Never know when it might open something up.”

“Right. Anyway, one of the keys is missing.  I’m sure it’s been there on the hook forever, but it’s not there now.”

“What’s it to?”

“That’s the thing,” she said.  “It’s to the old house.”

“What old house?”

She put the steak back in the pan and let it sizzle for a couple minutes more. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of burning meat.  “This ranch used to be in my mother’s family,” she said.  “They built it up. But my grandparents only had the one child, my mother. She inherited the ranch, and my father married her and ran it with her.  Apparently he never liked their house, though, so he built this one and they moved here.  My grandparents lived in the old house until they died, within a few days of each other about  ten or eleven years ago. Since then it’s been sitting empty, and the key’s been hanging on a hook.”

“That’s the key that’s gone?”

“Yes.”

“Where is this house?”

She waved the fork to the east.  “Two or three miles that way.  There’s a dirt road goes right to it.”

“Those steaks ready?”

“I don’t have anything ready to go with them. You must think I’m a terrible hostess.”

“Not at all,” I assured her. “You’ve got other things on your mind.”

She fished the steaks from the pan and put them on plates.  I ate quickly. “That was delicious,” I said after swallowing the last of mine.  “Thanks, Julia.  You got a truck I can borrow?”

“You’re going somewhere tonight?”

“I’m going to check out that old house.”

“Not without me.”

I remembered the story Sheriff Nickles had told me.  “Yes, without you. You stay here and take it easy.  I’ll be back before you know it.”

“I’ll get you the key,” she said.

“If there’s a gun...”

“Shotgun okay?”

“That’ll do,” I said.

She fetched me the keys and a double-barreled 12-gauge.  I made sure it was loaded, then borrowed a barn coat and filled the pockets with more shells.  I took a flashlight, kissed Julia once, and left.  Something bothered me about the whole situation, and I kept mulling it over as I made the short drive through the dark desert.  Cecelia Pennyworth had died.  Hale Pennyworth had started going to a phony medium, trying to contact his dead wife.  After her death, he owned the ranch outright, but he was spending all his profits and then some on the medium, who was being fed information about Cecelia by the ranch foreman, Jim Frye, who he had to fire when there wasn’t enough to pay him anymore. Then the medium, Madame Gelder—or Sally Mae Green—busted out of jail, killed Frye, and the next thing anybody knew Hale Pennyworth was missing.

It all tied together. It had to.

I just couldn’t figure how.

 


 

6

 

Everybody’s seen empty houses. They stare off into the distance with eyes like dead men, blank eyes from which all spark of life is gone.  The house Julia called the “old house” was that way.  Desert weather, the hot and the cold, the scouring winds and punishing rains and bitter freezes, had stripped all color from it and worn away at the corners and battered through the windows. I parked the truck and played the light across the front, holding it in my left hand so my right was free to grip the shotgun.

At first I didn’t hear anything.  The door hung at an angle, the upper hinges pulled from the jamb. As I stepped inside, part of what I should have realized earlier came to me.  I had the sequence of events right but the causes and effects wrong.  Taking my mind off it had allowed the pieces to rearrange themselves in a different fashion.

Jim Frye had been able to tell Sally Mae Green details of the life Cecelia and Hale Pennyworth had shared—details convincing enough to make Hale believe that “Madame Gelder” was really talking to Cecelia on the other side—because he knew the most intimate details of their life.

Only one way he could have known those things—things a ranch foreman wouldn’t have known, but a lover might have.

My foot pressed down on a floorboard that gave a loud, plaintive creak.  I froze, a chill tickling the back of my neck.  Part of me—the part that includes my legs—wanted to hightail it out of there.  Old Gideon Brood had a reputation as a man who feared almost nothing, and faced up to what he did fear.  There were other aspects of his reputation that some questioned, like the nature of some of those things he faced.  One of the few existing photographs of him—this was a man who fought in the Civil War, remember, and died sometime in the 1880s or 1890s—showed him standing beside what appeared to be the corpse of a many-tentacled creature with slimy orange skin and a pair of claws that could have cut through an automobile.

Stick it out, I told myself. If he could take that thing on, you can handle a creaking floor.

I blew out a breath and tried to relax.  Then a groan that had nothing to do with the old wooden planks under my feet turned my soul to ice.

“Hale?” I called, summoning up courage I didn’t know I had. I wanted to flee, and to keep my feet in place I reminded myself that old Gideon Brood would not have run, and neither would the Cody Landers who rode Geronimo, the Equine Marvel and punched badmen every week on television. “Hale Pennyworth? You in here?”

Another groan answered me. It sounded weak and pathetic, but for all that I knew it must have taken tremendous effort, because no one sounded that awful unless they were actually worse off than they let on.  I followed the sound, legs trembling, knees threatening to buckle at any moment.  To the left, down a hallway with a gloom that seemed to swallow the flashlight’s meager beam before it started. One more groan led me into a room off the hall, and there—

I must have been trying to prove something. I don’t know to whom.  My viewers couldn’t see me, and if my great grandfather could watch from wherever he had ended up, I’m sure he’d have had better things to occupy his attention. My pants, handmade by Nudie himself, had cost more than a hundred dollars; if they hadn’t, I expect I would have wet them.

Instead I stepped into the room and shined the light toward the source of the groaning, and there was Hale Pennyworth, or most of him.  His wrists were shackled together, linked to a chain that had been thrown over a beam and connected again.  His shirt hung in tatters that reached to his knees. But not just his shirt, I realized, as my limited imagination made sense of the scene before me—his skin was that way, too. What had Nickles said, that Sally Mae Green peeled Jim Frye like a banana?

Hale was even worse off.  A banana usually peeled in three sections, four at the most.  This was more like a carrot, peeled by someone using a knife for the first time.  His flesh had been sliced away from his body in ribbons, from shoulders to waist.  Beneath it, muscle and fat and glimpses of bone glistened, pink and whitish, gray and horrible.

What made it more horrible still was that Hale was alive, awake, and gazing at me with longing in his eyes.

“Kill me, Landers,” he said.  his voice was weak, but I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t understood him.

“Did she do this, Hale? Gelder?”

“Nuh...Cecel...”

“Cecelia?”

“Gelder really...really did reach...”

As when the last piece of a puzzle makes the picture clear, everything snapped into place for me. Sally Mae Green might have started out as a fraud, robbing Hale blind by pretending to be in contact with his dead wife. But Hale wouldn’t have believed unless he had wanted to...and he had wanted to because he had murdered his wife, and if she was going to tell  “Madame Gelder” about it, he would have to know.

Hale had found out about her affair.  An old-fashioned man who didn’t talk about his emotions, that’s how Julia had described him.  In a rage, he had snapped Cecelia’s neck, and made it look as if a horse had done it.  Eventually, he’d learned that Jim Frye was the man, and having cooled down by then—besides having his wife’s death on his conscience—he had settled for firing his foreman.

At some point, Sally Mae had turned from a fraud into a legitimate medium, and she actually was talking to Cecelia Pennyworth.  Then, apparently, Cecelia had done something more—taken her over in some way, possessed her, I didn’t know, but something. This was my great-grandfather’s legacy at work; one thing I had inherited from him was an unwillingness to disbelieve in anything just because I had never encountered it. The world was full of strange things, and his later years, by all reports, were spent doing battle with some of them.

It appeared as though my turn had come.

“Kill me...Landers...” Hale croaked.

I looked at him, trying to see a way to repair the damage that had been done.  Losing her father would break Julia’s heart, what was left of it.  But if he lived—which didn’t appear likely—and she found out that he had killed her mother, that would do it, too.

At any rate, he was in considerable pain, and fear was eating him up. I still carried his 12-gauge; I could help him out with one pull of the trigger.  His gaze caught mine, his eyes pleading with me.  His face was ruined, nose smashed in, lips pulped, his right cheek purple and so swollen that his eye was almost closed.

I had never killed a man, except on camera.  Those men got up and dusted themselves off and were paid for their trouble.

“Please...”

I held the shotgun’s barrel a foot from his skull.  Just before I closed my eyes, I saw him smile. I pulled the trigger.  The gun’s roar was deafening.

When it was done, his body limp in the shackles, the blast still ringing in my ears, she came in. Cecelia.

I had seen pictures of her in the Pennyworth house.  She didn’t look the same, but there was a sense of the familiar about her, despite the fact that the thing that looked like Cecelia was inside of Sally Mae Green’s body, stretching and shaping her from the inside into a form resembling Julia’s mother.  The sight made my stomach lurch.

“I wasn’t done with him,” she said.  Her voice creaked, painful to hear as a rusted hinge. 

“Yes you were,” I replied. “You had your payback. He’s beyond your reach now.”  I hoped that was true, but couldn’t have sworn to it.

“Then you’ll have to take his place.”

She was standing between me and the doorway. I tried to inch toward it without getting closer to her. The Cecelia part of her moved inside the Sally Mae, causing bizarre folds and ripples in Sally Mae’s body, and I could hardly bear to look at her, though I didn’t look away.

I still had one load in the gun, and pockets full of shells.  I didn’t know if she could be hurt of killed, what with being already dead.  But I was willing to try.

She lunged toward me. At the same instant, I raised the barrel and pulled.  The blast was just as loud as the first one, and this time I watched.  The shot burst from the barrel into her chest, shredding Sally Mae’s clothing and skin.  But it didn’t stop her.  She kept coming for me, and her arms were growing, lengthening as I cracked the shotgun and reloaded.  Her left hand was hooked into a claw, almost to me by the time I got the weapon closed and fired again, both barrels this time.

The hand grabbed me, ripping right through the barn coat and my shirt.  If felt like someone had taken a claw hammer to my chest and was tugging down on it.  I reloaded again, hands shaking now.  She got her other clawed fingers into me.  I tasted bile and felt the world going dark. 

As I raised the gun once more, I saw a different look in her eyes than before.  It reminded me of the look Hale had given me just before I’d shot him, and I could tell that it was Sally Mae looking at me now, not Cecelia.  She was fighting back, trying to regain some control over herself.  I didn’t know what I could do to help, but then she opened her mouth, stretching the lips up, teeth apart, and I could almost see another mouth behind it, lips pressed so tightly together they were nothing but a thin, pale line, and I understood what Sally Mae had in mind.

I shoved the barrels between her teeth and yanked both triggers.

 


 

7

 

“Julia had called Sheriff Nickles, and when he found me, I was pretty near dead.”  Cody Landers finished off his second whisky glass, which had gone untouched while he told his tale.  “He rushed me to a doctor and got me sewed up, but my career as a screen idol was over.  I spent most of a year recuperating. My publicist put out a story that I was on extended safari, in case I’d want to try to get back into acting later.  But I never did.”

Pritchett waved his hand through a cloud of cigar smoke. “Sir, I was willing to believe the first part of your story, absurd as it was.  But this...this is simply preposterous.  Lionel, I’m astonished that you even brought this madman into the club. I’ve heard some tall tales within these walls, sir, but this one...well, it’s simply ridiculous, that’s all.”

Landers wore a fierce scowl, and his upper lip had developed a twitch.  “Preposterous, is it?”  His voice rose, and then he did, shooting suddenly to his feet.  “Ridiculous?”  Now people were staring, and an attendant was hurrying across the room with a worried look beginning to settle onto his normally implacable visage.

Then Landers grabbed his dress shirt with both hands and yanked it apart.  Buttons sprang from it. He wore nothing beneath it.

Running down his chest, from collarbone to waist, were eight roughly parallel scars, thick ones that had healed white and pasty.  “Does this look like I’m making something up?”

“Cody,” Franks said.  “Close your shirt, it’s all right. Hugh doesn’t believe a word anyone tells him in here.  Don’t worry.”

But Landers wouldn’t be soothed. Leaving his shirt open, scars plainly visible, he knocked over the small table upon which his two glasses rested, barked a curse at Pritchett, and stalked from the room.  The gazes of the other members didn’t leave him until he’d passed through the doorway, then everybody returned to their own conversation, allowing Pritchett and Franks the privacy to which they were entitled. Landers hadn’t made it out the door before being buttonholed by other members; if Pritchett knew his fellow Wanderers, he’d be telling his tale again before the night was through.

“I’m sorry about that,” Pritchett said.  “I didn’t know he would react so violently.”

Franks settled in his chair while attendants picked up the table and glassware and mopped up the drinks.  “Entirely my fault,” he said.  “I should have told you, I’ve seen his scars before.”

“You have?”

“Yes. And I’ve watched him trying to talk to Julia Pennyworth, too.”

“Trying?”

“She committed suicide, when she heard about what had happened. Poor girl was utterly lost. Landers gave up his Hollywood career, but he didn’t stop exploring the deepest secrets of the universe.  And he must have gone to a hundred mediums, trying to find one who could actually reach the one girl he ever truly loved.”

“I see...”

“At any rate, Hugh, this is the Wanderer’s Club. Unbelievable stories are the order of the day, aren’t they?”

Hugh chuckled, feeling a little more at ease now that the old cowboy was gone.  “Yes, Lionel,” he said.  “Yes, I suppose they are.”

The End


 




 

Jeffrey J. Mariotte has written more than forty novels, including original supernatural thrillers Cold Black Hearts, River Runs Red and Missing White Girl, horror epic The Slab, and Stoker Award nominated teen horror series Witch Season, as well as books set in pre-existing fictional universes. Two of his novels have won the Scribe Award for Best Original Novel, presented by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers.

 He is also the author of many comic books, including the original Western series Desperadoes, some of which have been nominated for Stoker and International Horror Guild awards. The miniseries Desperadoes: Buffalo Dreams was chosen as the Best Western Comic Book of 2007 by True West Magazine. Other comics work includes the bestselling Presidential Material: Barack Obama, original graphic novel Zombie Cop, the original miniseries Fade to Black and Garrison, and many more.

He is a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Western Writers of America, and the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers. With his wife and another partner, he co-owns Mysterious Galaxy, a bookstore specializing in science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror. He lives on the Flying M Ranch in the American southwest with his family and pets in a home filled with books, music, toys, and other examples of American pop culture. More information than you would ever want to know about him is at www.jeffmariotte.com.

For more on the Chain Story Project of which this story is a part, please visit chainstory.stormwolf.com.