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  1. The Shamus "Why can't I have a gun, Gunny?" Donnie slumped against the passenger side door, pouting. "Ain't I your sidekick? Huh, Gunny? Sidekicks need guns, don't they? How can I back you up without a gun?" Gunny concentrated on his driving. The gravel road hadn't been graded for years. Ruts and potholes threatened to rip the wheels off his '37 Ford sedan. Donnie started whining again just as Gunny double-clutched and downshifted to second as they crested a small hill and started down the far side. He'd had the brakes adjusted that morning, but no one with any sense trusted mechanical brakes any further than necessary. "Donnie! Pipe down, dammit! If this road gets any worse we'll be walking. I don't have time for y'all's sniveling." His sidekick paused for at least a minute, then started anew. "What are we doing out here anyway? Huh, Gunny? I never heard of Keota until you showed me on the map." He fell silent for a moment, contemplating the parched Colorado prairie. "We ain't seen but two farms and both of 'em looked deserted. Let's go back to Sterling. It ain't Cedar Rapids, but at least it has people. Anybody we run into out here is gonna be crazy. Kill crazy, probably, and me with no gun." The road improved marginally. Gunny shifted into third and eased along at a good thirty miles an hour. "Y'all can't have a gun, Donnie. How many times we been over this? A sidekick's job is to hand straight lines to the real detective." He produced a slim black cigar and lit it with a kitchen match. "Y'all don't even have to light my smokes. Y'all also don't get the girl and every now and then some bad guy beats the crap outta y'all. It's all in the sidekick contract. Look it up." "I know, dammit. But I'm a real detective. Old Guy gave me a break on that Caribbean job, remember? I even got laid." Gunny frowned. "That's right. I remember. Well, the hot sun down there fries brains. A perfectly normal woman might sleep with a sidekick after a few days in all that heat and humidity. But that don't matter. The thought of y'all behind me with a loaded gun gives me the whim-whams. No gun." "Dang! What good am I? What good, huh, Gunny? Sidekick in a detective agency in Sterling, Colorado isn't exactly high on my list of destinations." "Good question. Maybe there's a woman y'all ain't gonna get. Or we'll get in a bar fight and y'all will be kicked around some." Gunny pointed at a water tower in the distance. "Keota's coming up, unless my navigation is off -- which it never is." "So what's the gig? Is a good looking dame involved? Will there be beer?" "God, I hope so. On both counts. But all I know is what Mrs. Hansen put in her letter and what we discussed on the phone. Some machinery has been stolen and possibly a few head of cattle rustled. Sheriff's deputy went out and poked around -- found nothing. Those guys are spread too thin to be investigating small crime." Gunny shrugged. "She paid a week in advance. With any luck it won't take that long." "I hope not," said Donnie. Buildings could be seen scattered over a bit of rising ground. "This place looks to be falling down, huh, Gunny." "It is. Someone told me it was built on a railroad line that went bust and local farms and ranches weren't enough to keep the place going. There's supposed to be a school, a post office and general store. Some other businesses hanging on. Like the Hansen's. Her husband runs a gas station. On the phone she said something about a hat shop. I guess that's what she does. They have a small farm a few miles from town." "A hat shop? Out here?" "I guess." Gunny chuckled. "What with the wind and all, a lot of hats might get blown clear into Nebraska." "Could be," agreed Donnie. "I mean -- it ain't far to the state line, is it?" "Not far. Too far for a hat to blow, I suppose." Gunny turned into a dusty street. "Look for a gas station." "What kind of gas station?" "Beats me. There's only one." "And there it is." Donnie pointed to a building set back from the street. A single gas pump sat forlornly in the middle of a graveled area. "Jeez," cried Donnie. "I hope there's more than one of those in town." Gunny gave a low whistle. A statuesque blonde in shorts and a halter top stood by a dust-covered Cord roadster. "I don't think she's from around here," murmured Donnie. "Y'all might make detective yet." Gunny parked behind the Cord and got out. The blonde dismissed the two men with an uninterested glance. She climbed into the roadster and drove away. "You need gas?" The question came from a burly specimen slouched beside the pump. "We will," said Gunny. "Are y'all Hansen?" "That's me." Gunny handed over a business card. "Your wife wrote me about some troubles you've been having. We spoke on the phone. I believe we're expected." The man spat to one side. "It's all nonsense. Kids messing around. Or maybe them tools got mislaid." He eyed the card. "This is a customer card for Ruth's Place." He grinned. "I know Ruth. Got a card of my own. One more visit and I'll have earned a freebie. You only got three punches on yours." "Ah -- ha, ha." Gunny snatched the card back and, after checking carefully, proffered a real business card for the Prairie Sleuth Agency. Hansen tucked the card away. "No need to mention Ruth's Place to my wife. Okay?" "Of course. Where will we find Mrs. Hansen's shop?" "Oh, it's behind the station. Go right around back. You-all can't miss it." Hitching his coveralls up, Hansen wandered back into the garage, chuckling at his own wit. "Redneck bastard," muttered Gunny as he led the way around the station. "He was making fun of the way I talk." "Huh?" Donnie grinned. "I reckon he was. Well -- you do talk funny." Further discussion of Gunny's syntax was derailed by the appearance of a thin woman dressed in baggy work clothes. Suspicious eyes glared at the two men from under the brim of a stained Union Pacific cap. "Who are you? What do you want here?" Gunny touched his hat and offered the woman a card. "Are you Mrs. Hansen? We spoke on the phone. You described some troubles you've been having with thieves." Her gaze softened. "You get here quicker than I expected. Come on into my shop." She led the way into what was obviously a sales office. Brightly woven tapestries hung on the side walls. Gunny stopped to admire one with a strange black and white pattern. For a moment he thought someone -- or some thing -- was staring back at him from within the twists and whorls of the tapestry. It was an effort to turn away. Donnie drifted toward a multicolored hanging. His mouth gaped. "I -- I thought you sold hats." His words were slurred, his stare more vacant than usual. "Hats?" The woman looked at Gunny. "You must have misunderstood me. I make mats. Rugs, really, though they are suitable for hanging -- like these." Her gaze rested on Donnie. "Your friend is a suggestible sort, isn't he?" "Donnie!" Gunny dragged his sidekick away from the hanging. "Go back to the station and have Mr. Hansen gas up the car. Then stay there and keep y'all's eyes open." Donnie gurgled something unintelligible and started toward the station, staggering for a few steps before he steadied himself and walked on, mumbling Gunny's instructions. "Sorry about that," said Mrs. Hansen. She offered her hand. "Call me Adriana." "What's with the mats -- rugs?" asked Gunny. He avoided looking directly at any of her wares. "The one I looked at -- it seemed alive." "It is alive, silly." Adriana laughed. "Most of mine are decorative hangings with imps woven into the fabric. They can't fly, of course. Most can tell simple jokes, but their real purpose is surveillance." Gunny stared at the woman for a long moment. Finally he managed to speak. "Y'all make -- make flying rugs?" "Oh, yes, but those are difficult. The spells are terribly expensive. Do you have any idea how much eye of newt costs these days? Not to mention fresh mouse testicle. The dried stuff can't be trusted." "I'm sure y'all are right. Where do y'all -- I mean -- I've never heard of such things." Adriana sighed heavily and sat down behind her desk. "In the old days a witch could get most anything from local suppliers. Butchers. Alchemists. Morticians. Now you have to deal with foreign suppliers. The corporate guys -- meat processors, chemical plants -- they won't even talk to a witch or even a warlock. It's all about profits. Not enough volume in mouse testicles to make it worthwhile." "I imagine not. Ah -- can we get down to business? Y'all mentioned stolen machinery and tools gone missing. Cows too, I think." She handed over a handwritten sheet. "Here's a list. Hand tools, an electric drill, acetylene torch, among other stuff. The biggest piece of machinery is a '34 John Deere tractor." "A tractor? Can y'all describe it? Other than being green, I mean." "It's a model A with steel wheels all around. Can't be worth more'n $300. It would be a lot of trouble to haul it somewhere and sell it." "These days thieves will do a lot for three hundred bucks, but hauling a tractor very far seems like more work than your average crook will agree to." Gunny studied the list. "1931 Model A pickup, a trailer-mounted welder -- hell, the welder is probably worth more than your tractor and the pickup together." "Probably." Adriana rested her elbows on the desk. "Either someone just grabbed what they could get or -- ." She paused. " -- or the thief is building something -- or repairing a -- I don't know what." "Y'all may be right. What about the cows?" "We had ten on our place. Now there are seven. My husband figures the other three got out of the pasture. He thinks we'll find them in a neighbor's herd." "And y'all don't think so." "No way. I walked the fence line. It's all in good shape. No evidence of a large animal having crawled through anywhere. No. I think whoever stole all that other stuff needed to feed a crew of some kind. Unless you can refrigerate it, beef will go bad in a week." "Yeah." Gunny folded the list and tucked it in his jacket pocket. "Donnie and I will take a look around. Where can I get a local map?" She smiled and handed him a large page that looked to have been torn from an atlas. "Got this from the county map collection. Our farm is marked on it." The woman followed him outside. Gunny paused and looked around. He spotted a small sign advertising Adriana's Mat Shop. "Why call it a mat shop? Surely most of what y'all produce is more correctly called a rug." "Simple. When I came here there was another Adriana already in business. Her place was called Adriana's Rug Shop." "Hah! I see." Gunny frowned. "When was that?" "When they were first building this town. A long time ago. And, yes, that Adriana was a witch too. It's a common name in our profession. She moved on when the railroad went belly-up." If Gunny hadn't seen something really, really scary in that wall hanging, he'd have dismissed Mrs. Hansen as a nut case. At that moment, he wasn't prepared to disbelieve anything she told him. "No other witches in town?" "None. Just the usual ghosts that seem to like these old towns. There's Mr. Grakus, but he only comes out at night. Couple of retired demons, like my husband. Harmless." "Mr. Hansen is a demon? But he looks so -- so -- ." "Normal? Well, he is normal except for a somewhat higher body temperature, which is damn handy in winter, I can tell you that." She smiled at Gunny. "He's a good mechanic and doesn't drink too much. I'm well past certain physical activities that he still craves, but an occasional trip into Sterling to Ruth's Place takes care of that." "Ah -- right." Gunny could feel his face turning red. "I'll just find Donnie and do some -- ah -- looking around." He touched his hat. "Good day, ma'am." Her laughter followed him as he hurried around the gas station. Donnie twitched his jacket into place and eyed his reflection in the cracked mirror mounted above the men's room sink. Good. The shoulder holster didn't show at all. He chuckled, thinking of how surprised Gunny would be if there was any shooting. The Mauser pistol Mr. Hansen had sold him for thirty bucks was the kind of weapon he'd lusted for. For an extra five dollars Hansen threw in a slick shoulder holster made especially for the Mauser. The big pistol hung heavy under his left arm. A leather cartridge case containing three 10-round stripper clips was slung on the opposite side, partly balancing the weapon. He made a mental note to practice reloading. Some target practice might be a good idea too -- if he could get away from Gunny for an hour or so. "Donnie! Where the hell are y'all?" Gunny's bellow dragged the sidekick out of his dreams of violent glory. He checked his reflection one more time, then swaggered out of the rest room, stumbling over the threshold. Recovering, Donnie concentrated on walking normally. Gunny stood by the car. "Y'all been drinking?" "No -- I -- ah -- I had to take a dump." Donnie rubbed his stomach. "Now I'm hungry." "When ain't y'all starving?" Gunny glanced around. "It's past noon. Let's see if we can find a place to eat." Hansen stepped out of the station office. "Only place fer grub is the general store. Don't order the special, whatever it is." "Thanks," said Gunny. Donnie awkwardly slid into his seat. It felt like he had an anvil strapped to his side. Apparently, carrying heat was going to take some practice. "Y'all okay?" asked Gunny. "A pregnant woman is lighter on her feet than y'all." "I'm fine. Just drive on and forget the wise cracks, will you, huh?" "Can't do it." Gunny chuckled and dropped the gearshift into first. "Gotta crack wise in order to keep my gumshoe license." Donnie kept his mouth shut. Experience had taught him that further complaining just encouraged Gunny to continue exercising his good old boy wit. (tbc)
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