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Authors: Glendon Swarthout

The Homesman (27 page)

BOOK: The Homesman
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“Your turn,” he said.

She pulled free of him. Her face twisted, and for a moment he feared she might cry on him.

“Candletown,” she said, and rushed herself back into the hotel.

Candletown?

He stepped it off down the street and inquired of the man at the livery. Candletown was two places, the man said, a sort of saloon and a dance house, with women, take your pick. Where was it? Up the river road north, turn off east between two outfitters, take a lane into trees. So Briggs saddled up, left his cowcoat there as the night was warm, rode away north, turned around and rode south because he recalled Cuddy's headboard, reached the stonecutter's, looked the board over, pronounced it satisfactory, and paid Janz, noticing as he did that after buying clothes and cartridges and tobacco and high-button shoes and paying Janz nine dollars his wad was much diminished. No matter—in an hour or two he'd have greenbacks coming out his ears. He tied the marker onto the bedroll behind his saddle, mounted up again and heeled the roan into a canter up north again, thinking, as he passed the Hutchinson House, he should maybe drop the board off, then thinking the hell with it, he didn't care to see that stick of a girl again, he was on the prowl.

Candletown.

•   •   •

There were indeed two places down a lane into trees and set in a clearing of stumps. One was ramshackle, part tent, part lean-to of poles, the tent with one side ripped open to the night and letting out yells and howls and the crash of shattering glassware. Its patrons were probably freighters and no-accounts and plain drunks out of the line of wagons waiting for the ferry at the Bellevue crossing, and to pass the time they were putting on a fight. Briggs had heard such a racket many a time. It was usually caused by stabs in the belly or kicks in the stones or bottles broken over heads. Fights were free entertainment, but he had money, and so gave his attention to the dance house. It was actually two houses, a small one to the right, from which wafted the scratchy strains of a fiddle. That was where they danced, must be, where the women were. But the small house was connected to a large one of two stories by what they called in these parts a “dogtrot,” which was a covered walkway. The open windows of the large house beckoned with light. Home sweet home.

Briggs dismounted, tied his animal to a stump near some others and several buggies, walked first to the dance house, and stood in the doorway. In a corner, a fiddler sawed out “Devil's Dream.” At length Briggs could discern a half-dozen sweaty couples, men and women, shuffling round and round a wooden floor, silent and serious, and in the far wall doors to several cribs. He could wait on a woman. He turned and walked the twenty feet of dogtrot and opened a door and stepped in and thought he was in Heaven. The company of men at last. Every person in the place could stand up to piss.

This house was a single room, two stories high, well lit by hanging coal-oil lamps. It boasted a handsome oaken bar and glassware, a chuck-a-luck layout, and at least fourteen tables of cards at which sat a smatter of the solid citizens of Hebron and the area thereabouts. It wasn't noisy. Poker here was bread-and-butter. The players were fairly well dressed and sober, and even the house gamblers, whom he could spot by their fancy hats and white shirts and ruffled cuffs, looked to be gents. The last thing he searched for was firearms, and couldn't locate a one. What was under his belt was more than an equalizer then; if necessary, it was an ace in the hole.

Briggs strolled to the bar and had two whiskeys in short order, poured from a bottle. The man pouring was middle-aged and rigged out like a deacon—shirt, cravat, vest, gold watch chain, and a gold ring. Briggs judged it the best whiskey he had ever imbibed, and it should have been at fifty cents a crack. It warmed all the way to the crotch. He leaned on the bar until he selected a likely table, then moved casually to it, pulled out a chair, and sat down. There were three players, two town men and a gambler with a waxed mustache. The three nodded. They were between hands.

“Evening,” said the gambler, riffling the deck. “We're playing higher stakes, sir. Can you show fifty dollars?”

Briggs looked him dead in the eye. It seemed to him he'd waited half a lifetime for this moment.

“I sure can,” he said.

From the inner breast pocket of his new suit he brought out his pile. Unfolding it, he laid a fifty-dollar note on the Bank of Loup in the center of the table and proceeded to lay the other five, one by one, on top of it.

“That enough?” he asked.

The gambler reached for the topmost note. “Mind if I have a look?”

“Help yourself.”

The gambler inspected it, then raised an arm and waved at the man behind the bar, who worked his way through the tables.

The gambler handed him the note. “Will you have a look at this, Mr. Carmody?”

Carmody glanced at Briggs. “I own this place,” he said. He, too, studied the note, then placed it on the table beside the others. “Bank of Loup,” he said to Briggs. “Up near Wamego, I hear. How long since you were there, sir?”

“Five, six weeks,” Briggs said.

“Well, the Bank of Loup's gone bust,” said Carmody. “Man was through here from the Territory last week and said so. That's what happens with these sodbuster banks. I've been stuck with a lot of their paper.” He nodded at Briggs. “I'm sorry, sir, I can't accept those notes. For that matter, I don't know anybody around here will.”

Briggs sat in his chair. Carmody, the gambler, the other two players, all watched him. But he thought he'd been hurled from the chair to the floor. He thought a thunderclap had deafened him. He thought a lightning bolt had riven him, had split him apart. He thought he was stone dead.

“I'm sorry, sir,” Carmody said to him again, and went back to the bar.

Pushing the banknotes over to Briggs, the gambler shuffled his deck and dealt hands to the two town men and himself. They played the hand, discarding and drawing and betting. The gambler won it with two pairs, jacks and treys. He riffled the deck and looked curiously at Briggs.

“I'm sorry, sir,” he said, “but it's a policy of this house that you can't claim a seat at a table unless you play. I have to ask you to leave.”

“What,” Briggs mumbled.

“I must ask you to leave the table.”

Briggs looked around it. Suddenly he tried to rise, failed, then struggled to his feet, knocking over his chair in the process. From his belt he pulled the Colt's repeater, slowly, raised it at arm's length, and fired a round into the ceiling.

The effect was miraculous. Play ceased, and conversation. Not a man in the room moved a muscle. Briggs let the pistol down to his side.

“Now everybody listen,” he said.

He was hoarse. They had to strain to hear him.

“My name is Jack Martin. I've just had six weeks on the trail, down from Loup. I carried four women in a wagon. Wives and mothers. They were crazy. That's right, crazy. Lost their minds last winter. They couldn't stay home. No asylum in the Territory. So I brought 'em here for the Reverend Carter's wife, the Methodist minister. Her and some church ladies will take 'em on home, to their folks. If you won't take my word, ask Missus Carter.” He spoke in bursts. “Well, I had a hell of a time getting 'em here. I was paid three hundred dollars for the job, at the start—that's the money right there.” He pointed down at the table. “I could've taken it and left 'em out there high and dry, but I didn't, I stuck it out. Missus Carter says I did a splendid deed—that's what she said. And I should be proud of it.” He paused to run a hand over his face. “But I bought new clothes and came here tonight to have a good time and my money's no good. Bank of Loup's gone bust. I'm dead broke. I need to get drunk. I need a bottle bad. After all I did, won't somebody buy me a bottle?”

He waited. The only response was the scratch of a fiddle down the dogtrot.

“I'm no beggar,” Briggs insisted. “I've got my pride, same as anybody.”

Someone coughed.

Briggs glared around the room. “You goddam cheapskate heartless bunch,” he said. “After what I did for those poor women.”

Again he waited.

“This is a Christian town!” he cried. “What the hell's the matter with you!”

Carmody, the owner, spoke up from behind the bar. “Martin, come over here. Put that gun away and come here.”

Briggs stared at him.

“Come on,” Carmody urged.

Briggs stuffed the weapon under his belt and, leaving the banknotes on the table, started slowly for the bar in the wrong direction. He bumped into a table, turned, and walked the wrong way again. While the crowd watched, silent, curious, it took him several starts in several directions to shuffle where he intended to go in the first place. As soon as he reached the bar, the room came alive with voices and the scrape of chairs.

Carmody took a bottle from a row, eased around one end of the bar, and put a friendly hand on Briggs's arm. “Let's go outside,” he said. “Where we can talk private. What say?”

They went outside, to the dogtrot, and the owner closed the door behind them.

“You all right, Martin?” he asked.

“I dunno.”

“Well, I don't want you taking this personally. I have to watch the wildcat paper from out your way. I've had to eat some of it.”

Briggs nodded.

“Anyway, that was quite a story, about the women,” Carmody continued. “I get a lot of poor devils through here out of the Territory. Down and out, they claim. Foreclosed, wives died, I've heard everything. And all they want is a drink or a drunk. Do I believe 'em? I better not. I supplied 'em all, I'd have to shut up shop. But I've never heard a yarn like yours. Crazy women.” He looked at his bottle, shaking his head. “So damn farfetched it just might be true.”

“Goddammit,” Briggs mumbled.

“All right, all right. I know Altha Carter and I'll ask her. But I half-believe you. So here's half a bottle of my best.” He offered it. “You can get half-drunk. Fair enough?”

Briggs took it.

“Just do it somewhere else, will you?”

Briggs nodded. Carmody clapped him on the shoulder. “Goodnight then, Martin. And better luck to you.”

He went back inside, and Briggs at once uncorked the bottle. He had never known a thirst as mighty. He hoisted, had a long pull, and almost choked. Corking it, he stood in the dogtrot until the whiskey hit bottom. At the other place, the tent lean-to, the fight was over. In the dance house, the fiddler played “We'll All Go Down to Rouser's.” Presently he started out to find his horse and had the same difficulty he'd had trying to find the bar. He started through the tree stumps in several different directions. He wandered around amongst the animals and bumped into a buggy. He had once met a farmer who'd been struck by lightning while running from his stable to his house during a storm. It had knocked him down, and he lay on the ground under the thunder and thought he was dead. When he discovered he wasn't, and got up, he couldn't figure how to get to his house. His head was on backward. He started this way and that way and had a hell of a time covering the fifty feet to his target. It took that farmer, in the end, a day or two to locate himself. George Briggs could scarcely comprehend the size and the significance of what had happened to him. He had lost his capital without playing a hand. Six fifty-dollar banknotes had turned into ass-wipes. It wasn't his fault or Cuddy's or the gambler's or Carmody's. It was the banker's, up in Loup, and maybe not even his, and maybe not even the big bastard bankers back east. It was nobody's. Splendid deed! It was even splendider than Altha Carter thought because he'd done it for nothing! Half a bottle of whiskey! Shit! Now, finally, Briggs found his horse and, thankful, got some more good out of the bottle. After he untied, however, he had trouble mounting up and holding the bottle. It might have been the whiskey as well as the lightning. He shoved the bottle into a side pocket and tried again. This time his boot rising kicked the headboard out of the rope that bound it to his bedroll. He cursed and found it by grubbing around on the ground in the moonlight, then vised it under his left arm, and this time, the third, managed to clamber up and hang on to reins and marker and settle into the stirrups.

Farewell, Candledamntown. He trotted to the river road intending to turn left, south, toward Hebron, but his head was still on backward and he turned right, north, toward the crossing.

•   •   •

To be ready for business at break of day, the ferry was tied up to the east bank of the river. Fires burned low in the stand of tall trees where the freight and emigrant trains were camped and asleep, waiting for that daybreak. Under a moon like a great goldpiece the Missouri lay, a long molten line between the known and the unknown.

Briggs rode down the bank and on board, hooves echoing off the hollow scow. Halfway he hauled up and slid down and dropped the headboard with a thump and tied his horse to a downstream side-rail. Shoving the board to the rail with a boot, he sat down heavily beside it with his back against a stanchion, slipped bottle from pocket, and had a slow, melancholy swallow.

It occurred to him he had left his cowcoat at the livery stable and his saddlebags in the room at the hotel.

It occurred to him that most of his worldly goods he now had with him on the ferry: a hard-mouth horse, new suit and hat, saddle, rifle, repeater, cartridges for both, a bowie knife, a grave marker, and a few greenbacks, how few he was too drunk to care or count.

One night and one day in Ioway and he had been stitched, hemmed, tucked, corded, and embroidered. Of course, some of it was his own damn fault.

He never should have given Altha Carter the mules and wagon. Goddammit, he could have got at least fifty dollars for them.

He should have brought his cowcoat and saddlebags with him.

He wished he had a pickle.

BOOK: The Homesman
6.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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