Night – Wednesday, July 15th, 1868 – The Black Swan Tavern, Naw’lins, Louisiana
An Enormous Weight
When I left the mission to earn my own keep for the first time, it was to see that those left behind would have enough with which to get by. As time passed and Nolan County’s fortunes changed, my peregrinations slowly shifted to a more prideful end – becomin’ a hoss breeder myself. I saw myself sellin’ quality beasts to the pokes who (like myself at that time) needed a good animal at a square price 1.
Opportunities came – and went – wherein I could have set down my irons for good and all. Maybe I should have done, but I always felt that there was somethin’ more to do before I ‘retired’ from the travelin’ life. Sadly, I feel that now more than ever.
One such (missed) opportunity was borne out o’ a tragedy that could have been turned around into so much goodness and light. Like most things that make men weep, it involved a woman. Or, more rightly: a girl. Folks have been puttin’ their hands to every kind o’ job imaginable to keep food in their bellies, but the family I’m talkin’ about may just have gotten their just desserts when they perished in a tragic hotel fire.
You see, they were forgers. Worse, they kidnapped a little girl with the intention o’ posin’ as a small family, and were therefore in the mind o’ raisin’ her up in the fashion o’ their wicked ways.
Whatever keeps an eye out for my posse and I, be it Bear, GOD all-mighty, or the devious scribbler o’ fate’s pen, saw to it that events conspired to deliver this unfortunate girl into our care. I shan’t go into the fire or how it was we knew about the girl’s less than normal rearin’ – it’s a tale for another day – but I will talk about the effect she had on my posse.
A road team ain’t no place for a girl just past the age o’ reason. Then again, it ain’t no place for a tinhorn doctor o’ science nor a society lady, but we had both in my posse at that time. While there was indeed a buffalo gal with us back then, too, she weren’t the nurturin’ type. So this little girl – Annie – became the responsibility o’ the only two people in the posse (sorry, Padre 2) adult enough to step up to a little girl’s raising. GOD save her. That was Belle and I. 3
Thin’ was, though, that girl took to the trail better’n some pokes I could mention. She was whip-smart, knew when to shut up (always a good trait, especially in a girl-child), and knew how to take cover and scream for help in a ruckus. GOD help whatever man she would eventually marry.
But as I gazed into the gloom of that deep underground chamber, I realized that I had failed my heart’s daughter. Again.
I had obligations; “And the LORD said unto me: ‘Arise, go before the people, causing them to set forward, that they may go in and possess the land, which I swore unto their fathers to give unto them.’” To wit, (to Wit? HA!) I ended up the (second to) last place I expected to go – back west. I couldn’t stay with Annie, I knew that Belle and Wicked were far from the best choice o’ foster parents, but at least the girl would have a home. I promised myself I’d go ‘take care o’ biz’, and be back before she’d miss me. I should have known better.
Meanwhile, Belle headed (back) to Louisiana, and with the stake she’d raised durin’ our travels, established a fine hotel in Baton Rouge. It was no surprise to anyone that Wicked (that’s her brother, in case you forgot) accompanied her, and I was glad to see that the woman had taken enough o’ a stake in Annie that she didn’t simply drop her in the first convenient work-house. The few times in four years I was able to put in Lousiana way, it looked like things would finally turn out all right. The fact that Belle put the girl to work in the … hotel … might have raised a few high-falutin’ eyebrows, but hard work never made a girl go bad in Texas, so far as I know. A whore ain’t born that way.
After ensurin’ that the right thin’ was done by a good man 4, I found myself takin’ (and passing) test after test, catchin’ desperadoes, and even signed up with the Brigade. It seemed the best way to help everyone I cared about at the time. I even convinced myself that if I was cleanin’ up the West, it was one more thing the lil’ uns wouldn’t need worry about. I had to content myself with the whitewash that by makin’ the frontier better, I was still doin’ right by my old posse – my friends. I’m a damned fool who should have known better than that.
I was out Arizona way ‘training under instruction’, as they call it – lookin’ for trouble as I called it, the Four Corners area bein’ a compromise between my new job and my recent responsibilities. Ol’ Bill was leadin’ a task force that included a mandate to keep an eye out for various wanted bad men and their friends. Had a book to keep ‘em all in, 5 and even afforded me a look now and again. Truth be told, most of the time, I wished I hadn’t looked.
The “Black Jack” Ketchum gang’s David Atkins, Arzona Jack, the Broadus brothers, the Apache Kid, and some of the Clantons were thought to be active in the area, and that was just page one. Rather than make matters worse on the war-front, the adjutant decided to send some of us to assure the burgeoning territories that they had a friend in Texas.
I was nominally along for the ride because I spoke Algonkian. In case we ran into the Apache Kid 6 or other ‘native’ troubles. I passed messages along among those who knew me (or of me – how many white men like me can there be?) and kept my eye out for trouble. By and large, we settled range disputes, ended little dustups, caught a few (stupid) banditoes, and were visible. I was used to the trail with my old posse, which meant nearly gettin’ kilt every other hour. I was bored.
Until the fire.
1. Before the War o’ Northern Aggression, ranchers put a high price on the beasts to reach into the pockets o’ the cattle barons, chargin’ as much as $300 for a decent animal. Durin’ the war (and even in our present trucial state) most beasts have got conscripted into the war effort, leavin’ prices for hosses at extraordinary levels. The average poke ain’t got that kind o’ money, or he wouldn’t be drivin’ beeves. So, a lot o’ folk go into debt and stay there just to have a job to do what feeds their family. That ain’t no way to live.
2. Padre Cantrell was more interested in savin’ the souls o’ adults and raisin’ churches than lookin’ after young’uns. I suppose he figured that was nun’s work, anyhow. I never asked him about it, to be honest.
3. At the time, I was still very sweet on her – Irish or no, she was a woman who knew who she was and what she wanted from life. Better still, she had no aspersions about cuttin’ her way through adversity (or the flesh o’ what opposed her) from gettin’ it. Nothin’ came o’ it, because I think she’s still waitin’ for her ship to come in – though what form that may take I confess not to know. Not soon after, I’d be married to someone else, anyhow.
4. In my travels, I had acquired the personal effects of a slain lawman. I made sure he made it home.
5. Why in Perdition else do you think I keep these journals? Someday when I’m work food these pieces o’ pain I set down to paper just might save a life!
6. Never mind that the Apaches don’t speak Algonkian, or that messkins were more likely that far south…