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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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Sudden Country

BOOK: Sudden Country
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SUDDEN COUNTRY
 

Loren D. Estelman

 

 

Digital Edition published by Crossroad Press

© 2012 Loren D. Estleman

 

Cover Design By: David Dodd

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Chapter 1
 

THE OLD RAIDER

 

I
never knew my father. My mother said he died heroically fighting the Comanche at Adobe Walls, but since that battle took place two years before I was born and since my mother's, favor in later years ran toward medicine drummers and goldbrickers, I came to assume he'd simply left.

I didn't resent him. The house we lived in, one of the first brick buildings in a town then called Panhandle, was ours, and its location down the street from the railroad station assured us more than enough boarders to keep us in cornmeal and homespun. By the time I was thirteen–at which point my tale begins–I had known for some little while that certain of our male roomers enjoyed more than dinner and clean sheets under our roof; and this too I accepted, unaware that the situation might be different in other households. These assignations were for the most part discreet to the point of boredom. Such, however, was not the case with Judge Constantine Blod, who came to stay with us in the spring of 1890.

My mother called him Connie when she thought I couldn't hear. He was no taller than I, with small hands and feet and a round belly that rested on his thighs when he sat, but he had the pink clean-shaven profile of a Roman senator and a crisp shelf of hair white enough for public office anywhere in Texas. He wore, in all weather, a black clawharnmer coat that he spent his evenings brushing, a purple velvet waistcoat, and one of two pairs of striped trousers, the cuffs of which broke over shoes with shiny black caps and dull brown half-soles. I found none of these things compelling, but was fascinated by his rolling speech, which made a simple request for a second biscuit sound like grand oratory.

I did not become his champion until he presented me with a brace of slender novels printed on brown roughcut and bound between vermilion covers with ocher legends reading
The Morgan Gang at Skeleton Gulch
and
Apache Dick's Last Warpath
, or
Princess Dove-Heart's Predicament
. Both accounts were attributed to one Jed Knickerbocker. The Judge explained that Jed Knickerbocker was, in fact, himself, and that he had come west from his Manhattan townhouse in search of literary grist. I was not to share this confidence with anyone, he admonished, or risk having to entertain every lice-ridden drifter who had a tall tale to exchange for a stake. Bewildered, I agreed.

By the following day I had read both books, some parts several times. The coarse pages were filled with big men in buckskins who grappled with savage Indians and shot desperadoes, delivered eloquent addresses on fidelity and temperance, and romanced maidens with the same earnest concentration they employed lifting Apache scalps. They were called Bittercreek and Deadeye and Wild Bill, and if you called them anything else you'd better have earned the privilege or be sorry you lived long enough to meet them. When I asked the Judge if he really knew them all, he assured me of the intimacy of their acquaintance and testified that every detail was true as blue sky.

I was inclined to credit it; for I knew a hero. Although I would not have presumed to ask Mr. Henry Knox, master of the Panhandle School where I studied, to recount his experiences in the late war, his lean mustachioed countenance and professional austerity seemed to confirm rumors I'd heard of his conspicuous performance as an officer with General Ledlie's cavalry. I suppose he was handsome, judging by my mother's embarrassingly girlish behavior whenever they met. Previously I'd assigned his lack of response to the existence of a Mrs. Knox, a pillar in the local G.A.R., and two young Knoxes in grades below mine, but now I knew that a granite reserve was part of the heroic character. I had also seen the saber hanging in the little room off the schoolroom where he disciplined pupils, against the fashion of the day, in private.

Mother's special gentlemen held no real attraction for me. They were like dim relatives of uncertain connection, and outside my notice. In that light it shames me somewhat to confess that the Judge bought me for the price of two nickel novels. I followed him everywhere, ambushing him with questions. Had he seen Apache Dick's belt woven of human hair? (He had.) Did Wild Bill still limp from the effects of the Cheyenne lance that had transfixed his thigh? (He did not.) Was Bittercreek really a Creole from New Orleans? (He was.) What was a Creole? That he had the patience to answer each query demonstrated that he had sat still for his share of tall tales carried by lice-ridden drifters.

On the third morning after he had given me the books, I fell upon him while he was shaving over the basin in his room. He had his collar off and his galluses down and was scraping a delicate pattern around a wen on his right cheek. His rosewood toilet case lay open on the washstand, exposing a row of razors with black gutta-percha handles in slots labeled with the days of the week. I asked him what literary prospects a town like Panhandle offered.

"None at present," he said, flicking lather and bloody bits of wen into the basin; the door had startled him. "I expect that will change within forty-eight hours."

"What happens then?"

"There is a clipping from the March 18th
New York Sun
in my coat. You may examine it."

His coat hung on a portable walnut rack that had belonged to my father, the precise location of which in the house always indicated which gentleman boarder had attracted my mother's fancy this season. Identifying the described clipping in a brittle amber sheaf of them as thick as a pocket Bible was somewhat more difficult. There were an account of a shooting in Denver as wired to the
Herald
, a grisly piece from the World about the discovery of an Albany alderman's body on the east bank of the Hudson River wearing the head of a woman reported missing in New Jersey in February, and sundry items from
Harper's Weekly
about the Ghost Dance hysteria among the Dakota Sioux. Finally I culled a two-inch bit printed in tiny blurred characters and bearing on one margin the word Sun in Judge Blod's crabbed hand, along with the aforementioned date.

 

MAN-KILLER FREED

 

Austin, Tex., March 16th–In a move considered by many to have sealed his political fate, Governor J. S. Hogg today granted a pardon releasing former Quantrill raider Jotham Flynn from the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville after serving twenty years of a life sentence for the murder of an Amarillo man in 1869. Flynn is believed to have participated in the Centralia massacre and the raid on Lawrence during the late war.

 

"Is Flynn coming here?" I asked.

"I wired him train fare in Huntsville before I left New York, with promise of further compensation if he would meet me here on the fifth. That is the day after tomorrow. I think it unlikely that he has superior prospects after two decades behind bars."

"He sounds a fair ogre."

"Bloody Bill Anderson once said that Flynn would cosh a Sister of Mercy for the gold in her molars."

I returned the clipping to his coat. Holding it had suddenly become unpleasant. "Why write of him?"

"Fodder, young Master Grayle." He splashed his face and mopped it dry, staining the towel. "It runs parlous low. The frontier is closing and most of the men of iron are east, treading the boards or performing with Cody's circus. I daresay my alacrity has snatched Flynn from beneath the whiskers of Colonel Ingram and Ned Buntline, the prevaricating sot."

"Why Panhandle and not Huntsville?"

"He has reasons for returning to this country, the exact nature of which I cannot share at the present juncture. By making the journey possible I hope to have raised my stock with him." A twinge disturbed his noble pink features. "And now you must leave me to my own company. My old wound wants soaking."

He claimed an injury from Spotsylvania Courthouse, but even then I recognized his treatment–submerging in Epsom and elevation of his swollen right foot–as identical to that of Roundtree Zimmerman, Panhandle's barber, who suffered from gout: And so it is to the common complaint of aristocrats and European monarchs that I owe everything which followed.

On the morning of the fifth, Judge Blod could not leave his room. In spite of my mother's remedies, including the abominable soup she made for shut-ins and a wondrous stack of pillows borrowed from the sofa in the parlor to support his wrapped foot, he sat lowing and comparing his misery to certain dramatis personae in Aeschylus and the Bard. Finally he pressed me to represent him at the depot. I was to escort Flynn back to the boarding house.

Notwithstanding my reservations concerning the man's character, I was elated, but too mannerly to show it in that sickroom. "How will I know him?"

"If you do not recognize him immediately, he is not the man I have traveled halfway across the continent to interview." And with that he subsided in his deep chair, muttering dark observations upon the death of kings.

When I arrived at the station the train was in, black and oily-smelling and hemorrhaging steam out of jets between the wheels. Passengers were departing the platform on the arms of spouses, although not many; Panhandle was not Amarillo. I felt panic. Had he stalked off, infuriated when no one was there to receive him? How many Sisters of Mercy would pay for my sloth? I asked the conductor, a long brown man with muttonchops, if anyone had alighted who had not been claimed. And then I saw Flynn.

I knew him, just as the Judge had promised. He was stepping off a rear car, one hand bent palm-up under the latigo of a big saddle polished a deep cherry color in the throat from much riding, the other steadying a blanket roll over his right shoulder so decrepit it looked as if it would crumble if he unlashed it. At first I thought he was as short as the Judge, but as he came my way along the cars I saw that his knees were bent alarmingly, the toes of his broken boots turned inward cowboy fashion. He was exceptionally broad across the shoulders and wore a tattered duster over clothes of no particular color and a stained and shapeless slouch hat whose wide brim swung down across his face, exposing only full brown beard tangled with gray. I remember that as he walked he wobbled a little, turning his head from side to side as if quartering the platform, humming tonelessly, and then singing, in a deep hoarse voice, a song unfamiliar to me then, but whose lyrics and melody I would come to know like a catechism:

BOOK: Sudden Country
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