Death of a Demon by John A. Miller, Jr. by John A. Miller, Jr. - Read Online



Ellen Gallagher and Maria Gonzales, taken hostage at their Tucson dress shop by a hired killer, are hauled unceremoniously into Arizona’s most inhospitable desert. When Ellen’s husband, Southern Pacific Railroad Detective Pima Gallagher; her daughter, 14-year-old Scout Walker; and Maria’s husband, José, set out on the women’s trail they are nearly killed by a raging grass fire and a flash flood.

Back in Tucson a wealthy couple from Mexico is targeted by a group of swindlers. When the Mexican man is murdered outside his home, confusion reigns as Pima and Scout compare the alibis of several suspects, any one of whom not only could have committed the crime but also had a good reason for doing so.

Published: John A. Miller, Jr. on
ISBN: 9781465842015
List price: $4.99
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Death of a Demon - John A. Miller, Jr.

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Part One

Arizona Territory


The Devil's Playground

The blazing sun beat down mercilessly on the coarse desert soil, turning the broad landscape into a giant frying pan. Straggly creosote bushes, their tiny, russet-tinted leaves gleaming in the intense light, provided an aromatic but inedible ground cover that left much of the arid dust exposed. Most other vegetation had succumbed over the centuries to the poisonous effects of the creosote bushes although a few cholla and prickly pear cacti had managed to establish small footholds. Even the nearly immortal mesquite trees, with their deep taproots thrusting into sources of moisture unavailable to other plants, were scarce. An occasional saguaro raised its tall central spire toward the pristine blue of the sky. In some cases the giant cacti sported a collection of curving arms pointing upward toward the heavens or downward at the ground. If any of the rare humans who passed through the area had cared to observe, they might have noticed that several of the saguaros bore a humorous resemblance to living things much different from what they actually were.

In this vast, intermountain plain there was little other evidence of life. The animal kingdom was represented primarily by reptiles and insects although a few mammals and birds also inhabited the region. During the mid-afternoon heat the reptiles, a motley assortment of lizards and snakes with coloring that blended well with the soil, had managed to find some shelter, either in the shade of convenient cacti or in burrows belonging either to themselves or to other creatures they had evicted or eaten. Gila woodpeckers hid in the holes they had bored into saguaro trunks; kangaroo rats, the most common mammals, had gone underground, frequently to become rattlesnake lunch; and a few insects buzzed around the bushes although even their efforts to find food seemed misplaced and feeble.

At the fringes of the plain towered several large clusters of low mountains, mostly rocky and sterile. Their dark maroon coloring complemented the beige of the surrounding desert. A greater abundance of animal life inhabited the dark, shadowy areas of the rock piles, but there was a corresponding decrease in plant life within that hostile environment.

Water, or the lack of it, was the controlling factor as to which life forms dominated. In this area of southern Arizona on this crystal clear day in early July the amount of available moisture on the surface and for some distance beneath it was zero. Only the hardiest of flora and fauna, that which was supremely adapted to the desert life, could survive.

No roads threaded their way through this wilderness and few humans on horseback or foot ventured intentionally into its trackless reaches. Occasionally, a lost traveler would wander into the area and breathe a sigh of relief at the one sight that could bring such joy—the twin steel rails that provided a pathway for the iron horse. The engineer of a passing train could usually see a person standing beside the tracks from a long distance away, especially during the daylight hours, giving him plenty of time to halt his speeding juggernaut and rescue the lost or stranded passerby. In this waterless land a person seeking assistance was provided with aid whenever possible. To disregard any plea for help was to condemn the person making the plea to almost certain death.

The air temperature stood well above one hundred fifteen degrees when three mounted travelers leading two heavily laden pack horses directed their steeds across the shimmering steel threads and continued their slow pace southward toward the Mexican border although they had no convenient way of knowing it. None of them had any desire whatever to be in this particular location, especially under the circumstances that had brought them there. Two of the riders were obviously men, one with sandy hair and mustache and the other dark and seemingly of Mexican heritage. The third was blond-haired and considerably smaller and younger looking. Clad in similar attire as the two men—jeans, boots, cotton shirt, and broad-brimmed hat—this third person, mounted on a small pinto, could just as easily have been a slender, young girl.

The riders appeared to be following something. Closer examination revealed that their quarry was leaving behind a faint, but consistent, trail—a pair of broad lines in the dust with hoof prints between. The lines, apparently marks left behind by the wheels of a heavy freight wagon, wound their way between the larger clumps of creosote bushes and skirted the cacti, generally working their way toward the southwest. A narrower and deeper depression usually ran along the center of one of the broad lines except when the trail turned, at which point the narrower depression veered off to one side. It appeared that the left rear wheel was not as wide as the other three.

** ** **

A number of miles ahead, an aging wagon drawn by a team of four nondescript brown horses crept forward across the deserted land. The wagon was constructed of weathered, gray planks and topped by a white canopy. It had three broad wheels typical of freight wagons. However, the left rear wheel was much narrower, probably a temporary replacement until the original could be repaired. Hidden from the three pursuers by an intervening mountain range the conveyance traveled alone in its hostile world. Three people—two women and a man—occupied the one broad seat at the front of the covered wagon. The bed contained a number of large barrels, some of which showed unmistakable signs of seeping moisture. Bags and boxes of other supplies took up most of the remaining space. Obviously, the members of the party had come prepared for their waterless passage, bringing with them at least the basic necessities for survival.

The silence was unbroken except for the squeaking of the wheels, the creaking of the boards, and an occasional snort from one or another of the horses. The man held the reins loosely and stared forward, squinting against the harsh light that reflected from the ground. The two women huddled close together and as far as possible from the man, their hands held awkwardly behind them. The sullen looks on their faces implied that they had no desire to be in the man’s company but apparently had little choice in the matter. Closer inspection would have revealed slender, but strong, cords binding their wrists and ankles.

Although the driver continued to maintain a route that led generally toward the southwest, nothing visible in that direction provided any sort of clue as to an eventual destination. If the man was headed for the Mexican border he was directing the horses on a more northerly path than the most direct route. However, because the adjoining border region had been named with good reason El Camiño del Diablo or the Devil’s Highway perhaps he was merely exercising good judgment in avoiding an even worse environment than he was already crossing. Another possible goal was the small town of Yuma, Arizona, sweltering in its valley beside the Colorado River, but that community lay nearly one hundred miles to the west.

** ** **

Standing in front of an open window and glaring through it at a busy street and the shadowy facades of buildings bordering its other side, a short man displaying a copper-colored star on the front of his shirt muttered under his breath at the heat. Behind him a larger man in a sweat-stained, dark blue policeman’s uniform sat in a heavy wooden chair and wiped his perspiring brow with a handkerchief. Behind him the sound of a complaining voice poured from an open doorway and punctuated the hot atmosphere with a series of epithets and threats, mostly directed at the officer of the law standing by the window.

Sheriff Henry Blystone, housed in Tucson, Arizona, but responsible for law enforcement throughout Pima County, tried to ignore the shouting from behind him but finally turned and stared at the doorway. Shut up! he called testily. Consider yourself lucky that I didn’t feel like shooting you when you resisted arrest.

Damn you, Sheriff! You have no right to hold an honest citizen against his will, came the shouted reply.

I’ll hold you as long as I damned well please and for whatever reason I please, Henry called back. Turning to the man in the policeman’s uniform Henry asked in a softer tone, Dick, are you sure it was his livery stable that rented the wagon?

As sure as I can be, Sheriff, Dick Lester replied. Besides working as a full-time Tucson policeman Dick was also a part-time deputy sheriff. His night man admitted to renting the wagon and horses.

Sheriff, exactly why are you holding me? were the prisoner’s next shouted words.

Because you lied to me. Henry walked to the doorway and looked through. Your man already had told Dick he rented the wagon and team. Why the hell did you deny it?

I never admit to anything about my business transactions. It’s none of your damned business who rents what.

Perhaps not, in most cases. However, this looks like a case of murder and kidnapping and your denials look mighty suspicious.

Who was murdered and who was kidnapped?

I would have told you sooner if you had stopped yelling about your damned rights. The sheriff disappeared through the doorway into the small holding prison where he began talking animatedly with the prisoner.

In the Beginning

Three weeks earlier the Tucson weather had been just as hot, but the southwestern Arizona desert had not yet become host to such a large assortment of people.

Señora Ellen, how are the little ones doing? They look so beautiful.

Oh, they’re healthy enough, but sometimes they can be very tiring, Ellen Gallagher replied to her business partner, Maria Gonzales, as they sat in the back room of their dress shop going over some accounts. Ellen’s one-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, lay wrapped in blankets and sound asleep in a small bed next to her.

I am so sorry I cannot help you with the books, Señora Ellen, but you know my evil father never sent me to school. If it were not for your help I would not be able to read at all. Maria had been unable to read or write when Ellen had first met her. However, with Ellen’s patient tutoring over the three years since that time the young woman was now able to handle simple reading, writing, and arithmetic although her skills were still insufficient for keeping business records.

I understand, Maria. Sometimes, though, I do get so exhausted.

Perhaps, Señora Ellen, José’s little sister, Paloma, can help. José Gonzales was Maria’s husband.

What do you mean?

"The niño and niña are old enough now that they could be left with someone while you are here at the shop. Paloma loves babies; she would be ideal to take care of them—she is already thirteen—and you could easily walk home to feed them."

Yes, Maria, that is a very good idea. Once in a while I have Scout keep an eye on them, but during the winter she’s usually in school and now she’s busy helping Pima at his office. What about Paloma’s schooling?

Ah, unfortunately she has dropped out. However, she does read and write better than I do. Maybe you could be a good influence on her and teach us both.

I’d like that, Maria. You know I think everybody should have at least some education. I could always give her some books to read while the twins are sleeping. Ask Paloma to come by the house tomorrow and we can talk about it.

** ** **

Pima Gallagher, thirty-five years old with sandy hair and a mustache to match, sat in his office at the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Tucson and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. It was a brutally hot day in mid-June, the hottest time of year in southern Arizona, and the time when anybody with plenty of money and no obligations left town for the mountains and cooler weather. Pima’s stepdaughter, Scout Walker, who had just turned fourteen, sat at a table in the corner copying a letter.

The girl was his wife Ellen’s daughter by a previous marriage, and she disliked her real first name, Elizabeth, with a passion bordering on hatred. Pima had given her the nickname, Scout, when he boarded with her widowed mother several years earlier, and eventually even Ellen had begun to use it. Now there were times when nearly everybody forgot Scout’s real name. Only Miss Pelham, Scout’s former schoolteacher who was one of the girl’s least favorite people, called her Elizabeth regularly.

Scout’s short blond hair and slender build made her look younger than she actually was. She had finally begun to develop a more womanly shape, which, along with her pretty features, was attracting attention from the boys, something Scout found rather annoying. She was determined to follow in Pima’s footsteps and become a detective, an uphill battle for a girl in 1897, and she was not at all interested in members of the male sex, or at least that was what she told herself. Still, Tommy Mulaney had been interesting. If only he hadn’t moved away from Tucson.

Enough of these thoughts. Time to finish copying the letter. Damn this heat! Oh well, it usually cooled down by evening, and their house with its thick adobe walls was quite pleasant at night, even after the hottest days.

** ** **

Paloma, how would you like to work for me taking care of my babies while I’m at my shop? Maria recommended you and I’d pay you for it.

Paloma Gonzales, a plump, dark-eyed girl whose baby fat was just beginning to mature into a solid, but hefty, figure, replied, Oh, Señora Gallagher, that would be wonderful. I love babies. Sometimes I help our neighbors with their babies although they cannot afford to give me any money. The girl hung her head. There is one problem, though.

What’s that?

"If I must work until after dark I would be afraid to walk home alone. One of my friends was attacked just last week while on her way home. It is very difficult being a Mexican girl in this town. The gringo cowboys treat us all like toys."

Yes, I can believe that. Ellen pondered for a moment. I know. Would your family mind if you lived here for a few months? You could sleep in the spare room, and that way you could help me with some of the work around the house. You’d get your meals, and I’d be willing to pay you five dollars every week besides.

Paloma’s eyes opened wide. "Oh, that would be wonderful. That is a lot of money, more than I have ever had at one time. I am sure mi madre would not mind if I lived with you. Our house is small and very crowded. Also, if it were not for the money José gives to us we would be very poor. Suddenly, the girl’s downcast look returned. Would I be allowed to visit my family? I would miss them very much."

Of course. You’d have every Sunday off unless something special came up. Then you could have another day off that week. Also, Maria and your brother live nearby and you could visit them whenever you weren’t busy.

For a moment happiness and sadness seemed to battle for possession of the girl’s face, but happiness won. "Señora Gallagher, although I will miss seeing my parents and my little brother and sister every day, I will immediately go home and ask mi madre. I am sure she will say si. If she does, when can I start?"

How about tomorrow? Come here in the morning and let me know. If you decide to come and live with us, I’ll send my husband to pick up your things.

"Muchas gracias, Señora Gallagher. I am sure I will be very happy working for you."

** ** **

Henry, why do we stay in this town and suffer every year? Pima asked his friend while mopping his brow with a large handkerchief.

I guess because we’re all plumb loco. Actually, I like this desert country. It doesn’t snow, and usually I can do my outside work without getting too wet.

Yep, and in our line of work we do get to spend a lot of time outside. Still, it can be pretty bad when the temperature’s over a hundred degrees. It sure as hell must be that hot today.

How are Ellen and Scout and the twins?

Oh, they’re doin’ fine. Ellen just hired Paloma Gonzales, José’s little sister, to mind the little ones.

Sounds like a good idea to me. I guess the dress shop must take up most of her time.

Yep. Sometimes she don’t come home until late at night. I think she’s workin’ too hard, but you can’t tell Ellen that. José worries about Maria, too.

Pima, I have an idea. Why don’t we go over to the Parker House, and you can buy me a beer?

Why should I buy you a beer?

Hell, you’re the one who inherited all the money. I’m just a poor sheriff.

I don’t know why you’re poor. You ain’t bought a beer in a long time.

Oh, shut up and let’s go.

All right, but I hope the beer’s warm, especially yours.

** ** **

I wish he were dead, the speaker said forcefully.

But why?

That is none of your business. Is it possible in this primitive country to find a man who will kill for money?

Hell, you can find a man who will do anything for money, assuming you have enough of the stuff.

Good. Find me such a man. I wish to hire him. You know I have plenty of money.

But what if the law catches him and traces him back to you?

It is your job to find someone trustworthy—someone who will not tell the law who hired him. After he does the killing I would suggest that you consider finding a way to silence him forever.

I’m not sure I like this.

It is not your job to like or dislike it. Perhaps you wish to resign your position. I am sure I could find someone to replace you. Of course, you know too much about me, which means your chance of surviving for very long after you leave my employment would be very slim.

The man looked nervous and ran a finger around his neck inside his collar. I guess maybe I will keep working for you, at least for the time being. I’ll see what I can do about finding you a hired killer.

That is much better. I like an employee with a cooperative attitude.

The Devil Takes a Soul

A badly played melody cascading from a honky-tonk piano mingled with the din of at least three-dozen voices. The ceiling was low, and a thick cloud of smoke from numerous cigars and cigarettes hampered visibility in the brightly gaslit room. The intense heat that had blanketed Tucson during the afternoon still lingered inside the saloon, and the gleam of perspiration was evident on every forehead. Several low-class drifters and two or three swarthy-faced men of Mexican ancestry leaning against the scratched and worn bar downed whiskey and beer in copious quantities. Meanwhile, a faro game in the back of the room was attracting the attention of a number of players and spectators.

Two young women clad in long, off-the-shoulder dresses wove their way through the crowd, laughing and joking with the patrons and dishing out playful slaps to men who had the temerity to pinch their ample bosoms or buttocks. One of the women approached a table in the center where a poker game was in progress. Howdy, Tex, she said to one of the younger-looking players who was dressed like a typical cowhand.

Now, Ellie, don’t you go howdyin’ me when I’m winnin’. Besides, you know I don’t like bein’ called Tex. I hate them damned Texans, every cotton-pickin’ one of ‘em. I’m a native-born Arizona boy an’ I’m proud of it. The young man looked down at his cards, thought for a moment, and then pushed some money into the pile in the center of the table. I’ll see you an’ raise you ten bucks, he drawled.

The one other man at the table who was still in the betting added his ten dollars. All right, I’ll see you. What do you have?

Three aces, the cowhand said, spreading his cards in front of him. He reached for the money.

Sorry, but I think a flush beats three aces. The speaker lay down five hearts. Then he pulled the pot toward his own stack of money.

Damn you, Ellie. I told you you’d bring me bad luck, the cowboy muttered. Now you go bother somebody else. Maybe I’ll see you later after I’ve won back the money I just lost.

Ellie laughed, lifted the young man’s hat, tousled his hair, and then strolled casually toward the faro table to see whether she could drum up some business in that quarter.

Nobody paid much attention to the old man with the white hair and beard who pushed open the swinging doors from outside and entered the room. He looked like any one of a number of old desert rats or prospectors who occasionally drifted into Tucson from God only knew where, usually in search of a grubstake. The newcomer stood several feet from the end of the bar and looked carefully at each of the patrons. One of the Mexicans leaning against the bar, surprisingly well dressed for a customer of this particular establishment, had just raised his glass of beer to his lips. Without warning the old man drew his revolver from its holster and calmly shot him. Before anybody could react, the old man turned and walked out into the street while the man he had shot slid to the sawdust-covered floor, beer from his shattered glass saturating the