Can a 14-year-old orphan out-con a heartless bunch of rustlers, hustlers and railroad thugs? When Deuter Seebea loses his family and only friend on the way to Oregon in 1879, he has no place to go, and nobody to turn to. He flees his friend’s murderer and ends up in Railstop, a shantytown in Montana Territory that’s populated by ne’er-do-wells, shady ladies—and a maniacal cat named MaryBelle.
Deuter quickly learns the hard way that if he wants something done, he’ll have to do it himself—and watch his own back. He soon discovers that the conniving residents built Railstop directly in the path of the approaching FI&R Railroad line for the sole purpose of extorting a windfall settlement. When the payoff finally comes, however, it’s every man, woman, and cat for themselves in a ruthless—and hilarious—quest for wealth, glory, and hootch whiskey.
Winner take all, or winner take none, Deuter is willing to fight and scheme for his unfair share of the spoils.
“Solidly written and a first class entertainment from beginning to end, Greg Comer’s Winner Take None is a deftly crafted novel that showcases the author’s impressive talents as an original and skilled storyteller. Very highly recommended for personal reading lists and community library collections, in print or eBook.” — Able Greenspan, Midwest Book Review
“A hilarious retelling of the settlement of the West, Winner Take None is both a light-hearted adventure novel and a treatise on the ugly roots of American capitalism. Comer tells this story with the humorous style and cutting social commentary of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, along with the occasional absurdity of Monty Python.” — Montana Quarterly
“A vividly rendered debut novel by Greg Comer set in the frontier country of 19th-century Montana. Evocative descriptions and crisp, salty dialogue liven up the proceedings, often with a dash of humor. What emerges in the end is an entertaining peek at an important moment in American history, when the glamour of gold was still glittering bright and the West was being won one small outpost at a time. A richly satisfying slice of Americana.” — Kirkus Review
“An in-your-face, authentic take on the wild, Wild West! Comer’s sensuous writing drew me in as if the story was a movie. The Queen’s English is mixed with pioneer vernacular to create hilarious metaphors that lighten this tale of greed, corruption, and survival mentality. As the railroad plows over the land, imposing ‘Intimate Domain’ for the cause of ‘Man’s Infest Destiny,’ the story becomes a fun, fast-paced read.” — Sheri S. Levy, author, Seven Days to Goodbye
“Greg Comer slices up a Montana-sized claim for the reader’s pleasure, with hardscrabble, larger-than-life characters who are perfectly captured in all their unscrupulous glory. The gritty dialog propels Deuter, Hogbottom, and the rest of the Railstop gang on a one-way track to ill-gotten gains by crash-landing into a railroad that’s scheduled to run through the black-humored heart of this colorful pioneer town.” — Jennifer Leeper, author, Padre: The Narrowing Path
Monday morning and Brede Jorstad meant to beat me to death. I did not see it coming, me on my knees working a scrub brush into the blood-caked wood floor of the General Store. The smell of spoiled meat had welcomed me when I came in to open up. Brede had cut up a side of beef or a deer on Sunday, and had left things a mess. The meat saw, cleaver, and chopping block were covered in blood and gristle; the flies were thick and crawling. He came in through the back door. I paid him no mind until he bellowed and I looked up and he laid me out. He plucked me off the floor like an empty flour sack, dragged me to the front of the store and mashed my shoulder against the door jamb.
He hit me hard and he hit me again, and my head bounced off the jamb and the Fourth of July exploded; rockets tore apart the night sky over Lake Placid, me holding Pa’s hand, dazzled by the reflections in the still water. Him nervous, not liking the cannon fire and pistol shots, remembering when they were aimed at him. Me crying out, only the boardwalk coming at my face wasn’t water, and it didn’t splash when I hit it. A square-headed nail gashed my forehead and I wasn’t in Lake Placid but in Clevis Hook, Montana Territory. Pa was dead, I was fourteen years old, hurt, and this time Brede meant it. Fog, roaring and pain, me sprawled across those boards thinking run, come up running, run, but my feet slipped and I fell to my knees. Brede grabbed my collar and shook me, a dog killing a rat, and my shirt ripped. I could not draw breath to ask why. My head was broken, my shoulder was broken, and he hit me again.
A small crowd collected in the dirt street—a Brede Jorstad beating was considered high entertainment in most Clevis Hook circles. I knew every one of these people, had fetched, carried, and written up their purchases at the counter inside. I had been in their homes, cleaned their stables, cared for their horses, mules, and milch cows. There was no help for me among them, nobody to take the part of a kid dressed like an Irish tracklayer, not against big Brede Jorstad. He yanked me upright with a meaty paw and smashed my nose and I sat down hard, blood pouring from both nostrils.
“Beating a child like that. The idea.”
“Had it coming no doubt, let’s move on, Mags.”
Like most things Brede did, this beating was methodical; he worked through it as he pounded me with those sledgehammer fists, each punch and kick delivered with a heavy, spit-laden grunt. A job of work like any other: drive a fencepost; unload a wagon; beat Deuter Seebea to death. His chest wheezed like a smithy’s bellows, each breath a mix of whiskey, tobacco, and last night’s sausages. His big arms hung at his sides. Get away run, run, but I could not get up. The world pitched and spun, and he moved in.
Harm Obendt stepped between us. “You back off now, Brede. That’s enough.”
“Ain’t your affair, Obendt.”
Harm stood there stooped and ragged, a ratty thin-necked scarecrow. There was no backup in him. The people milling about were smoky ghosts moving through smoke. Salty blood ran over my upper lip and down what was left of my shirt. Harm’s voice a mile off.
“We both know what’s eating you, Brede. Has nothing to do with this boy.”
Brede shook his big head and moved back half a step. I tried to rise up and a white pain ignited behind my eyes, the Fourth again with guns booming, Appomattox and townsfolk cheering. I pitched forward onto the boardwalk.
Mrs. Emilee Van der Hoeven knelt beside me. She was the sheriff’s wife and my fourth-grade teacher up until this spring, when I left school to work twelve-hour days for Brede. I tried to tell her how I hadn’t set off the fireworks but would be needing a new shirt and… she shushed me and ran her hand over my head, giving Brede a cool stare from underneath her bonnet. I had seen that look before; enough to make you look for a rock to crawl under.
She helped me to sit up and eased me onto my feet. I was wobbly, confused, and ashamed—but I held tight to her arm.
“This ain’t over, Obendt,” said Brede as he retreated into his store. Mrs. Van der Hoeven handed me over to Harm and continued down the boardwalk without a word.
Harm sat me down outside the livery stable and admired the knot on my forehead. Overflow from his chaw dribbled into his chin hairs. His breath would have took paint off. By most accounts he was an ornery ne’er-do-well, not a man of property or standing within the community. Pa and him had got along even so, Pa saying not to judge a book by its disreputable cover. Pa always called him Hiram or even Mr. Obendt, and made me do the same. He worked rare shifts as night watchman over to the stockyard and some odd jobs at the army fort, but mostly he sat in the shade at the livery stable, chewing plug and telling lies with his cronies.
“What in Sam Hill you do to Brede this time, Deuter?” He rolled up a strip of my torn shirt and said to stuff it up my nose.
I sat against the rough-sawn plank wall and watched a grey mist cover the world. A train whistled from far down the tracks, but there were no trains, rails, or grey mist in Clevis Hook. “I done nothing. Cleaning up the meat shop.”
Harm spit a foul stream across his boot. “Mmm-hmm. Likely messing with his hidey-hole.” He gave me a sideways look, wanting me to ask, waiting me out. But I couldn’t see across the dirt street or even recall my pa’s name. I waved my hand at him in surrender.
“Where he hides his hootch and whatnot. You shouldn’t a been snoopin.”
He grunted, noncommittal.
“He owes me wages, Harm.”
He spit into the dirt. “Be glad you still got your head on.”
We sat quietly, him staring off into space, me cradling my head, picking shards of boardwalk out of my elbow. It was cool in the shade, but the clear sky promised another hot one. Flies buzzed at the trough, and down the street a mule brayed like the life was being squeezed out of him.
“We both of us lucky Brede’s big sister stepped in,” said Harm.
“Mrs. Van der Hoeven?”
He chuckled. “Rumor has it. Ain’t like she’s stepped up to claim him.”
Tom Lagniappe slipped between the fence rails and plopped down between us. He pulled a mangy deck of cards from the pocket of his new white shirt. Except for the shirt, he was scruffy as me and Harm. Big across the shoulders, hands like coal scuttles. “What you do to your face, p’tit,” he said, his mind on the shuffling of his cards. His hands were as clumsy as they were big; cards exploded into the air like a flock of black and red birds. “Merde alors,” he mumbled. “Son-of-a-bitch.” He gathered in the cards and patted them into alignment. Up they flew.
“That is pitiful,” said Harm. “Why keep at it? You ain’t no good at cards to begin with.”
“Mon oncle taught me all the poker hands,” Tom said. “Bet you didn’t even know poker ain’t a game of chance. It’s all in what comes up. Probabilities, t’sais.”
“You probably ain’t got a chance,” said Harm, which him and me both thought was pretty clever, only I couldn’t laugh or breathe, either—not with my lower lip swelling up and a hunk of shirt sleeve up my nose.
Tom ignored him, head down, shuffling, and patting. His braids traced circles in the dirt as he gathered his cards. He was what they called a Breed, though he called himself Huron-Irish. He had ridden into town a month or so ago, and immediately joined the half-dozen philosophers who regularly gathered on the shady side of the livery stable. He had not yet been accused of working, apart from driving Brede Jorstad’s freight wagon to Bozeman City now and again. Harm said he didn’t think Tom was an Indian at all, with that southern-sounding, Frenchy accent. Just uses it as an excuse for being shiftless, and don’t Hurons shave the sides of their heads?
Harm pulled out his clasp knife and started on a stick of kindling. He sold his whittlesticks to the town’s widows at three for a penny, which he said kept him in tobacco if he didn’t take days off.
My jacket hung on a peg in the meat shop and I didn’t want to think about that, so I remembered about coming west with Pa, every town or cow camp along the trail with a tough kid wanting to fight. Pa always said just walk away, but how do you do that? I was strong for my age and scared to show I was scared, so I fought, and mostly I won. I could hoist a sack of grain onto a wagon or shoe a horse. But Brede Jorstad had tossed me around like a raggedy doll. I didn’t want to feel that helpless and desperate again, not ever. With the flipping and fluttering of the cards and the steady scrape of Harm’s knife, I started to drop off. My stomach churned at the smell of Harm’s chaw, even through the bloody rag. I stood and leaned against the fence, tried to get the haberdashery sign across the street to unblur itself.
Two riders walked their horses along the street, sizing up the dozen or so log buildings and wood storefronts of the business district. They stopped across from where the Adolphus brothers were laying bricks for the new bank. The bigger one said something out the side of his mouth, and the other one laughed. I could see that much, halleluiah.
Tom pushed his deck back in his pocket. “Believe I know them boys,” he said. “Y’all ain’t never seen me.” He slipped under the fence rail and into the stable.
“Something seriously off kilter with that boy,” said Harm.
The riders pulled up at the trough. Rough-looking men, week-old stubble fields over deep and dirty sunburns, dusty and red-eyed. Their faces turned fuzzy when I looked directly at them, so I half closed my eyes and listened.
“Looking for a man.”
“Either of us do?” said Harm.
“Naw. This one’s a big ugly with Indian hair. Y’all’d know him by his hands. Biggest hands you ever—wasn’t there three of you sittin here a second ago?” He drawled his words, picking them from his brain one at a time. Accent like Tom’s, only slower, whiny-sounding.
I looked over to the stable. A round eyeball stared out through a knothole.
“You say he’s Indian…” said Harm.
“Says he is; why would you lie about something like that?”
“Get in on one of them Oklahoma land deals they’re talking up.”
“You some kinda joker?”
“We don’t hold much with Indians in these parts,” said Harm. “But I maybe seen your boy a week or so back. Big and dumb, teeth like a stick a dynamite went off inside his mouth. Fancies hisself a card shark and ladies man?”
“That’s half the Montana Territory,” said the big one.
“Said he was headed for the coast. Tried to trade saddles when any fool could see he was just trying to get shut of the cat. But I tell him, I says…”
“That’s him!” cried the smaller one, “That is him, Terry!”
“You say he’s Indian? He dint look Indian.”
“Couillon look dead, we catch up with him.”
“Well, you know what they say concerning dead Indians.”
“Yes we do.” Their horses drank deep at the trough while we contemplated dead Indians.
“If you don’t mind me askin’…”
“Con a abordé our little sis—”
“T’en bouche, Tye Bo. Family matter,” he said to Harm.
They turned their horses and continued west through town, slouched in their saddles like nothing in the world was worth hurrying over. There was not much to see in that direction beyond Sullivan’s Feed Store, just a couple tumble-downs, the bridge and a green line of cottonwoods along the creek. To the south, the Absaroka Mountains thrust up from the river valley, slopes so steep it was a wonder they would hold timber. Clevis Hook is built where Fetterman Creek loops in a big lazy oxbow and almost flows back into itself. The first settlers had tired of riding around the bend to get to the other side, so they put up a long wooden bridge that crossed both channels.
Some wag said the bridge looked like the pin of a clevis hook, and the name stuck. I never felt so much a part of things as when I laughed along with the old-timers whenever a greenhorn asked if Mr. Clevis was still alive.
“Don’t know as you noticed,” said Harm. “But them boys is aboard U.S. government mounts. I bet somebody wants ’em back.”
I fell asleep calculating the money I owed to Bea and how far from town I could get on a silver dollar and the few copper pennies hidden in my sack. That was all I had if Brede didn’t pay me my wages, which he was going to do one way or the other, the son-of-a-bitch.
The morning sun had cleared the corner of the stable when in rode the cavalry. I awoke to whistling and hollering, and the drumroll of horses’ hooves. Harm still sat next to me, but Tom Lagniappe and his eyeball had departed. The bugler blatted an unrecognizable tune, and a dusty conflagration of horseflesh and blue, brass and leather cantered down the street. A dozen soldiers on parade, all of them decked out in pressed and brushed uniforms, polished saddles, straight-backed, and evenly spaced behind Old Glory. A mean and disciplined fighting outfit, the mounts as crisply turned out as the riders. They pulled up to the General Store, and formed up a clean rank. PFC Gadsden dismounted and went inside.
“Lieutenant RuckusRaiser,” said Harm. “We are safe now, praise the Lord.”
I knew Ruckus. He wasn’t really a Lieutenant, and his name wasn’t RuckusRaiser, but few people remembered that anymore. He and his soldiers were a rough-humored, loud-talking bunch, reputed to spend more time polishing brass and less fighting than any unit west of Hattiesburg. They had been respectful enough of Pa for his Civil War service, but they called him Popeye to his face, looking down on him and everybody else in the Territory. Hard to believe that grown men who slept twenty to a bunkhouse and earned less than a railroad laborer could have such a high opinion of themselves, but there you have it. Pa said a soldier who was reluctant to kill could not be all bad, and not to judge them too harshly.
He told me that after I tried to brain the one called Hendryx. He had sidled up behind Pa and yelled “Hey, Popeye!” which caused Pa to drop an armful of dried goods onto the boardwalk. Hendryx and a knot of soldiers guffawed and slapped their thighs. My first rock missed Hendryx’ head by a whisker. The second thumped off his shoulder. Then Pa’s skinny arms were around me, pulling me away.
“What gets into you, Deuter? Why would you hurt that man?”
“I wasn’t trying to hurt him,” me choking snot out of my throat. “I was trying to kill him.”
I stayed away from them when I could, never understood their jokes or why the sight of Pa limping along, looking about through his nearsighted eyes, jerking at any sudden sound amused them so.
Pa was right though, they were not all bad, Ruckus better than most. He had kept Pa in jobs over to the Fort when nobody else would hire him. Pa had always addressed him as Sergeant Ruckenheiser, even after Harm hung that nickname on him, Harm saying sometimes you got to call ’em as you see ’em. The name had stuck, and Lieutenant RuckusRaiser was legend throughout the Territory. He knew who to blame.
The Sergeant wheeled his horse and trotted over to us. He was a pig-eyed blond moustached man, everything spit-shined and regulation down to the knotted blue neckerchief and grey wool underwear showing above the upper brass button of his shirt. “Looking for two men.”
I thought Harm would ask if either of us would do, but he was on to another game.
“Guilty as charged, Lieutenant,” said Harm. “Only Deuter here is only half guilty, him being a kid and all, so if you take the two of us together, we’re probably three-quarters guilty total. Call us one and-a-half men then, so all’s you’re really looking for is—”
“Ain’t you I’m talking about, Obendt, would you shut the hell up? These two is deserters run off on horses belonging to the United States government.”
“Two handsome-looky fellers, talk like crackers?”
Over to the store, Gadsden came out with a double handful of wrapped candy. His uniform hung loose at the shoulders, too bulky and too short in all directions for his loose-jointed, gawky frame. He offered the candy amongst the troopers and whistled. “Fresh saltwater, Sarge!”
“What if I told you them boys cleared town less than ten minutes ago, heading west?”
“I’d call you a damned liar and head north,” said the Sergeant. “You think I’m stupid?”
Harm chewed for a short minute. He spit sideways. “Well then, you’re right behind ’em, Lieutenant. Only you didn’t hear it from us.”
“Wait a minute here. So now you’re telling me they actually headed west? What kinda game you playing here, Obendt?”
Harm grinned up at him.
Sarge cursed, saying one day it would be his pleasure to string Harm up along with the rest of the slumgullions in this God-forsaken Territory, and would he kindly stop calling him Lieutenant. “As for you boy,” he said. “A man is judged by his chosen associations. Small wonder people beat you like they do. Please give my regards to ol’ Popeye.”
He rejoined his men and received his piece of taffy. With shouts and cowboy yips, the soldiers peeled smartly away from the hitch rail and trotted off, stars and stripes streaming, a dust cloud following them along the northbound trail. Wax paper wrappers fluttered in the street.
“That Ruckus Raiser is a piece of work,” said Harm. “Five, six years in command, never caught him a single Indian.”
“Salty-looking bunch, though.”
“Looks is everything with Ruckus. He ain’t going to spoil ’em in no shooting fight.”
Tom was put out with Harm. “I told you not to say nothing.” He leaned on the top rail, picked at his teeth with a piece of straw. The sun had driven us to the shady side of the corral. There wasn’t any sort of view here, except the back of Barton’s Forge, but it was cool and quiet. A powerful bouquet wafted from a wet pile of stable manure near the corner. I was supposed to haul it over to Miss Elizabeth Stone’s garden as soon as she got her corn harvested. Harm claimed not to smell a thing.
“They wishing to make a good Indian outta you,” said Harm. “Tried to put the cavalry on to ’em, but I must be losing my touch.”
“I got to make myself scarce. No quit in them Thibodeaux, Terry nor Tye Bo neither.”
I asked what them Thibodeaux wanted with him, but he couldn’t say. “Maybe those soldiers will catch up with ’em,” I said.
Harm said Ruckus couldn’t find his own ass with a turd dangling from it. I said no wonder Brede gets away with running hootch to the Indians, but Harm gave me a look. Tom said he was going to disappear into the deep bush for a while, and ambled off toward his camp.
“You know he works for Brede now and again, don’t you,” said Harm. “Hauling hootch.”
I had not seen a sign of hootch around the store, except for Brede being on a mean drunk the last couple days. He had surely reeked of it while he pounded on me, moonshine or store-bought, I couldn’t tell. The air lay heavy with dust and the oily odor of fresh dung. I put my head on the ground and the world wheeled on its spindle.
Sheriff Bob Van der Hoeven put a shiny boot on the corral rail and wiped his face with a fresh white hanky. He gave me a friendly grin from underneath his handlebar moustache, and nodded to Harm. His big belly hung over a silver buckle you might pan gold with. His big chestnut gelding Zebediah came to the rail and nuzzled up to him. A fine horse, skittish like a mule. I had a scar on my forearm where he had drug a shoeing nail through me, and I knew he could kick. Bob reached into a pocket of his vest for a piece of apple. A blood-darkened rag was tied around his left wrist. “Durned thing nipped me good the other day,” he said to nobody in particular.
Harm slapped me on the knee and creaked to his feet. “You duck next time.”
Bob chewed on his upper lip watching Harm shamble off. He was an ex-Army man, gentle as an old horse, and about as useful. Pretty much everything about Bob but his ambition was outsized and polished to a fare-thee-well. He didn’t earn much of a wage and wasn’t paid one either, just enough so he’d arrest a sleeping drunk now and then or cold-cock a boisterous one over to the Lucky Strike. Last week he had coaxed Old Man Jayne’s cat off a roof with a fish head on a long stick. If the drunks and cats stayed home, he helped his wife at the school. Mrs. Van der Hoeven would watch him helping Carrie or one of the Litchfield girls with their ciphering, and purse her lips up like when I was reading from the primer. The girls called him a pesky varmint.
“My wife says you was causing trouble over to the General Store.”
I told him my side of the story and about the wages Brede owed me. I kept the hidey-hole to myself.
“Son, I’ll get over there and talk with him, but I got to tell you, I don’t see much hope in it. You keep a payroll record, write your time down?”
For all his wife’s teaching, ciphering was not something I’d got hold of. I could count past a hundred without too much trouble, but when the numbers needed carrying or taking away, I could not work out how many to grab or where to set them down. I took the wages Brede gave me, had Bea count out what I owed her, and stuffed the leftover in my sack.
“Well, let me talk with him, and you try staying out of trouble for a while.”
The next morning, my head ached and fresh scabs coated my elbows, knees, and forehead. I was tender in a dozen places, but my bones seemed intact enough, even my nose. I rinsed my face in the trough, and was set to have breakfast and hunt a job. There were but a dozen or so businesses in the entire town of Clevis Hook and none of them prosperous, but somebody was bound to need some laboring done.
Over to Bea’s Cafe they said Carrie Muller had turned up missing again. Her Ma came around saying she hadn’t seen her in a while, and folks commenced to wondering where she’d got off to this time. She hadn’t showed up for work at Brede’s store for a day or two, but that wasn’t unheard of with her. Every couple of months she would take off with her latest beau, only to show up a week or two later with her heart broke and half the men in town lining up to welcome her home.
Bea was snippy with me; my tab was at a dollar and ten and when was I planning on settling up. I said when Brede Jorstad pays what he owes me and she said well then, we are both out of luck. I said I have always paid up til now haven’t I, and she admitted it was true. She asked had I looked in a mirror lately, and no, she didn’t have any work for me.
I had another go at the trough, and started job hunting at the east end of town. I asked if the Haberdasher needed help, and then stopped by Hazlett’s Barber Shop and Apothecary; filled out a form at Sullivan’s; the Lumber Yard and then the Brickworks said no; the Butcher shop was closed, so I stopped in at Francie’s Confectionary; I went into the Lucky Strike Saloon and slipped in back to talk to the master brewer. Nothing. Barton’s Forge and Smithy; Janie’s Fancy Store, the Wheelwright and the Coffiner; The Adolphus brothers had a hod carrier already and wasn’t I a might skinny; no luck at the Tannery or Schultz’s’ Harness and Saddle. I hit every place in town. Nobody was interested in hiring the kid Brede Jorstad had caught stealing.
“I never stole a thing,” I said.
“Ain’t how I heard it.”
“Ol Brede up and walloped you for the hell of it? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“And to lie on top of it. Why…”
Back to the livery stable, I carried water for the trough, mucked out the three leased stalls and grabbed my medicine bag off its nail. This early, none of the regulars were at the corral, so I had my pick of spots. One was pretty much like the other, so I unslung my bag and sat where Harm hadn’t lately been spitting chaw.
Something had set Brede off, and it wasn’t money. He knew I hadn’t stolen from him. His eyes had not been angry; they were scared. What could frighten big Brede Jorstad was something I did not want to meet in the night. I pulled my wool blanket from the bag and folded it behind me for a pad. Next out was a dented-up gold pan. I poured the bag’s remaining inventory into it, wishing it made more of a clatter. My cash money was two silver dollars and a little bag of copper coins. I did not want to give up one of those dollars to settle with Bea, but it was coming to that. A small leather pouch had maybe a half ounce of gold in it. A brown envelope held a couple of Ma’s linen doilies and her necklace. I pulled the necklace out and held it against the sky. Pa had given it to her when they were courting back in upstate New York. The pearl was oily bright. I pretended the gold, mostly worn off the chain, meant it was very old and valuable. I folded it into the doilies and tucked them back in the envelope. I did not have any real memory of Ma beyond these baubles, and stories Pa had told me. She bled to death trying to bring my baby brother into the world, me two years old at the time. The baby died along with her, and then Pa last year, so now it was just me and the contents of my gold pan. A few clay marbles, a mouse skull I’d boiled up, and a jackknife with two good blades. A chunk of molded lead Pa called a Minié and his discharge papers from Lincoln’s army. I shoved everything back in the bag, leaned back against the blanket, and emptied my head of what little was in it.
The sheriff came by and asked had I seen Carrie, but I hadn’t, not since Saturday anyway.
Around noon, a search party headed up by Brede Jorstad found a torn-off sleeve from Carrie’s blue dress in back of Harm Obendt’s shack. They turned up another piece of it in a corner behind the woodstove, and went looking for him. By the time I got there, he had fought his way into the jail and turned to face them with an iron poker in one hand, a pistol in the other. He said Bob could arrest him, but only after them drunked up saloon hangers-on got the hell out. Bob shoved everyone out of the jail, them saying jeezus Vandy, we weren’t really going to string him up, can’t a man have a little fun?
Bob cleared the mob away, and Harm said he’d keep his pistol with him in case of further developments. Bob said that is the dumbest thing I ever did hear, a prisoner can’t have a gun on him. Harm said what if I unload it and keep the shells in my pocket? In the end, Bob let Harm keep the poker. He said he would turn Harm’s gun over to the mayor for safekeeping.
I did not believe a bit of it, and not because Harm was my friend. Everybody knew Carrie’s latest beau had gone off to the Wyoming Territory, and it was only a matter of time until she joined up with him down there. I never could see her that way myself, not with her washed out brown hair and boney knees, but nobody was asking me.
Not that she wasn’t nice enough, and prettier than the Litchfields, them with their pimples and bad teeth. Carrie and I were friends, I guessed, working at the store like we did. She treated me nice, except one time saying I was dumb as a pocket full of fishhooks. Which wasn’t true at all. Mrs. Van der Hoeven had already told me I might not be the smartest thing to come down the pike, but I was surely the most dogged.
The day Carrie called me dumb I was stocking shelves, working at reading the labels on the canned goods. She was blathering, keeping an eye out that Brede didn’t catch her loafing. Whenever we worked together I had to go at it twice as hard to make up for her dilly-dallying. She described the dress this beau was going to buy her, how that one was jealous of the other one. I hmmed and uh-huhed, not really paying much attention. She touched me on the arm. “What you think about us doing that one thing, Deuter,” she said, and I said what one thing would that be, and she said what one thing you think, and I commenced to pondering on it. I stood there sorting through it in my head, and that is when she said I was like fishhooks and then a customer came in before I could say back I wasn’t dumb I was dogged.
Now she was missing, but I wasn’t worried for her. She’d turn up with a bun in her oven and a ring on her finger, and everybody would go on with their business.
But Harm was stuck in jail, with a crowd of drunks thinking that lynching him might be a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. A crowbar might loosen the bricks along the back wall of that cell.
Thirsty Morten let me into Harm’s cell. Thirsty was Brede’s kin by marriage somehow, and had achieved some success as the town drunk. In his spare time he fixed wagons for the wheelwright and built furniture and doors and such.
If you needed a chest of drawers or a rocking chair, Thirsty was your man, as long as you hired him sober and did not pay cash money before the job was done. Brede sent him to Bozeman City every couple of weeks to pick up supplies at the wholesalers. He had taken to sending Tom Lagniappe along to keep him sober. They made a good team, Thirsty not trusting Indians, and Tom needing Thirsty sober enough to drive the wagon.
The sheriff let Thirsty sleep at the jail if he would sweep it out now and again. He was not happy to have Harm Obendt sleeping on his bed, and gave him a sour look as he closed the cell door behind me. I did not care for the sound of that iron latch falling into place. The cell was six feet on a side, lighted by a series of six inch gaps along the top course of the brick walls. It smelled of old tobacco, sweat, urine, and vomit. Harm sat on a filthy tick mattress laid on the dirt floor. The poker leaned against the wall behind him. His left eye was swollen shut.
I leaned against the door and asked what I could do for him.
“I’m comfortable enough,” he said, “I have noted herein certain amenities sorely lacking in my manse upon the hill. The opportunity to shit in a bucket being one I am particularly learning to cherish.”
Whenever Harm talked like that I figured he was setting me up, so I kept my face blank and nodded. I wanted to ask if he’d been fed and watered, but maybe that was part of the amenities. I talked some about Carrie, made a try at comparing bumps and bruises. He wasn’t having any. I said what if I told the sheriff Brede’s got a hidey-hole, maybe that would win some points. He grabbed my sleeve, and lowered his voice down to a whisper. “Deuter, you listen careful now. Don’t you say a damn thing to that sheriff. Not a goddamn word. Get yourself the hell away from this town, and don’t you so much as look back.”
I said I was doing my dead level best to do just that, but it was going to take me awhile to get a stake together, and how did he know bout that hole anyway?
“Working nights maybe I see things I oughtn’t. But listen now. They got me dead to rights and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.” Staring with one wild eye, a bead of brown tobacco juice dribbling off his chin. “I got a little stash out behind the shack. I ain’t gonna need it, and it’ll get you down the road. Under a black rock just east of the shitter—”
“What if I talk with Tom? Him and me, we could pull down that wall—”
“Jaysus, boy, don’t you listen?”
“Harm, this ain’t a fit place—”
“Morten! Yah, Morten. Come on now and get this boy.”
Thirsty pushed me onto the boardwalk and looked me over with his droopy, red-rimmed eyes. “You heared the man, go on, git. I see you round here again I’ll likely finish Brede’s job for him. You’ll be in a pickle like somebody else we know.” He hooted and was still cackling when I looked back from across the street. “In a pickle!” he hollered, flapping his arms. Crazy old coot.
Harm had been his nasty self in there, but still I owed him. It was clear that Brede had set him up, and I was betting that hidey-hole was somehow mixed up in it. So I went to find Sheriff Bob. He was in the Lucky Strike, sitting down to a poker game. He winked at the dealer and we stepped outside. “I thought about that boyfriend too.
Telegraphed the sheriff down to Rock Springs, asked had she arrived there. Nothing back yet, but we’ll give it another try fore the Circuit Judge gets here. ’Spect we will see her traipsing back any minute now.”
I told him again about Brede beating me and Harm making him back down, and how I figured Brede had set him up for it and what about Brede running hootch to the Indians. Harm had said not to say anything, but once I got started it slipped out. Bob shook his head.
“Son, I hear the stories same as you. But Brede didn’t get Carrie Muller to go missing so we could hang Hiram Obendt for him. I’ll do my best for Hiram right up to the hanging, don’t think I won’t.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Guess that’s sorta my job.”
He looked back from the saloon doorway. “Fore I forget. The wife says you’re to come by tomorrow round dinner time. Put some meat on them bones.”
I was getting a meal over to Bea’s every morning, but wasn’t going to turn down Mrs. Van der Hoeven’s cooking.
After Pa died, I had taken to splitting wood and helping with chores around the house. The wood chopping was good practice for the logging camps over to Oregon, where Pa and me had been headed when the fever took him. When I swung that old two-bitted axe I was a lumberjack, every stick of wood a big Oregon fir, and before you knew it there was a stack of firewood halfway up to my waist, ready to float down the river to Astoria. One afternoon Mrs. Van der Hoeven stood at the door watching me flail, and after awhile she came out with a glass of milk and some thick buttered bread. “I’m afraid you’re going to wear that axe out, Mr. Seebea.”
“Thinking bout Oregon country, ma’am,” I said. “This is close as I’ll get to those big trees, least for awhile.”
She wasn’t the kindly sort, being a teacher and all, so I was surprised when she told me I was dogged, and didn’t see any reason for me to waste more time with school. “I have taught you all that I am able,” she said. “You stick with your reading and save those wages, Deuter. God willing, you’ll make it to Oregon one day.”
I was working for Brede by then, and stayed on with him. I slept over to the schoolhouse, cleaned up at the stable, and things were working out as well as I could expect, until Brede tried to take my head off.
There wasn’t much to do for Harm but wait for that telegram from Rock Springs. In the meantime, come hell or high water I was going to get my wages from Brede Jorstad, and maybe dig up some dirt on him. I sat in the shade beneath the windlass and watched folks come and go. I knew what needed doing, but working up to it was taking some time. So I sat.
A half hour before sundown, Brede came out of the store and made a stumbling show of locking up, like everybody in town didn’t know that lock hadn’t worked since the Flood. Half the town did their shopping after hours, when they could get in and out without having to deal with him. They pulled open the lock, wrote a chit for what they took, and slipped out. He grumbled, but one way or another everybody paid up, in money or in trade.
Brede lumbered toward the Lucky Strike. I slung my bag over my shoulder and followed along behind, way back and on the far side of the street. He went inside and I crossed over and listened in through the doorway.
The drunks were talking strong for a lynching, seeing how Carrie Muller was a local girl and Harm a mean son-of-a-bitch. Carrie had been in high demand since the girls down the line had got run out of town by the Daughters of Temperance. That new boyfriend of hers had ruined things for half the men in town, her being mostly loyal to him even while he was off to Wyoming and her younger sister still a year shy of twelve. Hanging Harm was somehow going to make up for it.
“You got a rope over to your wagon?”
“We got to have us a corpus delecti!”
“We hang the sumbitch we’ll have us a corpus all right, but I ain’t sayin how delicate… deli… how you call it?”
Brede Jorstad was in the thick of it; he wouldn’t be going anywhere for a good while. I leaned against the wall and listened to the bar talk while the colors faded from the western sky.
The half-moon was rising. I walked back along the alley to the store and let myself in through a broken window.
There were a couple places Brede would stash a few dollars, but the first thing was that hidey-hole.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness. The back wall shimmered with knives, saws, meat axes, and a couple tubs he used for guts and bones and such. A block and tackle rig hung from the rafters with a bar and double hook for hanging a side of beef or an elk carcass.
I kept low to the floor and worked my way to the butchering block. Those meat hooks hovered overhead like the talons of a monster bird. The block was heavy, but I put my back into it and shoved it against the wall. Dark as it was, it took me a while to locate the edge of the trap door. Thirsty Morten must have made it; Brede could not nail two boards together, never mind cutting them square and straight. I could not get my fingers into the crack to lift it up. I scuttled over to the till and grabbed a small pry bar. There was just enough moonlight coming in through the windows to keep me from bumping into things. Still, I was fidgety every time a board creaked or the moon snuck behind a cloud.
Blood from Brede’s butchering job had flowed into the cracks and set up like glue. I scraped around the edges with a filleting knife and wedged the pry into the widest space I could find. The door popped loose. I pulled it up, got a toe underneath the edge and braced it open with a meat saw. That hole was black as the Pit. A wood ladder led down into the dark of it. I rummaged up a candle and some stove matches, and climbed down in.
The air was heavy with the odors of moldy earth and hootch, and something rotted. My feet touched the cellar floor. I struck a match and lit the candle. The hole was barely eight feet on a side, with dirt walls and floor.
The plank floor overhead was carried by heavy timbers run into the dirt on either end of the room. The floor was stained dark where something had spilled. A gob of rotting organ meat lay in the corner next to a piece of white bone or tooth. Three whiskey barrels sat on a rough plank, one with a rope harness cinched around it, waiting for Brede’s late summer run down to Crow country. I had never seen Brede use his block and tackle—he always hoisted carcasses onto the meat hooks with brute force. Now I understood what it was for. Even Brede couldn’t carry a full whiskey barrel out of this hole.
One of the barrels had been tapped. A little tin cup sat atop it, shining in the candle light. Except for a couple patent medicines, I had not yet tasted of alcohol. Pa had railed against the demon rum, which had put me on the lookout for an opportunity. I set the candle and pry bar on the cask and opened the cock. I half-filled the glass and threw back a belt like they did over to the saloon. I choked and spit before it hit the back of my mouth. That drink was sweet as molasses. Pure sarsaparilla.
I stood back and stared at the barrel. Well sir, if Brede wasn’t running hootch he wasn’t going to run sarsaparilla neither. I opened the cock and let it run. That was pure meanness on my part, and I am not proud to tell of it, but there you are. A goodly puddle spread on the floor, and the tap ran dry. I thumped the side of the keg. The barrel was full, only nothing came out the spigot. Something creaked upstairs.
I snuck up the ladder with the pry bar in one hand and poked my head out like a gopher, wishing I had blown out the candle. I waited, and listened. The creak came again, close by, the back door moving in the wind. The smarter part of me said it was time to get away from there. I climbed back into the hole.
I broke into the top of the barrel with the pry bar. An oily kerosene-and-medicine cloud watered my eyes. I dipped the tin cup and took a careful sip. It scorched my throat and my nose, surely the vilest liquid God ever created.
I spit twice and took another sip. The short pry bar would not reach to the bottom of the barrel, so I plunged my hand and arm down into the whiskey. The bar stopped about eight inches up from the keg bottom. A false bottom an inch or so above the bung. Whiskey above, sarsaparilla below. If Brede got stopped by the army, he’d tell them he was running a load of sarsaparilla up to Bozeman City. Offer them a taste if they wanted. You could smell the whiskey through the oak barrel, so I didn’t know how Brede got around that part of it.
Things floated and bobbed in the liquid. You heard stories where bootleggers mixed in anything that might give their hootch extra kick. Gunpowder; Mexican peppers; pine tar. Whatever this was, it was big, like Brede had pickled a pig. I stirred around with the pry bar, held the candle close to get a look. Wax dripped in and swished away. I didn’t think it would hurt the taste any. Then every bit of my brain screamed at me not to look at what
I’d already seen floating up through that whiskey, a thing that could not be and Glory be if I’d never seen it.
For there looking up at me through the brown liquid was the white face of Carrie Muller with her hair swirling loose round her face, lips pulled back like a smile, front teeth broken off at the gum line. Something trailed out from where her neck had been hacked away from the rest of her, it tangled into her hair. Her dead eyes looked at nothing and that was all I saw before backing away.
I hit up hard against the ladder and slid down to the floor, my breath coming in shallow gasps. I stared at the keg but what I saw was Carrie’s dead face floating up, empty-eyed, and no front teeth.
A scrape of something moving up above. A rough voice. “Boy?” Thirsty Morten staring down at me from the top of the ladder. His kerosene lantern cast heavy shadows across his chest and face. “Boy, you all right down there?”
“Thirsty! My God, we got to get the sheriff over here. I just found Carrie Muller floating in the whiskey barrel!”
Thirsty’s eyes got big. His mouth worked up and down but nothing came out. Then his face was gone, and the trap door closed with a heavy thump.
“Dammit Thirsty, you knocked the goddamn saw loose! You get me the hell outta here!”
He stumbled around up there, and I told myself to calm down while he got the door pried open. Something heavy dragged across the floor, and it came to me that Thirsty Morten was not going to open that door. I scooted up the ladder and pushed up hard, but the door didn’t budge. “Thirsty, damn your hide… please.” His boots tromped across the floor, and the front door slammed, and I was alone in that hole with Carrie Muller.
The candle was nearly burned out. I looked for the pry bar, but it wasn’t anywhere on the floor, which meant it was someplace else, which place was in the keg. With Carrie. I maybe could use it to wedge the trap door open, but that would mean sticking my arm into that barrel and I wasn’t quite up to that just yet. I sat back against the dirt wall. The taste of whiskey was strong in my mouth, and I thought about Carrie Muller and how they must have cut her up into pieces to fit her in that keg. A soft chunk of something in my mouth. I dug at it with my finger and spit it away. My throat and nostrils still burned and up came that whiskey and my supper with it. The tastes and smells mingled together. I put my head in my hands and Carrie stared at me through the barrel staves with those grey empty eyes.
I had told Thirsty Morten I’d found Carrie. Thirsty who worked for Brede who kept Thirsty in whiskey. Thirsty who kept an eye on the sheriff, slept over to the jail. He would be pulling Brede from the saloon about now. Brede had a rifle around somewhere, a little .25 caliber popgun he sometimes let me use for rabbits. Easiest would be to shoot me and stuff me in there with Carrie. Or maybe club me to death and save the cost of a bullet. I should have climbed right out of there when Thirsty peeked in. I should have not climbed down here in the first place. I should have not done a lot of things. But I had.
The candle was going fast. I needed something to fight with, a weapon bigger than the old jackknife in my medicine bag. I breathed deep, plunged my hand into that barrel and the candle guttered and died. The hootch smell wafted, and my throat clamped shut. Carrie’s hair swirled around my arm and a soft piece of her caressed my hand. I grabbed the bar and flung it out of the barrel. It bounced off the ceiling. I crawled around in the dark feeling for it. My hand squooshed in something warm and wet and there was the pry bar in the middle of it. I wiped it dry on my pants leg and felt my way up the ladder. I pushed the bar into the wood, tried all sides and corners, but could get no leverage. No way to pound, push, or pry. I climbed back down the ladder and crouched back against the dirt wall.
When Brede pulled that door open I would tear up the ladder, fling the pry at him, and holler my lungs out; no, I’d hold onto the pry like a club. If I could get out of this hole, maybe somebody would hear me yelling and show up before him and Thirsty choked the life out of me. The hootch and fresh vomit smells gathered round me like a shawl. I retched, but nothing was left inside. Brede Jorstad had hit me so hard there on the boardwalk. I wished Pa was somewhere close by and not dead and buried up on the hill. Would they bury me next to him? I began to shiver, and I could not stop.
Directly, the shop door opened, and then it closed. Heavy footsteps crossed the floor. A heavy scraping, and the door swung up. Lantern light. I flung the bar. It clanged off the cellar door and I clambered up the ladder.
“Goddammit you damn near clocked me with that goddamn thing!” I slipped on a rung and tore skin ankle to kneecap and landed in a heap on the dirt floor. Sheriff Bob Van der Hoeven leaned over the opening, holding a kerosene lantern. “C’mon outta there, boy. Thirsty, you help him up if he’s done throwin things.”
The sheriff sat me down on a sack of flour and let me babble to Thirsty while he climbed down into the hole. Thirsty handed the lantern down to him, and stared at me crooked-faced, his eyes big and scared, cheeks sunk back into his gums. Bubbles of white spittle popped and dribbled from the corner of his mouth. “Her’s in a pickle, sure ’nuf,” he said. I cradled my skinned shin.
From down in the hole, “Jesus Christ Awmighty.”
Bob came out of there white-faced and grim. “Guess I seen what I needed,” he said. “Thirsty, you get this hole closed up and meet me over to the jail. Not a word to anybody just yet. We got to go about this right.”
Thirsty shut the trap door while we slipped out the back way. The moon scudded through the clouds and Bob put his hand on my shoulder. “That is a drunk crowd down to the saloon, Deuter, and Brede Jorstad is right in the middle of it. I have to get you safe fore I go arrest him. Now, I want you to think careful. Who else might know about this?”
“Me and Harm, sir. Only Harm don’t know Carrie’s in here. He only knows about the hidey-hole and the hootch.”
He looked hard at me. “Hiram Obent set you up to this?”
“No sir. Fact of it is, he told me to leave town and not look back. Offered me cash money if I’d go.”
“Nobody saw you sneaking in here?”
“Thirsty, is all. Sheriff, when he trapped me down there, I thought… I thought he was in with Brede on this. I should maybe tell him…”
“No need for that now, son. Saw you slip in and thought you was up to no good. Can’t fault him for that. Let’s go now. Quiet-like.”
We ducked between the store and the barber shop and crossed to the stable. I followed him through the side door, and he lit a lantern. The rag on his wrist slipped down. The horse bite was red and oozy; it looked to be festering. A mule stomped in the back stall.
“Son, I been thinkin bout what Hiram told you, and it makes some sense. Brede Jorstad ain’t working alone on this bootleg and killing deal. Til I figure who all is involved, your life ain’t worth a plug nickel around this town, you a witness and all.” He fished around in his pockets. “I got this money off Brede for you, and I want you to get out of here now. Tonight. I have everything I need to put him away, but it’s going take time to flush his cronies.”
I told him I would wait for Harm, but his face said this was not a thing to be argued. I scraped vomit off my pants and shirt while he slipped an old leather hackamore on the chestnut. The horse nuzzled at him, making it more trouble than it needed to be.
“There’s plenty work over Idaho way. You get to Bozeman City and hook up with a teamster. Leave Zebediah with the hostler there on Main. Name of Evans.” He handed me the reins. “You’re going to have to ride bareback, I ain’t loaning my saddle even to you.”
I shimmied up onto the chestnut’s back, and Bob pushed open the stable door. “Not a word to anyone, you understand?” At the door he looked up and grinned. “The missus going to be sorry you missed dinner. Cooked a huckleberry pie special.”
I handed him a dollar from the small roll. “I owe this over to Bea’s.” He stuffed it in his shirt, and I walked Zebediah into the shadows while Bob pulled the door shut behind us. He waved and watched us head off.
We headed for the trail in a roundabout manner that led directly down the back street to that huckleberry pie. I might have nudged Zeb’s shoulder, but it was mostly him knowing where he wanted to go. We trotted up to the fence.
Mrs. Van der Hoeven sat on a rocking chair on the front porch.
“Nice horse you have there, Deuteronomy Seebea. Where did you get him?”
“Evening Mrs. Van der Hoeven. This is your husband’s horse I’m riding.”
“I can see that, child. Where are you two headed this evening?”
“To Bozeman City ma’am, and then maybe Oregon. That is, I’m going to Oregon, but this horse is gonna, ’scuse me, is going to stay in Bozeman City, ma’am. Until your husband comes and gets him.”
She came to the gate. Her graying blond hair was pinned up loose, not wound into a tight bun like when she was
teaching. She stroked Zeb’s muzzle. “Deuter, will you please tell me why you are heading off to Bozeman City at night, on my husband’s favorite horse, with no saddle, no water, and the clothes on your back? And smelling like the cholera to boot?”
None of that had occurred to me. Bozeman City was a day’s ride or more, even on this horse. It wasn’t the riding bareback or finding water that would be tough, there were plenty of streams along the way. But you could get plenty hungry. I would be riding along the outskirts of Crow Indian territory, and even with them being on our side against the Sioux and the rest of them, it took a homesteader with special grit to set himself up this close to wild Indians. There would not be much in the way of farm or ranch houses along the way.
“Sheriff told me I have to leave town on account of he’s got to get Brede Jorstad and his cronies arrested and he don’t know who they are…” and it came tumbling out. I told her everything I knew or thought I knew about the whole mess. She stood quiet and listened. I was choked up and teary-eyed over Carrie, but from the set of her jaw she wasn’t seeing it quite the way I was.
She looked close at my face. “My husband sent you… and Brede did all this, did he? We will see about that as well.
Go clean yourself at the pump.” She went into the house while I washed up. I rinsed my trousers and shirt remnants, and wrung them dry as best I could. I did not own a change of clothes, so I put the wet ones back on and sat on Zebediah and shivered in the night air.
Mrs. Van der Hoeven came down the steps with a canteen, a tied-up bundle, a shirt and a tin plate loaded with huckleberry pie.
“Here is a dry wool shirt,” she said. “You get that wet thing off before you catch your death of cold.”
The shirt would have covered two of me, but it was clean and warm. Heat from the horse’s body would dry my trousers in no time. The bundle was a blanket cinched tight with a belt and a piece of twine tied around it to form a loop. I slipped it and the canteen strap over my head and wedged the pie between my legs.
“There is a little money and some dried meat rolled up in that blanket. I thought I had more set aside, cannot think what could have happened to it.” She shook her head. “No matter. When you get to Bozeman City, you keep on going.”
“And Deuter? You keep Zebediah. He is yours now.”
People were forcing money on me these days, and now a horse, and a fine one at that. I would have given it up, money, horse and all, for a hot meal and a night in her spare bedroom. I did my best to thank her, but she wasn’t really listening anymore. Her back was stiff and straight, and there was a hard set to her eyes that had not been there before. She did not wave as I rode away.
Zebediah and me trotted out of town following the wagon track west. The sheriff had said to head to Idaho, but I was bound for Oregon. Now that I had my own horse and some money, that was probably what Pa would want me to do.
With Ma dead, Pa had slowly given up on farming. I grew up watching our house and farm deteriorate season by season, year by year, not understanding why ours was the poorest farm in the county, though folks said we had good land.
I was eleven, and a traveling wonderment show came to the county fair. Clowns, acrobats, sugared candy, iced cream, and secret shows only adult men could look at. Amidst photographs of a New York City building 130 feet tall and ocean-going boats passing underneath a giant bridge was a picture of a group of men standing on the stump of a felled tree. The stump was bigger across than the men were tall. Pa could not get enough of it. The man said that tree was an Oregon fir, and from then on Pa fixed on Oregon as our key to prosperity. Farming was not our destiny, he said, though it was the only thing in the world besides soldiering he had ever put his hand to. The following spring we headed west afoot, our three mules loaded with everything we owned. A year and a half later and two mules shy, we stopped in Clevis Hook to get Miss Myrtle re-shod. That was a year ago.
I had no idea what a fourteen-year-old boy might do in a logging camp, or even a vague notion of how far Oregon might be or how to get there, but I was finally on my way.