Steeds 15

4 04 2017

“Good day, sir. And what can I do you out of?”

“I thought I came into the correct shop,” said Lee. “I do smell ink. I did not, however, expect to encounter a carnival hawker. Who might you be?”

“My name, sir, is George Patrick Hodges.”

“You look like him. But the sign out front says he’s the owner, publisher, and editor of the Tuscumbia Town & Country News. George would never end a sentence with a preposition.”

“Nor would George ever think to connive anything out of anyone, and certainly not the county sheriff.” So spoke Matthew Ivers.

“And how would you know that?” George asked.

“I know that because George would then make the front page of his own newspaper. I would put him there.” Mat worked in the shop both as a reporter and as a printer.

“So,” said Lee to George, “who are you really, and what do you want?”

“I am the real George Hodges, and he wants news about horse thieves. What’s this we hear from Constable Smythe?”

“Ah, that’s why I’ve come, actually.”

Mat brought paper and pencil to the counter.

“Not so fast, young man,” Lee said.

“Take it slow, then,” said George. “He can’t write fast.”

“Are you sure you’re George?”

“I have a mirror in here somewhere. I can take a look.”

“George would edit the word slow to slowly. George would edit the word fast to quickly.”

“Shut up. Now start talking.”

“Maybe we should take this show on the road,” Mat said.

“Shut up. Now start writing.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“He’s not talking.”

“I’m not talking,” said Lee, “because I don’t want to alert said thieves to my investigation.”

“Explain.”

“If you publish a news story about horse thefts in Tuscumbia County, that could very well be cause for pause; the thieves may hole up in their den and make it harder for me and my deputies to catch them.”

“That assumes they read,” said George.

“That assumes they can read,” said Mat.

Lee said, “I have to assume that at least someone who can and does read will inform those who can’t or don’t.”

“So I can’t do you out of a story.”

“Not just yet. Indeed, I’m hoping to do you out of some information that may help get to the complete story.”

“What might that be?” George asked.

“Has anyone come into your office to run a classified advertisement regarding one or more horses for sale?”

“Well, sure. We print such advertisements with some regularity. Some people breed their horses and sell their colts. Some people have horses that get too old for the jobs they do, and the people sell the horses while they still have some life in them. Some people go broke and sell their horses for money. We also print advertisements for people and businesses wanting to buy horses. The Hoffman Tannery outside Metomen buys display space every so often.”

“Deputy Redman paid them a visit just yesterday.”

“And we just took an order from Kurtz and Zelaszny. They have that new mink operation on the other side of Fairwater Lake. They’re advertising for dead and down livestock, to include horses. Mink food.”

“Deputy Carlisle paid them a visit, too. I’m interested in offers to sell … recent offers, no older than, say, the spring equinox. Anything since then, and especially anything that comes to you in the future.”

“You think horse thieves would be so stupid as to advertise in the same county where they commit their crimes?” George asked.

“Those too stupid to read, maybe,” said Mat.

“We don’t know that they all can’t read,” said Lee. “Certainly at least one of them can talk. He can tell you what he wants printed. If anyone has or does―even if unlikely―I want to know about it. That means you make notes for the writing of your story later that include detailed descriptions of the person or persons buying advertisements, and also descriptions of the horses for sale.”

George said, “I honestly don’t recall anyone recently wanting to place an advertisement, not from someone who would seem at all suspicious. Mat?”

Mat shook his head. “I don’t, either.”

“Clara is here,” Lee said.

“Of course she is. We can count on her like Swiss clockwork.”

“One gets the impression she all but memorizes the newspaper,” Lee said. “So I’ve noticed repeatedly when she’s home. Something comes up in the course of conversation in the kitchen or the dining room or the parlor, and she’ll say, ‘Something about that was in the paper.’ Or, ‘Something like that was in the paper.’ And then she’ll give a report.”

“You’re thinking she may remember something,” said George. “That wouldn’t surprise me. Her mind is as quick and nimble as her fingers. As the typesetter, she reads, not just every word, but every letter, before the text goes to press.”

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of her before. I’d like to ask now.”

“You know she doesn’t like coming out front.”

“There’s no one here at present. Just us.”

“Doesn’t matter. Someone else might come in. She won’t come out.”

“May I visit her in back?”

“Oh, sure, sure. You’re family … sort of. Come on along.”

“By the way,” said Lee as he and George walked to the print shop, “I may be wanting to buy a display advertisement of my own. Well, not for me personally. On the county’s behalf.”

“We’ll take the business.”

“I may see the need to run some kind of general alert to the citizens of the county, advising them to be on guard. Full page. How much would that cost?”

“I’ll have to do the arithmetic. A good story, though, just might pay the bill.”

“Ah.”

“Clara, you have a visitor.”

Clara Ladwig sat on a stool at her work station, surrounded by wooden shelves and racks loaded with lead blocks featuring all the letters of the alphabet in a variety of sizes and styles. When her boss announced that she had a visitor, she immediately shrank, as if trying to hide amid her work. She peeked over her spectacles. “Oh. Good day, Mr. Leall.” She slid from her stool to assume a standing position with her head lowered. The top of her bun of hair reached no higher than it did when she was seated.

“Good day, Clara. I keep forgetting to ask for your assistance in an investigation.”

“How may I help you, Mr. Leall?” Even though Lee had for more than a decade been renting the bunkhouse located on the farm she and her sister, Ella, had inherited from their parents, Clara always referred to Lee as Mr. Leall.

“I would like to employ you as a detective, Clara.”

Her eyes scanned the floor as if searching for an explanation. “Oh?”

“Mr. Hodges tells me that the newspaper prints classified advertisements from time to time for people seeking to sell horses. I believe I mentioned to you and Ella during breakfast the other day that I fear we have horse thieves at work in our county.”

“Yes.”

“I wonder if said thieves might be so daring as to place advertisements here to try and convert their ill-gotten livestock into cash. Do you recall recently typesetting any classified advertisements regarding horses for sale?”

“No, Mr. Leall. That is, not for this week’s newspaper, and not for last week’s, either. Mr. Vande Zande has ordered a display advertisement.”

“Of course. He deals in horses, and he is aware of my investigation.”

“By the way, Sheriff,” said George. “We do keep copies of our publication here. Two each, going back to our first paper printed when South Carolina seceded from the Union. You said something about harkening back as much as a couple of months. That can be done.”

“Good. I’ll remember that, George.”

“Will that be all, Mr. Leall?” Clara asked.

“No. Would you consider this, Clara? Should orders be made in the future for advertisements to sell horses, could you send responses, asking for more information? As you know, people try to save money when placing such orders. They don’t go into detail describing the horse or horses available. I need more than height, weight, age, and condition. I need coloration and markings. If you send letters of inquiry, we may get some valuable information in response.”

“I could, Mr. Leall, but I dasn’t take time away from the duties Mr. Hodges has given me.”

George spoke. “Oh, well. In the interest of law and order, and in the pursuit of a good story, I can authorize this extra duty. As you know, Sheriff, most of the people placing advertisements want replies sent to post office boxes or to general delivery at the post office. However, many request replies be sent in care of this office. We can see about doing what you ask.”

“Thank you. I can help weed out advertisements that are not good prospects, or suspects, as the case may be. I know details about what horses are missing. For example, to date, no ponies have been stolen. There is therefore no point in inquiring for more details should someone have a pony for sale.”

“Understood.”

“We’ll keep in contact, then.”

“We will.”

“And thank you, Clara. I’ll see you at home later today.”

“Yes, Mr. Leall.”

 

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