Steeds 28

14 05 2017

“Chet. Dorothy. Let’s have some coffee.” Lee sat at the work table that doubled as a dining table in the jail.

“Yes, sir,” said Dorothy. “How about a fried cake?”

“Thank you. I’ll have one.”

Chet handed Lee a metal cup and saucer. Dorothy brought the coffee pot and a plate of doughnuts.

“Can you both take a break for a few minutes?”

“Sure,” said Chet.

Dorothy agreed. “As long as I can keep an eye on the stove and oven.”

“Take a seat, please.” Lee dipped his doughnut into his cup of coffee. “Let’s speak quietly. I don’t want the prisoners to hear this, at least not enough to make sense of it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Charlie said something yesterday afternoon that seemed too good not to consider. Well, too good is the wrong way of saying it. He referred to a possibility that is, in fact, quite bad.”

“What’s that?” Chet asked.

“He wonders if our horses are being stolen by some kind of … I don’t know what to call him. Lunatic? Maniac? Berserker?”

“What’s a berserker?” Dorothy asked.

“Oh. He is a legendary, if not mythical, warrior from the far distant days of the Vikings. A berserker was a man in combat who went mad with bloodlust. He wouldn’t stop. Instead, he fought harder and harder, faster and faster, with ever increasing savagery. It was as if he were smitten with a diabolical, destructive kind of panic.”

“He was demon-possessed.”

“Maybe.”

“I’m sorry to say,” said Chet, “that such a person is not a myth. I’ve seen men behave that way with my own eyes. And I’ve heard of more.”

“Back in Missouri and Kansas?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve read that Cole Younger lined a number of Union prisoners of war against a tree and shot them with a new Enfield rifle just to see how far the bullet would go through. Is that true?”

“I rode with Quantrill, but if that happened, I wasn’t there to witness. I can believe it, though. Many pathways go downward into the pit of total depravity. Younger was on one of the shorter paths. And again, I saw and heard of men who had all but hit bottom.”

“What?” said Dorothy. “Charlie thinks someone like that’s at work here?”

“Yes. Maybe,” said Lee. “He wonders if we have someone among us who hates horses the way too many men hate cats, except worse. Far worse. You’ve seen or heard about how some men torture cats to death.”

“Some kids,” said Dorothy.

“Charlie wonders if we have someone doing that to horses. He quietly leads them away and takes them to their doom. That’s why none has been recovered, or even seen by anyone: not at the tannery, not at the mink farm, not at either of the railroads, not at the riverboats, not out among the farms.”

“Or no one has yet admitted to seein’ anything,” Dorothy said.

“What do you think?” Chet asked.

“I think it’s worth investigation. And in thinking more about it, I have, not one, but two suspects.”

“Really?”

“Now I want both of you to keep this confidential. This suspicion of mine counts more as a wild guess than an educated guess; it’s certainly not a theory. Let no one hear of this; treat it as gossip.”

“Yes, sir,” said Chet. “ ‘A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.’ ”

“And ‘where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth,’ ” Dorothy agreed.

“Good,” said Lee. “As I said, I’ve thought more about Charlie’s idea, and I think the Betz boys may require further scrutiny.”

“James and John?”

“Yes. As you know, I arrested them for shooting peas at horses standing among a crowd of citizens during the May Day celebration. In each of the three attempts, those horses could have done more than damage property; they could have injured, even killed people.”

“But the peas didn’t actually harm the horses,” Chet said. “People would have been harmed.”

“Yes, but the horses, too, could have harmed themselves if they had been allowed to react to the stings. As it was, I caught both the boys quite quickly. There they were, arrested in the sight of dozens of people, to include family and neighbors. They were embarrassed, humiliated, shamed. They were punished.”

“Their punishment is far, far from harsh,” said Chet. “Indeed, I would say it has been lenient, if not gracious.”

“They seem to think not. Yes, they have been fulfilling the requirements of their sentence. Yes, they have not been throwing one tantrum after another every time they come to town to do their work. Yes, they speak with us officers in a civilized, though not cordial, manner.  In speaking with them myself, however, I have sensed something … menacing, even vengeful.”

“So what?” said Dorothy. “They’re takin’ their resentment out on horses?”

“And on their fellow citizens, citizens who own those horses.”

“But can people as far north as Mascoutin be considered their fellow citizens?” Chet asked. “Those people had nothing to do with what happened here in Uttica.”

“True. Perhaps those thefts were for the sake of practice.”

Chet said, “One would think James and John would have gone for your horse.”

“They wouldn’t dare!” said Dorothy. “Both of Lee’s horses are guarded, if not by Lee himself, then by those Ladwig donkeys. And both of Lee’s horses can defend themselves. So can Philip’s.”

“That doesn’t mean our horses aren’t targets,” said Lee. “Given enough practice with others….”

“What do you want us to do?” Chet asked.

“I’d like you to leave early today. I’ll serve the prisoners their supper. You are known for calling, so I’d like you to get your horse and buggy and call on the Betz family. And this will be an official visit, no questions about it. Take your badges. And take a rifle and a box of ammunition. Even so, be as friendly, as pastoring as ever.”

“I don’t believe they attend church, any church,” said Chet.

“Mrs. Betz does, when the rest let her,” Dorothy said.

“I think that’s true,” said Lee. “I’ve noticed James and John have had some religious instruction. Anyway, when you get there, try speaking with as many of the members of the family as possible, to include the boys. Give a report. Say how the boys have been doing here. Ask how they’re doing there. Engage in neighborly conversation.

“And while you’re at it, ask to do something innocuous, such as taking a look at the kitchen garden, or the flower beds, or some newly constructed out-building. As you go, look for evidence of slaughter. That includes crows, turkey vultures, and blowflies. Look for a menagerie of dogs larger than usual; they may be how dead horses have been made to disappear.”

“You mean, many dogs may indicate they’ve been able to eat large animals such as horses,” said Chet.

“Correct. But you could still find bones. Do you know horse bones when you see them?”

“I think so.”

“You may see bits of hide, also. That will not be sufficient evidence, of course, but it will provide clues. How many farm families can afford to feed horses to dogs?

What the family says about James and John, how they respond, and how they respond to you will provide more clues.”

“It may be that the boys are doing their bloody work in secret. If this is at all true, their family may not know,” Chet said.

“Yes, so try this: watch how horses respond to James or John when close. Your horse especially. I believe horses can sense some things we cannot.”

“But you suspect the Betz boys have enough of a way with horses to led them quietly to their destruction,” Dorothy said.

“Ah, but what if one of the boys has a way with horses, and other is the killer? The Devil is both a deceiver and a destroyer. Surely he can induce one person to do one task awfully well, and another person to do the other task awfully well.”

 

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