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Charley Evans stood on the half-rotted boardwalk in a driving rain and watched the Abbott-Downing stagecoach lean away from the depot and pitch toward the head of the street, its seventy-five dollar mules straining in the mud. Rain battered his hatless head and glued the shirt to his back.
If the present was dismal gray and the future a probable black, and the past a kind of dusty sad yellow, then Charley would choose the pale past, bleak as it might have been. The sun rose and set; life until today had been a matter of mornings beginning darkly before dawn, and evenings chiefly remembered for exhaustion. If most youths of sixteen had the mirage of a vast shining future luring them on, such visions had faded for Charley Evans. For the most part the pleasantest part of the day had been the few minutes he could steal away from swamping in the Triple Ace Saloon to be with his careworn memories. There was a girl over the mountains in Stockton; her name was Maria and he thought a good deal about her. But that had been last summer, and by now she was probably fat.
Charley had worn a polish on these memories while he pushed his mop and avoided the insults and malicious slaps of Bill, the bartender. His eyes had grown gray and wise.
In the east, solemn gray became lackluster pink. This told him he was late for work, and he turned and took his tattered carpetbag along the walk toward the Triple Ace, forgetting for the moment that he did not intend to go to work today. He had the old carpetbag with him because he intended this to be his last day in the Triple Ace, or for that matter in this gray patternless town of Sonora. Recently, looking around him, he had decided that he had seen enough of the wonders of the California hills. Today or tomorrow he would go away on a trek, eastward. All he had to do was find someone headed that way. Today's future grew brighter in hue than yesterday's; he had a vision of great cities, wealth, opulent women.
A loose board gave way under his heel. It almost upset him. He cursed mildly and went on, turning his eyes along the street with the wise glance of a father. There was a strange thing in the sky—in the east the dawn was wide and pink, but in the west where the sky was still dark, the moon seen through haze was a sharp-rimmed disc of pale white. Overhead pendulant thunder-heads concentrated above the center of the valley. Raindrops made him blink. He came along the muddy walk to Jim Woods's saloon and intended to go by the place, but the friendly Woods came out as far as the awning's shelter and stopped him with an amiable inquiry: "All packed, I see. Going somewhere, Charley?"
"You're doing the Triple Ace out of a chore boy, then."
"They'll find another one."
"I reckon." Woods squinted toward the sky. "Funny-looking moon, all by itself," he observed, and tilted himself so that his shoulder rested against the weatherbeaten post that supported the awning. Rain pelted it overhead and Charley tarried under the shelter. Woods' eyes were overhung by thick gray brows; he had an idle air. "Tired of the job, Charley?"
"You might say."
Woods smiled absently. His skin seemed as raddled as old leather; his muscles were hard. Charley wondered how old he was. Woods asked, "Got money for the trip?"
"I'll work my passage."
"That's a hard row," Woods said conversationally. "Ever done much wagoning?"
"I've done most everything, one time or another."
"Cross country ain't the same," Woods warned him. "It's hard luck, boy. A lot of bones bleaching on that trail."
"All right," Charley said, "then I'll learn something new."
"I guess you will," Woods said. Charley had him marked as a friendly harmless man. "Good luck to you, then, Charley."
"Thanks," he said, and went on up the street with his carpetbag, a solid youth, five and a half feet high and thick-chested. The shirt clung to his back; he owned no coat. The carpetbag weighed little. He bounced it by the handle in his fist, and swung up along the glistening brown ribbon of the street, past crowded buildings and corrals, and paused again under a long sagging balcony at the next intersection. The Triple Ace was a drab building across the brown, limpid trough of the street, its faded sign flapping on rusty chains in the rain. In the doorway stood the thickset bear-shape of Bill Randolph, the bartender. Bill was a sadistic soul. Without noticing Charley, he turned back inside and the door slammed. Charley stood where he was. A businessman came waddling along the walk, loose coat flapping, beaver hat dripping. The eastern sky was turning sickly yellow. Charley pinched his lips, thereby giving his face a waspish expression, and stepped down into the ankle-deep mud. It was red-brown in color, and clung to his boots, restraining him. He tramped struggling across to the gray face of the saloon, and stopped outside; and then impulse turned his steps away, and he went quickly back the way he had come, going into Jim Woods's saloon.
The room was heavy, musty, full of odors of stale whisky and dead tobacco smoke. The wood-framed clock behind the bar ticked loudly. Lamps flickered dimly along the walls. He found it no brighter than it had been outside in the bleak dawn. Rain dappled the high roof with sound. He stood just inside the door, the threadbare carpetbag dangling from his grip, and ran fingers back through his long ash-colored hair, splashing water down the back of his neck so it wouldn't drip in his eyes.
Woods was nowhere in sight; there were no customers. The saloon was a big silent cavern until the front door squeaked open. Charley stepped aside and saw a long-fingered man in the doorway removing an oilskin slicker. The man doffed his hat, batted water from it, and went up to lay his slicker across the bar. He wore a black coat, and underneath that a yellow pinstriped shirt. There was a big revolver in his waistband. The gleam of his eye-surfaces matched the hue of the shirt, and now those yellow eyes flicked coldly past Charley.
Woods came in through the back door and put on a friendly look. The yellow-eyed man said, "Hello, Jim."
"Why," Woods said, "hello there, Norval. I didn't expect to see you this soon."
Thereupon the two men settled into a conversation. Uncomfortable, Charley advanced to the bar. Woods looked around and said, "Morning again, Charley."
Charley said, "You haven't got a sandwich left over from last night, have you?"
"I reckon," Woods said. "Stay put a minute, Norval. Charley, this is Norval Douglas. Norval, Charley Evans." He went back.
Norval Douglas put out a hand toward Charley. His handshake was quick and strong. He tipped his hat back and a shock of hair dropped across his forehead, black and straight. At the temples it was shot with gray. It was a country of bearded men but Douglas was shaved smooth along the high cheeks and the shelf of the long jaw. Two deep lines ran from beside his nostrils to the corners of the mouth; otherwise his face appeared young.
Abruptly he said, "How old are you, boy?"
"Going on sixteen."
"I guess some men are born old," Douglas observed. "You show more years than that."
Woods came back in with a tray of sandwiches. The bread had turned hard, edges curled up, and the salt pork was bitter, but Charley ate with hunger. Woods said to Douglas, "Charley just quit his job."
"That so?" said Douglas. "Made any plans?"
"Thought maybe I'd hook up with a freight outfit going East."
The yellow eyes bobbed around from Charley to the rainy street, and back to Charley. Douglas's long fingers scraped his jaw. With thumb and forefinger he flicked dryness from the corners of his mouth. Woods set a mug of beer before him and Douglas picked it up, and said, "Any particular reason for going East?"
"I've got tired of it here."
"This town's as good as any," Douglas suggested.
"All right," Charley said. Woods was drifting back along the bar, doing some kind of work there. "What of it?" Charley said.
He observed the constant traveling of Douglas's wary glance. The yellow eyes came around and for a long interval his glance clashed with Charley's, and Charley began to feel a pale red anger: he met those yellow orbs precisely midway and answered them with a challenge of his own. Douglas produced a briar pipe, packed it from a yellowed leather tobacco pouch, and used a flint-and-steel mechanism to light it, all the while maintaining the grip of his eyes on Charley's.
"What the hell?" Charley said.
"You'll do all right," was the answer. Douglas's expression, like a natural law, seemed to leave nothing open to question. He nodded and considered the glowing bowl of his pipe. Charley noticed the big six-shot horse pistol that sat at hand in Douglas's waistband. "I'll do all right for what?"
"How long have you been looking out for yourself?"
"Long enough, I guess." He saw the gentle upturn of Douglas's lips and added, "A few years. Odd jobs, mostly."
"No folks, Charley?"
"I ran away."
"And stayed away," Douglas said. "That takes a little courage. What are your plans?"
"I just told you."
"I don't mean just that," Douglas said. The pipe had gone out; he ignited it again. A thin column of yellow-gray smoke lifted from the bowl and even as far up as the high ceiling Charley could see the smoke fan out and crawl along under the boards, seeking escape. A man and a woman, arm in arm, went by outside, the man holding a parasol over the woman's head. Norval Douglas said, "What do you expect to make out of yourself?"
Charley thought about it. "I don't know."
"You intend to drift along?"
"Isn't that what you're doing?"
"Now," Douglas murmured with a quizzical little smile, "what makes you guess that?"
"You look like you've been around some," Charley told him.
"For a fact," the yellow-eyed man replied, "I have."
Douglas seemed to know that the tables had turned on him, but he showed no reluctance to answer Charley's question. "There's some satisfaction in traveling over the world when you know you don't have to become part of any place. You see things, you learn things— but you're not touched by them unless you want to be. You see?"
"Maybe," Charley said, not altogether sure. "But when you get all through, what have you got?"
"The most precious thing of all," Douglas said quietly. "You've got yourself—you know what you are."
"All right," Charley said. "What are you?"
"A man. All by myself."
"That's fine," Charley said drily. "Must be kind of lonely."
"It is, until you learn that you don't need anything from anybody." Douglas glanced back at his horse and sucked quietly on the pipe for a moment, and said, "How would you like to go to Mexico?"
"To stake a claim. Build a home and make plenty of money."
"Sure," Charley said. There was a slight caustic edge on his voice.
Douglas showed a brief smile. On his face, a touch of restlessness, a touch of isolation. Tough, he appeared, but at the same time mild. There was evidence of quiet humor in his eyes. "Think about it," he said. "There will be plenty of profit in it for you—if you're willing to do a little fighting."
"Indians. Mexicans, maybe. Probably not, though. There will be a good many of us." He turned to leave. "I'll be here if you decide to come along with us." Saying nothing more, Douglas put his yellow eyes once more on Charley, and went out.
Charley watched him go, slicker flapping in the rain, until the lean figure disappeared into the gray gloom.
Woods came forward again and put his elbows on the bar, and said, "Fine fellow, that one."
"You know him well?" Charley asked.
"Hard to say," Woods said cautiously. "Sometimes I doubt I know anybody very well. People are hard to make out, sometimes. That's something you'll learn when you get a bit older, I reckon."
"I already learned it," Charley said, and left the saloon.
Over the mountains he could see slanted shadowy streaks of falling rain. On the veranda of the Overland depot a fat drummer sat with his sample case in his lap and a bulging suitcase by his feet. An ore wagon drawn by eight teams of oxen wended a slow track down the street; the bullwhacker's livid calls echoed down the street. Two intersections up the street, near the Triple Ace, Charley turned off into a narrow alley. The air was still damp and cool but the sun now shot its rays down between buildings and the clouds were beginning to break up, receding southward, and he came to a little white frame house with pink-lavender curtains showing in the windows. Beyond this point were the scattered tents of the back of the town, littered in a patternless disorder. Charley turned up the stone-bordered walk of the little white house, passed between two precious strips of lawn, and knocked.
When the woman opened the door, Charley said, "Hello, Gail."
"Well, hi," she said. Her eyes were a pale agate in color, a little sharp, perhaps brittle. Her body was full-molded against the calico dress and she smiled a bittersweet smile, stepping aside to let him enter. He went inside, standing uncertainly with his carpetbag until she said to him, "So you're leaving us?"
"I guess so."
"Good. Good for you. If I had the guts and the money I'd go with you. I'm sick of this town—I'm weary of fools."
She went on; she always dropped into these periods of feeling sorry for herself. He stopped listening after a while. On the round table was a mahogany music box with a cameo scene of a snow-blanketed farm implanted in its upraised lid. He saw a dark feather duster standing in the corner and, beside it, a woven carpet beater. It was a homey kind of room. He could relax in it, and that was a rare luxury for him.
From his chair he could see into the kitchen—the coffee mill with its drawer half open, the round-bellied stove. On the table beside him there was a mustache cup. Her voice came back into his awareness: "Sometimes I think I hate everybody."
"I know how that feels," Charley agreed.
"That's a crying shame. You're too young to be that way."
"So are you. So's everybody, I guess. How old are you?"
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe twenty-five. When do you figure to leave town?"
"Soon as I can."
"Well," she said abstractedly, "remember me, will you, Charley?"
"I guess I will. Maybe I'll write you a letter."
"I didn't know you could write. I can't write."
"I'll get somebody to write it for me."
"You do that, Charley."
"I will," he said, knowing he never would. The whole hour was lame and very sad. He stood up and took his carpetbag to the door. "Well, don't let anybody push you around, Gail. Listen—thanks for everything, hey?"
"Women like to play mothers," she answered. "Maybe it's the only chance I'll ever have. You don't have to thank me."
"Thanks anyway," he insisted.
"Do you need anything? Money or food or anything?"
It brought him up. "Why'd you say that?"
She turned half away and put her hands on the lid of the music box. "I don't know, maybe I like you too," she said.
"Why? What for?"
"You're a good-looking fellow."
"Yeah. Well, thanks."
"Maybe I like to see something clean once in a while. You're still clean, Charley. Stay that way, will you?"
"Sure," he said.
He nodded. "So long." He made a vague signal and went out. A cool wind had sprung up, it brushed his face in the alley. He heard the music box tinkling its tune and when he looked back he saw Gail in the open door with a sad smile on her face. Her shoulders stirred faintly; she pulled the sleeves of her dress up. The air had a bite in it. He went out of the alley's mouth, back into the street, and stood undecidedly watching the town. A scatter of horses stood around at the rails, hipshot and half asleep, now and then blinking or kicking or swishing away flies with their tails. The light mudwagon mail coach from the Sacramento run rocked around a last bend of the coach road into the head of the street, came forward bucking and scratching up mud, and pitched to a stop at the depot. The drummer on the porch picked up his sample case and carpetbag and walked to the coach, and waited. Front-lifted buildings with a beaten look lined the thoroughfare, and an enormous man walked across the street into the Triple Ace. The sky was fairy blue. Clouds were a mass southward; it was still raining down there, but several miles away. Puddles in the street flickered. A group of horsemen, Mexican vaqueros, breasted the foot of the street and drummed forward, arriving in a swirl before the drygoods store, dismounting there. Charley went stiffly down the street, again tightening apprehensively when he went by the Triple Ace, and felt his mind going around in aimless circles.
Excerpted from The Vanquished by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1964 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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