John Bramwell stood on the rise, looking over a desolate landscape. Tawny hills of rock stretched away to meet the skyline, where black storm clouds rolled. A strong wind, smelling of rain, came raging up the barren slope of mine tailings, tossing the black mane of his mustang who stood beside him, and swaying the corpse on the hanging tree below him.
John sighed. Justice was simple when it was a rough, grizzled character who required the noose. But this time . . . . He sighed again and a mist of tears blurred the swaying corpse into a dancing phantom before his eyes.
* * *
"You're new in town, sir?" Lantern light flickered across her handsome, cheeky features, and gleamed on her bare shoulders.
"Yes, ma'am. Just drifted in this afternoon. What can you tell me about this place?"
Her finely-molded lips curved into a smile. She put down the beaker of ale and leaned her elbows on the bar, tipping her head to one side. "Depends on what you want to know," she said.
There was a rude gale of laughter from across the bar hall, and a dusty group of miners slapped the tabletop with satisfaction as their favorite played a winning poker hand. It was a few moments before the noise subsided.
"Well," said John, turning back to the barmaid, "I'd like just about any information you have to offer. Let's start with introductions. My name is John Bramwell, and I'd very much like to know yours."
Another smile flashed across her face, dimpling her cheek. "The name is Lottie, sir. Lottie of the Lode. Dove of Davidson. The best girl here for hire, the men will tell you, if you stick around long enough to learn. What brings you drifting through these parts? The silver, the whiskey, or the wind?"
"The wind, I reckon," John smiled. "What brought you to these parts? You're quite handsome enough to ply a better trade than baiting lonely strangers in a devilish spot like this."
"Just handsome enough to bait lonely strangers," the girl returned, giving a toss of her head that sent a bedraggled bunch of peacock feathers twirling in her curly dark hair.
John smiled. "I'm an upright Christian man, Lottie. And though I stoop to a shot of redeye to keep me in my saddle on long days, I don't hold converse with the soiled doves, of Davidson or otherwise."
"More's the pity," Lottie shrugged. With that, she turned her attention to a more susceptible customer who suggested a rich reward possible, judging from the engraving on his spurs and the gold watch fob across his waistcoat.
John drained his glass and turned to go. It was evident that she was going to offer him no important information without a fee. He would have to look elsewhere for clues to solving the case. Stagecoach ambushes. Word had been sent across the border to the California detective's office of stagecoach robberies by an outlaw gang as the coaches traversed the Virginia Mountain range, filled with silver from the booming Comstock Lode. Five stage drivers had been killed and an untold value of silver vanished back into the wilds, never yet recovered.
The street was dusty and clouded by the coal smoke that rolled from the pipes jutting from the massive tiers of mine buildings on the mountain side. Mount Davidson. Sunshine glinted from the steel roof panels. It was late afternoon and a heavy silence reigned over Virginia City, broken only by the raucous voices of the men at poker in the hall.
John walked down the board sidewalk, his rowels ringing in the still air, and mounted his horse who stood waiting in the shade, lower lip hanging and eyes half closed. It had been a long hard ride over the mountains from California, and grass was scarce in this barren land in the middle of July. John would turn him in for the night at the livery and, once that was done, hole up for the night at the hotel. Even a detective deserved a night of solid rest after a long hard ride.
A plump matron attired in faded gingham came bustling to answer the bell in the hotel lobby. "Good afternoon, sir. What can I do for you?" she inquired.
"Just one bed for the night, please, ma'am."
"I'm afraid it'll have to be half a bed, sir. I'm all full already."
John nodded his acceptance, placed his fare in the woman's outstretched palm, and she ushered him into the dining room where pans of steaming buffalo meat were just being passed. John sat down at the end of the table, his eyes scanning the assemblage. Men, all of them. Men with felt hats, straw hats, patched coats, trousers in their boot tops, and dirt under their fingernails. Some of them were talking of the War Between the States back East. Others were recounting their silver strikes or their day in the bowels of the Comstock. Still others were talking of Lottie down at the Red Lantern.
"You shoulda seen 'er the other night at the dance, all decked out. Man, she was a beauty," said one.
"Best thing about 'er is she ain't allus caterwaulin' about under foot like the missus back home," another guffawed. "That's the way I like 'em—there when ya wan'em, and gone when ya don't."
"Amen to that! Some folks thinks it's a pity a beauty like 'er got her wings soiled with the likes of us, but I says it's a mighty big blessin' straight from the Old Man upstairs!" grinned a third. "Thisaway we all gets the best of 'er and none gets the worst."
John shifted irritably. He was trying to listen to the more germane conversations of the other men, listen for clues about the case he was here to solve, the gang he was to uncover. But it was hard to do when Lottie seemed to dominate the atmosphere. Already he could feel her strange allure laying hold on his own mind. It annoyed him, there in the back of his thoughts like the high-pitched hum of an unseen mosquito.
"How long have you fellas been in town?" he asked, interrupting the conversation.
The three men turned to him, eyes still vague with memories of their nighttime revels with Lottie. "'Bout a month," said the first. The second shrugged and nodded in loose agreement. "'Nearin' a year," said the third with a prideful smile.
"Making your fortune, eh?" said John. "I heard the Comstock's a man's best bet these days. A fine sight better than getting shot full of Rebel balls back East, which seems the only other route to glory offered a man."
"Eh, that or the other side," growled a lean, handsome man down the table. "Nothing wrong with the fight for State's rights, and a durn sight more glorious to face down a line of bluecoats for yer own home and hearth than pick on a gaggle of poor cotton pickers with the whole mighty US government behind you. The first 'un takes pluck, the second a mere dog." His gray eyes flashed fire and his long, dark, curving mustache quivered.
"Well, thankfully we don't need to pick a fight about that quarrel out here," John reasoned hastily. "This is a free man's country, and each can think according to his own bent." But he carefully noted the man's characteristics, his build, and the sound of his voice. A Confederate sympathizer was a likely suspect around a mine whose yield funded the Union's war effort.
John turned in for the night congratulating himself on what appeared to be a good lead with which to begin his investigation. But it was hard to sleep. He was left little room by the board placed down the center of the bed between him and his strange bedmate, a tawny-haired man with a Roman nose and a cracked front tooth who had introduced himself as Thad. Moonlight slanted across the floor from between two crooked muslin curtains. There were hoofbeats on the road outside, a faint tune scratched out on a fiddle, and a girl's laughter. Was it Lottie?
The moon was still setting on the other side of the horizon when John was awakened by Thad getting up, blowing a sonorous note into his handkerchief, and sharpening his razor on a whetstone. From downstairs came the clink of dishes and the scent of frying griddlecakes. John got up and put on his boots. He took out the tract from his breast pocket and read a few lines of Scripture to brace him for the day. His mother had given it to him as a parting gift before he left for the West. "Johnny, I trust you will always walk with the Lord," she had said, tears in her eyes.
John spent the day wandering the town, talking with anyone who would pause long enough to return his "Good Day." He visited the mines on the mountainside. He checked on his horse at the livery stable. Nothing turned up a clue so likely as the man at the supper table the night before. He needed to discover more about him.
One place seemed a likely source of information. John retraced his steps to the saloon. It was quiet inside this morning. Only the owner stood behind the counter reading a newspaper. John felt his heart drop and only then realized that he had been personally wishing to see Lottie again, for reasons beside the information she might be able to offer. "I was wondering if you could tell me the name of this man I encountered last night," John addressed the disappointing manly countenance behind the bar, and proceeded to describe the Confederate sympathizer.
The saloon owner shrugged. "I don't note a man's looks so long as he paid for his whiskey," he said. "Sounds like a couple dozen who have passed through these parts recently. Lottie will be in later, she's the most likely to know who you describe."
John shook his head as he walked out. The town really did revolve around Lottie. But he returned at the appointed hour to scent out the information he required, and found Lottie sitting on a bar stool swinging one fine buttoned boot from under the hem of a dress of blue silk. Ringlets of dark hair rested on her white shoulders, and a red satin flower decorated the black belt clasped around her slender waist.
"Ah, so you're back," she smiled coquettishly at him as he approached her.
John felt flustered. "Well, yes, but no. I mean, not for . . . the reason you imply. I was wondering if you could give me a piece of information I'm in need of."
Lottie rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Not this again. I'm not here to offer free services of any variety, you understand? If it's a shot, lay down the dinero, hombre. If it's time with me, same rule. I'm a hardworking girl and nothing comes free."
John pulled out a coin and put it on the counter. Lottie pounced on it and spun it between her fingers. "I was wondering if you could tell me," John began, and proceeded to describe his suspect.
Lottie thought for a moment, her lips pursed. She tipped her head to one side. "Hmm, I might take a wager as to who you mean." She held out her hand and tapped her palm.
John put another coin into it, and reluctantly found himself smiling.
She winked at him, hitching up her dress to deposit both coins down the top of her silk stocking. "I think you mean William Hutchinson. He's been in town about five months. Working at the mine and gets his pay on Thursdays. He's from Tennessee, youngest son of a poor upland farmer. Boarding at the hotel since the rooming house is all fulled up. But he bought a lot next to the gunsmith and is starting to build."
Five months. The timing lined up perfectly with the start of the stagecoach robberies. John felt a stir of satisfaction in himself. He was onto the trail now.
"I could know as much about you, if you'll come back tonight," Lottie called after him as he walked back out of the saloon.
John patted the tract in his pocket to prevent his mind from conjuring images of Lottie's proposition. He was here to do important work and uphold the reign of law. Nothing could distract him.
John haunted William Hutchinson's steps for the next six weeks. Hutchinson went to the mine at 4:30 in the morning. He stopped to eat lunch out of a tin pail at 1 o'clock. He returned to the hotel at 7:30 at night, turned in to room 12, shared the bed with another miner named George Groscan, and Tom Fletcher slept on the floor. On Sundays he worked on building his house on Lot 9. On Thursdays after pay he visited the saloon for a double shot of whiskey and hit the Red Lantern afterwards. He was a very monotonous suspect. John kept his eyes and ears open for any other leads, but found none. The detective office in California sent requests for updates. But there were none.
And week by week it became more of a trial of soul to sit in the corner of the saloon every Thursday and watch Lottie flirt with her paying customers, sit on their knees, kiss them, toy with their hair, and dance with them. She was beautiful, there was no mistaking that. And of such a winning, playful nature. It was a pity she wasn't a reputable girl. In every way but her despicable trade she was the girl of his dreams. But only in his dreams did John admit this. How her velvety dark eyes and curved red lips plagued his sleeping hours! How he would rather haunt her steps than Hutchinson's! What strength it took to withstand her coy smiles, the glances she threw over her shoulders at him, and the affectionate teasing she gave him.
"We're having a dance tonight," she informed him one such day. "I think you ought to come. You're too tight-laced for your own good."
"And why should that matter to you? You'll have plenty of partners," John replied, with a bitter note escaping in his voice.
Lottie seated herself uninvited on his knee, and her bare arm curved about his neck. "You're the only one I haven't conquered yet. Consequently you're intriguing me," she whispered, her lips brushing his ear.
John's arms stole involuntarily around her waist, holding her tightly until he could feel the bones of her corset beneath the silk. How delicious her scent was, and how intoxicating her touch. Her kisses grazed his neck, his cheek, his chin, and fixed on his lips. John felt his mind empty and the world swirl away into mist. He leaned in to her kiss hungrily, his hands seeking the curves of her body. How seductive and perfect she was. Yet, how he wanted her for himself alone. Not to have her, and then hand her off to Hutchinson, to Groscan, to Fletcher. For a second longer he clutched her fiercely, then pushed her off his knee and stood up, his muscles shaking from holding back from her.
Lottie looked silently after him, a sad expression in her eyes.
John's mind remained clouded. He charged off up the hillside behind town, forgetting to shadow Hutchinson, forgetting the robberies and the case waiting to be solved. He found a rock overlooking the barren landscape below him. Conflicting forces wrestled in his soul. He pulled out his mother's tract from his pocket and tried to read it. Then he crumpled it angrily in his fist and threw it into the dust. Even if he couldn't have all of Lottie, he could have some of Lottie. He loved her for herself more than the other men who got her did. Why should he not have her? Her kiss still burned on his lips and he could feel the warmth of her body against his. A raging fire in his veins consuming him.
The sun was setting, sending last streaks of orange light across the sky and glowing on the sandstone. The town fell into shadow. Lights gleamed from the windows of the saloon and lively music began to play. John stood up, a rebellious resolve settling over his mind. Those who cared would never know, and those who knew would never care. Tonight was the night.
Just as he turned his steps toward town, John heard the distant rumble of stagecoach wheels on the rocky ground. Under cover of darkness, a stage was pulling out from mine headquarters toward the pass in the Virginia Mountains. John stood arrested, watching the dark coach sway off into the black night. Coming to his senses, he ran toward the livery stable, leapt upon the bare back of his mustang, and followed the coach, keeping a safe distance.
The stagecoach traversed the foothills, and at last entered the pass as the hour approached midnight. John guided his horse along the ridge above, every sense straining. Clouds shifted across the moon, casting everything in a lurid, ghostly light. Every step and breath of his horse, every squeak of saddle leather, seemed to shatter the night.
A cry from below and the frightened whinny of a horse brought John leaping to the edge of the ridge to peer over. In the moonlight, he saw a man standing in the middle of the road, the long, glinting barrel of a rifle pointed at the breast of the stage driver. "Hands up," the man ordered. Two others stepped from the shadows, guns leveled. Slowly the driver lifted his hands and stepped from the seat. One of the gang held him at bay, while the other two climbed aboard the stagecoach, slitting the ropes that bound a heavy trunk and prying open the lock. They tossed out the bags of silver, one by one, stowed them in their saddle bags, then leapt upon their horses, and galloped up the opposite ridge, disappearing into the darkness.
John knew it was a hopeless pursuit on his own, but he smiled. He knew those men. It was not Hutchinson. It was the three he had dined with on his very first night. The three who had extolled the charms of Lottie. He felt a great, grim satisfaction settle over him. These bastards could enjoy her caresses no longer, once he returned with his account of the robbery to the sheriffs.
It was in the wee hours of the morning that John, exulting in silence, rode back into Virginia City. He stabled his horse at the livery, and then, adjusting his lapels and smoothing his hair, he turned his steps toward Lottie's house, where the red lantern glowed its invitation in the murky night. He was almost to the front door, his heart racing with anticipation, when low voices at the back reached his ear.
"We'll get it out of the canyon once the news about it dies down," one whispered. "Shouldn't be longer than a week."
"I'll pay you then. Not before. I want it safe on its way, or you'll all suffer," another voice replied.
"I swear we'll get it out safe, we always have before," another voice reassured.
John stole closer, scarcely breathing, and peered with one eye around the side of the house. There was a cluster of people huddled close. At first he couldn't make them out. Then one turned slightly, and his features became clear. He was one of the outlaws. One. Two. Three. John identified them one by one. But who was the fourth person in this circle?
"All right. When you get back, you'll get your share," the fourth person promised. The three nodded, touched their hats, and faded away into the night. The fourth turned, and John's blood froze. It was Lottie. She reentered her cabin through the back door, and all was still.
John stood riveted to the spot, a thousand emotions tearing through his soul. Lottie, the beautiful, the seductive, the desired, was buying off men to rob the stagecoaches. What in the world was she doing this for? And what, the next question burned itself into his mind, was he going to do about it? But a moment before he had been relishing the opportunity to turn those men in, anticipating them receiving their just dues, and exulting that they would no longer experience the pleasures of Lottie that he craved. Now . . . everything had changed. He could claim that he had failed to solve the case, and his career as a detective would be over. Innocent lives would continue to be lost. Silver stolen, and sent . . . where was Lottie having it sent? There was only one probable answer. Lottie was a Confederate agent and was sending funds to the Confederacy, playing her small part in destroying the Union. Anger rippled through John's soul.
He turned on his heel and resolutely turned his back on the winking red lantern and all the illicit joy he had been anticipating. His rowels ringing, he strode down the board sidewalk and rapped on the sheriff's door.
A rumbled, sleepy sheriff appeared. "What, man?" he grumbled.
"Another stagecoach has been robbed. I witnessed the whole thing. I will lead you to the three men who perpetrated the crime. And, furthermore, they have been paid off . . . " The memory of Lottie's kiss stung on his lips, and her face rose before his mind's eye, playful, beautiful, every feature perfect.
The sheriff was already calling the others, scrambling for his boots, fumbling for a light. "Who were they? Where are they? Tell me."
John, in a fog, described the three men's appearance, their names, and abode, the direction they had taken the silver. The sheriffs tore off, and John was left standing there, as the dim light of morning streaked the eastern horizon. He had obscured justice. But he had saved her. The Dove of Davidson. Stupidly, he turned and walked down the street. Her lantern was burning low, but he raised his hand and knocked.
There was the sound of footsteps, and she opened the door. Her hair was loose, cascading over her shoulders, and her figure was concealed only by the thin folds of a lacy chemise. She smiled when she saw his face. "John," she said. "I knew you would come at last."
John looked at her. She could never again appear so exquisitely desirable as she had before. She had fallen lower than he had believed. She was not the destitute innocent who had had to sell her soul to feed her body. She was a fraud, a spy, an agent of the enemy. His dreams of redeeming her from her life of sin and marrying her, carrying her off to a place where no one would know her past and giving her a chance to start over . . . it all looked so foolish now. Yet, his heart still burned with this misguided love for her. So beautiful. So playful. So cheeky and filled with teasing and jest. He stepped inside and pulled her to himself, clutching her tousled head to his heart and kissing her white neck and bare shoulders over and over in an agony. "Oh, Lottie," was all he could choke out. "Oh, Lottie."
It took but a few days for the sheriffs to capture the three men. But they, they who had sat around praising the charms of Lottie of the Lode, they betrayed her. They showed no loyalty. No mercy. No desire to shield her from the wrath of the law. They told it all. And it was all discovered. The papers from the Confederate government stashed in her mattress. The correspondence, the payments for the smuggled silver. Lottie of the Lode was taken. A noose thrown about her beautiful neck. Dragged out of town to the hanging tree.
"John!" she screamed. "John, you didn't!"
John's heart felt shredded in his chest. He pushed through the crowd. He took her little ice-cold hand, as she sat trembling on the horse that was about to be led from beneath her. "Lottie," he whispered, "I knew, but I didn't. Your accomplices told it all. I wanted to save you. They pretended to love you, but I really did."
Tears spilled down her cheeks. John squeezed her hand before he was pushed away. The horse was led forward, and Lottie fell to her death.
And here she still hung. The crowds had dispersed. The sun was going down. Thunder rolled in the distance. Dust devils swirled across the ground beneath her. John blinked at the tears in his eyes. Slowly he walked down the arid slope of mine tailings where all plant life had been destroyed. He mounted his horse, and took out his knife, reaching above Lottie's lifeless head. The rope frayed, unraveled, and came apart. The cold body of Lottie fell into John's arms. He held it close and turned his horse to the West, where the storm was lowering above the rugged mountains. His work here was done. And at the foot of the Virginia Mountains, he dug a grave, laid Lottie within it, and with a breaking heart shoveled the rough rocky ground over her.
"Here lies Lottie of the Lode. A beautiful soul who lost her way." He pronounced her epitaph to the wind. It was better left unwritten. The wolves among men would not honor her even were her grave marked, and true men would never forget. Here, her memory, with her bones, could lie unmolested.