A HUMID BREEZE blew across Green Hill, and shadows of grief rotated through Sarah Malone’s mind like the blades of a windmill – until her reverie was broken by the crunch of hooves on gravel. A man on a horse was making his way slowly between the headstones and monuments, looking to the left and to the right. When he spotted a fresh mound of earth, he turned his horse in that direction, coming to a stop at the final resting place of the town’s late city marshal.
The distance between Sarah and the stranger was not great–a knight’s leap over a darling boy, Nathan Hunt, who SUFFERd, and dear, sweet, Teresa, beloved by all.
The stranger was a man in his early middle years, fat and firm of body. His beat-down, greasy black hat told of a perpetual wanderer who rarely sought any other roof over his head. His suit served as prologue: some years previous, he had been both a leaner and a more prosperous man. For an epilogue, we need look no further than his boots, with their embossed leather uppers and flaming red tops. They appeared to be brand new—perhaps his star was once again on the rise. That is his story entire (or at least as much as we “can see by his outfit”), and it is only proper that we now acknowledge the horse that brought him to this graveyard in Nilson: a tall black gelding with one white forefoot–a horse unremarkable save for its eyes: two rounded disks of lusterless white, like the shells of the sand dollar.
“Horses aren’t allowed in the cemetery,” Sarah said. She meant it as a word-to-the-wise, not as a reproof. The stranger seemed to take it as an invitation to conversation.
“Oh, you mean old J.D. here?” The stranger turned his horse towards her. “I know he looks a fright, but I assure you he’s harmless–gentle as a lamb.”
“I don’t believe concern over the livestock’s appearance or demeanor was what prompted the city council to pass the ordinance,” Sarah said.
The stranger looked around. “No, I guess not. No wonder this boneyard is all mud and stone. If you city folk weren’t so squeamish about the perfectly natural excretions of a horse, it’d be a great deal greener.”
As if to emphasize the point, the stranger’s horse raised its tail and dropped a steaming pile of manure directly on top of the unfortunate city marshal’s grave.
“That may be,” Sarah said, “but if Groundskeeper Creech saw what your horse just did, he’d fine you two dollars, and make you clean it up.”
“He could try.”
“He’d have Deputy Hayes throw you in the lockup until you did.”
“Throw me in the lockup? For doing my brother a favor? Come spring, Marcus’ll have the prettiest grave in the whole damn county–just you wait. Not just grass, either. Clover, primrose, strawberries–J.D.’s very particular about what he eats and where he sets it down. I am convinced it is his intention to leave the world a better place than how he found it. He’s an inspiration to all who know him.”
“Marcus Litch was your brother?”
“Yeah . . . well, half-brother.” The stranger slid off his horse, and leaving it untethered, approached Mrs. Malone with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the ground. When he stood next to her, he looked up, but not at her–rather, he kept his gaze fixed on the headstone before them. “Evaline Malone. Ten years old. What a shame. Yours?”
“I’m sorry.” The stranger cleared his throat. “I wonder if you can help me, Ma’am.”
“What can I do?”
“Like I said, Marcus was my half-brother, but to me, he was always just my brother. He ran away from home when he was twelve–I was nine. Our father–my father I should say–was a real tyrant, though harder on Marcus than on me, ‘cause Marcus wasn’t his blood, I suppose. I’ve spent, oh . . . the last twenty years of my life searching for Marcus. I found him last week, when I was eating breakfast at a hotel in Fort Worth–found him in the newspaper, where it said Marcus Litch, city marshal of Nilson, Texas, had been found dead–shot in the head and chopped to pieces with a long-handled felling ax. Said it was a crime of passion–a love triangle–some fuss over a widow. Martha Murray was her name. And the other man involved was a pharmacist by the name of Eugene Fowler. You know Eugene Fowler?”
“Everyone around here knows Eugene Fowler.”
“I sure would like to have a word with Mr. Fowler. You don’t happen to know where I might find him?”
“He left town shortly before Deputy Hayes found Litch’s body, and folks all say he won’t be coming back.”
“I see . . . too bad. Well, I spent twenty years looking for one man, I guess I can spend the next twenty looking for another . . . but I think I’ll rest up here a few days. Any place around here I can get a decent meal and a good night’s sleep?”
“Mrs. Binney runs a respectable hotel. Ask anyone in town–they’ll point the way.”
“Does Mrs. Binney serve hot beefsteak for supper?”
“I don’t know.”
“Huh. One more thing you could do for me . . . if you would be so kind. If you hear anything—anything at all—concerning the whereabouts of Mr. Fowler, would you let me know? In fact, tell all your friends: anyone who comes to me with good information on the whereabouts of Mr. Fowler will leave a dollar richer.
“Who should I tell them to call on?”
“Hodge Cogswell, at your service, Ma’am.”
“I’ll tell them, Mr. Cogswell.”
“Appreciate it, Ma’am.” Cogswell touched the brim of his greasy black hat, returned to his horse, and mounted up. He leaned over and whispered instructions into J.D.’s ear, and trotted off in the direction of downtown Nilson.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, Evy,” Sarah Malone said to the headstone, “I’m seriously considering killing your father, should an opportunity present itself. My only concern is . . . I know you’d forgive me–you know Hiram’s true nature better than anyone–but I’m afraid if I kill him, the good Lord would not forgive me, and then I’d never see you again . . . though no doubt I would see Hiram, and it would amuse me a great deal to see him roasting like a pig for all eternity, even if I was turning on the same spit. That’s what I wanted to say. I miss you terribly, Evy. So does your brother. Joe is such a little man, now. He runs off with his bucket as soon as there is light enough in the morning, and doesn’t come home until he has filled it with crawdads, cleavers, or pigweed.”
As had been his habit since settling in at Mrs. Binney’s Hotel, Cogswell left his room on the second floor an hour or so after supper and went downstairs to get a beer at the hotel bar. He changed his plans when he overheard one hardware drummer tell another about an entertainment he knew of that took place every Monday evening at a saloon in town called The Boneshaker, and as it happened to be a Monday, and very nearly evening, the first drummer concluded that they should hurry over to The Boneshaker now, so as to get a table near the action.
“What sort of entertainment?” the second drummer asked.
“Dancing? I can’t say I’m partial to dancing in the way of entertainment.”
“Dancing ain’t a good word for it. I would hardly even call it dancing.”
“You just did call it dancing.”
“You have to see it. I can’t describe it in a way that does it justice.”
“Humm,” the second drummer said skeptically. “I would, only . . . doesn’t it look like it might rain?”
“It’s a short walk,” the first drummer said, “and besides, they don’t water down their drinks at The Boneshaker like they do here.”
“Oh, all right,” the second said, and the two set out for the saloon, Cogswell following behind at a discrete distance.
The hardware drummers took a seat at a table, and Cogswell stood at the bar, where he had the saloonkeeper pull him a beer. As Cogswell was taking his first sip, a gentleman came in and took up a position on Cogswell’s left. The gentleman was of the build the phrenologist would call angular: slim, sharp-featured, and prone to certain postural kinks. His neck jutted out from his shoulders at such an angle that although he stood at the bar with his back straight, the end of his long, sharp nose was nearly centered over the countertop.
“Billie doesn’t want anything to do with you, Hiram,” the saloonkeeper said to the angular gentleman, “and I feel the same.”
“C’mon Fergus,” Hiram said, “I said I was sorry. I told Billie I was sorry. I told Deputy Hayes I was sorry. I paid my fine. What more can I do? I won’t cause any trouble, I promise.”
“See that you don’t,” Fergus said, setting a glass down in front of Hiram. Fergus poured Hiram a whiskey which Hiram managed to down in a gulp while simultaneously signaling for Fergus to pour him another.
“I heard a stranger rode into town a few days ago on a blind horse,” Hiram said. “I heard he’s staying at Mrs. Binney’s Hotel.”
“You heard right,” Cogswell said.
“You know him?” Fergus said, turning to Cogswell.
“I am him.”
“You ride a blind horse?”
“How does he . . . you know, navigate?”
“I’m all the eyes he needs,” Cogswell said.
“You’re staying at Mrs. Binney’s hotel?”
“I’ve got something you should see.”
Hiram ran outside and returned a moment later carrying a wire cage packed full of squirming rats, which he set on the bar. “Up until last night,” Hiram said, “these handsome fellows were living a life of ease at Mrs. Binney’s Hotel. Been there for quite a while—made themselves right at home. Mrs. Binney only decided to avail herself of my services after they got a taste for shoe leather. Her guests were bringing her shoes with the tongues eaten clean off. They especially liked the tongues for some reason. I guess that’s the tenderest cut of a shoe.”
Cogswell, who was just raising his beer to his lips, paused for a second or two, then raised the glass the rest of the way and took a swallow.
“Marshal Litch would have ventilated you good for bringing vermin in here,” Fergus said.
“I don’t have to worry about that, do I?” Hiram said.
“No, I guess you don’t. What are they drinking?”
“Can’t you tell, Fergus?” Hiram chuckled, “These here are cold-water rats. They have forsworn intoxicating liquors of any sort.”
“Buy ‘em a drink or take ‘em back outside.”
Hiram picked up the cage and turned to leave, but halted in his steps when he heard a rumble of thunder. He turned back to Fergus with a pleading look in his eye. “Outside,” Fergus repeated.
“Have a heart, Fergus,” Hiram said. “I can’t leave ‘em outside with rain coming.”
“All right. Put ‘em on the floor, then. I don’t want to look at ‘em.”
“Bless you Fergus,” Hiram said.
“How’d you catch ‘em?” Cogswell said.
“Rudra the Destroyer chased ‘em into the nets,” Hiram said.
“Rudra’s a weasel,” Fergus said to Cogswell.
“Seems to me keeping a weasel is a lot of unnecessary expense and trouble,” Cogswell said. “Why don’t you use poison—keep things simple?”
“Rudra’s a ferret, not a weasel,” Hiram replied, “and I never use poison. You never know where it’s going to end up, is what I always say. You kill a child or a dog, that’s awful bad for business. A good ferret, along with nets and traps, are all any ratcatcher worth his salt ever needs. And besides, I make more money selling a rat than I do catching one–and you can’t sell a dead rat.”
“I never heard of a man buying a rat in any condition.”
“Oh, I sell ‘em like hotcakes–live ones, I mean. I can hardly keep up with demand. Many’s the time I’ve offered my services to a butcher’s shop or a–” Hiram winked at Fergus “–a saloon, free of charge, just to replenish my supply.”
“You have my attention,” Cogswell said.
“Most of ‘em I sell for the rat pit,” Hiram said. “You dig a hole in the ground three feet deep and ten feet across. Throw about a hundred rats in there. Folks come from all around with their dogs. A man puts his dog in the pit, and everyone bets on how many rats his dog will kill in one minute.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Cogswell said, “but it never occurred to me to wonder where the rats came from.”
“And some folks like to shoot ‘em.”
“Just shoot ‘em? In the pit?”
“No. What you do is, you get a dozen or so sporting gentlemen together out in a field, they all ante up–say five dollars apiece–and then you let a bunch of rats loose. Whoever kills the most takes the pot–less the ratcatcher’s percentage, of course.”
“Pistols or shotguns?”
“Usually pistols,” Hiram said, “but I leave that up to the customer.”
“Sounds like a good way to get shot in the foot.”
“Oh, you bet there’s dancing. That’s half the fun, and getting shot in the foot is nothing. I seen a rat run up a man’s trouser leg one time, kept going, got right up on top of his head. Thought he was a smart one, that rat. Thought he was perfectly safe up there. But one of those other sporting gentlemen was one rat shy of winning the whole pot, and the rat on the fellow’s head was the last one living, so what could he do? He takes careful aim . . .”
Hiram closed one eye and aimed a thumb-and-finger pistol at an imaginary rat sitting on top of Cogswell’s head “. . . and POW!”
“And?” Cogswell said.
“And one lucky rat and one mortified gentleman left town in a hurry. Last I saw of ‘em, the rat was in the lead, but I’d bet the gentleman passed him in the stretch.”
“Huh,” Cogswell said.
“And if you can’t sell ‘em any other way,” Hiram continued, “you find yourself a schoolboy, and talk him into getting five or six of his chums together to pool their resources and buy some rats to let loose in the schoolhouse. Problem is, you’re likely to have to take your pay in marbles, fishhooks, and boiled eggs.”
“I don’t particularly care for boiled eggs,” Cogswell said, “but I guess I’d rather have the eggs than the rats.”
“And sometimes,” Hiram said, getting a far-away look in his eyes, “sometimes . . . you get a special request . . . a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“Like that Italian ratcatcher did from Queen Joanna. You ever hear of Queen Joanna of Italy?”
Cogswell shook his head.
“Lived all alone in a great big castle–just her and five hundred servants. She took a shine to one of ‘em–Giuseppe was his name. Handsome devil but not too bright. Didn’t matter how many times Joanna dropped her hanky for him to pick up, he just wouldn’t take the hint. One day he happened to mention to her that he was terrified of rats. Not long after, Giuseppe woke up in the middle of the night and there’s rats in his bed–a couple of ‘em crawling up his nightshirt. He rips off his nightshirt and runs out into the hallway stark naked–but the hallway is full of rats, too. So he runs all around the castle trying every door, but they’re all locked–except one. He runs into the room and shuts and locks the door behind him. Guess whose room it was?”
“Queen Joanna’s” Cogswell said.
“That’s right,” Hiram said, “and she ain’t got a stitch of clothing on her, neither. Next thing you know, the royal ratcatcher gets promoted to Prince of Salerno.”
“And that’s why you never use poison,” Cogswell said.
“No one is gonna make you Prince of Salerno for a heap of dead rats,” Hiram said, “and like I always say, you use poison–”
Hiram Malone, who had been glancing at the open door of the saloon at intervals while speaking, became suddenly quiet. The much-anticipated entertainment had arrived.
Billie Gray was a small, round-faced woman with green eyes and coal-black hair, cut short. She wore a blue cotton dress cinched around her waist with a white belt, and Balmoral boots with military heels. Every table was now fully occupied, and men were standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar–though there was a space a person of Billie Gray’s dimensions might squeeze into, right next to Hiram Malone. Billie looked at Hiram. Hiram looked down into his whiskey glass. Billie hesitated briefly, then moved into that space at an oblique angle, such that Hiram’s bowsprit of a nose was off Billie’s starboard quarter.
“Evening, Billie,” Fergus said, pouring her a drink.
“Evenin’, Fergus,” she replied. She lifted her drink with short, thick fingers, downed it quickly, and just as quickly downed the next. She took her time with the third. She caught some twitch of Hiram’s out of the corner of her eye, and said, quietly and with a silky brogue, “Hiram Malone, you so much as look at me and I swear by the devil, I will come to your house one black night and cut your balls off while you sleep.”
“I told you I was sorry,” Hiram said, without looking at her.
Billie didn’t reply.
“Can’t I dance for you tonight?”
Billie looked at Fergus.
“It’s up to you, Billie,” Fergus said.
“It’s a free country,” Billie said. “Dance if you like, Hiram Malone. It won’t mean a thing to me one way or the other.”
Billie finished her drink, sat a moment longer, took a deep breath, and then, through some miraculous effort of will, transformed herself into a fair counterfeit of a woman she once had been: young, brave, and full of sauce. “All right,” she said, turning to face the crowd that had gathered in the saloon, “It’s time for you to show yourselves, my bonnie suitors. Put three dollars on the bar, and line up before me. I’ll give my love tonight to the man who can best dance a hogpot buck on the drumhead.”
Billie’s instructions were followed by the sound of men gulping down drinks and pushing back chairs. One by one, men placed a pile of coins on the bar, waited for Fergus to count the money, then took their place before Billie. She had five “suitors” that evening: a sun-scorched cowboy, a tall and long-limbed fieldhand, a gray-haired shopkeeper, a bowlegged stonemason, and a sharp-nosed ratcatcher. “Introduce yourselves,” she said. The suitors gave their names and occupations in turn, and each was cheered and clapped for enthusiastically. “Are you ready boys?” she said, and without waiting for an answer, she began to sing.
She had a fine, strong, voice, and the song she sang went along smartly. The details were muddled to Texan ears by her brogue, which had turned suddenly thick as sod, but a careful listener could discern that the subject of the ditty was a wager between a wealthy nobleman and a milkmaid regarding the probability of an irreversible change to the condition of her maidenhead, should she dare walk through the broom grass up to the church atop yonder hill and back.
Billie began to clap her hands and stomp her foot, and with that the men began to dance. They bent over nearly double, bent their knees as well, and allowed their arms and hands to hang down loosely, such that their fingertips swept the floor. Their posture was that of an ape’s, their loose, jerking limbs like those of a marionette. They raised their feet slowly and set them down hard, as though shod in cast iron. Their heads swung like thuribles, and as Billie sang, they hopped heavily from one foot to the other, and slapped their palms against their thighs.
At some subtle signal given by Billie, the sun-scorched cowboy jumped up smartly, and putting the substantial heels of his narrow-toed boots to good use, he spun like a top under the lash, first on one heel and then the other, and after completing a number of revolutions too swift to count, he thrice sprang into and out of a handstand. And then his time was up, and like a dreamer awakened suddenly from a dream of flying, his earthly frame seemed a dreadful burden to him once more. He rejoined his companions, bent over double, swung his head slowly from side to side, and struck the floor with his fists.
Now it was the tall and long-limbed fieldhand’s turn. Knees bent, on the balls of his feet, and with his hands raised very slightly above his head, he duck-walked in a circle while snapping his fingers—the dance of an old Greek fisherman, which, in fact, his grandfather had been. The fieldhand was a man of admirable physique, possessed of all the strength, and, as he proceeded to demonstrate, not a little of the flexibility, of rope and leather. He rose slowly up out of his crouch, and as he did so, his spine became a serpent—first he undulated, then he wiggled, then he writhed as if in all the agonies of a worm on the hook. His wriggling subsided, and jamming his thumbs in his pockets, he sprang high into the air again and again, his close-cropped skull nearly making disastrous acquaintance with the roof-beams. He had transformed himself from the luring worm to the hapless fish, victim of its own reckless appetites, leaping from the water in a frenzied attempt to rid itself of the loathsome hook.
There were those present in the saloon (who had consumed a substantial quantity of good Texas whiskey) who would have sworn they saw all the colors of fractured sunlight glinting off his scales, and others (who had consumed considerably more) who reflected somberly upon the fact that to be born into this world is to take the hook in one’s mouth, and never know when one might be reeled in.
Had the long-limbed fieldhand another eight measures, perhaps we would have learned whether he made his escape, or else seen him beheaded, gutted, scaled, rolled in cornmeal and fried—but his time was up, and like Persephone returning to the pits of hell, he dutifully took his place alongside his crouching, head-wagging, foot-stomping companions.
The gray-haired shopkeeper, a man thick in the mid-parts and slender of limb as a Scotsman’s bagpipe, stepped forward. He unbent his back gradually, puffing and blowing as he unfolded himself into the perpendicular posture. Once fully upright, he looked straight ahead, and with his arms pinned to his sides, he launched into a cramped sort of jig, as a man might were he obliged to dance within the confines of an upright coffin. After a half dozen kicks, his knees splayed out, and he bent over at the waist, as though “making a cheese” as the English like to say. He continued to lean further and further forward, until it seemed only a miracle could prevent him from falling headlong. The audience was not disappointed in the least when no such miracle occurred—in fact, it is hard to imagine any miracle, however flabbergasting, up to and including the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that would have delighted those gathered at The Boneshaker more than when the gray-haired shopkeeper collapsed, red-faced and gasping, onto the floor of the saloon.
The crowd’s amusement was tempered with mercy, and even before the laughter had entirely subsided, the shopkeeper was helped to his feet and to a table by kind-hearted patrons of the establishment. Fergus brought the shopkeeper a glass of water, which he downed greedily between spells of coughing.
“It is all the dust that was raised, Fergus,” the shopkeeper wheezed, “don’t you ever sweep?”
“Every chance I get, Mr. Collins,” Fergus said.
“It’s not my fault, with all the dust that was raised,” Collins said, “can I have my money back?”
“You know the rules,” Fergus said.
“But you can’t . . . it was all the dust,” Collins said.
“And last week, it was your lumbago,” Fergus replied. “Did you ever think . . .”
“What?” Collins said.
“Never mind. It’s your money.”
“It used to be,” Collins said ruefully.
During the collapse and restoration of the shopkeeper, Billie Gray did not cease to sing and clap, nor did the remaining dancers quit their melancholy shuffle, but for the benefit of those following the story, Billie filled her verses with nonsense until the distraction had passed.
A compatriot of the nobleman’s, lying in wait for the milkmaid in the broom grass, had fallen into a deep sleep (a great aunt of the milkmaid’s, believed by some to be a witch, might have had something to do with the suddenness and depth of his slumber). This scoundrel had brought his hunting dog with him, and had commanded the dog to raise the alarm at the maiden’s approach, but the dog, dumbfounded by her grace and beauty, silently and reverentially submitted to a pat on the head as she walked by.
The bowlegged stonemason leapt forward out of his crouch with such precipitousness and vigor that several men recoiled, and one spilled his beer. The stonemason balanced himself on the toes of his heavy work boots, and placing his fingertips together above his head, rotated himself a full turn with the tiniest and most delicate of steps. With elegant motions, he turned his head demurely to the side, touched the top of his head with his right hand, held his left arm across his belly, palm up, and stuck out his right leg. In this posture he bounced from heel to toe on his right foot, making a fraction of a rotation on each bounce, until he had again completed a full turn. Alternating his limbs—becoming a mirror image of his former self—he repeated the turn in the opposite direction. He bent his legs, sinking down until the seat of his overalls nearly brushed the floor of the saloon, raised his hands over his head, then sprang up into the air, and at the apex of his leap, outstretched his legs and touched the toes of his work boots with his fingertips. He landed with a thunderous, dust-cloud raising, thump, his hands in the air and his head held high. After a brief pause, he brought his arms down, crossed them over his belly as though cradling an infant, and made a delicate curtsey towards Billie Gray, then towards the dumbfounded multitude.
You’d think they’d all just watched Medusa take off her Paris hat and shake out her hissing curls.
All at once they found their voices! It is certain that no coryphée of the Ballet National de Marseille, performing the most magnificent grand jeté before the most adoring audience ever assembled at the Opera Bastille, was ever the recipient of such primal hoots, wolfish howls, and bone-piercing whistles as were bestowed upon the bowlegged stonemason as he humbly took his place beside his fellow dancers. Surely he has won the day! But fair is fair, and there is one more who must have his turn.
The Prince of Salerno stood up, stepped forward, and put his hand on his chin, as though considering carefully how best to proceed. Maintaining that thoughtful posture, he raised his right foot up to his left knee, and danced a spirited left-footed jig. He put his right foot down and brought his left foot up, and performed an even more spirited right-footed jig. He placed both feet firmly on the floor, raised his arms like the wings of a bird, and bounded (though one could be forgiven for saying soared) around the saloon. Having returned to his starting position, he now performed a jig with both feet—each foot dancing a different jig, each delightful in and of itself, and each a perfect counterpoint to the other, like those two heartrending melodies that twine together in the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
When his jig was done, and he had but a few moments left, he began a strange and beguiling cycling of his hands, as though winding up a rope, accompanied by a peculiar sliding of his feet on the dusty floorboards of the saloon, like a man trying to cross a lake of ice against fierce and countervailing winds. To the unsophisticated rubes at The Boneshaker that night, these strange movements meant nothing, but any Italian nobleman who had been a regular at the court of Queen Joanna would have recognized the dance at once—it was Il Ballo del Principe: “The Dance of the Prince”.
The reader, understandably, has questions, which we will endeavor to answer.
There were those at the court of Queen Joanna who were not at all pleased to see a commoner—and a ratcatcher at that!—elevated to their rank. Their feelings towards the ratcatcher-prince were not improved as time passed and it became clear that Queen Joanna was beginning to favor his company above theirs. Of all those discontented by the queen’s growing affections for the former ratcatcher, there was one whose circumstances were particularly affected in the negative. And so, one day, a huntsman came to the Prince of Salerno and told him of a magnificent white hart he’d encountered in the forest. The prince immediately called upon his chamberlain and his master of horse to prepare him for a hunt. The huntsman accompanied the prince deep into the forest, promising to lead him to the quarry—and returned with a warm and bleeding heart in a leather sack, which he gave to Giuseppe in exchange for another filled with gold and silver.
But if we have learned anything from the stories our grandmothers told us, it is this: Never trust a huntsman.
The prince disguised himself and fled to the western frontier of the new world, where, per necessity, he took up his former humble occupation.
It might surprise the reader to learn that there was another at The Boneshaker that night sufficiently refined to appreciate a first-rate performance of Il Ballo del Principe when she saw one: Queen Joanna.
We simply can’t bring ourselves to speak of the cruel misfortunes that caused the queen to fall so low in life that she must now sell her flesh to those same ruffians whose existence she once would have barely even acknowledged. And anyway, we’re not sure of the details. We think Giuseppe might have had something to do with it.
The harsh realities of life on the Texas frontier had so changed those two that neither recognized the other. Had the prince not performed Il Ballo del Principe on a whim that night, they never would have found each other.
Having described the dance of The Prince of Salerno, we must now describe (with as much kindness as we can muster) the dance of the ratcatcher, Hiram Malone.
No one could say his one-footed jigs weren’t performed with enthusiasm. His vulture-like circling of the saloon was, at the very least, comic. His two-footed jig was no doubt better than the one Captain Ahab attempted upon, at long last, sighting the white whale. And since we’re being kind, we’ll brush off the peculiar spasms that constituted his finale as the result of a neurological disorder—the aftereffects, perhaps, of malaria, or a childhood bout of scarlet fever.
The rubes and ruffians clapped politely for Hiram Malone as he rejoined the other dancers. For The Prince of Salerno, their thunderous applause shook the very foundations—of what, exactly, we are unsure.
Billy sang the last verse. The dancers stomped and jumped and slapped their thighs with ever more vigor. The milkmaid won the bet, the nobleman begrudgingly paid up, and the song was over. The dancers stood tall, chests heaving, faces red and glistening with sweat.
To the sun-scorched cowboy, Billie said: “You are a fine figure of a man, Mr. Stiles, and no slouch at a hogpot buck dance. You have not won my love tonight, but I do hope you will dance for me again.”
“Next payday, Ma’am,” the cowboy said.
To the tall and long-limbed fieldhand, Billie said “Are you married, Mr. Willis?”
“You soon will be. Any woman can see that you are a good sort of fellow, made entirely of cornpone, pork belly, and an honest day’s work. You will make a fine husband for a fine woman, and if you dance for her like you danced for me, she will be well-pleased and apply herself to you nightly like a warm mustard poultice—but until then, I do hope you will dance for me again.”
“Yes Ma’am. Thank you Ma’am,” the fieldhand said.
To the sharp-nosed ratcatcher, Billie said nothing.
To the bow-legged stonemason, Billie said “Mr. Perdue, I love how you make those bow-legs work in your favor. You’ve won the day—and more importantly, the night. Catch your breath, have a drink at the bar on me, then come up to my room, and we’ll discuss the finer points of love-making over a cup of tea.”
“Thank you Ma’am” the stonemason said, the blood rising to his cheeks. The audience whooped and cheered and hollered their approval.
When Billie turned to leave, Hiram grabbed her arm. “I danced better than that crippled snip of a stonecutter,” Hiram said. “You know it. Everyone here knows it.”
“Let me go,” Billie said.
“I paid good money,” Hiram said. “You owed me a fair chance and gave me none. You had your mind made up against me from the get-go.”
“Take your hands off the lady,” the sun-scorched cowboy said.
“Mind your own damn business,” Hiram replied.
The cowboy punched Hiram in the ear, sending him spinning away at such a rate that he would have traversed the entire length of the saloon like a sort of dust devil, had not his progress been arrested by the table where the two hardware drummers were sitting. Hiram fell across the table on his back, tipping it over and sending the bottle of wine the drummers were sharing up . . . and then down, to shatter on the floor. Hiram, mostly if not entirely insensible, rolled into the second drummer’s lap.
“Buck,” the second drummer said to the first, “may lightning strike me dead if I ever again doubt your word regarding where to go for a fine entertainment!”
Deputy Marshal Vincent Hayes, or more properly, for the moment, City Marshal Pro-Tempore Vincent Hayes, sat at his predecessor’s desk, rubbing the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief while attempting to true the accounts in the city marshal’s ledger. For ordinary men, Hayes reflected, free will ended where addition and subtraction began—Marcus Litch appeared not to have suffered from such mundane limitations.
Hayes took off his spectacles, cleaned them with his sweat-dampened handkerchief, and was halfway to putting them back on before changing his mind. He set his spectacles on the desk, stood up, stretched, and walked outside.
Perhaps what propelled Hayes out-of-doors was heat and weariness–perhaps it was that sixth sense that is endemic to lawmen everywhere. The Boneshaker Saloon was across the road and forty paces west of the marshal’s office, and Hayes stepped onto the boards just in time to see Fergus and Hiram exiting The Boneshaker, Fergus prodding Hiram in the small of the back with a carbine. Hiram’s left hand was covering his ear, in a way that suggested to Hayes that someone had boxed it for him. Under his right arm Hiram carried a cage packed full of highly agitated rats. Hiram hoisted his rats none-too-gently onto the seat of his buckboard wagon and climbed up beside them. He took off the brake and yelled “Git!” at the old nag in the traces with such venom that she started forward in fear rather than in obedience. Hiram turned back towards Fergus and the laughing, jeering crowd that had followed him outside, and shouted loudly enough for Hayes to hear the words plainly: “I’m coming back with my gun!”
Hayes went back inside the marshal’s office, strapped on his gun belt and put on his hat–paused for a moment to consider the open ledger on the city marshal’s desk–considered pretending he had not heard or seen the trouble at The Boneshaker and finishing (if such a thing were possible) that work–or maybe just closing up the marshal’s office for the night and going home, as he was hungry and it was approaching suppertime–considered how fortunate he had been in marriage–considered how only a small fraction of that considerable fortune was that his wife was an excellent cook.
He put the ledger in the second desk drawer down–because that’s where Marcus Litch always kept it–walked out of the marshal’s office and over to The Boneshaker.
Just about everyone had cleared out, save one thick-necked man in a greasy black hat, sitting alone at a table drinking a beer. Fergus was sweeping up the remnants of the “entertainment” and cursing softly to himself.
“Fergus,” Hayes said.
“Deputy,” Fergus replied.
“I take it Hiram was causing trouble. Again.”
“Yep,” Fergus said.
“What’s gotten into him? He’s never been this much trouble before.”
“Marcus Litch was never dead before. Hiram’s always been a bully, Deputy, but he kept it at home. He knew Litch would’ve grassed him for causing trouble here.”
“What did he do this time?”
“He got sore when he didn’t win the dance contest. Grabbed Billie’s arm.”
“Did he hurt her?”
Fergus shook his head. “Not this time. You know, if Marcus Litch . . .”
“If Marcus Litch what?”
“Who boxed Hiram’s ear?”
“Cowboy by the name of Stiles. I appreciate the sentiment, but it won’t do any good. You can’t knock sense into a man like Hiram Malone–there’s no room in him for anything but meanness.”
Hayes stepped up to the bar. “Pour me a whiskey, Fergus,” he said.
Fergus leaned the broom against a table, and went back behind the bar to pour Hayes his drink.
“I heard him say he was coming back here with a gun,” Hayes said.
“He won’t. He’ll stop at The Double Barrel on his way home and drink himself insensible. Mitch’ll throw him in his wagon alongside his rats and the old nag will carry him home. When he wakes up tomorrow morning, he won’t remember a thing. He’ll wander in here tomorrow afternoon and ask me if I know why his ear is hurting him so bad.”
“You want me to hang around for a while, just in case?”
“No. I hope he does come back here with a gun. I’ve been looking for an excuse to shoot him.”
“Fergus,” Hayes said, “if it’s all the same to you, I wish you’d let me do the shooting around here.”
“Well, I wish you’d get to it, then. Marcus Litch would have solved this problem by now.”
“I can’t shoot a man just for being a jackass.”
“So you plan to wait until Hiram kills someone before you shoot him? I guess you figure if some whore gets cut up or a saloonkeeper gets ventilated that’s okay, long as no one can call you reckless.”
Hayes didn’t reply. He put some coins down on the bar next to his untasted whiskey and left. Fergus drank the whiskey, scooped the coins into his hand, and dropped them into the register. He pulled his carbine out from under the bar and checked to make sure it was loaded.
Hayes thought about riding over to The Double Barrel and having a word with Hiram Malone if he was there. But he was hungry and it was getting dark and Ruth was no doubt already fixing him his supper, and The Double Barrel was a good five miles in the wrong direction, and that wasn’t even counting having to ride all the way around Green Hill because horses weren’t allowed in the cemetery, and it wouldn’t do for the city marshal pro tempore to be seen breaking the law so soon after having been entrusted with the position. The more Hayes thought about it, the more convinced he became there wasn’t anything he could do that night that wouldn’t be better left alone ‘til morning.
But the next morning, Eddie Ettle’s cows got into Johann Schulz’s alfalfa, and just when he got that settled, Boyd Stork was seen running through town wearing only a shirt and dragging a string of sausages behind him about twenty feet long that he stole from the butcher’s shop, and some cowboys rode into town and had to be reminded to behave themselves, and what with one thing and another, it was two days later before Hayes had a chance to go have that talk with Hiram.
On his way out there, he stopped at The Double Barrel for a drink, and it turned out Fergus got it exactly right. Mitch told Hayes that Hiram had come in on the prod Monday night, and he drank and he fumed to anyone who would listen—well, anyone who strayed too close—about some guy named Giuseppe and how he was gonna put a bullet in that bastard one day. And he kept up the drinking and the fuming right up until he collapsed onto the floor in a stupor.
“I thought he was dead,” Mitch said, “but Doc Sutton was here, and he said Hiram had a pulse. It was awful slow, but he was alive, and Doc said he’d come around after a while. So we threw him into the back of his wagon and Bonny carried him off.”
“Oh, right. And he said he was gonna put a bullet in Guiseppe? You know anyone around here named Guiseppe?”
“That Italian scissor grinder who comes through town every so often—isn’t his name Guiseppe?”
“That’s right,” Hayes said. “You think Hiram’s got a beef with him?”
“Hiram’s got a beef with everyone,” Mitch said.
Hayes rode down a horse path that went by the Methodist church, and recollected that the last time he’d been out this way was when he rode out to the old Toomey place. He’d been told that a couple of rowdies had taken up residence there after the Toomeys abandoned their homestead and went back to Illinois. He wasn’t planning to cause those rowdies any trouble—just ask them a few questions and let them know they needed to move along. He reached up and felt the scar on his forehead—still pretty sore. He was lucky that a pistol butt to the head was the worst he got.
The Malone place was only a mile or so further on. Mrs. Malone opened the door. Hayes told her he needed to have a word with her husband. She said he wasn’t home.
“Do you know where I might find him?” Hayes said.
“He didn’t tell you where he’d be working today?”
“I haven’t seen him today.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Yesterday morning. I walked over to Green Hill early to visit my daughter. Hiram was in bed when I left, and gone when I got back. Bonny came home with the cart some hours after midnight, but Hiram wasn’t in it. There was a cage full of rats on the bench. It was raining pretty hard, and the poor things were soaked through. I brought ‘em in and set ‘em by the stove to warm up.”
“You’re not worried about Hiram?”
“He’ll show up sooner or later—he always does. Probably he’s got work in Lester or Rydell he never bothered to tell me about.”
Well, the cart was right there by the house, and Hayes could see Bonny grazing contentedly in a little fenced-in pasture nearby.
“You think he walked?” Hayes said.
“I don’t know, Deputy,” Mrs. Malone said. “Maybe he borrowed a horse or got a ride with someone going that way. If you’re determined to find him, he’s taken a shine to that singing whore at The Boneshaker. I’ll bet you a cage full of rats he’ll be there Monday evening to dance for her. He wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Deputy Hayes didn’t take that bet, which was fortunate, as otherwise he would have won a cage full of rats. He drank a whiskey while Billie Gray sang a song about an Irish maiden who has fallen on hard times. She lives in a hovel and has no belongings save a dented old watering can with a spout in the shape of a rose. When her rent comes due, she offers her landlord the watering can in payment, but he won’t take it. He wants something else from her—something she is loath to give, but it’s that, or get turned out of her hovel and freeze to death. Fortunately, the rose-shaped spout on the watering can is in truth an enchanted giant “with feet the size of the Drumgooland stones” who, once freed, grants the girl three wishes. Her first is for him to step on her landlord.
Hiram Malone wasn’t there to dance that night, but Mr. Willis (the tall and long-limbed field hand, you’ll recall) was. Mr. Willis had every intention of performing a spirited Zeibekiko—he’d been practicing all week, every moment he could spare—but when he stepped forward, something came over him, and instead of dancing, he got down on one knee and asked Billie Gray to marry him. And she accepted!
And no one has seen hide nor hair of The Prince of Salerno in quite some time.