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Published on Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Hat on the Bed

By J. R. Lindermuth

 

Had something moved up there in the pines? Blake rubbed his fists in his eyes, craned his neck and looked again. The weak winter sun was sinking to the west and the shadows creeping down the hill made it difficult to see. He stared so long this time his eyes went bleary. Was it his imagination or had there really been movement?

   

Imagination is a terrible thing. Even knowing it couldn't be true, the possibility plagued him. He thought back to his conversation with Virginia Culton earlier that day. She'd seemed so positive. "Who told you that?" he'd demanded.

"Drifter," she said, her demeanor as optimistic as Blake had seen it in the two weeks since he got back to town. "Didn't get his name. Said he run onto Nate over on the Little Mule."

"How'd he know it was Nate? This drifter know him?"

"No. He just described the man he saw. I'm sure it was Nate. Had to be him," she crowed. "He's safe and makin' his way back home to me."

Much as he knew it couldn't be Culton, Blake couldn't stop peering every now and again through the day up to where the south trail came down from the mountains. Blake had veered round in a circle and returned to town on that very same trail. Folks thought he was being coy, concealing the direction from which he came so no one could guess where they'd found the gold.

Blake dropped the shabby curtain back over the window now and smiled to himself. That wasn't it at all. It wasn't the source of the gold he'd been anxious to conceal. The ore was played out. He'd brought all of it back with him. No, it wasn't gold he was hiding.

He stomped back and forth across the cabin. Should he go out? He was going mad holed up here alone with his thoughts day and night. A drink down at the saloon would go right good. Blake paused, scratching at his balding pate. Only problem, if he went down there, somebody would start questioning him again. Why couldn't they just let it go?

He knew the answer to that. It was Culton's wife, damn her. Virginia just wouldn't stop asking questions, demanding search parties go out, asking her questions over and over again. Woman wouldn't accept what he'd been telling her from the time he got back. Culton wasn't coming home. Woman wouldn't relent. He heard her voice in his head now.

" How do you know that, Jeremiah? Did you see him die? Were you there when they caught him?"

Blake's story was they'd been separated when the Apache swooped down on their camp, the two of them running in opposite directions. He'd been lucky enough to escape. His partner obviously had not.

Woman refused to accept it. To placate her, the others had mounted two or three searches in the direction he'd pointed out to them. Blake even rode along the first time. They'd found nothing.

Of course they hadn't. There was nothing to find. At least not in the direction he'd led them. Jeremiah Blake smiled. He decided a drink was in order. His secret was safe. He deserved a celebratory drink or two. He was feeling generous and might even buy a round of drinks for whoever else was in the Lone Steer tonight.

Heading down the dark, muddy street to the saloon, Blake kept turning round to look behind him. Whether it was imagination or guilt, he couldn't be certain. There was just that constant feeling of eyes staring out of the dark, watching his every move.

He was glad when he reached the Lone Steer, swung open the door and stepped into the light and the normal boisterousness of the place. Charley Pryor and some of their other cronies spied him and bellowed a welcome, waving for Blake to join them.

Alcohol and camaraderie combined to help him forget for a little while the matter preying on his mind.

Blake actually felt relieved and in good spirits as he started home later, the whiskey he'd consumed putting a bit of a stagger to his steps though he knew he hadn't drunk enough to give him a bad morning. The mud in the street had frozen to rough ridges. Once he stumbled and almost fell.

The northwest wind that flung grit in his face when he'd come out earlier had shifted and now came from the east, bringing with it a scattering of snow. Glancing up, Blake saw thick white-blue clouds accumulating over the mountain. "Storm comin' sure," he told himself, picking up his pace.

Nearly home, despite the wind, he heard the scrape of boot leather on the boardwalk behind him. Blake spun around, peering into the dark. "Who's there?" he called. There came no answer. "Whadya want?"

The wind spun an empty tin can rattling across the street. A dog barked in the distance. No reply to his question, no other sound. Blake pulled his coat closer around him, held his hat to his head with one hand, bent his shoulders and scurried on.

His cabin came in view and he breathed a sigh of relief, a plume of vapor trailing from his mouth. The cabin was dark and he wished he'd thought to leave a lamp burning. Smoke from the chimney hung low over the roof. At least it would be warm inside.

The cabin was small, one room, a combination heating-cooking stove in the corner opposite a plain table and two chairs, his bunk along the other wall. There was enough light through the two windows for Blake to make his way to the table, grope for matches, lift the chimney and light the kerosene lamp. The warm, yellow light flared up and Blake shrugged off his coat and hat and hung them on the peg by the door.

As he started toward his bed something caught his eye and made him halt in mid-stride. "What the..." he muttered, stepping closer.

A battered, dirty Stetson sat atop the gray and red blanket in the middle of the bunk.

Blake stood, arms wrapped around himself, shuddering at the sight. Was it? No, it couldn't be. But it looks just like Culton's hat. Can't be. It was on the ground beside him when I left... Blake took another step, bent from the waist and plucked up the sombrero between thumb and forefinger. With a grimace, he pitched it aside. He shivered. Everybody knows, it's bad luck to put a hat on a bed.

That was bad enough to consider. A worse matter was where had it come from? Sure wasn't Culton put it there. Blake was certain of that. He'd sunk a pickax into the man's skull up there in the mountains. No man gets up and walks away after having that done to him.

Then where did the hat come from?

A tap at the window and Blake jumped. He glanced at the window, hoping it had been the wind rattling the glass. Then the sound came again; louder this time, like the rap of knuckles against the pane.

Blake raced to the door and outside. He went quickly around the building. No one. He stared into the dark in all directions. There was no sound save the wind, which now brought a heavier fall of snow beginning to cover the ground. If there had been tracks leading up to the cabin, drifts had covered them. He walked around the cabin again, taking time to relieve himself by the woodpile in the rear before going back inside.

Was it all just his imagination? He shivered against the damp creeping into the cabin despite the heat of the stove. Blake glanced across the room. No. Some of it might be imagination. Not the hat, though. That was real. It hadn't disappeared when he picked it up in his hands. Where had it come from?

  

Blake crossed the room and sank down on the bed, face cradled in his cupped hands. He thought about that last day up in the hills. He and Culton had argued. That wasn't unusual in those last few weeks. Culton wanted to stay and do more digging. He'd argued it was useless. The claim was worked out. There was nothing more to find. Besides, they'd seen Apaches and that meant the Indians had seen then. Their luck was run out. Blake wanted to take the gold they had and get out— while they still could.

"Go, if you want," Culton had told him. "You ain't nothin' but a coward. Take your share and go. I'm stayin'."

The man had turned his back on him. It was bad enough calling him a coward, but to add the insult of turning his back. No one got away with that. No one treated Jeremiah Blake that way. It was in the heat of anger. He never would have done it otherwise.

Blake was in a state of shock afterward. Couldn't believe what he had done to the man who'd been his partner and friend for three long years. Still, there was nothing else to do. He couldn't change things, could he? The only solution was to bury the body, gather up the gold and come home. Everybody else believed his story. Why the hell couldn't Virginia Culton accept it? It was her ragging on him had him in this state of nerves, imagining all sorts of crazy things.

But the hat.

Where did it come from? It wasn't in the cabin when he went out. It looked like that old thing Culton wore. But it couldn't be."

Blake stretched out on the bed without undressing. He puzzled on the matter of the hat. Then sleep must have caught up with him. The next thing he knew, someone was tapping on the door.

He roused himself, yawning and pawing at sleep-pasty eyes, staggered across the room and flung open the door. The wind blew cold, wet snow in his face. Squinting, he barely made out a figure scurrying up the street. "Whadya want?" he cried.

It was too dark to be certain, but the figure... no, it couldn't be. Was it? The figure disappearing into the swirling bands of snow wore a dark parka and had a fur cap pulled down over the ears. Culton had an outfit like that. Not stopping to retrieve his own coat, Blake rushed out.

Bastard wasn't going to get away this time. He couldn't see his quarry, but there were tracks in the snow. Blake hurried on, oblivious to wind stealing his breath, the pellets stinging his flesh and the intensity of the storm obscuring the landscape.

 

*         *        *

 

Virginia Culton awoke to a pounding at her cabin door. "Miz Culton, a harsh voice called.

Slipping on her robe, Virginia crossed to the door and drew it open a crack. Charley Pryor peered at her through the opening. The sun on the snow behind him was blinding. She flung up a hand to shield her eyes. "What? What's wrong, Charley?"

Charley hung his head and sputtered. His voice was lost to the wind.

"What?" She pushed the door open more. "Come in here out of the storm. I can't hear you."

Charley squeezed through and closed the door behind him. "It's Jeremiah," he said, his eyes glistening. "He's dead."

"How? What happened?"

"Don't know exactly. Trapper found him up on the hill, froze stiff as a bar of iron. No idea what the hell he was doin' up there. Didn't even have a coat on."

Virginia made them a pot of coffee and Charley explained they'd been drinking the night before. "But no way was Jeremiah so drunk he would have gone wanderin' round in a blizzard with no coat. I can't understand what he was doin' up there. It don't make one bit of sense."

 

*         *        *

 

After Charley left, Virginia dressed, put on her parka and went down to Blake's cabin. She stood just inside the door, gazing around the room. The stove had gone out. There was a damp chill to the place and a funky pall hung over the room. Virginia drew her heavy coat closer round her. Then she smiled.

She crossed to the bed, bent and picked up Nate's spare Stetson. Virginia smiled again. Jeremiah didn't realize Nate had two of these hats, both of them battered and dirty, so alike you could hardly tell the difference between them.

Virginia sat on the bed. It wasn't long after Blake returned she'd realized her husband was dead and his partner had killed him. She might have accepted his story about the Apaches had Blake not been spending so freely on drinks and supplies— and paying with gold he didn't offer to share with her.

Every time he spoke to her, his guilt was obvious. It had been easy to play on that guilt last night. All she'd wanted was a confession. She hadn't expect the fool to wander up in the hills without a coat during the blizzard.

Virginia sighed. Gazing around the room, she wondered where Blake might have hidden the gold.

THE END

 

J. R. Lindermuth lives in a house built by a man who rode with Buffalo Bill. A retired newspaper editor, he's the author of nine novels, including four in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. His short stories and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines, both print and on line.

 

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