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*Another extract from Nat Hopper’s journey west. Murch has abducted Jessa from an abusive relationship in Utah. In Winnamucca they find a preacher to conduct a wedding ceremony.*
One hot day, in a grumbling frame of mind I said to Eva, "High time that pair got themselves wed. Then they might start behaving like regular married folks."
"Well look at them – always spooning around; can't separate them with a crow bar; they don't hardly notice any other body around. Married folks don't carry on like that in my experience."
"Hah, your wide experience!"
Up in front of us the buckboard nearly careered off the track as Murch's arm curled round Jessa, and he gave her another little squeeze.
"See what I mean! It ain't natural or sociable."
"I fear you haven't got much romance in you, Nat."
"Sure I have. Ain't I riding along with you as gallant and polite as any reasonable girl could desire, and never getting a sweet word in return for my trouble."
"You just keep your mind on finding Elko for us, and maybe we'll hunt up a preacher to marry them there."
That evening round the campfire I brought up the idea of marriage. "Eva says you two should start using the tent like regular married folks. These summer nights she don't mind sleeping under the stars. What do you say to taking a day's rest here, and I'll go into Elko tomorrow and roust out a preacher?"
"Murch wants a protestant pastor," said Jessa. “He planned to ask around in the first likely town.
"Might be one here, Jessa, Why not let Nat go in and ask around?" said Eva. Murch looked at Jessa and she gave a little nod, so I cut in pretty sharp. "Sure, I’ll be glad to go.”
Murch saw the sense in that, so next morning I went into Elko which was mostly brand new buildings around the railroad tracks. Now I declare that in that town I could have had played faro or poker all day with the idlers in the saloon; I could have spent the afternoon in a whorehouse if I cared to wait till it opened; I could have bought a dozen worthless mineral claims together with a pack mule and the necessary gear to work them, but preachers seemed to be rare and elusive creatures in Elko.
Back at camp that evening I said, "You got a choice, folks. Number one is a Mexican priest. He'll splice you tomorrow if you want."
Murch made a face when he heard the word 'priest.' Jessa looked at him and then shook her head, but I reckon if Murch had been willing she'd have agreed soon enough to being wed by a Catholic priest. I suppose she was thinking that when you ditch the nonsense you were brought up in, it doesn't really matter which other tomfoolery you kneel down to.
"Second choice there's an English prospector who sold out a profitable claim for enough money to drink himself into the grave. He’s taken up permanent residence in the saloon but he swore to me he used to be a curate, whatever that is. Anyhow he reckons he still has the holy power to do the deed. It would have to be early morning though because the barman says he's dead drunk by noon. I’d be inclined to favor this fella on account of the fact he's got his own Bible. He showed me it."
This time both shook their heads. I did my best to hide the fact that I believed they were being plaguey persnickety and continued: "Third choice: this notice was tacked up all over town so I took one for you.”
I passed it to Murch, and he began to read it aloud.
“Bringing God and Civilization to the Benighted Peoples of the Dark Continent.
The Reverend Titus Polkes, Christian Missionary and Intrepid Explorer, will tour the Western States and Territories with his Educational and Informative Lecture Illustrated by a Fascinating Magic Lantern Show. Evening Tent Meetings will be held at the following Cities and Towns –"
"You don't need to read out the whole list. Look just here."
I pointed out one name. "Winnemucca! He'll be there on that date and so can we. That's what you want – a reverend, and if he can still lecture in the evening, he must be sober in his habits."
Murch read on.
"A Unique Opportunity for the Good and Charitable People of the Western States to View the Lives and Habits of the Indigenous Tribes of Africa by Means of Engraved and Photographic Projectable Slides, with Informative Commentary by an Devout American Clergyman who has Traveled Extensively among Them.
Admission: men 50c; women and children 25c. Charitable collections will be taken."
He frowned, "Nat we appreciate your help but this thing is a public spectacle."
"I know that. I propose we go to the lecture and speak to him afterwards if he looks holy enough. Get the wedding done the next day."
Eva cut in. "We're going that way anyway. We'll be there in a few days. What do you think, Jessa?"
No hesitation: "I think a reverend would be very suitable."
So that's what we did. We packed up early next day and set out to cover the hundred miles to Winnemucca which I reckoned we could do easy in three or four days.
Winnemucca was one of those towns that wouldn't have amounted to a hill of beans if some railroad surveyor hadn't chosen it as a convenient way station for coaling, watering and changing engineers. At noon on the fourth day out from Elko we made camp down by the Humboldt River. About half a mile away the Reverend Polkes’ tents were already pitched, and we could see men with wagons unloading boards and kegs and such like to make benches.
Murch went into town by himself to see if he could hunt up a preacher that suited him better, while I strolled along the river bank and joined the large crowd of yokels that had gathered to gape at the strangers. A stout woman was setting out a folding table. She took a seat behind it and propped up an advertising board printed in large black letters. The crowd milled about it and one of the smarter youths read it out for the benefit of his duller friends.
Lives and Habits of the Indigenous Tribes of Africa
A Lecture by Rev. Titus Polkes
Accompanied by Magic Lantern Slides (Photographic and Engraved and with Many Colored by Hand) Shewing the Mysteries of the Dark Continent.
Tonight, Tomorrow and Saturday at 8 o' clock.
Tickets now on Sale: Men 50 cents
Women and Children 25 cents
An Educational Evening not to be Missed.
There was a general movement of the crowd towards the table and soon the woman, who I guessed might be Mrs. Polkes, was hidden by an eager crowd pressing their half dollars and quarters on her. It seemed the folks of Winnemucca were all agog to be educated about the mysteries of the Dark Continent. When the crowd cleared I spent near enough my last dollar fifty on four tickets. Hell, if nothing else I wanted to see a Magic Lantern working.
Chapter Twenty Four: The Reverend Titus Polkes
It was falling dusk and the air was cooling when we went along to the Reverend Polkes' tent. I have to allow it was a jolly scene to observe, lit by the lanterns hung about the Polkes' camp, harmonium music coming from the huge tent, and the Winnemucca folk streaming in from the town all dressed in their Sunday clothes. The smell of tramped grass and coal oil mixed with that of frying chop suey from the stalls that the Chinese had been quick to set up for business alongside Polkes’ encampment. Already small boys were trying to wriggle under the canvas or undoing the laced up flaps to stick their heads through.
Soon we were among almost a hundred people sitting on the plank benches that were lined up opposite a large white sheet stretched tight against a wooden frame. To one side was a small platform, and on the other the harmonium with Mrs. Polkes’ little fat legs pumping out churchy but cheerful music. Most of audience were craning round to stare at the young man wearing a green eyeshade who was fussing with a shining brass machine at the back of the tent.
By and by, when the tent could hold no more, the door flaps were pulled over, and the Reverend Polkes, his long silver hair brushed back, looking kind and serious appeared from behind the screen and stepped on to the platform. The assistant finished polishing the large glass eye of his contraption and began strutting around dowsing most of the coal oil lamps. Then he marched, very self importantly to his Magic Lantern. In the expectant silence that fell on the audience there was the scratch of a Lucifer, a hissing sound, a pop like a tiny pistol report, and then a flood of light filled the screen. Immediately the crowd fell to excited chattering, and a few know-alls began explaining to their neighbors just how the contraption worked.
The Reverend Titus Polkes clasped his hands, bowed his head as if praying, and waited patiently till the crowd fell silent. Then he introduced himself as a close friend of the intrepid explorer, Henry Morton Stanley; indeed, he said, it was the very maps he himself had drawn, and the advice he had freely given that Stanley followed when he had set off into the jungles of the unknown continent to search for the famous Doctor Livingstone. He then spoke of his own intrepid forays into the center of Africa to bring God's words to the primitive tribes who were so lamentably ignorant of Christ's message, and how all this good work had been funded by the generosity of fine Americans citizens just like those he had the present honor to be addressing.
At that point half a dozen of those fine Americans citizens sitting near the front, being the worse of drink and becoming bored, began to shuffle their feet and call for the slides to begin.
Polkes was smart enough to figure out that just praying and buttering up an audience didn't amount to fifty cents worth of entertainment even in Winnemucca.
He cleared his throat and let loose in his booming Yankee voice. "Then we will begin with some illustrations of the dangers one encounters on venturing into the jungle." He picked up a cane from the platform and rapped it on the planks. Immediately a picture flashed on to the screen. The audience was mighty impressed, for it showed a dead elephant lying on its side with its belly slit open. From the carcase a grinning African man was emerging holding up a chunk of meat that would have fed a dozen hungry buffalo skinners.
"This dangerous beast you see here had killed five of my native porters. When I shot it the local tribe held a feast in my honor."
He'd certainly caught their attention. The crowd chattered and marveled for a few seconds. When they fell quiet, he tapped with his cane again. Now on the screen a bright green crocodile hauled itself up the bank of a wide river with some kind of deer grasped in its bloodied teeth.
"This giant cousin of our own American alligator can grow to eighteen feet long." More astonished noises from the audience. "These monsters lurk submerged in the rivers I had to travel in my frail canoe in order to reach the villages of the most benighted peoples."
He tapped, and the crocodile was replaced by an engraving of a hippopotamus chewing up the bow of a canoe, planks splintering in its jaws, while its shrieking terrified crew huddled at the stern and others leaped to their fate among the crocodiles whose eager eyes could just be seen above the surface of the river.
So the slides were flashed one after another on to the screen: lions and leopards he had been forced to shoot; great rivers with huge waterfalls he had navigated and survived; cliffs he had scaled, and dense snake infested jungles through which he had to hack his way with a bowie knife for days on end. Even the drunks at the front were quiet and listened to his tall tales without interrupting.
Gradually his lecture came around to describing the daily lives of the people. It was, he said, his holy mission to save them from their heathen ways. As he talked the screen showed slides of round thatched huts and dusty compounds, men making spears, children playing, women carrying bundles of firewood on their heads and such like. One slide showed some kind of chief sitting on a carved stool settling what could have been a village quarrel. Then came a slide showing the villagers sitting in a semi-circle addressed by a white man who stood in the shade of a large tree with a Bible open in his hand.
"Here you can see one of my intrepid assistants conducting a Sabbath service. Note how the people listen avidly to his words. There is truly a desire for Christ among these poor heathen people who have so very little. That tree is their church, and yet they sing their praises to the Lord as sweetly as any congregation in America.”
His voice took on a deep tone of concern. “However on my last visit I found that they had but three Holy Bibles in the whole village but, my friends, these Bibles are treasured. Treasured! Now there are but two, for I have carried the third across the ocean to show you." He produced a tattered bundle of pages and handed it to a woman in the first row. "Please pass it among you. Handle it with care, I beg you. Note how the pages have been worn almost bare of print by these pious natives in their desire to read the gospels. See how the leather cover boards have become faded in the relentless African sun, and mildewed by humidity of the forest." The Bible went along the rows with many sad shakes of the head, and words of sympathy from those privileged to handle it.
"That sad torn remnant of the Holy Book is one of the greatest treasures of the village where I ministered, and I gave my solemn word I would return with it. But, dear friends, I aim to do better than that. Yes, with your help I will send a Holy Bible to each family in that village. To further that end I have established a Holy Bible for African Families Fund to purchase them, and I beg of you, my friends, please support me in this important work."
A woman in the audience cried out. "I pledge a dollar to the Reverend's Bible Fund."
Quick as forked lightning Magic Lantern Man sprung out from behind his contraption and picked up long rod with a velvet bag on the end. He pushed it along the row to the woman who'd pledged the dollar. She fumbled a dollar out and dropped it into bag. At the same time Mrs. Polkes was crashing out a rousing hymn tune on the harmonium. All over the tent people were waving dollar bills or holding up coins. Magic lantern Man had to scurry around pretty sharp to collect all the cash.
By and by the tent settled down, and the Reverend began speaking again very serious and solemn. "Dear friends, the next lantern slides will reveal why these people are so in need of the enlightenment that Christian teaching can bring." On the screen appeared a picture of three women pounding a stout timber into what looked like a stone bowl. What brought shocked exclamations from the respectable members of the audience and whistles and hoots from drunken group was the fact that these women’s breasts were quite bare.
"Here you see three young women going about their daily chores in a state of immodest undress. Next slide please."
The screen filled with a line of a dozen bare bosomed women swinging hoes at the red earth.
More cries of appreciation from the louts and chirking of tongues from the respectable citizens. In a particularly holified tone the Reverend went on: "You will remember that in the Garden of Eden, when the eating of the Forbidden Fruit revealed to Adam and Eve that they were naked, the Lord God banished them from the Garden.” I nudged Murch with my elbow. “But, my friends, he did not leave them in a state of indecency. Oh no!” He picked up the Bible. “In Genesis, Chapter three, Verse twenty one we read:
Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skin and clothed them.”
He raised his eyes from the page and repeated very slow and solemn. “ - the Lord God made coats of skin and clothed them.” He paused and swept his eyes over the audience “Our Lord God abhors the shame of nakedness. Would you leave these poor Eves in the state of ignorance and undress that is their present lot?"
Shouts of "Yes" from the drunks and much laughter, even among most of the respectable men accompanying their wives. The Reverend frowned at the unruly rascals and order was slowly restored with the help of the scandalized townswomen quieting their husbands with sharp elbows and muttered rebukes.
The Reverend pointed at the picture which had remained on the screen to the delight of the drunks. "Friends, will you not help me do the Lord's work and clothe these innocent creatures? I ask you to support the Fund to Supply Waists and Blouses to African Females? A pledge of only a dollar can send one cotton waist to the interior, and make a poor woman decent in the eyes of the Lord." He bowed his head so his silvery hair shone in the light, clasped his hands together and gave a tolerable impression of a man in silent prayer. The harmonium began to play "Rock of Ages" very quietly and then the soft voice of Mrs. Polkes began the third verse:
*Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling,
Naked come to thee for dress,
Helpless look to thee for grace –*
Well, it wasn't twenty seconds before there were sniffles among most of the women, and even red faced miners were digging in their pockets to find a note or a coin. But the drunks had their arms around each other and were humming and swaying to the melody, and the most loutish among them was on his feet facing them and marking out the time with a half empty whiskey bottle like the conductor of a German band.
The Reverend had wisely turned his back on them and was smiling and thanking the crowd and directing the assistant with the money pole from one likely donor to the next. All the while the coins were jingling into the bag Mrs Polkes was repeating that same verse so sweet and low and affecting. I've never figured that thing about music that can make you feel so jolly or sad, or even just happy to be there.
When the flow of dollars into the bag slowed and then stopped the music faded away. Old Polkes kind of roused himself, as if waking from a trance. He picked up his cane and I thought he was going to call for another slide. However, before he could do so a lawyerly looking gentleman stood up, cleared his throat, and spoke.
"Reverend, one question, if you please. Can you reassure the generous folk of Winnemucca that their hard earned money will indeed go to those poor people whose needs have been so colorfully described in your lecture tonight?”
The crowd looked round at him, and some women tutted their tongues at his audacity. However he went on undaunted: “I ask you, what is to prevent their chiefs squandering the money so generously donated for the supply of bibles on the purchase of rum and whiskey instead? It is well known that the lives of many of our own indigenous peoples have been ruined by their acquisition of alcohol from unscrupulous traders."
The Reverend smiled. "Sir, I thank you for raising that very important question. You refer to the shameful trade in whiskey which has done so much harm to the tribes of the Plains and elsewhere in our great country. I can assure you that the evil of strong drink has not yet reached the people of whom I speak, and with God's help, never will. Whiskey is unknown to them."
One of the drunken rips hollers out, "I pledge five dollars to start a whiskey fund!" His friends laughed so hard that two of them fell off the bench and rolled on the grass. Cries of "Shame" and loud boos and chirking from the audience. The Reverend took a step towards the bench, his face very sorrowful, and addressed the Winnemucca wit. "What is your name young man?"
The rowdy who had called out looked around grinning, "Why everybody knows me." He lifted his cap and bowed, "Joe Muller, at your service, Rev." He swayed a little. The Reverend caught his arm and led him gently to the platform.
"Are you enjoying the lecture, Joseph?"
"Sure am, Rev, particlererly the African ladies with the bare naked titties." He grinned and winked at his cronies who were hooting and slapping their knees in delight.
"What a card old Joe! Ain't he a sport though?"
The Reverend let them have their fun and waited until they got themselves under control. Eventually they sat wiping their eyes with their coat sleeves, pretending to hush each other and all agog for Joe's next humorous sally. Then Polkes put his arm around the lout and asked very concerned, "Joseph, is your mother here tonight?"
"Well, sir, I'd be mighty surprised if she was."
"And why is that Joseph?"
"'cos last time I seen here they was nailing her into a pine box." He leered at his friends seeking their approval at his quick riposte. But soused as they were, the shocked silence in the audience told his cronies, that Joe had gone too far this time with his witticisms and they paused in their tomfoolery.
The Reverend seized the moment. "Young man, was your mother a Christian?"
"Reckon she was, sir." Very sheepish now and avoiding looking at the audience.
"And now she has passed on to her eternal rest?"
"Dead and buried these two years."
"Joseph, do you believe she is with Jesus in Heaven?"
"Well, sir, if she ain't in Heaven don't nobody else deserve to go there. She done prayed enough, and brought us up best she could when Pap took off."
"Do you believe she can look down on this tent and see you now?"
"I wouldn't know about that on account I never had any truck with that kind of thinking. I ain't an educated man like yourself."
"Joseph, I know your mother is looking down on her son at this very moment. I believe there will be bitter tears falling from her eyes as she gazes upon the son she bore and raised alone, the son who is now playing the fool in front of the townspeople who knew her and maybe loved her. Bitter tears, indeed, as she watches her own dear son making a drunken spectacle of himself."
Joe was at that stage of drunkenness when it don't take much for the bravado to drain away and a wave of weepy self pity fill the empty space in his fuddled brain. He hung his head and muttered, "I ain't that drunk."
"Joseph, what were your mother's last words to you?"
Joe gave a huge sniff and his shoulders shook. "You got no right to ask that. Them words was private."
"I think you recall these words very well, Joseph. What did she say as she breathed her last, and her sad eyes rested upon her dear boy before they closed for ever?"
Joe sobbed and muttered something. The audience were agog, the first rows leaning forward to catch his words.
"Speak up Joseph! What did she say to you?"
"She said- she said, 'Joe quit drinkin' for my sake.’"
The Reverend almost whispering now: "And did you, Joseph? Did you?”
"I done carried on drinkin’, even before she was laid in the cold ground." Joe was blubbering now.
Polkes took both Joe’s hands in his. "Joseph, do you believe in the power of prayer?"
He nodded, sobbed, nodded again.
"Then let us kneel together for a moment." The harmonium began a real sad tune, so quiet you could hardly hear it. "Let those in the audience who wish this young man to walk again in the paths of righteousness bow their heads and join in silent prayer. Let us beseech our Lord to enter the heart of our dear brother, Joseph. We ask you, Jesus, to help him to conquer his desire for the demon drink that he may live a long and virtuous Christian life, and one day meet again his beloved mother who awaits him in Heaven.”
While they knelt together the sniffles and nose blowing and throat clearing in the tent near drowned out the churchy music. After a couple of minutes the pair stood up, hugged each other close, and then Reverend supported the weeping man as he staggered towards the exit. People called out "Praise the Lord!" “Oh, thank you, God” “Praise Jesus!” and the like. Most everybody were mopping their eyes with damp handkerchiefs. Those near enough to reach out to Joe patted his back, seized his hand, blessed him and wished him well as he was led out. However I did spot one of his friends lift Joe's bottle from his jacket as he passed and slip it into his own pocket. Reckon that rowdy hadn't felt the power of the Holy Spirit that had been swirling so freely round the tent.
Well, that was just about it for the evening, there not being anything on the program that would top the actual witnessing of a lost soul saved from eternal hellfire. The audience sang a couple of hymns very lustily. The Reverend got down on his knees and rolled out another prayer. Then just when it was getting tiresome he reined in, stood up, held out his arms and boomed out a blessing. The Magic Lantern Man opened the tent flaps, and the townsfolks filed out looking pretty satisfied with the evening's entertainment.
Out in the fresh air I asked Murch, "What do you think, Murch? Is Polkes your man? He ain’t a catholic and his prayin’ seems swell."
"Jessa and I would like to talk it over." And he took her hand and stepped on ahead of us.
"Maybe he's worried that Polkes isn't a genuine Pastor," said Eva. “He wants it to be a proper marriage.”
"Hell, he's too goddam pernickety. What is a genuine preacher anyway? If a gab merchant don't get taken on by a regular church, why he just knocks up his own building and sticks Reverend in front of his name. That’s his constitutional right as an American - free exercise of his religion. Ain’t no clause that says it’s got to make sense. Damme, if I don't strike gold in California I'll maybe buy me a white collar and black suit and start a church myself. Hey, you could learn to pump the organ, Eva. You said you was lookin' for an honest employ."
She laughed, "Just can't see it, Nat, neither you in the suit and collar nor me on the harmonium."
Chapter Twenty Five: Ten Dollar Wedding
Nobody said anything about the tent lecture next morning but Murch went off by himself in the direction of Polkes' camp. In half an hour he came back and said, "The Reverend will wed us for ten dollars right now. Let's go, Jessa."
"No he will not!" Eva caught Jessa's arm. "You stay right here, Jessa. And you march right back to Polkes, Murch, and say we ain't ready."
"Hell, Eva, them lovebirds have been ready for weeks. Let's get it done sharpish and move on."
"Murch, is this your idea of a decent way to get wed?"
Murch looked puzzled. “I thought you were all in favor of asking Reverend Polkes to do it."
"Yes, but not rushed through in ten minutes after breakfast. Why, I'll wager that tent ain't been swept out yet. You go back and tell him Saturday afternoon and not a minute earlier."
"Eva, it's for Murch and Jessa to say when they want the wedding done."
"You keep out of this, Nat Hopper. You haven't shaved for a week, and Murch’s shirt is falling apart. Didn't you ever see people get married in your life? No, I reckoned they where you were raised a couple just had a quick roll in the straw and then crawled into an empty cave to raise whatever brood sprung from it."
I'll allow I wasn't well acquainted with all the folderol that went with getting hitched, but there was no need for such insulting talk. Murch and I could see that Eva’s temper was up so we didn’t make no objections though the delay would mean considerable traveling time lost.
As the day wore on we found out she sure knew a lot about the necessary preparations, or maybe she just made them up as she went along. It seemed that we were all going to have to smarten up a mite, so I was sent up to Chinatown with a bundle of our least threadbare clothes to get laundered. Eva hauled some fancy frocks out of her bags, and she and Jessa chose one that was deemed most suitable for the grand occasion, and then they set to taking it apart and sewing it back together tight enough to fit Jessa. Murch and I went to the temporary courthouse and the clerk gave us the printed license documents for Polkes to fill in. There was a barber in town offering a shave and a haircut for five cents, and a place next door offered a bath for a dime if you gave them notice to heat the water. We hummed and hawed a bit over whether to spring for the bath as well as the shave and haircut, but in the end decided that weddings don't come round that often, so we ordered up the whole deal for Saturday morning.
The rest of that day was pretty tense with Eva fussing and snapping round the camp, finding fault with things that had suited her just fine up until Winnemucca, and Jessa sometimes sniffling, sometimes giggling and Murch wandering around in a daze looking for something to occupy himself. That day I was the only person behaving halfway normal. I swear that if I'd had enough money I'd have blown it on a pint of whiskey and a cigar and sat by the river watching the boys fishing and kept well out of harm's way.
Saturday morning a Chinese boy came down with a basket of our clean clothes, and we laid them out on the grass to pick out the best of them. Murch's shirt had come to pieces in the wash, so Eva made me give him mine and I was instructed to wear my spare one with the ragged collar but keep my jacket buttoned to the top. She gave us blacking she’d bought for our boots, and we sponged our hats with soapy water, and knocked the dust off our pants. She sighed, allowed that that was as smart as we were going to get, and went off to harass Polkes about how she wanted the tent arranged. Murch and I went up to Winnamucca and spent the rest of the morning getting shaved, bathed and yarning with the locals, which was considerably more relaxing than getting harried round the camp.
Anyway I was all ready to set off towards three o'clock , spruced up dandy, but sweating something powerful with my jacket tight buttoned up to my neck.
Walking towards Polkes' tent side by side with the two most beautiful women in Winnemucca I was minded to forgive Eva for the tetchiness of the past two days, and I strode along feeling mighty pleased to be alive.
“You nervous about this marriage, Murch? It’s a big responsibility you’re taking on. Not that you can back out of it now when there’s been all this fuss and expense, shaves and baths and such like.”
“I have no intention of backing out. Whatever made you say such a thing?”
I slowed up a little so that I could talk more private. “Well, there’s plenty folks just live together to see how things turn out. Ain’t no need for a few lines on a scrap of paper.”
“Paul the apostle gave us guidance on marriage, Nat. As a Christian I will heed it.”
“So what did Paul have to say?”
“He spoke of the lust that we experience for the opposite sex. In Corinthians he said, “ - if they cannot contain, let them marry : for it is better to marry than to burn.”
“He meant remain chaste. Have no sexual intercourse.”
“Sounds like marriage is second best in his book.”
“That is his teaching.”
“So a First Rate Christian does without sex altogether. The Second Raters get married and produce children.”
“You could put it like that.”
“Seems like a sure way of making sure the First Raters go extinct.”
But just then Eva turned and urged us to make haste and catch them up, so I didn’t have the opportunity to develop the point.
There can't have been much entertainment in the burg of Winnemucca that day, for just then a herd of little children tagged on to us and came trooping along towards the tent. It seems word of the fancy wedding had spread right around the town, and we could see Mrs Polkes letting some of the local women into the tent. As we got near we saw a posse of whores dressed up very fine arguing with the Reverend at the tent flap.
"You go and find out what's the problem, Nat," said Eva. "We'll wait here."
“Why me? I ain’t famous for my diplomacy, as you’ve made clear to me on plenty of occasions.”
“Just go and do it. That’s one of the duties of the Chief Groomsman. Resolving difficulties as they occur.”
“Groomsman? I never signed up for that.”
But I went and spoke to Polkes and in a couple of minutes I had resolved the problem. I went back and explained. "The cathouse don't open till eight and the ladies wanted to come to see the wedding. Polkes didn't want to let them in but Mrs. Polkes said they could. That is if we didn't mind."
"I said if they could sing up at the right time I couldn't see why a Christian would object."
Murch chips in."Well said, Nat. In the word of our Lord 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.'"
I hadn't exactly used those words to Polkes, but now I wished I had remembered them from Sunday school.
Inside the tent the benches had been wiped clean, the litter picked off the grass, an altar built of boxes, and even a white cloth and flowers placed on it. We four were stood in a line in front of it, and the Reverend took his place behind. He leaned across and said in a low voice meant only for us: "It's ten dollars for the couple but the tent's been set up anyway, and we got the flowers and such like in ‘specially. I can do all four of you for fifteen. What do you say?"
I reckoned that was right noble of him and looked over at Eva, sort of hopeful.
"Thank you, Reverend, We'd be obliged if you would just get on with marrying this couple. Mr. Hopper and I are only here as witnesses."
He looked a bit piqued. "As you wish," He raised his voice and began: "Dear Friends, we are here to celebrate the union of two young Christian people in Holy Matrimony as ordained by Our Lord ...” and so on and on. I ain't going to describe the whole thing. It's enough to say that Murch and Jessa spoke their promises clear enough, and nobody could have put more heart into them, Mrs. Polkes squeezed out some mighty fine tunes from the harmonium, and the whores sang wonderful lusty after they got done sniffling and wiping their eyes with their scented handkerchiefs.
At the right moment Eva took a ring from her purse and put it in my hand. I looked at it kind of puzzled.
"What are you waiting for, you lunkhead? Give it to Murch," she hissed. So I passed it over quickly. Right away he put it on Jessa's finger and that was it more or less done. I don't know why Eva didn't give it to Murch direct - she wasn't that far away she couldn’t reach over.
Afterwards we all signed up on the papers, and Jessa and Murch raked together some of the little money they had and paid the preacher his ten dollars. Eva wanted to pay Polkes, but Murch wouldn't hear of it. Now she told us that she'd sprung for the price of a meal for the four of us at the Winnemucca Hotel, and even for a room for Jessa and Murch to spend the night there in style. So we all trooped back south over the river to the hotel where there was a fancy table with candles and bottles of wine all ready set up, and a waiter bowing and scraping and pushing in our chairs to save us the trouble.
Later, when Murch and Jessa had gone upstairs, we sat smoking cigars watching the thunder clouds build up over the mountains. Eva poured the last of the wine into my glass.
"I could get used to this wine stuff, Eva. It ain't as portable as whiskey, but it sure tastes fine."
"That's the taste of civilization, Nat."
"If I ever get married I'll have both wine and whiskey. Maybe a choir of whores to sing along with the harmonium too. You fixed it up just gaudy for them, Eva, and I’m sorry I was so gurny about lending the shirt and such.”
“I wanted it done properly. Jessa deserved a decent wedding.”
“And the ring. It clean went out of my head that you needed a ring for a proper wedding but you remembered. Where did you get it?"
"I collected a few when I was with Sexton. When the marks couldn't pay off a stake they’d put up a bit of jewelry or a watch to settle their debts."
"I don’t reckon Murch would feel too easy about that."
"He doesn’t know how I got it. I said I bought it cheap in Winnamucca. He insisted he’d consider it as a loan till he can pay it off in Placerville. I told him to forget it but I know he won't."
I took a puff of my cigar and blew a smoke ring. "Hope it brings them better luck than the mark who first owned it had."
She smiled in that foxy way she had sometimes."Bad luck had nothing to do with the way that man lost it."
The first of the rain rattled against the windows and the Chinese cook came over with an umbrella. "You take, bring back tomorrow."
There ain't much room under an umbrella when the cold high altitude rain is streaming down, so Eva and I walked back to camp huddled pretty close. I was thinking that maybe the spirit of romance might have infected her, but it wasn't to be.
She told me:"After you've checked the pickets you can fetch your blanket into the tent but just on account of the storm, mind. I'll be rolled up tight in my blanket so don't get any ideas. Just get into your own bedroll and stay tight in there."
And that's what I had to do. I can't say I didn't get any ideas, but I kept them to myself as instructed.