Beyond the Western
Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville, Police Department, was working his way through a copy of the Anchorage Daily Times in his mother-in-law's gazebo in Alaska when Fritz, one of his twins, handed him a cellular telephone. Noonan hated the tool of Satan because it always brought him bad news. This was not because his cell phone was a magnet for bad news; rather, it linked him with the two people who most commonly used the electronic Beelzebub: his wife and his boss. His wife was constantly sending him off on errands of, at best, little value. His boss, on the same hand, was constantly assigning him tasks of no value whatsoever. He could not say ‘no’ to neither of them so he reduced the insanity by turning off the digital beast as often as possible.
Except in Alaska.
Perforce, he was on vacation and staying at his in-law’s home. His father-in-law was an amiable sort but Noonan never spent time with him. That was because the old man and the twins were always out fishing for salmon. This left Noonan, alone in the home, at the mercy of his mother-in-law who was a walking, talking, advising encyclopedia of trivia of which none had any value. So, thus and mercifully, the tool of Satan was a relief. Whoever it was who was on the phone that morning was going to be a better conversationalist than his mother-in-law. Any respite, however short, was welcome.
"Here, Dad," Fritz said as he tossed the cellular phone to his father. "It's someone called VPSO. I'll see you later."
"VPSO?" Noonan looked at his son strangely. Then he answered the phone.
"I hope so. There's no one else here with that name."
"I hate to break into your vacation, Captain."
Noonan looked through the gazebo trellis at his approaching mother-in-law and said loud enough for her to hear, "Not a problem. What can I do for you?"
"This is Baker
Ferguson, I'm the VPSO, Village Public Safety Officer, in Kotzebue.
We're a small Native village about 35 miles . . .
'. . . north of the Arctic Circle. I know where you're located, Officer . . ."
"Fine, just call me Baker, like a potato. Just don't spell it with an e. Potato, that is. Do you know what a VPSO is?”
“Actually, yes. It’s basically a cop without a badge or gun. You live in a village and do the job of a police office. If things get out of hand, so to speak, you call the Alaska State Troopers.”
“You are well-informed for being from North Carolina.”
"My wife's been educating me on Alaska for 20 years, Baker. Archie Ferguson used to fly out of Kotzebue. Was he a relative?"
"A ways back and laterally, yeah. He's been dead since the 1960s. I'm surprised you've heard of him."
"I read my Alaskan history. And if I don't my wife forces me to. What can I do for you?"
"It's kind of a strange story so I feel a bit odd telling you."
Noonan waved at his mother-in-law and pointed at the cellular phone. She got the message immediately and broke off her approach to the gazebo. With great satisfaction, Noonan watched as she turned her back to her son-in-law and began walking back to the house lost in a grove of evergreens.
"Baker, every story I get is odd. Give me what you've got."
"OK, but it will be twisted. Two of the strangest characters we have in town are Jerome Nivons and Agnew Pfeiffer. To call these guys eccentric would be like saying that a walrus has long front teeth. They've been grubstaking each other . . ."
"Wait a minute." Noonan looked around a gazebo beam to make sure his mother-in-law was in full retreat. Then he dug into his pocket for a pencil and notepad. "I thought that a grubstake was something that was given by someone who had money to someone who didn't."
"Yeah. It is. That's what I mean about these guys. They are different. Over the years, separately, they've been rich and poor. They can't stand each other at some times and at others, well, they're good buddies. Over the past 30 years one's been broke while the other's been flush and they've traded off grubstaking each other."
"I see what you mean. Why don't they just prospect together."
"Well, they do. Sort of. They have some claims together and others on speculation, individually. Sometimes they prospect together and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they live together and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they shoot at each other and sometimes they don't."
"Shoot at each other?"
"Oh, yeah, they're famous for their shootout in '86. They were both sharing a local woman when the shooting started. Nivons got the worst of it. He took three .41 slugs, one in the arm and two in the chest. The local nurse said his chances for recovery were about zero and sewed him up as best she could. She sent for the Marshal and on what appeared to be his death bed, Pfeiffer refused to press charges because the fracas had been, and I quote, 'only a family quarrel.'"
"A family quarrel and he took three slugs?"
"Three big slugs. Nivons fed him for about a week and after that Pfeiffer was up and about. A month later you'd never known he had been shot."
"Did they get along after that?"
The VPSO laughed over the phone. "Not a chance. A few months after that they were in a shootout in Kotzebue and the Marshal ran them both out of town in different directions. Six months later they were back, each from some claim somewhere's but in opposite directions and they proceeded to get boiled in town and started the shootout all over again."
"Real characters. What can I do for you?"
There was silence on the phone for a moment and then Baker's voice came across the line in almost a hush. "Well, both men have disappeared. But I have two ransom notes, one from Nivons saying he was holding Pfeiffer and the other from Pfeiffer saying he was holding Nivons. Both are demanding one million dollars from the City of Kotzebue and expect to be paid by Sunday, day after tomorrow.”
“Is there anything special about next Sunday?”
“No. Not for me. But there is a hearing in federal court in Fairbanks on Monday relating to inholders. Are you familiar with the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act?”
“Sort of. The Feds gave the Natives lots of land, millions of acres, so they would not stop the pipeline.”
“Close enough. But the Feds did not give the Natives every acre of the millions they asked for. There were legitimate claims within the lands that eventually became Native land. Called inholders. These two guys have a lot of land, individual plots not connected, that are inholdings.”
“Let me guess. They need a lawyer but cannot afford one.”
“That’s my read too. Not that they need one. I checked the claim paperwork and it’s all copasetic. Nothing to worry about. I just think they don’t know that.”
“So this could just be a scam.”
“Oh, I’m sure it is.”
“And they are demanding the City of Kotzebue come up with the money?”
“That’s what the notes said.”
“Both of them?”
“Both of them.”
“So, what’s the problem. Just don’t pay.”
“Well, it’s not easy. Technically, let us say, kidnapping is a federal charge. The feds in Anchorage laughed – everyone in Alaska knows these two yokels – and sent me to Homeland Security. They’ve got a cheechako in charge who . . .”
Noonan cut him off. “Let me finish your sentence. The cheechako wants to look good so he got involved. Probably called around and got my name from my Commissioner of Homeland Security who said call Captain Noonan, he’s in Alaska on vacation.”
“So, what you need is a saving grace. You have to do something that won’t make everyone look stupid.”
“How’s the money to be paid?”
“Nivons wants the money to be left on the side of abandoned landing strip about six miles out of town to the north. Pfeiffer wants his money left in a tin can beside a washed-out bridge ten miles south of town.”
“I kid you not.”
“OK. Let’s have some fun with this one. Go to the local bank and open two accounts, one in the name of Jerome Nivons and the other in the name of Agnew Pfeiffer. Write each of them a check on the other’s account. $1 million to Nivons on Pfeiffer’s account and $1 million to Pfeiffer on Nivons’ account. Then leave the checks where they want the money left.”
“Is that legal? I mean, we’re talking a million dollars here. Two million, really.”
“I don’t see why it would be illegal. No money is changing hands and I think the bank will love the publicity. My bet is both Nivons and Pfeiffer will come out of the woodwork and accuse the other of holding out on him. Might make for good theater.”
* * *
Three hours later, Noonan got a return call from Baker, like the potato with no e.
“Let me guess. All is well in Kotzebue.”
“Absolutely. And you were right. Two hours after we made the drop-offs each was in town looking for the other. I told them their land was probably safe. Didn’t seem to make a dent. They just hotfooted it down to the bank – together – to get their money which does not exist. It’s Sunday so they’re camped out waiting for Monday at 10 a.m.”
“They are in for a surprise.”
“Yup. Couldn’t happen to nicer guys.”
“Well, if you come complaining to you, tell them the bank has them cashed out.”