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Authors: Douglas C. Jones

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BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
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Local citizens called it the Government Suspender.
he incident came to be known as the Winding Stair Massacre. On a warm spring morning in the mountains of the Choctaw Nation, I beheld the first of its victims when one of our posse men drew back a wagon sheet from the naked body of Mrs. Eagle John. She had been a reasonably attractive woman of about forty, but what she had been seemed of little consequence now. She was lying in the sassafras thicket of an old fallow field among the pines, her cotton-stockinged legs spread, her hair in disarray on the blackened ground. Her cheeks were puffed from internal bleeding although no marks of a beating showed on the dark, waxy skin of her face. One eye was open in an expression of surprise and disbelief. Her throat had been slashed, the wound gaping like a cleavered slab of pork, open to the cervical.
With the first shock of seeing that butchered body, it seemed incomprehensible that only four hours before I had been in my Fort Smith hotel room drawing maps of the city and of The Nations. I had arrived from Saint Louis a few days previously to work as clerk and investigator for Mr. William Evans, prosecuting attorney in Parker's federal court, with the promise that soon I would be assigned to one of the deputy marshals on investigation of criminal cases. After I'd completed my degree at the University of Illinois and read law for a year in my father's office, it had been decided that I should become acquainted with law enforcement. Father said if I was bent on becoming a prosecutor, which I was, then I'd best learn something about how the state provided defendants to prosecute. His friendship of many years' standing with Isaac Parker made my appointment to the Fort Smith court possible. Now, in order to better explain the confused and often contradictory nature of the court and its function, I purposed to make maps for my father so that in my letters the terrain would be clear to him.
The maps were a device to overcome boredom as well. Evans kept me occupied during the day, but nights quickly became insufferable, with no friends or outside interests in the city. The thought had come to mind of attending Henryetta's Frisco Hotel and Billiard Parlor, one of the bordellos near the railyards. But I had little desire for such commercial and sweaty coupling within the smell of river fish along the Fort Smith waterfront. Nor did the Garrison Avenue saloons, well accoutred as many were, hold any fascination. No matter the loneliness and boredom, I was determined not to spend each night becoming sotted in some barroom.
I was struggling with straightedge and India ink at the desk in my room—the Farmers' Federal Bank clock had just struck midnight—when Joe Mountain came.
The Main Hotel was a good one with elevators, electric lights, and a rotating fan in the ceiling of each room. Even though it was relatively new, the hallway floors squeaked when anyone walked along them. But on that night I heard no sound of anyone until there was a sudden banging on my door. Before I could cross the room, the door swung open and there filling it was a large man wearing a Texas hat and a yellow duster that hung away from his legs like an unpegged tent. In the dim hallway light his teeth showed in a wide grin. He moved into the room silently as a large spider and I stepped back, reaching behind me for something heavy on the desk. His smile stretched across a wide, high-cheeked face, the eyeteeth fully a quarter-inch longer than the rest. It gave him the appearance of a smiling wolf.
“You Eben Pay?” he asked. His voice was deep, and although it had a soft guttural quality it filled the room.
“Yes. What do you want?”
“Cap'n says you come along with me. We're goin' to The Nations,” he said, eyes and teeth shining in the light from my desk lamp. Framing his massive Indian head was a shock of black hair falling straight across his ears to his shoulders. Along his left cheek was a line of blue dots, tattooed from eyebrow to jawbone.
“Captain who?” I asked, still moving away from him. He had brought into the room a heavy odor of cooked meat and tobacco, a pungent but not unpleasant smell that I had never experienced before.
“Cap'n Oscar Schiller. He and you and me and my little brother Blue Foot are goin' to The Nations tonight. Me and Blue Foot track for the Cap'n. We're Osage. I'm Joe Mountain. You got any boots?”
“Who in hell is Oscar Schiller?” I asked.
“He's a marshal. One of Parker's marshals. Best one around. He says you come with me. We got a big murder. Old Billy Evans, he told the Cap'n to take you along. Ain't that what you're here for?”
“That's part of it,” I said.
“Well, you better get dressed. When the Cap'n gets after somebody that's done murder, he don't like to stand around.”
“Wait outside. I'll be ready in a minute.”
He made no move to leave as I opened my trunk and started pulling out field gear.
“We're gonna catch the late-night Texas freight,” he said. “What's your first name, Eben Pay?”
“That's all the name I've got. It was my father's name. Still is.”
He laughed without changing expression. His wolf-teeth showed constantly in his dark face.
“It's a good name. I like it. Does it mean anything?”
“No, it's just a name.”
My hands shook as I laced my boots, partly from the Indian's unexpected entry, also because I was getting into The Nations. I had the feeling as Joe Mountain watched me dress that he disapproved of my field gear, most especially the narrow-brimmed hat and the lace boots. He was wearing elaborately beaded and fringed moccasins.
“I bet you never would have thought I was Osage,” he said, grinning. “With my hair like this. Us Osage, we used to wear it roached, but nowadays we just let it grow. Except for my little brother Blue Foot. He's young, but he's an old-fashioned Osage. He roaches his. You'll see.”
Joe Mountain led me down the back fire stairs and into an alley, explaining that the hotel people raised hell when an Indian came parading through their lobby, even an Indian on government work. We hurried out to Garrison Avenue and along the dark street. All the gas jet streetlamps had been extinguished, as they were each night before ten. We could see a few saloon lights and I heard a player piano in a barely recognizable rendition of “Willie We Have Missed You.” We passed the American Express office and the Anheuser-Busch brewery with its stables facing the street, each of the high arched doorways crowned with a brass eagle.
“What's happened in The Nations?” I asked, panting as I tried to keep up.
“Hell, Eben Pay, I don't know. Cap'n, he'll tell us all that when he feels like it.”
“Why do you call him Captain?”
“Because that's what he wants to be called,” Joe Mountain said and laughed. “The Cap'n generally gets what he wants.”
As he spoke, I began to realize that he was not constantly grinning, as had first appeared. Rather, his teeth were too large for his mouth, so that his lips were always parted. Although he was as large as any man I had ever known, he walked with a flowing rhythm and grace that reminded me of a full-foliaged black locust tree bending in a hard breeze, the leaves in fluid motion.
We came to the Frisco station at the foot of Garrison Avenue, where I had detrained only four nights before, and turned north along the tracks. To the west was the Arkansas River, dark and unseen now, and beyond that The Nations. We passed along the fronts of long warehouses and a number of old hotels, where lights were showing. Joe Mountain said something about whores and pointed toward one of the lighted buildings.
“That's Henryetta's place,” he said. “You ever been in there?”
“Me neither, except sometimes when I go with the Cap'n on official business.” He waved an arm off into the darkness. “Down a little farther is Big Tooth Betty's. You ever been in there?”
“No, I haven't been in any of them.”
“They say she runs a fine whorehouse. They won't let me in there, either.”
The night was warm and above us stars were out. But across the river, the sky darkened and The Nations seemed swallowed in a black void with only occasional lightning to mark the western horizon. The flare of blue-white light would run along the edge of the world, silent and distant, looking cold and ominous.
“I don't like that lightning,” Joe Mountain said, and I supposed it was some savage superstition. But he sensed what I was thinking and laughed. “It means we may get our asses wet before this is over.”
Switch engines were working the yards, their lights blinding us as we moved to the mainline spur. There, headed by a big road-locomotive that dwarfed the yard engines, stood a long line of boxcars. The firebox sent dancing patterns of flame-red color across the tracks.
At the caboose, beside the tracks, was a group of men. One was an Indian dressed like Joe Mountain, except that he wore no hat. I could see his long roach hanging from the top of his head like black corn silks sprouting from a smooth melon. He held a heavy rifle in each hand. With him was a small white man in a palmetto hat holding saddlebags draped over one arm, and a little apart a brakeman and a conductor were waiting impatiently.
The man in the palmetto moved toward us, his hand extended. Oscar Schiller was everything I would have expected a federal peace officer not to be. He was small to the point of frailness and wore thick steel-rimmed spectacles that gleamed in the lights from the working engines. He was clean-shaven, and when he spoke his thin lips moved only slightly. As he introduced himself, I could see his eyes were pale blue and that he seldom blinked.
“Mr. Pay. Sorry to roust you out so late, but Mr. Evans said you might be interested in the investigation of a case in The Nations.”
“I was hoping for it,” I said, taking his small fingers in my hand. Like the Osages, he wore a long duster over cotton duck trousers and jacket.
“We've got a little killing down in the Choctaw. Indian woman, a widow.”
“I thought jurisdiction in Indian cases belonged to the Indian courts.”
“They do. But not if there's whites in it. There's a white in this. Had a wire, Choctaw police at Hatchet Hill. Found the body last night. This train'll get us there by daybreak.”
His conversation was clipped and blunt, somewhat rude. His voice was rough, like sandstones rubbing together. Front the start, I disliked him.
Abruptly, he turned and mounted the steps of the caboose and I heard him use a phrase I would come to associate with him as time passed.
“Let's get to business.”
The train-crew quarters were at the front of the caboose, but in back were two facing pairs of passenger seats. Oscar Schiller and Blue Foot took one of these, Joe Mountain and I the one across the aisle. Blue Foot had not uttered a word and now sat staring at me. He was smaller than his brother, but he had the same flat, high-cheeked face and black eyes. His fingers were slender, almost delicate, as he held the rifles between his legs, butts resting on the floor.
Schiller took a newspaper from his saddlebags and began to read, ignoring the rest of us. He produced peanuts from a pocket of his duster and ate them as he read, dropping the shells on the floor.
“Where is Hatchet Hill?” I asked Joe Mountain.
“Down on Kiamichi River, south of Winding Stair Mountains,” he said. “You gonna like this case, Eben Pay. Murder's the best kind. The Cap'n takes in after anybody who does murder and he don't let up until he's got 'em.”
We jerked to a start, the big engine up ahead driving forward, popping each coupling tight along the line of cars. The brakeman passed down the aisle, then the conductor. Schiller handed him some red tickets and Joe Mountain laughed.
“Railroad passes,” he said. “The Cap'n got enough railroad passes in them saddlebags to choke a mule.”
“Where does he get railroad passes?”
The big Osage looked at me as though he thought me a complete idiot.
“From the railroads. The railroads give passes to newspaper writers because they like to have good stuff wrote about their trains. They give passes to the Cap'n because if they didn't, he'd arrest half the men working on their lines for going into The Nations without a proper permit.”
By treaty with the tribes of The Nations, whites were allowed into their territory only if they married into a tribe or if they had a work permit from the federal government. The railroads had been building through that country for years, and they were run almost exclusively by whites. I knew from my short term in Evans's office that many whites were honestly employed in The Nations without a permit, a situation generally ignored by the authorities. But there were others who were there specifically because Indian courts and police had no jurisdiction over them and there was no normal system of state law to control their conduct. These were engaged in pursuits generally neither honest nor admirable. Even so, I could develop little respect for Schiller's extortion of the railroads by way of tacit threat to itinerant workers whom they needed but who had no legal papers.
We rolled past the Frisco passenger station, picking up speed southward along the banks of the Poteau River. The tracks turned west then, and as the lights of Fort Smith disappeared behind us I knew we were in the Choctaw Nation. There was a long stretch of flat country before we started into the hills. The train was a through freight and we passed all the hamlets without slowing. The light of kerosene lamps shone in the buildings, parading past our window like faint orange puff balls against the dusty glass. As the night wore on, we saw only occasional lights and the rest was darkness. But Joe Mountain made sure I knew where we were.
“San Bois Mountains over there,” he said, pointing into the night. And later, “We're almost to the Winding Stair.”
BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
7.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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