by Steve Hockensmith
Art by Mark Evan Walker
Smythe & Associates Publishing, Ltd.
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York
Dear Mr. Smythe:
As you might have surmised from the relatively puny size of this missive, this is not the new book I have promised you. I don’t try to compete with War and Peace or Crime and Punishment for sheer forest-clearing volume of pages, but I am well aware that the novel you await—Murder and Mayhem, let’s call it—shouldn’t fit into a standard four-by-eight envelope. (By the way, I’m actually calling my novel-in-progress The Double-A Western Detective Agency. This will, I hope, both intrigue readers and advertise the new business my brother and I have launched to potential—and desperately needed—clients. Of course, what it’s called when printed is for you to decide. I can only entreat you to give my suggestion some consideration before defaulting to Cowboy Brothers Battle the New Mexico Death Baron! or some other title of the type Smythe & Associates usually favors.)
Title aside, fear not! Though not yet finished, the new novel already weighs as much as a small dog. I assure you that it will reach full-grown Great Dane dimensions in plenty of time to fill some summertime edition of Smythe’s Frontier Detective.
What you hold in your hands now is what you might call the appetizer before the full-on gorge of the main course. And it’s one you yourself ordered. I’m sure you’ll recall the letter you forwarded to me in Ogden at the start of the new year, as well as your suggestion that my brother and I do as it requested “as a kindness to an admirer” (which I took to mean “as a kindness to your publisher . . . who needs all the publicity he can get”). But just in case 1894 has proved such a whirlwind you’ve already forgotten even so memorable a correspondence, allow me to jog your memory by reproducing it here.
Mr. Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer (and “Big Red”)
Care of Smythe & Associates
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York
Dear Mr. Amlingmeyer,
I have read of your adventures in Smythe’s Frontier Detective with great delight. That our West is blessed with as keen a crime-solving mind as can be found in old Europe should have the breast of every true American swelling with pride. Never did I imagine, however, that I would have need of that remarkable intellect myself until this week, when I found myself entangled in as bewildering and grotesque a series of circumstances as was ever faced by your idol, Sherlock Holmes.
I could say it began when my father, a gentleman farmer still reeling from the death of his beloved wife, my mother, decided to move us from our native Virginia and take up ranching in Idaho’s rugged Bannock Range. Yet the stage had been set for tragedy and mystery long before that by the former masters of the dark and desolate realm we would eventually journey to as heavy-hearted pilgrims. The Shoshone Indians called it “arimo inkom malad”—the lair of the Phantom Puma. For on the rocky ridges around Elkhorn Peak there prowled, they said, a beast that not just fed by night but was in some otherworldly fashion the night itself, black and formless and utterly unstoppable.
At first, the Idahoan rustics we encountered upon taking up residence on our new lands informed us of this legend with smirking, simpering sarcasm. As you know so well, the West and indeed the whole world are filled with malicious simpletons who look upon those turning to learning and books for solace and stimulation—as do you, as do I—with distrust and even disgust. Such boorish louts we found in abundance in Idaho, and they made plain their antipathy for me and my quiet, studious, erudite ways by turning every conversation to the ghostly beast that supposedly stalked nearby. But soon these transparent attempts to tease and terrify a newcomer were flavored with an unexpected zest: sincerity. Something began to prey on both our livestock and that of our neighbors—something that killed in the night and left behind no trace of itself save for shredded carcasses and scarlet-splattered snow. The talk thereafter still centered on the Phantom Puma, but without the air of enmity and schoolboy snickering.
We had, through these dark days, one staunch ally: our foreman, Jesse Ibarolla. A well-formed, virile, and fearless man, Jesse hunted the spectral cat just as it hunted our stock, though with considerably less success. Night after night, he lurked and skulked upon the snowy slopes, risking his life for the chance to strike at the killer who haunted the hills. For weeks I would awake at some midnight howl or growl, perhaps real, perhaps dreamt, and lie in darkness till dawn praying for dear Jesse’s safety and the creature’s defeat.
Onto this already ominous scene came a stranger. With our losses mounting, my father let it be known in the area that into our home, Wendellbreeze, we would accept lodgers. While still rude and rough compared to the plantation house we left behind in Virginia, Wendellbreeze is at least roomy, and with only myself and my father in residence, and Jesse and a few other underlings in the servants’ quarters, it would be easy enough to accommodate paying guests if any of sufficient funds and character presented themselves. And one seemed to five days ago. Mr. Norton Huggins came to us in a hired cart from the nearest town, having arrived via railroad and ascertained that Wendellbreeze was accepting boarders. Despite an off-putting appearance—tall and gaunt and sunken-eyed, with a bushy gray beard and a peg leg that clapped upon the floorboards like gunshots—Huggins was respectably dressed and comported himself like a gentleman. He had means to pay for a month’s stay in advance, so my father welcomed him into our home. I tried to make him welcome as well, but Huggins was a surly and secretive man, in the habit of hobbling off for long walks he refused to discuss. He would only say that he was an engineer and that he was awaiting word on an opportunity with a local mining concern.
The second day of Huggins’s stay, Jesse took me aside on the veranda to ask what I made of the man.
“He is disagreeable, but no more so than most of our neighbors in this unwelcoming place,” said I. “At least he, like them, keeps his distance most of the time. What is your assessment?”
Jesse looked this way and that before leaning his manly frame closer.
“This morning I chanced upon Huggins in the north pasture,” he said, his husky voice hushed. “He was consulting a large and well-worn map, which he hurriedly folded and stuffed into his greatcoat upon espying me. At first he scowled at me in his usual inimical way. But then, much to my surprise, he gestured for me to join him. When I did so, he made some strained and dissembling comments on the beauty of the Bannock Range before veering into a suggestive line of inquiry. Had I ever observed, he wanted to know, any caverns in the surrounding foothills that seemed to have been, in his words, ‘expanded and exploited’? ‘You mean mined? No, not near here. But there are gold, silver, and copper mines throughout the county,’ I informed him. ‘Did I ask about mines?’ the man ejaculated, and he bade me good day—in that way that makes plain he wished me no good whatsoever—and stormed off toward Wendellbreeze.”
“Our guest is indeed contrary,” I said. “I’m not sure I see what is so ‘suggestive’ about the encounter, however.”
“It is this, Miss Wendell,” said Jesse. “It reminded me of another Shoshone legend—the one that says the Phantom Puma guards ‘pocatello chubbuck tyhee.’”
Our foreman glanced over his shoulder again before going on in no more than a whisper.
“The underground city of gold.”
For a moment I was disappointed that our most loyal friend thereabouts should subject me to more impertinent “ribbing” in the manner of our uncouth neighbors. But the grave and troubled look on his handsome face quickly told me this wasn’t some new line of mockery. The legend was real. As was, perhaps, Huggins’s interest in it.
“I hope you will do me the service of keeping an eye on Mr. Huggins,” I said. “My father may trust that he comes to us without ulterior motive, but I do not.”
“Nor do I,” Jesse replied. “Fear not, Miss Wendell. I shall watch over you and your father as a shepherd guards his flock.”
That night I again awoke to the sound of an animal yowl in the distance. I had almost convinced myself it was but the moan of the winter wind through the hills when a nearer noise caught my ear: a steady drip of liquid. I might have dismissed it as the melting of icicles upon the eaves had it not so clearly come from somewhere inside the house. The incessant, metronomic click-click-click of it chipped away at my nerves like little raps of a miner’s pickaxe. At last I could stand it no more, and I wrapped myself in my dressing gown, lit a candle, and crept into the hall to seek out the source of the sound.
The first door I passed yielded another noise—the gruff, irregular grinding of snores—that told me my father still slept. But at the next door I lingered, for the drip plainly came from just beyond it.
It was the door to Mr. Huggins’s room.
“Mr. Huggins?” I said.
I gave the door a gentle knock. There was no response. My heart flooded with a dreadful foreboding, yet somehow I found the fortitude to reach out and grasp the doorknob. As I turned it, the dribbling seemed to intensify, changing from a mere drip to a pounding thump—one I didn’t just hear but felt within my quivering breast.
I was perceiving the beating of my own heart. It grew louder and faster as I pushed open the door and stepped into the room.
The small, flickering flame of my candle revealed little at first but the shadowy shapes of the wardrobe, washstand, and chiffonier. When I moved toward the center of the room, however, I could make out the bed—and the dark, lumpy, sodden thing upon it.
It was a body wrapped in black robes such as nuns or priests wear. The cloth glistened with moisture, a trickle of which seeped over the side to splatter upon the floor.
I froze for a moment, but then forced myself to inch forward. A piece of ragged paper was laid atop the body, and I could only make out the words scrawled upon it if I stepped closer.
“BEWARE THE COUGAR WHO WALKS AS MAN!” the note read.
Just above it, staring at the ceiling with wide and unblinking eyes, was the waxy gray face of Mr. Norton Huggins.
It was then, at last, that I screamed.
My father came running. Jesse did not—and not because he couldn’t hear me from the servants’ quarters. He was nowhere to be found. The next morning, tracks in the mud and snow told us part of the story: Jesse had ridden out on his favorite horse, Darcy, presumably to stalk the beast that made a nightly feast of our animals. His trail tapered off in the rocky hills, however, and to this day no fresh ones have been found. Jesse and Darcy have disappeared.Missing too is the map that Jesse told me he saw Huggins consulting. Before burying our unfortunate lodger—who seemed to have died by drowning despite the fact that the nearest body of water is a sliver of a stream a hundred yards from the house—I made a search of his things, hoping to find some correspondence that would allow me to send word of his passing to his family. Yet I found no letters, no postcards, no papers of any kind. I could not even be sure that the single word scrawled upon the man’s makeshift pinewood headstone—HUGGINS—had any truth to it.
Who was he really? What brought him to Wendellbreeze? How did he die? Where is his map? What is the meaning of the menacing message left upon his corpse? And, most importantly, what has become of our dear, devoted Jesse?
I bring these questions to you, Mr. Amlingmeyer, because in reading of your adventures I presume to have found more than a kindred spirit who shares my deep esteem for the late Sherlock Holmes. I feel—or at least hope—that I’ve found a champion willing to journey to Wendellbreeze armed with Mr. Holmes’s methods and girded by his tremendous courage. Although I cannot offer you any payment should you come to my aid, I implore you to take up the cause of justice, as you have so often and so bravely in the past, and demonstrate again why you have won renown the world over as our heroic “Holmes of the Range.”
Your ardent admirer,
January 8, 1894
That last paragraph didn’t just lay it on thick: It dumped it on by the bucketful. But I don’t hold a little flattery against anyone. I’ve been known to do some pretty generous buttering up myself, as you, with your fine eye for detail and profound perspicacity, have no doubt noted.
Nor did the letter’s more uncanny elements put me off my feed. A strange tale it was, but hardly the strangest my brother and I have heard (or lived through) since he got it in his head to follow in Mr. Holmes’s footsteps. “The Phantom Puma of Elkhorn Peak” might sound fantastic, but when you’ve already run up against the Water Indian of Utah, the Black Dove of San Francisco, and the Giant Muskrat of Folderol Falls, as we have, it seems almost humdrum. (All right, we haven’t actually run up against the Giant Muskrat of Folderol Falls. Yet. The way things have been going for us I keep expecting it, though.)
So it was decided. As soon as Old Red and I wrapped up the first paying case for our new detective agency, we would sally forth to Idaho for a gratis rescue of yon damsel in distress. (Patience! How that paying case turned out you will learn when my new book is done.) When we were at last free to don our shining armor, I wrote Miss Wendell to inform her that her knights errant were on the way.
Usually my brother would have insisted that we make our way there on horseback, McCammon being just a hundred miles north of Ogden and him viewing trains as torture chambers on tracks. But with the dead of winter upon us, even he had to admit that half a day of nausea on the rails beat half a week of freezing on the trails. So when we first set foot in McCammon, it was at a Union Pacific station.
It wasn’t much, as stations go: just a white wooden building the size of a line-camp shack plopped beside the tracks without even the added extravagance of a platform. The town around it matched it for plainness, and if any of the three dozen or so buildings within city limits was any bigger or fancier than a barn, I didn’t see it.
Which made our welcoming committee easy to spot. She was perched upon the driver’s seat of a faded green farm wagon, the reins of a swayback draft horse in her hands. Her threadbare, oversized coat and limp-brimmed hat looked like hand-me-downs from an older brother or perhaps a great-great-great-grandfather, and her fingerless gloves were so frayed she seemed to be wearing a pair of gray doilies.
She also looked to be all of sixteen years old. “Big Red? Old Red?” she said with a smile as we stepped off the train. “Is it you?”
“I’m not sure. We find train trips a bit discombobulating,” I said. I looked over at my brother. “Is it us?”
“It’s us,” Old Red told the girl. (Me he was ignoring.) “And you are . . .?”
“Your ride to the house,” the girl said. She jerked a thumb at the bed of her wagon. “Climb in!”
“I was afraid she was gonna say that,” I grumbled under my breath—which I could see, by the way. It was going to be a long, cold ride out to our client.
We walked over and tossed our carpetbags into the wagon bed, avoiding the little dirty-white puffs lodged in each corner. (It wasn’t snowing at the moment, but the sky was one solid gray cloud that seemed ready to dump on us whenever it would make us most miserable.) Then we hoisted ourselves up and made ourselves comfortable—or as comfortable as one can get in a conveyance intended for sacks of feed and barrels of flour rather than people’s posteriors.
“Let’s go, Heathcliff,” the girl said, giving the reins a gentle snap.
The old gelding shook his head and snorted before setting off at a plodding pace. The girl steered him around to a trail by the tracks that stretched off to snow-dusted bluffs on the horizon.
“So what do we call you, miss?” I asked.
“Josephine, if you like,” the girl said. “Or Jo. That’s what my friends call me.”
She swiveled to smile at us. I had no worries about her taking her eyes off the road, as we were in no danger of careening out of control. We would’ve picked up considerable speed, in fact, if Heathcliff and I had changed places.
“You look just like I pictured you,” she said.
“Like you pictured us?” I said.
Jo nodded. “Writing to you was my idea. I’ve been reading about you since you first started showing up in Smythe’s Frontier Detective, so I knew you’d come.” She looked at us like she was sizing up bulls at auction. “You’re nothing like the illustrations in the magazine, but I always figured those were all wrong. The way they make you two look so fancy and heroic and clean . . .”
“Oh?” Old Red said. He’d been slumped down beside me in the wagon bed, but now he sat up straight and frowned.
Jo laughed. “Even that expression on your face—it’s just like your brother describes it in his stories. And your clothes. You look like you could be on a cattle drive, Old Red.”
“A man oughta dress practical,” my brother mumbled. He threw a look over at my clothes, and his frown twisted into a little smirk. “And fittin’ the circumstances.”
Though I was bookended as he was with a Stetson up top and boots down below, otherwise I was attired for respectable business in a three-piece suit and topcoat. Already I’d acquired a few splinters in the seat of my fine woolen trousers.
“Depends on what the circumstances are,” I said. “And at the very least no one could accuse me of looking unclean.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say anyone seems dirty,” Jo said. “It’s just . . . I know what cowboys really look like.”
I straightened my black necktie. “Devilishly handsome, you mean?”
Jo cut loose with another laugh.
“You’re just like in your stories, too Big Red,” she said.
“Why, thank you.”
“I wouldn’t assume that was a compliment,” said Old Red. “So . . . Jo. Still no sign of that foreman fella?”
The girl’s grin dimmed, and she finally turned away to watch where Heathcliff was (oh so slowly) going.
“No,” she said. “Jesse is still missing.”
“How about Huggins?” Old Red asked. “Y’all learn anything more about the man?”
“I should let Miss Wendell talk to you about that. I’m just a servant,” Jo said. She gave Heathcliff another snap of the reins, but his ponderous trudge didn’t speed up in the slightest. “So what did you think of ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem’? I knew Sherlock Holmes was dead, of course, but it was still a shock to finally read the details in McClure’s last month. Was it that way for you?”
My brother just narrowed his eyes and muttered, “I’m still chewin’ on it.”
“You know what I wonder? If they had a memorial service for Sherlock,” Jo said. “The story doesn’t say. Obviously they didn’t have a body, but still—wouldn’t they do something? What denomination do you think Sherlock was? Or John Watson? Would they have to be Anglicans? Is that how it works over there? Is everyone automatically in the Church of England?”
The girl wasn’t looking back at us as she babbled, so my brother felt free to give her the kind of sour glower he usually reserves for me.
“I don’t rightly know,” he said.
“I didn’t get the feelin’ ol’ Holmes was the church-goin’ sort,” I said.
“Big Red!” Jo cried, whipping around so quick any other horse might have spooked and bolted. (Fortunately, Heathcliff appeared to be deaf as a post in addition to slow as molasses.) “Really!”
“‘Really’ what?” I said. I’ve inadvertently given offense on many an occasion, so I’ve had practice working my foot out of my mouth. How it got there this time, though, I couldn’t see.
Jo shook her head and harrumphed at me.
“‘The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,’” she said. “Right, Old Red?”
My brother stared back at her blankly, and the girl’s expression shifted from incensed to suspicious.
Then Old Red’s eyes widened, and another smirk crinkled a corner of his bushy moustache.
“Ohhhh . . . I get you,” he said. “The rose.”
The look on Jo’s face changed again. Suddenly, she was beaming.
“‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers,’” she said. “‘All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.’”
“‘But this rose is an extra,’” my brother said, picking up the passage where she’d left off. “‘Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again—’”
The girl jumped back in to say the last words in unison with him.
“‘. . . that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”
“Amen,” I said.
I must’ve read “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” forty times for my brother, him being unable to read it (or anything else) even the once. Yet somehow the full meaning of Holmes’s literally flowery speech hadn’t got through to me before.
“Hardly the words of a man without faith,” Jo said to me.
Before turning away again she flashed Old Red a grin, and I got the feeling he’d just passed a test the girl had been giving him.
“So who would have organized the service for Sherlock?” she said. “John? Mycroft? Some other member of the Holmes family? And who do you think would come? Sherlock helped so many people, but a lot of them probably wouldn’t acknowledge it in public. You know—‘discretion’ and all that. Still, I bet Helen would have been there, don’t you?”
“‘Helen’?” I said.
Jo groaned, and from the way she swiveled her head I could tell she was rolling her eyes.
“Stoner, of course!”
“‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band,’” Old Red reminded me.
“Oh. Right. Her.”
“And Mary would be there,” Jo went on. “That goes without saying.”
“Indeed,” I agreed.
I threw Old Red a puzzled look.
“Morstan,” he whispered. “Mrs. Watson.”
Jo continued to fill the pews with imagined mourners. Jabez (Wilson, “The Red-Headed League”) would have paid his respects, as would Violet (Hunter, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”) and James (Turner, “A Case of Identity”). Irene (Adler, “A Scandal in Bohemia”) would slip into the back row in disguise, keeping out of sight of the small regiment of Scotland Yard inspectors up front (Barton, Forbes, Forrester, Gregson, Jones, Lanner, Patterson). A select group of Yardsmen (Bradstreet, Brown, Gregson, Lestrade) would assist John and Stamford (the medical man who introduced Holmes and Watson in “A Study in Scarlet”) with the pallbearing, while revenge-minded lackeys of the late Professor Moriarty, done up as gravediggers, lurked nearby, watched for signs of trickery.
It was thoroughly thought out, that’s for sure. I got the feeling Jo had been daydreaming about it for weeks, and she certainly painted a picture far more interesting than the one around us: the ragged outskirts of town giving way to mile upon frosty mile of rolling hills splotched gray with slushy, muddy old snow. But after a time even Old Red began to weary of it, and I could tell from the way he fidgeted that he was anxious to get to the matter at hand.
Eventually, though, the matter at hand came to us. Part of it, anyway.
Three riders appeared on the trail ahead. From their wide-brimmed hats and heavy work coats and the ropes coiled near their saddle horns, it was clear they were cowhands. Jo stiffened as they trotted closer. She stopped chattering about the scene in London post-Holmes too, concluding with “That’s how I imagine it, anyway.” She scanned the ground around us, as if she might steer old Heathcliff off the road to avoid the men approaching us. But the sloping hillside we were slowly rolling across was slushy and pocked with rocks. If she took the wagon off the road there was no guarantee she’d get it back on before the spring thaw.
“Don’t bother talking to me,” she told the cowboys when they were within speaking distance. “I have no time for your insults today.”
“Aww . . . little Miss Priss don’t wanna visit with us,” one of the cowhands said.
“Must be deep in conversation with those other little misses she’s haulin’,” said another.
“Baaaaa!” bleated the third.
All three men had big grins on their unshaven faces.
They gave their horses their heels and began galloping around the wagon.
“All we wanted to do was wish you a fine day, Miss Priss!” said the first, tugging on his hat brim.
“And to you too, ladies!” said the second, doffing his hat to me and Old Red.
“Baaaaaaaaa!” said the third.
Now cowboys have a reputation for rough “fun”—one I know from experience to be well earned—and the best way to ensure that they’ll get really rowdy is to ask them to stop. But I didn’t like the nasty leers these three were giving the young lady or the way they seemed to be competing to see who could crowd Heathcliff the closest as they circled past.
“And a good day to you fellers!” I said. “Fine display of ridin’ there. I’d sure appreciate it if you didn’t nettle our horse so, though. If he gets to runnin’, I’ll probably roll out the back and break my dang neck.”
I said all this with a smile to show that I appreciated a good lark and wouldn’t dream of being bossy and was merely making a good-natured request, one working man to another.
It didn’t work.
“Sounds like something I’d like to see, fancy pants!” the first cowboy called out, and as he rode around in front of us this time he swiped at Heathcliff’s muzzle with his hat.
The old horse was still snorting and shaking his head as the second hand galloped past and gave him yet another swat. This time, Heathcliff reared up in response. Yes, he was only able to get his front hooves half a foot off the ground, but still—if he bolted he could break a leg, Jo could bounce off the driver’s seat, or my brother and I really could fly out and snap our necks.
Old Red muttered an obscenity and reached for his carpetbag. Coiled up within it, same as in mine, was a gun belt holding a forty-five. (We don’t make it a habit to heel ourselves for a simple train trip—though given our luck the last couple years I’m starting to think we shouldn’t even take our irons off for a bath.)
“Baaaaaaa!” said the third cowboy—quite the conversationalist, he was—and as he rode past the front of the wagon again he leaned out and slapped Heathcliff’s muzzle with the flat of his hand.
The horse whinnied and reared up once more, higher this time, then charged forward. One would’ve expected Jo to pull back on the reins and cut loose with a “Whoa there, Heathcliff!” Instead she stuffed her right hand under her shabby old coat and jerked out a hogleg as long as a hatchet even as she fought to keep her balance on her seat.
“Goodbye, Little Miss Priss! Hello, Little Miss Sure Shot!” the first cowboy laughed.
He and his friends peeled away and took off down the trail.
Jo tried to point her gun at them, but it was too heavy for one hand, and the barrel drooped down toward the wagon bed—which, by some miracle, still had me and my brother in it.
Old Red had finally managed to get to his holstered Colt, but he immediately stuffed it back in with his spare clothes and started waving his hands at Jo.
“Put that thing away!” he blurted out.
“It’s over! They’re leaving!” I added as the muzzle of the girl’s gun weaved this way and that. “For God’s sake, keep both hands on the reins!”
Two of the cowboys were yipping as they galloped off. The third, predictably, shouted back a last, extra long “Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”
“Expurgated!” Jo shouted at them.
(What she actually shouted I know you couldn’t commit to print. I leave it to you whether to replace it with “Dirty rotten varmints!” or “Dad-blasted sidewinders!”)
Jo turned away and plopped the gun onto the seat beside her, and my brother and I heaved sighs of relief as she got her right hand on the reins again. Not that Heathcliff needed much slowing. For him, running wild meant speeding up from a trot to a canter for a few seconds.
I’m sorry about that,” Jo said as the horse eased back to his old clomping walk. “Some of our neighbors are . . . well . . .”
“We heard your wording a moment ago,” I said. “And I can’t say I disagree with it.”
“Who were them three, anyhow?” Old Red asked.
Jo shrugged without looking back at us. “Nobody important.”
“You sure about that?” my brother pressed. “Seemed to me like that wasn’t just foolin’ around. They got some special beef with you? Or your father? Or with Jesse the foreman, maybe?”
The girl snorted as if he’d made a joke. “No. There’s no special beef. They’re just . . . you know . . . what I shouldn’t have said. You two always seem to meet a bunch in your stories. John and Sherlock too, of course. Who would you say was worse: Dr. Grimesby Roylott from ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ or Jim Browner from ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’? I think we’re supposed to hate Roylott more, but Browner’s just as bad if you look past his excuses. Of course, neither of them can hold a candle to Professor Moriarty. You know, I wish I could’ve shoved him off that cliff myself. I’m sure John feels the same way. What do you think would’ve happened if he hadn’t fallen for Moriarty’s trick and gone back to the hotel without Sherlock?”
And off she went again, describing the scenario as she saw it—our two heroes overpowering the vile Napoleon of Crime together, then returning to England to continue their crusade against the various Grants, Lees, and Custers of Crime—as more low, snow-speckled hills slid slowly past us. Old Red slumped in the back of the wagon like a half-filled sack of beans, a curiously dejected expression upon his face. (Not that his face was any stranger to dejection. It’s just that the one thing usually guaranteed to brighten it up is talk of Mr. Holmes.)
The girl kept at it as we turned off the main road and followed a thinner one toward a cluster of dark structures in the distance. I didn’t see anything that looked like the rough but roomy Wendellbreeze of the letter, so I assumed it was tucked around the next hillside.
My brother leaned over the side of the wagon to peer down at the ground, then sighed and sagged again. I took a look myself but didn’t see anything more than ruts in the mud and a patchy path through the frozen grass, but Old Red’s always had a sharper eye for trail sign than me.
“What is it?” I whispered to him.
“Baaaaa,” he replied softly.
And I suddenly understood why Old Red’s “They got some special beef with you?” might have seemed like a jest to the girl.
I picked at the nearest tuft of gray-white in the wagon bed—what I’d taken earlier for snow. It was soft and spongy, and I knew that if I lifted it to my nose I could inhale a pungent lungful redolent of musk and piss.
“Oh, no,” I groaned, flicking the little white ball away. “Do you reckon—?”
My brother silenced me with a quick shake of the head.
“Jo,” he said. “I hate to interrupt your thoughts on Mr. Holmes. You’re touchin’ upon much I’ve wondered myself. But seein’ the stable and barns up ahead there puts me in mind of a question. Percy—he likely to come home on his own if given the chance?”
“Percy?” the girl said. “Oh. Um. I’m not sure.”
“Well, you know how some horses are,” Old Red said. “Somethin’ happens to the man in the saddle, they’ll come on back to the corral if they can. Be good to know if Jesse’s horse was thataway. Could be ‘instructive,’ as you-know-who would say.”
Jo glanced back at us, then looked ahead again quickly. She gave the reins a listless little snap that Healthcliff didn’t even notice. “I see what you mean,” she said. “But I never heard of Percy doing anything like that.”
Old Red gave his head a weary shake. “I don’t suppose you would, Miss Wendell,” he said. “Seein’ as he don’t exist.”
The girl flinched, then drooped, then slowly turned to peer back at us warily. “What did I call him in the letter?” she asked.
“You said Jesse’s horse was named ‘Darcy,’” Old Red told her.
She clenched her fists and stamped her foot. “Stupid! Stupid dumb dumb stupid! Why did I even mention the horse at all?”
“I reckon you got carried away. I know how that can go when spinning a yarn,” I said. “And yours was a real corker, I grant you. Heck, if I wasn’t so vexed I’d suggest you finish it and send it off to Smythe’s Frontier Detective. ‘The girl turned the wagon around and drove the detectives straight back to the station’ isn’t much of an ending, though. Guess you’d have to make that up too.”
The girl’s eyes popped wide.
“No! Please! You’ve got to understand! I do need your help! Jesse really is missing! But we can’t pay you anything, and I know how cowboys feel about . . . people like us.”
“Sheepmen, you mean,” Old Red said.
“And sheepgirls,” I added.
“Yes,” said “Jo”—henceforth “Ann.” “My father and I came to Idaho after my mother died two years ago. From New Jersey, not . . . Virginia?”
I nodded. That part of her letter she’d remembered correctly.
“The West is where sheep are booming,” she went on. “But you know how it is. Cattlemen despise us. Claim sheep ruin the range. The ranchers and their hands around here—they’ve been hateful to us from the moment we arrived. Malicious, spiteful. Like on the road from town just now. That’s why I think they did something to Jesse.”
Old Red looked off into the distance. Not at anything in particular. He was just studying nothing the way he does whenever it suits him. In the meantime, old Healthcliff kept plodding along toward the stable and sheds and barn up ahead.
There was a house in among the outbuildings, I now saw. “Wendellbreeze.” Not much bigger than the little sodbuster hovel Old Red and I grew up in.
“So he really does that?” Ann said to me after a minute passed without a word.
She nodded at my brother. In my stories, I’d described many times his habit of eyeing the horizon in silence when lost in thought.
“Of course, he does,” I replied. “What I write is true.”
“So,” Old Red said, turning to face her again, “there’s no ‘Phantom Puma’?”
“No,” the girl told him.
“No Huggins drowned in his bed?”
“No lost map?”
“No. I made all that up. I figured the only way to get your attention was with lots of . . .”
Ann struggled to find a word other than the obvious one (which describes both hogwash and what he-cows leave so plentifully upon the plains). When the right alternative came to her, she dared a small, shy smile.
“Curious incidents,” she said.
Old Red frowned at the familiar phrase—coined by Mr. Holmes himself to describe a particularly puzzling clue in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” Then he barked out a gruff chuckle, obviously awestruck (as was I) by the girl’s considerable gall.
He conceded defeat by throwing up his hands and shaking his head. “Well, it worked. We’re here,” he said. “May as well make ourselves useful, I suppose.”
The girl’s tentative smile turned into a full-on grin. “I knew you’d see it that way,” she said.
She turned around and gave the reins another jaunty snap that did absolutely nothing to speed our journey.
I, meanwhile, gave my brother a long, steady stare.
“What’s that look supposed to mean?” he snapped at me.
“Oh, it means a lot of things,” I said. “But mostly it means I’m not going to let you forget this the next time you want to drag me along on a quest.”
Old Red scowled and spat out his preferred all-purpose rejoinder.
I nodded placidly.
“That’s what I’m gonna say,” I said.
I looked away from my brother as we rolled slowly into the barnyard, but I couldn’t stay quiet long. A wave of raucous laughter burst from me out of nowhere. . . .
Copyright © 2020. Curious Incidents by Steve Hockensmith