Holmes on the Rangeby Steve Hockensmith
Because 1893 is a tough year in Montana, any job is a good job. When Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer sign on as ranch hands at the secretive Bar VR cattle spread, they're not expecting much more than hard work, bad pay, and a comfortable campfire around which they can enjoy their favorite pastime: scouring Harper's Weekly for stories about the famous/i>
Because 1893 is a tough year in Montana, any job is a good job. When Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer sign on as ranch hands at the secretive Bar VR cattle spread, they're not expecting much more than hard work, bad pay, and a comfortable campfire around which they can enjoy their favorite pastime: scouring Harper's Weekly for stories about the famous Sherlock Holmes.
When the boys come across a dead body that looks a whole lot like the leftovers of an unfortunate encounter with a cattle stampede, Old Red sees the perfect opportunity to employ his Holmes-inspired deducifyin' skills. Putting his ranch work squarely on the back burner, he sets out to solve the case. Big Red, like it or not (and mostly he does not), is along for the wild ride in this clever, compelling, and completely one-of-a-kind mystery.
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Holmes on the Range
By Steve Hockensmith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Steve Hockensmith
All rights reserved.
Or, My Brother "Deduces" His True Calling
You can follow a trail without even knowing you're on it. You start out just ambling, maybe get to thinking you're lost — but you're headed somewhere all the same. You just don't know it till you get there.
That's how it was with me and Old Red. We'd got ourselves pointed at that flapjack-flat body a full year earlier, in the spring of 1892. All it took to get us moving toward it was a magazine story.
We were working a cattle drive at the time, and one night by the campfire one of the other drovers pulled out a detective yarn called "The Red-Headed League." It was meant as a jape, as my brother and I form a sort of "red-headed league" ourselves. We've got hair red enough to light a fire, and though our tombstones will read "Otto Amling-meyer" and "Gustav Amlingmeyer," up and down the cow trails we're known as Big Red and Old Red. (I was branded Big Red for the obvious reason — size-wise I'm just a shade smaller than your average house — while Gustav won his handle more for attitude than decrepitude, having as he does a crotchety side more befitting a man of seventy-two than twenty-seven.)
Old Red not being on speaking terms with the alphabet, it was up to me to read "The Red-Headed League" out loud. And I enjoyed doing so, for I found it to be a dandy little tale. But my brother took it to be a lot more than that. To him it was a new gospel.
Some folks get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes.
As you most likely know, this Holmes fellow's an English detective who's world famous for his great "deductions." Only we'd never heard of him, being out here in Montana where we'll probably only find out about the Second Coming by telegraph a week after it happens.
In "The Red-Headed League," Holmes busts up a gang of desperadoes just about single-handed. But it wasn't the what of the story that got under my brother's skin so much as the how. Holmes had him this way of digging out facts just by noticing what most people ignore. He could tell where you were born by shaking your hand and what you had for breakfast by how you combed your hair.
"He didn't catch them bank-robbin' snakes with some trick he learned at a university," Old Red said to me. "He caught 'em cuz he knows how to look at things — look and really see 'em."
I guess that would appeal to a fellow like my brother, who had his one year of schooling so long ago it's a wonder he can remember one plus one equals two. He asked me to read that story to him over and over in the months that followed, and not once did I refuse, for read-ing's a skill I wouldn't even have were it not for him. (When I was a child, Gustav and my other brothers and sisters worked extra hours at their chores so at least one of us — me — could get some decent book-learning. I was supposed to hoist the family up into the merchant class, only smallpox and floodwater swept most of us up to heaven before I could do much in the way of hoisting myself.)
The more Old Red heard "The Red-Headed League," the more he got the idea that he had the makings of a fine detective. As I'm his younger brother, you might think I'd be inclined to poke a pin into such puffed-up notions. But I'd always figured Gustav was meant for more than roping steers. While he's every bit as undereducated as your average puncher, he's by no stretch underthoughtful. He's prone to long stretches of cogitation and contemplation on matters he barely even knows the words to put a name to, and I've often thought if he'd been born the son of a senator instead of the son of a sodbuster, he would've become a philosopher or a railroad tycoon instead of a dollar-a-day cowhand.
So I tolerated Old Red's fixation on detectiving, even if I couldn't see any practical use for it. As it turned out, there was something else I couldn't see: how much trouble it could get us into.
Not that we were in great shape when that trouble began. The bank in which we'd been saving our trail money had gone belly-up, and we'd drifted to Miles City with nothing left of our nest egg but a few dollars in our pockets and fond memories in our hearts. It was February, so the spring roundups — and the jobs that come with them — were months off. If we were going to get through the winter without selling our saddles and eating our boots, we needed a miracle and we needed one quick.
Now, waiting for a miracle can be a disheartening business. I purchased what solace I could with the two bits Old Red gave me to parcel out each day in the town's saloons. My brother tagged along, though not out of desire for drink or companionship. He wanted to make sure I didn't start a tab anywhere. And he had another reason, too: He was practicing his Holmesifying.
While I shared watery beer and dirty jokes with whatever partners I could rustle up, Old Red sat quietly, casting a cold eye on anyone who came through the door. He was testing himself, trying to make Holmes-style deductions — I wasn't allowed to call them "guesses" — based on a person's appearance. He wasn't bad at it either, though I wouldn't let him forget the time he told me a fellow was a bounty hunter with a wooden leg. Turned out he was a blacksmith who'd dropped an anvil on his foot.
Old Red did most of his Sherlocking in a dingy little hangout called the Hornet's Nest, which caters to drovers whose luck has taken a turn for the unfortunate. Naturally, that's where we were the day our luck went from bad to worse. It was well before noon, and I was still nursing my first beer of the day when Gustav sent an elbow into my ribs and whispered, "Take a look at these fellers."
I glanced up and saw two big men moving toward the bar. They had no need to shove — they were rough-looking hard cases indeed, and the crowd before them simply parted like the sea before Moses. When they reached the bar, they barked out for whiskey.
"Those two move with confidence," Old Red said, talking low. "And I'd say they've earned it somehow, cuz they're puttin' a real scare on the boys. They ain't got fancy enough artillery to be gunmen, though. And just look at the wear on those clothes. They're punchers — but not just any punchers. Men in command. A ranch foreman and his straw boss, I'd say."
I shrugged. "Could be."
"No 'could be' about it." My brother lifted a finger just high enough to point out the larger of the two men, a black-bearded, meat-heavy gent even taller than me. "I'd bet our last buck that's Uly McPherson."
I knew of the man. He was the foreman of a nearby ranch: the Bar VR. He had himself quite a reputation — not that I'd heard much specific. I'd simply noticed that anytime his name came up, folks were too busy looking over their shoulders and wetting their drawers to keep talking.
"That'd explain why the boys ain't crowdin' him," I said. "Once he's gone, we'll ask the fellers if you deducted right."
The two men picked up their whiskeys and washed their tonsils. Then the bigger one slapped a coin on the bar, and they started to mosey out. But when they reached the doorway, they didn't push through. Instead, they turned to face the room.
"Listen up," the big one said, not shouting, but with a strong, clear voice that grabbed your ears hard even without a whopping lungful of air behind it. "I'm lookin' to hire hands to work the Bar VR at five dollars a week."
Old Red had been right: It was Uly McPherson.
He looked more like a small-time nester than the top screw of a big ranch. His battered Stetson had lost so much of its shape it drooped over his head like a saddle, and his clothes were held together with the sloppy patchwork you see on bachelor farmers. His large, round face obviously hadn't felt the touch of a razor in months.
I pegged the fellow with him as his brother, Ambrose. He looked to be a tad older than me, which would put him just north of twenty. Folks around town called him Spider, though I didn't know why. With his puffed-out chest and dark, unblinking eyes, he reminded me more of a rooster. His lean face was smooth-shaven, but otherwise he was as shabby as his brother.
They looked like men who didn't give a shit what other men thought of them, and I felt pity for any drover dumb enough to sign on with their godforsaken outfit.
"I need waddies who can ride, rope, stretch wire, grease a windmill, and take orders without backtalk," McPherson said. "If you think that's you, line up."
There was a long, quiet moment while everyone mulled that over. Then a gangly fellow called Tall John Harrington pushed off from his perch and moved to the middle of the room. After that, more men found the courage — or desperation — to do likewise. I turned to Gustav, about to thank God we hadn't sunk so low, only to discover that we had.
Old Red was standing up.
"No," I said.
"Yes," he said.
And that was the end of the debate. Gustav wasn't just my elder brother — he was the only family I had left. I'd been stuck to his bootheel for four years, and while he'd walked us into a few tight spots, he'd always walked us out again.
So I got to my feet, and the two of us joined the cowboys trying to form a line. A few were dizzy with drink despite the early hour, making it bumpy work, but we finally got ourselves into a ragged, slouchy row.
We were a scruffy-looking bunch, but you could form a fine outfit if you put us to the test and chose carefully. Some ranches have tryouts that last days, with dozens of drovers busting broncs and throwing calves until all the spots in the bunkhouse are filled. I figured that's what McPherson had in mind. He'd ask a few questions, see if he recognized any names, then take us to a corral to make out whose riding was as good as his talk.
McPherson sized us up, then walked over to the man at the far-right end of the line. Here we go, I thought, as the fellow he was moving toward was Jim Weller, a Negro puncher with a reputation as a top-drawer hand.
McPherson stepped right past him.
"One," he said, pointing at the man to Weller's left. He moved to the next man. "Two."
From there he went to three and four and so on in the order you might guess. Gustav was five. I was six. Tall John Harrington was seven — and the last one picked.
"Alright, boys," McPherson said. "You're hired."CHAPTER 2
OLD RED'S RAVE-UP
Or, My Brother Discovers a Cure for Lockjaw
McPherson told us when to show up at the ranch and the trails to take to get there, and then off he and his brother went, leaving behind a shocked silence that hung so heavy on the room it could've smothered a cat.
This was simply not the way a big outfit picked hands. And why hire up now, with snow still on the ground and the spring roundups weeks off? It just didn't figure.
The cowboy to Tall John's left broke the quiet by swiping his hat off his head and throwing it at the floor. "God damn! I'm eight out of seven! Am I the unluckiest son of a bitch ever or am I not?"
Most of the boys busted out with guffaws, but Jim Weller didn't even unpack a smile.
"If anyone's had the silver linin' swiped off his cloud, that'd be me," he said.
No one had a reply to that, for though the Negro drover was well thought of by those willing to think, not everyone falls into that category — as McPherson seemed to prove. Conversation that separated the open-minded from the muleheaded was best avoided lest you were fishing for a fight.
It was Old Red, of all people, who put some cheer back in the room. Most days he takes to fun like a duck to fire, or you might say like oil to water. But this day was different.
"Here's a silver linin' for you, Jim," he said, and he pulled out a ten-dollar note and handed it to me. "You know what to do with this, Brother."
I stared at him as if he'd just pulled the king of Siam from his pocket.
I let out a whoop and called for the bartender to pour a beer down every throat in sight. Old Red and I were mighty popular while that ten dollars lasted. Once it ran out, other fellows took to buying rounds, either to toast their good luck or drown their bad.
Somewhere in there a twister hit town, or at least it hit me, for when I awoke the next morning our little hotel room was spinning like a top. Yet when Gustav pulled the sheets off me and barked, "Let's go," I managed to roll my aching carcass out of bed, haul it downstairs, and drag it atop a horse — but just barely.
"It ain't fair," I groaned as we rode out of town. "You throw down the last of our money on liquor, and I'm the one with the hangover."
"I appreciate your sacrifice, Brother," Old Red said, showing me that little smirk of his. "I knew I could count on you to get a rave-up goin', and you did."
Having a brain pickled in nickel beer, I had to ponder on that a moment before I caught its meaning. Despite the alcohol haze that clouded the previous day, I had dim recollections of my moody, mopey brother laughing it up with the boys in the Hornet's Nest, swapping stories and jokes ... and gossip about the Bar VR.
"You wanted everybody drunk," I said. "You wanted everybody talkin'."
Gustav let his smug smile grow a little larger. He'd used me as his liquored-up Judas goat, and it rubbed on me like sandpaper — though I had to admit I'd had plenty of fun.
"So?" I growled. "That firewater smoke anything out?"
Old Red nodded at the open range ahead and kicked his horse up to a canter. I knew what that meant: Not in town. I got my mount moving, too, every jouncing jostle shooting a jolt of pain through me. While I waited for Gustav to slow his horse and open his mouth, I got my mind off my suffering — and my irritation with my brother — by chewing over what I already knew of the Bar VR.
Like a lot spreads, it was owned by Englishmen, lords and earls and such in this case. That's why it even had a name that acted uppity: the Cantlemere Ranche. As is the custom, the outfit was more commonly known by its brand, that being a stubby line over the letters VR.
A few years back, the Bar VR wasn't much different from any other big ranch. The winter of '86–'87 changed that. The Big Die-up it's called, for that was the winter more than a million cows froze solid on the plains. At the time, I was trying to keep our family afloat by clerking in a Kansas granary — a job that let me ride out the blizzards as cozy as kittens in a sweater. Old Red was earning money, too, though he didn't have it so soft: He was fighting frostbite in a Panhandle ranch shack. The snow got so high he saw dead steers in treetops when it melted, and the smell of rotting cow flesh hung on the prairie for a year.
Most of the so-called cattle barons sold out after that. The VR's owners stuck firm, though they did make one big change. A new general manager showed up, handed the foreman his walking papers, and brought in his own man — Uly McPherson.
Now, up to here the VR's story was common knowledge. But once McPherson got mixed up in it, details were a lot harder to come by. Apparently McPherson didn't like any flannelmouthing about himself or his outfit, a point he'd made on more than one occasion by decorating the floor with a fellow's teeth. Which is why Old Red had sprung for the rave-up. Fear can freeze men's tongues, but liquor's a surefire way to thaw them out.
"The locals knew of McPherson even before he hired on with the VR," my brother said when we were out on the plains with only prairie dogs around to eavesdrop. "He was a nester with a little spread just south of the ranch. Had him a reputation as a brand artist. The VR's first general manager even accused him of cuttin' wire and helpin' himself to cattle. Then a new manager came over from England — Perkins is his name — and he went and hired the son of a bitch."
"Invites the fox into the henhouse."
"It gets more so. When Perkins took over, the VR had thirty thousand head spread over half a million acres. That's enough to keep thirty men busy. But from the provisions they buy in town, the best guess is they've got no more than ten men out there. No one can say for sure, for they run off every visitor they get — even hungry fellers ridin' the grub line in the dead of winter."
"Mighty. The only VR man people see in town other than the McPhersons is the cook. The Swede they call him, for reasons even you could deduce."
"He's from France?"
Gustav ignored my little funny.
"Apparently, he speaks English about as good as a fish can whistle. So folks don't get much gossip out of him. But it ain't always what a feller says that tells you something. One of the boys from the Hornet's Nest saw the Swede go into Langer's Sundries yesterday and pick up the makings of a banquet — canned oysters, a keg of cod, currant jelly, hams. Then McPherson struts in ... and tells him don't forget the smoked salmon! And in his hands he's got two bottles of thirty-dollar Scotch he just bought at the Gaieties."
I puzzled on this a moment, then gave it a shrug. "I don't see the mystery. McPherson's havin' the Swede lay out an extrafine table the first day we're there so none of us are turned back to town by lousy chow."
Excerpted from Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith. Copyright © 2006 Steve Hockensmith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Steve Hockensmith writes a monthly column for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and stories featuring Big Red and Old Red appear regularly in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. He has been a finalist for the Shamus Award for his short-story writing. Holmes on the Range is his first novel.
Steve Hockensmith is an entertainment journalist who writes for The Hollywood Reporter, The Chicago Tribune, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Newsday, Total Movie, and was the editor in chief of Cinescape Magazine. He also writes a monthly column for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine called Reel Crime, and his stories appear a few times a year in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Holmes on the Range, On the Wrong Track and The Black Dove featuring Old and Big Red.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This book was laugh out loud funny and engaging mystery. I loved it. Am now reading the second in the series and will look forward to future adventures with Big Red and Old Red! This is a great book to start young people out in the mystery genre.
The cover of this book is reminiscent of a Remington painting, it was found in the clearance bin of one of my dealers and turned out to be a treasure (except for one flaw, see below). I have enjoyed the occasional mystery and prefer the Sherlock Holmes type when I do read from that genre; after reading Lonesome Dove, I have a certain affinity for tales of the Old West. This book encapsulates both tastes in a well-paced tale of life on a Montana cattle ranch, the Cantlemere Ranche, and the mystery surrounding that sinister patch of land. The detectives are Gustav (Old Red) and Otto (Big Red) Amlingmeyer, brothers and the last of their lineage (the rest of their family having been either dispensed by disease or carried off by flood, along with their farm) who are cattle drovers. At least they were cattle drovers until they were hired on at the "Bar VR," as the ranch is known, and a couple of deaths add mystery to the already shadowy cattle farm. Big Red ("size-wise I'm just a shade smaller than your average house" p.5), the youngest of his clan, is the only member of his family who learned to read, Old Red ("having as he does a crotchety side more befitting a man of seventy-two than twenty-seven"), the eldest of said clan, enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes mysteries read to him by his brother from penny dreadfuls and Harper's Bizarre Magazine. Because of his brothers reading, "Some folks get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes." His interest shows to be more than a literary enjoyment, as he proves to be a better detective than a drover, and he is a superior cattle wrangler. The story is narrated by Otto (Big Red) who uses wonderful, pithy, sometimes very colorful ways to describe what is occurring within the story. Big Red is known for being overly verbose and he stands true to that reputation in the telling of this yarn. His powers of observation may be far short of those of his brother, but his ability to relate the action is second to no one. He plays well Dr. Watson to Old Red's Sherlock Holmes. There were moments in reading this book where I had to stop reading to giggle, then read the sentence again, then stop to laugh. Mr. Hockensmith borrows heavily from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries but adds humor in abundance and treats Mr. Holmes as a historic character, which adds unexpected depth to the tale here told. The characters, with the exception of the Amlingmeyer brothers, are largely recycled characters from other mysteries but the reader is entranced by the book's setting, the predicaments the brothers address and Big Red's constant commentary. The author made the ending too neat and tidy for the set up and plot development given throughout the book and this is the flaw in the book. The ending will not "ruin" the book, but it detracts from its otherwise freshness and creativity. This is a book easily read over a rainy weekend, barring prolonged and frequent periods of laughter. These are cowboys doing most of the talking, so the language is colorful. There are multiple deaths, one very gruesome, graphically described. There is little of true value to be found in this book beyond laughter and a good read.
I'm not a big fan of either the mystery or Western genres but I bought this book on a whim. And - wow! - what a delightful find. The book draws you into it with its folksy, quirky twists. Before you realize it, you're hooked into an amusing page turner. Mr. Hockensmith has created - I hope - a great new series starring the Amlingmeyer brothers.
I fully enjoy reading this mystery. Two bumbling brothers struggle to solve a murder on a large cattle ranch. I also learn new things about what cattle drovers are expected to do on the job. All the characters are pretty well created because you can't help forming emotions toward them. That, and the actions within the story make this one fun read. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
It starts off a little slow as it is introducing the mystery and the characters, but after awhile it gets exciting and the mystery is a good one. Some twists you'll figure out but others will surprise you.
I've read Hockensmith in the monthly mystery mags and these characters are always a joy to find. This is a must get and savor book. If you love mysteries and you love the west, you'll love what Hockensmith has created. I read close to 20 books a week and write inbetween, plus work full-time. This one is definitely going to be read and placed with the keepers.
Great combination of humor and mystery. Fans of sherlock holmes should read this book.