The Littlest Horse Thieves
It was a sight unlike any ever seen on Baker Street. The man facing Mrs. Hudson on the doorstep of 221B was tall, muscular, ruggedly good-looking in spite of his more than 60 years, and wholly out of place on this or any street in London. Curls of white hair flowed beneath a wide-brimmed, high-crowned hat to the shoulders of a fringed buckskin jacket. On closer examination—and every passer-by turned to make closer examination—he could be seen to have full and flaring moustaches as well as a goatee that appeared destined to reach his breastbone given sufficient time. Boots that extended well above his knees completed the picture, although few in his early morning audience ever got beyond the buckskin jacket before recognizing the impropriety of their continued staring.
The man himself seemed wholly unconcerned about the spectacle he was creating. Indeed, if the truth be known he was well accustomed to it. It was, after all, precisely the effect he sought. For several days his arrival in London had been described in the dailies, always with accompanying artists' renderings, while his face in profile with goatee, and what everyone would learn was a Stetson hat, was on display on posters in the windows of nearly every shopkeeper who had a window, alerting all of the city and much of the countryside to the return, "for a limited engagement only," of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
"I'm here to see Mr. Holmes, may I come in?"
Mrs. Hudson threw the door wide. "Please do, Colonel Cody."
She turned and led him into the parlor after first receiving the self-satisfied look she fully expected her words of recognition would produce. "Please seat yourself while I make certain Mr. 'Olmes is free."
In spite of her invitation, the man remained stiffly erect while she mounted the seventeen steps to the sitting room where Dr. Watson was hunched over his roll-top desk intent on capturing with utmost accuracy every detail of the recently concluded adventure of the left-handed calligrapher, every detail, save one—the identity of the mastermind responsible for discovering the identity of the calligrapher's killer. The person to whom that credit was misapplied was at the back of the room, in the space allotted to his laboratory, staring sullenly at a beaker half-filled with a greenish liquid.
"There's a visitor wantin' to see Mr. 'Olmes. 'E's someone who'll interest you both. It's Colonel William Cody, Buffalo Bill as 'e's called. From the looks of things, 'e's got a personal problem that's more than a little embarrassin'."
Watson put down his pencil and asked the question Holmes would die before posing. "Why do you say that, Mrs. Hudson?"
"E's comin' to see us, not the police, which indicates the problem is somethin' 'e wants to keep secret as best 'e can—meanin' it's somethin' that could be embarrassin' if folk learned about it. At the same time, it's bound to be somethin' 'e sees as quite serious or 'e wouldn't be comin' all the way across town at this 'our and on a day 'e'll be wantin' to be with 'is Wild West people preparin' things for tomorrow's openin' for the public. I'm thinkin' it's likely got to do with some piece of property that's gone missin', most probably stolen, and 'e wants us to look into it. If there was some kind of personal disagreement, 'e'd either take care of it 'imself, or e'd be duty bound to share it with the police. I'll send 'im up to see you and I'll be up later with a pot of tea and some fresh made scones."
Once more downstairs, Mrs. Hudson directed the still firmly erect Colonel Bill Cody to join Holmes and Watson while she put up the tea she had promised and gathered together the morning's baked goods. As she did, she fell into a reverie, reprising the events that had led to internationally known figures bringing their problems to Baker Street. Her colleagues would count the beginnings to more than twenty years earlier when they first took rooms at 221B, but she knew the beginnings came well before that.
In truth, she couldn't remember the first time she and Tobias first spread the Evening Standard wide across their kitchen table to select a crime for analysis. She had been the one to suggest it, she remembered that. At first, it was only to show an interest in his work, but it soon became the best time of her day. Tobias would choose the crime and then for an hour, often more, they'd have at it, sometimes challenging each other, sometimes joining forces, always honing his and developing her investigative skills. They determined what to look for at the scene of the crime, what questions to ask of witnesses and people who knew the victim, and the course the investigation would take depending on what was learned. He claimed to be just reporting what any constable would do. She knew better. Ever after, she would call him her "uncommon common constable." But not to his face. That would have been boastful, and Tobias did not do boastful—at least not about himself. He did, on the other hand, remark now and again about what a fast learner she was. And she believed him, because just as Tobias was slow to accept praise, he also wasn't one to waste it on others. She complemented their nightly sessions with regular trips to the British Library. There, her taste in literature at first raised eyebrows among the librarians. Later, finding no reports of horrific crimes involving knives, firearms, poisons, blunt instruments, or lethal falls, and no statement of the arrest of a middle-aged, short, stocky grey-haired woman bent on systematically reducing London's population, they filled her requests with only a nod to a nearby librarian confirming she was at it again.
Nor were studies of criminal behavior and its investigation Mrs. Hudson's only interest. Trips to the greengrocer, the butcher, the apothecary and post office were spent analyzing the people she saw and what their faces, their hands, their gait, their dress, and the way they dealt with others told of who they were and who they had been. When she shared her analyses with Tobias, he professed to being as impressed with her ability to read character as he was with her ability to plan an investigation. His hard-won praise emboldened her to intensify her efforts until one day, quite without warning, she felt herself to have crossed from conscientious student to confident practitioner.
And still it was little more than a parlor trick, and good fun on that account, until Tobias fell ill. The doctor said it was a blood disorder and there was no cure, and too soon Tobias was gone, and parlor tricks were put aside as was a great deal of her life.
It was a trip to the bakeshop months later, as she described it to Tobias during one of her biweekly visits to his gravesite, that she "returned to the land of the living." Before making her way back to that land, she had given up baking since she had no one with whom to share her baked goods and had taken to purchasing the decidedly inferior scones and breads available from Tyler's Bake Shoppe, Tyler's having the sole advantage of being within easy walking distance of 221B. On one occasion, as she left the shop with her purchase, a man, just entering, tipped his homburg to her, and somewhat hesitantly asked, "Mrs. Hudson, isn't it?"
She recognized him instantly as the shy, fortyish librarian whom she knew from her observation to have an invalid wife at home and to be childless. She knew of his wife's disability first from the routine disarray of his clothing. Shirts seemed always in need of ironing, and the remains of breakfast were sometimes visible on both his shirt and jacket. That might have suggested a bachelor's existence were it not for the quantity of groceries and packets of powders from the apothecary she often spied under his desk afternoons, when he'd used his lunch break to go shopping. Her conclusion about a childless marriage was confirmed by the single small picture on his desk showing a younger, less harried man standing beside a smiling, pleasant looking woman. Family man that he was, had there been children, their pictures would undoubtedly have also found their way to a corner of his desk.
"It is, Mr. Pederson. I do 'ope you're well." Mrs. Hudson was inclined to continue on her way, but Mr. Pederson had other ideas.
"I must tell you we've missed you at the library. I hope there's nothing wrong."
Perhaps it was her knowledge of Mr. Pederson's situation and its similarity to her own, perhaps it was because his concern seemed terribly genuine and she hadn't shared her loneliness with anyone, perhaps it was some of both. Whatever the cause, she elected to speak of her loss with a near stranger on a London street outside Tyler's Bake Shoppe, albeit without fully revealing the strong feelings she still harbored.
"I'm afraid there's been an un'appy event, Mr. Pederson. I stopped comin' to the library when I lost my 'usband some months ago."
"Oh, how awful." Pederson's long face removed any doubt she might have had about the genuineness of his concern. "I am so sorry, Mrs. Hudson." And in a softer, no less urgent voice, "How are you coping, if I may ask, Mrs. Hudson?"
She forced a sad smile. "Oh well, each day perhaps a little better."
"Well, I'd like to think whatever it was you were working on at the library could be a help. You know you had all of us speculating about what it was you were doing. You seemed so earnest about it. I do hope you'll be coming to see us again to continue your studies—when you feel up to it, of course. It seems a shame to let all your hard work go by the wayside, and it might be that getting back to it can give you some relief. In this world you have to take what relief you can wherever you may find it." Pederson swallowed before continuing. "I hope I'm not being too forward, Mrs. Hudson. I do know something about losing the companionship you once had."
"Not at all, Mr. Pederson. Not at all. You've been most kind and understandin'. Just now, I should let you get on about your business, and I'll be gettin' on 'ome to see about mine. And I do 'ope to see you at the library sometime soon—maybe very soon."
It was not an idle statement. Pederson's comments had gotten her to thinking. She had, after all, put in a great deal of work and acquired a considerable level of expertise in criminal investigation. More than that, she owed it to Tobias to make certain his teachings, and all those nights puzzling out the mysteries in the Evening Standard would not be for nothing. By the time she got home she had the germ of an outlandish idea as to how she might proceed. By the time she took dinner the idea was still outlandish but had become fully formed. Two days later she placed an advertisement in the Standard, the Times, the Express, and the Mail. It read, "Rooms to let, good location, applicants should possess an inquiring mind and curiosity about human behavior." The plan was simple enough. The lodging house at 221B had long ago been leased by Mrs. Hudson and Tobias to be their home for now, and to provide an income from the lodgers they would accommodate after his retirement. Now, it would have a new role. It would become the site of the consulting detective agency she was determined to found. The newspaper advertisement would attract someone to act as the male figurehead a woman attempting to start her own business would require.
When the several respondents to her advertisement had been seen and judged, a tall, slender chemist appeared by far the best man to act as her face to the world. His high forehead and precise Cambridge diction suggested the necessary intelligence. His haughty self-assurance would, she felt certain, instill confidence in the work of the agency. The physician who accompanied him provided a clear, if unexpected, bonus to his selection. Indeed, his quiet, levelheaded demeanor, and the steady hand she felt certain he would bring to their partnership put Mrs. Hudson in mind of her own dear Tobias.
A look to the teapot reminded her it was time for refreshments to be brought to the sitting room. Setting tea and scones on a tray together with a pot of strawberry jam, she climbed the steps to the sitting room to provide food and drink to the men and to divine what she could of the reason for Buffalo Bill Cody's visit.
"Ah, the tea, and some of your delightful scones, Mrs. Hudson," Holmes smiled his gratitude while Watson cleared a place to accommodate Mrs. Hudson's tray.
"You English and your tea," said the man in buckskin. "Is there anything more you need to know? Will you take my case?" He glanced for a moment to Mrs. Hudson. "We do understand that everything I've told you is in confidence." As if to make clear he need have no worry on that score, Mrs. Hudson continued methodically distributing plates, cups and saucers, seemingly oblivious to anything beyond her mundane household duties.
Holmes screwed his face to a look of utter confusion, then pretended a sudden inspiration. "You mean old Hudson," Holmes chuckled at the thought. "She's been with us for years. I assure you she's totally trustworthy. Try one of these delicious scones. It's something she does quite well."
In spite of Holmes's reassurance, Cody watched Mrs. Hudson complete her task and leave before speaking again. It frustrated the Baker Street trio's usual procedure. Normally, Mrs. Hudson's entrance would trigger Watson's request to read and make certain the notes he had been taking accurately reflected the client's report. His always accurate review would give her a clear understanding of the client's problem. This time, Mrs. Hudson would only learn the problem after the client's leaving. As it turned out, she didn't have long to wait. Within ten minutes, a grim-faced Colonel Cody made a rapid exit from 221B, only stopping briefly to make known to Mrs. Hudson his appreciation for the tea and extend his compliments on her baking. Moments later, the Baker Street trio was seated at Mrs. Hudson's kitchen table ready to consider the problem Cody had shared with them.
Watson set his notes on the table, but before beginning his recitation, thought it wise, if not essential, to lay the groundwork for the unusual action he and Holmes had taken in their meeting with Cody.
"Mrs. Hudson, Holmes and I need to acknowledge at the outset the colonel's difficulty is somewhat foreign to our experience. Nonetheless, we did feel that, if for no other reason than the simple courtesy of helping our much-celebrated American friend, we should take on the case he presented. In a word, we agreed to help him resolve his problem without having a discussion involving the three of us as we normally do." Watson cleared his throat noisily and continued without looking up from his notes. "His problem involves the recovery of his horse which appears to have been kidnapped." Still focused on his notes, he added, "the animal answers to the name of Duke."
Seeing that the grimace, which had been gradually forming across Mrs. Hudson' features, had now completed its journey, Holmes attempted a spirited defense of his and his colleague's action. "It's well to remember this type of crime is not completely out of our experience," Holmes reminded her. "It's not as if we haven't dealt with kidnappings before. There was Ludwig Viktor, the brother of the Austrian emperor, who, you'll remember, was held for ransom by a group of Bosnian separatists. And, closer to home, the grocer's daughter who was taken from her school."
Watson pursed his lips before speaking. "I'm not sure we can count that one, Holmes. You'll remember it turned out she had conspired with her boyfriend to kidnap herself."
The grimace gone, but with eyebrows now threatening an assault on her forehead, Mrs. Hudson stared a long moment at each of her colleagues. Both men recognized it was not a good sign. "You will recall that in each of those instances the victim was two-legged and capable of describin' 'is captors when it became useful to do so."
Holmes shrugged his unconcern with what he viewed as a minor point. Watson decided on another line of attack. "We felt it to be a rather special situation, Mrs. Hudson, or we would never have agreed to take the case without consultation. The horse in question is the colonel's own animal that he rides in his Wild West Show. A very distinctive palomino that has been trained to perform and is 'integral'—to use the colonel's own word—to the success of the show. In a word, it is of considerable value to the colonel and he has promised a packet to get it back." Sympathy for an animal being held against its will having failed to move Mrs. Hudson, he hoped an appeal of a more practical nature might succeed.
Whether swayed by the promise of substantial reward or simply resigned to what appeared inevitable, Mrs. Hudson groaned her acquiescence. "Well, you've given your word, and to renege on it wouldn't be right, to say nothin' of its bein' bad for business if talk got around. So, what do we know about this 'orse stealin'?"
Watson seized on Mrs. Hudson's grudging acceptance and tried to instill an enthusiasm for the task she clearly lacked. "What we know is the story told to Cody by a very upset, very embarrassed stable boy, a youngster of about sixteen who is the son of one of the performers in the Wild West Show.
"The boy reported that late last night, after everyone had settled down and he was alone in the stable, there was a pounding on the door and a girl's voice calling for help and crying—at least it sounded to him like crying. He thought he had to let her in, if only to find out what was wrong. He didn't ask her name and all he can say about her is that she was probably about thirteen or fourteen, had sort of a long face, brown hair that went down below her shoulders in two twists where they were tied together, and that she was slender—'skinny' was the word the boy used. The girl told him her brother had fallen down a nearby embankment and couldn't get back up. She said she thought he had broken a leg. The stable boy felt he had to go with her. Besides which, he didn't see how there could be any danger with seemingly no one around, and her crying and carrying on was beginning to—again, the boy's words—'spook the horses.'
"By the time they had walked to the part of the embankment where she said her brother had fallen, they had gotten so far from the lighted area that the boy reported he could barely see his hand in front of his face. That was when the girl slipped away. A short time later he heard a noise coming from the stable and when he looked back, he saw Cody's horse with two riders. With the light from the stable, he's certain that one of them was the girl and he believes the other was somewhat smaller and a boy. It would seem that while the girl led the stable boy away from the barn, the boy—who was, of course, perfectly safe—went in through the open door, got a bridle on Cody's horse, picked up the girl who'd started back in the dark and the two of them took off riding bareback."
Watson closed his accounts book and finished his report. "Cody would like us to find his horse before noon tomorrow. He's scheduled to put on the show's first public performance at two that afternoon. As we know, there was a show yesterday for King Edward, Queen Alexandra and others in the royal family, and today was set aside to allow his people to recover from the celebration that followed yesterday's performance and prepare for the later shows. Holmes and I pointed out that a day and not quite a half was a good deal less than generous given what little we had to go on, but he was quite insistent on that point."
"We should probably start with questioning the stable boy," Holmes suggested. "There's a good chance that whatever's been done, he's part of it. He's young, very likely new to this kind of thing and should be easy to break down."
"I rather doubt the stable boy's involvement, Mr. 'Olmes. As you say, 'e's young and new to this kind of thing. If 'e was part of this kidnappin'—or 'orse-nappin'—one wouldn't expect 'im to return to the stables to face Colonel Cody and likely 'is own father, who you say is part of the show. Besides which, 'e's also new to this country and with the show just gettin' started, 'e wouldn't 'ardly 'ave 'ad time to recruit a pair of accomplices from a place 'e's never been or to 'ave scouted out somewhere safe to take the animal. No, I think our young stable boy is tellin' the truth and there's nothin' more we could 'ope to get out of 'im."
"Well then, Mrs. Hudson, what is your thinking about the horse-napping?" Watson asked.
"I believe it's exactly what it appears to be, Doctor. A prank organized by two children, almost certainly brother and sister since youngsters that age rarely form cross-sex friendships. They would obviously be subject to loose supervision, or more likely absent parents. Since the 'orse 'as not shown up, it is clear the children 'ave access to a barn where the 'orse can be kept. Moreover, they could not 'ave gone far without rousin' suspicion or tirin' the 'orse, meanin' the children and the 'orse are likely on a farm not very far from the exhibition grounds. It's only to the west of the exhibition grounds there's still farmland, so we'll need to ask people who live out that way if they know a farm where there's a brother and sister likely between eleven and fourteen years with the girl the older of the two. Somebody's bound to know them. When we find them, we need to remember they're just children playin' at a game and not scare them out of their wits. I'm thinkin' it might be well for a woman to be along to make it seem less threatenin'.
"We'll want to start within the hour. We'll need a carriage to go over the country roads. Can you arrange to rent one, Doctor?"
Watson nodded although neither Mrs. Hudson nor Holmes looked to him, all three knowing her words only sounded like a request.
By late morning they had arrived at the exhibition grounds west of the city. Ten years earlier it had provided a venue for Indians from the Empire of India to entertain and to acquaint the English with their culture; now, it provided a venue for Indians from the American West, together with cowboy trick riders and sharpshooters, to entertain and to acquaint the English with selected aspects of American Indian culture. They chose the road that took them due west from the exhibition grounds, passing patches of grassland and small clusters of trees, before coming finally to long furrows of unrecognizable plantings extending from the road to distant houses and barns. The farmhouse on the left side of the road being the first encountered, it became their initial stop.
It had been agreed that three strangers descending on the woman or man of the house might seem overwhelming and create unwanted defensiveness. It was seen as best for Watson to wait in the carriage while Holmes and Mrs. Hudson conducted the inquiry. It was reasoned that the name, Sherlock Holmes, might make clear the seriousness of their investigation while Mrs. Hudson's matronly presence—although no one used that term—might not only prove comforting with children, but might also loosen the tongues of adults who would otherwise be loath to speak to strangers about their neighbors.
Accordingly, Watson remained in the carriage, reining the horse to a stop just beyond the three steps leading to the farmhouse porch. Holmes and Mrs. Hudson climbed to the top step and were in the process of setting their faces to meet the situation they anticipated—Holmes's serious, befitting the search for horse thieves regardless of their age, and Mrs. Hudson's gently sympathetic, befitting the search for children regardless of their crime—when the woman of the house opened the front door. She was wiping her hands on a part of the apron she had scooped up for the purpose. She was tall, and thin, almost gaunt, and she too had set her face. Hers suggested a less than welcoming spirit toward her would-be visitors. When she spoke, the suggestion became fact. Words that might have sounded a greeting were undone by the tone in which they were spoken.
"Hello. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Good morning. My name is Sherlock Holmes, and this is Mrs. Hudson." Holmes paused to allow for an expression of recognition that never came. "We're here in search of a horse that seems to have wandered off in the company of two young children, a boy and a girl. We're searching for the horse on behalf of its owner."
The woman looked to them and then to the man in the carriage as if she was searching for the real motive for their coming. "And you think your horse might be here?"
Mrs. Hudson had doubts about any approach succeeding with the woman. but thought it worth trying a genial woman to woman exchange. "Nothin' like that, Mrs. …"
There was a long pause, then a reluctant, "Walls. Mrs. Jeremiah Walls."
"Nothin' like that, Mrs. Walls, we don't know where the 'orse is, and we believe it's all nothin' more than a prank, but it's important we find the animal before the youngsters get themselves into real trouble. We're lookin' for a farm where the children—a boy and girl likely between eleven and fourteen are livin'." The sympathetic smile she had tried earlier resurfaced as she finished her appeal. The effort was marginally successful as Mrs. Walls became marginally amiable.
"Children can bring worry into a house. No question about that. Mr. Walls and I don't have any ourselves, mind you, but there's nieces and nephews, a bunch of them." She shook her head disapprovingly, whether of their behavior or their existence was unclear. She then reverted to her earlier self. "I'm afraid I can't help you, Mr. Hines, Mrs. Hudson. I don't know anything about runaway horses or children. If that's all you wanted, I'll wish you good day and get back to my baking." With that, she turned so sharply, she missed seeing the man she knew as Hines tip his hat or the woman called Hudson smile her good-bye.
They climbed back in the carriage and, without words between them, headed for the farmhouse right of the road. Its owner, or more likely its owner's father wore an empty smile as he followed their progress to the edge of the farmhouse porch. Only then did the smile become a look of worried concentration as he struggled to determine who these strangers were and what they might want of him. His greeting quickly made clear the fruitlessness of their visit.
"If you're looking for my son, he ain't here. Don't know when he'll be back. Elizabeth's gone with him if you wanted to speak to her. There's just me and there's not much I can do for you."
This time there was no getting out of the carriage. All recognized the unpromising nature of the situation, but they had come this far and nothing would be lost by calling a question to the man. Holmes shouted to him, "How well do you know the families here about?"
"Families? What families?"
"I wanted to ask you about the other farmers who live nearby, whether any of them have young children—we're looking for a family with a boy and a girl somewhere between eleven and fourteen?"
"There's just the one boy, William. That's what he calls himself. William. Doesn't like Bill, just William. He went with them, my son and Elizabeth. My son is also William, but he's alright with Bill."
Holmes yielded to the futility of further questioning. "Thank you. We won't take up any more of your time."
The vacant smile returned as William's father and grandfather watched the carriage retrace the route to the main road. There was silence inside the carriage as each of its occupants dealt with the possibility that finding the two children, and the horse that answered to the name, Duke, might be a more formidable task than any had anticipated. As they pondered the situation, the carriage came to a point where paths branched off right and left of the main road. Watson held the horse in check while they stopped to consider whether to follow one or the other path or continue along the main road. After brief discussion, they decided to stay with the main road. The path to the right showed a patch of woods with no end in sight, the path to the left passed a vast lake with what appeared to be a farmhouse on its other side. The distance to that house, and the unpredictability of the road to reach it, made the decision an easy, if not entirely satisfactory one. Inquiries at the next three farmhouses on the main road did nothing to bolster confidence in the choice made. They hoped without conviction for better luck with the fourth.
Holmes and Mrs. Hudson ascended three steps to the wide front porch that seemed a staple of every farmhouse. Holmes's knock was answered by a girl of about fifteen with red hair, a wealth of freckles and a friendly open face. She pushed back rimless glasses that ever after appeared intent on getting as far down her nose as possible before getting caught and pushed back. She looked to the strangers with a half-smile. The single word she spoke was less a welcome than an expression of curiosity about their visit.
Holmes smiled his most ingratiating before answering. "My name is Sherlock Holmes, and this is Mrs. Hudson. Are your parents at home?"
"They're in the barn." She nodded to a building some distance from the house while herself remaining framed in the doorway. "One of the horses is down."
Mrs. Hudson decided not to wait for the girl's parents. "We believe there's a farm somewhere near to 'ere where there's a boy and girl close to your age, probably a little younger."
Curiosity remained the dominant force but now was expressed with a note of caution. "Why are you looking for them?"
Mrs. Hudson continued. "We think they could be in some trouble. Nothin' really bad. They took someone's 'orse for play, but they 'aven't returned it yet. We mean to find the 'orse and get it back to its owner before they get into any real trouble."
The girl looked to Mrs. Hudson then to Holmes, a broad grin suddenly creasing her face.
"That sounds like Joy and Jonathan. They're always pulling stunts like that." Her lip now curled in teen-age disgust. "They're just children."
"Do they live near here?" Holmes asked.
"Not far, but you'll have to go back toward town. You'll come to a road where you can go right past a lake or left past some woods. Sort of a lot of woods. You want to go past the woods. After that you'll come to a farm, a pretty big farm—the Stockton farm. You'll want to be careful about Mr. Stockton. He's their father and he won't be happy when he hears what Joy and Jonathan have done."
Mrs. Hudson and Holmes nodded an understanding they did not fully possess, heartily thanked the girl whose name they still did not know and returned to the carriage, now confident their search was coming to an end.
As it turned out, the farm was only a short distance beyond the woods they had seen from the road, but the density of those woods made it impossible to get a glimpse of the farm until a last turn took them beyond the small forest. When they did come within sight of it, they were quickly struck by the difference between the Stockton farm and all the others. The difference began with the turnoff from the main road onto the dirt path leading to the farmhouse. Entering that path, one passed beneath a wrought iron arch holding within it the name STOCKTON in thick lettering. Beyond the arch they were guided to the front porch of the farmhouse by the neatly pruned wintergreen boxed hedges that lined both sides of the path they were to follow. Ending temporarily at the porch, the boxwood hedges could be seen to reappear beneath each of the farmhouse's ground floor windows.
The farmhouse itself was an enlarged version of those they'd already seen. While there were the usual two windows on each landing to the left of the entrance, there were three windows on each landing to the right an increase of at least two rooms over its neighbors.
Like all the others, the farmhouse was painted milk white; white seeming to be the only color available for painting farmhouses in the area. The windows were framed by dark shutters, and multiple chimneys protruded from a peaked roof.
With the success of their mission now in sight, Holmes and Mrs. Hudson came as close to bounding up the steps to the porch as the director of London's premier consulting detective agency could manage. Holmes made spirited use of the knocker on the front door but got no response. He shrugged his frustration and changed strategies, now calling in a loud, but he hoped not unfriendly voice, "Is anybody home?"
After a short pause, a somewhat tremulous female voice answered his question with a question of her own. "Who's there?"
Holmes looked to Mrs. Hudson with eyebrows raised and found her looking to him in kind. He continued his speech to the closed door in a voice he was certain carried to the fields beyond the house. "I am Sherlock Holmes and I wish to talk to you about Jonathan and Joy."
"What about them?"
It occurred to Holmes that, if this arrangement continued, he would be discussing improper and possibly criminal behaviors with an unknown number of unknown persons. With a nod from Mrs. Hudson, he sought to address that difficulty.
"Would it be possible for us to talk without having to shout past the door? I promise I won't detain you long."
Silence met Holmes's request and continued for a frustratingly lengthy interval. Holmes and Mrs. Hudson detected muffled voices beyond the door but couldn't make out the number of persons involved or what they were discussing. When the door was opened finally, it was not a girl with a tremulous voice who stood in the doorway. Instead, they were confronted by an intense young man they judged still in his teens, who viewed both Holmes and Mrs. Hudson with a suspicion he matched with the words he spoke. "What is it you want with them?"
"May I first know with whom I'm speaking. I've told you my name is Sherlock Holmes and let me introduce Mrs. Hudson." Holmes tilted his head in the direction of Mrs. Hudson lest there be any confusion about the person he was referencing. "My friend, Dr. Watson, is in the carriage below."
"Sherlock Holmes, the detective?
"I know of no other."
The young man's eyes widened, and he visibly gulped, but he was no more forthcoming for having realized the celebrity of his visitor. "And you want to see Jonathan and Joy. Why? They're just children."
Mrs. Hudson thought it time she entered the conversation. She looked beyond the doorkeeper, hoping to get a more cooperative response from the girl of about seventeen intently watching the exchange from a distance behind him. "There's a good chance the young people could be in trouble if we don't 'ave a chat." The warning given, she added a note of urgency to her voice while suggesting the relationship she suspected. "You're the children's sister, aren't you?"
There came a drawn out, "Yes," as if she was uncertain what she might be revealing with the admission.
Indeed, Mrs. Hudson already knew a good deal about her beyond her being the sister of the children they sought. Her hesitancy to open the door and the tremulous voice in which she answered Mr. Holmes, combined with the boy's presence at a time her parents appeared to be away, pointed to her involvement with a young man who had earned her favor but not yet that of her parents. In fact, the opportunity for his visit in the absence of disapproving parents likely led to the less than diligent supervision of the two young children, a responsibility that almost certainly fell to her in the absence of their parents.
The young man reasserted himself in the role of protector. "What is it that they've done—or that you believe they've done?"
The initial ready acceptance of the youngsters' misbehavior suggested to Mrs. Hudson a history of minor transgressions. It emboldened her to forego further explanation and move directly to the reason for their visit.
"Are you aware of a 'orse on your farm that doesn't belong to you?"
The question led the young man to take a long step back, pulling the door wide as he did, thereby, however unintentionally, giving opportunity for Holmes and Mrs. Hudson to enter the house. They seized the opportunity without concern about its origin.
Directed to what she took to be the parlor, Mrs. Hudson was surprised at the contrast between the prosperity suggested by the farmhouse's exterior and the modesty of the furnishings making up its interior. Chairs and the room's sofa were somewhat the worse for wear, showing occasional nicks and scratches inexpertly repaired. A low table bore the scars of a careless smoker without any pretense of repair. It was evident to Mrs. Hudson that the farmhouse owner cared deeply about outward appearance and spent money accordingly.
Having been identified as the sister of the two delinquents, and fully expecting there to be a strange horse in her family's barn, the young woman became both more cooperative and more decisive. She spoke first to her boyfriend. "Benjamin, I believe we need to talk to Joy and Jonathan now before my parents get home."
Benjamin nodded his grim agreement and left to gather up the two youngsters.
After seeing her visitors to seats on the room's sofa, she settled herself on an easy chair opposite and belatedly introduced herself. "My name is Olivia, Olivia Stockton. My parents are away for the weekend and I was left to watch Joy and Jonathan. I'm afraid I haven't been doing a very good job of it. They brought home this palomino they told me they had borrowed from their friend, Ethan, who lives a few farms over. I should have checked on it, but I was sort of busy." She blushed on hearing her own words, confirming Mrs. Hudson's judgment that her parents did not know of and would not approve of Benjamin's visit. "Anyway, if they did something wrong, I'm sure they were just being playful and didn't mean anything by it," she grimaced a moment before continuing, "although I'm not sure father will see it that way."
At that point they were joined by a somewhat breathless Benjamin, and two children who stared curiously at the two people on the sofa before turning their attention to their sister for explanation. Mrs. Hudson was now certain she was staring at what were very likely the two youngest horse thieves in all England—probably in all the Empire. Their sister chose, for the moment, to concentrate on a related but different concern.
"Aren't those the same clothes you people wore yesterday?"
Both children ignored the question whose answer was surely known to the person who posed it. Instead, the girl shrugged and asked a question of her own. "What is it you want?"
"These people want to talk to you and Jonathan. When that's done, we need to have our own talk."
The children, still standing, transferred their bemused expressions from their sister to the two strangers. Holmes decided it was time to take control of the situation. First, he again introduced Mrs. Hudson and himself, this time with a small smile meant to put the children at their ease. Since they were already at their ease the smile was wasted.
"It's my understanding that you have borrowed a horse." Holmes kept his small smile in service, hoping for its greater impact as he looked to each child for response. The boy met his gaze briefly before finding something of interest in the carpet at his feet. The girl did not look away and even mimicked Holmes's small smile. Like her brother, however, she said nothing.
Mrs. Hudson felt a sterner approach was in order. "What Mr. 'Olmes is sayin' is that we know you took a 'orse that belongs to somebody else, and that person has asked us to bring 'is 'orse back. I'm thinkin' we'll find the animal in the barn. I'm also thinkin' if the owner 'as to come out 'ere to get 'is animal, 'e could bring a constable with 'im and there'd be a lot more trouble than if the animal was brought back by the people who borrowed it."
The boy looked to the girl; the girl looked to Mrs. Hudson. When she spoke, it was to clarify a point. "It's not an animal; it's a horse."
Mrs. Hudson granted the point, trading the child's small victory for the implicit acknowledgment of hers and her brother's misdeed.
However, it was not Joy, but her brother, Jonathan, who made their guilt explicit. "We were going to return him later anyway. We just wanted to ride him a while. We fed him and gave him water and we scrubbed him down."
His sister nodded and supported her brother's words by staring defiantly at Holmes.
Olivia, sternly, if somewhat belatedly, assumed her supervisory responsibility. "How could you people do anything so crazy? What do you think will happen when father finds out about it?"
Joy again shrugged a response. "We can easy have the horse back to the exhibition grounds before he gets back." Then she looked meaningfully to her sister. "Just like you'll make sure Benjamin is out of here before father gets back."
Mrs. Hudson had the sense of watching an oft repeated conflict, both sides having things to hide from a common adversary. She wondered about a family in which the father was viewed by his children with such trepidation and the mother seemed somewhere out of view. Mrs. Hudson shook her head in silent disapproval and was thankful she could soon wash her hands of this family.
"As I'm sure Mr. 'Olmes will agree, the task now is to get the animal—the 'orse—back to its rightful owner and avoid anyone gettin' themselves into needless difficulty."
Holmes eased back into a smile as he and Mrs. Hudson continued in their unanticipated exchange of roles with Mrs. Hudson the unrelenting authority and Holmes the understanding ally. "I tell you what," he spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone, "if you take the horse to the exhibition grounds now, we'll give you a ride back home in our carriage."
Joy and Jonathan made a small nod to each other before addressing the others. Joy again spoke for them both. "The horse is in the stable. Only one thing. Me and Jonathan get to ride him one last time. We can do that taking him back to the exhibition grounds." The request won reluctant nods from Holmes and Mrs. Hudson.
A half hour later Colonel Cody had his horse back. After a thorough examination, he declared him "not the worse for wear." In fact, he thought the horse had been well cared for, and was amused by a prank that was not entirely foreign to his own youth. He forgave the children "provided they would never do anything like that again," and gave each of them an autographed placard of the Wild West Show. After smiling his appreciation to Watson and Mrs. Hudson, he vigorously shook the hand Holmes offered before placing in it the packet Watson had said they would be receiving. When that was done, the colonel gave all three open tickets to attend the show as his guest whenever was convenient and exacted a promise they bring Joy and Jonathan when they came—an addendum that brought broad smiles to the youngsters' faces and a clapping of hands by Jonathan.
The Baker Street trio then took Joy and Jonathan back to their home, where neither Olivia or Benjamin, or the children's parents were anywhere to be seen. They wished the children well and restated Colonel Cody's admonition to them to do nothing like that again, "that" being left purposely vague to encompass as broad a range of misbehaviors as seemed within the children's repertoire. They received neither goodbyes nor assurances that whatever "that" was, it would not be repeated. Neither omission surprised them.
Three weeks went by before any thought was given to the Wild West Show or the possibility of the Baker Street trio attending a performance. Their time and energies were entirely taken up with resolving the mystery of the eight dollhouses. Having uncovered the clue hidden in each of the dollhouses owned by the recently deceased Sir Henry Aspinwall, Eighth Earl of Pickery, and fitted those clues together, they had been able to discover the location of the last will and testament of the eccentric earl. That greatly relieved the earl's several heirs, some of whom would now extricate themselves from debt, while others would adopt a lifestyle long denied them that would ultimately thrust them into debt. That, however, was for the future. In the present, overcome with relief and gratitude, the earl's heirs bestowed on the members of the consulting detective agency their second packet in a month. Resolution of the mystery also left the Baker Street trio free to take advantage of Cody's invitation to attend his Wild West Show, which, courtesy, as well as curiosity, demanded. As it happened, however, before they could honor that invitation, a second, more pressing request arrived from the colonel.
The request was again delivered by Buffalo Bill Cody, once more in buckskin dress and Stetson hat, once more the sensation of Baker Street. On this occasion he was accompanied by two very recognizable children, each grasping a hand of the colonel. They smiled shyly to Mrs. Hudson who greeted them as Miss Joy and Master Jonathan as she admitted the unlikely trio. Cody looked to the stairs and Mrs. Hudson nodded, only regretting she would not see the looks on the faces of her colleagues when their unbidden guests entered the sitting room. Instead, she asked Cody whether he would like tea, the children whether they would like cocoa and all three whether they would like raisin scones. She got an affirmative response to each query.
When she later came upstairs with a well-stocked tray, she stimulated a brief competition between Watson and the colonel, ultimately won by the colonel, to relieve her of her burden and locate an empty place to set down the drinks and refreshments. Holmes affected a tolerant smile as he watched the small drama play itself out, then addressed himself to Mrs. Hudson who had turned to leave.
"Don't go just yet, Mrs. Hudson. Something's come up in which you may be able to play a small role. Perhaps you should have a seat while we explain the situation to you." Holmes offered no suggestion as to where she might sit, and it was left to Watson to remove the books occupying the seat of an otherwise inviting easy chair. When she was settled and had given Holmes her full attention, he resumed speaking, now affecting the air of an overlord giving direction to a somewhat slow-witted subordinate. Only Watson recognized the absurdity of the situation.
"It's a rather unpleasant turn of events and I hope you won't be unduly alarmed." Holmes paused to fortify himself with a sip of tea before sharing his potentially alarming news. "You'll recall we were at the Stockton farm a short time ago to recover Colonel Cody's horse." Mrs. Hudson lowered her eyelids by way of acknowledgment. "It seems there has been a far greater tragedy visited on the Stockton family." Out of the corner of his eye, Holmes looked to the two children sitting close together on the settee, both of them bolt upright, eyes wide with anticipation, their one-time brash behavior nowhere in evidence. Holmes looked again to Mrs. Hudson, and now continued in a softer tone.
"As I say, a great tragedy. Mr. Stockton is no longer with us. I'm afraid he was shot and killed just a little while ago. That led our two young friends," Holmes gently nodded toward the settee, "to leave home and find their way to the exhibition grounds where they sought out the colonel and asked to join the Wild West Show. It seems there had been some angry words with Mr. Stockton yesterday and they were afraid—totally without reason, of course—that they might be seen as somehow responsible for the tragedy." Holmes smiled indulgently to the children whose troubled expressions did not change. He turned his attention back to Mrs. Hudson but kept in place the indulgent smile.
"Under the circumstances, we thought it might be well for you to take the young people downstairs and perhaps give them some treats while Watson and I discuss the case with Colonel Cody. The colonel has been in touch with their mother, so she knows they're safe and we don't have to hurry them back. Colonel Cody has graciously offered to help in resolving the mystery since the young people saw fit to contact him. It was the colonel's idea for you to take charge of the young people. He believes that being a woman, you might have a natural rapport with youthful minds."
With difficulty, Mrs. Hudson resisted the temptation to respond to the opening Holmes provided. Instead, she gathered up Joy and Jonathan, and asked Watson to help her with the tray now restocked with cocoa and scones and suddenly grown unwieldy for one person to manage. She settled the children in her kitchen where they began a vigorous assault on her scones. She then walked with Watson to the foot of the stairs where he quickly outlined what little was known about the murder of Roger Stockton. The victim had gone for his customary early morning walk in the woods that separated his farm from that of his neighbor to the north. His body was discovered by his wife who had gone looking for him when he seemed gone overlong. She had told the children of their father's death, then called the police. Mrs. Hudson gave him a tight-lipped nod and said she would learn what she could from the children and that he and Mr. Holmes should learn what more they could from Colonel Cody. Once the children and Colonel Cody were gone, she continued, the three of them would meet to share what they had learned and to devise the next steps in their investigation. It was their usual procedure although Watson's somber expression made it appear he was hearing it for the first time.
Mrs. Hudson waited until Jonathan and Joy were sufficiently along on their cocoa and scones to have developed small brown moustaches, and for the worry lines they displayed early on to have all but disappeared. It was then time to discover what she could of their father's death. She took a sheet of paper from her purse and with a pencil in readiness, began her questioning.
"I wonder if you can tell me who lives at 'ome with you and who comes to visit?"
The children looked to each other before they responded. When they spoke, it was in the context of a small contest in sharing what each knew. Joy spoke first. "There's mam and Olivia. Of course, they live at home. And there's mam's brother, our Uncle Percy. He comes to visit pretty regular but only when our father's away. They had a big fight one time where Uncle Percy knocked father down. Anyway, that's what Olivia says." Joy's face puckered with a sudden thought. "I guess he'll come more often now. He's nice. His last name is Dickson."
"Which was our mam's name before she got married," Jonathan quickly added.
"And was your Uncle Percy 'ere last night or early this mornin'?"
Both children shook their heads in unison. After which Jonathan volunteered more names.
"There's also Mr. and Mrs. Fiddleman. They sort of live here. Their home is over the stables. Mrs. Fiddleman is our housekeeper and Mr. Fiddleman works in the house and on the grounds. He's good at fixing things. Anyway, that's what mam says."
Joy felt further clarification was needed and elaborated on her brother's contribution. She's our cook as well as our housekeeper, and he's her husband." She then turned back to her brother to add yet another name to their list. "And don't forget grandpa."
"I didn't forget, I was gonna say him next," Jonathan insisted in a voice a half octave higher and several decibels louder than was necessary to make himself heard.
Mrs. Hudson raised a question in a purposefully calm, soft voice in hopes of containing the small conflict. "What about your grandfather?"
Her effort was largely successful as Jonathan responded in a tone of near normal volume. "Grandpa is our father's father. He's very old and he stays in bed most all the time. Grandma died a long time ago. We didn't know her, but Olivia did—sort of. She doesn't remember much about her though."
Joy waited until her brother had finished, then again added a clarifying coda to his report. "Our mam is Olivia's mam's sister." She pressed her lips tight together, content that she had gotten in the last word on the subject.
It was for Mrs. Hudson, however, the first word on a new and surprising subject.
"Are you sayin' that your father was first married to another lady who was Olivia's mam, and that later he married that lady's sister and she is now your mam?"
Joy was only too happy to say again what she had just told Mrs. Hudson. "That's right. Olivia's mam died, so he married her sister to give Olivia a mam, and then we came along and she was our mam too."
"And 'ow old is your sister Olivia?"
"She's just eighteen. Her birthday was last month."
"And 'ow old are the two of you?
"I'm thirteen and Jonathan's twelve."
"'Ave you always lived on the farm?"
Joy nodded, "Always." Jonathan added, "We were born there. The farm has been in the family from way back, way before grandpa. Father says that now that I came along it always will be." He smiled brightly at his involuntary achievement.
"Except there's Benjamin and what father calls the 'awful Olyphants,'" Joy said. "You saw Benjamin when you came to the farm the first time," she reminded Mrs. Hudson. "He wants our farm, or really his father does. Which is why he wants to marry Olivia. Anyway, that's what father says, or anyway said, so he didn't let Benjamin come around. Except Benjamin lives one farm over just past the woods, so he and Olivia can easy work it out to see each other any time they want."
"Any time they want," Jonathan echoed and they grinned broadly to each other.
"Is there more cocoa?" Jonathan asked. "And scones?" Joy added.
Mrs. Hudson pushed away from the table to see about their requests. She filled their cups but had to substitute biscuits for scones much to the youngsters' highly visible disappointment. With that crisis passed, she followed up the last part of their discussion.
"Why did your father think these Olyphants want your farm?"
Joy shrugged while Jonathan bit off a piece of the biscuit he had selected. "He just does. It makes Olivia mad. She says Benjamin loves her and it's got nothing to do with the farm."
"'Ave Olivia and Benjamin been seein' each other for long?"
"For as long as I can remember," Joy said.
"Me too," Jonathan added after swallowing the last of his biscuit and palming another to have in readiness.
Mrs. Hudson was about to ask additional questions about the Olyphants when a familiar voice called from the top of the stairs. "We're done here, Mrs. Hudson. We'll be putting the youngsters in a carriage to get them home."
Mrs. Hudson filed her questions for use at a later time. She smiled the children out the door and into the four-wheeler Watson had hailed.
Tea replaced cocoa as Mrs. Hudson held a second meeting at her kitchen table. Holmes and Watson expressed the same disappointment over the absence of scones as did the children they replaced at the table.
After promising to correct that deficiency in the very near future, Mrs. Hudson asked, "'Ow was your meetin' with Colonel Cody? What did 'e 'ave to tell you?"
"Not a great deal, Mrs. Hudson." As if to confirm his words, Watson did not consult the accounts book he used for note taking as was his usual habit. "The colonel could only say what the children told him, and all the children knew is what their mother had told them—that their father had died in the woods where he went for his morning walks. That, and the fact that the children thought they might be responsible for his death because they had wished for it, and even prayed for it after their argument the night before. Cody finally convinced them that they had no responsibility for their father's death, and that their mother would be worried sick about them and needed to know they were alright. They agreed, but only after Colonel Cody told them that he would ask Holmes to help find the person who killed their father. According to the colonel, the children view Holmes as a great detective, what with his finding the two of them and the colonel's horse."
Watson paused for a moment, caught between a giggle and an effort to look properly sober. As amusing as the children's assessment was, he had to acknowledge that, largely on the basis of that assessment, and for the second time in less than a month, he and Holmes had broken the agency's rules and accepted a case without consultation with its director. With a damn the consequences flair, Watson blurted out their transgression.
"With all that, Mrs. Hudson, we didn't feel we could refuse the case. Besides, the truth is we have nothing on right now. I'm afraid, however, Cody couldn't really tell us much and we have very little to go on."
"We might 'ave somethin'," Mrs. Hudson smiled and sipped her tea, having decided to overlook her colleagues' action—at least for the moment. "Jonathan and Joy were most forthcomin'. There's things they talked about that will bear our lookin' into."
"They are, after all, children, Mrs. Hudson, "can we really take anything they say with confidence?" Holmes sniffed his disbelief.
"We'll try to stick with those things they saw themselves, Mr. 'Olmes, but you're right, we'll take whatever they say with a grain of salt except, of course, when it comes to their thinkin' about great detectives."
"I thought surely, in that regard at least, you found them insightful beyond their years, Holmes." Watson was finally free to give vent to the giggles he had been at pains to contain. Holmes regarded him with the disdain he felt the comment deserved.
"The situation with Mr. Stockton and the family is more than a little complicated. There's first that Mr. Stockton 'as been married twice, and the second time to the sister from the first marriage," Mrs. Hudson began. "Which is to say, when 'is first wife died, 'e married 'er sister. Olivia, the daughter we met when we were at the farm, is from the first marriage and Jonathan and Joy are from the second." Mrs. Hudson stopped to sip some tea, giving her colleagues time to sort through the relationships she had enumerated.
"As the children describe the family, they 'ave an uncle, Percy Dickson, who would be the brother of both the current wife and the last one. They only see Mr. Dickson when their father is away because there's been bad blood between Mr. Stockton and the uncle, which led to a fight between them some time ago—at least that's their understanding. There's also the children's grandfather, their father's father, who lives with them, but sounds to be pretty much confined to 'is bed and 'is room.
"There's others who, accordin' to the children, 'ad their problems with Mr. Stockton. You'll remember the boy, Benjamin—Benjamin Olyphant as it turns out. E's sweet on Olivia, and from the looks of things when we were there, she's sweet on 'im. Joy and Jonathan say they want to marry, but Mr. Stockton was against their even seein' each other, thinkin' the romance was part of Mr. Olyphant's plan to get 'is farm. It's my understandin' the Olyphants live just the other side of the woods that separates the two properties so it wouldn't be 'ard to join them up after a marriage—or a murder.
"In a word, gentlemen, we've got a number of people to sort through who 'ave or may 'ave a grievance of some sort with Mr. Stockton. And that's not to leave out the current Mrs. Stockton who would appear to 'ave 'ad a difficult life with Mr. Stockton and may stand to get a sizable inheritance to make up for it."
"What is it you suggest, Mrs. Hudson?" Watson asked.
"We've got the better part of the day ahead of us, Doctor, I suggest we decide who it is we want to talk to and what we want to know from them."
"It seems clear as well that we need to get to the scene of the murder before whatever clues may be there are trampled by the authorities," volunteered Holmes. "Hopefully, it's not already too late."
"I'm inclined to agree with you, Mr. 'Olmes. I think you and Dr. Watson should first travel to where the crime took place for what clues may be there. When that's done, you can go to the 'ouse and speak to Mrs. Stockton. Then, you should go see the Olyphants, which is to say Benjamin and his father, to learn what you can about their relationship with Stockton and whether there looks to be any truth to the stories about them 'avin' designs on the Stockton farm. We especially need to know where the two of them were earlier this mornin'."
She looked to each of her colleagues and gave them both a single message. "We'd best be gettin' started."