THE BETTER SHOT
By Dave Creek
I pulled back on my horse’s reins and paused a moment at the top of a rise to look down upon the scene of the crime — the old Armstrong house. Four horses, undoubtedly belonging to Sheriff Kinsman and his men, were already tied up in front of the plain wooden structure situated on the Oklahoma plains.
I took a deep breath as I pulled my hat down against a chill wind. No time to wait, I thought. It’s the beginning of the 20th Century, with new ways to solve crimes. I have to prove that they’ll work. With a squeeze of my calves, I guided my horse down the gentle slope of long, waving blades of grass toward the house.
Once there, I gathered up the large leather bag filled with my equipment. As I stepped onto the home’s narrow front porch, I heard several voices competing for attention. A perfunctory knock, and I let myself in.
Sheriff Edward Kinsman, a distinguished looking man whose hair was just turning gray, was getting an earful from Ruth Armstrong, who was jabbing a finger toward his face: “Now, Sheriff, you need to get out there and find that Indian! No telling how much of a head start he has on you!” Ruth’s rough life of helping her husband make a hard-scrabble living on their farm showed in the lines on her face.
I couldn’t help noticing that Sheriff Kinsman’s deputies stood as far back in one corner as they could manage, apparently hoping they wouldn’t draw Ruth’s attention.
Ruth took a step toward the sheriff, but her husband, Arthur, a rough-hewn man, grabbed her shoulders from behind and halted her. “Now, Ruth,” he said, “let the sheriff do his job.”
“I’m tryin’ to tell him to do just that,” Ruth said. She finally noticed me and shot a look of pure hatred toward me. “And here’s another deputy! You need to get ‘em to workin’, Sheriff!
“This here’s Corey Hunt,” Sheriff Kinsman said. “He’s not a deputy. More of a...consultant. And a doctor.”
Ruth looked me up and down and said, bitterly, “Too late for a doctor.”
“It’s his doctorin’ that helps me find out more about a crime.” The sheriff shot me a look at said, Or at least it better.
Ruth dismissed me with a “Hmpf!” as she looked back toward the sheriff. “Well, are you gettin’ these boys out of here or not?”
The sheriff turned toward one of his deputies. “Johnson — you heard the woman. That Indian headed due south. You and the others start trackin’ ’im.”
Johnson looked grateful for the reprieve. He said, “Sure thing, Sheriff,” and led the others out the front door.
Ruth crooked a thumb at me. “What about this one? Ain’t he goin’ too?”
“No, Ma’am,” the sheriff said. “I need him to take a good look at...well, in your daughter’s bedroom.”
Ruth eyed me with suspicion. “Don’t like that idea,” she said.
Arthur Armstrong said, “Now, Ruth, you know they’ve gotta check these things out. Might be something tells us more about that Indian.”
“Done told all I got to say.”
Arthur said, in a low voice, “Sheriff, you and Mr. Hunt go back there and do what you need to do.” He took Ruth into his arms as she sobbed.
I followed Sheriff Kinsman toward the small bedroom at the rear of the home. He opened the door slowly and we stepped inside: “Here it is. It isn’t pretty.”
The daughter, Melissa Armstrong, was lying face-down on top of the bed. Blood soaked her dress, a short squirrel-fur scarf that was still wrapped around her neck, and the otherwise pristine white blankets that covered the bed. Even from the doorway I could see she’d been stabbed at least half a dozen times. “Damn,” I said.
“‘Damn’ is right,” the sheriff said. “Pretty brutal.”
“And the mother witnessed this?”
Sheriff Kinsman eased the door closed and kept his voice low. “That’s what she says. That she was working in her garden out back and heard a commotion — came in here and saw this Indian trying to...”
“Take advantage of Melissa,” I offered.
“That’s right,” the sheriff said, relieved. “Said she tried to pull the Indian off her daughter, but he pushed her down and stabbed Melissa in the back. Then he ran out of the house, got on his horse, and rode away. Arthur never saw or heard anything until Ruth came out into the field, screaming.”
I shook my head. “I have to say, Sheriff, that sounds pretty far-fetched.”
Sheriff Kinsman rubbed the back of his neck. “It does to me, too, but I’d hate to think Arthur Armstrong killed his own daughter.”
“Why him and not Ruth?”
The sheriff stared gap-jawed at me for a long moment. “I’d hate even worse to think that.”
“But if he did it, she’s covering for him.”
Sheriff Kinsman bowed his head. “Yeah. I know that, too. If Ruth wasn’t so determined it was that Indian, I’d say we should talk to this Charlie Benedict boy who lives a couple of farms over.”
“He’s been courting her?”
“And she don’t like him.”
“You’d think he’d be the one she’d want to pin blame on.”
“I asked about him before you got here. Seems he’s visiting relatives back in St. Louis. Arthur saw him get on the train and everything.”
“So he’s ruled out,” I said as I opened up my bag. Everything was there — scales, microscope, a couple rulers, everything else I was hoping would let me provide some insight that the sheriff wouldn’t be capable of. I took a quick glance at his face and thought I could see both hope and doubt in his expression.
I took out a ruler, stuck it in a back pocket, closed the bag, and stepped over to the bed. I leaned over Melissa’s body, being careful to balance myself with my hands on my knees. I didn’t want to disturb the body in any way. “So this Indian had the chance to stab Melissa half a dozen times after knocking Ruth down.”
“To hear her tell it.”
I took the ruler from my back pocket. “Sheriff, I’m counting on you to understand I mean no disrespect in making some measurements. I’m going to try not to touch the body.”
“What do you think you’re going to find out?”
“If I knew that, Sheriff, I wouldn’t have to make the measurements.”
I held the ruler just above each of the wounds in turn. “Hmm,” I said without thinking.
“What’d you learn?”
I stood to face the sheriff. “Each wound is just over two and a half inches wide. That gives me the width of the knife. As far as I can tell, each wound is pretty much straight in — not a lot of tearing beyond the main thrust of the wound, either in Melissa’s clothing or, well, her flesh.”
Sheriff Kinsman pantomimed a stabbing motion with one hand. “So each time the Indian — supposedly — stabbed her, it was pretty much straight in.”
“That’s how I see it.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Tells me it all happened pretty fast — and without warning. Melissa was stabbed that many times before she had a chance to move or protect herself in any way.”
“Poor girl,” the sheriff said. “She was just 16, you know. Never had a chance at life.”
“Best we can do now,” I said, “is find out who did this.”
“If it really was that Indian, my boys’ll find him. Johnson’s a good tracker.”
“But you stayed here.”
The sheriff’s mouth turned up in a lopsided grin. “I stayed where I think the killer is. I told the boys if they didn’t find any sign of that supposed Indian, they should just head back into town.”
“I think you’re right, Sheriff. Though I agree with you — it’s a tough thing to consider either parent might kill their own child.”
“What do you plan to do next, Doc?”
“Look around a little, I guess.”
I grabbed my bag — I don’t like letting it out of my sight — and followed the sheriff back into the main room. Ruth was sitting on a wooden straight-backed chair, head down, hands folded in her lap, all alone.
Sheriff Kinsman asked her, “Where’s your husband?”
Ruth didn’t look up. “Couldn’t stand it no more in here. Went outside for some air.”
Or to destroy evidence, I thought. Sheriff Kinsman said, “I’ll just go see how he’s doing,” and headed out the back door.
Which left me with Ruth. She asked, “Did you see enough?” Her tone seemed to assume I enjoyed such duties.
“Enough to learn a few things,” I said.
She looked up at me. “You should be helpin’ to chase that Indian.”
“I’ve no desire to chase down any man again.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I had to help track down a friend once. It didn’t turn out well.”
I thought back to that tragic day two years earlier:
* * *
My friend Jacob Franklin had shot and killed a banker who’d come to his home to foreclose on his land. I knew Jacob had been having a tough time making ends meet — a couple bad years for his crops, and he was having trouble just feeding his family. I thought the bank was wrong not to give him another chance, but I didn’t see that as an excuse for murder.
Franklin and I were never the closest of friends, but I’d treated him and his wife Margaret for various ailments over the years and they’d treated me to supper at their home once — the home the bank was foreclosing upon.
I settled in on my horse and touched my hand to the Colt on my hip. “And if I can’t convince him?”
“Guess you’ll patch up anyone who gets shot — including him. Either way, the bank’s already put up a nice reward for the person who captures him.”
“I’m not interested in the money — not for that.”
“Suit yourself,” the sheriff said as he led the posse in the direction Franklin was said to have taken.
* * *
I forced my thoughts back to the present. I had nothing more to say to Ruth Armstrong right now. It didn’t feel right either to give her words of comfort or to air any suspicions. I left her and went outside to join Sheriff Kinsman and Arthur Armstrong.
I found the sheriff walking around behind the house, tracing the path his deputies had taken in pursuing the “Indian.” Arthur stood close to the house watching, arms folded, expression set. I took a look around the rear of the home. I spotted a number of items just to one side of the back door — small piles of wood, strips of cloth, the discarded hide of a rabbit, and an overturned bucket.
I was determined to take a look at all those items, but I hoped to do it after Arthur went inside. I stuffed my hands into my pants pockets — the breeze remained chilly — and went over to the sheriff, speaking just quietly enough that Arthur couldn’t hear. “Some kind of clue?”
“Just looking for any tracks of an unshod horse.”
“Like an Indian would probably be riding.”
“Yeah. Now, my deputies mighta stamped ‘em out as they left. Or the Indian coulda been riding a stolen horse that had shoes.”
“Your boys will have figured that out soon enough once they left here.”
“They’ll keep going for awhile, just in case.”
Arthur came up to us, his features hard to read. He ignored the sheriff and spoke directly to me: “Are you a coward?”
It took me a moment to come up with the response: “What the hell does that mean?”
“My wife wanted to know the same thing, though she didn’t quite say it as plainly. I don’t think we ever got a good answer. Why didn’t you go with those deputies, Mr. Hunt?”
I did my best to stare him down. “It’s Dr. Hunt, Mr. Armstrong. And I have to wonder why you and your wife are so concerned about my presence.”
“It’s just that we need everyone we can find to go after that Indian. But that could get you shot at, couldn’t it?”
“I’ve been shot at before,” I replied, and my memory leaped back two years once again to the events leading up to that incident.
* * *
“I sure hope we find this feller,” Johnson told me.
“Me, too,” I said.
“But one thing I gotta tell you, Dr. Hunt — I know the sheriff is hopin’ you can convince him to give himself up. But I’m not wantin’ to take any chances with him.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, Doc, that if we find him, and you’re gonna talk him into surrenderin’, you’d best do it fast.”
I pondered that as we started down a narrow dirt path where we’d seen some tracks left by a single rider. Sunlight shining through thick layers of leafy tree limbs created swathes of light that alternated between a rich green and bright yellow.
The pathway turned into a steep downward grade, and about halfway down Johnson told me, “Wait a minute. I think my horse just came up lame.” He dismounted and began to examine his horse’s leg and the fit of his shoe. After a moment, Johnson said, “I think he’ll be OK. Just took a wrong step back there.”
“Lemme go on ahead for a minute,” I told him. “If I don’t see anything down there, I’ll come back and your horse won’t have to risk hurting himself.”
I resumed my journey down the narrow path, which soon leveled out. I’m not as good a tracker as Johnson, but I could make out the tracks of a single horse that had preceded me sometime recently.
Then something changed. The horse tracks were joined by the footprints of a man’s boots — and both sets of tracks led into the woods. I strained to listen, and thought I could hear the rustling of movement in the distance. I should go back and get Johnson, I thought. But these tracks looked fresh, and I was afraid Franklin might get away if I hesitated. I also worried what might happen if Johnson was with me when I caught up to him.
I needed to move faster than Franklin. I tied up my horse at the edge of the wooded area, reasoning that Johnson would probably come along behind me when I didn’t return, pulled my Colt, and set off after Franklin.
* * *
Wresting my thoughts back to the present, I didn’t want to continue this conversation with Arthur Armstrong, so I headed back toward the house. As I neared the back door, however, I decided to go ahead and take a closer look at the pile of miscellaneous items by the back door. I realized now that some kind of substance had spilled from the bucket onto the ground. I picked it up and sniffed its interior. My nose wrinkled at the smell.
“What is it?” Sheriff Kinsman asked.
“Vomit,” I told him. “Smells fresh.”
The sheriff turned to Arthur. “Anyone been sick here?”
Arthur stared at the bucket as if he’d never seen it before. “Not at all. Not that I know about.”
I put down my bag, knelt down, and started going through the rest of the pile. I pushed aside the small stack of wood — and discovered a knife beneath it. I picked it up gingerly with two fingers and displayed it for the sheriff and Arthur Armstrong.
Arthur said, “Why, that’s Ruth’s knife. What the hell’s it doing out here?”
“Let’s go back in the house and find out,” I said. As I carried my bag inside, I couldn’t help but continue my remembrance of the events of two years earlier:
* * *
Franklin squinted in my direction. “Hunt? Corey? Is that really you?”
“It is, Jacob. I just want to talk.”
“You mean you want to see me hauled into jail. A trial if I’m lucky. Then hanged. I don’t want my wife to see that.”
“Margaret wants to see you alive,” I told him. A lie of sorts, since I hadn’t spoken to her. But I thought it was a good assumption.
“That’s as it may be. But I’m not coming back. And I don’t want to hurt you, Corey, but I won’t let you take me.”
I worked my way closer to Jacob. I hoped that the closer I got, the better he could see my face, could see my concern, the less likely he’d be to decide to shoot me.
Jacob let go his horse’s reins, but the animal didn’t wander far. Jacob took a couple steps toward me. “I’m warning you, Corey — I will shoot. Turn around and head back to your sheriff.”
“We’ll just keep coming after you.”
Jacob shook his gun at me. “I know that! But I’m going to die like a man, not some kind of deadbeat who couldn’t provide for his wife.”
I took a couple more steps forward as I said, “Will making Margaret a widow make things better for her?”
“Better than they are now — and stop right there!”
I stopped, and fought to keep my aim steady and not show the fear that had my heart pumping and my breathing growing rapid. I’d shot squirrels and rabbits, but never a man. And certainly never a man who’s been a friend, I thought.
Franklin took another step toward me. His horse started to wander farther off, but he paid no attention to it. He was aiming right at my chest. “Turn around — leave!”
I didn’t know whether to watch his eyes or his gun hand to figure out whether he was going to shoot. I knew I’d never be able to forgive myself if I retreated and he got away — but I also knew Franklin was the better shot.
I managed to keep my voice from shaking as I took another couple steps forward, telling him, “Put the gun down!”
“I don’t want to, Corey, but I’ll shoot you — I will!”
“Who are you trying to convince — yourself?”
Franklin bared his teeth at me and raised his aim toward my head. In that instant, everything slowed down, and somehow I knew he was about to shoot at me. Some instinct within me made me squeeze the trigger.
Franklin’s body spun around even as I ducked my head and closed my eyes against the spray of splinters from a tree to my right. He’d fired, too — and missed!
Even as I went to Franklin, I wiped the side of my head. I looked at my hand. It was bloody from several small cuts the splinters had made.
As I knelt next to Franklin, I realized he wasn’t moving. He was lying on his back, eyes unstaring. A clean hole in his chest. I realized my shot had struck him in the heart. Blind luck, I thought. I felt at one wrist, but with no blood pumping from the wound, I knew it was too late. I’d killed my friend.
I was still kneeling there when Johnson, leading his limping horse, found me a few minutes later.
* * *
I rode right out to the Franklin farm. When the widow Margaret Franklin came to the door, I spoke quickly, telling her about the reward, handing the packet of money to her, and how I knew with Jacob gone she’d be in need of it.
Margaret threw the packet back at my chest. It fell to the ground. “Like hell I’m taking anyone’s blood money for my dead husband!” She slammed the door in my face.
I picked up the packet of money and left. Blood money, I thought. She’s right — that’s what it is.
But maybe there’s a way I can redeem it.
* * *
As I placed the knife and my bag on a table in the Armstrongs’ main room, Ruth’s eyes went wide and she stood up. She stared at the knife as if it were a hissing snake. Then she cast me a hateful look as I opened my bag.
“Just what in hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
I indicated Arthur Armstrong. “Your husband says this is your knife? Is that true?”
Arthur received his own hateful look. Then Ruth turned her attention back to me. “What if it is?”
“I’d have to wonder if it’s the knife that was used to kill your daughter.”
“It was that Indian did that. And you don’t see no blood on that knife.”
I pulled out my microscope and set it on the table as Arthur said to Sheriff Kinsman, “I don’t think I like what your man is trying to say.”
The sheriff pointedly looked at me rather than Arthur as he said, “Let’s see what ‘my man’ has. Then we’ll see how much we like what he says.”
I pulled out two vials, one of a tropical resin called guaiac, the other hydrogen peroxide. “This isn’t the ideal laboratory situation,” I said as I held the knife blade against the microscope’s stage. “But I should be able to make it work.”
I looked through the lens of the microscope. Sure enough, I saw thin streaks of a dark red substance — presumably blood. To make sure, though, I placed a drop of the guaiac upon the knife blade. I put that vial aside and added a drop of the hydrogen peroxide. Then I looked once again through the lens of the microscope and within seconds the red streaks turned a bright blue.
I looked up and saw three sets of eyes looking at me as intently as I must have been looking through the microscope. “This knife has blood stains on it.”
“You’re makin’ that up!” Ruth screamed as she lunged for the knife. I held it over my head so she couldn’t reach it.
Arthur grabbed his wife’s arm and spun her around. “That is your knife, Ruth. I know it is.”
“I skinned that rabbit with it. That’s the blood that’s on it.”
Sheriff Kinsman said, “The woman has a point, Doc. That blood doesn’t necessarily tell us anything.”
I got out my ruler and measured the knife’s blade. “Two and a half inches. That’s the right size.”
Arthur said, “That don’t mean nothin’ either. There’s plenty of knives that size.”
I turned the knife round and round, examining the handle this time. “Looks like we’ve got some tiny hairs stuck in the handle.”
“It’s from that rabbit, I tell you,” Ruth said.
I placed the knife back under the microscope, this time focusing on the handle. “There’s not much here, but I’ve shot enough rabbits in my day that I think I know their fur when I see it. And this isn’t rabbit fur.”
Ruth Armstrong’s shoulders slumped and she stared blindly at the floor. She knows, I thought. It’s as if she’s already made a confession.
But Arthur looked around at all of us and said, “I don’t understand.” His gaze settled on me and he asked, “What did you see?”
Arthur’s eyes widened. “You mean like...like...”
“Yes,” I told him. “Like your daughter’s scarf is made of.”
Ruth covered her face with her hands. “You can’t know that, you can’t.”
I told her, “You asked me a little while ago if I’d ever been shot at. I told you I have. And I shot back, and ended up killing a man — a friend. I’d come into some money, so I went East to learn how to help out the sheriff without having to use a gun.”
Arthur went to his wife and, more calmly than I would’ve expected, said, “Why did you do it?”
Ruth just sat there shaking her head, so I said, “Melissa was...with child.”
Both Arthur and the sheriff looked at me questioningly.
“The bucket,” I said. “With vomit spilled from it.” I asked Ruth, “She’d had morning sickness, hadn’t she?”
“Yes,” Ruth said through sobs. “She’d been with that Benedict boy sometime, I knew it, but I couldn’t prove it. I was out in the garden, and she came out to empty the bucket. I went through it myself having her, I knew why she was sick, she couldn’t make a fool out of me, disgrace this family, give me another mouth to feed. I grabbed my knife and chased her into the house. She ran into her bedroom, I pushed her down on the bed, and then — my arm just kept goin’ up and down, up and down. I...” She lost herself to sobbing.
The rest was up to the sheriff. Soon we were heading back to town, the sheriff riding in the lead, Arthur driving himself and Ruth in their wagon, with me bringing up the rear.
At the top of the rise, I pulled back on my horse’s reins and paused as I had earlier. I looked back at the old Armstrong house. It looked different to me now, its secrets revealed, never again to be just a plain wooden structure situated on the Oklahoma plains.
But one mystery, I knew, would remain forever closed to me. Jacob Franklin had declared he wouldn’t be taken alive. And he’d said he didn’t want to kill me.
His bullet splintered the tree trunk next to my head.
He’d always been the better shot.
Dave Creek mostly writes science fiction, but is also enamored of crime fiction. His books include two short story collections – A GLIMPSE OF SPLENDOR, and THE HUMAN EQUATIONS – and a novel, SOME DISTANT SHORE. His most recent work is THE SILENT SENTINELS, a novella.
Find out more about Dave’s work at www.davecreek.net and on Facebook at Fans of Dave Creek.
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