The note was lodged between the wall and a bottom corner of my message box, just beneath the lacquered shingle that proclaimed Finis Bates - Attorney, and in my fatigue I nearly missed it.
Come quick . . . it read tersely. . . . St. Helen is desperately ill, and he asks to see you . . .
The note was signed by Mrs. Grady, the woman who ran the boardinghouse over on Pearl Street where John St. Helen kept his lodgings. I reasoned she must have sent it over by her youngest son, Billy, owing partly to the odd locale—the highest an eight-year-olds arms could reach, no doubt—but mostly because I knew the dear widow rarely ventured out on her own, especially if she had boarders in residence. For someone whose very livelihood depended on a hostelry, she was an incredibly mistrusting soul.
I had just returned to Granbury after an arduous day in Glen Rose, where I had spent the entire day in court. A client of mine, a cattleman from southern Somervell County, had gotten himself into a rather nasty dispute with his neighbor over grazing boundaries. Being a man of significant wealth but disproportionate common sense—a not uncommon condition among many of his ilk, I am grieved to say—he had elected to arbitrate the matter with a Colts revolver. A fellow rancher had nearly died, however, and it took all of my legal finagling to convince the judge that the entire affair was merely an exaggerated misunderstanding. Although he faced a two-year prison term, my client escaped with only a five-hundred dollar fine, a sentence for which most rational men would have gleefully sung their lawyers praises. But my reward was an immediate dismissal, along with a vehement warning to avoid future sojourns into Somervell County, especially if I wished to remain in decent health. Texas gratitude truly knew no bounds.
I crumpled the note and wearily tossed it aside, then started to go on in to a waiting and welcome bed. But something suddenly made me stop. St. Helen was my friend, and despite my exhaustion, I felt I should pay him at least a brief call. I did not believe for a moment that he was deathly ill, regardless of the notes urgency, for there was hardly a man in Granbury as robust and vigorous as John St. Helen. But it had been several weeks since I had last seen him, and his company might at least help to shake off the frustrated melancholy that had settled over me like the journeys dust.
I turned and trotted back down the steps that led to the rooms, both office and lodgings, that I kept above the Masonic Lodge there on Crockett Street. Granbury was nearly deserted, that close to sundown, and I shared the courthouse square with only a mongrel dog, a statue of General John Bell Hood, and a jovially whistling Negro workman. The black was busy hauling down the Lone Star flag, and I had to shake my head in genuine bemusement. Here it was nearly two years after Reconstruction had finally ended, and the Stars and Stripes had yet to make an official appearance above Hood Countys brand-new stone edifice. The county, named for the aforementioned Texas Brigade warrior himself, teemed with Confederate veterans like a hound with fleas, and there were still many who refused to believe the Confederacy had truly died. I myself did not share their convictions, although, while merely a transplant to Texas from my native Tennessee, I fully understood the bitterness the war had left behind. Just like the terrible wounds inflicted by gun and saber, certain scars would never heal.
The Black Hawk Saloon, where John St. Helen worked as a bartender, stood at the corner of Crockett and Pearl, and I cast it a speculative glance as I passed by, recalling the first time the two of us had met nearly four years before. St. Helen had been a barkeep then, in fact, in his own tavern down in Glen Rose, and it was his profession which actually brought us together. St. Helen had bought a small saloon and dry goods store from a former Confederate soldier, who had neglected to tell the new owner that the whiskey and beer he profitably poured had been served without a state license. When the Austin authorities, Unionists all, finally caught the error, it was St. Helen who faced the threatened penalties. He came to me as an honest businessman, sincerely wanting to set the matter right. There was only one stipulation. St. Helen was unwilling, and almost vehemently so, to appear personally in a Yankee court of law.
I suppose I knew from that moment that there was something seriously wrong, some mysterious aspect of John St. Helens past that he wanted desperately kept secret. Yet in all honesty, I cared very little. In my profession, especially during those terrible days of Reconstruction, I had yet to meet the man who hadnt had a skeleton or two hidden from the Unionists. The war had turned even the most saintly of souls into scalawags and misfits, at least from a Yankee perspective, and I knew better than to try and open such painful wounds. Whatever John St. Helen had done, or was running from, was his own affair. I was perfectly willing to accept his terms, as well as his dubious behavior. Especially as I truly came to know the man.
As I said before, St. Helen was a robust individual, and he cut quite the dashing figure. He was at least ten years my senior, in his late thirties, perhaps, with coal-black hair, deep-set dark eyes, and a flowing mustache. He was not overly-tall, but he was lean, and wiry. He walked with a pronounced limp, favoring his left leg, but the impediment did not detract from his bearing. He had a charismatic, almost theatrical flair about him, very confident and poised, with a quick wit and reckless charm that earned him an enviable favor with the ladies, and made his tiny tavern one of the most popular establishments in Glen Rose. He was well-educated, which was evident from his articulate speech, but he often seemed quite lackadaisical when it came to matters of business. He actually seemed more intent on entertaining his clientele than slaking their thirst. More than once I saw him leap upon his bar and render an ebullient, often brilliant oration from Shakespeare, or a poem by Tennyson, and it never seemed to bother him that his performance generally went unappreciated by his tipsy patrons. He was generous to a fault, flatly refusing to accept payment from any man who had worn the Rebel gray, which was fully two-thirds of the county. I often chided him that such benevolence would one day land him in the poorhouse. Yet he never seemed to lack for money, despite the fact that he lived in a squalid shack behind his tavern that would easily have put a Negro to shame. He never said where he was from, never once mentioned family or relatives, and, on those few occasions when we spoke together of serious matters, never alluded to any aspect of himself save for the present. But there were those rare times, when I would stop in after a long day in court, that John St. Helen would oddly let his guard down after several glasses of brandy, and I thought I could perceive a look of bleak despair gather within those piercing eyes. Here, I decided, was a man who had obviously lost all that was near and dear to him, and for whom sadness would undoubtedly remain a lifelong companion. I could not help but feel a certain sorrow for him.
St. Helen had up and sold his Glen Rose tavern, without explanation, and moved to Granbury about a year or so later. A mutual friend, F. J. Gordon, alluded to the fact that a young woman St. Helen was briefly involved with had become engaged to a federal marshal. St. Helen left Somervell County shortly before the wedding took place, whether out of fear or sadness no one knew. It was just another of the mans mysterious quirks, which Gordon and I tactfully chose to ignore. Gordon, who owned the Black Hawk Saloon, immediately offered St. Helen employment in his own establishment, and all of Granbury had welcomed the amiable barkeep with open arms. None more so than Mrs. Grady, whose husband had fallen alongside the citys namesake, General Hiram Granbury, on some blood-drenched Tennessee battlefield. I had never seen her so perky, nor as trusting, as when the handsome St. Helen had taken up residence under her roof. St. Helen himself seemed to develop an intimate, almost unique affection for the widow. And yet, curiously, it wasnt the least romantic.
I actually saw very little of St. Helen after his relocation, despite the fact that the Black Hawk was only a stones throw from my door. My practice had grown considerably since the Unionists had been thrown out of Austin. Texas was finally beginning to recover from the carpetbaggers, and my clients included wealthy railroad entrepreneurs as well as penniless cowboys, in cases that ranged from mediation to murder. In dismal truth, St. Helen soon became just another name in a growing list of acquaintances. But then came Mrs. Gradys frantic note.
The sun had nearly set by the time I reached the big Victorian house on Pearl Street. Lamps were already beginning to flicker behind the curtained windows, and the fading twilight cast shadows from the tall pecans over the long, rambling front porch. I hurried up the front steps and turned the bell key.
The widow Grady herself opened the front door. Elmira Grady was an attractive woman of only thirty-four, with auburn hair, sea-green eyes, and a buxom fullness that was not entirely unpleasing to the observer. I might even have been tempted to court her romantically myself, if it hadnt been for her three sons, undeniably the most reckless and malfeasant brats in all of Hood County. Some of their milder exploits included burglary and arson, yet the oldest was not quite twelve. How she managed to keep her boarders was anyones guess, although I surmised the boys knew better than to practice their perfidies at home. More than once I had been called upon to rectify one or another such rascality, and I began to seriously wonder as to whether even my expertise might save them from an eventual trip to the gallows. Not that I was entirely certain I would want to.
I tugged off my dusty hat and managed a weary bow. Good evening, Mrs. Grady.
The widow flashed a beaming Irish smile. Mr. Bates! Im so glad you got my note. I was beginning to think Billy might not have taken it round.
Now why would you ever think something like that? I asked with a smile of my own. Might I come in, Mrs. Grady?
She stepped partly aside. Please. Let me take your things.
I shrugged out of my coat and glanced appraisingly around. She kept a clean and tidy house, despite the resident demons. I smiled again. Your note sounded urgent.
The look in her green eyes suddenly turned anxious. Oh, Mr. Bates, I fear its truly dreadful! Mr. St. Helen is in a very bad way.
Suddenly I began to feel apprehensive, as though I should have taken the note far more seriously. I pointed a finger toward the ceiling. Is he upstairs?
Yes. Dr. Ellis is with him. She shook her head, and I saw the tears begin to well. Hes been asking for you all afternoon, poor man. I do hope youve come in time.
So do I, I said anxiously. So do I. I turned and headed quickly for the stairs.
Dr. Bertram Ellis was coming out of St. Helens room just as I reached the top. He nodded his bald head politely, gently closing the door behind him. Bates. I see you finally made it.
Ive been in Glen Rose, Doctor Ellis. I would have come much sooner had I known. I glanced past him at the heavy oak door. How is he?
Dr. Ellis shrugged. At deaths door, if you ask him. Hes even asked me to send for a priest.
A priest? I stared at him in puzzlement. I didnt know he was Catholic.
Apparently so. Unfortunately, the closest Papist church is in Fort Worth. Ill try and send off a telegram, but I truly dont think its that serious.
Whats wrong with him?
Fever. Could be the ague, or possibly malaria. I asked him if he ever had it before, but hes not much for volunteering information. He gave me a frustrated scowl. Perhaps you could manage to wheedle it out of him.
Ill try. He doesnt always tell me much, either.
Ellis nodded curtly. Well, in any event, I gave him a dose of quinine and some laudanum. Ill know better as to the prognosis in the morning. He set his leather satchel on a small hall table and took out a bottle of clear liquid. Have Mrs. Grady give him a teaspoon of this every three hours. Ill be back to check on him first thing tomorrow.
Can I go in?
He snatched up his bag and waved it toward the door. Please. Youre all hes talked about since Ive been here.
Ellis started down the stairs, and I reached out and turned the brass knob on St. Helens door.
John St. Helen was propped up in bed, covered nearly to his chin with a heavy quilt despite the evenings balmy warmth. His dark hair was damp with sweat, plastered in curly ringlets against his forehead, and his entire face was pasty white. His eyes were closed as I entered, but they fluttered open with the sharp click of the latch.
Finis. He smiled, and he tried to sit up. Come in, Finis, please! I knew you wouldnt abandon your old friend!
I rushed to his side, waving my hands frantically. John, please! Dont try to move. Just lie still. He had reached out with one hand, and I took it immediately, blanching when I felt how cold and lifeless it seemed. By God, John, youre as white as a ghost!
He laughed at that, though weakly. Indeed. And I fear I shall be one quite soon.
Nonsense, I said, forcing a smile I did not feel. Doctor Ellis says youll be just fine.
St. Helen laughed again, falling back against his pillow. A man of his calling could hardly say otherwise, could he? No, Finis, I fear this malady has me done for. His hand squeezed against mine, but I felt little strength behind it. Im just grateful that you were able to come in time. He nodded toward a chair next to the bed. Sit down, Finis, please. Theres something that I have to tell you.
I wish you would save your strength, John, I insisted as I took the seat. Whatever it is can wait until youre feeling better.
He shook his head, slowly, and I could see that same tired despair, as when we shared a drink, settle within his tired eyes. No, Im afraid it cant. Not anymore. Finis, I want you to know youre the only man Ive ever been able to trust since I came to Texas. I know Ive acted the fool, made a lot of people suspicious, but there was a reason. And youre the only person who never bothered to ask me what it was.
I never felt it was any of my business, I told him honestly. Part of being a lawyer, I suppose.
No. Part of being a friend. Youre a good man, Finis Bates. I mean that.
I squirmed in my seat, genuinely embarrassed. St. Helen caught my chagrin and laughed once more.
Modesty hardly becomes a man like you, Finis. Do me a favor, will you? Reach in that drawer behind you and hand me that pouch.
I turned around and opened the chiffonier drawer he pointed to, passing over the leather bag that lay inside. Curious, I watched as St. Helen tugged at the drawstrings with trembling fingers. He reached in and pulled out a small, silver-framed tintype, which he stared at, quietly, for several pensive moments.
This is a picture of my brother, Eddie, he said as he handed me the picture. He lives in New York.
His face is familiar, I mused as I frowned over the image. Although I cant say why. Ive never been to New York.
Hes an actor, St. Helen volunteered. Quite talented, in fact. I want you to contact him, after Im gone. I want him to know that I was still alive, at least for awhile.
I looked up at him curiously. Still alive? You mean he thinks youre dead?
Many people think Im dead. Which is why I am still alive.
I had to shake my head. John, Im sorry, but you have me thoroughly confused. What is this all about?
He turned to fix me with those dark eyes. Finis, I have to tell you something, but I want you to promise me that it will never leave this room. Except for what you tell Eddie, you can never say anything to anyone else. Do you swear it?
Im a lawyer, John, not a clergyman. But Ill keep your confidence as best I can. That I do promise.
Fair enough, he sighed. He reached back into the pouch, then withdrew a second photograph. It was a cardboard carte de visite, wrinkled and torn, showing a dark-haired, dashingly handsome young man poised dramatically against a theatrical background. He held it out to me. Do you know who that is?
It looks very much like you, I said with a shrug. Though much younger.
Turn it over, he said flatly. The fellows name is on the back.
I took the faded paper and flipped it around. For several long moments, I could only gape at the penciled words. Slowly, I lifted my disbelieving eyes to St. Helens.
The evil that men do lives after them, he said with a mournful smile. Shakespeare, dear Finis. The most consummate judge of the human character the world has ever known. He waved a weary hand toward the photograph. Yes, it is me. And I was much younger, then. And far more foolish. Thats the secret, Finis, the one youve never tried to discern. The one that Ive never revealed to another living soul. You see, I am not John St. Helen. My name, my real name, is John Wilkes Booth . . .