Excerpt from GONE WEST, a Daisy Dalrymple mystery, set in Derbyshire in 1926. Published January 2012 by St Martin's Minotaur. My website/blog is http://www.caroladunn.weebly.com/
"Pink gin, sir?" Simon offered his father.
"Thank you, my boy." He looked at the doctor and said half laughing, half defensively, "No need to look like a stuffed turkey, Knox. I didn't have a drink with my lunch."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"You see, Mrs. Fletcher, cowboys are—or were in my day—a hard-drinking bunch, and the habit is hard to abandon. The hooch we used to drink was known as whisky, but they had only the name in common. As pond water to Malvern! To this day the very word brings back the taste, and I never touch anything that goes by the name of whisky."
Daisy didn't feel it incumbent upon her to comment on his drinking habits. "You actually worked as a cowboy, Mr. Birtwhistle?"
"For a few years. I went looking for adventure but I started life in America as a humble tout for a travelling quack. The English accent impressed the rubes—the local yokels. I'd stand up on the seat at the front of the wagon and give the spiel, and they'd be queuing up at the side to buy 'Dr. Pangloss's Potent Purple Pastilles, Patent Pending.'"
"Pangloss. Voltaire?" she asked cautiously.
"'All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.' The chances of any of our marks having heard of Candide were extremely slim, but if they had, what could be better for their health than a little optimism?" Almost inaudibly he added, "It's what keeps me going."
Thinking it best to ignore this comment, Daisy said, "I hope the Potent Pastilles didn't actually kill anyone."
"Not in my time. They were made with 'the best butter.' Chicle, actually, the stuff they make chewing-gum from. Purple dye from beetroot and he wouldn't tell me what else. Useless, perhaps, but not deadly. We sold them in tins of twenty, to be taken one a day, no miracle cures to be expected till the entire course was finished."
Daisy laughed. "By which time you'd left town, to avoid being tarred and feathered."
"Of course. We headed west, and by the time we reached cowboy country I'd saved enough money to buy a decent horse. As I wanted to see the country, I moved from ranch to ranch, from Montana down to Old Mexico."
"As opposed to New Mexico, one of the United States."
"Oh yes. Alec—my husband—and I didn't have time to go there."
"You've been to America, Mrs. Fletcher?"
"Just a short visit, most of it spent in Washington and New York. But we flew across the country to Oregon and returned by train."
"You flew! You had a very different view from mine, then, crawling along at horse-speed. That must have been interesting."
"A lot of the scenery was beautiful from the air, but the aeroplane was so noisy and I was so cold, I wasn't able to appreciate it properly at the time. The view from the train was better, of course, but limited. You spent several years in the West, I gather. You must have loved the country to have stayed so long."
"I did, and do. I have a special fondness for New Mexico, which is where I met Ruby. She misses it. We always intended to go back some day for a visit, until this wretched illness overtook me. But we won't talk of that. Ruby was a school-marm, as they called it, in a one-horse town. I was a nearly penniless cow-hand. So I took my grub-stake to Nevada, went prospecting, and struck silver."
"Right away?" Daisy asked in surprise.
He laughed. "Not quite. But soon enough to make some of the old-timers look green. It was a nice seam of ore."
"Yes, and if I'd worked it, I might have ended up richer, or I might have ended up dead. I didn't care to spend my time watching over my shoulder for claim-jumpers. In any case, the life of a miner didn't appeal, and Ruby was waiting—I hoped. So I sold out, went back to New Mexico, and got married. I was negotiating for some land when the news reached me, by what roundabout route I never did discover, that my father had died the previous year. Add the fact that New Mexico was suffering a serious drought, and I decided to head for home."
Glancing at Mrs. Birtwhistle, Daisy wondered whether she had had any say in the decision to leave her home and her country. She caught Daisy's eye and came over, looking anxious.
Daisy explained, "Mr. Birtwhistle's been telling me about his career, or careers, rather, in America, and how much he loved your part of the country."
"New Mexico is very beautiful. I miss it, especially when the winter rains set in here!" She laid a hand on her husband's shoulder. "But it just wasn't the right time to try to get a start in ranching. Even well-established people were in trouble because of the dreadful drought—not something you can imagine here in England. Also, there was Humphrey's family to be considered."
"He'd've done better to have stayed away." The muttered comment coming unexpectedly from behind Daisy made her jump. "We were doing very well without."
The dog, back in his spot on the hearthrug, creaked to his feet and moved stiffly to meet the speaker.
Birtwhistle's eyes briefly flickered towards the newcomer, then turned up to his wife. Her gaze was fixed on the intruder in an inimical stare. Birtwhistle raised his hand to cover Ruby's on his shoulder. She glanced down at him and nodded.
"Hello, Norman," she said in a neutral voice. "Let me introduce you. Mrs. Fletcher, this is Humphrey's brother, Norman."
Norman wore a baggy, shaggy tweed suit and an air of disgruntlement that had carved permanent lines into his face. Daisy added this to his sister Lorna's general put-upon-ness and realised that the Prodigal's return had not been welcomed by his siblings. Thirty years later, they still resented it. Did Humphrey now own Eyrie Farm, left to him by a father in a dynastic mood, or were the three forced uneasily to share?