Say now, this card here’s face down. Ain’t that interesting and borderline mysterious? Reckon it to be the hole card, and don’tcha wonder what it is? Well, let’s go ahead and just take a peek at it, shall we?
The Long Branch is a lively place with a five-piece band providing musical background to the spirited goings-on. Although it’s still early evening, the crew is lucky to find an unoccupied table there and goes about holding chairs down with their backsides while Mister Kunkle springs for a bottle of good whiskey and sets it down with a clutch of glasses.
Jonas declines. He doesn’t like all the things that make drinking whiskey so attractive to everyone else, no matter how smooth anyone says it is. You can’t rightly call it a ‘taste’ when it burns all the way from your tonsils to your toenails, dulls your senses, upsets your stomach, and blurs all perception. Neither does he care for the morning after, that least of all. He turns the glass placed in front of him upside down before it can be filled and rises from his seat.
“What’s a matter, Two Dogs? Y’ain’t drinkin’ with us?” That’s Leland.
Bob Kunkle stops pouring and looks after Jonas.
“No coffin varnish fer me. Clouds my judgment.”
“That’s the general idea,” Kunkle says with a laugh.
“Thanks just the same, Mister Kunkle.”
“It’s just ‘Bob’ tonight, son.”
“Thought I’d get me a beer, Bob. Somebody mind my seat.”
Budge downs his shot and, seeing Bob still looking after Jonas’s retreating back and braid, reaches up and taps the bottle in Bob’s hand with his glass.
Bob looks down at Budge. Budge holds up the glass. Thunder rolls out across the prairie.
Jonas weaves between a couple tables toward the bar. A few patrons are bellied up to it, their animated conversations adding to the growing din that will, in time, threaten to drown out the band’s renditions of popular good-timey tunes. Polite dialogue will have to be conducted at a near-shout and it’s often not far from polite shouting to just plain shouting, followed by the throwing of hands and the hasty ejection of those engaged in undiplomatic pursuits, preferably before the breaking of the furniture commences. You get the idea. Welcome to Dodge City, pilgrim.
There’s a fair layer of tobacco smoke hanging heavy from the high ceiling in the long main room of the saloon. Placed at discrete intervals throughout that blue-white cloud, several oil lamp fixtures provide adequate lighting to see the pips on one’s cards at any of the tables arranged below.
Seven or eight cowboys laid together end to end might reach from one end of the bar to the other. By the end of a rowdy night like this one’s shaping up to be, you could probably find seven or eight cowboys already prostrate; all you gotta do then’s just line ’em up.
The barkeep demonstrates his maintenance of the top’s high gloss by sopping up a ring of moisture with a rag and buffing the spot with a dry cloth. He’s done it so many times he doesn’t even register the act in his consciousness, much like scratching his manicured beard, or tweezing his ill-fitting underwear from the sweaty terrain of his nethers.
Behind him are a couple framed pictures of somebody or other. They bracket a large mirror with the business end of a Texas Longhorn mounted atop it. The horns are about twice as wide as a man’s outstretched arms; one big sumbitch, that one was. Any true Texan, of course, would tell you that one’s a juvenile, and obviously a runt as well.
“What can I get ya, drover,” says the barkeep. He’d seen this one come in with the MacDee boys and, despite his personal opinion of persons of native extraction, his demeanor’s professional enough.
“Not a better one in Dodge.”
“Hear tell you’ve got cold beer.”
“That’s a fact. We have ice and the beer’s positively frigid. Quarter a pint.”
“Well, that sounds a fair trade.” Jonas spins a quarter on the bar. “How do ya get ice?”
“We manage,” the barkeep says, taps the beer and, by the time the coin stops spinning, passes over a tall frosted glass with a perfect head on it.
Jonas takes a long pull on it. Cold as mountain spring water, it goes down with a near-bitter, hoppy flavor that almost draws a grimace. It has a surprising, nutty aftertaste, though.
He wipes the froth from his upper lip. “That’s practically a miracle.” He lays another quarter on the bar. “Pretty sure I’m gonna need another’n.”
Elbow on the bar, sipping at the frosty brew, Jonas surveys the assortment of patrons spread out around the long room.
Four men are clustered together at the bar drinking and talking amongst themselves, cowhands. Another three at the end of the bar playing chuck-a-luck using an hour-glass shaped wire basket called, if memory serves, a birdcage, conjured to minimize complaints against unscrupulous hosts rolling trick dice.
There’s the beginning of a crowd around the faro table against the wall between the entrance and the bar, a prime spot worth a handsome percentage to the Long Branch from the fellow running the bank there. He looks shifty to Jonas’s eyes, but his game’s a popular one.
In the foreground there’s a couple unoccupied tables, recently vacated, and another two with men playing cards around drinks and finger-food. Beeson’s band on the opposite wall is just putting their instruments aside for a spell to wet their whistles and have a smoke.
To the rear of the hall, more tables are arranged, a few already occupied. Seated at one of them close by are the men of his outfit, still sharing the bottle Kunkle bought for them. They’re not here to get stupid-drunk. Not on purpose, anyway. To be sure, that’ll no doubt happen somewhat later this evening at the Lone Star dance hall. This here’s just a chance for them to grease the chute.
A couple of other tables in the rear seem to be manned by locals, a better-dressed sort, keeping to themselves. They’re not here to ‘see the elephant’, in the parlance of the just-passin’-through. This is their elephant and they see it every day. No, they’re just not ready to go home yet, that’s all. In fact, if there’s any circus in town, it remains the constant cavalcade of itinerants, most here for a couple-three days at best, then gone and forgotten, to be replaced soon enough by more just like them.
More people are coming in through the bat-wing doors to get out of the rain that’s starting to pelt down from a slate-dark sky.
Jonas notices Leland and the ‘Colonel’ traipsing through the crowd to take a turn at the faro table. Bob Kunkle’s behind them as well and stops to put a friendly hand on Jonas’s shoulder.
“Son, I just wanted to tell you something,” he says. “You’re one hell of a ranny and none here would dispute that. Calum thinks very highly of you and that’s saying something. He’s sorry to see you go, but he asked me to make sure you’re off to a good start. I know you had travel arrangements to make, that’s why I had Budge pay you in full this morning. I have another twenty dollars to help you on your way. Calum says he hopes if things don’t work out for you down there, you’ll come back. Personally, I don’t suppose we’re going to see you again, so … well, I wanted to wish you luck and a safe journey.”
The elder businessman has a right firm handshake and palms the proffered twenty-dollar piece into Jonas’s hand.
“Thank you kindly, Bob. I’m grateful. You know I already said my goodbyes to Mister MacDonough and Missus Anne. Meant what I said at supper. And I truly appreciate the bonus.”
Jonas holds onto the older man’s hand a moment longer. Something… just a little farther ahead, something troublesome, has suggested itself.
“You’re welcome, Jonas. You watch your ass out there, son. That’s wild country,” Kunkle says and turns to make his way to the faro table.
Only mildly inebriated and in no particular hurry, Kunkle turns back. “What is it, son?”
There’s a well-practiced reluctance in him to let on about what his knowing shows him, but he likes the man. “This here’s wild country, too. Later tonight, if someone tells you about a… I don’t know, some kind of real good deal. A once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-miss opportunity and wants you to come outside where it’s quieter to talk about it… just don’t.”
For a minute, Kunkle’s stumped. His gray-bearded jaw works as though he thinks he ought to be saying something, but can’t figure out what. There doesn’t seem any humor hiding in Jonas’s face. At last, all he can do is nod and say, “Is that all?”
“Just try to keep a couple o’ the boys around you when you’re comin’ and goin’ tonight. Okay?”
Once more a pause and questing look, just to make sure Jonas isn’t pulling his leg. No, he’s heard something somewhere about this man and his intuition.
“Okay. Thank you, Jonas. I will. “
“See ya do.”
Jonas watches him join Leland and Stick at the gaming table. A fair-size crowd has been drawn in around the bank, jostling now to place bets. He’s both baffled and amused by the peculiar antics of these players. That they’re so eager to trade their hard-earned money just to see a random pattern of cards turned up on the remote possibility the result might be fortunate seems plain contrary to good sense.
His interest is lured by a burly mountain of a man there among the punters at the faro table, easily a disheveled, hatless head and shoulders above the rest of the bunch and almost as broad as any two of them. Not a drover, surely. A man that size might break a horse’s hocks were he to mount up.
Shaggy hair and heavy dark beard, little piggy eyes, he looks like a grizzly bear. But it’s not the man’s size, or appearance that’s drawn his attention as much as it’s the anger radiating from him. He’s drinking and, from the sound of him airing his lungs over there, losing too.
Jonas has a sudden glimpse of the man’s face, just inches from his own, snarling with bared, bad teeth and he flinches, slopping beer onto the floor even as the image dissolves.
“Ah beg yoah pahdon theuh, drovuh. Ah hope ah didn’t stahtull yoo.”
Jonas recognizes the well-dressed gentleman near his elbow at the bar as one of the three men he had observed playing brag at a nearby table before his brief, disquieting vision.
“No. Reckon I was wool-gatherin’. Get any on ya?”
“Not at all, suh. Ah am drah as a bone.” A pregnant pause ensues as the gambler looks across the bar, clears his throat with a noisy cough into a white kerchief and enunciates, louder this time, “Ah say, ah am drah as a bone!”
Several thirsty customers farther down the polished surface, the bartender is scooping coinage into his apron pocket and pouring. He snatches up a shot glass, fills it on the fly and deposits it in front of the dapper Southerner.
“Thank you, Benjamin. Yoo ahh a credit to yoah profession.”
Benjamin’s response is all but drowned out by a chorus of exultant shouts from the faro table to the accompaniment of groans and curses. A couple cowboys, just in out of the downpour outside, are shaking themselves off near the end of the bar and calling out for the ‘bar dawg’. He hustles away to attend them.
Jonas regards the fellow next to him. Physically a mite smaller than himself, the man exudes a confident, commanding presence. His crown of ash-blond hair is contrasted by a dark moustache that angles over curling lips, masking the unintentional appearance of a sneer that’s purely congenital. His nose fits his face. The real puzzler, though, is his eyes. Intense and wickedly intelligent, they are nonetheless red-rimmed and rheumy. His skin is pasty, waxy-looking. The man coughs into a kerchief, a damp barking sound. He dabs at his lips before folding the cloth upon itself one-handed and into his vest pocket.
The fellow presents the archetypal appearance of a well-bred southern gentleman in crisp white shirt with a silk tie and vest atop pressed black-striped trousers bloused into polished boots. Of course, people tend to show the face they want you to see, don’t they?
Jonas’s grandfather taught him they have another face and how to look for it. He called it the ‘spirit-man’. This one’s spirit-face, shows him a decisive individual, as quick and dangerous as a rattlesnake coiled next to him here at the bar, casual-like.
The gentleman empties his drink, gesturing with the glass at the room in general before placing it with a deliberate thump onto the bartop and muses aloud in a slow, syrupy drawl, “It would appeah to the jaded obsuhvuh, lack mahsayulf, to be a kand of dance. All these solitareh individyools engaged in a slow-motion hoedown of intentional social dis-traction, lubricated by copious amounts of alcoholic beverage and a fond, almost pathological desyuh to be a winnah at somethin’ at least once in theyah miserable lives. Wouldn’t you say?”
Jonas takes another sip and allows, “Reckon I might, if I thought ta put all them words together at once.”
Now those intense eyes turn back to Jonas. “Yoo appeah to be a man of some native heritage, ahh yoo not?”
“Most places these days, that’s not considered fashionable. Maybe let’s talk about the weather instead, why don’t we?”
“Yoah appearance belies yoah naychuh, suh, that’s all. No offayense intayunded. Wheah do yoo hail from, if yoo don’t mahnd mah askin’?”
“Dakota Territory by way of Saint Joseph. You?”
“Antebellum Jawjuh, by way of Philadelphia and every shithole saloon and den of iniquiteh between Dallas and Deadwood befoah mah recent advent heah in this beacon of cosmo-politan societeh. And yoo, suh, ahh a gentleman foah askin’.” He extends a pale hand. “John Holliday, Dee Dee Ess, at yoah suvice.”
Jonas straightens long enough to participate in the learned ritual of courteous introduction and the obligatory shaking of hands. “Jonas Goff. Pleasure, Mister Holliday,” the rote reply. Holliday’s hand seems listless and cool.
Without prompting, the barkeep has re-filled the gambler’s glass. He knocks it back as if it was mother’s milk and replaces it with affection on the smooth hardwood, all the while scanning Jonas’s face. Without looking away, he flicks a finger, scooting the glass across the bar. It skims to a halt in front of the bartender. To Jonas he says, “Mah frayends call me ‘Doc’. Oah they would, if ah had eneh.”
As if rehearsed, one of the players occupying a table close at hand cranes back in his seat and calls out, “Hey, Doc! You playin’ or what?”
“Oh deah,” Holliday says to Jonas. ” Would yoo cayuh to join us in a game of chance, Mistah Goff?”
Jonas resumes his recline against the bar, and takes another long draught from his beer. The bartender, Benjamin, has refilled Holliday’s glass and set it next to the man’s elbow.
“Thank ya kindly, Mister Holliday. I hope you won’t think me rude if I decline.”
“Piteh.” This time Holliday allows the liquor to trickle down his throat. “Dakota Territoreh, yuh say? That would sugjayest …” he pauses, ruminating, “… Siouxan parentage, if ah’m not mistayken. They ahh curentleh a feus and angreh people, causin’ all mannuh of commotion.”
Jonas’s response is barely audible over the hubbub around him, “They always were fierce. As to ‘angry’, well I reckon they’re that now, too.” He gives Holliday a meaningful look. “How ’bout that weather?”
“Yayus. Do yoo suppose it will evah stop raynin’?”
“Goddammit, Doc!” Again from the impatient fellow at the nearby table. “You comin’ back ‘r what? You got a lot o’ my money ‘n’ I aims to get it back from ya. It’s yore deal. “
Holliday replaces his empty glass on the bar, turns to address the anxious one seated at the table. His features and voice are placid, unlike the ferocity in his eyes.
“A little decorum please, Mistah Tuhnuh. Ah admiah yoah optimism, suh, but if yoo will kindly obsuve, ah am currentleh engaged in polite convusation with my good fraynd heah and takin’ refreshmint. Yoo may continue without me foah now. Ah assuah yoo ah will retuhn strayt-away to collect the remainduh of yoah foahchoon.”
He endures another brief fit of wet coughing into his kerchief, then with a deep breath, leans back against the bar in a reasonable duplication of Jonas’s posture. He gestures with a pale hand. “That theyuh is a daisy of a shuht, if ah do say so.”
So engaged is Jonas listening to Holliday’s lyrical, silver-tongued discourse, he nearly fails to step out of the path of the man-mountain he observed at the faro table earlier, bulling his way between the two of them. A huge hand swallows up Holliday’s still empty glass from the bar and bangs it on the polished surface. The barkeep looks up from his current station farther down the line, “Hold yer horses there, galoot. I’m comin’.”
The creature makes a noise that sounds like a growl.
The barkeep, determining that expeditious satisfaction of this one’s immediate needs will be most beneficial for all, positions himself in front of the giant. The beast holds Holliday’s empty shot glass up, like a gnat trapped between thumb and forefinger, and grumbles, “Whiskey. Bigger’n nat.”
Benjamin plucks the glass from the man’s paw and magics it out of sight under the counter. A pint pilsner is filled with lightning and he waits, does Benjamin the barkeep, even as thunder booms across the prairie, for the obligatory coinage to hit the bar before he hands it over. Another shot is placed in front of Holliday.
Jonas watches the big man’s hand engulf his glass and pour the contents of it through a narrow slot in his beard beneath his flattened nose. A shudder runs through the enormous frame as the wave of liquor shocks its way down into his gut and he utters a low bestial roar that turns heads. His head turns, too, mean piggy eyes fixing on Jonas.
“What’re you lookin’ at?”
“Can’t rightly say,” says Jonas. “I ain’t a scientist.”
“Huh?” The bear glowers without comprehension and is in the process of deciding whether this flea might be more entertaining if it were squashed flat.
“Aye beg yoah pahdun, suh,” Holliday says, reaching up to tap the man’s broad shoulder. Jonas steps back a pace to give the big fellow room to do a creditable, if aggressive about-face, accomplished with barely a wobble.
“Whadda you want?”
“Ah believe yoah very intelligent, albeit, grammaticaleh flawed inquireh has left mah frayend heah castin’ about foah a rejoinduh. Ah suspect he has suitable foahmal trainin’ with which to foahmulate an appropriate replah, but moah than likeleh, he simpleh has the good mannuhs to keep his response to himsayelf. Ah, on the other haynd, have a suffishenceh of the foahmah and none at all of the lattah. If yoo will permit meh, ah will endeavah to respond to yoah quereh in layman’s tuhms.”
The giant stares at Holliday as if from a great distance, squinting through a haze, breathing through his beard.
“Hwat he’s ‘lookin’ at’, as yoo have so eloquentleh framed it, is the product of an unfoahtunate con-gress—an act of tuhpitude between a woman, no doubt beyond huh prime childbearin’ yeahs and of questionable moral fibah, and a prahmate of distinctleh simian charactuh.”
At first, the fellow rankles at too many words he doesn’t understand coming in an unbroken stream and he’s just seconds from reaching out with his skillet-sized hands to make the words stop when Holliday’s voice seems to penetrate the thick growth of hair in his ears. A scowl furrows the big man’s brow as he looks around the saloon in bewilderment, striving to remember what led him, besides whiskey, to this moment of unaccustomed vexation. He turns back to Jonas, looking him up and down with a sneer.
At eye level, Jonas is looking into the man’s chest. Thick brown hair spills out from the open front of a ragged flannel shirt.
“Indins killed my pa an’ my brother. Took my sister away t’make ‘er their squaw.” The grizzled face leans down inches from his, snarling. “You got Indin stink on ya.”
Huge fists ball up, ready to pummel the half-breed into a mudhole. The bear-man’s intention and breath are lethal.
“What’s her name?” Jonas asks.
“What ’bout my sister?”
“What’s her name?”
“That’s a pretty name. Do you remember her face?”
“Do you remember what Charlotte looks like?”
The scowl has withered. A long pause, during which the snorting breath through his oft-broken nose slows, ends in a drawl, “Yeah, kinda. She was little.”
“She looked up to you. And you looked after her, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I s’pose I…. What’re ya…?”
“It weren’t your fault, ya know.”
“What? What weren’t?”
“There was too many of ’em. You blame yourself for not bein’ able to help Charlotte; you blame yourself for livin’ when the others died and there was nothing you could do. It wasn’t your fault.”
“How duhya …?” His brow’s pinched. A frown remains, but one of confusion and an awakening grief never far from the surface of his consciousness, not yet washed away by the whiskey. Jonas can see it in the man’s eyes as his sorrow replays itself in his mind.
“You were scared, but you fought ‘em anyway.”
The distance of years is in the bear’s eyes now. His voice is a low rumble, the timbre of the thunder outside. In this one’s throat it amounts to a whisper and the word seem to tremble out of him. “Oh, I was sore afraid. Kilt me a couple of ’em afore I heard her screamin’…”
“Callin’ out your name.”
Something catches in the bear’s throat and hangs there. “Screamin’ fer me ta save ‘er. But they was a’ready ridin’ off with ‘er an’ all our hosses.” His musket-ball eyes have tears in them.
The giant looks in Jonas’s eyes and sees nothing there but a reflection of his own unquenchable sadness. The fight has gone out of him.
Jonas can feel the presence behind him; not a threat, of that he’s sure. He watches the big fellows eyes dart away from him to the new arrival.
Holliday’s turned his attention that way as well and his voice is cheerful. “Weyull, this is a pleasant suh-prise. Good eav’nin’, mahshal.”
“Gentlemen,” says the voice behind him and Holliday makes introductions as if the behemoth between them was nothing more than a shadow.
“Mistah Goff, this heah’s Chahleh Bassett, town mahshal. Mahshal, this heah is mah good frayend, Mistah Goff.”
Bassett’s “Howdy,” in response is perfunctory and he doesn’t offer a hand.
“We wuh just havin’ a pleasant convuhsashun with this sagebrush Goliath heah about the…”
“Can it, Doc. You got some’m else to do?”
Bassett turns his attention to the looming bear-man. His voice and bearing are stern.
“Tommy, what did I tell you about mixin’ it up with the customers in here?”
Abashed, eyes downcast, the giant says, “Not ta.”
“An’ what did I do last time you started a fuss?”
“Throwed me inna jail.”
“You like it there, didja?”
“All right, you get on outta here now. I mean it. Go home.”
“Don’t let me see you again tonight. An’ you know you’re not hard to spot.”
“Yessir. Kin I finish this here drink first?”
“You had enough. Off with you now.”
Tommy’s adequate bulk revolves and he begins his slow trek toward the exit, careful not to jostle anyone in the process. Bassett doesn’t bother watching him go, instead gives Jonas the stinkeye. Pointing to the bone-handled knife at Jonas’s belt, he says, “You’re not likely to unsheathe that toothpick, are you?”
“It would not occur to me to do so in such gracious company, Marshal.”
“Then, good evening to you both,” he says with finality and steps off to say his howdy-dos to some of the locals at the back of the room.
“Weyull, suh,” says Holliday. They’re both watching Tommy standing just inside the bat-wing doors as a couple cowboys let themselves out, adjusting their hats and attire against the wind-driven rain. He’s looking out as lightning crashes, illuminating the downpour drenching the town and turning the street beyond into a shallow mud river. “Ah have now officialleh seen evreh-thang. Ah thought he was gonna squash you lack a grape at a squayuh dance. You ahh a sorsuhruh.”
“My pa taught me it’s a better choice not ta hurt someone if ya don’t haffta.”
“Ah’d say you huht that fella about as deep as he’s evuh been.”
“Nah. He’s been carryin’ that around with him for a long time.”
“Indayd. Well, mah hat is off to you, suh,” and remove his hat he does. “And ah retract mah uhliuh offuh to join owuh little game. No offeyence, but ah don’t believe ah want to gamble with you, if you take mah meanun.”
He glances at the table nearby. An empty chair there with his frock coat folded over the back beckons and he smiles. “Now if you will excuse meh, ah must finish shearin’ these heah poe lost lambs befoah they scampuh off. It has been a distinct pleashah to mike yoah acquaintance, Mistuh Goff. Fayuh you weyull, suh.”
Again the deceptively limp handshake.
Beyond Holliday’s retreating back, Jonas witnesses an unexpected tableau unfold. Gigantic Tommy, about to step out into the tempest, collides with a much smaller, if equally furious storm rushing in out of the rain. The big man’s unmoved, but the smaller fellow finds himself on his back on the boardwalk and scrambles up with a rage far greater than his diminutive size. Jonas hears Rubin Strawn’s shrill voice shouting into Tommy’s belly, “Jeezus fuckin’ Christ! You goddam Texans are like flies!”
A rattle and roll of thunder masks Tommy’s growling reply.
“No …” Squirrel’s voice is clear enough, though. “… cuz ya eat shit an’ bother people! Now git outta my fuckin’ way, ya big, dumb, hairy buffalo turd!”
A hand almost the size of an iron beaver trap gently bunches itself into the front of Squirrel’s slicker. The swinging doors flap a couple times and, as they come to rest, both men are gone into the night. The band starts up again with a lively rendition of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’.
It would seem Holliday noticed the exchange in the doorway, meeting Jonas’s eyes with a bemused look before seating himself to reassert his influence over what some call a game of chance.
Jonas looks to the rear of the saloon where Marshal Charlie Bassett has been holding forth with some of the community fathers and either did not observe the brief altercation at the door, or did not care to intervene. Handshakes around now, he’s about to continue his rounds.
Newell is at Jonas’s side. “Good riddance to ya.” He offers a half-grin and claps Jonas’s shoulder. “Keep yer hair on longasya can.” His amble toward the table where Holliday just sat down looks confident.
Benjamin taps a last, ice-cold beer for Jonas, buffs a blot of liquor from the bar, hitches his drawers and moves on to engage a loquacious old-timer in idle chit-chat between calls. Jonas’s fellows are warmed up now and off to the dance hall and surrounds for some merry-making and carousing. He’s got a train to catch in the morning. So-longs and good-lucks are exchanged. There are no futile promises to keep in touch; it is still, after all, a big, wild country.
The heart of the storm has moved further out onto the plain, although showers persist. Jonas has no aversion to the rain and is in no real hurry to escape it. He’s halfway back to the Wright House when sounds from behind of booted feet running on the boardwalk cause him to step aside into the doorway of a shop. The marshal hurries past with a younger man in tow.
Bassett’s saying, “How long ago?”
“I just finded ‘im,” says the other. “Couldn’t be more’n a couple minutes an’ I comed right away ta git ya, Marshal.”
Both men cut between two buildings into a narrow alley as a third man comes running from the other direction with a kerosene lantern and follows them in.
Jonas is right behind.
The third fellow, a deputy in black long-coat, wide flat-brimmed hat, and sporting a walrus moustache, holds the light up as Bassett kneels down in the mud beside a body stretched out face-down. It’s not the body Jonas expected they’d find. The deputy’s asking the young man what he saw.
“I jist finded ‘im like this.”
“What were you doing back here?”
“Finished my chores at Mister Hoover’s store an’ goin’ ta home. Honest I was. Hear’d a tussle an’ hollerin’ ‘n’, ya know, figgered I’d look-see.”
“See anybody else?”
“It were purty dark. Lightnin’ real far off, though and might’a seed a man walkin’ off ‘atta way.” The youngster points down the dark alleyway.
“What did he look like?”
Bassett’s heard enough. “Give me some more light here, Wyatt.”
Even before Bassett manages to roll the huge corpse over, Jonas knows it’s Tommy’s body lying there in the mud. No question about it. The thing he isn’t prepared for, the thing none of them are prepared for, is the shocking fright-mask of Tommy’s dead face.
Eyes are bulging and bloody, blood has poured from his ruptured ears, mud and blood have matted his beard and saturated the front of his shirt and trousers. His lower jaw has been pulled out of its sockets and some of his teeth are scattered about on the ground along with a smooth, blood-slicked mass of tissue big as a fist.
Bassett recoils and drops the grisly remains with a splash and a curse.
The shambles of Tommy’s face stares uncomprehending into the rain and for just an unnerving instant, as distant lightning paints the clouds overhead fluorescent, his protruding bloody eyeballs seem to shine out with an eerie glow.
“Dear Mother of God,” the marshal whispers to no one in particular.
The youngster is emptying the contents of his stomach against the nearby wall.
The deputy, holding the lantern high, is a dispassionate one, studying the thing with the devastated face and the area around it for evidence.
“Charlie,” he says through the soup-strainer on his upper lip, “look’s as though someone reached down his throat and pulled his heart out.”
“Is… is that even possible?”
Pointing, “Well, there it is.”
“See any tracks?”
“I’d say we’ve stirred this mudhole plenty good enough. I’ll look further up the way after we get this poor bastard out of the rain.”
“Jeb!” Bassett calls to the younger man, “Jeb, damn it, boy! Snap out of it and give us a hand gettin’ this mess inside. Grab his legs.”
“N-no! No, sir, I ain’t touchin’ that!”
“Stop acting like a damn idiot. It’s just a body and we can’t leave it layin’ here. Now help us pick him up.”
Backing away now. “Huh uh!”
Jonas steps into the light and, reaching down, begins to gather up Tommy’s legs.
Bassett, having failed to mark Jonas’s presence before this moment, registers his surprise with a sincere, “What the bloody Hell?”
“I reckon that’s more right than you know, Marshal,” Jonas says. “Where we takin’ ‘im?”
Bassett recovers his bearing. “Jeb, you get your sorry ass over to Doc Milburn’s and wake him up. Have him meet us at the jail. Wyatt, leave the lantern for now and grab a side. This ox weighs a ton. And you, Mister… Goff, isn’t it?” He grips under a massive, lifeless shoulder and lifts with a groan. “Out to the street and go right.”
. . .
[All right, I will admit to violating Elmore Leonard’s rule about the use of patois. I did it with full intention and, I’d like to think, a degree of discretion in the reader’s favor. Castigate me if you will, but I stand by my dialog as written. There, I said it. ~DRLE ]
. . .
Well before dawn, Jonas finds his grandfather making preparations for their journey. Crows Come Around is there, too, receiving last minute instructions from her father while Jonas brings up the horses. Before first light, the camp is behind them.
Early on the third day, Standing Elk brings Jonas inside the roughly circular ring of stones upthrust from the earth like the fingers of a giant hand. They sing together the songs his grandfather taught him as a smaller circle is defined using stones gathered from nearby. This circle is almost wide enough for Jonas to lie down inside it if he curls up some. Around this his grandfather sprinkles tobacco and sage and tells Jonas he is not to step outside the circle except to go to the bushes. A sturdy digging stick is laid beyond the circle for that purpose.
The old man hands Jonas his drum, then assembles his canunpa and loads it while Jonas drums and sings the pipe-filling song. His youthful voice carries far, although there is no one within miles to hear it. Holding the pipe out in both hands, Standing Elk presents it to Jonas. Lastly, he gives Jonas a smooth pebble about the size of the tip of his little finger.
“The spirit of this sacred pipe is a strong one and will protect you,” Standing Elk says. “The circle in which you stand is sacred and will protect you. If you find yourself becoming afraid, remember these things I have told you. Remain awake and alert at night,” he tells the boy, “and sleep if you must during the day. Pay attention to everything.”
The wicasa wakan turns to leave and Jonas asks, “What about the little rock?”
“When you get thirsty, put it under your tongue and suck on it.”
Jonas watches him ride away leading his own pony behind until they are out of sight.
The days are warm, but when the sun is high, there is no relief from it. Jonas wishes there was some way to save that heat, because the nights are cold. Both seem to stretch on forever. He sings the songs he knows and some he makes up. When he gets cold he dances.
Hunger does not bother him. He finds it easier to ignore than he ever would have imagined possible. Thirst, however, attempts to stalk him at the most unexpected moments. Singing his prayers only makes his mouth drier, but he discovers that if he meets thirst’s onslaught with the inflexible strength of the tiny stone—a fragment, so it tells him, of what was once a mighty boulder, holding yet within it the full extent of that same great, patient power—thirst will retreat for a time.
Late on the fifth day, a storm boils up and stands over him for the longest time, thundering and snapping at him in a furious voice he can almost understand. It pummels him with hard wind and hail. He stands his ground, shivering, holding his grandfather’s canunpa. When Jonas, like the ground around him, is white with a crust of icy pellets, the pelting stops. The storm pauses to take a deep breath, then releases an avalanche of chain lightning striking across the land as far as he can see in every direction accompanied by a cold, soaking rain. Jonas feels the thunder trying to shake him out of his circle. A copse of trees in the distance to the north is shattered by dancing lightning as he looks on.
Jonas decides if Creator is going to send rain in such quantity, some of it is bound to get inside him if he opens his mouth and raises his face to the storm to sing the song the thunder beings are teaching him at this very moment.
The little pebble is pretty good at relieving his thirst. This storm song is better. There is much rumbling and gnashing from above and several more waves of punishing rain wash over Jonas before he learns the words to the song and the storm relents. It moves grumbling away into the darkness. The night is a long and cold one.
The next day dawns clear and bright. The heat of mid-day is most welcome now. He sleeps. Twilight is approaching when he awakens. He goes into the bushes so that he won’t be compelled to leave the protection of his circle later when surrounded by night’s enfolding mysteries. It is well that he does so. It occurs to Jonas as he sets aside the digging stick and returns to his circle, that he has no idea whatsoever, no hint of what is around the bend for him now. The silent knowing that is so natural to him has become, over these last days, an awkward not-knowing. Each new moment has become uncertain and immediate. The slow transition from twilight to deep night seems to take a long time.
There comes an instant where it seems to Jonas the moonless night has fallen with a bone-jarring crash. All of the standing stones come rumbling to the ground around him at once. What he sees and hears as he stands trembling within his alter, alone in the darkness, is a story Jonas himself will have to tell when, and if, he chooses. Terror and wonder circle each other in a dance that reaches across the arc of the night.
In the morning the standing stones are again where they belong as Jonas redistributes the smaller stones of his alter back where they came from. With a glad heart, he offers tobacco and his gratitude, first to Wakan Tanka for this perfect day, next upon the bare ground that has been the center of his universe for the last four days and nights, to Maka Ina for her gift of life. He gives thanks to the Keepers of the Seven Directions for their protection and to his spirit guardians for walking with him on this twisting path.
He cradles the sacred pipe in the crook of his left arm and begins walking in the direction his grandfather set out five days ago. He feels good, as if he could walk all day if necessary.
Less than a mile lies behind him when he sees a lone rider approaching leading a painted pony. When they meet, Standing Elk slips to the ground and motions for Jonas to sit with him. He nods with approval at the young man’s bearing and, without a word, collects his pipe from Jonas’s outstretched arms. A skin bag full of medicine is placed in Jonas’s hands and the old man gestures for him to drink it all. The liquid is vile-tasting, but will make his stomach feel better when it begins to wake up. He gags down the last of it.
His grandfather nods again in approval, opens a small cloth bag and shakes several choke-cherries out into Jonas’s hand. Jonas is sure he will never forget the extraordinary tang of the juice on his tongue as the fruit pops between his teeth. Likewise the sweetness of the cold water running down his throat from a stream some miles further on as they make their way back to their band’s encampment.
There remain miles to go and they ride through the tall grass single file with Standing Elk in the lead. The afternoon sun is beginning its long slide to meet the western horizon and the gentle rocking of his pony’s gait is soothing. Jonas’s earlier energy has waned, but sleep will not be possible for some time yet. He begins to hum a song to himself. It has a melody unfamiliar to Standing Elk and he listens as his grandson repeats it four times without alteration. Without turning to look back, the old man speaks for the first time since they reunited.
“What is that song, Jonas Two Dogs?”
“The thunder beings taught it to me in the storm the night before last, Grandfather,” he says.
They ride on in silence for a time. Without looking back, Standing Elk says, “There was no storm night before last.”
When the two return to the camp, Crows Come Around has prepared a thick berry soup called wojapi and roasted meat for them. Jonas defers to the elder, of course, who declines, insisting instead that Jonas is the honored one this night. Later, the two of them sweat alone in the initi and talk about what Jonas has seen. They smoke the canunpa Standing Elk filled and handed to Jonas five days ago, followed by a brief water ceremony at the creek. At last, exhausted and wrapped up warm in his own buffalo robe, Jonas sleeps like the dead.
The next morning when he awakens, everything has been made ready for them. Jonas and Burns Red meet at the south edge of the encampment where it seems most of the band has turned out to see them off.
Old Ghost Horse sits astride his warhorse at the rear of the gathering like a granite wall. Coarse black hair streaked in white cascades over copper skin almost the same color as his buckskin breeches. They, like his moccasins, have been decorated with elaborate quill-work. In spite of the chill autumn morning, his chest is covered from neck to navel only by a buffalo bone hairpipe breastplate. His headdress is an imposing bonnet of eagle feathers trailing down his back – each one earned over a lifetime as a canny hunter, a formidable warrior, and a clear-headed, decisive leader.
Jonas’s pony capers, impatient to be away, as his father secures their few bundled belongings to the military saddle on his own horse, a good-natured paint mare provided for this journey by his hunka father, Tajuska. The saddle is the same one that carried him into the world of the People thirteen years ago. Now, however, his injury makes riding even more laborious and painful than walking. Leaving behind his beloved wife and all those he’s come to care for notwithstanding, the assured agony of the long journey ahead fills him with an unanticipated aversion, as though any more need be added to the heart-sickness he can barely contain within himself and is determined to conceal.
Life among these people has shown him that they take everything life gives them with seeming equanimity. They do not wear their emotions for all to see. He would not think of embarrassing himself or his family by doing any less.
Burns Red steps away from his horse and stands as straight as possible to meet the two men approaching him. Two Bears remains an imposing figure. The years have not softened his heavy-muscled physique and he carries himself with all the unself-conscious confidence of his namesake. The ugly scar below his right shoulder blends into the lattice of scars on his chest from numerous Sun Dances. Beside him, Clouds Dancing’s sinuous frame looks almost frail, although it is not, and he strives to keep pace with his larger companion. His limp is conspicuous. Burns Red greets both men as brothers.
Clouds Dancing has brought an elk robe and, in typical style, throws it into Burns Red’s arms with a grunt. Sentimentality is not to be found among warriors. The fur is long and luxurious and firmly held, although the hide itself has been worked with great patience until it feels as soft and supple as a baby’s skin.
Two Bears gives Burns Red a fine smoked leather sheath for the bone-handled knife he once used to part Burns Red’s scalp. The heavy material is laced with stiff rawhide and looks like it will last forever.
Behind the big man, his half-side, Sweet Water, looks to Crows Come Around with a question in her eyes. Crows nods approval and the other woman hands Burns Red a small bundle made of woven reeds. It’s filled with pemmican for the journey. Burns Red reaches out to each of them in turn, brushing their fingers with his own, offering his thanks with a sincere, “Pilamaya yo.”
Jonas is aware of Standing Elk’s imposing presence in front of him. The face his grandfather shows him is filled with warmth and approval. The fingertips of the old holy man’s left hand tap once firmly upon Jonas’s forehead, the other against Jonas’s heart. He reverses them and thumps his parting instruction into the boy. Without another word, he turns away seeking out Burns Red and the two of them stand apart from the group for a while, speaking together in quiet tones.
Tajuska looks on. His stoic countenance betrays none of his dismay at Burns Red’s departure, yet another son taken from him by the unfathomable workings of Spirit. Many Tears is inconsolable, although one would not know it from her stony expression if one did not look to see the salty streams in the crevices of her face. She makes not a sound.
Jonas’s sister, who the others have begun to call Whirlwind, stands before him hugging her shawl around her. A willowy girl, her fine features and wavy hair are characteristic of her mother’s lineage, but the intensity in her dark eyes is all Lakota. She reaches out a fist and thumps it against his chest.
“If you do not save this Turtle Island, Brother,” she warns him, “I will be very disappointed in you.”
In her hand is a small cangleska, a medicine wheel fashioned of porcupine quills, each quadrant dyed in a different color. It looks a delicate thing, but precious, fashioned with her patient, clever hands. She holds it out to him with a shy smile.
Otter embraces him with a broad grin and hands Jonas the braided leather cord that had bound them together years ago. Jonas stares at it for a long moment with dawning recognition, then at his friend. No words are necessary. None would be adequate.
And at last Jonas stands before his mother, gripped by warring emotions; the boy wanting nothing more than to hold her and be held by her, the young man unwilling to shame either of them with an emotional display.
“Hear me, young warrior,” she says. “All things are as they should be. Trust your vision. Trust the power of the currents pressing on you to carry you where you must go. If you do not resist them, they cannot break you.”
Jonas’s reply catches in his throat and refuses to release his voice.
“I am proud of you, Wakiyela,” she continues. “You are a piece of my heart.”
She clasps his hand in both of hers, a lingering press, warm and strong and far too brief for his liking. Two small objects remain in his palm upon her release, her elk tooth earrings, made for her by the man who was Whirlwind’s father many years ago before he crossed over to the other camp, before Jonas’s father came among the People.
There are two eye teeth in a bull elk’s head made of the stuff his father calls ivory and they are highly prized. Gifted in such a way as this, they symbolize deep affection, an offering of no small significance.
“Wopila, Ina,” he says with difficulty around the knot in his throat. “You honor me, Mother.” Gripping the treasure in his fist, he begins to turn away, hesitates. “I will see you again… in my dreams.”
“And I you, my son,” she tells him. “Go now.”
She looks to her husband one last time. He holds the beaded quill medallion she made for him as though it was her hand in his. She stands as solemn and unbending as any warrior and, at the last, shows them both the smile that will light their individual darkness for the rest of their lives. Later, when she is alone, she will cast her tears, grateful for the sweetness she knew from her man and her boy, knowing that she will miss their strength around her in the time to come, and then she will cut off her hair.
As Jonas looks back for the last time, he can see, as through a curtain of mist, his friend calling something after him. Otter’s face looks older. Behind him stands his mother and sister, older too, both straight and proud beside his grandfather. The old man raises his left hand to him and his mother flies apart. Where she stood, a hundred crows separate and explode outward in every direction. Their bright black plumage fills the entire world with a deep, enfolding darkness.
Otter’s shout carries to him from a great distance on the beating of their wings.
“BEAN-HEAD! WAKE UUUP! “