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 clich├ęd 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.”

1 comment:

  1. I love this: "I know better than to doubt a talking horse."

    The battle between Sim and a garden hoe. This freakin excerpt has my mind pondering pondering so many things. its almost like bob knew that would happen. Good cliffhanger man.... i want more...