Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chapter 3: August 15, 1848--The Bar Fight

Generations later, historians have come to dispute the existence of Cherokee Bob. They contend that he is nothing but a frontier archetype, conjured up by turn of the century dime novel writers seeking to profiteer off the escapist desires of urban audiences. Admittedly, the almost ubiquitous presence of Cherokee Bob in frontier stories lends credence to their theory. However, despite the clichéd name, local residents of the Ozarks today insist that such a man did exist. He was, they say, an outsider whose short cameo in the history of the hills acted as the catalyst for the war. I, of course, believe they are both right. Cherokee Bob was only a phantom. But as to his existence, I have no doubt. The half-Indian drifted into Marion County, lit the town on fire and was never heard of again. He was a ghost produced by the land, and he fulfilled the purpose of his creation.    
Cherokee Bob had ridden east from the plains of Oklahoma along the old, familiar trail into Northern Arkansas. It was a journey he made many several times a year on his spotted Indian pony packed with varied odds and ends. His frequent migrations made him well-known in Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Harrison and other cities along the path. Though his pony was packed full with goods for sale, Bob rarely pushed his wares. He was in the business of conversation and entertainment, and so in every town he visited it was more important that he focus on the four necessaries of conversation: the names, the news, the gossip and the gospel, rather than peddle his goods. It was humor he sought, in talk and in act. And since this humor almost inevitably came at the expense of others, it made him many fast friends and a few scattered enemies.  By rule, it is a mistake to define a man using a single trait. Human nature, even in the 1800s, was still far too complex for generalizations. That being said, Cherokee Bob was, more than anything, a mischief maker. This habit certainly would have got him into more trouble had he not been so transient. Once the joke was done, he would disappear back onto the trail, only showing up again months later when tempers had already cooled and laughs could be exchanged.
In terms of looks, there was little, other than his long, dark, braided hair and tanner complexion that hinted to his half-Indian blood. In fact, a bystander seeing Cherokee Bob for the first time might more easily mistake him for a Victorian gentleman than a frontiersman. From waist-down, Cherokee Bob’s outfit was traditional enough. Though he would undoubtedly have preferred more elegant leggings, the practicality of his constant riding forced him to cover his coarse pants with a tanned Buffalo hide. But from waist-up, Cherokee Bob dressed the part of a rich city gentleman. His head always supported a black top-hat and around his neck proudly hung a white, cotton cravat. And although Cherokee Bob’s shirt was normally a dull, dusty white, it was perpetually covered by a fine, black, three-button waistcoat. It was a mystery to the townsfolk that year after year Bob would arrive wearing the same vest. The waistcoat was easily two sizes too small and it seemed as if at any moment his formidable chest would split the seams and explode the buttons. Yet somehow the coat held. The combination of his Victorian torso and cowboy legs made him a conspicuous sight atop his mottled pony.
On this day, as he approached Yellville, riding towards his customary stop, his English clothes were soaked with rain. The day had begun, like any usual August day in the Ozark hills, with air full of heavy humidity and buzzing insects. Yet as his day’s journey came to a close, the blue skies quickly filled with grey and drenched the half-Indian rider. With the arrival of rain, the tall oak trees that engulfed the road began to give the occasional shudder and bow as strong gusts of wind tumbled down from the hillsides. Though not far from town and shelter, the rain and wind caused no perceptible difference to Bob’s speed. Instead, he lazily rode on. He trotted past the junction leading to Tutt Hill, pausing to gaze up the path at the massive house perched atop the hill. He noticed lights in the windows and thought briefly about turning up the path, but instead continued into town.
Riding on, he passed over the crooked creek bridge and stopped to watch the rain-water rush underneath. On his visits, he had grown accustomed to seeing the creek water idly pass from stale pool to stale pool. Now, the creek was filled to a rushing torrent and still seemed discontent. He pondered on the significance and continued over the wooden bridge. Houses began to appear in isolated lots, some with manicured trees and tamed grass and others completely overrun by vegetation. Soon, houses were appearing in regular intervals and the path grew wider and deeper. His pony’s feet sank into the mud and slowed the pace even more. Bob tested his memory, conjuring up the faces with the passing houses and searching for the appropriate name. He was surprised both by how familiar he had grown with the town’s residents and the appearance of so many new buildings. In his early journeying’s through these hills, there had been little more than Mooney’s ferry. Now, there was a newly built tailor shop featuring an advertisement for fashionable pieces and cheap mends. Bob examined his waist-coat.  
A minute later, Bob stopped near the entrance of the saloon and dismounted from the horse into the deep mud. He pulled at the pony, dragging it towards the roof’s overhang, giving the animal partial relief from the rain, and tied it to the railing. Bob untangled the mass of goods, setting them to rest in a heap against the covered wall. After a brief inventory, he picked up one of the bags and headed into the saloon. At the doorway, he removed his hat, shaking drops of water from his clothes and long hair like a stray cat.
The patrons inside the bar were all staring. Enjoying the attention, Bob took a long, sweeping glance of the premises. He saw little Quincy at the bar, tending to his glasses and alcohol with nervous hands. In the middle of the room were dirty, round tables, strewn between the room’s pillars and occupied by the smoke and profanity of the bored and the drunk. There was no sign of Hamp or of Bart, but there was still a good audience to be had. Sim was sitting at a table in the corner with Isaac Bradford and Davy Mcneil, staring at Bob with cold eyes. Then there was Sam and John King, the proud sons of old man King himself, enjoying drinks and cards with the Irish twins George and Jeremy Dunbar. He wasn’t surprised to see the Kings here, they were faithful patrons of Hamp’s saloon. In actuality, it could’ve been said that Hamp was patron to the boys. Almost immediately after forging a friendship with old man King, Hamp began to employ the tall, strong boys in part to curry favor with their father and in part to stand in as a type of security for his town investments. They were always to be found lurking around the saloon and the general store, keeping an eye on the customers, discouraging any unruly behavior. The sight of these King boys only a few tables away from the glowering middle Everett brought back memories of the town’s bad blood. Bob knew at once that this room was dynamite and he couldn’t wait to light the fuse.
He gave a big smile to the King boys, who greeted him, pushing out an open chair and signaling for another drink.
“Well if it ain’t Cherokee Bob. Is it already time for you to come again?”
            “Can’t expect this old hand to stay in one place too long, boys. Too much Indian blood in me.”
            John and Sam rose from their chairs and exchanged handshakes with their old friend.
“Well, you take your time with this visit.” Sam said “We could always use some laughs. Take a seat, first rounds on John.”  
            Bob set his bag down on the floor and sat into the chair.
“You workin’ then now Johnny?” He said.
            “No sir. Seems I got some Injun in me too, can’t bring myself to go find honest work. But Quincy owes me a drink or two for not beating his ass.”
            “I don’t know how you restrain yourself.”
            “You remember the Irish twins, right?” Sam motioned his drinking partners.
            “Hard to forget. Only red-heads in the region.” He gave a nod to George and Jeremy who returned the greeting.
            Quincy brought over a drink, setting it in front of John, who in turn pulled his chair close to Cherokee bob and handed the drink over.
“I’ll trade you.” He said, and stooped over to pick up the bag of goods. Bob watched him root through the contents. There was a hint of anticipation in Bob’s eyes; John could sense it but refused to bite.
“Good lord, don’t you ever carry anything worth having?” John said with disgust as he continued to poke through the bag’s content.
“I ain’t never carried anything on me that’s not worth its weight in gold. If you keep on insulting my wares I might not give you that special discount I gave you last time.”
“Discount my ass. That knife broke two days after you sold it to me. Damn thing couldn’t even whittle a sapling branch.”
Bob let out a laugh “The knife wasn’t for whittling. Shit, I should’ve known better to think a white man could understand the value of such a blade. That knife was pried out of the dead fingers of Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief responsible for butchering hundreds of settlers out in the plains.”
“You never told me that. Course, I can’t help but wonder how a vagrant like you could end up with Sitting Bull’s blade. You buy it out of Barnum’s museum?”
“Don’t be sour Johnny. If you aren’t pleased with your purchase I’ll be happy to buy it back. Can’t have my customers go unsatisfied.”
John stopped his digging in the bag and reached for his drink, giving Bob a smirk.
“You still got a mouth full of sweet smelling shit, Bob. Knowing your buy-back rates, I might as well keep it for flint-steel.”
“Don’t say I didn’t offer.”
“Come on John, if you don’t see anything you like pass it along.” Sam chimed in. John passed the bag to his brother and shouted at Quincy for another drink.
“Sam, I’ve prepared you something special in there.” Bob said with a wink.
Sam peered into the bag. It was the normal, eclectic collection of scraps. He sifted through a dried scalp, a rusty tomahawk, a harmonica box and pulled out a heavy gold colored bar. Bob shook his head.
“Not that. You heard what they say, all that glitters ain’t gold, and some things that are gold don’t glitter. Look for something a little luckier.”
Sam looked back in the bag and pulled out a single, muddy horseshoe.
Bob gave him a grin.
“This? What the hell would I want with a dirty old horseshoe?”
Bob adjusted his cravat and cleared his throat, preparing himself for the presentation. Sensing the entertainment to come, the Irish twins put down their cards and turned their heads. Bob paused, waiting for more encouragement.
“You’ll wait all day for the room’s attention.” John cut in. “Everyone knows not to trust Indian tales.”
Bob smiled over at John. “This story, John, I guarantee will satisfy.” He turned to Sam. “Hand me that horseshoe.” Sam passed the horseshoe across the table. Bob untangled his cravat and dipped it into his liquor, letting it soak. He lifted the horseshoe, examining it like an appraiser would his diamonds. Then, with delicate strokes, he used the liquored cravat to wipe away the caked mud. The others watched in silent curiosity. Their fixation on Bob’s work attracted the attention of the neighboring tables. Bob wiped one side clean and inspected it with a careful eye. He shook his head.
“Quincy, bring me something stronger than this watered down horse piss.” He called out. Quincy, who had also been watching Bob’s labor with the horseshoe, gave a startled jump when addressed. He reached under the bar and pulled out a squat, dark bottle. He then poured the drink hurried it over to Bob.
Bob handed him some coins and the dipped his cravat into the new cup.
“Wasting some good drink.” John muttered. The others shushed him.
With his cravat soaked anew, Bob began his gentle polishing. Soon, the mud was cleared and the iron of the horseshoe shone with the luster of liquor. Bob held it up again and released a satisfied smile.
“There it is boys, there it is.” He held up the horseshoe.
His words had a muffling effect on the room.  Even Sim and his boys at the other side of the room were glancing over, trying to simultaneously feign disinterest and feed their curiosity. 
There was a brief pause. Jeremy Dunbar finally spoke up.
“So, it’s a horseshoe?”
Bob gave Jeremy an approving smile.
“Yes, Jeremy it’s a horseshoe. But it’s also more than a horseshoe, for, as you all know…” He gave a sweeping gesture to the room. “Horseshoes always come with a horse.”
            He paused again.
            “So you’re selling me a horse?” Sam broke in.
            “No. I’ve got no horse to sell. But this little gem here raised two questions: what horse belonged to this horseshoe and where is it now? I’m afraid boys that I can only answer one of those questions. But luckily that answer makes for a fine story. You see, I have this Indian friend who told me about a time he wandered here to Yellville seeking some sport. Now, I won’t name names. I may be a no-good-son-of-a-Cherokee bitch, but I wouldn’t rat if Mooney himself rode up with some law papers. But the story my friend had to tell was too remarkable to keep quiet. As you boys know, from time to time every Injun gets the inclination to get retribution on the white man who stole their lands by stealing something of the white man. I can’t say I approve of this view of justice, but it’s hard to condemn a man for stealing some loose coins and frail chickens when his fore-fathers’ were robbed of entire territories.  It just seems wrong.
Well, my friend when he was wandering through town saw this one real sickly looking horse, ridden by this proud and slick looking man. He was watching the horse, thinking how weak and tired it looked, when the poor beast looked him in the eye. Now my friend had never been a believer in the medicine man traditions of his people, but at that moment he felt a connection to nature that the Indian’s call ‘Ganatlia Adonvdo.’ This sad looking horse looked him in the eye and pleaded in language as plain and understandable as I’m speaking to you now, asking John to save him from his slavery.
You can imagine John’s surprise. He thought maybe he’d imagined the whole thing or that he’d had a smoke too many of his peace pipe. But the horse looked at him one more time and in a clear voice told him ‘save me.’ As I said, John wasn’t one for believing in superstitions, but he remembered the experience of Balaam on the road to the princes of Moab and decided that when an horse or an ass talks to you, it’s best to listen. So he followed the horse and rider at a distance until he saw them pull off the road and head for a flashy manor that seemed to him to be the very house of Babylon. He watched from a distance as the rider disappeared into a shabby looking side barn before re-emerging alone and entering the house.  My friend thought to himself, 'how can a man with that much money treat his horse so poorly?’ He decided that compassion required him to listen to the horse and free it from its prison.”
Bob paused and took a drink. He swept his eyes across the room, making sure he’d got their attention. He saw Sim was reading the bottles on the Barkeeps shelf with a forced intensity. His hand held tight to his glass, bits of white were beginning to drift like snow onto the knuckle. Bob smiled and continued.
“My friend waited until night. He watched the lights go out at the house and snuck up to the barn. Of course, luck would have it that as he was getting to the barn, it started raining. It wasn’t a light rain. No, it was coming down heavy, heavier than that light shower out there today. The rain whipped through the air in thick sheets and loud claps of thunder echoed across the hills.  My friend took shelter in the barn. He was worried, he thought the devil had conspired against his divine mission. He thought about how the horse’s owners would follow his fleeing hoof prints and track him down. As he was sitting there fretting, he heard a voice call out to him. ‘Fear not’ it said, ‘have faith the Lord will provide for your good works.’ He turned to look and saw the sad horsing staring at him.  ‘I know better than to doubt a talking horse’ he said, ‘But I’m afraid we’re at our ropes end. I doubt you can outride the Sheriff’s horse and they’ll follow us print by print.’
The horse’s skinny face broke into a sad smile. ‘You see those horse shoes?’ The horse motioned to the wall. ‘Bring them here.’ My friend collected a handful of horseshoes from the wall and brought them back to the horse. ‘Now nail them to my feet. The rain will cover the noise from my oppressor’s ears. But when you nail them, place them on backwards and when we leave they will ignore our trail since it will lead straight to the barn.’ My friend took courage at the animal’s wisdom and did as he was told. When the deed was done, the two rode out into the rain carefree as virgins.”
            “Now the next day, the rich man and Mooney searched the ground all morning for some trace of the thief, but all they ever found was the lone prints that they assumed had been made when horse’s owner had brought the beast to rest in the barn. It was a mystery to all how the horse could disappear without a trace in the middle of a storm. Now if they’d been smart, they’d of thought that the hoof-prints in the mud leading to the barn were strange considering it’d hadn’t rain when the rich man brought it home. But the horse knew its master wasn’t so smart.”
During Bob’s story, Sim’s face had slowly caught fire, until now it was burning an intense red. He spoke up from the back of the room. His voice was quiet, but the rage inside created a palpable tension in the room.
            “You tell your no-good Indian ‘friend’ that he has until tonight to bring the horse back.”
            The King boys looked from Bob to Sim and back again. A slow smile spread across their faces. Bob shrugged at Sim.
“Wish I could Sim. But even if I could go get the horse back, I still wouldn’t know who to return it to. You see, the only clue my friend left me was this horseshoe.”
Bob held the horseshoe up again for the crowd to see.
“That rich rider was so proud that he had his own initials engraved on each horseshoe. Now, I’d like to render unto Caesar that which is his, but I’ve never been able to make out the initials. Maybe you can help me out Sam.”
He handed the horseshoe to Sam, who held it up against the light with a satisfied smirk.
“I see a B.” He squinted. “The middle initial seems to be an M. But I can’t make out the last one.”
            Bob grabbed the horseshoe back from Sam.
            “I should’ve known better than to think a King could help me read. I need an educated man. Sim, why don’t you come take a look.”
            The room went quiet. Sim slowly stood, glaring at Bob as he rose. The crowd watched with nervous anticipation as he made his way across the room. Bob patiently held the horseshoe in front of him, waiting for Sim with an inviting smile. Sim stopped in front of Bob. He grabbed the horseshoe, looked at it for but a moment and muttered.
The crowd remained quiet, unsure of the appropriate reaction. Bob gave them their cue,  letting out a great, bellowing laugh that caused the whole room to join in. Sim sat still as the noise grew louder and louder, staring at the horseshoe in his hand. Cherokee Bob and the King boys were doubled over in their chairs, gasping for breath between their tears of mirth. Sim looked up from the horseshoe at Bob and watched him laugh. Then, in one savage movement, he grabbed the back of the Indian’s chair and forced it back, sending Bob sprawling backwards. The laughter died immediately. The King boys at once leapt to their feet, their bodies poised for a fight. The room was now in a delicate balance, as Sim and his friends eyed the King boys and their supporters.
Cherokee Bob stood up slowly and let out a laugh.
“Hell Sim, if I’d known it was your brother’s horse, I’d have tried to get it back for you. But the problem is my friend told me that as soon as he’d left the town he decided he’d no need for the horse. The thing was too frail to ride, so he sold to a hungry looking fella hoping to get some discount horse-meat. The damn thing only fetched him ten dollars.”
The words had just escaped his mouth when his cheek was crushed by a blow from Sim’s fist. In an instant the saloon erupted. Fists and chairs and bottles and wild limbs exploded across the room as the men reveled in the violence. As the men traded fists, Quincy stood at the bar and continued on with his duties of cleaning the glasses, dispassionately watching the maelstrom of testosterone sweep through the room. He’d seen fights before, and Quincy was sure that it would be only a few short minutes until it died down.  For the men of Yellville, fights were as common and as necessary as water. On a macro scale, they acted as a vent for the political tension between the Tutt and Everett families, and on an individual level they were the proving grounds where men could forge coveted reputations. Once the men had exhausted themselves from either earning or losing their honor, peace would return.
But as Quincy watched, he began to suspect this fight was something more dangerous than simple proving grounds. He searched the room, trying to detect who or what was causing the difference. His eyes landed on Sim. The man’s shirt had been torn, revealing a strong body, glistening in the sweat of fury. He watched Sim approach Sam King, who was celebrating a knock-out punch with a swig from his shot-glass. The cup was still on his lips when Sim reached him. With a wild swing, the cup was shattered and the shards driven into Sam’s nose and lip. A misty cloud of blood and alcohol temporarily hung in the air. Sam beat his blood to the floor. Sim’s hand was cut and bleeding, but the pain couldn’t penetrate his rage. His anger had extended beyond Cherokee Bob and the Kings to all life. Both friend and foe fled from his indiscriminate fists.
Quincy’s intuition told him to go for the Sheriff, thinking that perhaps he could ward off the impending actions of the night. But fate would not allow the fight to stop until war had been started. On his way to the door, he bumped into Cherokee Bob. Bob grabbed Quincy and threw him in front of a charging Sim. He was knocked cold with one blow to the face. Cherokee Bob tactics only delayed his thrashing. The force of Sim’s fury began to work tranquility on the room. All other brawls simply ceased as the men stopped to observe Sim with a frightened awe. As they watched him smash tables, chairs and men, they realized that he had transcended man’s physical limitations and become something new entirely. They marveled at his transformation.
The men’s amazement doubled when they saw a garden hoe materialize in the room. It floated through the crowd like an ostrich’s neck, or a beaked snake whose charmed face waited patiently for a chance to strike. The onlookers stared at this dreaded portent, aware that no good could possibly come from a garden tool in a bar fight. The apparition paused in front of Sim, wary of the man’s mystical danger. The two supernatural creatures circled one another in a dance only they could understand. Then, in a flash of motion Sim lunged towards the hoe and it saw its opening. The thing fell like a weight onto Sim’s fallow skull. It was as if a pipe had burst, causing a spray of rich, crimson droplets. Sim fell, the hoe still lodged in his head. It was only after all the blood had settled from the air that the crowd noticed John King standing over the body, his face spattered with blood, his grip tight on the hoe’s handle.
There was silence as the men tried to process what they had just seen. These men were used to blood, but the battle between Sim and the garden hoe gave them glimpses at a new pantheon of violent mythology. The silence was interrupted when Sim’s friends rushed to their fallen comrade. The king boys woke their half-breed friend and slipped out the back of the bar. They were laughing as they left, but it was hollow laughter. They sensed that their victory tonight would have its consequences.
Sim’s friends used dirty rags to stop the flow of blood. Quincy sat propped against the side wall, watching the men at their desperate work.
“Shit, He’s dead. Killed by a garden hoe.”
He kept recounting Sim’s fate, exhausting all the various ways to describe a man’s death. The others didn’t stop him. Quincy’s rambling seemed the only expression for the strange sight they’d seen.  Before leaving to fetch the Sheriff, Quincy took one last look at the man lying in the middle of the room.
“Wait till Jesse hears the news. Lord there will be blood.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Phone Call

               It was a quick conversation, which was to be expected now that we were both adults. Gone were the days of post-midnight rendezvous in the living room, staying up to hours normally off-limits to the sober, talking about life’s great mysteries. Back then women were a mystery, as was the future, gay marriage, politics, God and purpose. All was uncertainty. But the uncertainty was not to be feared. No, we played like hatters with mercury, rolling the boundless, limitless lives we led around the folds of our minds, conjuring up great webs of silver dialogue. The uncertainty led to creation at its purest. It made us the Gods of all ideas. Yet the uncertainty gradually flaked away, the iron edges of the cookie cutter descended upon us, and like hesitant infants ripped from the blessed womb we emerged as adults.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Chapter 2: On Fires and Fuel

             People say fire starts with the strike of a match. I say they are wrong. The match is only one part of building a fire. With our limited eyes, we seek to simplify complex processes by focusing on the most noticeable causes. And so we erroneously reason that because it is impossible to start a fire without a match, the match must be the beginning of fire. But how can a fire start without kindle to catch the flame or oxygen to breath it life or shelter to protect it from the elements? The striking of a match is only made significant by the fuel bed ready to ignite it into something more.  
            The match that lit the Tutt-Everett war was a bar fight. But the causes, the slow-building of tension that made the pile ripe for the match must not go unexplored. It is, after all, a question of origin so common to mankind. Without understanding beginning, the present loses significance. And just as a man living in the crossroads of life must find Father Adam or Mother Ape to find aim for his actions, so must the reader of this story understand the Genesis of the Tutt-Everett conflict to fully comprehend the violence.
As already explained, the primal cause was the land itself. But the Ozarks curse could never have come to fruition without willing actors, ready to push forward its cause. Those actors were none other than the Tutts and Everetts. The two families had divided Marion County almost from the moment of their settlement. Neither Hamp nor Bart had ever spoken to each other, but on that day when Bart stopped by to solicit a vote as Hamp was setting his saloon and general store, they both came away knowing they had an enemy.
Bart saw Hamp’s stocky build, dirty clothes, uncomely beard and surmised that the man was not of his class. But like any good politician, Bart ignored his reserves and succumbed to the temptation of gaining the additional vote. The conversation started cordially enough as Bart explained to Hamp the virtues of the Democratic party and urged the need for strong civic leaders to establish the newly formed county as a standard of patriotism and liberty. Who better to lead this county than Bart? After all, as he explained,
“I, my man, am a retired colonel with years of experience in civil service and am dedicated to making sure this county runs right.”
Hamp stayed quiet during the long pitch, his eyes steadily growing narrower with each passing minute. When Bart brought his discourse to a close, Hamp did not mince words.
            “I’d as soon fornicate with a goat before allowing a democrat son-of-a-bitch like you take office.”
            That was the start of politics in the County, and yet it was not really politics that made Hamp dislike Bart.  While the Tutts had generally not been in favor of Jackson and his supporters, they had never been active in promoting any party of their own. What was it that caused their enmity then? It was spiritual. Kindred spirits come together at first word, conflicting spirits grow grudges at first sight. When Hamp looked at Bart with his fine clothes and listened to his eloquent speech, he saw a threat and he knew that out here, in the wilderness of the Ozarks, he and Bart were meant to clash. 
But Hamp found it difficult to relate the divine origin of his hatred for Bart Everett. Even his own boys couldn’t quite understand it. They would listen and throw in the occasional supportive word, but he could tell they didn’t appreciate his grudge. They didn’t understand how some men aren’t meant to coexist. Better yet, they didn’t see that some men are meant to battle.
For days Hamp obsessed on how to rally supporters to his cause. He hated the way Bart talked and dressed and smelled and walked, he only needed some way help others understand why. The answer came as he recounted his experience to old man Bob King. Bob hung on Hamp’s every word in a way the others hadn’t. He nodding knowingly when Hamp complained of the pompousness of the self-appointed Democrat leader and his high and mighty doctrines. With this sympathetic ear, Hamp grew wild with excitement. Bob’s sagely nods emboldened him and gave him a renewed confidence in his justified hatred. His voice grew louder, his hands trembled, his body ached to find more to complain of. Just as Hamp was preparing to confide with the old man the divine root of this new hostility, Bob cut him off.
“Hamp, I never met a Whig more fiery than me until today. I tell you what, there are plenty of Whigs in town feeling the same way ‘bout those Democrat sons-of-bitches. They pushed us around with their damned policies but it stops here. We can’t let them vote us out.”
As soon as the words left Bob’s mouth, Hamp never again remembered the true origin of his grudge towards the Everetts. From that day on, he became a zealous promoter of the Whig platform and promptly ran for office. And so the war between the Tutts and the Everetts gained its footing in the political arena. The two families were driven by their strong-wills and prideful spirits. They initially set about forging alliances and corralling the most ardent supporters from the two institutions that hold the most sway over the hearts of man. For Hamp, it was his saloon and the liberal half-off drinks that rallied the Yellville Whigs and caused his constituency to swell. For Bart Everett, the democrats were found in the church meetinghouse, where a pious preacher religiously advocated the parish’s most prolific donator. 
            The 1838 election was tight. In the end it was Bart Everett who beat Hamp by a sliver of a margin (which Hamp of course claimed was due to fraud). But even with the loss, Hamp had enough successes that day to compensate when his eldest, Richard Tutt was elected Sheriff. Both families had now acquired footholds in county politics. Bart Everett immediately began to exercise his power. He enacted a law to uphold the Christian values of the community. Of course, the only noticeable change this law had on the town was to shut down Hamp’s saloon on not only the Sabbath, but also on Saturday nights. After all, as Bart explained to the approval of his religious supporters,
“Saturday nights were for men to come under the influence of the spirit in preparation for the holy day, not to come under the influence of the bottle.”
On Friday night of the next week, a fight broke out between the young King boys and some of Bart Everett’s closest supporters. The King boys came out on top, and to add insult to injury, the Everett supporters were arrested later that night for “disturbing the county peace.” Charges against the King boys were dropped.
            Thus were the sticks laid in preparation of conflagration. Supporters were gained in Marion county not by honesty and integrity, but by a loose spoils system. With your man in power, you had nothing to fear. There began to spread a simple adage to describe the town’s new political philosophy: “if you are voted into power that’s exactly what you get.” Leaders were not chosen for their virtues and integrity, but for the rewards they could provide to their supporters. Farmers voted for legislators who promised free land and voted against those who encouraged gold standards, church-goers favored those who supported additions to schools and disapproved of those lax on saloon restrictions, business owners elected those who lowered taxes and opposed those who encouraged Indian relations. The number of the town’s factions, in correlation with the diversity of their opinions, created a delicate web of support that would not allow any one family to gain a monopoly of political power.
            Perhaps in today’s political climate, such a system doesn’t seem so foreign. Staunch federalists might even argue that such a structure is a perfect reflection of Madison’s envisioned faction democracy.  But such an argument ignores the truth that Madison’s political sentiments were for federal level or state level at the least. To have such a system in place in a town of only 500 was dangerous.  This deadlock magnified the town’s contention more than if one side had managed to conquer. It was as if all of Yellville had entered into Dante’s fourth circle and the frustration from their endless dance made them desperate for a release from the political impasse.
A mixture of pride and ambition made the two families fight against the inevitability of the town’s unique political web. They refused to settle with the positions they had already acquired and instead bitterly battled to expand their power. The result of their struggle, however, was a yearly shuffling of positions without either side gaining the upper hand. In 1838, Bart Everett was mayor and Richard Tutt was sheriff. In 1842, Bart Everett was sheriff and Richard Tutt was mayor. These two highly sought for positions switched hands every election up until 1848 when the conflict boiled over. However, even smaller positions that normally go unnoticed in politics, such as county treasurer or county recorder, were the source of intense strife. In fact, the 1844 treasurer election prompted the first major act of violence between the two families. Upon hearing that Jeremiah Quinn had won the treasurer position,  Jesse, the youngest of the Everett brothers, promptly marched to Quinn’s house, called him out of the house, accused him of cheating, and shot him dead. Bart swore to the public that he would punish the crime, but somehow Jesse managed to escape into Texas.  
The 1844 murder was undoubtedly the most dramatic of political events, but up until 1844, the election of the Board of County Commissioners provided the most drama. After his initial defeat, Hamp settled on being one of these elected members, where he sat without serious competition up to the point of the conflict. Bart’s younger brother Sim also took up the one of the board positions; he too faced little political competition. The third chair, however, was in hot dispute. In 1838, it was held by Hamp’s good friend Cole Perkins. With the majority of the board, the two collaborated as best they could to undermine the laws and executive decisions of the mayor. In 1840, Cole lost his seat to Bart’s good friend Jackson Bigsby, who colluded with Sim to smoothly pass and implement the mayor’s wishes.  The position continued to switch each election, with each side more audacious in their attempts to push their personal agendas. This last chair produced enough disputes that by 1844, it almost toppled the county into war.
But then came the murder of Jeremiah Quinn. In a way, it saved the town. The fringe supporters of the families and the few remaining neutral town members, fearing the outbreak of lawlessness, banded together to peel back the political web that seemed destined to last forever. In the election of 1844, Jesse Mooney was elected to the Board of County Commissioners. His election must have been God and Man’s last effort against the lands curse. Jesse never intended to run for politics. He had married a beautiful woman with whom he had brought forth three healthy children, Tom the oldest, followed by Susan and Jeremiah. His family was his life. He had long since moved away from his father’s ferry on the White river and established himself a respectable ranch. But after the murder, his father paid him a long visit, and it was then that Jesse Mooney decided to leave the ranch and enter politics.
Jesse earned a reputation in town for being a hard-nosed law-man. He always gave his best effort to enforce the law, no matter what family currently owned the Sheriff’s post or the Mayor’s office. His displeasure with favoritism and his devotion to justice nearly got him impeached. I have no doubt he would have been impeached had everyone in town not held such reverence for the Mooney family name. Jacob Mooney was the only true neutral member of the county. No matter how hard the Everetts or Tutts tried to curry his favor, he obstinately chose to remain in no-man’s land. Others in town who had tried to mirror Jacob’s nonpartisan stance had been stamped out by intimidation, force, or irresistible temptations. But Jacob Mooney was above the squabbles of the current settlers. He had long lived in the Ozarks and knew how to navigate its traps. This long experience gave him a power that elicited tacit respect from all residents of the county.
As Jacob’s only son, Jesse inherited some of his father’s respect. And yet, at the same time, he also inherited enormous expectations. The town expected Jesse to be his father. To his credit, Jesse did have his father’s heart. He tried his best to steer clear of politics and made his family his jewel. But despite these strengths, Jesse lacked his father’s mysterious power and so was as susceptible to the land’s curse as the other citizens.
At the end of his two year term, Jesse’s father became ill with a terrible fever. As soon as the gravity of his sickness was known to the county-members, they rallied their support around the old man. He was praised for his bravery in settling the land and his dedication to the general well-being of its citizens. When he died a few weeks before the 1846 election, several propositions were made to deify the man by renaming prominent town-features. Main street became “Jacob Street,” the tallest mountain became “Jacob’s Peak,” and the picturesque pond at the edge of town was renamed “Jacob’s Pond.” And, as a final testament to the strength of his power, all the town, both Tutts and Everetts, rallied together to once again unbalance the delicate web and elect Jacob’s only boy as sheriff. The town was right to deify the man; his death was his sacrifice for the people, his one last endeavor to save the county from its inevitable destruction.
Before becoming sheriff, Jesse made a promise on his father’s name that he would be the champion of justice and that he would “serve all warrants.” He made good on his promise, ignoring family and political affiliations to make sure the law was honored. His zeal was a promising sign for the town; it seemed as if Jacob’s sacrifice had succeeded. But even a man as powerful as Jacob Mooney could not subvert the land’s curse. By the end of Jesse’s reign as Sheriff, the beyond-reproach Mooney name would become the most hated surname in all of Northern Arkansas.
 To be fair, Jesse had as much a chance of success in politics as J. Edgar Hoover. Jeremiah Quinn’s murder and Jacob Mooney’s death were but temporary roadblocks to the lands curse. Even with Jesse’s groundbreaking elections to the Sheriff’s office, the town was too far hemorrhaged to be saved. By 1848, the pride, ambition and desperation of the Tutt and Everett families had formed Marion County into the perfect kindle box. All that was needed was a spark. That spark, the proverbial match, came in August of 1848 when Cherokee Bob dismounted from his horse and entered Hamp’s saloon.

Friday, October 5, 2012

NightFall by Collin Rich

Echoes of Genesis
In the City-scape of Man

Music: M83 "Echoes of Mine"

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Fortune’s favor spins its dizzying course
Spying to lift frail shoulders and break sturdy backs
Like a serpent in the grove selling its counsel
This saint spreads his providence

 Blessings smoothly blended with a curse;
Misfortune with a passing pleasure
Giving always to those who seek not
Opening for those who needn’t knock

Yet desperate men delve in desperate thought
 And crave contract under chance’s fixed rule
Here am I, lend thy servant his lot
And find me fortune or a fool.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


It was November of freshman year when I was struck with the second attack of esophagitis. Like striking teachers, my stomach acids grew discontent with their position and sought a higher calling. Unfortunately for me, that higher calling was my esophagus. The muscles there, sensing the presence of lower class body functions, first tightened and then inflamed. The system was broken and it left me unable to eat, drink or even swallow without excruciating pain. Of course, providence is unkind to those already down on their luck; three days into my esophagitis my body spiked a fever. And the single remaining memory, the recollection of me sitting naked in the dorm showers, vomiting tears and bile onto the drain, has become holy to me, my own personal Gethsemane. But at the time it was not nearly so redemptive. After seven harrowing days, an ungodly amount of time for a six-foot-four-one-hundred-and-forty-five-pound boy to go without food, my body healed. On the first day of my resurrection, I marched into Wendys and ordered two baked potatoes. To this day I’ve yet to taste anything nearly as delicious.
            I tell you about that experience not to gain sympathy, but to give you a point of reference. It is to help you understand the once most painful illness of my life has been replaced, not by cancer or Lupus or African sleeping sickness or any of the rare diseases I learn from House, but by something far more common. I call it Sansgrandparentitus. In layman’s term: I have no more grandparents.
            For a myriad of reasons, outliving your grandparents is a thing most terrible to experience. You see, my grandparents were the buffer between my parents and death. And now that they are gone, my parents are taking their place in the eternal line. On the subway I watch the stops pass and realize that the greater part of their life has gone by. And as happy as I am when they come to visit, I am sadder when they leave. It’s not just the usual sorrow of a goodbye, but the recognition that the once limitless time with my parents has been reduced to a finite account from which I’ve just withdrawn. Though I try to resist, their transformation occurs right in front of me every time my sisters and I refer to them as grandma and grandpa. As much as I disapprove of my parents’ new title, it won’t go away.
I could live with Sansgrandparentitus if this were the only symptom. But it’s not. You see, my grandparents were the buffer between me and growing up. I find myself pained with jealousy as I watch my parents spoil my nephews with dollar store toys and McDonald’s happy meals. It makes me want Sunday morning walks to Smitty’s for breakfast with Grandpa or the words of approval from Grandma. Where have the phone calls gone? And the suspenders? The turquoise necklace? The homemade bread? The knuggies? Those small, immeasurably important interactions have been reduced to memories.  My grandparents made me perfect, innocent, precious, and important. Now that they are gone, I am no longer immortal. The eyes in which I could do no wrong have closed and made me aware of my fallibility.
Mortality is a painful condition. But for those stubborn souls who refuse to grant weight to this issue, I invite you to think about the suffering of all humanity. Without grandparents, we are collectively robbed of wisdom. An entire generation of experiences has slipped by unharvested from society’s pool of knowledge. Without those roots, we are like trees waiting for that final strong wind.
I realize that for a great many this condition is regarded as incurable. Lives come and go as they have for millennia, leaving only the worn footprints in the carbon sands of time. I can’t empirically argue against their overwhelming evidence, I can only offer a simple belief: that a reunion lays in some far distant time for me, my parents, and my grandparents, that will outshine any Wendy’s baked potato. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Chapter 1: A History of the Ozark Mountains and the Principle Parties Involved

There is a magic in old places, a feeling that betrays their age. We feel it in the air’s scent and the water’s touch, whispers of influence that can penetrate wood, rock, air and mind. It is the magic that makes us uneasy, as if our simple instincts grasp at the inherent danger found in ancient places. And yet what fools we are, ignoring reason and seeking to conquer what is best left alone.
            There were fools in the Ozarks long ago. They rode their canoes into the heart of darkness from open plains. In its mountains they found a home full of water, trees, fruits, and beasts. And as they hunted the forests and built their homes, they ignored the shamans who railed against the land. They spoke of the mountains’ unnatural creation. These were not familiar rock giants that grew from the ground in frightening, violent bursts, but strange tombs of the ocean’s displaced inhabitants. They were nothing but sand and time and memories, full of the hate and anger of the forgotten. But in their garden, the early fools disregarded the shamans and gorged themselves off the land. In time they disappeared, a mystery to those unfamiliar with the curse of the ancient. Later Indians grew weary of the place, sticking to its dense edges, peering into the heart of the Ozarks over thick walls of vegetation.  
            Centuries passed away until the arrival of the white man. They came from the distant sister of the Ozarks, the Appalachians, and so were accustomed to the danger of ancientness. They were brave and arrogant settlers, thinking themselves impervious to the land’s curse as they hobbled over the tortuous landscape on crafted wagons. They would explore on the rivers, marveling at the face-like rock cliffs strewn across the water’s edge like wary sentinels. On the flatter regions of the river banks, they chopped and cleared dark-soiled land to build their farms. It was a man’s work, cutting into the thick trees and pawing at the stubborn undergrowth with worn hands. Even the earth itself was reluctant to let them settle, blocking the hoes and shovels with rocks entrenched in the dirt. After clearing, the settlers’ heavy labor generated little rewards. It was not because the plants wouldn’t grow, but because they grew too well, grew wild even. Instead of producing fruit, the leaves and branches and shoots swelled. Corn stalks grew to unusual heights, tomato trees spread like ivy, and squash vines overran their boundaries. It was after several years of these farming failures that the settlers finally surmised that it was for beasts, not men, that the Ozarks had been created.
 Yet the settlers’ pride, mixed with a lust for supremacy, demanded they remain. Instead of cultivating the land, they warred against it. First to suffer were the tall, sturdy trees of oak, pine and cedar that towered over the hills in thick clumps like conspiring giants. They were hacked down by violent strokes of the axe and their mangled and butchered corpses sold to the plains. Next, with shovels, picks and dynamite, the early colonists clawed at the hills’ crust, prying out great heaps of metal. In the earliest days, it was these two industries that ruled the region, but there were few lured in by its lucre. The reason was simple: no man was ever made rich from his labors in the old hills. Outside, the trees sold for a good price, but the Ozarks’ precarious, forested hills prevented the type of easy exporting that fashioned wealth. And as for mining, there was no gold, no silver, no bronze; none of the metals to feed a speculative mind and make a man rich. The Ozarks was more deliberate with its treasures, choosing to store the cruder, wilder and most dangerous metals within its vaults. Some have argued that the lack of gold in the old hills is somewhat of an anomaly considering the nature of the curse of the ancient. They argue that gold, after all, is the center of all conflict. Gold causes men to aspire for wealth, which feeds their greed and turns them desperate and savage until they are drawn into violence. But such circuitous schemes were never in the nature of the Ozarks. Instead, the hills offered more direct metals; iron to make the barrel and lead to fashion the bullet.  And these two metals, though valuable for bloodshed, were common enough to the outside world to keep the settlers poor.
            Among the first of these stubborn men was one named Jacob Mooney. In 1809, he left the mountains of Kentucky and travelled to what was becoming known as Northern Arkansas. He was spurred on by tales of adventure spread by explorers who had both the perception to recognize the land’s magic and the wisdom to resist settling.  In Kentucky, Mooney was a carpenter. His work was excellent, his work ethic less so. Like any true bachelor, he refused to work more than necessary. He was a notorious free sleeper, some nights snuggling up to empty bottles in the dirt and others to unfamiliar breasts in houses of ill-repute. Those days would have lasted forever for Mooney had God in his providence not given him one night with May Phelps. She was 17 at the time, a homely girl of good Christian values who had spent that night with Jacob for reasons unfathomable. Two month later, she stood outside the saloon, waiting nervously to confront her baby’s father. When Mooney stumbled out of the doors, May burst into tears. Staring at this inconsolable girl, Jacob Mooney sobered and made the first of many noble decisions in his life. He married May, quit drinking and determined that he would make a good life for his progeny. His son Aaron was born in Kentucky and before he could walk his father loaded them into a wagon and left for Arkansas.
            Jacob made good on his promise to provide for his family. He carved out a piece of land along the White River and in a month’s time had built a one-room log cabin. Those first years on the river banks were years of plenty and of sorrow. Like the other settler’s, Mooney quickly learned that the rocky land was no good for farming. But Jacob was a resourceful man and refused to let the Ozarks force him out. Hearing the tales of the land’s wild nature, he decided to try his hand at wild stock. In Northern Texas he bought a dozen head of cattle and drove them to his land in the mountains. On his farm, the cows wandered contently and grew fat off the thriving grasses. Seeing Mooney’s success emboldened the more rationale settlers to turn from the axe to the ranch. And so a new industry was born, and for the first time in the mountains of the Ozarks there grew success.  
As Mooney’s ranch propagated, he sought to increase his progeny.  But what the land had given Mooney in wealth it made him pay for in blood. The Mooney’s second child, William, passed away a month after birth. The third child lasted only a few days. During her fourth and final birth, May hemorrhaged. Jesse Mooney’s birth through pools of blood was the prophecy of his life. He would grow strong and wise and respected, he would be his father’s pride, a man dedicated to blood relations. All of Northern Arkansas would know his name, and in the end, Jesse would leave this world the same way he entered it.
Years after May’s death, travelers began to pour through the region. To accommodate the traffic, Jacob built a ferry. It was a profitable business and Mooney and his two boys ran it respectably. They were God-fearing people, and no pilgrims were turned away for want. Jacob Mooney gained a reputation as a Christian man, a wise man, and most importantly, a family man. He was dedicated to his boys, as if their success would compensate for the sins of his youth. While running the ferry, he taught them everything a man should know: how to be honest, how to judge a man, how to hold your ground. But despite the bond, Aaron Mooney ran away at the tender age of 15. Where he went and what kind of man he became, no one knows. Neither Jacob nor Jesse ever spoke of him again. 
By 1828, the word had spread of the beauty of the Ozarks and the success of the land’s ranchers. Settlers began to pour into the mountains and the town of Yellville was established, fifteen miles west of the ferry. Other towns began spring into existence and in 1836 Arkansas became a state. That same year the Tutts and Everetts moved to the newly formed Marion County in northern Arkansas. These two families, whose names would become famous across the Ozarks, shared only three commonalities: they were from Virginia, desired power, and had immense potential for violence. The commonalities aside, the two were completely different breeds.
The Tutt clan originated from the mountains of Virginia. Their forefathers, ignoring warnings of Indian dangers, had charged into the wilderness and thrived. But the mountains worked upon them and they became men of the land, self-sufficient, strong, and wild. Yet the Tutt’s were also strangely charismatic. As strangers moved into the now settled region, they were drawn to the Tutt family both by their everyman appearance and their unexplainable sagacity. The Tutt’s were just as approachable as the Lord himself, but seemed to offer more practical advice. With their beards and jokes and homespun knowledge, they seemed sure disciples of “King-Mob,” yet ironically they never accepted Jackson’s party. The Tutt’s saw in Jackson a little of themselves, that old hickory toughness, and the self-portrait must not have been to their liking.
            Out of the numerous Tutt families dotting the Virginia Hills, it was only Hansford or “Hamp” Tutt and his four sons, Richard, John, Henry and George that migrated to Arkansas. Rumors were that it was family scandal and contention that prompted the move, but knowing Hamp’s character those rumors must be false. It is not that Hamp was above a fight or ill-reputed behavior. While generally pleasant, he was apt to drink, and the strange effects of alcohol have been documented throughout history. But the rumors must be discounted because Hamp Tutt was a finisher and never left business unsettled. Contention would be fought or else resolved and scandals would be disproved or else atoned. In a way it was one of his most admirable qualities. The real answer as to what drove him and his family from the ancestral hills was something far simpler: wanderlust. In Virginia, Hamp had begun to feel that nostalgic yearning for the days of his forefathers, who had marched undaunted into strange mountains and come off conqueror. Hamp desired his own wilderness, a ground of rebirth to test his mettle and prove worthy of the Tutt heritage. When the Tutts arrived in the Ozarks, they settled a plot of land on the edge of Yellville, just beyond Crooked Creek. The plot was named Tutt Hill and Hamp set out to make himself king of the mountains.
The Everetts came from the city of Fredericksburg, located in Virginia’s Northern regions. They were a gentleman family, at least by American standards. The first Everetts had settled the region by selling tobacco and other crops. But despite their remarkable farming skill, they never made much money in agriculture. They were adamantly opposed to slavery and so never had the man-power to compete with plantations. But God graces his favorites with many gifts, and the Everett’s were religious church-goers. As a reward, they excelled in business, law, politics and just about any field they tried their hand at. It was said in Fredericksburg that if an Everett decided to try his hand at selling horse shit he would still manage to make more money than the Governor. With their religious piety, their abundant wealth, and political power, the Everetts were the center of the town.
The family had plans to bring their money making touch to Fredericksburg by establishing the town as a center for trade. They commissioned the construction of canals, roads, and turnpikes to spur economic growth. Then, in 1832, their ambition heightened as they used political influence to connect Fredericksburg to Richmond by railway. But the railroad push became their downfall. In 1834, the bank war between Jackson and Biddle caused a brief recession that was just long enough to bankrupt the city. The railway expenses became the rallying cry for the Everetts’ opposition and after the 1835 election there was none of the family left in office. Despite the shift in power, many of the Everett clan stayed put, patiently waiting for the wheel to turn. However Bart and his brothers Jesse and Sim were less patient. In 1836 they left to find a home in newly formed Arkansas, certain they could gain influence in the fledgling state.
It was these two families who would center in the coming violence. The feud, which in later years would become known as the Tutt-Everett war, would consume the Ozarks. The cause of the feud has often been debated. There are many who claim it was politics, a battle between Whigs or Democrats for control of the region. Others claim the cause was more akin to classical Greek tales of man’s desire for forbidden women. Both of these factors did exist, but they were only symptoms, not causes. In truth, the violence was a result of the ground, the water, the air and the age of the Ozarks, enacting the same ancient curse it dealt to all foolish trespassers.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


            I believe myself an aspiring writer; and yet, my time facing this screen is sadly limited. I am drawn by the greater vices: politics, law cases and e-sports. They pull me from my good intentions and trap me in the realm of the trivial. But on rare instances, I am sadly drawn back to this processor of words and I begin an essay such as this. Today’s thesis is the highest of all such sad theses; it is a musing on that great leap, the infamous exit, the slow bow. I speak on death.
            I received word today of another death and it stuck to me. I tried all the tricks to keep it at bay: compartmentalizing, blocking, filtering, ignoring, flooding. And yet the word latched onto my retina, impairing my vision of the stories and articles and opinions I was attempting to drown it out with. It was so powerful that I marched into the kitchen and picked up the little box trap of peanut-butter-smelling-sticky-yellow-glue substance meant to rid the house of that little devilishly-sly mouse and threw it straight away. I knew that if somehow the trap had worked I would have to cover the rodent in oil and pry him loose with my hands because with the word now firmly entrenched in my retina I lacked the ability to follow through with my original plan of throwing him and the box from my 6th story apartment (which seems to me to be the only plausible solution to getting rid of a mouse stuck in such a trap). Death has a power to change our plans.
Death Incarnate

            You might think me strange to be so effected by such a common, cliché word. Death is for melodramatic romances and movies with option-less directors. In the city I live the thing that the word death represents must be common as the homeless people ravaging the subway trains with their stories of unfair unemployment and unpaid medical bills. God bless them. But I still feel it; I feel it more acutely. Watching the Sunday afternoon fitness enthusiasts riding their bikes down Lexington I can’t help but think of how he found death. Strangely there were no cars involved. “We always thought it would involve a car,” the organizer told the local newspaper. He sounded confused, hurt almost. It was like the Jews with Jesus; he had been waiting for so long only to have it show up in some unforeseen circumstance. “We always thought it would involve a car.”
            It didn’t involve a car. But it did involve a wife and three kids. They had to fly up on a charter flight to Jackson Hole Wyoming and drive by that arch of deer antlers that must have seemed so absurdly gruesome to tend to the body of the man who would be turning 43 this week. As if that weren’t tragic enough, the oldest son and only daughter both have birthdays this week as well. In the seriousness of the circumstances, it seems almost trivial to fixate on birthdays. But I do. It’s that last little push that tips the Jengo tower. It warps an already tragic situation into something unrecognizable. It keeps me up at nights. We shouldn’t pray to death, but if I did I’d ask it to take me any month but February.
            And then there is the wife and the kids. They’ll be with me forever now, just like Suzi Everton. Suzi’s husband died when I was only 12. He was the kind of man who could forget he had an M.D. and was 40 years my senior. He was the kind of man who would look you eye to eye and offer what you knew to be heartfelt counsel. He was the kind of man that when he got angry, we all knew something was wrong. Something was wrong, it was a brain tumor. He died about a year and a half later. Amidst the grief I still feel for his passing there lingers a wisp of inspiration. I marvel at how a man could live his life in such a way that the tell-tale sign of his end was that he simply raised his voice. If we in this city of petroleum-pushed taxis and ambition-driven suits were held to the same standard, the waiting line for the MRI would eclipse Splash Mountain. That is my silver-lining, no doubt another technique to stave off the gloom of a beloved man’s death.
The Mystical Horse
But as a 12 year old, I didn’t face death the way I run from it now.  It consumed me. We would drive by his corner office on Stapley and Brown with the dirty-white, other-worldly horse statue and I would feel his death consume me. I knew there would be no more picture scavenger hunts with churchmates draped around the mystic horse, no more delivering French baguettes with bacon-cream dip, no more sweaty backyard basketball games overlooking his little stable. I knew he was gone and I knew Suzi was left behind. I was surprisingly pragmatic as a 12 year old; I was concerned over her bills. How would she keep the house? Would Suzi have to leave the neighborhood? I drew up the plan not to let that happen. I would create a card game, the cards would sell for four dollars a pack and all the proceeds would go straight to Suzi. My business failed and Suzy moved out of the neighborhood. I never forgot her. Out of sight out of mind is simply not true.  
              In recent years there have been new additions to my halls of worry. Angelina, Pam, Wang Mama and yesterday, when the bike went over the guard rail and into the Snake River, Bridget joined that list. I hope the words halls and list don’t seem demeaning. You should understand that just like Suzi, I find myself desperately concerned for these women. I think on their loneliness, on their loss, and wish I could find some way to make it go away. I want to give Pam someone to talk to, let Wang Mama know that she is loved and watch over Bridget’s kids like they were my own. But I don’t. I’m plagued by the human condition of good intentions. But they will always stay on my list. I think lists are a powerful thing. They are concise and accurate, they let you know which assignments are due when and make sure you don’t forget that Greek yogurt that your wife loves so much. But the list these women are on is more powerful still. It’s a type of prayer-list. Though I don’t daily mention their names aloud in my hurried prayers, I know God see’s the list and takes due notice. 
Of course, I didn’t mention Angelina in my good-intentions. You see, Angelina is my hope.  Her husband had fathered me in a far-away land. He taught me how to work, and how to pray. Most importantly, he taught me how to eat. The man never spent less than 10 dollars on any meal and it caught up to him in a swimming pool in Hawaii. He left behind the happiest woman I have ever known. For months after his death I couldn’t bring myself to call her. I was afraid that maybe she wouldn’t laugh anymore. I couldn’t bear to think of a conversation without her laugh. But in one of the remarkable, rare instances of courage in my life, I called her. I haven’t stopped calling her since. We talk weekly and she thanks me for every phone call. Yet each time I insist it should be me thanking her. She doesn’t know that she is my relief from death. Each conversation makes me feel like I am somehow serving Suzi and Pam and Wang MaMa and Bridget.
Now is that long overdue moment when I consider what this essay has become (I know you were thinking the same thing). Is this the heavy-handed treatise on mortal frailness that the introduction promised? Yes and no. You see, I always try to be honest, and because of that honesty I just can’t bring myself to hand over a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking essay on this subject. I have a propensity to try and skirt death which prevents the shock and sobbing and depression. But death still has its influence. It comes like a cloaked dagger rather than the ostentatious swing of the sword. It creates an awareness of my limitations and a guilt for my inability to be Christ. It forms the fissures of conscience into which I thrust good intentions. Of course, the tradeoff is that of renewed priorities, wider perspective, increased concern and greater gratitude for God. Death isn’t simple, why should its consequences be so? And sitting here, writing this essay I now realize that this swirl of death’s foaming impacts is actually a primordial soup.  It is the building blocks of compassion, which if acted upon evolves into love.