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Authors: Jonathan F. Putnam

Tags: #FIC022060 Fiction / Mystery & Detective / Historical

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BOOK: These Honored Dead
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t was said more people attended Jesse’s funeral at the Episcopalian Church on Monroe Street than had ever attended any religious gathering in the two-decade history of Springfield. One hundred and fifty people jammed the small, rickety benches of the church, while several hundred more clamored for a view from the churchyard outside. The Rev. Batchelder, sensing the chance to increase his small flock of high church communicants, ordered that the doors and windows of the church remain open during the service such that the persons outside as well could hear his fine words of joy, sorrow, and holy contemplation.

Of course, virtually none of the mourners knew the dead boy or even had laid eyes on him during his brief life. Yet the frantic search for Jesse on the night of his murder had enlisted many in his cause, and others were doubtless drawn by the spectacle of a brother and sister, orphans already, who had been—there was no other conclusion to draw—struck down one after the other by the same murderous hand.

Death was everywhere on the frontier. Every man and woman knew it might make its awful approach at any time and for any reason or for no reason at all. Children were disproportionately its victims. And yet even grown men who had seen more than their share of death were moved by the double tragedy that had befallen this broken family.

Rebecca Harriman sat alone in the front pew of the church during the funeral service. I did not think it my place to join her. She remained motionless during the Rev. Batchelder’s fine words. And if she heard any of the many uncharitable remarks about her that the other mourners whispered back and forth, she gave no indication of such.

After the Rev. Batchelder had pronounced his benediction on Jesse’s soul, the small casket was loaded onto an open carriage to be driven up to Menard so he could be laid to eternal rest next to his sister. Lincoln, Martha, and I stood together in the town square and watched as the carriage, Jesse’s casket and Rebecca its only passengers, drove out of town.

“Has the sheriff questioned the owner of the calèche carriage where Jesse was found?” I asked Lincoln.

“Extensively,” said Lincoln. “He claims he’s completely innocent, as shocked as the rest of us. No idea how the body got there.”

“But does he have any way to prove he wasn’t the one who murdered the innocent little boy?” asked Martha. Her eyes were still rimmed with red from all the weeping she’d done since Jesse had been found.

“The sheriff told me the fellow said he went into the public room as soon as he arrived at the Globe that afternoon and he never once left, not even during the fire,” Lincoln said. He paused as several of the persons filtering away from the funeral service walked close by us. “Saunders supports the story, at least part of it. Saunders says the fellow was so drunk he couldn’t get him to move when all the other guests evacuated. The blasted fellow would have burned down with the tavern if the fire hadn’t been put out in time.”

“Surely he could have been feigning intoxication,” I said. “The whole thing sounds suspicious.”

“Sheriff Hutchason asked him to remain in town while he investigates and the man’s agreed. If the alibi’s actually a lie, I’m sure the sheriff will sniff it out.”

“What about the fire?” asked Martha. “Does anyone know how it started?”

“Or why?” I added.

“No one’s come forward to confess,” said Lincoln. “As you know, there were dozens of men about that night, many of them with torches, all looking for Jesse. There was such chaos and confusion. I imagine someone touched it off by accident, but I doubt Hutchason could possibly recreate who was where and when, not at any point during the evening.”

“Maybe it was set by the killer to cover his tracks,” I said. “To try to destroy the evidence, the body.”

“But if that was the plan,” said Martha, “why move the body to the carriage in the first place? Why not keep it in the stables, where the killing took place, and then set the fire?”

None of us had a good answer. But it was true the only thing that appeared certain about the night of the murder was Jesse had been attacked in the stables and not in the coach itself. There seemed no other way to explain the presence of straw about his person.

Lincoln departed for Hoffman’s Row. Martha and I walked back to my store alone. The square had cleared, the spectacle of the funeral giving way to another prosaic, sweltering summer’s day. For a change, the sun was obscured by a thick layer of cloud.

“How is the widow bearing up?” asked my sister.

“She’s distraught,” I said. I had spent thirty minutes trying without success to comfort Rebecca on the night we discovered Jesse’s body. “All her life she’s been childless, to her great sorrow. Then two children come into her home and, just as suddenly, now they’re both gone.”

Martha sighed and wiped a tear from her eye.

If Rebecca had managed to avoid overhearing the malicious gossip passed about during the funeral service, I had not. More than a few of the would-be mourners were convinced the deaths were explained by the arrogance of the childless widow who, to make matters worse, held herself out as an independent woman
of business. Others whispered she could not account for her whereabouts at the time of either murder.

I worried growing suspicion would focus on Rebecca. And I feared even more that the actual killer would turn his murderous intentions to her. It was no longer possible to suppose Lilly had been killed by a frustrated suitor. Some monster, it seemed, was intent on killing the members of this accursed family, of which Rebecca was now the sole survivor. Both to ensure Rebecca’s freedom and to safeguard her life, it was imperative that I help Prickett and the sheriff identify the killer.

I was working out a concrete plan to accomplish this as Martha and I took inventory inside the store an hour later. Suddenly there was a scream from outside, followed immediately by the sounds of a terrifying crash. Several men started shouting all at once and a horse began shrieking. I took Martha’s arm and rushed through the door.

A tangle of men, beasts, and carriage parts littered the street in front of the store. An injured man was sprawled on the street in a muddy, bloody heap, pinned beneath the tongue of a large open carriage, which lay on its side in ruins. A horse still tethered to the overturned carriage pranced around wildly, while another horse, untethered, ran about the street and village green in wild circles. Meanwhile, a feral hog was trapped under a dislodged carriage wheel and several overturned trunks. The hog was squealing and wriggling fiercely for its freedom. Spectators converged on the fantastical scene from all directions.

My friend Hurst, who ran a dry goods store two doors down from mine, waved me over. “Quickly,” he said. “We’ve got to get him out from underneath the carriage before he’s crushed to death.”

The trapped man, blood trickling down his face, was crying miserably for help. I turned to Martha and said, “He’s going to need a doctor. Run and fetch Patterson.” As she hurried off, I joined Hurst and several other men beside the wagon tongue.

“You four lift on the count of ‘three’ and I’ll pull him out,” I suggested. With a coordinated heave, they managed to raise the carriage remains up a few inches. I grabbed the injured man under his armpits and dragged him away from the wreck. He screamed as I moved him, and I saw his right leg was bent unnaturally below the knee.

“It’s all right, friend,” I said, pulling out my kerchief and trying to stem the flow of blood from his brow. “A doctor’s on his way.” I scrutinized the man’s face, but he was a stranger to me. His clothing, though covered now with Springfield’s black loam, was well-stitched and fashionable.

Hurst squatted beside us. “What happened?” I asked.

“That hog must have ran out from an alleyway and spooked the horses,” said Hurst. “One of them broke free from his tether and in the process threw this fellow out and tipped the carriage over on him.”

Now that the horses had been calmed, the infernal squealing of the trapped animal came to the fore. “Will you please quiet that beast,” Hurst shouted over his shoulder. A moment later a shot rang out. “Someone will eat well this week,” he said.

I nodded. “What’s your name, friend,” I asked the injured man.

“Frederick . . . Julius . . . Gustorf,” he managed through labored breaths. “I . . . come from . . . Westphalia.”

“Is that near Peoria?” asked Hurst.

The man started to rise up to answer, but I urged him back to the ground. Turning to Hurst, I said, “It’s one of the old Napoleonic Kingdoms, you fool. In Europe. It’s now part of Prussia.”

I looked again at the man’s ruined carriage, strewn about the street. In a jolt, I realized it was the Lafayette-calèche carriage, the very one in which I had found Jesse’s body. Far from staying put at the Globe, as he had assured the sheriff, the owner of this grand conveyance had been hurrying out of town immediately after Jesse’s funeral.

“Where are you going, friend?” I asked the prone man.

The stranger swallowed and drew in and exhaled a deep breath. “I’ve been . . . inspecting . . . your country,” he said. His English was excellent, with only a hint of the characteristic harsh German accent. “I’m heading . . . to Alton . . . next destination. I have . . . a steamboat . . . to catch.”

“It looks like your stay in Springfield has been extended instead,” I said, gesturing toward his leg. “Here’s the doctor now. He’ll put you back together.”

Dr. Patterson had arrived, with Martha and Jane close at his heels. Patterson took a quick look at the injured man and announced, “We need to get him to my parlor at once. Speed, organize a litter. I think one of those dislodged running boards from the carriage should serve the purpose.” Without waiting for a response, Patterson strode back toward his home, the tails of his surgical coat flying out grandly behind him.

Thirty minutes later, the other fellows and I had managed to convey Herr Gustorf to the Pattersons’ front parlor, which doubled as the doctor’s surgery. It was a long, narrow room with tall windows looking out onto the street. We lay Gustorf on the couch that ran along one wall. Against the opposite wall stood a wooden bureau splattered with wax drippings. A dozen squat red candles burned brightly on the bureau, even in the midday light; this was Patterson’s attempt to burn away any disease-causing miasma.

The doctor handed Gustorf a deep purple-colored bottle. “Have a few good swigs of this,” he said. “It will help with the pain.” Gustorf leaned forward and swallowed several long pulls. Then he lay back gingerly.

“Sew up that cut on his head, Jane,” the doctor ordered, “while I have a look at his leg.”

“Yes, Father.” Jane reached under the couch and pulled out a leathern pouch. She took off her silk gloves, loosened the drawstrings of the pouch, and withdrew several needles and a spindle of silk.

“I didn’t know you also include ‘surgeon’ among your talents, Miss Patterson,” said Martha, sneaking a look in my direction.

Jane blushed slightly, though whether at Martha’s praise or her attempt to interest me, it was hard to tell. “I assist my father when I can be useful, nothing more,” she said in a very serious tone. She examined Gustorf’s forehead, where I could see he had a three-inch gash running diagonally above his left eyebrow.

“This will only take a few minutes,” Jane said to the foreigner. “Don’t pay any attention to what I’m doing. Miss Speed, favor us and hold his head just so, with his hair out of the way like this.” My sister took her place beside the prone man.

Meanwhile, Dr. Patterson was cutting the cloth off Gustorf’s crippled lower leg. It was plain the bone was shattered, and I knew amputation would prove the only suitable treatment. Patterson began manipulating the leg gently and Gustorf screamed out again in pain.

“Distract him while I attend to the leg, won’t you, Speed?” Patterson said from his end of the body. If the doctor still bore a grudge from our after-dinner conversation of the other night, he was showing no sign of it.

I positioned myself so the Prussian could meet my eyes without moving his head, which Martha was now holding in place while Jane threaded her surgical needle. I knew I’d been given the opportunity to question a prime suspect in a time of weakness and I intended to seize it.

“What brought you to Illinois, Herr Gustorf?” I began.

“After the defeat of the Emperor, my father’s bank failed,” he said, “so I was obliged to seek employment far from home. I found your country very much to my liking.” Gustorf’s breathing was returning to normal, and his voice, though labored, was deep and clear. He appeared to be about thirty, with attractive features and a strong nose. His whiskers were narrow and well-trimmed.

“I secured positions as a private teacher in German, first at Harvard and then at a school in New Haven,” Gustorf
continued. “This winter—” He suddenly shouted out a vigorous Teutonic oath.

“I told you to ignore me,” Jane said. She had just sewed her first stitch in the Prussian’s forehead, and the needle was poised in her hand to make another loop.

“I’ll do my best,” Gustorf responded, gritting his teeth. “I spent the past winter in Philadelphia and I happened to talk at a gather—
—gathering with an Englishwoman, a Mrs. Martineau, who is collecting material for a book on your young nation for her . . .
 . . . home country, and of course there’s Mrs. Trollope’s towering success, and Monsieur de Tocqueville’s new book about America has sold very well throughout Europe . . .
 . . . and I concluded perhaps I could write about my own travels, for the German readership. So, after the final snows melted, I set off to the West, first by rail and then steamer down the Ohio and up the Illinois.”

“Where have you been in our state, before reaching Springfield?” I asked. “I want to make sure you haven’t missed any place of note for your book.”

Jane was sewing another stitch at that moment, so the Prussian took several deep breaths before continuing.

“I started up north in Galena, to see your iron mines. It was there I obtained my carriage and steeds. From Galena—
—I’ve driven due south, more or less, some twenty or thirty miles a day, stopping where I find places of interest.”

BOOK: These Honored Dead
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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