More Vietnam fiction for These Troubled Times

another excerpt from The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas

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Chapter Twenty-Seven  THE FICTILE AND THE FINGENT

 

For TC MURR

 

The nipple placement was not all that was illusionary or anti-corporealist about Picasso Tits. As Donnie remembered her now, he could almost imagine her in one of her near sheer dresses that fit her as if she were a pulsing ghostwoman, almost see her gliding over the Pacific waves in the dark that was neither black nor blue, approaching in a sort of drift of foggy flight, approaching, fading, somehow rapid like a gust of wind—And why not? Are there not those for whom the strict logic and lines of transport are far too mundane? Are there not those ethereal ones for whom enclosure violates truths glimpsed in ephemeral mockeries? If so, Picasso Tits, here now on the California sands so intensely desired by the one who was not her lover, is of these mythicals.

Back in Brussels, Picasso Tits was not surprised that she missed Donnie more than she missed Drake. Though not of narcissistic kind, she was wholly aware of herself in the world of desirous men, and though she was too slender to be voluptuous at first sight, she was fully formed and tensile, voluptuous—after the fact, the fact of wide ranging breasts and nipples out where yonder ought be, after the fact of face, fingent, never twice the same, full enough of lip, small enough of nose, and subtle enough of eye that a man once entrapped by tit, could become lost and later in lustry lunging lunglessly in love, for the vivacity of her lissome animacy.

Many of these men, most in fact, would be of a type classifiable only as wanting, perpetually wanting, and would be unable to resist sexuality of greater immediacy. They often returned to her in tears, which she never grew to scorn, for she understood.

Then there were men like Donnie, who saw it all and contented himself to seeing. If ever there were a man to last out her lifetime it would be such a one, she thought, but for the paradox that he would eventually have to break through the zone of separation and would then have to remain, say, Donnie, and she had no idea if that would happen.

She was not surprised that Drake had not asked her to flee with them to the United States. He knew it would be a selfish request, and she knew he knew she would understand everything and that including his own understanding of everything. Yet missing them, she felt pain that it was not Donnie’s place to ask her to join them, to ask anything about her future, their future, the possibility of a return to Europe even. Donnie would have, or would have been unable to keep the question from his eyes, and he would be recalling her with more tenderness than Drake, who, after all, was a fine man and perhaps the best she had ever been with.

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Donnie’s thoughts turned, too, to his father, for there was no mistaking his return to his father’s land. His father did not fly gossamerly from the black, feet above the waves. His father’s feet were always on the ground, stomping, no—pressing, pressing down on a carpet that tended to curl up at the corners, for beneath this carpet were secrets, the truth Donnie was never told. Donnie did indeed despise his dilettante double-doucher dipshit mother, for he knew her deeply, and like his miner ancestors he had found the scoured out gaseous scarred innards to be bare of yield—nothing to proffer, nowhere to go but deeper into despicable depths. But his father was different. Did his father really believe that Donnie hated him for his diffidence, his distance, his desquamatory daddy clichés? Seems so. But Donnie did not hate his father–he resented him, resented him for never revealing the secret that impelled a decent man, and a man of depth and originality, to live in the near death of a demi-lackey to that bitch of a mother, and further, to allow Donnie to reach the age of leaving without realizing that he could have revealed all to Donnie, that as far as his father was concerned that was all that Donnie lived for, the day when they went to the tavern in Nevada, the Green Jockey, on a Saturday afternoon in Spring, shot a few games of pool, during which a few hints would be dropped, before the bellied up to the šank, sit down, son, two beers, I know you’ve been waiting for this day for a long time, but once I tell you everything you’ll understand why I had to wait, of course your mother must never know…But his father kept his feet on the ground only to prevent the carpet corners from curling.

Inside the bungalow burned many candles, disguising matter, bestowing an illusion of substance on their marionettes of shadow, yet so many candles that the two faces alive with conversation remained undisturbed by the trickeries of light, retaining their opacities, contours, emoting aspects. Across a common plate of victuals from Drake sat Nordgaard, a man of indifferent age, if definitively old, bald, the head perhaps deformed: high and narrow, elongate, without eyebrows to break the wrinkling stretch from eye to apex. He had damp, motile lips, an extravagance, black deep nostrils that glared like the cave mouths they were, betraying no illusion of an accompanying or enabling nose.

His voice was flauty, as of wind given voice by sudden compression, a force of unkempt yearning.

Nordgaard had been with Drake’s father since the early days in Vietnam, indeed it was Nordgaard who saved the senior Fondling from his coming frag, when Captain Fondling had called in an airstrike on his own men. Now he was telling a story about a battle that occurred before Drake’s father had even been in Vietnam, back in ’62 or ’63, when Nordgaard was a sniper for the ARVN.

What matter if the wee man indulge himself, Drake figured.

‘This was a turning point I’m telling of, lo, even if we were the mighty ones yet again visiting on the rebels, the VC of course in this battle, a new instrument of death deliverance. The M 113 armored personnel carrier—ten fucking tons! This was particularly effective because most of our surprises up until then, lo, had come from the air—napalm nearly won us the war, us then being the French. I should point out that not many share my point view, nor am I offering a tactical opinion vis a vis more napalm. But this was Greek Fire from the air, and we all know that Greek Fire speaks its fear in the pages of innumerable books of history and memoire. Perhaps, lo, it is the atomic age, the beast, beastmost of bombs, that overshadow napalm as a weapon. Or perhaps among the Vietnamese napalm is still recalled, written of, memoired, in the same way as we of Europe recall Greek Fire. Hot tar, too, though, ought have its place. Yet it does not. Why? Simply because from the first day a man stormed a high wall, something nasty was dropped on him. So strike that about the hot tar. Nonsense. Anything at hand, not just hot tar, entrails of oxen, yesterday’s soup, donkey shit, corpses, scorpions…Therefore here, lo, was a machine all the more frightening for the fact that it crawled amongst them—and over their hidey-holes in the embankments! Uprooting trees! Not very big ones, but saplings and the like. And as they conquered their fright enough to maintain a shooting crouch a pepper the beast with bullets that zinged off harmlessly, lo, up from a hatch popped a sniper…or in most cases an ordinary soldier made bold by his newly safe method of attacking the VC. The embankments, they were for dikes, you’ve seen rice paddies. Dikes everywhere, and the VC hiding in holes in the dikes, or in the jungle vegetation along the dikes. And our 113s could surmount the dikes—they had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide but where they hid. Clever devils. They hid in holes on the dikes, in the side of the dikes, everywhere. Imagine the first VC to hold his position on the far side of the dike, in his perfectly camouflaged hole, holding still, crouched with his automatic, in his mind, lo, the machine will begin its crawl up the embankment and flip over backward—imagine his horror when the machine rumbled over his hole in perfect balance. Of course, imagine that in the 113 ARVN is chasing horrified VC across the rice paddy, and popping up out of hatches to take pot shots at runners, now imagine the little son of a bitch with his hidey hole picking off ARVN unfortunates one by one until they realize they’re getting hit from behind. He’s probably alive to this day, that runt VC, telling the story to his best friend’s son, in a bungalow, on the waterfront. But he had a cousin, lo, and this is where I come in, being the top sniper in ARVN. When the 113s scattered the enemy, they would often run mad into the paddies, where they must have endured nightmare horrors of making absolutely no progress while running for their lives, the water up to their waists, before they get slaughter by raking fire. But the VC were a well-trained bunch, cool headed, and some of them would break off reeds, crouch under the water, breathing through the reeds. Sometimes it was easy to figure: five ran off that direction and we only shot three, where’d the others go? Under the water. And we’d have our drivers rock the big car—they could do that, rock it back and forth, and create waves and the rising falling water would expose these poor little fuckers who now looked so ridiculous, at war and all crouching with a tube in their mouth, heads bent back, and I’d drill them in the temple. They were some of my favorite kills.

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I’ve written a poem about it, lo:

Hollow is the reed of the head above water

Naked is the wearer of wave cloth

Enemy. I shoot you in the temple

You laugh in your eternity

as laughter echoes in my mobile chamber

I have written thousands of poems about war…’

‘Each in its time, I suppose.’

‘Meaning you fear me reading them all to you now.’

Drake smiled. ‘True enough.’

‘No, not now, not ever. I am old enough to know how easy it is, lo, to be an old fool. I have a poem about that, too, if you would like to hear it.’

‘Please no.’

‘Right, about your father, where were we?’

‘Donnie! Glad you’re back. Nordgaard is just going to tell me what happened.’

What happened? Time and distance appeared to have over-reacted to event, and now after having been met at the airport by the Suave Facilitator, Drake and Donnie were being driven through the disorienting expanses of Los Angeles, when the Suave Facilitator explained that for reasons of safety they were taking a circuitous route (to where?) and would change vehicles twice. At some point after landing, probably before clearing customs, Donnie had already realized, Drake’s parents having been assassinated, that safety would require much reason, reason applied to executing his, reason for the executioners of safety to apply to his safety the same standards that would be applied to Drake’s. Drake, just as he spoke no explanation for absconding with Donnie months ago on bare notice, spoke nothing of the current situation vis a vis dead parents, dangerous business, next moves, a future requiring the absorption of parents dead by head shots. All he said was that he wanted Donnie with him.

Nordgaard would tell them what happened.

When they arrived at the bungalow, an old man with smooth facial and skull skin standing between three and four feet opened the door; he was barefoot, wore a t-shirt and grey shorts so that his spindly build and enormous limb veins were plain to observe.

‘Do you preserve dwarf or midget?’ (Drake)

‘Call me Lew Alcindor, it won’t make me any taller.’

This was Drake senior’s executor, right-hand man, companero, Rasputin, Sokollu.

Amazingly, Drake had never met him, never even knew his name, though more than vaguely knew of his existence. He was certainly the little man in all the stories.

Not absurdly, Donnie, stepping into the bungalow, flashed on the suspicion that Nordgaard was ‘behind it all.’

‘I have their ashes inside,’ Nordgaard said, putting very little to rest.

Exhausted, charged with renegade momentum, Donnie flashed on Senator Hafbreit. Drake Senior had arranged his murder, he was sure of it.

In the moments of human reaction to oddities, the Suave Facilitator had disappeared and the three appeared to be alone in the bungalow. Would there be giant vehicles filled with modernist goons parked a hundred yards down the street, another outside the guardbox outside the gated beach community? Would the guardbox be hit by the VC? Or did he wonder that later…

‘Good, I’d like to hear it. Can I have something to drink?’

‘Tullamore Dew?’

‘I guess you know something about me.’

‘Yes, lo, of necessity not malice. And I apologize for the intrusion.’

Donnie looked to Drake.

‘If I had thought about it, I guess…but I didn’t.’

Drinks. Low chairs, attentive bodies leaning forward, three men slanting toward each other.

‘There’s little doubt who was behind it, Drake: Dane Frot. Your father encroached on his business every chance he got. They knew each other from Nam, hated each other there.’

‘I know who he is.’

The two looked to Donnie, who shook his head.

‘Ran Blackwater.’

‘Right.’

‘Did he ever tell you the Frot Nam story?’

‘No.’

‘Better you hear it. This was 69, when your father was special forces. Frot was special forces, same rank. What they called Vietnamization had begun, though it was more an imminence at the time. For it to succeed, the architects knew two things: the north would have to understand that the time of reason, such as it was, was over. They were dealing with an utter madman who valued his own life and none other and as such would bomb anywhere and everywhere at an intensity greater than ever until the enemy brought acceptable peace proposals to the table. On the ground, lo, the terror would both have to increase and appear to be relentlessly closing in on higher ranking Congminh’s. That was your father’s job, to conceive of and carry out operations that would strike terror, reverberating terror, into the fibre of the enemy. In a way, it wasn’t a hard job. The horrific had long been a fact of that war. The hard part was ratcheting up the horrific. This would require creativity. No cock and balls stuck in the mouths of the dead would do. No tits carved off mothers, no bamboo staved shoved up the cunts of virgins. That stuff was old. The solution was rather obvious. Surprise. They had to get close, closer than the enemy thought possible. This would require action in the north, since security in the south was always lax, duplicity the norm. By the north I don’t mean Haiphong, either—too easy. Escape by boat is always comparatively easy.

‘I don’t tell this story to aggrandize myself, but because the action was in the north, I, who could appear as Vietnamese as Ho Chi Minh and know the languages, was able to move relatively freely throughout the country and was expert at intelligence gathering. I will tell you how this all came about some other time, lo. But suffice to say that north or south, Hanoi or Saigon, the typical Vietnamese looked at me and saw, lo, a hick, a sad, poor peasant of the hills. My height? Given my slender build, my height was generally overlooked. I am no hunchback, nor seized by dwarfism. Allow me to interject one poem, lo:

‘You think you know what is an eye

Your eyes, you think, see

But you think, you think

Do not think, and your navel sees

We look eye to eye

And it is I who does the thinking

It is I who sees

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‘I trust you understand. What I wish to emphasize is my necessary role in these northern conspiracies of terror. Your father, Drake, was a very intelligent warrior. Unlike almost all warriors who fought the Congminh wars, he never, never, lo, underestimated his opponent. As such, in this context, he paid special attention to the best fighters on the enemy side. One of these was a northerner who was one of those who rejected the Hanoi line in the mid-fifties or so, and went south to continue the resistance. He was a master strategist. Ngu Cao. From a village near Hai Duong, a city in the delta halfway between Haiphong and Hanoi. First you must understand that this entire region was red and had been since before the war against the French, probably before World War II. Almost any enemy activity would be conspicuous, but as your father pointed out, at the same time any personal enemy activity would be entirely unexpected. Security precautions would be taken, but the human element of inadvertent, unconscious laxity would also avail. This we could not factor into our plan per se, lo, but we could expect a greater chance of success. Most important of all was intelligence. Periodically, main leaders from the south would be called to Hanoi for general strategy meetings, as before Tet. These we always knew about. More important, we knew that Ngu Cao would send an underling to Hanoi and he himself would visit family in his village near Hai Duong. Our plan, therefore, was to strike a fearsome blow at Ngu Cao and particularly his family when we learned of a great strategy meeting being held in Hanoi in the Spring of 69. Special forces had operatives who could pass for northerners, or were northerners, trained as well as any American. Both your father and Frot would infiltrate the delta with a cadre of five, not including me. As a sniper and intelligence agent, it was important that I never be seen on a mission. But I would be there.

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‘When Ngu Cao had the opportunity to visit his extended family, it was a festive occasion that had to remain quiet, of course. But it was important to him, for in perhaps 14 years he had been home fewer than five times by my calculation. He did not return to the north personally for the planning of Tet. The family gathering would not be held in the village itself for fear of bombing, though I very much doubt that Cao feared that his movements were known. For the most part they were not. We were just lucky that there were certain nodes attaching to him. In the south he was as elusive as a jungle snake. Half a mile from his village, there was a Confucian school just big enough to host his family gathering. The school was in an area of rice paddies, but for a kilometer or so in every direction was surrounded by foliage, a sort of thought environment for the students that was sacred. A dirt path went in and then out of this little jungle. Both entrances or exits would be well guarded. How would we get in? How would we get out? Suicide missions are really not so frightening, after all. Guards would also be placed outside the school. The only way was to enter the jungle, making our way through rice paddies, enter the jungle, find the clearing, and exit the other side, without alarming the soldiers guarding the road. Once we assessed the guard situation at the clearing and quietly eliminated them, we would probably cause a great deal of screaming that we could not be sure would be heard but had to assume would be at the entrances to the jungle. We determined that we would have fifteen minutes to carry out our mission before we would have to flee. Your father would lead the mission into the jungle. Frot would lead the covering mission on the other side of the jungle. If we managed to succeed with our mission, we had only a forced march through rice paddy terrain of between 20 and 30 kilometers to reach forested mountains to the northeast, from where we would make our way to the coast to a secluded spot between Ha Long and Quang Ninh, a journey for which we allotted ourselves a week, given the terrain and need for utter invisibility.

‘So Frot really had the easy job. He and his men would choose a spot halfway along the line where jungle met rice paddy and simply wait. If all went well, lo, our team would meet them and we would quietly scamper off, mission accomplished. Frot fucked up. First, he was careless of his position, making toward the jungle not 100 meters from where one end of the road entered, and area swarming with soldiers. Second, he gave us away by tripping onto a dugout on a dike. One of the men shot the soldier inside who had a radio in his hand. At that point, he fled with his men, figuring the entire mission was fucked. His third mistake saved us. He was about ten minutes late.

‘So our group reached the Confucian forest. We made our way to the clearing. Five guards were in front, two in back. Your father and I shot the five in front while two of his men knifed the two in back. No one inside heard a thing. Your father entered alone. In the school were perhaps fifty people. One of them was Ngu Cao, of course. This is terror. Deep, deep, deep inside you home territory, at ease with your family, a white man strolls into your sanctum, and, lo, the end is at hand. Your father walked in alone for effect, but his men soon came in from all sides. Two of them grabbed Ngu Cao. Your father ordered his eyelids sliced off. Then he took a pistol and went from frightened woman and child and whatever range of men, and, lo, he yanked them by the hair and shot them in the brains in front of Ngu Cao. After something between 10 and 20 of such executions, which included the wife of Cao, lo, and your father ordered the slaughter of the rest, followed by the slaughter of both of Cao’s legs below the knee. He personally put at least ten bullets in each leg. Then we took off into the jungle. As we neared the paddy we could hear much shouting, a few rounds fired. Peering through the foliage, we could only see a swarm that was about to turn its fury back toward us. We saw no sign of our comrades. There was nothing to do but work our way back through the jungle, try to avoid the clearing, come out the other side and hope we could leave the way we came. Whichever end of the road these soldiers came from, it was certain those at the other end would be heading toward the school. Remember, lo, we didn’t know if they would hear our automatic fire. They may have already been alerted.

Your father and I stuck together, one of our men was hit and dropped beside me as he ran. The others we lost track of. Presumed dead. We encountered no one, slipped into the paddies, quietly made our way away.

‘Before dawn I found a village I was familiar with, where I was known as a traveler and trader. I was given shelter. Your father hid during the day, spending miserable days in the heat, beset by insects, in bushes where he could never be sure he would not be seen or pissed on. No patrols came through. We hoped and assumed that the enemy was on the trail of chickenshit Frot and his squad. Of course, that settled one matter for us, lo—no escape route. We would have to improvise. We did. We travelled by night, slept by day, stayed in a few villages, and in a couple weeks made the jungle mountains south of Ha Nam.

‘Much later, in Da Nang, your father came across Dane Frot. Frot didn’t know he was at the base and his first involuntary start told your father all he needed to know. He heard Frot out, heard a story not unlike the real one—they were fired on, who knows what happened, figured we heard the firefight, no choice but to hightail it out of there, flanking movements both sides, not a second to lose. How many dead? Lucky group. All survived. None wounded. Frot twisted his ankle and made the forced march on that the whole way, using a bamboo staff for support. Behind a dispensary your father nearly beat him to death. I wasn’t there, and your father sometimes doesn’t tell much detail, besides, lo, I could well enough imagine. And his profile is known for the broken nose. At some point, he tired and the notion entered his mind that Frot need not die then and there. He often told me himself he regrets not finishing him off with his fists. A poem, lo:

‘Left to die

Why inflict this redundancy on me?

I who have slain boredom

I who have slain your demons

I left to die have become your demon

‘That is one of my favorites. I hope you like it, as well.

‘At any rate, now you know the origin of the conflict between Dane Frot and your father. Surely you know much about the competition between the two in recent years, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.’

‘Yes, quite a lot.’

Slowly Nordgaard turned his head toward Donnie, his eyes steady in their bloody white globules, as if incapable of independent movement.

‘Does any of this make you uncomfortable?’

‘Not that I know of. Not to any extent that I know of. Perhaps after I catch up on my sleep. I take it that soon I will be made aware of the extent, if any, of danger Drake and I are in.’

‘Yes, lo, that is a question we need to assess. First I would like to describe what I can about the circumstances of the deaths of Drake’s parents.’

‘Please.’

‘Refill.’

Refilled.

‘Drake, they were shot once each in the head from about five hundred yards, from a tree up the hill. It was a high-powered sniper rifle, no point going into the details, but the kind of rifle you don’t miss with, don’t have to be an expert. However, lo, we believe they were marksmen—experts—hired by Frot. Much remains to be understood. The view from the location the shots came from is obscured, by design, by a row of cypress trees. A very narrow gap between two of them from that angle would allow an open view that would allow such shots if the car stopped exactly where it did, so that as each head rose from the car both would barely be within the range of sight. It was as if your father was in cahoots, lo, with his assassins. What is remarkable most of all is that he stopped the car at all, I mean outside the gates, which is something he never did as an elementary security precaution. Guards posted saw the bodies fall. No one heard the bullets. These guards have been questioned and have no idea why your father stopped the car when and where he did. As far as they could determine, there was no reason to do so. There was nothing wrong with the car, with the gate mechanism, which anyway can be controlled from a manned sentry box within the gate if something went wrong with the mechanism in the car. The car is fully bullet proof, so at that point the only thing that could have killed your father was a bomb…unless he stopped the car and got out. If you care to, I can take you there and walk you through it—’

‘No.’

‘Well, what—’

‘Maybe…’

‘Lo, it is something to think about. There is very little else to tell you. The assassins escaped. A car waiting nearby no doubt. That isn’t the kind of neighborhood you can easily move through on foot. Virtually every house has security. The property the assassins were on was vacant and the alarm system disarmed. An elementary job, simple security system. The chance of the killers being identified, captured, etcetera, is very slim. A detective Schneider has been assigned the case and we are in touch. He knew your father and liked him. He is good enough, but this is simply an impossible case to solve. The killers were not local. Likely they trained in Carolina at Frot’s facilities. They probably spent time in Iraq and various other countries. Their resumes would read like many of those of our own people and like dozens of Frot’s. In any case, lo, it is Frot we want, for there is no doubt in my mind that he ordered the assassination. Without a secret tape turning up or something along those lines, a disgruntled employee close to Frot approaching us, say, we have no chance of proving that it was Frot. Therefore, ipso facto, this is really not a matter for the law, but a matter of revenge or revenge foregone.’

‘You asking me a question?’

‘Not right now, but that is the question, and you, as his heir, will be the one to decide. I am prepared to execute your will. And speaking of wills, executing them and such, lo, it is I who have been named executor of your father’s will. Well, lo, and your mother’s will as it turns out, for in this event what he left her he left you. I won’t complicate. Various provision are made in the will for his employees, for their pensions should you decide to dismantle the company, something he foresaw as a possibility given that it was not your line of work and was not likely to be. It is set up to run itself—I would be CEO until a replacement could be decided upon—but he wanted you to feel free to leave it all behind as well. Much of what I have to tell you is not the kind of thing that is found in a will. For instance, he wanted you to know that despite appearances, he was not emotionally attached to the business. Furthermore, as you will see, he did not need the business to earn a living. Your father, your father, lo, formed the company to provide employment for some very difficult to employ friends, comrades in arms…The world became the kind of place in which such companies thrived. When Blackwater became big, your father did all he could to damage it, though with Dane Frot at the helm the company did quite well damaging itself. But, again, the world is the kind of place where such men thrive. Your father delighted in being a thorn in Frot’s ballsack, as he would put it, but he knew that that was all he was, lo, a thorn in a ballsack.’

‘I can certainly hear him saying it.’

‘Lo—Mister Garvin—’

‘Donnie.’

‘Feel free to stay or leave, drink as much as you like. Please feel free and comfortable. You may also ask any questions that arise. Drake has already informed me that you are to be trusted and nothing is to be kept from you.’

‘Does that do me any good?’

‘Comes down to it, Donnie, I think if you’re fucked at all by this you’re already fucked. If you know what I mean.’

‘I do. I’m not concerned. But I do wonder…it’s an obvious thing, but…pardon the cliché, but is this not, this assassination, possibly an inside job?’

‘Long story short, lo, absolutely not. I can explain in detail if you would like.’

‘No no, good enough. Go on.’

‘Your father, having engaged in this business, found delight mostly in getting Frot riled. He often pointed out that it wasn’t fair in that Frot could not in the least disturb your father while at the same time your father was virtually a daily nightmare to Frot. Frot sued when Blackguard was formed, but your father had anticipated that and had the legal question completely locked in before the suit. Not enough colors to go around, and, of course, a blackguard is a blackguard, a thing, a person, it has meaning—how can it reasonably equated with Blackwater? In fact, as your father had his lawyer point out in court, the very name Blackwater was rather senseless in comparison, for as much of the work of the company was in fact guarding…And, surely you know a great deal about the Iraq years. 90% of the contracts Blackwater lost went to Blackguard. Remember the slogans? “Blackguard: Our Business is Security, not Publicity.” “Blackguard: Protection is More Economical than Killing.”’

‘No, that one was mine: “Blackguard: At the Intersection of Safety and Savings”.

‘Right, he chose yours over mine. I remember.’

‘But there were others, several along the lines of yours: “Going About Our Business Quietly So You Can Go About Yours” type of thing…

‘“Criminals Fear Us, They Don’t Work for Us.”’

‘Good one.’

Enough candles had burned out that they light was much the same as the color of Tullamore Dew.

‘I can feel it now,’ Drake said.

‘Can you hold on a bit longer?’

‘Why?’

‘Best to get the financial aspects out of the way. Not in detail, but enough so you can begin to give it all some thought.’

Drake’s face reflected the oddity of the request, but amiably so.

Donnie felt now as if his physiology were dependent upon Drake’s.

‘Sure, Nordgaard, go ahead, then.’

‘Where I was headed, lo, was toward stressing that your father did not need the Blackguard business. He was already making a fortune from the military. This is a secret of the state variety, so probably Donnie should leave the room, but I will settle for a sworn…’

‘I promise.’

‘Yes, lo, call it what you may.’

‘Don’t tell anybody. Anyway, Nordgaard, you, sitting here, you’ve casually testified to the fact that my friend’s father is a war criminal many counts over. I have a lot to keep quiet about. And I don’t think I’ll feel morally compelled to disclose any of it. What’s a single state secret to me?’

‘Precisely.’

‘Precisely?’

The quiet imbuing the room was turning the color of Tullamore Dew.

‘Well,’ Drake prodded. ‘I got the war criminal part and I’m still listening, so while we can endure, please get on with the rest.’

‘Yes. Where to start…Why not. Area 51.’

Both young men laughed.

‘Yes, Area 51. Why not. It does exist, you know.’

‘So it is said.’

‘And so it does. Your father has been there more than once. He had a good friend stationed there. I won’t say which branch of the government, but a close friend I also happen to know from Vietnam. He had become a very important, a very powerful person. He was in on the drone project from the very beginning. Your father was up there with him, drinking at Sam’s Bar, lo, and they were going over the drone idea, back in the earliest days, and your father, shooting from the hip, happened to mention that this thing, which as far as anyone had yet conceived would look much like an airplane, ought to be blind, that it would be all the more fearsome were it to be blind—that is, windowless. His friend had made a sketch on a bar napkin and it had windows, and your father quite naturally asked why it needed windows if there was no pilot. And he imagined how it would appear to its victims, the extra bit of terror it would inspire by appearing…further removed from humanity, I suppose you could say, he conceived of a monstrous insect face, which is not so far off what ensued. It was a brilliant idea, lo, and he was credited with the patent, the patent for the windows, or lack of windows. A funny way to make money, really, getting paid, in effect, for something that does not exist: the windows of the drone. I don’t know the math off the top of my head, lo, but you can imagine—the expense of those weapons, and a percentage of each one made. Your father, Drake, was a billionaire. You, Drake, are now a billionaire.’

‘Well,’ Drake drew out his response thoughtfully, ‘I figured I’d have enough to get by.

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THE RAT OF THE NAM YUNG, a tale of Dien Bien Phu

6965411368_00fdfbeff3From Chapter 31 of The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, the tale of one who was there at Dien Bien Phu, which should have marked the end of the war in Vietnam in 1954, and precluded scores of US atrocities like the recent bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz:

The sunset into the Pacific must have been spectacular on this cloudlessmost of crepuscules, the crowd on the balcony, three making them that, all watching its progress as conversation formulated subintestinal; all watched the sun with glancing flickers at the waves in their insistent irregularity, their magic trick of sound grown trite yet not irritating—but neither soothing—not much different, Drake reflected as the sun continued its reflection, as cars passing on a busy street down below an apartment in a city on the east coast. A mood was formulating like the gathering of storm clouds they were lacking, a mood that shrank from light, that would remain on a wood floor as dawn forced the doors, would shrink in the light like a planked cephalopod, perceptibly but not enough to deny its nocturnal shenanigans. Before long dark would be replete with a midst-wave silence that would be broken by the cetaceatic sonors of giant ships, pushing their heavy opacities north towards frigider waters. Then a voice would find itself besieged by night-triggers, brought on by whisky and a whiff of misanthropy if it not be homophobia in its original skirts, and the words would begin slowly to find unseen currents, like pipesmoke, that could not escape the ears of the two listeners, whose need for these words would come as a surprise similar to that of sudden slumber, and a sort of slumbering it would be, a monoformission defiant of will.

‘I love watching the sunset into the Pacific, lo,’ Nordgaard remarked. ‘The worst days of my life were spent watching the sun set over jungle mountains.’

‘In Vietnam?’

‘Mostly.’

A rogue wave brought water up the sand to where it fringed into the light.

‘The worst was in 54.’

‘You were there in 54?’

‘Of course.’

‘No at…’

‘Yes, Dien Bien Phu.’

‘You were at Dien Bien Phu?’

‘Of course—I led a unit of Montagnards…they were my size…more or less, mostly more, but not so much so.’

‘You fought for the French?’

‘Yes, though I hated the fucking French. They were the worst bastards I ever came across. But, yes, lo, I wound up on their side.’

Several waves met the sand without interdicting the silence formed by the last words.

‘Bastards, I tell you. During the worst of it, not that every day wasn’t the worst of it, they decided to charge an Algerian unit with cowardice. Well, I’ll tell you, those ‘cowards’ stood up to the French. Their platoon leader said, “Then you’ll have to shoot every one of us, because each man is as brave as the rest.” The French backed straight down. Worse yet, if you read about the battle—‘

‘I have.’

‘–it’s the Algerians who get the worst of it time after time.

‘Fucking Maggots!

‘Maggots…there’s your story of Dien Bien Phu—maggots. There were maggots everywhere. Maggots are worse than lice, for they are bred on death—even if you could for a moment forget that you were absurdly trapped in a valley of death you would see a maggot waving up from some unexpected spot, directly out of the Nam Yum even, breaking the surface next to your foot, to be sure, to insist, lo, that you know where you are, that you are living utterly without reason and solely of maggoty providence, that before long you, too, would be sprouting maggots. Every trench was filled with body parts, I don’t care what you read about the crowded, unsanitary hospital—there was no way to collect all the corpses, all the pieces of corpses, all the enemy corpses, all the pieces of enemy corpses. A hand to hand fight, and there were dozens of them, corpses everywhere, you think the French cleared the hills of every corpse? Soon as they beat off an attack they were under artillery fire again, or white phosphorous and artillery, recoilless rifle fire…human flesh and organs rotted everywhere, and the maggots multiplied in biblical proportions. And the maggots were on the side of the locals. They never went crawling up the hills after the Viet Minh, they went after us. You could clear an area five feet in diameter before you slept, when you could sleep, and you’d wake up crawling with maggots who couldn’t wait til you were dead. There were in your ears, you mouth, your nostrils, your asshole, trying to burrow into your cockhole, lo. Day after fucking day, night after fucking night. Every other trench war, and this was trench warfare—the French had no fortress, lo, they conducted the battle underground and on the bare hills—you read about rats and lice. In this case it was maggots. Maggots running the battle, and maggots thriving on the dead and stupidity of the French. As for rats, I became one of them: that’s what they called us—the rats of the Nam Yum.

‘You have to understand. We knew war, jungle war. And we began to know modern war, disproportionate war, in which one side, in this case our side, had all the technological advantages, the airplanes, the splinter bombs, the napalm, the white phosphorous—we, or they, the French, used it first. They terrorized the enemy at every turn. And we mopped up. Or we marched into deadly jungle battles. But we risked our lives in ways we understood. We knew the jungle, the Viet Minh knew the jungle. It was a fair fight. An honest fight. Dien Bien Phu was a colossal idiocy that made of us a mockery. A mockery of maggots for the maggots to send to their deaths. I was a sniper. And my side in the battle of Dien Bien Phu was no side for a sniper. The enemy was in the jungle and we were on the open ground. Our landing field was in range of their artillery. It was like a game for them, blowing up our planes. And they had artillery they weren’t supposed to have—that’s what everybody knows about the battle—but, lo, what they also had was excellent air defense, flak and whatnot. The French could do nothing with their planes but drop supplies, and they had to drop a lot of supplies, too, because half of what they dropped went to the Viet Minh. The dropped men, too, and I watched some of the paratrooper drops: man after man floating like a clown, a target for gunners of every kind, riddled with bullets on the way down, landing dead in the branches of trees that had yet to be chopped down and used for firewood. The Viet Minh were invisible; their artillery was invisible. What use, lo, was I in such a case. I had virtually nowhere to hide and was supposed to shoot at an enemy that was perfectly camouflaged. On occasion I could shoot at flashes. But flashes are flashes and by definition they are extinguished before you can shoot them. I got a few. And that was always a pleasure. Picking out a spot a mile away, a hint of unnatural movement of foliage, sometimes hours of stillness, watching, and then the unmistakable appearance of skin, facial skin, between two leaves, skin that has no idea it has suddenly become exposed. And wasting no time I squeeze off a shot and I have another silent personal victory. No one on my side knows, and no noise carries the distance even should the enemy cry out—which would be rare, for near every shot meant instant death.

‘Instant death…but no maggots. They had the high ground. They had the jungle for hundreds of miles all around. Maybe they had a leach problem. We had those too. Especially when we became the rats. But leeches were a pleasure in comparison to the maggots; in fact, for me leeches were a pleasure of their own accord. I enjoyed pealing them off my body. I liked them, lo, for what they were trying to do to survive. They were honest bloodsuckers. Compare them to the French, notorious wasters of blood. Flinging man after man into pointless, hopeless battle, blood wasted. Blood and body for maggots, not leeches.

‘Of course “flinging man after man” was a tactic of the Viet Minh, the “human wave” assaults, which failed again and again by body count, yet succeeded again and again to terrify the French and if more Viet Minh were killed, a greater percentage, lo, of the French whole were killed, and the Viet dead did not take their maggots with them. The war of the maggots was a slaughter, a complete victory, lo. The French were brave, and so they sent their men to the hills for slaughter again and again, and every time the maggots were victorious.

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‘It was perhaps a month before the final Viet Minh victory that I became a traitor. My men, the Montagnards, the Tai people of nearby mountains, they could have been on either side for all it mattered to them, they understood little of what was happening and they turned to me for explanation. Rational explanation was called for, lo. And what rational explanation was available to me. Who were the French? Why were they here? Begin there, lo, and see how far you get with mountain tribals. Airplanes were astonishing enough, veritable miracles. Why then did they drop hideous death bombs? Why did they, if they were French, drop so much materiel to the Viet Minh? Why were they left on the airstrip in plain sight so the Viet Minh could destroy them. Did they come all the way from France? They came from near Hanoi. We have heard of Hanoi, what are the French doing there? What is this white air? From where these bombs? These bullets? You want us to do what? That hill, and what is her name? We cannot even pronounce that name. A woman’s name? Huguette? That is not the name of that hill? When men go to that hill, the Viet Minh attack them in droves—leaving maggots ten-thousand fold for each body, lo. When they go to that hill they are hit by bombs that blow them apart, spreading the maggots far and wide, lo. Why would we go to that hill. We will not go to that hill. How was I to explain that they must go to that hill? By that time I was not inclined to. I was inclined to admit: we are stuck here, lads. What are we to do? We will not go to that hill. My boss became impatient with us and I slit his neck as he slept, careful to leave the maggots a wet, dank, inviting environment, lest we be followed. I slit his throat in his sleep and I led my men to join the rest of what are called interior deserters—and what the French were calling the rats of the Nam Yum. Most of us were on the banks of the Nam Yum as far north and very near to the air field, which initially provided us protection from the west because useless as the airfield was it was at least an open space and all eyes were on it. Up the hill on the other side were the Viet Minh, but they soon learned we were no longer meaningful targets, we were noncombatants, and in addition they could use us, for we were expert at obtaining supplies. With great courage, the disgusted French thought, we who had not the courage to draw maggots had the courage to venture into dangerous areas where supplies were dropped. But of course there was no danger, for the Viet Minh knew of every move we made. And we bartered materiel for food, by their mercy, or if it were food we ate it. We had everything a human sacrifice could want—food, relative safety from maggots—oh the maggots did come, lo, but found little on which to feast and few reproductive zones, no mountains of flesh for their orgies. They appeared, as I said, anywhere and everywhere, but only to remind us of what the humans were up to and how these follies made for them a paradise. And the rats—lo, those we ate. We were the rats of the Nam Yum! We had everything, yes, but of course, little shelter from the constant damp, the rain, but little, balled up in holes in the banks, heat—for it is cold, lo, in the high jungle when there is much rain, when the mud never dries. We even had fish. Why the fish had not high-finned it out of there I will never know. Perhaps they were victims of over-crowding, but it is a wonder, lo, to see what a handgrenade in a river pool will bring to the surface, and the taste of a giant catfish grilled in a carefully sheltered fire, perhaps the whiff of grilled delicacy advancing in drifts and coils like white phosphorous towards the nostrils of the starving besieged…And they were starving, towards the end they had nothing left, little ammunition, nothing but French courage, which I would define as akin to an automaton walking off a cliff. While all the time, we ate, well enough, slept…slept in discomfort, in fits, some in lunatic spasms, some to wake up dead—it was after all only a relative holiday…You are wondering if they were mountain people why did they not escape through enemy lines. Many did, many did. But to uncertainty. Our Viet Minh friends nearest may happily allow us to pass, but from there through dense hilly jungle and cordon after cordon of Viet Minh, what were the chances of gaining freedom? What were the chances of capture, torture, death? Better to wait to the end—it could not be far off and it was not far off. Though neither was death. I was burrowed in with a Moroccan one night, we had eaten, we were happy—considering, considering. We went to bed huddled together for warmth and I awoke in the morning to find him dead. Seemingly healthy the night before, he was now a corpse. A corpse will not keep a man warm for long. I took him across the Nam Yum and carried him up the bank and left him in the ditch that ran along the airfield. The day after, a rare sunny day, I sat on the bank, contemplating…what? Did I philosophize on the condition of man vis a vis hierarchy, animosity, murderous nature, the weak, the strong, the stupid? Perhaps, for long, lo, were the hours and many a time long were the days, the Viet Minh entrenching a strangulating circle about the French positions—if you could call them that. The French on the radios all day pleading, planning, for salvation from the air. More troops! More supplies! Such faith in technology that surely to the very end they believed their technology would save them. And as we now know, and believe me I suspected it then, the salvation was to take the form, some hoped, of nuclear weapons supplied by the Americans. This I feared and so put out of my mind. Already it was absurd. Not only Korea, but also the Second World War had demonstrated the futility of air power against masses on the ground, yet for the French that was the key: air power versus masses on the ground. How could they lose? The same way the Americans had in Korea. By not winning, first, and at Dien Bien Phu, by humiliation they would lose, by elimination they would lose, by the triumph of maggots they would lose! What innumerable thoughts were available to me as I sat on the bank that sunny day, gazing at the paradox of the ever flowing river, which the Greek said could not be stepped into to twice and be the same. Go tell that Spartan that if it is not the same, it is not much different. I sat on the bank and the sun glinting on the river and I looked just upstream and a glint caught something, a white patch far off, heading downriver, and I was lost in thought, and, lo, after some time I chanced to glance again, and what, lo, did I see, but a great white mass closer, approaching me, as I felt it then so that I now grew apprehensive. Understand, lo, that we were all insane in our own ways to our own degrees, or equally so, with but different means of persevering as if not completely out of our minds, perhaps because the environment itself was commensurately insane–and so the mass was come for me! Now when I looked away it was a deliberate act and I was immediately drawn back to the white mass, closer now, close enough I could see now that it was a thing alive, that it was writhing, and as I could see it writhing it had drawn much nearer and I could soon see it was writhing as a population of maggots writhe, and indeed it was a mass of swimming maggots, as I calculated come from the direction of that very, and very, dead Moroccan who had found his death in my proximity, and now was coming to take me back to his maggoty ditch, had sent his army of maggots for me! A hand grenade, lo! I scrambled up the bank in panic and snatched a grenade from an Algerian gangster, ran to the bank and tossed into the middle of the mass while it was yet fifteen meters off, and blew them apart, into the sky, which therefore became our nightmare, a rain of maggots, at the fringe of which was the fire where sat the Algerian gangster and within which was I, I with maggoty guts, and maggots enduring on my helmet on my clothes. I ran mad into the river, up river of the rain, and I stripped and clawed and scrubbed and wiped, and awoke some day or days later, that same Algerian gangster mopping my head in the rain.

‘”It’s over,” he said, “let’s head for the hills.”’

The waves had risen and by now all three were underwater, contemplating the vast distances and close proximity of event attenuate and immediate that sank neath these same waters.

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more Wild West! Including shitstorms, the Siskiyou trail, and 107 things to do in a mining town Whorehouse!

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.

‘How?!’

Enough of the downed of the deluge spread through the thornage not near nough was left to shove the shit down up and over.

‘Easy!’

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?’

‘What!’

‘Gimme yor axe!’

‘What for!’

‘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.

‘Where’s yern?’

‘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…

Aint so purty the gettin out West

Eighteen  THE OREGON TRAIL

 

 

Standing washing himself in the south fork of what used to be called the little Moose River, Jeffers Phoeble looked from Tom Gravel’s vantage up on the bank to be made entirely of taut flesh; that is, other than the genitalia that hung like a dead bird, skinned, carried for times of bad faunal hunt luck. He was brown as an Injun, stretched and wrinkled both, his white hair down to the middle of his back. He washed himself like a woman, Gravel thought, taking his time, even though the water was freezing. Gravel’s bath had consisted of little more than submersing himself before hopping out making whooping sounds. Summer was a lot warmer back in Ohio, where the water warmed along with the sky, but at least there were river otters gamboling about hereabouts.

Barefoot and all, Phoeble even sort of lady-hopped up the bank when he’d had enough, his beaner, as Gravel called such, putting up quite a horse show. And since the first thousand miles from Missouri to Oregon seemed focused on little more than the groin area, Gravel thought little of making a joke of the nude mountain man’s outfit.

‘Them three’s looking like to conspire an escape the way they come with ya up the mound all going everwhich ways.’

Phoeble looked him asquint, deciding.

‘Spose yer pullpole’s made a gold, then, is it, n yer balls is Chinee jade.’

What a shame that history, that necessary inadvertence, that all-encompassing swarm of smarm and harm, that categorical march of breached boundaries, what a shame that history is, nasty paradox, hidden only from the historical. Young Tom Gravel, whom Spengler would have called a historyless peasant—but not yet, no, nearly a century: of history!: must first pass—was off to make history, was making history, was being history, his humility but an ignorance, the ignorance that Braudel would call a quotidian economic mulish path but simple taken, yet who is capable of determining that this young man, now partnered with mountain man extraordinaire Jeffers Phoeble, post history, had not witnessed that advent of a particular type of murder to the west once wild. He did not actually see the murder take place, but he did indeed witness the hanging, and was central to the prevention of a second murder, that of Mr. Phoeble himself, enemy of darkness and evil in his direct simplicity, his taint right ifn isrong. Like others before him, Jeffers Phoeble used his skills learnt as a solitary man in the wildest of wildernesses to make a living guiding pilgrims, one might say, along the Oregon Trail, from Independence, Missouri, to the general region of that foul fort Vancouver. One might make a distinction here, one might pause to consider that this in itself was not so much history as the slow dying of an idea, the slow spread of detritus in the shallow fetid dying of a mighty wave, on the surface a febricantic slapdash to Oregon for fruit, to California for elements, yet upon vaster distance of glance but the hopping of shrimplike weak creatures of the shallows now in the shallower uncertain whether to go up or down. Nonetheless aspects of the inevitable stand as footnotes, and such would be that specific premeditated, purely evil form of murder that speaks of the vacuity that remains in man once the thrust for gain has scraped such as gallantry and sunlight from his innards such that overactive brains sick with excess of psychomental backwash roiling from confinement direct bodies that function ungoverned by that which this final of creatures rejected in fear.

The wagon train consisted of seventeen separate farmer families and one pair, Bart and Pete Dodger, of river gamblers, among which included 23 firing weapons, three of which were pistols of Colt manufacture, Colt Patersons, five shot revolvers, not exactly rejects but sold off by deserters, one of which was a gift to Tom Gravel from his ma, who had so recently buried his pa, the other two of which were in the iniquitous hands of the Dodger boys. For trail guide Jeffers Phoeble this was weapon enough, for the Mandan had been quiet some time, the Black Foot were sickly, and only the Cheyenne stood in their path before they reached possible Sioux raiders, but them had been said to have split north/south, so it was the Cheyenne before the Flatheads, who hadn’t never attackit no one. Ah…fuck it, just fuck it. The story was best told by Phoeble to Gravel the day after the wagon train split up, rather was run off by Phoeble, or Phoeble and Gravel were abandoned by the wagon train, and we’ll get to a cleaner version of that version by and by.

The first day out, the day they gathered after crossing the Missouri even though chances were they’d have to cross it again, and they set off in a near single file line of wagons, men on horses, cows and pigs on foot, chickens making their escapes from out covered wagons, holding up the whole train while little boys and girls made to fetch them, that day Tom Gravel approached Phoeble in order to insinuate himself into a sort of apprenticeship. He was a seventeen year old lad whose father had recently died, had three brothers to run the farm, none of whom seemed too sorry to see their dreamy brother who wandered the woods for long afternoons at a time while the rest worked the farm even though he was a willing and hard worker when he and work came together direct, decide to set off for adventures west. Gravel liked animals, all kinds, and though he wanted to learn to shoot the ones that allowed him to eat—he was without squeam—he derived a great deal more pleasure just watching them, particularly beavers and otters, because you could, I mean they didn’t tear ass off like deer and the like, and opossums, which you could play with for hours they were so slow and perhaps dumb. In fact, the brothers were so satisfied with the arrangement, Tom’s departure, they allowed ma to make him a present of Pa’s near new Colt Paterson.

Tom liked his pistol, but what he really wanted was a rifle, to go off hunting with the guide, that Jeffers Phoeble, and so he approached him the first day out and conversed as such.

‘Sir, if you can use a hand I sure would like to be your shootin partner.’

‘Kinyunt?’ Phoebles asked.

‘What?’

‘Kinyunt?’

‘What?’

‘Ase kinyunt?’

‘I’s sorry, I just don’t unnerstan.’

‘Ye deef, boy. A say, kinya unt?’

‘Can I hunt?’

Here Phoebles looked up to where God should have been.

‘What a sayd.’

‘I kin learn but I got no rifle, so if you can let me use yer spare…’

And the kindly Phoebles took him on then and there, even going so far as to buy the boy a nag.

Tom turned out not only to be a fine shot, but fearless as well, and a good all round hand who could fashion a new axle, attach a wheel, and was strong enough to life the back end of a wagon out of a rut. He was quietly popular amongst the migrants, though he seldom spoke to anyone at length but Phoeble, to some degree for his shyness but more so in that folk tended to work hard and close, like as if being thrown together in this fashion and thus having to share 2000 miles of trek together did not weather the stubborn from them and they were used to being amongst folk who just weren’t right, which is to say, not yet what the new nation had intended. They were right to suspect, but none could imagine the remorseless and absurd meeting in such a fashion as it did near halfway through Wyoming when the events that broke up the group, divorced it from its guide and one of its best hands, occurred in their serpentine fatalism, events best described by Phoebles to Tom with the help of some more modern phraseology, which I turn to from frustration at the obscurity of some particularly difficult passages that I believe I have at least captured the essence of.

After dressing himself, Phoeble began to explain what he had just told Gravel would have to wait until after his bath, when they would tie up their horses and ambule about seeking antelope:

Naturally, Tom, you being young and all, you didn’t take no notice of the goings on in the camp, other than ye takin ta mooning over that Suzanna McGovern and maybe noticing she had eyes fer the boy Jacob Sorenson, son of the man Lars McGovern partnered up with, Paddy Sorenson, which I take for natural, though when you warnt looking she did give you the looksee now and then, but you hadn’t much chance agin that strapping handsome lad as you got a bit too much clear enough wild in ya, and whilst a woman likes that, too, what she had for the taking, knowing she can play with it like a toy all the way to Orrygon, something you’ll learn about in time which is called forebelaying the pleasure, which is sometimes as good as the pleasure itself with the right woman, damned cursed few have I found in my lonesome life of hard labor and travail, cold and hunger, pissass guns and damp powder, murderin Brittos and theevin Injuns…

I knowed it, you knowed it near as much, but what you didn’t know was that churchified wench be she but a teen is of the natural type can’t help but put out the scent invites the men even them what repussles her. So that’s whar in comes that Dodger boy, that Ross—

Ross? There’s Bart and Pete, but ain’t no Ross. There was that quiet feller with the sickly wife and all the kids, always bringin up the rear. Believe his name to be Ross, Ross Springboot.

Well I don’t give a raykoon’s fart what the name was, it was the one with the black hair, the—

They both have black hair.

Fuck my blind crack’s squintineyeball, then—the one all crookbacked like a febral dog, a rabid retchet mongrel—

Well that’s the younger one, Pete.

Then it’s Pete!

Bart’s the older, bigger—

Kantrammitsayd it’s Pete! Pete! Let me tell the story would you? Whucha never notice was Pete wants this darling baddern anyone n e’s a meanun, can see that right off, I know you did, but what you ain’t seed us his gutheavin lusters fer the girl. Second day out, second day on the trail, camp at night and Pete stepped on Jacob’s hand by the fire pretendin like he dint notice it, already the spite swelt in him like pus in a rudgeboil. Ever day affer that I watchim cause I know when trouble come down the trail aint but what we got fer law an when a young girl is involved the law runs with the rising blood ifn you are not careful, n ever day some way or tuther Pete shown his hand, and I seen grizzlers, naysay I seen wolves with less murder in the eye than Pete lookin it Jacob. We was notso far from them Dakoty hills when Pete saw them two close together talkin back of the Sorenson wagon, nobody lookin they thought, Pete stopped in tyin his horse to a tree, n me watchin Pete, n they spoke with heads close together like horses drinking at the trough and she let out a hoot of laughter, threw her head back all carefreeless like n Pete’s ears was red, and that very same night after community supper Jacob off n went to drop turd, Pete and Ross was—

Bart.

Bart and Pete was off with they own whiskey by a tree n I saw this: Pete saw Jacob off into the woods and made to falla him when Bart grabbed his arm and there was a hard muttering dispute between them that ended with Bart giving Pete a good hard slap across the back of the head and Pete just said You didn’t have to do that, but that was the end of it for that night at least. (Maybe drop the vernacular entire? At least for now?) Each night after that was more tense, only you, probably you were masturbating (he actually used the expression, ‘trying to yank the snake out the hole’) away your despair and you’re too young to really understand the environment around you. I don’t mean to say you’re selfish, but you just aren’t self-aware enough to be aware of other selves. Well I survive by knowing how to read a group and by god the second day out I swore this would be my last time because I knew not only that it was likely to end badly, but also I sensed my own life was imperiled by the dynamics of the situation. And you know just from one look at some men like this Dodger varmint and you know the best thing to do there n then is to cut him a second smile neath the first, but ya jest caint, ya caint do it fer nothing for no prophet moves the hangman, n damded if I dint wait too long and make one mistake going off on that final hunt that now I know Pete got Bart to get that Lyle McCrayder to suggest, lyin about seein a herd a anteelope—they or Pete musta knowd how I would take the thing and maybe even that I was watching, and here’s where I made my mistake: the night before I saw Jacob and Suzanna go off separately and knew right away where they went, which warnt far and they wasn’t gone long, but I knew the thing was ready to burst like lava from a carbooncle, n shoulda bin on my guard better—fer whilst them two rabbits was gone, Pete was fidgeter than a blind cat on a skillet, Bart even oncet held him down with his hand on Pete’s shoulder, and soon as they came back, about fifteen minutes apart, say, Pete calmed his body but looked like he was already watching a murder in his eyes. I saw him watching himself bangin Jacob’s head on a rock, I swear to the truth of that.

See here, the clever thing about them two pups disappearing was that Jacob come back first, which is less suspicious if you know what I mean. And therein lies the tragedy. Maybe the first time they just experiment with a kiss, and maybe they agree that they wait til they get to Orrygon afore marriage, and wait to marry before fornicating, but with younguns like them nature will force the issue, and one kiss if it be the first is one following day of thinking about nought but the next kiss which will last longer and will involve the rubbery of bodies and will certainly create a bloodswell in both parties that will not be bungholed up with a cork, so if you ask me that second night when they met they were steaming hotblooded and that Pete was himself bulge-eyed with lustbloodlust and crazy as a crosseyed coon with a thorn on his butthole, and we know where it happened, that they chose just the right place, just out of hearing should there be a moan or a yelp, and Pete like you saw went down early as trickery, and you dint have no idear what was going on til morning, or before sunrise and all the screaming, and we both know what happened and we both know if I’d been there either there woulda been no hanging or there woulda been a murder then a hanging, and if I coulda stalled some sense into them folk I coulda found a fragment of Pete’s gun and maybe there woulda been a hanging of one brother and a shootout with the other, but what happened—to which not even Pete as participant witnessed entire, much as Jeffers Phoeble imagined it, was one scene nature and one scene maybe nature, too, pity the living of every kind, a grassy clearing, a moonlit eve, a bank of raspberry bushes to conceal Pete, a half hour of love talk between Jacob and Suzanna, Jacob swollen full unsure what way to move because he sure as hell couldn’t lay entirely still, and Suzanna like pulp squeezing out of herself, her nipples like grapes, her hips shifting like nervous to calm the lewd, before finally no more can she bear it, and she undid her blouse with her eyes hypnotizing Jacob who would only look at what she revealed when her own eyes led his down as they slowly did, and at a hint of an invite he as if sucked by maelstrom slapped softly into Suzanna and the kiss was animal, wild animal, what neither would have known and both knew would remain a kiss and breast grabbing venture for some time and that only this time for another time and time after time this would be their life and how do you stop? Well you have that skirt and them things underneath it and that swollen pecker that would pop for now there was certainly a place for Jacob’s restlessness, a ride on a thigh that knew by nature precisely what was riding and how to be ridden, and there were several minutes of catching of breath and no more kissing, a mutual sense of being maybe too loud or something wrong, maybe too much time had passed, for neither had the slightest idea how much time had passed, and even Pete had no idea for perhaps it was even longer for him, and knowing tomorrow night would bring all the same and more, a brief mutual deeply contented goodbye was said and Jacob went back to camp. Suzanna lay on her back chest heaving in a sort of remembrance of ecstasy, an oozing of desire that would require the time she anyway had to wait and Pete was on her, hand on her mouth and she bit his hand and her yelp was cut short by a blow that stunned her for he had punched her forehead but he saw she was going to let burst another yelp and quick as a riverboat deathscrape he had caved her skull in with his gun butt and only then did he tear her clothes down to skin and pull his own pants and such down and find her still lubricated by her moments with Jacob and so he spent perhaps a full half an hour inside her ejaculating twice before he saw the sense his kind sometimes sees and hated more than he had ever hated in his life, hated that bashed in skull and he went into a frenzy of gun butt bashing, ruining the gun butt and rendering the head of the sprightly Suzanna the wrong kind of pulp. Spent he stood. He picked the bits of gun he saw, went and found a rock, and without much more than a certain resentment at a chore unspoken for he bashed her a few times with the rock—the unlucky fact that someone, who was it, that sickly feller, that Ross was up making tea for his sickly wife and saw Jacob sneak back into camp looking grateful he wernt caught and before long by that motherinstinct Mrs. McGovern woke up and worried after her daughter and a general todo like you sayd, the search directed by a quiet hint from that Ross feller and all goin everwhich way as it coulda bin Injuns, and by the luck yer youth and calm disposition waited it out, took a leak off in the BartPete direction, heard said they would have to gun me down if I came back and which is dam sure right, and off you go after me when what you should have done was stay there to tell everbody to wait for old Jeffers as I was the guide after all, and as you have seen was the only one with sense to look the locality of the murder over with some percepence, finding three wood bits could only come from a gun butt and woulda seed if Pete could produce his gun, but now you know what frenzy kin do in four hours, that poor boy hangin dead from that tree by first light face beat to burstin first, his own pa without a mark on his body, his own ma feelin more shame than instinct, and we both come on the scene gun drawn and I damn near outta disgust took a few shots, but who to kill? Bart and Pete, they aint tall there is to it, they caint do what was done what without the likes of any folks who be rusht to a hangin job, folks can be marniplated like beaver traps set by the beavers emselves.

The sun was high in the east, to their backs and the gorge below ran nearly south-north, perfect conditions for a shot across with Phoeble’s old buffler gun at the mountain goat Gravel had in his sights. Still the shot was more than two hundred yards, maybe five hundred, but the goat was standing erect and still, on a ledge that must have been but inches wide for it looked more like it was floating in the air. How did it get up there? Where was it going? Maybe shooting it was doing it a favor, because from where Gravel lay the goat seemed as if it would be standing there until it wasted away and must fall from lack of strength to stand and no place to lay down. No creature would be bringing it food. Down below was rock, all rock for most of the way across the valley floor, where a narrow stream lined with willows trickled a midsummer day’s stream. Trout would be trapped in deeper pools. Gravel was naked to the waist, which seemed a good idea until he lay down and found that contact with each of the multifarious microscopic and big as weed earth yieldings produced its own particular itch. Yet he had to remain perfectly still to shoot true. The more he thought I’ve waited too long already the more he became convinced he had time to wait til the goat starved and fell. Maybe the goat blinked—that would be movement.

Click/bangEcho—about the time the beast heard the shot: and down about five hundred yards fell the goat bouncing once off the bare and barely sloping cliff, landing dead on a pile of boulders.

‘Got him!’

‘That you did, boy, that you did.’

The swelling pride had no connection whatsoever with the life or death of the animal or the hunger or lack of hunger of Gravel and Phoeble. Had the target been the sphincter of a dead Black Foot splayed in target he would have felt the same. And to Gravel’s credit, even had he missed he would have remained buoyant enough; he was learning, learning from the best (as far as he knew, as far as anyone knew, as far as I know), and he was happy, happy enough to stand and face back beneath the sun at the vast basin/range and without tempting confusion admire, further swell with pride, empathetic pride for the land itself, perhaps largely admiring the landscape for what it could accomplish with such a limited range of color.

Only two days had elapsed since that horrific morning when he and Phoebles had ridden into camp prepared for them who were prepared for them, bringing about a quick stalemate allowing for the nausea brought on by absorbing the fact of the hanging, the dead boy hanging there in the tree, the innocent boy hanging there in the tree—for neither yet knew the specifics of the crime and neither would have believed Jacob guilty even had his own mother testified against him—the rest of the camp in a rough lasso formation about the tree, the hanging but minutes concluded, wet shit dripping from a bare dead foot. That nausea passed quickly replaced by the bizarre: aside from the most directly involved, parents of dead and dead, murderous brothers, maybe that Lyle McCrayder who seemed to have fallen in with them (he had not, and though he feared them enough to keep his peace, as soon as they reached civilized Orrygon he quietly left them with a great sense of relief), and then a bovine herd, 15 or so adults looking expectantly at their guide as if they had no more than reached a clear fork in the road.

For the rest of his life Gravel would remember word for word, not to mention the style of it, the moral heft of it, the response of Jeffers Phoeble, dismounting his horse, gently grasping the reins (Gravel followed suit), said, ‘Best be movin on for mores dead. Sgo, Tom’, and they led their horses back toward the way they had come, ignoring the butbutbuts and whatwhatwhats until it was clear to all that guide and migrants had come to a divining rod in the road.

Once well out of sight, Gravel and Phoebles made a fire and ate prime slices of the deer Phoebles had strapped over his horse, and after it was clear the train had pulled out they returned to retrieve their own supplies—which had been left untouched on the meanest chance Phoebles was out there someone just itchin for someone to touch them—and inspected the scene of the murder, finding three bits of gunbutt wood.

The east side of the gorge had an easier slope, if not a trail, and the two men, after long looks back thataway, began moving down into the gorge, which Phoebles assured Gravel would curve northwesterly and after some miles they would be a short hump from the Snake River, which, if they like, could be their route into Orrygon and Phoebles’ final stop now that his employment contract was up, which would be at the homestead of his one true friend, Gravel bein more like a nephew, Hector Robitaille, the man who had survived a bear attack—howeverso, if Tom wanted to divert some and have a look for Black Ass it was said he roamed much the same territry as that which was where Hector was near slain. Though Black Ass had yet to kill another human, by now he been seen any number of time plus the number of times he had not been seen but had been claimed to have been seen which was still plenty and verified for a certain his enormous size. For now, though, the main concern was easing down to the valley floor without a horse slipping, which Phoebles concentrated on more than Gravel would ever know, for he was daydreaming after flying grasshoppers, the big gray kind he and his brothers called Indiamen even though Indiamen could not fly, named after a photograph one of them had seen in a shred of newspaper that had entered their lives surreptitiously as packing material for a piece of fruit or some such that depicted a giant vessel that was off to India with a bulging load of civilization. The difference was back in Ohio where the ground was level you could catch these buggers by simply letting them tire themselves for the ground was flat and their flights short hope into which the grasshoppers in each harbored all their hopes only to be set upon and hop into flight again and again until caught in order in the case of Tom Gravel to be released again, in the case of Edward, Quill, and Festus Junior to be put in a sack with the others, brought home eventually to be tied with sewing thread very carefully about the waist underwing and used as playthings for the tough barn cats that seemed not to mind that so much energy was expended honing talents without catching anything they cared to eat. But here, going down the slope, it soon became apparent to Tom that capturing one of these Indiamen of the west was a matter of luck that did not occur, for he would have to scrabble upwards fifteen feet and suddenly downwards usually a step and a half before falling to cling to the earth in order not to fall as far as Phoebles was so carefully ensuring the horses did not fall.

One in a while, Tom would stop and scan the hill, the rockface, the stream, the distances, the sky, and wonder at the emptiness, the vast space that was alive with, as far as he could see, nought but the tiny creatures, darting lizards, ants of indubitable industry, beetles and their coevals under the occasional rock he turned, nothing even so large as a rattler, which was the one creature Phoebles told him he might want to watch, though thus far he had yet to spy one. Had it not been for that lone mountain goat, Tom might have imagined a world in which the Indiamen held sway. Down they went, following the trail topographed by nature, Gravel trailing behind, his mind entrailing his youth, enthralled and coiling about in a vermicularity of emotions, smells, thoughts, remembrances, atmospherics without nostalgia, without the rolling of entrails accompanied by loss, hopelessness, or dread, alive with purpose simple, clean, if indirect, and within purview, alive without grasshoppers panic, alive bespoken by the acidic plaint of entrails invoked by fresh kill, and now, at the bottom of the long slope, in the narrow valley itself, by the splashing of a large rainbow trout impooled by evaporation, the pool pellucid, the trout engorged in colors, Gravel hopping off a tuft of grass into the pool to splash and wrassle and sport with the fish while Phoebles went off to inspect the dead billy goat, they valley silent but for the splashing and Gravel grunts, and soon, creating a symphony, barks and ripples of hilarity from the now dancing Phoebles, dancing as if about a fire that lapped at his gonads, the laughter only penetrating Gravel’s sound sense once the fish was gillheld firm, and only then Gravel turning to inspect the surprise spectacle of Phoebles’ laughdance.

‘What? What is it?’ Gravel was laughing now, too, caught up in it.

And finally, hardyharhar, Phoebles managed to mount to his mouth the words, ‘You missed!’

The billy goat had merely been frightened to a fall.

TAIL: TALLIT TAINT PERTY

 

 

Campfire talk overheard, voice of one Pete Dodger

 

…took place in Van Tassel, Wyoming, right round cheer, ranch some 300 thousand or so acres, strickly a cattle operation.  Ross’s half brother was—not Ross, Pete, Burt—Louisville—Ross—Burt! Lewelville, a crustit sunburnt  foreman a the ranch.

So the ranch owner’s daughter come pregnant, and said it must a happened when she was sleep.  All a the ranch hands was called into the ranch house and Rossburt he got him the dubbleass task of determint the crimnal.  After a lot of questions, one guy stood out, dumbass galoot name a Willy Westlake.  He kep on stumblin ansers wrong to question misturd and is on verge to git  assrun out thar,  when miss Bonnie Sue, hired girl, speeks up: “Twernt Willy–thwouda woke her.”

Why, don’t ya git it?

The Wild West (a true story from a novel): What it WAS REALLY LIKE

Chapter Twenty-Six  A SIX-SHOOTER SHOT SIX TIMES

Well Billy Fitzpacker he warnt no packer

Lessn ya mean packin a gun

As the law of the land

He held one in each hand

To shoot down an outlaw on the run

 

This lawman Fitzpacker came across a dirty bushwhacker

Name of Tommy Gravel

Bad move by Gravel for thar warnt no judgin gavel

I bet he wisht he never touched Fitzpacker’s gun

 

Oh the day it was fare

The contest the same

Just shooting down targets

Is a harmless game

And Fitzpacker he won him the game

Fitzpacker won him the game

 

When behind him came Gravel

Who picked Fitzpacker’s pistol

Shot him six times in his frame

Shot him six times in his frame

 

Off Gravel did run to the Californy sun

That coward ran like a outlaw

But Billy Fitzpacker so hated a bushwhacker

He survived and pursued after the thaw

 

It war pretty goddamn soon in a Californee saloon

Fitzpacker ran his man to the ground

He let Gravel draw then shot him in the jaw

N mounted horse and rode home neath the moon

He mounted his horse and rode home neath the mountain mooooooon

                                                             –Traditional western song

William Festus Fitzpacker was no more middle-named Festus than he had been a Texas Ranger, but more than one passing stranger would tell he heard tell of how it was none other than Bill Fitzpacker, that’s aright—William Festus Fitzpacker—who killed more than thirty Messicans, more than fifty Tonkawa, more than a hundred Comanche, some two dozen Apaches and a good eleven bounty criminals for pay which is why they call him or used to a bounty hunter. Bounty.

But that ain’t nothing because you can’t count all them what he shot during the war itself and after on raids rooting out raiders intent on wreaking havoc cross the border some say, believe it or not, warnt legitimate. The border.

I guess it would have been the rambler in him, the boredom of life without danger, that set him on west, they say, some say, through Mexico, along the border, the Apaches maintaining a wide berth—though it goes without saying you could add a couple dozen to his total just by happenstance (was he really known as the Raging Puma of the Sonora?)—and it ain’t true he robbed a bank here and there to pay his way, for no Federales were ever reported on his trail as they would have been sure were he up to criminal ways, which anyway don’t comport with what we already know of this legendary larger than life figger, not to mention which Mexsican authorities were known to employ him to bring in the scalps of recalcitruant Apaches.

‘Three men in this camp are named festus, so why not just add a middle name? Plenty a folks have middle names?’

But, really, though it be said with certainty how likely is it he befriended the legendary outlaw Joaquin Murriata down in Sonora? Sure, plenty people spotted the two and sure enough both are the type you see once and never mistake, what with Fitzpacker’s size and dark Murriata with that scar from eye to ear. And don’t get all het up, it’s just like I’m sayin it’s, what, improbable, unlikely, but then again that’s what these fellers is is unlikely and that’s what makes them legends, but when you think about the odds of them meetin up again, and, you know, given all that happened—and try crossin them mountains and go on down into that valley and say it didn’t happen. What if Murriata was seen again? There’s plenty outlaws and plenty Messican outlaws, plenty more Messican outlaws than other Messicans, and I don’t figger like some it makes no sense does it that Murriata was from Chile, what’d he do, swim up here? no, Fitzpacker broke the gang, shot Murriata through the forehead in Death Valley like they says and then retired havin avenged himself on that miner scumsucking pig and pacifying to the Pacific and nothing left but the quiet life in the city and that, what was it? Gout?

Late morning of a Mexican summer day with the sun hung so low cactus burst one after another like gun shots, a dry, rancid pilgrim rode up to the lone cantina in the shadeless arroyo village Muertefeliz on a dead horse or a horse that died before he could have though he wouldn’t have bothered tethering it to the post that wasn’t there. He stood six foot and five and wore two heavy pistols in a holster slung low enough to mince his gait a mite. He carried a sheathed Bowie knife attached to his belt. Inside the bar, silence wafted, not truly concentric, from a round wood table where sat the fearsome bandit Joaquin Murriata, his table strewn with an autumnal premonition of buzzard feathers that drifted in through the holes in the walls. Anyone knew it was Murriata from the scar that ran from the corner of his left eye to the missing tip of his left ear, but no one was in there to know—they had left and taken their fear with them—until the tall rank stranger strode in, his natural force of primate belying his dehydration, his proximity to death that incidentally did not change upon entering a tavern in Muertefeliz in which the only occupant was Joaquin Murriata, as fierce a bandido as ever shot holes through the lore of the south and west and up into the valleys of California and the foothills of the Sierras. He once shot a priest between the eyes point blank, bullet real. In those days the region was so poor it was said the only way to survive was to die and eat the buzzards that picked at your corpse, so it is with some surprise we note a fat worm in the bottle, half empty, standing before Murriata the bottle standing, the worm standing in the liquid in the bottle that was mostly alcohol though no thicker than the shadows for that fact. All trepidation had been annihilated by heat and the fear that had fled pushing smaller things before it as if a wild wind that dare not pause for gust. Outside the tavern where the cemetery would have been had there been a hill with soil and hope two skeletons beneath their respectless piles of stones discussed the way incident bore down on circumstance.

‘Why did he come to Comala?’

‘Did he come to Comala?’

‘You felt the earth tremble as did I.’

‘Yes…This is not Comala.’

‘Nonetheless…he came.’

‘Yes…yes, and the other also came…eventually.’

‘We exchange them as if they were no more than corpses.’

‘What are they?’

Inside sat two men at one table with one bottle and one worm. One of them emerged alive and he had a scar that ran from the corner of his left eye to the missing tip of his left ear.

I have it on good authority the two ran together for two years before the federales forced them up through California where Murriata formed his gang and continued his lawless ways and Fitzpacker crossed the Sierras with a new story, a clean slate as it were, and better ability with a six-shooter than anybody else at just the time when some law was of need around here. And declare right here and now I am in agreement with the authorities of the time, and I expect that like many of you I spoke with the man in Virginia City or somewhere else and found him well-spoken and in fact would dispute the very tale I tell in that in my opinion I believe he was working as an operative of a higher authority with writ to bring the scourge Murriata represented down entire as he did later accomplish.

So I went down to that village in Mexico and found the ceiling a mere seven feet tall, with a cement roof, or adobe, which may or may not be cement and if it is consists of ground up bones to make the good stuff stretch, and interviewed a witness who said neither was a hunchback, said they was gonna shoot it out in the bar over a cultural insult having to do with a local variety of alcohol but neither could enter the saloon in shooting position, so, like they say as the worm turns, the two was last seen galloping off in search of a saloon with higher ceilings. Having thus given up on collecting a worthy story, I slept that night in the rib bones of Fitzpacker’s dead horse, covered by a blanket bigger than a teepee, and was joined upon my own request by a pretty young thing called Juanita, whose grandfather asked for fewer pesos than I had and with whom I spent the entire night before exhaustion befell me chasing without success of capture that Mexican filly inside the confines of our osteoparadisiacal bedroom.

We seen him up in Hangtown with Bob Carson and Pegleg Smith, gambling at the Pan and Rocker, where he shot Big Bill Pemberton for calling him a cheat and they fell to wrasslin for Big Bill was like a bear and afore they was done two Big Bill got some chewin in on Fitzpacker’s ear. Took three growed men to roll Pemberton off, strong as Fitzpacker was, for the man was like a musken ox of the Himalayan mountain heights, and in all that wrasslin none was tending to the wound in his neck which spouted like a geezer the whole time, not a one of us didn’t leave there without what we had some of the blood of Big Bill Pemberton on us, and like they say about the lucky rattler and the horny toad it was of course Big Bill who was the hangin judge, saving Fitzpacker a lynching because it was next day injuns came, injuns came first and then whilst Fitzpacker organized the defense of the town in from the other side come Murriata and his gang and cleaned out the bank and emptied the jail which was only holdin a couple drifters had insulted Big Bill Grampus over to the Gold Mine. You remember that kind of thing in detail if you make a home of a place, for it was that and only that—remember Grampus and Big Bill Overdew both stuck their heads up over the basin at the wrong time and got arrows right through the skull, I saw the one got Grampus come straight out the back of his head—so the town goverment right there lost sixty percent of its legislature body plus one in the live form of Bill Hyde who was not to be found hair of after the goldless dust had settled and so the damn fool idea of changing the name from Hangtown to Billtown died with it, and the meetin was next day and you know how it is when you have to think of a word right then and there, that paralysizing struck the whole town meetin, which is why we ended up with Placerville, which ain’t so bad if it weren’t such a bad joke so quick, n not one to go about myself I got rifleshot while I was tending to Big Bill and felt it in my leg like a ramming antler (I say leg, but rather up where the whole thing begins to crack like a bloody waterfall I was never afraid of the dark but in the rapid bloody rapids in a shoe a pinniped in a shoe I don’t know how to use flippers it was all I could do to keep in the shoe was good injun leather but good thing is flippers is attached you don’t have em pult by waterdevils and sit thar watching them Harbinger away yer life, though the shoe was well sewed and I don’t know if I’d got past the worst of it when I fall asleep but somehow I knew I was goin u make it.

)

William Festus Fitzpacker returned from his recent venture into California this week, our sources have revealed. Sheriff Fitzpacker again would not reveal the nature of his mission, which some had speculated before his departure involved the dissolution of a certain San Francisco bank into which he had the misfortune of having deposited the fruits of many years of labor. As you recall, our intrepid reporter, Lancet Mudhen, who left behind a sister who remains among us, Miss Florrie Mudhen, now returned to the cities of the Eastern shores, was set upon by the good Mister Fitzpacker on the main street of Virginia City during that interview, emerging with two eyes entirely shut by swelling, and several broken ribs, apologizing profusely for the indelicacy of his assertive questioning right up to the moment his ribs had healed stageworthy. Fortunately, our correspondents did on this the occasion of the lawman’s return manage to interview his confidant, town farrier, plover, and blacksmith Frank Hall, who when he chanced to speak with Mr. Fitzpacker in the Truckee Tavern did have the opportunity to ask after his quest for equalizing matters vis a vis the coward Tom Gravel, at which, we quote the quote of Sheriff Fitzpacker, ‘I am satisfied,’ which we invite our readers to understand as they will.

William Fortsworth Fitzpacker, son of Rory Fitzpacker, later come to fame as William Festus Fitzpacker, first lawman of the territory of Nevada, Indian fighter, veteran of the war with Mexico, survivor of 32 wounds, killer of the dread outlaw Joaquin Murriata, is of interest primarily—at the moment—for his counter migration: that is to say that he was a man of the west who went east to come west, first leaving the Oregon territory in 1845 in the company of the famed horsefilcher, miner, Indian killer, bounty hunter, botanist, and scout Pegleg Smith, whom he met up with in Idaho territory for to travel south where the English did, to join the Taos beaver annihilators, though Fitzpacker’s time amongst the least of the mountain men was short as a New Mexico beaver, for he soon set out to learn the martial ways of those wild new white men who went by the name Texans. From Galveston Island to the Staked Plains, from the Rio Rojo to the Great River, a breed of no nonsense settlers, among them homesteaders, ranchers, murderers, thieves, bowie-knifers, antisocials, Protestants, rickety short-lived infants, hairtriggers, frontiersmen, cuckolds, deliriots, alcoholics, wanderers, antsypantsers, lawmen, sawed-off backshooters, men with fingers like potatoes (Winchesters were their gun), hydrocephaloids, merchants, horsemen, evangelists, cyclopean ruffians, ruffians, barfighters, Romans, bufflers, riverboat renegades, diplomats, the goitered, noctambular misanthropes, Czechs, rapists, booklearned cardsharps, hangmen, opportunists, pregnant teens, negroes, tired Indians, homespun philosophers, kids with no more sense than a fence post, runaway sailors, sawboners, the lymes diseased, hags, dwarves, prostitutes, wagoneers, settlers, sheepmen, cowboys, dogfuckers, coonkillers, warmongers all, you could see it even in the dying infant, the lust for landgrab, the succubi of hate in need of host, eyes vacant as distance, alive as bushwhackers in the landfolds. History relates which and what survived, though little is elaborated vis a vis the Texas joke, the vast territories of Mexico they never wanted that became the provinces of pisspots full of perverts, not to elaborate further than to clarify that a native Texan—not to say a Mexican, not at all, not to say, worse yet, a Comanche, not at all–would prefer a New Mexico and Arizona of Apaches raiding cross borders than a grand canyon in the shadow of Mormons and spineless, louche assgrabbers, a bad joke at that as time grinded, grinding, ground and grinded on, and the same grunting country became more and more of the same groaning country until the air got closer than a tiny shed full of pork and bean farting ranch hands, and the native Texan came to prefer the Mexican and Vietnamese to the them what they was told were like them, like them, and the shootings have never stopped, never will stop, and so there is hope, so there is a winged future to convey to a dying infant, vague visions of dead moths neath a streetlight at dawn, O! hope be not squandered lonesome!

Gold is what I mean to say. Fitzpacker did indeed fight Mexicans and Apaches, but it was gold that brought him west again, for he was young and did not like the smell of dust, the taste of cactus juice, the arrows slung and the horsey dung, and the mites and the bees and the scorpions, and the miles without cunt, and the smell of men, and the sound of fear, and the bold charge into fate fecund and fat with punctures unplanned and pregnant with verisimilitude of dread and drear daydream of man all alike and wrought with reason, and the blonde boy gut shot Shut yer fuckin shatpup noisehole of course yer fuckin cold yer gutshot and worst than the whimpering the screaming and the crack of the gun butt caving in the blonde boy’s skull and the lieutenant from what he referred to as an academy who used the phrase military bonton and martial courts and yet that shatpup too whimpered, too screamed from his facehole, and he too needed his skull caved in by a gun butt, and neither dead soldier had a scrah of tabacky, so he took their water and horses and guns and made for Santa Fe, the war as good as won anyway, and found in Santa Fe a trace of Pegleg, a sniff of old Bob Carson, the two gone west for gold was struck, and it was a well worn trail he followed, grubstuck selling the horses and one of the guns and a few horses from wandering Paiutes who weren’t supposed to have them anyway and if he hadn’t shot the lot of them it would have been more whimpering and screaming, and all that could be sold up by the Truckee for passage and stake, but before he knew it that giant Bill in Hangtown made of him a legend and as a military man, a big man who knew how to handle a pistol and lead men against savages, for over on the other side of the Sierras men were need to guard the desert trail from the Injuns, William Festus Fitzpacker was a Nevada legend, first elected territorial lawman of Nevada and owner of piece of land by a stream that yielded twenty dollars a day if a man worked it. You think Fitzpacker worked it?

While the condition cold is not subjective, while temperature is so connivingly measurable that mankind continues to express this factor of the air in two different ways, yet an oddity that nears the stature of paradox persists regarding the suffering of extremes, particularly the extreme of cold. Bear witness:

I swear to you tho it make no sense that night in jail in Hangtown was the coldest I ever been and it bein midsummer and you and me having been and I thought this many a time through the long waking night in that igloo we made, the thought of whichall made me colder still I hope you can understand that without you take offense.

Our young Donnie Garvin would recall Fernand Braudel discussing just such a near paradox in regard to the Mediterranean regions, where, for instance, inner and upper Spain in winter feels to its denizen as cold as a tundra’s wolf woofing winter night.

I knew it would be harder for Rance to bear up under the circumstances, as he is given to volatile (see? I remember some things you taught me) emotions at times and he was mighty scared to be jailed in a town known for hangin. And if that were not all the blanket was about as heavy as a chicken feather.

 

I knew it would be harder for Rance to bear up under the circumstances, as he is given to volatile (see? I remember some things you taught me) emotions at times and he was mighty scary to be jailed in a town known for hangin. And if that were not all the blanket was about as heavy as a chicken feather by which I mean light, maybe I should say lighter than a floating turd, he was near sterical come morn. I hugged and rubbed and warmed Rance no one give us coffee nor grub and he shook an cried and tho I myself thought we were soon to be hung I give him comfort of lies til he fell asleep agin like a babe in my arms and not at that moment but now I think of our baby by now come out to see us when you bring him which I hope will be soon, tomorrow Rance take me to our claim. As I was tellin, he was a sleep like a babe in my arms and with no reckoning the cold or night was the high heat of day and gunshots rung out ever which direction. This maybe gone on for a half hour before I hear yelling they robbed the bank, which was right cross the street from out hotel into which come like a devil from heaven a very dark of skin Mexican fierce lookin like a grieved wolf with a scar that run from his eyes to his ear which was part missin and he ask which is my guns an I pointed to the old hoggyleg he give it to me his men taking the rest of what was in supply, and he unlocked the door and they went out but before he left as if he forget something of great import he turned back stepped to me and I am not joking he bowed kind of stiff, give me his hand to shake and said, I mean not to be rude but as you may see we are in a mite hurry, I am Wakeen, I said, Tom Gravel and he was gone and for some fifteen minutes more there was shootin, and Rance was alivened up by then, we found two horses with no one tached to them retrieved what was left of our gear including the last of my money which the law of Hangtown did not find and made haste the other way from the shootin and found a trail that went up into the Sierra mountains.

Upon reaching Gold Canyon, Rance Hardupp and Tom Gravel staked their claim, or Hardupp’s claim, which was a couple weeks from running out as it had not been worked for more than five months; they staked their claim literally, pounding sharpened cottonwood saplings into the ground every ten feet and tying rope from post to post, from the stream back into the mature cottonwoods, a good quarter mile, and then again upstream the same, and behind enclosing a copse of their own. Hardupp’s scant supplies had been locked into a rudimentary shed that had been broken into and robbed of every last nail and pan, and what Rance said was anyway a near useless rocker he had made himself, and which was why Gravel was required to buy another one at the trading station down toward Carson Valley at Mormon Station, a brand new one Rance insisted on testing to a point beyond the exasperation of a red-haired vendor of such who worked out of a tent alongside the trail, which was empty as far either way as a man could see yet sold his wares in the brisk manner of a an up and comer and spoke with the cadence of a slow starting engine: ‘Yer…yer…yer…yer…yer…gonnabreakthatthingnthenallavetapayfrit.’ Rance pronounced the mechanism fit and more than fit, later confiding to Tom that it was as well put together as any he had ever seen.

As far as Tom could see, this crude yokel Rance Hardupp had concocted a plan that verged on genius. They were stationed on the east side of the Carson, which they would work for gold, but he had also and primarily staked a claim to a mile long length of the intermittent feeder stream known as the Dry Muddy, which was where the more spectacular finds had been. Ah, but gold is a fiendish bedrockfellow, and a man can’t pan a dry stream. Some years spring runoff doesn’t fill the Dry Muddy. But you had to figure wherever the Carson flowed it gathered some of the same minerals as the Dry Muddy when wet, and further, if a feller had a claim on the Carson and the Dry Muddy both, when the Dry Muddy was dry, or muddy, he could load up a wagon with a hand-shoveled load or lode and rocker it back at the Carson, a mere three miles away, and if one had a partner, the work could pert near go on perpetual like, in cycles or whatnot or whatever.

Thus did the partners proceed after constructing a small wood sleeping shed back in the cottonwoods on the east and near barren of folk side of the Carson, this one with a secure metal lock as big as a fist, though in truth a big enough first could probably have pounded through the wood of the door, and as we know today them was lawless times, yet Tom has his hogleg and curiosity was some ways yet from shedding the shards of its peril. Furthermore, the Carson heaved hard east thereabouts, which tended to rile more silt on their side of it, while at the same time, Hardupp had found a stretch of the Dry Muddy that was a virtual mini-canyon, awkward to work for a stretch of 100 yards or so, having no bank to speak of and narrow enough to prevent two men walking side to side within its confines.

All in all, a fine plan effected, efficiency the watchword, a clumsy pioneering efficiency of fugatory efficacy, if not prophetic of funge, neither feeble. Yet the nights are chill—in the morning they take unthinking comfort in proximity, not only to the cookfire that boils their coffee, refries their beans, but even more to each human other, so that more often than not they set off together up the Dry Muddy, the horse with its wagon, working, and they, after arriving to their claim, take up surveyance, engaging in rudimentary geologic discussion, determining that spot, random despite, taking turns with the shovel. Rest is taken in the relative boscosity of sparse undergrowth between two cottonwoods that split the sunshine, bread and water passed back and forth. No birds sound. Snakes sleep in their hollows, within the drythorned fraggus plants. Lizards dash out silent inscrutable spurts of lives unexamined.

‘Reckon we keep loadin or go back and run through what we got?’

‘Don’t know, Tom. Ain’t too eager to larn what we got is a wagon full a dirt, which I already know.’

‘What’s gold but a shiny spak a dirt?’

A pause for thought as prurient doubt hung along the time lull of the long bright day.

‘Them Mormons sayin we bein on the wrong side…’

‘Jis tryin to run us heathen off with that what the red face one said…’

‘”They’s fekkin goldconder yonder!”’

‘Pointin as if over the range…’

Hush.

Hoof aclop desert rock cancels silence, for here one hears fer near a mile yon such, and there did approach astride horse sheriff lawman William F. Fitzpacker, no Mormon he, though like as Mormon in lust fer mammon, specially now that slaves worked his claim, as he saw it, even if the workmen themselves, Hardupp and Gravel spied neither mammon nor master, were masters in thought of their own leechy seekings, much more mundane than mammon, beans being their manna.

‘Tis some visitor,’ Rance muttered.

Attenuate anticipatory silence ensued, desertified, draftless, dry as the sun.

Perhaps one hoof was three miles off.

Gravel and Hardupp lounged attentive.

Four hooves sounded like two, one betimes precipitate, slapping odd like a wingshot bird.

Closer now, the hooves hesitated between hypnotic clops.

Twin apparitions preceded the horseman, such is mind in desert time.

The horseman appeared black, back to the sun, on a black horse, black through, it seemed, and he from equestrian statue grandeur gazed down at the two men, naked to the waste, dried dust on dried sweat thick as shirts above the waist, a superior position for one who would grant himself hierarchy, as this man of greed and violence did.

‘Boys,’ he greeted them.

They nodded.

‘I’s thank ye fer working my claim, but looks to me like you’re shoveling dry dirt into a wagon and I don’t right see how that brings me benefit.’

Rance looked at Tom, then sprang to his feet.

‘This here’s my claim, mister.’

‘Yes, son, settle yerself, I heard down at the Station how two upstarts had encroached upon my investment. That’s why I took the trouble to make me some inquired about you two. I stopped in at your homestead first, of course, and finding the door poorly locked took a look around, but as you know you were not there to receive me, so I took it upon myself to ride all the way out there in this heat. You can see what the sweat’s done to my shirt.’

Tom slowly got to his feet.

‘What is it you want?’

‘Like everybody else around here. Gold. Silver. The spoils of the earth.’

‘I hope you ain’t suggesting you tramped into our abode.’

‘Abode. Abode? Is that what ye call it. Yer abode? Why anyone can see it’s but a shack badly shackled. One shot and the look unlocked. It’s a way we have of knocking on the door of claim jumpers hereabouts.’

The first marshal of Nevada territory did not wear a badge, or Rance would not have made the mistake of telling Fitzpacker he would have the law on him.

‘Why, son, I am the law. Marshal William Festus Fitzpacker by name. Hired out to keep order, and that order bein to tend to claim jumpers and other such of the lawless breed.’

‘My claim’s good, mister—both a them.’

‘I got six months logged without presence here.’

‘That’s a outright lie, Marshall or no Marshall. I was gone but a week over four months. I was off raisin capital as you call it.’

‘Each to his own calendar, son, but my calendar happens to be law. And worse for you, the next claim up is my own, meaning this one as well, for what you have here is the windblown, and torrent tossed of my own whilst I awaited spring run.’

‘You lie mister!’ Rance shouted, and began forward, whereat Gravel gripped his pants top to hold him back. ‘We’ll take this to the law hereabouts and beyond if need be.’

Fitzpacker laughed heartily, part genuine.

‘Truer word never did I speak, fool. I am the law! Yet I am not unfamiliar with the calculus of slavery, and find it not to my fiscal advantage. You shall continue to work my land, and as we are three so shall we divide the unspoilt, in thirds. One third to you, for labor, and two of those thirds to me for investment, right neath the umbrella of law.’

‘You will get not so much as a nugget from my claim!’

‘You, son. A calmer sort, where be ye from?’ observing Gravel’s quieter response and fiercened eyes.

Silence: squeezed, pulsing, nothing of the desert. Silence of civilization away off on the march.

‘Speak now, boy, for I will have all knowledge in due time.’

‘Orgon.’

‘Best you go back there…But you will not. You take your own counsel, that is your type. You will soon have cause to remember my words: Go…back…there! For you have a half brain, unlike your colleague in scampery, this befuddled, blinded by—‘

‘Why you scumsuckin pig, git down off yer horse an see who’s what!’

Gravel, almost in a whisper: ‘Settle down for now, Rance.’

‘Dismount of my horse would be the mount of your death-horse, trespassing claim jumper. Be thankful to whichever your ill-conceived deity I not dismount, rather come with kind warning.’

One sees the rattler in disguise in retrospect after the strike: thus did the pistol uncoil from Fitzpacker’s side holster and discharge between the feet of Tom Gravel, a statue next to Hardupp, an alit marionette.

‘I take not kindly to insult, Rancid Hardupp, the second I happen to know [deliberate ambiguity, this man of careful speech]. Now you got right on the edge. Make mention like again and I shall tear thy arms from thy torso. But it is you, half-brain’—turning now to Gravel, as he returned his pistol to its rest pouch—‘who most must heed’—the same hand reaching further down, unflapping saddle bag, retrieving a Colt Peterson, long travelled—‘if this be the cause for your quietude, take extra heed, for now tis mine, an insult tax, a land tax, a claim jumper tax, and, of no minor incident, a pistol I have long coveted…’

Nothing altered in the outer mien of Tom Gravel, though the universe he sensed to convulse.

‘…and shall now be one with my living legend. My excitement is such that I am near to the point of thanking you, though it be clear you had better remained in your Ore-egon.’

The worst of men are as good as their word. Some of the best of the men remain at variance with the world of words. Thus did Fitzpacker in some weeks make good and be successful on his claim to claim, visiting Rance and Tom at their many locked abode after first enquiring of witnesses to the effect of their successes, rumor and testimony determining a rate of near ten dollar a day. And near seven dollar a day did Fitzpacker extract from the humiliated, behumbled soil toilers, for fiery Rance and becalmed temperate Tom were but biding their time, for reasons obvious enough and further, for recent handbills had been tree-posted announcing a spectacle at the trading post of Neverworth Rodney Haskill and Washington Loomis, not half a mile from their abode at what might seem the mouth of Gold Canyon, or afore where the Dry Muddy wetted its desert tongue in the Carson. Seems the famed gunsman lawman William Festus Fitzpacker would be displaying his pistolarian dexterity for the public at one quarter per head, later to offer lessons as well for a dollar only.

Twas a Sunday. More than 19 workers of prospect, including one female, arrived. Haskell and Loomis had erected a lean-to for shade, and on that table served cool drinks of fresh Carson River water and various eatables. Rance Hardupp and Tom Gravel were among the spectators as Marshall Fitzpacker drew up at high noon, precisely on time, atop his black horse, sporting a vest backed in red satin with elaborate silk stitched on cotton design up front, painted nacre buttons, along with pin striped pants and a collarless white cotton shirt. He did look sharp. Haskell and Loomis had taken great pains to entertain, fashioning a life size man of wood, painted red once and white over that red, so that a bullet would appear to bleed (this did not entirely succeed, as the bullets mostly spat interior, unpainted wood debris). The white wood man was nailed to a mature cottonwood tree, the nail heads twice painted as well.

Fitzpacker wasted no time getting started–cutting short the incipient barkering of Haskell, he dismounted and seemingly in flight shot two eye holes in the wood man. One showed a trace of red if you looked close. He appeared to have drawn a Colt Walker, an awkward piece that brings to mind a homestead afterthought to keep granny at bay, though the aberrational eyesore is between the cylinder and the barrel. Perhaps only Tom Gravel gave that much thought, for Fitzpacker commenced to approach the unarmed wood feller, come face to face with him, walk away from insult, and turn rapidly, withdrawing with his same right hand cross to his left holster, from which he pulled Gravel’s Colt Paterson and with five shots drew a straight mouthline beneath the eyes.

Much clapping ensued. Rance Hardupp yippeed and jumped up and down. Gravel clapped politely.

Gravel noticed that as now Haskell was allowed to speak—‘How’s that ladies and gentleminers? Ready for a more impressive display?—Yeehaw! they were—Fitzpacker reloaded both pistols, before firing from about twenty paces, carving a perfect heart on the upper left breast of the white woody man, a heart true, a heart yielding fragments of wood framed by a trace of red and a heart-frame of white.

Who knew what was next?

‘Hows bout a pecker shot!’ one enthusiast suggested, for example.

Gravel decided not to wait. As Fitzpacker reached into his saddlebag to find reload for the Colt Walker, he come up behind, drew his own Colt Paterson, and before he could stand Fitzpacker down saw that Fitzpacker intended to dispatch him with whatever rounds had been established in the cylinder of the Walker. Gravel’s first shot hit Fitzpacker’s right shoulder, turning him around, and when Fitzpacker showed sign to turn back emptied the four remaining shots into the lawman’s upper torso, took quickly to flight, hopped his horse, tied to a sapling but ten feet or so from the site of the shooting, and, well, went to Mexico, or what was now not so Mexico anymore, but California, though he sought there the famous Mexican, though some said Chilean, Joaquin Murriata, and the trip was not without exhaustion, hunger, cold nights, and sleepless moments visited by gutwrenching longing for Marie Fire and the child that was surely by now borne.

Gravel found Murriata while drinking from a stream outside French Camp, where inquiries had led him to look for the legendary outlaw. Better said, of course, Murriata found him, an anticipated stranger with this danger, scar-faced outlaw in his sights. Gravel recognized the reflection in the water to be one of the men shootin up Hangtown not so long back. The wappling scar on the water surface suggested the man standing over him was Joaquin Murriata himself.

Gravel rolled to his back.

‘Tobacco.’ he said, and Murriata reached into a pocket and tossed a small cotton back tied by a string near the top to Gravel.

‘Papers.’

Murriata obliged.

Matches.

These too were forthcoming.

Once he had rolled and smoked the cigarette, Gravel was ready to talk.

‘Ever hear of a lawman name of Fitzpacker?’

‘Might be.’

‘I killed him.’

‘No, you did not.’

‘Yes, yes I did, senor Murriata, I surely did, shot him five times.’

‘Didn’t kill the bastard, boy. Heard all about it. Don’t know why you done it, but I sure as hell liked to hear of the effort. But he is still alive, on the mend at Mormon Station, and will be riding this way sooner or later come looking for you.’

Gravel couldn’t speak for shock, nor could he look with focus, nor raise his eyes above the level of Murriata’s knee beyond where he saw approach two black clad legs hip-holstered high up, legs horse-like in height, and hair fallen either side down past holsters, for it was a woman he saw, raising his eyes slowly, a woman with a stunningly cropped torso, a thin lipped, weathered face, with black animate eyes, flat or absent of aspect but archesporialtype, reductive, absolute in  undisclosed purpose.

‘Senor,’ Gravel began, looking back up to Murriata, ‘though it were not yer intention, you and your gang sprung me and my pal from the hoosegow in Hangtown, and when I shot Fitzpacker figuring I’d be strung up I fled cross the mountains seeking to find you and join up. I can shoot pretty fair.’

‘Five shots without killing a man. Is that shooting pretty fair?’

‘Not a one missed the shitpig.’

‘What do you think, Louisa?’

‘Let me kill the bastard.’

The voice was like lead skimming off zinc, definitive. Gravel was sure his death was imminent, and that the bullet would be in the very center of his forehead.

‘Finish your cigarette,’ Murriata instructed Gravel, confirming the verdict.

Well, thought Gravel, nonetheless bemused, it was an idear.

‘I like that: Not one missed. And got off quick, too, is that right?’

‘Didn’t think about it. I just wanted my gun back, but he turned to fire and I got his right shoulder, and he was about to turn agin n I emptied the cylinder, got on my horse n left.’

‘What do you think, Louisa?’

‘Let me kill the bastard.’

‘Which one?’

‘Both.’

Murriata thought that was funny. Gravel hoped so.

‘Louisa, if we take in this young man, you may just get your chance at that lawman. But we don’t turn away a man who shot a lawman, especially one who has come so far to find us.’

‘Obliged, senor.’

‘I will only warn you once about Louisa—never approach her or attempt to speak with her. Got it?’

‘Anything else?’

‘Use your gun when I expect you to.’

And the following Spring, Fitzpacker, reconstituted, did come looking for Tom Gravel. He was not hard to find. Murriata and his gang hit mining town after mining town, robbing banks, big claim-holders, and lawmen, Gravel taking part as any hired gunman would, never firing a shot other than to send a bullet skyward to announce the intimidation of their arrival and the futility of resistance. Of course this scourge was not overlooked by the larger interests of the nascent state of California whose legislature hired a band of California Rangers (you won’t read much about this motley, nefarious crew) to hunt them down. They got Murriata and Three-fingered Jack in a tussle at an arroyo near Coalinga down south, chopping off Jack’s hand and Murriata’s head, news of which reached Murriata—and Jack—at French Camp, where they were taking ease between raids, when the jars were placed on exhibit in Stockton. Fitzpacker was said to be among the law gang, which was composed of former Texas Rangers. Of course, Fitzpacker knew a scam when he was in on it, and, after a brief return to the Nevada side returned in pursuit of Gravel, whom he found in a Stockton tavern in mid-August that year.

In the morning, Gravel noticed that Louisa wore her hair gathered into a horse tail, which always meant gunplay forthcoming, though he was not informed of the incipient showdown until the three—Jack was at the bar for distraction, amusement, and, if need be, an unlikely need, back up.

In the midst of a game of five card stud, Tom holding a pair of sevens and intent on taking the pot, Murriata said quietly, ‘Here comes your man;’ in strode Fitzpacker, gun already drawn. Gravel turned, assessed the moment, pulled his Colt, eyes met, Fitzpacker’s intent on murder, Gravel pulled, shot the gun out of Fitzpacker’s hand, the bullet creasing the thumb, bade him stand still, put two more bullets into the planking at his feet, told him he would live if he quit Nevada and Hardupp remained unharmed, to which Fitzpacker readily agreed, making to hasten away before being ordered still by Murriata, who extracted a more solemn promise, made to hasten away before Louisa bade him stop, rose from her chair, strode to him—Gravel was not surprised, though considered the vision likely illusory, that she stood taller than the lawman—and coldcocked him. Fitzpacker came to in the dirt street under the summer sun not far from his horse. A month later Tom Gravel was back at the claims with Rance Hardupp, who had built from their earnings a two story wood home with a circumambulate balcony on the ground floor, and sent for Marie Fire and child, instructing them to set out in the Spring to join him.

Legend has it that Fitzpacker, though he steered clear of Gold Canyon, did come and go between the general area of San Francisco and the ore banks of Nevada, alternating between gun work and mining, never making a fortune, but engaging in battle with Paitues and courtrooms, surviving to the year 1873 when he died in an asylum in Stockton, his head still attached to his neck, though it is said he survived 31 bullet wounds during his lifetime.

Tom Gravel was taken by influenza the winter after his return to Nevada. Marie Fire and Tom Junior arrived the following July oblivious, took up residence in the house of Rance Hardupp, and remained in Nevada.

TAIL

The Vexing Vicissitudes of Realism

 

A stroke of good fortune for our account is the disappearance of the Fitzpacker line, for William Festus Fitzpacker left no heir, no bastard, no fortune to be fraudulently claimed by the mulatto child of a white mistress, and thus the reader—and writer!—may drop guard, may cease anticipating with that peculiar combination of dread and glee the return of family intertwined conflict, may no longer need envision a Gravel generations hence in the shit ditches of Verdun, say, without knowing, just knowing, that Colonel Fitzpacker will appear to order Gravel out of the turdous trench into the sheer wall of German bullets, that his son, Judge Fitzpacker, will not plant papers in a pumpkin on the property of the playwright Gravel, call the gendarmes, who will find the secret papers, proof enough of treason, the communist Gravel condemned thus to the gallows, after giving birth to yet another Gravel who will, in full furious fit of fate come face to face with the evil murderer Colin Fitzpacker in Elko, Nevada, on the night of a rare and ferocious hailstorm to waylay him on his way to check the gate of the sheep pen, returning to the homestead to slaughter the rest of the family, he is sure, while the eldest child inexplicably overlooked, the quiet one, little Tom who didn’t say his first word until he was nine years old, though he would have been but four at the time of the gruesome events described herein—but now only, not later–so that it could  never be determined whether witnessing the bloodletting contributed to his condition, his slowness, such quadriver of event contriving to deprive the townfolk of gusto for gossip, nay, responsible for the letting down of their guard, and so the rape, the pregnancy, the hanging of, say it, a retard, all this prevented by the joie de vivre lacking in the spermatozoa of William Festus Fitzpacker.