I am Hyram Courtenay. Since Lisbeth and I arrived in San Francisco we have almost got used to seeing weird and strange things. We moved here from the east because this was a quiet Mexican pueblo called Yerba Buena, a place where we could live in peace and maybe make a decent living. Then they changed the name, and someone had to go and find gold. Hasn’t been any peace since.
Not that I’m complaining, it’s just that sometimes events move too quickly for an older couple like ourselves to understand. Like what happened to Hezzie. I got the story from her not once, but several times because I had a hard time believing it. Besides I wanted to be sure I had all the details before writing it down.
Hezzie lived by herself in a cabin up on Rincon Hill, which at the time wasn’t much populated. Nobody knew when she arrived or how she got there or why; she just showed up one day and went into business. Her business was fixing people, I mean sick or injured folks. She never said she was a doctor, but she knew about herbs and such. She called herself a midwife, but back then there weren’t that many women in the city likely to have babies. We did have the other kind of women, the ones that worked for a living if you catch my drift. Hezzie could patch up gunshot wounds and fix broken bones and tend to grippe and fever, and those skills were sorely needed. When not doing business she pretty much kept to herself, and most folks let her be. If you didn’t know, Hezzie is short for Hezekiah. I never did find out her last name.
In those early days San Francisco had a lot of crime, specially before the second Committee of Vigilance got organized. We had our share of duels and bar room brawls and grudge fights. We were also bothered by more organized crime, such as the Sidney Coves, that some called the Sidney Ducks. Now Sheriff Hays has started getting matters under control, but two or three years ago the town was still wild. Even more than now.
As Hezzie tells it, she was pulling up weeds in her vegetable garden when the two strangers showed up. They both looked dirty, as if they’d been sleeping outside for a few days. One of them wore a Colt revolver, the other wore a big bandage wrapped around his arm.
“You Miss Hezekiah?” the one with the gun said. She nodded, looking them over and not much liking what she saw. “I am she. Who’s asking?”
“My partner here was in a little scrape last night at a saloon. Just a misunderstanding. I’m told you could patch him up.”
Hezzie put down her hoe. “Come on inside.”
They went into her house. It was only one room. But it was an old adobe from before the Gold Rush, so it was a better house than many that have gone up since. The men still hadn’t given their names. She had the wounded sit backwards in a chair, the better to look at his shoulder. His shirt was soaked with blood, so she had to cut it off with scissors. She looked at the other man. “I’ll need some hot water. Do you mind filling that basin from the tank in back? I’ll fire up the stove.”
Pretty soon she had the wound cleaned up. As she worked the man in the chair kept squeezing his jaw and making groaning noises. She said, “That’s a nasty cut. Looks like it was made by a dull knife. I need to sew it up.”
Though it was a warm day the gunman was sitting by the stove. He shrugged. “You go right ahead.” So far the wounded man hadn’t said a word.
Hezzie got out her sewing box and found some white silk thread and went to work. When she was finished her patient, pale and sweating, looked about to faint. She tied on a clean bandage and put his arm in a sling. “You can have a drop of brandy now. I’ve a bottle there on the shelf.” The gunman got up and found the bottle. He inspected the label and gave a low whistle.
“Pretty nice booze for this town. We usually only see rotgut whisky.”
She took the bottle from his hand and poured a small draft to hand it to the patient. “It was a gift from one of my customers. You can take those stitches out in a couple of weeks. If you should like to pay me now, that will be one dollar gold or silver.”
The man with the gun turned and sat down again and folded his arms. “Do you know who I am, Miss Hezekiah?”
She looked at him. “Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”
“The name is Johnny Burns. My friend here is Bill Hooks. We’re both from Australia.”
“I recognized the accent.”
“We’re both Sidney Coves. We’re wanted by the Law.”
Hezzie continued watching him in silence.
“In fact,” Burns went on, “I’m known in common parlance as “Rackety Jack. My professional name, you might say. There’s a bounty of five hundred dollars on my head. Bill here doesn’t yet have a price on him.”
“You do tell.”
Bill licked his lips and narrowed his eyes. Hezzie thought he might be wondering why she had not yet shown fear of him. Johnny Burns went on, “The fact is, Miss Hezekiah, there’s a group of citizens what are hot on our heels, as they say. It was one of them what inflicted that ugly wound on my friend Bill, here. So therefore it might seem a good idea that we depart this fair city for awhile, till things cool off. What do you think? Well, anyway Bill here is in agreement.” He fell silent, watching her.
After a moment or two she said, “What is your point, sir?”
He shrugged. “Only that I’m afraid we must impose upon your hospitality. We plan to spend the night here in your fair home. In the morning early we shall be on our way, and you will have our thanks.”
“And do I have something to say in this decision?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Now, if you don’t mind, Miss, we’re both pretty hungry, Bill and me. We’re missing a couple of meals or three. What sorta tuck would you have?”
“Food. What have you to eat?”
She glanced around the room. One entire wall was lined with shelves full of small bottles, vials and cans, her medicine and herb stock. Near the stove was a cupboard where she kept food. “Look for yourself. I have potatoes and cabbage. I don’t know how long you have been in this city, but you may know there’s a shortage of food. We used to get a fair amount from across the bay, but a lot of the farmers have gone off to the mines. What with all the new people, the food we have is costly and scarce. I’m not a rich person. Cabbage and potatoes is all I can offer you.”
“Speaking of rich, where do you keep your money?”
She stared at him for a moment. Burns grinned and shrugged, waiting. She knew she would have to answer. “The box beneath the bed.”
Burns reached under and took out a small wooden box with a lid. “That’s all?” She stared back at him. He shrugged again, pocketing the few coins.
“I’ll put the food on,” she said. She got the cabbage from her cupboard and put a pot on the stove to boil. He watched her find a knife and begin chopping. His hand was near his gun butt. As she was putting in the peeled potatoes with some salt and pepper he suddenly got to his feet and said, “I don’t believe you.”
“Sir?” She paused in her stirring. She glanced behind him to see that Bill was slumped in a corner, asleep.
“I don’t believe that’s all you have. Either food or money. When I was sitting near the stove I got a whiff of meat.”
She shook her head without looking at him. He came closer and grabbed her upper arm, giving her a shake. “Please, sir, you do harm.”
“I’ll do more than harm if you try to hold back or cross me. I want that meat for dinner. We’ll look for the cash later.”
“Please, Mister Burns. That bit of meat is for a poor woman who expects a baby. She has little enough, and requires meat for her child.”
“That’s too bad. Me and Bill here also requires meat. We have a hard road ahead of us. You been holding back on us. Now, where do you have that cache?” He advanced on her, raising a fist.
“Sir, please don’t strike me. It’s in that cooler box over in the corner. That’s all I have.”
Burns found the box. It was behind a small door on the north wall; the box hung outside the house, cooled by breezes. He reached inside and brought out a small object wrapped in linen.
“Here, you take it. I see it’s ham, though it ain’t much. You cook it, Bill and me eat it.” He plopped it down next to the stove.
Hezzie removed the wrapping, cut off several large chunks of ham and dropped them in the pot. “I’m sorry I don’t have onions. It would be better with onions.”
Burns laughed. “It be better with caviar and champagne. You’ll be sorrier if it ain’t cooked right. You throw the rest of that meat in the pot.”
“It’s mostly bone. Surely you don’t plan to eat it all?”
He found a plug of tobacco from somewhere in his vest, bit off a chew and spat on the floor. “Bill and me got a long row to hoe.”
The pot boiled, Hezzie stirred. In due course she announced it was done.
The man who called himself Rackety Jack shook Bill by his bad shoulder.
Bill awoke with a curse, “Damn, Jack!”
“Time to eat. Get yourself to the table.”
Hezzie served them both in tin bowls. She started to serve a third, but Burns clamped a hand on her wrist. “Nothing doing. This tuck is for me and Bill, there ain’t enough for three.”
Hezzie backed off. “Nothing for poor Hezzie, sir? You are a cruel man.”
Bill put some ham in his mouth and began to chew. “Tastes funny.”
Burns shrugged. “Don’t care for Miss Hezekiah’s cookin’? Don’t worry, Bill. It ain’t poisoned. I was watchin’ all the time, she didn’t have time to add poison.” He looked at Hezzie and winked. “You didn’t add no poison, did you dear?” She merely looked back at him. He laughed again.
The two of them ate all the ham and most of the cabbage and potatoes. When they were done, Bill said, “Are we going to leave her alive?”
Burns gave a broad grin. “Now, why would we want to hurt old Hezekiah, here? By the time she gets over to the sheriff’s office we’ll be long gone.” He winked at Hezzie. “Don’t you worry, m’dear. We’ll not harm a hair on your grey head.”
Hezzie knew of course they were lying. She was alive now only because they had needed a cook. She took a chair near the stove and lighted a lantern. By now it was after sunset. She picked up a piece of needlework and began to sew.
“What’s the plan?” Bill asked.
Burns spat tobacco juice on the floor. He tossed Bill a thin cigar. “I figure we’ll head on down to Mission San Jose. I know a couple places we can hole up there. Maybe in a month or so we can come back and take up where we left off.”
Bill shook his head. “I dunno, Jack. I hear the Committee is pretty eager to have a chat with you.” He meant the Committee of Vigilance. It was they who had posted the reward on Jack’s head.
Jack leaned back against the wall and admired the ceiling. “Well, there’s always Mexico. Now, listen Bill. You already had some shut eye, so it’s my turn. We shall take turns standing watch. You stay awake while I get me some sleep. Wake me up in four hours, hear?”
Bill didn’t look happy, but he nodded. “What about her?”
“Just keep your eye peeled. If she tries anything funny, let me know.” He rolled into Hezzie’s bed without removing his boots or gun. He pulled a blanket over himself and began almost at once to snore.
Hezzie leaned back, folded her hands, and closed her eyes.
An hour passed. Bill had been sitting quietly, smoking his cigar till it was down to a stub. He got up to put it in the stove, but suddenly sat down again. “Damn!”
Hezzie opened her eyes. “Is something wrong, sir?”
Bill leaned forward and groaned. Then he straightened up and shouted, “Jack! Get up a minute!”
Jack Burns’s eyes opened. “What?”
“I gotta go to the outhouse.”
“So why tell me? You had to wake me up for that?”
“I didn’t want to leave the old lady.”
“Oh, yeah.” He sat up on the edge of the bed. “Go on and get back here. I ain’t had enough sleep yet.”
Bill stumbled out the door.
Burns remained on the bed, staring at Hezzie. She had not moved. Burns of a sudden shook himself and looked around as if just realizing where he was. “What’s taking that fool so long?” He stood up, then sat down again. “Say, I don’t feel so good. You sure you didn’t poison that food?”
Hezzie gave a soft smile. “Sir, you watched every ingredient. Potatoes, cabbage, ham. No onions, no poison. Perhaps you have dyspepsia. If you wish, I can brew a soothing tea for the stomach.”
“No tea. I think—“ He doubled over and moaned.
Bill came back, looking pale and holding his stomach.
Burns got up and stumbled past him, heading for the outhouse.
“Probably it’s the shock from your wound,” Hezzie said. “It has affected your digestion. I can make you a nice stomach poultice …”
Bill collapsed onto the bed, folding himself in half. “What did you do, you bitch?”
“Why, not a thing. At least, nothing you told me not to. Perhaps, if you are truly ill, I should send for the ambulance?”
“No ambulance.” Burns had reappeared in the doorway, pulling up his pants. “You know what would happen.”
“At least let me go for help. You two gentlemen both appear ill.”
“Yes,” Bill said. “I really hurt. Let her go for help. It’s you that’s got the price on your head, not me.”
“Bugger that. It’s prob’ly just a bad case of gas. We’ll be better by morning. Now get out of that bed, that’s mine.”
Bill groaned again and made no move.
Burns grabbed him by one leg and yanked him out onto the floor.
Then Burns whimpered, doubled over, and sat on the bed.
“What has happened to your gun?” Hezzie asked. “You’re not wearing it. You must have left it in the outhouse. Would you like me to go and find it for you?” She rose from her chair.
Burns stared up at her from the bed, tried to speak and found he couldn’t.
* * *
As I was saying, my name is Hyram Courtenay. I’m an ordinary merchant in San Francisco. Since Lisbeth and I arrived here we have seen some strange events, among them the fact that I seem to have become one of our wealthiest citizens through no particular effort of my own. But that’s beside the point. Sheriff Hays would agree that Hezzie might well join the ranks of strange happenings hereabouts.
When the Sheriff arrived at his office early in the morning, he found Hezzie waiting for him. He asked her kindly what he might do for her. He later told me she did not appear in distress, but rather a bit tired and worn.
She said to him, “Is it true there’s a reward out for that Rackety Jack?”
“Yes ma’am, there is. It was put up by the Committee.”
“And is it five hundred dollars?”
“Indeed it is.”
“I could surely use the money. I need some supplies, and I’ll have to purchase a new bed. I wish to claim the reward.”
Sheriff Hays sat down behind his desk and lit up a pipe. “Do you now, ma’am? Do you know where this gentleman might be found?”
“Of course. He’s in my bed.”
Hays blinked and leaned forward as if to hear better. “Come again, ma’am?”
“Rackety Jack is in my bed. Quite deceased, I’m sorry to say.”
“Deceased. You mean dead.”
“Yes sir. Did the reward say Dead or Alive?”
“It was not specified. How did Jack Burns come to be deceased in your bed?”
“Oh, by the way, his partner Bill you will find on my floor. He’s still alive, far as I know. He might pull through. He didn’t eat as much as Mister Burns.”
“I see. Well, Miss, as soon as my deputy arrives we’ll take a wagon over to your home and see what’s what. Aren’t you Miss Hezekiah?” Of course a lot of folks in town knew her at least by sight.
She agreed she was, and then sat still, hands folded, as if she had nothing more to say.
After a moment Hays said, “How did Jack Burns come to be dead, Miss?”
“Oh, that. I’m afraid it was the tainted ham. You see, I knew they had no intention of letting me go because I could have told on them. I asked them not to eat the ham, but they did anyway. It was several days old and I knew it was turned. I was only saving it to use for fertilizer in my garden. I could tell by the smell, but I guess their tobacco and cigars prevented them. So I went ahead and fed them dinner. Poor souls never had a chance. When do you think I shall have the reward?”