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By Brian Garfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
It had become the custom on the Little Missouri to greet trains by shooting into the air over the roofs of the railroad cars. The Cantonment had a reputation for deviltry and the boys felt a duty to live up to it. The Northern Pacific had learned to warn its passengers to cower beneath the sills because it was not extraordinary for the intoxicated frontiersmen to shoot through windows.
Some travelers, and even a few residents of the encampment, objected to this boisterous behavior on grounds that it was not only barbaric but downright dangerous. Personally Joe Ferris thought it was fair retribution in behalf of animals on the plains that had been maimed or slaughtered and left to rot by bullets fired by tourists from the bibulous comfort of their seats on the fast-moving trains. Sauce for the goose.
You had to admit, sometimes it did go a bit far. Last month "Bitter Creek" Redhead Finnegan, stimulated by an excess of bug juice, had emptied his revolver into the dining car. Two bullets had struck a breakfast tray carried by a waiter, scattering eggs and terrifying passengers.
Mostly, though, the ammunition passed harmlessly above the railroad cars, eventually to plunge into what at the present rate must soon turn into a lucrative lead mine half a mile upstream.
Tonight the train was several hours late and the noisy welcoming ceremony awakened Joe Ferris from his temporary lodgings in the bare room above what used to be the sutler's store. He looked out the window and saw nothing. Darker than the inside of a cow out there. He heard an impatient chuffing of steam. Far ahead a trainman's disembodied signal lantern swayed and the train began to clank away. Nobody appeared.
Irritation turned Joe Ferris's mouth down. He wouldn't have come in today except for this train. He had received a letter from a man in New York named Theodore Roosevelt. Near as Joe could make out, it asked if he would take the undersigned out after game. The spelling was something awful. Joe had written a reply on the back of the dude's own letter: "If you cannot shoot any better than you can write, I do not think you will hit much game."
The response had come immediately, by telegram: "Consider yourself engaged."
Joe didn't want to take the dude out. He didn't want to go out at all. He didn't want to hunt. He hated the killing.
But a fellow had to eat. So here Joe waited, with the train pulling out, and he still hadn't seen anybody get off.
Must be near eleven o'clock. The front door of Jerry Paddock's bar flapped open, dropping a fan of lamplight across the alkali earth. The boys went inside; their silhouettes canted left, toward the foot of the stairs—time to go up to bed, now that the train had departed.
In the reflected glow Joe could make out shadows of the Cantonment's half-dozen drab structures. Then the door closed. Like a curtain descending on a play it effectively ended all discernible life: one moment bedlam and the next a Stygian silence.
May be the client had missed the train, or slept through his stop. It wouldn't be the first time for one of these dudes. There had been a pair two months ago that had drunk themselves into a stupor and slept half way across Montana. They'd sent a telegram from Billings and turned up three days later on the eastbound, woebegone from too many hairs of the dog.
Above the door lights began to glow behind the paper windows of Jerry Paddock's makeshift hotel dormitory where the boys were turning in.
Joe Ferris put a hand on the windowframe, ready to return to his blankets. Then he heard hammering across the parade ground. The door of the flyspecked saloon opened and a tiny stranger was outlined against the weak flame that guttered behind the smoky chimney of Jerry Paddock's lantern. Jerry wasn't a huge man by any means but he loomed ferociously over the newcomer.
So the little dude had managed to jump down off the wrong side of the train and now he'd carried his belongings across forty yards of sagebrush without anyone's knowing. You'd make a fine Indian. For sure you are in the wrong line of work, Joe told himself.
He could see the dude wore eyeglasses—an adornment said to be evidence of physical decay and defective moral character.
The newcomer went inside; the door closed, once again shutting off that light; there remained a few dirty illuminations from the papered windows of the second floor. Joe remained at his post a while, curious whether the half-pint dude would take a whiff of the unwashed men on the musty cots in Jerry's big common room and prefer, as Joe did, to sleep elsewhere—even outdoors if necessary. But the visitor did not reappear.
May be he not only suffered from poor eyesight but also lacked a sense of smell.
After a time Joe went back to bed and had trouble getting to sleep. Things didn't seem to be going well. He was making a living, unlike some, but never seemed to get ahead of the price of tomorrow's supper. It had been like that most of the time since he'd first come here seeking his fortune. The railroad brought immigrants to the West without charge; but try to return home and you found the ticket cost five cents a mile.
In the morning Joe Ferris went across to Paddock's first thing and found the newcomer already waiting by the horse trough. The initial impression was one of a high voice and a lot of teeth. Mr. Theodore Roosevelt had the look and manner of a brat from one of those academies to which wealthy folks sent their children to learn useless foolishnesses such as Latin, geometry and the overweening pronunciation of English through locked aristocratic jaws.
The dude was ready and eager, dragging a huge duffel bag, carrying across his shoulder two cased rifles: a waif in a New York suit with a heavy revolver holstered squarely in front where it could do a man irreversible damage if it happened to go off by accident or if the buckboard seat should happen to lurch under him.
Behind the bravado of his sandy mustache he looked sickly, as if he had some wasting disease. He looked very young.
A few of the boys came outside and watched and snickered while Joe introduced himself to the stranger, confirmed to his dissatisfaction that the new arrival was actually his contract, winced at the screeching high pitch of the dude's voice and led the young man to the buckboard.
The boys paid close attention because there was naught else to hold their interest. Most of them had been hide hunters; now they were scratching to find work: they had come here to feed the construction men but the construction men wouldn't arrive in strength until next month. Nevertheless quite a few men on the drift had found their way to the Cantonment, may be because Jerry Paddock's pop-skull tonsil varnish was the cheapest whiskey on the plains. This morning you could tell most of the boys had been painting their noses with it.
Then this fellow Roosevelt piped, "I have come west to shoot buffalo while there are still buffalo left to shoot." He announced it loudly.
The boys laughed.
Evidently it was not the response the Easterner had desired. He glared at them.
Joe greeted the newcomer's boast with a dour grunt. He didn't tell the whole truth in reply; it might have cost him a badly needed commission. You are about five months too late. They exterminated the last buffalo herd last spring.
What he said was, "Bad Lands are a hunter's paradise. Plenty big game downriver just now, sir. Blacktail and whitetail, antelope, mountain sheep, beaver if you're so inclined, maybe a bear now and then, and I believe we'll find elk as well."
"Capital. And buffalo. Most important."
"We'll scare up plenty of game, sir."
This was going to be a glorious hunt, Joe thought. Glorious. He put his gloomy regard on the dude. This Mr. Roosevelt was a head shorter than most of the men in the pack. He could not weigh more than 120 pounds, Joe thought. The large blue-grey eyes seemed mournful and painfully sickly. They peered rapidly about from behind big gold-rimmed spectacles that kept slipping down his nose.
The boys had already sized up the new ground and found it wanting in just about every respect. One of them said, "Looks like his deck's shy a joker. Likely don't know near side from off side."
Roosevelt ignored the insults; perhaps he didn't understand them, or didn't realize he was the butt. He settled a disapproving glance on the buckboard. "What's this?"
Joe said, "Supplies for a fortnight."
The face twisted and clenched. He had a tic or something; he kept grimacing. "And how far might it be to the hunting ground?"
"This time of year, generally find your luck around the Killdeers. Fifty miles, give or take."
"I have not come a thousand miles to ride a wooden wagon seat, Mr. Ferris. Where's my horse?"
"I don't own any extra saddle horse, Mr. Roosevelt."
Wheezing, the dude turned to the onlookers. "Might any of you gentlemen have a spare horse?"
Jerry Paddock swept off his hat and bowed with a flourish. "E.G. Paddock at your service. I happen to have a little herd in my stable."
"Then I'll rent one from you. And of course saddle, bridle ..."
"Well hold on," Jerry Paddock said. "We don't know you, do we." This morning Jerry's gaunt face looked exceptionally evil, like an illustration of a Mongol Tatar villain in a lurid dime novel.
"My name is Theodore Roosevelt," said the dude in his very strange Eastern accent.
"I hear you saying it."
"I'll be happy to pay in advance. Two weeks at, shall we say, seventy-five cents a day? Ten dollars and fifty cents, shall we make it?" He drew out his purse.
Jerry Paddock's eyes fell upon the purse as if it were a roast suckling pig and he hadn't eaten in a week. He said coquettishly, "We've had visitors ride away with our horses before. Anyways, how do I know you wouldn't mistreat my animal? Why, we had one here just last spring, rode my best horse to death and cooked it and ate the poor thing."
Jerry Paddock had what passed for a humorous glint in his eye. He was stringing the stranger; in a minute he'd be shooting holes in the dust around Mr. Roosevelt's polished boots. All in fun of course—but the dude's purse was likely to end up in Jerry's pocket before it was over.
With a reluctant sense of responsibility toward his client Joe tried to turn trouble aside: "Mr. Roosevelt, it's a long way to the Killdeers. You might be more comfortable on the wagon with me, sir."
"Nonsense." Roosevelt strutted toward the stable, talking sternly to Jerry Paddock: "Come along, my good fellow. If you won't rent me a horse I'm sure you'll sell me one. For cash."
That brought an end to the trouble then and there. Jerry brought out his sorriest mare—ugly wart of a bay, an old-timer named Nell—and Mr. Roosevelt cheerfully parted with half again what the horse and rig were worth, as if it didn't matter.
The boys trailed toward the saloon because the unexpected profit put Jerry in such a good mood he offered to stand them all a round of drinks.
The only man to refuse the offer was Roosevelt. "Thank you very much indeed, sir, but I do not partake of strong drink."
With hoots of derision the crowd tramped inside. In two shakes Joe was alone with the puny dude in the Cantonment corral.
Roosevelt overcame a coughing fit long enough to say, "Now then, old fellow, if you wouldn't mind showing me how to put the saddle on this animal ..."
That was how the great hunt started. Its auspices were poor at best. It was with dismal foreboding that Joe made ready to put the wagon onto the trail.
Roosevelt was peering at the brick construction works across the river. "What's all that?"
"Abattoir," Joe said, "whatever that means."
"Slaughterhouse. It's French."
"Yes sir. So's the gentleman who's building it. The Marquis De Morès."
There was a glint, probably accidental, off Roosevelt's eyeglasses. "De Morès? Is he here?"
"Not now. Back East someplace. Big financial affairs. You know him?"
"We haven't met. I'm acquainted with his wife."
Joe considered the great heaps of fresh brick on the flats below the bluff. "The Marquis says he's going to build a whole town right there on the right bank. Abattoir and all. They say he's got ten thousand cattle coming north from Texas."
"A sizable enterprise." There was displeasure in the dude's piping voice. "The money comes from his father-in-law. The Marquis has no fortune of his own."
"I wouldn't know about such things."
Roosevelt seemed unwilling to let it drop. "I can't abide aristocrats. The stench of their blue blood despoils the clean air of America."
"Wouldn't know about that either, sir. I'm Canadian."
"And proud of it, are you?"
Joe felt the rise of suspicion. "I am."
Roosevelt smiled. "Good for you." His attention returned to the brick pile. "An abattoir? Credit the man at least with large aspirations."
Joe said, "All I know is, it takes plenty of game meat to feed his carpenters and masons, so these rough boys you see here will get plenty of work."
"What about you, then, Mr. Ferris?"
"I used to hunt meat. For the railroad. I don't any more."
Joe wasn't ready to tell the exact truth. These weren't the circumstances. He said, "One time I was shooting buffalo the barrel of my rifle got so hot it near melted my hand. Decided to let some other fellow have a turn."
"How many buffalo did you kill?"
"That day? I don't know. May be four hundred."
"Great Scott! Those must have been glorious days!"
Heedless youth. Joe tasted the bile of recollection; but he knew better than to dispute the client. He kicked the brake off and the wagon rolled north.
Roosevelt came trotting cheerfully alongside on the old mare, unaware or uncaring of the fact that his Eastern-style posting up and down during the trot would be enough to get him laughed out of Dakota Territory if he didn't leave soon of his own free will.
Taking his time, Joe Ferris was ready to decide that he didn't like the little dude at all. Then Roosevelt unsaddled his own horse that night.
And when Joe began to unfold the canvas tent Roosevelt would have none of it: he bedded down on the earth, wrapped in the saddle blanket.
And in the morning the dude saddled up himself, not asking any questions, remembering precisely the instructions Joe had given him yesterday.
So then it was a relief to see that at least this dude meant to carry his own pack. Maybe he wasn't the worst after all.
"What do you think, Mr. Ferris—shall we cross paths with the buffalo tomorrow?"
"Never can tell, Mr. Roosevelt."
May be it would be best to reserve judgment a bit longer and see how the dude measured up on the trail.
Joe unhitched the wagon horse, clapped his old McClellan split-tree on it, endured the saddlesores and was moved to take pity on his guest. "Beg your pardon, sir, but they don't post on a Western saddle."
"That will suit me well enough," Roosevelt replied. But he kept a poor seat after that and never seemed to learn the trick of riding loose, sticking to the saddle, swaying with the natural movement of the horse. In general he bounced.
"Where are the buffalo, Mr. Ferris?"
"Whatever's to be found, I'll find for you, Mr. Roosevelt."
Ten days Joe guided his client around the familiar country of the Killdeer Mountain district. They saw no buffalo but nevertheless the expedition seemed to meet the satisfaction of the dude, who kept exclaiming with great enthusiasm over the abundance of game.
Most hunters would have thought it a bad hunt. The animals seemed to have scattered out of pure perversion. Joe Ferris rode more miles and raised more saddlesores than he ever had before. The insides of his knees were scraped raw. But Roosevelt loved it. They took pronghorn, mule deer, whitetail, an elk with a magnificent rack, a bighorn sheep.
Once in a while Joe tried to get a word in about his natural abilities with bookkeeping figures. He laid hints like rabbit snares, hoping the dude would step into them.
Roosevelt was more polite than most—his inquiries indicated he was listening to what Joe had to say; sometimes he even seemed interested in Joe's ideas about the great successes in Commerce that awaited a man who knew the country, knew the people, had vision and—most important—had capital to invest. "This country's going to need a good mercantile store and a solid bank. Why, a man like me for instance—all it would take to set me on my way would be a little seed investment. The man who staked me could just sit back and watch me do all the hard work, and bring in a handsome return, yes sir."
Excerpted from Manifest Destiny by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1989 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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