Patrick Scalisi brings us an excellent blend of Detective, Science Fiction, and Western genres. — ed, N.E. Lilly
The Horse Thieves
Nobu’s office smelled like shit. Not really shit, but the Chinaman has lit some incense that only members of his ilk could appreciate. Crawford chewed a cigarette, basking in the smell of tobacco as he stared across from his would-be employer.
“These problems you’re having on the ranch,” Crawford said, “they can’t be solved by the local law?”
Nobu patted his thin comb-over and fidgeted in his pretentious chair. Finally, he put his hands on the cluttered desk and said, “The law are no help. I think you have better luck than the law.” His nasally voice and accent made each “the” sound like “da.”
Crawford took another drag of tobacco and scratched the stubble on his chin. “Professional contractors’re rare. My rates have doubled since last year. Sure you don’t wanna deal with the law?”
“I have three horses stolen this week alone!” Nobu said, his accent becoming more pronounced. “And the law do nothing!”
Crawford nodded and stood, flicking his cigarette to the ground and snuffing it beneath the heel of his boot. He made his way to one grease-smeared window and surveyed the ranch. Below, dozens of Nobu’s horses were parked in even rows. Several spaces were empty.
“I can look into the problem,” Crawford said, still staring at the rows of resting ponies. “My fee is five thousand now with another ten when I’m done. If no arrests are made, I’ll just keep the five. You won’t owe me anything else.”
Nobu grimaced but didn’t argue. He reached into one of a dozen desk drawers and withdrew a yellowing envelope full of cash. The Chinaman counted out five thousand dollars.
Crawford left Nobu’s office and made for the hitching post where his horse was tied. The cowboy used his checkered sleeve to wipe the rear emblem that read CMC Colt while admiring the immaculate coat and twin chrome tailpipes.
Years ago, Yoshimitsu Automobiles had purchased all the struggling companies and formed Consolidated Motor Corp or CMC. Any horse worth its shoes was made by the conglomerate, which owned ranches across the country. No one bothered to file an antitrust lawsuit.
Crawford had won his Colt in a poker match, betting everything he had on a hand of trip-aces. The gamble had paid off. Crawford had ditched his aging Steed and roared away in the Colt, exposed engine block thrumming as he eased her out of Sausalito. The pony had treated him well ever since.
Crawford adjusted his gun belt, placed his cigarettes on the dash — he never smoked while riding — and turned the key. His pony came to life with a roar before settling into an even idle. Crawford adjusted his spurs and set the car in gear.
Nobu’s ranch was several miles out of town. The ride back was a welcome chance for the Colt to stretch her legs. Few people traveled Route Number Eight unless they had ranch business or were up to mischief. Crawford didn’t expect to see any other riders on his way back.
The sun was already down, the day ending, when Crawford pulled up to McGee’s Tavern. He dismounted and went inside, lighting a cigarette as he pushed past the saloon doors. Davin McGee stood behind the bar, serving ranchers and engine-poke alike. Many of the latter wore greased-stained coveralls with black gloves hanging from their rear pockets. In the background, Smilin’ Sam had begun his first piano set of the night. A group of early drunks were already deep into a potentially violent game of poker. Crawford approached the bar and ordered a drink.
“The Old Man in tonight?” Crawford asked, fingering his first glass of beer.
“Upstairs,” McGee said between orders. Further down, a young engine-poke examined his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
“He’s got him a few more appointments ’fore he can get to you, Crawford,” McGee continued. “Might be better to come back tomorrow.”
Crawford shook his head and sipped his beer. “Can’t. Need to ask him something.”
McGee glanced at his watch. He bristled his moustache while considering the time. “Probably be after midnight. Still want to wait?”
The poker game became violent sooner than expected. In an almost clichÃ©d turn, one player accused the other of cheating and overturned the table. Out of loyalty to McGee, Crawford separated the fighters and escorted them out at gunpoint. Both men unclenched their fists at the sight of Crawford’s six-gun; one pissed his coveralls. They left without an argument and — to McGee’s delight — their poker bets.
Crawford had two more beers and a beef sandwich before midnight. Many of the engine-pokes had paid their tabs and left with a pleasant buzz. Some had paid to cuddle McGee’s girls. The tavern owner pointed to Crawford and then to the stairs, absently polishing the bar top with a graying rag.
The Old Man was neither old nor menacing. The name stemmed from his having been in the information business since boyhood. Stories said the Old Man had made his first sale upon learning the size of his sister’s brassiere. Fellow boys had paid a nickel for the nugget that had fueled their adolescent fantasies for weeks.
The Old Man’s office was nothing like Nobu’s, and most people were dumbfounded as to how it stayed so impeccably clean. Trail dust seemed to stop at the door, held back by the info merchant’s obsessive-compulsive will.
Crawford sat on one side of the well-ordered desk, not daring to light a cigarette, and waited patiently for the Old Man to finish poking through his files.
“Yes,” the Old Man said, humming just beneath his breath. “Something about a glue factory came through the other day.” He flicked through the file. “I can give you the name of an engine-poke at Benson’s Ranch for, say, two hundred dollars.”
Crawford extracted his advance from Nobu and counted the amount. He handed it to the Old Man without bartering.
“The man you’re looking for is Lorem. Rob Lorem.”
Norma was in bed, but awake, when Crawford arrived home. He imagined she might be naked beneath the sheets, but knew she was probably wearing a cotton shift. He would have to tell her about the job before going to bed. She would probably be too tired by then to make love.
“You smell like cigarettes,” Norma said. “I thought you didn’t smoke while riding.”
“Never. Had a smoke on the way up.”
Norma nodded, shifting in her body around to face him.
“I hate it,” she said. “I wish you’d quit.”
Norma wasn’t the hussie that some cowboys kept company with, and certainly not a saloon girl skilled at wooing engine-pokes. Sometimes Crawford hated her willful attitude and strong opinions. He also knew she was a singular creature that offered more fulfillment than ten whores combined.
“Went to see Nobu today,” he said, changing the subject. “Got a job.”
“That’s good. My pony’s gonna need shoes soon. I was thinking a set of Goodyears.”
Crawford did the calculations in his head. Yes, Nobu’s fee would be enough for horseshoes and a few months’ comfort.
Norma was propped on her elbow now. “So what’s the job?”
“Nobu’s got trouble with some horse thieves,” he said. He removed his gun belt and placed it on the dresser. “The Old Man gave me a lead to track down tomorrow.”
“You coming to bed now?”
“Ain’t that what it looks like?”
Crawford finished undressing and climbed naked beneath the sheets. His prediction about Norma’s nightwear proved correct as he sidled next to her.
“I’m glad you got the job,” she said, placing a hand on his chest. “Do you have to be up very early tomorrow?”
“Not so early.”
Norman’s hand strayed to his groin, her touch still electric after all their years together. Apparently they’d be making love after all.
The ride to Benson’s Ranch was quiet, but there were more riders on the trail. Some punk in a CMC Stallion blasted by Crawford at a swift run — probably 110, 120 — and Crawford was tempted to give chase. He didn’t know the rider personally, but wanted to prove the Colt’s exposed engine and intakes could still set a mean pace. The job, though, was more important than jaunts along the trail. Crawford eased his spurs and basked instead in the cool breeze.
Benson’s Ranch offered stiff competition to others in the area. The Texan had nearly twice as many heads as Nobu. Lots full of gleaming ponies surrounded the main building, which housed Benson’s office and barn. Crawford supposed he should announce himself to Wilmer Benson, but decided against it. If questioned, Crawford would say he was consulting on a remedy for his own horse.
The Colt idled down a lane of resting ponies and stopped at the barn. Horses in various states of repair (or disrepair) sat around the open bays, components exposed, missing or broken. A group of engine-pokes sat on the chrome bumper of a terminal case, smoking cigarettes and exchanging gossip.
“Anyone seen Lorem today?” Crawford said, leaning out his window.
“I’m Lorem,” said a man at one end of the bumper.
Rob Lorem was the youngest of the group and probably hadn’t been an engine-poke very long. He wore his grease-stained gloves, even on break, and Crawford wondered that the cigarette Lorem smoked didn’t light both his hands on fire.
“The Old Man told me to see you,” Crawford said. “Let’s take a quick ride ’round the ranch.”
Lorem tossed his cigarette to the ground. “Nothin’ doing. Boss is pretty strict about breaks.”
Crawford waved a fifty-dollar bill out the window. “He won’t care if you’re a few more minutes.” He paused as Lorem stared at the money, transfixed. “And take those grease-ball gloves off before you get on my horse.”
“Mind if I roll a quirley?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t.”
Lorem replaced his tobacco and hung one arm out the window. In the confines of the car, Crawford thought he smelled even shittier than Nobu’s office. The Colt moved up a row of new ponies.
“So what the Old Man tell you?”
“You might be in the know ’bout a glue factory ’round here.”
“You buying or selling?” Lorem reached for his cigarettes again before remembering he couldn’t smoke.
“Neither. But I think these banditos are stealing from my employer.”
“And who is your employer?”
“It’s not important. But you won’t be indicted provided I don’t find your hat in the same company as these other thieves.”
“You won’t, mister…?”
“I didn’t say.”
“Well Mister I-Didn’t-Say, the fact is I sometimes sell parts — shoes and spurs if you will — to the big bugs who run this chop shop. Nasty bunch. Don’t give me a fair price for half the parts I get ’em.”
“You’ll have one less customer if I run ’em out. That bother you, Lorem?”
Rob Lorem thought for a moment and shook his head. “Probably better they’re shut down. ’Sides, this work ain’t bad” — he pointed to his coveralls — “and Mister Benson pays better than most.”
They were nearing the barn again. The other pokes had returned to work, and the chrome bumper was vacant.
“So where am I off to?” Crawford asked, pulling his horse up short.
“We meet at Split Rock, Thursdays at sunset.”
Split Rock was aptly named, a strange rock formation out in the desert. Natives said the gods had smote the rock, cleaving it in half to form a misshapen y. Superstitions or not, Split Rock was a traditional place for clandestine meetings. Teenagers went to lose their virginity, banditos to make deals.
Crawford stood in the shadows, one foot against the rock and a cigarette perched between his lips. His left hand held a broken part from the Colt, a compressor that had failed some months back. In the dark, though, the thieves wouldn’t know that. Hopefully they’d think he was another seller referred by Rob Lorem, another poke trying to make a few bucks on the side.
The sunset had covered the desert in shades of rust. Now even the moon was absent. Crawford kept to the shadows, chain smoking and listening.
Gravel crunched in the darkness somewhere to his left.
“Lorem, where the fuck you at?”
Crawford whistled and stepped from the shadows.
“No Lorem tonight,” Crawford answered. “But he says you’re of the first water.”
The bandito came into full view, a stumpy man with a leather hat and dirty shirt. Patches of stubble covered his grimy face.
“Lorem said to come?” Stumpy asked dazedly, as if his mental faculties couldn’t catch up with his mouth.
“That’s right. Got a lung from a perfectly good CMC Colt to sell.”
“I ain’t need nothing like that.”
“C’mon. Lorem told me ’bout that glue factory of yours. Don’t have any Colts down there? Hell, this piece probably fit a Clydesdale, too. Same size engine.”
Stumpy didn’t reply, all his memorized lines apparently spent. Crawford registered footsteps on his right, but too late. By then, the sandalwood grip of another six-gun had already slammed into the back of his skull.
“He knows a lot.”
“Hell, he could just be bluffing.”
“Shit he knew about Lorem and the fucking glue factory!”
“Where is that shitbag Lorem anyway?”
The voices came before consciousness. Even with his eyes shut, Crawford knew he was tied up. He didn’t know where he was or how he had gotten there, only that he was lashed to a chair. His gun belt felt lighter, too. They better not have thrown his piece into the desert, Crawford thought. He liked that gun.
“I hear something now.”
Crawford opened his eyes and saw Stumpy move toward the door. They were in a small room, probably a desert shack near the glue factory. Along one wall sat a desk and bookshelf, both cluttered with dusty ledgers. The chair to the desk was missing. Crawford was probably sitting in it now.
The other bandito — Crawford thought of him as Tallman — watched as Stumpy opened the door. Rob Lorem breezed inside, still wearing his coveralls and greasy gloves. Crawford wasn’t surprised that Lorem defiled his pony by wearing those gloves while riding.
Lorem stopped when he saw Crawford tied to the chair. The reaction didn’t last long. He quickly composed himself and closed the door.
“Took you long enough,” Tallman said.
“It was just like you said!” Stumpy added. Crawford realized he disliked Stumpy’s voice almost as much as Nobu’s whiny, broken English.
“You did good,” Tallman continued. “You’ll be getting a bonus when I unload the next lot o’ heads.”
Crawford began to struggle, testing the robes though he knew it would earn him a reprisal.
“Shit! He’s awake!” Stumpy cried, jumping nearly a foot in the air.
Tallman rewarded Crawford with a blow to the face. “That’s enough of that.”
Crawford remained still. He knew the knots were amateur, but tight. The banditos had also neglected to tie his feet.
“Lorem, check those knots,” Tallman ordered. “Just to be sure.”
Rob Lorem didn’t look pleased but moved to the back of Crawford’s chair. His gloved hands slid over the knots, then along Crawford’s wrists.
“Seem fine to me,” the engine-poke reported.
“So wadda we do with him now?” Stumpy asked.
“It’s a big desert,” Tallman replied, looking at Crawford instead of his partners. “A regular bone orchard. Lots-a room ’tween ranches. Lots-a places to go missing.”
Crawford moved his wrists instinctively — and discovered a faint thread of hope. Lorem had checked the knots with his gloves on; there was enough grease there to oil an engine and plenty to wiggle loose.
Crawford flashed an impudent grin. “I’m just a cowboy,” he said. The conversation would buy time enough for him to slip free. “But they’ll be others. ’Fore long you’ll piss someone else off. Maybe next time you’ll be in the chair. Maybe that cowboy’ll just shoot you first.”
“He’s right,” Stumpy whined. “We should pack up shop with the next lot of heads.”
“He’s bluffing,” Tallman said.
“Maybe not,” Lorem added. “He said the Old Man at McGee’s told him about the glue factory. Word might be getting ’round.”
Tallman leaned forward, nearly nose to nose with Crawford. “He’s lying — ”
Crawford smashed his head forward, colliding magnificently with Tallman’s skull. The pain was blinding and brought tears to his eyes, but Crawford continued on, swinging the chair sideways. He registered Tallman gripping his forehead in anguish and stumbling back against the desk. Crawford aimed the flying chair at Lorem, clipping the engine-poke’s legs. Lorem dropped heavily to the floor while Stumpy made for the door.
Tallman began to recover, a stream of blood winding down his nose. Crawford noticed his revolver on the desk. He swung his elbow at Tallman’s chin and dived for the gun.
Two shots within the confines of the shack sounded thundersome. Bullets ripped into Tallman’s chest, who froze mid-draw, before dropping to the floor. Stumpy was gone, the shack door swinging wildly on its hinges, and Lorem was clawing for purchase on the dirt floor.
Crawford paused, head throbbing, and kicked Rob Lorem in the back. The engine-poke grunted. Crawford turned Lorem over with one boot.
“Where’s the glue factory?” Crawford asked, voice casual and even.
“I’ll tell you, just please don’t kill me!”
“Where’s the chop shop?” Crawford repeated.
“A…a little east of here. I work there, sometimes. At night.”
Crawford dug his boot heel into Lorem’s right arm, taking careful aim at the splayed, trembling hand.
“What…whatcha doing, man?”
Lorem’s eyes widened in sudden realization.
Two more shots rang out in the shack.
Nobu’s office still smelled like shit. Did the Chinaman ever stop with that fucking incense? Crawford puffed his cigarette, trying to ignore the stink while his employer counted out ten thousand dollars.
Nobu handed the cowboy a stack of bills.
“How were the horses you recovered?” Crawford asked.
The Chinaman touched his thinning hair. “Three were…ok. Others good for parts — shoes, lungs. Some belong to Benson and Rivera. I think I keep those as well. For the trouble.”
Crawford waved the bills in his employer’s direction. “Sounds like you broke even. Care to give me a bonus?”
Nobu laughed, nasally and high-pitched. “You a funny man, Mister Crawford. But I think I hire you again, if my need arises.”
“Sounds like a deal.” Crawford extended his hand across the cluttered desk.
Moments later he was outside, staring at his Colt. Desert dust and rain streaks clung to her coat; his pony needed a bath.
Crawford discarded his cigarette and opened the door. The exposed engine roared to life, and he was gone.
I Love Serenity
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