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By Martin H. Greenberg Russell Davis
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Russell Davis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMark and Bill Loren D. Estleman
"Samuel Langhorne Clemens, meet William Frederick Cody."
"Buffalo Bill," said the white-haired man in the white suit, committing his hand to the newcomer's oaken grip.
"Mark Twain," said the long-haired man in the buckskin coat, flashing white teeth in his chestnut-colored Vandyke beard.
Their host waited until both men were seated before sitting down himself, then sprang back up to summon the white-coated waiter out onto the terrace. "Libations, gentlemen?" he asked his guests. "I myself am temperate, but do not let that-"
"Bourbon," said Twain, plucking a long cigar from a hinged silver case. "The same," said Cody, peeling the foil from a plug of chewing tobacco.
"Soda?" The waiter drew the cork from one of an army of vessels on a wheeled cart.
"Bourbon," said Cody.
"The same," said Twain.
The waiter poured. "Mr. Roosevelt?"
Theodore Roosevelt bared his famous grin beneath the thick mustache. "Lemonade, and keep it coming. I'm as parched as the Badlands. I've been shouting myself hoarse to those fools setting up the Boone and Crockett cabin at the fair," he confided to the others. "It seems no one in Chicago knows how to care fora wooden building since the fire."
Cody said, "I stole away while Miss Oakley was performing, for a glimpse of the exhibit. Splendid job. A fine homely contribution to that antiseptic circus. You know, the fair's directors turned me down when I offered to bring the Wild West to the White City. They said it was incongruous. So I rented the lot across the street and set up there."
"A regrettable decision on their part," Roosevelt said. "Your exhibition has been steadily outpulling the World's Fair ten to one. Have you been to either, Mr. Clemens?"
"I intended to go to both, but fell ill. Today is the first day I've felt sound enough to quit my room. The prospect of a ride on either Mr. Ferris's wheel or Mr. Cody's Deadwood Stage still turns me a festive shade of green. And tomorrow I must go back East."
"A pity. I'm sure America is champing to hear your observations on both phenomena." Irritably, Roosevelt signaled to the waiter with his still-empty glass. The fellow shook himself out of an apparent trance and reached for the pitcher of lemonade. As a mere member of President Cleveland's Civil Service Commission, Roosevelt made a feeble impression on the serving class in the presence of America's greatest humorist and the hero of Warbonnet Creek.
"I shouldn't wonder." Twain blew a chain of smoke rings that was swiftly torn apart by the wind off Lake Michigan. "America never knows how it feels about a thing until it's received its instructions from me."
"America knows a great American when it hears him," Roosevelt said.
"I am not a great American. I am not an American. I am the American."
Cody chuckled. "You're an entertaining hoss, Mr. Clemens. I once heard Jim Bridger explain how he roped a cyclone and rode it out of a Blackfoot ambush-'Square knots only,' he said; 'a Dakota twister'll slip right out of a bosun'-but he warn't a patch on you when it comes to exaggeration."
"I return the compliment, Mr. Cody. I'm on record in opposition to the decline of the fine art of lying, but it's in no peril as long as you walk the earth."
An uncomfortable silence followed this remark, broken only by Cody's reflective chewing and the popping of Twain's lips on his cigar. From the terrace of Roosevelt's suite, the trio could just make out the white spires of the Court of Honor, the centerpiece of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, dominated by the revolving structure George Ferris had designed for the amusement of those courageous enough to board one of its gondolas and travel to the top of the world.
Cody's cud bonged into a cuspidor provided by the waiter. For Roosevelt, an enthusiastic amateur in the sport of prizefighting, it sounded like the opening bell to the first round. "Which lie are we discussing? I've told my fair share and seen a heap of 'em in print."
"I recall an account attributed to you of a shooting contest between yourself and the late-lamented James Butler Hickok," said Twain. "You took aim simultaneously at the same prairie dog at a distance of forty paces, fired an instant apart, and placed both slugs through the unfortunate creature's left eye, one right behind the other so the orbit was not enlarged."
"The account was inaccurate," Cody assented. "It was the right eye."
Roosevelt yelped his high-pitched laugh. "Bully! He's a match for you in the well-placed jest as he was for Wild Bill in marksmanship."
Steel glittered beneath Twain's shaggy black brows. But Cody spoke first, waving a well-tended hand at the end of an arm fringed in leather.
"I wouldn't presume," he said. "Let's agree I'm as handy with powder and a ball as Mr. Clemens is with his wit and a quill."
Twain demurred. "Strictly speaking, anyone with sufficient eyesight and a steady hand can learn to shoot a glass ball thrown by a man on his payroll. It's quite another thing to raise a snigger in an auditorium packed with Pennsylvania Dutchmen. I nearly started a riot the last time I spoke in Allentown, after sixty minutes of excruciating silence."
"The Dutch appreciate a pleasantry once you've found their range. I'd admire to see you try your hand with a band of Missouri bushwhackers."
"Ten words at the expense of a Kansas Jayhawker would place them in convulsions. I'd venture to wager I'd render every last one to a mound of quivering jelly before you managed to drive a half-dozen nails into a timber with your best six-shooter."
For answer, Cody drew a beautiful Colt revolver traced with silver from his hip, took swift aim, and blasted the cork from a squat bottle of brandy perched on the portable bar. Roosevelt barked a mild oath; the waiter leapt back three feet from his position beside the cart. Twain alone did not react. He drew on his cigar, blew a plume of smoke into the blue exhaust from the revolver, and asked the waiter to inspect the bottle. The man hesitated, then stepped forward and with a shaking hand lifted the vessel and peered at its neck.
"Not so much as a chip." His voice quavered.
With a flourish, Cody spun the weapon on his finger, offering the butt to Twain. The humorist accepted it and examined the ornate engraving. "'Presented to the King of the West by the Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India,'" he read aloud.
"Victoria put it in my hands personally when we played London," Cody said. "I'd just bested a visiting French count in a shooting contest. He's said to have killed ten men in duels of honor. That grand lady commands the greatest army in the world, and knows her firearms. It's the finest in my collection."
Roosevelt gulped lemonade. "You might have found a less unsettling way to demonstrate your point."
Twain laid his cigar in a heavy tray, slid a handsome slim rosewood box from an inside breast pocket, opened it, and withdrew an elegant gold-plated implement with a nib inlaid with ivory. Cody took it and peered at the barrel. "'To Mark Twain, from Thomas A. Edison,'" he read aloud.
Twain said, "It's a prototype, not yet available on the market. Edison invented it. It requires no dipping; a reservoir inside the barrel furnishes the ink automatically. The Wizard of Menlo Park challenged me to amuse his young friend, a clever machinist's apprentice named Ford, born to a farming family in Michigan of Irish and German stock. Edison had never seen the fellow crack a smile, but I reduced him to tears with a simple anecdote about Jewish immigrants. That was my prize."
"It seems a splendid instrument." Cody handed it back.
"It leaks something fierce. I gave up on it after it expectorated over an entire page of Roughing It." "Then why carry it?" asked the frontiersman.
"For occasions such as this." Twain returned the pen to its box and the box to his pocket.
Cody emptied his glass and glanced at the waiter, who refilled it and Twain's, which lacked an inch of vacancy. "I heard something about a wager."
"My bump of humor against your trigger finger?" Twain sipped and flicked drops of bourbon from his mustaches.
"A series of increasingly difficult targets against a queue of mountingly humorless listeners," Cody said. "When one misses, the other must score, or forfeit the contest." He tossed down his drink in one motion and slammed down the glass on the table that separated them.
"And the stakes?"
"My part of one week's proceeds from the Wild West in Chicago to three months' royalties from your latest literary effort."
"One month," Twain said. "It isn't Ben-Hur, but it's kept my loudest creditors silent."
Cody dismissed the matter with a gesture. "Who shall hold the stakes?"
"Friend Roosevelt, who is too honest to cheat and far too wealthy to corrupt."
"I accept!" The commissioner's broad face flushed with excitement; then he cleared his throat and adjusted his spectacles. "I must, however, insist upon a more appropriate venue. Hotel personnel are notoriously unreasonable about indoor gunplay. May I suggest Colonel Cody's exhibition grounds?"
Twain put out his cigar. "His advantage would be too great. The gallant South made that mistake when it took the field at Gettysburg. We are but a few hours by rail from Missouri, where a man may shoot all day and not disturb so much as a mule."
"But knock a chip off a statue of Mr. Clemens in every direction," Cody said. "I fought with the North, but fortunately was not present at Bull Run. I have an alternative, provided civilization has not crept that far."
When he identified the spot, all three men touched glasses and drank. The waiter hastened to refill them.
"Hideous!" Roosevelt, clad in tweeds and high laced boots, scraped a foul mess off one heel onto a plank. "To think that such a sordid place should exist in the midst of one of the greatest cities of the world is shameful. If someone does not come forward to reclaim this land from its inhabitants, I shudder to think what the twentieth century will hold."
Buffalo Bill Cody, who had exchanged his soft bleached buckskins for rougher hides stained with old sweat and darkened from smoke, thumped his chest with both fists and breathed deeply the scents of Blue Island, a neighborhood neglected by all but derelicts and the saloonkeepers who lived off their thirst. "Where you see only decay and despair, I see my youth. It was here that Ned Buntline and I recruited Indians for Scouts of the Plains fifteen years ago."
"The Old Pepper tribe, I suspect." With a toe, Mark Twain nudged an empty bottle whose label advertised that pungent brand of whiskey. He was careful to avoid contact with the rubbish and horse offal with his white linen cuffs. He alone was attired more fittingly for a lecture hall than for the dregs of a city.
"We sold out everywhere we played, from here to Albany," said Cody.
"It's gratifying to see you earned enough to afford real Indians."
"Spare your ammunition," warned Cody. "The contest hasn't begun."
The location, originally a sandbar in one of the canals fed by Lake Michigan, had been built up over the years by deposits of garbage and manure scraped from the streets. Clusters of saloons stood upon it, ramshackle affairs without foundations, but a spot where one had burned recently and its remains scavenged for firewood offered space and an unobstructed view of the lake, where expired rounds could fall to rest without causing casualties.
Roosevelt alone had come without the support of acquaintances. Cody was accompanied by reloaders from the Wild West; a number of genuine Sioux and Cheyenne from the exhibition, resplendent in tribal trappings; some unidentified parties; and a young man named Johnny Baker, a protégé who wore his hair long like Cody, dressed in buckskins, and specialized in launching and setting up targets. Twain had brought along an amiable band of admirers, men and women whose eyes twinkled even as they picked their way carefully among the topographical hazards and whose lips quivered perpetually on the edge of laughter. "Even the finest pump requires priming," the humorist had explained.
"Quite proper," Cody said. "One warms up with the easier marks. However, I shall select the audience."
"And I shall select the targets."
Simultaneously, the two contestants produced bank drafts-Twain from a pocket, Cody from inside the sweatband of his great Stetson-and held them out to Roosevelt. The pair averred that the totals were averages only, to be amended later should protest arise.
The commissioner placed the drafts in a flat wallet and slid it into a pocket. "Surely, this is not just a matter of material gain."
Twain said, "In the words of my creditors, 'It ain't the principle of the thing, it's the money.' There is, however, a question of pride."
"The gentleman from Missouri has struck the critter square betwixt the eyes," said Cody. "He's claimed for himself the championship title without raising so much as a pistol or a fist in its defense. I'm challenging it. Henceforward, the winner of today's match will be known exclusively as 'The American.'"
"Satisfactory, Mr. Clemens?"
"The gentleman from Missouri" slid the band off a fresh cigar. "Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Cody, it suits me right down to the ground."
The contestants and their parties retired to opposite ends of the narrow island to practice. Young Johnny Baker drew specially blown glass balls from a trunk he'd brought along and hurled them over the lake while Cody, using a Deluxe Winchester 1873 carbine with gold plate on the receiver, burst them first one by one, then in twos and threes, levering fresh rounds into the chamber with lightning speed. His group met each success with cheers and applause, not counting occasional exceptions: The Indians observed the spectacle with impassive expressions, their arms folded beneath their blankets, while a stoutish, middle-aged woman wearing an abundance of clothing and a hat with a veil remained glum-faced.
On his end, Twain, puffing his cigar and hooking his thumbs inside the armholes of his snowy vest, related a succession of stories from his childhood in Hannibal through his adventures as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi for his increasingly appreciative audience. As with Cody, not all were voluble: A leathern man in a rumpled suit smeared with tobacco ash, his fingers stained with ink, stood silently, scribbling with a stub of yellow pencil on a thick fold of newsprint.
At length, both competing parties announced that they were ready to begin. One of Twain's companions handed him a flask of brandy. Twain slanted it Cody's way inquiringly. The other demurred. "That which fuels the storyteller's engine clouds the sharpshooter's eye."
"A metaphor well and truly mixed." Twain swigged. "Defer to me the art of oratory and I in turn will keep my paws off your guns."
Cody bared his teeth. "Choose a target, sir."
Twain held out the flask for his companion to take, then cast his glance up and down the length of the island. Finally, he turned his attention toward the lake. After squinting against the sun's glare for most of a minute, he took the cigar from his mouth and used it as a pointer. "Yon piece of flotsam, to start."
All stared in that direction, Cody holding up his hat as a shield against the brightness. An elongated section of driftwood, bleached white and rounded at the edges like soap, bobbed in the swells sliding toward shore. From that distance it seemed no larger than a needle.
Cody looked at Roosevelt. "Sixty yards?"
The man addressed raised and resettled his spectacles, scowled. "I'll accept your word. I myself can see nothing but blue water."
"Fortunately," Twain said, "politics is one of the few professions where shortsightedness is no obstacle." His coterie chuckled.
"Wait your turn, sir." Cody put on his hat, bent to scoop up a handful of loose earth, and cast it with the wind. He accepted his Winchester from Johnny Baker, worked the lever, shouldered the weapon, and pressed the trigger; he seemed hardly to aim. The pale target stood on end, spun, and fell back to the surface with a smack. A hoot went up from his admirers. The Indians and the woman remained silent.
"Well done," said Twain. "The choice now is yours."
Excerpted from LOST TRAILS by Martin H. Greenberg Russell Davis Copyright © 2007 by Russell Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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