Death’s Letter S
A Challenge Story
“Hey, Uncle Buck!” Blue Cannon greeted his uncle as Buck stepped from the livery stable onto the main street of the little town the two had ridden into earlier. “I’ve got us a room for the night.”
“I’m surely glad to hear that.” Buck told him, trying unsuccessfully to restrain a wide yawn. “Because I’m so darn tired I could sleep for a week.”
“I was kind of hoping we could get something to eat before we turned in.” Blue said, a gloomy expression settling on his face as he recalled the last meal he had eaten, bacon and beans on the trail, and that has been almost eight hours previously. “I don’t know about you, but I’m really hungry. Desk clerk at the hotel said the restaurant closed an hour ago though.”
“Couldn’t he make us a sandwich or sumphin’?” Buck asked, following his nephew as he led the way across the street to the Apache Junction Hotel.
“I asked, but he said he wasn’t allowed in the kitchen.” Blue pushed open the door of the hotel and stood back to let Buck enter first. “Room’s on the second floor,” He told him, fumbling for the key in his pocket. “Number Fifteen.”
Giving a quick nod to the desk clerk, who stood impassively watching as they crossed the lobby, Buck and Blue made their way to the staircase.
As soon Blue opened the door of room fifteen, Buck pushed by him and flung himself down on one of the two beds that stood side by side in the room. “See you in the mornin’, Blue boy.” He announced, pulling his hat down over his eyes and settling back on the pillow.
“Aren’t you even gonna take your boots off?” Blue asked as he lit the lamp that stood on the washstand opposite the beds.
“Guess I better.” With a reluctant sigh Buck sat up and pulled his boots off, letting them drop to the floor with a clatter. “And I s’pose I’d best wash some of this here trail dust off as well.”
Removing his own boots, Blue went to crack open the window, letting the cool night air into the room. Buck was settling down in bed as he turned back into the room and by the time Blue had washed and changed the older man was under the sheets, his eyes closed.
Picking up the lamp, Blue was about to put it on the dresser that stood between the two beds, when his attention was caught by something in the dust on the top of the piece of furniture. “You practising your writing Uncle Buck?” He asked with a laugh.
“Writin’?” Buck opened his eyes, looking sleepily over at his nephew. “What in tarnation are you talkin’ about?”
“Just there.” Blue pointed at the top of the dresser. “You do that?”
Sitting up, Buck peered blearily at a large letter S clearly visible in the dust. “Sure looks like the place could do with some cleanin’.” He remarked, wiping the S away with his fingertip. “I didn’t write it, musta have been there when we got here.”
With a shrug, Blue dismissed the subject and lay back on the bed. “Sure is comfortable.” He said with a yawn. “Reckon I’ll sleep pretty well tonight.” The only reply from the other bed was a loud snore, and Blue chuckled quietly as he closed his eyes.
Awaking with a start, Blue found the room still light; he’d been so tired that he’d fallen asleep without turning off the lamp. Sighing, he rolled over and sat up, reaching out to douse the flame. The movement was halted as he saw that the S, which Buck had wiped away, was now clearly visible again. “Hey, Uncle Buck.” He said quietly, after staring at the letter for a moment. “Uncle Buck!”
“Wha..?” Buck’s voice was heavy with slumber. “Wassa matter?”
“Did you put that S back there?” Blue asked sharply.
“I wiped it away.” Buck said, not bothering to open his eyes. “Lemme sleep, Blue boy.”
“But it’s back.” Blue told him. “Take a look.”
Reluctantly Buck dragged himself into a sitting position and tried to focus on the dresser. “So ‘tis.” He mumbled eventually. “Now can I go back t’ sleep?”
“Don’t you think that’s kind of odd?” Blue queried with a frown. “How’d it get there?”
“I dunno.” Buck leant over and wiped his hand across the surface of the dresser obliterating the letter. “But it’s gone now.” He declared, laying back down and pulling the covers up around him. “Forget it, Blue, and go to sleep.”
Turning out the lamp, Blue tried to follow his uncle’s advice, but sleep was a long time coming, the reappearing letter making him feel uneasy. Eventually tiredness overcame him and he drifted off into a light doze.
It was the smell of burning that woke him next. The window gave just enough light to make out clouds of smoke billowing through the room and with a gasp of alarm he leapt from the bed, reaching to shake Buck awake.
“Fire!” He yelled, as his uncle blinked and woke. “We’ve got to get out!”
Shocked into alertness Buck was up and heading for the door before Blue had time to warn him that the whole hotel could be ablaze. The warning wouldn’t have been needed; Buck opened the door into a quiet smoke-free corridor.
“What the…!” Puzzled, Buck looked back at Blue. “What’s goin’ on?”
Not answering, Blue went to fling the window wider, and almost instantly the smoke disappeared.
“I don’t understand this.” Coming back into the room, Buck watched as Blue lit the lamp. “Where the devil did that smoke come from?”
“Uncle Buck…” Blue’s voice held a quiver as the lamplight illuminated the dresser. “Look at this.”
Once again the letter S was clearly visible in the dust. “I don’t like this.” Buck gingerly touched the dresser top. “I know that letter was gone, and how the heck did it get dusty again?”
“I don’t think it is dust.” Blue said, leaning closer to examine the dresser. “I reckon it’s ash.”
“Ash!” Buck exclaimed. “But…” Whatever he was about to say was forgotten as, while uncle and nephew watched in horror, a second letter S began to form beside the first.
Without a word both Blue and Buck grabbed up their belongings and ran for the door.
“Well?” Buck asked, as he turned from saddling his horse to see Blue enter the livery stable. “You find anythin’ out?”
“Yes.” Blue looked a little pale as he recounted what the sheriff of Apache Junction had just told him. “Seems a few years back a girl was murdered in that room, stabbed.”
Buck swallowed hard. “Her name would’na have begun with an ‘S’ I s’pose?” He asked.
Blue shook his head. “She was called Jane.” He told him. “The man who did it set fire to the place, guess he wanted to destroy the evidence.”
“Then she was burned as well?” Buck shook his head sadly. “Poor woman.”
“Sheriff said the fire didn’t burn the body.” Blue said softly. “The alarm was raised and they managed to put it out before it reached the bed. But it seems that she wasn’t quite dead when the killer left her. Before she died she managed to scrawl the initials of her murderer. He hung for it.”
“And his initials were?” Buck asked, his voice a husky whisper.
“Man’s name was Sam Smith.” Blue said, confirming what Buck had already guessed. “His initials were S.S.”
©Kathleen Pitts 2003
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