© T.J. Spears
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* Denotes italics*
*This extract from the ‘Temperance Hotel’ is an an account of the funeral of Gabriel Lafeet, killed by the outlaw Edward Belcher. It is narrated by Nat Hopper who, survived the attack and managed to kill the assassin. I am aware that it is impossible to make a judgement on the plot on the basis of an extract from within the novel but I will be grateful for any comments as to how well it achieves my objective which is to write a novel set in the 19th century American West that avoids the formulaic heroic genre largely aimed at a male readership.*
I don’t need to tell you how hard it was to give Lottie the news of Lafeet’s death and how bad she took it. Indeed we all were so awful cast down in spirit that it seemed life might never be fun again. All the tales we told each other about him only served to make us feel we were going to miss him the more.
Of course his brother came up from the city as soon as he got our wire and arranged for Lafeet to be buried in the cemetery above the town. On the morning of the funeral I went down to the undertaker’s premises: Wilson and Son, Bespoke Internment Carpenters and Directors of Obsequies. Marshal Strunk rigged out in pressed shirt and black tie was already consulting his watch on the sidewalk outside.
He looked up as I arrived, “Should be starting off soon. Take us twenty minutes to get up to the cemetery.”
“You coming to the burial Marshal?”
“Least I can do,” he said running a finger around his tight collar. “Could have been me or Deputy Jens being transported up there this afternoon if we’d run into that butcher before he got to your unfortunate friend.”
I figured that such an eventuality was highly unlikely given Strunk’s inclination to hide under his paperwork rather than chase after desperadoes but I held my counsel.
“Got the killer identified for certain now. He was Edward Belcher sure enough. Seems he left a trail of mayhem right across Canada before he crossed the border. I believe there were bounties up for him in Alberta so there could be Canadian dollars coming your way.”
Strunk took an envelope from his pocket and held it out to me. “Mining company in Nevada that lost their payroll sent it through this morning. Reward for bringing in Belcher. Five hundred dollars.“
“Give it to Lottie Barker. I don’t want it.”
“Can’t do that. Has to be paid to you and you need to come by the office later and sign a receipt for me,”
I could see this wasn’t the time to argue about it, and besides at that moment Wilson’s hearse came up the alleyway drawn by a plumed black pony, so I slipped the envelope into my pocket.
Strunk gave a satisfied grunt. “Told Wilson to make a decent show of it. Seems he listened.” The undertaker doffed his stove pipe, bowed a little to us and started the pony at a slow walk. We fell into step behind.
“Old Lafeet never thought he’d get a send off like this,” I said, “Told me once he always believed he’d end up in a shallow scrape on the prairie with a pile of stones to keep the coyotes off.”
Strunk gave a mighty sigh, “Don’t none of us know what the future holds. That’s all in the hands of the Almighty.”
We turned into Main Street slow and stately.
Strunk sighed and went on. “Yes indeed, life don’t ever run smooth for long. As the Scotch poet says: ‘ forward tho’ I canna see, I guess and fear.’”
“Didn’t know you cared for poems, Marshal.”
“Times like this they got better words for how you’re feeling. Even the Scotch ones.”
A lumber wagon pulled right close to the sidewalk to leave us room to go and the driver took off his hat while we rolled by.
Strunk said, “Say, you heard what Deputy Jens done to himself, Hopper?
“I ain’t heard nothin’. Ain’t been goin’ out much in town recently."
“Shot himself in the leg with that new .44 of his.”
I took my eyes off the hearse and looked at him.
Strunk tapped his thigh. “Right there. Near bled to death before they got it stopped. Darn fool, practisin’ fast draws like the bunkum in them books he reads. Pistol got jammed in his pants and went off. Lucky he’s still got a dingus.”
We were passing the saloons and general stores now and people began to come out on to the sidewalk. Most of the men took their hats off and stood in silence, women shushed their children and bid them stand still as the little procession passed. One drunk in a filthy union army cap drew himself to attention, attempted a salute, tripped himself up and fell in the dust to the general amusement of the low fellows that were drinking with him. Some of the more respectable types pointed at me and clapped their hands and shouted ‘Bravo’ and ‘Well done, Nat Hopper’ and such like.
“Reckon you’re famous now. The man who shot Evil Ed Belcher,” said Strunk.
“If they only knew,” I said.
Strunk looked at me kind of curious but said nothing.
As we passed the Temperance Hotel Wilson stopped the pony and Lottie came out with Eva on one arm and Ti Boug Lafitte on the other, Murch and Jessa crossed the street from the store and joined them and so we set off. Eva,Jessa, Murch and Ti Boug walked together but I hung back a little with Harvey Strunk, finding the tears shed by the women, and Murch too, a mite catching and hoping to stay dry eyed till it was all over.
By and by we passed through the iron gates. Ahead of us the little procession straggled up the hill towards the open grave. “Ain’t no preacher turned up yet,” said Strunk, looking ahead to where the carriage had now stopped.”
“His brother reckoned Lafeet would prefer to be planted without no damn preacher grumblin’ over his box.”
Strunk frowned but didn’t say nothing. I’d forgotten he was a churchgoer.
We were nearly up to the grave when he said in a low voice,“Reckon a prayer for his soul wouldn’t hurt none and make the whole thing pass over more regular. Maybe give a bit of comfort to Miss Barker.”
“Lottie ain’t a believer. She don’t want any of that stuff.”
We were now gathered beside an open grave, just three along from where a wooden post marked poor Ada Flinders’ resting place. Wilson opened the rear window of his hearse and Murch and I helped him slide out the coffin and place it on the two slats spanning the grave. Sure enough it was a smart one - smooth light pine smelling fresh from the plane and fitted out with bronze handles. The undertaker stood back so that Strunk could get an eyeful of the quality, probably mindful of the Marshal’s threat to take the town business elsewhere. Then he threaded ropes through the handles and stood with his head bowed and hands clasped together, almost as if he expected God to send a pulpit sliding down a beam of golden light, all ready and fitted out with soothy preacher.
There was an uneasy moment while we stood there, nothing to be heard but sniffs and sobs and the distant shriek of the saws in the wood mills below and the jingle of the pony’s harness and the tearing of the grass he cropped.
At last Lottie squared up her shoulders and gave me a little nod.
I swallowed and started. “Lottie asked me -” I squeaked out. I cleared my throat and tried again, “Lottie asked me - to say a few words about Gabriel Lafeet. Not because I can do it better than any of you. Fact is, I don’t really know why she chose me . Maybe because she knew Lafeet wouldn’t want no five dollar words and I’m the one always gets by fine with the ten cent ones. So here goes.” I took a deep breath and started out as clear and steady as I could make my voice.
“Gabe Lafeet never gave a damn about what people thought of him. He’d cuss and blaspheme, and he could be mighty heartless and ruthless when he needed to be. That made it hard for some folks to swallow at first. But all of us here eventually figured out that hidden under his tough old Cajun hide was a decent, generous brave-hearted, fair-minded man. You all saw the good he brought into the lives others.” I saw Murch squeeze Jessa’s hand. “You saw how he made it his business to rescue Wang out of slavery. I’d be mighty surprised if that wasn’t the way he lived his life all along before he came into ours.”
They were all listening pretty well so I felt I could add a bit more.
“I reckon what makes this here burying so bitter for us is that Lafeet came safe through all kinds of hazards in the life he chose to lead, yet he was murdered on the day that he had laid out a different course to follow. The day he told me he was done with adventurin’ and was going to make a more peaceable life with Lottie Barker here.”
That was too much for Jessa and Eva and now the sobs were coming loud and painful. Murch had turned half away and Marshal Strunk was blowing his nose and mopping his eyes. There wasn’t no doubt about it, I wasn’t cut out for making funeral orations. I seemed to be making things worse, but I took a hold of myself and plowed on.
“That day I spent with him pegging out his land was probably the happiest in his life. Least-ways, I never did see him happier
Then he died in an instant. He never knew a thing.
You all have your own ideas about where Lafeet is now, and I reckon you probably get some comfort from them or you wouldn’t keep on holding them. Me, I don’t believe Old Gabe is tunin’ up his golden harp and swishing about in a white silk robe somewhere above the clouds, nor in no other church’s version of that dream. And I sure don’t believe he’s bastin’ in Hell either. My opinion is that Lafeet has had his time, and all the courage and kindness and humor has gone with him ‘cept in our memories. I ain’t ever goin’ to forget him and I don’t believe none you will neither.”
I stopped there and took up a rope. Strunk muttered ‘Amen’ and took another. Murch had his eyes closed and hands clasped. Now he roused himself and a rope. Ti Boug crossed himself and took the last rope. Wilson stooped and slid away the laths as we took up the strain.
“Lower away, gentlemen, if you please.”
And then it was done. Eva and Murch helped Lottie down the path as Ti Boug threw the first shovelfuls rattling down on to the lid. Strunk shook Ti Boug’s hand and lit out for town. I paid Wilson the thirty dollars that Eva had drawn from her account for the purpose, and then I took the other shovel and laid into that mound of dirt alongside Ti Boug.
When we were done Ti Boug fetched over a small flagstone. “Got it lettered this morning.”
Gabriel (‘Lafeet’) Lafitte
Murdered in Cold Blood
He laid it flat at the head of the grave and we smoothed the earth level around it.
“How come he spelled his name different?” I said.
“First captain that signed him on to the Rangers was near illiterate. Wrote it down that way and it stuck with him. Didn’t bother Gabe none.”
We shouldered the shovels and started back down the hill. “Lost touch with all my brothers and now Gabe’s dead,” said Ti Boug. “Gabe was a bit older than me. My folks didn’t talk about him much after he ran off. Kinda broke my ma’s heart. She was all set for him going for a priest.”
“Never would have took Lafeet for a likely priest.”
“Maybe not, but he was an altar boy back in Louisiana. Then something happened and he took against all that hocus pocus and ran off to Texas to fight the Comanches. That’s how he got labeled Lafeet.”
We stowed the shovels in the gravedigger’s hut. “Now that’s done,” said Ti Boug, “I got to visit the bank and ride out and talk to Hamilton about the land sale. I reckon anything belonging to Gabe should go to Lottie on account they was planning to get hitched. What do you reckon?”
“Couldn’t say about the law of it but I do believe it’s the right and noble thing to do.”
When I got back to the Temperance Hotel I showed Eva the reward money. “I signed a receipt for it at the marshal's office but I reckon Lottie should have it.”
“We don’t need it certainly and it might help her to get free of the whoring business. Sure give it to Lottie.”
So that evening I went along to her rooms. Ti Boug had an oilcloth folder opened under the lamp and some travel creased documents spread on the table. Lottie sat beside him a damp handkerchief screwed up in her hands.
“If you’re too distressed, or if it’s private business, Lottie, I’ll leave this envelope with you and call back on you tomorrow to explain.”
“It ain’t private, Nat,” said Lottie, “and I ain’t weepin’ more than is natural.” She drew out another chair and fanned out the papers on the table. “Ain’t much to show for a life, scraps of paper. Letter of commendation from General Zachary Taylor, bank deposit book, bill of sale for his horse. And that old diary from the Texas troubles.”
Ti Boug counted out some dollar bills from a stack on the table. “The undertaker said you paid the bill, Nat. Gabe wouldn’t have wanted that. He had cash in his saddle bags and more in the bank. Lottie’s ain’t goin’ to go short of money for a while.”
Well, I didn’t see any decent way I could refuse it. After all they do say a man should be able to pay for his own funeral, so I put the thirty dollars in my shirt pocket and then put the reward envelope on the table. “Add that in to Lottie’s account. It’s the reward for bringin’ Belcher in.”
Lottie reached across and pushed it back to me, “Ain’t no way I’m takin’ that. Why don’t you know that Lafeet was passin’ rich.” She opened the bank deposit book and showed me the balance. “He never took on no airs and graces ‘cept he liked to dress fine in town and ride a good horse. No sir, Gabe Lafeet was mighty prosperous.” She began crying a little again.
“The land purchase is goin’ to blow a hole in that stack, Lottie, you’d better take the reward and add it into your account.”
“It ain’t necessary, Nat. Hamilton ain’t pushing me to buy the land now. Says he’ll sell easy enough to someone else.” She dropped the envelope into my pocket. “You brought the damned murderer in. You deserve the reward. And another thing. I want you to have his weapons. They ain’t no good to me.” She went to the other room and brought out Lafeet’s Army Model 3 and the Winchester and laid them in the table.
“I ain’t much of a hand for guns and such, Lottie,” I said, “Maybe Ti Boug would have more use of them.”
Ti Boug looked up from reading Lafeet’s diary and marked his place with his thumb. “You take the firearms, Nat. Sell ‘em if you want. I got all the weapons I need.”
“That’s awful good of you, Lottie. But why don’t you keep ‘em here for a week or two in case you change your mind. Now ain’t the time to be givin’ away the personal things of someone dear who has passed on.” I took and leaned the rifle in the corner. “If you still feel that way in a month or so I’d be proud to accept, and not just to sell them neither.”
She nodded but didn’t say nothing. I could see the grief was welling up in her again. I put my arm around her and wished her well and said that Eva would call on her in the morning, and so I took my leave.
In the next few weeks it got so I couldn’t go into a saloon without a bunch of idlers wanting to buy me a beer and hear the heroic tale of how I killed the the wild Canuck assassin. It didn’t do no good telling them I spent most of the gunfight squeezed in between two sandbags and that I had my eyes tight shut expecting to die when I emptied the pistol at Belcher. Then the weekly newspapers got a hold of the story and it was on the front pages all over northern California, and way over the Nevada border too. I can tell you these newspaper writers don’t care a bean for the truth of the matter and will fancy it up any which way they choose so long as it sells their rags.
Apart from the damn lies there ain’t nothing so vexatious as being expected to cut a figure that that ain’t just natural to you, so in the end I stopped going into saloons.
Now Eva took to traveling around hunting for what she called ‘a suitable investment opportunity’, often going as far as Oregon and Nevada and allowed she’d find it more likely to be successful if I wasn’t trailing around after her griping and criticizing every possibility she turned up.
So when she was gone on these trips I passed the days riding out along the trails. Sometimes I borrowed a gold washing pan and shovel from Murch’s pawn store and tried my hand at prospecting. I believe over the month I swilled twenty tons of gravel through that pan but didn’t get above five dollars worth of gold. Guess I should have listened to the town know-it -alls who took great glee in telling me I was wasting my time, for every creek in Eldorado County had been worked out years ago.
I did a good deal of thinking on these lonesome days. I got to wondering what would have happened if Belcher’s bullet had passed over Lafeet’s head instead of killing him. Or if Belcher had never left Canada in the first place. Or maybe if his pa had given him a good hiding when he first showed signs of wickedness and raised him up better.
If it had turned out that way Lafeet would have been building his house now, or maybe traveling east to purchase a stallion and some mares to start his stud. In a year or two he’d be living the life he had dreamed about.
But then I got to wondering if that would have made him happy. Sure he believed that was what he wanted, but could the old wanderer have really settled as a farmer while there were still parts of the country wild and lawless enough to provide the adventures that had spiced his life so far?
And what of Lottie? She was a town girl if I ever saw one. Would she have been happy sewing curtains and tending a truck garden out in the country with her neighbors gossiping about her former profession, while her belly swelled with a another young Master or Miss Lafeet year after year? How long before she began to pine for the cat-house cook bringing her a noon breakfast rather than rising at six to milk a cow? How long before she hankered for the leisurely afternoon strolls to the dressmaker with her own earned money to spend on what ever frills pleased her?
Well, nobody’ll ever know these things and it don’t do to bother your head pondering over them. I guess thinking too much is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got too much damn time on your hands.
Then fate took a hand and everything changed again.