Steeds 16

8 04 2017

 

“Emil, your barber pole needs paint.”

“Again? That’s because the kids around here just won’t stop lickin’ the thing. They think it’s some kinda giant peppermint stick, every kid’s dream come true. That is, until they get splinters in their mouths. Then it’s a nightmare. Seems they’d spread the word.”

“Thanks for opening early for me,” said Lee. “I wanted to be able to talk without other customers listening.”

“Fine by me. I charge half again as much for workin’ outside business hours.”

“You think you can get three bits out of me … or anybody, for that matter?”

“So you’re pretty good at arithmetic, too. Take a seat an’ tell me how in Sam Hill you decided to become a sher’ff. I’ve been wonderin’.”

“This is the city of Uttica, located at the intersection of four townships in the County of Tuscumbia. There is no municipality in the county named Sam Hill. To my knowledge, neither is there a geophysical feature by that name in the county.”

“By crackee, no one can say you don’t know whether you’re a horse or afoot. Wha’d’ya have? The usual?”

“Yes. My hair just short enough so I don’t have to run a comb through it every time the wind blows or I take off my hat. My beard just long enough so I don’t have to shave every day, but not so long that some miscreant can grab ahold and yank.”

“Miscreant, you say. I s’pec’ you can spell it, too.”

“Speaking of Yanks,” said Lee, “why do you have a picture of William T. Sherman on your work bench?”

“I’ve heard tell you look like Sherman. Land sakes alive, I wouldn’t know Sherman from Hermann the German.”

“You mean Hermann the Cheruscan.”

“Do I?”

“With the surname Teutoburg, you do.”

“I must’ve forgotten. He died some years back, as I recollect.”

“Some ninety-two score or so, as I recollect.”

“There you go. How did such a whipper-snapper decide to become a sher’ff?”

“Why do you have a picture of William T. Sherman?”

“Oh, yeah. Well, some folks say there’s a passin’ resemblance between you two. I couldn’t say, but one day when I was passin’ time in Madison, I saw a book in a window with a picture in a frame. I bought the book because it had the same picture inside. I cut it out an’ put it there.”

“Because….”

“Well, I reckon it’s because of your influence. Got it into my head to do some investigatin’ of my own. You see that picture ain’t labelled. It’s there an’, in the course of chewin’ the rag with this one an’ that one, I turn him around in the chair an’ make sure he sees the picture. Then I wait to hear, ‘By golly gee, that’s the sher’ff.’ An’ then they’re sure to ask, ‘Why d’ya have a picture of the sher’ff? You kin? You run his campaigns? What?”

“So how many people say that’s me?” Lee asked.

“More than say it’s Sherman. Almost as many as those who don’t say nothin’ or who don’t know nothin’ ‘bout either of you.”

“I’ve seen Sherman,” said Lee. “His hair is auburn. Or at least it was at the time. It may be gray now. His was auburn; my hair is brown, dark brown, like walnut.”

“Can’t tell from that picture. That’s what they call a photograph. It ain’t got the color of what they call a lithograph.”

“Oh, really? I didn’t know that.”

“Liar. You ain’t jus’ some hayseed blown off the rick who don’t know his left from his right. Hey!”

“What?”

“Is it true that, back in the war, some farm boys were so dumb they really didn’t know left and right? They marched to hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot?”

“And they knew the difference because they had hay in one pocket and straw in the other.”

“The dickens. Well, you ain’t one of them. You could be one of those what they call professors down in Madison. Why’d you choose sher’ff?”

“Are you campaigning for someone else?”

“Shut up. Why’d you become sher’ff?”

“Well, it goes back to the war. Down outside Shelbyville, at a campsite. It was night. I was in my bunk, and a fellow officer was in his bunk. He wakes me and asks, ‘Lee, look up and tell me what you see.’

“I say, ‘Stars. There above us along the ecliptic from east to west are the constellations Capricorn, Sagittarius, and Scorpius. Antares is the bright star to the right. Farther above and toward the north, I see Altair in Aquila, the eagle; Vega in Lyra, the harp; and Arcturus in Boötes, the ox-driver.’

“He asks, ‘And what does that mean?’

“I say, ‘Well, consider the clarity of the sky. Look how vivid the Milky Way is. We could count between two thousand and three thousand stars. The moon rising in the east reveals a few cirrus clouds obscuring the view. The presence of those clouds, however, with their shape indicating a wind out of the northwest, along with the clarity of the atmosphere, that all means fair weather through the night and all day tomorrow.’

“He says, ‘No, you dunce. It means our tent has been stolen.’ ”

“Must not have been the Rebs. You’re still alive.”

“Good observation. It wasn’t the Rebs; it was a number of Yanks. Figuring out who did it inspired me to become a lawman.”

“You don’t say.”

“I just did.”

“You know, if I ran for sher’ff, not only would I put you out of a job, I’d put myself out, too.”

“How?”

“In the interest of law an’ order, I’d set to institutin’ the three-kick rule.”

“And what might that be?”

“I got the tip from a stranger last fall. He came in lookin’ rather … what’s the word? Disheveled. You like that word? Sounds like you.”

“It works.”

“Anyway. He needs some tidyin’ before he gets on the train ‘cause he’s been roughed up. You see, he came up from Chicago to do some huntin’ hereabouts. He managed to shoot a goose. It didn’t fall into the water, though; it fell onto a field. Well, the feller decides to go an’ get the goose, but between feller and foul stands Mr. Farmer.

“Farmer says, ‘What’re you doin’ here?’

“Feller says, ‘I’m gettin’ the goose I shot.’

“Farmer says, ‘You’re trespassin’. Get off my land.’

“Feller says, ‘Not before I get my goose.’

“Farmer says, ‘Ain’t your goose. It’s on my land, it’s mine. I believe in bein’ neighborly, though. Gimme your address, an’ after I’ve had my fresh poultry dinner, I’ll send your lead shot back.’

“Feller says, ‘Listen, my good man. I’m takin’ that goose back. I am an attorney at law, an’ I’ve been practicin’ law for ten years, an’ I know the law. I’ll have my goose, or I’ll have you in court.’

“Farmer says, ‘You must not be from around here. Around here, we settle disputes by the three-kick rule.’

“Feller says, ‘What’s the three-kick rule?’

“Farmer says, ‘You kick me three times, then I kick you three times, an’ we trade off back an’ forth until one of us gives up and gives in.’

“Well the feller looks the old guy over an’ figures he can send ‘im into the marsh with just one kick, so he says, ‘All right. I agree.’

“Farmer says, ‘You’re the one on my land, so I go first.’ Now Mr. Farmer, he’s wearin’ hobnail boots, an’ before the feller can object, farmer sends one to the feller’s shin. Ow! The feller’s hopping on one foot. Farmer sends another kick to the other shin. Ow! The feller’s down on both knees. Farmer walks behind and sends the third kick right between the feller’s house an’ barn. Ow! The feller falls for’ard and tills some of the farmer’s field with his lower teeth, seein’ as he still had his mouth open when he went in.

“Well, after some spittin’ an’ cussin’ and such, the feller manages to get to his feet. He says, ‘Now it’s my turn!’

“Farmer says, “Naw. I give up. You can have the goose.’ ”

Lee said, “I rather doubt I’ll include that rule as a plank in my platform next election.”

“So what’d you wanna discuss outside the circle of gossip?”

“Gossip.”

“Say again?”

“I want you to tell me whether you’ve heard any gossip regarding the theft of horses here in Tuscumbia County.”

“I’ve heard Walt Stancil lost his horse.”

“That, plus at least two near Uttica, plus at least four up by Mascoutin, and now another two from the implement dealer outside Dartford.”

“Chastain’s place?”

“Yes.”

“That’s news to me.”

“You haven’t heard anyone discuss Chesney and Sommerfeldt.”

“Oh, yeah, now that you say so. The news about Ivan Ulezelki has been front page, so to speak.”

“I’m here to ask you to listen carefully to the gossip in coming days. Men may have their ideas, their suspicions. Some may mention what will amount to clues or evidence. Someone may even brag about getting away with something, or do some teasing. I’d like you to let me know if you hear anything at all significant.”

“Sure.” Emil worked in silence for a minute or two. “Stancil’s horse,” he then said. “That was actually stolen?”

“I believe so.”

“Stancil’s old horse. Well, that brings to mind somethin’ you might want to consider.”

“What’s that?”

“Prowl around for someone conductin’ a raffle.”

“Why?”

“That’s how I got enough money to go into the barber business,” said Emil. “My father was a miner. I didn’t want to become a miner myself, an’ my father tended to agree. Dirty, dangerous work. As a young man, I thought maybe I could make my way sellin’ things to miners. Gloves. Knee pads. Canteens. You know. Well, for carryin’ my goods, I took a cart an’ converted it from mine use to road use.

“I needed a donkey or pony to pull my cart. I met a man who had a donkey for sale. Thirty dollars. My father knew him well enough, so I bought the donkey sight unseen. I said I’d come to his place the next day.

“Next day, I’m out at the man’s badger hole to collect my donkey. There he was, complete with founder. I objected. The man said I had shook hands, a man’s word was his bond, there was the bill of sale and the receipt, and all that. I brought the donkey home. He couldn’t work, so what was I to do? My money was all gone. I decided to sell the donkey.”

“Not for thirty dollars.”

“Nope. Four hundred.”

“Four hundred dollars!”

“Well, three-hundred and ninety-nine dollars, and I kept the donkey for a pet.”

“Explain.”

“I sold raffle tickets. One dollar each. People said to themselves, ‘A three-year-old donkey for a dollar? I’ll try for that.’ Sight unseen. I learn fast, don’t you know. I sold four hundred tickets.”

“What’s with the three-ninety-nine?”

“Oh, the guy who won the raffle objected to the condition of the donkey. Unlike the man who took my money, I gave the guy his money back.”

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