State Prison, Laramie
ALTHOUGH WYOMING HAD BEEN a state for eight years, the older guards still called it the Territorial Prison. Guard Private John Tillman (nicknamed "BB" by guards who ragged him about the "Baby Butt" smoothness of his cheeks) had been on regular shifts for only a month when he drew the undesirable duty of guarding the "moonberries" in the upper-deck security wing. He didn't know why the criminally insane were called moonberries; he had never asked, fearing it might be just another of the tiresome gags with which old hands tormented and humiliated new guards.
Tillman started his first tour of the special cells, stopping at each door to open the spy-hole and check on the inmate. The first moonberry was sitting on the edge of his cot, rocking himself and humming. The smile of perfect contentment on his bland visage gave no hint of his deeply held conviction that it was his duty to throw acid in the faces of children. "If I don't do it. ..," he had explained to the judge "... who will?"
"The Politician" in the next cell was engaged in an ill-tempered debate with the space in front of him.
The third moonberry recoiled into a corner when he heard the spy-hole being opened. He cowered there, hiding behind his hands and babbling, "Please don't hurt me! I didn't mean to do it! Honest to God, I didn't mean it!" "The Spook," as the guards called him, was afraid of everything. During the morning mucking-out rounds, a guard had to go in and get his shit-bucket because he was too frightened to bring it to the door, as the other prisoners did. After Tillman humanely closed the spy-hole as soon as he had verified the Spook's presence, the old man repeated, "I didn't mean to do it!" then he slumped in relief and his eyes narrowed with cunning. He had fooled them again. He really had meant to do it. And he'd do it again if he got the chance! Those kinds of women had it coming to them!
Tillman passed by the large two-bunk cell that was currently unoccupied and went to the last door on the corridor. A wave of horripulation ran up his spine as he reached out for the spy-hole because this moonberry, a man named Lieder, was the most dangerous man in the prison. The guards always spoke of Lieder with a certain pride. He was the baddest of the bad, and they were the ones chosen to keep society safe from him. "Which must mean we're pretty tough ourselves, right? After all, we managed to keep 187 inside." Number 187 had been their most famous inmate, Robert LeRoy Parker, a horse-thief who did eighteen months in the Territorial Penitentiary under the alias George "Butch" Cassidy.
"But 187 was a Sunday school teacher compared to this Lieder. Don't be fooled by that fella's smooth manner, kid. He's slick as greased shit. Keep on your toes all the time. He's busted outta two places, and chances are he'll try it again, sooner or later. You just make sure he doesn't do it on your shift, or the warden'll reach down your throat and snatch your lungs out!"
"Yeah, kid, and do you know what Lieder does all day long, lying up there in his cell? He does what your mama told you would ruin your eyesight. He reads! His cell is chock full of books and magazines and newspapers! Read? He's at it from first light to last. Mostly history and politics. But he's got one favorite book that he reads over and over."
"What book is that?"
"Oh, you'll hear about it. You'll hear all about it."
It was the guards who provided Lieder with books and magazines, in part because it was the easiest way to keep him calm, and in part because they were afraid of him. He had once informed a watch sergeant, with calm sincerity, that if he didn't get a newspaper every week, he would punish him and his family when he broke out. The sergeant had dismissed the threat with a sniff, saying there was no way no moonberry would ever get out of the security wing. None never had, and none never would. But the next day he came with a newspaper under his arm. Well, hell's bells, what's the point in taking chances? Look at his record, for the love of God.
When he was only fourteen years old, Lieder had inflicted a weekend of hell on his hometown just south of Laramie, shooting out windows, setting fire to the school, and holding three children hostage in a livery stable he threatened to burn down if anyone approached. He was eventually cornered and sent away to a privately run home for wayward boys dedicated to "breaking" tough kids with a combination of spirit-crushing punishments and long sessions of prayer on their knees with their arms stretched out until their shoulders knotted with pain. At eighteen, he broke out after seriously injuring his spiritual mentor while they were praying together for his salvation. A three-month rampage characterized by gratuitous and inventive cruelty had the whole south-east corner of Wyoming peering into shadows and flinching from sounds before Lieder was recaptured and committed to the Territorial Prison because no other institution had the facilities to deal with a man who had punished a tenaciously evangelistic preacher by shooting him four times, once through each palm and once through each foot, to provide him with the stigmata of this Christ.
Lieder was rescued from a lynch mob and sentenced to perpetual confinement as a menace to society. Once inside, he became a model of good behavior, never causing trouble, always polite, often helpful. But he escaped while working in the prison broom factory (as foreman), and was on the loose for nearly three years. After joining up with the northern, "Union Pacific" stream of Coxey's army, that uniquely American blend of lofty intent, quixotic diversity, righteous wrath, and carnival hokum, Lieder became disillusioned and returned to cleave a trail of pain and violence across southern Wyoming and northern Colorado. At some point, he experienced a kind of political revelation; victims reported that even while he was torturing them to discover where they had hidden their money, he ranted on about how he had joined William Jennings Bryan's crusade to save the farmer and workingman from being crucified "on a Cross of Gold," and to protect them from the hordes of foreigners swarming across the ocean to steal Americans' jobs and contaminate their pure blood by seducing their women. His frenzies of violence culminated in an assault on a farmer who had expressed his intention to vote for McKinley over Bryan. Beginning with the farmer, Lieder had methodically punished the whole family with an axe handle, and done it so thoroughly that none of them were able to testify later. The farmer's memory never fully returned; the two children were left brain-damaged and with an abiding horror of strangers; and the wife's catatonic withdrawal from reality was so total that she ended her years in care. Despite Lieder's claim to have been "sorely provoked" and to have acted for the good of his beloved United States of America, the judge condemned him to life internment in maximum security.
"That Lieder's crazy, all right," the guard Tillman relieved explained, "but he's not stupid. He's done folks all kinds of hurt, but he never kills anybody, 'cause he knows he'd hang for it. No, he's no fool. What he is is evil. Pure distilled two-hundred-proof evil. And crafty? He can talk the birds down from the trees. So you be careful, kid. And I mean careful." All this made Tillman wish he hadn't promised his wife that he would speak to Lieder. But ... a promise is a promise.
He opened the spy-hole to find Lieder pacing angrily across his field of vision, a book open in his hand. "Yes! And this `time of tribulation' must mean the war in Cuba! What else could it mean?" He disappeared from sight for an instant as he reached the near corner of the cell, then he turned and strode the five paces back to the opposite corner. "'The tribulation will pass,'" he quoted from the page before his face, "'and the nation will rejoice! But in its rejoicing, it will little note the insidious rot eating out its core! This rot will spread, until a leader rises from among the People to smite the invaders!'" Lieder softly closed the book and looked out through his barred window to the horizon. "... to smite the invaders ..." he repeated in a tone of wonder. Then he threw himself onto his bunk. "Smite them!" In a suddenly calm tone he spoke to the ceiling, "You'd be the new guard. What do you call yourself?"
"Ah ... Tillman."
"Tillman," he repeated. "I like to know a man's name. I think it's important to know a man's name. Well, Mr Tillman, welcome to the land of the moonberries. You got something for me?"
Tillman cleared his throat. "I got this week's paper." There was an embarrassed silence. "How ... ah ... how do I ...?"
"You're wondering how you can give it to me without opening the door."
"Well ... ah ..." Tillman certainly didn't intend to take any chances.
Lieder stood up. "They roll the pages up and push 'em through the hole. And you know, I honestly believe that's the best way to do it. A man would be a downright fool to risk coming in here."
Tillman ineptly rolled up the first sheet of the four-page paper and slowly introduced it into the spy-hole. It suddenly flew through his fingers as Lieder snatched it in.
"Good news," Tillman said as he started rolling up the second sheet. "Looks like the fighting in Cuba's all over. They've signed a ... a something ... with Spain."
Lieder stared fiercely at the paper. "A protocol ... whatever the hell that is. Those pig-ignorant bastards in Washington have been tricked! Fine young American boys fight and die to teach foreigners who's who and what's what, and the politicians sign a protocol! Spain palms off Puerto Rico and the Philippines on us! And that stupid McKinley thinks he did good! Those sly Spaniards have slipped us the poison spoon, Mr Tillman. Slipped us the poison spoon! They've palmed off a couple of million illiterate greasers on us, and first thing you know they'll come streaming over here to steal jobs from Americans! Give me that!" He snatched the second sheet in through the spy-hole and scanned it rapidly. "Stupid bastards!"
Tillman had been looking for the right moment to speak to Lieder about what his wife had suggested, but this sure wasn't it.
"I'm interested in your opinion about something, Mr Tillman," Lieder said. "Who do you think blew up the Maine?"
"Ah ... the Spanish, of course."
"The Spanish?" Lieder laughed. "It was those anarchists! One of those immigrant bastards put a time bomb on board when she was still in harbor in America!"
"But ... why would they do that?"
"To lure us into war! To draw our soldiers out of this country and leave them free to take it over!"
"That's crazy! There ain't--"
Lieder spun and glared in rage at the spy-hole ... then he smoothly masked his fury behind an eye-smile. "Well now, maybe you're right, Mr Tillman." He showed his teeth in a broad grin. "Crazy men do sometimes say crazy things. That's how we know they're crazy, isn't it? Mr Tillman, would you tell me something."
"What's that?" Tillman's tone was stiff. No slick moonberry was going to talk him down from the trees.
"Are you a reader? Me, I believe a man ought to read. Keeps his mind sharp and his horizons broad."
"I don't read but the Bible. A man don't need nothing else, 'cause all the truth in this world is right there. Me and my wife read from the Good Book every morning and evening."
"Your wife? Oh ... yes. Yes, a guard told me that the new man had just got married. It is a crying shame, ain't it, how some men feel they've got to say smutty things about newly married folks? Joking about what they get up to, and how many times they do it, and how sore the wife is afterward! Men think they're being funny, but all they're being is filthy-minded. So you don't read anything but the Bible, eh? You know what I was reading when you came calling at my door? I was reading the most important book ever written--other, of course, than your Bible. I was reading The Revelation of the Forbidden Truth, which was written by a man who signs himself simply The Warrior. You ever hear tell of The Revelation of the Forbidden Truth, Mr Tillman?"
"Can't say I have," Tillman said, his curt tone showing he was no soft touch.
"I'm sorry to hear that. But then, I suppose it isn't given to everyone to receive and understand the Forbidden Truth. Only to those who have been chosen to smite the politicians in Washington who are despoiling this beautiful land of ours. And the immigrants! And the papists! And the stockbrokers! And the--" He smiled suddenly. "But just listen to me, will you? Babbling away like a crazy man. Sane people, they don't care if the foreigners and the Catholics and the Jews blow up American battleships and get off scott-free! No! And they don't care if America's turning into a garbage pit for Europe to dump their ignorant scum into." He dropped onto his bunk and threw his arm over his face.
"Ah ..." Tillman began uncertainly. "Talking about reading and all, do you ... ah ... have a Bible in there?"
Lieder did not respond.
"I'm asking because my wife ..." Tillman shrugged.
"Because your wife what, Mr Tillman?" Lieder asked from beneath his arm.
"Well, I told her about you, and she said I should ... I mean, she thought maybe you'd like to ..."
"Maybe I'd like to do what, Mr Tillman?"
The guard cleared his throat. "Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"
Lieder smiled into his ann. But his voice was gentle and receptive when he answered, "Well now, I can't honestly say as I have, Mr Tillman."
"You haven't been washed in the Blood of the Lamb?"
"N-no. But I confess that something in those words attracts me mightily." He lowered his arm and looked toward the spy-hole, his eyes vulnerable and sincere. "Your wife, she wouldn't have something I could read, would she? Something to guide my feet along the right path?"
"I'll bring you some tracts tomorrow."
"Will you, Mr Tillman? I'd be so thankful."
"You can count on it." Tillman closed the spy-hole and drew a deep breath. Mary will be pleased as punch when I tell her. Pleased as punch!
Alone, Lieder's lips compressed into an astringent smile. "Well, now! I guess there's something to what Paul said in Friesians: 7, 13. Praise the word of the Lord, for it is Truth, and the truth will set you free."
DUTCHMAN'S FINGER, YANKEE PROMISE, Sally's Drawers, Why Bother?, Easy Squaw, Eureka Ditty ... the Wyoming silver rush left so many short-lived and whimsically named towns in its wake that "Twenty-Mile" seems mundane, by comparison, until you discover that the town wasn't twenty miles from anything. It sprang up overnight beside a narrow-gauge railway that connected the boomtown of Destiny to a high mountain silver mine called the Surprise Lode. The distance between these terminals was only seventeen miles as the crow flies, but if that crow had been obliged to take the train, it would have had to endure a tortuous forty-three mile crawl up the vertiginous switchbacks of the Medicine Bow Range, with solid rock walls almost brushing one side of the train while, on the other side, there was a series of stomach-fluttering drops into deep ravines.
Some claim that Twenty-Mile got its name when the railroad surveyors, having chosen a point at random from which to measure distances discovered a two-acre shelf of flatland about twenty miles up the line that would serve as a way station for supplies while they were blasting out the roadbed and laying track. The little cluster of unpainted, false-fronted buildings that sprouted up overnight came to be known as Twenty-Mile. Admittedly, it is not very gratifying to learn that Twenty-Mile was so called because it was twenty miles from a spot twenty miles away, but we are unlikely ever to get a better explanation because Twenty-Mile now exists only in small print on the survey quads, where its symbol indicates uninhabited agglomeration, map-maker language for a ghost town.
This ghost town attracts occasional memento-hunters who, after working their way up the now-derelict and dangerous railroad cut in search of souvenirs from America's Vanished Past, report feeling a disquieting "chill" upon reaching Twenty-Mile's little scattering of abandoned, sun-bleached buildings. Old-timers say that the town's "bad totem" comes from what happened there in 1898 when, already slipping toward decay after its brief flurry of growth, it was inhabited by only a handful of hangers-on. But every Saturday evening a rattling five-car train used to carry the week's output of silver from the Surprise Lode down to Destiny to be smelted and shipped back East. The snorting narrow-gauge engine made a brief stop at Twenty-Mile to drop off sixty-or-so miners for their weekly bender. It would pick them up again on its return Sunday morning, as it brought coal, equipment, and supplies up to the Lode and to the residents of Twenty-Mile. This arrangement had been worked out by the mine managers to prevent their work force of misfits and drifters from getting down to Destiny, where they might find work that was less back-breaking, dangerous, and poorly paid, or even desert to the new gold fields up in the Klondike. But the Surprise Lode miners were a feckless, burnt-out bunch, content to stay where they were so long as they had all Saturday night to raise hell and squander their wages; and it was this hell-raising and wage-squandering that constituted Twenty-Mile's only excuse for existing, after its role as the mine's principal supply station had been superseded by Destiny, and the flood of independent prospectors that used to comb these mountains had dwindled to a trickle of half-crazed diehards.
Even before the train came to a full stop, the fun-hungry miners would scramble down from the boxcars, whooping and shooting their slack-hammered old dog-leg pistols into the air as they descended upon Bjorkvist's Boardinghouse, where they would devour huge quantities of pretty bad food. Then most of them would go to Kane's Mercantile Emporium to buy overalls or work gloves or muscle liniment or flannel shirts or chewing tobacco or patent medicines, and sometimes frilly little gifts for someone's birthday back home. Mr Kane would keep their purchases for them until just before they scrambled back onto the train Sunday morning.
From Kane's Mercantile, some went to Professor Murphy's Tonsorial Palace, where a coal-stoked boiler wheezed dangerously as it struggled to heat water for the four wooden tubs. You could get a bath for 35[cts.], and a 15[cts.] shave came with enough bay rum slapped onto your cheeks to make your pals hoot and whistle when they smelled you coming into the Traveller's Welcome Hotel (which was not really a hotel, just a whorehouse with a bar). The reason some men got all bathed and shaved and bay-rum'd was because they believed they might get special treatment from the hotel's whores if they looked their best. No one ever specified what this "special treatment" might consist of, but the words were usually accompanied by winks and nudges and knowing snickers.
Three "girls" worked the Traveller's Welcome: Frenchy, a tall, lean, yellow-eyed black woman from New Orleans; Chinky, a shy Chinese girl who spoke little English and never looked a man in the eyes; and Queeny, a loud, laughing, sloshy-breasted old Irishwoman who was said to be able to drink anything that didn't eat the bottom out of the glass before she got to it. The older miners preferred Queeny, saying she was a "barrel of laughs" and a "good ol' gal at heart"; the younger boys went for Chinky because more experienced gifts might poke fun at them; and those who passed for connoisseurs went for Frenchy because everyone knew that black gals were just naturally better at it, and if she was also French ...! Well, hey there! Stand aside!
The miners greatly outnumbered Twenty-Mile's permanent population, which had shrunk from more than two hundred at the high tide of the town's fortunes to just fifteen souls, so few that they occupied only a handful of the unpainted wooden buildings that had been slapped up during the heady years of boom and hope, when the town's motto had been: Watch Us Grow! Now those empty buildings creaked and groaned softly as they surrendered themselves to the patient embrace of gravity.
Twenty-Mile's fifteen residents included Mr Kane, owner of the Mercantile Emporium ("Everything a Person Really Needs"). Mr Kane's independent-minded seventeen-year-old daughter, Ruth Lillian, was accounted the town's beauty. Professor Murphy, as we have seen, sold hot baths, shaves, and generous splashes of bay rum at his Tonsorial Palace. Mrs Bjorkvist ran the boardinghouse, which was really just a big dining room that served "steaks" (the quotation marks are meant to suggest the same level of dubiousness as those around "girls" when describing the hotel's whores). These steaks came with cabbage, baking-powder biscuits, and canned peaches at every meal. There was a long room at the back with wooden bunks and skimpy straw mattresses on which miners stumbling back from the Traveller's Welcome could sleep. Bed, supper, and breakfast cost an all-in price of a dollar. Robbery, the miners always grumbled, but they paid up. Mrs Bjorkvist spoke with an accent that could blunt a hacksaw, but she managed to make it known that she never wanted to see any of the Traveller's Welcome's "girls" around her establishment. There was a Mr Bjorkvist skulking in the background, a hefty, scowling man with whose assistance she had borne two children. (One wag said he must have struck pay dirt each time he put in his spade.) Kersti Bjorkvist was a heavy-shouldered, thick-featured girl of twenty-two who worked in the kitchen and waited on tables, and her brother, Oskar, was a slow-witted boy a year older than Ruth Lillian Kane, whom he ogled in a moist, slack-jawed way that made Mr Kane frown irritably. The Traveller's Welcome and its three girls were run by Mr Delanny, who coughed a lot, wore sparkling white shirts with frills down the front, and was thin as a rail. Mr Delanny was understood to have been a "big-time gambler" in his day, a reputation burnished by Jeff Calder, the one-legged Civil War veteran who served behind the hotel's bar and often complained that although he'd done more than his share in the defense of the Union, this no-account government refused to treat its wounded heroes like it ought to.
As for the remaining three citizens of Twenty-Mile: B J Stone dealt with the donkeys they used up in the mine shafts. He was accounted "odd" because he read a lot and had a way of looking at you as though he knew something he wasn't telling. B J Stone's helper-of-all-work was called Coots, a gruff old mixed-blood, part Black, part Cherokee, who kept to himself and was rumored to be a dangerous man to fool with because he had been a gunfighter. Finally there was "Reverend" (see "steak" and "girls") Leroy Hibbard, who received a stipend from the mining company for accompanying the men back up to the Lode every Sunday morning and laying a soul-scourging sermon on the entire work force, which the Puritan Boston mine owners obliged to assemble and receive this bludgeoning enlightenment. Hibbard always stayed overnight at the mine after his exhausting witness and returned Monday afternoon, walking the fifteen miles back down the railroad track. The Reverend was locked in constant battle against the Depravity and Evil that lurk within all descendants of Adam, but every couple of weeks his moral fiber would begin to fray, and he would sneak in at the back door of the Traveller's Welcome late at night to drink with Jeff Calder, then he'd go sin with Frenchy, after which submersion in the sloughs of iniquity, he would stagger down the street in that blackest hour just before dawn, sobbing and crying out that he was a disgusting creature! a loathsome sinner! a fornicator! an unworthy vessel undeserving of God's forgiveness! Mrs Bjorkvist made no secret of the fact that this was pretty much her own evaluation of the Reverend, who eagerly lapped up her loathing as a deliciously appropriate punishment for his wickedness. B J Stone (the Livery man who reads a lot?) found the Reverend ludicrous and openly laughed at him. And for this reason the man of God detested Stone with that marrow-deep hatred that the righteous claim to reserve for the sin but always visit upon the sinner.
Every Sunday morning, after the train dropped off supplies and picked up the miners to carry them and their furry-mouthed hangovers back up to the Surprise Lode, Twenty-Mile was left feeling stiff and leaden, as though it were suffering its own kind of hangover, dazed by all the shouting and laughter, soured by drink, drained by loveless sexual excess. Most people slept late on Sundays, but Kersti Bjorkvist could usually be found sitting at her kitchen table, slump-shouldered and staring, and over at the hotel Jeff Calder would be stumping one-leggedly around the barroom behind his push broom, while upstairs the public girls sprawled in tangled, sweat-damp sheets.
The spring bell over the door of Kane's Mercantile jangled as Mr Delanny came in to pick up the bottles of Mother Grey's Patented Suppressant he used to keep his cough in check. Departing, he met Mrs Bjorkvist at the door, and he lifted his hat in a sarcastically theatrical gesture that made her sniff and turn her head away. She wanted no truck with the man who owned The Traveller's Welcome, with its ... its ... its Whores of Babylon! Mrs Bjorkvist's moral abhorrence of the hotel did not, however, extend to denying herself the profit she made by supplying that iniquitous den's residents with their daily dinners and suppers. Unable to lower herself to having such people in her establishment, she sent her daughter over with covered pots containing the meals, but she watched the clock to be sure the girl was gone no longer than was necessary to put the food under the warming hood of the hotel's kitchen stove, because ... well, because you never know, do you?
Because he knew that Mrs Bjorkvist never bought anything, Mr Kane continued his Sunday morning routine of listing the supplies the train had brought up from Destiny, while his customer pecked along the counters, fingering the new stock and muttering over its price and quality. "Have you decided to celebrate our victory in Cuba with a little shopping spree, Mrs Bjorkvist?" She compressed her lips and sniffed. "Caught a little cold, have we?" Mr Kane asked in the flat, dental accent that would have revealed his ethnic roots to anyone less accent-deaf than Mrs Bjorkvist. "Maybe you should try some of Mr Delanny's Suppressant." Mrs Bjorkvist's neck stiffened at the thought of taking anything into the tabernacle of her body that was used by that ... panderer, that ... that ...! But something outside the store window snagged her attention. "Vat's dis den?" she demanded to know. Mr Kane lifted his head to see Mr Delanny standing in the middle of the road, talking to a young man who was carrying a heavy pack and carried an ancient, oversized shotgun on an improvised rope sling over his shoulder. Except for the occasional prospector, the arrival of a stranger was a rare enough event in Twenty-Mile to justify Mrs Bjorkvist's irritated "Vat's dis den?" And this young man's wide-brimmed farmer's hat and wide-toed farmer's boots said he was no prospector.
"Vere d'ee fink he come from, den?" Mrs Bjorkvist asked, her eyes riveted on the stranger, as though to nail him in place until she had made up her mind about him.
"I have no idea, Mrs Bjorkvist," Mr Kane said in an indifferent tone he knew would irritate her.
They watched Mr Delanny smile and shake his head in response to a question from the stranger, then turn away to his hotel with a flip of his long, thin fingers that clearly said, "Good luck to you, boy." This was followed by a shake of his head that added, "You'll need it."
The young man shifted the weight of his pack, tipped his hat back on his head with his thumb, and walked off. Mrs Bjorkvist pressed her cheek against the window to peer diagonally down the street after him. It wasn't that she was nosy, but if she didn't have a perfect right to know what this stranger was up to, then who did? When he turned in at B J Stone's Livery, she nodded to herself. She might have guessed! What with the way that old man was always reading books and looking at people like they were funny, or stupid, or ...something! Imagine him daring to call other people funny! Him, who's nothing but a foul, vile--But she wouldn't contaminate her mind by even thinking that word.
In a tone that said "Wouldn't you know it?" she informed Mr Kane that the stranger had gone to the Livery.
"Goneto the Livery, has he?" the shop-owner responded dryly. "Vat's dis vorld coming to, den?"
Ruth Lillian Kane came down the stairs from the living quarters above, having washed the breakfast dishes while her father was opening the store. She greeted Mrs Bjorkvist brightly (a little too brightly, because she didn't like her) and asked politely after her daughter. But the proprietress of the boarding house limited her response to a disapproving glance at the new gingham dress Ruth Lillian was wearing. Frills and vanity! He spoils her, that man. Trying to make up for the way her mother ... well, enough said. Enough said. No good ever came from spoiling children. She ought to give him a piece of her mind, but she didn't have time to stand around talking nonsense. That stranger would be wanting to sleep and eat at her boarding house. Well, maybe she'd let him, and maybe not. It would depend on what sort he was. She'd just wait and see.
Without further socializing, she left the store and crossed to her establishment.
"Good-bye, Mrs Bjorkvist," Mr Kane called after her in a sing-song. "Always a pleasure to serve you."
B J STONE TIPPED HIS chair back against the slab wall of the shoeing shed, carefully folded the two-day-old Cheyenne newspaper he had been reading, and scrubbed his grey-stubbled cheek with his knuckles. "From Nebraska, eh? And walked all the way! Well, there's cold water in the barrel. Help yourself. Dipper's right there. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, son, but if you're looking for work, you've come to just about the worst place in the Republic. The sad truth is, there's absolutely nothing happening in Twenty-Mile. And that's on busy days. This is a town without history. Its past is only eleven years long, and it has no future at all. I'd offer you a little tide-over work, but what I make handling donkeys for the Lode is barely enough to keep my soul from leaking out of my body. I wouldn't even be able to afford old Coots here, if he wasn't willing to work for just bed, vittles, and my eternal gratitude. Isn't that right, Coots?"
The wiry old Black-Cherokee didn't look up from scraping rot out of the hoof of the donkey whose foreleg was folded up onto the leather apron on his lap. "And piss-poor vittles they are," he muttered.
"Sorry I can't help you, son. But you're welcome to a cup of coffee."
"A cup of coffee'd do me nothing but good, sir." The boy grunted as he slipped off the straps that had dug into his shoulders during his all-night walk up the railroad track from Destiny.
"Fetch our guest a cup of joe, Coots," B J Stone said grandly.
"You want to take over scraping out this hoof?" Coots asked.
"No, no, you're doing just fine."
"Then you fetch the goddamned coffee. You ain't done nothing all morning but sit there with your nose in that paper, grumbling about imperialism and jingoism and Christ only knows whatotherism! While me, I been busier'n a one-legged man in a ass-kicking contest!"
B J Stone leaned toward Matthew and whispered, "I'm afraid poor old Coots is a miserable excuse for a host. And as for his coffee ...!"
"If you don't like it, don't drink it!" Coots snapped.
"Touchy old bastard, too," B J confided behind his hand.
The young man smiled uncertainly; he'd never heard a black man sass a white man like that before. B J Stone stood up with a martyred sigh and disappeared into the kitchen, where a pot of coffee simmered on an iron stove, growing thicker and blacker since its grounds had been sunk with egg shells first thing that morning.
The young man set his shotgun beside his pack and gently pressed his sore shoulder with his fingertips as he watched Coots's skilful, pale-palmed hands work at the donkey's hoof. He was intrigued by Coots's face: the blend of Negro features and Cherokee eyes.
"Where'd you get that gun?" Coots asked without looking up from his task.
"Hm! And he must've got it from his great-grandpa, who must've bought it off Methuselah! Where do you find ammunition for an old monster like that?"
"Pa used to make it himself." He untied the thongs of his backpack and rummaged in it for a canvas bag containing the shells he had taken with him when he hit the road. "Here's one. Ain't she a dandy? Pa, he'd cut open two ordinary double-ought shells and leave the primer and powder in place in one, then he'd make a longer jacket with stiff paper and add the powder from the other shell and the shot from both, then he'd tamp everything down tight--that was always the spooky part, the tamping--then he'd crimp the paper and dip it into wax to make it stiff and waterproof. They came out real good. But I'll admit the gun has a pretty fair kick."
Coots turned the waxy, double-size shell between his fingers and shook his head. "I'll bet! A man'd get tuckered out, having to pick himself up and walk back to the firing line each time he shot it!" Coots tossed the shell back. "Seems a waste of time, making shells for a gun that's no good for hunting. You hit an animal with that cannon and there'd be nothing left but a tuft of fur and a startled expression."
The boy laughed. "Pa only shot it once in a blue moon. He'd blow old barrels apart, making the staves fly ever which-a-way. Showing off. He liked having a bigger gun than anybody else." He returned the shell to his bag. "To tell the truth, Pa didn't have all that much he could brag on."
"But that antique's dangerous, boy! And with hand-made ammunition ... whoa there! And you lugged that old monster all the way from Nebraska?"
"Yes, sir. I don't rightly know why I brung it along. I just didn't want to leave it behind. But heavy? A hundred times I thought about dropping it off along the trail."
"But you didn't."
"No, sir, I didn't."
"I don't rightly know."
"You must like it a lot."
"No, sir, I don't like it. Fact is ... I hate it."
"I don't blame you. Sooner or later that old thing's going to blow somebody all to hell."
"Yes, well ... that's just what happened. It was this old gun that done for my pa."
Coots's knife stopped moving in the donkey's hoof. "I'm sorry, boy. I never ... I mean, I was just blathering. Sorry about your pa."
The boy lifted his shoulders and said dully, "Things like that happen. They just ..." He lowered his eyes and shook his head. "... happen." He idly picked up an old leather-bound book from the bench. It smelled like his mother's Bible, but he couldn't figure out the words.
"That's Latin, son," B J Stone said, returning with a tin cup in one hand and the coffeepot in the other, its hot handle swathed in a clump of rags. "It's a collection of Roman satire from Lucilius to Juvenal. I don't suppose you read Latin." He gave Matthew his cup.
"No, sir," the boy said, putting the book back gingerly, then holding out his cup to be filled.
"Satire deals with our vices and our--whoops!" B J Stone absentmindedly over-filled Matthew's cup. "... deals with our vices and our absurdities--in short with the bulk of human activity." He turned to Coots. "Well, do you want some of this miserable sludge, or are you just going to keep on fussing with that hoof."
"Somebody's got to do the work around here," Coots retorted, holding out his cup to be refilled.
"You wouldn't be interested in the Romans by any chance, would you, boy?" B J Stone filled his own cup.
"No, sir, I can't say I am. I know that one of them just washed his hands and let them kill Jesus, and ... well, that's all I know about the Romans. To tell the truth, I don't read all that much."
"That's too bad. A book's a good place to hide out in, when things get too bad. Or too dull." This last seemed to be directed at Coots, who ignored it.
The tin cup was so hot that Matthew had to suck in a lot of air to keep from burning his lips, but the coffee felt good going down into his empty stomach. "What I said about not reading all that much? Fact is, we moved around a lot, and I was snatched from school to school so much that I can barely recognize my name."
"And what is your name?"
"Well, sir ... they call me the Ringo Kid."
Coots and B J Stone exchanged glances.
"Do they, now," B J Stone said. "The Ringo Kid, eh? So when your ma wants you for chores, she shouts out, `Hey, Ringo Kid! Come here, and chop me some kindling!' Is that it?"
"No, sir, she doesn't say that." He paused a moment before adding quietly. "My ma is dead."
"And his pa's dead, too!" Coots hissed in a tone that accused his partner of lacking tact.
"Oh." The teasing tone leached out of B J's voice. "Have you been on your own for long?"
"About two weeks. After my folks died, I decided to pack up and go west and ..." He shrugged.
"I see. Hm-m." B J Stone took a long sip of coffee to conceal his discomfort.
After a silence, the boy volunteered, "My ma named me Matthew. She wanted to have four boys. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."
"And what became of the other three evangelists?"
"The fever took Luke when he was just a baby. And Mark, he ran off about two years ago."
"There never was a John. My ma stopped having kids after Luke died. I guess it didn't seem worth the trouble, if the fever was just going to come along and take them off." The boy drew a long breath and stared out toward the cliff that ended Twenty-Mile. Then his focus softened into a gentle eye-smile. "Truth is, I ain't really called the Ringo Kid. I just said that because ... well, I don't rightly know why. It just seemed like a good name to start my new life with. I got it out of the books by Mr Anthony Bradford Chumms. You know the ones? The Ringo Kid Meets His Match? Or The Ringo Kid Teaches a Lesson? Or The Ringo Kid Takes His Time? I've read every one of them over and over until the pages started falling out. On the back cover of The Ringo Kid Evens the Score, it says that Mr Anthony Bradford Chumms is `an English gentleman who lends a cultured richness of expression to exciting tales of the American West.'"
"Well, now!" B J Stone said with mock respect. "Lends a cultured richness of expression, does he? My, my!"
"Yes, sir. For my money, Mr Anthony Bradford Chumms is the best writer in the whole wide world!"
"Me, I'll stick with old Lucilius. But I thought you said you could barely read your name?"
Matthew lowered his eyes and was silent for fully three seconds. Then: "Yes, sir, I did say that. But it was a lie. I said I couldn't read because the Ringo Kid can't read, but everyone respects him anyway, because he's honest and fair. And I've always wanted to be like him."
"Hm-m. You do a lot of lying, do you, Matthew?"
"I'm afraid I do, sir. I know it's a sin, but ..." He shrugged. Then he grinned. "But it sure saves a lot of trouble."
"I see. Well, look here, Matthew--You don't mind me calling you Matthew, do you?"
"No, sir. You can call me anything, so long as you don't call me late for dinner!" He forced a chuckle at his pa's tired old joke.
B J Stone scrubbed his cheek stubble with his knuckles. "Uh-huh. Well, look, Matthew. If you're hungry--and boys usually are--you can get something to eat down at the Bjorkvist's place. I'm not saying their food's good, you understand. Matter of fact, the best that can be said for it is that a strong man can keep most of it down."
"Oh, I'm all right. I'm not hungry." In fact, he hadn't eaten for a day and a half.
"Suit yourself. But it would be a good idea to get something inside you before you push on up to the mine."
"Aren't you on your way up to the Surprise Lode to look for work?"
"Well, no, I ... To tell the truth, this is the first I heard about any mine in these hills."
"Didn't the people down in Destiny tell you about the Lode?"
"I didn't ask. Everyone was running around, hooting and shouting about our glorious victory in Cuba."
"Victory!" B J Stone snapped. "A strong young nation bashes a tired old one that has nothing but worn-out ships commanded by in-bred aristocrats, and you call that glorious? Under the cover of spreading democracy, we snatch off the Philippines and Puerto Rico. And while we're at it, we just pocket the Hawaiian Islands too! Thomas Jefferson would be spinning in his grave if he knew we'd become imperialists!"
Coots closed his eyes and shook his head. "You just had to bring Cuba up, didn't you," he said to Matthew.
"Victory?" Stone pursued. "Victory? William Randolph (I'm-so-rich-I-can-do-anything-I-goddamn-well-want) Hearst decides to boost the sales of his newspapers by whipping up a pack of mindless ruffians until their mouths foam with patriotic fury! And that publicity-hungry Roosevelt hires a bunch of polo players and a few out-of-work cowboys to charge up San Juan hill--with plenty of reporters on hand, of course! But he quickly brings his Rough Riders back to Long Island to avoid the only real dangers in the whole war, malaria and yellow fever! Victory? You know how we won Guam Island, boy?"
"Ah ... well, no, sir. But I--"
"I'll tell you how we won it. One of our ships pulled up and fired at the harbor, and the Spanish commander--who didn't even know there was a war on, for Christ's sake!--sent a messenger apologizing for not returning our salute, but he couldn't because there was no ammunition on the island. So we sent a rowboat ashore and claimed a valiant victory! Victory!"
The force of this tirade made Matthew glance nervously at Coots, who shrugged and asked his partner, "You just about all through?"
B J Stone growled and sniffed. Then he nodded. "Yes, I'm through. But ... goddamn it, the idea of spilling young blood just so a few old men can--! Oh, don't get me started again." He drew a deep breath, then said, "So, Matthew. You say you didn't even know about the Surprise Lode? You just decided to walk all the way up the railroad cut on the outside chance that you might find work at the end of the line?"
"Well ... I figured there must be something at the end of the line. Else why would they have built it? And it seemed like it might be nice up here, tucked away from everything."
"You took one hell of a chance," Coots told him. "That track's mighty narrow, and the train could of flatten you like a turd under a wagon wheel. Hey, wait a minute ...!"
"That's right! That train come near as nothing to killing me! I was walking up the track, fat and sassy, then all of a sudden I felt the rails shaking, and the next thing you know I heard the train coming up behind me. You better believe I started looking around for someplace to be, but it was all rock on one side, and nothing but air on the other! So I scrambled up-track as fast as I could, lugging my pack and gun, and just as the engine come round the bend, I found this crack in the wall and I squeezed into it with my face jammed up against the rock! And that train came roaring and sucking past my backside so close that every car knocked against the butt of my gun, click, click, click! I was sure something was going to catch on the strap and snatch me out to be killed. I was just certain that damn old gun was going to do for me, like it done for my pa."
"Lord! That was a close shave!"
"Close? After it passed, I set down right there on the tracks, limp as a rag, my heart pounding away. To tell you the truth, if I would of known--"
"Let me give you some advice, boy," Mr Stone said. "You should break that habit of saying `to tell the truth' all the time, because people usually say that as a stall while they cook up a lie. And if you're hell-bent on being a liar, you might as well be a good one."
The boy nodded thoughtfully. "Thank you, sir. I'll remember that."
"So I suppose you'll be pushing on up to the mine?" Coots said.
Matthew looked down and studied the ground. Then: "No, sir, I don't believe I will. I think I'll just stay around here for a while."
"But I just told you there's no work in Twenty-Mile," Stone said with some exasperation.
"Yes, sir, you did. But there's something about this place that suits me."
"Don't you worry, sir. I'll find work. Say, can I ask a favor?"
"Anything that doesn't cost me worry, work, money, or time."
"Can I leave my bindle and gun with you while I look around town?"
"Suit yourself. But it's no use."
The young man nodded and grinned. "You're probably right, sir." He stood up. "Well, I sure do thank you for the coffee. It truly hit the spot."
As they watched the boy walk back down the rutted street, B J Stone sipped his coffee pensively. "What do you make of him, Coots?"
"Beats my two pair."
"Why would a bright kid like that want to stay here, at the end of the world?"
"Could be he's hiding."
"Beats my two pair."
"Well, one thing's sure. He's not going to find work in this played-out town."
"I wouldn't bet on it."
State Prison, Laramie
WHEN HE ARRIVED TO take the midwatch, Guard Private John "B B" Tillman was sorely troubled.
He had been surprised, but pleased, by the way Lieder had received the tracts his wife selected for his guidance. He had half-expected him to scoff and jeer, the way his fellow guards scoffed and called him a "Bible bug" when he sought to share with them the precious gift of faith. But Lieder didn't jeer. He drew the rolled-up pages of the tracts in through his spy-hole respectfully, almost tenderly. And when they quietly discussed these messages of hope through the door, Lieder's whispering voice always carried tones of sincere yearning ... a man seeking his way. And several times Tillman had opened the spy-hole to find Lieder on his knees by his bunk, his face buried in his arms, praying fervently.
At first, Lieder's blasphemous habit of making up scripture and ascribing it to "Paul to the Mohegans," or "Paul to the Floridians," had caused Tillman heartache. But Lieder assured him that he didn't mean any disrespect, and he promised to pray for the strength to break all his bad habits. From that day on, his acceptance of Jesus as his personal savior seemed to lift a mighty burden from him. Tillman often heard him singing to himself in his cell, usually old-time revival songs, and he once declared that he willingly accepted the imprisonment of his body for the rest of his natural life, knowing that he could now hope for the liberation of his soul through all eternity!
So at first Lieder had made such rapid progress that it was uplifting to witness, and a tribute to the benevolence and power of the Lord. But lately ...
"I purely don't know what to do," Tillman had confessed to his wife. "He seems to have fallen into darkness. Sometimes he just breaks down and sobs like to make your heart break. He says his sins are so black and piled so high that he doesn't deserve the Lord's forgiveness. And sometimes he just lies there on his bunk, staring at the ceiling. The fact of it is, Mary, that man's soul is burdened down with sin."
"But he mustn't despair, John. Despair is the greatest sin of all."
"Don't I know it? But what am I to do?"
"You must never, never relent in your efforts to save him, John. You must tell him that he's got to persist through this Slough of Despond, for the Lord's mercy is as vast as it is eternal."
Tillman promised he wouldn't give up on Lieder. He would pray with him that very night. His wife agreed that prayer was the sovereign remedy for all Man's illness and woe, but she reminded him to be careful in dealing with this ... what's that you call them?
"Well now, don't you take any chances."
"You think I'm crazy, darlin'-heart? You think I want John Junior to grow up without a dad?"
She blushed and pushed his chest with her fingertips, as she always did when he mentioned her "condition," a condition that they had celebrated with an exchange of presents. He gave her ribbons to braid into her hair, and she gave him a braided leather lanyard with a slide that he could wear in place of a tie. They laughed over the coincidence of both presents having to do with "braid," and she said it was a lucky omen.
The first thing Tillman did when he came on watch was to check on Lieder, whom he found lying on his bunk, staring up at the ceiling, lost in misery and self-loathing. He greeted him in an encouraging tone, but Lieder muttered bitterly that there was nothing left for him in this life, and probably nothing in the next. So what's the use? What's the use?
Tillman reminded him that despair is the greatest sin of all. Despair is a trick of the Devil, making us doubt the Lord's promise of salvation for even the least and lowest of us, but Lieder only shook his head miserably and turned his face to the wall.
Tillman signed and returned to the watch-desk.
It was almost dark when Tillman made his last round of the moonberries. Through the spy-hole he found the acid-thrower sitting on the edge of his cot, rocking himself and humming, as always. "The Politician" was disagreeing violently with a space in the corner that he addressed as "you ignorant little pinch of duck-shit!." At the sound of the spy-hole opening, "the Spook" cowered in the corner. "Don't hurt me! I didn't mean to do it! Honest to God, I didn't mean it!"
The next cell had long been empty, but now it contained two men who had been transferred to the moonberry wing to protect new young prisoners, whom they routinely dragged into dark corners and ... "broke in" was the prison term for it. As he approached the door, Tillman heard sounds of grunting and panting as though a fight was going on. He opened the spy-hole and found a neckless, bullet-headed giant bent over the end of his cot, and behind him was a little gnome with a twisted face. They were both panting and grunting. The gnome leered toward the open spy-hole, and only then did Tillman realize that they were ... Lord Jesus in Heaven! He snapped the spy-hole shut and turned away.
He took several deep breaths to settle his stomach before going on to Lieder's door. He had been rehearsing the words of comfort he would share with the despairing sinner who--
But Lieder wasn't on his bunk. Through the twilight gloom, Tillman could see him over by his barred window, half-standing and half-kneeling, as though--Lord Jesus! He had torn a strip off his blanket! One end was tied to a bar and the other around his neck! Don't let this be happening, I ask it in His name! He yanked down the locking lever, threw back the thick iron bolt, rushed in, and lifted Lieder to take the weight off the blanket strip around his throat. He held the sagging body in his arms, then sighed with relief when Lieder's eyes fluttered open. Tillman breathed a prayer of thanks that he hadn't been too late, but something had snagged on the leather lanyard his wife had given him, and it was tightening around his throat so that ... Argh! The two men were pressed face-to-face, the lanyard threaded through Lieder's strong fingers. He made a fist and twisted, and Tillman's eyes bulged.
Lieder gently lowered the boneless weight in his arms to the floor.
Now! Now, he was free to follow The Warrior's instructions as set forth in The Revelation of the Forbidden Truth. He had thought about releasing the moonberries to form the nucleus of his American Freedom Militia, but he rejected the men at the end of the corridor as too old and crazy to be useful. He would take only the new pair in the double cell, the gnome and the bullet-headed one.
He felt sorry for young Tillman. But ... a man's got to play the cards he's dealt. And anyway, going a little early to collect your reward ain't all that bad, is it? Not for a true believer.
RUTH LILLIAN KANE WAS alone in the Mercantile, her father having gone up to the living quarters to make their noon meal. He had done all the cooking, even when her mother was with them, because Mrs Kane had no intention of ruining her looks with domestic work. Ruth Lillian inherited her mother's looks and love of pretty things, but her father's no-nonsense brand of crisp, practical intelligence. She had arranged the new stock on the shelves attractively--she had her mother's eye for that sort of thing--and she was standing behind the counter, paging through a pattern book from the Singer Sewing Machine Company, approving styles that would suit her with a little nasal sound of appreciation, and dismissing unsuitable ones with a slight frown and a curt shake of her head, when the spring bell over the door jangled. It was so bright out in the street that she had to shield her eyes to see the customer silhouetted in the doorway. "Can I help you?"
"I truly hope so, ma'am." He approached the counter, taking off his wide-brimmed hat.
For a second, she stood with her hand still shielding her eyes. A stranger in Twenty-Mile? And a young one. "What can I do for you? Like our sign says, we got everything a person really needs." She smiled. "You'll notice it doesn't say everything a person might want, just what he really needs."
"I'm glad to hear that, because what I really need is a job." He smiled. "My name's Matthew."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Matthew. I'm Ruth Lillian Kane. This is my pa's store."
"I don't believe it."
"Well, it is. Why would I lie?"
"No, I mean I don't believe your name is Ruth Lillian."
"What's wrong with my name?"
"Nothing! It's just that ..." He shook his head. "Well, I'll be!"
"What'll you be?" Ruth Lillian asked.
"Well, to tell the tru--Ruth Lillian was my ma's name, believe it or not!"
"There's lots of people named Ruth. It's a Bible name."
"If you were both called Ruth, that'd be a coincidence. But to have the same middle name too! Now, that's something more than coincidence."
"I don't know what to call it. But it's something, that's for sure." Matthew became aware that Mr Kane was standing at the back of the store, having come down to tell Ruth Lillian that dinner was ready. "Good afternoon, sir. I was just telling your daughter here that her name and my ma's--"
"I heard you," Mr Kane said dryly.
"He came looking for a job, Pa," Ruth Lillian explained, and she flushed with resentment at being made to feel she was in the wrong in some way.
"There's no job here, young man. Nor anywhere else in Twenty-Mile, to my knowledge."
"Yes, sir. Mr Stone up to the livery stable told me the same thing. But it's an awful long walk back down to Destiny. And I'm pretty tuckered out. To tell the truth-- What I mean is, I'm not exactly sure what I should do." He looked at Mr Kane with an open expression that invited him to make a suggestion.
"Have you got any money?"
"Yes, sir, a little."
"Well, the Bjorkvists would probably put you up tonight. You could start back down in the morning."
"Yes, sir, that's a possibility. I'll give it some thought. Thank you."
"I don't suppose Matthew has eaten in a spell, Pa." Ruth Lillian said, ignoring her father's frown.
"I didn't make a meal," Mr Kane said. "Just left-overs."
"That'd suit me just fine, sir," Matthew said cheerily. "Left-overs is my favorite dish. My ma used to say that when it comes to vittles, I'd eat anything I could outrun?
Ruth Lillian forced a little laugh at this, then looked at her father with calmly arched eyebrows until he shrugged, turned on his heel and started up the stairs, saying, "Well, we might as well eat before it gets any colder."
During the meal, which Matthew praised frequently and lavishly, he mentioned that he hadn't eaten this well for weeks, because he'd been on the road since the day his ma and pa had died within a couple of hours of each other.
"The fever, was it?" Ruth Lillian asked.
Matthew settled his eyes on her. "Well, you know how it is, Ruth Lillian. Sometimes the fever comes swooping down and takes a whole town. Other times it takes some folks and leaves others to get on as best they can in this world."
"You were left all alone?" Mr Kane asked. "No brothers or sisters?"
"No, sir. I was their only child."
Ruth Lillian nodded slowly. She was an only child too. "How old are you, Matthew?"
"Eighteen going on nineteen. But I suppose everybody that's eighteen is going on nineteen. If they don't die fir