Our visitor today is the prolific writer John Lindermuth. John writes many exciting novels in a variety of genre as well as fantastic short stories.
(Sooner Than Gold, published in April by Wild Oaks, division of Oak Tree Press, is the second of J. R. Lindermuth’s mysteries featuring Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman. It’s the summer of 1898. The nation, just coming out of an economic slump, has been at war with Spain since April. And Sylvester has a murder victim with too many enemies.)
I’m Luther Longlow of Arahpot, Pennsylvania, one of those small farm communities on the fringe of the commonwealth’s anthracite coal region. Everybody knows in these waning days of the 19th century the coal region is nearly as violent as anything you’ll find in the Wild West.
Sylvester Tilghman is our sheriff, as was his daddy and his granddaddy before him. Normally, Sylvester does a fine job of keeping the peace. But lately our town’s tranquility has been shaken once more. A fellow by the name of Will Petry was found dead out at Nathan Zimmerman’s coal mine. Problem is, Syl says he has too danged many suspects. It don’t make it any easier that Zimmerman is town burgess and Syl’s boss.
Claude Kessler was standing over the body with a knife in his hand, but he claims he didn’t kill the man. Rachel Webber, Petry’s surly teen-aged stepdaughter, admits she committed an act meant to cause him harm. And then there’s a band of gypsies claiming Petry stole one of their young women.
I can’t for the life of me see how Syl’s gonna get to the bottom of things. But I have faith in the boy. He’s worked out tough problems in the past.
If this murder isn’t enough to complicate Sylvester’s life, that scoundrel McLean Ruppenthal is threatening his job again, there’s a female horse thief causing trouble and an old gypsy woman has been making scary predictions.
I’d like to see my stubborn daughter Lydia give in and marry Syl. Lord knows, he’s asked her enough times. I know it’s not easy for a big man to go down on one knee, let alone humble himself to ask the same question time and again. Lydia is one of those new-fangled independent women. You’d think it’d be enough accomplishments for her since she already runs the general merchandise store I founded, is postmistress, head of the Women’s Temperance League, a Sunday school teacher and sings in the Methodist church choir. Most women are plenty satisfied with just being a wife and mother.
Here’s an excerpt from the story:
I’ve never been over fond of tight places and I was just about as uncomfortable as I had been riding in Hiram’s machine as we descended into the depths of the mine on the hoisting carriage. We’d been met at the top by a miner who was to be our escort.
“Why are we here?” I asked.
“I dunno,” the miner said. “Mister Zimmerman just told me to bring you down.”
It was my first time descending the shaft and I’ll confess to being nervous about it. I was glad it was as dark as it was so Doc and the miner couldn’t detect any possible sign of fear on my face. Whether it was there or not, I’m not sure. I do know I felt uneasy. Doc has been down countless times so I’m sure he had no trepidation about the journey. It was probably a daily experience for the miner, so I guess it didn’t mean a thing to him either.
The miner must have sensed my nervousness. “Don’t you worry none, Sheriff,” he said. “This is a safety carriage. It’s built of wrought iron instead of wood like they used to be.”
“I’m not worried,” I told him, hoping there wasn’t a quiver to my voice.
“It’s got dogs to hold the carriage in case the rope breaks or the machinery fails.”
“You know—a safety clutch. And there’s a roof over us so nothing’s gonna whop us if it falls down the shaft.”
That should have calmed me, but it didn’t. My stomach went all queasy as the machinery hummed and the carriage began to drop. The air around us was suddenly damp and cold. We were shoved up against one another in that tiny space. I could hear both men breathing and the miner’s body odor mingled with Doc’s familiar barber scent.
After what seemed another eternity we struck bottom and exited out into the shaft. The miner lit a carbide lamp on his cap and led us down the dark tunnel. I drew my jacket closer around me and turned up the collar against the chill. Water dripped from the ceiling and I did my best to ignore the scurrying heard off in the shadows. Off in the distance, the murmur of voices soon became audible.
Though ours is mainly an agricultural community, everyone knows coal mining is a dangerous profession. The men and boys engaged in the profession go off to work daily, facing the possibility they might not come home at the end of their shift. Hardly an issue of local newspapers can be read without finding account of some fatal accident. The most prevalent and dangerous risk to the miner seems to be a fall of coal, slate and rock from the roof, ribs and face of a chamber.
That’s another reason I’m glad law enforcement has been my family’s profession since my grandfather’s time. It wasn’t like I went hunting for the job. Truth is nobody else wanted it. And, since my father held the post before me, folks figured that was qualification enough.
Not that it’s usually that taxing a job. There isn’t normally a whole lot of crime in Arahpot. We have our occasional chicken and livestock thefts, a bar fight now and again and sometimes people want to go faster than they should in their carriages. Thinking on that last, it could get worse when more people own fast horseless carriages like that one of Hiram’s.
We rounded a corner and came into a larger chamber brightly lit with a series of lanterns hung from timbers. A cluster of men in dark clothing and with carbide lamps on their caps like our guide stood in the center of the chamber and turned to gawk when we entered.
“About time you got here,” Nathan Zimmerman barked, coming out from their midst. He’s a square-built man in his middle fifties with a round, red face and thinning gray hair parted down the middle. You could tell he didn’t work down here since he was decked out in a fine dark olive cassimere suit. His shiny black bluchers were specked with mud and grit and I’m sure that annoyed him to beat all. The other men were miners, all of them appearing to be uncomfortable in his presence.
“Why’d you call for us, Mr. Zimmerman?” I asked, being as polite as I could.
“Because we got a dead man, and it looks like murder.” He stepped aside and we saw a body stretched out on the ground between him and the others. “Bad enough I keep losin’ workers to this danged war without them killing one another.”
“I’ll let him tell you.” Zimmerman jerked his thumb at a man next to him.
The man stepped out and I recognized him. Alex Mettler lives in Arahpot and I didn’t recall he’d ever given me a lick of trouble.
“Hello, sheriff, Doc,” he said with a nod.
“Never mind the pleasantries,” Zimmerman snapped. “Just tell ‘em what happened.”
Mettler nodded again and got to it. “I’m inside boss. The men on the day shift for this slope found the gangway closed up by a fall from an older breast. The men on the night crew—Elmer Teats, Joe Gibson, Willis Petry, Claude Kessler and George Shankweiler, a driver, with his mule—were all shut in.
“They called me and we found we were able to converse with the men on the other side of the obstruction. We learned they had good air, but one man was serious injured or maybe dead.”
I recognized some of the names. Teats was a married man with several children. Shankweiler was also married. Joe Gibson was a fifteen or sixteen-year-old kid who lived with his parents just down the street from Hiram and me. I knew Kessler, too. He had a reputation as a hothead. Petry I couldn’t place. “Which one’s dead?”
“We’ll get to that,” Zimmerman said. He motioned for Alex to continue.
“I set the crew to work diggin’ and we had them out in a couple, three hours. We found they went to work about six o’clock yesterday evening and the slide occurred at about midnight. In all, they was trapped about twelve hours.”
“Never mind that,” Zimmerman said. “Tell ‘em about the murder.”
Mettler dipped his head in obedience. “Teats, Shankweiler and the boy were in the chamber where we broke through.” He pointed at the body on the ground, “Him and Kessler were in a little alcove around the corner. When we came in, Kessler was standing over Petry with a knife in his hand.”
“But I didn’t kill ‘em,” Kessler said. “I swear I didn’t.”