Mr. Harris stood there in a sharp Botany Five Hundred three-piece suit. since his elevation to the chief clerk at the saddlery, he dressed for his role. Tall, Slender, and very black, he would have been imposing even if he lacked the trimmed Van Dyke he sported. He directed a cast of dozens from the center of the old showroom as they burrowed through the saddlery’s remaining stock.
Those of us who had worked for him held him in the highest regard. The original business owners had been in mute awe of him. The new owners, not so much. Currently, he was employed to liquidate the stock. When the Blatt family’s younger members had decided to sell the saddlery, there had been talk of an employee buyout. But nothing had ever come of it. The sale had been to an investment group that was in the process of selling the “brand.” the real estate and the inventory would be sold separately. These days you can go online and find the brand, but it’s only another front for a company that produces everything in China.
A group of old employees familiar with the labyrinth of storage and stock had been called to assist him with the liquidation. Regular liquidation firms had run from the job once they became lost in the maze of buildings, basements, and attics. Despite the mutual distrust and dislike between the old and the new, things would have moved smoothly; Mr. Harris was a consummate professional. But the casual racial slurs finally wore at his neutral exterior.
From reports, I gathered that things began rolling downhill when one of the new owners accused Mr.Harris of theft. He had been looking at an old inventory. Mr. Harris had tried to convince him that the old lists had never been accurate. No one had ever been interested in spending the effort and cost of hauling out and counting all the myriad boxes, cases, and containers in all the storage areas. The lawyer looked at Mr. Harris and said, ” You people always are up to something, aren’t you?” Refusing to acknowledge the slur Mr. Harris looked down on the man. ” I would not impignorate my honor for petty gain in this world. I am a deacon in my church; my honor is not so easily soiled.” The lawyer was evidently up on his Latin because he then asked, ” So what would you pawn it for Harris; everyone has a price?”
That was when Mr. Harris called in my friend Bill, and Bill called in me. He wanted us to provide some Special Services. When we arrived, he explained that it was not the slurs alone that had gotten him upset. The waste bothered him too. Anything that the new owners did not appreciate or understand was directed to a dumpster. The rest was spirited away in vans to an auction house.
Years previously, when Bill and I had worked for him, we had been his personal “tunnel rats” going where no others were trusted to go in the labyrinth. The saddlery was as “old as dirt.” The storage rooms snaked through the bowels of nearby buildings, through subterranean vaults, and into forgotten attics. Bill and I had spent days in the maze, some of it working. Mr. Harris was willing to forget our youthful foibles then. Now he needed our knowledge.
Mr. Harris knew his stock intimately. Need an original Fort Sills Cavalry Manual? “Up the steps, Level two, Martin building isle three, don’t knock over the McClellan saddles!” He knew some of the treasures would be unrecognized by the idiots in charge and directed to the dumpster. Rather than have auction house personnel evaluating the goods as they emerged, they were doing the job themselves. They missed lots.
A lesser man might have taken advantage of this for his own gain. But that was not who he was. He had a different idea. “Wes, Bill? you remember where the old bank vault is located in the Sturmer building?” ” Sure, but no one has the combination.” He slipped us a piece of brown Kraft paper with a series of numbers on it. We looked at him with innocent hurt in our eyes. “Oh, come on, you’d have wound up locking yourself in if I’d given it to you.”
The plan was simple. The vault was on no map, registry and was in no history. It had been lost to man in the panic of 1857. It had been an obstruction; we had moved around it to get to the outlying storage areas. We had dreamed of opening it. Not a single time had we walked past it without attempting a combination. And, here, it lay in Bill’s hands. Mr. Harris’ directive was simple, special items were to be stored in it as a time capsule of the saddlery’s history. Candidates for this included the chaps George Custer had returned for fancy leather tooling ( the Sioux got to him first) and the Gene Autry guitar that Mr. Harris’ predecessor failed to ship out. The silver engraved spurs that John Wayne had returned as to fancy we also included. To this, we added a genuine Buffalo Soldier’s hat from the 1880s and many other smaller items.
We alone knew, and we alone were trusted with this project. On a large display table, we laid out one of the old display mannequins. We dressed the dummy in genuine 1930’s western attire from our stock, added the chaps, hat, and guitar. Like funerary offerings around the figure, we scattered essential items the dummy might need in an afterlife. A printed history of the saddlery and old brochures was on a table in front of the figure. At last, we were finished. We closed and locked the vault.
The location of the vault was known to the three of us alone. Mr. Harris swore us to secrecy and directed us to brick in the opening that leads to the vault. It was to be a time capsule and sealed shrine.
At the end of that day, Mr. Harris gave his notice, Bill returned to Denver, and I returned to Boston for classes. I do not think that the vault has been located yet. It’s stayed undiscovered now for fifty years now. Yes, I know how to find it, and Bill copied the combination and gave it to me for safekeeping. But I like Mr.Harris’ idea of it being a shrine to a worthy old enterprise, the like of which no longer exists.