Steeds 37

2 06 2017

“Constable Westcott! Why the gunshot?”

Lee and Philip both heard it and had come running out of the sheriff’s office, Winchester rifles from the rack in hand, just as the constable, two other men, a teenaged boy, and six horses came into view one block to the east. Zachary Westcott and his entourage proceeded at a walk to the front of the jailhouse.

“We got ‘im, Sheriff! Or at least one of ‘em,” Zach announced.

“Got whom?”

“The horse thief!” Zach pointed his 1866 Yellowboy carbine at one of the other two men. “Get on over there an’ dismount.”

“Why the gunfire?” Lee asked again.

“Oh, well … I figured a bit of celebratin’ would be in order,” Zach said.

“Constable, it’s half past six o’clock in the morning. Most people are trying to have breakfast.”

“I only fired once.” Zach pointed his carbine at the stranger again. “You there, get your hands up an’ keep ‘em up where the sheriff an’ the deputy can see ‘em.”

“Which of you is the sheriff?” the man asked.

“I am Sheriff Leall. And you are?”

“My name is Gustave Alshanski. Why are those three doing this to me?”

“You know good and well why,” Zach said.

“Come down and report, Constable. Who are these others?”

Zach looked at them. “You, too, Mel. Come on down.” Zach got off his horse and tied it to the hitching rail next to Philip’s bay gelding. “That’s Melvin Novak, a neighbor.”

Mel hitched his horse next to Zach’s, and then tipped his hat as he stepped onto the boardwalk. “Mornin’, Sheriff.”

“And that’s my son, Garret,” Zach said. “Stay with those horses, Gary. Keep ‘em well in hand.”

Gary remained mounted on the street with two unsaddled horses. In his right hand, he held their leads. In his left hand, he held the reins of his own horse, which also happened to have no saddle. Cradled in the crook of his left arm, an 1874 Sharps hunting rifle.

“Gustave Alshanski, is that correct?” Lee asked.

“Yes, Sheriff.”

“Constable, you have arrested this man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you have arrested him for stealing horses.”

“Yes, sir. Or at least on some mighty big suspicion.”

“And which horses have been stolen? Those your son is guarding?”

“We believe so, sir. And maybe the one he was ridin’.”

Lee looked. “Those two are both buckskins.”

“Twins,” said Gustave.

“I can believe it,” said Lee. “And Constable, none of the horses reported stolen in this county are that color.”

“So why’d he run away from us?” Zach asked.

Lee strove to maintain an unemotional, business-like speaking voice. “Why were you after him, please?”

“Because he ran away when we wanted to talk to ‘im.”

“Why did you wish to speak with him, please?”

“Because Mel here had just come to my place before sunrise to report one of his horses had been stolen.”

“Really?” Lee said. “Tell me about it, Mr. Novak.”

“Well, Sheriff, it’s as Zach says. I was up before dawn, as usual, to get to the mornin’ chores while Mrs. Novak got to work on breakfast. I went outdoors to head for the barn. I have a paddock close by, and I had one of my two horses in that paddock for the night. Headin’ for the barn, I noticed no horse. She’d have come over wantin’ her breakfast, you see. But no horse.

“Where’d she go? I looked, and looked some more. No horse. And, naturally, I thought about the news of late regardin’ missin’ horses. Well, sir, I went into that paddock and ran, and I mean ran, all around, lookin’ for indication that Maude―that’s the horse―had broke out or slipped out through some break in the fence. There wasn’t any break. I knew that; I checked the evenin’ before, as I always do before I put a horse in that paddock. And Maude isn’t given to runnin’ off.

“What in thunderation? That’s what I’m thinkin’. And I recollect that I heard a whinny earlier, when it was still dark, but not that many hours before.”

“A whinny, you say,” said Lee. “Not a neigh, but a gentle neigh.”

Mel looked at the sheriff, and then at Zach.

Philip said, “Please, Mr. Novak. The sheriff prefers precision. If he notes a difference, he needs to know if there was a difference. Details are important.”

“Sure,” said Mel. “Whinny.”

“So the sound you heard was not that of a frightened or angry horse. It wasn’t the sound of a horse otherwise excited or, shall we say, aroused.”

“That’s right.”

“How did you happen to hear a whinny that late at night? While asleep, I’m assuming.”

“I don’t sleep like I used to,” said Mel. “The later into the night, the lighter I sleep. It’s more like cat-nappin’. I wake often.”

“Can you say whether you recognized the voice of the horse?”

“You’re serious?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He is, sir,” Philip confirmed.

“My deputy knows the voice of his horse,” Lee said. “He can discern it in a herd.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. I can say somethin’ about my horses’ looks and personalities, but they don’t talk to me, or sing for me.”

“And what kind of horse is Maude? What does she look like, sir?”

“Dapple gray.”

“Yeah, Sheriff,” said Zach. “You see, Mel decided he’d ought to do somethin’ right quick. He saddled his other horse an’ galloped to my place, thinkin’ maybe Maude hadn’t been gone all that long, an’ maybe she’d not be far off yet. He came in a lather wantin’ me to do somethin’.”

“That’s right, Sheriff,” said Mel. “I went over as fast as I could, hopin’ Zach would do somethin’. Start trackin’. Organize a posse. Somethin’ before too much time ticked by.”

“And guess what?” said Zach. “While we were talkin’ outside my barn, we looked an’ saw this Gus guy ridin’ along the road at a brisk pace with two horses in tow. Not quite sunup yet, but light enough to see the horse Gus-guy was ridin’. A dapple gray.”

Lee looked at the horse Gustave had ridden into Uttica. “Gentlemen,” he said gently, “you do realize that horse is not dappled, but spotted. Also, do note that the horse is a Saddlebred. Do you own a Saddlebred, Mr. Novak?”

“Of course I know that’s not my horse, Sheriff.”

Zach added, “I said it wasn’t quite sunup. An’ we saw Gus from some distance. So that horse sure looked like Mel’s horse.”

“It did, Sheriff.”

“So you took after Mr. Alshanski.”

Zach said, “We did, just as fast as I could saddle my horse an’ grab a rifle. I yelled at Gary to get the other rifle an’ follow as soon as he could.”

“But when you realized this horse is not Maude….”

“We didn’t, not right away,” said Zach. “I said Gus-guy ran. When he saw us comin’, he had his horses to a gallop.”

“Sheriff, please,” said Gustave. “What would you have done? Strange men in a strange place early in the morning chasing after you? You with three valuable animals, and money, and no weapons? They shot at me.”

“I shot in the air!” Zach said.

“How was I supposed to know they weren’t brigands?” Gustave asked.

“I shot in the air,” Zach repeated. “That’s what got him to stop.”

“I did stop, Sheriff. When I saw they were too close, I didn’t want to risk being hit, or any of the horses getting hit.”

“So why’d you run?” Zach asked.

“Didn’t I just answer that question?” Gustave said.

“What’re you doin’ with those horses that time of mornin’? Where’d they come from?” Zach asked.

“Sheriff, here. Allow me to present a document.”

“What do you have?”

Gustave withdrew a folded paper from a coat pocket and handed it to Lee.

Lee opened and examined it. “This is a bill of sale,” he announced so everyone could hear. “Two Quarterhorses. Twins. Age twenty-five months. Color: buckskin. Sold by one Samuel Trelawney Morehead of the township of Fort Winnebago in Columbia County, Wisconsin. Sold to the John Robinson Circus of Terrace Park, Ohio. Gustave Alfred Alshanski, purchasing agent.” Lee held the paper up. “Do you happen to have a business card, Mr. Alshanski? Or a calling card?”

“I do.” Gustave reached into a breast pocket, slipped one out, and gave it to Lee. Lee handed the bill of sale back.

“So why would a circus way over in Ohio be hereabouts buyin’ horses?” Zach asked.

“You know circuses travel,” Lee said.

“The John Robinson Circus does indeed travel,” said Gustave, “as it has for many years. Just last year, however, we started travelling primarily by rail rather than by horse and wagon or riverboat.”

“And where is the circus now?” Lee asked.

“It’s scheduled to be in Oshkosh, up from Milwaukee and Fond du Lac, today and tomorrow. I left the circus in Madison to travel to Portage in order to conduct this business transaction. In Madison, Mr. Morehead took it upon himself to offer these horses. The circus continues to expand, you understand, and Mr. Robinson would like to add a Wild West Show. A matching pair of young, buckskin Quarterhouses sounded too good not to inspect.  I am to rejoin the circus in Oshkosh before they leave town to make their way to Appleton and Green Bay and Marinette. And really, Sheriff, I cannot afford to be delayed.”

“True. Oshkosh is some distance yet.”

“Unless you happen to know of any piebald and skewbald horses for sale.”

“Ah. To act as Indian ponies, I presume,” said Lee.

“Exactly.”

“Not here, sir. You’ll probably need to search farther west. There may be some available among the Mustangs. Otherwise, you may need to search much, much farther east … in Britain, for example.”

Gustave nodded. “May I be on my way now, Sheriff? I calculate it will take all of today and much of tomorrow to get to Oshkosh.”

“Yes, but don’t leave before we provide you some semblance of hospitality: a decent breakfast. I daresay you haven’t had much of anything yet today.”

“Only camp rations.”

“Where did you camp?”

“In a Lutheran churchyard.”

“Salem Lutheran?”

“I believe that was the name on the sign.”

“Allow us to do this. We’ll take you inside, where my staff will provide you with breakfast. You, too, Constable. I suspect you missed your breakfast.”

“I did. Gary grabbed a few biscuits on the way out the door; that’s it.”

“Afterward, we’ll see about Maude. Ask your son, please, to water all the horses. I have some of my own feed here that he can give the circus horses. Then he can have some breakfast, as well.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I imagine, Mr. Alshanski, that you hoped to stop somewhere along the way for food and drink, so perhaps this turns out not to be too much of a misadventure.”

“Actually, Sheriff, it does resemble something of one of our performances.”

“About highwaymen?”

“Yes.”

“Please, step inside.”

Gustave passed through the front door.

“Gary,” said Zach, “you heard the sheriff. Tie up the horses an’ see about that water an’ feed. I’ll save you some breakfast.” Zach went through the door.

Lee stopped Philip. Speaking softly, he said, “I’ll send a telegram to the sheriff in Oshkosh to confirm that the John Robinson Circus is in town, though I don’t really doubt Alshanski’s story. Immediately after breakfast, go with Novak and Westcott and look into the disappearance of that horse, Maude. And check that churchyard for evidence of camping, just to be sure.”

“You’re not holding the circus man until I get back.”

“No. But if we discover something amiss, I will telegraph Oshkosh again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And while you’re on the job today, see what you can show and tell Zachary to improve the way he does his job.”

 

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