1886 – Taos, New Mexico
Two native women shuffled from the shadows. The younger, a handsome girl with shining braids, carried an infant. The older woman hovered close at her side, black eyes narrowed.
Jacob Murray said, “Bring the child to me.”
They complied. He opened the baby’s blanket and gazed at the squirming infant. Then he shook his head. “What kind of mother deserts her newborn?”
Neither Oliver Redcastle nor his friend, Alfie Higgins, attempted an answer. Murray didn’t expect one. Dropping the blanket back in place, he waved the women away. When they were gone, he sank into his carved, high-backed chair. For a long moment he stared at the painting adorning the opposite wall. “No, I can’t believe she would run away willingly. She was bewitched, I say. Bewitched by this so-called artist who preyed on my hospitality, may he burn in hell!”
Oliver and Alfie fixed their gazes on the painting. It dominated the sparsely furnished chamber. Murray’s ranch, La Casa de Oro, had been built in the Spanish style: a large, packed-earth courtyard boxed in by a frame of smallish rooms, each closed off from the others. A massive, iron-studded gate at the entrance sealed the house from the outside world. It felt like an adobe fortress. In fact, as Alfie had explained to Oliver on their way to the meeting, the ranch had once belonged to a Spanish Don, a man of immense influence even after Mexico had surrendered the territory. Somehow, Murray had managed to take it away from him and send him packing, a ruined man.
Inside Murray’s reception room, the dying afternoon sun sent only faint fingers of light through the slit windows under the paneled ceiling. Yet the painting glowed like a burning coal. Perhaps the reason for this was its rich colors—the vibrant reds, creamy whites, and shimmering gold. Or perhaps it was the subject—a young woman with hair the color of corn silk drawn back from delicate features. Her blue eyes seemed to knife through the gloom.
Alfie Higgins said, “The artist sure knew how to paint. That’s a fine portrait.”
Murray’s square-jawed face flushed red. He sat up stiffly, crossed and re-crossed his booted feet. He was a short, active man in his late fifties or early sixties. A tonsure of gray hair crowned his square head. He wore a buttery leather vest over a fine linen shirt. A thick leather belt, with a heavy silver buckle inlaid with large turquoise stones, caged his rounded belly. He had the air of a man accustomed to deference.
In a voice strangled with fury, he said, “David Mack, as he called himself, came recommended by important people. I paid him well to paint Louellen. I did not expect him to kidnap her.”
Oliver said, “Are you sure he kidnapped your wife?”
“Judging from this painting, your wife was a beautiful young woman.” Oliver didn’t go on to say that she was much younger than Murray, little more than a child. But the implication hung in the air.
Murray narrowed his eyes. “The painting does not do Louellen justice. Her face was her dowry, for she had no other. Even so, her bride price was high. Exceedingly high, in fact.”
Oliver said, “You make it sound as if you bought her.”
Murray shrugged. “I did. I bought her. I own her. A fool of an artist stole her from me, and I mean to get her back. You’re here because you both worked for Allan Pinkerton.”
Oliver nodded. “We used to. Allan Pinkerton is dead. These days his son, William, runs the agency. Alfie and I both retired from it years ago.”
“Still, you’re a pair of experienced investigators, and you both need money. You look surprised, Mr. Redcastle. I’ve made inquiries. You’re new to this area?”
“I came out here with my family last spring.”
Murray leaned back. “You bought the Semple homestead. Ruinous timing. This was a bad winter. Ranchers suffered through a record-breaking freeze. I should know: I lost almost a quarter of my flock. Word is varmints got half of your sheep.” He paused. “It’s only your first year in the ranching business, and you’re in trouble. Am I right?” His pale eyes glittered. He folded his hands over his belly. “Of course I am. Too bad, because you’ve got a mighty fine family, Redcastle. Pretty little girl with a redheaded mama who would turn any man’s head. I seen your missus in town. She’s something. You’re a lucky man in that quarter. Not when it comes to sheep ranching.”
Oliver said nothing. He knew how tough the winter had been. The blizzards had begun in November, with temperatures below zero for weeks at a time. He didn’t need mockery from this man.
Murray turned to Alfie. “Mr. Higgins, we both know you have some problems too. Your saloon is falling down around your ears, and your gambling debts are piling up. You’re into me for a couple thousand. And when it comes to my money, I’m not a patient man.”
Oliver and Alfie looked at each other.
Murray showed his teeth. “You’re surprised again, Mr. Redcastle. I’ll warrant Mr. Higgins here didn’t tell you about his debts, or the fact that I hold the note on his saloon. You didn’t expect me to check you out either. Let me educate you about how things work here. Not much happens in these parts that doesn’t get back to me. No point beating around the bush. I’ve summoned you and Mr. Higgins because I want you to find Louellen and bring her back. Do it, and I’ll make it worth your while. Maybe I’ll even give Mr. Higgins more time to pay me before I close him down.” He looked from one man to the other. “Well, gentlemen, what do you say? Have we an agreement?”
A half-hour later, Oliver and Alfie headed back to Taos. Alfie said, “God in heaven, Ollie, I appreciate the transport, but climbing onto a fresh rodeo bull would be less painful to my posterior than this buckboard of yours. Every time we hit a stone I rattle around like a bag full of marbles. Any minute now you’ll toss my ass out on the damned road. Couldn’t you at least put in a padded seat?”
“You’re getting soft.” Oliver guided his wagon onto a shortcut trail. He planned to drop Alfie off at his saloon before heading home. “This is a working vehicle. I use it to haul water to my sheep, sometimes through a foot of mud. Padding would be plain silly.”
“Then why didn’t you bring Marietta’s buggy for this trip? At least it’s got springs.”
“I don’t own the buggy anymore, that’s why.” Oliver shrugged. “Murray was right about the bad winter causing me grief—not to mention the April downpours. I needed to sell Marietta’s buggy to pay for feed.”
“Bet she wasn’t happy about that.”
“Lots of things Marietta’s not happy about.” Oliver grimaced, thinking of what Murray had said about his missus turning men’s heads. He feared that out of sheer boredom she’d been doing too much of that lately. “I’d rather not discuss Marietta, if you don’t mind.”
“Well, since you’re touchy about your lady love, let’s talk about Murray. What did you think?”
Oliver shifted on the jolting buckboard. He regretted taking the shortcut. The narrow trail had more lumps than a rock garden. “Can’t say I liked the man much.”
“What does that matter? We didn’t answer his invitation to share his bedroll.”
Oliver shot Alfie a hard look. “Why did you ask me in on this? You’re the one who owes him money. Take on the job yourself.”
“It might require two of us.”
“To track down a runaway woman? Girl, really. That pretty child doesn’t look to be out of her teens yet.”
“Seventeen, actually. I’ve been doing some checking. Ollie, it’s more complicated than Murray lets on.”
“In what way?”
“I’ll discuss that when you say you’re in. I’m doing you a favor, Ollie. There’s money here—a lot of money if things go right. Besides, I enjoy your company.”
“I’d be flattered if I hadn’t heard you sweet-talk a preacher’s daughter out of her virtue. All you wanted then was a roll in the hay. All you want now is to get me into trouble.”
“You never mentioned that Murray holds the note on your saloon. Why in God’s name would you borrow from a man like that?”
“Couldn’t get a loan elsewhere.”
“You had plenty of money last time we met. What happened to it?”
Alfie shrugged. He was a jaunty little cockney. Years before, when he was still in his teens, he’d stowed away on a ship, bound for America and the life of a jockey. He’d begun working for Pinkerton around the same time as Oliver, and they’d solved several cases together. His deep-set, twinkling eyes saw everything and were disturbed by nothing. He’d made a study of dressing like a dude. He always wore a derby hat shoved to the back of his curly red locks. He loved to tease and pull practical jokes. One of these jokes, along with his gambling addiction, had gotten him fired by William Pinkerton.
Now he said, “Maybe I’ve been spending too much time courting lady luck.”
“I gather she hasn’t been returning the compliment.”
Alfie sniffed. “She’s no different from any other woman. She’ll come around. Meantime, I could use a bit of stuffing in my money belt. It’s been flatter than rolled tin lately. And Murray will provide it for the both of us. What do you say, Ollie? I know things have been dicey at that place of yours. What do you call it? Second Chance?”
“Second Chance Ranch. Marietta named it.”
“Sounds as if it might need a third chance. Since I’m the one who put you onto it, I feel a bit guilty. What possessed you to take on sheep ranching? That’s damned hard work.”
Oliver was silent for a moment. He recalled how he’d written to all his old Pinkerton colleagues, asking for a lead on property in the west. It was Alfie’s reply that had decided him on New Mexico. Did he regret that decision? Not yet. He cleared his throat and said, “I grew up on a farm in Missouri. We had animals, including a pair of sheep. They were my pets until my father butchered them for Easter dinner.”
Alfie rolled his eyes. “A soft heart will get you nowhere in these parts. A pair of sheep is different from a flock.”
“So I’ve noticed. What about you? When you bolted from the agency you invested a pile in The Lucky Leaf. Did you plan paying the bills in that gambling den by cheating at cards?”
“You insult me. I don’t cheat.”
“You’ve changed your ways?”
Alfie chuckled. “I admit I pulled a dodge or two when I was a young chap. Not around here. Cheat in these parts and you wind up sucking on a bullet. That’s the problem. I don’t cheat, and I don’t win. Not enough, anyway. Ollie, I need to get free of Murray by finding his wife. I’ll lose the Leaf to the son of a bitch otherwise. If I don’t come up with a thousand, I’m finished. Help me out.”
Half an hour later, the wagon pulled up to Alfie’s saloon. He climbed down, then rested a hand on the wagon. “Well, are you in or not?”
Oliver said, “Tell me why you think there’s a lot of money in this job.”
Alfie took his hat off and scratched his thatch of curly hair. “All right. I’ll be straight with you. Louellen Murray isn’t just a runaway teenage bride. I’ve got it from a good source that she’s the daughter of Kinkaid McKee.”
“One of the wealthiest Mormons in Silver City. He’s got several mines, several wives, and enough children to populate a small village.”
Oliver had never been to Silver City, but he’d heard of it—a mining town south of Santa Fe, in an area rich in precious ore. “I don’t see how that gets us money.”
“But I do. That is, if we play our cards right. Kinkaid may be willing to pay us more to get the girl back than Murray. Word is Kinkaid McKee was all set to marry her to another rich Mormon when Murray got hold of her. You ever heard of the Danites?”
“And mighty rough when they deal out their version of justice on heretics. They stay quiet in winter, but spring is in the air. Murray’s kept that beautiful young bride hidden for a reason. He’s afraid some Danites might turn up at his place looking for revenge. If we could use her as a bargaining chip, we could squeeze money out of both parties.”
Oliver sighed. “Alfie, I don’t like the sound of this.”
“Are you in or not?”
“I think not.”
“Think again. Think hard. Talk to Marietta tonight. Murray wants an answer, and so do the rest of my creditors.”
“How many creditors do you have?”
“Too many. Remember our time together on Daufuskie? You had yourself a close call back then. Hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t have the luxury of pulling sheep out of the mud on Second Chance Ranch. You owe me, Ollie.”
A day later, Oliver squinted down the barrel of his rifle at what the locals called a “Barbary sheep.” The mountain creatures were hard to spot against the rocky hills and cliffs. Swift and agile, they were hard to catch moving and even harder to catch standing still. Oliver had sited a buck posed like a statue. A handsome set of curled horns gave him a distinctive profile.
Oliver fired, and the animal crumpled. He waited a moment, feeling the mix of regret and satisfaction that always tinged a hunt. Then he got to his feet and watched his breath congeal in the chill morning air.
He’d set off from the ranch in the dark, and it was still early. Yellow threads of light striped the gray sky above the blurred ridgeline. Webs of fog and traces of snow and frost laced the tall pines marching up the slope. For Oliver, it was the best time of day. The best time to be alive. The best time to die.
Shouldering his rifle, Oliver set off to recover the animal. He’d have to butcher him in place—his pack horse couldn’t ascend the cliff, and he couldn’t carry the sheep down intact. So he’d be at the job a good part of the morning.
Since relocating to New Mexico, he had told himself and Marietta that he hunted to fill the larder. That was true, and the extra meat had seen them through the cruel winter. But he had also taken to hunting when he wanted time to himself. After the last couple of days, he needed solitude. He needed to think.
Moving from Baltimore had been a watershed in his life. The reason for it, of course, had been his daughter’s well-being. Chloe was asthmatic. Since the transfer, her health had improved. She was happier out west, he thought. But there had been other reasons to leave Baltimore. His detective business in the city had been slowing down. He’d come off a case that had provided him with funds to make the move possible. He was ready for a change.
And there was Marietta. He’d tried to talk her out of coming with him. “We’ve been lovers, but we’ve never lived with each other,” he’d pointed out.
“It’s time we tried. We have a daughter, after all.”
“Marietta, you’re an actress. You’ve lived in cities all your life. You’ve never been out west. It’s not like dressing up for the stage. The only admiring audience you’ll find on a ranch will be the sheep I plan to raise.”
Marietta had put her hands on her fine, round hips and thrust out her impressive bosom. She’d gazed at him with the flashing eyes that made her so effective as Lady Macbeth. “You talk as if I’ve lived an easy life. Oliver, I’ve been on the road since I was a teenager. Traveling from town to town to perform one- and two-nighters is no picnic. I know what it is to live rough. Most of last year I spent traveling with a circus. I had to let an alcoholic knife-thrower pitch daggers at me night after night. Besides, I have no intention of allowing you to steal my daughter away from me again! I’m Chloe’s mother. I’m not leaving her.”
“I never stole her from you. You had your two-faced maid drop her on me with a fairy-tale about you being dead. Until that moment, I didn’t know I had a daughter. Given your history with men, I’m still not sure she’s mine.”
They had glared at each other, both reflecting on their tumultuous history. In the midst of their early affair, Marietta had left him for a rich protector. Now they were together again. It was an uneasy alliance. The coming winter they were about to face would not help.
Marietta had broken the stand-off. “Well, she’s both of ours, you stupid man! I am her mother. She needs me, and I’m coming with you whether you like it or not.”
Thinking of all this, Oliver crossed a skirt of rocky terrain studded with boulders. He began the climb to the plateau where the buck had fallen. Several minutes later he laid his gun and backpack down, then unstrapped the knife holstered on his belt. The mountain sheep was a fine-looking animal. He was glad to see he’d placed his bullet exactly where he’d intended. He hated to see an animal gut-shot. Or a man, for that matter. This creature had died instantly and without pain.
Nearby, he found a stunted pine growing in an alcove in the cliffside. After he’d cut away some of the branches, it would make a satisfactory frame from which to suspend the buck. With it in place, he could do his work.
By the time he finished, the sun had burned off the frosty mist. After wrapping the tenderloins, back strap, and rib meat, he paused to admire the clarity of the light spilling across the valley below. A hawk made use of an updraft to circle lazily in the cloud-puffed sky. Otherwise, no living thing disturbed the land. The ridges rolled in endless blue lines. A musical, pine-scented breeze whispered in his ears. The valley below prickled with sage. The pueblo Indians regarded this as a holy place, and sometimes Oliver thought they were right. He’d been sleepless last night. Now the cobwebs cleared from his mind.
He bundled the hindquarters and rolled the lot into his tarp. Using the branches he’d cut from the pine, he fashioned a makeshift travois to transport the meat. He’d have to hoist the travois over some rocks, but it would still make the job easier. He was anxious to leave the scene now. Despite the chill air, the buck’s remains would attract scavengers.
Shouldering his gun and backpack, he stepped out of the shelter of the alcove, then froze. A speck moved across the valley floor.
Oliver squinted. He’d always had excellent eyesight. “Eyes of an eagle,” they’d said when he’d been a teenage sharpshooter during the war. The speck was a man on horseback. Unwilling to have his solitude intruded upon, Oliver stepped back. He looked around for an alternate path to his horses, one that would keep him out of sight.
Dragging the weight of the butchered ram on his travois, he picked his way carefully, keeping in the shadows at the foot of the cliff. He found his horses under the tree where he’d left them. That was a relief.
As he loaded the wrapped meat onto his pack animal, he glanced once more at the distant horseman, who appeared headed into the mountains.
“Wondering who he is?” a voice asked.
Set in 1886 in New Mexico, Murder Mountain explores gender relationships, parental bonds, sexual obsession, avarice, and revenge in the old west. This is the fifth novel in my series of Oliver Redcastle historical mysteries. All of the Redcastle mysteries can stand alone, and Murder Mountain is not an exception.
The post-war 1880s were a turbulent period in American history. Researching and writing stories about the era has been a fascinating and enriching experience for me. I’ve chosen this period partially for its wealth of parallels to our own time. Indeed, the country was even more divided then. Its struggles to knit the wounds of war involved the lives of many psychologically and physically injured war veterans. After the war, many of these fled west to start new lives. Several of the famous gunslingers of the west acquired their skills fighting for the Confederacy.
Oliver Redcastle, my novel’s protagonist, a sharpshooter and ex-Pinkerton detective, has moved west for his daughter’s health. Marietta, his daughter’s beautiful actress mother, insists on coming with him. She hopes that despite their difficult history as lovers and antagonists they can make a life together. Marietta soon discovers, however, that being the mistress of a failing sheep ranch doesn’t suit her.
Oliver too is starting fresh. He hopes to leave his violent past behind. Instead, he’s drawn into a mystery involving kidnapped twin girls and the obsessions of the men who desire them.
These obsessions lead to more than one murder. Other plot threads include the influence of British aristocrats in the west, some of whom managed to seize large tracts of government land through fraud. The infamous “Colfax County Wars” also make an appearance. The land itself, with its mountains, clean air, and new opportunities, is an important feature of the story.
I have completed this novel and plan to publish it soon.
Louise Titchener lives in Sarasota, Florida, with her husband, a retired philosophy professor. When she’s not having fun researching for her Oliver Redcastle historical mystery series, she’s painting, taking long walks, or kayaking around the Florida mangroves.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020