Winner of the 2018 Nebraska Book Award for Fiction
A rousing, suspenseful debut novel—True Grit meets Catch Me If You Can—based on the forgotten true story of a Robin Hood of the American frontier who pulls off the first successful kidnapping for ransom in U.S. history
“A kidnapper with a social-justice mission” (Time), Pat Crowe was once the most wanted man in America. World, Chase Me Down resurrects him, telling the electrifying story of the first great crime of the last century: how in 1900 the out-of-work former butcher kidnapped the teenage son of Omaha’s wealthiest meatpacking tycoon for a ransom of $25,000 in gold, and then burgled, safe-cracked, and bond-jumped his way across the country and beyond, inciting a manhunt that was dubbed “the thrill of the nation” and a showdown in the court of public opinion between the haves and have-nots—all the while plotting a return to the woman he never stopped loving. As if channeling Mark Twain and Charles Portis, Andrew Hilleman has given us a character who is bawdy and soulful, grizzled, salty, and hard-drinking, and with a voice as unforgettable as that of Lucy Marsden in Alan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All—an antihero you can’t help rooting for.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.66(d)|
About the Author
Andrew Hilleman was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1982. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in English at Creighton University, in Omaha, and his M.F.A. in fiction from Northern Michigan University. He has been published by The Fiddlehead and was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award. He lives in Omaha with his wife and their daughter.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
All Things Long Past
In the history of all things, good stories one day become old storiesand then cease to be told at all, and I suppose mine is no different. Forthe past twenty years I’ve been puzzling my way back to humanity,but all I’ll be remembered for, if I’m remembered in the first place, isperhaps the foulest of all crimes: the kidnapping of a child. The apo-gee of a life nourished by lawlessness. When I was furthest from theaubade.
Oh, there’s a litany of other transgressions.
For a short while, I was the most wanted man in America. Thiswas around the turn of the century. Thirty years past and more now.After my final arrest, I drew a bigger crowd at a Nebraska train sta-tion than President Roosevelt when he made a campaign stop in thesame town during his bid for reelection. A few scattered folks stilltalk about me like legend. I relished it all. Even the fake stories thenewspapers trumped up about my escapades.
When I was young I believed that my tale would be threaded onparchment that never frayed and etched in tablets that would nevererode and inked upon the presses from the wharves of New York tothe goldfields of California. My role in it all would be auditioned foron stages the world over. I could hear the thunderclap of ovationlike a madman certain of his own future and creation’s reaction toit. I could see it all floating like glow bugs in a fortune-teller’s globe.But, let me say this: the world is not a skirt to be lifted. There’s noredemption for the devil. I have returned to the teaching of mychildhood. I have suffered, have been hungry and homeless andcold and for want of anyone to share with me a kind word sincethose days now long since passed. It’s been mighty rough trotting,but I will not repine.
I’ve robbed banks and stolen diamonds, nearly killed three policeofficers in a Cicero gunfight, escaped a burning building and a prairiefire, and even looted the entire town of Shinbone, New Mexico, after
2 • Andrew Hilleman
me and my old pal Billy Cavanaugh locked up the village marshal inhis own jail.
Poor goddamn Billy. Had I never stepped in to break up that fightin the stockyards all those years ago, the stupid kid, fortuned by hisown stupidity, probably would’ve made a life out of things much lon-ger and brighter than what he came to finally afford.
I laugh at that memory still.
money and happiness—they are dead sea fruits. All have had theirown short running meters in my life. But the idea of friendshipoperating on that same arrhythmia is too depressing a thought tocontain. Let me say this: I have found no happiness in evil. I willnot paint roses on the life of an outlaw. Here there is only truth with-out imagination.
What is over for me now was over long ago. It’s the second-to-lastday of October, nineteen and thirty-nine. Either my sixty-eighthbirthday or my seventieth. I’m not certain which. My hair’s gonewhite with the snow of age, my livery hands are spotted like troutskin, my clothes stink worse than old breechclout. Ragged light ofnew day. The world turns like she always has. A tonnage of starsaround a half moon yet to vanish, and steam rising from sewer gratesall along the flagstone of Farnam Street.
I lurch out of my squalid flophouse into the awful darkness ofmorning. My staggering walk is like that of a clubfoot gimp for I’mnear ruin and emptied of all heart and I expect no pity for thesethings. It’s a mammoth struggle to button my shirtfront. Lamplightsflicker yet in the early gloss. The street is empty, sunken between lop-sided buildings like the floor of a canyon. I tamp my pipe. Only a fewleavings in my tobacco pouch. A loud noise startles me like gunshot.In an alley across the street a young boy chucks crab apples against abrick wall. Thud, thud, thud. Like a pitcher warming his arm in a bullpen. I curse the tramp child and struggle against my cane. A spumeof low cloud like mist in evenfall. My big spurs jangle as loudly as if Iwere wearing chain mail. Silly to wear spurs at my age.
Silly to be anything now.
World, Chase Me Down • 3
Park to feed the pigeons as the sky fills with color. I scatter seed andcandy. Twenty birds gather at my feet. Spearhead cloud cover. Acornsfallen from their cups. Dogwoods limp in cracking sun. Cattailslong in the orange mud. An omen of first snow in the dawn.
I halloo the pigeons. Give them hallowed names.
seeds and take counsel with one another in their own cooing lan-guage around my worn boots. I speak to them like they are people.I mumble to myself. Lose spittle down my last clean shirtfront.
They’re speechless to reply.
much past thirty. crowe and cavanaugh, butchers, the storefrontsign read in cursive script. Our long end of a dream. Days spent skin-ning carcasses and rolling sausages out of a grinder. How often I findmyself lost inside those memories. Even the banal acts of scrubbingtile walls and mopping up wastewater are a fantastic caprice whenremembered from a great distance.
There, too, is Hattie. Her startling yellow hair piled up in wavesunder a leghorn hat. Her lipstick as messy as if applied in a fun housemirror after a long night of necking. She bore a rare beauty oftenseen in women painted on cigar boxes but hardly in everyday life.Her china blue eyes as big as hailstones. Break your heart quickerthan a plate dropped on the floor, those eyes could. Her throatylaugh that shook the china in your hutch. The nightgowns she woreas thin as mist to bed every night. A complexion the color of moon-stone.
I will never be shed of that woman.
There she is under a cluster of noisy apple trees, leaves rustlingas loudly as wrapping paper, blotches of sunlight turning her yel-low hair pink. A thunderbolt flash and she appears naked in ourbedroom during an electrical storm. A skunk stripe of moonlighton her back as she turns and beckons me to bed while rain slashesthe window.
4 • Andrew Hilleman
How she still affects me now from such a great distance is a spe-cial kind of madness I cannot parcel. The moon is not tanned by thesun, after all. Still, there she is, a spectral visitor, clear in my mindbut forever gone. Nothing left here but the empty.
It occurs to me now that I have created legendary days of her inmy own memory. I’ve never seen her under any goddamn appletrees or made love to her during a thunderstorm with moonlight onher skin or any of the other cruel and haunting images conjured upin retrospect. My remembrance of her is invented out of the samecotton as perfectly shaped clouds in a child’s artwork. Such thingsnever existed nor ever will. The contemplation of her love for meand raising our daughter Matilda together in a pink house witha quiet but substantial life was as grossly paradisal as the notionof Eden.
It had been that way all along. All things of any beauty are lostbefore they are gained, and they stay lost forever after, and the gain-ing of them in the first place is just a temporary figment, and that’sjust the natural way of the world, and not a damn fool ignorant toall around him or a genius aware of too much for his own good canremedy their way out of that.
Here I am now. Here I sit among the birds. An old man galledof crotch from poor bathing and thin as fish line from poor diet whoquivers yet against the capsizing of the world. My right leg jerks inspasm and the pigeons scatter in fright.
“No,” I call to them. “Don’t go. Come back, friends. Come onback now.”
“It’s just my leg quaking,” I say.
pocket and scatter more seed for the birds. Most of them do notreturn. You’ve never known me, never had the capacity to know me,and I don’t know any of you except by your markings, but I verymuch love you still, and my love is an obsession despite all that hasmade it absent. I cackle and spit again. My paper sack empty of feed.I sit on the bench by the park lagoon for a few more minutes and
World, Chase Me Down • 5
accidentally fall asleep. A policeman comes by and pokes me withthe end of his baton.
“Hey there, old timer, no sleeping in the park.”I snap awake, dazed.
“You’re loitering is what you are,” the officer tells me and con-tinues his beat.
The day browns in color and falls in temperature. Sun streakedand freezing both. Autumn given way to new winter in two hours.Wind empties trees. Shadows lasso, and hearthstones glow in thegrowing dark like the eyes of rodents. Ten more degrees plummet,then twenty. Flurries settle on stoop pumpkins. Day passes intoevening.
I stagger home. What I now call home.
I totter about my flophouse room. A miasma of dust and velvet.The curtains dark as liver and mossy with age. A bloodstain from aprevious tenant the size of a throw rug on the wood floor, scrubbedto a faint pink square. I reheat leftover coffee and fry wholemealwith fatback in a spider pan. A medicine show crackles on my tuberadio. I peel away my socks. What effort it takes. The cotton crunchywith ice. My toes nearly black from frost and neglect and poor cir-culation. I fill a deep pot with water boiled on the cookstove for myfeet. My toes come alive again in the boiling pan.
Outside my window, the world.
Master with four doors that hiccups and stalls and sputters like aninvention still in the throes of imagination. I peer out into the slantedsnow. An elderly Negro woman is shitting into an old tin can betweena narrow crevasse of clapboards.
I laugh and say aloud to myself, “Good for you, old girl.”
It’s high time for a gill of brandy. My hands quake on the glasslike it was a heirloom long lost and now returned. I stoke the pitifulfire in my cookstove with the few chips left in the scuttle and watchthe snow accumulate on my window. Rising from my cane rocker
6 • Andrew Hilleman
is a considerable effort and I plod about the room as if I were shuf-fling my feet over ice.
A whole day come and gone. Nothing more I can manage thanto survive it. My pocket watch clicks against a glass of water on thenightstand. I hang my mothy suit on a wickerwork chair and swal-low two barbiturates the size of small toes as per my doctor’s ordersfollowing my stroke this past Christmas. The pills are strong enoughto put a dog to sleep and I must cut them into thirds. They have apleasant effect in small doses. My hands shake as I climb into bed. Inold age, it’s harder and harder to fall asleep in a timely fashion. Ioften sit up for hours before I’m relaxed enough to close my eyes.
I don’t want this world to vanish. There’s nothing left for me init, and still I cling. As I listen to the ticking of my windup alarmclock, my mind wanders from one thought to the next. On someoccasions, I can still see that Cudahy boy squirming in his chair,bound by horse hobbles and his face covered in an old baby shirt,smoking cigarette after cigarette under his makeshift blindfold.Young Edward Junior. He was an alright skate if there ever was analright skate on this grim planet. A truly brave soul. And yet hewhimpered and cried at night, begged us to return him to his motherand father. I can hear those pleas still. Let me say this right off thebat: I am a guilty man. Make no mistake. I kidnapped that youngman and held him for ransom and got away with it scot-free for fivelong years before my spirit completely broke and I returned to Omahafor my just desserts.
At this late hour of life, I am glad of one lasting sliver of redemp-tion: Edward Junior’s fate was not the same as the young CharleyRoss that inspired my crime in the first and, in later years, the Lind-bergh baby whose abduction was, in turn, modeled after my fouldeed. I can imagine no greater horror. A delivery truck driver dis-covered the toddler’s corpse on the side of the road: the tiny skullfractured by a massive blow, the body half-burnt and bearing themarks of animal bites. I pray the infant was chewed on after hispassing and not before, and that is perhaps the most macabre prayerever sent up through the grapevine. For so long my life was noth-ing but darkness, and I’ve been battling my way back to the lightever since.
World, Chase Me Down • 7
that God divided the light and the darkness and gave them differ-ent names. Yet, in these dwindling hours that still remain for me,in looking back on a life divided as severely as night is from the day,I wonder if there is any difference between them at all.
Snow clicks against my window pane. A guttered candle floatsin a pool of wax atop my cold radiator. The panther paces inside mychest. My mind full of history. Despite the fact that I’m so close tothe end, my thoughts are not of the darkness near to come but ofthe advent of darkness long ago.
The Crimeof the Century
On the eighteenth day of December in that first year of thecentury, when the old earth was nearing her darkest calendar day,Billy Cavanaugh and I parked our horse and buggy at the cornerhouse on Dewey Avenue. Billy held the reins to our ragged silverpony. I ignited a calabash pipe with two matches after the buggyjolted to a stop, thumbing the bowl to get the tobacco rolling. Billyfit on a pair of cloth gloves and stared up at the darkening slab ofsky, a low rind of winter sun in the west. The last whiskers of day-light. There was no wind. A light snow fell as gently as dust sweptoff a rooftop.
Neither of us said a word to the other as we sat parked along thecurbstone. The hour approached seven. I jumped down from thebuggy and fed our pony an apple from my trouser pocket. I scannedthe street: a brick neighborhood avenue—void of traffic—that waslined on both sides by opulent mansions, the types with cupolas anddouble chimneys and crawling ivy. A scarf of river fog blew overfrom the Missouri. A lamplighter made his rounds, igniting gasstreet lights with a long wand. Coming around to the other side ofthe buggy, I elongated a spyglass and focused its sight at the man-sion on the corner. The estate, a twenty-two room Victorian sur-rounded by a gable fence, sat on a half acre of land and was home toEdward Cudahy and family. I glassed the young man inside theroom, sixteen-year-old Eddie Junior. He was knocking around ballson a baize-covered snooker table.
After a moment of studying the youngster, I collapsed the spy-glass and returned to my seat on the buggy, crossing my arms acrossmy chest.
“What’s he doing?” Billy asked.“Playing billiards against himself.”“Against hisself?”
12 • Andrew Hilleman
Our pony shivered in the cold. Twenty more minutes passedand the snow fell harder: fuzzy and diagonal. Night arrived in full.A new moon hung over the trees, low and fat. Billy socked a wadof leaf tobacco the size of a walnut in his lower lip and collected hisspit in an old pineapple can. Spitting on the street came with a ten-dollar fine, which was twice the amount of money either one of ushad in the wide world. I pulled the large storm collar of my overcoataround my neck.
Halfway past the hour, a police officer in a bell hat and wool tunicapproached from the opposite side of the street, doing whirligigs withhis nightstick as he walked his beat. Billy and I both offered a friendlynod as the officer passed.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” the officer said.I doffed my bowler. “Good and cold.”
“Forgive him, officer,” I said. “He’s Florida born, and the wintermakes him somewhat choleric.”
Billy sneered and spit into his old can. “I’m merry in all weathers.”“Yes,” I said. “Ordinarily as kindly as a Texas cyclone, this one.”“Don’t go to upsetting me, now.”
The officer craned his neck to get a look at the handle of a revolverbulging from a shoulder holster inside my coat. “You got a permit forthat roscoe?”
I eased myself off the buggy and stood in front of the patrolman.I pulled open the left side of my overcoat to reveal a fake badge pinnedto my suit lapel. “I’m Detective Dobbs of Sarpy County. My less cor-dial partner here who gets grumpy past his suppertime is DetectiveSaunders. We’re scouting a young man who escaped from reformschool yesterday and robbed his poor auntie of five hundred dollarsthis morning. She’s one Mildred Finnegan, resident of 3710 SouthDewey,” I said and pointed at the house next door to the Cudahymansion. “Which is that one right there.”
The officer considered the house. “You boys are good ways outfrom Sarpy County.”
World, Chase Me Down • 13
I flipped open my timepiece. “Three and one-quarter miles tobe exact.”
Billy began, “The longer this mule sticks around—”
“Quite right,” I interrupted him. “If our young runaway wouldhappen by and see us conversing with a uniformed lawman, it mightjust may scare him off.”
“It common practice in Sarpy County to send out two detec-tives to retrieve a juvenile escaped from reformatory school?” the offi-cer asked.
Billy and I exchanged a look.
have it in case I have to report to my captain that a third-shift beatboy of the okey-doke variety spoiled our opportunity to apprehendour suspect.”
“My name is Donald Marsh. And you can report me to Presi-dent McKinley if you want. I’m doing my duty, and I asked you aquestion.”
“South Sixteenth Street Precinct,” I responded harshly. “Now, Ican appreciate you doing your duty, but I’m going to ask you thisonce to be on your way out of respect for our surveillance. Surelyyou have other routes on your beat that are in need of your attention.But if I have to ask again, you’ll be stripped of your badge and fold-ing sheets in a Chink laundry before the week’s out.”
The officer backed away. “You Sarpy boys are a real pair ofsweethearts.”
“And a merry Christmas to you and yours on the Douglas side,”Billy said.
“Detective Dobbs, was it?” the officer asked me.
of Dewey and turned left, heading south. He’d been whistling atune when he came down the street, but was silent during his exit.No longer was he twirling his baton.
Billy paid heed to the difference. “Man left with a purpose.”
14 • Andrew Hilleman
I climbed back onto our woeful buggy.
“Suppose he heads to the nearest call box and dials up centralstation to check on those names you gave him?”
“Suppose he does,” I said and opened my spyglass again to examinethe Cudahy mansion. Eddie Junior was no longer in the parlor. “He’llfind out that Detective Dobbs and Saunders are real fellers. Came intoour shop a couple times for chops.”
Billy chuckled without amusement. “You and your split tongue.How many times have you lied to me and I’ve not known it?”
“If I ever lied to you, you’d know it good and well by the sixthsyllable.”
“If he doesn’t come out soon, we best pull it in for the night,”Billy said and nodded toward the Cudahy residence. “Come backtomorrow or the day after.”
I collapsed the spyglass. “He’s coming out now.”
The front door of the mansion opened and exiting the housewas Eddie Junior, carrying a bundle of books bound in a belt strap.Tall and pale and thin-shouldered, he wore a knitted cap andknickerbockers. Following him down the drive was the family pet,a spotted collie with a bobbed tail like that of a lion. He closed thefront gate behind him, calling out for his dog to stay close as it waswithout a leash. Billy shrugged a cape of monkey fur around hisshoulders and bent his head low, leaking more tobacco juice intohis can. I jumped down to my feet again and watched the youngman from behind the buggy.
Eddie Junior stopped three houses down: a three-story, Geor-gian Colonial affair with sash windows five across on the top floorand a wraparound porch. He rasped at the door and was greeted bya woman in a gingham apron who invited him inside immediately.His collie waited on the porch, pacing.
I ran a pocket comb through my beard. “Get the rig ready.When he comes back out, we’ll scoop him up on his way home.”
“Suppose he stays for a while?” Billy said, taking up the reins.“Beware the fury of the patient man.”
flicker of the gas streetlamps. Our pony whinnied and snorted the
World, Chase Me Down • 15
frosty air. Snow fell in fat wet patches. Billy dug the grassy chaw outof his bottom lip, flung it into his fruit can, and wiped off his mouthwith the back of his hand. Finally Eddie Junior reemerged from theneighbor’s house, offered an indistinct farewell to someone backinside the foyer, and closed the door behind him. The books he’dbeen carrying by a belt strap were gone. His collie yipped and tookup behind him again, staying close to his heels.
Billy whipped the buggy around, making a full turn to comeup the other side of the street. The pony clopped at a trot over theicy brick, and Billy steered the coach halfway up onto the sidewalk,tipping the carriage as the two left wheels bounced over the curb.Eddie Junior was heading straight toward him and paused at thesight of the man in the fur cape seated on the platform. Darknessbetween the streetlamps hid his face.
I crossed the avenue on foot, taking a long route to get behindthe young heir to the Cudahy meatpacking fortune. I approachedwith my five-shot revolver drawn at my side and the big collar of myovercoat hiding my face. My hat scrunched down low past my eye-brows. My crunchy footsteps in the new snow made Eddie Juniorturn around. He was blocked from escape in both directions.
“We’ve got you now, Eddie Jones,” I said, keeping a distance offive feet.
The young Cudahy stammered. “My—my name’s Cudahy. NotJones.”
I threw open my overcoat, revealing my fake badge just as I haddone for the inquisitive police officer. “Sure it is. I’m undersheriff ofSarpy County, and you’re under arrest.”
Eddie Junior looked as if he might sprint away. Billy drew hisSpencer rifle from a scabbard hidden alongside the buggy and heldit sideways in his lap.
“I live in that house right over there,” Eddie Junior said andpointed toward his home less than thirty yards away.
I stepped closer. “You escaped from reform school last nightand stole five hundred dollars from your aunt. You’re not foolingme, Eddie Jones.”
“But I’m Eddie Cudahy, and I live right there!”
16 • Andrew Hilleman
attention away from his house. As I moved to take him, Billy boltedoff his seat and threw his monkey fur over the boy’s head. YoungCudahy tried to fight off the garment, but Billy was quick to wrap hisarms around the boy and tackled him to the ground. The collie dogsnarled and barked but didn’t attack. Eddie fought and screamed, buthis fists and voice were muffled under the heavy cape. I whacked hishead through the fur with the checkered grip of my revolver, render-ing him motionless. Billy stood up gasping from the effort. Afterwiping the snow from his pants, he found his hat on the ground anddusted off its crown.
Together, we lifted the boy’s body and carried it to our buggy ascasually as furniture movers hauling a sofa. After propping up theyoung man into a sitting position to give him the appearance of acloaked passenger, I canvassed the street in both directions. Therewasn’t a person in sight. I glanced at every house on both sides of theblock, making sure no one had come to a window or front porch.
The commotion set Eddie’s collie into a frenzy. Billy kicked atthe pooch, just missing its muzzle with the spurred heel of his boot.The dog ceased its hysterical yipping long enough for us to resumeour seats on the buggy platform, the unconscious young Cudahysqueezed between us. Billy clucked his tongue twice and we wereoff at a trot. The buggy rocked back and forth with its newly addedweight. The boy’s collie kept pace with our carriage until the end ofthe block but gave up the chase as we rounded the corner and dis-appeared from view into a flurry of sideways snow like a ship lostto storm.
There’s no denying it: a man outside the law’s pale revels in anexistence unmatched by anything else in creation. A clever man, apretty famous desperado in his own right, once told me that beingmiserable ain’t the same as being good. And he was right. But healso left the equation half short.
I was eleven years old when the Big Nose George Gang descendedon my family’s ranch in Colorado. Daylight silvered out, the sun underthe mountains and well on its way to causing the other half of theworld its share of trouble when four riders crested the brow of a stonyhill. I was the first to see them. In the goat pen harassing a rattlesnakewith a tree branch, if memory serves. Their shapes as oneiric as shad-ows in a dream. The lead rider bellowed a greeting from a distance. Herode a cinnamon mare and wore a stovepipe.
“Hey there, youngster,” the man said and spit. He moved arounda wedge of tobacco as big as a jawbreaker in his cheek. “Your popssomewhere abouts?”
I nodded and ran for home, past the chicken coop, to fetch myfather. The leader introduced himself as George Parrott and politelyasked if he and his men could be served a supper and take shelterfor the night in the barn, as he calculated a rainstorm advancing inthe red clouds over the Rockies. He said they’d rode nearly a hun-dred miles in the last twenty-four hours without rest and badlyneeded a spot to recuperate for the evening.
“Sure enough,” my dad had said and shook hands with all fourmen. “You can stable your horses yonder and see to your washing atthe well.”
The man who’d introduced himself as George thanked himmightily for the hospitality, and his gang watered their horses atthe goat trough. I brought the strangers’ horses two buckets of for-age and sweet feed apiece and showed the men where they couldwash before supper. George patted me on the head, told me I was
18 • Andrew Hilleman
an alright tyke. He gave me a silver dollar and a stick of horehoundcandy for my effort. A second man brought a bag of lemons insideand asked my mother if she could make lemon pies with whippingcream. She accommodated him with a mite of exasperation.
I was sent out to the springhouse to fetch fresh milk and butter.My two sisters gathered potatoes and canned tomatoes from the rootcellar. A five-pound jackrabbit cooked in the fireplace, the logs snap-ping and the hare spitting juice as it rotated on a spit. My motherdressed the table with her best linen and set out our queenswaredishes usually reserved for holidays. The four men came into thehouse in a bawdy temperament. They arranged their boots by thedoor and hung their mackinaw coats on the hall tree and all aroundotherwise regarded their presence as if they’d graced our family anaudience with the queen.
The leader of the gang had a nose as big as a bird’s beak and his lastname, Parrott, was a humorously fitting circumstance when regard-ing his large snout. He was not guarded about his physical abnormal-ity. He even drew attention to it by tapping on his left nostril threetimes and saying: “After I was born, my folks changed our familyname from Gerardo to Parrott on account of my schnozzle. Too bad.If I’d been born with a big something else, they might’ve changed ourlast name to Wienerschnitzel and named me Colossus.”
I had seen his likeness before. His mug was pasted on circularsin town. Impossible to forget a nose that size. Every telegraph polein Leadville bore a poster of his profile.
wanted. george parrott. also known as big nose george.dead or alive.
He carried a bird’s head Colt on his hip, wore a melon-coloredshirt with butternut trousers, and kept his sundown orange haircropped above his ears. He took his time poking about the kitchencupboards as if he owned the place until he discovered an earthen jarof muddy whiskey. He poured out five lashings: four for his men andone for my father. They sat and drank, and George asked if he andhis weary travelers might indulge a second slug before supper. Mydaddy did not refuse them.
That night we dined on roast jackrabbit, boiled potatoes, biscuitswith blackberries, and three lemon pies for dessert. The men were
World, Chase Me Down • 19
profane but in good humor. They masticated the rabbit and slurpedberries straight from the spoon and poured the whiskey as freely as ifit came from a spigot over the concrete kitchen sink. Soon theirvoices fell easy out of their mouths, their tongues as loose as if cull-ing remembered song, when just twenty minutes prior they hardlyhad the stamina to answer a simple yes-or-no question.
By the time the pie and coffee were served, the gang recalled theirlatest forays into crime as casually as if they were conversing about theweather. There was no want of conversation once they got enoughwhiskey in their bellies. They talked on numerous subjects withengorged vocabularies. My mother cringed and offered more coffee.She sent my sisters to bed, but I begged to stay up, and she didn’t havethe energy to argue. The kerosene stove warmed the house and themen bundled themselves by the fire with their cups.
I studied George as if trying to memorize his every character-istic. I was enamored. The life of those men galloping off to everynew horizon and slapping around their pistols and bringing in bagsof lemons for strangers to make them pies seemed as marvelous asthe fables I read from my sisters’ fairytale books. After dessert, therainstorm George had forecasted came in over the mountains side-ways. Rain hard enough to bend lampposts and drown night toads.The whole house complained in the wind, ached as if it were weakas pasteboard.
“I canny thank you enough, Mr. Crowe, for your family put-ting us up and for that fine meal,” George had said after his secondslice of pie as he swept crust crumbs off his vest. “We come all theway down from Montana.”
“What was your business there?” my dad asked.
George considered the question and how truthful an answer hemight divulge with another swallow of whiskey. He turned the cup inhis hands. Truth won out. “Well, it ain’t no secret we’re not mer-chants. We robbed us a military convoy south of Powder River. Armypayroll. It’s all corrupt, you know? The troops never see but a dime onthe dollar of what they’re owed and the big Washington fat cats skimfrom that payroll like it was milk boiling. So we helped ourselves to alittle before they could. We was soldiers, used to be. All four of us.”
The man who’d brought in the lemons said, “God, we’ve been
20 • Andrew Hilleman
running eight days on now without much for sleep or pleasure. Itsure is fine to be sitting here in front of this grand fire with a goodmeal in the belly and a dry roof over our heads.”
He turned to me. “Be grateful always for the small delights,young’n.”
Come morning I was the first to wake. I played with the silverdollar Big Nose had given me the night before, had even slept clutch-ing the coin in my little hand, and went out onto the porch to watchthe sunrise. Our goats were still drenched from last night’s down-pour. The rain had stopped only an hour earlier. They shivered andbleated and bemoaned their station. Fog hung low in our valley. Adamp kind of dawn.
After a short while, George came out from the barn wearing onlyhis union suit with his mackinaw coat hugging his shoulders like acape. He stopped at the water pump and sloshed some cold on his faceand wandered over to the porch with his mustache dripping.
He said, “That sunrise looks like a painting of a sunrise.”
never seen one quite like it. If that sky was done in oils and hung ina frame on a wall, I’d say that such beauty never existed anywhere onGod’s green earth. It’s a damn wondrous thing, kid. Man’s notion ofnature is almost always grander than the actual thing. And now herewe are staring at it.”
I turned the silver dollar in my hands. “I’ve seen your picturebefore.”
George chuckled, spat. “On circulars in town, I bet?”“My dad says you’re an outlaw.”
“Your mama got any coffee boiling in there yet?”
World, Chase Me Down • 21
“Because I’m good at it,” George said. “The simple, honest life?That game ain’t worth the candle, son.”
I nodded to feign understanding the same way I did sitting at adesk in the back of my schoolhouse, fiddling with the coin still.
George tongued his wet mustache. “That the first dollar you everbeen paid?”
and yes-sir-papa your whole rotten life. I’ll tell you one something Iwish had been told me when I was a sprout. Being miserable ain’t thesame as being good,” he said as he studied the new day, as attuned tothe sunrise as would be a mapmaker upon seeing a new tract of landto cartograph. Not long after, his pals came out of the barn in theirgoat-hair chaps and galoshes and snap-button shirts, ready to rideout. George dressed himself in a hurry. They saddled their horses androde up to the porch where I sat playing with his silver dollar.
George considered me one last time.
“Tell your ma and pa we’re sorry we couldn’t stay for breakfast,”he said, nickered at his horse, and the four riders bolted off. I keptthe silver dollar safe until I was old enough to spend a little on myself.Later in life, I couldn’t remember what I purchased with the coinand, from time to time, wished I’d kept it still.
For the three months leading up to the kidnapping, Billy and Ihad rented a frame cottage on a lane north of Grover Street thatbelonged to an old German seamstress. The house, vacant for morethan a year before our arrival, had fallen into disrepair. The roofwas patched up like a quilt with squares of heavy napped cloth thatswelled during rainstorms and leaked runoff into pots and buckets.The floorboards were warped. Plaster crumbled off the walls. Wall-paper peeled down in long curls. Once painted white, the househad been stripped of nearly all its color, and the exposed wood hadrotted from the elements. There was a good barn at the back of theproperty that was nearly as big as the cottage itself.
The home sat on a pronounced slope of upland above the south-west corner of the city, just beyond the South Omaha limits. Thehillside leading up to the sandy drive was covered in dead wild-flower so parched from the winter that it broke apart underfootlike dust. From the main window at the back of the house, wehad a view of the Union Stockyards and the Cudahy packing-houses pitched in the valley below. I stared out the window formore than an hour before finally settling on the rent. The cottagewas perfect.
“We’ll need to fix it up some,” Billy said.
I disagreed. “Yeah, what this outfit needs is some nice Irish laceon the windows.”
“If I’m to live in a place, it’s got to be livable.”
I followed him, watched him examine every crack and crevice.
pasted oatmeal paper on all the windows to cut out the sunshine.
World, Chase Me Down • 23
There was a gun rack on the wall to the left of the front door wherewe could stash our rifles. I brought a few pieces of discount furni-ture into the hideaway: a wicker rocker, a pair of ladder-back chairswith rope bottom seats, a kitchen table full of knots, a pair of col-lapsible iron cots.
Billy cleaned out the woodstove, which had been inhabited by apair of rattlesnakes honeymooning for the autumn. He nearly got bittwice trying to shoo the rattlers with a willow broom and finallyunloaded six shots from his revolver into the stove. He missed bothsnakes entirely at point blank range but made them uncomfortableenough to slither out of their iron nest so he could finally sweep thempast the front door. He fired five more rounds as they bellied awayinto the weeds, and missed again altogether.
I watched with a smile from the front porch, my hands duginto my trousers, my pipe crooked in my mouth. “That’s some fineshooting.”
Billy spun around. He didn’t know he was being watched. Henodded at the snakes slithering away. “You go to hell. They’re skinny.”
“I seen kids with slingshots got more accuracy than you.”
into the stove to heat up the drafty front room. I set about to thechores of stocking the pantry and barn. Oats and carrots and sugarcubes for our pony we had yet to purchase. Brandy and ham andbanana taffy for me and Billy. I made several trips into town to shopfor a good horse and used buggy before finally settling figures on awhite mare with a silver star on its forehead and an old Stanhopewith a collapsible carriage top.
The horse was an agreeable creature with a pearl mane andenough life left in her to pull a good draft. I fell to liking her imme-diately. Billy was as indifferent about the animal as he was the cot-tage and everything else.
It seemed he’d lost all sense of wonderment in life. All monthlong he mooned about in a droll. The man couldn’t even managethe enormity of the moment we were about to create. Nothing Isaid or imagined could stir Billy’s emotions. There was only the
24 • Andrew Hilleman
salving of pain with brandy and whiskey and plenty of it until thefirst thin light creased over the hills and the pain returned harderand more pronounced than it had been the day before.
After the expense of our preparations, including the three monthsof rent paid for in advance, we were down to our last ten dollarsbetween us. To pass the empty evenings, we cut cards at the smallkitchen table and shared slugs from a gallon woodjacket can of drug-store whiskey. Come morning we were both usually ale sick and tookturns dunking our heads in the freezing horse trough by the barnbefore pulverizing some coffee we drank as strong as coffin varnish intin cups.
For five weeks we studied the comings and goings of the Cudahyhome. Billy sat in the carriage with the top raised for cover while Istood in company with our white horse, puffing my clay pipe. Wespoke little and, when we did converse, we talked in hushed tones.
In the afternoons young Eddie Junior came home from schoolaround three o’clock. He played shinny with his friends in the streetbefore suppertime and practiced his piano in the front room. Theevening hours were spent holed up in his room with his schoolbooks,and the hour before his bedtime was largely employed at his father’sbilliards table. We followed him in the evenings on his occasionalerrands. We lurked in shadows between the flicker of lampposts. Imade notes about his routine on a lined pad, noting what times heleft the house each day and for how long he was gone.
It was a sullen month of winter that December.
The weather didn’t clear out but for an hour or two at a time. Icyrain fell in nailpoints. Clouds ribbed like needlecord, allowing onlyfor the faintest bit of threaded sunlight. The Missouri froze overnightonly to thaw again the next day. Come the middle of the month, on arare day clear of weather save for a few ragged clouds ghosting in awhite sky, Billy and I readied ourselves for what would prove to be ourfinal day of observation.
I fell out of sleep in a mad dash and got into my woolens to startthe kitchen fire. I parched coffee beans in an iron pot and chunkedout some water from the cistern pump to brew the beans. Billy wascoughing himself awake by the time the coffee was ready. I stepped
World, Chase Me Down • 25
outside into the quivering morning in my long johns and sheepskinboots to peel a mealy apple and have a morning toke from my pipe.On the downslope toward the river, a huddle of cows stood in afield of dead and snowy clover. A buckboard pitched high withmanure passed by on the road below our house, a shovel handle jut-ting out of the stinking mound. Billy joined me outside, wearing onlyhis skivvies under his long coat and a rabbit pelt for a hat, hacking upthe nighttime from his lungs. I sat on the front steps and looked south
toward the stockyards.
railing and undid the flap of my woolens and pissed off the frontporch.
Billy said, “We take the kid tonight.”
change my mind about the whole damn thing.”
crammed a plug in his lowers and leaked tobacco from his mouthand stirred molasses into his coffee mug. “We ought to have us apail of suds. Steady our grit.”
“No grog,” I said. “We need to be clearheaded.”
of the day. After supper we readied ourselves for the crime. I lath-ered foam on my cheeks with a pig bristle brush and shaved usinga broken piece of glass for a mirror. Billy darkened his pitiful mus-tache with lampblack from the bottom of one of our oil burners.He found a little courage from a few swallows of baldface leftoverin an old apothecary jug. We both dressed in laundered shirts andfresh pressed trousers and stitched boots.
New weather filled out over the city: a high batting of snowclouds waiting for sunset, a scarred sky veined with the last light ofday. We set out on our buggy down a winding farm road of packedsand. The temperature dropped ten degrees in less than an hour bythe time we ambled our coach into the city.
26 • Andrew Hilleman
The winter sun pulsed like muscle over the naked trees. Winterybrume traced the streets. Everywhere inescapable angry cold. Ipinched a clot of tobacco from my carrying tin and sent pipe smokeup to the heavens in long drafts. Billy wrapped himself in his monkeyfur and sat chattering his teeth. Twenty minutes passed and youngEddie returned home from academy on his regular clockwork, hisschoolbooks slung over his shoulder by a belt strap as he kicked astone down the sidewalk.
I watched him and scribbled another calculation on my nickelpad. I tamped down my pipe bowl and said, “The kid keeps sched-ule better than the railroad.”
“I could’ve told you that three weeks ago. I did tell you thatthree weeks ago. Then two weeks ago. Then last week I told you thesame thing.”
“We canny rush it. There’s only the one chance we’ll ever have.”
Billy reached down and took his rifle out of its scabbard. He laidit across his lap to admire its weight and polish before wagging thegunstock at the Cudahy house. “Let’s get it over with then. Let’stake him tonight.”
“Not yet,” I said. “There’s one thing left to do.”
“There’s nothing left for us in the whole world but this,” Billyreplied and slid the Spencer back into its housing.
“I need to go see him one last time.”“The kid?”
“You cannot be serious.”
“I cannot be anything else,” I said and situated myself again onthe buckboard. I took the reins from Billy and clucked my tongueto get our pony marching.
Dusk dimmed the earth in a giant fold. Around the corner ofDewey Avenue, wagon traffic clogged to a standstill. A dog had runinto the lane only to be trampled under hoof by a string of stagecoachponies. Three dirty Polish children in black rags were weeping overthe stomped bones of their beloved shaggy pet, the mother trying toshoo them back inside away from the horror.
World, Chase Me Down • 27
While we sat waiting for the bottleneck to clear, Billy spit tobaccoin giant globules. I lit the iron lantern dangling from a rod over mywagon seat. A man, presumably the father of the family who’d justlost their pet, had wrapped the dog in a blanket and was carrying itback toward their house with his sobbing children following him. Wefinally crossed the avenue where the poor mutt had been trampled,loped over a sopping wet mushroom field in the new snow as the skypinked.
Seeing the dead dog reminded me of another time long agowhen my first horse had drowned in a flash flood. I was thirteenyears old and living for a summer on my uncle’s ranch in Shinbone,New Mexico. The desert rains came heavy that night and washedthe sky clean of all atmosphere as if it were picture glass. I thoughthard on that moment as Billy and I pulled into the lane leading upto our Grover Street cottage.
We’d barely escaped the flood that night—me, my uncle, andtwo cousins. A rain of such weight it flattened crops into tillageand bent cornstalks at the knees, the floodwaters often places deepenough to drown a horse with a current like a river. And drown mynag it did, an old twenty-dollar California horse as reliable as sun-rise. The poor beast carried away on its back with its legs flailing inthe air.
How easy it was to be carted off this life. All night I could thinkof naught else. Be it beast or man, rich or poor, strong or weak, it wasall too easy for any of us to be swooped up by darkness in a singlewhoosh, screaming and screaming.
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Copyright © 2017 Andrew Hilleman.
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