Tam the Tall Tale Teller, Chapter 5: The Flower Center Poisoner


We’d missed a night of Tam’s tall tale telling after Cookie’s beans gave most of us drovers a fair to middling acquaintance with the trots, a circumstance that didn’t make fer any overdone amount of pleasure. Not that anybody blamed the cowboy who ran the chuckwagon. It weren’t Cookie’s fault. A worthless young hand by the name of Randy had been run off by the trail boss the day before. None too happy with being fired, he’d managed to follow the herd, slip into camp between circuits of the night herders, and poison the beans that had been set out to soak fer the next day’s cooking.

With what, we never was none too sure, but we found the renegade’s boot tracks coming and going. No point in chasing the varmint, but there was a heap of Colt .45’s and Russian .44’s being double checked and fresh-loaded, jist in case we eyeballed the kid. If any of us happened to cross his path in the near future–like, say, the next fifty years or so–it’d be a simple matter of shoot, shovel, and shut up.

Or jist leave his sorry carcass in a dry wash fer the buzzards.

Fortunately, young Randy weren’t none too expert when it come to poisons. Or mebbe he jist didn’t know what was available along the Chisholm Trail. Either way, though, the experience reminded Tam of a story.

Of course, purty near everything did that.

Tam speaks

Well, boys, I’m right glad to see we’ve all purty much recovered from Reckless Randy’s mad escapade, I kin tell ya that. But there’s a silver lining to every cloud. Our tainted beans reminded me that you young bucks, especially, need to be careful when we git to Dodge City.

Naw, I’m not trying to Mommy the bunch of you. And I don’t really mean Dodge City proper, neither. I mean after we’re done with the drive, and you’re all headed back home.

Let me explain about Flora Flowers–that’s the name she went by, anyway–and Flower Center. See, Flower Center ain’t really there no more, but fer some years it was a sight to behold. Situated an hour’s ride outside of town, it weren’t nothing but a little collection of buildings in the beginning. In the main clapboard structure, Miss Flora Flowers served up some grub that’d stick to yer ribs, I can tell ya.

It weren’t even painted, jist them weathered boards, though it did have a big sign up over the door that said FLOWER CENTER and below that, in smaller print, EATS, FLOWERS, and BATHS.

No, not a hotel. This place didn’t have no sleeping rooms, jist a back room with two of them big copper tubs they could fill with hot water they heated over a stove out back. Lots of folks figgered Miss Flora was running a whorehouse, too, but she weren’t. Jist selling some solid meals, flower arrangements, and hot-water soaks.

Thing is, nobody grows flowers fer sale in them parts. Kansas is hard country, flatter’n one of Cookie’s sourdough flapjacks, nothing to stop the blizzards in winter or the heat in summer or, fer that matter, them danged twisters. It’s not a place fer gardening stuff you cain’t eat. Yet Flora Flowers made it happen. All around that main building, there were flowering plants what shouldn’t have been able to grow in that country at all. The closest to natural was mebbe the chokecherry tree, but since everybody knows them cherries is called choke fer a reason, it was still jist fer looking at. Some said she’d found a place where the water run close to the surface, and I reckon it surely must have. In a way it made no sense, either how she kept them plants growing in that harsh climate or how she made money offen the deal, but she done it. Purty slick when it was all said and done, too.

Men of all types showed up to pay fer a meal, day in, day out. Miss Flora didn’t do the cooking herself–she had some kind of fancy pants fella they call a chef fer that–but she was some kinda of saleswoman. A looker right out of a drover’s wet dream, fair of skin but with that jet black hair you most often see only on a young Indian girl, green eyes to shame an emerald, laughing lips made fer kissin’, one a them hourglass figures–and an easy way of talking to a man.

What’s that, Jasper? I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Well, I should hope! I tucked my knees under her table more’n once, and I’d do it again, despite how things turned out. So would jist about ever’ other fella who ever met the lady, I’m guessing.

Anyway, Miss Flora, she’d make sure to find out if her customer had a wife at home, and if he did, she’d insist on sending the poor fella off with a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers fer the little woman. I say “poor fella” ’cause a lot of them men would have jist as soon not told their better halves about having gone out to Flower Center in the first place, but she had ’em trapped. If they didn’t deliver the flowers, they’d have to face Miss Flora’s sweet but relentless questions the next time they came back to eat.

How had the Missus liked the azaleas? Would she be able to join him fer a meal at Flower Center one of these times? Had Flora remembered to mention that on Wednesdays, accompanied ladies ate for free?

Over the years, she built up a solid business that way…until the Pinkerton detectives showed up in Dodge City. It weren’t jist the shootings and stage robberies and such what brung ’em. People had started turning up mysteriously dead.

The undertakers all agreed it looked like poisoning of some sort. Them Pinkerton boys didn’t waste much time thinking before they agreed, and before long, they begun to suspect Miss Flora Flowers of Flower Center. They listed their reasons–it was in the paper, though buried on the back page, since there’d been a couple of dandy shootings that week that made better copy. Nothing they could pin down, but they figgered it this way:

1. Every victim was an attractive married lady, usually found prostrate in her own home with her equally dead husband.

2. Every kitchen table in every victim’s home sported a bouquet of fresh flowers that could have only come from Flora’s place.

3. Poison was a “woman’s weapon”.

Didn’t really take no Pinkerton fella to put that much together; a one-eyed African monkey coulda done it. You’d think. Except nobody had done it, before these fellers come to town.

So they gathered up the Marshal and a couple of deputies, rode out to Flower Center, and arrested the green-eyed lady with the laughing lips. They purty near had to shoot the chef, who turned out to be an excitable type and kind of aggressive with his meat cleaver, but they got the job done. Brought her in, put her in the jail, and got ready fer her trial.

She wasn’t talking, except to chat up the lawmen like they was paying customers, batting her lashes and all. But she never got her day in court, no siree, she most surely did not. A mob of more’n thirty masked men broke her out of the jail the first and only night she was there, then surprised the dickens out of every peace officer in the area. Instead of stringing her up fer poisoning their friends and neighbors, which was what the deputies who lost the prisoner thought sure they had in mind, them masked men spirited her right out of town in nothing flat.

Seems a fair number of fellas who’d sat at her table believed her innocent, and likely that many more didn’t care if she was or not. Some witnesses swore there was even a couple of powerful ugly women in that mob, which might have been true at that. The only poisoning victims turned out to be good looking gals and/or the men married to ’em. As far as the ugly females could tell, Flora the Poisoner was jist leveling the playing field.

How’d she do it? Yeah, I meant to include that. Sorry.

Seems most of them plants she cultivated were mankillers. Oleander, fer one–they say a single leaf is enough to kill ya, deadliest plant on the planet. Wolfsbane, water hemlock, belladonna, a dozen more I couldn’t name to save my life. Oh, yeah, jimson weed was one. Larkspur, mebbe, cain’t rightly recall the whole list.

What the PInkerton fellers concluded was, she’d studied somewhere back East before coming to Kansas, learned how to prepare every one of them poisons in a way to be taken down with food. Then, when one of her man-customers brought in a wife fer a free meal and the wife turned out to be jist too danged purty fer words, she’d kill. Not on the spot, but she’d fix ’em a box lunch to take home fer later. By the next day, then…one less purty girl in Kansas.

Where’d she end up?

I dunno fer sure, boys. But I’ve got my suspicions, and iffen I were you, when you git back down to Texas, I’d watch what I ate in Galveston. Jist recently, some folks have taken to calling that town The Oleander City…and the last sighting anybody in Kansas had of Miss Flora Flowers and her escort of masked men, they was headed south.

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