Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Excerpt from "The Invisible Ranch"

Coming soon from the JSH Book Club: The Invisible Ranch, a pulp-fiction novel of western adventure and intrigue set in 1870s Arizona!

Henry Rohaugh is a sort of industrial saboteur of the pre-industrial age, and when he's hired by a scheming dairy company to put their competition (a new brand of milk that claims to impart magic Native American spirit powers to those who drink it) out of business, everyone involved starts to realize they're in for a wilder ride than anticipated.

A rough first-draft excerpt is offered here:

It didn't take long for the man to plummet to the ground from the roof of the hotel; it was only four stories tall. The crowd gathered below didn't make a sound, and no one looked away from the awful sight. Well, a couple of women looked away for a second, then darted their eyes back, not wanting to miss the big finish.

It was anticlimactic. He landed flat on his back and his head bounced once against the pavement. It didn't make a dramatic sound. Not the sickening thud you would expect, nor a soul-stirring splat. It was more like the sound of someone punching a pillow. Maybe it was all the heavy winter overcoats the man was incongruously wearing in this summer heat. The audience on the street quickly disassembled, now that the show was over. The man had been raving like a lunatic while dancing along the edge of the hotel's roof. Everyone was already murmuring about suicide, but he didn't jump. He simply wasn't a good dancer and he fell off.

No one seemed to know who he was or why he was on the roof. No one much cared either, it seemed.

Henry Rohaugh sucked on a cigarette across the street, outside the offices of Merriman Dairies. It was a beautiful day in Phoenix and he knew he should be in a good mood, but he was uneasy. Not about the dead man, but about this interview he was about to undergo for a new job offer.

Rohaugh was a professional criminal for hire. He was quietly known among certain circles as the best of the best; a man who could penetrate anyplace and get any dirty job done. It wasn't nice work and it wasn't pretty. Had his life taken a different direction, he could have been a top-notch detective or even worked for the Secret Service. But he took the hand he'd been dealt, and had been sweeping all the chips to his end of the table ever since.

Why a milk company would be interested in enlisting his services, he had no idea. He tossed the remainder of the cigarette down and marched up the stairs to find out.

"Good to see you, Henry," said a stubby bespectacled cigar-chomping man waiting to shake his hand at the top of the staircase. "I'm James Cox, President of Merriman Dairies. Come right this way."

Henry was led into a small, cramped, very dimly lit office. Eight men, some sitting, some standing, were silhouetted in the dark by the light of the lone unshuttered window.

"You boys playing Spin The Bottle in here?" Henry wisecracked. Some of the men chuckled and some of them didn't.

"This is my associate, Melvin Ridgway", said Cox, pointing to a nervous-looking obese man standing by the desk.

"Melvin!" exclaimed Henry, "How the hell are ya, buddy? I ain't seen you since we was at the carnival in Prescott!"

Henry began to hug Mr. Ridgway profusely, to everyone's confusion, especially Mr. Ridgway's.

"Have we... met?"

"Lord God, Melvin, we painted the town red that night, don't you remember? We went bobbin' for apples and I pulled your head out of the water when you dunked down drunk and didn't come back up."

"You have me confused with someone else, Sir," he replied meekly, trying to disengage from Henry's hug.

"Must be my mistake, then," said Henry. "Sorry, fat boy."

Henry suddenly turned to another man. "And who might you be?"

"You can call me Ned."

Henry gave him a vigorous two-handed handshake that enveloped his entire arm, like those a politician would give.

"Ned," he said, "you got a real weak handshake for a milkman. Ain't you built up no muscles squeezin' them teats?"

"Mister Henry.... I'm on the business side of things," Ned replied with a condescending sneer. "I've never actually milked a cow in my life. I leave that to the farmers."

"Oh-ho!, laughed Henry. "One o' them unmarried marriage counselors."

Henry whirled to the next man. "What's yore name, podner?"

"Let's skip the introductions, shall we, Mr. Rohaugh?" sighed Cox, weary of this routine. "All you need to know is that the men you see here before you all have an interest in the continued success of Merriman Dairies. And we're wondering if you're the right man for the job."

"Whut is the job, ezackly?"

"You've heard of Lucky Milk, I take it?"

"Nope." In fact, Henry did know of Lucky Milk; everyone in this part of Arizona did.

"They're a new upstart dairy farm that's just sprung up from nowhere outside of town. In just three months they've become the only milk anyone wants. They're lining up around the block to buy it! I've never seen anything like it. It doesn't make sense."

"So," said Henry, pacing in circles around the room, "you want me to steal some of their cows so's you can git in on the action."

"No, even if we did that, we can't compete. People think Lucky Milk is better, and even if we offered the exact same milk in our own bottles, no one would try it. They're presenting this milk with the preposterous idea that the milk has magic powers transferred to it by a sacred Indian spell, or some such mumbo-jumbo. But everyone has fallen for it. The gullible public seriously thinks the milk is making them happier, healthier and luckier!"

Henry glanced out the window as he paced. The dead man's body had been hauled off, and an old woman with a bucket and a brush had been sent to scrub the blood off the sidewalk. She seemed to be doing little more than spreading it around and making a mess.

"I guess that feller didn't drink none, huh?" said Henry.

"This damned Lucky Milk is all anyone's talking about," said Ned. "I simply can't believe you've never heard of it."

Henry sat down behind Cox's desk and plunked his dirty cowboy boots right up on the blotter.

"Mister Ned," said Henry, mocking Ned's voice, "I'm on the whisky side of things. I've never drunk milk in my life."

"What we need from you," interjected Cox, "is for you to put that farm out of business, permanently."

"You mean like one o' them there tragic unexpected fires that wipes out all the buildin's on the property, and helps cover up the fact that ever'body in the place was stabbed to death?"

"Well," cringed Cox, "spare us the details..."

"It's gonna cost ya, hoss", said Henry as he leaned back and twirled one of his six-guns around his finger. I don't know if you boys can afford me."

"Hey, that thing's not loaded, is it?" someone said.

"Course not, fool. There ain't nothin' more dangerous than a loaded - "


The pistol went off and shattered part of the chandelier. Everyone went scrambling for cover. Henry leaped up from the desk, grabbed a broom that was leaning against the wall and got in amongst the frantic bustling group of men in the small room with it, recklessly sweeping broken glass to and fro.

"Hold on, pards! I'ma clean this up! You're lucky I know a glass man in Tucson who can fix that all up fer ya! I'll pay fer the damages - outta the money you give me, natcherly."

"Mr. Rohaugh," said Cox sternly. "I think this concludes the interview. I'm sorry, but..."

Cox had reached for the ashtray on his desk where his cigar had been parked. The cigar was gone. He looked back at Henry to see he suddenly had it in his hand, taking a long draw off it.

"In all seriousness, now, Mr. Cox," said Henry, whose voice was suddenly low and eloquent instead of the high-pitched wheezing hillbilly voice he'd been affecting, "a man such as yourself should be able to afford a better cigar than this. Remind me, when all this is over, to give you a tutorial on the finer points of selecting a cigar."

He tossed the cigar in the wastebasket and pulled out a pocket watch.

"Melvin and Evelyn's tenth anniversary," he read from its inscription.

"How the hell did you get that??" cried Melvin, patting his vest.

"The same way I got this," said Henry, producing a silk handkerchief upon which a woman had left, as a souvenir, a kiss-print with her lip makeup.

Melvin grabbed both items from Henry and started a volley of cursing in his direction.

"The monogram on that handkerchief doesn't match your wife's initials," intoned Henry quietly, "and I'm willing to bet your wife doesn't wear that kind of makeup."

Melvin got quiet and sat back down.

"You there," said Henry, motioning to one of the men, "I believe this is yours." He pulled a billfold from his coat pocket and hurled it at him with some force. "And you, Ned, are missing some cufflinks, I think."

Ned checked his right cuff and looked back at Henry, astounded. Henry tossed the cufflinks to him, but he failed to catch either of them and so went scrambling on his hands and knees for them.

Cox was stunned, but not nearly as stunned as when Henry took out a stack of money, neatly bound in the middle by a bank's paper band.

"If this is the money you were intending to give me, I hope you understand this is only a down payment. You're going to need nine more of these."

"How did you do that??"

"You were all looking right at me when I did it," said Henry. "But your eyes were on my muddy feet on your desk and not my hand. You shouldn't keep money in your desk drawer like that, it's the first place the janitor looks when you lock up at night."

Cox just stared at him in shock.

"Which," Henry continued, "you'll have trouble doing without this."

He handed Cox his office key.

"Mr. Rohaugh," Cox mumbled slowly as he looked down forlornly at the key in his hand, "you've got the job."