Copyright© 2014 by Bill Offutt
"Um, Annie, that was a good one. Should hold me a week at least. Wore it down to a nubbin." The big man stretched and threw his long, scarred legs over the side of the narrow bed. He thrust his stockinged feet into well-worn boots and stood, pushing most of his long shirttail down into his breeches, buttoning up his waistband and then buckling his wide belt. He dug two worn shillings from the purse at his side and placed them quietly on the bare room's only other piece of furniture, a wobbly chair of uncertain heritage. "We've got to figure a way a'getting some heat in here, girl. Man could freeze his arse off while he's pleasuring himself."
"Go on. You know that mealy mouthed Davis's not going to let me cut through that there old wall. I dast not ask Mr. Willson." The slight young woman stood and smoothed down her shapeless linsey-woolsey dress and pulled on a knitted shawl. She wiggled her feet into wooden clogs and stood on tiptoe to kiss the man's cheek.
"Agh, you need a shave," she said, rubbing her mouth and wrinkling her freckled nose. "Stand closer to that old razor next time."
The man smiled and rubbed her thin back.
"I saw some small, iron stoves in Georgetown last month," he said, patting her rump. "Think they're made up Catoctin way, kind'a squarish. I'll see about getting you one next time I'm down there with a wagon. Can't cost too much, and there's plenty of fire wood around."
"Thought they burned charcoal," the girl said through a yawn.
"Burn durn near anything, I guess."
"Well, that would be a help. I'll wait to celebrate till I see it." She lifted her chin and grinned at him.
"Soon, real soon." He pushed open the shed's cross-braced door and stepped across the mossy flagstones to the back of the adjoining tavern and entered its dark, fragrant warmness. A farmer he knew only as Reilly sat at the far table, pushing an empty tankard back and forth in his big hands.
"You finished, sheriff?" Reilly asked with a smile that showed his crooked, yellow teeth.
"For now," the big man said as the farmer rose and went out the back way.
Alexander Beall watched through the back door's dirty window as the man tapped on Annie's shed and then he turned to the bar. "How about a beer, Stud?"
"Coming right up, Sheriff." The young bartender turned the spigot on the big barrel and filled a tin. "How you been?"
"Wish you'd stop with that 'sheriff.' You know I ain't been sheriff for, what, well, some time."
"Jes' the same, you're the onliest one we ever had. That fellow from up in Frederick, what was his name? O'Neal? They say he didn't even come down here in the old days. I never seed him when I was a sprat."
"Well now we ain't got one and probably won't have none as long as you, Governor Eden and me last." Beall drank off half his tepid beer and wiped his mouth with the base of his thumb. He thought of Annie swiving that farmer in her cot. It was mid-week; the tavern was empty except for him and young Michael Farrell, generally called "Stud" in reference to his father's work with horses rather than his own prowess.
"You been tickling our Annie?" the barman asked as the front door opened. Both men looked up. A cold wind blew in along with a traveler who strode toward the crackling fireplace well wrapped in a shaggy frieze overcoat and heavy scarf. "Howdy, Mr. McNish," the bartender called turning over a small glass and fetching a squat bottle of dark whiskey. "The usual? You hear the news?"
The man by the fire grunted, unwound his scarf and stamped his feet. He took off his old fashioned tri-cornered hat and then unbuttoned his heavy coat and hung it and his hat on a wall peg before he came to the bar.
"Mr. Beall," he said with a small nod of his graying head.
"Tom," said Beall in reply. "How's the wife?"
"Oh fine, just fine." He sipped his drink and shivered. "Damn cold out. Wind's like a knife. Too early for snow, ain't it?"
Both men drank in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching motes of dust drift through the occasional sunbeam.
"Heard something down at the mill might interest you," Tom McNish said, his voice brighter as he warmed. "Took down a load of corn. Got a better price than I would a month ago. Was a feller there, up from Georgetown, says the revolt's done, over, kaput. He was looking over Magruder's mill, thinking of buying it, so he said. You know the governor took it, I guess."
Beall nodded. Samuel Wade Magruder had been one of the best-known rebels in short-lived Arnold County's history and like the others on a long list, had forfeited his hundreds of acres, his many slaves and his brick home at Locust Grove to the Royal Governor as the price of his treason. A few, like Charles Caroll, the rich and aristocratic Catholic, had paid with their lives, but most only lost their pledged fortunes and priceless honor.
"This feller," McNish said, rubbing his nose. "Give me another dram, Stud, damn cold today. This feller said t'was a murder down in Georgetown last week. Woman killed, cut her up something awful, so he heard."
"And?" asked Beall when there was obviously more to the story. He finished his beer and slid his lidless tankard toward the young bartender for another.
"Well sir, took her arm." McNish looked up at the taller man and raised a bushy eyebrow. "That's what the feller said, Beall. Woman's body didn't have no left arm a'tall. Made me think of young Miz Clagett out yonder. I'm sure you remember her."
"Yes, yes," said Alexander Beall, his brow furrowed. He stuffed some loose tobacco into a stubby pipe and tossed a ha'penny into the small box beside the tobacco tin. "I know you suspicion I done wrong in bringing your boys in on that. Didn't have much choice after they lied t'me, did I? But the jury sent 'em back to you, no worse for wear." He lit the pipe from a standing lamp on the bar and dragged deeply.
"So you think, Sheriff, so you think, but Tim's gone west now, somewheres, jus' gone, and Jim can't get no girl to even look at him no more. 'Tweren't neighborly, no sir, not a bit. Not a bit."
"Doing my job, McNish. You know that. Man say any more 'bout this dead woman?" Beall tried to ignore the obvious anger.
"Said she weren't very old, not sure 'bout married. Worked down there, a seamstress or dressmaker he thought. Said her body was left on the steps of one of them docks down in what some call Frog Land."
"He know much about it?"
"Not really, jus' common talk, tattle. She was butchered. Sounded like poor Mistress Clagett to me. That's why I'm telling you. Poor woman, butchered, tha's what she was."
"Nothing I can do, Tom. I'm sure the constable or whatever they got down there now is looking into it. I'm only the man that cares for the roads out here, see's that men with the duty do it. You know that's my job." Beall brushed his tobacco smoke aside with a calloused hand.
Tom McNish tossed down the rest of his rye and pinched his lips with his fingers. "Well, just thought you'd like to know that whoever killed the Clagetts was still around and still cutting on folks." He slapped a thick coin on the bar.
"Thanks," Beall said watching the man struggle back into his coat and knot his scarf. "I'll let you know if I hear anything."
"God willing," said McNish as he left, jamming his hat down to his ears. "God willing."
"Unhappy man," Stud murmured rinsing out the glass in a bucket of gray water.
"You wasn't working here during the revolution, was you? He lives out near me, good family. I arrested his boys for murder. Three people was killed out toward Log Town; man, woman and their boy child. Cut up bad, worst crime I can remember hereabouts. We had the trial right here, in this tavern. Jury sat over yonder. Judge's table was in that corner. Mr. Burgess was the judge if I remember right. I couldn't prove they did it so the jury let 'em go. I still wonder about it. Now we got another woman killed, and one of McNish's boys is gone missing, but the other one's still around. Course he's sure they didn't have nothin' to do with it, but I ain't. They can be hard, those boys, mean sometimes."
"What'd he say 'bout an arm?"
"Mrs. Clagett out there, the lady who was killed, one of her arms was gone when we buried them. Found it some time later, on another farm. Now this woman shows up missing an arm too. Some would call it coincidence, I guess. It's surely odd, very odd." Beall rapped his pipe against the heel of his boot.
"Yep," said Farrell. "Get you something to eat?"
"Nope. Best be going or I'll be missed. See you next time I'm in town."
"Me or Annie?" Stud Farrell laughed, and the big man smiled and finished his beer. He put a shilling down on the scarred bar. "Pour her a brandy when she comes in," he said as he took his coat, hat and powder horn from a wobbly peg set in the wall. "And have one yourself."