Chapter 19 The Walls Close In
It didn't matter what was said or done by any of the Mavericks, Mort Bowman was single minded in his determination to arrest Edgar Pike's murderer. From the moment that Edgar's ranch foreman had ridden frantically into town with news of the shooting until Mort arrived at the door to room 214 he had only one thing in mind – as promised, he was going to arrest Bart Maverick for the crime. After walking into Maverick's hotel room and announcing the arrest, he hauled Bart out of there in handcuffs and handed him over to Deputy Willis. Then he ran the rest of the troublesome family out of the room and closed the door behind them. It was time to investigate before any evidence could be destroyed.
He'd already seen and made note of the fact that Bart had blood on his hands. Not a lot, but enough. There was blood on the handle of the pistol that he picked up from the bed, and an empty gun belt and holster on the floor where Beau had dropped it. The bed was mostly intact, as if it hadn't been slept in.
Mort bent down to pick up the hat from the floor and replaced the broken lamp on the table. Then he walked over to the wide open window and closed it. As he turned back from the window he saw the corner of something sticking out under the saddle bags and stopped to retrieve it. He studied it carefully and realized he had the photo that everyone in town knew Edgar kept on his mantel over the fireplace – the picture of Jessie and her three brothers. He smiled in grim satisfaction. Maverick had extracted his revenge in the form of murder. Mort was ready to go back to his office and deal with the chaos he expected – he was sure he had arrested the right man.
The sheriff of Silver Creek was absolutely correct – there was chaos at the jail. Bret and Beau had followed Deputy Willis as he took Bart to a cell. Georgia had come from her house and brought Jody with her. Attorney Foster had arrived and the JP foreman, Burt Felton, was still there. The only one not talking was Bart, who sat quietly in his jail cell and looked bewildered. When Mort Bowman finally returned to his office he made everyone except Bret, Beau and Hiram Foster leave. Foster he let into the cell to confer with the prisoner and Bret and Beau followed him back to his desk.
"What happened? Why did you arrest my brother?" This obviously from Bret.
Mort looked at the two Mavericks' and stated rather quietly, "Edgar Pike was pistol whipped and shot to death last night. In his own home. I arrested your brother for his murder." He paused and then continued, "Just like I told you I would."
Bret started to protest and Beau stopped him. "Tell me, sheriff, what evidence do you have against Bart?"
A small, smug smile played around the edges of Bowman's countenance. "Plenty," he answered.
Again, Beau asked "Besides your suspicions?"
Mort replaced the look on his face with a stern expression. "You mean besides the fact that your cousin already threatened to kill the man? And that he had blood on his gun and his hands? And the indisputable proof that I found in that hotel room? You mean that evidence?"
Bret and Beau both caught the phrase 'indisputable proof' and wondered just what Mort had found after he put them out of the room. The sheriff wasn't going to provide them with any further information, however, and turned towards the cell. "Mr. Foster, you have ten minutes with your client. Then I need to get some paperwork done on the case. You can come back later today." He turned back to Bret and Beau. "And you two can go with him. Don't come back until this afternoon."
Beau stood up as if to depart but Bret stayed seated. "I'm not leaving without talking to my brother."
Hiram Foster stood up inside the cell. "Mr. Maverick, I have enough to get started. You may take my place." He turned to Bart as Mort came over to the cell with the keys. "Don't answer any questions, Bart. I'll be back this afternoon and we'll go over everything. It will be fine."
Mort let the attorney out of the cell and let Bret in, then locked the cell door. He stood there for a moment, waiting to hear what the brothers had to say to each other. Bret stared at the sheriff until Mort finally returned to his desk out front. Bret sat down next to Bart on the cot.
"Bart, what do you remember?"
Bart attempted to shake his head but the headache was back. "Not much. You left me at the hotel. I changed clothes and went to bed, to sleep. I woke up this morning with you and Beau in the room and my head killing me. That's all."
"You didn't wake up during the night and go somewhere?"
"No, Bret. I already told you that. I didn't get dressed and leave my room. Not by the door, not by the window. And I don't know what happened to my gun and where the one you found came from." His voice was firm but his eyes were pleading. Did he have another blackout? He hadn't had one in weeks. Thank God Bret didn't know about them.
"Settle down there, Brother Bart. I believe you. We need more information, and you don't have any. Beau and I need to do some investigating of our own. Beau can go talk to Hiram and see what he can tell us. I'm going out to talk to Foster. I want to know when and how the body was found and snoop around a bit. I'll be back this afternoon." Bret took a good look at Bart and his stomach turned over. His brother looked tired, haggard, and defeated. He was ready to do anything to make him feel better, or at least hopeful. "When have I ever not had your back? I'll find out what really happened and this will all be over." He put his hand on Bart's arm and squeezed. Bart looked up slightly and forced a wan smile.
"I know you will, Bret. My life depends on it."
Bret rode out to the JP ranch and was surprised when he got to the gate that Edgar had erected at the edge of the ranch. The gate was standing wide open and all of the "Trespassers Keep Out" signs were gone. He rode through the gate and on to the ranch house. He dismounted and went to look for Burt Felton, who was working with a colt in the corral. Bret leaned against the fence and watched the foreman deftly maneuver the colt around the enclosure for a few minutes. Then Felton saw Bret and walked over. "Mr. Felton, I'd like to talk to you if you have a few minutes."
Burt looked at him skeptically for a moment and then nodded. "You're Mavericks brother, ain't ya?' he asked.
"Yes, I'm Bart Maverick's brother. I understand that you found Edgar this morning?"
"That's right. Went over to the house right after sun up and didn't get no answer, so I walked on in. Found Mr. Pike beat somethin' awful and dead as could be. Didn't waste no time, rode straight into town and got Sheriff Mort." He looked at Bret with a somewhat puzzled countenance. "Can't say as I blame yer brother, Pike wasn't no picnic to work for. 'Bout half the hands quit after Miz Jessie died, the rest of 'em and me been takin' care a things all these months. Like I said, he wasn't no picnic. Course there's always ways to take care of a man without killin' him."
Bret didn't disagree with that. There's always a better way to make a man pay a debt than talking his life. He knew that Beau and Bart believed that, too. "If it's not too much trouble, can you show me just where you found him?"
Felton nodded again and left the corral. He led Bret up to the house and through the front door. Maverick stopped and looked at the door carefully. It had been opened forcibly, either kicked or pushed in. Was Bart strong enough to do that? Under normal circumstances, sure. Bart's physical condition could hardly be called normal the last few months, however. Still, that wasn't enough to cause Mort Bowman to look for a different killer.
Bret continued into the main area of the house. One of the chairs by the fire was tipped over on the floor and there was blood all over it. Obviously where Edgar had been sitting when his intruder burst in. Bret glanced up to the mantel and stopped in his tracks. The photo he'd examined of his father, uncles and aunt was gone. He looked around the room for it but it was nowhere to be seen. It hadn't left by itself; why would someone take a photo of the Mavericks? Bart hadn't ever seen it; could he actually have been here to murder Edgar? And what, take the photo with him? Why?
Something wasn't right. He had to ask Burt about the photo. "Mr. Felton, you know the picture that Edgar kept on his mantel? That picture of Jessie as a little girl with her brothers?"
"Yep," Burt answered. "Everybody knows that picture. Pike said that was the only one he had of Jessie."
"Was it here this morning when you found the body?"
Felton rubbed his chin and tried to remember. "Ya know, I don't think so. I don't remember seeing it since the last time I was in here."
"Thanks," Bret told him. "That's all I need." He walked back out of the little house. Once outside he shook Felton's hand and once again told him "Thanks for your time. I appreciate it."
"Sure hope yer brother gets off. Don't seem right to hang a man after what got done to him."
Strange logic there somewhere. Bret wasn't going to try to figure out a man whose mind seemed to run in circles. He mounted his horse and turned towards Silver Creek. He needed to see if Beau had learned any more from Hiram Foster.