Never a Tale of More Woe – Conclusion

(Each of the adventures will be fairly short, no more than two or three chapters, for as my daughter says, teen and tween males have the attention-span of a fruit-fly. This is the final resolution of their second adventure; a missing girl, a murder and a potential feud between two families during the Republic of Texas era.)

It was an astonishing thing for Jim – that when Silas Sutton raised his Baker rifle and shot Nate Taylor dead the wheelwright’s shop seemed at once empty and yet full of people. Silas stood with his empty rifle in his hand, the expression on his face warring between shock and anger. Mattie Sutton went pale with horror. Silas’s brothers, Parris Fletcher, Pitkin Taylor, and Toby – all looked down on the body in disbelief.
“He’s dead?” Pitkin cried out and made a move to lift his own rifle, but Toby was there and Parris Fletcher too – both having recovered enough presence of mind to stop Pitkin from taking the rifle to his own shoulder and shooting Silas in retaliation.
“He is,” Jim answered, still shaken with how swiftly and irrevocably it all had happened. “I’m sorry, Pitkin … he’s gone.” Jim fixed Silas with a glare of cold outrage. “We’ve all seen murder done here, Sutton. I’ll bring charges to the magistrate myself. Surrender your weapon to me.”
“He dishonored my sister!” Silas retorted, even as he allowed Jim to take the Baker from him. “See – her own dress – and where is she gone to?”
“You did not find anyone in the house,” Jim turned his softly-spoken anger on Silas. “Nor in any of the outbuildings – and with the workshop near to the road, anyone might have hidden Miss Sutton’s clothing in the loft during the five days since she was last seen? Tell me – did you find any freshly-turned earth in your search of these premises? If she is not here, if no one has seen a new grave, or noted the turkey-vultures coming to feast on dead flesh … then where is she, Mr. Sutton? What put it into your mind with such certainty that Mr. Taylor had anything to do with the girl, alive or dead?”
“She often made excuse to come to this place!” Silas answered with an air of righteous anger. “And I have the right to protect my sister’s honor – Taylor seduced and murdered her, I have no doubt about that! There’s not a jury in Texas who would convict me for killing the man who debauched her!”
“Indeed?” Jim answered, his mind – the logical and lawyerly mind honed to a sharp edge by his father, and by logic and practice of law – turning and turning again. The map which Creed had drawn of Lavernia, his and Toby’s survey at a distance; all of that … “This shop and homestead are at the crossroads, Mr. Sutton; your sister would have passed by on any occasion that she went to visit her friend … Mrs. Sarah Bonner, for instance. Anywhere that your sister might have gone in Lavernia – the odds have it that she would have walked past this place. And that is your evidence! Thin stuff, indeed. Because of that accident of geography, you elect yourself as jury, judge and executioner? Despite all whom have good knowledge of the deceased, his character and temper – and himself claiming that he had no romantic interest in your sister – you assumed he entertained the basest of desires towards her and acted upon them? Why would that be, then? Why do you so readily assume that that Mr. Taylor had a guilty conscience regarding your sister?” Jim could see that Silas’ certainty was wavering, and he pressed his advantage. “Mr. Taylor gave you free access to his property, swearing that you would find nothing within? Very good, Mr. Sutton – I shall keep that in mind – that she often made excuse to come to this place. Can any of you confirm this … Mrs. Sutton; you are the only female sharing the household with Miss Sutton and presumably any particular womanly confidences … can you confirm and swear on the Good Book and your immortal soul – that Miss Sutton was accustomed to frequent this place for the purpose of meeting with Mr. Nate Taylor? No, I do not ask in a court of law – but I ask you as a woman with a conscience, and a duty to testify to the right or wrong of this matter, I ask – no, I demand – that you tell the truth as you would when you stand before the Creator of us all; did Miss Sutton come here with the purpose of meeting privately with Mr. Taylor – who lies dead before us, struck down by the hand of your husband? Answer; yes or no?” Jim felt a pang – to his conscience and his natural sense of chivalry, for poor Mrs. Sutton was as white as a sheet and quivering with terror.


“She did not,” Mattie Sutton answered, then she turned quite grey and fainted entirely away, which answered Jim’s question in one way… but not another. Suddenly there were more people in the doorway of the wheelwright’s workshop, men and women alike, crying out in astonishment, grief and anger. An older gentlemen knelt among the sawdust and straw on the ground, and felt for the pulse in Nate Taylor’s neck, then sighed heavily and covered the empty face of the dead man with a vast calico handkerchief.
“See what you’ve done to her!” Silas exclaimed in righteous indignation, gathering his wife into his arms. “Arrest me if you will – but first let me attend to my wife!”
“Stay a moment,” Jim answered. “Your wife says that Mandy did not come here to meet with Mr. Taylor – if not, then who? Micajah Boone, the apprentice – was the only other person living here. And didn’t he leave here right around the time that Miss Sutton was last seen? Didn’t you ever give any thought that it was Mr. Taylor’s apprentice paying attention to her?”
Silas nodded, grudgingly. “I expect that such might be the case – but he’s but a boy and an apprentice. I never did see that Mandy paid much mind to him, or him to her.”
“I can’t blame him for that,” Pitkin Taylor observed with a derisive snort. “Seeing as how you and your brothers scowled at any young buck who came close enough to bid her a ‘howdy-doo’. Did I have an eye to courting Mandy, I’d have taken good care not to make a show of it. I prefer my …” Pitkin suddenly became aware of the several women at the edge of the crowd, and converted the word he was about to say into a cough. “…to be where they are.”
One of the new arrivals was already shaking his head – the older man who appeared to have considerable respect among the folk of Lavernia. “No, young Micajah left alone – five, six days ago it was. I saw him myself, sitting on the back of Fryer’s wagon, as I was cutting firewood … Bill Fryer the carter, hauls goods from Bexar to Copano. He comes through here every three or four weeks, him and his boy. My woodlot is next to the road; I couldn’t be mistook, for he spoke to me and bid me farewell, and I reminded Fryer to bring me that box of window-glass that was promised to me last month. There was no woman in what wagon, and it was piled high with hides. You could smell them halfway to Victoria.”
“You are…” Jim ventured, and the older man answered with courtesy. “Wade Caldwell; I keep what little general store there is – also the tavern and post office. My eyesight might not be what it once was, but my ears and my nose are in prime working order.”
“Thank you, sir.” Jim assisted the older man to stand. “For your confirmation. But the mystery remains … where is Miss Sutton? And if she is not here in Lavernia – how did she leave without attracting notice?”
“It is a mystery, for certain.” Mr. Caldwell answered, frowning in puzzlement. “There have been no reports of hostile Indians hunting or raiding hereabouts, so I cannot think she was taken by them. Still, I wouldn’t set that possibility aside entirely.” He looked to be a kindly sort of man, a little bent with age, but accustomed to authority. He reminded Jim of his own father, now in chains in a Mexican prison, through no fault of his own. “Silas, take your wife home for now – but the magistrate in Bexar will decide on the charges to bring against you. Go home, while we decide what is to be done.” Silas, with his wife in his arms and as boneless as if she were as dead as the man on the floor of the workshop, shouldered through the folk gathered around the workshop without a word. His two brothers followed and Parris Fletcher looked as if he had considered doing so as well.
“This wasn’t my doing,” he said softly to Jim and Mr. Caldwell. “I had no wish for Nate to be killed – or any belief that Miss Sutton was anything more than a neighbor to him. She’s a personable young lady. Silas assured me that she had tender feelings towards me … I suppose that we should redouble our search for her, even if only to relive our own worries.”
“And keep Silas from killing any more of us Taylors,” Pitkin added in sardonic tones. He looked down at the body of his cousin. “God rest him, he was the best of us.”
“We should begin searching as soon as we can,” Jim suggested, although in the greener, damper country around Lavernia, any slight traces from five days before would have been eradicated in the last rainstorm. Still – the signs of freshly-turned earth would still be obvious, and a body thrown into the Cibolo would have to fetch up downstream somewhere eventually.

 

They were three days at it, without result; quartering the meadows and thickets around Lavernia, following the Cibolo downstream to probe every marshy bend and stretch of rapids where a body might reasonably be expected to fetch up. Meanwhile, the Taylors mourned Nate, and Mr. Caldwell sent word to Bexar that charges of murder should be preferred against Silas Sutton. He did so with the full assent of Jim, who was cross-eyed with exhaustion at the end of every day. He had accepted the hospitality of Pitkin Taylor, and Toby kept his camp at the edge of town as he had insisted, but stabled their horses at the wheelwright’s shop, as Pitkin’s stable was small and crowded with his own team and milk-cow.
“I am certain that Nate Taylor was entirely innocent in this matter,” Jim mused one morning, as he and Toby brought down hay from the loft over the wheelwright’s shop. Nate Taylor was to be buried that morning, so the search would resume later in the day. The wall-eyed paint-pony could certainly use the rest, and a leisurely browse on the dried hay tossed down into his stall. Toby stood below, while Jim tossed down forkfuls of hay to him. “I saw his face when Silas showed him the dress – he was as surprised as any one. And he would not have allowed a search, knowing it would be found. At the last, Nate said ‘young Rome.’ I couldn’t fathom that at first, Toby, but I thought – what if he was saying ‘young Romeo’, in referring to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet? I am certain that he knew Micajah Boone was looking to take Mandy Sutton with him, when he left. But I can’t see how she managed to leave with him, unobserved. It’s a play by Shakespeare – a pair of young lovers from rival families …”
“I know that,” Toby answered. “They taught his plays in the Mennonite school. It never made any sense to me, though. Among the People, our mothers choose … James,” his voice changed, as he bent to look closely at something in the last forkful of hay, in the brighter light of day. “You had better come and see this.”
Jim set aside the pitchfork and came down the ladder in a rush; that change in tone meant that Toby had found something significant. They were barely visible in the dried hay, impossible to have seen in the hayloft, but sunlight caught tiny glints of it, tangled in and among the brown and faded green blades and stems of hay; long pale threads of hair. Jim teased out one, another and another. Held together to the light it was just barely possible to guess at their color; light brown and the length of a man’s forearm, from finger-tip to elbow.
“They were not torn from her head in a struggle,” Toby observed. “I would say – cut.”
A blinding lightening-burst of realization went off in Jim’s mind. “Shakespeare! Toby, I know how they did it. Not Romeo and Juliet, but Twelfth Night! Quick, get our saddles. We have to speak to that carter – Bill Fryer, the one who gave a ride to Micajah and a load of hides…”

They left Lavernia on the road to the south, leaving a quiet word with Mr. Caldwell in his dusty and cramped little store and tavern, with the shutters closed against the winter chill.
“I believe I know where Miss Sutton is,” Jim explained. “And she is alive and well. I believe she did leave with Micajah Boone, but her brothers will not take a kindly view of the matter. We couldn’t stop Silas from doing murder once … but I beg your help in preventing him – or his brothers – from taking judgement into their own hand. Don’t say a word to anyone about this belief of mine.”
“You may depend on my discretion,” the storekeeper answered, his kindly face still puzzled. “But … who would they murder, then? I don’t understand.”
“Micajah … Miss Sutton’s husband – or husband to be.” Jim answered. “It all depends if they have gone to a justice of the peace, yet.”

They met Bill Fryer and his wagon on the well-traveled road south of Victoria to the coast, stumping along by his lead team, swinging his long ox-whip in a desultory fashion over the backs of his team and whistling merrily; a tough little man of indeterminate age. Jim had already discovered that the carters driving freight wagons up and down the road to Copano, or to Brownsville were as regular as migrating birds – and moreover, many of them knew each other very well. The location of Mr. Fryer and his team had been pinpointed with considerable accuracy, as well as a description of himself, his wagon, and his team animals, down to the patterns on their multicolored hides.
“Hello, friends,” he saluted them at some distance, and answered readily when Jim explained his errand in Lavernia and asked if he had gotten a good price for the hides.
“Made it worth my while,” he chuckled. “Especially with young Boone paying a little extra to ride all the way to Copano.”
“There was another boy, with your wagon when you passed through Lavernia last week,” Jim ventured. “Was he of your hire, or another passenger?”
“No, friend,” Mr. Fryer spat into the frost-killed weeds at the side of the rutted wagon road. “Not of my hiring – but a friend of young Boone’s, run away from home. Said his name was Andy, he was an orphan, sent to live there in Lavernia, not liking it very much. Said he was beaten now and again for nothing – wanted to set out on his own. Something I can take sympathy for … I set out on my own when I was fourteen. Stepfather, back in Virginny, with a liking for the bottle and a heavy hand. I said I’d take Micajah and Andy all the way to Copano for nothing more than a help with the team at hitch-up time.”
“That was a charitable deed, Mr. Fryer,” Jim said and Bill Fryer shrugged, somewhat embarrassed.
“’Twern’t nothing special. Just returning a kindness done for me, years ago. Kindness don’t cost nothin’. The Good Book says to do to others as you would like have done to you.”
“Did you notice anything odd about this Andy?” Jim asked, and Bill Fryer shook his head.
“No … he was real quiet. Didn’t have much to say for hisself. It was Micajah done all the talking, like he was an older brother looking out for him.”
“Did Micajah say what they were going to do, once they got to Copano?”
Bill Fryer scratched his stubbled chin. “No … but it was my idea that they were going to go farther – Copano was just the first stop on the way.”
“Where did you leave them?”
“At the old Custom’s House, by the jetty.” Bill Fryer squinted at the Jim, for the first time skeptical. “Say, you have an awful lot of questions, friend, for someone chance-met on the road.”
“I s’pose I do,” Jim answered, thinking that he did owe an explanation to someone who had been so helpful. “There was a killing in Lavernia, some days past; the wheelwright – Nate Taylor, who Micajah was apprenticed to. There’s a man as thought that Nate Taylor might have helped young Andy run away. They blamed him … and it led to angry words and then murder.”
“That does beat all,” Bill Fryer shook his head sadly. “He was a good man … and a damned good wheelwright, too. Well, I’ll guard my own words, friend – lest I be blamed as well.”
“Good,” Jim answered.
After bidding the carter farewell, they continued, more or less in silence, until Toby ventured, “So … is it as you thought. Miss Sutton cut her hair short and put on boy’s clothes in secret, in the loft.”
“Yes. I think that Micajah must have gotten them for her. It was quite clever – and bold of her to consider such a thing. Everyone would notice a young girl, traveling alone or with a young man – but hardly anyone would think anything of two boys. Once away from Lavernia, there was no one who would recognize her, even dressed as a boy. All they need do was meet met the carter on the road north of town, and rode on his wagon, in plain sight. ”
“People see what they expect to see,” Toby observed. “What do you plan, James – when we reach Copano?”
“I’m not quite certain,” Jim answered. “I guess it depends if they catch up to them before they move on to wherever they are going.”

The town of Copano was a double row of houses built of shell-cement, whitewashed by the more ambitious homeowners. There was a ship in port when Jim and Toby reached it at mid-morning, almost ten days since departing from Lavernia – a tall ship with furled sails being ready to lift anchor. Jim and Toby looked down from the top of the bluff which overlooked the anchorage, the wind from the bay bringing to them the salt-smell of the ocean, the cries of seagulls wheeling and diving down to the water before, and sailors chanting as they hauled away at the capstan. The gangplank had already been taken up, and Toby remarked,
“James, I think we have come too late.”
“Not necessarily,” James answered. Two figures stood by the rail, side by side; two boys at first sight. But the shorter and slighter of the two was hatless, the sea breeze blowing her light brown hair; a slender girl clad in boy’s workpants and round jacket, a girl with with a square jaw and a determined look to her, laughing as she looked up at her companion. Jim nodded, in quiet satisfaction.
“Good luck!” he called, across the water, and the two young faces turned towards him, startled and very slightly puzzled. Jim touched his fingers to his lips and blew upon them, “Safe journey!” he called across the widening water between them, and Amanda Sutton cupped her hands around her lips and replied,
“Thank you, sir!”
Jim laughed. “All right, Toby – now I’ve done what I set out to do – I have seen her and assured myself that she is safe. Let’s go back to Bexar.”
“Are you going to tell her brothers that we have seen her?” Toby asked. “They will wish to know that she is safe.”
“I may tell Parris Fletcher, and Wade Caldwell,” Jim replied. “Both are gentlemen, and Parris was at least fond of her. Her brothers … I think not. But as for the Suttons and the Taylors – I hope that this will be the end of it.”

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This is good start, Celia. It’s got the feel of the time.

    Now about Jim’s dad . . .

  2. Celia

    Oh, it will come, it will come.
    My daughter has made us both start running again, now that it is cool. I have developed my best ideas for plot while running. If I keep it up at this rate, I’ll have enough adventures for the two of them to make a book of it in six months.

  3. Pingback: A Chapter of the Next Book: Under the Harsh Blue Skies | Celia Hayes – The Accidental Texan