PP Canyon Diablo

PP Canyon Diablo

by Max McCoy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786031733
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 04/01/2012

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Canyon Diablo

By Max McCoy


Copyright © 2010 Max McCoy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7860-2120-8

Chapter One

The winter of 1881-82 found me clerking in a mercantile store in Argentine near Kansas City and living in a rented room with my wife of six months. Amity was a 19-year-old mulatto whore I smuggled out of a brothel at Hot Springs in Arkansas the previous summer.

It was not a life I was familiar with.

The job at Brown's on Strong Avenue was about the first straight job I had ever held, and it fit me like somebody else's clothes. I spent ten hours a day, six days a week, being sweetness and light to every manner of congenital idiot and unnatural fool that came through the door. I was also required to abstain from gambling, smoking, and drinking any spirit stronger than a cold cup of coffee.

I sold soap and pins and ribbons and lanterns and coal oil and everything else that modern folks require to run a house, all with a smile plastered on my face, and nobody ever troubled themselves to learn my name; at best, they would refer to me indirectly, as one would talk about a dog or a slow child.

"Come here and fetch that bucket from the shelf so's I can look at it," for example. Or, "That one-eyed feller says they're all out of carpet tacks."

And so forth.

The day (or at least the daylight) is short in winter, and I saw very little of it save for rippling glimpses of Strong Avenue through theundulating glass of the front windows. By the time I got home at night to the cold little room overlooking the Santa Fe yards it was full dark outside, but seldom could I see the moon or stars because of the constant smudge that issued from the smokestacks of the smelter which choked everything. The 18-acre smelter had been built a year or two before and ran around-the-clock smelting the ore that came to it by rail from as far away as South America. Every day, bricks of gold and silver were stacked on the docks, ready for armed guards to load them on the Wells Fargo wagons for the short journey to the Santa Fe depot. From there, the gold would mostly be sent to the federal government mint at Denver. Argentine, which had been built around the smelter, prospered. But there was a price to pay for such riches. The fumes from the smelter stung the eyes and scalded the lungs. Sometimes, when the weather was bad and the air hung close to the ground, the fumes were so bad that dogs and cats strangled to death in the street.

Most every day, the fumes shrouded the city like a blanket. Having spent most of my life out-of-doors, I longed for the sky. I missed the time that I had once spent in easy conversation with friends, the evenings of dice and cards and drinking whiskey, and the money that came with the rough life. The fiddle and the gun, the tools of my past life, were put away.

My father's fiddle hung from a peg in the rented room, collecting dust. The fiddle was already old when I was a boy, and the varnish was worn away on the back of the neck, where your palm slides up and down, and also where the body nestles against the crook of your arm. Nobody could play it except me, because it was strung left-handed-the coarse and fine strings were swapped, as if in a mirror image, and I held the fiddle in my right arm when I played it and bowed with my left. Even though it was old, it had a fine voice, and I spent many hours playing what had been my mother's favorite song, an old tune called "Star of the County Down."

The gun was a .36-caliber Manhattan revolver, a copy of the old percussion Colt navy. It was made by a New Jersey manufacturer that seized an opportunity when Col. Colt's patent on revolving firearms expired just before the war. At first glance, the two revolvers seem identical; both have a full trigger guard, a brass back strap, and blue frame and octagonal barrel. But if you look a bit closer, the Manhattan has an extra set of safety notches in the engraved cylinder. The engravings were of five scenes, three of which featured ships or boats. Another depicted cavalry attacking infantry, and the fifth was a curious scene of civilians firing revolvers at soldiers with rifles. Also, nearly all of the Manhattans used during the war carried five, instead of six, rounds.

My Manhattan came from a young guerrilla who was shot dead by Yankee troopers on our farm in Shelby County, Missouri. My mother carried the gun for a spell, then handed it to me. Not long after the war, I had a gunsmith convert the Manhattan to take cartridges, with a left-handed loading gate.

The converted Manhattan was kept loaded, but stuffed beneath the blue striped mattress upon which Amity and I slept. It was not needed to sell mercantile. Besides, I was afraid of what I might do if it were within easy reach during the working day, because of the demands made on me. Worst of all, they expected me to attend church every Sunday.

But to hell with that.

There's only so much a man can take. If salvation depended upon sitting in a hard pew while listening to some imbecile or fraud repeat fairy tales, then I decided to take my chances with perdition.

Every day, I thought about quitting. Not just of quitting, but of ripping off the hated white apron and throwing it upon the counter in disgust, of declaring in no uncertain terms just what I thought of Mr. Brown's operation, and of breaking a pane or two of that inconstant glass upon my escape into Strong Avenue.

Yet, I did not.

I stayed.

Swept the floors and retrieved the buckets and found more carpet tacks and refrained from cussing and smoking and drinking. Got up while it was still as dark as midnight outside and went home when it was the same. Smiled when I was called "that one-eyed feller" and thanked them for the nickels and dimes and dollars.

Why, you ask?

Because I was in love.

As near as I can tell, that condition is responsible for most of the serious folly since the beginning of the world. I'm not talking about love in the general sense, such as loving one's neighbor, but being in love, which can undo a person faster than a fall from a wild horse. It lasts about a thousand days, in my experience, and I would as soon have a three-year case of dyspepsia; the effects are about the same. Your stomach hurts all the time, you sweat gallons, and you're so dizzy it's hard to form a straight thought.

Falling in love is a sucker's bet guaranteed to turn your life upside down and inside out. Happiness? Forget it. The best you can hope for is to simply survive. Think I'm fooling? Consider the great love stories, both real and imagined: Antony and Cleopatra (friendships and empires sundered, Antony dead by his own sword, Cleopatra a suicide by snakebite); Romeo and Juliet (families at war, friends killed, and self-made corpses both by the end of the play); and the insufferable Heathcliff, who plagues Wuthering Heights like an unscratchable itch and then dies miserable, just for spite.

The theme here is this: The wages of love are death. Your own death, the death of your beloved, and the death, perhaps, of anybody within shouting distance. It took me a long time to understand this, but it is as true as the rules of arithmetic taught in grade school. Show me a couple deeply in love, and I will show you a homicide waiting to happen. Ah, you will say, how wrong you are-where would we all be without love? How would we ever be born? The world itself depends upon love. But you confuse love with biology. Any union, regardless of passion, might produce offspring.

But it takes passion to truly muck things up.

And so it was with me and my beloved. The fleetest smile from Amity would send me to the cloud tops, while a scowl would dash my heart upon the rocks below. I set aside my nature, gave up both fiddle and gun, and donned a clerk's apron-all because I wanted to be a better person.

For her.

And she did the same for me.

What fools we were.

Chapter Two

I came to Hot Springs to rob the Arlington Hotel.

Long ago I had resolved never to rob a railroad or a bank. Those who specialize in such jobs either invite the attention of the Pinkertons or invoke the ire of the townsfolk, with equally bad results. Take Jesse James. A contemporary of mine who, like me, learned his trade as a youngster during the war and continued in some irregular way in and around Missouri for some years after, hitting both banks and trains.

To date, two things had distinguished Jesse's career: In 1873, the Pinkerton Detective Agency of Chicago, working on behalf of the Rock Island Railroad, threw a bomb into the family home at Liberty, killing a younger half-brother and blowing off his mother's left arm at the elbow; and in 1876, when the James-Younger gang tried to rob the bank at Northfield, Minnesota, the townspeople armed themselves with rifles and shotguns from the hardware stores and picked the gang to pieces, although Jesse and his brother Frank escaped.

I wanted no such adventures.

Being short on cash and long on warrants circulating in the St. Louis area, I decided to quit Missouri and move the operation to Arkansas. I arrived in Hot Springs in October of 1881, just as the trees were beginning to flame, and established myself at one of the lesser establishments on bathhouse row within the Reservation. It wasn't a reservation like you have out West, like the Indian reservations, but a reserve-a place set apart.

The Arlington is the biggest and highest-priced hotel in Hot Springs, three stories and 120 gas-lit rooms, and it's where the rich go to take the cure in the 143-degree water. If you couldn't afford the Arlington, there was a range of houses for every taste, all the way down to a public accommodation that was just a square of wooden benches set around a muddy hole. Rich or poor, finely educated or as dumb as a bag of hammers, bored of soul or dying in slow degrees from the syphilis, they all came to Hot Springs looking for the same thing-the balm of Gilead, in the form of the scalding iron and magnesia waters.

Hope springs infernal.

The Ozark Bathhouse was a white clapboard affair with gingerbread ornaments straddling the steaming spring. Like all of the institutions along Bathhouse Row, it had the stifling feel of a sanatorium. And it might as well have been. My neighbors on either side hacked and coughed as if they were bringing their lungs up, or they moaned and talked in their sleep, or they vomited their dinners into buckets beside their beds. About the only place I could tolerate in the Ozark was the pack room, where water nymphs frolicked naked across the stained-glass windows.

I did a lot of strolling, and invariably my strolls would take me to the vicinity of the Arlington, where I would study the terrain and the routes of escape. Twice I ventured into the lobby to inquire about some trifling manner-a Little Rock newspaper, the railway schedule to Malvern-and, of course, to reconnoiter the front desk and environs. On my first visit, things were open and airy and had the atmosphere of a church social. None of the employees appeared armed, or even capable of using a gun if they could find one.

On my second visit to the Arlington, I was even more encouraged-the door behind the front desk had been left ajar, and I spied the heavy green Mosler hotel safe. I smiled as I took the railway schedule offered by the clerk. He was a slight young man of twenty with pale skin and sandy hair; I tipped him a half-dollar.

I wanted him to remember me.

"Thank you, sir," he said, slipping the coin into his vest pocket. "If there's anything else you need, just ask for Stuart. I'm here every day and on Saturday and Sunday nights, as well-until two o'clock in the morning."

"What a dedicated employee."

"It does keep me out of trouble," he said brightly.

Poor bastard, I thought. Better to put a ball in one's brain than to suffer that fate. But I nodded pleasantly.

"How kind of you," I said. "But I'm not a guest at the hotel. I'm just a simple country deacon from Yell County sent here to take delivery of a new pipe organ. I'm too poor to stay here, I'm afraid; my present rooms are in one of the lesser hotels down the row."

"No problem, sir," he said. "Perhaps your next trip, then."

"Perhaps," I said.

Then I turned to go, but paused.

"Stuart," I said, turning back. "There is something. The organ has been delayed for a few days, and I find myself at loose ends. When a man tires of soaking away his pin feathers in these boiling cauldrons, would there be a place to relax and, say, play a hand or two of cards?"

"Are you speaking of whist, or ..."

"I mean bucking the tiger."

The boy smiled.

"The deacon is a faro player," he said. "Sir, you can find a card game or two at one of the joints run by Frank Flynn downtown. I would recommend the Hibernia."

He gave me directions.

"I'm not sure I got that," I said. "Could you repeat it, slowly?"

I wanted him to think I was a bit simple.

"You've played there yourself ?" I asked.

The boy placed his elbows on the counter and leaned conspiratorially forward.

"Once or twice," he confided.

"And is it a square game?"

"As square as it gets," the boy said. "At least in this town."

"Thank you, Stuart," I said, touching the brim of my hat. "You've been very helpful."

The Hibernia was on the basement level just off Valley Street, behind an unlettered red door on which was a gilded painting of an Irish harp. It was not the kind of place I feel very comfortable-lots of dark wood and plush chairs and gas lights flickering in frosted globes. The backstop behind the bar had a lot of ornate carvings, faces of presidents and so forth, and there were some mirrors and a really big picture of a naked woman with a fat ass.

I bought a handful of checks and sat down with three other punters at the faro bank. The dealer was a large humorless man who seldom looked up from the board and who may have been mute, judging from his conversation skills; I found this unusual, because mostly when you're being cheated, the dealer is all smiles and fast jokes. For an alert player in a square game, the house has almost no advantage. That's why most houses cheat in some way, either by using a gaffed card box or a dealer gifted at sleight-of-hand.

The Hibernia relied on the former.

I tried to play the cards well enough not to lose much money and just badly enough not to attract much interest. It wasn't my intention to spend much time there; I just had to know the layout of the joint well enough so I could stitch a believable story together later. I had just lost fifty cents by flatting the ace when I felt a gentle hand upon my left shoulder.

"Buy a thirsty girl a drink, mister?"

She was on my blind side and I resisted the urge to grasp the hand and bend it back until the wrist snapped. Instead, I turned slowly and smiled, expecting to dismiss the whore with some puerile admonition about the dangers of strong spirits.

But I hesitated.

She was not yet twenty, a sylph with caramel skin and eyes the color of whiskey held to the light.

"What's your name?" she asked, brushing her dark hair from her face.

"Jacob," I said.

"Well, Jake," she said, her hand moving over my shoulder in a well-practiced caress. "You are something, ain't you? All done up in black and ready to preach in the morning."

"It's Jacob," I said. "Nobody calls me Jake."

"Are you in or out?" the dealer asked, impatient.

"So you can speak," I said. "And I had my doubts."

"In or out?" he growled.

"Out," I said. "Absolutely."

"Busted?" the girl asked.

"Only my pride," I said.

I pushed back from the faro table.

The girl grasped my elbow and pulled me toward a table in a dark corner. I let her. The seat of my pants had barely met the chair when the bartender was placing a couple of half-full glasses on the scarred table in front of us.

"Four bits," he said.

"Put it on my tab."

"You ain't got no tab here," he said.

"Right," I said, forking over fifty cents.

The bartender scooped up the money and went back to the bar. I watched him go, already nostalgic for the pair of quarter dollars. At this rate, I would soon be out of working capital. Still, I had my Double Eagle for insurance.

I lifted my glass and took a whiff. It smelled like benzene. I was fairly sure that what the girl had in her glass was room-temperature tea.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Does it matter?"

"The truth matters," I said. "I don't lie and I cannot tolerate it in others."

"Call me Amity," she said.


"No, really," she said. "That where I was born-Amity down in Clark County."


Excerpted from Canyon Diablo by Max McCoy Copyright © 2010 by Max McCoy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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