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Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine
In the worst of my drinking days, which was right after the war in which I'd been a Union spy and occasional assassin, I rarely looked forward to revisiting the saloon where I'd gotten drunk the previous night.
I was what people like to call a troublemaker. I argued, I belittled, I started fights for myself. I was even skillful enough in my red-eyed way to start fights for other people. Saloonkeepers were rarely happy to see me return. Many of them, in fact, told me I wasn't welcome and tossed my sorry ass out.
A four-day blackout got me off the bottle. I wish I could tell you that I had had a religious vision, or that I came to the philosophical conclusion that I was wasting my life, or that I realized how much more good, clean fun the sober life would be.
What it was, I'd never had a blackout that had stretched beyond thirty-six hours, and a four-day blank spot just plain scared the hell out of me. I woke up on a sunny Sunday morning in an alley in St. Louis, minus my Western boots, my Stetson, all my money, and all my identification. The last was the worst because, for an entire hour, I couldn't remember who I was.
I never did put those missing days together. When I remembered that my name was Noah Ford, that I was a field investigator for a branch of the United States Army, and that I was on assignment looking for two men who'd held up a train and unwittingly stolen some secret Army items, I wired Washington that I'd been kidnapped, tortured, and left to die. I therefore needed money immediately and new credentials to follow posthaste. I doubted they believed my story. They knewI was a drinker. But I captured 86 percent of the men they sent me after, so they decided to give me another chance.
The money came in seventy-two hours. The credentials took several days. I spent the time working for room and board at a convent. I painted the house the nuns lived in and then cleaned out an ancient barn that had bedeviled them since they'd moved in a year ago.
The first few days of sobriety were a lark. I kept thinking how easy this was going to be. I couldn't figure out why people complained about how hard it was to give up drinking. I didn't realize that I was having a sort of grace period. No anger, no fear, no irritation. Hard physical work that left me exhausted at the end of a ten-hour day, followed by good food, a bit of quiet reading in the attic of the convent, and then ten hours of sound sleep in a clean, sturdy bed.
But after my credentials came and I got back to my real workwhich involved not only investigating, but lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing when necessarythen it wasn't so easy to walk past a saloon without feeling the shaky urge to take a drink, to hide inside the dark solace of drunkenness.
It was the sort of saloon where people who thought they ruled the world gathered to inflict their loud opinions on the expensive air.
You hear the same kind of loud alcoholic opinions shouted in deadfalls and cheap saloons, too, only not with quite the same air of certainty.
The name was the Founders Club and it was in the best section of town, far enough away from the raw wound of the small slum to make you forget slums altogetherwhich the members of the Founders Club had done a long time ago.
The blond man I'd seen demonstrate the machine gun earlier in the day sat with two of the men who'd seen the gun in action. I was inside the club because a retired colonel I'd known from the war had asked the club to serve me lunch here as a guest. They hadn't asked him any questions, which was fine, because he wasn't prepared to give them any answers.
The conversations I could overhear were about what you'd expect, most of the subjects gleaned from newspapers and magazines. New York City lighting every street with electricity. Canned fruits available coast to coast. Fifty thousand telephones in use across the country. The sort of things that interested businessmen. The only jabber that really caught my ear was about a gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, at some corral. Who isn't interested in a gunfight story? A lot of them are bullshit, but if the teller of the tale is good at his craft then the more bullshit the merrier, I say.
I drank coffee until my small steak came. The blond man didn't spot me until I'd been there fifteen minutes. He did one of those double takes that stage comedians like to do. From then on, whenever he raised his gaze to look at me, he glared.It took him an hour to get rid of the two men. At the end there was a lot of handshaking and biceppatting and contrived smiling. They wanted what he had, which was the weapon; he wanted what they had, which was a great deal of money. It's interesting to listen to all the praise on a man's lips turn to disdain as soon as he's out of earshot of the man he's been buttering up. We all do it but it ain't very pretty.
After they had disappeared into the cloakroom, he came over and sat down. Neither of us spoke for a while. He took a cigar from inside his suit coat, snipped off the smoking end with a silver clipper, got it lighted, and said, "Mother told me you were dead."
"Well, you know good old Mom. Probably wishful thinking on her part. She never did like me much."
"Neither did Dad or our dear sister Claudene."
"How many husbands has our sister poisoned by now?"Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine. Copyright © by Ed Gorman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.