Monday, October 1, 2007
The Silk Train Murder: A Mystery of the Klondike By Sharon Rowse
The Silk Train Murder: A Mystery of the Klondike
By Sharon Rowse
Monday, December 4, 1899
Shut the door! It's bleedin' cold out there.”
John Lansdowne Granville glanced at the bartender through the smoky gloom and let the heavy cedar door slam behind him. Sauntering over to the bar, he hooked a stool with one foot, pulled it closer, and sat down.
“Whiskey, straight up,” he said.
The shot was placed none too gently on the counter in front of him, but he needed that drink and didn't much care how it came. He lifted his glass in a silent toast to all those who'd prophesied he'd come to no good, grinning at the look his gesture earned him from the scrawny bartender.
The man had to be used to unpredictable guests. Not only was the Beaver Tavern the dreariest, most down-at-heels bar he'd seen since he left the Yukon, it was by far the most run-down he'd found on the bleak streets lining the Vancouver docks. Noisy, dim, and crowded, it was an establishment that fit his current mood perfectly, not to mention his pocketbook. With only enough money left for a meal or a drink or two, he'd chosen the latter, and planned to enjoy it.
Granville unbuttoned his heavy coat and brushed the snow from his face and beard, then tossed back the rest of the shot. The bartender was still watching, eyes narrowed and suspicious. He looked rather like a ferret, all sharp angles and twitches. Granville laughed inwardly, imagining what he was seeing. He was well aware he looked grimy, unkempt, and down at the heels, which he was. There was no sign of the gentleman he'd been two years before. But he'd made his choices and didn't regret them; he could live without the endless social parade, sleeping till noon every day and having a perfectly starched cravat, though being dead broke and having holes in his boots was starting to get tiresome.
Behind Granville, the door opened with a blast of cold, salty air and the clattering of wagons over cobblestones. A large man swept up to the bar, shaking snow in all directions. “Christ! It's freezing out. Barkeep!” he hollered, banging on the bar with a meaty fist.
Granville froze at the sound of that voice, then examined the broad face, bushy black beard, and deep-set brown eyes reflected in the tarnished mirror behind the bar. Sam Scott! He'd last seen his former partner more than three months earlier as they'd bade each other safe journey in Skagway. He'd been returning to England to make peace with his father and Scott had been heading for Seattle. The big American hadn't changed a bit, except he looked better fed. But what was he doing here?
The reflexes he'd honed in fending off gold-hungry claim-jumpers obviously still worked. The big man sensed he was being watched. He met Granville's gaze in the mirror with a hard stare, followed by a dawning recognition. A grin split his thick beard and he turned, clapping Granville on the shoulder with a vigor that nearly knocked him off his stool.
“Granville, you scoundrel! Never thought I'd find you here! What happened? Jolly old England not quite so jolly?”
How to answer that one? With a shrug, Granville decided not to try and signaled for two whiskeys.
“What, you don't talk any more? Never thought I'd see the day!”
Granville lifted one of the glasses that had been plunked down in front of him. Ignoring the bartender's obvious curiosity, he slid the other glass down the bar to Scott.
“You're thinking of yourself, old man,” he said. “Cheers.”
Scott laughed, shook his head, and downed his own drink. “I know who got called the Klondike storyteller and who didn't. What's the matter, your tongue still frozen?” Scott laughed, then turned so he was directly facing Granville and his expression sobered. “Christ, Granville! What in hell's wrong?”
Too much traveling with too little money and too little food, plus the news that his father was dead, Granville thought. But this wasn't the place to talk about it, and besides, he wasn't nearly drunk enough yet. He just shrugged, and signaled for another round. “You know how it goes.”
Scott studied Granville's face, then cancelled the order with an abrupt wave of his hand. Ignoring the bartender's continued interest, he threw a coin on the bar and said to his drinking companion, “I could use a steak, a thick, bloody one. How about you?”
“Sounds good,” Granville said, with an expression that conveyed more than his words.
“So Turner ended up hiring me to guard the rail yards and the cars,” Scott concluded, emphasizing the point by waving a chunk of steak impaled on his fork. He looked meaningfully at Granville's empty plate. “The pay is good and it's steady work, every night in fact. I know it's no job for a gentleman, but I sure could use some help. Interested?”
Granville had to smile. They'd nearly frozen digging gold out of unforgiving rivers and Scott was still worried about a job, any job, being beneath him? Still, he could see his friend was worried about him. And he knew he'd polished off the meal as if he hadn't eaten in days. Which was true, but that was his own business, and not something for Scott to be worrying about. He didn't want pity. He hadn't accepted charity from his brother and he wouldn't accept it now. “It doesn't sound like enough of a job for two men.”
Scott shrugged, an innocent expression sitting oddly on his weather-beaten face. “The rail yard's a big place. And it's not easy to find a man I can trust.” He grinned. “I already know I can't trust you, so I don't have to waste the time worrying about it.”
“For the record, I don't trust you, either.”
“Damn, but I've missed you, Granville.” Scott grabbed his mug and downed a mouthful of coffee. “What do you say?”
“Hmmm. I need to think about it.”
“Think fast. We've got to be on watch in a few more hours. Meanwhile, I have to keep my strength up. Want another steak?”
Without waiting for a reply, Scott yelled the order to the harried cook. If he wondered about the protruding cheekbones above the Englishman's ragged beard, he had the discretion not to ask.
Granville sat back, his stomach full. Only a small chunk of gristle remained of the second huge slab of meat Scott had ordered. At least tonight he wouldn't wake from dreaming of food to find his mouth watering and his stomach screaming.
Money had been short since he'd left the Yukon to set off on the long journey home. He winced with the memory of finally reaching Toronto to find Henry's months-old letter waiting for him. Their father was dead and William now the sixth Baron. “Come home,” Henry had written. “All will be forgiven.” Granville smiled bitterly. Not with William as head of the family, it wouldn't be.
Granville eyed his tablemate with affection, glad to see again the man he'd first teamed up with in the spring of '98. After a year and a half of backbreaking work on the creeks, with the money running out and no gold to show for it, they'd left Dawson City just before winter set in again. They'd both been scrawny and half-starved. But Scott now had the confident look of a man who knew where his next dollar was coming from and who'd been eating regularly.
Unlike himself. Granville's mouth twisted wryly. As he worked his way west, he'd clerked for a merchant in Toronto, helped round up cattle on a vast Alberta ranch, even swung a hammer as a navvy for the CPR. Gambling was the only way he knew to make real money, but he'd sworn on Edward's grave never to touch cards again.
Was Scott serious about the job? It seemed odd they'd need more than one man to guard an empty train, especially when that man was as big as Sam Scott. But what did it matter if the pay was good? He wasn't accepting charity, though. If it wasn't real work, he was gone. The word was they were looking for miners in the Kootenays and he'd find a way to get there, somehow.
Granville realized Scott was no longer eating and was looking at him quizzically.
“So, are you in, partner?”
“Partner? I thought you needed someone to work for you. . . .”
“Nope. That was only if all I could get was a hireling. What I really want is a partner. And you're him.”
Granville narrowed his eyes. “I'll work for you, but that's as far as I'll go.”
“Partner or nothing.”
“Then it's nothing. I won't accept charity, especially not from a friend.”
“Can't you get it through your thick skull that I really need your help?”
Now there was a ring of truth in his voice that even Granville's pride couldn't ignore. He met Scott's gaze for a long moment, trying to gauge the truth of his words, then nodded slowly. “I'll work with you. But if it's not right, then you have no obligation to me.”
Scott extended his hand. “Then shake on it.”
Midnight found the two men standing in front of a string of boxcars in the Canadian Pacific Railway yards. The darkness was broken only by the wavering light of three hanging oil lamps. Just beyond the pool of light, the black waters of Burrard Inlet lapped softly against the wharves where the ships docked. Granville shivered and drew his torn coat more closely about him. He wished he'd brought a flask; a nip or two would keep the icy cold out of his bones. “You're sure your employers are willing to pay both of us to just stand in the yards?”
“It makes little sense to me.”
“All that matters is that it makes sense to the boss.”
“Still,” Granville said. He was feeling argumentative, since it kept his mind off how cold his feet were. He'd have to use most of his first pay to buy new boots. An odd creaking from somewhere in the yard behind them took his mind off his feet. He touched Scott's shoulder and gestured in the direction of the sound.
The two of them moved carefully so each was covering the other. Granville had his knife ready, and he'd seen the size of the baseball bat Scott carried. They stood listening, barely breathing, and then the sound came again, followed by a metallic crack, hastily muffled.
Scott stepped forward, motioning for Granville to stay behind him. Hugging close to the shadows of the railcar, they circled toward the back. Scott stopped suddenly and Granville halted just behind him. He could taste the salt in the air. The smell of creosote was even stronger here, despite the rain.
The breeze shifted and he caught a whiff of cheap cigar smoke. Granville spun on his heel, ducking as he did so. The cudgel whistled by his ear, missing him by inches. Straightening, he caught his half-seen assailant's chin with a sharp left hook. It stopped the first man cold, but a second attacker close behind the first kept coming.
In the flickering shadows cast by the lamps it seemed they were moving in some exotic dance. Granville feinted, then tripped his opponent, striking the fellow with the haft of his knife on the way down. He looked warily about. Scott had dealt easily with a third man and it seemed there were only three of them.
The man he'd punched showed signs of stirring. Granville was about to employ the knife haft again when his partner stopped him.
“Just tie 'em up, will ya? I'll have a few questions for them when they all wake up,” Scott said, tossing him a coil of oily rope.
Grabbing it, Granville did as he'd been asked. The men stirred, one muttering something.
“So why the interest in empty boxcars, boys?” Scott asked his groggy captive audience. He was answered by a thick silence. He asked again. Less patiently.
Granville crossed his arms and lounged back against the wall, his expression as fierce as he could make it. It had started to rain, a thin, drenching wetness.
“Who's behind this?”
“Nobody. It was our idea.” This from the youngest of the three. His face gleamed too pale in the lamplight, and his voice cracked on the final word. He had only just begun to shave, Granville thought, wincing as he noted the bump rising behind the kid's ear. How had he become involved in a caper like this? Looking at his threadbare clothes, Granville knew the answer; money, of course. When was it ever anything else?
Whatever Scott was thinking, it didn't show on his face as he looked the kid up and down. Finally he drawled, “Your idea?” The scorn in his voice made the boy's ears go red.
“It was,” he insisted. “It was your idea. Tell 'em, Da.” He looked toward one of his fellow prisoners, who was sporting a deep scowl.
“Shut your face. You'll hang us all.” The father's face was as gaunt as his son's.
“Very clever,” Scott said, though his tone was still an insult. “So if this plan of yours succeeded and you ended up with the silk that's going into these boxcars, what were you planning to do with it?”
“Hmmm. And where were you planning to sell two thousand bales of raw silk?”
The man's baffled silence spoke volumes. Twice he opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again under Scott's contemptuous gaze. Finally Granville entered the discussion. “You might as well come clean,” he said. “It will go easier on all of you. Unless you really want to hang.”
He put a hand on his knife as he strolled toward the boy. The father looked anxiously at Granville and his son. Sighing heavily, he licked his lips and coughed. At the sound, Granville paused. “Well?”
“I can't tell you who hired us.”
“I think you can.”
When no further information was forthcoming, Scott offered encouragement with a nudge in the ribs. “We're getting tired of waiting here.”
The man on the ground swallowed hard, cleared his throat. “Jackson. It was Jackson,” he whispered as his expression turned fearful.
Granville recognized the name: Clive Jackson was Benton's man. The soft hiss of Scott's indrawn breath confirmed everything Granville had been hearing about Robert Benton ever since he'd arrived in town a week ago. The word was he practically owned Vancouver's underworld, with ties to the highly profitable businesses of gambling, prostitution, and smuggling. Benton was even said to be linked to the Chinese-run opium dens.
“Are you willing to swear that before a judge?” Scott asked.
“Instead of jail time? The answer's yes. We're to be gone from here after tonight, anyway. The only trick'll be to stay alive long enough to leave, if'n I swear against Jackson.”
“You can think about it until tomorrow. Till then there's a nice, safe jail for folks like you. Just as soon as our watch is over.”
“You mean you're going to leave us tied up in the rain till dawn?”
“So, you know how long we're here.” Scott observed. “Good work. Wonder who else knows? You got partners, waiting till we drag you off?”
“Maybe we should just shoot them,” Granville offered. “Then they wouldn't have to worry about getting wet.”
“True.” He considered their prisoners. “Of course, if they agree to sign a statement now, then leave town for good, we could probably let them go . . .”
“We'll sign,” said the first man. “Anything.”
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