by Kevin Hurtack
Copyright 2014 Kevin Hurtack
Main Street was a dirt lane that bustled with miners and their burros along with homesteaders driving their wagons. A perpetual cloud of dust hovered over the street. Clapboard shops and a boardwalk lined both sides of the street. Folks perused the wares setup outside Anderson’s Dry Goods while others bustled in and out of Gustov’s Barber Shop or Jackson’s Hardware. Dr. Schwartz ran his medical practice out of an adobe house that sat on the far end of Main Street. Despite his annual ritual of white washing and patching the adobe, the dust and mud kept it a drab grab for most of the year.
“Why don’t you take a look-see behind the good doctor’s office while I have a word with him,” Sean said as they approached Dr. Schwartz’s office.
Joseph frowned. “What you expectin’? I doubt he be stashin’ corpses back there.”
“Maybe not corpses, but if he’s connected to these body snatchers there may be other evidence back there,” Sean said, tipping his hat to the soiled doves that strolled by on their way back to the brothel.
Joseph gawked at them as they passed by.
Sean elbowed him in the ribs hard. “Keep your head clear, deputy. Else I’ll be filling one of those empty graves with your sorry carcass. There’ll be plenty of time for you to spend time with those girls once we’re done.”
Sean leaned back in the overstuffed leather chair and glanced around the doctor’s office. The various degrees Dr. Schwartz had earned over the years, in New York and Philadelphia, were hung on the adobe wall behind his desk. Throughout the rest of the room were photographs of Dr. Schwartz in an eclectic range of locations such as Paris and even the jungles of Africa. It was easy to pick him out in the group photographs since he had a lanky build and towered over most men. His long face had a pinched expression like he’d just tasted a lemon.
“Ordinarily, I would wonder what is so imperative, Sheriff Callahan, for you to infringe upon my practice,” Dr. Schwartz said as he strode into the office. “But it just so happens I was wanting to speak to you, too.”
“So you know about the body snatcher?”
Dr. Schwartz’s mouth fell open. “Wuh-what?”
“My deputy discovered this morning that someone stole two corpses from their graves.”
“Well then… I suspect that our business may be related.”
“Why?” Sean said, raising an eyebrow, “What did you want me for?”
“I was working rather late last night when I heard a ruckus outside,” Dr. Schwartz said while taking a seat at his X desk. “At first I dismissed it as Leroy coming home, but when it continued I got up and spotted a behemoth of a man attempting to break into the morgue.”
Sean’s heart leaped into his throat. Was this the same man Rufus and Lucas saw in the cemetery? Any clue would be welcomed. “What’d this man look like?”
“Well…” Dr. Schwartz said while rubbing his pointed chin, “it was rather dark out but he appeared to be wearing a fur coat and he had a rather bushy beard. He ran off when I sicced my dogs on him.”
“That sounds like the same man that two witnesses saw in the cemetery,” Sean said.
“It is unfortunate that such a heinous act has occurred to our fair town.”
Sean leaned forward. “What do you know about Ruby and Jack Kane?”
“I assume it was their graves the body snatcher violated?” Dr. Schwartz said, cocking his head to the side.
“Mrs. Kane died from cholera, she was in her fifties. Interesting woman, what with her having two silver front teeth,” Dr. Schwartz said while cleaning his wire-rimmed glasses. “Her eldest son, Jack died in a cave-in up at the Bluebird mine. Funny thing is he lost his little finger on his left hand a few weeks before that and he swore he had cheated Death. I guess Death caught up with him.”
“Do they have any family, maybe back East? Someone that might wanta take their bodies back home for burial?”
“Mrs. Kane was a widow and she never spoke of her past. The only family remaining that I know of would be her youngest son, Lucas,” Dr. Schwartz said. “Last I knew he was living outside of town. But he’s just a boy. Whoever I saw cannot be Lucas.”
Sean tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair. His frustration built up like steam in a boiler. Who was this giant, and why was he snatching corpses? It made no sense to Sean. But this was his town and he wasn’t about to sit idly by and let a lunatic get away with body snatching.
“Have you talked to Leroy about last night,” Sean said, running his fingers through his short-cropped sandy hair. “He used to run with a rough crowd, maybe he knows this man.”
“I agree it is possible Leroy did know this man, but I went to inquire with him he was not at home. I have not had a moment to do so this morning.”
“I reckon I can jar his memory…”
Dr. Schwartz scowled. “Sheriff, please it has been nearly five years of sobriety for Leroy and during that time he has not been involved in any criminal activity. You’ve had problems with him before-“
Sean’s eyes narrowed. “He shot my horse…”
“Yes, yes, I know but he is a reformed man, now. A member of the church and has proven to be a reliable and proficient handy man for me. Otherwise I would not rent out the shack to him.”
“That may be,” Sean said, walking out of the office, “but you know what they say about old dogs.”
The yard behind Dr. Schwartz’s office was a scraggly field surrounded by a Pickett fence. In the middle of the field sat the morgue, which was nothing more than a one room brick building with a
towering chimney made out of river rocks. A dozen yards behind the morgue sat a clapboard shack with a tin roof and an outhouse.
“Sheriff!” Joseph said while kneeling beside the morgue. “I found something.”
Sean walked over to him. “What is it?”
“Just this,” Joseph said while handing him a scrap of paper. “Trampled in the dirt, but you can make it out. Looks like a bill of sales from Anderson’s. The date’s from yesterday…”
Sean glanced at the paper. “For a calico dress and a sack suit? Anyone could’ve dropped this or the wind could’ve blown it in.”
“Our body snatcher mighta dropped it last-”
A blood curdling scream cut off Joseph’s words. Both men spun in the direction of it and saw Dr. Schwartz’s nurse standing in front of the outhouse. Her face had drained of all its color and her jaw hung open even though her scream had faded away. She stared at Sean and Joseph with wide eyes.
Sean sprinted across yard to her. “What in the blazes is wrong, Maria.”
Before she could put any words together, Maria’s eyes rolled back and her body went limp. Sean grabbed her and laid her on the ground. As he stood back up he turned his attention to the outhouse. Inside the outhouse was a sight that made his heart skip a beat.
The scrawny corpse sat in the blood splattered outhouse with a gash across his throat so deep that it had nearly decapitated him. His balding head hung at an odd angle and his eyes were like glass marbles. They seemed to bore into Sean like a silent plead for help. Scrawled in his blood on the wall behind him was, ‘Proverbes 1129 Celui qui trouble sa maison héritera du vent.’
“Sweet Jesus!” Joseph said, approaching from behind. “Is that?”
“Leroy,” Sean said, approaching the corpse. “I was hoping to ask him about last night.”
“You think our body snatcher did this?”
“I reckon so, considering Lucas told us the body snatcher almost cut his head off with a Bowie knife, and Doc Schwartz saw a man last night that matches the description both Rufus and Lucas gave us.”
“What do you make of that?” Joseph said, pointing at the writing. “What kinda language is that?”
Seen studied it for a moment. “When I was fighting for the Union during Mr. Lincoln’s War I spent some time in Louisiana. One day I found some books written in a foreign language. My commander, a teacher before the war, said they were French books. That’s what this writing reminds me of.”
“Didn’t Lucas say something about this body snatcher speaking another language?”
“That he did,” Sean said, kneeling down beside the corpse and grabbing its left arm.
“What you doin’?” Joseph said, his eyes wide.
Sean ignored him and focused his attention on the corpse’s left fist. He pried the fingers back, which snapped liked kindling, to reveal a buckskin pouch with intricate beadwork woven into it. A broken leather strap was attached to the pouch. When Sean opened it he found a daguerreotype photograph of a burly man with a bushy beard down to his belt buckle. Standing beside him was a middle aged woman along with a younger man.
Sean tossed the photograph to Joseph. “Looks like our suspect along with his family. Leroy ripped it off his attacker last night.”
Joseph glanced up from the photograph. “Why would he kill Leroy, especially in the shit house?”
“He didn’t want any witnesses. He probably watched Leroy for a while and when he saw him go in here he attacked. Leroy tried to fight him off but our body snatcher overpowered him and killed him quick. I doubt Leroy even had a chance to cry for help.”
“Why was the body snatcher even here?”
“Doc Schwartz said someone tried to break into the morgue last night.”
Joseph blanched. “This just gets weirder and weirder.”
“Keep your wits about you, I’m gonna need you if we’re gonna solve this.”
“A man who brings trouble onto his house inherits…inherits the..wind?”
“What?” Sean said, glancing over his shoulder.
“Proverbs 11:29, I know my Bible verses by heart,” Joseph said, gesturing with his chin to the writing on the wall. “At least I think that’s what ‘Proverbes 1129’ means. Don’t know why he’d write it though…”
“Doesn’t matter why he wrote it. What matters is putting an end to this right quick,” Sean said, his eyes narrowed. “He’s stole two corpses and now he’s a murderer. He’s a threat to everyone in Raven County, my county. I’m not gonna stop hunting him down until he’s swinging from a noose.”
“So now what?”
“You go on and take the nurse back inside and let Doc Schwartz know what happened.”
“Okay.” Joseph said, glancing at the nurse. “What about you?”
“I’m gonna talk to Mr. Anderson about that receipt and the man in the photograph.”
“Sure I recognize it,” Mr. Anderson said from behind the cluttered counter while studying the photograph, “it belongs to Pierre DuBois. That’s his family. I can hold onto it if you’d like and give it back next time he’s down here.”
Sean locked eyes with him. “What do you know about him?”
“Pierre? Well he came out here a couple decades ago during the beaver fur boom. He’s one of them French Canadians. A real mountain man. Still one fine trapper and hunter.”
“When’s the last time you seen him?”
The portly shopkeeper tapped his forefinger on his bulbous chin. “Last night, actually. I had just closed up shop and was heading upstairs for dinner when I heard someone banging on the shop door. I would’ve told any other customer to come back in the morning, but I’ve known Pierre for years. I felt sorry for him because I knew this would be his last trip into town until Spring. So I opened up and did some business with him.”
“What do you mean he won’t be back until Spring?”
“Well, he lives way up there in the mountains and only comes down a few times a year.”
“What kinda business did you do with him?”
“He traded some furs for a calico dress and a sack suit,” Mr. Anderson said, blotting his brow with a handkerchief. “Said something about his family coming back soon. Seemed real excited about it.”
Sean planted both palms on the counter and leaned forward. “Where’s he live, exactly?”
“I’ve never had reason to go up there,” Mr. Anderson said, “but First Street turns into a trail once you leave town. Not many go up that way anymore, too many avalanches this time of year.”
“It hasn’t snowed up there since last week, so Pierre’s tracks should still be fresh. That’ll make it easier following them,” Sean said.
“I imagine so.”
“Much obliged for your help,” Sean said, heading for the door.
“Uh… Sheriff Callahan?” Mr. Anderson said while fidgeting with his starched collar.
“Pierre’s a friend of mine so I was just curious as to what was going on. I can’t imagine him being in any trouble…”
Sean paused at the door and glared at Mr. Anderson. “He’s a murderer and a body snatcher, I’d recommend reconsidering that friendship, if I was you.”
Mr. Anderson gaped as Sean headed out the door.