Sheriff Olsen saw our horses tied to the hitch rail outside the Mercantile and came in to have a word with us. “Gentlemen,” he said, “Might I buy you two a cup of coffee and a piece of pie at Ethel’s?”
Tam was in one of his quirkier moods. He raised an eyebrow and asked, “One cup and one piece fer two growed cowboys, Robert? You wouldn’t be going tightwad on us, wouldja?”
The lawdog smiled, but there weren’t much in it. I seen he was troubled about something fer real. “Sure thing, Sheriff. We’ll be right down, soon as we work out delivery on 1500 feet of iron pipe that’s been on order fer months. It finally come in, and we need to make sure Fred’s bullwhacker and us are on the same page.”
We each got our own coffee mug, and Ethel’s pie of the day was cherry. Neither of us had tasted cherry pie in a coon’s age, so it weren’t one bit hard to pay attention to our eating till Olsen was ready to spill the beans. Which he finally did.
“You both knew Thomas Pringle back in your Chisholm Trail days, didn’t you?”
“Tom?” I was suddenly curious to know where this was headed. “Yeah, we knowed him then. He was trail boss on two of the first drives we ever made from the south tip of Texas clean to Abilene, Kansas. He quit right after that, come out here and started up that little place of his out north of town.”
The Sheriff nodded, looking somehow relieved. “That’s what I’d heard….”
“What’s this about, Robert?” The tale teller asked it mild enough, but to a man who knew Crazy Rifle as I did, unexplained questions about an old friend by an officer of the law had clearly wound his mainspring.
“Not likely what you might think. He and Julie turned up dead on the floor of their house yesterday.”
“Ain’t decided yet. It was Pringle’s own .44 what done fer ’em; I’m satisfied of that much. It was in his hand, had that yellow ivory handle he prized so much. And the bullets came from that gun. The one that blew through Julie’s temples ended up in a log on the wall. We dug that one out, did likewise fer the other that went up through Tom’s head and made a right mess of things. I fired a few rounds into a hind quarter of beef and compared ’em.”
“So then,” I offered, eyeing what was left of the pie in the display case at the end of the counter, “either double suicide or murder-suicide? Or are you thinking an outsider coulda got that .44 away from Tom Pringle and used it on ’em both?”
“Nah, not that. The man was plenty careful to hold that weapon close. High and tucked in, crossdraw style, elbow locked down tight whenever he was in company of men he didn’t know like the back of his own hand.”
We all went quiet fer a bit, pondering. Tam got around to it first. “What about little Greg?”
“His aunt and uncle come and took the boy. Gregory Pringle ain’t but nine–or maybe ten; I ain’t rightly sure of that. It was him that found the bodies. Saw ’em lying there when he come home from playing at a friend’s. I talked to him, careful-like of course. Said he walked in the door, seen they were dead, and jist turned around, walked back to his playmate’s house. Told ’em, Looks like my folks are deader’n doornails.”
“Thing is, what I wanted to ask you two, the Pringles purty much kept to themselves, but you knowed Tom before he come to Walsenburg. From what you seen of him back then, would you judge him capable of popping his wife iffen she didn’t want him to?”
“Nope,” Tam said without hesitation. “Not Tom Pringle. We seen him under some tough conditions, talked to him as equals even though he was trail boss. Can’t see him snapping like that.”
I wasn’t so sure. “Before I answer that, what’re folks guessing? You know, them that might have been in the know, like his brother and sister-in-law; what’re they saying?”
“They ain’t saying much, except they knew he and Julie were powerful worried about their finances. Banker Newsome holds the mortgage on their place, and they were getting behind on their payments. Rumor was the bank was close to foreclosing.”
“Ah. Then I have to agree with my partner. Iffen Julie’d been making whoopee with every saddle tramp that come through Walsenburg, he mighta thought about releasing her from this mortal coil on his own hook. But not over money.”
“Not even over the loss of his acreage? It weren’t much, jist a one-sixty and situated on mostly hardscrabble ground at that, but a man can git powerful attached to his homestead.”
“I suppose anything’s possible. But no, I can’t see it even then.”
The Sheriff stood up and put on his hat. “Ethel,” he raised his voice so’s the restaurant owner could hear him loud and clear, “put that pie these two inhaled on my tab, wouldja?”
He turned his attention back to us fer a moment. “I’ll be writing this up as a double suicide, in part based on what you boys had to say. Funeral’s on Saturday, two o’clock.”
“Services at the Catholic church?” I asked. “I do believe Tom was Catholic. Don’t know about Julie.”
“Nope. Not there. The priest has already let it be known them two committed mortal sin by suiciding. He’s refusing to bless ’em on into the afterlife.”
“Sounds like a blackrobe.” Tam looked like he wanted to spit, but Ethel was in the process of cleaning the spittoon.
“Yeah. The Baptist pastor would agree with you. He stepped up when he heard about that, offered to say the words over their bodies before they git laid to rest.” The tin packer shrugged… “So services will be at the Baptist church. Then a procession down to the cemetery.”
“We’ll be there.” In fact, it was more’n likely the entire Flywheel clan would be there, excluding Jack, Hattie, and the three Ute boys.
“Good.” The Sheriff headed fer the door, turning at the last moment with an afterthought. “It’ll be good to have a few normal folks there, ’cause Gregory’s aunt and uncle would appear to be nuttier’n a Christmas fruitcake. When they showed up to gather the boy, they give him a yo-yo to play with, of all things. Sort of a consolation prize, I guess.”
He walked out, shaking his head as he went. Tam looked thoughtful. “You know, Dawson, at Greg’s age I would’ve traded the Banking Bastard fer a yo-yo in a heartbeat. Not my sainted mother, but the old man? In a heartbeat.”
Well, I guess that made sense fer my partner. After all, he’d eventually run away from home, not had his parents drowned in a river like mine.
It’s all in your perspective.
Without Flywheel, the double Pringle funeral truly wouldn’t have amounted to much. Two bodies, both closed casket. One young, earnest Baptist preacher. The Sheriff, young Greg, and the boy’s aunt and uncle. That was all.
“Well, they did stick to themselves,” Dawson whispered out of the side of his mouth. The preacher was in the middle of his remarks; it wasn’t a time fer bellowing.
“True,” I whispered back…and wondered why that bothered me. Something was eating at the back of my brain.
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” the sky pilot intoned–
–and then he got rudely interrupted. The blackrobe Jesuit who’d refused services for two good people dead by their own hand suddenly stormed into his enemy’s church, fire and brimstone fairly bursting from his pores. He weren’t the regular Catholic priest; that one had been laid ill with something serious enough to have him sent back to St. Louis fer treatment. This one had a rep fer being even more narrow minded than the usual missionary.
Major cojones, obviously, tackling the Baptist in the minister’s own place of worship. I had to give him that much. A bit lacking in social graces, though.
“Blasphemers!” The man thundered. “You shall every one taste the fires of Hell for daring to consort with those who have taken their own lives!”
This was fixing to git right interesting. Usually, it’s a Baptist going off like that, not a Catholic. Looked like the good Father hadn’t much appreciated a competing church taking the Pringles under its wing.
The only one of our clan who paid much attention to the many do’s and don’ts of the white man’s religion was Penny, so a dustup between a hardshell Baptist and a Catholic would be more entertaining than a matter fer concern. I snuck a look back up at the altar. The home team Bible thumper had turned a bright shade of red, puffing up like a banty rooster and fixing to blow back at the blackrobe who’d invaded his premises–but he never got the chance.
Our redhead was on her feet, spun around right there in the pew, pointing at the mean-eyed intruder with a finger that looked about as dangerous as a loaded revolver.
“You, sir, don’t even know your own scripture!”
That done it. The Jesuits consider themselves the supreme arbiters of holy writ. To have not only a lay person but a female challenge his knowledge of things spiritual? Unacceptable!
“I’ll thank you not to flaunt your ignorance–” That’s as far as the man got. Penny had made her way out of the pews and was stalking down the aisle right at him, hammering points as she went.
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Jesuit! You interrupt these sacred proceedings, casting more stones than David needed against Goliath! Do you say then, foolish man, that you are in fact without sin? For if you are, they will hang you on a cross ere long. And if you are not, if you know you are not without sin yet cast your stones regardless, then you are a hypocrite!
The guy was old, a good sixty at least, tall and lean and mean. He likely hadn’t ever lost a God-argument since the Church first turned him loose on the Indians. He was trying to git a word in edgewise; I give him credit fer that. But if you’ve never seen a redheaded woman truly on the warpath, and with spiritual matters in it to boot, you’ll not be able to understand. She rolled over the fellow. If I hadn’t already known enough about the Jesuits to know the Salish got it right when they labeled the Jesuits lying blackrobes, I might have actually felt sorry fer the poor bastard.
I couldn’t tell you all the insults she threw, not being much acquainted with the Bible myself. I do recall there was something about him being a false priest and also a hidden servant of Satan–though the fellow didn’t look very successfully hidden at the moment. First, he turned as red as the Baptist, but as Penny kept at him, the red eventually paled to a deathly white. Made me think of the lifeless faces of Thomas and Julie as I imagined them to be in their closed caskets.
In the end, he turned and ran. Oh, he tried to walk out all dignified-like, but under that evil-girly black robe, the man was booking. I’d never before heard of nobody putting a Jesuit to flight with nothing but her mouth. In fact, I got to thinking her feat might be unique in all of Church history.
She didn’t let it go to her head, though. Jist turned, walked back to her seat, sat down and calmly told the Baptist preacher–who looked as bemused as I felt– “Please do continue, Pastor.”
It took the man a while to git going again.
When the time come to lower the pine boxes into the ground, Cougar, Dawson and I were all three on the ropes. So were the Sheriff, an uncle, and–yep–Penny again. She was some bigger than the preacher man, and this funeral…you had to admit it was a mite short-handed.
I almost dropped my rope end when I caught little Gregory’s eye fer jist a second. It was enough to give me the creeps. Don’t remember which coffin we were lowering that time, but the message came through loud and clear. There was no proof and therefore no reason to mention it to the Sheriff, but I’d surely talk it over with one and all after we got back to the ranch. We’d all missed it, Sheriff Olsen and Dawson and me. There was one person who could have gotten hold of Tom Pringle’s ivory-handled .44 . He was ten years old, he had opportunity and maybe motive.
He was playing with his brand new yo-yo like there was no tomorrow.