Or, Two Cowboys Cross Three States and Find No Jobs
Having spent the last year studying detective yarns, I know how one's supposed to start. Somebody walks into the hero's office (or sitting room, if the hero happens to be Mr. Sherlock Holmes) and spills out a tear squeezer. There's a little gore in it, maybe, as well as a few details that make about as much sense as trying to saddle smoke. A girl finds her father dead in his bed, for instance, and he's got a big grin on his face, a solid-gold dagger in his chest, and a bowl of bloody walnuts balanced on his head. The sleuth nods, sends the girl on her way, then turns to his pal (there's always a pal) and says something like "By thunder, Dickie, this is the most mystifying case I've ever encountered!" Then they're off to the walnut farm and bang--the detectiving kicks right in.
So I've got a little problem explaining how I came to be face-to-face with a flying head. Yes, it's a detective story, but I can't start it the proper way at all. There's no office, no sitting room, no bloody nuts. There's not even a proper detective. All I've got's an illiterate cowboy who fancies himself the Holmes of the Range and his not-quite-so-ambitious pal.
I'm the pal, by the way--Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer. The fellow with the grand ideas about himself is my elder brother, Gustav, better known along the cow trails as "Old Red." Not that he's some white-bearded coot babbling about his rheumatism and the War Between the States. Gustav's old in spirit, not age. He's only got twenty-seven years on him, yet he tends to droop around like each and every one was a loaded pack strapped upon his back.
He's been a little less droopy of late, though, if only because he finally found something in this sad old world of ours about which he could actually become enthused. It happened about a year back, in the summer of 1892. One night by a cattle-drive campfire, the trail boss whipped out a magazine story called "The Red-Headed League," and Gustav acted like the man it was about--Sherlock Holmes--was Moses, Abe Lincoln, and Santa Claus rolled up in one. Not only did he make me read that story to him over and over (his own knowledge of the alphabet petering out somewhere in the vicinity of g), he went digging for more detective tales. We got to know Nick Carter, King Brady, "Old Sleuth," and the rest of the dime-novel crowd pretty well. But Holmes was the only one of the bunch my brother respected. Even the so-called range detectives--cowboy Pinkertons like Charlie Siringo and Burl Lockhart--didn't impress Old Red.
"Stringin' up rustlers and horse thieves ain't so tough. Most of them poor bastards ain't got enough brain between their ears to fill a thimble," he said. "Now Mr. Holmes, he goes up against fellers packin' some smarts ... only he packs more."
Before long, my brother wasn't just eager to hear and talk about Holmes, he was trying to act like him. He detected. He deduced.
He got us in a hell of a lot of trouble.
Nevertheless, when Gustav decided to take a stab at professional detecting, I didn't buck. I'd seen him test his deducifying on some bona fide mysteries, and by jingo if he hadn't cracked those puzzles open like peanuts. On top of that, I owed him--for a lot. If he wanted to play detective, the least I could do was play the pal.
Unfortunately, I was the only one willing to play along. Old Redand I spent this May and June ricocheting around Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho paying calls on each and every detective agency office we could find. Openings were scarce. Contempt for jobless drovers, on the other hand, was in ample supply. In fact, the closest we ever got to an offer of employment came after we crossed into Utah Territory, when the head Pinkerton agent in Ogden snickered that he was always looking for "no-account saddle bums" like ourselves ... because they had a price on their heads.
"How far we gonna take this, Gustav?" I asked as we stewed in nickel beer over this latest humiliation. "We've got enough cash to get us to a few more towns, but if this detectivin' job you're after is in New York or London or the Belgian Congo ... well, I'm sorry. We ain't gonna make it."
"No need to go that far yet," Old Red said. "We're only a hop and a skip from Salt Lake City. May as well head there next."
"And after that?"
My brother shrugged. "After that we'll try again somewhere else. And somewhere else after that and somewhere else after that, if we have to. No matter how many bad turns we take, we'll find the right trail sooner or later ... long as we don't stop lookin' for it."
I could've pointed out the irony of Gustav Amlingmeyer, the man who looks for the dark cloud around every silver lining, sermonizing on the importance of hope. But my brother got in his own jab first--and it caught me right in the gut.
"There's only one thing worse than givin' up, Otto, and that's not havin' the balls to try to begin with."
"I've got balls," I protested. "I just ain't anxious to have 'em stomped on."
Old Red gave me his excuses, excuses look, which combined a frown, a roll of the eyes, and a shake of the head in one quick, well-practiced movement. Perhaps because he was so doggedly chasing his dream, he found it galling that I should be so sluggish in pursuit of my own.
If Gustav was to become a homegrown Sherlock Holmes, I'd oncefigured, it was only natural that I should assume the role of his biographer, Dr. Watson. Yarnspinning has long been a specialty of mine, and I found it remarkably easy to put pen to paper and chronicle my brother's amateur sleuthing in a book.
What hadn't been so easy, however, was working up the nerve to do something with the damned thing once it was finished.
"You can't haul that big ol' bundle of paper around forever--it ain't fair to your horse, let alone yourself," Old Red said. "What're you waitin' for? Harper's to send you a letter askin' for it?"
I lifted my glass and took a long, slow pull, hiding behind a wall of suds. As I drank, I prayed in vain for some disruption--a brawl, a stampede through the streets, the tooting of Gabriel's trumpet, anything. I got nothing, though, and eventually I had to either face my brother or drown in beer.
"Well?" Gustav prodded the second my glass left my lips.
"I just need a little more time to think on it, that's all."
"What's left to think? It's done."
"Yeah, but I might wanna whittle it down some. When I read it to you, you yourself said it's long-winded."
"Well, so are you, but I don't keep you tied up in my war bag on account of it."
I took another drink, but there was little more than foam left, and I didn't get much of a respite.
"Look," I said, "we been over this. I'm just ... bidin' my time."
"Pissin' it away, more like."
I sighed. There were days my brother hardly spoke at all, except to say "Mind that gopher hole" or "We'll camp here" or (when our unvarying trail diet of pemmican and beans had its inevitable consequences) "Whew! Damn!" Yet when it came to my failure of nerve as a would-be writer, I could not get the man to shut up.
"Speakin' of pissin' ... ," I began, intending to escape the subject of my cowardice by (appropriately enough) running away.
But before I could beat a retreat toward the privy, the distraction I'd hoped for finally arrived. It came in the form of a thin, gnarledjerky-stick of a man staggering toward us from the bar. I would say he was three sheets to the wind, only I think he had a good many more sheets a-flapping than that. I was almost surprised when he managed to come to a swaying stop in front of our table instead of collapsing across the top of it.
"Hey," he said, and even as simple a sound as that came off his whiskey-numbed lips quivery and slurred. "I remember you."
"And I remember you," I said, not bothering to sound like I treasured the memory.
He'd been in the Pinkerton office that morning--a sixtyish, sour-faced fellow hunched over at a desk toward the back of the room. I'd once worked in an office of sorts myself, clerking in a Kansas granary, and I pegged him as a type I knew well: the sullen sluggard. I'd met plenty such men in the drovering profession, too, but they seem to particularly flourish in the shadowy corners of dimly lit offices.
The old man hadn't said a word as his boss belittled us. His only contribution to the conversation had been a sour chuckle when I'd pointed out that famous lawmen like Charlie Siringo and Burl Lockhart had been no more than "no-account saddle bums" themselves before the Pinkerton National Detective Agency hired them on. Another laugh at our expense was all I expected now, and I waited for him to fire some quip at us he'd been too slow on the draw to pop off earlier.
My low expectations must have been obvious, for the man tried to put on a reassuring smile. Such displays of good humor didn't appear natural to him--his face was so leathery I could practically hear the skin creaking as his lips curled into a grin.
"I might be able to help you," he said, his words still coming out as gloppy thick as oatmeal. "You see ... I'm Burl Lockhart."
"The Burl Lockhart?" Gustav asked, looking him up and down.
What my brother beheld before him was hardly fodder for a dime novel--unless it concerned itself with the adventures of a palsied clerk or boozy newspaperman. That's what the fellow resembled more than anything else, what with his shabby trousers, ink-splattered shirt, poorly knotted tie, and crinkled and discolored collar. Only one thingabout him suggested derring-do on the open range: the .44 with a mother-of-pearl grip that was slung at his hip. It looked as out of place on him as bloomers on a bull.
"At your service," the man said, his grin going lopsided as it spread itself wider.
"Mighty pleased to make your acquaintance, Burl." I stretched out my hand. "It's about time we bumped into each other. You see, I'm Buffalo Bill Cody, and this here's Annie Oakley."
My words turned the man to stone. His swaying and blinking and even breathing stopped, and only two parts of him still seemed alive at all--his lips, which flattened into a straight line that cut across his face like barbed wire pulled tight, and his right hand, which didn't reach out to take mine but instead started moving toward the grip of his gun.
Suddenly, I was looking at a different man--one who wasn't so much gaunt as he was pure, having shed everything soft about himself until all that remained was gristle and bone and bitterness. And this new, infinitely more daunting fellow did indeed seem strangely familiar. I thought back on the newspaper and magazine illustrations I'd seen of Burl Lockhart. If I added wrinkles and whiskers and subtracted meat and muscle ...
Sweet Jesus, it really was him!
We were face-to-face with a man who'd traded potshots with the James brothers, befriended (and betrayed) Billy the Kid, and tucked more rustlers, robbers, and renegades under dirt blankets than any other lawman in the West.
He was more than a man, really. He was a legend ... and I'd practically spat in his face.
And now he was getting set to spit lead in mine.
ON THE WRONG TRACK. Copyright © 2007 by Steve Hockensmith. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.