After inheriting a fixer-upper, newlywed Morrie Morgan returns to 1920s Butte, Montana, to fight a rival newspaper and help the miners working for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.
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Often called the dean of writers about the American West, Ivan Doig is the author of such national bestsellers as "The Whistling Season "and "The Bartender's Tale." His work has been translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, and Finnish, and his honors include seven regional booksellers awards, the Evans Biography Prize, and the Wallace Stegner Award, among others. He lives in Seattle.
“Morrie, don’t fall off the cable car, please. At least not until we reach the top of the hill.”
Grace’s flash of smile and dimple reassured me her warning was of the teasing sort, although hardly the usual honeymoon endearment. Indeed, standing precariously on the steps of the crowded conveyance as I had to, I nearly lost hold in my startled reaction to what I was seeing. Not the fancy San Francisco shops bedecked with holiday wreaths nor the picturebook view of the dusky bay and its ferry fleet like bright waterbugs, arresting as those were. No, what caught my eye as the cable car climbed the steep street was the bowler-hatted figure evincing sudden great interest in the cooked chickens hanging by their necks in a Chinese grocery storefront. My heart beat with the question: Could it be? After the gambling mob in Chicago all those years ago, after the goons of Butte, another one?
Another window man.
The species was unmistakable, in my experience. Someone tailing an individual of interest by blending in with other pedestrians until the individual happened to glance around, as I had just done, forcing an about-face to the nearest display behind plate glass. But why now, why here? What perverse kind of luck was following me through life like a secondary shadow?
“I thought I saw someone I recognized,” I vaguely made my excuse to Grace.
She craned to peek past me from where she sat. “Somebody from Butte? We should have said hello.”
“No, no, I must have been wrong. A case of mistaken identity.”
The cable car clanged to a stop atop Nob Hill and I helped her down, my mind still taken up with that sighting. Grace slipped her arm through mine, gay as a Parisienne on promendade, as we strolled past the flivvers and delivery vans lining the manicured driveway of our hotel. “I can’t wait to hear Caruso tonight,” she snugly pressed my arm to her side. “What’s he singing, again?”
“Mmm? Pagliacci. The clown who cries.”
“Oh, my. What for?”
“Those Italians. Remember Rome?” An even more fervent squeeze of my arm. “But this tops it all, you man of the world you. Caruso. Polly-whosis. Deluxe hotel on Snob Hill.” She laughed her delight. “It’s like a dream, don’t you think?”
“Very like.” Knowing what I must do, I stopped short of the columned entrance where the doorman in gaiters and ruff waited to bow us in. “My dear, you go on up to the room. I’ll just nip around the corner for today’s papers.”
“Don’t be long, darling,” she dimpled in a way more than wifely, “we don’t want to be late for the singing and crying.”
The newspaper vendor, Blind Tony, was ensconced in a hutch practically buried in stacks of newsprint. Throughout our stay I had always made generous with a silver dollar for the day’s two bits’ worth of the Sporting News and either the San Francisco Call or Bulletin. This time I gave him an amount that clinked in his hand.
“That old silver eagle seems to have company, guv’nor.”
“Let’s regard it as rent on a sense of hearing, shall we, Tony,” I responded. Keeping my voice low, I asked whether his keen ears had picked up any footsteps following my own.
The sightless eyes squinted in recall. “Funny you should mention it. Right after your last couple times here, there been a set of leather soles and catpaw heels that go by, slow like.”
I had to think fast. “Here’s what those pieces of silver and I want you to do....”
Having enlisted the news vendor, I turned to saunter off toward the hotel as usual, but as soon as his booth concealed me at an angle from anyone down the street who might be watching, I ducked back and into the structure, hiding behind the bulky torso of Tony and stacks of newspapers. Fresh ink of headlines permeated the close quarters. HARDING VOWS ERA OF ‘NORMALCY’...CARRIE NATION BURIES HATCHET IN PROHIBITION VICTORY...CONGRESS OF SOVIETS SETS RUSSIAN ECONOMIC GOALS... EARTHQUAKE KILLS UNTOLD THOUSANDS IN CHINA... Nineteen-twenty was going out with sound and fury, as human annals tend to do. But I had no time to dwell on that as Blind Tony, significantly cocking an ear, alerted me to the approach of the man in the bowler hat. I dove a hand into my side pocket for the precautionary item I carried there by habit.
“Help me find my house key where I dropped it, can you, guv’nor?” Tony called him over.
As the stranger obligingly stepped up to the booth, I reached out and grabbed him by the necktie, flourishing my brass knuckles in front of his nose and demanding to know who he was.
The man managed to fumble a business card into sight:
BAILEY PRIVATE INVESTIGATIVE AGENCY
WE SEEK AND FIND
“I’m Bailey,” he choked out.
Blinking, I asked the requisite question, namely what on earth he wanted of me.
“I have something for you,” he squawked the gist of it as best he could, “from Sam Sandison.”
At that name, I released my grip on his necktie and let the set of brass knuckles slip back into my suitcoat pocket. My surprise not lessened in the least, I inquired: “Why in heaven’s name didn’t you simply walk up to me like a civilized human being and deliver whatever it is?”
Sulkily adjusting his tie and what composure he could find, the private detective replied that he liked to get a sense of the person he was dealing with before getting down to business.
Very well, then, I was glad to oblige. “How did you”--I wasn’t going to dignify Seek and Find--“track me down?”
That met with a snicker. “There aren’t any too many Fancy Dans trotting around to places like this who pay off in Montana cartwheels.”
I looked sharply at Blind Tony, who was communing with the heavens. “His money is as good as yours, guv’nor.”
“So anyhow,” said Bailey, “let me give you what’s coming to you.” He darted a hand into his suitcoat, and I froze at the glimpse of a shoulder holster and its resident revolver. What he produced, however, was a set of papers. A legal document from the look of it, and as I speedily read through it, a confounding one.
While I was trying to digest the contents, Bailey, piqued at being snaffled by the necktie, huffed that he almost hadn’t taken this cockamamie case, since Sandison was the client. “He’s the Strangler, you know.”
“Yes, yes, I do know,” I said absently, still deciphering legalistic thus-and-therefores. “I am also fully aware that vigilante justice, to call it that, against cattle rustlers happened a long time ago, and ever since then Sandy--”
The detective rocked back on his heels. “Holy cripes, you get to call him that? Maybe that explains something like this.”
Thinking hard, I tapped the document against the palm of my hand. “You know what this is about, do you?”
“Have to,” Bailey replied cautiously. “I never take a case blindfolded.”
“Then with this proposition of his, would you say Sam Sandison is of sound mind?”
“Are you kidding? He can run circles around either of us in the brains department.”
That at least was no surprise. Pocketing the document, I parted with the private eye. “Enjoy San Francisco.”
“Have a ton of fun in Butte,” he called after me sardonically.
Grace was gussying up for the opera when I stepped into the hotel room. Fixing her hair, although her crown braid of flaxen tresses always looked flawless to me. Her compact form filled the latest gown as effectively as a dressmaker’s form. In the dresser mirror she gave me her best smile, bright and teasing, as I came up behind her and put my hands on her silken shoulders. How lucky you are, Morris Morgan, deservedly or not, to have this woman in your life, I told myself yet again.
I stood rooted there, weighed down by a pocketful of legalese, as Grace with a little hum busied herself at her hair again. There are times in life--this most definitely was one--when you can feel fate and destiny pressing on you like a heightened law of gravity. Add in some unknown measure of danger, and deciding becomes a burden like no other. To do or not to do; try that on, Hamlet. A surreptitious telegram to Sandison turning down his madcap proposition would mean Grace’s lustrous head need never be bothered with this; other vulnerable parts of either of us as well. That would be prudent, no doubt wise. The other choice, though. What a chance. What an intriguing gamble. What a wink of fate.
“I have news,” I announced, although I had totally forgotten to buy newspapers. “Down in the lobby, I met up with an emissary from Butte. The long and short of it is, Dora Sandison has passed to her reward--”
“Oh, what a shame,” Grace expressed proper respect. “She was such the lady.”
“--and Sam Sandison has bequeathed us their house.”
At those words, I felt something like electricity go through her. “In the west end?”
Aren’t mansions always? “Very nearly as far in that direction on the compass of social climbing as one can go, I suppose. Ajax Avenue.”
“Is it,” her eyes were large with trying to take the prospect in, “one of the show-off ones?” Her boarding house, where all this began, was considerably down the scale in every way from the profligate showpieces erected by the early generation of Butte copper barons.
“Mmm, in reasonably better taste. I was only ever there a time or two, but I remember it as roomy and done in a style of its own.” Much like Samuel Sandison himself, I did not bother to add.
Grace absorbed that for a moment. Then flung herself into hugging me. “Morrie, you rogue! What a wonderful Christmas present!”
As I regained my breath, she ran her fingers up and down my lapel and confided with a bit of a blush: “I have a confession to make. It’s awful of me, but...I’d begun to wonder how you are as a provider.”
That made two of us. For the fact of the matter was, our money was evaporating fast. Just prior to winning Grace’s hand, I had attained a junior fortune on a sporting wager. More like a sure thing, actually, for who in his right mind would not have bet against the heavily favored Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series, intuiting as I did that the team would not play its best for owner Charles Comiskey, known in sporting circles back there as Cheap Charlie. I admit I did not foresee that his baseball minions would succumb to bribes and deliberately let Cincinnati win, but it came to the same, which is to say a satchel of cash for Grace and me to embark on married life. With that wherewithal, our honeymoon had turned into a honey year. Europe, New York, New Orleans, and of course San Francisco, we hit the world’s high spots in the manner to which we were all too soon accustomed. The document beneath the fabric Grace was so fondly fingering had spared me a confession of my own, namely that I possessed not the foggiest noton how to support us, in high style or low, once the satchel was empty. Now, whether or not we had any money, we at least had a mansion, ready and waiting for the claiming.
“Ah, Grace,” I tucked a stray tendril into her interrupted hairdo, “there is one slight wrinkle in Sandison’s bequest that I should perhaps mention.”
“Fire when ready, you splendid provider you.”
“The house comes with Sandison.”
The train--which had royally whisked us away to more comfortable climes not so many months before--deposited us now onto the wintry platform of the Butte depot. Snowbanks of apparently arctic depth lined the railroad tracks, and the depot eaves showed long teeth of icicles. One of us at least was unbothered by the cool reception; Grace’s cheeks bloomed in the frosty air. “As they say, there’s no place like home,” she smiled encouragement to me, each of her words a smoky puff of breath, “even at ten below.”
I merely nodded, distracted as ever by the eye-popping view. The Richest Hill on Earth, always bragged of in capital letters, did not look the part as it hunched at the back doors of the wintry city. Rather, it appeared to be a conglomeration of belching factories and bizarre steel towers leading to nowhere and grim gray dump heaps pocking a misplaced hump of earth which, with a fresh covering of snow, gave the startling impression of having risen like bread dough. Looks can be deceiving, never more so than in this instance, for the Butte hill contained unmatched deposits of copper, at precisely the time when civilization was wiring itself for electricity. Some twenty billion dollars of the conductive metal had been mined from the Hill. As to the community that had exploded from rough western mining camp to a secular capital of political power and cultural aspiration, Butte was no beauty but held an allure of its own. Literally sitting on riches, throughout its history the unlikely mile-high metropolis, which always appeared to be trying to catch up with itself in sporadic skyscrapers and flung-together neighborhoods, had drawn seekers of wealth, from miners to moguls. I myself first arrived practically penniless in the tumultuous year of 1919, and while my path to good fortune was not the standard one, I had to grant that Butte had been a lucky diggings, as the saying was, for me as well. Although as is too often the case where men battle for control of the earth’s yield, not without risk attached. What a crime, on what a scale, for a city of such treasure to be forever squirming under one mighty thumb. Even in the innocence of snow capping the distant roofs and cornices of tall downtown businesses, it stood out to me: the top floor of the Hennessy Building, where power resided. Where the offices of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company looked down on the city, and for that matter, the state that it had long ruled like a corporate fiefdom. Where suspicions ran high against interlopers of whatever sort.
With a well-learned sense of caution, I glanced around for anyone taking undue notice of our arrival. Window men, if any, would have stood out like penguins against frosty glass backdrops, and passersby swathed from the crystalline cold all seemed to have their heads down to watch the tricky footing on the tilted streets. Nothing unwelcome about our welcome, so far. Still, certain shards of memory from 1919 sent an occasional quiver through me.
Shivering more than a little herself as we waited for our luggage, Grace murmured in wifely concern, “You look bothered. You aren’t nervous about the Sandison house, are you?”
“No, no, just wondering at the whereabouts of our belongings,” I alibied, looking around for the baggage handler. With sinking heart, I spotted him emerging not from the baggage car but the depot, claim check in hand.
I groaned. “Not again?”
“That trunk of yours got sidetracked somewhere between Frisco and here, I’d say,” he cheerfully proffered the claim check. “It’ll catch up with you sooner or later, you can just about bet.”
“Not if experience is any guide,” I protested hotly, citing my own previous trunk lost when I first arrived to Butte, and still missing after all this time. I was well launched into an impassioned lecture to the unimpressed baggageman about this trunk of ours having accompanied us uneventfully on railroads around half the world until this accursed one, when Grace tugged at the sleeve of my overcoat. “Morrie, never mind. I have my overnig...
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Book Description Thorndike Press, 2013. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P111410461335
Book Description Thorndike Press, 2013. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Brand New!. Bookseller Inventory # VIB1410461335