The showgirl’s body was still cooling when Watson arrived in the modest rooms where she died.
The sheriff was looking down at the body, and bare nodded his head on the smaller man’s arrival.
“Argus.” He said.
“Jared.” Watson responded. “So who is the lady?”
“She’s a dancer at the Ruby. Lady J, her name was.”
“Hmm.” Watson said, taking off his hat and holding it in one hand. “Hmm.” He said again, walking around the body. “Pretty lass.”
“The prettiest in town, some reckon. There’s a few fellas who’ll be sorry she’s gone.”
“Hm. She’s been shot, then? Little hole just here…” Watson indicated an entry wound just under the woman’s chin. He lifted the head, fingers gentle and slow and careful like a lovers as they found purchase amid the dark and deep red hair. “… And a much bigger one here.” He said, nodding down at the back of the head for the benefit of his audience.
The deputy, standing quiet up till now, leaned in to the sheriff and stage-whispered, “Jesus, we need a Pinkerton to tell us that?”
Watson stopped moving about the body for a moment, but didn’t look up.
“Remind the deputy to mind himself, Jared.” He said, and before the man could react, continued, “And that I’m a Pinkerton no longer.”
The deputy settled back on his heels and smoldered, but had the sense to stay quiet. The sheriff couldn’t help but smile a little. He looked out of the hotel window, down on the mud and bluster of the street.
Before long, Watson spoke, breaking the sheriff out of his reverie.
“You said that there would be men that missed her?”
“Certainly did, Argus. A few as visited with her. But I don’t see none of ‘em doing her in.” He looked away from the window, and winked at his friend. “The lady got what she wanted from ‘em, ‘n they got what they needed from her, ‘n all seemed right happy with the arrangement.”
“She doesn’t look like a whore.”
“Certain she doesn’t, ‘n she ain’t. She was a classy lady.” The sheriff pulled a pipe out of his shirt pocket, examined it. “But had a way about her with the fellas, ‘n the sense to make use of her God-gived talents.”
After a few more moments, the sheriff asked if the detective was satisfied. He nodded yes, and the sheriff moved to his deputy.
“Tell Dearborne that he can come clear her out.” He told him, prompting his subordinate to disappear of out the doorway. He turned back to wink again at Watson. “Old cocksucker’ll be having a fit, thinkin’ about this room sittin’ here earning nothin’ but flies.”
Watson managed a small and cautious smile.
“Do you think, Jared…” He said, pausing for a moment as he looked back down at the once beautiful woman. “Do you think you might furnish me with a list of those men?”
* * *
Watson, Sheriff Jones and Deputy Wolcott arrived at the Gantry farm around midday, less than two hours after Lady J bore scrutiny for the final time. It was noon.
Jim Gantry saw them coming from a ways off, and made his way back from the field to greet them on his porch.
“Jared.” He noted, as if checking the name off. He nodded to the deputy. “Bill.” He looked at the small man in the tidy suit and hat. “And who is this?”
“This is Mr Argus Watson, Jim.” The sheriff said, as he took Gantry’s hand in a firm handshake. “He’s helping me out with some matters about town.”
“About town…?” Gantry said, and then, catching something in the sheriff’s voice, he asked, looking from man to man: “What’s this about, Jared?”
* * *
“Ella!” he called, and then louder, “ELLA!”
“What is it, James?” The woman asked, as she rushed into the room, drying her hands on a rag. She stopped short when she saw the three unexpected men sitting at the table. She turned instantly to her husband, and said “Has something happened in the town?”
Gantry looked blankly at his wife, as he stood, his hand on the back of a chair as if he were about to pull it out. He didn’t move, though.
Watson broke the silence, making the woman jump.
“We’re sorry for the imposition, ma’am.” He said, meeting her eyes as she spun to look at him. He kept his tone reassuring, and his eyes were kind.
She was a pretty woman – not the beauty that Lady J was, but a friendlier shape, and even worried as she was, she had a sweetness in the eyes. Watson tried to imagine that she didn’t remind him of his own wife, these five years dead.
“There’s been a tragedy in town.” He said. The lady’s eyes widened.
“What sort of tragedy?” She said.
“A murder, ma’am. Of a showgirl.”
Ella Gantry’s hands went to her mouth, and she slumped into one of the dining chairs, facing the visitors.
“Oh, that’s just terrible.” She said. After a few moments, she lowered her hands, folding them one over the other in front of her on the table top. “But why are you here?”
Watson turned first to the sheriff, and then to the deputy – both men turned away, suddenly shy, unable to meet Mrs Gantry’s eye.
“Well, you see… Hmm. The lady was known to have the occasional dalliance with one man or another around the town.”
She looked at him blankly. Watson went on.
“And I’m afraid that one of her gentlemen was Mr Gantry.”
Ella Gantry turned suddenly to glare up at her husband. For his part, Jim Gantry seemed oblivious to the events unfolding in the room. He was staring somewhere else, into another room. In that other room, lit by candlelight, lay another woman.
Mrs Gantry looked back at Watson, the new focus of her anger.
“… And you think my James did it?” She said. She laughed – an unhappy sound at odds with her previous softness. “That he’s an adulterer is slim surprise, but a killer? Look at him… the man’s a farmer to his belly. He…” Her voice cracked. “… He couldn’t hurt a fly, out of spite.”
Watson was used to the stillness that filled the room, then. A moment, maybe two, when he could step away from this – leave the guilty to move on with their guilt, take the easy road. In a moment there would be pain – one way or another, there always was.
But the man who knows right from wrong should always go forward with right. That was something he had always believed before, and he felt that his poor wife’s spirit would look on him with sadness if he admitted his doubts now.
The silence had rushed in to fill the space left by Mrs Gantry’s words. Watson spoke into it.
“We know that, Mrs Gantry. We know that Jim didn’t kill Lady J.”
She looked relieved.
“Well, good.” She flustered. “I knew he couldn’t. It must have been one of her other men.”
“If it were, that would be easier, ma’am. A man, when he kills – it’s generally a thing of anger or just plain meanness. It’s easy to deal with a man, because once he kills the once, he’s a killer throughout.” Watson put his hands down flat on the table in front of him. He looked suddenly older. “I’ve seen men take an innocent life by accident, and turn animal almost on the spot. Hanging a man who kills, that’s almost like a mercy killing.”
The sheriff and deputy kept their eyes on fixed spots, everywhere but on the conversation at the table.
“But the thing is, the dead girl, the hole in her, it was small. It didn’t come from any gun that a man’d be carrying. It was a woman’s pistol.”
“So? I don’t understand. Another showgirl shot her?”
“That’s a possibility, yes. Except that, you see, the lady, in costume as she was when she was murdered, stood almost as tall as your husband there. And the… I beg your pardon, but… the mess that left her body from the wound was high on the wall, as if she had been standing.”
The lady put a hand to her mouth again, this time in disgust. She looked away, as if Watson’s words were a picture, and she could hide from it.
“Why are you telling me this?” She said.
“Because the dead woman, the bullet entered through her chin, but the wound it made as it left her was high up, up here, on the back of her head.” Watson said, straining slightly as he indicated the spot on his own scalp. “You see, Lady J was standing tall, and to create such a wound, her murderer would have to have been standing shorter than her. By about a head and a half.”
“This is insane.” Mrs Gantry cried, and stood up suddenly from her chair, the noise of it against the planks of the floor shocking the three previously absent men back into the conversation. “You can’t possibly know the things that you are saying.”
“I assure you, I can, ma’am. And more, I can tell you that of all the poor women who suffered for the lack of the money and attention that their men paid to the lady, you are the only one of a more… petite stature.”
The farmer’s wife began to respond, denial on her face. Then she seemed to crumple, falling back into the chair, suddenly even smaller.
“You’re right.” She said.
“I know.” Said Watson. The sheriff and his deputy got up from their seats quietly on either side of him. Jim Gantry had taken two silent steps back away from his wife, and was now just staring at her, aghast.
“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to kill the girl.”
“I know, Mrs Gantry. I believe you.”
“I just…” The woman started to sob, great wet groans that belied her size. “I just went there to see her… To tell her to leave my man be.” Watson fished a ‘kerchief out of a pocket, and passed it across the table to her. She dabbed it at her eyes spastically, not really in the room – in fact, in the same room that her husband had been staring into.
“But when I saw her… and she was so beautiful. I knew I couldn’t compare to her, and that I’d lose him to her for sure. So I begged her, I begged her not to take my James from me. But she looked back at me, and it was like she didn’t even see me.”
“And that is when you shot her.” Watson stated.
“… Yes. It was her gun. It was just lying there, in among her trinkets on the side. It made a popping sound, and then she wasn’t there any more… she was down there on the floor. And I just stood still, waiting to be struck down. I waited for someone to come and find me. But nobody did. Not then, and not afterwards, as I left the hotel.”
Ella Gantry raised her head from her hands, face red with tears, and looked at Watson, a half-formed question in her eyes.
“I thought I’d dreamed it.” She said.
“You didn’t.” Watson said. He stood up from his chair, and moved toward the kitchen, allowing the lawmen space to take the woman into custody. “I’m sorry.” He muttered, but by then, nobody was listening.