Copyright ©2020 by Quinn Kayser-Cochran.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any mechanical or electronic means, except that a reviewer may quote brief passages in their review(s).
A company detective framed for murder in a 1907 Nevada mining camp fights for exoneration and survival…
Delamar, Nevada, was a real town populated by people who, unlike those in WIDOWMAKER, toiled ethically to wrest gold from the surrounding mountains (well, most of them, anyway). As depicted in WIDOWMAKER, Delamar did have a severe problem with silicosis–a terrible disease wherein the lungs are damaged and the victim asphyxiates (hence the town’s nickname, “The Widowmaker”). This was due to a combination of factors: the district’s underlying geology (ore in quartzite with a high silica content), poor ventilation in the mines, the dry-milling of ores, and a perpetual shortage of water. These factors notwithstanding, from 1893 to around 1906, Delamar was one of Nevada’s leading districts for gold production, outproducing such better-known towns as Manhattan, Bullfrog, and Rawhide. Total output from the district, including that from a brief revival from 1929-1934, was around $13.5M ($340M in 2020). Today, the Delamar townsite rests in a state of advanced decay on lands administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and is open to the public for visitation.
WIDOWMAKER is a work of fiction. Some of the historical persons, places, and events depicted herein have been re-imagined to serve a story, and with the exception of public figures, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. Opinions expressed herein are those of fictional characters and should not necessarily be mistaken for the author’s.
First few pages of WIDOWMAKER
I hate stakeouts. Hate everything about ’em. The boredom, discomfort, and routine futility could drive anyone mad and me, I’ve too much on my mind to spend hours alone this way. Too much by half.
The drive out here took four hours. A little after nine a.m., parked my car inside a ruined stone building above the crossroads. Piled sagebrush over the hood and windscreen for cover, propped a rifle against the wall, and settled in to wait.
First rule of surveillance: never take your eyes off the target. Easily done here, because the target never showed. Going over my notes, at 12:07, two buckboards loaded with hay rolled through, up from the valley’s southern meadows. Forty minutes later, an ore wagon went the other direction, southbound behind twenty mules. At 3:22, the Nye-Lincoln auto-stage turned onto the Pahranagat Road toward Hancock Summit but since our informant said the target would ride a horse from Alamo to the old camp at Logan, I didn’t follow. That’s it. Eight hours, three vehicles, total, and none relevant to my investigation. At least no one spotted me.
I hate stakeouts.
Hate lots of things lately. How melancholy I’ve become. How anxious, unsettled, and mean. Hate loneliness, too, yet I don’t much care for company. Hard to know whether silence is what I want or fear the most. Depends on the day, I guess.
I grab a bottle from the passenger seat, pull the stopper, and take a drink. Mail-order whiskey from Hayner’s Distilling Co., Springfield, Ohio, shipped right to my mailbox in Delamar. Isn’t my favorite brand but it’s cheap and easy to get. Know I shouldn’t drink on stakeout but this whole affair’s been a waste of time and I can’t see that it matters. Isn’t as though getting back to camp will be difficult. Out on these rutted roads through the sagebrush, automobiles behave about the way horses do: just give the thing its nose and it’ll practically drive itself home. I’m counting on this, in fact.
Watching the sun slip behind the mountains, I take a longer pull off the bottle and wince. Empty. Chuck it against a wall. Shatters. Whole day’s been a waste. Whole year. Wasted time, wasted effort. Can’t even remember why I took this assignment. Should’ve given it to one of my deputies but I wanted to leave town for an afternoon, just so I could catch my breath.
Foolish of me, seeing as I’m a target, too.
Around midnight someone pounds on my door and in a fit of panic, I fall out of bed. These past few months, anything can set me off so whoever’s there is lucky my revolver isn’t where it belongs. If it were, trust me, the son of a bitch outside would be scrambling to plug leaks instead of trying to knock my door off its hinges.
Only fell asleep a few minutes ago and my boots and overcoat were all the clothes I shed before falling face-first onto the mattress. Shoulder rig’s cinched but it’s empty. Try as I may, I still can’t find the Colt and while this frightens me, it’s probably just as well. Things we think we need, props we reach for in moments of crisis, often cause as many problems as they solve.
The room lurches into focus. Pick myself off the floor. My head aches and my heart races. Dry mouth. Cold hands. Jesus, I can’t keep doing this to myself. I lose several more moments groping for the revolver, eventually finding it wedged between a bottle and a photograph on the nightstand. Ain’t that the damnedest thing? For the life of me, I can’t remember how it got there and this makes me nervous. Of all people, you’d think I’d have learned to keep up my guard.
Bam-bam-bam! The pounding continues, or is he kicking? My neighbors shout and complain about the noise but whoever’s out there pays them no mind. Jackass doesn’t lay off even for a second, which tells me either he’s in serious trouble or else he’s looking for it. Leaning against the wall, I study a shadow spilling beneath the door. Only one? Others must be waiting on the stairs. That’s how we handle these jobs, with one agent face-to-face and backup just out of sight. As well as anyone, I know how things work around here. I kneel to steady myself and raise my Colt New Service, a heavy .45 I’ve carried since the Philippines. Careful to keep my finger outside the guard, I hold it close and squint to make sure a round is seated.
“Knock it off or I’ll shoot!”
The pounding stops and the shadow moves away from the door.
Two, three seconds of silence. Then, “Come on, bub, open up.”
My head clears a little. Maybe they aren’t here to take me down. Maybe.
“Come on,” he shouts again, “it’s me.”
I’d recognize that voice anywhere: Big Curt Broe, a fellow operative for the Association and Team Two’s captain. Not the last person I want to see but nearly. I stand, holster the revolver, and unlatch the deadbolt.
“Time is it?”
My heart won’t stop hammering. “Jesus, Curt. Couldn’t wait ’til sunup?”
“Need you up at the shop.”
“What, another stiff with the company’s rocks?”
“Hell, way bigger.” He glances toward the staircase. “I’ll explain in the car.”
He looks nervous, which is unusual. Normally, Curt’s the cockiest fellow I know.
Glancing down the hallway, I see my fellow boarders peek cautiously from behind their doors. Fine work, Broe; appreciate your restraint. I study his plug-ugly features: mashed-up, thrice-broken nose, high forehead, and crooked jaw.
“Is this an emergency?”
He glares at my neighbors—Finn carpenters, Hungarian muckers, and two hop-heads with smoke-blackened fingers—before turning back to me. “’Course it is, dummy.” He rolls a cigarette, lights it, and drops his match on the dirty planks. Crushes the ember with his boot heel. “C’mon, grab your hat.”
All this posturing makes me tired. “Only got back a few minutes ago,” I say.
“ʽSo what?’” I pull the door a few inches closer and shake my head carefully. “So, I followed your report out to Hiko this morning and didn’t see anything. Boudreaux never showed, hell, nobody showed, so take your emergency—”
“C’mon, Sunday, I’m serious.”
“Me, too.” I wipe my mouth with my hand. “Go get Bob Thompson or Warren Jim; they need the hours and I need more sleep.”
“Nah, son. This crop ain’t regular—this is big casino.”
“Don’t care. Go drift.”
“General work,” he whispers, “but with political implications, understand?”
Can’t say as I do.
Outside, the wind moans like a ghost. Glancing down the hallway, Curt scowls and lets his coat fall open. Catching sight of his sidearm, my hard-luck neighbors scuttle back inside their drafty rooms and lock their doors. Pleased with himself, he grins.
“You’ll want your heavy coat. This storm has half the desert on the move.” He drags on the cigarette until its end glows red.
Again, I shake my head. What do I care about roughing up another grass-level organizer? Work one over and the union sends five more to take his place. Hell, they’re why we have job security. World’s brimful of little men too stupid to recognize when someone bigger has ’em strapped. I’ve seen what happens when people take stands against the fellows who really run things; the result is never pretty and it’s always the same. Always. Just thinking about it makes my head hurt
“You handle it,” I say. “You know what to do.”
I push on the door but Curt stops it with his hand.
“Wouldn’t mind if I did.” With the cigarette dangling from his mouth, he fixes me with another nasty grin. “Know a fellow named Joe McCuskey?”
This time, no snappy reply. Just the opposite, in fact: my jaw hangs slack and my tongue goes numb.
“Hear what I said?”
“Hold … hold on …”
“Yeah, you heard,” Curt says. He coughs once, a hollow boom that aggravates the pain in my skull.
Son of a bitch did this on purpose. Ran me ragged before handing me a ticking bomb. Can’t think, can’t think. Come on, stupid, figure this out.
“Joe McCuskey,” I say. “The Joe McCuskey? Where?”
“Caliente. Bastard was all by himself and nobody saw nothing.” More coughing. Spits on the floor. “Hooded him and hauled him up to the Tomcat just before this storm cut loose.”
“Bullshit. You’re bullshitting me, right?”
Now Curt looks as confused as I feel. He drops the last of his cigarette on the floor and grinds it out with his boot.
“Fuck’s wrong with you, Sunday?” He spits again.
“The Joe McCuskey?”
“Christ, you’re a mess. Maybe you ain’t up for this …”
Is Curt serious? Dear God, I think he is. For an instant, I itch like mad for that bottle on the nightstand but now even thirst can’t compete with the rage welling inside me. The room spins, so dark and formless I might as well be down at the bottom of a mineshaft. Mere feet away, Curt’s face and the tattered wallpaper behind him are blurred beyond recognition. My mind disowns every sense except a sour taste in my mouth, because hatred’s flavor is the strongest thing there is. Swallow enough and it poisons your thoughts, your speech, and eventually your deeds. Wrath supplants reason and you become the animal every law since Moses was meant to keep you from becoming. Look, Big Curt doesn’t know ten percent of what stands between McCuskey and me—I try to keep some things to myself—but chins wag and I drink too much so maybe he’s heard something. Probably has. Why else would he be here on the coldest night of the year, grinning at me this way, except that he knows he’ll get a reaction? And why not send a subordinate? Something’s bent.
Take a deep breath and my vision resolves. I tell myself that Curt’s news doesn’t mean anything more than another long night on the job. Hell, everyone west of Omaha knows Joe McCuskey’s a bagman, a dynamiter, a killer: all valid reasons for me to take an interest in his sudden appearance. Still, I can’t show all my cards; silence is a raised drawbridge.
At last, I realize Curt is speaking, “… like you seen the Devil. Maybe this one’s too heavy for you.”
So much for covering my tracks.
Big Curt steps backward. Standing below a bare light bulb, the shadow beneath his hat devours his features. Faceless and looming, he is such a vision that all I can do is blink and hope I haven’t already gone to Hell.
He leans forward to scrape his muddy boot on a warped floorboard. “I’ll go get Bob.”
The fog in my head begins to lift. “Give me a minute.”
“Dammit, we don’t have a minute. You coming or not?”
“Hold on.” I don’t like that he’s trying to rush me out the door. “What’s your play here, Curt?”
He shrugs. “Just work.”
I wouldn’t buy that with someone else’s money. “Why would Joe come here? He knows better.”
“Why don’t you ask him, yourself?” Curt scratches his cheek and glances at the ceiling. “Think I know what motivates these assholes?”
“You were any good at your job, you might.”
“Hey, pal.” Curt’s eyes blaze. “How about a little gratitude for bringing you in instead of taking all the credit, myself?”
“How about you tell me what happened?”
His eyes narrow. “Been after this one a while, haven’t you?”
“Me and everyone else, so what?”
“Yeah, but that business with your girl—”
“I swear to Christ, Curt, shut the hell up and tell me what happened.”
“Settle down, bub, we’re on the same team.” He coughs into a handkerchief, frowns at the result, and shoves the cloth back into his pocket. “Okay, look, Roy knows this operator who showed him a telegram from Denver saying McCuskey was waiting over in Caliente—”
“Waiting for what?”
“Didn’t say, so I sent Garland, Thompson, and Sweeney to find out and by damn, they hit the jackpot. Caught him sleeping in that little hotel by the hot springs there. Storm’s pulled down the telephone wires though so they couldn’t call it in, see? That’s why I’m so late getting here.”
I ought to be thrilled by this news. Ought to. Clearly, Curt expects as much and it’s the reaction I wish I had, except that I don’t. Revenge is tricky that way. Getting what you want doesn’t always go according to plan, especially when it’s eluded your grasp for a long, long time. Given the wretched history between McCuskey and me, for years I’ve told myself if only I could wrap my hands around his throat, I might be happy again. Might scatter the clouds hanging over my head. It’s a notion I’ve clung to, anyway, despite the nagging sense that my problems run deeper than occasional run-ins with a bad actor.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Tell you what?”
“About the telegram?”
He yawns. “You left camp.”
“Son of a bitch, Curt, you knew where I was—you gave me the tip about Boudreaux!”
“So what? We all run down dead-ends.” He looks around as if someone might be listening. “Listen, amigo, I wanted to sweat McCuskey myself but Charlie showed up on a high horse and made us wait. Said it was your case so I backed off.”
I ignore most of what he says. “Charlie’s at the shop?”
Curt yawns. “Roy fetched him. You’re welcome.”
This is good news. Charlie Witherill is my right hand and about the only person in Delamar I’d trust with my life. Saying this, I also mean that I don’t trust Big Curt, not with my life nor anything else. And while I’m glad to hear Charlie’s minding the store, I still can’t shake the sense that something isn’t on the level. Is this all a fantastic coincidence? Or for once, just exactly what Curt says it is? Everywhere I turn, I see trouble.