Copyright ©2017 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).
Delamar, Nevada, was a real town populated by people who, unlike those in WIDOWMAKER, labored diligently and ethically to wrest gold from the hills surrounding it. As depicted in WIDOWMAKER, Delamar’s residents did have a severe problem with silicosis (hence the town’s nickname, “Widowmaker”). This was due to a combination of factors: the district’s underlying geology, poor ventilation in the mines, the dry-milling of ores, and a perpetual shortage of water. Nonetheless, from 1893 to around 1906, Delamar was one of Nevada’s leading districts for gold production, outproducing such better known locales as Manhattan, Bullfrog, and Rawhide. Total output from the district, including that from a brief revival from 1929-1934, was around $13.5M ($330M in 2017). 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 ten pages of WIDOWMAKER
I hate stakeouts. Hate everything about ’em. The boredom, discomfort, and routine futility are enough to drive anyone mad and me, I have too much on my mind to spend hours alone this way.
Too much by half.
Drive out here took four hours. A little after nine a.m., I pulled the car inside a ruined stone building on a rise overlooking the main road. Piled sagebrush over the windscreen to smother any glare, propped a rifle against the wall, and settled in to wait.
Rule Number One of surveillance: never take your eyes off the target, except in this case the target never showed. Hardly anyone out here but me. According to my notes, at 12:07 two farm wagons rolled through, loaded with hay from the valley’s southern meadows. Half an hour later an ore wagon followed, northbound behind a twenty-mule team. At 3:22, the Nye-Lincoln auto-stage turned onto the Pahranagat Road toward Hancock Summit, but since our informant said my target would be riding horseback between Alamo and the old camp at Logan, I didn’t follow.
I hate stakeouts.
Hate lots of things these days. How melancholy I’ve become. How anxious and unsettled. How mean. I hate loneliness, too, yet I don’t much care for company. Hard to know whether silence is the thing I want or fear the most. Depends on the day, I guess, and most days I don’t want to be me.
I pick up a bottle from the passenger seat, pull the stopper, and take a quick 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 it’s easy to get. I know I shouldn’t be drinking on stakeout, but this whole affair’s been complete a waste of time and I can’t see how it matters now. And it 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 it, in fact.
As the sun disappears behind the mountains, I take another long pull from the bottle and wince. Whole day’s been a waste. Wasted time, wasted effort. I try to remember why I took this assignment. Could’ve—should’ve—delegated it, but I wanted to leave town for an afternoon just so I could catch my breath. Shouldn’t have, though.
Pretty clear I’m a target, too.
Around one a.m. someone starts pounding on my door and in a fit of panic I fall out of bed. Lately, everything sets me off so whoever’s outside is lucky my revolver isn’t where it belongs. If it were, trust me, the son of a bitch would be scrambling to plug some big leaks instead of trying to knock my door off its hinges. The Colt isn’t beneath my pillow, though, and while this scares me, it’s probably just as well. The things we think we need—props we reach for in moments of crisis—often cause as many problems as they solve.
Bam-bam-bam! The pounding won’t stop. Or is the bastard kicking now?
The room snaps into focus and I remember where I am. Picking myself up off the floor, my head aches and my heart races. Mouth is dry and my hands are cold, too. Jesus, I can’t keep doing this to myself.
Finally fell asleep only a little after midnight and the only clothes I shed before falling face-first into my pillow were my overcoat and boots. Shoulder rig’s still cinched but since it’s empty, it’s useless to me now. I spend the next several moments desperately groping for my revolver. Thank God, I find it wedged between a bottle and a photograph on the nightstand. Isn’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.
My neighbors are complaining about the racket now, but whoever’s banging on my door pays them no mind. Jackass doesn’t lay off for a second, which tells me either they’re in serious trouble or they’ve come looking for it.
I lean against the wall to study the shadow spilling beneath the door. Just one? Others must be waiting downstairs. That’s usually how we handle these jobs: someone face-to-face while others wait in the shadows. As well as anyone, I know how things work around here.
Kneeling to steady myself, I lift the Colt New Service—a heavy .45 I’ve carried since the Philippines. Careful to keep my fingers outside the guard, I hold it close, squinting to make sure a round is seated.
“Knock it off,” I shout. “One more time and I’ll shoot.”
The pounding stops and the shadow moves away from the door.
Two, three seconds of silence. Then: “Dammit, Sunday, it’s me. Open up.”
My head clears a little. Maybe they haven’t come to take me down. Maybe.
“Sunday, open up,” he calls 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 right now, but nearly. I stand, holster the revolver, and unlatch the deadbolt.
“Son of a bitch, Curt.” My heart won’t stop hammering. “Couldn’t wait ‘til morning?”
“I did wait. C’mon, there’s work up at the shop.”
“What, another stiff with a lunch pail full of ore?”
“Bigger.” He glances toward the staircase. “Way bigger. I’ll explain in the car.”
He looks nervous, which is unusual. Normally Curt is the cockiest con of a bitch I know.
“Get yourself killed, pounding on doors after dark.”
“You don’t wake easily.”
“Not on my day off. What do you want?”
“Can’t tell you here—c’mon.”
I glance down the hallway. A few neighbors peek cautiously from behind their doors. Wonderful, Curt: I appreciate your restraint. I study his plug-ugly features—his mashed-up, thrice-broken nose, high forehead, and crooked jaw. My lip curls but I don’t care. I’m in no shape for manners.
“Is it an emergency?”
I open the door wider to find him glaring at my neighbors—Finn carpenters, Hungarian muckers, and two hop-heads with smoke-blackened fingers—and when he turns to face me, his expression confirms the news he’s carrying really is hot.
“Kinda,” he says. “Now grab your hat.”
He spits on the floor, lights a cigarette, and drops the match onto the dirty plank floor before crushing it with his boot heel.
“Not this one,” I say. “Only got back an hour ago.”
“So what?” I open the door wider and shake my head carefully. “So, I drove clear out to Hiko this morning, following that tip you gave me and didn’t see anything. Boudreaux never showed—hell, nobody showed—so you and your new errand can go to hell.”
“Come on, bub, I’m serious.”
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “So am I. Go get Barry Levine or Warren Jim; they need the hours and I need more sleep.”
“No, Sunday, this crop ain’t regular—this is big casino. Trust me.”
“Aren’t they all?”
“Serious,” he whispers. “General work but with broad implications, understand?”
Can’t say that I do. Outside, the wind moans like a ghost.
Glancing down the hallway, Curt lets his coat fall open. Soon as they spy his sidearm, my hard-luck neighbors scuttle back inside their drafty rooms and lock their doors. He nods, plainly satisfied.
“Grab some cover. 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 over one and the union sends five more to take his place. Hell, they’re why we have job-security. World’s brimful of small men too stupid to recognize when someone bigger has ’em strapped. I’ve seen what happens when a fellow takes a stand against the men who really run things: the result is never pretty and it’s always the same. Always. Makes my head hurt just thinking about it.
“Go on without me,” I say. “You know what to do.”
Stumbling backward into darkness, I start to close the door but Curt stops it with the heel of his hand.
“You sure?” With the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he fixes me with a nasty grin. “Ever hear of a fellow named Joe McCuskey?”
This time I have no snappy reply. A chill shakes my spine and damned if I can respond with any purpose. Just the opposite, in fact: my hands and feet have gone numb and I’m sure my mouth’s fallen open.
“Hear what I said?”
“Wait… I’m not…”
“Yeah, you heard,” Curt says. He coughs—a hollow boom that aggravates the pain in my skull.
Son of a bitch, he did this on purpose. Sent me out of town on a goose chase and now in the middle of the night he’s handed me a bomb with a burning fuse. Can’t think. Can’t think. C’mon, stupid, say something. Figure this out.
“How did… hold on, what happened?”
“Over in Caliente. He was traveling by himself so no one saw anything.” More coughing. Spits again. “Hooded the bastard, put nippers on his wrists, and hauled him up to the Black Cat.”
Now Big Curt looks as confused as I feel. He drops the butt on the floor and grinds it out with his boot.
“Fuck’s wrong with you, Sunday?”
“The Joe McCuskey?”
“Christ, you’re a mess—maybe you really ain’t up for this.”
Is Curt serious? He can’t be. Dear God, what if he is? For a split-second I think about that bottle on the nightstand, but even thirst can’t compete with the rage inside. The hallway spins, so dark and formless that I may as well be looking up from the bottom of a mineshaft. Mere feet away, I can’t see Curt’s face nor the tattered wallpaper behind him—both are blurs now. The world goes black and I’m feeling all-over alike, touching nowhere. My mind disowns every sense except the sour taste in my mouth, because hatred’s flavor is the strongest thing I know. Swallow enough and it poisons your thoughts, your speech, and eventually your deeds. Fury supplants reason and you become the animal every law since Moses was meant to keep you from becoming. Look, Big Curt doesn’t know even ten percent of what happened 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. Why else would he come here on the coldest night of the year, grinning at me this way, except he knows he’ll get a reaction? Why didn’t he send a deputy? Delivering messages at two in the morning isn’t a captain’s job. Not hardly.
Taking a deep breath, my vision resolves. Feeling steadier, I tell myself this news doesn’t mean anything except another long night on the job. Silence is safety, right? Hell, everyone west of St. Louis knows Joe’s a bagman, an anarchist, and a killer: all valid reasons for me to take an interest in his unexpected appearance here in Delamar. Can’t let Curt see my angle, though. Can’t let him know the truth. Silence is a raised drawbridge.
At last, I realize Curt’s 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 under his hat brim devours his features. Faceless and looming, he’s such a vision that all I can do is blink. He leans forward and scrapes his muddy boots on a warp in a floorboard.
“I’ll get someone else.”
“Cut it out; I just need a minute.” The fog in my head starts to lift.
“We don’t have a minute—you coming or not?”
“Maybe. What’s your angle here?”
Feels like he’s trying to rush me out the door. Toward what? And how much does he know about what happened between McCuskey and me?
He turns his palms toward me and shrugs. “No angle.”
I don’t buy this for a minute. “McCuskey knows better than to come here.”