© T.J. Spears
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*Introduction: This is a chapter from halfway through the novel 'Eva Jelinek'. At this point Nat and his friend Murch are traveling with an extended Mormon family in a small wagon train when accidents and the need for medical help enforce a temporary halt outside the town of Orion. The characters of Nat and Murch have been established in earlier chapters but it may help to know that Nat is a free thinking, iconoclastic, self -educated and basically decent person who cannot resist teasing his young Scottish Calvinist friend when the opportunity arises. In this chapter I have tried to move the tone from humor and a holiday atmosphere to a very grim and threatening situation in which human behaviour is shown at its most unpleasant.*
I was right about trouble heading down the line. It just wasn't the particular brand of trouble I was expecting.
Our second day on the Orion Flats started well enough. The weather was sunny with just enough of a cool breeze to blow the smoke and dust from the mine away from the town and the flats beyond. The doctor sent down word that Jerem was recovering well, and he intended to bring him back to camp before he set out on his afternoon visits to the outlying homesteads. Even Orvid was in a good humor for once, looking forward eagerly to the delivery of his crutches. In fact the whole Mormon tribe was in holiday mood with the relief of not having to plod another ten miles to westward before sundown, and at the prospect of two or three similar days of rest while Jerem recovered sufficiently to travel.
Eva, who was still a little wintry with me for some reason, had taken a blanket and a book down to the creek. So, feeling uncomfortable and idle, I checked Nick’s and Peg’s hooves, beat the dust out of the saddle blankets, drew the charges from my pistol and reloaded it. Then I borrowed a little mirror and begged some hot water from Jerem's mother who was tending the fire, and had a shave. All this took less than an hour, and soon I found myself casting about for another chore to help pass the idle morning.
Then it occurred to me that it would be a capital idea to get Murch away from camp for a few hours. I figured a spell away from the object of his affections might allow him to see the foolishness of his behavior in a clearer light.
"Saddle up Peg, Murch. That horse is getting lazy walking behind the cattle everyday with nothing on his back but teensy Saints"
Murch grumbled a bit, but soon we were loping along the line of the creek away from town. After an hour we stopped and led the horses down to the creek where the grass grew lush and green below the cottonwoods.
"Murch, I'm going to have an allover bath in this here pool. I'd recommend you do the same to refresh yourself."
I stripped off, took my piece of soap from the saddle wallet, and jumped into the pool. The cold water took my breath away, but I stuck it out, and soaped and hollered, ducked my head under and spluttered while Murch stood undecided on the bank.
He made up his mind in a little bit when he saw I hadn't quite froze to death, shucked off his clothes and teetered on his toes over the stones to the next little pool. I threw him the soap, and he lowered himself inch by inch into the creek and began to bathe.
Five minutes was enough for me. I splashed ashore, and lay back as comfortable as I could get on the gravel to let the sun and wind dry me off.
By and by here comes Murch shivering, and arranges his long white body a decent distance away. "It is a pity we haven't brought along a change of clothes, Nat. Do you reckon if we washed the shirts they would be dry before we start back?"
"Relax, Murch. Ain't you got a clean one in your pack? Ride back like a Kiowa brave just in your breeches. Change back at camp, and maybe get these here dirty ones boiled up this afternoon."
He wriggled to find a comfortable position on the stones and put his hat over his eyes. Behind us Peg shied away from a rattle in the undergrowth and moved further off. Murch sat bolt upright and stared at the bush.
"Just a rattlesnake, Murch, giving notice that he don't want tromped on. Ain't you got rattlers in your country?"
"Snakes, yes. But smaller, and I believe much less deadly." He shuddered. "I detest snakes. I believe the world would not miss them if they did not exist."It had been a while since I had riled Murch up a little on biblical matters, and here was the barn door left wide open for me to march right in.
"I think most folk would allow that they are pretty evil critters." I made my voice go all puzzled and innocent. "You have to wonder why Noah took the rattlesnakes and all them other serpents on board the Ark when you think of the trouble one of them caused his Granma."
"Wasn't Eve his grandma?"
"I believe she was now that you mention it. As for the creation of serpents and Noah saving them from the flood, that is what he was commanded to do. No doubt God had His reasons. It is not for us to question His acts."
"Still, it must have given old Noah a peck of trouble organizing the Ark. Think of them evil serpents slinking and sliding along the decks, hiding in the privy, and under the bunks. Especially at night."
No reaction from Murch.
"You falling asleep, Murch? Watch you don't get a sunburn."
Still no reaction.
I picked up a rock and heaved it into the undergrowth. Again comes the rattle, much louder this time. Murch sat up again and looked around alarmed.
"I reckon there's a whole nest of them in there." I said and picked up another rock.
"Don't go provoking them, Nat. If they come for us we're naked. Can't even run without boots on these stones." He reached out for his pants.
"Lay back and get dry, Murch. I won't throw no more rocks. They don't come after folks.” I filled my pipe with tobacco and lit it. “Not usually anyway."
Murch laid himself back down, but still pretty tense. I gave him a minute or two to get real comfortable and snoozy then said, "You know what nakedness and serpents puts me in mind of, Murch."
"No, but I do believe you are going to tell me."
"The Garden of Eden. You know the tale. Always was my favorite."
Murch said nothing.
"You want to know why?"
"No." He stretched a fake yawn.
"It was a picture in the Bible."
"You don't say! I didn't know you had a Bible."
"Oh, it wasn't mine, but I sure wished it was. See when I was about Jerem's age my pap couldn't look after me right on account of him being drunk all the time, so a widow who didn't have no children took me in for a while. She and her sister fed me up, and bought me new clothes and made it their business to civilize me.”
“A brave and noble undertaking, Nat. Unfortunately their efforts appear to have been in vain.”
“No, listen. They sent me to regular school, and to Sunday school too, but I didn't like it one bit though I was a pretty quick learner. I ain't saying anything against the widow and her sister because I believe they meant well, but they didn't know what they were taking on, since I’d been dragged up mighty rough, mostly in the woods and hog-yards. They had a big town house and I had my own room and everything a civilized boy could want. You still listening, Murch, or am I talking to myself?"
"I'm listening with great interest, Nat."
"So I'll carry on with my tale. Now in their best parlor, laid out open on a bureau they had a Bible, big as a flagstone, with colored pictures inside. Well, near the beginning of this Bible there was a picture of the Garden of Eden. The best thing about the picture was the woman, Eve, naked as the day she was borned but twenty years older –"
Murch raised himself on one elbow. "Eve was not 'borned' as you put it but God fashioned her out of one of Adam's ribs."
"Maybe so. That was just a way of sayin' she had no clothes on. Do you want to hear about this or not?"
"I might as well hear you out, Nat."
"Well there was Eve, nary stitch on to make her decent, but the artist had fixed it so that bushes got in the way of the most interesting parts. Still there was a good deal of Eve on show. Up above her, all curled round a thick branch was the serpent, wearing an evil smile and staring at her out of his glittery eyes. But all the time he was pointing with that forky tongue serpents have at a bunch of red apples not far away. You could see that, in two ticks, Eve was going to dart round from behind that bush and grab some of them juicy apples. Now that would be a real captivating sight to behold."
I chucked a rock into the creek and waited for a Murch to say something. When he didn't react, I went on. "I sure loved that picture and I would sneak in and look at it whenever the house was quiet. Then one time the widow woman comes into the parlor, and she is so pleased at finding me reading the bible she almost weeps with joy, and gets right down on her creaky old knees and begins to offer thanks to God that the civilizing thing is taking hold at last. Then she sees the page I'm looking at and asks me questions about the story, but I couldn't answer none of them on account of not having bothered to read the writing on the other pages. Then she gets all wrathy, and clips my head with her thimble hand, and says I'm not to go into the best parlor no more - not unless it is to pray with her for God to lead me to cleaner thoughts. I still snuck in though when I had the chance, and resolved to buy one of them Bibles when I was full growed. I figured I would tear the page with Eve out, and then give the rest of the Bible to someone who needed it more than I did."
Murch shook his head, though I doubted that he was really so shocked and saddened by my tale as he would have me believe. "Did you never get beyond looking at the picture? Did you not read what happened next?"
"Sure, the widow made me. Eve ate the apples, or whatever the fruit was, and persuaded Adam to do the same. All of sudden they noticed that they was naked, which was a surprise to me, because a body could hardly miss such an obvious fact. Then they rushed to cover up their breedin' tackle. That is the bit that made me laugh, though I dasn't even smile in front of ol’ lady. I just couldn't stop thinking about Adam wrapping a fig leaf round his pecker, and wondering how Eve managed to get the three leaves to stick on to her personal charms."
Murch turned away to hide a smile. "They ate of the Tree of Knowledge. The Forbidden Fruit. God had given them the freedom to use everything in the Garden except that tree, but they were tempted by the devil in the form of a serpent and disobeyed him."
"Well what did God expect? Forbid something and that's the first thing a body wants to do. It's human nature." I tapped the ashes out of my pipe and stowed it.
"God was testing Man, Nat." He reached for his britches. "Now I am quite dry and I have listened to your amusing, but regrettably blasphemous, tale with good humor but now I'm becoming hungry. I think we should head on back to camp."
True enough. He had not become short with me nor gone into a pucker. I figured that whatever was passing between him and Jessa seemed to be smoothing the sharp edges off his nature, so maybe some good might come of it yet.
We rode back bare-chested, whooping and pretending to be Comanche braves until the town hove into sight, then reined back and walked the horses past the filth and clatter of the mine works, and through the Chinese shacks and tents where just a few women washed clothes and tended cooking fires. Then the wooden buildings and boarded sidewalks closed around us, and we entered Orion's main street."I thought you said this was a quiet well-ordered town," said Murch. "I would not care to see a rowdy one if this is an example of a peaceable one."
He spoke the truth. The bunting decked saloons were overflowing, and customers who could not push their way into the press at the bars, were drinking on the sidewalks. A man was perched on the barber's pole opposite, trying to fix the old rebel flag on the end. A bottle heaved by one of the jeering crowd hit him on the head, and he lost his grip and fell to the sidewalk and lay still. A man staggered over to him and poured beer from a bottle on to his face. Then the doors of the Bull Elk Saloon burst open, and two struggling men tumbled out and continued their fight in the dust and dried dung of the street, surrounded by a ring of hooting hooligans.
"What's the date, Murch?"
"Today's the Fourth."
"That's it then – the Fourth of July. National holiday."
"The mine is working."
"The Chinese laborers are. These fine upstanding Americans you see here are celebrating the fact that they ain't subjects of your king."
Murch gave a harrumph. "Queen. I sympathize with the sentiment, but cannot approve of the manner of their celebrations."
We got back to camp around noon just as the wheelwright walked in, carrying the crutches over his shoulder. He'd done a real good job, smoothed off the wood and fixed leather pads stuffed with sheep's wool where they fit under the arms. Orvid was all for trying them out right away and Throop called us over to support him while the wheelwright figured out where he should cut them to the right length.
We hauled Orvid off his chair, and held him upright behind a wagon while the wheelwright muttered and measured and then sawed six inches off the legs. Orvid jammed the pads under his arms and told us to let him go. He managed to stand for a moment, but it was clear that it was awful painful. You couldn't say that Orvid lacked sand. He sweated and groaned, but in the end he had to tell us to lower him down on to his chair again. The wheelwright patted his shoulder. "Never mind, Mister. It's early yet for walking with crutches. I warrant they'll serve you well in a few weeks when them bones are right knitted together."
A couple of gunshots sounded from the direction of the town. The wheelwright grinned and said, "Things is hotting up in town."
I said, "I heard tell the marshal was pretty down on rowdiness."
"He hadda leave early this morning. The Zenders caught a horse thief out on their ranch. Marshall had to hurry over there to prevent a lynching." He spat out tobacco juice. "Only cure for a horse thief. Hemp necktie."
Throop led him over to the fire to pay him, but the man could hardly look at the dollars pressed into his hand on account of staring round the camp, as if he was counting the children and trying to figure why so few men were with so many women.
He turned from his gawping and said, "I suppose some more of your menfolk are coming along behind, Mister?" When Throop didn't answer he said, "Well, if there's anything else let me know. Wagon wheels holding up? Felloes need tightened before you head off again?"
"All fine, I believe. The wheels are near new. If we have a carpentry problem we'll certainly call on you. You done a fine job on them crutches."
The wheelwright nodded, and set off back up to town, but not without a few backward glances at the Mormon tribe fetching plates and mugs and queuing up by the big cooking pot.
Well, after we'd eaten and the women had cleared away, and we'd put our shirts to boil in a kettle on the embers of the fire, here comes a pony trap walking slow and gentle, with the Doc driving and Jerem sitting beside him. The boy was helped down, and set on a chair where he sat very still and careful, but smiling and answering the questions all the little Saints fired at him about his two days in the doctor's office.
"I've strapped him up. There isn't much more you can do for broken ribs. He'll be in a lot of pain for a few days, but as far as I can see, nothing's bust in his vitals. My advice to you is to keep children clear of that bull."
"We have disposed of him," said Throop. "There won't be any more accidents. When do you think we can move on, Doctor?"
"Couple of days. Sit him in a wagon with pillows around him, and try to drive smoothly. Undo the bandages in a week or so." They began to walk back to the trap. "Hello," he said, noticing Orvid where he sat with his grubby plastered legs stuck out in front of him, "You have another invalid, I see."
"My son, Orvid. He was treated for broken legs in Denver. We have had our misfortunes but, with God's help, we believe he is on the road to recovery."
“How long has he been splinted up?”
Throop told him. The doctor glanced at the crutches leaning against Orvid’s chair. "Looks as if the Denver doctor did a good job but don't be tempted to get on these crutches too soon." He took out a sheet of paper. "Anyway, Mr. Throop, this is my bill for your boy's treatment. I trust you will find it reasonable."
"Very fair," said Throop counting out the cash, "We were fortunate to be within ten miles of a competent medical man when it happened."
The doctor was about to step up into his trap when he said, "What's this? More visitors."
Sure enough a wagon with a dozen men crowded on board, and another ten or so straggling behind with a couple of yapping dogs at their heels, was approaching from town. The Mormons left off what they were doing and all, except for Orvid and Jerem in their chairs, came forward and stared at the newcomers as they pulled up in front of the camp. Some men tumbled unsteadily off the wagon, unloaded two iron buckets, and threw down some bulging burlap sacks. Some wore pistols, and at least two had slung rifles. The rest carried heavy pick shafts.
I recognized Willie Leary, the company store manager, on the seat beside the driver.
"What's all this Willie?" said the doctor, "The Flats aren't mine company property, nor the town's concern either."
Leary spat tobacco juice and wiped his chin. "We got a nest of fornicators here, Doc. Ain't you heard of them Mormons? We aim to teach them a lesson in decent Christian living, and then move them on their way."
"I have a patient here who needs rest. If you've got a problem with these travelers take it up with the law."
"Can't do that. Marshal's out by the Zender ranch. These here boys ain't had much fun lately, and they're public spirited enough to give up their holiday to let them Mormons know fornicators ain't wanted camped near a respectable town."
The women were gathering up the children. Throop was white and trembling. He stepped forward. "We only meant to stay a couple of days but we can see we ain't wanted here. Give us an hour to hitch up and we will be off."
"Too late for that," said Leary. "These boys are stoked up for a little party. They ain't going to go home without they see a little action."
Two men carried the buckets slopping thick dark liquid up to the fire and set them down. One heaved the cauldron boiling our shirts and some other clothes to the side and tipped it over. They arranged the buckets on the embers and added some fire wood. Then they stood beside it passing a bottle between them.
The doctor strode to the fire, dipped a finger into the bucket and sniffed. "Pine tar pitch! You want to scald these people to death?"
"Relax, Doc, just the men, and it ain't necessarily goin' to kill them. Heat up the tar just enough to make 'em yelp. Got the feathers right here too." He kicked one of the sacks and some chicken feathers spilled out and blew across the prairie. "If you don't want to be part of this, Doc, you'd be best to go off on your sick calls."
"I am certainly not going to leave. Your victims will need treatment - if they survive. And I warn you, if this comes before the law, I'll testify as to what I witness.” He looked from one member of the gang to another. “I know most of these hooligans."
Leary took a flask from inside his jacket and took a quick pull at it. "We'll see about that, Doc, if the time ever comes to discuss it before the law." He turned to the terrified Saints. "Now I want you women and children separate from the men."
His gang began herding the weeping women and children a little way off. "Now you three men stand a bit apart from each other over there. The cripple can stay in his chair." His cronies poked at us with their weapons until we stood at around five yard intervals. "Now the wives and whores belonging to each man go and stand behind him, so we can see what has been going on here." Their wives, crying and praying, lined up behind Orvid and Throop.
A drunken man grabbed Eva from behind and tried to force her into one of the groups, but she freed herself and swung at him with a closed fist. He rubbed his face and laughed foolishly. Throop said, "Leave that woman be. She is not one of us. Nor are these two men."
Leary stared at us. "Ain't you two fellows got a little herd of harlots hidden away?"
"We traveled with them because our pack horse died. Let these people alone. They ain't harming anyone. You heard Throop. We can be off in an hour, and then you can all head back to the saloons and give thanks to the devil that you ain't been sullied by their sins."
"You ain't a Mormon?"
"I ain't nothin' but a traveler."
"Him, there, the pretty one?"
Murch started to say something, but I cut in before he could confuse them. "He's a regular Christian, which is more than I can say for a bunch of goddamn sots that aim to torture men in front of their women and children."
He took another pull at his flask. "Maybe so. You don't look like Mormons." Then he turned to Eva, "And you? You don't look like one neither." Then recognizing her he changed his tone, "Why, I seen you in Pelman's store yesterday. What would a lady like yourself be doing with these people?"
"I found it convenient to travel with these people. If you harm them I will stand with the doctor, and bear witness against you and your band of scoundrels in court."
"Maybe that's how things are done back east, lady, but the good citizens of Orion ain't got time to wait for a judge to pass through. They look to their mayor to get things done, and when it comes to witnesses I think you'll find most folk here have short memories."
Murch took a step forward and said very quiet and serious, "These people have some foolish ideas but they are not criminals. Even if they were, it is not for a crowd of drunks to mete out punishment for the sake of low entertainment."
"Oh, our handsome friend has found his tongue!" Leary made an attempt to imitate Murch's way of speaking He waved his hand indicating his cronies who were sniggering and leering at the women between pulls at the bottles they passed around. "For your information, my good sir, these God-fearin' citizens of Orion have given up their valuable holiday time to form a posse to enforce the law of the United States of America which says – " another tilt of his flask- " that a man can marry only one woman." He reached into his vest pocket and drew out a scrap of paper and waved it in front of Murch. "This here's a clip from the Rocky Mountain News explaining the Morrill Anti- Bigamy Act, signed in 1862 by President Lincoln himself." He turned to his gang. "I reckon if President Lincoln was agin' it that's good enough for us. What do you say, boys?"
There was laughter and cheering and shouts of, "You tell ‘em, Willie!” “Let's get on with it! Ain't that tar hot enough yet?"
Leary called over one of the rifle toting thugs and said, "Dan, you take these two men to collect their saddles and such like necessaries. After that make sure they hit the trail." Then he spoke to Eva, polite enough. "We ain't goin' to do nothin' to God-fearin' travelers. Where's your bags. Ma'am?"
“That tent," said Eva.
Then fetch them out here and I'll have them sent up to the hotel on the wagon. I propose you walk up there right smartly, that is if you don't want to see how the good folks of Orion maintain a clean living town."
Eva spun round without a word and marched to the tent she had been sharing with Jessa.
The lout who had been set to deal with us was in no hurry to carry out Leary's orders. He stood and gaped at the mob which had the screaming women and children rounded up pretty tight now. A couple of them had stripped Throop of his clothes and he cowered naked shivering with fear.
"Tie the old man's legs and hands," called Leary, "You don't want to be holding on to him once that tar bucket gets tipped. Leave the younger 'un loose. He ain't goin' nowhere while we baptize the old man." Three of them were struggling with Orvid, trying in vain to haul the strange white union suit the Saints call the temple garment down over his plasters. One of them whipped out a bowie knife and slit them down the leg seams, and now he sat on the ground shaking with his hands clasped over his pecker.
Murch took a step or two towards the pitiful scene, but the man with the rifle remembered his allotted task and prodded him away.
"Where's yer possibles?"
I said, "In back of that wagon."
"Fetch them and git on yer way."
He followed Murch and me to the wagon and waited as we sorted out our possessions from the clutter inside.
There was another cheer and laughter from the group baiting Throop. Ana, her hair undone and her clothes half torn off, had broken free from her captors and was clawing and kicking at the ruffians who held her man. Our guard had turned his back on us and moved closer to watch the fun. Crouched under the wagon canvas packing our bags Murch whispered, "That boiling pitch could kill them."
"It sometimes does."
Twenty or so years ago I'd seen a mob of angry citizens tar and feather a couple of old rogues. That’s a sight I’ve never forgotten. People can be most awful cruel to each other sometimes, and that's the truth.
“Are we going to let this happen, Nat?
I shook my head. "I doubt we can stop it. A pack of drunks set on that kind of badness don’t think like a decent human being any more. Nobody ain’t going to be able to reason with them."