My name is Payton–well, Skeet to all who know me–and the sign on the office door reads Thatcher and Thatcher, Attorneys at Law. The other Thatcher is my pop, Payton, Sr., and he had that sign repainted the day I graduated from the University of Texas Law School in May of 1941, two and a half years ago.
You see, there was never any question that I’d be returning to my hometown of Endurance, Texas, joining his practice, and working side by side with him until the day he died. It was a good plan but the world had a different one in mind. In December, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and six months later I found myself headed for the South Pacific. After a particularly unfortunate episode in New Guinea, Uncle Sam decided to send me home with a Purple Heart to make up for the leg I was now missing.
The same leg that was giving me fits, oddly enough; phantom pains, the doctors called them, and right now they were shooting through my no-longer-present leg, keeping time with the merry-go-round music I could hear in the distance. Even though the office was mostly shut tight, the sound of the calliope, along with the shouts and laughter of the folks headed to the first night of the carnival, penetrated the walls. If I’d stopped by the telephone office and picked up Clarry half an hour ago like I’d planned, we might be out there walking alongside our friends and neighbors. Instead, I’m sitting at my desk, sweating like a field hand. The open window behind me isn’t doing much to combat the warmth of the office and while raising one of the front windows would help, I figure it’s not an option.
And there’s the leg pain again. It happens when I sit in the same position for any length of time. I know it would feel better if I shifted the position of my prosthesis, but I’ve been told not to move and sometimes it’s a good idea to obey orders–especially when there’s a Colt revolver aimed at your head. If I make it through this situation, I’ll be sure to remember that trouble doesn’t always show up wearing an enemy uniform.
This all started with the reading of a will and a train robbery. It may be 1943 but occurrences like trains getting robbed by masked bandits still happen on occasion in west Texas, which is about as close as you’re going to get to the Wild West in these modern times. Anyway, last Saturday night, the 9:05 train from Lubbock was stopped by a fire on the rails about 10 miles from the station in Endurance, out where the tracks cross The Rocking H Ranch. The train was almost empty except for a skeleton crew, the old Bradford sisters who were returning from visiting their niece, and one Mr. Harlon Andover of the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas. Once the train had stopped, two robbers wearing cowboy hats, long canvas dusters, and kerchiefs tied around their faces boarded and forced everyone into the baggage car. Before locking the compartment, they relieved Mr. Andover of his briefcase containing $34,500.00 intended for the First National Bank of Endurance. The folks never heard the thieves utter a word. In fact, the only thing they did hear was the sound of an automobile starting up and driving away. Everyone in Endurance was shocked by the robbery; not only that it happened, but that the bandits knew the train was carrying a bank delivery and were able to pull off the theft pretty darn seamlessly before disappearing without a trace.
If I’m being totally accurate about the events leading up to my current situation, I should probably let you know that before there was a will or a robbery, there was a funeral last Friday and it was Ed Hildebrand’s. Edward Hildebrand was a ranching legend, and at one time, his place–The Rocking H Ranch–was the fourth largest ranch in Texas. Thatcher and Thatcher, being the only attorneys for 40 miles in any direction, took care of Ed’s legal affairs, which is how I found myself as co-executor of his will and on my way to the office on Monday morning to meet with his heirs and tell them they were broke.
Yep, broke. Old Ed had caught oil fever and spent every last penny he had drilling on The Rocking H, absolutely convinced he was sitting on top of a reserve bigger than Spindletop. Well, turns out he was wrong. And the worst part was that he mortgaged the ranch and borrowed heavily to keep up appearances because he was too proud to tell his family that he’d lost everything. As a result, I now had the unpleasant task of informing his wife and children that all they had left were the expensive clothes on their backs. Thanks a lot, Ed.
I arrived at my office early and watched out the front windows as the five Hildebrand heirs arrived in three separate automobiles; the family clearly had access to more than one book of gas rations and wasn’t shy about flaunting it. Knowing what I knew, I immediately started to calculate how much they could get for the cars. Bea showed up in a black Cadillac driven by Ed’s longtime ranch foreman, Joe Estes, who was practically family. The girls, Lottie and Dora Mae, parked the Ford convertible that they shared across the street, and Lester pulled his green LaSalle into the spot right next to them. Jesse, the youngest–who could neither hear nor speak–accompanied his older brother, which was often the case. I observed as the five of them converged in the street before turning for the office and noted, not for the first time, how damn striking the whole family was; Bea was a true beauty and all the kids had been graced with her attractiveness and Ed’s tall frame. Well, at least they still had their looks.
Once they were inside and we’d all taken our seats, the conversation turned to the robbery.
“I still can’t believe such a thing happened on The Rocking H,” Bea said with a bewildered look on her face.
“How did they get on the ranch?” I asked, directing my question to Lester, whose mind appeared to be elsewhere.
“Snipped some barb wire fence about a mile from where the train was stopped,” Lester replied, his gaze slipping away from mine.
“Les is the one who called the sheriff,” Lottie added. “No telling how long those folks would have been locked in the baggage car if he hadn’t seen the flames!”
“Well, I for one don’t feel safe out there anymore,” Dora Mae said, panic creeping into her voice. “The sheriff needs to catch them. They could come back and slit our throats while we’re asleep!” By the time she’d finished speaking, the younger Hildebrand sister was wild-eyed and on the verge of tears.
Lester, who’d seemed jumpy ever since walking through the door, looked exasperated and snapped at his sister. “Dora Mae, there’s a good chance they’ll never be caught. Their faces were covered, they didn’t say a damn word, and an old Model A won’t exactly stick out like a sore thumb in these parts. The sheriff has nothing to go on, so I’m not going to be a bit surprised if they get away with this.”
“Get away with it!” Dora Mae squealed, clearly headed toward hysteria. “What if they come back in the dead of night and kill me?”
“Dora Mae, if anyone kills you it’s probably going to be me just to get you to shut up!”
“Children!” Bea said loudly, commanding their attention. “Perhaps we should get on with the business at hand.” To her credit, I suppose she thought moving on to the will was going to improve the atmosphere in the office. Well, she was wrong.
Ed’s will was nothing but bad news from beginning to end, a legal testament to one man’s foolishness and pride. When I was done, Bea started to protest but Lester stopped her and that’s when I discovered he already knew about their situation. “Skeet’s right, Mama.” He took a deep breath and told his family that they were ruined and that the bank all but owned The Rocking H Ranch now. Bea did her best to remain dignified but I’ll swear she aged 20 years sitting there in front of my desk. Lottie took a cigarette from her purse, lit it, and smoked, all the while staring at me with an expression I couldn’t read. But it was Dora Mae’s reaction that ended up being the talk of the town, mostly because the whole town heard it. She stood up from her chair, threw her head back, and started shrieking. And I mean shrieking like that gal in the movie about the wolf man shrieked, not even stopping when Lottie slapped her so hard that I swear I heard Dora Mae’s teeth rattle. It took three grown men–Lester, Jesse, and Joe Estes–to get her out of the office and into the backseat of the Cadillac, and as far as I know, she’s still screaming.
“What did you do to make Dora Mae Hildebrand scream like a crazy woman? Tell her she’s broke?” Clarry Gibson looked down at me expectantly as she sat her purse on the table. We were meeting at the café before taking in a picture show and her spot-on guess had me mystified. I’d sure like to tell you that Clarry is my girl, but I can’t, because for the time being, we’re just friends. I’m absolutely crazy about her but I’m not sure how she feels about me and I suppose I’ve been too much of a coward to find out the answer.
“You know I can’t discuss something like that with you,” I said, looking back down at the menu so she couldn’t read my expression. “Client confidentiality.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she replied, sitting down. “I already know all about it.”
“You know all about it?” I asked, incredulously.
“Skeet Thatcher, there’s not a lot that goes on in this town that I don’t know all about. Now, I don’t necessarily eavesdrop you understand, but a telephone operator learns a lot, whether she wants to or not. I just don’t tell everything I know because I can’t. Lawyers aren’t the only ones with ethics, you know.”
“Well, just what is it that you think you know about this particular situation?” I asked.
“I know that the Hildebrands are flat broke,” she whispered across the table. “And I also know that you know that, so I’m not breaking any confidences.”
“And you trust your information because…”
She interrupted me, clearly exasperated. “Because Old Man Jenkins at the bank conducts all his business over the telephone, that’s why. The only person in town who talks more that he does is Veraleene.” She nodded her head across the café where her co-worker, Veraleene Reynolds, was sitting at a table, getting very cozy with her boyfriend, Lester Hildebrand, who seemed to be in a much better mood than he had been in at my office earlier. I suspected the improvement in his disposition had something to do with the way Veraleene was rubbing her shapely ankle against his leg.
“Loose lips?” I asked, looking back at Clarry.
“Yes,” she agreed. “And not at all careful enough, if you ask my opinion.” She looked around to see if anyone were listening and then leaned across the table, putting her head close to mine, which was perfectly fine with me. “I heard all about the Hildebrand’s financial woes when Jenkins was talking to Mr. Andover about the bank delivery.”
Since the train robbery on Saturday, it had become clear that Harlon Andover was a first cousin to our bank president, Arthur Jenkins, and had, on many occasions, served as the courier from the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve Bank when requested funds needed to be delivered to the First National Bank of Endurance. This arrangement, which allowed Andover a working holiday, wasn’t illegal, but now had proven embarrassing for both men. I suspected that figuring out a new way of delivering cash was at the top of someone’s list.
“When you say they were talking about the bank delivery, do you mean details? Like what train ole’ Harlon was going to be on?” I asked.
“Sure. All the operators knew.” Her eyes widened. “Skeet Thatcher, I hope you’re not suggesting that I mentioned that to anyone. You know I would never divulge anything that important!”
“Calm down,” I said, taking her hand–a move that surprised me as much as it did her. “I know you, and I know you’re discreet and as honest as the day is long. But do you think those same qualities apply to some of your co-workers?” I looked across the room at Veraleene.
Clarry’s gaze followed mine. “Are you kidding?” she scoffed. “Veraleene would have told Japanese the best time to arrive at Pearl Harbor if she’d had the chance.” She looked back at me. “What are you thinking, Skeet?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied, still looking across the café. “But definitely something.” I shook my head and looked back at her. “I’ll tell you one thing I’m thinking,” I said, summoning up my courage. “I’m thinking I’d like to take you to the opening night of the carnival on Friday. Maybe pick you up around 6:30 so we don’t miss the fireworks? What do you say?”
She tore her gaze from mine and looked down at my hand still holding hers. “That would be very nice, Skeet Thatcher. Very nice, indeed.”
I just smiled and nodded because I wasn’t sure I could talk.
Pop’s long-time secretary had moved to Galveston in July and we hadn’t found a replacement, so I was busy the next few days sorting and filing the backlog of papers that had accumulated. The good thing about that kind of work is that it gives you time to think, which I did a lot of–mostly about Clarry. However, something else was rolling around in my brain that I couldn’t quite pin down and it was about to drive me crazy. It wasn’t until Friday morning, when I came across some papers regarding the Bradford sisters transferring some of their property–including an automobile–to their niece, that everything clicked. I placed one call to the sheriff’s office to confirm what I already thought I knew, and then placed a second call to The Rocking H. Veraleene patched me through both times, which I was certain she would regret doing if I was right about everything.
Lottie picked up the phone at the ranch but told me Lester was out and wouldn’t be back until noon. I asked her to have him stop by the office as soon as possible and stressed that it was important. She promised to pass along the message.
And then I sat at my desk and waited.
I’d like to tell you that when Lottie walked through my door at 6:00 I was expecting her. Or that when I saw her, I immediately knew I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. But neither of those things is true. No, it wasn’t until she pulled the Colt revolver from her purse that I knew something was seriously wrong with my theory.
“Come lock this door,” she said, turning off the light. “And don’t try anything funny; you know I’m a crack shot.”
I did know that; Ed had made sure all his kids could handle a gun. And as I walked past her and noted that we were roughly the same height, I also knew that once she’d put on that duster and cowboy hat, and tied a kerchief around her face, the folks on the train had no problem believing she was a man.
Lottie had me return to my chair but she remained standing, which had the barrel of her gun pointing directly at my forehead. She had that look in her eye that told me she had nothing left to lose. I’d seen that look on a fellow’s face in the war more than once, and it was never a good thing.
“Why are you here?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“I’m here because you’re a smart fellow, Skeet. And once Les made that blunder in front of you about the car, I knew you’d figure things out. I suspect that’s why you called today.”
She was right. Earlier, when I was filing away those papers concerning the Bradford sisters transferring a car–a Model A–over to their niece, I realized I’d heard mention of another, different Model A recently–when Lester was talking about the car the robbers had driven. So I’d called the sheriff this afternoon and double-checked that no one on that train had actually seen the getaway vehicle, they’d only heard it start up and drive away. Lester knowing the model of the car was the thing I couldn’t quite put my finger on that had been troubling me since Monday.
It was also what made me jump to the conclusion that he was the one who’d robbed the train–probably with the aid of Jesse, I’d surmised. Since neither bandit spoke during the incident, I figured one of them had to be Jesse. I now knew, from Lottie herself, that the bandits stayed silent so no one would realize one of them was a woman. Lottie also told me that she’d figured out her family was broke and that she’d been present when Veraleene let slip the information about the bank delivery. And it was Joe Estes–who was more than a little taken with Lottie–who was her partner in crime.
“Les caught Joe and me returning that old car to the barn,” she said. “I told him what we’d done because I knew he’d never turn us in. And then I told him to go and call the sheriff and report the fire, because it would make us look like we were trying to be helpful. But then Dora Mae got him rattled here on Monday and he said too much.”
“What are you planning on doing now?” I asked
“Well, I have to keep you quiet,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Someone will hear the shot.”
“Not tonight, they won’t.” She looked at the clock on the wall, which read one minute until seven. “In a few seconds the carnival will open with those fireworks, just like it does every year. No one will hear anything.”
Lottie’s finger pulled back on the trigger of that Colt revolver just as the sound of fireworks filled the night air. But truly, the only thing I heard was Clarry’s voice yelling “duck, Skeet!” And I did. I felt the bullet fly past from behind me and I heard Lottie cry out as it found its target. I immediately jumped up from my desk and saw Lottie on the floor, a bloodstain on her right shoulder growing larger by the second. I unlocked the door, letting in the sheriff, who went to check on Lottie, and Clarry, who threw her arms around me and said “Skeet Thatcher, don’t you ever stand me up again.
I certainly got an earful from the sheriff and Clarry. Turns out, Veraleene had gotten nervous after listening in on my two phone calls and had confessed to Clarry that she’d told the Hildebrands about the bank delivery and that she didn’t trust “that highfalutin Lottie Hildebrand” one little bit. When I didn’t show up at 6:30, Clarry got worried and headed to my office. When she saw Lottie’s convertible parked out front, she grabbed the sheriff off the street and dragged him around back with her, telling him what she’d pieced together, which as it turned out, was pretty darn accurate. They’d arrived at my window in time to hear Lottie confess and to realize that she was crazy as a mad dog. The sheriff said the only way he could figure out to keep Lottie from killing me was to “wing her,” which he did nicely.
After the sheriff took Lottie away and we were left alone, Clarry confessed that she was having misgivings about shouting my name, figuring she could have messed things up. “But I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, Skeet. I just had to let you know that I was there.”
I held her by both shoulders and looked squarely into her eyes. “Clarry Gibson, if I ever want you to shut your mouth, I’ll let you know. By doing this.” And then I kissed her.
I guess I can say she’s my girl now.