Twenty-Four LIKE A TURD FROM A TALL STALLION
Wang diddle ang diddle ang dang doodie
Wang diddle ang diddle ang diddloo
Wang diddle ang diddle ang dang doodie
Wang diddle ang diddle ang diddloo
Wang diddle ang diddle ang diddle long
Wang diddle ang diddle diddle diddle loo
Wang diddle ang diddle ang diddle long
Wang diddle ang diddle diddle long loo
A gotta gal her name is Susie
A gotta horse her name is Sal
A gotta gal her name is Susie
A gotta horse her name is Sal
I’m gonna wang dang my gal Susie
I’m gonna wang diddle my horse Sal
I’m gonna wang dang my gal Susie
I’m gonna wang diddle my horse Sal
I’m gone home wang dang with Susie
Less I go home diddle my horse Sal
I’m gone home wang dang with Susie
Less I go home diddle my horse Sal
Wang diddle ang dang wang diddle doodie
Hey diddle hay wang dang my Saaaaaaaal
–Anonymous, accompanied by Jew’s harp
On an early sunny morning on January 13th, 1848, a long walk from Drexler, California, a man name Frank Sod, snake hunter, was out looking for a rattlesnake den in the hills, a process that involved much turning over of rocks, seeking a cavernous retreat. Upon lifting one particular rock he found a large mineral clump that looked like it might be gold, something he knew nothing about. He dropped his original intent and began turning rocks, as often as not finding nuggets. He climbed into a dry riverbed and noticed veins of gold streaking the rocky sides. Smaller nuggets were scattered about above ground in the riverbed. Before long his burlap sack was laden—gold nuggets in the sack meant for sluggish wintering serpents—so that his walk back to his humble shack on the very edge of Drexler was virtually a struggle for survival. After a week of such easy pluckings, Sod was a very rich man, though for some time he kept most of his gold well hidden, off his property, in the hollow of an oak tree that stood next to the narrow Rio de la Vaca. Though history books say different, this was how the gold rush actually started.
‘Reach for the sky, pilgrim.’
Truer words were never spoken, we know, for the letter to this day remains a family treasure, kept safe in some locker in some Las Vegas detective bureau store room, and was dated April 23 1850 sent from Tom Gravel in California to his wife in Oregon, the first letter he sent after he was held up on the Siskiyou trail.
I said, sir, I ain’t no pilgrim an I don know why you suppose that, but looks to me like yor intention is to rob a pilgrim or jist anybod you kan find so you better make yor intention more clear afore you gone round givin orders to strangers.
An he said I says reach for the sky an shut yer jabberhole.
I said I never done surrender yet to no man on this earth and I make out I kan shoot a gun quick and straight like and if he want he kan take the chance a killin me on his first shot and soon as he got that look a constipation I drew and shot the fore arm of his gun carryin limb.
That man was who you will come to know as uncle Rance, Rance Hardupp, former mayhaps outlaw by trade, badluck roostabout by naycher.
Anyways you kin see all that gun exercise payd off quicker than I hoped it need to. Leastwise I shot a man with a gun at me and not Hector or you or Rowor or Feeble Jeff or even me!
Funny think is this was after the first easy day on the tail after all the trubbles at first to find the north and south trail, getting lost twixt thar and the trail head and then. I mean whenceupon finding the trail head sort of just south of Fort Vancoover the trail from theyr is might hard on man beast and wheel. Hardly do you go one hour without finding some poor souls reck, the skin tayrd off the skeleton still a skeleton unless the wood was no good in the bilding of it. I fine myself happy not to no the circumstances of the hundred or more badluck cases leaving theyr lifes behind them not fit for scavengers.
Which brings to my mind beasts like bears. They say the bear is all over round here and the big cats too, but the safest place is the trail I think because I hardle but saw a few deer and occasional critters off the trail up some crick I went to for peace now and again betimes. Long lonesome night afore Rance and me met up I got to thinkin maybe too much, but what I see is them animals is smarter than us in the forest way in the naycher way, and see this is what that makes me think that if we are critters of naycher too maybe we are long gone about it the wrong way round, for the critters, and I mean the grizzlys and the ly lions they no sumthing we do not nor ever can no so they stay clear or the trail. If Big Ass lived here and hector was on this trail he would niver have been clawd up like that because they knows the trail is, well sumthing like poyson to them. Do not think I am changing my mind or changing at all, you are my love and I am always yor Tom but did we not study philosophy together under the stars and I am jest doin the same only by myself without yer gydance. Which I miss with all my blood and bones, for I am ever yor Tom and love you more than my own blood and bone and I will male this letter from the town of Portugal where they tol me at Digginz there was steady male runs.
Sorry no date I don no the date. It is summer by now maybe but snow all like a giant head of hare on the mountain Rowor told me I would see and was he ever right it takes a month to see the back of it once and for all. He called Astikelekitsa I had to member it, think I mighta seen it once yesterday and today…
The bullet went clean through the little flesh of Rance Hardupp’s forearm, barely missing the bone, barely missing the epidermics, so leaving a genuine hole.
‘Fuck my granny’s bullcow!’ Rance exclaimed, waving his arm about, spraying blood about the greens. ‘Look what ya done!’
Gravel dismounted and searched his saddlebag for ad hoc medical supplies finding only whiskey and a greasy gun rag. That would have to do.
‘Mover here and set down,’ he said to Rance. ‘This is goneta hurt.’
‘It already hurts.’
‘Then you’ll be fine.’ He offered the bottle to Rance, who slugged down a quarter of it and nodded stoically. Gravel poured the whiskey through the wound, Rance screamed and passed out backwards, falling off the rock he was sitting on, his head pounding the turf behind. Gravel got to the arm, turned it over and poured from the other side, then wrapped it neatly with the dirty rag. Maybe there was a doctor in Portugal.
When Rance woke in the middle of the night, the embers of the fire Gravel had built were still glowing, the smoke rising straight into the trees. They were on a rise above a stream. What manner of fool is this? Rance wondered, whom I hold up, who shoots me, administers to my arm hole, drags me to his camp, and falls asleep like he’s safe as a baby. These thoughts were not undermined by the throbbing pain in his arm, but by hunger. He smelled game, but saw none. Maybe the guy wrapped some for him somewhere. He stood and took a couple unbidden steps for balance, looking around for some place meat might be stowed. All he saw was Gravel’s horse and the saddle bags. If he put the meat in there wouldn’t it attract pumas? Then again maybe the plan was that the horse would be a puma alarm. Anyway, it seemed Hardupp’s only chance for a meal, without which he was assured a long, throbbing night of pain. He didn’t even see the whiskey bottle, so maybe that was in there, too. So he walked softly over to the horse, which inevitably had a rifle slung against its side and as he touched it to get at the flap of the saddle bag open, he heard a throb-halting click.
‘Move an inch,’ Gravel said.
‘I’s just lookin fer food.’
‘I hope so.’ Gravel turned from him, reached forward, shifted a trio of rocks set against each other on another, larger flat rock and flung a roasted squirrel to Hardupp. He pulled the whiskey from beneath his blanket.
Rance returned to his seat, braving the throbbing arm, and ate like Paiute at a buffalo steak festival. Gravel watched, waiting for him to finish before offering the whiskey.
‘Tom Gravel’, he said, extending the bottle.
‘Rance, Rance Hardupp. And I sure thank ya fer overlookin the manner of our meetin and treatin me like a Merican.’
‘Don’t know about that, maybe a Nimipoo, but I know plenny of Merkins would have shot twice and lifted what ye had to lift.’
‘A waste that woulda bin, considerin. I ain’t got coin and ain’t et fer two days.’
‘Ya really got a granny with a bullcow?’
‘Back in Kansas once. They’s all dead now. Some disease carried off ma, pa, and all four my granfolk, along with my little brother Lerkis. That’s when I come west, just when the gold fever hit. At this moment I sure don know if gold can buy off bad memories cause I ain’t found none.
Fact is, it is a hard business. You slave fer summon fer nothing or ya stake yer own claim and fight off croachers if yer lucky to find anything. I been back n forth over the Sierras three times tryin to figger it all and I tell you, mister, I been places I never intend to return to. On this side of the Sierras they’s a place they call Hangtown and I got out at night afore they woulda hung me for a unpaid whiskey. I come direct from there to this trail robbin.’
‘Any luck, besides bad?’
‘Scorched a bunch a religion folk, enough to live a week in Digginz three meals a day. Left there owin a barber three days ago. Yer the first I choosed. Maybe not so bad a choice all in all.’
‘So what yer sayin is this side there’s vigilanny law and that side there’s claim jumpers.’
‘Both sides both. That side, Mormon country, I see there the most promise as you have trade before the mountain, desperate folk comin out of the desert like they lost Moses on the way or he maybe turnd back. But they got a lawman there now, big mean bastard name of Fitzpacker, was a Texas Ranger fought Messicans, run with some Messican bandits some say, which don make no sense, come up and can shoot and by god he is the law. And that means no claim jumpin but that he does the claimin. Some say he even was the law in Whorelock down in Apache territoree.
Timely Narrative Confession
Boozers, I know you’ll grasp this quick. Since I was a kid I lamented the lack of fascinating ancestors in my line, which included no one of any note whatsoever but a certain deputy sheriff of Cheyenne, Wyoming, who also happened to have driven a stage between Cheyenne and Deadwood during the mean days of the 1870s. His name: Hector Robitaille. A little envious of folk like Tom Garvin, whose ancestors include a mountain man and a gunslinger both—though as time marches on the landscape expands at the same time as the population grows into something nearer and nearer to indistinguishable, less romantic figures arrived on the western scene (and so this rather lengthy chapter, maybe an ode of sorts)—I thought if I re-named one of his ancestors Hector Robitaille, replacing the actual Jacques Bertrand (sorry if you spent time looking it up), maybe I could infuse some of that historic romance into my own life. But meanwhile I came to understand, as I wrote and felt nothing, that my own kin did just fine—we had alcoholics, wanton women, Bible thumpers, a quiet killer, and from Hector a line of transport pioneers, not to mention a guy killed in a car crash. Hell, one of my uncles even fought in Vietnam. Another was a Mexican who died from working with asbestos in the L.A. shipyards. His son even lost some fingers in an industrial accident. So what you boozers ought to understand is that what makes for romance is a šank and a beer and a bottle of whiskey and stories unblemished by censor. So get yourself said booze and sit back and read about lucky Tom Garvin’s gunslinging ancestor Tom Gravel, and enjoy it as you slowly besot yourself to the point where you start to rave about how his folk ain’t no bettern yourn.
Wet Horse shit blocked a narrow isthmus of the osteopath in the driving rain where two wagon bones canted parallel wedged like rails uphill blocked at the bottom by an apparently recent stage, debacled. The shit, surely from at least fifty to one hundred horses for whatever geoequine reason concecatentrated there, was a meter deep near the middle of the isthmus running to two meters below where it had not the force to dislodge a wall of well-constructed stage, door unfortuitously locked against external demonry. Fanning out from the shitsink cauldron was o’er head high and higher hedgery of spinescence on every side thick to the hornrizen. Narrowing to this same stretch of trail had been more and more bones of horses and cows and dogs and people and cats, rusted metal of pistols and rifles and implements, worn wood of wagon wheels, cart wheels, stage wheels, boards, posts, breaks, strips and straps and flaps and knouts of leather, standpiles of fine bones, hollows of rib bones, bones in fall position, bones arranged, bones strewn or spewn, skulls in rictus, skulls in agon, skulls is crush, skulls in twine, skulls in maggotry, all suggesting perhaps this was recently and maybe might yet be a bushwhack bottleneck.
‘Maybe we ought not pass today!’ Rance shouted through the false sharps of rain.
‘Reckon we best ought to go while none else would!’ Gravel replied.
Enough of the downed of the deluge spread through the thornage not near nough was left to shove the shit down up and over.
Rance tried to cast his eyeballs at the feet of the fool.
‘Tie—shit. Goddamn, Tie! Tie a length a rope to my horse. Shit!’ Lightning hit somewhere beyond the thorns. ‘I walk the side and hop down past and lead my horse through the shit.’
‘I cain’t do that!’
‘Right, better: Tie…Tie! Goddamn—Tie the line back agin to yer horse and you foller ridin. Ifn the horse lives so will you. Got an axe don’t ya?’
‘Gimme yor axe!’
‘So’s y kin ask me what for!’
So the rain without let up, Gravel scrabbled atop the planks, thorns shoving toward his exposed face, hat tipped sardonically against, his shoulder picked at as if a starving lunatic by starving crows in an old country barn trick, the axe in both hands balancing for a dash ahead, a knotted end of a long stretch of rope in his teeth. His first few steps were slow, more sure than Rance expected in the wet, before Gravel saw in clarity the madness of afore him and broke into a dragging dash that curved his upward half ever inward before a last leap that pre-empted a fall allowed him to step and leap once more, from the top of the stage door and fall into the emptiness the other side.
Gravel looked up with the wind knocked out of him as the Indian rope trick took the knot flapping up the stage coach door and was on his feet leaping to grab it before he knew what he was doing, having no time to wonder at the sudden shrinking of his will in the universe to the knot at the end of a rope. He got hold of it just before it slipped shitside, stepped over to the lower side wall of the odd deadend, and pulled his horse toward him about three inches before the beast yanked back in disgust, nearly pulling Gravel back over the wall. He let go of the knot and went for the axe. A couple mighty blows toward the bottom of the stage door had the desired effect of opening a hole through which the horse shit reluctantly globbed at a rate that would have kept Rance waiting on the other side for some hours. Gravel took another futile whack, stood in the relentless rain to regain his rights within his climate, walked over to where the coach door was higher than the wagon wall and delivered a mighty overhead blow that knocked the door flat, releasing a torrent of shit in which the significant lumps of his horse and Rance and Rance’s horse oozed through in graceless clumpery in no mood to applaud Gravel’s efforts.
Because good and bad oft intermix, the rain remained intense, loosening plooms of shit from the horses and Hardupp, whose face reappeared with a look of insult suffered without option of dignity.
‘My hat!’ he said loud through the rain. ‘I lost my hat!’ And he started back toward the bushwhack bottleneck. Already the streaming ground was less than all shit–quickmuck, sticks and freshets of the stew of it all skimming toward Hardupp.
‘You’ll never find it!’ Gravel said as they both laid eyes on a shitclump tumbling like a hat full of and covered with horseshit that finally wheeled off the petering runnel and stuck on a bush. Sure enough, Rance Hardupp had recovered his hat and the rain remained to wash it clean of shit. The rain continued torrential through dark fall when the two stumbled upon the river they had followed from Portugee Flat and lost in a confusion of trail narrowings and unmarked expanses that led finally to the ambush of horse shit, the river which was now a torrent overflowing its banks, giant dark trees closing in the river’s future despite the aggression of the water into the woods. Hardupp and Gravel wound a path through the forest, maintaining sound contact with the roar of the river, determined to move through the night to remain warm, hoping the day would dawn dry and the river be their trail. They knew somewhere near enough ahead lay the settlement of Poverty Flat, said to be on this very river.
Half-awakening to shouts, whoops, gunshots, galloping hooves, curses multiplied by three, for the horsemen were in triplicate, Rance and Tom at first had no memory of having lain themselves to rest. The duration of the spectacle, brief though it was, prevented the casting back of thought and certainly placed the present in precarious mode. But a hundred yards up the trail and the river bent and the sounds were devoured by the geometries and acoustical geniuses of nature. Thus after five minutes awake, they recalled the sudden halt of rain and the first light of morning, the recession of trees from the calming—for it was broadening into its flood plain—river, and the rapidity of sun shooting high into the sky to cast blocks of heavy heat straight down upon the wet men.
‘You still stink of shit, Rance.’
‘I know…you sleep away off if you like.’
And Gravel did choose a spot several trees off to tie his horse, strip his clothes, lay his blanket, and fall asleep directly upon recumbence. At the same time Hardupp, having also conspired to lie down, felt as if the earth were sucking his head inexorably centerward, and looked up without terror, without regret, without acrimony, without stinginess, without the urge to flail, at an enormous sky no bigger than usual shot with shades of sundown reds and purples, a night sky for his morning of exhausted insomnia.
But now the second dawn commenced with the high sun sucking the rancid vapors from the two travelers, stirring a steaming stew of stench over their camp from tree to tree. Their horses strained as outposts away for shade beyond, snuffling and distorting the musculature of their necks as if bereaved and unwilling under a crush of impending extinction. Hardupp and Gravel rose and stretched in ape of equine, no pains of travail accessible to self-ministration yet ineffable life generation a physical yearning slowly surpassing thought as determinant of motion until smoked and salted fish were eaten, coffee boiled and slupped, horses mounted, and a step about to trot when Gravel said, ‘Get the mule, Zeke!’
Rance looked quixotically at Gravel, wondered at the Zeke, and rapidly calculated that some number of days, maybe one, had passed since their mule had trackled off with the bulk of their supplies.
‘Mule’s gone, Tom.’
‘Right,’ was all Gravel said, turning eastward to follow the river.
They rode quiet and outward gruff turning south with the river, keeping distant from the mud left by the retreat of the lazier waters, reaching a rise, a hump of dry that promised little but further mystery of traveling, for as far as they knew it was a foothill of the Sierras that shunted the river norther, where a precipitous ravine would be required to allow the south flow they would somehow have to find a way to follow if they were to engage peril and not relinquish their opaque destinies to geographical quirk. Yet the hump was only that, a mound, perhaps a horst, and from that they saw through strange trees how the river easted again and ran on toward and round a settlement that must be Poverty Flat.
The river modern at the time was carving an abrupt turn from east-north-east to south where Poverty Flat had clearly having been hastily constructed or expanded to meet the rush of gold-fevered influxers on the north side of the Sacramento during a time of low water that was now high—not, of course the same water but water of the same course—so high that from the distance of their lookout Tom and Rance seemed to be viewing a lake pocked by slanted roofs without beneaths on which dots that were families perched huddled in insignificance, surrounded by loose slivers that were up closer swirling or basking planks of crocodilian aspect, menacing in comportment with nature these proto-Okies who very likely were cursing that concretion gold, burning its hole in the blue above.
On the south bank the river had come up against sterner rock, first having carved a hill an Aztec step upon which the town corporeally prospered, after which it had relinquished, leaving a cliff the sheer stood some thirty feet from high water level. Someday, if the far bank unfortunates survived, someone would build a bridge across the river here; for now an inoperable ferry was berthed fast to the south bank about a mile upstream, where the town road began its upslope.
At least we’re on the right side of the river, the travelers thought as they began their serpentine descent toward Poverty Flat.
From a distance, but not so far they could not see a dwelling beyond, Rance and Tom spied two giant trees apart from forest, redwoods or sequoias or something now extinct from excess of logging or diligent parasites that appeared as a gateway to the town above and beyond (the swamped town across here obscured by scarp and gentle riverbend); and it was up there where the trail began its rise that the ferry was tied to a clipped dock, a stump of man-made humbled to new and practical proportion, nary longer than the ferry itself. As long distance horsemen do, the men corralled their senses inward, marking their progress by sporadic assessments of ocular illusion such as the breadthly expansion of the two extraordinary trees on which they failed to focus until so close that the bizarre apparition of two hands gripping the nearer, on their right, just two hands that would have had to belong to a youngster with a wingspan of some 15 to 30 feet, startled them to a halt, while at the same time they noticed nailed to the tree just left beyond a wood sign nailed at man on horse eye level burned the words PORTUGUESE FLAT, not so unexpected that it held gaze from a closer examination of the bizarre: the two hands of the hypersuperannuated youngun holding by a foreleg each a giant bullfrog, belly forward, hind legs defeated downwards having found nothing to leap of purchase.
Let the reader here suffer the same exasperpentorigors as the riders, while from behind a sudden second sign, four feet high reading ‘THE AMAZING JIMMY AND THE FURTHER FAMILY BLADE…one gold piece bet,’ emerged two little girls in identical bluebell dresses moving entrancedly to tree, each gripping a frog leg at what would in the human be termed an ankle, redundantly restraining the resigned amphib who was looking to the sky and gasping orisons of afterstorm fresh air followed by an overalled braggart with a face that sneered in need of a hammerblow who held a hand on the hilt of a throwing knife sluffed in a makeshift holster who began his barkery, ‘Witness the amazing Jimmy Blade, the amazing Jimmy Blade, witness the amazing Jimmy Blade pin a bullfrog to a tree, a bullfrog to a tree, with a knife at ten paces, ten paces pin a bullfrog to a tree, one gold piece bet one gold piece bet, the amazing Jimmy Blade, for one gold piece watch the amazing Jimmy Blade pin a bullfrog to a tree, lose the bet tell your friends you saw it, your friends won’t believe you were there to see the amazing Jimmy Blade when he was just a fresh youngun pin a bullfrog to a tree. Gentlemen?’
Late morning sun warmed the scene, the river wide and swirling lazy like a sated beast, not bringing to mind the catastrophe beyond sight, for up close what is crocodilian but clearly cut wood makes of high water nought but fluid obstacle? A sense of sense spread into the scene, a house up yonder a minute’s walk surely that of the ferryman and these his kids, whippersnappers precociously creating scenarios for the earning of cash.
The horsemen dismounted, Tom Gravel stepping forward and extending his hand, asking, ‘You the one they call Jimmy Blade?’
‘That’s me mister,’ the runt replied, guiding Tom away from the tree with hermetic huckster gestures, touching his elbow, establishing an alliance of momentum, ‘that’s me all right and my deed’s as good as my word. You willing to risk a gold piece to make me prove it? See that frog. It’s a mighty bigun but let me—you too mister (Rance obediently trailing)—let me show you the view from ten paces and tell me YOU could split that frog’s belly.’
True enough, from ten paces the frog was smaller, and certainly seemed an impossible target for this imp with his knife, which he had slickly produced and now was flipping blade to handle to blade to handle to blade, but the tree was so enormous, so wide, that the effect of a mere ten loped paces of a ten year old was not such that the event in question was much imbibliorated; the hard parts remained: getting the knife to hit blade first, and being accurate enough to hit the frog, the latter challenge being the leaster. Nonetheless, Gravel produced a gold piece and held it before mister Jimmy Blade. He could see that the grass from where they stood was beaten to a trail leading to the tree and surmised that this young feller might just be able to live up to his boast, but there again was the true fact that if indeed he pinned the bullfrog to the tree that would be a gold piece’s worth of storytelling in the long run.
‘Mister Blade, I believe I will take that bet.’
Rance sidled up to Tom and whispered, ‘What if he don’t have no gold piece, Tom?’
Having already bent his left leg at the ten-pace line drawn by his boots, Jimmy Blade backed to straight, glared at Rance with contempt, and withdrew a gold piece from his pocket.
‘Here, cowhand, you hole em.’
Rance was forced to take hold of both gold pieces, his gaunt cheeks sucking redward from brief, intense regret.
And again Jimmy Blade stepped to the line, birds remained without apprehension, the river was muted in baritone, the people stood still—until in a surge of energy Jimmy flung the blade into the hand of the bluebell dressed girl on their left.
The knife stuck the hand to the tree momentarily, all paused in awe, then the knife dropped, the hand came free spurting blood, and the girl twirled, lifting her dress to wrap her hand and screamed, ‘I’m never gonna be your sister again, Jimmy Blade,’ as she ran up toward the town.
The other girl remained still as everyone else yet was the first to break the spell, her thoughts pulsing waves of fraught energy until she let go of her frog-ankle and ran as fast as she could after the other little girl. The two hands holding the frog did not move at all, Tom and Rance now looked at each other with brows lifted, Jimmy Blade mined for the two gold pieces that weren’t there in his pocket, and shrugged. Rance slipped the prize to Gravel.
‘Bad luck is all that was,’ he said, handing the purse to Gravel; ‘bit of wind come up and sawed at it. You saw how close it come.’
Tom may have felt kindlier, even considering the knife slice in the hand of a little girl, but Rance was fed up. ‘What happened, you runt, was you missed and lost yerself a gold piece and likely ruint yet sister’s hand fer life.’
Jimmy Blade rounded on the tall horseman and working foam to his lips so as to effect a spittle to underscore his venom, or venom to engorge his spittle: ‘I could split yer mammy’s twat fer ya only summon done it fer ya already, ye pissdrinking scumsack! An if ya dint hear, the little slut aint my sister, peabrain!’
What’s a man to do in such a situation? Rance had a vision of Jimmy Blade with the same face and the body of an infant and all the men he’d known the past few years surrounding him in a ceremony meant to defeat the force of evil by slicing off the kid’s head and burning his body.
‘Now, Jimmy, son,’ said Gravel, ‘talk like that just won’t do, not even from a little feller as yerself. You do best to apologize right quick afore I let the gentleman rip yer clothes off n spank yer feisty little ass.’
‘He won’t be wantin to try that. Clem! Jem!’
Out from the trees slouched two tall teens, each wielding a long bear knife, advancing in their own slow inexorable lopes like beasts soon to depart the globe for inheriting a bad, if at times deadly, idea. Gravel drew quick and marked their stopping points with a bullet in the earth afore each.
The twins—for they were, and Jimmy Blade’s blood—halted postures near forefall, aproterodontal mouths slacked open, eyes apopply, as if having witnessed something altogether new, appalling, and curiously aptotic, projecting a uniquely magnificent frugality of thought.
‘You knock them teeth out with yer knife, Jimmy Blade?’ Gravel teased. ‘Now I think things’ve got out of hand here. Tell them boys to drop them there blades and we’ll be on our way, no harm done.’
Gravel saw grievance subdawn in Rance and added quickly: ‘Still just a kid, Rance. Let’s leave it.’
‘Leave it? Leave it?’ Jimmy looked to be mocking his own disturbance as he turned and—’Shit! Clem! Jem! git the frog, git the goddam-ned frog!’, for in those few moments of menace the frog had been dropped, likely taken a few seconds to snap from stupor, then begun to hop away in near six foot bounds. The twins sheathed their blades and hopped too to it, the two loping as the frog leaped, six foot bounds, surrounding it in practiced fashion—that’s how them creatures once thrived on these here plains, a man might’ve thought—that would have failed rapidly had the frog had the wit toward water, but having in fright gone forestward was no match for the Blade twins, one of whom caught it mid-air (both), clutching the enormous representative of its species to his upper chest and neck.
‘Ya done good, Clem,’ Jimmy called. ‘You two git back to holdin it to the tree.’ The natural depression that wafts in after spectacle was repulsed by Jimmy Blade, who touched Gravel’s forearm with familiarity, the warmth of the barker returned. ‘Mister, you got my money. I done made a fool a myself. I ask you one chance to get that gold piece back.’
Rance snorted as any sane man would.
‘You can get in on it, too, mister—and I hope there’s no hard feelins: I embarrassed myself, is what I guess. I do apologize.’
‘You really want to try again, son?’
‘I’ll take some a that bet—can you cover five gold pieces, boy?’
‘Let me git my knife.’
‘Sure Rance? You got five to spare easy?’ Gravel asked betimes, eliciting a disquieting look from Hardupp, as if suggesting Gravel were an imposter.
Jimmy Blade returned, his lips tight pursed, hand upward thrust before Rance’s belt.
‘Right here,’ Jimmy Blade replied with inarrogant pride, unsheathing to reveal, held in both hands the way one offers not a gift, rather a recognition, the rustic grandeur of his singular knife. The blade itself was fresh polished, sharpened evenly from hilt to tip and back the other side to hilt. The handle was wrapped tight in crimson leather, forming a tubular grip of such apparent mass it was difficult to conceive a substance beneath, as if it were a cylinder of nought but dense, taut hide. This effected a stylish contrast with the surprise wood of the hilt and butt, which were painted in checks of black and white.
‘Get this fer a bet a five yer getting a thievy bounty. No pirate ever flunged a finer dagger.’
Rance, entranced, needed no Bladely boast, gazing rapt at the knife all the while he counted five gold pieces from the purse sack tied to his belt and handing then to Gravel, the implicit arbiter, whose own allurement was coaxed aside by prophetic vision of a con unfolding. The first throw missed, to be sure, but by mere inches, the illusion of catastrophic ineptitude created by the slice of blade into eftesque feminine paw—yes, the point a mere handspan from the frog’s belly, which would remain a relatively massive target from the, come to reflect, relatively short distance of these ten paces: the next throw would be precise, the sawed off confidence man taking away four gold pieces rather than a mere one.
And so it occurred, from the explosion of energy that projected the blade ten feet in a second, this fling flung more brisk and violent, compact, splunk and thwang, splitting the belly centrally, sticking the bullfrog to the tree, Clem and Jem instantly releasing the two legs each they’d held, fore and aft frogwise, up and down that is to say, one each side of the target, lifting their now free hands aloft as they slunk away from the display, the spectacle of a giant bullfrog pinned to a giant tree, the three others abruptly approaching, effervescence sparkling their aspect, even the soothseer Gravel disimmuned by awesome of nature and artifice convergent to glamorous effect.
Jimmy Blade tugged the knife from the guts and tree, the victim jerking in its dying physios from cling-to-steel to back-barked before yielding to gravity in league with fate of fucked frog floppery. Blade wiped the blade on his pants.
‘Always keep it clean…looky there at the balance…handle’s a iron rod, see, looky there neath…can’t see here but they’s welded together, what the smith told me ‘welded’ swhat he said…on yer finger jes like that…’ The bullfrog came to rest belly up, hitting back flat and bouncing but little, his head a-rest on a tiny clump of earth so that in his gutspiring final minutes he may have observed the underjoints that worked out sounds he could not comprehend—let there be no doubt: the dying bullfrog understood nothing of the discussion regarding the unique tool that was the guarantor of the day of his demise, the way the iron and leather brought to balance the blade of slim sharp steel, a knife of such handiwork the likes of which Gravel and Hardupp had never seen, accustomed as they were to handbound country knives for close-up killing and so new to both aerodynamic design and its inherent avial aesthetic attraction, less serendipitous than even Jimmy Blade would have guessed. And so, rapt, the men and boy conversed excitedly above the frog in clustery oblivion not unmerciful, for when Rance shifted such that his bootheel crushed his head as if it were a ripefallen plum thus bringing the absolute of death to that amphibian’s life lengthy ordeal all that was lost was an eternal already misplaced by an apprehension proscribed by protean providence, a gust or a huff or a gasp without scorn, without charity, without taint of coursing blood or mirror clean of breathmist.
‘Hellfire, Tom, a feller has an itch a feller has ta git it scratched, that’s alls I’m sayin,’
he says, so I figure I partnered him for good or ill, we ken stay one more night n payd for him as we agreed to share what I had til his experience payd off and so I give him five dollars and upstairs he went with Miss Hastie Bundles while I did have fer myself some sippin whiskey that probly cures ague n kills weeker men. While many in the town did go about there busyness, we were surprised that on the far side of town many were laboring to reach the afflicted across the river and bring them back across to higher ground. There was even a place where they could eat and sleep, the Silver Lode Hotel, which is now full and therefore there is no place for Rance and me to put up but for a stable run by a german fellow named Horsebane if I heard right. He does not speak English clear. I do not suppose you kan imagine a town with so many people thoe I cannot say how many and we have heard of bigger towns it is not possible that any more ken make much differing if you caint move without that yer elbow ketches some busy lady in the jaw, it may as well have been Saint Louis though I know Saint Louis to be much bigger I swear it can’t be seen. What I mean is when a town is full it is full. And fer another thing theres more whores here than horses here too. In Saint Louis the horses had a small lead. Yet Rance told this is nothing compared to Hangtown, which is our destination next and which name I will ask you not to fear but will explain by and by. Well I drank my whisky in a saloon called the Diggers Paradise and counted myself lucky to find a seat at the bar before darkness and the last gold pickers come in, singin and fightin and losin at a card game they call pharaoh which I did watched late still waitin fer Rance and seems a game of luck entire, luck you guess right and luck the dealer aint cheatin and other games of chance one of them played so fast I could not understand it. It is a kind of poker I believe but not like your pa and Jeffers tawt me. There was much merriment for here there is much money or enough money to make up for not enough money if you take what I mean, and stompin and a fiddle player who survived many glasses broken on or about himself in good spirit, although before the night was over he had back so far up the stares he was still playing but we could not see him for where the stairs bent. I don’t know if he gets payd but he should. There were only two fights or maybe three and two seemed to be one. Althow I kan not say if 100 fights happened outside my per view. This one I saw in which a small man was throwd over the bar, I do not perfess to now why. The barman was a large feller and throwd him back. Which is when I saw the original antagonist throw him back over the bar for that is apparently where he wanted him but the bartender felt better off alone back thar and throwd him back this time following him whenceupon he barenukked the brute who first throwd the little man nokking him cold out on the floor with one right hand to the forehead. Something broke if I judge the sound right. Maybe the forhead split in two. He was carried out and Harlee, that is the name of the barman, returned to his side of the bar and no one was throwd over agin that night. Sad to say the other fight may have costed a man one of his eyeballs for price of enterey. I had the good fortune to see it up close for the instigator was in my emediate proximity of me at the bar. For some time the feller and his I hesitate to say lady had bin crossjabberin when of a sudden the feller hawled off and smacked her, I mean the lady, a backhand so hard a tooth flew out of her mouth, which is true for I saw it come to land next to a bottle of whisky on the ledge behind the bar where such are kept. It was a moller like the one yer pa pulled out last spring. The noise in there was mighty high and there was nawt but confusion at all times but yet one gentleman saw the intsident and stept gallantlee forth to express his objection with a blow to the very jaw of the first feller who dropped to the floor next to my stool, a sturdy wooden conjunction with a solid back. They say you don’t never get to understand woman and I am not goin to say I don’t understand you for I do love you and that is understanding enough for me, my Marie Fire, but that only makes me happy I don’t have to understand no other woman, for this harpee minus one tooth bloody mouthed bitch seeing her attacker git claboozzled right front of her and the gallant feller turn away did jump upon his back and screeching like a owl on fire tare at his eyes and must of got them claws in good for he screemed too asudden, and tried to nok her off by backin into the bar all as while he was atemptin to remove her claws from his face. His misfortune was to what I said in temtpin to back into the bar collided with the man he did fell who was in the process of as he recoverd from the amboosh, and who seein the fooferaw occurring now rammed his showlder into the feller nokking both backwards and that is when I saw much blood dripping from the eye of the very man who intended to do this same woman a faver. Now presently he was on the flor which is much like ourn if you add blood and peeyuke and horseshit and a little more hay. He had the look of the strikken man which arrived to his face which was very white against the blood as he fell backways to the floor ontop the harpee who still had one claw in his bloodgushy eye while now her manfriend pounded blows to his jaws and teeth. And now here my view was blocked as friends come to his aid and much dancing ensued and I do not think either harpee or mate come out too good, but if you have ever thought much about what it would be like to step on a egg that run out of its shell that is the horrible thing I saw as folks come apart in very slow gatherin towards peaceful conclusion, the feller screamin suddenly stopt screamin an took his hand away from his face fer but a second and first I saw the emptee space where the eye should be, dark bloody cave, and then his poor eyebrow hangin down all tore up, and the eye was crushed by a boot just then when I saw it on the flor beside his hand in fact the boot stept on both his hand and his eye for he yelpt like a kayote and I hope that spared him the knowin of what become of his eye.
Well Marie Fire love of my life you told me to stay out of trouble and so I done so that night though you kan can see that it will not always be easy. Having nowheres to go but the stable I thought to wait for Rance of maybe I would have been spared the awfulness of the great and happy life of celebrating in a mining town, but he did not come back down for so long I did go to the stable without him and slept very good for you know I am careful with my likker at least when I am away from home, maybe you do not know that, Marie Fire, but I am saying so now that you know. Although I could have slept longer, but for the german who woke me such that I said good morning to a barrel on the busyness end of a rifle. Far as I can understand he did not like me bein thar and so last evenin we must have had a misunderstandin. Back at the tavern I waited for Rance some more, so long I had to go to the hotel and eat a meal of some kind of meat and fine fresh bread. When I went back to the tavern late in the afternoon he was settin at the bar drinking a beer with a smile like as your pa would say a skunk eatin a plate full a coon shit. I do believe he had the best night of his life. I could not feel bad for his smile was so wide he looked like a monkey in one of them pitcher books you have.
Well that day we started on down river and from Poverty Flat the road is less perilous and more folk are along it, so it was not unpleasant, though I must say for two days I had to listen to everthing Rance got up to that night with Hastie Bundles and othern though I will spare you the details of what they played at (though I have no reason to spare my readers, among you: copulites, connoisseurs, parasites, voyeurs, hoplites and men of the church, boozers all, and thus provide a random selection; Rance and his lady and ladies and men of mining did play at
Fetch the grapplette
Gulp the freshet
Frig the gob
Grasp the fletcher
Flash the groper
Grippe the fever
French the gaper
Groak the fleshpot
Flooze the grackle
Gamble the fudge
Flap the gaffer
Grieve the fallen
Flog the griper
Greet the flogger
Filch the gweef
Glomp the feffer
Flay the gormless
Grow the fife
Fly the goose
Gyp the fagend
Form the group
Griffin the fair
Finch the gorgeous
Gimp the farmhorse
Fry the grouper
Glork the flooche
Forge the grampus
Greed the fallback
Frappe the gills
Grill the flamer
Frisk the grampa
Grind the floozie
Flank the geegaw
Guess the feeler
Fluff the growler
Gird the falcon
Fake the gasp
Give the fee
Fudge the gravy
Green the farter
Find the girl
Gaffe the fatty
Frame the gonif
Grope the feeble
Feed the grapes
Guppy the famous
Force the goat
Gouge the furrow
Ford the gully
Gander the folly
Fester the goad
Gam the forlorn
Flake the grotto
Guano the fate
Fasten the garter
Guard the fort
Force the gates
Glib the female
Flem the gruel
Gather the feet
Feather the goon
Gas the fawn
Fortissimo the groove
Gather the feckless
Fickle the gander
Garner the forte
Frottage the gillygooser
Gallup the foal
Free the gavel
Gravel the fool
fillip the gonfalon
Gravid the fowlmouth
flail the gonorrheal
Gamble the fey
Fetid the granny
Gait the fanny
Fence the goods
Garrote the fiend
Frack the garbage
Gropius the foul
Fork the ginger
Glide the fire
Fret the geton
Guide the finger
Fie the gaspipe
Gash the fruit
Fathom the grater
Gert the frigid
Fend the gent
Gonad the farmed
Foil the gambler
Germ the fairy
Flummox the galoot
Gobble the fern
Frighten the geezer
Giffle the flaccid
Forget the guy
Gnome the florid
Festive the guinea
Gestalt der fraulein
Frag the grosbeak
Gerundive the frangent
Fling the gabbro
Gyrate the furbelow
Fumigate the groin
Grog the flotsam
Flouncing the geriatric
Gainstrive the fledgeling
Flood the gripy
Gyre the fistuca
Flout the gluteus
Grout the façade
Fiddle the gorcock
Ghain the fffflutterer
Fanchow the gadget
Gainsay the furseal
Floche the gingham…