The explosion hurled me backward a good five yards. It was surely a new record, though I'd never kept track of such things.
Pure luck landed me in the vegetable garden instead of the rose bed. The last time I experimented with nitrostarch, Won Li, my Chinese patron, had to fetch a ladder and pluck me from the leafy arms of an elm tree.
Splinters fell like rain from the mare's tail clouds drifting above. I was just noticing how closely the embers resembled fireflies when an explosion of a different nature erupted.
"Josephine Beckworth Sawyer!" Won Li screeched my full name in practiced, perfect English. A singsong litany of Chinese obscenities commenced forthwith.
If God were merciful, He'd have allowed Rose Mary Sawyer to live long enough to properly christen her newborn daughter. Since Mama took her last breath at the same instant I drew my first, Papa was left to his own devices. To be sure, and no pun intended, Deputy Marshal Joseph Beckworth Sawyer hadn't conceived of fathering a baby girl.
After all, from the night he and Mama wed, they'd followed to the letter the granny-woman's advice for fetching a boy. My mother had slept with a knife under the mattress and was careful not to store any skillets under the bed. For his part, Papa had sat on the roof near the chimney for seven hours, which was believed to ensure the birth of a son.
The granny-woman later blamed the hammer he'd taken with him to pretend he was fixing the roof for ruining her augery and said he was lucky I hadn't been twins. Lord only knows what poor Papa would have done had there been two of me.
Although stretching Joseph to derive Josephine made a certain kind of sense, it unfortunately brought forth images of dairy cows and vapid twits enamored of sausage curls and hair ribbons. A schoolmarm once suggested shortening the Beckworth at center to Becky, which might be fine for a sunny dispositioned, freckle-faced lass but didn't append well to a black-haired, olive-complexioned child who learned to shoot, skin, and cook her own supper by the age of eight and wouldn't have played with dolls had a dagger been held at her throat.
In the manner of counted blessings, I was told Papa would have tacked on the preordained "Junior" had the granny-woman not intervened. Truth be told, I wouldn't have minded that as much as being called Josephine, until my mouthful of a name got whittled down to the plainer, more palatable Joby.
Won Li was still chattering in Chinese when I gained my feet. "I may not savvy your lingo, old friend," I said, "but cussing is cussing and no proper way to address a lady."
I shook clumps of tomato pulp and mud from my faded calico skirt. My white cotton waist was already scorched and chemical-stained from previous mishaps. Peeking between my lashes at Won Li discouraged further comment -- from me, anyway.
Agitation inflamed the scar that welted his scrimshaw face from temple to jawbone. The disfiguring souvenir of our first meeting measured his mood like a barometer: the redder it became, the nearer he was to apoplexy. Or homicide.
"You are not a lady," Won Li said. He pointed at a blackened, smoldering patch of yard. Beyond it, neighbors peered from behind their privies and woodpiles. "You are a menace."
"A scientist," I corrected. "A student of criminality, botany, and chemistry and the only female detective on this side of the Mississippi River."
He smirked. "Then to solve the mystery of the missing toolshed, standing over there less than three minutes ago, should not tax your faculties unduly."
I favored him with an engaging smile. "Don't be silly. As you can plainly see, most of the walls are laying in the Matlocks' pasture, and I'm almost certain the door came to rest beside Mrs. Flegle's chicken coop."
The roof may have accounted for the showering splinters, but a detective deals in facts, not idle speculation.
Won Li's mouth flapped like a hooked trout. He was seldom at a loss for words, but my pyrotechnic experiments had silenced him on numerous occasions.
The simple truth is, I was born clever, and the passage of twenty-two years had not dulled my wits. To my everlasting chagrin, however, those of the male persuasion admire a more practical kind of genius. A gift for darning socks with no knots in the heels, for instance.
"Simmer down, Won Li." I threaded my arm through his to steer him toward the house. "A pound of twopenny nails and some shingles will fix the shed as good as new. I'll hire a carpenter after my morning appointment and pay Jimmy Matlock six bits to scavenge around the field for our tools."
"His mother will never allow it. She has not forgotten your testing the sleeping powder on him."
"Well, it isn't as if I forced it on the boy. The effect wore off after three or four hours -- no harm done atall."
I bunched my skirt to step over a shovel and the head of a pick, both divested of their handles. "Besides, Mrs. Matlock asked me a while back if she could buy some Morpheus powder to stir in her husband's coffee at suppertime."
Won Li glowered at me.
I laughed. "No, of course, I didn't. For heaven's sake, will you ever give me credit for the sense God gave a goose?"
He dodged the question in his usual fashion. "If I may be so bold, might I ask with whom you have an appointment this morning?"
"J. Fulton Shulteis."
"Yes," I confirmed, as though J. Fulton Shulteises ran the city streets in packs, like dogs.
Won Li disengaged his arm to reach for the screen door's handle. "You cannot continue this charade forever."
"I shouldn't need to much longer. I am making quite a reputation for myself, you know."
"Ah, yes, Joby," he said. "You most assuredly are."
Whether destiny or doom guided Won Li's and my first encounter twelve years ago depended upon which of us was asked. My recollection of it is as vivid as the day it happened.
One dogwood-spring afternoon, a half dozen of the yahoos that Ft. Smith, Arkansas, drew like flies to fresh dung took exception to a Chinaman breathing the same air they did. They surrounded him, each in turn landing a wallop that sent him lurching into another fist.
I chanced upon the melee just as a thug bludgeoned the Chinaman with the butt of his revolver. In a tick, I was on the brute's back like ugly on a hog. I kicked. I screamed. I bashed the miscreant's ears with the heels of my hands.
When one of his cronies tried to pry me off, I cocked my knee and slammed a boot heel smack-center of his groin -- the word, area, and essential components of which I was supposed to be ignorant. The blow not only rendered the bully unfit for a second intervention, it discouraged the others from having a go at me.
The sight of a ten-year-old, fifty-pound child -- and a girl, at that -- defending the defenseless shamed spectators into calling a halt to the fracas. While the thugs swaggered away to a saloon to wet their whistles, I helped their victim to his feet.
His eyes were nigh swollen shut. Blood pulsed from the gash on his cheek, his nose, and foamed his lips, yet he managed to stammer, "You ah vely blave."
I shook my head. "I just can't hash cheaters, bullies, or drunks. From what I saw, you flushed up a whole covey of them."
I took him to our cabin to cleanse his wounds. In slurry, pidgin English, he introduced himself and said he owed me his life -- a debt that must be repaid in kind or by forfeiting his own.
I didn't understand much of what he said, or what was meant by it. To me, Won Li was like a wounded puppy to fuss over and talk to while my father was gallivanting around The Nations arresting killers, thieves, and bad Indians.
When Deputy Marshal Joe B. Sawyer returned to find a battered, thirty-year-old Chinaman living in our root cellar, Papa had what could only be described as a jumping cat fit. Months passed before he was convinced that Won Li's intentions toward me were honorable to the extreme.
Providence hasn't yet seen fit to thrust me into a life-threatening situation from whence my guardian angel could rescue me. I'd often wondered if Won Li would leave when that day came; even more so this past year, since Papa's heart gave out midway between Ft. Smith and the new life we'd planned for ourselves in Denver City.
If -- when -- it did, I knew there'd be no fanfare. No tearful good-byes, promises to write, or visitations. He'd just roll his meager possessions in a blanket and set out before dawn broke across his back.
It was pure selfish to pray that day never came. But I did.
At the stroke of ten, I strolled into the stark front office on Larimer, midblock between F and G Streets. The clerk, a bespectacled rabbit of a man, glanced up from a ledger, then attempted to cover the page with his forearms.
"Good morning, Percy."
"It was, yes." He wricked sideward to look past me, at the door.
"Would you be so kind as to announce me?" I said. "I don't want to keep Mr. Shulteis waiting."
"But the appointment was with -- "
"I'm sure you have more important things to do than argue with me." I tapped the edge of the ledger. "Such as posting that due bill to William F. Parker."
Percy started, then slammed the book shut. In his haste to exit the chair, he barked a shin on an open drawer. Limping badly and wheezing through clenched teeth, he waved a command to follow him.
I hid a grin behind my hand. Poor Percy. My ability to read upside down had never set well with him. I sensed he was the type some mothers would dote on and fathers would try to interest in blood sport.
Percy rapped once on the thick oak door dividing management from labor. At the muffled Yes? from within, he wrenched the knob and motioned me past.
I nodded my thanks and glided onto a field of plush, Aubusson ivy vines and ferns; the carpet's pattern was so lifelike a snake would feel quite at home.
"You again?" Lawyer Shulteis inquired from behind a mahogany desk as large as a buckboard's bed.
"Always a pleasure to see you, too, Fulton."
He steepled his fingers. "And what has detained your illustrious father this time? Surely he's recovered from pneumonia by now. Or was it dyspepsia?"
I took a chair that hadn't been offered. It aggrieved me the way Papa's health had suffered since his demise, but it couldn't be helped. Neither Shulteis nor anyone else in Denver City would knowingly hire a woman detective.
"Mr. Sawyer sends his most sincere apologies, but he's investigating a train robbery for the Kansas Pacific."
The attorney's jowled face reflected skepticism. "I've done quite a bit of work for them myself. Odd, I haven't heard of any holdups in the vicinity of late."
My belly fluttered. I clenched wads of navy bombazine in my fists to compose myself.
When circumstances warrant, any female of Southern extraction -- present company included -- institutes one of the most potent weapons in her arsenal: the coquettish sigh. "Maybe that's because Papa is in the wilds of southwest Kansas, although where, exactly, I have no idea."
Which was as true as gospel. I simply declined to mention the grave with his name carved on a pair of crossed slats beside a wagon road. I couldn't have if I'd wanted to, lest the grief rise up and devour me. Silly as it was, running the agency in Papa's stead cheated death in an odd sort of way. A comfort, it was -- particularly those nights when I cried myself to sleep.
"I can't say I'm displeased with Mr. Sawyer's results to date," Shulteis said, "but to the best of my knowledge, no one in town has ever laid eyes on the man."
"All the better for a private investigator, wouldn't you say?" I forced a smile. "Especially for one with such an able assistant."
Shulteis cleared his throat. "Yes, well..."
A folded sheet of foolscap sailed across the desk. "If you think your father would be interested, one Penelope LeBruton is seeking proof of her husband Rendal's adulterous
behavior before she proceeds with a bill of divorcement."
I tried not to let disappointment show in my expression. So far, I'd hung out to dry three wayward spouses at Shulteis's behest. I'd hoped he had something less tedious for me this time. Profitable as adultery could be for the wronged party, his or her lawyer, and a detective, I yearned for a kidnapping, or an embezzler to outwit.
"Mrs. LeBruton wants the evidence as quickly as possible," Shulteis said.
I tucked the paper into my reticule. "She'll have it."
The attorney curried his muttonchop sideburns. "How can you be so sure, with your father, as you said, '...somewhere in the wilds of southwest Kansas'?"
"Now, Fulton. Sawyer Investigations hasn't failed you yet, has it?"
August at the South Pole -- much less the parched prairie where gold-fevered pioneers built Colorado's first boomtown -- would be too warm for a bombazine suit. I hadn't a dry stitch on by the time I'd walked from Shulteis's office to the agency's headquarters at the corner of H and Champa.
Propping the door with a brick aired the stifling office a bit, but also let clouds of clay dust boil inside from horses, freight wagons, and buggies trafficking up and down Champa.
An hour's worth of envying the attorney's richly appointed workspace had reminded me that people admire Thoroughbreds for their beauty and mules for their character. As offices went, Sawyer Investigations was definitely a mule. The single room was about the size of a boxcar. Cracks in the dingy plaster walls resembled photographic negatives of an electrical storm. Bewhiskered snouts often poked through gaps in the warped floorboards.
The space was functional but a far cry from the handsome, wood-paneled den of justice I'd envisioned when Papa had announced the new enterprise at supper one evening.
I flinched at the memory of his resignation from duty. For nine infuriating months, he'd waited for President Grant to realize the stupidity of appointing William Story, a gotch-eyed, sidewinding carpetbagger, to preside over the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas in Van Buren.
For the sake of argument, Joe B. Sawyer was no candidate for a halo. Those who knew he bent the law a time or ten dozen during his twenty-three years' service said he ranked a thin notch above the outlaws he captured.
Others criticized him for not turning in his badge after my mother died, as his job took him from our home in Ft. Smith for weeks at a time. It was hard on me boarding with this family and that one while he was gone. Now and again, I missed him so terribly, I tried my level best to hate him, but dang it all, I loved him, admired him, and respected him too much for such nonsense to embitter me for longer than an hour or so.
Down to my bones and deeper, I was proud of my father and prouder still to be Joseph Beckworth Sawyer's daughter. Papa never lied to me. He treated me like an equal. He believed I'd hung the stars and the moon but didn't shy from heating my backside with a hickory switch if the situation called for it.
Funny, how those who condemned him as a father never once asked my opinion. I reckon my growing up healthy, strong, and mostly happy was thought to be a fluke of nature, akin to the Methodist preacher's oldest daughter owning the fanciest bordello in Little Rock.
But whether a saint, a sinner, or somewhere in between, Papa had no stomach for kowtowing to a thieving judge or his flunky, Federal Marshal Logan Roots. Before roosters crowed the dawn of April 22, 1870, Papa, Won Li, myself, and a wag of worldly goods were aboard a ferry pointing toward the Arkansas River's west bank.
Denver City was chosen by process of elimination. Papa said Missouri was too near our native state in terrain, attitude, and number of shootists fawnching to put more holes in him than a berry sieve. Texas was a second cousin to hell on earth, with Oklahoma and Kansas Territories being firsts. California was too far removed, and Papa would sooner leave Arizona and New Mexico to the rattlesnakes and Apaches.
My thoughts on starting a detective agency weren't solicited, but the idea gave me the hooray kind of goose bumps. Denver City's renown as the Queen City of the Plains sounded classy, lively, and large -- three adjectives a blind man wouldn't affix to Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Hindsight says I was too busy imagining the miracle of sneezing in the mercantile without a neighbor lady bringing a mustard plaster to the house to notice Papa was straining to catch his breath. I don't know for certain when he passed. He rode slumped in the saddle, for quite a spell, as if he were napping before his body canted sideward and slid to the ground.
I'll hear that thump till the day I join him and Mama on the other side. I don't remember what came after, but the second morning after Papa's burial, Won Li said he had no choice but to tranquilize me with a gill of poppy-tea. He'd carried me from the gravesite, which I'd refused to leave, to a pallet he'd fashioned in the back of the wagon. The next I knew, the purple-blue peaks of the Rocky Mountains were spiking the horizon.
I'd have died of melancholy and sunstroke if Won Li hadn't intervened: thus he'd saved my life and should have been shed of his obligation. He not only disagreed, he was hugely insulted by my assumption, and went about as though I were invisible for nigh onto a week.
"A darned peaceful seven days it was, too," I said as I unpinned my flowered and feathered straw hat. It looked more fetching on the office's hat rack than it did on my head. Having been raised as ungoverned as a weed, I doubted I'd ever get accustomed being trussed from tip to toe in ladylike foofaraws.
Loosening the topmost jacket buttons saved me from strangulation without exposing my ample charms. After chucking my gloves and reticule in a bottom drawer, I commenced the daily chore of feather dusting the red grit from the massive oak partner's desk.
The owner of the secondhand store had told me two speculators had hauled it all the way from Georgia. Scars, ink splatters, and alligatored shellac had cheapened the price, as had the gouge on one side from an original owner's attempt to saw it in half after a disagreement with his partner.
The storekeeper had warned me, "I won't sell it to you unless you promise me one thing. When the day comes you want rid of it, you gotta swear you'll burn it, bust it up for kindling -- I care not what -- long as you don't lug it back here. I already done bought and sold that monstracious ugly sumbitch five, mebbe six times and I don't never want to see it agin in this life, nor the next."
The old coot took me for my word. For ten dollars cash money, plus six bits delivery, he threw in two high-backed swivel chairs, a pair of fancy upholstered parlor ones, a hat rack, and framed portraits of Washington crossing the Delaware and Napoleon with his hand stuck in his coat, scratching his belly.
I'd arranged a secretary's accouterments around the blotter on my side of the desk. On the other was the morning edition of the Rocky Mountain News, an ash receptacle with a half-smoked cigar, a bottle of whiskey, and other tokens of manly occupation.
For the longest time, I'd fooled myself into believing I'd decorated what would have been my father's realm only for show. As the window lettering said SAWYER INVESTIGATIONS, DEPUTY U.S. MARSHAL JOSEPH BECKWORTH SAWYER (RET.), PRINCIPAL, visitors would be mighty curious if they didn't see or smell a trace of the old lawdog in charge.
Now just because my mother had gypsy blood doesn't mean I believe in séances, haints, or any of that voodoo claptrap, but one evening it came to me as clear as water that Papa was leaned back in his chair. The newspaper was open across his knees, and that nasty cigar was crotched between his fingers.
There must be barbers in heaven, for his salt-and-pepper hair and beard were trimmed and combed. The trail dust had been brushed from his hat and boots; his shirt and trousers were laundered and pressed.
He couldn't have looked more at home in our parlor in Van Buren. I took it for a sign he admired seeing his name spelled out in gilt on the window and countenanced my carrying on without him.
If I hadn't let my mind drift, the clamor of footsteps on the floorboards wouldn't have given me such a start. Two expensively dressed gentlemen of middle age gandered about the room as though I were a part of the furnishings.
"Is Mr. Sawyer in?" asked the taller one. His voice was reedy, and his nose and cheeks flushed, in the mode of one regularly exposed to sunlight or liquid corn.
"Not at the moment." I walked around the desk to return the feather duster to its drawer. "Perhaps I can be of assistance?"
The shorter, heavyset man asked, "When do you expect him back?"
"I'm sorry, but I really can't say. Mr. Sawyer doesn't hold to clocks and calendars." I nodded at the parlor chair beside the desk and its twin alongside Papa's. "I'm Mr. Sawyer's assistant and would be happy to take down the particulars of your case."
They exchanged vexatious glances. "Mr. Sawyer came highly recommended," said the taller, "but this is a matter of urgency. We cannot afford to wait -- "
"Then the sooner I'm apprised of the situation for Mr. Sawyer's review, the better. Wouldn't you agree?"
Grudgingly, he introduced himself and his companion. The names were as familiar as yesterday's newspaper.
Garret McCoyne was a banker and had inherited several parcels of prime Denver City real estate. The shorter man, Avery Whitelaw, owned silver mines and stamp mills that extracted gold and silver amalgam from crushed quartz.
Wealth and influence weren't their sole commonality. The McCoyne and Whitelaw households had recently been burglarized by a bold and very cunning thief.
With no evidence of forcible entry at either home, it was presumed their second-floor windows had been breached by means of a rope with a grapple attached at one end. Hooking a chimney corner, cupola, or other sturdy rooftop amenity would be pattycakes for an experienced cracksman. In each instance, the thief stripped a pillow of its case and absconded with a fortune in jewelry, including Mrs. McCoyne's renowned diamond-and-ruby tiara.
What use one might have for such a geegaw I couldn't fathom, but a quarter newspaper column had been devoted to Mrs. McCoyne's nervous prostration from which she might never recover.
The police were stymied. The McCoynes and Whitelaws were absent from their homes at the time of the intrusions. Their servants had neither seen nor heard a disturbance. None of the jewelry had surfaced as yet.
The burglar would strike again. As William Somerville said in his poem, "The Lucky Hit," "So in each action 'tis success that gives it all its comeliness." The sole questions were, Who would the thief target now? and When?
Criminitly, how my palms did itch. What a boon it would be for Sawyer Investigations to capture him in the act and recover the loot. Which I'd be delighted to do, except how should I know which Denver City mogul would be robbed next? The answer to when was a slightly less nebulous soon.
McCoyne said, "Should Mr. Sawyer deign to make an appearance, tell him Mr. Whitelaw and I will return tomorrow afternoon at two."
My eyes flicked to Papa's chair. "There's every chance he will, gentlemen. I'll be sure to give him your message."
After they took their leave, I fanned myself with the accounts ledger. Thirty-six dollars and seventy-three cents was all that separated me from destitution. Bills were mounting atop the desk. The rents were almost due on the office and the house.
The agency's till would not be vastly enriched by the fee nicked from J. Fulton Shulteis's charges for dissolving the LeBruton maritals. Somehow, by early tomorrow afternoon, I must produce a flesh-and-blood father, or McCoyne and Whitelaw would take their business elsewhere.
Copyright © 2003 by Suzann Ledbetter