“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 overnight case and you’ve your satchel, we can get by.”
Resigned to the loss, evidently my own personal admission ticket to Butte, I sighed heavily and accompanied Grace out to the street. A jitney sat chugging at the snowy curb, and the bundled-up taxi driver poked his head out to ask, “Where to, folks?”
I said with what I hoped was the air of a mansion owner, “Ajax Avenue, please.”
“Horse Thief Row it is,” the driver said nonchalantly. “Hop in.”
Probably since the villas of Pompeii, palatial homes are ornaments of wealth, and Butte had more than its share of fanciful big houses. Our route swung past the monstrosity built by the early copper magnate William A. Clark, a many-gabled Victorian monument to vanity that took up half a block. More ostentatious yet was the chateau his son had imported from Europe and reassembled to the last cubit. Housekeeper that she’d had to be in operating her own boarding house, Grace peered apprehensively through the frost-flowered windows of the taxi as we passed other West End behemoths, her gloved hand gripping mine harder and harder. “Grace, Sandy’s residence as I recall it is not as gargantuan as these,” I sought to reassure her. To no avail. More firmly, I tried again. “It’s only a house, remember.”
“Around here, that’s some ‘only,’” she said with a swallow.
Now I was the apprehensive one. “I hope you’re not getting--”
“No! I’m fine. Fine.”
Finally the driver called out, “This’s the street. Which shack is yours, pard?”
I pointed over his shoulder to a stonework architectural mix with a peaked tower room predominating. Draped in snow and icicles, the three-story house looked like a polar castle.
“There, see?” I soothed Grace when the taxi left us off outside the gray granite manse. “Smaller than Versailles.”
“A little,” she allowed doubtfully, as we negotiated the frosty front steps and porch. The second time I rapped the brass knocker in the shape of a helmeted warrior’s frosty-eyed visage, Ajax on guard duty, a familiar gruff voice called from somewhere inside. “Coming. Don’t wear out the door.”
“Morgan,” the figure that flung it open and loomed there almost filling the doorway issued, as if identifying me to myself. As commanding as Moses, he rumbled, “It’s about time you stopped gallivanting all over the landscape. Heh.”
Samuel Sandison himself was nearly geographic, the great sloping body ascending from an avalanche of midriff to a snowy summit of beard and cowlick. Glacial blue eyes seemed to see past a person into the shadows of life. Attired as ever in a suit that had gone out of fashion when the last century did, and boots long since polished by sagebrush and horsehide, he appeared to be resisting time in every stitch of his being. Description struggled when it came to his mark on history, cattle king turned vigilante turned bookman and city librarian, who had bent every effort and not a few regulations to provide a rough-and-tumble mining town with a world-class reading collection. And always, always, the long shadow of the hangman’s tree followed him, carried forward from when he’d owned owned the biggest ranch in Montana. Having shared an office with him in something like companionable exasperation--the feeling may have been mutual--I always connected this outsize man with those lines of the poet Cheyne: Greater than his age was he/Story and legend his legacy.
Right now, he was some manner of unprecedented tenant ushering us into a sprawling residence newly ours. Parlor, drawing room, music room with piano and peach-and-plum wallpaper wrongly inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado,” living room, dining room, nameless others, kitchen somewhere in the distance. Fine-grained oak here, birdseye maple there, Turkish carpets everywhere. “Bedrooms and such are upstairs,” he waved toward the heavens, “there’s a mob of them. Help yourselves.” With Grace wearing the wide-eyed expression of a first-time museum-goer, he trooped us on through the downstairs until we reached a conical room at the base of the substantial tower, practically submerged in books. “Library,” he pronounced, probably just for the satisfaction of the word. Spying a rare-books catalogue open on the overflowing desk, I couldn’t help but ask, “How’s shopping, Sandy?”
“About like dealing with pirates, as usual.” He frowned at me a certain way, booklover to booklover. “What do you think of ‘The Song of Igor’?”
“Where ‘the wolves in the ravine conjure the storm,’ if I am translating rightly? The poetic flavor of that might not be received as well it should by your library patrons, this time of year.” I inclined my head to the depths of snow and thermometer which evidently were here to stay through the Butte winter.
“You maybe hit on something there,” Sandison drawled. “I’ll hold out for something less Siberian.” Noticing Grace biting a finger--I could tell she was trying to tally the number of rooms encountered so far, with floors yet to go--he addressed her with elephantine gallantry. “My hat is off to you, madam, for turning this hopeless case,” he indicated to me, “into husband material.”
“What? Oh, yes. I mean, Morrie had a hand in that, too.” The topic of matrimony reminding her, she paid her respects to the late Dora: “I’m sorry about your loss.”
He bobbed his head in almost schoolboyish fashion, evidently not trusting his voice. Clearing his throat, he returned to eyeing me critically. “What are you doing with all that foliage on your face? Hiding the mud fence?”
There is quite a philosophy to growing a beard--or a mustache, as I occasionally resorted to--but in this instance, I’d done so simply as a precautionary measure. That winning bet on the corrupted World Series may have upset the Chicago gamblers who lost their shirts to some smart aleck with too much of a hunch, as they no doubt saw it, and I thought it best not to fit my description while Grace and I hit the high spots of the world. I had also added some pounds in our sampling of national cuisines; advancing from lightweight to middleweight, as I preferred to think of it. A bit of camouflage never hurt, in my experience.
“I think it’s very becoming on him,” Grace said loyally, of my carefully tended whiskers. “Hmmp,” Sandison grunted, himself bearded as a Santa. The glint in the gaze he gave me showed he was restraining himself, barely, from asking, “Becoming what?” Before he could hold forth about me any further, Grace put in, “I’d like to look over the kitchen, if I may.”
“Madam, be my--” he halted the sweep of his hand toward the rear region of the house “--I started to say guest, but landlady is more accurate, isn’t it. Heh.” Grace flinched ever so slightly and left us.
“That brings up something, Sandy.” I strolled the circle of the room for the pleasure of running my fingers over the valuable books. “Exactly how is this living arrangement supposed to work?”
“Easy as pie, simpleton. I’ll hole up here when I’m not downtown at the library,” he deposited himself in his chair at the heaping desk, “and use a stray bedroom. The rest of the place is yours and hers. Signed, sealed and delivered.”
“That leads to my next question.” The chair groaning under him as he shifted haunches, Sandison waited for me to ask it. I gestured to include everything from ancient Ajax guarding the entrance to the mansion to the gift of title in my pocket. “Why?”
“You don’t think I’m going to live forever, do you?” he said, mildly for him. “You might as well have the place instead of the taxman.”
That seemed to sum the matter up, at least as far as he was concerned. It was only the start of for me. “Thank you very much, I think. But ah, taxes, and upkeep--”
“Coal,” he added to the list with a grunt. “The place eats it like a locomotive.”
“The cook and a couple of maids left, after Dora passed away. I figured you and the missus would take care of all that your own way anyhow.”
“--all of which,” I drew a needed breath, “leads me to wonder if I might have my old job back at the library. A steady wage would be most welcome at this point, Sandy.”
For the first time, he looked less than commanding, the chair groaning some more as he shifted uncomfortably. “Can’t be done, Morgan, as much as I’d like to. The trustees have gone off their rocker about the payroll. The idiots won’t even let me hire a bookcart pusher, let alone an assistant like you were. It’s a damn shame.” His turn to take in the mansion with a gesture. “Naturally I’ll kick in some rent. I’ll discuss that with the landlady,” he said with another glint, “she looks like that is right up her alley.” From under snowy cowlick and frosty eyebrows he studied me in a way I knew all too well. “The rest, though, you’re going to have to provide by putting that head of yours to work, aren’t you. ”
“I see.” I wished I did.
That night in bed, an ornate one which must have held Sandison and Dora comfortably enough but was big as a barge for us, neither Grace nor I could close our eyes, let alone sleep. A large arched window at the end of the bedroom looked out over the lights of the city, with the white web of stars above like a reflection. I have always loved the night sky and its desires coded in constellations and comets, but it was not that keeping me awake. It was Grace.
“I have to keep pinching myself that this is really happening, Morrie.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I’m practically black-and-blue.”
She turned toward me, her flaxen hair garlanding the pillow. “I have to tell you something. Don’t take it wrong. Promise? This, this palace or whatever it is, is a housekeeper’s nightmare. I mean, it’s wonderful, in all other ways. Everything done so fine. The woodwork. The furniture. The Turkey rugs. But it’s so”--I could just make out her face in the dark as she searched for the proper word--“endless.”
“Yes, I’ve begun to notice that.”
“Not that His Nibs”--the jocular lordly monicker fit Sandison rather nicely, I had to grant her--“isn’t the soul of generosity for giving us the house. But he had reason to, didn’t he. Imagine how he must have rattled around in here alone until he had his, his--”
“--whatever you want to call it, to pass this barn of a place along to us and turn himself into a high-class boarder. Him and a thousand books.” She was gaining speed all the time. “It’s too much house even for me, Morrie. I could work myself to a nub trying to keep up with all that needs doing, and it would still gain on me every hour of every day. Can we afford hired help?”
“In a word, no.”
“Then I know of only one thing to do. I take that back. Two.”
“Grace, love, you’re not really going to say--”
“Griff and Hoop. They’re the only answer.”
With difficulty I held my tongue from asking, “To what question?” Describing themselves as retired miners--“at least the tired part”--Wynford Griffith and Maynard Hooper had been fixtures at Grace’s boarding house when I alit there new to Butte, bandy veterans of mine disasters and union struggles and other travails they could recite at Homeric length. It was true, as Grace now was pouring into my ear, that Griff was something of a handyman and Hoop was, well, constantly available; we had left them in charge of the boarding house during our honeymoon sojourn without too many qualms. The pair of them as house staff on Ajax Avenue, though? For one thing, they were getting so old they creaked. For another, as I protested to her, if they moved in here, who was going to mind the boarding house?
“We’ll have to close it until we get this place whipped, that’s all there is to it,” she said conclusively. “No boarder in his right mind is going to show up in Butte in the middle of winter anyway.”
She raised on one elbow, her flaxen hair spilling to her shoulders as she gazed down at me.
“That leaves you, J.P. Morgan.”
I matched her wavery smile with my own. “I don’t suppose it’s an honor I can decline, hmm?” The void yawned distressingly large.
The fact is, I do not take well to most forms of employment. The acid of boredom sets in insidiously and my mind finds other pursuits. Life among the blessed books of Butte aside, the one occupation I had found to give my head and heart to was teaching in a one-room school, in my first venture into Montana a dozen years before. Grace knew only the vaguest of that brief prairie episode of my life, and the question was what earnful work I could find, and stick to, in the here and now. Her first husband, who perished in Butte’s worst mining disaster, the 1917 Speculator fire, evidently had been a paragon of husbandly virtues, uninterruptedly employed, steady as a clock in most ways, right down the list except for an unfortunate habit of betting on greyhound races, the surest way to have one’s wages go to the dogs. Given that, I knew what a leap of faith and love it had been for her to risk life with me. Trying to sound as confident as a man can while flat on his back, I gazed up at her. “Nil desperandum, my dear. Never despair.”
“House rules. English only, in the marital bed.”
“What, you’ve never heard of Ovid?”
“I’ll Oafid you, chatterbox,” she tickled me in the ribs. And with that, everything else could wait until morning.
“Lots needs doing.”
“Nothing we can’t fix.”
Hoop and Griff moved in as though tooling up to attack a rockface in the days when they were a flash team of drillers in many a mine, with a clatter and a magpie glitter of interest in what awaited. Squinting around at the expanse of the house as Hoop likewise was doing, Griff assured me, “Don’t worry none, Morrie. We’ll pitch in here and there and it’ll all add up, you’ll see.” His toolbag beside their battered suitcases there in the side hall struck me as somehow ominous, but I was in no position to turn down help of any sort. Grace had disappeared to the far reaches of kitchen and pantry, and Sandison had not yet made his appearance for the day. The snow-bright morning practically wreathed our new arrivals in wrinkles, Hoop and Griff having worked underground side by side for so many years and boarded together for so many more that they had grown to resemble each other, wizened and bent as apostrophes and nearly telegraphic in their talk. Mineral, vegetable, or animal, the pair could boil down a topic almost instantly. Grace had great affection for them--as did I, with reservations--and Griff, a lifelong bachelor, and Hoop, a widower, shared a near holy reverence for her; “Mrs. Faraday,” as they primly had insisted on calling her up until now, when their tongues were going to have get used to “Mrs. Morgan.”
All at once, their speculations back and forth as to which ailment of the house merited most urgent treatment petered out as they looked past me down the hallway, and in unison doffed their hats and clasped them to their breasts.
I scarcely had to turn around to the object of their respect. “Good morning, Sandy. I hope the accommodations”--he had taken over a back bedroom in what amounted to servants’ quarters, but handiest to his beloved library tower--“were up to expectation?”
“It’ll do. Hell, I’ve slept in bunkhouses before. What’s all the commotion?”
Ceremoniously I introduced Hoop and Griff as new boarders, doubling as household staff. Sandison grunted a greeting to the bandylegged pair, who returned the sentiment in hushed tones of awe. Reputation is a mighty thing, I was reminded again. Even in this city where justice not uncommonly was meted out by fist, gun, or dynamite, the legend of Samuel Sandison’s vigilante days stood head and shoulders over other such episodes. It was an old joke that civic uplift came to Montana with the lynching of the villainous sheriff, Henry Plummer, in the goldstrike town of Virginia City in 1863. Tradition of that grisly but effective sort found expression after Sandison’s summary way of dealing with cattle rustlers--hence his lurid nickname “the Strangler,” or sometimes simply “the Earl of Hell”--and here he stood before us, wild-bearded and filling a suit that would have held both Griff and Hoop. Practically kowtowing, they said they’d better get at things and disappeared to an inner room, where moments later hammering broke out.
“You keep some strange company,” Sandison commented in their wake.
“They’ll fit in,” I blandly replied.
He gave me a look, but then grunted again and reached for his overcoat and hat. “Walk me to work, why don’t you, Morgan. It’ll give you something to do besides idle your life away.”
We set off in sunshine that did not take the chill out of the air, as though the sun’s warmth was waning with the year. The other residences along Horse Thief Row were as frosted as cakes, and I learned from Sandison’s rumbling commentary on the neighborhood that it had been his wife’s idea to move there when they left the ranch. “Dora wanted a fancy house for a change,” he said of the mansion I still had to get used to thinking of as mine and Grace’s. “Myself, I’ve never been keen about living on a street named for a two-bit soldier in the Trojan War.”
“It depends on the version of Ajax you believe in,” I protested. “In one telling of it, he was larger than life and a warrior of great prowess. In the other tale, I admit, he comes across as a bit of a peewee and thinking too well of himself. But--”
“That’s what I mean, oaf. If he was an unquestionable hero, he’d have his own epic poem, wouldn’t he.”
“But, I was about to say, if antiquity’s penchant for dualism has given us Janus, a god with faces looking in opposite directions, why can’t there be a twofold reflection of character in the myth, or myths if you will, of Ajax? Perhaps representing mind and matter?” I thought I had him there, but Sandison just snorted.
“Pah. I said he was a two-bit soldier, didn’t I? A bit of this and a bit of that. You should learn to listen, Morgan.”
About then we rounded the corner toward downtown, leaving mythology behind. Like Grace, I nearly had to pinch myself into believing my own senses, for the view ahead stretched like no other in America, with the winter-capped Rocky Mountains rising to the Continental Divide seemingly just beyond the city limits, and every manner of dwelling place and workspot of a hundred thousand people jumbled in between here and there. It was as if a section of Pittsburgh had been grafted onto an alpine scene, the power of industry and that of nature juxtaposed. The contest between the two was in the air, literally. You might think a city dominated by smokestacks and dump heaps would look its best under a covering of snow, but logic did not always apply to Butte. The weather could not keep up with production on the Hill, its low industrial rumble lending to the illusion that the humpbacked rise simmered like a volcano, belching constant smoke and venting muck from dozens of mineshafts, so that the snow being shoveled from paths and doorways as we passed was a mushy gray. “We need a good blizzard,” Sandison prescribed as we made our way down the sloping streets toward the business district. Once again I marveled at my benefactor-cum-boarder, as wintry himself in his silvery wreath of beard and breath as Father Frost of the nursery rhyme. How did it go--“King of the whitened clime, ever there/Leaving tokens of wintertime everywhere.” Season in, season out, Samuel Sandison was like no one else I had ever encountered nor expected to.
Conversation was a sometime thing with this uncommon man, I knew from experience, and so I pitched in with topics ranging from the weather to politics, to keep matters going. As ever, Sandison’s responses varied from grunts and silences to pronouncements that snapped a person’s head around. As the saying was, life was serious when it made him; in all the time I shared his office, the only real mirth he showed was when he spotted a bargain in a rare-book catalogue and would let out a “heh!” and smile in the deeps of his beard. Yet there was almost no other person, save Grace, whom I found more compelling.
Just now he was grumbling about the recent national election which had picked as president the most wooden member of the U. S. Senate. “Warren G. Harding is barely bright enough to operate an umbrella. Damn it, Morgan, what’s this country coming to?”
“History reminds us that worse has happened, Sandy. You will recall that Caligula elected his horse to the Roman Senate.”
“Hah. The American electorate has chosen the north end of that animal going south.”
As we talked on, our breath wreathing our beards, that feeling of being in the company of fate came over me, perhaps just from nearness to Samuel Sandison, a figure monumental enough, Janus-like, to have “The Earl of Hell” inscribed on one side of him and “Progenitor of the Finest Book Collection West of Chicago” on the other. And somewhere between, the unlikely genie who bestowed a mansion as if giving away an old suit of clothes. Impetuously I told him he must inform me or Grace if there was anything we could do to cushion his life at the house. “I know you must miss Dora greatly.”
“About like losing one eye,” he said simply.
Glancing at me and then away, he turned gruff again. “The natural order of things turned upside down somehow, Morgan. Who would have thought you’d be the married man and I’d be the tanglefoot bachelor.”
By now we were approaching his domain, his realm and his sceptre, the Butte Public Library, and my heart skipped at the first full sight of it. How I loved that castle of literature, a granite Gothic extravaganza with its welcoming arches like the entranceway of a cathedral and a balcony neatly cupped above and a corner tower with its peak inscribing the sky. The library’s holdings were the even greater glory, with beautiful first editions of the output of authors from Adams, Henry to Zola, Emile, shelved along with lesser works. Again like a many-sided figure, Sandison as librarian was also the institution’s prime benefactor by mingling these treasures on loan from his own collection with the library’s standard fare, an act of stupendous generosity which also made it impossible to fire him.
A block away, overtaken by so many memories good and the other sort, I was slowing to such an extent that Sandison looked over his shoulder at me. “Coming in?”
“Not today, Sandy.”
“Suit yourself, if you’d rather loaf than improve yourself,” he drawled, lumbering off to where the staff awaited him as usual in a line at the top of the library steps. With a pang, I watched him count them in through the arched doorway as he had counted cowboys at the corral in his previous life.
On my way back to the house, it was only when I stopped at a newsstand to buy the Sporting News and what passed for a local paper, the wretched Anaconda-owned Butte Daily Post, that the odd fact occurred to me. Sandison in our wide-ranging conversation had not bothered to bring up the copper company and its mailed-fist grip on the city at all. Which was a bit like that Sherlock Holmes mystery of the dog that did not bark in the night.
Excerpted from Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig
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