And Strict The Path of Duty
A man's own conscience is his sole tribunal. ~ (Edward Bulwer-Lytton)
A slightly green-faced rider ran a lathered horse up to the Sherman ranch house and slid to a stop. "Slim!" he shouted. "Jess! Anybody!"
"I'm right here, Bud. Where's the fire?" Slim appeared from behind the house, hammer in hand.
"Jim Pruitt's been bushwhacked." Bud Evans gasped out. "Gunned down on his own doorstep." He started to swing down. "I ain't feelin' too good, Slim. Whoever done it blowed his head off."
Jess came out of the barn and caught Evans' horse while the man ducked his head into the watering trough, pulled it out, and then plunged it in again.
"Sorry!" When he finally emerged his face had taken on a more normal color. "I seen dead men before but this was ugly. Somebody got Pruitt up close with a scattergun. "
"What about Mrs. Pruitt?" Slim asked anxiously. "Is she all right?"
"Looked through the door and she was settin' in a chair inside so I called to her. She didn't seem to hear me none - it was like she'd fainted with her eyes open. I went in and saw she wasn't hurt or nothin' so then I fogged it for here. You're the nearest neighbor, Slim. I figured you c'd head on over while I went into Laramie for the sheriff."
Jess was already saddling up.
"Take one of our horses and get going, Bud," Slim told him. "Let Sheriff Beardslee know we'll meet him at Pruitt's. I just wish you hadn't left Mrs. Pruitt alone out there!"
"You 'n me both, Slim. That pore woman." Evans dragged the saddle off his tired horse and went after a fresh mount as Slim and Jess started for the Pruitt ranch.
"Who would have it in for Jim Pruitt?" Jess wondered.
"Well, I don't know as he had any enemies. But I don't know of anybody who liked him, either."
"He sure built his place a long way from nowheres."
"Pruitt told my father once he liked peace and quiet," Slim said. "But my mother always held that he was too tight-fisted to ever want company. She used go over to call on Mrs. Pruitt, sometimes. She said it wasn't very cheerful. Of course, Ma said no place could be cheerful with Jim Pruitt in it."
They rode up into the foothills, pushing the pace hard as the morning lengthened, but even after they left the main road it was still almost an hour before the Pruitt ranch house came into sight. It was a solitary place, set deep in a hollow surrounded by wind-stunted trees.
"Unlifted was the clinking latch," Slim murmured.
"Poem my ma used to read to me, by Tennyson, I think. About a woman shut up in a house way out in the country and slowly losing her mind from loneliness and sorrow. The broken sheds look'd sad and strange, unlifted was the clinking latch."
"His sheds look fine to me," Jess observed.
"They would," Slim said, not without a touch of irony. "No one can say Pruitt didn't take good care of his stock."
They looked down at the house. It was an awkward structure, originally a cabin and added on to over the years. The barn and outbuildings were newer and showed signs of good repair and careful upkeep but without any cash or effort spent beyond what was necessary. There were no flowers in the yard, not so much as a runner bean vine draping its scarlet blossoms over the fence, and no curtains shielded the windows.
"What's she like?" Jess asked. The rancher he knew, but didn't remember ever seeing Pruitt's wife in town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
"Lydia Pruitt? She's only about ten years older than I am. She was my Sunday school teacher when I was a kid, and I had a bit of a case on her. All the boys did, she was so gentle and pretty. I remember my parents talking about it when she married, her so young and Pruitt already having buried one wife. "
"Wonder what she saw in him?"
"Well, he didn't drink or gamble, and his word was good, and he paid his bills on time. But he was a hard man - there wasn't any give to him at all. Maybe she thought he'd be different after they married…" Slim's voice trailed off. "She was one of the sweetest girls you'd ever want to meet. I beat up Charlie Webb once for sassing her."
"How old were you?"
Jess laughed, and Slim laughed too, a little sadly. They rode down the slope to the dooryard.
"You know, Ma brought me over to call after I got home from the war but I haven't been here since then. Doesn't look like it's changed any. Damn, it's gloomy."
"Gives me the fantods," Jess shook his head. "And not just because of that."
He pointed his chin at the body of a man lying on his back a few steps from the porch. As Bud Evans had told them, his face and most of the top of his skull were missing. He had been shot at very close range, and Slim winced.
"I hope Mrs. Pruitt didn't see it happen," he said softly.
"Are you sure it's Pruitt?"
"Well…it's about his height and build, and that looks like his coat. He's worn the same one for years."
They tied their horses to the corral fence and approached the house cautiously. A chair lay on its side on the porch, and Jess saw the shape of a short-barreled shotgun underneath it. Slim gave it a wide berth and stepped through the open door.
A faded little woman was sitting hunched over in a slat-backed rocker by the empty fireplace. She had a small pasteboard box on her knees and she was stroking it with short, nervous gestures as she rocked. Slim knelt down beside the chair.
"Mrs. Pruitt?" His voice dropped into the same tone he would have used on a spooked filly. "It's Slim Sherman. You remember me? Mary Sherman's boy."
With an awkward tenderness he placed his hands over hers, stilling their quivering movement. "I used to come visit with my mother, sometimes."
He might as well have been talking to a stone. Jess glanced around the room. Like the outside, it was scrupulously clean and well-kept, but with nothing to soften its barren usefulness. No money had been wasted in here, either.
Slim was staring down at Mrs. Pruitt's hands. He looked as if he had just seen something startling and unpleasant. "Ride out and watch for the sheriff. Let me know when you see him."
"Are you sure you don't want me to look around outside?"
"Just go and keep an eye out." Slim's voice was strained and his face wore a closed, tight expression, as though warning him. Jess went.
The sun was straight up before he saw two riders coming along with a rig - the sheriff must have brought the undertaker with him. He loped Traveller back to the house.
A square from a burlap sack had been dropped over Pruitt's head and shoulders, and the shotgun and the chair were gone.
His partner came out as Jess pulled up.
"Sheriff's coming, be here in ten, fifteen minutes."
"Here." Slim shoved the little box at him. "Roll this up in your slicker. Don't let Beardslee see it."
"Slim, what the - "
"Don't argue with me, Jess, just do it!" He turned on his heel and walked into the house.
"Yes sir, Mister Sherman, sir," Jess said sarcastically to Slim's back. But he untied his slicker and hid the box.
Albee, the undertaker, came prepared with a rough board coffin loaded in the back of his wagon. Sheriff Beardslee had brought Bud Evans back with him and was leading him through his story again.
"So you rode out here right after sunup?"
"He sent word to me yestiddy that he had some stock to move this morning and could I come - I used to work for him sometimes, when he needed a hand. I left my place at first light, he wanted me early."
"Did you see anything unusual?"
Evans looked around. "Well…no, don't think so," he said slowly. "I wasn't really paying attention. I think one of the chairs on the porch was knocked over but I ain't sure. The blood looked fresh, I remember that."
"Whoever it was laid for him here." The sheriff, a restless man, paced back and forth between the porch and the body. "Most likely happened just before you showed up. Pruitt must've been on his way back in to the house from chores. Did you or Jess notice anythin', Slim?"
Slim turned his head and glanced at Jess. Their eyes met and held for a moment and Jess again had the feeling that he was being warned.
"No. It was pretty much how Bud says." Slim's reply was a little too smooth.
Jess frowned, but his unspoken question was answered by a slight shake of the head, leaving him wondering what his partner was up to. This was a new side to Slim, one he didn't recognize and one that made him just a little uneasy.
"Saw Pruitt in the bank yesterday afternoon. He just finished selling off some of his horses, had a nice bit of cash to deposit," said Albee. He quoted piously, "'In the midst of life -'well, I won't have to worry about getting paid for burying him."
Mrs. Pruitt didn't look up as they crowded into the small room. The sheriff glanced across at Slim, who told him, "She hasn't said anything since Jess and I got here."
"Real lonesome place. Spooky, almost. Hard on a woman, bein' out here all by herself," Beardslee remarked.
"I don't know if anyone's been to see her since my mother passed away," Slim said somberly.
"She had a cat for company, at any rate." The sheriff pointed to a basket near the stove, a shabby little willow-work oval padded with a scrap of blanket. "Wonder where it is?"
"Run off!" Slim spoke sharply. The other men looked at him. "I mean, cats are like that. They don't like a death in the house. It'll be in the barn or out in the woods, probably come back after we leave."
"Doesn't she have a son somewhere?" The undertaker, a man fairly new to the county, asked.
"Stepson. Rob Pruitt. He rides for the Bar M." Slim replied.
"Why wasn't he working for his pa?"
"He left home soon as he was old enough," said Beardslee. "Jim Pruitt's that mean he tried to get me to arrest his own son, said he rightfully owned the clothes Rob was wearin' and the horse he was ridin', but somebody talked him out of it."
"Her?" Albee lowered his voice and jerked his head towards the still figure in the rocker. "Mrs. Pruitt, I mean?"
"Doubt it. She's always been one of them fluttery kind of women, never could stand up to him." The sheriff poked idly around the clean dishes stacked on the table. "Rob wanted to marry Drusilla Brown - he'd been sweet on her since they were kids at school together. The story is that when he turned eighteen he asked his pa for money to set up housekeepin' on, and Pruitt said he'd horse-whip the boy if he was ever that foolish again. Dru got tired of waitin', I guess, married some fellow from Cheyenne. They say Rob hasn't set foot on the place or talked to his pa since."
"It was hard on Lyddy Pruitt," Evans chimed in. "Rob was six when she married Pruitt an' she raised him like her own."
"No other children?"
"There was a little girl but she died, that winter the scarlet fever took so many kids. Mrs. Pruitt pulled Rob through but couldn't save the baby - the doc came too late, I reckon."
"Sheriff, do you need to see anything else? I'd like to get Pruitt's remains loaded up and get back to town."
"Sure, Mister Albee. Bud, can you give him a hand?"
The room seemed strangely empty after they left. Slim knelt back down next to Mrs. Pruitt and watched Beardslee prowl around, looking in cupboards and behind doors. There was little to see, everything in order but sparse, exactly what was needed but not a scrap more.
"Bleak." The sheriff finally said, with the air of a man who has found exactly the right word. "Well, if they got the lid nailed down on Pruitt, let's get his missus out of here."
It seemed to Slim that Mrs. Pruitt weighed no more than a child as he helped her to her feet and guided her footsteps out the door to the waiting rig. Albee made room for the woman on the seat and clucked to his team.
"Sheriff!" Slim called as they started back up the rise. "You want Jess for anything? I need to send him back to my place to take care of the afternoon stage."
Beardslee waved a careless assent and Slim drew rein to let the other riders pull ahead.
"One more thing," he told his partner in an undertone. "Somewhere between here and the ranch, you bury that box."
"Keep your voice down! Don't leave any sign and make sure nobody sees you."
"Slim, I - "
"Do what I tell you!"
Jess opened his mouth to retort, saw Slim's face, and thought better of it. "Sure, boss. Whatever you say."
He looked back from the ridge trail. Slim's horse was tied to Albee's wagon and he was sitting next to Mrs. Pruitt with his arm around her thin shoulders.
Word had spread by the time they reached Laramie. People stood in clusters in the street, murmuring to each other. Some pointed, and this finally seemed to pierce the daze that surrounded Mrs. Pruitt. She closed her eyes and her head drooped even lower.
A lanky boy with a bitter mouth waited for them at the sheriff's office. Big Tim McGuire from the Bar M was there also, his hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Hello, Rob," said Slim. Pruitt ignored him and helped his stepmother to a chair. She whimpered - a faint, sobbing sound - and clung to his hand.
"I got to ask you, Rob," said Beardslee without preamble. "Where've you been for about the past, oh, twelve hours?"
"Until five o'clock this mornin' he was asleep in the bunkhouse with four other punchers," McGuire put in before the boy could answer.
"What about after?"
"After that he was cleanin' out waterholes on my south range."
"He had Baldy Smith with him the whole time."
"Mac, you got the name of bein' an honest man. But you also got the name of havin' a likin' for this kid," Beardslee warned.
"Just 'cos I hired him when his pa threw him out? I ain't runnin' no game on you, Sheriff. Baldy'll swear to it."
"I believe you, Mac. But Jim Pruitt had a good ranch and money in the bank, and you know the only people who stand to gain anythin' by his murder are his son and his wife."
"Are you arrestin' her?" Rob Pruitt asked angrily.
"I got no reason to, son. There's nothin' that tells me she did it, and besides, no jury's goin' to believe a little woman like her was able to throw down on anybody with a scattergun. She couldn't have held it steady long enough to pull the trigger. You're my only other suspect - and it looks like your boss is givin' you a cast-iron alibi."
"Then if you don't mind, Sheriff, I'm takin' my mother to the hotel." Rob bent over and touched her arm. "Ma?"
She looked up at him timidly, like a small child waiting to be scolded.
"Come on, Ma." He shepherded her carefully out.
Beardslee sighed in irritation and pushed a stack of paperwork around on his desk. "I'll head back out tomorrow, see if I can find any tracks. Maybe some jasper figured Pruitt still had the money on him from that stock sale. Ride with me, Slim?"
"Can't, Sheriff. I have to go over to Rawlins. Stage line business."
"Can I get Jess, then?"
"Taking him with me. Sorry."
Jess was waiting on the boardwalk when Slim finally came out of the sheriff's office.
His partner didn't answer.
"Slim, did you know what was in that box?"
"A cat. Or what was left of one, after someone took a shotgun to it. A little yellow cat, still had a piece of ribbon around its neck."
Slim said nothing. His shoulders made a rigid line against the fading light.
"It was wrapped up in a baby's dress. One of those fancy things women put all kinds of tucks and frills into. Slim, I'm with you all the way, you know that. Just tell me - "
"Jess," Slim interrupted. "I've heard you say there were times on the drift when you thought you'd have gone crazy if you didn't have Traveller to talk to. Remember?"
"Hell, yes. What's that got -"
"What would you do if someone, out of pure low-down cussedness, walked up and fired a Parker ten bore into his head?"
"I'd kill 'em!" Jess stopped himself. "I mean…oh, Slim."
Slim turned away abruptly and climbed into the saddle. They were about a mile outside of town before he spoke.
"I just wish I'd gone to see her. Even once."