Astoria – Chapter 20

"This is it, folks."

Deputy Marshall T.J. Muldoon was looking up at the hotel instead of at the ground when he jumped down from the stagecoach. He landed in deep mud and sank almost up to his ankles. Damn Astoria, he thought. So much rain in this town, you could drown if you looked up.

"Are you trying to kill me, driver?" Muldoon shouted. "Move up a bit away from this quicksand." The driver clicked softly to the horses and, ever obedient, they advanced a few feet.

Muldoon arched his sore back, trying to stretch out the kinks that had accumulated since leaving The Dalles that morning. Resting his hands on his hips, he twisted around to read the sign that hung above the porch. "The Traveler's Rest" was in big bold letters, and just below it, in smaller letters, was "Clean Lodging, Good Food.'

Two iron boot scrapers flanked the steps up to the long front porch. Muldoon tried to remove the muck from his new boots, but only succeeded in spreading the mud more evenly. Finally, he gave up. It was impossible to stay clean, dry or warm in this town. A few drops of rain plunked on his hat. The night sky showed no stars, only the thick gray clouds that hugged the Oregon coast like a lover's embrace. He fumbled for his handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. All this humidity made him congested. His face actually hurt. Not for the first time, he wondered how anyone could tolerate living in all this wetness. The clean dry air inland was better any day of the year.

His attention was drawn back to the stage. The driver was backing up and moving forward, again and again, trying to find a spot where his passengers could get off and onto the wooden sidewalk in one step.

"Come on, we don't have all night," Muldoon told him. Sheesh! These people! His head hurt bad enough without this driver giving him a whole new headache. "Will you get settled? Help these people down while I go in and make sure their rooms are ready."

"Yes, sir." The driver was still climbing down from his high perch when Muldoon pushed through the ornate glass doors into the lobby. He paused at the threshold as he always did in a new place, checking for trouble. Standing behind the reception desk was a pretty young woman, early 20's, with a crown of braided blonde hair. Next to her stood an older man, 6' tall, curly blond hair, strong build. The man smiled in a friendly way.

"Welcome to The Traveler's Rest. How can we help you?"

Muldoon crossed the lobby quickly, extending his arm. "I'm Deputy Marshall Thomas Jefferson Muldoon, out of The Dalles. I sent a telegram to your boss Mr. Ahern about rooms for the folks I brung here for the trial."

Mike came out from behind the reception desk to shake Muldoon's hand. "I'm Mike Ahern, Marshall. I got your telegram. Everything's ready. Once Miss Kaukonen here gets everyone registered, we can get 'em settled real quick. I'm sure your group's tired."

"That they are," Muldoon agreed. "Some food wouldn't hurt none neither. Is the restaurant still open?"

"We got dinner ready for your group, Marshall. Everything's just like you asked."

Muldoon let himself relax a little. After twenty-five years as a lawman, he trusted his instincts. Only one thing bothered him.

"I thought carrying a shooting iron was illegal in this town. You really need that hogleg?" Over Ahern's shoulder, he saw the woman draw a deep breath and dab at her eyes. Was she crying?

Ahern's direct gaze met his. "Maybe. I was told you'd be bringing in some rough characters. This is my business, after all. It's up to me to keep everyone here safe. Especially when I got my fiancee working registration."

That made sense to Muldoon. That fiancee of his was a real pretty girl.

"You don't wear that thing regular-like? Cause you look awful comfortable with it, tied down that way."

"I don't ever wear it. Leastways, not since I was young and stupid."

"Good to hear. And I bet you're happy about that, too, young lady." He tipped his hat to her. "Miss Ka –" What was her name? Something unpronounceable. Astoria was full of foreigners and Chinese. "Miss. My wife says she can't wait for the day I lock this hogleg in my desk and forget it's there."

Maarit flashed a bright smile at Muldoon, checking for Mike's reaction with a sideways glance.

"You are right; I don't like guns. I will be happy when there are no guns anywhere."

"I don't know if there'll ever be such a time, not while we still got crooks like Kid Curry in the world." He looked more closely at her pale face. "Are you feeling a little peaked, Miss?"

Mike answered for her. "She's fine. Miss Kaukonen and me had a little disagreement earlier about this gun, but she understands now why I'm wearing it. There's already been a little hooha at the jail with some local hooligans tryin' to get to the prisoner. I'm making sure nobody tries to make any trouble here."

"Glad to hear it," Muldoon said, "although you ain't got to worry about problems now that I'm here. I don't want no trouble either. That's why I'm escorting these people. Got to keep a lid on the situation, make sure it don't blow up."

"Marshall," Maarit interrupted, "Can I get someone to help with luggage?"

"Do that, will you?" Ahern told her "Get Eddie and tell him I said it's time he earned his pay."

"I will do." Both men watched her as she slipped out of the room quietly. They heard her muffled voice beyond the door.

"Pretty girl, Ahern. You're a lucky man."

"Yes sir, I guess I am."

Muldoon looked at Mike more closely. "You know, I got a feeling I should know you. You look kind of familiar."

"I've been to The Dalles a few times. Maybe you seen me there." Mike maintained his friendly, innocent smile. Lying was such an ingrained habit that it was easy as breathing for him. He was sure this lawman had no idea who he really was.

"What were you saying a minute ago about the situation blowing up?"

"Call me T.J. Everybody does."

"And I'm Mike."

"Good to know ya. To answer your question, . . . well, that might have happened, if I could've round up all my witnesses, but most of them hightailed out of town already. All I got is two."

Mike's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Only two? I was told there were a whole passle of witnesses, just champing at the bit to put Kid Curry away."

"There were, but it's already been a couple weeks since the shooting. All them what saw the shootin' were transients. God only knows where they are now."

"You didn't get forwarding addresses for them?"

T.J. shook his head. "Not hardly. That's why they're called transients. Ain't got no fixed address, except maybe a post office box somewhere they check once a month. I got people trying to track 'em down, but all I could scare up on such short notice was two."

"You got a problem for sure. The defense lawyer's gonna love that. Only two barflies for eyewitnesses, and they're easy to discredit, if they're like every other transient I've ever seen in a gin mill. They were probably liquored up their own selves. You need a lot of witnesses to provide consistent testimony; otherwise the defense won't have any trouble casting reasonable doubt on what two drunks got to say."

Muldoon's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "You sound like some kind of shyster yourself. How come you know so much about the law?"

"My best friend's a lawyer. Been listening to him talk about his cases for years now." Mike smiled brightly. "Guess I might've picked up something all that time he was boring me to tears."

"Uh huh. This lawyer friend of yours, is he - ?"

"What do you need, boss?" Eddie said, coming out of the restaurant with Maarit only a few steps behind him.

"There's a stage pulling up out front. Help the passengers get unloaded, and then take their luggage and meals upstairs after Maarit gets them registered."

Eddie almost saluted. "Right away, boss." They could all hear footsteps on the front porch as the guests approached.

"Should we go out there and help him?" Mike suggested. "Your people got to be about done in by now." And that way, I don't have to tell you right now that my best friend is the lawyer who'll be defending Kid Curry and ripping your unreliable witnesses into little pieces.

"You're right about being done in, but there ain't no need for more help. They're travelling light."

T.J. ushered his small group in while Eddie went outside to start collecting luggage. There were two solitary men who had to be the witnesses, but what were two middle-aged couples doing there?

"This here's Mr. Ahern, the owner of this here hotel. Him and his intended – that's the young lady yonder at the desk – are going get you checked in and up to your rooms. And you got some food ready, too, didn't you say?"

Mike stepped forward. "Yes, we do. Folks, welcome to The Traveler's Rest. Me and my staff will do everything we can to make you comfortable while you're in Astoria. Your rooms are all ready. We just need you to sign the register. We got some fried chicken, potato salad and pie ready, too, and we'll bring that up to your rooms once you're settled."

One of the single men spoke up. "You got some firewater to go with that chicken?"

"This is a temperance hotel. No alcohol served, and none allowed," Mike said. The guests greeted his statement with expressions of dismay, relief, and surprise.

"That's why we're here and not at some other hotel," T.J. explained. "No distractions." He stared hard at the man who'd asked for whiskey. "That means no drinking, here or anywhere else. Make sure you don't forget that, Beckman. That goes for you, too, Frenchy."

"A man's got to warm himself somehow," Beckman protested. Behind him – Frenchy? - looked like he was ready to argue, but T.J. forestalled him.

"You need to warm yourself, Beckman, Mr. Ahern will get you another quilt. Ain't nobody touching even one drop of whiskey till our legal business is done here. After you give your testimony, you can go on a bender till Christmas. You understand me?"

Beckman looked like he had more to say on the subject, but T.J. stared him down. Unnoticed, Mike's hand twitched towards his gun.

Eddie came through the front doors, kicking one aside so hard it bounced off the wall. He felt Mike's disapproval more than he saw it and mouthed a silent "sorry." He carried only a few shabby, worn carpetbags. Mike looked at him inquiringly, and Eddie only shrugged. There was no more luggage to bring in.

The two couples stood huddled together, looking around at everything in the lobby like they'd never been inside a hotel before. T.J. was talking to the witnesses, stabbing their chests with his index finger. Maarit was biting her lip anxiously, and Eddie stood still, waiting for orders. As usual, Mike stepped up to get things organized.

"Ladies first. If you'd come over to the front desk, Miss Kaukonen will have you and your husbands sign the register, and then she'll give you keys to your rooms. You fellas are next. You're sharing a double."

"Would you sign the book, please?" Maarit said, presenting her professional, friendly face to the apprehensive guests. The two couples went first, followed by the thirsty witnesses, and Maarit struck up a friendly conversation with them. While they were distracted, Mike stepped over to talk to T.J. privately.

"T.J., who are those people with you? You said you didn't have more witnesses than two."

"They're not witnesses. They're survivors."

"Survivors? What do you mean? Did they get shot, too?"

"No," T.J. answered, whispering. "Their daughters did. They're the parents."

"Are you kidding me!" Mike voice rose. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You mean they're gonna sit there and hear all about how their girls got killed? Why'd you let 'em come?"

"Couldn't stop 'em if I wanted to," T.J. said. "And I did want to." He and Mike looked at the two couples who were laboriously signing the register.

"They said their children couldn't rest until they had justice, and they aimed to be at court every single minute until that happened. They're not planning to go home until after the hanging."

"Not till after the hanging?" Mike asked. "They that sure that there's gonna be a conviction?"

"Of course they're sure!" T.J. almost sounded offended. "And so am I. We're right grateful that your Sheriff Eberly had his people watching out for Kid Curry. If'n you ask me, Curry's way overdue for a necktie party. The sooner his neck gets stretched, the better."

"If he really is guilty of shooting those girls, and not one of your witnesses or them transients you can't find."

T.J. gave Mike the same hard look he'd given his witnesses earlier.

"Just whose side are you on?"

"I'm on the side of justice and the law. I want to see the real shooter punished for what he done, not someone who's just convenient. Whether he's Kid Curry or Martha Washington, it's got to be proved that the man sitting in jail right now is the one and only person who done the crime."

"He's Kid Curry. Everyone knows he's a killer."

"Not true. Everyone knows him and Heyes never shot anyone during their robberies. That's what they're famous for. Now you want everyone to believe he's a killer?" Mike smiled sadly, almost with pity. "You got your work cut out for you, T.J."

"Maybe he wasn't killin' so much when he and Heyes were partners, but it's been maybe 10 years since those two were playin' Robin Hood," T.J. argued. "And you talkin' about what everybody knows? Those two were supposed to be close as brothers. You never saw one without the other being real close. Where is Heyes, now that his partner's about to get his neck stretched? If'n you ask me, the partnership broke up and they went their separate ways. Heyes was always the brains, and Curry was the muscle. That's why Curry got himself in this fix. He weren't ever anything more than a gunnie, and now he's a drunk, too. It ain't no surprise to me that he shot up a saloon, since Heyes wasn't around to tell him what to do."

"You still got to prove it was his bullets, his alone, that killed those girls, and not Frenchy's or Beckman's or anyone else's."

"Mike!" Maarit's sharp voice startled him. Everyone in the room was standing still at marble statues, staring wide-eyed at him and Muldoon. Both men suddenly realized their conversation had turned into a shouting match. Mike cursed himself silently; he knew how bad his temper was, and he'd let T.J. bait him into defending Kid Curry anyway. He knew better, and he'd gone ahead and done it anyway. Damn, damn, and double damn. Time to step back, as he had when young punks tried to challenge him to shoot. He took a deep breath to calm himself.

"Weeelll," Mike said, drawing the word out to three syllables to calm himself, "I guess we have to agree to disagree on this, T.J. What do you say, let's leave it up to the court and get everyone settled for the night? You got a big day tomorrow."

"About time," Muldoon grumbled. "I ain't got the energy for a hangin' tonight anyway."

Fifteen minutes later, all the guests were settled in their rooms, their food had been delivered, and Mike came down the stairs heavily. He felt like he'd caught an infection of tired from his new guests. He was ready to drop onto his bed, fully clothed, fully armed, still in his boots, and stay put. He'd done that a few times in the old days, but back then, he'd had Heyes to look after him. There were times he'd wake after collapsing onto a bed, dead to the world, and find his gun put away, his boots set neatly against the bed, his hat hanging neatly on a bed post, and himself tucked in under a heavy quilt. He couldn't help but smile at the memories. Heyes had looked after him ever since they were boys. As adults, they still looked after each other. Probably always would.

Maarit tensed up when she heard his heavy footsteps down the upstairs hall and stairs, fearing another confrontation, but she felt better when she saw him smiling. He probably was sorry he'd said such mean things to her. He never was one to stay angry with her for long.

"What a night!" Mike said, coming up to the registration desk. Normally the sight of his beautiful girl lifted any mood he'd sunk into, but the memory of the bitter argument they'd had just a couple hours ago was too vivid. He knew his words had deeply hurt her. A better man would apologize or explain.

"Maarit." She looked up at him, big blue eyes full of love and hope, and he couldn't do it. He just couldn't. Not tonight. He knew, with a pang of pain, what he had to do, what he ought to do, but he couldn't. He was too tired, too sad, and too full of pity to hurt this beautiful girl anymore, at least this evening. He knew what he would break her heart - probably his, too - but now wasn't the time, and this wasn't the place.

"Maarit," he began again, "you better go home and get some solid sleep. I'm too tired my own self to walk with you" - now disappointment crossed her face, but he pushed on - "so I'll have Eddie take you. Get some rest. Alright?"

"Mike," she asked, hesitantly, "are you still mad at me?"

"No. I'm not mad." Now her smile broadened. She was too young, too innocent, to know that mad was a lot better than the heartbreak he was really feeling.

"Okay, Mike. I see you tomorrow, then?" He nodded. He was out of words. She slipped out of the lobby to find Eddie.

After a long moment, he crossed back to the reception desk and sat down behind it, shoulders slumped, hands folded. He'd stay on duty until Eddie got back to take the night shift. There was nothing else he could do right now. He'd always been a practical man, dealing with the realities of a situation instead of worrying over what might or might not happen. He took action, he did what he needed to, and he slept fine. Heyes had always teased him about his ability to fall asleep anytime, anywhere.

That was the past, though. He knew it'd be hard to find sleep tonight, thinking about the court case beginning tomorrow, and the insanity of the whole situation. The fake Kid Curry was being defended by the real Hannibal Heyes, while the real Kid Curry stayed as far away from the courtroom as possible and prayed for a happy outcome, whatever that would be. He sure couldn't see one. Yeah, it had been one hell of an evening. Funny how things work out. He envied the person he used to be. Kid Curry always slept easily. Mike Ahern didn't.