Authors: Tabor Evans
Tags: #Westerns, #Fiction
LONGARM ON THE SANTEE KILLING GROUNDS
By Tabor Evans
Just as surely as there'd never been a bronco that couldn't be rode, or a rider that couldn't be throwed, there were some gals a man was only wasting flowers, books, and candy on. So that was why Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long was alone in bed when a horse-drawn fire engine thundered past the open window of his furnished room in the wee small hours.
Longarm, as he was better known to friend and foe, struck a match to consult the dollar alarm clock on his bed table while assuring himself the comings and goings of the Denver Fire Department were no business of a federal peace officer. Then he cussed them good when he saw it was almost four A.M. So that damned rooster down the alley wasn't just complaining about the noise.
Longarm punched his pillow thicker in the middle, and lay his head back down to see if he could catch a few more winks before it was time to cuss that alarm clock. It sure seemed to be ticking a whole lot louder than it needed to just to move its hands. And that damned fire seemed to be close, and even worse, upwind.
It sure was odd how almost identical smells could be mouth-watering or gut-wrenching, depending on whether one smelled bacon sizzling over a log fire or humanity going up in smoke along with a frame building. Some gal down the way seemed upset as hell about that as well, judging by all that screaming. So Longarm sat up to swing his bare feet to the threadbare rug as he wiped at his sleep-gummed eyes and muttered, "Sounds as if they could use a hand with that crowd, and it's almost time to go to work in any case."
This was not the whole truth. Longarm wasn't supposed to report in until well after dawn, and he'd seldom arrived on time without a damned good reason in the six or eight years he'd been riding for the Justice Department under Marshal Billy Vail of the Denver District Court.
A few minutes later he had his federal badge pinned to a lapel of his tobacco tweed suit as he legged it along the cinder path toward the ruddy false dawn of that fire. As a rule, he tended to keep his badge, like his vest-pocket derringer, out of the light until such time as he might need to show them to somebody. But he knew there'd be local lawmen moving in on that same fire, and some few members of the Denver P.D. might not know him. So this was just not the time to let strangers wonder why a tall drink of water with a determined stride and a.44-40 riding cross-draw under an opened frock coat was bearing down on them so suddenly.
But as Longarm approached the surprisingly large mob gazing up at that pillar of fire against the sky to the west, he heard a familiar voice call his name. So he broke stride in his low-heeled cavalry boots, spotted Sergeant Nolan of the Denver P.D., and elbowed on over to join him, saying, "Morning. I know this is none of my own beeswax, Sarge. But ain't that Widow Dugan's rooming house, and how come they seem to be pouring coal oil instead of water on the fire?"
The shorter and stockier Nolan grimaced and said, "You're right about the old gal who ran the place. They think she's still inside. Along with at least half-a-dozen others. Only one who got out was the Mex serving gal. As you can plainly see, they ain't figured out what they're pouring all that water on across the way. A fireman I was just talking to said he suspects the serving gal poured a heap of something that floats on water inside, before she struck a match and tossed it as she was skipping out to give the alarm!"
They both heard that same shrill female scream from somewhere closer to the puffing steam engine. Nolan confirmed all that noise was indeed coming out of a skinny young Mexican gal. "The fire marshal wants her to see the bodies when they bring 'em out. She keeps hollering she's innocent, as you just now heard. But lots of firebugs break down after they see what a mess they've wrought."
Longarm told himself he'd only legged it over here to help them with the crowd. He almost meant it when he told Nolan he'd go see if they needed help around the engine, small boys and smoke-shied fire horses being such an uncertain mixture. But as he worked his way through to the fire engine, stepping over the canvas hoses on the trampled muddy ground, he saw Nolan's copper badges had things so under control he had to argue some to get himself and his own badge through to the group gathered round the tall diamond-stacked steam engine. It was pumping water from nearby Cherry Creek through the air at that raging inferno of stubborn ruins, causing growing mud puddles.
Someone had cuffed the gal by one wrist to a brass fitting of the engine's big red chassis. She was young, but not all that skinny as soon as a man looked closer. Most men would have. Her frilly Mexican blouse was down off one tawny shoulder, and her pretty left tit was all the way out in the ruby light as well. She was bawling too hard to tell whether she was really pretty or not. Longarm glanced down to see she had her Mexican zapatos neatly laced around her trim ankles as well. But most damning of all, her flouncy print fandango skirts had been firmly cinched around her trim waist with a red sateen sash. So Longarm had no call to question the fire marshal's suspicions about a gal smelling smoke, waking up, and tear-assing out to sound the alarm in attire suitable for a church fiesta.
As Longarm joined the group, the fire marshal in command cast an uncertain eye on his federal badge, tried to shrug it off, and then just had to ask how come Uncle Sam seemed so interested in private property burning on the unfashionable southwest side of Cherry Creek.
Longarm smiled sheepishly and said, "I can't afford the fancier rent on the other side, so I room just a couple of streets over. I answer to Custis Long, riding for Marshal Billy Vail, who gets to sleep up on Capitol Hill with the other swells."
The fire marshal smiled knowingly and said, "We know all about you, Longarm." He proved it by never mentioning that other pal of Longarm's up on Capitol Hill, one far prettier than his boss. The back-fence gossip had that pretty young widow woman sore at Longarm because of some new gal in town.
Pointing his chin at the handcuffed Mexican maid, the fire marshal said, "She keeps pretending not to understand us when we ask her what she poured all over the wood inside that had been already varnished. I understand you savvy Spanish, Longarm?"
Longarm shrugged and replied, "Enough to find my way to the railroad station or buy me a tamale instead of a straw hat, I reckon."
He moved closer to the weeping gal, ticked the brim of his dark brown Stetson to her, and introduced himself in Spanish by his formal name and title. But the young suspect stared up at him owl-eyed and gasped hopefully, "Are you not the muy simpatico lawman my own people call El Brazo Largo?"
So since he saw her English was at least as good as his Spanish, Longarm replied in English. "Aw, mush. How are you called? And before you go batting your pretty eyes and fibbing to me, I want you to study harder on why it makes no sense for a young lady to be up and about in her party duds at four A.M. on a workday morning."
The girl murmured, "I am called Rosalinda Lopez y Madero, and now that I have had the time to think about it, I see there is no use in my pretending I have not been wicked."
The fire marshal had naturally been listening. He brightened and said, "Lord love you, Longarm, I was told you can get greasers and Injuns to talk, but how did you just do that?"
Longarm answered dryly, "For openers, I find it helps if you don't call Mex folk greasers. After that, we still ain't let the lady have her say."
The fire marshal snorted, "Shoot, didn't you just now hear her admit she'd been wicked? And wasn't she the very one who turned in the alarm on the far side of the creek? And dressed the way you see her now?"
Longarm turned back to the girl and quietly asked, "What might you be dressed for, Rosalinda?"
She stared down at his belt buckle or lower, either blushing a heap or lit up a deeper shade of red from the fire across the way, as she quietly confessed, "I was supposed to be in bed, in my attic room, because as you just said, the coming dawn will be that of a workday and my patrona had a lot of work in mind for me. Pero there was this baile en el barrio, a how-you-say neighborhood dance? So I slipped down the back stairs for to be a willful child, as my patrona puts it whenever I wish for to have a little fun."
The fire marshal demanded, "Is that why you set fire to the place you worked at? To get out of working so hard for a stricter boss lady than you could abide?"
Before the terrified girl could answer, the fire marshal called out, "Whatever you're doing, keep it up, Jacobs! I could swear you have the Injun sign on that stubborn cuss now!"
One of the slicker-clad and gum-booted figures outlined by the flames called back, "I can't say whether we floated that oil out the back way or whether its just burned its fool self away. You're right about it being stubborn. Never fought so much fire sprouting out of one frame house in all my days with the department!"
The fire marshal, as well as most of those others, moved closer to the smaller but still dangerous fire, leaving Longarm the chance to question the girl more calmly as well as thoroughly. He'd been lied to by experts, some of them even prettier, so he knew he could be fooled. But her story began to hold more water as he made her repeat it more than once, trying in vain to poke holes in it before he smiled down at her and conceded, "If you're fibbing you're mighty good at it. I admire anyone smart enough to tell a simple tale and stick to it. You say you were coming down the street from that forbidden party a quarter mile away, saw the place already afire, and just ran to get help. I hope you can see how easy it will be for la policia to check your story with others who might have been at that same party. While we're at it, how come you told them before the fire woke you up in bed?"
She muttered something about being ashamed of herself for sneaking out to go dancing.
He said, "There's a swell poem you should've read about the tangled webs we weave whilst trying to deceive. But Mister Robert Burns never wrote in Spanish, and in any case I've noticed heaps of Anglo folks make that same mistake. You should have seen right off how tough it would be for a lady to get dressed up in the attic of a burning building and then make her way downstairs safe and sound while everyone else got trapped inside!"
She stared hopelessly down at her handcuffed wrist as she sighed and said, "I knew I should have told the truth as soon as they said I was lying, pero, as you say, we tangle ourselves up with everyone yelling and the air filled with the reek of burning flesh. Now that you know the true story you will tell them for to let me go, no?"
It was a good question. Longarm told her to stay put while he asked some others. Then he headed across the puddles and hoses to see what else might be going on, having to work his eyes harder in the trickier light. For by now the fire had about burned itself out, leaving little more than two brick chimneys and some blackened and smoking timbers standing. So it was by the weaker glow of a nearby street lamp that he was able to fathom the grim task the slicker-clad firemen were performing now. The wet cotton sheeting over the contorted forms they were lining up in the muddy front yard told a man just about what was going on. Longarm wasn't sure he wanted any more details. By the time that frying bacon smell was gone, a body had been literally burnt to a crisp.
The fire marshal and Sergeant Nolan were consulting as they stood in a puddle at the foot of one sheet-covered litter. As Longarm joined them the fire marshal pointed down at what seemed like a sheet-covered pretzel and growled, "That's what's left of Widow Dugan. Remind me I don't aim to get cremated like no Hindu when I go!"
Longarm shrugged as he swept his eyes over the other contorted forms, observing, "Oh, I dunno. A dead body can get mighty disgusting no matter what you do with it before it turns back to dust, like it says it's supposed to in the Good Book. A corpse ain't disgusting quite as long if you leave it in the damned fire instead of wetting it down and hauling it out this soon. They don't twist up that way if they're already dead when the flames get to 'em and ... Now that sure is a peculiar thing to study on, third litter from the end."
The fire marshal and Sergeant Nolan had been to events as grim as this one in the past. But the fire marshal nodded knowingly and said, "Already considered that one. Widow Dugan didn't offer hired rooms to many drifting drunks in her day. If you'd like to be charitable, it's possible he was overcome by smoke in his sober sleep and never woke up like the others."
Longarm cocked a thoughtful brow and demanded, "Let's talk some about them others. I make it half a dozen, and that hired gal back to your engine says that sounds about right. All but the one twisted up like unborn babies, the way folks wind up when they've been burned alive while feeling it considerably."
Nolan swore at Mexicans in general. The fire marshal swallowed hard and said, "Goddammit, we know what the poor old gal and her roomers went through. Until just recent, the front door had been padlocked on the outside. We're saving the lock and latch we salvaged for the Mex gal's trial, and it's a crying shame the only way she'll get to die under our sissy constitution won't pay her back a tooth for a tooth for what she put these poor folks through! We found all but that peaceful-looking one piled up in the vestibule, all tangled as they hammered in vain to get out and just curled up and died, like you said, whilst the flames licked at their flesh and laughed at their screams."
Longarm moved over by the oddly dignified remains as he asked where they'd been found. The fire marshal called out to a nearby member of his department, who called back they'd found that one atop some bedsprings in the stairwell. "He must have been sort of welded to the springs and followed 'em on down when the second story collapsed."