THREE CHAIRS were set outside Otis Dry Goods for men who had nothing better to do than sit in them, and on such a pleasant September afternoon, it was hard to imagine anything better than sitting and chatting with like-minded companions outside Otis Dry Goods. The occupants of those seats were Jesse Purdue, a bowlegged stonemason, Johann Schulz, a wealthy farmer and investor in railroads and silver mines, and Grover Trulove, a veteran of the recent war who had lost his right hand at the battle of Chickamauga. Trulove made his living as a handyman, and liked to say (and it was nothing less than the truth) that he was twice the handyman most handymen with twice the hands were.
“You seen that stranger,” Schulz said, “the one staying at Mrs. Binney’s hotel? The one that rides a blind horse?”
“I ain’t seen him,” Trulove said, “but I’ve heard about him. He’s the talk of the town.”
“Heard his name’s Hodge Cogswell,” Purdue said. “Now what kind of a name is that?”
“And how does a man come to ride a blind horse?” Schulz said.
“Speak of the devil,” Trulove replied, “here he comes–you can ask him yourself.”
Cogswell was a broad shouldered, thick-necked man in his early middle years, wearing a suit in its late middle years. His hat was black and greasy as a cast-iron skillet, and his white shirt wasn’t all that white. His trouser cuffs were tucked into narrow-heeled, tight-toed boots finished with flaming red tops. The horse he hitched to the post set outside Otis Dry Goods was a tall black gelding with one white forefoot–a horse unremarkable save for its eyes: two hemispheres of lusterless white, like the caps of mushrooms.
“We were just talking about you,” Trulove said to Cogswell. “If you have a moment, you can settle a matter we’re curious about.”
“It would take more than a moment,” Cogswell replied, “it’s a long story.”
“I haven’t even told you–”
“Y’all want to know how I came to ride a blind horse. Like I said, it’s a long story.”
“Longer than it would take you to smoke a cigar?” Purdue said.
Cogswell scratched just above his upper lip as he thought about it. “I guess I could shoehorn it in.”
Purdue disappeared into Otis Dry Goods and returned with four nickel cigars, one of which he was already smoking. He was surprised to discover that Cogswell now occupied the seat he considered his own. After taking a moment to accept the new order of things, Purdue distributed the cigars, passing his around as a match for the others. When everyone was puffing away happily, Purdue leaned against an awning post and said to Cogswell, “Let’s have it.”
Cogswell blew out a fine smoke ring and watched it writhe and glide away like a sort of airborne sidewinder. “My father was a cabinetmaker,” he began, “in a little town in Georgia called Billy Fork. And a coffin is a sort of cabinet, if you think about it, and he made those as well. There were two others in Billy Fork involved in the funeral trade. Jacob Knussnacker, a German, owned a livery and kept there the only hearse in the county. He also served as funeral director. Dr. Heck Barnes made sure the deceased was actually deceased, and did the embalming. As it was a small town, and these two gentleman and my father were so often called upon to work together, they were not only well-acquainted, but good friends, and growing up, Mr. Knussnacker and Dr. Barnes were Uncle Jake and Uncle Heck to me, and in my childish and unquestioning way, I assumed they were somehow truly my father’s brothers.
“One day Uncle Jake excitedly informed us that a nephew of his would soon be arriving from the old country, and would be staying with him and his wife. The boy’s name was Ulm Eisbein, and according to Uncle Jake, ‘dot leetle boy uff mine schvester’ was destined to become my very best friend. My father did not think to ask, or perhaps believed it would be impolite, to inquire as to why poor little Ulm had to leave his home and his mother, and endure the trials of a perilous ocean voyage, in order to live with his aunt and uncle in these United States of America. For my part, I didn’t relish the prospect of becoming a friend, or as I imagined would be closer to the truth, a nanny, to my toddling ‘cousin’ from across the Atlantic.
“But when Ulm arrived in Billy Fork, he was not at all what we expected. ‘Dot leetle boy’ was a strapping, blond-haired, blue-eyed youth. He had a brilliant, white-toothed grin, and the fire of health and life burned so fiercely within him that his cheeks glowed like . . . well, like the end of this cigar here. Everywhere he went he spread a regular plague of swooning amongst the ladies, and neither age nor marital status provided any immunizing power against the infection.
“Uncle Jake told us he had cleared out a stall in his stables as a room for Ulm, and ‘dot clever leetle boy’ had worked night and day to turn it into the comfortablest little room you could possibly imagine. ‘Vonce I seen how nice a room he maked,’ Uncle Jake said, about bursting with pride, ‘I say to dot leetle boy, Ulm, you take der house, your uncle und aunt vill take der shtables.’
“I was itching all over to see the young gentleman who lived in a horse’s stall. It seemed the most desirable thing in the world to me–to have your room alongside horses, where you could outfit it however you pleased, do whatever you pleased, and come and go as you pleased. But when I suggested to Uncle Jake that I pay Cousin Ulm a visit, Uncle Jake clasped his hands together, smiled nervously, and said ‘Ja ja a visit but not yet I tink not until dot leetle boy is . . . I tink not yet a visit.’
“About that time, a wealthy old rancher by the name of Thaddeus Rhodes passed away. My father said his family would insist upon the finest send-off possible for the old man–a send-off that would include a coffin to rival those occupied by pharaohs and Chinese emperors. Anticipation of that work put my father in a rare good mood, and wishing to savor the feeling, he gave me a few pennies and sent me away, requesting that I not return before suppertime.
“As I was of the age where a boy is deaf to hints, I soon found myself in the neighborhood of Uncle Jake’s livery, and then in the company of Cousin Ulm. Uncle Jake had not exaggerated Ulm’s accomplishment in the slightest. The former horse’s stall was neat as a pin, and elegantly, if sparsely furnished. It struck me at once that the table, the bed, the chair, and the washstand were all of a size perfectly suited not just to a horse’s stall, but to this particular horse’s stall.
“Communication was difficult between us, as Ulm spoke only a few words of English, but he seemed genuinely happy to have a visitor, and soon put me to good use. ‘Vot is called?’ he would say, tapping on something in the small room, and I would say ‘Chair’ or ‘Lantern’ or ‘Pitcher’, and Ulm would repeat the word carefully. When we had thoroughly inventoried Ulm’s living quarters, he opened a door–yes, a door–into the next stall over, which had also been cleared out for Cousin Ulm’s benefit–and how strange that Uncle Jake had failed to mention anything about it to my father!
“This other stall was outfitted to serve as Ulm’s workshop, and it pleased me no end to be able to name all the tools hanging on the walls and neatly arranged on shelves–the vice, the hammer, the square and the saw, the gimlet and every kind of plane–the long plane, short plane, match plane, round plane and smoothing plane–I knew them all, as all of these were the same tools my father had valiantly tried to teach me how to use in his workshop.
“At supper that night, I regaled my mother and father with my adventures of the day, and when I showed them the beautiful little dog that Ulm had carved for me from a scrap of bois d’arc, I was flabbergasted to see my father’s face collect itself into a veritable storm cloud. He wondered aloud whether he or his son was the greater idiot, then left the table, his supper half-eaten. I suppose it goes without saying that Funeral Director Knussknacker did not require my father’s assistance in the construction of Mr. Rhode’s magnificent coffin.
“You know how it is when you’re a boy: you see everything, hear everything, remember everything–and understand almost nothing. My father had frequent conversations with Dr. Barnes–”
“Dr. Barnes?” Schulz said.
“Dr. Barnes. Uncle Heck. The embalmer.”
“Oh, right,” Shultz said, “The embalmer. I had entirely forgotten about him. Please continue.”
“My father paid frequent visits to Dr. Barnes. I didn’t know the purpose of those visits–only that they caused my mother to mutter to herself and wring her hands while she awaited my father’s return. I understood, at least, that as a result of those visits, Dr. Barnes reluctantly loaned my father a great deal of money.
“My father built a windowless shed near the house, and late one night, something was moved into the shed. From that day forward, my father spent day and night at some secret work within its walls. He kept the door barred from the inside–I can only suppose he worked by lamplight, even in the heat of the day. My mother would leave plates of food outside the door, and sometimes those would disappear into the shed, though more often, they would not, and my mother would feed the scraps to an old hog we had. When nature forced my father to leave the shed momentarily, he secured the door with a padlock, the key to which he kept on a string around his neck.
“Then one day, shortly after sunrise, my father called me and my mother out to the shed. He threw the doors open wide, and the morning light poured into the shed and illuminated the prettiest, shiniest, glass-sided, canvas topped, one-horse hearse you ever saw. He proudly showed us the hand-carved urn-shaped cornices, the low doors trimmed in the Cincinnati style, with plaited pocket and fall, and–”
“The doors had pockets?” Purdue said.
“Not real pockets,” Cogswell said, “only carved to look like pockets.”
“What’s the point of that?”
“The point? The point is, it’s pretty instead of plain.”
“I never knew pockets to be all that pretty,” Purdue said. “Why not . . . oh, I don’t know, mermaids? Mermaids are prettier than pockets by a longshot, I’d say.”
“When you make a hearse,” Cogswell said testily, “you can carve whole schools of mermaids on the doors, if that’s what you want to do.”
“Sorry,” Purdue said, “I don’t understand why you’d carve a door to look like it had pockets, is all, just because they do it that way in Cincinnati. Go ahead with your story anyway.”
Cogswell cleared his throat, flicked the ash off his cigar aggressively, then continued.
“My father proudly showed us the large urn-shaped cornices, the low doors trimmed in the Cincinnati style, with plaited pocket and fall, and the brass rollers mortised into the hardwood flooring, to ease the transfer of the coffin into the hearse. Then he stepped back, and said, proudly: ‘Ain’t she a beauty.’
“My mother did not share his enthusiasm. ‘You’re a fool, Jack Cogswell,’ she said. ‘You’ve got no horse to pull it, and no money to buy a horse. What were you going to do? Put Hodge in the traces? Or did you think Jacob Knussknacker would give you the loan of a horse out of the kindness of his heart?’ ‘I’ll get work,’ my father replied, ‘and I’ll buy as fine a horse as any that goddamned German ever laid eyes on.’ ‘How will you get work?’ my mother said. ‘For the last month you’ve turned away every offer of gainful employment, and now everyone knows that Ulm Eisbein does the same work as you, for less money. We’re ruined. I don’t know how we’ll live.’–and with that, she burst into tears, and ran back inside the house. But the moment I saw that hearse, I knew it was not our ruination, but our salvation, because I knew just the horse to pull it.
“You see, a traveling surgeon had come through Billy Fork a few days previous, a man who could fix crossed eyes and harelips, and could cure old widows of headache and rheumatism, and he brought with him a story about a preacher in a nearby town with a mare that had given birth to a blind foal. The preacher wanted to take the foal away from its mother the day it was born and let it pass peacefully into the next realm, but this preacher had a child–a daughter–and she would not allow it. She named the horse J.D.—I confess I don’t know what the initials stand for, if anything—anyway, she raised that foal and trained him herself, and when he was big enough, she rode him all over town–until one day she took ill with diphtheria and did not recover . . . no, that’s not right. Now that I think about it, I believe she fell out of a window–or off of a train trestle. Well, dang it, you know, I think maybe she was accidentally shot by her uncle. It doesn’t matter. The point is, the preacher had a beautiful black horse, not a thing wrong with it except that it was blind. He wanted to sell it, and no one wanted to buy it.
“My mother raised me right: I hate a thief worse than anything. But what could I do? My father would never have agreed to my plan. My mother–she might have seen the sense of it–maybe even the beauty of it–but she never would have gone against my father. So that very night, when my parents slept, I dressed myself, crept out of my room, and quietly pulled up the floorboard under which was hidden a beef tin containing all the family’s worldly wealth—at the time, five dollars and change.
“It was late in the evening on the next day when I found myself in the company of the preacher with the blind horse–the preacher was a Yankee from Vermont, as I recall. Ya’ll know the type–this was before the war–one of those preachers that came down here from on high to enlighten us ignorant southerners–one of those who was always railing in opposition to slavery and in favor of washing another man’s feet. Now, I hate a liar worse than a thief, but you know how Yankees are about money–if I had let him know what that horse meant to me–to my family–he would have doubled the price. So I told that Yankee preacher I wanted a horse to turn a grindstone, and if it was strong enough, and could walk in a circle, I didn’t give a flip of my finger if he had eyes in his head to see or not.
“Do you know that sorry son of a bitch wouldn’t sell me J.D. for the money I had on me? A blind horse he had no use for at all? He said to me, ‘Sorry, my child, but I’ll get more for him from the dog meat man.’ So I stuck out my lower lip and quivered it a bit, and I said ‘Is that what your daughter would have wanted?’
“Well, he thought about that, and had a change of heart. I only had to pay him all the money I had, and for three days, chop wood and do other chores, and eat moldy cornbread I wouldn’t have fed to a hog, and the horse was mine. And I only had to plead with him for an hour before he relented and let me have the rigging his daughter rode him with, ‘only because’ he told me, ‘over these last few days, you have become like a son to me.’
“My actual father’s sentiments went in the other direction. By the time I got home, my thievery had been discovered, and when I rode up to the house, my father and mother came out onto the porch, looked at me and the blind horse I was riding, and my father said, without the least hint of emotion in his voice, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ and my mother said nothing in opposition to that plan. At supper, I told my father, ‘If you are going to kill me (I am, he said) then I have a last request: I want you to make my coffin, and I want you to ride me around town in it in that beautiful hearse of yours–while I live, you understand. Do that, and I promise to hold still and not make a fuss when you kill me.’ ‘No,’ my father said. ‘Jack,’ my mother said, ‘where’s the harm in it? It is our poor doomed child’s last request.’ ‘Oh, all right,’ my father said, ‘I’ll get started on his coffin first thing tomorrow.’
“My father made a beautiful coffin for me: black walnut with polished brass fixtures, lined in purple velvet. The very next Sunday, he put the coffin in the back of the hearse, and I climbed in. It was a good fit–I felt like a foot in a perfectly comfortable shoe. Once I was settled in, my father placed a silk pillow in the crook of my arm, and on top of that pillow, he set the bois d’arc dog Ulm had given me. The lid was placed beside the coffin in the hearse, but you couldn’t see it for all the garlands of flowers heaped around me. Whatever my father did, he always did with style. He put J.D. in the traces, and off we went.
“Word had gotten out. That must have been my mother’s doing. When we got to town, Main Street was lined with the curious. J.D. was naturally endowed with a noble bearing, and he high-stepped down Main Street like he was taking the Queen of England to . . . wherever it is they bury their queens in England.
“I couldn’t see anything as I was down in my coffin looking up, but I could hear the gasps of surprise and admiration. I heard one man say to another ‘If I can’t have that hearse, and that horse, take me to my grave when my time has come, I hope they will just leave me to rot where I fall.’ And I heard another man say, ‘Look at that horse’s eyes, he must be blind, how does he know where he’s going?’ and a woman replied, ‘Doubtless he is guided by angels.’
“When we got to the end of Main Street, my father turned us around for another pass. The crowd had gotten bigger–doubled at least, I would say, from the sound of ‘em. And we made one more pass after that, and when we were where the crowd was thickest, my father said to me: ‘Sit up, Hodge! Sit up! Sit up real quick!’ So I did, I sat up quick. You shoulda heard the screams. Five women and three men fainted dead away.
“After that, no one gave Knussknacker and that beat-up lacquered box on wheels he called a hearse a second thought. No one in Tattnall county who cared a whit for their recently deceased kinfolk would entrust their mortal remains to any other firm than Cogswell and Son, Undertakers. That’s right, my father decided not to kill me after all, and instead, welcomed me into the warm embrace of the new family business as the hearse driver. I couldn’t have been happier.
“Naturally, Knussknacker set ‘dot leetle boy’ right to work to fix up his hearse, and Ulm did a fine job, but it didn’t do Knussknacker a bit of good. Ulm could fix up a hearse any way you liked, but he couldn’t build a horse. No shame there–not even the best carpenters of Troy could’ve built a horse the equal of J.D. for pulling hearses. There was something about those big white eyes of his–something about his blindness and his air of gravitas–even, I would say, something about the horror he inspired in those insufficiently prepared to look upon his countenance, that added savor to the carefully orchestrated melancholy of a well-planned funeral. I heard a rumor that Knussknacker tried blinding a horse of his own, but made a mess of it, and the poor creature had to be put out of its misery. Can’t say whether that’s true or not, but that’s what I heard.
“My father never exactly forgave Knussknacker for his treachery, but he buried the hatchet, as the Indians like to say. Pa was kept too busy with his new duties as a funeral director to do any carpentry, and any who requested that sort of work from him he sent to Ulm, and on occasion, when funerals were coming thick and fast, and my father’s hearse needed repairs, or repainting, or simply airing out, Knussknacker would give him the loan of his, which he no longer had any use for anyway. And strange to say, Knussknacker’s prophecy regarding myself and “dot leetle boy” was fulfilled–Ulm and I became fast friends.
“A rare stretch of days happened along where neither my services as a hearse driver, nor J.D.’s as a hearse puller, would be needed, so I saddled up J.D. and set out for Reidsville, where I had cousins I hadn’t seen in some time. I had a pleasant visit, stayed the night in Reidsville, and left for home the next morning. I got back to Billy Fork on a fine September afternoon, much like this one, and was met with a scene of utter devastation. Our house, the hearse house next to it, and the stable that was J.D.’s home, were all burnt to the ground.
“My father told me later that he had awoken to the sound of my mother’s screams–she was on fire. He carried her out of the house, and received serious burns himself in doing so. My father recovered from his injuries, but my mother, she–”
Cogswell paused to make a close examination of the remaining length of his cigar. He took a puff, then, leaving the cigar clenched between his teeth, reached into a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a little wooden dog. He enclosed the dog in a fist, and pounded his knee with that fist three times, slowly, before returning the wooden dog to his pocket.
“She lived a short while, in agony. Her death was a mercy. The county sheriff investigated. Said the fire had started in the stable and spread from there. Said it was probable, though not certain, that the fire had been set maliciously. Knussknacker fell immediately under suspicion, as he had the most to gain from the untimely death of J.D., whom he could not have known was not to be found at his customary accommodations that night. But Knussknacker had an alibi: at the time of the fire, he was attending a wedding some twenty miles distant. A hundred witnesses confirmed his presence there–though of course, all of them were German, and all of them friends and relations. The conclusion of the sheriff’s investigation–if you can call it a conclusion–was that the fire may have been set by a person or persons disposed to evil, by a person or persons hoping to achieve financial gain, or by a stove standing too near a wooden partition.
“Despite the cloud of suspicion that hung over Knussknacker, my mother was carried to her final resting place in Knussknacker’s hearse–we had no other choice. I drove it, and J.D. pulled it. It was a good thing he knew his way to the cemetery by heart–I was blind as he was, that day.
“My father had insured his property and his business with a reputable firm, and though our hearts were filled with grief, we had each other, and thanks to my father’s foresight, we had the means to make a new start. In order to collect the insurance money, my father needed a letter from the county sheriff affirming that an investigation had taken place, and that no evidence of foul play on the part of the policyholder had been discovered. The sheriff’s office was in a wing of the Tattnall county courthouse, and next to the sheriff’s office was a comfortable little reading room. As fate would have it, on the very day and at the very hour that my father went to Tattnall to retrieve the all-important letter from the sheriff, Knussknacker was seated at a table near a window in the reading room, examining deeds in a bound volume.
“My father walked up behind Knussknacker, who had not yet noticed him, and saw the deeds Knussknacker was studying. He asked Knussknacker if he was planning on purchasing some land with all the money he’d be making, now that he no longer had any competition in the funeral trade. Knussknacker said he was only trying to resolve a dispute with a neighbor over the placement of a fence. My father called Knussknacker a liar. Knussknacker protested. My father accused Knussknacker of arranging for the conflagration that killed my mother, even if he did not personally strike the match. Knussknacker replied that no doubt my father, through negligence caused by excessive drinking, had started the fire himself. On a windowsill near where Knussknacker was sitting was a half-gallon jug of mucilage. My father picked it up and swung it twice. With the first swing, he broke the jug over Knussknacker’s head, and with the second, cut his throat with the shard that had remained in his grip. The coroner who examined Knussknacker’s corpse was unable to determine whether the cause of death was the blow to the head, the severed arteries of the neck, or asphyxiation due to inhalation of mucilage.
“My father was tried for murder. Judge Jürgen Hecht heard the case. Maybe you’ve never heard of the Hechts, but everyone in Georgia knows who they are. Hechts came over here from Bavaria and settled in Savannah before the revolution, and have done very well for themselves ever since: lawyers, judges, and military officers, every last one of ’em. They’ve been here a hundred years now, and if you ever met one, you’d think they just got off the boat yesterday. It is said that when it’s time to pry an infant Hecht’s lips off its mother’s bountiful teat, those lips are immediately applied to a stein of German beer, and from that day forward, a Hecht drinks nothing else, and beer, black bread, liver sausage, and sauerkraut is a Hecht’s breakfast, dinner, and supper every day of his life, and in his honor, the same is served to the guests at his funeral.
“There was never any doubt as to the verdict the jury would render–the only hope I had for my father’s life was that Judge Hecht would show my father mercy when it came time to pass sentence on him. I asked Ulm to speak to Judge Hecht on my father’s behalf. Ulm protested that he didn’t know the man, but Ulm was a German, and I knew that even if he wasn’t personally acquainted with Judge Hecht, he must know someone who was. I begged Ulm to do everything he could to get some word to the judge in favor of sparing my father’s life.
“I don’t know what, if anything, was said to Judge Hecht on my father’s behalf–I only know what Judge Hecht said to my father: ‘You are hereby sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. May God have mercy on your soul.’ On my father’s last night in this realm, I visited him in his cell, and we exchanged our final, tearful farewells. The next morning, even as the church bell tolled the hour of my father’s execution, I saddled up J.D. and left Billy Fork in search of the only family I had left–an older brother who had run away from home some three years previous. After many years, I found him here, in that patch of gravel and thorns you call Green Hill.”
“That is quite a story,” Trulove said, “though I don’t see how–”
“I ain’t done with it yet,” Cogswell said.
“My apologies,” Trulove said, “what’s left?”
“The point,” Cogswell said, “the point is what’s left. But if you’re in too much of a hurry . . .”
“No hurry at all,” Trulove said. “Please enlighten us as to the point of the story.”
“The point is,” Cogswell said, “the only thing worse than a goddamn German is a goddamn Radical.”
“What have Radicals got to do with it?” Purdue said.
“I’ll tell you,” Cogswell said. “After I’d wandered through a good portion of this great country of ours searching for my brother, I happened to run into my old friend, Ulm Eisbein. I asked him for news of Billy Fork–he gave me more than I bargained for. Ulm said they’d caught the man who’d set fire to my family home all those years ago. Turns out, it was the preacher I bought J.D. from. A vigilance committee caught him and a cabal of Radical incendiaries trying to set fire to a hotel. The vigilance committee decided to save the time and expense of a trial and string ‘em all up on the spot. The preacher begged them to allow him to get right with the Lord before he met Him face-to-face, so they let him make his confession. One of the things he told ‘em was that when he first joined up with the incendiaries, they said he had to set fire to something to prove his loyalty–they didn’t care much what it was. He chose the stable where we kept J.D. You see, he’d heard about the amazing blind horse that pulled a hearse down in Billy Fork, and figured out I’d lied to him when I told him I only wanted J.D. to turn a millstone. It merely annoyed him that a horse he’d sold for five dollars and some moldy cornbread had turned out to be a first-rate money-maker, but the fact that it was an ignorant southern child that had scalped him in the deal was more than he could stand. He set the stable on fire, meaning to kill J.D. and even up the score with me. He told the vigilantes he was remorseful when he found out the fire had spread to the house and killed my mother.”
Cogswell stood up and tossed the bullet-sized stub of his cigar into the road, where the smoke rose from it in a thin stream, barely disturbed by the still evening air. “Now,” he said, “I’m afraid I must–”
“Hold on,” Trulove said, “that’s a fine story, but I don’t–”
“I’m sure we’ll have the opportunity to continue this conversation at a later date,” Cogswell said, “but at the moment, I have an urgent business matter to discuss with Mr. Otis.” Cogswell turned towards Purdue. “Thank you for the fine cigar,” he said. He bowed slightly, and removed himself into the dark interior of Otis Dry Goods.
“What were you going to ask him?” Purdue said.
“How come it don’t add up,” Trulove replied.
“What don’t add up?”
“Cogswell’s forty if he’s a day, and that horse of his–well, just look at him–that’s a ten year old horse, wouldn’t you say?”
“Thereabouts,” Purdue said, “what of it?”
“Cogswell would have been north of thirty when he purchased that horse from the preacher–but the way he tells it, he was a child at the time.”
“So he got the years mixed up some,” Purdue said. “That don’t mean the story ain’t true in the main parts. You gotta look at the main parts, Trulove. We asked him how he came to ride a blind horse. He said he bought him to pull a hearse, the hearse burned up in a fire, and he was left with the horse. I find that a completely satisfactory explanation. Likely he added in some embellishments of his own invention to make the story pretty instead of plain–you know, like they do in Cincinnati. Would you rather he’d bored us all to death? What do you think, Schulz?”
“I think he don’t care much for Germans,” Schulz said, “though I don’t see why. Doesn’t seem to me that Germans had anything to do with his misfortunes.”
“How about how Knussknacker brought his nephew over here from Germany to steal the Cogswell family business?” Purdue said.
“I don’t see how a young man setting up his workshop in a horse’s stall is stealing anybody’s business,” Schulz said. “Did you think there wasn’t a single solitary stonemason in all of Texas when you came here from Alabama?”
“I sure as hell didn’t hang up my shingle next door to one,” Purdue said.
“I doubt it would have been any bother to ‘em if you had,” Schulz said.
“What do you mean by that?” Purdue said.
“I mean this is a goddamned lousy cigar,” Schulz said, standing up and throwing the stub into the road, where it bounced end-over-end twice, then rolled up next to Cogswell’s. Schulz, muttering to himself, unhitched his horse and rode away at a quick trot.
“What the hell was that about?” Purdue said to Trulove. “I don’t see why he should take it personal. Cogswell was just telling it the way it happened. It could just as easily have been Italians at the root of it. I bet Schulz wouldn’t have given it a second thought, if it had been Italians.”
“I’d say it wasn’t Germans or Italians either that were the cause of Cogswell’s misfortunes,” Trulove said. “I would say the fault is in himself.”
“What fault is that?”
“He’s a liar and a thief.”
“That’s a hard thing to say about a man you don’t know,” Purdue said.
“I am only repeating what he told us himself,” Trulove replied. Trulove raised the heel of his boot, then leaned over and ground out the cigar against it. Placing the stub of the cigar in his shirt pocket, he got to his feet.
“Where you going?” Purdue said.
“Miss Zuckerman and Miss McCormick’s. Gotta negotiate terms for fixing their roof. Not looking forward to it—somehow I always end up short when I do business with those two.”
Purdue grinned. “I know you’ve only got one hand, Trulove, and there’s two of them, but I bet those old spinsters would show you considerably more generosity if you’d only—”
“Whatever you plan to say next,” Trulove said, “just you keep it to yourself. I’ve had all the bullshit I can stand for one day.”
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Terrific story, Jonathan! (Of course!)