By Lance Sidesaddle
When it begins to turn chilly in the Old West, when autumn starts its long decline into winter, when civilized folks become a bit rushed, preoccupied, a little less polite – to me it feels kinda like the Fall of Western Civilization. A coolish November afternoon on Courthouse Plaza turns its leaf-strewn face toward sundown. Sure, work is done for most honest Preskitt folks, but my job as defender of the peace is just about to commence.
Yah, you’ve heard of me – Lance Sidesaddle, private detective. Student of all principles of deduction. And this week I’m taking a refresher course on a hum-dinger – cause and defect.
For some reason I don’t go straight to my office this night. I have a sneaky seventh sense suggesting something suspicious. So I cruise around aimlessly, paying attention, soaking up clues like a biscuit in gravy. I see a bunch of random things: a spy thriller movie with double-takeout popcorn at the Prescott Valley Harkins, a furtive green pickup running the red on Lee Boulevard, two dudes sitting ominously in a big black crew cab in front of Kendall’s on the Plaza. To the ordinary intellect, these things would not appear connected. But to my sidekick powers –
From somewhere, a horse neighs nervously. I duck involuntarily and look around. Although this is usually not a good sign, this time I can relax, cuz there she is, a nice little roan with a hand-tooled saddle, hitched to the rail betwixt Bucky’s Bean Bag and The Worm. This is the only spot on Whiskey Row with a hitchin’ post anymore. Stores all closed along Montezuma, her rider’s prolly glugging down a beer up the block. I give her some popcorn from my bag before headin’ on up to my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking the Plaza.
I know something’s wrong the moment I enter the long corridor. Light spills into the dingy hallway from my open office door. A radio turned low plays the D-backs at home against the Padres. My radio. I stand in the doorway. Two plainclothes lounge in my chairs, one with a couple of his big feet on my desk. The other one’s asleep.
“Where you been, Widewaddle?” the awake cop asks. “You’re usually on time.”
“I plead the fifth,” I say handsomely.
Sleepy cop wakes up enough to roll his eyes in exasperation.
“Soapsaddle, you’re confined to your office for the night,” says Awake cop. “We’re trying to wrap up a case and don’t need any of your – help.”
Sleepy cop chuckles. “Yeah, we don’t need your professional findings from Court TV.”
Both of them stand, making for the door.
“If you hear of anything let us know.” Sleepy cop hands me a crisp white card.
Awake cop says, “Frank, let’s get a latte. You’re on autopilot.”
Sleepy cop waves it away in a ‘whatever’ gesture, and they’re off into the night.
I pocket his card. I’m just brushing the dirt from my desktop when the phone rings. A shrill, harsh, grating sound. Nagging, familiar. Reluctantly I pick it up, and even before I hear the voice, I know. It’s her. I get an instant mental flash of a tall woman in faded jeans, a stained work shirt with bunched-up sleeves, ropy-muscled arms flipping a yearling to the dirt of a Wyoming branding pen.
Women are complicated, which is an established fact. And Montana is a complicated woman. A long trail of evidence attests to this phenomenon of nature: the lumps on my noggin from her cast-iron skillet, the scars on my calf from her trained attack ferret, the multiple contusions on my male ego. What we had was more than a fling, but it didn’t last. All I have is the fading memory of what might have been. She has her occasional phone calls to remind me of how deeply she was disappointed – by me, the Village Idiot of the Universe.
“Montana,” I mutter in surprised confusion. “How are – “
“Don’t start with me, you lout. I need that casserole dish my auntie Alice gave me.”
Typical of Montana, she hadn’t actually moved out. Her stuff is still neatly arrayed throughout my singlewide beyond the ridge. Her stuff? Most of it is our wedding presents. She just phones me every so often to ask – actually it’s more of a demand – that I send one of her valued possessions. She was moving out via DHL in slow, painful degrees. Our relationship hasn’t been great for a long time, and now it’s like the Voyage of the Demand.
“Have you gained weight?” She demands. She assumes I’ll send the dish with no further discussion. Unfortunately, we both know she’s right. Now she’s on to Eternal Topic A, my weight.
“Um, I – “
“You sound heavy. You’ve gained again. Does the scale come around to your ZIP code yet?”
“Um, er -“
I know she wants to keep it short because she’s calling from the Central Stranded Time Zone. Her abrupt goodbye is typical, vintage Montana: “Hint for the month, Lance, stop being you. Send that dish A-SAP. Sap.”
“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,” I remind her softly, far too late.
I take stock of our conversation. I’d got in 13 syllables, three commas, two sub-vocalizations, zero complete sentences, and no clauses. Aside from her P.O. Box, I don’t know where Montana’s at anymore. But I’d have to ride to Fargo and turn around quick to get on her good side. Two glorious, unforgettable weeks of matrimony, during which time my goal had devolved from comprehension to getting out with a whole skin.
I sit. Make a mental note to pack up Aunt Alice’s casserole dish. Okay, I think, the cops want me to stay in tonight. Don’t need my help. Well. How can I irritate Bad People while chained to my beat-up oak desk?
A shuffling in the corridor. I hark my ears and wait. The figure that appears is from about 100 years ago: bearded, wearing a weathered brown felt hat, scarred leather vest over a shirt of unknown color, a once-red kerchief, dark-stained chaps, rough-out boots. Except for the guy’s expression, I coulda been lookin’ in a mirror. His face has a haunted look, on the ragged fringe of hope. You see that too much these days.
“Mr. Sidesaddle,” the guy says. It’s not a question.
I nod, gesturing at my beat-up guest chair. “Sit,” I say. We sit.
“Muh friends say you’re a great detective, say you find things for people.”
I clamp down on my urge to agree with him and magnanimously pontificate. My sidekick powers tell me this guy wants something. Something important. But I know right off it’s going to be hard for me to find.
The dude is nodding. “They say you have the gift,” says he.
Well of course the guy is right, tied up with a lovely bow it is, but instinct for a change keeps the zip on my lip.
“Need ta get hooked up,” says the stranger. “They say ya sometimes need help.”
I get it. A job. I give him an A for approach. At least he buttered me up first, a good trait in any employee. But what to say?
“Well,” says I, “most of us can use a little help, some of the time. What kinda help were you thinkin’?”
Fella muses a bit, then says straight out, “Solvin’, figurin’, cogitatin’ clues.”
Hmmm. Here’s a guy about whom I know nada, not asking to sweep the floor, but suggesting he’s ready to park right atop my own little food chain. For an instant, I think if he can keep Montana off my neck, then he can have my job, my office, the works. Except for Ol’ Paint, my trusty truck.
But our serene rapport is curtailed by frantic sirens that fill the night, distant, drawing swiftly closer. We step into the corridor and peer out the dark window. A rosy glow paints the sky above the Hysterical District. My studies of cause and defect are giving me an instant twitch to head down the stairs, but I remember I’m grounded. Looking out as flashing reds dash noisily through the darkened streets of our fair little burg, I turn to the guy.
“Okay. I get your drift. There’s not a lot of moolah in this racket, but sometimes I can use a good paid hand.” I notice his face lights up a notch when I hit the word paid. There are a couple of things I do need, like…
“Like tonight. Amble on over to the noise smoke and confusion there, come back and tell me what you see. They’re gonna wanna know what started the fire. Get the plate number of a big black crew cab if you see one. Dark windows, two guys. Ditto for a green Chevy pickup. This here’s on account. I’ll be here till sunup.”
I fish out a twenty and hand it to him folded up small. He nods, says seeyalaterthanks, and heads on down the hall.
“Oh yeah,” I call after him. “Take the plastic trash bucket out of the Men’s and give that little roan some water, if she’s still there.”
The guy’s hat brim dips and he continues on. From where I sit back in my office I can hear the bucket filling and his bootheels fade down to silence as he hits the street. Carramba. Never got his name. No matter. If he comes back he has a job. Sort of. If he doesn’t then at least he took a handout with a scrap of dignity.
I sit there and again I’m thinking of Montana, our conversation, all her stuff stowed neatly in my singlewide. Mattra fakt, all my stuff, the stuff she didn’t choose to want to look at, is in the tin shed out back. Note to self: rearrange castle, in a manor of speaking. I think, maybe I should just ship it all to her. Then I think twice: it would take durn near two years’ wages to do that. I think thrice: maybe I should just start a fire…
Then I notice that’s twice in under a minute I thought about running away from my problems. What am I really going to do?
Fire. Burning my humble abode and all her stuff would indeed get me somewhat off the hook, but the word turns my thoughts to the blaze a few blocks yonder. That’s when my sidekick powers wake up from their nap and deliver me a single word: friction. Okay, it dawns on me, if I was thinkin’ that, someone else was thinkin’ that. The owner. So that’s solved, but how to pin it on the owner when I’m grounded for being too helpful?
Things are just starting to gel when my shiny new assistant shows up. He’s carrying two paper cups of what smells like hot coffee.
“Where’d you get java? All the barista bars close up before six.”
“Fire Department had their pot on. Built right into the side of the truck.”
I nod and sip. My assistant goes on.
“Won’t believe this, but that little hoss got a parking ticket. She was thirsty all right. I’m takin’ her another bucket in a minute. But first here’s what I saw over there. Big place, old-timer, nice one, too bad. Completely done for. Saw both of yer trucks, here’s the tags.”
He lays down a slip of paper with two license numbers written in a neat, solid hand. Reaching into his vest pocket, he thunks a small object onto my desktop. Cell phone.
“Feller pushin’ me outta the way, one of the fellers from the black rig. That’s his. Strayed somehow into my hand. Thought it might be something you can use.”
He watches real quiet while I fire the thing up and page through the incoming and outgoing call history. There’s one number right away catches my eye, phoned several times over the last couple weeks, also at 6:10 p.m. this very evening. The number echoes around in the vault of my lock-box memory, and hooks up with a name: Shady Grady. Preskitt’s nefarious all-purpose hoodlum. Shinola! I’d been trying to pin something on that clown for a couple years… Then I think there’s another baggage I’m about to get rid of.
“Okay, you did good. Feel like taking on another job?”
Guy sips his coffee and nods.
“By the way,” I say, “I didn’t get your name.”
I take out a piece of my letterhead and start sketching a map that will get him to my place. All of a sudden, this old tune starts playing, durned if it doesn’t sound like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing, “Happy Trails to Yoooo.”
I look at my radio. Nope, still has the ball game on. I look at Lucas, and he ain’t singing, we’re just looking at each other kinda blank. Then our eyes drop to the cell phone on my desk. Gol durn thing is playin’ like a juke box. On a hunch, I answer it.
“Yup.” I turn up the ball game nice and loud, hoping the noise will disguise my golden voice.
Guy comes on the other end, a growl I recognize.
“Things done. I’m ready for my end. Where and when?”
I have to think a bit. “Little gazebo in the Plaza, around midnight,” I mumble, hoping it sounds reasonable
“Ga-zee-bo – Whut’s that?”
“Little round bandstand. Across from the Palace.”
“Midnight,” the voice says, then silence.
Shady Grady. I’m sure it’s him. I fold the phone up and Lucas and I just look at each other. He’s got a smirk on, in a minute we’re just kinda grinning at each other.
I turn my attention back to my sketched map. “Okay, what I need is you head out to Yakking Boulders Ranch – my spread – and take out anything that looks like a woman bought it. Everything. Chafing dishes, casseroles, punch sets, the works. There’s some empty boxes in the shed. Box it up and sit it on the porch. We’ll load up when I get there around daybreak. Then you’ll find a way to sell it and we’ll split the cash.” I have about a week to come up with something to tell Montana, but the way the dude’s eyebrows go up says ‘attaboy’ nice and strong.
He studies my hastily-drawn map. I hear him softly mutter something about a ‘durn long walk.’ Right, how stupid of me. Hmmm. I don’t want to send him off in Ol’ Paint, I’d have no ride myself. Then I get an idea.
I walk downstairs and into the night, keeping my eyes peeled for any cops about. An orange moon hangs in a stratum of gray smoke in the trees around the Plaza, the cool air sniffs of burnt wood. Only a few cars stand silent along the Row. The little roan is still hitched up, she’s looking across at Courthouse Plaza. Sure enough there’s a parking ticket stuck in her bridle. She looks lonesome, probably hungry, probably about to get towed. The rosy glow has just about faded from the winter sky. I turn around to look for Lucas, he’s just coming along with the water.
The horse sticks her nose in and slurps noisily. I watch Lucas for a minute, holding the bucket for the horse.
“You ride?” I ask. He doesn’t look up, only nods. The answer comes to me just as plain as if I’d heard it a thousand times. I gesture at my map in his fist.
“Use the horse, Luke.”
Lucas nods, hands me the empty bucket. He unhitches the reins and leads the roan into the street. He checks the cinch, then swings up into the saddle. With a nod he’s off. The clip-clop of hooves seems an echo from earlier times as the familiar silhouette of horse and rider fades up Montezuma along the darkened street front. I’m about to shout after him, ‘stay away from the dark side,’ but the street’s in full moonlight so I shut up.
Back at my desk I finger the little cell phone, flipping through the calls. Several calls to and from Grady over the last weeks. Now I know. It’s time to employ my studies of cause and defect. First I’m going to cause, then I’m going to defect – right out of here and over the hill.
Taking the crisp white card from my vest, I pick up my desk phone.
“Nabster,” the guy answers. Lots of noise in the background, engines and the shouts of men.
“Detective Nabster, this is Sidesaddle.”
“I hope you haven’t left your office, Slapsaddle?”
But I cut him off. “You on Mt. Vernon?”
“Yah. What of it?”
“I know what started your fire. And I think I know who.”
There is a pause. “I’m listening.”
“Friction? You klutz, this was arson.”
“Right you are, Detective. Friction. In this case it’s the mortgage rubbing up against the insurance policy. And I think I know how to find your bad boy.” I tell the nice officer I scheduled him a midnight rendezvous in the gazebo. “If you want more, look under that bench in front of Annalina’s for a little present.”
“Yeah. And one more thing.”
“Can I leave now?”
I lock up and head down to the street. In front of the restaurant, I fold up the cell phone, slip in Luke’s note with the license numbers, and stash it beneath the sidewalk bench. I head around the block toward Preskitt’s fab new parking structure, thinking about the night, Montana, the fire – everything. Alone as usual in the dark, I feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The devious plan hadn’t been foiled, exactly, but the bad boys will have to go away for a while. Happy Trails to Yoooo. Preskitt, town that I love, will pass another night in restful slumber.
The twin pipes of Ol’ Paint burble contentedly as I cruise the quiet streets of my little town, up Montezuma and around the big bend, heading for Yakking Boulders Ranch, just beyond the ridge.