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As a salesman who had worked at Dekker Hardware for more than twenty years, W. W. "Jake" Jaycox was present for the regular monthly sales meeting being held that day at the store. Neither he nor any of the other salesmen was aware of exactly what was going on across the street. Even later, Jake remained uninterested in the story of Johnny Pointer's hanging, despite the fact that he'd been across the street when it happened. Jake was pragmatic, hardheaded, and indifferent to how a man died who had shot a couple of his pals in the head while they were asleep. Having sold hardware in the Indian and Oklahoma territories for twenty-some years, Jake took a dim view of outlaws and lawmen, criminals and courts — and he devoted as little thought to any of them as possible.
The "big office," where the salesmen were waiting, was on the east side of the building, and their view didn't include the gallows. All they could see out the window was the Dekker wagon yard, which was packed with hacks and farm wagons of every description. When the rain started after noon, Jake wondered why the lot didn't begin to clear out, but he wondered more about why Mr. Dekker was late for the sales meeting — which never had happened before in his memory. He could see Mr. Dekker's plain Studebaker wagon and his son Ernest's fancy team parked in the crowd of other rigs, making him suspect that the two of them were in the old man's office, across the display room on the other side of the building. But punctual sales meetings were a sacred event, and he couldn't imagine why the old man would be so late if he was already here, unless he was having an extremely serious talk with his son.
For years, Jake had hoped that Ernest Dekker would find employment elsewhere. If his father got sick or feeble and Ernest took over, the place would surely go to hell. Ernest was not a hardware man. He was a gambler and socialite who dressed sharp and loafed around town with the straw-hat-and-palm-fan crowd, bird hunting, fishing, playing cards, watching horse races, chasing skirts, dabbling in investment schemes, talking real estate. But none of his interests had anything to do with hardware. Dekker Wholesale sold more than twenty-seven thousand separate items, including heavy hardware, sporting goods, enamelware and tinware, pumps, house and commercial furnishings, mechanics' tools, and farm implements, and Ernest didn't know a compression cock from a croquet set. He had never worked at the front desk or in the stockroom, nor had he gone out on the road. Exactly what he did on his occasional visits to the store Jake didn't know. Lately he had been hanging around Charles McMurphy, the treasurer, so apparently he helped with the figures, although Jake couldn't see Ernest stooping to such a lowly occupation as adding and subtracting. As vice president he pulled down a far higher salary than any of the salesmen, but he'd never to Jake's knowledge sold a stick of merchandise.
Waiting for the meeting to start, Jake daydreamed that the old man was finally in there giving Ernest what he'd long deserved, an invitation to get a job somewhere else. Shrewd and plain-dealing with most people, Mr. Dekker had always been soft on Ernest, probably because he was his only living son. Another son had died at the age of ten, and his one daughter had married and moved away years before. They had little in common: the father was a rough-and-ready commercial pioneer, while his son was of the leisured class. The old excuse for Ernest was that he had wild oats to sow, but now that he was near forty, that had worn thin.
The white sky had turned black, the office was dark, and Jake noticed that two or three wagons had torn out of the yard in an awful big hurry. He assumed it was just the weather. The waiting teams were restive, rattling the traces and whinnying as if they didn't particularly want to be pulling home in a storm. Peculiar noises were coming from the direction of the gallows, but none of the salesmen walked out front to see what was going on. The old man had been known to fire a salesman for going to the privy during one of these meetings, so they all stuck tight in the darkening room, chewing, waiting, wondering.
Bob MacGinnis was complaining about how poor things had got in his district. MacGinnis had been hired recently to replace J. D. Plagman, who'd committed suicide at the Wyandott Hotel in Texarkana, apparently because he was unable to sell hardware in southwest Arkansas — a sad fact, since the Angel of Commerce herself couldn't have sold much hardware after more than a year of the Panic. MacGinnis was not doing any better than Plagman had before he shot himself. "It's deader'n a nut down there," he said. "Nobody buyin much as nails."
Jack Peters wheezed in his high voice, "That's the way it is everywhere. The boom in Oklahoma Territory is a damn bust."
Dandy Pruitt and Marvin Beele both threw in their two cents about how low the Indian Nations had got. "What little you sell, you can't count on being delivered. Trains ain't running half the time," Marvin said, quickly bobbing his head down and bull's-eying the spittoon.
When Mr. Dekker finally did walk into the big office, at nearly a quarter after twelve, Jake was further mystified. The old man always started meetings urgently, by saying, "Let's see if you sons of bitches have sold any hardware this month." Today he came in and sat down and looked at them — toward them — with no particular expression except what appeared to Jake to be a kind of light glowing around his eyes. He said nothing. Mr. Dekker was a lean man of average height, tending to bald, with a fierce sharp beak of a nose and close-set eyes. He was waiting for somebody else to arrive.
After a time, Ernest came in. With one eyebrow floating high and a flushed look, the vice president took out a pre-rolled cigarette and put it into a black ivory holder. Jack Peters, the salesman for Oklahoma Territory, leaned out to light it. Unlike his father, Ernest was substantial in size, and he put on magisterial, impatient airs around "inferiors." He looked over the men and asked Bob MacGinnis to come outside. After talking with MacGinnis for a few minutes, Ernest returned alone. The salesmen looked around at one another suspiciously. This was a very odd start for a sales meeting.
At last Mr. Dekker said, "You'd better tell em."
Ernest glanced at his father and took the ivory holder from his mouth. "All right," he said briskly. "Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, men, but it appears the Panic has finally got to us. The Mercantile Exchange Bank has called in our credit. They have demand notes and we have no choice but to meet them."
Jack Peters made a little oof sound, like he'd been hit in the gut. Marvin Beele rolled his eyes around to Jake. Pete Crapo of central Arkansas merely continued to look puzzled, his normal expression. Jake noticed that the old man, with head cocked back and eyes slightly narrowed, watched Ernest closely.
Ernest scowled at his cigarette. "Mr. Bradley, chief teller, notified us this morning. It was completely unexpected."
Jake knew something of Bradley. He'd seen him around town, running in the same crowd as Ernest.
Ernest continued, "I don't have to tell you how precarious this situation is. We'll have to take immediate action, or they'll seize our merchandise and shut us down. You realize we have no choice in the matter. We're declaring war against debt. We'll have to collect all accounts. Those of you who don't succeed I'm going to have to let go. I'm giving some of you couriers and I want you to keep em damn busy."
Couriers? As Ernest talked on, Jake's disbelief mounted. Heat ascended the back of his neck. He couldn't believe the old man would even listen to the idea of making an all-out collection sweep now. Nobody in the territory had any money. It was shipping season after a bad harvest on top of a panic. Arkansas, Oklahoma, and all of the Indian Nations were in turmoil. The stores were tighter than he'd ever seen them. Business was in hibernation. The store owners were operating on bank debt and faith that the Panic would end.
And why had Ernest taken over the meeting?
MacGinnis came back in the office pushing three rangy-looking half-breeds. They were shivery and green around the gills. MacGinnis looked like he'd seen a ghost. "The man they're hanging over there ain't dead yet!" he said breathlessly. "He's been alive since twelve noon. Goddamnit, he's up there walkin, like ... like he can't get up a flight of stairs!" "Maybe he's going the wrong way," Ernest said. "He ought to turn around and try the other direction. Where'd you find these boys?" "They're from the Choctaw orphanage near Durant. Principal's out there waiting to talk to you."
"Are you young men Christians?" Ernest asked.
"Yes sir," two of them barked, skinny boys blinking their eyes and squinting through the gloom, as if they had no idea where they were. The third, who was taller and stouter, a well-featured young man, said nothing at all. He looked around the room with what appeared to be defiant silence.
The boys stood dripping before the scowling, chewing, tense salesmen.
"Choctaws, huh?" said Ernest Dekker. "Good. You can generally trust them for courier work better'n white boys."
Peters wheezed a little laugh, and an awkward silence followed.
"We use couriers in town," Ernest said. "Now I want some of you men — the ones with the most money to collect — to have your own personal couriers. We can't count on the express or the post offices in the Nations. I want you men out there working the customers, and I want these couriers to make continuous delivery of everything over a hundred dollars. We have to show the bank, every day, that we're on the right track."
Marvin bobbed his head down and spat.
Then Jake cleared his throat and spoke. Unconsciously, he turned to the old man. "Our customers are behind, but there aren't many holding out on us. About the only kind of paper anybody's got right now are customer IOUs and mortgages. We start hittin em hard now and we'll have a lot of closings."
Ernest flourished his cigarette. "You men have been complaining so long that you sound like a flock of old soldiers at the courthouse. You ain't collecting debts because you've gotten lazy. You're so spoiled by the boom that you don't know how to take a little slowdown. Mr. Dekker, sitting before you now, sold hardware off the back of a buggy when the only other white peddlers on the road were the kind with kegs in their wagons. He was out there with a buggy full of pots and pans, and not just sellin, he was collecting his debts."
The old man looked uneasy at being the object of Ernest's oration, but still he said nothing. Jake wished he'd at least speak. Had the bank knocked the wind out of him?
"You, Jaycox. Eighteen months ago you were probably moving stock by the carload down in the Choctaw Nation —" "I haven't traveled the south route for seven years —" "You're used to fat times, that's the plain fact! This is your first taste of hardscrabblin, gentlemen, and I don't know whether you're real salesmen or not. We'll just have to see."
Jake wanted to reply that he was a "real salesman" when Ernest Dekker was still wearing knee britches, and furthermore, Ernest had never been any kind of salesman, so how'd he get to be such an expert? But Mr. Dekker Senior was looking at him with an expression that suggested he stay quiet.
On the night train headed over the Kiamichi Mountains, Jake was in a dark mood. His newly hired "courier" sat beside him. After the meeting, Ernest Dekker had taken the new couriers off and talked to them about their new job. Jake had been assigned the biggest of the three, the one called Tom Freshour. He didn't say much and he stared a lot — particularly at females, of whom there happened to be one striking example in their car. To Jake's questions he gave stiffly polite but brief answers. He had a way of dimming his eyes and staring off to discourage conversation. He seemed to Jake tight-strung, sitting upright, almost as if he was at attention, even when dozing.
Jake needed this shavetail following him around like he needed a Chinese footman.
It was raining hard, thunder rattling the windows, as the train crawled up the ridgelike mountain. Today's queer sales meeting had lasted well into the afternoon, and Jake had actually left before it was quite over in order to hightail up to his boarding house, get a travel grip, then rush back to the train station with the young man in tow. At the station people had all been talking furiously about what a nail-curler the hanging had been, but Jake was so preoccupied by what had happened at the store that he hadn't been curious.
Tom Freshour nodded off by the time they reached Talihina, and he slept with a restless, worried look, his head repeatedly jerking upright. He looked to be a half-breed, maybe quarter. The shirt and pants he was wearing were a cheap, thin grade of cotton, his soft-soled shoes had holes in them, and he shivered a little as he sat there nodding. Jake eventually moved to a seat across the aisle so he could spread out.
Couriers! If Ernest had ever been across the river on anything but bird-hunting trips, he might know that no matter how bad the express companies had got, you could always find a way. You could even mail cash, if you had to, by tearing it in two and sending it from two different places. Instead of paying a few dollars, the store would be buying train tickets, which would end up costing a good hunk of whatever money they could collect. Oh, but this was an all-out emergency, Ernest had insisted, and they needed to start making deposits right away.
Equally galling was the fact that Ernest had assigned Jake to collect what they called the south route, the Choctaw Nation, which hadn't been his territory for seven years. He was supposed to immediately collect "at least twenty percent of the account balance" being carried in the district. Ernest was shuffling the salesmen between territories because he thought it would be easier for them to be tough on customers they didn't know so well. Furthermore, the bank suggested that they employ some scheme whereby the men could collect those stores that had no cash by trading the merchandise mortgages that Dekker held on them for the property mortgages that the stores held against their customers; but the bank was "still working on the details."
That was the point at which Jake begged out to catch the train. He'd go south. He'd try to collect. But heaven help Dekker Wholesale Hardware and Supply. This sudden shift of authority to Ernest was truly strange. Why he should take over, Jake couldn't figure, unless this credit call had just knocked the stuffing out of the old man. Nor did he understand why Ernest appeared to relish it so much and had such a big plan all ready to lay out: couriers, shifted districts, twenty percent collections, mortgage switches — had he made all that up on the spot?
Jake gazed at the sleeping boy and simmered. He would have no pension to look forward to if the store went down. How the store could stay solvent under Ernest Dekker he didn't know. As they approached the high point in the Kiamichi, rain had turned to hail, chunking into the side of the car like rocks.
To make his mood worse, Jake had the extremely vexing thought — he didn't believe it, but it occurred to him — that he could be wrong. It was true that the accounts had been getting further behind every month and a business couldn't subsist forever on its reserves, panic or no panic. It was also true that however strange the plan was, at least it stood up to the problem. Whether he was acting like a fool or not, Ernest was at least acting. All these thoughts were irksome.
The storm was beating against the south side of the train with a vengeance. It was a real deluge. A window up the aisle was cracked open, and hail bounced off the transom into the car. As the train clattered slowly down the mountain, he wondered about the full-blood villages out there in the storm, hid off in the hills, little gatherings of leaky, fleabag huts without fireplaces or outhouses. The full bloods fed themselves by hunting, scratching gardens out of poor hill soil, and collecting government money. Back when he'd covered this territory, Jake had tried to sell hardware in a couple of full-blood towns, but the pickings were slim with no stores to speak of, just a few blacksmiths.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Whipping Boy"
Copyright © 1994 Speer Morgan.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Enjoyed this book very much, it is very well written and filled with interesting characters. The story takes place in Oklahoma and Arkansas during the late 1800s and provides fascinating insight into the historical period it portrays. It also is a coming of age story for Tom who has led a sheltered life in an orphanage and is now experiencing the freedom and wonders of the outside world.
Then why did she say it wasfive stars. I like this book even though i didnt read it my brother loved it very much
I have 2 read this for school. I am middle school and I am a 6th grader. If u read this u now know the resin why I am reading this book.
Stupid is this book