There were three and a half people at the funeral. If you don't count the undertaker and gravediggers. You can't count the corpse. Even though he was there, he wasn't really there, was he? I don't count myself. I was only there because I had to be. I'm Sheriff of Concho County. Security at funerals is one of my duties.
Like I said, there were three and a half people at the funeral. One was the widow, Lucinda Hays. Another was the Hays's neighbor, Tom Canter. The third was Reverend Ogilvy. I count him because, in truth, he's not at every funeral. Some people ask him to say a few words. Some don't. So he gets counted. The half—and the reason I call him half is because he's no bigger than gun belt high—was Billie Palmer. He's the orphan the Hays adopted after Comanche Bob killed his mother and father. We hanged Bob, and Billie got adopted. Some said it was because Mrs. Hays couldn't conceive. Gossip is the same everywhere, I guess.
Reckon I ought to say something about the deceased and how we came to be plantin' him today. Mordecai Hays was a former supply sergeant turned dirt farmer. He had a small place a few miles from Paint Rock, the county seat where I abide. It didn't amount to no more than a house, a barn, some livestock and a passable crop of broomcorn or two. But I guess it was his castle just because it was his.
Unfortunately, two nights ago, Mrs. Hays found Mordecai behind the barn in a state, the likes of which, no human ought to find another. He was on his side in the scrub grass. There was a knife wound in his neck that might or might not have been the one that finished him. But the really unpleasant part was that his pants were around his ankles and some of his privates were in his mouth, with the rest of them wedged up his backside. Lucinda—I'll use her Christian name just to keep this from being so formal—hitched the mare to the buckboard, pulled the boy out of bed, and hurried into town to tell me what happened. She said she felt sure the Indians got him.
That's possible, I guess. The Lipan Apache still raid around these parts. But frankly, it struck me as odd. If it was the Lipan, why were Lucinda and the boy not harmed? Or taken? I couldn't keep that question out of my head as I rode out to see for myself what was left of Mordecai Hays.
It was still dark when I got there. There would be another hour before the sun came up. The body was behind the barn where she said it was. And seein' it was a damn site more gruesome than hearin' about it. But I needed to look for more than a person can spot in the dark. So I walked my roan gelding into the barn. Then I sat down on a hay bale, rolled a smoke, and waited for the morning light.
Okay, I'll admit it. I dozed a bit. But the sun hadn't been up long when I was bending down, holdin' my nose with one hand and runnin' my other over the thin and stony soil around the late Mordecai Hays. There was lots of blood on the ground, an empty, overturned jug of corn liquor, but no tracks. No hint of hooves that would indicate a raiding party. If an Apache did this, he did it alone. Which was definitely possible. But it was also possible that Apaches had nothin' whatsoever to do with it.
I determined I'd withhold my doubts about the widow Hays's story until after the funeral. If she was tellin' the truth there was no point in me addin' to her grief by questionin' her. If her story was bogus, I'd find out soon enough.
When Reverend Ogilvy said all he had to say, and it appeared everyone was gonna leave the gravesite, I watched Tom Canter step over and say somethin' to the widow before he walked away. Apparently it comforted her because she smiled, and even from the distance, I could see her lips forming the words "Thank you." After she and the boy got into the buckboard, I approached them.
"Mrs. Hays, a word if you don't mind."
"Certainly, Sheriff. And thank you for coming."
"No need to thank me ma'am, it's one of my duties.
"I just wanted to let you know ma'am, I didn't find any tracks out at your place, you know. Nothin' to indicate a Lipan raidin' party was there."
"Well, then I assume it must have been just one Apache. A renegade perhaps."
"That could be, ma'am. But even if it was only one, it seems kind of strange that he didn't try to get into the house."
"Maybe he didn't know there was anyone else there, Sheriff. All the lights were out. Mr. Hays usually did his drinking after the boy and I retired."
"That's probably it, ma'am. I just didn't want you to be concerned about any raidin' party comin' back or anything."
"I appreciate your concern Sheriff. But I have a rifle at home. And I know how to use it."
"Glad to hear it, ma'am. But if it was a renegade, he'll keep movin' south. No need to worry yourself."
"Thank you for your concern, Sheriff. Good-bye."
As I watched her and the boy leave, I realized the biggest concern I had was finding out who really killed Mordecai Hays. So I decided to spend a minute or two with Reverend Ogilvy. Though I must admit I didn't look forward to it. Piety and me have never been on a first-name basis.
"Reverend, can I walk with you for a minute?"
"Certainly, Sheriff. In times like these, we all need one another's support."
"Well, I don't know about that, but I'm sure they all appreciated your words."
"Yes, the 23rd Psalm always seems to provide both strength and comfort."
"I guess so, Reverend, but frankly if I was gonna walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I'd just want to be sure I had a full load and one in the chamber."
"Bullets won't be of any help to you Sheriff when it's your time to go. We all are called eventually."
"True enough. I just want to make sure it's the good Lord doin' the callin'. Not some yahoo with a belly full of liquor and a double-barrel full of buckshot."
"He works in mysterious ways, Sheriff. Mysterious ways."
"That he does, Reverend. But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to ask you if the Hays family was regular church goers."
"No. In fact, I can't say I ever recall them attending church on Sunday."
"That a fact? Well, don't you think it's kinda odd then that you would be asked to speak at the funeral?"
"Not really, Sheriff. When a beloved family member passes, it's not uncommon for those left behind to do what they can to pave the way for the departed's accent to glory."
"You pretty sure Mordecai was going to ascend and not descend, Reverend?
"Only the Lord knows, Sheriff. We're all sinners. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Even you."
"Well, it just seems to me that a couple who would adopt a child would look to the church to round out his upbringin'."
"Judge not, lest ye' be judged, Sheriff."
"I'm not judging, Reverend, just explorin'. That's what a lawman does in a murder case."
"But I heard Godless heathens were responsible, Sheriff. Is that not true?
"Probably, Reverend, probably so. I'm just doin' what is called due diligence. Duty requires it. I'll bid you good-day then."
"Good day, my son. Vaya con dios, as our brown brothers say."
When somethin' sticks in your craw, you gotta deal with it. That's why later that night I was camped on a steep slope overlookin' the Hays place. I didn't light a fire 'cause I didn't want to be seen. I wanted to do the seein'. Even though I was wrapped in a heavy poncho, the wind on the high plateau made the night downright uncomfortable. What was even worse, nothin' of note happened.
But there's something to be said for stubbornness. That's why I was there the next night too. The night I saw a lone rider walk his mount out of the mesquite trees west of the farm. He crossed the open ground in front of the house and took his horse inside the barn. Then he walked back and tapped lightly on the front door. No lights came on. But the door opened a crack and he stepped inside.
I could have gone down then, barged right in. But bad things can happen in the dark. Shots can go anywhere. Somebody innocent might get hurt. Though frankly, innocence didn't appear to be in attendance. Still, I decided to wait.
He left before sunrise. Seemed to be in no hurry. I followed him, staying out of sight by weaving through the live oaks and elms until he came to a clearing two hundred yards from his own spread.
In the clear coolness of the morning, sound carries. "Tom," was all I had to shout before he reigned in and turned my way. "Kind of early to be out for a ride, ain't it?"
"Calf got out last night. I've been looking for it."
"Calf get into the Hays house, did it?"
He just sat his horse. He looked like he was tryin' to talk, but it was obvious he didn't know what to say.
"Keepin' an eye on things is part of my job, Tom. Is comfortin' widows part of yours?"
"Sheriff, it's not what you think."
"Oh, I think I know what it is, Tom. Lucinda's a fine lookin' woman. And she is single now. But from what I saw, she didn't appear to be surprised to see you."
"I wanted to make sure she'd be okay. What with the Apaches and all."
"That's neighborly. But you didn't check on her the night before. The night of the funeral. Maybe you waited a day out of respect, is that it? Or maybe you thought that the next night the coast would be clear."
"Sheriff, I tell you it's not what you think. Lucinda—Mrs. Hays—is a good woman. A fine woman. It's complicated, that's all."
"Love, or lust, ain't all that complicated, Tom. Let me run it down for you. There was no raidin' party, and no single Apache. There were no unshod pony tracks. None. And even if it had been one lone renegade, he'd-a-been in that house and atop that white woman moments after dispatchin' Mordecai. The mutilation, though distasteful I'm sure, was done to make it look like Lipan work. A lazy peace officer might have bought that. But I'm a good bit more curious than I look, Tom."
Canter's lack of response told me all I needed to know.
"Suppose we amble on back to the Hays' place and see just how much of this Miss Lucinda is willing to confirm or deny."
Canter rose in his stirrups. "There's no need of that, Sheriff. She had nothing to do with it. I'm to blame. Me alone. You see, I'm in love with her. Have been for some time. I wanted her to leave him. Begged her to. I asked her to leave with me. Told her I was willing to pick up stakes and go wherever she wanted. I think she really wanted to. But she was too fine a person for that. She said she just couldn't do it as long as he was alive. Couldn't break her marriage vows and all. Well, I couldn't help it, Sheriff. I just had to be with her. So I killed him. And cut him up to make it look like Indians. She still thinks that's what really happened. She's not involved."
With my hand on my Colt, I said, "We'll head back to town then. You're not gonna give me any trouble, are you, Tom?"
He seemed to slump into his saddle as he said, "No Sheriff. You won't have any trouble from me."
Tom Canter was in a Paint Rock cell no more than a day and a half. That's how long it takes gossip to make the circuit in Concho County. That's how long it took for Lucinda Hays to turn up in my office.
"I hear you're holding Tom Canter."
"That's right. Holding him for the murder of your husband."
"Tom didn't kill Mordecai, Sheriff. Tom is the gentlest man I know. He could never do anything like that."
"Love makes good men do bad things, Mrs. Hays. He was smitten with you. Your husband was in the way. He was convinced that with Mordecai gone, you'd welcome his advances. I have to admit, from what I saw a couple of nights ago, he was probably right."
"You saw Tom at my place the other night?"
"Just part of my job, ma'am. In fact, I wondered for a bit . . . if the two of you weren't in on it together. But Tom set me straight. He said you knew nothin' about it."
"Tom Canter is lying, Sheriff. He's a sweet, wonderful, incredible man who's lying through his teeth."
"Murder's not something you lie about, ma'am. There's no future in it."
"He's lying Sheriff. That's not something I believe. That's something I know."
"Well, with respect ma'am, that's something you just can't really be sure of."
"Yes, I can, Sheriff. I can be sure Tom is innocent, because I killed Mordecai."
When you've been in the law enforcement business as long as I have, believe me the last thing you want or need is two different people confessin' to the same crime.
"Maybe you should have a seat, ma'am, and let's go over this whole thing from the beginnin'. Are you up to that?"
"Yes, Sheriff, I am. I'll tell you everything."
I'll spare you the word-by-word interview I conducted with Lucinda Hays because frankly, it was the kind of conversation I never expected to have with a woman, and one I most fervently hope I'll never have again. But I will summarize it for you. According to the widow, Mordecai Hays was an evil bastard. He kept his wife out on his farm and seldom, if ever, brought her with him into town because it would have been obvious someone had been beatin' the hell out of her. That someone was Mordecai. Not only was he a wife beater, but accordin' to Lucinda he was also a sodomite. She confessed to me that in all the years they were married, Mordecai never once engaged in sexual congress the way most normal people do. That was the real reason she never had children of her own. She allowed as how perhaps it was a holdover from his many years in the army. But that was cuttin' him a lot more slack than I cared to. Anyway, to make a long and sordid story short, she said she eventually had enough of the perversion and the whuppins', and stabbed the wretch in the neck. Then carved him up thinkin' it would look like Apaches did him.
Her story sounded plausible enough. But so had Tom Canter's. I thanked her for her confession and asked her if there might be someone who could look after her adopted boy for a while. She said she had left him with Reverend Ogilvy at the church, and he'd indicated the boy would be fine there until she came back to pick him up.
I deposited Lucinda Hays in one of our cleaner cells, out of sight of Tom Canter's, and told her I'd be back later. Then I saddled the roan and went for a ride.
I've found that a man can do some powerful thinkin' on the back of a horse. Least this man anyway. As I rode, I mulled over things in my mind. It appeared that Tom was lyin' to save Lucinda. Of course, maybe Lucinda was lyin' to save Tom. And there was always the chance that the two of them planned the whole thing together—the murder, and the two confessions, if nobody bought the Apache story.
Thinkin' eats up the miles. Before I knew it, I found myself back out at the Hays' farm. And since I was there, I thought I might as well look around and see if there was anything I might have missed the first time. I'm not what you'd call perfect. As you've probably gathered by now.
I hadn't looked inside the cabin when I was at the farm before. The front door was locked, but the side window wasn't. Since this was still a murder investigation, I crawled in through the window and didn't feel shameful about it.
The place was pretty clean. It looked like the kind of place a man, a woman and a child would inhabit. Some dishes had been left on the sideboard to dry, and there was a pile of clothes in one corner that hadn't been taken to the creek to wash yet. I used the toe of my boot to sift through them and to make sure they weren't piled there to hide somethin'. There was nothin' under them. But there was somethin' at the bottom of the pile that stopped me cold. Now, I'm not a man who shocks easily. But the more I looked, and the more I thought, the more I was sickened at what some men are capable of. Men like Mordecai Hays.
Returnin' to the jail, I took Mrs. Hays out of her cell and brought her back to the office.
"Mrs. Hays, I'm prone to believe part of your story."
She heard me. But chose not to comment.
"The part I'm not sure I believe . . . is that you killed your husband."
"But Sheriff, I swear—"
"Just hear me out before you say anything else. I went back to your place. Looked around inside your cabin. You locked the door, but not the window. That's neither here nor there. The point is, I saw the laundry you hadn't got around to washin' just yet. All the laundry. Includin' your boy's long johns. That's right, the white ones with the blood on the back-flap."
Her mouth opened, but I didn't give her a chance to speak.
"Let me postulate one other way this whole thing might have happened. Let's say Mordecai hit his jug pretty hard that night. So hard he passed out. Lets say your boy found him. Found him at the one time Mordecai was vulnerable. The one time he couldn't do anything more to the boy. And let's say the little fella realized this was his chance. Probably his only chance to make sure he'd never be hurt again."
Lucinda had started to cry silent tears that slowly left trails down her cheeks.
"Looked at that way, maybe the mutilation wasn't done to put the blame on marauding heathens. Maybe it was done to show everyone what he couldn't bring himself to talk about. Maybe it was done to show everyone the kind of monster Mordecai really was."
By now, she was whimpering out loud. Her legs were quivering and I was afraid she was gonna fall down. So I helped her into a chair.
"You know, good people sometimes do things they shouldn't . . . trying to help people they love. Maybe that's what Tom was doin.' Tryin' to help you. Maybe that's what you were doin.' Tryin' to help the boy. But me, I have to sort it all out. That's my cross to bear."
"Sheriff, please, I—"
Again, I cut her off. "Here's the way I practice the law, ma'am. I don't just go by what I think happened. I prove it to a dead certainty, or I don't charge anybody with anything. I can't prove Tom killed Mordecai. I can't prove you did. And I'm in no mood to browbeat a child who's gone through what your boy's gone through. So, I'm inclined to take the position that some Apache devil did do Modecai in. Doubt that we'll ever find him. Probably in Mexico by now."
Round about sundown, Tom and Lucinda gathered the boy from Reverend Ogilvy. On the way out of town, they looked my way. I tipped my hat in farewell.
Now some might think—when it comes to the exact letter of the law—that perhaps the deceased didn't really get his due. But I tell you what I think. I think Mordecai Hays got what we'll likely all get eventually—in one way or another—justice.