There’s a place in your head where memories are packed away, like old photographs. Some of them are grown fuzzy with neglect, near lost in the haze that comes before forgetting. Others are sharp and clear because they’ve been brought out many times. Maybe they’re real happy ones. Maybe they’re not. Those that aren’t, if we put them back away, the rough edges get worn down with time and don’t scrape us up so bad when we’re able to hold them up in a better light. In such a way, even the good memories are made better over time. Oft’ times in them we’re reminded of how we wish we’d been then and, maybe too, how we hope someday to be.
Right now, though, there’s nothing in particular playing betwixt Jonas’s ears. In fact, he’s not thinking about anything at all. He’s splayed out at the back of the shallow cavity like a child’s puppet with the strings cut. His eyes are open, but they don’t see. Even so, back in that place where recollections are crowded in and pressed down, there are images. They’re dim and blurred into fog around the edges and, just like playing cards being laid out one by one on blank green baize, they just sort of turn up now and again, recognizable and vivid.
You go on ahead, look in on them, why don’t you? He won’t mind. In fact, he’s going to be far away for some time. You might as well see how it was with him before what happened happened and changed everything.
. . .
You might care to contemplate the handsome devil on the face of this card here, for instance.
The fellow’s name’s Budge Ashby. The men call him Mister Ashby. He’s the trail boss and foreman. Six foot something, tanned leather, steel gray eyes, and no apparent sense of humor. A fair piece of his left ear’s gone missing some years back along with part of his cheek, the product of a disagreement with a mountain lion, so he says without it sounding like he’s bragging or complaining. Certain others might suggest it was a set-to with his ex-wife before they took separate trails. Budge, if queried in the proper circumstance, might allow they’re the same.
Budge works for Mister Calum MacDonough. That’d be the older gentleman next to Budge there with the eagle’s face framed in gray mutton chops and a soup strainer moustache. He looks fierce, does MacDonough.
It’s a fine morning in late spring, eighteen and seventy-two, and Jonas is at the gate of MacDonough’s compound inquiring of the older gentleman and his ramrod with the scarred face if there’s work to be had. Perhaps coincidently, there is.
MacDonough likes Jonas right off, though he prefers to hire younger men as a rule. It’s beneficial to start with one that might have a few good years in him. Some will break down from long days on horseback and hard ground come up to meet them, the harsh conditions of a cattle drive to market in its season, and the boredom of endless chores when it ain’t that season.
More than likely, though, many will expire from drinking old Chap’s buffler-piss coffee.
This one, though, is different. Half-breed, no doubt about that. Not a young man, either, but he sits up straight aboard that spirited mare and his face has a surprising openness to it, a likeableness, you might say. He’s plainspoken and polite, apparently’s had some schoolhousing. So he gets a rugged handshake from the old Scot, a bunk, meals catch as catch can, and twenty cents a day.
Budge being Budge says, “Welcome to the MacDee, Chief.” They are eye to eye and close enough to read each other just fine. He doesn’t stick out his hand.
“If there is a chief hereabout, Mister Ashby, I figure it’d be Mister MacDonough here. But if it’s gonna please you ta call me by reference to my heritage, just call me ‘Two Dogs’ an’ be done. That ‘r Jonas’ll be fine.”
MacDonough’s mutton chops puff out. His gaze shifts from Jonas to his second.
Silence. A nod. Something Budge’s damaged face lets his mouth do might be a grin or a snarl. “All right, Jonas.” He still doesn’t offer his hand, nor does Jonas, but it’s enough.“
By week’s end, Budge observes that Jonas reads animals and people better than about anyone he’s known. Before month’s end, his uncanny skill at gentling even the rankest widowmaker in the paddock has earned him a good bit of currency with his bunkmates. Perhaps the thing Budge likes most about Jonas, though, is how the man keeps his senses open and his mouth shut. Lotta folk could take a lesson from him on that score.
Can’t say that Leland Farnsworth and Stick Dern warmed right up to him. As with any older hands in an outfit like this, all newcomers are required to pass through a rigorous breaking-in period and the half-breed is eyed with a fair amount of initial skepticism. It wears off.
The older children have taken to calling him Sunka Nunpa, it means two dogs. It’s meant to be a joke, an insult, and they laugh when they call him this name. His playmates, too, are becoming antagonistic, a word that means nothing to him yet. He understands only that their play is becoming rough and they hurt him. He cannot understand why they have distanced themselves from him, and this is a deeper hurt.
His father reminds him that “dog” is the embodiment of companionship, loyalty, and protection. He tells his young son that the children, without intending to do so, have given him a strong name. Crows Come Around agrees and tells him so.
Jonas has passed his sixth winter. He gets into a lot of fights. Also, about this time, his Gift begins to manifest. This is convenient, in that Jonas begins to lose fewer of these fights. By the time he is seven, few of the older boys can hurt him, but he is unable to defend himself against their hurtful words. He becomes aggressive. Sunka Nunpa shows his teeth and they are very sharp.
One day in early spring, his mother catches him fighting again with a boy about his age. Jumping Otter is quick and tenacious, but a scuffle has become a tangle and Crows separates them with a firmness neither is willing to resist.
As is now often the case, Jonas started this fight. He says it is because the other boy said bad things about his father and mother. Crows determines it is time for a lesson. In the presence of her father, Standing Elk, an elder of great influence among the hoop, and Otter’s parents, she speaks plainly about her concerns and intentions. There is agreement.
Jonas’s right ankle is bound with a length of braided leather cord to Otter’s left ankle and the cord is woven back upon itself so that it cannot be untied. With the parents of both boys standing with him, Standing Elk instructs them in words they dare not disobey. They are to remain joined in this fashion from moon to moon, with the stern warning that neither of them may cut or unravel the cord for any reason. If either does so, punishment for both will be swift and severe. The boys believe him.
The first days are difficult beyond any expectation, marked by each boy’s stubborn insistence on leading the other at every turn. They endure endless ridicule from the other children until Crows and some of the grandmas threaten to do the same to every one of them if they don’t cease their torment and leave the two alone. It works for a time.
The boys fall down a lot. They eat, sleep, fetch water, go to the bushes—everything—together. The more they resist the lesson and each other, the harder everything becomes and, at the beginning, their resistance is strenuous. The elders watch their antics with much amusement.
Before the first week is done, however, the boys have begun to figure out that there is a rhythm that is neither one, nor the other, but a tentative abandonment of each self to become a new one. With mutual dependence comes mutual regard and trust. By the end of the second week the elders watch with childlike wonder as the two run together and play games with the other children. Soon after, nothing short of amazement is evident in the faces of all who witness the boys mounting a pony together with improbable ease, taking turns riding backward.
Perhaps the most astonishing development of all comes during their final week, as many of the children begin binding themselves to each other at play. Uproarious laughter at their own clumsiness precedes an earnest striving to accomplish the feats of the now revered Bound As One. This game will be replayed by youths of the band for many years to come.
Jumping Otter and Jonas remain inseparable after the cord is removed at month’s end.
Jonas has gained a new appreciation of the inter-relatedness—again a word he doesn’t know yet, although the principle is clear—of individuals to each other, as are the People to Maka Ina, the Great Mother. This new appreciation includes an altered awareness of himself and the gift growing within him. Sunka Nunpa does not have to bite to be strong. It is enough to know that he can. The lesson does not have to be repeated.
Well, look at Budge now. Notice how the lines in his face are deeper, maybe even a little dustier. His hair’s starting to match up with his eyes. Some of the other stuff of memories is there in the background if you look close. Some of it’s vague, like the shape and detail of buildings, one pretty much like another, or the faces of people passing by, unremarkable and disremembered. Some others, though, are as sharp and undeniable as the ever-present dust and stink of the stockyards, the noise and heat, and the shuffling sounds of a small, but expectant knot of men gathered roundabout Mister Ashby at the livery.
“Mister Kunkle sends his ‘pologies that he couldn’t be here to tell ya himself, but he’s down at the telegraph office burnin’ up the wires ta get this thing straightened out. ‘Til he does, though, this here is what it is. Thirty dollars right now for each of ya.”
A good deal of foot-shuffling and furrowed brows congregate around the trail boss.
“Last thing he said to me was he ‘spects to have the rest of your pay by close of bizness tomorrow. Plenty o’ time to make any last buys before we pull out day after.”
The new kid says, “All them Texans is been runnin’ loose out there all night, cleanin’ the place out ‘for we even git there. What’re we s’posed ta do?”
“All them Texans ‘re in the same fix as us,” Budge says and begins to peel off bills.
Newell, first in rotation, says, “Hold on now. Yer just gonna give me thirty dollars and tell me to have a good time? For maybe two days? Boss, I could lose half that in ten minutes at a decent poker game.”
“Well, then, don’t do that.”
“I said a ‘decent poker game’. I’ll reel it all back in, ‘course, an’ all them others too, but I need the rest to cinch it up.”
“I know. Nothin’ I can do, New.”
He pipes up like there was an impromptu rodeo going on outside. There wasn’t, but everyone heard him real good. “All ya! Don’t go askin’ no adds. I don’t have it. Yer gonna hafta spread out bein’ drunk ‘n’ stupid for a while. Ya hear me?”
More foot-shuffling, sullen nods, mumbled acknowledgements.
Budge begins again to distribute the available cash with a fatherly admonition, “and then you go git yerselves cleaned up. Ya all smell like a few hundred miles of sweat and cowflop.”
. . .
It’s been the custom, these last few years—six winters, by Jonas’s count—for the MacDonough outfit to get the bulge on most of the Texas drives this time of year, probably because they only have a couple-three hundred miles to traverse from their roundups in east Colorado and up in the sandhills while their Texan counterparts have several times that mileage to cover.
Most recently, the Kansas State government, in their ongoing efforts to protect Kansas cattle from a nasty little tick carrying splenic fever, moved to shift the quarantine line further west for the umpteenth time and Dodge City has become, practically overnight, the undisputed cow capital of the world.
Depending on wherever they started from and when, there could be thousands of head still on the come from any which way and Dodge City’s more than happy to be on the receiving end of all that traffic. Beeves funneled through the stockyards here are loaded onto rail cars as fast as beef can be prodded on to them and shipped straight away east to the Swift and Armour packing houses in Chicago.
It appears a good size Texas herd was driven into the yards last thing the day before and MacDonough’s crew shut the gate behind their last steer this very morning. There’s likely to be a ruckus or two in the town tonight with a throng of slicked-up, liquored-up, horny hell-raisers running loose in a community whose main attractions are designed to separate every one of them from their earnings.
Thank merciful Jesus there’s a deputy on hand at the Deadline day and night to assist them that can’t read the big “POSITIVELY NO FIREARMS BEYOND THIS SIGN” sign, thereby upholding the ordinance northward of that demarcation. Were this swift disarmament of those launching themselves into the city’s commercial abundance not the case, the inevitable and promiscuous distribution of hot lead would develop with disturbing frequency, to the detriment of the downtown community’s promotional image of refinement and order.
Of course, for those with intentions of a less savory nature, or those unwilling to relinquish their firearms for whatever personal reasons, the south side of the tracks offers all the same distractions with almost none of the unnecessary sophistication, nor inconvenient law enforcement. In short, Dodge City is a destination to accommodate every taste, vice, and personality disorder.
. . .
“This’s bullshit, Budge!” says the new kid they call Squirrel.
“Mind your mouth, Rubin,” says Budge.
“I don’t give a hatful o’ piss how ‘this’s what it is’. Ain’t right a’tall, an’ I want what I signed on for.”
“Are you still talkin’ to me, son?”
An all-enveloping quiet break out in the stable.
“I ain’t yer son an’ you ain’t my pa. I signed on ta git paid when we git to Dodge an’ we’s at Dodge. I want my money.”
Budge has dredged up an unusual amount of patience. “And you’ll get it. Soon as…”
“What? Tomorruh? Nex’day? I by God wannit now. I know he gave you ‘nough.”
“He gave me enough to take care of everybody for now. That’s what I’m doin’. What you got’s so important can’t wait a few hours?”
Rubin Strawn signed on late. Stick’s the one came up with the name Squirrel, in part because of Rubin’s energetic, twitchy nature, but more than likely because of his needle nose and buck teeth. Stick didn’t like him from the start. Rest of the crew took their own measure, like they do, and decided they didn’t like him much neither. By then some of the trail was already behind them and more of it was in front of them and the youngster did manage a passable job most days.
“What I got’s so important’s my binness. He gave ya enough ta take care of everbody. I don’t care ‘bout everbody.” Rubin jerks a thumb behind him. “Some a them’s all ‘parently fine you be holdin’ ‘em up fer what’s rightly theirn. I ain’t.”
Leland Farnsworth, whose patience is not what you’d call legendary, is standing next to the agitated young man.
“Shut yer pancake-hole, Squirrel,” he says. “He told ya it’s a banking problem. Budge look like a banker to you, does he?”
“You stay outta this, fat man. I want what’s comin’ to me.”
Leland squares around to the boy. He’s half again the kid’s size but leans in and says all quiet, “If you can’t get roostered up here an’ find yerself a nice whore with at least half of yer tin left over in the morning, yer an idiot. Pure ‘n’ simple. I ‘spect no matter what you do, Squirrel, you prob’ly will get what’s comin’ to ya.”
“Goddammit! Stop callin’ me that, ya ignernt tub o’ horseshit!” The kid’s shouting has taken on a high-pitched, girly quaver there at the last. Any minute now he’s liable to begin stamping his feet.
Rubin’s hand twitches for his pistol.
He’s not really fixing to shoot anybody, but like any green youngster in a senseless rage, he must think somehow everyone will take him more serious if he waves some iron in their faces. He’s right about that.
His slaps empty leather. Wide-eyed, he whirls with a handful of air to face Jonas, standing there calm-like, holding the missing revolver muzzle-down at his side.
Rubin spits a curse and hauls back to smear the smug half-breed’s nose all over his Jesus-hatin’ face. He has a glimpse of a fist the size of a ham whipping into the side his head before he stretches out on the straw-covered planks like a gunnysack full of potatoes.
Leland offers Budge a sheepish shrug. “Sorry, Mister Ashby, but he shouldn’ta called me that.”
“No, ‘s okay, Leland. Boy’s got a lot to learn, I ‘spect. That is, if you didn’t kill him just now.”
Jonas opens the cylinder, empties the cartridges into his hand, kneels down, and slips the revolver back into its holster. Rubin begins to stir.
Budge bunches the front of Rubin’s shirt in a fist to help prop the kid up. With the other, he pulls some bills out of his own shirt pocket. He stuffs them into the front of the kid’s britches.
“Here you go, Rubin. There’s your pay. In full. Outta my own pocket.” He scowls into the lad’s bleary eyes. You can tell it’s a scowl because you can see his teeth clenched through the place where he has no cheek when his teeth are clenched.
“We’re all square and done now, ain’t we, boy?”
Rubin doesn’t look like he’s sure where he is yet. “Uh… I guess so.”
“Good. Pack up your gear. You and your nag get outta this stable an’ outta my sight. I don’t give much of a damn where you go, either, long as you don’t ever let me see your rat face again.”
The youngster blinks, slack jaw, eyes registering comprehension.
Leland gives the kid a bit of a shove to get him started on his way and Rubin does a little trippy dance, turns back, and opens his mouth. Jubal happens to be closest to him, says something terse in Rubin’s ear. There doesn’t appear much encouragement in the faces turned the lad’s way at the moment. His Adam’s apple works up and down.
“Fuck ever one a you goat-humpin’ bastids,” he pronounces. He accomplishes a shaky turn on a heel and stumbles out toward the corral, spurs a’jingle.
Budge gives Jonas a nod, returned. Jonas humps his warbag over his shoulder and strides out into the sun, stink, and wind-driven dust.
Let’s call this one Queen of Clubs… but don’t let her hear you.
People are awful fond of saying—and if you’re one of them, you know who you are—that beauty’s only skin-deep. The implication being that a pretty face doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a lovely personality, or conversely, a heart big as Texas sky and gentle as a mother’s kiss might be sleeping there underneath even the most grotesque physical appearance, just waiting to bust out. Goes hand-in-hand with the old ‘eye of the beholder’, ‘book by its cover’, and similar forms of sheep-dip. Now if you bother to ask the students of Miss Wilda Schultz’s grade school class there in St. Joe—except maybe Bernice Farmer, who’s folks told her she could go to Hell for saying anything unkind about anyone—some’ll likely tell you that, same as the south end of a north-bound cow, some ugly penetrates clean through to the bone.
Miss Schultz is what folks in these parts call ‘a big woman’. She’s not fat, she’s big-boned, zaftig, some might say. As her fashion dictates, her uniform consists of dark, high-necked, long-sleeve dresses of an unflattering cut that dust the floor as she marches about the classroom in her stout, mannish shoes. Her straw-blond hair’s pulled back into a bun so severe that the skin of her face seems stretched tight against angular cheekbones, her lips drawn into a scowl. The glower’s accentuated by a heavy, pinched brow that threaten to cave in over top of her piercing blue-gray eyes if not for the flying buttress of her nose to brace it. It’s long, narrow, and crooked as a snake’s back.
One student once pointed out in a passed note that hers is a perfect witch’s nose. You may be sure she intercepted the note and made a stinging example of the impertinent little larva. Well, a witch’s nose it may be, but instead of sporting a wart on the end, she’s grown a dainty moustache underneath. Why, yes indeed, she is a spinster. How’d ya guess?
What Miss Schultz might lack in stimulating male companionship, which she’s come to abhor anyway, she more than compensates for by surrounding herself with other people’s children and, in so doing, has come to understand why some animals eat their young. The neediness of infants and toddlers makes her want to scream, but she finds a degree of satisfaction in the process of elementary education and the oft thankless task of instilling discipline in the minds of malleable youth.
There’s a word that sums up her perception of her charges: pupae. It stems from the same Latin root word as pupil, she’s certain of it. If only the squirming, rambunctious little maggots will sit still and pay attention long enough for her to wrap them in a chrysalis of knowledge and order, she can then bring about the metamorphosis, coaxing forth responsible, worthwhile young adults that will become active participants in a bourgeoning society in much the same manner as the disgusting little worm emerges from its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly.
She’s kidding herself. She knows it. Sadly, most of them will amount to nothing, despite her remarkable, albeit underappreciated efforts. The boys will all become common laborers, worker bees that live only to toil, drink to excess, and make babies that will also grow up to amount to nothing. Two little hooligans in particular, Dickie Barnhart and Morgan O’Brien have already distinguished themselves as destined to become criminals, although not very successful ones. The girls, sweet little angels they may be now, will become either homemakers or harlots well before they’re old enough to know they had a choice.
Miss Schultz would despair for the future of the race itself if not for the occasional individual that presents in her classroom that rare combination of obedience and intellect. These she views as exemplifying the true purpose of her calling: the nurturing guidance of these prospective contributors to the worthy fields of scientific study and exploration, the Arts, or statecraft. As it may be, those who, like herself, fail at the aforementioned, albeit through no fault of their own, might still carry on as educators instead.
Gerald Flitcroft, son of a dry grocer and Mark McIntire, whose father is a driving force on the city council, both show promise, as does pretty little Mary Duncan, despite the fact that her father’s a bog-trotting Irishman, no doubt a drunk, and possibly even a Republican. What a treasure Mary is, though. She’s Miss Schultz’s most diligent helper, staying in after class while the other children run willy-nilly like a pack of wild Indians at recess. Yes, there’s potential here she can cultivate.
It is apparent to her when Jonas first arrives in her classroom, however, that he is not going to be among the select few. She doesn’t like his look at all. Cut his hair and dress him however you will, he’s got the unmistakable appearance of the savage about him.
She can see in him the product of an unholy union between a white man, no doubt a wretched, sheep-sodomizing individual without benefit of a moral compass, and some filthy, godless heathen whore. And here it sits, this… this little abomination with hands folded on its desk, pretending to be civilized and attentive.
The way the child refuses to meet her eyes when she’s talking to him annoys her very much. Someone told her once it’s Indian custom not to look another directly in the eyes. Ridiculous. If he’s going to amount to anything at all, he’d better learn to abandon all such nonsensical practices and behave in the manner of civilized people. He will bear scrutiny, this one.
Even though Jonas is twelve years old, she places him among the second and third graders. It’s obvious he can already read and write above that level, but there’s no reason to advance him further until he demonstrates suitable progress in other areas, and she will place considerable weight on his development in citizenship.
As time goes on, she has to admit (though not aloud) that Jonas’s attendance and punctuality are exemplary and he exhibits a quiet self-control in contrast to many of his peers. He’s an inquisitive, rational young person that absorbs information like a sponge. In almost every regard, he is a model student and yet she can barely tolerate the little bastard’s presence in her classroom.
“Look at me when you’re talking to me!” she will say to Jonas during oral exercises in class and Jonas will look in her direction, but won’t meet her gaze. She’s now convinced this is nothing more than his habituated adherence to an inane heathen custom and she’s resolved to break him of it. The truth is, Jonas is repelled by the woman’s prejudicial manner and treatment. He cannot bear to look at her through the windows of her spirit. What he’s seen there already is unnerving.
The day Miss Schultz loses all hope that Jonas will ever fit into real society is an otherwise uneventful one, the dreary, gray Monday afternoon of May first, eighteen fifty-four. She will remember the date because, in a way, it’s the date itself that sparks the incident.
The children are lined up at the door in two proper files as always—boys in one, girls in the other—in preparation to be excused for the day. She is patrolling the space between them with a firm countenance to discourage the tendency toward fidgeting and horseplay.
Mary Duncan is erasing the chalkboard at the front of the room, one of her assigned chores at day’s end as teacher’s helper. In the upper right corner of the board, Miss Schultz maintains the current date and asks Mary to change the date for her.
Behind her, Jonas is watching Mary with adoration. Her sweet face, her hair in ringlets, the way her youthful body moves with fluid perfection. She’s every bit a pubescent boy’s dream. Without thinking, Jonas asks Mary to change the date for him, too.
Miss Schultz sees the little trollop look up from her task, indulging Jonas with what could only be a coquettish smile. She makes a mental note to have a stern talk with Mary very soon about proper deportment of a young lady and the smutty intentions of young boys even as she rounds on an astounded Jonas and snatches him off the ground with both hands around his neck.
Shaking him, she shouts in his face, “How dare you mock me! You are an insolent little animal! I will not tolerate such impudence from a little animal! Never, never mock me again!”
Jonas’s hands are clamped onto her wrists to keep his neck from snapping as she brandishes him about like a terrier with a rat. Miss Schultz is in a transport of righteous rapture until, for the first time, she meets the boy’s eyes. There’s no fear in them, only a cold green fury that slices through her rage like a knife across her throat. In fact, as she casts him away from her against the wall, she raises a hand beneath her wattled chin just to make sure there’s no gash opened there.
The rest of the children are frozen. Mary has dropped the eraser and stands with a hand to her mouth in dramatic dismay. A couple older boys begin to laugh at Jonas as he picks himself off the floor, their mirth quashed by a murderous stare from the big woman breathing heavily there in the midst of a disorganized, demoralized crowd of children. Most are standing in mute anticipation of the next thunderbolt. A few are huddled together by the door in doubt as to which of them may be her next victim. A couple younger girls are crying. Jonas is standing with his back to her, arms folded across his chest and Miss Schultz feels somehow beaten.
She says in a voice shaken, but icy, “Class is dismissed. Everyone may go except Jonas.”
The door bangs open and the herd stampedes out without a trace of the customary decorum enforced by the woman who watches only Jonas walking away through his scattering classmates.
She calls out to him, orders him to return this very minute. She considers rushing to catch him, maybe shake him some more, but some of the children have turned to see what she’ll do and she realizes it’s already far too late for that.
His retreating back will be the last she will see of him.
At almost ten winters, Jonas is able to speak English well enough to converse, even though there is only his father and grandfather with whom he can share the talk.
From the days of his earliest memories, Jonas’s father has shown him how to walk in the wisicu world. Although young Jonas cannot see the purpose in it, he has an inquisitive mind and his father has been able to keep him engaged in learning something that his peers do not know. He is learning to read and write it too, something the People have never before done with their own language.
Burns Red takes Jonas aside. A copse of birch trees stands several hundred yards to the west and they make their way toward it. Walking alongside his father, opposite the crutch—a sturdy forked branch dressed out and bolstered in the crook with a cushion of thick cloth and hide—Jonas adopts a measured pace to match his father’s broken cadence.
As is often their way at such times together, father and son converse in English and the language of The People, back and forth, as Jonas strives to grasp and convey ever more complex ideas and relationships. Burns Red is moved to speak his heart.
“The knowing you have within you, my son, is a Power. It is a gift from Wakan Tanka and I know this because it is the same in me.”
Jonas looks at his father with a silent question and they stop walking. Burns Red raises his hand to indicate the birches, closer now, their bare branches just beginning to bud with new life.
“Near the top of the tallest tree, do you see the hawk there?”
Jonas’s eyes are sharp, but he does not. “No, Father,” he says, then watches as a red-shouldered hawk soars low over the treetops, catches wind, and lights in the branches near the top of the tallest tree. Burns Red hitches forward and continues walking.
“This power must not be misused, neither selfishly, nor in anger. Such a gift, if abused in such a way, may be taken away. Consider your grandfather. He too has such gifts and I know you can sense in his presence that he is a man of considerable power. Do you see how he uses his power?”
Jonas reflects on what he knows about his grandfather as he searches for words in English to convey thoughts that do not flow in English. “He helps the People.”
“You are correct. His life is one of service to all. He has chosen to give his knowledge and power for the benefit of the People. Do you think he has done this so the People will honor him?”
“No. I think the People honor him because he has chosen to do this.”
“Your grandfather is a good example of the right use of power.”
“What about you, Father? Are you not a good example?”
Burns Red’s laborious gait slows to a stop. He hangs into the crook of his crutch and pats it with his hand to draw Jonas’s attention to it. “Think of me as an example of what may happen when you know what you must do… and do it not.”
“What happened to you, Father?”
“We will not speak of that now.”
They walk in silence into the trees, their footfalls muffled in the duff beneath a network of greening branches. Warm sunlight filters down, dappling a natural kaleidoscope composed of scores of intersecting birch bark corridors. Much like the vivid interplay of light and dark around him, Jonas’s thoughts are turning over his father’s words.
“If you know before someone takes something from you, or harms you, is it misuse to stop them?”
“That is a very good question.”
The dull ache in his hip and leg has sharpened and, bracing against this crutch, Burns Red lowers himself onto the narrow trunk of a tree, fallen and wedged against another. He looks up into his son’s face and turns a grimace into a smile.
“Those things we have been given by Creator are for our use, but we do not own them. Some, like food and water, we use quickly and what we do not use is returned to the earth. Other things, like a buffalo robe, or a knife…”
Burns Red draws from its sheath a bone-handled blade made of a remarkable white man’s steel. “Even our sacred things may stay with us for a time, but they are only ours until they are not. We give things to others because we understand that they need the thing more than we do. If someone wants to take from you what you are still using, you may ask yourself, which of us needs the thing more? You have the right to protect what is in your safekeeping, but in the end, a thing is only a thing. Things get passed on, used up, lost, broken… but there will always be more things. Do you understand?”
Jonas nods. “Things are only ours until they are not. But, how will I know which of us needs a thing more than the other?”
Sharp-edged rays of sunlight slant through the branches and Burns Red is transfixed by his son’s green eyes intent upon him.
“The larger question you have asked is about protecting yourself, your family, and your hoop. I have always believed that to defend one’s life and the lives of your loved ones is always right use of power. I still believe that. Remember the lesson you have learned with Jumping Otter. An adversary is not always your enemy. Things are rarely what they seem, and it is better to be kind than to be right. There are warriors here who will disagree with me about this, and they will not be kind about it. I believe first it is better to turn the fight away, than to cause harm.”
“I don’t understand, father. Do you mean run away?”
“I did not say ‘turn away from the fight’. I said ‘turn the fight away’. You will not show your back to an adversary until you show him first there is greater benefit to him by not engaging with you.”
“But if I must fight?”
“If you must fight, recall that any fight at any time may be life or death. Sing your own deathsong as you enter it. Try to let that one show you how not to kill him. You will see the way, if it is there to be seen. And, if not, be swift. Do not gloat. Regard the spirit you have released as sacred, returning to the Circle.”
“I do not have a deathsong.”
Burns Red nods, reaches a hand to touch his boy’s face. “One more thing. There is a white man’s word that is a very good word to know and remember. It speaks to the gift of knowing that those like us possess. The word is “discretion”. Do you know it?”
“Walk softly. Talk little. Act without calling attention to yourself.”
“Hoh, I do know this word, Father. Our word, ‘inila’, means more than dis-creshun, but I see it means that too.”
Burns Red pulls himself upright and embraces his son. “My heart is full.”
He crosses the Deadline at the railroad tracks and turns up Front Street toward the Wright House. It’s not yet mid-day and the streets are crowded with carts, wagons, men on horseback, and clusters of men on horseback with wagons. Pity the errant pedestrian.
Jonas threads a path through the crush and bustle to the opposite side of the street without incident and makes his way along the busy boardwalk.
At the Wright House there are a couple surprise vacancies. Two Texas drovers checked in yesterday. One’s going to spend the next couple nights in jail and the other has new accommodations up at the boneyard.
His second-floor room’s clean and made up with curtains on the window and an oil painting of a peaceful mountain stream over a low dresser on the long wall. The dresser sports a ewer of water in a ceramic wash basin and a hurricane lamp. The bed’s springy, firm with minimal squeaking, crisp linens, a down comforter, and a feather pillow. Just down the hall’s a necessary shared with the other guests on the floor. An indoor toilet… damned if civilization hasn’t hauled off and made itself right at home out here on the prairie.
Back downstairs for a look around, it’s apparent the Wright House isn’t just the finest hotel in town, but has developed into quite the diversified concern with a first-class restaurant and a well-stocked general store, all on one stick.
Inside Wright’s store, Jonas discovers an unexpected variety of provisions, toggery, sundries, eye-catching oddments, and chingaderas on display. It’s a lot to take in.
He settles for two boxes of cartridges for his Winchester, some spicy jerky, a bandana, new socks, and a pair of Mister Levi Strauss’ rugged indigo denim ‘waist-overalls’, as they’re called. The material’s tough and whoever figured to copper-rivet the pockets on was one smart feller.
He’s preparing to post up on his account when he spies the shirt. He’s passed it by two-three times wandering the store, but now he can’t keep his eyes off it. It’s the color of deep red wine with a bib front, a dude’s shirt and no mistake.
“Just in off the train from Chicago yesterday,” the clerk informs him. For some reason he couldn’t explain, he’s taken an immediate shine to it, but it’s the buttons made out of sacred mother-of-pearl that’s the capper. Well, that and it’s a fit.
All his fresh acquisitive’s folded up tidy in a paper-wrapped package, tied off with twine and tucked up under his arm as he strides out to the street. The essences wafting out of the restaurant makes him stop dead a minute to savor the aromas of seared meat and vegetables in butter. His stomach reminds him it’s wolfish. He reminds his stomach it’s been hungry before and still no worse off for it. He’s got other business to attend before sitting down to reload.
As it invariably will, word of the incident gets around. When she is approached two days later by a representative of those who hold her contract, Miss Schultz shows him the bruises on her wrists, encouraging him to infer that she had been protecting herself from an unprovoked attack by the savage little beast. She isn’t positive the perfunctory little man accepts this interpretation, but she feels confident she’s provided reasonable doubt.
Early Friday morning, when Miss Schultz arrives to open the school and prepare the day’s lesson materials, a man is seated on the steps waiting for her. Upon her approach, he rises with obvious difficulty, bracing against crutches, and greets her with a gracious smile. He’s a tall fellow, pale, and gaunt. If he could straighten himself, they’d meet eye-to-eye, but as it is, she’s able to look down her oft-broken nose at him. He’s well-dressed for a cripple and clean-shaven, but with an unruly thatch of hair that, in the sunlight, is the color of fire. Another Mick, she laments with a sigh and eyeroll.
He introduces himself and says he is Jonas’s father. This catches her off-guard, as he is clearly not the depraved copulator of sheep and squaws she had envisioned. In an effort to reconcile this conceptual discrepancy, she allows as how this fellow offered to adopt Jonas after the boy’s removal from whatever primitive Hell he came from. The idea makes such good sense to her, she endorses it without objection and returns his polite handshake, inviting him inside where they can talk.
“I realize you have work to do before your students arrive, Miss Schultz. If you will indulge me, I will only take two minutes of your time and I’d prefer not to climb the stairs.” His voice is mellow and unhurried. “Besides, it’s such a pleasant morning. I’ve been listening to the birds while I waited for you.”
He gestures toward the tree-lined street where wrens and towhees flit among oak and elm. Sparrows and swifts dart overhead. A cardinal takes wing in a momentary blaze. At least a half dozen different kinds of songbirds are within earshot, calling out their boundaries, proclaiming their mating worthiness, or perhaps singing for no other reason than because they can. Miss Schultz hadn’t noticed them.
Impatient now and trepidatious about this fellow’s intentions, she sets her bag in front of the steps with a deliberate thump, folds her fleshy arms across her massive bosom, and does, in fact, stare down her nose at him, daring him to challenge her disciplinary measures. “As you say, Mister Goff, there is work to be done before class begins. How may I help you?”
“I heard about the disturbance in your classroom earlier in the week. I’m sorry you had to experience that.”
“What did Jonas tell you about it?”
“Jonas? Oh, Jonas didn’t mention it at all. I heard it from an acquaintance whose child attends the school.”
“Oh? Which child?”
“I want to assure you; I did not come here to question your methods. When I asked Jonas about what happened, he told me he was responsible; he had spoken out of turn and you had reprimanded him for it. Nothing more. It sounds to me as if the story has been embellished in the telling for dramatic effect and the entire situation has been blown far out of proportion. Would you not agree?”
Wilda Schultz is unprepared to hear these words. She realizes that her posture has been a defensive one from the start and quite contrary to the image Jonas’s foster-father is attempting to paint of her just now—one of a reasonable and responsible educator whose actions have been misrepresented by irresponsible gossip and perhaps even outright fabrication. Her crossed arms and haughty manner seem to be shouting a vigorous rebuttal to this far more desirable description of her and she drops both like hot stones.
“Why, yes. Yes, I most surely do agree,” she manages to stammer out and forces a humorless laugh. “You know how children are.”
The man’s laugh, on the other hand, is effortless and rich. “Yes, madam, I believe I do.”
“Thank you for your understanding,” she says with sincerity.
“Not at all.” He begins to gather his crutches under his arms as if to leave. She hoists her bag and he hesitates. “One more thing, if you please.”
She restrains a groan and turns back to face him with a pained expression she believes to be representative of a smile.
“Only a few more weeks remain before class is in recess for the summer. Jonas has taken on a job at the mill and won’t be returning until class resumes in the fall. I’m confident at that time he will cause you no further unpleasantness.”
“I see,” she says. “We will miss his valuable contribution to the classroom, and of course, he will have to take the grade over next year, but I’m sure it’s for the best. Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by, Mister Goff. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure was mine, madam.”
“I really do have to be about my morning work. The children …”
“As do I. And I know you will care for those young ones as though they were your very own. Good day, Miss Schultz.”
The day’s a demanding one and at intervals throughout, Miss Schultz’s thoughts return to the unusual conversation of the morning, but it isn’t until later that evening over a bland supper that she begins to ponder the possibility there was perhaps more than one message in the words of the queer cripple with the burning red hair.
This tall drink o’ water here with the blaze of red hair’s name is Daniel Goff. He’s a memory composed of personal experience, stories heard told by them that knew him, and those the man wrote himself in his own journals. He’s the strapping son of Welsh and Irish immigrants who settled in Independence, Missouri, roundabout eighteen twenty-six when he was but nine winters. They built themselves a thriving dry-goods business there, supplying trappers and pioneers heading into the Western frontier. Danny’s their middle child.
As a lad, he’s quiet and introspective, for the most part, with an appetite for books, an odd, but decent kid, patient and kind with people, even those that can’t do for him. He excels in school and never seems to get into real trouble, no mischief, nothing in fact to attract much attention to himself. He’s a boy, of course, and random accidents can happen to anyone, after all, but trouble seems to miss Danny complete. On the rare occasion it heads right at him, he always seems to know which way to move out of its path.
Since about the age of five, he doesn’t question his knowledge of what will happen if he chooses a certain course of action over another. He will realize, in time, that everyone can’t do the same. His father will advise and instruct him to keep that knowledge to himself.
Danny’s fascinated by the Indians that interact in and around Independence, mostly the Otoe and remnants of the Missouri, as well as the occasional Osage snuck off the reservation. He’s anxious to communicate with those he meets that don’t speak English or French, learning signs in common use by most of them and bits of language.
Danny harbors an unspoken admiration for their hard, immediate lives. Their deep connection with the natural world is something he doesn’t often observe in his own people. He’s reminded that the Church views the native people as savages, deeming their practices pagan and unholy. Reckon sometimes they are. Also seems to Danny that a great deal of unholy savagery has been perpetrated in the name of the Church and he sees that as a bore-sighted conceit.
Nor does he hold with the notion that the White race is, by some arbitrary definition, superior to the native folk and, by right of that superiority, lays claim to land and resources that has been husbanded just fine by those same poor backward savages for centuries. That they’re then displaced and herded like cattle onto reservations, often far from their sacred places and the lands and game that had sustained them, seems to Danny’s naïve young mind the very pinnacle of arrogance and avarice. Of course, Danny also knows better than to voice such blasphemous opinions in polite company.
While still in school studying cartography, he apprentices with a surveyor. He is meticulous and seems to have an aptitude for what he perceives as a craft. By the age of twenty-two he’s learned both trades and takes work with the US Army. He hires onto an expedition to map the wilderness out to the Missouri River with a fellow named Joseph Nicolett. That’s where his life takes an unexpected turn, something he didn’t see coming at all.
Well, here’s a real pretty face-card for you. Queen o’ Diamonds. This hothouse flower’s name is Faith Cordell. Today, three years after she and her sister brought their business to Dodge, she still has her face, her figure, and all her own teeth. More than many of their girls can say.
Hope it doesn’t upset you, seeing as how that little peach-colored shift she’s almost wearing’s soaking wet, plastered up against her like she’s got nothing on but a sunny smile. Oh, and, by the way, if you’re thinking that’s a straight razor in her hand, well, you’ve got yourself a keen eye there.
It’s early afternoon and the wind’s up, as it often is in Dodge this time of day. Cordell’s establishment is easy to find and Jonas steps inside with a swirl of dust, the package still under his arm. It takes a minute for his eyes to adjust from the bright mid-day sun to the subdued light of the foyer. Through the doorway, the parlor walls are adorned in rich burgundy fabrics and the floors are carpeted with Oriental rugs. Long divans encircle the room and a couple deep chairs are placed here and there with a side table next to each. The entire room is a study in red and purple hues, illuminated by lamps around the perimeter and a central chandelier all turned down low to create a smoky, sensual ambience. The effect is further enhanced by a cloying layer of tobacco and incense, cheap perfume, liquor, and sweaty relations.
This is the slowest time of the day around these parts, but there’s a couple cowboys on one of the divans with one half-naked girl lolling between them and a well-dressed businessman with a plug hat seated alone reading a newspaper. Three soiled doves, maybe the only others up at this early hour and unoccupied, are lounging together on another sofa looking at first glance, ripe, sultry, and disinterested, respectively.
The plump blond at one end with her legs curled under her, has a sweet, chubby face, lots of flesh under a filmy negligee, and she’s doing a pretty good job at the moment looking demure. Next to her, a dusky Mexican woman with a cruel mouth, tips her bodice to showcase her endowments. Her smile is disturbing, like a snarl.
Jonas’s spine floods with ice and his balls clench back into his body. He’s never seen one of these before.
This is not a woman. It’s not even human.
His grandfather would have called it a ‘crawler’. A young Navajo man he got to know while working for Fargo whispered of a dire creature of merciless appetite. His people gave it a name that made Jonas’s flesh prickle just to hear it.
Whoever this woman was once is gone. An abhorrent thing of grievous intention animates her body. The Jesus-people would probably call it a demon, but of course, if past experience is any guide, the Jesus-people have the uncanny ability to see demons everywhere. Whatever it is and whatever the wasicu Hell it’s doing in this place is none of his business. Jonas sends a sincere prayer to Creator and his spirit guardians that he’s given it no outward sign of recognition.
The third whore, a younger girl with flowing brown curls and sallow complexion is ignoring him, attending her nails with a studious, regal mien. She looks sick.
A wide stair at the far end of the room divides at the landing mid-way, each giving onto a mezzanine and private rooms on each side. Miss Cordell descends with a light step and crosses the room to meet the dusty trail hand with a package under one arm and hat in hand.
He has strong features and dark complexion, long black hair tied back, bespeaking Indian blood, but the red stubble on his cheeks and chin suggest a genealogy best not explored in depth. Some places that might matter; here he’s just another horny drover. At least this one shows some manners.
Her smile is still one of her best features and she favors Jonas with one of them.
He watches her come on with a grace that’s part lady, part puma. Her dress is an expensive one, cut of shadowy purple velvet. It hugs her body like a second skin and buttons to the throat. Small feet in simple heels peek beneath the hem. Auburn hair cascades over her shoulders and down her back.
Jonas recalls a rank bronc in the paddock named Hammerhead. Stick Dern named her that after she’d dusted every one of the hands, including Jonas. Twice. He knows for a fact Hammerhead never threw him half as hard as that smile.
“Hello, Cowboy. You’re getting an early start; I like that. I’m an early bird too.” She offers her hand. “I’m Faith.”
He takes it with surprising gentleness; not a cowboy’s pump handle handshake, but a sinuous ripple that turns her palm down and tips the wrist upward. In more urbane circles, a bow and polite kiss on the back of her hand might follow, but this a whorehouse in Dodge. He’s been accused of some things in his life, but ‘urbane’ was never one of them.
Unsure where the lump in his throat came from, he swallows most of it and says, “Jonas, ma’am. I was told I could get a hot bath here,” and he wonders if he could sound like any more of a bumpkin.
He tries to release her hand, but she holds on, leading him deeper into the parlor. Leading him toward the sofa.
“In a house of pleasure, all you want is a kiss, is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am. I mean no, ma’am. I mean… ” He takes a breath and shows her an easy grin. “Reckon just the bath just now, if you please.”
Miss Cordell gives the couch a sidelong glance. “Don’t see a girl you like?”
Jonas meets her eyes and they match her dress. “I do, though I couldn’t rightly call her a girl.”
“Oh?” No doubt she’s been sizing up men, what they say and what they want, for some years with apparent accuracy. She’s sizing him up now. “What about her caught your eye?”
“Got a smile that’d likely paralyze and subdue most men without them even knowin’ it happened.”
She shows it to him again.
She beckons to the pretty blond who, given her generous proportions, rises from the couch with a dancer’s ease. Her gown billows around her as she approaches. For all her soft roundness, she moves with grace.
The sickly brunette is still fussing with her nails. The dusky predator has assumed a lewd sprawl on the divan, watching beneath hooded lids. Jonas will not meet its eyes.
A swirl of delicate fabric settles beside him as the blonde woman takes his arm, pressing it against her body.
“Sherri, would you please escort the gentleman back to the baths?” Still holding his hand in hers, she gives it over to Sherri. He doesn’t resist. “And do have Carlos brush his hat and clothes out for him.”
He can feel the skinwalker’s eyes at his back as Sherri leads him away.
The bath room at the rear of the establishment isn’t large, but there’s room for three deep tubs, each separated by curtains of fabric hanging damp and heavy to the floor. The atmosphere’s steamy, smelling of damp wood, mildew, and cigar smoke. An adjacent tub is occupied and Jonas can hear playful sounds issuing from behind the curtain.
The package containing his freight he places on a shelf behind the tub as Sherri begins to unshuck him with a playful efficiency. Chubby fingers stray over his body as she does so, caressing him with an unaccustomed familiarity.
She begins to lift his medicine bag over his head. He stays her hand, removes it himself, and stuffs it into his boot, the one with a bit of leather cord woven around it. The other boot receives his belt and his hat sets atop both.
She offers him a helping hand into the tub and giggles as he flinches at the water’s temperature. The man, Carlos, tending fire under the big drum out back, is hauling in buckets of hot water intended to keep the clients steeping in comfort. In less than a minute, Jonas is submerged to his nose, drifting with eyes closed in delicious, buoyant bliss. A rustle nearby calls his attention and he peeks out to see Sherri fixing to take his things to Carlos as she’d been instructed.
“Hoh, there, little bird. Leave your man the hat for brushin’ an’ just have him burn the rest, if you please. Trail stink on ’em prob’ly never comin’ out.” He answers the question in her eyes with a nod toward the bundle on the shelf.
She winks and puckers a kiss in his direction just as the adjoining curtain is swept open with a snap. A wild-eyed troll occupies the neighboring tub. A shock of hair on either side of his balding head has been transformed into soapy wings and half a cigar is smoldering in his wide, grinning mouth, surrounded by a bristle of cactus stubble. Behind him stands a big Colored woman wearing only a surprised expression. She’s brandishing a scrub brush in one hand.
“Two Dogs! You sorry excuse fer a fuckin’ bull nurse!” Chap’s voice is equal parts gravel and mule’s bray. “Can’t an old man get his tallywhacker yanked in peace around here?”
“Hau, kola! Kiss your mother with that mouth, do ya?”
“Hell, no! Your mother!” A guffaw, a cough, and Chap’s cigar stub fizzles on the floor, eliciting a resigned expletive.
The big woman is pointing the back scrubber at him like a sword. “Now dat’s what I been talkin’ ’bout, honey.” Her voice drips molasses. “Why doan we git yo wrinkldy ass out dat tub?”
“How ’bout you round me up another ceegar first, Porcelain?”
She lowers the sword, just a little. “You shore dat wone be shrivelt up foe I git back?”
Chap stands, sloshing water to the floor where it sieves between the planks. His eyes are almost level with the woman’s collar bones and he says, “Don’t you worry ’bout ‘ol tag-along, darlin’. When the time comes, my South will rise again!”
Jonas flinches from the view of Chap’s narrow, white buttocks to watch Sherri, still giggling, flutter toward the back door with his old clothing in her hands. She closes the curtain behind her.
“Ohh! Ain’t you the sweet-talkah?” Porcelain strains the seams of a silk robe and lumbers out the door. The slap of her bare feet on the floor recedes down the hallway.
Chap sinks back down in the water, lounging with his arms on the rim and a contented grin on his ogre face. “Damn,” he says to the ceiling, “but I loves me the dark ladies, I surely do.”
“Well, you got yourself a servin’ platter-full there, biscuit wrangler.”
“Ain’t that the truth? Say, where’s yer chippy got off to?”
“She just came to take my clothes out for burnin’, that’s all.”
“She looks a real purty handful too, she does. Both hands, now’t I think on it.” Chap demonstrates.
“Mmhmm.” Jonas settles back into luxurious warmth.
“Didja hear ’bout Squirrel?” Chap, without a cigar or a woman to occupy his mouth, has little else to do but bend a friendly ear. “Me ‘n’ George were loadin’ supplies ‘n’ missed the show. Pulled on Budge’s what I heard.”
“Had him the fleeting thought, it seems.”
“No matter. I seen that little bed-house desperado shoot. Couldn’t hit his own ass with a handful of banjos.”
“His doin’s none of mine. I’m all done talkin’ about him.”
“Oh. Well… okay. Hey, afore I fergit, Bob Kunkle’s buyin’ steak dinner over’t the Wright house six o’clock. Then a bunch of us’re goin’ over ta the Lone Star. You comin’ with?”
“Well, I dunno. I was thinkin’ about readin’ a book all night instead.”
“Yer chock full o’ shit. Do you even know that?”
Carlos shuffles in with a pail in each hand. “Seniors?”
Jonas waves him off and Chap waves him in.
“Seems the only book in the room’s a little Bible somebody left behind,” Jonas says, “no doubt for my salvation.”
“Welkl, they’re too late fer that.”
“Reckon so. I’ll let Mister Kunkle buy me supper, though.”
“Whatcha ya gonna do after?”
“Sleep in a bed.”
“No, ya goat-roper, I mean after we’re done here in Dodge. Budge says ya ain’t comin’ back ta the MacDee with us.”
“I’m not. Headin’ to Santa Fe. Maybe Albuquerque. The winter cold up north’s startin’ to make my bones ache, so I thought I’d take a ride, see someplace I’ve never been. Someplace warmer.”
“Back fer roundup next year?”
“You headin’ through the Waterscrape, are ya?
“Me an’ Ohanko’re taking the train to Pueblo. Figure from there we’ll head straight south, fall in with the trail traffic on the Upper Crossing.”
“Smart choice there, boy. Cimarron Cutoff’s terr’ble dry an’ them crazy injuns out there’ll bury ya inna sandhill jist ta watch the ants eat yer eyeballs out. After that they start gettin’ mean.” He scratches around the quills on his jaw. “Train’ll save ya few weeks an’ that’s sure. When ya fixin’ ta leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. Already got my ticket.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Chap gives him a sober look. “I’m gonna miss yer ugly face.”
“I’ll remember you, kola. You’re a good man. I’m prob’ly not gonna miss your shitty coffee, though.”
“A few days o’ that belly wash them freighters an’ skinners call coffee, you’ll be cryin’ fer some o’ mine an’ you know it.”
“Thinkin’ I’d rather have ants eat my eyeballs.”
“Okay, I take it all back. Fuckya!” the ogre grins. “I ain’t gonna miss yer face OR yer sorry smart ass when yer gone after all. Good riddance, I say. An’ after that I’m gonna wipe m…”
The rest is garbled as Jonas slips beneath the water, letting it lift him until only his eyes are above the surface, blowing little bubbles through his nose, and watching steam curl.
A vision forms in the mist looking remarkably like Faith Cordell. He wipes hair from his eyes.
She’s wearing a peach-colored chemise. Her luxurious hair is put up on top of her head. Her legs are bare, pale, and carry her with feline elegance just far enough into the room to observe both men.
Chap’s eyes and mouth widen and he manages to choke out, “Aft’noon, Miss Cordell. Yer lookin’ perticurly fetching t’day.”
“Why, Mister Denny. I didn’t see you come in earlier. Janice must have greeted you. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” She sounds like she means it.
“Pleasure’s all mine right ’bout now.”
“Is Porcelain taking good care of you?”
“Sure is.” Chap grins his troll grin and gives her an exaggerated wink. “Tit fer tat, ya might say. She’s off getting’ me another ceegar right now. Bit later on, reckon as how I gots me a ceegar fer her, if ya take my meanin’.”
She laughs, a soft, bell-like sound, and pulls the connecting curtain closed. She draws up a low stool beside Jonas.
“Cowboy, I know this is going to sound like a bunkhouse joke I’ve heard a few hundred times, but I can think of a couple good reasons right off why I’d do something impetuous like this. Do you need to know what they are?”
He shakes his head. “No, ma’am.”
“You said all you wanted was a hot bath and you look like you need a barber. I don’t have a lot of time, but I’m here to give you both. Are you going to fight me?”
A snort from the other side of the drape.
“You’re not a supporter of the tonsorial arts, I see.”
“Haven’t had much truck with barbers since I left home.”
Carlos comes in to top off the water, leaving the steaming buckets with Faith at her silent direction. Behind the drape in the next bay, splashing and grunting and a curl of blue smoke mingles in the general haze.
“My father took me to live in Saint Joe when I was about eleven. Went to school there and he figured I’d fare better if I presented a more refined appearance.”
“Did you fare better?”
“Hold your nose.”
Her fingers slip into his hair and she presses down until his head submerges. Feet and legs poke out the other end of the tub and water sluices out onto the floor. A strong pull brings him back to the surface. She pours some thick, floral-smelling liquid over his head and begins to suds him up, massaging his scalp with strong, questing fingers, then combing them through its length in long strokes and back again, working his hair to a lather. Jonas has abandoned himself to her ministrations.
“You might want to close your eyes until I rinse this out.”
She hoists the first bucket with little effort and pours the contents over his head in a slow stream. Jonas feels froth streaming down his forehead, but the overflow a minute before has soaked Faith’s smock. Translucent now, its contours are now hers. Angry hornets fly into his eyes, obliterating the image of Miss Cordell’s silver dollar nipples. Jonas makes no sound, but the liquid fire filling his eye sockets demands at least a grimace.
“Told you.” The tiny bell laugh.
She empties the remainder of the first bucket over him while he agitates the soap out with his fingers, and the other bucket to finish and rub his stinging eyes. By the time his vision begins to improve, she’s brushing shaving lather onto his face.
“It looks like you shave with your knife,” she says.
“Gets it done.”
“It might be good enough for the girls you go with. Do you trust me with this?” She shows him the straight razor.
He shows her his throat. “Do I have time to sing my deathsong?”
“Oh, honey,” the sweet bell laugh rings him once more to his toes. “No.”